Have you ever had the experience of picking up a pencil, paint brush or pen and completely losing yourself in a creative frenzy, with no idea of where it will take you and what you might produce? When you’ve reflected on your creation, have you marvelled at what has poured from the depths of your subconscious straight onto the paper or canvas or piece of writing in front of you? Deep questions for a Monday night, I know! I would hardly call this strange purply rice a masterpiece, but when I threw together this Sunday night creation, I was a little surprised at what was staring back at me on the plate.
It is true that I often have no idea what I’m going to cook for dinner until it’s 6.30 p.m. and I’m staring into the fridge like a starved madwoman. I also kind of enjoy the challenge of using the little I might have and fashioning something out of it. In fact, one of my favourite questions to ask people is, ‘What are you making for dinner?’ followed by, ‘What have you got at home?’.
So last night, after a brisk walk in the cold to burn off some of the rich lunch I’d eaten and reflect on the lovely weekend I’d had, I came home to broccolini, purple carrots, mushrooms and frozen peas. I also had a little feta I had marinated the night before, some thyme and basmati rice. As I chopped everything up and steamed the rice, I was set on swapping the feta for ginger and making an Asian-style fried rice. But as I got the heat going on the stove, I remembered a baby spring vegetable risotto I’d once seen and quickly pulled out the olive oil and ditched the sesame oil. Winter? Pfff! So what if the wind had blown fat drops of rain into my eyes and made me question my own sanity for leaving the house on a freezing night. I was going to recreate spring in this pan and sit down to enjoy its sunny goodness! I plated up my finished invention and took the obligatory photo, almost hearing birds chirping outside. Then I saw what I had done. Staring back at me were the colours of Monet’s Waterlilies series, artworks I had seen earlier in the day on a trip to the National Gallery of Victoria, where the Monet’s Garden exhibition is in full swing. This was the closest any of my food had come to resembling art – well, so I thought. Monet … well, he would have rolled in his grave at that idea.
This was my second visit to the exhibition and quite obviously its impact has stayed with me, as was reflected by this dish. While it may be an uncool, daggily pop culture-esque thing to love Monet’s works (almost in an ‘I’m a Man U supporter’ kind of way – excluding you, Shan, and you, Phillipe, who was actually born in Manchester), I am proud to declare myself a long-time admirer. Much like the paintings of the neo-impressionists Seurat and Signac, there is something that makes me smile inside and out when I see these masterpieces of pure colour perfection. And it seems that I am not the only one who feels this way. Yesterday, I took my dad and sister along, as a belated 60th birthday present to my dad. Despite the hordes of people, we took in the sea of aqua, violet and gold so vastly expressed through this series of Monet’s paintings, standing close to each work to observe the mess of brush strokes, then standing metres away to clearly construct the scene Monet had brilliantly portrayed.
Four weeks earlier I had taken my Yiayia and Papou, the Greek grandparents. Not only was I excited about seeing all of these pieces in Melbourne, but also about seeing the reaction of my grandparents. When I had told them I was taking them as a birthday present to my grandfather (Papou), he had very casually said, ‘That’s nice’. (I wish I could attach sound bites for the Greek-accented comments that took place here!). After he opened his ‘real’, tangible presents, I dragged him and Yiayia to the living room to a wall where not one, but three Monet prints hung. And not just any Monet prints, but copies of those that we were to see at the NGV. I explained this to the grandparents. ‘Oh’, they both explained with mock interest. Then from my grandmother, ‘He’s French?’. I tried hard not to give them attitude here, but calmly said, ‘Uh-huh’, with my sister standing behind them holding back laughter. Then, the fatal question followed. ‘Is he young man?’.
I couldn’t believe it. My ‘cultured’, French-speaking grandparents, born in cosmopolitan 1930s Alexandria, had no bloody idea who Monet was. With as straight a face as I could muster, I said, ‘No. He’s dead. He’s been dead for a long, long time’. My sister cracked up at that point. They’d had these prints for twenty-five years. If he were a young man, he would have been about five when he created the originals. Where was the logique?! Still in disbelief, I asked them if they knew who Renoir and Van Gogh were. ‘Oh yes’, they said, as though I were asking a stupid question. My voice notched up an octave then. ‘Well, um, Monet is probably more famous than them.’ I had to stop there. There was no convincing them that this man was one of the greatest painters who ever lived and led one of the most notable art movements in history.
In all fairness to the grandparents, they were absolutely mesmerised by each of his paintings when we made it to the gallery. I was so proud of them, reading every single caption and taking in all things Monet that they possibly could. Yiayia, with her bad knee and heavily-accented English, darted in and out of the serious-looking crowds to get up close with Monet, exclaiming ‘po, po, po’ (a kind of Greek ‘Oh my god’) and shaking her head at the intricacies of something particularly breathtaking. I caught some of the other patrons having a giggle at this. Papou became fixated on ‘the bridge’ that featured so heavily in this series of works. And then they both cried in the cinema room when viewing the short film, ‘The last day at Giverny’, thanking me as though I myself had created this visual experience.
Mr Monet, wherever you are, please do not ‘tut tut’ at my strange rice that sort of reflects the beautiful colours of your masterpieces. I promise it’s tasty … you may have even liked it a little. You have also gained two new fans, who didn’t even realise they owned prints of your most famous works and were completely unaware of your illustriousness. You’ll be happy to know that they are having these reframed and moved to a spot where they can better admire your magic.
1 cup rice (preferably basmati)
3 purple carrots
1 bunch broccolini
1 large garlic clove
2–3 spring onions
100 g goat’s cheese or marinated feta
2/3 cup frozen peas
2 tablespoons pine nuts
2 tablespoons freshly chopped or dried thyme
2 tablespoons freshly chopped parsley
extra virgin olive oil
Steam your rice in a pot or rice cooker. I add a teaspoon of veggie stock powder to mine and cook it well, for at least 20 minutes, to ensure the rice is nice and fluffy. If there is a little water left in the pot and the rice is cooked, I turn the heat off and leave the lid on, giving the water time to evaporate.
If you have goat’s cheese or marinated feta, move onto veggie preparation. I had some Bulgarian feta on hand, which I marinated in order to soften the acidity and deepen the flavours. To my feta I added half a cup of good olive oil, freshly cracked pepper, a tablespoon of oregano and for something different, a tablespoon of Dukkah. If doing this, let it marinate for at least 30 minutes.
Prepare the veggies by peeling and washing the carrots, then roughly slicing them into 1 cm chunks. Wash and then cut the broccolini into thirds, lengthways. Peel and roughly chop the mushrooms, not too thinly sliced or you’ll lose them! Slice the spring onions, crush or thinly slice the garlic and chop up your herbs. You should have a beautiful array of green and purple goodness before you. Much like a stir fry, it’s good to have all your ingredients out and ready to go, so you can quickly cook them up, assemble and then mangiare!
Heat a deep pan on a medium flame and add a good glug (about 2 tablespoons) of oil. Add the carrots and cook for about 5 minutes. Add a teaspoon of salt to help the cooking process along and then add the garlic. Stir for a minute or until then garlic is fragrant, then add the mushrooms and thyme. The lovely, purple juice of the carrots should help to soften the mushrooms, but if you are finding they are too dry, add a little more oil. Once the mushrooms have softened, add the broccolini, frozen peas and whites of the spring onions. Stir fry until the broccolini is cooked. By that, I mean just cooked – green and crunchy, not yellow and wilting.
Carefully add the fluffy rice to your pan of vegetables, folding the mixture so it gently combines. Add the pine nuts, remaining spring onions and most of the parsley, and immediately take the pan off the heat. Plate up your Rice de Giverny, and spoon generous amounts of the cheese and a sprinkling of parsley on top of each serve. This should serve about four people as a main, and a few more as a side. Once you have plated up, step back to admire your masterpiece and then lose yourself in the garden of Giverny that has materialised on your plate!