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Archive for January, 2015

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is a summer ‘weed’ that is found through much of the world. Central Australian Aboriginal people used to (and a very few occasionally still do) wait for it to seed and pile it up in mounds; after some good dry desert heat, the withered plants can be pulled off to reveal a concentration of the tiny but nutritious seeds below. Throughout northern India and through to the Middle East, it is not just a foraged ‘welcome weed’ (or ‘volunteer plant’), it is even grown as a crop for its leaves (as it once was through a lot of Europe as well). Purslane is said to have the highest omega 3s of any vegetable and is a sure contender for that increasingly tedious epithet of ‘superfood’. This status, as well as being common in Central Mexican cuisine (where it is known as verdolagas) is said to be getting it increasingly on the food list rather than just the weed list in America. But across most of Australia it is simply a plant; one of those green things in the ground; neither worth eradicating nor using. It will be gone by winter after all.

Nonetheless, right now in mid-summer, purslane is doing very well across a good part of Australia. Basically, if you are looking for it, it is everywhere; the challenge is really only to find some growing in soil that you can trust. This particular harvest was essentially a matter of opportunism – which to my mind is utterly fundamental to foraging (in any sense). I was doing a survey in one of the back blocks of one of western Sydney’s old Olympic venues. I had already decided to do a saag for dinner and to stop off at one the small Indian food shops (which abound in much of Sydney’s west) to buy spices

I gather that saag basically means ‘greens’ (in Punjabi, Urdu and/or Hindi), and by inference, in the kitchen, it is a curry thereof. There was also some volunteer native spinach (Tetragonia tetragoniodes) doing so well under the citrus that I needed to cut it back whether for eating or not. Then there was some silverbeet (chard; Beta vulgaris subsp. cicla) that was close to giving up in the summer heat and our sandy soil (in which I would probably be better to intentionally grow purslane at this time of year); and also sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus) that is getting by as a welcome enough ‘weed’ in the shade of intentional crops. Amaranth, with each passing week of summer, is also making more of an appearance. But it is the purslane, a genuine north Indian favourite, that is the forage that started the ball rolling.

Sow thistle or puha (Sonchus oleraceus)

Sow thistle or puha (Sonchus oleraceus)

Native spinach (Tetragonia tetragoniodes)

Native spinach (Tetragonia tetragoniodes)

It doesn’t matter too much which green, and perhaps the more the better (purslane, spinach, chard / silver beet, mustard greens, kale, amaranth, fat hen, mallow, chickweed, native spinach, beetroot tops, cress, sow thistle, etc, etc)

It doesn’t matter too much which green, and perhaps the more the better (purslane, spinach, chard / silver beet, mustard greens, kale, amaranth, fat hen, mallow, chickweed, native spinach, beetroot tops, cress, sow thistle, etc, etc)

The recipe is wonderfully simple and suits just about any green you can lay your hands on, foraged, grown or bought.

Recipe:

Start by toasting the whole spices – mine were whole cumin seeds, coriander seeds and a light touch of peppercorns, fenugreek and cardamom seeds which went into the mortar with dried chillies once toasted to fragrant and then joined by powdered turmeric. You can add whatever else blows your hair back among cinnamon, cloves, ginger, fenugreek leaves, etc – only giving whole seeds the toasting though.

Next, lightly sautee some onions in butter (ghee if you can) or oil and then pile the garlic, spices and chopped greens in and stir on low heat until wilted to a decent tender that should coincide with golden brown onions and garlic that isn’t burning to sticky and/or bitter (10 minutes or so), adding small amounts of liquid if required. I am also inclined to add some precooked chickpeas (kind of like canned ones but tastier because they are slow cooked in stock) – which probably makes it chana saag.

The handy thing with saag, is that with some cubed cheese you have saag paneer (using actual paneer (a style of Indian cheese)) if you have it, otherwise cottage cheese, or queso fresco (or fetta if you give mind to it being salted while paneer isn’t), but in any case not your everyday fatty yellow cheese); with some cubed meat you have saag gosht; and with hard boiled egg you have anda saag. In our house of both vegetarians and ominivores, with saag we can meet our different dietary inclinations with additions at the end rather than with entirely separate dishes. While there is something of an assumption that you would serve it over rice, the addition of the chickpeas or something else to bulk it up makes this optional. A side serve of good chutney (or salsa verde) is a good touch.

Australian forager’s saag: The roo, cubed and cooked sous vide at around 70 degrees with butter and herbs for the better part of a day is browned off and stirred in for the meat eaters (saag gosht), while the vegos still get a good feed from cheese (saag paneer) and/or chickpeas (chana saag). I don’t know what to call it when it is all in there…

Australian forager’s saag: The roo, cubed and cooked sous vide at around 70 degrees with butter and herbs for the better part of a day is browned off and stirred in for the meat eaters (saag gosht), while the vegos still get a good feed from cheese (saag paneer) and/or chickpeas (chana saag). I don’t know what to call it when it is all in there…

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Wild plums (Prunus domestica)

Wild plums (Prunus domestica)

Outside Jugiong, just as portrayed in the famous Australian folk tune, a track does actually wind back past an old fashioned shack and joins the road to Gundagai (the four-lane Hume Highway these days). The Murrumbidgee is indeed flowing and what happens to be growing, as matter of interest to me, are wild plums (Prunus domestica).

If you are on country roads along the eastern Australian range or slopes almost anywhere from New South Wales to Tasmania, January is the month for foraging wild plums. Of your common roadside fruit forages, the autumn fruits of blackberries won’t be right for another month or so and the apples perhaps another month after that. Plums are the summer thing. They can be red, yellow or something in between, or even that dark purplish burgundy like bullaces in Britain (often ripening later though). From whence they hail, among the named varieties of orchard-grown fruit, and whether from European or Asian stock, is a mystery to me; but as feral wildings, they have undoubtedly departed somewhat from domestic form. For one thing, they are a lot smaller than you might expect and you might pass them in the car thinking they are some kind of unknown inedible berry rather than the familiar drupe (botanically speaking) of the most common of stone fruits. Their prominence along roadsides suggests an initial origin as pips thrown out of passing car windows. But there are areas, like the road out of Jugiong, where their abundance suggests that they are some generations past being a travellers snack, and almost certainly instead dispersed by birds or even simply just rolling a little further down the hill from mum.

YellowPlums

RedPlums

With them, you can of course make a lovely plum jam, which has traditionally been my go-to response. They are pretty much like your shop-bought plum, but smaller and much more blessed with the sharp acidity in the skin which some of us love. But we are kind of full up with jams and jellies and don’t really get through that much of it anyway. So it’s plum sauce. Not the Chinese one that goes with Peking duck, but a more an Australianised British traditional stalwart of days gone by – much like the ditty Along the Road to Gundagai. This one is pretty loyal to Stephanie Alexander’s take on it. A well-tested standard recipe is worth it in this case if only to make sure you get something pourable that isn’t too runny – vary the flavours if you like, but not the solids to liquids ratio. It is a vinegar/sweet/savoury/fruit acid sauce that works as a topping for close to anything. Basically it is all that the ubiquitous tomato sauce/ketchup is, but better.

Ingredients:

Per kilo of plums:

1 tsp cloves

2/3 tsp whole allspice (pimento)

2/3 tsp whole peppercorns

1.5 cups brown sugar

2 tsp salt

1tblsp grated ginger

2 cups white wine (or apple cider) vinegar

1 chilli (or lots more, or none)

Methods

Stone the plums and crack half the stones (bash with a mallet in a tea towel) and put them in a muslin bag (this give pectin to get things gelling). Tie the spices in a separate muslin bag. Put it all in a non-reactive pot and simmer for half an hour. Remove the bags, giving them a good squeeze and press the rest through a sieve, fine colander or food mill back into the rinsed pot. Simmer for as long as it takes to get the thickness you want (remembering it will thicken when cool and wants to be able to be poured like tomato ketchup). It can then go in either sterilised jars or bottles (depending on thickness).

Cooking wild plum ketchup with cracked stones and spices in a partitioned wine bag instead of muslin

Cooking wild plum ketchup with cracked stones and spices in a partitioned wine bag instead of muslin

Although many would like to see such home-made delicacies in lovely glass with some neat finishes like a square of gingham cloth on top secured with a ribbon, we figure this is more an everyday kind of condiment and went for a plastic squeeze bottle (but wouldn’t do that for any stores we planned on keeping on the shelf for long).

Wild plum ketchup: A once-a-year harvest of your everyday sauce (on yet another fish pie)

Wild plum ketchup: A once-a-year harvest of your everyday sauce (on yet another fish pie)

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Yabbies (Cherax destructor), a basic dipping sauce and mangoes – a relatively light start to the recent Christmas feasting

Yabbies (Cherax destructor), a basic dipping sauce and mangoes – a relatively light start to the recent Christmas feasting

Mangoes, croissants and prawns. Whether it is a tradition or a strong memory, I really couldn’t say, but that is Christmas morning food in my mind. A relatively light starter on a day that, by necessity, needs to anticipate some serious stuffing. And I was intent on putting it on our December 25 breakfast table last year (as in, last week). The mango stays (and to be honest, it is probably the least negotiable of all). Croissants easily give way to the Squeeze’s family tradition of chocolate pancakes. This is our family’s American side and, at their best, they do pancakes that can genuinely make a mockery of the imitations most of us Australians and Kiwis know.

But for prawns, despite doing a lot to keep myself informed and engaged on the issue, it remains all too hard to work out which particular array on a fishmonger’s iced shelf may or may not be part of an oceanic Armageddon of which I want no part. They all look like prawns and therefore like they are delicious, but how do I pick the signs of outrageous bycatch slaughter and waste or Southeast Asian wetland destruction in their empty spiny visages? In the absence of reasonable labelling requirements, an unreasonable amount of consumer effort is the answer. I understand that there are some sustainably and ethically harvested prawns out there, but practically, it becomes easier just to leave them all be.

What we call a yabby  - but in appreciation of the American pancakes (not pictured, sorry), and that we are a half-American family, let’s call these ones ‘Christmas crawdads’

What we call a yabby – but in appreciation of the American pancakes (not pictured, sorry), and that we are a half-American family, let’s call these ones ‘Christmas crawdads’

So, I have switched to foraged yabbies (Cherax destructor). Prawning with a hand net is on my list of planned foraging adventures, but until that day, yabbies are my closest accessible foraging bet. And, what is more, I prefer them. These from the NSW Southern Highlands (actually lowlands in the middle of the east, but so named for being marginally more southern and higher than Sydney). They may live in still murky water, but they still manage to taste like flowing rivers as long as the actual mud gets purged before the pot. And that is a precious taste, all too rare in dry old Australia, of what we sometimes call ‘sweetwater’.

Much like a prawn, you extract the tail meat from the shell, pull out the digestive line (“poo vein”) and dip the meat in a sauce that frequently involves mayonnaise. Unlike a prawn, you also get a couple of claws to get into – approached as you would a crab claw (cautiously if alive and with gusto if cooked).

Yabbies Cooked

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With a decent haul of summer fish, it feels good to be able to put a little more seafood on the table. My share of a recent catch included one kingfish (Seriola lalandi), three nannygai (Centroberyx affinis), two flathead (Platycephalus sp.) and a blue morwong (Nemadactylus douglasii) (something else (probably a morwong) stolen on the retrieve by a fur seal (Arctocephalus forsteri) of all things). After a little sashimi sampling of kingfish and some fresh nannygai fillets in fish burritos, attention turns to the offcuts. Time for fish head pie.

Nannygai, kingfish and flathead heads

Nannygai, kingfish and flathead heads

Anything filleted (kingfish and nannygai) or beheaded before freezing (flathead) gets frames and heads thrown in the slow cooker with just enough water to cover. The tails are omitted as it turns out the dog has a penchant for crunching them down; although she’d have not got it off the pigfish (Bodianus unimaculatus) that the skipper took home, because the seal had already helped itself to it.

Once cooked, the fish heads are taken out and all the flesh is picked off and set aside; then the remains go back in the cooker along with a big bunch of herbs (thyme, sage, kaffir lime, lemon myrtle, lemon grass, Vietnamese mint, parsley and Thai basil). Once fragrant it all gets strained to become a very herby fish stock.

A lot of herbs smells at first like it might be overdoing it, but by the time it gets into the stodginess of a mornay sauce it mellows a lot

A lot of herbs smells at first like it might be overdoing it, but by the time it gets into the stodginess of a mornay sauce it mellows a lot

The concentrated stock then becomes the base of a fish and herb mornay (white sauce with cheese), has the picked flesh stirred in and allowed to cool. After an optional additional stirring through of a raw egg or two, it is topped with puff pastry and baked as fish head pot pie. Summer is here and it is a wonderful thing to live near the sea and a herb garden.

Cheese and flour turns the reduced herby fish stock into a kind of mornay sauce through which the recovered fish meat is stirred

Cheese and flour turns the reduced herby fish stock into a kind of mornay sauce through which the recovered fish meat is stirred

Topped with pastry and baked, you have a beautiful fish head pie

Topped with pastry and baked, you have a beautiful fish head pie

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