Sunday, 16 December 2012

Montréal Calling

The last few weeks have been a bit odd. By day I have been going to work in Cairns, or cutting down bananas, and other very tropical things, and at night I have been roaming the streets of Montréal - virtually, at least. Charles has to move out of his apartment there and so, sooner than we'd hoped, we've been looking for an apartment together. We had expected that we'd at least get to do it in each other's physical presence, but no, from 16,000km apart it is. Thank God for that Internet thingy! I conservatively estimate we looked at about 150 apartments combined, with Charles doing the legwork to go see six in person after a process of elimination by committee.

I've also been trying to find a decently priced flight to visit my beloved husband in the not too distant future. It's quite a juggling act to book online and avoid the crappy airlines, multiple stop overs, long lay overs, too early departure times, too late arrival times, and some absolutely ridonkulous prices. Cairns to Montréal is about as far apart as you can get on this planet, and it doesn't seem to be that common a route.

But we've done it. Last Wednesday: flight secured. I'll be in Montréal for most of February, which will give me a taste of just how freakin' freezing it can get there. Friday: tenancy approved on an apartment we both love just off Mont-Royal in the eastern Plateau district. Phew! Hopefully I can get back to being mentally present where I am physically present for the next seven weeks.

To celebrate, this afternoon I went to see Monsieur Lazhar, a beautiful film despite some gaping holes in the plot. I have loved my time in the Tropics, but boy, oh, boy, I'm looking forward to moving to Montréal. There's only so long your body can bear to be separated from your heart.

Saturday, 15 December 2012


Yesterday I tackled a garden maintenance job that you only get in the Tropics: I had to cut down a banana tree. Don't freak out non-Tropics dwellers, that's just what you have to do. Bananas grow and spread via suckers, so just like their common tropical garden cousins, heliconias, you are doing them a favour by effectively 'dead-heading' them when they have developed their fruit. The 'tree' can then put its energy into putting up a new trunk, rather than continuing to support a bunch of green fruit that isn't going to get any bigger.

Bananas are so easy to chop down even I can do it with my dicky back. A relatively sharp pruning saw just cuts through the fibrous trunk like the proverbial butter. I'm getting to be such an old hand at it I managed to do it today without getting any of the impossibly sticky sap on my new dress, which I foolishly wore just for the occasion. I think I might have let this bunch go a bit too long, though. There are lots of little tell-tale brown spots and pin holes in the fruit that indicate that the bugs have got into them. But that's ok, there's a second trunk ready to chop down next weekend.

I don't know why I postpone chopping down bananas so much. Maybe it is that disgusting sap, or maybe it's because they are the chief privacy screen between me and my neighbour. But there are just so many great things to do with bananas once you've chopped them down, I'm always surprised I left it so long once I've done it. I now have recipes for using the fruit, leaf, bell (or 'flower'), and the trunk, so I thought I'd share some with you.

The most simple thing is of course to eat your delicious banana (after it has taken about three to five weeks to ripen, depending on the time of year) and feel proud as Punch that you grew it yourself. Yeeeah! Then you can get a bit fancy and use the leaves to wrap whole or fillets of fish in, and barbecue, grill or bake them. Pop some Asian herbs in with the fish, along with a splash of coconut milk, fish sauce and/or soy sauce. The trick is to soften the leaves first, either by blanching them in boiling water, or by passing them over the flame of a gas burner on the stove. This stops them splitting when you try to wrap the fish. Secure the banana leaf with a toothpick and away you go.

My hands down favourite way to eat bananas, though, is banana cake. In a former life, when I owned a café in Adelaide, I used to make banana bread, toast it and serve it with ricotta and honey. Pretty good, right? But maybe a bit passé these days ... Then a few years ago my friend Jess gave me a CWA cookbook (the Country Women's Association—an obsession I may share with you one day. I've linked to the Queensland chapter because their site has more info than the national one) and it had a banana cake recipe that, with a bit of tweaking, has become one of my all time favourite cakes. Because my home grown bananas are little Lady Fingers or Sugar bananas, or some such thing—at any rate not the usual large Cavendish variety you get in the supermarket—I slice extra bananas up lengthwise and decorate the top of the cake with them and then crumble palm sugar over the lot. Bah.Nah.Naaas!

CWA-inspired Banana Cake
250g butter, softened
¾ cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 ½ cups self-raising flour (or 1 ½ cups plain flour + 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder)
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
½ teaspoon salt
3 large bananas, or 9 small bananas, cut in chunks (mash if you don’t have electric beaters)
250-300g sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 large or 6 small bananas, extra for decoration
1 handful dark palm sugar, or brown sugar

Preheat oven to 180˚C. Grease and line a 24cm diameter cake tin. Cream butter and sugar with electric beaters. Add eggs one at a time. Sift flour, bicarb and salt together. Add flour mixture, bananas, sour cream, vanilla and cinnamon to the butter mixture and mix well until bananas are dispersed right through. Pour into cake tin and arrange sliced extra bananas decoratively on top—I do a little flower pattern, aaaw! Sprinkle palm sugar evenly over the top and bake for 40 mins or until firm to touch.

Original recipe from: Country Women's Association of Australia, Country Classics, 2nd edn, Penguin Group (Australia), Camberwell, Victoria, 2007, p. 142

My other hot-favourite banana recipe is Luke Nguyen's Banana Trunk and Chicken Curry. Obviously, banana trunk is not that easy to come by if you don't happen to have handy access to banana trees, but if you do, then definitely give this a go. I'm going to trial freezing the sliced up trunk this time (I might quickly blanch it first), as I have no plans to invite a small army around to eat a spicy jungle curry this week. I found my taste needed to add a squeeze of lime and a little bit of palm sugar at the end, but see how you go, you may also want to add a bit more banana trunk—you will have rather a lot of it. If you are in Australia, the following link also has a short video of Luke preparing the dish in a very ambient setting (clearly I should invest in some pigs to help me deal with the excess trunks). Luke is very charming and unpretentious as TV chefs go, so it's well worth watching. Unfortunately, I doubt the video link will work outside of Australia, but you can still get the recipe:

And then, of course, there's the bell. To be honest though, I just never get around to doing anything with this other than photographing it. Lame! I do want to try this though: Barramundi with Banana Bell, Hmong Style
One day ...

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Introducing Rosé Club

The First Rule of Rosé Club is that you will sheepishly admit that that is a club to which you should belong.

The Second Rule of Rosé Club is that you will be as effective and insidious as the Church of $cientology in recruiting new members, and you will recognise a fellow rosé-loving sister with immediate induction.

The Third Rule of Rosé Club is that you will celebrate the existence of the prettiest wine there is by partaking in cheeky, relaxed, sunny-afternoon tipple sessions in good company and accompanied by high-quality tasty treats.

It's no secret: I love rosé. Dry ones only though, no lolly water for me! There is little I like more in this world than sitting around a table in dappled shade on a warm afternoon with dear friends, several bottles of rosé, some yummy snacks (savoury or sweet will do in this case) and then solving the world's problems. Fortunately, many of my closest girlfriends feel the same way.

This afternoon though, I settled in for an afternoon of blog writing and popped the cork - yes, cork - on a new-to-me rosé. After a couple of random recommendations I had finally purchased a bottle of Casal Mendes (Portugal), replacing my regular staple of Banrock Station White Shiraz (recently discovered to also come in casks - saints preserve me!) Not only is the CM refreshingly savoury, it is ever so slightly spritzy, it comes in a very delightful bottle, it is a very reasonable price point, and it is the prettiest colour you could wish for. Of course I had to photograph it straight away. I think I now have a new staple.

Ugly can be beautiful too.

Plugger the pug taking a well-earned break from standing/thinking/life in general. which I prove that I can write a post connecting puppies, personal growth and air-to-surface missiles. Just you watch me!

What's cuter than a frolicking litter of pug puppies? To me it's the sound of my neighbour's twelve-and-a-half-year-old pug trying to bark for his dinner: "Uff, uhhff! Uff, uff, uhhhff, uf! [pause] Uff! Uff, uhhff, uf! [pause] Uf!" It's not a bark, it's the out-of-breath sound of a sweet old man still trying to make himself heard in the big, ole, don't-care world. Every time I hear him on a still, tropical evening it makes me stop and smile.

Plugger, as he is most ironically named in honour of the AFL legend, my neighbour being a mad Sydney Swans fan, ambles slowly around the yard in the morning, sleeps by Carol's side as she works from home, and gets two very slow walks up and down the street each day, generally punctuated by long, contemplative pauses. I recently had the pleasure of dog sitting him for three days and I am now more enamoured than ever. I even filmed the barking-for-dinner behaviour and know that the pauses are when he half nods off to sleep between the barks and their accompanying semi-leaps in the air. He gets worn out just 'uff'-ing.

What I find so intriguing about my appreciation for Plugger is that I used to think pugs were the ugliest dogs I had ever seen. When I was in senior high school, my art teacher had a pug that she would bring to school every day. We heard that it was one of two she had owned, but its sibling had accidentally hanged itself trying to jump out the window of a parked car when its leash was tied around the gear stick. Some of us joked that maybe it had caught sight of itself in the rear view mirror and decided to end it all. Shame on us!

At the same time in my life as I was ill-educatedly dissing pugs, the father of one of my best friends bought a prestige car—a 1986 Saab fast back. I thought that was pretty friggin' ugly, too. I couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. However, I have been the proud owner of a 1987 Saab 900i for eight years now, and I think she is the most beautiful car ever. I don't notice her deteriorated paint job and the bat poop that is still stuck to her after I left her parked under a fruit tree for a few days, oh, um...several months ago now. I just see jaunty, angular styling, note the ahead-of-their-time safety features, and hear the thug, thug, thug of her engine that betrays the fact Saab-Scania also made aeroplanes, semi-trailers and missiles.

I have come to appreciate the unconventional, the wonky, the wrinkly, the considered functional design, the happy accident, and the beauty that can be found in what is generally believed ugly. What I find fascinating, and a relief, is how one's taste can change so much during one's life. The pug and the Saab are, of course, just two examples, but there are many things that I found so integral to my sense of identity when I was younger that have passed into oblivion now, and, as illustrated, many things I dismissed that I have come to love. Admittedly, some people like to stay stuck, but personally I prefer a bit of reinvention.

A page from the owner's manual for my now-Classic 1987 Saab 900i. One of my most very favourite things about this car is that she sounds like a plane about to take off.