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Sunday, 25 November 2012


  What are you thankful for? I’m thankful that I went to my first Thanksgiving dinner at the weekend!

 We’ve been trying to celebrate Thanksgiving dinner with our Friend-With-an-American-Husband for the last few years, but we’ve always been busy or they’ve been busy – which is probably related to is being celebrated a month before Christmas. But this year we got ourselves sorted and had the date booked out about 6 months in advance! Being celebrated on a Thursday (which is a public holiday in America), it didn’t really lend itself to a celebration on the day (people working makes it a bit tricky to roast a turkey and get there and celebrate before having to head home for work the next day), so we made it on the Saturday of that weekend.
 Naturally, I was very excited by this. Any time I get to celebrate something cultural and foodie is always good (New foods! New recipes!). But Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that has seeped into my (and probably most people’s) subconscious, through years and years of American TV watching. This is what I had gleaned: there was turkey. There were Yams (whatever they were). There was pumpkin pie. You got together with your family and there may or may not have been fights. You ate lots and then had a nap in the afternoon while the men watched football (refer to Thanksgiving episodes of “Friends” (I love the one where Joey tried to eat a whole turkey), “3rd Rock from the Sun”, “Mad About You” and a dozen other movies).  But I was also aware that with a lot of Traditions, each family will develop their own (like in the Friends episode where Monica has to make yams 3 different ways to keep everyone happy). So I was equally as interested to see what their traditions would be.
 I had stumbled across a “spiced pumpkin pie” recipe in Delicious magazine about 6 months ago and had kept it safe for such an occasion; and was happy to be given the OK to make such an important part of Dinner.
 Which gave me a good chance to think about Pumpkin Pie. Such a stalwart of American tradition (perhaps it should be “As American as Pumpkin Pie”), but still odd. There is a Sweet Potato Pie (which I’m sure is a song by Ray Charles) in my Jamie’s America Cookbook, and I have seen a lot of mentions of rhubarb pie with spring arriving, but pies are usually associated with fruit – apple, berry, peach etc. Pumpkin is a vegetable and one that doesn’t always lend itself to sweetness, though being an Australian child brought up in the 1980’s, I did partake of a few Flo Bjelke-Petersen inspired pumpkin scones. But I guess those Pilgrims just used whatever they had available, and pumpkin would have been something that would have grown and produced a crop in the first year (and is native to North America – thanks Wikipedia!) Good work.
 So Saturday morning, as I started out making my pastry and roasting the pumpkin I had an unnerving thought…

 What if I was making it wrong?
 What if this Spiced version was a “twist on an old tradition” that actually made it Not the Way it Should Be? Would it taste wrong and thereby Ruin Thanksgiving (as Bart did in the Thanksgiving Episode of The Simpsons?). I had no idea as 1) I had never made pumpkin pie before and 2) I had no idea what Real Pumpkin Pie tasted like.

 As I had already started, I vowed to go and Finish What I Had Started, holding onto the fact that these were dear friends who wouldn’t really mind if I bought the wrong pie. Bake on!
 Pretty straight forward as baking goes – blind bake a sweet pastry case; roast your pumpkin pieces (drizzled in honey – smelled delicious!). The spices were nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and cloves, which were added to warmed cream, along with treacle and brown sugar. Mix this with your cooled roast pumpkin puree and an egg or two, pour it into your pastry case and bake for half an hour or so.
 Looked good coming out of the oven….

  So we set off with our pie, and a batch of Peach Ice Cream, which I’m sure is NOT a traditional Thanksgiving dessert, but it IS from Jamie’s America, and as it was a 38 degree day in Melbourne, I was kinda glad I had decided to make it. (I had defrosted my freezer during the week, and so has room to put the ice cream machine bowl back in. Hubby heard this and was quite vocal in his requests for “Peach Peach Peach!” ice cream, so I did what all good wives would do and made it so he would be quiet).  We studied up on the origins and controversy of the holiday on the drive over so we could have meaningful and intelligent conversations with our fellow guests (well, at least until we finished the first bottle of wine).
 We had decorations…

 We had turkey (naturally), we had Yams (sweet potato – of course!!), we had mash (potato) and we had American Mum’s traditional bean casserole (complete with battered fried onion on top – so yummy!).

 I tried not to eat too much (I didn’t have seconds!) but was still rather full after main course, which gave us all a chance to chat about Thanksgiving traditions (in which it basically sounds like Christmas without the religion and presents) and talk about what each of us were Thankful for (a lovely touch I thought).
 And then dessert time. We handed out a (small) slice of pie with a side of peach ice cream (the recipe suggested serving it with whipped cream, but I got a bit enthusiastic with my whipping and managed to start making butter. Whoops!) and I held my breath while the American took a bite…..

  “This tastes just like the real thing”.
 Hooray!! And a little impromptu celebration dance from me. In fact the only complaint was that I had given him too small a slice (remedied easily with a second slice, and leaving him the leftovers), and that I had made it from scratch. Apparently in America, you buy a can of “pumpkin pie filling” and pour it into a bought pastry shell, and voila – “home cooked” pumpkin pie.

  I think I’ll stick with my version.
 But we all found it quiet tasty, except the Frenchman (who was also there), which his wife pointed out was probably because it didn’t have enough sugar (we had discussed earlier in the night his habit of having chocolate croissants dipped in hot chocolate for breakfast in France, so this was probably a good observation). It was savoury type of dessert, but still quite tasty – like a spicy pumpkin soup custard (which sounds worse than it tasted!).

 But more importantly, I didn’t ruin Thanksgiving.

 Which I was very thankful for.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Other Fish to Fry ... or Bake ... Or Grill...

  For the past few months I have been working on an area of my culinary repertoire that has been sorely under-represented; a Cooking Fear (if you will) that needed to be faced up to Like a Man (or like a Domestic Goddess at least)

  So simple, so complicated.
  Over the years, I have had many friends who raved about how simple and easy and tasty it was to cook Fish; especially those trying to lose weight  be healthy. But it was not a thing that I ever entertained the thought about cooking, or even ordering in a restaurant – I was always more of a chicken or pork or pasta girl. As with much of my cooking style, this lack of aquatic appreciation started in childhood. My mum doesn’t like Fish. Hence she never cooked it. I mean, we had Fish Fingers of course (topped with cheese and bacon pieces on special occasions) and graduated to the frozen I & J oven-bake Fish fillets in later years. But that was it.  The only other Fish that I was exposed to was the ubiquitous tuna or salmon casserole bake (with the nausea inducing white sauce and weird odour) seen at Pot Luck style dinners, which wasn’t  anything that was going to inspire a young girl to change allegiances. I liked prawns, but didn’t like shelling them myself (too many oozy slimy bits that made your fingers stinky); I couldn’t see the appeal of oysters (salty grey and disgusting), never liked smoked salmon and our budget didn’t stretch to lobster. Plus there was always that fear inducing aspect of swallowing one of the minuscule tiny bones that evaded your careful inspection and getting it caught in your throat and choking or getting a punctured lung (or something equally as dramatic); I don’t like my dinners with a Side order of Trepidation.

 Plus, the actual past-time of Fishing seemed like a HUGE waste of time. Why stand around on a river bank/pier or sit in a boat for hoooouuuuurrrrrrrs on end in the hope that you MIGHT catch something that MIGHT be big enough not to be thrown back and MIGHT feed you that night, when you could have guaranteed fun riding the four wheeled motorbike or making sandcastles or swimming and getting sand who knows where? Very inefficient.
 Slowly but surely, I have come around.

 In my younger casual-worker days, I worked across from a Fishmonger who would sell containers of crab meat and prawns (with a thoughtful container of Thousand Island dressing) which would get me through shifts without a meal break. Then when sushi became all the rage, I quite enjoyed the salmon and Fish pieces (sans wasabi!) before sliding back to the California rolls (you could eat them chopstick-free!). As a working girl, I was introduced to the famous fall-back lunch (“… but I thought YOU were going to get bread for sandwiches!!”) of canned tuna on crackers. But it was a work conference in Darwin that has had the most influence: I defy anyone who has tried a fresh Thai-influenced barramundi curry to not be convinced about the delicious versatility of Fish.
  All of this Fish knowledge was coming to the fore as all of the health benefits kept resurfacing;  it lowers cholesterol, it helps with arthritis, it’s good for avoiding depression etc etc.
 But where to start? There are SOOOOO many different types and cuts of Fish (blue rockling grenadier flathead flounder fillets steak tails boned skin on off – argh!!!) and ways to cook it  (pan fry, deep fry, bake and grill) that it was a bit daunting to work out what to cook First.

 Sticking with the Do-What-You-Know school of thinking, I decided on Fish Tacos (Mexican is So Hot Right Now).  I had two recipes and decided to pick the best bits from each in regards to the salsa and salad options, but both recipes called for Firm White Fish Fillets (500g or 4 x 180g). Me, a Fish Cooking Virgin so to speak,  having no idea of what to buy or ask for,  just went to the Fish section at my local Coles and looked in hope for some sort of Fish that I might recognise. I think I ended up with flathead fillets, which seemed to be quite expensive for the amount of Fish I took home. Which wasn’t very much.  Hmmmm, perhaps I should have bought by weight not number…..

 Never the less, I soldiered on. We were having a Mexican themed dinner, so while my friends sipped on watermelon margaritas and lageritas (a Corona with a shot of tequila and some lime juice – be careful, the tequila likes to sit on top of if the beer so that first mouthful can be a bit potent!) I warily approached my first Fish-cooking endeavour.
 Which was a bit of a disaster.

 In hindsight, I think had the pan too hot or not enough oil (or both) – the Fish pieces stuck to the frypan, the flour covering flaked off everywhere and it was a rather unappetising-looking mess. It tasted OK (as most things would when topped with sour cream and pico de gallo salsa), but I had rather under-catered with the amount of Fish I had bought, and so each of us had two tacos with about 2-3 small cubes of Fish. Nice, but not enough to soak up the beer and tequila. Thankfully the Tres Leches cake (meaning “Three Milks”, which are used in its cooking) brought by my girlfriend was a  delicious (and solid) and chased away the hunger pangs.
 So an inglorious start to my Fish-Cooking Crusade.
 And so it got quietly put to the Bottom of the Pile while I cooked and experimented (more successfully) with other things.

 Then I received Donna Hay’s Simple Dinners which had a Fish/Seafood section. I usually gloss over these sections, but the pictures made me stop and look, and even made me think – I could Eat That.  And it was around this time that Hubby’s cholesterol reading was a bit high, which then made me think – We should Eat That.
 And so I bravely waded back into The Deep.

 First up was ‘Miso Grilled Fish’. It seemed pretty straight forward (marinate and grill) and I got to buy some new ingredients from my cute local Asian grocery store. After the failure of the first Fish Purchase, I thought I’d try the local Fish shop, in the hope that Someone in the Know would advise and guide me.

 Me: “Hi, I’ve never cooked Fish before and I need firm white Fish fillets. What would you suggest?”
 She: “Ummm… I don’t know, what do you feel like trying??”

 Not helpful!! I also had a minor freak out at handing over $14 for two Fish fillets (I had better not leave half of this stuck on my frypan!) but I had heard that Fish was Expensive.  I had another minor freak out during cooking as I couldn’t tell when the fillets were cooked through (and I didn’t want to ruin and waste this precious Fish!) but I did the sneaky (and I’m sure big culinary no-no) of Cutting it To Check. And it was delicious.  And light. And healthy (served with a side salad). And a Success. Hooray!
 Next up was Salmon Teriyaki Noodles (from Delicious Magazine), which was a big step for me as I wasn’t even sure that I liked salmon! I figured that the sauce would help if I wasn’t a big fan of the taste, and I could always eat the noodles and veges. With a pep talk from my salmon-loving girlfriend (Don’t overcook it! Put a saucepan lid over your frypan to help it cook through!) combined with a bit of info I gleaned from Huey’s Cooking Adventures (which just happened to be on the TV in our waiting room when I was waiting for a fax) I felt I had the skills to make it work (or at least not totally destroy it).

 I purchased pre-packaged salmon from Coles so I knew I had the right weight and the right cut. I had enough oil in the pan this time and so only a few little pieces stuck, and it was only at the thickest part of the fillet that it wasn’t totally cooked through when I took it off the heat, which I remedied by popping those pieces back in the middle of the fry pan for a few minutes before mixing it in with the rest of the noodles. Sneaky!!
 Again – delicious. Again light and tasty (and healthy) – and I like salmon! Double Hooray!!

 To go in a different direction, I chose Crispy Fish Sliders (from Simple Dinners) next. This was more of your traditional batter-and-fry type of Fish dish, which I thought was a good skill to acquire, just in case anyone ever caught Something and expected me to cook it for them. It was a very simple batter, quite amenable to becoming a beer batter which is good to know.
 I had issues again with the oil/frypan combo, so a few of my fillets ended up in little pieces rather than whole fillets; I may not have had my oil hot enough when I started cooking (damn electric cooktop!). And still with the sticking to the pan thing! I might need to invest in another good quality non-stick frypan….

 Still, once the Fish was in a roll with some roasted garlic aioli and lettuce, it was yum and it didn’t matter whether there were Fish fillets or pieces.  So three from three (and one very pleased Hubby).
 Last on my To Try style of Fish cooking was a stew – Spanish Fish Stew (again from Delicious) to be precise…. which was quite nice and simple to cook (throw the Fish pieces in the flavoured liquid and simmer for 5 minutes) and no chance of it sticking to a tricky frypan! I think I might grow to like that cooking style…..

 So it now gives me great pride to state that I Can Cook Fish.

 And I will continue to Cook Fish! Like a sesame crusted salmon … or a Thai-style baked Fish … or a Fish Curry … or Popcorn Shrimp! (I know it’s not really “Fish” but it sound so yummy).

 Bring It On.