Monday, January 27, 2014

Australia Day

We’ve just had a holiday weekend in Australia, in celebration of Australia Day. Australia Day, for anyone who doesn’t already know, is kind of a cross between the 4th of July and Labor Day (US version). The 4th of July part is that Australia Day commemorates the arrival of the First Fleet on January 26, 1788 – in other words, the arrival of the first European immigrants, convicts and their guards from the British Isles. The Labor Day part is that Australia Day marks the official end of summer holidays in Australia and a return to business as usual; everyone goes back to school over the next week, and people who have been lazing at the coast since mid-December will return to regular office hours and business attire.

(Digression: I don’t really understand why January 26 was chosen as Australia Day, since it has little to do with the establishment of Australia as a political entity – certainly less, for example, than Federation Day (January 1, 1901) when Australia was officially federated as a country. It would be like the US choosing whatever day the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, or some similar event, rather than the day that we declared our intention to establish ourselves as a sovereign nation. And that’s before we even get into the feelings of Indigenous Australians about January 26, which cannot be characterized as positive in any way. So it seems like a lose-lose proposition, and I suspect its timing as the culmination of the summer holidays may weigh more heavily in its selection than its political or cultural significance. But what do I know? I’m just a Yank. 

End digression.)

In the tradition of three-day weekends everywhere I’ve lived, Australia Day provides an excuse for lots of social activity, and ours certainly did its job. We started on Friday night with a dinner party, where we met lots of new people. Miss B came along (babysitters are thin on the ground on holiday weekends) and stayed up scandalously late with a fellow grade schooler whose babysitter was also AWOL. Saturday DP disappeared for most of the day to drop in on some kind of wargaming convention with the male half of a group of family friends; Miss B and I met up with the female half for an extended kaffeeklatsch at Canberra’s most famous (and possibly only) chocolate shop. Sunday we hosted lunch for a group of DP’s colleagues, including a delightful and adorable seven-month-old; I made a variation of my now-standard summer Sunday lunch, throwing in a kale salad to provide sufficient nourishment for a vegetarian guest (and bolstering the tomato-and-avocado salad with some marinated feta).

Yesterday, to round things off, we went to a cookout hosted by friends with a pool who live on the other side of the lake. I packed swim stuff and a bottle of Prosecco, baked a batch of blondies (excuse me, fudgey choc chip slice), and we set off. I think we had all been subconsciously expecting that we would spend the afternoon hanging out with the hosting friends, and maybe one or two other people, and an unspoken ripple of dismay wafted through the car when we turned the corner onto their street and saw at least a dozen cars clustered outside their house, all belonging to people we were unlikely to know.

This is what happens when a family of introverts hits its collective wall of social engagement at the same time. But since we are all (reasonably) well behaved, we braced ourselves, went inside, and joined in. Miss B went swimming with a crowd of kids, we ate some tasty food, DP and I each had a couple of conversations with friends of our hosts (as well as some dedicated time with the hosts themselves, happily). After about 3 hours, we said our goodbyes and headed home. Once there, we scattered ourselves to the far corners of the house, and everyone fell asleep for an hour or so.

After all that, no one felt like an elaborate dinner last night, so I took the opportunity to combine creative re-purposing of leftovers with a DIY January project. We had roast beef sandwiches with aioli and mustard on toasted (homemade) white bread; leftover kale salad; and homemade potato chips. (Note: Miss B was having none of any of this, and ate leftover pizza and chopped cucumbers instead.)

DIY salt and pepper potato chips
I used the cold oil method for these, and they are as kick-ass as the fries I made a couple of weeks ago. They are just enough work to make you appreciate how much better homemade potato chips are than storebought ones, without being a total PITA.

2 small potatoes per person (probably one regular-sized per person would be enough, but those in my current bag are not much bigger than golf balls)
canola or other neutrally flavored oil for frying
salt and pepper

Scrub the potatoes, remove any sprouts, eyes, or other unsightly bits, and cut into very thin slices using a mandolin. (As usual, I did not peel my potatoes, but whether or not you do is up to you. Also, of course you can use a knife, but the mandolin makes the slices all the same thickness, so they cook at the same rate – a desirable feature when frying.)

Line a baking sheet with brown paper and set aside.

Place potatoes in cooking vessel of choice (see here for information about choosing an appropriate vessel for this recipe) and cover with oil.

Put the pan over low-medium heat and cover pan with a splatter screen if you have one (or about halfway with the pot lid if you don’t). Keep an eye on the pan as the oil heats, stirring the chips occasionally to make sure they’re not sticking.

When the oil starts to boil, stir the chips again and check the heat setting to make sure the boil is maintained consistently without a) dying off or b) overflowing and starting a fire. Continue stirring chips every few minutes as they cook; once they start boiling, they should take 10-15 minutes to fry. Once they are consistently a light-golden brown, they are done.

Turn off the heat. Once the oil settles down, use a slotted spoon or similar to scoop cooked chips out of the oil and onto the paper-lined baking tray.

Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Consume immediately.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Beach house

Apologies for my unexplained absence - we disappeared to Jervis Bay for our annual beach holiday, and this year I did not take my computer, making for my first unplugged vacation in a frighteningly long time. I had hoped to put a post up before we left, but between frantically trying to finish up work projects and making sure that I packed enough (but not too much) in the way of kid, reading, and food supplies, I ran out of time.

I also hadn't factored my upcoming vacation into my plans for DIY January, so that sort of went out the window for a week or so. When you're trying to figure out how to work the tiny oven in a strange (and slightly mildewy) kitchen, you can't also start trying to make your own yogurt and expect to have an actual relaxing vacation. Or at least I can't, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. So I shamelessly ate supermarket potato chips and hummus and pickles. (I also brought along supplies to make homemade bread, waffles, popcorn, and salad dressing, so there was still a fair amount of DIY going on.)

And in the spirit of DIY January, I concocted a salad to bring to a friend's bbq on our last night of holiday - using up stuff we still had in the fridge and working around what we had run out of.

Beach house salad
I concocted this salad based around knowing that I had a fair amount of vegetables left in the fridge, but had run out of olive oil to make dressing. The rendered fat from the bacon cooked in the first step stands in for the olive oil.

1. Chop 2 pieces bacon into small pieces and put in a skillet over low-medium heat to cook.

2. Chop half a red onion into small pieces and add to skillet with bacon.

3. Once bacon and onions are more or less cooked, add 2-3 cups chopped greens (I used kale and a mystery green I bought at the greengrocer last week, and promptly forgot the name of. It was kind of spinach-esque) to the skillet to wilt. (At this stage, I also added about a quarter cup of white wine to deglaze the pan and keep the ingredients from sticking.)

4. Thinly slice 1 large carrot (I do this with a vegetable peeler) and add to skillet. (Keep the cores to nibble on while you finish the salad.) Toss with the other ingredients to wilt a bit, then remove the skillet from the heat.

5. Peel and chop a small cucumber, then chop a handful of grape tomatoes, and add to the skillet. Toss with the other ingredients until mixed thoroughly.

6. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and add a teaspoon or so of balsamic vinegar. (I also added a handful of shredded parmigiano reggiano.)

Serve warm or at room temperature. Serves 4+ as a side, or a large group (we had 10 in ours) as part of a bbq spread.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

DIY January

Rather than doing a Detox January or a Deprivation January or whatever variation people do to rectify the excesses of the holiday season, this year I’ve decided to try an idea I’ve been kicking around for a long time: DIY January. The basic premise is that, within reason, I’m not going to eat any kind of processed food that I haven’t made myself. I figure this will be a good way to cut back on junk food and junk eating generally, and specifically to get back on the NoPepsi wagon (off which I fell rather spectacularly in the final quarter of 2013).

When I say “within reason”, I mean the following:

1. I’m not going to make my own cheese or churn my own butter or slaughter my own meat (although I may well make a batch of labneh and I’ve been kicking around the idea of making my own bacon; maybe this month will provide the motivation).

2. I’m not going to leave the food already in my fridge and pantry to molder and go to waste while I go into urban homesteader mode; instead, I’m going to use up what I’ve got and, when I run out, make its replacement - or do without until February rolls around. No stockpiling in the runup to January 1 was allowed, so regular consumption will take its course and then we shall see.

This seems like a doable, but somewhat challenging, undertaking. The only thing I dread running out of is tortilla chips, as I have been unable to find Mexican ingredients so far in Canberra. Since tortilla chips require corn tortillas, and corn tortillas require masa harina, unless someone can point me to a local supplier I may have to figure out a way to do without chips and salsa for 3 weeks. It's slightly embarrassing to admit that that is by far the most daunting prospect of contemplating this project.

In the meantime, I’ve already undertaken my first project: white sandwich bread. Even though I make all of our dinner bread (whether rolls or loaves), I always buy toast and sandwich bread at the supermarket. For all the bread I’ve made in the last 5+ years, I think this was only the second time I’ve made a loaf-pan loaf of bread.

And it was good! Although it reminded me anew of how hard it is to slice bread neatly without industrial machinery. In the near future, I anticipate making yogurt, whole-wheat sandwich bread, fresh pasta, and potato chips, so stay tuned.

White sandwich bread
Adapted from Julia Child, by way of Dinner with Julie
My main adaptation of this recipe was to halve it, since there isn’t room in my freezer for two loaves of white bread at a time. (Although I’m not sure how much of this is actually going to make it into the freezer – it seems to be disappearing rather quickly.)

1.25 cups/10 oz/300 ml warm water (divided)
1.5 tsp/7 g yeast
1.5 tsp/7g sugar
3.5 cups/14 oz/420 g all-purpose/plain flour
1 t/5 g salt
2 Tbsp/1 oz/30 g butter, softenened

In a large bowl, combine about half the water with the yeast and sugar. Leave for about 5 minutes until the yeast foams.

When you come back and see that the yeast has foamed and is indeed active, add about half the flour and mix in. Then mix in the rest of the flour, the salt, and the butter. (There are various ways you can do this: in a standing mixer with a dough hook; by hand; or what I always do – use my dough whisk, which makes mixing dough a snap.)

Once you have a consistently shaggy mixture, knead by hand, adding flour very sparingly to minimize the stickiness (although you want it to be a little bit sticky), until you have a smooth and springy ball of dough. When you have achieved this, put it back in the bowl, cover, and leave to rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.

When you come back to check whether the dough has doubled, first grease a loaf pan and set aside. Then knock down the risen dough, turn it out of the bowl, and on a clean surface, flatten out into a rectangle roughly the size of a piece of letter/A4 paper. (I used a rolling pin and some more very lightly scattered flour to assist this process.)

Once you have the dough flattened to your satisfaction, roll it up like a jelly roll. (You can do this on either the short side or the long side – you think will fit better into your loaf pan.) Place the roll of dough in your loaf pan, seam side down, tucking in ends underneath as necessary. Cover again and leave for second rise until it puffs over the top of the loaf pan, 45 minutes-1 hour.

When you come back to check the dough again, preheat the oven to 400F/200C. When ready, put the bread in and bake for 30-45 minutes, checking and rotating as necessary to get even rising and browning.

Makes 1 loaf.
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