For Emma Dean, food is best when you have a real connection with it, from garden to table.
We catch up with the 2013 MasterChef winner about the pleasures of growing food, delicious veggies to plant and lessons learned from her granny…
Growing up on a hobby farm in Bendigo, what are some of your earliest memories of growing and cooking food?
One of my earliest memories is of planting pumpkin seeds. We would plant the seeds in the summer, and I remember having to push the soil over the top, watering them, and then after what seemed like forever for a six-year-old, they’d start to grow. At the end of summer we’d have these big, beautiful pumpkins. We often grew big Queensland blue ones and they keep really well – often they’d last us almost the whole year.
We always had chooks as well, and I used to sell the eggs to mum’s work colleagues – they were these beautiful, big, free-range organic eggs.
Because I always understood about growing food and what it takes to do that, I had a real appreciation for home-grown food and being involved in the whole process. I think it’s really important to be connected to what you’re eating. I say to people now, even if it’s just parsley that you’re growing in a pot, it’s so good to have something that you have to care for and to have that connection to it.
What are some of your favourite foods or ingredients to use?
My favourite things to grow are often things that I want to cook with that are hard to get or that spoil when you keep them in the fridge. I love growing kale and silverbeet and strawberries.And all the old heirloom veggies I think are important to keep growing.I love all sorts of fresh and seasonal veggies – nothing tastes better than seasonal produce.
Some of my favourites are…
- Kale. At the moment I’m going nuts for kale, it’s just so versatile. It gets a bad wrap sometimes, I think because people often boil it too much, but if you just lightly steam it or lightly sautee it, it’s really beautiful. Also remove the stalk – the central stalk is a bit chewy and horrible. But I love kale. It’s a misunderstood veggie and it’s great in winter because it provides really good nutrition.
- Quinces. I love growing quinces at the moment. I have a quince tree that I adore, and I make lots of things with them – quince cake, poached quinces, and my favourite at the moment is slow-roasted shoulder of lamb on a bed of quinces. It’s great for a weekend meal, and it makes your house smell really good.
- Rhubarb. Rhubarb is so good, and it’s something you can grow at home pretty easily – you don’t have to care for it too much. There lots of great things you can use it in –you can make a beautiful compote with your breakfast, or you can use it in a cake, or make a puree with chicken if you want to get fancy.
- Jerusalem artichokes. I love growing Jerusalem artichokes. They’re a member of the sunflower family but they grow beneath the ground. They’re really high in iron and when you roast them they go really nice and sweet. They’re great just with a little bit of butter and salt.
Your first cookbook, A Homegrown Table, has just come out. How did you approach putting it all together?
It was an amazing experience to write it. It was very humbling, because there are so many amazing chefs who haven’t had the opportunity to write a book yet, so I was really quite honoured that I had the opportunity to do it. I just wrote down everything I like to cook and it evolved from there. I really wanted to have a push on seasonal and locally grown food, and maybe using vegetables in a way you wouldn’t expect. So for example I have a recipe for Jerusalem artichoke ice cream. It’s really delicious – kind of like pumpkin pie!
The food for the book was all cooked in my home by me and my friends and my mum together – it was all a big crazy effort because we had to get it done in month! The farm shots are my mum and dad’s farm.
Do you have a favourite recipe from the book?
My favourite and probably most sentimental recipe in the book is my granny’s yo yo recipe. She passed away over 20 years ago, but I found a recipe book on a bookshelf at my mum and dad’s house, and inside the front cover there was a handwritten note from granny and it was her recipe. I adored her yo yos when I was a little kid, so I made them and it was just like having granny in the next room. I included it in the book with all the ingredients exactly the same – the only thing I changed was the temperatures because we have more powerful ovens these days. It’s such a great recipe, and it’s really easy too.
This winter you’re running some workshops at CERES in Melbourne. What can people expect?
It’s very exciting. They’re at CERES, which is a community environment park in Brunswick in Melbourne. It’s a beautiful place and a fantastic resource – it’s got a kitchen garden, a nursery, a café and restaurant, and there’s a market on every day. You can go there and learn about solar power or composting or how to build a woodfire pizza oven, or you can just go for a delicious late and lunch; it’s really accessible.
I’m conducting workshops from the community kitchen, which will comfortably have about 12 people per session. I’ll be teaching people about making bread, making butter, how to use a pressure cooker, how to use different cuts of meat, how to make a perfect roast dinner, how to make a beautiful high tea, or how to do the perfect Brunswick brunch. It’s what I’ve learned over the last eleven or so years and hopefully I’ll be able to share those tips and tricks and recipes with people.