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The Feast of Saint Valentine….or Valentine’s Day as it is more widely known!

I have read all sorts of stories about Valentine’s Day, where the celebrations originated and how it all came about. How did it come to be that on February 14th of every year we all go giddy over our loved ones and shower them with gifts and love letters – sometimes of the anonymous variety? I thought I’d better do my research. From what I can gather it seems to be the coming together of a multitude of cultures, festivals throughout history, religious beliefs, saints, authors, and poets. A day that we all share, all over the world.  A time to express our love and gratitude for each other without limitations. A day that we have globally contributed to with our own cultural adaptations, historical understandings, tales of folklore and …….chocolate.

I was particularly delighted to discover that some of the very first references to Valentine’s Day consist of a feast, the Christian celebration the ‘Feast of Saint Valentine’ which according to some sources is an adaptation of a Pagan festival. For me there is a natural connection between love and food, could there be a more thoughtful gift than a nourishing meal that you have taken your time to grow, prepare, cook and present to a loved one? I think not. We owe some of our more romantic attachments to Valentine’s Day to famous authors throughout histories such as Geoffrey Chaucer (14th century), William Shakespeare and John Donne (16th century). This is perhaps where the giving of poetry or love letters started to take root.

However you celebrate Valentine’s Day, I see it as an opportunity to show gratitude for the ones close to you, whether it be a partner, parent, sibling or close friend. I also see it as an excuse to cook up some delicious, indulgent food, not that I need one! I have put together three of my favourite ‘sharing the love’ dessert recipes below. There should be something there for everyone, whatever your tastes and they are all grain free and gluten free, there is even a Vegan option.


If you’re a chocolate lover or your lover is a chocolate lover then my ‘Vegan Mousse with Tangelo’ is for you. This is sure to impress with an easy yet fancy plate up when it’s all ready. This one is chocolatey, spicy, and zesty and most of all refined sugar-free! You can also top it all off with some edible flowers just to give it the full Valentine’s Day treatment.

Next up, this is one for all you savoury favouring folk. A super delightful twist on a cheese platter, my ‘Goats Cheese Mousse with Grape’ has all the satisfaction of a creamy dessert but takes a back seat on the sweetness. The toasty Wattle seed crumb and grapes three ways (roasted, pickled and fresh) give an unbelievable combination of textures. Get fancy with your plating and top with blue cornflowers, it’s just the prettiest dish. Perfect for that perfect person in your life. This recipe is also refined sugar-free.

Finally, last but by no means least. For all you speedy lovers, this one is super practical for all those people doing Valentine’s Day in a rush. My ‘Breakfast for Dessert’ is also great for those of you celebrating love for mums, dads and family members. It also works the other way, ‘Dessert for Breakfast’, perhaps you’ve had someone stay the night! You can have this dessert on standby. The granola can be pre-made and the frozen yogurt too, then you can just whip it out when you are ready to go. I use fresh berries but you could also use frozen if this is more convenient. Top with chocolate shavings and edible rose petals, delightful!

Whatever you end up doing on Valentine’s Day, enjoy your day of love. If you’re alone on Valentine’s Day then just love yourself! Cook up something wonderful for yourself, you deserve it, after all, loving ourselves and treating ourselves every now and then is just as important.

xox
Elena

 

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Choose Your Own Lunchtime Adventures

I didn’t mind a ‘choose your own adventure book’ when I was a kid, and then re-reading it and trying to exhaust every possible outcome. I guess chance and gambling was fun, but I still liked control – ha! Similarly, with ingredients, I like to explore every avenue and flavour combination, keeping my lunchtime meals interesting, vibrant and exciting. Allowing myself a break to mindfully chew, enjoy and nourish my body for the afternoon of work ahead, and if shared with others, step away from the usual work discussion, have a quick social chat and connect with a fellow human who probably equally needs a break and a recharge.

Heading back to work after holidays, and in particular preparing lunches after all the holiday feasting may seem like a drag, too much effort and just another thing to be stressed about. So why not make it a little more fun, a little light-hearted and a collaborative effort – share the drag, I mean, share the lunch-love! Splitting up the effort it takes can reduce everyone’s workload. Sharing the joy of food and conversation can be uplifting, reenergizing and supportive. There are so many benefits to cooking and eating together which can only enrich the experience either in your home or in your workplace with others – give it a go!

 

Lunchtime Adventures Ideas:

  1. Collaborative Cuisine (or a way funkier name for your faculty or department) – each person in your office brings an ingredient and one person per day makes everyone salads utilizing those ingredients.
  2. Family Build-A-Box – steam a little extra, chop a little extra, roast a little extra; buy and prep a little extra of all your separate ingredients for easy lunchbox assembly throughout the week, with enough variety to keep it interesting.
  3. Jar Salads – you’ve seen them before, so just do them! Put your heaviest and wettest ingredients at the bottom so when you turn it onto a plate, it’s already dressed, but not limp or soggy, because eww!
  4. Survival Kit Salads – keep some handy and super convenient, ready-to-go tins and jars of nutrient dense, flavour and texture-rich beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and dukkah. Some emergency tuna in your desk drawer perhaps, for when those pesky meetings run overtime etc. Don’t skip the meal; just make it a little quicker than usual.
  5. Pot Luck Lunch – everyone brings their best dish to share with everyone else, simple is good, but be brave and try something new and, depending on the number of your staff, you could maybe just rotate a roster!

Here’s a few other lunchtime adventures that may inspire you, a trendy, easy Poke Bowl, a gut-loving, turmeric Beef Salad and a super Salmon Salad.

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There’s so much fun to be had with young people, especially during the school holidays, and craft and cooking are right at the top of my list.  So why not combine the two?! Let’s get cooking with kids and create some gifts, then package and decorate the gifts to share the love these holidays.  Keeping little hands and minds busy is educational, therapeutic, joyful and connected.  This is a win-win, less stressful gift shopping when the kids are making presents and who doesn’t love something homemade, from the heart that has taken time and effort?!

Here are a handful of tips for keeping little hands busy:

  1. Utilise recycled glass jars of all shapes and sizes for long-shelf-life products such as Granola, Dukkah, Guilt-Free Choc Berry Bark.
  2. Cover your table or workspace in a newspaper for easy cleaning at the end.
  3. Use stamps and stickers, especially for the kidlets who are not quite writing or drawing yet.
  4. Use handprints and finger painting as gift-wrapping.
  5. Use ready-made blank gift tags and cards that the kids can colour, paint or glue onto.
  6. Use blank gift bags that are a perfect blank canvas.
  7. Create cut out paper snowflakes that can be a part of the craft or act as a stencil for painting onto something else.
  8. Limit the use of colour to just a handful, for easily colour-themed gift-wrapping.
  9. Set yourselves up with a variety of activities suited to all ability levels, so that everyone can contribute.
  10. Set up little workstations with a variety of activities so that kids have to get up and move around occasionally.

A list of other season celebration, holiday friendly, Cooking with Kids Recipes can be found here:
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Hello my fellow foodies, fans, friends and aspiring chefs. You may have read my intro section on the website and you have probably seen me on MasterChef of course, but, I thought it would be nice for you to learn more about me – how I got here, what makes me tick, my inspirations, my mentors, my life, family and well, what makes me…. me. We are, after all, multi-layered and complex creatures made up of childhood memories, favourite times and places and most importantly dreams and aspirations. Where we find ourselves in life is largely shaped by our experiences, so how did I end up on your television screens doing what I love so dearly? Let’s go back to the start…….

 

I’m passionate about many things but two of my loves in life are art and cooking; they’ve both been there as long as I can remember. Both go hand in hand and have always provided a wonderful creative outlet for me. It is certainly safe to say that both these areas of my life have been heavily influenced and nurtured by my family. My maternal grandfather, my ‘Opa’ was Dutch and a photographic journalist with the Dutch army, he met my ‘Oma’ in Dutch Indonesia – they married and spent some time in the Netherlands before relocating to Australia. They finally settled in South Australia where my mother was born and grew up, working hard, helping tend to the fruit orchards on their property. Opa enjoyed work and took pleasure as a painter, was passionate about timber and made the most wonderful furniture and so many clocks. I feel that some of my love for all things visual and artistic must come from my Opa. After graduating university I spent some time as a freelance photographer and I feel very fortunate to have shared this passion with him, I still occasionally use one of his cameras from the 1930s.

My Dad’s dad, my Pop, along with my Nan owned a family butcher shop in Panania, I suppose you could say that this would be one of my first direct links with something food and produce related! It was not the life my father wanted however, he finished school and trialed nursing in Callan Park at 18 years of age (quite an experience and at least a whole chapter’s worth of stories in a book that I’ve encouraged him to write). In the late 1970’s my Nan relocated to Noosa. Having travelled around Adelaide, Perth, Darwin and Sydney, both my mother and father decided that Noosa was for them as well and established the family home in Tewantin in the early 80’s.

My parents founded a scuba diving business in Noosa and some of my earliest and happiest memories include swimming and playing with my sister and the river kids in the Noosa River just near where their shop was located. The business tended to both the local community and tourists – providing ocean exploration and scuba diving education courses. This kind of life style on, in, or near the water provided us with a wealth of fresh seafood which I was learning to cook with from a very young age, I think crayfish were amongst some of my most favoured ingredients. The Scuba diving business also introduced me to education – watching dad teach new divers and learning myself all about sustainability, respectful fishing and being mindful of our oceans and finite resources and beauty in general. Growing up here gave me such a passion for fresh, local produce; it gave me an underlying connection with seafood. It helped me appreciate how lucky I am to live in Australia – a place so abundant with such a variety of foods, a climate so majestically able to produce such nutrient rich fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices.

We were encouraged to try all foods a few times, even when we didn’t think we liked something. This instilled an openness, bravery and fearlessness when trying anything new, which I thoroughly appreciate. I was cooking whole family meals by the time I was 8-10 years old, though consuming them may have been out of politeness, I cannot verify their quality.

My Mum always wanted both my sister and I to spread our wings and see what was beyond our family home in Noosa. With my passion for visual arts always actively encouraged by my family, I relocated to Sydney at 17 and graduated from the Fine Arts College UNSW with a Bachelor of Fine Arts, majoring in Photo media. Following this I took a foundation year in Science – Psychology at Macquarie University then completed my post-graduate degree in teaching from the University of Technology, I thought, for a little while, that a career in art therapy might have been for me as I place much value on creative expression as a method for self-healing and general approach to good health.

During all this learning, I took some time out and honored my desire for creativity – I became a freelance photographer – working weddings and events etc. and exhibited my fine art photographs. It was a wonderful time and I learned a lot about myself, my art and the industry. Interestingly, my aunt (my dad’s sister) was also a photographer and graduated from the same university as me, she even taught me in one subject during my first degree. I have incredibly fond memories of my aunt who, sadly, is no longer with us. She was enormously creative and I feel she had a huge influence on me, some of which I’m still learning about. I always looked forward to her birthday and Christmas gifts as a child as they would almost always be something ‘artsy’. I think my Dad wanted me to be a musician and encouraged guitar playing from a young age… I much preferred drawing and as soon as guitar practice started to hurt my fingers and impede on my drawing capabilities, I gave it up promptly! I think it is fair to say though that with all members of my immediate and extended family providing tremendously varied influences throughout my life in music, visual arts and cooking, I have a developed a deep appreciation for everything creative, I see all three vocations as a completely universal language – something we can all use to communicate regardless of our heritage, spoken language, place or time in the world.

Just before MasterChef I had been working for eight years at a High School northwest of Sydney. I was acting head teacher of Creative and Performing Arts and I absolutely loved my job. So much so, that a great deal of my work since MasterChef has continued to include teaching and educating. It is something rooted deep within me, a desire to educate and learn with and from others and to constantly grow and develop myself.

 

I think that takes care of some of my biggest childhood influences. In recent years an on-going battle with my general health has also pushed me further to pursuing a career with food. Coming to understand some of my health issues has deepened my passion for food and how it can affect our bodies. How we can nourish ourselves well, how we can provide our bodies with the right fuels to be the best we can be. You can read more specifically about my health journey in my blog I have a complicated relationship with my body.

My health journey has been a long and sometimes frustrating one – I won’t bore you with all the details here, I’ll just provide you with the important facts and some of the most wonderful ‘aha’ moments, which have been both uplifting and relieving.

From a young age I suffered with the craziest of stomach aches, I didn’t sleep well as a child and had a hyper response to sugar. My Mum used to create lots of things for me that would be sugar free and delicious, she always did an excellent job of that and as such I didn’t feel too much like I missed out. Although, let me just say, ‘dairy free, sugar free ice-confection’ is only satisfying as an ice cream substitute until you’ve actually tasted real ice cream! My Mum’s cooking was always delicious and nutritious and some of my fondest memories as a child include sitting on the kitchen bench watching her prepare my favourite meatballs, chop suey, egg and lettuce salad or crumbed lamb cutlets for dinner or getting involved with little prep jobs she would give me according to my ability. You know those foods you love as a child, comfort foods which you feel like your Mum has only ever made and will only ever make for you? Well, mine was Promite, alfalfa sprout, cheese and tomato grilled toasties and my goodness were they delicious!

Aside from the issues with sugar, I still suffered with the stomach pains and at the age of 16 was diagnosed with wheat intolerance – boring! What would I eat now?? This only spiked my interest in food and cooking as I was determined to find new ways to enjoy food without gluten, I refused to miss out on anything yummy. I began experimenting with my own recipes and teaching myself about alternative ingredients. My late teens and early twenties saw a whole host of other issues and in 2001 I was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome. I couldn’t help but think that there had to be a link between all these things – reaction to sugar, wheat intolerance and now this? I read, researched and investigated until I ended up sat in front of one of the world’s leading endocrinologists in Sydney. Leading the way in research into endocrine system health, to say that he offered me a wealth of knowledge and answers is an understatement – where had this man been all my life!? He was able to literally time-line all my symptoms based on his research, it was truly mind-blowing. My sugar issues were as a result of insulin resistance which in turn can cause polycystic ovaries. Regulating my sugar in take and understanding my intolerance for gluten helped me regulate my body and almost eliminate the need for medications. I quickly became increasingly aware of what foods optimized and assisted my health rather than hindered it and my passion for the science of cooking and body nourishment grew and matured.

I actually auditioned for MasterChef season 7 in 2014 but didn’t make the final cut. I see this as a blessing in disguise. It gave me another year to learn, grow and hone my skills as a chef. In that time I also met my super supportive partner Eric, whom I now live with in Sydney, he is my personal and incredibly professional recipe taste tester, a job I think he has taken to quite well, a seat well-warmed over the years by my head cheer leader and sister, Alexandra! In late 2015 I went back to audition for season 8 and it has been a whirlwind ever since. An incredible journey, an experience of a lifetime and ultimately the final piece in the puzzle for me – confirmation for me that food and education are where my heart is. So, that’s it, that’s me… in about 2000 words anyway. The most important things to me, the things that make me Elena are; the people in my life both now and who are no longer with me; all of our trials and challenges, our memories, the places we have been, the places we continue to go together and the stories we tell and have told. Throw on top of that our nutrient rich land, our glorious seas and MasterChef of course – these are the things that brought me here, providing you with, what I hope to be, body, brain and soul nourishing food inspiration as well as instilling a lifelong love of learning for you all.

Elena xox

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