Going against the grain: Cranberry and orange museli

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Food has been getting political in our house recently. It started when our 7 year old son took his distress at seeing images of homeless and terrified Orangutans in Indonesian forests and decided to make our household palm oil free. This has been no simple task. An incredible 10% of supermarket products contain this cheap oil, demand for which is driving the destruction of Orangutan habitat in south east Asia and bringing this dear creature to the very edge of extinction. These products include the usual suspects – most processed snack foods from lollies to dry biscuits contain palm oil and the kids have quite happily banned all their favourite treat foods. Some are more surprising, such as the bulk of peanut butters in which the high value peanut oil is extracted and replaced with the cheaper palm oil. And good luck finding supermarket toothpastes, soaps and moisturisers without this ingredient.

My childrens’ dedication inspired to me to dig out the Ethical Supermarket Shopping book that Santa gave me for Christmas. Its a challenging read. The booklet notes boycott calls on Nestle, whose aggressive marketing of baby formula in the third world has been linked to infants deaths, a fact which has not gone un-noticed by the World Health Organisation. Then there is their child labour and workers rights records. Coca-Cola Amatil? Murder, kidnapping and torture of union leaders at their Colombian plants. Groundwater and soil pollution and exposure to toxic waste in India. L’Oreal and Proctor and Gamble continue inhumane and lethal animal experimentation. Even more unhappily, L’Oreal is 26% owned by Nestle and now owns the Body Shop. Major criticisms also for Kelloggs, Kraft, Mars, PepsiCo, Revlon and a host of others. Continue reading

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Labour of love: Persimmon and quince muffins

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When I was about 32 weeks pregnant with our first child, we made the decision to have a homebirth. Alex’s conception had been accidental and at 5 weeks in our local GP told us we had better take a tour of the local hospitals pronto and make our decision quickly. We had no idea what we were doing and were quickly sucked into the vortex of obstetric processing, testing and generally over-medicalised fear mongering that characterises publicly funded maternity care in Australia. I remain ever grateful to the friend who suggested that we opt out of hospital ante-natal classes and instead attend an intensive weekend session by birth educator Rhea Dempsey, the result of which was the decision to pursue homebirth. Shortly before my due date we went to collect a birth pool that we were renting from a couple who made such things. These lovely people helped us strap the pool to the roof of our tiny car, gave us a delicious fish pie for an easy meal after the birth and informed us that people who start with home birthing tend to end up in home schooling.

The home schooling thing hasn’t happened (although I can’t deny I’ve thought hard about it) but I often think about this comment becuase that woman sure was on to something. I am a powerful advocate of birthing rights, which are currently under sustained and pernicious attack in this country. Its not just that I am concerned by the medicalisation of the natural (if entirely epic) journey of pregnacy and birth. It’s that when a woman truly stands in the power of her own birth, however she births, she stands in the power of motherhood. Women who have stood in the power of homebirth are questioners of authority. They tend to trust themselves and their children. They don’t fret about feeding schedules or sleeping patterns, or the minuteae of developmental milestones. They do not entrust their understanding of their child to the experts. They strap that little mammal to their milky breasts and get on with their lives being with their children.

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Old school: Vinter’s Chicken

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I grew up in a big rambling weatherboard house on a quarter acre block in the Melbourne suburb of Surrey Hills. My mum, dad, brother and I lived in the old part of the house. I remember pine floor boards, high ceilings and fragile stained glass windows. My bedroom had an open fire place and outside the sash window was a lilac whose smell I vividly remember quarter of a century later.

My maternal grandparents lived in an extension to the original building. Their “wing” was joined to the old house by a lurid green sunroom that would be luminescent in spring when the old oak tree came to life outside. The sunroom was the link between the two parts of the house and the gateway to the working spaces. The most mysterious of these was the darkroom. It was an alchemical, magical place where dad’s exquisite black and white landscapes would be forged.

The more prosaic shared spaces of the house were the laundry and kitchen. Although I’m sure my mum would have cooked most of my meals, it is Nana and Grandad I remember in the kitchen. They come from County Durham in Northern England and it is this culinary heritage they passed on to me. Nana did the baking and in her prime consistently produced a short crust pastry that was quite simply without peer. Suet puddings (mainly jam and ginger) were regularly provided and her Shrove Tuesday crepes (paper thin) remain legendary. My own children are now having the pleasure of dousing her endless crepes in lemon juice and sugar. Continue reading

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Apocalypse now: Rabbit and juniper pie

One day soon the Apocalypse will arrive. It’s not going to come with the end of the Mayan long-count – I’m an archaeologist for goodness sake and would never believe such a ridiculous notion. More than likely it will come with peak oil, the election of a Tony Abbot Coalition Government or a middle-aged reunion of Hanson. Doo-wop! But it will come, and when it does I’ll be pretty well screwed. I’m too soft, entirely ill-equipped. Whenever I watch that classic AI apocalypse tale The Matrix (and yes, I’m a sci-fi nerd so I watch it fairly regularly) you know what upsets me most? It’s not the constant surveillance, or the bank of humans farmed as batteries to power a faceless machine race, or the dystopian ontological vision. It’s the scene at the mess table where they are forcing down their tins of cream-of-wheat goop. If this is the future, I want nothing to do with it.

When those horsemen bear down a smart mouth, a working knowledge of the Aboriginal Heritage Act and the ability to inflate a duck with a bicycle pump will not serve me well. There are however people with real skills out there. They are growing food forests, darning socks and building earth ships. They are generating electricity out of sunlight and killing animals with their bare hands. They make wine and cheese from things they have grown themselves and they now how to make perpetual motion machines from hand woven twine and pieces of prickly pear. Continue reading

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Keep cool and remain calm

The day started well, how could it be otherwise when you arrive at work on a perfect Autumn morning to find several kilos of chestnuts waiting for you? Every year in April my employer (the Southern Otway Landcare Network) holds a lunch in conjunction with it’s AGM. This event celebrates Landcare’s efforts to rid the Southern Otways of pest plants and animals through the time honoured method of eating them. Animals are hunted, weeds plucked and our community of volunteers come together to celebrate another year of hard work. We call it the Feral Feast. Organising the Feral Feast was one of the first major tasks I was designated when I started at Landcare a little over a year ago and what a glorious task it was. I had to organise shooting contracts and clear out my fridge at home so that a couple of men in gumboots could pack two beautifully butchered feral deer into it. I took the chefs up to Otway Herbs on a golden April afternoon to forage for greens. Little baskets of rabbit rillettes made the rounds with a fresh apple salad and a certain local individual shared clandestine shots of home-made wine, including an aromatic delight made from the berries of the locally indigenous Coastal Beard Heath.

The early morning chestnuts came from the grove of one our members. The nuts are glossy and mahogany red, unbelievably fresh and begging to be roasted. Some of them are sitting on my dining room table right now. Their days, possibly even their hours, are numbered. The day, however, got better. This year our event is to be catered by Steve Earl, head chef of local restaurant La Bimba. Steve is also a man who has harnessed the awesome power of the Otways to grow fungi: he is a man in possession of a productive truffle-farm. I knew little of his property and the things that occur there when I turned off the Great Ocean Road and drove up into the hills. Stepping out of the car I was nearly knocked sideways by the smell of woodsmoke on an early Autumn afternoon – the smell of Lapsang Souchong and leather boots drying by the fire. Continue reading

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Equinox: Spice-stewed rhubarb

The equinox has passed and the harvest season is surely on. Already I am surprised by it’s abundance. Across the weekend an amazing array of produce has arrived in my kitchen. It began on Friday night with beautiful bunch of basil harvested from a friend’s garden, glass of wine in hand. The local Saturday market delivered a dozen of the freshest eggs available, a $2 punnet of gorgeous cherry tomatoes, a bag of crisp Orange Pippin apples and velvety black kale. If I wasn’t sufficiently satisfied by this bounty, another friend arrived today bearing rhubarb, an unusual spinach variety from Otway Herbs, Roma tomatoes, passionfruit and a couple of kilos of green tomatoes with which I intend to make chutney. My kitchen bench is a field of produce.

This year, as the season has turned, I have for the first time come to a better understanding of my own changes. My approach to cooking also shifts with the season.  In Spring and Summer I look outwards, seeking the exotic. My cooking becomes expansive. More ingredients, more dishes, more effort. Come the Autumn, however, and my view becomes more local and seasonal. Less ingredients, slower cooking, greater focus on a single theme. This is is when I regret the fact that I am a terrible gardener and hover between jealousy and admiration of the basic productive capacity of others. I would love to have produce to barter but I lack the skill of growing it. I do have something to trade though, and that is my love of working with the produce at hand. Continue reading

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Comfort food: Chicken noodle soup

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By and large, I don’t really do maternal guilt. Well, at least not much. Not for me, the hand- wringing, the constant self second – guessing and personal recriminations. Maternal guilt is the first step on the path to martyrdom, a plague that stalks all parents. If succumbed to it causes you to lose your sense of self, to sacrifice the things that bring you joy, to estrange you from your lover. Eventually you find yourself competing among your peers in the joyless competition sport of whose life sucks the most. Every parent eventually learns that martyrdom doesn’t lead to heaven, it leads to purgatory.

But of course everyone has their weak spots. The breaking point for me nearly always comes after three nights of take away in any 5 given business days. Take away in this context has a broad definition. It can have the standard meaning (things with chips, pizza, take away Chinese) but must also include processed foods in containers from the supermarket (pre-marinated satays, Chicken Kievs etc). Weeks like this happen in families where all available adult/s have commitments other than parenting. You know, just those small commitments like paying the bills, study, paying the bills, maintaining hobbies and interests and paying the bills.

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In the genes: Simple Malaysian Beef Curry

It’s a primordial soup, here.  The clouds and the rain have settled in, sandwiching the town between the smell of the forest and the salt tang of the sea. The Otway Ranges are wet, temperate rainforest sliding down into the Southern Ocean, just about the very bottom of mainland Australia, the dark heart and lungs of the Great Ocean Road. Today it’s gray and it’s wet and it’s humid. My husband has been reading Heart of Darkness. His word of the moment is “miasmic” and it’s miasmic here right now. Acts of creation are taking place. There’s a curry on the stove you see and I am, at this very minute, breathless with anticipation

Malaysian curries. How I love them. All the dark complexities of Indian food plus the delicate high end notes of south east Asia. I can’t think of another cuisine that so perfectly balances Baroque complexity with home-cooked comfort. The curry on my stove-top right now could hardly be more simple. Onions, garlic and ginger fried until softened, a large amount of a Malaysian meat curry powder, cinnamon, star anise and  coriander roots. A stem of lemongrass bobs in the thick golden gravy. A red oil is just now starting to rise to the surface. When the fibres of the meat have broken down some more, I’ll throw in some potatoes and finish it off with coconut cream. Continue reading

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Family table: grilled honey chicken with Thai green beans


When I was first pregnant with my son, we had invited guests to lunch. It may have been nearly a decade ago now, but for various reasons (other than my savant-like food memory) I remember what we served them: pan-fried lamb back straps, a roast beetroot and feta salad and lemon and garlic roast potatoes. Their lovely children struggled with it and we were informed that “we would have to stop that kind of cooking once we had a family”. I’m not sure what they meant by “that sort of cooking”. Nutritious? Tasty? Whatever, really, my immediate reaction was: balls.

And balls it remains. When did feeding your family become so fraught and complicated? Why are we all so wound up about it? Is is our horrendously busy lives? The fact that cooking is a dying art? Is it the experts who are constantly freaking us out about how our children should be born / raised / educated? I’m not sure, but being the home-birthing, co-sleeping, intuitively driven parenting mammal that I am, I’ve always been pretty happy to give the experts the conceptual big finger. Food is rarely a drama at my table. My kids don’t eat everything, but they’re pretty good and extremely open minded. I am a long, long way from being a food nazi, but they tend towards healthy choices most of the time. We enjoy eating together, we like talking about food and they are interested in all aspects of cooking. Now all this may be nothing more than sheer, dumb luck but  I suppose it is possible that some of the choices I’ve made have shaped this result. So here are some of my thoughts on the family table (in order of importance):

Eat together at every possible opportunity. This means at the table, people, not in front of the telly. We have our best conversations around the table and our kids see their parents eating a huge variety of foods. Eating at the table together weaves food into the fabric of everyday life. Dinner is a ritual, a place of bonding. Our kids talk to us and we talk to them beyond the usual routine of answering questions and issuing orders. Continue reading

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Bright Moments: Stir Fried Chicken with Thai Basil and Red Chili

Transcribed from my notebook as I sat at the beach this evening:

Sometimes, blissfully ecstatic experiences arise unexpectedly. It’s 40 degrees outside, or so they say and it sure feels like it. Our cheaply – built little house with it’s token gestures to insulation is an unbearable sweat-box by midday. The pool, farcically, is closed due to the New Year’s Public Holiday. Oh, the humanity! The northerly wind is blowing in hot air from the central desert and whipping sand up along the Apollo Bay Main Beach. One of the few places left to retreat is the relatively protected mouth of the Barham River where it flows into the open ocean. The Barham is a perfect Otways River. Flowing down from the rain forest, the water is clean (if not clear) and lovely. Before the river discharges into the Southern Ocean it opens out into a large, still pond at the back of the beach. Continue reading

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