8 reasons why I love Nigella

the fidgety foodie_why I love Nigella Lawson

Hanging with Nigella

It’s no secret that I adore Nigella. And yes, I am being a shameless show off by sharing this photo of us from a few years ago. Indeed it’s framed on my wall, how did you know?

I had the honour and pleasure of working with Nigella a few years back while part of LifeStyle Food Channel and can honestly say that what you see is what you get. The smooth honey voice, cheerful disposition and infectious laugh? It’s there on and off screen.

the fidgety foodie_Why I love Nigella Lawson

Nigella in conversation with Annabel Crabb

Fast forward a few years to last night and I was in the beautiful but decidedly un-intimate setting of the Sydney Opera House, watching Nigella as she engaged in conversation with the delightful Annabel Crabb.

It got me thinking of all the things I love and admire about Nigella. So here are my top 8.

the fidgety foodie_Why I love Nigella Lawson

The hottest tickets in town

  1. She tells it like it is

For someone so seemingly posh, Nigella is pretty down-to-earth and practical.

Mid cooking demo at the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival a few years ago, she exclaimed a hair had fallen in the dish she was making.

‘Oh well’ she reasoned. ‘I must have eaten truckloads of my mother’s hair while I was growing up.’

How true is that? It’s just a hair people. Move it to the side and continue cooking.

the fidgety foodie_Why I love Nigella Lawson

Nigella preps for her performance

2. She’s practical

‘Beside my bed I keep a collection of condiments: Maldon salt, Tabasco, chilli sauce, soy sauce.’

This admission came out last night as Nigella was telling us about her two ‘modes’ – the ‘moving at the speed of light’ mode and the ‘comatose on the couch’ mode. The condiments come in handy for the latter when she can only bear to eat food amongst soft sheets. Nigella revealed that one of her luxuries is expensive linen. And how she proceeds to ruin it by dripping soy sauce everywhere. We’ve all been there right?

the fidgety foodie_Why I love Nigella Lawson

My eyes always go straight to Nigella’s engaging intro

3. She is a superb writer

No surprises here as she’s a trained and experienced journalist but this is really what sets her apart from the legions of other would-be-cooks in the world. She’s a writer who happened to fall into food and subsequently the recipes play second fiddle to her unique way of storytelling. Before you even get to the ingredients you know the provenance of the dish, the mood she was in when she created it and the occasion that inspired such a dish. Anyone can throw a few ingredients together but not many can transport you into the heart and soul of a dish before you’ve even stepped foot into the kitchen.

the fidgety foodie_Why I love Nigella Lawson

The offending ‘recipe’ of avocado toast

4. She’s risen above avocado-gate

Oh yes. The culinary scandal of 2015. In her new series, Simply Nigella, Nigella takes a few minutes to extol the virtues of avocado on toast on any day for any occasion. She clearly notes that ‘this is hardly a recipe’, and goes on to suggest ideas for jazzing up this old classic with new flavours. The next day an indignant media declared that Nigella was hoaxing the public by ‘calling avocado on toast a recipe’.

For god’s sake people, did you not read the title of the show?? Read More

New Year’s resolutions of a foodie

the fidgety foodie_new year resolution (7)

My homemade miguelito margaritas

While the rest of the world is planning to ditch alcohol and make the gym a daily ritual, I look at a new year as an opportunity to eat delicious things and explore the world – all the while searching for more delicious things to eat of course. So this is what I wish for my 2016:

#1 More cocktail drinking. I’m keen to actually make more cocktails as well as just drink them – after all it’s an art form. So this year I pledge to invest in the proper bartender’s kit as I only have a dodgy cocktail shaker at the moment, which has been known to fling drops of pisco sour around my kitchen.

the fidgety foodie_new year resolution (9)

I hope to discover more cuisines that revere beetroot!

#2 Last year was up there in the exciting foodie travel stakes – I discovered the cuisines of Transylvania, Iceland and Poland, amongst other places. Next year I want to up the ante – will it be okonomiyaki from Japan or feijoada from Brazil? Who knows – stay tuned!

the fidgety foodie_new year resolution (6)

I long to recreate yiayia’s magic in the kitchen

#3 Make my spanakopita taste like yiayia’s. Okay we all know this is an impossible task and never going to happen. But one can always dream, right?

the fidgety foodie_new year resolution (3)

There’s a liquorice takeover going on in my pantry

#4 Find a use for the plethora of liquorice items I have in my cupboard. If anyone has any suggestions then please let me know, otherwise my dad will be getting a liquorice-flavoured dessert on his birthday for the rest of his life.

the fidgety foodie_new year resolution (14)

I want to shop like this every week

#5 Go to more food markets. I already dip into a few around town but it’s not enough. A new one has just opened in my suburb. So expect to see me there every Saturday morning… at 11.59am…

the fidgety foodie_new year resolution (1)

I know I can do better than this next year

#6 Go truffle hunting again but this time two months earlier than I did this year – I want to go bang in the middle of the season so I collect a truly impressive haul. Read More

Sydney’s best foodie experience

the fidgety foodie_sydney seafood school (7)

Getting fishy with it at the Sydney Seafood School

Yes it’s a big claim but I’m calling it.

To me a great foodie experience needs to be engaging, immersive, authentic, and above all, tasty.

There’s one experience that ticks all the boxes in my book and that’s a class at the Sydney Seafood School. I’ve now racked up about five or six classes over the years, so consider myself somewhat of a veteran.

Anyone who has spent some time in Sydney will be familiar with the Sydney Fish Market but the Sydney Seafood School takes the experience one step further

the fidgety foodie_sydney seafood school

Our expert seafood instructor

A stroll through the fish market and past the silent auction halls will most certainly put you in a fishy mood as you enter the school and take a seat in the cosy theatrette. In front of you is a demonstration kitchen that puts Masterchef to shame, with cameras capturing the action from every angle on overhead screens. The walls around you are covered in ‘leather’ wallpaper, made from dried Icelandic salmon skins. The designers really took the brief to heart.

the fidgety foodie_sydney seafood school (14)

Raised screens capture all the action

Either a well versed home economist or high profile local chef will demonstrate 3-4 recipes which all use supremely fresh seafood, straight from the market floor. Classes cover everything from tapas and paella to how to barbeque seafood.

I most recently experienced the crab double act: Singapore Chilli Crab & Black Pepper Crab, over a three hour class. The heady mix of salty, sweet and hot flavours in these two dishes works beautifully with fresh green blue swimmer crabs.

the fidgety foodie_sydney seafood school

Fresh green blue swimmer crabs straight from the market floor

Everyone working at the markets is an expert on seafood so you always get the backstory on the ingredients being used. In this case we learn how to prepare various crabs (who knew crabs had a flap?) and the distinction between varieties and their provenance. Each dish is broken down into steps and we watch the process intently from start to finish.

the fidgety foodie_sydney seafood school (3)

Our studious kitchen team

Then it’s time to step next door and put the lesson into practice. We form groups of 4-6 and congregate around our own free standing kitchen. Each person is armed with a recipe booklet and allocated a task so the prep moves at lightning speed. I don’t often cook with crustaceans so I get a thrill from cleaning and segmenting them, knowing I won’t have to clean up the mess. It’s fiddly business. Read More

Marvellous Market #3: Great Market Hall, Budapest

Great Market Hall - Budapest

The Great Market Hall in Budapest

You know a city is serious about food when it builds a giant, purpose built market smack in the middle of the city (Sydney are you listening? Take note please).

Great Market Hall - Budapest

The market’s beautiful interior, looking down on the ground floor

That’s what the Hungarians did in the late 19th century when they built the Great Market Hall. Despite some knocks during the World Wars, a renovation has kept it looking sharp as one of the most beautiful buildings in the city.

Great Market Hall - Budapest

Rows of immaculately displayed local products adorn the food stalls

But it’s what’s inside that is really exciting. While the first floor features local handicrafts including traditional Magyar dress and collectables, the ground floor and basement are dedicated to food. Rows and rows of glistening fresh produce, endless stands of paprika and chilli and plenty of local delicacies are enjoyed by locals and tourists.

Great Market Hall - Budapest

Paprika and pepper in every possible form

The paprika stands are works of art – sachets, tubs and tubes of the stuff (spicy or sweet) are carefully arranged in colourful rows along with strings of dried peppers and garlic.

Great Market Hall - Budapest (5)

How can you not smile at the Smiley Shop?

Great Market Hall - Budapest (19)

Owls, ghosts, cats, mushrooms and other random pickle shapes

One thing Hungarians LOVE are pickles. Pickles and sauerkraut. They have their own dedicated area – ‘pickle alley’ in the basement floor. What I especially love is the creativity involved, with jars displaying cute messages and smiley faces made from the pickles, plus a massive array of sauerkraut-stuffed pickled vegetables.

Great Market Hall - Budapest

Sauerkraut is measured by the pitchfork

Read More

Why Greeks love weeds

Picking and cooking Greek horta with yiayia

Yiayia checks the horta thoroughly for dirt

Horta, or ‘weeds’, are a staple in every Greek household and foraging for these leaves is a national pastime. I’ve grown up eating mounds of these greens, lovingly tossed with olive oil and lemon, and nothing makes me happier than collecting them with my yiayia. And if I’m lucky, I get my own bag of weeds to take home.

‘Horta again?’ she wailed to her mum as the plate piled high with freshly steamed greens hit the table.

‘Yes’ came the firm reply. ‘They are so good for you’.

Okay so maybe that child was me. Admittedly I had little appreciation for greens back then but this quickly changed somewhere in my early teens and now I can’t get enough.

Picking and cooking Greek horta with yiayia

See why they’re called weeds?

Horta, from the Latin word hortus meaning ‘garden’, literally means ‘weeds’ in Greek and encompasses a range of indigenous greens including wild spinach, endive, fennel leaves, dandelions, amaranth and nettles. In the Greek countryside it’s a common sight to see yiayiathes bent over with baskets collecting wild greens. The Greeks were foraging long before René Redzepi made it cool.

Picking and cooking Greek horta with yiayia

Yiayia’s row of planted horta

Those weeds were plentiful in our house while I was growing up because yiayia would regularly drop around piles of the stuff. The idea of having fresh greens dropped off on a weekly basis seems like such a luxury now.

Picking and cooking Greek horta with yiayia

Rogue rathikia at their best

But I can still get my fill with regular visits to see yiayia. At this time of year it’s the rathikia (dandelion) that’s in full bloom, in a few months it will be vlita (amaranth).

Yiayia is so adept at growing horta that it shoots up energetically, not only from the vegetable bed but from random pockets all over her yard.

Picking and cooking Greek horta with yiayia

A good healthy bunch of rathikia

On my latest visit, yiayia took her knife and carved out a number of rathikia plants for me. I honestly couldn’t tell if we were collecting greens or weeding the backyard. Read More

The Sydney restaurant that lets diners choose the price

IMG_0524

Lentil as Anything in Sydney’s Newtown

It’s extremely hard to make money in the restaurant business. Often the most creative and technically brilliant chefs are not adept businesspeople. Being the hottest new chef with a swag of awards doesn’t help either. A full restaurant does not equal a profitable restaurant.

My point is that pricing in restaurants is crucial – it has to strike a balance between covering costs and not scaring customers away with a $25 starter of bread and olives.

IMG_0520

Lentil as Anything has a pared back, student vibe

If pricing can make or break a restaurant then what happens when a restaurant comes along with no prices? Enter Lentil as Anything, a pay-what-you-can-afford, not for profit vegan restaurant that leaves the maths up to the customer. The restaurant is built on the idea that “everyone deserves a place at the table” and wants to offer everyone a positive dining experience, regardless of their financial state.

It’s a concept that made waves when it opened in Melbourne originally and then Sydney’s Newtown and begs the question – what do people do when paying is off the hook?

What would I do?

IMG_0523

The succinct menu for the evening

On the Wednesday night I visit with friends Ving and Bel, the place is packed. And everyone appears to be south of 25 in student-style attire. We ­could be in a uni canteen.

There are four mains on the menu, plus chai tea and one dessert.

IMG_0511

The restaurant’s philosophy and their tasty chai tea

We start with a small glass of chai which has much more depth and flavour than the sort of chai you usually get in cafes these days. It appears not to be made from powder which is an automatic win in my book.

IMG_0514

Spicy roast cauliflower, pepita and spinach salad

The mains on offer for the evening are: Moroccan tagine with black eyed bean couscous; creamy cashew and mushroom spaghetti with garlic bread; spicy roast cauliflower, pepita and spinach salad and ratatouille with rice and garlic bread.

Once a dish sells out, that’s it, so getting in early is advisable. Read More

Foraging for black truffles

A prized black Perigord truffle

A prized black Perigord truffle

I’ve always been intrigued by truffles. And I’m saddened by their current identity crisis.

How is it that this rare, expensive, hyped-up fungi can appear everywhere? Making a cameo in your eggs during Sunday brunch, moonlighting in your local Italian joint’s pasta, flavouring salt grinders in the condiment aisle. How can this be?

Chemically produced, synthetic truffle oil, that’s how. ‘One of the most pungent, ridiculous ingredients ever known’ according to Gordon Ramsay.

A perfect black truffle

A small but perfectly formed truffle

So it’s been a while since truffle flavoured anything has stepped foot in my kitchen. But my interest in the real deal has not subsided and I’ve been keenly watching the growth of the Australian black Perigord truffle industry.

Around 30 of Australia’s 150 growers are based in the Canberra region; the cool climate is perfect for cultivating truffles, much like its celebrated wines.

It was a bit late in the season when I visited Tarago Truffles so I knew the days of finding bucket loads of truffles were over, but was assured by owners Denzil and Anne that there should still be a gem or two out in the field.

A prized black truffle

Denzil holds up his first prize of the day

Denzil and I bonded instantly over our mutual hate for truffle oil. The only time he’ll go near it is when he takes visitor’s dogs out for a bit of truffle training – he soaks cotton wool in ‘truffle’ oil and uses this to teach dogs how to follow the scent. To train his own dogs he uses real truffle that’s been frozen from the last season.

IMG_0441

A particularly moist truffle is pulled from the ground

Growing truffles is not straight forward, there is no truffle ‘seed’ you buy at Flower Power. Instead an acorn and truffle fungi are joined in a lab to form a symbiotic relationship, 18 months later you plant the truffle fungi in the wild and hope for the best.

Denzil started his truffle journey in 2002 and now has 4,300 oak trees across 9 hectares. During the Australian season (May-August) he takes groups through the land to have their own truffle hunting experience.

IMG_0428

Every foot that steps on truffle territory must first be dipped in chlorine

IMG_0460

And that goes for Utah too

First step is to bathe your feet in chlorine to keep germs out of the paddock and prevent cross-contamination. Even the dogs have to quickly dip their paws in.

IMG_0429

Denzil and Utah set off to find truffles

Then it’s time to break into groups and follow one of the leaders who each have a specially-trained dog – the key to finding truffle gold. We quickly learn that Denzil’s son Matt and his dog Dusty have the canniest noses, leading to the biggest spoils.

Matt walks Dusty through an avenue of oak trees until Dusty stops and starts to sniff a particular spot – chances are this means there are truffles in the ground. Read More

Avgolemono: the best soup you’ll ever taste

IMG_9560

A bowl of yiayia’s avgolemono

Avgolemono

Anyone not Greek right now is struggling. It’s okay you can admit it.

Maybe not as much as the time you encountered galaktoboureko, but similar territory.

It’s not only a long word with far too many vowels but there is a silent letter that just throws the entire thing out of whack.

Av – wo – le – mo – no

See it wasn’t that hard. My recommendation is that you become familiar with this magical soup because it’s an absolute winner and if I had to consume nothing else all winter long I’d be a very happy girl.

So what is it? If you break it down it’s quite simple

Avgo = egg

Lemono = lemon

Egg and lemon soup. When I get to this point of the explanation I usually get strange looks.

Egg in a soup? How does that work?

IMG_9565

Meat and vegetables from the stock are served alongside the soup

It’s quite an unusual concept but once you try it you’ll be sold. The base of the soup is chicken stock (or lamb or fish) and this has to be made from scratch with fresh meat or bones, carrots, celery (personally I prefer leeks) and bay leaves. The meat and vegetables later become a side to the soup. Then you add rice. So far so good.

 In a separate bowl you beat eggs and combine them with fresh lemon juice. Read More