Wednesday, December 08, 2010
Barrack Square, Perth
Turns out I visit this place about once a year, and it never disappoints.
This evening I visit with Sally the Gluten Free Person. A G&T each beforehand at the fabulously-named Lucky Shag and we are ravenous. Excellent news: we agree on Singapore noodles being on the order list.
It's before 6.30pm - in this time zone. In Sally's Brisbane mind it's 8.30pm and in my Melbourne head it's 9.30pm; almost bedtime. We order quickly.
Who knew cumin lamb could be this tasty? Slow-cooked with leeks, it goes just perfectly with the Singapore noodles. The stir-fried squid with mange tout (snowpeas to southern hemisphere types) is similarly delicious.
We sit contentedly on the balcony overlooking the mighty Swan River, sheltered from most of the brisk southerly breeze, eat our fill, put the world to rights, then retire righteously to bed.
I love nights like this.
Monday, December 06, 2010
3/2 St. George's Terrace, Perth 6000
A chilly evening in Perth, and I am three hours jet lagged. In search of sustenance close to my hotel, I try Balti Restaurant nearby, which I have walked past a dozen times.
It's early Monday evening, in Perth CBD, and all I am hoping for a place with at least some fellow diners. This is the place - even before 7pm it is nicely buzzing. The walls are decorated with candid portraits of beautiful Indian people, a few desultory Christmas decorations, and anonymous but pleasant modern Indian music on the sound system.
I am placed at a table right by the bar where the restaurant manager is keeping the engine-room going. The wait staff buzz by, kept busy by the diners. I choose a glass of local Ringbolt cabernet sauvignon and a few poppadums to get me started, don my old-lady reading glasses and settle down with my book. Just as well. My main course took an hour to arrive.
My Goan fish curry is delicious, although not as coconutty or as sharp-tasting as it could be, but it is good. I wonder if the listed Redsport Emperor fish is really salmon, the colour is so pink, but it is indeed a white fish nicely marinated.
My relaxing evening is punctuated occasionally by the raised voice of the restaurant manager yelling (I am not exaggerating) down the phone at a member of staff or a contractor, I am not sure, and again later by the same person standing right by my table and threatening to fire a waitress if she didn't raise her professional game. All very admirable, in that he was on both occasions trying to keep standards of customer service high. Ironic, then, that my experience is being diminished slightly by having to witness this carry-on as I eat.
I finish my meal, and my book, and head to the bar to pay my bill. I try to pay for my wine separately, and the manager tells me quickly that they do not split bills under any circumstances, "madam". I wonder who he thought I was splitting the bill with, as the sole occupant of a table for one. I try again, explaining that I would like to pay $26 (the price of my wine) in cash, and the remainder by card. This time he accepts quickly: cash is king, it seems.
I compliment the manager on the food and the service, but suggest very gently that perhaps my experience could have been better if I'd not heard staff being threatened with the sack right at my table. He asks very politely: "Have you ever worked in hospitality, madam?". I answer yes. He asks whether I'd ever managed a restaurant that busy. I answer no. I hadn't thought it was that busy, to be honest.
And there you have it. Apparently in Balti Restaurant, the customer's opinion counts for nothing. Pity. If the attitude had been different, this could have been a regular haunt. As things stand, I can't say I can recommend the place.
Wednesday, November 03, 2010
Ingredients for seasoning
3 kinds of chilli peppers (or whatever your taste is) - Ricky used scotch bonnets, bullet and home grown killer peppers
3 cloves garlic
1 medium onion
4 spring onions
1" ginger root
whole black peppers
2 tbsp curry powder
west indian season-all powder
A little water
Blend together and marinate the meat overnight. Best to use fresh goat on the bone, but if youare unadventurous or goat is unavailable, some cubed lamb works well too.
Dice one potato, and a carrot or two if you wish, and add to the mix. Add a little water and cook very slowly for as many hours as you can manage.
Serve with rice and black-eyed/pigeon/gunga peas.
Thursday, October 28, 2010
'Many of the people we work with, including young families and the elderly, face times when they struggle to put a meal on the table,' said Australian Red Cross spokesperson Anna Boyce. 'The idea behind the $5 recipe booklet is to give a little bit of inspiration to people confronted by poverty, offering meals that can be created out of the smallest of budgets. 'Australia-wide it is estimated around 5% of people experience times when they have no food and no money to purchase food,' said Anna Boyce. 'Everyone has the right to food, shelter, healthcare and the basic necessities - we work with the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in Australia and around the world to help improve quality of life.'
Hundreds of copies of the 'You're looking at $5' recipe booklet will be given to Red Cross' Queensland clients for Anti-Poverty Week. The booklet's 16 recipes - which were submitted by staff, volunteers and members of the public - all cost $5 or less to make, and include Red Lentil Soup, Spicy Mexican Beans, Succotash and Deluxe Porridge. The booklet includes recipes and an introduction by former Masterchef contestant and Brisbane local Sharnee Rawson. 'Anti-Poverty Week is a time to build public understanding about the causes and consequences of poverty and hardship around the world and in Australia. It's also a chance to encourage research, discussion and action to tackle poverty,' said Anna Boyce.
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
250g sweet biscuits
125g butter, melted
375g cream cheese, softened
zest of 1 lemon
2 tsp vanilla essence
1/3 cup lemon juice
400g tin condensed milk
1. Grease and line a 20cm spring form tin.
2. Place biscuits in food processor and finely crush. Add butter and process until mixed.
3. Press half of the mix into the base of the tin, and press the remainder around the sides, using a glass to firm it into place. Refrigerate for 10-15 minutes.
4. Beat the cream cheese until smooth and creamy. Add lemon rind and vanilla and beat. Add the condensed milk and lemon juice gradually, and beat until smooth and the volume has increased.
5. Pour into the tin and refrigerate overnight.
6. Decorate with diced strawberries and icing sugar, or as desired
1. To make gluten free, substitute gluten free biscuits for the base. I use Arnott’s Rice Cookies (supermarket biscuit aisle) and use approximately 90g of butter as these biscuits are shortbread-like and don’t require much butter to bind.
2. Recommend using 500g of cream cheese if making as per the recipe above.
3. Use 375g of cream cheese if adding melted chocolate (150, maybe 200g?).
4. I substitute vanilla paste or bean for the vanilla essence.
Saturday, October 23, 2010
A pre-birthday dinner on a Saturday night, and a (relatively) new Caribbean restaurant to try out. We head out to Sassy's Jamaican Kitchen in Fitzroy.
The reviews online are consistent and favourable: be prepared to wait, but the food is fantastic. We arrive not long after eight to a less-than-half-full restaurant: maybe eight or nine other diners scattered around a spacious room, sparsely decorated with Jamaica posters and yukka plants, and with a gentle reggae vibe in the background.
Our waiter - the only waiter - offers us chilled water and promises to return with glasses for our bottle of Chandon. In the end, we pour our bubbly into our water glasses. The menu is sparse but enticing. Apart from a few vegetarian starters and mains, there is a choice of fish or chicken, both jerked. Curried goat is on special. In order to try everything, we choose jerk chicken to share as a starter, then one jerk fish and one curried goat.
An hour passes. Happily, I am in good company, and the conversation flows. Most of the other diners leave. Others arrive and leave with takeaway boxes of food, which is fascinating as we have not heard a phone ring once. Sassy himself comes out and starts to clear tables. I wonder why he is not cooking our food, or perhaps whether our order has been lost.
Finally, after almost an hour and a half, our starter arrives. Two pieces of barbecued jerk chicken, a generous dollop of yellow vegetable curry and an upside-down bowl of rice and peas, with a couple of piping-hot sideplates to eat from. To be honest, it is not the best start. The chicken is not heavily seasoned at all, not with chilli, not with anything much. It has either been well over-cooked, or cooked earlier and carelessly re-heated. The vegetable curry is actually quite tasty, and without it the rest of the dish would have been far too dry.
Moments after taking our plates away, the main courses arrive. The same upside-down bowl of rice and peas accompany each dish. The curried goat is not off the bone as confirmed, but it is pretty delicious. Not at all spicy-hot, but very well seasoned and very slowly cooked. Pity there is not more of it. The two smallish pieces of jerk fish are delicious too, one more spicy than the other to my taste. Again, without the vegetable curry this dish would have been far too dry, but overall it was enjoyable.
The rice and peas are a disappointment. The rice is far too dry, and the peas are kidney beans. Would have been good to see proper gunga or pigeon or even azuki peas used. And despite the diners being in single digits all night, we still have to list for our waiter what we'd eaten so he could make up our bill. He tells us this is his third night working here, and it's the busiest night so far.
Nonetheless, it was a pleasant evening. Not sure that I would hold Sassy's up as a perfect example of good Caribbean food: it needs a bit more chilli heat and a bit more care in both food preparation and service to get better marks. Maybe even a bottle of pepper sauce on each table so customers can adjust the heat of their food to taste.
That said, I get the best Caribbean food at home all the time so I know I am fortunate.
Will it be a regular haunt? Not sure if we would ever hop in the car and take a twenty-minute drive across town for any of the dishes we ate. But at $46 for two (not including $5 corkage which we think they just forgot) it wasn't a bad night's value.
Friday, October 22, 2010
It's not often you get 28C in Hobart of an evening, especially this time of year. It is a lovely stroll down along the waterfront to Salamanca Place early on a Friday evening with the town coming alive, the tall ships moored alongside crowded seafood restaurants, the lights beginning to twinkle across the bay.... and a stinking cold.
Salamanca Place is buzzing. It appears you have to be male, under 35 and wearing a brand-logo teeshirt to get into Irish Murphy's - or at least to be permitted drink a pint outside on the pavement. The Aurora Australia - the big red Antarctic survey vessel - is gone for the summer, the gap on the quay filled with gleaming white motor boats. Gangs of students congregate beneath the trees along Salamanca Place, drinking god knows what from polystyrene cups and otherwise being incredibly civilised.
I wander past the crowds outside Barcelona and James Squire. It's amazing how the young Taswegian women take advantage of a rare balmy evening: most of those outfits would result in hypothermia on most other nights of the year.
Despite the warm evening I am convinced it cannot last. A friendly waitress Ciuccio finds me a table for one inside, tucked between a strangely-matched American couple and a more conventional Australian one. I settle in with a glass of d'Arenberg The Footbolt and my Kathy Reichs novel.
My cold battles with my appetite. Virtually nothing stops me eating as most of you will know, but for fifteen minutes I flick backwards and forwards between gourmet pizzas and a predictable but enticing list of pasta and primi dishes. I have been told the gamberi pizza is off tonight. Contrarily, it is the one thing I crave.
I settle for a rocket, pear and parmesan salad to start, and a prawn risotto to follow. In the end my choices are directed by what I can eat with one fork as I hold a large paperback in the other hand.
The rocket salad is huge but very well balanced. I jab forkfuls of ripe pear, slices of parmesan and rocket leaves drenched in a blue cheese dressing. Most of the walnuts are a casualty of my
clumsy forkmanship and get left behind. So far, so Friday night.
A second glass of The Footbolt heralds the arrival of my main course. I hadn't thought the risotto would be tomato-based and I am immediately disappointed, but convenience triumphs over first impressions and I dig in.
The risotto is... fine. More than tasty. Rice pretty well perfectly cooked. Decent number of prawns. A good smattering of wilted spinach. It lasts me four chapters and I can't complain.
The sights and aromas from other dishes passing by to other tables indicate that this is a decent place. I can only conclude that my cold has numbed my taste buds to the point where everything just tastes ordinary. Everybody else looks thrilled with their food.
My waitress hits just the right balance between pleasantries, eye contact and efficiency. Despite the growing queue at the bar waiting for tables, I never feel rushed. I wander back out into the warm air of the evening, and marvel at the people still dining outside on the square, apparently unaware of the latitude.
The fairy lights on the trees twinkle as I saunter back to my hotel and an early night. As I leave Salamanca Place, the first raindrops start to fall. By tomorrow morning it will be back to more normal Tasmanian spring weather, and we shall have to wait quite a few more weeks for another Friday night like this.
Sunday, October 10, 2010
Seddon Deadly Sins is tucked away opposite the Greek Orthodox church on Victoria Street in Seddon. It looks pretty small with a few tables outside from which to watch the pre-wedding antics of the people across the road, and a handful of tables inside by the kitchen. But there are tempting little signs on the back door, one to a vine-filled courtyard and one to The Good Room upstairs (no kids allowed).
We sit in by the kitchen and watch the action. Teas come quickly but we have to ask for strainers. The cups and saucers are not pristine: they are freshly washed, but all have tannin stains on them. Yet again, I have to explain to a waitress that providing more hot water does not allow me to control the strength of tea to my liking. Only using less tea leaves will ensure weaker tea. Why is this so hard to understand?
We order something close to our usual. I have scrambled eggs with side orders of mushroom and roasted tomato. Orlando chooses the Spanish eggs - two poached eggs in a skillet, topped with a spicy tomato salsa and chorizo sausage, served with toasted Turkish bread and a side of bacon. The bacon is laid on top of the skillet so the salsa makes it a bit soggy, but it looks good and smells amazing. O is happy enough. My breakfast was perfectly fine, but the scrambled eggs were not as lovely as Le Chien's (probably because they are not laced with vast quantities of butter). As I am on a health kick, it's probably just as well.
One serious downside is the music. We like laid-back weekend music with our late breakfasts: a bit of The Jam or The Stranglers, maybe some Corinne Bailey Rae or old soul. What we get is slightly-too-loud unrecognisable rock. It sets me on edge and suddenly I am ready to leave. The bill is $34 - $6 less than Le Chien.
Will we come back? Yes - we'll give the place one more try. The owner is really friendly and the staff are pretty responsive. Next time we'll try The Good Room or the courtyard, which might make the dreadful music a little less intrusive. But I can't see it becoming a firm favourite.
Wednesday, October 06, 2010
Sunday, September 05, 2010
With two coeliacs and one vegie amongst us, I am challenged to make a single meal to suit all. India comes to the rescue, as always.
A huge pot of brown and red lentils simmer away whilst I make up a very large quantity of tempering for my dhal and chole. I fry some black mustard seed in a generous lug of olive oil until they pop, add chopped tiny green chillies and cook until they smoke (they're hotter that way), then in goes the holy trinity of cardamom, cloves and star anise. Last, a generous helping of garam masala, garlic and turmeric.
A pile of chopped onion gets fried quickly in a hot pan. The trick is to fry the onion well before you add anything to it.
I fry a mound of chopped mushrooms, small quantities at a time so they get nice and crisp rather than soggy. I add them to my onions. In goes chopped Roma tomatoes to sweeten the mixture.
Half of the tempering and the onion/mushroom/tomato mixture goes to make the basis of Charmaine's dhal, and half to my chole. Not traditional, but I am a fan of the incidental consumption of vegetables. I add more chole masala to my pot of chickpeas: I can't figure out what other spices are in this masala but somehow it makes the difference.
When both are cooked and simmered and well settled, I decant into containers and stir some fresh spinach leaves into both. I shall serve sprinkled with kasoori mehti, accompanied by plenty of Afghan bread, gluten-free wraps for the Gluten Girlies, lime pickle and yoghurt. And of course, a plate of freshly-grilled jerk chicken breasts for the non-veg people amongst us.
Home-cooked goodness, healthy, low-fat food, cheap as chips, idiot-proof recipes. Perfect.
Thursday, August 26, 2010
Saturday, July 31, 2010
Thursday, July 29, 2010
One of my favourites is Punjabi Kitchen King Masala, which I picked up one day without knowing what it was. A mixture of coriander, chilli, turmeric, cumin, dal, fenugreek, pepper, salt, cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, mustard, garlic, mace and asafoetida, it has a really decent kick to it without additional chilli, and turns your food a lovely golden colour.
Mangal do a good one but there are other brand names around. Perfect for barbeque season, you can marinate fish, shellfish or meat for literally a few minutes and they chargrill up a treat.
For lunch I quickly tossed some black mustard seed into a hot pan with some olive oil, added some fresh tiger prawns and kitchen king masala when the seeds started to pop, then threw in some quartered cherry tomatoes in there when the prawns were cooked. I served it all up with some fusilli pasta instead of rice, but if I'd had some naan bread nearby that would have been perfect too. It was ready in less than three minutes. Divine.
Sunday, July 25, 2010
1 raw chorizo sausage (approx. 225g), roughly sliced
3 large ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
3 handfuls (270g) of cherry tomatoes, quartered
3 spring onions, trimmed and finely sliced
Sea salt and black pepper
Small bunch of parsley, basil or mint leaves, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, finely sliced
Bread to serve
Optional: goat’s cheese or manchego cheese and pata negra or parma ham
Fry the sliced chorizo in a pan over a medium heat with a lug of olive oil. Stir it with a wooden spoon occasionally while you prepare your tomatoes and spring onions. Put them in a bowl with a good pinch of salt and pepper, a lug of olive oil and a splash of sherry vinegar. Sprinkle over the chopped leaves, toss everything together, then set aside.
By now your chorizo should be getting crispy. Add the sliced garlic to the pan and keep it moving around. Before the garlic starts to burn take the pan off the heat and pour in a small splash of sherry vinegar. Stir, then spoon the chorizo and some of the flavoured oil over the salad.
Toss the salad and serve immediately with bread, cheese and ham on the side.
500g marinara mix, or make your own mixture of prawns, scallops, mussels, calamari and anything else you wish
250g white or smoked fish
750ml of fish stock (preferably fresh)
250ml of skimmed milk
1 tbsp olive oil
4 medium potatoes
1 small onion
1 stick of celery
2 cloves garlic finely chopped
½ teaspoon turmeric (if desired)
Fresh parsley finely chopped
Finely chop all the vegetables except the potatoes and fry in the olive oil until well softened. Stir in the turmeric.
Meanwhile chop the potatoes into very small chunks (peel beforehand if you wish).
Add the fish stock and the potatoes, bring back to the boil and simmer for about 15 minutes until the potatoes are well cooked.
Chop all of the seafood into very small pieces (however small you think you want them, chop them a bit more).
Add the skimmed milk, and immediately add the seafood into the pot. Simmer for 30-45 minutes.
Sprinkle with fresh chopped parsley and serve with proper Irish brown or soda bread, or if not available a decent pasta dura bread will do.
Serves 4 as a main course or 6 as a starter.
Saturday, July 24, 2010
Sunday, June 20, 2010
Winter Solstice is upon us again. Well: officially tomorrow is the shortest day, but my trip to Sydney tomorrow put the kibosh on our usual 21st June celebration of winter. So a Solstice Eve Sunday luncheon was in order.
Eileen suggested Chez Olivier in Prahran, a tiny slice of France in Greville Street surrounded by chi-chi boutiques and jewellery shops. We found Mena sipping a Baileys at a window seat by the bar, surrounded by pastis bottles, fifties French posters, urns full of wine corks, and French waiters wearing black waistcoats with the tricolour on their breasts.
We gathered at an upstairs table, by a huge picture window - great for natural light. We had the whole floor to ourselves. Mena, in her element, ordered escargots for a starter. Each snail came served in a tiny steel jug, drowning in butter and laced with garlic. My warm goat's cheese salad had a centrepiece of crusty bread smothered in beautiful chevre. Onion soup, a seafood millefeuille, seafood bisque and a caramelised onion, anchovy and olive tart completed the traditional French fare for first course, all washed down with a good pinot chosen by Kelvin (of course).
After a decent interval, the mains arrived, all accompanied by a 2006 bottle of Sanguine Estate's Heathcote shiraz. Duck ruled, with Mena choosing the magret of the day served on creamy mash and wilted greens, Robyn choosing the "Frozzie duck", double-roasted and served with lemon and pepper mash, bok choi and pickled ginger, and a few more opting for the cassoulet a la "Jacky", with duck confit and pulses.
My bouillabaisse was full of fresh salmon, prawns, mussels and scallops, but could have been a lot more tomatoey and a lot more garlickey. Orlando's baked salmon was served with creamy mash, and looked good but Orlando thought it ordinary. A second bottle of the Heathcote was ordered, but like a lot of the wine list they were out of stock so we upgraded to a 2006 Sanguine Estate d"Orsa shiraz which did very nicely.
Desserts looked and tasted good for the most part. The mousse au chocolat (Orlando's choice, naturally) was a huge helping served with fresh strawberries. A few chose the "self-saucing, self-indulging chocolate fondant" which lived up to its legend. My tarte tatin was a little disappointing: none of the bite of a good cooking apple in there. And Mena completed her classic French lunch with crepes Suzette complete with flaming Grand Marnier, which she pronounced divine.
Interestingly, from Sunday to Thursday the restaurant charges $11 a head for whatever wine you have chosen, so despite the wine list suggesting a total bill of about $200 for the wine alone, that is all we were charged - $11 a head. This certainly made up for the limited availability of some wines on the list. Total bill for seven came to $598, which was about $85 a head.
By then, we were alone in the restaurant, the wait staff had mostly gone home and those remaining were preparing for the evening's sitting. The light was fading as we wrapped ourselves in coats and scarves against the chilly evening air. Quite a civilised solstice lunch to mark the passage of time in winter. Tomorrow, the days will get longer by a cock's stride, and we can look forward to spring.
As for Chez Olivier, despite one or two pedestrian meals, our overall experience was lovely, and fantastic value too. I can imagine this will become a favourite winter haunt.
A farewell dinner with the lovely Shanna before her Grand Tour of Europe, meant no Italian or French food for us. On a chilly Canberra night, we settled into Blu Ginger with a couple of glasses of bubbly, and toasted our friendship and the joys of travel.
The staff at this modern city centre restaurant were lovely: friendly bit not overly so, professional but warm. Our Blu Ginger platter of chicken tikka, tandoori prawns and steamed fish wrapped in a banana leaf was a good way to start. Our mains were well chosen. The delightfully-named aloo mattar tamatar (peas, potatoes and tomatoes) was a perfect foil to our lamb vindaloo, which was spicy but not too hot. The plain naan we shared was cooked perfectly.
The kitchen is visible from the restaurant through a large window, where you can see the chefs hard at work in a spotless space. Even mid-week, this space was buzzing with both businessmen and groups of friends.
There are not many places would entice me to dine in Canberra's CBD, but I'll definitely be back to Blu Ginger.
Monday, June 07, 2010
It got me thinking that there has to be a way to avoid this by making a few changes to our diets early enough to second-guess our bodies. I'm thinking we have to make these changes in early May (or October for the northern hemisphere) so our good habits remain intact when hibernation mode seriously kicks in.
The first rule that springs to mind is seasonal produce. There may be no science behind this, but surely eating the fruit and vegetables which are naturally occurring at each time of year must be good for us? We are better at heeding this lesson in spring and summer, when asparagus, strawberries or green beans start sprouting from our kitchen gardens (or the aisles in Queen Victoria Market). So perhaps embracing those apples, pears, pomegranates, nuts and pineapples will help - think of the traditional Hallowe'en party. And those wonderful autumn and winter vegetables will be a joy to cook with in all those hearty stews and curries - think beetroot, pumpkins, kale, turnip and of course tiny sweet brussels sprouts.
The second rule is something about the type of carbs we eat. When hibernation mode kicks in, we tend to carb-load and often get it seriously wrong. Again, I've nothing but instinct to suggest that if we tend towards really high-quality carbs early enough, we will stave off that craving. Think pulses, high-fibre options like brown rice, squashes and whole-grain anything.
This year I am on a mission to find the rules to help us all pre-empt those winter blues by healthy and delicious eating before our stodge-fests kick in- so that this year will be the last time I get to winter solstice feeling unhealthy and lethargic.
Anybody got any ideas for more winter food rules, or ways to keep motivated to do even a little exercise once the autumn equinox has been and gone?
Sunday, June 06, 2010
A drunken start to the evening saw Eileen and Kelvin escorting me down Southbank away from the Melbourne Good Food & Wine Show, to fill me up with food before sending me home. The Noodle House is a newish addition to the restaurants along Southbank, near World and Il Primo Posto. It's a franchise operation, most of its sister restaurants being in the Middle East: Dubai, Muscat, Kuwait and the like.
Wagamama-like benches and tables lined up inside a warm, weloming space; mad diners sat outside in the freezing cold under gas heaters. We used the tick-box order form to get some dumplings and pork buns going. Later, a platter of Peking Duck with pancakes didn't have enough hoi sin sauce or shredded vegetables to accompany it, but they went down well nonetheless. Out char kway teow didn't look like the classic recipe, but it was piping hot and tasty as hell.
Service was pretty good until we wanted the bill, then there was nobody to be found. I can't comment on value for money as my dining companions very nicely picked up the tab.
The Noodle House is definitely worth another look when slightly more compos mentis, and likely to be a good back-up option when stuck for choices on Southbank.
Follow these links to get the before story and the after story!
Monday, April 12, 2010
I knew little if anything about Laos or its food traditions before we arrived in Vientiane. Immediately the French influence was apparent: fresh baguettes sold in the street, and handful of nice-looking patisseries and decent wine readily available at a decent price. The Scandinavian bakery was doing good business in its own shop and supplying many eateries around town, including our own hotel, with fresh breakfast croissants and more.
But what is a typical Lao dish? The very first thing we tried was laap (also spelt larp), a commonly-served warm salad dish using whatever minced meat you prefer - chicken, pork or beef. Apparently it is also served raw like ceviche but we didn't see that offered anywhere. The meat is seasoned, cooked then tossed with raw vegetables, usually including mint, morning glory (a river weed cooked as we would use spinach, asparagus or broccoli), bean shoots and spring onion, and served on a bed of lettuce or cabbage leaves. Eaten with sticky or steamed rice it goes down a treat.
My Western-style breakfast in our Vientiane hotel included the tastiest, freshest eggs I have had for a while, plus some locally-gathered wild mushrooms which were meatier and tastier than any mass-produced white mushrooms we eat at home. Divine. Eggs loomed large most mornings, and we were fortunate enough to have our breakfast/brunch along the riverside for almost every day of our stay in Laos, no matter what the town.
A trip to a local waterfall saw us snacking on Lao pork buns, which were suspiciously like Chinese pork buns except the pork filling was augmented by pieces of hard-boiled egg. Much better!
On our road trip to Luang Prabang, our bus ticket included lunch at a basic roadhouse halfway through a ten-hour journey. The food was ready for us as we disembarked: a beef dish and a pork dish, simply seasoned and cooked, and a couple of vegetable dishes, all served with either steamed rice or on top of freshly-cooked noodle soup. Three days into our journey it was just like home cooking and we devoured it. I'm a sucker for something simple with rice.
Luang Prabang is a World Heritage site, and there is no shortage of boutique hotels, cute wine bars and pleasant restaurants. We dined one evening at Tum Tum Cheng, famous for its head chef's homage to dishes prepared for the Royal household, and its cooking school. The deep fried spring rolls were to die for (this became a popular starter for us in Laos and they never disappointed), but the main courses were a little disappointing. My Luang Prabang stew was tasty enough but bland, and Orlando's spicy pork was not so spicy. We resorted to our emergency stash of chilli sauce sachets kept in my handbag for just such an event.
At 150,000 Lao kip (approx. $19) including my 200ml carafe of wine, Tum Tum Cheng was probably one of the most expensive meals of the holiday but in terms of taste and price it was totally eclipsed by the exceptional dinner we had the next night at a little family-run roadside eatery with three tables. Orlando's "fried pork with chilli and less" (sic) and my "fried mini local noodles with pork" were accompanied by a handful of the tiniest, hottest chillies we've ever encountered and cost 40,000 kip (less than $5) for two. Delicious, honest home-cooking again - can't beat it. We loved it so much we went back next day for lunch.
Thursday, March 18, 2010
Tonight, despite being Thursday, is the start of my weekend and I wanted Friday Food. (No Andy you do not have the copyright on this...). For the uninitiated, our Melbourne take on Friday food is that is has to be special, it has to be something you don't normally eat on a school night, it has to be comfort food, it has to be something you like to end the week with but doesn't take a Cordon Bleu chef to pull off.
I rode home from the city on the scooter in a strange high-temperature, high-humidity fog (really, is this still March?) and focused on pizza and red wine, my ultimate comfort food.
When I got home the Stanton and Killeen shiraz durif was hitting the spot and it was all I could do to call Pizza Hut - my favourite non-pizza pizza hit. (Let's face it: Pizza Hut is not pizza but it is tasty). As it was March, the month of Slow Food, I focused hard and changed my mind. I would have home-made pizza with toppings made of all the leftovers in the fridge.
Two mini pita breads. Two teaspoons of tomato base from a tub (OK, it was not all slow food sourced from the land, but give me a break). A stray rasher of streaky bacon from a Paddy's Butchers Sunday breakfast that just got too big. Some baby bocconcini from a weekend pasta dish, with about a week until sell-by date. Five cherry tomatoes and half an onion and a green chilli from the vegie drawer in the fridge. The heads off half a bunch of rapidly-failing broccolini. Spicy Italian herbs. All set.
Divine Thursday night dinner, nine points (Weight Watchers) instead of minimum 15 if I'd ordered in. OK, I would have ordered something meat-lovers and it would have been a train wreck - maybe 20 points which is more than I'm supposed to eat in a full day. But my dinner was a lot tastier and exactly to my taste.
And the fridge is a little emptier tonight because of me.
I thank you.
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
I was feeling perfectly fine and totally compos mentis, except Lee said I wasn't really: apparently my intelligence level seemed to have decreased somewhat. Now and again I made a declaration which elicited a puzzled response from her, because apparently I was making no sense whatsoever and even getting simple sums wrong. Horrifying.
Meanwhile Mena arrived and set to work cooking the exact menu that was served in our family home for decades on a Tuesday (and still is). Eggs, beans and chips. Perfect comfort food. I added sausages to the menu, having been to Paddy's the Irish butcher last week and so having a plethora of pork products to hand.
Nothing fancy: real Heinz beans, two eggs dry-fried sunny side up, and potatoes chipped by hand and oven-cooked with a little spray oil. Irish-recipe pork sausages fried in the pan (they are really low fat and dry-frying them gives a much better browning effect than grilling). The only thing was that I only had regular malt vinegar. A nice onion vinegar would have gone down well with the chips. A good dollop of tomato sauce for dipping (sorry, Andy, it was shop-bought) and it was just the perfect Mammy Food.
I probably shouldn't have, but instead of washing it down with a nice strong cup of tea, I indulged in a cheeky glass of two of a nice Langhorne Creek shiraz cabernet. Not strictly Irish kosher, but on the eve of St. Patrick's Day I reckon that was forgivable.
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
The surrounding hills had little sign of the devastating fires the area experienced last year: the forests have all but filled out with green now, and the destroyed vines have grown back. The memories will take longer to fade.
Past Domaine Chandon, Beaver's Brook (venue for last year's legendary Winter Solstice lunch), Rochford (home the previous evening to a Tom Jones concert if he didn't get rained out) and into Healesville which was buzzing as usual.
Innocent Bystander winery is a great casual place for food, wine, aged cheese, artisan bread, excellent coffee, homemade desserts.... you name it. They take the quality and provenance of the food they serve very seriously, which makes it a lovely place to eat.
Their two wine labels, Innocent Bystander and Giant Steps, are pretty respectable but my clear favourite is Harry's Monster, a heady mix of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot and cabernet franc. As I hadn't eaten yet in the day, I essentially had a glass of The Monster for breakfast. Marvellous.
We crammed into a huge booth right beside the winery section of the building: a barricade of barrels were behind a glass wall. The sign told us that vintage had begun: pinot gris, pinot noir and chardonnay on its way.
We ordered fresh pizza, made according to their house rules:
- Genuine, wood fire oven
- Crispy-thin, handmade sourdough base
- Imported San Marzano tomatoes and local oven dried Roma and Cherry tomatoes
- Murray River salt
- Shaw River buffalo mozzarella
- Fresh, local basil and extra virgin olive oil
The spicy pork pizza was served without tomatoes but with an extremely generous serving of garlic. The prosciutto pizza was a little over-garnished with flat-leaf parsley but that's about all the complaining I could hear.
A veritable feast shared with friends in Lenford's country house surrounded by trees, people hanging out on the balcony, the daybed and the hot tub, good music and great conversation, home cooked food made with love. What a way to end the perfect friends' weekend.
(the man himself)
Sunday, March 07, 2010
A table at the Station Hotel is a hard thing to come by on a Saturday night. A few years ago Sean Donovan, he of the Botanical and various Michelin-starred establishments in France and London, headed way out west to craft the sort of gastro-pub he always dreamed of. Nobody thought it would fly, but they were wrong.
Located off the beaten track, near the police station and town hall on the outskirts of Footscray, you would drive past it a hundred times without glancing. The bar is still a regular old bar, although a lot more gentrified than the last time I visited over a year ago. The pool table is still there but no longer in pride of place, and the diners have spilled over into the bar on more casually-set tables. The only people sitting at the bar were also eating, and this time I believe Adam would have been quite happy waiting for me on a barstool, cheeky glass of red in hand.
It was a quiet Saturday night, our waiter said. A big bear of a man, he hit a perfect balance between friendly service, formality and knowledge of the menu. This place is famous for its steaks and we both gravitated to the listing. Our waiter patiently explained the difference between wagyu and Angus, grain-fed and grass-fed, Bavette and rostbiff, and the varying degrees of ageing.
The longest-aged steak on offer is a 450-day Sher Wagyu rostbiff, which is what I chose, with a terrine de campagne to start. Nothing like the gourmet equivalent of good 1970s food on a wet autumn night. Orlando chose the provencal fish soup to start, followed by a Gippsland dry-aged grass fed lump of Black Angus rump. I started with a glass of Mitchell's Peppertree shiraz, which was served to me before I saw the Torbreck's GSM on the listing. Never mind.
The fish soup was sensational. Dark red and smooth like tomato ketchup, it had the very essence of the sea in there, along with obscene amounts of garlic and good after-kick. I really need that recipe. Mystarter was also divine, but huge: it was a pleasure to wade through this hunk of ham terrine aided by some toasted sourdough, but towards the end I was not sure where I was going to fit my main course. The Peppertree shiraz went down like a dream and before I knew it my glass was empty. On to the Torbreck's. Marvellous.
Our steaks were served simply with a handful of chunky hand-cut chips and a simple but delicious green salad which I devoured for once in my life. My rostbiff (which is a portion of the rump) was out of this world, like the last time I ate here. A good strong flavour and a texture that cut like butter. It was cooked medium-rare, perfectly seared outside and a deep pink inside. Orlando's Angus was similarly beautifully-cooked to medium, another lovely steak but with a gentler flavour. We ate slowly.
The restaurant was still quite loud like last time, and could do with a few more wall hangings or other upholstery to soak up some of the noise. The clientele was a mixed bunch: a Vietnamese family at the next table with a single white man amongst them (probably the daughter's boyfriend), two large tables of young people celebrating birthdays or some such, a couple of well-heeled foursomes of a certain age with Melbourne intelligentsia haircuts and avant-garde outfits, and a few local couples like ourselves out for a quiet dinner.
Overall a great evening's food, and the change of vibe in the bar would certainly entice me down for a counter meal or two mid-week now I know you can eat at the bar in reasonably pleasant surroundings.
Thursday, March 04, 2010
Dinner with workmates from across the country after a two-day planning session led us to St. Kilda beach on a beautiful late summer evening. We'd spent the previous couple of days staring out to sea ourselves from the local surf lifesaving club, and as the sun started dipping in the sky we found our way back to St. Kilda beach. The place was still buzzing, with every restaurant busy and the beach volleyball in full swing. The sailing boats flew by and a few brave ones went for their evening swim. A live DJ added to the buzz.
We had one coeliac with us but it wasn't a problem. There was a little "g" against almost half the items on the menu meaning those dishes were gluten-free. We shared a really good charcuterie board and some dips as a starter. Even in a pretty casual place like Republica it was good to hear they made everything including the bread and dips themselves from fresh ingredients. Even the prosciutto and thinly-sliced beef were aged and cured in-house. Impressive. The board was completed by an excellent ham-hock terrine, a handful of white anchovies, some good chorizo, a beautiful washed-rind soft cheese, the tiniest, sweetest Ligurian olives and a pig's ear salad.
Gluten-free Sally had butterflied whole king prawns, chargrilled with smoked pimiento butter, and shared a summer salad of tomatoes, shallots and Thai basil with Catherine, who opted for a baby arrowhead squid stuffed with mussels, spinach and piperade on squid-ink risotto. Both seafood options looked and tasted divine, although the risotto was incredibly rich and beat us all in the end.
Pieter and I both went for the 300g sirloin with confit kipfler potatoes and lardons. One was served rare and one medium-rare. Both were sensational: one of the best steaks I have had in a long time and I've been craving one for a few days now. They were perfectly cooked inside and chargrilled to perfection on the outside. I ate slowly and savoured every mouthful. Our lardons were stolen with impunity by our dining companions - who can resist deep-fried pork belly?
The seafood was all washed down with a lovely young chilled Marlborough sauvignon blanc from Angel Cove, whilst Pieter and I (partners in red wine as always) went local and enjoyed a Heathcote shiraz malbec from Wild Duck Creek Estate: a little older and just perfect with the steak.
Overall a grand total of $275, so $70 a head. With the quality of food we enjoyed and the spectacular sunset, well worth it.
Sunday, February 28, 2010
I was up and at Victoria Market by ten. A bit seedy after a glass or two too many the night before, I kept the sunglasses on despite the heavy cloud. For once, a sea mist was blanketing the city in blessed coolness, the humidity was high and it smelt like Ireland.
Vic Market was buzzing, as it always is. I strolled down the lines of produce in the fruit and veg shed first, comparing prices, tasting locally-picked fruit, getting sidelined by things not on my shopping list. The sellers shouted out their prices, competing with each other. Bananas $1.50 a kilo. I remember after Cyclone Larry when they went up to $15 a kilo. Seems like forever ago.
Laden already with plums, grape tomatoes, fresh basil, cucumber, sweet yellow chillis and mushrooms of different sizes, I headed for the meat department. Again the rows of perfectly-presented meats made me second-guess my menu plan. Perhaps it's not too late to choose steak? Perhaps I should make hamburgers with that lovely mince? (it was the debut of our new barbecue after all.)
No. I steeled myself and kept walking down to the seafood. I browsed the counters, looking for the best prices, the exact tiger prawns I wanted, nice butterfish (which is not sold everywhere). Scallops winked at me; sushi-grade tuna begged to be bought and I capitulated. Something for me and Orlando, not this evening's guests. Back to my usual butterfish man, I bought too much, knowing I would want leftovers. Two kilos of fresh shelled tiger prawns with the tails still on - perfect finger food - and I was done. Almost.
Over in the deli building, I quailed at the increasing weight of my various bags and rued my decision not to bring my wheelie trolley. Who goes to the market without a trolley?? Hungover me, that's who. Plump Ligurian olives won over skinny kalamata. Bocconcini won over a more substantial piece of mozzarella. A sourdough baguette won over the other fifty or so breads on offer: this is always the hardest decision.
Last stop the chicken place for nice locally-produced free range chicken breasts, to round off the feast. Lucky I remembered.
Laden like a pack-horse, I sank to a seat in the food court with a strong flat white, two sugars. That's better. A trip to Dan Murphy's for wine and rum, and Safeway for a handful of remaining ingredients, and back home to take over the kitchen.
Half the prawns I marinated in a mix of red chilli, garlic and Punjabi Kitchen King Masala. It's my favourite for shellfish and a real crowd-pleaser. The chicken was cut into more manageable pieces and coated simply in Italian herbs, garlic, a touch of chilli and green pesto. The butterfish got the Walkerswood jerk seasoning treatment.
Meanwhile more chicken was quickly browned off with some vegetables and slow-cooked in the oven with some of John's seasoning. John Maughn is our friend who is a food wizard and his home-grown and produced seasoning is the best Caribbean flavour you can find. Seriously addictive.
A sit-down, a cup of tea and a Creme Egg later, I tackled the Greek salad and prepared the ingredients for an Italian pasta salad: grape tomatoes, bocconcini, fresh shredded basil, more pesto. Vegie skewers were constructed from yellow chillis, mushrooms and more grape tomatoes. The table was set and the mossie coils in place ready to be lit: all done.
The evening was a success. Two bottles of divine Brown Brothers 2002 Patricia Shiraz, and two more of Stanton & Killeen's Rutherglen Shiraz Durif (2007), washed down the feast. The barbecue acquitted itself well, as did the chef. I thank you. Eileen's cheese platter, Robyn's handmade chocolates and Orlando's orange muscat and flora rounded off the evening in style.
Evening the washing-up went swimmingly.
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
I would come home from school for lunch and Mum would have made a big stack of pancakes, frying-pan sized, made from freshly-mixed homemade batter. Simple: flour, eggs, milk, beaten until smooth then poured into a frying pan spoonful by spoonful.
The first one was always less than average. The frying pan was never hot enough, and the skill of pouring just exactly enough batter to make a thin pancake forgotten since last year. The second one was always better.
A perfect pancake was extra-thin, it filled the whole frying pan and it was cooked just long enough to give it dark brown grooves of caramelised loveliness on each side.
There was no messing about with exotic toppings in our house. This was a pre-Lent ritual, designed to get all the flour, eggs, sugar and butter used up before the fasting began. Each pancake would be spread with butter, sprinkled with a liberal amount of sugar and finished off with a good squirt of lemon juice. The three toppings would mingle into a sweet-and-sour liquid of perfect viscosity.
Mum always stacked the pancakes one by one, topped individually as described above, then when the whole stack was done she would slice them into wedges like a cake. Personally I always preferred to eat my pancakes whole, rolled up, with butter, sugar and lemon juice added fresh each time. This is how I do it myself when I make pancakes in my own house.
Anybody else doing Pancake Tuesday? Anybody got any other family rituals you want to share?
Sunday, February 14, 2010
1/2 teasp coconut essence
1 cup caster sugar
1/2 cup coconut
1 1/2 cups self-raising flour
300g sour cream
1/3 cup milk
Grease a deep 23cm round cake tin.
Cream butter, essence, and sugar in a small bowl until light and fluffy.
Beat in eggs one at a time until combined.
Transfer to large bowl.
Stir in half the coconut and sifted flour with half the sour cream and milk.
Then stir in remaining ingredients. Stir until smooth.
Pour into cake tin.
Bake in moderate oven for 1 hour.
Stand five minutes before turning onto wire rack.