Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Spring has Sprung!

The cherry blossoms are out, the magnolias are blooming and even the pear trees are coming out in style.

Despite Niki's winterial preference, I was about to announce that here in Melbourne, Spring has definitely sprung! But Melbourne has weather as capricious as a starlet's hairstyle, and despite the fact that yesterday we had the warmest August night since they began recording such things, today I sit here, listening to hail fall on the roof. I can see the small icy pebbles hitting the ground - smack! smack! smack!

So yesterday I was thinking of little lamb cutlets and delicate salmon steaks. Now I think I'll go cook up a batch of lamb shanks - french cut, $2.00 each at the butcher's on special.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Adventures with Tom Yum

I have had some escapades with Tom Yum soup. I have enjoyed many a spicy and sour soup in Thai restaurants, but my attempts to recreate those at home have Not Been Good. I have followed a recipe of the wondeful Charmaine Solomon painstakingly, only to have it taste, kind of dreary. I have sampled a couple of paste packets from my local Asian grocery, but it didn't come remotely close. And I am not the kind of girl who can put up with boiling prawn peelings for long.

And then I found John MeEwan. Well, that is his pastes I guess. I don't actually recall the first time my eyes met Tom Yum in this guise - I suspect it was at the now defunct David Jones speciality store Foodchain (oh Foodchain, how I loved you!). The fresh pastes come in a range of Thai curries, plus Tom Yum and Satay. The Satay Sauce is amazing (I can eat it out of the container with a packet of roti and not even bother to sit down before I'm halfway through) but the Tom Yum saved me from my poor accomplishments thus far.

This time I didn't quite follow the instructions on the container - I simply heated a couple of litres of water (no decent stock on hand) and added the paste. I cut up a large fillet of white rockling fish (very firm) and dropped it in. The lovely lady at the fish stand advised me to cook it for just four minutes, and once it came back to a simmer, that's what I did. In the meantime, I had sliced a capsicum, washed some baby greens and opened a can of coconut cream. Ladled out some soup and fish, added a couple of spoonfuls of coconut cream, the vegetables and a good squeeze of lemon.

Now this is not a traditional Tom Yum soup. For one thing, I suppose prawns should be included, not fish, and coriander not baby greens. And lime, not lemon. But on a weeknight, this is what I have to hand. It was spicy and fragant and delicious. Who could ask for more?

Monday, August 29, 2005

IMBB Eighteen: Let's Get Frying!

You didn't really think that I would make it ontime for an IMBB, did you? Despite having bought an entire book devoted to deep frying, as I pointed out on Zarah Maria's delightful blog, the closest I got to IMBB Eighteen was scoffing a giant greasy spring roll on Chapel Street this weekend. It was from a takeaway restaurant devoted entirely to vegetarian food and had some laudable sentiments about respecting the earth and our food supply written above the door. Their curries and other main dishes looked quite tasty and so I decided to give their spring roll a go. Bad bad idea! It was huge and greasy and tasted of nothing but soggy cardboard and grease. When I eat a spring roll I know it's all about the crispy pastry, but I do like some indication of the original filling - be it animal, vegetable or mineral (salt salt, yum!).

I did have a quick flick through the deep fry book for some inspiration, but I felt in the mood for something dessertish and none of the five dessert recipes appealed in any real way. But as my minor contribution to this netfryfest, I thought I would share what caught my eye about this little book in the first place. At the front, there is a section on equipment, and after the deep fat fryer, recommends the Dutch oven or large enamelled cast iron pan. Now I never would hasve even thoufght of using this, but as author Sunil Vijayakar points out "Their heavy base and thick sides absorb heat and hold it evenly, which helps to keep oil at the right temperature. They are also very stable, which is particularly important when deep-frying."

Apparently, the pan should be at least 20cm wide and 15cm deep. It makes a lot of sense really. When frying in a large saute pan, I've noticed the temperature plummet when I've dropped in a bundle of frozen goodies, and the time it takes for the temperature to resurge is time that the food spends absorbing oil instead of being cooked by it. So there you go. You learn something new every day. In this case, don't eat spring rolls on Chapel Street, as it is a very busy shopping precinct and it is hard to find somewhere to eject a spring roll from your mouth discreetly!

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Blue Chillies Restaurant Review

Figman, Plumbaby and I joined the family for a long lunch the other day. The food was Malaysian and spicy, the wine was from New Zealand and coolly delicious. This photo is of a fried snapper dish - heaped with a zesty sauce and coriander. This was one of my favourites, but truly, it paled into comparison with the thrice-cooked duck - I could have eaten a full serving of this myself (and one day, I swear I will!). Meltingly tender on the inside, crisp on the outside, it was a duck lover's dream. I have gone from being a person who orders duck in restaurants to cooking it all the time at home, but I now appreciate how time consuming it is to make it taste this good. I don't know how it was cooked three times. I suspect possibly fried, then braised, then quickly deep fried. And then topped with wild ginger flower and lime sauce. Ooooh ...

Few of us could touch dessert despite the tempting list, but a stalwart had the creme caramel with blood orange sorbet. One taste of this and I regretted not ordering dessert. Or rather, being stuffed so full of other tasty food that I was practically incapable of eating dessert. Now I have my order planned out for next time - just duck and dessert, duck and dessert thank you. And did I mention that there is an Alannah Hill factory outlet next door? What more could a girl require from a casual Sunday lunch?

182 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy
(03) 9417 0071

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Not For Long!!

I just wanted you to be able to admire my clean fridge. Yes, that's right. Due to a lack of interest in food recently, the food stocks have become somewhat depleted in the fridge, to the point where I could Actually See The Bottom Of The Vegetable Drawer. This spurred me into action, a rare chance to clean out the fridge without having to pile too much onto the benchtops and have it turn into an all day event!

I will spare you tales of the disgusting things I found and the rare treasures which should have been gobbled up months ago. But I wanted to share with you this one moment, when my fridge sparkles and shines and is just waiting to be filled with yummy things.

P.S. Note that this shot only includes the vegetable drawer and the lower shelves. I am not so nuts that I would actually show you my mad collection of mustard jars, the jam troops, the half-empty curry paste brigade. A girl's gotta preserve a little dignity.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Simplest of chicken soups

"With the first sip I knew that I had never really eaten before. The initial taste was pure carrot, followed by cream, butter, a bit of nutmeg. I then swallowed and my whole mouth and throat filled with the echo of a rich chicken stock."

This is one of my favourite pieces of food writing; one of my favourite pieces of writing altogether. It is from Tender At The Bone: Growing Up At The Table by Ruth Reichl, now editor of Gourmet.

Ruth taught me about the intrinsical linking of food with memoir, of hands with history. Her words made me conscious of the presence of stock, even in a soup where it is not the main star. When I make chicken laksa, I'm well aware that I can "get away" with a tetra pack stock, since the overwhelming flavour is of coconut milk and strong laksa paste. But add a golden, rich, home made chicken stock, and that mouthful ends with the silk of chicken. Truly.

I've had a minor stomach virus recently and, when I was able to face food, craved a simple stock. The very simplest - no carrot, onion or leek, as I would usually add. T'was just one chicken (Lilydale, best of the supermarket brands), enough water to cover it, and half a head of celery, diced. That's all. Lemon salt to finish, but just a simple soup for a weary tummy.

Friday, August 19, 2005

A Tale of Two New Food Magazines!

Strolling through the newsagent to pick up my secret vice, an English magazine (which shall not be named) I happened upon TWO Aussie food mags which I had never seen before!! Not one, but TWO!!

The first, was Hunter Gatherer, which describes itself as "the mail order magazine for food lovers". I was tempted by the "1000+ Gourmet Brands" listed on the cover, but if I'd stood and flicked a bit longer, I would have discovered that I am familiar with many of these brands already. If you live in the country, this would be a good resource, but with all that Melbourne has to offer, I'll hold on the mail order for now. (they also had a good offer on Wonderflex silicon bakeware)

The other magazine, I think will become a sure favourite with me. Now I have a fondness for a launch issue (I still have my original delicious and marie claire) and Regional Food Australia looked too intriguing to say no to. I almost did, because this issue featured King Island, and I thought "when am I ever going to get to King Island, lovely though the idea might be?". Well let me tell you, now I want to go NOW.

Regional Food is a bit different to most food magazines, there is a real sense of the small group of individuals running it. After an ad, the magazine opens with four double spreads of gorgeous photography - landscapes, black cows and swans, ageing cheeses and a crateful of crayfish. The style is quite different to much of that on the local food mag scene. I feel now that I can't wait to go try a crayfish pie from the King Island Bakery or buy eggs from David and Sandy Holloway.

I have kept many old issues of delicious which I have no intention of cooking from or ever re-reading, simply because they offer a guide to various places in Australia. I think that I can dig these out and ditch them now, because Regional Food is here to stay!

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

New World Record

Well in my case anyway. For buying a cookbook and Actually Making a Recipe From It. On Sunday, merely a couple of hours. Utterly, utterly amazing. Unfortunately, the recipe, not so amazing!

I tend to buy cookbooks. A lot. Or at least, books about food - more often food writing these days than recipe books, but still, it's not hard for me to buy a cookbook of some sort or description every week or two. I don't mean a gorgeous glossy hardback each time, but even when I'm in the supermarket I'll notice those lovely little Women's Weekly $4 cookbooks or in the newsagent my eyes will accidentally drift towards the imported food magazines. I can't help myself, I tell you.

I picked up this little book Deep Fry for $8.00 in the bargain box - it wasn't something that would normally have grabbed my attention because (a) I don't deep fry much at all and (b) it is not a particularly extensive book.

But the recipe for crab cakes included a side of coconut rice and this lured me in. Coconut rice. Just the sound of it made my mouth water. I'll confess and say that it may not have been the recipe that t'was to blame, the fact that I used brown rice and not white, would have had a major impact. But, still, it just wasn't as coconutty as I had expected. I'll have to try it again. And I used roast chilli jam since I was out of fresh red chilli.

Still, the accompanying twice-cooked pork ribs with leeks wasn't bad at all. I picked up a tray of these cheap at the organic butcher and using a method from the Food of China, poached these in water with a little soy sauce and then drained, cooled and chopped. I then fried them in hot oil, and added julienned leeks, soy sauce and oyster sauce. Beware, that oil really spits!!

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Something Orange from Greytown

Recently at the Essential Ingredient, I stopped at a display of new chocolate from New Zealand. There was a salesgirl amongst the piles of chocolate, arranging them, and when she saw me at the counter, she came forward. As she was totalling my purchases, I mentioned that I'd been lingering by that stand earlier and wondered what it was like. "Oh, would you like a tasting?" she asked casually. As if it meant nothing! As if I would dream of saying no! She recommended the sea salt mix, but as this was made with milk chocolate, it really wasn't to my taste, although the saltiness was interesting and made me think of this dessert which I've long wanted to try. I enjoyed the lemongrass chocolate, but felt that this was a flavour combination I'd enjoy more in a dessert rather than in eating chocolate. And the strawberry could not be found in the pepper and strawberry . I don't remember the rest, but I do know that the one I had been debating over - Tangerine, was not available for tasting in the tiny portions.

But I bit the bullet and it was mine.

Shoc, in Greytown, New Zealand, produce an amazing range of flavours. I liked the Tangerine, but I'll have to hunt out the coconut!

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Otway Pork Convert

I am not a pork girl. There, I've said it. Once, on a birthday, I arrived at a relative's house to find that "my favourite dinner" had been prepared in celebration. "Oh good" I ventured cautiously, trying not to look too alarmed as a large pork roast with crackling came out of the oven! I don't mind the occasional bit of bacon, but generally, I simply don't care for the taste of pork. This may be the fault of "new-fashioned pork", which is very lean and does not encourage the flavoursome fat.

But in our household, pork is generally reserved for the Figster, who would eat it every night if I let him. At the butcher's the other day, I noticed a cut of pork I hadn't seen before. It was a mid-loin chop, with the bone through it and a healthy dose of fat round the side. Quite large, about one and a half hands, it was the perfect meal for Figman. Or it would have been if it hadn't been quite so delicious.

An onion sliced and tossed in the pan with some olive oil. Then the pork chop, cooked on each side till white and brown. Some Warragul greens thrown in quickly to heat through and dinner was ready. His dinner. Which was so tasty I couldn't keep my fork out of it.

It was unbelievable. Remember, I Do Not Like Pork. Truly I do not. But this was delicious and I kept going back for "just one piece more". Figman was so charmed by the novelty of this event that he did not protest.

Otway Pork. What more can I say? According to their site, their "pigs are born outdoors. From birth, Otway Porkā„¢ pigs are free to play, forage and do what all pigs like to do best - socialise, sleep in straw, eat a healthy diet and drink fresh clean water freely." That must be what makes them taste so good!!

Friday, August 12, 2005

Sixteen with a Shake

It's been kind of hectic round here lately, so the kitchen has been quiet. To the point that when asked what was for dinner last Friday night, I replied "It's Nando's or toast".

Nando's is a takeaway chain, which serve Portuguese-South African Peri-Peri marinated chicken. Plus great chips (Peri-Peri or plain), salads, pitas and the works. Growing up, Peri-Peri chicken was a rare treat, as the spicy chilli marinade was not available in Australia, and only occasionally would a bottle find its way to us from friends overseas. I can remember clearly one of my uncles - not a man usually disturbed by culinary passions - excitedly telling us that a Nando's had opened here.

The Nando's chicken is better than most takeaway ones - they insist on marinating it for 24 hours and then cooking it to order - but it doesn't match the plump juicy roasted pieces that my mother would pull from a hot oven. It's still not to be sneezed at though. Unusually for me, I ordered a Supremo Burger. I am not a Burger Girl but I recalled eating half of Figman's burger last time and knew that it would not be welcomed again. There was a new burger, in a "fresh baked Portuguese roll", so I went for that, plus caramelized onions and a large chips.

It took about 10 minutes for our order to be cooked (fancy that at McDonalds?) and while I waited, I watched a group of teenage girls at the counter. They would have been about sixteen or seventeen, and this was just the beginning of their weekend. Friends came in from the carpark to join them and the odd boyfriend hung around, but everything centred on these girls. It brought back memories of being sixteen, and going down to the local Red Rooster or Pizza Hut with a cluster of my friends. We would eat chips with chicken salt or vanilla thickshakes and just talk and laugh for hours. The night would bring fun - whether it was simply sleeping over at somebody's house and watching videos till 3 or trying to get into inappropriate nightclubs. And despite the occasional boy or interfering parent or the supposed demands of high school, this time was all about us. Just us.

I don't have any desire to be sixteen again. But the memory of that closeness does pull at my heart sometimes. So I eat a chip and a fantastic burger and watch a group of sixteen year old girls begin their lives.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

East West Jam's Best

As mentioned, we have a firm preference in this household for the Laurent jam doughnut. Just how much of a preference I was about to find out ...

You know that you're becoming a food blogger when you got out to dinner and are not thinking of the exquisite food but instead the fact that you forgot your camera at home. And when I brought a bag of these doughnuts home, I experimented a little and then decided I would have to wait to get some decent shots. I had asked Figman how many dougnuts he wanted and he insisted that He Only Wanted One Jam Doughnut, Just One.

So imagine my reaction when I walked into the kitchen to find the plate of doughnuts that I Wanted to Photograph In Natural Light half-demolished. He, I regret to inform you, was not particularly sorry. He was only sorry that he was now stuck with the chocolate doughnut since I'd eaten the last jam half. I used to love the custard ones, but now, I am an Original Girl. East, West, Jam's Best.

Monday, August 08, 2005

A Slight Improvement?

Figman came home tonight, beaming about how good he'd been at lunch.

"I had the vegetarian meal - couscous with chickpeas" he said.

Then he went straight to the fridge and ate THREE lamb chops, standing up, at the fridge door.

Yessir, that's the Figster!

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Short Stack and Sides

Clare over at eat stuff had an atrocious bowl of soup recently. Or didn't have it, as the case may be. And generally round here, I don't eat out much, so when I do, I expect it to be better than home-cooked or at least reasonable. Today the Figster, Plumbaby and I headed out for a walk and lunch at a local restaurant which came well-recommended by friends - good food, decent prices, child-friendly.

I tossed up whether to order from their breakfast or lunch menu and ended up going for a mix - corn and capsicum fritters with bacon and tomato relish (breakfast) and a green salad and herb bread from the sides selection on the lunch menu.

I am a bit of a corn fritter afficiando and was really looking forward to these. But what arrived on my plate bore no resemblance to my expectations. They were limp, flabby and flaccid. Three pikelets with mingy bits of corn and capsicum mixed through occasionally (and I mean occasionally). On the upside, the bacon was excellently crispy and the relish delicious but the main man let them all down.

My side salad, however, was great. As was the herb and garlic bread. You know when you look at a menu and get the feeling you should order just sides? I should have gone with that feeling. Such was my disdain, that I left two of the alleged fritters on the plate, to be carried back to the chef, who would hopefully go out and look at Sydney Food (Zarah Maria's a fan of these). Bill's aren't bad, but my mother's are the best. With a fritter, I believe that it should be almost all fresh vegetables and herbs, with maybe an egg and a dash of flour to hold it all together, but the overall sensation should be of corn, spring onions and coriander. Not milk, flour and more milk. Pah!

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Pocketful of Silver

There's an episode of Seinfeld where George refuses to cull the contents of his wallet - it's full of ten-year-old receipts, "Irish money" and all that sort of junk which needs to be thrown out regularly. The wallet gets so heavy that it begins to tilt his back and can barely be crammed shut.

My wallet isn't anywhere near as bad, but it does tend to be on the chaotic side - old receipts, business cards, leaflets for interesting products and so on. But the Figman is slim line guy. He can't even bear to carry more than a few dollars in change - any silver gets dumped on the dressing table as he comes in from work. This found its way into a tall container and gradually, the silver line went up and up.

I had to clear the table the other day and decided to empty the jar. I counted and I counted, arranging the coins in one dollar piles. I found rare coins I'd never seen before, New Zealand currency and even some Swiss coins. When I threw out the foreign fancy stuff, there was SEVENTY DOLLARS there in small change!!

I intended to cash it at the bank for some larger notes but it's wound up in a ziploc bag at the bottom of the pram. Today, at the deli, I decided to use it up in glorious culinary pursuits. I could have spent it on someting worthwhile, like washing powder or shoelaces, but hey, I am the one who had to look at that stupid jar for a year, right? As I counted out the coins for a lamb and vegie pie, fresh spring onion dip and fudgey fudge, the woman behind overheard me talking to the deli girl about my enormous bag of change (it doesn't look so big in this picture, but trust me, it's HEAVY). And as I turned around with my bag of goodies, she gave me an understanding look. "Oh I know!" she said, "Men and their change!"

Is this not an isolated incident? Is this how all men behave in the privacy of their own homes? Maybe I should get a bigger jar and make him take me to Flower Drum when it's full!

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Baby Food

I realise that I need to do a proper profile and a banner at some point - to explain myself, my food philosophy and simply What On Earth I Am Doing With This Site. But it falls into the do-later category and probably, I'll get round to it in about 2007. But until then, a quick word or two:

I find myself being less and less interested in recipe books these days (not that you could tell it from sprees like these!). I am far more drawn to food writing, with Jeffery Steingarten, Ruth Reichl, MFK Fisher and Robert Wolke being my favourites. I am becoming acquainted with Elizabeth David and find her surprisingly funny - I'd always pictured her as a kind of maiden aunt, with some stern and antiquated ideas about cooking. And Gay Bilson's Plenty is so wonderfully written that it makes me doubt my desire to ever compose text at all.

But I digress. I have recently dipped into 2 compendiums of food writing, Choice Cuts by Mark Kurlansky and Fish, Flesh and Good Red Herring by Alice Thomas Ellis. I did enjoy Choice Cuts in small bites, but I was surprised at the reliance on MFK Fisher. Don't get me wrong, I adore her writing, but in a selection from all the food writing the world has to offer (he went back as far as the fifth century B.C.), I found it odd to include nine extracts from MFK Fisher's works. Red Herring has only lured me in a chapter or two so far, but I did enjoy this bold statement

"any adult who has tasted a spoonful will have concluded that the manufacturers of canned baby food hate either food or babies or both"

And so to the photo. A classic baby dish round here - probably served up to Plumbaby a couple of times each week. Wholemeal rigatoni, an onion, a large bottle of tomato passata, diced carrot, capsicum and leafy greens. The onion is fried in olive oil briefly and then the passata is added to the pot. Once on the boil, add the pasta and diced carrot*. I detest the taste and texture of boiled capsicum, so this and the greens (lettuce, spinach, whatever comes to hand) are only added at the last minute to heat through and nothing more. A dash of salt and pepper and a splash of oil and it makes a fine adult dinner too.

*This is a new technique I'm trying, to cook the pasta in the sauce to save time and pans. It has worked surprisingly well, but I suspect that is because I use a fairly sturdy wholemeal pasta - a softer pasta might absorb the passata.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Like Kissing a Lusty Mermaid

Dinner tv has been excellent for the past couple of nights. We are viewing the final season of Frasier at last (don't get me started on the ludicrous behaviour of Australian commercial networks which buy established series and then SIT ON THEM for over a year!). On Tuesday night, the delightful episode in which Niles and Frasier conspire to acquire a source of superb caviar screened and I enjoyed it hugely. I could sympathise with Roz as she became obsessed with caviar and couldn't think of anything else. It's usually chocolate that does that to me though.

And tonight, SBS screened the first of a five part series Heat in the Kitchen, which documents the impact of the annual Good Food Guide Awards in Sydney. What stunned me most, was learning that the husband and wife team of a 2 hat restaurant, Balzac, took home $480 per week between them. Oh, and they lived in a garage.

Food really is passion for some people. The restaurant life is a hard hard one, and I can't imagine working those kind of all-consuming hours for that kind of pittance. And even swanky Aria needs 1200 diners per week just to break even! It must be love, must'nt it? There really isn't any other explanation.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Something From Summer

Sometimes I get a surprise - something springs up and overwhelms me with its tastiness when I'm expecting well, something pretty run-of-the-mill.

I purchased this simple slice of pizza (more in the French than Italian style). I just wanted a small snack to keep the hunger away in those hours between say, 11.30 and 1.00 pm. I popped this in a bag and strolled home and didn't think twice about it. Until I bit into it. Summer in a slice.

Crisp base. Firm dough. Grilled cheese, an anchovy and some soft broccoli. But the star, the overwhelming sensation was of grilled red capsicum (that's pepper to the Northerners). It wasn't overly oily, it was soft and pliant and just bursting with flavour, the way capsicum rarely is in mid-winter. I suddenly thought of picnics and barbies - long summery afternoons with a glass of champagne and a handful of apricots.

I suspect I will have to dig out Forever Summer for some inspiration. This girl needs a summer fix now.