Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Australian Bushfires and Berry Crumble Muffins

I had written a blog on a different topic but I'll save that one for another time since there are bushfires burning out of control in New South Wales, the state I live in. Growing up in New York State and later living in northern California, I didn't  have to worry about bushfires. Fires happened in other parts of California and in other states far away. Since they were not a concern of my daily living, I was not very concerned with them. This is sad but true and not surprising as we are all so busy putting out our own "fires" everyday.

This year has been the sunniest and nicest weather since we moved down under almost 4 years ago. I'd been hearing about bushfires on the news but again they weren't nearby so they didn't feel tangible to me. That was until last week when the air looked gray, brown and smoggy. It was a very hot day with lots of hot blustery wind. I'd closed the windows in the house to keep the heat out. When I went upstairs, I smelled smoke. I ran to all the bedrooms, thinking there might be a fire somewhere in the house. No fire, thank goodness. I then entered my bathroom, which was the only room with the windows open. There was the smoky smell and ashes in the bathroom sink. The ashes in the sink really threw me for a loop and the reality of bushfires then hit home. It turns out the fires were over 1+ hour away but the winds were so strong that they were blowing smoke and soot across Sydney. Outside, the air was thick with smoke and some ash flurries floated by. The sky looked very scary and ominous, like something out of a doomsday movie.

eerie view out my window

Smoke from bushfires fill the sky over the city in Sydney
Smoke haze over Sydney, www.abc.net.au
Luckily, I live on the coast and I am not in the same danger as dry inland areas. However, we do live near several wooded parks, that if they caught on fire, could cause damage to the area. In doing some research, bushfires are a way of life in Australia. In fact the Australian National Geographic journal states that fire has an integral role to play in organising vegetation, biodiversity, and other functions of the Australian landscape. The probability that a bush fire may occur, is dependent on a variety of environmental factors. In the central grasslands and tropical savannahs, excessive rain brings growth of new plants and grasses. When the weather turns drier and the plants die back, there is much fodder for a fire. Sydney is in the eastern coast of Australia and only prone to bushfires during periods of drought. Since I've lived here, there has been some variation of El Nino, El Nina or some other Mexican cousin so bushfires have not been a concern. This year, 2013, has been a lovely, sunny and generally dry year. With less rain, the vegetation is now dried out and we have had many hot very windy days which have led to fires.

To better alert the country to fire dangers, a standardised Fire Danger Rating was adopted by all Australian states in 2009. During the fire season the Bureau of Meteorology provides fire weather forecasts and makes predictions based on temperature, relative humidity, wind speed and dryness of vegetation. From this, fire agencies determine the appropriate Fire Danger Rating. They are a feature of weather forecasts are broadcast via newspapers, radio, TV, internet and on roads.
As I typed this, I just checked Yahoo! news and there are 62 fires burning across New South Wales with 13 of them uncontained. The Premier has declared a state of emergency. In the Blue Mountains, which is about 2+ hours away, there are 2 fires burning in separate areas but the firefighters fear they might merge and join one giant fire due the dry, windy conditions. The fires are being fought by the NSW Rural Fire Service a mostly volunteer group of firefighters. Tony Abbott, the new Prime Minister, is a member of the volunteer group and has been surveying the fires and helping to fight them. What a great photo op for a politician, eh?
Prime Minister, Tony Abbott  www.dailytelegraph.com.au
With little rain predicted and unpredictable fires, I am somehow optimistically hoping these fires go away. The destruction and loss of people, wildlife and property is really depressing. I can't imagine losing my family, dog, house, car, land, etc. to a fire. The summer hasn't even started so it looks like there may be dire times ahead. I am hoping one of the Mexican weather patterns come back....fast.
Well a (depressing) blog about fire should have a hot and spicy dish. Unfortunately, I don't have one as my family likes quite mild food. I do enjoy spicy food, especially hot Thai and Asian dishes. I've noticed when I go out to a restaurant and eat a spicy Asian dish lately, that I get really bad headaches. I think that I may have a MSG allergy. I now turn over most packaged food to see if they have any foods with a 600+ number as these numbers are flavour enhancers and MSG related. In looking more closely at ingredients, I have been shocked to see how many food products are just full of all different numbers and colours; very processed. Because of this, I have started to cook more homemade, wholesome goodies for my daughters. One new recipe that is popular in our household is Berry Crumble Muffins. They are healthy, wholesome and easy to make. 

Berry Crumble Muffins

2.5 cups of Self-Raising Flour

1 cup Brown Sugar, packed

2 Eggs

7 tablespoons/100grams Butter, melted

1 cup Buttermilk (*see notes*)

2 teaspoons Vanilla Extract/Essence

1 heaping cup of Frozen or Fresh Berries (*see notes*)

3 tablespoons Butter
4 tablespoons Flour
3 tablespoons Sugar
2 tablespoons Oats
1 teaspoon cinnamon

1) Preheat oven to 190C/375F. Melt butter in microwave and let cool slightly.

2) In medium bowl, mix together dry ingredients: flour and sugar. Use a fork to break up any clumps in brown sugar.

3)  In another bowl, mix eggs, buttermilk and vanilla extract/essence together.

4) Once liquid is mixed through, add melted butter and stir through.

5) Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and mix through with a spatula, scraping any flour bits on the side and bottom of bowl.

6) Add berries and gently stir through, just blending. Batter will be very thick, which is ok. Don't not overmix as overmixing results in denser, tougher muffins.

7) Grease 12-hole muffin pan or use paper liners. Use ice cream scooper or spoon and fill each cup 3/4 of the way full.

8) Once tray is full, make crumble topping. Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and knead together with your hands into a crumb mixture.

9) Sprinkle crumb mixture on top of muffin batter and put tray into oven.

10) Cook for 20-22 minutes.

~ Frozen berries work well as they don't "run" and discolour the batter like fresh ones do. They are also available all year round There is no need to thaw frozen berries before using for this recipe. Simply add frozen berries directly to the muffin batter.

~ Be sure to mix by hand for better texture and height to your muffin.
~ If you don't have buttermilk on hand, you can add 1 tsp of vinegar OR lemon juice to 1 cup of milk and let it sit out for at least 30 minutes before using. You can also use plain yogurt as a substitution for buttermilk.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

International Fleet Review and Not-so-Fishy Curry

It is early October, the sun is shining, the flowers are blooming and the birds are singing louder than normal. October...spring...what?! We've almost been here 4 years and yet the seasons and months of the southern hemisphere still confuse me. I look like such an idiot when I'm at the post office in the middle of the afternoon and not only do I ask the lady at the counter what day it is but also what month. Spring in October - well, what do you know? October was my favourite month growing up in northeastern US. The air was crisp, football was on TV, school tennis was in full swing, the leaves were turning lovely colours, and the holiday season was on its' way with Halloween kicking it off on October 31. Here it is quite the opposite and I am not sure I will ever adjust to these opposite seasons.

I like October so much that my husband and I got married in October. For this anniversary, we went away for the weekend on our own. We wanted to go inland to Mudgee or somewhere coastal but everything was sold out for the long Labour Day weekend here. We ended up taking a short drive into downtown Sydney and staying there. Both of us were a bit disappointed to go away so close to home. However, we had a great time eating, drinking, sightseeing, shopping and relaxing. It is fun to be a tourist in your own city and go see the sights you don't make time to see as a local. The highlight of the weekend was the International Fleet Review.

I had not heard heard about the International Fleet Review but it has been in the making for the past 2 years. The original Fleet Review started hundreds of years ago when Henry V of England wanted to see all his ships before they went off to battle. Since then, there have been fleet reviews throughout the world when a country's ships assemble for war or to show their united strength to their enemies.  This International Fleet Review was to celebrate 100 years since the first Royal Australian Navy ships arrived in Sydney. There were 40 warships, 16 tall ships and 8000 sailors in Sydney for events lasting 9 days. More than 20 nations, including the US, sent ships and Navy personnel to participate. Yes, it was a mob scene! They estimated that 1.6 million people were in Sydney CBD over the course of the weekend. Can you say, 'crazy'?
Crowded: A wave of people pack the foreshore to view the fleet of ships
Luckily, even though there were crowds of people, the warships and boats were scattered in the harbour so if the Opera House, Circular Quay, Rocks, Harbour Bridge areas were too crowded you could walk to another area of the city and look out on the water and see boats. After braving the crowds and security check at the Sydney Opera House, Derek and I walked to nearby  Woolloomooloo (yes, that is the name of a hip, Sydney suburb. It is linked to two Aboriginal names meaning, "young black kangaroo" and "burial place". Thanks wikipedia.org) and enjoyed a great aerial plane shows. For me, the warships and tall ships were nice but the aerial displays were awesome!

A guest at the event was Prince Harry. This was the Princes' first official trip to Australia representing the royal family. Australia is a constitutional monarchy with the Queen serving mostly as a figurehead to the government. There are mixed emotions regarding the attachment of England to Australia but most people here seem fascinated by the royal family. They are in the news and magazines here a lot more than in the US. I was fortunate to see Prince Harry by sheer accident when trying to enter the Hotel Shangri-Lai. We were heading up to see the fireworks display at the hotel bar on the 36th floor that has amazing views of the city. We were stopped by police and told to wait as a VIP ('I can't say who but you'll know soon') was coming in. When he did arrive, I was amazed by the amount of police and security. I would have only thought the Queen would receive that much security. Poor Harry! It's no wonder he is a bit of a crazy boy sometimes; he's got to let his hair down when he can. It was exciting to see him and then go up to the bar for an excellent panoramic view of the fireworks. THE FIREWORKS WERE AMAZING!!! Sydney is known for its' New Years' Eve fireworks but the International Fleet Review fireworks were special because the fireworks were shot off 13 different Navy boats in the Harbour. So, instead of most of the fireworks being over the Harbour Bridge and Opera House on New Years, the fireworks were scattered throughout the Harbour. It was truly an awesome sight to see and I was glad we were high up in the hotel so we had a great panoramic view.
Australian Royal Navy 
Fireworks light up the International Fleet Review in Sydney Harbour.
With the Navy and boats, I am compelled to have a fish dish for this blog. I have chosen my Not-so-Fishy Curry. This is a mild Indian Curry that is fast & easy to make and a general crowd pleaser. You can also use frozen white fish to make it which makes it more economical than buying expensive fresh fish. Even my youngest daughter, who is a picky eater, likes this dinner. That says a lot as she would ideally like to eat like a 3 year old - bread, chicken nuggets, pasta, string cheese, sausages. She does not eat fish normally but will eat this fish curry. Give it a go!

Not-so-Fishy Curry

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large brown onion, chopped

1 tablespoon mild curry powder

2 tablespoons tomato paste

270ml/9oz can can light coconut cream or milk
(I prefer coconut cream over coconut milk as it is thicker and richer)

400g/14oz can of chopped tomatoes

800g/1.7 lbs of frozen Basa fish (any light, white fish can be used)

Steamed Rice

1) Start cooking rice.

2) Since this is a curry, you can use frozen fish. Thaw out fish and cut into chunks.

3) In large saucepan, heat olive oil and cook onion for 2 minutes until slightly softened. Add curry powder and cook until onion is soft. Stir in tomato paste.

4) Add coconut cream and chopped tomatoes.

5) Add fish pieces and let cook on low simmer for 15-20 minutes.

6) Serve over rice. 

Special design for SuzyQ Under Down by GeCe