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.
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