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Ray Writes: Silverbeet and New Zealand Cuisine

Ray Writes: Silverbeet and New Zealand Cuisine


I have an amazing book which I bought in Rome years ago. It is the “Enciclopedia della Cucina Regionale Italiana”(Encyclopedia of Italian Regional Cooking) Boroli Editore 2003. It is a collection of all the recipes for the regional food of Italy, about 4000, all in one volume. It is an amazing body of knowledge and the culinary expression of society very different from ours. To even be able to put it down in a book and know nothing had been forgotten would be impossible in New Zealand. Either we are still developing or this is our culinary style, eclectic and constantly changing.

In the usual round of getting-to-know-you small talk when I am overseas I am often asked for examples of typical New Zealand dishes. The inquirer is usually from an old food culture which has a distinct repetoire of dishes typical of the area which constitute a national cuisine. Obviously New Zealand cooking has not gone through the centuries long refining process which makes the most of what other cultures would produce in their region. We don’t have a list of dishes with which we identify. The traditional dishes we inherited from English and Scottish settlers are no longer considered our national cuisine, although one could describe an appetising list if one knew everything would be perfectly cooked. It is often the mishandling of English food which has given it such a bad press. There are some dishes which people still hold in high regard, roast lamb, pavlova and whitebait fritters to name a few, but these are not touted as national dishes, they even induce a cultural cringe in some people.

When I answer that we don’t have a national cuisine in the distinct repetoire translation of the term I am regarded with blankness by foreigners. I hastily add that New Zealand food is about the wonderful ingredients we have which we cook using methods and recipes from everywhere else and even mix cuisines! Eclectic, I say soothingly, eclectic, and after that they tolerate me like a culinary idiot child. The last time one could predict what food showed up at what occasion was the days of the roast dinner 30 years ago. This has since changed. But critics are probably right, we, have no experience of always doing things one way. But then, I am sure there are very few bottles of Thai fish sauce or even cumin seeds, lurking in the ordinary Italian or Spanish pantry. They are not eclectic.

Whether we need to have a national cuisine in that sense is another question entirely. I am very happy using the excellent fish, meat and produce here and cooking in whatever manner happens to please me. I am not hung up about not being the same as the old cuisines I admire. I like their confidence but there is no point wishing for something that is different to the way we do things here. We simply don’t have a national cuisine in that sense. We do have a cuisine however, though it may not have a convenient definition. It definitely is about the high quality of our ingredients. Whether it is crayfish or kumara, we have a range of excellent ingredients to use.

One typical New Zealand vegetable is silverbeet.

Silverbeet, or Swiss Chard, as it is also called, may be a New Zealand classic, up there with pumpkin and kumara, but it used to be the torture vegetable when I was a child.

Soggy boiled silverbeet looked like black boiled newspapers and had a particularly nasty metallic taste. It was cheap so it made frequent unwelcome appearances on our table. Paradoxically I liked it in my younger sisters’ puréed baby food. It wasn’t until many years later that I worked out that the reason I liked it in this incarnation was that it was first boiled then became part of another dish.

Big, mature silverbeet first needs to be well boiled, cooled under cold water, squeezed dry and then cooked again, preferably panfried, with the flavourings of your choice. The initial cooking transforms silverbeet into something earthy and delicious and worthy of serious attention. Good choices to enhance this transformation are indian flavours such as ginger, garlic, cumin seeds, mustard seeds and chilli, slow fried in vegetable oil. This is a great base to which boiled chopped silverbeet can be added and panfried.  Simply add it to lots of garlic and onions slow cooked in olive oil for a European taste.

In Europe the stalks are often cooked separately from the leaves, sometimes being boiled then braised with garlic and oil, or made into a gratin with cheese. In France there is even a sweet tart that uses it as the main ingredient.

Mature silverbeet is always in the supermarket but it is also easy to grow, which means you can nab the leaves while they are small and tender or grow the small Rainbow Chard variety which has stalks in varying shades of saffron, tangerine, cream and cerise. It is like the carnival version of young silverbeet.

Young, small silverbeet leaves don’t need the initial cooking but can be quickly panfried in olive oil and well seasoned. If you aren’t a fan of traditionally boiled silverbeet, try boiling before using it. I love it.

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