I made a delicious paëlla, for the first time ever! (probably not deserving of the name, frankly). I used stuff I happened to have around the house, with the exception of an onion; I was out and had to go get some from the store.

paëlla close-up
(Sorry for my terrible phone pics)

It was so easy, the reward so high for my efforts, that I thought I should share… So here goes.

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Oh my goodness. I just improvised the most amazing cake.

Best cake EVER

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Dear anat,

I am going to see you SOON OMG! And lo, there will be much baking. A and I are already poring through our recipe books and making plans for exciting stuff we can forage and eat. I can’t wait!

Here’s a recipe to tide you over. Very simple and not requiring any shopping.

Honey spice cakes

This recipe is kind of circular in its origins. A British friend tweeted about it, I begged for the recipe, she emailed it to me. She sold it as “cake in a saucepan”, but it’s really just mixed in a saucepan and cooked in the oven. For a very short amount of time, I learned! So basically, it’s a super-simple recipe that you can throw together usually with things already in the pantry, and very quickly. And quite delicious without being too fancy!

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Dear Emily,

I thought I would finally update you on my experiment in natural dyeing conducted earlier this autumn. Here’s the yarn I decided to dye. I used blackthorn berries I had picked myself not far from home (the hedge in front of the new cemetery, which is close to that field where we saw the golden cows, in case you remember), and made a dye “soup” from them by crushing them and simmering them for an hour. I was using the book Wild Colour by Jenny Dean to guide me through the whole process and tell me what to expect. I used a little under 600g of fresh berries, because I meant to dye 500g of yarn.

The book said to strain the dye obtained by simmering, and that it could be used to cold-dye animal fibers. It showed that a pale-ish dusty pink should be the result, which could then become a darker violet if the yarn was saddened afterwards– that is to say, soaked in iron water.

I had prepared iron water beforehand, by dropping rusty nails in a solution of water and white vinegar, and waiting 3 weeks for the liquid to turn a pretty copper colour (copper water turns blue, but iron water is copper coloured. I find it amusing). The iron water’s effect is to darken the shade, but also increase the light-fastness and wash-fastness of the colour.

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Long story short, I never got any pink in my yarn. I let it soak in the cold dye bath overnight, and because it didn’t look much better than grey-ish, I tried heating it up too (the book said I could). I had two batches and tried several things, but no matter what I did and how long I let the yarn soak (I even dyed some of it twice), in the end I could only get this greenish grey.

I suspect that the colour of the yarn is due more to the iron water than to the blackthorn berry dye bath. Perhaps they weren’t good berries. He’s a before-and-after picture.

I might attempt to overdye this yarn in the future, if I can forage for another source of natural dye, but all in all I’m not actually displeased by this colour. I’m disappointed that I couldn’t get the purple shade I saw in the book, yes, but as ever with natural dyeing, there is a depth to the colour that is very pleasing. Perhaps I’ll just look for a yarn to pair with this one to make stripes; I have a feeling this grey could be a perfect complimentary tone.

Remember when I was visiting you and we went foraging in your village and the nearby forest to harvest various tree bits for yarn dyeing?
Forest on Monts de la Madeleine
To go all schmoopy for a moment, that’s one of my favourite memories of that trip – I always get a kick out of being in European forests (my childhood as a high fantasy fan, of course), and it was so much fun to tromp around with you on the loamy ground amidst the furry trees, plucking moss off the low-reaching branches. (And of course discovering all the bugs that emerged from the moss when we opened those lunch boxes later. Hah!)

And of course, getting up from the epic knitting sessions whenever I needed a break and adding more water to the yarn-and-walnut-shells stew.

So anyway. One day I’ll get around to my own yarn dyeing – it’s in my genes, apparently; I have mustard coloured yarn hanging around somewhere that my grandmother spun and dyed with onion skins. In the meantime, though, I’ve been getting out there and doing some harvesting of my own, only living in the city means it’s more urban foraging than foresty rambling.

In aid of urban foraging, there’s a Feral Fruit Trees of Australia gmap that anyone can update (and someone around our neighbourhood has updated it a lot, yay!), but our recent foraging occurred because Alex went to a community meeting and asked if anyone had any lemons.

Someone gave her directions to a vacant lot in an affluent suburb about twenty minutes’ drive away, and we went off on an adventure. The lot seemed to previously have a big house on it – it was house-less, but enormous with a whole bunch of established fruit trees of increasingly wildness leading down to a creek front. The lemon tree was enormous and covered in lemons, though clearly other foragers had been there before us and most of the fruit within reach were gone.

But, we scrambled down the hill anyway and Alex grabbed the branches she could reach and shook them while I ran around picking up all the lemons that fell on the ground.

Alex has plans to make preserved lemons, and I have plans to put lemon in basically everything – already I have a Moroccan chickpea & chicken soup that has lemon juice and zest, and a dal saag recipe with lemon juice, and of course: gin & tonics.

But a fairly typical Aussie classic is the lemon slice. I just used my first two foraged lemons to make a batch – they smelled amazingly good just as I was doing the zesting, here’s hoping they taste just as great!

Lemon Slice

First lemon slice: success!

Recipe adapted from taste.com.au:

Ingredients

  • Grated/zested rind of 2 medium, ripe lemons
  • 200g Arnott’s granita biscuits (or alternative!)
  • 100g butter
  • 1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 cup desiccated coconut

Icing:

  • 2 cups icing sugar
  • 40g softened butter
  • Lemon juice

Method

  1. Chuck the biscuits in a food processor until they’re fine crumbs. In a large bowl, add the lemon zest and coconut. Mix all together.
  2. In a small saucepan over medium heat, stir together the condensed milk and 100g of butter until the butter is all melted.
  3. Pour the butter/milk mixture into the dry ingredients bowl and mix together.
  4. Grease a 3cm deep, 15.5cm x 25cm slab pan and add a layer of greaseproof paper to cover all surfaces. Leave overhang so you can lift the whole slice out when it’s set.
  5. Press the mixture into the pan evenly. Put it into the fridge for about 1.5 hours, or until firm.

Icing:

  1. Mix icing sugar, softened butter and 2.5 tablespoons of lemon juice thoroughly in a bowl with a wooden spoon. When smooth, pour over the biscuit base and make sure it’s spread evenly. Put back in the fridge for another 30 mins, or until the icing is set (hard).

Chop into squares or rectangles!

NOM!

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Now, that was the first batch I made. On the second batch I got a bit more creative – put in slivers of coconut instead of a small portion of the desiccated coconut, and used half coconut cream and half sweetened condensed milk. For the icing I used lime juice. I want to do the whole thing with lime (instead of lemon zest), but limes are so expensive here right now! Alex also suggested BLOOD ORANGE SLICE, which sounds AMAZING, but it’s totally the wrong season for oranges right now. So, stay tuned!

In more urban foraging news, we discovered that the big, draping tree in our front yard is a weeping mulberry! And the branches are COVERED with unripe berries. So, here’s hoping we can keep the birds off and have a great harvest there, too. Jam!

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Dear ana,

Poor neglected epistolary blog indeed!

I’ve been a pretty terrible correspondent because I’ve been a pretty terrible homemaker for most of this year. Being in a months-long funk is not very conducive to creativity, so I’m sad to say I’ve been eating pasta with sauce out of a jar for most of my dinners and falling into bed with the internet instead of knitting.

But, this story has a happy ending!

I’ve moved into a bigger house (with, as you already know, our mutual friend Alex), and it has resulted in a flurry of domestic activities. It’s amazing how much more motivated to do stuff I am when I’m in a bigger house (natural light! dishwasher! KITCHEN!) and around someone else who is also enthused about cooking, gardening and crafting.

So I’ve been baking and frying and stewing and knitting and gardening and decorating quite intensely for the past month or so. Hopefully this means I can post here more frequently.

As I’m typing this I’m sitting at our kitchen table, and opposite me Alex is measuring out the yogurt culture she received in the mail today so we can make our own yogurt. I have a lemon slice setting in the fridge, and cooked dinner for everyone tonight while looking out the kitchen window at Alex and my other housemate, Lisa, mow the lawn and plant our new vegetables (four varieties of tomatoes, capsicums, various herbs).

For dinner I cooked this ‘mediterranean’ gnocchi dish. Melbourne in particular is a city with a big Italian migrant population (WWII era, I believe), and their evolved influence informs a lot of our standard food (pizza, pasta, and ‘antipasto’ are fairly typical fare). This dish in particular I kind of improvised based on a dish I ate in a fairly upmarket (though very hip!) Italian restaurant near my friend Jackie’s place on the other side of town. I loved the dish so much when I ate it that I immediately had Jackie (who is a fabulous foodie herself) tell me just how I might prepare it. Here’s what I wound up with:

Fried Gnocchi with Mediterranean ‘Vegetables’

Ingredients

  • Basic potato gnocchi – You can buy plastic-wrapped packets of them off the shelf (non-refrigerated!) in the supermarket here
  • Olive oil – LOTS
  • ALL THE GARLIC IN THE WORLD
  • About half a small onion
  • Salt
  • Antipasto vegetables – black olives, roasted red pepper, marinated artichokes, marinated eggplant – anything will do
  • Proscuitto if you’re a meat eater
  • A fresh, ripe tomato
  • Fresh parsley
  • Parmesan cheese

In terms of quantities, remember that gnocchi is very filling. So measure out how much gnocchi you want to eat, and then measure out your antipasto to be about equal quantity to the gnocchi in total.

Method

So, you can roast or fry the garlic. I kind of decided to do this at the last minute, so I fried the garlic, but putting whole cloves of roast garlic in is a freaking awesome path to go down, I must say. But I fried, so:

  1. Fry your garlic (minced) and onion (diced finely) in a cast iron pan with lots of olive oil and salt. Do it over a medium-low heat and do it for a long-ish time – you want it to caramelise. If you’re eating meat, toss the shredded proscuitto in towards the end of this process to crisp it up a bit. When the garlic/onion is about right (give it a taste!) take it out of the pan. If the pan is all cruddy now, rinse/wipe it out.
  2. Now it’s time to fry the gnocchi. Fried gnocchi is pretty much the best thing in the entire universe. While boiled gnocchi ranges from doughy to gooey, fried gnocchi goes chewy and soft and caramelised – basically like the most perfect roasted garlic. It’s amazing. So: Your pan should be about medium heat. You need more olive oil. Put your gnocchi in the pan, all spread out evenly. Leave it to cook for about four-five minutes, until it’s slightly grilled (kinda golden) a bit on one side. Then you can toss it around to cook more evenly. Having one side crispy gives a nice bit more texture. Test it by biting into a bit every so often (you should be able to feel with your stirring when it’s getting softer). When it’s just about done (about 8 minutes)…
  3. Add all your pickled antipasto vegetables. Don’t even chop most of them them up – just make sure they’re relatively well drained. Whole olives, whole strips of pepper/capsicum, quarters/sixths of pickled artichoke hearts. Add back the garlic and onion (and proscuitto). Mix it all in. You want to make sure the antipasto stuff is hot enough but not cooked any more.
  4. Once everything is heated through, turn off the heat and add a diced tomato and a generous handful of chopped parsley, mix that through too. (Room temperature tomatoes are best!!) Again, you definitely don’t want to cook the tomato, just stir it through.
  5. Serve with parmesan cheese.

It is SO DELICIOUS. The caramelly garlic and olive oil goes perfect with the texture of the gnocchi, and the various flavours with the antipasto is a perfect complement. Having everything the same bite-size makes for a great balance of flavours when you’re eating, too. Usually when I make pasta I make a tomato-based sauce that I throw things into, but I absolutely love this method of just tossing big chunks of things in with the chunks of gnocchi without glueing it all together with any sauce. And it is so damn easy, and antipasto vegetables can hang around the fridge (and/or cupboard) for months and months.

Alex wanted to write up a food blog post of her own about it (in fact, now she’s finished with the yogurt cultures and is typing away madly on the other side of the table), so I think that counts as a success. Will no doubt be making this again! And next time I must remember to take a photo, too.

I look forward to reading more about your food and knitting adventures soon, too! I hear that you’ve been doing some natural yarn dyeing again? Do tell.

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Emily