(Scroll down for Julia Ostro’s delicious ORZOTTO OF MUSHROOMS WITH MASCARPONE recipe)
What’s your earliest memory of cooking?
I have many memories of preparing food or being in the kitchen with my parents making ricotta or chopping ingredients. I think the first thing I made from start to finish and presented to the table was just a simple tomato and basil bruschetta. I remember being really happy as I grilled the bread, rubbing each side with garlic. I was maybe 8 or 9 and seeing my family enjoy the food was that instant sense of pride and feeling like, ‘I did that, I made them happy with my food’.
Tell us a little about your heritage.
Both my parents are Maltese. My dad migrated to Australia in the 60s and my mum’s parents just after the second world war in the 40s. Maltese food, culture and language was always really prominent and as kids, we all felt more Maltese than Australian. We would go to the Maltese club on the weekends, eat rabbit stew and celebrate special feast days. It felt really far removed from the kinds of things our friends at school were doing.
Who cooked when you were a kid and what was on the menu?
I have a rather large extended family, and gatherings always centered around food. I can remember being around 5 and at my Auntie’s house watching her make ravjul which are very similar to Italian ravioli. The cooks were always women and it was sort of a sisterhood – trading recipes and sharing secrets. My mum did all of the cooking – she was really an amazing cook. In the 70s she worked for QANTAS and had picked up so many recipes from her travels. She loved to experiment with new recipes but mostly our meals were based around more traditional Maltese dishes like the ravjul, baked rice and particular soups. Food and family sitting down all together to eat was always really important and is what kept us all tied to our heritage and family.
What was your attitude towards food when you were a kid?
I always loved cooking. I would pour over cookbooks, reading every detail, soaking it up. For me food was a way to make other people happy. Still today I enjoy the cooking as much as the eating. Our family was always really frugal with food though, which I really only noticed once my parents had separated and I saw how affordability of food could be a cause of stress. That really shifted my perspective on food – I think it made me try and cook more creatively with my mum who was incredible at using really humble ingredients.
How did travelling affect or influence your relationship with food?
Travelling completely opened my eyes to so many different ways of cooking and varied ingredients. My first overseas trip was on a school exchange to South Korea in Grade 8 – I just couldn’t get enough of the markets and talking to people about ingredients and dishes. Later on I spent time in Europe and lived in Italy in my early 20s. Travelling, especially in Italy, really made something click inside of me and set me on a path of cooking and food writing in a more serious sense.
When and how did food become your job?
I suppose I still find it hard to call it my job – it’s so pleasurable and ingrained in my home and family life. I think writing my book has made it feel a whole lot more job-like, with deadlines and a team and more commitments. It all just started through writing recipes on my blog, Ostro, just after I had returned from Italy in 2013. As people began to cook my recipes, and Instagram started to become more of a platform, I slowly invested more and more time into it. When The Design Files featured me in 2014, that’s when it really began to take off and a year later I was in talks to write my book, which gently worked out in its own time. I never have felt rushed or pressured to do things by a certain time. I also teach Italian in a school, to allow food writing and cooking as a job, to happen naturally.
What do you love to cook?
My food is simple, generous and intuitive. I don’t really believe in strict rules when I’m cooking and like to offer lots of alternatives to readers depending on the season or availability of produce. I don’t think I will ever tire of pasta – to me it always just feels so complete, even with the most simplest of sauces. I do really love to bake too, the movement of kneading, mixing, scraping and folding are all so meditative. Although I’m definitely a salty over sweet gal, I do enjoy writing cake recipes. People love cake and I’m happy to oblige.
What’s your philosophy around food?
The cooking can be as pleasurable as the eating. I really believe that even the smallest moments spent cooking in the kitchen are notable – whether making pasta or chopping an onion, it’s all a process and the loveliest opportunity to just be there in that moment. I also stand by the notion that if you start with the freshest and best ingredients you can afford (which are typically the ones in season), then you’re in the best position to create something delicious, something that tastes like what it is.
How did you meet your partner Nori?
My best friend and housemate was working as a waitress in a Japanese restaurant in Collingwood. Nori was one of the cooks and she brought him to my birthday party. We immediately hit it off but he had a wrong number so I never knew he’d tried to contact me. About six months later we happened to be at a mutual friends’ party and started dating the following week. Nori’s visa was about to expire and he was due to return to Japan a month later. But that’s all the time we needed – we really knew that this was it.
Does he like to cook?
Nori is an amazing cook and really enjoys it. Even though he cooks for a living, he still loves coming home and cooking dinner or flicking though cookbooks to plan something for the weekend. He used to work really long hours and almost every night but since having our child, Haruki, he works just days and dinner together every night is simply so lovely.
Do your different cultural backgrounds influence or inspire your cooking?
Nori grew up in a small town in the countryside in Japan and all he ever knew was Japanese food so he brings with him this deep understanding of traditional Japanese home-style cooking which is so delicious. Nori’s taught me so much about different techniques, flavours and philosophies around food. I cook mostly Italian food as that’s what I feel most comfortable in and then we meet in the middle and experiment with lots of different types of food. Our walls are lined with cookbooks and as well as our backgrounds, they provide both of us with so much inspiration and allow us to travel to so many places just by reading them.
Tell us about your book? What was that process like?
My book, Ostro, is a collection of recipes inspired by my Maltese upbringing, my time living in Italy and life here in Melbourne. The name means the southerly Mediterranean wind and also has links to the origin of the word ‘Australia’. For me, it was a word that perfectly described the elements or places that have had the biggest impact on this book and my food. I wanted a name that wasn’t known so that people would come to it without expectations or associations and could make their own meaning. It’s all about using simple ingredients, slowing down a little and being thoughtful with how you prepare ingredients and use produce. My recipes are merely guides and I encourage people to make these recipes, which are part of my own rituals, their own. We shot the entire book at our home which made it really personal. My kitchen is very old and tiny and I wanted people to see that. The book includes lots of photos of Haruki and Nori too – food and family are so intertwined and I’m so happy that there are little snapshots in the book. The best part is seeing people cook from it and chatting to booksellers who are supporting it. It’s a really good feeling.
How many things fail before they succeed or is the process quite smooth?
Sometimes the hardest things to get right can be the simplest. If you only have two or three ingredients, there’s nothing to hide behind. I tested the gnocchi recipe in my book at least five times before I got it right – it’s a recipe that relies on using your intuition and knowing when you have the right texture, so giving exact quantities was a real challenge. The process is rather smooth now though. I think it just takes practice. I’ve been cooking and writing for some time now so luckily, it usually just flows. If something doesn’t work out, I’ll know what to tweak or change to get it right for the next time.
What’s your go to mid week meal?
A simple sauce made from garlic, basil and good quality canned San Marzano tomatoes. The pasta is stirred through the sauce, served with lashings of grated parmesan and a salad of radicchio on the side.
What ingredients are the most versatile.
Pasta is the ultimate versatile ingredient. I could eat it every day, and did for several months when I lived in Italy. I’m just such a big fan of humble ingredients like brown onions which can be turned into a soup, caramelized and scattered over focaccia or roasted whole in the oven. Greens like cavolo nero, silverbeet and chicory, are also a great staple which are always in our fridge and can be used in so many different ways.
What would you never be without in your pantry?
Oh so many things. Extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, garlic, canned tomatoes and dried pasta. Our spice cupboard is pretty epic too, and I also have a mighty stash of dried goods like flours, beans and grains.
Do you ever not feel like cooking?
YES! But I would usually still do it more because it often feels easier to cook a simple pasta dish than to bundle up a two year old and head out for dinner! I really do enjoy going out for dinner or ordering in sometimes, but it’s usually only once every few weeks or so.
How does Haruki like your food?
Haruki’s fiercely independent and knows exactly what he likes and doesn’t like, although that’s forever changing. He gives most foods a try but definitely has his preferences, which is more than fine. I think if I just keep cooking the food Nori and I love to eat, eventually he’ll join in too. For now it’s a big learning process and an opportunity to give him the widest variety of things to try, even if it ends up on our plates (or the floor).
What’s your belief about food today?
To me, food is such a celebration and a source of pleasure – cooking and eating good simple food is at the heart of it all and makes life utterly joyful. Food is exciting and inspiring and moments like that satisfying bite of the first summer peach or the scent of basil and tomato vines mingling together are everything. There is so much different advice around food but I think it’s just really important to find what works for you and as Julia Child once said ‘If you’re afraid of butter, use cream’.
For busy people cooking can be quite a chore, what advice do you have about making things simple?
I’m not a huge ‘batch cooking’ type of person but it is handy to have some already cooked pulses and grains in the fridge that can be made into a salad or a meal for when you’re really busy. My freezer is always full of chicken broth and tomato sauces which are great for just sitting in a pot and cooking from frozen when time is limited – I can then just cook up some pasta in the broth or to add to the sauce.
I think it can all become a chore when there’s too much pressure to produce something in a short space of time. If I have hours to spare or I’ve set aside enough time, making fresh pasta or something that is quite labour intensive will be a pleasure. But if it’s 6 in the evening and we’ve all just gotten home from work, I know the most satisfying meal will be something simple and quick to prepare. Giving yourself permission to just have cheese on toast for dinner sometimes, balances it all out.
Julia’s ORZOTTO OF MUSHROOMS WITH MASCARPONE
Orzotto is a portmanteau of the words orzo (‘pearl barley’ in Italian–not to be confused here with the pasta of the same name) and risotto. It is essentially pearl barley cooked in the style of a risotto, where stock is slowly added to the grains, allowing it to be fully absorbed before adding more. This results in a much creamier texture, due to the starch released during the stirring and cooking, than if the barley was simply boiled. My favourite way to cook orzotto is with a mixture of mushrooms, which complement the nuttiness of the barley very well.
. . .
• 200g / 7oz pearl barley
• 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra to serve
• 1 onion, finely chopped
• 1 celery stalk, finely chopped
• sea salt
• 1L vegetable stock
• 10g / 0.4oz dried porcini mushrooms
• 125ml / 4.1 fl oz dry white wine
• 400g / 14.1oz mixed mushrooms roughly torn or chopped (ed’s note : we use a mix of white cup and swiss brown)
• 60g / 2.1oz unsalted butter roughly chopped
• 3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
• black pepper
• large handful of at-leaf parsley leaves, finely chopped
• grated parmesan, to serve
• mascarpone, to serve
1. Preheat the oven to 180 C / 356 F / Gas Mark 4.
2. Cook the pearl barley in a saucepan of boiling water for 15 minutes.
3. Drain and set aside.
4. Heat the olive oil in a large heavy-based saucepan over a low heat and fry the onion and celery with a pinch of salt for about 10 minutes until soft and fragrant.
5. Combine the stock and porcini in a saucepan over a medium heat.
6. Bring to a gentle simmer.
7. Add the pearl barley to the saucepan with the onion and celery and cook for a minute or two, stirring to coat and toast the grains. Increase the heat, add the wine and bring to a simmer. Once the barley has absorbed the wine, add one ladle of the hot stock. Keep stirring and allow the barley to absorb the liquid before adding more. Keep adding stock, simmering and stirring until the barley is almost al dente–this should take about 25 minutes and should use up most of the stock.
8. Meanwhile, arrange the mushrooms in a tray and scatter with the butter and garlic. Bake for 15 minutes until the mushrooms have collapsed and the garlic is soft.
9. Add the mushrooms and any of the garlicky butter left in the tray to the barley and cook, stirring, for another 5 minutes. You can add the porcini from the stock now too, if you like. Season to taste. Remove from the heat and stir the parsley through. Serve in shallow bowls topped with a scattering of parmesan, a generous dollop of mascarpone and a drizzle of olive oil. ///