Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Year end

I'm sitting in a hotel room somewhere in eastern Victoria, on the south coast of Australia. In the dark, so I don't wake Miss B up. With the world's slowest internet connection, so I can't even look up the name of the town we're in. Which I can't remember after the bottle of pinot noir my sister and I polished off at dinner. Also I seriously doubt I'll be able to upload a photo (see: slow internet connection).

BUT. I couldn't let 2008 end without one last post to say Happy New Year to all! I don't think I'll make it even close to midnight, but I wish you the New Year's Eve of your dreams (whether that's whooping it up on the town until the wee hours, or tucked up in bed at 10pm), and all sorts of good things in 2009.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Happy Holidays

Wherever you are in the world, and whatever you're celebrating--Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, Boxing Day, Festivus--I wish you and yours the very happiest of holidays!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Avocado challenge

Since I announced the Cookbook Challenge three weeks ago, I thought it was about time that I posted about what kind of progress I've been making.

The cookbook Real Fast Food (350 Recipes Ready-To-Eat in 30 Minutes) by Nigel Slater

I had an unexpectedly difficult time finding five recipes from this book that I wanted to make and that I thought at least DP, if not DP and Miss B, would want to eat.

The first recipe Avocado with Warm Bacon Vinaigrette

The ingredients
2 pieces of streaky/American bacon
2 tomatoes (skinned if you have time) and diced*
3 T red wine vinegar**
50 ml/2 oz olive oil**
2 T Dijon mustard
2 ripe avocadoes***

Cut the bacon into 1-inch pieces and fry. When it has crisped up, throw in the tomatoes, the vinegar and the olive oil. Stir in the mustard and stir to heat and combine.

Halve, stone and peel the avocadoes, place two halves on each plate and slice into thick wedges.**** Pour over the dressing and serve hot.

*I only had cherry tomatoes, so I substituted about 5 for each tomato. I did not skin them.

**I had homemade vinaigrette in the fridge, so I substituted that.

***I only used one avocado. But I made the same amount of dressing as suggested for two.

****I didn't peel or slice the avocado, just halved it and poured the dressing over. Very retro.

The presentation I served this as a side to steak sandwiches with blue cheese sauce on homemade rolls. We also had oven chips.

The verdict Miss B was vehemently uninterested in this entire meal (which I had expected), and had leftover pasta and broccoli instead. I figured I could sell DP on this, since it contains one of the ‘magic’ ingredients (the other one is cream) guaranteed to pique his interest in a new dish, and I was right. He liked it, but didn’t rave about it. I liked it in and of itself, but with the other dishes it made for a lot of different--and not necessarily harmonious--flavors. I’d probably make it again, but next time I think I'll have it for lunch and enjoy it on its own, with maybe just some good bread. It's very filling. Also, next time, I’ll stick to the recommended proportions of dressing and avocado. There was a lot of dressing.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Bright lights

Canberra isn’t really a city. It’s very nice: lots of greenspace, plenty of good shops and restaurants, well planned and mellow. It’s also the capital of Australia, so a lot of things that are important to the country happen here. It has a population of about 400,000 people. But despite all that, it doesn’t feel like a city to me. More like a big town.

We went to Sydney this past weekend. Sydney is a city. Skyscrapers, trains, traffic, energy--and possibly the nicest city harbor going. (Just seeing the ocean might have been the highlight of my trip.)

This was my second visit, and confirmed the favorable impressions I remembered from my first trip six years ago. We had fantastic weather, wandered past some of the more famous sights, caught up with some friends, and ate a lot of good food.

We drove up on Saturday morning, reveling in the fact that we were on a road trip to Sydney. The trip took about 3½ hours, including one stop, and we arrived in mid-afternoon. We dumped our bags at the hotel and headed off to see friends in Balmain. The kids built a giant train track on the living room floor, and we drank champagne and shared news. They cooked us dinner: roast pork on the barbie (of course!); scalloped potatoes; Croatian cole slaw (the method for which I attempted to memorize after I don’t know how many glasses of wine); salad; lots more wine. Dessert was a passionfruit cream sponge from their local bakery that I might be able to replicate with the right tools and about six months of patisserie training.

Sunday morning we headed off to find a likely breakfast spot. On our first visit, we had stayed in Camperdown, near the University of Sydney because I needed to be there for work, and had liked the neighborhood so much that DP booked us in there again. So we knew if we headed towards King Street we’d come across something good, and it took us about five minutes to find a place called HoochieMamma’s Café, with tables on the sidewalk and inviting smells wafting out. We had no trouble getting a table (a four-year-old in tow means eating breakfast a lot earlier than most university students) and not long to wait before generous plates of food appeared: a full traditional cooked breakfast for DP, ricotta hotcakes for Miss B, and Eggs Benedict (on French bread instead of English muffins) for me. The keeper recipe from this meal was the ricotta hotcakes: more chunky and substantial than regular pancakes, but still fluffy and delicious. They were served with butterscotch sauce, but I think I’ll try them at home with Miss B’s favorite blueberry maple syrup.

After breakfast we found a parking space (free! all day!) for the rental car, and then it was off to Newtown station so Miss B could commune with her beloved trains on a ride into downtown. (No trains in Canberra, which is a sad deprivation for my little trainspotter, whose favorite afternoon activity in Oxford was standing on Hinksey railway bridge, waving at anything on rails.) We got off at Circular Quay so we could goggle at Sydney Harbor Bridge and the Opera House (one of the most amazing buildings ever), then walked across the Botanical Gardens to meet my friend L. and her family for a picnic.

L. and I became friends when we shared an office in Oxford, and she was a huge source of help, support, and information to me during Miss B’s bumpy start. I had only seen her once since she left the UK 3 years ago to return to Sydney, shortly after Miss B came home. It was great to see her and her husband and kids (who of course are now gigantic), and they had brought a delicious antipasto spread, complete with chilled wine and featuring an enormous pile of king prawns (aka jumbo shrimp--an Australian Christmas tradition, apparently). They even had finger bowls for cleaning up after peeling off the shells! We stretched out on the grass overlooking the harbor, eating prawns and other goodies and chatting to our hearts’ content, while the kids devoured all the chips and dip, between bouts of playing ball and crashing the wedding taking place down the hill. We enjoyed ourselves until mid-afternoon, when real life resumed and we went our separate ways, they to a Christmas party and we to get on the road home.

It was a great weekend, and a reminder of all the benefits of a sojourn abroad. Most of the time, for me, no matter where I’ve lived, daily life is pretty much the same: parenting, work, running a household, lots and lots of cooking. Most of the differences I notice are negative: things I can't find at the supermarket, vagaries of utility companies. But every so often, I get a day or an experience, special and memorable and particular to its time and place, that reminds me: this is why I wanted to come to Australia.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

New tricks

Maybe this has happened to you too.

You’re meandering through the supermarket’s produce section, picking up the same old items on your shopping list, when suddenly you notice something you’ve never paid attention to before. Despite the fact that you’ve been ignoring this particular food item for years, you’re suddenly drawn to it.

So you walk over and peer at the mangoes. They look a little like oversized, swollen pears, with smooth yellowy-orangey-greeny skin. You pick one up; it feels heavy and a bit soft in your hand. It must be ripe, you think. It even has bit of juice leaking out of one end, so it must be ripe. You’re not really sure though, because you don’t know anything about mangoes.

You’ve read people on the internet for years, rhapsodizing about mangoes: how sweet and juicy they are; how you should eat them in the bath because they’re so messily delicious; how they’re the perfect dessert, all by themselves; how the ones available in Pacific Rim countries are so superior to any other kind. But you’ve never actually eaten one. Mango chutney by the gallon in Indian restaurants—yes. Raw, unadulterated mango—no.

Well, here you are in a Pacific Rim country. You should try a mango.

You buy one, take it home, slice off a chunk and eat it.

You do not experience food ecstasy. In fact, your first reaction is, “Is it supposed to taste like that?”

This is not a question you can ask just anyone. Luckily, before too long you have a phone chat with your very good friend S., with whom you can (and do) talk to about just about anything. In this conversation alone, you range from new ways of dissing people electronically to flawed reporting of adverse events in clinical trials, with extensive forays into books, movies, and food.

In the course of the food discussion, you get onto mangoes and mention your recent taste experiment, without offering any opinions. S., as always, puts her finger on it. “I don’t know, I’m not sure I like mangoes,” she says hesitantly. “They taste kind of…chemically?”

Exactly the word you’ve been looking for. Apparently they are supposed to taste that way. So, is it you, or is it them? Do you have some kind of genetic taste issue, like those unfortunate people who think cilantro tastes like soap?

You aren’t quite ready to give up yet, though. Perhaps further research is indicated. You noticed a different variety of mangoes yesterday, bigger and more orange than the one you tried. Maybe you should try those?

Maybe the nice people who read this on your blog will have some suggestions?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Citrus facts

Have you ever noticed how, in some cuisines (Italian, Greek, Moroccan), the citrus fruit used to flavor the food is generally lemons, while in others (Thai, Mexican, Vietnamese), it's limes?

Have you ever wondered why?

(If you haven't, don't tell me. Let me cling to my illusions that I'm not the only person who thinks about these things.)

Well, I found out why recently. It's because lemons traditionally grow best in Mediterranean and subtropical climates, while limes can flourish in hotter, tropical areas.

Of course, I can't now remember where I read this, so I haven't been able to verify it (other than on Wikipedia, which doesn't really count), but it makes sense to me and I'm sticking with it.

This nugget of useless food information presented to liven up your Monday by Roving Lemon's Big Adventure.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Pastry breakthrough

Every year on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, my mother, my sisters (including me, when I’m in town), and my nieces get together for what is known in my family, simply, as Pie Day. Pie Day consists of making somewhere between one and two dozen apple pies for distribution among members of the immediate and extended family, plus enough to provide dessert for everyone that shows up to Thanksgiving dinner (our record for attendance currently stands at 26).

The ingredients for this baking extravaganza are suitably gargantuan: bushels of apples, pounds of flour. My mother makes the piecrust by hand in an enamel washtub easily two feet across. She uses a pastry cutter and a knife until it "feels right." Since I became an adult, I’ve helped her with this job, mainly by trying to simplify the quantities used when you multiply a standard pie crust recipe by 14, 16, or 18. I’ve also learned how to roll out piecrust and fill pies, and I started making my own pies at least 12 years ago.

Despite being an enthusiastic baker, one thing I never felt I had learned to my satisfaction was when piecrust "feels right." At least once a year, I would make pies on my own, and every time was a festival of anxiety, frequently combined with uncooperative dough. First I followed my mother’s recipe faithfully, and then experimented with others. I tried grating the butter, freezing the flour, pulsing the two in a Cuisinart for exactly 10 seconds. Nothing gave me what was promised: pastry dough that I could roll out easily that would taste flaky and delicious.

Then, last December, an online friend posted a recipe for pâte brisée in a cooking discussion group we were both part of, with a comment about how easy it was and clear, explicit directions. I didn’t have time to use it then—I was preparing for an intercontinental move—but the knowledge of it lodged in a crevice in my brain. You know how that is: you can’t remember why you walked into the kitchen, but you know there’s that recipe that you. need. to. print. out.

Last Wednesday, in preparation for Thanksgiving, it was time for my own little Pie Day (or Turnover Day) and I knew just what piecrust recipe I was going to try. And it was just as easy and worked just as well as the directions promised it would. I was so happy I was practically floating around the kitchen. Normally, after I get the piecrust safely made, rolled out, and baked, I breathe a sigh of relief and don’t want to go near the stuff for a good few months. Not this time. I was so thrilled by this recipe that I found myself making another batch today, just because I wanted some more turnovers.

So, whether you're a pastryphobe like me, or you just like your pie, try this recipe. The best part is that it tastes just the way good piecrust should: tender, buttery, flaky and delicious.

Anxiety-free pâte brisée

My friend V learned this recipe and method from a local caterer, Ariadne Clifton, who deserves all the baking props that I have to give!

cup and spoon measures
a small sharpish knife
a Cuisinart*
a fridge
plastic wrap

2 C all-purpose unbleached flour
12 T (1.5 sticks) unsalted butter, frozen**
2 T solid shortening, e.g. Crisco
healthy pinch of salt
[optional additions: 1 T sugar for sweetness (formally, this is called pâte sucré); 1 T cornmeal for crunch; maybe some cinnamon or allspice if your pie filling would be complemented by such flavors; ground nuts can be added at this stage. Obviously, don't do all these optional ingredients at once.]
1/4 C very cold but not iced-over water (I included 1 tsp cider vinegar in this)

"Mix 1 C of the flour, the salt, and the optional ingredients in the Cuisinart. Use the sharp knife to cut the frozen butter into small chunks directly into the Cuisinart, and pulse to chop it up as you go. Add in the Crisco, pulse a couple more times, and then add the second cup of flour and pulse till it's all mixy. (You'll see this in cookbooks as the 'small pea' stage, meaning the chunks of butter are very small and thoroughly mixed into the flour. I find that it looks more like rough-grade sand than like small peas, but what the hell do I know.)

"Now comes the cool part: dribble your cold water*** into the Cuisinart, and hold down the ON button. The dough will twirl and twirl and then suddenly cohere and ball itself up. Stop the Cuisinart immediately.

"Remove the ball, split it in two, and wrap each of the two balls in plastic wrap. Try not to capture any bubbles of air. These two wrapped balls go into the fridge, and must rest there for at least 30 minutes. If you can give them an hour, that's better. If you can't continue within 24 hours, go ahead and freeze the balls; they freeze just fine, and just remember to thaw them in the fridge before working them."

Makes enough for one standard two-crust pie, or eight turnovers.

*V mentions a by-hand substitute, but I think the key for me was seeing how the dough came together in the Cuisinart.

**Also key, in my opinion, for keeping the dough at the right temperature.

***I needed to add quite a bit more water than this to make the dough ball up as V describes. That's how you know the dough is ready, no matter how much liquid it takes. Just go carefully.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Cookbook Challenge

How many cookbooks do you own?

How many of them do you really use? How many have you cooked more than one recipe from? More than five? Double digits?

Full disclosure: I am a recipe junkie.* I have at least 50 cookbooks sitting in my apartment here in Canberra, and easily that number again back in Boston. And that’s not counting back issues of cooking magazines and clippings from newspapers. Not to mention printouts and downloads and bookmarks of dozens and dozens of internet sites and recipes.

And I keep looking for more. I’m reading at least five food blogs on an ongoing basis, taking cookbooks out of the library, and visiting new release cookbooks in the bookstore to debate about putting them on my Christmas list.

And yet, when it comes time to cook dinner, what are the chances I’m going to make something I’ve never made before? Am I using this treasure trove of culinary knowledge that’s at my fingertips?

Not enough. And that’s why I came up with the Cookbook Challenge for myself. I thought other people might be interested too. Here’s how it works:

1. Count up the number of cookbooks you have. (Include magazines, clipping binders, electronic folders—whatever you’ve got that you want to explore further.)
2. When you’ve got a total, pick a number between one and, say, 50. (Better yet, if you can, have someone else do it for you, to ensure that it’s really random.)
3. Count through your cookbooks until you get to that number, and pull out the randomly selected cookbook, magazine, folder, etc. (You could also pull names out of a hat, but this is quicker.)
4. Commit to cooking at least one new recipe from that resource in the next month. Five, if you want to really challenge yourself.
5. Tell about what you discovered—send me an email, post about it yourself, comment here (I'll report back on what I found). Did you discover a new favorite? Or is this cookbook just a pretty face with nothing in it you can see yourself cooking?

That’s all you have to do, between now and December 31. I know this is a pretty busy month for most people, but you’ve still got to eat, right? And you never know, you just might find a new holiday favorite!

*I think it could be a family problem….Miss B talked me into buying the cookbook in the picture, and then I caught Jasper the Shark reading it….
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