What does it really mean to buy local?

Local is the new buzzword for all people interested in food, it’s better than ‘organic’ because you can know exactly where your food comes from (organic standards vary internationally), and it supports the local food economy, which allows for firmer food security for smaller farms in the future. What’s more, if you are part of the food glitterati set, it can be extended to all sorts of groovy phrases such as locavore, invasivore or even a Melbavore.

Many people shop at markets because they feel they are connecting to the source of their food, they are communicating with vendors to gain a better understanding of where their food comes from, and how it has been harvested or processed. But not all of this food is local.

And before we get into what’s from where, it really should be questioned what local really means. If it’s from Sydney or Queensland is it still local? What about Tasmania or even New Zealand?

Technically speaking, when the locavore movement began – and it did ‘begin’ so to speak – coined by a group of foodies in the San Francisco Bay area when they created the first community-supported, worker-owned cooperative organised solely with the local foods from their area. They defined local as including food produced in a radius of 100 miles around San Francisco.

Now, the overall concept is not just limited to geography – it relates to the idea of local purchasing and direct contact with the supplier or farmer, which in theory should support the local food economy. As a locavore, there is a preference to buy locally produced goods and services rather than those produced by corporatized institutions.

Conflicting arguments have entered the localism debate recently as a group of researchers from The University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research have found that despite something being local, it can have a greater carbon footprint.

For instance, you can compare apples grown sustainably in New Zealand and transported in bulk in a low energy shipping container, in comparison to a Victorian-grown product which is grown with the use of farming chemicals, harvested and transported in a truck which has a greater energy output.

This shows that the environmental impact of food is affected not just by the distance that food travels, but also how it is harvested, transported, packaged, and processed. What’s more, if we are driving to and from the market every week to buy small quantities of food, we also are contributing toward a greater carbon footprint.

Are you confused? I certainly am.

I decided to drop my tags of locavore and foodie fashionista in the bin this morning and just head to the market and enjoy it. I stopped in at South Melbourne Seafood and bought some Mount Martha Mussels, then I fossicked through a few of the delis and bought some filo wraps made by the stallholders.  I bought some organic fruit and veg, all in season, and sourced from Melbourne and Tassie, then finally I popped in at Georgie’s Harvest, where I learnt a little about one of the potato farmers she is currently working with.

But the penny dropped with me, when I finally skirted by Clement (the new, hip-looking, hole-in-the-wall-style coffee joint on the east side of the market). I couldn’t help but be distracted by a number of beautifully presented blocks of chocolate displayed at the entrance to the store. As I asked about the chocolate, the girl immediately snapped to attention ‘well,’ she said. ‘Let me explain a bit about it first… These beans are from this farm in South America, they use only organic cocoa beans and organic sugar. Their farming methods are small-scale and sustainable and the money goes directly to the farm. It’s made with the utmost care by the village community and it’s the best chocolate you will ever eat.’

She was right.

Which brings me back to my love of market shopping; you see – you can be a mathematician, a scientist or an avid hard-nosed foodie, but the most important thing is a sense of basic communication and knowledge of where your food comes from. You can only ever get this at the market. And this is where the value lies. Cocoa beans don’t grow in Australia. If you want chocolate, you can’t eat local. But if you shop at the market, you can know where it comes from. And be proud of it too.

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Celebrate the handmade, the locally-produced and the wonderfully unique this Christmas

 

Christmas shopping for me usually involves a last-minute trip into town – frazzled and last minute – I’ll be trawling escalators, crowds, parking meters and city chaos just to leave with a handful of gifts, that are usually overpriced, and uninspiring.

This year, my Christmas shopping expedition has taken a surprisingly positive turn. No more anonymous gifts from large, glossy department stores. And no more mad rush about town at 7pm on Christmas Eve.

That’s right. This year I’m going local. I’m shopping well in advance. And I’m not venturing further than my local market. Not only will I be getting all my food there for Christmas lunch, I’m also buying presents too. Christmas stress has turned into a Christmas fess of joy and connection to local producers. Gifts are handmade and full of love and individuality. And everything has a story behind it.

If you are wondering where and how I’m fitting this all in – here’s the secret: I’m shopping at The South Melbourne Market Night Markets  late on a Thursday night after work. Here you can find rows of small stalls with Melbourne designers selling handmade wares that they have made in their local Melbourne workrooms, or (in some cases) even their kitchen tables.

It’s a celebration of everything that is handmade, personable and filled with that beautifully iconic Melbourne identity. There are rows of kids clothing – made by local mothers in their workrooms or even their kitchen tables at home. There is handmade jewellery by boppy young Melbourne designers; dressed in dark-rimmed glasses and and a variety of sailor-like tops. There are also kitschly-designed cushions and home furnishings; gloriously original and filled with a daring individualised flair.

SO:ME Space is also open, which, if you haven’t already seen it, you really should take a look. If the term ‘local’ was a spoken word, this place would be the equivalent of a speakerphone at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Young designers and quirkily original stores such as Bakerlite (trendy bikes) and Eco Life International (recycled/biodegradable stuff like crockery, camping gear and clothing) that will certainly tickle your senses with the Christmas locally-designed spirit. Of course, for the more spiritually-inclined, there is a palm reader, busily reading palms and tarot cards for any  willing participants.

Not everyone likes to shop for Christmas. There is a growing movement of people whom – for reasons of environmental sustainably, or perhaps just a tightening of the waist pocket – wish to spend less, spend wisely, or not spend at all. In an age of consumerism it’s not a bad thing. So shopping ventures aside, the night market was also full of people simply wanting to ‘hang out’ – take in the summer buzz, the live band or watch the nonnas roll out the freshly-made bourek at Koy. Perhaps the best things in life are free, but if you want to shop like a conscientious Melbournian ,with an eye to knowing where things come from, this is the place to go.

 

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Fussy eater? Try some market food

It seems that parents are full of complaints about fussy eaters these days. ‘Picky’ or ‘fussy’ eating habits refer to the consumption of a limited variety of foods driven by children rejecting certain foods over others. These habits can, get worse as children get older, in some cases developing into the condition of ‘food neophobia’ – which is the reluctance to eat, or the avoidance of new foods.

Last week when I was at the market, I spent some time looking at children and seeing how they interacted with food and the stimuli associated with eating in a bustling market place.

It was interesting see how so many children copy the habits of their parents – for instance wanting to dip their spoon into their mother’s caffe latte, or sample some of the cheeses and dips that their older siblings were tasting. Others were fairly reserved – disinterested to engage or be involved with what their family were consuming and enjoying.

Research suggests that most children are willing to eat a wide variety of foods until they are around two years old. From two to four or five years old they become pickier about what they eat. This is believed to be an evolutionary response as their taste buds shut down at about the time they start walking, giving them more control over what they eat.

Being ‘picky’ about what they choose to eat can also be a means of controlling their surrounding environment. If there is a punishment or reward associated with food, children will be more likely to rebel against it, or to try to assert their own power/free will over the situation.

In most cases however, a child’s eating habits or food preferences will stem from the example shown by their parents. If parents have a genuine love of food and a preference toward Real Food and traditional food preparation methods, children are more likely to follow their lead and develop life-long healthy eating habits.

How to deal with a picky eater

There’s never a perfect solution to dealing with a picky eater at home.  Some mum’s like the idea of hiding the good in with the bad. Well-known celebrity Jessica Seinfield (Jerry Seinfield’s wife) has written a best-seller called “Deceptively Delicious” (Harper Collins). In this cookbook/nutrition text, she lists recipes where healthy foods are hidden in with unhealthy ones. For example avocado slipped into chocolate pudding or spinach hidden in amongst chocolate brownies.

Personally I think this solution only adds to the problem – rather than learning to appreciate the beauty of real food it is deceptively hidden amongst unhealthy junk food – which does just as much damage as not putting the good stuff in.

Other mums become a slave to the whims of their children and cook up several different meals in the hope that they’ll eat one of them so that they’ll at least get something ‘good into them’.  I know of several mothers that can cook up to three or four different meals every night, just so that their children will eat something.

Shop together, cook together, garden together

The concept that has resonated the best with me is the idea of actively engaging with your children on the topic of real food. Projects such as Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen-Garden Foundation have shown that when children are actively involved with growing, harvesting and cooking their own food, they are prepared to try new foods – whatever they may be – for instance home-grown broccoli or eggs fresh from their backyard hens.

The philosophy of the foundation is simple – they eat what they grow – be it heirloom tomatoes or purple congo potatoes – it all gets cooked up into delicious lunchtime meals which the children can then sit down and enjoy.

So there is a fairly strong argument that children need to be more actively engaged in how food is sourced, grown, prepared and cooked which should pique more of their interest when it comes to sitting down and eating dinner.

But rest assured, busy time poor parents. There is no need to start spending all your ‘spare time’ digging up the front lawn and building green patches and vegetable arbours. It might be as simple as swapping to a market shop on weekends instead of going to the supermarket by yourself. Perhaps you could make your Saturday outing a market shop rather than a trip to the cinema.

The Mayo clinic has recently put together 10 principles for combating fussy eating habits. Up there in amongst ‘positive re-enforcement’, ‘family time together at the table’  and ‘minimise distractions’ is the idea of ‘recruiting your child’s help’. By actively employing their involvement by either choosing food with them or asking them to help you prepare food before dinner, you will pique their interest to try new things and give everything a go. Of course, they won’t always like everything, but if they are prepared to try it, you are half-way there.

Wherever possible, children younger than two years of age should be given as many new tastes and food experiences as possible. This will equip them to widen their palate before the picky phase begins.

Power peas make better vegetables

Crazy carrot anyone?

In the gist of making all food and food-related experiences fun and enjoyable, try giving food different names with positive connotations. According to The New York Times, Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, says that by surrounding food with positive names and connotations it will encourage people to try new foods. For instance, in one experiment when peas were renamed “power peas,” consumption doubled.

Of course, it goes without saying that sitting down to a meal at a table, rather than couch designed around a television set will add to the sanctity of the meal. Getting your child to chew their food properly and engage in light-hearted conversation during mealtimes will also add to the positive associations that are so important with different foods. In a similar vein, saying ‘thanks’ before a meal makes everyone (including parents) realise how lucky we are to have access to real food – and to be able to sit down and enjoy it together as a family or group of friends.

Some good reading on this topic

Wholefoods for Children by Jude Blereau

Real Food for Mother & Baby by Nina Planck

Kitchen Garden Cooking with Kids by Stephanie Alexander

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Cooking Classes: Wholefoods therapy

Concentrating on a small tastk - such as pie-making, is the best way to forget everything else

These days we are inundated by suggestions on how to unwind.  ‘Get a haircut’ says my mother, ‘have a drink’ say my friends, ‘go workout’ says my trainer.  Recently, I’ve decided to throw all their suggestions (most respectfully) in the bin. I’ve decided that the best way to unwind is to attend a cooking class. And not just any class – a class based at a wholefoods market that sells nourishing, nutrient-dense food and supports a transparent food system.

There is something very therapeutic about watching someone else cook, and then being later nourished by their dishes. When I was a child I used to stare at my mother for hours in the kitchen as she prepared our dinner and fossicked around the kitchen. One could extrapolate from this that the blow-out of prime-time cooking shows has a lot to do with our hunger for connection to this favourite pastime. It’s like watching someone slowly and gently prepare something that is going to nourish you, but you don’t have to do anything other than watch relax and enjoy.

Before..

Last night I attended my first class at the LG Cooking School at the South Melbourne Market.  Turning up late and wearing the remnants of the Melbourne winter weather, I was greeted by a fresh glass of Chardonnay and a plate of pork terrine and mustard fruit chutney with crunchy sourdough bread. The chairs were comfy, the room was warm and I relished every second of watching Brook Petrie (from The Commoner) massage the pork mince, roll out the pastry and chop up the rabbit.

After..

The LG Cooking School hosts a small class of twelve people and you can interact, comment and even participate with the chef. Last night we did traditional British food with Brook. We prepared rabbit and prune pies, English-style brussel sprouts and carrots, pork terrine, mustard fruits and ale-cake with salty caramel sauce.

At the end of the class, I chatted with Janet, the class co-ordinator, about some of the upcoming classes. Here are the ones that piqued my interest, but there are heaps of others that look great. Go to the South Melbourne Market website to book.

Luke Smith from Centro Ristorante Italiano is doing a class focused in Marche; a region in Northern Italy surrounded by mountains and sea. Luke will be cooking traditional dishes such as a brodetto, an Adriatic bouillabaisse rich with seafood, a vincisgrassi – a traditional lasagne followed by his own interpretations of both porchetta (roast pork) and pizza dolce with hazelnut cream and chocolate.  What interests me about this class is that it incorporates many of the old Northern Italian cooking traditions. For instance you can learn how to pull (not roll) out your own pasta (a tradition that was originally used to test the suitability of future-daughters-in-law) and cook a traditional brodetto zuppa with thirteen ingredients, which follows the protocol of Catholic traditions. It also comes accompanied by a selection of Italian wines – cha-ching!

Brad Simpson from The Smith is teaching a class on ‘Dazzling Desserts’. He will be baking, setting and freezing his chocolate creations and claims that ‘he is the chef who knows how’. On the menu, there is almond soft-centred chocolate fondant with Pedro Ximinez caramel, Argentinean-inspired chocolate dolce de leche with orange foam and white chocolate & almond parfait.

Brook Petrie gets stuck into the rabbit at the British Cooking class

Tony Twitchett from Taxi dining room will be teaching the spicy, sweet and sour taste of Hunan cooking.  He’s making soups and broths – an ideal antidote to the current season. Dishes include Changdu chicken hot pot, red braised pork belly and a stir-fried salt and chilli Chinese cabbage.

I realise Mother’s Day is just around the corner.. Perhaps instead of the usual, flowers, massage and burnt toast, why not treat her to a class which involves the best therapy of all – nourishment, cooking and wine?

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Meet my potato-lady!

All regular market shoppers have their favourite stalls – they might be the ‘pasta-shop’, ‘soup seller’, ‘cheese-place’ ‘carrot-man’ or in my case, ‘the potato place’.

At stall 50, my ‘potato place’ (the proper name is: Georgie’s Harvest Potatoes & Herbs, but I don’t think I have ever called it that – I always remember the potatoes before I think of anything else) you can buy all manner of potatoes, pumpkins, garlic, olive oil and even home-grown horseradish and turmeric.

I adore these potatoes! Every time I visit the market, I am tempted by roasted spuds with garlic, pink potato mash (yes, it really does exist if you shop at the right potato place) and dark purple congo gnocchi. I also come away with handfuls of dark purple carrots, olive oil and sharp-tasting wasabi root.
You might be wondering what is so good about potatoes? Of course, they are available just about everywhere. The supermarket sells them for next to nothing, and they were originally considered a poor-man’s food.

Why make the effort to go to a stall that predominates in potatoes of all things?
Well for starters, these are not ordinary potatoes. Unlike supermarket potatoes, these potatoes are sourced from Victorian and Tasmanian farms. They are always fresh, ready in the peak of their season and delicately cared for.

The beauty of specialty market store-holders is that they always have a better knowledge of their produce. You can find out where your food comes from, how fresh it is, and of course, the best way to cook with it. With only minimal effort, Georgie has opened my mind to all the beauty, quality and integrity of the humble spud.
For instance, last Saturday when I did my regular shop, Georgie explained to me that the Kind Edward is currently the best potato to buy during April. It is in the peak of its season and is a beautiful roasting potato (perfect for the Easter weekend). Of course, if you are opting for the traditional fish-and-chips on Good Friday, it might be worth picking up some Royal Blue, Kennebec or Idaho varieties as they are excellent chippers.
People shop at the potato stall for a variety of reasons. The stall has a lot of cultural significance, with a wide customer base, and it is one of the few, or perhaps the only, place in Melbourne where you can buy specialized varieties of potato that are fresh, and in season.

Last weekend, with Georgie’s recommendation I purchased several specialty potatoes that made a delectable pink-potato-mash (yes, you read correctly. The mash turned pink after we had boiled and mashed up the spuds!!). The week before, I bought several odd-looking purple congo varieties that were able to be rolled up into fantastic-looking bright purple potato gnocchi. Kids that have previously stated that they don’t like vegetables have eaten several bowls of these bizarre-looking, brightly coloured spuds, and it blows my mind that I didn’t think of serving them up sooner.

According to Georgie, the potatoes are treated with optimum and plenty of TLC. This is not just a marketing spin, but an important technique of preservation for optimum nutrition of each spud. They are always bought fresh and in season, and are kept at an optimum temperature in the store throughout the year.

Georgie sources sixty per cent of her produce directly from farmers. She pays them the going rate of the wholesale markets and tries to build stronger relationships with them wherever she can. ‘I like to shake the hand of the person that grows our food,’ says Georgie. ‘It’s also reassuring to know exactly where our food comes from’.

Georgie warns me that if you ever buy supermarket potatoes, be sure to NEVER buy them washed. Apart from the fact that the washing process utilizes a handful of detergents and chemicals, the process also causes the potato to produce toxins. When potatoes are exposed to light – be it from sunlight when they sit on top of the soil, or supermarket lights when they are clean and washed, they protect themselves by a natural defence mechanism of toxin production which discourages predators from eating them. You might notice a slight green tinge when this happens.

So when I shop at the market this Saturday, Georgie will get my usual visit followed by my ‘fish-shop,’ ‘oyster-place’ and ‘vegetable-spot’ (more on them later. You will have to read the next blog). My resolution next year will be to start knowing more of the names of these stall-holders. I’d like to build these relationships in the future, as the more I shop, the more that I realize how little I actually know….

Potato tips:
-    Never buy washed potatoes. Look for naturally-dirty potatoes and wash them yourself, at home with a traditional potato-scrubber.
-    Ask your stall holder about what is fresh and in season. The skin is usually a good indicator of freshness. It should be taut and not blistered.
-    Wherever possible, try to experiment with brightly-coloured, heritage  spud varieties. Many studies have indicated that they are better for you. They also have a wonderful novelty-factor for kids.
-    Don’t hesitate to ask your stall-holder the best ways to cook up your spuds. Some are better suited to roasting, others to boiling and mashing. It depends a lot on the starch content of the potato. But your stall holder should be able to tell you this.

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Does it cost too much to eat well?

While I was shopping at the market yesterday, I found myself deliberating over a bunch of carrots. Of course, these weren’t just any carrots. They were the dark-orange Dutch variety, certified-organic and endowed with all those characteristic knobs and bumps that we are all so fondly familiar with.

But despite their beauty, these carrots were a little more pricey than normal. At $4.00 per kilo it gave me something to think about.

Now in my mind, locally-grown, sustainably-farmed produce is worth the extra few cents that it might cost from the farmer, or at the markets. These traditional farming methods utilize slow-release fertilizers that impart a greater nutrient density in the plants that end up on our dinner tables.

Whilst conventional production methods might make food bigger, stronger and more uniform in appearance, several studies show that these developments have not equated to a relative improvement in available nutrients.

Smaller farms that utilize these traditional farming methods often have produce that takes longer to grow. And longer time often equates to pricier produce.

But with this in mind, there are still many people, just like me, who hesitate about buying carrots.

And so, I thought for the purposes of this blog, I might share some secrets on how to save costs on buying food. If, like me you have a tendency toward beautiful-looking carrots or plumply-ripened raspberries, here are some tips on buying the best, sourcing them wisely and making the most of what you have.

Shop:
Try shopping directly for your food source wherever possible: community markets (such as the South Melbourne Market), farmers’ markets or directly from the farm. These outlets usually provide lower prices for better quality produce.
Of course, in some cases, the prices are of equal or greater value, but personally I would prefer to be spending those extra few dollars at an outlet where I know I am directly benefitting my local food economy and not a supplier of imported or processed food.

Look for produce that is in season, and locally-abundant and it will most likely be cheaper and fresher too.

Grow:
Having fresh herbs and any leafy green vegetables growing in your back garden or balcony pots will provide an extra zing to any dish that you are preparing at home. These plants are easy to grow and will save you well on your food bill each week.

Cook:
Wherever possible, try to buy food in its raw form, without any added ingredients or preservatives. Don’t bother with take-away meals, they are not even that much cheaper (see below) or better for you! Shopping for fresh, unprocessed food will form the basis for all the wonderful meals that you prepare in your home kitchen.  If you are shopping at the market, look for sustainably-farmed meat and fish, and organic fresh fruit and vegetables.

Buy it whole:
To make your food go further, consider buying food in bulk or purchasing the whole animal instead of just the popular cuts of meat. For instance, when you are shopping for poultry, look for the whole bird instead of just the fillets or wings. If you are buying fish, again, try to buy it whole and ask the fish monger to fillet it for you and give you the bones and head. This will cost roughly the same amount and you will have the opportunity to make your meal span over several dishes instead of just one.

For seafood, you can cook up the fish fillets and use the head and bones to make a delicious, nutrient-dense stock. This can be used as a base for fish broth or soup.

If you are cooking chicken, you can roast a whole chicken for your first meal, use the leftover meat for school sandwiches the next day, or make chicken with rice on for the following meal. With the bones and feet, you can use them to make chicken stock and store this up for chicken soup or chicken risotto.

Whenever you cook chicken, don’t forget those chicken feet! These add extra gelatin and nutrients to stocks and stews. Look for them at the South Melbourne Market at Emerald Hill Poultry (Stall Number: 3 in the Food Court).

Use the scraps!

So much food is wasted in our food supply. These ‘scraps’ are often very nutritious and  highly valued in other cultures. For example – meat bones make excellent stock and form the basis for nutritious, gelatin-rich soups and stews. Off-cuts of meat (such as casserole cuts) are cheaper and can make delicious slow-cooked stews. Offal or organ meats are extremely nutrient dense (for instance liver – a very unpopular organ has five times the iron of conventional steak. You can use it to make pate or just fry up thin slivers of it and serve it fresh). Similarly, fish bones and heads are highly prized for their important minerals and gelatin and are sold for only a few dollars per bag at the market.

Fast Food versus market food: What’s the price difference?
On the topic of price and our food supply, I thought it might be interesting to note that I did a little experiment last weekend, which might give cheapie shoppers something to think about.

We’ve been conducting Frugavore tours of the South Melbourne Market as part of The Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. At the end of the tour I picked up my usual ingredients for dinner and I also managed to do a drive-by at our local fast food outlet to compare the prices.
Is fast food cheaper than sustainably-sourced market food? Have a look!

Oregano-baked sardines:
Ingredients: sardines, lemon, fresh oregano, red onion, olive oil.
Cost per dish (serves 2): $9.00
Cost per person: $4.50

Leafy lentil salad:
Ingredients: French green lentils, bay leaf, garlic, white wine vinegar, olive oil, red capsicum, celery, mint, basil, fetta cheese.
Cost per dish (serves 4): $19.50
Cost per person: $4.90

After shopping at the market, we swung past our local drive-thru and picked up a copy of the menu.. No surprises here!

Fast Food Meal Deal:
Large burger $4.95, 6-pack nuggets $5.25, Frozen Coke (medium) $3.45,
Serves: 1
Cost per person: $13.65

So dinner at home cost: $9.40 per person but a take-away meal cost $13.65 per person. I realize that this is just ONE example of a healthy dinner prepared with market produce and compared to conventional fast food meals. But still, it had me thinking. So many people continuously tell me that it costs too much to eat well. But obviously, from my small experiment last weekend, it is still significantly cheaper to buy good quality produce and prepare it yourself, rather than fast food that is advertised as being cheap.

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2012 Resolutions for Market Shopping

Welcome to 2012
A recent internet poll looked at people’s New Year resolutions for 2012. The poll showed that more people want to get fit, get healthy, lose weight and find themselves in better relationships for the upcoming year. That’s not anything new.

What did pique my interest was that there was also a definite upward trend of more people wanting to live with a lighter ecological footprint – that is; using less, saving more, and being more conscious about the environment. That’s certainly good news.

One of the most effective ways that we can lessen our ecological footprint is to make more sustainable choices about the food that we consume; where we shop for it, how we carry it home, and how we choose to dispose of what we don’t end up using.

So, of course this brings me back to market shopping. What better place to find a fresh array of locally-sourced produce, much of which is grown on organic farms, than your local fresh food market? Within the first week of our family returning home from our Christmas break, I was back on the bike, heading to the market and stocking up our fridge as we headed back to our normal workday routines

Plenty is happening – and has already happened – at The Market this year. At Theo’s deli (stalls 16 & 17) they are stocking several new French cheeses including Fedel de Cleron (truffle infused, creamy brie box) and Saint Marcellin – a soft ripened cows milk cheese from the Rhone Alps. Pick A Deli (stall S4) is also stocking a new Rouziaire Bree cheese infused with truffles, plus several new varieties of handmade sausages from Jonathan’s butcher.

My favourite potato woman – Georgie’s Harvest (stall 50) – tells me that the season for King Edward potatoes has just begun. If you are not familiar with this variety, try roasting them with fresh herbs and olive oil (try the Cretan variety – also sold at Georgie’s Harvest) or some good quality duck fat (try any of the deli stores). There are also deliciously frumpy Idahos coming into season, which are great chippers, as well as Otway Reds, which make superb crispy jacket potatoes.


Well-cooked potatoes go very well with some freshly-caught summer fish. Some good sustainable choices include fresh whiting, snapper and calamari, which are all currently in local abundance. These are all available at South Melbourne Seafoods (Stall 4), Aptus Seafood (stall 25) and Jim’s Fresh Fish (stall 31).

No meal is complete without a good bottle of cider – try the new Mountain Goat fresh apple cider, which is being released this week at Swords Select (stall 73). The cider is prepared with three varieties of local apples from Victorian orchards and contains no artificial flavourings, colourings or preservatives (which cannot be said for so many of the other ciders currently on the market).

But my favourite pick at the market at present is freshly baked canele (a delicate custard with a caramelized crust) from Emerald Hill Deli (stall 23-24). They also have a new chocolate brownie, which is delicious and a cream brulee macaroon that is worth driving from the other side of town for.

In this hot weather, I would also suggest a quick pit-stop at Fritz gelato (stall 2) where they are scooping out their new organic cinnamon donut ice cream. There is also fresh plum pudding flavour still available post-Christmas and mouth watering fresh banana and zesty lemon sorbet which are perfect for the drive home.

So if you are one of the many people wanting to live healthier lives with a cleaner food conscience this year, you might find that shopping at the market is a simple and delicious way to do this.

And let’s face it, all those other resolutions – the gym memberships, meditation classes and be-nice-to-your-partner memos – generally don’t make it past March. Enjoying a healthier diet, with fresh market food, will be a lot easier to stick to!

Happy New Year.
Arabella

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Sustainable Seafood: What’s on offer at your local market.

People often ask me how to choose and source the best quality, ethically sourced seafood.  I’m not surprised by their questioning – buying freshly-caught, sustainably sourced seafood has become a minefield for the average shopper today.
It wasn’t that long ago that we all thought that the ocean provided an inexhaustible supply of seafood.

Now we are realising that our stocks are running thin – in fact three quarters of the world’s oceans are already officially over-exploited or fished to their limit. Choosing sustainable seafood means choosing seafood from either fished or farmed sources that can maintain or even increase their production in the future, without jeopardising the ecosystems from which they were acquired.

Our large-scale methods for fishing are both damaging to fish populations, other marine wildlife and precious ocean habitats. Similarly, many of our methods for fish farming are destroying the surrounding ecosystem. The good news is that we can lessen our impact on fish species and the ocean environment by choosing our seafood wisely and supporting sustainable fishing methods. The fish that you choose to buy can directly support the health of our oceans and sustainable fishing industries.

Shop fresh, shop local:

The first step in sourcing sustainable seafood is to start shopping for fresh fish at your local market. Fresh fish will be caught locally and you will have the opportunity to speak directly to the stallholder about the origin of the produce. In comparison, most supermarkets provide minimal or poorly labelled information and stock mainly canned and frozen produce. Don’t believe me? Canned fish, which you find in your everyday supermarket or convenience store, is estimated to be the most imported at $257 million, frozen fish fillets at $228 million, prawns (fresh, chilled and frozen) at $167 million and canned crustaceans and molluscs at $128 million (1).

These products are sourced mainly from unsustainable fishing methods (unless they are clearly labelled as ‘sustainably farmed’, which is fairly hard to find in most mainstream supermarkets) and have lost a significant amount of their nutritional value during heat processing and time in transit. If you shop for fresh fish at your local market, you have the advantage of being able to communicate directly to the stallholder to ask them where their fish comes from and how it has been sourced. Again, the benefits of market shopping lie in the transparency of the food system. Being able to speak directly to people who are knowledgeable about where your food comes from is half the battle won. Have you ever had the same kind of interaction with staff at a local supermarket?
During my last market visit, I had an interesting chat with John at South Melbourne Seafood (stall 4). He showed me his range of sustainably caught seafood that he sells fresh every market day. What I was particularly interested to see was that not all of his seafood is sustainably farmed. Some of his best-sellers such as farmed salmon from Tasmania are in fact very unsustainably farmed (see my notes below on sustainable fish farms). But what I liked about talking with John was his complete honesty about the situation: ‘Customers ask for salmon, it’s one of our biggest sellers, of course I’m still going to sell it. When the market changes, so will I. In the meantime, we still stock a majority of sustainably caught fish’. This made me realise that, as always, the burden of choosing the best produce lies with us – the consumers, and not the person behind the counter. At South Melbourne Seafood, most of the seafood comes from local areas such as Bass Strait (flathead, rockling, school shark, dory) and Queenscliff (King George whiting, garfish). There are also some sustainable fish farms on the Mornington Peninsula where they are able to source mussels, oysters and pippies.

Less sustainable options at the fresh food market are often the most popular choices. Seafood such as prawn meat (from Queensland) and Salmon (farmed in Tasmania) should be avoided. As a general rule, to be a sustainable-fish-shopper, you should be looking for smaller varieties of fish, sustainably-farmed fish, wild-caught fish and locally caught fish. Here’s why:

Fish farming:
Look for smaller varieties of fish, molluscs and herbivores. These varieties can be sustainably farmed without supplementary feeding. Carnivorous varieties such as salmon require intensive feeding methods to sustain themselves. It is estimated that it takes 5 pounds of wild fish to produce 1 pound of farmed salmon. In addition to natural seafood, salmon also receive unnatural supplementary feed such as soy meal pellets to bulk up their diet. Because of their intensive living conditions, they are also fed antibiotics to prevent/treat disease caused by living in close proximity to other fish. Salmon farms not only produce unhealthy fish, they also damage the surrounding ecosystems with their waste run-off.

Smaller varieties of fish:
Look for smaller varieties of fish, shellfish and molluscs. These varieties can be sustainably farmed without supplementary feeding. Also, smaller varieties of fish will contain less mercury in their flesh compared to the larger varieties.

Sustainably-fished or line-caught:
This terminology implies that the fish have been caught with traditional fishing methods, and not the modern trawler methods which damage the ocean environment. Even if your fish falls into this category make sure that you are still choosing sustainable varieties of seafood.

Fast-growing:
Avoid slow-growing varieties of fish that reproduce late in life such as orange roughy. These types of fish are quite vulnerable to overfishing. Seafood species that grow quickly and breed young, such as anchovies and sardines, are much more resistant to overfishing.

More questions?
Speak with your fishmonger:

Aptus Seafood at South Melbourne Market

Speak with your fishmonger!! One of the benefits of shopping at the market is being able to communicate directly to the people that sell and source your food. Ask them what they’re selling and where they’ve sourced it. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. It’s a much better way to shop than just reading the back of a John West can at your local supermarket.

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Look it up!
If you’ve got an iphone or a blackberry, simply look it up online at http://www.sustainableseafood.org.au/, there is a search engine toolbar on the home page. Any fish sold in Australia can be checked this way. The site categorises the seafood varieties into: ‘better’ ‘think’ and ‘no’ which gives you an indication of how you should be viewing each variety of fish. These categories are based on the status of fish populations or ‘stocks’ – whether they are ‘faring well’, ‘on the edge’ or ‘overfished’.
You can also purchase a sustainable seafood guide for $9.95 at http://www.sustainableseafood.org.au/, it’s small enough to easily fit into your diary or shopping bag.

Links:
Australian Marine Conservation Trust: http://marineconservation.org.au
Australia’s Sustainable Seafood Guide: http://www.sustainableseafood.org.au

(1) SOURCE: ABARE Fisheries Statistics 2008

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Winter warmers..

This week I am donning my beanie, scarf and long sleeve sweater before I head to the South Melbourne Market.

We are approaching the final month of winter chill so I am relishing the last opportunity to enjoy some seasonal winter produce. It might be some slow-cooked pork chops, a dish of soft and tender cannellini beans or even a piping hot apple and pear crumble. Whatever the case may be, it’s time to rug up with a doona and toddie, sit in front of the fire and enjoy the nourishing seasonal produce of the final winter months.

Winter is a time when food seems to taste better with slower, gentler cooking. Many winter fruit and vegetables taste deliciously good after several hours on the stovetop and meat dishes become tender and wonderfully gelatinous after some long hours of simmering and stewing.

I know that it takes a bit of extra effort to get out of bed in the mornings and brave the elements. But don’t be dissuaded. I had a wonderful morning last Friday at the market where I rugged up in full winter attire. Breathing the cold of the winter frost I was delighted to find the market, cool and misty, and still very calm at the early hours of the morning.

After loading up with fresh fruit, vegetables and deli produce, I finally sat down at Padre Coffee with a piping hot chocolate, a croissant and a copy of the paper. Now that’s what I call winter bliss!

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Tips for getting the best of winter produce:
-    Look for tougher cuts of meat, which benefit from long, slow cooking. These cuts are often cheaper than the quick-cooking, leaner-cuts. They are also rich in gelatin which has important nutritional qualities.
-    Winter root vegetables such as parsnip, carrot and potato are generally fairly cheap and go very well in casserole dishes, soups and stews (using the aforementioned tougher cuts).
-    Seasonal produce is usually available in abundance and often cheaper than out-of-season imported foods. So look for food that is fresh, locally produced and always in season.

What’s in season:
Fruit: Apples, mandarins, cumquats, custard apples, citrus fruit, pears, papayas, pineapples, rhubarb, tangelos.
Veg: asian greens, avocados, beetroot, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbages, carrots, cauliflower, celeriac, celery, fennel, garlic, ginger, horseradish, Jerusalem artichokes, kale, kohlrabi, leeks, okra, olives, onions, parsnips, potatoes, pumpkins, shallots, silverbeet, spinach, swedes, sweet potatoes, turnips, witlof.

Slow cooked sweet pears with pork chops
Preparation time: 10 mins
Cooking time: 3-4 hours
Serves: 4

Ingredients:
4 pork loin chops, cut 1 inch thick (try Tom’s butcher for mouth-watering chops)
½ tsp salt
1/8 tsp pepper
6 thin lemon slices (try any of the fruiters)
½ of 1 medium sized onion, cut into fine slices (as above)
2 pears, cut in half with pips removed (as above)
¼ cup brown or rapadura sugar (I used Billington’s Natural Molasses Sugar from Vangeli’s‘s Deli)
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbs soy sauce (try Market Organics – stall 52)
¼ tsp ginger (as above)
Brown pork chops on both sides in a skillet. Place browned chops into a slow cooker or heavy enamel cooking pot with a tight fitting lid. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add lemon and onion slices and place the pear halves on top. Add in the remaining ingredients plus enough water to cover half of the mixture. Cover with tight-fitting lid and cook in a pre-heated oven at 180 degrees celcius for ½ hour, then reduce the heat to 100 degrees celcius and cook for a further 3-4 hours. Check meat for tenderness.  Serve with a salad or roast potatoes.

Slow-cooked cannellini beans with bacon and herbs
Preparation time: 10 mins
Cooking time: 3-4 hours
Serves: 6 (as a side dish)

Ingredients:
2 cups dried cannellini beans, pre-soaked in water with ½ tsp bicarb soda for 12-24 hours (Rita’s Deli does great dried beans)
2 bay leaves (try any of the fruit stalls on Coventry Street)
1-2 rashes of bacon, cut into 1cm strips (Tom’s Butcher has excellent bacon from South Australia)
1 tsp fresh thyme
1 small onion, finely chopped
salt and pepper to taste
4-5 garlic cloves, kept whole.
Plenty of curly-leaf parsley to garnish
Cooking fat for frying (I recommend duck fat, goose fat, lard or butter which is sold at any of the delis).

Rinse the pre-soaked beans under cold running water and leave to drain in a colander.
In a cast iron cooking pot, sauté the onion with a little cooking fat for 3-5 minutes, or until lightly browned. Add the bacon and continue to fry for another minute. Add the herbs and drained cannellini beans and cover the pot with fresh water. The beans should be completely immersed under liquid. Allow to gently simmer on the stove top on a low heat for 3-4 hours, or until beans are soft. Boil down any excess liquid and season generously with salt and pepper.  Squash any chunks of garlic to form a smooth paste and stir them through the beans. Garnish with finely chopped parsley and a dash of olive oil. Serve warm.

Pear & Apple Crumble
Serves: 6
Preparation time: 15 mins
Cooking Time: 20-30 mins
Ingredients:
For the filling:
2 pears (Market Organics – stall 52, had awesome pears this week)
2 cooking apples (or sour green apples) (try any of the fruiterers)
2 tbsp butter
juice of ½ lemon

For the topping:
1 ¼ cup rolled oats (Try Rita’s Deli for inexpensive, good quality oats)
1 ¼ cup desicatted coconut
Juice and rind of ½ orange
Juice of ½ lemon
1 cup brown sugar or rapadura sugar (I used Billington’s Natural Molasses Sugar from Vangeli’s‘s Deli)
½ tsp vanilla essence
½ tsp baking powder
100g butter
1 generous teaspoon cinnamon powder (try Stall 38: Asian Groceries)
½ tsp grated nutmeg (as above)

Pre-heat your oven to 180 degrees celcius and grease a 20 x 30cm pie dish.
Cut the apples and pears into 1/8 slices and toss them in the lemon juice . Prepare a large saucepan on a medium heat and toss the fruit with the 2 tbsp of butter for 10-15 minutes until lightly browned and semi-soft. Prepare the pie topping by combining all the topping ingredients together in a food processor. Mix well. Place the fruit in the pie dish and spread it out evenly. Use your hands to squash out the topping into a flat base and place it over the fruit. Place your pie in a pre-heated oven and cook for 20-30 minutes or until topping is brown and crisp. Serve with fresh cream or rich, sour-tasting yoghurt.

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10 Minute Market Meals

When it comes to wholesome home-cooking, the most common complaint that I hear from people is that they simply don’t have time to cook. I used to face the same dilemma – after a long day at work and a tedious drive home, I would often find that I had little time to whip up anything substantial, let alone healthy for dinner.

But after many years of cooking I finally learnt that if you shop for your food at a good quality outlet – be it your back garden or local market, most of the hard work is already done for you. Nutrient dense, whole foods require very little food preparation and when sourced fresh – be it picked from a tree, or fished from a local ocean they are ready to eat – require very little cooking, flavouring or fiddling-around-with.

So of course, this is what brings me back to the beauty and benefits of fresh market shopping: all the food is fresh, wholesome and for the most part, locally sourced. Most of the time all that you need to do to ‘prepare’ your meal is get out the dinner plates and set the table.

With this in mind, it surprised me to find that most 10 minute meals found on Google feature processed and pre-packaged ingredients. Ingredients that come out of a can, out of a freezer or have been stored at the supermarket for a period of months. The ‘effort’ required in cooking them usually involves unwrapping them and placing them in the microwave. Why do we associate quick and easy cooking with foods that are processed, pre-packaged and artificially flavoured?

So, I braved the market on a frosty morning earlier this week. I wanted to see how many dishes I could prepare from fresh market ingredients in less than 10 minutes. I left with an abundance of freshly sourced food – organic vegetables, grass-fed meat and locally-sourced seafood – foods that require very little effort other than a quick pan-fry or salad-toss to make them delicious and ready-to-eat. I also had the opportunity to stock my fridge with plentiful nutrient-dense snacks: home-made spanakopita, artisan cheeses and freshly prepared dips and pickled fish.

What I realized during the course of this shopping trip is that the benefits of shopping at the market go far beyond fresh, local and sustainable produce. Many of the storeholders prepare dishes using recipes and techniques that were passed down to them by their parents or grandparents.  Their home-prepared dishes – be it home-spun bourek, or traditional spanakopita – are made with the same love and care of their home kitchens passed down through many generations.

These foods are very different from the convenient items available at the supermarket or fast food outlet– those which are packaged, and pre-prepared several miles away. Many pre-packaged supermarket foods  might also be convenient and easy to prepare, but they lack the nutrients and flavour of fresh, home-cooked food.

Happy Shopping!
Arabella xo

Shopping tips for cooks-in-a-hurry:
-    Look for ready-made, nutrient-dense food items that can keep well in your fridge or freezer: ie home-made chicken stock, good quality artisan cheeses, ready-made pickles, dips and home-made deli goods.
-    For foods that require minimal cooking, look for fresh seafood that can be eaten raw or quickly pan-fried. Try some oysters, mussels or sashimi-grade tuna. Also opt for the quicker-cooking cuts of meat such as steak, mince – which can be made in to hamburgers,  or eye fillet – which can be diced and turned into steak tartare.
-    Root vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, parsnips and onions can keep well in your pantry or fridge during the week. They also go deliciously well in winter-warming recipes such as soups, stews and casseroles.
-    Try to squeeze in a market trip before work or during a lunchbreak. Although much quieter than later in the day, the market atmosphere is literally buzzing in the morning, and you’ll be glad you got up that half-hour earlier than usual when you sit down to a warm coffee or hot donut amidst the market chaos.

Seasonal produce this week:
Beautiful winter fruit such as apples, custard apples, citrus fruit, kiwifruit, nuts, papayas, passionfruit, pears, persimmons, quinces and rhubarb.
Winter vegetables such as Asian greens, avocados, beetroot, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbages, carrots, cauliflower, celeriac, celery, fennel, garlic, ginger, horseradish, Jerusalem artichokes, kale, kohlrabi, leeks, okra, olives, onions, parsnips, potatoes, pumpkins, shallots, silverbeet, spinach, swedes, sweet potatoes, turnips and witlof.

Quick-and-easy Saffron Straciatella
Chicken soup is one of the most nourishing foods that you can enjoy during wintertime. I was pleased to find this recipe, which required less than 10 minutes of cooking to deliver a truly satisfying and wholesome meal.

1 litre chicken stock (try K & L Poultry)*
Several sprigs of saffron (try Stall 38: Asian Groceries)
3 free-range eggs (try K & L Poultry or any of the deli’s)
½ cup grated parmesan cheese (try Theo’s or Emerald Hill)
1 slice of stale bread, pureed into breadcrumbs (try Vangeli’s for a good loaf of sourdough)
1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped (try any of the fruiterers)

In a medium-sized saucepan bring the stock up to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Add in the saffron and stir well. In a separate mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, and then add the cheese, breadcrumbs and parsley. Season to taste.

Gently pour in half of the chicken stock to the egg mixture and continue to whisk. Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and keep the mixture simmering. Within a minute you should notice the eggs thicken and cook. Turn the stove off immediately and pour the soup into individual serving bowls. Serve with a generous garnish of flat-leaf parsley and a drizzle of olive oil.

* I was super excited to see that K & L Fresh Poultry are now selling ready-made chicken stock. The stock is made using their own free-range chicken bones with fresh vegetables and herbs. If you happen to have ever attended one of my cooking classes you would be aware that I am passionate about good-quality, home-made chicken and meat stock, which is FAR superior to any ready-made stock cube or stock mix that you buy at the supermarket. But if you can’t make your stock at home, K & L Poultry can do the job for you!  If you have a preference for organic, free-range chicken stock, try purchasing some carcasses from Tom’s Butcher and make it yourself.

Quail egg and bacon salad:

This light and breezy salad is quick and easy to prepare – you should have it cooked in just on 10 minutes. You can buy quail eggs from several of the fresh food outlets – including K & L Fresh Poultry.

18 quail eggs (try K & L Poultry)
4 large rashes of bacon (I enjoyed Barossa Bacon strips from Tom’s Butcher)
2 cups fresh green beans, topped and tailed and cut in half (any of the fruiterers)
4-5 medium sized potatoes, washed and cut into bite-sized cubes (as above)
1 ½ cups cherry tomatoes, cut in half (as above)
1 packet (3 cups) organic winter salad mix (try South Melbourne Market Organics)
2 tsp cumin seeds (try Stall 38: Asian Groceries)

Dressing:
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (try Patrina’s Potatoes and Herbs or any of the deli stores)
½ tsp apple cider vinegar (try South Melbourne Market Organics)
½ tsp balsamic vinegar (try Steve’s deli, Vangeli’s Deli or Rita’s Coffee & Nut Shop)

Heat a large fry pan to a medium heat and add a little bit of cooking fat (try a small dash of olive oil or butter). Cut the bacon into bite-size pieces and place it on one side of the pan and place the tomatoes, cut-side down on the other side of the pan. Allow the bacon to fry until evenly cooked on both sides. Don’t worry about turning the tomatoes over. Just let them simmer away.

In a vegetable steamer, place the potatoes and beans and allow them to cook until the potatoes are just soft, and the beans are al dente. Remove them from the steamer. Allow the potatoes to cool and rinse the green beans under cold water. Shake off any excess liquid and combine the potatoes and beans together in a mixing bowl, season to taste and then toss through the olive oil dressing. Stir through the salad leaves and place them in the serving bowl. Sprinkle the bacon and tomatoes on top.

Finally, in a small saucepan filled with boiling water, add the quail eggs and allow them to boil for 3 minutes. Drain them from the saucepan, then place them in a bowl full of iced water. Peel the shells from each of the eggs. The iced water will help the shells separate from the eggs. Toss the eggs with fresh cumin seeds and a sprinkling of sea salt. Place them on top of the salad and serve.

Cheesy-broccoli frittata:

Frittatas are one of the quickest and easiest meals to prepare when you arrive home late from work. You can interchange the vegetables and fillings as you like – I often substitute the broccoli for a fresh handful of silverbeet from the garden but leftover baked pumpkin and parsnip also works well.

Ingredients:
1 small head of broccoli, chopped into small, bite-size pieces (try any of the fresh produce stores)
1 tsp dried oregano (try stall 38: Asian Groceries)
4-5 eggs (try K & L Poultry or any of the fresh food outlets. South Melbourne Organics sells organic, free-range eggs).
70 grams gruyere cheese, grated (try Emerald Hill)
1 heaped tbsp sour cream (try Emerald Hill)
1 heaped tbsp spring onions, finely chopped (try any of the fresh food stores)

In a small mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs with a fork. Add the remaining ingredients and season to taste. Place a small (20cm diameter), oven-proof omelet pan on a high heat. Line the pan with a little olive oil and butter. Pour in the egg mixture. Cook on a high heat until edges are lightly browned. Transfer the pan to a preheated oven and cook at 2500C for 5 minutes or until the eggs are sufficiently cook. Serve immediately with a fresh salad.

Pan-fried banana with butterscotch sauce:

I realize that bananas are not the cheapest or most popular fruit at the moment, but these soft little beauties were on special at South Melbourne Organics and I just couldn’t resist. The butterscotch sauce was a real winner and I used the leftovers to pour over our porridge the next morning.

4 medium-sized bananas (try South Melbourne Market Organics)
2 tbsp butter, plus extra for frying (try Steve’s Deli or any of the other delis)
½ cup brown sugar (try Billington’s Natural Molasses Sugar available at Vangeli’s)
¼ cup cream, plus extra to serve (try Emerald Hill or any of the delis)
a few drops of vanilla extract
½ cup white sugar

Start by making the butterscotch sauce: Place the white sugar in a small saucepan and place on a medium heat with 1 tsp of water. Bring to a boil and allow the sugar to caramelise. Combine the butter with the cream, brown sugar and vanilla and add this to the white sugar. Reduce the heat and continue to stir the sauce until it thickens (usually just under a minute).

Meanwhile, place a large fry pan onto a high heat and add 1 tsp of butter into the pan. Peel the bananas and allow them to brown on either side. Remove the bananas from the pan and either serve them whole or cut them into bite size pieces. Drizzle on the butterscotch sauce and add a dollop of cream. Serve immediately.

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