Tag Archives: Christmas cooking

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)

PRAWN GUIDE, make better choices

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I am likely to be cooking prawns sometime over the Christmas period, and not just any prawns.

Those of you who read The Age (a Melbourne newspaper) may have read:

Date December 15, 2015

Woolies, Coles, Aldi caught up in child labour scandal

Woolworths, Coles and Aldi are embroiled in a child labour scandal, with all three supermarket chains confirming they sell prawns or seafood supplied by a Thai company at the centre of the allegations.

Graphic evidence of forced labour, including child labour, has been uncovered at a prawn peeling factory owned by major seafood supplier Thai Union.

An investigation by Associated Press found hundreds of workers at the company’s factories working under poor conditions with some workers, mainly from Myanmar, locked inside or otherwise unable to leave the factory……

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I am always fussy about the prawns I buy.

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You may be interested in this Prawn Guide:

www.prawnguide.org

This guide will help you choose more sustainable and ethical prawns this Summer.

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 Other useful sites:

PIZZA DI NATALE, Christmas Pizza from Le Marche

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How would you like a wood oven like this in your back garden?

My son sent me this photo. He found it in the house across the road from where he lives; the house was up for sale and he took a peak during one of the open inspections. And there it was!

I can imagine the range of goodies that have been cooked in that oven over the last 20 years.

Once the oven is fired up the heat would be utilized till the end.

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High heat is required for the wood fired bread (enough for the week and perhaps one or two relatives) and plenty of pizzas for the the weekly occasion when the extended family visits.

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And some for the grand kids’ school lunches.

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Heat would not have been wasted. After the baking of the food that requires high heat, there may be some trays of biscuits that require moderate heat and then the oven would be utilized to slowly roast trays of meat or perhaps to finish off drying trays of dried tomatoes or left over bread to make into breadcrumbs.

My experiences of an Italian Christmas are limited to Sicily (with my grandparents) and Trieste (where I lived as a child) and with Christmas coming up I have been thinking about traditional food in other parts of Italy. If the people who lived in the house with the wood fired oven were from the eastern side of a central region of Italy called Le Marche, they may be preparing to make a traditional fruit and nut bread for Christmas.

Natale is the Italian word for Christmas and the fruit and nut bread the Marchigiani make is called a Pizza di Natale or a Pizza Natalizia; it is not a pizza, but because a pizza dough (same as a bread dough) is used for the basis of this traditional fruit bread, it is referred to as a pizza.

The following mixture will make two pizzas.  The dough needs to rise for 6-8 hours so it would be preferable to mix it the day before you intend to bake it.As for the shape, you can divide the dough into two and shape it into two round loaves or each half placed into cake tins – preferably those with tall sides or with a hole in the middle (the shape will be called a ciambella).

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PIZZA DOUGH

You can make pizza dough using your favourite recipe or buy ready made dough or use this recipe:

Ingredients:
1 kg strong white flour,1 level tablespoon fine sea salt,1 tablespoon sugar, approx 650ml (3 cups) lukewarm water, 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, 2 sachets of dry yeast – one sachet or one envelope weighs 7 grams (2 teaspoons).

Mix the yeast, sugar into water and stir well and set aside while you prepare the flour. Mix the flour and salt into a large bowl, make a hole in the middle, pour the yeast mixture into the hole. Use your hands and knead the mixture to form a dough. You may need to add a little more flour if the mixture is too wet or more water if it is too dry. Knead it until you have a smooth dough. Place the dough back into the bowl and cover it with plastic wrapping or a tea towel.  Leave in a warm room until the dough has doubled in size – about an hour. Add the oil and knead it again.

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PIZZA DI NATALE

Mix together: 500 gr walnuts (broken up into large bits), 200g raisins, 200g dried figs (chopped), 100g of citrus peel, black ground pepper and nutmeg to taste (I like it spicy), 350g sugar and grated rind of 1 lemon and 1orange.

Juice of the orange and lemon to add to the mixture when you combine the dough with the fruit and nut mixture in case it is too dry. Or splash some rum or orange flavoured liqueur to moisten the dough – alcohol is my preferred choice, but is not traditional.
Combine the dough with the fruit and nut mixture and knead well.
Divide the dough into two and shape into round loaves or place it into two tins -the dough needs room to rise so choose suitable tins.
Leave the Pizza Natalizia to rise for 6 hours or overnight.
Bake them in the oven at about 210°C for about 40-50 minutes.  Do the usual things that are done when baking, i.e. cover the tops with baking paper if the top is cooking too quickly, insert a skewer into the dough at the end of 40 minutes to see if it is cooked etc.
Store in cake tins or a couple of layers of foil till ready to slice.

Other posts about pizza- like Sicilian goodies

Scacce and Pizza and Sicilian Easter

Scacce (focaccia-like Stuffed Bread)

Sfincione

A MOUNTAIN OF CAPONATA – two days before Christmas

Mountains of eggplants, peppers, celery, onion, capers and green olives…..a few red tomatoes, pine nuts, basil and the characteristic caramelized sugar and vinegar to deglaze the pan that makes the agro – dolce sauce for caponata.

Two days before Christmas and the caponata needs to be made so that the flavours mellow.

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In a couple of days it will be perfect!

Ready for more fresh basil and pine-nuts and ready to be presented to guests. The first lot will be on Christmas eve – it will be served as the antipasto without any other food, just a little, good quality, fresh bread for those who wish to mop up the juices.

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For recipes see:

Caponata (General Information and Recipe for Caponata di Patate – potatoes)

Caponata Siciliana (Catanese – Caponata As Made in Catania). This one contains peppers (capsicums).

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Fennel Caponata (Sicilian Sweet and Sour Method for Preparing Certain Vegetables).

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This caponata is made with celery

INSALATA RUSSA (Party time – Russian salad)

Helping my mother to make Insalata Russa was my job throughout my childhood and teenage years. It was a legacy from Trieste and a reliable antipasto served on special occasions. She kept making it well into the 80s and then it would re-appear intermittently throughout the years. She would present it before we would sit at a table for a meal, as a nibble…  she would pass around a spoonful of Insalata Russa on a slice of bread from a French stick.

Those of you who are of a certain age may remember Rosso Antico (a red aperitif) or a Cinzano (vermouth) or a martini. Sometimes it would be a straight gin with a twist of lemon.  Today you may prefer a different aperitif like Aperol or a glass of Prosecco or a Campari  you get the idea!

It keeps well in the fridge and is an easy accompaniment for drinks – I am thinking of those unexpected guests who may pop in …. a drink, a small plate of Insalata Russa and some good bread. If my mother was still alive she would probably be making it on Christmas eve or Christmas day.

Insalata Russa is made with cooked vegetables: peas, green beans, carrots and potatoes cut into small cubes and smothered with homemade egg mayonnaise. She always decorated the top with slices of hard-boiled eggs and  slices of stuffed green olives. Sometimes she also placed on top small cooked prawns or canned tuna.

***** Modern Times…..Try it sprinkled with Yarra Valley caviar (fish roe) instead.

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Ensaladilla rusa is the Spanish version of this salad and it is a very common tapas dish; It was certainly still popular as a Tapas in Madrid and Barcelona when I was there last year.

The Spaniards make it the same way, but the canned tuna is often mixed in the salad rather than being placed on top. Some versions have olives, roasted red peppers or asparagus spears arranged on top in an attractive design or just plain with boiled eggs around the edge of the bowl.

Making it with my mother, we never weighed our ingredients, but the following combination and ratios should please anyone’s palate.

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This recipe (and the photos of the pages in the book) are from my second book – Small Fishy Bites.

2-3 medium sized potatoes, waxy are best
1 cup of shelled peas
3 carrots
3 hard-boiled eggs
3/4 -1 cup of green beans cut into 1cm pieces
1/2 cup of Italian giardinieria (mixed garden pickles in vinegar) or cetriolini (small pickled gherkins)
1 and 1/2 cups of homemade egg mayonnaise

Cook potatoes and carrots in their skins in separate pans; cool, peel and cut them into small cubes.
Cook the peas and beans separately; drain and cool. 
Hard boil the eggs; peel them and cube 2 of them.
Cut the giardiniera into small pieces (carrots, turnips, cauliflower, gherkins).
Mix all of these ingredients together with a cup of home made egg mayonnaise.
Level out the Russian salad either on a flat plate or in a bowl and leave in the fridge for at least an hour before decorating it by covering it with the remaining mayonnaise.
Have a good old time placing on the top slices of hard-boiled eggs, drained tuna or small cooked prawns and caviar. Bits of giardiniera will also add colour.

Maionese (Mayonnaise)

My mum made maionese with a wooden spoon. I use a food processor or an electric wand to make mayonnaise:

Mix 1 egg with a little salt in the blender food processor, or in a clean jar (if using the wand).
Slowly add 1–1 ½ cups of extra virgin olive oil in a thin, steady stream through the feed tube while the blender or processor is running, Before adding additional oil, ensure that the oil, which has previously been added has been incorporated completely.
Add a tablespoon of fresh lemon juice when the mayonnaise is creamy. If you are not making the traditional Italian version, it is common to add vinegar instead of lemon juice and a teaspoon of Dijon mustard.
As an alternative, the Spaniards like to add a little saffron (pre-softened in a little warm water). Add this once the mayonnaise is made.
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