Why do I cook?

I’ve been thinking a lot about cooking lately.  Not in the offhand “What are we going to have for dinner tonight?” kind of way.  More in the “What does cooking mean to me?  What do I want home cooking to mean to my little family?”

It will come as no surprise to anyone that I love to cook.  It’s my creative outlet.  Some people paint.  Some people write poetry.  I cook.  I feel lucky to have a creative outlet that also (usually!) yields delicious results.  I can spend hours dreaming up new flavour combinations or new ways to cook and present a dish that’s an old favourite.  I stretch my imagination to create, what is for me, edible art.

Cooking is also, in my experience, an almost meditative practice.  The kitchen is a space where I don’t have to worry about work issues or how I look or what we’re doing this weekend or whether I contribute enough to my retirement fund (I don’t.)  Instead, I’m able to focus exclusively on the ingredients in front of me.  Indeed, I must focus on the task at hand.  A wandering mind in the kitchen can lead to injuries, cuts and burns brought about by focusing briefly on that report that’s due on Thursday rather than the slippery chicken thighs in front of you.  Some people achieve that single minded focus during yoga or mediation.  I achieve it whilst making dinner.

And, finally, perhaps the greatest reason that I cook is that I use food to show people how much I love them.  Food is how I show affection.  If I speak to Andy at lunch time and he tells me that he’s having a tough day, you can guarantee that I’ll spend half the afternoon trying to think of something to cook him for dinner to brighten his day and show him how wonderful I think he is.  When friends are stressed or sick or just having a bad day, my first instinct is to bake for them.  I believe in the healing power of a well-cooked meal and I think that a belly full of food made with love is almost as good as a hug.

So what does all this mean for me now??  And why have I been thinking about these things so much for the past few weeks?  Partly, it’s because I haven’t been cooking as much as I usually do.  I’m kind of huge now (35 weeks and 4 days) and I get a bit achey and pain-y if I’m on my feet for ages.  I’ve been cooking big meals once or twice a week and eating the leftovers on the other nights.  It’s still good, homemade food.  But it’s not my daily routine of an hour or two in the kitchen each night, and I miss that.

But maybe that’s ok?  Once our little Button is born I won’t always have time for a creative, meditative hour in the kitchen each evening.  I’ll have to get better about making meals that are quick and don’t require too much clean up (I’m certain I’ll still be cleaning up A LOT, just in other rooms!) But, despite the time constraints that come with being a new parent, I’m still completely committed to feeding my family food that’s thoughtful and cooked with care.  Food that’s nutritious as well as creative.  Food that doesn’t just fill a gap but also makes the diner feel like they’ve had a hug from the cook.

And I want my baby to know the importance of home cooking.  I want Button to know the joys of the kitchen… the incredible smell of onions slowly caramelising in butter, the satisfying thunk of a heavy knife cracking open a watermelon, the mouth-watering beauty of a dish of macaroni and cheese that’s gone bubbly and golden brown on top, the rewards of patiently waiting all afternoon for a beef stew to slowly simmer into an unctuous, thick cuddle of a dinner.  I don’t want Button to think that food comes in a cardboard box or from the man at the corner shop (although, he does make great pizza and sometimes that’s what we’re having for dinner.)

Aside from the fact that I’ve been missing my daily cooking routine, these topics have been on my mind because I’ve recently attended two events that really reminded me of importance of cooking for our friends and loved ones at home.

The first event was a talk with one of my culinary heros, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.  Hugh is an English cook and gardener and his enthusiasm for fresh food that’s been grown and cooked with care and thought is infectious.  He’s a TV presenter and every time I watch one of his shows I want to run down to my local council and sign up for a public garden spot.  Hugh is also a fantastic food-writer and his cookbooks are amongst the most used in my library.  The joy with which he writes about food and how to prepare family meals with fresh ingredients always inspires me.  Seeing him live and hearing about his continued commitment to seasonal food that’s been grown and produced by people who really care about where food comes from just made me want to try that much harder to share good meals with good people.

The second event was the finale of the Best Home Chef competition, which was held in Sydney this week.  Best Home Chef is a website and online food community that was launched last year with the intention of getting Australians back into the kitchen.  The site collects recipes from home chefs around Australia. I love the idea of sharing recipes with friends and knowing that recipes work because people have actually used them in their own kitchens.  I’ve submitted several recipes to this website, which must explain why I was invited to this very glamorous and beautifully run event, which was held in a gleaming showroom full of glittering media and PR people… and one very large pregnant lady wearing the only dress that still fits and stalking the canapés as they came out of the kitchen!

The Best Home Chef event featured 5 home cooks who had been chosen to compete in the finale to be named AU’s Best Home Chef.  These cooks worked alongside celebrity chefs to create their dishes and they served them to a panel of VIP judges in front of a beautiful crowd of people sipping champagne.  At first glance, it could have been a fashion event.  But, what I loved about this event was that at the heart of it all were these 5 people.  These 5 home cooks who were each presenting dishes that meant something to them, that represented who they were, where they came from and what they cook for their friends and loved ones at home.  The dishes they presented weren’t fancy-pants at all.  These dishes, despite being displayed amongst the bright and beautiful lights of the event, were dishes that you might see on many dinner tables across Australia on any given Tuesday night.  The winner was a charming bloke called Stuart who made a dessert that looked delicious… and achievable.  I left the event feeling proud to be a home cook… as well as like the largest person for 10 city blocks!

And this is where I am now.  We have one more Mi Casa-Su Casa dinner scheduled before Button’s due date… a 4th of July party!  I can’t wait.  In the meantime, I’m cooking when I can and finding inspiration all around me.  As I type this I’ve got a pot of chicken stock simmering and the apartment smells wintery and homey.  We just ate an Asian salad with grilled chicken for dinner and Andy manned the BBQ while I sorted out the salad.  It’s nights like this, when we’re home and we’re together and the food is good that I hope our baby remembers.  This is why I cook.  Hurrah for home cooking!

A down home Southern dinner

Last weekend we hosted a beautiful mix of friends old and new for a down home Southern dinner at Mi Casa-Su Casa.  It was a deeply satisfying menu to write and meal to cook, and I hope our diners felt the love that went into the food.

The table is set and ready for our guests!

The table is set and ready for our guests!

A simple table setting for a simple, home-style meal.

A simple table setting for a simple, home-style meal.

The Mexican meals that we’ve done have been a riot of fun and having a North Meets South dinner was a culinary adventure, but it felt so good to get back to our roots with a menu of proper Southern favourites inspired by family recipes.  A table full of adventurous eaters, strangers becoming friends, sharing the food of our far-away home… these are the reasons that we started Mi Casa-Su Casa and last Saturday night was a perfect example of what we hoped to create.

Frying the pork chops the way Andy's mother always have... this is a real comfort food for my Southern man!

Frying the pork chops the way Andy’s mother always has… this is a real comfort food for my Southern man!

The menu for the evening was:

Nibbles and drink on arrival:
Pimento cheese with crackers and spiked sweet tea

Butter bean and ham hock soup

Judy’s fried pork chops, biscuits and gravy, mac and cheese, succotash

Buttermilk waffles with honey-baked pears and vanilla ice cream

A plate of happiness!

A plate of happiness!

And what a lovely crowd of diners we had!  It was a perfect mix of people that we already knew and new friends just waiting to be made.  Honestly, one of my big concerns when we started this venture was “What about the weirdos??”  Sydney is a big city and has her fair share of creeps, dodgy characters and people that you just wouldn’t want eating off your forks.  I was convinced that we’d get a few sketchy people coming along for a free meal.  This is the main reason that I undertake these dinners as part of a team and never by myself… and usually have my very tall husband there for “just in case.”

Happily, this has never happened.  Our guests have been, in every single instance, delightful.  We’ve had uniformly kind, funny and outgoing diners who only make me love cooking, and love my adopted city of Sydney, all the more.

Mac and cheese!

Mac and cheese!

We’ve got one more dinner scheduled right now. A good old fashioned American BBQ in honour of the 4th of July.  It’ll be held on 5 July at 7pm and right now we have 4 seats available.  The meal will mostly be cooked by my guest chef for the night as I’ll be days away from delivering my own little Bun-in-the-Oven.  It’s going to be great fun and I hope you’ll join us.

And now, for those of you playing along at home, here’s the recipe for the honey-baked pears that we served with buttermilk waffles on Saturday night.  These pears were inspired by my neighbours growing up, the Porter’s.  The Porter’s were a very old couple who lived on the corner near our house.  They had a pear tree or two in their yard and would regularly delivery brown paper grocery bags full of the hard, sweet fruit to us.  I think they would have approved of this treatment of their homegrown fruit.

Honey-baked pears
serves 10

6 pears, peeled and cut into 8 pieces each
1 1/4 cups honey
4 tbs water
3 tsp cinnamon
8 tbs butter

Preheat your oven to 350F or 200C.  Place the pears in a single layer in a baking dish.

Put the honey, the water and the cinnamon in a large bowl and stir well to combine.  You really need to get any lumps of cinnamon to break down, otherwise they’ll stick to the pears and overwhelm the flavour of the fruit.

Pour the honey mixture over the pears evenly.  Dot the butter around the pears.  Cover the dish with foil and place in the oven for 30-45 minutes, removing the pears to baste them with the honey and juices every ten minutes.

Once the pears are completely soft remove them from the oven.  You can serve these warm or at room temperature.



Chihuahuas, enchiladas and moustaches

So, I may have jumped the gun a bit on our Cinco de Mayo festivities this year and hosted a Cinco de Mayo themed Mi Casa-Su Casa dinner in late April.  I just couldn’t wait!

The first time we lived in Sydney (from 2005-2009) we hosted a big Cinco de Mayo fiesta for our friends every year.  In a city that was, at the time, painfully devoid of any decent Mexican food it was a challenge to put together delicious Mexican food for a big crowd.

Caramelised onion and spinach quesadillas for our guests as they arrive

Caramelised onion and spinach quesadillas for our guests as they arrive

Now, Sydney is awash in Mexican food.  Not all of it is GOOD Mexican food.  In fact, most of it is still pretty crappy.  But the sudden increase in interest in Mexican food means that I can now easily find great Mexican ingredients to cook with at home.  Lately, when anyone asks me where to get good Mexican food in Sydney my first response has been “At my house.”

So, when planning our latest Mi Casa-Su Casa dinner, a Mexican-themed fiesta in honour of the upcoming Cinco de Mayo holiday, I was able to go bananas with some serious Mexican ingredients for our guests.  Planning this menu was a BLAST.  My friend Katie and I brought a few Mexican cookbooks down to the beach for the afternoon and began dreaming up a menu of deliciousness… not too shabby, right?

Roasted tomato and chipotle soup with homemade queso fresco

Roasted tomato and chipotle soup with homemade queso fresco

The menu for the evening was:

Nibbles and drink on arrival: Caramelised onion and spinach quesadillas with Salty Chihuahuas (tequila with grapefruit and lime juice and a salted rim… but I forgot to salt the rims so our guests just had Chihuahuas!)

Starter: Roasted tomato and chipotle soup with homemade queso fresco

Main course: Grilled chicken enchiladas in a yellow mole sauce (black bean enchiladas for our vegetarian guests) with pico de gallo, a grilled corn salad and cumin crema.

Dessert: Chocolate and chili cakes with cinnamon whipped cream

A table full of Mexican food for our fiesta!

A table full of Mexican food for our fiesta!

Such a great group of guests!

Such a great group of guests!

There’s something about Mexican food that makes any dinner feel like a celebration.  Maybe it’s all the bright flavours, the limes and the jalapenos.  Maybe it’s the fact that fresh Mexican food is so colourful and gorgeous to look at, the bowls of chunky salsas gleaming like jewels, only more delicious.  When it’s done properly, and not covered in dense layers of greasy cheese, Mexican food is perfect party food.

Full bellies and mariachi moustaches... perfect way to finish our fiesta!

Full bellies and mariachi moustaches… perfect way to finish our fiesta!

And we had a pretty perfect party for our last Mi Casa-Su Casa dinner!  An incredibly fun and funny tableful of guests who talked and laughed through three courses.  To top off the good food and great guests, we had one crafty diner who made mariachi moustaches for everyone so we’d properly look the part.  If there’s anything I love more than Mexican food, it’s a bit of dress-up to go with my dinner.  It was a brilliant evening!

We’re hosting another Mi Casa-Su Casa dinner this weekend, and then we’re going to take a bit of a break for the month of June so we can prep for our little Bun in the Oven!  We’ll be back in July with a proper American-style 4th of July party (complete with a guest chef all the way from Gainesville, GA, USA!) to be held at 7pm on 5 July.  We’ve got 6 seats available for that dinner, so if you’re interested jump in quickly!

A delicious comedy of errors

We hosted our latest Mi Casa-Su Casa meal last weekend, a lunch for a group of eight people… four adults and four kids!  It was a departure from our usual routine of 10 grown ups having dinner at our place, but we were really excited to try something new.  Plus, we love kids and had a blast coming up with a kid-friendly menu that would also tempt the adults at the table.

The menu for the lunch was:

Nibbles and cocktail on arrival:
Joan’s Newport Cheese Puffs and a White Wine and Pineapple Punch (without wine for the kids)

Corn and Cheddar Chowder and Bread

Andy’s Famous BBQ’d Pork Ribs, Sweet Potato Wedges with Creamy Ketchup, Classic Coleslaw

Apple Fried Pies with Cinnamon Whipped Cream

Sounds good, right?  I was especially pumped about Andy’s ribs (he’s discovered a new variation on his classic recipe and his BBQ’d pork ribs are now better than ever!) and the fried pies, which were my brother’s favourite snack when we were little.

We set a bright and colourful table for our very first Mi Casa-Su Casa Family Fun Lunch

We set a bright and colourful table for our very first Mi Casa-Su Casa Family Fun Lunch

But, despite all the positivity about the menu and how much we were looking forward to hosting such a fun and adventurous group, the whole meal almost fell apart… more than once.  If something could go wrong on Sunday, it did.

We woke up to a bright and beautiful Sunday morning, which was lucky because I was planning to serve the nibbles and cocktails on arrival outside in the park directly next to our building.

But, before we’d even gotten out of bed, I realised that the apartment was eerily quiet.  No whir of the fan or hum of the fridge.  Because we had no power.  Eight people coming for lunch.  No electricity.  There went my plans to provide homemade bread for the starter course (I needed to do the bread in our bread maker because the oven was going to be full of sweet potatoes and cheese puffs.)  No worries though, we’d just pop down to the grocery store and serve a store-bought baguette.  Crisis averted.

Then, around 2.5 hours later, our power came back on and I started prepping in earnest.  I got the sweet potato wedges (which had to be baked in two batches) all ready for the oven… which had suddenly decided not to work.  I thought I’d been pre-heating the oven, but all I’d really done was give the knobs a futile turn, because the oven wasn’t working.  I’ll admit to a minor freak out at this point.  I flounced off to the couch and let Andy fiddle with the oven while I muttered to myself about plans to make sweet potato mash instead of wedges.  Then, suddenly, Andy shouted in triumph!  He’d fixed the oven! (I still don’t know what went wrong… I’d rather not know.)

Corn and Cheddar Chower for a starter at the Family Fun Lunch

Corn and Cheddar Chower for a starter at the Family Fun Lunch

The rest of the morning went smoothly.  We got the ribs out of the marinade and ready for the grill.  The fried pies were assembled and fried with no dramas.  We were at a great point to stop, rest and eat our own lunch before our lovely guests arrived.  No sooner had I sat down with a bowl of brown rice and tuna when… there was a knock on our door.  Andy and I stared at each other in total silence.  I whispered “I swear, that’s not them.  I swear, I said 1pm.  I swear….”, trailing off as I realised that I probably didn’t say 1pm.  I probably said 12pm.

Andy stood up and looked out the peep hole and said, “Well, it IS them.”  He was so calm. I, of course, was a flaming wreck.  No makeup.  Not properly dressed.  Nothing to feed the guests yet.  And, the worst bit of all, knowing full-well that it was entirely my own fault.  I’m going to go ahead and blame this one on Pregnancy-Brain.  Lately I’ve been saying things, then totally forgetting whether I’d actually said them.  This was, to date, my biggest Pregnancy-Brain screw up.  So, while Andy greeted our guests I was in our bedroom, frantically putting on mascara and eyebrow pencil whilst shouting apologies out to the living room and thinking “This is it… no one will ever come to my house for a meal again.  Ever.”  It wasn’t my finest moment as a host.

Luckily for me our guests for the day were over-the-top delightful and understanding.  They simply headed out to the park a few minutes early and allowed me the time to try to compose myself.  I immediately switched gears and got the cheese puffs in the oven, brought their cocktails out right away and generally tried not to look as rattled and flustered as I was.  I’m sure I failed on that count, but they let me off the hook.

Things seemed to go better after that.  We got the soup ready to go, put the ribs on the BBQ to heat up and brought everyone inside for the meal.  It was a joy to cook for such well-behaved children, although I was nervous as one of the small guests informed me that she’d be giving me marks!  I think I passed… :)

The starter went out.  I began getting the components of the main course organised in the kitchen.  Smooth sailing.  Until Andy walked in from the balcony to inform me “The barbie ran out of gas.”  Half way through the second batch of ribs, we’d run out of gas.  At this point, I really really really wished I was allowed to have a glass of wine.  Really.  But it was actually ok.  The ribs were already cooked, we were just warming them up and getting a bit of a char on them.  So we simply left the lid of the BBQ closed to conserve the heat and hoped for the best.  The ribs turned out beautifully and there wasn’t a single one left at the end of the meal!

Andy's Famous BBQ'd Pork Ribs... the meat just fell off the bone.

Andy’s Famous BBQ’d Pork Ribs… the meat just fell off the bone.

The main course went out.  The desserts, which, thank Christ, were already cooked and ready, went out.  We got the kitchen cleaned and then joined our lovely guests for a chat to relax and get to know them.  We were SO lucky to have such laid-back diners for this meal.

When the guests left I felt both exhilarated (We’d done it!  Despite all the odds, we’d put out a fun and delicious meal!) and exhausted (Whhhhhyyy???)  Nothing that couldn’t be fixed with a nap, which I promptly took.

Really, most of the disasters last Sunday were out of our hands.  Ok, I shouldn’t have forgotten what time I said that the meal would begin, but otherwise there wasn’t much I could do about the events of the day.  These things happen.  We’ve opened our home to people to come and enjoy food and friends… things are bound to go wrong once in a while.  And, as I said to Andy after the BBQ conked out, “For God’s sake… the blog post practically writes itself!”