Saturday, 23 February 2013

For Cormac McCarthy (1933 - ),

"He unrolled the mattress pads on the bunks for them to sit on and he opened the carton of pears and took out a can and set it on the table and clamped the lid with the can opener and began to turn the wheel. He looked at the boy. The boy was sitting quietly on the bunk, still wrapped in the blanket, watching. The man thought he had probably not fully committed himself to any of this. You could wake in the dark wet woods at any time. These will be the best pears you ever tasted, he said. The best. Just you wait."
 -- The Road

So it has come to this.*

I am a foodie, writing a food blog post, based on a post-apocalyptic novel. A novel in which the characters have no stable food source, and must forage for the dregs of others' pantries. A novel in which eating a 'sumptuous meal' means opening slightly more cans than you would normally have access to. A novel in which starvation is a part of daily life.

I have no desire to live that way, and fortunately, since the world hasn't ended yet,** I shouldn't have to.

But The Road offers legitimately relevant food inspiration right now. Why? My &$^% refrigerator broke down.

Yes, first world problems, I know. But as a renter, there's not much I can do about this situation except sit around, wringing my hands, waiting for the landlord to take action. Meanwhile, day by day, I have to throw away more and more delicious creations. Day 1: I froze the milk and butter, somewhat sensibly, and the cheese, less sensibly. Day 2: we lost half a teasecake. Day 3: a tropical fruit salad starting to smell like a tropical sewer. Day 4: even the carrots started to protest. All that's left now are a few half-full bottles of warm, flat soft drinks, and a wilted bunch of parsley, mocking me like the decayed remains of a fridge-garnish.

My situation is dire. I trudge, like the depressed yuppie I am, from downtown cafe to uptown restaurant, using up all my groupon vouchers and living on meagre feasts of fresh food that I didn't get to cook myself. Cue the violins.

But compared to the unnamed starving duo in McCarthy's modern classic, I'm doing OK. I don't have to celebrate every found tin of fruit. My pantry is full; my stomach has never not been. I have a roof over my head, and access to a shower, and a comfy bed, and no one will slaughter me for meat if I close my eyes for too long (not now, anyway... I once had a shifty-eyed cat...).

Like other arts, perhaps the best cooking is done under limitations. I would never, for instance, have come up with this post-apocalyptic pantry crumble if I'd had some fresh fruit to work with. And I think it will now become a staple, since it takes about 5 minutes to throw together, and would be a great way to get some scrummy dessert at the end of an exhausting day.

So hold your violins, put away your tear-stained handkerchiefs. I'll live without a fridge for a few days longer. Might have to put my next degustation dinner party on hold, though.

Yup, first world problems.


** I realised the other day that despite being still relatively young, I can recall living through at least three major doomsday predictions / ends of ancient calendars.

Post-apocalyptic Pantry Crumble

Serves 3 - 4


I can (410g) pear halves, drained
1 can (425g) cherries, drained
1/2C rolled oats
1/2C dried coconut flakes
2 tbsp olive oil^
2 tbsp brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2C dark chocolate chips


Preheat the oven to 190C.

Tip the cans of fruit into an oven-safe dish. In a separate bowl, mix the rolled oats, coconut, olive oil, sugar, and vanilla. Tumble the crumble topping over the fruit. Sprinkle over the chocolate chips.

Bake for 40 minutes or until the topping is golden brown.

^You can substitute the more traditional melted butter if you have a working fridge, though as it turns out, olive oil works just as well to bind the crumble and help it get toasty.


Saturday, 16 February 2013

For Bram Stoker (1847 - 1912),

"We went into the room, taking the [garlic] flowers with us. The Professor's actions were certainly odd and not to be found in any pharmacopeia that I ever heard of. First he fastened up the windows and latched them securely. Next, taking a handful of the flowers, he rubbed them all over the sashes, as though to ensure that every whiff of air that might get in would be laden with the garlic smell. Then with the wisp he rubbed all over the jamb of the door, above, below, and at each side, and round the fireplace in the same way. It all seemed grotesque to me, and presently I said, "Well, Professor, I know you always have a reason for what you do, but this certainly puzzles me. It is well we have no skeptic here, or he would say that you were working some spell to keep out an evil spirit." "Perhaps I am!" He answered quietly as he began to make the wreath which Lucy was to wear round her neck."
-- Dracula

I have never understood the choice to make vampires afraid of garlic.

Actually, it wasn't Bram Stoker's choice. The association between vampires and garlic goes a long, long way back. The theory goes that, because garlic is so good for keeping people well, it was mythologised as a deterrent for the evil vampire, who was supposed to represent mosquitoes or viruses or any other blood-tickling annoyance.

And true enough, for the person who wants to feel healthy, garlic is an excellent tool. But look at this from the vampire's perspective.

"Hmm... I feel myself craving some ripe human blood."

(Actually, no, according to popular culture* there is always a non-specific accent to the vampire's speech. Let's try this again...)

"Vhhmmm... I vfeel myselv cravvving some ripe uuuuman bluuud. Ahh, a tasty young morsel! Sveet Lucy, vith her creamy flesh und her lovely neck! Und ah, she has seasoned herself. Thank you, young Lucy. You shall taste uv a spicy puttanesca!"

After all, what vampire wouldn't want his or her victims to self-marinate in something savoury-perfumed and, as a bonus, antibacterial? Honestly, placing a garland of garlic around Lucy's neck just seems like a ways to keep her fresh and tasty.

[SPOILER ALERT]. Of course, Lucy is eventually killed and becomes a vampire herself. And when concerned heroes drive a stake through her heart, they fill her mouth with garlic as a final safeguard. Ah, now I get it! You might have to be bitten, die, come back as a vampire, and die again, but eventually, you do get to taste the garlic.

Right, I'm just going to skip all that, if nobody minds. I'm going to develop my own non-human-flesh puttanesca, with ludicrous quantities of garlic, and serve it with red wine and tomatoey sauces that will hopefully not remind anyone of blood.

A nice garlic-chilli crumb couldn't hurt, too. Since pasta a la puttanesca literally means pasta 'in the whorish style,' I might as well succumb to excess. So add a little parmesan too. I might not be self-marinating for any midnight prowlers, but I still want to taste good.

*A lot of my understanding of vampires comes from Leslie Nielson's "Dracula: Dead and Loving It." Like, a lot.

Anti-Vampire Pasta

Serves 2 with leftovers (unless you share with / are a boy)

2 tbsp olive oil
1/2C bread crumbs
3-4 sundried tomatoes, finely chopped
1/2 tsp chilli flakes
1 tsp minced garlic
1 onion, finely chopped
1 can chopped tomatoes in juice
2 tbsp tomato paste
2 bulbs (yes, bulbs) garlic
1/4C olives
Capers and/or salt, to taste
200g dry spaghetti
Parmesan and parsley, to serve


Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a large pan on medium heat. Add the minced garlic and onion, and cook until softened. Add the bread crumbs, sundried tomatoes, and chilli flakes and toss to coat in the oniony oil. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the bread crumbs are toasted and brown. Transfer the crumbs to a serving bowl and wipe out the pan - you can use it again in a minute.

Boil an enormous pot of water, and add lots of salt. As it's boiling, rip apart the bulbs of garlic and brush any loose skin off the cloves, but don't peel them. Throw them in the now-bubbly water and boil for a couple of minutes. Scoop them out with a slotted spoon and slip of the skins. (Boiling the garlic isn't entirely necessary, but it softens the skins, makes the garlic easy to peel, and gives it a mellow flavour. You can skip this step if you don't mind peeling all those cloves the old-fashioned way.)

Put the spaghetti on to boil according to the packet instructions.

Heat the other tablespoon of olive oil. Warm the peeled garlic cloves until soft and just starting to brown. Add the canned tomatoes, paste, olives, capers, and salt, and simmer on medium-low heat while the pasta cooks.

When the pasta is done, drain it and transfer to the pan of garlicky sauce. Toss through and plate up, topping the pasta mounds with chopped parsley and grated parmesan. Serve with crusty bread and a side salad.

Invite a few characters from Twilight over for dinner if you wish to do world literature a favour.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Dear Jeffrey Eugenides (1960 - ),

"In bed on a Friday night, wearing sweatpants, her hair tied back, her glasses smudged, and eating peanut butter from the jar, Madeleine was in a state of extreme solitude."
-- The Marriage Plot

When you write a novel about English majors who spend their Friday nights reading, it's probably going to appeal to English majors. In particular, it will appeal to English majors who spend their Friday nights playing hooky from their required reading. Thus I came to "The Marriage Plot". I read it guiltily one night, my eyes scanning defensively over the pages, my pile of thesis books looming judgementally in the corner of my vision. It helped, though, that the main character Madeleine, with her distracted, absorbed slovenliness, was very relatable for me. Why is that? Well, she lies around reading books, mainly, and doesn't make any effort to look good doing it.

She has the excuse of a recent break-up: I do not.

But I maintain that, emotional trauma or none, Friday nights are the time for smudged glasses and sweatpants, and eating things out of jars. But not just Friday nights, oh no. Anytime when I have my nose in a book is jar-eating territory. Especially when I have piles of thesis books to read, the thought of eating something that isn't ready-made and close to baby food is far too much effort. When I enter the fug of fiction familiar to literary scholars, what I want of food is this:

a) it has to be easy
b) it needs to be relatively healthy, since it's acting as brain food
c) it must be easy to consume while distracted
d) preferably, it should taste like a chocolate thickshake.

After much experimentation, I have stumbled upon the perfect foodstuff to tick all the boxes.

What? I hear you ask. A healthy chocolate thickshake? Yes, I tell no lies. It tastes, hand on heart, like a sinful slop of ice-cream and chocolate syrup, but contains mainly the ingredients you would use to make a hearty bowl of porridge. A postgraduate student's dream.

The secret is whole oats, which bulk up the shake and give it thickness, and frozen bananas, which make it chilled and creamy. Add some cocoa, milk, and peanut butter, and you've got an indulgent, chocolatey thickshake with actual nutritional benefit. If I'm feeling particularly hungry, I add some yoghurt; and if I'm particularly thesis-stressed, a shot of energising espresso.

I don't mean to pull Madeleine from her jar of peanut butter - we all know the primitive pleasure of scraping a jar. But there's something to be said for pulling away from the books for long enough to add chocolate.

Madeleine's Oaty Brain-Booster

Serves two as a snack; or one as a whole breakfast

1/4C oats (the real kind, not instant porridge oats)
1C milk
1 banana
1 tsp smooth peanut butter, heaped
1 tsp cocoa powder
1/2C thin yoghurt, optional
Shot of espresso, optional


The night before you want to drink your brain-booster, soak the oats in the milk and store in the fridge. Peel and roughly break up the banana, and freeze it. (I keep a bag of frozen banana chunks in the freezer permanently for just this purpose.) If you don't have the foresight to do any of this the night before, it doesn't matter too much - your drink will just be slightly thinner and maybe a bit grainy if the oats aren't soft enough to blend well. Still tastes good.

When you're ready to drink, combine all the ingredients in a blender and blend away. Serve in a tall glass or empty peanut butter jar.