Photo Journal: Our Italian family’s Christmas Eve tradition

Merry Christmas!! I hope everyone enjoyed the day with their loved ones and made it onto the “good” list and had a visit from the jolly man 😉

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Seeing as how Christmas is (to me, anyway) more about spending time with the people you love, and also as how this blog is in large part my digital time capsule, I wanted to share something a bit special this morning as we all rush off to open gifts and deliver trays of pavlova to the family lunch table. I wanted to share a few pictures of our most important and enduring family tradition; dinner with dad’s side of the family and his parents’ house. More commonly and affectionately known as “The Feast.”

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Traditionally, Italians don’t eat meat on Christmas Eve; instead, they indulge in seafood. And so every year, Nonno hits the Preston Market, sparing no expense for the freshest prawns, calamari and lobster he can get his hands on (and being a decades old customer, he gets some pretty good stuff).

The Feast happens Christmas Eve, every year, without fail. I’ve only missed one; last year, because we were in Chicago (eating Italian food at Eataly, because anything else on Christmas Eve would be sacreligious). International travel not-withstanding, it’s a given that we’re all there every year. Mum and dad, my auntie and uncle, us three girls plus our other halves, and my cousins. Nonna and Nonno host every year in their big, beautiful house, and whatever else has been going on is forgotten for the night. This year is the first year we’ve done it without mum and dad; it’s their turn to be overseas this year. So I thought I’d capture a bit of the fun for them so that they wouldn’t have to completely miss it 🙂

 

Tradition dictates the following:

– But first, wine. This year’s conversation between Nonno and I:
“Jessica. Wine?”
“Yeah, why not Nonno?! Just a little bit though, I’m driving.”
“No! Let’s get drunk!”

– Food. Calamari come first. If you arrive early enough, you make your way to the pizza room to “help” fry them (read: eat a few pieces before anyone else). Once served at the dinner table, fights to the death over the golden grilled pieces of deliciousness are not uncommon. My cousin has been known to eat more than the rest of us combined (that kind of behaviour has now been outlawed).

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– Then comes pasta. Because that’s what Nonno wants to eat. Every. Single. Day. There are also those two idiots who have as much freshly grated parmesan in the bowl as pasta – I’m one of them.

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– Next up: giant mutant prawns and lobster. They’re fresh and clean and absolutely enormous, served with lemon wedges, tartare sauce, and a simple salad dressed with olive oil, salt and vinegar. My uncle waits (sometimes) for everyone to take their share of the salad, then proceeds to eat his share straight from the big metal bowl, while laughing maniacally at whatever’s going on around him.

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– Also a few bowls of bocconcini. Nipple jokes are inevitable. They don’t make us giggle any less now that we’re all adults.

– And don’t forget the fruit platters, Lindt balls, coffees and Nonna and Zia’s zeppole – Italian sugar-coated donuts made from the lightest, fluffiest dough. Zia even made a few balls and filled them with Nutella; further proof that Italians are the original hipsters. We’ve been making this stuff for years!

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The only thing missing this year was mum and dad, who are currently enjoying a beautiful, cold Christmas in a little Italian town with mum’s extended family 🙂

So, from my family to yours, Merry Christmas and Buon Natale! I hope everyone had/has a great weekend 🙂

Cook this: Coconut pumpkin soup

Not only does my friend Jess know all the good brunch spots, she’s also pretty nifty in the kitchen – she produces wonderful food porn which frequently has me drooling over my phone, and her Bill Granger coconut pumpkin soup last week was no exception. She kindly passed on the recipe, which, as usual, I screwed around with a little to suit myself, and it turned out a damn good soup! I was really impressed at how easy it was (that’s usually a massive deterent for me making soup more often) and how much flavor it packed. I served it up with some home made Irish soda bread, and plan on making it again and again through out Melbourne’s upcoming winter. Enjoy!

 

Ingredients (serves 4):

– 1-2 tbsp garlic infused oil (I use this to keep it as FODMAPs friendly as possible – if your stomach doesn’t have issues with garlic, just use oil + 3 roughly chopped garlic cloves)
– 1 red chili, chopped
– 2 tsp ground cumin
– 1 tsp ground ginger
– 1 tbsp smoky paprika
– 1kg butternut pumpkin, peeled, de-seeded and chopped
– 2 carrots, peeled and chopped
– 400ml coconut milk
– 3 tbsp fish sauce
– squeeze of lime juice, to your taste
– fresh coriander leaves and bread to serve

Method:

1. Heat a large pot over low heat, and add the garlic oil, chili, cumin and paprika. Cook, stirring, for a minute or two, until the smells of the spices really come out.

2. Add the pumpkin and carrot, cooking for another few minutes, still stirring.

3. Add 6 cups of water (or vegetable stock – I prefer a stronger coconut flavour so I just used water), turn the heat up and bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 30min, until the veggies are soft and you can easily stick a fork into them. 

4. Take the pot off the heat to cool for 10 minutes, then purée (I like my Big Foot, which you can see below; a food processor or blender will do the job perfectly well, too) until smooth.

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5. Stir in the coconut milk, fish sauce, and as much salt, pepper and lime juice as you like the taste of.

6. Re-heat over low heat to bring it back up to a warm enough temperature to enjoy, sprinkle with a little fresh coriander and serve with toasted bread.

Cook this: Easy lamb & apricot tagine

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You know the whole conundrum of a closet full of clothes and nothing to wear? I’m not a girly girl with a crap load of clothes, so that doesn’t happen so much to me. My thing is that I have bookshelves (yes, plural, see below for the bulk of my collection) full of cook books and no idea what to cook. A lot of the time, I buy cook books because a) I like the pretty pictures, and b) I love to read different recipes, because I feel like it’s one of the best ways to learn about other cultures. Staring at the ridiculous amount of cookbooks I have after buying yet another one last weekend, I decided to start picking a book out each week and finding a random recipe to cook. This week, I plucked out Delicious: More Please cook book by Valli Little, food editor of Delicious magazine, which has been sitting on my shelf for literally years, after mum gave it to me for Christmas like five years ago.

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This book is beautifully photographed and laid out, in seasons – as in, here are some autumn recipes, using what’s actually in season. I love that concept. And the recipe for the lamb and apricot tagine jumped out at me again, like it did the first seven times I flicked through this book. It looked so rich and thick, a perfect dish now that the weather is getting colder. So why has it taken me so long to actually make this dish? Because, honestly, the very long list of ingredients and lack of 1., 2., 3. method really put me off. I really hate recipes that have the method written out in long paragraphs – I just want dot point steps!

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Anyway, it got me thinking about not only how many great recipes I haven’t bothered trying because they seem too hard at first glance, and also how many recipes other people gloss over for the same reason. For that reason, I decided to re-write this recipe to something a bit more simple and easy for a real person in a real kitchen to cook, using mostly ingredients already around the house. Because let’s face it – when you have to buy a stupid amount of ingredients like obscure spices that you’re only even going to use for the one dish, you may as well just go and order the dish at a restaurant, where it’s going to be quicker and cheaper. I don’t think my pared down version has lost too much – it was

Here’s my version of Valli Little’s lamb and apricot tagine (enough to serve 4) – hopefully it’s simple enough for you guys to try too, because it’s actually not as hard as it looks and a really delicious autumn meal!

 

Marinade for lamb
– 1 garlic clove, minced
– 1 tbsp fresh ginger, finely grated
– 1 heaped tsp cumin powder
– 1 heaped tsp sweet paprika
– sprinkle of salt
– 3 tbsp olive oil
– 500g diced lamb

1. Combine everything but the lamb in a larger plastic container into a paste.

2. Add the lamb to the container, mix the paste through until it’s well coated, and let it marinate away in the fridge for an hour or so.

 

Cous cous
– zest of 1 orange
– 2 tbsp golden raisins
– 1 tsp cumin powder
– 1 tsp sweet paprika
– 1 cup cous cous
– 1 tsp butter
– 1 tbsp toasted slivered almonds (optional)

While the tagine is finishing up in that last 10 – 15 minute simmer, prepare the cous cous:

1. Heat a small saucepan over low/medium heat, and add the zest, raisins and spices, and cook gently for a minute or two, until you can really smell it.

3. Add 1 cup of water, bring the the boil, then take the saucepan off the heat.

4. Stir in the cous cous, cover, and sit aside for 5 minutes.

5. Add the butter and work it through/fluff the cous cous up with a fork. Mix in the almonds if you want them, and it’s ready to go with the tagine!

 

The rest of the tagine
– olive oil
– 20g butter
– 1 onion, chopped- 1 x 400g tin chickpeas , drained
– 1 x 400g tin chopped tomatoes
– 2 cups beef, lamb or vegetable stock
– 1 tbsp honey
– ½ cup dried apricots, cut in half
– toasted sesame seeds and coriander to serve (optional)

1. Heat a large pot over high heat and drizzle in a little olive oil. Cook the lamb in batches if the pot isn’t big enough to cook it all at once, just sealing it off/browning it. Then remove it from the pot and set aside.

2. Keep the pot on over medium heat and add the butter. Once melted, add the onion and cook, stirring, until it softens a little (around 5 minutes).

3. Put the lamb back into the pot and stir it into the onion. If you like extra spices/have them around, like cinnamon, chilli, ras el hanout, add in a little of them here, too.

4. Next, stir in the chickpeas, tomatoes, stock and honey – you should have enough liquid in the pot now to just cover the lamb. If you need more, add more!

5. Bring it to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, partly covered, for 45 minutes.

6. Uncover and simmer for another 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

7. Last step of the simmering process – add the apricots, and simmer/stir for another 10 – 15 minutes.

8. Sprinkle some toasted sesame seeds and fresh coriander leaves on top, and serve with cous cous. Enjoy!
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Eat here: Yummy Yummy Dim Sum, San Francisco

Yummy Yummy
758 Pacific Ave, San Francisco, USA

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Our first day in San Francisco was a pretty big one; Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf, Union Square, Ghiradelli, Lombard Street.. There was a lot going on. Except for food.

We’d had a bit of a situation the night before at the airport, flying to the city from LAX, which necessitated dinner being a bag of Bugles just before boarding. Breaky was provided by the hotel and eaten on the run in transit to Alcatraz, and lunch was a quick seafood cocktail at Fisherman’s Wharf. Come dinner time, it was decided that a proper sit down meal was needed, and we figured the best place to find something delicious and at a decent price would be Chinatown – that’s always the place to check first in these situations!

We took the same approach we usually take – if it looks super busy with heaps of locals, it’s probably good. This place seemed pretty popular, and not another backpack or tourist in sight. Looked a bit sketchy from the outside, sure, but the food…

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For around USD$30 (including tip) we feasted on BBQ pork, pot stickers and the most insanely oversized pile of house fried noodles I have EVER seen in my life! Having unwittingly yet comfortable ordered enough food for 3, we nommed our way through some of the best Chinese either of us have had in a very long time. Oh, and we got complimentary fortune cookies at the end of the meal, too! Not sure how accurate mine was though..

Looks can be deceiving; if you’re in San Francisco and looking for something other than burgers and fries, hit up Yummy Yummy!

Eat here: Banh Xeo Nem Cuon, Hanoi

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Let’s be honest – I have absolutely no idea what this place was actually called. I just know that the banh xeo I had here was delicious! Sib and I stumbled on it by chance, as we did with almost everything in Vietnam given that we couldn’t speak the language or read any of the signs. We actually passed this place one night, on Hang Bo St on our way to a market, and thought it looked pretty cool. When we passed it again the next night, again by chance, we decided to stop and eat!

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It was a lost crispier and thinner than the more cakey versions we’d tried in Hoi An; full of flavour, though. There was just this one old lady running the show, with younger girls/her minions running around dishing out her cooking to the hungry crowd gathered under her roof. It was one hell of a show, so crazy and noisy and a lot of fun! I’m glad I actually got a photo of the sign/address, so when I go back to Vietnam, I’ll be able to go back!

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