Stephanie Alexander AO is a force to be reckoned with. Not in a loud, dominant or aggressive way – in fact quite the contrary, for she has inherited some of her mother’s shyness. Rather she is determined, meticulous and talented in all that she does and believes in, which is how she has been able to achieve so much and make a difference to the eating habits of so many Australians and the next generation too.
I first admired Stephanie from afar, back in the 80s as an avid cookbook collector, reader of anything to do with food in magazines and newspapers, caterer, cook, diner and entertainer. I attended her cooking classes at Accoutrement in Sydney and furthered our acquaintance at a Harvest Picnic in Melbourne after I moved into the media. We went on to become not only colleagues but friends. However, that is just by way of background.
For what is significant is that in the last 35 years or more I have never eaten any of Stephanie’s food, whether prepared by her, in her long-gone restaurant or café, or from her recipes, which I didn’t really enjoy. That is big. Not only reassuring that her recipes work, but rather that she has such a great sense of flavour, texture and balance. Stephanie uses the word delicious often, and that can always be applied to her food.
Stephanie began her career as a librarian and that is evident in the wonderful order, carefully recalled memories and evocative essays in her new book Home which is just released. She is a lover of words and books and so is a wordsmith herself. Fortunately also with a librarian’s good archive of notebooks, documents and clippings. Along with memory and a sense of humour.
The author of 18 books including the monumental Cook’s Companion, truly an Australian classic which has sold over 500,000 copies, you may think Stephanie, at nearly 81, might rest on her laurels? No way. The success of Cook’s Companion and its second edition enabled her to establish The Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation, now in 1000 schools, to introduce the pleasure of growing, cooking and eating of food to primary school children. This led to more books, her most recent, The Cook’s Apprentice, in 2018 being aimed at younger cooks just starting out.
However, around three years ago in discussion with the publisher of Home, she agreed she would write a new and different book. Something reflective, revealing where recipes came from and why they were important, her history, her life and her food life giving full rein to her literary style with formal essays as well as recipes. Stephanie felt she had a lot to say, having lived, as she says “for a long time and so it became a pleasure and an indulgence to be able to look back and see connections I hadn’t seen at the time”. Blissfully, she was encouraged to write long introductions to the recipes.
Home is the result of a two and a half year process. An enjoyable one at that. Stephanie was working with the same editor she worked with on Cook’s Companion, Caroline Pizzey, someone Stephanie describes as “a serious cook too”. She praises the photographer, Armelle Habib for her “painterly style”. Coronavirus gave her additional time and space.
It was a joy to interview Stephanie for the launch of this book, to delve deeper into what makes her tick. She has written often of her mother, Mary Burchett who was an excellent cook but who also liked to eat and record things physically. She would make sketches of what she ate including when she and Stephanie’s father first visited Japan. This founded her respect and love for the written word. As Stephanie says “You can paint with words”. So in her 30s in London and later in life in her restaurants she always had a notebook at hand. Looking back at them they combine shopping lists and then thoughts. When she travelled she always kept a notebook, not as a meticulous diarist, it might be something she had seen on the side of the road. Often in the evening she would read over these scrappy notes.
Her love of books came from her father. Self-educated having left school at 13, he “had a lifelong respect for knowledge and always told me everything could be found in the library….. look it up in the encyclopaedia Stephanie”. He had started a small subscription library in Ballarat, later in Ascot Vale and also spoke on radio. A tree-change to the Mornington Peninsula after a stint working for a politician saw him also involved in establishing rate payer funded libraries. One of the first was the Peninsula Library, which had a tiny bit of money so needed volunteer labour. “Dad loved the Dewey Decimal System (for classification of books), so he volunteered at weekends. I helped on Sunday nights before I went to Uni.” Stephanie wanted to do Arts but didn’t want to be a teacher. The only other thing offering for girls was to become a librarian.
Stephanie’s Mother was big on the importance of understanding books written about Australia – May Gibbs, Elizabeth Durack’s Way of the Whirlwind, Shy the Platypus as well as other children’s classics. She was always read to at night and so became herself a great reader. Little wonder that in her evocative new book Home, Stephanie quotes from the children’s classic Milly Molly Mandy in the introduction to one of her simplest but most delicious recipes Potatoes oven-baked in their jackets with herbed labna or butter.
Not that this book is aimed at children or new cooks, probably appealing more to people who love to both cook and read and will find things that appeal. “People who have lived through some of the same experiences and will have memory or recognition of how important these things are in our lives” she explains. However, Stephanie hopes her essays “will seduce and drag a few into the kitchen”. There are “new younger enlightened food lovers who have some catching up to do”.
Again Coronavirus has played into this, with people cooking for themselves and, of course, for Stephanie that means pleasure. Her essay “living in the time of coronavirus” is worth reading. The more so because Stephanie lives in Melbourne, the most locked down city in the world. Yet it meant she could spend a full year polishing the manuscript and the reader is the beneficiary.
Yet in here are recipes as easy as tomato on toast. But it is also a lesson in the love of good, simple things and an insight into Stephanie’s philosophy. Many things like her sensational anchovy butter can have many applications. You can learn how to roast a chook with all the trimmings. Or she may lead you further to make ravioli from scratch, bone out a quail or make a cassoulet, though it is her “cheat’s version”. There is a nod to the past with her chocolate ripple (which my mother made) and also global flavours from her years of travelling like the Pipis with manzanilla sherry, saffron, jamon, butter beans & crushed croutons or Zucchini carpaccio with lemon oil we feature here.
This is a book you can dip in and out of, refer to, or settle down and read. Whichever way it is timeless as is real, good food. As Stephanie writes in the introduction “Above all, my life’s work has been to convince as many as possible that cooking a lovely meal without anxiety adds so much to the joy of living”. This book delivers that in spades.
Stephanie Alexander’s Zucchini carpaccio with lemon oil recipe
200–300 g zucchini 12 mint leaves
60–80 g parmesan or ricotta salata
extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon small capers
freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons vincotto
2 teaspoons lemon-infused extra-virgin olive oil
1 handful young rocket leaves, stalks removed
Slice the zucchini lengthways into 5-mm thick strips. Set the slices out on a tray to rest for a few minutes. Bundle the mint leaves one on top of the other and slice through the bundle very finely. Set aside.
Take your preferred cheese and, using a vegetable peeler, shave plenty of fine slices and set aside for now. Select your presentation platter and set it alongside the stove.
Line a plate with paper towel and have it ready beside the stove. Select a large well-seasoned frying pan and tip in a little olive oil, just a teaspoon or so. Sauté the capers over medium heat for a few minutes until they open up like little flowers. Scoop the capers onto the paper-lined plate and set aside.
Add a very small amount of olive oil to the same pan over medium heat. Add some of the zucchini slices side by side but do not crowd the pan – you will need to cook in batches. The slices need less than a minute so stand by with your best tongs or palette knife to turn them quickly. Once turned, allow another 30 seconds and then remove the zucchini to the serving platter, arranging the slices close together and perhaps slightly overlapping. Repeat until all the zucchini has been very lightly fried. You may need to add a little more olive oil as you go, but be extremely careful not to overdo it.
Dress the zucchini with the fried capers and a scattering of mint, then season with salt, pepper, a few drops of vincotto, and a few drops of lemon-infused olive oil. Serve immediately with the cheese shavings and the rocket.