How can I tell that Matt and Leonie came to stay with me for a few days? Well, my kitchen is full of tropical fruit direct from the farmers, I’ve got the memories of many fantastic recent meals, I’m newly re-inspired about wine and food, and I am smiling a lot. That covers most of it.
I met Leonie in an undergraduate entomology course in 1997, and Matt shortly afterwards, when I went out to their place at Brookfield for a meal. Ever since, both of them have been incredible food inspirations for me. When I worked at the CRC, Matt and I used to talk food all the time – I have vivid memories of comments about morning tea cakes, him showing me a tupperware of excellent left-over minestrone with fresh borlotti beans he was eating for lunch, Alistair Little’s pasta recipes, what we’d each had for dinner the night before. During my Honours year, Leonie used to sometimes drop in to the lab when I was working late, for a chat and to share food with me. I still have the pieces of paper on which she wrote recipes for marmalade (complete with drawings!) and potato salad, some of those evenings. We went to many wine tastings at the UQ Staff Club together. They came over to our place in Kent St for new year’s eve – in 2000, I think? can that be right? – with a truffle, pasta dough, and a container of King Island cream, and made fresh pasta with truffles and home-shaken butter.
Since we moved back to Australia, Matt and Leonie have come down to stay with us a few times, always leading to amazing cooking and eating. And last year Ted and I went to visit them in Mareeba and were shown the absolute best of the tablelands, both in and out of their own kitchen. It was a spectacular experience that I can hardly hope to equal again.
On this last visit, we went out for Indian, Italian (at Enoteca – so good) and Moroccan, and ate at home only a couple of nights. On one of those nights I came home from pilates to find Matt making pasta with roast veggies and garlic – yes, these houseguests can stay as long as they like!
On Sunday, I was suffering from a hangover brought on more by lack of sleep (got home from Jean and Edwige’s at 3 a.m. and woke up at 6.30) rather than alcohol, though I’m sure the wine and cognac of the previous night had contributed very slightly. Knowing I needed to buy groceries and make something for M&L when they returned from visiting family that evening, I walked slowly and carefully down to Merthyr village, had lunch at the deli, and then went and stared bovine-ishly at vegetables. I was incapable of forming coherent plans, so just bought what looked good with a belief that things would come together later. The linchpin of these unformed plans was two bunches of springily fresh rainbow chard, which I found at the local hippy shop amongst the limp basil and somewhat withered carrots. From the green grocer I bought amongst other things some squat, heavy red peppers, and from the deli, fresh ricotta cut from a new round.
I had grand plans for multiple dishes, but when it came down to it, I made just a single dish, simple and plain, but very good. I was inspired by recipes I’ve seen recently for eggs, cracked into dimples in a pot of beans or vegetables, baked until just set (like this, or this, for example), but wanted something a bit less egg-focussed. I blanched the chard and roasted the peppers, mixed them with whisked eggs to make a tian, then pressed golfball size balls of fresh ricotta into the mixuture, and baked until just set. The ricotta baked to be crispy on top, still soft in the middle, and absorbing the flavours of chard on the sides. As Leonie said, it was “like Matt’s baked ricotta, but baked in situ”. And Matt’s “It’s good, Mego” was every bit of praise I required. We went to bed early but, at least in my case, well satisfied by dinner.
Ricotta baked in chard and peppers
2 large red peppers/capsicums
2 large bunches of rainbow chard, stemmed
1 onion, peeled and chopped
2 heaped dessert spoons natural yoghurt
salt and pepper
a wedge of fresh ricotta about 3x2x1 inch
First roast the peppers. Turn the grill/broiler in the oven on. Place the peppers underneath, close to the grill, and turn them every 5 minutes or so, until they are blackened all over. Remove and place them in a bowl and cover to steam, for about 10-20 minutes. Cut out the stem, remove the seeds and membranes, and peel off all the skin. Cut or pull into pieces a few centimetres square.
Bring a pot of water to a boil. Blanch the chard leaves for about 3 minutes, then drain well. Squeeze out as much water as possible – I put them between two teatowels and twist and squeeze. Tip the leaves onto a cutting board, separate them out a bit, and chop.
Fry the onion in olive oil until soft, translucent, and lightly golden.
Whisk together eggs, yoghurt, salt and pepper. Mix in the chard, peppers and onion. There should be enough egg to hold it together with a bit of a liquidy look, while still being more vegetable than egg. Tip the mixture into a tian – I used a round earthenware casserole about 25 cm in diameter, which made the mixture about 2-3 cm deep.
With your fingers, make holes in the mixture large enough to drop in chunks of ricotta about 2-3 cm in diameter. Use your fingers to push the chard mixture back around to embrace the ricotta. The ricotta shouldn’t stick up higher than the chard – it should all be level.
Bake at 180 for about 20 minutes, or until the eggs are just set. The precise timing will depend on the size of your cooking vessel. Check on it now and then, don’t overcook it. Remove from the oven and let rest for a couple of minutes before eating. Serves 3-4 as a light meal.