Friday, May 29, 2009
I almost always enjoy grocery shopping, and try to visit supermarkets even when (or especially when) I’m a tourist. I’m perennially interested in what other people are eating, and supermarkets are a great window into other people’s food culture—and culture generally. And I’m not just talking about snooping in other people’s baskets (as much fun as that is), but about what’s on the shelves and how the place runs. Since I’m still more of a newcomer than an old-timer here, I’m still noticing things that distinguish my Canberra supermarket from its Boston and Oxford counterparts.
Interesting things I’ve noticed about my local supermarket which may or may not be true of Australian supermarkets generally
1. Fascinating new varieties of familiar items: Bonza apples, anyone? How about a nice Nashi pear?
2. New names for familiar items: we’ve already talked about how scallions/spring onions are known as shallots down here. There’s also capsicum (red pepper), the supersized silverbeet (a giant variety of chard), and the misleading pumpkin (which seems to apply to any kind of winter squash).
3. Produce items I’ve never seen in any supermarket before anywhere, or maybe I just wasn’t looking hard enough, and am not sure what to do with: fresh lychees, “drinking” coconuts (which have had their hairy outsides removed and been cut into points on the top and bottom), and, just recently, persimmons.
4. Frugal practices: there’s a special rack near the entrance to the produce section where you can get packaged produce super cheap. From my past experience, I would expect this stuff to be damaged or past its sell-by date, but a lot of the stuff here is in excellent condition, just can’t hold its own in the produce bins—loose grapes, teeny zucchini, that sort of thing. They wrap it up and sell it for a buck or two. For the grapes especially, this is an amazing bargain, since we’re now moving into the time of year when grapes go above $10/kg, but preschoolers continue to hoover them up like candy. They also sell half- and quarter-cabbages, in case you don’t really need one that’s bigger than your own head, and at the butcher counter you can buy just about any portion of a chicken carcass you can put a name to, with or without meat on it.
5. An idiosyncratic selection of imported brands and items: Oreos, Special K, and maple syrup, check. HobNobs, golden syrup, and Heinz baked beans, check. Molasses, tomatillo salsa, and cranberries (other than dried): no way José.
6. Australia-centric packaged foods: including my personal favorite, ready-made pavlova bases. Because when I saw them I finally understood why the first Australian I made pavlova for in England asked me, “Wow, did you make the base yourself?”
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Since our first fortuitous meeting, I’ve cooked and consumed several (you can’t eat them raw), and can report that they are delicious—like the very subtle and superior offspring of an apple and a pear. I’ve also found out a few other things: that they are not actually English, or not originally anyway (they’re from the Caucasus and really prefer a warmer climate, something they have in common with many other inhabitants of England); that they do not require a sledgehammer or a meat cleaver to open, as my sources led me to fear (although a heavy, sharp knife helps); that the longer you cook it, the redder the originally creamy flesh turns; and that they do in fact make your kitchen smell delightful.
And, since I am nothing if not loyal to my previous produce-aisle discoveries, I will also share that poached quince mixed with roasted rhubarb is fan-tastic in any of the iterations mentioned below.
This is really just a guideline for quantities, flavorings, and timings; fiddle around to get the texture and taste you like best.
2 quinces, peeled, cored, and cut into eighths (allocate a bit of time, patience, and muscle power for this)
3 Tbsp wine of your choice
1 cup water
2-3 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp each lemon/lime zest and juice
Dash of salt
Sprinkling of any combination of the following spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cardamom
Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan. Bring to the boil and simmer until the quinces are tender, which will take at least 30 minutes. Serve as is, over ice cream, alongside cake, mixed with yogurt and granola for breakfast….
Monday, May 25, 2009
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that it’s been really hard to motivate myself to cook much of anything for the last few days, let alone anything I would want to document for posterity. But I did make one accidental discovery late last night, when I was trying to figure out something to eat that sounded remotely appealing. As I was mentally reviewing the contents of the fridge, I remembered how last week, I had discovered a local deli that is a treasure trove of handmade goodies, after one of the other mums at coffee revealed that their pesto was so good that she had given up making her own. I stopped by on my way home to snag a couple of tubs, and grabbed one of hummus while I was at it. Both were as good as I’d been led to expect, and last night the hummus was the only thing that called to me. The only problem was that I had no pita bread since I’d finished the last batch of homemade. Then I remembered reading, on another blog (I forget which one), about how the writer keeps a “master batch” of bread dough in his fridge, and uses it for whatever kind of bread he feels like, pita included. I decided to give it a try with my own master batch, and rolled out and baked one pita to eat for dinner.
Well, I’m sure it wasn’t authentic, but I liked it so much better than any pita bread I’ve had, including my own DIY version, that I think that’s the way things are going to be from now on. It puffed up perfectly, had flavor and personality, and was the centerpiece of a small but satisfying dinner, along with some almost-homemade hummus and cut-up veggies. And it’s so much more convenient than making a special batch. If you’re not already keeping bread dough in your fridge, this might be a reason to start.
Unfortunately I forgot to take a picture of the pita before I ate it, so I leave you instead with one of Miss B feeding a kangaroo who, I would bet cash money, has never lost his appetite.
Friday, May 22, 2009
On this trip, I was amazed all over again at how much the landscape in this part of the world differs from my expectations. The overriding stereotypical image of Australia (away from the coast) is of a baking hot, dry, flat, dusty, red, endless, treeless vista. And of course some parts are like that—but they are not much closer to where we are than, say, the American Southwest is to Boston. None of those adjectives is appropriate for the part of New South Wales we travelled through. For one thing, it rained most of the way up—just like it did last time. For another, even after a characteristically hot, dry summer, we were still presented with views of rolling green hills as far as the eye could see, dotted here and there at the higher elevations with splashes of autumn color. At times I felt as though we could have been driving through the English countryside, or the hills of western New England.
One thing that was undeniably Australian, though, was the place names, whether of communities, geographical features, or the many stations (that’s Australian for a ranch or farm) whose front gates appeared at intervals along the highway (a two-lane blacktop road). Whether adopted from native Australian tongues, imported from the old country, or just displaying creativity with Australian English, here are a few that I thought were worth jotting down for posterity.
Fairy Hole Creek
23 Mile Lane
(And a few photos of scenery, if you're really interested.)
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
In any case, I decided I would have to scrounge for one, and started keeping my eyes open for any unemployed bricks that might be lying around. I don’t know if it was coincidence, or just that I hadn’t been paying attention, but it wasn’t long before I started seeing them everywhere: a pile outside a house; stacked crookedly inside a fenced-off section of pavement being repaired; even one that had fallen out of someone's front wall.
Each of these presented its own ethical dilemma. After all, there is a difference between salvaging an otherwise unwanted piece of masonry, and plain old stealing. And there never seemed to be anyone around who was connected to the bricks that I could ask.
Today I got lucky. Miss B and I were walking home from preschool when I noticed some large, white bricks scattered on the grass verge outside one of the classic old Canberra houses that we regularly admire. As I was examining the bricks, trying to decide if they had been abandoned or what, I heard the sounds of someone doing stonework nearby. I peered over the high hedge and saw a man kneeling in the garden, obviously engaged in laying a brick path. I decided to rebel against my Bostonian training, and engage a stranger in conversation.
“Excuse me,” I said timidly. The man looked up from his work, realized that I was addressing him, and raised his eyebrows inquiringly. “Are these bricks out here available for the taking…?”
He got up hurriedly and came towards the gate. “No, no, they’re not. They were out there to weigh something down, I hadn’t realized they were still out there.” Noticing my crestfallen expression, he said, “I’m sorry, but they’re special fire bricks….”
“Oh, no, that’s okay,” I said. “I wasn’t interested in any particular bricks. I’m just on the hunt for a brick….I only need one.”
Tactfully refraining from asking what anyone needs only one brick for, he said, “Well, if you just need a brick, you can have one of these,” and, leading the way back through the gate, picked up a brick that was sitting near the wall of the house. “It’s a real old Canberra brick…from 1927.”
So it turns out he was the owner of this beautiful old house (not a contractor, as I had originally thought), and he cheerfully gave me an antique brick. Miss B, having none of my reticence about conversations with strangers, told him why I wanted the brick, admired the brick path that led out back (which I’m sure he had also built), and generally charmed him into giving us a tour of his garden, which was as wonderful as the house. She particularly admired the collection of pottery, ceramic, and metal ducks scattered around; I was more interested in his plantings, particularly the line of flourishing citrus trees (tangelo, lime, grapefruit and more) growing along the sunny north wall of the house.
Eventually we let him get back to his work, with many thanks, and continued on our way. We’d had an adventure, met a neighbor, and acquired a brick. Thus proving that virtue is in fact its own reward.
Things to do in the kitchen with a brick
- Weight down your cabbage for Croatian cole slaw
- Make a very flat tuna melt
- Cook chicken under a brick (I haven’t done this yet, but I’ve been wanting to for ages and now I can!)
Monday, May 18, 2009
When I think back to that parade of long-ago restaurant meals, it’s amazing how few of them I can remember in any detail, if I can remember them at all; whole trips are just a blur in my memory at this point. And there is only one that I remember so vividly that I can still tell you exactly what I had for dinner after all this time. It was at a Greek restaurant in Adelaide, where DP and I were taken for dinner by a friend of my brother-in-law’s and her husband. We’d never met before (my BIL hadn’t even seen her in about 15 years), but they were warm, welcoming, and friendly. They took us to one of their favorite restaurants, a place we would never have found on our own, and we had delicious food, great wine, and interesting conversation—in other words, a thoroughly enjoyable evening. Not coincidentally, I think it was at around this point in the trip that DP and I began to say to each other that Australia might be a nice place to spend some more time someday, if we could figure out how to arrange such a thing….
Almost exactly seven years later, in Canberra, I finally got around to re-creating my main course from that memorable dinner.
Greek Shrimp in Tomato Sauce
I’ve found a couple of versions of this on the internet, but in the end I decided to wing it and try to make it from memory, without any guidance. I have no idea how authentically Greek it is, but it is flavorful, hearty, and satisfying, without being at all stodgy.
125g/5oz mangetout/snow peas, trimmed and cut in half
5 Tbsp olive oil, divided
125g/5oz white rice
1 clove garlic, minced
Sprinkle red pepper flakes
2-3 cups plain tomato sauce (you can make a quick marinara; I had made an extra-big batch of Zesty Pizza Sauce the night before on purpose)
100g/3oz feta cheese, cut into small cubes
Salt and pepper to taste
I’m going to tell you exactly how I did it, which I think is the most efficient way in terms of water and pan usage. If you have to make the tomato sauce, that will add another step.
1. Put water on to heat up in a small saucepan. Put a medium saucepan and a large frying pan on the stove to heat on low.
2. When the water comes to a boil, add a pinch of salt and then put the mangetout in to cook very briefly—just for a minute or two. Put about 2 Tbsp of olive oil in the medium saucepan to heat up.
3. Remove the mangetout from the boiling water with a slotted spoon and put aside to drain for a few minutes. Let the water return to a boil.
4. Check the oil in the saucepan to see if it’s warm. If it is, before you do anything to it, add 3 Tbsp of oil to the frying pan to heat. Now dump the rice in the saucepan and turn in the oil several times to coat thoroughly. Add the boiling water and a teaspoon or two of salt and stir to make sure everything is evenly distributed. Put a lid on the saucepan, make sure that the rice is cooking at a fast simmer, and leave alone for 12 minutes.
5. Turn the heat under the frying pan to medium and add the garlic and red pepper. Cook very briefly, then add the shrimp. When the shrimp are starting to color, add the mangetout and let everything sauté, stirring regularly. (A splash of white wine would have been nice here too, but I didn’t have any.)
6. Add the tomato sauce to the frying pan and continue stirring regularly. (If you are using a thick sauce, as I did, you might also need to add a bit of liquid at this point.) When everything looks as though it’s cooked to your satisfaction (ie pink shrimp, al dente mangetout), stir in the feta cheese and taste for seasoning.
7. Serve immediately over rice, with some crusty bread alongside.
This served 1 adult and 1 child, with enough left over for at least 1 other adult meal.
Friday, May 15, 2009
Before I moved here I had heard, over and over, that Canberra really and truly had four seasons (unlike many other parts of Australia), so I was expecting autumn to come around in due course. After two summers in a row--a sticky Boston summer followed by a scorching Canberra summer--I’ve been actively looking forward to it. But I wasn’t expecting it to be, you know, autumnal. But it is: crisp, clear, dry days with brilliant blue skies. Early twilights and frosty nights. Acorns falling off trees and piles of leaves to scuff through. Foliage. All of my favorite parts of a New England autumn--right here in Australia.
I keep forgetting that the calendar says it’s the middle of May. Every other day I have a ten-second panic attack that I need to start my Christmas shopping. Then I remember that Christmas isn’t for another seven months and go back to enjoying the bizarre wonderfulness of it all. Because there are just enough things to remind me that I’m not really in New England, and the middle picture above is my current favorite Australian autumn sight. It may look like three ears of corn growing in a pine tree (obligatory food reference), but it’s really a Silver Banksia, a native Australian shrub that flowers (yes, those are flowers) from February to June--in other words, late summer to early winter.
I felt very disoriented by t-shirts and flip flops in November, but I don’t seem to mind wool sweaters and apple pie in May a bit.
Just really ready for some cooler weather? Or could it be that I’m going native?
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Remember how a couple of months ago I did that Eating Down the Fridge Challenge? And blogged about how fun and interesting it was to not go shopping for a whole week, and get creative with what was on hand? I even got to talk up limp carrots in The Washington Post!
Let me tell you, it’s a different story when you’re doing it for real.
The fridge had been acting strange for quite a while—mostly making loud grinding noises, running the motor more often than seemed strictly necessary, and randomly freezing items that were not in the freezer. I put it down to an over-reaction to the dog days of January and February, and did what I always do when machines start giving me trouble—turned up the radio and ignored it.
Irritated at its complaints not being heard, the fridge decided to take things to the next level. Which meant that I noticed that, instead of things being randomly frozen, everything in the fridge seemed to be getting warmer and warmer. Then it started to smell a little funny.
Of course, by the time things had reached this stage, it was 4:00 on Saturday afternoon, the voicemail was on at the repair place, and we had guests coming for dinner.
Faced with the prospect of no way to fix this suddenly-dire situation for a minimum of 36-48 hours, I panicked. Then I took a few deep breaths and thought about what people used to do to keep food fresh before they had fancy modern refrigerators. Then I went to the supermarket and lugged home a 10-lb. bag of ice and nothing else, having determined I wasn’t putting anything else in the fridge until I knew what was wrong with it. (All the while giving thanks that at least the freezer seemed to be working fine through all of this, so in a pinch I could stick things in there…assuming I could find room for them.)
The next several meals were a medley of culinary triage as I plowed through containers of leftovers and bags of produce, trying to determine what was usable and what had been lost, making several horrifying discoveries along the way. (Who knew that much mold could grow that fast?)
The repair man (aka Fridge Guy) showed up promptly on Monday afternoon. We took everything out of the freezer (no small task) so he could get to the motor, and he started poking around while I hovered off to one side, hoping that it would either be a simple repair job or the refrigerator equivalent of totaling your car. Please please don’t let it be something that’s going to leave me in this lukewarm limbo for a week while we wait for a part to come in….
Fridge Man pulled his head out of the freezer. “The defroster for the motor is broken, so it’s clogged up with ice and no cold air is getting into the fridge. I can fix it, but it’ll take a week for the part to get here.”
He continued, “But if you defrost the freezer for 24 hours, you should be able to get the motor working again to cool the fridge until I can get it fixed.”
Even worse! I’m going to lose everything I still have in the fridge, and the freezer stuff—my last hope—is all going to thaw out! Disaster! I could have cried.
But I had no choice. It had to be done. Monday night after dinner, I packed all the freezer stuff into the fridge (spreading it around in the hope that, as it defrosted, it would give off enough cold air to help keep the fridge stuff from going off), pulled out a few things for Tuesday and put them on the porch overnight (with nighttime temps in the high 30sF/single digits C, I figured it’d be okay), opened the freezer door, switched off the power, and declared the fridge off limits for 24 hours.
It worked out okay in the end. All the frozen stuff, plus the ice, did keep the fridge stuff cold enough not to spoil. And, since apparently I subconsciously view my freezer as an arsenal for making dessert, all the thawed-out stuff just meant that I had to bake even more than usual.
Every cloud has a silver lining. Or maybe a butter lining.
Fridge Disaster Bonus Baked Goods
Here are links to some of the goodies I made to use up my forcibly defrosted freezer stash:
- Chocolate & Zucchini’s Berry Banana Bread (defrosted bananas, raspberries (instead of cranberries), and butter; I made it as muffins and they were devoured at a preschool birthday party in the park)
- 5 Second Rule’s Blueberry Corn Muffins (defrosted blueberries and butter; made a tableful of small girls (ages 2-8) squeal at playdate snacktime)
- Mother’s Day Apple Pie (piecrust; made one overstretched mother very happy)
Sunday, May 10, 2009
This was my Mother’s Day dilemma this year. DP is on the road again and, aside from a half-asleep phone call from London at 8am, was out of the equation. Miss B, while generous with hugs and verbal appreciation, doesn’t really have the wherewithal to take charge at this stage of the proceedings. I, caught in the full Nelson of solo parenting and a crushing work deadline, figured adding this on to my To Do list might just send me around the bend.
In this fatalistic frame of mind, I considered my options:
2. Ignore the whole thing.
3. Do something nice for myself that wouldn’t drive up my stress levels any further.
Put that way, #3 was the clear winner. And—no surprises here—the something nice for myself was food-related. I finally made myself that apple pie I’ve been craving since last November, and tried to sell my family on just last week. I defrosted the batch of Anxiety-Free Pâte Brisée that had been waiting in my freezer for pie-worthy apples; then all I had to do was prep about eight apples out of the huge box I recently bought at a roadside stand (seasoning them as I went with a pre-made mixture of sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, and ginger, and sprinkling with lemon juice); roll out the crust; assemble, and bake.
It wasn’t as good as my mother’s apple pie (among her many other virtues, my mother makes the best apple pie in the whole wide world), but it was pretty damn good. And a perfect end to a low-key Mother’s Day spent doing all the things mothers usually do.
Happy Mother’s Day!
Friday, May 8, 2009
Recently I was reading an article from a May 2006 issue of the New Yorker, “Paradise Sold: What are you buying when you buy organic?”, which, as part of a broader exploration of organic agribusiness, describes “how to feed the world’s population” as “the most urgent problem with the organic ideal”. To support this, the author cites a statement made in 1971 by Earl Butz, Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture (and apparently "despised by organic farmers"), that “if America returned to organic methods ‘someone must decide which fifty million of our people will starve!’”
Wow, that’s some hair-raising rhetoric, right? It certainly stuck in my mind, especially when, a few days later, I came across this statistic in Marion Nestle’s Food Politics (2007):
“The greater efficiency, specialization, and size of agriculture and food product manufacture have led to one of the great unspoken secrets about the American food system: overabundance….The US food supply—plus imports less exports—provides a daily average of 3,900 calories per capita. This level is nearly twice the amount needed to meet the energy requirements of most women, one-third more than needed by most men, and much higher than that needed by babies, young children, and the sedentary elderly.”
What to make of these totally contradictory statements? Yes, the one by Butz is almost forty years old, and the food industry has undoubtedly changed a lot since then; but the author of the article included it to support the argument that this is a present problem, and relevant to the debate over organic versus conventional/industrialized agriculture.
So who to believe? My inclination is to assume that Nestle is accurate and that Butz represented the interests of Big Agribusiness, who didn’t (and don't) want to deal with the costs and headaches and smaller profits that switching (back) to organic farming would involve. But I admit I’m biased.
Who do you believe?
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
I, who have a seven-kilo box of crisp orchard apples awaiting my attention and an insatiable appetite for fruity desserts, was considering something appropriately autumnal. “I was thinking about an apple pie,” I mused.
The response to this was somewhat half-hearted. “Why, what do you guys think I should make?” I asked, hoping to generate some enthusiasm.
This time the response was immediate, loud, and unanimous. “CUPCAKES!” they shouted. “Make cupcakes again! With lots of frosting! Colored frosting!”
“Cupcakes?” I replied incredulously. “When we have people coming? I know you guys liked those cupcakes I made for Easter, but is that really something we should be giving company?”
“YES!” they bellowed.
What could I do? I bowed to familial pressure. And, after all, I’ve never met anyone, of any age, who doesn’t love a cupcake. Our guests were no exception.
This recipe is based on the classic proportions of an English Victoria sponge—all you need to remember is 4/4/4/2 (using imperial measurements) for the usual four ingredients (although I’ve added a few extras) to produce exactly one standard 12-cup tray of cupcakes. For some reason, knowing this makes whipping up a batch of cupcakes seem like not so much of a big deal. The cupcakes will be on the short side, but since they’re really just a vehicle for frosting, I wouldn’t expect any complaints on that score.
4oz/100g all-purpose/plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
4oz/100g butter, softened
4oz/100g granulated/caster sugar
3 Tbsp milk
1 tsp vanilla
Fluffy buttercream frosting*
2oz/50g butter, softened
1 tsp vanilla
8oz/200g confectioner’s/icing sugar
2-4 Tbsp milk
Food coloring (optional)
Line a cupcake pan. Preheat the oven to 350F/180C.
Mix the dry ingredients and set aside. Mix the milk and vanilla and set aside. Cream the butter and sugar until fluffy, then add the eggs, one at a time. Alternately mix in the dry and wet ingredients and beat just until combined.
Scrape cake mixture into cupcake papers and bake for 15-25 minutes, rotating the tray once halfway through.
To make the frosting: measure the first four ingredients into a large bowl and mix with a hand beater to combine. Add milk cautiously and continue beating until you have smooth, fluffy frosting.** Divide up the frosting into separate bowls if you want to dye more than one color, then color as desired.***
Frost cupcakes and serve. Watch whoever you serve them to revert to acting their shoe size.
* If you really want to go to town on the frosting, double all of the measurements and you’ll be able to put an inch-thick lid on each cupcake.
** The more liquid you put in, the runnier the frosting gets. Fluffy is good, especially if you want to pile it on.
*** This is a very minor extra step which delights people (the baker included) out of all proportion to the effort required.
Monday, May 4, 2009
I came up with it sometime last year, when I was looking at packages of smoked salmon in the supermarket and fondly remembering a smoked-salmon-and-bagel spread unexpectedly encountered at a cousin’s bridal shower a few years earlier. (Yes, I’ve said it before and now you know it's true: basically, all I ever think about is food.) Pretty much everyone there gave the salmon a wide berth, preferring the usual offerings of baked ziti, cold cuts and such…except my mother, my sisters and me. We ate so much of it that I don’t think the caterers even noticed that it had not been a smashing success with the vast majority of the guests. (So you see we were really being charitable, as opposed to just piggy.)
Anyway, as well as wishing something like that would happen again so I wouldn't have to shell out for my own smoked salmon, I was thinking of the accompaniments that you usually find alongside a smoked salmon spread—cream cheese and bagels, of course, but also lemons, chopped red onions, tomatoes, capers—and realized that I already regularly made a salad that included many of those things. I thought it might make a good accompaniment to a smoked salmon/cream cheese bagel. Then I had to buy the smoked salmon so I could try it out.
I was not wrong. In fact, I love this lunch so much that I wish I could afford to eat it about every other day. Luckily, once you have invested in and opened a package of smoked salmon you can’t leave it sitting around for too long, which means you actually have an excuse to eat it about every other day, at least for a little while.
Smoked Salmon Spread Lunch
A few good shmears of cream cheese
1-2 slices smoked salmon
8-10 grape or cherry tomatoes
¼ of a red onion
2-3 basil leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
Slice the bagel in half and toast. While the bagel is toasting, quarter the tomatoes in a salad bowl. Dice the onions and shred the basil leaves. Season with salt and black pepper, then drizzle the olive oil and vinegar evenly over everything. Toss briefly to combine.
When the bagel is toasted, spread liberally with cream cheese and top with smoked salmon. Sprinkle lemon juice over.
Friday, May 1, 2009
Full of tasty treats
Oh, and (appropriately enough), Happy Birthday to the sugar-lovingest member of my family--brother/uncle L. Wish I could be there to bake you up something sweet!