Sun steams through the windows at the back of the house and, with it, sharp wintry shadows fall dramatically across the desk. Only a small corner of sun and warmth this, so the resident animals settle themselves snuggly around my feet, snoozing. Wild winds – dramatic and exciting – blew through the house this week, through every door and window that could be prised from creaky, neglected hinges. The act of blowing out the dank, recycled air was long overdue. A musky breath of Japanese incense curled around the kitchen as the house, and my thinking, sprang back to life.
Does the season in which one is born dictate the sort of holiday one craves? Not the classic hammock strung between coconut palms for me, a babe of the colder months. Give me cold, give me cosy fires, give me brisk walks and blanketing snow. Yet the food of balmy climes captures all of my imagination. A friend’s email arrived describing, in the course of things, a dish of such sweetness and exotic perfume that I wondered, aloud, if we here in Australia are hard-wired to the exotic foods of our South East Asian neighbours. Slipping a kaffir lime leaf into a mug of freshly boiled water, waiting for the citrus scent to rise, this must, surely, be true.
James Oseland describes an Indonesian technique of bruising and knotting stalks of lemongrass to impart flavour in much the same way as the French use a bouquet garni. The fragrant, crushed stalks make a winter kitchen, indeed any kitchen, smell incredible. A gingery, coconutty Malaysian and Singaporean breakfast specialty, Nasi Lemak translates literally as the less than appetising ‘fatty rice’. Fatty here simply describes the rich, sumptuous nature of the dish. It is far too good to be saved for breakfast alone. Served with a vaguely Indonesian (and Very Addictive) quick pickle of vegetables and little dishes of crispy things, this is a surprisingly fast and deeply satisfying meal. P’raps I am a warm weather girl after all…
Quick cucumber and carrot pickle feeds 4-6
Vaguely Indonesian, these quick pickles, stained yellow from a smattering of ground turmeric, are tangy and moreish. The green chillies have only the merest hint of heat to them, but half a green capsicum (pepper) could be substituted. Unfortunately the best use I can come up with for a green capsicum is the compost heap…
1 large carrot
1 cucumber, same length as your carrot
3 golden shallots, peeled
2 long green chillies
1 tablespoon of sea salt
1 clove of garlic, crushed
½ cup rice or white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons of palm sugar or caster sugar
½ teaspoon of ground turmeric
1 tablespoon of mustard seeds
¼ cup of macadamia or light olive oil
Peel the carrot and cut it into thin matchsticks. Slice the cucumber lengthways, scrape out the seeds using a teaspoon and cut into batons. Slice the shallots and green chillies into rounds. Place all in a bowl, toss and set aside.
Mix the remaining ingredients together in a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Remove from the heat and pour over the vegetables. Toss well, then rest while you prepare the rice. Remainders will keep, well sealed and refrigerated, for a few days.
Nasi Lemak (Lemongrass, ginger and coconut rice) feeds 4-6
Adapted from Oseland’s wonderful Cradle of Flavour. A small tin of coconut milk is just that – as small as you like. Remember that ‘light’ coconut milk is simply the full-fat stuff diluted with water. Like the homogenization of milk, it’s something I can do, quite simply, myself.
2 cups of basmati or jasmine rice
1 small tin of coconut milk
3 stalks of lemongrass
A large thumb of fresh, juicy ginger, peeled
1 ½ teaspoons of sea salt
A few tablespoons of fried shallots
A few tablespoons of dry roasted peanuts, chopped
4 hard-boiled eggs, quartered (optional)
Wash the rice in several changes of water. Drain well. Pour the coconut milk into a measuring jug and top up with enough water to make 3 ½ cups of liquid.
Bruise the lemongrass all the way along each stalk with something blunt and heavy – ideally a pestle. Tie each roughly in a knot. Bruise the ginger in the same way. Place the rice in a medium-sized saucepan, one with a tight-fitting lid. Pour in the diluted coconut milk, add the lemongrass knots and ginger and bring to a boil. Add the salt then place the lid on tightly and reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting. A heat diffuser set between pot and heat is very helpful. Simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from the heat (no peeking) then rest untouched for 10 minutes.
Discard the lemongrass stalks and any visible chunks of ginger. Fluff with a fork and serve in a large bowl. The pickles, shallots, peanuts and eggs should be set in separate dishes for everyone to help him or herself.