27 February 2013

plush velvet sometimes, sometimes just pretzels and beer, but i'm here

Just like the great Alanis Morrissette, my grasp of what is actual irony may well be as shady as my enjoyment of saying "isn't it ironic" is fervent. But it does seem ironic or something how I am so tired that my brain feels like someone pressed pause on a video of a fallen ceramic vase smashing into a thousand pieces, and my brain is that vase, fragile and perpetually shattering. And according to this "today in your social media history" app I have, on this day last year I was tweeting about feeling the exact same way. That's not the ironic bit, although it is...something. What I consider the isn't it ironic don't you think bit, is how I was writing about it for three long paragraphs here when suddenly, I literally couldn't tell if I was just very tired, and therefore unable to continue reading and writing it, or so bored by my lifeless writing that I was falling asleep. And so I deleted the lot and forced myself to start again. So here we are. 

I do remember a high school English teacher telling us that irony was a lot like sarcasm, and feeling unfamiliar confusion, like I'd accidentally wandered into a maths class. Isn't it more like...rain on your wedding day? Ironically - I think? - these days I really wouldn't mind if it rains on my wedding day.  The point is: you are always correct in using the word 'ironic', but only if you say it with confident authority. And also, I am very, very tired and underslept. Partly from doing work on my cookbook proof - exciting! And partly from being not very talented at sleeping. Which is less exciting. 

Somewhere out there, Alanis Morrisette is quietly googling her own name out of idle curiousity, and sighing heavily.

Earlier this year I had the inexplicable but thank-goodness-it-was-me-not-someone-else honour of being named one of New Zealand's People of Influence for 2013 by a major nationwide publication. Not to try and pre-empt eyerolls or anything, and I said this at the time, but I didn't quite realise when I submitted my interview the nature of where it was going to end up. Hence why I'm talking about stuff like pretzels in it. But y'know, if I had my time over, my words would likely still be the same. Pretzels are so important. And I decided that since I'd said they were going to be a Big Deal this year, it was time to put my money where my mouth is by doing more than just putting pretzels where my mouth is.

And I made Caramel Pretzel Ice Cream. 

Possibly you were under the impression that pretzels were to be tipped into a bowl and eaten absent-mindedly till all that rock salt and mouth-drying crispness makes you gaspingly thirsty? Well, that's still a reasonable use for them, but in a move that seems unsurprising in hindsight (I see you, chocolate dipped potato crisps) they're propelled into a whole other stratosphere of deliciousness by the presence of sugar. And while they're part of the cracker family more or less, something very specific about the dense crunchy texture and intense saltiness and rich, slightly malty (I think?) flavour makes pretzels my food of choice for this. Also, they have a cool shape. No mere circle they.

This is going to sound like a stupid thing to say on my own blog (well, considering some of the things I've said here, maybe a stupider thing), but this probably isn't the very best pretzel ice cream out there. I could make one that's more technical and involves a lot more steps and ingredients. It would be superior to this one - but this one you can make in about ten minutes. I tried making a more complicated one first and screwed it up every step of the way - overboiling the sugar, burning the pretzels - and once I'd calmed down from the waste of ingredients and significant dent to my self-esteem, I wanted to try again but make it as simple as possible, to put as few hurdles as possible between you and the finished product. And here it is. And it's incredible.

Caramel Pretzel Ice Cream

A recipe by myself.

I'd like to point out while this is an original recipe it's not an original concept: a brief perusal of Pinterest's woeful search function will bring up a squillion recipes for this, but for what it's worth, I didn't look at any of them. Just went with my instincts. Which will sometimes lead me astray, but not with ice cream. I'd also like to acknowledge the mighty Christina Tosi of the Momofuku restaurant empire, whose genius pretzel-milk infusion may well have kicked off this resurgence in the first place. I can't say for sure, but I do know researching it would make me really hungry.

1 1/2 cups pretzels 
1 tablespoon butter
3 tablespoons sugar
500ml (2 cups) cream
4 tablespoons brown sugar

In a decent-sized pot or pan, heat up the butter and the 3 tablespoons of sugar. Don't stir, just let it slowly dissolve and melt and bubble up. Once the mixture starts to turn an amber, whisky-ish colour, remove it from the heat and tip in the pretzels. Stir quickly to coat them, then tip them out onto a piece of baking paper on a baking tray. Scrape out as much syrup as possible onto them, then let them cool a little. 

Whisk the cream with the brown sugar till thickened significantly but not actually whipped - still liquidy but thick enough to leave a hint of a trailing line behind the whisk when you move it through the cream. 

Using a large knife, roughly chop the sugary pretzels into shards and fold it into the cream. Scrape the lot into a loaf tin or container of roughly a litre. Freeze, without stirring. 

If like me, you're the boundlessly instagrammin' kind, I recommend reserving a few of the choicest, shiniest caramelised pretzels for decoration as I did here. Also their extra crunch is welcome initially. After a day or so, the ice cream absorbs more of the caramel and the salt, and just gets better and better.

If you've never encountered this combination before I understand your suspicion. Beer accompaniments in cream? What now? But be not scared of this. Between the inseparable excellence of caramel and salt together, the roasty flavour that the pretzels bring, and their soft crunch as they slowly disintegrate into the frozen cream, it's not so much delicious as a head rush in every spoonful.

I heedlessly sat the parfait spoon inside this shallow dish to take a photo: this is approximately three seconds after the spoon's long handle overbalanced, flinging itself off the table onto the floor below.

On Saturday night myself and some other good friends went to see Cat Power at the Town Hall. It's partly experience and partly my curmudgeon tendencies but I always set myself up for a fall with live music - there are just so many variables that can go wrong. Being short, I am sighingly prepared to see nothing (like - full circle! - when I barely saw Alanis Morrissette at the Supertop in 1996.) Being nervous, I anticipate seething, punchy crowds. The artist will be late. They'll be grumpy. I'll get tired. Someone will spill cheap beer on me. And so on. But Cat Power's show was one of the most beautiful that I've ever had the luck to be at - the kind of show where you turn to the friend next to you and do that "increduluous eye contact shaking the head what is even happening" kind of face. She was powerful, generous, hilarious, charming. Oh my gosh I sound so earnest right now (powerful?) but truly - she continuously stalked the stage from left to right so that everyone got to see her, she threw flowers at the audience (including one up to the balcony, where it calmly sailed upwards into the hand of opening act Watercolours, as if by magic) and her voice, complemented by that of her backup singers, was as warm and scratchy like a soft wooly jumper as ever. I, um, may have cried a little. Very earnestly.

This is Tim's instagram. Hold your seething, we weren't standing there with our phones up the whole time blocking everyone's view - she was just so close that it was impossible not to hastily snap a photo for remembrance. I'm one of you, I hate those people too! 

PS: I tried making pretzel-fried chicken too. What I ended up with wasn't quite right, but the shadow of perfection was there. And let me exaggeratedly pretend-heroically assure you, I will make so much fried chicken till I get it right.
Title: Sondheim's I'm Still Here. I like Eartha Kitt's version best. Actually I just like Eartha Kitt best.
Music lately:

Someone recently asked if I'd heard much Nina Nastasia, and I was all, of course, I went through a stage of listening to John Peel compilations. But I was compelled to listen anew, especially when I saw she has a song called Counting Up Your Bones. It's as good as its title promises.

Brand New Key, Melanie Safka. This song was played on Saturday night by a friend who clearly has exceptional taste in music as I'm now a bit obsessed with it. Don't let the fact that Wikipedia describes it as a "novelty hit in 1970-71" put you off.

Ever ready to be obsessed with a song, another friend introduced me to another new tune to adore to pieces: Mountain Man, Play It Right. Why doesn't everyone sing in three part harmony?
Next time: Probably another I Should Tell You interview. Which means it will be Friday! Best.

24 February 2013

fancy plans and pants to match: Arbitrageur

So...sometimes I get to do fancy things. By virtue of being a blogger. And, let's not be naive, my old-media leanings through being a newspaper cafe reviewer/freelancer. It would be stupid to lie about how great it is: it's the greatest.

It's also something I've felt really awkward about disclosing. Oh sure, I'll post the occasional instagram or tweet or passing mention, but I've never quite been able to reconcile the joy of free extravagance with the fear of making lots of people hate me by talking about it. I mean, I'm the type to immediately assume people would sneer and be resentful if they read about me writing about fun free dinners and events, rather than being interested in the dishes and so on, since, in all honesty, I tend to roll my eyes at such writing myself. Unless it's really good writing - which it often isn't.

So what made me change my stance? Guilt! No, I'm kidding. I like to challenge myself, and I think it is a decent challenge to write about this kind of thing without sounding like a dick. Also there's the fact that it may actually be of interest to some people - hearing about what ideas and innovations are happening in restaurants, about exceptionally delicious food, about my stumbling-baby-deer attempts to describe the wine I drank. And I do like expanding on this blog's scope every now and then.

I've decided to dub this segment Fancy Pants and Plans To Match, a quote from the woefully underwatched but utterly brilliant 90s TV show News Radio, spoken by the character Jimmy James. I could let this devolve into a ranty essay about why you should watch NewsRadio but I will instead say this: it's a better title than my original idea "Sometimes I get free stuff PLEASE DON'T HATE ME."

With that defensive preamble out of the way: Arbitrageur, and their Summer of Riesling Avec Menu.

The pitch: Arbitrageur, one of your unarguably more ritzy Wellington restaurants, has what they call their Avec Menu. Avec being French for "with", it pairs several courses with a particular wine, in this case Riesling. European and New Zealand examples are served alongside the dishes - and that's it really. Just well-considered food and wine pairings to get you questioning your tastebuds and providing some new stances on the delightful drink that is Riesling.

Crab and Avocado Taco with Coriander and Lime 

What happened: The menu was five courses, each with a half glass of a European and a New Zealand Riesling. The Riesling itself was divided into categories. So the first course had two from the Soft and Fruity category, the second course had two wines from the Crisp and Tangy category, and so on - Luscious and Exotic, Fresh and Aromatic, and Rich and Sweet making up the rest. So as well as being generally matched with two fitting rieslings, each course was matched with an overall genre. I think I may have overexplained this, but hopefully you get the idea.

The coolest bits: Firstly, everything was incredibly delicious. But the highlights easily included the market fish (pictured below), with its delicately crunching surface and texture as tender as mashed potato. You might think seaweed on fish bordering on shuddery overkill. But nay. It was punchily flavoursome in a deep, briny way, freshly salty, and perfect with the olive oil-rich soft eggplant and tomato that it rested upon. Tim and I decided that the New Zealand riesling - F Series Old Vine '11 - was our preference of the two offerings. We also decided that tangelo was what we could taste in it, and that said element brought out the caramelised element of the crispy-skinned fish. The thing about trying to work out what you're tasting in your wine is that it becomes easier to throw around statements like that the more you drink. Wheeee!

The other stand-out was the cheese course, featuring Over the Moon brie. Based on this experience, I should like to buy myself a pallet of their cheese, take a week off all work and socialising, and to quietly eat it all while watching a really good quality TV series in its entirety. Actually even without the cheese that sounds kinda blissful right now. But then I am, as ever, underslept. Uh, anyway, the cheese:  sublime. It tasted like butter, good homemade butter - soft and richly creamy yet clean with a mildly tangy finish. It was served with figs, quince paste, grapes, and walnut raisin bread. Each of which provided their own obvious complementary services to the cheese. The wine that went with it - we opted for just one option at this stage, Kerpen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spätlese ‘10 from Denmark - was possibly the best glass of wine I've had in my life. Admittedly, most of the stuff I buy is in the $9-$12 category (oh okay, $9 - $9.50) but still. Like the cheese, it was somehow clean and rich at the same time, with luscious crisp hints of melon and cucumber and honeyed sweetness. Tim and I both felt genuinely a bit forlorn once our glasses were drained. And then we told ourselves to get over it, because: free.

And finally: I appreciated that restaurant manager Gary was friendly and relaxed. Dinners out can be a little intimidating in their own way - well, I sometimes get nervous I'm going to select the wrong fork and have every bourgeois person in the restaurant suddenly stand and point at me and cry "imposter!" or something. There was no chance of that here with Gary, who explained what was happening with each dish and wine without micromanaging our dinner in any way - more of a casual discussion whenever a new course came out. The menu itself was also substantial enough to be exciting but the courses weren't so heavy and enormous that I felt like my lungs were starting to fill up with food. It was also kinda nice to not end up incredibly drunk from all the wine on a school night - half glasses were perfect.

Crispy-skinned market fish with seaweed seasoning and Mediterranean vegetables. 

Buttermilk bavoirois with rhubarb and strawberries Romanov 

From a scale of 1 to "Is this a dream?": 6 - The menu was impressive but not intimidating or inscrutible, and the staff were friendly. On the other hand - one of the wines we had: a bottle of it would've put us back $161. We drank it verrrrry slowly.

Would I do this for not-free? Well, it's not a particularly good time to answer this question, considering our bank balance is forcing us into not buying anything, let alone dinners out. If it was a special occasion, and spiraling credit card payments weren't hanging over my head like credit card payments that had learned to fly, I think...yes. Honestly. All up, five courses and ten half glasses of occasionally-shockingly-delicious wine would come to around $180-ish, and if you choose one half glass per course, around $120. Which in Wellington at least, seems very comparable. Five courses. Considering plenty of places will charge you at least $30 for a main course, I mean, you do the maths. (Seriously, you do it, anyone do it, just not me. I hate maths.)

Earnest thanks for making me feel fancy to: Arbitrageur Wine Room and Restaurant. 125 Featherston Street, Wellington. 04 499 5530.

22 February 2013

i should tell you: Jan Hellriegel

Well hello there, and welcome to the fifth installment of I Should Tell You. Every Friday I ask three short food-related questions of a cool musician who will answer my enthusiastic emails. Just to see what happens!

This week I am so happy to be interviewing Jan Hellriegel. She has been in what I (and...nearly everyone) call The Industry for a long time. And yet though I've always been aware of her music - to the point where I distinctly remember years ago, being a young intern and impressing a somewhat older member of staff simply by knowing who she was, what? -  it's only relatively recently that I've been listening to it properly. And it is excellent. If you're new to her stuff, I am sincerely obsessed with her 1995 song Pure Pleasure. It belongs in the canon of songs that I can and will listen to twelve times in a row without them losing their lustre. If anything: ever more lustre with every listen. I also recommend 2x2 from her recent album All Grown Up and It's My Sin from her 1993 album of the same name. 

Jan is touring the North Island with Greg Johnson and some others in March - details here.  

Thanks, Jan! Here is the interview...here. 

Where's somewhere you've eaten that you kinda like to brag about or drop into conversation? 

When I was recording my first album It’s My Sin with American producer J.D Souther at Airforce Studios he had food brought in from The French Café every day. I don’t know if they would do this now. It was brilliantly decadent and I was convinced my life as a recording artist would from then on would be a never ending parade of gourmet cuisine ...boy was I wrong. Parkside Café in Mt Albert is a recent discovery I'm sharing. Such a wonderful surprise – by day a regular suburban Eggs Benne-style café, but at night, the most delicious and authentic Vietnamese in Auckland.

What do you fix for yourself, or where do you go to eat, when it's just you on your own?

I am rarely on my own but when I am it’s sardines on toast. That ensures I will be remain on my own for a few hours. I can only remember eating alone at a café once in the last few years and that was Selera in Newmarket, Auckland near where I work  – they make the best laksa ever and I just had to sit down and have one for lunch one day recently.

What's one of your favourite food memories from your childhood?

My Dad makes the best tripe and onions ever. When I was a student or feeling a little down in my 20s - I would ask him to cook some for me.  For many it may be chocolate  or ice-cream but for me, comfort food is Tripe and Onions.  Because life is pretty  sweet these days I haven’t indulged for a really long time. My fiancé promised to learn how to make it for me –  I am still waiting. 

19 February 2013

that dizzy dancing way you feel as every fairy tale comes real

I felt a little drunk from tiredness today. Which is why somehow it took me so long to shape this blog post. Even though the recipe can be summed up in four words: sprinkles on buttered bread. Self-frustration is not good for self-editing. But here I finally am.

Not to sound like a 90s stand-up comedian but what is the deal with spam comments these days? They're coming towards me thick and swift. I could change my blog settings but the codes to decipher before commenting are getting as complicated and unreadable as the spambots are blithely persistent. So in the interest of not putting off nice commenters, since said comments are so seriously delightful to receive, I instead choose to duel with the spambots. My deal-questioning though, lies squarely with that which the spambots peddle. Back in the early days of this blog, it was very easy to catch them. Y'know, :::::free viagara here::::, they'd say. Now they're more subtle. More conversational. One spambot actually, and quite sinisterly, complained about the presence of spam. I like to look at is the "click on my website" bit of the comment. That's how you know they're spam, and that's where things get weird. Well, weirder than me casually interacting with communication sent to me by robots.

Some of them are obvious - the sites they're pushing me towards have names like "Get followers"; "Make fast money"; "Free poker game", and with some inevitability, "Find out more about ejaculation guru".

But there are the ones that make me say "what's the deal with this?" I just wonder, who on this earth is out there behind the following websites that I have been urged to visit?

"Emergency plumbers in Birmingham"
"10th birthday party ideas"
"Cooking frozen lobster tails"
"Stretching exercises to increase your height" (admittedly, this might fall under the viagara category)
"Toe rings white gold"
And my favourite: "Cliffs of Moher pictures".
Wait, this is my favourite - being directed to a website called "make the truck your office."

I mean...this spam is more endearing than some people I know.

I really do find that kinda hilarious, but maybe the reason I doth protest too much about misguided spambots is that this recipe for fairy bread not only hilariously simple...it's also that for a lot of people in New Zealand, this is more equivalent to a reminder on a post-it note. The concept of fairy bread has been around for so long that I feel like I should say "recipe" in scare quotes. As for people out of New Zealand who have never had fairy bread, it may appear to have all the flavour and appeal of eating a reminder written on a post-it note.

On Sunday I suddenly felt like eating Fairy Bread. So I made it. There was a delicate and delicious balance between the nostalgia for that which I ate as a child and the grown-up joy of doing as I damn well please.

So in case you've never heard of it, or you just need a reminder, here is the recipe. (I wrote and deleted quote marks around the word recipe literally eight times just now.)

Fairy Bread

White bread
Hundreds and thousands sprinkles (rainbow sprinkles)

Cut the crusts from the bread, or not. As you can see from the photos I've rakishly given myself both options. Butter the bread fairly thickly. Carefully tip over the sprinkles. Eat. (Allowing for sprinkle overflow to occur, they can't all get indented into the butter.)

To paraphrase sweet Wesley from Princess Bride, we are people of action, lies do not become us. I cannot lie: this is really, really good. However, I don't want to imply in any way that I invented this, firstly because I didn't - it has been around since long before I was born and will surely outlive us all. And secondly because I'm not sure even my rainbows-and-sugar-loving brain could come up with something so simple and brilliant. I'm also not implying that you have no idea how to make this. It's just - like I said - a reminder. Just not implying anything, okay? Other that "yeah Fairy Bread!"

But what does it even taste like? Beautiful though they may be, hundreds and thousands are more or less flavourless. They're just mildly sugary. The appeal lies partly in eating a staple of the children's birthday party and partly in the delicious unfolding layers of texture - the crunch of cavity-occupying tiny sprinkles embedded in the salty yielding butter, and the bread all thin and airy and soft.

And it's really, divertingly, eye-flirtingly super pretty. Which, if the movies taught me anything, I bitterly concede counts for a lot.

So apart from louchely eating sprinkles on buttered bread, what else have I been trying my hand at?

My cookbook proof arrived. The name is appropriate, its existence is hard evidence to me that I didn't just dream the last year. Right now I'm working deep into the night writing notes on it and making sure everything is as perfect as it can be, with the assistance of the book's photographers and stylist (and my friends!) Kim, Jason and Kate. It was like the montage days of the cookbook photoshoots getting together with them last night to go over this. The old gang! Back for one last job! It's also why this blog post took its sweet time getting to you. Proofing the proof hurts my brain. (PS: the cookbook isn't coming out till later this year. If you read this blog, there is no way you can possibly miss it, because I will be justifiably talking about it a lot.)

I went to Webstock, which is this super-exciting conference held in Wellington every February. I had a brilliant time and left feeling all full of knowledge and inspiration and singularly brilliant catering. There were some specific things that were not cool (which became escalatingly troubling - and is outlined here by my friend Jo who also went) like some eye-rolling events of a dudebro-related nature. But there were also amazing people to meet or catch up with and incredible speakers like Karen McGrane and Adam Greenfield and Kelli Anderson (who gave me a new life goal: successfully pull off a heist.) The organisers do a breathtaking job and I'm now a tiny bit withdrawal-y that it's over.

And, my glasses arrived! As a late-onset glasses wearer, everything that is second nature to Tim, who has had them since way back, is enchantingly novel to me. I'm all, "Hey! My glasses just steamed up when I opened the oven!" "Guess what! I went to push my glasses further up on my nose but they weren't even there!" "I have glasses!" And so on. I...actually nearly cried when I picked them up, I could just see everything so much better and my eyes felt so relaxed. Now, a couple of days in, I'm still getting used to their presence - it's like constantly having a cat sitting on your lap or something, how you can drift in and out of consciousness of its pressure against your body.

I really adore the look of hundreds and thousands sprinkles. I didn't think I could love them more than I did, but they really look good through my glasses. The crispest rainbow ever. It's a small thing, but it's strangely exciting. But I think better than all of that, even better than food looking more beautiful...is how, because I have to use them for reading and computer work, I feel like Homer Simpson putting on his glasses when he does his Serious Business.
title via: A poignant-as comedown from all that food colouring, Joni Mitchell's Both Sides Now.
music lately:

Elastica, Stutter. Too, too cool. Sigh.

Garbage, Only Happy When It Rains. Also too, too cool. Also, missing their Wellington show. All of the sighs.

M.I.A, Bad Girls. Never not obsessed. Never not losing the ability to make proper sentences about cool women making really great music too, apparently.
Next time: I stand by my fairy bread! But I promise a really, really complicated recipe to make up for the laughableness of this one.

15 February 2013

i should tell you: Dear Time's Waste

Well hello there, and welcome to the fourth installment of I Should Tell You, the new-ish blog segment that I'm gradually becoming more comfortable with instead of overexplaining, now that it has been going for a while. Nevertheless, if you're new to these parts: every Friday I ask a cool musician who will answer my emails three short questions about food. Just to see what happens!

This week I talk to Claire Duncan of Dear Time's Waste, whose music I want to describe as Cocteau Twin Peaks - but mostly because I really enjoy slightly forced portmanteaus. In fairness to Claire, I will be a little less self-indulgent and simply say: I love her songs with their push-pull between intensity and lightness, unsettling and swoony. Her videos are stunning as well, all cinematic and shadowy, and you can watch every last one on her site, starting with her latest release, Heavy/High.  You can also find Dear Time's Waste being excellent on Tumblr.

The interview begins...now. Thanks, Claire!

Where's somewhere you've eaten that you kinda like to brag about or drop into conversation? 

I've never had spare cash to eat anywhere particularly flash, but I used to review hotels for a living which involved a fair amount of restaurant-dining and room-service. Eating potato gratin at three am in bed at the Museum Hotel in Wellington while watching Food TV is a personal highlight. Another favourite was banana and tomato pizza on an island in Vanuatu during the local village's night-time celebration of thirty years of independence from Britain. 

What do you fix for yourself, or where do you go to eat, when it's just you on your own?

I almost always cook on my own. I often make spiced lentil/bean/brown rice dishes with heaps of fresh spinach, yoghurt and cucumber...that sort of thing. Otherwise, soups in winter (tomato and capsicum with fresh goat's cheese is a favourite) and salads in summer (chickpeas, onion, whatever kind of vegetable is on hand). I like making unfussy dishes that can be easily amplified to involve extra people. I'm also a sashimi fiend so if I'm lazy/hurried I'll often get Japanese either from Bian (near home) or Haru No Yume in Mt Eden (near work). Or, if I'm in the region, the lemongrass Bun Ga from the Vietnamese place at Ponsonby Foodcourt goes bloody well with a cold beer and there are a lot of solo diners to be communally alone with.

What's one of your favourite food memories from your childhood?

I was obsessed with macaroni cheese; I learnt to make it from the back of the diamond pasta packet when I was about seven years old and practiced it whenever I got the opportunity; it was all the more fun if I had an audience. We started cooking very young with minimal instructions, as a result I would make 'everything stir-fry' which involved chucking whatever was in the fridge in a pan and sizzling the sh*t out of it.

12 February 2013

creature creature, my own double feature

Y'know, I will gently snark about the Baby-sitters Club series in a loving way till my dying breath, but sometimes, in hindsight, they really got it wrong: according to the BSC, wearing glasses = The Worst. They kept brightly exclaiming things like "Mallory's got glasses and braces, but we still like her/she'll look okay one day/she actually managed to get a sort-of boyfriend!" I guess Karen Brewer of the Little Sister spin-off was glasses-proud but I never did like those books - who wants to read about seven year olds when you could read about the (more or less literally) impossible, sophisticated exploits of that most worldly and cool age group, thirteen year olds? What I'm saying is - I found out recently that I need glasses. And, in your face Ann M Martin and inevitable ghostwriters: I'm really happy about it. I'd been getting headaches and tender, weary eyeballs in front of the computer (which, between this blog and work, I'm attached to at the face for 90% of my life.) It never occurred to me that I had anything other than brilliant eyesight. I may have even boasted, nay, crowed about it on occasion. But the bafflingly crisp, clear world around me when I tried on the right lenses and the utter relaxation of my face in the region from my under-eye rings to my eyebrows convinced me that I actually am pretty long-sighted. Also the optician told me so.

So, in ten working days, these will be my new face. Minus the price sticker. And I can't wait! Glasses are cool! Speccy is sexy! Frames get the dames! Lenses get the menses! (oh wait god no I didn't say that one.)

It doesn't always come together: over the last couple of weeks I've been out of the house so much that I've hardly cooked dinner at all. Movies. (Jessica Chastain's magnificent face starring in Zero Dark Thirty). Drinks. Other drinks. Burger rings and snacks and a marathon of the most important cinema franchise of our generation: The Fast and the Furious. Dinners out with friends. Sybaritic weekends. And...bank balance plummeting as a result. It all seemed fairly simple when I got my job - we'd pay off our post-America credit card so soon! We'd get tattoos! We'd put money away for our wedding! Even though we're waiting for marriage equality laws to pass, weddings are expensive enough that we might as well start saving now.) But no. Things kept happening. Moving costs. Furniture. More furniture. Glasses. Spontaneous good times. Some self-enforced laying low is maybe in order. But I do love good times...

I cook pasta more than anything else already, but it's what I turn to with vigour when we're trying to just eat from what's in the cupboard without spending any extraneous pennies. Pasta can handle being simple - just cook it, stir in a few things, and you have a plausible meal, a meal that looks like it took some care, and like someone cares.

That said, these two recipes are so uninvolved and small that they almost don't exist. The sort of thing you can really only cook for yourself, or someone you know well enough that you could defame them with the secrets only you keep about them (as others might say, someone you trust.) It's just, many might be perturbed by how utterly little there is happening on their plate. And so, I worry for your self-esteem. I'm pretty sure these are nay-sayer-deflectingly delicious, but still. I can't guarantee someone won't say "where's the rest of dinner?" or something.

Pasta with Burnt Cream and Basil

A recipe by myself. I made this by cooking the cream in this adorably small, dinky red pot. It boiled over furiously, twice, and made an appalling mess on the stovetop. Use a slightly bigger pot, please. I guess I could just call it Pasta with Cream and Basil, as it's more scalded and boiled than burnt. But I am fanciful, and I fancy that Burnt Cream sounds fancy. 

200g dried spaghetti
250ml (1 cup) cream
A handful of fresh basil leaves

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Once it's bubbling away, tip in the pasta and cook according to packet instructions. Probably 10-12 minutes. In another good-sized saucepan, bring the cream to the boil and allow it to simmer away for a good five to ten minutes. Keep an eye on it and stir often. Cream bubbles up fast. Drain the pasta once it's cooked, pour over the cream and stir it through along with the basil leaves. The sauce will still be very liquid and creamy - as you can see in the photo -  but should have reduced in quantity somewhat. 

Pasta with Tomato, Wine and Butter Sauce

A recipe by myself. Yeah canned tomatoes!

200g dried spaghetti
50g butter
125ml (1/2 cup) leftover white wine - or a little less if that's all you have. 
1 can cherry tomatoes (or chopped canned tomatoes)
A little olive oil

Cook the pasta according to packet instructions in a large pan of boiling salted water. In a medium sized pot, bring the butter and wine to the boil, then tip in the canned tomatoes and their juice. Allow to simmer for another five minutes - it will be pretty liquid - then pour over the cooked, drained pasta and stir carefully. Pour over some olive oil if you fancy the flavour. 

I didn't even intend to blog about the second recipe here, as you can probably tell from the last-minute, near-empty, Final Girl cherry tomato nature of the photos of it. But I was also well aware of the fact that I had nothing to blog about, and in fact that it might not be the worst thing in the world to write a post about my regular fallback of pasta-and-stuff. The burnt cream pasta might sound sinister, but all you're doing is reducing down the cream so that everything incredible about its flavour - that buttery clean richness - is deepened and intensified and more wonderful than ever. I specify leftover white wine in the tomato pasta recipe because that's what I used - should you find an inch of wine leftover after a party don't throw it out! Wine seems to add insta-mystique to a meal, giving a elusive elegance and layering of flavour to whatever you add it to. In this case it cuts through the butter, points up the acidic nature of the tomatoes, and is just generally delicious.

Another drawn-on page in the ever-growing flip book that is our new flat: we finally hung up all our posters and prints. I love it.

Speaking of that which I love, I was interviewed recently by Fairfax Media, and it was published in several regional newspapers. If you like, you can read it here (right click on the image, open in new tab, zoom in). I just love being interviewed. More, if you please, world!

Title via: The White Stripes, White Moon from their album Get Behind Me Satan. This song is beauteous enough as is, but as the closing scene to their documentary Under Great White Northern Lights? Devastasting. So much so that I'm going to dramatically not even link to it because it makes me so stupidly emotional. (It's really easy to find on YouTube though.) 
Music lately:

Mary J Blige, Family Affair. Forgot how much I love this song. The beat and melody is kinda addictive to the ear, the lyrics are sternly positive, and the dance routine in the video is awesomely unhinged. And it has the word "hateration" in it.

Willemijn Verkaik is going to be the first person to play Wicked's Elphaba in three different languages (German, Dutch, English) when she takes to Broadway this month. So very envious of people getting to see her, she's unbelievable. I mean, you have to be fairly amazing to play the throat-challenging belt-fest that is Elphaba, but she's one of my favourites. Here she is simply rehearsing No Good Deed (for the Stuttgart production, so in German) but being heart-stoppingly incredible.
Next time: Another installment of my I Should Tell You interviews, with Dear Time's Waste. Lucky me! Lucky you! 

8 February 2013

i should tell you: flip grater

Welcome to the third installment of I Should Tell You, the still new-ish segment of my blog where I briefly interview musicians who are both really cool and also reply to my earnest emails, about food. This week it's supercool Flip Grater, who I discovered years ago while reading an article where she talked about how she was collecting recipes while on tour and I thought: I'm going to like this lady. I own and love her Cookbook Tour cookbook but I'm not sure you can buy it around anymore - luckily there is a second one, The Cookbook Tour: Europe. And of course, her music: I recommend the lovely and cautionary Careful from her album While I'm Awake I'm At War, and This Road Leads Home from her debut, Cage For A Song.

(Flip Grater's latest album While I'm Awake I'm At War, released on her own label Maiden Records)

And, say what? Flip's on tour right now around New Zealand. Yay for us.

Feb 8th - Chicks, Dunedin
Feb 10th - Federal Diner, Wanaka
Feb 14th - The Old Library, Whangarei
Feb 15th - Sawmill, Leigh
Feb 16th - The Whiskey, Auckland

Thanks Flip Grater! The interview starts...now. (PS if you read the very first interview I did with Anna Coddington, there may be some, um, parallels between their answers to question one. Spoiler alert?)

Where's somewhere you've eaten that you kinda like to brag about or drop into conversation? 

This is more embarrassing than impressive but I love to tell this story to see people's faces. I was entertaining a certain vegetarian Kiwi singer-songwriter in Paris (who is far too horrified by this story to be named) and suggested we go to Alain Passard's L'Arpege on the left bank. It's a 3-star restaurant famous for its treatment of vegetables. Most famous places will cost around 100-150 Euros for a degustation, which is a heap of money but we wanted to splash out so we each took 150 Euros out of our fairly empty credit cards, dressed up and wandered down to the basement restaurant. The service was amazing. The food very, very good (although I wouldn't say it was mind-blowing) and the final bill: almost 700 Euros! We both looked at each other silently contemplating running out but instead tearfully pulled out our credit cards and spent the rest of the week in shock and trying to figure out how I would pay my rent that month.

What do you fix for yourself, or where do you go to eat, when it's just you on your own?

I'm a little obsessed with soups. I could (and do sometimes) eat soup for every meal. Especially happy noodles. Good Asian food is hard to find in Paris - especially vegetarian Asian, so when I discovered a great noodle soup joint called Happy Nouilles I started referring to all noodle soup dishes as 'happy noodles.' It takes me 5 minutes to make a bowl. I use flat rice noodles and make a super sour, super spicy broth with plenty of greens and herbs. If I need some extra happy I add homemade shiitake gyoza.

What's one of your favourite food memories from your childhood?

Baked bean pizza with a layer of cheese you could peel off.

5 February 2013

cause i bake the cake, then take the cake

Show me a candle and I'll try and burn both ends of it. In case that phrase and concept is not familiar to you, I feel I should explain that it is not because I'm of a generation that has only grown up with artificial light and therefore is all "what is this waxy tube and how's it going to help me? Me, of the me-generation?" No, what I mean is that I'll stay up late but also get up very early in order to do what I need to do. It helps that I'm somehow both a night owl and a morning person. At Tim's and my old flat of three and half years - which we adored, by the way - this would mean sitting bolt upright in bed when my alarm went off, and slowly becoming slouchier as I typed away on my laptop in bed. No lights but that from the laptop itself and the slowly rising sun.

But here, in our new house, where it's just us, I can quietly pad out of bed (inevitably locating the one piece of bubble wrap in the house by standing on it, which happened yesterday) fold myself up on one of our couches in a straight-backed manner, turn on the kitchen light, maybe even make myself a cup of tea. This morning there's delicious rain on the roof. I can't curb my candle-burning tendencies, but it sure is a lot nicer to do it here. Possibly a literal candle would be nice touch, even. My mum did in fact get me an oil burner as a housewarming gift (with two scented oils, "wellbeing" and "I'm worried about you get some sleep already" if I remember rightly) so it's not out of the question. Strangely enough receiving that gift took me back to my attempted spell-casting youth. Where for a long time my favourite activity was hanging out at the 100-199 nonfiction section of the library, getting out particular books, and then lighting specifically coloured candles to heat patchouli and ylang ylang oil in the hopes that it would make something happen. (Patchouli and ylang ylang were the only two oils I could afford as an unemployed twelve year old, so basically everything I tried had to use them. As a result, all that really did happen was I was going around smelling like curtains from the seventies that had been stored in a camphor chest.)

Things keep happening to make this still-new place even more of a home. This week, our our new table - well, it's new to us, but apparently very well loved by the family we bought it off, shadows of whom remain in the grain of the wood. A water stain here, a gouged-out dent from a truculent miscreant there, some glitter embedded in the varnish over in one corner, (which feels like a good sign). All these are things that might've happened with me around anyway, so, much as a brand new table would be delightful, it's nice to have this lived-in one, and to not feel like I have to be nervous around it. Indeed, there's enough I'm too nervous about already.  


A table like this needs a cake on it, I said, being the logical pragmatist that I am. In my mind. In my defense, Tim and four others were playing the boardgame of Game of Thrones on Sunday, and since that game chews through your energy at a surprising rate for a large piece of cardboard with several small plastic game tokens - at one point someone expressed their sincere wish for nerve-calming sedatives because the game was too much of a rollercoaster ride of thrills - providing some sustenance made sense. When it comes to Game of Thrones I'm simply a Watcher (the capital W makes it seem more sinister!) though I have also started reading them as well - much as I'm not sure I love the books, damned if I can put them down once I pick them up. The board game...not my thing. Maybe not enough Khaleesi being all amazing with dragons? On a screen? Who knows, but I'm happy to have a rock-solid cake-excuse (of course, there's always the most rock-solid reason of all: I want cake.)

It's high summer so plums are around in abundance and really cheap. If you're somehow sick of just sitting there eating them while their sticky juice runs down your face in determined rivulets, this chocolate plum cake with sour cream icing is a good diversion - pretty exciting, but also calmingly straightforward to make. There is so little to it that you can have it in and out of the oven and ready to eat - if you leave it uniced - in about forty minutes. The sour cream icing was just something that I thought might be fun. It's not quite the fluffy creation I envisaged but more of an alarmingly fast-moving icing that helpfully drips over the side of the cooled cake for you - still very, very delicious though.

Chocolate Plum Cake with Sour Cream Icing

I adapted the cake itself from this delightfully simple recipe I found. Otherwise: a recipe by me.

If you leave the icing off, this cake is dairy-free. If you ice it...with sour cream icing...it's really not.

1/2 cup (125 ml) plain oil like rice bran or sunflower
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
3 ripe plums
4 tablespoons cocoa
1 cup flour

1 1/2 cups icing sugar
2 tablespoons sour cream (maybe a little more)

Set your oven to 160 C/320 F. Line the base of a 20cm springform caketin with baking paper. 

Mix together the oil, sugar, and eggs till quite thick. Dice the flesh of the plums into 1 or 2cm cubes (just guess) and stir them in. Finally, fold in the cocoa and flour, scrape it into the caketin and bake for 40 minutes (though check at 30 minutes - your oven may be gruntier than mine.) 

Serve now, or allow to cool completely and then ice. To make the icing, sift the icing sugar into a bowl - or it will be obstinately lumpy - then slowly stir in enough sour cream, two tablespoons should do, to make a thick yet quite runny icing. Tip most of it over the cooled cake, letting it run over the edges. Decorate with finely sliced dark chocolate if you're a food blogger who worries that your drippy cake will look weird in photos but also thinks that the extra chocolate will taste nice. 

The juicy tartness of the plums with the dark backdrop of damp chocolate cake is really something in itself, but it's made all the more lush by a blanket of sticky sour cream icing (seriously, look at that photo. This icing is going wherever gravity will take it.) Sour cream has enough buttery thickness and tang (so nearly wrote titular tang but that felt wrong, even for me) to see off the icing sugar's aggressive sweetness, but to also complement the intensity of the plums and chocolate. It's even better the next day, when the icing has had time to settle in and the cake absorbs some of the plum juice. You could make this with any stone fruit really, but rich plums and earthy cocoa together are specifically wondrous. 

Speaking of things that go well on our new table, and because I have exactly one minute to get ready for work and can't think of another way to wrap this up: we finally, after living in Wellington since January 2006, spatula-d together enough Fly Buys points to cash them in on something. That something was a waffle iron. WORTH IT.
Title via: Ummm, because I don't swear on this blog I can't actually repeat the title of the song that I'm quoting. But I can tell you it's by Wu-Tang Clan and it's reeeeeeally good. 
Music lately:

Franz Ferdinand, Eleanor Put Your Boots On. Never stopped loving them.

Blind Willie McTell, Come Around To My House Mama. A song of face-fanningly casual sauciness, considering McTell recorded it in 1929. (I know they had bawdy songs and stuff back then, but still: it's so casual!) 
Next time: Probably another I Should Tell You interview. Good times!

1 February 2013

i should tell you: Tourettes

Well hello there. This is the next installment of I Should Tell You, my new weekly-ish segment where I interview musicians (criteria: I like them and they respond to my earnest emailing) about food. Now that it's in its second week it feels like it's a real thing, not just an awkwardly brief one-off idea. Imagine how insufferable I'll be by week three. If you're still all "help, what?" I explained some more about this caper last week.

Tourettes is a rapper whose compelling music and poetry and writing I've been a huge fan of since I discovered it all in 2009, via a website which I won't name on here since I tend to keep this thing swearword-free, out of a vague sense that I'll get in trouble with someone if I don't. Anyway: a fun mix of alluring and uncomfortable, caustic yet sweet (like a grapefruit?), you can find more of his words of all kinds at filthyandbeautiful.net. For new people, I recommend Out Of Water from his album Who Says You Can't Dance To Misery (coincidentally, featuring last week's interviewee, Anna Coddington. Doesn't that just put the "gee!" in synergy.) He also sent me some photos which is really cool. So here he is and here's some food he fixed up.

Thanks Tourettes! The interview begins...now:

Where's somewhere you've eaten that you kinda like to brag about or drop into conversation?
when i was in cambodia my friend took me out to diner with his cousin who's father is high up in the military. the restaurant was at the top story of this 80’s looking sky scraper. on the way in there was a sign at the door that said no machine guns, no drugs , no body guards. even though the restaurant was on the 30th floor you could open he windows. this made me quite nervous. because of Cambodia's lax laws on prescription medicine i couldn’t tell you what our meal was like but if the rest of the food i ate over there was anything to go by, probably not so flash.

What do you fix for yourself, or where do you go to eat, when it's just you on your own?
I wish i could say it was something exciting but usually its just sandwiches. when I’m cooking for a living the last thing i want to do is cook some more, and when im not im too poor to aford anything else. I do make good sandwiches though. the trick is two sauces. but never three.

What's one of your favourite food memories from your childhood? My dad used to make deep fried chicken wings. they were really good. although sometimes they were quite pink inside but he’d always insist this was fine. i now know this isn’t true.