Sunday, 28 July 2013

Stir-fry ~ a meal in a pan

This version of a stir-fry meal is a popular one in our household: it's tasty, nourishing and simple to prepare.  How closely it resembles other people's stir-frys I don't know, but it works for us so here it is:

Preparation time - about a quarter of an hour.
Cooking time - about a quarter of an hour.

I start by assembling a selection of ingredients and then chop the vegetables.  It really doesn't matter what vegetables are used - our stir-frys vary depending on the season and what happens to be in the pantry.  Below you can see tofu, carrots, cabbage, onion, mushrooms, frozen peas, and on the small saucer garlic and fresh ginger. The five larger dishes are dessert plates.

I took this photo when I was preparing a meal for two of us recently.

Here is a more exact description of the ingredients and what I did with them, but three steps come first:
(1) In one cup:
  • Soy sauce - about a tablespoon 
    • I didn't have any on this occasion, so I substituted a teaspoon of Vegemite
  • Mix either of these ingredients into about half a cup of hot water
(2) In another cup
  • Cornflour - 1 tablespoon 
  • Mix with half a cup of cold water (cold so that it doesn't go lumpy)
Set these to one side.

(3) Boil a kettleful of water so that you have plenty of hot water for your rice or pasta.

And now for the main part:
Put a couple of tablespoons of oil into a large frying pan and heat slightly before using it to saute (lightly fry) the...
  • Onion - 1 - chopped
  • Garlic - 1 - 2 cloves - finely chopped
  • Ginger, fresh, if you have it - about a teaspoonful finely chopped
Add to it and cook until lightly softened
  • Mushroom, button - a few medium-sized
Now add
  • Carrot - 1 - cut to your preferred size and shape.
  • Peas, frozen - about two thirds of a cup
  • Cabbage -  enough for the two of you
Turn all this over in the pan briefly to combine everything and then...

Add the soy sauce and hot water as prepared above.  You'll probably need more water - just enough water to cover the bottom of the pan nicely and provide sufficient steam for the veges to cook but not enough to immerse them.  Put the lid on but keep an eye on it to be sure that it cooks evenly and doesn't catch on the bottom of the pan.

This is a good time to put the pasta or rice on to cook. 

Once the veges begin to soften stir in...
  • Cornflour as prepared above.  You need enough to take up runny liquid and lightly glaze veges.  If it all goes gluggy add a little hot water gradually.
  • Tofu - 200 grams - cut into chunks.  I add the tofu last so that it doesn't go mushy with stirring.  If you don't much care for tofu it's possible that you haven't had the good stuff.  I get mine from Asian Groceries in St Kilda - it is the best I've come across anywhere! 
  • Check the seasoning and add a little more of what you fancy if thre is a need for anything else.  
  • I am, in general, nervous of chilli in any form, but must say that a small amount of chilli sauce can add something special to otherwise rather ordinary flavours.  About half a teaspoon per serving is my upper limit, and please note that this is sauce - not chilli powder, which is more potent.
By the time you've done this the veges are probably done.  I like them best when they are still a little firm, but this is a matter of choice and easy to adjust to suit your preference.  

A word about co-ordinating cooking times for the veges and pasta or rice: I find it's easier to stand the veges for a minute or two rather than the pasta or rice, which really need to be served right away.  

Bingo, you are done!  Here is my meal just before I started.  It was perfectly delicious!  And yes, that's a glass of milk next to it.  When I was growing up we always had a glass of milk with our dinners, but in those days it was a subsidized food and cost four cents a pint.  How fortunate I was!  Those days are long gone, but I still like a glass of milk with my meal. 

The success of this meal depends more on cooking times and seasoning than the choice of ingredients.  Under-seasoned, over-cooked and watery it could only be described as a flop, but get the other factors right and it is very good indeed!

Cooking rice and pasta:
  • The dried pasta shown in the photo above takes 12 minutes to cook, just as it says on the packet.  This means 12 minutes at a brisk boil.  I like to buy this brand as the flour used is described as durum flour, which is the traditional flour used in pasta and is high in protein and low in gluten.  (Maybe all pasta on our supermarket shelves is made from durum wheat - I'll have a closer look next time I go shopping.)
  • Only recently I figured out how much dried pasta to put into the pot: I measure the weight on the scales.  200 - 250 grams is a good amount for two adults. 
  • Adding salt to the boiling pot will flavour your pasta.  I put in about one teaspoon per 100 grams.  Preferences will differ.
  • After you have drained the pasta (I used a sieve) the addition of a dash of oil will prevent it from sticking to itself, although it you serve it all immediately this isn't necessary.
  • White rice takes about the same length of time.  I like the absorption method, which means that by the time the rice is cooked all the water it has cooked in will have been absorbed.   The ratio recommended for this is usually two cups of water to one cup of rice, but as none of my pot lids fit all that well I start with three cups of water to one cup of rice.  One teaspoon of salt per cup of rice works suits my sense of taste.
  • White rice is not as nutritious as wholegrain rice as nourishment contained in the outer fibres has been removed.  I have got out of the way of using it for no good reason.  Wholegrain rice does take longer to cook so its use requires a little more forethought. 

Storing that fresh ginger:
The best way I've found to store this excellent vegetable is in a glass jar in the fridge. 

Fresh ginger isn't as 'hot' as powdered ginger.  It has a somewhat different flavour and adds a certain piquancy to stir frys.  It can also have a transformational effect on lightly cooked cabbage: try a teaspoon or so of it finely chopped, and add with about the same quantity of butter or vegetable oil - delicious!

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Measuring ingredients in the kitchen ~ converting metric, British imperial, and good old cups and spoons

These scales show both metric and British imperial.
A reasonable degree of accuracy in the measurement of ingredients is central to the success of both cooking and baking, but the way that quantities are shown in recipes can lead to  confusion:

Here in New Zealand old recipe books are likely to show quantities in the British imperial measurements of pounds and ounces whereas those that are more recent may be shown exclusively in metric.   

American cookbooks on the other hand, use a different set of measures which, while they resemble the imperial ones, are actually different.  I have not attempted to cover those here as I am not familiar with them.

To confuse things further any of these recipes may include some measures in cupfuls and not give a weight at all.  

This is the reason why (most) of the recipes I share include both metric and imperial measures and often the equivalent in cupfuls.  

But if you are at all adventurous you'll be using a range of recipes from various sources and a sensible set of conversion tables will be just as important in the kitchen as a reliable set of kitchen scales, and standard measuring cups and spoons, in fact I would say more so!   I use mine a lot!

The conversion tables shown below are the ones I have found most useful.  

First and foremost:
  • Metric:  
    • Kilo is shown as 'kg'
    • Gram is shown as 'g'
    • Litre is shown as 'L'
    • Millilitre is shown as 'ml'
  • Imperial: 
    • Pounds are shown as 'lb' (I have no idea why!)
    • Ounces are shown as 'oz' (ditto)
  • Cups are often shown as 'C'
  • Spoons: 
    • Tablespoons  =  Tbsp (note capital 'T')
    • Dessertspoon  =  dsp - although seldom used
    • Teaspoon  =  tsp

Metric and imperial weight: grams and kilos converted to ounces and pounds:
1,000 grams  =  1 kilogram   =  2 pounds, 4 ounces.

This quick reference chart which was printed in old editions of 'Edmonds' will help you work out what you need in the simplest possible terms.  These are approximate as strictly speaking 1 ounce equals 28 grams, rather than the 25 grams shown below.  A better more closely approximate step for the 1 - 4 oz amounts would be 30 grams - refer to my figures in brackets below!
  • 1 oz  =  25 g  (or 30 g)
  • 2 oz   =  50 g  (or 60 g)
  • 3 oz  =  75 g  (or 90 g)
  • 4 oz  = 125 g  =  A quarter of a pound.  Note the uneven increment between 3 oz and this one! 
  • 5 oz  = 150 g
  • 6 oz  = 175 g
  • 7 oz  =  200 g
  • 8 oz  =  225 g  =  Half a pound
  • 9 oz  =  250 g
  • 10 oz  =  275 g
  • 11 oz  =  275 g
  • 12 oz  =  350 g  =  Three quarters of a pound
  • 13 oz  =  375 g
  • 14 oz  =  400 g
  • 15 oz  =  450 g
  • 16 oz  =  500 g  =  Approximately 1 pound.

Measuring weight using cups and spoons:
Note: the old standard imperial cup has a slightly smaller in capacity than the new standard metric cup - as noted below in the section about liquid measurements.  As far as I know measurements by the spoonful have remained the same.  

This chart (a selection from 'Edmonds') provides a useful rule of thumb for measuring a range of ingredients:
The weight of ingredients varies greatly and for this reason the amount per cup or spoonful also varies.  Measurements given are for level cups and spoons.
  • Breadcrumbs, dry... 1 cup  =  125 g  /  4 oz
  • Breadcrumbs, fresh... 1 cup  =  50 g  /  2 oz
  • Butter... 2 Tbsp  =  25 g  /  1 oz
  • Cheese, grated... 1 cup  =  75-90 g  /  3 oz  (weight amended!)
  • Coconut... 1 cup  =  125 g  /  4 oz
  • Cornflour... 2 Tbsp  =  25 g  / 1 oz
  • Dried fruit such as sultanas and currants... 1 cup  =  175 g  /  6 oz
  • Flour, both white and wholemeal... 1 cup  =  125 g  /  4 oz
    • Flour does vary in weight
  • Flour... 4 Tbsp  =  25 g / 1 oz
  • Golden syrup... 1 Tbsp  =  25 g  /  1 oz   
  • Icing sugar... 1 cup  =  150 g  /  5 oz
  • Salt... 1 Tbsp  =  25 g  /  1 oz
  • Sugar... 1 cup  =  225 g  /  8 oz
  • Sugar... 2 Tbsp  =  25 g  /  1 oz

Metric liquid volumes - litres to imperial measures:
1 litre  =  approximately 2 pints
1 litre  =  1,000 millilitres

Metric cups and spoons:
1 metric cup  = 250 ml
1 tablespoon  =  15 ml
     Old imperial measure of 2 Tbsp  =  1 oz  /  25 grams 
1 dessertspoon  =  10 ml
1 teaspoon  = 5 ml.

The old imperial cup is just a little smaller:
1 standard imperial cup  =  8 fluid ounce capacity, which is 225 ml.

Somehow I have acquired two sets of scales over the years, which are quite different from each other.  Both were acquired second hand.   Both work without batteries - a basic prerequisite for me as I destest buying batteries and avoid the need to do so where ever possible.  Neither is completely accurate, as I've found when adding small amounts, say of butter, to small amounts which are already on the measuring tray.  This has become apparant on some occasions when I have realised that the quantity seems rather more that I would have expected: taking all the ingredient off and then putting it back on showed a different amount.  But on the whole they are excellent. 

Measuring cups: 
I bought my unremarkable set long ago.  I avoid plastic wherever possible, so these are metal which I much prefer.  I could have made do with a single china cup but this set was inexpensive and the range of sizes, four of them ranging from a full cup down to a quarter of a cup, make measuring that bit easier. 

Measuring spoons: 
Again these were inexpensive, and are made of metal.  I got my present set just recently and had to make a big effort to find a set made in metal.  Most in the shops at the moment are plastic which I had set my mind against as part of my long term strategy to rid my household of this non-biodgradable material.  These ones were about the same price - inexpensive, and will probably last for decades, so thank you, New World Supermarket!  As with the measuring cups I could manage without them, but they make accurate measuring that much easier.   

Happy measuring! 

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Moana Pool ~ swim away those winter blues ~ get in and get going!

That swimming could be fun in the depths of winter came as a complete surprise to me.  I hadn't swum in an indoor pool for years.  There was a time when I did so fairly often but that was long ago and it was only by chance that I ended up taking the plunge once more.

It came about when my blind friend Richard was gifted ten swimming lessons at Dunedin's Moana Pool.  I was delighted for him as I knew he had long wanted to learn, but when he asked me to accompany him as a helper I was less than enthusiastic, my response being one of lagging agreement rather than leaping at the opportunity.  I'm so glad I did!  

Even so, I had no intention of getting into the water - that was for the coach to do, or so I thought, but after having looked on from the side of the pool for that first half hour I felt just a little bit left out.  Here is coach Jeffery Calder, in the water with Richard helping him work things out:

The atmosphere inside the pool complex is light, airy and lively, and the water always looks inviting; lots of other people were in the water and active.  In the above image I captured a moment all the other swimmers was elsewhere, but there were plenty of people about, both in this pool and the other ones:  

Privately I had considered how self-conscious I might feel parading about in a close equivalent to underwear - I've got a bit heavier over the years, but looking around I decided that if other people could assume nonchalance, I could too.  Anyway it's not a fashion contest, and to hang back would have been to miss an important opportunity.

Much more importantly I could see that if Richard was to get the maximum out of his lessons he would need to put in some practice in between them, and on those occasions he would need someone in the water to provide a modicum of assistance.  (Me?!).  His coach readily agreed, and I was pleased to learn that as Richard's helper I would get in for free, an unexpected plus.  

Back home I rummaged through drawers to find ancient togs!  Once found they seemed okay.  Miraculously I was still able to get into them.  My decision to risk it gained conviction!

Next time we went to the pool I felt pleasant anticipation, which, still being wary, I carefully concealed.  

I needn't have worried: climbing down into the comfortably warm pool, pushing off from the side, and feeling the buoyancy of the water felt good as ever.  It all came back.  I swam back and forth from one end to the other ahead of, or sometimes behind Richard, plowing along with more or less competent strokes - and enjoyed myself.   

Richard's coach Jeffery Calder, has been great!  Each time we go we get more out of it.  Richard has responded well to the coach's skilful and patient direction and improves with each lesson, and I am getting in plenty of practice - bravo, and ever so many thanks!

The dreary wet winter weather of recent months has been decidedly depressing, and I know others who have felt the same.  Getting out has seemed difficult and often not that enjoyable, and my usual interests have palled.  Having made a commitment to go swimming twice a week has certainly lifted my spirits.

I do encourage others to give it a go.  Swimming seems to be a lot like dancing: there is no age limit and everyone can choose their own level: those that can't swim at all can still enjoy the smaller shallower pools, or have fun on the water slides, and those who want to swim lengths can do so in lanes set aside for this purpose. There is also a gym as well as a spa pool.  A range of fees apply depending on usage.

Swimming can provide a good outlet for those with disabilities.  Being acquainted with a range of people who are disabled in one way or another I know that it can often be difficult to get suitable exercise.  At the complex there are plenty of pool attendants to ensure that swimmers are safe, and a chair hoist is available for those who are unable to manage the usual steps into the pools.

On the occasion of my first visit I saw this hoist being used to help a severely disabled person into the pool.  It took the combined efforts of the person's carer as well as a pool attendant some time to do so.  It wasn't easy but it worked.  A floatation device was then used to support the disabled person in the water.  I was full of admiration - what pluck and determination!   I imagined what a freeing sensation being in the water must have been for that man!  I award a bouquet to the pool people for providing that facility, and an even bigger bouquet to the carer, whose efforts were inspiring.

Be aware that carers of disabled people get in free if their assistance is needed.  This is great, as it makes it that much easier for disabled people to ask a carer to accompany them.   

Another good accommodation provided is the changing room set aside for the use of disabled people - it's part of the group of family changing rooms.  It is fairly spacious and sensibly includes a toilet.  You'll need to ask for the key.  Belongings can't be left in the changing rooms though, so be prepared to shell out for a locker for valuables.  However, cubby holes within sight of the pools are also provided and these are free of charge. 

There is no need to fear that you might get cold: the water temperature is set at 28 degrees Celsius.  Richard and I compared notes and agreed that it felt more like 18 degrees which may indicate that we sense the temperature of water differently to that of air, but were none the less quite comfortable.  The air temperature is also very mild.  
Moana Pool is operated by the Dunedin City Council.  Within the complex there are a number of pools to choose from, from paddling and swirl pools for the youngsters to water slides as well as the big Olympic sized pool which is at present divided into two by a movable bulkhead.

The cost is modest as can be see on these schedules:
The location is a big chunky building on Littlebourne Road where it intersects with Stuart Street on the north western corner.  Free parking can be found around the corner off Littlebourne Road.

International swimming champion Danyon Loader has had a lengthy association with the pool, and is honoured by one of the big pools being named after him, I'm not sure which one.  I remember how media-shy he was as a young man and what a surprise it was to see him participating in the television show 'Dancing with the Stars'  I remember being captivated by the distinctive fluidity of his dancing, which I didn't see in any of the other dancers, no matter how accomplished they were.  He was so graceful, no doubt a result of how his muscles had become conditioned to moving through water. 

This remarkable video of 'The Presets' song "Ghosts" features a number of divers who show comparable gracefulness.  To me they look like birds!  And I do like the song!

And lastly, from the sublime back to the mundane: a little show-and-tell about my togs bag:  regular readers will be familiar with my earlier articles about giving up the use of plastic bags, the links to which can be found in this article:
I have more to write about this important topic but in the meantime here are two photos of the bag I made for the purpose of carrying wet gear.  

I purchased the material for it at 'Spotlight'.  It is called 'parker nylon' and cost $10 a metre.  One metre was enough to make three bags across the width.  I chose this bright yellow so I can easily find the bag in the back of the cupboard.  

Tip: an easy way to check the degree of waterproofing is to place the material against your lips and see if you can blow through it.  If you can't blow through it at all, it's likely to be waterproof.

The construction couldn't be simpler: 
  • It's cut from a single piece with the handles cut on the fold so these have no joins.
  • Construction is created by a single seam: down one side, along the bottom and up the other side
  • All the edges are neatened with a simple zigzag stitch. 
  • Note: it's easier if you zigzag the edges around the top and the handles before you do the side seams.  
If this works for you, remember that you read about it here first, because yes, the design is original.


Footnote: information on the Moana Pool website is good on the whole but there are areas which could be improved: 
  • There is no address given
  • Old job advertisements for swimming coaches from the beginning of the year are surely well out of date.  
  • I do think too, that a few photographs of the pools and environs would do much to encourage prospective swimmers.