What to cook for dinner? Getting something on the table that is tasty, nutritious and tempts each of the different palates in our house is quite the task. Sadly there are no accolades or medals for achieving this superhuman feat on most nights of the week – the best I can hope for is the occasional ‘Mum, that’s my favourite’ or ‘Mum, you’re the best’ when I’ve made something particularly appetising. Mostly my kids just eat – at times begrudgingly, especially when the nutrition factor outweighs the wow factor – generally pushing the vegetables that I’ve cut into itty bitty pieces (read ‘hidden’) around their plate.
On this particular occasion, it was late Sunday afternoon. We’d had a busy weekend, and had been out for a big lunch earlier that day. The energy levels were low, the fridge a bit bare. Perhaps a light dinner of scrambled eggs on toast was called for? But first, I would cast my eye over the weekend papers. They were looking a little lonely there on the coffee table.
I learn that French actor Louise Bourgoin, who poses in lacy lingerie, finds philosophy comforting (particularly that from pre-Socratic times); making movies in Kabul has its challenges; and how a Californian bungalow has been given a ‘modern and colourful’ makeover. Interesting, but not particularly life changing. However, I do see that Bill Granger is talking Turkish – and he’s speaking my language. I read how to make spinach, mint and pinenut Gozleme – a Turkish take on Greek spanakopita – and I’m salivating. It’s unlikely that we have all the ingredients to compose his dish, but I do a quick mental inventory regardless: I bought spinach the other day, and it will go to waste if I don’t use it; my husband made pesto with basil from our garden last week and there’s still a generous handful of pinenuts in the pantry; feta is a no brainer, that’s a staple in our fridge; and woo hoo, mint is growing strong and luscious in our garden. We even have a sad looking lemon in the fruit bowl. All the planets have aligned. My dinner mojo is back.
The kids look somewhat alarmed when I hop up, energised, and start making pastry like a woman possessed. I roll out thin circles of dough and fill them with cooked spinach, pinenuts, feta and mint. I seal each one up and in the hot pan they go. Even the youngest, who isn’t a fan of spinach, thinks they’re pretty good. They rest of us think they are amazing – the golden, crispy skin of the pastry; the feta oozing out as you bite into them, and the mint and lemon zest add a high note to the subtly flavoured spinach. Ooh, so much better than eggs on toast.
But the best thing of all? I doubled the recipe and made enough to freeze. That’s another dinner taken care off. Now, hhrmm, where is that medal?
One fine summer’s day this food-obsessed writer and a hungry photographer were looking for meal in Footscray for $10 or under, be it breakfast, lunch or dinner. Just to make it more fun, we decided that the eateries had to be within a ten-minute walk from the Footscray Railway Station. And we wanted to sample cuisines from ten different countries. Was it possible? Check out the blog post that I wrote for Footscray Life to find out.
Images: George Mifsud
Last year, my husband, daughter and I were talking with our then ten-year-old son about relationships, marriage and the like. Despite maintaining that he would never get married, our son did feel he was in a good position to dispense advice for people going on a first date. My scribbled notes while we were having the conversation have resurfaced in a recent filing frenzy. Here they are:
Emmanuel's tips for going on a first date
Never mention bad stuff like your dad's farts or a disease
Let her start the conversation first
If you talk about a hobby, and she doesn't seem intersted, move on
The restaurant shouldn't be first class because you'll have to wear a sports jacket, and not third class because that's bad. The restaurant should be second class.
Think before you speak
Always be yourself because if you move in with her and you change personaility, she may not want to go with you
Never mention ex-girlfriends
Try to stay off the wine because you might get drunk
Image by George Mifsud
This weekend, I’ve got a gig to cook at Antipodes' Lonsdale Street Greek Festival. I’ll be cooking recipes from my new book, Afternoons in Ithaka. I’m quite nervous about it. I’ve been asking myself, ‘What is this home-cook doing sharing the limelight with the likes of more professional cooks like Phil Vakos (Spitiko), Kathy Tsaples (Sweet Greek), and the fiesty My Kitchen Rules' contestants Vicki and Helena.
On Saturday, I have the skirts of the formidable septuagenarian Theia Georgia to hide behind – she is preparing her famous spinach pie with homemade filo pastry. This morning I rang her to make sure she’s still OK to cook in the heat – “Anything for you Spiri” – and then proceeds to tell me what she is bringing along. Her broomstick for rolling out the pastry. Her ‘special’ flour. Dill from her neighbour’s garden. And can I get some greens from my mother’s garden? Of course I can. She’s the boss. Thank God for strong Greek matriarchs - they've always got everything covered.
That leaves Sunday’s cooking demonstration. I’m preparing fried calamari and little fish, along with Yiayia’s tyganites (fried) patates. If I can convince my mum and daughter to come up to the stage; there’ll be three generations of Greek-Australian cooks strutting their stuff. We’ll try and spare the audience our bickering as we work around each other.
It’s been some time since I’ve prepared calamari – the last time was in the south of Greece in my aunty’s kitchen, circa 2010. There we cooked it slowly in onions, fresh tomato pulp and garlic. A dish to die for, especially when mopped up with crusty, just-baked bread. If only I could teleport myself back to that moment right now, I would.
To alleviate my nerves and make sure nothing goes wrong, a test run is called for. I buy some calamari from my local fish monger, as well as a kilo of silver whiting that look particularly appealing. I bring them home and clean them on the kitchen bench while my kids do homework. I make a show of pulling the head and tentacles away from the body of the squid – my son says ‘no way am I going to eat that’, and leaves the room dramatically. Next, I divest the little fish of their scales and innards. It’s looking like a massacre on the kitchen bench and I’m wondering how I’m going to make this look pretty on the day. But there’s something satisfyingly primal in preparing this dish; getting down and dirty, using as much of the squid and fish as possible. It reminds me of where my food is coming from, a feeling I don’t get when I’m working with a pre-prepared fillet or the rubbery squid rings that come in 2kg packets in the freezer section of my supermarket.
I fry the little fishes and calamari in the gorgeous green olive oil that my aunty still sends me from Greece, and the kitchen smells divine. A bit of salt, a wedge of lemon, a salad to accompany it all and it’s done.I call the kids to the table, and they eye the calamari. My son hesitates, takes a tentative bite.
‘It’s good, Mum.’ He heaps his plate with the crisp offerings. I think smugly that the massacre on the bench was worth it - in more ways than one.
Some years ago, I was in one of my favourite bookshops and saw author Arnold Zable, who I’d met briefly on a few occasions. I had long admired Zable’s storytelling ability, and his stance on refugees. I made my way up to him to congratulate him on the release of his new book, Sea of Many Returns. As I bowled up to him, I realised too late I’d interrupted a moment – he’d been staring at his book on the shelf, in a kind of reverie; clearly it was the first time he was seeing it there. I mumbled my congratulations and slinked off sheepishly, feeling like a stalker in a b-grade movie.
It takes a long time for a book to reach a bookshelf. And the moment of seeing it there for the first time is so fleeting. Now I’ve experienced it myself, I would do anything to give Arnold back his moment in all its fullsome glory.
For me, the process of creating a book started some years ago with nothing more than a vague idea that I would write about growing up in a Greek family, and on the many trips I took to Greece to find out where ‘home’ really was. Of course it would involve food. And lots of it. There was always the question: are these ideas/stories/grains enough to carry a book? I believe there’s no way of knowing the answer to this until you start writing – a word, a sentence, a page. Soon you might have some chapters and even a proposal, which you might show to a few people. They usually tell you where you’ve gone wrong (why do they have to do that?), and what you can do better. When you’ve honed the words, your agent puts these out to a publisher. Then you wait. And wait some more. Finally, a miracle happens and a very nice publisher asks if you could please provide another 60,000 words or more in the same vein. Something that has a beginning, a middle and an end; preferably something that might move people just a little.*
So you sit on your laptop day after day. Try to relax enough to let the magic alchemy happen. You let the words bubble up from somewhere deep within; sometimes inspired by a photograph, a strong memory; a smell. When you lose track of time, you know you’ve reached that elusive place that is the ‘zone’, where nothing else matters except the words flowing onto the page. A few hours later, that particular story comes organically to an end, and you think you’ve nailed a good first draft. It's your story, your voice, your experience. That’s all the matters.
You do more of this most days, trying all the while to ignore that irritating voice that pipes up occasionally– it says, ‘no one wants to know that you ate the thyroid glands of young lambs when you were a 10’. You push through it, feeling the satisfaction of stories finding their rhythm; chapters connecting with each other; the beginning and end eventually forming a circle, just like a Greek dance. You dig up poems you haven’t read for a while; re-discover anew how much you love the lyricism of the Greek language; wish you’d concentrated more in Greek school. Your wrists and back start to hurt but you keep going regardless, pruning the original draft. You shift a chapter here; cut something back there. Finally, after many months, you have something that resembles a manuscript.
Despite wanting to hold on to it for a few years to let the dust settle and fix those pesky dangling modifiers, your deadline comes around; you really do have to press the ‘send’ button. Some months later, your editor’s report uses words like ‘beautiful subtlety’ and ‘artful way’ to describe your book. But it also says your story has several individuals named George and half a dozen named Kathy – it’s hard to tell who is who. There is more work to be done. You have to explain things, add a chapter, prune a little more. And so begins the editing process, back and forth over months. The changes get tinier, until you’re staring at a bunch of typeset pages that include your husband’s beautiful photos. Your baby is nearly ready to see the light of day.
So you’re standing at your favourite bookshop and your son says, ‘I’m proud of you Mum.’ And your daughter beams. Your husband takes a few photos and then you shoo them away, a little embarrassed. But secretly pretty chuffed. This is your moment.
*That's in really insy winsy writing in the contract.
Afternoons in Ithaka is now on sale. You can purchase it at all good bookshops, such as ABC Books, Readings and Hill of Content, where the book will be launched on the Thursday 13 February.
For upcoming book- and food-related events and musings, go to the Tribal Tomato Facebook page.
'The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,' writes L.P. Hartley in The Go-Between. I’ve been visiting the foreign country of my past a lot lately – mining old diaries, poring over faded photographs, and cooking long-lost recipes from my childhood – all so as to write Afternoons in Ithaka, a memoir due for release in a few short weeks.
My publisher and I were at the blissful final stages of tweaking and proofing the manuscript a few months back, when some more images were called for – and so photographer husband George Mifsud and I decided to revisit a delicacy from my childhood: sweetbreads, or glykathakia in Greek. Sweetbreads look like cute little clouds; their similarly cute name belies the fact that they are the thymus or the pancreas of a calf or lamb. When I ate them as a child (along with livers, brains and other offal), I fondly remember them having a subtle, sweet flavour. They were generally eaten as an appetizer. They were often accompanied by an aperitif such as ouzo or cognac, and mainly eaten by men (and curious little girls). Was this one-time vegetarian game to go there again?
The expedition started at George’s Meats at Preston Market. Owner George was to be my guide back to the exotic land of the sweetbread. He tells me that his mostly older Greek and Italian customers buy sweetbreads – they come in one-kilo packs and he has some in the freezer out the back. I hand over the cash and they are mine.
When I bring them home, the kids inspect the pink package. I ask if they will try them, ever hopeful that their tastebuds might be as adventurous as mine were at their age. 'No thanks,' they chorus.
Next, I call Mum.
’I’m cooking the sweetmeats. Come over so we can eat them together.’
‘I’m fasting, so I can't,’ she says. 'Remember to remove any little hairs and par boil them to get rid of any impurities,’ she adds.
I’m starting to feel distinctly alone and a little bit queasy; there is no one to accompany me in this journey to the past. Still, I like to think of myself as a traveller, not a tourist, so I press on. Soon the sweetbreads are bubbling away in a pan with olive oil, wine and oregano. The smell that wafts up is heady, but not unpleasant. When they are firm and plump, I give then a squeeze of lemon and present them on a dainty plate – a cheap trick to convince myself that I am not about to consumer the thymus of a small animal. For good measure, I get out a bottle of ouzo and two shot glasses. Perhaps George will join me.
George duly takes a few photos but politely refuses to taste the sweetbreads.The moment of reckoning has arrived: I have to go it alone. I put one of the plump morsels into my mouth. The texture is tender, the flavour has a familiar sweetness; it draws me back to sitting with my father on a green vinyl couch, watching late-night John Wayne movies. I take a second, but this time I am overwhelmed by the rich, meaty undertones of the sweetbread. I need the viscous aniseed ouzo to help it go down.
I went. I saw. I ate. Now it’s well and truly time to come back home.
Beetroot are sprouting forth from our garden at great speed – we are getting a decent crop every few weeks. They're reasonably priced at markets and greengrocers at this time of year too. This can only mean one thing – it’s beetroot season. This is cause for great celebration and here are five reasons why:
A whole season has passed since my post on our Roman adventure in our suburban garden – the building of our wood-fired oven.
Spring is now but days away; bright yellow freesias have snuck their coquettish heads from the earth, the garden beds have more silverbeet than we know what to do with, and the wood-fire oven has produced its first loaves. Despite it still not being quite finished.
But I’m running ahead of myself. Let me backtrack to a few weeks ago. Before we could have loaves, we needed fire. On the first lighting, daughter Dolores and husband George go through a whole box of matches before they look at each other, concerned. How does one light a fire?
I muscle my way between them. Perhaps I even say in a patronising voice, ‘The woman might have left the village, but the village hasn't left the woman’. I feel confident that I can channel my mother and grandmother here, tap into my deeply-ingrained Greek rural roots.
I bundle up bits of The Age, dry rosemary braches and kindling in an arrangement I remember from my sepia-toned Greek school reader, circa 1977. With the lighting of the first match, the fire takes hold. My husband and daughter are impressed – I don’t know if I’m imagining it, but I can see a look of admiration in Dolores’ eyes. Mum knows how to light a fire.
As I watch the flames getting bigger, I feel a deep-seated pleasure. On this, the first day of firing, George and I tend to the fire in turns. I stoke it carefully, blowing it when it threatens to die down; exulting as the flames reel up when I place another log onto it. I push the fire around the hearth, curing the virgin bricks. All of this feels strangely right. The smell gets into the wool of my jumper, into my hair, so that the fire follows me even when I leave it.
If I’m undisputed queen of fire, George is the undisputed king of bread: he’s been baking since Dolores was a baby. A week later, when the bricks have cured after a few slow firings, we brave making bread. George prepares ten plump loaves, which he leaves to rise under blankets on the kitchen table. When the oven temperature reaches 300°C, he places them gently into the oven with his new long-handled spatula. And, as we don’t yet have a door, he seals the oven with fireproof bricks. Like eager childrem, we watch the temperature gauge to see if the oven will retain the heat. It does.
Fourty minutes later, George removes the bricks. The smell that exudes from the oven takes me instantly, blissfully back to my grandmother’s village, where I had watched her bake bread more than thirty years ago. And the loaves, oh the loaves – hot orbs of crusty, doughy bliss.
Now I know without a doubt - it's been worth the wait.
George has been using Tom Jaine’s Making Bread at Home book for many years - it's covered in dried bits of dough. For more on Tom Jaine and his philosophy and obsession with bread, as well as numerous recipes, see this article in The Independant.
These are some things I particularly dislike about winter: fingers and toes that refuse to defrost throughout the course of the day; the push and pull of eating too much (‘it’s primal winter behaviour; don't fight it’ says one voice, while another says ‘don’t make excuses’); and watching excessive amounts of trashy television when there are so many other useful things to do if only one could be motivate oneself to do them in the cold, dark evenings.
In the wintertime, there is a palpable increase in the general noise level at our house; usually when our ten-year old tries to sneak in just a few more minutes on the laptop and my husband and I are nagging him for the hundredth time to just get off it. Meanwhile our daughter might be found sitting in front of cooking shows that spend more time advertising a major supermarket chain than creating food. Deep down we sympathise with the kids and the need for sedentary pleasures - wheras in the warmer months we wouldn't hesitate to send them outside to play.
After one too many nights like these, we decide radical action is required. The solution? Camping. The television, iPad and other devices are switched off. The boys collect what they need. Pillows. Books.Sleeping bags.
Us girls stay put. My daughter and I get the Scrabble out and snuggle on the coach with our hot beverages.The boys are delighted: they get all the marshmallows to themselves. They collect their implements and before we know it, they're off.
'It's not too cold out there?', I ask, concerned.
'No. The campsite has an electric heater'.
Early the next morning, the phone rings.
‘Are you still organising pancakes Mum?’
Clearly this campsite also has room service and telephone reception too.
‘What sort of campers are you that you can't even organise your own breakfast?’ I baulk.
There’s a guilty chuckle – but our son knows he's got me. And so, soon after, my daughter pads out in her pyjamas and slippers with the pancake batter and the vanilla sugar, the cream and the bananas. I'm not far with the espresso pot and two mugs. The family warms their hands around the electric grill and our breath forms clouds in the winter air as we talk about who won the Scrabble game and how much sleep the boys didn't get. And, even though my fingers and toes are very very cold, suddenly, winter doesn't seem so bad.