At home with Stephanie Alexander

Stephanie Alexander has written her 19th cookbook, Home. Picture: Armelle Habib
Stephanie Alexander has written her 19th cookbook, Home. Picture: Armelle Habib

There's a line in Stephanie Alexander's latest cookbook Home that reads: "It is a treat to take the couch with one of the great classic food writers to restore my spirit and belief in fine cooking and its place in people's lives."

Home does just that. In her 19th cookbook, Alexander presents more than 200 original recipes but also a collection of essays, which look back on her life and the world as she sees it now.

While there'll be plenty of times you'll take this book into the kitchen, it will also find its way to the couch with you, a cup of tea, perhaps a slice of apple and marmalade tart, and it will indeed be a treat.

"I was encouraged by my publisher to be reflective, no doubt a kind way of reminding me of my age and long culinary journey to this point," says the sprightly 80-year-old.

"I suspect I was being indulged but I loved writing the essays."

They touch on different aspects of her culinary life. How her mother and Elizabeth David shaped her early years; how her time working as an au pair in Paris in her 20s consolidated her love for all things French; to the opening of her restaurant Stephanie's in 1976; to the establishment of the Kitchen Garden Foundation in 2001; the cookbooks; and her life now, living in an apartment in Melbourne with a small garden verdant with sage and rosemary bushes, a bay tree, some herbs along a wall.

"And having now had several summers without even a single homegrown tomato, I think that this year I will plant just one so I can rediscover the scent of tomato leaves and the flavour of a just-picked fruit."

For that is what food still does for Alexander, evokes memories and recollections of time and place. She says this is why the "why" is so important in recipes, alongside the "how".

Home, by Stephanie Alexander. Macmillan. $59.99.

Home, by Stephanie Alexander. Macmillan. $59.99.

Each recipe here, from breakfasts, to salads, to sweet things, is accompanied by a description, the inspiration for the dish, its origin story.

"You learn so much from introductions, I love reading them, often it takes you off into some weird little laneway or byway but that's fascinating," she says.

"Sometimes that's how I remember recipes, you remember the story, someone did this somewhere or other, and it's the atmosphere that leads you back to the recipe.

"Or you remember a trip somewhere, with the most amazing meal, or a bite, or a place, and you try to recreate it and it's the start of something new.

"It's the memories that food evokes that we remember."

It's this kind of thinking she wants to instill in future generations. She's passionate still about the Kitchen Garden Foundation which started in Melbourne's Collingwood College in 2001.

It's goal was to introduce pleasurable food education in order to form positive food habits for life. Now more than 1600 schools Australia-wide, from early learning to secondary, are involved.

"The earlier you can get kids interested in what they're eating the better," she says.

"Even if it's not happening at home, you only have to see the kids in the garden, proud of what they've grown, watching it grow, taking it into the kitchen, their confidence grows, their self esteem, the kids blossom and it's beautiful to watch."

Stephanie Alexander at the opening of the kitchen garden at Majura Primary School in 2010. Picture: Melissa Adams

Stephanie Alexander at the opening of the kitchen garden at Majura Primary School in 2010. Picture: Melissa Adams

She's proud too of The Cook's Companion, first published in 1996. The encyclopaedic 800-page book has now sold more than 500,000 copies - "I've not been in a commercial kitchen where it doesn't exist," she says.

"But what pleases me most is that people would stop me at the supermarket, or the local food market, when we were allowed out of course, and tell me how much the book means to them, how much they use it. That's the important thing, that people use it. I'm very, very proud of that book."

And she hopes Home proves just as useful. She started it two and a half years ago, well before the pandemic, but it's the perfect antidote to these troubled times.

If there's one thing we've taken from the past few years, it's the importance of people around our dinner tables, the provenance of ingredients, we've baked bread, grown herbs, taken our time with food and viewed it as one of the few pleasures we were allowed to indulge in.

"That's always been my message," says Alexander.

"I haven't changed the message, the rest of the world has just caught up."

  • Home, by Stephanie Alexander. Macmillan. $59.99.

Sardine and piquillo pepper tart with caramelised onion and pine nuts

Sardine and piquillo pepper tart with caramelised onion and pine nuts. Picture: Armelle Habib

Sardine and piquillo pepper tart with caramelised onion and pine nuts. Picture: Armelle Habib

All cooks know to keep various staples in their store cupboards or freezers. This tart uses two of my staples, Carême all-butter puff pastry and Spanish red piquillo peppers. My refrigerator also holds a deep container of pickled sardines made several months ago, hardly a staple but so very useful, and delicious.

In making this tart (or any other rectangular tart), the entire roll of pastry can be rolled a bit thinner and cut in half lengthways. You could then make two sardine tarts for a party, or you could make just this one and spread the second with jam. Piquillo peppers are triangular in shape, meaty in texture and very sweet. The Spanish are very, very proud of their canned and bottled foods and there is absolutely no stigma in that country associated with using preserved sardines, anchovies, and many vegetables, such as asparagus and artichokes.

The picada referred to in this recipe is not strictly traditional. In Catalonia in Spain many dishes are finished with an uncooked picada, a coarsely pounded preparation that can include, as here, pine nuts, but could also include almonds or hazelnuts, some garlic, maybe saffron, pounded bread, parsley and olive oil.

Ingredients

plain flour, for dusting

1 all-butter puff pastry roll, defrosted

1 small egg, whisked with a pinch of salt

1 cup caramelised onion

3 red piquillo peppers

6 pickled sardines or fresh sardines, butterflied

4 pitted black or green olives, cut into slivers

freshly ground black pepper

sea salt

Picada:

2 tbsp pine nuts

extra-virgin olive oil

grated zest of 1 lemon or orange

2 tbsp coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley

1 garlic clove, chopped

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 220C (200C fan-forced). Dust your workbench and rolling pin with a little flour and open out the pastry. Roll the pastry just a bit wider and then make a clean and definite cut lengthways to make two rectangles; the cleaner the cut, the better the pastry will rise. Set one rectangle aside (see above for ideas).

2. Transfer the pastry to a paper-lined baking tray. Score a 2cm margin all the way round the pastry rectangle, but not right through! This marks the edges of the tart. Dock - prick - the centre of the tart very well with a fork. Brush the edges only with the egg wash and bake the pastry for 15 minutes. Remove the pastry from the oven. With your hand protected by a folded, clean tea towel, press down on the centre of the hot pastry to inhibit further rising. Allow to cool.

3. Reduce the oven to 200C (180C fan-forced). Spoon the caramelised onion into a sieve and drain over a bowl. Do not throw away the collected oil. Remove the piquillo peppers from their jar and cut into chunky slices. Drain the sardines from their pickling liquid, or rinse the fresh sardine fillets and pat dry with paper towel.

4. Spread the caramelised onion over the pastry. Cover the onion with a scattering of sliced peppers. Cover these with the sardines arranged so that you can see bits of the scarlet peppers in between. Poke the olive pieces in wherever you can find a spot. Grind on some pepper. Drizzle the sardines with some of the caramelised onion oil. Bake the filled tart for 10 minutes until the sardines are bubbling.

5. Make the picada while the tart is baking. Toast the pine nuts in a trace of olive oil in a small frying pan over medium heat until light gold. Pound the pine nuts, zest, parsley and garlic using a mortar and pestle to a coarse paste.

6. Remove the tart from the oven and cut into 6 rectangles. Slide each portion onto a serving plate or all of them onto a platter and scatter generously with the picada. Add a sprinkling of sea salt if you wish, and serve.

Serves 6.

Apple and marmalade tart

Apple and marmalade tart. Picture: Armelle Habib

Apple and marmalade tart. Picture: Armelle Habib

Apple tarts are universal favourites, whether the French-style open tart or the chunky double-crust pie of the English tradition. My own conviction is that all are better made with eating apples rather than Granny Smiths. My good friend Annie Smithers serves a delectable tart tatin using fluffy Bramleys from her own trees. She sometimes says she is living the dream: she gathers most of her food from her garden and orchard, has time to reflect on the marvels of the turning year, is entertained by her family (both human and animal), and invites guests to share her table in her restaurant du Fermier often but not too often. At Montesquieu, near to Agen, we visited a living apple museum, Le Conservatoire Végétal Regional d'Aquitaine, with 940 varieties of apple, all producing. The museum's curator and director, botanist Madame Evelyne Leterme, told us how 40 years earlier she travelled the country on a bicycle with secateurs to take cuttings from every apple tree she found. This tart is a bit of an amalgam of influences. It has a sweet shortcrust pastry that is sturdy and crisp (but has a tendency to scorch because of its sugar content), a sharp contrast from one's favourite marmalade, a layer of puréed apple to give heft to the bite, a topping of sliced apple, and a fruit-jelly glaze. It is best eaten on the day it is made. And you really need an apple corer to enable thin slices to be cut across the apples.

Ingredients

1 quantity sweet shortcrust pastry (see below)

plain flour, for dusting

1/3 cup cumquat or other quite chunky marmalade

2 large eating apples, peeled, cored and halved lengthways

2 tbsp caster sugar

thick cream, to serve

Apple puree:

4 eating apples, peeled, cored and quartered

2 tbsp lemon juice

1/4 cup water

1 tbsp brandy or apple brandy

Glaze:

1/3 cup light-coloured fruit jelly (apple, crabapple or quince) or marmalade

1 tsp water

Method

1. Make and chill the pastry, then remove it from the refrigerator and allow to rest for 30 minutes before rolling. While the pastry is resting, make the purée. Pulse the apple for 30 seconds or so in a food processor. Put the apple into a heavy-based saucepan with the lemon juice and water. Cover and cook over low heat for at least 20 minutes, stirring frequently. Once you have a rough purée without any obvious liquid, stir in the brandy and cool. You should have about 1 cup purée.

2. Preheat the oven to 200C (180C fan-forced) and choose a loose-bottomed 24 cm fluted tart tin. Dust your workbench and a rolling pin with flour. Roll the pastry from the centre, turning the disc a quarter of a turn after each roll. Wrap the rolled dough around the pin and unroll it over the tart tin. Press the pastry into the base of the tin. Line the pastry with baking paper or a doubled sheet of foil and fill with pastry weights. Bake for 15 minutes.

3. Remove the tart shell from the oven, allow to cool for a minute, then lift the foil and weights to a waiting bowl. Spread the base carefully with the marmalade and return the tart shell to the oven for 10 minutes. The marmalade should look bubbly and the pastry edges will have picked up more colour. Remove from the oven and cool. Spread the cooled purée over the marmalade in the tart shell. If the edge of the pastry is deeper than pale-gold tuck a long strip of foil over it to prevent burning.

4. Place the cored apple halves cut-side down on your chopping board and thinly slice them crossways. Arrange the slices very closely together (they will shrink a little in the baking), even slightly overlapping, in concentric circles. Scatter the caster sugar over the apple and return the tart to the oven. Bake for 35 minutes (if you have covered the edges with foil, remove it for the final five minutes). The apple slices should have started to colour a little from the sugar and will be softened but not collapsed. When the tart has about 10 minutes to go in the oven, melt the fruit jelly with the water in a small saucepan over very low heat, stirring once or twice until there are no blobs visible. When the tart is removed from the oven, slowly spoon and dribble the melted jelly over the apple and allow it to set before removing the tart to a serving plate. Cut with a sharp sawing action through the crust. Offer cream.

Serves 8.

Sweet shortcrust pastry

Ingredients

200g plain flour

125g cold unsalted butter, cut into 1cm dice

25g caster sugar

1 free-range egg

1 tbsp ice cold water

Few drops of pure vanilla extract

Method

1. Pulse the flour and butter in a food processor for a few seconds. Add the caster sugar and pulse again briefly. Lightly whisk the egg with a fork in a small bowl and add the water and vanilla. With the motor running, add the egg mixture and process until the pastry comes together to form a ball. Give the pastry a quick knead. Press the pastry into a flat disc, wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour (or even overnight). Remove the pastry from the refrigerator 30 minutes before you wish to roll it.

2. Proceed with your recipe, voting that some recipes require the pastry to be chilled again after rolling and lining tin.

Fish fillets en papillote

Fish fillets en papillote. Picture: Armelle Habib

Fish fillets en papillote. Picture: Armelle Habib

En papillote is a French term for "enveloped in paper". In the kitchen it means that food is put into a folded pouch or parcel and then baked. It is easier to fold and crimp the edges of foil, but the parcel is not as charming as when one uses baking paper. I have given instructions for using baking paper.

This method of cooking is almost always used with fish. I like to cook en papillote when I have a friend to share a meal and wish to be really organised. All the preparation is completed and all that is needed is to preheat the oven and slip the parcels in for a maximum of 15 minutes. The parcels are then slid onto hot plates, torn or cut open, and dinner is served.

Use a fish fillet that is not too thick. Flathead and John dory are favourites.

Ingredients

1 zucchini

1 carrot

1 celeriac (not too large)

60g unsalted butter

2 garlic cloves, finely sliced

1 small red chilli, halved, seeded and finely sliced

1 tablespoon dill sprigs

1/4 cup dry white wine

sea salt

1 free-range egg white

2 x 160-180 g fish fillets

1 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley

Method

1. Cut two 50cm long pieces of baking paper. On one sheet, turn a 26cm dinner plate upside-down on one end and trace around the plate with a pencil. Now move the plate to the other end of the paper. There should be a considerable overlap so that when traced the shape is like two incomplete circles. Cut this out - the shape always reminds me of butterfly wings and a butterfly is a papillon in French. The word association amuses me - a papillon for en papillote. Repeat with the second piece of baking paper.

2. Using a sharp vegetable peeler with the blade set crossways (sometimes called a speed or asparagus peeler), press firmly and slice ribbons from each side of the zucchini, as wide as you can. Transfer to a bowl. Peel the carrot and then slice deeply with the peeler to create wide ribbons, about the same width as the zucchini. Add to the bowl. Thickly peel the celeriac, discarding the peel, then cut the celeriac into quarters. Slice deeply with the peeler to create wide ribbons, about the same width as the zucchini and carrot. Lightly mix all the vegetable ribbons.

3. In a heavy-based frying pan melt the butter over low heat, add the garlic, chilli and dill and cook for two to three minutes. Now add the vegetable ribbons, turn to mix, cover the pan and cook for five minutes. Uncover. Lift the ribbons onto a plate, increase the heat and add the wine to the pan. Allow the wine to bubble up fiercely and reduce by at least half. Return the ribbons to the pan and turn to coat them in the juices. Remove the pan from the stove. Taste the juices for salt.

4. Preheat the oven to 200C (180C fan-forced). Take a baking tray large enough to hold the two parcels, or two pizza trays. Slide the paper shapes onto the tray or trays, leaving half dangling off the edge. Brush all the edges of the paper with a little egg white. Divide the ribbons between the paper shapes and top each with a fish fillet. Scatter with parsley.

5. Carefully fold and press the paper edges together to make a tight seal. The egg white will help the paper edges stick together, but you will probably still need to fold the sealed edges once or twice and pinch them together tightly.

6. Slide the parcels on their baking or pizza trays into the oven and set the timer for 15 minutes. Heat your dinner plates. Slide a package onto each dinner plate, and cut or tear the packages open. I like my guest to do this themselves to enjoy the delicious aroma that escapes. You have the choice of eating from the parcel, or sliding the contents onto the dinner plate and removing the paper cases.

Serves 2.

This story Hands up if you have a copy of The Cook's Companion first appeared on The Canberra Times.