Saturday, 7 December 2013

See you soon!

The Parmesan Poet is busy finishing the first draft of her doctoral thesis and isn't cooking much right now. Check back later for more delicious literary treats!

Sunday, 27 October 2013

For Helen Fielding (1958 - ),

“Well done Bridge, four hours of careful cooking and a feast of blue soup, omelette and marmalade."
  - Bridget Jones’s Diary


Teaching Bridget Jones’s Diary to a class of second-year English students is one of the most fun things I’ve ever done.

Reason 1: most of them had read the book before coming to class. That almost never happens. All hail the power of pop fiction.

Reason 2: the class divided neatly into three groups. Half of the female readers loved the book – they thought it represented their lives perfectly and captured their anxieties in great comedic fashion. The other half of the female readers thought that it was where feminism went to die, and wanted to smack Bridget in her shallow, man-trailing, diet-obsessed face. And almost every male reader had no idea what they’d just read.

This particular three-group divide led to some of the more entertaining debates I’ve ever seen in an English class. Example:
Student #1: “Bridget Jones is my hero! She doesn’t hide who she is, she’s totally real, she’s me!”
Student #2: “Then I want to slap you with a Germaine Greer book as much as I do her.”
Student #3: “What’s a calorie? Why does she act crazy? Do women really think like that?”
Student #2: “ABSOLUTELY NOT!”
Student #1: “TOTALLY!”
Tutor: [Sits back, enjoys the show.]

I tend to agree with the exasperated feminist reading myself, though if you convince yourself that Bridget is a critique of what society and the media encourage women to turn into (might be reaching there) then it can be quite a fun read in places.

At any rate, I’m proud to be a million miles from Bridget Jones, in attitudes to men, body image, money management, and cooking. For her, serving dinner to friends involves a series of semi-drunken misadventures and blue-souped disasters. For me, serving dinner to friends involves picking friends who won’t judge me if I fail miserably, and then just cooking something that seems tasty. 

Actually there's a bit more to it than that. If I'm being totally honest, I usually cook the day or two before a dinner party so that I have time to fix any disasters. Which is why tarts (as in pies, not using derogatory terms for Bridget here) are quite handy. They keep easily, and can be served at any temperature you want. When I have friends come over in a couple of days, my tart will still taste as good as fresh.

For this tart, I’m adapting Bridget’s orange-themed dessert – but instead of despairing when the fancy Grand Marnier oranges taste like marmalade, I’m going to embrace marmalade as a star ingredient. The result is essentially a bakewell tart, but instead of the full English berry jam effect, I’m going for a more Mediterranean orange-and-almond, nostril-filling headiness. 

So the dessert is an adaptation of Bridget's, but I'm going to be totally faithful to the rest of her menu. Dear friends: come over for blue soup and omelettes!

Friends? Hello? 


Orange-Scented Almond Tart

Ingredients

Tart shell:
200g flour
50g cornflour
150g cold butter, in small cubes
50g sugar
2 egg yolks
4tbsp ice water

Tart filling:
3/4C marmalade
100g butter, softened
2 egg whites
100g sugar
100g ground almonds
2tbsp Cointreau (or other orangey liquer)
2 drops orange oil
150g (approx) flaked almonds
1/3C honey

Method

Tart shell:
In a food processor, pulse the flour, cornflour, cold butter, and sugar until it’s fine and crumb-like. Add the egg yolks and pulse a few more times. Add the ice water, tablespoon by tablespoon, and keep pulsing until the mixture all of a sudden forms a giant ball of dough. (It will happen, you just have to be patient.) Transfer the dough to a floured board and knead a couple of times, then form it into a flat patty and wrap it in cling film. Refrigerate for 30 minutes. Once the dough is cold, roll it out and press it into a 30cm fluted tart pan. Refrigerate the pan for another 30 minutes and preheat the oven to 150C (fan-forced.) Line the pan with baking paper and fill with ceramic beans. Bake for 25 minutes; then remove the paper and beans and bake for another 10.

Tart filling:
Increase the oven temperature to 160C (fan-forced.) Spread the baked tart shell with half of the marmalade. Beat together the butter, egg whites, sugar, ground almonds, Cointreau, and orange oil. Pour the mixture over the marmalade. Sprinkle over the flaked almonds and bake for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, mix together the remaining marmalade and honey. Drizzle the mixture over the tart and bake for another 10 minutes.

Serve the tart warm with vanilla whipped cream / ice cream, or cold with Greek yoghurt. A dusting of icing sugar is no bad thing either.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

For Ray Bradbury (1920 - 2012),



“He stood for a few moments, looking about. Behind him the rain whirled at the door. Ahead of him on a low table, stood a silver pot of hot chocolate, steaming, and a cup, full, with a marshmallow in it. And beside that, on another tray, stood thick sandwiches of rich chicken meat and fresh cut tomatoes and green onions.”
-  The Long Rain


The characters in The Long Rain are stuck on the planet Venus in a ceaseless, driving rain. There are supposedly Sun Domes on the planet which will offer respite from the rain, but they are impossible to get into.

Aucklanders are uniquely qualified to understand Bradbury's short story. As we emerge from yet another drizzly winter, we anticipate the moments of spring sunshine that might poke out from between the rain clouds – but somehow they never seem to arrive. Does that make us quasi-residents of the planet Venus? The rest of New Zealand might see some merit in that theory.

The other group uniquely qualified to relate to endless downpours is academics. Perhaps I'm only saying this because it's late October, and the semester is ending, and an unstoppable deluge of assignments and exam scripts are flooding in. But the sunny domes of research time are harder and harder to break into, and the fat droplets of student writing are hitting me in the face. 

What will become of those of us who fit into the double-category of Aucklander and academic? I anticipate drowning. (Though the liquid of choice for academics at the end of the semester is wine, so it might be OK.) I also anticipate having no time to do anything more complex in the kitchen than slap ingredients onto other ingredients. Which is why I can totally relate to the desire of Bradbury's characters to find something simple and warming so that at least the inside of their bodies are a bit warmer than the outside.

I’ve already settled on the perfect hot chocolate, but the perfect chicken sandwich is something I’ve been labouring over for many a delicious lunchtime. The essentials are: 1) ultra-fresh bread; 2) hot chicken, straight from the oven (or rotisserie bag); 3) some kind of toasted seed or nut; and 4) double spreads – one for each half of the bread.

This particular sandwich uses drumstick meat, baby spinach, fresh tomatoes, hummus, guacamole, and toasted sunflower seeds on a warm baguette. I've had similar success with breast meat, salads, aioli, sundried tomato spread, and toasted pinenuts. It's a permissive formula. 

It's also about as much cooking as I want to do in late October. You hear me, fellow academics? I'm already planning my next meal. Let me hear ya say taaaaake-ouuuut!


Restorative Chicken Baguette

Makes 2 hefty-sized sandwiches

Ingredients

1 baguette (I used a soft Italian-style one)
4 chicken drumsticks, roasted or rotisserie
1/2C guacamole (this is my favourite quick recipe)
1/2C hummus
1C baby spinach leaves
2 tomatoes, sliced
2 tbsp sunflower seeds

Method

With the oven at around 180C, warm the bread and toast the sunflower seeds together for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, strip the meat off the drumsticks and set aside. 
To assemble the sandwiches, cut the baguette into halves and split each half. Spread a thick layer of hummus on one side of the bread, and an equally thick layer of guacamole on the other. Stuff in the spinach, tomato and chicken meat, and sprinkle over the sunflower seeds.

Eat over a plate or a napkin - these are messy!

Friday, 11 October 2013

For Helen Barolini (1925 - ),

"It had become his special task to make the ricotta, and he had a big copper kettle, jealously excluded from any other use and kept meticulously shining and clean, which he used on the wood-burning stove in the kitchen. It was like his time as a shepherd in the mountains. On days when the milk was delivered in huge quantities he'd start the fire and have the children keep it continuously fed. Then he'd stir, stir the huge amount of milk in the copper kettle with a beautiful constant rhythm that he had to keep just so, he said, so that the ricotta would come smooth and sweet."
     -- Umbertina


There are no morning people in my household.

My partner and I are usually braindead until I've had my coffee and he his tea, which brings about a dilemma. One of us needs to gather the wherewithal to slump over a boiling kettle while the other dozes uselessly.

On weekdays, when he has to catch an early bus to work, it's him. But on weekends, when his alarm is silent, I have no chance of having my coffee brought to me. His weekend dopiness is so bad that he has been given the nickname 'Sleepy Meerkat' because... well, this happens:


So I have to drag myself out of bed, stumble to the kitchen, and get our reviving drinks underway. The upside of being the early riser is that I get to observe the extended weekend version of SM's hysterically incompetent six-phase waking routine. It goes something like this:


Phase
Description
Treatment
One: Incoherent mumbling
No words are formed, no movement possible. Potential awakeness indicated only by general groaning.
Administer tea.
Two: Dream transitioning
Wildly surreal mumblings about contents of dreams, usually involving anthropomorphised animals, e.g. machete-wielding monkeys in ballgowns.
Remind SM to drink tea.
Three: Dopiness
Waking up now; slight smile, utterances limited to “goo mahnin.”
Reply “good morning,” do not get too close due to risk of paranoia.
Four: Paranoia
World is frightening and unfamiliar; tendency to be startled by curtains, pillows, etc.
Reassure SM that curtains are, in fact, curtains, and not machete-wielding monkeys in ballgowns.
Five: Narrating
Limbs are counted; actions recognised. E.g. “I’m waking up. My leg is over there. It’s bent a bit. There’s an arm in my mouth,” etc. Lasts up to half an hour.
Administer second tea, if in a hurry to progress the phases. If not, induce amusing metanarration by stating: “You’re narrating,” prompting chorus of “I’m narrating. I’m saying what I’m doing,” etc.
Six: Nodding
General agreement with principles of awakeness, manifested in excessive silent head-nodding.
Weekdays: “You’re late for your bus.” Weekends: balance third mug of tea on head; take photos.


On weekdays, with the incentive of needing to get to work, all six phases can rush past within an hour. Sometimes, though, especially on weekends, some form of food is needed to boost SM's blood sugar and get him through the phases. (I have wondered what would happen if, one Sunday, I withheld tea and breakfast. He might just nod all day. He might nod forever, like those people who get the hiccups for forty years. I shouldn't experiment on someone I love. I shouldn't...)

So this morning, I was in the mood for pancakes, and whipped some up from my favourite morning-proof recipe.


But they needed something extra. Some sort of added protein, to help SM remain nod-free throughout the morning. And since I'm still in an Italian mood, that something was bound to be ricotta. I love the thought of eating something long-stirred and drained, even though my ricotta was probably made in a sterile facility by people wearing hairnets, and not by someone's copper kettle-toting Italian papa like in Helen Barolini's novel. Still, even flaccid non-Italian supermarket ricotta can be perked up, with a few additions.

Honey makes everything better. Except maybe ant infestations.
My additions of choice for this recipe are honey, toasted almonds, and a good whipping in a blender cup. Whipped ricotta uses a thinning agent (usually milk) and a lot of aeration to make the ricotta luxurious and creamy. You can dollop the finished product on just about anything - I'd take a spoonful with figs on scones as an Italian take on Devonshire tea. 

But today this whipped ricotta was gorgeous with the season's first strawberries layered between warm pancakes into a huge stack, and drizzled with maple syrup. Actually, I would have happily stopped at "the season's first strawberries," but SM needed more wake-up nourishment than that.

Don't worry, I'll eat more of your friends later.  

I know what you're wondering. Did it work? Did SM take one bite of the magic ricotta-layered pancakes and bolt upright, speaking his gratitude in full, cogent sentences? No. He roused enough to polish off the plate and drudge reluctantly out of bed. But a few moments ago, as I uploaded a photo of his breakfast to this very post, he said: "Oh that looks good, when did you make that?" 

3 hours ago, you adorable dolt.
I would consider this a food fail, but even if he didn't recognise his own breakfast, I enjoyed mine immensely. 

Plus there's some whipped ricotta leftover, which I plan to eat for breakfast tomorrow on thick slabs of french toast with an extra drizzle of honey. Perhaps I should add some pop rocks to SM's plate tomorrow. But I shouldn't experiment on people I love. I shouldn't...


Honey-Almond Whipped Ricotta

Makes just over a cup

Ingredients
70g sliced almonds
200g ricotta
4 tbsp milk
2 tsp honey (I used a wild thyme variety)

Method

Toast the almonds in a dry pan until lightly browned and fragrant. Load the almonds into a blender and grind down to as fine a powder as you can get. Add the ricotta, milk and honey, and blend until smooth and creamy. 

Serve with pretty much anything baked, or with fresh fruit, or both.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

For George Miller (Rome edition!),

"The trouble with eating Italian food is that five or six days later, you're hungry again."

- George Miller, comedian, 1941 - 2003

Welcome to this very special travel post! The Parmesan Poet has been in Italy recently, on a rare and wonderful paid business trip that involved more pleasure than business. It feels rather privileged and grown up to go on a business trip at all, let alone one to Rome, but I'm going to shut my mouth lest someone at the university realise that they sent the wrong person.

So: what does a foodie do as she gears up for five free days in Rome? Other than squeal with glee and annoy a lot of flight attendants?

First, she downloads the brilliant "Eat Rome" app by food writer Elizabeth Minchilli, and scopes out the top places to eat around the city. And the top priority when determining the top places to eat? Gelato, of course. There's no shortage of gelateria in Rome - there's one on every street, at least. But they can be hit & miss, and coming from the land of Giapo, I demand perfection in my frozen treats. The best place I found was Gelateria del Teatro. They experiment with their flavours, and often combine herbs and fruit in interesting ways. Highlights were the raspberry & sage, peach & lavender, and rosemary, honey & lemon. (I have, of course, rushed home and recreated their flavours as best I can.)

Flavours in centre shot: fig, Sicilian pistachio, chocolate-orange.
As a bonus, Gelateria del Teatro is off the beaten track and has a picturesque alleyway in which to eat. You can also watch them making the gelato through a window wall, decorated with the fruits of their trade.

Second, our travelling foodie researches the local farmer's markets.

Bouquets of chillies are better than roses.
I'm obsessed with markets at home, so why not take the fixation abroad? It seems like a lot of Roman markets are heading indoors lately, which spoils the atmosphere somewhat. But the market at Campo de' Fiori is still held in the glorious Italian sunshine, and it was the highlight of the whole trip.


Available at the Campo de' Fiori market: piles of spices, fruit and flowers.
The market is a curious mix of locals and tourists, buying everything from basics to extravagant luxuries, from tomatoes to liquor in mini barrels (not an exaggeration: you can sample limoncello on tap, which I did, at ten in the morning.)

Chillies and tomatoes, sundried and fresh. All the makings of a delicious pasta sauce.

Campo de' Fiori is also a great place to pick up a casual snack. I bought a punnet each of purple figs and blackberries to eat in the sunshine. You can also buy fresh squeezed pomegranate juice, which is everything that a New Zealand winter is not.


Yes please!
But Campo de' Fiori is not the only market in Rome, which means it's not the only place for me to go on a photo spree while my long-suffering travel buddy holds my bag. Oh, no: the market at Testaccio is also full of delicious things to see and taste. It's not as photogenic, but it's one of several suburban markets where locals buy their daily bread.

Coffee, herbs, vegetables, and seafood on display at the Testaccio market.
The market at Circo Massimo (otherwise known as the original chariot racing track) hits a nice balance between tourist-friendly and local. You can buy everything from chillies on the tree, to soaked meat sandwiches, to big, meaty mushrooms the size of your head. And all a stone's throw from the Colosseum.

Chillies, herbs, and pulses at Circo Massimo.
Once the best gelato is found and the best markets explored, it's time for a hearty sit-down dinner. Elizabeth Minchilli's recommendation sent me to Porto Fluviale, a newish restaurant in the suddenly-hip Testaccio district. At Porto, they play on the traditions of Roman cuisine by acting as a pizzeria, a trattoria (dime-a-dozen neighbourhood joint), a cocktail lounge, and a dessert place all in one. Except it's not quite all-in-one, since where you sit determines the kind of menu you'll have. I hit up the trattoria and had incredibly tender moscardini (baby octopus) and delicate crespelle (crepes). Apologies for the cellphone pictures - I was too busy enjoying the food to focus on photography.

Clockwise from top left: moscardini, wine by the carafe, insalata di gallina (chicken salad), crespelle (crepes with asparagus).
The great thing about modern Roman dining is that you can often order half portions of mains or tapas portions of starters, meaning you can assemble your own menu with lots of small plates. You can also order local wine, purchased by the restaurant in bulk, and served by the carafe. I ordered a huge meal for two, with eight different dishes and a half litre of wine, for only forty euros. It's a great system.

You know what else is a great system? Restaurants on the beach! Yes, this is no new concept to an Aucklander. The City of Sails is also the City of Beachside Restaurants, so I'm not unaccustomed to eating with an ocean view. But there was something about the dining at Sperlonga, a coastal town between Rome and Naples, that took it to the next level.

Caprese salad; the beach at Sperlonga; fettucine ai frutti di mare.
The caprese salad came with the most flavourful tomatoes I've ever eaten, and a mozzarella ball that would require its own mortgage back home. And the fettucine ai frutti di mare (seafood pasta) came with heaping piles of mussels and razor clams - a shellfish so exotic to me that I'd only heard of it through a colleague's research in the biological sciences department.

So: is Rome a foodie paradise? Actually, I wouldn't say so. These are the highlights, of course. And you can eat some amazing food in Rome. But 85% of my meals there were stock-standard pizza and pasta. There is zero diversity when it comes to restaurants in the central part of Rome. They are all trattoria or pizzeria, and they all have the same menu. Rome doesn't seem to have the culinary identity of, say, Naples or Florence. Food from other areas or other countries is very hard to find, and the Roman menu gets extremely samey. Honestly, my Anglicised palate would take a Nigella Lawson Italian dish over a Roman Italian dish any day.

That being said, if you do your homework, you can find the odd place that tries something different. If you're planning a trip to Rome, I'd recommend reading up on interesting restaurants (the Eat Rome app was a godsend for me) and staying somewhere that has a kitchen, if you can. You'll want to cook up a storm after visiting the markets. If you're planning to hit the tourist spots, either take a picnic, or prepare for some average pasta.

Oh, and after a hard day of touristing, you must sit down with the fashionable hordes of local professionals for a five o'clock Campari & soda. After all, when in Rome...