Having lived in two countries where this holiday is not celebrated, I’m unfamiliar with how one actually “does” Thanksgiving. But, the sentiment behind the celebration is something I wholeheartedly agree with. There are so many things to be thankful for in my life, and taking time out to appreciate them is a wonderful idea.
One of the things I’m grateful for is where I live. Like many Australians, the beach holds an immense fascination for me, and I am extremely fortunate to live within walking distance of one.
A picnic dinner by the beach with my family and our close friends sounded like the perfect way to celebrate.
It’s almost summer over here in Oz and of course the silly season is in full swing. Ladies in party frocks trot down city streets in the evenings, shiny baubles are up in the stores and a feeling of anticipation hangs in the air.
When I first got to Australia, one of the many things I found extremely intriguing was the way Aussies do party food. During my first Christmas, I was confronted by a massive bowl of bright orangey-pink cooked prawns in the centre of the table. Now, prawns (shrimp) are a favourite of mine, but we’d always had them cooked in some interesting way - Butter Prawns for example, or Sweet and Sour Prawns, or my favourite, Asam (Tamarind) Prawns. But these Australian creatures were simply boiled and placed on the table to be eaten as is, with lemon wedges and cocktail sauce. Of course, I was instantly won over (it’s prawns we’re talking about here), but this food memory was not unique to me. My dinner party guest who hails from Brazil shared a laugh about her first surprise encounter with the boiled crustacean too. (These prawns are actually sold at the fishmongers, so no extra cooking is necessary making them a very easy party dish).
I put together a picnic menu to try and capture the essence of what I see as Aussie celebration food. There had to be prawns of course, and oysters. Also something to “throw on the barbie (barbecue)” accompanied by bread and salads. And to finish – pavlova. There seems to be some contention with the Australianess of this favourite dessert, Apparently the Kiwis want it back, claiming they invented it first. Tell you what, how about you guys keep Russell Crowe and we’ll trade you the pav eh bro?
Of course, I couldn’t resist jazzing things up a little. The prawns were served with a homemade garlic aioli while the oysters were sprinkled with a passionfruit-lime “agar-jelly” and chilli. The bread was homemade wattleseed focaccia, the chicken for the barbecue was marinaded with bush tomato, and the pavlova took the form of a roulade. (Recipe for aioli, bread and pavlova below).
Oysters with passionfruit lime agar and chilli. Imspired by a recipe in the Nov 09 issue of the ABC Delicious magazine. I changed it to suit my palate.
A smattering of rain did threaten to send the picnic indoors, but we got lucky at the last minute. The wind that had been howling all afternoon also calmed down - “the late evening glass-off” according to Mr. Kitchen Hand (a keen surfer). It turned into the most perfect balmy evening.
Aussie picnics aren't complete without the esky full of drinks (read:beer). This one is a baby sized esky. We had 4 eskies at the picnic ( this one, another large one for the drinks, one medium one for the seafood and the pavlova travelled in its own esky. "It's more stuff than we have ever taken camping!" remarked the long-suffering Mr. Kitchen Hand)
The seafood entrees went down very well and Mini-Critic Senior tried her first ever oyster au naturel. “I like the texture but not the taste”, was her verdict. That’s something we can work on kiddo! Mini-critic junior hooked into the prawns, ordering all the adults around her to “peel another one! Pwease” . And our friend E threatened to eat up the garlicky aioli by the spoonful.
Then we sent the boys off to do the barbecuing. For some reason I still haven’t quite fathomed, barbecuing is considered a bloke’s job. They’ll stand around the barbie, with beers in hand, singeing the sausages and charcoaling the chops. Luckily, Mr. Kitchen Hand is very adept at the art of the barbecue, and I was happy to release the chicken and mango skewers, kangaroo sausages (called kanga bangas), and green beans and asparagus into his care.
Free public barbecues were another item that I found very interesting as a newbie Aussie. I was amazed at how folks would happily cook their own food on these things and trust that the person before them had cleaned the barbecue properly. I was also surprised that these often exposed barbecue plates were not covered in bird-droppings! I later discovered that these barbecues are maintained by the local councils and someone is in charge of regularly cleaning them. Phew!
The lads trekked back from the first barbecue area glumly – it had been decommissioned. Luckily, there are two other barbecue stations near our picnic spot, and they headed off in the opposite direction. What seemed like an eternity later, they returned with our food. It had taken them that long because only one of the two barbecue plates was working. At this stage, I was very thankful for patient friends! The mini-critics had kept boredom at bay by covering themselves in sand.
The winner for this round turned out to be the barbecued beans and asparagus. Mr. Kitchen Hand had sizzled them very briefly with olive oil and garlic, then squeezed lemon juice over them just as they came off the barbecue. The greens had a fantastic smoky flavour yet retained a “snap” of freshness we found very appealing. The kids and J enjoyed the roo sausages and the bush tomato seasoning lent a distinctive, tangy flavour to the chicken.
As for dessert? Well, silence descended as everyone tackled the roulade. That is the best compliment of all I think, when food has the power to quell conversation.
We lingered after the meal, surrounded by fellow late-evening picnickers. As the night progressed we watched diners from the nearby restaurants stroll along the promenade enjoying the evening air. It was way past the kids’ bedtimes by the time we packed up and headed home but it was well worth it, truly an evening to be thankful for.
Thank you for letting me share it with you.
Watteleseed and Honey Focaccia
(adapted from a recipe found here. My mother-in-law sent me some packets of bush spices from the botanic gardens where she works as a volunteer. I’d never used wattleseed before and it smelt very coffee-like in its “raw” form. We couldn’t quite taste the wattleseed in the finished bread and I would definitely add more next time. I thought there was an underlying earthiness and a hint of coffee in the bread but not sure if that was because I was actively looking out for it.)
300 ml warm water
2tsp instant dried yeast
3 cups bread flour + more to dust/flour benchtop
pinch of salt
1 tsp ground wattleseed (will add more next time)
1tbsp olive oil + 1 tsp honey to brush onto top of bread before baking.
Stir the honey into the warm water. Add the yeast and set aside for a few minutes until yeast foams up. Put the flour, salt and watteseed into a large bowl and make a well in the centre. Pour the water mixture into the well, stir with a fork or spoon from the inside out, drawing the flour into the liquid. The mixture will come together into a sticky ball. Turn this out onto a floured surface and knead until the dough stops being sticky, and becomes elastic instead. I found that after a whole heap of kneading (10 minutes), my dough was still extremely sticky so I added an extra ¼ cup flour to it.
Form the dough into a ball, place in a well oiled deep bowl, and cover the top with oiled plastic wrap. Leave the dough till doubled in size. “Knock back” the dough, then gently roll it flat and place on a baking tray (I just used a baking sheet, but should probably have used a tray with sides). Leave until risen again then brush the top with a mix of the oil and honey (warm honey if too sticky). Sprinkle with salt if desired. I also poked a few decorative divots in the dough to ensure even rising.
Bake in a hot overn (about 200˚C) until golden and the bread sounds hollow when tapped.
(I actually made the dough up till it was put on the tray, then wrapped it in oiled plastic wrap and stored it overnight in the fridge. The next day, I brought it up to room temp and proceeded with the oil and docking procedure and baked it.)
(Apparently traditional aioli doesn’t usually contain egg yolk and should really be made in the mortar and pestle. I did crush the garlic with a mortar and pestle, but stirred everything in a large bowl using a whisk. It worked very well and tasted great so I’m calling it a success. I adapted a recipe by Stephanie Alexander found in The Cook’s Companion)
1 egg yolk
3 cloves garlic
pinch of salt
2 tbsp lemon juice
about 1 cup or more olive oil
Grind the garlic cloves and salt into a fine paste in a mortar and pestle. Transfer to a clean bowl, mix in the egg yolk carefully until well blended. Start adding the olive oil very little at a time (I glugged it out of the bottle about 1 teaspoonful at a time). Stir very well after each addition to make sure the mixture doesn’t curdle. Once it starts to thicken well, add olive oil in a thin stream and stir. Just before desired consistency is reached, add the lemon juice and mix well. Add more olive oil if needed. Store in fridge until required. I have seen recipes suggesting pressing a piece of plastic wrap over the top before storing, but I stored mine in a jar and it was fine.
Chocolate Pavlova Roulade with Raspberries and Mint.
(I’d made the original Pavlova roulade with toffee plums recipe found in my favourite Delicious magazine many times, always to rave reviews. Wanting to do something a little different I incorporated my favourite summer berry. The addition of cocoa powder seemed to alter the pavlova consistency very slightly, it becomes a little less marshmallowy and slightly more cakey which isn’t really a bad thing, and probably not very noticeable to anyone who hasn’t eaten the original version).
For the pavlova:
20g cocoa powder (about 3 heaped teaspoons)
250g caster sugar
2 tsp vinegar (I used apple cider vinegar)
Preheat the oven to 160˚C – I actually baked it at a lower temp (according to my oven thermometer -250˚F) for slightly longer, turning the tray around halfway through. Grease and line a large rectangular baking tray (I actually used a roasting pan).
Whip eggwhites until stiff. Add caster sugar a little at a time making sure to beat well after each addition. If the sugar hasn’t dissolved properly, the resulting pavlova will weep. I added the cocoa powder to the last lot of sugar and beat that in. Add the vinegar and beat it quickly in. I’ve made pavlova without vinegar before and it works fine but I like to think of the vinegar as a bit of extra insurance.
Bake as mentioned earlier until the top is just crisp but not brown and the middle is still marshmallowy. Touch the top to help decide if it’s cooked or not and shake the pan lightly, if it wobbles, it needs more time.
Let the pavlova cool in the tin
For the filling
About 300ml thickened cream, whipped with 2 tbsp icing sugar until peaks form
Handful of fresh raspberries
About 1 tbsp diced mint leaves.
Tip the pavlova out onto some baking paper, carefully peel off the baking paper used during cooking. Spread the cream over the cooled pavlova, sprinkle on the raspberries and mint. Starting from one short end, carefully roll the whole thing up as you would a swiss roll. Don’t worry if it cracks, it doesn’t really matter too much.
Once rolled, wrap the whole thing in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 3 hours. Slice thickly and serve with extra raspberries. If feeling industrious, make a chocolate sauce to go with it.
To save the pavlova from getting crushed, I stored the plastic wrapped roll in a loaf tin in the fridge.
Note: make sure thickened cream is used as it contains a stabilizer. Pure cream may “water out” if left standing for too long.
Cook's perks : Trim off the sides