Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Clothes From Heaven

Dearest Lucinda,

When I mentioned in a blog post that I hate shopping for clothes more than humanly possible, and  read your post about decluttering your wardrobe, and then cheekily suggested that you post me your decluttered clothes, you took me up on it! What a kind and adventurous spirit you are.

When I sent you a post pack and one of my decluttered books, I was feeling a bit cheap really, then you sent back a bulging parcel of clothes, and a note saying you hope I didn't feel like it was a bag full of rubbish...

Rubbish? My dear, your taste in clothes is impeccable. The Calvin Klein jeans fit like a glove. The black RM Williams moleskins are on the tight side, but I am willing to do 50 sit ups a day to fit snugly into such gorgeousness (I made it to 12 this morning..). The David Lawrence dress is to die for. The glamour, the glamour! It does show off the jiggly bits that are the result of four pregnancies, but luckily I own some ironclad underwear that should take care of that. The tops are lovely, and much posher than my normal boring Tshirts. In short - no, not rubbish, just lovely.

And the whole experience was so much better than shopping, more like Christmas, or manna from heaven. Unexpected, and wholly joyful.

Thanks ever so much for being crazily kind to this plain crazy shop-a-phobe, and may the gods of decluttering shine down upon you and make your closets a paradise of of order and gorgeousness.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Dinner, Anyone?

My dears, my computer died. It was inevitable really - The Man is on a business trip, and whenever he goes away a major appliance always breaks down. However, on the bright side, The Boy ordered a new laptop last week, and when it comes, I get to inherit his old one (you know you are getting old when you start getting hand-me-downs from the kids). Until then, my cursor only works on the far right, which rather limits its usefulness, and I have to snatch 'computer time' from the seventeen minutes a day that neither of the older children are using theirs, or that the younger children haven't pinched them. This is a post I mostly wrote last week after I left a comment on e's blog about how I was 'stuck in a groove' with cooking dinner. I really am.

I am not an early adopter. Technology, fashion, food. Whatever the arena, my motto should be 'I fear change', which means I am about thirty years out of date in most arenas. And why not? If something isn't broke, why fix it? So when it comes to cooking - well, that bag of quinoa is still languishing in the cupboard, but I tell you, I am all over the 1970s. If it was new when I was nine, it is probably one of my staples, along with all the things my grannies used to cook, because those have definitely stood the test of time. I thought I'd compile a list of my basic dishes, the ones I cook week in, week out, that require basic ingredients;  nothing that can't be found at the local corner shop in a culinary emergency.

Granny Dinners

Roast Chicken with Lots of Veg. Always do this with the traditional bread stuffing, and gravy from the drippings. Although last week, as a departure from tradition, I cut a lemon in half to use instead of stuffing. The chicken tasted quite lemony, and so did the gravy, made from the pan drippings. Different, but good! Fancy that!

Cottage Pie. My granny ground up the leftover roast in her tabletop hand-cranked mincing gadget. I buy my beef ready minced. Such a modern layabout. It is basically a bolognese recipe, without any Italian flavourings like garlic and oregano, but with the addition of Worcestershire sauce and chunks of veg: carrots, swede, peas. Lashings of mashed potato on top, and a little cheese, browned under the grill. If you slice boiled potatoes over the top instead, you can call it Lancashire Hot Pot.

Scotch Broth. Traditionally made with lamb, generally left over from the roast. I use any meat available, or none. Various veg. Always onion and celery, never garlic. Handful of barley. Can be served with scones, bread, or vegetable pancakes.

Pies. Once I discovered that you can make pastry in the food processor, I was unstoppable. You can put almost anything in a pie, as long as you make enough yummy gravy to moisten it while it cooks. I always make sure all the pie ingredients are cooked and hot before they go in the pastry. You can make meat pie mixtures out of stewing beef, stock, vegies in the stockpot. Shake the meat in seasoned flour before it goes in the pot to thicken the stock for gravy. Chicken pie - leftover roast chicken, sauteed mushrooms, stock, cream, a little flour, any gravy left over from the roast, some sage, rosemary or thyme. Can't go wrong.

1970s French Knock Offs, or Dinner with Margot Leadbetter

Tuna Mornay. Can't go past this for warming comfort food. A cheesy bechamel sauce with canned tuna and frozen corn. Cheesy is definitely the word! My granny always did it with a breadcrumb and cheese topping browned under the grill, so I do too. Its first cousin is Macaroni Cheese, to which we always add peas, sometimes broccoli or cauliflower, as a sort of easy to eat Cauliflower Cheese. Always add paprika and chili to the cauliflower version, and bacon to the broccoli version.

Boeuf Bourguignon. Your basic beef stew with the addition of red wine and mushrooms. In the slow cooker, nothing could perfume the house better on a cold day. Serve with lashings of mash.

Devilled Chicken. Why is it called that? Sauteed chicken baked in the oven over a bed of slow cooked onion or leeks, with a cream, Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce and French herb (tarragon or thyme, whatever is about) sauce.

Quiche. Real men don't eat it. Apparently no real men here. I have discovered that the best quiche is made with two eggs, and two egg yolks. Makes the texture wonderfully smooth and rich. Lots of cream. I sometimes hide a little zucchini in the quiche, but compensate with lots of bacon..

Chili Con Carne. Made this in Year 8 Home Economics. Make it in the stockpot now, and after eight hours the stewing beef is meltingly tender in its sauce of tomato and kidney beans, chili, onion, garlic and cumin. Serve with lashings of sour cream, salsa, corn chips, corn and pickles.

1980s Italy via the US of A, or Dinner with Garfield

Spaghetti Bolognese. Always put onion, garlic, oregano, bay leaves in that sauce now...

Lasagne, or Cheat's Lasagne, which negates the need to faff around with layers - pasta mixed with the bolognese sauce, topped with a layer of bechamel sauce, with or without a layer of healthy veg between the pasta and the cheese sauce..

Pizza. We bought a pizza stone and cook our pizza on the grill in the BBQ. Yum. Smallest child is wedded to The Hawaiian, everyone else is very adventurous with toppings.

Spaghetti Carbonara. We make ours with half cream, half stock, and add peas, beans or spinach, and substitute cooked chicken or sliced sausage for the bacon if so inclined.

Startling discoveries

In one meal, as a ten year old, I was introduced to two new startling dishes by American acquaintances. Pumpkin soup, and cheesecake. Loved both, but was apprehensive about cake that tasted like cheese. Was quite relieved to discover it didn't. The children all like pumpkin soup, in fact they all lived on that and pureed apple as babies, so that's not surprising. I only make a cheesecake for special occasions, and then it has to have blueberries in it, always be baked, and have a crust that consists of ginger biscuit crumbs, hazelnut meal, and butter.

Lentils. When we moved to Tasmania, we accidently fell into a den of hippies and homeschoolers. This turned out well, and they have proved the kindest and staunchest of friends over the years, and incidentally introduced me to lentils and beans as something one might eat, as opposed to say, stuff bean bags with for school PE.

Leek and lentil soup. Saute leeks, celery and bacon, add stock and lentils. There is something about this combination that is more wonderful and winter-comforting than all its parts.

Dhal. Surprisingly popular with children. Saute onions, garlic, ginger with whatever curry paste is in the cupboard. Add stock, lentils, bay leaf, cinnamon stick. Various vegetables, coconut cream if there's some in the cupboard, though that's not really in the spirit of the original recipe. That's OK, I make stuff up all the time. Serve with rice and naan. Add various ingredients to make any other curry. Chicken and cream = butter chicken. Veg, lemongrass, coconut milk = korma. Tomatoes, chili = rogan josh.

Well, that's about it I think. My skeleton meal plan. Sometimes I cook something different, and surprise everyone, not always in a good way.. the good thing about having a basic menu that I cook over and over, is that I generally have all the ingredients on hand for everything above. Also, when the children get really bored with the menu, they cook something new themselves in self-defence. Heh, heh.

Will be back when technical difficulties are resolved...

By the way, if anyone wants an actual recipe, you know, with quantities and things, let me know, and I will post it up when I've worked out how to turn on the new computer..

Edited to add: Salad Nicoise. How could I forget? Margot Leadbetter would have rocked this one. A summer staple. I tumble a warm potato salad onto a bed of crispy lettuce, top with quartered medium boiled eggs, still warm, hot-smoked salmon, and a selection of summer vegetables. I only make this with veg I want to show off from the garden - cute grape tomatoes, green beans, snow peas, baby capsicum. Don't forget crumbled feta.
Cornish Pasty. A granny dish from my Cornish ancestors. I cheat and make a vegetarian version (shredded cabbage, or other greens, cubed carrot, swede, potato, sauteed onion and celery), and I do one big log-shaped pasty to slice.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Indignation At Breakfast Time

Every morning while chaos erupts around me, and the new day rings to the dulcet tones of my daughters trying to leave the house ('I feel sick, I can't go today' 'There's nothing for breakfast' 'Where are my school socks' 'Don't be mean to the cat, Muuuuum, she's being mean to the cat'), I go to my happy place, gaze out of the window, drink my tea, and read the local paper. It's generally full of gripping news about large fish being caught, a seal in the river, and how the locals are surviving the heatwave (30C for three days straight!) When I can't stand any more excitement, I turn to the real estate guide so I can unleash my inner sub editor.

My family are very tired of hearing me complain about the illiteracy of real estate agents, and have stopped listening, but occasionally there are real gems from agents who clearly have a closer relationship with a spell checker than with a dictionary. There was a cracker from a few weeks ago regarding a house built on a hill top, the headline being, 'Where Eagles Sore' which made me rather sorry for the eagle. Yesterday's ad for an apartment really took the biscuit though - it was advertised as being 'spacious, light, trendy and sheik'. That made me happy all day..

What caught my attention this morning though, and made me do some table thumping of my own amidst all the morning cacophany, was a full page ad from Coles, voted Supermarket Most Likely to Take Over a Suburb Near You by Blueday's crack research team.

Five years ago, you would have been hard pressed to find fresh fruit or veg that had been grown outside Australia. Even our tropical fruit came from Queensland, which is, admittedly, a very long way from Tasmania, but Australian right? And came on truck or rail, which is slightly better than by air. Then came cherries from the west coast of the US. In winter. Then oranges. In summer. Grapes in spring. I have been venting my spleen about this for some time now. Fresh food flown here by plane? Such a stupid use of a precious resource. And today, for the first time, I have seen the net widening. Today, as well as citrus from the US, there were offers of asparagus from Mexico and kiwifruit from Italy. And, this is really galling, apricots from New Zealand. Tasmania is drowning in apricots, and you can buy local ones from every greengrocer for less than they are selling for at Coles.

Now this may be old news for many people around the world, especially the UK, which is so tiny, and struggles to feed itself, but last time I looked, Australia was a net exporter of food, and there certainly isn't any lack of local product on the shelves. Even out of season you can usually buy Australian fruit and veg that has been stored, all the staples, potatoes and onions, apples and oranges. It used to be that cherries and raspberries were a Christmas treat, to spread lavishly over the pavlova, to eat in the backyard on a summer afternoon, spitting cherry pips into the garden. Now you can pop them in the lunchbox in midwinter. When we should be eating oranges from the Riverland, or apples from down the road.

As you may already have guessed, I don't buy into all this, whining children notwithstanding. I am the person standing in front of the frozen food cabinet, scanning the backs of the frozen pea packs to find some grown in Australia. I am the person never shopping for fruit and veg in Coles, but at the local greengrocers where they still have some sense.

There are two telling statements in the Coles ad, one right next to the Australian grapes - '100% of our in season grapes are Australian grown'. Clearly we are expected to applaud them for that, and maybe not notice that their 'in season' apricots are grown across the ocean. Second, their trademarked jingle, 'There's no freshness like Coles freshness!'

There are two ways you can read that statement. And imagining what state that Mexican asparagus is in by the time it gets to your kitchen, I would have to say, 'Yes, no freshness at all....'

Monday, February 11, 2013

Queen Victoria's Knickers

I love blueberry plants in all the seasons. I love their spring flowers, with tiny little scallops, and a neat green dot to every scallop. They remind me of Victorian pantaloons. I also love them in Autumn when their leaves turn red and yellow and orange. I would plant them in the garden just for those features alone.

Which is lucky really, because my dozen beautiful blueberry bushes are still only knee high after two years, and have produced, oh about fifteen blueberries this summer. Very nice blueberries, as you can see. Quality, but certainly not quantity.

It is also lucky that we live within half an hour's drive of the most divine PYO blueberry farm. Last week, when I got bored with letting down the hems of school dresses and covering books, we went and picked ten kilograms of blueberries. A year of porridge toppers and muffin stuffers. We have been going to this farm since The Girl was a wee toddler, and have seen the bushes grow from waist height, to towering giants. The rows now form green tunnels, and picking blueberries is like gleaning food from a trackless jungle.  Sometimes there are tiny frogs. Hunting and gathering at its best.

Still, if blueberries weren't called blueberries, and I were the Grand High Poobah in charge of naming plants, I would call them 'Queen Victoria's Knickers', after the flowers.

PS Have you noticed that the blueberries still have tiny scallops at the base of the fruit, just like the flowers?

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Power Failure

Well, sometimes this blog is just a chronicle of failure, and this time it is our electricity use. I just got the bill, and we used more than this time last year. More! And what is even worse, there is a new little widget on the bill which compares usage to average households. We are using more electricity than an average household of six! Oh, the shame. Here I am, trying to be green, thrifty and responsible, but clearly most other people are better at that than I am..

The Man is going to get a gadget to measure the wattage from individual appliances. We have a suspicion that the pool filter is using a lot of electricity, but there's not a lot we can do about that, as we're not that keen on water-borne diseases.

I have been a bit slack over the summer with bulk cooking. The girls have done quite a bit a of baking on a whim - but really, it's very cheap entertainment, a lot cheaper than laser tag, bowling, or going to the aquatic centre, so I'm going to let that slide, and try to be on my best behaviour now.. cooked double dinners Thursday night, and The Girl made a couple of dozen macaroons with some egg whites loitering in the back of the fridge. And now I have a menu plan for the week, and only plan to turn the oven on once.

And thoughts about other electricity use? The TV has been on, well, a lot over the summer. No one person watches a lot of TV, but we have three, yes three TVs, and we are serial TV watchers, watching different shows in different rooms at different times. And computers - four laptops and an ipad, all plugged in or being recharged continuously. And all those other gadgets.. every night Posy goes to sleep with a lamp on (she is afraid of the dark), listening to audiobooks on her CD player.

In the kitchen? It's not just the oven, it's the blender, the food processor, the kettle, oh my goodness, it's on all day... and I guess that's a clue. Maybe the 'average' household is empty all day. Maybe their electricity use is externalised, at work, at childcare, in the ready meals factory. Maybe my food bill is lower? Maybe.

Still, there must be ways to save some electricity somewhere. Maybe we will be revisiting our television use. Maybe we don't need to use all the appliances. Last week we had our own 'black swan event' - when one flew into the substation powerlines and shut down the power to half of town at breakfast time. I couldn't blow dry my hair! And I made an amazing discovery - my hair looks exactly the same whether I blow dry it or not. So there is one instance of redundant electricity use.

The most disturbing discovery of all. Fully a third of our bill is for hot water. We may have to... think about... shorter showers. Noooooo!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

My Favourite Canadian Novel (So Far..)

So I promised my favorite Canadian novel, but got distracted, as often happens. Here it is: Who Has Seen the Wind by WO Mitchell. My copy proudly declares it has been discarded by the Broken Hill Municipal Library, which means I must have bought it for about 20c at a library sale when The Boy was a baby. It was one of those books picked up on a whim that I have read over and over again. I had never heard of the author, never seen the book before or since until I looked it up on Wikipedia just then. Turns out the school children of Canada are regularly forced to read it.

This is not a plot driven novel, but a very interior study of a young boy, growing up in a small town on the Canadian prairie during the Depression. I am very sure it is at least semi-autobiographical, but again, the characters - family, schoolteachers, preacher, friends, social outcasts - are all peripheral to the consciousness that the central character, Brian, brings to bear on tiny, seminal moments in his life. A drop of dew on a blade of grass, a stopped clock, the wind over the prairie, these are the moments which go to make up the boy and the man he will become. I like this, because I remember similar moments in my own childhood, moments of sudden clarity, a freeze frame of some scene or object that will forever retain some unbearable significance, because that was the moment that I suddnely knew... what? That I cannot remember.

Brian's search for meaning begins when he is four, and has earnest converstions with God, who appears to him in the guise of a leprechaun in white gumboots, and introduces himself as 'Mr RW God. You may call me RW,' and continues through to the age of eleven, as he ponders the mystery of death, grief, friendship, justice, truth.

The counterplots to Brian's unfolding consciousness are familiar to every small town. The love triangle, the malicious upholder of the status quo, the various plights of the outcasts. This novel hums with a sense of the place and times it depicts, which is one of the reasons I love it. Any book which is minutely observed and exquisitely written, and takes me to a place and time I have never been to and doesn't let me go until I have really been there, that is a book I will keep forever.

Other novels that fulfill the above requirements:

Harp in the South by Ruth Park (post-war inner Sydney slums)
The Help by Kathryn Stockett (1960's, Mississipi, loved the book, still haven't seen the movie)
A Thousand Splendid Suns (Kabul, Afghanistan transforms from cosmopolitan medieval city to Taliban stronhold over twenty years, as seen by two women) by Kholed Hosseini

PS Do not give any of these books to schoolchildren, Canadian or otherwise, under the age of 16 or so. I would let my twelve year old read Who has Seen the Wind, but I doubt she would want to.

PPS More, give me more titles like this. I am a greedy reader..

Friday, February 1, 2013

Purple Food is Good..

I am the person who always says 'Yes, please!' whenever anyone offers produce. I am the only person I know still accepting zucchinis. The other day a friend gave me a giant one that had got away when she left the house for two days. I gave it to The Man to carry (it was quite large), and he put it down on the table while we chatted. 'You are taking that home with you, aren't you?' asked my friend's husband, clearly worried we were having second thoughts. 'Just resting my arms,' muttered The Man.

My family love zucchini. This afternoon I was grating a large chunk of The Monster into the pan where I was sauteeing onion for a bolognaise sauce. 'Aaaargh,' shrieked Rosy, 'You'll ruin it! I won't eat any dinner!'
'Can I have cereal?' asks Posy, peering into the pan.

An hour later, Rosy is polishing off her second serving, telling me how delicious dinner was, and I don't have the heart to remind her of its monstrous beginnings.

Last night I went along to a gathering of like-minded souls, Tanya's Living Better Group, where we discussed using herbs in the garden, and preserving the harvest. Tanya is the Queen of Preserving, and I came away even more determined not to waste anything I am given, or growing, but to squirrel it all away for the future, or use it now instead of going to the supermarket.

So this afternoon I took out the bag of blackcurrants that someone gave me a week ago, and looked at them long and hard until inspiration struck. It had to be something that didn't involve Running Out to the Shops, so that narrowed the options. I decided on apple and blackcurrant crumble. My solution for any fruit with annoying pips and stones is to simmer it down in its own juice, mashing it down a bit, then pushing it through a sieve. This doesn't give you a lot of actual food, but it makes a lovely 'essence' of the fruit. Rosy mashed enthusiastically for me. In retrospect, white shorts for mashing blackcurrants probably wasn't a great fashion choice, but hey, when you're twelve, you're learning every day. Anyway, mixed with the stewed apples and some vanilla, under the crumble topping that I always keep stashed in the freezer for quick desserts, it was a dish that just tasted of purple. So yummy, and although we didn't have any cream or icecream, The Girl made her creamy, smooth custard that the little girls call 'chubby custard' for some unknown reason. Free food is good, free purple food? So much better.

Now I have a bag of laurel berries to make into jam. I have had laurel berry jam before, and I like its almost marzipan flavour, but I have a feeling there is something poisonous about laurel berries. Maybe you shouldn't eat them raw? I think I ought to do some research before I cook them. Free purple food is excellent, free purple food that doesn't kill you, even better.

And I have a plan for the zucchinis. I dried some to make zucchini chips because someone on pinterest said they were delicious. Those people on pinterest are terrible liars. However, Tanya dries them to add to winter stews, which sounds better, and I thought I could grind them into a powder and add zucchini powder to stews as a kind of thickener. It may work. I just won't tell the children.