In common with my late mother, I particularly enjoy the festive season for the opportunity it brings to prepare special items of delicious food, and share them with friends and family. This year, I will have the bonus of spending Christmas Day with my son, Julian, for the first time since 2003. Naturally, Sara and Iris will be with us, as well as the grand-dog, Stevie Nicks.
Our menu for Christmas Day will comprise a series of small seafood plates, using smoked trout, fresh oysters, salmon, calamari and mussels; there might even be a bite or two of crayfish, leftover from lunch with my father, two days earlier. And there will be plenty of fresh fruit.
So, no turkey. Maggie and I used to cook a stuffed, rolled breast of turkey and we may well do so again. However, we now have a preference for roast poultry in the form of spatchcock, as was the case on Christmas Day last year. And we have recently discovered the full-size chicken that will be our preferred special occasion bird for the foreseeable future – the heritage chicken bred by the Sommerlad family in New South Wales and reared by selected farmers in NSW, Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia.
We had read about these in The Age newspaper a couple of months ago but, when we contacted the nearest distributor, none were available, as the producers were shifting to a new property. So, we had to wait until a couple of Sundays ago, when we collected our first chicken produced by Mirboo Pastured Poultry and retailed by Carlton meat purveyor, Skinner and Hackett.
On the following Tuesday, our friendly neighbours, Janet & Gary, came down to share this special chicken dinner. We all agreed that it was the tastiest chicken we had ever eaten. The cooking method was quite involved and I will need to do it again – yes please, says Janet – before I will be able to codify it. On this first occasion, we served it simply – roasted chunks of potato and whole peeled cloves of garlic, a lightly-dressed salad of fresh mint-infused peas and shredded lettuce, and the slices of dry-cured Pacdon Park bacon we had used to protect the chicken breasts in the latter stages of the roasting.
In Melbourne, we are having a dry and very warm start to Summer, on the back of a very dry Spring. So, it is challenging for active home gardeners like Maggie and me. One plant that does thrive in these conditions is basil, provided you feed and water it regularly. We always grow basil in a pot, so we can move it in the event that a cold night is forecast.
We use basil in various ways: added to a tomato-based sauce or salsa – think bruschetta, chilli mussels, pizza margherita; in a salad with chunks of tomato, balsamic vinegar and olive oil; as a canape with cherry tomato halves and buffalo mozzarella on a toothpick; and to make pesto genovese or basil pesto, something I have been doing for at least 25 years.
80g pine nuts
6 cloves fresh garlic (vary according to strength, size and your own preferences)
125-150ml olive oil (use the lesser amount if you intend to use the pesto as a flavouring rather than as a pasta ‘sauce’ on its own)
35g fresh basil leaves
120g grated parmesan or pecorino (quality is important here)
- Grind pine nuts in bowl of food processor.
- Add garlic cloves and 50ml of oil and blend.
- Add basil leaves and 50ml of oil and blend finely (I usually interrupt once or twice to scrape down sides of bowl).
- Add cheese and rest of oil and blend thoroughly.
- Used within an hour of preparation, pesto is wonderfully flavoursome. Place 2-3 teaspoons of pesto on the bottom of a pasta bowl and spoon over freshly cooked pasta, then add extra cheese, salt, pepper or olive oil to taste.
- Spoon leftover pesto into clean glass jars and store in your freezer for up to 6 months. (I believe this is a safer storage method than in your refrigeration space, even if topped with a layer of olive oil, as garlic can deteriorate dangerously over time.)
Pine nuts are expensive but this recipe only uses $5 worth. I always buy pine nuts from a store with high turnover – hence fresher and cheaper – and keep them in our fridge to prevent them becoming rancid before we have time to use them all.
In most places where basil thrives, there should still be a supply of locally-grown garlic available, at least early in Summer.
Another food that I associate with this time of the year is smoked salmon. We often use it in tandem with fresh asparagus, as a light lunch or canape. Or in a caesar style of salad instead of bacon. And, once or twice at either edge of Summer, in a quiche, accompanied by a tomato-rich salad. As we did late last week.
The pastry and much of the filling was the same as for our version of quiche lorraine. For onion, we used a few spring (green) onions – the white ends sliced and sauteed in a little butter, the green ends sliced and raw. We used about 150g of the salmon, packaged at a good price as trimmings by Tassal. And about 20g of parmesan and 60g of grated cheddar cheese.
Cooked outdoors on a warm day in our Weber Q. Tasty, light and enough to feed five or six senior adults for lunch.
The last item of this week’s cooking news is a light lunch of fresh sardines, something we had not cooked before. They’ve been on my mind for a while, possibly owing to the fresh fish meals we enjoyed on Croatia’s Adriatic coast. So, we bought a dozen whole, scaled sardines late last week and only then did we consider what we might do with them.
In the end, we decided against char-grilling, lacking the know-how and confidence. Instead, Maggie used her knife skills to remove heads, guts and backbones. Then we floured, egged and panko-crumbed them for quick – two minutes per side – pan-frying in olive oil. Crumbs can overwhelm some small pieces of fish – whiting comes to mind – but sardines have the flavoursome oils to work with this method. They were lovely and fresh and we will do this again soon.
Finally, images of two happy events in our garden: hundreds and hundreds of flowers on our three gardenia plants – responding profusely to two consecutive years of fatherly love; and the first of this year’s crop of small tomatoes, grown in pots.