Vegetables

Vegetables

By
Stefano de Pieri
Contains
24 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740661713
Photographer
Earl Carter

Vegetables play a fundamental role in any cooking, but they have a special place in Italian cuisine because so much of it is based on rustic dishes developed at the time when there was a peasant culture. Where there was little money for beef and fish, vegetables provided a healthy alternative. A beautiful slice of eggplant, simply fried in olive oil, is for me as good as a steak.

Oranges and the Sunraysia

Did you know that an orange with a Sunkist sticker is of Californian provenance? There is yet another, also from California, with the suggestive name of ‘Dole’, a term more likely to be pertinent to the condition of an Australian grower whose orange tree trunks have been – to quote a line from one of Les Murray’s poems – ‘globalised out of the ground’. I have nothing against free trade, God forbid, until I see my next-door neighbour bury his fruit. Then I put all reason aside, because it is my community that’s under pressure, not some highly paid bureaucrat working on the GATT.

Putting aside international trade issues, which are complex, not least because free trade allows us to export citrus to other countries, the domestic demand of a nation approaching 20 million people should be strong enough to support our relatively small industry of about 600,000 tonnes annually. Judging by the sheer number of magazines, books, TV programs, videos and regular articles devoted to food, an outsider would be justified in thinking we are a nation obsessed with the pleasures of the table. In such a gastronomic heaven, it should not be difficult to flog – pardon the expression – a few more tonnes of mandarins each year. And yet this does not happen and our citrus growers, once a very fortunate group, are now a struggling lot.

One credible theory to explain the troubles of citrus is that it now has to compete with other fruits that are not just apples and bananas. There is a bit of everything out there all the time, partly due to imports of fruit that normally would be out of season, and fruit that are cleverly packaged, like fresh, sliced pineapple with the skin removed. Citrus, lacking in packaging and therefore in glamour, tends to be taken for granted; besides, it makes your hands sticky and messy.

Another theory – and this comes from the producers – is that the time it takes from the farm to the table is too long, the process is haphazard, the displays are poor and fruit rotation is not managed properly. These problems affect the quality of the product, and that in turn affects public opinion. Talking of displays, I would certainly like these to show, as is mandatory under the law, which is the imported fruit. Signage should be clearly legible and in a prominent position.

A galling thing to producers, I’m reliably told, is the constant request from the distributors, who work with the supermarkets, for largish fruit. This drives down the price of smaller fruit, but when you buy it, you don’t pay less for it. Yet consumers have indicated a preference for smaller oranges because they fit neatly into their squeezing devices. So, why is it that supermarkets demand larger fruit? Figure that out if you can.

Perhaps the sad reality is that Australia is not a place where fresh fruit is sought after. It is never served, for instance, after dinner other than as a fruit salad in poor man bistros. Chinese restaurants have been the exception, but even these have been criticised by food critics for insisting on fresh fruit after main course rather than offering contemporary desserts.

Fruit does not feature greatly in that Australian institution, the ‘takeaway food’ sector, and even less in that special place where collective approaches to food are in part determined: the school yard.

I am sure that those who appreciate citrus love it in all its dimensions and I invite them to explore it further in their cooking.

Perhaps one of the most effective ways to use citrus is to introduce its skin, peeled or grated, into a variety of foods you haven’t thought of. A little grated lemon, mixed with flat-leaf parsley and finely chopped garlic, makes gremolata, which is very effective sprinkled over long-braised dishes such as osso buco or lamb shanks. You can also use it with a whole variety of fish dishes.

Lemon is indispensable for a whole lot of Mediterranean dishes, especially when combined with olive oil, oregano, rosemary and other herbs. The dried skin of tangerines – but any orange would do – is very popular in Chinese cooking. Candied orange skins go into a variety of desserts and are available commercially. The juice of limes is indispensable in many Asian dishes – think of the Thai combination of palm sugar, fish sauce and lime juice. And let’s not forget the lime that makes gin and tonic the drink for all occasions!

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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