Fancy some wallaby or kangaroo for dinner? Or how about a feast made from the humble turnip? No worries. Sybil Kapoor talks to Stephanie Alexander, the woman who transformed Australian cooking

At this time of year, most cooks find themselves struggling for inspiration. What to make for supper when there is nothing new in the shops? Some will turn to the latest celebrity cook book. Others will scan the glossy mags hoping for seasonal tips on what to do with everyday foods such as potatoes or lemons. What is needed is a good, practical, ingredient-led cookbook that covers everything.

Of course, we food writers already have such a book sitting on our desks: it's called The Cook's Companion, by Stephanie Alexander, and it is shortly to be replaced by her new, even bigger edition. "It's the modern, Australian equivalent of The Constance Spry Cookery Book and if I had to take just two cook books to a desert island, it would be these two," says Lorna Wing, food writer and consultant. Certainly, Alexander's sections on tropical fruit, squid, calamari, cuttlefish and octopus would come in handy, although I'm not so sure about kangaroo and wallaby.

Alexander is Australia's grande dame of food. At 64 she remains a no-nonsense, tell-it-like- it-is Aussie chef who has been cooking and writing for nearly 30 years. According to Claudia Roden, "She is one of the really great chefs" who, through her innovative cooking in her suburban Melbourne restaurant, Stephanie's Kitchen (1976 to 1997), paved the way for Australia's current well-known chefs, such as Neil Perry, Chris Manfield and Bill Granger.

"I still remember the first time I ate at her restaurant, 17 years ago" recalls Roden: "I was judging the Gourmet Traveller Australian Restaurant of the Year Award. My first course was called a Rockpool. It was amazing; it looked like a beautiful rockpool, filled with perfectly cooked seafood, nestling in green, set in a soft, clear, delicate-tasting fish jelly. I then ordered a couscous to see how it was made in Australia. It was perfect... Stephanie had captured the flavour of Morocco while retaining her own unique style."

At that time, such cooking was described as eclectic, despite the fact that in Alexander's case it was rooted in classic French cooking. She was self-trained, albeit having spent a year cooking in a restaurant in France. At Stephanie's Restaurant, her food gradually evolved from classic Elizabeth David-influenced French dishes such as rillettes, or radishes with sweet butter, to what was to become modern Australian cooking. "I became fascinated by finding new ingredients and exploring their flavours" she recalls. "If I discovered someone rearing Muscovy ducks, for example, I would try to persuade them to let me try one or two, and then I would start talking and writing about them, in the hope that other people would want to rear them and eat them."

Her delicious food acted as a catalyst in Australia, while her regular writings began to influence domestic cooks. She has written 10 books, but it was the Cook's Companion, first published in 1996, that captured the Australian public's imagination. It was a massive Mrs Beeton-like tome filled with practical information and recipes. Instead of glossy photographs of finished dishes, it contained yet more copy in the form of notes in the margins. It felt almost old-fashioned. As Lorna Wing explains, "there is a sort of solidity about the book; you feel that she is utterly reliable, whether you are searching for ideas or cooking a recipe."

Contrary to the popular British image of Australian food, Alexander's recipes are not particularly influenced by Asian ingredients. "I love South-east Asian food, but I just don't feel as though I understand it deeply enough to create dishes, whereas if you give me a turnip I can imagine an infinite number of ways to cook it," she says. Perhaps this is due to the fact that she grew up in a world that was dominated by an old-fashioned style of British cooking. "There were no other influences at that time, apart from a few pretty dreadful Chinese restaurants in the suburbs of Melbourne." However, her * mother soon opened her eyes to exotic foreign ingredients like poppy seeds and sauerkraut when she began to cook European dishes from recipes given to her by Austrian, German and Polish friends, all immigrants to Australia.

"By the time I was teenager, Mediterranean faces were appearing all over Melbourne. Greek and Italian delicatessens were opening up and selling olive oil, olives and pasta. People were actually growing vegetables in their front gardens," recalls Stephanie. "I've been lucky enough to see the complete change in Australian food, yet now many children are losing the culinary skills that their grandparents brought with them to this country."

She has been amazed by the numbers of young chefs who no longer read cook books. "I act as consultant to the Richmond Hill Cafe & Larder in Melbourne and although it's now tougher to get into cooking, people seem to lack the breadth of knowledge they need to cook well." She was renowned for giving her chefs at Stephanie's Kitchen a copy of Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking. A firm boss, she also made it clear that she didn't want their ideas. In other words, you learn by example.

Preserved lemons

250g/9oz coarse kitchen salt
10 thick-skinned lemons, scrubbed and quartered
1 bay leaf, torn into pieces
2-3 cloves
1 stick cinnamon, broken into pieces
extra lemon juice (optional)

Scatter a spoonful of salt into a one-litre sterilised jar. Tip lemons into a wide plastic tub with the remaining salt and mix well. Massage fruit vigorously, then pack into jar, curved-side out, inserting pieces of bay leaf, cloves and splinters of cinnamon stick at intervals. Press down hard on fruit. Spoon salt mixture left in tub over fruit. Cover with extra lemon juice, if required. With a clean cloth dipped in boiling water, wipe neck of jar and cap tightly. Let the lemons mature for at least a month in a cool spot.

Passionfruit curd

Makes one cup
1/2 cup sugar
60g/2oz butter
2 eggs, well beaten
pulp of 6 passionfruit

Stir sugar and butter in a small non-reactive saucepan over a moderate heat until butter has melted and sugar has dissolved. Reduce heat, then add egg and passionfruit pulp and stir continuously until mixture thickens. Pour into a hot, sterilised jar and refrigerate for up to two weeks, until needed.

Duck with walnuts and pomegranate

Serves 2-4
240g/8oz walnuts
1 x 2kg/4.4lb duck
2tbsp olive oil
freshly ground black pepper
2 onions, chopped
11/2 cups pomegranate juice
juice of 2 lemons
1tbsp sugar
1 cup chicken stock
salt

Put walnuts into a bowl and cover with boiling water. Allow to stand for one hour. Preheat oven to 160C/320F/Gas 3. Drain walnuts, then tip into a clean tea towel and rub hard to remove loose skin. Lift nuts from towel, leaving debris behind. Spread on a baking tray and dry thoroughly in oven, then chop coarsely.

Using poultry shears, cut duck through breastbone and then either side of backbone. Cut each half crosswise. Heat oil in a large, heavy-based pot and brown duck pieces on all sides. Remove to a plate and grind on pepper. In the same oil, fry onion until soft and starting to colour. Add walnuts and fry for another few minutes, stirring often. Add pomegranate juice, lemon juice and sugar, and bring back to the boil, stirring.

Add duck and its juices, then pour in enough stock to barely cover. Bring to simmering point and taste. The liquid should have an appealing sweet-and-sour character. Adjust with more lemon juice or sugar, if desired, and season with salt. Cover and simmer for about an hour, until duck is very tender. Serve with steamed rice.

To order a copy of 'The Cook's Companion' (Penguin £35) for £31.99 (free p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897

Comments