January was a month of shorts and summer tops, barefootedness and cold beers, and an ever-advancing beer o’clock. I kicked off the month reading White Truffles in Winter by N.M.Kelby and ended it with a cracker of an Australia Day feast with friends in our sun-filled back garden.
In between there was lots of cooking — Thai and Indian dishes in particular, which seemed in keeping with the hot, dry, parched Sydney summer.
Time rich, for once, and holidaying at home ahead of the start of a new job I began reading, again. A bookworm for as long a I can remember, I’ve let slide that all-important solitary, reflective, reading time. There was always something more important to do, I was forever time deprived. In hindsight, the excuses were paper thin.
White Truffles in Winter is a fictional account of the lives of the late, legendary, French chef Auguste Escoffier and his wife, the distinguished poetess Delphine Daffis. It was my third attempt at reading it. I devoured it in under a week, reading mostly in bed and into the night. I love that the fictive Escoffier dedicated a simple dish of mashed potato and white truffles to his wife, who fretted for decades over the grand, laborious dishes with which he honoured the rich and famous, including an actress — his partner in adulterous crime — while never creating a dish for herself. The fictive Madame Escoffier adored aligot — a traditional dish of mashed potatoes that are blended with butter, cream, garlic and cheese. He scorns its simplicity, she teaches him — the maestro — how to make it in their twilight years, when she is too frail to stir the ingredients. They eat it, together, from a pan on top of the stove. And whisper about it through the walls of their separate rooms on the eve of their dying days.
I particularly love a game the fictitious pair play throughout their troubled married life: one lists ingredients and the other has to name the dish they would be used to create. Did the real Mr and Mrs Escoffier play such a simple, yet erudite, game i wonder? Aligot was the theme of their last game, whispered between their bedroom walls. Or was Escoffier imagining his already dead wife’s presence? God, how i cried!
What other food moments did January spawn?
The heat tempered a desire for fiery curries and chilli-laced foods, rather than cold salads and sweet-iced treats. I love the tropical heat of Thailand and the chilli-scorched flavour of good Thai food. I’d been gifted a copy of Chin Chin: The Book and with time on my side, I put it to the test. The recipes mirror the menu at Melbourne restaurant Chin Chin. They’re multi-component and complex —some take several days to make — but result in the multi-layered flavours of authentic Thai food. I cooked for days on end, in an un-air conditioned kitchen, in the sweltering heat. It was time well spent, until my other half begged me for a non-spicy meal!
Indian food was another flavour of the month, particularly makhni curry — or butter chicken. I’d been sent on a writing assignment to Amritsar — escorted by Anjum Anand (aka The Spice Tailor) — by The Australian Financial Review a few months prior. I don’t have a tandoor oven (though it’s right at the top of my wish list) but i’ve fully embraced the technique of roasting home-made tandoori paste smeared chicken on high heat — until charred and mouth-wateringly aromatic — before adding it to the vine-ripened tomato packed, fenugreek flecked, makhni sauce. The dual-cooking delivers the taste of smokey, charred meat through slightly sweet, chilli-spiked creamy sauce — so it’s doubly good to eat.
Things didn’t fare as well outdoors. The intense heat and lack of rain meant seedlings died in droves — just a basil shoot, or two, survived. However, we had rich pickings from cherry tomato plants, which were sowed in spring and hardy by summertime.
On a floral note, the community garden that i’ve been a member for over a decade became the temporarily home to stunning, thistle-like artichoke flowers. We let one bloom then fade, then saved her seeds. She’ll parent the garden’s next artichoke planting and, hopefully, a harvest. We also discovered stunning white flowers hidden amongst the tall fronds of a group of thriving turmeric plants. Who knew such a knobbly root shared a bond with such beauty?
January’s pièce de résistance was our Australia Day meal, which we shared with a small group of friends. Greek-style leg of lamb slow roasted in a low-heated oven for five hours and was regularly basted in its own juices, resulting in the meat that was moist, rich, garlicy, and fresh from a dousing of lemons. Moons of pumpkin were barbecued and added to a salad of spinach, fetta and toasted pine nuts. Potato gratin completed the threesome. I’ve tried many recipes for it over the years and find Russell Blaikie’s least adulterated version in Must Eat, which i reviewed several years ago, to be the most superior by far. He par-boils mandolin-sliced potatoes in herb-infused cream and milk, loads it into a casserole dish with minutely chopped and sauteed garlic and onion, tops the lot with grated gruyere cheese and breadcrumbs, and bakes it in the oven until golden topped. I made two portions — because I like my spuds —and left one in the fridge for lazy weeknight pickings. It satisfied a craving. Next time i’ll try aligot.