23 April 2013

umami said knock you out

Birthdays are a very important and special time for me.

Because I'm self-absorbed and love attention. No, I mean, yes, but there's more to it than that. And not just the promise of neatly wrapped consumer items, either. But honestly, so many people said incredibly nice things to me on my birthday. I felt very loved and liked and lucky and a little bit tearful. 

Birthday me. Twenty seven. This was one of about fifty photos that a drunk Tim snapped of me. I hated them all so willfully went for two particularly awkward shots. Can someone please get me some photogenic-ness for a late birthday present?

Like being my own hype man, I'd indulged in some deep pre-birthday buildup. The day itself though, was quiet but pretty ideal. It was raining, which made me so very happy. Tim made me fresh coffee and rice bubbles with canned peaches for breakfast. I did yoga. I had a long bath in which I drank whisky and read Joan Didion, since I enjoy doing things that let me use the words "sybaritic lotus-eater". I met Tim for lunch at the very beautiful Nikau cafe, and had an Aperol spritzer (Aperol is like Campari, which I adore, only with more lunchtime-friendly levels of alcohol) and a quince and raspberry donut. I cried twice while watching Nashville. And later I watched while the NZ government passed the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill, meaning marriage equality was indeed A Thing. 

Let's just say: best birthday present ever. To try and articulate it further...I don't know. I kept leaving this page and procrastinating on other pages because I couldn't work out to say. I guess I'm just utterly happy with the result. It's not a magic solution to all the ills and hate of the world, but it will not only do no harm, it will be super amazing. It was just so damn delightful to see politicians from all across the political spectrum - or rainbow, if you will - giving speeches that were eloquent and beautiful and impassioned, or at least vaguely sensible. To hear the vote results announced, and feeling like this was one more step in the right direction of affirming that we're all okay. It made me feel really pretty okay. And proud of all those who had gone before so that we could be watching this debate unfold now in 2013.  And while I should stay positive, I mean, I said in my last blog post that I'd never heard an anti-gay argument that made any sense whatsoever. So it's just really vindicating and hopeful that the law, in this case at least, sides with those of us who do make sense. 

You know how you can pop a balloon, so it explodes with a bang, or just carefully pierce the surface so it deflates slowly, almost imperceptibly, over time? I thought I was going to erupt in scream-tears like a popped balloon when it was finally, finally clear that we'd won. But I didn't, instead just wiping away quiet tears and not even realising how much I'd been crying till later when my eyeliner had rendered my face panda-esque. 

"No take-backs!" I yelled at Tim. Guess we're really-really getting married now! 

Umami is one of those words that gets evoked a lot in the food writing of yonder present times. Unlike many popular and overused words ("om", "nom", "nom", and variations thereof), umami is a perfect and quite irreplaceable term from Japan which refers to the mysteriously savoury. That unmistakeable but pretty elusive quality that makes fried mushrooms and miso soup and soy sauce and gruyere cheese and worcestershire sauce particularly fascinating, and fascinatingly particular. Also can I just step back and point out from this short distance and say that I've made, and will make recipes that illustrate the concept of umami SO MUCH BETTER than these two but I liked the title that I came up with and so insisted on making this all fit.    

Make these noodles once and then commit the concept to memory and ignore the recipe because they're a perfect go-to, fallback meal when you feel like something resembling this end result, and you really don't need to live or die by the below quantities. As it is, what I've written below is not Nigella's original recipe - she was a little more restrained with the sesame oil than I, but it's such an incredible flavour that I just wanted more. They're cold and slippery and nutty and salty and delicious and many other positive adjectives besides.

Sesame Soba Noodles

Adapted just barely from Nigella Lawson's excellent book Forever Summer

200g soba noodles (although they sometimes come in 90g packs, so y'know, two of those is fine.)
2 teaspoons rice vinegar 
5 teaspoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon sesame oil
75g sesame seeds, or sunflower seeds like I did. Or peanuts. Or nothing.
Chives or spring onions to serve.

If you've got sesame seeds or whatever, toast them in a dry pan over a low heat, shaking or stirring often to prevent them burning. It will seem to take forever and then they'll burn all of a sudden, so stay patient and you'll be rewarded with a rich golden brown colour.

Cook the soba noodles according to packet instructions in boiling water. This probably won't take long. Drain, running under cold water while you do so. Mix together the remaining ingredients and stir them into the slightly cooled, drained noodles. Finely slice the chives or green onions, and sprinkle over the top. Serves two. 

Apologies that my photos are so weak this week, I adore winter but am in denial about the bad lighting it brings. Will try to do something about it so you can return to the kinda-decent photos you deserve.

Surprise second recipe, it's something I just thought into existence all casual-like, with the hopes that it would work. Oh, how it worked. The butter sizzles in the oven emphasising its - all together now - umami properties, deepening and darkening its already amply pleasing taste. The rum is sweet and sticky and rich but not overpowering, matching the sweetness of the pumpkin and parsnip and making them taste like the best vegetables on earth. Mustard helps it not all taste like pudding, and thyme is my favourite herb (well, that and mint) and I've managed not to kill my potplant of it yet and so I thought I'd throw some in as well.

Pumpkin and Parsnips roasted in Butter and Rum

A recipe by myself. Serves 3-4, or two of us with leftovers. 

1 small pumpkin (or butternut, or a couple of kumara)
2 medium parsnips
100g butter
2 teaspoons dijon mustard
1 tablespoon golden rum
Half a handful of thyme leaves (or one handful if your hands are tiny-tiny like mine.)

Set the oven to 190 C. Remove the skin from the pumpkin if you like, and slice it into thick chunks. Slice the parsnips into thick sticks. Place in a large roasting dish. Cube the butter and dot it over, then spoon over the mustard. Sprinkle with salt and roast for about 40 minutes, until the vegetables are a little browned and very tender. Pour over the rum and a little more salt, and return to the oven for another ten minutes. Serve. 

Pumpkin and Rum: friendly. (Rumpkin? No, wait, I didn't say that.)

Another thing I did on my birthday was - okay, after the whiskey and Aperol - only drink a tiny bit of cider while watching the marriage equality vote, because I had a tattoo booked the next day. Do you want to see it? Well, you can't. It's currently not fit to be seen, as a result of the long, fascinating, but ultimately sorta gross healing process. As Led Zeppelin and Johnny Cash played on the stereo I went through three solid hours of absurd pain, pausing only to have a fizzy drink or inhale deeply on a small bottle of pepperminty essential oils (which didn't necessarily do that much, but did put my brain squarely back where it should be and made me feel all medieval) while Tim held my hand, and later, hands plural, which also didn't seem to do anything as far as pain-assuaging and yet made me feel better. I was with Gill at Tattoo Machine, and he was brilliant. Super brilliant. And I mean, of course it's going to hurt. I found it very interesting identifying the different kinds of pain - sometimes slicing, sometimes like a small yet mightily-toothed animal was chewing on me, sometimes an odd sensation like a tiny flaming vacuum was moving over my leg, and sometimes more straightforward: like a needle plunging deep into me. I felt weirdly powerful while I was lying there, thinking look what I can do, look what I'm capable of withstanding just because I want to. It's also possible these are things that the brain tells itself while something like this is happening. At not one point, even during the most intense pain, did I think oh no this was the wrong choice. And now: I love it. I'm completely enraptured with it. Also probably 85 billion percent of people in New Zealand have a tattoo so maybe I'm rambling away on something that's not particularly ground-breaking. But I'm very, very happy with mine.

Post-tattoo, while I lay on the couch with stabbed leg aloft, Tim trudged round town in the still-there rain and returned home with Voltarin, Bepanthen, a pie and a bunch of roses. He then made this platter of cheese (oh hey, umami), grapes and crackers to eat while we waited for the pies to heat up and poured me a whisky and patiently waited while I hobbled over to the table and took several goes to instagram the moment to my sufficient liking. Frankly, I'm surprised someone else didn't try to marry him already with behaviour like that, but I'm glad it's going to be, and can be, me.
Title via that gleaming beacon of handsomeness, LL Cool J with Mama Said Knock You Out. Don't call it a comeback! 
Music lately:

Gavin Creel must've bought his voice at the good voice shop or something, because damn son, he renders me unable to write a decent sentence about how great he sounds while singing Going Down from the musical Hair. I love this song anyway, he embiggens it like wo.

Garbage, Push It. Not sure how I missed how utterly terrifying this video was during the 90s. As far as those 90s-scary-subversive music videos go, this one has aged well. The song is brilliant, I bet there's a version with just a static image if you're reading this alone and in the dark. (PS thanks Kate for reminding me how excellent this is.)
Next time: something photographed in better lighting, if I can. Got a yearning to make cookies, and also basically everything, so we'll see.


  1. This whole thing is adorable! The roses, the two little soba noodle bowls sitting there together, the Nikau doughnut - I love it! Sounded like the happiest of birthdays.

  2. 3 hours? Holy snakes! My biggest one was only 2 hours of sitting so I am looking forward to seeing the finished work. Mmmmm umami.

  3. Yeah wow to the three hour thing, must be one monstrous(ly-detailed) cat you've got there! Can't wait to see it? Maybe?

    I'm glad you had such a lovely birthday, and cheers to NZ for being less bigoted and backwards than the US!

  4. Yay for you! I'm so happy that you're so happy! Marriage and birthdays and tattoos are three of my fav things. Can't wait to see it!
    Ursula xx

  5. Clearly the best birthday present ever! And I hear that France also passed gay marriage today (maybe yesterday for you?). YAY.

  6. Happy belated, I didn't know it was your birthday - what an auspicious day for the bill to be passed! Looking forward to seeing your tattoo, I'm nosy like that.

  7. I thought of you when I saw that the equal marriage bill passed. Congratulations on getting really-really engaged now! :D

    And I just thought you should know that I read that post on feijoa ice cream, when it was your birthday last year (or two years ago? I don't remember). I loved reading that post so, so much. I love the way you write.

    And like Saya, because I'm nosy, I'm also looking forward to seeing your tattoo!

  8. So proud of New Zealand, and so vehemently disgusted by Australia. [Not so s]ecretly glad I'm not in that country during the election build-up right now. Disgusting that Labor won't support Marriage Equality.


  9. I'm so glad to hear your birthday was so lovely and YAY on the gay marriage rights!! i wish the USA would come to see the light one of these days...

    Both those noodles and the parsnips sound so good to me!!

  10. I'm looking forward to making those noodles! And I ABSOLUTELY agree about Gavin Creel! Indeed, his version of Going Down is intoxicating and I cannot get enough.

  11. I read the words "Pumpkin and Parsnips roasted in Butter and Rum" and my drooling has gotten quite severe. yumyumyum, can't wait to try!

  12. Belated Happy Birthday - mine was this week too. It is wonderful to luxuriate and allow the love in for this special day. I felt so proud to be in NZ when Parliament did the right thing for everyone to marry. I thought of you and Tim the moment it got passed :o)