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Disappearing act

I can’t believe it’s been, oh, five months since I posted. I wrote more articles, freelanced a bit more, started a new job (at a uni, where I get to try and discover new things), and decided (after much deliberation) not to pay for reliable internet. All of this means the time I used to spend blogging is now directed towards other adventures. I’ll leave the recipes I’ve already posted here, though, in case they come in handy. I know I still use this collection from time to time.

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A few more of my recent articles

Cute animals and fire–how very Australian.

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Funny enough for a Friday night

(and very, very true).

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Autumn on our balcony

I cannot yet bring myself to embrace Autumn like I once did. Here in Sydney, the only signs of the changing seasons are bursts of torrential rain, moonlight on the drive home, and a sickly browning of the deciduous trees in place of the usual coppers, auburns, golds.  But Sydney does have one distinct advantage over the Northeastern United States when it comes to Autumn: the garden is still green, still abundant.

Without the threat of impending frost, we plant dwarf green peas and drape our late tomatoes over the balcony edge. Once plucked of green caterpillars disguised as stems, the fruit begins to warm in color, too late perhaps for the taste of summer’s first tomato.  But that’s the price we pay for waiting until February to plant this year’s crop (February–once the time for picking seeds out for the coming year, now a time for greenery, and the hottest nights you could ever possibly envision).

It’s been a tardy summer, filled with other things. But here, finally, we managed to grow more than we thought we could in tiny pots, full of store-bought soil.  We have discovered that most things will grow in closer proximity than the seed packets claim, and while the results are occasionally cartoonish, like our French Breakfast radishes below will attest, they are still finer than their store-bought cousins.

Thinned out greens (young radish, kale, pea shoots, arugula, cilantro) make for memorable salads, accompanied only by good olive oil, a splash of balsamic, pepper, a dash of salt. And now that our sourdough starter is alive again (our newest pet), perhaps some homemade sourdough bread is in our future. Autumn is, after all, the start of baking season.

Time to go buy some flour.

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It’s alive!

I think our balcony has more greenery than all the sum total of all the other balconies in our apartment complex.  That’s saying something, given the 4-balcony townhouse monstrosities opposite us.

What we’re growing:

  • tomatoes (planted late, but doing well, thanks to worm castings)
  • dwarf Meyer lemon
  • broccoli
  • kale
  • leeks
  • spinach
  • Swiss chard
  • Brussels sprout (from the No-Dig workshop run by The Watershed)
  • lettuce mix
  • arugula / rocket
  • dwarf peas (The shoots are delicious in salad)
  • French breakfast radishes (If you plant too close, pluck the extra shoots and throw them in a salad.)
  • strawberries
  • sage
  • parsley
  • cilantro
  • After-dinner mint
  • rosemary
  • basil
  • thyme
  • And some other stuff we had seeds for and decided to throw in the mix…

It’s not quite the same as our Connecticut garden, but here in Sydney, I think we’re doing pretty well.

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A closer look at America’s culinary landscape

Michael Brissenden’s article, “A land of truly ordinary culinary options”, is certainly one aspect of the USA’s culinary landscape.  It is what you see if you’re just passing through, if you don’t talk to the locals, if you forget the fact that America and Australia may share certain traits but operate in completely different economic and cultural realities.

America is small towns and segregation, vast expanses of open land and suburbs as far as you can see.  It is housing projects and mansions in a land where too many people in power think pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is possible for all, because you hear the stories of the lucky few.

It is also a place where people are passionate about making a difference, because we are all taught that we—as individuals—have that power, if only we work hard enough. It’s a place where you can find people who care about the food they grow and prepare, if you know where to look.

Before moving to Sydney just six months ago, my husband (an Australian) and I (an American) lived in a town that had a European style coffee shop that roasted its own beans and three dueling Italian delis featuring locally produced meats and vegetables, panini made with fresh, flavorful ingredients, and handmade pastas brought in from another local business.  This was just what was available on our street. If you ventured further, mostly within walking distance, you could get fresh-baked artisanal sourdough, some of the best pizza in the country, transcendent French-influenced Thai food, local produce from the Farmers’ markets, spicy Malaysian curries and noodle soups, and experimental Spanish cuisine.

This is just the start of what we found in New Haven, Connecticut, a town of just over 120,000 people, not including the surrounding suburbs. New Haven is between Boston and New York, is the home of Yale University, and is a fairly typical mid-sized college town.  It is as good an example as any of America’s dysfunctional relationship with food.

Downtown, where most of the undergraduate students live and where tourists flock, fresh food is abundant, posh restaurants and bars line the streets, and everything from vegan raw cuisine to New York-style steak houses can be found.  Good food is plentiful, and beyond the street carts serving $4 burritos or Pad Thai with chicken, the familiar fast food chains so many of us associate with America are non-existent.

In New Haven’s poorer neighborhoods, you find food deserts, where anyone in search of lunch is more likely to end up with a burger made of government-subsidized corn products than anything else.  One of the local supermarkets, Shaw’s, closed suddenly this year, prompting community outrage and hurried attempts to find an adequate replacement. As far as I’m aware, the community is still in search of another supermarket chain to take its place.

But in these same neighborhoods, if you talk to the locals, you can find home-style Southern barbecue joints and discount grocery stores like C-Town that stock affordable foods and some of the most authentic Salvadoran food in the US.  More recently, local organizations like Cityseed have been working to make farmers’ markets more affordable and accessible to residents in these neighborhoods, with increasing success.

The American food landscape is changing because Americans are becoming increasingly aware that the culinary landscape of America is dysfunctional, and are making steps to remedy this.  It is happening, slowly, and with varying degrees of success, but it is gathering momentum.  New Haven is just one example of this movement, and these same changes are happening in cities and towns all over the US.

Does quality local food cost more than the government-subsidized, corn-filled food Michael Brissenden came across? Yes, of course it does, for obvious reasons. You pay more for quality, and for food the government doesn’t subsidize. This is why food in Australia, as a whole, is more expensive than food in the US.  This is why America, with its an ever-increasing rich-poor gap, comparatively minimal social services, and a non-existent public health care system, is filled with poor-quality, tasteless food.  It’s easy, it’s cheap, and it’s all people have access to in some cases.  But that’s not all that’s out there.

Even in my relatively short lifetime, it is clear that the food culture across the US is changing for the better.  But in a nation of over 300 million people, these changes take time, and are not always obvious to the casual tourist.

For now, I recommend that visitors to the US do some research before they arrive.  The internet makes this easy; sites like eGullet and Chowhound have forums separated by region where you can ask food-obsessed locals where they think you should get lunch in St. Louis, for example, or where the best Mexican food in Salt Lake City can be found (the Red Iguana gets my vote). If you’re taking a road trip, check out Roadfood.  As for coffee, look for an espresso machine and small serving sizes; these places are becoming more common with time.

And if you’re in New Haven, stop by Pepe’s Pizza for a white pie with clam or shrimp (no cheese); follow it up with a macchiato from Fuel, just around the corner. Then tell me what you think of America’s culinary landscape.

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Heart-healthy panna cotta

It figures I’d start the low-fat, low-sodium posts with a dessert.  Those of you who know me in real life are aware I don’t do deprivation well — particularly when it comes to sweets.  So yes, dessert was the first thing I tried to transform.

The good news is, I think I’m on the right track.  I would almost serve this to guests — ALMOST.  It is still very much a work in progress, but I can assure you of this: it is a welcome substitute for the non-fat yogurt and jam we’ve* been stuck with lately.   I’ve basically started with a low-fat panna cotta recipe, which replaces the typical cream and sugar component of the dessert with low-fat milk and yogurt, and transformed it into something more exotic.  Does it work? Well — as I said before, almost. I would use pineapple or bananas instead of strawberries (or at least saute the strawberries with a little bit of nice balsamic or brown sugar), steep the basil in the coconut milk as opposed to liberally adding slivers of it to the dessert, and would skip the black pepper (which I will not mention in the recipe, of course) in favor of vanilla or toasted coconut.  Beyond that, though, it actually does seem worthy of dessert, which is exactly what I was going for.  If you want to make it a little creamier, you can either use full fat coconut or low / full fat yogurt.  But then you might as well use real cream, no?

If you prefer, you can also use regular milk. I’ve done this as well, and it works. It’s just a little less exciting.

Forgive the photos, which sort of remind me of faux foodie glamour shots. It is 11 pm and my nice camera lacks battery power, so I’ve decided to improvise.

* Err… well, James has. Until yesterday, I had my private stash of Girl Scout Cookies. Shhh, don’t tell!

Low-fat strawberry basil panna cotta

Serves 4.

  • 1 c. low-fat coconut milk
  • 1 c. non-fat greek yogurt (Fage or Skyr are the best)
  • 1 packet unflavored gelatin (have yet to try this with agar agar for the vegetarians out there, but if I get around to it, I will report back. If you try it out and it works, leave a comment!)
  • 2 t. honey
  • 3 basil leaves, finely chopped
  • 6 strawberries, cut into small chunks

Sprinkle the gelatin over the coconut milk, and let stand for a couple of minutes minutes.  Heat briefly over a medium-low burner, stirring rapidly, until the gelatin dissolves.  Add the honey, and stir until that also dissolves.  Remove from heat. Stir in basil chunks, and set aside.

Evenly distribute strawberry chunks between four ramekins or small bowls.  Pour coconut milk mixture over the strawberries.  Chill mixture for a couple of hours, or until the mixture has firmed.  Serve cold, either in the ramekins or turned out and topped with some sort of decadent berry sauce (which I have yet to make).

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