Saturday, February 28, 2015

February round-up

Whoosh! There goes another month. Items of note, as recorded on my phone photo album:

My boss sent me flowers! To say thank you for my hard work on the giant project I mentioned a couple of posts back. They brightened up my kitchen for the better part of two weeks and made me happy every time I looked at them. It was such a nice feeling to know why they were there.

Peach-blackberry crumble! I made this for dinner guests early in the month, with some stellar fruit from the farmer's market. I used this crumble topping recipe and topped it with homemade vanilla ice cream (have I mentioned that I got an ice cream maker for Christmas? More on this later, I expect). Although I suspect the shot above might actually be Greek yogurt, which is my preferred crumble topping these days, just FYI in case you're inclined that way.

Birthday cake! Three people on DP's team have February birthdays, and so he asked me to provide a cake for the birthday lunch. You can't see my favorite part: I always end up with extra colored frosting, no matter how lavishly I decorate, so this time I put some of it between the layers as a surprise. Next time I'll do it on a home cake and get a picture.

Scones! Which are actually a vehicle for what's in the jar - spiced pear-blueberry butter. Backstory: I have coffee every Wednesday morning with a group of parents from Miss B's school. Attendance varies, but there is a core group of about a half-dozen of us who are almost always there. For the last couple of weeks, one regular, J, has been bringing bags of pears from his tree to give to all of us, and the cooks among us have been experimenting with them - one of them a fellow food blogger who just posted her second pear creation.

For my contribution, I cooked down about 1 kg/2 lb of pears in the slow cooker until soft, then pureed them in a food mill and returned to the slow cooker to thicken further, along with a generous handful of blueberries. Once the butter had thickened enough that a spoon left a trail across the bottom of the slow cooker, I seasoned with some lime zest and juice, a large pinch of salt, lavish shakes of cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, and nutmeg, and finished with a good slug of maple syrup. (Fruit butters don't usually need much extra sugar, as the natural sugars are concentrated through the cooking process.) I decanted into sterilized 120 g/4oz canning jars, which I hot water bath canned, making sure I had enough to share, as well as one to serve with scones I made first thing last Wednesday. I used this recipe, omitting the berries and adding half a lime's worth of zest instead.

I didn't get a picture of my favorite dinner of the month, which was last Sunday, when we had a small bunch of friends over. I was in the mood for American food, so I made this kickass honey barbecued chicken, along with potato salad, coleslaw, and rolls. I finished off with a chocolate icebox cake topped with salted caramel sauce, and we ate outside on a perfect late summer evening. It may well have been the high point of this summer for me.

And that wraps up February - first day of autumn tomorrow here in Australia (though temperatures tomorrow are scheduled to be over 30C/90F). What's in store for March?

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Improvising appetizers

After I was stunned to realize that I had let the whole of January pass by without blogging, I promised myself I was going to get back into posting with some kind of regularity. And thus here I am, almost three weeks later. Oh well; at least it's better than a month later. Baby steps!

Life has returned to a semblance of normal routine since January disappeared; school's back in, which in turn means the re-appearance of regular after-school activities, and (more or less) set slots for getting work done, as well as things like running, errands, cooking, etc. It also means the start of this year's round of visits from guest lecturers and former students for DP, as well as various other colleagues, friends, and overseas visitors for one or all of us. Most of them end up eating dinner at our house at some point.

My standard dinner provision for guests includes something to nibble on with drinks - necessary since, no matter how hard I try, I've never yet managed to get a guest meal on the table in less than an hour from the stated arrival time, especially on weeknights. I have a repertoire of starters/appetizers that I rotate through - mostly dips served with pita chips - but I fall back on frico regularly when I need something that's really fast but really good.

I had these at someone else's house about two years ago, and appropriated them immediately. I usually serve them as one of a selection of small bowls of finger foods, most often accompanied by slices of grilled spicy salami, roasted nuts, and/or fancy olives. Their preparation barely qualifies as a recipe, and they are always well received. Their crispy texture and salty, savory flavor makes them an especially great option for vegetarian or gluten-free guests, but  they're pretty universally popular in my experience.

Frico (Cheese crisps - literally "Little trifles")
Some recipes specify cooking these on the stovetop in a skillet, but I use the oven; it's hands-off, and I can cook more, faster. You can also gussy these up with various accompaniments, but the most I've done is sprinkle them with freshly ground black pepper, or add a small basil leaf before cooking. Both are good variations, but these are also excellent when they're totally plain.

120-300 g/4-10 oz good-quality parmigiano-reggiano cheese, depending on number of eaters (I buy it pre-grated for maximum laziness/efficiency)*

Preheat oven to 180C/350F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Place mounds of grated cheese (about 30 g/1 oz each) on prepared tray, leaving space between mounds as cheese will spread as it melts. Bake in oven for 5-7 minutes, or until spread into round crisps which are lightly browned on the edges. Remove from the oven and let cool for another 5 minutes, then serve.**

* I usually make at least 2 mounds per person.
** I slice into half-circles (or quarters, depending on how much they spread) with a pizza cutter for serving.

Makes 4-10 crisps.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Disappearing January

Oops! I can't believe the month of January has come and gone and I didn't manage to post once. I did manage to do a lot of other stuff, though, including host my sister M for a 2+ week visit, go on three trips, and complete (along with a large number of my colleagues) a colossal work deadline.

I also got a new phone! So I have some pictures to share of all these things that kept me from blogging. I didn't get it up and running until after the first trip (we took my sister to Melbourne), so no pictures of that - which is probably for the best, because it was New Year's weekend and the temperature was over 40C/105F both days.

Then we had a few days in Canberra, which was a blur of sightseeing, cramming work, and prepping for our next trip (warning, lots of pictures coming):

We went on our annual beach vacation to Jervis Bay - self-catering as usual:

Action shot from the first night, when I was in the middle of prepping pizzas for six - the opening salvo in a full-on week of cooking....

Some of it documented by Miss B, who wrote up and illustrated some menus....

The counter laid out for leftover lunch on Sunday - leftovers from Saturday night's surf and turf dinner, a corn salad made from leftover ears of corn, a green salad, and various other bits and pieces....

On Monday we went to have lunch with friends who have a house further down the coast; my contribution was a pan full of frico....

It was our turn to cook for them later in the week, and I cleaned out the fridge to make a massive seafood chowder....

I even managed to MacGyver up a batch of cookies for DP and Miss B to bring along as a thank-you for a special-access visit arranged for them.

Two days after we got back from the beach, I left again, this time for work. I spent 5 days in the UK, of which I took almost no pictures, although I did get one of Jobn Snow's famous parish pump, with the pub that bears his name in the background - an important landmark for anyone involved in any way with public health:

Then I went to Freiburg for another 4 days; luckily 2 of them were over a weekend, so I got to do some fun stuff as well as work - like go to the Saturday market with my friend C...

...go for a drive into the Schwarzwald (aka the Black Forest)...

...and go sledding!

And, of course, no visit to these Freiburg friends would be complete without a raclette dinner:

The day after that, I flew back to Australia, returning just in time for the final push to meet the huge deadline I mentioned earlier. And now it's February, and school starts in 2 days, and it's quite chilly out, and where did summer vacation go?

I hope all is well in your worlds, and that I'll be back very soon to provide more details on some of those dishes listed above.
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