Friday, November 30, 2012

30 days

Note zested lime wedge - for topping up the citrus sugar jar. Frugal!

It's November 30. It's Friday. And I've made it through another round of #NaBloPoMo. I think a bit of a celebration is in order, yes?

NaBloPoMo sour
This is what the CVF evolved into after I ran out of cumquat julp, around the same time I discovered that you could buy lemon lime and bitters (my favorite non-alcoholic Australian beverage) pre-made and bottled at the grocery store. Just the thing for the end of NaBloPoMo, especially when the temperature has suddenly jumped to 35C/95F.

1 shot/1.5 oz/45 ml vodka
2 Tbsp/1 oz/30 ml citrus juice (I used blood orange for the flavor and lovely color)
1 Tbsp/.5 oz/15 ml simple syrup
5 oz/150 ml bottled lemon lime and bitters
fat wedge of lime 
Fill an 8 oz/240 ml drinking glass halfway with ice, then add first four ingredients. Stir to combine. Squeeze lime and drop in glass.

Makes 1 fizzy, tart, celebratory cocktail.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Raspberry muffins

Have I spent enough time yet waxing rhapsodic about Ratio? About how it’s fundamentally changed the way I approach cooking and baking? About how it’s like having the Rosetta Stone for deciphering, and then adapting, existing recipes, to say nothing of creating new ones? About how I love it so much I gave it its own blog tag?

No? You want to hear more? Oh, go ahead, twist my arm. Allow me, if you will, to explain the construction of a Ratio recipe.

Ratio raspberry muffins
Lately these are my go-to choice for playdate baking; they mix up and bake quickly, I pretty much always have the ingredients on hand, and small children devour them. (One recent small visitor ate four.)

Here is the basic ratio for a muffin batter:

2 parts flour : 2 parts liquid : 1 part egg : 1 part butter

Michael Ruhlman suggests that a recipe based on 8 oz/240 g flour should yield about a dozen muffins. So, working on this premise, I constructed the following recipe.

Dry ingredients
6 oz/180 g plain flour
2 oz/60 g whole wheat flour
2 tsp/10 g baking powder (working on another rule of thumb, gleaned elsewhere: 1 tsp/5 g per cup/4 oz/120 g)
1 tsp/5 g salt
4 Tbsp/60 g sugar (I used my citrus sugar here, for a little extra je ne sais quoi)

Wet ingredients
6 oz/180 g milk
2 oz/60 g Greek yogurt (for a slightly denser and more complex muffin)
1 tsp/5 g vanilla
2 eggs (= 4 oz/120 g)
4 oz/120 g (1 stick) butter, melted

1 cup raspberries (I used frozen, and tossed them with more citrus sugar before adding)

Preheat oven to 350F/180C. Grease (or line) a 12-cup muffin pan and set aside.

In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients. In a medium-sized jug, whisk together all the wet ingredients except the butter; add the butter slowly and carefully last, so as not to scramble the egg. Dump wet into dry and whisk until just combined. Fold in raspberries gently until evenly distributed.

Scoop batter (it will be thick) into muffin cups with ice-cream scoop or large spoon. Bake for 15-20 minutes, rotating pan halfway through.

Makes 12 muffins.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Wordless Wednesday

Encouraging local graffiti - very appropriate for one coming down the homestretch of a morning run (where I first spotted it) or of #NaBloPoMo.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

On running

For most of my life, I’ve viewed exercise as a means to an end. Whether training for or playing a sport, walking to a specified destination, or starting a workout program to lose weight or get in better shape, the exercise was always secondary to some other goal; and so my motivation to exercise has waxed or waned depending upon the importance of the goal balanced against other pressures in my life.

The exercise program I had been following when we were living in Missouri fell completely by the wayside in the upheaval of the move, and for the first few months that we were living here. Between walking Miss B to and from school, and doing various errands on foot, I was walking 3-4 mi (6-8 km) most days anyway, often carrying bags of stuff, and I figured that was plenty of exercise. But then, during the October school holidays, sometime in the middle of a week of no-break single parenting and work frustration, I thought: something’s missing. I need something that I’m not getting. And I resolved that, when school started up again and I got some untethered adult time, I was going to try to get back to some kind of dedicated exercise routine.

I decided to focus on running, mainly because the last time I lived in Canberra, I started a walk-to-run program  that I remembered enjoying and sticking with for a long time, well into my return to the US. Running also doesn’t require much investment in equipment or infrastructure; all you really need is a decent pair of running shoes (although something that plays music to run by is nice too), and the willingness to spend some time using them.

So I started – or, really, re-started – the walk-to-run routine about six weeks ago. But this time is different, because this time it isn’t a means to an end. That's because I quickly realized that what I had been missing was the way strenuous, dedicated exercise, but especially running, makes me feel. Not physically so much, although that’s good too; no, it’s what it does emotionally: that endorphin rush that makes me feel, for a little while at least, like I can do anything. It doesn’t matter that I may sound like an asthmatic sheep to passing pedestrians, or that an energetic preschooler could probably lap me; when I’m running, I’m invincible, at least for a few minutes, and that’s a feeling I hadn't even realized I was hooked on, and need on an ongoing basis.

Earlier today, in a rambling phone conversation covering many topics, I shared all these thoughts with my sister M, a runner of 27 years’ standing.

“Congratulations,” she replied. “You’ve crossed over.”

Time will tell. But for someone who used to joke that she only ran at gunpoint, it’s not a bad start.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Making gravy

Yes, this picture is a repeat - but look! Gravy! See?
Along with bringing an apple pie, a bottle of prosecco, and a festive attitude, my main contribution to Thanksgiving dinner was making gravy. I kept asking if there was anything I could do to help, and at the appropriate moment, the hostess asked how I felt about taking on that task.

I used to get really freaked out about making gravy, probably because I had to teach myself how to make it and try to figure out what a roux was supposed to look like when I’d never seen anyone else make one. I remember spending a lot of time stressing about the roux – was it too thin? Too chunky? Had  I measured (or weighed) the ingredients precisely to get the right proportions? Had I cooked it long enough? Too long? Was it actually thickening the gravy?

Then, as I was working my way through the endlessly fascinating and instructive Ratio, I came to the chapter on roux, in particular this sentence: “…it’s most convenient to measure [the ingredients for roux] by sight, melting your butter to cook off some of the water and adding flour in increments until you have the consistency of a paste.” And, even though I’m sure I had come across the same basic information multiple times already in other places, somehow this time I finally absorbed that roux is a means to an end: thickening soup, sauce, or gravy. All you have to do is create a paste of fat (preferably, but not necessarily, butter) and flour, and it will do that job. How thick or thin you make the paste is up to you; the consistency of the finished product will vary depending upon that, plus how much liquid you then add. If the gravy is too thick, you can add more liquid; if it's too thin, you can turn up the heat and let it reduce for a few minutes.

Grasping those basic pieces of information completely demystified the gravy-making process for me, and removed  my need to consult recipes from then on. Now I just make gravy, following the same basic process, and varying the ingredients based upon where I want the finished product to end up.

Basic gravy method
In addition to being infinitely adaptable, this method also has the benefit of being able to be made almost entirely ahead. Rather than frantically trying to concoct gravy from scratch at the last minute when the rest of dinner is ready, you can do the first four steps earlier in the prep process, then stir in the drippings, season, and serve. Much less nerve-wracking if you, like me, are made tense by last-minute cooking.

Step 1: melt fat in a medium-sized saucepan over low-medium heat. (I generally use 2-3 Tbsp/30-45 g butter here, but sometimes I use bacon fat or olive oil instead. You can also sauté minced onions, garlic, mirepoix etc. at this step if you want that kind of thing in your gravy.)

Step 2: whisk flour into melted fat until you have created a paste in the bottom of the pan, and continue cooking for a couple of minutes until the flour is no longer raw. Michael Ruhlman says that a roux is cooked “when it begins to smell like a lightly cooked piecrust.”

Step 3: deglaze the pan with a healthy slug of wine and continue whisking. This usually turns the roux into a thick and fluffy paste in my experience. (I use either white or red, depending on what I’m making and what’s open, and have not hesitated to use sparkling wine if nothing else was handy.)

Step 4: pour in 1-2 cups/240-480 ml of liquid slowly, still whisking. (Milk for a creamy gravy; stock for a more standard gravy. On Thanksgiving, all that was available was water, so I used that.) Bring this just to a boil, then let simmer. At this point the roux should do its work and the gravy should thicken up.

Step 5: add drippings from whatever hunk of meat you’re making the gravy to accompany. (Sometimes it’s nice to remove the fat, but not always feasible.) Bring gravy back up to a simmer, stirring frequently to ensure everything is mixed consistently.

Step 6: taste and check seasonings; add salt and pepper, plus other seasonings as you deem appropriate. (I wait to salt until after adding the pan drippings, as these usually come from meat that has been salted, possibly making additional salt unnecessary.)

Step 7: serve hot.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sunday Shuffle

This week's top selection in heavy rotation:

Looking to the sky to save me
Looking for a sign of life
Looking for something to help me burn out bright

- "Learn to Fly", Foo Fighters, 1999

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Breakfast chats

THE SCENE: Saturday morning. RL shambles around the kitchen, still half-asleep, emptying the dishwasher and starting to get breakfast ready. Miss B sits on the floor, reading a book. DP sits in the next room, checking email.

Miss B: Mum, what's a humming pigeon?

RL (dazed and confused): Um, I don't know. It must be a pigeon that hums?

Miss B: But how does it hum?

RL (totally baffled by trying to envision a humming pigeon): I...don't...know....

DP (from the next room): Um, hello? I think she means homing pigeon.

Miss B and RL, simultaneously: Ohhhhhh!

RL spends the next 2-3 minutes in a fit of uncontrollable giggling.

Hope your Saturday is filled with similarly excellent communication.


Friday, November 23, 2012

Thanksgiving recap

My Thanksgiving dinner story has a backstory.

Back when I was in Auckland (nearly 2 months ago! already?!), DP and Miss B went out for lunch with one of his workmates and his family. They had a great time, and afterwards DP opined that my opposite number in this family (RB) and I would get along great and should make contact.

I’ve been making an effort to be more proactive about widening my social circle here in Canberra, so a couple of weeks ago I requested RB’s contact details via the husband-conduit, and early this week I sent her an email suggesting we meet up for coffee.

She wrote back immediately to say that she was sorry, but she couldn’t do this week – but that she had an alternative suggestion that I might find a bit “strange”, but that she hoped I’d consider.

It was this: one of the mums she is friendly with through her son’s school is also American, and had invited her and the family over for Thanksgiving dinner. Somehow we (and, I assume, our American-ness) had come up in the course of this conversation…so she’d invited us too.

I should probably note at this point that I had initially shelved the idea of cooking Thanksgiving dinner this year, providing a number of justifications for this decision: the weather’s wrong; I’ve got too much work on; I can’t get a turkey home without a car (we won’t talk about how many times I did just that in Oxford); yadda yadda yadda. But whatever rationalizations I was using, as this week started I was having second thoughts. I was feeling bummed. Bummed about missing out on Pie Day, bummed about missing out on the celebration of possibly my favorite holiday, and bummed that I couldn’t seem to find the motivation to make the day special somehow.

So when this invitation arrived, completely out of the blue, it was as though the clouds had parted and a ray of sunlight shone down on my path. I didn’t have to start from zero! I could help someone else make a celebration! The fact that I had never laid eyes on any of the people involved deterred me so briefly that I surprised myself. Normally I consider myself much more cautious than that interpersonally, but not this time. This time I plunged into the gamble.

And it paid off! We had a great time – the kids rampaged happily, the food was delicious, and I met some great people that I hope to see more of. And I learned a rule of thumb I’ll remember for next time I‘m presented with an opportunity to step outside my comfort zone – the applicability of this quote:

“Ever notice how 'What the hell' is always the right answer?” (Marilyn Monroe)

Note: this is never more true than when the question is, “Should I eat apple pie for breakfast?”

Happy Day After Thanksgiving. Or Friday, if that’s how you roll.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving has barely begun in the US, but it's nearly over here; I've just returned from a thoroughly excellent dinner which I'll tell more about tomorrow. In the meantime, I'm re-reading my Gratitude List from 2008, all of which still applies (except for the part about DP being away), and wishing you all a very Happy Thanksgiving, or else an excellent Thursday, as the case may be.

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