now blogging at www.katesplates.com.au


1 Comment

Cooking With Emma

After seven months in France, we took a break from r-gargling and brie bingeing and visited Italy as part of our very brave eight-weeks-on-the-road-with-three-young-kids summer road trip.  Michael and I have been there done that in Rome, Venice and Florence, so we picked a small country village in the hills of Tuscany and a quaint terrace house in Nesso, Lake Como as our Italian destinations of choice.  For six nights in Tuscany, we stayed in an old stone relic of a house with those classic terracotta tiles you wish you could afford in a new home.  They would never look as good as they do in a house that has been lived in for hundreds of years … it’s the scratches, divots and dents and the smooth, worn down steps that give it such character.  I had a quick look on the other side of the ancient door that led to the attic from our enormous main bedroom and decided it could be left undiscovered.  The cobwebs alone put me off!

The big country kitchen with ivory tiled benchtops and an eight seater dining table right in the middle that doubled as a preparation area made me feel like a true Italian Nonna!  I swear when I next build a house, I’ll be installing one of the old-fashioned dish racks hidden in a cupboard above the sink.  A brilliant idea!  The house also came with an Italian coffee pot for making my morning cups of black gold.  My aunt and uncle have always used them, and I know they are readily available at home, but I’d never tried one myself.  Needless to say, I am now the proud owner of an Italian coffee pot that can be used on a gas, electric or induction stove top … had to cover all bases when our holiday means we will use fifteen different kitchens!  It was worth the extra ten euros to ensure my family gets the best version of me each morning.

Highlights of Tuscany: San Gimignano at dusk was a moment in time (so much so that we went back a second time!); the views of the endless hills, dotted with olive trees and old farmhouses and marked by rows of vineyards; and Siena for its surprisingly entertaining Santa Maria della Scala Art Museum (we sheltered from a storm but stayed for a couple of hours exploring the underground hallways and rooms of what used to be a hospital in the 1300s) and equally entertaining and passionate providore in a quaint deli.  This rotund gentleman was full of jubilance and good humour, his walrus moustache following suit.  He looked like an actor from a 1960s street scene – someone who would be the local town butcher.  I imagine him in a black and white photograph, his personality all that is needed to colour the scene.  He over-generously handed out samples of his aged and smoked prosciutto served atop crusty bread and then quickly followed that up with a wedge of sharp pecorino smothered in creamy pesto.  Twenty-six euros later, we walked out of there with snugly wrapped packages of everything we’d tried and more … we justified it by agreeing we didn’t need lunch after all the samples!

But there was one highlight that stood out in Tuscany.  After months of living in Europe as a foreigner, I am almost repelled by the “top ten things to do in …” lists and deliberately go looking for experiences that are usually left for those who attempt to break in to the local circles.  I got wind of a certain neighbour who occasionally offered cooking classes.  I had no idea of her qualifications or if she was any good, but I felt that at the very least, it would be fantastic to meet someone local who spoke my language (both English and foodie!) and could offer further recommendations.  Little did I know my luck would have me meet Emma Mantovani.  She lived just a couple of doors up the (steep) hill and ended up being the person who checked us in as our hosts were called away to England at the last minute.

I booked a 4 hour cooking class and dinner for two with Emma and she very kindly invited the children to come along too and swim in her pool before-hand.  She asked which meat I preferred and I picked pork, but apart from this, I left it all up to her! My afternoon of cooking with Emma started with a surprise visit to a local biodynamic farm to pick up supplies for our evening meal.  It was here that I had the pleasure of meeting Nathalie, a passionate, young farmer fighting against nature and the elements and no doubt her own will, to produce biodynamic vegetables and herbs.  I’m no expert on this type of farming, but I’ve come to understand that very few farmers attempt this approach because the results are so unpredictable which means earning a living from this passion is almost impossible.  However, that hasn’t stopped Nathalie, who is qualified in viniculture and has used her agricultural knowledge to set up her own farm with her boyfriend (I noticed she had family members helping in the fields too!).  She explained to me that it’s a cut above organic and involves the use of many complimentary planting techniques, feeding the plants nutrition from fermented organic matter and the use of spiders and other creepy crawlies to keep away those insects that hinder a successful crop.  She walked me through rows of eggplants, basil, celery, potatoes, onions, zucchinis, tomatoes, cabbages, shallots, garlic, asparagus, carrots and capsicums, and pointed out many failed crops along the way.  This year it is mostly due to the searing heat that swept through France and Italy in June and early July.
IMG_6133IMG_6083
IMG_6100IMG_6094IMG_6086IMG_6110

Nonetheless, we left Nathalie with a big, brown paper bag full of zucchinis and their flowers, garlic and basil that had just been picked.  As we drove off up the hill on the rugged dirt track, the echos of many “ciao’s” could be heard behind us.  It felt as if we were leaving another world behind in the valley between two giant hills.
IMG_6148IMG_6151

Back at Emma’s, I was presented with the evening’s menu and my tummy started to growl!  Despite the four courses, the offering was simple, fresh and oh so Italian:

Appetiser: Terrine of Ricotta and Carrot with a Pesto Sauce and Schiacciata all’olio (Foccacia)

First Course: Fresh Pasta with Zucchini Sauce

Second Course: Pork Tenderloin Crusted with Aromatic Herbs

Dessert: Apple and Pine Nut Cake
IMG_6161IMG_6174IMG_6168IMG_6188
IMG_6182 (2)IMG_6180

As we tackled the baking first to allow plenty of time for proving, I couldn’t help but notice Emma’s classic old school Salter scales.  It made me feel like a pro at the outset! The cake went into the oven to cook first and we paused around 6pm for a glass of Lapillo Amiata 2010, which uses Tuscany’s famous Sangiovese grapes.  It went down very easily with a few slices of Pecorino from Sardinia.  I relaxed into casual chatter with Emma and discovered a little about her life around food.
IMG_6199IMG_6234IMG_6216 (2)

She essentially grew up in a family restaurant where she made sure she worked hard to progress from washing dishes, to instead cooking with her aunt, as quickly as possible.  Emma went on to run a bistro in Florence for years and opened an Artisan Chocolate Shop before most people knew and understood the difference between industrially produced chocolate and that of an artisan chocolatier.  All her life she has been sharing her passion for food in one way or another.  These days, she lives in one end of her large home with husband, Giancarlo, and rents out the other end as a 3 bedroom, self-catering B&B.  She is kept busy during the summer months with cooking classes in her own kitchen, using as many herbs and vegies as she can from her own backyard.

I was sent out to the herb garden with instructions to pick sage, rosemary, thyme and oregano for the pork and stood dumb-founded by the views at sunset.  Her backyard is an ideal platform to take in the panoramic views of the Tuscan hills.  I stopped by at the pool for a quick chat with my hubby and kids who had come to join us for dinner, before heading back in to start on the fresh pasta for first course.
IMG_6257IMG_6248
IMG_6246IMG_6259
IMG_6261IMG_6237
IMG_6254IMG_6260
IMG_6279IMG_6272

Whilst Emma takes food very seriously, I felt as though I was just hanging out in the kitchen watching my Italian Nonna cook the evening meal.  She has an ease about her that makes you realise that sometimes the glamour and hype over food as a trend, means you lose the true meaning of what it means to really enjoy food.  “You need patience and love to cook well” she told me.  I couldn’t help but smile and think how similar it is to life itself – patience and love with people goes a long way too. It was obvious she had passed on her love of food to Matteo, her 33 year old son.  He was visiting to help with their 600-tree olive farm and was called into the kitchen at about 9pm, challenged to a “rolling pin versus machine” race to prepare the pasta.  He produced his Grandmother’s pasta machine that was purchased in 1967 and got straight to it, chatting enthusiastically with me about how simple food is and how important it is to forget about chasing “the perfect dish” … “because it doesn’t exist” he tells me quite frankly.  Of course it doesn’t.  I agreed with him that chef-reality shows do nothing to encourage ordinary folk to get acquainted with their kitchens.  In fact, it intimidates them into thinking they could never cook dishes that look like Michelin starred centrepieces, so why bother?

By the way, Emma won the competition – the woman is twice my age and I couldn’t keep up rolling that dough at the pace she kept.  I now look at food preparation in a new light – as part of a potential fitness regime!  Matteo did well with the machine but shared the task around with me and the kids which no doubt slowed him up a bit.
IMG_6324IMG_6296IMG_6293
IMG_6333IMG_6313

I couldn’t help but ask Emma about the Thermomix I am so fond of.  I was sure she would know of it – it’s a European appliance afterall.  She didn’t let on that she knew of it and all I know is that after that conversation, she decided we would cut everything by hand!  I couldn’t help but respect her even more for pushing me into a “back to basics” style of cooking to help me understand the work that traditionally goes into preparing a family Italian feast.  I’m guessing the certificate from the Cordon Bleu in Paris on the wall may have had something to do with her purist intent as well.
IMG_6343IMG_6288

Despite all this, she produced her blender at the last minute to make the pesto.  She seemed oblivious to my squeals of delight at her original Vorwerk “Bibby 300” from the 1970s … obviously the precursor to the Thermomix we know and love today.  Still in perfect working order but not something she uses often, she assured me.  I could tell – I could see the muscle definition in her forearms!

By 11pm, we were ready to sit down for the appetiser.  The whole family had been involved somehow in the preparation and Giancarlo shared with me, over dinner in the garden, his belief that food is an important part of life and should be something that families take time to do together and share with others.  I could see his genuine concern that this was a dying art.  You see, food and sharing is not only a business for this family but also a way of life.  They meet people from all over the world who come and stay in their little patch of Tuscan paradise.  I have no doubt they all leave richer for having had the experience of sitting down for a meal with the Mantovani family.
IMG_6221IMG_6218 (2)
IMG_6229 (2)IMG_6220 (2)

The following three courses were devoured in time and before each one, I was summoned to the kitchen to help Emma present each dish, and picked up little tips here and there that I can now pass on to you. I am a garlic lover and I can never seem to put in too much for my liking.  To me, there’s just no point adding one or two cloves to a casserole.  “Simple!” Emma tells me. “Just add two in the beginning and two just before you serve it.” Of course!  Why didn’t I think of that?  Sometimes we get so used to cooking a certain way that a class now and then can really freshen up your thinking and remind you how simple and easy cooking should be.

I was pleased to see Emma wrestling with the fresh pasta and sauce in the pan … I thought it was just me who ended up with all the sauce on the bottom!  She simply served the whole pan to the table and reminded everyone as they helped themselves to dig for the best part … the taste of the biodynamic zucchinis was crisp and flavoursome and the mint that Emma added at the last minute gave the whole dish a fresh twist for summer.   Again, this simple sauce had just four main ingredients but offered up enough flavour to be a stand-alone meal.
IMG_6249IMG_6255

The pork tenderloin will go down in my recipe book as a fabulous cheat dish for entertaining.  We cooked it an hour in advance by simply rolling the fillet in the mix of herbs (I learned all about juniper berries during the marathon chopping task) and searing it in a pan, adding the leftover herbs to form the base of the sauce.  White wine was the only other ingredient together with the meat juices and the sauce was reheated just before serving.  A brilliant way to serve meat hot without having to cook it all while your guests are waiting. The apple cake was moist and caramelised and served with Matteo’s home-made vanilla ice cream (the remaining four slices travelled with us to Lake Como the next day and were enjoyed for supper!).  We rolled down the hill well after midnight with tired kiddies and content tummies.
IMG_6236IMG_6364
Emma is one of those unique humans that can empower you without inflating your ego.  Her no-nonsense attitude and relaxed demeanour meant I walked away feeling inspired.  She made me feel like I had a responsibility to remind others how important good food and simple cooking is to families.  That fresh, locally grown produce is always best and worth the extra effort to source.  But above all, it reminded me that a basic investment of time and love in preparing food and sharing it with family and friends, will always pay life-long dividends.
IMG_6375IMG_6374

If you’re ever travelling to Italy, I can highly recommend Tuscany.  We stayed at Casa Magnolia (we contacted our host Charly via Airbnb.com).  Emma and Giancarlo’s B&B is called “Casa Pietraia”. If you love cooking as I do, contact Emma in advance to book in a cooking class.  She can be contacted on emmamant@tin.it.  Tell her I said “ciao!”

Advertisements


2 Comments

Life’s a picnic

We must take adventures to know where we truly belong.  I am a bit of a control freak, I admit, so my way around “adventures” with three kids, is to pack a great picnic to take with us … at least lunch will be predictable!  Since moving to France nearly four months ago (eek time flies!), our way around EVERYTHING being closed on Saturday afternoons and Sundays is to jump in the car and drive somewhere new.  It’s backfired once or twice, believe me.  In the middle of winter, we once drove forty minutes to greet the pouring rain in a ghost town with nowhere to take cover.  So the picnic happened in the car, right after I lost the coin toss and had to make a (very cold and wet!) dash to the boulangerie at one minute before noon.  The kids thought it was great … hubby was not so impressed and spent the next few days picking breadcrumbs out of the upholstery.

But mostly, we’ve had beautiful picnics – in front of World Heritage Listed chateaux and cités, by gushing rivers and trickling streams in tiny towns that look like they’ve almost been forgotten about, and by shiny lakes with looming mountains in the background and a smattering of nearly naked trees struggling to show off their early-Spring leaves in maroon, burnt orange and bright yellows.  We even picnicked in the courtyard of an old library-turned apartment building in a country village once, which was perfected by the smiling young mademoiselle who swished by offering “Bon appetit!” as she disappeared inside.

I feel like I may have perfected the art of packing a picnic into one bag and being able to walk out the door with three kids and a hubby in fifteen minutes flat.  I’ve learned there are two rules to make it work.  The first rule is to keep it simple. It’s not at all like hosting lunch at home.  The second rule is that people don’t eat as much as they would at the table.  The kids are more interested in the playground or their surroundings, so you can pack far less, and top them up later with an ice cream as a treat or an afternoon tea when you get home.  (As a side issue, the French really don’t do morning tea – just coffee – but they are big on their gôuter – afternoon tea).

The easiest picnic I’ve packed was when I had leftovers from my poached chicken and beetroot salad from the night before.  It filled a large Tupperware container, and it’s an all-in-one meal.  I threw in some plastic bowls and some vintage cutlery I had bought the day before for only five euros (it’s always nice to have real cutlery – real crockery is way too hard) and the bulk was done. I always have baking in the freezer and cheese in the fridge (several in fact) so they get popped in the bag with some mandarins, a baguette bought on the way, and you’re a superstar mum and caterer.  If you want to really create a memory, it’s lovely to include a bottle of bubbles and some plastic flutes.  Discard all the plasticware before you leave and it makes for a quick getaway and a no-mess cleanup.

For colder weather, prepare in advance by having soup already made in the freezer.  Take it out the night before (ha! who am I kidding … a whole day and a night before in the European winter …) and store it hot in a Thermos.  A mug of soup finished with cheese and baguette – and perhaps some olives? – is very satisfying, packs neatly and fills up tummies.

The only other trick I have used is to make up a homemade dip (usually hommus or garlic and herb dip in fromage blanc) and transport it in a jar with a screw top lid.  Cut up a stack of carrots, zucchinis, cucumber, capsicum – whatever you have on hand – into batons and you’ve got a speedy, nutritious snack.  Throw in some cured ham, don’t forget the cheese and baguette and everyone’s happy.

Being away from “home” and living a much slower paced life has allowed me to really fall in love with the simple things you notice when you get good at doing the picnic thing … nature has so much to offer, a foreign culture always has a surprise or two waiting and quality time with your nearest and dearest can turn into amazing memories when you create a reason to huddle around a rug or a weather-beaten picnic table.  Deadlines are non-existent and conversation flows easily.  Picnics are food for your tummy and food for your soul.
vineyards cows
We are always rewarded with beautiful views when we get out into the country …
and we always meet some interesting characters 🙂
puivert lake donkeys chateau maroon leaves puivert playground
On the way to Puivert Lake, we had to stop and photograph this chateau,
home to a herd of donkeys.

picnic2 cutlery vintage
Keep it simple stupid!  But there’s always room for vintage cutlery …
especially when it was only €5!

sam soccer sun
Picnics mean time to hang out with the kids …
and play around with quirky photos!

Bon appetit!

With grace and gusto,

kpx


13 Comments

Mindful of France

Today marks the “30 days to go” point.  My mind reflects my surroundings … half-packed boxes, scrawled to-do lists, piles of things with sticky notes on them and of course, baking on the bench – which is my form of procrastination.  I should be focused on packing a few boxes a day or crossing at least one task off the to-do lists, but instead today, I reveled in the opportunity to bake a birthday cake for a friend.  It made me realise cooking is my grounding point.  It’s the space in which I feel most calm, most purposeful, and most effective.

My body is still here in Australia but my mind is very much wandering through the green vineyards of the French countryside or staring out my new bedroom window at the ice-capped Pyrenees.  Not exactly helpful but something I can’t seem to change. Just like when I was back at high school, I know I’ll leave the bulk of the workload until the last minute.

french-countryside

This will be my last post from Australia … next time you hear from me, I will have two feet firmly planted on French territory.  I will be practicing my sing-songy greetings “bonjour madame” as I waltz into the boulangerie each morning and my mind will have clicked over to thinking in my heart language.  I have so many thoughts and questions about what that time will look like and how it will feel.  How will the kids adapt?  Will they feel a connection to France as I do?  Will hubby love the space and time to think?  Will he really enjoy not being able to communicate as he so often jokes about?  What sort of new rhythm will we find?  How will my schedule differ?  Can I really step away from being busy and involved in so many projects, to simply focus on family, writing and my new purpose (whatever that may be) overseas?

I hope you stick around to share this journey with me as I discover the answers to these questions.  It will no doubt be a period of many lessons, realizations and perhaps a few challenges.  My not-so-secret ambition is to get myself invited into the homes of older French people who still cook the traditional way and haven’t yet been infected with the fast-food epidemic that strangles Australians.  I am naively optimistic that they will passionately share their favourite family recipes that have been passed down through the ages.  I imagine myself sitting across the (two hundred year old) table from a man who looks seventy but is actually well into his nineties.  His eyes are twinkling as he retells a story his grandchildren have heard too many times before.  Pride is mixed with nostalgia as he recalls family meals that his grandmother spent the day preparing.  I’m looking forward to having all the time in the world to hear these stories and more, to meet the farmers, and providores of the incredibly rich food the South-West region of France has to offer.

There’ll be plenty of recipes along the way to share with you.  And no doubt much inspiration for my instagram account. Let’s stay in touch online. An Aussie family is about to unplug from their busy life and embark on a year in a foreign country, moving from a big city to a regional village. Most of us don’t speak the language and we have no return tickets.  Our visa will allow us to stay for a year but so far we’ve barely planned the first month! Sounds terrifying and perhaps even a little crazy … but the truth is, this is my dream. And I couldn’t be happier.

With grace and gusto,

kpx


1 Comment

Quick Holiday Meal

So the survey results are in and it was very interesting reading … thank you very much!  Overwhelming, whether we’re obsessed with food or not, we all seem to be time poor these days, and always welcome quick recipes to feed the family and healthy snacks to have on hand.

So I have a quick meal idea for you to kick start the school holidays … this tart looks adorable mainly because of the lovely shaped pan and because it crisps up to a beautiful golden brown if you cook it long enough.  But most importantly, the kids love it and it’s super easy.  You could also adapt this recipe to suit whatever ingredients you had lying around … easy to make it vegetarian … and if you’re looking for a low carb option, just skip on the puff pastry (nasty stuff but tastes so good!) and increase the recipe by 2 eggs.  A free tip – if you’re not using pastry, don’t use a loose bottomed pan … it will find a way to leak through!

bacon mushroom tart

Bacon, Mushroom and Goats Cheese Tart

Ingredients

2 sheets puff pastry
3 rashers bacon, rind removed, diced
4 eggs
1/4 cup milk or cream (substitute with almond milk for a dairy free option)
6 medium sized cup mushrooms, peeled and quartered
1 spring onion, finely sliced
1 tbsp butter or ghee
100gms goats cheese
salt and pepper to taste

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 220 degrees fan forced.

2. Allow the puff pastry to defrost until it is pliable but not too soft.  Shape it into your greased tart pan, removing excess from the edges.

3. Heat the butter or ghee in a frypan and saute the spring onions for 2 minutes before adding the mushrooms.  Cook a further 4 minutes until the mushrooms are browned.  Remove from the heat and scatter over the puff pastry base.  Return pan to the heat.

4. Fry off the bacon for 4-5 minutes until browned.  Scatter over the mushrooms in the tart shell.

5. Whisk the eggs with the milk and pour over the bacon and mushrooms in the tart shell.

6. Sprinkle with crumbled goats cheese and cook for 30 minutes or until a deep golden brown colour.  Serve warm with a rocket salad or cold with soup.

I’ll be back soon with some super quick and easy snack ideas!

With grace and gusto,

kpx


4 Comments

On commence! Let’s get started …

“We write to taste life twice … in the moment and in retrospect.”  I really wish this was an original quote but alas, I must pay credence to Anais Nin.  Of course, she is a French woman – a writer who was celebrated for her accounts of self-discovery that fortified women challenging gender roles in the 1960s and 70s.

I believe it tastes sweeter when you relive an experience for the second time, and so I have decided to muster all my courage, cast away any doubts, and begin to share my love affair with food.

As some of you know, I flirt outrageously with the notion that I have a little French blood in me.  I don’t actually, despite my best efforts in researching the family tree.  But I do really really love that country and I can’t put my finger on why exactly.  Perhaps it’s their sophistication with food and their passion for fresh produce?  Perhaps it’s their many country scenes and ancient cityscapes that capture my imagination.  It must have something to do with the language I can use well enough to impress my Australian friends?  I guess it’s the noxious combination of all these things and more that have me planning our “year to unplug”.  Only a crazy dream like mine would cause someone to uproot their family entirely and move to the other side of the world for an unknown, exhilarating adventure!  Stay tuned for more about this as we near closer to Christmas.

See how easily I’m distracted by France?  Back to food …

Over the coming weeks, my hope is that somewhere out there, the words I put down here will connect with someone to the point that I can inspire them … to cook, to create, to do whatever it is that they love.  I intend to share my learnings of home cooking – some posts will be family favourites, some will delve deeper into the origin or nutrition of certain produce and other posts will profile other companies, cooks, businesses, projects or products I have come across and am impressed by.

Ultimately, this blog is selfishly designed to help me grow and hopefully designed to inspire others.  I hope you enjoy my “second taste” of life as you scan through the pages of Grace and Gusto. kpx

shareasimage (1)