Soviet era recollections #1 – Pineapples in Hungary

This conversation with a Hungarian friend grew from having heard other friends from Poland, the DDR and beyond talk about eating their first banana. Coming from Australia, I can’t remember a time without fruit. I grew up in the shadow of The Cold War though and my mother dragging me out of bed to witness the collapse of the Berlin Wall on tv is one of my earliest memories. Living in Switzerland now with its phenomenal standard of living, I find it fascinating to talk to friends and colleagues that experienced life behind the iron curtain.

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Making Congee from leftover rice (and anything else)

Ingredients:

  • About one cup of cooked white rice (measured when dried)
  • About 6 times as much liquid stock (in my case soy sauce, salt, garlic, chili, ginger and shredded lettuce)
  • A few bits thrown in to the mix (in my case leftover soya protein, diced carrot, broccoli and frozen peas)
  • Some sort of garnish (in my case a boiled egg, a dollop of chili pickle, more lettuce and some gherkins and pickled onions leftover from a Raclette night)

Time:

  • Prep: 5 – 10 minutes
  • Cooking: About 3 hours (only occasional stirring required)

I was recently in Vietnam and had been gorging myself on Pho and Bánh mì for breakfast but flying back home with a Chinese airline I’d enjoyed the simple Congee they’d offered for breakfast and resolved to make it myself when I next had a craving for it. I mean how hard could it be? As I understood it, Congee in all its variations, is at its a core simply a rice porridge, often a comfort food, and can easily be made from leftover rice which I often have lurking.

So on a quiet Sunday afternoon, I gave it a shot. I had some cooked rice in the fridge that needed eating up lest it’s ecosystem get wilder and a few other bits and pieces I felt I could throw in. I checked a few recipes online and there was a rough consensus of about 6 cups of liquid to one cup of dried rice. I had what I thought amounted to roughly 1 cup (by which I mean the nearest clean coffee mug I had available) so used about 3 cups of liquid, in this case water. Chicken stock or bones are often used for flavouring but I instead threw in a big pinch of salt and the remnants of a chili and soy sauce marinade I’d used previously to fry some soya protein.

It was recommended to cool the rice before making Congee if using cooked leftovers. I’d taken mine from the fridge so just threw it a saucepan and poured the liquid in. I broke up the chunks of rice with a wooden spoon (more a spade than a spoon really) and removed the cloves I’d cooked the rice with as enough of that flavour was probably infused already. I stirred over a medium heat bringing the mixture to a boil and before leaving to simmer, covered, on a low heat thereafter hoping to get a smooth, glutinous (sorry for the ominous imagery GF folk but it is actually gluten free) texture.

In the meantime I looked around for other leftovers to eat up. I chopped the leftover soy protein I had and threw that in along with some tired looking lettuce that I chopped roughly intending it to just disintegrate into the mix. I chopped half an old carrot roughly and threw in a decent chunk of grated ginger, in search of a really hearty aftertaste. All this meant it was brown (as shown in blurry pic) rather than a sterile airline white which was fine with me although purists might disagree. I left aside some raw broccoli that I tossed in later along with a fistful of frozen peas for a bit of earth and colour.

Now listen, it did take a while to cook. It was about 3 hours in the end but the only input required was some occasional stirring and inspection to make sure the rice wasn’t burning. I did end up adding a bit more water periodically and the whole thing could be done a lot faster in a pressure cooker rather than my trusty Le Crueset saucepan but I was mainly reading on the couch anyway and found the whole experience rather relaxing. I ate it with a garnish of a boiled egg and lettuce and a few pickles I had lying around. Again, I just throw in whatever I thought would make me happy. It went down well with my mug if Jasmine tea and I scoffed the rest the next day for breakfast.

A laboured goodbye

“The French have a phrase for it. The bastards have a phrase for everything and they are always right. To say goodbye is to die a little.”

― Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye

It had been weeks since I’d heard from FR. Amongst good friends and ale I’d vowed that I give her until I was leaving for Helsinki and if she didn’t get in touch, I’d pull the pin on the whole affair on her behalf. I’d even go on to write several drafts. As futile unspoken ultimatums go, it was one of my sillier ones but I had meant it in a sort of self deprecating way. As it happened, I almost missed my flight to Finland having forgotten my 09:30 departure was from Zürich, not Basel. The prior night’s drinking certainly didn’t help although it had given me a chance to re-iterate my dramatic vow to anyone who cared to listen, which was only really PP. Indeed I’m not sure he really cared, he just didn’t have a choice. Amidst the tension and hangover that morning, I’d forgotten all about, being more concerned with the queue at security and the nagging feeling that I’d forgotten to pack something. As it would turn out, my flight was delayed by 30 minutes and I had forgotten to pack several things, especially clean socks.

It was a relatively long flight for one from one European capital to another and I had managed a bit of sleep, head slack and mouth open. I must have looked a picture, Finnish Tinder birds watch out! My friend TT was arriving separately for our weekend away and the delay meant I ended up just waiting for him in an airport bar. Being on holiday and still pretty hungover, I justified an expensive beer while I sat in limbo. The barmaid looked like Jimi Tenor’s cute little sister and gave me a crash course in Finnish. I could now say hi (hei), thanks (kiitos) and count to three (yksi, kaksi, kolme). I asked but apparently Finnish people don’t really say please, she said with a slightly puzzled look. When I met TT at the gate, we manhugged and headed for the train to town while conversation flowed. He’s such an old friend, my oldest, so conversation flowed easily and we started to work out what the fuck we were going to do in this really cold place we’d chosen to visit. The consensus seemed to be that we’d find our digs, have a quick power nap and shower and then go out in search of food and beer. I vowed inwardly to send that farewell message once I was “nicely” drunk later that night.

The apartment was elegant Scandi minimalism personified. They’d only made up one bed, assuming we were a couple. We laughed, it wasn’t the first time and it was quite charming really. Once we rested, suited and booted, I found a can of a beer called Karhu (bear in Finnish apparently) and poured it out in two glasses. He asked, somewhat tentatively, whether there was any word from FR. I told the truth and wryly outlined my plan. He smiled. He knew me well enough to understand my desire to walk away from the situation while making making one last doomed romantic gesture. A Finnish colleague had recommended a few areas for nightlife and we headed toward the closest one and fell into what we took for a hipster beer bar on account of the range of brews available. We’d later learn that every bar in downtown Helsinki serves about 50 different beers but this seemed like the place for us to get a few in before hitting the Thai place across the road. The unhinged guy barking at us in Finnish notwithstanding, the ambience was good and we started to joke about what I should say to FR. I wasn’t really pissed as yet but my battery was dwindling. TT got another round in, I took a 6.9% hoppy thing and decided that once I’d drained it, I’d commit relationship seppuku as I’d pledged. Then a vibration in my pocket. Two messages, both from her. How could this be possible?

I said nothing as TT ferried the beers back to our table but excused myself for a piss. I didn’t know what I was about to read but suspected she’d decided to put me out of my misery, just as I was beginning to enjoy it. I opened it. It was nothing of the sort, in fact it wasn’t much of anything apart from a picture of a railway station in Bern (she knows I have an odd but harmless fetish for that sort of thing) and a cheerful “Hey, how are you? Have nice weekend! [sic]”. I was perplexed, my battery was almost dead and I was hungry. What the fuck was I supposed to do with this? It seemed conciliatory but was ultimately empty of meaning. I so, so wanted to believe it was good news but am cynical enough to know that it probably wasn’t. I went back and lasted about 30 seconds before complaining bitterly to my friend, and the Finnish Tourettes guy, about this woman I had yearned to hear from for over a month, sending me a friendly missive complete with scenery I was bound to appreciate. I was slightly enraged that she’d stolen my moment, my thunder but all I really wanted to do was hug her and hold on for as long as she’d let me. Of course, she was 1,600 km away and my phone was about to die. Plus I had a beer to finish and several more to drink.

In the end I jotted off something equally vacuous and complained confusedly to my friend for the rest of the night.

I’ve long since given up on finishing this properly, she was gone before it and I knew it but she made me grind it out. I left her alone mostly after that Helsinki flurry and I had to drag it out of her eventually, by which time I couldn’t really understand why she was so stressed about it. I didn’t really care any more although I was still curious. I still am but I don’t imagine I’ll ever see that somewhat lovely woman again. I had my own distractions in the interim anyway so found it even odder that she took time to assure me that there was no other guy, basically the least of my worries by then. I still have some plants she gave me and the book I was going to give her for Christmas. The ticket for the last gig we went to together was stolen along with an aged condom and around 50 euros months later. I’ve still got the poster from Dampfzentrale that I carried back to her flat and she dried on a clothes airer for me. It really ties the room together.

We had some good times, thanks FR

Rapid tomato, basil and cinnamon pasta sauce

Ingredients:

  • Penne or other pasta
  • Olive oil
  • A can of tomatoes (4ooml)
  • A couple of medium sized onions
  • A few cloves of garlic
  • A few fresh chilies
  • A fistful of basil leaves
  • Half a teaspoon of ground cinnamon (or cinnamon sugar if you prefer some sweetness)
  • A hard, salty cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano
  • Black pepper to taste

Time:

  • Prep: 3 minutes
  • Cooking: About 10 minutes

 

This simple pasta sauce is basically a twist on a what the Italians call sugo all’arrabbiata.  Or at least that’s what I think they call it though they might view this a bit of a perversion. At it’s core, it’s a fast cooked (~10 mins) sauce of tomatoes, chili, onion and garlic. This recipe adds basil and a hint of cinnamon to give it an pungent, earthy taste. The whole meal should take less than 20 minutes to knock up.

Put some olive oil in a saucepan and place on medium heat. Finely chop the onions, chilies and garlic. In the meantime, get the water for the pasta (anything will do, doesn’t need to be penne) going and cook according to the instructions on the pack. I tend to use a dash of olive oil or a pinch of salt in the water but everyone knows how to cook pasta right? Keep it al dente especially if you intend to throw the pasta in the pot with the sauce.

Once the oil is hot, add the onions and cook for a couple of minutes until soft and the aroma starts to fill the kitchen. Toss in the chilies and cook for another minute or two. Then throw in the garlic and cook for 30 seconds more (you don’t want to burn the garlic). Pour in the canned tomatoes including all the liquid and mash it up a bit. Throw in most of the basil and cinnamon too at this point. Keep the pan hot and partially covered (it should be splattering the underside of the lid).

Let it cool a bit before serving topped with the cheese and the remaining basil. Add cracked pepper to taste. I find it goes well with a glass of cheap and cheerful Chilean Merlot. A chunk of crunchy bread, lightly toasted and drizzled with oil if you like, can be useful to mop up the remnants of the sauce from your bowl if you’re still hungry.

Fun fact, I originally based this on a recipe I found years ago on Berlin beat combo Stereo Total‘s website. It was something I often cooked and my flatmate’s and I dubbed it “Cactus Sauce” in honour of Francois Cactus, the member of the band with the penchant for cooking. I couldn’t find it on their website these days but there is a note that:

Their first recording was a 10 minute cooking-recipe, in which all ingredients had a sexual connotation. The recording is sadly lost.

I recommend dancing around the kitchen to their work after pouring yourself another large glass of wine.