Monday, August 27, 2012

Moving Monday

We got the word on Thursday that Australian Customs had cleared our household goods for delivery, and at 8am today I was at the house to meet the moving crew. They proceeded to dump 50,000 boxes in our new rental (this may be a slight exaggeration), and by 6pm I had unpacked 5 of them (this, sadly, is not). We'll be taking up permanent residence as soon as I have unearthed and cleaned sufficient bedding and plates to allow us to camp out among the piles. (Keep your fingers crossed that this happens before Thursday, which is our we're-not-extending-it-any-further checkout date for our temporary accommodation.) I did find my cast-iron skillet in the third box, so the signs are auspicious. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

In progress

No word yet on a delivery date for our household goods. At least once every day for the past week or more, I have a moment of complete and overwhelming frustration at being in life limbo and my total inability to do anything to change that. This is usually rapidly followed by an internal talking-to about my first world problems and an attempt to focus my attention elsewhere, on things that I can control.

This past weekend, my displacement activity was an afternoon in the kitchen, focused on cooking projects that I could carry out with the TUK’s limited resources: a batch of skillet jam for Miss B’s morning toast; a batch of roasted rhubarb (plus strawberries) for my morning yogurt; a tray of cinder toffee, drizzled with chocolate and boxed up as a hostess gift for a lunch invitation for the following day (more on this later); and two jars of preserved lemons.

Preserved lemons are a great project to undertake when you’re itching to can something, but the circumstances aren’t auspicious. At the moment, I don’t have a pot deep enough to water-bath can anything. Nor is it exactly high season for cannable produce in Canberra right now, what with it being the last month of winter and all. But citrus is definitely still in season – I got 2 kilos (~4.5 lbs) of various kinds for about AUD $5 last week at the famers’ market – and preserved lemons require exactly two ingredients: lemons and salt.

Perhaps even more appropriately for my current situation, preserved lemons also require a third, less tangible element: time. Recipes generally recommend that you let them do their thing (steep? brew? pickle? ferment?) for at least 3 weeks before using. So this project, in addition to giving purpose to a weekend afternoon and preserving a fruit at the height of its quality, is also an investment in my own future – a physical manifestation of the hope that, by the time these lemons are ready to use, I’ll be back in a kitchen of my own, settling in to the next phase of this transition.

Preserved lemons
All of the recipes I looked at included complicated instructions for slicing into the lemons to get salt into their insides while keeping them intact. Since I immediately screwed this technique up on my very first lemon, I made the executive decision that quartering the lemons wouldn’t dramatically alter the chemical process going on here, or the taste of the finished product. Plus, it made them easier to cram into the jars.

8 lemons, unwaxed if possible
2 cups/~12 oz/360 g of kosher/cooking salt

Have available 1 or 2 clean jars for storing the lemons. Avoid metal lids, as these could corrode from the salt/acid concentration.

Wash and dry the lemons, scrubbing skins if necessary to remove any grit or dirt. Put salt into a medium-sized bowl. Cut the lemons into quarters and toss in the salt to coat, then stuff into the jars, pressing down on them to release the juice. Try to extract enough juice to cover the contents of the jar(s); once you have filled up the jar(s), sprinkle over 1-2 Tbsp of salt as insurance.

Close the jar(s) and store in a cool place, away from direct sunlight, for at least 3 weeks. Turn the jar(s) occasionally to redistribute the juice and salt.

Stay tuned for updates on how mine turned out - and what I do with them.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Day 84

Today marks 12 weeks since the last meal I ate in my own kitchen – a salad and various other leftovers with SP while the movers emptied the house around us. In honor of this minor milestone, here’s one I made earlier: my last major cooking project before we left Missouri.
In the midst of one of our many conversations about food (which we talked about at least as much as music theory or guitar technique), my guitar teacher mentioned the toasted ravioli that he had eaten on a recent trip to St. Louis, and how he wanted to replicate it. He thought, knowing my Italian heritage, that I might be able to assist him in this endeavor. I’d never heard of toasted ravioli (apparently a St. Louis specialty?) until he described it, but I’ve been making batches of ravioli with various gatherings of female relatives for as long as I can remember, so I figured I could at least help him with the raw materials. I offered to be the teacher for a change, and we spent an enjoyable Saturday afternoon in May covering every flat surface in my kitchen with flour. He concocted a filling of spicy sausage and chopped, sautéed mushrooms, and I contributed my grandmother’s cheese filling (it took me a long time to find out that ravioli was ever stuffed with anything else).

Nana's ravioli
If you do this by yourself, it will take a couple of hours from start to finish. I highly recommend doing it as a group project if you've got any like-minded friends or family around; it's much more fun and gets done a lot faster.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Wordless Wednesday

New Canberra kitchen (and look! it's not brown!), August 2012

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Transition management

We are (I hope!) coming to the end of our physical transition: we’ve signed a lease on a rental house, and picked up the keys and completed paperwork yesterday. We’ve been notified that our belongings have arrived in Australia, and, once they have successfully cleared customs and quarantine (all available appendages crossed), will be on their way to us. With a bit of luck, all the dates will dovetail nicely and it won’t be too much longer until we’re established in a more permanent situation, with our familiar belongings around us.

The mental transition is still ongoing. It’s a big undertaking to move to a new country so far away, even one where you’ve already lived. I am very focused on providing continuity and consistency for everyone, myself included, but there’s no way around the fact that there are practical, emotional, and cultural obstacles that must be navigated, and that some of them are bigger than others. It’s easy to lose perspective when you feel as if you’ve been cut adrift from everything familiar, and haven’t yet learned the landmarks and signposts of your new surroundings. Even the most sanguine people get blindsided some days. I was reminded of this forcefully the other night, when what started as a typical bedtime conversation ended in tears for both a normally cheerful eight-year-old and her normally everything’s-under-control mother.

But it’s okay; some days, that’s just what needs to happen. Maybe that’s what it takes to regain perspective. For me, as always, turning to food and cooking helps. As long as I can get into a kitchen, I know there’s least there’s one area of my life where I can feel a semblance of control, where I can trust that if I do A, B is almost certain to follow. And where a warm apple dessert cannot fail to revive my spirits and bolster me up to try again tomorrow.

TUK tarte tatin
Tarte tatin has long been high on my list of favorite desserts, but this is the first one I’ve ever made. I think it took the stripped-down mise en place of the TUK to make me realize that despite its glamorous presentation, tarte tatin is a much more straightforward dessert-making proposition to make than it might at first appear.

2 medium-sized tart green apples (such as Bramley or Granny Smith)
4 Tbsp butter
2-4 Tbsp sugar
1 sheet puff pastry

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. Peel, core, and thickly slice the apples. Take sheet of puff pastry out of freezer to thaw.

Put an ovenproof skillet on the stovetop on medium heat, and melt 2 Tbsp of the butter. Add half of the apple slices, and sprinkle these with 1 Tbsp of sugar. Saute the apples, stirring occasionally, until they have softened and you see some browning on them, 6-8 minutes; taste as you go and see if you feel the need to add more sugar.

When lightly browned and sufficiently sweetened, remove the apples from the pan and repeat the process with the remaining butter and apples, again sweetening to taste as you go.

When second batch of apples is cooked, turn off the heat but do not remove apples from pan. Instead, arrange them in a pattern around the bottom of the pan.

Take now-thawed puff pastry, and cut into a circle slightly larger than the bottom of the pan. Place pastry over apples in bottom of pan, tucking in the sides around the apples.

Place skillet in the oven and cook until the pastry is fully cooked to a light golden brown, 30-40 minutes. When tarte is cooked, remove pan from oven, but leave tarte in pan to cool somewhat, 15-20 minutes.

When ready to remove tarte from pan, run a knife or spatula around the edge to loosen it up. Place a serving plate larger than the pan over the tarte, then carefully (warning: hot apple syrup!) flip the plate and pan together so that the plate is underneath and tarte falls out onto it. Tarte should be on plate with puff pastry on the bottom and apples on top.

Serves 6-8 people for dessert, or 1 mother in need.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Winner winner

The other night I made a roast chicken for dinner; as we ate, Miss B asked about the crispy brown stuff on the side of my plate.

“That’s the skin,” I informed her, then confided, “You know what? That’s about 75% of the reason I make roast chicken – so I can eat the skin.”

She looked up at me, eyes round with surprise. “Really?”

“Yup,” I confirmed. “It’s crispy and salty and delicious. Wanna try some?”

She peered at it for a minute with interest, but then her native caution about new food won out. “Um…no thanks.”

On the inside, I had one of those Parenting Moments We Don’t Talk About – an internal response equal parts shrieking “Just try it, fer crying out loud!!!” and teasing “Well, more for me then!”. On the outside, I remained an adult, shrugged, and said, “Okay.”

Then the subject changed, so we didn’t talk about the other 25% of the reason I make roast chicken: because, in addition to being delicious, it provides the basis for at least another two meals. This particular bird has now been stripped and reincarnated as 1) chicken pot pie with a biscuit crust (also incorporating the leftover medley of carrots/celery/onions that I threw in the roasting pan under the chicken, as well as the pan juices it produced while cooking) and 2) chunky chicken salad. When down to nude bones, it went on to 3) simmer gently in a pot with water and vegetables to produce chicken stock for use in yet another dinner (soup? risotto? it all depends on what’s happening next week).

Chicken pot pie
This, along with cottage pie, is at the top of the list of things I only ever make when I have leftovers from a roast dinner. (It's not really a recipe, but rather an attractive repackaging of things you’ve already cooked.) I start by stripping as much chicken meat off the carcass as I can and chopping it into bite-sized pieces, and then look at it against the amount of vegetables I have available. Then, depending upon the number of people I’m feeding, I either subtract some chicken for another use, or boost the amount of vegetables with something easy, like frozen peas. If I have sufficient cooking liquid, or have made gravy, I add that in, and mix everything together in a good-sized bowl. If I don’t have enough liquid, I augment it by making a quick roux, dumping in whatever liquid I do have, and bolstering it with whatever stock I have around or, in a pinch, water. Once all this is mixed together and placed in a suitable baking dish, it can be topped with a sheet of frozen puff or shortcrust pastry, should you have one stashed away; or you can make a quick biscuit crust using a recipe like this one (minus the fruit and sugar). Put in a 180C/350F oven to heat through and cook the crust (about 30 minutes), and dinner is served.

PS Given the name of this post, I was compelled to Google the origins of the phrase "Winner winner, chicken dinner." The most commonly offered explanation I found was that, once upon a time, a free chicken dinner was one of the prizes offered to gamblers in Las Vegas. (I make no claims about its plausibility or accuracy.)
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