Savoury

Red Panda Equinox

This year International Red Panda Day (IRPD) will be celebrated on Saturday, September 21st. IRPD was created by the Red Panda Network (RPN) and is celebrated every year on the third Saturday in September. RPN was created to promote the red panda and to find ways to fight for their survival, which is endangered due to habitat loss and illegal poaching. IRPD is part of this awareness campaign and is celebrated by zoos and individuals around the world with special events and red panda themed fun. Some zoos celebrate on different days, so check with your local zoo to see if they are doing anything and on what day. This year is the tenth celebration of IRPD.

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Depending on where you live, you also have an opportunity to celebrate either the Spring or Autumn Equinox. 

I’ll be celebrating the Spring or Vernal Equinox, which is a night of balance in which day and night are relatively equal. After the Spring Equinox the day wins ascendancy as longer nights are overtaken by longer days. The coming Spring brings a riot of colour, bird song and warmer weather. The return of bright hot days reminds me of the stunning colours of the red panda. The red panda boasts a striking mix of black, hot red, burning brown and bright white fur which are a great symbol for an Australian Spring and emerging Summer. Happily they are also the colours of Autumn. So whichever part of the world you are in, you can celebrate both red pandas and the Equinox!

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Some fun facts about red pandas:

  • Red pandas were discovered 50 years before giant pandas.
  • The name “panda” was given to the red panda first and then later to the black and white panda. The word “panda” may be derived from a Nepalese word meaning “bamboo eater.”
  • Red pandas are sometimes referred to as the “lesser panda” in relation to the giant panda but there is a movement afoot – or apaw – that is calling for them to be called “the first panda” in acknowledgement that they were discovered and named first.
  • Red Pandas were once thought to be related to giant pandas but they are actually in a family of their own called Ailuridae. 
  • A nickname for the red panda is “firefox” which inspired the Firefox web browser to use them as their name and symbol.
  • They are solitary except during breeding season.
  • Red pandas are crepuscular meaning they are active in the early morning and late afternoon and are arboreal meaning they spend most of their time in trees.
  • Although they are classified as a carnivore, red pandas mainly eat bamboo, though they will occasionally eat fruit, berries, eggs, insects and small animals. Like the giant panda, red pandas have an extra thumb used for grabbing bamboo.
  • Red pandas have retractable claws like a cat and the soles of their paws are covered in fur.
  • They have “tear track” markings on their face which may protect their eyes from the sun.
  • When it gets really cold, red pandas can use their bushy tail as a blanket.
  • Red pandas are one of only a few animals that can climb down a tree head first.

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Sun-Dried Tomato Hummus
The colours of this sunny hummus remind me of red pandas!

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Ingredients
1 clove of garlic, finely minced
1/4 cup tahini
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 + 1/2 cups rinsed and drained canned chickpeas
1/4 cup olive oil, more may be needed
1/4 cup drained sun-dried tomatoes, roughly chopped
sea salt to taste
extra olive oil for serving
paprika for serving

Instructions
Process the garlic, tahini and lemon juice in a blender or food processor until smooth.
Add the chickpeas and oil and process until smooth.
Add the sun-dried tomatoes and process until just combined. (You may need to add more oil to reach your desired consistency.)
Season with salt to taste.
To serve, drizzle with oil and sprinkle with paprika.

To symbolise the balance reflected in the Equinox, I sprinkle paprika only over half of the hummus.

Cold Snaps And Warm Dumplings

Just as Spring was slowly starting to warm us up, Winter treated us to a final cold snap. I celebrated (because weather, good or bad, should always be celebrated!) by cooking what might be my last stew for the season. I thought long and hard about what it would be and finally chose an all time classic – chicken and dumplings!

I don’t have a recipe for the stew, as I usually just brown off some chopped chicken breasts which I’ve tossed in flour and then cook them in a stock with vegetables such as carrot, celery, mushrooms and parsnip. 

When the stew is almost cooked I add the dumplings. It is these pillowy delights that make this humble dish a truly warm and comforting treat.

Dumplings

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Ingredients
1 cup plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons unsalted butter
100ml milk

Instructions
Place the flour and baking powder in a bowl.
Rub in the butter until it looks like breadcrumbs.
Stir in enough milk until you have a batter of dropping consistency.
Drop spoonfuls of batter into simmering stew.
Cover and cook for 10 minutes or until the dumplings are puffed and cooked through.

Dressing For Spring

Imbolc, the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, is celebrated on August 1st in Australia. Imbolc celebrates the return of Persephone as she begins her ascent from the Underworld, slowly transforming from our Queen of the Dead into our Goddess of Spring.

To celebrate Persephone’s journey, I bought a bottle of pomegranate vinegar. I was really excited, as I have tried lots of different vinegars but never a pomegranate one. I couldn’t wait to start experimenting with this new ingredient. My mind was reeling with ideas for an Imbolc recipe and I became fixated on using the vinegar in a cocktail. After much thought, I experimented with a gin and elderberry cocktail, which was interesting, but not something I would try again. As Imbolc neared, I almost panicked as I couldn’t think of what to make.

Today is the eve of Imbolc and the night of a Dark Moon. The sun is streaming through my windows and the birds are singing outside. I stare at the bottle of pomegranate vinegar, hoping for inspiration. Finally I am gifted with a memory of being served a platter with bread and three dunking bowls containing extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar and sea salt. I remember dipping pieces of bread into the oil, vinegar and finally the salt. I also remember how much I loved it. At last I have a recipe idea for Imbolc! 

Rather than serve three individual bowls for bread dunking, I decided to make a dressing. I began by mixing equal parts of oil and vinegar, but I couldn’t taste the pomegranate, so I went with a 1 part oil to 2 parts vinegar ratio. I liked it, as it was fruity and almost unbearably tart. Happy with my decision, I sprinkled salt on top and grabbed a slice of sourdough bread. I sat outside dunking my bread into a flavoursome dressing while birds flitted through my bamboo heralding the coming of spring and the return of Persephone.

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The fun thing about this dressing is that you can choose what ratios suit you. You can also use it as a salad dressing or as a marinade.

Happy Imbolc!

Slowing Down For Winter

With winter in full swing it is time for slow cooking. One of my favourite winter meals is corned beef gently simmered in spices. Start this recipe early in the day and let your mouth water as the house slowly fills with the aroma of midwinter spices. Hot slices of corned beef go great with vegetables and parsley sauce. The next day reward yourself with cold corned beef sandwiches topped with sauerkraut and sour cream.

Corned Beef

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Ingredients
3 stalks of celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1.5kg corned beef or silverside
15 peppercorns
8 cloves
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
4 cups water

Instructions
Place the carrots and celery in a slow cooker.
Rinse the corned beef then place on top of the vegetables.
Add the remaining ingredients.
Cover and cook on low for 8 hours.

Lammas Down Under

February 1st is Lammas or Lughnasadh in the Southern Hemisphere. In the pagan calendar it marks the halfway point between the Midsummer Solstice and the Autumn Equinox. It is the first of the harvest festivals and the first autumn festival of the year. It is a time of thanksgiving and sacrifice. The name Lammas is derived from an Old English term for “loaf mass” while Lughnasadh is derived from the name of the Celtic God Lugh.

Back in my coven days we followed a Celtic calendar so we celebrated Lughnasadh. When I left the coven I tried to continue embracing this ritual but found it difficult. Using the name Lammas rather than Lughnasadh helped as I could focus on bread and the harvest rather than a male Celtic God. Unfortunately Lammas is celebrated in Australia during the hottest time of the year. Temperatures soar, days are hot and sticky and nights are warm and muggy. It’s hard to get into the spirit of a festival focussing on baked goods when you yourself are baking as long and hot as a Lammas loaf. So instead of baking bread, I thought I would concentrate on the thanksgiving part of Lammas and make a sandwich I had on a recent trip to the USA. 

One of the things I am really grateful for is being able to visit my dear friend Anne on Whidbey Island in Washington State. She was a great host and tour guide and took us to some fantastic places to eat. For our last meal on the island we had lunch at Pickles Deli. There was so much on offer so I took my time devising the perfect sandwich. For the fillings I chose turkey with cranberry sauce and mayonnaise. This combination always makes me think of a thanksgiving dinner. Feeling adventurous, I did something I have never done before, I chose lettuce leaves instead of bread as my wrapping. My bread-free sandwich was a light and fresh taste sensation!

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The great thing about this sandwich wrap is that you can make it with homemade ingredients or store-bought ones and you can also substitute chicken for the turkey. I’ve made it many ways and they have all been delicious.

You can read more about my travels and recipes from Whidbey Island and other parts of the USA in my book Bites and Pieces of America. 🙂

Mira Mira On The Wall

Another Winter slowly comes to an end in Melbourne as the wheel spins towards Imbolc, the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Even though it is still cold, I can feel the Sun slowly coming back to life. The chill days are punctuated with more and more sunny breaks and the nights are not so bitterly cold. I spotted my first lizard a few weeks ago, a sure sign that Spring is on its way.

The return of Spring heralds the return of Persephone, one of my favourite Goddesses. Persephone spends Autumn and Winter in the Underworld with her husband Hades where she rules as the Queen of the Dead. In Spring she returns to Earth where she rules as the Goddess of Spring. In celebration of Persephone’s return, her mother Demeter slowly brings the Earth back to life.

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Normally I’m sad when Winter comes to an end but this year I am celebrating the return of the Sun. Surprisingly it’s due to a weekend I spent in Mira Mira, a bed and breakfast place that specialises in weird and wonderful accommodation. The property in Gippsland has a Zen Retreat, a Treehouse and a Cave. Naturally I chose to stay in the cave in the chill of Winter.

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When I arrived at the accomodation I was greeted by Magog, the doorway through which I was to enter the cave. After stepping through Magog’s mouth, I slowly descended the winding, stones steps. Fire lanterns adoring the walls threw strange shadows on my path. As I made my way into the womb of the cave, I felt like Persephone entering the realm of Hades.

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The cave was everything I hoped it would be. Carved into the hillside, the stone look was cosy and sumptuous. Coloured lights glowed eerily in the rooms and windows revealed surprising but stunning vistas. A log fire completed the scene. As I toasted marshmallows on the fire and snuggled into the lush blankets, I thought of Persephone and Winter.

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I had always thought that if I was Persephone I would resent having to leave the Underworld. But as much as I was enjoying my cave weekend of cold days, chill nights and warm fires, I was surprised to find a craving for the Sun take seed. As I ascended the winding stone steps, saying farewell to the realm of the Underworld cave, I finally understood why Persephone is happy to live in two domains. 

A few days ago I was sitting outside enjoying a sunny day. A sparrow flew into the yard and landed on my ram’s head skeleton. It cleaned its beak on one of the horns and then hopped about on the skull. I couldn’t help thinking “Quoth the Sparrow” – my apologies to Edgar Allan Poe. But as I watched the sparrow happily flit in and out of the skull, I thought it was a perfect symbol for the seasonal cycle of life and death. Persephone is now leaving the land of the dead and returning to the land of the living. And, for the first time in a long time, I am truly looking forward to the warm half of the year.

To celebrate the reunion of Persephone and Demeter I whipped up a classic bulgur wheat tabbouleh salad with the addition of pomegranate seeds. Wheat is sacred to Demeter and pomegranates are sacred to Persephone so I’m hoping the two Goddesses will enjoy this combination.

Pomegranate Tabbouleh

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Ingredients
1/4 cup bulgur wheat
1/2 cup boiling water
1/2 cup chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
pomegranate seeds for sprinkling 

Instructions
Soak the bulgur wheat in the boiling water for 10 minutes. Drain well.
Mix together the bulgur wheat, parsley, mint, oil and lemon juice in a bowl.
Toss the pomegranate seeds through the salad and serve. 

A Play On The Wizard Of Oz

I celebrated my recent birthday this year by seeing the stage production of The Wizard Of Oz at the Regent Theatre in Melbourne. It was a fun and colourful show and brought back memories of another witchy production I saw two years ago – Wicked. This play draws in elements from Wicked but mainly sticks closely to the 1939 film version of The Wizard Of Oz.

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One of the highlights of The Wizard Of Oz was seeing a real dog play Toto on stage. I wasn’t alone in my admiration of the doggy star. When Toto first ran onto the stage the audience let out a collective “Awwwww!” Toto also received the most applause at the final curtain. As a dog owner myself, I loved seeing the impish Toto strut her/his stuff on the stage. The role of fluffy little Toto is shared by two talented Australians terriers. The female is called Flick and the male is called Trouble. I think Flick and Trouble are perfect names for dogs that are starring in a witchy musical. They are especially apt names when we remember that Toto is not always a good dog.

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In the beginning of the play, Miss Gulch arrives at the Gale farm and announces that she has reported Toto to the authorities. She tells the distraught Dorothy that Toto will be seized by the authorities and possibly destroyed. Dorothy responds by calling Miss Gulch a wicked old witch. The audience naturally sides with Dorothy. How can anyone be so cruel to a little dog? How can that horrible woman want the little dog to be destroyed? She must indeed be a wicked old witch!

But what is the reason Miss Gulch reports Toto? She reports Toto because he has been allowed to roam free in her garden and has been chasing and harassing her cat. Not only that, Toto has also bitten her. While Dorothy apologises for Toto’s behaviour, there is a suggestion that Toto bit Miss Gulch as she is supposedly an unpleasant and frightening person. There also seems to be little sympathy for Miss Gulch’s cat. Could it be that cats, like Miss Gulch herself, are associated with witches and therefore not deserving of sympathy? Don’t get me wrong, I love Toto and would hate for him to be destroyed, but I am fascinated by the cat / witch link.

At the end of the play, Aunty Em tells Dorothy that Miss Gulch has withdrawn her complaint about Toto after hearing that Dorothy had been injured by the tornado. This is an unusual twist in the play as the fate of both Toto and Miss Gulch is left uncertain in the film. At the end of the film, all the characters from Oz that have a Kansas counterpart make an appearance, except Miss Gulch. Did Miss Gulch perish in the tornado meaning Toto is safe? If she has survived will she return and seize Toto? The answer to these questions is still being debated. So why is there a different ending to the play? It may simply be to add closure to questions left open in the film.

What makes this new ending particularly interesting is that Miss Gulch becomes a sympathetic figure, something she has never been before. I feel this is a reflection of the way Wicked has made us look at the figure of the Wicked Witch. Wicked imbued the Wicked Witch with a back story and, most importantly, a voice. The film Maleficent has also done this.  Hopefully the role of a Wicked Witch is slowly gaining the complexity it deserves.

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When I was thinking of what recipes would symbolise The Wizard Of Oz I was spoiled for choice. After much thought I decided on something green in honour of the Wicked Witch of the West. To add another witchy element, I chose a recipe that utilises a mortar and pestle.

The words “mortar” and “pestle” come from the Latin words “mortarium”and “pistillum” which refer to a vessel and tool used for pounding or grinding. Back when I was doing more formal rituals, I used to make my own incense in my trusty mortar and pestle. I would add herbs, spices and a chunk of frankincense to my mortar and then crush them to a powder with my pestle. I would then light a block of charcoal in my censer and spoon on my aromatic powder. Whether indoors or outdoors, the aroma of seasonal incense would permeate the air and the heady scent of frankincense would embrace me as I enjoyed another night of magic. As my rituals became less formal, I packed up most of my ritual tools. I did, however, keep my mortar and pestle, and after giving it a good clean, I put it to work in the kitchen. One of the recipes I use it for is pesto.

The word “pesto” means to pound or crush and no, it’s not a reference to the Wicked Witch of the East who was crushed by a house! It is in fact a reference to the word “pestle,” which reflects the fact that pesto was originally made with a mortar and pestle. You can make pesto in a blender or food processor, but nothing beats the flavour and texture you get from using a mortar and pestle.

The great thing about pesto is that like a witch creating incense, you can create your own magical concoctions by experimenting with different oils, herbs, nuts and cheeses. So channel your inner witch and get crushing!

Witchy Green Pesto

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Ingredients
1 clove of garlic, sliced
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 cups basil leaves
2 tablespoons pine nuts*
2 tablespoons finely grated aged parmesan
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Instructions
Add the garlic and salt to the mortar.
Using a circular motion, crush the garlic and salt together with the pestle until they become a rough paste.
Add the basil in stages and crush into little bits before adding more basil.
Add the pine nuts and crush, leaving some a little less crushed than others to add texture.
Add the parmesan and gently crush.
Add the olive oil and stir until it reaches your desired consistency.
Pesto is best used immediately but you can store it in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Just pour a little olive oil over the top to help prevent the basil from turning black.

*You can toast the pine nuts in a non stick frying pan over medium heat. Toss often until they turn light brown. Once toasted, pour pine nuts onto a plate to prevent further cooking. Set aside to cool before using in your pesto.

Food For Death

Bram Stoker died 106 years ago on April 20th, 1912. Many of us will never forget this great writer nor the amazing works and characters he created.

My recipe for this year’s deathiversary is inspired by a traditional dish called funeral potatoes, an American comfort food casserole that is often brought to gatherings held after funerals. There are many variations but the key ingredients are potatoes, cheese, onion, sour cream, a canned cream based soup and a crunchy topping. It is easy to prepare, travels well and is easily reheated.

My funeral potatoes are a very different dish and are inspired by Dracula’s immortal line “I Never Drink … Wine.” Although these words never appeared in Bram Stoker’s novel, they were uttered by the equally unforgettable Bela Lugosi in Tod Browning’s 1931 movie Dracula. Baked in red wine and olive oil and flavoured with rosemary, the herb of remembrance, these versatile potatoes can be eaten hot from the oven or cold from the refrigerator. I find the flavour of the wine is more pronounced when they are eaten at room temperature.

Served with sour cream you’ll want to make them for all occasions – not just funerals!    

Funeral Potatoes with Red Wine & Rosemary

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Ingredients
1kg potatoes
1 cup red wine – split in two
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
sprigs of fresh rosemary
sour cream for serving

Instructions
Preheat the oven to 200C / 400F.
Peel then chop the potatoes in half and then in quarters.
Place in a baking tray in a single layer.
Pour over 1/2 cup of red wine, reserving the other 1/4 cup for later.
Pour over the oil.
Add the dried rosemary and salt.
Toss together until combined.
Bake for 30 minutes.
Remove from oven and flip them over.
Pour over the remaining 1/2 cup of wine.
Return to the oven and bake for another 15 – 20 minutes or until they are cooked to your liking.
Drain on paper towels and allow to cool.
Place in an airtight container and add some sprigs of fresh rosemary.
Refrigerate until needed.
Allow them to come to room temperature before serving.
Serve with sour cream.

Act 3 – Shakespeare In A Globe

When creating a recipe to commemorate my Pop-up Globe adventure there were two things I wanted to reference – Pop-up and Globe. For the globe I immediately thought of globe artichokes. As marinated artichokes are one of my favourites things, I had plenty of ideas. For the pop-up bit I thought of popcorn, popcorn chicken, jalapeño poppers, pop tarts, cake pops and popsicles. While flicking through a few American cookbooks one recipe popped out at me – popovers!

Popovers are an American version of Yorkshire puddings. They are baked in special popover tins or muffin tins and are called popovers as the batter rises and “pops over” the tins. Popovers are the perfect expression for my Shakespearean adventures. Their name fits with pop-up, they are linked to Shakespeare and England and they are American. Smother them in globe artichoke butter and you have popover globes!

Popover Globes

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Ingredients
vegetable oil
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup milk
1 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon sea salt

Instructions
Preheat oven to 230C / 450F.
Brush the cups of a 12-hole muffin pan with with vegetable oil.
Place in the oven while you make the batter.
Beat together the eggs and milk with a wire whisk until combined.
Add the flour and salt and whisk until combined. Do not overbeat.
Transfer the batter to a pouring jug.
Using oven gloves, remove the tray from the oven.
Pour the batter evenly between 6 – 8 muffin cups about 3/4 full.
Place in the oven and bake for 20 minutes.
Reduce heat to 180C / 350F.
Bake for a further 10 – 15 minutes or until the sides of the popovers are firm.
Best eaten immediately.
Serve with artichoke butter.

Marinated Artichoke Butter

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Ingredients
60g (1/4 cup) cream cheese, room temperature
30g (2 tablespoons) unsalted butter, room temperature
15g (1 tablespoon) freshly grated parmesan cheese
2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 marinated whole artichoke hearts, drained and finely chopped (approximately 40g)
sea salt to taste

Instructions
Beat together the cream cheese and butter.
Stir in the cheese, lemon juice and artichokes until combined.
Add sea salt to taste.

Dracula’s Journey

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I’m excited to announce some wonderful news about the Dracula Tarot. Like Dracula himself, the Dracula Tarot has crossed the oceans to find a new home. What does that mean? It means the Dracula Tarot deck is now also available for sale in America! So if you want a copy for yourself, or as a gift for someone else, you’ll find them at Next Millennium Mystical Books and Gifts in Omaha, Nebraska. Don’t worry, a few copies stayed at home in Australia so if you’re on this side of town you can still order a few tarot decks from my website. The Dracula Tarot book is available online at Amazon. 🙂

What better way to celebrate than with these devilish nibbles followed by a few drinks!

Devilled Eggs

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Ingredients
6 eggs
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
black pepper
paprika

Method
Place the eggs in a saucepan and cover with cold water.
Cover and bring to a boil.
Once boiling, turn off the heat and allow the eggs to cook for 15 minutes.
Remove from saucepan and allow to rest for 2 minutes before peeling.
Refrigerate until cold then cut in half lengthways.
Scoop out the yolk, place in a bowl and mash.
Mix in the mayonnaise and mustard.
Spoon or pipe mixture back into the eggs.
Sprinkle with pepper and paprika.