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Look back, leap forward

Like many people, I’m ready to leave 2016 behind. It wasn’t a difficult year for me personally, but it was for some of my friends, and the backdrop of global political and humanitarian crises, one after another after another, infused everything with an air of chaos and confusion. As The New Yorker’s Susanna Wolff aptly writes, “2016 was a turd of a year”, which I think sums it up pretty well. This year we should avoid over-ambitious New Year’s resolutions, she advises, and “get ready for 2017 by collectively aiming a little lower”.

Last year I made some resolutions: the first, actually, since the year when I fulfilled my resolution to drink more wine rather too well. This time around I joined a group of friends for a focused goal-setting session, and out of that process I identified that in 2016 I wanted three things: to carve out a dedicated space at home for work and creative activities, to travel overseas and to cook more. It might sound strange that someone who writes a food blog would need to resolve to cook more, but I find that mid-week cooking in particular is hard work (don’t we all?). I wanted to commit to fewer dinners of crackers and cheese and by and large I have achieved that. As the photos below show, I didn’t do too badly with my other goals, too.

My annual Year in Review posts always follow the convention of selecting one photograph to represent each month, using a photograph that was taken during that month. This year was more difficult than usual, revealing that throughout 2016, I had taken out my camera for food and for travel, but for shamefully little else. This year I was fortunate to receive a seriously good camera lens for Christmas, so an obvious resolution for 2017 is to get out more often, to tramp the streets and surrounds with my camera as I used to do when we first moved to Brisbane. Beyond this, I would like to step up my cooking skills by hosting more dinner parties and brunches at home. I cooked a formal dinner for 12 people for the first time in 2016 and it was a great challenge – lots of work and lots of planning (there was even a spread sheet involved!) but I was surprised by how much I loved it.

So despite Wolff’s cynical advice I’m not really aiming lower in 2017. Admittedly, I pitch pretty low to begin with – there’s no get fit/lose weight/avoid junk food/stop drinking here. Resolutions are notoriously hard to keep and I suspect that mine have worked in the past because I keep them modest, focusing on what I already enjoy rather than what I should be doing. You’ll also notice that I avoid any precise quantifications because if I can achieve a sense of “more” (more photos, more dinner parties) then I’ll consider the job well done. On this note, I’m interested to hear your take on the practice of resolutions – do you make them, break them or avoid them? Are they helpful or motivating, or just another source of pressure?

Wherever you’ve landed at the beginning of the new year, I wish you all the very best for the year ahead. Thank you for reading Chez Moi in 2016 and being part of my small world. Let’s collectively do our part and create a little more compassion, humility and reason in 2017. But let’s face it, if turns out that there are simply fewer turds, I’ll consider it a win.

Clean, tidy and revitalised - a space to work, January 2016

January: 2016 started positively with some clear goals for the year to come. One of these was to tidy up the mezzanine office area of our apartment, establishing it as a productive work and creative space. Seeing this photo reminds me that I’ve let it grow cluttered once again…must sort that out.

Weekend escape in Currumbin Valley, Gold Coast hinterland, February 2016

February: In February we celebrated our wedding anniversary with a trip to the Currumbin Valley in the Gold Coast hinterland. This was our first Air BnB experience and it was a good one. The house was beautiful and isolated, and the wild weather made it easy to justify a reclusive weekend with wine, books and many cups of tea. Between downpours, I snapped this photo in the green garden of a local cafe.

Fresh borlotti beans from the market, March 2016

March: By March my resolution to cook more was in full swing. I went to the markets most Saturday mornings, looking for fresh, interesting and seasonal produce. These borlotti beans were delicious, braised simply with olive oil and stock. In March I also refined my homemade tonic syrup, which required many gin and tonics to get just right.

The River Cafe's Apple and Lemon Cake, April 2016

April: My instagram feed and photo library attest to many cakes in April, including this deliciously toothsome Apple & Lemon Cake from Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers of River Cafe. In April I also started brewing water kefir at home; the beginning of a new interest in fermentation.

Spices and flavours for Thai Pumpkin Soup, May 2016

May: By May the weather was cooling and it was time to make large pots of Thai-Spiced Pumpkin Soup. May was a social month with lots of lunches with friends, outings and trips to the cinema (which memorably included a re-run of Breakfast at Tiffany’s). We also shopped, stocking up on warm winter clothes for our impending holiday.

Exploring Santa Lucia, Santiago de Chile, June 2016

June: I turned 40 in June and we celebrated with three weeks in South America! Our first stop was Santiago de Chile, where we explored the city and visited the snow before flying off to Buenos Aires, Argentina. We took a ferry to Uruguay while there, before returning to BA and flying to Mendoza. It was an amazing, whirlwind of a trip that changed our perspective for the better.

Colourful Valparaiso, Chile, July 2016

July: In early July we were still overseas, enjoying Valparaíso, Chile; a gritty, colourful and chaotic city where we climbed a million stairs and ate some of the best food of our whole trip. My blog posting still hasn’t caught up to this part of the holiday, but isn’t far away now. Not long after we got back I got the short, pixie haircut I had been daring myself to get for ages.

Dinner party for my 40th birthday, August 2016

August: Back at home in August I decided to throw a belated 40th birthday party for myself, which took the form of a dinner party for 12. I cooked Middle Eastern dishes that I had learned while attending a cooking class (a previous birthday gift from the same 12 friends). The feast included prawns wrapped in kataifi pastry, lamb rump in zhoug paste, hummus, baba ganoush, date and coconut chutney, spiced couscous and chickpea salad.

Beautiful sunrise, September 2016

September: In September I travelled to New Zealand for my sister’s 30th birthday party and another sister’s baby shower – a lovely long weekend of celebration and catch-ups. It was predictably chilly, as it often is in Auckland, while back in Brisbane the sunrises were already hailing the rapidly approaching summer.

Weekend escape in Sunshine Coast hinterland, October 2016

October: By October work pressures were starting to pile up but I continued making time to cook and started to get back into a regular exercise routine (a new yoga school opened close to home, so I didn’t exactly have any excuses). This photo was taken on a lovely weekend trip to the Sunshine Coast hinterland with members of my book club.

Jewel-like fruit shrubs, November 2016

November: In November I experimented with my latest obsession – fruit shrubs. Strange name, yes, but these sweet, fruity, syrups are all I want to drink now that the humid Brisbane summer is here. I’m almost ready to post the recipes for these jewel-like strawberry and pineapple versions.

Christmas breakfast table, December 2016

December: The great thing about December is that it feels like such a short month. I worked hard to complete a major project then by 2.30pm on the 22nd I was blissfully on holiday. This photo shows part of our table setting for Christmas breakfast, which we hosted at our place with friends. Our three course breakfast of fruit platter, salmon kedgeree and Belgian waffles with berries and cream went down so well; a fitting abundance with which to welcome the new year.

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Graffitimundo | Buenos Aires street art

Mural by Primo in Villa Urquiza, Buenos Aires

Above: Cropped section of large mural by Primo, in Villa Urquiza, Buenos Aires

One of the things that we most enjoyed about Buenos Aires was its incredible street art scene. According to Matt Fox-Tucker (founder of BA Street Art), street art is accepted and supported by the local community as a legitimate art form. There is no need for artists to obtain a permit from authorities and the only requirement is to seek consent from the property owner. This freedom attracts street artists to Buenos Aires from all over the world.

BA Street Art was founded to support the growth of street art in Buenos Aires. In addition to running tours, the organisation works with artists to commission murals, helps to develop collaborative relationships between artists and property owners, runs workshops and operates an art gallery featuring work by Latin American street artists. The organisation is working particularly hard to develop the barrios of Villa Urquiza and Coghlan as centres for street art in the city. During Argentina’s military dictatorship many buildings in these neighbourhoods were abandoned or damaged, but over the past 10 years (in large part, thanks to the efforts of BA Street Art) these same buildings have been reclaimed as spaces for art – to spectacular effect.

On the day of our tour we took the subway to Colegiales and met up with our tour guide, Anderson, a Brazilian architect who had recently moved to Buenos Aires. We were joined by two young French women (medical students on holiday), a tall, enigmatic Peruvian man with a silent German companion, and an older couple from Mexico City, both psychologists. After coffee and introductions, we took the train even further west to Villa Urquiza where the tour began with the stunning mural below. This surrealist mural was created by Martin Ron and at 412 m² it’s the largest mural in Buenos Aires. To give you some idea of scale, I’m 162 (5’4″) which makes me as tall as the top of the skateboard wheel. BA Street Art organised this project, which was painted over 16 days (for more details about the project, read this):

Martin Ron mural in Villa Urquiza, Buenos Aires Argentina

On the building next door is another huge mural painted by the Italian artist, Blu. The mural is nearly 10 years old now and is decaying badly, but it is typical of Blu’s mind-twisting work (which reminds me of Tool music videos). It depicts a gigantic baby with an interior world that reveals the machinations of a bustling factory; a metaphor for the corruption of innocence by exploitative humanity:

Mural by Blu, Villa Urquiza, Buenos Aires

Few artworks were as overtly political as Blu’s however, and most were created to add beauty, colour and imagination to the city streets. The picture below captures an excerpt of a large mural painted by five artists, with each character symbolising an artist. The Donald Duck-esque character below represents the Spanish artist Grito:

Detail of mural in Villa Urquiza

The collage below shows works by Ice (the 3D rhino), Luxor (the red bird) and by Primo (the young African tribeswoman). I found the work by Primo to be especially compelling – the depth of expression in the eyes of the woman is amazing. Primo also painted the mural of the African woman at the beginning of this post. I’ve cropped that image to show the most beautiful parts of the mural: the soulful eyes, smooth skin, and the impression of an ivy plant which happened to be growing on the wall at the time the painting was created.

Murals by Ice, Primo and Luxor, Buenos Aires, Argentina

One of my favourite murals was the one below of the dancing couple by Italian artist Alice Pasquini. The building itself was fascinating with the angular shapes, rough plasterwork and trailing plants, and the colours and sweeping lines of the artwork complement this canvas beautifully. To the left of this mural is another piece, “Heartbeat”, by the Argentinian artist, Alfredo Segatori.

Murals by Alice Pasquini and Alfredo Segatori, Coghlan, Buenos Aires

Our patient guide, Anderson, kept the group entertained with stories and managed to keep us moving despite our predilection for taking photos. Here we stopped at a mural by Nomada while Anderson provided details about various painting techniques used by street artists. One DIY method involved lodging a dog hair into the nozzle of the can, which allows the artist to achieve a particular effect.

Mural by Nomada, Coghlan, Buenos Aires

We were thrilled to see a large and beautiful mural by Australian artist, Fintan Magee, who grew up in Brisbane. His murals and paintings often focus on environmental issues and the displacement of populations, and he applies a technique that looks like water dripping from the artwork. This particular mural references the 2011 Brisbane floods (which he and his family experienced first hand) as well as the devastating floods in La Plata and Buenos Aires in 2013:

The Displaced by Fintan Magee, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Our last stop on the tour took in a long wall with multiple murals painted on it. This one by El Marian shows a homeless man and his dog, perfectly capturing their deep bond:

Mural by El Marian, Buenos Aires, Argentina

The tour with BA Street Art was fabulous and I highly recommend contacting them if you are planning a trip to Buenos Aires. We found the tour so inspiring that when we ended up with an extra half day in the city (due to missing our flight to Mendoza) we taxied to Palermo Soho, another area of the city known for street art. I can’t tell you anything about the pieces that we saw there, but if anyone can identify the artists, please let me know:

Mural and mosaic in Palermo Soho, Buenos Aires

Roller door mural in Palermo Soho, Buenos Aires

Green monster mural, Palermo Soho, Buenos Aires

Homer's trashy sister - mural in Palermo Soho, Buenos Aires

Graffiti art in Palermo Soho, Buenos Aires

I can identify the artist for the final image below – Triangulo Dorado, a trio of street artists who conveniently signed this mural. For more photos of street art in Santiago de Chile, click here. For general travel notes regarding Buenos Aires, click here.

Triangulo Dorada mural in Palermo Soho, Buenos Aires

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Homemade Jelly | Raspberry, Vanilla, Chardonnay

Fresh Raspberry & Chardonnay Jelly

All kids love jelly. It’s the wobble-factor mainly, but also the bright colours, the cool, slippery mouthfuls, and the sucking sound it makes as your spoon liberates your next bite. When I was a kid (probably, when all of us were kids) jelly only came from packets of dry crystals in little boxes. It was a wondrous thing to watch the pale, lumpy contents become bowls of brilliantly coloured, jewel-like desserts simply with the addition of hot water. There was always a touch of magic to the fruity fragrance that rose with the steam and the transformation of shimmering liquid into wobbling solid. The thought of all of those colour additives makes my adult self cringe, but as a kid, a bowl of cold red jelly with vanilla ice cream was pretty close to the perfect pudding.

When I was about 10 or 11, a craze for jelly crystals swept through the school. We would bring packets of Gregg’s jelly to school, pour a mound of dry crystals onto our palms and slowly lick them clean with the tips of our tongues. We did the same thing with packets of powdered orange juice, ending up jittery from all the sugar, with teeth dyed bright orange, red or purple. I don’t have a good explanation for this, except that I was a kid and kids can be disgusting!

Raspberry Chardonnay Jelly and pink flowering begonias

Chardonnay Jelly with fresh raspberries has a finesse that Gregg’s simply can’t match, but the the pleasure of each cool, sweet spoonful is very much the same. This is Nigella Lawson’s recipe for Slut-Red Raspberries in Chardonnay Jelly, but despite this hilarious name, when I’m eating it sluttiness couldn’t be further from my mind. The jelly is tinged a delicate salmon colour, the raspberries float like bobbing apples, and the whole thing tastes floral, fruity and frivolous. I don’t really know what Nigella was thinking, but it’s not the slightest bit bold or trashy. It’s a pudding to be eaten by ladies in the garden on a warm summer day, not mini-skirted wantons with smeared lipstick. I just had to lose the “Slut” and besides, it doesn’t really go with my stories of childhood innocence.

But…I first made this dessert because of a slut, there is that. Our book club had read Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard and met for lunch at the beautiful country property owned by one of our members. Given that the book was set in London, we tried to make dishes with some sort of British influence (Beef Wellington, Eton Mess and so on). My point of reference was the main character who embarks on an exciting affair, so the pudding was a tongue in cheek nod to what I expected to be a  sort of sophisticated Mills & Boon. However, the book turned out to be dark and violent, which was completely at odds with my light, fragrant jelly. I’m thankful that the slutty name attracted my interest in the first place, but despite the wine-soaked berries, this pudding is more virgin than whore.

However you choose to take your Raspberries and Chardonnay Jelly (with a side of titillation or not) it’s a fantastic recipe and a real crowd pleaser. You need to make it ahead, or even the day before, so it’s perfect for a party or event when it’s helpful to have pudding sorted and stashed away. Nigella recommends eating it with double cream, but I prefer the slight tang of full-fat Greek yoghurt. Vanilla ice cream would also be fantastic, and a return (of sorts) to the red jelly and ice cream of my childhood (but now with alcohol).

Raspberry Chardonnay Jelly and back lit red hibiscus

Sunrise coloured roses in the setting sun

Rural Sunshine Coast, Queensland Australia

Garden views and the setting sun

Sun and shadow, Sunshine Coast hinterland October 2016

Beautiful Queensland verandah

Fresh Raspberry & Chardonnay Jelly

Fresh Raspberries in Chardonnay Jelly

Slightly adapted from Nigella Lawson Forever Summer

1 bottle (750ml) fruity chardonnay
300g raspberries
1 tsp vanilla extract
16g gelatine leaves
225g caster sugar
To serve: Greek yoghurt, cream or vanilla ice cream

Check the raspberries for debris and then place in a large bowl and pour over the entire bottle of wine. Alternatively, if your raspberries need washing, immerse them gently in a bowl of water, and then remove to paper towels to drain. When they have air dried, place in a large bowl and add the wine. Either way, allow the berries to steep in the wine for 30 minutes.

Carefully strain the wine through a sieve into a medium saucepan. Transfer the raspberries to a bowl and place in the fridge. Heat the wine over a medium heat. While the wine is heating, soak the gelatine leave in cold water for about five minutes, after which drain off the water and gently squeeze any excess liquid from the gelatine.

When the wine comes to a boil allow it to boil for a minute to enable the alcohol to evaporate. Switch off the heat and add the sugar, stirring to dissolve. Add the vanilla extract. Add one third of the hot wine to the wrung-out gelatine leaves in a measuring jug and stir to dissolve, then add this mixture back into the rest of the wine and stir well. Strain through a fine sieve (to ensure that no lumps of gelatine remain) into a large jug. Allow the mixture to cool to room temperature, otherwise the heat may crack your delicate serving bowls or glassware.

Divide the raspberries into six wine glasses or small serving bowls, or place all of the raspberries into a large glass bowl. Pour the cooled wine over the top. Transfer the dishes to the fridge and allow to set for several hours. The setting time will depend on the temperature of your fridge. Mine usually take about six hours to fully set so it’s easiest to make it the day before I want to serve it.

Remove the jellies from the fridge about 15 minutes before you would like to serve them. This softens the jelly very slightly, making each bite more unctuous. Serve with double cream, full-fat Greek yoghurt or a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

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Wednesday Night Chicken Tikka

Quick and easy Baked Chicken Tikka with Spiced Sweet Potato and Cauliflower

As much as I love to cook, I hate to cook every night of the week. Some nights I’m too cranky or tired or distracted to cook. We’ve all been there. We all know we should peel ourselves off the couch, get off our phones and do something with the vegetables slowly wilting in the fridge. Some nights we do just that, making ourselves feel like accomplished and mature human beings. Other nights we scoff a handful of roasted peanuts, pop some bread in the toaster, or stand at the fridge spooning leftover raspberry jelly straight from the bowl. It’s not classy, but that’s real life.

Quick and easy Baked Chicken Tikka with Spiced Sweet Potato and Cauliflower

I’m terrible at meal-planning. When I do cook mid-week it goes something like this: peer into the fridge, see what vegetables need using up, try to identify some sort of relevant (and available, i.e. not frozen) protein, steam/roast/stir-fry together and try to get it on my plate within 30 minutes and provide enough leftovers to eat at work the next day. Inevitably, I churn out a million variations on the same 10 basic recipes that I’ve been cooking for years. This is 100% OK because it’s generally tasty, healthy, thrifty and efficient, which is exactly what I want in my mid-week meals. But…it can also be a little boring.

Quick and easy Baked Chicken Tikka with Spiced Sweet Potato and Cauliflower

I blame my reduced wine consumption for this situation. Pouring a glass of red used to be my signal to get creative in the kitchen nearly every night. Like Pavlov’s dog, that first sip of elixir got my juices flowing and I would haul out a recipe book. I used to sip and chop and sip some more, churning out roast chicken, complicated curries and beef stew – mid-week! I thought nothing of eating at 9pm or later. I can hardly comprehend that now.

Quick and easy Baked Chicken Tikka with Spiced Sweet Potato and Cauliflower

I’m telling you all of this so that you understand that this recipe – Oven-Roasted Chicken Tikka with Sweet Potatoes & Cauliflower – is completely achievable in anyone’s mid-week life. I have a pretty well-stocked spice rack, so the only pre-planning that I had to do was to add fresh green chilli to the weekly shopping list and remember to get the chicken breasts out of the freezer the night before. I admit that it does look like a long list of ingredients, but the recipe is very forgiving. If you’re missing two or three of the spices, then just leave them out and maybe bump up the ones you do have a little. Same with the vegetables – replace what I’ve suggested with whatever you have that is suitable for roasting. Ignore the optional finishings if you don’t have the time or inclination. This recipe might be a long way from traditional Chicken Tikka Masala, but it’s a reinterpretation that works for my schedule.

Quick and easy Baked Chicken Tikka with Spiced Sweet Potato and Cauliflower

The most time-consuming part is preparing the ginger and garlic. You can chop these finely before mixing with the spices, but I find that it is quicker to bash them about in a mortar and pestle (and I’m sure that this improves the flavour too). Once you’ve coated the chicken with the yoghurt and spices, set them aside while you prepare the vegetables, then throw it all on a baking tray and roast until cooked. The resulting meal is so colourful and tasty that you will make yourself proud. Aaaaand if you should happen to find yourself pouring cereal into a bowl tomorrow night, well, at least you can comfort yourself with the memory of that time you achieved mid-week Chicken Tikka (without the aid of wine, no less).

Oven-Roasted Chicken Tikka with Sweet Potatoes & Cauliflower

Slightly adapted from Smitten Kitchen

For the chicken:
2cm piece of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
4 cloves of garlic
1 fresh green chilli, sliced
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp garam masala
1/2 tsp ground chilli powder
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1/2 tsp ground cumin
3/4 tsp sugar
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup yogurt
4 chicken breasts or the equivalent weight of chicken thighs or drumsticks

For the vegetables:
3 Tbsp olive oil
2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2cm chunks
1 small or half a large head cauliflower, cut into 2cm-wide florets
1 red capsicum, seeded and cut into 2cm-wide chunks
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp black mustard seeds
1/4 tsp salt

To finish (optional):
A few thin slices of red onion
1 lemon
Pinch of salt
Roughly chopped parsley or coriander

Using a mortar and pestle, pound the ginger, garlic and fresh chilli with the salt, sugar and ground spices until the mixture becomes a smooth paste. Transfer the paste to a medium bowl and stir in the yoghurt. Add the chicken breasts or pieces and coat the chicken with the thick paste. Cover and leave to marinate for 15 minutes, or (in the fridge) up to one day.

Remove the chicken from the fridge about 30 minutes before you wish to cook it so that it comes to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 220°C / 425°F. Line a large baking tray with aluminium foil and coat with 1 Tbsp of the olive oil. Prepare the sweet potatoes, capsicum, cauliflower, salt, cumin seeds and mustard seeds and add them to the pan along with the remaining 2 Tbsp oil. Toss together until the vegetables are evenly coated with oil and spices.

Remove the chicken from the bowl and nestle the pieces between the vegetables. Place the tray in the oven and bake for 20 minutes, then toss the vegetables to ensure they are cooking evenly. Return the tray to the oven for 10-20 minutes more (i.e. 30-40 minutes total roasting time), until the chicken and vegetables are cooked.

While the dish bakes, prepare some lightly pickled onion by placing the slices of onion in a small bowl. Sprinkle with a little salt and the juice of half a lemon. Ensure that all of the onion is coated in the salty lemon and set aside to cure. When the chicken and vegetables are cooked, top with the pickled onion rings and chopped fresh parsley. Eat with yoghurt and a spritz of lemon.

Filed under: Eat