little red jottings

when a little red pen wanders off the page

Tag: kitchen books

Each of us, together

20161126_192610Well, that was a week. Ian went to Kaikōura to cover post-earthquake things, and all manner of bollocks descended on me at work.

Home was good, though — our new after-school childcare person is a footballer, so the boys are well thrilled. He is also a jolly good cleaner, so I am well thrilled too. The boys are used to being journo kids — they missed their dad, but flicked straight into helping-out, getting-on-with-it mode.

I kind of enjoyed the quiet and calm of the week, but realised within half an hour of Ian being home that the volume in the house had quadrupled and I had slowed to snail’s pace. I guess we had all been managing and looking after each other and that was good, but we need Ian to relax us and let things go. It was a good reminder of the ways we balance each other, of the dance we do as opposites.

The boys were pretty scratchy, but by the time we had eaten bento, driven round the harbour, played soccer, made a sandcastle, conducted watery experiments on the sandcastle, snuggled on the sand, driven round the best inlet in the city, seen baby stilts and a kingfisher and got home, we seemed to have made it back into ourselves again.

20161126_192514And then we each found our own peace. Ian tidied up and did chores. I planted 40 zucchini seedlings out, picked a salad of baby leaves and flowers, and cut back some lupins and sorrel that had gone to seed. The Cat watched soccer videos. And the Rabbit made things.

He started by cutting back sorrel, but was interrupted by his bowels, which we only knew about because he left the bathroom in a less than ideal state. Then Ian found him in the workshop with a large piece of wood in the vice with the words “side 1” written on it. “What are you doing?” Ian asked. “Making a run for the guinea pigs,” said Rabbit.

Later, we were having dinner. Ian was drinking wine, eating pasta and talking to me. I was drinking wine, eating pasta and reading a book. The Cat was calculating the value of our car relative to the weekly income of a professional footballer (low). The Rabbit was drawing circles and cutting cardboard. Five minutes later, he had finished a set of traffic lights.

20161126_190707“What’s your plan for the lights?” we asked. “I’ll shine a torch on them,” he said. Damned if it doesn’t work, too.

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Telling it like it is

It’s 8.30pm and we’re eating dinner. This is not some sophisticated European thing. This is a long day with too much frazzle, a fishing trip that consisted almost entirely of line disentanglement, the end of a long weekend, dwindling parental energy, the rigours of the supermarket, the complications of catering for one child with allergies, one who has decided he is now a vegetarian who eats seafood and mince, and two parents who want a simple French tart every now and then, and also it’s the sort of late you get when you start behind time and everything goes just enough wrong to really collapse the schedule. Probably, in sum, it’s bad parenting, or maybe it’s just the way life rolls sometimes.

So, here we are, eating our mince, pea, apple and olive pie and our leek, tomato, olive, goats’ cheese tart, relaxed and comfortable with each other at last, some of us playing Uno, some of us with our noses in a book. Ian is trying to convince the Rabbit that it’s time to go to bed, that there will be only a little bit of story time tonight, that a bath is not going to happen. I’ve chipped in a bit but — truth be told — I’m nearing the bottom third of a wine glass and I’m reading essays by Helen Garner and I still have to cook a lasagne tonight before I can go to bed, so now the conversation is swirling in the space around my head, but nothing’s going in my ears.

Until we get to this bit.

Rabbit: “Do you know what I’m doing?”

Ian: “Um …”

Me: “Procrastinating?”

Rabbit: “What I’m doing is I’m not listening to you.”

Focus

While I was cooking dinner, the Rabbit came into the kitchen and collected a pair of scissors. He made some modifications to his hut, then I lost track of what he was doing. I caught sight of several bits of paper and the stapler, and I told him how to spell “home” and “work”.

After a good 15–20 minutes, he came in looking upset. “I’ve stuffed it up”, he said. He’d made a book and written “Rabbit’s homework” on the cover, but he had done it so that either the text was upside-down or the staple was at the bottom.

Trying to be helpful, I suggested several solutions: using the book with the staple at the bottom, changing the name to “Rabbit’s upside-down homework”, etc — overly complicated ideas which Rabbit swiftly let me know would NOT DO AT ALL.

Tapping into my Better Self (International Women’s Day at work again), I stopped what I was doing and got down to his level. “Well,” I said, “let’s look at all the things you’ve achieved. You found some paper, you stapled it together and you wrote a cover. I’m sure you can solve this problem.”

His face brightened immediately and he said, “Of course! I’ll just take the staple out and put it in the other end.”

Sometimes it’s the smallest things.

Tomato and feta salad

P1090736I really should wait until I have photos, but how about I just write the damn post and promise to take photos next time I make this little beauty? (Edit: done.)

Tomatoes are my go-to feel-better food. Mum said that as a small child all I would eat was boiled potatoes chopped up with tomatoes. Now I turn to thick tomato sauces, vine tomatoes roasted with garlic, sun-dried tomatoes and olives, shakshuka, that sort of thing. They cure sadness, lethargy, over-indulgence, bugs and illnesses, stress, grumpiness, the lot.

And with the weather warming up, the nights lengthening and barbecue season starting, I’m hauling out my long-term favourite: tomato salad. This recipe is adapted from Stephanie Alexander’s; it’s easy, quick, cheerful and life-giving. Get into it! I can’t find her recipe online, but it’s in this book.

P1090733Tomato and feta salad

tomatoes (various shapes, colours and sizes if possible)
red or spring onion
olive oil
feta
salt and pepper
lemon zest
fresh basil

P1090724You know this is basically an assembly job, right? I make this on a flat plate or platter with a raised rim to catch the juices. I’m a ceramics fiend, so I have a few to choose from — just use something that makes you happy. This dish is all about the happy.

P1090725To cut the tomatoes, you will need a small, sharp, serrated knife. You will also need to remove the stalky bits. If you’re okay with those two requirements, my friend, I’m coming for dinner. This is a good opportunity to get a little bit creative and cut different kinds of tomatoes into different shapes — slices, wedges, dice, whatever. I would prefer that you are consistent within varieties, i.e., all the cherry tomatoes should be cut the same way, as should all the romas. But they can be different from each other. Also, don’t do anything too fancy. I’m a bit fussy about knife work in the kitchen. I know, I know, y’all thought I was really relaxed and not in the least bit uptight or picky. Being an editor and all. Sorry to burst that bubble. When you’ve sliced the tomatoes, jumble them on the plate, more or less in a single layer.

P1090727That’s the hard bit done. Now very finely slice a small amount of red onion or a larger amount of spring onion and scatter it over the tomatoes. I like red onion, but I cannot stand large slices of it. I don’t know why people do that. You’re eating a nice salad or a deeply satisfying salmon and cream cheese bagel and then there’s these enormous half moons of sharp onion in your mouth. It’s horrible. I would use about one-sixth or less of a red onion (a wedge) or pretty much a whole small spring onion. I have to say that I like the spring onion more at the moment. I think it’s really lovely with the feta.

P1090728Next, pour some olive oil over the tomatoes and onion. Praise the lord, I have no strong feelings about the quality or type of olive oil, but keep a light hand and get the olive oil on before the rest of the ingredients. It provides a nice base for everything else to adhere to, and I think it starts to mollify the onion a bit.

P1090730Then it’s just a matter or scattering on some (or a lot of, if I’m in charge) feta, freshly ground salt and pepper, lemon zest and ripped-up basil. Let it sit for a little while, perhaps, then eat.

P1090732I don’t think the prettiness of this salad can be overstated. And it just gets prettier as you add each ingredient. It’s good as leftovers too, although it won’t last beyond the next day.

Have fun!

P1090735

Marmalade days, Part II

I picked up Shonagh Koea’s book, The Kindness of Strangers {Kitchen Memoirs} at breakfast this morning, and I’ve been rolling her words like marbles under my tongue all day. I could start quoting anywhere, really, and my stopping point will be likewise borderline arbitrary, but I thought, y’know, marmalade.

The first time I made marmalade was when I was working as a very junior reporter in New Plymouth. The Daily News was a morning newspaper so we all worked until eleven at night, or even later, and no one wanted boarders going in and out of their houses at that hour so I had a tiny flat of my own. There was a tiny kitchen with a kauri bench and a very old-fashioned gas stove on cabriole legs. It had a mottled blue and while enamel surface and I always thought it was rather pretty. I made my first batch of marmalade on that stove and when I had poured it into the jars and left it to set on the bench I thought it looked truly beautiful, so golden and glittering and clear.

This tiny flat was the first home I ever had of my own and I liked it very much. It was very quiet and looked out on to large trees. When I stepped into the place it was always quiet and exactly as I had left it. In Hastings, my father had a habit of suddenly arriving home in his big car, loading it up to the roof with anything nice like crystal glasses or the better blankets or anything he thought was worth having and, with much shouting, driving away. He would not return for several months. That is why when I had that first little flat it pleased me very much that whatever I had, and it was not much, remained where it was. If I had a coat hanging in my wardrobe when I left for work the same coat was hanging in the same wardrobe when I got home. I found the idea of that absolutely charming. Possibly it was the first time I had any reliable sense of security.

The marmalade I made then is essentially the same recipe I still use but I have altered it slightly over the years. I now take no notice of the recipe’s instructions about when the mixture is ready to be put into jars to set because, for marmalade, the timing often varies with the ripeness of the fruit.

To Make Marmalade

six large grapefruit
four lemons
12 cups of water
12 cups of sugar

Slice the grapefruit and lemons as finely as you can, after washing the fruit carefully. Cover the sliced fruit with the water and leave overnight. The following day bring this mixture to the boil and boil for twenty minutes. Remove the jam pan from the heat and stir in the sugar, bring the mixture quickly to the boil after that and boil it for thirty minutes. At this stage you can start testing it to see if it will set. I used to put a spoonful in a saucer and leave it for a minute or two to see if a skin would form on it but after several years of my using this not overly reliable method, an elderly lady I knew told me a very handy trick. It had been passed on to her by her mother. She said to dip an ordinary silver or stainless steel tablespoon into the mixture and then hold it horizontally over the marmalade so you are looking at the wide inner face of the spoon. When the marmalade drips off the lower edge in two separate places simultaneously the marmalade is ready to be put into the jars. It sometimes takes much longer than thirty minutes’ boiling to accomplish this but it is a very reliable method, I have found. When I first started to make marmalade I used to put the clean empty jars in a slow oven to sterilise, about the time I put the sugar in the mixture. Then I would have to get them out one at a time — and they would be hot — with an oven cloth, in a sudden untidy kind of scramble. But these days I put them neatly in rows in a roasting dish and then I just have to get the whole lot out at once and any drips of marmalade, when I fill the jars, are caught in the dish.

[Interlude for a marmalade loaf recipe and time to marvel at the genius spoon and roasting dish methods which, collectively, would eliminate about 80% of my previous marmalade trauma, then…]

Another very nice loaf I sometimes make has no marmalade actually in it, but I put marmalade on it and sometimes make it instead of having ordinary bread. It is a bran teabread and is very pleasant to have sliced and buttered and spread with marmalade for breakfast at a weekend when I go out to my little garden house to read the paper and have a look at my wilderness (which is really only about as big as a tennis court, if that). I have cultivated quite wild and spreading plants so there is an atmosphere of largesse and tropical wilderness in my garden and through this I walk carefully with a cup of coffee in one hand and a doorstep of homemade bran loaf spread with marmalade in the other. Once I tripped on a low-lying leaf of my big flax plant and fell flat on my face, so I have walked through my garden with greater care since then. I had thought, as it was my very own garden, that I would be able to do anything there and be unharmed but this was just a fanciful thought — I am apt to have such fancies and think that because it is me everything will be all right. It mostly is but sometimes not, like the time I tripped over the flax leaf.

Shonagh Koea, The Kindness of Strangers {Kitchen Memoirs}, Auckland, NZ: Random House, 2007 (pp. 32–35).

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