Sunday, 20 May 2012

Dear Katherine Mansfield (1888 - 1923),

You are one of New Zealand's prime exports.

We have a way of idolising anyone or anything famous that spent any time here Cases in point:

Russell Crowe: hooligan / actor, born here, moved to Australia when he was four, became famous for pouting violently on-camera and behaving violently off-camera, claimed as a Kiwi.

Pavlova: semi-palatable meringue dessert, not really a big deal, except that we argue with Australia as to who 'invented' it. Apparently Kiwi.

Kiwifruit: Chinese in origin. Eat too many and your lips will dissolve into pools of acid-soaked sores. Very, very tenuously Kiwi - so of course, we name ourselves after it.

Kath, you belong on this list because, despite not having been particularly fond of NZ at times, you were raised here and became famous. Therefore, you are KIWI, capital letters, ours and ours alone. The fact that you lived and worked in England, and died in France, are mere details. You were successful, therefore we cling.

Kiwi kids are usually forced to read your stories in school. This is awkward, because your stories are generally about social mores and dinner parties, and Kiwi kids, stereotypically covered in mud and Weet-Bix crumbs, are not too concerned about the proper ratio of cream to puff. I remember my Year 10 English class, huddled over our copies of "Bliss and Other Stories," reading of a society lady who had bought grapes for a dinner party because they matched her carpet, when we heard a "baaaaaaa" from outside the window. The sheep had gotten out! Now I realise that this possibly sounds like a hyperbolic recollection of a New Zealand childhood, but I'm being quite literal. Our school bordered a farm, and the gates were shoddy. So hearing a bleating noise in the middle of English class was not uncommon, and it was usually followed by a raucous half-hour of wading around on the rugby field, shouting "come on, Baaarbra!" or "go on home, Stewie."

Here's how we done did our learnin'
What was left on our desks was far removed from our reality. Because Katherine, you didn't write about the typical Kiwi existence. While we were out chasing mutton, your stories told us of social etiquette in the age of modernity and sexual liberation. Your characters mulled over chic bowls and scarves, had affairs, and exclaimed things like "wasn't that too absolutely creamy" after telling a joke. In other words, Kath, if you wrote today, your stories would be the 1%, and the literary 99% (presumably led by Kerouac, Frank McCourt & Raymond Carver) would rise up against you.*

But for our purposes here, you are quite useful. Because inevitably, in the course of writing about the upper classes and their elegant party lifestyles, you wrote about food.  In "Bliss," for instance, there is an inside / outside quality to fruit. There is a bowl of fruit inside, for a dinner party:

          There were tangerines and apples stained with strawberry pink. Some yellow pears, smooth as silk, some white grapes 
          covered with a silver bloom and a big cluster of purple ones.

And there is a pear tree outside:

          At the far end, against the wall, there was a tall, slender pear tree in fullest, richest bloom; it stood perfect, as though 
          becalmed against the jade-green sky. Bertha couldn't help feeling, even from this distance, that it had not a single bud or a 
          faded petal.

All the fruit is perfect, unblemished, manicured. Except that, as the party progresses, the fruit in the bowl gets eaten - notably by a woman who turns out to be rather overfamiliar with Bertha's husband. But as Bertha's family life is shown to be full of blemishes, the pear tree is still there, "as lovely as ever and as full of flower and as still." Its perfection mocks the shallow pleasantries of Bertha's home life.

Now Kath, it's hard to feel particularly sympathetic for Bertha, because she is a style-over-substance character. However let's assume she is hurt by her husband's affair, on some deep and genuine level. I don't mean to question your authorial choices - leaving Bertha hanging on the mocking, perfect pear tree was a fine ending to the story. However as a culinary continuation, let's take that mocking pear tree DOWN. Let's strip it, and turn its fruit into something... well, fruitful. Because when life gives you mocking pears, Ms. Mansfield, there's nothing left to do but make pies.


Serves 4


4 pears
4 tbsp brown sugar
2 tsp cinnamon
1 C plain flour
2 tbsp flour, extra
1/2 C cornflour
100g butter
2 tbsp white sugar
1 egg
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
Greek yoghurt and honey, to serve


Preheat the oven to 180C.

Cut the tops off the pears. Using a melon baller, scoop out the fleshy insides (but leave about 5mm of flesh on the skin to ensure structural integrity). Try to get the seeds out in one scoop, and discard. Place the rest of your pear scoops in a bowl, and sprinkle over the brown sugar, cinnamon, and 2 tbsp flour. Mix well and use this mixture to refill the hollowed-out pears.

Place the cup of flour, cornflour, butter, white sugar, egg, baking powder, and salt in a food processor, and blend. This is the fun part: for a minute or two, the mixture will go through phases of looking floury, then breadcrumby, then buttery. Then all of a sudden, WHOMP! It will coalesce into a golden ball of pie dough. Magic! Turn off the food processor and extract the dough. Divide it into four, then split each quarter into six mini balls. Shape each ball into a strip, like a bookmark. For each pear, form six strips into a woven square (three by three, laying the strips over / under each other). Form each woven square over the top of a filled pear to form a pie.

Arrange the pies in a baking dish and bake for 40 minutes, or until the tops are browned and the pears are tender. If your crusts are browning too fast, you can cover the dish with foil to calm them down.

Once baked, serve with Greek yoghurt and honey.

*But to be fair, your stories showed an understanding of the class structures your characters lived within, and you made a theme of them at times.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Dear Gunter Grass (1927 - ),

You have been in the news lately.

One of the reasons I am proud to study authors is because they often act as the conscience of their states. This, you have done. Last month you released a poem in protest of the German provision of a submarine to Israel, which could one day carry nuclear warheads. You wrote the poem despite the fact that, as a former German soldier in World War II, the charge of anti-Semitism was almost inevitable. But your issue was not with Israel in particular; it was with nuclear escalation in general. And your poem succeeded not only in stimulating debate on that issue, but also in drawing attention to poetry as a form of political discourse. My grandfather was a poet in that vein, so I appreciate the effort.

But this entry is not about your poem. This is a food blog, after all, and I imagine the food on submarines is nothing special. (Unless it's a yellow submarine, in which case I'd avoid the brownies.)

This entry references grass in more ways than one.
No, this entry is about The Tin Drum (1959) and its tasty tubers. I am a sucker for any novel which opens with a woman squatting over a fire, cooking and wearing too many skirts. In this case, the main character Oskar begins his story by recounting that of his grandmother. She is captivating to me largely because she has a very efficient laundry system, whereby she always wears four of her five skirts, in order of decreasing filthiness (while washing the fifth). Apart from the fact that she washes them, this is very similar to my pajama system.  She also meets the future father of her child when he is a fugitive, hiding from the authorities by resting under her skirts. (I don't relate to that bit so much.)

Problem is, he interrupts her potato-eating. Now here is my theory: I think potatoes are universal. You, Mr. Grass, are German, born in Poland. I am a Pakeha New Zealander, of Irish origins, but with a French name and Maori / Kiwi / American education. And Oskar's grandmother lives in Danzig. It doesn't matter where we come from, or what kind of food we have access to. We all love potatoes.

So when Oskar's grandfather interrupts Oskar's grandmother's potato-eating, it doesn't put me on his side. Especially because her experience, pre-skirt hiding, was this:

        She coaxed the first cooked potato out of the ashes with her hazel branch and pushed it away from the smouldering 
          mound to cool in the breeze. Then she spitted the charred and crusty tuber on a pointed stick and held it close to her 
          mouth; she had stopped whistling and instead pursed her cracked, wind-parched lips to blow the earth and ashes off 
          the potato skin.

These are potatoes off the land. Cooked in a real fire, with a spit, till they char. I got mine for $2.99 / kg from Countdown. That feels like cheating, somehow.

But that's the beauty of potatoes. Whether you eat them simply, straight from a fire, or cooked with fancy accoutrements in an urban oven, the comfort they provide is the same. So here we go, Mr. Grass, in honour of our diverse tuberific applications, a snobbified baked potato. Mahlzeit!

Deconstructed Baked Potato 

Serves 2
2 washed agria potatoes  
4 generous slices haloumi
1/2 bunch flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tbsp smoked paprika
2 tomatoes
2 tsp olive oil
Oil for frying

Preheat the oven to 240C. Peel the potatoes, and reserve the peelings.  Smother each peeled potato in olive oil, and place on a baking tray. Cut each tomato into four thick slices, and arrange those on the baking tray as well. Place in the warmed oven.

Meanwhile, combine the paprika and sour cream. Place a dollop of pinkened cream on each plate. Top with half each of the chopped parsley.

Fry the haloumi in a wide, dry pan over medium-high heat, or place under a grill, until golden brown (about 4 minutes each side in a pan for me).

By this time, your tomato should be baked enough to be dry-ish and intensively flavoured (about 20 minutes). Remove the tomato slices and return the potatoes to the oven. Layer the haloumi and tomato slices on each plate, on top of the parsley.

Fill a pot with enough oil to shallow-fry, and get it reasonably hot but not smoking. Add the potato peelings and fry until crispy. Drain, and layer up on top of the tomato & haloumi slices.

Once the potatoes are baked and toasty (about an hour), rest those on top of the potato skins. Top with a dollop more of sour cream and some leftover parsley. Salt & serve.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Dear Gustave Flaubert (1821 - 1880),

It was only a matter of time before I came to you.

Your method of writing was very similar to how a great chef cooks. You were creative, yet precise. You paid excruciating attention to every word, every syllable. You would spend weeks, if not months, balancing the perfect blend of ingredients for a single sentence. And you were a sensualist. A luxurious, romantic, sometimes pornographic, casually syphilitic sensualist.

I am referring, of course, to Madame Bovary (1857). Your most famous novel, Monsieur Flaubert, is rather like last week's extract from Mr. Burroughs, in that both provoked passions and obscenity trials. In fact, it occurs to me that literary obscenity trials might have been the precedent for celebrity sex tapes. Think about it: they both guarantee scandal and notoriety, and they're both used as marketing strategies. Madame Bovary sold a gazillion copies after its trial, and that geeky guy from Saved By the Bell almost became famous again after doing things on camera that nobody wanted to see. So kudos, Gustave, for pioneering the modern route to célébrité.

To a modern hedonist, however, Madame Bovary is much more interesting than a grainy home movie. Its blend of food and sensuality is positively saucy (pun apologetically intended). The chapter in which Emma attends a ball and, discovering a world of sophisticated finery, grows tired of her clumsy husband, is ripe with descriptions of food so dripping with double entendres that I'm almost embarrassed to quote them. Revellers were offered "rich fruit in open baskets" and "cold meats with jellies that trembled in the dishes." Emma herself "shivered all over" at the taste of cold champagne, and seductively ate "a maraschino ice that she held with her left hand in a silver-gilt cup, her eyes half-closed, and the spoon between her teeth."  Having been raised a good girl, I'm not even going to mention how the bread rolls were arranged in the folds of napkins. Suffice to say, Georgia O'Keeffe would have been proud.

In fact, your salacious prose is so saucy, it inspired Vancouver slam poet Alexandra Oliver to write the following genius rhyme: "I'm a home wrecker baby / I'm Julie Andrews' nightmare / When other girls read Nancy Drew, I was reading Flaubert."

Let's leave all that aside, though, because what really got me salivating was this:

            She had never seen pomegranates nor tasted pineapples. The powdered sugar even seemed to her whiter and finer than
Alright Flaubert, you got me. I'm motivated more by your flavours than your fictive finesse. Ever since I got an ice-cream machine, I've been dying to churn fruits and sugars into scoops of satiny sorbet. And you have given me the perfect excuse! Emma, come over to my place, we will taste pomegranate sorbet and pineapple-mint sherbet together. But just to be clear: when I lick the utensils, a spoon is just a spoon.

Pomegranate Sorbet

Adapted from here

1 L pomegranate juice (I cheated and used bought, not fresh-squeezed)
1 C sugar
2 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp Monin pomegranate syrup

Warm all ingredients together in a saucepan, until the sugar has dissolved. Cool overnight in the fridge, or at least until it's cold enough to make Emma Bovary shiver. Churn in an ice-cream maker. If you don't have an ice-cream maker, you can freeze the sorbet by sticking it in the freezer and running it through a food processor every couple of hours to break up the ice crystals.

Pineapple-Mint Sherbet

Adapted from here

1 pineapple
1/2 C caster sugar
1 tbsp lemon juice
1/2 C mint leaves, packed

Chop the pineapple into chunks and freeze it until frosty, but not brick-solid. Once it's cold enough, blend it in a food processor with the sugar, lemon juice, and mint. Churn in an ice-cream maker. If you don't have an ice-cream maker, just freeze the processed mixture as-is. Because it's already been churned in the food processor (and it's already in a semi-frozen state), you shouldn't need to mix it again during freezing.