Saturday, January 31, 2009

Oven roasted


Have I mentioned yet that it’s hot in Canberra at this time of year?

To anyone who is reading from the northern hemisphere: I promise you I am not gloating. I know you’re chilled to the bone and, in some cases, up to your ears in snow. I am accepting offers to trade that for 38C (that’s 100.4F) and sunshine so strong you want to hide from it.

It is a dry heat, which I think is an improvement over Boston humidity. It makes you feel as if you’re being roasted in an oven during the day, but as compensation it cools off enough at night that you can at least get some sleep.

Under the circumstances, it’s difficult to find the motivation to turn on the oven and cook anything (although some days this past week it’s been so hot in my kitchen that I can’t actually tell that the oven is on). I’ve been eating this salad a lot. It’s filling enough to be a meal in itself without being heavy, and is quick and easy to make. It is also a good way of using up leftover bread, should you happen to have any of that lying around. *cough*


Too Hot to Cook Salad
1 avocado, halved, stoned and cubed
10-12 cherry tomatoes, quartered
3-5 balls bocconcini mozzarella, quartered
1 cup croutons
3-4 leaves basil, chopped
Salt
Freshly ground pepper
Olive oil
Balsamic vinegar

Arrange the avocado, tomatoes, mozzarella, and croutons in a salad bowl, and sprinkle the basil over. Season with salt and pepper, then drizzle olive oil and vinegar over everything. Toss to combine, if desired. (I don’t.)

Serves 1, with a very, very large glass of ice water.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

DIY pita


This seems to be turning into Bread Week. Apologies to my gluten-free reader(s).

I’ve already talked about how, as an expat, one of the things you learn is that, if you want the food you crave, often you have to figure out how to make it yourself. This isn’t always very convenient, but as compensation it is generally cheaper than grabbing something off the shelf. Oh, and you can feel smug, too, when you make something by hand that most people never even considered could be made by hand.

“You made this?!” they say incredulously, as if whatever it is can only be produced in a factory, shrink-wrapped, and then transported in a truck to a giant supermarket.

“Shucks, it was nothing,” you reply modestly. And even if it really was nothing, you still get the props.

Now I have to say upfront that I’ve never had any problem getting pita bread, anywhere I’ve lived, so that wasn’t my main motivation. No, my main quarrel with pita is that I’m not always thrilled with the quality: I’ve eaten a lot of inexplicably sweet, crumbly pita that doesn’t seem much like bread at all. It makes my teeth hurt, and then sticks to them. I hate that.

So when I saw a post on Under the High Chair about making your own pita, I was intrigued. Maybe if I made my own, I’d get some idea of what the quality and consistency should be like.

I followed the UtHC recipe and method pretty much to the letter (except I did it without a mixer), so I won’t repost it here. I did leave them in a little too long (they seemed to take a long time to puff), so they came out a little too brown. I think I’ll have to preheat the oven sooner next time to facilitate early puffing. But, even on the crispy side, they were delicious. Not sweet, not crumbly. I don’t know how authentically Middle Eastern they are, but they’re better than anything I’ve found in the supermarket lately.

Especially with a heaping helping of smug on the side.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Free food


Yesterday was Australia Day, so DP had the day off. We didn’t do much; it was hot, and we’d already had a busy weekend, so we mostly just took it easy. Late in the afternoon, we went for a walk, and ended up at a neighborhood café in search of something cold to drink and a seat in the shade. I went inside, approvingly noted the racks of fresh bread, ogled the pastries (which were really pretty spectacular), and then decided it was too hot and too close to dinnertime to eat anything that rich.

When I placed our order, the guy behind the counter wrote it down and then said, “Would you like a free sausage roll or spinach and feta parcel?”

Free food?! I goggled. “Sure,” I stammered. “I’d love a spinach and feta parcel.”

(I can’t say no to free food. I hadn’t been to this café before; even though I wasn't very hungry, I rationalized that it would give me a chance to decide if the food was worth paying for on a return visit.)

“Great,” he said cheerfully. “Would you like two?” (Apparently I was entitled to two because I had ordered two drinks.)

Okay, even I can say no to that much free food at 4:45. “Oh no, one is plenty,” I gasped.

The spinach and feta parcel was delicious, if misnamed. A parcel implies a dainty morsel to me. This was huge: a triangle of crispy puff pastry, hanging off the edges of a dessert plate, sprinkled with poppy seeds and bursting with oozy, cheesy filling. We only managed to eat half of it.

Then, as we were finishing up, another server came over, carrying a plastic bag stuffed full of bread.

“Hi guys!” she said enthusiastically. “Can I interest you in some free bread? We’ve got garlic and rosemary focaccia and some sourdough rolls. What do you think?”

Translation: this was two whole, huge focaccie, each one about the size of a sheet of legal paper and two inches thick, plus about eight sourdough rolls, each one as big as my two fists. (See picture!) People, I’m talking 30 dollars’ worth of really good bread, easy.

I goggled some more, thinking in panic of my small and already jam-packed freezer. “I-I’d love some,” I blithered, “but I don’t think I could take that much….”

“You know what?” she said. “Just take it, please? You can share it with your neighbor, or stick it in the freezer, or throw it in the bin if you really can’t use it.”

Throw it in the bin? Uh uh. I’m even worse at throwing away food than I am at turning it down. “Okay, I’ll take it,” I said firmly.

“Fantastic!” she said, and handed it over.

Luckily, I had remembered in time that I am the kind of crazy person who saves old bread and uses it for croutons, crostini, and crumbs. I’ve already made two batches of focaccia croutons, and I fully expect to shortly have enough of all of the above to last me through to next Australia Day. At least.

So. Anyone have any good recipes using stale bread products that they want to share?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Australia made


In honor of Australia Day weekend (FYI: Australia Day, January 26, is sort of Australia's version of the Fourth of July), I offer a selection of pictures of (mostly) handmade, uniquely Australian items from today's Sunday market at the Old Bus Depot in Kingston. Clockwise from top left:

1. Fabrics inspired by traditional Aboriginal art, watched over by eucalyptus-eating friends.
2. Anzac biscuits and Bundy rum and macadamia fudge slice.
3. Bluetongue Premium Lager, named for the indigenous blue-tongued skink. As an aside, I don't think I've ever seen beer and wine available for sale before, by the crate, at a market--this in itself is very Australian.
4. Various dips, including beetroot dip. Australians have an abiding fondness for beets, and they crop up in all sorts of (to a recent arrival) unexpected places. Most commonly on top of hamburgers.

Happy Australia Day!

Friday, January 23, 2009

For KJ


As I said to my sister the night before she began her Great Trek north, back to Boston, vicariously dreading the trip for her, “Where’s a tesseract when you really need one?”

By far the biggest drawback to being in Australia, for me, is its distance from Boston and Oxford. Generally, Australia’s location is contributes to its exotic value: it’s more difficult to get here, so fewer people have been here, and so it's more alluring. And most of the time the distance is part of the whole intrigue/challenge/appeal of the expat experience, a complex blend of emotions I’d need a much longer post than this to attempt to explain.

But there are times when it just plain sucks, and most of these involve someone you care about being in some kind of trouble and pain on the other side of the world. You, meanwhile, sit, horrified and helpless, unable to do anything other than receive bad news and send feeble offers of electronic assistance in return. A snail mail card or token delivered by an online surrogate if you can think of something worth sending.

I know everyone feels helpless in these situations. But at least when you’re on the geographical spot you can drive someone to an appointment, or help out with childcare, or bring over a meal or a large bottle of really good vodka. You can give someone a hug.

Right now I can’t do any of those things for my good friend KJ (http://pointyuniverse.blogspot.com/, or see "Blogs I like" to your right), who has very recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. So I’ll do one of the few things I can do from far away: tell other people about it, and ask them to send some good thoughts her way. You can call it whatever you want: prayer, good karma, healing vibes, positive energy, channeling the power of the universe, angels, love. I don’t care as long as you can send some of it in her direction.

It wasn’t so long ago that first I, and as a result Miss B, were involved in a health crisis of our own, and there were times when I could almost feel the energy coming from all the people who were pulling for us. Knowing that helped keep me going on more than one bad day.

KJ, I'm thinking of you, and of J, C, and P too, every day.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Hope springs

"Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

"And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

"To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

"With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations."

I may be far from home, but today I am a proud and hopeful American. And I haven't been able to say that for a long, long time.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Green thoughts


When I was growing up, my main involvement with the garden was weeding, a task which I generally had to do squatting in the dirt, in the hot sun, when I would rather have been sitting on the porch, in the shade, with a library book. Needless to say, I did not become enamored of gardening as a pastime.

One of my closest friends assured me, years ago, that owning a garden of my own would change all that. My loathing would turn to proprietary interest and a desire to lavish TLC upon my own little patch of earth. I have yet to test this theory personally as, despite my advanced adulthood, I do not own a house. I had thought wistfully about trying my hand at gardening in one of the various places we have rented, but somehow I never got around to it. In hindsight, I think it was a combination of discouraging weather (England), and the perpetually unsettled feeling of our peripatetic lifestyle (wherever). If I wasn’t preparing for the next looming trip overseas, DP and I were contemplating job prospects (his) in another city, or another country, or another hemisphere. I couldn’t even commit to making a sourdough starter, let alone planting a garden.

Then, after the most unsettled year so far—at one point back in May it could have gone either way as to whether we’d even be coming to Australia, or moving back to England—we arrived in Canberra in time for the start of Australian spring. We settled in, unpacked our boxes, got our bearings. We got used to the idea that, although we won’t be here forever, we’ll be settled in one place for a couple of years. And I planted a little garden in containers on our balcony. (All food, of course—vegetables and herbs.)

My first plants—cucumbers—have sprouted. It’s enough to bring a tear to your eye. But even better is that, from what I hear, container gardeners require almost no weeding.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Translating slang


One of the challenges of moving to a new country is learning to speak the language. I say this as someone who has lived only in countries where the primary language spoken is English.

For example. We shipped all our stuff direct from the UK to Australia 13 months ago, expecting to see it again in 6-8 weeks. As things turned out, we didn’t actually get here until nine months had passed. This meant that 1) Miss B had outgrown much of what we shipped for her and 2) I found myself unpacking other things and thinking, “Why the @#$& did I ship this halfway around the world?!” In other words, I had a lot to get rid of very shortly after my arrival.

In these circumstances, I generally pack up bags of stuff and take them to the nearest secondhand store for donation. Simple, right? Except for one thing: what do you call a secondhand store in Australia?

The American version is “thrift store;” the UK version is “charity shop.” It took a little detective work, but I am here to tell you that the Australian version is “op shop,” short for “opportunity shop.” As in, “Last week, I had the opportunity to dump a bunch of junk I don’t want anymore, and look what I found while I was there!” Then, with a little help from Zoe at Progressive Dinner Party (another Canberra blog), I found an op shop less than 10 minutes from my house.

Score! I’ve already dropped off a few bags of stuff.

And, of course, picked up some nice secondhand kitchenware. (Because it always comes back to food in the end.)

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Challenge wrap-up


Happy New Year! And for my first post, I’m going to wrap up some business from last year—Roving Lemon’s Cookbook Challenge.

Following Challenge rules, I randomly chose Nigel Slater’s Real Fast Food (350 Recipes Ready-To-Eat in 30 Minutes). I managed to post about one recipe; I also made two others, both involving chicken (Chicken Marsala and Mozzarella Chicken with Pesto Gravy). Neither one knocked my socks off, so I won’t post the details. If you’re really dying to know, tell me. I didn’t quite make it to five recipes (the full Challenge), as holiday madness overtook me.

My verdict on this cookbook: lots of interesting flavor combinations, but most of them I’d end up eating on my own. I’m moderately experimental, DP is a lot less so, and Miss B is four. (I hear there are four-year-old omnivores out there, but I have yet to meet one.)

My lovely friends over at StephenChristinelicious also took up the Challenge, and posted on their blog about the books and new recipes they chose. Any other reports? Now’s your chance! And if you wanted to participate, but couldn’t, watch this space; I’m already contemplating the next round.

Which just leaves one final question for my fellow cookbook junkies to weigh in on: now that I’ve thoroughly evaluated this cookbook, should I extract my keeper recipes and (gasp!) give it away?
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