Thursday, December 18, 2014

Ruwenzori Retreat

After returning from Vanuatu we took another short journey, to somewhere completely different yet delightful in its own way. Ruwenzori  is a secluded bush retreat not far from Mudgee in central New South Wales. It consists of several 100 year old train carriages, restored to provide self-contained accommodation. We've travelled on several sleeper trains over the years (such as the Ocean in Canada, the Ghan and the Sunlander in Australia, and the Eastern and Oriental Express in Asia) and it was good fun to stay on a stationary train!

Scene from the state carriage

The dining car

The well-equipped kitchen

Kids would love the bunk beds

The site also offers great bush walks. A wombat hole ...

... and more signs of wombats!

We can also recommend the local region. Gulgong has a huge and fascinating museum, while Mudgee has wineries and plenty of delicious local food.

Lunch platter at Outside the Square Cafe, Mudgee. Yum!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Ratua Island, Vanuatu

2014 has been one of my most stressful years yet. I spent about eight months working on a huge, complicated, demanding task (no, not my beloved editing) that stole my sleep and nibbled away at my sanity. I needed an incentive to continue, something to look forward to, so planned a trip to Vanuatu for after the project was completed.

It was delightful.

My partner and I spent five nights on Ratua Island (Ile Ratoua), which is to the south-east of Espiritu Santo. We snorkelled, canoed, cycled, walked, ate, read and relaxed. The island is tiny  it has just 13 villas  and provides very personalised service. The food was spectacular (if perhaps too generous ... we ate too much) and the staff lovely. We also had the opportunity to learn a little about Ni-Vanuatu culture and to visit a village on a neighbouring island.

I won't waffle on. Just wanted to share some of our photos.

What a gorgeous place. The perfect antidote to a stressful year.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A chocolate cake with a fruity twist

It is stone fruit season here in Canberra. The shops (and markets, and roadside stalls) are full of cherries, apricots, nectarines and peaches. Yum. My friend Hermine introduced me to this recipe. She calls it '160 cake' as most of the ingredients come in lots of 160 grams:

160 grams eggs (i.e. 3 to 4 eggs), separated
160 grams sugar
160 grams dark chocolate, melted
160 grams butter
160 grams flour
0.5 teaspoon baking powder

Cream butter and sugar together, then beat in egg yolks, then melted chocolate. Beat egg whites till stiff. Combine flour and baking powder, then fold all ingredients gently together. Pour into buttered and floured baking pan and (optionally) stud with halved stone fruit. Bake for 50 minutes at 160 degrees C (it may need a little longer  test with skewer).

I made it with apricots this time

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Ice cream base

'Tis the season (in Canberra, at least) to be enjoying ice cream. Happy summer to y'all!

600 ml cream
1 tin sweetened condensed milk

Whip the cream till thick then mix in the condensed milk. Add flavourings and freeze …


Liqueurs and nuts (e.g. Kahlua and macadamias, or Baileys and walnuts … or anything you like)
Fruit (fresh or defrosted berries work well, as does dried fruit and nuts soaked in brandy)
Japanese green tea powder
Whatever you like, really ...

If you want to make the green tea variant, make sure you use matcha green tea powder. This is sold in tiny tins in Asian grocery shops; it is quite expensive but goes a long way. Just mix about a tablespoon of green tea powder with boiling water, cool, then mix this into the ice cream base, and freeze. (You can also use the green tea powder to flavour other stuff like crème brulée, or to make any pale-coloured dessert a pretty green colour ;-)

Strawberry ice cream

Yet another ice cream recipe you can make without a fancy ice cream maker!

250 grams fresh strawberries
1 tablespoon gelatine (or 1 gelatine 'leaf') *
1.5 cups cream
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons water

Slice strawberries and sprinkle with sugar. Place in the fridge for one hour or until the juice runs from the strawberries. Soak the gelatine in cold water and drain the strawberry juice into this. Stand bowl over hot water and stir until gelatine dissolved. Add strawberries. Chill until starting to set. Whip cream, fold strawberry mixture into cream, and freeze until firm. Allow to soften for a few minutes before eating.

* gelatine [gelatin] is an animal product so not suitable for vegetarians. I'd prefer not to use it but have yet to find a suitable alternative. I've heard that agar-agar has similar properties but haven't found any for sale in Canberra. If you know a source, please leave a comment ...

Avocado, lime and ginger ice cream

Don't be deterred by the idea of avocado ice cream. This is delicious.

1 avocado (or two if they're small)
juice and pulp of 2 fresh limes
125 g glacé ginger, chopped finely
0.5 cup caster sugar
1 cup cream

Purée avocado with lime juice and pulp. Fold in ginger and sugar. Very lightly whip cream. Fold all together. Put in freezer. Take out 15 minutes before serving.

P.S. if you're in the northern hemisphere and ice cream sounds far too cold to you right now, there's an easy chocolate mud cake here you may prefer to make ...

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Brekkie @ Little Oink

If you're a vegetarian (or have religious objections to eating pork) please avert your eyes now. This cafe is not for you. The name might be a bit of a clue ...

Little Oink is in the shopping centre at Cook, in Belconnen, Canberra. Somebody recommended it recently on the Canberra blog The RiotACT so we decided to give it a go! Someone there has a sense of humour  and a taste for word play  as there are some great dish names on the menu, for example 'Don't go bacon my heart', 'Chorizo your own adventure', and 'Salmon to watch over me'. Cute.

He had:

'Parlez-vous francais ... toast': brioche French toast
with bacon and maple syrup, plus a long black

while she had:

'Get in my pork belly': sticky pork belly, poached
eggs and potato rosti, plus a flat white

We enjoyed our meals and will have to go back again as there were a bunch of other things that sounded good too. The shop was delightfully rustic, with giant murals and décor that might have escaped from a different decade. Nice ...

Little Oink on Urbanspoon

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Brekkie @ Frankies at Forde

The suburb of Forde in Gungahlin (Canberra) is named after Frank Forde, who served as Australia's Prime Minister for just eight days in 1945. So it seems fitting that a cafe in Forde should be called Frankies! We tried out the breakfast menu at Frankies this morning and were not disappointed.

He had:

Frankies BIG brekky  eggs and bacon with mushrooms, chipolatas,
beans, spinach and a housemade potato rosti, and a long black

while she had:

Salmon eggs benedict with freshly made
Hollandaise served on rostis, and a flat white

YUMMO!! The food was delicious, portion sizes were good, and we both really enjoyed the potato rosti. Crispy, crunchy goodness. The rest of the brekkie menu is here.

Frankies has a different vibe to the usual places we go as Gungahlin has a younger population than the rest of Canberra so it was full of parents with kids. We are early risers and arrived just after 8 am, which was good as by 9 am the place was packed. We'll be back ... I suspect I'll crave the wonderful potato rosti between visits!

Frankies at Forde on Urbanspoon

Saturday, November 01, 2014

When cuisine bridges cultures

I feel privileged to have had many culinary cross-cultural exchanges over the past few years. Some of them have been documented on this blog, for example when Tomer from Israel taught me to make shakshuka (which I'd never heard of back then, but has now appeared on several cafe menus around Canberra) and when Sergio from Spain introduced me to Spanish omelettes. I've been a volunteer English language tutor for several years and a couple of my students have returned the favour by teaching me how to cook dishes from their countries: Hermine from Austria showed me a fabulous potato goulash and and delectable creamy mushrooms, while Yan from China gave me a delightful lesson in making Chinese dumplings. Lucky, lucky me. All of these dishes have become favourites in our household.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Green tea crème brûlée

Crème brûlée is a restaurant-style dessert and people often assume it is difficult to make. It isn't! This variant has a delightful aroma and deep green hue, thanks to green tea powder.

1 cup cream
1/4 cup sugar
3 egg yolks
1 tablespoon of Japanese (matcha) green tea powder
4 (extra) tablespoons caster sugar

Place cream and green tea powder in saucepan and bring to boil. Allow to cool for 15 minutes. Whisk egg yolks with sugar. Pour cream mixture into egg mixture and combine well. Pour into four ramekins, place them in a baking dish and add enough cold water to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake at 160 degrees C for about one hour. Cool at room temperature. Refrigerate until cold. Sprinkle one tablespoon of caster sugar on to top of each custard and grill (or use blowtorch) to heat the sugar until it caramelises. Serve warm or cold.

I don't have a blowtorch  culinary or otherwise  but get
pretty good results by grilling the desserts for about five minutes

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The bonbon myth

For more than twenty years after leaving school I worked full time, and for much of that time I was simultaneously doing part time university studies. All in all, it was an exhausting couple of decades! Therefore, when I opted to move to part time paid work (four days per week instead of five) almost ten years ago it was a relief. I didn't feel lazy or indolent, and didn't resent the fact that I'd given up 20% of my income in return for one extra day of leisure each week.

Almost immediately, my activities expanded to fit the time available. I took up new volunteer roles (to this day I have three regular volunteer 'jobs'), socialised more, undertook yet more study and developed new skills, cooked more, and watched more movies. I also found that appointments that had previously clashed with work  dental check-ups, haircuts, bike repairs, optometry appointments, GP visits  could usually be scheduled for my day off, making me more productive and focused on the days I was at the office. I'd like to gradually reduce my working hours further in coming years, though guess that will depend how amenable my employer is to the idea.

It is surprising how many people still express surprise that I work part time ('you're lucky!', they say), or assume that I lie around doing nothing on my day off. Neighbours ask if I'll be home to receive a package they want delivered. Friends ask if I can babysit their kids. Colleagues think I sit around eating bonbons, and express envy that I have a day off mid-week when they're still slogging away from Monday to Friday. May I set the record straight? My days off are usually packed from morning 'til night with meaningful activities, there are no bonbons ... and you, too, can work fewer days if you're willing to live more frugally.

As always, just my two cents' worth.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Spicy Thai salmon and blueberry salad

... a perfect spring recipe! I usually make this with lychees, but lychees appear to be out of season (or unavailable for some other reason), and the only grapes and kiwifruit I could find yesterday were imported. So, in the interests of using local ingredients, this salad now features blueberries:

1 tablespoon fish sauce ('Squid' brand from Thailand is good)
1 teaspoon grated palm sugar
2 small red chillies, chopped
2 salmon fillets
2 Lebanese cucumbers, chopped
spring onions, thinly sliced
mint leaves
coriander [cilantro], chopped
1 cup roasted peanuts (unsalted)
2 limes

Marinate the salmon in the fridge in the fish sauce, palm sugar and chillies for a couple of hours. Make the salad by combining the cucumbers, spring onions, mint, coriander, peanuts and blueberries. Grill the salmon fillets, cool briefly, then flake the salmon into pieces (removing any skin or bones) and stir through the salad. Squeeze the limes and pour the juice over the salad. Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish or two as a generous main course.

Note that the blueberries can be replaced with lychees, seedless green grapes, or some other seasonal fruit. The fruit can be omitted altogether if you prefer.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Beer bread

This bread is seriously easy and seriously delicious!

Preheat oven to 180 degrees C (about 350 degrees F).

Mix together 300 grams of wholemeal self-raising flour, 1 tablespoon of runny honey, and about 350 ml beer. Pour into a greased loaf tin and bake for 50 to 60 minutes. Serve warm with butter.


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Nova Scotia

Six years ago this week, Andrew and I were in Nova Scotia, Canada, doing volunteer work with a pair of wildlife ecologists who were monitoring populations of small mammals. We met some great people who remain friends (despite our diverse locations  our fellow volunteers were from the USA, the UK, Japan and Switzerland) and saw some gorgeous sights. Here are a few photos from our two week adventure in Nova Scotia ...


Lobster pots outside a beach shack

Colourful houses in lovely Lunenburg

Beaver dam (we sat by the lake and waited 
very patiently to glimpse the beaver)

'Oh, the indignity! Next they'll want to weigh me ...'
(thanks to Kim for the photo)

Field signs ... who was here?
(thanks to Misato for the photo)

Bear poo!
(thanks to Chantil for the photo)

A porcupine up a tree
(thanks to Kim for the photo)

The autumn leaves were amazing
(thanks to Ann for the photo)

At the end of the two weeks we caught a fabulous train – The Ocean  from Halifax to Montréal. Here's a pic of the city from the top of Mount Royal.

Oh, Canada!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Chickpea Delight

This recipe was given to me by a former colleague, Mary Anne, about eighteen years ago. Thanks Mary Anne ... it has become a favourite in my household!

sweet potato
chickpeas (canned or soaked overnight)
vegetable stock or water
red capsicum
coconut cream
curry powder or paste
olive oil
fresh coriander

Sauté onion and garlic in oil. Add chopped capsicum. Add cubed sweet potato. Stir in curry powder (or paste) and fry for a while. Add stock or water and coconut cream. Cook for a while. Add chickpeas and cook till soft and thick. Add coriander at the end. Serve with rice or roti.

Sorry the quantities and method are so vague! It is a very flexible dish, and I've found that the quantities don't matter much  adjust them to your taste  and the method is also pretty flexible. You can cook this in a saucepan on a stove, or in a pressure cooker (one of my favourite kitchen toys) or in a microwave. It also freezes well so makes great lunches or week night dinners.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Charleston, South Carolina

Six years ago this week (has it really been six years?) Andrew and I caught up with two American friends in Charleston, South Carolina. We spent a wonderful few days exploring the city and its surrounds.

We visited Fort Sumter, where the American Civil War began in 1861

Admired the tropical vegetation ...

... and wildlife at Magnolia Plantation

and marvelled at the gorgeous old houses in the historic district ...

... not to mention the churches

Charleston was a charming city, though we suspect the weather wouldn't suit us. It was autumn [fall], yet still very hot and humid. We also visited the farmers' markets and Charleston City Market, ate at some gorgeous wee cafes, and enjoyed a very upmarket dinner at the fabulous FIG restaurant.

If you want to get a sense of the city but avoid the air miles, may I recommend the tea shop mysteries by Laura Childs? They're set in Charleston and incorporate many local festivals, as well as historical and geographical tidbits. Good fun, if you're a fan of mystery fiction!