I love the anticipation of Christmas when the pace slows down and we settle into a simmering hot summer. For me, this is a time to recapture memories from my childhood: the sweet freedom of long summer holidays, my mother baking special cakes, German chocolate Advent calendars, candles being lit and decorations being put out. I long for the smells of December – clove and cinnamon, smoky incense and my mother’s Stollen. So I keep myself busy baking, entertaining and making pickles and jams. No wonder it’s such a hectic time of year!
What’s more luxurious than a great lobster served with egg-rich mayonnaise, sea salt and lemon, crusty buttered bread and a bottle of aged white Burgundy? This year, for our Christmas entrée I’ll be making freshly cooked lobster on a salad of cubed avocado with finely chopped green chilli, preserved lemon and coriander, dressed in extra-virgin olive oil and Champagne vinegar. And I’ll be serving it with watercress and a bottle of Spanish albariño.
Once known in the southern states as crayfish (it’s officially ‘rocklobster’ but, for our purposes, ‘lobster’ will do nicely), the season for lobster is in full swing by Christmas. There are four types available in Australia, all harvested live from their coastal seabeds. The most important thing to look for when buying is quality. Crustaceans deteriorate very quickly out of water. A fresh lobster should feel heavy for its size and be lively when picked up – the tail will flap aggressively and the front legs will lift up. Cooking a live lobster is not for the faint-hearted but is well worth the effort if it’s going to be your pièce de résistance. Kill them quickly and humanely because their meat toughens and the quality of their flavour suffers if they are stressed. Chill your lobster in a freezer for at least 30 minutes. With a heavy sharp knife, pierce right through the shell between the eyes and cut through the centreline of the head and thorax. Fill the biggest pot you have (at least 5 litres) three-quarters full with water, add plenty of salt so it tastes like sea water (about ½ cup to every 2½ litres), and bring to the boil. Cook for 20 minutes per kilo.
There are some excellent seafood suppliers who specialise in freshly cooked lobsters, such as Vasiliki in Melbourne’s St Kilda. It’s a good idea to buy one already cooked, considering the time and nerve required to do it at home, but buy from a reputable source and order well in advance. See recipe: lobster bisque.
At their best, they have a rosy blush, freckles and a lovely sweet scent. They make beautiful tarts – lightly glazed with melted butter and caster sugar on puff pastry; with a smear of custard on shortcrust; in old-fashioned crumbles; or simply cooked with a little sugar – and wonderful jam. Apricots, like all stonefruit, are most flavoursome when tree-ripened. I prefer to buy them from good local greengrocers and farmer’s markets because they would’ve been picked fresh and will most likely be organic. Ripe ones should feel soft, give slightly in the hand and have a delicate perfume. Don’t choose on colour alone as some varieties are still pale when fully ripe. When under-ripe, apricots taste tart and are completely underwhelming. They’ll ripen if left out and will keep in the fridge for a few days. Try poaching them in a light syrup with spices such as cardamom, cinnamon and vanilla and, when cool, add a little orange-blossom water. Great with muesli.
Delicate, sweet and vibrant red, these are at the height of their season from late December and throughout January. The queen of berries, they make any dessert special. Add them to a hazelnut and chocolate gâteau or a tart made with pâte sablé and crème pâtissière. Stir them through vanilla ice-cream or set them in jelly made from sparkling Italian moscato, layered with mascarpone cream and sponge, and drenched in Galliano and orange syrup (that’s our Christmas dessert this year, see below for the recipe). But my ultimate raspberry pleasure is chilled ripe raspberries served simply with whipped organic cream (organic cream beats commercial cream on flavour), vanilla seeds and muscovado sugar.
Raspberries grow best in Tasmania and Victoria, in places like Silvan Estate in the Dandenong Ranges. They are very delicate and need to be eaten within a couple of days of buying. Raspberries freeze well and can be turned into a lovely sauce or jam so that you can store a little summer away for later. See recipe: zabaglione cake with berries.
As a young camper in Assisi, Umbria, I once tried to impress an Italian man I had invited to dinner by serving prosciutto with watermelon. He laughed so much he almost fell off his chair. While it may be a little passé to some, prosciutto and rockmelon marry beautifully. A ripe rockmelon served with a wafer of sweet, salty prosciutto – the best you can get, such as San Daniele – is a great beginning to a summer lunch.
I choose rockmelons with my nose – a ripe one will have a pronounced sweet smell – and a good melon will feel heavy for its size. It should also be unblemished with a full, round shape. Rockmelons taste great unadorned but are even better with a light syrup made from 1 part sugar to 2 parts water with a cinnamon quill, cracked cardamom pods and 2 dried limes, finished with fresh lime juice. Cool, and drizzle over sliced rockmelon (and watermelon, if you like, which is also at its prime in December).
The common eggplant may strike some as ordinary, but I adore them for their infinite expressions in the kitchen, for being a medium that can carry the many different flavours of the countries they are grown in – from Asia to India, the Middle East, the Mediterranean and here. They can be grilled, fried, roasted and set over a flame until their outsides are charred and their insides have become a soft smoky purée – perfect for baba ghanoush. I love eggplant parmigiana, Indian eggplant curry, Chinese fried eggplant with tofu and chilli pork sauce, or grilled or fried eggplant with basil, tomato and buffalo mozzarella.
Eggplants come in many different varieties: the long, slender variety often called Japanese eggplant, for instance, or the bitter green Thai pea eggplant that is an acquired taste but makes a pungent contrast to a rich curry. Although available year-round, eggplants are at their peak in summer. Look for fruit that are heavy for their size and have a shiny skin with no blemishes or wrinkles. They seem to have bred much of the bitterness out of eggplants these days, but I still recommend salting the flesh half an hour before cooking – it helps to draw out excess water so the eggplant won’t absorb as much oil when frying or grilling.
Chef Brigitte Hafner is putting luxurious lobster on her Christmas menu this year, with a raspberry mascarpone trifle to finish.