Eating meat off the bone

Hello! A little something I wrote for Gourmet Traveller about eating meat off the bone.

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When I first met my partner, I hid it, of course. It was only when he was out watering the orchids or flossing his teeth that I could do it – quickly, furtively.

Despite that, though, fairly early on I was outed. After volunteering to make pea and ham soup, I was caught in flagrante delicto with the ham hock. Oh the shock. The shame. The gristle.

So let me state my truth: I am an avid eater of meat off the bone. And when I say avid, I mean I go at it like Henry VIII cross-bred with a Neanderthal. It’s not just the meat: it’s the cartilage, the tendon, the bone, the marrow… there is nothing I won’t gruntily tackle. Cutlery, you venture? Just not effective in those hard-to-reach crevices, and inevitably I’m left despairing at all the wasted meat that I know could be hoovered up in one fell suck.

Eating meat off the bone is ugly; it can’t be prettied up or Photoshopped. There’s nothing worse than being presented with a quail leg at a cocktail party and – whilst holding a drink, napkin and clutch bag – doing it justice whilst discussing #MeToo. (Looking angry at the patriarchy is hard when you have a femur lodged between your front teeth). But in the privacy of your own home and in the safety of your least elasticised tracksuit pants, it is – ask any hyena – a deeply satisfying experience.

Slippery, succulent, flavoursome: the best meat comes from the bone. I come from a long line of bone suckers (Mother more flatteringly describes us as ‘hands on’). The day my partner met the family, my brother was squatting next to the bin chewing on the remains of a lamb leg, his lips shiny with lamby grease.

Then there’s the way Dad ‘carves’ a chicken. While others slice slowly and methodically, Dad dons pink washing up gloves (for heat protection) and starts ripping bits off. Little blobs of chicken juice, gelatine and fat fly in all directions as we hover around like desperate seagulls. Naturally, some meat goes into his trap (third-degree burns guaranteed), then he surveys the pile of glistening chicken, and – like a bouquet-tossing bride – launches a mini drumstick at a lucky bystander.

Many people feel that there’s little return on investment in eating meat off the bone or that carcass-chewing is primitive. My partner’s in the latter camp, though he says it’s actually the noise that drives him to the edge. It’s about nurture not nature isn’t it? Bone foods were an alien concept to him growing up: his dear Mother lovingly tweezered the bones out of his tinned fish until he was well into his thirties.

I can see the logic in being able to slice through your chicken breast with sharpened metal, keep your hands clean and enjoy a solid meat-to-effort ratio. Lust does not blind me to the risk that bone foods present. On several occasions, calcified fragments have wedged themselves into my oesophagus and required some hasty water boarding (the trick is to eat a rolled-up piece of bread with peanut butter, which isn’t easy to prepare when you’ve got sudden-onset brain hypoxia). But I can only conclude that there’s a fine line between pleasure and pain.

My partner is very accepting of my primal ways, and our differences work well. When we roast a chicken, I have a leg, he has a breast and the next night is a happy repeat. The third night, I enjoy two wings and other carcass bits while my partner has a cheddar sandwich (no crusts) in a different room with his headphones on. I no longer need excuse myself to another room to gnaw on a bone; it is he who is the refugee. I’m out – not of the closet, but of the butler’s pantry and I stand by my right to eat a chicken leg proud. And loud

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Too many cooks spoil the broth

Yoo hoo! Something I wrote for Tuesday’s The Age Good Food section. 

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You and your partner have decided to cook together. Bookmarking a recipe for slow-roasted pork belly with Vietnamese slaw, you saunter to the market, envisaging the wonderful evening ahead. Clutching fat wine glasses, you’ll playfully flick each other with tea towels and grate vegetables in perfect harmony.

The evening begins cockily, with a fist bump and a triumphant “Team work!”. Territory is clearly marked: you’re on meat, he’s salads and sauces. Sorted.

Then the kitchen pas de deux commences. You pirouette for the fridge; he’s there. You jete for the pantry; he’s there. Hold on – he’s hogging the best Furi knife and the good chopping board while you’re left with a butter knife and a wobbling plate. As you hack at the pork with your feeble blade and inevitably stab your pinky, you glance at your partner for sympathy. None.

“Gee, I wish I had a better knife…” you sigh, embracing victimhood.

“Yes,” he says slicing a garlic clove with all the urgency of a laid back sloth. “Let’s get one.” Your eyeballs roll.

“What?” he says.

“Nothing,” you huff and pointedly sweep around his feet.

Suddenly everything is getting on your nerves. His sniffing and weird knee caps. The fact he’s managed to use every utensil available. Your clashing clean-as-you-go versus clean-at-the-end ideologies.

Finally, you get some bench space, and as you attend to the pork, you sense humid breath on the back of your neck.

“Is that how you’re doing it?” he asks.

Excusing yourself, you take a toilet (sulking) break and go back to the winter of 2001, when he burnt dinner (kind of), or May 23, 2009, when he described your roast beef as “a bit dry”.

Perched on the porcelain philosopher’s chair, it occurs to you how the vocabulary of cooking is marbled with menace. Beating (eggs), whipping (cream), punching (dough) and bruising (lemongrass) suddenly sound very enticing. When you re-enter the kitchen, seething with hatred, you see it.

Your man. Is manhandling. The meat.

That’s it. You see red: beetroot juice, bleeding steaks and that Italian tomato-throwing festival. There will be blood. You unleash a warrior prayer to your spirit guide, George Foreman, asking not for a healthy lifestyle grill, but for a lethal right hook. In the thundering tones of an exorcist commanding a demon be gone, you cry, “I’m on meat, you’re salads and sauces! Unhand the bloody pork!”.

Scanning the bench for weapons, you see knives and scissors, but opt for a more unconventional attack. You fling a handful of spelt flour at your partner, who, stunned, topples backwards. Finally, clenching two lime cheeks, you spray him with juice and lunge for the pig. Scooping it up, you run into the lounge room shouting “my baby!”, only to skid on a Sichuan peppercorn, sending dinner flying.

Oh dear. Pigs don’t fly.

Sprawled on the carpet beside the fluff-encrusted pork, rational thought makes a belated return.

What a boob you’ve been. What happened to the counsellor’s advice? Compliment, don’t criticise. Why didn’t you say “That cereal looks really on point!” or “You’ve toasted that toast to absolute perfection”. And what about embracing differences? If he wants feta with his pad thai, so be it.

Instead, you tried to kidnap the pig. You poor, hungry fool. Pork not pride.

Surveying the damage it can result in, it’s safe to conclude that cooking with a loved one is as risky as opening a joint bank account, discussing who does more housework or trying to assemble IKEA’s Svalnas wall-mounted workspace together.

If you do decide to collaborate in the kitchen, agreeing to something like a prenup is prudent. Not romantic, no, but putting one in place will help you fairly divide up your assets and could be of great comfort when he kidnaps your Kenwood and goes back to mother.

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How to be a good dinner guest

A little something I wrote for The Age Good Food section.

How to be a good 21st-century dinner guest

Been invited to a dinner party lately? Probably not. In the olden days people threw them with linen napkins, man-woman-man seating arrangements and a proper cheese course. Nowadays it’s all, “Pop over Friday – I’ll cook!” and the host will unfurl some parma ham, open some dip and call it mezze. While today’s dinner gatherings are less formal than those of yore, there’s still a protocol, some elements of which are timeless classics while others are contemporary evolutions. Here’s how to be a good 21st-century dinner guest.

Arrivals

Arriving is important. While this may sound obvious, when you’re on the couch in your booties, Netflix and cheese toast looks very inviting. It would be so easy to hide behind a text message – Hey. soz not feeling well. Won’t make it tonight. Burgers next Fri? – but unless you’ve come down with the plague and have a medical certificate to prove it, once you’ve accepted the invitation attendance is a non-negotiable. Your host has factored you in when buying Phillippa’s herbed spiced mixed nuts ($15.50 per 300g!) and that salmon fillet wasn’t cheap either. Ideally, you’ll be 15 minutes late too, to ensure your host has had ample time to get back from an eleventh-hour bog roll run.

Bring something

“Don’t bring anything” is of course polite for “bring something, and make it something decent”. Flowers? Perhaps, but choose something petite and boxed – your host doesn’t have a bucket big enough to house that triffid-like monstrosity. Good olive oil, honey or wine are practical (and remember the wine is a gift and not to be swigged on the way there or ogled when your own supplies have dwindled). Whatever you bring, just make sure it doesn’t need close attention – like a goldfish or a gluten-intolerant uninvited plus one.

Helping

A good guest offers to help and will ferry plates, get drinks for others and make inoffensive conversation. A bad guest will offer to help, then plonk their Jabba the Hut-like frame in front of the fridge and subject the host to a series of complex open-ended questions.

Your phone

Unless you are on call for a heart transplant or to foil a massive terror plot, leave your phone tucked away. If you start to twitch from withdrawal, don’t try the sneaky phone-in-the-lap swipe – the ghoulish glow on your face is a dead giveaway. Rather, excuse yourself to the bathroom.

You need everyone’s written consent to post their photo online, and passing around permission slips can devastate the ambience. Posting a photo of the Mexican share feast may seem harmless enough, but what if Ethel wasn’t invited and now your host is up sh*t creek? Or you’ve selected the photo in which you’re all cheekbones and white teeth, but Bernadette’s muffin top is hanging out. Perhaps Paul told his partner he was helping out at the local orphanage and there he is shoving quesadillas down his neck. On the other hand, not Instagramming the main course could offend your host. There are booby traps everywhere in the social media landscape – best leave the selfie stick at home.

The food

Say it’s delicious. End of. Sure, your hosts will claim that dinner was no trouble at all, but in reality they are spiritually broken from all the effort of creating an appearance of effortlessness. Try not to look judgmental when the Uber Eats driver arrives at the door or, if your host has accidentally served up the rubber band that trussed the Woolworths roast chicken’s legs together, chew hard, swallow and smile.

Departures

Read the signs: is your host openly yawning and stacking plates? Eyes travelling in a southerly direction toward their watch, or far north at your conversation? If so, that’s your cue to skedaddle.

Say thank you

Text or email a thank you within 24 hours. Try to be specific about the parts you enjoyed. Was it the scintillating company? The after-dinner mints? All the attention when you choked on a pea and had to be resuscitated? Here’s a template:

Dear Mary, Thank you so much for inviting James and me. You have always been an outstanding cook, but you really outdid yourself with the olives. It was great to meet Louise. What a coincidence that she and my James were an item way back in primary school… So sweet. And Meowbert’s attack was far worse than it looked. The doctor says the stitches can come out next week – I just hope you can get the blood stains off the ceiling! Our turn next time! Love, xxx.

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Sorry for being a teenage sloth

The other day I got the call.  Dad was out the front of my workplace with a big cooler bag stuffed full of home-cooked food. Among the containers of braised tofu and stuffed eggplant was an extra treat from Mum: a gingerbread rabbit topped with pink icing.

Me spoilt? Just a little bit. This article I wrote for the Letters Anthology is long overdue.

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Mother, Father – I’m sorry I was such an ungrateful teenage sloth.

As teenagers go I was ok. I said no to drugs and was more interested in homework than shoplifting. However one thing I failed at miserably was parental appreciation. And now it’s time to make amends for this and to say: thank you.

You both worked extremely hard and after a full day of thankless office warfare and a dreary commute home, it must have cheered you to be greeted by “I’m bored/thirsty/hungry” the millisecond you set foot into the house.

My brother and I – teens of leisure that we were – would have spent the afternoon welded to the couch Jabba the Hut-style, watching Bewitched reruns and covered in biscuit crumbs. Without fail, every mug would have been used and your basic instructions ‘6pm turn on oven. 6.15pm – insert lasagna’ would have been ignored.

Despite our lack of domestic initiative, you turned out banquet-style dinners every night. How many chicken fillets and broccoli florets did you chop, marinate and sautée for us only to savage in five seconds of horrifying teenage savagery while you begged us to chew. This feeding frenzy would have been immediately followed up with a ‘what’s for dessert?’ and your answer of ‘fruit’ would have been met with ungracious jeers.

You also put on a hot breakfast every day as you firmly believed this was the route to academic success (it worked for one of us!). Every day we enjoyed chicken noodle soups, French toast, fried rice… Twenty years later, as I poke around my pantry and see half a gherkin and some tumbleweed, I think of those halcyon days when I breakfasted like a queen.

Then there was the chauffeur service. As responsible parents you ferried me to and from every party to protect me from predatory boyfolk (though given my braces and bad skin, the risk was negligible). What a pain it must have been to drive out to a far-flung suburbs at midnight to pick up your sulking daughter. In addition, every journey had at least 30 extra minutes bolted on too. “Can we drop Toby, Sally, Michelle and Peter home?” I’d ask, while all of the above hovered about the car smelling of Lynx deodorant and cheap alcohol.

As the time fast approaches for me to have my first (no doubt angelic and appreciative) child, it causes me to reflect on how grateful I am for my stable suburban upbringing.

While there is no trauma or intriguing bohemian lifestyle to fuel my million dollar book deal, you ensured my brother and I launched into the world over-nourished, optimistic and eager to laugh.

Thank you.

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An image of me on the couch watching Bewitched

How well do you cook with others?

A little while  ago I posted a question to my Facebook friends: ” Keen cooks, what do you argue about with your partner when cooking in the kitchen?”

The results were amusing and illuminating. These were some of the responses.

Mess. I’m a clean as you go type of cook.

“Stir it to the right.” “No!!!!! stir it to the left!” “Alright then, you’re on your own!”

OK, so technically this is after cooking but Sol and I have arguments about the best way to wash dishes. He hates my technique so much that I can only wash dishes when he’s not home

– I would have to say mess! I don’t even know how he does it but there is shit everywhere when rob cooks. And apparently I don’t stack the dishwasher correctly…

This feedback inspired an article I wrote for Gourmet Traveller with my partner Paul. Take the kitchen quiz…

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Quiz: How well do you cook with others?

Cooking solo and cooking with others are two very different matters – and your demeanour in the kitchen can say a lot about you. So, are you a zen-like dream when cooking with your significant other or closer to a raging bull? Take our quiz to find out.

Cooking is an art, and cooking with others – particularly your significant other – is an art form. Sure, the kitchen has the potential to be a little stressy, with all those sharp things, blunt things and naked flames, but by harnessing your Emotional Intelligence, you can ensure that your culinary arena is like the Garden of Eden before all that apple business.

We’ve devised the following quiz to help you measure your kitchen EI: are you the the Gandhi of the grill or the Stalin of the stove?

1. While hovering over you as you prepare snapper fillets, your partner mentions that your previous skin-crisping efforts have been average. Do you:

a. Take their excellent advice to pat the skin dry first.

b. Excuse yourself to the pantry for a 10-minute sob and, when you emerge looking like a rabbit with advanced myxomatosis, claim you’ve been preparing onion confit.

c. Launch a scathing rebuttal that’s ingeniously framed around the time they glanced at the brunette in the supermarket.

2. Your partner is slicing a bocconcini ball with the one good knife, leaving you to hack at a turnip with the butter knife. Do you:

a. Power-walk to the shops for a new knife, taking a detour to get a “We make a great pear”card.

b. Sigh in your partner’s direction and say mournfully, “Gee I wish I had a better knife…”

c. Get the axe from the shed.

3. Your partner’s clean-up-at-the-end-if-ever approach is clashing with your draconian clean-as-you-go philosophy. As the dishes in the sink pile up Jenga-style, do you:

a. Attend to them while trilling “Que sera, sera”.

b. Balance their favourite mug (a gift from their late aunt) precariously on the top of the pile.

c. Vow never to clean a single dish even when, weeks later, you’re forced to drink tap water from your cupped hands.

4. Your partner just pulled off an amazing 10-course degustation. As they dissect the brilliance of each course in forensic detail, do you:

a. Applaud wildly: not many people would carve an Eiffel Tower centrepiece from a cucumber.

b. Repeatedly mention how bang-on your one contribution – vacuuming the hallway – was.

c. Turn up the telly and feign deafness.

5. Your partner has decided that hummus would make a fitting accompaniment to your green curry. Do you:

a. Compliment them on their innovative thinking and reflect that they may be onto something.

b. Roundhouse kick the hummus tub from their hands.

c. Mentally divvy up the white goods in preparation for your impending divorce.

6. You believe that baguettes should be sliced at a 38-degree angle to maximise surface area for buttering. Your partner is cutting at a reckless 45. Do you:

a. Mention that your method yields 15 per cent more Lescure butter per mouthful.

b. Grab the knife and do it yourself while muttering something about paying peanuts and getting monkeys.

c. Demote them from commis chef to waste disposal operative.

RESULTS

If you scored:

Mostly As – Top of the class

You are Personality Type Maggie Beer. Your kitchen EI is as big as a show pumpkin. You play well with others and love feedback (how else does one learn?). Just found out that fifteen vegan coeliacs have turned up unexpectedly for Christmas lunch? Bienvenue, pull up a chair! You’re the harmonious home cook everyone wants to be and be with.

Mostly Bs – Fair effort

You are Personality Type Pete Evans. You have charm and a cool exterior, but the wild look in your eyes gives it all away. While you usually hold it together without medication, an inappropriately julienned carrot or poorly stacked dishwasher can trigger psychosis.

Mostly Cs – Improvement required

You are Personality Type Gordon Ramsay. You’re as welcome in the kitchen as a pregnant cockroach. Screaming is your default mode of communication and your favourite cooking style is back seat. Remember: cooking with your partner is a joy, not Guantanamo’s vilest torture.

http://www.gourmettraveller.com.au/recipes/food-news-features/2018/1/quiz-how-well-do-you-cook-with-others/

P.S Andrea – questions 6 is dedicated to you and your Mum 🙂

Does sleep school for babies work?

Here’s something I wrote for Essential Baby on taking baby to Masada sleep school.
All hail Masada and Nurse Jam – a tough love nurse who turned baby Holly into a sleep champion.

The truth about baby sleep school

I couldn't help wondering, would it work?

Note: this child bears no resemblance to my own

Embarking on eight hours of uninterrupted bliss is one of life’s true pleasures. So when I was pregnant, my thoughts immediately turned to sleep. Or sleeplessness, to be precise.

“How bad is it really?” I asked. Those who had crossed over would look at my well-rested face and shuffle about. “It’s not… so bad,” they lied.

Then baby came. And it was that bad.

Pre-baby, a couple of substandard sleeping nights would leave me feeling rough. Eight months post-baby, and my partner and I had had one night of joined up sleep. The other 240 nights were spent vertical (patting, feeding, co-sleeping, bribing, more feeding, threatening adoption and begging) with a 3 week trip to the UK thrown in to really break us.

While some nights were better (baby only woke twice!) and some outrageous (got 10 minutes sleep last night!), the tiredness compounded and my attempts to get baby to sleep became increasingly irrational. Complex combinations of temperature, light, pyjama gsm, and bed time routines were trialled – if there’s a full moon and she’s seen a marmalade cat that day and there’s a tap dripping in the background, then she’ll sleep – and each proved more ineffective than the last.

One night my partner— too afraid to turn a light on lest baby woke – walked forehead first into a very hard wall. As his brain whirred with concussion, we decided it was time to call sleep school.

After filling out an unreasonable number of forms (an especially onerous task for the knackered), baby and I were headed for a five-night stay at Victoria’s Masada Mother Baby Unit. I was apprehensive. Masada was known for its uncompromising toughness. Would I be allowed to leave the compound? Could I watch The Voice blind auditions? Would they have soy sauce on the premises?

Oh, and would it work?

The first thing I noticed when I entered the hospital were the sea of thank you cards at reception. I stopped to read a few. They were long and gushy. Common phrases jumped out: “got my life back”, “Masada angels”, and “life changing”. I sniffed, it looked like their marketing department had been busy practising their good handwriting.

After unpacking, I explored the ward. Baby – and 19 others – were to sleep in separate rooms. Some were positioned opposite their parent’s room, while others were clustered further away in the “pod”.

Part of Masada’s appeal, I learnt, is that for the first two days and nights, the nurses would be responsible for overseeing baby’s attempted sleeps. If my calculations were correct, if one night of sleep in 9 months was the going rate, then two whole nights would be enough to power me through the next eighteen months!

When it was time to put baby down for her first day sleep I gave her a little pep talk. Yes this was going to be different, I said, but it’s for the greater good. Baby looked at me with impishly; little did she know what was coming. I zipped her into her sleeping bag, said good night and closed the door. This was it kiddo. No more long and convoluted good night routines where I’d sing a Sound of Music medley, read Anna Karenina from cover to cover and say sweet dreams in multiple ASEAN languages. Nope, we were down to “good night”.

The other mothers did the same, and the babies did a collective howl. Twenty mothers wrung their hands, paced outside their baby’s door, looked ashen and fought every primal cave-lady instinct which said: Pick. Up. Baby. But we’d all signed up for the same reason and I told myself to trust in their system.

After the designated screaming (sleeping) time was up, we went in to fetch our babies. I scrutinised baby’s tear-stained face and saw my future very clearly. Yup, I was destined for a budget retirement home.

And so for the first two days and nights, we popped our babies down, said good night and walked away as their little faces crumpled behind us. And I slept for two whole nights in a row.

Despite the unnatural conditions, a lovely camaraderie formed between the mothers and the nurses. While the babies “slept”, we attended seminars, shared labour war stories (you had how many stitches?!) and pressed our ears up against our baby’s cell doors.

From day three onward – oddly more exhausted by our excess sleep – we started the hands-on part of our stay: settling. The Masada settling technique involved a sequence of actions that mainly involved patting baby. I was ready and eager to learn this mysterious technique except that every time baby required settling, I happened to be in a seminar, on the toilet or scoping out the hospital’s complimentary tea and biscuit selection.

When the settling stars finally aligned, I followed the nurse into baby’s room to learn from a sleep sifu. This was it: this was the answer to all my family’s sleeplessness in one, simple-yet-highly-effective technique. I walked into the darkened room. Yet so dark it was, all l I could make out were a series of thumps and shhhhss and I stumbled back into the dazzling sunlight none the wiser.

To compensate for my lack of applied experience, I practised patting anything that consented: a doll, a nurse’s shoulder, my partner, an obliging tree trunk, and on the final day, I drove home with the same question on my lips as when I arrived – would it work?

Some months on and I’m pleased to report that baby is now the featherweight sleep champion of the world. My partner and I can now flush the toilet, walk up and down the hallway (even on the creaky bit) and don’t need to communicate in blinks.

When I bump into other mothers or fathers who have been to Masada, it’s like a happy cultish reunion. Our heads tip back, eyes roll heavenward and we drool with pleasure as we gush about the Masada angels and getting our lives back.

About Fiona Payet

I don’t usually do things like this, but after meeting hairdresser Fiona Payet who owns Salon Royale at the Royal Children’s Hospital, I felt compelled to tell her story.

Fiona opened Salon Royale at the Royal Children’s Hospital three years ago. Her first client was a paraplegic boy who had to be wheeled in on his bed. From that moment Fiona decided never to charge a patient of the hospital and she has since gone on to cut over 700 kids hair (and counting) for no charge. She regularly helps out the parents and carers too, knowing that they are going through some extremely difficult times.

The unique sense of community she has created at the hospital is irreplaceable. Fiona is looking like she may have to close her doors in 2018 if business doesn’t pick up.

So I got off my arse (!) and started a Go Fund Me page for her salon’s rent. I figure if we can cover the 700 haircuts she’s done (and counting), this will help Fiona keep her doors open while more sustainable solutions are explored.

Have a read of Fiona’s story, help pay the rent and share.

Thank you for reading.

https://www.gofundme.com/hairdresserwithheart

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