Friday, 30 January 2015

Marsala - the colour and taste of 2015

The colour gods at Pantone have declared that the colour of the year for 2015 is Marsala.  They describe it as a "naturally robust and earthy wine red, Marsala enriches our minds, bodies and souls."  I'd like to add that it also tastes delicious, so I'm going to accord it flavour of the year.

Dad and I regularly visit his local bowls club for a weekend lunch and one of their most delicious lunch staples (in addition to Oysters Kilpatrick which we almost always share) is Veal Marsala.  After several delicious lunches I started to get intrigued by the taste and did a little digging into its origins.

Marsala is a fortified wine, originally from the city of Marsala in Sicily.  It's in the same family as port and sherry and was traditionally served between the first and second courses of a meal - but its real power comes when you use it to make a sauce that has the most amazing depth and flavour punch.

I came home from a lunch one day with the flavour on my mind and opened up my blog reader to see that Smitten Kitchen - one of my favourite cooking blogs - had posted a recipe for mushroom marsala pasta bake.  Obviously it was meant to be and I went out and bought a bottle straight away!

Since then I've tried a couple of different sauces and the most successful has been a creamy version that I served with a roasted chicken dinner. It was a popular change from the usual gravy and was even better the next day when drizzled over the leftovers.

Here's how I made it:

Cut up a mountain of mushrooms of different varieties (I used Swiss brown and button but you can use whatever is at hand) and a leek and toss them into a big pan with two crushed garlic cloves and a good glug of olive oil. 

Once they are par cooked and the pan is nice and hot, stir in half a cup of Marsala and let it simmer and reduce, infusing the mushrooms with its heavenly flavours.  When the liquid has reduced, slowly stir in about half a cup of chicken stock and again let the flavours develop while the liquid reduces.  I throw in a good grind of black pepper and a small pinch of salt too.

To finish, add a glug of cream (not too much, you don't want to diminish the flavour) and warm through. You can thicken with some cornflower if you like.  Drench over some chicken, baked potato and steamed broccoli and enjoy.  Delicious!

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Starting over in the right place

The school year in Queensland starts again next week and when it does, it will mark the anniversary of an event which changed my life completely.

From my first day in high school, it was pretty obvious to me and to my family that I wasn't really in the right place for me.  I didn't really 'fit' in the school and while I eventually found a way to make it work, it was never really me.  I was quiet and withdrawn and never had a lot of confidence. The school didn't offer subjects that I was interested in and I never really found my stride.

Over the years I learned to accept that this was how school was meant to be and would probably have drifted along until the end of my school days except for the fact that a nasty group of girls decided that it might be fun to give me a hard time and things spiralled down to the point where I was again pretty unhappy on a daily basis.  

Things finally came to a head one day when one of the group suggested that I leave and not come back and I obliged by going home and declaring that I was done with school and wasn't going back.  That was a big claim for a pretty quiet and usually well behaved daughter. But to their credit, my parents realised that things had reached the point of no return and agreed that leaving the school was the best option for me. They talked me into going back for the last few weeks of the year but once it was done, I was free to leave.

A few weeks later they approached me and asked if I would consider trying a new school. I wasn't at all keen, but after some discussion, I agreed to a two week trial where I would have permission to leave completely if it didn't work out after that. 

The first day of school was a completely terrifying experience. I'd moved from a smallish private girls school to a big, co-ed public school and I didn't know anyone.  I sat quietly through the orientation and opening assembly and kept telling myself, "two weeks, just do this for two weeks."

But then two amazing things happened.  I got taken to my first form class which was Art. This was something I had always wanted to learn but hadn't been able to do at my old school - and it was fun.  And the second thing that happened was that I made my first school friend in that class.  This girl was warm and friendly and welcoming and we just clicked.  At lunchtime, she took me off to meet all the other people in her group of friends.  And they were all warm and friendly and welcoming too! 

In the days and weeks that passed, they welcomed me into their group and I slowly adjusted to the rhythm of a big group of people.  Their energy and craziness and laughter was infectious and I came out of my shell and found my own personality.  I'm sure that they sometimes thought I was a bit weird  because I just wasn't used to the dynamics of a crowd, but they were pretty patient and eventually I found my place in the group. I hadn't really known I was an extravert until I found the right place for me.

The last few years of high school were a completely different experience for me. Music, friendship, laughter, travel. So many new experiences and so much fun to be had - and believe me, I enjoyed it all!

Looking back today, those early years don't feature at all in my thoughts because so many better things have taken them over.  While they were a difficult experience, they taught me so much about the type of person I want to be, how to treat people, and the importance of true friendship.

Thirty years later, that girl from my art class is still my best friend.  No matter how long passes between conversations, we just pick right up where we left off and I love that I have a small place in the family she had built.  Suzy, thank you for taking me under your wing that day, you have no idea how you changed my world and I will always treasure you and your family.

But the blessings didn't stop there because I still see so many of that wonderful crowd of friends from school.  We catch up at least once or twice a year for lunch and over the years through marriage, jobs, children and change, we have managed to build on the 'school friend' connection and develop something stronger.  We always have things to talk about and everyone is genuinely interested in everyone else.  I treasure each and every one of them and love that all the kids have grown up knowing one another and even as adults they still choose to join us for lunch sometimes!

Sorry for the length of this post, but there seemed to be a lot to say.  This is probably more personal than anything I would normally blog about but somehow this forthcoming anniversary of beautiful friendships seems significant and I wanted to mark it.  

I wish you all the joy of true friendship. x 

Friday, 9 January 2015

The tale of the butter dish

A few months ago I stopped using blended 'spreadable' butter and switched to pure butter after reading about the not-so-great benefits of some oils used in products like this.  I was happy with the switch but absolutely did not enjoy struggling with trying to get slivers of rock hard butter onto my toast without ripping it to shreds or leaving chunks of unmelted butter sitting forlornly on top.

I decided to go all old-school and buy a butter dish so I could safely keep the butter out of the fridge and slather it easily onto piping hot toast in the mornings - but I never imagined how difficult this task would be.

The first stop was Kmart and Target - no go.  It seems that everyone prefers spreadable butter these days and a butter dish isn't part of the usual stock. Then I started looking in kitchenware and homeware shops.  Occasionally I'd find one, but they were all so ugly that I couldn't bring myself to buy one. They were also all glass - and knowing how clumsy I am, I didn't think that a glass butter dish and me without the benefit of coffee would be a good match.

Finally I found something I thought would do the job nicely - an Anna Gare ceramic butter dish.  Cream, tastefully decorated with a homey decoration in pale colours, I thought it would do the job nicely and despite the fact that it was a bit expensive, I decided to look on it as an investment and bought it.

I put a moderate amount of butter into the dish and set it in a cool corner of my kitchen.  For the first day or so, it worked a treat. The butter was very soft (it is summer after all) but it kept well and spread beautifully. However my butter problems were only just beginning.

After a few days of lifting the lid, I noticed that some butter was getting caught around the edge and had seeped into the bottom of the lid. I cleaned it all up and put a smaller amount of butter in the dish, but the next day it spread again and as soon as it touched the lid, it seeped into the lid again and stained the whole bottom of the lid.  Ceramic - it seems - is only water and stain proof if you actually glaze it and the base of the lid.  In this case, the bottom of the lid - the bit that actually rests on the dish - was not glazed.  Aggggghhhhhh!

I tried everything to get rid of the stain but it didn't come out (Anna, if you are reading this, why would you make a butter dish in cream and not glaze the entire thing???). I gave it up as a bad job and went back to cold butter but the whole thing kept niggling away at me.

Isn't it pretty?

A few days before Christmas I was shopping in a cute little boutique and I found a dinky little butter dish with a built in little bowl on the plate to keep the butter from spreading along the base and a lovely dome cover that protected the whole thing.  It was pretty, it was hand painted in Poland (obviously they know their butter in Poland). It was perfect - but it was verrrrrrrry expensive.  I went back twice to look at it and finally bought it the day before Christmas, had it gift wrapped and got my father to give it to me for Christmas. Thanks Dad!

The moral of the story is that the road to purity is not simple - and you need to do a lot of research if you want to add something like a butter dish to your kitchen equipment.  I share this story in the hopes that it saves someone else from a similar trauma.  ;-)

No mess!

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Cheers to a great 2015

It's the new year!  Don't you love the feeling of a fresh new year? All shiny and new with no mistakes and lots of dreams and plans?  I know our year doesn't always work out the way it plays in our heads, but I love the idea of starting out the first few days thinking about what's important to me, where I'd like to be and the many, many things I'm grateful for in my life.

In years past I used to write up some notes about what I wanted to do in a notebook.  Not resolutions exactly, but lists of things I want to do (like learn PhotoShop, replace the curtains in my bedroom or cut back to one coffee a day). Looking back, it was surprising how often I ended the year with most of the things on my list complete.

But over the past few years I let the habit slide. I still thought about things, but didn't commit them to paper. I know that progress on life's goals was probably still made, but I had no marker to measure against and plans were airy and disjointed.  But no more! This year I'm getting back into a bit of personal planning with a vengeance.

The internet has kindly provided lots of lovely ideas about things to consider and I've been reading posts about how to make resolutions that stick, ceremonies to mark the end of a period in your life and practial goals to aim for over a five year period.  All good things and I've drawn from them in my simple planning.

Then this morning a dear friend posted a list of five simple questions on her Facebook feed from the Abundant Mamma blog
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