Thursday, December 31, 2009

Home made

Confession: I haven't managed to do any Cookbook Challenge cooking since I got to Boston. I blame the fact that I've only cooked dinner three times in the past 10 days--and one of those was Christmas dinner, which is about as far from a 30-minute meal as you can get. The rest of the dinners have been in restaurants or in other people's houses, as we make the rounds of people in Boston that we haven't seen for more than a year.

So most of the cooking I've managed to squeeze in has been of the "sheer necessity" or the "food gift" variety. In the former category, I made homemade mayonnaise over the weekend, for only the second time ever, when I realized we didn't have any.* In the latter, to bring to friends hosting us, things like homemade chocolates and, yesterday, these cheesy, salty, spicy treats.

Cheesy nibbles
Adapted from Tamasin's Kitchen Bible by Tamasin Day-Lewis
These have been described as being like "homemade Cheez-Its", but I think that's only because they're cheesy and it's really hard to stop eating them. Texturally, they are like tiny, crumbly cookies, and they taste complex and savory. To me they're more like what Cheez-Its want to be when they grow up.

110 g/4 oz plain/all-purpose flour
110 g/4 oz parmesan, grated**
healthy pinches of: salt, freshly ground black pepper, mustard, and cayenne pepper
110 g/4 oz butter, melted

Preheat oven to 180C/350F. Mix dry ingredients together, then add in butter and stir until mixture has the consistency of breadcrumbs. (Add more butter if necessary.) Make walnut-sized balls*** and place on baking sheet(s) lined with parchment. Bake 15-20 minutes (reversing position of sheet(s) halfway through) until lightly browned. Sprinkle lightly with more salt and black pepper after removing from oven, and allow to cool on sheet(s).

Makes 20-40.

* I also managed to slip this into the latter category, by bringing some of along yesterday as a gift--I thought my hostess would appreciate it.
** I used a mix of mostly pecorino romano and some sharp cheddar.
*** I used a deep teaspoon measurement to make half-balls. They were a good bite size and went further.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Happy holidays

Well, I didn't mean to go completely silent as soon as I hit terra firma in Boston, but that's essentially what happened. I guess that's the unintended consequence of volunteering to cook Christmas dinner for 12 people four days after completing a 10,000-mile trek. Not to mention all the Christmas stuff that couldn't be completed from overseas, like putting US stamps on 50 cards, buying and decorating a tree, helping my mother make the dough for the Christmas doughnuts, brining the turkey...and best (and most unexpected) of all, having a snowball fight on the Boston Common with DP and Miss B at sunset on Christmas Eve.

But it's all done now: the only things left to do are sit back and enjoy the lights and the gifts, and figure out creative things to do with the leftovers. I hope that you have had wonderful holidays, filled with good food, good cheer, and good company.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Los Angeles

We're finishing up a three-day layover in LA, to tackle our jet lag (check) and spend some time with DP's brother and his girlfriend (check), who drove in from 12 hours away just to goof off with us for a bit. I've had a thoroughly fabulous time: enjoyed some sun without Canberra's searing summer heat; played some skee-ball; stuck my feet in the Pacific ocean on this side (it's much colder over here!); and reunited with a friend I've known since I was in fifth grade but hadn't seen in more than 10 years. I've also seen several LA landmarks, including the Hollywood sign (much further out of town than you'd think), Rodeo Drive (I've never seen so many high-end jewelry stores in one place), and the La Brea Tar Pits (which was so interesting it deserves an entry all to itself).

And, of course, the food: in particular the first good Mexican food I've eaten in 15 months that I hadn't made myself; and, finally (it only took three visits to LA), In-N-Out Burger, probably the best fast-food joint hamburger I've ever had. It's not gourmet and doesn't even appear dramatically different from its competitors; what is notable about it is that it actually tastes like real food and doesn't leave you with that fast-food hangover afterwards.

Early tomorrow it's on to Boston, where I hear they're laying on a great big snowstorm just for us. Time to pack away the t-shirts and dig out the boots; we're back in the northern hemisphere for real.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Arrivederci Canberra

So much for my grand plans for a farewell post commemorating my last day in Australia--my computer had a meltdown and here I am ending as I began: at the internet cafe upstairs in the Canberra Centre. It's been an adventure, in every possible way, and I'm really going to miss Canberra and Australia.

See you from the other side of the Pacific!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Challenge 4.2

Still struggling to find the time and the ingredients to tackle anything major for The Cookbook Challenge; sadly, 30-Minute Meals doesn't have any delicious recipes consisting solely of half a carrot, two cups of brown rice, and a large lump of blue cheese. However, I have come across a very useful tip, that I have immediately made my own, for making your own salad dressing. In the past, to make vinaigrette I have always worked off a basic recipe of 2 Tbsp acid and 5 Tbsp of oil, which involved a lot of mental arithmetic (not one of my favorite leisure activities) if I wanted to reduce or increase the amount. In her recipe for basic vinaigrette, Rachael Ray suggests the following ratio:

1 teaspoon of acid to every 1 tablespoon of oil

Ta da! Perfectly simple; easy to scale up or down; and no math.

Upon reflection, this is so blindingly obvious that I wouldn't be surprised if everyone else in the entire world knew about it besides me. The suggested ratio for making salad dressing is 1 part acid to 3 parts oil, which I knew; and 3 tsp = 1 Tbsp, which I also knew. I had just never put 2 and 2 together (or, in this case, 1 and 3). And in the event that you haven't either, I share this info with you, since it alone has made this whole exercise worthwhile for me--definitely the equivalent of learning a great new recipe.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Challenge 4.1

(I'm beginning to think the challenge is going to be finding the time and the ingredients to cook anything at all for The Cookbook Challenge, between the parade of dinners out and the random collection of half-empty jars and packets that is all I have to work with at this point.)

The source 30-Minute Meals

The recipe Aglio olio: garlic and oil pasta

The ingredients*
1 lb/450 g linguini
¼ to 1/3 cup olive oil
5 cloves garlic, minced
¼ tsp crushed red pepper
5 anchovy fillets
a handful fresh parsley, chopped**
freshly ground black pepper
grated cheese, for topping

The method Put a large pot of water on to boil. When it's boiling, add salt and pasta. While the pasta is cooking, heat oil in a saucepan, then add garlic, red pepper, and anchovies. Allow this to sizzle gently (don't brown the garlic) for a few minutes, then remove from heat. When pasta is al dente, drain and then return to the hot pan. Pour over the oil mixture and mix thoroughly, seasoning with black pepper to taste. Serve immediately, topped with grated cheese.

The verdict I've been making aglio olio for years, but I was intrigued by the inclusion of anchovies (mainly because I have a jar I'm trying to use up). I didn't really think it worked; all I could taste was the anchovies. That could be because I didn't add any parsley, which I've also never used in this dish (see below). Next time I make this, I'll probably go back to the much simpler version I usually use—olive oil, garlic, and black and red pepper.

* I only had half a pound of linguine, so I halved everything else.
** I didn't have any parsley, so I skipped this. Including it might balance out the anchovy flavor.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Gastronomic milestones

The RL Family Australian Farewell Tour is under way, and this past weekend we made one last trip to Jervis Bay, for some quality time with our friends C. & M., who have a place down there; for a last rendezvous with the staggeringly beautiful South Coast of NSW; and for a needed breather before the onslaught of our last 10 days in Canberra.

We spent the weekend eating and playing at the beach; eating and playing board games; eating and playing with Miss B. and C. & M.'s big goofy dog; and oh, eating some more. My favorite kind of weekend. We started as we meant to go on, early Friday evening, with some beers, a bottle of rose, and a few plates of oysters.

C. & M. were shocked when I confessed I had never eaten an oyster before. I'm still kind of amazed myself to realize the advanced age I had reached before trying one. All those wasted years! Because they really are wonderful: "as close as you can get to eating the ocean," as C. said. And the best part is when a highly-touted culinary experience actually lives up to the hype.

I was able to return the favor on Saturday morning, when I made pancakes for breakfast and served them with maple syrup, because M. had never tasted maple syrup before. Given how much it costs in Australia, I think we may have both acquired an expensive new habit this weekend.

Express Pancakes
Adapted from Nigella Express
I am not exaggerating when I say that this homemade pancake mix has transformed our weekend breakfast routine: we have gone from having pancakes two or three times a year to every Sunday, without fail.

Pancake mix
600 g/5 cups plain/all-purpose flour
3 Tbsp baking powder
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda/baking soda
1 tsp salt
40 g/3 Tbsp sugar

Mix all ingredients together and store in an airtight container at room temperature. Keeps indefinitely.

Pancakes
150 g/1¼ cups* pancake mix
1 egg
125 ml/4 oz milk
125 ml/4 oz yogurt
1 Tbsp melted butter

Heat a frying pan or griddle over medium heat. Mix all ingredients together until smooth.

You can fry these with no fat if you feel confident your pan is sufficiently nonstick; otherwise, grease the pan with butter. Drop batter in large tablespoonfuls and cook until the edges are starting to dry out and bubbles appear, about 2 minutes.

Flip and cook for 1-2 minutes on the other side. Remove to a warm plate and repeat with remaining batter. Serve immediately, drizzled with real maple syrup.

Serves 4 adults and 1 child.

* I have found that this recipe can successfully be halved by using half of all the ingredients, except the egg. I can't halve eggs.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Twilight concert

We're nearing the end of the school year here, and this week was Miss B's school's twilight concert, where all the grades (years) took it in turns to sing a selection of show tunes, in keeping with the concert's theme, "There's No Business Like Show Business." It really made my day to see a bunch of five- and six-year-olds attempting to sing "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious", although of course the preschoolers stole the show with "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" (which isn't actually a show tune, but was in fact written for that Coke commercial that all us children of the 70s remember so well), complete with hand gestures.

It's school tradition to bring some blankets and a picnic, and sit back and enjoy the parade of cute children. We joined forces with a few of the other preschool families, and enjoyed a huge spread, which included some salads (my contribution), homemade sushi (totally amazing), and lime-coconut cake. A very nice way to start the year-end festivities, and probably our last chance for a picnic for a while, as we head to the frozen north soon.

It's always a challenge for me to think of picnic food that will travel well and taste good, so if you happen to be in picnic mode (or are just dreaming of blue skies while buttoning up your winter coat), here's a selection of previously-published picnic-friendly items:

- Pizzas (make them small and kids will eat them at any temperature)
- Bacon and egg pie
- Hotel kitchen Greek-ish salad
- Croation cole slaw

And, if you want to be the hit of the picnic:

- Congo bars

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Challenge month

So, this is it. The month when I undertake a transcontinental move. Which is scheduled for the week before Christmas. While trying to keep up with my job. And my five-year-old's hectic end-of-school-year social schedule. And maybe occasionally exchange a word with my husband.

Oh, and when I have a few spare minutes, address 85 Christmas cards.

Clearly I don't have enough to do. Why not a Cookbook Challenge too?

Now, before you decide this is the blog of someone who is certifiably insane, and remove me from your blog reader forever, hear my explanation for this decision.

We have to eat. In fact, we have a kitchen full of stuff that we have to eat in the next couple of weeks. That means I have to come up with creative, yet simple, ways to use up half-empty containers of this and that, at a time when I'm not going to have enough time or brain space to think very long about anything food-related.

Not convinced yet? I wasn't either. How was I going to randomly select a cookbook that made this job easier—and was small enough to pack for the part of the month I'd be doing Challenge cooking in Boston?

Turns out I didn't: Miss B did. I was cleaning up the living room the other night and found that she'd pulled a cookbook off the shelf and left it on the floor—one I'd never seen her look at before.

30-Minute Meals by Rachael Ray.

Yes, the cookbook that spawned a Food Network empire, and a bajillion chowhounds with violent opinions (pro or con). Rachael Ray hasn't really been exported, so I've had very little exposure to her, and when I picked this cookbook up about six years ago, I didn't know much about her. Obviously I've heard a bit more now, but not enough to have taken a side yet. So I'm just going to try some recipes, and see what I think then.

As always, I'd be happy to have some company for the ride. What have you got on your cookbook shelf that needs a second look?

A quick refresher on how the Cookbook Challenge 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 that number. (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 if you want to really get serious, 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?

So what do you think? I bet we've all got a busy month ahead of us…but someone has to make dinner if we're going to get through it without going bonkers or broke.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

EDF -> EDK

EDF = Eating Down the Fridge: a fun challenge where you commit to not going grocery shopping for a week and getting creative with what's already in your kitchen.

EDK = Eating Down the Kitchen: when you are three weeks away from an intercontinental move and frantically trying to consume every scrap of food in your possession, because US Customs says you can't bring it with you and you hate wasting food.

If you run out of something, you can't replace it. (Goodbye, beloved cinnamon! I'll see you on the other side.)

If you've got something lying around that you only use once in a while, you've got to figure out a way to use it up. (Anyone have suggestions for using up ¾ of a jar of cider vinegar?)

Here's one concoction I've already come up with. I expect others, increasingly bizarre, will follow.

Storecupboard shuffle couscous
The one box of couscous I had lying around was parmesan-flavored, so I went with an Italian-flavors theme. But I think this would probably work just as well with plain couscous.

Please note: all measurements are approximate.

~12 sundried tomatoes
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 Italian sausage
~4 zucchini
1 box couscous
1 glass white wine
salt & pepper
pecorino romano cheese, for topping

Heat up some water. Chop sundried tomatoes and throw into about a cup of hot water to soak while you do everything else. (If yours are packed in oil, you can probably skip this step.)

Heat a large skillet to medium and add oil. Remove sausage from its casing and crumble into hot pan. Brown sausage, stirring occasionally.

While the sausage is browning, quarter the zucchini and chop into chunks. (You can also do this step earlier if you want to salt the zucchini as I describe here.) Add the zucchini to the hot pan and cook, stirring every few minutes but also leaving alone so it can brown.

While the zucchini is cooking, boil some more water. Put the couscous in a pan or heatproof bowl. Pour boiling water over couscous, cover, and leave to cook according to the package directions. (This usually takes about five minutes.)

When the zucchini has cooked to your satisfaction, throw in the white wine and stir around, scraping up any good stuff that has stuck to the bottom of the pan. Turn the heat to low. Dump in the couscous and the softened tomatoes (and some of the soaking liquid if you think that would improve things; I did). Stir to combine everything thoroughly, then taste and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Serve, topped with grated cheese, hot, warm, or at room temperature. (Also good eaten cold out of the fridge.) Serves 4 with leftovers.

PS EDK also = the reason I'm not attempting to cook Thanksgiving dinner this year. But I'm still remembering to give thanks; see my list from last year, all still valid. And Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours if you're celebrating!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Kitchen alchemy

I don't know what it is about some recipes. You stir a few perfectly straightforward ingredients together, slap the mixture in a pan, and bake it. You let it cool, cut it, and serve it to a random gathering of people. Women swoon. Men ask to marry you. Hell, women ask to marry you. Children smear it all over their faces. In very short order, you are left with nothing but an empty container and a circle of smiling people with chocolate in their teeth.

I've watched it happen with this one over and over again. My mother has been making these my whole life, and I've watched relatives gobble them up, friends embarrass themselves, and brothers-in-law swear they've only had two (not five) when they go for the last one. And it's not just a Boston thing: I swear there are still people in England who know me only as So-and-so's friend who brought those…things…to that party that time.

This weekend I was invited to a barbeque, and asked to bring a dessert, so I tried these out on an Australian contingent: partly because the recipe was about all I had the mental energy for, and partly out of curiosity to see if I would get the same reaction.

The result: the only reason I had those two available for picture-taking is because they wouldn't fit in the container that I took to the party.

Please try these and tell me if you get the same reaction. I'm always looking to broaden my data sample on just what it is about this recipe that drives people crazy.

Congo bars
Adapted from Rosie's Bakery All-Butter Fresh Cream Sugar-Packed No-Holds-Barred Baking Book
My mother's recipe uses Crisco, but I've found English and Australian vegetable shortening to be quite different in texture and density, and producing different results when used in baking. So I hunted down this version that uses butter, and now I like it even better, if that's possible. (Oh, and no, I don't know why they're called congo bars either. If you do, please enlighten us.)

1 1/3/280 g cups plain/all-purpose flour
1 ½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
9 Tbsp (1 stick + 1 Tbsp)/125 g butter, softened
1 ¾ cups/350 g light brown sugar*
1 ¼ tsp vanilla extract
2 large eggs at room temperature
1 cup/120 g semisweet chocolate chips
½ cup/60 g coconut

Preheat oven to 350F/180C. Grease an 8 in x 8 in/20 cm x 20 cm square baking pan.

Blend dry ingredients and set aside.

With an electric mixer on medium, cream butter, sugar, and vanilla until light and fluffy (about 2 minutes). Scrape down the sides of the bowl as necessary.

Add eggs, mix on high briefly (about 3-5 seconds), then on medium until well blended (about 7-10 seconds).

Add dry ingredients and mix on low until combined (8-10 seconds).

Fold in chocolate and coconut until thoroughly mixed through. Spread evenly in baking pan.

Bake for about 30 minutes, rotating pan halfway through, or until it has a rich golden crust and the center has sunk. Cool in pan for at least 30 minutes before slicing.

Makes 25 1-inch bars.

* I use whatever kind of brown sugar I have on hand. It changes the texture somewhat, but they're pretty much always good.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Puffy bread

Have I mentioned that it's hot? Stinking hot? Late-January hot? (Or, for those of you up north, Boston-in-August hot?) So hot, in fact, that I'm starting to think longingly of mid-winter in Kansas?

(Yes, of course, I realize that that means eventually I'll have to contend with summer in Kansas, which I hear is not much different from what I'm currently experiencing, but I'll think about that later. Allow me my escapist fantasy for the moment.)

So hot that I'm avoiding turning the dryer on because it heats up the bathroom too much. And as for the oven…ugh.

I've been doing pretty well with finding work-arounds to avoid using the oven (hello, my darling slow cooker). I especially wanted to not do any bread baking, since that involves turning the oven up as hot as it will go—not a desirable prospect when the whole house already feels like an oven. But I still wanted some bread. Actually, more to the point, Miss B wanted some bread, and was prepared, in the way of all self-respecting five-year-olds, to ask for it as many times as it took to convince me to make some.

From somewhere I dredged up a memory of reading a blog post about cooking pita bread in a skillet, and (without actually going back to check) decided to try that with some of the bread dough that is ever-present in my refrigerator. So I followed the usual procedure for rolling out pita bread (see below), and preheated a cast-iron skillet; threw in the flattened disks of dough, one by one; and with very little fuss or sweat produced some very tasty flatbreads. They even puffed a little bit!

Miss B devoured all of hers and part of mine, and I've made them another three times this week. It was only when I went back to track down the link above that I noticed that, while you do cook the pita bread in a skillet, you're supposed to put the skillet in a very hot oven.

Oh well. I'm sticking with my method. At least until the temperatures drop below 30C/90F.

Puffy skillet bread
This bread cooks up like a cross between pita and naan. You should get enough puff to be able to rip them open and stuff things in them.

1 batch bread dough, already made and risen in the fridge*

Figure out how many flatbreads you want to make. Pull off that many lumps of dough and roll each into a smooth ball. (I do this by cupping my hand over the dough lump and rolling it around on the counter. A good size lump is one that fits comfortably under your cupped hand.) Leave to rest and rise on the counter for 10-20 minutes, depending upon how cold the dough is.

After the dough has rested and risen a bit (it won't look too much different, but a bit), flatten into thin disks with a rolling pin. Sprinkle with flour as necessary while rolling to keep from sticking. Leave to rest for another 10 minutes or so. While this step is happening, preheat a skillet (nonstick or cast iron).**

Cook each disk for 2-3 minutes a side in the hot pan or until starting to brown in spots. It may puff up,*** but will probably collapse when you take it off the heat.

Serve immediately, with hummus, soup, salad, dip….

* I'm working on a batch I made three days ago. The fridge makes it rise very slowly, and develops the flavor.
** You may need to experiment with how hot to make it, depending upon your stove and pan. I started off with mine turned way up high—bad idea. I am now preheating the pan thoroughly on low-to-almost-medium heat.
*** Sprinkling or spritzing with water may help with the puffing...but it will probably still collapse shortly.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Building blocks

Canberra has gone from being freezing cold to summer-hot more or less overnight. So I'm thinking about salads again, particularly one that I came up with last year, after reading a post on 5 second rule about a BLT salad. I loved this idea, but decided to take it one step further—just as I always do in restaurants, when I'm offered the choice of a BLT or a club sandwich. Bacon, lettuce, and tomato are pretty fantastic all by themselves, of course, but add some good chicken or turkey and you've made RL's day.
Chicken club salad
Slapdash ranch dressing*
2 Tbsp mayonnaise
1 Tbsp Greek yogurt
1 small clove garlic
2 basil leaves
½ tsp dried oregano

Salad
1-2 pieces bacon
4-6 leaves of romaine
6-8 grape tomatoes
½ chicken breast, cooked and sliced**
salt & freshly ground black pepper
handful of croutons

Put all dressing ingredients in a mini-processor and blend. Thin with a little bit of milk or lemon juice if you think the consistency is too thick. Set aside. ***

Cook the bacon using your preferred method—frying pan, oven, microwave. Chop into thin slices and dump into a bowl big enough to mix the salad. Wash, dry, shred, and add the romaine. Wash, dry, quarter, and add the tomatoes. Add the chicken. Season with salt and pepper.

Add half the dressing and toss thoroughly. Taste and decide if you want more dressing or seasoning, and repeat as necessary. Top with croutons and serve immediately.

Serves 1, accompanied by a very large glass of ice water.

* So called because I didn't have any of the traditional herbs for ranch dressing on hand, so I just improvised. (You could also use bottled ranch dressing, naturally, but I didn't have any of that either.)
** Having leftover cooked chicken is my main impetus for making this salad. You don't want to be cooking chicken specially--then you'll just be getting all hot and bothered, instead of cooling off, as this salad intends.
*** This makes a pretty small amount of dressing, but you can easily double it. For me, a little thick, creamy dressing goes a long way.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Remembrance Day

Armistice Day. Poppy Day. Veterans Day. Whatever you call it, please spare a moment on November 11 to remember and honor those who have given their skills, their bodies and brains, and their lives in armed service—including those who serve today.

Even if you vehemently oppose the conflicts, past or present, in which they took part; even if you consider their capabilities and lives wasted as a result of bad political decisions, blundering generalship, or misguided ideals; even if you disagree in every particular with the use of force to settle political disputes: please, pause for a moment to honor the individuals: their courage, which was maybe just fear overcome; their fortitude and endurance; and the things that they lost, and that we have, and have the luxury to take for granted, every day.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

- from "Anthem for Doomed Youth", Wilfred Owen, 1917

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Reality checks

In a perfect food blogger world, I'd be writing a post about how I bought the strawberries pictured here at the farmers' market, just hours after they had been lovingly picked by the farmer and driven carefully to town, avoiding any bumps in the road so as not to bounce them too much. Or maybe I would even have picked them myself, carefully detaching each jewel-like morsel and placing it ever so gently in the handwoven basket over my arm.

(I might even be wearing a sunbonnet as I did this. And I certainly wouldn't have backache from bending over to try to find the little rascals hiding under their verdant, leafy canopies. No no.)

Back in the real world, what actually happened was this:

I picked up two punnets of strawberries at the supermarket late last week, on a whim, because they were on sale. Then I put them in the fridge and ignored them for about five days. Then I decided to do something with them today so I'd have something to bring to a lunchtime playdate. Then I spent a good 15 minutes hulling them and cutting the, um, less perfect bits off.

All of which brings me to the key point about this recipe: it elevates the somewhat mundane strawberries which are often all that's available to something rather sublime. A useful trick to have up your (unironed) sleeve as one more way to cope with an imperfect world.

Strawberries in dark syrup
adapted from How to Eat by Nigella Lawson
Feel free to fiddle with these proportions to suit your taste: my version uses less sugar than the original because I like a sweet-tart flavor. I start with a scant two tablespoons of sugar per pound of strawberries, and then sweeten based upon the strawberries.

1 lb/450 g strawberries, hulled, cleaned, icky bits removed, and quartered
1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
2-3 Tbsp sugar
pinch salt

Put the strawberries in a medium-sized bowl and sprinkle the other three ingredients over the surface evenly. Toss gently with a large spoon.

Remove to a container with a lid; cover tightly and let macerate for at least an hour, gently turning the container occasionally if you remember.

If transporting, try to be sure and pick a container that leaks all over the inside of your bag, just in case you need yet another reminder of how imperfect the world really is. Serve with cream (pouring or ice), alongside cake, or just as is.

Serves 2 adults and 2 children. Can easily be multiplied.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Taste memory

Why do certain memories stand out so sharply, even when you yourself can't figure out what is particularly significant about them?
I've already written about one vivid food memory I've been carrying around for several years. Another one comes from one of my periods of "perching" in the US between stints of overseas living. This one, from 2003, was when I was living in Boston but commuting to Providence for work. (For anyone not familiar with southern New England, that's 40+ miles/64+ km of driving each way. About an hour, door to door, five days a week.)

Despite the grinding commute, and the pressures of the job (including one stretch of several months where I was covering the responsibilities of three full-time positions), in many ways I really enjoyed that year. The work atmosphere was pretty intense, and it created some strong relationships; I still keep in touch with a lot of the people I worked with, even though we have all moved on. There were a lot of good eaters among us, so I managed to eat in almost every restaurant on Thayer Street and the surrounding area of College Hill (a significant number); and also to sample a lot of home-cooked food and other goodies that my co-workers and I brought to the office to share.
Among all of those varied eating experiences, my single strongest food memory is the berry-yogurt cake our director brought in one Friday from her favorite local bakery. (I still haven't been able to figure out why.) I do remember that I had to physically restrain myself from eating the whole thing, and I've been searching for a recipe ever since that would allow me to replicate that particular texture.

Do you have taste memories haunting you? What are yours?

Gateau yaourt internationale
Adapted from Fig Jam and Lime Cordial
Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I think my six-year quest for my perfect yogurt cake may be over. I found this on an Australian food blog, adapted from an American cookbook, documenting a classic French recipe. It is a cinch to make, and all the ingredients are things you are likely to have on hand. I had to fiddle with it a little to accommodate what was stored in my cabinets and my brain cells, and, unintentionally but fittingly, produced a French cake with an American/Australian twist.
1 cup plain/all-purpose flour
½ cup almond meal (or extra ½ cup flour)*
2 tsp baking powder
pinch salt
1 cup sugar
1 tsp lemon zest
½ cup Greek yogurt
3 large eggs
½ tsp vanilla extract
½ cup flavorless oil**
1 cup mixed berries***
½ cup jam or marmalade, to glaze****
Thoroughly grease a loaf tin or other baking pan of choice (I made mine in a muffin tin). Preheat oven to 350F/175C.
Combine flour, almond meal (if using), baking powder, and salt in a small bowl and whisk to combine. Set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar, lemon zest, yogurt, eggs, and vanilla until completely combined.
Slowly add the dry ingredients, whisking to incorporate, then fold in the oil with a spatula until you have a smooth, shiny batter. Fold in berries, then scoop or scrape into prepared pan(s).
Bake for 25-55 minutes, depending upon pan chosen (muffin-pan cakes will be done closer to the 25-minute mark), until a tester comes out clean (berries notwithstanding). Cool the pan on a rack for about five minutes, then loosen cake(s) around the edges with a knife and remove. Allow to cool completely on rack.
To make glaze, melt jam or marmalade in a pan over low heat. Add a few tablespoons of water if necessary to achieve the desired consistency. Brush glaze all over cake(s) with a pastry brush, and leave to set.
Makes 12 muffin-pan cakes, with a bit left over.
* Since I didn't have almond meal, I used more flour. But I liked the idea of a nutty undertone, so…
** …I used macadamia oil instead of a flavorless vegetable oil. It worked very well, providing a very subtle (and Australian) note of nuttiness.
*** I added a mixture of blueberries and raspberries, since that's how I remember the Providence version.
**** To complement the choice of berries in the cake, I used a "fruits des bois" jam which contained (among other berries) blueberries and raspberries.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Somewhere over the rainbow

Once upon a time, there was a girl who lived in Oz. She lived in a yellow brick house and spent a lot of time with munchkins. She had encounters with witches (good and wicked) from time to time, and mostly she didn't feel the need to ask the Wizard for anything. She was very happy living in a land where everything—the weather, the animals, the people, the food—was just a little different from what she was used to.

Then, one day, a tornado came along out of nowhere, picked her up, and took her to…Kansas.

Wait a minute. That's not how the story goes, is it?*

Of course, my name's not Dorothy, either.

But I am moving to Kansas.

Thanks to DP, the Globe-Trotting Academic™, who has accepted a position there. We're planning to finish up the Australian academic year here (it ends in mid-December, for you northern types), head to Boston for a festive holiday season with the crew there, and then, early in 2010, head for pastures new.

Literally.

Okay, not really literally. We're not moving to a farm or anything. I just said that because I hear there's a lot of pasture out there.

I have never, ever set foot in Kansas before, or in fact spent any time at all in the American Midwest. And I haven't really lived properly in the US for more than 10 years (although I've perched there for extended periods). So in a lot of ways I expect that this will be like moving to another foreign country. But I'm looking forward to it. It will be—dare I say it?—a whole new adventure (of a very different sort from this one).

I am sorry to be leaving Australia so soon. We had expected to be here for three years, and getting only just over one feels like a bit of a cheat. We haven't managed to do any of the big-deal Australian trips I was planning on: Uluru, the Great Barrier Reef, the real Outback, Tasmania. Hell, I've only made it to two states (yes, technically Canberra is in its own territory, but that barely counts, so I'm not).

But such is the nature of academic careers…or at least the one I'm enabling. What can I say? It keeps life interesting.

Stay tuned as I spend the next six weeks trying to get organized for yet another intercontinental move (I think this makes five), say goodbye to places and people I've grown attached to, and formulate another list of questions for my next destination.

* With many thanks to NMK, whose wit and cleverness and general wonderfulness were the origin of this opening.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween

There may not be any trick-or-treating in Australia.

No dressing up in costumes.

No jack'o'lanterns.

No scuffing through piles of autumn leaves in the early, frosty dark.

No bags of sugary loot to gloat over and swap.

(It's the wrong season altogether for that sort of thing here, and it's never really caught on.)

But there will be Halloween cupcakes for one very short, very inquisitive Anglo-American expat who knows there's something special about October 31st.

(Oh, and no, I won't be giving up my day job just yet to become a professional cake decorator…although I don't think my audience will be too critical of the aesthetics.)

If you want to make some of these for your own goblins (large or small), the recipe is here.

Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Red meat

A month ago I had rarely given beef salad a second thought. Now I seem to be obsessed with it.

It started with lunch at Gus's, a Canberra institution. (Anything that's been around for more than 40 years in Canberra is kind of a phenomenon, and an institution by default, but it's deserved in Gus's case.) It's the kind of place where I know Miss B is going to want pasta or risotto, which I will often split with her, since I'm almost always in the mood for carbs and she can't eat a whole adult portion. But then I saw "chili beef salad" on the specials menu. For some reason, that magical combination of words was enough to make me give carbs the cold shoulder, and cozy up to the red meat and spice and the cool, crunchy salad vegetables. It was such a great contrast, and such a flavorful—and filling!—meal that I couldn't stop thinking about it. Then there it was again, a couple of weeks later, at a different restaurant: this time with peppery beef and shavings of parmesan along with the vegetables. It was offered as a starter, but it was all I wanted for lunch.

Yesterday I made my own. I had some leftover steak in the fridge, along with some marinade-turned-sauce*, which I used to help concoct a weird but tasty dressing.

Carnivore beef salad
This salad provides a lot of scope for improvisation. I used what I had on hand, but just some of the things I thought of adding if I'd had them were: chunks of avocado; slices of red onion (raw or caramelized); toasted nuts (pine, walnut); croutons.

Dressing
1 Tbsp steak marinade/sauce
2-3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 inch/2 cm knob of fresh ginger, peeled and cut into strips
Pinch brown sugar

Salad
2-3 cups salad greens
8-10 cherry tomatoes, halved
6-8 thin slices cooked steak (about 2 oz/60 g)

Garnishes
Hunk of parmesan/pecorino + vegetable peeler
Black pepper**

Put all dressing ingredients into a mini-processor and blend until smooth. Taste and adjust seasonings. Set aside for a moment.

Assemble greens, tomatoes, and steak in a good-sized bowl. Pour about half of dressing over and mix. Decide if you need more dressing (yes), and add more to taste.

Shave thin slices of cheese and grate pepper all over surface of salad. Either serve as is, or mix in and repeat this step a couple of times.

Serves 1, very satisfyingly.

* I used this marinade from The Pioneer Woman Cooks! (although I substituted red wine for cooking sherry), and reduced it to use as a sauce as Ree suggests.
** Between the soy in the marinade/sauce and the cheese, I didn't feel the need for any extra salt. You may want some, depending on your ingredients.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Tasty links

I've been back from Singapore for 10 days. Since then I've had the jet lag, the obligatory airplane cold, the last term of preschool activities switch into high gear, another quarterly deadline looming, and DP planning another overseas trip (as of today, he knows when he's leaving, but not how many countries he's going to, or for how long).

So I haven't been doing many ambitious cooking projects. But I have been stealing time to keep up with the ridiculous number of food blogs that I follow, and to make use of some of their brilliant ideas. It's my favorite form of procrastination--speaking as a connoisseur of procrastination.

Here are a few recent goodies to help get you through whatever kind of day you're having:

Breakfast sandwiches: courtesy of Chaos in the Kitchen. Assembly-line breakfast cooking that puts its fast-food counterparts to shame. As Katie says, "if you are going to make one, you might as well make a dozen." I only made a half-dozen, because my freezer is small and already crammed full. I ate one immediately after assembling--just to make sure they were good, you understand. They were, and it's comforting to know that I've got a no-brainer breakfast ready and waiting for those days when I can't even manage to dig out the yogurt.

Ten-minute tartiflette (see picture): I'm always looking for new ways to use up leftovers, and this suggestion, from Just Cook It, is my new favorite way of using up any kind of leftover potatoes. And a perfect hearty lunch for the chilly spring Canberra is having.

Cheesy croutons: I'm just now getting around to exploring Mark Bittman's list of 101 Simple Salads, but I've already lost count of how many times I've used #44, which essentially says to make a grilled cheese sandwich, let it cool, cut it into croutons, and put it on salad. (I've been using mine for soup—see "chilly Canberra spring", above.) He ends it with, "This you will do forever." Yes I will.

Herby chicken: I got the idea for this one from A Year of Slow Cooking's Lemon and Herb CrockPot Roasted Chicken, where you cover the chicken with lemon and herbs and roast it in the slow cooker (surprise!). Except mine ended up being a puree of olive oil, garlic, rosemary and lime juice, which I stuffed under the skin of some chicken breasts. And then cooked in the oven. Oops. But I never would have thought of it if it hadn't been for this recipe.

Chocolate pots: aka Delicious Baked Fudge, from The Pioneer Woman Cooks! I've made several different versions of this, but this one is fast, easy, didn't require a special shopping trip, and was, indeed, absolutely delicious.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Globalization 1.0

We spent a lot of time at last week's conference talking about the concept of "Web 2.0". As I went about my business in Singapore, I mused about taking that idea in the other direction, because Singapore is really Globalization 1.0--an example of globalization from before a theory of globalization existed. If you look at all the common notions of globalization (intermingling of cultures, free-flowing exchange of goods, readily available money), they're all there in Singapore, and apparently have been for decades, ever since Sir Stamford Raffles established a British East India Company trading post back in 1819. Singapore subsequently became a center of British power in Asia, attracting substantial immigrant communities of Arabs, Chinese, Indians, and Malays, and in the modern era, flourishes as a major international port and financial center.

The continuing influx of immigrants at all levels of society nourishes an established, thriving, and multi-faceted expat culture. On my last day, I had a chance to sample a cross-section of Singaporean culture and commerce with my friend S., who had come from the US for the conference and who I hadn't had a chance to spend any significant time with in about five years. We planned to spend the day walking, talking, and eating, plus whatever else struck our fancies, and that's what we did. We started off wandering the spotless, gleaming, air-conditioned malls that seem to go on for ever, featuring chain shops and restaurants that I recognized from the US, the UK, Australia, France, Germany, and beyond. When we'd had our fill of that, we headed over to the open-air markets in Little India, teeming with noise, heaving with people, saturated with color, soaked with sweat. It would be difficult to imagine a bigger contrast in such a small place.

Even our meals reflected the paradox: breakfast was a quick last sampling from Toast Box, a mall chain putting a Singapore spin on classic western staples. Lunch, on the other hand, was a foray into the Little India hawker markets, where we saw virtually no other westerners, but rows of stalls selling fresh meats, fruits, and vegetables (including the guy who tried hard to sell me some goat meat and, when I told him I had no place to cook it, cheekily offered to find me one). There was also a huge section of tiny stalls selling prepared Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, and Thai food, so we each picked one dish--S. chose the Indian with a long queue out front and I, true to form, chose Thai--and split them. The quality of the meals we were served, in those no-frills surroundings, confirmed my opinion one more time that the food, as I had been promised, is the best thing about Singapore.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Stepping out

Even in the throes of a conference—rushing from meeting to workshop, spending hours in one windowless conference room after another—there are, as long as you're not stuck in some kind of convention-center wasteland, small opportunities to connect with what's particular to the place you happen to be. On Sunday, when our conference opened, it was an unplanned but very refreshing detour into the courtyard of Raffles Hotel for frosty cocktails and some quiet conversation with a couple of people who didn't require keeping a work face on. On Monday, it was the chance to unwind in an open-air neighborhood cafĂ©. And on Wednesday, in the first break in a day packed with appointments, it was breakfast at Toast Box, a local chain discovered in the food court on the first floor of the convention center.
Toast Box features a variety of treats served on (surprise!) toast. According to our hosts, this is real Singaporean breakfast fare, and almost as enjoyable to me as the food itself was watching the guys behind the counter. One older cook, in particular, quietly made a small ballet of each order, preparing ham and cheese sandwiches and peanut butter on toast with the focus and precision of a sushi chef. My eating experience was definitely enhanced by watching my thick slab of peanut butter toast cut into nine identical squares with a meat cleaver, and then slipped deftly onto a plate without a dribble, crumb, or smear. Together, they provided the perfect combination of familiar and exotic: a toe in the water, culinarily speaking, but one that still felt like a bold step away from the generic conference pastries and coffee on offer upstairs.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Lion City

Hello from Singapore, where the temperatures are steamy and the hotel rooms are tiny!

Or at least mine is. I'm here for a work conference, along with 700 of my closest friends and colleagues, and my friend J. and I wanted a hotel with some local character, instead of one of the big cookie-cutter conference hotels. So we're staying in Chinatown, in a hotel that does indeed have plenty of character, and having a running debate about whose room is smaller. (I'm pretty sure mine is. Or maybe it's just that I'm bigger.) They are configured slightly differently, but each has just enough room for a single bed, a "desk" which is really a foot-wide shelf attached to the wall, and a bathroom that doubles as a shower stall and is about the same size as the one at home in Canberra. No closets or cupboards, and even if you can fit a guest in, you can't use the toilet while they're there because the bathroom door is made of glass. But it does have a teeny-weeny fridge, big enough for one bottle of water and a can of Coke, a 12-inch
flat-screen TV, some of the friendliest hotel staff I've ever come across--and FREE internet!

And I really like it. I've hardly been here--we just finished the second day, which was a "light" day for me: only about eight hours at the conference. I was quite happy to come back to my cozy little nook in a real neighborhood, after we had strolled down the road to eat a fantastic dinner in a sidewalk food court, surrounded by locals and stunned to find out that we had just stuffed ourselves with two mains, a side, and Cokes for a grand total of 15 Singapore dollars for the two of us (that's 12 Australian dollars, 11 US dollars, or 7 British pounds).

I'm going to crawl into bed now, in preparation for tomorrow's 12-hour-plus onslaught of meetings, workshops, and gabbing. I'll be back as soon as I can to report on the fascinating mishmash of cultures here, the creative things conference organizers dream up to entertain you, and cooling off with a gin & tonic in the courtyard of the legendary Raffles Hotel.

Until then, rejoice (or despair, according to taste) that you don't (or do!) live in a place where the temperature is a muggy 90F/30C pretty much 24/7/365.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

EDF practice

There's another Eating Down the Fridge Challenge running this week. I really would have liked to participate again; I had a lot of fun with the one I did in March, and surprised myself with some of the things I came up with. But I'm in the opposite mode this week: I'm going to Singapore for a work conference on Saturday, so I'm focusing on Stocking Up the Fridge with stuff for DP and Miss B to eat next week while the chief cook is out of the kitchen. I did an impromptu mini-EDF exercise on Sunday though, after our plans for the day changed for the third time and I found myself with a) an afternoon at home alone to get through a mountain of chores and work, and b) nothing planned for dinner, since I had been expecting that we'd be out.

I didn't want to waste any of my precious afternoon going to the supermarket, so I resolved to work with what I had in the house. Running true to form, I started off thinking that the cupboard was bare, but when I made a list of "proteins," "starches," and "vegetables," I found that I had six or seven items on hand. In each category. After fantasizing about several ridiculously elaborate, seasonally inappropriate, or ultimately unappetizing possibilities, I settled on a meal that was nutritionally complete*, appealing on yet another chilly, rainy day (unlike the all-salad meal I flirted with briefly), likely to be consumed by everyone present (ditto), and doable within the hour of prep time I had allotted.

Creamy broccoli soup
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 medium carrot
1 medium red onion
2 heads broccoli
4-6 cups water
1-2 tsp salt
¼-½ tsp cayenne pepper**
½-1 cup Greek yogurt***

Heat oil in a large stockpot. Chop all vegetables and add to the pot as you chop them in the order listed. Saute briefly. Add just enough water to cover the vegetables. Bring to the boil and simmer for 30-40 minutes or until all vegetables are completely softened.

Remove pan from heat and puree soup using a stick blender**** (or in batches using a regular blender*****). When soup is pureed to your satisfaction, return to low heat and season to desired taste and consistency with salt, cayenne pepper, and yogurt.

Probably enough to serve 4-6 people as a main course.

* We had this with a cheese plate and homemade bread. I also topped the soup with croutons and pieces of fried prosciutto.
** This is really according to taste. I didn't want it spicy, but with just enough cayenne to give it some depth of flavor.
*** You could probably substitute any other kind of dairy, but you'll probably need more of anything else as Greek yogurt is so thick.
**** At this stage, you could remove some of the cooking liquid, and then add it back in if the puree is too thick. (I always forget to do this, and then scramble to thicken up the soup.)
***** Be careful not to burn yourself doing this, as I always do—yet another reason I love my stick blender.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Flower shows

The weather continues to be fickle and uncooperative, and we're in the midst of another weekend (and a long weekend at that!) filled with chilly, damp, and distinctly un-spring-like weather. Despite these obstacles, Canberra's flowers are soldiering on, determined to demonstrate that they, at least, know what's supposed to be happening when October rolls around in Australia. The gardens on our walk from home to preschool and back again are full of color and beauty, making the walk take twice as long as normal as we stop to look, sniff, exclaim, take pictures, and occasionally congratulate a gardener who comes out to see what the uproar is and stays to accept a few rave reviews.


They're getting some professional competition, though. We finally made it to Floriade this week, even managing to pick one of the few proper spring days we've had so far to do it. Floriade is Canberra's annual spring flower show, and as the largest in the country (and, apparently, the southern hemisphere), attracts visitors from all over Australia and beyond. In addition to thousands of flowers in huge, colorful displays, Floriade also features offerings of public art and performance, a pavilion full of cool stuff for sale, in many cases by the people who manufactured it, and the kind of really excellent coffee two mums were gasping for after herding two preschoolers and an almost nine-year-old around for a couple of hours.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Aft agley

I continued my asparagus-buying binge through last week, and by Friday I had four bunches sitting in the fridge. We had an invitation for Sunday lunch, and I'd promised to bring some of the food, so I planned to use them for another batch of roasted asparagus. I spoke to our hostess on Friday afternoon, and we sorted out the menu, anticipating an idyllic spring luncheon on her back porch, overlooking the basking garden blooming in the sunshine.


Between Friday and Sunday, a few things happened. First, a weather front moved in that ensured that Sunday, instead of being sunny, breezy, and warm, was grey, raw, and chilly. Second, the number of people coming for lunch doubled. Third, I noticed that four bunches' worth of roasted asparagus doesn't look like it started out as four bunches of asparagus, especially when it's for twice as many people as you thought it would be serving. Fourth, it dawned on me that there wasn't a single thing on the original lunch menu that Miss B was likely to eat.


Happily, doing something about the fourth thing also had a knock-on positive effect on the first three. Yes, pasta even improves bad weather…or at least makes you care about it less.


Antipasto Pasta Salad

Pesto balsamic vinaigrette dressing

1 cube/2 Tbsp pesto

2 Tbsp balsamic vinaigrette

5 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil


Put all ingredients in an empty jar and shake vigorously to combine. Set aside.


Salad

1 lb/450 g short pasta (penne, farfalle, gemelli, etc.)

2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

1 batch slow-roasted tomatoes

6 slices prosciutto, chopped

1 oz/30 g pecorino romano, shaved

salt & pepper

Cook pasta al dente in boiling salted water. Drain and rinse with cold water to stop cooking. Dump into a large bowl (or container, if transporting). Drizzle with olive oil and toss; this will keep the pasta from sticking together.


Add tomatoes, prosciutto, and cheese to pasta; toss to mix thoroughly. Shake dressing briefly, then pour half over salad and continue to mix. Taste to see if you think it needs more and add accordingly. Season with salt and pepper. Serve at room temperature.


Serves 10-12 as part of a lunch buffet, in any kind of weather.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Flag waving

OK, I’m about to admit something a little embarrassing: before I moved to Australia, I could never keep straight which was the Australian flag and which was the New Zealand.

Please, please don’t deport me for this. Did you look at those links I provided? They do look a lot alike, don’t they? It’s not just me, right?

Right?

So, once I got it straight which was which, I determined the following:

Similarities: both have the British Union Jack in the upper left corner (upper hoist quarter in flag-speak), and the Southern Cross in the right half (fly).

Differences: the stars on the Southern Cross on the Australian flag are white and mostly seven-pointed, but on the NZ flag they are five-pointed in red, outlined in white. Also, the Australian flag has two additional stars: a small five-pointed one, as part of the constellation, and a very large seven-pointed one in the lower left corner (you guessed it, the lower hoist quarter).

Which raised a few more questions (pardon me if these display yet more colossal ignorance on my part):

1. What is the significance of the Southern Cross?

2. What about that big star off by itself?

3. Why do most of the stars have seven points?

I consulted my primary source for all useless-information research, Wikipedia (as if you couldn't already tell that from the links above), and obtained the following:

The Southern Cross
“As a highly distinctive asterism [constellation], Crux [the Southern Cross’ proper name] has great significance in the cultures of the southern hemisphere.” Of primary importance are its two brighest stars, which are used to find polar south in celestial navigation, since the southern sky has no pole star.

Evidence of its significance is demonstrated by its appearance on the flags or coats of arms of a large number of modern countries, states, provinces, territories and other political entities all over the southern hemisphere. Its prominent role in modern heraldry reflects its position throughout the cultural history of the southern hemisphere: it appears in the mythologies of indigenous cultures across the south Pacific, and is depicted in stone at Machu Picchu in Peru.

The big star
The big star is the Commonwealth Star. It symbolizes “the Federation of Australia which came into force on 1 January 1901.

“Six points of the Star represent the six original states of the Commonwealth of Australia, while the seventh point represents the territories and any future states. The original Star had only six points; however, the proclamation in 1905 of the Territory of Papua led to the addition of the seventh point in 1908 to represent it and future territories.”

So almost all my questions have been answered--except I still don’t know if four of the stars in the Southern Cross have seven points for the same reason as the Commonwealth Star does. Any Australian flag experts out there want to satisfy my curiosity?

Also, have I mentioned that I like trivia?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sparrow grass

I started seeing the first signs of spring more than a month ago. In just the past week or so, winter coats have suddenly felt too heavy, the heat has been switched off during the day, and we’re even thinking about taking the wool blankets off the bed. But yesterday, when I saw these in the supermarket—on sale!—I knew for sure that spring had arrived.

Roasted asparagus
Asparagus is one of the things that I really do not buy unless it’s in season. I find what’s available out of season so expensive and so inferior in taste that it would probably be more satisfying to just eat the money instead. I admit I’m biased: I was spoiled by living in Oxford, where during the asparagus season you could go to the Covered Market and get bundles that had been grown a mile or two down the road, and picked the same morning. It’s hard to get excited about stuff flown halfway around the world after that.

2 bunches asparagus
2 Tbsp olive oil
salt & pepper
juice and zest of ½ lemon

Preheat oven to 400F/200C. Drizzle a shallow roasting pan with olive oil, and put in oven to heat.

Wash the asparagus and, using your hands, snap into bite-sized pieces. (If you work your way up gently from the bottom of the stalk, it should naturally snap where the woody part at the bottom ends. Discard this and continue snapping.)

Shake off any excess water, and carefully add to the now hot pan. (There may be some sizzling and spitting as any water hits the hot oil.) Toss to coat with oil and return pan to oven.

Roast asparagus for 20-30 minutes, checking every 10 minutes or so and tossing to make sure nothing is burning. The asparagus is done when it has nice brown bits and is tender.

Remove from the oven. Season in the pan with salt, pepper, and lemon and toss. Serve immediately.

Serves 2. Recipe can be multiplied.

Friday, September 18, 2009

One year

I didn’t get to have a September 18 last year. I lost it somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, crossing the International Date Line. I left Los Angeles late at night on Wednesday, September 17, and touched down in Melbourne early in the morning on Friday, September 19.

That’s about what it takes to get to Australia: a day out of your life. At least. One way or another, you’ve got to make some effort to get here from just about anywhere.

I started this blog from a hotel room at LAX a few hours before I got on the plane, in preparation for beginning the great adventure of life in a faraway country. I’ve designated today, the day I sacrificed to the time zone gods to get here, as the official birthday of Roving Lemon’s Big Adventure.

In the past year, I’ve found answers to all four of the questions I asked in my first post, and I’ve learned a lot of other things besides: about Australia, about writing and photography, about blogging, about food, and about people, myself most of all. If you’ve been along for any part of the journey, thanks for your interest, your company, and your comments. If you’re new, welcome! Pull up a chair and make yourself comfortable. I expect interesting developments for the coming year, so stay tuned. But before we move ahead, to commemorate this momentous occasion, I offer:

The Top 15 Things I Didn’t Know About Australia Last September 18

15. Imported cheese—when you can find it—is really, really expensive here. So is bread. Any kind of bread.
14. Macadamia nuts, on the other hand, are not. Good to know when you’re famished from the lack of bread and cheese.
13. There is a serious lack of good pizza in Canberra. And bagels.
12. On the other hand, mangoes are widely available. (But I’m still not sure I like them.)
11. So are quinces. (I’m absolutely certain I love them.)
10. Gas grills are apparently indispensable to daily life.
9. If you’re in the market for a secondhand grill—or just a good deal—you should head to your local op shop.
8. Australians are happy to take any excuse for a good cup of coffee. They’re even happier if you offer them a baked good alongside it.
7. When people tell you Australian summers are hot, they’re not kidding. Trust me.
6. But don’t believe them when they say it’s summer all the time here. You just have to know where to look for the other seasons.
5. As my niece said when she was here, “The wildlife here is AWESOME!”
4. But some of the critters are more horrifying up close than I ever imagined.
3. Australian processed foods don’t use high fructose corn syrup.
2. You can get WD-40 here!

And the number one best thing I have discovered about living in Australia?

1. You can find rhubarb in the supermarket all year round.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Team dyamics

My ice hockey team has made the women’s league playoffs, much to my surprise. I’ve just been informed that I’m not eligible to play, because I joined the team too late in the season to play enough games to qualify. I have mixed emotions about that, after spending the last three weekends playing road games in, around, and beyond greater Sydney, including a trek all the way up to Newcastle (260 mi/460 km from Canberra). (Driving ten hours to play two hours of ice hockey is all part of the scene in women’s hockey—and probably plenty of other sports as well—but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get old.)

It'll be interesting to see how my team does, because the ranks have been a bit thin since I’ve been around—we haven’t managed two full lines for any of the games I’ve played, which, if you’re at all familiar with ice hockey, means a lot of ice time for the six to nine skaters who do show up. (I had mixed emotions about that too.)

I’ve stuck pretty well with my plan of not paying too much attention to any simmering factionalism or drama I might notice along the way—although with so few players showing up, most of the locker-room griping has been directed at the many players who have been MIA during the second half of the season. So mostly I just show up, keep quiet, act pleasant, and skate my shifts.

But I did bake for my teammates last weekend. It was our last weekend of regular-season play, and we had a long drive. I figured it was a good excuse to bring treats. And these have oats in them, so you can pretend they’re healthy. People who do sports like that in a treat.

Oat-Fruit Bars
Adapted from The Pioneer Woman Cooks!
A big part of the adaptation is experimenting with different fillings, since the original calls for apricot jam, something I am unlikely ever to have on hand. I’ve made them twice in the past four days—one batch for the team and one batch divided between home and DP’s office. I may be making them again this weekend. They’re that good.

1½ cups/210 g all-purpose/plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
1½ cups/120 g old-fashioned/porridge oats
1 cup/200 g packed brown sugar
1¾ sticks/200 g butter, cut into pieces*
1 10-12 oz/~300 g jar good-quality jam or equivalent**

Preheat oven to 350F/180C. Grease an 8 in/20 cm square baking pan.

In a large bowl, mix together all ingredients except jam. Spread one-half of the mixture into baking pan, pressing firmly into corners and into an even layer. Spoon the jam over the mixture in the pan, then smooth with the back of the spoon to cover the mixture as completely as possible. Cover with the rest of the mixture; press this lightly to form an even layer.

Bake for 30-40 minutes***, rotating halfway through, or until light brown. Cool completely in the pan before cutting into bars.

Makes 16 2 in/5 cm bars.


* The blog entry for these says only that it’s better if the butter isn’t ice-cold, but I found the mixture pretty dry and crumbly made with cold-ish butter. The second time I made these, I used soft butter, and I liked the consistency better.
** I used a fancy French raspberry fruit spread (sweetened with fruit juice) for the first batch, and homemade apple butter for the second batch. Both worked great.
*** My oven, which runs slow, took 40 minutes and more both times, and I still wasn’t convinced they were done, so you might need to experiment.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Repurposing architecture

The other day we went for a wander around our bit of Canberra. On the way home, we passed this church. I’ve gone past it dozens of times in the past months, but I’d never really looked at it properly, so we stopped to have a nose around. We couldn’t go inside, but it had one of those helpful local historical society signs outside, which enabled me to learn all about the building’s bizarre history.

You may not be able to tell very well from the picture, but the church has somewhat odd proportions—note the giant front door, for instance. This is because the building started its life as a railway station. But its resemblance to a church is not accidental; it was not an ordinary railway station, but a Mortuary Station, built specially to service trains to Rookwood Cemetery in Sydney.

(Rookwood is itself notable: it is the largest cemetery, or, as it is officially known, “necropolis” in the Southern Hemisphere, and has been operating since the mid-nineteenth century, when it was built to relieve pressure on older cemeteries in Sydney that were reaching capacity.)

Because of Rookwood’s distance from Sydney’s center, a spur line of the railway, and the Mortuary Stations, were built to service funeral parties. There were three stations in different parts of the cemetery (serving different denominations), plus one at the main entrance and another one at the start of the line in Sydney, adjacent to the central railway station; they were deliberately designed to create an appropriately solemn atmosphere for funeral processions. The stations (and the line) were in use until 1948, when they were rendered obsolete by increased use of cars and roads. All Saints Church was formerly Mortuary Station No. 1; it was purchased by an Anglican minister for £100 and relocated to Canberra in 1957.

Many of the building’s other architectural features also started life somewhere else: one of the stained-glass windows came from a church in England that was bombed during World War II; the church bell came from a train; and the tower was originally located on the other side of the building.

If you look carefully at the tower, you can see two dates on it: at the top, “1868,” when the building was originally dedicated; and underneath it, “1958,” when it was re-dedicated as a church. Quite an amazing story, really, of historical preservation and thrift.

Canberra may be nearly brand-new, as cities go (it’s not even 100 yet!), but it still manages to present interesting bits of history here and there--often when I least expect it.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Brain block

I’ve been a little slow about posting lately. (Sorry about that. I’ve got a lot on the brain.)

I’ve been slow on the uptake in other areas, too, if that helps. An explanation, by way of a digression: one of the by-products of having a child in preschool is that they meet other kids. Those other kids have parents. If you’re lucky, your child will hit it off with some other children, and you will hit it off with some other parents. If you’re very lucky, some of those children and parents will be related to each other.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Challenge outtakes

Just in case you’re thinking it’s all sunshine and flowers and effortless production and consumption of deliciousness 24/7 here at Casa Roving Lemon, I thought I’d share a couple of less-than-stellar moments during this past month’s Cookbook Challenge:

1. Zeppoli I was gunning to make it to five recipes this month for once, and the fifth one I had bookmarked was zeppoli—an Italian sweet treat made with fried dough. I read through the recipe, and thought, “Oh, that’s just bread dough. I’ll just use the bread dough I have in the refrigerator.” Completely ignoring that a) the recipe had a much higher ratio of yeast to flour than standard bread dough; and b) I’m always trying to achieve more of a country-bread, slow-rise, chewy tang with my bread dough. This second fact, in particular, gives you pretty much the opposite of what you’re looking for in zeppoli, as I discovered when I bit into one. They tasted pretty much like tiny, fried sourdough rolls. With powdered sugar on them. Not my finest effort. (Not that that stopped me from eating them all.)

2. Broccoli Note to self: if you are fortunate enough to have a child that happily eats her own body weight in broccoli when you produce it in the normal way (or, rather, the way that’s normal for you), don’t change things. Don’t suddenly roast the broccoli and present it to her like that. She will say things like, “Mummy! It has brown stuff on it!” and “Mummy! I don’t like this brown stuff!”. She will try to claw off the brown stuff. With her fingers. She will make faces and gag theatrically and try to scrape her tongue clean. No matter how much you like the broccoli (and I’m sure you will), believe me, this will interfere with your enjoyment of dinner.

3. Dining post hoc(kily) I’ve eaten cold cereal for dinner at least four times in the past month, usually after hockey. By the time I’ve finished training, schlepped all my kit home on the bus, and taken a shower (since the rink does not offer such sissy amenities as hot water), I’ve got no energy left to turn on the stove, even to heat up leftovers.

But, as you can see from the photo at the top (crappy as it is), we still make the effort. Those may be Deep-Fried Sugar-Frosted Mini Dinner Rolls, but, who cares, we’re still gonna decorate ‘em. With cachous! (That’s Australian for what we in the US call “those little silver balls you stick on cakes”.)
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