Welcome Tammi Jonas and Motorhome Mama Cookin’

Now one of my dearest and closest friends, @tammois and I met on the twitterz and have since cemented our friendship around many tables and fires, cookbooks, meals and bottles of wine. Tammi and the rest of her brood, The Jonai, are at present on a magnificent three month Rebel Farm Tour of her homeland, the USA, in the world’s coolest RockVan.

You can follow their journey at her blog Tammi Tasting Terroir, on Crikey’s Back in a Bit travel blog and on twitter but this here is what Mama’s been cookin’ up on the road …

A question food folk love to both ask and answer – ‘what can’t you live without in the kitchen?’ – is one that most of us rarely have cause to put to the test. But flying across the Pacific with nothing but a suitcase of clothes to drive across America in a ’77 GMC motorhome provides the perfect opportunity.

I knew there’d have to be cast iron, a good knife, a wooden chopping board and either a mortar & pestle or a hand blender. The hand blender won in deference to space considerations (I can hardly claim it was the weight given all the cast iron…). A mixing bowl or two, a large-ish pot, some wooden spoons and a whisk pretty much rounds out the essentials.

We picked up a cast iron griddle and a frypan for a song at the thrift shops of Front Royal, Virginia, where I also scored a hand blender for $5, and complete sets of utensils, cups and plates for a few dollars. Due to the small stove, I leaped at a narrow, tall stainless steel pot on sale for $15 new at Target, and a large, new, wooden chopping board with a non-slip mat underneath from Camping World that’s designed to sit atop RV stoves to save space and stop the rings from clattering on the road.

A good knife eluded me for over a week – we’d bought a Wüsthof paring knife at Bed, Bath & Beyond hoping it would tide us over until I found a quality Japanese high-carbon steel chef’s knife. I quickly lost patience and knuckles chopping garlic with this woefully inadequate tool, but we’d scoured all the ‘home’ or ‘kitchen’ shops we could find, all of which were of the large, generic franchise sort, and found only Wusthofs and Globals and something branded by one of those ‘pretty women who cook on tv’ whose names I can never remember. And then we stumbled across Country Knives.

We were just past Intercourse, Pennsylvania on a tiny byway (340) after exploring Amish country when the sign appeared. There was no town nearby, and the sign appeared to be at the front of somebody’s home. I figured there would be a charming but useless collection of ‘country craft’ knives – perhaps with carefully whittled handles for the grey-nomad types to admire and purchase only to continue to despair at cooking as they’ve never known the joys of a good knife. I was utterly mistaken.

Inside was a wonderland of knives – some 8000 the owner told us – everything from hunting knives and throwing stars to high-quality chef’s knives. Bingo. The beautifully curved 10” Shun Classic twinkled at me from behind the glass. Just to be circumspect, I handled three or four, but it was love at first sight, and it was with intense pleasure that I handed over my credit card to make the Shun mine. It hasn’t disappointed, as I’ve chopped my way down the Appalachians, rhythmically maintaining an otherwise scattered sense of self from Pennsylvania to Mississippi.

A secondhand 4-quart cast iron pot with a lid was even more difficult to secure, and without it, there’s no hope of making bread in the RockVan’s small oven whose designer clearly mistook ‘distribute’ heat for ‘localise intensely at the bottom middle’. We picked up a simple heat dissipator for a few cents at one of the many Habitat for Humanity’s Restores we’ve frequented, which should make basic baking more successful, but bread’s a fussier beast, so cast iron was required.

Yet again, patience paid off, and I found what I needed at a Lodge Cast Iron factory outlet outside Knoxville, Tennessee. Since the recession, Lodge made a decision to put pots and pans with minor defects out on ‘seconds’ shelves rather than re-melting them for another attempt at perfection. Thanks to this reportedly popular new policy, I scored my pot for $26 rather than the usual $60, all because it has two nearly invisible little concave bubbles in the bottom.

So now that I’ve waxed fetishistically on about knives and cast iron, surely you’re wondering what I’ve cooked with it?

Those who know my penchant for making sourdough damper when we camp might have wondered whether I’ve baked yet. For one, I miss Fran, my sourdough starter whose daughters I left with family in Oz in hopes of returning to her in September. Next, there is the issue of the small oven that seems to think it’s an inverse griller. Finally, it’s been so freaking hot there’s no way I wanted to put the oven on! However, having found my cast iron pot and lid finally, I’ll make my first RockVan loaves soon … whether in the oven or on the stovetop will depend on the mercury.

The ready availability of quality tortillas and dearth of decent bread across small-town America has resulted rather logically in a surfeit of Mexican cooking in the RockVan. Of course it’s ‘Tex-Mex’, and frequently inspired by what we’re finding in the taquerías to be found in even the most seemingly ‘white bread’ towns. It’s also inspired by the brilliant variety of chilies found everywhere (even – gasp – in Walmart!), anaheims, poblanos, jalapeños, habaneros, and serranos to name some of the most common. And don’t be fooled by some of their capsicum-like appearance – most are very bloody hot – as I discovered during an out-of-mind experience three bites into ‘testing’ the hotness of one type.

And so burritos de frijoles negros, tacos de carne asada, quesadillas, enchiladas de pollo, and many bastardisations of all of the above have been our lunch and dinner staples, plus the odd breakfast burrito here and there.

Still, it turns out even the bean-lovin’ Jonai cannot survive on tortillas alone, and so I’ve experimented with drop biscuits both on the griddle and in the oven. It’s surprising how well they work on the griddle, though it’s tricky to keep them from burning on the outside while ensuring the middle isn’t doughy. Then having learned about hoecakes, which are a sort of cornmeal pancake/biscuit, I’ve been working on a technique with thinner biscuits for the stovetop. I’ve also rather enjoyed making these southern staples for my aunts and uncles, all of whom grew up on them, but are pleasantly surprised to find that their ‘Australian’ niece makes them ‘like Mama did’, even though they themselves now make pop-out biscuits.

Free-range eggs are often found for sale along the roadside – usually for $2 or $3 a dozen – and so eggs, biscuits and gravy are a popular brekky. I broke in the hand blender with a classic ‘tammindaise’ the day we did happen to have bakery bread and after planting our little herb garden in the kitchen window.

The ever-present truck-wheel fire ring grill at all the state parks has meant some barbecuing as well – ‘grass-fed beef’ is pretty easy to come by, as is free-range chicken. Vegetarian options range from the black-bean Mexican favourites to tofu burgers and an old standby, a Sri Lankan style mustard eggplant curry. We even made a Limburger and avocado pasta one night, and although the stinky-socks smell of the cheese challenged the brood, they gobbled it all up.

One night, just for a lark, we cooked some turkey dogs for the kids, and Stuart even taught the kids the ‘bend the can’ trick to cook some creamed corn on the grill, which they universally despised, I’m happy to report.

When Oscar spiked a fever, it was roast capsicum and garlic soup on the menu, and when he recovered and requested fried chicken, I proved it’s possible even in the little RockVan.

When I stumbled across fresh pita breads at the Central Markets in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, we had to have kebabs, and here in the South, we seem to have coleslaw with nearly every meal.

The opportunity to cook in ‘real’ kitchens while visiting family and friends has been a lovely respite from the RockVan’s confines and a great way to say ‘thanks for having us’. I’m surprised that nobody has blinked an eye as I stride in with not just ingredients but my kick-arse knife as well.

Texas lies ahead, so our Mexican fetish should crank up a few notches when I pick up tortilla presses for me and the wonderful Zoe, our gracious host here on PDP. But first, we’ll be traveling through Cajun country in southern Louisiana, where I hope to learn the mysteries of Gumbo, Jambalaya and crawfish étouffée. If you want to see how that goes, be sure to tune back in for the next instalment of Motorhome Mama Cookin’. 😉



Emica gets new digs

ProgDins contributor Emica and her partner have left London, and are coming home the long way. The REALLY long way – via Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Belgrade, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel and finally back to their home in WA via NZ and the east coast.

Yeah, the list makes me cranky too, but in very happy news, she’s set up a blog to chronicle her culinary adventures as she travels. It’s called A Shared Table, and you should bookmark it.

She’s in Spain now, and has perfected gazpacho with help from a Sevillian friendship which began on the plane on the way there. Imma gonna make me some as soon as it gets over about ten degrees in Canberra!

Bon voyage Emica, to you and A Shared Table.

Eat Drink Blog – Australia’s first food blogger conference

Along with Reem from I am obsessed with food … and another outspoken female from confessions of a food nazi, I’ll be talking at the upcoming Eat Drink Blog conference in Melbourne on “Why we blog” on March 21. I’ll just give you all a minute to get the “but you never blog, you lazy sod” jokes. It’s a small-ish event, with only a limited number of places due to the nice dinner and cocktails we’ll be getting (largely thanks to the connections and charm of Ed from Tomatom). But I’ll be in town for a day or two, so perhaps some Melbourne PDP writers and friends could meet up?

My abstract (which seems a very fancy name, but anyway) is:

There are a million reasons to start a blog, but most blogs are quickly discarded. What will keep you going? The answers are as various as the many genres of blog that exist, even within the food blogging world. Identifying what you want your blog to be helps you create a space that feels right for you and attracts the readers you want to engage with. The first step is identifying what you want to say and why you blog – whether it’s to stretch a writing muscle or show your photographic chops, to share your culinary skills or the latest news, or simply to become part of a community of like-minded food nerds.

And another outspoken female has also suggested that I should talk about group blogging, and the particular benefits of that approach. Part of the reason I wanted to be part of a group blog was to alleviate the pressure/guilt of not posting very frequently, but what I value about it most is the collegial conversations we have around here. It’s all I could have hoped for when entering the food blogging world.

I’ve been thinking too, about the power of images in blogging. There’s a photo competition and exhibition in concert with the conference, and I put a few photos in for the hell of it – there are almost 400 images in the competition flickr group. I’ve always resisted the desire to have very beautiful and styled looking photos – I’ve had to, as I don’t have the expertise, equipment or ability to keep the family waiting while I take pictures. Mostly though, I wanted to see people eating, and bring the world forced away from the food through bokeh and the like back into focus.

Yet having had a camera meltdown and not having replaced it yet (my work is casual, was not needed over the long uni break and my taste in cameras have become more expensive than it used to be) has really held me back. I don’t see why it should, as I’m certainly not a particularly good photographer, but I think that taking the pictures often sparks the thinking. It’s odd, because I am a writer not a photographer, but the interplay between illustrative and/or decorative images, texts and links has always seemed to me the greatest technical fun of blogging.

I’ve really wanted to post the abundance of my veggie garden and a few special dishes and meals. I’ve tweeted a couple, but you can see the quality of the images deteriorate before your eyes:

Both of these, by the way, were from Sean Moran’s Let it Simmer. The first a lake of chocolate mousse in the crater of a flourless chocolate cake (which is essentially a cooked mousse) and the second a custard tart with a finger lime glaze (and I added a layer of thinly sliced figs to the top of the tart, and some rose geranium leaves to the glaze). New camera soon, and then right back to it.

In the meantime, I’d be very interested to hear any thoughts on why food blogging is an activity worth doing, and what might be interesting to hear about.

Introducing tor

tor says she hates writing “About Me” paragraphs so I’m certainly not going to ask for another one.

At her blog “Adrift and Awake” she writes on:

Feminist snark, sex, the media and great big helpings of schadenfreude (Woman cannot live off sauerkraut alone, you see). Living the Australian dream in a draughty inner-west apartment (no really, I can hear kookaburras from my living room. In the middle of the city!) Procrastinating with style. Chain-smoking and bad TV indulgence

Her post on the importance of husband-approval units as currency in cookery blog threads is crossposted here.

Introducing Anthony

I’m a lecturer in law who lives and works, cooks and gardens on Melbourne’s northern waterways. I write an occasional column, The Raw and the Cooked, for Arena Magazine, and have pontificated on matters culinary at various times for Overland, Eureka Street and the Australian’s Review of Books. My mum, a consumate cook in the Irish Catholic tradition, looks askance at my bloated collection of cookbooks.

Introducing Dame Mint Pattie and the Canberra Wineries A2Z Project

Dame Mint Pattie has worked in PR for more than 20 years and consequently is immune to spin, which makes living in Canberra either a constant source of amusement or bloody annoying –

depending on which side of bed she gets out of.

DMP puts her faith in small pleasures: the perfect cheese and pickle sandwich, a glass of good wine, or catching sight of a single shaft of sunlight parting the clouds like the hand of gog god (and sometimes types while she’s tipsy). She appreciates lovingly prepared meals made with painstaking attention to detail… just as long as someone else does the cooking.

Dame Mint Pattie blogs with her partner, our man in Canberra, at Our Notional Capital. She says of the genesis of the series she will be cross-posting here, an A2Z of Canberra Wineries:

We’ve lived in Canberra for a couple of years now but our knowledge of the local grape is shamefully lacking. Having visited one or two wineries in a very haphazard way, and with little to guide us other than the King James Wine Bible, we’ve decided to embark on our own leisurely winery discovery tour.

I should make it clear right upfront, we are not wine obsessives experts. We have no formal training in the art of sniffing, swilling and spitting but we know our preferences (and significant blindspots) reasonably well and also what wines compliment the modest fare that finds it way from our kitchen to the dining room table.

Over the next few months we’ll try to visit all the wineries that are open to the public around the Canberra region and share any worthwhile information in a very rough guide to Canberra wineries A2Z.

There are a huge number of wineries within an hour or so’s drive of Canberra, and I salute their bravery. The first in the series is on the Affleck vineyard. Welcome Dame Mint Pattie!

UPDATED TO ADD: As time has worn on, and glass after glass has been valiantly sniffed and swallowed, Dame Mint Pattie asks on her site:

We’re visiting every cellar door in the Canberra wine region and writing up what we find. The aim is to provide a rough but relaxed guide to Canberra wineries.

However, as a late 20th century philosopher* pointed out, “life moves pretty fast”, and it’s easy to miss stuff. So, if you’ve noticed that things have changed at a winery or we’ve left out something good, please leave a comment or email so we can update the post.