Monday, 25 February 2013

On Pineapples, The Cook's Companion and Letting Go

I came to cooking young, but it was only as an adult, barely out of my teens, that I began to blossom. To put aside cooking as a practical, functional act and truly enjoy the pleasure and creativity involved. 

I soon moved past the collection of Women's Weekly cookbooks I'd "inherited" from my mother (by which I mean "borrowed and never returned") but I needed a stepping stone into that culinary world that I could sense was just past my gaze.  In my third year of university, Stephanie Alexander's The Cook's Companion was published and that stone materialised before my eyes.

The Cook's Companion at The Essential Ingredient

But it was almost a mirage, there was no way an impecunious uni student was going to be able to afford the hefty sum required to buy it. I simply kept sifting through old issues of Gourmet Traveller and Vogue Entertaining that I'd pick up at op-shops. And then, some months later, four of my friends clubbed together and bought me my very own copy of The Cook's Companion. Distinctive on my shelf, clad in orange, it contained their signatures and scribblings on the inside page. This would soon be followed by my own jottings in margins and notes on recipe variations.

When I began shopping at the Prahran Market 14 years ago, I would often pick up interesting produce and ingredients that I had no idea about. Literally none. Apart from the fact that (possibly) you could eat it. Too shy to ask stallholders, I'd announce to my roommate "Let's see what Stephanie says". And we'd come home with a bag of flounder or bunches of chervil and celeriac and indeed, Stephanie would tell us what to do, how to select it, store it, serve it. Usually successfully.

Fresh horseradish at MJ Mow Gourmet Potatoes

It has been my most treasured, most used cookbook (in a collection that borders on a thousand). But when the revised edition was released in 2004, I was stand-offish. Suspicious. This wasn't my book. Oh yes, there was talk of correction and re-testing, 12 new chapters and over 300 new recipes. But I didn't want to know. Even the divine new striped cover didn't tempt me. 

Someone gave me a copy for Christmas that year and it went onto the shelf. But I barely opened it, turning back to the familiar charms of my worn orange copy. What could this upstart contain that would bring me to turn my back on the 1996 edition?

Organic pineapples at Ripe the Organic Grocer
And then, one day last month, I needed some information about pineapples. And as I took the new edition off the shelf, pages stiffly clinging together, I found the reason to let go. There, on page 734 were the words
A revolution has taken place in the pineapple industry since this book was originally written. Until 1997 the overwhelming majority of pineapples produced in Australia were not sold fresh but were canned. The major varieties available were the golden-fleshed but rather dry rough leaf or "roughie" and in winter ... the smooth leaf or smooth cayenne ... All this changed in 1997, when the wonderfully sweet and juicy bethonga pineapple arrived in markets to the delight of consumers.

It was, I realised, time to let go. To love and appreciate my original copy for all it had taught me and for the affection behind its purchase but to move on, in the direction of new knowledge, new food and new friends. I am no longer a student, but on this market floor, I need to know about food revolutions, be they pineapple or otherwise.

Monday, 11 February 2013

My (Appropriate) Valentine

Love, oh love is grand isn't it? The connections that bind us to others, the way a voice softens, the flutter in your chest as a certain person walks into the room. Love. Ah love.

Many of us, however, don't see Valentine's Day as being particularly in sync with love. Instead a commercialised pressure-cooker situation resulting in (a) you didn't send flowers (b) you sent flowers but they were the WRONG flowers or the delightful (c) you sent the right flowers but not to WORK.

But there are many amongst us who do delight in this day and if your beloved is one of them, you need to work out your plan of romantic attack. The categories roughly fall into the following:

1. The Wooer
2. The Early Days
3. The Established One  

The Wooer

You have not yet made your feelings known to the subject of your affection. You suspect that a declaration might be well received. The auspicious date is approaching and you are unsure how to play this.

Now some of you are bursting in confidence and have no problem dressing up in a gorilla suit or as a gondolier and serenading your beloved amidst an office full of bemused co-workers. The other 97% would prefer to hold their cards a little closer to their chest. My advice? The small but significant gesture. A posy of her favourite flowers. A box of gluten-free macarons for your coeliac crush. A hefty wedge of blue cheese for the Roquefort Romeo (perhaps with a note "I'm blue without you" ... actually, no, don't. Unless the two of you are very, very "cheesey" indeed). 

This can then be interpreted with a smile and simple gratitude or, if the other party is willing, blossom into something else. Something further than a shared coffee in the office kitchen or swapping stories during half-time.

The Early Days

You are In Love. People either look indulgently at the pair of you or avert their eyes hastily from your public displays of affection (this is Prahran, the Cullen is just across the road people). You are deliriously happy but not so secure as to take this new love for granted.

Chocolates by Cioccolato Lombardo

Think of something for the two of you alone. Most of the best restaurants are booked out on this night and do you want to be jostling for room amongst 50 other doe-eyed couples?  Plan a simple menu that you can throw together after work (it's going to be 31 degrees on Thursday so perhaps a quick grilled fish on the barbeque or a picnic basket full of deli goodies?). 

Make or buy the dessert the day before so that you can concentrate on other things. Perhaps a handmade treat for afterwards (see Food 52's 9 Edible Valentines). I for one, would find it very hard to resist anyone who brought me Thai Peanut Butter Cups - coconut milk + galangal + lemongrass + chilli + lime juice = romance. (If you're avoiding the day, these include bittersweet chocolate and go extremely well with Robyn's Dancing On My Own.)

The Established One

You have been together for many a year and know your partner inside out. This includes his or her attitude to Valentine's Day. So if she would like a magnificent bundle of long-stemmed red roses delivered, every hour, on the hour, get in touch with Emma at Flawless Flowers. If what he really wants is his favourite standing rib roast for dinner, have a chat to one of our butchers and start thinking about side dishes.

It's easy to sneer at this day or let the sparkle fade, but for those who delight in it, why not? Make it special, make it significant, and make it yours. We try to rise above the teaching that food is love, but on some days, food shows love. And if that's wrong, we don't want to be right. (By the way we are right.)