Sunday, 31 March 2013

For Frank McCourt (1930 - 2009),

“Oh, God above, if heaven has a taste it must be an egg with butter and salt, and after the egg is there anything in the world lovelier than fresh warm bread and a mug of sweet golden tea?"
  -- Angela's Ashes
  

Fortunately, I can't relate much to Frank McCourt's memoir of poverty. His schooling ended at 13. His family was poor, and when the charity of the Irish Christian Brothers ran out, so did Frank's educational opportunities. He sought more schooling but was always declined. It wasn't until after he had moved to the US that he was able to beg his way into university, and he fought hard for the privilege of studying towards his BA in English.  

I grew up with stable, nurturing parents who prioritised my education. I worked for awhile to afford my first degree, but a job was easily found; and after that, it was smooth sailing. Now, I study for an advanced degree with a scholarship and a small teaching income. My weekends are leisurely enough and funded enough (usually) to allow for delicious brunches. It's all a far cry from Angela's Ashes

Yet no matter what one's socio-economical background, the lure of eggs, bread, and tea persists. 


Pick up any book of breakfast recipes. A good fraction of the dishes - at least half, in most of my books - will be a variation on the theme of eggs and bread. Scrambled, poached, fried. Bagels, ciabatta, grainy, crumpets, flatbreads, fresh or toasted. In the United Kingdom, you'd dip soldiers into boiled eggs with runny centres. In Italy, you would poach the eggs in a tomato sauce and mop it up with bread. In Morocco, you'd add spices. In Israel, you'd add chickpeas. In New Zealand, you can't enter a cafe in the morning without tripping over a few plates of eggs benedict. Even syrup-drenched french toast follows the eggs-and-bread formula.

Perhaps because I live with an Englishman, eggs, bread, and tea feature heavily in our regular cooking rotation. Not just in the morning, either. Breakfast-for-dinner is a real thing, and if it's not, well, we're grown-ups, you can't stop us.*

But sometimes you do want to put a bit of a spin on things. Literally. By spinning them. When I realised that my omelette pan was exactly the same size as the wraps I'd bought, this became clear. Spread wrap with yummy things. Make omelette. Slap omelette on wrap. Roll up & slice. Brilliant. 



 *Same goes for dessert-for-dinner. 

Breakfast Roll-Ups

Serves 2

Ingredients
4 eggs
2 wraps (make sure they are the soft, no-tear kind)
2C baby spinach leaves
1 avocado, mashed
3 tsp butter
2 capsicums, any colour, diced
1 onion, diced
1/2 tsp minced garlic
1/2 tsp minced chilli
Salt & pepper

Method

Melt one teaspoon of butter in a pan (roughly the size of your wraps if possible), over medium-high heat. Add the capsicums & onion, along with the garlic and chilli, and cook until the vegetables are tender. Remove from the pan and set aside. 

Prepare your wraps: place each wrap on a large plate, and spread half of the mashed avocado on each. Load on lots of baby spinach leaves. Set aside. 

In a small bowl, beat the eggs with salt & pepper. Melt the second teaspoon of butter over medium high heat. Sprinkle half of the cooked capsicum & onion mixture into the pan. Pour over half of the egg mixture. Cook without stirring until the egg is set and the bottom is starting to come away at the sides. (This involves cooking for longer than you would for a standard omelette. The idea is to sacrifice a little softness for more crispiness so that you can move the omelette in one piece.) 

When it's cooked, use a large flat spatula to move the omelette onto the waiting spinach-laden wrap. Roll the whole lot tightly, as if you were making cinnamon buns. Slice into thirds. Secure each piece with a toothpick if it's threatening to unravel. 

Repeat for the second omelette and wrap. 

Serve with chilli flakes, a lemon wedge, and a hot mug of tea.
 

Sunday, 24 March 2013

For Reif Larsen (1980 - ),

"She plucked the last of the silk threads from the ear and dropped it into the tin bucket with the others. Inside the bucket, the bright ears of corn lay on top of one another, pointing in all directions, their perfect yellow kernels shining in the late afternoon sun like little buttons asking to be pressed. There was nothing like a bucket of uncooked sweet corn to really turn around your day. The yellowness, the fertile symbolism, the promise of melted butter: it was enough to change a boy's life."
 -- The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet


I completely understand the life-changing powers of corn. For years now, I've been petitioning the Swiss army knife people to modify their product so that you can flick out a knife, a pair of scissors, a corkscrew, and an ear of sweet corn. When you're lost, or down, or depleted, there's nothing like the warm sunny juiciness of corn to get you going again.

But there's one thing we're forgetting here.

In Reif Larsen's novel, the precocious T.S. lives on a ranch. His sister shucks fresh corn picked that day. It has only recently lost its umbilical connection to the nutrient-rich soil, and its husks are still warm from the day's Montana sunshine. This is corn as down-home fictively idyllic as it comes. This is symbolic corn. Corn that tells us: this kid's childhood is what all kids' childhoods should be.

I buy my corn at the supermarket. It's not so idyllic. I queue up behind inexcusable yuppies chattering to their spouses on their cellphones about which brand of soy milk is gentlest on their shih tzu's digestive system. Kenny G plays on the store audio system. The only thing fresh in the whole tableau is the nose job on the poplette leering moodily at me from the nearest magazine cover.

My corn enters my fridge dry; from there it gets drier.

When I pulled out this particular husk, it was more withered than the shih tzu's will to live. It had faded to a disconcerting shade of puce, and the luxurious white silks had picked up so many fridge odours that they'd turned into putrid strings of blackened biohazard.

But any food that was once so full of sun can surely be redeemed. I applied my old stand-by formula. If it's dry, smother it in oil and leave it to drink. Yes, that's right, you can marinate corn! It tasted pretty damn good, too. The moisture was restored, the kernels plumped up (mostly), and the oil served as a great delivery platform for a seriously delicious pink spice mix. I found that the kernels didn't absorb much of the flavour, but the cobs did. Take my advice: eat these in private, because you will want to suck on those savaged cobs like a starved shih tzu.

It's like a mud wrap, only tasty.
So what flavours are we packing into these cobs, you ask? Lemony coriander seeds, pulverised to a rubbly powder with a mortar and pestle. Heaped spoonfuls of smoky paprika. A dash of honey, just to rejuvenate the corn's lost sweetness. Garlic, because everything is better with garlic. And salt for much the same reason.

Pounding the coriander seeds is aromatic and cathartic, if you're still thinking about the supermarket yuppies.

All that's left is to bake these babies in a tin foil hot pocket and wait for the smell of summer to waft out of that Montana ranch house and into my autumnal apartment. Spivet, you may have better corn than I do, but I've got a spice rack and some Kiwi ingenuity. Booyah.



Pink Marinated Sweet Corn

Ingredients
 For every one ear of corn, add:
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp honey
1 tsp smoked paprika
1/2 tsp coriander seeds, crushed
1/2 tsp dried garlic granules
1/4 tsp salt

Method

Mix all the marinade ingredients together and pour into a ziplock bag. Shuck the corn and add the ears to the bag of marinade. Leave to infuse for a day or overnight.

To cook the corn, preheat the oven to 180C. Remove the ears from the marinade and wrap in tin foil. Bake for 20-30 minutes or until hot and juicy.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

For Ernest Hemingway (1899 - 1961),

"Brett and Bill were sitting on barrels surrounded by the dancers. Everybody had his arms on everybody else's shoulders, and they were all singing. Mike was sitting at a table with several men in their shirt-sleeves, eating from a bowl of tuna fish, chopped onions and vinegar. They were all drinking wine and mopping up the oil and vinegar with pieces of bread."
 -- The Sun Also Rises


Nothing says 'Spanish party' like tuna and onions.

Hold up: let's think about that. Why would it be that, on the opening of the big bull-fighting Pamplona fiesta in Hemingway's novel, at the start of a week of drunken debauchery, the characters would eat such traditionally kiss-repelling foods as tuna and onions? Even aside from the effect on potential paramours, surely tuna and onions are not really party food?

But that's what Mike eats as the fiesta gears up: tuna, onions, vinegar, oils, mopped up with bread and washed down with plenty of wine. Hmm. This is starting to sound good actually.

What if the bread was slices of hot, toasty garlic batard? And the tuna and onions were mixed into a lemony, capery dip? And what if the wine was cold, and crisp, and perfectly matched to New Zealand's current very-good-imitation-of-Spanish heat?

Mmm, bready!
OK, I'm starting to see the appeal of the tuna-onion party food combo. Only trouble is, unlike Hemingway's hedonistic characters in The Sun Also Rises, I'm not celebrating the running of the bulls in Pamplona, and don't really have an excuse for party food.

Solution: make tuna dip. Put on acoustic guitar music. Engage in a very awkward, nerdy white girl's version of flamenco dancing. Rationalise that this is New Zealand, and even if we don't have a running of the bulls, we do occasionally have accidental escapes of the dairy cows. Eat.


Spanish Tuna Dip

Serves 2 as a snack or 1 as a meal

Ingredients

1 can (90g) tuna, drained
90g cream cheese, softened
1 tsp olive oil
1 tsp capers
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 spring onion, finely chopped
Slices of hot garlic batard (or other bread)

Method

Fork together the tuna and cream cheese, adding the oil to help it all come together. Stir through the capers, lemon juice, and spring onion. Serve the dip with plenty of bread and have a bottle of cold white wine handy. Matador companions optional.


Saturday, 9 March 2013

For P.G. Wodehouse (1881 - 1975),

"The first thing that met the eye on entering was Anatole. This wizard of the cooking-stove is a tubby little man with a moustache of the outsize or soup-strainer type, and you can generally take a line through it as to the state of his emotions. When all is well, it turns up at the ends like a sergeant-major's. When the soul is bruised, it droops."
 -- Right Ho, Jeeves


I sometimes have debates in my head about which country I want to visit most.

I'm reasonably well-travelled already; not through any volition of my own, I should add. I am lucky enough to have parents who love to travel, and for awhile, those delightful laws against unsupervised minors meant I got to go with them. Even since I've been an adult, they've been soft-hearted enough to take me places. My shameless piggy-backing has gotten me to Australia, California, Hawaii, multiple Pacific Islands, Mexico, Malaysia, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and probably other places that I'm forgetting.

But, aside from a short corporate training stint in Denmark, I've never made it to Europe. This gives me much torment. Like any important decision, the choice of where to travel must hinge on food. But I just can't judge the tasty, simple pleasures of Italian food against the types of fiddly but accomplished cuisines cooked by Wodehouse's temperamental French chef character, Anatole. And so now, my inner Italian mamma must fight it out with my inner Anatole to determine which destination takes priority when I finally have that elusive combination of a salary and holiday time.

Corner Italian mamma: tomatoes, garlic, bruschetta, tiramisu, pizza, pasta, plenty of red wine.

Italia wins! No, wait, we'd better give the other side a chance.
Corner Anatole: macarons, chocolates, coq au vin, ratatouille, cheeses, plenty of red wine. (OK, it might be a draw on that last point.)

The French market at La Cigale in Parnell is my undoing.
In my head, my inner Italian mamma brandishes a salami-sword against Anatole's baguette; they dance around one another, lunging and retreating in turn. Then - whoa! Anatole whips out his bag of frangipane and pipes slippery almond muck into mamma's path! But mamma retorts with a series of antipasti ninja stars. Hee-ya! Sundried tomato. Blam! Prosciutto projectile. It takes the full length of the Spanish referee's churros to restrain them.

In the end, I find it's best to make peace between my inner Francophile and Italophile, before one of them cheeses my hippocampus. And so, we reach a compromise. I will, to quote Gilmore Girls, do as the Americans do: "unapologetically bastardize other countries' cultures in a gross quest for moral and military supremacy" by inserting an Italian salad into a French sandwich. Bring on the imperialistic lunch!



Croque Caprese

Serves 2

Ingredients
1/3C classic bechamel sauce
4 slices thick white bread (I like sourdough for this)
1C mixed heirloom tomatoes
1/3C shredded buffalo mozzarella
Basil leaves
1 tbsp olive oil
2 eggs (optional)

Method

Divide the bechamel between the slices of bread and spread it out evenly. Pile the tomatoes onto two of the bread slices. If your tomatoes are larger, shred them roughly. Top with basil leaves and mozzarella. Close the sandwiches with the other two slices of bread.

Spray a large frypan with oil and heat on medium. Add the sandwiches (carefully) and toast on both sides  - about 3 mins per side.

To turn this into a croque caprese madame, add a fried egg on top of each sandwich.

Monday, 4 March 2013

For F. Scott Fitzgerald (degustation mega-post!),

So last night, this happened:

But perhaps I should back up a bit.

It's the beginning of March. The academic year is gearing up. For me, this is the 3rd year of my PhD, and my nose is going to have to be pressed firmly to the grind. Plus, there's my teaching load, and a year-long academic careers module, and my role with the students' association. I'm not sure how I'm going to have a life this year. As the weight of all this impending frenzy bears down, I've been craving some kind of blowout; a last hurrah before I lock myself in my office and prepare to live off stale coffee and crackers.

Maybe this is the feeling that stockbrokers had in the 80s, when everything was happening, and they were on a rush of excitement and possibility and insane working hours, and they'd wake up with (I hear) bizarre cocaine hangovers.

Only difference is, my hangovers are dinner party-related. I woke up this morning with a bit of a headache, wandered out to the kitchen to get some water, and stumbled across a cold saucepan full of orange-scented quinoa. And a half-empty container of congealing parsnip puree. And a LOT of dishes. And then the memory struck me: I went on a bender last night. A 9-course, 34-component, wine-matched, degustation bender.

My camera's SD card confirmed it. Frame after frame of damning evidence.

First there was the amuse bouche - earthy porcini & chilli mini-macarons, filled with a mascarpone cream.


Then the starter - small spoonfuls of lemony scallops in a basil & cucumber sauce.


Next came the appetizer - a small, creamy shot of zucchini soup with mascarpone foam, thyme, and olive drizzle.


Which was followed by a cleanser of poached pear, saffron & honeycomb sorbet.



Next there was bruschetta, ripped apart and turned into a carefully arranged salad, with a scoop of savoury basil ice cream perched in a pool of parsley oil at its centre.


That was followed by a flaky piece of tea-baked salmon, resting on orange-scented quinoa and edamame puree.

After that came a medallion of New Zealand lamb on parsnip puree, with dukkah and green pea leather.


Then palates were cleansed again with lemon-mint sorbet.



Finally, there was a plate of chocolate berry tastes and textures - chocolate cups, raspberry jelly, white chocolate cream, chocolate soil, blackberry brownies, and fresh berries galore.


Oh, the shame.

I am left now with the morning-after mix of self-inflicted poverty, messiness, guilty regret, leftoveritis, and glorious, glorious satiety.

And weirdly, I am left with paperwork. In the course of planning my debauchery, I wrote a manual describing the menu, breaking it down into its components, listing all recipes, giving a preparation schedule, and documenting various other necessary notes.

In other words, I wrote a degustation how-to. And now, interweb, it is yours to use. If anyone out there is thinking of running a degustation, but wants someone else to do all the planning, it's done. Download this manual, and just follow the instructions. Or flick through below.

So what place does this post have in a literary food blog? And how does it relate to F. Scott Fitzgerald? Um, there was lavish food in The Great Gatsby. So there. Yes, this is a lazy tie-in. Blame my hangover.