Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Home made

Confession: I haven't managed to do any Cookbook Challenge cooking since I got to Boston. I blame the fact that I've only cooked dinner three times in the past 10 days--and one of those was Christmas dinner, which is about as far from a 30-minute meal as you can get. The rest of the dinners have been in restaurants or in other people's houses, as we make the rounds of people in Boston that we haven't seen for more than a year.

So most of the cooking I've managed to squeeze in has been of the "sheer necessity" or the "food gift" variety. In the former category, I made homemade mayonnaise over the weekend, for only the second time ever, when I realized we didn't have any.* In the latter, to bring to friends hosting us, things like homemade chocolates and, yesterday, these cheesy, salty, spicy treats.

Cheesy nibbles
Adapted from Tamasin's Kitchen Bible by Tamasin Day-Lewis
These have been described as being like "homemade Cheez-Its", but I think that's only because they're cheesy and it's really hard to stop eating them. Texturally, they are like tiny, crumbly cookies, and they taste complex and savory. To me they're more like what Cheez-Its want to be when they grow up.

110 g/4 oz plain/all-purpose flour
110 g/4 oz parmesan, grated**
healthy pinches of: salt, freshly ground black pepper, mustard, and cayenne pepper
110 g/4 oz butter, melted

Preheat oven to 180C/350F. Mix dry ingredients together, then add in butter and stir until mixture has the consistency of breadcrumbs. (Add more butter if necessary.) Make walnut-sized balls*** and place on baking sheet(s) lined with parchment. Bake 15-20 minutes (reversing position of sheet(s) halfway through) until lightly browned. Sprinkle lightly with more salt and black pepper after removing from oven, and allow to cool on sheet(s).

Makes 20-40.

* I also managed to slip this into the latter category, by bringing some of along yesterday as a gift--I thought my hostess would appreciate it.
** I used a mix of mostly pecorino romano and some sharp cheddar.
*** I used a deep teaspoon measurement to make half-balls. They were a good bite size and went further.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Happy holidays

Well, I didn't mean to go completely silent as soon as I hit terra firma in Boston, but that's essentially what happened. I guess that's the unintended consequence of volunteering to cook Christmas dinner for 12 people four days after completing a 10,000-mile trek. Not to mention all the Christmas stuff that couldn't be completed from overseas, like putting US stamps on 50 cards, buying and decorating a tree, helping my mother make the dough for the Christmas doughnuts, brining the turkey...and best (and most unexpected) of all, having a snowball fight on the Boston Common with DP and Miss B at sunset on Christmas Eve.

But it's all done now: the only things left to do are sit back and enjoy the lights and the gifts, and figure out creative things to do with the leftovers. I hope that you have had wonderful holidays, filled with good food, good cheer, and good company.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Los Angeles

We're finishing up a three-day layover in LA, to tackle our jet lag (check) and spend some time with DP's brother and his girlfriend (check), who drove in from 12 hours away just to goof off with us for a bit. I've had a thoroughly fabulous time: enjoyed some sun without Canberra's searing summer heat; played some skee-ball; stuck my feet in the Pacific ocean on this side (it's much colder over here!); and reunited with a friend I've known since I was in fifth grade but hadn't seen in more than 10 years. I've also seen several LA landmarks, including the Hollywood sign (much further out of town than you'd think), Rodeo Drive (I've never seen so many high-end jewelry stores in one place), and the La Brea Tar Pits (which was so interesting it deserves an entry all to itself).

And, of course, the food: in particular the first good Mexican food I've eaten in 15 months that I hadn't made myself; and, finally (it only took three visits to LA), In-N-Out Burger, probably the best fast-food joint hamburger I've ever had. It's not gourmet and doesn't even appear dramatically different from its competitors; what is notable about it is that it actually tastes like real food and doesn't leave you with that fast-food hangover afterwards.

Early tomorrow it's on to Boston, where I hear they're laying on a great big snowstorm just for us. Time to pack away the t-shirts and dig out the boots; we're back in the northern hemisphere for real.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Arrivederci Canberra

So much for my grand plans for a farewell post commemorating my last day in Australia--my computer had a meltdown and here I am ending as I began: at the internet cafe upstairs in the Canberra Centre. It's been an adventure, in every possible way, and I'm really going to miss Canberra and Australia.

See you from the other side of the Pacific!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Challenge 4.2

Still struggling to find the time and the ingredients to tackle anything major for The Cookbook Challenge; sadly, 30-Minute Meals doesn't have any delicious recipes consisting solely of half a carrot, two cups of brown rice, and a large lump of blue cheese. However, I have come across a very useful tip, that I have immediately made my own, for making your own salad dressing. In the past, to make vinaigrette I have always worked off a basic recipe of 2 Tbsp acid and 5 Tbsp of oil, which involved a lot of mental arithmetic (not one of my favorite leisure activities) if I wanted to reduce or increase the amount. In her recipe for basic vinaigrette, Rachael Ray suggests the following ratio:

1 teaspoon of acid to every 1 tablespoon of oil

Ta da! Perfectly simple; easy to scale up or down; and no math.

Upon reflection, this is so blindingly obvious that I wouldn't be surprised if everyone else in the entire world knew about it besides me. The suggested ratio for making salad dressing is 1 part acid to 3 parts oil, which I knew; and 3 tsp = 1 Tbsp, which I also knew. I had just never put 2 and 2 together (or, in this case, 1 and 3). And in the event that you haven't either, I share this info with you, since it alone has made this whole exercise worthwhile for me--definitely the equivalent of learning a great new recipe.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Challenge 4.1

(I'm beginning to think the challenge is going to be finding the time and the ingredients to cook anything at all for The Cookbook Challenge, between the parade of dinners out and the random collection of half-empty jars and packets that is all I have to work with at this point.)

The source 30-Minute Meals

The recipe Aglio olio: garlic and oil pasta

The ingredients*
1 lb/450 g linguini
¼ to 1/3 cup olive oil
5 cloves garlic, minced
¼ tsp crushed red pepper
5 anchovy fillets
a handful fresh parsley, chopped**
freshly ground black pepper
grated cheese, for topping

The method Put a large pot of water on to boil. When it's boiling, add salt and pasta. While the pasta is cooking, heat oil in a saucepan, then add garlic, red pepper, and anchovies. Allow this to sizzle gently (don't brown the garlic) for a few minutes, then remove from heat. When pasta is al dente, drain and then return to the hot pan. Pour over the oil mixture and mix thoroughly, seasoning with black pepper to taste. Serve immediately, topped with grated cheese.

The verdict I've been making aglio olio for years, but I was intrigued by the inclusion of anchovies (mainly because I have a jar I'm trying to use up). I didn't really think it worked; all I could taste was the anchovies. That could be because I didn't add any parsley, which I've also never used in this dish (see below). Next time I make this, I'll probably go back to the much simpler version I usually use—olive oil, garlic, and black and red pepper.

* I only had half a pound of linguine, so I halved everything else.
** I didn't have any parsley, so I skipped this. Including it might balance out the anchovy flavor.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Gastronomic milestones

The RL Family Australian Farewell Tour is under way, and this past weekend we made one last trip to Jervis Bay, for some quality time with our friends C. & M., who have a place down there; for a last rendezvous with the staggeringly beautiful South Coast of NSW; and for a needed breather before the onslaught of our last 10 days in Canberra.

We spent the weekend eating and playing at the beach; eating and playing board games; eating and playing with Miss B. and C. & M.'s big goofy dog; and oh, eating some more. My favorite kind of weekend. We started as we meant to go on, early Friday evening, with some beers, a bottle of rose, and a few plates of oysters.

C. & M. were shocked when I confessed I had never eaten an oyster before. I'm still kind of amazed myself to realize the advanced age I had reached before trying one. All those wasted years! Because they really are wonderful: "as close as you can get to eating the ocean," as C. said. And the best part is when a highly-touted culinary experience actually lives up to the hype.

I was able to return the favor on Saturday morning, when I made pancakes for breakfast and served them with maple syrup, because M. had never tasted maple syrup before. Given how much it costs in Australia, I think we may have both acquired an expensive new habit this weekend.

Express Pancakes
Adapted from Nigella Express
I am not exaggerating when I say that this homemade pancake mix has transformed our weekend breakfast routine: we have gone from having pancakes two or three times a year to every Sunday, without fail.

Pancake mix
600 g/5 cups plain/all-purpose flour
3 Tbsp baking powder
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda/baking soda
1 tsp salt
40 g/3 Tbsp sugar

Mix all ingredients together and store in an airtight container at room temperature. Keeps indefinitely.

150 g/1¼ cups* pancake mix
1 egg
125 ml/4 oz milk
125 ml/4 oz yogurt
1 Tbsp melted butter

Heat a frying pan or griddle over medium heat. Mix all ingredients together until smooth.

You can fry these with no fat if you feel confident your pan is sufficiently nonstick; otherwise, grease the pan with butter. Drop batter in large tablespoonfuls and cook until the edges are starting to dry out and bubbles appear, about 2 minutes.

Flip and cook for 1-2 minutes on the other side. Remove to a warm plate and repeat with remaining batter. Serve immediately, drizzled with real maple syrup.

Serves 4 adults and 1 child.

* I have found that this recipe can successfully be halved by using half of all the ingredients, except the egg. I can't halve eggs.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Twilight concert

We're nearing the end of the school year here, and this week was Miss B's school's twilight concert, where all the grades (years) took it in turns to sing a selection of show tunes, in keeping with the concert's theme, "There's No Business Like Show Business." It really made my day to see a bunch of five- and six-year-olds attempting to sing "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious", although of course the preschoolers stole the show with "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" (which isn't actually a show tune, but was in fact written for that Coke commercial that all us children of the 70s remember so well), complete with hand gestures.

It's school tradition to bring some blankets and a picnic, and sit back and enjoy the parade of cute children. We joined forces with a few of the other preschool families, and enjoyed a huge spread, which included some salads (my contribution), homemade sushi (totally amazing), and lime-coconut cake. A very nice way to start the year-end festivities, and probably our last chance for a picnic for a while, as we head to the frozen north soon.

It's always a challenge for me to think of picnic food that will travel well and taste good, so if you happen to be in picnic mode (or are just dreaming of blue skies while buttoning up your winter coat), here's a selection of previously-published picnic-friendly items:

- Pizzas (make them small and kids will eat them at any temperature)
- Bacon and egg pie
- Hotel kitchen Greek-ish salad
- Croation cole slaw

And, if you want to be the hit of the picnic:

- Congo bars

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Challenge month

So, this is it. The month when I undertake a transcontinental move. Which is scheduled for the week before Christmas. While trying to keep up with my job. And my five-year-old's hectic end-of-school-year social schedule. And maybe occasionally exchange a word with my husband.

Oh, and when I have a few spare minutes, address 85 Christmas cards.

Clearly I don't have enough to do. Why not a Cookbook Challenge too?

Now, before you decide this is the blog of someone who is certifiably insane, and remove me from your blog reader forever, hear my explanation for this decision.

We have to eat. In fact, we have a kitchen full of stuff that we have to eat in the next couple of weeks. That means I have to come up with creative, yet simple, ways to use up half-empty containers of this and that, at a time when I'm not going to have enough time or brain space to think very long about anything food-related.

Not convinced yet? I wasn't either. How was I going to randomly select a cookbook that made this job easier—and was small enough to pack for the part of the month I'd be doing Challenge cooking in Boston?

Turns out I didn't: Miss B did. I was cleaning up the living room the other night and found that she'd pulled a cookbook off the shelf and left it on the floor—one I'd never seen her look at before.

30-Minute Meals by Rachael Ray.

Yes, the cookbook that spawned a Food Network empire, and a bajillion chowhounds with violent opinions (pro or con). Rachael Ray hasn't really been exported, so I've had very little exposure to her, and when I picked this cookbook up about six years ago, I didn't know much about her. Obviously I've heard a bit more now, but not enough to have taken a side yet. So I'm just going to try some recipes, and see what I think then.

As always, I'd be happy to have some company for the ride. What have you got on your cookbook shelf that needs a second look?

A quick refresher on how the Cookbook Challenge works:

1. Count up the number of cookbooks you have. (Include magazines, clipping binders, electronic folders—whatever you've got that you want to explore further.)
2. When you've got a total, pick a number between one and that number. (Better yet, if you can, have someone else do it for you, to ensure that it's really random.)
3. Count through your cookbooks until you get to that number, and pull out the randomly selected cookbook, magazine, folder, etc. (You could also pull names out of a hat if you want to really get serious, but this is quicker.)
4. Commit to cooking at least one new recipe from that resource in the next month. Five, if you want to really challenge yourself.
5. Tell about what you discovered—send me an email, post about it yourself, comment here (I'll report back on what I found). Did you discover a new favorite? Or is this cookbook just a pretty face with nothing in it you can see yourself cooking?

So what do you think? I bet we've all got a busy month ahead of us…but someone has to make dinner if we're going to get through it without going bonkers or broke.

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