Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Year end

I'm sitting in a hotel room somewhere in eastern Victoria, on the south coast of Australia. In the dark, so I don't wake Miss B up. With the world's slowest internet connection, so I can't even look up the name of the town we're in. Which I can't remember after the bottle of pinot noir my sister and I polished off at dinner. Also I seriously doubt I'll be able to upload a photo (see: slow internet connection).

BUT. I couldn't let 2008 end without one last post to say Happy New Year to all! I don't think I'll make it even close to midnight, but I wish you the New Year's Eve of your dreams (whether that's whooping it up on the town until the wee hours, or tucked up in bed at 10pm), and all sorts of good things in 2009.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Happy Holidays


Wherever you are in the world, and whatever you're celebrating--Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, Boxing Day, Festivus--I wish you and yours the very happiest of holidays!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Avocado challenge

Since I announced the Cookbook Challenge three weeks ago, I thought it was about time that I posted about what kind of progress I've been making.

The cookbook Real Fast Food (350 Recipes Ready-To-Eat in 30 Minutes) by Nigel Slater

I had an unexpectedly difficult time finding five recipes from this book that I wanted to make and that I thought at least DP, if not DP and Miss B, would want to eat.

The first recipe Avocado with Warm Bacon Vinaigrette

The ingredients
2 pieces of streaky/American bacon
2 tomatoes (skinned if you have time) and diced*
3 T red wine vinegar**
50 ml/2 oz olive oil**
2 T Dijon mustard
2 ripe avocadoes***

Cut the bacon into 1-inch pieces and fry. When it has crisped up, throw in the tomatoes, the vinegar and the olive oil. Stir in the mustard and stir to heat and combine.

Halve, stone and peel the avocadoes, place two halves on each plate and slice into thick wedges.**** Pour over the dressing and serve hot.

*I only had cherry tomatoes, so I substituted about 5 for each tomato. I did not skin them.

**I had homemade vinaigrette in the fridge, so I substituted that.

***I only used one avocado. But I made the same amount of dressing as suggested for two.

****I didn't peel or slice the avocado, just halved it and poured the dressing over. Very retro.

The presentation I served this as a side to steak sandwiches with blue cheese sauce on homemade rolls. We also had oven chips.

The verdict Miss B was vehemently uninterested in this entire meal (which I had expected), and had leftover pasta and broccoli instead. I figured I could sell DP on this, since it contains one of the ‘magic’ ingredients (the other one is cream) guaranteed to pique his interest in a new dish, and I was right. He liked it, but didn’t rave about it. I liked it in and of itself, but with the other dishes it made for a lot of different--and not necessarily harmonious--flavors. I’d probably make it again, but next time I think I'll have it for lunch and enjoy it on its own, with maybe just some good bread. It's very filling. Also, next time, I’ll stick to the recommended proportions of dressing and avocado. There was a lot of dressing.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Bright lights


Canberra isn’t really a city. It’s very nice: lots of greenspace, plenty of good shops and restaurants, well planned and mellow. It’s also the capital of Australia, so a lot of things that are important to the country happen here. It has a population of about 400,000 people. But despite all that, it doesn’t feel like a city to me. More like a big town.

We went to Sydney this past weekend. Sydney is a city. Skyscrapers, trains, traffic, energy--and possibly the nicest city harbor going. (Just seeing the ocean might have been the highlight of my trip.)

This was my second visit, and confirmed the favorable impressions I remembered from my first trip six years ago. We had fantastic weather, wandered past some of the more famous sights, caught up with some friends, and ate a lot of good food.

We drove up on Saturday morning, reveling in the fact that we were on a road trip to Sydney. The trip took about 3½ hours, including one stop, and we arrived in mid-afternoon. We dumped our bags at the hotel and headed off to see friends in Balmain. The kids built a giant train track on the living room floor, and we drank champagne and shared news. They cooked us dinner: roast pork on the barbie (of course!); scalloped potatoes; Croatian cole slaw (the method for which I attempted to memorize after I don’t know how many glasses of wine); salad; lots more wine. Dessert was a passionfruit cream sponge from their local bakery that I might be able to replicate with the right tools and about six months of patisserie training.

Sunday morning we headed off to find a likely breakfast spot. On our first visit, we had stayed in Camperdown, near the University of Sydney because I needed to be there for work, and had liked the neighborhood so much that DP booked us in there again. So we knew if we headed towards King Street we’d come across something good, and it took us about five minutes to find a place called HoochieMamma’s Café, with tables on the sidewalk and inviting smells wafting out. We had no trouble getting a table (a four-year-old in tow means eating breakfast a lot earlier than most university students) and not long to wait before generous plates of food appeared: a full traditional cooked breakfast for DP, ricotta hotcakes for Miss B, and Eggs Benedict (on French bread instead of English muffins) for me. The keeper recipe from this meal was the ricotta hotcakes: more chunky and substantial than regular pancakes, but still fluffy and delicious. They were served with butterscotch sauce, but I think I’ll try them at home with Miss B’s favorite blueberry maple syrup.

After breakfast we found a parking space (free! all day!) for the rental car, and then it was off to Newtown station so Miss B could commune with her beloved trains on a ride into downtown. (No trains in Canberra, which is a sad deprivation for my little trainspotter, whose favorite afternoon activity in Oxford was standing on Hinksey railway bridge, waving at anything on rails.) We got off at Circular Quay so we could goggle at Sydney Harbor Bridge and the Opera House (one of the most amazing buildings ever), then walked across the Botanical Gardens to meet my friend L. and her family for a picnic.

L. and I became friends when we shared an office in Oxford, and she was a huge source of help, support, and information to me during Miss B’s bumpy start. I had only seen her once since she left the UK 3 years ago to return to Sydney, shortly after Miss B came home. It was great to see her and her husband and kids (who of course are now gigantic), and they had brought a delicious antipasto spread, complete with chilled wine and featuring an enormous pile of king prawns (aka jumbo shrimp--an Australian Christmas tradition, apparently). They even had finger bowls for cleaning up after peeling off the shells! We stretched out on the grass overlooking the harbor, eating prawns and other goodies and chatting to our hearts’ content, while the kids devoured all the chips and dip, between bouts of playing ball and crashing the wedding taking place down the hill. We enjoyed ourselves until mid-afternoon, when real life resumed and we went our separate ways, they to a Christmas party and we to get on the road home.

It was a great weekend, and a reminder of all the benefits of a sojourn abroad. Most of the time, for me, no matter where I’ve lived, daily life is pretty much the same: parenting, work, running a household, lots and lots of cooking. Most of the differences I notice are negative: things I can't find at the supermarket, vagaries of utility companies. But every so often, I get a day or an experience, special and memorable and particular to its time and place, that reminds me: this is why I wanted to come to Australia.

Friday, December 12, 2008

New tricks


Maybe this has happened to you too.

You’re meandering through the supermarket’s produce section, picking up the same old items on your shopping list, when suddenly you notice something you’ve never paid attention to before. Despite the fact that you’ve been ignoring this particular food item for years, you’re suddenly drawn to it.

So you walk over and peer at the mangoes. They look a little like oversized, swollen pears, with smooth yellowy-orangey-greeny skin. You pick one up; it feels heavy and a bit soft in your hand. It must be ripe, you think. It even has bit of juice leaking out of one end, so it must be ripe. You’re not really sure though, because you don’t know anything about mangoes.

You’ve read people on the internet for years, rhapsodizing about mangoes: how sweet and juicy they are; how you should eat them in the bath because they’re so messily delicious; how they’re the perfect dessert, all by themselves; how the ones available in Pacific Rim countries are so superior to any other kind. But you’ve never actually eaten one. Mango chutney by the gallon in Indian restaurants—yes. Raw, unadulterated mango—no.

Well, here you are in a Pacific Rim country. You should try a mango.

You buy one, take it home, slice off a chunk and eat it.

You do not experience food ecstasy. In fact, your first reaction is, “Is it supposed to taste like that?”

This is not a question you can ask just anyone. Luckily, before too long you have a phone chat with your very good friend S., with whom you can (and do) talk to about just about anything. In this conversation alone, you range from new ways of dissing people electronically to flawed reporting of adverse events in clinical trials, with extensive forays into books, movies, and food.

In the course of the food discussion, you get onto mangoes and mention your recent taste experiment, without offering any opinions. S., as always, puts her finger on it. “I don’t know, I’m not sure I like mangoes,” she says hesitantly. “They taste kind of…chemically?”

Exactly the word you’ve been looking for. Apparently they are supposed to taste that way. So, is it you, or is it them? Do you have some kind of genetic taste issue, like those unfortunate people who think cilantro tastes like soap?

You aren’t quite ready to give up yet, though. Perhaps further research is indicated. You noticed a different variety of mangoes yesterday, bigger and more orange than the one you tried. Maybe you should try those?

Maybe the nice people who read this on your blog will have some suggestions?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Citrus facts


Have you ever noticed how, in some cuisines (Italian, Greek, Moroccan), the citrus fruit used to flavor the food is generally lemons, while in others (Thai, Mexican, Vietnamese), it's limes?

Have you ever wondered why?

(If you haven't, don't tell me. Let me cling to my illusions that I'm not the only person who thinks about these things.)

Well, I found out why recently. It's because lemons traditionally grow best in Mediterranean and subtropical climates, while limes can flourish in hotter, tropical areas.

Of course, I can't now remember where I read this, so I haven't been able to verify it (other than on Wikipedia, which doesn't really count), but it makes sense to me and I'm sticking with it.

This nugget of useless food information presented to liven up your Monday by Roving Lemon's Big Adventure.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Pastry breakthrough

Every year on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, my mother, my sisters (including me, when I’m in town), and my nieces get together for what is known in my family, simply, as Pie Day. Pie Day consists of making somewhere between one and two dozen apple pies for distribution among members of the immediate and extended family, plus enough to provide dessert for everyone that shows up to Thanksgiving dinner (our record for attendance currently stands at 26).

The ingredients for this baking extravaganza are suitably gargantuan: bushels of apples, pounds of flour. My mother makes the piecrust by hand in an enamel washtub easily two feet across. She uses a pastry cutter and a knife until it "feels right." Since I became an adult, I’ve helped her with this job, mainly by trying to simplify the quantities used when you multiply a standard pie crust recipe by 14, 16, or 18. I’ve also learned how to roll out piecrust and fill pies, and I started making my own pies at least 12 years ago.

Despite being an enthusiastic baker, one thing I never felt I had learned to my satisfaction was when piecrust "feels right." At least once a year, I would make pies on my own, and every time was a festival of anxiety, frequently combined with uncooperative dough. First I followed my mother’s recipe faithfully, and then experimented with others. I tried grating the butter, freezing the flour, pulsing the two in a Cuisinart for exactly 10 seconds. Nothing gave me what was promised: pastry dough that I could roll out easily that would taste flaky and delicious.

Then, last December, an online friend posted a recipe for pâte brisée in a cooking discussion group we were both part of, with a comment about how easy it was and clear, explicit directions. I didn’t have time to use it then—I was preparing for an intercontinental move—but the knowledge of it lodged in a crevice in my brain. You know how that is: you can’t remember why you walked into the kitchen, but you know there’s that recipe that you. need. to. print. out.

Last Wednesday, in preparation for Thanksgiving, it was time for my own little Pie Day (or Turnover Day) and I knew just what piecrust recipe I was going to try. And it was just as easy and worked just as well as the directions promised it would. I was so happy I was practically floating around the kitchen. Normally, after I get the piecrust safely made, rolled out, and baked, I breathe a sigh of relief and don’t want to go near the stuff for a good few months. Not this time. I was so thrilled by this recipe that I found myself making another batch today, just because I wanted some more turnovers.

So, whether you're a pastryphobe like me, or you just like your pie, try this recipe. The best part is that it tastes just the way good piecrust should: tender, buttery, flaky and delicious.


Anxiety-free pâte brisée

My friend V learned this recipe and method from a local caterer, Ariadne Clifton, who deserves all the baking props that I have to give!

Tools
cup and spoon measures
a small sharpish knife
a Cuisinart*
a fridge
plastic wrap

Ingredients
2 C all-purpose unbleached flour
12 T (1.5 sticks) unsalted butter, frozen**
2 T solid shortening, e.g. Crisco
healthy pinch of salt
[optional additions: 1 T sugar for sweetness (formally, this is called pâte sucré); 1 T cornmeal for crunch; maybe some cinnamon or allspice if your pie filling would be complemented by such flavors; ground nuts can be added at this stage. Obviously, don't do all these optional ingredients at once.]
1/4 C very cold but not iced-over water (I included 1 tsp cider vinegar in this)

"Mix 1 C of the flour, the salt, and the optional ingredients in the Cuisinart. Use the sharp knife to cut the frozen butter into small chunks directly into the Cuisinart, and pulse to chop it up as you go. Add in the Crisco, pulse a couple more times, and then add the second cup of flour and pulse till it's all mixy. (You'll see this in cookbooks as the 'small pea' stage, meaning the chunks of butter are very small and thoroughly mixed into the flour. I find that it looks more like rough-grade sand than like small peas, but what the hell do I know.)

"Now comes the cool part: dribble your cold water*** into the Cuisinart, and hold down the ON button. The dough will twirl and twirl and then suddenly cohere and ball itself up. Stop the Cuisinart immediately.

"Remove the ball, split it in two, and wrap each of the two balls in plastic wrap. Try not to capture any bubbles of air. These two wrapped balls go into the fridge, and must rest there for at least 30 minutes. If you can give them an hour, that's better. If you can't continue within 24 hours, go ahead and freeze the balls; they freeze just fine, and just remember to thaw them in the fridge before working them."

Makes enough for one standard two-crust pie, or eight turnovers.


*V mentions a by-hand substitute, but I think the key for me was seeing how the dough came together in the Cuisinart.

**Also key, in my opinion, for keeping the dough at the right temperature.

***I needed to add quite a bit more water than this to make the dough ball up as V describes. That's how you know the dough is ready, no matter how much liquid it takes. Just go carefully.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Cookbook Challenge


How many cookbooks do you own?

How many of them do you really use? How many have you cooked more than one recipe from? More than five? Double digits?

Full disclosure: I am a recipe junkie.* I have at least 50 cookbooks sitting in my apartment here in Canberra, and easily that number again back in Boston. And that’s not counting back issues of cooking magazines and clippings from newspapers. Not to mention printouts and downloads and bookmarks of dozens and dozens of internet sites and recipes.

And I keep looking for more. I’m reading at least five food blogs on an ongoing basis, taking cookbooks out of the library, and visiting new release cookbooks in the bookstore to debate about putting them on my Christmas list.

And yet, when it comes time to cook dinner, what are the chances I’m going to make something I’ve never made before? Am I using this treasure trove of culinary knowledge that’s at my fingertips?

Not enough. And that’s why I came up with the Cookbook Challenge for myself. I thought other people might be interested too. Here’s how it works:

1. Count up the number of cookbooks you have. (Include magazines, clipping binders, electronic folders—whatever you’ve got that you want to explore further.)
2. When you’ve got a total, pick a number between one and, say, 50. (Better yet, if you can, have someone else do it for you, to ensure that it’s really random.)
3. Count through your cookbooks until you get to that number, and pull out the randomly selected cookbook, magazine, folder, etc. (You could also pull names out of a hat, but this is quicker.)
4. Commit to cooking at least one new recipe from that resource in the next month. Five, if you want to really challenge yourself.
5. Tell about what you discovered—send me an email, post about it yourself, comment here (I'll report back on what I found). Did you discover a new favorite? Or is this cookbook just a pretty face with nothing in it you can see yourself cooking?

That’s all you have to do, between now and December 31. I know this is a pretty busy month for most people, but you’ve still got to eat, right? And you never know, you just might find a new holiday favorite!



*I think it could be a family problem….Miss B talked me into buying the cookbook in the picture, and then I caught Jasper the Shark reading it….

Friday, November 28, 2008

Thanksgiving Redux


Knowing that our Thanksgiving was going to be extremely mini—just for Miss B and me—the thought of trying to prepare any version of the usual spread, no matter how scaled down, was daunting. But I didn’t want to just let the day go by, either. I wanted something for dinner that was going to make me feel celebratory, not overwhelmed and depressed. So I decided to make like a celebrity chef and prepare a meal that was “inspired” by Thanksgiving. An homage, if you will, to the traditional tastes and smells, but manageable for two of us. Also important: it had to be something both Miss B and I would want to eat, and it shouldn’t be too heavy to appeal in warm mid-spring weather.

Not too tall of an order, right?

Here’s what I prepared:

Turkey risotto (a standard risotto recipe, but cooked with turkey stock, and with chunks of roasted turkey leg and lightly cooked celery)
Warm salad of snow peas (in honor of peas, my mother’s chosen Sunday and holiday dinner green vegetable) and roasted butternut squash (in honor of my sister M’s contribution of same to the longstanding family menu) with balsamic vinaigrette
(Miss B didn't actually want to eat this, unsurprisingly, but since she devoured the risotto I didn't care)
Hot rolls (some of the latest batch of bread dough)
Apple and craisin turnovers (because apple pie is my favorite Thanksgiving dessert, and there had to be cranberries somewhere, and I couldn’t get fresh cranberries for love or money. So, dried—a great combination, actually)

It was delicious, and festive, and a good time was had by both.

Oh, and a paper bag turkey. Because it’s not Thanksgiving without a paper bag turkey.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving


It’s already Thanksgiving here. Of course, it’s also a normal working day in Australia, not a holiday, which detracts from the festive atmosphere. On top of that, DP is away, attending meetings in the UK, so Thanksgiving dinner will be for two this year—Miss B and me. Under these circumstances, it would be easy to get homesick, mopey and maudlin, but that would be to miss the point of Thanksgiving. So instead, I did this:

Thanksgiving Gratitude List 2008
1. Miss B: Funny, imaginative, strong-willed and inquisitive. I am so grateful to have her here with me, thriving and happy.
1. DP: Who has the courage to follow his dreams and act on his beliefs, and who challenges and supports me to do the same. Wish you were here.
3. My family: I miss you, especially on a day like today, but I’m glad to have you, no matter how far apart we are.
4. My friends: I have the greatest, smartest, most fun friends in the world. You know who you are.
5. Health: The greatest gift there is. With good health, everything is possible.
6. Employment: I am grateful not just to have a job, but also a job that interests me, and that allows me to work from home and to make a positive contribution to society.
7. Food: All around the world, people are worried every day about putting food on the table. I am very grateful to have so much good food in my kitchen that I don't have room for it all.
8. Opportunity: I know I have won the lottery simply by being born when and where I was. I am grateful for having the chance to get an education, choose what I want to do for work, live in safety, get quality medical care, and say what I think freely.
9. The internet: For allowing me to telecommute from halfway around the world, and keep in touch with people far away—not to mention hours and hours of entertainment and more recipes than I’ll ever be able to cook!
10. Everyone who reads this: Thanks for your interest in this blog, I appreciate it!

I wish you all a very happy Thanksgiving! Now I’m off to make a paper bag turkey.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Habit forming


I posted here a while back about how junk food is peculiar to where you are. I’ve also noticed that this is true of ethnic food, to my woe: first I spent nine years lamenting the complete absence of scallion pancakes in British Chinese restaurants. Then I went back to the US and found that poppadoms and pickle are not in fact the universal default starter in Indian restaurants (much to Miss B’s and my chagrin).

So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that pizza, perhaps the most ubiquitous ethnic food of them all, doesn’t seem to have much of a presence here in Canberra. Oh, don’t get me wrong: you can get pizza, but it’s not a given item on every Italian restaurant menu, and the big food court at the main shopping center doesn’t have a pizza stall. A kebab stall, a sushi stall--and no pizza slices?!

During our recent extended stay in Boston, we quickly fell into the habit of Friday night as takeout night. DP and Miss B always, always opted for our local pizza takeout. I got bored with this after a while--when you have a toddler you seem to end up eating a lot of pizza--and switched to Thai takeout from across the street. I left Boston thinking I didn’t care if I never saw another pizza. I rapidly changed my tune when it started to look as though that might actually be the case. Unable to find any pizza (eat-in or takeout) worth going out of my way for within a one-mile radius, I turned to the last resort of the hungry expat: figure out how to make my own, so the Friday family pizza habit could continue.

Since I had already gotten back on the breadmaking bandwagon by this point, I was already partway there. I use the same dough for both, and just cut off a sizeable chunk of whatever’s in the fridge to make a crust with. I then stretch it out (laboriously and clumsily—how do the guys in Bertucci’s make it look so easy?) to fit on a round baking sheet which I have greased and floured (some people use semolina here, and I would too, if I ever remembered to buy any), coat it with pizza sauce (see below), dot with pepperoni slices (or other topping of your choice), and sprinkle with mozzarella cheese. Bake in a very hot oven for 10-15 minutes, and maybe run under the grill/broiler for a minute if you want to get the cheese just so. Don’t let it burn.

This is another one of those things that you will totally impress yourself with, just by making it. I pulled my first one out of the oven and said, out loud, “Wow! That actually looks like a pizza!”

As opposed to....?


Zesty Pizza Sauce
2 T olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
¼ t red pepper flakes (more if no one in your house is liable to say, "Too spicy!")
1 can tomato paste, or a few good squeezes/scoops from a tube/jar of same
1 28oz can (or 2 400g cans) tomatoes

Heat olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan and sauté garlic and pepper briefly. Add tomato paste and let cook for a minute or two, then dump in tomatoes. If you are using whole ones, try to squish them a bit. Keep the pan at a fairly high heat, as you want to evaporate all the liquid and make a very thick tomato sauce. This means that you will end up with tomato sauce splattered all over your stove. You can partially cover the pan to limit this, but it will take longer to cook the sauce. Cook until you can drag a wooden spoon across the bottom of the pan and see a trail. You can jazz this up with other flavors too. This makes enough for at least two pizzas; I freeze the rest in the hope that one Friday I’ll have dough in the refrigerator and sauce to defrost, and dinner will be really quick and easy. Maybe by then it will also take me less than 40 minutes of dough-wrassling to produce a believable crust.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Seasonal disorientation


It’s the middle of November. What does November make you think of? Changing leaves, football, pumpkins? Warm woollies, gray skies, stews and pies?

How about blazing sun, fresh cherries and flip flops? Picnics in the park? Ice cream?

Welcome to the southern hemisphere.

And you know all that stuff they say about how your body responds to changes in seasons, light, and temperature?

Well, I’ve decided that’s all hooey as far as appetite, or my appetite anyway, is concerned. The calendar says November, and therefore my brain says “apple pie.” Incessantly. The fact that it’s 85 and sunny outside doesn’t make as much difference as you might expect.

What does make a difference, though, is those dispiriting, unnaturally shiny end-of-winter storage apples that are all the average supermarket has to offer in the middle of spring. Kills my apple pie buzz dead every time. For a while.

Sigh.

I guess I’ll just have to take consolation in the fact that I can eat my own body weight in rhubarb for the second time in six months.


Rx4 Rhubarb
This is my adaptation of Ruth Reichl’s Roasted Rhubarb, from her wonderful memoir Garlic and Sapphires. It tastes good at any temperature, and can be eaten at any meal of the day, or indeed straight from the pan or fridge if necessary. But it is especially good served warm, as dessert, with a crisp sugar cookie or two alongside.

2 lbs/1 kg rhubarb, sliced into 1-inch pieces
¼-½ cup cinnamon sugar

Place rhubarb in an ovenproof dish, which can be lightly greased with butter if desired. Sprinkle liberally with cinnamon sugar and toss to coat. Repeat. If you like it on the sweet side, repeat again. Roast in a hot oven (anywhere from 325F/165C to 425F/210C—it can adapt to whatever else you might need to cook in the oven simultaneously) for about 30 minutes.

Serves 1. Okay, 4 if you decide you want to share.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Price index


It’s been a relief to discover that the cost of living in Australia seems to be quite a bit lower than it was in England. I haven’t done an item-by-item comparison (although I probably will at some point, thrifty OCD nerd that I am, and then post it here); so far, it’s just noticing an overall decrease in expenses, and the fact that money seems to stay in my pocket longer than it has been for the last few years.

I’ve noticed a few exceptions to this rule. One of them I’ve already mentioned—imported cheese. Another is Internet access: I’m paying what I consider to be a ludicrous amount for a mediocre connection at home, which moreover has a monthly usage limit. I can’t remember how long it’s been since I had one of those. (Both of these make some sense when you think about remote Australia is from other population centers, and how sparsely populated for its size.)

One surprise in this category has been bread. In England we were in the habit of buying a loaf (a baguette or bloomer/torpedo or similar) once or twice a week to cut up and eat with dinner (the low-carb revolution missed our house), but the price here--about AUD$4.00 (USD$2.60/GBP1.75)--pulled me up short. We were paying less than half that for an equivalent loaf in England, and I just could not bring myself to fork over that amount for what I consider a frill, foodwise. It was just the kick in the butt I needed to get me baking bread again.

Flexible Slow-Rise White Bread
This bread recipe is my amalgamation of imperfectly digested advice, directions, and tips from Laurie Colwin, Elizabeth David, Deborah Madison, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. I wouldn't call it artisan bread, but it’s pretty tasty. Every time it comes out of the oven, I’m stunned anew that I’ve actually produced bread.

480g/4 cups all-purpose or strong white flour
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon or less yeast*
360ml/12oz almost-hot water

Measure all the dry ingredients** into a large bowl. Slowly pour in the water, mixing into the dry ingredients with a knife, whisk, or similar. (I use my fab dough whisk—procured thanks to a tip from Chocolate & Zucchini.) Soon you will have shaggy clumps of dough. When your mixing implement starts to get too clogged, remove and clean it, and start working with your hands. (Have extra flour nearby for when the dough starts to get too sticky as you knead.) Knead the bread for at least five minutes—the longer the better. It should feel increasingly elastic and springy as you work. When you’ve had enough kneading, roll the dough in flour and put in a bowl to rise (overnight, say) at room temperature or in the fridge. (It’s a good idea to cover it with something so the top doesn’t dry out; I use a tea towel if I’m leaving it out, and a Ziploc bag, opened over the bowl mouth and secured with an elastic, for the fridge.)

This dough will rise slowly in the fridge, and can be used over a couple of days. Try to remember to knock the air out of it at least once every 24 hours. Also try to remember to take it out of the fridge a little while before you want to use it, although I hardly ever do. To bake, knead it a bit more, shape as desired*** (lately, all I make is rolls), place on a baking sheet (baking parchment is a good idea), slash or glaze as your fancy takes you, let it rise some more if you feel like it (or not) and bake in a very hot oven. (How long you bake it for will depend on the shape: rolls take about 20 minutes, loaves take longer, depending on size. It's done when it smells like bread and/or sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.)


*Slow-rise bread needs very little yeast because you’re giving it hours to rise and you don’t want to worry that it’s rising too much.

**I don’t do any of that business with proofing the yeast; I just dump it straight into the mix and rely on the warm water to activate it. It has never (touch wood) failed yet.

***It’s also a good idea to save a bit of dough to help flavor and ferment your next loaf.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Genetic encoding


THE SCENE: Roving Lemon (RL), DP, and Miss B sit at the kitchen table, finishing off lunch. At her place, RL has a small bowl of pickles she brought out to eat with her sandwich, several of which Miss B has filched to eat with her soup, cheese, and crackers. Two small pickles are left in the bottom of the bowl, which Miss B eyes longingly. RL passes over the bowl.

Miss B eats the last two pickles, then picks up the bowl and starts drinking the juice.

DP (getting up from the table to clear): OMG, that is disgusting! (Points a finger accusingly at RL) That is YOUR fault!

RL (protesting): What?! She's never seen me do that! I haven't done that in....years!

Miss B (smacking her lips): Mmmmm....spicy in my mouth, Mummy!

That's my girl.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Fishing lessons


I know I should cook more fish.

I hear often how good it is for you (Omega-3, lean protein, etc. etc.), but I have a little bit of a mental block about it. Even though my 40th birthday is lurking on a not-so distant horizon, I am still working on overcoming a deep-seated childhood loathing for fish. (If you add in the knowledge that I only had to eat it twice a year—Christmas Eve and Ash Wednesday—you might get an idea of how deep-seated.) Add to that a husband who’s not exactly a fish maniac himself (“I just don’t see the point”) and a four-year-old typically suspicious of novelty in food (“What’s that?!”) and you see my dilemma.

And that’s before we’ve even left the house. As far as I can tell, the general public seems to be getting completely contrary advice about fish from nutrition and environmental experts. On the one hand, government health agencies generally recommend eating one to two fish meals a week. (If we all start doing that, that’s a lot of fish.)

Meanwhile, environmentalists warn us that three-quarters of the world’s oceans have been fished to the point of collapse and that we have to be scrupulously careful about how much and what type of fish we buy.

What’s a concerned cook to do?

In my case, usually go two stalls down and buy some organic free-range chicken instead....But that’s wimpy, and I’m not prepared to throw in the towel just yet.

A few weeks ago I came across The Leather District Gourmet’s Teach a Man to Fish 2008 event. This event encourages people to seek out and prepare sustainable sources of seafood, then send in recipes and pictures to create a resource of ideas. I thought this would be the perfect opportunity for me to learn more about sustainable seafood in Australia, and I signed on to send in a suitable recipe by the end of October.

Then, in my usual fashion, I did no further research until the day before I actually had to go and buy some fish to cook, at which point I discovered that the Australian Marine Conservation Society’s Sustainable Seafood Guide was not, in fact, available on the internet as I had anticipated, but had to be ordered through the mail.

Oops.

A Google scramble ensued (after I ordered the Guide), and I managed to find an article online about the Society which included two or three suggestions for sustainable seafood choices. I chose bream, mainly because they had it at the fishmonger’s, then got it home and realized I had been so focused on what fish to get, I hadn't really thought about how to prepare it. So I slathered it with some homemade pesto I had in the fridge, chopped up some lemons and added them, and broiled/grilled it for all of five minutes.

Then I remembered the real advantage of fish: it’s quick and easy to cook, and responds well to a variety of flavors. And yes, even this household of fish skeptics liked it.


Opportunistic Grilled Bream

1 teaspoon olive oil
250g/8oz bream fillets (because you don’t expect anyone, even you, to have seconds)
2-3 tablespoons pesto
1 lemon
Salt and pepper

Oil a baking sheet with the olive oil and lay the fish on it. Halve the lemon, and squeeze one half into the pesto. Slather each fillet with lemony pesto, then chop up the other half lemon into chunks and scatter over the fish. Season with salt and pepper. Slide under the grill for about five minutes (my fillets were about ½ inch thick). Serve immediately, with some starch you have made on purpose to sweeten the deal for your fellow diners (I made sautéed potatoes), and a green vegetable.

Serves 2 adults and 1 child.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Progress report

Recent activities have reminded me to post a brief update on the burning questions asked in my first post:

1. Season Five of The Office? Check. Just finished watching the 10/23 episode on my laptop.
2. Drama-free ice hockey? I'm still trying to find the rink. (Lack of transport and temps in the 70s/20s have knocked this item down the priority list.)
3. Playgroup sans LotF atmosphere? Research continues. (See lack of transport, above; at the moment it appears that all the other people who go to playgroups live somewhere else, far, far away.)
4. Secure source of avocadoes? Check: local supermarket. Grown in Australia, even. I made my second batch of guacamole for dinner (quesadillas) last night. I'm thinking about starting to hunt around for tomatillos, but I don't want to get cocky. Maybe I should get back to figuring out where the ice rink is instead.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Mystery meat

I am a fan of sausage. Yes, I know all the arguments against it. Yes, I read The Jungle when I was in college too. No, I wouldn’t eat one off a cart outside Fenway. (Anymore. I have been known to.) But none of that changes the fact that I like it. I have, ever since my palate was deemed mature enough to eat the “sweet” sausage that my mother’s Italian butcher Carlo made himself, bursting with pork and liberally sprinkled with finocchie. (Every time my mother ate it, she said the same thing -- “If this is the sweet sausage, I don’t want to taste the hot!” – while fanning herself.) Since everyone knows all the planks of the anti-sausage platform, I offer two pro positions:

1. Sausage is idiosyncratic. And adaptable.
Well into adulthood, I pretty much only ate Carlo’s sausage, spurning anything on offer at the supermarket and sampling only the occasional barbecue or Fenway pushcart offering. Then I moved to England, where at first I despaired of finding anything even remotely resembling Italian sausage. Especially after my first encounter with Cumberland sausage. Not that it wasn’t good—it was—but “spicy” or even “flavorful” were not the first words that came to mind.

But I underestimated the English love of all things sausage-related—after all, they eat so much sausage and potato that it’s a national dish and even has its own nickname (“bangers and mash”). I also misjudged the adventurousness of their palates, as I discovered the day I stumbled upon the shop in Oxford’s Covered Market devoted entirely to sausage: at least a dozen different varieties, using a huge range of ethnic cuisines as inspiration, including a number which I had never thought about in connection with sausage (Thai?). They even had more than one kind of Italian sausage! I sampled several, and settled on the one I liked best for my own, Italianized version of bangers and mash. Several years of sausage happiness ensued. Then we moved to Australia.

The first dinner I cooked after our arrival here, before we had even moved into our apartment, was bangers and mash. The hunt for Australian Italian sausage was on. No worries: I’ve only been here a month, and I’ve already found three different varieties. And not only are they different from each other, none of them is particularly similar to their English or American cousins. I’m sure their composition is influenced by all sorts of things, and I have no idea how authentic any of them are (I don’t think I’ve ever actually eaten a sausage in Italy), but as long as they taste good and use a seasoning palate that is my version of soul food, I’m buying.

2. Sausage is good value for money.
I can already hear you saying, “Yes, but that’s because it's full of garbage!” but in my experience, if you get your sausage from a good butcher, it is actually mostly full of meat, and with no more fat than, say, your average hamburger. Ounce for ounce (or gram for gram in my case), sausage is a good buy if you are looking to stretch your food budget, and if you buy more highly seasoned and flavorful varieties, you may find yourself eating less than you anticipated, which is financially and calorically beneficial. The last batch I bought, from a butcher, cost me about AUD$12.00 for six sausages (that's about USD$8.00/GBP5.00; I’m not sure how much they weighed, but some of them were pretty hefty). I cooked it all for dinner that night—bangers and mash, Italian style, plus a green vegetable, for three of us. There was enough sausage left over to make:

1. a batch of zesty tomato sauce with ground sausage for another dinner later in the week;
2. sausage-and-cheese panini for DP and me for lunch both days of the weekend;
3. two lunches of leftover pasta and sauce for Miss B; and
4. one more sandwich, for just me this time.

Thirteen person-meals from six sausages—sounds good to me. And they tasted good too.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Going native


In addition to trying to recreate my own little food comfort zone (see previous post), I am also taking the opportunity to try some of the characteristic foods of my new host country—one of the perks of international travel. And the Australian food item that I have heard the most rhapsodizing about, hands down, is Tim Tams.

I bet you thought I was going to say Vegemite, right? Well, I’ve heard plenty about Vegemite too, but not in quite the same strain of fulsome desire as Tim Tams. I mentally classify Vegemite with Marmite and peanut butter—sticky staple foods that are delicious and comforting to those who were brought up on them, but equally likely to taste disgusting to those who were not. I’ve never heard anyone longing for Vegemite on a chat show.

If my own experience is anything to go by, the staple foods are not what you really, really crave when you are far from home—not least because you can often track them down in specialty or expat shops, if you’re willing to pay the price. Or maybe find a reasonable local substitute. No, what I really miss abroad is junk food, which I have found is still pretty localized and idiosyncratic, the globalization of nearly everything notwithstanding. As a professed chowhound and whole foods wannabe, I’m embarrassed to admit that the food items I am most likely to request for myself, from visitors or senders of care packages, are Cheez-Its and SweeTarts. So I can completely understand, theoretically, why a full-grown Australian would confess to an international TV audience how much they missed a cookie. Even Americans have told me I had to try them. Anything that gets that much hype is a no-brainer to at least taste. I bought some as soon as I had room on my shopping list for a few non-essential items.

So what kind of cookie are Tim Tams, anyway? They are a cakey chocolate sandwich, with a layer of chocolate cream in the middle, and the whole thing is covered with a coating of chocolate. So, very chocolatey. Despite this, my verdict is only: pretty good. They're really a little sweet for me. I’ll finish the package, and maybe even buy them again, but I don’t think I’d pick them over my enduring favorite adopted cookie (from the UK), the dark chocolate covered HobNob.

Not that I’ll be mentioning that to any Australians. I think it might be grounds for deportation.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

In which I actually talk about food


When I came up with the idea for this blog, I had envisioned it being all about food since, frankly, that’s what I spend most of my time thinking about. (Hence the food reference in the blog name.) Also, “food blog” is a much more concise description than “weird information about my life in Australia blog”. But, whatever. Perhaps this will just be the blog that defies definition!

In any case, this entry will be the serendiptious topic that combines both. A big part of my self-orientation to Canberra has been scoping out what is available in terms of foodstuffs. As I’m sure most people do, I have developed a little list of foods that I cook regularly, and one of the challenges of my repeated international relocations has been finding the ingredients to make them in new places. When I lived in Oxford, I used to have a regular circuit of specialty shops I went to to get things like pancetta, Italian sausages, and especially Pecorino Romano cheese, which I infinitely prefer to the much-hyped (and much more readily available) Parmigiano Reggiano. (What can I say—it’s the way I was brought up. My people are peasants.) Pecorino Romano was so hard to come by in Oxford, in fact, that I used to have to go to a deli to get it; the cheese shop only carried it intermittently, and never seemed to notice when they were running out. So I knew it might be even more difficult to locate, this much farther from Italy.

Having already scoped out my local supermarket, and found several kinds of cheese labeled as ‘Pecorino’ (but not Pecorino Romano), I thought I would try the gourmet shop across the way, which seemed to have various items of cheese, meat, and other delicacies for sale. I figured at the very least they might have some good blue cheeses for DP, aka The Blue Cheese Fiend.

(Remember that cheese shop in Oxford I mentioned? I was so spoiled by that shop. Apart from the fact that they regularly failed me on the Pecorino Romano score, they were loaded down with fresh, delicious, authentic English, French, and Italian cheeses that were often priced comparable to or cheaper than the supermarket. The woman who managed it really knew her cheese, and introduced me to several new ones. It was definitely one of the perks of living so close to The Continent.)

Well. Back to the gourmet shop. I didn’t see any Pecorino Romano there. But maybe that’s because I was distracted—blinded even—by the price of Roquefort, as illustrated above.

Toto, I don’t think we’re in Europe anymore.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Not just the home of great bands anymore

I didn’t give much thought to Australian slang before I got here, and when I did, I was, I’ll admit, a little smug. After all, I’ve been here before; I lived in the UK for a long time, which has plenty of slang overlap with Australia; I know several Australians; and blah blah blah blah. I figured I had it sussed (see, UK slang!).

Well, I hadn’t been in Canberra more than three hours before I came across “Manchester”. Known to me previously only as a northern English industrial city (home to some of the best bands of all time), I was completely confused by seeing it on signs in several of the stores I walked into; as in the supermarket: “Dish soap; paper towels; mops and brooms; Manchester.” And it kept happening: ads on TV: “50% off kitchenware, hardware, Manchester!” Billboards: “Canberra’s biggest selection of Manchester!” But I could never find a sign for it in close proximity to any actual object; it was always dangling from a ceiling or hanging in a window. I kept pointing it out to DP: “There it is again! What the $#!% is Manchester?”

I couldn’t bring myself to walk up to a random salesperson and ask them, and none of the Australians I know live in Canberra. And even if they did, and I could manage to call them up out of the blue and say, “Hey, I’m in Australia! How are you? By the way, what the $#!% is Manchester?”, it took four days for my phone to get hooked up. The internet took even longer, so I couldn’t even look it up and conceal my ignorance from the world. The few minutes I could snatch at internet cafes had, shockingly, to be devoted to more important things, like answering work emails.

But at last I have had a free moment to find an online Australian slang dictionary and I am here to tell you that “Manchester” is Australian slang for linens—you know, sheets, towels, that sort of thing. When I told DP the answer he looked at me blankly and then the light of illumination spread across his face. “Because that’s where all the cotton mills were!” he exclaimed.

Of course.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

My week so far, let me tell you about it

The last time I posted, I was sitting in an internet cafe. Since then, I have successfully gotten myself back online from home. And by "home" I mean a new apartment, still chock full of unpacked boxes, on one of which my computer is currently sitting. I, meanwhile, am sitting on a milk crate. (Actually, a milk crate with a boppy on top, because unpadded milk crate is rough on the old tuckus after a while.) Since Sunday, here is a selection of some of the other things I have done:

1. Unpacked at least 75% of the boxes that have arrived from various points of the compass, including the whole kitchen, whole bathroom and all my clothes.

2. Participated in a three-hour conference call for work that kept me up until 11pm, when jet lag has had me asleep before 9 every night.

3. Found Thai basil for sale and used it to make fried rice that I loved but that DP and Miss B both found "too spicy!".

4. Eaten lunch at the Canberra Centre food court every day, because we currently have almost no furniture and I thought we should treat ourselves by eating one meal a day that doesn't involve sitting on the floor.

5. Bought a kitchen table and chairs.

6. Found out the international dialing code for calling out of Australia and remembered to call my sister-in-law for her birthday at a time that would not wake her out of a sound sleep.

7. Bought a phone that dials all the numbers on the first try.

8. Opened a bank account and put some money in it.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

When in doubt, talk about the weather

I'm pretty sure that sometime around today is the first day of spring in the southern hemisphere. I had heard from afar that Canberra had 'proper' winter, and when my husband DP came here for a visit in the middle of August (ie mid-winter), it snowed on his first day. To get my head around the whole reversed seasons concept, I've been mentally adjusting everything by six months (thus, mid-August in Canberra = mid-February in Boston--okay, maybe not that bad, but just as a rough guide...).

Are you confused yet?

Having gone through these mental machinations, I was expecting it to be at least somewhat cool when we arrived. Instead, the temperature has been hovering around 70 since we got here two days ago, with blue skies and brilliant sunshine. Okay, there is a stiff breeze from time to time, and I've been carrying around (and occasionally wearing) a light sweatshirt. But mid-March in Boston? Not even close.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Touchdown

Generally, I'm not a fan of globalization, but there is something to be said for finding a Thomas the Tank Engine mini-carousel in a shopping centre 10,000 miles from where he originated, at a moment when your four-year-old really needs to be entertained, and her parents are so jetlagged they can barely remember how to cross the street.

Yes, we've arrived.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The adventure begins

The Question
Can an unreconstructed Bostonian (several years of living elsewhere notwithstanding) find Season Five of The Office, drama-free ice hockey, a toddler playgroup that doesn't resemble Lord of the Flies, and a secure supply line of avocadoes in Canberra, Australia?

The Answer
Watch this space.
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