Monday, 20 May 2013

For J. K. Huysmans (1848 - 1907),

"He had organized a funeral feast in celebration of the most unmentionable of minor personal calamities... The viands were served on black-bordered plates,--turtle soup, Russian black bread, ripe olives from Turkey, caviar, mule steaks, Frankfurt smoked sausages, game dished up in sauces coloured to resemble liquorice water and boot-blacking, truffles in jelly, chocolate-tinted creams, puddings, nectarines, fruit preserves, mulberries and cherries... The invitations, which purported to be for a dinner in pious memory of the host's (temporarily) lost virility, were couched in the regulation phraseology of letters summoning relatives to attend the obsequies of a defunct kinsman."
     -- A Rebours


Oh my goodness so many food inspirations!

A Rebours (in English, "Against the Grain") follows a wealthy recluse of decadent tastes who has taken to the countryside to pursue a solitary life of reflection and contemplation (hello, future self?) But in a former life, he was said to be quite the character. So much of a character, in fact, that he once threw a funeral for his penis.

Now I've thrown parties for a lot of non-reasons. Birthday parties are reasonably legitimate. Dinner parties to celebrate newly discovered recipes seem a little less justified. I once threw a brunch to welcome the arrival of winter. And once an elaborately catered movie night to make use of a borrowed projector. And I've been known to throw a dinner party to celebrate the throwing of my dinner party. (Meta food!) So yes, I understand the appeal of an unnecessary soiree.

But throwing a funeral feast to mourn a temporarily disfunctional sex life? That takes -- ironically -- quite some balls.

And if he makes all the food black, what are we supposed to assume about the host's potentially diseased reproductive organ? I.. I... don't want to think too hard about that. Unfortunately, I'm cooking with sticks of liquorice today, so keeping diseased phalluses out of my head is not going to be easy. (Are you hungry yet?)

No more phallic food this post... oh wait.
I hope you are, actually, because the 'ye oldy English' tradition of melting liquorice into sauces is actually a lot more appetizing than it sounds. If you start with a base of rich wine, soft onions and some flavourful extras, all the liquorice does is add a mild aniseedy note. Served on game meat as at Huysman's fictional funeral, or on chicken and mushrooms as I prefer, it tastes of warmth and winter and stews, without actually being as sloppy as a stew. And this comes from a life-long liquorice hater, so you know you can trust me.

(Sidenote: did anyone else out there get irrationally angry, as a child, when someone promised them sweets and delivered liquorice? I remember getting some from a neighbour when I was about six and thinking: this is worse than getting no food. Bring me some damn gummy worms.)

But this one-woman anti-liquorice brigade is eating her words, and her enemy. Next week: salmon in gummy worm glaze?


Liquorice Sauce

Ingredients
1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 onion, finely chopped
150ml red wine
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 tsp pomegranate molasses (optional, but delicious)
1 stick soft liquorice (about 40g)

Method

Heat the oil in a pan over medium heat and cook the onions until slightly browned. Add the wine, vinegar, and pomegranate molasses if using. When the liquid is warm, add the liquorice. It won't melt entirely, but you'll be blending it later, so don't worry. Simmer the liquid until it has reduced by half. 
Blend the mixture until smooth. Pass through a sieve and return to the pan to rewarm. Transfer to a small jug and drizzle over meats. (I poured mine over panfried chicken thighs, mushrooms, and garlic mashed potatoes. You should too.)


Friday, 10 May 2013

For Terry Pratchett (1948 - ),

"'What you do is, you take some corn, and you put it in, say, a Number 3 crucible, with some cooking oil, you see, and then you put a plate or something on top of it, and when you heat it up it goes bang, I mean, not seriously bang, and when it's stopped banging you take the plate off and it's metamorphosed into these, er, things...' He looked at their uncomprehending faces. 'You can eat it,' he mumbled apologetically. 'If you put butter and salt on it, it tastes like salty butter.'... 'I just call it banged grains.'"
   -- Moving Pictures


I like me some banged grains.

It goes with being a cinephile. After decades of excitedly rushing into cinemas, giddy with the thought of seeing the latest French film starring a floating red balloon, or Vin Diesel movie featuring one-and-a-half facial expressions, you start to thrill at the smell of salt and butter. It's positively Pavlovian.

Though if you ask me, cinema popcorn is one of those un-treats that seems good in theory, but inevitably tastes like oily polystyrene. In fact, my ex-projectionist paramour claims that, after working around that stuff for 8+ hours at a time, you stop associating it with the glamour of the moving picture, and start associating it with sticky floors and vomitous children.

But I say it's time to reinvent popcorn. It's time to remember that, before it was an overpriced fake-yellow adornment to movie theatre carpets, it was something magical. It's as Terry Pratchett puts it in Moving Pictures, his brilliant satire of the early days of Hollywood. Just as there's something mysterious and grand about images that move in front of your very eyes, so too there's a charm to tough grains that burst into fluffy pillows with just a little heat and oil.

So here's to banged grains: plain, cinemafied,or jazzed up. Here's to banged grains that are healthy, nutty, pimped, or purple. And here's to mine: popped proof that if you want to improve a slightly tacky cinema snack, you should smoosh another slightly tacky cinema snack into it. My tacky cinema snack of choice, part two, is the epic Australian chocolate bar that mixes cherries and coconut with dark chocolate.

That's right... it's Cherry Ripe flavoured popcorn! Mmm, it's like a multiplex exploded in my mouth.


Cherry Ripe Popcorn

Ingredients
2 tbsp oil
1/2 C popping corn
1/2 C dark chocolate melts
1 tbsp milk
1/2 C coconut threads or chips (I used a combination)
1/3 C glace cherries, chopped

Method

Heat the oil in a large, lidded saucepan on medium-high. Add the popcorn kernels and clamp that lid down tight.  Leave it (rotating the pan occasionally if your stove heats unevenly) until the corn has mostly popped, with one pop every 2 seconds or so.

Meanwhile, microwave the chocolate and milk until it is melted and smooth. I usually err on the side of undermelting (one minute on high) and then stir until my arm hurts - you definitely don't want to overestimate the timing and have dry clumps on your hands.

Toast the coconut in a dry pan until it turns golden brown. Have your coconut, glace cherries, and liquid chocolate at the ready.

Transfer the popped popcorn into a large bowl, discarding any unpopped kernels. Add half the toasted coconut and chopped cherries. Drizzle over the chocolate, stirring as you go. Keep drizzling and stirring until you've got a good  consistent chocolate coating throughout the popcorn. (It won't be completely covered - this is definitely a more popcorny than chocolately end product.) Spread the popcorn out onto a tray and leave for around an hour, to allow the chocolate to set.

Break up the popcorn clumps with your fingers. If you're serving this at a party, you can present individual portions by piling the popcorn into muffin cups. (That's what I did, even though the party was mostly in my head.) Top with the remaining coconut and cherries.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

For George Orwell (1903 - 1950),

"A thing which I regret, and which I will try to remedy some time, is that I have never in my life planted a walnut. Nobody does plant them nowadays–when you see a walnut it is almost invariably an old tree. If you plant a walnut you are planting it for your grandchildren, and who cares a damn for his grandchildren?"
   --  "A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray"


George Orwell was a bit nuts (pun absolutely intended) for planting trees. Although he hadn't planted a walnut tree, he planted all sorts of other fruit trees and flowering bushes, and this whole essay of his is about how even the most evil of tyrants can leave a positive mark on the world if they plant a tree or two. In fact, he suggests a sort of arborial karmic realignment: "it might not be a bad idea, every time you commit an antisocial act, to make a note of it in your diary, and then, at the appropriate season, push an acorn into the ground."

I quite like this idea. Especially since Orwell's version of 'planting' seems pleasingly lazy. Paid a bill late? Push an acorn into the ground. Been rude to your mum? Drop an apple core into the garden. Done a bit of littering? Litter the earth with walnuts. 

Of course, when George Orwell wrote his essay, people actually had patches of earth to plant things in. In the few decades that have passed, though, planting has become a bit harder. For example, I live in an inner city apartment. The things I could plant here include: my feet, ideas, evidence, a mean left hook. Things I could not plant here include: actual, living trees.*

But although I can't plant things in my own (nonexistent) backyard, I figure I can achieve the same results by just going outside and eating messily. If I'm slobbily eating a walnut scone in a park, for instance, I'm wrapping the antisocial act and its arborial remedy into one glorious display of frenzied public crumb-shedding, and can emerge afterwards in a state of total karmic neutrality. Sign me up! 

To add to the sense of twenty-first century urban yuppery, I can choose a scone that is like a warm, home-baked version of Starbucks maple-walnut scones, to which I may or may not be addicted. (Speaking of addictive: the world of copycat recipes is amazing! Pick any food or drink from any chain restaurant or cafe pretty much anywhere, google it with the phrase 'copycat recipe,' and voila! Your favourite treats at home, without the massive expense of eating out.)

So here you go, George Orwell. You wanted me to plant trees? Well, by the magic of questionable logic, I've made Starbucks-style scones instead. You're welcome.

*Of course, I blame apartment life, but realistically I've never kept a plant alive longer than a week in any type of dwelling.



Maple-Walnut Scones

Ingredients
3C high grade flour
1 tbsp baking powder 
1 tsp salt
170g cold butter
1/2C brown sugar
1C walnut pieces
1/4C cream
1/4C milk
4 tbsp maple syrup
1/2C icing sugar

Method

Preheat the oven to 180C. Toast the walnut pieces - either in the oven or in a dry pan - and set aside to cool.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Cut the butter into small cubes and rub them into the flour mixture with your fingertips until the whole mixture resembles tropical island sand. (This takes a little while. Maybe 5 minutes if you're efficient. 20 minutes if you're a butter-lump-hating perfectionist. If you're me, you pass the 20 minute mark and the buttery sand starts conspiring against you by reclumping from the warmth of your fingers. Don't let the butter win, people. Don't let the butter win.)

Stir the dough with a fork from now on to preserve the sandy texture. Add the brown sugar and the cooled toasted walnut pieces. In a separate bowl, mix the cream, milk, and 2 tablespoons of the maple syrup. Stir the liquids into the dry mix until it all comes together. Use a little less of the liquid if you need to, or add more milk, to get a dryish but coagulating mixture.

Turn the dough out onto a floured board and shape it into a rectangle about 3cm high. Cut the rectangle into three fat strips, and then cut each strip into three triangles to get nine Starbucks-sized superscones. Transfer to a baking tray lined with parchment, leaving a little bit of space in between as they'll expand a bit. Bake at 180C for 20 minutes, checking regularly from the 17 minute mark. Pull the scones out when they are starting to turn golden at the edges.

Glaze the scones with a sauce of 2tbsp maple syrup and 1/2C icing sugar, mixed until lumps disappear. Eat warm with plenty of coffee. These are giant, so bring an appetite.