Most of us know that organic food is good for us – what’s there not to like about food that has been grown without chemicals, in a way that is friendly to the environment and to our bodies? But many of us are hindered by the prohibitive cost. Recently, I explored five ways we can bring organices into our life for the City of Maribyrnong in Melbourne's west. Check it out at their website.
When it comes to food and exercise, I take my inspiration from the ancient Greek saying 'pan metron ariston' – everything in moderation. Admittedly, I exercise more moderately than I eat. So when my local gym offered a chance for members to participate in our very own Tour de France (albeit on the exercise bikes gracing the flat terrain of our suburban gym), I only gave it a cursory glance. The idea was that you did ten cycle classes within the 23 day period of the actual Tour. But as I continued to read the flyer, I saw there was a chance to win two bikes, and a night at the winery Chateau Yering, including dinner for two. I did the maths – the chances of winning were much better than Tatts. And there was a food prize to be won. I was in.
So I pick up my pass, which has to be stamped each time I do a class. And then school holidays start. I’d forgotten to factor that one into the equation. The family eats more comfort food than is probably good for us. The adults drink a few too many glasses of wine. And we all watch more than the daily recommended allowance of reality television. I get to the gym only sporadically. And so my pass remains largely unstamped and the promise of a night for two at Chateau Yering is all but a distant fantasy.
But once the kids go back to school, something happens. I hop onto the scales and see that the comfort foods weren’t actually disappearing into some mysterious ether – I have gained weight. I reason that if I did a spin class almost every single day for the next ten days, I could get my stamps and perhaps even redress the weight inbalance. Could I do it? I was damn well going to try.
So I plan my days around classes, forfeiting sleep-ins on the weekends, rushing the kids out of the house in the mornings so that I could get to the gym, and sweating it out in my bike pants like I’d never sweated it out before.
Now the idea of doing so many cycling classes over a short period might sound boring to some – but our gym offered distractions. Like the special guest instructor who was described as ‘eye candy’ by one excited participant; each of the classes reproducing the stages of the Tour (some flats, lots of hills); and the often colourful descriptions of French countryside by instructors to help us forget that we were surrounded by four walls. But my very favourite distraction was food talk. During one class, our spin mistress Helen told us that if we rode hard, she’d let us stop to eat a slice or two of a baguette, a piece of cheese, and drink a glass of champagne. This was so much better than my lame fantasy about what I was going to have for brunch after class. But then she gave us the sobering facts: a serve of brie is 91 calories; a glass of champagne 87 calories; and a slice of the baguette a whopping 175 calories. We would have to work really hard to earn our rest stop. The information is disconcerting, given that it takes me an hour of excruciatingly hard riding to work off a mere 600 calories - and that I can polish off the above feast quicker than you can say 'Fine French food'.
With around a week to go, I’m hoping to complete my ten spin classes and earn my own metaphorical 'personal best' yellow jersey, even if I don't win the prize. And what am I going to do to celebrate when I get there? I’m going to have a glass of champagne. Calories? What calories?
For any budding writers out there, I will be running my popular 12-step program for procrastinating writers in the leafy surrounds of my studio in Box Hill on Sunday 14 September. Part bookish boot camp, part self-help group for writing procrastinators, this workshop will help you get over the most common organisational and personal hurdles to writing. Teamed with home-baked bread and Greek nibbles from the family wood-fired oven, the workshop promises to be tasty. Please share if you know any writers (beginning or emerging) who may be interested. See here for more information.
I swore every year I wouldn’t do it again.
Why? Because weeks afterwards, I would find crusted chocolate icing underneath the bench top. Electric blue fingerprints on a corner kitchen tile. And dried butter cake residue stuck fast to the blender that I had been too tired to clean up on the day.
The Book was to blame. According to this blogger, who is cooking her way through it, there are 104 cakes in it. Yes, you know the one: The Australian Women’s Weekly Children’s Birthday Cake Book.
We would take it out a whole month before each of our children’s birthdays. They would pore through it, pointing to the cake with dollies sitting in jelly, or the train with its quaint lamington carriages. Gently, gently, I would steer them to the cakes I thought would be easy to make. Not so gently, they steered me straight back to the ones that required electric blue food colouring and intricate decorations that didn’t seem to sit on the shelves of our local supermarket. And the clean-up afterwards; it didn't bear thinking about.
But what joy this little yearly ritual bought them, and I couldn’t find it in my heart to say no when they asked again and again for another homemade cake. And so, each year, on the kitchen bench our children sat, among the chaos of ingredients – and they helped to stir and decorate with their sticky little fingers, all the while fighting over who would lick the bowl. And even if we strayed a little (or a lot in some cases) from the bible of children's birthday cakes, they didn't complain.
But then something happened when my daughter was 12.
She asked if she could make her brother's birhtday cake. All by herself.
I confess: I felt a twinge of loss.
And a sense of relief.
She’d taken the baton.
And I was relegated to the sink.
Our now 13-year-old daughter is quite the baker. This year, she and her friend even offered to make the cake for their bestie’s birthday party.
I reached for The Book.
But she reached for another. I shuddered.
She flicked through it, a whole month before the party. And again in coming weeks. She spoke to me about the possible choices. Was I listening? Only in that I'm-too-busy-cooking-dinner-and-not-really-concentrating-kind-of-way.
Finally, she decided.
As the date drew near I looked over the ingredients. I read the pages of instructions.
And I decided that Zumbo's croque-en-bouche was impossible.
But it was too late. Her heart was set.
Almost three dozen eggs. Vanilla beans. Two tubs of glucose syrup. And more. Sixty dollars later, we were ready to start. I drew the line at unsprayed chemical free flowers and a croque-en-bouch cone. That was going too far, even for a budding pastry chef.
The party was at 6.30pm. The girls met in our kitchen at 9am that morning.
They piped and baked the choux pastry. They whipped the crème patisserie. They set the caramel base. They boiled the glucose syrup. They burnt their hands in the hot toffee. And at 5.30, it was like the frantic last minute on Masterchef; while one was building the tower, another was sticking on decorations. As the girls went off to put on their party gear, sweaty and exhausted, I was madly wrapping the whole creation in angel hair, not caring any more how much sticky toffee mixture was making its way on all the surrounding surfaces.
I drove the girls and the cake, balanced precariously on a nervous lap, to the party. The guests ‘oohhed’ and ‘aaahhed’ in a suitably enthusiastic fashion. And my daughter and her friend looked so proud. They set out to conquer Zumbo's Croque-en-bouche. And they did.
But guess who still had to do the dishes?
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.