Monthly Archives: April 2006

Update

Thank you all so much for the comments and feedback to my pain post, that kind of support and understanding means more than I can tell you. 

I went to my GP on Wednesday and spilled my guts about how bad things were going (managed not to cry, yay me!) and he winced (and looked like HE wanted to cry! Now that’s the sort of medico you want in your corner).  He’s trying me out on something totally new to me – a pain patch.  It’s just like a nicotine patch, except with narcotics, constant, slow release of.  I like trying new things! It’s supposed to last 7 days; the first one I put on peeled off after about 4 hours (maybe because of my super-soft, elasticised skin, who knows) so I whacked on another on my upper arm which has stayed put.  Supposedly takes three or so days to kick in but I had one of the best (and longest) sleeps in some time last night and am up for a short visit to a farewell drinks party tonight … so we’ll see.

I’ve also been doing a fair bit of reading into surgery and “advanced treatments” – while I have no particular desire for neuro-surgery, or electrodes stuck up my spine, I cannot help but find it intriguing in a sick kind of way.  And information is power. 

The joy of S-S-Santoku

T’other week I finally bought something I’ve been lusting after for months and months – a 7 inch Santoku knife with a hollow ground edge (by Wusthof Trident). It’s a Japanese-style knife, kind of like a cross between a cleaver and a chef’s knife. Very very sharp, cuts beautifully and makes every job so easy, and is sensationally balanced. Lust has flowered into true love.

My first – and one true – test when I got my baby home was to finely slice a tomato. Fine as in, the width of a 5 cent piece. Tomatoes are my bète noir, I have to admit, shameful as it is. I simply cannot cut tomatoes without a serrated or Victorinox knife without squishing the damn thing to bits. Which is okay if that’s the effect I’m after; I’m basically fucked if I want to make a pretty pretty caprese salad (slices of perfectly-ripe, preferably home-grown tomatoes, layered in a spiral pattern on a plate interspersed with slices of drippy mozzarella and fresh basil leaves, dressed with the most virginal of olive oils – you can add slices of a really excellent salami or coppa too if you like).

So, the Santoku sliced through that roma tomato so sweetly I could have cried. Bliss. Next up was prep for the night’s dinner; slicesliceslice that sirloin steak paper-thin, almost transparent, ditto a bunch of garlic, ginger and chilli, plus some red capsicum and spring onions. First step, heated the wok until smoking, added about a teaspoon of oil and flash fried the sirloin strips a handful at a time, so they were charred at the edges but meltingly tender right through. Then I did a quick veggie stir-fry with the chilli, garlic, ginger, red pepper, spring onions and a few handfuls of bean sprouts, all very quick and crisp, about 2 minutes total. Meanwhile I cooked a slab of fine rice noodles, drained and rinsed under iced water and tossed until they were as dry as possible. Tuxedo got the tricky task of tearing off lettuce leaves and placing them on a plate.

I plated the steak strips, veggie stir fry, rice noodles and lettuce all separately and we dug in. Assembly: take one lettuce leaf, place a small amount of rice noodles slightly below-centre, top with vegetables and sauce, then a few steak strips. Roll up and eat. The first few attempts were pretty messy (exceedingly, in my case) but we soon got the hang of it. Very much inspired by Vietnamese street-food (see also recipes like Sang Choy Bao) and oh-so-damn-good. One of those “recipes” where the quality of ingredients, and speed of cooking is key.

Anyways, the Santoku performed like a dream. So happy! While shopping for it (at Perth chef-y store Cut It Out – great shop, fantastically helpful knowledgeable staff) I also bought a new bib apron (in heavy denim, ankle length on me), a black chef’s cap – think fez, a few knife guards, and a book on knife sharpening so I can hone (argh! incoming unintentional pun!) my technique. I have a beauty of a Global waterstone, so my other knives are going to get a shock. Wheeee! Sharp shiny objects! My next purchase is going to be one of those groovy magnetic knife rails, that you screw into the kitchen wall and place your knives on. Much more hygienic, and kinder to tres expensif knives than blocks.

However before the knife rail, we’re off to buy a BBQ – I know, horrors, we don’t have one! – I’ve got my eye on a Rinnai Gourmet 6-burner mmmmm mmmmmmm. Anyone for steaks, kebabs, tandoori roast chicken and booze this weekend? (okay so it’s currently pissing down and the weather has gone all to shit due to Cyclone Monica but it’s not going to keep me from red meat and shiraz)

 

The world is pain

I told you to beware the hiatus, right? So it’s been a while … I have had posts bubbling away in my fevered brain (or what passes for it, these days) – food, politics, engaging conversations, the joy of a new Santoku knife – but have not had the strength to get to the keyboard. That sounds like a real “dog ate my homework” excuse, doesn’t it, but sometimes the dog DOES eat your homework …

The short version is I’ve had a rough time with pain the last couple weeks. Real rough. Excruciating writhing screaming drugs-not-fucking-working rough. I find it odd, to say the least, that “mankind” (well, man, at least, I’m absolving womankind for personal and totally subjective reasons) can not only split atoms and create vile WMDs (actual existent ones!) but are also able to build nuclear reactors, and then when those abominations go kerflooey build housings that will, in theory, last 10,000 years. Yet they cannot come up with a painkiller that fucking WORKS. GAH.

The title of this post is a real bummer, but it is how I feel right now, so tough. My world is reduced to pain, see above, there is no relief or release or end in sight. No cure, no suggestions from doctors and specialists – even the good ones. I know I haven’t got cancer, or total organ failure … but the pain is worse than those who do. And I really can’t cope with it anymore.

I’m like those consumptive Victorian females who took to their beds, dosed up on laudanum and waited on by servants. Except I have no servants and laudanum probably wouldn’t cut it if 280 mgs of morphine per day doesn’t, and I can’t fucking crochet, either. A good day, for me, is when I can make the choice to do the laundry, or a bit of grocery shopping, but not both. See?

I figure I’ve done a good job putting up with it so far – 36 years and counting, considering I didn’t get diagnosed with the various “ailments” until I was 28+. However the pain levels are ramping up, and up, and I’d gladly take a bullet for someone deserving, just to escape. If I was a different sort of animal, not hominid but feline or canine or equine, I’d be put down and yes it would be sad but sometimes that’s the right thing to do.

Which is not to say I am suicidal, please believe me on that. I’m not even depressed – at least, not the depression that can be salved by application of SSRIs et al. I don’t particularly want to die – I do enjoy the bits of life that break up the monotony of painfatiguepain. I adore my husband and don’t want to leave him, and certainly don’t want to leave him with the wreckage of a suicide. I also don’t want to suicide because (a) I think it is wrong, yet at the same time perfectly understandable and (b) I don’t want to fail. I don’t want to make a mess, either.

So that’s out. But I cannot, really truly cannot bear this “life” any longer. It’s too much, you know? So much I want to do – simple stuff, like go cycling with my fella, or go for a fucking walk without crying, maybe go dancing, maybe follow up plans to study or whatever (fucking forget dreams of working, or having a family and that other stuff that’s supposed to make one feel “fulfilled”) – but I’m kept to my bed and tiny apartment as though chained. Which quite often makes me cry with despair – other times I’m all stiff upper lip, I don’t whinge all the time, although you wouldn’t think it, I realise. And it is simply not possible to break those chains. If you think I could, by mind over matter, or the power of prayer, then you haven’t ever suffered this level, so don’t presume, just back right off. Mind over matter has kept me going since I was 8 years old and is getting a trifle weary.

So what does that leave me with, really? Nada. No cure, no let-up, no answers. No hope, any longer, I’ve been crushed way too many times. I remember a particular condescending misogynistic moronic bastard of an “eminent rheumatologist” (and I’ve met a number of those – oh the names I could give you!) who suggested, straight-faced, I try aromatherapy. What I said is unrepeatable even on these pages where my language can be somewhat pungent, however the informed use of hydroponic herbals is a possibility. I’m not a fan of the idea of illegal controlled substances, but if the authorised shit ain’t working? I dare anyone to arrest me or attack or revile me for trying. Walk a mile in my shoes … Hey I’ll be easy on you, you can just spend a day in bed trying not to scream bloody murder, and a night crying in your sleep trying not to disturb your poor hard-working husband on whom you depend, and a little hobbling around like a 95 year old dribbling woman.

Ahh feck it, I’ll be all bright and Pollyanna-ish on the surface tomorrow, and will most likely delete this post.

Mesocosm Soups

Of all the foods that I love to cook and even more, adore to eat, are members of the genre I call “Mesocosm Soups” I am always in the mood for one of these huge bowls of rich broth, noodles, bits of different kinds of meats, seafood, vegetables, preferably based on spice pastes of chillies, ginger, garlic, spices, south-east Asian flavours … deeply satisfying, filling, rich, exciting, fascinating, comforting. 

Such soups are found throughout S-E Asia and Vietnam – Laksas, Kway Teow Naam Tom Yum aka Thai Combination Noodle Soup, Phos, Bun Rieu, Bun Mam … the list goes on and the sheer delight and divinity is only restricted by one’s imagination.

Before I get onto a couple of recipes, I should explain the name.  Mesocosm Soup? Huh?  Well, the term was coined way back when I was working in a marine biology lab.  The study of habitats and the effects of pollution, over-use by humans, introduction of non-native species on the marine environment was carried out in three sites; the “Macrocosm” eg the reef and marine park near the lab; the “Microcosm”, in the lab in small tanks, test tubes, etc; and the ”Mesocosms”, specially constructed concrete tanks about 10 metres deep and 10 metres in diameter, where the marine habitat could be replicated (“building” a mini-reef, complete with plants and sea-life*) and tests as to the effects of oil spills, increased levels of toxicology etc, could be enacted without damaging the real marine environment. 

*although I did once spot a couple of members of species Ansellaria condominii whisking about for all the world like little cephalopods or jellyfish …

My reputation at work of culinary goddess was made by bringing in a homemade birthday cake for my boss – my famous “0.02% Black Forest Trifle” – will post recipe sometime.  One day I brought in a big bowl of noodly soup for my lunch, and the guys were fascinated. Broth, noodles, tiny meatballs, seafood, Chinese greens, bits of chillies and ginger and garlic … which one of the biologists compared to the Mesocosms, a complete habitat in a mid-sized container (fortunately without used rubber-goods).  I was enchanted by the moniker and the concept – a whole world in a bowl – and the name stuck.  Since then they have been Mesocosm Soups and that is that.

My most recent Mesocosm Soup was a Laksa Lemak, a Singaporean/Nonya classic comprised of a very spicy, rich coconut milk-broth soup, rice noodles, seafood (I used fish and prawns on this occasion), a few bits of char siew, 5 cm pieces of kangkong, finely sliced spring onion, cucumber sticks, and bean sprouts.

Please find below the recipe; other Mesocosm Soup recipes eg, for Bun Rieu, Pho Bo, Pho Ga, Kway Teow Naam Tom Yum et al will be posted in time and found within the Recipes category. 

 

Laksa Lemak – Singapore Spicy Coconut Milk and Seafood Noodle Soup

This is another of my ultimate favourite “desert-island” dishes – Singapore Spicy Coconut Milk Soup with Seafood and Noodles – a meal in a bowl that is spicy and soothing and full of interesting flavours and textures.

The “authentic” method would be to pound all the ingredients for a spice paste plus candlenuts together in a mortar and pestle, but I simplify by having home-made red curry paste in my fridge/freezer, and then add the crushed macadamia nuts [to substitute for candlenuts which aren’t exactly readily available outside of Singapore/Indonesia] and additional garlic etc separately [you won’t go to hell if you use store-bought curry pastes either but home-made does taste miles better … ].

I’ve made this equally successfully with two or three chicken breast fillets, diced, when seafood isn’t available [either for economic or marketing reasons]. Continue reading

Thai Red Curry Paste [Kaeng Phed]

This is an incredibly easy and versatile recipe; it makes a delicious flavour base for use in curries, soups, stir-fries, whatever.  Sure, you can buy curry pastes at the shop, but they are full of preservatives and are very harsh and un-subtle in flavour. 

I tend to double, or even triple the recipe so I always have tubs of Red Curry Paste in my fridge and freezer [and my family and friends beg and bribe for their very own jar]. Continue reading

Literature vs everything else, or Who the fuck said “great literature” has to be fiction?

My Dad and I, who rarely talk let alone get into debates and discussions, recently had a dandy.

Dad described the latest book for his Book Club* as “trash”, “rubbish”. Naturally I asked why it was rubbish, and on hearing the title and plot, author, and unorganised style and format, agreed wholeheartedly that it was indeed the finest crap– although I had not read the book itself (judgemental, yeah; accurate, definitely). However Dad’s issue, and definition of “rubbish” was that it was FICTION. And easy-to-read fiction at that.

Now I understand my father’s attitude is academic snobbishness (he really should have been a university lecturer – up to his ears in pedantries and unnecessary detail**) but I have major problems with this. Good fiction is never rubbish, if it is well-written, accessible and well-edited; if it draws you in to that world between the cover pages and makes you believe in the characters and world the author has created. It does not matter in the slightest if it easy to read – easy to read fiction is probably more difficult and problematic to write than stuff that rambles and covers up it’s deficiencies with obscure prose and imagery. Anyone can pad.

I’ve read fiction that is easy to read that I would put up there in the “Literature” shelves at Dymocks even though it is classified elsewhere; Donna Leon and Dorothy L Sayers, both crime writers, come instantly to mind. Okay, so Sayers might not be classified as an easy read, due partly to having been written in the 1920s-30s, plus much of the conversation, particularly the courtship between Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, is conducted in Latin and French – no translations. Donna Leon on the other hand is a contemporary crime writer and her noels, set in Venice and featuring a detective called Guido Brunetti, is beautiful writing, easy to read maybe, but not the least bit dumbed down.

In contrast, there are several Booker Prize winners I would (and have) thrown across the room for being complete and utter pretentious, obscure, indulgent horse-shit, padded to Michelin Man proportions.

*My father is in the world’s most boring book club – a bunch of 70-ish men who read either science or history or theological tracts – and do not even select the good stuff in those categories.

**My brother once said that if you asked Dad if he liked that beer he was tasting (he doesn’t drink beer but on this occasion he was “sampling”), Dad would launch into a very long, multi-tangetial lecture on how it was made; the entire process from agricultural (growing hops) to chemical (fermentation, carbonisation etc). You think *I’m* pedantic and given to tangents – not to mention parentheses – well sweethearts, you ain’t seen nuthin’.

Now here is where I do go off at a tangent, away from the debate with my dad, and on to my main rant. WHY – and this is perhaps the thing that most pisses me off about classification of books/writing – WHY is only adult fiction described as Literature with a capital L and not children’s fiction, science fiction and fantasy, crime (as above) – if it is “writings in prose or verse; especially : writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest” (Merriam-Webster definition). The key words being excellence; ideas of permanent or universal interest. Where is it written that other forms of fiction – and indeed non fiction – cannot be styled/classified/categorised as literature?

Non-Fiction has to be my biggest bug-bear – the best science writing should be classified as literature and included in the line-up for the Nobel Prize for Literature, but it has it’s own awards – and very good the Aventis Prizes for Science Books are too – but it is still described as the best of science writing, not science lit. If we have chick lit and lad lit, why the fuck not nerd lit?

Case in point # 1 – Richard Dawkins mentions very briefly, in passing, about how only two scientists have won the Nobel Prize for Lit, and they weren’t writing science. Some amazing ideas of permanent and universal interest are presented in science writing – more so than in fiction, I think, and it is among the most difficult writing to attempt and make accessible***. In each of his books, for example, Dawkins has taken an astonishing and fascinating subject and presented it in a beautifully written, imaginative way. Definitely Literature. Far more provoking, poetic even, important, deep and meaningful, than much fic lit.

***Mini-rant – hatehateHATE the moniker “popular science” which encases any subject through evolutionary biology to environmentalism to quantum physics, so long as it is accessible to the smarter-than-average lay-person. Why “popular science”? It is a derogatory term to use for such writers as Jared Diamond, Dawkins, Matt Ridley, with it’s “Science for Dummies” implication. HATE.

Case in point # 2 – Not science writing but cooking. Yeah, yeah, any schmuck with access to test kitchens can write a cookbook. HA! Could you write a cookery book like Elizabeth David’s absolute classics of the genre, which explain procedures and recipes from the simplest to the most complicated in the most precise, concise, sublime and delightful way, inspiring home and professional cooks since the 1950s to get into their kitchens and produce something sensational, worthy of David’s keen and zero-tolerance-for-bullshit eye. I read David’s cookbooks for fun, for inspiration, for comfort when I’m feeling down. David got an OBE for her services, but it was as a food writer, not as a producer of superb food lit.

I call for a movement toward good literature whether fiction, non fiction, sf&f, children’s, whatever, whether about relationships in India or London or Dublin, solving a crime, the course of a grand romance, space or alternate worlds, anthropology, neurology, evolution …. all good literature and should not be differentiated, discriminated against in such a fashion. The guiding principle should be whether it is excellent, whether it is provoking, of universal importance; and that does not rule out writing that is fun, escapist, comforting. It just has to be FUCKING GOOD.

Thank you. Rant off

 

Belated Happy Birthday to Richard Dawkins

Much belated but exceedingly boisterous for all that (sprained wrists, bung hip, black eye and all) Happy Birthday wishes are called for, to Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and science writer extraordinaire (d.o.b. 26 March 1941). This man needs medals and gushing praise, not “just” for the incredible books he has written and what he has done to make evolutionary biology accessible, fascinating and sexy, even, but also for his contribution to literature.  Not only in the field of science, but for his beautifully concise, streamlined, downright poetic writing style – plus being self-deprecating and dryly witty too!

The Blind Watchmaker was the first of his books I read, I then proceeded to track down and devour everything else he has written before and since.  Climbing Mount Improbable was my favourite, until reading The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life. This is a truly incredible, inspiring and beautiful book.  Even if you’re not “into” science I’d recommend it.  Richard Dawkins has a gift for making complex subjects accessible to the reader without “dumbing down” the slightest bit – as many so-called “popular science” writers do (and oh for the love of mitochondrial DNA, do I ever loathe and despise that moniker – “popular science” indeed – what precisely does that mean?)

Dawkins slips in many witty acerbic asides directed to pro-Creationists, and the opening and closing paragraphs of The Ancestor’s Tale are the best reasons* to study the beauty of evolution of life on earth and give Creationism the contempt it deserves (*I can’t call them “arguments” as what’s the point in arguing with a Creationist? You can’t have a rational conversation/discussion with a totally irrational person).

Happy Birthday Professor Dawkins, long life to you. And if you never get a Nobel Prize for contributions to Science, you ought to get one for Literature.