Bittersweet symphony: when life gives you runny jam.

You know the saying, “when life gives you mandarins, make marmalade”?

What? That’s not the saying? Oh. My mistake.

Well anyway… Life gave me mandarins last week, so I made marmalade.

Mandarin marmalade is not a common marmalade – have you ever seen it on the supermarket shelves or had it with your toast at the hotel buffet? – but ever up for a challenge, I was keen to give it a try.

After picking up a three kilo bucket of mandys on a visit to the Hillside Orchard, I went searching for a recipe online. There weren’t a lot of options, so in the end I picked one from a foodie blog (it had pretty pictures…). Combined with a quick chat to Mum on the details (the Queen of marmalade) and I was all set (pardon the pun)!

First I peeled, leaving me with a lovely soft pile of mandys (and a whole lot of yellow in my fingernails).

I threw out half the skins, then julienned the other half.

I cut the mandys in half horizontally and picked out the pips.

I peeled as much as pith as possible from the fruit and added the pips and the pith into my newly acquired ‘bouquet garni’ bag (bought especially for jam making and slow cooking stews!). I was ready and armed with pectin – this jam was damn well going to set!

So this is perhaps the point where I admit to my setting problem… Apart from the first batch of jam I ever made (plum jam), that it seems was just beginners luck, I struggle to get my preserves to set. Which is fine when it’s Peach & Plum (as it was this summer), because you can simply call it ‘conserve’ (I can always count on my Mum to make me feel better after a kitchen disaster). According to a search on the web, Mum is absolutely correct: “The consistency of a good conserve is usually a little more syrupy than ordinary jam and much sweeter and richer in flavour”. Which means I have got conserve making knocked on the head! But jam, not so much. This includes marmalade. When I made lemon marmalade last winter, I used so much “jam set” to make the damn brew set, I’m not even sure you could call it home-made in the end…

This time, I really was determined. I wanted jelly, not syrup.

So in it all went – fruit, peel, pips, pith, lemon juice, sugar and water – into the jam pot. I was feeling confident…

I did everything right. I stirred regularly as the sugar dissolved. I let it come to the boil (sugary froth going crazy), I turned it down to a simmer, stirred occasionally and let it do its thing. Except it didn’t do its thing. With each set test, there was no set. The colour was good, the flavour was good (tang at the back of your tongue, but still sweet), the fruit had fallen apart, for good hearty consistency. It was all good. Except it was runny. Like syrup. Not set. Like jelly.

It looks gorgeous, don’t you think? Bright orange and chunky. But it doesn’t change the fact that I still have a setting problem.

After letting rip a range of swear words (for said syrup reasons, as well as burning my finger tips while bottling), I googled. A risky choice. It was either going to make me feel a whole lot better or a whole lot worse.

Well, it didn’t make me feel worse and it taught me a few tidbits (too late on this occasion) that might help with future jam endeavours, like: preserving is a science, so buy a sugar thermometer (I can be a jam geek!), don’t add too much water to begin with, you can always add more later and sometimes it’s best to make it in batches.

It’s this one that I’m blaming for my syrupy mandarin marmalade… My pot was too full. Or I just don’t have a big enough jam pot!

But I will not be defeated by runny marmalade. After all, we are heading straight into strawberry season. And everybody loves a good Strawberry Conserve

x

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In A Minute #9

Whoah! What a hectic few months I’ve had. Now that things have slowed down a little, I am…

Reading…… magazines. I am between books. I have just finished the almost unreadable Fifty Shades of Grey – it might be a bestseller, it might be full of pornographic ideas to spice up your life and it might have given lip biting its own facebook page, but it is by far the worst book I have ever read! I am yet to decide on my next book, but am thinking after the 50 Shades trash, I might need to soak up some non-fiction, to challenge my brain a little… In the meantime, I am taking the opportunity to catch up on a backlog of mags that I have let pile up over the last few months. I feel pretty chuffed with myself now when I read Country Style and I’m actually living in the country! Just wait til I have chooks and Hunter wellies – I could even make the cover!

Listening…… to the Paul Simon Anthology. So many excellent tunes to sing along to. And those African drums! A guaranteed toe tapper. You know, Paul’s kind of an educator, teaching me 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover (could come in handy one day…) and how to lose those walking blues (I am considering hiding some diamonds in the soles of my running shoes…). Yep, Paul Simon is my long lost pal! He even calls me Betty and says “Betty, when you call me, you can call me Al!”

Watching…… all the post-Olympics reality TV. To be honest, it’s hard to avoid it. Plus I am yet to establish much of a social life in my new locale… Each night I surf between a variety of “real” people on the X-Factor, Farmer Wants a Wife, Don’t Tell the Bride, I Will Survive and Modern Family… oh wait, Modern Family’s not reality TV! It feels like it kinda could be though… Imagine if it was! Imagine if they were your family! If Cam were my brother-in-law, I would literally die laughing! But instead I watch b*tchy Gen Y’s fight for the love of a hairy farmer, shaky teenagers belt out Adele tunes, alpha males try to choose the perfect wedding venue thinking that they know exactly what their wife-to-be wants and macho truck drivers shaking their groove thang, giving gloriously camp gay men a run for their money in the diva stakes. Ah, reality!

Buying…… wedding presents. The wedding season for 2012 is almost upon us and the invitations are beginning to roll in. I really do love living vicariously through my friends, sussing out the kind of dinner parties they’ll throw and the colour theme for their house, all simply by checking out their gift registries! The kind of baking dish one selects really reveals a lot about a person…

Making…… crumbs. Or rather using breadcrumbs on a daily basis. You see, when I made the parmesan pangrattato for the cauliflower risotto, I needed breadcrumbs. I didn’t have any homemade ones and the only ones I could get at Harris Farm were in a bag. Or more like a sack. A one kilo sack. In an effort to avoid wastage, I have taken on the challenge to create meals that require crumbed items. There’s a lot of schnitzel in my life right now. It was either that or use the one kilo bag as a weight and finally get some tone in my biceps…

Planning…… exploration weekends. I have a list. It’s a rapidly growing list. It’s a list of places to visit. Places in Orange and places in the surrounding areas. There are old things and new things, seasonal things and all-year-round things. I have a map and am ready to hit the road. Curious companions welcome. Apply within. Must bring your own compass…

Loving…… my new house. I loved my little one bedder in Sydney – it made me very happy, hosted many excellent parties and supported me through a collection of cooking adventures for four years, but by the time I left, it had started to feel a little bit too small for me. My new house in Orange (well, it’s not actually mine, but my housemate, who does own it, has been incredibly welcoming and done everything possible to make sure it feels like home) is a house. With multiple rooms, an actual laundry, a walk in pantry, a wooden deck (perfect for summer entertaining!), a grassy back yard and a dog. A proper house. And when you walk out the front door, it’s open spaces and wide, tree-lined streets. Not a high rise in sight. Bliss.

Being…… brave. Last week, I had a little moment when I freaked out about what I’ve recently done. It’s not particularly a big deal, people move to new places all the time, but I think I spent so much of the lead up to my move writing lists, sorting out and renting out my Sydney flat, catching up with everyone before leaving town, having whirlwind weekends in Brisbane and Melbourne, plucking up the courage to resign from my job and just generally getting organised, that literally one week to the day after I spent my first night in my new home I kinda lost it. Not in a bad way, just in a floods of tears, feeling-sorry-for-myself-and-maybe-just-a-little-bit-scared way. Suddenly my little tree-change hit me full force. I called all members of my family in hysterics, exhausted all tissue supplies in the house, wore out my dearest friends who listened to my irrational blubbering and then just as suddenly as I had begun, I stopped. I took stock. And I told myself what all my lovely friends and family should have said (but kindly didn’t!)… “Calm the hell down Lizzie”. In other words, relax and enjoy. Buck up sister. Get a grip. And so I have. I still have mini-moments, but I simply remind myself that this is a change for the better and for the long term and that settling in will take time. And that deep down, I know it feels right. And that maybe I should buy shares in Kleenex…

Fact of the Day…… The Olympics are over for another four years. We might not have done as well as ‘they’ said we should (what do ‘they’ know anyway), but it didn’t stop me from feeling proud to be an Aussie. There’s just something about that hideous green and gold combo that gets the patriotic juices flowing! Just in case you need to be reminded about the power of sport and it’s ability to bring people together, check out this little Olympics montage. See you in Rio baby!

 

x

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Big Col: the best of the under-rated vegetables.

I love cauliflower. There I said it.

It might not be cool, but it’s true. It might make me fart, but it’s tasty. It might make an annoying, tiny, white, crumbly mess when being chopped, but it looks pretty. It might smell like somebody’s bottom but it’s versatile. It might be seriously underrated, but I’m on the cauliflower bandwagon.

And I know I’m not alone. There are others who agree that cauliflower is the best, most, under-rated vegetable on offer. Fans of the fluffy, white brassica, will happily sing its praises. And sing with the after-effects too, if you know what I mean…

During the big move week, I made several trips between Sydney and Orange (there’s only so much stuff one can move in one load, in a Barina…) and on the final inbound trip, I stopped at a roadside stall outside of Bathurst and stocked up on local fruit and veg. Including of course, a beautiful, fat cauliflower.

NB: this is not the cauliflower I bought, because I was actually so in awe of it’s fluffy, white beauty that I forgot to photograph it. So this is actually just a random google cauliflower. But I assure you, mine looked very much like this!

So with cauliflower in hand and a new kitchen at my disposal and a craving for a meat and three veg dinner, I cooked my first dinner in my new home. I think my new housemate thought I was completely mad when I served up the random combination of rissoles with a pan-fried cauliflower and steamed bean salad.

The pan-fried cauliflower is super easy. It’s a hangover from my year Cooking with Jamie – throw the floret’s in a hot pan with a little bit of oil (olive or vegetable), salt, pepper and chilli flakes. Toss till the cauli starts to brown, then remove from heat and squeeze some lemon juice over. The cauli should still be crunchy. It’s delicious just like this, but I tossed in some steamed green beans and sprinkling of parsley for colour.

With the second half of my cauli, I whipped up a risotto. Again inspired by my time with Mr O, I sautéed a finely chopped leek and brown onion in butter AND oil, then added rice, stirring til translucent. I then added and burned off some white wine, then slowly added chicken stock , half a cup at a time. About half way through the rice cooking period *read as: the RSI developmental stages, when the constant stirring really states to grate…*, I added the cauliflower, chopped into small florets (if you like the crunch, throw in the stalks as well – yum!) and a handful of quickly pan-fried pancetta plus checked for S&P seasoning. Once the rice is almost at the ready point (it should still have the tiniest inkling to wanna get stuck in your teeth), take the pan off the heat, add an unhealthy chunk of butter (do not feel guilty!), a big squeeze of lemon and a handful of freshly grated parmesan, put the lid on the pan and let these last three additions work their magic for a few minutes. Remove the lid, stir gently and serve. I served mine with a parmesan pangratatto (pan fried breadcrumbs, tossed with S&P & grated parmesan).

Now come on, it might be farty, but if these two examples of how easy it is to use cauliflower, in very different ways, with very different flavours, haven’t convinced you that it is in fact the best, most under-rated vegetable in the world, then I’d simply say, you’re a crazy person. But hey, that’s only one person’s opinion…

Go on, give Big Col a try while he’s still in season.

x

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A change that’s as good as a holiday.

Tomorrow I’m an adventurer. Tomorrow is the start of something new. Tomorrow I move to Orange.

Even though it’s been in the works for a while, it feels as though the actual moving day has come around very quickly and I haven’t quite got my head around the fact that my car is fully loaded with my most prized possessions and tomorrow morning I’m off.

I’m excited but if I’m to be completely honest, I am 100% packing it right now.

Change can be scary right? But how boring would life be if we just did the same old shit day in day out. And I kinda like change, well at least I like the kind of change where I rearrange my furniture every year, get the odd new hair style or have my stir fry with noodles instead of rice…

And why Orange? Well, it’s the birthplace of Banjo Patterson, which is seriously cool. It’s a well-known fruit growing district (not oranges though…), it has the second largest open cut Gold mine in Australia and it has a booming food and wine industry. That’s the clincher.

So tomorrow I’ll hit the road with my stuff , move into a great new house, with a fun new flatmate, whip out all my super-warm woollies, cross my fingers for snow on my first night and start the search for the perfect job. Or at least the perfect job for right now. And then from there, who knows? The Orange adventure is only just beginning.

They say a change is as good as a holiday, but sometimes I think it might be even better.

x

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Addendum: The List reaches out…

I have been totally overwhelmed and touched by the response to my not-quite-completed 30 Things To Do Before I’m 30 List. Clearly I’m surrounded by people who love a challenge!

The fact the framed copy of the list is covered in fingerprints might have been the first clue that my friends were keen to see items being ticked. Combine that with the gifts of horse riding and a wad of instant scratchies and I’m not sure why I’m so surprised.

But I can’t tell you how amazing it’s been to receive some of the emails and messages I’ve had this week. With suggestions for items already ticked (and missed by me!) or tips on how to complete more items!

So this is my addendum…

The first note came from my older brother. Living on the other side of the world, he’s a reader from afar. And a boy (obviously!), which means I didn’t think he’d take much notice. But in fact he was quite on the ball and pointed out the fact that just last week I knocked off Number 20: “Be a TV/Movie Extra”. Which is true, coz I did get my head on the tele last week. It’s not exactly what I had in mind when I wrote that particular point (I was thinking more along the lines of drinking a milkshake in the Bayside Diner…), but hey! So yes, I was an extra, even if it was just for the weather…

I positioned myself front and centre, with everybody’s favourite weather man Tim Bailey, whooping and clapping as he read the live weather from one of my work restaurants. And yes, I was terrified I was going to get a pizza dough dropped on my head…

Nice work Charlie! And thank you also for being my big brother and saying that “surely you’ve done many times”, Number 21: “Make a dazzling entrance…”

Is that not the loveliest thing to hear from your brother? Surely yes. But though I’ve racked my brains to find such an occasion, I still have not made the kind of entrance I’m aiming for. So thank you Charlie, but I have not dazzled yet!

Next up was my friend Katis who offered her assistance in helping me complete not one, but two more items on the list. And I have to say that her proposed trip to Margaret River does sound pretty fabulous. Watch this space…
All of this made me look at the list in a new light (god damn it, I would not sell myself short!) and I realised there was another I could tick. Number 17: “Face my greatest fear…”. Strangely, I was waiting to be terrified before I decided that a fear was “great” enough to be faced, but in truth I am terrified of heights and have most definitely faced that fear more than once – at the top of the Eiffel Tower, at the Tahune Air Walk in Tasmania, crossing from spire to spire on the Sagrada Familia, climbing the Harbour Bridge and having dinner at the top of Sydney’s Centrepoint Tower. Why on earth I continue to put myself in these heightened situations I have no idea, but I cannot be accused of not staring into the black eyes of fear!

To top all of this off, I received a message that was completely unexpected, unbelievably generous and probably the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. An old friend, someone I have not seen for a year or so, but a person who I have shared many laughs with, reached out to tell me that I can tick off Number 30: “Leave my mark. Somewhere. Somehow.”

In this world of social media, it’s easy to forget that even when we are not in contact with people, we are still so connected. So when I received this message from Pen, saying she reads my blog and follows my other social media pursuits on instagram etc, I am not ashamed to say, I shed a little tear. This was the message…

“…I for one am inspired to be more creative and to try something new everytime I read your latest blog. I think it takes a lot to publish your life and allow people to read it, judge it, comment on it, enjoy it – whatever. So it may not be leaving your mark on a grand scale, but it certainly counts! You can totes cross it off the list. Just wanted to let you know xx”

When I read something like that, it makes me realise that when I write my blog, it’s not just for me. There are people out there reading my words and that is a damned amazing thing. Inspiring. A reason to keep doing it. So thank you Pen. And I am crossing it off!

Bringing my total now to 19.

Not a bad little adjustment!

x

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A rising trot to the finish line…

Recently I had a birthday. The one that they call thirty.

I spent the big day recovering from a spag bol and rainbow cake dinner and a rather entertaining game of charades the night before, then screaming like a kid as I tackled the six metre vertical drop/slide at the National Science & Technology Museum… Living it large!

There was however another reason to celebrate. With the arrival of my 30th birthday, came the deadline for my “30 Things To Do Before I’m 30” list.

The list, created in a moment of creativity and enthusiasm about 20 months before said birthday, started out as a simple folly, turned into a challenge and in the end became an impossible task. At the moment (a few months after the list was written) that I decided I would really try to complete the list, I quickly realised it would not be possible. I had been a little too “creative” when compiling my items! So I set myself a goal: get through fifty per cent, but aim for somewhere between 17 and 20.

So how did I end up?

I hit the half way mark about three days before my birthday! With a last minute dash to buy an original piece of art from my talented cousin (Number 26) and the generous gift of 30 Instant Scratchies from my beautiful friend Ash (from which I won $8.00 and completed Number11!!), I managed to get to 15 items ticked.

However, because my fabulous friends supported my personal quest to tick items off a list, on the day before my birthday the clever Gem and Stu announced they were taking me horse riding!

And so today I completed Number 5 “Go horse riding – may as well try to conquer that fear…”. It might not technically be “before 30”, but it’s still in my birthday month, so I say it totally counts!

When we arrived at Glenworth Valley, the winter sun was shining and my hands were shaking. I had ridden horses when I was young, but a couple of bad experiences (one that involved no amount of “whoahs” bringing a runaway horse to a stop) meant that it was a good 20 years since my last stint at the reigns. To say that I was nervous was an understatement.

But here I am, horsing around on arrival…!

And here I am trying to look confident. Coz they can smell your fear right?

Not that this exactly helped…

Due to an exciting bun in the oven situation, Gem wasn’t able to hit the trail with me, so my riding partner was Stu. And though he looked longingly at the group who hit the trail on quad bikes shortly before us, he never faltered and was the perfect calming influence to my jitters.

So after un-ladylike-ly mounting my steed – a stunning beauty called Cassidy – including some impressive grunting and almost planting my butt in the face of the cute instructor helping me, I was handed the reigns and given a quick lesson in how to go, stop and turn. Piece of cake right? You would think so. But Cassidy decided to do her own thing, wandering off in the wrong direction… Let’s just say I tried to remain calm (could she smell my fear?), but was packing it on the inside (yep, she definitely smelt it). But we got the misdirection sorted with the help of a 10 year old volunteer who steered us, literally, in the right direction and hit the trail.

We spent two hours walking, trotting and crossing creeks in the glorious Glenworth Valley. Yes, trotting. Our guide quickly explained the rising trot and encouraged us to pick up the pace. Unfortunately Cassidy missed that memo and no matter how hard I kicked my heels and clicked my tongue and offered encouragingly-deep-voiced “C’Mons”, she just didn’t want to be told what to do. Well, not by me anyway… But when the guide came along and clicked her tongue beside us, Cassidy would take off! Usually before I knew what was happening. Leaving me scrambling to hold on for dear life, trying to get into a rising trot rhythm and ignoring the air bubble sound of my butt slapping the saddle…

Other than that, Cassidy and I were besties…

As we crossed the creek for the last time and Cassidy and I brought up the rear on the homeward trail, I let my mind wander to “that” scene from The Man From Snowy River and thought for a moment that I had not only conquered my fear, but maybe I really loved horse riding.

But then I realised I couldn’t feel my arse. So probably not.

Right, so not a newfound love of the saddle, but certainly an adrenaline high. I had conquered a fear, spent a perfectly glorious day riding a beautiful (if not somewhat precious…) horse through the picturesque countryside and ticked sixteen items off my list.

Bring on my thirties I say!

x

PS – Thank you SO much Gem & Stu. What an amazing birthday gift.

PPS – There have been many discussions about whether I should continue to work on the list even though the deadline has come and gone. I say yes.

PPPS – here is the completed list, with completed items highlighted.

1. Have an island holiday.
2. Go to the Margaret River and taste wine.
3. Register a business name.
4. Visit a country in Asia.
5. Go horse riding – may as well try to conquer that fear.
6. Dye my hair a completely different colour. Probably red.
7. Spend a day getting pampered with my fave girlfriends.
8. Visit a fortune teller.
9. Clean my oven. Properly.
10. Write down my family tree.
11. Win the lottery – large or small.
12. Start writing a novel.
13. Buy myself a beautiful piece of jewellery.
14. Test drive a Ferrari. Or a Mini Cooper S. I’m not so fussed…
15. Feel confident and comfortable wearing red lipstick.
16. Kiss someone passionately in the pouring rain.
17. Face my greatest fear…
18. Be an active member of a worthwhile charity.
19. Splurge on an amazing haute couture or designer outfit.
20. Be a TV/movie extra.
21. Make a dazzling entrance…
22. Read some more classics, especially Jane Austen.
23. Bake bread.
24. Start a course on a topic that has always interested me, and finish it.
25. Run under a sprinkler on a scorching Summer’s day, just like when we were kids.
26. Buy an original piece of art.
27. Spend a night in the best suite of a 5 star hotel.
28. Clean out my wardrobe. Properly.
29. Buy a cottage in the country and turn it into my home.
30. Leave my mark. Somewhere. Somehow

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Orange is the new black.

You know a vegetable is in season when they create a festival around it. So the fact that the small Southern Tablelands town of Collector holds an annual pumpkin festival each May, says to me that we are sitting smack bang in the middle of pumpkin season. That, and the fact that they are popping up in veggie patches wherever I go.

A few weeks ago, I returned from a weekend at the farm with a large, freshly picked pumpkin. I say it was large, but at about 3.5kgs, it was in fact tiny when compared to the winning pumpkin at the Collector festival. Held that same weekend, the winner of the giant pumpkin event was an impressive 308 kilogram beast from the ACT. 308 kilos. Damn, that’ a lot of soup.

But my meagre three kilos of Queensland Blue have done me proud and I’ve enjoyed some delightfully orange food of late.

To start with, I cooked up a pumpkin pie. Traditionally a sweet pie served for brunch or dessert, I served it up for dinner – main course! Controversial right? My dear vego friend Ash and I enjoyed it with a rocket and parmesan salad. And I got to use my pie dish again, which makes me happy!

The fact I got calluses from cutting the damn thing was not so great. But what a beauty he was eh?

This week I made soup. I’ve used different recipes in the past for Asian style pumpkin soup or pumpkin based vegetable soup, but this time I whipped out The Margaret Fulton Cookbook and went for simple option – butter, onion, stock, water, pumpkin and S&P. It’s all about making sure the pumpkin is the hero of the dish (do I sound like a MasterChef judge?!!!). And even though Margaret says to add more water if it’s too thick, in my opinion (no disrespect to Margaret) pumpkin soup is at its best when it’s thick and creamy.

And finally, yesterday I made pumpkin scones. My first solo attempt at scones. It’s at least 20 years since I last made scones and that was with Mum at the helm. But this morning I was on my own and it showed… I wish I had a photo to show you of the kneading disaster that happened in my kitchen, but I had enough sticky orange dough over every other surface, that I tried to spare the screen of my iPhone! Eventually after spreading flour far and wide, I managed to put a tray of things almost resembling scones into the oven and 20 minutes later remove a tray of beautifully orange (if not slightly less puffed than I would have liked) pumpkin scones.

So that’s it. The end of my pumpkin. But certainly not the end of the season for the sunny vegetable. And I’ve already got the next one ready to go. This one’s from Mum’s patch and it’s small but perfectly formed…

x

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