29 February 2012

i am the definite feast delight

Apropos of nothing: If - although let's go with when - I get famous, I should like to do many things. I'd like to start a trend for not having to wear a bra if you don't want to. Not that I can necessarily "get away" without one, but sometimes on a humid day they just feel so punishing and unfair. And really, if someone pulls you aside and says "look, you're not wearing a bra and it's making me really uncomfortable", I'd wager it says more about them than you, right? Second order of business: try and wangle an OPI HungryandFrozen nailpolish range. Am thinking matte rainbow-coloured dots which look like hundreds and thousands sprinkles, a rich yellow butter colour, perhaps a sophisticated, buff-tinted "Cake Batter", and something else which still hasn't fully formed in my brain yet. Nigella-Cardigan-Pink? The colour of those heavy velvet curtains that sweep across a stage before and after a show? Something Claudia Kishi-inspired? The third thing I've been thinking about is just buying a huge warehouse somewhere with a huge speaker system, so anytime you want to dance around a room like this, you can hire it for an hour from me. Apart from the high likelihood that my dancing moves and I are occupying it already, that is.

Apropos of nothing, I really enjoy saying apropos of nothing! Indubitably!

Anyway here I am. Can't hurt to daydream about everything in such minute detail that it can never possibly happen the way I want it to and I end up disillusioned and sad when it doesn't, right? Right!

In the meantime I am rich in friends and famous in my brain, which is a good start. You know friends are good friends when you see them practically every day but it still feels like something exciting's going to happen every time you do. As a few of us were coincidentally all going to see the band Bon Iver on the same night I suggested that I cook us all dinner beforehand. Which was perhaps an even more exciting prospect than the concert itself at the time. I just love orchestrating situations where I get to cook for people I like. The finished menu was a logical middle point between maximising on what I had on hand already, what recipes I liked the look of, and what would actually be delicious to eat.

It somehow, despite being entirely created in the space of an hour and a half, all came together to form a spectacular vegan feast. Which I liked so much that I'm going to share with you. All three of these recipes are very loosely based on actual recipes - the first two from the Meat-free Mondays book and the third from Katrina Meynink's gorgeous Kitchen Coquette book. It's not that the original recipes didn't sound perfect as they were, it was all about minimising time taken and money spent. And yes, I did just happen to have pomegranate seeds lying round. In a container in the freezer no less. But if it's any consolation they were over a year old. So I can be smug, but not that smug.

Lentils are just alright with me, but this is lifted from its admittedly beige earnestness by the juicy pomegranate seeds and smoky, tender eggplant.

Barley, Lentil, and Eggplant with Pomegranate and Mint

1/2 cup brown lentils
1/2 cup barley
1 eggplant
1 onion
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tomato, chopped roughly
2 tablespoons chopped preserved lemon or hot lemon pickle (or just some lemon juice)
Seeds of a pomegranate and a handful of mint leaves

Optional - and I did - 1 can cannellini beans or chickpeas to beef (heh) it out. 

Soaking the barley and lentils at least a few hours before you get started will make the cooking process quicker. Boil them together in a pan with plenty of water till tender. Drain, set aside. Slice up the eggplant into chunks, fry in a little oil  - in batches is easier - till browned and softened. Tip them into the lentils and barley. Slice the onion up and in the same frying pan brown it with the garlic. Add the tomato, chilli sauce and lemon, and continue to cook for a little longer. Return the eggplant, lentil and barley to the pan, stir to warm through and season to taste. Serve scattered with pomegranate seeds and shredded mint leaves.

Feel free to just use barley OR lentils. But this is a great way to use up those stupid tail-end packets of things which inevitably sit round for guilty years in your pantry. Free your lentils, and your mind will follow. Actually the whole thing with these recipes is that since I've already messed around with them to suit my needs, feel free to do the same. They are very low stress. No watercress? Use rocket. No almonds? Use any other nut. No pomegranate? Sprinkle over feta or just use more mint or something!

Something about blackening the corn and partnering it with toasty-sweet almonds and peppery watercress in this salad is surprisingly spectacular.

Rice, Charred Corn, Avocado, Watercress and Almond Salad

1 cup rice - I used basmati but brown rice would be really good here.
1 cup frozen corn kernels (or you know, however YOU get hold of them)
1/2 cup rice bran oil plus extra for frying
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 teaspoons chili sauce
1/2 cup whole almonds
1 tablespoon icing sugar
1 teaspoon ground cumin
A handful of watercress leaves, rinsed and chopped
1 avocado, diced

Cook the rice as you usually would, and allow to cool a little. Stir the 1/2 cup oil, the cinnamon and the chili sauce through it, plus plenty of salt. Taste to see if you think it needs any more of anything in particular. Set aside and heat up a frying pan. Mix together the almonds, sugar and cumin and then heat them in the pan till fragrant and toasted. Set aside. Rinse the pan - or don't - and heat up a tablespoon or two of oil. Throw in the corn kernels and let them fry till some are slightly darkened and scorched in places. They might start to 'pop' and jump around a little so watch out. Stir occasionally. Tip them into the rice along with the watercress, almonds, and avocado and mix thoroughly. 

These are just edamame beans and regular green beans cooked in boiling water and stirred through a dressing made of 1 tablespoon shiro miso paste, 1 tablespoon sesame oil, 1 teaspoon honey and a little chopped fresh ginger and garlic. Miso's intense, fermented flavour is strangely addictive and even more strangely versatile. Here it's nutted up with sesame and used to coat creamy edamame and crunchy green beans.

Cheers to Kate and Jason and Ange and Ricky for indulging me. And cheers to Bon Iver for putting on a seriously good show.

I was almost as happy with my dress as I was with anything else. If only there was an Instagram filter called "Cheekbone Finder" or something. But yes, the show, wow. From listening to Bon Iver's music, I was expecting one guy, one microphone, and maybe a mandolin and a few handkerchiefs. But there was a many-peopled band all outstanding in the field of excellence, a glittering light show, and the singer, Justin, seemed so happy to be here! Which is always an endearing trait in someone you've paid a lot of money to see. This might sound weird, but I think my favourite bit was an unsettlingly brilliant saxophone solo, which brought to mind the eeriness of the dinosaur sequence in Fantasia.

And...apropos of something, recently Tim and I were in line for another gig, in front of three guys. From their clothes and piercings and so on, they looked like interesting-enough, open-minded people. And then they started talking. And Tim and I wanted to vomit. I wanted to say something - especially since several of my friends have felt able to speak up to people to tell them what they think recently - but it was late, and there were three of them and two of us, all those kinds of reasons. Tim and I just had to stand there in line and listen. And while I wasn't up to doing anything that night, I'm able to pass on to you my convictions instead. Please. If you ever hear people saying things so casually like "they aren't saying yes but they weren't saying no" and "if they're that drunk they're asking for it" or worse - please understand how terrible this is. How it builds. Keeps a particular victim-blaming attitude accepted. I'm not saying this very well but I feel really strongly about it so I'm going to let some other people say it better than I can. If you like pithy analogies, this one might help open your eyes a little. This might make you think about the conflicting messages women are constantly given, and this is the flipside which is told all too little. And this is Derailment Bingo. Many thanks to the Wellington Young Feminists Collective site for resources. If I was more confident in the results I could've talked to those people, if I was Veronica Mars I could've somehow sassed the bouncer into not letting them in, but all I can do is pass on some excellent links to people who, I would guess, might know all this already. I know it's not usually the direction I go in on here, but this blog is where I write about what's important to me...
Title via: Sugarhill Gang, Rappers Delight. The song is 14 minutes long so I don't really feel the need to add anything further to the conversation.
Music lately:

Eileen Jewell, Shaking All Over. Her voice is deliciously mellow and relaxed and after hearing Wanda Jackson's version so many times, I like the calmer but still dirty arrangement of this classic.

Christine Ebersole's voice goes from crystal-clear to shrieky in a matter of seconds while she's acting her face off in Grey Gardens the musical. Will You is one of the more crystalline moments in the show, and while the song was only written a few years ago it sounds like a lost track from the forties. Beautiful.

This is probably a decent Bon Iver song to listen to if you've never heard them before. It was way souped up live!

Next time: It's nearly midnight and I feel like chocolate. And I don't see any reason why that want would be inconsistent when I'm next in the kitchen cooking something...

23 February 2012

dance on the coral beaches, make a feast of the plums and peaches...

When I was a kid I used to draw and draw and draw and draw. When you'd get your stationary at the start of the year I'd ask to get an extra "jotter pad" (those A4 notebooks with weak, brownish paper and inevitably a cartoon elephant on the front), one for actual schoolwork and one to draw in. At one point I managed to procure, somehow, one of those enormous notepads for offices that are nearly the size of a table which I hubristically and ostentatiously kept on my desk for drawing on when I was done with my schoolwork. (It gets worse. I also used to also keep a large stack of books on my desk for reading in between being taught stuff. Like, while the teacher was right there still teaching everyone things. OH the conceit! But admit it, it's a good idea.) There was untold envy and reverence for my best friend at the time, who got her hands on one of those large, seemingly endless rolls of butcher's paper. Basically my life revolved around obtaining surfaces to draw on. What did I draw? Well...ladies. Initially the Babysitters Club (both scenes from books and those imagined) then Spice Girls (I had a jotter pad expressly for drawing them) and fashion designs and characters from my stories. Like a woman called Stuyvesant who had blue hair and a black belt in karate.

So you could say I liked drawing and did it a lot. Somewhere down the line though, I lost the habit of drawing constantly. Fast forward many years to yesterday, when I casually picked up a pen to doodle away and I just couldn't. Muscle memory means I can still remember bits of dances I learned over fifteen years ago, but drawing was just not working for me. It wasn't like getting back on a bicycle in any sense of the word, since...I can't ride a bike either. (I know. What kind of child of New Zealand am I? Frankly drawing the Babysitters Club was much more fun than cycling looked, which didn't help with my motivation. Also I could not stay upright.) Has this ever happened to you? Something you were so invested in, which suddenly disappears on you?

Happily, some skills work in the right way, going from fearful to awesome. Like pie! As a food-interested youth, pie seemed so far out of my league that I practically had a Pretty in Pink relationship with it, the out-of-reach Blane to my uncool Andie. These days I'm more like Clare in the Breakfast Club to pie's...anyway, my point is I'm now really calm about making pie, pastry and all. It is no big deal to me. Even with an florid title like Plum Chocolate Meringue Crumble Pie. Although it sounds like too much detail to take on board, it's a remarkably cohesive disc of deliciousness, inspired by two things: the many kilos of plums Tim and I bought in Greytown with friends Kim and Brendan, and the beautiful Favourite Recipes of America: Desserts book that I scored in Featherston, which I showed you in my last post.

So instead of showing you the book again, I'll show you where we got the plums from. See how excited I got with the Instagram filters!

Like we were purchasing plums in a Primal Scream music video!

This Favourite Recipes book I mention was published in the sixties and is full of more delight than I can possibly convey. So I'll just list a couple of its dishes. Berlin Peach Punch. Miami Beach Birthday Cake. Lime Highbrow. Raspberry Razzle. I should like to make them all. (Especially the Berlin Peach Punch, anyone want to donate me some brandy?) It was, however, very light on plum recipes. So I used another recipe from the book and ended up changing it so much that it doesn't bear a ton of resemblance to the original. But thanks all the same, Mrs Ivan Kessinger of Morgantown, who submitted the Cherry Crunch that I based the following on.

It's not as difficult as it sounds - for one thing, there's no pastry to deal with or filling to mix and heat. There is, admittedly, meringue, but as it's covered with crumble you don't have to put too much investment into how good it looks, plus two lonely egg whites'll whip up before your arm muscles have even had a chance to get sore.

And it is stunningly, well-timed-thwack-to-the-back-of-the-knees-staggeringly delicious.

Plum Chocolate Meringue Crumble Pie

1 packet of plain, cheesecake-bottomish biscuits (I used Budget Vanilla Rounds)
125g butter, melted
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon flour
7 plums (or so)
100g good milk chocolate (I used Whittaker's, which is mysteriously caramelly and wonderful)
1/2 cup almonds
2 egg whites
1/3 cup sugar + 1 tablespoon

Smash up the biscuits - either in a food processor or with a rolling pin. Mix in the melted butter and cinnamon and try, just try not to eat it all because you'll need it! If you suspect you will eat lots, then add more biscuits and butter, of course.

Press 3/4 of it into the base of a paper-lined pie tin, to cover the base and about 1cm of the sides. Keep the other 1/4 for later...

Bake at 180 C for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven, turn it down to 130 C, and throw in the almonds for a few minutes to roast, if you like - if you can't be bothered, I understand. Either way, the oven needs to be 130 C. Sprinkle the tablespoon of flour and the extra tablespoon of sugar over the biscuit base, then slice up the plums and roughly chop the chocolate and layer them up on top of the flour and sugar. Try to layer the plums in such a way that they're fairly smooth, so that you don't have any trouble layering the meringue over.

In a clean metal bowl, whisk the egg whites till thickened and frothy, then slowly add the sugar while whisking continuously, till thick and shiny and bright white. Carefully spread this across the top of the plums in the pietin. Roughly chop the almonds and mix them into the remaining crumble, scatter this on top of the meringue. Bake the pie for 35 minutes. Allow to cool a little before eating. 

It's honestly not as ridiculously sweet as it sounds. The salty butter and sharp, juicy plums keeps all that in check. You would not believe how brilliant sour plum juice and creamy milk chocolate is when it melts together. Not forgetting the soft solidness of the meringue relinquishing against the crunchy, almond-rich crumble top.

It's genuflectingly delicious. Really the only problem is, as you can see, it's not particularly solid. This could possibly be helped by refrigerating the heck out of it, but it's wonderful at room temperature - all the flavours really shining - so just be prepared to carefully ease it out of the pie tin and eat the broken mess that lands on your plate with a spoon.

The reason I've been compelled to pick up a pen and put it to paper is that I've been home sick with a sudden sore throat, cough, attack of the phlegm, that kind of thing. As drawing wasn't a goer - although I will keep trying - I've been occupying myself with Never Mind The Buzzcocks on YouTube. Later host Simon Amstell is adorable, and early host Mark Lamarr is so sharp and dry, so it's win win really, and I'm reminded of late nights when I was living in England, watching it before bed with Hovis Extra-Thick Square Cut toast.
Title: Warning: I'm going to use the word "obsessed" a lot now. I am obsessed with the song Meadowlark, which this lyric comes from. Liz Callaway's version is tear-bringingly exquisite, honestly - if you click through please stick past the fairytale-ish opening lyrics, because it gets better, plus you'll miss Callaway's awesomely emphasised 'r' as she sings "larrrrk". 
Music lately:

I am also OBSESSED with the song Rockin' Back Inside My Heart by Julee Cruise, from Twin Peaks - you do not want to know how many times I've listened to it this week, since first hearing it in an episode where it's sung at the Roadhouse. I know the title is awful (I thought it was "right back" and I'd like to pretend it really is and everyone else has been wrong the whole time) but it's so hypnotic that I don't really mind.

Not obsessed with this song, but it is still quite good: St Vincent, Cruel. Delightful and delightfully catchy.
Next time: I am still really compelled by the Meat-free Monday cookbook and will likely reproduce something from that, unless I get hold of some brandy and get to make the Berlin Peach Punch, of course. 

20 February 2012

we'll buy you the rice, if only this once, you wouldn't think twice

For something so simple - just rice that you biff into a pan, cover with water and ignore for a bit - pilaf goes by many names. Some call it pilaff with the sneaky double f. Some call it pilau. Still others call it 'polo' if you look in a cookbook old enough, or the delightful 'plov' if you look on Wikipedia. It's not unlike a risotto, but while less ritzy, it's a billion times easier, and the very thought of how easy it is can nudge me into actually cooking it for dinner rather than lying on the couch sleepily eating spoonfuls of peanut butter. Which isn't a bad thing. What it is, is a self-fulfilling prophesy, since peanuts have some chemical in them that makes you sleepy. So like a snake eating its own tail, I shall...mix my metaphors.

Before you go wrongly thinking of me as some kind of queen of organisation, the pilaf was tucked under a packet paneer tikka masala and bought hot lemon pickle. But even on its own, it's emphatically good stuff. Why was I even so tired that I could hardly handle harmless grains of rice? Nothing important, oh wait, WEBSTOCK. It was so exciting that I drank their entire supply of kool-aid to assuage my feverish enjoyment of it all. I've already told you all about the glumness that I get when fun times are over, but gosh was it ever hard to let go of this amazing experience. It left me unbelievably inspired, full of scribbled notes and ideas, more enamoured of my friends than ever while surprised by how many cool new people I managed to meet. And caffeinated enough to charge up a fancy-brand touchscreen tablet just by pointing at it with eyes narrowed.

Trying to describe Webstock to people who weren't there but are a bit interested, is a bit like that scene in the Simpsons where Bart's not allowed to go to the Itchy and Scratchy movie and Lisa comes home and says "It wasn't that great" and Bart says "Be honest" and she says "it was the GREATEST MOVIE I'VE EVERY SEEN IN MY LIFE! And you wouldn't believe the celebrities who did cameos: Dustin Hoffman, Michael Jackson - of course they didn't use their real names, but you can tell it was them."

See? Kool-aid. Imbibed. But the organisers put on such an amazing show that comparing it to the Itchy and Scratchy Movie is the best compliment I can pay it right now. Especially because my brain was worked so hard that all I've got room for is the aforementioned pilaf. It's inspired by a recipe in the beautiful Meat-free Mondays cookbook which I've recently acquired. Although Tim did point out that we should start a Meatful Mondays movement just for us, since we hardly ever eat meat anyway. And when I say inspired I really mean...lazily appropriated with great laziness. They used whole spices, mine were mostly ground. I threw in some bits of other vegetables I had. I didn't wait for things to boil. You get the idea.

Easy Lazy Sunday Night Pilaf with Cinnamon, Turmeric and Vegetables

1 teaspoon each cumin seeds, ground cinnamon, ground ginger, turmeric. Or really, whatever you've got that you feel instinctively could work (garam masala, ground coriander, etc.)
1 tablespoon oil and 1 knob of butter. (In butter but not as in life, it can be as large as you please)
1 cup basmati rice
1 cup frozen peas
Any other bits of green vegetables, chopped up small - I used zucchini and three green beans that had sadly got left behind.

Heat the oil and butter together in a pan and add the spices, gently stirring over a low heat. Tip in the rice granules. While they're totally uncooked, a generous amount of time over the heat does something delicious to their flavour. Tip in 2 1/4 cups of water, which should hiss up a bit on impact with the hot pan. Bring to the boil, then cover and lower the heat. Simmer gently for about ten minutes, add the vegetables and simmer a little longer. Add salt to taste, and serve. This makes enough for two people plus leftovers for one person.

Another reason I was so tired - Tim and I and Brendan and Kim went to the Wairarapa! I'd never been to Martinborough before and as a lover of food this was apparently a bit of an oversight. The Rimutakas were delightfully foggy and eerily atmospheric, once I'd added some filters in Instagram to the photo above I snapped out of the window of the moving ute. Martinborough and Greytown were super cute, and at last count there were roughly a billion antique shops for us to carefully explore.

I found some serious treasures, including the amazing book above, and the beautiful plate below from Vintage Treasures NZ. Its use is gratuitous at best - like, I didn't really need the cumin seeds on a plate while making the recipe and they were such a pain to tip cleanly back into the packet but...look how pretty the plate is! 

Barely gratuitous at all, the more I look at it.

Speaking of gratuitous, the necessary diagonal teatowel. One day I'll get the ratio of fold:fabric angle at an optimal, most-likely-to-be-shared-by-users angle! The lovely teatowel was given to me by my Mum and godmum Vivienne, by the way.

Earthy with turmeric (not to mention stainey) and calming with cinnamon, this pilaf shows that the simplest foods can be among the nicest. Left to its own devices, the rice absorbes the butter and the spices and whatever flavour the vegetables have left to give up. It's a comforting and tastes grand, and its speed, cheapness and total lack of brainpower required only serve to augment said factors. As long as you've got a bit of salt and some butter or oil handy, you could leave out everything else that the rice cooks in and still be guaranteed much deliciousness, no matter how sleepy you are.

Title via: The King Lear of musicals, Gypsy. The song If Momma Was Married is most exquisitely harmonizing, I think, in the hands and throats of the 2008 cast with Laura Benanti as Louise and Leigh Ann Larkin as Baby June. (If you're committed, they start singing 3 minutes into the video.)
Music lately:

Anna Coddington, Bolt. With one thing and another and many a "d'oh!" I missed her recent show in Wellington. But I can still listen to her awesome music! Phew. 

TLC, Diggin' On You. Fuh-lawless.

Next time: That book above of American puddings is making me want to make cake and pie nonstop, plus we got many kilos of plums in Greytown while on our Wairarapa daytrip, so expect the two to intersect or appear independently. I'm thinking plum pie and plum liqueur...

14 February 2012

when 2 become 1

This morning Tim said "Oh yeah, happy...um" and I romantically finished his sentence for him by saying "meh." We've never really done anything particular for it - our first ever Valentine's Day together years ago involved him saying he'd be working till midnight at his new job at McDonalds and me saying  - I kid you not - "Can they do that? Is that even legal?" Oh naive country gal that I was. Anyway, I don't need a designated day to tell him how much I like him, he's just that great!

I am quite the sucker for one foodstuff dressed up as another. Like this idea I had: Ginger Crunch Pikelets. That's what the title of this blog post refers to by the way. Not Valentine's Day. In case you were wondering. I like you people, but we're not that familiar.

Straightening your tablecloth is so uh... bourgeois? Un-creative? Something I didn't spot at the time of taking this photo?

Well let me bring it back to the subject: the pikelets have all the spicy heat and toffeed sweetness of the biscuity slice, but now with the added frivolousness of being a small round shape, fried in oil. If you do want to make the original slice itself, that's still a sensible and delicious pursuit, and here's my Ginger Crunch recipe. And while plain pikelets spread with a pikelet-sized dab of butter are perfect as is, they're not so sacred that they can't be tutu-ed with.

I'm very pleased with these. To be witheringly honest with myself, they could do with being a little lighter - maybe buttermilk or half milk half yoghurt could take care of that? If need be, I would guess you could use soymilk too - in fact the one time I made pancakes with soymilk they were the most fluffiest, lightest and satin-surfaced I'd ever had.

Ginger Crunch Pikelets

Recipe by me.

1/4 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup milk, buttermilk, yoghurt or a mixture
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon golden syrup
1 tablespoon plain oil (I used rice brain)
150g flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/4 cup demerara/raw sugar
1 egg

Soak the oats in the milk, water and golden syrup while you gather everything else. Whisk in everything except the dry ingredients, then fold them in gently. Fry in heaped tablespoons in a nonstick pan over a lowish heat. When bubbles form on top of the little spheres of cooking batter, use a spatula to ease under their surface and flip them over. Spread with butter if you like, but definitely serve drizzled with more golden syrup. If you don't have raw sugar regular brown sugar's fine, but the crunchy nature of it adds a little extra something. 

Also note: altitude/number of years they've been sitting in your pantry/brand etc will affect your oats - the mixture shouldn't be too thick, so if it looks more like scone dough, add more milk. Pikelet batter is pretty forgiving, so you should end up with something edible no matter what happens.

The scattering of oats keeps these densely filling, while the sticky golden syrup and granular raw sugar mellows out the ground ginger's potent heat, which itself spices up the otherwise plain landscape of the pikelet. I made them for pudding, with the plan of having some leftover to reheat for a mid-morning snack the next day, but they would stand in happily for any meal, I think.

And you can make a pikelet golden syrup sandwich!

So, Whitney Houston, huh? I am really saddened by this news of her death. Mariah Carey has always been the diva I connect with most - might be something to do with my age, even - but Whitney's vocal flawlessness and control and the conveying of emotion in her songs, from the intense joy of I Wanna Dance With Somebody to the intense stoicism of "they can't take away my dignity" (seriously, who could get away with using the words "my dignity" in a song? Not many, if any) is something I've always appreciated. From a distinct but shady-edged memory of everyone singing I Will Always Love You at a family party, to the amount of times I quote "It's not right but it's okay", Whitney: RIP.

What else has been happening? I got my practical, everyday-applicable gold dress fixed, but couldn't fix my ability to catch the camera at the wrong time:

This was the least awkward of like, 17 photos. On Friday we had a GGG night (that's Gin and Gossip Girl) which descended into a 90s YouTube video dance party...on Saturday we watched a whole lot of Veronica Mars...on Sunday we played the board game version of Game of Thrones...The whole weekend was essentially a celebration of television. We are clearly the coolest people you will ever meet.
Title via: Okay, we've covered why it's here. 2 Become 1 was the Spice Girls' first ballad, a chance to reach out to the fairly lucrative Adult Contemporary, MOR, Easy Listening audience (see how lucrative they are by all these ways of describing them?) but with a subtle yet bold safe-sex message for everybody ("put it on, put it on") and a sweet yet darkly wintery melody reflected in the AMAZING coats they all wore in the music video. And then that final bit with them all individually swaying and then a deer appears? It's quite perfect.
Music lately:

Whitney Houston - as I said on my Facebook page, her take on I Know Him So Well from Chess with her mother, Cissy Houston, is glorious.

Shy Guy, Diana King. This song was one such track that got thoroughly danced to on Friday night. You'll know it even if you don't recognise the title - it is glorious.

And something actually from this decade, and yet perhaps even less relevant to many: The Book of Mormon won the Grammy for Broadway cast recording! Yay! Andrew Rannells singing I Believe is adorable! So adorable.
Next time: I had this really awesome meringue idea but I might save it for a while. I've scored the Meat-free Mondays book and it is GORGEOUS, so perhaps it'll be something from there. Peace!

8 February 2012

"your wife is sighing, crying, and your olive tree is dying"

"Oh jeeez Tim, you've got a huge bit of sleep in your eye. Don't let it fall in the cornmeal, I won't be able to find it." And other such romantic truisms of our time. As I say every year, I don't dig Valentine's Day (val-meh-ntines?) partly as a "whatever" to corporate pushers of expensive heteronormative cards and presents, but also as a fist bump of solidarity to the Dolly magazine reading full o' sighs younger me. Waitangi Day is a much more important date to circle on the calendar for me. 

However, should you want to impress someone in a woo-ing manner, say it with tofu! If they reply with "NONE OF THAT EXOTIC FOREIGN RABBIT FOOD MUCK FOR ME", then they'll be really surprised and impressed with the deliciousness of this and they've handily let you know how small-minded they are so you don't have to hang out with them anymore. If they're a nice person who's either "I love tofu!" or "huh, tofu, haven't tried that before but this sounds nice" then you're good to go. A further option: I just made this for myself, and it was wonderful. Indubitably! 

Would I ever shut up about the price of dairy in this country? Not till its price ceases to make me wince like lemon juice swiftly applied to a papercut. With this in mind, I recently got this strange idea - what if I could make tofu taste like haloumi? They're the same shape, for a start. I was trying to analyze exactly what flavour haloumi is closest to, and settled upon black olives. Think about it. Oily, salty, intense...Then it turned out so delicious I decided to just call it what it is. Tofu pride!

Black Olive Marinated Fried Tofu Salad

Recipe by me.

1 block of firm tofu (250g-ish)
1/2 cup black olives, stones in
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 big cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 heaped tablespoon fine cornmeal 
1 tablespoon sherry
1 big handful green beans
1 big handful clean spinach leaves

Sometimes I suggest substitutions but please don't undermine your own tastebuds by getting those pre-sliced olives - they're so gross and vinegary and bland. Olives with the stones in them are a bit more work, but the oily fullness of flavour will reward you tenfold. Also, if you don't have sherry, try sake, Marsala, or a little white wine. 

Squeeze the stones out of the olives (seriously, just squeezing them is the easiest way) and mash the olive flesh with a fork in a bowl with the oil and garlic cloves. Slice the tofu into cubes and mix with the olives - pour over a little more olive oil if it looks like it needs it. Leave it while you slice the ends off the beans and simmer them in a pan of water. Once you've got that sorted, add the cornmeal to the olive mixture and stir it round so every bit of tofu has some grains clinging to it.

Heat a frying pan up, and lift out all the tofu cubes (sorry, also fiddly) and drop them in it. Fry over a decent heat on all sides, till excellently crisp. Tip into a bowl. By this time the beans'll be where you need them to be - drain and add them to the tofu. Roughly slice the spinach and add that to the bowl. Finally, heat up the frying pan again, tip in the remaining marinade, including all the squashed olives, add the sherry and fry for about ten seconds. Mix into the tofu and serve! 

It is wildly good. The olives have this soft, mellow intensity and a rich saltiness, which absorbs quickly into the tofu's usefully porous surface. The cornmeal is subtly sweet yet unsubtly crunchy, and the flavour from the sherry hitting the hot pan is basically indescribably good, but generally adds to the whole savoury, buttery, lusciousness of it all. The juicy crunch of the beans are improved by a slick of oily marinade, and the spinach is...present. And makes the salad go further. Thanks spinach!

I am proud of my brain. It did right by me with this. And I can tell you it's very, very good the next day too. Tofu doesn't always last so well once it has seen the light of day, but if anything, this got even nicer. It almost tastes like cold fried chicken. Indubitably! (I like that word.)

The weekend was a full and busy one, where the hobnobbing was non-stopping. Caught up with my wise and awesome aunty who has been living in Australia for years, plus her son (my cousin) and his son (my cousin...twice removed...any Downton Abbey watchers know the correct term for this?) We played Settlers of Catan with Krendan and I surprised myself by loving it, and surprised no-one by yelling "the hunter has become the hunter" every time I picked up a card or ate a Cheezel or whatever. Went to Jo's not once but twice, for a party of great delightfulness and an afternoon of delightful greatness, where she introduced Tim and myself to the awesomeness of Veronica Mars. We visited our dear friend Ange at her tiny, tidy flat which is really close to ours (so we can be the Kimmie Gibbler to her Tannerino!) We also went to superlovely cafe Arthur's with Kim and Brendan (Krendan!) and met up with Perth-based blogger Emma of Lick My Cupcakes, whose blog I just love. Her and her man were really sweet and I love that her photos of Wellington show the city in different way how I usually see it. Finally, Tim and I reflected upon Waitangi Day, shook our heads sadly at a few people and nodded them agree-antly with other, and watched some more of Season 2 of Twin Peaks. SO CREEPY. So important. "Mares eat oats and does eat oats..."
Title via: All For The Best, a song from just one in a very long list of musicals with which I'm well obsessed: Godspell. I learned a tap dance to this song once, but muscle memory didn't see fit to hold on to that one. Even if musicals aren't your thing, a young Victor Garber was surprisingly babein' as Jesus.
Music lately: 

Ten seconds in, all I could think was 'this is a bit weak and makes no sense' but as it goes on it becomes an intoxicatingly catchy song and I love it, indubitably. M.I.A Bad Girls.

Eclipsed only in catchy goodness by Kei Konei Ra by Ahomairangi. They're young, they're talented, they'll make you want to press repeat over and over on this song.
Next time: Aforementioned aunty got me some ceramic pastry weights for baking blind. If that makes no sense at all: it has to do with making pie. PIE! So I might do that. Or it might be something slightly simpler but still cake-tatious. 

2 February 2012

everybody rise, rise, rise, rise, rise...

I know I'm always trying to work more ice cream into my life, but bread-making is well up there on the continuum of my favourite things to cook. Plunging your hands into soft dough, their warmth kicking it into life, watching it rise like you're David Attenborough narrating the time-lapsed life cycle of a rare tree, the intoxicating scent of it as it bakes, the impressed gasps of those around you when you tell them that today, you achieved bread. Bread is wonderful enough as it is, but brioche is like the Baby-Sitters Club Super Special edition of the leavened dough family: richer and sweeter and far more exciting. It tastes just like a croissant but is more solid and grippable. Don't you hate with croissants how all the best bits crumble off upon impact and end up caught in the fibres of your wooly jumper and worked into your ponytail and embedded in the seams of your jeans? (Just one of the reasons I no longer wear jeans.) No danger of this with brioche. All of the butter and none of the disintegration.

I was recently musing upon the great cafe combinations of the nineties. Now I don't want to come across as a snob. I mean, I eat cold spaghetti from the tin for fun, and I didn't try couscous for the first time till well into the new millenium. I am no human barometer of what is good. And yet. When I see a chicken, cranberry and camembert panini or apricot and brie panini or whatever being sold for $8.95, I can't help but shake my head wearily. Do people really like them? Still? Spinach and feta is slightly later on the timeline, if I remember right, but it was the combination of a certain time. And while eating a spinach and feta scone I got to pondering: What's the deal? What does the spinach even do? It works in spanakopita: surrounded by crunchy pastry and generations of existence, the spinach shines. But sliced up and baked into limp submission inside a scone, it provides green stripes, at best. At worst, it's bitter, every last particle of it gets caught in your teeth, and it takes up valuable space where more feta could be.

Now mint, on the other hand. Mint provides that toothpaste-cool hit which works beautifully with feta, giving it that summery light-hearted vibe, lifting the saltiness and butteriness with its pure, sweet flavour. And mint is about a twelfth as likely to get in your teeth, since there's so much less of it.  

As I said, I love bread baking, but I haven't done it in ages - and really, late afternoon after flying home from my brother's 21st birthday up home might not have been the most prudent time to embark upon an invented yeast-based recipe. But my instincts were convincing enough that I went ahead with it anyway. And it worked! Thank goodness, because we only buy feta about once every three months and I didn't want to waste it on a failed project. Brioche is not that scary - the only annoying thing about it is all the time it needs to rise. Three times it rises! Three! But please persevere. It can have varying degrees of butteriness: I only used 90 grams since...that's what we had in the fridge. Don't worry about needing any special tins - I spied the muffin tray and thought (okay, maybe I said it aloud) "You there! You'll do!" I was right.

Feta and Mint Brioches

Makes 8. An idea by me.

500g flour (plain is fine)
1 sachet active dry yeast
3 tablespoons sugar
3 eggs
1/2 cup lukewarm water
80g soft butter
pinch salt
100g feta, chopped roughly and mixed with 2 tablespoons chopped mint

In a large bowl mix the flour, sugar, salt and yeast. Crack in the three eggs, pour in the water, and mix to a sticky dough. Knead till soft and bouncy, then massage in the butter, small pieces at a time. This might take a while. But it's really fun. Leave covered with clingfilm to let it it rise, for about an hour. Punch it down, right square in the middle, then form into a ball and let it rise again for an hour or two in the fridge. Finally, cut it into eight pieces, force a little pocket in the middle of each piece with your finger, then stuff with a little mint-feta mix. Pinch the edges closed, then sit each one in a buttered muffin tin, pinch side down. Leave again - I'm sorry! - for an hour before baking at 200 C for 25 minutes. Carefully lift a brioche up and tap its base - if it sounds hollow, should be all good.

If at any stage you feel you need a little more liquid or flour, trust your instincts, as different ingredients/temperatures/metres above sea level will produce different results. But only go a tiny bit at a time.

The movie A Mighty Wind is one of my very favourites, and it stands up easily to many a re-watch. I'd say I watched it more times last year than I ate feta, for one thing. Since watching it, I've latched on to the phrase "it can't be overstated", which is used to describe the kiss between Mitch and Micky in their song (okay, you had to be there.) I might overuse it the way some overuse the word "literally" (am looking at you, Chris Traegar, but it's literally adorable on you) but I like it, and it's so applicable: the deliciousness of these brioches frankly just can't be overstated. See?

The crust is crisp and yet with all the buttery promise of a flaky croissant, without the crumbliness.  Inside is soft, golden-tinted and warm with the sharply salty feta dissolving creamily on the tongue. The mint is not there in large quantities, but absolutely present, cooling and contrasting with everything else. Altogether flipping brilliant.

And, as I said, I managed to make it after flying home from my brother's 21st in the late afternoon, so you can surely do it anytime. We had such an awesome time up home - the party was music-themed (I don't know about you but my family has a thing with dress-up 21st parties) and Tim and I dressed up as the White Stripes. My Mum and her best friend were Agnetha and Anni-Frid from ABBA, Dad was a Seargeant Peppers-era Beatle, and my brother made a commendable Billy Corgan from the Smashing Pumpkins. It was just one of the best parties I've been to. There were streamers, a live band - which Dad used to play with, and which played good music to dance to - not even the sort of music where inside you're like "Oh my gosh I hate this so much but there are people around that I care about so I'll pretend to enjoy dancing to it". Dad - whose birthday it was also, since he's born on the same day as my brother - got up at one point to do a fairly wild keyboard solo. Later in the evening he and my brother played a rollicking rendition of Saw Her Standing There by the Beatles.

There were alsatians that ran up and down the road and inside the hall. Two giant alsatians! They didn't seem to be looking for trouble, they could probably just smell the many kilos of ham. Nonetheless, I'd forgotten that that sort of thing just happens at home. And I secretly wanted to confiscate them and make them my pets.

There was a cake that I made and iced to look like a record, at my brother's request. I may never get the black food colouring off my hands, but with some logistical supervision from Tim and my 9 year old cousin, I think it turned out pretty snazz-tastic.

And there was kilo after kilo of ham. Which we all got to eat the next day after people had arisen from where they fell. I also got to see my long-missed Australian-based Aunty, got to nick the gorgeous - well I think so - bit of fabric that the brioches are sitting on, and...while looking for old schoolbooks of my brothers to festoon the party with, Mum found this that I'd made many years ago:

After the laughter subsided, I realised how little I've changed. Obsessive about things and in a super-righteous way; full of dubious ideas that seem great in my head but are a bit awkward on paper; misguidedly entrepreneurial; liable to mix up simple things like AM and PM. But I think I turned out alright in spite of, nay because of it. (Also: if you look closely you'll see that my signature then did not in anyway resemble my name, but rather a small figure surfing on the back of a swan. This was because I didn't want to be shackled by the conformity of your signature actually having to look like your name when it could be an artistic expression instead, or SOMETHING. My uncoolness cannot, as they say in A Mighty Wind, be overstated.)
Title via: The Ladies Who Lunch, a song more salty and sharp than feta from Company, one of my favourite musicals. Sung perfectly by the wonderful Elaine Stritch. Please watch. I'm pretty sure even if you don't like musicals, there might be something in this for you.
Music lately:

Radar Love, Golden Earring. This got played at the party. Mum and Dad both like this song - it has some significance, I can't remember what exactly - Mum? - and there's something about watching one's parents dancing away dressed up as pop stars to a song that makes one like it too.

Wings of a Dragon by the equally glorious husband and wife Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally. Treat yo'self and watch it. As well as being internet-breakingly hilarious, it's surprisingly catchy.
Next time: Hmm, well it is February, but no love hearts here (Shmalentines! I say.) Might be something sensible and dinner-related, might be a towering cake or something.