Sausage and chickpea pasta bake (pasta al forno)

This dish is a bit of celebration of things I didn’t used to like, but have come to terms within the last few years. I’ve always associated sausages with the fatty, odd-tasting beef ‘sangas’ that grace the typical Aussie barbeque.

Celery is just something I never understood until I started adding it to stews and soups. The little bit in this recipe adds a very definite layer of flavour. I’ve also overcome the hassle of all the washing and chopping involved in celery by prepping a whole bunch at a time and freezing a container of pre-diced celery. I just pull some out and throw it straight in the pan and it’s fine – plus there’s a lot less waste.

Then there are pasta bakes, which, to be honest I always thought were just a bit tacky. I thought they were a bit of a cheat food – you know, add a jar of cheap sauce to some pasta and throw in the oven – ick. (NB I’m aware that there are several tinned ingredients in the list below, but I do live in the real world and I truly couldn’t live without tinned tomatoes and chickpeas.)

Anyway, after visiting Italy I realised that pasta al forno was actually quite traditional, and could be really delicious. In this dish the combination of rich tomato sauce, spicy sausages and creamy chickpeas is really divine.

Now, ingredients. There are three things you need to spend money on for this dish: the pasta, fresh parmesan and the sausages. I think that top-quality pasta is always worth buying, because even at $5 for 500g it’s an incredibly cheap meal by serve. I look for pasta made from durum semolina. If you can’t tell what it’s made of, the cooking time on the packet can be a good indicator of quality – anything less than 10 minutes is a bit suspicious.

Similarly, good  parmesan isn’t cheap, but it goes such a long way that per serve the cost is absolutely tiny. Meanwhile the sausages are here to give loads of flavour, so something spicy with top-quality meat is really worth buying. If you can’t get spicy sausages, add some chilli and paprika to the sauce.

I did a couple of quick sums and even with really nice pasta and sausages this dish cost less than $2.50 AUD per generous serve, which is cheap by almost anyone’s standards. It’s also very simple. I know the process and list of ingredients look long, but I’ve spelled this one out a bit because I’m thinking of a few friends who are beginner cooks with this one!

 Serves 6

Ingredients

Olive oil
400g ‘Italian-style’ sausages (spicy, with a mix of pork and beef)
½ red onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, finely diced
½ stick celery, finely diced
2 x 400g tins tomatoes, chopped
500g tomato passata (tomato puree – not paste)
1 x 400g tin chickpeas, drained
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon dried oregano
pepper

500g dried pasta (large penne are great)
200g fresh mozzarella (sometimes called bocconcini here in Aus)
parmesan cheese

To make

Heat a large pot and add a little oil. When the oil is hot, use scissors to snip the sausages into small pieces, dropping the segments straight into the pan. Cook the sausage pieces in batches, browning all over, and remove onto a plate – instant meatballs!

If the bottom of the pot is too burned add a little water and scrape the worst off then pour it out. Add a little more oil and then the onions. Once they’ve softened add the celery and garlic and cook down for a few minutes, being careful not to burn the garlic.

Add the chopped tomatoes then cover the pan and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes.

Add the tomato passata, sugar and vinegar. Cover, bring to the boil again and simmer for another 10 minutes.

Add the sausages, chickpeas and oregano and season with pepper – usually the sausages will be salty enough for the whole dish, particularly once the parmesan is added, so I don’t add any other salt. Simmer, covered, for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile cook the pasta until it’s almost al dente (around two-thirds of the time quoted on the packet).

Now, I prepared this the day before I wanted to eat it, so I let the sauce and pasta cool down before I assembled everything. If you are doing that just make sure you coat the pasta in a little oil just after draining it, otherwise it’ll all stick together. If you want it now, ignore that – but I have to say that I think the overnight stopover really adds to this dish.

To assemble, take a deep baking dish and start with a thin layer of sauce. Add a single layer of pasta, then more sauce, a layer of mozzarella and a light grating of parmesan. Repeat until you end up with a final layer of cheese on top.

Bake at 180°C for around 20 minutes, or until the top is golden and crispy. Serve with a load of salad and enjoy!

J

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Our new digs

This is just a quick post to share some photos of our new flat in Australia. I don’t know about Andrew but I’m missing Europe a lot, and mostly missing all of the friends we made over there.

That said life is really good here, particularly when the weather is as stunning as it was last weekend. Once again we need that two-places-at-once machine!

Number 3, a completely typical Australian flat.

So we unpacked all our boxes and haven’t needed much, which is good as the budget is fairly tight at the moment. Anyway you know, I kind of like the beer mug vase!

The view from outside our gate – doesn’t that ocean just beckon! Oh and that’s our car, she’s called Gwen.

Brighton beach, our local.

Those huge Australian skies were one of the biggest things we missed in Europe. You really get a sense of space here, even in a busy suburb like Brighton.

On a sunny day everything is like technicolour here, I’d forgotten how saturated the colours were.

But we’re keeping the spirit of Italy present.

Oh, and on a side note, I made this apple and almond cake last weekend and it’s yum. I used marmalade instead of apricot jam for the glaze.

Well that’s us, all settled in back in the land down under. We hope to see some of you over here!

J

Research on the cloud: my top study tools for humanities postgraduates

So this week I officially become a student again for the first time since I graduated in 2008. I now have a student number and a supervisor. Next week I’ll enroll and take possession of my student card, along with a printing quota and library access, it’s all very exciting.

In truth, though, this just formalises my research – I like to think that I’ll always be a student at heart, and I’ve been working on my current project for more than 6 months and across two hemispheres.

The challenges of researching while traveling have made me a serious convert to cloud-based tools. I’ve spent hours (and hours and hours) researching which tools are the best, and now work with a select group of systems that work really well.

Given the time it took me to sort the good from the bad, I thought it would be worth sharing my list of the best cloud-based research tools. It’s not a huge list, but that’s a good thing, because that means more information stored in fewer places.

These will be particularly relevant to humanities postgraduates, although most are applicable to all disciplines. Oh, and all of these are free, although most have optional upgrades involving small fees. Best of all they are in the cloud, meaning you can access them all over the place, and your data isn’t dependent on one machine.

1. Zotero: The bibliographical system of the gods

Zotero comes out of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. It’s core focus is a Mozilla Firefox add-on, in which users can maintain a library of resources (books, journal articles, webpages). Yes, EndNote does this, but Zotero does it way, way better.

My Zotero library

The Zotero magic is in its ability to suck metadata out of almost anywhere. EndNote will only talk to, and import citations from, library catalogues and journal databases. The end result is a LOT of manual entry of records. Zotero, on the other hand, saves data from the source directly. It’s hard to explain, but check out the tutorials to see this in action – it is almost too good to be true.

Zotero links in to most major word processing software with a neat ad-on, again meaning that you are working within the program itself – no toggling between your word processor and the bibliographical software.

It also stores all of your records, notes, etc on external servers, so that if your computer dies or you have to work on another machine, you can still access all of your records. Oh, and on the topic of notes, by keeping your notes on Zotero (as standalone notes or tied to a specific book etc) they are fully text searchable.

I’ve also just seen their latest news announcement, which includes information about a range of great updates. These include the expansion of the add-on to cover other web browsers (including Safari and Chrome), an update of the web-based interface to allow full read-write capability (i.e. for when you don’t have the browser add-on) and updated word-processor integration.

I use this to: Collect, store and cite references. Keep notes about references. Search through my notes.

2. Evernote: notes

Evernote is very simply an online notebook. I used it a lot more before I got into Zotero in a big way, but it is still a really useful tool for jotting down thoughts in a place that can’t be left on a bus or in the library.

Its big advantage is that it is supported across almost all platforms (Zotero requires a computer) so you can record a note from your phone, iPad, friend’s computer etc. It’s simple, but quick – just what you want to capture those scurrying thoughts or flashes of genius.

It also has a cute function where you can ‘clip’ webpages or material from the web and store it as a note, although for serious research I would prefer to put things in Zotero and store it as a proper bibliographical entry.

I use this to: Hoard random thoughts that might come in useful someday.

3. TimeGlider: Easy and elegant timelines

This is a very handy web-based timeline creator, which is perfect for building a record of the key events and dates associated with the historical moment of your research. I find this a fantastic way to visualise and connect events. By  overlaying the events specific to my research with the major political and economic events of the time, things start to fit together.

My timeline - early stages yet

This is web-based, so you can log-in and add entries from anywhere, and you can even print your timeline.

I use this to: Store information about major events. See how events connect and fit together. Check which came first, the chicken or the egg.

4. Dropbox: Backup, backup backup!

Dropbox is a new addition to my list, but as I get further with my research the risk of losing everything is getting bigger by the minute. Dropbox offers a simple backup system, with the added advantage of a one-month history of your files, so if you accidentally save over that amazing first draft, you can retrieve it.

I use this to: Backup important files.

5. Google Docs: Word processing on the cloud

A simple word processor that offers good collaboration tools and connectivity with Office. Its pretty basic, but in a good way.

I use this to: Work on files when I’m not at my own desk.

6. WordPress!

A blog platform probably isn’t the most typical research tool out there, but it does offer the research student some vital opportunities – namely the chance to workshop ideas, vent spleen, share links and generally connect. I looked at a lot of different blogging platforms and I’m really glad I took the plunge with WordPress.

I’m sure there are loads of other great tools out there, but these are my favourites, and I have to say they truly make my life easier. If anyone has suggestions get commenting!

J

Zesty Almond Biscuits and Zabaglione

When I googled ‘almond biscuits’ yesterday the second item that turned up (after the obligatory wikipedia page) was from the website of the Producers of McLaren Vale, with a recipe from my Mum! Freaky but true – I guess Google have really worked out who I am now.

So clearly this was the recipe I was after. I’ve followed it fairly exactly, but have added some orange zest and a dash of amaretto liqueur. These are honestly the easiest biscuits to make. There are very few ingredients, and no complicated processes – just mix, form and bake.

For the italophiles out there, these are also known as amaretti. The biscuits are crisp on the outside, but wonderfully chewy in the middle. They also happen to be the best accompaniment to an espresso in the world.

But the thing about this recipe is it only uses egg whites, so you have three egg yolks left over. This is your chance to make an unbelievably good Italian dessert – zabaglione with amaretti.

Zabaglione is kind of  like a custard, but very thick, almost like a mousse. It’s traditionally made with egg yolks, sugar and sweet marsala wine, but I like to make it with amaretto liqueur (are you sensing a trend). Amaretti biscuits dipped into hot zabaglione is, well, heavenly.

Three yolks makes just the right amount for two people, so if you’re feeding more just make more biscuits and you’ll have more egg yolks!

Before I get into that though, a quick note on blanching almonds. This is really easy, particularly when you have the beautiful Johnston almonds grown by my parents. This variety is typified by large kernels with thick, wrinkly skins.

To remove the skins you just need to soak the almonds in boiling water for a few minutes. After draining you’ll be able to pinch the skin off of the kernels in a trice.

Almond biscuits (Amaretti)

200g almond meal (I used ‘brown meal’ which is made from skin-on kernels)
1 cup castor sugar
1/2 cup plain flour
zest of 1/2 an orange
1-2 tablespoons Amaretto liqueur
3 egg whites at room temperature
24ish whole blanched almonds

to make

Pre-heat your oven to 160°C and line two baking trays with greaseproof paper.

In a large bowl, mix the almond meal, sugar, flour, orange zest and Amaretto liqueur. In a separate bowl beat the egg whites until they are stiff, then mix the egg whites into the other ingredients. You should end up with a thick paste.

Form the mixture into balls, one tablespoonful at a time and place on the baking trays. Press one blanched almond into the centre of each biscuit and flatten the ball slightly.

Bake for 18-20 minutes, until the biscuits are just blushing with golden colour. When cooked, remove the biscuits immediately to wire racks to cool.

Zabaglione

3 egg yolks, at room temperature
50g castor sugar
1 tablespoon Amaretto liqueur

to make

Get a few centimeters of water boiling in a pot. Pick a bowl that will sit well on top of your pot, then add all of the ingredients. Turn the pot down to a simmer then sit the bowl on top and whisk like crazy. Depending on how fit you are this may be a job for two people.

Your zabaglione is done when it is a lighter colour, fluffy and doesn’t have any raw yolk taste. This should only take a few minutes.

Pour the zabaglione into glasses (martini glasses are perfect because they are easy to dip the biscuits into), serve with some of your amaretti biscuits, and ascend instantly to a sugary heaven.

J

life is like an almond tree (at the moment anyway)

Well then.

It’s been a while.

Life has rather emphatically resumed, and blogging and its associated delights have been pushed aside by an influx of real work.

For the first time in over a month I’ve had the time to take a deep breath and think about writing. Since it’s been such a while I though I might get this show back on the road with a little autobiographical aside, a bit of back-story covering the last month or so.

When I came home to Australia I had a plan. Back to university full-time. Six months of income support from The Man and then onto a research scholarship (these are awarded once a year and I’ve missed the round for 2011).

Unfortunately The Man is a philistine and didn’t want to support me in my endeavors to spread the light of learning and enquiry. End result, I had to get a job.

Two weeks after getting home I was ‘back in black’ ‘workin nine-to-five’, and other song references. I was also spending 3 hours a day commuting from the farm to the office. Spare time was taken up with house hunting and looking for a continuing job. Time passed, or rather raced.

Last week everything changed again, as Andrew and I moved into our own house, he started university again, and I started a new job at one of the local universities. I’m now working part-time, am poised and ready to submit my Masters application and life is getting back onto the planned track.

With a more forgiving work schedule I’m now hoping – no definitely planning – on having more time to get blogging again – I mean I’ve barely been cooking over the last two months. I’m also hoping that getting back into research will provide some good topics to mull over in this space.

I’m writing all of this back at the farm (we’re having the internet connected at the flat tomorrow) and I’m current sitting in the middle of ten acres of blossoming almond trees. They’ve been bare and quiet all winter, leaves and fruit both shed in the autumn. Suddenly though, everything is happening, as they burst into flower in preparation for next year’s harvest – I think you see the metaphor!

So, that’s it really. My life to this point, from another point a few months ago, and illustrated with photos and metaphors from the farm in bloom.

I hope – no intend – to see you soon!

J

The Krakow Factor

This is just a quick dzień dobry to let you know that I’ve got a bite-sized travel piece on Crikey. It’s all about the amazing Art-Nouveau fantasy that is the Franciscan Church in Krakow, Poland.

What’s behind the door? You’ll have to head to crikey.com.au to find out!

Inn Taverns and E-Pubs: Storytelling today

**I wrote this essay for the Meanland blog contest while in the middle of shifting from Europe back to Australia. I even wrote some of it in Heathrow Airport (remember how much I love Heathrow?) While I wasn’t successful in scoring a regular gig for the Meanland blog, I was excited to be involved (even glancingly) in such an innovative way to seek out good ideas and those who have them. The first of the winning essays has now been published and is a very good read. Check it out for yourself at meanland.com.au. So without further ado, here is my essay on the topic of digital writing and oral storytelling.**

Have you ever heard someone tell a story in a tavern? For that matter, when was the last time you listened to someone telling a story—not about their weekend or their recent trip to Bali—a real story, a work of fiction.

If you’re anything like me you struggled with it, attention slipping, plotlines escaping, distractions getting the upper hand. In our fundamentally literary world, following an oral narrative can be hard work.

Oral storytelling (and story-listening) were central elements in ancient, medieval and early-modern popular culture. A cosy tavern on a cold northern night, filled with a community sharing stories, news or scandals is a quintessential image of medieval England.

Chaucer on his charger

The scenario is most famously depicted in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, where a motley group of pilgrims compete in a storytelling competition situated in the taverns they stop in along their route. The pilgrims come from a range of social strata, and the stories they tell vary from pious sermons to lewd yarns that would make a footy-player blush. This variation in theme and style highlights an important aspect of oral storytelling traditions—their variety. It is impossible to speak of one cohesive popular culture today, and the same goes for the entertainments of the past.

That said, there were clearly themes that were likely to be well received by a tavern crowd. Both manuscripts and other sources, such as the Canterbury Tales, are evidence of the widespread popularity of the romance genre. Medieval romances were stories of courtly love, adventure and magic: More Lord of the Rings than Georgette Heyer.

Dragons are always popular

In the oral tradition, the romances were populated by a set of familiar characters and plot lines—King Arthur and the Holy Grail, Gawain and the Green Knight, Tristram and Isolde. As Nancy Bradbury argued in her book Writing Aloud, medieval storytelling involved ‘a set of infinitely recombinable ready-made narrative episodes’. Thus, each re/telling involved a combination of borrowing and invention. The storytelling tradition was ‘built up out of a common stock of tough but flexible structural units’ that facilitated the activity of storytelling and helped people all over Europe find and create entertainment.

So where is storytelling today? As in medieval Europe it’s all over the place in a number of different forms and genres: from video or podcasts, to theatre performances, book readings and even tweets (see for example the 2010 Royal Shakespeare Company/Mudlark project Such Tweet Sorrow).

Rather strikingly, stories involving high adventure, dashing heroes and a good dose of magic have also lost none of their popularity since Chaucer’s time. It seems that humans still have a ‘thirst for the otherworldy’, as Daniel Mackay put it.

On this quest to trace storytelling culture to its modern home, then, I followed the path of the otherworldly to a little-known address in an internet byway. Here you can find the Running Stag Inn, where Burke tends the bar and serves a particularly multiracial clientele, including humans, elves, drow and gnomes. Of course Burke is a work of fiction, one among the characters who inhabit the fantasy role-playing website Faerun RP.

This Inn (an e-Pub?) is a modern gathering place, where a community of like-minded, if far-flung, members come together to create and tell stories.

Faerun RP is one among many fantasy role-play (RP) websites active on the internet. The homepage on another site, Mizahar, provides an introduction to the activity as a whole, describing itself as: ‘a fantasy roleplay forum in which a dedicated, friendly, and free community of roleplayers and artists gather to spin epic-level tales via collaborative storytelling.’

The storytelling on these websites involves a number of multimedia elements—from character avatars, to theme music and scenic photographs—all used to complement and flesh out the written stories.

The structural units of this environment are even more visible than those of the medieval oral tradition. Some, such as Faerun RP and The Legends of Krynn, are based on ‘campaign settings’ published by the megalithic Wizards of the Coast as part of the Dungeons & Dragons universe. These are the same rule books used in ‘table-top’ RP games, but on the RP website the focus is most-often on the storytelling, with dice and scoring rarely, if ever, used.

Unlike the examples above, Mizahar is proud to assert that it does not ‘borrow from mainstream Tolkien fantasy’. Instead it has its own universe, complete with 20 distinct races, numerous religions and all the other necessary structural elements.

Just as in the medieval oral storytelling tradition, these frameworks provide much assistance to the modern storyteller. By setting a story in a pre-defined world and using characters whose basic attributes are already familiar to the audience, writers are able to get on with the real business of the day—telling a rip-roaring story.

The differences between this storytelling environment and that of the medieval troubadours are numerous. The role-play website is an asynchronous environment, where teller and listeners share neither spatial nor temporal location. As the Mizahar introduction also points out, the stories in a role-play website are multi-authored. Outside of the ‘in character’ story forums there is a buzz of activity on ‘out of character’ forums, where plotlines are formed under the guidance of a central storyteller (otherwise known as a Dungeon Master). The extent to which this situation differs from the oral tradition is difficult to say, as a tavern environment is impossible to reconstruct from the historical sources.

Of course the most fundamental, inescapable, difference between the medieval storytelling tradition and the website communities is in the form of the words they use. In the medieval tavern the words were spoken and listened to, in the Running Stag Inn the words are written and read.

But the fantasy role-play website doesn’t really fit in the world of literature—even the more formal (book-form) expressions of fantasy writing are often rejected by the literary world. In this instance it is clear that the material substance of the stories is not the most defining feature of the activity. Rather the key is the purpose of those involved—entertainment, play, the whiling away of an evening in the company of friends: In a word, storytelling.