It’s a very welcome side-effect of writing this blog that my friends and family often suggest activities with an international flavour and on occasion proffer gifts that might inject some culture into our lives.
One ingredient that I am familiar with, and which I chose to use as my first attempt at some Ukrainian cuisine, is beetroot. We have grown it in the past –the beauties in the pictures are some we grew in Tasmania– but I bought some plump beets from our local farmers market for my foray into the former Soviet Union.
It turns out that beetroot is a particularly nutritious vegetable, which I’m thrilled to learn because it is a very popular one in our household. I grew up on tinned stuff, which is fine but basically tastes of vinegar. Now we like it fresh, and roasted until it caramelises. We eat so much that we laugh about our pink wee. (Don’t forget I have four-year-old boys…).
I didn’t start with Cold Beetroot Soup, although I gather it is a classic of the region. Instead I went with a very simple salad that combined intriguing flavours with the beets; balsamic and sour cream dressing with walnuts, prunes and a scattering of coriander.
I served the salad with quinoa and it was dinner– very delicious and I found it really satisfying. Next time I would reduce the amount of balsamic and add more prunes because they were unexpectedly wonderful in this mix!
I have since done a little research into the culture of Ukraine (this blog gives some excellent insights) and I look forward to trying more recipes from this lovely book. Now, just to decide what clever “beet” pun to use for the title of this post…
Books have the magical power to transport us almost anywhere and while it goes without saying that words are vehicles for the imagination, beautiful photographs can give our hearts a lift too. In particular, I adore cook books written about regional cuisines because they often contain more than just pictures of food on a plate.
Certainly, I should be learning a few culinary skills from these books, but I am most often guilty of just browsing and dreaming of eating in faraway places. A book that doesn’t focus entirely on the food, but explores various ways of experiencing another culture — including its cuisine — seems like a fantastic idea to me.
A lovely book by Henrietta Heald, La Vie Est Belle, does just that. Filled with photographs of light-washed farms, Parisian pied-à-terres, and country “brocante” stalls, the book reinforces a Francophile’s dreams while providing recipes, stories and travel tips. With information about traditions and insights into French culture and habits, La Vie Est Belle is a travel-at-home experience to keep on your bookshelf.
The mouth-watering photograps of ‘tarte tatin’ in the pages inspired me to make a cheat’s version of this classic French dessert. (By the way, did you know that you can still stay or eat at the Hotel Tatin where the famous upside-down cake was accidentally created in the 1880s by the Tatin sisters?)
I simply peeled and sliced some apples, then cooked them in a shallow pan with butter and brown sugar until the whole lot caramelised in the most delectable and fragrant way. I spooned this mixture into some pre-prepared (read: shop-bought) pastry that I had placed into small metal baking dishes then baked the tarts for about 20 minutes. Note: if you try this you should definitely learn from my mistake and line the dishes with baking paper; the whole thing becomes very sticky.
So easy and utterly delicious. Probably scandalous.
I have never claimed to be a “foodie”. I have usually viewed meals to be a inconvenient interruption, the same as when the car runs out of petrol and it’s time to refuel. In fact I could happily live entirely on avocado on toast and/or vegetable and noodle soup (Vietnamese style, preferably, served with lots of broccoli).
Of course I like tasty food, and obviously I really enjoy it as a way to learn about other places and cultures. But even while writing this I am struck by how lucky I am to even make the distinction between food as fuel and food for pleasure. Many people around the world are lucky to get a meal of charcoal-roasted yams, served with lots of dirt.
So this book caught my eye: it’s called Shareand it is subtitled “The cookbook that celebrates our common humanity” (edited by Alison Oakervee, most photographs by Philip Webb). It features pictures, information and recipes from the war-torn parts of the world where the NGO, Women for Women International, operates. The book’s profits go to this very worthy organisation, which assists women who have survived armed conflicts in places like Rwanda, Kosovo and Iraq, by empowering them to manage and improve their lives.
The book also features recipes provided by many other well-known names. At first I gave a hearty side-eye to all the celebrity contributions, which include Paul McCartney and Richard Branson. Trudie Styler says in her introduction: “Sting and I spend as much time as we can at our home in Tuscany” and I struggle to find what I have in common with that. But I understand the need to have a “hook”.
A more thorough immersion in the pages made me realise that it’s the perfect cookbook for me. It features beautifully photographed food from far-flung places that makes me want cook in order to broaden my mind. And most conveniently, the majority of the recipes are designed to be everyday, nutritional family meals. Many of them look simple, tasty and not too complicated to prepare.**