Wednesday, November 25, 2009


EDF = Eating Down the Fridge: a fun challenge where you commit to not going grocery shopping for a week and getting creative with what's already in your kitchen.

EDK = Eating Down the Kitchen: when you are three weeks away from an intercontinental move and frantically trying to consume every scrap of food in your possession, because US Customs says you can't bring it with you and you hate wasting food.

If you run out of something, you can't replace it. (Goodbye, beloved cinnamon! I'll see you on the other side.)

If you've got something lying around that you only use once in a while, you've got to figure out a way to use it up. (Anyone have suggestions for using up ¾ of a jar of cider vinegar?)

Here's one concoction I've already come up with. I expect others, increasingly bizarre, will follow.

Storecupboard shuffle couscous
The one box of couscous I had lying around was parmesan-flavored, so I went with an Italian-flavors theme. But I think this would probably work just as well with plain couscous.

Please note: all measurements are approximate.

~12 sundried tomatoes
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 Italian sausage
~4 zucchini
1 box couscous
1 glass white wine
salt & pepper
pecorino romano cheese, for topping

Heat up some water. Chop sundried tomatoes and throw into about a cup of hot water to soak while you do everything else. (If yours are packed in oil, you can probably skip this step.)

Heat a large skillet to medium and add oil. Remove sausage from its casing and crumble into hot pan. Brown sausage, stirring occasionally.

While the sausage is browning, quarter the zucchini and chop into chunks. (You can also do this step earlier if you want to salt the zucchini as I describe here.) Add the zucchini to the hot pan and cook, stirring every few minutes but also leaving alone so it can brown.

While the zucchini is cooking, boil some more water. Put the couscous in a pan or heatproof bowl. Pour boiling water over couscous, cover, and leave to cook according to the package directions. (This usually takes about five minutes.)

When the zucchini has cooked to your satisfaction, throw in the white wine and stir around, scraping up any good stuff that has stuck to the bottom of the pan. Turn the heat to low. Dump in the couscous and the softened tomatoes (and some of the soaking liquid if you think that would improve things; I did). Stir to combine everything thoroughly, then taste and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Serve, topped with grated cheese, hot, warm, or at room temperature. (Also good eaten cold out of the fridge.) Serves 4 with leftovers.

PS EDK also = the reason I'm not attempting to cook Thanksgiving dinner this year. But I'm still remembering to give thanks; see my list from last year, all still valid. And Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours if you're celebrating!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Kitchen alchemy

I don't know what it is about some recipes. You stir a few perfectly straightforward ingredients together, slap the mixture in a pan, and bake it. You let it cool, cut it, and serve it to a random gathering of people. Women swoon. Men ask to marry you. Hell, women ask to marry you. Children smear it all over their faces. In very short order, you are left with nothing but an empty container and a circle of smiling people with chocolate in their teeth.

I've watched it happen with this one over and over again. My mother has been making these my whole life, and I've watched relatives gobble them up, friends embarrass themselves, and brothers-in-law swear they've only had two (not five) when they go for the last one. And it's not just a Boston thing: I swear there are still people in England who know me only as So-and-so's friend who brought those…things…to that party that time.

This weekend I was invited to a barbeque, and asked to bring a dessert, so I tried these out on an Australian contingent: partly because the recipe was about all I had the mental energy for, and partly out of curiosity to see if I would get the same reaction.

The result: the only reason I had those two available for picture-taking is because they wouldn't fit in the container that I took to the party.

Please try these and tell me if you get the same reaction. I'm always looking to broaden my data sample on just what it is about this recipe that drives people crazy.

Congo bars
Adapted from Rosie's Bakery All-Butter Fresh Cream Sugar-Packed No-Holds-Barred Baking Book
My mother's recipe uses Crisco, but I've found English and Australian vegetable shortening to be quite different in texture and density, and producing different results when used in baking. So I hunted down this version that uses butter, and now I like it even better, if that's possible. (Oh, and no, I don't know why they're called congo bars either. If you do, please enlighten us.)

1 1/3/280 g cups plain/all-purpose flour
1 ½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
9 Tbsp (1 stick + 1 Tbsp)/125 g butter, softened
1 ¾ cups/350 g light brown sugar*
1 ¼ tsp vanilla extract
2 large eggs at room temperature
1 cup/120 g semisweet chocolate chips
½ cup/60 g coconut

Preheat oven to 350F/180C. Grease an 8 in x 8 in/20 cm x 20 cm square baking pan.

Blend dry ingredients and set aside.

With an electric mixer on medium, cream butter, sugar, and vanilla until light and fluffy (about 2 minutes). Scrape down the sides of the bowl as necessary.

Add eggs, mix on high briefly (about 3-5 seconds), then on medium until well blended (about 7-10 seconds).

Add dry ingredients and mix on low until combined (8-10 seconds).

Fold in chocolate and coconut until thoroughly mixed through. Spread evenly in baking pan.

Bake for about 30 minutes, rotating pan halfway through, or until it has a rich golden crust and the center has sunk. Cool in pan for at least 30 minutes before slicing.

Makes 25 1-inch bars.

* I use whatever kind of brown sugar I have on hand. It changes the texture somewhat, but they're pretty much always good.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Puffy bread

Have I mentioned that it's hot? Stinking hot? Late-January hot? (Or, for those of you up north, Boston-in-August hot?) So hot, in fact, that I'm starting to think longingly of mid-winter in Kansas?

(Yes, of course, I realize that that means eventually I'll have to contend with summer in Kansas, which I hear is not much different from what I'm currently experiencing, but I'll think about that later. Allow me my escapist fantasy for the moment.)

So hot that I'm avoiding turning the dryer on because it heats up the bathroom too much. And as for the oven…ugh.

I've been doing pretty well with finding work-arounds to avoid using the oven (hello, my darling slow cooker). I especially wanted to not do any bread baking, since that involves turning the oven up as hot as it will go—not a desirable prospect when the whole house already feels like an oven. But I still wanted some bread. Actually, more to the point, Miss B wanted some bread, and was prepared, in the way of all self-respecting five-year-olds, to ask for it as many times as it took to convince me to make some.

From somewhere I dredged up a memory of reading a blog post about cooking pita bread in a skillet, and (without actually going back to check) decided to try that with some of the bread dough that is ever-present in my refrigerator. So I followed the usual procedure for rolling out pita bread (see below), and preheated a cast-iron skillet; threw in the flattened disks of dough, one by one; and with very little fuss or sweat produced some very tasty flatbreads. They even puffed a little bit!

Miss B devoured all of hers and part of mine, and I've made them another three times this week. It was only when I went back to track down the link above that I noticed that, while you do cook the pita bread in a skillet, you're supposed to put the skillet in a very hot oven.

Oh well. I'm sticking with my method. At least until the temperatures drop below 30C/90F.

Puffy skillet bread
This bread cooks up like a cross between pita and naan. You should get enough puff to be able to rip them open and stuff things in them.

1 batch bread dough, already made and risen in the fridge*

Figure out how many flatbreads you want to make. Pull off that many lumps of dough and roll each into a smooth ball. (I do this by cupping my hand over the dough lump and rolling it around on the counter. A good size lump is one that fits comfortably under your cupped hand.) Leave to rest and rise on the counter for 10-20 minutes, depending upon how cold the dough is.

After the dough has rested and risen a bit (it won't look too much different, but a bit), flatten into thin disks with a rolling pin. Sprinkle with flour as necessary while rolling to keep from sticking. Leave to rest for another 10 minutes or so. While this step is happening, preheat a skillet (nonstick or cast iron).**

Cook each disk for 2-3 minutes a side in the hot pan or until starting to brown in spots. It may puff up,*** but will probably collapse when you take it off the heat.

Serve immediately, with hummus, soup, salad, dip….

* I'm working on a batch I made three days ago. The fridge makes it rise very slowly, and develops the flavor.
** You may need to experiment with how hot to make it, depending upon your stove and pan. I started off with mine turned way up high—bad idea. I am now preheating the pan thoroughly on low-to-almost-medium heat.
*** Sprinkling or spritzing with water may help with the puffing...but it will probably still collapse shortly.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Building blocks

Canberra has gone from being freezing cold to summer-hot more or less overnight. So I'm thinking about salads again, particularly one that I came up with last year, after reading a post on 5 second rule about a BLT salad. I loved this idea, but decided to take it one step further—just as I always do in restaurants, when I'm offered the choice of a BLT or a club sandwich. Bacon, lettuce, and tomato are pretty fantastic all by themselves, of course, but add some good chicken or turkey and you've made RL's day.
Chicken club salad
Slapdash ranch dressing*
2 Tbsp mayonnaise
1 Tbsp Greek yogurt
1 small clove garlic
2 basil leaves
½ tsp dried oregano

1-2 pieces bacon
4-6 leaves of romaine
6-8 grape tomatoes
½ chicken breast, cooked and sliced**
salt & freshly ground black pepper
handful of croutons

Put all dressing ingredients in a mini-processor and blend. Thin with a little bit of milk or lemon juice if you think the consistency is too thick. Set aside. ***

Cook the bacon using your preferred method—frying pan, oven, microwave. Chop into thin slices and dump into a bowl big enough to mix the salad. Wash, dry, shred, and add the romaine. Wash, dry, quarter, and add the tomatoes. Add the chicken. Season with salt and pepper.

Add half the dressing and toss thoroughly. Taste and decide if you want more dressing or seasoning, and repeat as necessary. Top with croutons and serve immediately.

Serves 1, accompanied by a very large glass of ice water.

* So called because I didn't have any of the traditional herbs for ranch dressing on hand, so I just improvised. (You could also use bottled ranch dressing, naturally, but I didn't have any of that either.)
** Having leftover cooked chicken is my main impetus for making this salad. You don't want to be cooking chicken specially--then you'll just be getting all hot and bothered, instead of cooling off, as this salad intends.
*** This makes a pretty small amount of dressing, but you can easily double it. For me, a little thick, creamy dressing goes a long way.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Remembrance Day

Armistice Day. Poppy Day. Veterans Day. Whatever you call it, please spare a moment on November 11 to remember and honor those who have given their skills, their bodies and brains, and their lives in armed service—including those who serve today.

Even if you vehemently oppose the conflicts, past or present, in which they took part; even if you consider their capabilities and lives wasted as a result of bad political decisions, blundering generalship, or misguided ideals; even if you disagree in every particular with the use of force to settle political disputes: please, pause for a moment to honor the individuals: their courage, which was maybe just fear overcome; their fortitude and endurance; and the things that they lost, and that we have, and have the luxury to take for granted, every day.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

- from "Anthem for Doomed Youth", Wilfred Owen, 1917

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Reality checks

In a perfect food blogger world, I'd be writing a post about how I bought the strawberries pictured here at the farmers' market, just hours after they had been lovingly picked by the farmer and driven carefully to town, avoiding any bumps in the road so as not to bounce them too much. Or maybe I would even have picked them myself, carefully detaching each jewel-like morsel and placing it ever so gently in the handwoven basket over my arm.

(I might even be wearing a sunbonnet as I did this. And I certainly wouldn't have backache from bending over to try to find the little rascals hiding under their verdant, leafy canopies. No no.)

Back in the real world, what actually happened was this:

I picked up two punnets of strawberries at the supermarket late last week, on a whim, because they were on sale. Then I put them in the fridge and ignored them for about five days. Then I decided to do something with them today so I'd have something to bring to a lunchtime playdate. Then I spent a good 15 minutes hulling them and cutting the, um, less perfect bits off.

All of which brings me to the key point about this recipe: it elevates the somewhat mundane strawberries which are often all that's available to something rather sublime. A useful trick to have up your (unironed) sleeve as one more way to cope with an imperfect world.

Strawberries in dark syrup
adapted from How to Eat by Nigella Lawson
Feel free to fiddle with these proportions to suit your taste: my version uses less sugar than the original because I like a sweet-tart flavor. I start with a scant two tablespoons of sugar per pound of strawberries, and then sweeten based upon the strawberries.

1 lb/450 g strawberries, hulled, cleaned, icky bits removed, and quartered
1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
2-3 Tbsp sugar
pinch salt

Put the strawberries in a medium-sized bowl and sprinkle the other three ingredients over the surface evenly. Toss gently with a large spoon.

Remove to a container with a lid; cover tightly and let macerate for at least an hour, gently turning the container occasionally if you remember.

If transporting, try to be sure and pick a container that leaks all over the inside of your bag, just in case you need yet another reminder of how imperfect the world really is. Serve with cream (pouring or ice), alongside cake, or just as is.

Serves 2 adults and 2 children. Can easily be multiplied.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Taste memory

Why do certain memories stand out so sharply, even when you yourself can't figure out what is particularly significant about them?
I've already written about one vivid food memory I've been carrying around for several years. Another one comes from one of my periods of "perching" in the US between stints of overseas living. This one, from 2003, was when I was living in Boston but commuting to Providence for work. (For anyone not familiar with southern New England, that's 40+ miles/64+ km of driving each way. About an hour, door to door, five days a week.)

Despite the grinding commute, and the pressures of the job (including one stretch of several months where I was covering the responsibilities of three full-time positions), in many ways I really enjoyed that year. The work atmosphere was pretty intense, and it created some strong relationships; I still keep in touch with a lot of the people I worked with, even though we have all moved on. There were a lot of good eaters among us, so I managed to eat in almost every restaurant on Thayer Street and the surrounding area of College Hill (a significant number); and also to sample a lot of home-cooked food and other goodies that my co-workers and I brought to the office to share.
Among all of those varied eating experiences, my single strongest food memory is the berry-yogurt cake our director brought in one Friday from her favorite local bakery. (I still haven't been able to figure out why.) I do remember that I had to physically restrain myself from eating the whole thing, and I've been searching for a recipe ever since that would allow me to replicate that particular texture.

Do you have taste memories haunting you? What are yours?

Gateau yaourt internationale
Adapted from Fig Jam and Lime Cordial
Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I think my six-year quest for my perfect yogurt cake may be over. I found this on an Australian food blog, adapted from an American cookbook, documenting a classic French recipe. It is a cinch to make, and all the ingredients are things you are likely to have on hand. I had to fiddle with it a little to accommodate what was stored in my cabinets and my brain cells, and, unintentionally but fittingly, produced a French cake with an American/Australian twist.
1 cup plain/all-purpose flour
½ cup almond meal (or extra ½ cup flour)*
2 tsp baking powder
pinch salt
1 cup sugar
1 tsp lemon zest
½ cup Greek yogurt
3 large eggs
½ tsp vanilla extract
½ cup flavorless oil**
1 cup mixed berries***
½ cup jam or marmalade, to glaze****
Thoroughly grease a loaf tin or other baking pan of choice (I made mine in a muffin tin). Preheat oven to 350F/175C.
Combine flour, almond meal (if using), baking powder, and salt in a small bowl and whisk to combine. Set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar, lemon zest, yogurt, eggs, and vanilla until completely combined.
Slowly add the dry ingredients, whisking to incorporate, then fold in the oil with a spatula until you have a smooth, shiny batter. Fold in berries, then scoop or scrape into prepared pan(s).
Bake for 25-55 minutes, depending upon pan chosen (muffin-pan cakes will be done closer to the 25-minute mark), until a tester comes out clean (berries notwithstanding). Cool the pan on a rack for about five minutes, then loosen cake(s) around the edges with a knife and remove. Allow to cool completely on rack.
To make glaze, melt jam or marmalade in a pan over low heat. Add a few tablespoons of water if necessary to achieve the desired consistency. Brush glaze all over cake(s) with a pastry brush, and leave to set.
Makes 12 muffin-pan cakes, with a bit left over.
* Since I didn't have almond meal, I used more flour. But I liked the idea of a nutty undertone, so…
** …I used macadamia oil instead of a flavorless vegetable oil. It worked very well, providing a very subtle (and Australian) note of nuttiness.
*** I added a mixture of blueberries and raspberries, since that's how I remember the Providence version.
**** To complement the choice of berries in the cake, I used a "fruits des bois" jam which contained (among other berries) blueberries and raspberries.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Somewhere over the rainbow

Once upon a time, there was a girl who lived in Oz. She lived in a yellow brick house and spent a lot of time with munchkins. She had encounters with witches (good and wicked) from time to time, and mostly she didn't feel the need to ask the Wizard for anything. She was very happy living in a land where everything—the weather, the animals, the people, the food—was just a little different from what she was used to.

Then, one day, a tornado came along out of nowhere, picked her up, and took her to…Kansas.

Wait a minute. That's not how the story goes, is it?*

Of course, my name's not Dorothy, either.

But I am moving to Kansas.

Thanks to DP, the Globe-Trotting Academic™, who has accepted a position there. We're planning to finish up the Australian academic year here (it ends in mid-December, for you northern types), head to Boston for a festive holiday season with the crew there, and then, early in 2010, head for pastures new.


Okay, not really literally. We're not moving to a farm or anything. I just said that because I hear there's a lot of pasture out there.

I have never, ever set foot in Kansas before, or in fact spent any time at all in the American Midwest. And I haven't really lived properly in the US for more than 10 years (although I've perched there for extended periods). So in a lot of ways I expect that this will be like moving to another foreign country. But I'm looking forward to it. It will be—dare I say it?—a whole new adventure (of a very different sort from this one).

I am sorry to be leaving Australia so soon. We had expected to be here for three years, and getting only just over one feels like a bit of a cheat. We haven't managed to do any of the big-deal Australian trips I was planning on: Uluru, the Great Barrier Reef, the real Outback, Tasmania. Hell, I've only made it to two states (yes, technically Canberra is in its own territory, but that barely counts, so I'm not).

But such is the nature of academic careers…or at least the one I'm enabling. What can I say? It keeps life interesting.

Stay tuned as I spend the next six weeks trying to get organized for yet another intercontinental move (I think this makes five), say goodbye to places and people I've grown attached to, and formulate another list of questions for my next destination.

* With many thanks to NMK, whose wit and cleverness and general wonderfulness were the origin of this opening.

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