Sunday, 30 August 2009

Three at once

So I've risen from the sickbed, considerably improved but still not feeling overly creative or energetic. In an attempt to save work, I've got going on three at once. To the rear, looking quite orange, we have a keema, made with much less effort than the one in the link. It has 350g lean beef mince, a tin of tomatoes, garlic, ginger and some of a jar of Patak's Madras paste. There will be frozen peas to finish. We can have it on Monday with some leftover rice, naan and dahl from our dinner out yesterday.

And to the front, in more purple tones, we have a bolognese sauce, with mushrooms, zucchini and quite a bit of leftover wine that wasn't stored well enough to drink. It's two bottle ends, a shiraz and a tempranillo. It has the other 350g lean beef mince from the packet, and alos some onion and garlic and herbs. The bloke is actually quite keen on mince, so two mince based dishes in a week are quite fine by him.

And I set some of the mushrooms and onion aside to do a quick tossed together pasta tonight. One of those ones where you cook the pasta, then mix all the bits through rather than making a separate sauce. It's going to be sort of a carbonara, with egg and ham and Poacher's Pantry smoked tomatoes.

While I was making the bolognese, I tried a comparison. I used two tins of chopped tomatoes, one Woolworths' Select and one Home Brand. There was very little difference in colour or taste. There is a consistency difference: for 30c more, you get a slightly thicker product. The juice was a little runnier in the Home Brand kind, but not very much. I think Home Brand comes out better value for money.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Under the Weather

I haven't been posting this week, because I haven't been cooking or shopping much. And when I did shop it was no gourmet experience, since I'm down with a lurgi. I actually drove to the shops to pick up my prescription, which is a first in the seven years we've lived here. It's a whole 500m walk. So while I was there, I stocked up on slops, and the dreaded tinned pasta and soup have featured strongly in my diet. Why does tinned soup taste so tinny?

The better stuff has been pulled turkey leftovers from the freezer, and home delivery from the fabulous Yum Thai at Dickson. I also bought myself some sticky rice and red bean pudding from Saigon, my favourite Asian grocer. I was there because I had to go to ACTPLA. We need to rebuild the fence, since it blew down in that big wind on Monday night. I wanted to check the plans for our block to see where an easement goes, and Saigon is just round the corner.

And I've defrosted some of last summer's rhubarb, and bought some custard. It's an adventure defrosting it - will it be the spicy ginger one, or the rosewater and vanilla version?

Monday, 24 August 2009

Spinach and cheese pide

I made a spinach pide. It was not bad at all, though not up to TurkOz standards. But it was fun, and probably a bit healthier since I used light ricotta. I got the recipe from the Taste website: here it is. I did mangle it a little, but not very much. And I have some comments on how it went, and the lessons learned. Basically it's a stuffed pizza, much like a calzone but differently shaped, so you need a pizza dough recipe and a filling.

Recipe: Spinach and cheese pide filling
150g good fetta
250g light ricotta
4 eggs
450g spinach

Steam or microwave the spinach, and then let cool.
Squeeze out as much water as possible, and chop roughly.
Mix in crumbled fetta, ricotta and eggs.

The spinach was 2 bunches from Choku Bai Jo; and the 450g was the trimmed weight after discarding stalks and before cooking. It came down to 300g after. And I really don't think I squeezed out enough water. The filling was just a little too liquid - as you can see in the assembly photo, it's a little runny round the edges.

Here's how it looked at assembly. I made 4 long pieces, rather than the six suggested in the recipe. I also found that it was best to allow an hour for the second rising, after filling. Half an hour might do in summer, or if you prefer a thin crust.

Recipe: Pizza dough for pide
375g (2 1/2 cups) plain flour
1 tsp (7g/1 sachet) dried yeast
1 tsp salt
250ml lukewarm water
1 tbs olive oil
Plain flour, extra, to dust
Sesame seeds

Combine flour, salt and yeast in a bowl, and make a well in the centre.
Add the olive oil and water, and stir well with a wooden spoon.
Turn out onto a floured surface and knead for 3 minutes.
Roll in a ball, brush with a little oil, return it to the bowl.
Cover with gladwrap, and leave to rise for an hour in a warm place.
-- wait an hour --
Punch down, knead briefly, then divide in four pieces.
Roll each piece out into a long oval.
Fill, then pull edges of dough in to the centre and squeeze together.
Lay out on baking paper lined baking tray.
Brush with egg or oil, and sprinkle with a few sesame seeds.
Let rise again for 30-60 minutes.
Bake at 200C for 20 minutes, swapping trays around half way to keep the baking even.

Notes: this is the recipe at; but it has different quantities. I've done what the pide recipe said, and altered the quantities while keeping the technique. You can leave a strip open at the top, instead of enclosing totally. if you prefer.

I kept the flavours very basic - but when I do it again, I'll probably put some lemon or dill in with the filling mix. We added some olives and jalapeno slices on the side. It was pretty good, except that the filling was too liquid, and after the rising it had oozed out a bit. I drained most of it off before baking, but there was still a bit of messy egg making the base a bit soggier than it should have been. Oh well, whatever. It was edible. And did I mention that it was fun?

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Save the Fringe!

You may have heard that the Fringe Festival is being de-funded. In the goverment spin, this is presented as funding the National Folk Festival to host Fringe, and allowing the multicultural festival to focus more on our local cultural diversity. Yah, right. As long as it's very traditional cultural diversity and not postmodern gypsy punk eastern European storytelling, I guess.

I got this letter from a couple of people who have been involved as performers and organisers, and are very concerned about this direction. Please read and take what action you can.

Dear Arts lovers,

As you may know by now the Fringe Festival in Canberra has been defunded with a small portion of the previous funding being re-allocated to the National Folk Festival to do something "fringey". The Canberra Times is taking a big interest in this so please take the time to write your opinions down in a letter to the editor.
Points to think about:

* $30,000 is a mere fraction of the amount of money required to put on the grand scale we've seen in the last few years
* The folk festival is expensive, not free like fringe was and attracts a limited demographic
* The folk festival is a music festival with very little focus on theatre and visual arts which the fringe has always promoted evenly
* Local artists have relied heavily on the fringe as an affordable way to produce art and reach the wider canberra audience that only comes out of the woodwork for large scale free events in the middle of the city
* The folk festival is not central

Letters to the editor must be 200 words or less and sent to

You can also send a letter online at

I also suggest writing to Jon Stanhope, whose full contact details are at Or his email is

My take on it, as a regular of both festivals, is that the Folk Festival is too big, too focussed, and too isolated to do this well. Do you host it onsite at the National? It's already overcrowded out there, what venues will they use? And how much overlap in the audience will there be anyway? Fringe fans are not going to want to pay steep entry fees to the Folkie to see their shows. It's $85 a day if you buy at the gate. We usually buy season tickets early, which will be $166 this time.

And if you put it in town, that won't work well either. Folk fans from around Australia stay onsite in camp grounds - they won't go into town to watch their shows, especially not with our appalling public holiday bus schedules. How involved can the Folkie management possibly feel, in dealing with something offsite and well outside their usual audience's interests? They run on volunteer labour already; an extra job that few of their patrons care about is not likely to be done well!

And Easter is a bad time to attract audiences anyway. We all know that locals use the last warm long weekend of the season to go out of town. It was working well, but this is a mess. Why take a successful event and nobble it?

Friday, 21 August 2009

I did it again

That goulashy thing with dumplings. Also, I made chicken stock out of the remains of a shop BBQ chook. And pizzas with bought ingedients - bases from Baker's Delight, sauce & pizza cheese from Woollies. I made one with pesto, fetta, dried tomato and capsicum, and the other one with tomato, olive & jalapeno. This is the sort of stuff I don't usually blog.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Marmalade Time

The Sunday before last, I dropped into the Belconnen Fresh Food Market, after a trip to Bunnings for more house fixity things. The Bloke has now fixed the leaky dishwasher, hurrah! On advice from Infoaddict in a comment here, I checked out Wiffen's. I'm mostly a Tom's fan, but I'm really happy that I did this. Wiffen's had some good things, including persimmons and mangosteens at $1 a piece. I grabbed a few of those, because I adore mangosteens and hardly ever have them. And I picked up some generic salad & veg stuff that I needed since I didn't make it to the EPIC growers market that Saturday. Green beans, tomatoes, pumpkin, a $2 bag of parsnips. Useful things.

The best of it was that they had Seville oranges! I am excited yet again, as I had run out of marmalade. I've been buying it, but I have yet to find one that to my taste is anywhere near as good as my own. Even the Lynwood Seville, star of the great jar opening saga, is not bitter enough for me. Crankypants' grapefruit was pretty good, and the lime was OK - nicely sharp, but not the bitter I really want. Cumquat isn't bad, either, but nothing beats Seville for me. And now I have made eleven jars! Yay!

My marmalade recipe comes from a former workmate, Airlie Moore. She was the office administrator at the company I last worked for in Sydney. Airlie was raised on a farm, and later raised her own kids in the country. She's one of those wonderfully tough, no-nonsense women without whom executives would crash and burn in chaos. I imagine if she'd been born a decade or two later she might have been PM, or a high-flying CEO or something. And she was also kind and friendly, and very easy to work with as long as you were sensible. Airlie gave me this recipe, which is the best ever. You can see it's an old country recipe from the non-metric ingredients.

Recipe: Airlie's Seville Orange Marmalade
2 lbs Seville Oranges
4 lbs sugar
4 pints water
1 large lemon

Wash the oranges first.
Put whole oranges and water in a large pan.
Cover, and simmer gently for two hours, then allow to cool.
Remove oranges from the water and slice finely, saving the seeds. (see notes)
Add seeds back to the water, and also add the juice and pips of the lemon.
(see notes)
Bring to boil and boil rapidly for 5 minutes.
Strain out pips, and return orange slices to the pan.
Boil to reduce by about half.
Add sugar and boil rapidly for 10 minutes, or until set by your preferred test.
Turn off heat and let stand for 15 minutes before jarring.

Notes: The 15 minute stand is to allow a partial set, so the peel can be evenly distributed. Use one lemon per kilo of oranges, and adjust quantities to suit your orange supply simply keeping the ratio. It works out in metric to 2.4 litres/kg. But given the boiling down to "about half", there's no need to be scrupulously exact. I had six oranges, a total of 1.7kg, and used 4L water and 3.4kg of sugar. When you add the sugar, this bulks up a lot - I needed my largest stock pot. You want at least 10cm clearance, and more is better. It froths up a lot as it boils, and can spit a bit.

When you get to the point of slicing the oranges, you can just keep the peel and discard the innards, or you can squeeze the insides through a sieve to get pulp. With the seeds, I like to wrap them in a bit of muslin for easy removal. My oranges this time had no seeds at all, but the lemons were very seedy indeed so that helped. You could use some Jamsetta for pectin, if you like, instead of fussing with seeds.

My preferred set test for jam and marmalade is to put a couple of saucers in the freezer. Drop a quarter teaspoon or so on the edge, leave for a minute, then push on it to see if it wrinkles. Or, if you have a jam thermometer, 105C is the canonical temperature measurement. I tried that and it seemed not right. The wrinkle test actually passed at 108C - which may mean that my thermometer is a little inaccurate. The moral is: don't just trust meter readings, without adding common sense and experience.

In terms of jars, I like to use old vegemite jars. They accumulate easily. I rinse them and their lids in very hot water, then dry them out in the oven. A jam funnel eases the filling procedure remarkably - that's one gadget I use over and over.

Apart from the brilliant result, I also love this recipe for the simplicity of preparation. Anyone who's made marmalade the regular way knows how much of a hassle it is juicing and/or slicing the fruit. When it's soft from the boiling, though, it is dead easy. It's also quite useful because you can do it in stages. Boil oranges one day, cool, add pectin and reduce next day - and if necessary, add sugar and do the jarring the next day after that.

Now, did you see what I did there? There were 13, not 11 jars in the top photo. Did you spot the ringers? Here are the two ringers again, with a new one for comparison. Of the two extras, the part-eaten one is the Lynwood that I decanted into a different jar. The other is from the same recipe, but it is six years old - not even from my last batch, but the one before. It was hiding in the top cupboard stash, behind a lot of jars of chutney. It is almost totally black now, but like wine, marmalade ages well. I detect notes of treacle...

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Cauliflower and/or Macaroni Cheese

This is what we had for dinner yesterday. As I was making it, I remembered that a white sauce or bechamel is sometimes seen as a bit tricky and off-putting, yet there I was doing it entirely by eye. And it worked just fine. Which means not that I am a super-genius chef, but really that it's not all that hard.

Cauliflower cheese is one of those old stock favourites, simple old-fashioned comfort food. So is macaroni cheese. My Mum used to make cauli cheese when I was a kid, and she'd usually serve it with some bacon or fried mushrooms on the side. Combining the cauliflower with macaroni is my idea, though. Sometimes I use a light white sauce for it, much the same as the light parsley sauce that goes with corned beef.

Recipe: Cauliflower & Macaroni Cheese
1/2 medium cauliflower
250g macaroni or other short pasta
Cheese sauce made with about 600ml milk (see below)
30-50g finely grated cheddar or parmesan, to top.

Boil the macaroni until barely al dente.
Split the cauliflower into florets, and steam or microwave until barely done.
Combine the two in a deep casserole dish.
Make a cheese sauce, and pour it into the dish.
Stir to make sure everything is well coated with the sauce.
Sprinkle grated cheese over the top.
Bake at 140C for 1 & 3/4 hours.

I've often baked it shorter and hotter, but this slower cooking works better. The sauce can split (separate) at the hotter temp. This was also perfect timing to put it in oven, go to dance class, and then come home ready for a hot dinner. I popped in some large chunks of pumpkin, and when I got home all I had to do was microwave some frozen peas. And there's plenty left over for another dinner and a lunch or two.

Not Recipe: Cheese Sauce
OK, if you want to see a proper bechamel, you can find it on the web, or in most basic cookbooks. Your classic cheese sauce is just a bechamel with grated cheese mixed in. You do this mixing off the heat, after the sauce has thickened. Stir well to melt the cheese into the sauce, add a smidge of nutmeg, and you're done. Here's a Delia Smith version.

The good thing about doing it properly is the flavouring of the milk with the onion and parsley. Stodgy old British plain cookery tends to skip this nicety. The bottom line basic is the plain white sauce - here's a site with measurements. What I did this time was much closer to the stodgy Brit version than the French, though I did add some extra flavour.

I whacked a large spoonful of margarine in the saucepan. I was all out of butter, so I had to use the Bloke's anti-cholesterol marg that he keeps for his toast. Which, judging by the sputtering, contains quite a bit of water. Melt it, then stir in about twice the volume of plain flour. Stir over the heat until well mixed. Pour in about 600ml cold milk all at once. Stir very well - in fact, use a heat-resistant whisk. Keep stirring until it thickens. If it's still lumpy, whisk it some more
, but it's best to get the lumps out before it gets hot enough to thicken. Add two tablespoons of sherry and half a teaspoon of mustard and stir well.

If it's too thick add a little more milk. If it's not thick enough, a teaspoon or two of cornflour dissolved in a little water will fix it up. A thin pouring custard is about the idea, not one of those premium heavy ones.

Remove from heat and add plenty of grated cheese - I used 50g of parmesan, 50g of sharp cheddar, and about 75g of "pizza cheese". Stir well until cheese is melted and mixed in well. Taste, and add a pinch of salt if you like. I usually add a little nutmeg, but I forgot this time.

This is good for using up loose ends of cheese. Remnants of ricotta or cream cheese can go in as well as the hard cheeses.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Maple Apricot Scones

This was a nice easy breakfast for a weekend morning. I found the basic recipe in Delicious, labelled as "Buttermilk Scones", suggested to accompany a soup. What appealled to me most is the complete lack of any butter. I do love a good scone, and my friend B1 makes the best date scones ever. But I can't be bothered with that rubbing fat into flour first thing in the morning. That's why I like muffins so much. The technique is simply "dump stuff in bowl, stir". I can do that before my coffee.

Recipe: Maple Apricot Scones
2 cups self raising flour
pinch salt
1/2 cup chopped dried apricot
1 cup buttermilk
2 tblsp maple syrup
a little extra flour

Mix the flour, salt and apricot in a bowl.
Mix the maple syrup into the buttermilk.
Combine the mixes, and stir well.
Dump onto a flour-coated baking tray, turn over to cover the top with flour.
Pat it out to a rough circle, and cut into 8 triangles.
Brush top with a little extra buttermilk (the scrapings from the measuring jug will do.)
Bake at 180C for 15 minutes.
To serve, split in half and butter if desired.

Notes: The original recipe does not contain fruit, and suggests more kneading. And cutting in rounds. Of course you could use any fruit you like - sultanas, dates, currants. I had a packet of chopped dried apricot, and the bloke does not like dates. I also found this mix to be too sticky for easy kneading. So I just dumped it out on the tray and cut triangles. Fussing with cutters is also not for pre-coffee times, and anyway, the less you knead a flour-based dough, the more tender it is.

These are even low fat, since buttermilk does not contain butter. It's a cultured product, very like an unflavoured drinking yoghurt. Traditionally it's made from the leftover milk after the butter has been extracted. I wonder now if it would work with wholemeal flour, to be even healthier. Next time, perhaps.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Finally, Cassoulet

Well, the end result is here. Cassoulet can actually be made with a huge variety of meats. Stephanie Alexander's, in her book Feasts and Stories, features pork neck, pork belly, pork hocks, cotechino sausages, preserved duck legs and veal stock. Julia Child's has a loin of pork, toulouse sausage (for which she gives the recipe), bacon, and a shoulder of lamb or mutton. She mentions variations including goose, turkey, veal and polish sausage.

So really, you can do what you want. The basic concept is white beans cooked in stock, with a variety of cooked meats mixed in, then baked with a breadcrumb topping. The flavours are classic French parsley, bay, thyme and garlic - plus, of course, all the meat juices.

Recipe: Cath's Canberra Cassoulet
375g haricot beans
a batch of duck stock
2 cured duck maryland pieces
500g toulouse sausage, cut in half lengths
1 tin chopped tomatoes (or equivalent fresh)
2 onions
2 carrots
2 cloves garlic
2 cups breadcrumbs, made from a baguette
pinch salt, black pepper

Soak the beans overnight in plain water.
Chop the onion and carrots quite small.
Drain beans, add them to a large pot with the onion and carrots.
Add the duck stock, and simmer for an hour.
Add the tin of tomatoes.
Simmer for another 15 minutes, or until beans are just tender.
(Do not discard liquid)
Meanwhile, rinse the salt cure mix off the duck, and pat dry.
Pan fry it until golden.
Remove, and brown the sausage well in the duck fat.
Remove, leaving any meat from loose ends behind in the pan.
Strip off the skin and fat from the duck, and chop skin into small dice.
Fry these duck cracklings until crisp.
Add two cloves of crushed garlic and the breadcrumbs to the pan.
Fry until golden brown.
Mix in chopped parsley, salt and pepper
Mix the meats and beans in a casserole dish.
Top up with stock to barely cover.
Sprinkle crumb topping over.
Bake, uncovered, at 170C for an hour.


Notes: Boil the stock down a little if need be, rather than discarding any excess. The duck cracklings in the topping is not traditional - that idea came from the Epicurious recipe.

A simple vinegary green salad and a few slices of proper French baguette is a good match. My baguette was not the best - the bakery I went to had run out - so I sprayed a little olive oil on the cut surface and toasted it in the sandwich press.

I'm quite pleased with how this all worked out. The beans, sausage and crumb topping are excellent. We've got two dinners out of it, and some freezer stock. The crumbs won't be as crunchy later on, it will instead thicken the bean mix quite a lot. I plan to add some extra tomatoes or wine when I eventually reheat them. The duck I'm less thrilled with. I'm not very experienced with cooking duck, and I found that both of the duck meals came out a little tougher than I'd like. Not bad, just not great.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

The Cassoulet Project Continues

We need some stock to cook those beans, so here it is just getting started.

Recipe 1: Duck Stock
1 duck carcass and wings
3 bayleaves
a handful of parsley
2 large garlic cloves
4 cloves
1 tsp thyme
1 carrot
1 onion

Cover with water and simmer all together for 3-4 hours.
Strain, and refrigerate the liquid.
When cold, skim fat off (save for other uses).

Save the fat for other uses. You don't need to be too scrupulous with the skimming, some fat in the beans will help make things even tastier. But a whole cup would be way too much.

Recipe 2: Cured Duck Legs
2 duck maryland pieces
4 bayleaves
Black pepper
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup salt

Mix the sugar and salt, and rub into duck.
Grind a good amount of black pepper over it.
Layer with bayleaves in a non-reactive container.
Store for 2-3 days in the refrigerator.

This recipe is from Stephanie Alexander's big book, labelled as "Cath's sugar-cured duck legs". Mine! She suggests roasting then for an hour at 180C until golden brown, and serving with cabbage. I intend to pan-fry them to brown, then finish the cooking with the cassoulet.

So the cassoulet isn't ready to eat yet, but we're moving along. Tonight, perhaps? Or later? I get home late on Mondays, so yesterday we needed quick reheatable meals. This time we ate from the freezer - a Moroccan casserole made by our Easter houseguest A. I added some microwaved green beans, and a quick couscous with lemon. On Wednesday evening I have my first wine tasting class, so it might be better to do it tonight.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Launching the Cassoulet Project: Duck!

I want to make cassoulet before winter is out. And so last time I was in Woollies, I looked for the dried beans. Nope. Not there. No haricots, no kidney beans, no cannellinis, no chickpeas, except in tinned form. They did have some dried split peas and lentils, for soups, but no other pulses. Luckily my local IGA was much more useful, so I didn't have to drive off to the Indian grocery.

I have a duck which needs using up. I bought it frozen, thinking of cooking it last Xmas, but I never got round to it. I intend to use half of that, and some very tasty Toulouse sausage from the "Bangers" stall at the market. The other half was Sunday dinner - see recipe below.

Now possibly some purists are thinking "She's not really going to make proper cassoulet, is she?" and they are dead right. I have been consulting the Julia Child and Stephanie Alexander recipes, and the authentic cassoulet is a major production, involving many days, many steps, and enough food to feed a small army. I'm making something much simpler, but still keeping the basic idea. The epicurious recipe is closer to what I have in mind.

To start with, I am not going to confit two duck legs. To make a confit, you cook the meat very slowly in fat. And this preserved it for the winter, in a pre-refrigeration era. Now I simply don't have that much duck fat to go around and I'm not going to buy it. Nor am I going to buy one of those tins of goose fat from the Essential Ingredient. And I am not going to use a full kilo of haricots, a whole leg of lamb and a pork hock.

What I am going to do is cure the duck legs, and make a proper duck stock from the carcass. I got the duck out to defrost on Saturday, and I have used my expert chicken jointing skills (as learned from Christophe last month) to split off breasts for dinner, marylands to cure, and a carcass for stock.

I have soaked 375g of haricot beans. The next step will be to finish cooking them in stock. Meanwhile, we still needed to eat. I just happened to have a couple of duck breasts - a Sunday duck dinner with cherry sauce and smashed potatoes and something green sounded like an excellent plan.

Recipe 1: Roast Duck Breast with Cheat's Cherry Sauce
2 duck breasts
salt, pepper
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 orange
75g "Ham Jam"
1 tablespoon brandy

Preheat the oven to 220C.
Slash the duck breast skins, and pan fry in the olive oil until golden.
Transfer to a baking dish
Bake for 7 minutes; remove and rest for 10 minutes before serving.

While duck is resting, mix the cherry jam with the orange juice and brandy. Heat to bubbling, and stir well.

The sauce can be heated in a microwave, or a small saucepan. You don't need much oil - duck is fatty. Save the fat, it is good. Brush it over some potatoes. And what, you may be asking, is Ham Jam? This is Ham Jam. It's a savoury cherry jam, and contains no ham whatsoever. It is, however, good with ham. Use cherry jam and add some vinegar, cinnamon and cloves if you don't have it.

The duck breast technique, and the idea for the cheating sauce came from Anthony Worral Thompson at the BBC food site. Orange from P&R's backyard tree.

Recipe 2: Ducky Smashed Red Potatoes
Small red potatoes
Duck fat
Pink Murray River salt

Preheat oven to 220C
Parboil potatoes until barely done, about 15 minutes.
Grease a baking tray with duck fat
Put the potatoes on the tray, and squash each one down with a potato masher.
Brush with melted duck fat and sprinkle with salt.
Bake for 20 minutes, until crisp and golden.

The smashed potatoes are, of course, a variant on Jill Dupleix' recipe. I'm not very experienced with these, but I find that it's important to whack the potatoes briskly with the masher rather than gently squish them. They're a little hard at that stage.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Controversy Ahoy

I started this last week and kept not finishing it off to post properly. Sorry. I've got a lot of posts coming up this week to make up for it. It's a little controversial, so let's just bite the bullet and get those points out of the way first.

1. Organic food is not better for you.
2. Michael Pollan is a bit of a dickhead.

Wait, what? Well, these two topics have been floating round the intertoobz recently.

First, organic food. Ben Goldacre has a good article on the topic. Basically a couple of studies came out in the UK that showed no nutritional benefits to organic food. There is no measurable difference in chemical composition or in health benefits.

I'm actually not surprised by this one little bit. I've never been a fanatic about organic foods - I place fair trade, low food miles, and free range much higher in my priorities. I do buy organic quite often, though, and I'm not to going to stop. I'm pretty sure that a lot of the organic farming practices are better for the environment, and long term sustainability. I'm not convinced by all of the methods - old and traditional isn't automatically better. For example, what's with copper sulphate being considered organic? High school chemistry should tell you that it's an inorganic compound. It was my favourite in my chemistry set - such a pretty blue. I'm not saying it's actually bad or good; I am completely ignorant on this topic. It just makes me go "huh?"

I am also fairly sure that some of the "heritage" varieties of plants are better for you than the modern breeds - another question not addressed by these studies. We humans have been busily breeding our foods to be sweeter and fatter for millennia. We've changed that in the last century to selecting easier to transport and store, and lower in fat. But some of those bitter and sulphury compounds are the ones that are good for us; and the less intensively bred variants tend to be much higher in antioxidants and other nutrients. Australian bush foods are a prime example - super high in various nutrient levels, they are surely bound to one of the next faddy "superfoods". Oat bran, wild blueberries, wheatgrass, gojiberries, pomegranates... How about Kakadu plum, Davidson plum, akudjura or finger lime? Ooh, look, Kakadu Juice! Sounds good - get in early and beat the trendy price rises!

But these points are not at all what is addressed by the studies, and no amount of yelling "look, over there!" forms any kind of rebuttal. I really love how Goldacre phrased it; I could not imagine writing it better.
The emotive commentary in favour of organic farming bundles together diverse and legitimate concerns about unchecked capitalism in our food supply: battery farming, corruptible regulators, or reckless destruction of the environment, where the producer’s costs do not reflect the true full costs of their activities to society, to name just a few. Each of these problems deserve individual attention.

But just as we do not solve the problems of deceitfulness in the pharmaceutical industry by buying homeopathic sugar pills, so we may not resolve the undoubted problems of unchecked capitalism in industrial food production by giving money to the £2bn industry represented by the Soil Association.

So - what's up with Michael Pollan, our ethical foodie hero? Plain old unthinking sexism is what. His latest column on the merits of home cooking is mostly pretty good. But he blindly assumes that cooking is women's work, and blames feminism for its decline. Read the Salon commentary here. And Pollan's NYTimes article here. ORLY, Michael? What, you maybe think men do not need to eat? Or do you think all men should come equipped with a personal chef as a birthright?

To be fair, he does actually think that men should learn to cook. Where he goes off the rails is in ascribing the downfall of home cooking to, of all things, feminism. It's as if Betty Friedan all by herself persuaded 1950s middle class housewives that they were unhappy. Because every educated woman before Friedan just LOVED being forced to quit her job to cook, clean and care for children and wait on her husband. The intellectual joys of scrubbing the kitchen floor were unquestionable until Evil Betty hypnotised us all! And working class women are just dumb, and were totally taken in by this. Instead of spending hours making casseroles, they chose to go and work for the money to feed and clothe and house their families. Imagine! How silly! They ate macaroni cheese from a box instead of making a proper boeuf bourgignon, and baking apple pies. What could they possibly have been thinking?

Actually, my bloke does have a personal chef (hi there!), and he is very happy about it by all accounts. But that's us individually. He trades cleaning duties for the shopping and cooking. He seriously hates shopping. Cooking is OK, though he's out of practice. He used to be quite good at whipping up a pasta dinner, and unlike me he actually got the knack of steaming rice on the stovetop. He's crap at BBQs, though, which has got to be bad for his Bloke cred.

Cooking can indeed be creative and fun - obviously it's one of my own joys. And I quite agree that a certain level of it is an essential life skill for all of us. Nobody should have to depend on fast food and microwaved readimeals. But ALL of us should have the basics, independent of our plumbing. The complexities may safely be left to those of us who enjoy it - also independent of our plumbing.

By the way, one thing I'm very glad to learn from this is that there's a film of Julia Child's life, mashed up with the Julie/Julia project, coming out soon. VERY EXCITED OMG WHEN IS IT OPENING HERE?!!! *Ahem* Sorry, getting carried away. VERY EXCITED VERY EXCITED VERY EXCITED! Australian release date 08-Oct-09, US release date 07-Aug-09 WTF? DOWNLOAD DOWNLOAD DOWNLOAD. *oops, management does not endorse any naughty illegal stuff, treely ruly.*

Boozy Fruit

My mate B1 brought a boozy fruit compote to dinner recently, and it was so delicious that I decided to try making one of my own. The part I liked best about it was her use of glace orange, which adds that bittersweet citrus kick to it. You can have this warm, with icecream or yoghurt, or dolloped on porridge. Since the alcohol component of the booze is actually cooked out, it's fine to have it for breakfast. You could add a little dash of brandy or liqueur back for dessert if you like.

The true recipe is one of those not-recipes. Put whatever dried fruit you want in a bowl. Add some honey and some (milkless!) tea and some booze, whatever you fancy. Soak overnight. Simmer for a while to reduce liquid down.

Recipe: Boozy Fruit Compote

300g mixed dried fruit, large chunks
75g glace orange slices, chopped roughly
50ml marsala
50ml metaxa (a sweet muscatty Greek brandy)
50ml vanilla vodka
100ml strawberry champagne
300ml black chai
1 cinnamon stick
2 tablespoons honey

Assemble all in a glass bowl and soak overnight. Next day, toss in a saucepan and simmer for half an hour or until liquid is reduced to a small amount. Eat.

Notes: For fruit I used dried apricots, dried pineapple, prunes, dates, baby figs, and raisins. The strawberry champagne was a leftover, from last week's houseguest P. Chai made from a teabag from the Indian grocer.

Also while I was writing this, I kept typing compost instead of compote. DO NOT THROW ON GARDEN.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

It Aten't Dead

One week on and I still haven't killed it. Though the butter lettuce and rocket are looking alarmingly limp. Let us hope that today's feed and water picks them up.

This is a home hydroponics box from hydropantry, that I bought at the EPIC market last week. It is nifty. You put it in a frost-sheltered but sunny spot, and change the water once a week. Add 40ml of nutrient solution, and it's done until next week. You pick what you want from it as you go.

There are three kinds of lettuce in my planter, plus rocket, spring onions, curly parsley, continental parsley and coriander. We've used some of the red and cos lettuce already. It seems to be doing OK so far, just sitting on the table on the back deck. I think it's quite picturesque - adds a nice dash of green.

When you change the solution, you can put the old water on the garden. It's nice and clean, not smelly like the water from a week long neglected flower vase would be. Which makes sense when you think about it, since there's live roots hanging in there, not cut stems. I used the first batch of leftover water on my new cherry tree, which I am still excited about.

The garden is starting to look spring-like already. It's pretty in the sunshine, even if not exactly warm: the prunus is budding, and bulbs are sprouting among the hellebores and violets and cyclamens down the side that we've paved recently. And the wattle is starting to flower. Alice the wonder-gardener has pruned the trickier things for me and instructed me to feed the citrus. I'd better go do that while I remember.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Dinosaurs for dinner

This pulled pork recipe works really well with turkey. And since we can now get turkey legs and wings at Woollies, I've done this a couple of times. (Without blogging it, oh naughty me.) My slow cooker is not quite big enough to hold them. I always think it looks like something out of the Flintstones. Giant dinosaurian drumsticks. And since it seems probable that birds are dinosaurs, I'm not so wrong.

It's quite simple - skin the legs, and follow the pulled pork recipe. Let it slow cook for six hours or so, turning the drumsticks occasionally - especially if any bits are sticking up above the liquid as they are in this picture. Cool it down, and then pull all the meat off the bones - note that turkey has some extra cartilage struts compared to chicken. Defat the stock if needed, and return the pulled-apart meat to the tomato/vinegar sauce.

I varied it this time - I used a third of a bottle of Disaster Bay's chipotle sauce instead of the plain chilli flakes. And I added in a batch of cooked black-eyed beans - it's easier to cook separately. Served with coleslaw and fat slabs of sourdough bread - yummy. The Bloke approved.

(BTW, I'm guessing these turkey hunks from Woollies are not free range. Hmm. Again with the consistency problems.)

Saturday, 1 August 2009

I finally clicked that "Monetise" tab

So now we have google ads. I have no idea if this will make me any money, or if my readers will instead form a tiny lynch mob with flaming torches and drive me off. So far it seems to be producing sensibly food-related ads. And if you're using firefox & adblock, I'm pretty sure you will see nothing of it anyway.

I'm told that if anything offensive turns up, I can ban them. But I haven't fully learned to drive this thing yet, and my readers may not see the same ads that I do. Let me know if there's anything terrible, and I'll do my best to get rid of it.

Edit: This is amazing - I seem to be getting a lot more page views that I expected. I'd avoided counting before because I didn't want to feel intimidated by a large audience or disappointed by a small one. (Yes, I can be hard to please.) And you guys are clicking on the ads! I actually want to click on a couple of them, but I'm not allowed.

So I now feel, like, all responsible. I've added a link to this post to the top of the left column, as "Report a Bad Ad". Anything that looks nefarious - junk weight loss spams, quack miracle cures, mailorder slaves brides, whatever - please post the URL here as a comment, and I will put it on my ad filter list for bannination with extreme prejudice.

NOTE: Don't bother reporting it, if it appears on this specific page. Talking about dangerous weightloss spam brings it on like Beetlejuice.

Howto note:
My account -> AdSense (wait for load) -> AdSense Setup -> Competetive AdFilter.