Saturday, September 18, 2021

Saturday cook up


Way back in the good old days when the word "lockdown" was mostly used when reporting on the aftermath of prison riots, I loved the tradition of a big Saturday cook up – a more spectacular weekend meal where I'd go to a lot of trouble to make something nice.

Being a very enthusiastic but not especially skilful home cook, sometimes there'd be triumphs when everything turned out perfectly ... and other times there's be slight depressions and post mortems about where it all went wrong.

And so, despite our current existence taking on an imprisoned-at-home monotony of samey days that we all desperately wish to be over, I've decided to keep up a few weekend traditions, and that includes the Saturday cook up.

A lot of locked-down people are reporting that their sleep patterns are totally weird, and I'm definitely in that category. It's nothing unusual for me to be awake at 3 or 4 in the morning, unable to sleep. So instead of lying in bed I get up and read, or in the case of this early Saturday morning, I get up and cook. Or, to be more specific, I get up and bake bread, just like proper professional bread bakers do every day of their working lives.

One thing I love to be is unfashionable. (You should see my wardrobe of plain check shirts!). In the 2020 edition of covid lockdowns, everyone was baking sourdough bread, it seemed at the time. So I was determined not be fashionable and take up the craze, even though I've always been fascinated by the idea of baking bread. This year, it seems bread baking is out of fashion, so this was my big chance to strike while the iron was cold! Here's this morning's sourdough loaf, which will be turned into toast on Sunday morning, and topped with scrambled eggs for Pammy.

This year's foray into bread baking came about by accident. Just prior to the latest covid breakout in Sydney, Pam and I visited our good friends Margaret and Rob in Adelong, in southern New South Wales. When we arrived Marg was baking a loaf of sourdough bread, and it was delicious, and so she put some sourdough starter into a plastic container and it came home with us. I still don't know how to make a sourdough starter. All I had to do was say "thanks Marg" and it was mine.

That was back in June, and since then I have been learning how to make and bake sourdough bread every weekend. Some successes, some failures but I've been getting steadily better at it, I think. 

Pam says I fuss over my sourdough starter like it's a pet. That's because you have to regularly "feed" your starter to keep it active and healthy. Basically, starter is just flour and water and natural yeasts from the atmosphere. The yeasts feed on the flour and water, and once a week you need to add some more to keep everything bubbling away. It isn't rocket science, but it is science.

A set of digital kitchen scales makes life much easier. For example, if you have 100g starter, feed it with 50g flour and 50g water. Stir well, put the lid back on the container and leave it in your fridge. There are only one zillion websites pontificating on sourdough starters and sourdough baking, and some of them are a wonderful source of information, others are mostly disinformation that will lead you astray ... reminds you of any other hot topic right now?

Enough of this morning's cooking enthusiasm, tonight I'm returning to a cherished favourite cuisine, North African cooking using the spice blend "chermoula" and the whole meal cooked in a tagine.

The fun part of making chermoula is that you can do it with a mortar and pestle. I just love the ancient low-tech vibe of a mortar and pestle, and I think it actually gives you better results than whacking everything in a blender. The ingredients used vary depending on whose recipe you use, but they usually include ground ginger, paprika, cumin, cayenne pepper, lemon juice, garlic, salt, olive oil, fresh coriander and fresh parsley.

I finely chop the coriander and parsley before adding to the mortar and pestle in small batches. After 5 or so minutes of village-peasant pounding, all the ingredients fuse together into a fragrant, luscious marinade that you can then use with whatever meats and vegetables take your fancy. I've used it with fish, then another with lamb, and tonight we'll be enjoying a chicken tagine flavoured with chermoula. You need no other spices, but most recipes do ask for chopped tomatoes and onions to enhance the flavour.

This is my snazzy Scanpan tagine that Pammy gave me for our 20th wedding anniversary, way back in 2009. While I freely admit that as an enthusiastic but not very talented home cook that I have my  fair share of successes and failures, I'd have to report that the magical combination of chermoula and a tagine has never let me down yet. And I think it's because it's a "pop in the oven, set and forget" style of cooking.

So there you have it, the Saturday cook up continues.

Meanwhile, out in the garden I've cut back the big clump of lemon grass so it's now a set of clumpy stumps about 30cm tall. 

I've gone crazy and impulse-bought a Grosse Lisse tomato seedling from my local Woolworths supermarket. "No more tomatoes," I've told myself before, "too much trouble" I said. And there it is now, out there in the garden, making a start.

And the never-ending battle of the weeds continues ... but at the going down of the sun, we're off to Morocco!