Monday, 27 May 2013

Gambling & Hard Liquor
While driving around the past week, there has been a lot of news and radio talk about gambling. The discussion focuses on whether the TV networks should continue to show gambling advertisements and live odds during sporting events. Yes, right there on the screen throughout a game, gambling odds are shown. As a foreigner, I was gobsmacked (shocked) when I saw this on the TV as that wouldn't be allowed in the US. I can't imagine watching a college basketball game or pro football game and the gambling odds being shown during play. The outcry here is that tobacco advertising is banned and alcohol advertising is restricted so why is it ok for gambling to be shown? The fear is that it's causing a greater addiction to gambling and exposing children to gambling as if it's an accepted part of sports and culture. The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, is vowing to restrict TV advertising to scheduled breaks in play and before and after the game. This still sounds excessive to me but just my observation.......

I've been surprised by the amount of gambling facilities in Australia. There are TABs, RSLs, other gambling outlets and online betting.  Pokies (slot machines) are very popular. I remember driving through northeast Queensland, in the middle of nowhere with countless sugar cane fields, and coming upon a very small town with only a few storefronts. The lone sign in the town read 'Play pokies here!' I thought to myself, "Really...there are probably about 500 people (and 10,000 cane toads) that live here and they want to play pokies?" 

So how big IS gambling in Australia? According to Wikipedia, 'over 80% of Australian adults engage in gambling of some kind which is the highest rate of gambling in the world. There are big casinos, lottery organizations, betting on: horse racing, greyhound racing, car racing, sports, etc. In 2007-08 the states collected about $3 billion from poker machines, and $4.9 billion from all forms of gambling, accounting for 9.1% of their total revenue.' For a country of only 22 million people, this is huge. While reading further on Wikipedia and doing more research on the Web, I found some interesting facts - gamblers' winnings in Australia are not taxed since gambling is not considered a profession, it's treated as a hobby or recreational activity. The Australian government views gains from gambling activities as a result of good luck. (I like that one.) The government taxes gambling operators instead. Perhaps those US lottery winners need to move here.

What recipes go with gambling? Hard liquor, of course! Below are the recipes of some of my favourite alcoholic drinks. Not all are common cocktails down under like the Lynchburg lemonade. Anyway, I love them and hope you will try one/some at home.

(A few of my favourite) DRINKS

Kir Royale
Champagne or bubbles is huge in Australia. I remember when we first moved here and I went to pick my daughter up in the late afternoon at a new friend's house. I was offered a cup of tea or bubbles, which of course I had no idea what 'bubbles' meant beyond a bath. My friend, Lindsay, introduced me to this drink and I like the sweet fruitiness of it as I find regular champagne a bit too dry.

1) pour 2 tbls/30ml Creme de Cassis (blackcurrant liquor) in champagne flute
2) slowly add  dry white champagne
Add more or less Creme de Cassis to suit taste

Lynchburg Lemonade
I am a fan of whiskey, especially Dewars and Jack Daniels. I like to use Jack Daniels in pecan pie and it tastes good simply with some gingerale. My parents went to Lynchburg, Tennessee where Jack Daniels is distilled and came back with this recipe. It is great for a BBQ.

2 tbsp/30 ml Jack Daniels
2 tbsp/30 ml Triple Sec
4 tbsp/60 ml Sour Mix
Lemonade, Solo, Lift
maraschino cherry, lemon for garnish
1) Pour all measured alcohol in glass. Add some ice to your liking and top up with lemonade or lemon soda. Garnish with lemon and/or cherry if available.

Naked Pimms
I call this a naked Pimms as it is pretty bare bones without the usual fruit that is in the traditional recipe. I like to drink this in the summer when it is hot, I want something refreshing, and I have lemon juice on hand.

1) Take out tall glass and fill 1/2 way with ice
2) Fill 1/3 of glass with Pimms.
3) Fill 2/3 glass with ginger ale.
4) Add a squirt of lemon juice or squeeze a big slice of lemon into drink and drop lemon in glass.
Note: It tastes really good with some cucumber slices added.

Thanks to HBO's 'Sex and the City,' this cocktail is very popular and I see different variations of it on bar menus. The classic recipe is sweet and easy to drink which often leads to a dusty morning after. Lime juice is a key ingredient as it cuts down on the sweetness.

3 tbsp/45ml vodka
1 tbsp/15ml Cointreau or Triple Sec liqour
2 tsp/10ml lime juice
2 tbsp/30 ml cranberry juice

1) Add ingredients to cocktail shaker
2) Add a lot of ice, shake and and strain into cocktail glass
3) Garnish with lime if possible

Monday, 20 May 2013

Birds and Seals and skinny bread....oh my!

Seal Show
Mary, the Sun Bear

View of city from Zoo

Sumatran Tigers
Last Sunday, May 12, was Mother's Day in Australia. It was also the Mother's Day in the US. Living in a different country, I'm still getting use to celebrating holidays. We have many of the same holidays and then there's the new ones - Boxing Day (Dec 26, a good excuse to extend Christmas), Australia Day (Jan 26, similar to 4th of July), ANZAC Day (April 25, similar to Veteran's Day), and the Queen's Birthday (June 10 similar to ? and not even celebrated on her actual birth date = amusing). Father's Day is celebrated in June in the US but in September in Australia. Lucky American ex-pat Dads getting two Father's Days! I think this is lost on them as most US ex-pat men I know, don't seem to care. What a waste! This is like how most men need less sleep yet the wives are exhausted and up all night with their babies. I definitely would appreciate and milk an extra Mother's Day.

My request for Mother's Day this year was to go to the Taronga Zoo and then out for dinner. Some people thought the Zoo was a strange request, one that my kids wanted. It was quite the opposite - I love Taronga Zoo and my daughters hate it since their Mom (me) sent them to too many zoo camps during summer break. For me, it's a  great excuse to take a long walk and watch animals of all different shapes and sizes in action. It is also quite a sensory experience to see and hear (but not smell) the animals. Their colours, textures, and behaviours fascinate me. Taronga Zoo is almost 100 years old, sits on 52 acres, and houses 2600 animals. It is a 15 minute ferry ride from the city and boasts amazing views of the city, Opera House and Harbour Bridge. Tourists go to see all the native Australian animals ( a short, happy chappy video with upbeat music) and there is an area where you can walk amongst the kangaroos, wallabies, emus and other marsupials. For zoo nerds (like me), there are endangered animals including Sumatran tigers, Kodiak bears, baby elephants, and rare birds. My favourite activities at the zoo are the free bird show ( seal show ( Note, this blogging is time intensive - lol! I watched many zoo videos on You Tube and carefully selected the links above so if you are ever bored or have some free time, they're worth a look. Besides the shows, my highlight was Mary, the Sun Bear, who is pictured above. She deserved an extra vat of honey for her tree acrobatics, digging in the dirt skills, and I'm-just-not-into-you theatrics with the male bear. After her entertaining activities, she sat as close as possible to the gathered crowd, watching us as if to say, 'What? You.....looking at me?!"

I was trying to think of a recipe that could somehow be related to the zoo. Hm mm, monkeys = bananas =  banana bread - perfect! Banana Bread is an everyday recipe that I've been baking for years. It's also appropriate for this blog since banana bread is very popular in Sydney. It is a mainstay at most cafes where it is served plain, toasted, or deliciously grilled. You can also buy a loaf of at local grocery stores and upscale markets, all at crazy prices - $8-$12 for a large loaf.  I buy a bunch of bananas every week for our house and sometimes a few end up too speckled and overripe to eat. I peel them, seal them in a plastic bag, and freeze them to use later in this recipe. Banana bread tastes great toasted with butter, peanut butter and/or Nutella spread and it's a healthier, homemade snack for school lunchboxes.Over the years, I have tried different recipes and through experimentation, I have come up with a healthy version which is lower in sugar in fat.

Skinny Banana Bread

3/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup (57g) butter, room temperature

1 tsp vanilla extract/essence

1/2 cup applesauce

2 eggs

3-4 medium, very ripe bananas, mashed

1/2 cup plain, low-fat Greek yogurt OR low-fat, vanilla yogurt

2.5 cups of plain flour

1.5 tsps baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp cinnamon ( well if using nuts or dried apricots as an add-in) 

Add-ins: chopped dried apricots, chopped walnuts, chocolate chips, raisins, dates

1) Heat oven to 350F/175C

2) Put sugar and butter in mixer and beat until light and creamy. Add vanilla extract/essence.

3) Add additional wet ingredients - applesauce, eggs, mashed bananas (*see note below*), yogurt. Beat until blended and combined.

4) Add dry ingredients - flour, baking soda, salt and cinnamon (optional) until just blended. Do not over beat as your bread will end up rubbery.

5) Fold in by hand any add-ins if using and pour into loaf pan.

6) Cook for 1hr and see if bread is done. It may need 10-15 minutes more.


- Bananas - do not throw over ripe bananas away! The more speckled and black, the sweeter and better.  Either make banana bread right away or *peel* banana and store in sandwich bag in freezer. Bananas take about 1 hour to defrost. If you leave them out too long, they will start to liquefy. They must be mashed well *before* adding to Banana Bread batter.

- Do not make UNLESS bananas are super ripe. Solid yellow bananas are not sweet enough & you'll need to add more sugar. Only use over ripe, speckled and blackish bananas.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Fiji, Kava, and Vodka

We recently returned from a 5 day trip to Fiji. I can't believe I actually made it there. While living in the US, Fiji was an exotic destination on the bucket list of places-I'd-like-to-visit-but-probably-never-will. Fiji is only a 4 hour flight from Sydney which really is just a puddle jump as it takes a long ride in a tin can to go anywhere else - US (CA 14 hrs, NY 20hrs), Europe (22+ hrs), Thailand (8+hrs) etc.

I was left with many positive impressions of Fiji - there are a lot of islands there, it is very lush & tropical, the snorkeling is wonderful, the Fijians are so nice. The Fijian people really stand out in my mind. They are so pleasant, calm and happy despite, many of them, living with very little. I don't know if their seeming happiness is from the heat or the chilled island lifestyle, but I felt very safe there. I was also stuck by the ethnic and religious diversity. Even with a small overall population, there is a diverse mix of Pacific Islanders, Asian and Indians.While exploring one day, we passed one of the biggest Hindu temples in the Southern Hemisphere, a huge Muslim "coliseum" and school and several Christian churches with schools all within relative proximity to each other. It was nice to see that perhaps there can be religious harmony in the world.

We did venture out of the resort and see more local sites. One afternoon, we went to natural mud baths, orchid gardens, a Hindu temple and the local produce market. As someone who likes to cook (and eat) I always enjoy going to markets and grocery stores in foreign countries. Much of the produce in Fiji was foreign, not things I'd eat on a regular basis: chillies, taro, coconuts, paw paw, unknown greens, and kava. Kava...I'd heard about it since we arrived and was curious to try it. What alcohol is to the Western world, kava is to the Pacific Islands. People enjoy it as a relaxing sedative that is not suppose to impair mental clarity. The roots of the kava plant can be chewed or pounded down into a powder mixed with water and drunk. You can see what I thought of it - yuck!  However from my few sips, my lips felt numb and I did feel more relaxed. Hm mm.....

Moving from one stimulant to the next, my dish this week is Penne ala Vodka. I haven't seen this dish served at restaurants nor the bottled sauce in supermarket stores here in Sydney. The origins of where this sauce originated from is still a mystery - a small restaurant in Italy, a restaurant in NYC or a Russian vodka company trying to get more people to drink vodka in Italy? Wherever it originated from, it's a nice alternative to plain spaghetti/pasta sauce and easy to make. Don't worry! It's non-alcoholic, family friendly and just like cooking with wine, Sherry or Marsala, it all burns off while cooking.

Penne ala Vodka
altered from original recipe of Lindsay Hague

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

1 small bunch of basil/coriander, finely chopped* (optional)

1 400g can diced tomatoes

1 680g bottle of tomato puree 

1/2 cup vodka

1 cup heavy cream*

small container of button or brown mushrooms, washed and sliced thin* (optional)

red chili pepper flakes*

1/2 tsp of salt

1 regular sized bag of penne pasta

grated Parmesan, Pecorino, Pana Grandano

1) In large skillet, heat up olive oil and add onion. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring until onion is translucent and soft. Add Basil/coriander and stir.

2) Add can of diced tomatoes (do not drain) and tomato puree. Turn up heat and when it boils, stir and turn heat down to a low simmer. Cook sauce for 20 minutes, letting the mixture "cook down" and reduce so that sauce is quite thick. During this time, stir occasionally so that sauce doesn't burn. Also, start boiling water for the penne pasta.

3) Once sauce is very thick, add vodka, turn up heat a bit and stir through. After 5 minutes of cooking (and steaming the vodka out), add heavy cream. Meanwhile, start cooking the penne pasta.

4) Lower heat and let the flavours of the sauce mix together. While the sauce is cooking, add the sliced mushrooms.

5) Once mushrooms have reduced in size and are cooked, add some chili pepper flakes and salt to taste.

6) Serve over penne pasta with grated cheese.

- Basil is optional. If you do use it, use fresh or frozen. Don't bother with dried basil as most dried herbs do not have a lot of flavour. Also if your child doesn't like "green things" in his/her food, I would skip it. 

- Diced tomatoes - It is important to use "diced" tomatoes as they add texture to the sauce.

- Heavy cream - you could make it lighter by using 1/2 & 1/2 or evaporated milk. I prefer the rich taste of heavy cream.

- Mushrooms are optional.

- Chili pepper flakes are optional but I really like them as they give a little "kick" to the sauce. Add more or less depending on your spice tolerance.

- This sauce is rich. I serve it as a main course or it is also good as a side dish with meat or salmon.

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