pre-christmas lunching with the girl from the south

ready for a sunday lunch
table setting & ambiance by missy helgs

I’ve never really been into the concept of having a best friend, or ‘bestie’ as my mad no-so-little brother likes to call them (he also calls his mates who live on the farm next to his ‘nexties’… but that’s a whole other story).  It’s not like I believe in quantity over quality when it comes to friendships more that I’d rather just enjoy them instead of wasting time comparing my nearest and dearest. But if you were to force me to name my best mate, then it would probably have to be my favourite Melbourne resident, the lovely Missy Helgs.

I still clearly remember the first time we met, way back when we were both 18-year-old ‘freshers’. It was my first night at Baxter, one of the residential colleges on campus at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. My folks had dropped me off and I knew absolutely no one. A cute guy called ‘Bog Dan’ (his actual name was Dan…didn’t ever get into the ‘bog’ bit) offered to show me the way down to the Uni bar.

Once inside the bar, packed with beer-swilling fellow students, I lost sight of my guide and found myself all alone. After a brief minute of internal panic, I came up with a cunning plan: find a drink and find someone to talk to. Ahead of me in the bar queue I spied a friendly looking face. It belonged to a very tall and very blond girl who was laughing loudly. I took a deep breath and gingerly said,

‘Hi, I’m new and I don’t know anybody here, would you take care of me?’

Now I can’t remember her exact words but the response was definitely affirmative and as luck would have it we’ve been great mates ever since.

Missy Helgs, whose real name is Melissa or Mel or Miss to her family is an amazingly creative chick. But before I get into that you’re probably wondering how we got from Melissa to Missy Helgs…. Well, back during Baxter days, some of the guys in college decided that a gorgeous tall blond gal should really be known as Helga the Viking. Over time it morphed into Helgs and somewhere along the way we picked up the ‘Missy’ and there you have it. My college nickname was far less creative but no less endearing and whenever we’re together it’s Missy Helgs and Missy Clance.

Back to the praise singing bit….not only is she a keen photographer who was kind enough to guide me in my purchase of camera equipment and teach me everything I know about taking pics, She is also a mean furniture restorer (we’re talking French polishing here) and a talented upholsterer who was able to transform a hideous 70s teak and tweed lounge into an elegant white number.

She is handy with a drill, particularly when it comes to hanging pictures in rental properties and has been known to pick up a paint brush on many an occasion. She is also an excellent ‘driver’ when it comes to doing the crossword and is a very handy cook. Although when it comes to entertaining, I tend to hog the kitchen and let Missy Helgs take care of the ‘ambiance.’ The girl sure knows how to pull together a flower arrangement and the most beautiful table settings. She even irons and starches the linen. Together we make a great team.

But the thing I love most about Missy Helgs is her sense of humour. Man that girl can make me laugh and when the two of us get together let me tell you, there’s often more giggling than actual conversation. There’s certainly never a dull moment when Missy Helgs is around.

It’s hard to believe but it’s been six months already since she made the brave move down to Melbourne town to open a new office for her employers, generously leaving her gorgeous apartment in Darling Point for me to move into. And while I do miss having her in town for our impromptu mid week boozy dinners, it isn’t all bad as there have been plenty of interstate trips and weekend visits that seem to have turned my ‘lets just wing it’ friend into something of a planner.

Last weekend we were able to make the most of this planning and together hosted a lovely leisurely Sunday lunch on arguably the best balcony in Sydney with some of our other dear friends from Baxter days. With babies safely at home with their Dads, apart from those still in the oven, we had the perfect girls lunch. Catching up on the goss, sharing travel stories, giving advice and even the odd discussion of property and politics, I’m hard pressed to think of a better way to spend a Sunday….all good things.
 
baxter girls pre-christmas luncheon
marinated olives
salt baked salmon with pine nut tarator
asparagus and 2 pea salad
roasted apricot & ricotta tart

salt baked salmon with pine nut tarator
serves 8 – 10

I have to thank the gorgeous Jared Ingersoll of Danks St Depot for getting me into salt baking: chicken, lamb and now fish, I’ve tried it all. While it is a bit of effort to mix up your dough, the results are well worth it. Super moist meat or fish that has been delicately seasoned by the saline dough, pretty hard to beat especially when you tie it in with the spectacle of unwrapping your dough parcel at the table.

If I were going to be having Christmas any where near a good fish market then I’d be pretty tempted to ditch the turkey and serve up Sammy the salmon as my center piece. As always I’ll be hanging out at the farm so it’s going to be a goose Christmas for us but I urge you to give salt baking a try.

With the salt you want something that will readily meld into the dough so avoid chunky rock salt and rest assured that there’s no need to break the bank and use your Maldon sea salt. Regular table salt will work just fine.

1 x 3.0 – 3.5 kg salmon
1 bulb baby fennel, finely sliced leafy tops reserved
1 lemon sliced
1.5kg plain flour
1.5kg salt
3 1/2C (875mL) water
for the tarator:
200g pinenuts
1 large clove garlic
1T red wine vinegar
juice 1 lemon
3T extra virgin olive oil
approx 1/2C (125mL) water
small pinch ground allspice

Preheat oven to 200C. Combine flour and salt in a very large bowl. Make a well in the center and add water. Stir to combine then knead to bring together until you have a soft dough, adding extra water if required. Turn out onto a well floured workspace and roll out into a sheet large enough to encase the salmon, approx 5mm thick. Slide a baking tray under the dough. Place salmon in the center of the dough mainly on top of the baking tray and stuff the cavity with fennel & lemon. Wrap salmon snugly in its dough blanket, patching any holes and discarding any extra dough.

Bake the salmon (if your oven is as small as mine you’ll need to curl the tail up to get it to fit) for 45-55 minutes or until the crust is lightly golden. Allow to rest for a least 30mins.

Meanwhile for the sauce combine all ingredients in a food processor and whiz until smooth. Gradually add water until you have a good saucey consistency, you may not need all the water. Season well and refrigerate until ready to serve.

After the salmon has rested cut around the circumference (I didn’t think I was ever going to use that word after school) of the dough a couple of centimeters above the tray to create a base and a ‘lid’. Place salmon in the middle of the table and lift the ‘lid’, discarding any random bits of dough and remembering to warn your guests that the dough is super salty and tastes nowhere near as good as it looks.

Divide salmon between your guest’s plates using a knife and an egg lift and pass tarator and salad separately.
asparagus and double pea salad
serves 6 as a side salad

This is totally my new favourite salad. As I mentioned, I’ve been loving asparagus this spring and am always looking for new options for green salad accompaniments. I first cooked this about a month ago after a dash to the veggie shop near my work picking up whatever looked good. As a quick midweek dinner served with pea shoots instead of the watercress and a few hearty chunks of low fat salty feta, it was an instant winner.  A few days later the December issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller turned up with a surprisingly similar salad by the lovely Emma Knowles amongst its pages. All I can say is great minds think alike.

Feel free to play around with the types of leaves and peas in this salad. I quite liked the pea shoots but have also enjoyed it with baby spinach and as pictured here with watercress. You can also mix up the green veg content. Feel free to sub in green beans, broad beans or even podded peas. The important thing is to keep it fresh, seasonal and g-r-e-e-n.

This is the first time that I’ve blanched veg and actually bothered to cool them in ice water rather than just running them under the cold water tap. The extra colour retention and crispy texture were well worth the effort of faffing around with a bit of ice.

2 bunches asparagus
150g snow peas (mange-touts), topped & stringed
150g sugar snap peas, topped & stringed
1 bunch mint, leaves picked
1 small bunch watercress, sprigs picked
2T lemon juice
1T rice wine vinegar, optional or substitute extra lemon juice
5T extra virgin olive oil

Bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil. Blanch snow peas and sugar snap peas separately for a few minutes then cool under running water and refresh by soaking in a bowl of iced water. Snap woody bottom ends from the asparagus spears and discard. Snap each spear in halves or thirds and simmer for 3-6 mins or until just tender. Drain and add to the peas in the ice bath.

Whisk together lemon juice, vinegar and oil in a large bowl and season well. Toss though leaves and veg and arrange on a serving platter. Serve immediately.
roasted apricot & ricotta tart
serves 8-10
Inspired by Maggie Beer.

One of the things I love about summer is the abundance of seasonal fruit. It’s so lovely to give the pears and apples and citrus a rest and focus instead on cherries, tropical fruit and stone fruit.

I’ve been a sucker for apricots since my first taste picked straight from my pop’s tree (he was quite the gardener) and definitely have plans to include a few apricots when I plant my orchard. After reading Maggie Beer’s piece on apricots in her latest treasure of a book, Maggie’s Harvest, I just had to make an apricot tart myself.

If you can’t be bothered with the pastry feel free to divide the  sweetened vanilla ricotta between pretty serving glasses and top with the warm roasted apricots and their juices and possibly a few toasted sliced almonds.

1 x 28cm sweet tart shell, for recipe see HERE.
650g apricots (approx 12), halved and destoned
1 knob (20g) unsalted butter
1T vanilla sugar, or plain sugar
750g full fat ricotta
1/4C icing (powdered) sugar
1t vanilla extract
1 vanilla bean, seeds scraped

Preheat oven to 200C. Bake pastry case for 30mins or until deep golden and crispy. I find the best thing is when you think the pastry looks cooked put it back in the oven for 3-5mins and it will be perfect. Allow to cool.

Place apricots in a ceramic baking dish cut side down. Dot with pieces of butter and sprinkle over the sugar. Bake for 15-20mins or until apricots are just starting to soften but haven’t lost their shape. Allow to cool.

Beat ricotta, icing sugar, vanilla extract and the seeds from the vanilla bean until smooth. Smear over the base of your cooled tart shell then top with cooled apricots and brush over apricot juices with a pastry brush to glaze. Refrigerate for at least an hour. When ready to serve either place tart under a hot grill for a few minutes until apricots are glistening and slightly warmed or give them a blast with a blow torch. Enjoy.

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