Sunday, 3 November 2013

Halloween down under and Jackaroo Pie

We just celebrated Halloween here in Australia. Well at least some people did. Unlike the US, Halloween is not celebrated by everyone. I didn't know this when I moved here. I had a very naive American assumption that if the US celebrated Halloween, then Australia did too. Some Aussies celebrate Halloween but it is optional and can be based on the region you live in or even a specific neighbourhood. 2013 is my fourth Halloween here in Sydney and I  noticed that Halloween was very popular this year with more costume and candy displays in the stores than ever before. Even my local grocery store had a whole Halloween area, which I don't recall seeing in the past.

Australia and the US share most of the same holidays but sometimes on different dates. My favourite, Thanksgiving, is not celebrated at all while Halloween is gaining momentum here despite some controversy. While some people think that dressing up and eating candy is fun, others don't understand the holiday and why they should celebrate it down under. In my local paper, the Manly Daily, a woman interviewed summed up her negativity pretty well, "Call me a miserable old witch, but I don't like the whole concept of Halloween, I never have and never will. It's an out of control American tradition that has become so ingrained in our children's lives. Are we that culturally poor that we can't have our own traditions? Every year, Halloween gets bigger - make that more commercialised - with the growing pressure to fork out an assortment of plastic junk......." I don't get the 'plastic junk' part but she otherwise sums up well how some Australians feel about Halloween. There are also some religious schools that tell the children that Halloween is a devil's holiday and very bad; no one should celebrate Halloween. That comment sure didn't make my daughter feel good nor me a happy parent.

So what is Halloween and why after celebrating it my whole life do I not know too much about it? They had me at the dressing up and eating candy part so the details seemed irrelevant. It reminds me a bit of  our first year here when there was an Easter Parade at our public school. Coming from a country where there is a separation between church and state, I was a bit shocked that there'd be an Easter Parade at our public school. I even asked one mother if she was religious and what she thought of the Parade. Her reply was something to the effect of, 'No, I am not religious but I don't care, the kids are having a great time in their Easter hats and singing. It's a fun day for them and the school.' My kind of gal!

So what are we celebrating here? Boy, is there a lot of information on the Internet about Halloween. In a nutshell, Halloween is an ancient holiday that has evolved over time. Thousands of years ago, at the end of autumn before dreaded winter came and you could possibly die of hunger or freeze to death, Celts would gather in hopes of communicating with their deceased loved ones. They feasted and invited their (hopefully) heavenly ancestors to come to their party and ward off any evil-doers who might be planning to visit them in the coming year. They wore masks and costumes so that bad spirits who might decide to visit them wouldn't recognise them. Halloween marked a time when the Celts believed that the barrier between this world and the next was an open portal for spirits to come back for an earthly visit, and a time when mortals could send messages to the Gods and the deceased. Over time, the Catholic Church wanted to convert more pagans to Christianity and made Halloween, all hallows' Eve, the night before the holy day, All Saints Day on November 1. Irish immigrants brought the tradition of Halloween to the US in the 1800s. The practise of giving out candy, trick-or-treating, came from when the poor would walk door to door on Halloween receiving food in return for prayers for the dead on All Saints Day. There is a lot more information out there but I wouldn't bore you just look online for more detail.

In my neighbourhood,  Halloween is a big block party. There is one long and wide street that is closed off by the police and only residents' cars are able to drive through. The street is flooded with children and some adults dressed up, trick-or-treating, and socialising. Some parents even bring a picnic dinner or bottle of wine and sit on the grass and relax with adult friends while their children go to houses on their own. Because it is spring here and doesn't get dark until much later, houses may have a balloon outside or a decoration to indicate that they'll welcome kids and have lollies (candy). I noticed many homeowners stood outside at the sidewalk with a bowl of candy to give out. I sometimes tell people that one of the reasons I like living in Australia is that I see a high level of "social decency." When asked to explain what I mean beyond general good manners and doing the right thing, it is often hard to explain. Well one example I saw on Halloween was strangers giving homeowners bags of candy. I asked someone why she was giving was a bag of candy to a homeowner and she said that she wanted to help contribute since so many people came to that street. I saw this happen at several house - very decency. 

How could I write a blog on Halloween and not bake something sweet? Well I didn't! Last blog, there were Berry Crumble muffins so this blog I wanted a savoury dish. Before trick-or-treating you want a good, easy, nutritious meal on your stomach. At least I wanted my girls to get something healthy before they ate all that candy!  And why not make the dish very Australian since this American has been spreading Halloween.

Jackaroo Pie is a recipe from Masterchef host and food writer, Matt Preston. I really like his Matt Preston's 100 Best Recipes cookbook. It is a great book of everyday recipes and his larger than life personality comes through in the recipe introductions. I featured a lamb dish from this cookbook earlier this year in my February blog. Jackaroo Pie is an Australian take on Shepherd's Pie. Both my husband and I grew up eating Shepherd's Pie, a casserole layered with sauteed ground beef, peas and potatoes on top. In Jackaroo Pie,  ground lamb/lamb mince, one of Australia's biggest exports, is used along with Vegemite to flavour the pie.

A 'Jackaroo' is a man working on  cattle or sheep station; a 'Jillaroo' is a female. The Australian band, Men at Work, made Vegemite famous world wide with their hit song, 'Land Down Under.' Vegemite is a salty concentrated yeast and barley malt extract that is high in  vitamin B. It is so strong and salty, that only a small thin layer is needed on toast or sandwiches. Vegemite is an acquired taste. I actually like it spread thinly on bread and then topped with cheese and toasted in a toaster oven. Promite and Marmite are British substitutes for Vegemite. I scanned the Internet to see if there are good substitutes for Vegemite and I couldn't find one. I suggest you get a small jar from your local gourmet or import grocery. I have also suggested substitutes in my notes below.

Jackaroo Pie
adapted from Matt Preston's 100 Best Recipes cookbook

3 tablespoons Olive Oil
500g/1lb Lamb Mince/Ground Lamb
6 Spring Onions
1.5 cups Frozen Peas
2 tablespoons tomato ketchup
1 tablespoon Worcestershire Sauce
2 teaspoons Vegemite or Promite or Marmite (see notes)
1.5 cups of Beef Stock
2 cups Mashed Potatoes (potatoes, milk, butter)
1/2 cup Grated Parmesan or other sharp, dense cheese Pana Grandano, Pecorino

1. Start cooking potatoes and preheat oven to 175 C/ 350 F.

2. Heat 2 tablespoons of Olive Oil in large skillet. When oil is hot and spreading thin, whirl pan. Add lamb mince and stir until browned. Lamb can be fatty so be sure to drain the fat, juices. Stir in Vegemite until blended through. Spoon mixture into bowl and set aside.

3. Take spring onions and  cut off white part. Chop whites into small pieces.

4. Add a little olive oil back to pan and heat. Add chopped spring onion whites and saute until softened, 3-4 minutes.

5. Add frozen peas, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce and stir through. Add meat mixture and beef stock into pan and stir to combine.

6. While meat mixture is simmering, make mashed potatoes to your liking. (Mashed potatoes are tricky - people are picky with their choice of butter, milk, salt, etc......I'll leave it to you). Chop up leftover greens from spring onions and stir through mashed potatoes. 

7. In casserole pan, add meat mixture and spread mash potatoes on top. Add grated cheese and any other seasoning you like. I added mild paprika and black pepper along with the cheese.

8. Cook in oven for 30 minutes.

- Lamb is very fatty so it is important to drain fat when you are browning the meat.
- If you can't find Vegemite/Marmite/Promite, add an additional 1-2 tablespoons of Worcestershire Sauce and/or 1-2 teaspoons of concentrated beef stock in a jar.


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