Sunday, December 16, 2007

Dinner for two: Coconut and date chutney

Sitting on the front porch, mango juice dripping down my arms, cicadas shrilling in the background. The dog chases flies, snapping at them as they buzz. Older cars that pass have their windows wound down, all the way, and snatches of their music filter into my garden. Party music, all thumping bass and angry words, alternates with the chatter of afternoon radio, a voice or two almost recognizable. Almost. I throw the leathery mango skin into the garden, frisbeed against the fence. It’s summer after all. The black bird and his wife, scratching around in the undergrowth, will be happy enough to pick at the tiny amount, if any, of flesh left. It will be gone, skin and all, before the daylight fades.

School is nearly over for the year. The dragging days, countdown to six whole weeks of freedom were, as a child, excruciating. A week, often longer, would pass before Christmas arrived. I'd play cricket in the street with my brother, calling as cars approached, slower than they do now. The forbidden thrill of roller skating on the Bennett's driveway, the most satisfying of surfaces to roll across, was noisy and wonderful, but only if they were out. We'd skate past nonchalantly just to make sure. Riding bikes full pelt down the steepest of roads, no hands, definitely no helmet. You fell, picked the gravel out of your knees and started again, winded, but laughing.

The difference between the cozy northern Christmas and the sunny southern one is vast. Despite this we share the same snowy imagery, an irony not lost on Australian children. So, our Santa is often depicted in shorts, fur-lined thongs (the shoes, thankfully, not the underpants) and sports a jolly beer belly. Kangaroos pull his sled, a cringe-worthy but amusing thought. He sometimes wears a hat strung with corks that dangle from the brim to keep the flies off. Sitting in the front yard, flies everywhere, I could do with one of those hats. Luckily the dog does what she can.

Holidays again. Off to Sydney, to blue carpets of Jacaranda petals and the squealing of parrots as they settle colourfully in my parent’s leafy suburban yard. Glimpses of the harbour, sun-sparkled, caught between blocks of flats; congested streets but knowing all the short cuts, all the back ways. Seeing mum, dad and my brother (my brother!) who has, I think, fallen in love. Cooking with mum, who shares her daughter’s obsessive interest in food and literature. Talking, properly, with my dad. Friends. Jo especially. She’s had a tough year, but it’s been good. This is what Christmas holds for me.

Until then, though, we still have a week or so up our sleeves. Just like that break between the last day of school and Christmas itself, it stretches ahead of me. But it’s passing way too quickly. Something tonight, then, for just the two of us. A quiet night in before the silly season gets into full swing.

Coconut and date chutney

Adapted from Claudia Roden’s unbelievably useful Book of Jewish Food. This addictive fresh chutney, easy to make and easier still to eat (said as she pauses to dip in yet another cracker) is from the Bene Israel community of India. You’ll need to be an unabashed coriander-lover (cilantro) to enjoy this and while a combination of mint and parsley might work, I love coriander. Adore it. Great with fish, especially the fragrant banana leaf-wrapped parcels below, but wonderful too with slices of fried eggplant. Try serving it as a dip with crisp papadams, rice crackers or those mini toasts that the French make. Hard to stop eating, I tell ya…

1 tablespoon of tamarind paste
1 ¾ cups (about 125g) of shredded coconut
2/3 cup (about 150ml) of warm water
1 large bunch of coriander (cilantro), well washed
12 dried, pitted dates
Juice of 2 limes (or one juicy lemon)
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
½ teaspoon of sea salt
¼ teaspoon of hot chilli powder

Dissolve the tamarind paste in 2 tablespoons of boiling water. Tip the coconut into a large bowl and pour over the warm water. Leave both tamarind and coconut for 20 minutes.

Discard the roots of the coriander and roughly chop the rest. Push the dissolved tamarind paste through a sieve, pressing to extract as much liquid as possible, making sure to scrape anything that accumulates on the underside of the sieve too. Place all the ingredients into the bowl of a food processor and whiz until well chopped. Add a tablespoon or two of water down the chute to make the chutney smoother. Keeps for a few days, tightly lidded, in the fridge.

Banana leaf snapper parcels – for 2

We had these with tiny, pebbly new potatoes, boiled in their skins until tender (10 minutes), drained well and then sauteed, whole, in 2 teaspoons of ghee. 1 tablespoon of garam masala was added moments before serving.

Preheat the oven to 200 C (400 F). Take 2 banana leaves and lay them out flat on the bench, dull-side up. Place a fillet of snapper (or any firm-fleshed, white fish) in the centre of each leaf. Top each fillet with a sprinkling of freshly ground cumin, a few slices of lime, 1 long green chilli, sliced on the diagonal and some thin slices of ginger. Season, then wrap securely, tying the parcels with kitchen string or using bamboo skewers. Bake, on a tray, for 15 minutes. Unwrap at the table. Serve with the coconut and date chutney.

So, over to you. How will you be spending the festive season?


Johanna said...

it does seem that these days that there are more mobile discos on the street than in my youth! Lovely green photo - feels like an aussie Christmas!

Simona said...

Lovely, as usual. I spent one Christmas in Australia, years ago, and loved it. On Christmas day we had dinner in Strahan. Good memories.

Shaun said...

Lucy ~ I've heard about you through Susan and have been meaning to stop by for forever and a day...

I'm envious of the ubiquity of Jacarandas. They are few and far between in Auckland, but, surprisingly, they grow all over the show in Southern California. I remember telling my partner they were an Australian tree. They also have eucalyptus lining one of the freeways in Los Angeles...

Anyway, love the memories of a summery childhood. Our Santa is almost always in shorts and is a little red, though really they should think about tying in the imagery with skin cancer awareness given the high numbers...

I love it when people reveal recipes from cookery books that I have. I love the sound of this Roden recipe. I don't know why it hasn't caught my eye before, but I suppose The Book of Jewish Food is really a tome. What a great choice from the book, though.

Have a lovely Christmas.

Laurie Constantino said...

Great writing - you put me right in the middle of no Christmas like I've ever spent. I could hear the flies buzzing! Loved the photos, as well. All are great, but the one with the packet is my favorite.

Wendy said...

I spent a Christmas in New Zealand once and remember being highly entertained by an 8ft kiwi fruit dressed hawaiian shorts, a santa hat and skis!
I'm off to the Alps ski-ing this Christmas. Rather excited.
Will be making this when I return though. :)

Susan said...

This is no ordinary date/coconut combo. It's not even dawn here, but I want to go out into the brutal, almost-winter wind and purchase a blousey bunch of cilantro. No banana leaves, alas, but parchment will work just fine. Those bundles are hard to look away from.

Rosa said...

Oooh! Such incredible flavours and pictures. Thanks for this atmospheric post!

Christina said...

Beautiful (as ALWAYS, you're just so good, woman!).

I have a coconut chutney that I make that I could shovel down by the spoonful as well, but the addition of dates here really elevates this into something completely different and unique. I'm anxious to try it.

Lucy said...

I know Johanna - makes me feel incredibly old even saying so out loud, but it's all too noisy! I do love our green Christmases, much more so than I did when I was a little girl.

Strahan is a stunning part of the world Simona. A wonderful, gentle, slower-paced place to celebrate!

Hi Shaun, we don't have many Jacaranda's here in Melbourne either (well, we do have a lot, but not as many as Sydney)and I miss their very particular hue. It's a sign of coming home for me. We'll be in New Zealand in two shakes of the proverbial (Kiwi) lamb's tail - ten days with my stepsons aunt, uncles, grandparents and cousins in Hahei - and I can't wait. My partner and his boys are Jewish so for me Roden (besides her other classics) is a treasure, providing the insights I need into their world and culture, beliefs and celebrations, through my medium, food. She's a gem. Happy Christmas to you too - enjoy!

Thank you Laurie - it's funny, but your Christmases are so very familiar to me from films, books, cards, and yet I've never, ever seen weather so cold! Our warm days are something to be celebrated too, but without the heavy meals!

Wendy, now THAT'S a great Southern Hemisphere image worth keeping - woman, you always, ALWAYS make me laugh! Bloody marvellous. I mentioned it to you before, but will say it again...snow angels, please!

Oh, Susan, I cannot even imagine how cold it must be in NY at the moment. Actually, I can. I saw the news last night and the cold front that has gripped the East Coast looks horrifying. Hardly cheery - but you are right to imagine yourself transported to warmer climes with coriander, dates, lime and coconut. The hallmarks of tropical weather. Now, if I'd been able to get banana leaves in the post...

Oh, Rosa, they are swoon-inducing those flavours. All my favourites, bundled into one post! Happy Christmas and a Merry New Year to you!

Christina, darls, you're too kind. You should have seen us. The Artist had been out to lunch with someone in marketing (who? was it the beer people? or the car people? I never remember...) and came home in the afternoon proclaiming that he, 'couldn't eat another thing'. Yeah, right. We both kept sneaking back for just a little tiny bit more. Not a lot left come Saturday am...

Lunch Buckets said...

Thanks for posting the chutney recipe, it sounds wonderful! Beautiful writing as well :)

Carson said...

I just invested in a charcoal bbq and our neighbour's banana tree is taking over the fence (not that I mind, I like it!) and I was thinking of a way to combine the two..I am SO making banana leaf snapper parcels now!
thankyou :)

Lucy said...

It's very, very delicious, lunch buckets - and hard to stop picking at!

Carson, that sounds like a fabulous way to break in a new bbq and to use your neighbours banana leaves - to have access to fresh ones would be a squillion times better. Hope you enjoy it!