Wednesday: Но я не согласен друг мой!

Russian: But I do not agree my friend!

Mookie for Easter 3

It’s make or break day. The day for debating every little thing, whether a contract, a project or year 3 homework.  Wednesday seems destined to be the day when we emulate the great dissenter, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – it just will not do to be identical to all those drinking the office KoolAid, lining up to do as they are told.

So breakfast needs to be something to pump up the blood sugar for all the hand-waving arguments that are the signature of the mid-week breakfast ‘discussion’ (did you hear the air-quotes?)

  Evil breakfast pizza     Mookies     Biscotti my way     Politically-correct oatey slice

Not really nutritious, but certainly hands-down most delicious, are two that are perfect after pulling an all-nighter of work or play – evil breakfast pizza (which has a ridiculous amount of sugar in it!) and our house special ‘mookies’ (which are more like chocolate laced together with a bit of cookie dough).

Oh, alright – if you have to have something nutritious to fuel your gesticulations, there is a politically-correct slice filled with oaty goodness.  Of course, if you are broke, saving for a holiday or just saving your sugar allowance for another day, go back to Monday and try the brack (go on, read about it to find out why).

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“It’s nothing special”

I recently fell into a project where the work skills that I take for granted were rather more highly prized by those colleagues than I have come to expect – they were particularly appreciative, and made me blush which is no mean feat at my age!  On the same theme, I see my cooking as something everyone might aspire to, but again was made to blush yesterday when the wee girl next door reported to her play group friend that I was a very kind neighbour who shares special cooking!

After a rap like that, I must resolve to never again say “It’s nothing special, just what I do in my spare time”!!  And in celebration of being appreciated by the local pre-schoolers, here is a recipe that has its own blush from the gorgeous berries that I used to make a simple breakfast treat.

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My kind of wrinkles

Tomatoes to be cookedWhen it comes to oven-roasted tomatoes, the wrinkles are where the flavour is!  In anticipation of a future post about slow cooked breakfasts, I thought I would share this pearler of a dish that will be welcome anytime you might eat brekkie.  (If the two-legged locusts are away, leftovers will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for several days, and they are delicious cold in salads or as condiments on a sandwich).

And, seriously, this is a zero spooner.  Little kids love it because of the mud pie factor – it works best if you actually get your hands dirty, and the steps are perfect for the L plate cook.  I use (egg-shaped) Roma tomatoes, cut length-wise to create a larger face for the goodies to be sprinkled on.  Sprinkle each thing on in order, and please don’t fret about it being neat and eye pleasing:

  • olive oil – a couple of tablespoons drizzled or brushed on (use oil spray if you like but be liberal)
  • soft brown sugar – use your hands to crumble the lumps and sprinkle about 2 to 3 tablespoons for a full baking tray
  • fresh ground sea salt and black pepper to taste
  • lots and lots of basil – this was fresh, but dry works nicely too, or you could go with oregano if you like a milder taste

You want the tomatoes to cook slowly to keep their shape, so in the oven at no more than 160°C.  An hour at least, but they will be fine for longer if you keep the heat down.  So if I am slow cooking various things for brekkie, I just whack these in an hour out from meal time, or longer if the other things are cooking at a lower heat.

Tomatoes roasted 1

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When a recipe is noise

Potatoes 4bSometimes, a recipe just gets in the way of progress – like earlier in the week, after a couple of rainy days and no walks to the green grocer, plus it was still coming down in stair rods every hour or so.  That left me looking at a cupboard cooking effort – but we had just had pasta the night before, one of my great cupboard standbys.  Next option, what do I have in the house that goes together?  A few potatoes, a couple of onions, one lonely lemon was the fresh offerings.  Missing an ingredient for almost every recipe, or with some but not enough of key ingredients to feed us as three.

At that point, a recipe just becomes noise.  So I got everything likely out on the bench and just thought about what goes together – and remembered there were fresh herbs in the garden.  So, this is what I did – brushed a pan with a few drips of olive oil, then layered in everything that seemed to fit, rosemary and Greek basil for the herbs, few grinds of black pepper on top.  Once that was done, a couple of lamb chops in the freezer seemed like the obvious choice, so hey presto! dinner.  I put a lid on the vegetables and into the oven at 180°C, ready by the time the chops were defrosted and grilled.

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Tuesday – Ich denke. Wiederkäuen ist die Antwort.

German: I am thinking. Rumination is the answer.

Museli honey toasted cooked 1

Time on Tuesday seems to move more sedately and deliberately – not so much of the whooshing sound made by Monday as it dashes by, more the steady hum of industry as we try to progress our work, whatever it may be.  Tuesday is get serious day: the go-hard-or-go-home day of the working week – so there is no time to meander through a selection of tasty breakfast goodies, because there is a real chance to move projects on, update the files, advance plans and targets. You name it, it all seems possible on Tuesday, thinking day.  So if the brain is engaged for the heavy duty work of the week, best the body be engaged with some hard core nutrition that will last the distance.

Honey toasted muesli     Muesli     Fridge porridge     Fruit compote

That means that if Tuesday is all about food to think by, it presents no small challenge for Mumchefoz in a ‘multi-disciplinary’ household including an engineer, a lapsed economist/now PhD student, the literature student turned English teacher (for speakers of other languages) and the budding games journo/reviewer!

Our thinking foods seem to be things that go in a bowl and get chewed slowly. Muesli, toasted muesli, hot porridge, fridge porridge – all things that call for chewing to match the ruminating style of Tuesday.

The soft option is fruit compote, which has an undeservedly bad rep as full of extra sugar – our taste testing (extensive, needless to say) shows that it can go very, very light on the added sugar and still be delicious. The real trick is to go carefully while you eat or you’ll wear it.

Full credit for the fridge porridge idea goes to my younger sister Kathryn, who is the legend finder of new ideas.  In fact, in one of those stories that can really only come from sisters, it is her friend, known to us as ‘Other Catherine’, who is the source of the toasted muesli recipe – she got it from her sister’s mother-in-law! (no, really – true story!)

So get your bowl and spoon and you’ll be well ready for any Tuesday life can throw at you!

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Suddenly, alchemy!

There is a whole part of cooking that is not far from alchemy, not least when you suddenly go from whipping cream to butter, or from stirring, stirring a mix over the heat to “eek, that’s a lot of cleaning up now all over the stove”.

Those transitions that come up almost between breaths are one of the distinctions I make when assigning spoon ratings  to recipes to share here.  Something not too hard, with just one alchemic moment, I say is two spoons – like this maple date loaf, which won’t be spoiled by less than perfect method, and if you choose a suitable saucepan, you can avoid the spillover. When it comes to dividing between two spoons and three spoons, though, you’re ready for three spoons when: a) you know to pay attention throughout the process and not take chances; and/or b) you have that magic sense of when the turning points are coming up and know when to pay attention – although this probably gets you rated as four spoons/as good as our mum!

So in preparation for a future post about the legitimate lifestyle choice of having cake for breakfast, I thought I would do an action sequence on the magic moment when dates, water and bicarb soda suddenly do their thing on the way to becoming one of my favourite cakes – maple date loaf.

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Monday – Subito presto!

Italian: literally, immediately soon! In other words, get your skates on, right now!

Tower of muffins 6

These brekkie items are for those days with no time to waste, mountains to be climbed, boxes to be ticked – or just a Monday after a terrific weekend, where the temptation to linger asleep was a little too strong.  However much time you don’t have, it’s all about not running out of steam along the way, or looking and feeling like a limp, wrung out bit of fabric, being so wretchedly tired at the end of the day that you can’t enjoy your achievements.

Some days are just not for dawdling, not for the leisurely, contemplative breakfast. The start of the working week is destined to be that way, especially if a big weekend means a slow start to Monday. Even with a prompt start, there is often a sense of needing to get it done today, or the whole week might well slip by again without that result being put on the table.  On those days, it’s all about grab and go, something that can be ready now and eaten quickly – even better if it will also keep you going through a packed morning. And best if you actually eat your breakfast, not end up wearing it on your work clothes.

Buttermilk muffins      Quiche muffins     Eggie muffins (with how-to steps)      Brack

For a cook, then, it’s not rocket science to work out that muffins (the overgrown cupcake type) are popular for a reason – portability and only minimal potential for damage to your work clothes on the run.  In many ways they can be the ideal ‘breakfast in a bag’ when you make them at home and pack them with the good stuff.

So a ‘muffin’ in our house is virtually anything that can be cooked in a muffin cup or tray to make it portable, and we have adapted a bunch of things to suit that approach.

PS On a different day, these are all great for ‘picnics’ – which in our house means anytime you take the munchies with you and eat out. So a ‘car picnic’ was snacks for driving to see Granma or the cousins, a ‘beach picnic’ is actually walking one of the many beach tracks near our home with a bag of munchies in hand, a ‘train station picnic’ is when we drop in to Sydney’s Central Station to see a visitor on their way through and take them a revival package of fresh, home baked eats … you get the idea!

PPS Brack gets extra bonus points because you can make it anytime on the weekend and it will be fine for Monday – if it lasts that long!

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Restart, reboot, …

Tomatoes to be cookedIf you have read more than two of my posts, you will know already that I am not much given to poetry (literally or metaphorically) nor flowery-sweet expression (except perhaps when discussing the culinary merits of maple syrup vs golden syrup, treacle vs molasses).  When I do occasionally wax lyrical – about particularly luscious basil, or rose petals fresh from the garden of my younger sister, Kathryn – it is definitely a bit of a shock to my system!

So forgive me when I say that for me, breakfast is the little resurrection that happens every day. Yesterday is gone forever, today is a whole new start, a little resurrection on the path of life – every day brings a fresh opportunity to do your best to be a good person and live happily.

No surprise, then, that since leaving school days behind with their signature of hurried cold cereal, I have more often thought back to when Mum made pancakes or donuts as a treat when I was very small, or to the little extras squeezed out of a tight budget, such as toast topped with a scrape of cream skimmed off the milk in the days before homogenised milk was the norm (yes, I know – I was born around the time of the last ice age!).  Perhaps that is why I think the all-day breakfast might be the greatest invention of modern times – certainly, my love affair with good coffee is closely linked to breakfast-as-aromatherapy while I restart, reboot, and just keep going.

So for the next several weeks, as we head towards the great restart celebrations of Easter, I’ll feature one of the approaches to breakfast that I love, starting on Monday next with an Italian thought – Subito presto! (literally, immediately, soon!) for those days when we are on the run, and leading to Sunday on Orthodox Easter Sunday 8th April, with a Spanish thought Cuando una puerta se cierra, ciento se abren (when one door closes, a hundred open) to give due oxygen to a more contemplative moment at breakfast.

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The weight of tradition

Scones and jamSomething guaranteed to make me a nervous cook is when I have the temerity to attempt something from another culinary tradition – I can feel the astral plane opening up and all the mothers of preceding generations start to watch me to see if I am doing it right, lol!!  Of course, for some things – like making scones – the pressure is on even when they ARE from my culinary tradition!  So with a yawning chasm to that astral plane and all the Italian mothers congregated there, some time back it was with almost shaking hands that I made pasta from scratch for the first time. Pfft!  Should have done it sooner – if only because it was great fun.  Like a true heathen, I used a pasta machine, and have since bent the pasta machine to my will for kneading other doughs.  What a marvellous invention.

So here is a quick guide to making pasta at home – start with one egg and 100g of plain flour for each person coming to dinner.   Follow the method shown – use a fork to gradually introduce the flour to the egg, and get it all in one lump.  Kneading? Let the machine do the work – that lump will readily smooth out and start to look gorgeous.  Start with the dial set to a very thick width, then gradually reduce as the dough refines into a nice looking sheet (that gets longer as it gets thinner, so a good one for the junior cooks to help with).  Our machine has a cutting head, so here I went for fettuccine.

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Hints? Best advice I ever got on this was keep the dough simple – and, indeed, this simple version has never yet failed me.  Also, make your pasta early and hang it up to dry while getting a sauce organised.  The point is not to dry the pasta per se, but to keep it separated (not clumped and stuck together) so it is nice when you drop it in the boiling water at dinner time.  This kind of fresh pasta literally takes a couple of minutes to cook, so don’t over do it.  Again, the best advice was to add just a drop or two of good olive oil to your boiling salted water for cooking the pasta – helps it to stay separated.

For a low stress meal with visitors, make a whole swag of pasta and a few sauces early in the day, then leave the sauces to bubble very, very gently until your guests arrive (or get all the ingredients ready for a cream sauce, as these are usually best made close to dinner time).  Meanwhile, run some paper towel through the pasta machine to clean it, then put your feet up!

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Where to start?

Spoons 7Since I am re-starting my writing here (after a seriously mad couple of weeks richocheting from one project to another work-wise) I though I’d take a moment to remark about becoming conversant with the basics of cooking.

From where I sit (admittedly, as someone who loves cooking) it is something that can never come too soon – perhaps the better perspective is what my nephew James wisely observed over Christmas: “everyone has to eat so everyone should be able to cook”.

Actually, he has also remarked when younger that following recipes involves a useful bit of maths – for example, we used making multiples of recipes, or smaller than usual batches,  to get through practicing multiplication and division homework when I was staying a couple of years back.  Thinking back, we also practiced measuring carefully when he was still at the mud pies stage of life.  No wonder he is quite the accomplished one spooner cook already, and interested in being better.

So, like reading, it seems to me that cooking is something that needs to be done around and with children, or they don’t associate it with themselves – it becomes something that other people do.  And, come to that, cooking is a useful reminder that words have specific meaning, and for good reason (unless one is commentating the winter Olympics, then its just a choice between ‘massive’ and ‘awesome’ !!!) – part of getting that one spoon rating is simply learning the difference between mix, beat, whisk, stir, etc., and the other specific forms of what is just combining some ingredients.

Once you have those basic forms organised, becoming conversant with slightly more complicated things is, once more with feeling, often a case of seeing it done.  So, in a slightly belated celebration of the recent ordination of Roxanne, my friend from our early career in the Royal Australian Air Force, I am going to show how-to on making lemon butter, or lemon curd to some people – Rox loved it when we were too young to care about calories and was famous for eating it out of the jar with a spoon!

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