Archive for the ‘books’ Category

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Walking on sunshine

May 8, 2012

Hello all … well, Love & Hunger has been out for a week today, and I’ve been a little taken aback at how frenetic that week has been. A few radio interviews, a newspaper extract here and there, a couple of reviews, few pieces on others’ people’s blogs – I’m pooped! And on Thursday I’m off to New Zealand for the Auckland Readers’ & Writers’ Festival – very excited as I’ve never been to NZ before – then straight back into the Sydney Writers’ Festival starting in Katoomba on Monday and Tuesday, then more events in Sydney at the end of the week. Plus a couple more interviews. And then more festivals and travelling to come …

When my darling writer friend Tegan (whose novels and stories are some of the finest you shall ever have the pleasure of reading) read Love & Hunger she said I should prepare myself for much communication, because of its conversational nature. She was right.

I have had emails from radio listeners, including one woman who took me to task for my offhand remarks about bad Australian food in the 1970s (“the food of the 1950s to the 1970s is in fact far superior to the food served up today”), and another very moving one from a woman coping with chemotherapy without the support of her friends. I’ve had a gorgeous podcast listener from south-west France email to invite me and my husband to come and enjoy the food of his region, and another lump-in-the-throat email from a young uni student who bought my book after reading The Age extract: “I feel your every word directed to me personally … perhaps you have given me what Elizabeth David gave you all those years ago.”

I have had the most beautiful messages from friends and family who have already read it, often sharing with me what they’ve cooked that day for someone else, or offering me a new recipe apropos of something that’s come from the book. I absolutely love this passing on of ideas and knowledge and experience – as in Tegan’s lovely comments here the other day. It means that for these people at least, the book has worked in the way I hoped it would – as a conversation, a lighter of flame, a nourishing presence. I can’t tell you how happy it’s all making me.

That long and busy week was topped off by seeing Senor playing trumpet at a gig for the first time in a long time for me. It made me so elated to see him play again, because he so talented, and he enjoys it so much. And that event gave  rise to yet another conversation and a new idea, about bringing people together through music, in a new little experiment we’ve got started.

More on that later – but in the meantime, the weather is sharp, and blue-skied, and cold. Which means it’s perfect for this sunshiny roasted pumpkin risotto. It is the business – comfort food with zing and vibrance, first made for me many moons ago by the Empress, and which has become one of my faves. It’s also excellent frugal food, but with absolutely no sense of poverty about it whatsoever.

Roast pumpkin risotto for 8

  • 1 big lump of pumpkin – I used about a quarter of a medium punk for this one, I suppose around 1kg or a bit more…
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 cups arborio rice
  • white wine or verjuice
  • 1.5 litres chicken / vegetable stock
  • butter
  • Parmesan
  1. Cut pumpkin into big chunks and roast in olive oil in the oven for up to an hour, until nicely browned and very soft and mashable
  2. You already know how to make risotto, but just in case: gently fry the onion & garlic in oil, pour in the rice and stir until the grains begin to stick to the pan, deglaze with a glass of white wine, then lower the heat and add the hot stock a cup or so at a time, stirring very frequently until the rice is just al dente, and adding boiling water if you run out of stock.
  3. Meanwhile, mash up the pumpkin and then when the rice is just tender, add it to the pan and stir in to get a beautiful orange risotto.
  4. Add a big lump of butter and stir, loosen the mix with more boiling water or stock until it’s nicely sloppy – I detest a stiff risotto – season and then add to a bowl with grated Parmesan and lots and lots and lots of pepper.

 

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Cooking as conversation

April 27, 2012

I have just read Julian Barnes’ The Pedant in the Kitchen, a slender, amusing challenge to sludgy writing of all kinds. I read it in an evening and found it very bracing. It’s come at exactly the right time for me, as with my new book coming out I’ve been asked to write bits and pieces about cooking for various food mags and websites. Anxiety on the release of a new book always makes me feel rather timid just as you’re supposed to project lots of confidence, and as I think about what to write for these things I have felt myself teetering on the edge of a deep crater of magazine-speak about food. You know the kind of thing: “There’s nothing nicer than lunch made with seasonal produce, sharing good food with family and friends,” and so on. The sort of stuff that is accurate enough, yet utterly banal.

So when I visited the lovely people at Books for Cooks in Melbourne earlier this week (if you haven’t been here and you like to cook, you must! But beware – it is a seemingly endless rabbit warren of cookbook goodies, and they have an online store!) and found this handsome yellow volume I found myself clutching at it like a drowning woman. And I hope it’s going to save me from an infection of triteness, because it’s reminded me that all that is really needed for good writing is the truth. A dash of style helps, of course, but the very appealing thing to me about this book is Barnes’ confidence in his own cranky obstinacy. He’s hilariously uptight about recipe books and their instructions, attributing his pedantry to having grown up in a house where men had nothing to do with cooking, and the “late onset” of his own interest in it.

The result of all this…is that while I now cook with enthusiasm and pleasure, I do so with little sense of freedom or imagination. I need an exact shopping list and an avuncular cookbook. The idea of carefree marketing – waltzing off with wicker basket over the arm, relaxedly buying what the day has best to offer, and then contriving it into something which might or might not have been made before – will always be beyond me.

In the kitchen I am an anxious pedant. I adhere to gas marks and cooking times. I trust instruments rather than myself. I doubt I shall ever test whether a chunk of meat is done by prodding it with my forefinger. The only liberty I take with a recipe is to increase the quantity of an ingredient of which I particularly approve. That this is not an infallible precept was confirmed by an epically filthy dish I once made involving mackerel, Martini and breadcrumbs: the guests were more drunk than sated. 

..

My wrath is also frequently turned against the cookbooks on which I rely so heavily. Still, this is one area where pedantry is both understandable and important: and the self-taught, anxious, page-scowling domestic cook is about as pedantic as you can get. But then, why should a cookbook be less precise than a manual of surgery? (Always assuming, as one nervously does, that manuals of surgery are indeed precise. Perhaps some of them sound just like cookbooks: ‘Sling a gout of anaesthetic down the tube, hack a chunk off the patient, watch the blood drizzle, have a beer with your mates, sew up the cavity…’) Why should a word in a recipe be less important than a word in a novel? One can lead to physical indigestion, the other to mental.


What’s so appealing to me about this is my desire to argue with him throughout the book – a sure sign of engaging writing, don’t you think? But it comes from the fact that he seems to have given free rein to his true self – nitpicky, bossy, anxious and a little pooncy. Of course I have no idea what Julian Barnes’ true self is actually like, but a great energy bounces through this work that I feel it would be difficult to fake. And it leads to this feeling that one could really have a great conversation with this book – the opposite of boring public-relations talk of so much food writing, which is the equivalent of talking about the weather all evening at a dinner party. That kind of thing makes you want to dig your eyes out with a spoon, does it not? I think it comes from a desire to be liked –  always death to a piece of writing. 

Barnes also gives voice to lots of kitchen quandaries I have never seen written about before – like his passivity in the face of a surly butcher, for example, or the feelings of betrayal when a recipe’s instructions are belied by the photograph in the book (he has a particularly amusing beef with Nigel Slater). I loved it.

Another thing to love about this book is its brevity. I think it must be a collection of columns from the Guardian newspaper – anyone know? Regardless, each chapter is short and sweet and lively. Which has inspired me to rethink  this blog a bit – it seems to have morphed from a loose collection of short bits and bobs in the early days to a slightly more essayistic form lately. That has been enjoyable, but it means I keep putting off writing here because I feel I don’t have time to do it justice – and I miss it!

So I declare a return, for the next little while anyway, to shorter posts, with or without recipes that may or may not have anything to do with the post itself. Like the one below for a sort of zucchini gratin.

And while we’re on the topic of conversation, I am booked in for lots of events to talk about Love & Hunger: Thoughts on the Gift of Food, which seems to be trickling into bookshops now – official pub date is Monday. Two of the Sydney talks will be with two of the best cooks among my friends – Caro Baum, at the Sydney Writers’ Festival – and Steph Clifford-Smith, at Newtown Library. We are going to have fun (even if I am rather daunted by sharing the stage with Proper Chefs at SWF – eek!) and we would love to see any of you there.

I’m not sure how much to blab about my book here … while it definitely is on-topic, I can understand if you resent me using this blog as a self-promotional tool so tell me if you hate the idea of me citing events and media stuff here? I won’t be offended, I promise. But just before you tell me to shut up I will put a link to the podcast of an interview I did with the charming Joe Gelonesi on ABC Classic FM last week, and another to a chat at the lovely cooking blog of YA novelist Sophie Masson, with whom I had a wonderful natter about food when we met at the Bellingen festival recently.

Zucchini ‘gratin’

Julian Barnes would hate this recipe because I’m not even giving quantities – take that, uptighty whitey Barnsey! This is a dish from an old magazine recipe that I used to have in my clippings folder, can’t remember where it came from, and have now lost. But I just put it together the other night from memory and it was perfectly nice, and very easy. You need:

  • zucchinis, sliced
  • a few dollops of sour cream
  • breadcrumbs, lumpy!
  • thyme, leaves picked – lots
  • Parmesan cheese, grated
  1. Toss your sliced zukes in some boiling water for a few minutes until just tender.
  2. Drain well and mix with the thyme and as much sour cream as you like – I like it quite sloppy – and season well.
  3. Put this in an oven-proof dish while in a separate bowl you mix up the breadcrumbs and Parmesan – however much you wish of each, but enough crumbs to cover the top of the zukes.
  4. Chuck the dish into a moderate oven and bake for around 20 minutes or until the top is golden and crunchy.

We had this with roast chicken, some roasted fennel and carrots with chorizo bits. It was all very fine. 


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Taking the cake: A&U bakeoff revisited

October 8, 2010

 

One table, fifteen plates, two notebooks and great deal of salivating. That’s what greeted the Empress and me as we stepped into the hallowed halls of Allen & Unwin‘s Sydney offices the other week.

Long-term visitors to this blog will recall that last year Steph and I had the same honour – judging the A&U staff bake-off. We love A&U, not only because they publish the Empress’s book as well as my own, but because frankly they are the most enthusiastic cake-baking publishing house we know of. We believe if more publishers paid this level of attention to their morning teas the world would be a better place, and not just because the proceeds go to such worthy causes such as the Indigenous Literacy Project.

But back to the judging. The Empress and I must admit to some relief on seeing this year’s table carrying only 15 entries this year, because last year’s tasting of 27 cakes, biscuits, slices, quiches and pies took about a year to work off.

The bakeoff went all wild-card this year because neither of last year’s butter-and-sugar-fingered winners competed this time. One is overseas (or that’s what they told us).

The other, serial winner Anthony Bryant, has clearly become so much of a threat that shortly before the contest he met with a mysterious “accident”, resulting in a broken leg and the inability to nip around the kitchen to make his customary dozen or so outstanding entries. Poor man couldn’t even make it up the stairs to the bakeoff morning tea. I told you they were serious. (Anthony, give us a call. I know someone who for a modest fee can help you out with some ‘protection’ next year.)

Once again, the judging was taken extremely seriously. By the Empress anyway, who is quite experienced in these matters (she actually does food judging, for real!) and goes so far as to wear no perfume so as not to interfere with her senses, and sips only water as she makes her way studiously around the table.

I, on the other hand, was doused in perfume (Chanel, darling, if you must know) and slurped coffee the whole time. See how we complement each other?

The Empress and I made our way through the blind tasting in four categories this time, separately keeping our scores out of 10 each for presentation and texture, and out of 20 for flavour.

This year we also added an optional extra point for X-factorness and general pizazz. Once again, our scores were remarkably similar, varying only by a point each time.


And the winners were…

General: Susan Suhood’s delicately balanced and stunningly presented lemon tart (top).

Chocolate: Andy Palmer’s tiramisu – rich, exquisitely layered, and artfully balanced with the surprise element of delicious lumps of hard chocolate throughout (pic 2).

Savoury: Fiona Wilson’s perfectly textured and beautifully sharp & crumbly cheese biscuits (pic 3).

Slices, biscuits, friands & muffins: Kate Calhau’s rich, velvety berry & almond muffins (right).

So, thanks to all bakers and Jo and Fiona from A&U for having us back, and for showering the Empress and me with a copy each of this most brilliant and divine gift (more on this perfect book later!).

Lastly, congratulations to the winners – from left below, the Empress with Fiona, Andy, Kate and Susan. Till next year!


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I need your help with fictional food

September 29, 2010

I have a little quest, and I think all my beloved shuckers are just the folk to help me. I need to compile a list of novels in which food and cookery is central – can be any genre, any era, just so long as food is somehow inextricably linked to the story and the characters. Australian novels most particularly welcome, but all suggestions will be very warmly welcomed. As we’ve discussed before here and here, I am quite keen on bad food in fiction – and not so interested in the exotic school of luscious lyrical pomegranate/chocolat/cinnamon-and-jaggery-love (or as @cityoftongues rather more tartly termed them in a Twitter chat this morning, ‘chutney and incest novels’)  but still, all ideas welcome.

All this is in aid of a proposal I’m writing for some academic work on food in literature – and as the highly sophisticated, erudite and learned creatures you are, I just know you will have some contributions for me!

And by the way, I have some happy news. I can officially announce that my new novel, Animal People, has been accepted for publication by the wonderful folks at Allen & Unwin. It will be out toward the end of next year – October 2011 to be precise – giving me a gorgeously long lead time for editorial sprucing. I am so thrilled they will have me back.

Now, kiddies, I look forward to your fictional food suggestions!

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Sweetness and light

June 10, 2010

With all the slow cooking and braising we’ve been doing lately, the question of accompaniments arises. It’s easy to tire of couscous, polenta can be tricky and for some reason I’ve never been a big fan of plain rice with non-Asian food. Which is where Skye Gyngell’s sweet potato mash comes in.

You may know of Gyngell, the Australian chef whose Petersham Nurseries Cafe at Richmond in south-west London is now internationally famous. It is a beautiful place to visit when you’re next there – even if you discover, as I did, that the cafe is closed because Gyngell is back in Australia cooking at Sean’s Panaroma! But the nursery’s inexpensive tea house is lovely too, and the whole place is infused with that warm, gentle green softness that only comes with an English summer.

To get there from central London you just jump on a train to Richmond and then take a leisurely walk along the Thames. It seems so peaceful, and yet of course I kept thinking of how much Virginia Woolf is said to have hated living in Richmond (“if it is a choice between Richmond and death, I choose death,” Michael Cunningham has her say in The Hours), and of the river, and the stones in her pockets …

Hmm, how to segue into sweet potato from here? Um … it makes life worth living?

Well, if made with  love, it certainly might help.

This mash recipe is from Gyngell’s book A Year In My Kitchen and is a very classy side dish. Its main claim to fame is Gyngell’s secret-weapon combo of tamari and maple syrup, which give many of her dishes their mysterious richness of flavour.

Add to that the single chilli in the boiling water, and you have a lovely warmth and complexity in what could otherwise be a rather dull side dish. Give it a shot. It’s especially good with Middle-Eastern style braises or tagines.

And buy the book – it is one of my favourites.

  • 2 large sweet potatoes
  • 1 small red chilli, halved
  • Small bunch coriander, washed
  • 50g butter
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp tamari (or soy sauce)
  • 2 tbsp maple syrup
  • Salt & pepper
  1. Peel sweet potato and cut into large chunks. Cover with salted cold water and add the chilli. Bring to the boil, then lower heat and simmer  for about 15 minutes or till soft. Drain.
  2. Blend potato, chilli and all remaining ingredients in a food processor, pureeing till very smooth. Adjust seasoning to your liking – the final result, Gyngell says, should be ‘a deep, sweet, hot, velvety taste’.

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Living in the seventies: Fondue, baby!

November 29, 2009

The topic of fondue arose recently, as it does now and then among friends when drink has been taken.

Everyone in the room recalled their parents’ fondue set and its occasional outings along with the funky pantsuits and false eyelashes of yore. But there was general disagreement about what fondue actually involved – some purists insisted that only cheese and bread was called for, while others of us recalled boiling oil and lumps of meat.

Serendipitously, the day after this conversation my beloved spied this book at a market and swooped. I suspect we will never actually use it, but it does make an entertaining conversation starter if you leave it on the coffee table. Published 1971, and in mint condition, Fondue and Table Top Cookery by Marion Howells runs the gamut of things-cooked-at-table, from your trad cheese fondues to your Oriental Fondue (meat in stock) to some rather desperate inclusions such as omelettes and dubious-sounding desserts (Apricots Jubilee, anyone?).

On fondue, Marion tells us that:

This popular dish originated in Switzerland. Many stories are told of the villagers being isolated in the long winter months, and supplies of food becoming short, they were forced to rely on local produce like cheese, wine and home made bread. As the cheese became dry they melted it in their wine.

So there we have it – a yicky gloopy mix borne of near-starvation becomes a classic fad for ‘entertaining of the more intimate type’, and into the bargain produces perhaps the earliest example of Fusion Food. As evidence, I leave you with the list of ingredients for my favourite recipe in this collection.

Fondue Bengali

  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1.5 cups dry white wine
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • 4 cups grated Gruyere cheese
  • 2 cups grated Emmenthal cheese
  • 2 tsp cornflour
  • 2 tablespoons curry powder
  • 3 tablespoons Kirsch
  • white pepper, cayenne pepper
  • mango chutney
  • French bread
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Food as loneliness (in London still)

October 28, 2009

londonAm excited this week, because our anthology, Brothers & Sisters, is finally out, in the shops, published, released into the wild. The launch is in a couple of weeks – I would love all howtoshuckanoyster friends to come along, so if you are in Sydney and available on the evening of Tuesday 10 November, let me know!

It’s so much easier to be vocal about and proud of a book I’ve edited than one I’ve written – quite a joyful experience, quite  unlike the usual nauseous tremor that accompanies the release of a novel, and that ghastly fear every time you see a newspaper that within its pages you are being evaluated, judged, pilloried or – better, but still weird – foolishly praised … This time, though, I am so confident about the quality of the book because of the skill and talent of the writers within its pages, that I feel nothing but happiness that the stories and essays about siblings are finally reaching their readers.

I am also thrilled because I’ve wanted for ages to post my friend Tegan Bennett Daylight‘s brilliant passages about loneliness from her story, Trouble, but have been resisting until the book is actually available.

Trouble is narrated by a young woman who’s moved to London with her sister Emma, and the narrator’s loneliness as she watches the more confident Emma embrace the big new world they find themselves in while she herself is struggling to find her feet. They share a plush apartment belonging to some family friends, but Emma is out a lot – at her groovy architect’s job, or with her new boyfriend – while the narrator stays home, watching out the window at the city, feeling fat and out of place, halfheartedly looking for a job and trying to ward off  London’s cold, rainy misery.  It’s a beautiful story about growing up, about loneliness and desire, and finding your own way in a world far from home. Here are a couple of bits I particularly wanted to share.

Emma’s office was only a few tube stops from our flat, and I met her for lunch sometimes, but mostly I sat at home, too weary to struggle along in the fine bubbles of her wake. I couldn’t get warm. It was only September, and the flat was centrally heated, but I was doing nothing except sitting at the table in our white kitchen, whose window overlooked Vauxhall Bridge Road. Sometimes I ate porridge oats, dry, from a bowl. There was something solid and sustaining about them. You could make porridge in your own mouth, mashing the oats into a warm paste with teeth and saliva. I could eat two or three bowls at once. I looked in the newspaper for work. Sometimes I had baths to try to ease the cold ache in my sides and legs.

Eventually she gets a job in a department store.

After a month or so I gave up eating in the cafeteria at work, no longer exercised by the horrible fascination over the other staff’s eating habits. At first I had just sat and watched as slender, clear-faced girls collected trays of lasagne and chips, bowls of chocolate pudding, and Diet Cokes. Everything came with chips. London was the only place I had been where you were offered chips with Chinese food. Not even Parkes, not even Dubbo had food like that.

It was partly the food, but partly also that I didn’t like people to see me eating. Later on I would wonder why I’d thought myself so fat – I was merely plump, a word I hated nearly as much as chubby – but back then there seemed to be no doubt about it. Whenever I could, now, I went over the road to Harrods to buy my lunch. In the food hall you could get a mango, or a bag of dates or figs. I always tried to get outside if it was sunny, but often enough I spent my whole lunch break in the food hall, sneaking figs from a paper bag while I stood in front of the bread display, or the butchery. Everything was beautiful in the food hall – the tiled floors, the columned rooms, the elaborate plaster ceilings. There were no windows, but the lighting was generous and warm. There was nowhere to sit, but I sat all day at work anyway, and there were always enough people to prevent me from feeling conspicuous as I walked around.

One lunchtime I was waiting at the fruit counter when someone beside me said, ‘Hey.’ I looked up. The voice belonged to Tony, our floor manager. I had never spoken to him before. He was a tall, skinny man who always wore the same loose-fitting suit. He had a walkie-talkie clipped to his trousers and thick, slicked-back hair. Sometimes I saw him conferring with the white-shirted security men. I don’t think he liked Rory, he rarely came into our section. But I saw him in the distance sometimes, talking to an outraged customer. Women in particular became angry very easily, and it was his job to soothe them and make them want to come back.

He had a gentle Cockney voice and quite a large mouth. He grinned at me. ‘Hungry?’ he said.

I blushed and blushed.

‘Seen you in here before. This lady was first,’ he said to the woman behind the counter.

‘No, you go,’  I said, stepping back so fast I trod on someone’s toes. ‘I was just looking.’