I am in Alsace and I have bought some Pain d’épices.
Apart from the Natural or original Pain d’épices , the Rum and Raisins, Figs and Orange and Cointreau varieties appealed to me.
My first choice was the one with Orange and Cointreau but it was too sweet. As you can see there were a few different flavoured Pain d’épices to choose from.
I finally settled for the one with figues – figs. Superbe!
Pain d’épices or pain d’épice is French for “spice bread” and it has been around for a very long time. According to Le Dictionnaire de l’Académie française (1694) it is made with rye flour, honey and spices – cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, black pepper and aniseed. The perfume of the spices and the honey was pleasantly overwhelming.
It is sold by the slice and although this looks thin it is a fairly thick slice (otherwise the Pain d’épices would crumble).
We ate it with a runny French cheese. Say no more!
Pain d’épices is a specialty of Alsace and and I bought mine in Strasbourg. I saw other specialty vendors in Gertwiller, Roppenheim, Kaysersberg, Riquewihr and Colmar (were I am writing this post).
Wasn’t at all bad accompanied by some of the excellent white wines from Alsace.
There are many recipes I found on the web for Pain d’épices – honey seems to provide the moisture but I am pretty sure that the one I bought also has butter. The range of spices vary and some add coffee. I shall search for a recipe and make some Pain d’épices when I get back home – it does not appear to be difficult.
Around ANZAC DAY in Victoria I go foraging . This is my latest harvest of saffron coloured, pine mushrooms (Lactarius deliciosus), also called saffron milk caps and red pine mushrooms.
There are 3k of mushrooms in this bag above.
We have eaten some twice already.
Above = with taglatelle.
Below = as a vegetable side dish with Italian pork sausages.
And these jars are in my freezer.
These mushrooms bruise very easily so I cook them as soon as possible after I have collected them.
Unfortunately the mushrooms’ gills when bruised discolour to a very unattractive green-grey tinge. I ignore most of the bruising and cut off the worst bits of the discoloured mushrooms that show too much wear and tear or obvious decay.
Most of the time the saffron coloured, pine mushrooms I collect cannot just be wiped clean with a damp cloth and I often have to clean them under softly running water to remove any sand, soil , grass or pine needles. I always completely remove the woody hollow stems because I have often found some bugs harbouring inside the stems. Having said all of this I make them sound as if they are not worth the effort but they are!
How do I cook them? …..very simply. I have written about wild mushrooms before.
Eating fresh fish is a serious business in Sicily – it is eaten cooked in many ways but also raw (called pesce crudo).
Traditionally, Sicilians did not serve raw fish without marinating it first in lemon juice and then dressed with olive oil and referred to as condito (in Italian) or cunzato (in Sicilian). For example fresh anchovies are gutted, cleaned and have their heads removed. They are then left in lemon juice for at least a few hours. Sometimes, the anchovies are referred to in Sicilian as anchiva cotti d’a lumia, that is, anchovies cooked by the lemon juice, and that is exactly what has happened – the acid in lemon in the marinade has done the cooking. The anchovies are then drained and dressed with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil
In Sicily, tuna and swordfish used to be the other most common types of fish eaten raw (especially as a starter) but eating other types of pesce crudo (raw fish) is becoming much more fashionable as Sicilian chefs respond to the inspirations and influences of the wider world and appreciate tastes and trends from other cultures.
Recently, I was commissioned to write an article about Sicily’s pesce crudo by Great British Chefs, a food multimedia company that publishes recipes and other cooking-related material via its website. Great British Chefs, has expanded into Italy . . . Great Italian Chefs and the article published on their website is called PESCE CRUDO.
I have always enjoyed fish markets in Sicily and this is a small segment from the article PESCE CRUDO
Fish markets and marinas
Walking through the fish markets in Sicily is always a joy; the hustle and bustle of locals seeking out the best produce among the colourful stalls and traders is what makes the island such a charming place. There is more than one fish market in Catania, but the principal market in the southwest of the Cathedral Square is one of the largest in Sicily. However, wherever you are on the island will never be too far from fresh fish.
Sicily’s fish markets have vast, colourful, varied displays of exotic specimens such as sea urchins and edible algae to the more conventional octopus, squid, tuna and swordfish. Small, live fish swim circles in buckets of sea water, snails crawl about and all types of shellfish, especially the gamberi rossi (red prawns of Sicily), look dazzling. You know the fish is fresh – their shells and scales glisten in the sun.
Swordfish and tuna, the traditional staples of Sicilian cuisine, are the centrepieces of the market stalls. They are often displayed whole, the swordfish bill like a spear thrusting upwards. At other times, their massive round carcasses lie like a trunk on the fishmonger’sbench, while the tuna is sliced vertically and horizontally before being filleted along the length of its spine, while all its parts are laid out, testifying to its freshness.
It is autumn in Australia and there are plenty of pumpkins around. I like cooking pumpkin this way because it has unusual flavours and it can be made well in advance. I have presented it both as an antipasto and as an accompaniment to main dishes.
I cook this dish quite often and I am surprised that I have not written about it on my blog.
The following text is a condensed version from my first book Sicilian Seafood Cooking. The photograph is also from the book. This all took place in my kitchen – I cooked it , Fiona Riggs styled it and Graeme Gillies photographed it.
This Sicilian specialty is sometimes called zucca in agro dolce (pumpkin in sweet and sour sauce) but I prefer the more colloquial Sicilian name, ficato ri setti canola – literally, ‘liver of the seven spouts (or reeds)’.
It is a colourful and aromatic dish. There is the strong colour of the pumpkin, tinged brown at the edges, and contrasted with bright green mint. The sweetness of the pumpkin is enhanced by the flavours and fragrance of garlic, cinnamon and vinegar. It is better cooked ahead of time – the flavours intensify when left at least overnight, but it can be stored in the fridge for several days.
The dish is said to have originated among the poor, in what is known as one of the quartieri svantaggiati (‘disadvantaged suburbs’) of Palermo.
Sicilians are colourful characters and like stories. It is said that the pumpkin dish was first cooked and named by the herb vendors of the Piazza Garraffello a small square in Palermo. These were the days before refrigeration and balconies and windowsills were often used to cool and store food, especially overnight. As the story goes, the herb sellers could often smell the aroma of veal liver coming from the balconies of the rich. At home, they cooked pumpkin the same way as the well-to-do cooked liver (fegato) and, wanting to create a bella figura, they hoped the fragrance of their cooking would mislead the neighbours into thinking that they too were well-to-do and could afford to eat liver.
The typical way of cooking liver is to slice it thinly, pan-fry it and then caramelise the juices in the pan with sugar and vinegar to make agro dolce (sweet and sour sauce).
As for the seven spouts (sette cannoli), they are the short cane-shapedspouts of an elegant 16th-century fountain in the piazza. Below – cathedral in Palermo.
In Australia I generally use the butternut or Jap pumpkin,The pumpkin is sliced 1cm (.in) thick and traditionally fried in very hot oil (if thicker, they take too long to cook).
Although baking the pumpkin slices is not traditional, I prefer this method .It certainly saves time in the preparation (see variation below). Serve it at room temperature as an antipasto or as a contorno (vegetable side dish).
1kg (2lb 4oz) pumpkin
10 cloves garlic
extra virgin olive oil (1. cup
if frying 1/3 cup if baking)
3 teaspoons sugar
1 cup white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
small mint leaves
salt and freshly ground pepper
Peel and remove the seeds of the pumpkin and cut into 1cm (in) slices.
Peel and slice 4 cloves of garlic.
Heat the olive oil in a large heavy-based frying pan. Add the garlic cloves.
Remove when it has coloured and fry the pumpkin slices, turning them only
once in case they break, until they become soft and begin to colour around
the edges. Add salt to taste. Remove the pumpkin and discard some of the oil,
but keep any juices.
Use the same frying pan for the agro dolce sauce: add the sugar, stir it around
the pan to caramelise it, and then add the vinegar and cinnamon.
Stirring constantly, allow the sauce to thicken slightly as the vinegar evaporates.
Add the remaining garlic cloves and few sprigs of mint to the warm sauce.
Add the pumpkin to the sauce, and sprinkle with pepper. Allow the sauce
to penetrate the pumpkin on very low heat for a few minutes. Alternatively,
pour the sauce over the pumpkin and turn the slices a couple of times. Cool
and store in the fridge once cool. Eat at room temperature.
When ready to serve, arrange the slices in a serving dish, remove the old
mint (it would have discoloured). Scatter slices of fresh garlic and fresh mint
leaves on top and in between the slices.
Cut the pumpkin into thicker slices, about 2–3cm (1in).
Sprinkle with salt and place on an oiled baking tray.
Bake the pumpkin and garlic in a 200C (400F) oven (discard the garlic when the pumpkin
Make the agro dolce sauce (see the above) in the baking tray
instead of a frying pan.
I also add fresh bay leaves – like the look and the taste of it.
Italy is a Catholic country and on Good Friday most Italians eat fish. Pasta con le Sarde is made with bucatini (thick long tubes of pasta) and the main ingredients are sardines (buy fillets for ease), wild fennel (or fennel bulbs) pine nuts, saffron and topped by fried breadcrumbs.
as you can see I have made this dish at other times.
Muslim Arabs took control of North Africa from the Byzantines and Berbers and began their second conquest of Sicily in 827 from Mazara, the closest point to the African coast and by 902 they well and truly conquered Sicily. The Muslims, were known as Moors by the Christians and by the time of the Crusades, Muslims were also referred to as Saracens.
The Muslim Arabs, via North Africa ruled Sicily till 1061 A.D.
This recipe can only be Sicilian and is particularly common in Palermo.
The origins of pasta chi sardi (Sicilian) are said to be Arabic. When a band Arab troops first landed in Sicily via North Africa, the Arab cook was instructed to prepare food for the troops. The cook instructed the troops to forage for food. He made do with what they presented – plentiful was the wild fennel and the fish (sardines). To these he added exotic ingredients and flavours of Arabs and North Africans – the saffron, dried fruit and the nuts and so Pasta con le Sarde was born.
At this time of year, just before Easter, many readers look at my blog searching for Easter food ideas. The baked version is fancy enough to present on Easter Sunday – if you are that way inclined.
Pasta con le Sarde can be eaten hot or cold and it can be baked…..made into a tummàla (Sicilian word from the Arabic) – Italian timballo and French timbale – a dish of finely minced meat or fish cooked with other ingredients and encased in rice, pasta or pastry. The dry breadcrumbs are used to line and cover the contents in the baking pan, the long bucatini can be coiled around the pan and the sardine sauce becomes the filling.
The recipe for Pasta con le Sarde is from my book Sicilian Seafood Cooking. This is a slightly modified version of the recipe.
I found very little wild fennel this time of year so I used fennel bulbs – there were a few available at the Queen Victoria Market. Because I only found a very small quantity of wild fennel I added some ground fennel seeds and a splash of Pernod to enhance the fennel taste.
If you can get wild fennel, place it into some cold, salted water (enough to cook the pasta) and boil it for 10-15 minutes (it can be left in the water for longer). The green tinged, fennel-flavoured water is used to cook the pasta — it will flavour and colour the pasta. Reserve some of the tender shoots of wild fennel raw to use in the cooking of the sauce.
Drain the cooked fennel and keep the fennel-flavoured water to cook the pasta. Some of the cooked fennel can be added to the pasta sauce.
The recipe using bulb Fennel
fennel a large bulb of fennel with the green fronds cut finely, a teaspoon of ground fennel seeds or a dash of Pernod
extra virgin olive oil, about ½ cup
onions, 1, finely sliced
anchovies, 4, cut finely
pine nuts, ¾ cup
almonds, ¾ cup, toasted
currants, ¾ cup, or seedless raisins or sultanas soaked in a little water beforehand
saffron, ½ – 1 small teaspoon soaked in a little water beforehand
salt and freshly ground black pepper or chili flakes to taste
coarse breadcrumbs, 100 grams made with day old, quality bread (sourdough/pasta dura) lightly fried in some oil. I added pine nuts (pine- nuts-overkill), grated lemon peel, a little cinnamon and sugar to my breadcrumbs.
Slice the fennel into thin slices and cut fronds finely.
Cut about two thirds of the sardine fillets into thick pieces. Reserve whole fillets to go on top and provide visual impact.
Heat oil in shallow wide pan.
Sauté the onions over medium heat until golden. Add the fennel and cook till slightly softened.
Add pine nuts, currants (drained) and almonds. Toss gently until heated.
Add the sliced sardines, salt and pepper or chili. Cook for about 5-7 minutes, stirring gently. Add ground fennel seeds or a splash of Pernod to enhance the fennel taste – I did this because I only found a very small quantity of wild fennel.
Add the anchovies (try to remove any bones if there are any) and as they cook, crush them with back of spoon to dissolve into a paste.
Add saffron (and the soaking water) and continue to stir and cook gently.
Boil bucatini in the fennel water (if you have it) until al dente.
Fry the whole fillets of sardines in a separate frying pan, keeping them intact. Remove them from the pan and put aside.
Drain the pasta.
Mix the pasta with the sauce, sprinkle with some of the breadcrumbs and top with the sardine fillets.
The photos are of left over pasta that I made into a timballo. It was only for my household, nothing fancy and was a way of using leftovers.
Oil a baking tray or an ovenproof dish (traditionally a round shape is used) and sprinkle with the toasted breadcrumbs to prevent sticking.
Place a layer of the dressed pasta on the breadcrumbs – I coiled the bucatini around the baking pan, then added the sauce (solids- sardines, nuts etc) and placed more coiled bucatini on top.
if you want a deeper crust you will need greater quantities of breadcrumbs.
Cover with more breadcrumbs, sprinkle with extra virgin olive oil, cover with foil and bake in preheated 200°C for approximately 15 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 10 minutes. When the dish is baked, the breadcrumbs form a crust.
I do like Cumquats and Quinces – both are Autumn fruit.
The photos were taken at my friends’ house in the south – east of South Australia. Each time that we are together we get productive in her kitchen.
My friend likes to make preserves – cumquat and whisky marmalade, pickled cumquats and cumquats preserved in brandy. She also makes quince jelly and quince paste. On this particular weekend we used some of her abundant autumn harvest.
She has the round shaped cumquats. The elongated variety of cumquats are much sweeter and are very good eaten fresh and whole . I like to eat both varieties raw and whole.
Here are photos of some of the methods used to make the cumquats in brandy or Cointreau or a mixture of both. Rum or Whisky is also good.
You could add some extra flavourings if you wish: cinnamon sticks, cloves, allspice, star anise or glace or crystallized ginger.
The jars and lids will need to be sterilised. You may have your own way to this, for example:
Use the hot cycle in your dishwasher
cover them with hot water and boil them, for about 10 minutes
fill them with boiling water, place them on a baking tray lined with a tea towel and put them into a 110 C oven for about 15 minutes.
Although my friend had several kilos of cumquats, the recipe is based on using 1 kilo of cumquats.
You can use as much alcohol of your choice as you wish, for example a ratio of 3 cups of alcohol to 2 cups of water – adjust according to taste. You will not necessarily know how much liquid you will need to cover the cumquats in the jars but you can always make more if you run out of the alcohol and water mixture.
Sugar – use 800g per kilo of fruit.
Use only whole fruit that are bright orange in color and have firm, undamaged skins. Make sure that they have stems.
Wash and dry them and remove the leaves. Leave the little green stems, then prick each one a couple of times with a thick needle.
Cover with water and bring them slowly to the boil. Simmer them uncovered for about 10 minutes – the must not collapse.
Drain them carefully and gently – they must remain whole. Reserve the water to use in the alcohol mixture. Combine water with sugar, bring to the boil and boil for about 5 minutes. Take off the stove, add alcohol and mix well.
Place the fruit gently into the prepared jar. Add some spices or ginger among the cumquats if you wish. Top with the syrup. Do not crowd them too much as they may break. Cover with lids. Allow to stand for at least two weeks before using.
4 quinces, cinnamon quills, 3 lemons, sliced,
About 200g sugar,
2 cups of water
I wiped the fuzz off the quinces and preheated my oven to 140C (fan-forced). I cut the quinces into quarters and sliced lemons and placed them in between the pieces of quinces.
Added sugar and water.
Covered them with foil and baked for at least 3 hours until quinces are soft and a rich red – I removed the foil about 15 minutes before they finished cooking.
Jelly ( from the juices) in the left over quinces.
Chillies are at their best in Autumn. I generally never waste produce and when friends give me some of their fresh seasonal crops I get enthusiastic and active.
These chillies were grown in Adelaide and this time I decided to make a chili paste that was not Harissa.
I have been making Harissa for a very long time since one of my Sicilian relatives who lives in Augusta introduced me to it about thirty five years ago. Augusta is in south eastern Sicily and is an important Sicilian and Italian naval base and trading port. Giacomo is a mechanical naval engineer and was often called out to work on naval vessels in the gulf, some vessels were from Tunisia, Algeria and Libya and he was introduced to this hot chilli paste through his contacts. There are many recipes for this paste and it is an important condiment in Middle Eastern Cuisine. Some make it with dry chillies, some with fresh chillies and some with roasted chillies. I usually use cumin and caraway seeds and garlic when I make it. I use Harissa in many ways and always to accompany cuscus.
I also like to make Salsa Romesco , a condiment popular around Barcelona in north-eastern Spain. Like when making harissa there are many variations to recipes but this condiment is commonly made with red peppers, garlic, tomatoes, white bread and almonds. Sometimes I have roasted the peppers and added some roasted chillies as well.
Crema di Peperoncino is a chilli paste that is very popular in Calabria. It is usually made with fresh chillies , salt, garlic and olive oil. I thought that would combine my experiences for making Harissa and Romesco and make a roasted chili paste. No spices, just chillies, salt, garlic and extra virgin olive oil – Crema di peperoncini.
Isn’t that what cooking is all about?
I kept is very simple.
I could have made a milder paste by adding some ordinary red peppers which are also very much in season but I decided to just keep the Crema di pepperoncini hot, hot. hot….And it was. I used the other red peppers in a salad.
The photos demonstrate what I did.
Use any type of red chillies that you have.
INGREDIENTS: red chillies, garlic to taste, 3-4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, teaspoon of salt (preservative), more extra virgin olive oil to place on top.
Grill/ Roast the chillies on high heat. Turn once until blackened and charred all over. Do the same with unpeeled garlic cloves.
Allow to cool.
Remove the skins and seeds – you can leave some seeds if you would like it hotter!
Blend all the ingredients together.
Place in a sterilized jar and top with a layer of more oil to seal. I keep my jar in the fridge and make sure that each time I take some out of the jar I replace a layer of oil on top (to stop mold).
I do like New Zealand and every time I visit I praise and enjoy its extraordinary food culture. Not to mention the amazing scenery.
There is so much fresh and flavoursome produce in shops, farmers markets and roadside stalls – ‘gate to the plate’, so as to speak.
Kumera (Sweet Potato ) baked in local Waiheke honey and thyme.
Restaurants and eateries where the owners or chefs grow or source their produce locally are not scarce.
Fish too is local and staff in shops or in restaurants seem ready and eager to answer questions about their suppliers.
…that is if the produce is not already labelled or written about in the menu i.e. line caught tuna supplied by a trusted small fishery.
Menus highlight the production of New Zealand’s local and wide-ranging supply of produce and fine wines.
We have friends on Waiheke Island so Auckland and Waiheke are always a must on each visit.
On this occasion we were able to view the amazing sculptures on Waiheke Island (Headland Sculpture on the Gulf). Above, artist=Paora Toi-Te Rangiuaia.
Below , artist=Robert Jahnke Kaokao
Who needs the Venice Biennale…they have their own!
Below , artist= Virginia King
On this trip we hired a campervan and travelled to the Bay of Islands. Ever since my first trip to NZ I have been impressed by the apparent and increasing awareness and appreciation of organics and of locally-produced produce.
Of course great and diverse produce is more apparent in places like Waiheke but as we travelled around we found satisfactory local produce in the 4Squre stores and in supermarkets….local sweetcorn or avocados were 5 for $5.00.
Below New Zealand Spinach (also known as Warrigal Greens) growing on Waiheke in our friend’s garden.
We even bought local fresh produce from the local garage, opportunity shop or news agent in country locations.
On beaches around Opononi I found some samphire and some wild fennel near Rawene.
We bought some local fish, picked some blackberries and I used all those ingredients that night for a meal.
I picked some blackberries and we ate them with some fresh cream.
Pity the prickly pears weren’t ripe! We could have pretended to be in Sicily!
It is amazing how in limiting circumstances, how little one needs to make food flavourful and healthy.
I cooked the above fish (very simply…what else can you do in a campervan!
Fish sautéed in red wine
I pan fried in a light amount of extra virgin olive oil, fish turned once – it will only need about one minute on each side, add salt, pepper, a few herbs. Remove fish and then add about 3 tablespoons of red wine and evaporate. Return the fish to the pan, add a few more herbs if necessary. If I had some butter I may have whisked a little into the sauce.
Below, simple lunch at the New Zealand Gallery… a bed of spinach leaves, cured meat, soya beans, raw beetroot, radishes, and a Japanese soy/sesame sauce. Light, fresh and simple.
You really cannot beat a plate of grilled vegetables, especially when eggplants and peppers are so prolific at this time of year.
Zucchini, although not in this selection are also a good choice. Grilled vegetables are perfect as an antipasto but they can just as easily be part of a main course.
The vegetables can be grilled on a BBQ or Grill press or in the oven.
To the array, throw in some of the cooked green beans, asparagus or broccolini (that perhaps are left over from the night before), add a drizzle of good extra virgin olive oil, some chopped garlic, a little parsley and a squeeze of lemon juice.
You could also add to the cooked vegetables different textures with a bit of crunch – some of that celery, fennel, cucumbers and apples that are probably in your fridge. Or it could be tomatoes, celery, spring onions and fresh basil leaves, once again a drizzle of that good olive oil that will add fragrance as well as taste.
So easy, so simple.
Just recently, in two different restaurants I ordered versions of grilled vegetables and they both were presented with Romesco sauce dolloped separately on the side of the vegetables. In one of the restaurant it was grilled asparagus, topped with fried breadcrumbs. In the other it was eggplant. This had been grilled and rather than presenting it in slices it was pulped to a medium texture. Bread is a perfect accompaniment for scooping up the eggplant and the Romesco sauce. A drizzle of good quality extra virgin olive oil is a must.
In this version of this sauce almonds are added to the the vegetables (garlic, peppers and tomatoes). These are roasted/chargrilled on a BBQ or Grill press:
Roast/chargrill the peppers whole, peel, remove seeds and break them into strips. If using fresh tomatoes cut them into pieces. If you are roasting / chargrilling the peppers do them at the same time.
*Click on above link to see a list of ingredients and how to make it.
A different Recipe for Romesco sauce made with hazelnuts
This recipe uses hazelnuts instead of almonds. Also the vegetables are roasted. in the oven rather than grilled.
Use the same ingredients as the recipe above, substitute the hazelnuts for the almonds, but roast the vegetables:
Place the tomatoes, peppers and a whole head of garlic in a roasting tray with a little oil and roast in a 190C oven. Take the vegetables out as they become soft, i.e. the tomatoes will take about 10 minutes, the peppers and the garlic could take about 30-40 minutes..
I have just returned from being away over Christmas and New Year and am pleased to find that purslane plants have sprouted in my various pots on my balcony. Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is a weed in Australia. It grows in many parts of the world including southern Italy and is very much appreciated in various cuisines especially in The Middle East, Greece, Crete and Mexico.
I rescued a purslane plant from the roadside last summer and planted it in a pot; it soon grew from a single taproot and formed a large, thick mat of stems and leaves. Throughout hat summer I collected the small, fleshy leaves and the most tender parts of the stem for various salads and I also sprinkled leaves on top of cold soups – this added flavor, texture and colour.
The raw leaves are succulent and crisp and have a tart and lemony flavor. Taking notice from some of the Greek traditional recipes I liked them mixed with ingredients such as tomatoes, basil and feta. Recipes are meant to be broken and of course I added my own touches and various ingredients. I also like mixed green leaf salads. Below rocket, purslane, fresh mint leaves, pine nuts, extra olive oil and lemon juice.
Towards the end of summer the plant had grown far too large and woody and I pulled it out. It is a seasonal plant and by then the mature plant had obviously scattered its small black seeds in my other pots.
I think that if I had a garden I would find Purslane very invasive, hence appropriately called a weed in this part of the world that does not have a long continuous history of foraging. The culture of foraging in Australia has been largely disregarded over the past 200 years. For tens of thousands of years and before European settlers the Aboriginal people foraged native flora and there is also historical evidence pioneers and explorers ate wild greens.
Purslane can also be cooked on its own or added to other greens;I rather like the mucilaginous gel-like consistency it adds to food (like Okra) but many people do not.
This climbing plant above is growing in one of my friend’s back garden in North Adelaide. (The potted plants below are his too.). The plant is Basella rubra, commonly known as Malabar spinach, Vine spinach or Ceylon spinach. This creeping vine is the variety of Basella with purplish-stems and deep-green leaves with pink veins.
Basella is a popular tropical leafy-green vegetable native to south Asia and eaten widely in Asian countries where it is known by a variety of local names, for example and to name a few, it is mostly known as saan choy in China, mong toi in Vietnam, pui saag in parts of India, remayong in Malaysia and alugbati in the Philippines.
This photo above is Basella alba – unlike my friend’s plant in Adelaide the stems are green and the plant will have a small white (alba) flower rather than crimson (rubra). I bought this bunch with its deep-green, oval to heart-shaped leaves a from the stall where I usually buy my Asian greens at the Queen Victoria Market
Like spinach Basella alba and Basella rubra it is a very versatile vegetable. The young leaves can be eaten raw and the larger leaves are cooked and depending on the regional cuisines it can be added to soups, in stir fries, curries etc. Like purslane the leaves are fleshy and thick, they remain crisp and taste of citrus when raw and when cooked the leaves soften and taste slightly mucilaginous. Basella doesn’t wilt as much as spinach.
Basella leaves remind me very much of Warrigal Greens. (Tetragonia tetragonioides ) is a leafy groundcover also known as Botany Bay spinach, Cook’s cabbage, kōkihi (in Māori), New Zealand spinach,. Although I have cooked this green many times before I do not have any photos.
I cooked the leaves of the Basella alba and sautéed them in extra virgin olive oil with garlic. On this occasion, I wanted a conventional green vegetable side dish to accompany a main of fish. If however, I had wanted to cook them in a Chinese way, I may also add spring onions, fresh ginger, chili, sesame oil, oyster or soy sauce. Maybe for a Japanese recipe I would add mirin or miso. Although I am typecasting some ingredients you will understand what I mean.
And would I have fed these vegetables to my mother? No way…. but maybe if I had used some typical way of cooking Italian greens she may begin to appreciate them.
Here are some conventional ways of cooking greens the Italian way:
Bring a small amount of lightly salted water to boiling Add the greens. Cover the pan and cook until tender or to your liking.
Optional: Cook the greens using only the water still clinging to leaves; cover, and cook until wilted, stirring halfway through.
Drain the greens well in a colander.
Dress with some extra virgin olive oil, adjust the seasoning if necessary (add pepper is optional) and a squeeze of lemon juice.
Heat some olive oil, add the garlic, (chillies and the anchovies are optional).
Add the vegetables sauté for a few minutes until they begin to wilt.
Add white wine (if liquid is needed), cover and cook till softened. (Some cooks pre-cook the greens and then sauté them – this may not be necessary).
Optional: chillies to taste, and /or a few anchovies can be added at the same time as the garlic.
With pine nuts and currants
Soak some currants in a little warm water to plump them (about 10 mins). Drain before using. In a small pan toast pine nuts by tossing them around until light golden. They burn easily, do this quickly. Set aside.
Heat some olive oil, add some garlic, add greens and sauté until wilted. If necessary, drain off any liquid.
Return the greens to the pan. Add currants and pine nuts and sauté a few minutes more.
Optional: add cinnamon or nutmeg and/ or grated lemon peel.
Cook in butter instead of oil.