‘Love letter’ to good food

Sophie Hansen. Photo: Supplied
Sophie Hansen. Photo: Supplied
Australian cook Sophie Hansen describes her latest book, In Good Company, as a "love letter" to shared tables of good food.

She spent a year travelling around Australia visiting friends and family, cooking with and for them.

"We dragged tables into gardens and paddocks and set them up, we shared picnics on windswept headlands, we had cosy kitchen suppers and we barbecued lamb on the back of a boat."

While there is so much people cannot control, they can feed the people they love and show them that love through a table set with pretty flowers, candles, your best napkins and their favourite food, she says.

Hansen hopes her book will give people ideas for gatherings at their own place, whether a morning tea, drinks or a quiet supper in the back garden with neighbours.

"It’s about belonging, being looked after, looking after others in return and feeling like you are part of something, even for just a night."

In this edited extract, Hansen visits Kim and Wendy Muffet, of Girragirra Retreat in Forbes, New South Wales.

THE BOOK: In Good Company, by Sophie Hansen, published by Murdoch Books, RRP $45
THE BOOK: In Good Company, by Sophie Hansen, published by Murdoch Books, RRP $45

At the time of writing we are in lockdown, waiting for the Covid-19 crisis to pass. I keep coming back to this quote shared on Instagram by one of my favourite food writers, Carla Lalli Music: "I know there’s a lot to be unsure of right now, but for those of us who love to cook, there’s a lot to feel positive about, too. You can continue to feed yourself, your family — and others, if that feels safe — and I hope that in doing so, you find relief, and a release."

There is so much we can’t control in life. So much in the news that makes us sad or scared or bewildered. But how we come together, how we spend our Sundays and what we cook and feed the people we love ... these things we can control. I’m not talking about fancy, expensive food and gatherings, but simple, tasty food that’s real and good and full of love. I think that conviviality is our secret superpower — that bringing people together to share a meal is an important act that can change outlooks, brighten moods and make us feel connected in a very powerful way.

Kim and Wendy are all about conviviality and also happen to be the growers and makers of some of the tastiest food I’ve ever enjoyed. It was a pleasure to make lunch for their family in the midst of their annual "passata day". As it happens, this shoot was the last outing I had for some months. We began socially isolating just days afterwards, so that sunny Saturday lunch under the grapevines in Forbes holds a special place in my memory.

Photo: Supplied
Photo: Supplied
Wendy’s tips for making things easy when friends come over: I would love to be one of those people who has everything done an hour before guests arrive — cool, calm and collected, glass in hand. But to be honest, all is well if I manage to have the table set with something lovely from the garden (flowers, fruit, pretty weeds!) and some upbeat music on. I also try to have the pre-dinner snacks and drinks ready to go.

We like to keep these simple and tasty and look to the garden for inspiration — one big platter laden with local olives, a pickle and homemade hummus with crisp vegetables from the garden and various kinds of sourdough bits is a favourite.

If this cake were a woman, she’d be Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient. She’d be classy and cultured and effortlessly wear white linen all the time, but also easygoing and not at all precious. Once you’ve made this cake, I hope you agree that it is indeed a classy, cool number. It’s all about the warm spices, the toasted ground nuts and, of course, the understated star of the show, those gorgeous pears.

It’s also fancy enough for dessert (it’s lovely served warm with caramel sauce and definitely with ice cream) or served for a grown-up morning or afternoon tea. This recipe makes quite a bit of batter so if you don’t have a large tin, you could use two 20cm tins — the cakes may not be as high but you’ll have one to enjoy now and one to give away or freeze, so it’s a win-win!

Pear, walnut and nutmeg cake

Serves 8

Prep time 25 minutes

Cook time 1 hour

2 cups (230g) walnuts

⅔ cup (110g) almonds

1 cup (150g) wholemeal plain (all-purpose) flour

1 tsp baking powder

1 ½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg

½ tsp ground cinnamon

¼ tsp ground cardamom

a pinch of salt

4 pears (not too ripe)

1 Tbsp (20g) butter, cut into small cubes

1¼ cups (275g) firmly-packed brown sugar

1 cup (250g) unsalted butter, softened

grated zest of 1 orange

4 eggs

½ cup (125ml) buttermilk or yoghurt

To serve

sweet dukkah or chopped nuts

Method

Heat the oven to 160degC. Grease and line a 24cm cake tin.

Combine the walnuts and almonds on a baking tray and toast for about 10 minutes or until fragrant. Let the nuts cool for a few minutes, then transfer to a food processor and blitz to a coarse meal (or a fine meal, if you prefer a fine-textured cake). Transfer to a bowl and whisk in the flour, baking powder, spices and salt. Set aside.

Peel and halve the pears. Using either a melon baller or a teaspoon, scoop out the seeds and cores. Fill each cavity with a little of the cubed butter. Sprinkle quarter of a cup (55g) of the brown sugar over the base of the cake tin, then place the pear halves on top, cut side down.

Using an electric mixer, beat the softened butter, orange zest and remaining brown sugar until the sugar has just dissolved. Add the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the side and beating well after each addition. Fold in half of the nut mixture and half of the buttermilk or yoghurt. Mix on low speed and then repeat with the remaining ingredients.

Gently spoon the batter into the tin, being careful not to move the pears, and smooth the top. Bake for 30 minutes, then rotate the tin 180 degrees and bake for another 20 minutes or until it is beginning to pull away from the side of the tin and the middle feels springy.

Let the cake cool in the tin for 20 minutes before gently turning it out on to a serving plate and sprinkling it with sweet dukkah or a few chopped nuts. It’s beautiful served warm with some honeyed yoghurt or cream, or just on its own.

This prosciutto-wrapped terrine baked in a puddle of tasty tomato sauce and sprinkled with parmesan is a total winner — that perfect marriage of the familiar with a few twists. It sits firmly in the comfort food column, but is fancy enough to serve when friends come over. Serve it with crusty bread and mixed lettuce dressed with olive oil and lemon juice.

Because there was a wood-fired oven lit and ready to go, we finished off the dish in there, but a regular hot oven is fine.

Polpettone in tomato sauce

Serves 8

Prep time 25 minutes + overnight chilling

Cook time 2¾ hours

2 cups (120g) fresh breadcrumbs

½ cup (125ml) milk

2 Tbsp olive oil

1 onion, diced

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

500g pork mince

500g beef mince

2 eggs

2 tsp dijon mustard

1 large handful sage leaves, finely chopped

1 Tbsp rosemary leaves, finely chopped

2 Tbsp parsley leaves, finely chopped

¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg

8 slices prosciutto

1 cup (95g) grated parmesan cheese

Tomato sauce

¼ cup (60ml) olive oil

1 brown onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

800g tin whole peeled Italian tomatoes

6 basil leaves

¼ cup (60ml) red wine vinegar

1 tsp sugar

Method

Heat the oven to 180degC. Combine the breadcrumbs and milk in a small bowl and leave to soften.

Heat the olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Cook the onion for 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes, stirring often. Leave to cool, then tip the mixture into a large bowl. Add the breadcrumb mixture, along with the pork, beef, eggs, mustard, herbs, nutmeg and about a teaspoon each of salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Line a 30cm x 12cm loaf tin with the prosciutto, leaving the slices overhanging the sides. Firmly pack the meat mixture into the tin. Fold the prosciutto over the top and tightly cover with foil. Place in a roasting tin and carefully pour in boiling water to come halfway up the sides of the loaf tin. Bake for 1 hour or until the meatloaf is cooked through.

Remove the loaf tin from the water and weigh the meatloaf down with a few tins of tomatoes (or whatever is in the pantry), then pop it into the fridge to cool completely, preferably overnight.

For the sauce

Heat the olive oil in a large heavy-based frying pan over medium heat. Cook the onion for 10 minutes or until soft and just beginning to caramelise. Add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes. Tip in the tomatoes and break them up with a spoon. Cook over low heat for 30 minutes, stirring often. Add the basil, vinegar and sugar and cook for 20 minutes.

About 40 minutes before you’re ready to eat, heat the oven to 200degC . Turn the meatloaf out into a roasting tin or ovenproof serving platter with high sides. Pour the tomato sauce over the meatloaf, sprinkle the parmesan over the top and cook for 30 minutes or until the meatloaf is completely heated through and the cheese is melted and golden.

This is an insanely tasty dish that’s a great side but also brilliant on its own with some warm Turkish bread or tossed greens. Big flavours, easy to put together and using some nice solid seasonal vege to great appeal ... yes, please!

Roasted carrots with yoghurt, hazelnuts and harissa

Serves 4-6

Prep time 15 minutes

Cook time 45 minutes

6 carrots

olive oil, for drizzling

1½ cups (390g) Greek-style yoghurt

1 handful rocket (arugula)

½ cup (75 g) hazelnuts, roasted and roughly chopped

Optional

1 small handful dried rose petals

Harissa dressing

¼ cup (60ml) extra virgin olive oil

2 Tbsp harissa, or to taste

grated zest and juice of 1 lemon

Method

Heat the oven to 200degC . Peel and slice the carrots into batons. Arrange on a baking tray, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Roast the carrots for 45 minutes or until cooked through and beginning to caramelise at the edges.

For the harissa dressing

Whisk together the olive oil, harissa, lemon zest and juice and season to taste. (Perhaps start with just 1 tablespoon of harissa and add more to taste — some brands are hotter than others.)

To serve

Spread the base of a big platter or bowl with the yoghurt, top with the carrots and rocket and then drizzle the dressing over the top. Finish with the hazelnuts and rose petals, if using.

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