Saturday, February 26, 2011

The basics

The Christchurch earthquake has underlined the human basics with shocking clarity. Water. Food. Staying clean. Waste disposal. Dry, warm shelter. Family, friends, neighbours. Plus, of course, simply being lucky enough not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
         Before, I knew that the main problem would be Harvey's survival. Mine seems a much simpler matter.
         I had meant to get my preparation act together last time, but didn't. This time I've got as far as putting everything I already have in the way of basic essentials together in a safe, accessible place, and I have every intention of getting the missing items as soon as I can.
         Top of the list: big black plastic bags. A wind-up torch and a wind-up radio. (I spoke to an elderly family member today who is surviving brilliantly without water and power, with wonderful help from her neighbours, but I knew far more about what was going on than she did - she does have a battery radio, but it's permanently tuned to FM, so she hadn't heard any of the info on National Radio, whose staff have been doing a brilliant job.)
          I do have water (though it's in the garage and could be hard to reach) and I have water purification tablets, as well as bleach in the laundry. I don't have any means of cooking or boiling water, but both my neighbours do - and you can cope without if you have to.
          For food, I'm still relying mainly on Harvey's leftover stock of Fortisip, the complete meal in a bottle (they taste like a revoltingly sweet milkshake, but they don't need refrigerating or heating). But they'll only be okay until about July. Their "best before" date is June, and I know this can be safely exceeded, whereas "use by" shouldn't be - but I don't know how long past the "best before" you can go and not get sick.
           I've got a stock of baked beans as well. You could easily live on them for a while, and they're not too bad even when they're cold. With any luck, the tins in the pantry would still be usable too - unlike the jars, and the wine, they won't smash open.
           The only snag is - I haven't got that vital extra can-opener yet.
           Anyway, I'm doing my best, knowing that it might all be no use at all against the shocking power of nature. But it's been so heartening to see the way everyone, from the people next door right up to the army and Fonterra, has rushed to provide whatever help they can.
            If you're not usefully down there, listen to the good guys and please don't send stuff, just send money.

Something Else to Eat will have no new posts for a couple of weeks. My lovely housesitter will be here looking after my dear elderly Dorothy, who isn't eating very well.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Best-laid plans...

Soon after Jonathan and Eric left, I got on the phone and arranged three evenings having friends to dinner, and one dinner going out - I had that on Friday, we went to Hede in Cuba St for cheap and cheerful Japanese. I remembered having delicious Japanese grilled eel in China, so I bravely ordered that (I think I impressed the waiter, who assured me "we do it well"), and it was just as I remembered - subtly sweet, rich but delicate.
           On Saturday I had my first guest, my French friend Diane, who brought a lovely selection of cheeses, including a thick slice of my current favourite - bouche de chevre, goat's cheese log.  I'd planned a proper dinner, and parts of it were very good, but others went badly askew.
            The entree was a great success.  The new Cuisine magazine arrived on Friday and I adapted one of the recipes from that. I cut a sheet of puff pastry into four even squares, then ran a knife around each square to give an edge that would rise. In places I cut right through the pastry by accident, but it didn't seem to matter. Then I transferred the squares to baking paper on an oven tray, spread grainy mustard over the inner square, arranged slices of tomato on top, and added salt, pepper and some grated cheese (cheddar rather than the gruyere in the original recipe, but it worked fine).

I brushed milk around the edges and put them in the oven at 200C for about 15 minutes. Of course we ate all four between us. Well, they're very light, we said.

I must work out the proper timing for cooking potatoes in the oven in various ways. Mine seem to veer between not being done quite well enough, and being overdone. Saturday was an overdone night - smallish oval half potatoes baked on a flat tray with oil, salt and rosemary, but I put them in too early and even though I moved them down to the bottom they ended up far too crispy ont he bottom (well, that was the polite word, in fact they were a bit burnt). Diane still ate them happily and so did I, but I was annoyed with myself all the same. Still, the steak was just right, very pink inside but not fleshy, and the plain green salad and cheese followed it very well.
            (Had to stop here to rescue our elderly cat Dorothy, who had managed to get her rear end completely entangled in the blind cord and was dangling down from it onto the sofa, meowing piteously - thank goodness I was home.)
            I made my worst faux pas with the pears in red wine. It's one of my favourite desserts but I haven't made it for a while, and I had intended to write it up properly here, complete with gorgeous photos. Here's the only one I managed to take.          

I'll make it again and post the recipe properly. It involves three steps - bringing the red wine syrup to the boil and simmering it for five minutes, cooking the pears in it (I do it in the oven, it's easier), then reducing the syrup to just the right consistency to coat the pears. That's where I came unstuck. I was running a little bit late and tried to speed things up by putting the pan with the syrup on the back gas hob on high. But then Diane arrived and I forgot about it. Not good. We were sitting down for the entree when she politely pointed out that something seemed to be burning. The lovely red syrup had boiled away to a kind of red wine toffee. I managed to salvage enough to scoop over the pears, sitting ready on their plates, but by the time we ate them, instead of a luscious pool of syrup, both plates had a hard shiny dark glaze in the bottom. The cream seemed to soften up most of it enough to eat, and the pears were perfect - thoroughly cooked but not soft. But there were still rock-hard blobs of toffee on our plates, and as for the pan - I'm not sure it's going to recover. Ah well, c'est la vie.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Getting it right

After four weeks with me, my son and his friend left today for Auckland en route back to China. It's been very interesting working out what to feed them. I could tell Eric really needed regular injections of rice, or, at a pinch, noodles or pasta, while Jonathan was intent on eating potatoes and salad. They both loved fish and veges, and were happy to fill up on bread and peanut butter and fruit during the day. On the whole we managed pretty well, and they seemed very happy with whatever I produced. For their last night I managed to get hold of three pieces of orange roughy, and we had it with boulangere potatoes (chunks of potato and thinly sliced onion in stock with bits of butter, cooked in the oven).
         I had trimmed the thin side flaps and ends off the fish, so I had these bits left over for me tonight. I cooked them gently in butter, added the leftover white wine sauce I had made yesterday, plus some cooked peas, poured the lot over freshly cooked potato and settled down contentedly with it all on a tray in front of the TV, glasses of a nice Giesen sauvignon blanc and water beside me.
         Unfortunately neither the plate nor the tray were right for the job. All it took was a slight tilt and I ended up with a great big slop down the front of my just washed white top. What I was most annoyed about was wasting all that lovely sauce.
         So, Lesson in Eating Alone No.1: If you're eating something wet and don't want to sit at the table (which I really don't like doing much, it just feels too solitary), then (a) use a big soup plate, not a dinner plate; (b) make sure you use a tray with a proper rim, so that even if it does spill, it won't escape; and (c) in case of accidents, have another glass of wine.


Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Year of the Rabbit

The Year of the Rabbit officially began on 3 February, so Jonathan's friend Eric, here visiting from China, said he would cook dinner.  We already had two kinds of soy sauce and some of the other things he needed, including a wok. But he did all the main shopping himself at the local supermarket, except for the frozen dumplings - they came from Yan's in Hopper Street.

I was terrifically impressed by the calm, ordered way he went about getting everything ready in a foreign kitchen - much less drama and panic than would be usual for me when cooking four different dishes, plus of course rice, which he prefers to be stickier than the separate grains I'm used to producing.

Jonathan and I set the table nicely with the appropriate red cloth, chopsticks (and knives and forks), and my flowery Chinese teacups.

Everything was delicious - quite delicate, subtle flavours all going very well together. First we had the jiaozi, dumplings, filled with meat and vegetables. They're seen as lucky because they look like ancient Chinese money, dumpling-shaped silver and gold ingots called yuan bao. They symbolize wealth and hopes for a profitable future.

Jonathan loves salad, and recently was very happy to find that Northern Chinese have very good salads, so we had one of those. It's made of cooked rice noodles (the very thin stiff white ones you buy in a bundle), finely chopped cucumber, red pepper and coriander, plus pieces of cooked omelette, dressed with a mixture of garlic, oil, vinegar and salt.

The secret is to cook the noodles ahead of time, mix them with the veges and dressing and leave them to stand in the fridge for at least two hours, before mixing in the omelette and serving.

For the main dish omelette, Eric cut up mixed seafood and stirred it into seasoned beaten eggs, adding chopped onion and tomato on top while it was cooking. This is a beautifully light dish which would make me a lovely supper on its own.

Eric comes from the Hubei area, and fish was a feature of the food he had as a child. But no Chinese New Year dinner would be complete without meat, so he adapted a local dish of gently spiced meat and carrots by using lamb instead of beef, and adding potatoes. He had a few mussels from his seafood mix, so they went in too. It all worked very well.

We drank sparkling sauvignon blanc, and the lovely delicate green tea Eric brought me from China, and watched astonishing acrobats performing in the famous New Year Gala showing on the locally available Chinese TV channel,  and generally felt we'd seen in the Year of the Rabbit in splendid style.