Friday, October 31, 2008

Fishing lessons

I know I should cook more fish.

I hear often how good it is for you (Omega-3, lean protein, etc. etc.), but I have a little bit of a mental block about it. Even though my 40th birthday is lurking on a not-so distant horizon, I am still working on overcoming a deep-seated childhood loathing for fish. (If you add in the knowledge that I only had to eat it twice a year—Christmas Eve and Ash Wednesday—you might get an idea of how deep-seated.) Add to that a husband who’s not exactly a fish maniac himself (“I just don’t see the point”) and a four-year-old typically suspicious of novelty in food (“What’s that?!”) and you see my dilemma.

And that’s before we’ve even left the house. As far as I can tell, the general public seems to be getting completely contrary advice about fish from nutrition and environmental experts. On the one hand, government health agencies generally recommend eating one to two fish meals a week. (If we all start doing that, that’s a lot of fish.)

Meanwhile, environmentalists warn us that three-quarters of the world’s oceans have been fished to the point of collapse and that we have to be scrupulously careful about how much and what type of fish we buy.

What’s a concerned cook to do?

In my case, usually go two stalls down and buy some organic free-range chicken instead....But that’s wimpy, and I’m not prepared to throw in the towel just yet.

A few weeks ago I came across The Leather District Gourmet’s Teach a Man to Fish 2008 event. This event encourages people to seek out and prepare sustainable sources of seafood, then send in recipes and pictures to create a resource of ideas. I thought this would be the perfect opportunity for me to learn more about sustainable seafood in Australia, and I signed on to send in a suitable recipe by the end of October.

Then, in my usual fashion, I did no further research until the day before I actually had to go and buy some fish to cook, at which point I discovered that the Australian Marine Conservation Society’s Sustainable Seafood Guide was not, in fact, available on the internet as I had anticipated, but had to be ordered through the mail.


A Google scramble ensued (after I ordered the Guide), and I managed to find an article online about the Society which included two or three suggestions for sustainable seafood choices. I chose bream, mainly because they had it at the fishmonger’s, then got it home and realized I had been so focused on what fish to get, I hadn't really thought about how to prepare it. So I slathered it with some homemade pesto I had in the fridge, chopped up some lemons and added them, and broiled/grilled it for all of five minutes.

Then I remembered the real advantage of fish: it’s quick and easy to cook, and responds well to a variety of flavors. And yes, even this household of fish skeptics liked it.

Opportunistic Grilled Bream

1 teaspoon olive oil
250g/8oz bream fillets (because you don’t expect anyone, even you, to have seconds)
2-3 tablespoons pesto
1 lemon
Salt and pepper

Oil a baking sheet with the olive oil and lay the fish on it. Halve the lemon, and squeeze one half into the pesto. Slather each fillet with lemony pesto, then chop up the other half lemon into chunks and scatter over the fish. Season with salt and pepper. Slide under the grill for about five minutes (my fillets were about ½ inch thick). Serve immediately, with some starch you have made on purpose to sweeten the deal for your fellow diners (I made sautéed potatoes), and a green vegetable.

Serves 2 adults and 1 child.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Progress report

Recent activities have reminded me to post a brief update on the burning questions asked in my first post:

1. Season Five of The Office? Check. Just finished watching the 10/23 episode on my laptop.
2. Drama-free ice hockey? I'm still trying to find the rink. (Lack of transport and temps in the 70s/20s have knocked this item down the priority list.)
3. Playgroup sans LotF atmosphere? Research continues. (See lack of transport, above; at the moment it appears that all the other people who go to playgroups live somewhere else, far, far away.)
4. Secure source of avocadoes? Check: local supermarket. Grown in Australia, even. I made my second batch of guacamole for dinner (quesadillas) last night. I'm thinking about starting to hunt around for tomatillos, but I don't want to get cocky. Maybe I should get back to figuring out where the ice rink is instead.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Mystery meat

I am a fan of sausage. Yes, I know all the arguments against it. Yes, I read The Jungle when I was in college too. No, I wouldn’t eat one off a cart outside Fenway. (Anymore. I have been known to.) But none of that changes the fact that I like it. I have, ever since my palate was deemed mature enough to eat the “sweet” sausage that my mother’s Italian butcher Carlo made himself, bursting with pork and liberally sprinkled with finocchie. (Every time my mother ate it, she said the same thing -- “If this is the sweet sausage, I don’t want to taste the hot!” – while fanning herself.) Since everyone knows all the planks of the anti-sausage platform, I offer two pro positions:

1. Sausage is idiosyncratic. And adaptable.
Well into adulthood, I pretty much only ate Carlo’s sausage, spurning anything on offer at the supermarket and sampling only the occasional barbecue or Fenway pushcart offering. Then I moved to England, where at first I despaired of finding anything even remotely resembling Italian sausage. Especially after my first encounter with Cumberland sausage. Not that it wasn’t good—it was—but “spicy” or even “flavorful” were not the first words that came to mind.

But I underestimated the English love of all things sausage-related—after all, they eat so much sausage and potato that it’s a national dish and even has its own nickname (“bangers and mash”). I also misjudged the adventurousness of their palates, as I discovered the day I stumbled upon the shop in Oxford’s Covered Market devoted entirely to sausage: at least a dozen different varieties, using a huge range of ethnic cuisines as inspiration, including a number which I had never thought about in connection with sausage (Thai?). They even had more than one kind of Italian sausage! I sampled several, and settled on the one I liked best for my own, Italianized version of bangers and mash. Several years of sausage happiness ensued. Then we moved to Australia.

The first dinner I cooked after our arrival here, before we had even moved into our apartment, was bangers and mash. The hunt for Australian Italian sausage was on. No worries: I’ve only been here a month, and I’ve already found three different varieties. And not only are they different from each other, none of them is particularly similar to their English or American cousins. I’m sure their composition is influenced by all sorts of things, and I have no idea how authentic any of them are (I don’t think I’ve ever actually eaten a sausage in Italy), but as long as they taste good and use a seasoning palate that is my version of soul food, I’m buying.

2. Sausage is good value for money.
I can already hear you saying, “Yes, but that’s because it's full of garbage!” but in my experience, if you get your sausage from a good butcher, it is actually mostly full of meat, and with no more fat than, say, your average hamburger. Ounce for ounce (or gram for gram in my case), sausage is a good buy if you are looking to stretch your food budget, and if you buy more highly seasoned and flavorful varieties, you may find yourself eating less than you anticipated, which is financially and calorically beneficial. The last batch I bought, from a butcher, cost me about AUD$12.00 for six sausages (that's about USD$8.00/GBP5.00; I’m not sure how much they weighed, but some of them were pretty hefty). I cooked it all for dinner that night—bangers and mash, Italian style, plus a green vegetable, for three of us. There was enough sausage left over to make:

1. a batch of zesty tomato sauce with ground sausage for another dinner later in the week;
2. sausage-and-cheese panini for DP and me for lunch both days of the weekend;
3. two lunches of leftover pasta and sauce for Miss B; and
4. one more sandwich, for just me this time.

Thirteen person-meals from six sausages—sounds good to me. And they tasted good too.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Going native

In addition to trying to recreate my own little food comfort zone (see previous post), I am also taking the opportunity to try some of the characteristic foods of my new host country—one of the perks of international travel. And the Australian food item that I have heard the most rhapsodizing about, hands down, is Tim Tams.

I bet you thought I was going to say Vegemite, right? Well, I’ve heard plenty about Vegemite too, but not in quite the same strain of fulsome desire as Tim Tams. I mentally classify Vegemite with Marmite and peanut butter—sticky staple foods that are delicious and comforting to those who were brought up on them, but equally likely to taste disgusting to those who were not. I’ve never heard anyone longing for Vegemite on a chat show.

If my own experience is anything to go by, the staple foods are not what you really, really crave when you are far from home—not least because you can often track them down in specialty or expat shops, if you’re willing to pay the price. Or maybe find a reasonable local substitute. No, what I really miss abroad is junk food, which I have found is still pretty localized and idiosyncratic, the globalization of nearly everything notwithstanding. As a professed chowhound and whole foods wannabe, I’m embarrassed to admit that the food items I am most likely to request for myself, from visitors or senders of care packages, are Cheez-Its and SweeTarts. So I can completely understand, theoretically, why a full-grown Australian would confess to an international TV audience how much they missed a cookie. Even Americans have told me I had to try them. Anything that gets that much hype is a no-brainer to at least taste. I bought some as soon as I had room on my shopping list for a few non-essential items.

So what kind of cookie are Tim Tams, anyway? They are a cakey chocolate sandwich, with a layer of chocolate cream in the middle, and the whole thing is covered with a coating of chocolate. So, very chocolatey. Despite this, my verdict is only: pretty good. They're really a little sweet for me. I’ll finish the package, and maybe even buy them again, but I don’t think I’d pick them over my enduring favorite adopted cookie (from the UK), the dark chocolate covered HobNob.

Not that I’ll be mentioning that to any Australians. I think it might be grounds for deportation.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

In which I actually talk about food

When I came up with the idea for this blog, I had envisioned it being all about food since, frankly, that’s what I spend most of my time thinking about. (Hence the food reference in the blog name.) Also, “food blog” is a much more concise description than “weird information about my life in Australia blog”. But, whatever. Perhaps this will just be the blog that defies definition!

In any case, this entry will be the serendiptious topic that combines both. A big part of my self-orientation to Canberra has been scoping out what is available in terms of foodstuffs. As I’m sure most people do, I have developed a little list of foods that I cook regularly, and one of the challenges of my repeated international relocations has been finding the ingredients to make them in new places. When I lived in Oxford, I used to have a regular circuit of specialty shops I went to to get things like pancetta, Italian sausages, and especially Pecorino Romano cheese, which I infinitely prefer to the much-hyped (and much more readily available) Parmigiano Reggiano. (What can I say—it’s the way I was brought up. My people are peasants.) Pecorino Romano was so hard to come by in Oxford, in fact, that I used to have to go to a deli to get it; the cheese shop only carried it intermittently, and never seemed to notice when they were running out. So I knew it might be even more difficult to locate, this much farther from Italy.

Having already scoped out my local supermarket, and found several kinds of cheese labeled as ‘Pecorino’ (but not Pecorino Romano), I thought I would try the gourmet shop across the way, which seemed to have various items of cheese, meat, and other delicacies for sale. I figured at the very least they might have some good blue cheeses for DP, aka The Blue Cheese Fiend.

(Remember that cheese shop in Oxford I mentioned? I was so spoiled by that shop. Apart from the fact that they regularly failed me on the Pecorino Romano score, they were loaded down with fresh, delicious, authentic English, French, and Italian cheeses that were often priced comparable to or cheaper than the supermarket. The woman who managed it really knew her cheese, and introduced me to several new ones. It was definitely one of the perks of living so close to The Continent.)

Well. Back to the gourmet shop. I didn’t see any Pecorino Romano there. But maybe that’s because I was distracted—blinded even—by the price of Roquefort, as illustrated above.

Toto, I don’t think we’re in Europe anymore.
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