Saturday, 29 June 2013

For John Steinbeck (1902 - 1968),

“Tom brought him chicken soup until he wanted to kill him. The lore has not died out of the world, and you will still find people who believe that soup will cure any hurt or illness and is no bad thing to have for the funeral either.”
     -- East of Eden

I am one of those people you will still find, who believes that soup is a magical panacea. Got the sniffles? Soup. Scraped your knee? Soup. Tanked a job interview? Soup. Impaled yourself on a spikey fence? May I prescribe a light bouillabaisse. 

Steinbeck's suggestion that soup is good for the funeral as well is ludicrous. Soup is such good medicine that its consumers become immortal. I'll be eating soup at my 613th birthday party while the last remaining atoms of Steinbeck's bones make their final transition to dust. 

But there does come a time, during the winter cold season, when that fortieth bowl of chicken noodle is kinda samey. Considering there's been a nasty cold hanging around my household for the past week, we've had to get creative about ways of reconfiguring that old chicken + pasta + stock combination. Those who know me will be entirely unsurprised that I turned it into a kind of sick person's risotto-minestrone concoction. When in doubt: make it more Italian. That's my motto. 

The noodles become risoni. The broth gets absorbed into the pasta to take this from soup to stew. And the whole dish gets a boost from tomatoes. It's still bland and healthy enough to cure just about any ailment, but this is a nice break from the usual flu food. Bonus: it's quick enough to make that you can crawl back into bed and dig into a novel with minimum disruption. Perhaps that novel will be Steinbeck's magnum opus. If you've got pneumonia, you might just have time to get through it.

Chicken Cure-all

1 onion
3 cloves garlic
3 stalks celery 
1 tbsp olive oil
200g cold cooked chicken
1L chicken stock
1C risoni (aka orzo pasta)
1 can (400g) tomatoes
1/4C tomato paste
Seasonings of choice


Peel and roughly chop the onion, and load it into a food processor. Add the peeled garlic cloves and washed, roughly chopped celery. Puree the lot.  

Warm the oil in a large pan on medium-high. Add the puree and cook until the vicious oniony smell subsides and the mixture is soft - about 5 minutes. Keep stirring periodically so it doesn't brown. Add the stock and bring to a simmer. Add the risoni and chicken and simmer until the pasta is cooked, about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and paste and keep cooking until most of the liquid is absorbed. Season to taste.

Eat hot with basil, and keep some for the next day - it thickens and gets even yummier after a night in the fridge.  

Sunday, 23 June 2013

For Nestor Roqueplan (1805 - 1870),

I don't speak French.

I've picked up a bit, from foreign films, mostly, and from half-baked attempts to speak the language of love with my French-speaking paramour. But I'm incredibly limited. I tend to end up speaking English, but lilting my pro-nun-ciah-cion* to make myself sound French, in a way that would lead any actual French person to quite justifiably speet* in my viz-arrrsh.*

Every so often I resolve to learn properly. I buy the CDs, download the podcasts, stock up on dictionaries... and then get distracted. I can't be alone in this. There must be thousands of Easy to Learn! guides for every one person who actually becomes fluent in a foreign language. Right? (Help me out here. Agree with me. Please.)

As part of my delusional and temporary efforts to learn French, I often pick up a novel written in French and have a flip through. At garage sales, in op shops, in library reading rooms, I pick up these things, full of good intentions and hazy understandings of language acquisition. Surely, just glancing at the words will imprint their meanings in my brain? I think I read something about language learning by ignorant osmosis. It's scientific.

Pictured: my learning philosophy.

And so I happened upon Monsiour Roqueplan's sketches of Paris in Parisine. Flipping through, the elegant gobbledegook entered my brain in a deep and incomprehensible process of subconscious learning. I even recognised the odd word. J'etais prrrroud* uf* moiself!* When it came to a description of fried potato, however, the whole sentence was instantly clear:

"La pomme de terre frite etait son reve."
"The fried potato was his dream."

I've never learned those words, but here they are in my head anyway.

And now, here the potato is in my frying pan. Actually, in a dream of fried potato, I looked up French potato delicacies and discovered my favourite version yet of fried potato: pavé. Granted, it's not a health food. When you start with potato, then add cream and butter, then fry it, you know you're working with a 'sometimes' food. But oh my god, what wonderful sometimes. 

Oh holy god of tubers, YES!
Add chicken, saffron-almond sauce, and warm vegetables, and you have a French feast fit for the finest dining. 

But oh, look. Yet again, I've gotten distracted. Je suis distractement* by le pomme de terre. Screw it. I may not speak French - still - but I know enough to order this bad boy in a Parisian restaurant. What more could I ever need?

*Not a real French word.

Potato Pavé

Makes 8-10 slices, to serve 3-5 people

4 large potatoes
1C cream
50g butter, finely grated
Salt, pepper, garlic granules, to taste (I used 1tsp of each)
2 tbsp olive oil
Thyme sprigs


Warning: this is quite labour-intensive, and you need to start the day before you serve. 

Using a mortar and pestle or food processor, grind the seasonings down into a fine powder. Add half of them to a large bowl with the cream, and reserve the other half for sprinkling later.

Wash and peel the potatoes. Trim them so that they are roughly rounded rectangles, ideally the length of your loaf tin's width. Set a mandoline over the bowl of seasoned cream. On the finest setting, slice the potatoes so that tissue-fine slices fall into the cream. (Use the finger guard or whatever protection came with your mandoline. I'm so serious about that. This is dangerous work.) Move the slices around so that they are all marinated in seasoned cream.

Preheat the oven to 180C. Line a loaf tin with baking paper, so that the paper comes up over the long edges. This is important as you'll need to lift your potato brick out later. Spray or grease the paper and any exposed surface inside the loaf tin.

Layer in the potato slices, one by one, forming (as far as you can) one neat layer at a time across the bottom of the loaf tin. After about one potato worth of slices have gone in, sprinkle over some grated butter and extra seasoning. Continue layering, adding butter and seasonings in three places within your potato 'brick.' This will take a while, you gotta just keep swimming. When you're done layering, you should have a pallid and disgusting-looking loaf tin full of pale, raw potato. 

Fold the baking paper over your potato brick, and cover the tin with foil. Bake for around (or just under) 2 hours, or until a skewer will go through the brick with no resistance. As the brick cools, find or make something to weigh down your brick. I used two cans on a piece of foil-wrapped cardboard. Using the baking paper to protect the potato, weigh down the brick and leave to cool. Once it's room temperature, remove the weights and refrigerate the tin for at least 6 hours or overnight. 

Use the baking paper to lift the brick out of the loaf tin, and trim the edges to get a nice rectangular shape. Slice the brick into 8-10 slices, as you would a loaf. The slices are delicate, and you should move them carefully using a fish slice or other tool that will support the whole slice. Don't use tongs like I did at first, and send all the delicate layers spraying into tangled ribbons.

Fry the slices on each side in olive oil and thyme until golden brown and heated through. Serve stacked with chicken, green beans, roasted cherry tomatoes, and sauce. (My sauce recipe given below.)

Saffron-Almond Sauce

1 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp olive oil
50g sliced almonds
Few threads saffron (I used 5, but work to taste)
1/2C white wine
1/2 C cream


Heat the oil on medium-high.  Soften the onions and garlic until fragrant but not brown. Add the almonds to toast lightly. Pour in the wine, and, when hot, add the saffron threads. Simmer until reduced down to 1/3 the original volume, then add the cream and simmer down again until thickened. Blend with a stick blender, and pour through a sieve into a warmed serving jug. 

Don't discard the oniony pulp that's left in the sieve - I ate mine on toasted bagel halves the next morning and it was frickin' unbelievable.

Bon appetit!

Saturday, 15 June 2013

For Tina Fey (1970 - NEVER!),

“First, Lord: no tattoos. May neither Chinese symbol for truth nor Winnie-the-Pooh holding the FSU logo stain her tender haunches. May she be beautiful but not damaged, for it’s the damage that draws the creepy soccer coach’s eye, not the beauty. When the crystal meth is offered, may she remember the parents who cut her grapes in half and stick with beer."
     -- Bossypants

I have bookmarked Tina Fey's prayer for her daughter. Partly because it's hilarious, and partly because if I ever have a daughter, it contains the first words I want to speak to her. I'll be lying on a delivery table, exhausted and slick with various bodily fluids (the exact nature of which I won't ever research lest the knowledge leave me sterile), and when the nurse hands me a small bundle of girlness, I'll recite Tina's prayer. O Lord, break the internet forever, that she may be spared the misspelled invective of her peers...

Tina Fey doesn't have a son, so I'm kinda in the dark on first words if I shoot one out. Though I'm thinking an adapted prayer could work. Perhaps: First, Lord: no low-slung jeans. May trousers fit, may boxers hide, may caps be ever forward-facing.

For now though, in my childless freedom, I don't have to cut anybody's grapes in half so they don't use crystal meth. I still cut grapes in half, but more for tapas-y goodness than for fussy children. This haloumi & roasted grape salad, for instance, combines cut grapes with mint and mango salsa into what is essentially a cheese-and-fruit platter, but cooked, jumbled up, and served as a main.

I'm cool with that. Eat grapes not meth! Yeah!

Roasted Grape & Haloumi Salad

200g haloumi
1 tsp olive oil
1 large bunch grapes, washed
1/2 mango
Handful of cherry tomatoes
Handful of mint leaves
Black sesame seeds

Preheat the oven to 200C. Cut your grapes in half, using this nifty trick to save you from spending forever cutting each individual grape. Throw the cut grapes in a roasting dish and dry-roast for 15 minutes. This makes the grapes intensely sweet, but strangely, they go really well with savoury foods (I sometimes serve them on chicken with basil.)

Meanwhile, chop the mango, cherry tomatoes, and mint in a small dice and combine to make a salsa.

Heat the olive oil in a pan over medium-high heat and fry the haloumi in slices until browned on each side.

To assemble the salad, layer the roasted grapes, haloumi, and salsa on a serving dish. Sprinkle over sesame seeds and salt to taste. Serve with tapas or as a light dinner.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

For Cicero (106 - 43 BC),

"However, he who first of that house was surnamed Cicero seems to have been a person worthy to be remembered; since those who succeeded him not only did not reject, but were fond of that name, though vulgarly made a matter of reproach. For the Latins call a chickpea Cicer, and a nick or dent at the end of his nose like the cleft of a chickpea, gave him the surname of Cicero."
    -- Life of Cicero by Plutarch


Sitting in the English department, day after day, conversing with philosophers and linguists and various other keepers of culture, it's easy to feel haughty. The ideas and language we are entrusted with are part of a long history. I may not make as much money as my lawyer friends, but the texts I work on will last forever, and I am helping to make sense of them for future generations. Plus, I don't have to be as suity.

But: sigh.

The humanities owe a disturbing amount to a lawyer.

Cicero's day job was to defend accused murderers, but after hours -- ya know, in his spare time -- he brought Greek philosophy to Ancient Rome. That might seem trivial. A mere exercise in translation. But no. As he expressed Greek ideas in Latin, Cicero created the word humanitas (among many others), which is the root of our modern word humanities. 

Cicero argued, using his mad lawyer powers, for the value of an education in literature. Such an education was supposed to cultivate virtues useful for citizens and leaders alike. Thanks, Cicero. My department is hard at work on that.*

I also have to credit Cicero for some of my healthier food cravings. For upon reading that Cicero's name came from an ancestor with a Cicer (chickpea)-like nose, I instantly wanted hummus and crudites.

So, Cicero, you promote education and get me to eat vegetables. What are you, my freaking mother?

Today, though, I want my hummus to be as smooth as a defence attorney. I've read some techniques on getting really smooth hummus - blend it for longer, peel the skins off the chickpeas first, etc - but it seems to me that a good old fashioned sieve does the job perfectly.

Of course, then you do have to stand over a sieve for awhile. But as a bonus, the sieve method means that you don't have to keep tahini on hand. You can throw whole sesame seeds into the mix, since you'll be sieving out any stubborn fibrous bits. This is good news, because I once had a kilo of tahini, minus the two tablespoons I'd used in hummus, sitting in my fridge for so long that it may have achieved sentience.

And this method really does produce the silkiest, most luxurious dip imaginable. It is so luscious, in fact, that it needs some lavish decorations of pinenuts and parsley. Call this your party piece. After all, if we follow the ancient Romans, all food should be consumed gluttonously and with copious amounts of wine, right?

Perhaps Cicero isn't such a good influence after all.

*Though these days, English departments teach everything from Mills & Boon to magazine covers... so I'm not sure whether we impart the 'virtues' Cicero was interested in.

Super Smooth Hummus

Serves 2 as a substantial snack, or 4 as a nibble.

1 can (400g) chickpeas, drained
1/4 C water
4 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp sesame seeds
1 tsp crushed garlic
Sprinkle of smoked salt, to taste
Chilli flakes, to taste
2 tbsp pinenuts
1 tbsp olive oil
Raw vegetables for crudites - broccoli, cauliflower, capsicums, carrots, asparagus, etc.


Throw the chickpeas, water, juice, seeds, garlic, salt and chilli flakes into a blender. Blend until smooth. Add a little more water if needed to help it along. Using a sieve and spoon, press out the hummus over a bowl. It will take a little while for the hummus to start moving, but after a minute of stirring, it will start glooping through the sieve quite happily.

Toast the pinenuts in a dry pan. Drizzle the olive oil over the bowl of hummus, and sprinkle over the pinenuts and parsley. Serve with crudites and traditional Roman quantities of wine.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

For Louisa May Alcott (1832 - 1888),

"Jo amused herself by examining the faces of the people who occupied the seat with them. On her left were two matrons, with massive foreheads and bonnets to match, discussing Women's Rights and making tatting. Beyond sat a pair of humble lovers, artlessly holding each other by the hand, a somber spinster eating peppermints out of a paper bag, and an old gentleman taking his preparatory nap behind a yellow bandanna."
     -- Little Women

I know very well the glories of people-watching. The overexcited kids! The first-date couples! The silly, silly hats!

But I feel a little sorry for Jo, watching the rather dull audience members as she waits for a public lecture to begin. If she wants quality people watching, a lecture is probably not the best place to go. You get some fantastic kooks at those things, but they are usually outnumbered by ordinary civilians.

No: the best places for people-watching are:

5) Farmer's markets in artsy-craftsy towns
4) Protests against pretty much anything
3) Public libraries after dark
2) Concerts given by washed-up 80s one-hit wonders
1) Sci-fi conventions (the more specific the con, the better)*

Special mention also goes to my apartment. I overlook a part of downtown Auckland that includes our transport hub, the site of our weekend market, and an ultra-hipstery string of restaurants. Among the excellent people I get to watch from home are the gentleman who wears industrial earmuffs everywhere, and the world's whitest busking rapper. (I'm serious about that. He looks like Anthony Michael Hall.)

Yes, the pickins' here are much better than Jo's peppermint-eating spinster. In fact, let's update Jo's scenario. I'm going to steal the mint concept, but revise the people-watching so that it's me consuming mintiness while starting creepily at people.

This is well-timed because there's a bunch of Vietnamese mint sitting in a vase on my kitchen bench.

A 'bouquet garni' is so much better than a 'bouquet flora-soon-to-wilt.'
There is also frozen banana and coconut milk, which is excellent because I keep meaning to try a
sinh tố - fancy name for a Vietnamese smoothie. This is not at all adventurous of me, since Vietnamese smoothies are basically the same thing as Kiwi smoothies, but often with coconut milk instead of cow's milk. I am so on board for that.

And as I drink my sinh tố, I shall look out the window. Like a creepy old lady in a Hitchcock film. Is that a sombrero-wearing lyre-player serenading a girl with a frog in her pocket? 

*Submit your additions in the comments.

Vietnamese Mint Smoothie

1 banana, frozen
1/2 C coconut milk
1/2 C water
3-4 leaves Vietnamese mint

Blend it all up. Blitz it. MasterChef this ain't. It will end up looking a little grey - that's just what coconut milk does. It still tastes good, I promise!