Friday, July 31, 2009

Five years

I think it's safe to say that I've learned more in the last five years than I had in all the ones that came before put together.

(Not that any of it is necessarily reflected in a noticeable improvement in my cake decorating skills.)

Wishing a very, very Happy Birthday to my shark-loving, imaginary-creature-inventing, unanswerable-question-posing chatterbox: the mighty Miss B.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Forward planning

I was very proud of myself for remembering all the necessary food items for our weekend in Jervis Bay. However, as always, I forgot to bring any empty containers for storing leftovers. Or even something like cling film or foil to cover leftovers stored in a bowl. So I entertained myself by juggling the few small containers we had, plus a lot of plastic bags, to get everything safely stored away, especially when the time came to leave on Sunday.

What’s that you say? I didn’t really lug leftovers back to Canberra, did I?

What a silly question.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Respecting tradition

We were back in Jervis Bay this weekend, this time to rent a cottage on the beach so that we could give our US visitors a glimpse of the Australian coast. The mild temperatures were a surprising and welcome change from frosty Canberra, and the water was warm enough to permit paddling—not bad for the middle of winter. We played on the beach, got close to some wildlife in its native habitat, and sampled the cottage’s extensive DVD library. I was in charge of organizing meals and showed great self-restraint (I thought) in bringing only two bags of food.

Knowing that the cottage would come equipped, as you’d expect from any self-respecting Australian beach house, with a grill, I was determined to cook at least one meal on it. I mean, you couldn’t really call it a beach weekend otherwise, right? I have minimal experience with grills of any kind; we used to have a Weber when we lived in the US, but DP was always in charge of that. This one was a gas grill, as most grills I’ve encountered here have been, so I figured it would be like a bigger and better gas stove, and that this would be a good opportunity to try grilling myself.

Well, we had a little trouble getting it going, and we almost gave up, which would likely have meant a spell of sulking by yours truly. Luckily, I double-checked the instructions, figured out where we had missed a step, and got it going in time to cook a beachified version of one of our regular dinners: Italian-style bangers and mash. Spicy Italian sausages (brought down from our butcher in Canberra) cooked on the grill (a little bit scorched on one side before I figured out how to regulate the heat); potatoes with oil; and a warm salad built on a big pile of grilled zucchini.

Beach house grilled zucchini salad
2-3 Tbsp olive oil
7 medium zucchini, quartered lengthwise and cut into 1 in/2 cm chunks
1 punnet cherry tomatoes, halved
3 scallions, sliced
salt & freshly ground black pepper
½ cup vinaigrette dressing

Toss zucchini with olive oil, then cook on a hot grill until tender but still a bit al dente, about 15-20 minutes, turning frequently. When cooked, remove to a large salad bowl. Immediately add tomatoes and scallions, season with salt and pepper, and toss to combine.* Add dressing and mix thoroughly. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.

Serves 3 adults and 2 children, with leftovers.

* I took out portions for the kids at this stage, before I added the dressing, since they both like vegetables but dressing not so much.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Deep space

My sister and eight-year-old niece are in town for a visit, selflessly trading in three weeks of Boston summer for an equivalent amount of Canberra winter just so they can hang out with us. We stuck around Canberra for the first several days of their visit so they could recover from jet lag, so took the opportunity to play tourist where we live, which usually leads to an interesting discovery or two.

On Sunday we took them to the Canberra Space Centre in the hills near Tidbinbilla, about 40 minutes outside Canberra. It’s a little surreal: some buildings and a cluster of giant satellite dishes sitting in the middle of open country, with sheep and kangaroos grazing nearby.

Without having planned it, we happened to be visiting in the run-up to events commemorating the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing. I found out quite a bit of stuff I didn’t know, mostly about how involved Australia in general, and this centre in particular, has been with NASA space exploration. Anyone who has seen the movie The Dish will know about the Australians’ role in transmitting the signal from the first moon landing, but the movie fictionalized a few things, including the location of the eponymous satellite dish. It wasn’t in Parkes, NSW; it was near here and now resides at the Canberra Space Centre. (They also didn’t play cricket on it, which bummed me out a little bit to discover.) And today, this centre is one of only three stations in the world which make up the Deep Space Network; the other two are in California and Spain, strategically spaced so that, as the earth rotates, someone is always pointing in the right direction for observation of and communication with spacecraft.

The little museum was crammed with lots of other interesting facts and artifacts, from details about why it took so long for an American woman to go into space (surprise! Sexism), to a scale-model replica of the solar system hanging from the ceiling that shows just how much bigger Jupiter is than all the other planets (and which Miss B found totally entrancing).

So if you happen to be in the neighborhood (or about 35 km from the neighborhood, which is more likely), and you’re at all interested in space exploration, drop by. It turns out to be a pretty cool thing to have out in the backyard, regionally speaking.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Foolish consistency

Having just finished writing about how a dictatorial approach to cooking misses the point, I’m now going to contradict myself and talk about having a meal schedule.

(I like to tell myself that it’s the paradoxes in people that make them interesting. I find people who are absolutely consistent all the time are often not very interesting and sometimes a little bit scary.)

I’ve previously alluded to the fact that the meal regimen in my house growing up was, um, a little bit rigid, and that this has made its mark on me, although I’ve tried to broaden my horizons. I actually think it’s useful to have a rough framework for eating certain things on certain nights; it helps me with meal planning because I’m not starting from absolute zero on coming up with ideas. (Although I realize that other people, including some who grew up in the same house as I did, might find this whole concept too constraining.)

So what does that mean in practical terms? What happens if, say, you go away for the weekend unexpectedly? Well, if you’re me, it means you come home to a hefty piece of steak in your fridge that needs to be used up pronto. That’s because Saturday night, in my family, is Steak Night—one in-law tradition that DP has adopted enthusiastically.

I don’t tend to mess with Steak Night too much, because a) it’s tradition (cue “Fiddler on the Roof” music) and b) I feel a good steak, properly cooked, doesn’t need much embellishment. But, just as it feels odd to have anything else on Steak Night, so does it feel odd to have Steak Night on any night other than Saturday. The upside to that constraint is that it provides scope to do something a bit different with the same old main ingredient when you get it outside its assigned spot on the rota.

Steak Fajitas
Last time I made this, I realized that it’s like a Mexican stir-fry—once you get everything sliced and assembled, it all comes together very quickly.

2 Tbsp cooking oil of your choice (I use light olive oil)
1 large or 2 small onions, sliced
1 large red pepper/capsicum, sliced
1 lb/450 g rump steak, cut crosswise in half-inch/1 cm slices**
Ground cumin

Heat a large grill pan, skillet, wok, sauté pan or similar until very hot. Add oil, then vegetables. Cook, stirring constantly, until they begin to soften (3-5 minutes). Add steak and continue stirring until the steak is cooked to your liking (medium rare: another 3-5 minutes). Season to taste with paprika and ground cumin. Serve immediately, either bringing the loudly sizzling pan to the table (in the manner of Mexican restaurants everywhere), or transferring meat and veg to a warmed bowl, so that everyone can construct their own fajitas.

To serve***
Warmed tortillas (estimate two per person, plus a couple extra)
At least 1 cup grated cheese (I use sharp cheddar)
Cut limes, for squeezing over

Place a reasonable amount of the fajita mixture, enhanced by some or all of the listed condiments, in the middle of a tortilla. Fold over in the manner of a burrito, and eat with your hands. No matter what I do, mine always leak, but I don’t care.

Serves 4.

* I forgot to take a picture of the finished product before we ate it all, so here’s a completely random picture of an echidna (the Australian porcupine/hedgehog) instead.
** This can easily be made veggie, either by just leaving out the steak or substituting tofu, tempeh, portobello mushrooms, etc.
*** This list traditionally includes sour cream, but I usually ignore that. Just FYI.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Kitchen perspective

When I started getting seriously interested in cooking, ten years ago or more, I remember my early encounters with the “authoritarian” style of cookbook writing. You know the type: when the author states that you must make the recipe using exactly these ingredients (preferably in season, locally sourced, and organic) and exactly this method, or else a hole will open up in the space-time continuum and all humanity will be doomed.

Okay, I might have exaggerated that last part a little bit. But you get my drift.

I remember reading these treatises and getting panicky—and embarrassed, if I had already made the dish in question and done some part of it “incorrectly.” As if the Kitchen Police were even now on their way to come and get me. (Apple crumble in summer?! To the dungeons!)

Recently I came across one of these opinionated tomes and, leafing through it, was slightly surprised to find myself not only not getting flustered, but mentally rolling my eyes at page after page of personal experience and opinion presented as kitchen dogma.

Either I’m getting more confident as I get older, or more impatient. Maybe both.

Because here’s the thing: life isn’t like that, and cooking certainly isn’t like that. Rigid rules and systems are all very well, but the fact is they only give the illusion of control. Reality, in the kitchen and out, is dictated by the amount of time, energy, money, and space that people have available to do the things they need and want to do. And sometimes, no matter how much you plan and prepare, things go wrong. You don’t know why. It doesn’t matter how much you have or how much you know. And you can’t do anything about it. You just have to roll with whatever sucker punch the universe has decided to give you.

And in the kitchen, what matters, in the end, is taking the trouble to make good, nutritious, tasty food—for ourselves and other people—and remembering how lucky we are to have the wherewithal to do so.

Reluctant baked egg puff
Adapted from The Best American Recipes 2002-2003
Aka my most recent kitchen fail. I’ve made this recipe numerous times; the other night I prepared and baked it as usual. I took it out after what I thought was enough time, and put a knife into the middle to test it. The knife came out clean (in three places!), so I left it out. When I tried to cut it five minutes later, a large puddle of uncooked egg oozed out, and back into the oven it went. In the end, it took almost an hour to cook. Why did this happen? Is it my crappy oven? The dish I cooked it in? Who knows? Even with years of cooking experience, sometimes things still happen that mystify me. And in the end, even though it was ready 25 minutes after everything else, it was still good.

¼ cup plus 2 Tbsp all-purpose/plain flour
1 tsp salt
¾ tsp baking powder
9 large eggs
3 Tbsp butter, melted
1½ cups cheddar cheese, grated
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 cup pecorino romano, grated
3 scallions, chopped
½ cup salami, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Butter a pie dish or similar. Measure first three ingredients into a small bowl; whisk to combine, then set aside.

Beat eggs in a large bowl until doubled in size (this will take 3-5 minutes, depending on your mixer). Add dry ingredients, butter, and cheeses and continue to mix until combined. Fold in the scallions and salami, then pour into baking dish.

Bake until golden brown on top and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean (make sure to double—or quintuple—check this). The recipe suggests 30-35 minutes, but it may take longer. Let stand for a few minutes before slicing, if you can.

Serves 6.

Dedicated to the memories of J. and M., who I never got the chance to meet.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Breakfast BBQ

It takes the Australian mind to bring together two great Australian traditions: the barbeque and the full cooked breakfast. Eggs, bacon, sausage, plus a vegetable medley: tomatoes, mushrooms, peppers, and onions (the last two contributed to the mix by yours truly--not traditional). Sourdough toast on the side (the only thing not cooked on the grill).

Simple, yet brilliant. And delicious. I'll be copying it on my own grill at the first opportunity. I think you should too.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Playdate etiquette

This week’s etiquette dilemma: would it be okay to bring defrosted blueberry muffins to a playdate?

My situation was as follows: we got back from the coast at eight-thirty Sunday night, and had a playdate scheduled for ten-thirty Monday morning. So I was either going to have to figure out something that I could make in the approximately 30 minutes I’d have available during that fourteen-hour gap, or else go with the muffins. (Showing up empty handed is obviously not an option.)

They were homemade, and frozen on the day I baked them. I'd be perfectly happy to toast them up and eat them at home. But taking them to someone else's house felt a little bit like cheating.

Then, on Monday morning, still half-asleep, I opened the fridge and saw a container of dried sour cherries that I’d bought on a whim a few weeks earlier and not yet figured out a good use for.

And remembered about the one and only thing I could get in and out of the oven in the time still available to me.

Yogurt scones with dried fruit
Adapted from Chocolate & Zucchini
The yogurt makes these scones very tender; they puff up impressively and don’t get much of a crust.

1 cup chopped dried fruit (I used some peaches as well as the sour cherries)
425 g/3.5 cups flour
60 g/4 Tbsp sugar
30 g/2 Tbsp baking powder
large pinch salt
50 g/2 oz butter, at room temperature
250g/10 oz plain or Greek yogurt
60 ml/2 Tbsp milk

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C and line two baking trays with parchment. If desired, soak the fruit in warm water, juice, or syrup while you get on with the rest of the scones. (I did, but you could also add it dry; it just depends on what consistency you want it to be.)

Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl, then mix the butter in completely.

Mix the yogurt and milk together in a jug, and then dump into the dry ingredients. Fold together just until mixed consistently. (You may need to add a bit more liquid if too dry, or a bit more flour if too sticky. Too sticky is better than too dry.)

Fold fruit gently into scone mixture. Use a tablespoon to scoop out large (about 2 in/5 cm) lumps of dough onto baking trays. Space lumps out as scones will grow in the oven.

Bake for about 15 minutes, turning trays halfway through. Cool on racks and eat warm, slathered with butter.

These also freeze well for later eating, both before and after baking (the latter in case you don’t have my issues about that sort of thing).

Makes 12-18.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Jervis Bay

We were still unpacking from our trip to New Zealand when we got a last-minute invite to go to the beach for the weekend, from friends of ours who just bought a place on the coast a couple of hours’ drive from Canberra. Still recovering from all the fun we had in NZ, we debated a bit about whether to go. Cons included the hassle (renting a car, a longish drive), the accommodation (seriously spartan: as I mentioned, they just moved in), and the schedule (we had already made a number of other tentative plans for the weekend). Pros included getting to spend some quality time hanging out with friends, and to experience the beauties of the south coast, which we’ve been hearing about since we got here, but hadn’t yet managed to visit properly.

The pros list was shorter, but much more compelling, and we set off after an early lunch on Saturday afternoon. In view of the aforementioned minimalist furnishings, and the fact that technically it was our turn to host, I had offered to bring dinner. I figured I could count on a knife, a chopping board, and a working oven, but I brought pretty much everything else with me, and did as much ahead of time as I could. The unanticipated benefit of this was that not only didn’t I have to worry about what I might find at the end of my journey, I also was able to prepare and serve three courses with almost no work. Which meant that I got to have a relaxing Saturday night at the beach along with everyone else.

Slow cooker peposo notturno
Adapted from Heat by Bill Buford
This Italian recipe is, hands down, my all-time favorite beef stew. It’s intensely flavorful, requires almost no work on the part of the cook (you don’t even have to brown the meat!), and tastes noticeably better if you make it ahead of time. The name means “pepperiness by night,” so I have adapted this traditional recipe to modern (!) technology, and cook it overnight in my slow cooker. I took the finished stew down in a cooler; when dinnertime rolled around, I scooped off all the fat that had risen to the top, heated it through in the oven, and served it with potatoes with oil and oven-roasted Brussels sprouts.

2 kg/4 lbs stewing beef*
1 heaping Tbsp rock salt
2 heaping Tbsp black peppercorns
10-12 cloves garlic
1-2 bottles red wine

Turn slow cooker to high. Place beef in slow cooker and scatter salt over. Crush peppercorns coarsely and scatter over meat. Smash and peel cloves and tuck in amongst the pieces of meat. Pour enough red wine over to cover meat.

Leave slow cooker on high for 20-30 minutes, then turn to low and leave the meat to cook for 8-10 hours.

In the morning, turn off the slow cooker and allow the meat to cool for a bit, then remove to a container for refrigerating. Pour the liquid from the slow cooker into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the volume of the liquid by one-half, then pour over the meat and refrigerate.

About an hour before desired serving time, remove congealed fat and gently reheat stew in the oven.

Serves 4 with leftovers.

* The original recipe suggests shin of beef. I’ve made this with that, with regular stewing beef, and, this last time, with the ossobuco cut, which was pretty spectacular.

Friday, July 10, 2009

NZ images

Just in case you think all I did in New Zealand was eat....Here are some selected photos from the various sights and activities we fit in during our extended weekend visit. (Although as you'll see we did manage to cram a fair bit of food in pun intended.)

And one final word: go.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Strange fruit

Although Australia and New Zealand are relatively close neighbors, geographically speaking, they’re not really very much alike. Topographically, climactically, historically, biologically: all of these are dramatically different from one country to the other. I think in the larger world they tend to get lumped together in people’s minds, but both times that I’ve been to New Zealand I’ve travelled from Australia, and both times I’ve been struck much more forcefully by differences than I have by similarities.

Since I’ve been living in Canberra, I’ve been on the lookout for new and exotic foods to try, and have come across a few so far. It hadn’t occurred to me that a short hop over to NZ for a few days’ holiday would yield the opportunity to try three new fruits, two of which I’d never even heard of before. These were:

1. Custard apples: I’d seen something called this in the supermarket in Canberra, but hadn’t yet sampled them. The New Zealand version is smooth instead of lumpy, and research indicates that it is in fact a different variety than what is available in Australia. The “custard” part is very apt for their texture, but I think they got the “apple” part on looks alone. To me they taste like a cross between a pear and a honeydew melon, with, as mentioned, a very custardy mouthfeel and pale, creamy flesh. For a lover of things tart and acidic like myself, however, they paled in comparison to….

2. Tamarillos: these look like an oblong plum on the outside, and taste like a cross among a kiwifruit, a plum, and a tomato on the inside. Their flesh is deep orange, with a ring of edible black seeds in the center. They have a very distinctive texture and flavor, and I gather that they’re not everyone’s cup of tea. (I loved them.)

Last but not least were the elusive…

3. Feijoas: these came up in conversation over dinner the night we arrived, and we were on the hunt for specimens at the two farmers’ markets and the specialty Italian market that we visited over the weekend. None were forthcoming, but we did manage to procure some sparkling feijoa wine (reminiscent of hard cider or maybe a fizzy rosé wine), as well as some feijoa sorbet (thoroughly delicious). I was disappointed not to try the actual fruit, as tasting only the derivative products makes the flavor much harder to pin down descriptively. But, on the up side, it means now I have the perfect excuse to go back again: additional research is indicated. No--required.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Exotically familiar

Dateline: Auckland, New Zealand

That's right, Roving Lemon is on the road and posting from the other side of the Tasman Sea. This is my second visit to New Zealand and, if possible, I've fallen even more in love with it than I did the first time, seven years ago. The topography in and around Auckland--green hills and ocean views everywhere you look--makes me feel right at home, while the dormant volcanoes that dot the landscape provide a bit of spectacular contrast and a visual reminder that you're on the tectonically active Pacific Rim.

Luckily for me, the friends that we're visiting also like nothing better than a bit of good food, so our visit thus far has been a procession of delicious treats. Over the weekend I got the chance to go to not one but two regional farmers' markets. We sampled a variety of specialty products and local produce; I saw and tasted some fruits I'd never heard of or seen before (more on that later); and talked to people from all over, from locals to European visitors to longtime transplants who came from Philadelphia once upon a time.

Among the huge variety of specialty products we had the opportunity to look at, touch, smell and taste, we made sure to pay a visit to the only producer of buffalo-milk mozzarella in the whole of NZ. On top of some surprisingly good winter tomatoes from a few stalls over, with basil, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper scattered over, it made a fantastic insalata caprese starter for dinner: authentic Italian taste, locally made.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Frozen water

Well, it took nine months, but I’ve finally ticked off the only item remaining on the To Do list from my very first post: earlier this week, I went to my first training session with the Canberra women’s ice hockey team. The rink and facilities are (how can I say this kindly?) well-used; it looks as though I’m fixing to be the oldest person on the team; and I’m feeling pretty rusty after more than two years off the ice (by far the longest I’ve gone without skating since I started playing in high school); but despite all that, I felt so happy to be back in a hockey environment.

When I finished my last active season two years ago, it was in such an atmosphere of drama that I honestly thought I was ready to quit hockey for good. I’m glad to discover that’s not quite the case. I think an entirely drama-free team might be too much to hope for (I’ve never found one of those yet), but most people I’ve met so far seem friendly and laid-back, and I reckon I’m going to be too busy for the remainder of the season (between bouts of wheezing) trying to remember everyone’s name to notice if any factions or dramas are bubbling below the surface. It’s not much of a strategy, but it’s the only one I’ve got for the moment.

Oh, and once again I’ve underestimated the athletes in my adopted country, expecting the women’s team to consist largely of North American expats. Nope—pretty much everyone is Australian.

I wonder if they’ll like homemade cookies as much as the poms did?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Gastronomical transformations

For years my mother teased me about a long list of foods that I balked at trying when I was a fussy toddler, many of which were destined, once the initial resistance was overcome, to be among my childhood favorites. At nine or ten years old, I had no memory of this picky phase, and couldn’t imagine what it would be like not to be thrilled to be presented with most of the items mentioned.

There were a few exceptions, though. Prominent among them was red peppers. These didn’t show up on my plate too often, but I fought eating them whenever they did; their taste was too pronounced and unfamiliar, and I wasn’t keen on the texture either. When we had stuffed peppers for dinner, I used to peel the entire pepper off the filling and give it to someone else. (To this day I’m amazed that my mother, a card-carrying member of the Clean Plate Club, let me get away with this.)

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