Friday, February 27, 2009

Hot enough?

When you live in a place where temperatures of 40C (104F) are a regular occurrence, and temperatures of 45C (113F) and higher are not unheard of, you need to find ways of keeping yourself cool -- and your perishable food items as well, when you're out and about. As we come to the end of February, and hopefully the end of the sweltering season, I offer some Australian slang useful for keeping your goodies cool when the sun gets hot.

Esky: an insulated container used to hold ice or icepacks and keep food and beverages cold on picnics, at barbecues, the beach, etc. Known in the UK as a coolbox/coolbag and in the US as a cooler.

Usage: "If you hadn't put so much beer in the esky, we might have been able to pack a few more sandwiches."

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Oink oink

I mentioned that we brought a picnic to our Aussie football outing on Sunday. Nothing major, since it wasn't at a mealtime, but I wanted to bring some substantial finger food. I came up with this, knowing how Australians share my fondness for sausage (affectionately referred to here as "snags"). The main bit is roughly based upon a recipe from Nigella Lawson’s Nigella Bites, and the dipping sauce is my own inspiration/insanity.

Maiali in coperte (Pigs in Blankets, Italian style) with salsa pazzesco

4 Italian-style sausages

375 g/11 oz flour
2 tsp baking powder
pinch salt
25 g/1 oz grated pecorino romano or parmigiano reggiano cheese*
250 ml/10 oz milk
1 egg
3 tbsp olive oil

Blanket glaze
1 egg, beaten lightly with
splash milk and
pinch salt

Dipping sauce
75 g/3 oz ketchup**
handful basil leaves
2 cloves roasted garlic
splash Tabasco sauce

1. Roast the sausages and let cool.

2. Whisk together the dry blanket ingredients, then beat in the wet ingredients. Stir together with a fork to make a scone-like dough just dry enough to roll out. Line a baking sheet with parchment and preheat the oven to 220C/425F.

3. Roll out dough, using plenty of flour. Cut four pieces about the right size to wrap around your sausages. (You are probably going to have extra dough—mine became cheesy scones for Monday night's dinner.)

4. Wrap sausages snugly in dough, and place seam-side down on baking sheet.

5. Brush blanket dough with glaze.

6. Cook pigs in blankets for about 15 minutes, or until dough is puffy and golden.

7. While pigs are cooking, dump all dipping sauce ingredients in a food processor and puree.

8. Allow pigs to cool, then slice into bite-sized pieces. Serve warm or at room temperature.

* Next time I would use more cheese. This amount didn't pack enough cheesy punch. Also maybe some mustard powder to give even more oomph.
** I figured, people make sauces out of jazzed-up mayonnaise all the time. Why not jazzed-up ketchup?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Aussie rules

This weekend brought us another typical Australian experience, mercifully much more enjoyable and less disgusting than the last one. On Sunday we went with friends to an Australian Football League (AFL) match.

Anyone who has cable or satellite in the northern hemisphere has probably caught at least a glimpse of an AFL match—more commonly known to non-Australians as ‘Australian Rules Football’—a mob of fit guys in short shorts and sleeveless tops, running around a grass pitch in what appears to be barely controlled chaos, in pursuit of what looks like a cross between a rugby ball and an American football. The pace is fast and furious, and any rules the game might have are not immediately apparent.

This is more or less what it’s like when you’re there in person too, except that yesterday we got to soak up some late-summer sunshine (it was a preseason match; the real season runs through the southern autumn and winter) and learn a few useful facts from our Australian companions who actually know and understand the game.

So here, for your edification and entertainment, I present…

Eight Fun Facts about Australian Football
1. AFL matches are played in ‘ovals’—grounds that double (and probably originated) as cricket pitches.

2. Each team has 18 players on the field at any time, hence the 'mob' aspect.

3. Australian football includes elements of rugby (lateral passing), soccer (sideline throw-ins), and basketball (jump balls). However, the sport it most closely resembles is Gaelic football, so much so that the AFL and the GAA play internationals, with slight adjustments to the rules.

4. Australian football originated in the state of Victoria, and more than half of the AFL’s teams are still based there, most of them in greater Melbourne. I find it amazing that a city of four million people can support 10 professional teams in one sport. Compare it to greater New York City, which is more than four times the size and supports nine major sports teams: two professional football teams, three ice hockey teams, two baseball teams and two basketball teams.

5. Teams score points by kicking the ball through goal posts at opposite ends of the field. Each set has four posts, and the number of points you get is determined by whether you get the ball between the middle two or between an end and a middle.

6. Many AFL players can kick a ball accurately from well over 50 meters/yards. There are at least two former AFL players currently place-kicking in the NFL.

7. When the match is over, they let the spectators play ball on the field, or at least they do at Manuka Oval.

8. A few ovals still have a grass-hill general admission area, where you can romp around, meet up with your friends, and bring a picnic. That’s what we did...more on that later.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Nature. Eeeeew.

Last night DP and I had a typically Australian experience. Or, perhaps more accurately, a typical clueless-expats-in-Australia experience.

To set the scene: we had all gotten back a bit late (ie after dark) from dinner with a work friend of DP’s and her partner. We came home, flipped on a few necessary lights, and began bustling between the bedrooms and bathroom to get Miss B ready for bed. When Miss B was bathed and in her pajamas, DP handed her off to me to help her brush her teeth and hair while he did a couple of other things, among which was to turn on some more lights in the living room.

Suddenly I heard a strangled voice from outside the bathroom door say, “Come out here. Now. Please.”

I walked into the living room to find DP staring fixedly at the TV set. Not another natural disaster? No, wait, he’s not staring at the TV set. He’s staring at the HUMONGOUS spider on the wall behind the TV set.

(I should mention here that DP, generally among the most fearless people I know, is a major-league arachnaphobic. Weenie Boston spiders are enough to make him hyperventilate, and the occasional jumbo spiders we used to see in England (jumbo by English standards—say, about 1.5 inches including legspan) practically gave him heart failure.

Thus, disposing of spiders is traditionally my job.)

People, this thing was easily 4 inches from leg-tip to leg-tip. Its body alone was well over an inch long. If I hadn’t known better, I would have said it was a skinny tarantula. However, I had been forewarned by our friend and landlord G. that we could expect to see Huntsman spiders around the place from time to time: brown, hairy, and horrifying. BUT: unlike most Australian spiders, harmless. Huge, but harmless.

But huge.

DP evaporated as soon as I entered the living room, ostensibly to read to Miss B and put her in bed. I stood there and stared at our uninvited guest, trying to figure out how I was going to get rid of it. You can’t exactly squash a four-inch spider with a tissue; for one thing, that would involve getting close to it. I was pretty sure G. had left some insecticide under the sink, but I couldn’t bear the thought of watching its chemically-induced death throes. In fact, I wasn’t sure I could kill it at all; any critter that big practically qualifies as an animal.

I considered knocking it into a shoe box, slamming on the lid, running out on to the porch and flinging it into the night; but again, too close. When DP returned to the living room, I had put a bucket on the floor underneath it and was standing there with a broom, nerving myself to knock it off the wall and into the bucket…hoping it would actually land there….

DP sussed what I was up to immediately. “That is NOT going to work,” he said categorically. “Give me that broom.”

And, taking a deep breath and conquering his most visceral fears, he stepped up into classic batting stance, and swung the broom with all his might.

I won’t go into any further gory detail except to say that that sucker took a lot of killing. When it was over, I disposed of the remains using an empty spaghetti box.

You may have guessed that I won’t be posting a recipe today. I’m kind of off my food at the moment.

Oh, and I haven’t posted a picture of the critter either (unless there’s one lurking in that gum tree). If you really want to see it in all its hairy majesty, follow the link above.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Two ingredients

Is it just me, or everything really complicated lately?

Maybe it is just me. Maybe it’s a by-product of still adjusting to life in a new place. That is one of the occupational hazards of international relocation: tasks that you can normally do half-asleep are suddenly a hugely challenging undertaking. But I feel like that’s leaking over into everything at the moment.

Here, I’ll give you an example of what I’m talking about: this morning, I decided to tackle the pile of random stuff on the corner of my desk. I figured I’d clear it off, make some room, and feel all accomplished.

I picked up the piece of paper on top of the pile. It was a Google Map showing the way to the house where we went for dinner on Sunday night, including the full address. The address was why it was in the pile in the first place. So, I recorded the address in my address book for future reference. Then I got out a card and wrote a thank-you note to the people who hosted us (along the way dithering over whether I should take a guess at how to spell the wife’s unusual first name, or wimp out and say ‘Dear all’—guess which one I did?), put it in an envelope, addressed and stamped it, and stuck it in my bag to mail later. Then, and only then, did I recycle the paper.

One piece of paper: ten minutes. No wonder my To Do list never seems to get any shorter.

Maybe that’s why I prefer to cook simple food most of the time. I’m overcome by exhaustion when I see one of those recipes where you have to have made demi-glace 48 hours before when you want to eat the finished dish. I get enough of that in other areas of life. The following recipe is not one of those.

Chocolate-Covered Almonds
This is my first attempt at candy-making of any kind. I brought some (along with a bottle of wine) to our Sunday dinner engagement. I got the idea from A Year of Crockpotting’s Rocky Road Candy, but even that had too many ingredients, so I just used Stephanie's method for melting the chocolate in the slow cooker and then went with my own inclinations.

- some quantity of chocolate of your choice (the original recipe used a 12-ounce bag of Nestle’s morsels; I used a 375g bag of dark baking chocolate disks, which was a lot of chocolate, but since they had started to melt together in our recent extreme heat I didn’t have much choice)
- whole almonds (I didn’t really measure these, but probably 1.5 cups or more for the quantity of chocolate above)

1. Turn the slow cooker on low and throw the chocolate in. Cover and leave for 30 minutes, then check and stir. (My chocolate took the better part of an hour to melt fully, but with the slow cooker you don’t have to worry about it sticking and burning.)

2. Line a couple of baking sheets with parchment paper.

3. When the chocolate is fully melted, turn the slow cooker off and remove the lid. (Stephanie recommends removing the insert from the heat source altogether, but I still had a few rogue lumps, so I shut it off but left the insert in the unit. No problems with almonds, but could be tricky if you were using meltable add-ins like marshmallows.)

4. Throw the almonds in and stir until everything is evenly mixed. (This is why I didn’t really measure; I started with a cup of almonds and then just kept adding more until the chocolate:almond ratio looked good to me. I don’t think you can really get this part wrong.)

5. Using two spoons, scoop out bite-sized lumps of the chocolate/almond mixture and space on the trays, attempting to shape neatly and attractively as you go. (If you’re a serious perfectionist/masochist, you could either dip the almonds individually or try to remove them from the slow cooker one at a time. The very idea of doing either made me want to weep.)

6. Put the trays in the fridge for 20-30 minutes to harden.

7. Try to keep your preschooler from eating her own body weight in these before you even get out of the house. Wonder since when she’s liked dark chocolate? And nuts?

Yield: about 45 1-inch candies

Monday, February 16, 2009

Road trip

We haven’t gotten around to buying a car yet, because a) we’re lazy and b) our garage door is jammed shut and until we figure out how to get it open, we have no place to put a car anyway.

It’s not really a pressing need yet; DP’s work, Miss B’s school, and the city center are all within walking distance, so anything we need on a daily basis, we can get on foot. There’s also a decent city bus service in the event we want to go further afield. We never owned a car during our two stints in the UK, so this is more normal than not for us.

Among the things that are within walking distance is a car-rental office, so we’ve been renting a car once a month or so, and using it for whatever we might need a car for. This weekend we had a Sunday evening dinner invitation in a suburb about 11k from us, so we rented a car for the weekend and did a few other things too. We didn’t have much planned for Saturday, so we decided to take a road trip to nowhere.

One of the favorable things I’ve discovered about Australia is that you generally don’t have to resort to fast-food chains when you’re on a road trip. We’ve taken several now, and more than once have picked a random town off the map to stop at lunchtime. Every time, we’ve found a nice café or restaurant with decent, if not downright delicious, fresh food made on the premises and reasonably priced. On Saturday, we ended up in Boorawa, which seemed to be having a sleepy Saturday; but even so, we noticed that the bakery café was doing a brisk business and wandered in. We ordered sandwiches—nothing fancy: ham & cheese for DP; chicken for me (I had packed a lunch for Miss B)—a plate of chips (which turned out to be HUGE), and a drink. The whole thing cost us about AUD$12.00 (USD$8.00/GBP5.50). Probably cheaper than a trip to the Golden Arches, now that I think about it.

Plus, we made a new friend—see picture.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Groovy baby

Back when I was an adolescent in a section of Boston renowned for being ‘tough’, ‘working-class’, and other evocative adjectives beloved by journalists trying to describe the New Kids on the Block, we experienced an influx of people not from the neighborhood—not even from Boston, in most cases. Attracted by spacious, wood-frame houses (in various states of repair) selling at reasonable rates, quiet, tree-lined streets, and easy access to downtown Boston on the T, they were a bit of a phenomenon in our townie part of the world. They weren’t yuppies, exactly; for one thing, they didn’t have enough money to fit the profile, because most of them were politically left and did socially progressive work—printing presses run as collectives, non-profit organizations, social work of various kinds. They had young families and enough of them shortly arrived in a six-block radius to provide my sister and me with a thriving babysitting business.

The only drawback to this arrangement was that our clients, in addition to their esoteric politics, also had purist ideas about food: no chips or cookies, no soft drinks; no refined sugar or fat—in short, no junk food or goodies of any kind. I was used to this, since my mother had the same policy, for totally different, old-school reasons, but when you’re babysitting you expect a few treats to alleviate the tedium. The parents always generously told me to “eat whatever I wanted,” but, despite a thorough scan of the fridge, the pantry, and the cabinets, there was hardly ever anything I recognized, let alone was tempted to eat.

The kitchens were always full of various whole-grain products, and from this came the nickname that we townie twerps used to refer to them collectively—“crunchy granolas”—our shorthand for the latter-day hippies suddenly in our midst. To this day, that’s what I think of whenever I hear the word granola which, to be honest, I had eaten very little of until recently. I had sampled it at various times, but always found it too sweet or too full of bizarre ingredients to compel me to eat it again.

Then, this summer, at my sister-in-law’s wedding weekend in western Massachusetts, I sampled some homemade granola that my sister-in-law’s aunt-in-law had brought along from upstate New York, by request (or was it demand?) of her kids, nieces and nephews. I couldn’t stop eating it, and asked her for the recipe 15 minutes after I ate my first handful (right after I physically separated myself from the bag). She’s been making it for so long that she gave me the recipe off the top of her head, and I’ve already made enough batches of it that I can easily see how that could happen.

Aunt Sue’s Groovy Granola
I was given this recipe with conventional baking instructions (which I’ve included), but I’ve only made this in my slow cooker, because then I don’t have to worry so much about it burning. Also, as you’ll see, I’ve messed with the recipe considerably, and yet strangely, somehow, it’s still just as good as what I originally ate. And easy besides.

3 cups oats
1 cup spelt flour (or whole wheat)*
Couple of pinches salt
1 t cinnamon
½ cup chopped almonds
¼ cup sesame seeds
¼ cup sunflower seeds**
¼ cup pumpkin seeds**
⅔ cup sunflower oil***
⅔ cup maple syrup
1 t vanilla extract
1 t almond extract****

Mix all together and bake at 165C/325F for 35 minutes, or slow cook on low for 3-4 hours.

* I haven’t found any spelt flour yet, so I’ve just been using whatever I have.
** I haven’t gotten around to buying either of these yet, so I’ve been substituting coconut and chopped dried cranberries (adding the latter after cooking).
*** I use light olive oil.
**** I haven’t gotten around to buying this either, so I just add a little more vanilla.

Update, Feb. 15: I've just learned that Aunt Sue was among the 49 people on Flight 3407, which crashed outside Buffalo, NY on Thursday, Feb. 12. My condolences go to her children, siblings, and extended family and friends. I only met her once, but I'm glad I had that opportunity; I'll remember her generosity and vibrancy every time I make this recipe.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Slow learning

[In case anyone is still wondering: no, we in Canberra have not been affected by the recent bushfires, for which we are very grateful. Please spare a thought—and maybe a few bob or bucks—for the people of Victoria after last weekend’s terrible events.]

And now to return to our regularly scheduled nattering…

I love my slow cooker, and always feel as though I want to be using it more than I am. So when I came across A Year of Crockpotting a few months ago, I squealed with joy and promptly started working my way through the archives from January 1. If you’re not familiar with it, the blog arose when Stephanie, the author, made a commitment to using her slow cooker every day of 2008. She did it, too, and along the way used her slow cooker in ways heretofore unimagined, at least by me.

I’ve bookmarked dozens of recipes, most of which I have yet to try. But in the course of my reading, I did absorb two important concepts about using the slow cooker:

1. It’s a good tool for cooking things that are likely to burn in the oven.

2. It’s a good substitute for the oven when you don’t want to turn the oven on—the obvious reason being that you don’t want to leave the oven on in an empty house, and the less immediately apparent reason being that it’s too #@!$%?& hot to turn the oven on in the first place.

With these two ideas in mind, I’ve been doing some experimenting over the last few weeks, when the temperature has consistently been hovering in the high 30s C (around 100F). I’ve made:

- Baked potatoes
- Croutons
- Roasted tomatoes
- Granola
- Pizza sauce
- Chicken stock
- Roasted zucchini
- Bacon

My favorite so far, though, has been a slow-cooker version of this roasted rhubarb recipe, taken to another level with the addition of fresh sliced peaches during the last hour of cooking. Mixed into a bowl of Greek yogurt, with a generous fistful of (slow-cooked) homemade granola sprinkled over the top, it provided a transcendental breakfast every day for a week. Which is really saying something when it’s so hot that even I don’t feel like eating.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Allium conundrum

Q: What would you call those green things in the bowl?

a. Scallions
b. Spring onions
c. Shallots

A: It's a trick question: they're all correct. It just depends on where you are. In the US they're scallions, in the UK they're spring onions, and in Australia they're shallots. How's that for confusing?

I even tried growing some in my container garden so I wouldn't have to remember what they're called when I go to the supermarket, but they fried in the sun as soon as they popped out of the dirt.

This is the first food item I've found that has a different name in each of the three countries, but I'm keeping my eye out for more.

Oh, and whatever you call them, my photography/cooking assistant, seen here straying into shot, has given them the Miss B Thumbs Down: "too spicy!"

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Rocking politics

I heard Peter Garrett on the radio this morning. He’s the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts in Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Labor Government. He was talking about a government funding program to give people money to insulate their houses. It’s part of the Australian government’s economic stimulus package, and an environmental initiative as well (because if your house is insulated, you won’t use as much energy heating or cooling it).

That’s Peter Garrett, former lead singer of Midnight Oil. One of my favorite bands of the '90s.

Okay, I know that we had Sonny Bono in the US House of Representatives, and before that we had Fred Grandy, better known to most people as 'Gopher' from The Love Boat. Plus that guy who ran for President—Fred Thompson? And probably a few more besides—not forgetting Ronald Reagan, who before he was Governor of California and President was the star of such cinematic masterpieces as Bedtime for Bonzo. And, of course, the Governator. But these people’s previous careers are kind of a cultural joke or, if we’re going to be kinder, a cultural curiosity. (Also, they’re all Republicans, which I never thought about before. What’s up with that?)

I feel differently about Peter Garrett, probably because I vividly remember standing against the back wall of the Paradise Rock Club, mesmerized, feeling like he was speaking directly to me as he passionately expounded on his political views, and then he and the rest of the band ripped into “Dream World”.

I always knew he was political; that was part of the band’s appeal to me. I even knew he was in Parliament in Australia. But he was always in opposition, always fighting The Powers That Be. Now he’s part of the system. In the inner circle, even—the Cabinet. It’s a little weird.

Especially because even his speaking voice is so distinctive that, half-listening to the radio as I made toast, I dropped the butter knife when I heard it and said out loud, “Hey, isn’t that Peter Garrett?” And then realized that it was, and that he sounded like a bureaucrat.

Who knows? Maybe tomorrow President Obama will announce that Chuck D is going to head up HUD. Which is not a bad idea, actually. I just hope his income tax records will stand up to scrutiny.
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