Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Australia Day



We’ve just had a holiday weekend in Australia, in celebration of Australia Day. Australia Day, for anyone who doesn’t already know, is kind of a cross between the 4th of July and Labor Day (US version). The 4th of July part is that Australia Day commemorates the arrival of the First Fleet on January 26, 1788 – in other words, the arrival of the first European immigrants, convicts and their guards from the British Isles. The Labor Day part is that Australia Day marks the official end of summer holidays in Australia and a return to business as usual; everyone goes back to school over the next week, and people who have been lazing at the coast since mid-December will return to regular office hours and business attire.

(Digression: I don’t really understand why January 26 was chosen as Australia Day, since it has little to do with the establishment of Australia as a political entity – certainly less, for example, than Federation Day (January 1, 1901) when Australia was officially federated as a country. It would be like the US choosing whatever day the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, or some similar event, rather than the day that we declared our intention to establish ourselves as a sovereign nation. And that’s before we even get into the feelings of Indigenous Australians about January 26, which cannot be characterized as positive in any way. So it seems like a lose-lose proposition, and I suspect its timing as the culmination of the summer holidays may weigh more heavily in its selection than its political or cultural significance. But what do I know? I’m just a Yank. 

End digression.)

In the tradition of three-day weekends everywhere I’ve lived, Australia Day provides an excuse for lots of social activity, and ours certainly did its job. We started on Friday night with a dinner party, where we met lots of new people. Miss B came along (babysitters are thin on the ground on holiday weekends) and stayed up scandalously late with a fellow grade schooler whose babysitter was also AWOL. Saturday DP disappeared for most of the day to drop in on some kind of wargaming convention with the male half of a group of family friends; Miss B and I met up with the female half for an extended kaffeeklatsch at Canberra’s most famous (and possibly only) chocolate shop. Sunday we hosted lunch for a group of DP’s colleagues, including a delightful and adorable seven-month-old; I made a variation of my now-standard summer Sunday lunch, throwing in a kale salad to provide sufficient nourishment for a vegetarian guest (and bolstering the tomato-and-avocado salad with some marinated feta).

Yesterday, to round things off, we went to a cookout hosted by friends with a pool who live on the other side of the lake. I packed swim stuff and a bottle of Prosecco, baked a batch of blondies (excuse me, fudgey choc chip slice), and we set off. I think we had all been subconsciously expecting that we would spend the afternoon hanging out with the hosting friends, and maybe one or two other people, and an unspoken ripple of dismay wafted through the car when we turned the corner onto their street and saw at least a dozen cars clustered outside their house, all belonging to people we were unlikely to know.

This is what happens when a family of introverts hits its collective wall of social engagement at the same time. But since we are all (reasonably) well behaved, we braced ourselves, went inside, and joined in. Miss B went swimming with a crowd of kids, we ate some tasty food, DP and I each had a couple of conversations with friends of our hosts (as well as some dedicated time with the hosts themselves, happily). After about 3 hours, we said our goodbyes and headed home. Once there, we scattered ourselves to the far corners of the house, and everyone fell asleep for an hour or so.

After all that, no one felt like an elaborate dinner last night, so I took the opportunity to combine creative re-purposing of leftovers with a DIY January project. We had roast beef sandwiches with aioli and mustard on toasted (homemade) white bread; leftover kale salad; and homemade potato chips. (Note: Miss B was having none of any of this, and ate leftover pizza and chopped cucumbers instead.)

DIY salt and pepper potato chips
I used the cold oil method for these, and they are as kick-ass as the fries I made a couple of weeks ago. They are just enough work to make you appreciate how much better homemade potato chips are than storebought ones, without being a total PITA.

2 small potatoes per person (probably one regular-sized per person would be enough, but those in my current bag are not much bigger than golf balls)
canola or other neutrally flavored oil for frying
salt and pepper

Scrub the potatoes, remove any sprouts, eyes, or other unsightly bits, and cut into very thin slices using a mandolin. (As usual, I did not peel my potatoes, but whether or not you do is up to you. Also, of course you can use a knife, but the mandolin makes the slices all the same thickness, so they cook at the same rate – a desirable feature when frying.)

Line a baking sheet with brown paper and set aside.

Place potatoes in cooking vessel of choice (see here for information about choosing an appropriate vessel for this recipe) and cover with oil.

Put the pan over low-medium heat and cover pan with a splatter screen if you have one (or about halfway with the pot lid if you don’t). Keep an eye on the pan as the oil heats, stirring the chips occasionally to make sure they’re not sticking.

When the oil starts to boil, stir the chips again and check the heat setting to make sure the boil is maintained consistently without a) dying off or b) overflowing and starting a fire. Continue stirring chips every few minutes as they cook; once they start boiling, they should take 10-15 minutes to fry. Once they are consistently a light-golden brown, they are done.

Turn off the heat. Once the oil settles down, use a slotted spoon or similar to scoop cooked chips out of the oil and onto the paper-lined baking tray.

Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Consume immediately.

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