Ever since 1984, when I was lucky enough to take my first trip overseas with my family, I have kept travel journals. My parents made me do it at first; they got me in the habit, telling me it was the only way I'd ever remember all the details of my magnificent voyages. As they are with most things, they were right. When I went to Australia as an exchange student in 1990, Mom made me promise that no matter how tired I was, or how much I didn't feel like doing it, I would write in my journal each and every night before I went to sleep.
How I treasure those volumes.
They are a cherished record of the tiny memories and observations that would have otherwise been lost to time. At the time I was creating them, they also served as an excellent place to practice my writing. Each blank page taught me that to have something to write, you must have a keenly sharp and perceptive eye for the mundane yet interesting detail. Every occurrence was worth recording, each event was fascinating. And so I started noticing things that I might otherwise have missed, so I could fill my journal pages with the beauty of Australia and the unique, amazing experiences I was having there, from the grand and expected (the swooping white sails of the Sydney Opera House; the sparkling blue of Sydney Harbour) to the everyday and in many ways the more remarkable (the click-clack sounds of my host brothers playing ping pong in the lounge room; the sight of the breakfast table each morning: a buffet of Cocoa Pops, toast, Meadow Lea and, every so often, Vegemite). I didn't want to miss or forget a thing. I don't know if I would have pursued the track that I did -- an English major at Northwestern, a career in writing (though, admittedly, it's not the type of writing I really want to be doing), a passion for this very bloggy outlet -- if I hadn't started with these modest journals, scrawled in a teenaged hand by a girl almost too excited to be able to get it all on paper.
I've kept up the habit over the years, and when I returned to Australia in 2004 I dutifully resumed my journal routine, inspiring my host mom and dad, Kerrie and Greg, to remark that not much ever changes in this world. (The only trip on which I didn't keep a journal was my honeymoon, and, man alive, it is one of the biggest regrets of my life. I kick myself nearly daily over that one.) Of course, my writing style and interests were quite different as a 29-year-old than they were as a 15-year-old, so this journal is a very different tome to read, indeed. In addition to my daily activities, thoughts and observations, this time around I included many recipes that I transcribed from Kerrie's issues of "Delicious" magazine. Each night I'd return home from the day's gallivanting and lose myself in another issue -- I wish I could get this magazine here in Ohio, but alas, subscriptions are $110+ per year -- copying down as many recipes as I could into my journal. Tucking them away for safekeeping, knowing full well that I'd always have my treasured journals; therefore, these recipes would never be very far away. The only thing I couldn't capture was the succulent photography. Tragic, I tell you.
And so it is that I share a page from my 2004 Australia journal, with some of the more personal, less interesting details omitted. I choose this entry for many reasons. First, because it demonstrates how, in Australia, the minutiae (car dealership, Law & Order) bookends the extraordinary (cruise through Sydney Harbour), making for unforgettable days. (Or perhaps it illustrates that minutiae in Australia is magnificent and thrilling. Maybe I would feel differently if I lived there, but somehow I doubt it.) Second, I choose this journal entry because what I did that day -- sail on Sydney Harbour with Kerrie and Greg -- was an iconic Sydney tourist experience. Everyone who visits there should do it, and I thought you might enjoy reading about it. Finally, I choose this entry -- this is a food blog, after all! -- because I love the dish that I jotted into the journal that night.
Pasta with Chicken, Feta and Spicy Tomato Sauce looks a lot like the dish about which I wrote last week, but I assure you, it is a completely different taste sensation. The chicken breast is first sautéed in a bit of olive oil so that it assumes a nice, brown, tasty crust. When shredded, this crust adds a wonderful crispy textural component to the tender chicken and the penne, which is an inspired pasta choice for the dish because its length approximates the size and shape of the shredded chicken pieces. The chilies and sambal oelek add a delightful spice that you don't notice so much while you're eating, but then hits you, pleasantly, after you're done. And the feta and kalamata olives! Salty, briny goodness! Such a wonderful mélange of flavors to be swimming in a pool of tomato sauce.
Happy reading, happy writing, happy traveling, happy eating. Happy Australia.
Wednesday, 21 April 2004
Greg's off work today, so we're up early to drop off the Alfa Romeo at the dealer for some sort of fluid problem and then into Sydney. Kerrie and I pick him up at the dealer in her Suzuki -- which they just hate driving into the city -- and head over the phenomenally gorgeous ANZAC Bridge to the casino at Darling Harbour. I described the ANZAC Bridge a few days ago as "the bridge that goes like this...." accompanied by hand gestures "drawing" the angular tension wires. The casino -- the Star City, I think it's called -- is like any other, except the carpet is much less busy.
We head outside and have a walk around the shops at Darling Harbour and the nearby circular water fountain. Again, both seem smaller than they did 14 years ago, when I was here for the very first time as a 15-year-old. They've built up the city side of the Harbour with a new group of restaurants called Cockle Bay, and we stop in one called Blackbird for brekky/lunch. Kerrie has bacon and eggs and I have a BLT that I know I should have ordered extra-crispy but oh well. It was still tasty enough. If not a bit fatty. Greg's waffles arrive a bit late, but we are quite leisurely and don't mind. We leave Blackbird and begin walking to Circular Quay, north past Darling Harbour, past the Welsh Bay finger wharves (being renovated) and finally under the awesome Harbour Bridge and around to the Quay. We do a lot a reminiscing about the last time I was here.
We have about an hour to kill before our Harbour cruise leaves, so we find a spot near the Quay on a bench for some quality people-watching. There's a guy who is rather talentlessly playing what appears to be a fishing pole; a performance artist of some sort who is dressed as a donkey/horse, bent over on all fours; a man who is fishing on the city edge of the Quay and, shockingly, catching fish. He is throwing his catch into an air-temperature milk crate.
We board the boat at 2:15 for a 2 1/2-hour cruise around Sydney Harbour, which is just fantastic. It goes all the way up past North Head and Manly and beyond. It is a perfect opportunity to see the beautiful homes perched on the sandstone cliffs overlooking the various bays, coves and spits.
It's also the perfect opportunity to see nude beaches and beaches with shark-proof fences (they get bull sharks in the Harbour). So if you're ever with me and I'm trying to swim nude in Sydney Harbour but am concerned about the bull sharks, kindly remind me it's OK because of the specialty fencing. Thanks. There is a black and white and glass monstrosity that our guide mentions is frequently rented by Elton John when he is in town because he thinks it looks like a grand piano. My favorite part is North Head, the gateway to a vast ocean, or, conversely as I like to think of it, the gateway to a vast continent that I am lucky enough to call "home" every so often.
Our cruise includes afternoon tea, which is just lovely. I am thinking of instituting afternoon tea at home.
The voyage continues back downtown, past Kirribilli point, which is the site of the Prime Minister's Sydney home, and then under the Sydney Harbour Bridge before turning around and heading back into Circular Quay. It is magnificent to sail under the Harbour Bridge and view the skyline and Opera House from that angle -- a new one! [Ed. note: I had no clue of this at the time, but I was to return to Australia a year later on my honeymoon, and at the time I would sail out of Darling Harbour, through Sydney Harbour, out through The Heads and turn south along Australia's coast heading to Tasmania. Talk about a thrill: sailing out of Sydney Harbour (or, I am certain, in) is one of those grand experiences I am lucky enough to be able to cross off my life list.]
We disembark and grab a taxi back to the casino, for we have to hurry to pick up Greg's car before the dealership closes. We barely make it, but make it we do, then a long traffic-filled drive back to Penrith.
Tea is pasta with a ricotta-herb sauce (Kerrie's cooking is definitely more adventurous now than it was in 1990 -- not that it was bad then, on the contrary, it was quite good. It was just more comfort-foody then, homier. Lots of baked dinners. Maybe it has to do with grown kids, empty nest, world travels. Or maybe she has always been an adventurous cook, and my tastes have changed since I last saw her. Quite possible!), then I watch my second ever episode of Law & Order. I will now fall asleep wondering what Sydney Harbour looked like in its natural state.
PASTA WITH CHICKEN, FETA AND SPICY TOMATO SAUCE
Adapted from "Delicious" magazine
1 lb. penne pasta
6 T. olive oil, plus 3 t. to cook the chicken
1 small onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, crushed and coarsely chopped
2 small red chilies, rehydrated, seeds removed, finely chopped
26 oz. strained tomatoes (I like Pomi strained tomatoes, which is readily available in groceries in my area, though any smooth tomato puree will do)
3 c. chicken, sautéed and shredded (about 3 boneless, skinless breasts)
4 oz. feta cheese, diced
1 c. kalamata olives, pitted and cut into halves or thirds
1/2 c. flat-leaf parsley, freshly chopped
Heat 3 t. olive oil in a medium skillet. Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper; add to the pan and cook until their internal temperature reaches 161 degrees F. (I use an internal probe thermometer for this task.) I flip the breasts several times throughout this process to develop and nice, brown crispy "crust." When they reach the desired temperature, remove to a cutting board and allow them to cool so that you can handle them.
Using your hands, shred the chicken into bite-sized pieces; measure 3 cups of the chicken and set aside.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the penne according to the package directions, until it is al dente.
While the pasta water is coming up to a boil and the pasta is cooking, prepare the sauce. Heat 6 T. olive oil in a large frying pan over medium heat; add the onions and cook until they're translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and chilies, and cook for 1 minute. Add the strained tomatoes and the sambal oelek (or harissa, if using) and begin to whisk together the sauce. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the pasta is ready.
Drain the pasta and place it in a large serving or mixing bowl. Add the chicken, kalamata olives and parsley to the tomato sauce, reserving some of the parsley for garnish. Mix to combine. Pour the sauce over the pasta and mix well. Add the feta just before serving, and stir to combine. Garnish with reserved parsley and....enjoy.
Serves 4-6. Personally, I was amazed at how well the chicken "stretched" the penne, considering that one pound of pasta typically serves 2 in my household. But this recipe had enough for 2 servings for 2 of us, with enough left over for at least a couple more servings. This recipe is a winner. Way to go, journaling process!