Culinary Catastrophes and very slooooow soup

This weekend I decided to let go of the to-do lists and writing compulsion and, instead, potter around the house, watch films and have a cook-up. A sort of brain de-cluttering weekend after a few intense weeks at work.

I started with a long bath on Friday night accompanied by a whisky and soda followed by leftovers for dinner. Bertie and I then snuggled up (he definitely thinks the sofa is HIS bed) and watched the first episode of Homeland (a friend from work lent me the first series on DVD).

On Saturday I tested out a slow cooker that a dog-walking friend passed on to me. I started with a curried carrot and lentil soup. The recipe stated that it should be cooked on low for 4-5 hours. I have never used a slow cooker before so didn’t want to leave it on while I was out. Slow cookers really do require a lot of trust. What if the soup boiled dry and caught fire? What about Bertie? So it was only on for half an hour before I took myself off to see Testament of Youth, the fabulous film adapted from the First World War memoir by Vera Brittain. Do go and see it if you haven’t already.

When I got home I put the soup on for another couple of hours and watched with fascination as nothing seem to happen – not a single bubble, pop or squeak, but then the whole point of slow cookers is the, um, slowness. Assuming that the soup would eventually cook, I turned my attention to Sunday night’s dinner. With my brother and his wife overseas, I volunteered to cook for my niece and my two nephews. Now before I start on my tale, I should explain that my sister-in-law is a Cordon Bleu cook and produces the most amazing meals. My 21-year-old nephew is also a highly accomplished chef. No pressure there then…

I used to love cooking when I was a child and young adult. Starting with domestic science classes at school when I was eleven to dinner parties at university and then in my share houses and first flat, I was a reasonably good and keen cook. Although I still enjoy cooking, something seems to have been lost in translation.

Anyway, a friend shared a Boeuf Bourguignon recipe with me, one she had downloaded from the SBS website and found to be easy and delicious. As a dish I could prepare in advance, it seemed perfect. Once I’d bought in a kilo of topside, a few leeks, shallots, a bottle of red wine, herbs, some carrots, celery and about 300g of speck and mushrooms, I was ready to go. So on Saturday night, in case the urge to write came upon me on Sunday (it didn’t), I sautéed the base of speck, thinly chopped carrots, celery, leek and onion.

Come Sunday afternoon all I had to do was brown the beef and add it to the vegetables with the wine, bring it to the boil and cook very slowly for 40 minutes. As the meat simmered, I started on the carrot puree, a special touch in this particular recipe which you stir in at the end, and on the fruit crumble. I had the meat on one ring, apples and frozen blackberries on another and the carrots on the back ring. My casserole pot is quite large and about ten minutes into the cooking, I noticed that it had knocked the gas knob up to high. I quickly lifted off the lid and brought the meat back to a simmer. But I fear the damage was already done as the meat was pretty damn tough and chewy when I tested it twenty minutes later. How could I feed the kids shoe leather?

Delicious apart from the leathery meat!

Delicious apart from the leathery meat!

In desperation I rang Ollie, the 21-year-old, and asked for his advice. He thought that I must have either over-cooked the meat when I browned it or during the actual cooking. I offered to run out and buy steaks – we could perhaps drain off some of the delicious bourguignon sauce to have with them – but they had had steak the night before. Ollie said there was some lamb in the fridge that needed cooking so he threw that into the top oven. I agreed to go down about and hour before we were due to eat and pop some baking potatoes in the oven.

I got the potatoes in just after 6pm – we planned to eat at 7pm – and then, keen to salvage my culinary credibility, dashed out to Woolworths and got some milk, a cauliflower and some cheese. I am proud to say – something had to work – that I produced a beautifully browned cauliflower cheese on the dot of seven. We also heated up the carrot puree and fried up the mushrooms. While the cauliflower cheese was in the oven, I got on with the rest of the crumble, rubbing the chilled unsalted butter into the mix of flour, almond meal and sugar (special low GI coconut sugar, if you please). Not only did it start to resemble dough rather quickly, I began to get pains in my wrists – too much typing, I say – so re-named the dish RSI crumble.

Phew - it worked!

Phew – it worked!

With a bit more flour and almond meal, the crumble turned out OK. Well more or less. We were laughing so much about how I’d never make Masterchef – the baked potatoes were a little undercooked and the carrot puree was on the bland side – that I forgot to time the crumble. The topping was a wee bit burnt, but salvageable, when I got it out of the oven but the apples were still a bit crunchy. How did that happen?! I did better than this in year 8! At this point we were all laughing hysterically. What we lacked in culinary precision, we gained in the most wonderful evening of belly laughing bonding. And I proved worthy of my nickname: Mad Aunt Lot-Lot.

Oh, and when I got the home the carrot soup was just about cooked!

Armchair travel

The beauty of being an Airbnb host (and I am not writing a promo here!) is that you get to meet people from all over the world and share stories, meals, laughter and life experiences. Living in Australia means that most overseas travel is medium to long haul; you certainly can’t nip off to Europe for a weekend. So bringing a flavour of those countries and customs into your house can be the next best thing.

I’m always fascinated by different customs and ways of living: toast with jam no butter (my Italian guests); toast with peanut butter and jam (the Americans); eating toast and bread off a slice of kitchen paper rather than a plate (the Americans); rinsing a clean cup before drinking out of it (the Chinese); shoes off before coming into the house (the Malaysians); and – no surprises here – wall to wall pasta with pesto (the Italians).

I asked the first people to enquire about my room lots of questions before accepting their reservation. If guests have not completed their Airbnb profile or got reviews from previous hosts, it’s a bit of a blind date. So I gave Cinzia and Giulia the third degree! After all they were due to arrive in the early hours of the morning and let themselves in to my house. Needless to say the sisters, who hail from Sulmona in the Abruzzo region of Italy, were warm-hearted and very easy to get to know. So much so that I soon had an invitation to go and visit next time I am in Europe. I’d never heard of Sulmona, the birthplace of the poet Ovid, but am now excited about exploring this small medieval city surrounded by mountains and packed with historical interest. I can just see myself sitting in one of the bustling squares, sipping a glass of wine and people watching.

Cinzia and Giulia kept very late hours and didn’t get into the Australian habit of eating early – no ‘When in Rome do as the Romans’ for them – but we did manage to share a meal together one night. They cooked a rich and flavoursome mushroom risotto and I made baked peaches with almonds.

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As I have written previously my American tandem-riding guests, Dan and Vicky, were also a lot of fun. They were with me over Christmas and New Year and we went out for a special dinner on Christmas Eve, shared downtime around the house with Dan helping me with lots of ‘honey-dos’ (see xxxx), and took in a few movies and beach walks. They invited me to their home in Denver, Colorado, next Christmas and – to cut a long story short – I am saving up. Too bad that Bertie won’t be able to come too.

Last week I had my first Chinese visitors and what a delight they were. Chester and Janice are first cousins, both twenty years old. Janice is studying in Sydney and Chester came over from Guangzhou (he taught me how to pronounce it properly as Guanjo) to check out Monash University. They sometimes got into a bit of a linguistic tangle and would dissolve into giggles, which I found most endearing. They were extremely quiet and considerate around the house and cleaned the kitchen so thoroughly that I could hardly tell if they had eaten or not. What’s more they gave me a beautiful blue and white Chinese bowl with a picture of a fish, a symbol of abundance.

They cooked Western style while they were here and made me, an English woman, American-style pancakes with maple syrup one morning. As I said in my Facebook post, it was yum without the cha! To return the compliment, I cooked dinner one night. A friend asked me if I had included rice in the menu. That would have been ‘Coals to Newcastle’ so I made rack of lamb with quinoa salad with feta cheese, spinach and cherry tomatoes.

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They found the salad ‘interesting’ and the lamb delicious but are not used to eating such a big meal at night. Their parents’ business is in dry foods that go into special medicinal soups. As anyone who has visited a Chinese herbalist or doctor will know, cold straight-from-the-fridge foods are a no-no, as is iced water. Warming teas, soups and rice-based meals are the go. I learnt that there are special soups for women who have had a baby, women who have just menstruated and much more. But this was a ‘when in Melbourne’ occasion and we broke all the rules. We started with a celebratory drink of Scotch whisky and soda on the rocks, ate pinkish lamb with the’ interesting salad’ (cheese is not common in China and quinoa probably non-existent) and then finished with a special dessert they made out of cooked tapioca, coconut milk and mango.

We used to get tapioca pudding at school and we all struggled to eat it, complaining that it was like frog spawn. It’s true that the tapioca pearls do have a spawn-like appearance and they are somewhat gelatinous. But I really savoured the feeling of the cool jelly-like baubles in my mouth on Sunday night. Mixed with coconut milk and mango, it was the perfect dessert for a 33-degree summer’s evening.

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It was hugs all round when they left the next morning and I got to eat the tapioca pudding leftovers that night. This week I have a Malaysian mother and son staying. Who knows what we might eat, do or learn from one another? Meanwhile, I’m doing my best to take off my shoes before coming into the house!

Totally into Tea

As a tea drinker living in one of the world’s coffee capitals – according to one website I checked, metropolitan Melbourne gets through three million cups of coffee a day – I’ve decided it’s time for tea to steal some of the bean’s thunder – you could say it’s the war of the shrubs, camellia sinensis versus coffea. Because although there are plenty of other tea fans out there, coffee is still the beverage du jour and it’s all got increasingly fancy what with hand-picked beans, computer-controlled roasting, humidity-controlledfridges, syphons, grinders, dripper, filters and frothing jugs. You name it.

Freshly picked tea leaves from the camellia sinensis shrub

Freshly picked tea leaves from the camellia sinensis shrub

The good news for us teAtotallers (teAtotal being the opposite of coffee careerist) is that tea drinking has also reached a level of sophistication that makes dusty tea bags dunked in a cup of hot water seem a travesty. Tea is a whole world unto itself as I have been discovering.

Writing an article on tea for a health insurance magazine recently, I discovered that tea drinking dates back to around 2700 B.C., making it older than coffee and younger than wine. Legend has it that the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung was boiling his drinking water when leaves from a nearby tea shrub blew into the cauldron and, hey presto, the cuppa was born. There are four main types of tea: Black ,Green, Oolong and White tea. The difference lies in the degree of fermentation and processing. White tea, for example, is made with minimal processing of young new leaves that can only be picked for a few weeks a year. So, while it’s one of the pricier teas, it’s also very high in health boosting anti-oxidants. And then there all the wonderful herbal brews and tisanes made from herbs, fruits, flowers and spices. I am currently drinking Revive tea from Husk, a gloriously fragrant blend of lemon scented tea tree and hawthorn berries.

Nothing beats the humble cuppa

Nothing beats the humble cuppa

In my perambulations around the subject, I came across Sarah Cowell of Teasense, whose love of speciality teas has taken her to China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan. She’s been a Tea Sommelier at Melbourne’s Vue du Monde and Storm in a Teacup and now runs tastings and trainings, encouraging people to approach tea as “a sensory experience and something you develop a ‘sense’ or feel for if you listen. Like commonsense, over time, you can develop your own ‘teasense’.” (See http://www.teasense.com.au).

Last week, I put my teasense to the test at one of Sarah’s events, a chocolate and tea pairing. We sampled 6 different teas: Roasted Green tea, Hojicha from Japan; Dry Season Uva Black tea, a high altitude from Sri Lanka; Oriental Beauty Oolong from Taiwan; Bi Lu Chun green tea (translated as green snail spring) from China; Jasmine Green and pear tea from China; and Genmaicha green tea from Japan.
She encouraged us to engage all our senses – this was mindfulness in a tea cup – and to notice the aroma, colour, feel, taste, texture and flavour of the tea. Just like with wine, one of the best ways to ‘feel into’ the tea is by slurping and aerating it in the mouth.

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One of the teas we tasted was Oriental Beauty Oolong from Taiwan. Sarah teamed it up with a 64% dark chocolate from Vietnam. Some of us got vanilla notes from the tea and, from the chocolate (no biting allowed, only a slow sensuous melt in the mouth), notes of dried cranberry and banana. And, interestingly, the tea felt creamier and smoother in the mouth with the chocolate.

We ended with one of my favourites Genmaicha rice green tea from Japan. Now something of a delicacy and treat, this tea originated in post-war Japan when times were hard and puffed brown rice was added to make the tea stretch further. I love the toastiness of the rice and find it softens the green tea. What’s more, you can eat the pieces of puffed rice after brewing! We paired it with a green tea Kit Kat (available in Asian stores), an excellent combination of earthy greenness offset by the sweetness of the Kit Kat, which has a white chocolate base with green tea added.

It was an excellent evening and I learnt some great tips to enrich my experience of tea:
• Decant tea into a second pot to stop it brewing and getting too strong. This may seem obvious but rarely happens. If I order a leisurely pot of English breakfast in a café, it ends up like brown stew by the time I pour my second or third cup.
• Brew oolongs and white teas in a small pot and re-steep, because the second or third infusions are often the best.
• Heat the water to 90 degrees for green tea. So, for those of us without fancy temperature-controlled kettles, simply leave for a few minutes after boiling and then let the tea infuse for one and a half minutes to avoid bitterness.
• Aim to pour your tea anti-clockwise. In China, this means ‘come in and welcome,’ while clockwise pouring means ‘scarper, bugger off, go home’!
• And, one of my favourites, in Chinese tea ceremonies they never fill the cup full so there’s room for friendship.

The evening left me inspired to host my own tea tasting and to always leave plenty of room for friendship!

Life’s too short…

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In 1975 Shirley Conran famously said, “Life is too short to stuff a mushroom.” The quote was of course about the expectations on women to be superwomen and ‘have it all’. Today, in a purely culinary context, I decided to coin a new phrase: Life is too short to make an egg white omelette. Have you ever made or eaten one? Perhaps, like tofu, egg white omelettes are simply a vehicle for carrying other flavours. But why bother dressing up a pale imitation, when you can have the real thing? It’s a bit like vegetarian sausages or soy cheese; a contradiction in terms. You really can’t have it both ways.

The only reason I cooked up an anaemic, tasteless, fluffy white concoction was because I had four egg whites left over from making a super rich pistachio ice cream at the weekend that called for egg yolks, cream, sugar, pistachios and rose water. It was rather good, if a little too sweet, and combined the floral flavours of Turkish delight with a subtle nuttiness. Never mind that my nephew thought it was brown bread ice cream!

But back to mushrooms and stuffing them. I disagree with Shirley. I used to do a stuffed mushroom dish with diced bacon, tomato, parsley, wine, breadcrumbs and cheese. It was easy an easy dish to throw together and tasted delicious. The only problem is that I lost the recipe years ago. Anyone got anything similar in their repertoire?