Tuesday, April 20, 2021

A year of pandemic comfort food

(with thanks to my partner Andrew for suggesting the headline!)

On the 20th of April, every year since 2010, I've crunched the numbers on my Excel spreadsheet of menu items to find out what we ate most over the past year. Nerdy, I know. The weekly menu is handy as it helps save time and resources, while the spreadsheet not only tallies up what I cook, but reminds me about meal ideas I may have forgotten.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic. Oh my goodness. I don't think we've EVER had a year so packed with comfort food. Dumplings. Pasta. Wraps. We may have gone a bit crazy for carbohydrates. The past year has been a roller coaster and it ain't over yet. The Australian government is dragging its heels on the COVID vaccine rollout and it's hard to see the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. Sigh.

So, what we ate. Mostly, it was:

pasta and sauce (27 times)
dumplings (Japanese, Polish, Russian or Chinese) (23 times)
vegetable curry (18 times)
creamy tuna pasta (14 times)
macaroni cheese (14 times)
vegetable samosas (11 times)
vege burger wraps (10 times)

Ahem. That must be why we're looking and feeling so roly-poly. In case you're wondering about all the dumplings, the Japanese ones (gyoza) are available from our local supermarket and make an easy weeknight dinner; I was inspired to find and try the Polish and Russian ones (pierogi and pelmeni) after reading two riveting books by the fabulous Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell about a Polish-American pathologist. Turns out the lovely little deli at Belconnen Markets sells such delights!

After disclosing my disappointing diet for the year I feel the need to share some more positive news, so here goes. After five years of talking about building our 'dream shed', we finally did so. It's been a long slog, but the shed was built in January and February and I've spent much of the past two months up ladders painting it. The left hand portion will become our new and improved garden shed while the right hand portion becomes a home office. There's still some work to be done on the inside but I'm glad to have finished all the work on the outside. Cheers.

Friday, March 19, 2021

A fruity sponge-top pudding

Earlier this year we had some building work done. There's now a lovely new 'dream shed' in our back yard! No pics yet as we're still painting it (and Canberra has been oddly rainy so that has reduced the opportunities to paint). Anyway, the builders were … sometimes a bit flaky. They'd do some building work then disappear, with no explanation, for a few days. Overall we were happy with their work but it was weird at the time. Anyway. I think the building foreman could tell I was getting irritated with his disappearing act as one time he showed up, presented me with about a kilo of fresh blackberries, and called it a peace offering. I froze the berries in several portions and they've been delicious. Tonight we ate the final few berries, which I mixed with cooked apple chunks, covered with a spongy topping, and served with whipped cream. Yum.

Here's how to make a super easy sponge topping for a warm dessert on a cool day:

125 grams butter
0.5 cup sugar
2 eggs
1.5 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
milk to mix (~0.5 to 0.75 cup)

Cream butter and sugar, add eggs then flour and baking powder, and lastly milk. Pour over hot fruit in a largish baking dish. Bake at 200 degrees Celsius for about 30 minutes.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Autumnal delights … fig and cinnamon porridge

As the days grow shorter and the nights cooler, comfort foods are back on the menu. Yaaaay. Andrew and I do volunteer work every Saturday afternoon and, on days like today when it's not too hot, I sometimes make porridge for lunch before we go. 

A couple of years ago I started making porridge with the milk 'embedded' rather than poured on top, that is, soaking the oats in the milk for a couple of hours before cooking the porridge. This makes it deliciously creamy. I used to make it with just rolled oats, milk, and a pinch of salt – and serve with brown sugar – but have recently branched out into a spicy, figgy version. Nom nom!

1 cup rolled oats
2 cups milk
5 or 6 dried figs, halved
1 teaspoon cinnamon
salt (to taste)

Mix ingredients together in a large microwaveable jug and refrigerate for an hour or two. Microwave on full power for three minutes, then stir and sit for a few minutes. Microwave for a couple more minutes then stir and sit, then repeat. You'll know it's ready to eat when the oats are all soft and creamy. Serve with brown sugar or honey. Enjoy.

Oh, and happy (almost) autumn!

Wednesday, February 10, 2021


Failed. Again! Three years in a row I've attempted to grow New Zealand yams in our back yard, and three years in a row I've failed. I wrote about my ongoing attempts to grown yams in Canberra five months ago, and while I was quite hopeful when the plants developed plenty of foliage, I dug them up today and received … five yams. Well, three and a half, really, as some of them were in varying stages of having been gnawed by insects. I don't want my efforts to be completely wasted so we'll need to find a way to eat them. Perhaps finely chopped and fried. Think I might go back to growing crops that reliably provide food ...

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Brekkie @ Stand By Me (again and again)

We've been going to Stand By Me in Lyons (on the south side of Canberra) for many years. It's  a favourite spot for Sunday brekkie. Andrew likes their ever-rotating and creative versions of French toast; I'm a bit addicted to the flavoursome savoury options. The cafe's Facebook page always showcases its French toast specials. Well worth a look!

Today's brekkie was spectacular, as usual. He had:

Hottest 100s and 1000s French toast

while I had:

Ful medames: Egyptian breakfast beans with tomato,
spices, feta, dill, a fried egg, tzatziki and green chilli relish

We also grabbed a bag of their ambrosial granola to take away. Nom nom!

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Dinner @ Spice Affair, Casey

When I met my partner Andrew, almost 30 years ago (!), he claimed he didn't like curry. As a great fan of spicy foods myself, this alarmed me. It turned out he'd been subjected to some bad 1970s versions of curries as a kid and once I introduced him to Indian and Malaysian restaurants he changed his mind. Phew. Now, when we discuss going out to dinner, spicy foods are always at the top of his wish list. 

We recently discovered a whole new Canberra suburb: Casey. Casey didn't exist when we moved to Canberra in 2002, but is now a thriving place with many diverse eateries. We had dinner at Spice Affair Indian Cuisine and it was delicious.

Lassi (I had rose, he had salty lassi)

Daal tadka black

Palak paneer

Mixed dessert platter (gulab jamun,
mango kulfi, pistachio kulfi)

We also ate pappadams, coconut rice and garlic naan. It was a fabulous (and generous) feast. We'll have to make more visits to Casey … both to Spice Affair and to explore the other cuisines on offer: Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, Turkish, Vietnamese and Myanmar …

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Next experimental salad

Some people don't like rocket [arugula]. To quote one friend, 'if I wanted pepper on my lettuce, I'd add it myself!' But I like it and Andrew likes it (or he's too polite to say otherwise) so I base a lot of salads on rocket. Here's the latest:

Rocket, cucumber, tomato, nectarine, fried haloumi, and brazil nuts


Friday, January 08, 2021

Happy New Year and a salad generator

G'day and happy 2021 to you! 2020 was weird and stressful and tragic and I'm hoping for a less scary 2021. I spent large chunks of last year pottering in the garden to distract myself from everything happening in the wider world. If anything, I suspect it made me less adventurous in the kitchen. Maybe it's time for a reboot. Time to find some more flavour combinations. It's summer here in Canberra and I've been thinking about salads. I've posted about some of my favourite salads before but have tended to return to familiar combinations of ingredients. I'm wondering if, by reminding myself of many possible salad ingredients, I can jazz up my salad making this year. Today's dinner is a case in point …

Baby spinach, roasted pumpkin, corn kernels, feta cheese and pine nuts

Anyway, here are some salad ingredient ideas ...

Leafy vegetables
rocket [arugula]
lettuce (iceberg, cos, whatever …)
baby spinach

Not-so-leafy vegetables
snow peas
roasted/cooked pumpkin, beetroot, sweet potato

pear, apple, nashi
stone fruits (nectarine, peach, apricot, cherry)
pomegranate seeds
mandarin portions
corn kernels
capsicum [bell pepper]

Nuts and seeds
almonds, pecans, walnuts, cashews, pistachios …
pine nuts
sesame seeds


Meats and fish
chorizo, bacon
salmon, tuna

I don't usually put dressings on salads. Assuming the other ingredients chosen are flavoursome, there seems no need to add extra fat or sugar. But things like fresh lime juice, tahini and tamari are fun.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

When you're engulfed by berries

 As a teenager, I spent two summers working at a berry farm about 10 km from the provincial New Zealand city where I lived. I'd wake up when it was still dark and cycle to the farm, where I'd spend several hours each day picking raspberries for the princely sum of NZ $0.24 per pound. (NZ had long since adopted metric measurements; I don't know why we were paid by the pound!) It wasn't a lucrative job. I think I took home about $45 in my best week ever. Still, part of that was down to the fact that I ate a lot of raspberries (rather than putting them all in my bucket) and the job had other benefits: it got me out of the house, I got plenty of exercise cycling 20 km each day, and it was outdoors in a beautiful place. People said I'd hate raspberries by the end, but I never have … berry plants (whether strawberries, boysenberries, gooseberries, youngberries, blueberries …) are key features in our back yard.

Right now, our elderly strawberry plants are (surprisingly) producing handfuls of delicious fruit each day. I mostly just eat them, but if you're feeling more adventurous you could whip up some home made strawberry ice cream:

250 grams fresh strawberries
1 tablespoon gelatine (or 1 gelatine 'leaf') *
1.5 cups cream
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons water

Slice strawberries and sprinkle with sugar. Place in the fridge for one hour or until the juice runs from the strawberries. Soak the gelatine in cold water and drain the strawberry juice into this. Stand bowl over hot water and stir until gelatine dissolved. Add strawberries. Chill until starting to set. Whip cream, fold strawberry mixture into cream, and freeze until firm. Allow to soften for a few minutes before eating.

* gelatine [gelatin] is an animal product so not suitable for vegetarians. You could use agar-agar instead, but I haven't experimented with it, in this recipe, so can't comment on how the exchange would work.

We also have heaps of other berry bushes. A wise friend advised us to put them in edged, raised garden beds and that was excellent advice as they do tend to escape! Our berry bushes have grown so large lately that the labels I placed next to them have become buried in foliage and I can't remember what is where, in some cases. Oops.

On the left, gooseberries, and on the right, blueberries.
Other mystery berries in between …

Similarly, raspberries on the left and I don't know
what on the right. Pretty pink flowers, in case that helps …?

Ah well. Whatever berries appear, they'll be much appreciated!

Monday, October 26, 2020

As the Year of the Introvert continues …

 … all the social distancing means I've continued to get plenty of editing work (busiest year ever!) but am also finding lots of time for reading, listening to podcasts, gardening and cooking. 2020 has been one big festival of comfort food and, while springtime has mostly arrived in Canberra:

we're still having the occasional cooler day. When the rain comes down and the fluffy hats go on, I've been cooking stuff like Annabel Crabb's Glass Potatoes. Yum yum YUM.

I've also discovered yet more fabulous podcasts. Beenham Valley Road, Michelle Obama, Wilosophy, America, if you're listening and Friday Night Comedy are all worth a listen.

The garden is (as always) a joy. My yams have developed foliage, flowers are bursting forth all over the place, our fruit trees and berry bushes are (literally and figuratively) blossoming and the garlic crop is almost ready for harvest.

Hang in there … 

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Green Cape Lightstation

Before COVID-19 appeared on the radar, Andrew and I were planning to spend the whole of May in Europe. We've never been to Austria or Germany, and had even taken a German language course to get in the mood for the trip! Obviously, it wasn't meant to be, and instead we've taken several smaller journeys … overnight in Bowral in July, two nights at Culburra Beach later that month, a road trip to Tumut in September and, last week, two nights at the beautiful Green Cape Lightstation. All very COVID-safe, of course. Despite the potholed road in and the wild weather, we had a lovely time! 

Wombat poo

Wombat hole


The view from Pulpit Rock

I wonder where the next domestic travel adventure will take us …?

Monday, September 07, 2020

Spring delights

Happy spring! Or happy autumn [fall] if you're reading this in the northern hemisphere. I had my three busiest months of editing ever in June, July and August, and am currently enjoying a more relaxed September. This has conveniently coincided with plenty of things to do in the garden, many great books to read, and heaps of fabulous podcasts to listen to. Self-employment is GREAT.

I recently finished reading The Erratics, a memoir by Vicki Laveau-Harvie. It was brilliant. While the reviews for the book make it sound quite grim (the author's parents were bizarre), it's so beautifully written, and even humorous, that it was a joy to read. While we're on the topic of dysfunctional families ... I collected Mary Trump's book Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man from my local library today. I 'attended' a live-streamed interview with Dr Trump as part of the Canberra Writers Festival a couple of weeks ago and found it intriguing so am eager to learn more.

Another activity I have more time for, when between jobs, is listening to podcasts. There are just sooooo many great podcasts available now! Some stand-outs include Trace and Patient Zero on ABC Radio National, No Filter with Mia Freedman, Think Like an Economist, Dax Shepard's interview with Atul Gawande, Democracy Sausage, and Mamamia True Crime Conversations.

Anyway, while listening to all the wonderful podcasts I'm often pottering in the garden. It's looking fabulous. The arborist came to trim our large, old eucalypts so falling branches don't kill us in our sleep, and our fruit trees (plum, apricot, lemon ...) are blossoming. In what is, perhaps, the triumph of optimism over experience, I'm attempting to grow NZ yams. (Again.) Yams are a root vegetable I really enjoyed while growing up in New Zealand, but which I've never seen for sale here in Australia. I bought some yam plants via mail order in 2018; they appeared alive when they arrived in Canberra but soon keeled over. Perhaps because I inadvertently over-watered them. In 2019, I bought some yam tubers, also by mail order, and planted them in the garden, to no avail. The foliage developed but there were no new yams underneath. Determined to do better this time, I purchased nine yam tubers this year, and have planted them in pots so I can better protect them from cold weather while the foliage forms. Let's see how that goes ...

All fingers and toes crossed that I manage to grow some yams. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to bake a loaf of pumpkin bread.

Monday, August 10, 2020

2020 ... a weirdly wordy year

Well, it's been a strange year so far. January and February featured bush fires in south-eastern Australia and almost as soon as the air cleared there was a new threat: a global pandemic. Andrew and I are fortunate to be in good health and still employed (or in my case, self-employed), but the various crises have altered our day to day life. We're really glad to have bought a house with a garden four years ago as (at least when the air is breathable ...) pottering in the garden is always an option.

In the absence of some other regular activities (e.g. cinemas in Canberra were closed for about four months, and cafes for almost as long) I've been reading lots of books. Even more than usual. Here are some of my favourites lately:

The Inspector Ikmen mysteries by Barbara Nadel. Set in Turkey, these stories are gritty, intricate and fascinating. So far there are twenty books in the series and I'm about half way through ... I space them out to make the series (and my enjoyment) last longer.

All That Remains: A Life in Death by Sue Black. An intriguing glimpse into Professor Black's career as a forensic anthropologist. As well as finding the subject matter engrossing, I liked the author's Scottish 'accent', which led me to ...

... the fictional murder mysteries of Val McDermid. I've only read one so far (The Distant Echo) but it was excellent. Skilfully crafted and very hard to put down. Book two in the series awaits.

Kevin Kwan! I've raved about his fabulous Crazy Rich Asians trilogy before and was delighted to buy his latest novel Sex and Vanity the moment it came out. Another absolute triumph. It's hilariously entertaining. The characters, the fashion, the food, the locations, the laugh out loud footnotes. I really, really hope he keeps writing novels as I want to keep reading them!

On a more serious (yet sometimes funny) note The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters by Tom Nichols has also been a worthwhile read. Professor Nichols explores how technology, narcissism and populism have 'created an army of ill-informed and angry citizens who denounce intellectual achievement'. A book we all need to read and digest in these Trump-ridden times.

Angela Savage spoke at an editing conference I attended last year and I made a note, at the time, to track down her novel Mother of Pearl. It was well written, interesting and thought provoking. The story is set in Australia, Thailand and Cambodia and explores commercial surrogacy. (Turns out Angela Savage has also written a series of mystery novels set in Southeast Asia ... I'm planning to start reading one of them shortly!)

Last but not least, I really liked Lori Gottlieb's memoir Maybe You Should Talk to Someone. I was familiar with Gottlieb's advice column 'Dear Therapist' in The Atlantic, and her book weaves together cases from her counselling practice and stories from her life and career. Another compelling read.

Happily, as well as reading for fun I also get to edit for a living, and 2020 has been super busy. I'm wondering if it's because people in lockdown and/or working from home have more time to write, thus more need for editing? To date, I've copyedited eighteen theses this year. One of the great joys of being an academic editor is getting to learn about many different topics, and topics lately have included:

  • the history of a Sydney psychiatric hospital
  • agriculture and rural development in Viet Nam
  • building teacher capacity through coaching
  • migration and 'brain drain'
  • French architecture and cinema
  • disease transmission in Australian native parrots
  • tourism in Botswana
  • atrocity crimes and the International Criminal Court
  • playgrounds in regional Australia
  • autocratisation in Turkey
  • hepatitis screening in prisons ... and more!

Sending warm fuzzy thoughts to all the lovely people who've entrusted their writing to me for polishing.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Our (annual) truffling adventure

Back in 2008 we turned our house over to a mycologist for eight weeks. A ... what? Mycology is the branch of biology that deals with fungi and, on that occasion, Andrew and I went overseas and an eminent mycology professor from Oregon kindly offered to house-sit and feed our goldfish while we gallivanted. He had been visiting Canberra regularly for many years, researching native truffles (which, incidentally, are delicious to marsupials but inedible for humans).

Anyway ... we've been intrigued by truffles ever since, and try to participate in at least one activity each year as part of the Canberra Truffle Festival. Yesterday we attended a truffle hunt and brunch at The Truffle Farm in Canberra. It was fun, educational and delicious! Here are some scenes from the morning:

We've also attended truffle hunts and brunches at Turalla Truffles (near Bungendore) in 2018 and 2019, and and a trufflicious dinner in 2013. Nom nom. I bought 20 grams of truffle to take home yesterday, so our meals over the coming weeks will also be infused with truffles. We're so lucky to live in this fabulous city.