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Rhubarb & Fennel Fizz (+ blog rant)

Fennel infused gin and rhubarb syrup

In these days of conservative politics, human rights abuses and global unrest, writing a food blog seems vapid and frivolous, and I agree that it mostly is. Not only is blogging supposedly dead – in the “old-school” sense of daily blogs written by a single person and designed to engage readers in conversation – but who actually reads them now? We’re all over on Instagram curating our lives; who has time to read an article longer than 250 words? Even if we do, are we genuinely engaged by the continuous churn of reposted, sponsored, SEO-optimised content titled: “Beyond the chip: 20 new ways with kale” or “Avoid these 8 common mistakes when buttering toast”? For a long time now, blogging has been about building your brand, driving traffic to your site and trying to land sponsorship deals and I have to say that I’m weary of the rampant consumerism. Blogging was once the domain of citizen journalism; now it’s all affiliate links and clickbait, radical democracy perverted as “the establishment itself”.

Rhubarb & Fennel Fizz - a fresh and fruity spring cocktail

Here’s a story to make you cringe – three years ago we travelled to Mudgee in NSW for a week of relaxation and wine tasting. I wasn’t familiar with wines from Mudgee, so I sought recommendations from The Wine Wankers (a group of Australian wine experts with an extensive online following) about the best wineries to visit. A member of the team kindly supplied me with a list and asked me to pass on his regards to one of the recommended winemakers if I saw him. As it happened, I did see him (it was a small, boutique winery), and the encounter sparked a discussion about blogging that quickly turned sour. The winemaker had recently been contacted by a blogger who requested that he host she and a friend for dinner at his restaurant in return for a feature on her website. Now there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with mutual back-scratching in principle, but what made the winemaker uncomfortable was the thinly-veiled threat that if he asked her to pay for the meal, well, she couldn’t guarantee a positive review. Unfortunately this is not an isolated experience for those in the hospitality industry and the winemaker had every right to feel outraged at the attempted manipulation. I felt guilty by association and weakly argued that mine wasn’t “that” type of blog.

Market haul - fresh spring fennel and rhubarb

I’m doing that thing that people do, right, painting the past as a lost utopia? The reality is that blogging was exploited for its commercial potential virtually from the beginning and has been highly lucrative for those who got in early. It’s much harder to make a living as a professional blogger now (does this explain the rise of dodgy tactics?) but that doesn’t stop many trying. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the use of blogs as a marketing tool. It’s a competitive world out there and for people whose livelihood depends on making a sale, blogging is an important communication medium, among many. The crux of the matter is that I crave originality. Don’t give me pop-up ads and expect me to hang around your site. I want to enrich my life with blogs that are beautifully written, that make me think deeply, provoke me, challenge me, inspire me to action, even if it’s just to cook. Fortunately there are many bloggers out there who still write like this: consider Tim’s thoughts on racism, Steve’s informative posts on food politics and Molly’s heroic coming out narrative. Food bloggers, all of them, and all with something really gutsy and interesting to say, not to sell. If I follow your blog, you can be assured that it’s because I think you do too (thank you).

Baby fennel - about to become fennel-infused gin

I’ve been writing this blog for six years and have been contacted by my fair share of PR reps offering free products or cash in exchange for reviews, or app developers chasing content. All very modest in scale I assure you and nothing that I couldn’t easily refuse, but as the offers slowly mounted up I was forced to think hard about my position. Essentially it is this: we already live in an over-advertised world and I don’t want to write to influence you to buy just to make a buck myself. Monetisation is a slippery slope and I won’t even take the smallest step. You’ll never find sponsored content on this blog. I’ll never ask for or accept any product or service in exchange for a review. If I do happen to mention a specific brand (which is extremely rare) it’s because the recipe calls for it or it’s truly exceptional in some way. This stance makes me a dinosaur, I’m well aware, but I only want to write how I want to write (and read). I have a job that pays the bills and this blog will never be that.

Making fennel-infused gin, to be paired with rhubarb syrup in Rhubarb & Fennel Fizz cocktail

So what has this got to do with cocktails or rhubarb or fennel? Not one thing. I’m sorry to be all serious and grumpy but this is something I had to say. Make this (delicious) drink and forgive me? Please?

Rhubarb & Fennel Fizz - a delicious fresh and fruity cocktail to welcome spring

Rhubarb & Fennel Fizz

  • Servings: 4-6 drinks
  • Print
Very slightly adapted from A Year in Food

For the fennel-infused gin and rhubarb syrup:
1 small fennel bulb
350ml gin
500g rhubarb
350ml water
1/4 cup sugar

For each drink:
90ml rhubarb syrup
60ml fennel-infused gin
60ml sparkling water
Squeeze of lemon, to taste
1 lemon slice

First, prepare the gin. Wash and roughly chop the fennel, reserving a few pieces of fennel frond for garnishing the drinks later. Add the chopped fennel to a tall, narrow-mouthed glass jar and top with about half of the gin. Using a muddler, heavy wooden spoon (or the end of a rolling pin, as I did) vigorously muddle the fennel for two or three minutes. Add the remaining gin, stir and let the infusion sit at room temperature for 1-2 hours (2 hours produces a stronger flavour, but 1 is fine if you’re in a rush).

While the gin is infusing, prepare the rhubarb. Wash and chop the rhubarb and combine with the sugar and water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent burning, until soft but not completely collapsed. Remove from the heat and strain immediately through a fine sieve. Use a spoon to press the juice from the pulp. The pulp can be reserved for another use, such as muffins.

Strain the gin and discard the fennel. Refrigerate the gin and syrup until chilled.

For each cocktail, mix 90ml rhubarb syrup, 60ml gin, a squeeze of lemon and a small handful of ice cubes in a cocktail shaker. Shake vigorously. Strain into a chilled glass or small mason jar. Add 60ml sparkling water, a few ice cubes, a slice of lemon and a piece of fennel frond.

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Cauliflower & Parsnip Soup with Bacon Sprinkle

Cauliflower and Parsnip Soup with Crispy Bacon Sprinkle

This winter the planets aligned to give me an Epic Cauliflower Soup and I insist that you make it at once. See recipe below. The end.

Cauliflower and Parsnip Soup with Bacon Sprinkle

Ok, ok, I am physically incapable of stopping there so before you get off the couch to cook, let me give you the background. This recipe was first handed to me by a friend who was so in love with this soup that she had to share it immediately. I promptly made it and – á la Lyn – swooned helplessly into its warm, mellow, creaminess and the topping of chewy sprinkles. Not long after I spent a week at home in New Zealand, relishing the winter chill, the sodden, muddy ground and roaring fires every night (photos to come – updated, see photos here). At one point Mum made a big pot of cauliflower soup using similar ingredients to Lyn’s recipe but including crème fraîche, which added a delicious cheesy-tang. My nine-month-old nephew loved that soup, opening his mouth like a baby bird to devour spoonful after spoonful. Fortunately his little stomach filled up quickly, leaving enough for us to enjoy it again the next day.

Cauliflower and Parsnip Soup with Bacon Sprinkles

Back in Brisbane I tinkered with Lyn’s original recipe, using crème fraîche instead of cream, skipping the potatoes and adding a bunch of parsnips that were languishing in the fridge. In the third iteration the parsnips stayed because of the sweetness they added and I used Greek yoghurt for that now essential hint of zing. This soup started out great but, in my humble opinion, these slight enhancements mean that it is now knee-weakening, lip-smacking, mind-blowingly good. Happy belly, happy life.

Cauliflower and Parsnip Soup with Bacon Sprinkle

You can eat the soup on its own but I do have to say something about the topping: the bacon sprinkle, which is all kinds of amazing. This is noteworthy because I don’t really like bacon (I’m sorry). They say that nothing will break a vegetarian faster than the smell of frying bacon (it’s not called “the gateway” meat for nothing) but I remained unwaveringly immune to its charms while vegetarian. Even deep into my meat-curious phase when I was sampling most carnivorous offerings, bacon just stressed me out (too strong, too salty, too greasy, too full of preservatives). Happily, it turns out that I’ve spent my entire life eating (or rather, avoiding) the wrong kind of bacon. Backfatters is a local Queensland business that farms free range heritage pigs and uses an extract of celery to cure the meat. I don’t know if it’s the happy pigs or the lack of chemicals, but these guys are onto something. I’m not about to eat a bacon sandwich just yet but Backfatters’ Maple-Smoked Bacon is utterly delectable in these sprinkles. The rind crisps and caramelises in the oven but somehow remains unctuous and chewy. I’m going to say that again…crispy, caramelised, unctuous, chewy. Fork…YES (not sponsored).

Just make the soup, you’ll understand.

Cauliflower and Parsnip Soup with Bacon Sprinkles

Cauliflower & Parsnip Soup with Bacon Sprinkles

Adapted from Taste

1 large onion, finely chopped
2 celery stalks, thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 large cauliflower (about 1 kg), cut into florets
3-4 medium parsnips (about 400g), peeled and sliced
2 bay leaves
1.5 litres (6 cups) chicken or vegetable stock
1/2 cup Greek yoghurt or crème fraîche
80g parmesan cheese, finely grated
3-4 rashers of bacon, finely chopped
2 Tbsp fresh rosemary, finely chopped (optional)
Extra virgin olive oil

Heat a generous glug of olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the onion and sweat for a couple of minutes. Add the celery and garlic and a good pinch of salt and fry for a further 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until softened. Add three-quarters of the cauliflower, three-quarters of the parsnips, the bay leaves and chicken stock. Cover, bring to the boil and simmer until the vegetables are cooked to the point where they break up easily when pressed with a spoon – about 15 minutes.

While the soup is cooking, preheat the oven to 200°C / 395°F. Line a large baking tray with foil. Finely chop the reserved cauliflower and parsnip and cut the bacon into tiny dice. Toss these onto the prepared tray and scatter with rosemary (if desired), freshly ground black pepper and a glug of olive oil. Toss to combine and then spread out on the tray. Grate the parmesan cheese and sprinkle 2-3 Tbsp over the vegetables and bacon, reserving the rest. Bake for 10-15 minutes until the vegetable are browned and the bacon is crispy.

Finish the soup by removing the bay leaves then blending the vegetables and stock until completely smooth. Add the Greek yoghurt or crème fraîche and reserved parmesan cheese and stir through until melted and combined. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve in bowls topped with the bacon sprinkles and chopped fresh parsley, if desired.

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Fire Cider | Horseradish, Chilli & Apple Cider Vinegar

Fresh horseradish, ginger, chilli, turmeric, onions and citrus - ingredients for Fire Cider

Before winter is over altogether I must tell you about Fire Cider – my new favourite tonic to ward off winter ills. Despite all attempts to remain virus-free, I got sick this year. It was nothing but a nasty cold but it left me with a hacking cough for weeks and sinuses so blocked I felt like my head was under water. I work in an open plan office and at the height of my suffering it seemed that everyone else was sick too. For several weeks all I could hear was a chorus of coughing and complaining; rows of desks were half empty, and those who remained stumbled around bleary-eyed pumping hand sanitiser into snotty palms. Even the ABC agrees that it’s been a rough winter for bugs so I’ll take all the help I can get, even if it means swilling apple cider vinegar infused with horseradish, chilli and onion in the name of health (I know it sounds disgusting, but stay with me).

Apple cider vinegar infused with horseradish, chilli, onion, garlic and turmeric - a great winter tonic

Yes, we are deep into hippy territory now, but don’t fret, I’m not about to go all Gwyneth Paltrow on you and insist on the benefits of putting steam and jade eggs inside your vagina or $200 smoothies that contain enough weird mushrooms to sound a bit like microdosing (go Gwyneth!). Coffee enemas, rose quartz and mandalas aside, you’ve probably already guessed that I’m a bit alternative at heart. I’m no stranger to homemade remedies and have always been partial to nutrition and herbal medicine over doctors and pills. I make my own kombucha, treat indigestion with aloe vera juice and always have a bottle of tea tree oil in the cupboard. Nothing too fringe, I swear; just small efforts to limit my exposure to chemicals and maintain a sense of balance in a rush-rush world. Now excuse me while I go order my ground fossils, also known as Diatomaceous Earth powder (no really, I just did that).

Turmeric, horseradish, chilli and lime

Making Fire Cider - winter herbal health tonic for the immune system

Who am I kidding? I’m a sucker for self-medication and it’s a bonus if I can concoct it myself. As published in Martha Stewart Living (and we all know how trustworthy Martha is) Fire Cider was created in the 1970s by US herbalist, Rosemary Gladstar, as a home remedy for winter colds and flu. The principle is simple – take naturally fermented apple cider vinegar and a selection of herbs and vegetables known for their medicinal properties, macerate together for several weeks, strain, mix with honey and drink. It’s all stuff you can get at your local supermarket and nothing weird at all (see recipe below). You can drink it straight (although be careful, as vinegar is extremely acidic), or do as I do, and mix 1-2 Tbsp in a small glass of water. The dilution has the effect of making the mixture surprisingly tasty in a spicy, onion-y, savoury way; in fact, a bit of vodka wouldn’t go amiss if you wanted to turn your morning health tonic into a herbaceous martini (no irony intended).

Fire Cider - immune system tonic based on apple cider vinegar and herbs

Look, roll your eyes over this one if you must, but I can tell you that each dose of this pungent, fiery, garlicky liquid was heaven to my clogged sinuses, or maybe that was the phenylephrine that I was simultaneously ingesting in a desperate bid for relief…? Since I confounded my own experiment I’ll never really know but I’ll try it again next year as a preventative. Until then, because winter isn’t entirely over yet, I’ll continue to start the day with a swig of medicinal vinegar and yes, I feel pretty virtuous about that.

Disclaimer: I am not a trained health professional, just a regular human being. Make up your own mind how to live your life (except for jade eggs – can we all just agree not to do that?).

Update 24/9/17: currently shot down with September colds (both of us) but having Fire Cider in the fridge is almost as good as having our Mums cross the Tasman Sea to do the laundry and make some soup. Thanks for the foresight, past self.

Apple cider vinegar infused with horseradish, chilli, onion, garlic and turmeric - a great winter tonic

Fire Cider

  • Servings: makes about 1 litre
  • Print
Adapted from A Year in Food

1 cup diced, fresh horseradish root (buy a piece that weighs about 125grams)
1 cup diced, fresh ginger
1 cup diced, fresh turmeric root
1 cup diced onion
2 small heads garlic, cloves peeled and diced
4-8 hot chilies, sliced
2 lemons, quartered and sliced
2 limes, quartered and sliced
750ml to 1 litre raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar
2 litre jar, with a lid
Runny honey, optional (1/2 cup)
1/2 tsp sea salt

This is a guide rather than a strict formula so adjust the quantities and ingredients to fit what you can get (and organic or spray-free if possible).

Clean, dice and slice all of your ingredients, layering them in the jar as you go. It really doesn’t matter how you fill the jar, but I couldn’t help alternating bland coloured ingredients with brightly coloured ones to increase the visual appeal.

Once all of the ingredients are in, fill the jar with apple cider vinegar, leaving a couple of centimetres space at the top. Screw the top on the jar (if you only have a metal lid, place a square of baking paper between the jar and the lid, otherwise the vinegar will cause the metal to rust slightly). Place the jar in a dark corner, out of the way of direct sunlight but in a place where you’ll remember to give it a shake now and then. Let the mixture brew for two weeks, or longer if you prefer.

After two weeks, strain the liquid from the solids through a sieve lined with fine cheesecloth. Stir runny honey and salt into the liquid until dissolved. Use a funnel to fill sterilised bottles, and store in the fridge. I used about 800ml vinegar to start with and ended up with just under one litre of Fire Cider, once the runny honey was incorporated.

Take your Fire Cider at the rate of 1-2 tablespoons per day, straight down the hatch or diluted with a little water.

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“Art broke into everyday life” | The Street Art of Valparaíso

Street art by Anis in Valparaiso, Chile

If we loved the street art in Santiago and Buenos Aires then our little minds were blown to smithereens in Valparaíso. It was like falling down the rabbit hole: colours flashed, otherworldly beings loomed, and the twisting, turning stairs and alleys echoed the expansion and contraction of our minds. Valparaíso is a haven for street artists and tags, throw-ups and murals are literally everywhere. Artworks cover entire buildings and fill the smallest gaps, even overlapping when space gets really tight. Subject matter varies from political to whimsical and styles from brutal to delicate. As viewers, we were amused in one moment, uncomfortable in the next; pure delight kept us rounding one more corner (just one more) to see what treasures we would find.

Street art in Valparaiso, Chile - mural by Inti

Above: Large mural by Chilean artist, Inti.

Eyes_Mural_possibly_by_Charquipunk_Valparaiso

Casting about for an historical account of street art in Chile (see here and here for a good start), I learned that it emerged as a form of protest under the regime of Augusto Pinochet. Although political murals had appeared earlier (Salvador Allende used street art for promotion during his 1963 presidential campaign), under the Pinochet dictatorship murals were used to criticise and question the authoritarian government. Furtively painted under the cover of night, street art was a safe way to speak out about the unemployment, poverty and torture experienced by the community, even if these subversive acts were painted over by day. One website recounts the activism of the group, Collective de Acciones de Arte (CADA), which used small airplanes to drop 400,000 fliers over Santiago one day in 1981. The flyers urged people to appreciate the role of art in “expanding the usual levels of life” and as explained by Michele Wiesen:

The text was not an advertisement for consumers but an invocation that appealed to reflection on life and art, and the identity of the individual and the group… Appealing to the union of art and life in this repressive reality was an openly rebellious act, from a poetic and formal metaphor: airplanes can drop fire not only of pain but also disguised in words in order to open up new spaces of meaning… Art broke into everyday life, raised its voice, and subverted language structures to activate the collective’s memory.

As the dictatorship collapsed during the late 1980’s, artists became bolder and by the 1990’s Valparaíso was emerging as a hub for street art – but not without controversy. Some members of the public viewed street art as vandalism, but as styles and skills grew, artists relied less on tags and throw-ups and began to explore modern and avant-garde styles, using painterly techniques and developing larger, more complex murals. The street art scene was buoyed further by a government ruling that supported graffiti provided that the artist had obtained the owner’s permission (this is the same concept that has stimulated the growth of street art in Buenos Aires more recently). Today it is impossible to imagine Valparaíso without its art, which is legitimised and embraced as an expression of the city’s unique culture.

Street art in Valparaiso Chile - mural by Anis

Above: large mural on Cerre Alegre, painted by Anis from Abusa Crew. Abusa Crew is a group of street artists, whose work is inspired by women and informed by efforts to liberate women throughout South America. Anis also painted the mural in the first photo for this post.

Old_eyes_mural_Artist_Unknown_Valparaiso

Between the two of us, Colin and I took hundreds of photos and whittling them down was difficult. I’m only able to share this selection (a handful of the best) by promising myself to share the rest on my Instagram page over the next few months. In addition to selecting and editing, I’ve spent hours searching Google images in an attempt to identify the artist for each piece. The majority of pieces remain unattributed (please leave a comment if you can identify any of the artists), but most prominent artists were easy to find. Chilean artist Charquipunk paints with a distinctive style using lines and colour to suggest movement (see the three images below). He is also fond of painting birds, so it wasn’t long before we could pick out his work:

Charquipunk_collage_Mural_Valparaiso_Chile.jpg

Charquipunk_Hummingbird_Valparaiso_Chile

Street art in Valparaíso isn’t always high quality and for every stunning mural there are a hundred hastily spray-painted tags. Some pieces that were once great have been long neglected; walls revealing a mish-mash of peeling pasteups, layers of images, fading paint, rust, grime and decay. It’s messy at times, but it’s all part of the scene – every street artist makes their debut with a tag and the exposure of artworks to sun and rain means that they can never be static images. Like the community itself, street art lives and breathes in a precarious cycle of creation and degradation, appreciated for a time but eventually replaced or removed to make way for something else.

Throw_ups_and_tags_Valparaiso_Chile

Collaboration_Mural_Cern_LRM_Inti_and_others_Valparaiso

Above: collaboration mural by the artists Cern, LRM, Inti and others.

Cats_and_Rats_Artist_Unknown_Valparaiso

Street art in Valparaiso - large mural by Teo Doro

Above: tags and stickers in the foreground; mural by Teo Doro Vidaingravita in the background.

In addition to a healthy and growing population of local artists, people come to Valparaíso from all over the world to paint murals and add a piece of their own history to the city. The mural below is by the surrealist Argentinean artist, Martin Ron, whose work we also saw in Buenos Aires. A tagger has added a rough moustache on the upper lip of the face.


Street art in Valparaiso - mural by Martin Ron

The piece below is called “Rock, Paper, Scissors”. It’s by the German artist, Otto Schade, who cites Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte and Banksy among his key influences:

Street art in Valparaiso, Chile mural by Otto Schade

French artist, Mr. Papillon, is responsible for this gorgeous mural of a vibrant young girl radiating warmth and happiness:

Street art in Valparaiso Chile - mural by Mr Papillon

I like the idea that we could go to Valparaíso in ten years time and find a completely different display of murals. There will always be some sadness for the demise of particularly beautiful art, but it’s this transitory quality that is part of its appeal. It’s not for a gallery, it’s not to be preserved, it’s not to be bought and sold. Street art is about a collective conscious, about hopes and dreams and what’s important now.

Street art in Valparaiso Chile

To close, this post wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Un Kolor Distinto, a team of two artists who are an institution in Valparaíso. Sammy Espinoza (Jekse) and Cynthia Aguilera (Cines) have painted together for years. Their pieces are usually enormous, colourful, surrealist and always feature two characters (Cines paints the female characters and Jekse the male). Their works were some of our favourites and here I am with one on our second-to-last day in wonderful Valparaíso:

Street art in Valparaiso Chile - mural by Un Kolor Distinto