Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween

There may not be any trick-or-treating in Australia.

No dressing up in costumes.

No jack'o'lanterns.

No scuffing through piles of autumn leaves in the early, frosty dark.

No bags of sugary loot to gloat over and swap.

(It's the wrong season altogether for that sort of thing here, and it's never really caught on.)

But there will be Halloween cupcakes for one very short, very inquisitive Anglo-American expat who knows there's something special about October 31st.

(Oh, and no, I won't be giving up my day job just yet to become a professional cake decorator…although I don't think my audience will be too critical of the aesthetics.)

If you want to make some of these for your own goblins (large or small), the recipe is here.

Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Red meat

A month ago I had rarely given beef salad a second thought. Now I seem to be obsessed with it.

It started with lunch at Gus's, a Canberra institution. (Anything that's been around for more than 40 years in Canberra is kind of a phenomenon, and an institution by default, but it's deserved in Gus's case.) It's the kind of place where I know Miss B is going to want pasta or risotto, which I will often split with her, since I'm almost always in the mood for carbs and she can't eat a whole adult portion. But then I saw "chili beef salad" on the specials menu. For some reason, that magical combination of words was enough to make me give carbs the cold shoulder, and cozy up to the red meat and spice and the cool, crunchy salad vegetables. It was such a great contrast, and such a flavorful—and filling!—meal that I couldn't stop thinking about it. Then there it was again, a couple of weeks later, at a different restaurant: this time with peppery beef and shavings of parmesan along with the vegetables. It was offered as a starter, but it was all I wanted for lunch.

Yesterday I made my own. I had some leftover steak in the fridge, along with some marinade-turned-sauce*, which I used to help concoct a weird but tasty dressing.

Carnivore beef salad
This salad provides a lot of scope for improvisation. I used what I had on hand, but just some of the things I thought of adding if I'd had them were: chunks of avocado; slices of red onion (raw or caramelized); toasted nuts (pine, walnut); croutons.

1 Tbsp steak marinade/sauce
2-3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 inch/2 cm knob of fresh ginger, peeled and cut into strips
Pinch brown sugar

2-3 cups salad greens
8-10 cherry tomatoes, halved
6-8 thin slices cooked steak (about 2 oz/60 g)

Hunk of parmesan/pecorino + vegetable peeler
Black pepper**

Put all dressing ingredients into a mini-processor and blend until smooth. Taste and adjust seasonings. Set aside for a moment.

Assemble greens, tomatoes, and steak in a good-sized bowl. Pour about half of dressing over and mix. Decide if you need more dressing (yes), and add more to taste.

Shave thin slices of cheese and grate pepper all over surface of salad. Either serve as is, or mix in and repeat this step a couple of times.

Serves 1, very satisfyingly.

* I used this marinade from The Pioneer Woman Cooks! (although I substituted red wine for cooking sherry), and reduced it to use as a sauce as Ree suggests.
** Between the soy in the marinade/sauce and the cheese, I didn't feel the need for any extra salt. You may want some, depending on your ingredients.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Tasty links

I've been back from Singapore for 10 days. Since then I've had the jet lag, the obligatory airplane cold, the last term of preschool activities switch into high gear, another quarterly deadline looming, and DP planning another overseas trip (as of today, he knows when he's leaving, but not how many countries he's going to, or for how long).

So I haven't been doing many ambitious cooking projects. But I have been stealing time to keep up with the ridiculous number of food blogs that I follow, and to make use of some of their brilliant ideas. It's my favorite form of procrastination--speaking as a connoisseur of procrastination.

Here are a few recent goodies to help get you through whatever kind of day you're having:

Breakfast sandwiches: courtesy of Chaos in the Kitchen. Assembly-line breakfast cooking that puts its fast-food counterparts to shame. As Katie says, "if you are going to make one, you might as well make a dozen." I only made a half-dozen, because my freezer is small and already crammed full. I ate one immediately after assembling--just to make sure they were good, you understand. They were, and it's comforting to know that I've got a no-brainer breakfast ready and waiting for those days when I can't even manage to dig out the yogurt.

Ten-minute tartiflette (see picture): I'm always looking for new ways to use up leftovers, and this suggestion, from Just Cook It, is my new favorite way of using up any kind of leftover potatoes. And a perfect hearty lunch for the chilly spring Canberra is having.

Cheesy croutons: I'm just now getting around to exploring Mark Bittman's list of 101 Simple Salads, but I've already lost count of how many times I've used #44, which essentially says to make a grilled cheese sandwich, let it cool, cut it into croutons, and put it on salad. (I've been using mine for soup—see "chilly Canberra spring", above.) He ends it with, "This you will do forever." Yes I will.

Herby chicken: I got the idea for this one from A Year of Slow Cooking's Lemon and Herb CrockPot Roasted Chicken, where you cover the chicken with lemon and herbs and roast it in the slow cooker (surprise!). Except mine ended up being a puree of olive oil, garlic, rosemary and lime juice, which I stuffed under the skin of some chicken breasts. And then cooked in the oven. Oops. But I never would have thought of it if it hadn't been for this recipe.

Chocolate pots: aka Delicious Baked Fudge, from The Pioneer Woman Cooks! I've made several different versions of this, but this one is fast, easy, didn't require a special shopping trip, and was, indeed, absolutely delicious.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Globalization 1.0

We spent a lot of time at last week's conference talking about the concept of "Web 2.0". As I went about my business in Singapore, I mused about taking that idea in the other direction, because Singapore is really Globalization 1.0--an example of globalization from before a theory of globalization existed. If you look at all the common notions of globalization (intermingling of cultures, free-flowing exchange of goods, readily available money), they're all there in Singapore, and apparently have been for decades, ever since Sir Stamford Raffles established a British East India Company trading post back in 1819. Singapore subsequently became a center of British power in Asia, attracting substantial immigrant communities of Arabs, Chinese, Indians, and Malays, and in the modern era, flourishes as a major international port and financial center.

The continuing influx of immigrants at all levels of society nourishes an established, thriving, and multi-faceted expat culture. On my last day, I had a chance to sample a cross-section of Singaporean culture and commerce with my friend S., who had come from the US for the conference and who I hadn't had a chance to spend any significant time with in about five years. We planned to spend the day walking, talking, and eating, plus whatever else struck our fancies, and that's what we did. We started off wandering the spotless, gleaming, air-conditioned malls that seem to go on for ever, featuring chain shops and restaurants that I recognized from the US, the UK, Australia, France, Germany, and beyond. When we'd had our fill of that, we headed over to the open-air markets in Little India, teeming with noise, heaving with people, saturated with color, soaked with sweat. It would be difficult to imagine a bigger contrast in such a small place.

Even our meals reflected the paradox: breakfast was a quick last sampling from Toast Box, a mall chain putting a Singapore spin on classic western staples. Lunch, on the other hand, was a foray into the Little India hawker markets, where we saw virtually no other westerners, but rows of stalls selling fresh meats, fruits, and vegetables (including the guy who tried hard to sell me some goat meat and, when I told him I had no place to cook it, cheekily offered to find me one). There was also a huge section of tiny stalls selling prepared Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, and Thai food, so we each picked one dish--S. chose the Indian with a long queue out front and I, true to form, chose Thai--and split them. The quality of the meals we were served, in those no-frills surroundings, confirmed my opinion one more time that the food, as I had been promised, is the best thing about Singapore.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Stepping out

Even in the throes of a conference—rushing from meeting to workshop, spending hours in one windowless conference room after another—there are, as long as you're not stuck in some kind of convention-center wasteland, small opportunities to connect with what's particular to the place you happen to be. On Sunday, when our conference opened, it was an unplanned but very refreshing detour into the courtyard of Raffles Hotel for frosty cocktails and some quiet conversation with a couple of people who didn't require keeping a work face on. On Monday, it was the chance to unwind in an open-air neighborhood cafĂ©. And on Wednesday, in the first break in a day packed with appointments, it was breakfast at Toast Box, a local chain discovered in the food court on the first floor of the convention center.
Toast Box features a variety of treats served on (surprise!) toast. According to our hosts, this is real Singaporean breakfast fare, and almost as enjoyable to me as the food itself was watching the guys behind the counter. One older cook, in particular, quietly made a small ballet of each order, preparing ham and cheese sandwiches and peanut butter on toast with the focus and precision of a sushi chef. My eating experience was definitely enhanced by watching my thick slab of peanut butter toast cut into nine identical squares with a meat cleaver, and then slipped deftly onto a plate without a dribble, crumb, or smear. Together, they provided the perfect combination of familiar and exotic: a toe in the water, culinarily speaking, but one that still felt like a bold step away from the generic conference pastries and coffee on offer upstairs.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Lion City

Hello from Singapore, where the temperatures are steamy and the hotel rooms are tiny!

Or at least mine is. I'm here for a work conference, along with 700 of my closest friends and colleagues, and my friend J. and I wanted a hotel with some local character, instead of one of the big cookie-cutter conference hotels. So we're staying in Chinatown, in a hotel that does indeed have plenty of character, and having a running debate about whose room is smaller. (I'm pretty sure mine is. Or maybe it's just that I'm bigger.) They are configured slightly differently, but each has just enough room for a single bed, a "desk" which is really a foot-wide shelf attached to the wall, and a bathroom that doubles as a shower stall and is about the same size as the one at home in Canberra. No closets or cupboards, and even if you can fit a guest in, you can't use the toilet while they're there because the bathroom door is made of glass. But it does have a teeny-weeny fridge, big enough for one bottle of water and a can of Coke, a 12-inch
flat-screen TV, some of the friendliest hotel staff I've ever come across--and FREE internet!

And I really like it. I've hardly been here--we just finished the second day, which was a "light" day for me: only about eight hours at the conference. I was quite happy to come back to my cozy little nook in a real neighborhood, after we had strolled down the road to eat a fantastic dinner in a sidewalk food court, surrounded by locals and stunned to find out that we had just stuffed ourselves with two mains, a side, and Cokes for a grand total of 15 Singapore dollars for the two of us (that's 12 Australian dollars, 11 US dollars, or 7 British pounds).

I'm going to crawl into bed now, in preparation for tomorrow's 12-hour-plus onslaught of meetings, workshops, and gabbing. I'll be back as soon as I can to report on the fascinating mishmash of cultures here, the creative things conference organizers dream up to entertain you, and cooling off with a gin & tonic in the courtyard of the legendary Raffles Hotel.

Until then, rejoice (or despair, according to taste) that you don't (or do!) live in a place where the temperature is a muggy 90F/30C pretty much 24/7/365.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

EDF practice

There's another Eating Down the Fridge Challenge running this week. I really would have liked to participate again; I had a lot of fun with the one I did in March, and surprised myself with some of the things I came up with. But I'm in the opposite mode this week: I'm going to Singapore for a work conference on Saturday, so I'm focusing on Stocking Up the Fridge with stuff for DP and Miss B to eat next week while the chief cook is out of the kitchen. I did an impromptu mini-EDF exercise on Sunday though, after our plans for the day changed for the third time and I found myself with a) an afternoon at home alone to get through a mountain of chores and work, and b) nothing planned for dinner, since I had been expecting that we'd be out.

I didn't want to waste any of my precious afternoon going to the supermarket, so I resolved to work with what I had in the house. Running true to form, I started off thinking that the cupboard was bare, but when I made a list of "proteins," "starches," and "vegetables," I found that I had six or seven items on hand. In each category. After fantasizing about several ridiculously elaborate, seasonally inappropriate, or ultimately unappetizing possibilities, I settled on a meal that was nutritionally complete*, appealing on yet another chilly, rainy day (unlike the all-salad meal I flirted with briefly), likely to be consumed by everyone present (ditto), and doable within the hour of prep time I had allotted.

Creamy broccoli soup
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 medium carrot
1 medium red onion
2 heads broccoli
4-6 cups water
1-2 tsp salt
¼-½ tsp cayenne pepper**
½-1 cup Greek yogurt***

Heat oil in a large stockpot. Chop all vegetables and add to the pot as you chop them in the order listed. Saute briefly. Add just enough water to cover the vegetables. Bring to the boil and simmer for 30-40 minutes or until all vegetables are completely softened.

Remove pan from heat and puree soup using a stick blender**** (or in batches using a regular blender*****). When soup is pureed to your satisfaction, return to low heat and season to desired taste and consistency with salt, cayenne pepper, and yogurt.

Probably enough to serve 4-6 people as a main course.

* We had this with a cheese plate and homemade bread. I also topped the soup with croutons and pieces of fried prosciutto.
** This is really according to taste. I didn't want it spicy, but with just enough cayenne to give it some depth of flavor.
*** You could probably substitute any other kind of dairy, but you'll probably need more of anything else as Greek yogurt is so thick.
**** At this stage, you could remove some of the cooking liquid, and then add it back in if the puree is too thick. (I always forget to do this, and then scramble to thicken up the soup.)
***** Be careful not to burn yourself doing this, as I always do—yet another reason I love my stick blender.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Flower shows

The weather continues to be fickle and uncooperative, and we're in the midst of another weekend (and a long weekend at that!) filled with chilly, damp, and distinctly un-spring-like weather. Despite these obstacles, Canberra's flowers are soldiering on, determined to demonstrate that they, at least, know what's supposed to be happening when October rolls around in Australia. The gardens on our walk from home to preschool and back again are full of color and beauty, making the walk take twice as long as normal as we stop to look, sniff, exclaim, take pictures, and occasionally congratulate a gardener who comes out to see what the uproar is and stays to accept a few rave reviews.

They're getting some professional competition, though. We finally made it to Floriade this week, even managing to pick one of the few proper spring days we've had so far to do it. Floriade is Canberra's annual spring flower show, and as the largest in the country (and, apparently, the southern hemisphere), attracts visitors from all over Australia and beyond. In addition to thousands of flowers in huge, colorful displays, Floriade also features offerings of public art and performance, a pavilion full of cool stuff for sale, in many cases by the people who manufactured it, and the kind of really excellent coffee two mums were gasping for after herding two preschoolers and an almost nine-year-old around for a couple of hours.
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