Monday, March 30, 2009

Black Mountain

It’s officially autumn in Australia, but summerlike temperatures persist in Canberra—this weekend was in the high 20sC (80sF) both days. We took advantage of it on Saturday with another picnic, this one at a park on Black Mountain peninsula. Despite its ominous name, Black Mountain is one of the landmarks of Canberra, looming just west of downtown, home to extensive parkland and topped by the Telstra Tower. The park we went to is on a spit of land right at the bottom of the mountain; it juts out into Lake Burley Griffin, which meanders through the center of Canberra and divides the northern (business and university) and southern (government) sides of the planned city. It had all the features I’m coming to expect from Australian parks: shaded picnic tables; extensive playground equipment; not much grass; and built-in, communal gas barbeque grills.

Yes, you read that right. The Australians’ love of grilling is known worldwide to the point of cliché, and for good reason, from what I’ve seen. Even so, I was amazed at my first encounter with a built-in, free, gas grill in a public recreation area. I was especially impressed that it was clean and in perfect working order. This has continued to be true almost everyplace I’ve eaten an outdoor meal: if it has picnic tables, chances are it also has a working grill. A few of them have been coin-operated, but most have been free, and all have been well cared for and functional.

I find this difficult to envision in any other place I’ve lived, or even visited. A machine that makes fire that hasn’t been vandalized, broken, or outright stolen? That people share among whoever happens to need it, and clean up when they’ve finished? The mind boggles.

We didn’t have any Australian grilling experts in our party, but we still managed to cook up a bunch of sausages with two New Zealanders, one Indonesian, two Americans, and one UK-born wandering preschooler contributing varying levels of expertise and commentary. Miss B met up with a bunch of slightly older kids who started teaching her to play cricket, while the rest of us ate sausages and accompaniments to our hearts’ (or is that stomachs'?) content.

Croatian cole slaw
This was one of my contributions to the picnic. To me this recipe is Australian, because I learned it in Australia, from an Australian who had learned it from a Croatian immigrant to Australia. But it definitely has the flavors of central European cooking; I recently described it to someone as “fresh sauerkraut”. It’s a great alternative to creamy cole slaws for anyone who is a salt or pickle lover.

1 head green cabbage of your choice
Coarse salt
2-3 scallions
2 tbsp lemon or lime juice*
5 tbsp olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Strip off the outer leaves of the cabbage, then core and quarter. Slice the cabbage as thinly as you can. As you work, place the sliced cabbage in a large bowl, and sprinkle regularly with coarse salt as you go. When you have finished, put a plate over the cabbage, then weight it down** and refrigerate it for at least 12 hours.

When you are ready to prepare the coleslaw, remove the weight and drain the cabbage of the water that has been released by the salting. Rinse the cabbage and dry it thoroughly. Chop the scallions and add to the cabbage, then mix thoroughly with the dressing and pepper.

Serves 8.

* I used a combination of regular limes and the finger limes I bought at the Farmers’ Market recently.

** Use the heaviest thing you can find; this recipe didn’t work for me once when I didn’t pay enough attention to the weight. This time I used a glass jar full of change that was sitting on top of the fridge; it weighed at least five pounds and worked great

Friday, March 27, 2009

Language lessons

All definitions courtesy of Wikipedia

Homonym: one of a group of words that share the same spelling and the same pronunciation but have different meanings, usually as a result of the two words having different origins.

Flapjack (North America*): alternate name of a thin pancake that is not only crispy, but slightly chewy as well. A largely defining attribute of a flapjack is its large diameter, commonly measuring 30cm/12in or more.

Flapjack (UK): a tray bake (or bar cookie) made from rolled oats, fat (typically butter), brown sugar and usually golden syrup or honey.

*also, apparently, Australia

J’s Flapjack
How to confuse a bunch of Australians (or Americans, or Canadians): present them with a plate full of this, and then tell them it’s flapjack. Discuss how it’s not what they think of when they hear "flapjack" for as long as they can hold out without trying it (ie, not very long). After they’ve had some, they probably won’t care what it’s called.

200g/8oz butter
4 tbsp golden syrup**
200g/8oz porridge/rolled oats
100g/4oz shredded coconut
150g/6oz brown sugar
25g/1oz dried cranberries or other fruit of your choice (optional)

Melt the butter and golden syrup, then stir in the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly. Spread in a shallow, 20cm/8in square baking pan. Cook at 180C/350F for about 40 minutes, rotating pan halfway through. It's not that easy to tell when it's done, but when you see that it's starting to brown around the edges, that's probably a good indicator. Cut while hot; leave to cool in the pan.

Makes 16-20 medium squares

** If you can’t get golden syrup, substitute sticky processed sugar product of your choice. Most recently, I made this with a combination of honey and maple syrup.

PS According to Wikipedia, "flapjack" can also refer to a type of seaweed, a hydraulic machine, a card game, and a professional wrestling throw. How versatile can you get?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Taste sensations

Today was a busy day. In the morning, I trekked up to Downer on the bus to meet Zoe, one of my Canberra blogging buddies, and her women’s group. Zoe told me about the group a while ago, and I had been wanting to check it out. Of course the reason I finally got off my butt and went was food-related: Zoe was on the schedule to give a demonstration of Asian cooking, featuring lots of authentic ingredients from Canberra’s Asian grocery stores.

I had a great time: met lots of interesting, friendly people; poked, sniffed, and tasted a variety of things I’d never come in close contact with before; learned some really useful information about how various ingredients should be used and where to get them; and, best of all, got to sample three fantastic dishes that Zoe prepared as part of the demonstration. They were really good: complex, flavorful, and authentically Asian tasting. I would have paid good money to eat any of them in a restaurant.

After an enjoyable and instructive morning, I headed back into the city centre to do a slew of errands before heading to the library to get some work done. I had already planned to grab some lunch at a Mexican place I had noticed recently that was conveniently located on my travels. I don’t get much Mexican these days unless I make it myself, and I had high hopes that this place might help satisfy my perpetual cravings.

Alas, it was not to be. It wasn’t bad; it was just that Zoe had set the bar so high already, with her portable gas ring and wok. She had demonstrated how, with good ingredients and a little care, it’s fast and easy to make seriously delicious food. And although my Mexican lunch was fast and easy, it wasn’t particularly delicious. So, after trying out a few of Zoe’s Asian techniques for tonight’s dinner, I’ll probably have to make a batch of this tomorrow, because now my Mexican cravings are stronger than ever.

All Season Salsa
I adapted this recipe from one in Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone to increase quantities and to use canned tomatoes, because sometimes you really need salsa when you can’t get a decent tomato anywhere and all the readily available jarred salsa is execrable (yeah, I’m looking at you, English supermarkets).

1 medium onion, peeled and quartered
4 cloves garlic, peeled
1 small red chili pepper, halved and seeded*
10-12 sprigs cilantro/coriander
2 14oz/400g cans whole tomatoes, drained
Juice of 2 limes
Salt to taste

Put the first four ingredients in a food processor and pulse to chop finely. (You could also chop by hand if you’re so inclined.) Add the tomatoes and lime juice and pulse again. Taste and salt accordingly. Serve with tortilla chips, or any and all Mexican meals of your choice. (Also yummy with eggs at breakfast.)

* I use one small, very hot chili, which makes this big batch flavorful enough for me without inciting the dreaded “Too spicy!” reaction from Miss B. Can be adjusted according to your taste/spice tolerance.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Managing expectations

A while back, spurred on by Miss B, I bought an Australian cookbook filled with kid-friendly cooking ideas and photos (shown here being perused by our toothy friend). Well, either those people really know their market, or else the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree; whichever, Miss B has spent a lot of time looking at this cookbook since we bought it. Not only that, she’s been suggesting things to cook from it.

One of the things she was most interested in, from Day One, was the recipe that featured on the book’s cover: giant alphabet cookies, thickly frosted and decorated. The kids in the picture are holding ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’, and I swear the cookies and the kids’ heads are comparable sizes. Plus frosting and sugar decorations. What four-year-old wouldn’t want a piece of that action?

Being a doting mother, I said yes, we would make alphabet cookies and frost them. How hard could it be?

::cue sinister foreshadowing music::

For starters, I was (perhaps not surprisingly) unable to locate any giant alphabet cookie cutters, and had to settle on a very average size letter instead. The set I bought claimed to include the whole alphabet, which, upon closer inspection at home following purchase, turned out to mean two letter ‘C’s and no letter ‘O’.

No matter. Four-year-olds haven’t fully absorbed the alphabet yet, anyway, right? Onward!

Well, things went downhill from there. The dough, when mixed, was seriously crumbly, and even after its obligatory rest in the fridge, practically impossible to roll out. The alphabet cutters, narrow and deep, refused to release the dough, requiring that it be poked out gingerly with a knife, resulting in a ruinously high level of breakage between cutter and baking sheet.

It took me five attempts to get one intact letter ‘B’. (For obvious reasons, the one letter that it was crucial to produce.)

The time stipulated in the recipe overbaked the cookies; and, when cooked, they remained so skinny that I feared frosting them with a knife would snap them like twigs. The frosting, meanwhile, looked nothing like the cookbook’s glowing primary colors; we had, instead, pale pink and pale blue to choose from. We were also short on sugar flowers and hearts, and there was no way our scrawny specimens could support more than one m&m apiece. Thus, our adapted decorating method was: Mum dips one side of the cookies in frosting and lays them on a plate; Miss B sprinkles them lavishly with hundreds and thousands.

By the time we were done, I was feeling a little frazzled: stressed by all the things that had gone wrong, and downcast by all the ways that our cookies deviated from the Standard of Perfection set by the cookbook photos. And Miss B?

Miss B was thrilled to pieces by our alphabet cookies. She thought they were the best things ever. She showed them to everyone she could think of, either in person or on Skype. She didn’t care that most of the hundreds and thousands were piled on the plate instead of stuck to the cookies. She didn’t care what letters they were, or even if they were broken fragments. She loved them.

She wants to make them again. So we will. And this time I’ll try to let go of my expectations and have as much fun as Miss B is having. But if anyone has a tried-and-tested, favorite, basic, cookie-cutter cookie recipe….I’m all ears.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Farmers' Market

I finally made it to the Canberra Farmers’ Market last weekend. (It only took six months.) This is one of the things that I want to do here that is difficult to do without a car, since it’s several miles north of the city center, and it’s only open from 8-11am on Saturdays (farmers are busy people, you know). Difficult, but not impossible; it is on a bus route, and now that I’ve scoped it out, we’ll see just how devoted I am to the Farmers’ Market (FM) ethos when I have to schlep all the way up there on a bus and lug all my produce home on my back.

The Canberra FM may well be worth all that effort. It is by far the biggest FM I’ve been to, with a couple of dozen stalls in a big open shed selling produce, meats, fish, cheeses, baked goods, plants, flowers, and more. Even having gone by car, I still didn’t have enough time to see everything I wanted to (I’m not sure even three hours would be enough), but I still managed to do plenty of damage.

Of course I was thinking the whole time about how excited I was, and how I was going to blog about it, and taking pictures, etc. But then afterwards I was thinking, what is it? What is it about the FM that would drive me (a seriously lazy person, as anyone who knows me personally can attest) to get up early on a Saturday morning and spend an hour each way on public transport to buy potentially more expensive versions of the same things that I can find at the supermarket? I know everyone talks about buying organic, buying local, buying seasonal: and those are all good, compelling—even noble—reasons for going to FMs. But none of them adequately explains the sense of excitement, of possibility, of rightness that I get every time I walk into one.

Five Reasons Why I Love the FM
1. There is no better way to see what is actually in season where you live. When you go to the supermarket, you can buy pretty much the same stuff all year round. The only way you can tell if something is in season is that it gets cheaper (assuming you notice that sort of thing).
2. Things that are in season are not necessarily more expensive at the FM. In fact, when they are at the height of their season, they are quite likely to be cheaper, as farmers will have a glut that they want to get rid of.
3. Much as I enjoy food shopping in any form, there’s no question that the supermarket is a pretty sterile environment. Sometimes, even standing in the middle of the produce aisle, among all those shiny, perfect displays, it’s hard to imagine or remember that someone actually grew the stuff. Not so at the FM: often the produce is still dirty, the displays are haphazard at best, and chances are good that the person you are buying it from is also the one who pulled it out of the ground or off a plant early that morning.
4. You can find things at the FM that you will probably never, ever see at the supermarket. My find of 2008 was a basket of sour cherries from the Greenfield (Mass.) FM. On this, my first trip to the Canberra FM, I found finger limes (see above), an indigenous Australian variety that I had heard about but not yet seen anywhere.
5. FM food just tastes better. It hasn’t been shipped as far as supermarket food, so it’s fresher; it hasn’t been bred to look good, travel well and last forever, at the expense of its flavor; and it’s grown in small, specialized varieties and quantities, rather than mass produced.


PS: I know I sound like a broken record, but I have to reiterate yet again how good roasted rhubarb is, and how amazing it is mixed with fresh peaches. I made it again this week with some of my FM booty, and this time I added cardamom as well as cinnamon (and sugar). It was so good I nearly floated away. I've already eaten it twice today. Those of you in the northern hemisphere, please make a note for when there's some seasonal produce handy. As far as I'm concerned, this leaves the time-honored strawberry-rhubarb combo in the dust. And not just because of the Fail Jam incident. Although I did think, when I was eating this, "Why would I bother trying to make jam again when this is so much better?"

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Al fresco

Just so you know, it’s not only my own food I’m interested in. I’m chronically nosy about what everybody is eating. Sometimes even non-humans.

This morning, Miss B and I were hurrying off to preschool. As we got to the end of our block, we heard a noise that sounded like someone either a) popping popcorn overhead or b) sitting in a tree madly popping bubble wrap. We didn’t have time to take a good look, so peered up into the trees as we passed, trying to find the source of the noise while dodging the shower of tree bits coming from overhead. Miss B's observations: "Mummy, what's that noise?" and "Look, somebody made a mess!" And she was right; the ground underfoot was covered with leaves, small branches, and some kind of small berries or nuts that had been cracked open.

I had a bit more time to investigate on the way back, and coming from that angle, was able to identify the source of noise, that you can see here if you look closely: about a half-dozen sulphur-crested cockatoos, feasting on this one tree. I haven’t been able to figure out why this tree was suddenly The Cockatoo Place To Be, or even what kind of tree it is (other than that its trunk has rough bark, not the typical smooth bark of Australian gum trees). I’m still working on my Australian plant-identification skills. Goofy newcomer that I am, I’m too busy being flabbergasted by seeing gangs of birds roaming around Canberra that I previously would have expected to see only in pet shops or zoos.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Roving blogger

Hey everybody....

Guess who's an EDF Challenge guest blogger today on A Mighty Appetite at The Washington Post?

EDF, Down Under

Check it out!


Volcanic pasta

AKA EDF, Day Four. Last week I made Chicken Vesuvio for the first time, after receiving clear instructions from the universe to do so. One day, someone was raving about it on a blog, and I had no idea what they were talking about. So I googled it and thought it sounded kind of interesting, although not necessarily earth-shattering, and that maybe I should get hold of a good recipe and try it out. The next day, I picked up an old issue of Cook’s Illustrated, looking for ideas of what to cook for a company dinner Tuesday night. The second recipe was for Chicken Vesuvio. Okay, message received.

For anyone who doesn’t already know this dish, it is apparently an Italian-American concoction, involving sautéed chicken, potato wedges, and a tasty pan sauce of white wine, lots of garlic, fresh herbs, and lemon juice. We all gave it the thumbs up, and I stashed the leftover chicken and sauce in the fridge for another use.

Flash forward to this week: looking for dinner ideas….How about some pasta? Always a good vehicle for random things in the fridge that might not constitute dinner on their own. Often, in traditional Italian meals, the primo piatto is pasta, dressed with the sauce used to cook the secondo piatto, the meat. I decided to reverse the procedure: I warmed up the Chicken Vesuvio sauce (boosted with some of the cream still lurking in the fridge) and chopped up the leftover chicken. I also chopped up some broccoli, and cooked it quickly in the (salted) pasta water. Cooked some penne al dente and drained it (reserving a cup of the cooking water too); back into the hot pan with some olive oil to keep it from sticking, and a few grinds of black pepper too. Added the cooked broccoli, the chicken, and the sauce, along with more pepper, some grated cheese, a splash of cooking water, and a fresh squeeze of lemon juice.

I’ve been trying to come up with a pasta-chicken-broccoli recipe for years to satisfy my chronic craving for the Bertucci’s version. This, put together entirely by accident, might finally be it.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Fridge reincarnation

Eating Down the Fridge has got me engaging in some serious lateral food thinking. Rooting through the fridge on Monday afternoon, I found some stale bread. (No, not that stale bread. Although I'm still working on that.) Two brioches that I had bought on a whim a couple of weeks ago, put in the fridge (so they wouldn't get stale, ha ha), and promptly forgotten about. Also two (!) half-empty containers of cream, bought to serve with two recent company desserts.

I was reminded of a very rich dessert recipe that Nigella Lawson devised in Nigella Express to use up two stale croissants. Following her lead, I came up with:

Brioche Bread Pudding
2 stale brioches
125ml/5oz heavy cream
2 eggs
2 tbsp sugar
2 tsp vanilla

1. Grease an ovenproof baking dish. Chop up the brioches into small chunks and place in the dish.
2. Mix together remaining ingredients and pour over brioche chunks.
3. You can bake this immediately, but I covered it, weighted it with some cans, and let it soak for a couple of hours, then baked it at 180C/350F until it looked set and was brown on top.

Oh, and guess what I did for a topping?

I warmed up some Fail Jam (yes, I finally took it out of the pickle jar) with some water and a little cinnamon sugar, and turned it into Fail Jam Sauce.

Brioche Bread Pudding with Fail Jam Sauce. It was goooood. So good I wish I could convince someone else in my house to eat it so I'm not the only person on earth who knows how good it is. So good I might have to make it again on purpose.

(Still a lot of Fail Jam left.)

Monday, March 9, 2009

The stockpile

What is all that stuff?

My kitchen always seems to be filled to bursting point. I plan meals, I don’t overbuy quantities, and I make a concerted effort to eat leftovers. Despite this, every time I go to the grocery store, I have to rearrange everything to fit the new food in.

So I was thrilled to read about A Mighty Appetite’s Eating Down the Fridge challenge. For the week of March 9-16, I (along with a whole bunch of others) have committed to not going to the grocery store at all and eating only what’s in the fridge, freezer, and cupboards. I’ll be keeping track of the weird and wonderful meals I come up with from what’s lurking in my kitchen, and posting about some of them here for your entertainment. And maybe asking for suggestions too....

Friday, March 6, 2009

How sweet

A couple of years ago, back when people were just starting to raise questions about high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), my sister C. sent out an email highlighting some of the concerns about the correlation between HFCS and obesity, and about the quantities of HFCS found in soft drinks. I was living in the UK at the time. I remember sitting at my desk in Oxford and reading it, and then looking guiltily at the can of Pepsi sitting on the desk next to my computer. I picked up the can to read the ingredients list and found…sugar as the sweetening ingredient. I went home and checked our stash of processed foods (ketchup, store-bought cookies, cereal); all of them said the same: sugar.

The drumbeat of concern about HFCS has gotten steadily louder since then, and just over the last few weeks I’ve lost count of how many times it’s popped up on food blogs and newspaper feeds that I read regularly. Prompting me to do another check on my recently-established stash of Australian processed foods (as above). Only to find the same thing: sugar as the sweetening ingredient in everything I checked.

I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing the reason for this is that neither the UK nor Australia has enough of a corn industry to make HFCS a cheap and easily available alternative to other sugar sources. The UK has a domestic beet sugar industry (as do most other European countries), and Australia produces cane sugar. Wikipedia says that "HFCS is somewhat cheaper in the United States due to a combination of corn subsidies and sugar tariffs", and also says that its greatest use is in the US and Canada.

I have mixed feelings about this information. On the one hand, I’m just as happy not to be finding HFCS in every packaged food I buy. On the other hand is the fact that obesity rates are going up not just in the US, but also in the UK and Australia, and, apparently, everyplace else other than sub-Saharan Africa. If only the US and Canada are consuming this stuff in any quantity, then clearly there is more to the problem.

Lately it seems as though we have a new nutritional scapegoat every year or so: the thing to eliminate from humanity’s diet that will "cure" the worldwide obesity epidemic. This year looks like HFCS’s turn. Before that it was trans fats. And let’s not forget carbs.

If science and medicine don't know the answer, then I certainly don’t. But, given that pretty much everything to do with food is a complicated tangle of nutrition and emotion, I’m betting it’s not as simple as that.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Fail jam

I made jam in the slow cooker. I got about two pounds of strawberries on sale for five bucks, and bought a bunch of rhubarb (another five bucks) so I could make strawberry-rhubarb jam in the slow cooker. I was very excited.

I chopped everything up and mixed it up with about three cups of sugar. I put it in the slow cooker and then it looked like stawberry-rhubarb soup for a really long time. When it was time for me to go to bed, it was finally starting to cook down a little. So I put the slow cooker on a timer so it would cook for another couple of hours, and then I went to sleep.

I think I overcooked it.

The consistency is veering away from jam and towards fruit leather. And I didn’t even put any pectin in it.

Also? The sugar I used was unrefined, which combined with the overcooking gives the whole thing a kind of caramelly/smoky aftertaste which is suggestive of burned fruit, even though it didn’t actually burn because, you know, I made it in the slow cooker.

Also, see that jar? It used to be a pickle jar. Despite the fact that I scrubbed it, and boiled it, I’m still getting a faint whiff of pickle when I open the jar.

Not the most appetizing thing when you’re expecting to smell jam.

So, to recap: ten bucks worth of fruit + ten (?) hours of cooking + essence of pickle + the feel of leather + burned sugar aftertaste = a big jar of fail.

You can call that a recipe if you want, but I don’t recommend making it. If you’re that intrigued by it, come on over to my house and help me eat it.

Oh yeah, I’m gonna have to figure out a way to eat it. Haven’t I told you how much I hate wasting food?

Monday, March 2, 2009

Good advice

Following good advice makes life so much easier sometimes. Especially when it comes to dinner.

It all started with 5 second rule’s useful post about managing your greens. Reading it was like hearing a voice say, “Hey, you! Yeah, you, trying to stuff that giant bunch of silverbeet in your fridge? Why don’t you try this instead?”

(Silverbeet is Australian for chard. It’s two feet long. That’s it in the picture. I put a regular-sized Popsicle stick next to it to give you some scope for comparison.)

The post provided detailed instructions for how to prep your greens when you buy them, so that they a) fit in your fridge and b) are ready and waiting when you want to eat them.

Having followed these recommendations on Friday afternoon, I sat back in a glow of quiet contentment, thinking about how easy preparing Saturday night’s dinner would be. Then I started to get cocky: how could I make it even easier? How could I make an absolutely fabulous dinner that would also be quick and simple?

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