WAYS TO COOK RABBIT – with chocolate sauce

 I cooked rabbit in a chocolate sauce and somehow, it seemed appropriate for Easter.  Easter has passed, but rabbit or hare cooked with chocolate can be enjoyed at anytime. 

Religious Easter celebrations in Sicily go back to pagan times – the continuation of ancient rites and traditions.

Easter in Sicily is also a celebration of spring, a time for revival and new beginnings, casting away winter with particular attention to spring produce. Therefore I was not surprised when one of my favourite cousins who lives in Ragusa in Sicily told me that during the Easter lunch they ate: …  le classiche impanate di agnello,  le scacce,  la frittata di carciofo e il risotto agli asparagi.

And, as he also told me: tutto molto buono – it was all good.  For those of you who do not understand menu Italian, these particular Sicilian relatives ate two traditional Easter specialties from Ragusa –  the lamb impanate and scacce, accompanied by an artichoke frittata and an asparagus risotto … the produce is a celebration of spring.

The impanate are focaccia like pies  stuffed with lamb – spring lamb of course. 

The scacce are pastries made with a variety of fillings. The pastry is folded like in a concertina over the filling and my favourite are those that contain sheep’s milk ricotta:  the milk is at its best in spring, after the rich winter pastures. 

But probably, my favourite would have been the frittata made with young artichokes. In Australia it is often difficult to purchase young artichokes unless you grow  them yourself. Sometimes young spring asparagus (also wild asparagus) is cooked  as a frittata, but on this occasion the asparagus went into a risotto.

 He did not mention the sweets, but there would have been cassatedde half-moon shaped pockets of pastry stuffed with ricotta and/or cassata or cannoli, all made with sheep’s milk ricotta. 

I know many of you may  disagree, but for me traditional hot cross buns do not appear to be as appetising as what my Sicilians relatives ate for Easter (see below for the full descriptions and recipes).

Rabbit with Chocolate sauce

Rabbit with chocolate sauce is a Sicilian recipe, probably introduced by the Spaniards who ruled Sicily from 1282 to 1516: the Aragonese and from 1516 – 1713: the Spanish Habsburgs.

Rabbit in chocolate sauce is not traditionally cooked at Easter but in Australia it seemed appropriate.

You  begin with a rabbit(s).

As you can see, the rabbits have been cut into sections – legs and backs. I kept the front legs for another time.

The rabbit pieces have been in a marinade that is mainly a mixture of  extra virgin olive oil, chopped celery leaves,  some fennel seeds, a few cloves,  fresh bay leaves (I like bay) and 1 small chopped onion. In the past on some occasions I have also added cinnamon bark.  I left the meat in the marinade for about 3 hours, however overnight is OK too and judging by the time the rabbits took to cook they could have done with a longer time in the marinade.

You will also need more carrots and onions and celery to add to the rabbit when you cook it.

During cooking, you will  also add good quality dark chocolate, pine nuts, currants, stock, wine, a little sugar and some vinegar.  The rabbit is cooked the same way as if cooked in a sour and sweet sauce but with chocolate to enrich the sauce.

The rabbit needs browning … drain the meat from the marinade and leave as much as the solids behind … don’t crowd the pan.

The rabbit browned quite quickly.

Remove the pieces of rabbit from the pan.

Have ready some chopped celery , carrots and onions.  

Next, make a soffritto –  the aromatic base composed of sautéed carrots, celery, and onion that forms the foundation to many Italian dishes. Sauté the vegetables in some more oil.

Remove the vegetables, add about a dessert spoon of sugar to the frypan and wait for it to melt.

Traditionally only vinegar is added to the sweet and sour rabbit dish, but I also like to add wine; for my quantity of rabbit, I added about a half a cup of white wine and about a tablespoon of white wine vinegar and I also added about a half a cup of red wine that somehow seemed more appropriate with the brown colouring of the dish.

Return all of the meat and vegetables to the pan.  Add currants and pine nuts, broth/stock to cover, salt and some chocolate. I added  half a block and the rest of the chocolate at the very end to enrich the sauce. Taste it, and  depending on how much you like the taste of chocolate, add more if you wish.

Cover and cook  it slowly till the rabbit is cooked. If it is a farmed rabbit  it will take as long as cooking chicken, mine was wild rabbit and it took about three hours of slow cooking.

i served it with sweet and sour pumpkin (fegato di sette cannolli) and pears quickly fried in a little oil and butter.

For a more complete recipe see:

RABBIT, CHICKEN, Easter recipes

Sicilian Pumpkin with vinegar, mint, sugar and cinnamon
RABBIT AND HARE:

HARE OR RABBIT COOKED IN CHOCOLATE. LEPRE O CONIGLIO AL CIOCCOLATO (‘NCICULATTATU IS THE SICILIAN TERM USED)

RABBIT with cloves, cinnamon and red wine (CONIGLIO DA LICODIA EUBEA)

ONE WAY TO COOK RABBIT LIKE A SICILIAN

CONIGLIO A PARTUISA (Braised rabbit as cooked in Ragusa)

PAPPARDELLE (PASTA WITH HARE OR GAME RAGÙ)

LEPRE ALLA PIEMONTESE (HARE – SLOW BRAISE PIEDMONTESE STYLE

EASTER SPECIALTIES IN RAGUSA

SCACCE and PIZZA and SICILIAN EASTER

‘MPANATA (A lamb pie, Easter treat)

I  have relatives  in Sicily but  my parents and I lived in Trieste in Northern Italy. Just for interest, here are  the traditional  Easter sweets of Trieste:
Traditional Easter Sweets in Trieste in Friuli Venezia Giulia

CAMPING, Pumpkin risotto

I go camping as often as I can and pumpkin is one of the vegetables (it is actually a fruit) that like potatoes and onions is easy to get, even in the most remote places.. It lasts, does not have to be stored in the fridge (at room temperature and away from moisture is ideal) and is versatile.

I have been camping in Tasmania and those of you who have visited the remote parts of Tasmania know how difficult fresh vegetables are to find, but not pumpkin, and not just one variety. It is March after all, the official pumpkin season. and you may have a choice of Queensland Blue (also called Kent), Japanese pumpkin and Butternut.

When camping most of my cooking is done on a portable gas stove but, as now in Tasmania, I have been travelling in a camper van and on the odd occasion when I stay in a caravan park and have a powered site, pumpkin can also be microwaved on high until tender. Pieces of pumpkin can then be added to salads, soups, to other vegetables, meat or fish dishes; the pulp can be used in anything to add its unique flavour and to thicken and pureed pumpkin makes fabulous dips or a side dish, especially when mixed with mashed potato.

On this occasion, in my camper van’s simple gas stove I made a simple risotto…. and i mean simple! 

When travelling, my biggest problem is not having internet coverage and in the remote areas ofTasmania internet connection has been extremely difficult. I will let the photos tell the story.

You can peel pumpkin if you wish, and most people do, but I often include the skin, especially at this time of year when the skin is relatively soft and unblemished.

I softened some onion in some butter and extra virgin olive oil … either cooking medium will do.

Added cubed pumpkin, sautéed the pumpkin briefly, added water and a good quality stock cube or two depending on the amounts you are cooking (still widely used in Italian cooking). When at home I use stock.

Add some rice and more water to cover the pumpkin and any herb that you have. Smaller supermarkets or produce stores do not often have fresh herbs,  but when travelling  I always help myself to rosemary and wild fennel  when I see it.  Herbs  keep well and for a long time wrapped in a slightly damp cloth . On this occasion, in Richmond Tasmania I found  fresh bay in a park.

It is autumn and I also found a quince tree laden with quinces, unfortunately I still respect fences and did not help myself. I was very tempted.

Let the pumpkin bubble away, there is not much heat control in a camper van’s stove….and only one burner worked.

Risotto  does not ned to be stirred all the time, although many recipes will tell you that this is the only method for making risotto. Put a lid on the pan, turn the heat down and let it cook. Check periodically that there is enough liquid and that it is not sticking to the pan.

If the rice is cooking too fast and there is too much liquid, finish off the cooking without a lid.

Remember risotto needs to be all’onda... like waves, wet!

Place a lump of butter or a drizzle of good olive oil and top and serve it. Let the natural taste of the pumpkin do the talking, but if you  would like to add a little Parmasen cheese  or if you have a little grated nutmeg, both will enhance to sweet taste of the pumpkin even further. 

In case you have not been to Tasmania, it is beautiful!

There are several recipes for risotto on my blog. Here are 3, use search button to find more recipes.

MUSSELS, three ways: in brodetto, with spaghetti and in a risotto with saffron

RISI E BISI (Risotto with peas)

Melbourne  August: Winter Artichokes in risotto and stuffed

SMOKED FISH ROLLED AROUND A LABNA(labnah) FILLING

It looks impressive and it is not too much trouble to make.


For the  Filling
:

Drained yogurt (labna or labnah), tarragon or dill, pink peppercorns, grated lemon peel, lemon juice, capers. In the centre are pickled baby cucumbers. Sometimes I have used cream cheese as the filling but I like the lightness of yogurt and the tart taste suits the salmon.

I also add  trimmings of the salmon and a dollop of mayonnaise or extra virgin olive oil.

On the outer and spread on a cling film wrap:

Silverbeet leaves, wilted in a little water and  some egg mayonnaise spread over the top. On top of silverbeet, a layer of smoked salmon or salmon trout . Mine is from Denmark… a long way from home but not bred in cages like Tasmanian salmon.

Begin the rolling process. The cling wrap makes this possible.

Wrap the roll tightly and leave it in the fridge at least 4 hours or overnight.

Unwrap and cut into slices.

A more elaborate roll on a different occasion topped with more egg mayonnaise and tarragon. Pink pepper also a adds flavour and looks great.

A slice of rye or spelt bread never goes unappreciated.

CASSATA Explained with photos

I have written about  making cassata many times and rewriting the recipe is not necessary so I will provide links at the bottom of this post.

I did take a few photos. The photos and a few notes tell the story.

Make or buy a sponge cake.

Slice the sponge and line the mould with the sponge cake. It helps to line the mould with some foil  to ensure that the cassata can be inverted easily. You may also like to use a little apricot jam to stick the different parts of the sponge together. I did not have any apricot jam and I used marmalade… not too much, it should not taste bitter. Honey could be OK too.

Tub ricotta is not very good, both in taste and texture. Buy full cream ricotta from a good deli.

Beat the ricotta with some cream, castor sugar and good vanilla essence. The amount of cream you use will depend on the creaminess of your ricotta. I do not like my cassata sweet and may not add as much castor sugar as someone else would. Taste the mixture and see if it tastes to your liking, then add chopped  pistachio nuts,  citrus peel including some cedro.

Next some cinnamon  powder and some chopped dark chocolate. Fold through.

Dampen the sponge cake with some liqueur, some use marsala, I like an orange based  liqueur and mostly use Cointreau, but do not make it soggy.  Most cooks dilute the liqueur with sugar and water. I do not – give me the full  taste anytime.

Fill the ricotta cream into the mould lined with sponge cake.

Put a slice of the sponge cake on top as a lid. Dampen it with liqueur, cover it with foil and put a weight on top. Keep it in the fridge till ready to decorate. I like to make the cassata  the day before I decorate it and eat it.

Marzipan. Make it the day before and keep it wrapped in foil or baking paper or whatever you use :

As you can see I use  much more almond meal than icing sugar. Mix it with a little water and a little vanilla and knead it to bring it together. Like when baking dough, add more almond meal or icing sugar to make it the correct consistency.

Most cassate are coated with ‘glassa’ made of sugar and water. I find this sickly sweet and prefer the old fashion marzipan. Traditionally the more commonly decorated cassate include a pale green colour. This may have been because the green may have been made with pistachio meal and the white with almond meal. Some people do not like eating marzipan so  do not be surprised if you find some guests struggling to eat it.

I made two lots. of marzipan. The green vegetable dye was far too intense., but i was not going to throw the ingredients away. next time i shall use a dropper.

Roll the marzipan out… rolling it between two pieces of greaseproof paper may help.

Ready to decorate.

I really enjoyed this part, however the way I decorated my cassata may not be like the cassate you are likely to see in Sicily.  Most people buy cassate from pastry shops, they leave it to the experts. This is also the case for cannoli.

My cassata  over all is definitely less sweet. I used every bit of the marzipan. I used toothpicks to keep the flowers in place.

Sicilian cassata coated with  a shiny ‘glassa’ is the most common cassata. Usually glace fruit is used to decorate the top.

Ornate cassate: in noteworthy pasticcerie.

 

I decorate cassate as the mood takes me. Thesa are some cassate I have made in the past:

For greater details and recipes see:

SICILIAN CASSATA and some background (perfect for an Australian Christmas)

SICILIAN CASSATA and MARZIPAN AT EASTER (Food and Culture in Sicily, La Trobe University)

CASSATA (It is perfect for an Australian Christmas)

CASSATA ( Post no. 2) Calls for a celebration!!!

 

Harissa made with fresh Chillies

My love of harissa began in Sicily many years ago. 

Harissa is a hot chilli condiment and the favoured national spice of Tunisia, but it is also popular in Algeria and Libya.

I  first tasted harissa about 30 years  ago in the home of one of my cousins in Augusta, Sicily. He was then a naval, mechanical engineer who had discovered harissa (stored in beautifully decorated little golden tins) through his many travels and work close to North Africa in the Mediterranean Sea . He gave me a tin to bring back to Australia and I have been making versions of harissa ever since .

Years later, in 2013 I visited Tunis where harissa was served with everything we ordered in restaurants and I first wrote a post about harissa on my blog  in the same year. 

Sometimes on the north-western and western coast  of Sicily you may find restaurants that make fish or meat couscous and accompany it with harissa or a chilli condiment. In Calabria chilli paste is also popular but this has no spices, just heat and salt.

Each batch of harissa I make is slightly different because I never weigh or measure ingredients, but unless I have an abundance of fresh chilies I use dry chillies or chilli flakes. 

I do have many fresh chillies at the moment.

There have been times that I have charred the fresh chilies, but this is far too fiddly. I like short cuts so I sauté them in a little extra virgin olive oil.

I love caraway seeds and this is always a key spice in any harissa condiment I make.

Quite a good deal of salt and extra virgin olive oil are a must for making harissa and not just for flavour but also as preservatives. I use oil to sauté the ingredients and then to drizzle into the food processor as the rest of the ingredients are mixing together. I also use the oil to cover the top of the paste in the jar to prevent mould forming.

Only sometimes do I add cumin and coriander seeds, but in small amounts to suit my mood and the particular food I wish to accompany the harissa with. Cumin and coriander are common in middle eastern cooking so there is no need to duplicate flavours if I have used those spices in the cooking.

This time I also added garlic, that I sautéed with the chillies, but I do not add garlic every time. Once again, if I use garlic in the cooked dish, why duplicate the flavour?

I added some smoked paprika to impart the smoky taste  and some sweet paprika, a little tomato paste and a fresh chargrilled red pepper. These ingredients add flavour, soften the taste, add bulk and make the paste smoother.

The juice and grated peel from 1 lemon adds flavour and sharpens the taste.

The procedure is simple. I remove the stem part of each chilli, but I do not de seed them, however this depends on the degree of their hotness  and how fiery you like the paste to be.

I had approx. 200g of chillies, 4 garlic cloves, 1 tbsp  of caraway seeds, 1/2 tbsp of cumin seeds, 1 tbsp tomato paste, 1tbsp salt, 1 cup of extra virgin olive oil, 1/2 tbsp of each of the sweet and the smoked paprika, lemon peel and 1 red chargrilled pepper, peeled. 

* Please alter amounts of all ingredients to suit your taste.

Sauté the chillies with the garlic cloves. Once they are soft add the seeds and the paprika. Continue stirring over heat to toast the spices. Add the charred pepper (de-seeded and torn into strips), tomato paste and about 1/4 cup of water and cook briefly for a couple of minutes. Add lemon juice  when you have finished the cooking.

Blend everything adding more oil and the salt until you have a fairly smooth paste.

Bottle into sterilised jars and top with more oil. Store it in the fridge and  after you have used some of the paste, always top the paste  with more oil.

See:

HARISSA (A hot chilli condiment) 

CREMA DI PEPERONCINI ; Hot Pepper Paste in Autumn

 

RICETTE per capretto (e capra) – Recipes for slow cooked kid and goat

Quite a bit of cooking went on over the Christmas and the New Year period and there was no time to write about it. Most of the time I do not  even manage to take photos, however for this dish, I did.

This is a slow cooked goat with mushrooms. The Sicilian bit in this dish is that the goat pieces were marinated in Marsala Fine (semi dry) and cooked with Marsala too. Most recipes eventuating from the rest of Italy would use wine – red and perhaps white.

I used the goat ragout to dress egg  pappardelle.

I hope the photos tell the story.

I bought a leg and a shoulder of capretto… the italian word for kid and the etto at the end of the word makes it diminutive…however, judging by the size of it, it was a capra…a goat.

There were seven of us for lunch and I also bought a kilo of mushrooms.

Below is the photo of the marinade:

Marsala Fine,  extra virgin olive oil, herbs – bay,  cloves, rosemary –

these herbs are used in sicilian cooking but I also used nepitella and sage  –  herbs that are more common in the north and central Italy.

I cut most of the meat off the bone but kept the bones in with the meat to marinade overnight.

Drain the meat and bones and sauté  the meat in some extra virgin olive oil in small batches.

Place the sautéed meat aside and finish sautéeing all the meat and the bones.

Prepare the sofritto – white onion, carrot and celery, chopped pretty small.

Use the same pan.

Sauté the onion first in some extra virgin oil,  then add the carrots and celery and sauté some more.

Add the meat and bones.

Add the marinade, the herbs (and some new ones too).

Add salt and pepper and some good meat stock and more Marsala.

Cover  and cook on slow heat. Check level of moisture regularly and if needed add more stock. I cooked mine for just below four hours. Remove the bones….they should be clean.

Add sliced mushrooms, cover and cook for 20 – 30 minutes more.

Dress the cooked pasta with the ragout.

Present  the pappardelle with grated pecorino and fresh mint leaves.

See:

RAGU` DI CAPRETTO Goat/ kid ragout as a dressing for pasta

SPEZZATINO DI CAPRETTO (Italian Goat/ Kid stew)

SLOW COOKED LEG OF GOAT WITH HOT MINT SAUCE

KID/GOAT WITH ALMONDS (SPRING IN SICILY, CAPRETTO CON LE MANDORLE)

SICILIAN SEAFOOD COOKING, ITALIANICIOUS and READER’S FEAST Bookstore. Recipe for Slow cooked goat in Nero D’Avola

Marmellata di cigliege (Cherry jam) and Zuppa Inglese

When your partner comes home from the market with an abundance of cherries, pick out the best looking ones to place on the table (the glossy ones that have fresh green stems) and make jam with the rest of them.

And the jam turned out very well, so good in fact that I used some of the cherries as a topping for a Zuppa Inglese, an iconic Italian dessert. I will also use the jam as a topping for ice cream or to make ice cream.

The cherries: remove the stems and wash them. cut out any blemishes.

Weigh the cherries.

Place the cherries in a heavy based saucepan.

Use a potato masher to crush about 2/3 of the cherries to release their juices. Add the zest and juice of 1 lemon to the potand place over low heat ( I had about 500g of cherries, add more lemon  and zest if you have greater amounts). Cook them on low to medium heat until the cherries are tender

If you look at recipes for making cherry jams, most  advice is to use equal amount of sugar to the weight of the fruit.  Commercial jams may use even a greater ratio of sugar to the fruit. I like to use less sugar – which is usually half the quantity of fruit. If I have 500g of fruit I add 250g of sugar.

Add the sugar and cook on moderate heat, stirring, for  about 20 minutes (or longer) until sugar dissolves and you have a jam like consistency…. test the setting point by placing a little jam  on a saucer that has been in the freezer .

Remove the jam from the heat and set aside for 10 -15 minutes.

Choose glass jars with an airtight lids  and sterilize them. There are different ways to do this but I usually do this by pouring boiling water in them and submerging lids in boiling water. Washing them in a dishwasher is also effective but you will need to coordinate the time of cooking the jam and the wash cycle.

Ladle hot jam into jars; I always use jars when they are still hot.

And here is the Zuppa Inglese with the cherries on top.

Zuppa Inglese is one of the easiest and most decadent desserts to make BUT without Alchermes liqueur it cannot be Zuppa Inglese.

Alchermes is a Florentine ancient liqueur, red in colour and specifically used for making certain desserts.

In the photo above you see savoiardi (sponge fingers), egg custard and Alchermes.

The Zuppa Inglese is layered, just like a trifle – biscuits soaked in Alchermes, custard, biscuits… 3 layers.

Top with  a layer of whipped cream (with a little caster sugar and vanilla = Chantilly cream)… and the cherries.

See more detailed recipes for:

ZUPPA INGLESE, a famous, Italian dessert

LONG LIVE ZUPPA INGLESE and its sisters

ALCHERMES/ALKERMES (The liqueur used to make Zuppa Inglese)

PASTA con cavolofiore, salsicce di maiale e ceci (pasta with cauliflower, pork sausages and chickpeas)

Over the last 10 days there has been little time to write or to take photos of all the food consumed over this period.

Not all the food has been elaborate, but here is one simple dish that I prepared for friends.

Pasta with pork fennel sausages, chickpeas, cauliflower,  fennel seeds, fresh bay leaves, saffron and marinated feta.

Short pasta is preferable and I used penne. Pecorino, being a stronger tasting cheese is better with these ingredients than Parmesan, but although feta is not an Italian cheese I often use it as a topping for pasta .

This pasta dish is simple to make.

Begin with sausages (out of casings) and onion sautéed in a little extra virgin olive oil.

Soak a big pinch of  saffron in a little water and set aside.

To the sautéed sausages add cauliflower, separated into smaller pieces,  fennel seeds and fresh bay leaves and toss around in the hot oil.  Add the saffron (that  has been soaking in a little water).

Add chickpeas and a little chickpea stock, cover and cook on moderate to gentle heat.

Combine it with cooked pasta and top with the feta. The feta will soften and will make  the pasta more creamy.

Marinated feta comes in handy for nibbles as well as using it as a creamy substitute for grated cheese.  Like marinated olives, capers and preserved lemons, this is something that is nearly always in my fridge.

Ingredients: feta, dry oregano, fennel seeds, whole black peppercorns, bay leaves  and extra virgin olive oil. The cheese must be  totally submerged. Store it in the fridge.

Parco Nazionale Degli Iblei – a documentary – and recipes from this part of Sicily

Corrado, one of my relatives in Ragusa (in the south eastern corner of Sicily) has sent me a link to watch Storie e luoghi di un Parco (Stories and places of a Park) on Vimeo. It’s a documentary by Vincenzo Cascone.

I sat for over an hour mesmerized, and although not all of you will understand the Italian dialogue, the visuals are sufficient to get the gist of what is being presented.

The soundtrack is also evocative.

Storie e luoghi di un Parco is striking and very comprehensive documentary mainly about the preservation and restoration of biodiversity in a nature reserve to be established in south eastern Sicily.

The park is referred to as the Parco Nazionale Degli Iblei. The Hyblaean Mountains (Italian: Monti Iblei) is a mountain range in south-eastern Sicily, Italy. It straddles the provinces of Ragusa, Syracuse and Catania.

I need to tell you that it is over an hour long, but you can fast forward  bits,  perhaps  the speaking parts , especially if you do not understand Italian.

Establishing and maintaining wildlife reserves and giving nature the space and protection it needs is an obvious solution to preserving biodiversity and healthy ecosystems. For each nature reserve, there are legislated rules, regulations and penalties established to restrict the types and amount of human activities or mismanagement by the community so as protect the habitats, fauna, flora and the geology of the natural area.

This documentary is made even more compelling by the representation of a group of diverse professions supporting and involved in the implementation of this project. The interviews with this group of specialists provide insights and observations on the archaeological, natural, scientific, cultural, historical and aesthetic features of this region of Sicily.  These individuals are continuing to conduct studies and research that aim to restore a healthy biodiversity and promote better understanding of our natural heritage.

The team of professional scientists that are exploring this ecosystem explain how biodiversity can only have occurred over millions of years of evolution and by the different cultural groups who settled in this part of Sicily.

Biodiversity and ecosystems that are undamaged, healthy and finely balanced, contribute to a healthy, sustainable planet.

We all have a responsibility to revitalize our planet and it is up to all of us to prevent widespread ecological damage.

Now for the disappointing bit.

After having given the project a glowing report I decided to do some research. Unfortunately, this worthy project is at a standstill. After all of the support from many noteworthy people and local residents in this area of Sicily, Sicilian bureaucracy has stalled the project.

I do hope there will be sufficient support to make it happen.

Storie e luoghi di un Parco (Stories and places of a Park).

Un documentario di Vincenzo Cascone.

https://vimeo.com/163017225

Some recipes from this part of Sicily:

SCACCE (focaccia-like stuffed bread)

KOHLRABI with pasta (Causunnedda )

CONIGLIO A PARTUISA (Braised rabbit as cooked in Ragusa)

RAVIOLI DI RICOTTA e MULINO DI CEREALI A PIETRA (Ricotta ravioli and stone ground flour in Chiaramonte)

MURRAY COD, AN ICONIC AUSTRALIAN FISH – information and fish recipes

I have just spent the weekend in Albury (Victoria). I will mention Wodonga (NSW) in the same breath as I see them as being one city. The Murray River separates the two locations.

Inevitably some of the conversation was about fishing and it was good to hear that once again there seem to be some pretty big Murray Cods in the Hume Weir.

Murray cod (Maccullochella peelii peelii) are found in freshwater rivers and creeks in eastern South Australia and west of the Great Dividing Range in NSW, Victoria and southern Queensland.

It is close to Christmas and many are planning to cook fish, especially for Christmas Eve. Those living in Australia may be able to purchase this beautiful tasting fish – Murray Cod but it will probably need to be preordered.

I wrote this piece for a fishing magazine called Fishing Lines in 2012. The magazine died years ago, but as we sat around discussing fishing in Albury I remembered that I had a copy of the writing. Here it is.

My fascination with Murray cod began when I first moved to Moorook in the early 1970’s, a small community near Barmera  and Berri in South Australia. For three years I taught at Glossop High School and in that time I got to know some of the people in the towns sprinkled along a string of lakes and lagoons of the Murray River floodplain, commonly called The Riverland.

I have always been interested in sourcing food locally and although I had heard stories about incredibly large fish caught in various parts of the river, I wondered why a fish so large and once so abundant was not around any more.

Sometimes, local recreational fishers sold redfin (introduced species) and catfish to the Moorook General Store and many of them had stories to tell about their fathers and grandfathers who had caught Murray cod and were amazed by its size, exquisite taste and beauty. The most spectacular catches were often celebrated by photos of fisherfolk posing with their catch in homes, hotels and the local press.

The Aboriginal people along the length of the river also revered and respected the Murray cod. There are several local names for this spirit fish in their mythology and creation stories.

The cod was perfectly adapted to the cycles of the Murray, while the river ran free in times of flood and drought. But the stories of miraculous catches of this remarkable fish dried up as the river became increasingly regulated with weirs and locks to serve irrigated agriculture in the Murray Darling Basin.

The Riverland locals may have lamented the decline in cod stocks, but they saw it as a regrettable price of progress. Irrigation was the way to go. It enabled the growing of a range of crops and brought prosperity to the area. It provided jobs in a range of industries and population growth to their local area and throughout the Riverland.

The flows in the Murray were increasingly regulated to allow more consistent water extraction for the irrigation schemes. There were even projects to remove snags from the river, which were a critical part of the cod’s habitat, especially important in the fish’s breeding cycle. Murray cod are carnivores and snags also support a healthy food chain of algae, bacteria and fungi necessary to sustain an abundant supply of shrimps, yabbies, mussels, tortoises, reptiles, other fish, small mammals and frogs – all of which were food for cod. There are stories of Murray cod eating water hens as well.

This print of the Murray Cod by Melbourne artist Clare Whitney beautifully expresses all that this magnificent fish represents for us in Australia. I bought it soon after I moved to Melbourne.

The image of the Murray cod in the centre of a map of Australia gives the fish its due. It is a national icon, a very ancient fish and a symbol of the Murray Darling River system. In the past the fish was a marvel and a valued food source in natural abundance.

Clare Whitney has placed the cod in a map from the Commonwealth bureau of Meteorology, which shows the average annual evaporation in inches, based on observations for seventy stations with records ranging from 5-82 years. There is no doubt that there are climatic factors contributing to the Murray cod’s decline.

The cod is an indicator of a healthy river. The vulnerability of the Murray cod reflects the environmental and ecological crisis across the Murray-Darling river system. Contributing significantly to the cod’s decline is the degradation of our waterways: the reduced quantity and quality of the water, pollution, the introduction of alien species of fish, overfishing and illegal fishing. Hard-hoofed animals, especially cattle, destroy riverbanks and the vegetation, demolishing the structure of the river. Our methods of agriculture and food production have played a major part in the destruction of the riverine ecosystem and threatened the survival of the Murray cod. State and Commonwealth Governments, and pastoral and agricultural interests are still struggling to establish an agreement that will allow viable environmental flows in the Murray-Darling basin. Faced with this, there is some small consolation in seeing that a number of sustainable cod aquaculture projects are being established and developed in different locations across Australia. But it would be far more preferable for us to change the way we manage our river catchments and water allocations to ensure the long term survival of the Murray cod in the wild, especially those projects which enable healthy breeding of this iconic fish.

Murray Cod is pretty hard to get and the best thing you can do is call  your favourite fresh fish supplier and see if they can  sell you one.

Failing that, there is information about Murray Cod on the Sydney Fish Market website and that suggests Leatherjackets, Pearl Perch and West Australian Dhufish as alternatives – these fish will have the same texture and sweetness. Leatherjackets however, are a small fish.

Recipes suitable for  Murray Cod and large fish :

PESCE IN PADELLA (Pan fried fish, MURRAY COD)

FISH POACHED IN A FISH KETTLE in bouillon

PESCE GRATINATO (Baked fish topped with almonds and pistachios)

PESCE CON FINOCCHIO E ROSMARINO (Fish with fennel and rosemary)

Special emphasis on Sicilian recipes within Italian regional cuisine in an Australian context