Thursday, October 07, 2021

Nine weeks of lockdown, but who's counting?

Well! Nine weeks ago today the Australian Capital Territory (i.e. Canberra) was plunged into COVID lockdown. It was initially supposed to last for two weeks but the cases kept happening and are still happening. We've barely left our suburb in the past nine weeks and are forever grateful that we decided to upgrade from a townhouse to a free-standing house in 2016, as the garden is a delight if we must be trapped at home. So, what have I been doing lately …?

Reading books

So many books! I've barely bought any paper books in the almost ten years since I first got a Kindle. Whenever I want to read a book, I first check whether our wonderful local library service has a copy (and order it online if it does), then consider whether to buy it on Kindle if it doesn't. I usually have a massive pile of library books on my bedside table, and read vigorously to finish them all before they're due back. Of course, that plan has gone pear-shaped since the lockdown was announced as the library is locked down too. So, I've been reading the backlog of books I'd accumulated on my Kindle. It's been great. Some recent reads include Ladyparts: A Memoir by Deborah Copaken, Redhanded: An Exploration of Criminals, Cannibals, Cults, and What Makes a Killer Tick by Suruthi Bala and Hannah Maguire, Men Who Hate Women: From incels to pickup artists, the truth about extreme misogyny and how it affects us all by Laura Bates, Weird English by Evelyn Nien-Ming Ch'ien, Last Tang Standing by Lauren Ho, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University by Kevin Roose, and All About Yves: Notes from a transition by Yves Rees. Oh. My. Goodness. That's a lot of books. All of them have been excellent. I may get a rude shock when the library reopens, too, as my reservation list is up to 20 books. Fingers crossed they don't all arrive at once.

Listening to podcasts

So many podcasts! So little time. Some current favourites include Bad Blood: The Final Chapter, Catfish, Cautionary Tales, Hunting GhislaineKiller Psyche, Ms Represented and The Trap. I really only listen to podcasts when I'm doing housework (washing dishes, gardening, walking to the shops) and the time available for podcasts tends to vary depending how much editing work I have.

Watching movies

When we're allowed to go out I usually try to watch at least one film, at the cinema, each week. While the cinema's been unavailable, Andrew and I have been watching old movies at home each Sunday afternoon. He even makes popcorn. Woo hoo.

Gathering and cooking and eating food 

When I'm feeling anxious (and, y'know, there's a pandemic on) I tend to hoard food. Not to the point that any gets wasted, but our cupboards and freezer are pretty full at the moment. Not to mention that I spend even more time than usual dreaming of food and planning meals. Aaaargh. I have tried a couple of new recipes lately: chana aloo (chickpea and potato curry) and warm French goat's cheese salad. Both were delicious. Oh, and I've discovered you can use a stovetop jaffle maker to cook mini pies, using defrosted pastry sheets. And that if you stud the top of a chocolate mud cake with chopped up Mars bars, it's even more fun. Yep. Terrible photo but yummy cake.


Last but not least. The garden is, and will always be, a work in progress. Here are some of our spring flowers this year.

I don't grow many vegetables, as we have an amazing organic shop nearby, but I do have a lovely crop of garlic at the moment and recently planted some yams from the (ahem) 10 kg I bought via mail order. We've also built up a collection of young fruit trees over the past five years: feijoa, plum, apricot, pomegranate, lemon and lime. Oh, and the many berry bushes are flourishing.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Yams and other lockdown delights

Today is day seven of an (at least) 21-day lockdown here in Canberra. We had more than a year go by with no local cases of COVID-19, then it all kicked off again. My partner and I – being fifty-plus and the antithesis of anti-vaxxers – are fully vaccinated, but know we need to take the restrictions seriously. Only venturing outside of the house for approved reasons and wearing face masks when we do. Very grateful that we can still earn a living from home. So, anyway …! If we can't go out we look for things we can enjoy at home.

Yams! I've written before about my ongoing craving for NZ yams and my repeated unsuccessful attempts to grow them in Canberra. Sigh. I recently discovered that a Brisbane company sells big boxes of yams, in season, by mail order, so I bought (ahem) five kilograms. Bliss. We're gorging on them.

Gardening. Spring flowers are starting to appear :-)

Boot camp. My boot camp instructor has been providing video workouts we can do at home. Yaaaay! It's especially fun when his dog Daisy and cat Bella join in too.

Books. As always, I have numerous books on the go. Just finished the gorgeous novel China Room by Sunjeev Sahota, and currently reading the beautiful but harrowing memoir No Matter Our Wreckage by Gemma Carey. (Both borrowed from our wonderful local library.) I'm also wading through a whole bunch of books on my Kindle right now: Spoon-Fed (food science) by Tim Spector, Limbo (sociology) by Alfred Lubrano, River of the Dead (murder mystery) by Barbara Nadel, The Human Tide (demography) by Paul Morland … and more. I tend to read a chapter of one book, then switch to another book and read a chapter of that, and so on. Oh, and I'm receiving a steady stream of editing work (economics, environmental science, social work, law and history, this month alone) so if I'm not reading for pleasure I'm reading for profit. Nice.

Last but not least, podcasts. Current favourites include China, If You're Listening; The TrapBig Mood, Little Mood; Dark Poutine; RedHanded; Democracy Sausage; Dr Death and Killer Psyche.

Sending warm fuzzy thoughts to everyone in lockdown.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

A spicy brekkie @ Stand By Me

So, following on from my comment last week that it was hard to find spicy and/or Asian breakfasts in Canberra, today I enjoyed a fabulous bowl of palak paneer [spinach curry with fresh cheese] at our old favourite café, Stand By Me in Lyons! Stand By Me is famous for its eclectic, artistic and themed French toast and we've been there many times over the eight years or so since it opened. There are pics of some of its lovely offerings here and here and here. About a year ago the café changed hands and the new owners seem to be experimenting with different menu items, perhaps to gauge support for a whole new menu.* Today Andrew and I tried the following 'specials':

For me:

Cottage cheese in spinach curry, served with naan bread

For him:

Biscuits with sausage gravy **

It was delicious. I'm always delighted to find breakfast options that aren't cliched and common.

* I really, really hope they don't delete the Ful Medames (Egyptian breakfast beans) from the menu. I may be a bit addicted.

** Here in Australia the term biscuits usually refers to cookies, whereas in North America it seems to refer to things we might call scones or muffins. We discovered this while at Tim Horton's in Canada.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Brekkie @ Tokyo Canteen

One of the great joys of travel is getting to try interesting and diverse foods, often at unexpected times. I especially enjoy exploring Asian breakfast options. They're so much more exciting that what's on offer in Australia. The breakfast curries and sambals in Colombo were fabulous, the roti canai and chocolate fondue (!) in Kuala Lumpur delightful, and the keema and chapati at Azmi in Singapore sublime.

There are very few Asian cafes and restaurants open for breakfast here in Canberra. Kopiku in O'Connor has some delicious Indonesian offerings, and until today that was the only place I'd found offering a spicy brekkie (as compared to brunch, lunch or dinner). Anyway, recently I read a review for Tokyo Canteen, part of the new Eyre Street precinct in Kingston, and realised we had to go there! We spent two weeks in Japan in 2016 and it was magnificent. Foodie heaven. Today's outing to Kingston didn't disappoint.

We started with coffee:

then I ate:

Agedashi tofu, accompanied by a salad, house pickles and rice

while Andrew had:

Tokyo toast, with berries, red beans and matcha ice cream

It was all delicious. We'd recommend arriving early (if breakfast is your thing) as the place was pretty full by the time we finished eating. 

Friday, July 16, 2021

All roads lead to Istanbul

You know how sometimes you read or hear about something, and suddenly find yourself reading and hearing and noticing more and more about that topic? Well, I'm a little bit obsessed with Turkey at the moment. Particularly its history and food.

About seven years ago I stumbled across Barbara Nadel's fabulous Inspector Ikmen mystery series, set in Istanbul. One book led to another, then another, and I try to space them out so I don't read them all before the author has time to write more! So far, so good; I'm just about to start the eleventh book in the series (and 23 have been published, to date) so they won't run out any time soon. Phew. The cast of characters, locations, snippets of history and occasional forays to other parts of Turkey are all fascinating.

Then I read the lovely Ottoman Odyssey: Travels Through a Lost Empire by Alev Scott. Part travelogue, part history book, it explores twelve countries to find remaining traces of the Ottoman empire. Scott's descriptions are vivid and her interviews insightful. A glimpse into an exotic region.

Next, a gorgeous debut novel! Barbara Nadel (mentioned above) recommended Nektaria Anastasiadou's recent book A Recipe for Daphne on Twitter and I'm so glad I bought a copy. The story is set amongst Istanbul's Rum (Greek Orthodox) community and weaves together history, culture, food and romance. I thoroughly enjoyed this mouth-watering tale and hope we'll see many more from its brilliant young author.

Last but not least, I'm currently rereading Jen Lin-Liu's delightful On the Noodle Road. During an overland journey from Beijing to Rome, the author considers the various foods, flavours and cooking styles along the Silk Road, and shares experiences with people met along the way. It's been fun to think about the similarities and differences between the foods eaten in the various countries, and how early explorers may have circulated recipes and ingredients from place to place.

We can't travel overseas at the moment so I've been indulging in the next best thing, armchair travel through reading. Turkey is on my wish list if our borders ever reopen.

Monday, July 12, 2021

We stopped eating breakfast (and nothing bad happened)

A few months ago my partner Andrew decided to stop eating breakfast each day. I was very sceptical. Hadn't we spent our whole lives being informed that 'breakfast is the most important meal of the day'? Wouldn't the ensuing hunger drive him to snack more? It all sounded rather dubious. Turned out he'd read a book called Spoon-Fed: Why almost everything we've been told about food is wrong, by Tim Spector, a professor of genetics. Andrew appeared to have no ill effects from giving up eating breakfast at home (we still splurge on a café brekkie most Sundays) and I gradually realised that I never felt hungry in the morning either. I'd simply kept eating breakfast (usually home made yoghurt and a sprinkle of dried fruit and nuts) out of force of habit and the old brainwashing about the importance of breakfast. So, I stopped eating breakfast myself … and nothing bad has happened. I've lost a little weight – a good thing, after a year of pandemic comfort food – and haven't resorted to junk food. I haven't even felt hungry.

Professor Spector argues that the breakfast mandate came about not because we need food first thing in the morning, but because makers of processed food (such as breakfast cereals) popularised the notion in Victorian times.

It's been a revelation. I do have a cup of coffee each morning, and perhaps without that I'd feel hungrier. We're enjoying the new routine.

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.