31 December 2008

It's Gonna Be A Happy New Year...


I've been joyfully camping in the great outdoors
for the past few days and will return soon, this being just a brief respite for those modern wonders - high pressure showers, the sound of a flushing loo, the internets. The camping I do is nothing too taxing though - I've never drunk so many gin and tonics nor eaten so much blue cheese in my life and yesterday I read one and a half books in the space of a sunny afternoon. The only footwear I brought with me are jandals and ugg boots, so there's no fear I might have to go hiking anywhere. Yes, that sort of camping. My whanau have been going to this particular beach yearly since I was but a wee baby and in coldest, rainiest July (remember, New Zealand's seasons are opposite to the Northern Hemisphere) I think of camping with longing. I'm certainly not going to reveal where it is that we go however, it's already far too crowded. (Anyone who has seen the Outrageous Fortune Christmas special episode will understand - "This is our spot!")

Christmas itself was a jolly affair, with several dishes from Nigella Christmas making their debut successfully. It is this time that I really love though, when it's neither this-year-nor-last-year and all I have to do is lie about in the shade - being pale as I am - and re-read beloved novels. I have also been reading lots of newspapers and magazines as they appear and have noticed that they all seem to have a round up of the years events. I was planning on doing my own recap of the year, and I typed it all out, but got to November (I know, so close) and suddenly got bored and did an abrupt volte-face on my idea. However who could forget this moment:

Just before the faint-makingly good Rufus Wainwright concert in February, Tim and I met Siobhan Marshall and Antonia Prebble, who play Pascelle and Lorette West respectively on Outrageous Fortune, the best New Zealand TV show there is (and I mean that in a straight up way, not a damning-with-faint-praise way).

Another exciting moment- in April, my first ever photo accepted to Tastespotting.com, that wonderfully inspiring website that can be something of a necessary evil to food bloggers. I wish I could say that my blog would have been as successful without it but frankly I don't think it would have. Either way, this shot of a spoonful home made creme fraiche made it on there which was a huge boost to my confidence as a blogger.

And of course, Oscar the kitty and his death-defying faceplanting skills was there to boost morale at regular intervals.

There are a million other things I could have included here (these are just the photos I have handy) but the point is, it has been a long, varied and at times arduous year. As all years are in their own way, I suppose. I'll be back in Wellington and cooking up a storm soon enough, and this place will once again resemble a fully-functioning food blog. I tend not to go in for wild revelry at this time of year, in fact sometimes I wish I could skip New Years altogether because that whole, desperate, "we must have FUN" thing can be all too stressful, and I prefer to have fun on my own terms rather than at the dictation of the calendar. All that Scrooge-ness aside, I sincerely hope all my readers have a fantastic time wherever you end up, and that 2009 heralds a vaguely more optimistic time for us all. Anyone have any New Years resolutions they plan on actually sticking to? At this stage nothing has really occurred to me personally, but I'd be interested to hear any - especially the more obscure. Has anyone here resolved to put on weight? To speak in an affected French accent for at least a month? To dye their hair a different colour each week? To take up carpentry? Do tell, and do have a safe start to the coming year.

PS - title quoted from RENT...what else?

23 December 2008

Seasons of Love


Because it seems to be the done thing in blog-land these days: Merry Christmas y'all. Or happy Hanukkah, Kwanzaa...or even just happy nonstop-cheesy-movies-on-TV-season. Whatever you may or may not be celebrating right now I hope everyone has a grand old time and I'll see you again soon.

17 December 2008

Fruit 'Em Up

Christmas shopping: 3 Laura: -100,000,000,003.
I've attempted to Christmas shop every weekend for the last month and have ended up with very little to show for myself. I know it's not all about the gifts, but after a lifetime of getting presents for my family, I can't just stop now because I can't find much of anything. I have one weekend left to scour Wellington for trinkets. Wish me luck. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one in this sorry boat.

Melodrama aside, we have been eating remarkably well lately because, to my endless happiness, summer fruit and vegetables are finally getting cheap, properly cheap, at the local market. I've eaten more fresh fruit in the last two weeks than I have all year and I am loving it. Strawberries for $2 a punnet, and three mangoes for a dollar more than makes up for six months eating uncrisp apples and canned peaches. Not that canned peaches don't have a special place reserved in my heart, but there is something so exciting about summer fruit.

Vegetables too - I finally got my hands on some of those sugar snap peas that everyone talks about, $1.50 for a big bag (but they cost $4.95 for about 6 beans in the supermarket), a whole bag of red, swollen tomatoes for a dollar, bunches of asparagus for a song, and the top story in my world this week, beetroot has gotten really really cheap again.

Inspired vaguely by an orzotto in Nigella Christmas, I wrapped two large beetroot in tinfoil and roasted them at 200 C for about 45 minutes. While that was happening, I did the usual risotto thing - sauteed onion and garlic in butter, added vermouth, let the arborio rice sizzle (I know, arborio is the least culinarily desirable of the risotto rices but it's also the cheapest), and ladled in vegetable stock, stirring all the while. I diced up the now soft and roasty beetroot and folded it into the risotto, which promptly turned the whole thing a garish (but pleasing!) pink and made the frozen peas which I'd added seem particularly green in contrast. I've said it before but I'll say it again: pink goes good with green. A spoonful of sour cream and a sprinkling of basil from the garden finished off this almost ridiculously colourful dinner. Bright? It's phosphorescent! And delicious too, but any reader of this blog will already know that I am a fan of the beetroot from way back.

We always seem to have a swag of overripe bananas kicking round. And, I'd found myself a very cheap ring cake tin at the Newtown Salvation Army store and was amped to make something in it. I'm not going to even try and present this cake to you as if it's anything new and revolutionary, but who could possibly turn up their nose at a slice? I based the recipe on the Banana Breakfast Ring in Feast by Nigella Lawson. It's a little more spongy and springy than your trad banana cake, but still moist and delicious and very simple to make. And is it just me being irrational, or are ring cakes way easier to slice up than normal ones?

Banana Cake

60g butter, melted
3-4 ripe bananas, mashed
2 eggs
150g brown sugar
50g white sugar
250g flour (I actually used 200g flour and 50g cornflour, but whatevs)
1 t each baking soda and baking powder
2 heaped tablespoons sour cream

Mix everything together gently, bake in a buttered and floured ring tin for about 45 minutes at 180 C. I iced it with a mix of butter, icing sugar and cocoa and it was perfect. Some kind of lemony icing would be equally marvelous, I'm sure. The cake may or may not keep well, it didn't really sit round long enough for me to find out.

Well, well, well. Wellity wellity wellity. I hope to get another post in before Christmas, it has been quite slow here lately but my excuse about the slow computer still stands. Conversely, time is going so fast. I finish work for the year on the 23rd and then shall commence the annual war with my luggage in that (a) I have to cram everything in and (b) I have to pay exorbitant excess baggage fees on my flight home because they weigh too much, apparently saying bitterly, "Hey lady, it's Christmas!" doesn't really help the situation. Even though I'm only just getting home this side of the big day I hope to fit in a ridiculous amount of goodie-baking. New Years will be very quiet for me, and Tim will be in Wellington working through at Starbucks, but we will be hitting the ground running come 2009. In a matter of weeks -admittedly, several weeks- we will be seeing Neil Young and goodness knows who else at the Big Day Out, Arctic Monkeys (that's right, we bought tickets to their Wellington gig even though they'll be at Big Day Out), Kings of Leon AND The Who. Oh yes.

I haven't been on Twitter for a while, once again the slowness of the computer prevents such frivolousities, but here are some random thoughts:

- I heard my neighbour singing the other day. Does this mean they heard me singing Defying Gravity while no-one else was home?

- What did we use for the saying "recharge your batteries" before the advent of electricity? Did people take mini-breaks or book facials because they needed to "stoke their coalrange" or somesuch?

- I wonder if Leonard Cohen ever got called Leotard as a child. Admit it. Now you're wondering too.

9 December 2008

Macaroon-age Daydream


Apologies for the long gap between posts but I'm sure everyone else is just as busy as me if not wildly more so, what with the approaching Christmas and economy and global warming to worry about. Not helping is the fact that my computer has been monstrously slow of late. It took about five goes to upload my photos without the entire thing having a nervous breakdown, and you don't even want to know how many frustrating minutes it took to even get to the point where I can type here. Using that same excuse, I apologise deeply if I haven't been reading as many blogs as I should - I wish I could keep up with them all but my computer would require smelling salts and a cold compress. Now, seeing how this is the time of year that office parties and such become more prevalent, why not gaze upon this bowl of antioxidants as inspiration for what to do should you wish to engage in a little, um, oxidanting?

Above: You know that fruit that you get at markets sometimes that they sell for reeeally cheap because it needed to be eated ten minutes ago? Well I bought myself a bushel of the stuff on Sunday and using Nigella's Antioxidant Fruit Salad from Nigella Christmas as a starting point, made myself an incredibly gorgeous breakfast. A slightly wilting mango was sliced into a bowl - the whole thing - followed by some strawberries, sliced and tumbled over, chopped mint from the garden and a handful of pomegranate seeds, lovingly harvested from a tupperware container in the freezer. Not pictured, but unbelievably essential, is a sprinkling of pistachio nuts, which gave the most fabulous contrast in textures and tastes, their waxy, almost chocolatey creaminess next to the zingy acidity of all that fruit. I added them at the last minute as an afterthought, but they completely made the salad.

Such are my mad domestic goddess skillz that I managed to whip up these chocolate macaroons while making the Christmas Dinner last week, obviously they aren't the echt article from Pierre Hermes, you know, faint-makingly light, requires 19 egg whites, only 3 people worldwide know the recipe - these are rather unchic, stumpy little biscuits, but no less delicious.

I guess it's fitting that such a quick and untaxing recipe comes from Nigella Express. I took them into the office the next day for a colleague's birthday morning tea and they were, I'm immodestly proud to say, enormously popular. Of course, maybe people were just saying they like them because I was sitting right there. Who knows, they're certainly easy enough to make so why not find out for yourself (although rigorous quality control in my kitchen proved that they were in fact fantastically good.)

Chocolate Macaroons

2 egg whites
200g ground almonds
30g cocoa powder
175g icing sugar

Heat oven to 200g C, and line a baking tray with paper or a silicone sheet. Mix the egg whites in a bowl with the rest of the ingredients till you have a sticky chocolatey mixture. As I said, this is very easy - no intrepid egg-white beating here. Roll the mixture into small balls and arrange on the baking tray. Bake for about 11 minutes although I took them straight out of the oven at about 8 or 9 minutes, that's just because I get a bit nervous around biscuits - they always carry on cooking even when removed from the heat. They will be solidly chewy and densely chocolatey once cool, if you can wait that long, and are marvelous with coffee, ice cream, anything at all really.

On Monday, Tim and I went to the local Italian restaurant, Red Tomatoes, because with us both working full time and travelling round the place we've hardly seen each other. Red Tomatoes was recently on a New Zealand version of that Gordon Ramsey TV show where he goes into restaurants and swears a lot and then sorts out their problems. I've been to this place before a couple of times and it has definitely improved, in terms of decor, clarity of menu and staff attentiveness. The menu itself is not terribly adventurous, but this is not a bad thing, what is there is familiar and done well. The meals are still a little on the slow side, so don't go there on an awkward first date. With Tim and I nattering away we barely noticed.
And the pizza is divine.

Thin, crisp, slightly chewy base...generous, piping hot toppings...lots of cheese...brilliant. Tim got the Meditteranean chicken and I got the Puttanesca and we swapped pieces as we went.

Can't bond and connect emotionally, too busy eating own body weight in cheese.

As if cheese wasn't exciting enough in its own right, the current economical crisis which had resulted in astronomically high prices for dairy means that eating cheese is now a hedonistic, decadently luxurious experience. They do say absense makes the heart grow fonder (and probably less clogged too, in this case.)
Next time: Who knows. Christmas is hot on my heels and I've barely done the dreaded but necessary shopping at all. I need a buffer month between November and December - who do you go to see about getting this sort of thing organised? And what could we call it - Lauratober?

2 December 2008

Christmas Bells Are Ringing...

So with all the feasting that ensued on the night of The Christmas Dinner, I entirely forgot to take a photo of the actual roast chickens. However, as the following photo essay demonstrates, there's still plenty to see. I'm seriously exhausted, and it's pretty late so I'm going to be dialogue-lite and let the pictures largely speak for themselves.

Above: I whipped up some pomegranate ice cream on Sunday morning, after I returned from the vege market. Literally - get it - Whipped? Cream? Okay, I told you I was tired, which is a perfectly legitimate excuse for dodgy puns.

Nigella keeps her pomegranates close and her cranberries closer. It's a great thing that these berries are so expensive because she puts them in everything. Oh, I can't be snide though because they really are rather Christmassy, the frozen ones looking like holly berries in thawing snow, and their fresh sourness can perk up otherwise heavy fare quite effectively.

Cornbread, Cranberry and Orange Stuffing (adapted from Feast)

This mixture is so delicious it almost didn't make it into the chicken. Don't for goodness sake be put off because you have to make cornbread first, it's the easiest thing in the world and the recipe can be found here.

In a large pot, simmer 300g cranberries with the juice and zest of an orange. Add 125g butter slowly till it turns into a glossy, pinky-orange sauce, then crumble in the cornbread and stir to combine. When you're ready to bake it, stir in 2 eggs and stuff your bird and roast, or spread it into a loaf tin and bake it at 180 for about 25 minutes.

Above: In front, Pear and Cranberry stuffing, and in the back, the cornbread stuffing. I may have made a bit extra so that they could stand in as another vegetarian dish. Inexplicably, I never liked stuffing as a child so you can see I am making up for lost time here.

I bought a brace of peppers at the market on Sunday morning and roasted them as soon as I got back. They seemed to just get silkier and more delicious as the day went on and were perfect served at room temperature, so the rich olive oil, clean fresh pomegranate, and salty caper flavours shone through vibrantly.

Chargrilled Peppers with Pomegranate (Nigella Christmas)

6 red and/or yellow peppers (although I got 7 to allow for muck-ups and nibbling-while-cooking)
Seeds from 2 pomegranates (although one is more than fine, Nigella)
2 T fresh pomegranate juice (just give the fruit a squeeze while seeding)
2 t lime or lemon juice
60ml extra virgin olive oil
15ml garlic olive oil
1/2 teaspoon Maldon sea salt
3 T drained capers

Set your oven to very, very hot - like 250 C. Cut the peppers in half, removing seeds and stalks, and place cut-side down on a baking tray. Roast in the oven till they blister - about 15 mins. Remove and carefully chuck them all into a bowl, quickly covering it with gladwrap till the peppers cool down considerably. From here it will be very easy to remove the skins - just pull them off. Tear the peppers into strips and place them in a serving bowl with the rest of the ingredients. Serve at room temperature. I made mine at about 11am and served it at 8pm, so it benefits from a bit of a sit. I just kept it covered and on the bench, although it won't come to any harm in the fridge.

The involtini is another one that tastes best when it's not piping hot. This turned out to be an amazing combination of flavours and textures, so much more than just a token vegetarian dish. There was hardly any left afterwards but what was there made for a luxe lunch the next day, microwaved for a bit and served with salad and leftover roast veges.

Above: The marvelously summery Sangria (and yes, we used those tacky plastic ice cube things...well, they're practical! And this was hardly a classy joint to begin with.)

Poinsettia, a mix of cranberry juice, cointreau, and sparkling white wine (1 litre, 125 mls, and 750mls respectively) is an enchanting combination that completely owns Buck's Fizz in terms of festive drinkability. Tip of the cap to Nigella, for all that she half-heartedly protests that she's not much of a drinker, she can certainly navigate her way round a liquor cabinet.

The table! We managed to fit eight of us around it, not entirely comfortably though...

Above: The roasted pepper salad and boiled new potatoes with mint from our herb patch. Notice the gorgeous yellow bowl which was a Christmas present from the parents last year, and the beautiful Christmas crackers which were really way too classy for us. They contained real presents, like pens, corkscrews and measuring tapes. Nifty or what? True to form, as well as forgetting to photograph the chicken, I forgot to bring the parsnips out of the oven at all until after we finished the main course. They instead became a refreshing palate cleanser between meals, something to consider for your next dinner party perhaps...After dinner we played charming parlour games (well, we played Scattergories, is there a more satisfying game for bookish, wordy BA students to tackle?)

Drama! Tim is the only one in our flat capable of turning jelly out of a mould. He may be the only person in the world who can do it...perhaps we can never know.

The white chocolate almond cake was utterly gorgeous, although the problem with cakes that have white chocolate in them is that you quite often can't actually taste the white chocolate as much as you'd like (who am I kidding, as much as I'd like.) So I upped the ante by drizzling over a melted milky bar, Jackson Pollock-styles (hey, I got an A in an essay about him in first year, I feel sufficiently qualified to pay homage to him via the medium of baked goods.) This is a fantastic cake for entertaining as you can make it in advance and it keeps beautifully, but looks rather impressive as far as puddings go. I'm not sure if it was supposed to rise much - or whether it has something to do with our oven - but the cake rose hugely then sunk, leaving a crevice that I filled with chopped pistachios (it was going to be silver cachous but they were $5.50 for a small cannister at New World - um, no thanks - and besides, the still-festive pistachios are actually pleasant to eat.)

Above: The official pudding table: the white chocolate almond cake, the "tortova", pomegranate ice cream, red and green jelly, and strawberries, also virtuously purchased from the market. The chocolate torte turned out to be marvelous, somehow crisp and chewy at the same time and punctuated by welcome chunks of dark, dark chocolate.

It was altogether a fantastic meal shared with fantastic people, although it was such a shame that Emma couldn't be there. She was however present in our minds and hopefully gets back to New Zealand asap safe and sound!
In other news: I'm reading To Kill A Mockingbird. Tim found an old copy somewhere while dropping some stuff off at the Salvation Army, and I do love old books, (not those horrible shiny reissues with conceptual cover art) so he grabbed it for me. It was one of those that I knew I should have a look at one day, but the curmudgeon in me has this thing where the more a book is recommended to me, the more I stubbornly refuse to read it. I don't know why, perhaps hype annoys me, but that's certainly the reason I've never read The Kite Runner. Anyway, To Kill A Mockingbird is really very good, (she says condescendingly - didn't it win the Pulitzer or somesuch?) I'm thoroughly enjoying it. I've also recently read Nigella Lawson's unofficial biography, forwarded to me by the ever-thoughtful Linda. It is a cracking read, I think I devoured it in a day or two on my lunchbreaks at work but...it's really not very well written. It quotes her cookbooks as though they were interviews - as though I don't know them all word for word anyway - but it's worth it for the luscious pictures of Nigella. What a beauty. I must say, it's not a good book for the self esteem, as it constantly reiterates how goddess-like and creamy and striking she is and it can leave the reader feeling somewhat homely. I definitely recommend it for a bit of light reading though. Okay, this suddenly turned into Laura's book corner, so I'd better get going...
Next time: I attempt chocolate macaroons (the quick, chewy kind, not the faint-making Hermes kind) and make Ed Victor's Turkey Hash with the scant leftover roasted chicken from the Christmas dinner.