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.

download (1)

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.

*

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.

jabba the hut

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…

*

quiz-lead-image.jpg

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

hairdresser 3

 

 

The postnatal chef

Here’s an article I wrote for SBS Life about how I almost got scurvy.

The challenges of new motherhood are well documented, but Kelly Eng hadn’t counted on malnutrition being among them until her own bun was out of the oven.

I had my first baby seven months ago. Prior to the little poppet’s arrival, prophets on the other side issued warnings aplenty: of sleepless nights and consequent zombification and of irreversible damage to body parts; however, surprisingly little mention was made of the confronting transition that parenthood thrusts upon one’s food consumption.

I knew having a baby would involve some food-related adjustments, but I figured none would be too hard. Surely I could bung together a sandwich. Or a wrap with roast duck and hoi sin sauce. And I could make my own Peking duck pancakes while nursing, right? Easy!

Ish.

Then, one Friday afternoon, baby came strolling into the world and booted Maslow’s hierarchy of my needs right out of the birthing suite window. Who needed self-esteem, love and friendship?  Now it was all about survival, and that meant sleep and food (wiping my armpits with a Wet One was now an unattainable luxury); and when the need to eat won out, I discovered that feeding myself was more difficult than anticipated.

To explain: a baby’s sleep cycle can be as brief as 20 minutes. So once you lay the adorable muffin down, dash to the loo (three minutes) and mop baby vomit off the ceiling (four minutes), you have 13 minutes to conjure up something that contains complex carbohydrates, lean protein and at least two vegetables.

Time restrictions present but one of the challenges; noise reduction is another. Bitter experience has taught me that a 45-degree turn of a soy sauce lid or a coriander sprig falling on the floor can wake the poppet and whip her into a head-banging frenzy. And so I’ve attempted to hack into a whole pumpkin silently, flung myself at the microwave with two seconds to go before the ding and winced every time the fridge door opens with all the subtlety of the tomb of the terracotta warriors being prised open for the first time.

True enough, when baby refuses to sleep in her cot, I can sling her over my shoulder and cook one handed – have you ever tried to pleat a dumpling with one hand? – though I prefer to strap her to my front, allowing both hands free. However, reversing babykins into a 220-degree-celsius oven, human heatshield style, can feel slightly counter-mumtuitive, as can thrusting her toward the gas stove while oil and chilli paste spit hot lava our way.

Meticulous planning is required for the eventual dégustation of meals, and what a fleeting pleasure that has become. Meals are now bolted down in seconds (sans chewing) or sprayed everywhere as I belt out verses of ‘Ten in the bed’ and my husband hops about the room trying to catch the ejected gobbets between two slices of bread.

Spillage is another consideration. A serviette placed atop baby’s bouffant can help deflect a shower of rice grains, while a helmet is more appropriate in the event of a falling wonton. And don’t get me started on the perils of noodle soup. Let’s just say that it’s best to cut out the middle man completely and sip straight from the bowl.

Mostly, though, I’ve been too knackered to cook. Even scrolling through UberEats can seem too challenging. The cruellest irony is that breastfeeding gives you an insatiable appetite, and for me, a yearning for the food from my childhood. And while my Essex-born husband is a willing cook, his repertoire doesn’t quite extend to char hor fun rice noodles or chilli crab.

The postnatal chef

Thank goodness one of us is eating

But there is hope. I’ve found that prepping one’s evening toast at the crack of dawn helps. As does calling on the big guns: Mum and Dad. Casually mentioning to Mother that my iron stores were low seemed to kick-start an astonishing takeaway service. Tupperware containers stuffed full of braised tofu and pickled vegetable and Kung Pao chicken suddenly materialised, while one particularly fruitful day, Dad made it his business to bus, train and tram across the city to personally deliver roasted pork belly and handmade dim sims.

And when Mother decides that I look particularly anaemic, no cow is safe from her clutches: beef stewed in master stock is served with a side of beef rendang and topped with stir fried gai lan (with beef of course).

Babykins has also benefited from the family meals on wheels service. As soon as two tiny fangs appeared, Mother arrived with a container of chicken rice porridge. Unsurprisingly, baby lapped it up, rewarding Grandmother with the gummiest of smiles (plus two fangs).

*

SBS Lifehttp://www.sbs.com.au/topics/life/culture/article/2017/04/11/postnatal-chef-how-maintain-necessary-practice-eating-new-mum

The execution of Moley Cyrus: what we know so far

In the aftermath of the execution of Moley Cyrus, here is what we know

-Moley Cyrus was executed at 3.15pm today. He received the last rites at 2pm

-For his last meal, he chose seared scallops with burnt butter and pancetta lardons, beef fillet on potato rosti with a red wine jus and a golden gaytime

-Witnesses say he was tranquil in his final moments and spoke lovingly of his moleymother. His final words were ‘I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul…oh bloody hell, did I leave the iron on?!’

-The execution proceeded without a hitch

-Moley is lying in state in a sterile jar on the dining table. If you wish to pay your respects, please email denniswongbert@gmail.com

-My partner is recovering slowly, but keeps thinking Moley is still attached, which is a common occurrence among recent amputees and Siamese twins

-Moley memorabilia (bookmarks, mugs and key rings) will be available in time for Mother’s Day

20170403_205812