Category Archives: foodie challenges

Anyone Can Cook Fabulous Vegetarian Food: Zucchini Zeitgeist and Merry Marrows

Ah, February.  The season of smoky heat and bushfires (she says, looking dubiously out the window at the pouring rain), of nights too humid for sleep, of days that are long but growing just a little shorter, of children going back to school, of marrows taking over the garden.

I am a terrible gardener, and perhaps this is why I have never managed to succumb to a total zucchini invasion.  My zucchini plants grow filmy white on their leaves, and then they shrivel up, and my zucchinis themselves, while delicious, never reach the apocalyptic numbers I dream of, nor the intimidating size one so frequently hears of.  I do not find myself building zucchini ziggurats or succumbing to squash samurai, nor am I menaced by marrow marauders or carnivorous courgettes.

Which is a rather sad, really.

So I make up for it by buying way too many zucchini at the markets, so that I, too, can face the challenge of what to do with this abundance.  Except that it isn’t a very good challenge, because I have loads of ideas, and nowhere near enough zucchini to do them justice.

I’m sure you do, too.

The February 2015 theme is
Zucchinis and marrows

(Because I can’t possibly be the only person out there who sees a three kilo marrow as a golden opportunity)

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Anybody can cook Fabulous Vegetarian Food: 15-Minute Wonders

Am I the only one looking at the weather forecast for the next few days and whimpering?  I am not a fan of the summer.  True, we get all the most fabulous stone fruit and berries and tomatoes and eggplants and other gorgeous crops – but the price we pay is high.  High on the thermometer.  And really, where is the fun in having gorgeous, seasonal ingredients in the kitchen if it’s too hot to cook them?

So this month’s challenge is really twofold – to use beautiful, summery ingredients to make a meal, while minimising the amount of time spent with the stove running.  Or to be precise…

The January 2015 theme is
15-Minute Wonders

(Because I can’t stand the heat – but I can’t seem to stay out of the kitchen, either…)

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Embarrassingly Belated Pasta Please Roundup Post

I am so, so sorry.  No sooner had Politics Madness come to an end than I found myself plunged into Singing Madness – because of course December is singing season for church musicians like myself.  My best friend visited last weekend and commented on the fact that I was out singing on all three nights – and I had to tell her that this was actually a fairly relaxing weekend compared to the last two, on which I had also been out singing completely different things during the day as well…

We had a small but delicious collection of posts this month, no doubt due to a combination of being intimidated by home-made pasta, and, let’s be frank, my negligence in promoting this challenge properly.  Jacqueline, you have my apologies and I will plan better next time, if you ever let me host again!

As it happens, all three recipes this month are gluten free, dairy free, nut-free, and vegetarian, and two of them are vegan.  An impressive effort!

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Pasta Please: Make Your Own

I’m excited to be hosting the Pasta Please food blogging challenge this month. This is a challenge created by Jacqueline of  Tinned Tomatoes, to celebrate the glory of pasta in all its myriad mutations!

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(Sorry, I’ve been listening to science seminars for two days straight.  My language may have developed some variant strains as a result.)

Given my love affair with asparagus, I was tempted – oh so very tempted – to make Asparagus the theme of the month.  But since Jacqueline is in Britain, and many, many of you lovely readers and fellow pasta fiends are also in the Northern hemisphere, this seemed a little bit mean.  Sort of like bragging about the three kilos of asparagus I bought at a farmers’ market recently.  Three kilos!  Whee!

Oops.  I may have bragged a bit there.

So no, the theme will not be asparagus, though you can be sure my recipe will feature it heavily when I get to that point.  Instead, I thought it might be fun to get down to the real basics of a pasta challenge, and invite you to

Make Your Own Pasta

This does not have to mean a pasta machine.  Gnocchi can be made by hand, with a potato masher or even a fork – or, if you are like my Nonna, just with flour and water and your thumb on a wooden board.  Ravioli and tortellini, while fiddly, can be made by anyone with good pastry skills (i.e., not me) on a large table with a good rolling pin and a round cookie cutter, pastry wheel, or just a sharp knife.  For those who like to embrace the raw, vegetable or even fruit noodles can be made with a vegetable spiraliser, and tagliatelle with a vegetable peeler. Continue reading

In My Kitchen: Post-Europe Edition!

What was that resolution I made about participating in these blogging events more regularly?  Well, I suppose every six months or so is regular… sort of…

Anyway!  I got back from my exciting European trip at midnight between Tuesday and Wednesday, and I brought back all sorts of goodies with me.  Better still, none of them were taken away from me as potential weaponry by Germany (I lost a bottle of chocolate sauce to German’s security screening last time), or as potential disease vectors by Australia’s Customs people.  Incidentally, people in Norway apparently think their Customs control is pretty fierce.  It seemed impolite to giggle incredulously at this after being waved through the ‘nothing to declare’ gate with nary a glance, so I shall simply confide to my Australian friends that my German penfriend took fruit on the plane from Germany to Norway and nobody mindedI simply couldn’t bring myself to do this, even when it was offered to me.  One does not take fruit on planes.  It just isn’t done.

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Anyone Can Cook Fabulous Vegetarian Food: Vegan Christmas in July

Oh, I am excited about this one.   So excited that I am bringing this allegedly monthly challenge back from yet another hiatus when Life got the better of me.  I know it’s not quite July yet, but let’s face it – the wintry weather has set in.

We don’t really have holly in Melbourne, but if we did, it would have berries on it.  And while it isn’t snowing here, I understand they are having a pretty good ski season up in the Victorian Alps.  Meanwhile, we have the wind wuthering around our house, the weather is cold and dark, and when one goes out in it, it rains.  Sideways.

This may not sound appealing to you, but I actually love Melbourne winters.  Partly, it’s perversity – nobody else seems to love this weather, so I do, wholeheartedly.  (In return, Melbourne very kindly gives me good weather for any events I hold outside, even if the weather has been utterly unpromising up until that point.  We have a very good relationship, Melbourne and I.)

But mostly, it’s because this is such fantastic baking weather. Continue reading

One last shameless plug for Live Below the Line

Just a quick reminder for those who might have been thinking of sponsoring me for Live Below the Line but didn’t have the resources at the time that sponsorship closes in seven days’ time (i.e., the end of the financial year).  Astonishingly, I’m still at number 20 on the leaderboard, and as a matter of personal pride I’d like to stay there… Also, it would be nice to get up to my target of $3,000 (and for WEHI to overtake KPMG, for that matter – my evil competitive side likes the idea that I could single-handedly overtake a firm that has four people doing the challenge…) (also, medical research is 100% cooler than auditing, and I feel our scores need to reflect this).

If you have no idea what I’m talking about with all of this, look to the left of this post, or follow this link for the index page to all my Living Below the Line blog posts.

Or don’t, and that’s fine, too.  I realise that I have been shamelessly begging for donations left, right, and center, and I quite understand if people are over the whole thing!

(Disclosure statement: by being in the top 100, I am in fact in the running for a couple of prizes, so yes, there is a personal benefit to me.  However, in all honesty, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be kicked out of the top 100 in the next week.  Still, it would be fun to stay in the top 20 if I can.  )

Living Below The Line: Final Thoughts

I’m done!  I survived the Live Below The Line challenge, and am now going to subject this blog to culinary whiplash as we go from $2 a day recipes to the decadence and glitter that is my Eurovision cooking!

I woke up this morning with the feeling of lightness that comes from being able to eat whatever I feel like for breakfast… and then I went and made 40 mini Danishes for tonight’s dessert and forgot to have breakfast until it was nearly lunchtime.

In other words, normal eating patterns have pretty much been re-established.

But before moving on to this far more appealing and glittery stage in my blogging life, it seems timely to reflect for one last time on the past week, and what it’s been like living on $2 a day.  Have I learned anything?

Well, I’ve learned that it actually is possible for me to be more obsessed about food than I normally am.  This probably breaks some sort of world record.  But quite seriously – eating food that never quite fills you up, and that always seems to lack something in terms of flavour sensitises you to the food that surrounds you in the world to an astonishing degree.  My nose has suddenly become this food-detecting device, that notices, in appalling detail, what my neighbours are cooking for dinner, which food shops I’m passing, and what sort of cooking oil is being used at fast food restaurants.  It’s not that I don’t notice these things normally, to an extent, but they are usually background things – one doesn’t really notice them particularly consciously.  For the last week, the slightest whiff of something edible has provoked an instant hunger reflex, and I can just about visualise what the food looks like.

Also, I have spent far too much time counting the hours until my next meal.  It’s embarrassing.

The obsessiveness comes and goes a bit – if I stay away from other people’s cooking smells and occupy myself with a novel or singing practice, or the Eurovision quizzes on TV.  I can forget about food for hours.  Which is a blessing.

I’ve learned that, while I am not a hugely active person, I really hate feeling that my activity levels restricted by hunger / lack of energy.  And they really, really are.  By Wednesday, I couldn’t stand it any longer and decided to walk the 7 kilometres to my singing lesson.  This was perhaps a mistake.  While it did feel good to be outside and to stretch my legs, I found myself getting just a bit dizzy and my vision getting a bit sparkly when I tried striding up hills (as is my usual habit).  I had to slow right down.

I’ve learned what I expected to learn, namely, that living on $2 a day is hard work, even when you aren’t really living on $2 in any real sense of the word.  And shopping is a nightmare.  But I’ve also learned that, for a short time, I can manage it.  This is actually quite reassuring.  Ever since those days of job and food insecurity in my early 20s, I’ve been terrified of being in a position again where I can’t work full time – I’ve always felt as though I’m one pay packet away from disaster, and that if I lost my job and couldn’t find work immediately, that would be it for me.  Now, I reckon it’s more like two or three pay packets.  If necessary, I can live on not very much, especially if I still have my freezer and pantry to work with.  It’s  breathing room.

I’ve learned that there is a huge amount of stress involved in living on such a restricted income.  That’s something I didn’t think to blog about earlier, but it’s true.  That awful fear that there won’t be enough food to get us through the week, that we won’t be able to afford all our basics, that we will run out entirely – I think it must be hardwired in humans, really.  It’s not pleasant.

I’ve learned to measure and weigh everything.  If you have a 400g tin of peaches that has to be divided into 6 breakfasts, you don’t want to run out of peaches at breakfast number 5…

I’ve learned that apple jaffles are really surprisingly awesome!  I didn’t expect to get any food wins out of this week, but that was definitely a good one.

I’ve learned that we have enviably cheap produce in Australia, and I am deeply grateful for this, even if I’m intending to revert immediately to my expensive organic varieties because I like supporting local farmers.

On a related note, I’ve learned that chillis and onions are good news, that you can get an astonishing amount of flavour from a single chicken wing, but that tuna that costs less than gourmet catfood is best avoided.  As are bulk frozen vegetables that taste of nothing – I would have done better to spend that $1.59 on rolled oats or rice or pasta, or maybe some tinned beans or corn.

There are other things I don’t know if I’ve learned or not.  I have a feeling that from now on, I’m going to be much, much more vigilant about not wasting food.  I’m not a huge food waster, but some things do find their way to that lurking space at the back of the fridge and are never the same again.  I think I’ll be monitoring my leftovers even more closely in future.

I’ll also be interested to see what, if any, effect this challenge has had on my ‘What if there isn’t enough food?!’ instinct when catering.

Has this challenge changed my life?  No.  And I didn’t expect it to.  It’s only five days, after all.  Hardly enough to make a huge difference.  It has been fascinating to notice just how fast one begins to feel the effects of food scarcity (I’m still convinced that a good part of this is psychological – though given that my clothes are significantly looser now than they were this time last week, there was obviously a physiological element, too), but that’s about it.  I’ve enjoyed (for want of a better word) thinking about and learning about food security issues, and it’s been interesting reading what other people have written about this, and how differently things work in other countries.

But mostly, I can’t wait to cook without restrictions again – or at least, with only the restrictions of a much more generous food budget.  I have missed my herbs and my spices, my meat and my dairy, and, oh yes, my chocolate.  (I kept on reaching out instinctively to take a piece of the open Easter Egg in my room, and then realising that no, I wasn’t allowed to do that.  And yes, I probably should have moved it.)  And my fruit and vegetables!  Yes, we’ve managed to eat quite a lot of veg in the last week, but we usually eat a *lot* more.  We love our veggies!

Most of all, though, I’ve missed being able to think about food in a creative, enjoyable way.  I’ve thought about food a lot over the last week, but mostly in terms of deprivation.  To me, that’s been one of the hardest things – having to constantly turn my mind away from thinking about something that means far more to me than sustenance.  More even than creativity and sustenance and health – or colour and flavour and smell.  Food, to me, is also about generosity, about love, about caring for the people around me.  It’s about sharing and community, too.

I’ve found it bitterly hard to not be able to invite people around to share a meal over the last week, and I’ve felt ashamed that I didn’t have proper food to offer people who visited.  The ability to offer hospitality is not found anywhere in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, or if it is, it must be well up towards the apex, but it’s a big one for me.  I’m not very good at social interaction, so feeding people is one of the best ways I know to show people that I love them.  It’s painful to lose that outlet, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I would find it rather socially crippling if I could never afford to invite friends around for a meal.  Or feed my lovely scientists at work – many of whom have sponsored me very generously, like the amazing people they are!

Thank you to everyone who has read these posts, commented, sent me supportive text messages, or sponsored me over the last week.  I have truly appreciated this.  With your help, I have raised $1,999 towards education and training programs in East Timor and Cambodia, and am 19th on the leaderboard – an amazing result.  If you are just reading this and realising that you meant to sponsor me and totally forgot – fear not!  Sponsorship remains open until July 30th (or possibly June 30th, depending on which bit of the website you are reading), so you it’s not too late to help me get over the $2,000 mark!

As for me, I have friends coming to dinner tonight, to celebrate the insanity that is Eurovision, so I’m off to cook for that.

You may be certain that I’m budgeting well over $2 per head for this meal.

And I’m so very grateful that I am able to do so.

Living Below the Line: Penne with Spicy Tomato, Cauliflower and Chickpea Sauce

Look!  I actually managed to create something that tasted good!  It’s amazing how much better food tastes when you manage to avoid the ubiquitous frozen vegetables (note to self: cheap frozen vegetables have absolutely no taste and should be used as a bulk ingredient only – not a flavour one!), when you have just a bit of cooking fat, and when you get to use garlic and chilli at the same time.  Incidentally, I think chilli would be my secret weapon if I were living on a very low budget full time – it’s so incredibly cheap, and provides a good kick of flavour that is sadly lacking from a lot of this food.

While this dish really would be improved by a bit of parmesan, some olive oil, and just better seasoning all around, it’s actually quite fine as it is.  I will probably make this again, and there’s really not much I would change.

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Your Shopping List

skin from one chicken wing (or olive oil, if you are not living below the line)
175 g dried chickpeas, soaked overnight
1 red chilli (2 if you can!)
6 cloves garlic, crushed
1 brown onion, sliced
1 1/2 tins of chopped tomatoes (600g in total)
1 cup of water
salt
3/4 of a cauliflower
450 g pasta

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Living Below the Line: Water

Last day of the challenge today!  I’m pretty excited  And to celebrate, I’m going to take a break from complaining about being hungry in order to focus on the fact that I’m not thirsty.

Or rather, to talk about water.

In the information pack for the challenge, participants are advised to stay well-hydrated by drinking two litres of water per day.  Water from the tap costs nothing in this challenge.   And this is, perhaps, the biggest difference between first-world poverty and the third-world variety.

Water is free – or if not free, precisely (she says, thinking about her recent water bill), freely available at the turn of a tap.

And not just any water – water that is clean and potable (unless you are in Adelaide) and doesn’t have to be boiled before use.

I drink a lot of water.  But I’ve also been thinking, over the last few days, about all the other ways I use water when cooking.  To soak beans.  To make stock.  To cook pasta or rice.  To steam or parboil vegetables, or to poach chicken.  To add to pasta sauces or casseroles that are about to stick.  To wash fruit and vegetables that I’m going to eat raw.  In breadmaking.  Cooking things in the slow cooker.

I’m sure I’ve missed some uses.  And some of the uses I’ve listed above involve boiling the water anyway, but not all of them do, and I feel a bit overwhelmed just thinking about having to boil water and cool it before I can even start washing vegetables or doing anything else.

For a real taste of exhaustion, now imagine having to go and fetch all that water from a pump or well or river before boiling it and using it.  Oh, and don’t forget that you will also need water to wash yourself and your clothes and to water your crops.

To be honest, water poverty is something I know very little about (even less than I do about food security, in fact).  I have, I suspect, the same general vague awareness that most Westerners would have that there are a number of third-world countries where people – particularly women – spend much of their day fetching water.  This is, of course, time that cannot be spent on getting an education, or growing crops, or running a business, or even doing household chores, and is thus a huge contributor to poverty in these countries.

As someone who studied history, I also have a quiet but nonetheless fervent gratitude for a first-world sewerage system that has turned water-borne diseases such as cholera into something one hears about on the news rather than experiences first hand.

So rather than writing an essay about water poverty when others have written far better ones already, I’m going to link below to three sites by people who know a lot more than I do on this topic, and better still, are doing something about it.

Just for a change, if today was the day you were going to sponsor me, I ask that you instead direct your donation to one of the organisations below.

The Water Project – working with local partners to provide closer access to clean water in Sub-Saharan Africa

End Water Poverty – focusing on the global sanitation crisis

Wello – creating a rolling water drum that can be used to transport larger quantities of water safely and easily.   I absolutely love this project!