Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Margaret Fulton, encyclopédiste

Margaret Fulton’s recipe for porridge ends with this:

Serve piping hot in cold soup plates and dip each spoonful into individual bowls of cold milk or cream before eating.”

The mise-en-scene here—the choice and arrangement of dishes (soup plates, individual bowls), the choreography of each mouthful (the spoonful passing from plate, to bowl, to mouth) and the careful management of the contrast of hot and cold (hot porridge, cold plate, hot spoonful, cold milk or cream)—shows a kind of theatre and attention to detail worthy of the modern molecular fine dining experience. It is about respecting all the elements of a dish and its consumption, and it starts with its conception. Her granddaughter Kate Gibbs tells the story of her grandmother’s irritation when she made porridge for her and left out the salt. “Kate, there are three ingredients in porridge. Use all of them.”

Margaret Fulton was Scottish by birth and no doubt had a special connection to porridge, but this combination of simplicity, sophistication and rigour is the hallmark of her contribution to Australian food culture. They come into their own in her Encyclopaedia of Food and Cookery, turning their full force on the challenges of compiling an encyclopaedia: what to include and what to leave out? How to organise? How to answer again and again the impossible philosophical question: What is x?

Again and again, she takes it in her stride, adapting her approach each time and choosing the technical, cultural, historical, personal, circumstantial and/or physical attributes that best convey the item’s ‘thisness’ in as succinct a way as possible.

Take her encyclopaedia entry on ‘Pie’. The basics: “Although there are exceptions, a pie usually consists of a filling topped with a crust; it may or may not have a bottom crust as well.” The variations: “Fillings range from hearty meats to delicate fruits and the crust can be made various kinds of pastry, crumbs, scone dough, meringue or even mashed potato.” Then the sublime summation: “What they all have in common is that a pie is invariably acclaimed as a treat and a sign of a caring cook.” What is a pie? A treat and a sign of a caring cook. This description was recently quoted by a chef in his introduction to a pie recipe in the Sydney Morning Herald, because it stays in the mind and is hard to beat.

‘Bread’ is initially more resistant to definition, demanding an appeal to language and convention: “The products we call breads today are an agreed group of preparations rather than a rigidly defined category.” And yet. This is an encyclopaedia, and the show must go on. She moves through the variety of things called bread in different parts of the world, then comes back to resolve that initial hesitation with a definition that effortlessly spans the physical and metaphysical: “However, it can be said that the main ingredient of all bread is flour of some kind and that ‘bread’ always means a wholesome and sustaining food.”

After a sentence or two on the history of ‘Chocolate’, and a mild protest that it is more than a “delicacy” but a “good solid food and nourishment”, she conveys her understanding of “chocolate” by evoking a series of situations: “Chocolate is part of army rations in times of stress. Mountaineers carry it with them as a matter of course. French children eat it on bread instead of butter and jam, and the comfort derived from a bar of chocolate when one is feeling tired is not to be underestimated.” “The comfort derived from a bar of chocolate when one is feeling tired is not to be underestimated” is not only true but strikes a heartfelt note that immediately makes us picture a tired Margaret Fulton (how often must Margaret Fulton have been tired), relieved to be home, sitting down and unwrapping a bar of chocolate.

It (she) goes on. Eggs are characterised by what they do (thicken, leaven, emulsify, enrich, bind, protect and glaze), fish by its beneficiaries: “the gourmet’s joy, the hurried cook’s friend, a boon to weight-watchers and the cholesterol-conscious”, and Gormeh Sabzee, “a Persian stew made with lamb, a very large bunch of parsley (3 cups chopped) and kidney beans”, is honoured with the holy trinity of the home cook: “economical, nutritious, and delicious.”

Margaret Fulton’s talent for connecting with a dish—old or new, near or far, high or low—and communicating its value gave her a depth and breadth that accounts for why she looms so large over the Australian cultural landscape. According to the jacket of Margaret Fulton’s Encyclopaedia of Food and Cookery, she considered the book “her greatest achievement.” What comes through in reading it is not so much an encyclopaedic “knowledge”, but an encyclopaedic mission. She was always in touch with the leading edge of food culture, but she took everyone and everything with her. 

Thursday, January 1, 2015

You had to be there

A few years ago I picked up Party Cookbook (Sydney: Paul Hamlyn, 1971) in a south coast op shop:

You can’t buy every kitschy 70s cookbook you find in op shops, but I bought this one because it was Australian, each chapter was written by a different contemporary “party expert” and because of this:

Summer Buffet Dinner Party

This is basically my ego ideal. I believe the hostess pictured is the author of the chapter, Gretta Anna Teplitzky, who ran a cooking school in the 1960s out of a purpose-designed wing of her Harry Seidler house (next door to Rose Seidler House).

One of the chapters is on the “After Theatre Party”, by Oscar Mendelsohn. The recipes include the usual suspects - Welsh Rarebit, Angels on Horseback, fiddly things with anchovies. There’s also a faint Rosemary’s Baby edge, with a recipe not only for “Devilled Poultry Wings” but also “Satanic Sardines”. Nothing prepares you however for Osborne Oysters:

Place a slice of banana on an oyster, sprinkle with cheese and lemon juice and pop under griller.

The wonder of this combination. It’s like something from the Futurist Cookbook or a surrealist joke (“An oyster, some swiss cheese and a banana walk into a bar...”). Every time me and Mr Batsy look at it, we say, “That’s so crazy we have to do it”. But every time we actually have oysters in the house, we say, “That’s so crazy we can’t possibly do it”. Oysters are an expensive delicacy and not to be treated lightly or with Osbornesque abandon.

Osborne oysters are not a “thing”, they are definitely the devising of Oscar Mendelsohn. No biographical details are given about any of the authors in the book, but having done a little research, Oscar Mendelsohn can only be polymath, bon vivant and public analyst Oscar Adolf Mendelsohn (1896–1978). I can only recommend you read the Australian Dictionary of Biography entry because I certainly can't do him justice. He is quite the mouthful. He trained as a chemist in London, specialising in “the chemistry of espionage” (that info from here), but developed an interest in food science and worked as a consultant and industry representative in this area. He was also at different points a forensic chemist, a graphologist and a grazier. Outside of working hours he was a composer, choirmaster, unsuccessful National party candidate and a serious drinker with a lot to say on the subject. His publications in this area include The Earnest Drinker (George Allen & Unwin, 1950), Drinking with Pepys (St Martin’s Press, 1963), The Dictionary of Drinkers and Drinking (MacMillan, 1956), From Cellar and Kitchen (Melbourne, 1968) and one listing over a 1000 synonyms for “drunk”. Closer to food home is A Salute to Onions: Some Reflections on Cookery... and Cooks (Hawthorne Books, 1966). He was a state president of the Fellowship of Australian Writers. He wrote a book arguing that “Waltzing Matilda” was in fact written by a Townsville church organist. It goes on and on, you get the idea. 

According to the ADB, Oscar Mendelsohn had “a national reputation for promoting civilized attitudes to eating and drinking”, which explains his inclusion in Party Cookbook, but he was also “a man who flourished on controversy and enjoyed being a lone voice”, which gives us more insight into Osborne Oysters.

I know what you're thinking: who was Osborne? Well, when Oscar Mendelsohn was studying at the University of Melbourne, “he was impressed by Professor W. A. Osborne, ‘the first true food scientist I met’”. I won’t even start on W. A. Osborne (1873–1967) (“In 1912 Osborne gave up smoking so he could afford an antique Roman marble bust of Marcus Aurelius.”), but you’d have to assume he put the “Osborne” into “Osborne Oysters”, whether as their inventor or inspiration.
I know what you’re thinking: did I make the damn things? I did:

No "bubble" in cheese as our griller doesn't work, we just hot ovened it.

Going on the recipe and the biographies, you'd think Osborne Oysters was just the nonsense of a couple of drunk food scientists, or possibly a triumph of proto-molecular gastronomy. Less glamorously, I think it’s just a little cheesy window into Australia in the 1970s, the cocktail correlate of a tuna casserole with a tin of pineapple in it. I had expected the ingredients to sit randomly alongside each other in the mouth: oyster + banana + cheese + why? But they did in fact coalesce into some sort of “whole”: a “tropical” core of banana wrapped in the nutty dairy comfort of Swiss cheese with the oyster only appearing as a sort of faint halo of “grown-upness” in the overall flavour profile.* It does nothing for the oyster and I would never again do it to an oyster, but I felt I “understood” it as an expression of a time when tropical was sophisticated and when in doubt, cover with cheese. If I closed my eyes I could see the floral prints, the soup bowls with the handles, the orange formica. I enjoyed the trip, in a patronising sort of way, and I think Oscar Mendelsohn would be a fun host.

* Mr Batsy just thought it was “awful”.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Rhapsody in brown

This is ECB Butternut Squash and Falafel Coronation, everyone's favourite vegetarian jubilee meal. I made it for a vegetarian-stacked family picnic and explained its back story on the day, which guaranteed it being eaten because everyone had to try it after that. It actually received quite positive reviews, though it did draw the revealing comment that it was "not like anything I've ever tasted before".

It was certainly a big step up from the riddle wrapped inside an enigma coated in breadcrumbs that was Peri Peri Breaded Tofu. It's strengths and weaknesses are well summed up by one of the other reviews: "like curried egg but with falafel".

About making it:

1. It's a bit cheeky to list roasted butternut squash as an ingredient outside of a "using leftovers" recipe, though that kind of thing is very much the norm these days. I roasted half a butternut pumpkin, which gave me just over double the recipe amount, and added the lot because it seemed right and I wanted it to go around.

2. The ingredients list chopped onion and garlic, which are then never mentioned again, so I decided to give them the most charitable interpretation and include them in the falafel mix after a quick soften in a frying pan with the spices.

3. The falafels themselves were good, and as with the breaded tofu, the dish's best moment was just before its final assembly, when everyone was still pure and innocent:

(Above shows the 150 g pumpkin quantity specified in the recipe: not enough to balance the falafel IMO)

Then the recipe says to break the falafels in half, which means they are no longer cute and they crumble even more when combined with the pumpkin and mayonnaise.

4. The falafel spice + Keens curry combo is more successful than the Peri-Peri + masala combo, but there's no getting away from the fact that this is another bit of slightly forced match-making between flavours not found together in nature - or in any living culture. That's why it gets the "unlike anything tasted before" response. It pains me to reproach these dishes on these sorts of grounds because arguments from nature or tradition are my least favourite thing in the whole world, but I'll still say it's the "fusion" element that makes it a worse dish than the same thing with, say, paneer or boiled eggs instead of the falafel.

The breaded tofu heralded a first test that was a big ole mess for the English and seriously corroded the morale of their team. If these dishes are predictors (allegories?) of Test results - and why not? why not a vego version of goat entrails? - then we have a better omen here for our guests, but not better than a draw I'd say.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Piri-Piri Dreaded Tofu

It's a long way (and long time) from rhubarb and custard Victoria sponge to commemorate the Royal Wedding to the English Cricket Board's official Piri Piri Breaded Tofu with Tomato Salsa.

It's the dish that launched a thousand snickers. Merv Hughes claimed it would make him dry retch for three days, which is surely an exaggeration, but it has certainly made my eyebrows knit for a good 48 hours or more since I had a go at it on the weekend. I'm fond of tofu, and also fond of items that have been "breaded" (crumbed) and fried, but they don't necessarily go together and the rest of it is shenanigan central.

A lot of it can be laid at the door of the "Piri-Piri" theme. Piri-piri is a kind of chilli and also a Portuguese sauce or marinade based on the chilli that also has things like garlic, onion, lemon juice and bay leaves in it. In the ECB recipe, it's a dry spice mix with a number of surprise ingredients like ground ginger, cardamom and cinnamon. I couldn't work out where these things were coming from until I found this blog recipe for a Piri-Piri Spice Mix inspired by a McDonalds french fries flavouring sold in India. The recipe ingredients, proportions and even the order they are listed in are identical to the ECB recipe, except that the ECB uses fresh garlic and oregano instead of dried, and dark brown sugar instead of caster. This can't be a coincidence. I'm guessing the cardamom and so on is the result of fusing Portuguese chicken seasoning with the local influence of garam masala - see this other blog describing the Maccas (India) Piri Piri spice mix as smelling "like Maggi’s masala".

Okay. Well, not okay really. As Chandler might say, could this derivation be more tortuous? And we haven't even thrown the tofu into the mix yet, conceptually or literally. Or rolled it in the panko. Or topped it with the salsa. There's a lot that seems jarring on the page (cardamom and... oregano, oregano and... tofu), which is what had me scurrying to the internet in the first place, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating, right? I'm not a food purist (that's a lie, I am a food purist), and at the stage shown in the photo below, when I'd made the spice mix (it tasted... ok) and was about to crumb the tofu, it seemed like the whole thing might be just so crazy it could work. I wanted it to work, because despite my desire to sledge the Poms, it was my dinner.

Reader, it didn't. It was not inedible, but it was weird and weird in way that I still find difficult to describe. Weird for all the a priori reasons you'd expect from reading the recipe, with an extra helping of a posteriori weird on top, a sort of lingering je ne sais WTF. The spices were strange to my palate and deeply unflattering to the tofu. Tofu gets a bad enough rap as it is, it doesn't need friends like these. The salsa also clashed. I served the whole thing with - what else? - some red quinoa I found in the cupboard, which was right on ECB theme but no help either. I felt unsatisfied afterwards, but I also had no appetite for anything else, as if my faith in food as a whole had been shaken. A disturbing dish. Don't do it. Not that you were going to.

PS. Note to ECB re your "the quantities must be followed, along with the ingredients listings... If availability is an issue please do not use an alternative or omit from the recipe": My tofu "cutlets" ended up being "fingers" that weighed 166.6666 g per serve (500 g pack of tofu divided by 3) and not 150 g. I also used sunflower oil instead of coconut oil and baby tomatoes instead of beef tomatoes. Is that okay? Or is that the kind of near-enough-is-good enough attitude that destroyed the Empire?

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Royal Wedding Cake

A friend of mine suggested that the image of the royal family is being made over from a traditional aristocratic one (reserved, mad, kill things) towards that of the wealthy middle class. Perhaps nothing supports that idea more eloquently than the specially-created Middleton family crest, which contains white mountain-like chevrons, "to symbolise the family's love of skiing."

My own love of an occasion is symbolised on my family crest by a stylised firework, a giant asterisk that also symbolises my love of a qualifier. And that I'm not out.

So, I went to a friend's house to watch the wedding and offered to bring dessert. If only it were that simple. The act of offering to bring dessert nudges a little mental snowball off a hill in my head that gathers size, momentum and an assortment of debris. The question of the Right Dessert.

"Victoria sponge", I think, and I don't know I would have thought of that if there hadn't been a poll on the site asking whether fruitcake, chocolate mudcake or Victoria sponge would be best for the big day. Chocolate mudcake was the front runner, which sort of horrified me, though it does turn out that alongside the traditional multi-tiered fruitcake, Prince William requested a "chocolate biscuit cake". I thought that might be something like a chocolate ripple cake, which would have been awesome, so 70s, like if he'd asked for French Onion Dip at the canapés do. Instead it's this.

Anyway, I decided a Victoria sponge would be the go, and then had to find out what a Victoria sponge is. Not much of a sponge as it turns out. Same proportions as a pound cake (ie equal weights flour, sugar, eggs and butter) and doesn't involve beaten egg whites. Traditionally filled with jam and cream.

I had everything in the house except jam, so I was going to have to make a trip to the shops, and if I was going to go to the shops anyway maybe it wouldn't have to be for jam? That makes no sense, but it's the way I thought. Indeed, I thought, since this is not Victoria getting married but the dawn of a new etc. etc., surely it should be something less traditional than jam and cream. Something like... (several mental steps edited out here) ... rhubarb-and-strawberry compote and custard.*

Which is what happened, and it went down well, though if I did it again I would keep the rhubarb and the custard apart. I didn't actually mean to mix them as much as I did, I got distracted. The rhubarb flavour overwhelmed the custard so there weren't two flavours in the middle, just a one-note "rhubarb creme". It also produced a very flat, retro shade of pink, but I guess you could say this is consistent with the slightly artificial allure of other "commemorative" dishes (have you seen the colour of Coronation Chicken?) and, I see now, the background of this blog.

It still looks like a good time, I think. And the tartness of the rhubarb made it acceptable as a breakfast dish as well.

* A fair few of my mental trains of thought end in rhubarb-and-strawberry-compote and custard. And what do you know, a "rhubarb crème brulée tartlet" was served at the Lunchtime Reception.

In other news...

On the Easter weekend I decided to make "healthy hot cross buns", a recipe that contained wholegrain flour, walnuts, dates... very worthy. I thought they might also be nice but they turned out so worthy you could stone people with them.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Australia Day Breakfast K.O.

Sometimes I plate something up, as they say, and knock myself out. Just look at this. Delicious colourful Opera House goodness. Yellow-crested cockatoo on toast without harming animals. Red sails in the sunset, without the apocalyse! Is that toast shaped like Uluru?

Like my mother before me (and many others? most people? I lead an insular life) I am very fond of stone fruit on toast for breakfast: these are apricots. Buttered toast, wedges of fruit and an optional squeeze of lemon and sprinkling of sugar on top.

The toast under the egg is also, of course, spread with Vegemite, which is pretty much the only way I eat boiled eggs (apart from SCG Egg Sandwiches, of course).

And I choose to interpret the slight burning of the toast as a reference to the traditional charring of the Australian barbecued sausage.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

SCG Egg Sandwiches

Completed Egg Sandwich, in kitchen (you make them before you get to the ground).

The saving grace of any day at the cricket, however dismal in other respects, is egg sandwiches. Egg sandwiches can raise doubts in the mind of some, especially as a packed lunch - "who opened their lunchbox?", I hear you say.

It's a reasonable objection. The keys to countering it are: plenty of mayonnaise and, I cannot stress this enough, lots of parsley. There are a few other pointers.

1. Fluffy white bread. This is not the time for your sourdough, your ciabatta, your multi-grain, or any other "good" bread. Go for the softest and fluffiest loaf from the supermarket (the most "whitebread" white bread, as it were), but not one where the slices are too small or thin, you need it to stand up to plenty of filling. Important note: do not allow the fluffy loaf to be squashed by the big bottles of lemonade and water you also bought for the cricket in your bag on the way home. A squashed fluffy loaf can never be re-fluffed and then where will you be?

2. This is however the time to go for a good mayonnaise. I like BestFoods, but any of those posh "whole-egg" ones would no doubt work.

3. Parsley: I think the old-style curly-leaf parsley is best suited to this dish and it is easier to chop up fine than flat-leaf parsley, which we also want. Personally I think curly-leaf parsley gets a bit of a bad rap.

4. The rest: hard-boiled eggs (look it up), butter (spreadable), salt and pepper and a little curry powder (Keens - naturally).

Making the filling

Chop up the parsley reasonably fine, like I said, so it's something that will really go all through the mixture and not be something you have to chew too much and get stuck in your teeth. Amount: I used about a third of a large bunch of parsley for 4 sandwiches. I don't know how big your bunches of parsley are, just grab a hunk and go. The main thing to keep in mind is that parsley is not just a garnish here, but an important flavouring and counter-egginess agent. Parsley, the "fresh-maker".

Mash the hard-boiled eggs (1 per sandwich) well with a fork with some salt and pepper and a bit of butter (1/2-1 teaspoon per egg). It helps to chop the eggs up a bit with a knife first.

Add the parsley and lots of mayonnaise to the mashed eggs. "Lots" probably means a dollop almost the size of an egg for each egg.

Add a little curry powder. Not a lot, these are not Curried Egg Sandwiches (unless you want them to be), but about a pinch per egg just gives a nice savoury undertone.

Taste and add more salt, pepper, curry powder, parsley etc if necessary.

I usually make this mixture ahead of time and keep it overnight in the fridge.

Making the sandwiches

Spread the slices of bread with a quite thin, even layer of butter, going right to the edge of the slice. This is not just an excuse to have more butter, it will help prevent the bread from going either soggy or dry (magic!). Even if you are using spreadable butter, it helps to take it out of the fridge a little ahead of time to soften it some more so you can do this easily without tearing the bread.

Spread half the slices with a thick, even layer of egg filling, again going right to the edge of the slice.

Place the other slices on top. Cut sandwiches in two.

Packaging the sandwiches

I usually stack each cut sandwich on top of each other in stacks of 2 or 3, alternating the direction of the slice in each sandwich (if that makes sense) for more structural integrity, then wrap them in one or two layers of plastic wrap. The important thing once again is that they not squash, so find a way once again to protect them from those bottles of lemonade. If you have a plastic container that will fit them, perfect. But they will still taste OK even if they are squashed.

To drink with the sandwiches

The SCG now only sells swill in beer-form. We take "special lemonade" which is a lemonade bottle filled with gin and tonic. It will not occur to the security guards checking your bags that someone carrying such beautifully-prepared egg sandwiches could also be - in SCG parlance - a "lout".