The Hill: Tyrrell Street. If you fancy a closer look at the town, there is no better guide than Rose of All the Streets in Newcastle. Enjoy!
Trivia: in Australia, the calendar duration for spring is September 1-November 30. If this is no surprise for you, you may be intrigued to discover that spring in most of the Northern Hemisphere is tied to a natural event and begins with the equinox, when daylight hours equal the dark hours, usually around the 20th of March. It’s autumn there now, since the equinox fell September 23.
Amanda (my cake friend at Enchanted Fig) reminded me of this, the confluence of equinox and Rosh Hashana, and the feeling of a year, a new season. It feels like spring here now–warm sunny days and so much volunteer lettuce in the garden we have a nightly salad. After switching off the space heater. Before the mosquitos come out in earnest.
But why change the season on day 1 of the month instead of using the equinox? My sample set of one Australian neighbour and one Australian friend couldn’t supply a definitive answer.
“I reckon it’s because we are too lazy to remember,” the neighbour said.
I read something vague about “bureaucratic reasons” online, but this calls for further research.
Here is the garden now: lilly pilly seedling planted while my mother was here from a fruit hanging over the fence from next door, the shrub that is not an olive (still working towards id for this), and our third generation volunteer lettuce with a second planting of beans.
Yes, another food post. It occurred to me recently that making our food is one of the few shreds of agency I have at the moment.
The thing is, we don’t know if we will stay or if we will go. Most of the time this is irrelevant in the all-consuming glory of life with small children, but lately it has become an active question again. On one hand this is liberating (Australia is not a sentence), on the other hand we are once again considering making ourselves vulnerable to the wild lottery of the academic job market.
Does anyone else need a slice of chocolate cake?
Our neighbour baked a quinoa chocolate cake for me last year and it has become our most frequent cake. Moist, rich, not too sweet. It will mark this moment in our life for me, wherever we end up going. I fed this to a gf friend recently, and she declared it the best cake she has had in five years.
Quinoa chocolate cake
2 c cooked quinoa
1/3 c liquid (milk, water, milk sub)
1 tsp vanilla
3/4 c softened butter/coconut oil
1/2 c – 3/4 c sugar (I reduced this from 1 c from the recipes I found online)
1 c cocoa powder
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
Preheat oven to 350 F/180 C
Line two rounds or a large-ish baking pan with parchment paper.
Combine liquids in a blender. Add quinoa and butter/oil and purée.
Mix dry ingredients. Add to wet ingredients. Bake about 30 minutes or until a fork inserted in the centre of the cake comes out clean.
Ace spent 18 days in Korea in August. He hobnobbed with the international mathies and video chatted with us while eating sweet bean buns and room service bibimbap.
In math culture highlights, he attended the award ceremony for the Fields Medal, where the first female recipient received her prize (given to mathematicians under 40 with extraordinary achievements) from Korea’s president (also female).
And he ate 64 meals in a row made by someone else. Not that that’s novel for him, but I was counting. Plus, all that kimchi!
Meanwhile, I spiralled into blunt survival mode with the small people. On day one, we made a calendar to mark the days. Each night we all went to bed at 8. On day three, I started feeding the baby solids most of a month earlier than recommended because she was vaguely interested and I needed an avocado’s worth of physical relief. I stopped driving, so as not to be a traffic hazard with my sleep deficit and car-sad baby. Days 5-8 I contemplated flying alone to Europe with the girls and felt briefly empowered. Day 11 I realised that those 40 hours awake and nursing would be disastrous. Day 12 I felt very sad and utterly stuck. Then we worked upward toward Ace’s return.
We had another long stint where Ace was away for work this year, but my mother came and kept us fed and laundered and O entertained and me Scrabbled and essay writing for six weeks. We missed him sorely, but it was the most rest I have had since that time O and I moved in with Emily and Dan in transit to Oz. Two grown ups at home all day is truly a gift.
18 days solo-parenting was absurd. What started out as a maybe 10 day trip turned into a double conference plus an add on turned into 18 day tickets before either of us really realised what was involved.
What saved me: My friend Jo delivered a vat of butter chicken that lasted the better part of a week, and my friend Shinko brought us homemade sushi.
What saved Ace: He came home with a hanbok gown for O (“They will think I’m Korean!”), and a sampler pack of assorted kimchi for me.
For the record, Ace thinks my mother’s kimchi-esque kraut is better than anything he had in Korea. It is delicious. But O and I have deeply enjoyed nibbling on the things he brought home.
Best of all, we made kimchi pancakes yesterday. Sour and golden, warm and crispy with pungent kimchi bites. These ones turned out fairly standard pancake textured, between the kimchi and cheese inclusions. If you like something more crepe-like or closer to an omelette, add less flour, more egg.
1 c kimchi
1/3 c flour
long splash of water
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 c cheddar bits (probably not traditional, but it seemed like the right thing to do at the time)
Mix egg and flour, add water to pancake batter consistency. Add soda, stir through kimchi and optional cheese. Heat butter in pan and cook your cakes a couple of minutes on each side, turning when golden.
Today the girls slept in past nine, the early morning light muted by rain clouds. Our park plans with friends dissolved hours before we knew it, but O was undeterred. Really, just a good reason to wear rain boots. I had to agree. We could go to the shelter in the park at the Foreshore and practice biking there. It’s one of those skills we have been ignoring on our giant hill, but the time has come.
Yesterday she worked for hours on her balance bike, coasting down the cement pad behind the house, imagining lifting her feet to catch the pedals on her big bike. She is So Close.
Below (still working out technicalities of the thumb blog) you will see the park at the Foreshore. Nice view of the city.
“Choose a path to the old train shed while I take a photo of this yellow tree,” I said.
And SWOOP. See the black and white bird? A living dinosaur was coming in to dive bomb my precious baby! Nesting season for the magpies. And somehow four-year-olds in bike helmets are seen as a major threat.
This happened once before, when we first got here, but I had forgotten about the timing. Also, we avoided this park for ages. And will now again for a while. Must research the duration of nesting season.
The best image of the day will not be displayed below. As the bird came back again and again to make us unwelcome–think of something the size of a large crow swooping at you from behind–I picked up the bike and shook it over my head, sheltering us from a direct hit, shouting as we ran across the field and out of range. Mothers defending their young.
We skipped the risk of attack in the shed for a long moist ride up the Foreshore, a visit to the museum, and the return ride back to the car. Past the park, where we repeated the bike hefting/obscenity shouting bird encounter, and into the shelter of the car.
And she wants to ride her bike again tonight! Love this girl and her determination.
Thanks to Ace today, I am now set up to write you thumb blogs from under the sleeping baby on the couch.
Friday marked two years since we arrived in Newcastle. The themes remain the same: driving, creatures, gardening, staying and leaving.
As with last year, we did nothing momentous to mark arrival day. O, who has doubled her age since we moved here, asked to hear the story again, how we arrived at the airport and Ace took us on our first inverted drive. We talked about looking right and keeping left, and she pointed out with some concern that we were on the American side of the road. Then I got to explain divided roads.
“I miss the Jetta,” she said.
“It was a great car,” I replied.
But two years in, it’s getting hard to remember what the steering wheel on the left even looked like.
The once empty apartment is now thoroughly inhabited. Rug. Instruments. Pet fish! The baby we made here has started flinging avocado and banana chunks onto the carpet. I finally bought a lamp.
I have been in Australia more days in a row than I have stayed anywhere since before we left Montana when I was 14.
In pursuit of really living here, I’ve been cooperating with our neighbourhood microbes to make sourdough bread. Keeping the starter going is a bit like having a slow-moving pet that doesn’t need to eat that often, but still has the potential to be warm and pleasant, on baking day anyway. Newcastle has some beautiful bakeries and great breads at the farmers’ market, but there is nothing quite as satisfying as a loaf fresh from the oven.
I recently shared my starter with a few new food friends. This post documents the rest of my bread cycle for them, and for anyone who is thinking of giving sourdough a try. I’ve arrived at this method after reading no-knead bread recipe popularized by the NY Times in 2006 (baking in a cast-iron pot), reading Sandor Katz’s empowering cultured-food manifesto Wild Fermentation, and through occasional bread baking for the past few years. The more I work with live-cultured foods, the more I’m learning how flexible and friendly the process can be. I don’t normally measure much, but below are the precise details that worked for the loaf above.
This variant uses spelt and rye (easier for the gluten intolerant among us, especially when fermented as sourdough) instead of standard wheat, and uses sourdough starter in lieu of commercial yeast. Each loaf takes only a few minutes of work, but a few days to complete. With small children, I find this actually takes less time than going out to buy bread.
Starter process for one loaf of rye sourdough:
If you don’t have a starter, you can grow one in a matter of days: mix a little rye flour and filtered water in a large jar, and then add a few spoonfuls of each once a day until you have a bubbly jarful–probably about a week-long process, shorter in warm climates, longer in cold rooms. Some people add dried fruit or juice to help the process/diversify flavour, but rye grain has enough naturally occurring wild yeast attached to it to work on its own.
If you receive even a few spoonfuls of working starter, you can use it to grow your own: mix the starter with 1 1/2 cups of rye flour with 2/3 of a cup of filtered water. Cover with a cloth to allow air to circulate without letting in any curious insects. Several hours later, it should be bubbly and good to go.
Once your starter has grown to fill the jar, it is ready to use. It can also be covered and kept in the fridge for a few weeks before needing to be fed again. I use starter straight from the fridge when making a loaf, but let the jar sit out overnight to let the newly fed starter grow again before storing it for the next baking.
ingredients to make one large loaf:
approximately 2 cups of starter (leave a bit in the bottom/on the sides of the jar to start the next batch)
2 cups of rye flour
2 1/2 cups filtered water
2 1/3 cups spelt flour
1 tsp salt
splash of olive oil
equipment: large bowl, cast iron pot with lid, kitchen towel
Day 1– mix 2 cups of starter, 2 cups rye flour, and 2 1/2 cups of water in the bowl. It will be runny. Cover with a towel overnight.
Day 2–add spelt flour and salt, stir/knead just long enough for the ingredients to be uniformly mixed and gathered into a ball. Oil it and the bowl. Cover with a towel and wait until it is ready to bake–this can be as soon as it doubles in size, or for bigger crumb and tangier bread, hold off until the next day.
Preheat your oven to 450 F or 200+ C or thereabouts. Preheat your cast iron pot at the same time.
Carefully flip the dough into the hot pot–it will sizzle and look something like this:
Cover the pot and bake for approximately 20 minutes with the lid on–this allows the loaf to steam itself for the first segment of baking. Then remove the lid and bake for another 15 minutes or so to allow the crust to brown. When done, the loaf should spring back when touched. Upon removing the loaf from the oven, flip it out of the pan to cool, and try to wait a few minutes before eating if you want the bread to slice nicely.
Today, as on most days I attempt to drive to the far end of town, I took a wrong turn. Everything in the back seat was going so well I decided to keep driving, sneak through a neighbourhood, and maybe come out on the intended road. Stopping usually results in nerve shattering baby angst, and she was so peaceful back there, and I had a vague sense of knowing where I was… But the neighbourhood was full of curves and hills and dead-end streets, and the road I wanted didn’t appear where I thought it might. After my mother got queasy up front, and we started going uphill again, I pulled over to figure out where we were.
I don’t have a GPS device. I decided four moves ago that I wanted to keep my mental powers of navigation intact instead of becoming dependent on a machine, and so I’ve worked with hand drawn maps and looking google maps on the computer before leaving the house. Most of the time I drive to the same three places, and then, not often. Ace has been gone for a month now for work, and I still have almost half a tank of gas. But with my mother in town, we’ve been wandering further afield. Almost every other trip, I have to pull over and pinpoint our location on the map.
This time, I couldn’t find the directions list, and then I ended up accepting some terms about using the google navigation system at my own risk before I could find us on the backstreets of Charlestown and search for our destination: Bibina–the international grocery in Warners Bay. I handed the phone to my mother so she could talk me through the map, and the phone spoke in her hand. We both startled.
“In 300 meters, turn left on Trent Street.” The phone has a raspy monotone–like a chain-smoking computer. We turned left on cue. And right. And right back the way I’d come from. “Turn right on Waratah,” it said. For a brief moment I smirked at a mispronunciation that I know better than to make–it’s WAR a tah, not Wa RA tah. I’ve learned so much in my 22 months in Newcastle. The road veered. I turned right into a dead end. “Make a U turn,” the voice said, already cognizant of my error, before I could even see the end of the cul-de-sac. No lingual nuance, but still so much more knowledgeable than me. Ugh. After we were on the right road and I knew it, I just kept listening, and the phone just kept talking. The baby kept sleeping. We could make a good team.
At Bibina, mothership of food favourites from other lands, we gathered the necessary objects: Gruyere, ajvar, nuts, wattle seed (next foray into Australian flavours), Tasmanian leatherwood honey, stroop waffles. In the Euro aisle we came into a crowd of slow-moving elderly women, gathering their Senf und Gurken, gently pointing each other toward the cheeses from home. We moved slowly along with them, my mother and daughters and me, each of us looking for something familiar at the other end of the Earth, at the other end of the town.
My mother arrived from Dhaka 10 days ago. She’s keeping me company with the small people while Ace tours Canada mathing for the next month. Between rounds of holding and sniffing the baby (oh milky, silky, cheeky, baby), we’re taking turns embarking on projects I would never attempt at this stage of mothering, or maybe at all. Working on a new essay. Ironing. Mending. And some fun ones that we’ve been saving up to enjoy with her: teaching O to read, sewing a mermaid costume, and fermenting this season’s lemon crop.
This past weekend at the farmers’ market we gathered Meyer, Eureka, lemonade (sweet lemon with a distinct lemonade aftertaste) and common lemons (“Common lemons are hard to find,” according to one of the lemon farmers) to make assorted strains of Moroccan preserved lemons.
We recently used up the very end of the last batch from last year, and I can’t wait for these ones to be ready. We use them most in stewed chicken (prunes, tomatoes, lemons, balsamic) and in thin strips in sushi, but they are pretty great in everything.
Next time you come into a good lot of lemons, try this at home.
Moroccan Preserved Lemons according to Kristen:
12 Meyer lemons (or whatever you can get)
1 cup of kosher or pickling salt (no iodine, as it discolors, or regular salt, which has flow agents)
Wash the lemons.
Parboil the lemons for five minutes by dropping them in batches into boiling water. This helps break the skin down and lets the juice flow. I also think it helps to clean the lemons.
Cut the lemons in half, preserving the juice as you go by cutting them in a shallow bowl.
Coat each piece of lemon in salt and pack them tightly into a clean jar. Cover with lemon juice. There might be enough juice from the lemons, or you may need to squeeze a few extra for juice. I have recipes that say not to use water to top it off, but I have without disaster–just be sure to use distilled water, as the chlorine in tap water inhibits the desired fermentation.
Put the jar in a cupboard or a dark kitchen corner, tipping them every day or so to mix the salt and juice, opening them sometimes to push any floating lemons down under the juice. They need to sit for ten days to two weeks, possibly longer if your kitchen is cold.
The lemons will keep for a year in the fridge, becoming softer over time. The juice can be reused to pickle more lemons for up to a year, or added to salad dressings or soup broth.
Harmless white bacteria may grow on the top of your lemons sometimes–simply rinse it off. Push the lemons under the juice every time you open the jar to prevent this growth. Remember to move the lemons to a smaller jar as required. All fermented products are happier in a jar that fits them, not with a lot of open air. As these are not actually canned, they will not develop botulism and are completely safe to eat even if left unrefrigerated.
Rinse, chop and use in:
potato salad, tuna salad, chicken or fish dishes, turkey stuffing, etc.