Sunday 29 June 2008

Airport Novels and Comfort Food

I spent last week in Darwin and was glad to get home. I didn’t eat as badly as I sometimes do when away from home but it is nothing like eating home-cooking. I had Thai stirfry on the Wharf one night, vegies and tinned soup in my room another and the hotel’s pizza on the last night. But the culinary highlight had to be the warm choc chip scones with jam and cream which we had for morning tea both days of our meeting.

Flying to Darwin, I did what I think is a first for me. I bought a novel at Melbourne airport and finished reading it just before the plane landed in Darwin. Not bad for about four and a half hours of flying plus sitting around in airports. (These days it is difficult to get a direct flight from Melbourne to Darwin unless you want to fly overnight.) I enjoyed escaping from the people with no idea of personal space, the chirpy air stewards, the bad food and the anticipation of a few nights staying at the airport hotel for a planning meeting. It made me realise why people buy novels at airports.

The book was one I found on the new releases shelf and had never heard of before. It is called Before I Wake and is the first novel by Canadian writer, RJ Wiersema. The novel is about a little girl in a coma whose parents make the difficult decision to turn off the life support but she continues to live while not waking from the coma. It is an engrossing story about how this affects the lives of those around her. I don’t think it is spoiling the story to reveal that it has some great scenes in a library (I was going to link to Amazon but I think their review does give away too much). The role of the media in the plot is interesting and I liked the touches of both magical realism and myth.

I particularly liked the description of the couple cooking together so I copied it before I passed the book to my mum to read. It makes such an everyday act seem full of beauty and meaning:

Simon was chopping vegetables on a maple block on the kitchen table when I got there, carrots falling under a large chef’s knife, a tea towel draped over one shoulder. The kitchen was bright and clean, large and well organized. Karen was at the stove with a wok. …

As Simon finished chopping the carrots and swung toward the stove, Karen stepped away, leaving a space between her body and the wok, allowing him to slide the cutting board through and to empty the carrots in, never breaking Karen’s stirring. It was a dance between two people who had been partners for years.
(pp 131-2)

I also noticed that macaroni cheese is one of the comfort foods mentioned in the book. Lately E and I have discussed how his mum would make it for him as a child. It was not part of my childhood but I understand the attraction and it was on my mind when I got back to my own kitchen.

I have made some fancy versions of macaroni cheese but it is not something I make often. Many months ago I bookmarked a vegan macaroni cheese from Get Sconed. I have been curious to make a vegan version and was then further tempted by a vegan and gluten free sauce for macaroni cheese in the June 2008 edition of the Vegetarian Times. Then I got honest with myself and admitted I wanted the comfort of being at home. I needed something cheesy with a crispy breadcrumb topping after my body was dragged from Darwin’s tropical warmth (32 C) to Melbourne’s winter (17 C).

I didn’t follow a recipe but just made a rich cheesy sauce, tossed with cooked pasta and topped it with more cheese and breadcrumbs. I baked it till it was crisp on top and oozing rich sauce inside. We agreed it was one of my best, despite not being what E's mum used to make. I have written what I did, though I know others all have their own versions of this classic and if I made it again I might make it differently. My use of dessertspoons and dessert bowls is included in the instructions to remind us that it is not a meal where exact measurements matter. (To see my photo of a dessertspoon, go here.)

But while I love the indulgent comfort of macaroni cheese, I also craved some nice vegetables after my trip away. The first night I served it I tried a salad of grated carrot and mushy apple that was a disaster so the second night I found a recipe for a cauliflower and pecan salad that caught my eye last year. But after the wonderful description of chopping carrot in the novel, I had to have carrots. I also wanted to showcase my black sesame seeds and use up vegetables in the fridge.

By the time I finished my vision of the salad the only thing it had in common with the inspiring recipe was the cauliflower. I realised it was my own recipe, probably drawing on other recipes I have read and made. Tahini is a favourite flavouring of mine and always pairs well with cauliflower. I used limes from Yaz's tree that I think are quite tart so others might not need as much sweetner as me. It was exactly the pile of healthy vegetables with an interesting dressing that I needed.

I wanted to send something to Heart of the Matter. This event is being hosted by Ilva of Lucillian Delights this month and she is asking for healthy salads, so my salad seemed perfect. And because it has been a while since I have participated, I am sending the Macaroni Cheese to Ruth at Once Upon a Feast for Presto Pasta Nights.

Macaroni Cheese
Serves 4

1 dessert bowl of dried pasta
2 dessertspoons of butter
2 dessertspoons of wholemeal flour
2 cups milk
1 tsp seeded mustard
¼ tsp smoked paprika
¼ tsp turmeric or saffron (for added colour)
50g gruyere cheese, grated
165g tasty cheese, grated
1-2 tbsp breadcrumbs
1-2 tbsp parmesan cheese, grated

Cook pasta according to instructions.

Melt butter in a medium saucepan over low heat. Mix in flour and stir over low heat for 1-2 minutes. Add milk gradually, mixing as you add it. Bring to the boil so that the roux thickens slightly. It does not need to be really thick because the cheese will help it thicken. Add mustard, paprika, turmeric, gruyere and tasty cheeses. Stir in cooked pasta.

Tip mixture into a 20cm diameter round ovenproof dish. Sprinkle with parmesan and breadcrumbs. Bake at 200 C for about 20 minutes and then turn up the heat to 230 C for about 10 minutes or til the top is crisp and starting to brown.

Cauliflower and Sesame Salad
Serves 2 hungry people or 4 normal people as a side

½ cauliflower
1 carrot, chopped into matchsticks
1 spring onion, finely sliced
1 small tomato, diced
1-2 handfuls spinach, shredded
2 tbsp parsley, finely chopped
1 mild green chilli, finely chopped
1 tsp dried garlic flakes
1 tbsp pumpkin seeds
1 tsp white sesame seeds
1 tsp black sesame seeds (or more white seeds)
Extra black sesame seeds for garnish

1½ tbsp lime juice
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp cider vinegar
1 tbsp tahini
1-2 tsp agave nectar (or other sweeter)
1 tsp seeded mustard
Pinch salt

To make dressing: use a small whisk to blend all ingredients or use blender.

To make salad: chop cauliflower into florets and steam til just tender. I did mine in the microwave for about 3 minutes on high. Cool if desired or use warm. Add remaining ingredients and toss through with dressing. Garnish with black sesame seeds if desired.

On the Stereo:
New Gold Dream: Simple Minds


  1. I have also been thinking about Macaroni and Cheese too lately - although here it is the entirely WRONG season for it! LOL!

    What in the world would we do without books? If I don't have a book to read, I get desperate! I always need to have a stack lying around!

  2. Macaroni cheese is the *best* comforting welcome home food! I haven't had it in ages but I do love it. I've forgotten if I've already recommended Delia Smith's souffleed macaroni cheese (the recipe's on deliaonline). It's a little bit more effort, but very good.

    Glad you had a good homecoming anyway, and that you can make up for the dull work trip food!

  3. Well it's always good to be back home :). The warm choc chip scone sounded delicious though.
    Love you cauliflower salad! I could eat it as a meal in itself. There's something about fresh veggies and fruit on a hot summer day.

  4. Everyone seems to be making macaroni cheese at the moment, have you ever made a stilton version? It is perfection!

    I am meaning make a vegan version with lots of nutritional yeast (my most recent addiction) soon.

  5. thanks Jenn - stacks of books around the house waiting to be read are comforting - somewhere to keep them would be great too :-)

    thanks Lysy - I used to beg my housemates to make cheese sauce without eggs so am not sure about the sound of souffled macaroni cheese - although it would have to be better than airport and hotel food

    thanks Lore - yes the salad was virtually a meal - I would probably need a slice of bread with it but it was fairly substantial - and cauliflower is one of the vegetables that feel right in winter as well as summer!

    thanks Hippolyra - macaroni cheese with stilton sounds intense - would be game to try it though - and am also intrigued by nutritional yeast flakes - have tried them in vegan cheese sauces but not in macaroni and cheese - but I mean to so will be interested to see how you do it!

  6. I know what you mean - when you are away from home it can be really hard to eat well. I love the colours here - I bet you really got your vitamins!

  7. Hope you had a good trip and welcome back! I love the sound of that salad. And the book sounds lovely--I don't read enough Canadian literature, actually. (And of course, how could I resist when that description sounds exactly like the HH and me in the kitchen? ;)

  8. Hey, I just got back from Darwin as well. It is quite surprising there. Did you manage to check out all the hawker food at the markets? also, you wouldnt have happened to be at lichfield for the solstice party?

  9. given that it's a perfectly dreary - cold and damp day here in Halifax, it's a perfect dish.

    Thanks for sharing with Presto Pasta Night.

  10. Gorgeous salad - how'd I miss this one.
    Love that dressing and cauliflower is something we really enjoy and I always am looking for new ways with. This is great.

  11. thanks Helen - yes it is always nice to have some healthy food after being away

    thanks Ricki - that's lovely if you are able to cook like that with HH - with E and I in the kitchen it is more like he is trying to get to the kettle for a cuppa while I try to cook :-)

    thanks Bunches - didn't have time for the markets this trip but the mindl beach market in the dry season is pretty amazing

    thanks Ruth - a dreary summer day is in double need of comfort food

  12. Thanks Tanna - I am always happy to discover new ways with cauliflower too - such a wonderfully intense vegetable


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