25 July 2012

don't you wanna be the life of the party? don't you wanna be the cream of the crop?

Guess what? I'm better! I nay have a cold anymore! No longer need I use handtowels as handkerchiefs (a mere handkerchief couldn't sponge up my nose's output! Just wallow in that image for a moment) or erode the roof of my mouth with pungent eucalyptine lozenges or down painkillers because my head feels like it's shrinking around my brain.

Guess what other thing? I have pretty much taken over the lives of my friends in the process of this cookbook. Now I love, just love, being the centre of attention, but now that I am genuinely the centre of attention, I feel a little wary that because I have three friends in the role of photographers and stylist for the book, that every time we talk or meet for something it's all about me. Even though I enjoy talking about myself. Why, just look at me making it all about me in my concern that it's all about me even though I love it being all about me, via the most all-about-me medium there is, a personal blog! But generally this is a pretty stupid thing to wring one's hands over, especially as the photoshoot process is going amazingly so far. I truly love the images I've seen so far from Kim and Jason, and Kate has been the most brilliant stylist, with more eye for detail than a fox pursuing walnuts (it's a vegetarian fox). Tim has also shown aplomb as project manager, which involves tasks from the arduous - making sense of my hopeless document-naming system, doing dishes while I lie dramatically prostrate on the couch - to the resourceful, using his wiles to charm vast quantities of excellent coffee from the good people at Customs Brew Bar (he also used money to charm the coffee from them, but let's not let facts get in the way of a good story.) And hey, get a load of these behind the scenes photos! Which really show you nothing at all, but still.  

And mercifully for our bank balances (buying ingredients but also existing on one income is a challenge, but these are happy times, so we can deal with it) the recipe-testing process has ranged from the merely successful to the 'intermingling tears of smugness, joy and relief at the deliciousness I hath wrought' kind of successful.

In the meantime, we still have to eat stuff, and this - Beetroot Baked in Cream, Balsamic Vinegar and Cumin with Spaghetti, Thyme and Pinenuts - was one such eaten stuff recently. It was just an idea I had, that so often beetroot is paired with sharper flavours when in fact it might lend itself perfectly to something richer. The cream makes it luxurious - I'm not talking something you should feel guilty over, or like you immediately have to go for a run afterwards to compensate for - because I would never talk like that anyway. I mean luxurious as in lifting the beetroot from its usual clean, austere nature and transforming it into something with a wealth of flavour as dense and layered and rich as a steak or roasted mushrooms. Cream. It is wonderful stuff. Not least because it can turn itself into butter.

During their time in the oven, the beetroot and the cream - two fairly dissimilar ingredients - start to meld, the sugars in both begin to caramelise, the silky texture of the cream echoes the soft, yielding beetroot, their more nutty elements become more emphasised together. And most gloriously of all, the cream turns a blinding, intensely bright pink.

It's like you've melted MAC Lady Danger lipstick all over your dinner, and leaving aside how gross that would actually be, it's a notion that kinda pleases me. Why can't more food be this pink and this delicious?

Beetroot Baked with Cream, Balsamic Vinegar and Cumin with Spaghetti, Thyme and Pinenuts

A recipe by myself. You could of course serve this over rice or couscous or whatever, I just really, really, really, really love pasta. 

3 medium beetroot
3/4 cup cream
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon ground cumin
200g spaghetti (or linguine, or whatever long twirl-able pasta you like)
A small handful of fresh thyme leaves
2 tablespoons pinenuts

Set the oven to 190 C. Trim the tops and tails from the beetroot, and scrub them if they've got any dirt clinging. Slice in half and then slice those halves into semicircles - a bit like how you might cut an onion. Lay the slices in a roasting dish, not worrying if they overlap, and pour over the cream. Sprinkle over the salt, vinegar and cumin, then cover with tinfoil and bake for half an hour. Remove the tinfoil, and bake for another half hour. The cream will bubble freakishly, but don't worry. This is all good. 

Cook the pasta in a pan of boiling salted water as per packet instructions, then drain and divide between two plates. Spoon the beetroot and its fuchsia sauce over the spaghetti, then throw the nuts and the thyme leaves on top and serve.

A scattering of rich thyme leaves and a precious handful of pinenuts (seriously, those things are expensive like diamonds) makes it all come together, and also tones down the retina-searing brightness some.

Last time I blogged I mentioned I was getting ready to dress up as a Gold Lion for a Wild Animals party organised by two friends of mine, both named Jo. I found a gold sparkly dress (the sequins of which scratched my arms up no end, but I danced through it) and a friend of mine plaited my hair with pipe cleaners and pinned them into lion's ears like so:

And I put on sliiightly more makeup than usual. Like food, I enjoy my makeup bright and plentiful. The party was so much fun and I danced so hard with my fellow animal-dressed friends and increasing the joy even further, all proceeds went to the Wellington SPCA. The only dark spot in a glorious evening was the dudebros who yelled homophobic slurs from a bar balcony at a bunny-ears-wearing Tim on our walk home, which is wrong for so many reasons that I won't overexplain to you (my main concerns being gay cannot continue to be used as an insult, and also what if they weren't on that balcony? What if they were on the street with us?) We sometimes refer to what we call our 'liberal bubble' that our friends and I float around in, and like that night, occasionally the bubble gets popped with a harsh knifestab.

That fleeting moment of horribleness aside, the weekend was so glorious, especially when we got to hang out with some real animals at Jo's house while watching Veronica Mars on Sunday evening, reminding me with a brief heart contraction just how much I love cats, how much I love Veronica Mars, and, bringing this blog post full circle, how much I love my friends. Either that or my heart was processing some cholesterol. But I think it was sentimentality!
Title via: I've used this before as a title, but it's so incredibly good that I just want to use it in every single blog post. The always-sublime Idina Menzel, getting dark and ugly in Life of the Party from Andrew Lippa's musical The Wild Party. 
Music lately:

I am totally a Liza fan, but a young Judi Dench's version of Sally Bowles in the original London cast of Cabaret is so worth your ears - aching, intense, careless, and with the most charming, charming husky voice as she sings the title song.

I spied this cover on my friend Coley's Facebook. Now, I do not like the Kings of Leon song Sex on Fire. But do you know who can make it effortlessly incredible? Beyonce. And I wish I had even one sixteenth of her gold-lion-ness.
Next time: I am aware that there has been little-to-know pudding or cake or ice cream on the blog lately. This is not like me, and I will remedy it. 

20 July 2012

too much of something is bad enough

Did I really hate brussels sprouts while growing up, or did all the American TV shows and movies I watched with feverish fervour make me think I didn't like them? Well, I've already asked that question here when I blogged about Ottolenghi's Brussels Sprouts with Tofu, and as it does not behoove me to repeat content, I won't, and will instead just direct you back to that (although the long story short answer is: kinda the former, kinda the latter.) Anyway, where I'm going with this is that it's no great revelation to announce that people are generally suspicious of brussels sprouts, and I believe this usually stems from people - or more specifically, people's parents - having zero knowledge of what to do with them. And so they did what you did with all vegetables back in the day: boiled them. Boiled them till they were formless, flavourless, unloveable and interchangeable.

What you should really be doing with brussels sprouts is frying them or roasting them. No longer are they bitter, flappy mini-cabbages of sorrow. Instead when applied to direct heat or when blasted under a hot oven, they become crisp, wonderfully nutty, crunchy, and deeply delicious. Not only nothing to be scared of, but something to eat much of.

The reason I'm currently so pro-sprout, is because I am in the middle of testing a million recipes for my upcoming cookbook (which is, in itself, an intensely delicious thing to say out loud, well on paper, well on this screen, anyway) and the things I'm testing right now are largely within the genre of cake. We are surrounded by cakes. This is fantastic. However, I enjoy a little contrast, and my tastebuds have reacted to all this cake by craving intensely savoury food. Hence why I made myself this for lunch yesterday.

Couscous with Fried Brussels Sprouts, Cardamom and Sesame Seeds

A recipe by myself.

This is more a suggestion than anything. I like cardamom's eucalytpy-lemony bite, and I just had some cooked couscous in the fridge. You could use whichever spices you please, and mix it with rice, or bulgur wheat, or quinoa, or anything. But let's suppose you do have these ingredients - here's what you'd do.

6 brussels sprouts
Olive oil
3 cardamom pods, roughly sliced so that the pods are pierced but not halved entirely.
1/2 cup cooked couscous
1 lemon
1 tablespoon sesame seeds

Trim the bases from the sprouts, then quarter them lengthwise. Heat about 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a pan, and throw in the sprouts and the cardamom seeds once it's hot. Push them round so that one of the cut sides of each quarter is facing down on the hot pan. Place a lid on top and leave for a couple of minutes. This will allow the sprouts to fry and crisp up slightly, while also steaming them a little too, to actually cook them. Remove the lid and stir around - they should be considerably browned in places. Throw in the couscous and sesame seeds and squeeze in the juice of the lemons. Stir around to combine, then tip onto a plate. 

It might not sound like much but it's a pretty perfect lunch, full of crunch and warmth and nutty deliciousness. And after eating it, I'm ready to face the cake again.

So guess what? I'm still kinda sick with that stupid head cold/flu/thing. Not nearly as sick, but still blowing my nose and coughing juuuuust enough to not feel entirely done with it. I am, however, well enough to get dressed up as a gold lion for a wild animal-themed party tonight. No doubt there will be amusing tails (haha!) to tell and photos to share once it's done...in the meantime I'm looking forward to wearing lots of makeup, making my hair enormous (my main motivation for dressing up as a lion, I'll be honest - I'm all about the big hair) and dancing big.
Title via: The so important Spice Girls, with their single Too Much from their second album Spiceworld. This song is rather gorgeous and still holds up well. And the video is amongst their most babein-est, and sometimes too much of nothing really is just as tough, you know?
Music lately:

Bernadette Peters, spookily ageless, always tears-inducingly good, singing No-one Is Alone from Into The Woods. Whether or not it's true, it's nice to have her sing it to you at least.

Ini Kamoze, Here Come The Hotstepper. You could play this to me at 4am on a rainy night after I'd been doing a graveyard shift as a bricklayer and I'd still get up and dance to it.
Next time: I will not be sick, and I might have come round to the idea of sugar again.

13 July 2012

you know i gave that horse a carrot so he'd break your foot

So much for my posturing about how unemployment would mean I'd be able to blog all super-regularly, because guess what? I'm still sick. After all this time. And I've been too sick to cook. If I don't cook, I can't blog. And if I can't blog, do I exist? I'm kidding, sort of. But yeah. Sick sucks. My cookbook writing didn't start with the leader-of-the-pack style motorbike revving that I anticipated, but with a more of a sniffle and a wheeze. 

I've spent the past four days up home at my parents' place - after a flight to Auckland where I was in such a hazy, groggy daze of weak hopelessness I was terrified that I was going to be pulled aside by security for suspicion of being on and/or carrying multitudes of drugs. I'm not sure 'it's just the cough syrup, honest' or even 'if I was, surely I'd be having fun than this' is a defense they'd believe.

I had plans to test a ton of recipes for the cookbook while up home, of writing half the book, of doing a tour of royal proportions of my family in the area...but instead I just spent the whole time on the couch. It was kinda lovely though. Mum giving me old family cookware to use as props in the cookbook (and also to use in real life of course); Dad discussing asset sales with me; my younger brother making me never prouder by bringing up the Bechdel test out of nowhere while we were talking about movies. My nana surprising me by appearing in the car that picked me up from the airport, my godmother dropping in with a gift of lemons and chillis, my old babysitter who's now a prison warden (no coincidence I'm sure) visiting after years and years away. And me on the couch, wrapped up in a feather duvet, in front of a constantly going fireplace. It was excellent.

I should also mention me discussing how much I loved the cats with the cats themselves. They were fairly impervious to my advancements.

I was, however, rewarded with indescribable happiness when I woke up to find Poppy curled up on my bed. The former Jessica Wakefield/Baby Raptor kitten has mellowed into the softest, cutest cat. Also may I draw attention to the world's most splendid bedspread? Instagram actually softens its effect somewhat, you really need to see it in person (not that that's an invite) to appreciate its shiny, synthetic, unforgivably fluoro resplendence. 

So I returned to Wellington yesterday afternoon, finally with a flicker of hunger to cook and eat again, which is good, because I have a million recipes to test. It was late afternoon and a snack was needed. Something simple. Something cheap. Something that would remind me that I actually like to cook and eat. Who do I turn to? Nigella of course, always. Nigella and her awesomely named Rainbow Room Carrot and Peanut Salad. 

Depending on your tastebuds and their sense of style, this salad might sound weird. Like something that you might have made in the hopes of impressing someone in the late 1970s. Like there's too much going on, like there's not nearly enough going on. But it works - the different levels of crunchiness, the nutty sweetness, the salty, oily, sourness - all elements coming together to form something that you won't be able to eat fast enough, I promise. I normally never peel my carrots by the way, but the ones I found in the fridge were a bit elderly and bendy...you know...so I made an exception. Kindly note the sunny yellow knife, a congratulatory present from Mum for getting the cookbook. And the tea towel came from her too. I told you I had a good time at home.

The Rainbow Room Carrot and Peanut Salad
From Nigella Lawson's book Forever Summer.

4 carrots, scrubbed
75g salted peanuts
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar (or apple cider vinegar)
2 tablespoons peanut oil
A few drops sesame oil

Grate or thinly slice the carrots. Mix with the peanuts. Mix in the vinegar and oil. There you have it. 

This also works well with salted roasted cashews, if you're not peanut-inclined. But there's something in the carrots' own nutty sweetness that goes so brilliantly here.

Will I ever tire of framing photos this way? Maybe not till those flowers wilt beyond recognition. And I've had them since before Christmas, so I don't fancy your chances...

I admit, there was one evening in the last two weeks involving Soju and karaoke and red wine. But a dear, dear friend was moving to Japan, so what can you do? I'm pretty sure that the length of this sickness is not due to that one night. Maybe it threw my recovery off-course slightly, but nothing more than that. All I can say is, I'd better be better by the next time I blog here. I don't want to be sick forever!
Title via: The White Stripes, that enigmatic duo with a permanent place in Tim's and my hearts, and Well It's True That We Love One Another, the final track on their album Elephant.
Music lately: 

Frank Ocean, Channel Orange - stream the whole stunner mixtape here.

Vulindlela, by Brenda Fassie. I don't know what she's singing, but it's so full of joy and beauty that it doesn't matter. I mean, I want to know, but this is enough for now.

Nothing like thinking of those worse off than yourself when you're sick - Fantine's big number I Dreamed A Dream from Les Mis made me feel positively healthy every time I listened to it. And anything's more healthy than Patti LuPone's wig here.
Next time: I. Will. Not. Be. Sick.

3 July 2012

i saw the sign, and it opened up my eyes i saw the sign

It was Tuesday, May 21 when I got the phone call confirming that I had a cookbook deal. I've already talked about how, while waiting for that phone call, I watched clip after clip of inspiring Broadway videos and Leslie Knope achieving stuff. But before all that, I was, to keep myself sane, keeping an eye out for good signs. You know, little things that felt like the universe was giving me a thumbs up. Here's the list I made on the day:

- I saw Bernie, the magical giant-hound-about-town, on the way to work.
- Barack Obama tweeted "Clear eyes, full hearts" and a photo of himself throwing a football. I mean, c'mon. That's a good sign any day. 
- Jo tweeted me to let me know the actress who plays Arya on Game of Thrones was photographed wearing very similar bold pants to mine. I really wanted to get this cookbook okay people, and I was going to see good signs where I wanted to see them. 
-Tim and I beat our personal best time at getting to Customs Brew Bar that morning for a pre-work coffee, despite it feeling like we were going to be late.
-There was a man I've never seen, before or since, busking underneath my window, playing Beauty and the Beast on the saxophone. Anything that calls to mind the human hug that is Angela Lansbury has to be a good sign.
-And finally, spoilers ahoy, I felt like the way season four of Parks and Rec finished meant I just had to get this. 

Now I'm not super-superstitious - not as much as I used to be, anyway - plenty of life is just horribly, weirdly random. But still, I can't help taking note of things like that when they come along.

So I was a bit concerned, because this week marked my very first days of writing my cookbook, the days I pictured spending typing furiously, drinking bottomless black coffee and gazing happily out the window, perhaps while an accordion plays somewhere in the background. I would possibly also be wearing a beret. 

And this week, I got sick. Kitten-weak, coughing constantly, aching head, my nasal passages like high pressure hoses jetting forth mucus, brain fuzzy as the ugg boots I wore to stay warm. You could say it's not the best sign that this cookbook's going to be amazing.

But I've decided to take it as a good sign. First, I'm hoping that being sick now at the start of Winter will mean I'm cool for the rest of it. Secondly, it neatly did away with any first-day-on-the-job awkwardness. Thirdly, after months of burning away on less than six hours sleep a night to put in the work to make myself as cookbook-worthy as possible, some enforced rest is kinda nice.

But yeah, did I mention kitten-weak? I could hardly lift my head yesterday. However there was a small window where hunger, my sense of taste returning, and my ability to stand up straight intersected, and I made good on it by cooking myself up some tomato soup, with sake, chilli, and cinnamon in its cherry-red depths. That aside, this is really just a can of tomatoes and some water, so as well as the fact that it ain't no thing to make, it also costs little.

Tomato Soup with Sake, Chilli and Cinnamon.

A recipe by myself.

1 can tomatoes in juice (crushed makes your life easier, but sometimes whole are cheaper, so go with what you know.)
1 heaped teaspoon sambal oelek OR 1 red chilli, deseeded and sliced
1 tablespoon semolina
1 shotglass of sake
Cinnamon and salt to taste

Open the can of tomatoes and tip it into a pan. Fill up the can with water and tip that into the pan too. Add the sambal oelek or chilli, bring to the boil then simmer for about ten minutes, stirring occasionally. If you're using whole canned tomatoes, mash them up with your wooden spoon as you go. Sprinkle over the semolina, stir it in quickly, and simmer for another five minutes till the soup is thickened. Finally, stir in the sake and a dusting of cinnamon (not even a quarter of a teaspoon - just shake some into your hand and scatter it in from there) plus salt to taste, and serve. 

Serves 1 - although easily multiplied for more.

Tomato soup is what it is - you either like it or don't. This is special yet nothing special at the same time, making it a rather perfect lunch. There's something inimitable about sake's clean yet buttery taste and the way it mingles with the slow-simmered tomatoes. The semolina swells and thickens the soup superbly, and the chilli and cinnamon add necessary, fragrant warmth, generally distracting you entirely from the metallic beginnings of these tomatoes. If you don't have sake kicking around, use sherry, and if you don't have that kicking around, this will still be really nice, so fear not. And if you don't have semolina you could use polenta, or just have your soup a little more watery. However, there is also something to be said for following my recipe as it is, too.

So I ate it for lunch yesterday with a cup of hot lime and honey - the lime simply a different take on the usual lemon drink that I've been having nonstop for the last few days. And it was wonderful.

I had my last day at work on Friday. It's strange not to be going there anymore after so many years. At this stage it just feels like I'm on sick leave, but there is a persistent sense of having left something big behind - it's a little sad, but it's also very, very freeing, and growing more definite. And I left on good terms - the best terms in fact, dancing wildly with everyone at a local bar. Indeed, it's possibly for the best that no-one has to make eye contact with me immediately following my particular brand of jiving to Tainted Love. I can't help it, when the music plays I dance big, and I dance freely.

And any lingering feelings of "what have I dooooooone" were dissolved quickly on Saturday night at an amazing potluck dinner at our dear friend Jo's (the same one who told me about Arya's pants.) Friends that you feel comfortable enough to have a fullness-induced (slightly mulled wine-induced too, to be fair) lie-down in front of are good friends indeed. Seriously, when I get too full I have to lie down, and there's really not many places outside the home that I can feasibly follow through with it.

So this is me now - not wearing a cool beret (or even an uncool beret), not having written gazillions of pages of my cookbook, and not feeling particularly well.

But I've made a tiny bit of progress and if nothing else there's no sickness, it seems, that the right filter on instagram can't fix. The journey has begun. And if it begins with me wearing my teenage-throwback Bjork buns and a blanket my mum crocheted for me and using a handtowel as a handkerchief because a mere handkerchief can't sustain what my nose is throwing down, then so be it! 
Title via: Ace of Base, The Sign. You know life like, is demanding, without understanding? 
Music to write a cookbook to:

I already love Janine and the Mixtape's song Bullets, but if anything's going to make me listen to a remix of it, it's the fact that Haz'Beats from Homebrew is behind it. Dreamy as.

Speaking of remixes, listen now to this Scratch 22 remix of Street Chant's Salad Daze. Holy cow, is all I've got.

Was a little tipsy the other night and pulled my typical move of falling into a YouTube black hole of tears-inducing Broadway videos. And there are few more instantly tears-inducing than the late Laurie Beechman. Ugh, just typing it makes me want to cry. Watch her singing On A Clear Day...If you dare.
Next time: I have the latest Cuisine magazine and am still planning to cook something from that, but whatever it is, hopefully I'll be well enough to make it something a little more involved than a can of tomatoes and some water. But not too involved, you know me.