Odds and Ends

On the way through a work like this you come across little odds and ends that, by themselves, might be insufficient to form a recipe, or a tale, but can often lead to little surprises within a dish, on a buffet, or at a barbecue – or these days, as part of a flash antipasto.

Then there are the basics, the assumptions you make when you’re about to make a sauce, or a sandwich. Remember, not all the things you do in the kitchen need discipline and routine. What you do in the kitchen might be the only opportunity you have in your life to entertain, to be flamboyant, to make people happy, to be a star. Take it on with a relish. Take a bow. Be Pavarotti.

Parmigiano Reggiano

This is the very best of all the Italian cheeses, created under a strict regimen at Parma in the region of Emilia-Ro- magna. This is not the Parmesan that frequents dull plastic packets in supermarkets. This is one of the great cheeses of the world, full of flavour and style, with a marvellous tradition behind each wheel. It is magnificent when grated over or tossed through pasta, sensational when sliced finely and worked through a simple spinach salad with black pepper and virgin olive oil, superb when eaten with a fresh peach or a poached pear, stands alone just as it is. There are some places which will sell this great cheese at different stages of maturity; the rule is, the older the better, but it is still a great joy to try a young (ish) 18-month-old cheese. It is, as is the way with such things, rather expensive. Parmigiano Reggiano has its name stamped on the rind, so there can be no mistake. Do try some; even if you buy it just once, the memory will be worth the price.

Grano Padano

This is the usual Parmesan sold in most delicatessens. If you had never tasted its superior rival, Parmigiano Reggiano, you might well be saying this is one of the great cheeses of the world. It is, but it misses out when you compare the pair head to head. The ‘Grana’ in the title refers to the grain of the cheese, a hard grating variety, which shares all the attributes of Parmigiano Reggiano, except for that wonderful middle flavour. It is, however, the cheese most on my table, because of its affordability.


This is a very Italian cheese, richly flavoured when it gets old, delicious and subtle when young. I much prefer the older version, which has a much sharper flavour — thus the addendum piccante. It makes a terrific top to a pizza.

Olive oil

I’m sure you can’t operate a decent kitchen without a large cache of olive oil. In fact, and this is close to heresy, I think I’d prefer a well-stocked cellar of olive oil than a well-stocked cellar of red wine. The Italians reckon there is no other ingredient more important to the flavour of Italian cooking; I reckon that rule applies to all cooking. You can add it to soup, highlight a salad, cook in it and with it, rub your hands with it. I am sure of this: if you have a very good olive oil, which usually means a virgin olive oil (oil crushed by mechanical means, rather than with chemical or heat treatment, brilliantly flavoured, with a minimum of oleic acid — no more than 1%) your cooking will march ahead. Go to a very good deli, and ask the people behind the jump for a taste and see; pick a brand you like and stick with it, and then develop your palate through the more expensive and difficult to find varieties. And put your favourite olive oil on your list of Christmas and birthday presents: for giving and receiving.


I always use dried yeast because it is always there, always ready to go, and you never have to toss it out when you buy too much. It also can be used directly from the freezer.

Garam marsala

This is no more than warm spice mix. Every Indian home has a different recipe; my view is you should try all sorts of mixes, starting with what you’ve got in the cupboard, until you hit on one you really like. There are a few musts: cumin seeds, coriander seeds, cinnamon, dried chilli, cloves, black peppercorns, star anise, fennel and nutmeg. Use seeds, whizz them in a spare coffee grinder, and keep them for all sorts of flamboyant flavour hits. Try this in your next cheese sandwich. Grate a carrot and sprinkle it over the slices of cheese, then hit the lot with a couple of teaspoons of garam masala. It gives a tired old sandwich a real how do you do.

Pigs’ trotters

Don’t attempt to bone and cook a pig’s trotter at home. Seek out a special restaurant which has this classic on the menu, take it, and savour it.

Short pastry

It always used to drive me nuts making pastry until I came across this mixture. It’s easy, it holds together, and it rolls out easily and well. You can rely on it.

1½ cups flour

125g butter, softened

pinch of salt

1 egg

¼–½ cup water

Work the butter and salt into the flour with your fingertips until it gets something of a crumby feel. Stir in the egg. Add the water gradually until the dough has been worked into a ball. The amount of water depends on the moisture in the air, and in the flour. Mix it all together gently, then put into the fridge until you’re ready to roll it out.


These lovely orbs were very much part of my childhood holidays in Daylesford, my mother’s and grandmother’s home town. They made for very social evenings about the fire roasting, peeling and munching. When you cook chestnuts just right they have a delicious texture and sweet flavour, so different from most nuts. Fortunately for all us chestnut lovers and fast livers, modern technology has given us the glorious roasted flavour in seconds, without the need for the roaring fire. Just prick the shell with a sharp knife and put the nut in the microwave for about 20 seconds. The shell will split and the chestnut will be cooked, and delicious, and easy to peel.

Raspberries with goat’s cheese

For those of you who think i you have tried raspberries every possible way, try this one. Serve them as an accompaniment to a creamy goat’s cheese: i.e. goat’s cheese with raspberries, not raspberries with goat’s cheese. You’ll be amazed at how happy they are together.


Don’t underestimate spinach. I think Popeye has much to answer for. The bulging bicepped one certainly put me off it as a young ‘un, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it was that appearance of sludge that did it for me. Lately I have taken young spinach leaves straight from the garden, tossed them with a little vinegar and a good run of olive oil, and loved them. Older greens I’ve steamed and used as part of a stuffing; or to kick along a ravioli; or as part of a sauce in a richly spiced Indian curry; or, if steamed until well softened, chopped with nuts as a vegetable. There are thousands of other ways. Keep trying.

Come to think of it, young spinach and a good dose of Popeye’s girlfriend Olive Oil, and you could probably survive most plagues and pestilence. I think I would probably have a cache of black pepper, and some chillies, just to be safe.

Silver beet with peanut butter

I have no idea what made us attempt this apparently bizarre combination, but it sure as hell works. Clean and cook the silver beet as usual (it works as well with spinach), steaming it in a little, little water. When the silver beet is cooked, work in a little butter, some black pepper, some chopped (hot) chilli and the barest teaspoon of peanut butter. Work it all around, and serve on its own, with some pasta or rice, or smeared on some bread and butter.


Whatever you do, don’t pay crazy prices for winter peas and beans; go for broccoli. Buy enough broccoli only for the meal of the day, as it deteriorates very quickly once cut from the plant. Cut the heads into their individual flower pieces, and serve them tossed through pasta, with a small amount of fried bacon. Cook the bacon until crisp in a pan, drain off the fat, and de-glaze with a little cream and white wine. Add extra bacon to provide further bacon flavour to the cream, and season with salt, black pepper and fresh herbs. Toss the pasta through the cream and add the broccoli pieces.

Broad beans

Don’t miss out on broad beans as they ease their way into the market. The gorgeous green-ness of the cooked beans makes for one of the more alluring of vegetables. You can cook them in their inner pods, or squeeze them free, and toss them through a sauce, or pasta, or rice, allowing the heat of the sauce or pasta or rice to warm them through. And when they get old, cook them gently for an bour in some well-flavoured beef or lamb stock, and serve them with the stock as sauce.

Beer and radish

I have discovered the perfect food combination for cold beer, and it isn’t greasy pizza. Try your pre-dinner beer with freshly pulled radish. And if you don’t have any fresh radishes then plant some out today, you’ll have plenty in a couple of weeks. The rich crunch of radish, followed by its peppery after-palate, makes a wonderful partner for beer. I couldn’t believe it the first time. So I tried another beer, and another radish, and did it again, and again. It works.

Lemons, lemons

A little lemon tip from one of my favourite cooking books, The Fruit and Nut Book by Helena Radecka. Ms Radecka explains why all the golden oldies I know reckon a hot lemon drink is the way to go when you’re feeling a little off. ‘For a sore throat,’ she writes, ’squeeze the juice of a lemon, or chop it roughly and simmer it in water for about 20 minutes to make a lemony liquid. When mixed with honey, hot water and whisky or vodka, it makes a soothing toddy that helps fight infection.’ Heh, heh, heh.

And now, some rhubarb

Helen Radecka has written some quite wonderful nonsense about rhubarb too. ‘Rhubarb Hair Lightener: simmer 3 tablespoons rhubarb root and 550ml of water in a stainless steel pan for 30 minutes. Leave to cool and steep for 6–8 hours, then strain. Use as a rinse after shampooing and leave the hair to dry naturally. You could use white wine instead of water which would be more expensive, but also good for the hair.’

I offer that recipe for you without having tested it myself. I have run out of use for such things.


This is one of the few fruits which seem to be available only in season.i’ve never seen them imported from here there and everywhere, and i‘m sure we’re better for it. The first bite of the first cherry of the season is an absolute joy, year in, year out. But to my surprise, Australia’s largest cherry-growing region is Young in central New South Wales. I had always thought the Dandenongs were the only place to go if you wanted a decent cherry, but no. They’ve been growing in Young for more than 100 years. This is one fruit which does not need complicated recipes, despite the famous French tart, the clafoutis. Forget all that, just eat ‘em, and eat ‘em, and eat ‘em…

If you want to read a marvellous essay on cherries, have a look at Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book. ‘In the Middle Ages,’ she begins, ‘and until recently in some parts — the cherry fair was a great festival. People wandered about the orchards; the fruit was picked and sold; there was dancing, drinking and making love…’

Oranges in winter

This is how stupid I am.

While I was playing football and cricket all those years ago, I could never work out why oranges tasted so wonderful at three-quarter time in June, but so unsatisfying at drinks in January. It never occurred to me that the season for oranges could be winter. How could something so sparkling be around when the weather is so cold?

Here’s a recipe for those of us relying only on our memories. When you finally manage to hop out of the cot on a freezing winter morning, put in your old mouth guard before you make it to the kitchen. Slice a navel orange into four, toss it into the dirtiest old ice cream container you can find, and go stand in the middle of the back lawn. Stick the mouth guard into your pyjama pants, and attack the orange quarters with a tough look on your face. As soon as you have taken the last ounce of juice from each quarter, toss them on the ground, run on the spot, and yell to the world: Carn the (Hawks, Dogs, Cats, etc.; fill in whoever you used play for). Dash around the back yard, slide in the mud, and run inside to a cold shower.

Tropical passionfruit

I had thought it impossible there could be something with more flavour per cubic millimetre than the common, purple-brown, home-grown passionfruit; then I ran into its tropical cousin. I had never seen a passionfruit like it: firm of skin, about twice as large, mottled pale yellow/brown in colour. I sliced it in half, saw the slightly larger seeds, surrounded by slightly brighter pulp, in slightly more juice than you might expect. These are to passionfruit what a Rolls is to a Saab. This fruit had all the tanginess of our better known varieties, but there was more, much more. A final flavour like the perfect fruit punch. I will never forget it.

Custard apples

These strange, heavy, heart-shaped tropical fruits which arrive in late autumn/early winter are beautifully named: they are laced with natural sugar, and have a texture and look like the best custard. They should be eaten when soft, in the same style as avocados, and are generally sold when firm. Allow them to ripen at room temperature, slice them, and take them straight from the skin, especially for breakfast.


I have been convinced and lost and convinced and lost with this fruit which looks like an apple, and at its best has the texture of an apple, the juice and sugar of a pear, and the surprise of a little passionfruit around the core. At its best, it is brilliant. But no matter how popular nashis become, they are never going to be cheap, and the question you must always ask yourselves when you are handing out several coins for each fruit is: are they better than Jonathans, or William pears? And if the answer is no, then is that enough reason? And is this a question which could decide your philosophy, my philosophy and the good or otherwise of mankind? It may well do.

Quince jelly

I took a long time to fall in love with the jelly which comes from quinces; mainly because I had had so many versions which were intolerably sweet. Then I decided to make some myself. It’s much easier than the old cook books say. Wipe the quinces clean, chop them haphazardly, cover them with water, and cook gently, covered, for several hours until the quinces are soft as warm butter. Remove the quinces, measure the remaining liquid, and add half the weight of sugar to the volume of the mix. Put the mixture into the microwave, and cook on high for about 20 minutes, until the mix is bubbling furiously and is well reduced. It should have taken on a brilliant pinkish hue, and set quickly on a cold plate.

2 Responses to “Odds and Ends”

  1. [...] garam masala — This delicious Indian spice mix should be made regularly, as it loses its punch about as quickly as coffee beans. If you buy it, make sure it comes from a friendly Indian spice seller. [...]