Monday, June 29, 2009

Thirteen years

It doesn’t seem possible that it was thirteen years ago today that DP and I stood up in front of our friends and family to make it all official. I knew full well when I said “I do” that not only was I agreeing to love, honor, and cherish, but also to the prospect of a life less ordinary. But even so, I don’t think I could have envisioned where I find myself today. Five (very) long-distance moves, one degree, seven jobs (combined), two continents, and one unimaginably life-changing sprog later, here we are, ten thousand miles from where we started, and it’s still interesting. Sometimes, it’s been of the “May you live in interesting times” variety, but I’m lucky enough to have my best friend along for the ride.

Anniversary dinner
Getting a babysitter turned out to be a non-starter, so we’ve opted for the “at-home date”: dinner for two, after Miss B’s bedtime, complete with some grownup conversation, and probably followed by the next head-busting installment of Lost (Season 4) on DVD. And no computer for you-know-who (hence the early post and no pictures of dinner). A quality evening for an old married couple.

Sauteed chicken with bacon and white wine
Adapted from Nigella Express

We usually eat dinner at 6:30, so I’m sure we’ll both be starving by the time this is ready—part of the reason I chose something that sounds quick and delicious. Plus it includes bacon, and if thirteen years of marriage have taught me anything, it’s that DP will eat pretty much anything if it has bacon in it.

2 strips bacon
2 chicken breasts
A few splashes of dry white wine
1 clove garlic

Chop bacon into small pieces and cook until crispy; remove from pan and drain on paper towels. Meanwhile, pound the chicken breasts flat, to a thickness of about ½ inch/1 cm. Drain off some of the bacon fat if there’s an excessive amount.

Saute the chicken in the bacon fat, cooking 2-3 minutes on each side, turning once. Remove the chicken to a warm plate when cooked through. Add the white wine; as it bubbles, scrape the bottom of the pan to get up any good stuff. Add the garlic, the bacon, and any juices from the chicken. Plate the chicken, pour the sauce over, and serve immediately.

Serves 2.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Worlds collide

Every so often, something happens to make me remember that the world isn’t quite as big a place as it sometimes seems when I contemplate the three-day odyssey involved in getting from, say, Canberra to Boston. Or vice versa.

I’m not talking about the juggernaut of corporate globalization, where you can find the same fast food and sports and children’s entertainment icons wherever you go, to the point where you start to wonder why you bothered to travel in the first place. I’m talking about little, quirky, personal things—like seeing the same 1984 Toyota Camry hatchback that was my first car 16 years ago: it and its Boston counterparts long since devoured by harsh winters and road-salt rust, but still going strong in Canberra’s relatively mild climate—that make me feel, for a full second or three, as if I’ve been thrust through a hole in the space/time continuum and I’m not exactly sure where I am. You know that feeling you get when you wake up in a strange place? Like that, only when fully awake. College sweatshirts; secondhand books; the WGBH logo at the end of a program on Australian TV; sometimes even a particular quality of light or air is enough to bring about this mental vertigo, part happy recognition, part homesickness. It used to happen in England, too, but the greater sense of disorientation in Australia (the distance, the reverse-seasons thing) has exacerbated it.

It happened today when DP walked in after work and dropped a Hershey bar with almonds on my desk. There are quite a few types of American candy readily available in Australia, manufactured specifically for the Australian market (usually in China), but Hershey’s isn’t among them. There’s a small grocery store in town that has a selection of stuff imported from the US; DP passes it on his walk to work, and stops in when he or Miss B is craving Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. He spotted this, remembered it was my one of my favorites, and bought me one.

Where am I again? And what month is it, anyway?

(photos: album cover, Getting Friendly with Music, Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra: exhibition of obscure album covers, Canberra Museum, June 2009; The Office (US) inspired graffiti, electrical box, Canberra neighborhood; the iconic Converse All-Star logo, Canberra shoe store; Hershey bar with almonds at the end of its long journey from Hershey, PA, USA)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Pushing boundaries

A long way from home—Kennebec (Maine)
potatoes at the Canberra Farmers’ Market,
Autumn 2009
Top Five Ways to Tell that DP is Back in Canberra

5. House has clearly been vacuumed every time you return from even the briefest errand—like, say, going to the mailbox.
4. You immediately forget which week is “just garbage” and which week is “garbage + recycling.”
3. No dirty dishes in the sink. Ever.
2. You’re up on what’s happening in the world again after six weeks of getting random current events updates off the internet.
1. Potatoes for dinner.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Cultural exchange

A couple of weeks ago I read Cheryl’s 5 second rule post about empanadas. I must have eaten an empanada at some point in the 20+ years since I started broadening my culinary horizons (although I have no vivid memories of doing so), but I had never really given them much conscious thought before. As I read, I had one of those culinary eureka moments where you suddenly slot something into its proper place in the food universe (or is it just me who does that?): in a flash of illumination, I grasped that empanadas are, basically, a savory turnover--a Spanish version of Cornish pasty or Italian calzone or Indian samosas (although the latter are deep-fried instead of baked). Reading through the instructions, I realized, furthermore, that they met the main criterion for Roving Lemon’s Leftover Rule of Thumb: cooking a major ingredient (the filling) two different ways in rapid succession.

QED: another method for using up leftovers to add to the (ever-growing) list—and one that is not only particularly versatile (can be meat or veggie! can adapt to a variety of cuisines!) but is also convenient (can be made ahead!) and portable (lunchboxes! road trips! plane trips!).

The idea of the savory turnover, having taken up residence in my brain, refused to be dislodged, and this weekend I found myself with the following items in the fridge: a large lump of pastry dough (extra from making yet another bacon and egg pie) and a container of leftover beef stroganoff that was more than one but less than two servings. What better time to experiment?

Savory continental turnovers
The idea came (to me) from Spain; the pastry is from France; and the filling is from Russia. How’s that for a cultural exchange?

This recipe is based upon what I did with what I had available. The possibilities for amount, size, and filling are endless. I’m already plotting what I can cook extra of next so I can make more of these.

For the dough
1/3 portion pâte brisée
1 egg mixed with 1 Tbsp milk, for egg wash

For the filling
9-10 Tbsp beef stroganoff*

Preheat the oven to 375F/190C. Line a baking sheet with parchment.

Roll out the pastry as you would for a pie. Cut squares or circles approximately 4in/10cm in diameter. Place about 1.5 Tbsp of beef stroganoff in the center of each piece, then fold over, crimping or pinching the edges to ensure a tight seal.**

Brush the turnovers with the egg wash, and bake in the oven for 20-30 minutes or until golden brown.

Eat hot, warm, or at room temperature.***

Makes 6.

* Ie sautéed onions and mushrooms, paprika, strips of steak, sour cream; if you need a recipe, this one looks good, and similar to mine (but personally, in the spirit of this endeavor, I’d rather you used something else that’s patiently waiting its turn in your fridge).

** As you can see from the picture, I didn’t do this thoroughly enough, so there was some bursting. Looked messy, but didn't adversely affect the taste.

*** I was planning to make something else for dinner last night, but when DP saw these, he said, “Why don’t we just have those?” So we did: two apiece, plus some salad and bread, made for a simple, filling dinner on a wet, chilly night.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Native speakers

As I continue my semi-immersion in Australian culture, I regularly come across new (to me) Australian slang terms. Most of these examples, encountered over the last month or so, were self-explanatory in context, so I’ve described the circumstances to the best of my recall, in case other non-Australians want to have a shot at figuring out what each one means. (I’ve also provided links to definitions.) I did have to ask for some clarification on the first one, so I could determine just how insulting it was. (Also, my abject apologies in advance for any regional stereotypes perpetuated here.)

On a drive into the countryside
RL: Why don’t some parts of Australia observe Daylight Saving Time?
Local #1: Because they’re a bunch of bogans who think cows can tell time.

At the weekly parents’ coffee morning
Local #2: So my husband saw me come out of the house in my new boots the other morning, and I saw his eyes light up. I made sure I got home before he did, and put on my daggiest tracksuit, just in case.

At the bedding shop
RL: This is my first winter in Canberra. I’m beginning to think we’ll be needing some more bedding.
Local #3: You’re going to need a doona to make it through winter around here!

At Kingston Miniature Railway, when all four children in our party simultaneously realized that the portaloos were directly behind where we were sitting to have elevenses (oops, UK slang sneaking in here)
RL: What are they all looking at....?
Local #4: Oy, stickybeaks! Turn around and give those people some privacy.

Mastering a new language is exhausting sometimes. I think I need to make like my friend here and go take a nap.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Last hurrah

One of the things I’ve noticed about solo parenting* is that, no matter how long the stretch, I always have almost, but not quite enough, fortitude to get me through. So that, whether it’s been five days or (as this time) forty, I reach a point, usually in the last 24-48 hours, where I think, “Yes! I’m almost done!” and then immediately think, “But I’m not done yet—there are still X (meals/cleanups/bathtimes/whatever) left to go.” And then think, “I can’t do it. I just can’t.” And then do it anyway, because what else are you gonna do?

I realize I’m probably beating a dead horse with this theme, but when one reaches this point, pretty much the only way to make life a little easier on yourself is on the food front. You can’t really skip any of the daily tasks you’re required to do as a parent—but you can produce something simple, tasty, and nutritious for dinner (that, hopefully, both you and your kid(s) will enjoy) without expending too much of your ever-dwindling mental energy. This is one of the things I turn to when I reach such a state.

* The state of mind described here is why I don’t refer to what I have to do intermittently as ‘single parenting’: because I’ve done enough solo parenting to be pretty certain that parenting on your own all the time is a whole different ballgame.

Creamy pasta tricolore
I forget where I first came across this dish (Jamie Oliver? a newspaper?); the original ‘recipe’ was scribbled on a piece of scrap paper that I used until I knew it so well that I didn’t bother looking at it anymore. All amounts are approximate; use your judgment as to how much of everything you want in the mix.

Olive oil
2 containers grape or cherry tomatoes**
1 clove garlic
1 large package/2 bunches spinach
1 package (1lb/500g) short pasta of your choice
1 log fresh goat cheese
Salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Grated pecorino romano or parmigiano reggiano cheese, to taste
Lemon juice, to taste

Put pasta water on to heat. Wash and halve tomatoes. Wash and slice spinach. Mince garlic.

In a large frying pan, heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil on medium. Add the garlic and sauté briefly, then add the spinach. (You may need to add to the pan in batches.) Cover the spinach so it can wilt. Check every couple of minutes and stir to ensure that it is wilting evenly. When it has wilted consistently, season with salt, pepper, and lemon juice, and stir to combine. Leave on a low heat, uncovered, to allow some of the liquid from the wilting to evaporate.

When the water boils, salt generously and cook the pasta al dente according to package instructions. Before draining, reserve about 1 cup of the cooking water.

Drain the pasta in a colander and then return to the hot pan. Drizzle with some olive oil to keep from sticking, and then add the goat cheese, cutting it into chunks as you go. Add the tomatoes and spinach and stir to combine. Continue stirring until the goat cheese has melted, adding a few splashes of pasta water if desired to create a consistent coating for the pasta. Season with pepper, grated cheese, and lemon juice to taste. Serve immediately.

Serves 4, probably with some leftovers--this is pretty filling.

** This is very good with fresh tomatoes that cook a little in the heat of the pasta, but it’s even better if you oven roast the tomatoes beforehand.

Soft Goat Cheese on Foodista

Monday, June 15, 2009

Juicy fruit

Speaking of splashes of color that brighten up the winter, I was thrilled to reconnect recently with an old friend who has cheered up many dark winter days for me. (No, I’m not talking about a blast from the past on Facebook, although there have been a few humdingers in the last week or two). I’m talking about my absolute favorite citrus fruit (for eating out of hand, that is—my love of lemons is well documented, but I don’t peel them and eat them for lunch): first encountered in Boston as minneolas, I have just started finding them for sale here as tangelos. (According to Wikipedia, both are correct, so you know it must be true.)

Whatever their name, they are easily recognizable by the big bump around the stem end of the orange—like a cartoon lump on the head—and are generally available only for a brief period during the winter months (as opposed to the ubiquitous and un-compelling navel orange). In Boston, I remember looking for them just after Christmas, when winter really took hold; here I saw them for the first time at the end of May, considerably earlier in the cold-weather season, but no less welcome for that.

If you haven’t gotten into the habit of eating these, may I respectfully suggest that you do so at your earliest convenience? Tangelos are like the navel orange’s much cooler and more interesting cousin. Their skin is a more pronounced shade of glowing orange, they are bursting with juice, and their flavor is complex, both sweet and tangy, reflecting the zing of their grapefruit forebears but with none of the bitterness. If you’re in the southern hemisphere, act now, since supplies are apparently limited (I had to go to two stores to find some today!). For those of you in the northern hemisphere, file away for reference in about six months’ time; I promise you these actually do give you something to look forward to in January.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Local color

The weather is getting colder by the day, and we’ve broken out the hats, gloves, and warm blankets, but even so, this season in Canberra is not late autumn/early winter as we know it in the northern hemisphere. Amidst the falling leaves and morning mists are splashes of brilliant color, flowers in bloom that I more commonly associate with spring and summer. And a few that are new to me, at least outside a flower shop: the picture you see here is of a camellia in bloom, taken one day recently on a walk with Miss B. We rounded a corner in a residential neighborhood near Miss B’s preschool, and were presented with a dark-green wall, taller than I am and extending along the whole front of someone’s property, covered with these vivid pink blossoms: a whole hedge of camellias. I had no idea what they were, but a few days later I pointed them out to an Australian friend, and she identified them for me.

Check out some more floral sights of the season that I've recorded for posterity—as well as a few of our many neighborhood feathered friends!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Salvage operations

Rather than bore you with the next segment of the apparently Never-Ending Fridge Drama, I refer you, again, to this post, as yesterday’s visit from Fridge Guy was basically a verbatim repeat performance (involving a different part, to be fair). I did have two things in my favor this time around, though: first, it’s a lot colder outside than it was a month ago, so mostly everything kept in decent condition in insulated bags on the balcony overnight; and, second, a friend gave me a useful tip on speeding up the defrosting process (shut a bowlful of boiling water into the freezer compartment) that allowed me to get everything back inside the fridge in 18 hours instead of 24. Then, it was just a matter of figuring out what was still edible, but maybe wouldn’t be for much longer, that could be made into an appealing dinner with a minimum of fuss. Because when just thinking about the fridge produces an anxiety reaction, it’s probably better for both of us if I just leave it alone as much as possible for a while, and let it get good and cold again. For a while.

Salvage operation chicken
I think this would also work well with pork chops or a thick piece of fish. Pounding the chicken ensures that it cooks faster and more evenly. Quantities are approximate, and should be easy to increase for feeding more people.

1 large boneless, skinless chicken breast that has thawed and can’t be refrozen
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 Tbsp olive oil
½ cup dry white wine (or replace with stock or other liquid of your choice)
2 Tbsp pesto*
Splash lemon or lime juice
1 clove garlic, minced

1. Put the chicken breast between sheets of clingfilm (plastic wrap) and pound to a uniform thickness of about one half-inch (1.5cm). Season with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a large frying pan.
2. When pan is hot, place chicken in pan and cover. Cook on one side for about five minutes, then turn, cover and cook on other side for 3-4 minutes.
3. Check to see that chicken is done. Remove to a plate and cover to keep warm. Turn heat under pan up to medium high.
4. Pour wine into pan. When it starts to bubble, use a spatula or similar to scrape up any good stuff that has stuck to the bottom of the pan. Allow the liquid to reduce, and add a splash or two of water if you feel it’s reducing too much.
5. Add pesto, lemon/lime juice, and garlic and stir to create a consistent sauce.
6. Check the chicken and pour any juices that have run off into the sauce; stir to combine.
7. Taste and adjust seasonings. Pour over plated chicken and serve immediately.

I served this with rice and broccoli. Dinner was on the table in 30 minutes, and mother and daughter both gave it thumbs up.

* See the picture for my method for freezing pesto so that you can use a little bit at a time; when they're frozen, I empty the cubes into a bag and just take out as many as I need. I was preparing this for the freezer when I got the idea to use some for dinner—hence the empty one.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Déjà vu

It appears that my fridge may not yet have finished messing with me. Despite my (and let’s not forget Fridge Guy’s) best efforts, and this time without any loud grinding noises to signal its disaffection, it is once again getting ominously temperate inside the main compartment. In keeping with its earlier efforts, this second round of symptoms also began to manifest late on Saturday afternoon, with the extra added bonus that it’s a holiday weekend in Australia. (It’s the Queen’s Birthday. Who knew? They don’t even get a holiday in England for that.)

Friday, June 5, 2009

Locomotive love

Q: What do you do when you have a four-year-old who’s mad about trains, but you live in a city which has no trains to speak of?

A: You take her to the one place in town that not only has trains: they have kid-sized trains that she can ride on as many times as her heart desires (and her mum can pay for).

Last weekend, that’s what we did: took a jaunt with some friends to the Kingston Miniature Railway, where two Sundays a month train enthusiasts large and small can pay to ride on miniature trains pulled by real, working, miniature steam locomotives (and some petrol-powered ones too). The railway is run by a club of model train engineer enthusiasts and is, as far as I can tell, a labor of love. We ended up chatting with the wife of one of the engine drivers, who told us that the club members not only put up and run the miniature railway, but also actually built the tiny engines. It costs nothing to get in, the train rides are pocket change, and there’s even a picnic area (with, yes, working gas barbeques) if you want to settle in for a meal or throw a birthday party for your favorite Thomas the Tank Engine fan.

It might be constructed on an old rubbish dump, but the Kingston Miniature Railway seemed like a magical place to me: everyone there was enjoying themselves, from the people running the whole outfit to the smallest kids standing (or in Miss B’s case, jumping up and down) in line, patiently waiting for their turn to ride on a real steam train. And yet there was no hassle, no crowds, and no exorbitant costs. It was just a simple recipe (trains + love + kids) for a memorable day out.

Portable refueling ideas for trainspotters of all sizes
Since food, in my opinion, improves almost any occasion.

- Bacon and egg pie
- Cold pizza
- Flapjack
- Turnovers

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Quick fix

I mentioned recently how solo parenting, among other things, was messing with my kitchen motivation. It’s kind of embarrassing to acknowledge that sometimes, much of the thrill of cooking is about audience reaction. When the audience, worn out from preschool and the prospect of no dad at dinner yet again, saves her most enthusiastic response for a box of Annie’s Mac and Cheese (imported by the management at colossal hassle to the invaluable crew across the Pacific), is it any wonder I’m going for the quick and easy options at the moment?

Pasta with sauteed zucchini and bacon
If you have a few minutes earlier in the day, chop the zucchini, sprinkle it with coarse salt, and leave it to drain in a colander (see photo). Rinse and shake well before using. It’s not essential but it speeds up the cooking time and intensifies the flavor of the zucchini. The angel hair pasta isn’t essential either, but it cooks in two minutes. What more could you want when you’re trying to get dinner on the table?

2-4 pieces bacon, chopped into small pieces
4 small zucchini, quartered lengthwise and cut in chunks
1 clove garlic, minced
250g/8oz angel hair pasta
Olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
Lots of grated pecorino romano or parmigiano reggiano cheese

1. Put a large pot of water on to boil for the pasta.
2. In a large frying pan, cook the bacon on medium heat, stirring regularly. When it starts to crisp and render fat, add the zucchini. Continue stirring regularly, but let the zucchini rest for a few minutes at a time to get brown. If it starts to look done and the water hasn’t boiled yet, turn the heat down to low and keep stirring.
3. When the water boils, add a good handful of salt, and then the pasta.
4. While the pasta is cooking, add the minced garlic to the bacon and zucchini and stir again.
5. Before draining the pasta, take out about half a cup of the cooking water and reserve. Drain the pasta and return to the hot pan.
6. Drizzle olive oil over the hot pasta and toss—this is so it won’t clump. Throw some black pepper and cheese on too.
7. Add the bacon/zucchini/garlic mixture, and more pepper and cheese to taste. Also pour in a few splashes of the pasta cooking water to bring everything together. Keep tossing.
8 Serve immediately, with more black pepper and cheese at the table.

Served 1 adult and 1 child with ample leftovers.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Whole grains

Today is June first, which means that the first official day of winter in Australia is less than three weeks away. The weather has been seasonally chilly in Canberra (even occasionally grey), the heat is on, and the wool sweaters are out, all of which have turned my thoughts to the kind of food that sticks to your ribs. Which really means that it’s time to start eating oatmeal for breakfast again.

I don’t think I ever ate oatmeal, or even oats, the entire time I was growing up. In fact, I would venture to say that my mother has never kept oats in the house, doesn’t know how to make oatmeal, and can probably count on one hand the number of times she has eaten oats in any form. (They’re not really part of the Italian-American culinary repertoire. My mother’s idea of a hearty breakfast is an egg. Every day. But that’s another story.) So when I took notice of oats, I was already an adult, and brought no prejudices of any kind to the encounter.

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