Saturday, May 23, 2015

Ooh, ooh, umami

One of the psych courses I did at uni (I think it was called Biological Bases of Behaviour) discussed taste. We learnt that the sensation of taste could be categorised into four basic tastes, sweetness, sourness, saltiness and bitterness, and at that time (in the 1990s) there was also discussion about whether there was a fifth category: umami. Umami is a word borrowed from Japanese, meaning 'pleasant savoury taste'. I was reminded about the concept of umami today when making a big pot of soup. Without the tomatoes and tomato paste, this soup is tasty but maybe a tad bland. With the addition of tomatoes the umami factor increases and it becomes positively delicious!

Umami? Yummy!

Big, satisfying soups are a winter staple in our house. I tend to make large quantities of soups, casseroles, and curries on weekends when I have plenty of time, and freeze meal-sized potions for quick lunches and dinners. Here's what went into today's batch of soup:

1 cup of soup mix (dried peas, barley and lentils)
3 carrots
2 parsnips
half a pumpkin
1 leek
3 tomatoes
2 tbsp tomato paste
frozen peas

Firstly, cover the soup mix with water and bring to the boil. Then add all the other vegetables (chopped) and stir in the tomato paste. Boil all together until thick – maybe about an hour in an ordinary saucepan, or about 20 minutes if you have a pressure cooker. Cool for a few minutes, then ladle into freezable containers and refrigerate until cool enough to freeze. (The combination of ingredients shown above produced six servings. Our freezer is now full.)

Of course, the ingredients are very flexible. I based today's choices on whatever looked fresh and appealing at my local organic shop, but you can add or subtract things according to taste and availability. If you're feeling carnivorous, you can toss in (say) a smoked ham hock for an extra dose of umami.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Date loaf just got even better!

Today I decided to make my favourite date loaf and noticed I had pistachios and ground almonds in the fridge. So with a little bit of ingredient substitution, date loaf became even more delicious! Here's the recipe.

1 cup chopped dates
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup boiling water
0.75 cups wholemeal flour
0.75 cups ground almonds
1 cup shelled pistachios
1 teaspoon baking powder

Put dates, butter and soda into a bowl. Pour boiling water over and mash slightly. Mix in the flour, ground almonds, pistachios and baking powder, pour into a loaf tin and bake about 50 minutes at 200 degrees C (400 degrees F). Slice and serve with butter.

This is a quick, easy snack to whip up when you realise you have guests arriving in an hour or so. It can be served warm or cold, and also freezes well for later lunches.


Monday, May 11, 2015

Single-handed (adjective) but not single-handedly (adverb)

It's been a weird few weeks. In mid-April, after having my bike serviced one rainy Friday, I was riding home and slipped in some unseen wet autumn leaves, falling on the kerb and fracturing my humerus. Alas, there's nothing humorous about a busted humerus! It is very painful. It's also very constricting, as the treatment involves at least six weeks in an immobilising sling.

Andrew, my partner of twenty-plus years, has been absolutely wonderful. He's driven me to medical appointments, taken over all of the household tasks with aplomb, and even dressed and undressed me each day. (I'm not allowed to move my left arm in certain directions so dressing is a big challenge.) I'm usually a ferociously independent person so learning to ask people  Andrew, friends, colleagues and strangers  to do things for me has been quite a stretch. Whether it is getting from A to B, opening doors, chopping ingredients or cleaning the house, I'm feeling pretty useless. Luckily my habit of keeping a weekly menu and freezing plenty of leftovers for weekday meals has paid off; we've raided the freezer and enjoyed things like pasta with homemade sauce, nachos, and all manner of legume-y soups lately.

What have I learnt from all this? That Andrew is my hero (well, I knew that already, but know it even more now), that it is OK to ask people for help, and that I really shouldn't ride my bike on rainy autumnal evenings.

When the sling is visible I almost need to hang an FAQ sign around my neck:
  1. I fell off my bike.
  2. Yes, it hurts.
  3. About six weeks.
After a while the questions became a bit repetitive, so I splashed out on a disguise.

Now you see it ... 

... now you don't!

Monday, April 20, 2015

Crunch time

For many years now I've kept a household menu, to save time and money in planning meals, ensure variety and avoid waste. Since 2010 I've been tallying up what we eat each year (nerdy, I know) and posting the results on this blog on 20 April. That date seems to roll around faster each year!

This year our most eaten home-cooked meals were:

creamy tuna pasta
potato salad
pasta bolognese

I've also discovered a few new favourites that are likely to feature in future lists ...

and just lately have been experimenting with reducing carbohydrates in recipes by substituting piles of fresh vegetables for (say) pasta or bread. (My pancreas has opinions and I'm trying to listen to them.)


Sunday, April 19, 2015

Pumpkin, pecan and pomegranate stew (Fesenjān)

This dish is a local version of the Persian favourite fesenjān (or fesenjoon). I first tried it at the Saffron Room a couple of years ago, and have cobbled this recipe together from several available on the web. The main alteration I made (because I prefer to use local rather than imported ingredients where possible) was to use pecans instead of the traditional walnuts.

1 large onion, chopped
olive oil
0.5 teaspoon turmeric
0.5 teaspoon cinnamon
half a pumpkin, cubed
one large eggplant, cubed
2 cups vegetable stock
0.5 cup pomegranate molasses (try Middle Eastern grocery shops or delis)
1 cup pecan nuts, roasted and roughly chopped
seeds from a fresh pomegranate (currently in season here in Australia!)
fresh parsley, chopped

Heat the oil in a large pot and add the onion. Cook until translucent, then add the spices and cook a little longer. Add the pumpkin and eggplant chunks and stir till they're coated in the spices. Add the stock and bring to the boil. Reduce heat and add the pomegranate molasses and pecans. Simmer for about twenty minutes. Garnish with pomegranate seeds and parsley to serve. This recipe makes about six to seven portions. I suggest freezing the leftovers for another day.

Big thanks to Andrew for doing all the chopping tonight. I usually do most of the cooking at home, but since falling off my bike and fracturing my arm last week I'm currently rather lop-sided. So he's taking on all sorts of unusual tasks ... and doing a magnificent job!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Happy Eggs Benedict Day!

According to that fountain of all knowledge, the intertubes, April 16 is National Eggs Benedict Day. (Wait, what?) It also happens to be my partner's birthday, so Happy Birthday Andrew! Although Andrew prefers French toast to eggs benedict, there's an easy and delicious recipe for Hollandaise sauce here if you'd like to give eggs benedict a go. I've never actually posted a recipe for French toast, but here's a recipe for a spicy version called Bombay toast ...

Monday, April 13, 2015

A Canadian recipe to celebrate Corner Gas Day

Did you ever see the delightful Canadian sitcom Corner Gas, set in the fictional town of Dog River, Saskatchewan? No? It was a tad obscure! Anyway, it was great fun. The series wrapped up six years ago today, and the premier of Saskatchewan declared 13 April 'Corner Gas Day'.

When we were in Canada in late 2008 (oh, Canada!) we discovered a couple of local 'delicacies'. One was poutine (a heart attack on a plate – French fries, cheese curd and gravy  no recipe required, surely!) and another was the hot breakfast sandwich at Tim Hortons. Here in Australia a biscuit is a cookie, but in Canada it seems it is a type of scone/muffin featuring cornmeal. Having become a bit addicted to them while there, I searched for a recipe when we returned ...

Corn Biscuits

1 cup of wholemeal flour
0.5 cup of cornmeal (also known as polenta)
pinch of salt
pepper, to taste
0.5 teaspoon of baking soda
1.5 teaspoon of baking powder
0.75 cups of milk
3 tablespoons of melted butter
1 egg

Mix the dry ingredients. Add the egg well beaten. Mix thoroughly and stir in the milk and butter. Put into greased muffin pans and bake at 180 degrees C for about fifteen minutes.

To make a breakfast sandwich a bit like the ones we enjoyed in Canada, sandwich together corn biscuits (as above), sausage patties or bacon strips, and a fried egg. Mmmmm.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka captured my heart when I was just seven. A bored and lonely kid growing up in a grim series of small towns in New Zealand, I was delighted to find a nine-year-old penpal, Arusha, in Colombo. Sri Lanka seemed so bright and colourful, so exotic, so … spicy! We fell out of contact after a couple of years, as you do when you’re a peripatetic little kid, but I never forgot that glimpse into another world. Over the ensuing forty years my passion for eating, for cooking, for things colourful and spicy and exotic grew and grew. 

To this day I’m fascinated by that teardrop-shaped island in the Indian Ocean. Its literature, its food, its politics and its curly-wurly scripts. I visited Colombo briefly for work three years ago and was utterly charmed by the warm and earnest people, not to mention the glorious food. Arusha managed to survive the long civil war in Sri Lanka and I managed to escape small-town New Zealand. Both of us ended up in Australia. 

Two years ago we found each other again and met up over a delicious home-cooked Sri Lankan lunch. It was fabulous to renew our friendship in person, even if we did have to explain the concept of a ‘penpal’ to her bemused teenage daughter!

Here are a couple of my favourite Sri Lankan recipes:

Parapou (or parippu) – a spicy lentil dal
Wattalapam – a coconut custard


Thursday, April 02, 2015

Are bikes disposable now too?

I'm a big fan of the blog Not Always Right, where members of the public send in tales of dumb things customers say. I had a vague sense I was in a Not Always Right situation myself recently ...

Me: (on phone to bike shop) I'd like to book my bike in for its six monthly service please.
Bike Shop Dude: You mean three monthly service ...
Me: Oh? Sorry. I thought it was six months. You'll just have to do more to it if necessary ...
Bike Shop Dude: (rather snippily) Oh, will I?
Bike Shop Dude: I can't find your name in the bike sales database.
Me: I didn't buy it from you.
Bike Shop Dude: (splutters)
Me: The bike's not new. I've had it for years. I just want to book it in to have the gears and brakes serviced ...
Bike Shop Dude: Oooohhh, OK!

The bike shop, on its website, recommends six monthly servicing. So what I took away from this interaction was a sad little feeling that maybe no-one else gets their bikes serviced beyond the (free) three month check-up. Maybe bikes are considered disposable these days and people (with more money than sense) toss them out when the gears slip and the brake pads wear out. Certainly, the bike shop I called seemed surprised I wanted to get my bike tuned up.


It's getting harder and harder to get things repaired. I've written before about being frugal, preferring to make do and mend rather than waste resources and create landfill. I'd rather own one good item, and get it fixed over and over again, than buy multiple crappy things that break or fall apart.

My bike will be celebrating its seventh birthday this year and is my main means of transport. Here's hoping I can squeeze a few more years of use out of it!

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Step-by-step Shakshuka

Each year my workplace welcomes two or three young people, from a wide range of countries, to Canberra to work with our team for a month or so. My role includes managing the paperwork, answering all manner of questions, and finding a friendly homestay or temporary share house for them. Sometimes I struggle to find the interns a bed and on more than one occasion they've ended up camping out in my spare room. Luckily our student visitors are invariably delightful and sometimes we bond over a hot stove! The recipe I’m sharing here comes from an Israeli guy called Tomer and is called shakshuka. Apparently shakshuka (or shakshouka, or שקשוקה) is often eaten for breakfast in Israel and other Middle Eastern countries, but it has become a dinner favourite in my household. I make it with plenty of home-grown chillies and sheep’s feta cheese, and always raise a glass of red to the absent Tomer when I tuck into it. It’s not the most photogenic of dishes, but is absolutely delicious. Cheers!

1 onion
4 to 6 cloves of garlic
1 red capsicum
splash of olive oil
about 800 grams tinned or fresh tomatoes, diced
1 red chilli, preferably fresh
parsley, salt, pepper, cumin, paprika (to taste)
4 to 6 eggs (2 per person)

Chop the onion, garlic and capsicum into 1 cm cubes.

Fry the capsicum and chilli in the olive oil until soft.

Add the onion and garlic and fry until yellowish. Add the tomatoes, salt, pepper, cumin and paprika, and stir well. Cook for a few minutes over low to medium heat, till some of the liquid evaporates.

Break the eggs on top of everything, trying to keep the yolks intact.

Spread chopped parsley over the top.

Cover pan and let cook for a few minutes until the egg white is actually white and the tomato sauce has evaporated some more. Ideally the whites will be soft, the yolks will still be a bit runny, the tomatoes not too runny and the bottom of the pan not too burned. Serve with bread (or serve without, if you need it gluten free.)

Serves two to three. Some other options are to spread small pieces of feta cheese on top just before serving, or (for carnivores) you could add spicy sausage pieces right before adding the onions and garlic.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Swedish pizza salad

Late last month we visited friends in Newcastle for a long weekend. We had a lovely time! One night they made delicious home made pizzas for dinner, and these were served with 'Swedish pizza salad'. Errr, what? They explained that they knew some Swedish people who referred to coleslaw as 'pizza salad', as apparently in Sweden coleslaw is often sold alongside pizza. Why not? So last night, when some Canberra friends invited us for home made pizza, this salad went along.

The ingredients were cabbage, carrots, spring onions, and a dressing made of a combination of mayonnaise and natural yoghurt, plus pepper and salt to taste. (Which reminds me ... have you seen That Sugar Film? Well worth a look. If you use commercial mayonnaise, check it's not riddled with hidden sugars. The brand I use has 1% sugar. Phew.)

Oh, and here's an easy pizza recipe too ...


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Black pepper tofu with snow peas

If you're a fan of salt and pepper anything (salt and pepper calamari, etc.) you'll love this.

800 g firm tofu
vegetable oil for frying
50 g butter
about 5 spring onions, chopped
fresh red chillies, chopped (to taste)
fresh garlic, chopped (to taste)
1 tbsp fresh root ginger, chopped
3 tbsp sweet soy sauce (kecap manis)
3 tbsp soy sauce or tamari
1 tbsp black peppercorns, coarsely crushed (use mortar and pestle)
snow peas, chopped

Cut tofu into bite-sized slices or chunks. Heat oil in large frying pan. Toss the tofu in cornflour and shake off the excess, then fry the tofu pieces in the oil, turning until they're golden and crispy all over. Transfer tofu onto paper towel to remove excess oil.

Remove the oil and any sediment from the pan, then melt the butter in it. Add the spring onions, chilli, garlic and ginger. Sauté until ingredients are soft. Add the soy sauces and pepper and stir.

Add the tofu and snow peas to warm them up in the sauce for about a minute. Serve hot. Serves four.

(Thanks to Liana for sharing this recipe with me!)

Not the most photogenic of dishes, but it tastes, and smells, amazing

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Lunch @ Ricardo's Cafe

My friend Elizabeth and I have a lovely tradition of taking each other out for lunch on our birthdays. For Elizabeth's recent birthday she suggested we try Ricardo's Cafe at Jamison Plaza, Canberra. I was vaguely aware of Ricardo's as its high tea has been recommended on the wonderful Her Canberra blog, and Elizabeth was interested in trying the food there as she'd heard they have plenty of gluten free options. They certainly do! Lunch was a delight.

Elizabeth had:

Breakfast fritters: zucchini, corn and haloumi fritters with poached
eggs, beetroot hummus, harissa yoghurt, quinoa and roasted corn salsa

and a chai tea brewed with soy milk

while Karin had:

Pulled pork salad: pulled pork with pearl couscous,
mandarin, rocket, feta, almonds and mint with harissa yoghurt

and a flat white

We were absolutely stuffed. (That's not a complaint, just an observation!) While we'd planned to have dessert too  they have some magnificent looking cakes  neither of us could eat a morsel more. So Elizabeth picked up a couple of cakes to take home:

All in all, a fabulous meal. We'll have to return for the high tea someday ...

Ricardo's Cafe on Urbanspoon

Monday, March 09, 2015

Canberra Balloon Spectacular 2015

Yesterday we hauled ourselves out of bed early to go and see the annual balloon festival. Us, and several thousand other Canberrans! When we arrived at Old Parliament House, though, we could see quite a lot of trucks with balloon baskets on the back leaving. Uh-oh. Turned out there was insufficient wind to take off from there, and the ones that had sold tickets for flights were off in search of a breeze.

The novelty balloons stayed put, were inflated, and offered 'rides' to young kids while tethered to the ground. I especially liked the Yoda balloon ...

As we were leaving we decided to go and look for the other balloons. We found them, in various stages of inflation and departure and flight, near the Lindsay Pryor Arboretum.

Up, up and AWAY!