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I have my dog to thank for my growing interest in foraging. Every day when we go for our walk, he sniffs out doggy smells while I fossick in the verges looking for edible weeds. Some of the leaves, flowers and young seeds pods I find are nibbled en route, some are rejected (I can’t see why you’d bother eating gorse flowers) and the rest end up in salads and sitrfrys.

9781877505164 The foraging trend is growing apace. I’ve written two features this year with foraging chefs Anthony North and Bill Manson (both for NZ Life & Leisure) and I’ve recently received a review copy of the latest book on the subject, A Forager’s  Treasury by Wairarapa-based writer and researcher Johanna Knox. It joins four similar books on my bookshelf and it’s easily the best for my purposes.

Having said that, it is sadly let-down by poor presentation – cheap paper, messy layout, no index and  insufficient illustrations  – and that really is a shame because the content is excellent. It’s informative, well-researched,  insightful and full of inspiring ways to use wild plants.

The first half of the book is dedicated to identification and general information on foraging. Common poisonous plants such as hemlock are listed (but not illustrated) in the introductory section and this is followed by a large section on edible ‘treasures’.  These plants are divided into families (alliums, legumes, etc), which is a useful way of looking at things, assuming some knowledge of plants. Knox provides excellent information on each one – how to find them, what they taste like and what to do with them –  but the few line drawings included aren’t sufficient to inspire confidence in a new forager. When it comes to identification there really is no substitute for photographs.

The second half of the book investigates the many ways in which you might use foraged plants: medicinal and cosmetic but most of all edible. I would buy the book for this part alone with its handy tips and collection of inspiring but sensible ways to eat weeds.

I say ‘sensible’ because I’ve seen some frankly weird recipes in similar books on wild food, recipes that come across as desperate attempts to find a use for a foraged ingredient just because it is foraged. Knox, on the other hand, comes across as a good cook with a well-tuned sense of what goes with what and an understanding that every ingredient must earn its place. Often that place is in a salad, a dip or a sandwich and there are plenty of ideas for these.

There are also some good basic recipes that come with loads of variations. I’m keen to follow her suggestions for infused syrups and herbal teas, and I’m intrigued by the idea of making pannacotta with cream that’s been infused with scented pelargonium leaves or wild jasmine.

I particularly like the section on wild salads because it not only lists all the likely candidates but divides them up according to texture and flavour. Some plants are mustardy, some are bitter or sour, and some may be crunchy while others are soft. It’s all useful information when it comes to creating a well-balanced salad.

And when it comes to salads, I love the idea of tossing lemony-flavoured oxalis leaves through a creamy potato salad. I don’t even have to walk the dog to find this common weed, my garden is full of it.  I’m also well stocked with onion weed and thanks to this book I’m actually looking forward to the spring flush when I’ll have plenty of flowers to deep-fry in tempura batter.

A Forager’s Treasury,  Johanna Knox. Allen & Unwin RRP $36.99

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120326_RipeRecipes-AFreshBatch_FRONTCover_FINAL_LR (1)Angela Redfern does it again! The first cookbook from the owner of Ripe Deli in Auckland has been on my ‘favourites’ pile since it was published more than two years ago. Its seasonal collection of interesting everyday recipes still inspire me to dash out to Moore Wilson for the essential ingredient – chorizo, mozzarella, quinoa or quince – and now I’m making new shopping lists with Redfern’s new book, Ripe Recipes: a Fresh Batch.

The colourful up-close photography and whimsical line drawings of book number two are reassuringly familiar – the same team is behind both publications –  but there’s new territory here too.

The recipes are no longer grouped according to season but by chapters that follow the internal workings and food categories of Ripe, the delicatessen. I’ve never stepped inside the store but I now know that Friday is Pie Day and once a month Ripe has a Mexican Day. I’m not sure if this is the best way to organise a cook book but once you get used to what’s where, the recipes themselves are fabulous.

They are eclectic in true deli style. A chapter headed Deli Dinners takes care of the take-home favourites such as osso bucco and shepherd’s pie; three recipes for cheesecake give the retro nod to a dessert of the 70s and there’s plenty of the Mexican and Middle Eastern inspired dishes that are currently trending.

Best of all are the salads. Ripe number one’s stunning collection was a hard act to follow but the Fresh Batch of salads is every bit as good as the last – colourful, crunchy, tasty and loaded with a healthy variety of grains. The emphasis is on nutrition with lots of tofu, sprouts, seaweed and so forth, but for me that’s of secondary importance. I’m guided by taste, texture and presentation; the rest will naturally follow. How could Fattoush Salad with Chicken, Pistachio and Pomegranate not be good for you?

The Green Queen

The Green Queen

Last night I made The Green Queen Salad. I gather it’s a deli favourite, which makes me sympathise with the kitchen hand whose job it is to carefully pull the leaves off the brussel sprouts that complete this arangement. I lost patience and tore at mine so they didn’t look great, but the green-on-green vege and buckwheat salad was otherwise magnificent (recipe follows). I served it with fresh snapper fillets fried in butter. It would go equally well with Ripe’s Cured Fennel Salmon.

The method for the salmon is unusual in that the fish is both cured and cooked. I’ve only ever done one or the other so I bought a side of salmon to test it out. I found it combined the best of both methods – my salmon had a sweetly glazed exterior with meltingly soft flesh beneath. I meant to follow instructions and use the leftovers for Salmon Hash Cakes – the picture looks very moorish – but when I went to the fridge, the salmon was gone. No leftovers. A sure sign of success in anyone’s book.

Ripe Recipes: A Fresh Batch, by Angela Redfern. Photography Sally Greer. Illustrations by Michelle Ineson. Beatnik Publishing RRP $59.99

THE GREEN QUEEN 

This is a great salad by Gawain Cowley. It is bound to bring out the superhuman strength in all of us! A dear customer voted it the best salad she had ever had at Ripe.

Serves 6 to 8

1¼ cups (250g) BUCKWHEAT, reserve ¼ cup for toasting
2 cups (80g) KALE, finely sliced
2 cups (80g) BABY SPINACH
5 BRUSSEL SPROUTS, stem removed, leaves separated
200g GREEN BEANS, tops & tails removed, julienned
50g SNOW PEAS, thinly sliced
2 SPRING ONIONS, white and green parts, finely sliced
180g CRUNCHY BEAN SPROUT MIX
1 cup (250ml) GREEN QUEEN DRESSING (see pg 85)
SALT and freshly GROUND BLACK PEPPER

To prepare the buckwheat: place a medium saucepan of water over a high heat and bring to the boil. Add one cup of the buckwheat and boil for 10 minutes or until tender. Remove from the heat and strain. Set aside to cool.

In a dry frying pan over a medium heat, place the reserved buckwheat. Toast for 2-3 minutes stirring constantly. Remove from the heat and set aside in a
small bowl.

To prepare the salad: place a large saucepan of water over a high heat and bring to the boil.

Add all the vegetables (except for the spring onions and crunchy bean sprouts) and blanch for 30 seconds. Strain, refresh under cold running water and drain well again.

In a large bowl, place the blanched salad greens, spring onions, crunchy bean sprouts and boiled buckwheat. Pour the dressing over the salad, season to taste with salt and pepper, and toss well to combine.

Transfer the salad to a serving dish and sprinkle with the toasted buckwheat.

GREEN QUEEN DRESSING

This dressing is packed full of goodness. We use it in the Green Queen Salad on page 81. This recipe makes a generous quantity. Add it to any salad that needs a good boost of flavour.

Makes 1¾ cups

1 whole bulb GARLIC
1½ cups (60g) BABY SPINACH, roughly chopped
½ cup (20g) FRESH BASIL LEAVES, roughly chopped
½ cup (20g) FRESH MINT, roughly chopped
½ cup (20g) FRESH CURLY PARSLEY, roughly chopped
JUICE of 1 LEMON
2 tbsp APPLE CIDER VINEGAR
1 tbsp soft BROWN SUGAR
1 cup (250ml) OLIVE OIL
1 tsp SALT

Preheat the oven to 180°C.

Slice through the very top of the garlic bulb, exposing the cloves. Drizzle over one tablespoon of the olive oil, wrap in foil and bake for 30 minutes or until garlic is caramelised. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool. When cool, squeeze the garlic from the bulb into a small bowl.

In a food processor bowl, place all of the dressing ingredients including the roasted garlic and process
until smooth.

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Baking Bible

I’m not a good baker of cakes. I blame this partly on my oven, which is a commercial gas monster with an unreliable temperature gauge, and partly on my inability to follow a recipe. I can’t stop myself making adjustments and, as we know, this can be fatal when baking cakes.

So when I got sent a review copy of Annie Bell’s Baking Bible I thought the publishers had got me mixed up with another food writer – a domestic goddess who knows her sponges from her pound cakes, perhaps. I could have sent it back but instead I found myself flicking through the pages admiring the photography and the next thing I knew I was marking it with post it notes.

 There are a huge number of baking books out there but this is the best I’ve seen. It really is a bible. Not only that, it’s a lovely looking book; a hefty hardback, nicely set out and easy to follow, in line with the writer’s pared back philosophy to baking. The ingredient lists finish with ‘little extras’ should you wish to dress things up but what I like is the emphasis on the cake/biscuit/tart itself. I have no doubt these recipes will work; Annie Bell is noted for the care she takes designing recipes. She has written for Vogue and the Independent and has been, for many years, the food writer for the Mail on Sunday’s magazine.

I’m sure I’ll bake lots of the recipes in this, her latest book. I’ve bookmarked the New York cheesecake, salted caramel flapjacks, saffron lemon crisps and cannelés Bordelais. The latter are my favourite and I’m delighted to discover Annie thinks cannelé’s are no harder to produce than clafoutis. I have a set of silicone cannelé moulds that I’ve been too intimidated to use until now.

For the purposes of this review I decided to test the Ginger, Almond and Fig Meringue Cake.  I was encouraged by the photograph showing a lovely broken crust, which I was sure I could emulate, and the notes that said it was “endlessly adaptable”.

Ginger, almond and fig meringue cake. Baked by me.

In order to give it a fair trial I promised self-restraint and followed the recipe to the letter. It was really easy and turned out just like the picture in the book. I took it to a fireworks party the same night, where it was wolfed down so fast I had to beg a spoonful from someone else’s plate. It’s a cake I plan to make often, only next time I will revert to type and make a few adjustments – pistachio nuts, figs and a dash of rose water will ring the changes for Christmas.

Annie Bell’s Baking Bible is published by Kyle Books and distributed in NZ by New Holland. RRP 59.99

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What to make of a Hong Kong celebrity chef who has tattooed the words Devil Chef on his arm in Chinese, calls his molecular style of cuisine ‘X-treme’ and gives his dishes names like Sex on the Beach. I’d be inclined to call him a tosser, especially as his real name is Alvin.

Alvin Leung, Devil Chef

However, Alvin ‘Devil Chef ‘Leung has two Michelin stars, which means he’s not to be written off lightly. His restaurant Bo Innovation is a celebrity hangout and he’s about to open in London. So when the Hong Kong Tourism Board offered to host me at his very expensive restaurant a few weeks ago, I was happy to give it a go.

It was a degustation menu. I think I’m alone in this, but I don’t really like tasting menus. It’s frustrating when you get a little plate of something that’s really intriguing and it’s gone in one forkful. By the end of the evening I’ve had so many of these little tastes it all turns into a gastronomic blur. I can never remember what I’ve eaten. The thing is, the ‘dego menu’, as it’s called in Auckland, demands concentration. It’s serious eating. And so is molecular gastronomy, which is why the two always seem to go hand in hand.

Anyway. What I did like about Alvin’s food was the wit. It didn’t take itself too seriously and neither did he. (I like to think he was being ironic when he joined us at the table to smoke an ostentatious cigar which he kept re-lighting with a crème brulée torch.)

We tasted our way through 15 courses of X-treme Chinese : ponzu cloud, oyster tea, sandalwood smoke, truffled beef tendon and my favourite: molecular xiao long bao. This was a riff on the famous Shanghai soup dumpling: it was presented as a wobbly liquid sphere that burst in the mouth with an explosion of porkiness.

It was a great menu. I even took notes so I wouldn’t forget it. Unfortunately I lost my notebook soon after so I’m grasping to remember the details, but there is one dish I won’t forget: Sex on the Beach. I shudder to recall it.

Sex on the Beach was an off-the-menu extra. It consisted of a ginger crumb ‘sand’ over which was draped an edible condom. The condom was a slippery pink – made of some sort of starch – and inside there was a blob of something white, sweet and viscous. I know it was sweet because I ate it. I nearly gagged, but I ate it. I can remember vividly what it looked like but I can hardly remember the taste – just gingery sand, something sweet and something gelatinous.

 

Sex on the Beach in Hong Kong

I’ve eaten some strange things in my time; duck tongues, ox penis, even a pan-fried huhu bug, but this really was challenging. It was a case of mind over matter. No matter that the base ingredients were quite ordinary, my mind recoiled and it really was hard to swallow.

It turns out this is a signature dish. The devil chef told us he launched it at an event in Milan. Serving up condoms in a Catholic country was quite a brave thing to do, I thought. He said the Italians loved it. Now, it’s part of his Chef’s Table Menu at Bo Innovation. It’s signed off with a pink ribbon and he donates the proceeds to the Aids Foundation. That’s clever.

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Seasonal Faire

Is there a food writer out there that doesn’t urge us to eat ‘seasonal and local’? The universality of the theme in cookbooks and magazines, and on television and radio, make it sound like some sort of foodie trend rather than the natural way of feeding ourselves.

It’s true we did need reminding. Somewhere along the way we lost touch with the natural scheme of things. Seduced by the availability of fresh produce all year round – grapes from California, green beans from Africa – it was easy to eat with no regard to seasonality or country of origin. But I think we’ve got the message.

We get it again in the introduction to Laura Faire’s book Now is the Season, but I like the way she presents it – “not rocket science” – and I like the slightly ironic way she acknowledges herself as “one of a crowd of cooks, gardeners and food writers who have been banging the seasonal drum since the 1970s…”

And then with that out of the way she stops banging on and lets the recipes do the talking. The book is divided into seasons, each one prefaced with a garden calendar because she’s not just a cook she’s also a gardener. She knows what to plant and when to pick it, and because she eats what she grows she’s probably a locavore too. Happily, she’s not a vegetarian; there are some lovely cuts of meat and fish slipped in between the freshly picked greens and bottled fruits.

So I do love this book. But I have to admit, I didn’t expect to. When I first saw Laura Faire’s column in the Sunday Star Times I thought – here we go, another blonde gardener/cook who looks terrific in gumboots. But I’ve been completely won over by her down-to-earth cookbook. It’s beautifully photographed by Kieran Scott who goes close up on the food and the garden. I love the full-page photograph of what I assume to be Faire’s own hands, grubby from the garden with dirt under the nails, opening a pod of broad beans. It’s simple and honest, and it sets the theme for the book.

Each recipe relies on a few fresh tasting ingredients; there’s nothing complicated but there are some lovely combinations. Grapefruit Marmalade Crème Brulée strikes me as a really good idea. I’ll certainly make the Warm Duck and Black Grape Salad; I like the sound of Goat’s Cheese with Lemon and Sage and I’m prepared to try the odd sounding Cauliflower and Cinnamon Soup becasue Faire says it’s her own “emergency dinner party fall-back”.

There are lots of recipes using easy to grow vegetables like kale and jerusalem artichokes, and there are some useful gardening tips, but you don’t need to have a vege plot to use this book. Apart from one or two things like quince and green garlic, the ingredients are readily bought. I only grow a few things myself – tomatoes in the porch and herbs in what was our old sandpit – but I was thrilled to find a couple of recipes for sorrel, which grows like a weed in my patch. I’ve made the sorrel pesto; it’s really tasty and because it’s not cooked it doesn’t lose its bright colour, which is always a problem with sorrel.

I’m embarrassed to say how many cookbooks I own and I’m ashamed to say how little I cook from most of them, but this one is already bristling with little post-it markers, a sure sign I’ll be using it heaps – through summer, autumn, winter and spring.

 

Now is the Season, Laura Faire
Published by New Holland

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Biddy Fraser-Davies

I first met Biddy Fraser-Davies back in 2005 when I wrote about her for Cuisine magazine and produced a farming feature for Radio New Zealand. In those days she’d just started producing cheese on her farmlet and no one had heard of her or her much-loved cow, Gwendolyn. She was a real find, great talent with a no-nonsense approach and a cheerful eccentricity that fit her as comfortably as her bright pink crocs. Since then she’s starred on Country Calendar and been written up by numerous magazines and newspapers. Biddy and her milking cows – currently Sally and Molly – are the poster girls of the artisan cheese movement, and, as befits their celebrity status, they’ve just released their own DVD.

It’s called Farmhouse Cheese Making: an instructional DVD showing how Cwmglyn Farmhouse Cheese is produced. It features Molly the cow on the cover and stars Biddy the dairymaid in apron and boots.  A self-taught cheesemaker, she begins by admitting it took her a full year of trial and error to achieve the consistently good cheeses she sells today. The DVD aims to help others short track the learning process. Together with the comprehensive cow-to-cheese manual, which can be found on the Cwmglyn Farm website, it’s an excellent introduction to the cheesemaker’s craft.

Cwmglyn Farmhouse Cheese

I learned how to make cheese by attending a class run by Katherine Mowbray. Her courses are very good and I often refer to her book but what I like about Biddy’s DVD is that you can re-run it again and again. So if you can’t recall how firm the curds should be before you cut them, you can replay the episode.

Fresh Curds

Biddy demonstrates the semi hard, naturally rinded farmhouse cheese she produces herself, but the process is similar for most of the cheeses you’re likely to make. Factors like the type of milk, the culture and temperature all play their part but once you have the feel for the basic technique you can adapt it to recipes for soft white-moulded brie or pungent washed-rind cheeses like Pont l’Eveque.

I’m not sure if Biddy has ever been a teacher but I reckon she’s a natural. She manages to cover the technical stuff while making the whole process look as easy as it is – once you know the pitfalls. Listen carefully when she says: “Now this is important…” and you’ll avoid the mistakes that most of us make.

Homemade Cheese Press

Her own small cheesery is purpose-built and licensed for commercial production but much of her equipment has been adapted from every-day utensils – coffee filters are used to strain the milk and a perforated pasta cooker stands in for a cheese mould. Tips like this demystify the process and make the point that cheese making doesn’t have to be expensive.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned – and Biddy emphasises this again and again – it’s that you really do have to be super hygienic. The last lot of cheese Dan and I made got infected with blue mould and I’ve had nasty pink spots ruin the virginal bloom of an otherwise perfect goat camembert. But most of the time we get it right and sometimes our little cheeses are good enough to photograph.

A memorable goats' milk 'camembert' style cheese

Farmhouse Cheese Making: An Instructional DVD costs $40 plus postage. Details on Cwmglyn Farm website: www.modelrailway.co.nz

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