Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Social interaction

Last night I hosted my knitting group’s weekly meeting

(I may have failed to mention that I joined a knitting group shortly after I moved back to Canberra? Probably I have, because I am possibly the world’s most pathetic knitting-group member. I miss easily half the meetings (I blame all the conference calls), and every time I do go, I am impressed anew at what a terrible knitter I am. In fact, the last meeting before this one, I gave up any pretense of knitting and brought my current embroidery project instead. Since my group is called a “stitch” group, I decided that counted.

(I possibly also haven’t mentioned previously about the embroidery.)

Anyway! Before last night, I hadn’t been to stitch in more than a month, what with school holidays and Auckland and solo parenting for the last 3 weeks, and I was missing it, and adult interaction in general. So I put my hand up to host, newbie/pathetic knitter status be damned, and tidied up the living room.

And baked, of course. The custom in our group is that the hostess provides tea and dessert for the other members, and I took the opportunity to embrace the craving for chocolate and coconut I’ve been having a lot constantly the last few weeks.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Disruptive innovation

Have you heard this term? I’ve come across it repeatedly in the past six months, but before that I’d never heard it. According to Wikipedia, it is used “to describe innovations that improve a product or service in ways that the market does not expect” – particularly in business or technology. Naturally I’m planning to appropriate it for cooking.

I mentioned a while back that I’ve started volunteering in the school canteen one morning a week, because I want to do my bit for the school community, and focusing on something involving food is the obvious first choice. Through working in the canteen, I’ve already learned the finer points of rolling sushi, making vegemite sandwiches (trickier than it sounds), and, most recently, a whole new approach to making bolognese sauce.

Spaghetti bolognese is one of the standard items on the canteen menu, and a few weeks ago, the manager-mother of the day was cooking a big batch of sauce while the rest of us worked through the list of daily canteen chores. She mentioned in passing that she doesn’t brown the mince for bolognese sauce anymore, thanks to a tip from her sister-in-law; according to her, skipping this saves a step and completely changes the texture of the sauce – for the better.

The other day, when I had literally five minutes to get something into the slow cooker for dinner, I remembered this piece of information, and decided to test it out for myself. I turned on the slow cooker, emptied in a jar of passata, and tossed in about a pound of mince I had sitting in the fridge. I clapped on the lid and went about my business. A couple of hours later, I was able to check and stir it for the first time, and used a potato masher to break up the mince lump. By dinnertime, the sauce had been cooking for about 2.5 hours on high, and the house smelled wonderful.

The texture and taste of the finished sauce were noticeably different, as promised: the texture was much smoother than usual, and the taste very rich and meaty. Whatever flavor might have been lost by not browning was more than made up for by how robust the finished sauce came out. I would never have come up with this idea on my own, but I’m happy to adopt it.

Disruptive bolognese sauce
I’m sure this would be good with sautéed onions, grated carrot, minced garlic, and all the other accoutrements that help to build a really good sauce, but this was how I made it, and it was delicious out of all proportion to the work involved.

1 23 oz/700 g jar tomato passata
1 lb/450 g good-quality beef mince (I used the grass-fed, hormone-free, gold-plated mince I got at the farmers’ market, which I’m sure contributed to the excellent flavor of the sauce)
1 heaping Tbsp/30 g pesto
salt & pepper

Turn slow cooker to high. Add passata and beef. Cook for 2-3 hours on high (maybe 3-5 on low?), stirring once or twice to make sure that the beef mince is broken up and incorporated into the sauce. Just before serving, stir in pesto, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Makes enough to feed at least 4 people spaghetti bolognese. Leftovers freeze very well, using the method shown above.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Urban foraging

The other day Miss B. and I went to visit friends who live on the other side of the lake. (In Canberra parlance, this is hell and gone far away, even though it’s only about a 15-minute drive.) While there, we went out to admire their garden, which is bursting into all kinds of bloom now that spring is getting a firm grip on the weather. C. indicated a row of small trees.

“Those are covered with cumquats,” she pointed out. “Want some? Otherwise they’re just going to sit there and rot. I don’t know what to do with them.”

She didn’t have to ask twice. I went inside, got a bag, and proceeded to strip every branch clean. Miss B. even gave me a hand. As you can see from the picture, we got a pretty good haul, and the next day I got to work processing them. I peeled them, then put the insides through a food mill. The insides produced a frothy, juicy pulp, and I put the peels in the food processor with some sugar. All of these results are still sitting in my fridge, waiting for further inspiration to strike.

At first I had thought of making marmalade, but then remembered that I’m not a huge marmalade fan (even though it was my first jam-making project). At the moment I’m pondering making cumquat-cello (ie a variant of limoncello), or cumquat curd. Or maybe both - as I said, I've got quite a haul. (Got any other ideas? I’m open to suggestion.) In the meantime, I’ve been pouring the juice/pulp (julp?) into my weekend cocktail for a variation on my typical favorite vodka & lemonade.

Because ‘CVF’ sounds more like a respectable adult beverage than ‘Cumquat Vodka Fizz’. These cumquats more closely resemble tiny, very tart oranges than those I’ve encountered before (which resemble tiny, very bitter lemons). If you don’t have any windfall cumquats handy, swap in citrus of your choice and adjust sweetening to taste.

1 shot/1.5 oz/45 ml vodka
2 Tbsp/1 oz/30 ml cumquat julp
1 Tbsp/.5 oz/15 ml simple syrup
5 oz/150 ml fizzy water

Fill an 8 oz/240 ml drinking glass halfway with ice, then add drink ingredients. Stir to combine.

Makes 1 tart, citrusy, fizzy cocktail.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Wordless Wednesday

Currently on heavy rotation around here:

We are always wanting 
The things we cannot find

- "This Time", INXS, 1985

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Cured meats

Did you know that when you ask for “bacon”, what you get will depend on where you are? In the US you get a long, thin rectangular piece of meat which comes from the belly of the pig and is about equal parts flesh and fat, optimally fried until perfectly crispy. Outside the US, this is known as “streaky bacon” or “streaky rashers”. In the UK and Australia, the bacon you commonly get comes from the back of the pig, is much less fatty, and is called, not surprisingly, “back bacon”. (This is known as “Canadian bacon” in the US, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me.)

Despite this being my fourth stint of living outside the US, I have to re-adjust every time to the fact that the bacon elsewhere is significantly different from what I'm used to and that, honestly, I don’t like it as much as I do the traditional US style. So much so that at least once I’ve done something that is usually unthinkable, and run out. As it turns out, this domestic faux pas has yielded some unexpected benefits, principally discovering that salty, cured meats are more interchangeable than I’d realized. A recent, very successful breakfast experiment emphatically demonstrates this; wanting some bacon to jazz up my fried egg on toast and finding none, I swapped in some fried spicy salami. The variation has now officially entered the RL breakfast rotation.

Fried egg & salami on toast
Of course, following the cured-meats-are-interchangeable principle means that you should feel free to swap in whatever you’ve got lying in the fridge.

1 slice whole wheat toast
2 slices spicy salami
1 egg
salt & pepper

Toast bread. In a small frying pan, fry salami until crisp on the edges, turning once. Remove salami from pan and crack in egg, frying to your liking. (I like sunny side up with a runny yolk.)

Put toasted bread on a plate, top with salami, then with egg. Sprinkle with salt & pepper and consume.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Auckland update

The centerpiece of our hotel's breakfast buffet

Honestly, I never learn. Every year I come to this meeting thinking that I'll have plenty of time to keep up with email, read books, and update my blog with all the exciting new food experiences I'm having in whatever city I'm visiting. And every year I end up averaging about five hours of sleep a night, barely getting outside the conference venue, and failing to even take pictures of my food experiences, let alone write them up. But as I pause for breath halfway through the last day, I do have a few items of note bobbing up from the morass of impressions, flavors, and conversations of the last four days:

- New Zealand has some truly amazing cheeses. And wines.
- I seem to be developing a taste for whiskey. Particularly this one.
- Similar to its nearest large neighbor, Australia, New Zealand has a distinctive ecosystem, and more than 80% of its flora and fauna are found nowhere else on earth. I have taken a strong liking to the Pōhutukawa tree, which is apparently even more beautiful when it flowers at Christmastime.
- If I lived in Auckland, I would have very strong calf muscles from walking up (and down!) the many and steep hills.
- As my long exile from living by the sea continues, I am even more drawn to a city that seems to have ocean in every direction.
- One of my colleagues (and friends) told a meeting comprising about 30 of my coworkers about this blog yesterday. So if you're visiting for the first time as a result, welcome! I promise I haven't revealed any organizational or personal dramas here (yet).

And that's about it for now, until my head is a bit clearer of strategic planning proposals, meeting action points, and the aftermath of tonight's farewell party.
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