About Me
I'm a Melbourne boy, hailing from St Kilda with one ex, one current wife and four kids. Love the outdoors and making new discoveries. I cook a lot at home (cheers from wife) and do some preserving, mostly jams, pickles and fruit liqueurs. This is the diary of a cooking journey.

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Friday, November 30, 2007
Perfection, Fooled You
A recent article by the The Age's food writer John Lethlean caught my eye. It seems he had been watching Heston Blumenthal's Search For Perfection with the same interest that I wrote about on this blog, but John took things a step further by actually attempting one of Heston's techniques for roasting a chicken, something that involved, amongst one of many procedures, roasting the bird at 60c for 4.5 hours.

Heston has also been known to cook a joint of beef at a low temperature (50c) for 24 hours, in which he first blow torches the beef, not just to give it colour and the accompanying flavour boost, but even more importantly, to kill any nasty bacteria that may be lurking about, which may be inclined to go about their business during the extended cooking time at this low temperature.

If you are thinking chicken, you must also think about salmonella, which finds one of its most convivial places of residence on chicken meat and is one of the highest risk foods for salmonellosis (food poisoning) there is. The USDA recommends an internal temperature of some 74c (165f) as safe for cooked chicken, which is some 14c higher than what Heston thinks is perfection and his 60c is only some twenty degrees hotter than what is considered an ideal temperature for salmonella survival, though it must be said that salmonella quickly succumbs to heat.

Even though John confessed to not using an oven thermometer as instructed, it was no real surprise when he wrote...'It wasn't exactly pink, but you wouldn't have called it white, either.' He then did what any sane person would and bunged it back in the oven at a somewhat higher (safer) temperature. Now, it would be quite easy to conclude that somewhere along the journey to a perfect roast chicken, that John had erred. But what is the point of a recipe, which has so little margin for error, when it could lead to serious consequences for your health? Is the payoff really worth it?

I seriously doubt it.

What's more, I've started to doubt that what Heston is searching for is actually perfection and has more to do with theatre and entertainment than what his statement in the introduction, 'I prefer to think of it as good old-fashioned cookery, with a bit of science thrown in for good measure,' would lead you to believe. So why is it that this series no longer appeals to me, after I wrote that I liked what he did in the first episode?

Just to be sure, I watched that first episode again and did in fact still enjoy it. But in subsequent episodes, what Heston was suggesting to be perfection, seemed in more than a few cases, far from it, and he looked like someone who has lost touch with the primacy of food, the seminal moment for me being when he attempted to reinvent fish and chips. Now, I may not have the best restaurant in the world, but bet I could do better than he did and suspect quite a few others could as well, with a lot less, unnecessary, fuss.

Peel the spuds, chip, rinse, dry, cook 'em twice, once at a low temperature, drain & cool, then cook again hotter and you've got perfect chips. Too easy. But when Heston put his stamp on chips, they were actually falling apart from all the extra attention he gives. Then, when he started mucking around with the fish, not just any fish, turbot mind you, it all seemed to unravel, though watching you might not think so. He used a Japanese technique for making batter crispier, by dribbling on more batter whilst the fish was frying to increase the thickness of it. Trouble is, this technique is designed for a much lighter batter than was being used, making the result excessively thick and if you look at the fish when he cuts it open, you will notice that this thicker coating has delaminated, leaving a large air pocket between batter and fish for the hot oil to leak into, which then deprives the fish of the batter's protection.

Perhaps it would be illuminating for his food to be placed in a blind tasting, nestled against other examples, tested by people in the street. Gordon Ramsey does it, why not Heston? It takes some arrogance to say you can make a classic dish perfect, by doing it your way, but it just might turn into a case of the emperor's new clothes.
  posted at 11:44 am

Thursday, November 29, 2007
Mexican Rice Salad

About a year and a half ago, I posted the recipe for this very colourful salad as an entry to Weekend Herb Blogging. It has been a favourite for 20 odd years and now that I have a picture, thought to show you all how nice it looks. This particular version contains half wild rice and half brown rice and was made for a party where my wife works. The last time she took this along, I had to print out some ten copies of the recipe.

The reason it uses a mixture of brown and wild rice was because last time around, we had nearly run out of wild rice, but the brown rice is also a great way to stretch out the more expensive wild rice. I think both versions have their charm, but prefer the pronounced nuttier flavour of pure wild rice, which to my mind, looks better too; the black, wild rice grains are striking, highlighted by the yellow of the corn and red and green of roasted capsicums.

Okay, I know that wild rice isn't exactly Mexican, but all the other flavours are, you just have to imagine a trading route was established between north and south and that wild rice was traded for chillies - it's what I would've done!


1 cup wild rice*
1 green capsicum
1 red capsicum
2 cobs corn
1 or 2 bird's eye chilies, finely chopped
1 or 2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 bunch coriander, washed and chopped, leaves & stems
6 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
salt & pepper

Put the wild rice in a pot, cover with salted water and simmer for about 40 minutes or until tender. While the rice is cooking, char the skin of the two capsicums, place in a covered bowl for 10 minutes to loosen the skin, then peel and cut into small dice. Cook the corn cobs your favourite way, I simply place the unpeeled cobs in the microwave and blast them for about 5 minutes on full power. When cooked peel the husks, remove the silk and standing the cob on your cutting board, cut the kernels off. Whisk or shake the olive oil and red wine vinegar to emulsify. When the wild rice is cooked, drain and place in a bowl while still hot. Add the diced capsicum, corn kernels, coriander, garlic, chile and dressing, then season and thoroughly mix. Cool to room temperature and serve.

* half wild rice and half brown rice is also very good.


  posted at 7:32 am

Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Tomatoes with Squid & Eggplant

From mucking about the other day with different breadcrumb toppings, came the idea for stuffed tomatoes with a savoury topping. Initially, the crumb topping was just for roasted, whole tomatoes and very good it was, but as is the way with these things, other ideas soon popped in my head and suddenly I was chopping up calamari and eggplant to stuff the tomatoes with.

Tomatoes with Squid & Eggplant

4 large tomatoes
100ml olive oil
1 small eggplant* (aubergine), diced small
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 small hot chillies, seeds removed and finely chopped
1 calamari, cleaned, body, tentacles and wings diced small
good pinch ground cumin
salt & fresh ground pepper
2 heaped tablespoons chopped parsley

Scoop out the flesh of the tomatoes being careful not to make any holes. Discard the seeds and liquid, then finely chop the flesh, keep aside. Heat the olive oil in a frying pan and gently fry the eggplant, garlic and chillies until softened. Turn up the heat and quickly fry the calamari for a minute, then add the reserved tomato flesh, pinch cumin, salt, pepper and parsley, cook for another minute. Fill the tomato cases with this mixture and top thickly with savoury breadcrumbs. Bake in a 220c oven for 10 to 15 minutes, until browned.

Savoury Breadcrumbs

2 spring (green) onions, finely chopped
8 green olives, finely chopped
4 anchovy fillets, finely chopped
1 tablespoon salted capers, rinsed and finely chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
1/2 cup breadcrumbs
olive oil

Place all the ingredients in a bowl and moisten with the olive oil, so the crumbs stick together slightly.

*If you can't find a small one, two or three slices from a large one will suffice.
  posted at 9:16 am

Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Pizza e Birra
Somewhere on the Italian peninsula, 2000 odd years ago.

"Gino, I'm sick of doing the dishes. There is no sink, no running water, no dish rack and no cupboard to put them in."

"Darling, I have an idea. How about the next time you bake your wonderful flatbread, why don't you put oil, onions, some garlic and a few herbs on top? That way we can eat and do the dishes at the same time."

Thus was born the first proto pizza.

Fast forward to Naples, Italy, late 18th century. It was here that what we recognize today as pizza first emerged, with the addition of a tomato sauce topping, after it was discovered that tomatoes were not poisonous after all. Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba, who had been producing pizzas for street peddlers since 1738, opened the first pizza restaurant (pizzeria) in 1830 and pizza's enduring popularity can be gauged by the fact they are open to this day.

The Neapolitans have perfected the style of pizza known as thin crust, with minimal topping which are quickly baked in a fiercely hot wood fired oven. They take their pizza seriously here and have a Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (True Neapolitan Pizza Association), to prove it and they accept only two types of pizza, the Marinara and Margherita, as authentic and lay down the rules for pizza makers, no rolling pins for instance, the pizza dough must be stretched by hand. Contrary to popular thinking, Marinara pizza contains no seafood at all, rather, it's a simple topping consisting of olive oil, garlic, oregano, tomato and usually, some fresh basil.

So if you were looking to make an impression in the tough Melbourne market, with a pizza shop on virtually every street corner, where thick crust pizzas with bountiful toppings dominate, wouldn't it make sense to use the Neapolitan model as a point of difference? Well, after the success of Pizza e Birra in Sydney's Surrey Hills, that is exactly what Mauro Marcucci, latterly of Cafe e Cuccina and Termini thought and installed a wood fired oven at the old Termini site on St Kilda's Fitzroy Street.

Pizza e Birra literally means pizza and beer, but there is also a small range of antipasti, salads, a couple of rice and pasta dishes and some fish and chicken, but really, the star turn is the pizza. There is a concise, well chosen, wine and beer list, featuring both local and imports as well as a specially brewed house beer, generically named birra; the current brew is very much in the Little Creatures pale ale mould, with floral tones, a hint of sweet malt and restrained bitterness. But the house beer was not the main reason for a visit to this new pizzeria, it was to taste pizza, made the old way.

Fundamental to this is the wood fired oven that Mauro explained was just starting to hit its straps - as more pizzas are baked within, the better seasoned the oven becomes. Just as woks have that elusive wok hei or breath of the wok, wood fired pizza ovens contribute their own essence to a pizza, through high temperatures that cooks pizzas to perfection in about two minutes and this is perhaps why they don't require an overflowing cornucopia of goodies atop them, just a couple of well chosen ingredients that gain an extra dimension from the oven, so less becomes more. This is what the Neapolitans are on about and no doubt Pizza e Birra is too.

To that end, the '00' flour is imported direct from Italy as well as legendary San Marzano tomatoes, whose intense flavour is thought to derive from the sun drenched volcanic soils of Mt Vesuvius. Even pizza chef Gianni comes from Italy. All this care results in pizzas that have punchy flavours coupled with that essential wood fired essence, which, if you glance underneath, reveals itself in tiny char spots. There are two main styles, tradizionali & bianche (traditional & white - sans tomato) of which the Margherita ($16.50) was superb, but it was just outshone by the Speck ($19.50), an amazing bianche pizza of prosciutto speck, mozzarella & stracchino cheese, all tied deftly together with the haunting scent of truffle oil.

All the attention given to the pizzas doesn't mean that the other offerings are just an afterthought. The Stracchino starter ($10), with soft cheese, grilled radicchio, crostini and truffle oil, is a well thought out dish, combining creamy, bitter, crunchy and aromatic elements that worked well together. The house cured salmon (Salmone, $16.50) with ruby grape fruit, campari & vodka dressing and a tangle of rocket, is a summery crowd pleaser, all light and fresh, having only a mild salt cure. The grilled scampi, which had been substituted for the prawns in the Gamberoni ($17), were less successful, as the tomato and saffron salsa didn't quite mesh. There is a short, interesting selection of salads and vegetables, and the desserts list is also limited, but features a couple of classics with a slight twist, in tiramisu ($11.50) and pannacotta ($10.50). Fragole ($11) was a simple, refreshing dish of strawberries, macerated in Grand Marnier and orange, served with a pebble of vanilla scented mascarpone.

With good sized pizzas mostly a tad under $20 and most beers and the wine by the glass about the $7 -$8 mark, you need only close your eyes, smell the nearby salty sea air, listen to the Italian emanating from the kitchen, to have a quick, cheap, trip to Naples.


Pizza e Birra: 60A Fitzroy Street, St Kilda, Melbourne
Phone: +61 (03) 9537 3465
Owner: Mauro Marcucci
Pizza chef: Gianni

All photos Michael Blamey.
At My Table was a guest.
  posted at 8:05 am

Herring in Carrot Sauce

Oh my, I've failed you.

Despite my charm, cajoling and anything else I could think of, the recipe for this remains a secret. It's an old Polish family recipe for salted herring marinated in a carrot sauce and is seriously good, but there you have it, I can't tell you.

Don't fret though, dear reader. It has given me an idea for another dish, a variation upon a classic and since that will be my recipe, every tiny detail will be yours.

Soon, I promise.
  posted at 7:33 am

Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Housework's a funny thing.

Everyone who knows me, is well aware that I like to cook...okay, love to cook. There is something about shopping, chopping and cooking that really gets my juices flowing. I don't necessarily need the best to be available to me, truffles, lobster, waygu et al, though I certainly appreciate them when they come my way, but having a simple, well prepared dish, of potatoes for instance, can give me the exact same pleasure as any of those top shelf ingredients, it's all down to the preparation.

In fact, cooking a great potato dish probably gives me more of a thrill than simply inserting a piece of truffle into something, whereby the truffle is just doing its thing, no real work required; the only thing as a cook you have to make sure of, is that you don't muck it up, but making a potato sublime, well, that's a whole other story, that's cooking.

It's my thing.

The other day, I was mucking about with racks of pork ribs for dinner and was up to my armpits in salt, pepper and spices when D came to the kitchen and peremptorily said,

"You can do the vacuuming now."

As in right now, right this second, with no regard for what I was currently doing. As if my chore didn't actually count as housework or even existed. It was right at that moment that it hit me with crystal clear clarity. My wife doesn't count my cooking as housework in the same way that she would assess her own cooking contribution, solely because she knows I love doing it. When D cooks, it's housework, when I cook, it's something else. It's not like work for me in her mind, because I'm getting pleasure from it. Hence she is able to command me to do real housework at the drop of a hat.

Stuff that matters.

It's almost as if vacuuming is the penance required in order for me to cook, sort of like a rosary full of Our Fathers. I'm sure the Pope has something to answer for here. But just to show there are no hard feelings, I would invite him over and cook for him, perhaps a nice Devil's food cake. So long as he vacuums.
  posted at 7:38 am

Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Melbourne Food Blogger Meet
The guys and gals of the Melbourne food blogging scene met last night at the St Kilda community garden known as Veg Out. Ed from Tomato very kindly organized the venue as well as a bucket of pizza dough and was instrumental in bringing everyone together.

It was a warmish day, but as the venue was not far from the bay, it cooled off fairly quickly, unlike the pizza oven which seemed to have an internal temperature hotter than the sun. The first few pizzas were well charred after only a couple of minutes of oven time, but as things wore on and the experience level grew, the pizzas worked out better.

I wonder if I'm the first person to ever bring McDonalds to a food blogger get together?

Well, it wasn't the only thing I brought along, there was some tortilla in paper cups and spicy barbeque prawns as well, but my daughter M just doesn't understand these things yet. The tables were groaning with all sorts of food contributions, wonderful dips, creamy cheeses, dumplings, meatballs, cake, chocolate truffles and salads. Who could forget in a hurry Ed's little tin of silkworm pupae or were they larvae or just fat little maggots? The best thing about them was the drink I took to rinse one out of my mouth, yuk! Thanks Ed for that.

Unfortunately, we couldn't stay long, just as the conversations were getting interesting too. I met a few of you and I'm sorry I didn't get to meet more, though it was fun imagining who was who. There was someone who I could have sworn I knew but even though he felt the same, we just couldn't work it out. Elliot, I'm sure we'll remember. He was also the author of the hardest food quiz I've ever attempted.

It was a great night. Well done Ed and all.

Photos can be viewed here.
  posted at 7:16 am

Monday, November 12, 2007
Wild Cucumbers

Here is something you don't see everyday, a jar of pickled WILD cucumbers! We first got on to these a few years ago and have them as a change from the fermented and pickled cucumbers that usually grace our pantry. Mind you, it is only an occasional change, as these beauties are as salty as all get out, which I'm theorising is because wild cucumbers might be a little bitter and are well salted to make them more palatable, in the way most older cookbooks tell you to salt eggplant (aubergine) slices to draw out the bitter juices.

As you can see, they are long and very slender, but are distinctively cucumber shaped and seem to have more in common with Mediterranean cucumbers than other varieties. Cucumbers themselves are thought to have come from India and then embraced by the rest of the world. These wild cucumbers however have nothing to do with the wild cucumber of North America, known as manroot, which are shorter, rounder and spiky.

Because of the strong salty taste, which is accentuated by the pickling liquid, describing their flavour is a little difficult, but they are definitely slightly different to other pickled cucumbers, with a slight earthiness evident. They would most probably be served as part of a meze, no doubt with some fiery arak, or lion's milk as it's known in Lebanon, which could turn into a nasty little circle with all that salt leading to just one more drink...

This is my entry to Weekend Herb Blogging, this week hosted by The Expatriate's Kitchen.
  posted at 8:37 am

Thursday, November 08, 2007
Shellay Ward

Shellay Ward

She was seven years old, just like my daughter.

She had autism, just like my daughter.

She weighed just nine kilos, unlike my daughter.

She is dead, probable cause, starvation.

Can someone tell me how this can happen?
  posted at 10:50 am


Nestled on the left hand side of this biscuit, is a dollar coin, about 1"(2.5cm) in diameter, some biscuit don't you think?

These paper thin, filled wafer biscuits were invented in the 19th century, to help patients that had submitted themselves for the "cure", at the Karlsbad spa (Karlovy Vary) in what is now the Czech Republic. There are spas all over Europe which have a long history of helping those who had problems with digestion, liver or kidneys, or who had simply taken life's pleasures a bit too seriously.

All sorts of weird and wonderful ideas were hatched in these spas to help their patients. In my last post, I mentioned Pierre Koffmann and he tells a humorous story of working in a health clinic in Switzerland that specialized in slimming, the proprietor of which was apparently in desperate need of the cure himself. This owners particular method of helping his clients consisted of asking them what their favourite food was, then allowing them to eat as much of that as they liked. The only proviso was that they could eat nothing else, breakfast, lunch and dinner until the patient was heartily sick of their favourite thing, then the cure could begin in earnest. Sometimes there could be a holdup at the start if the patient was unsure of what their favourite food was and then it was up to the chef to invent new combinations.

The Oblaten was born from this kind of thinking as well. The idea of it is, to trick the eyes and stomach with something that looks huge, though not substantial at all, but leaves you feeling full. Inside is a light filling, which can be chocolate, vanilla, almond or hazelnut. I'm not sure if these biscuits actually worked - the reason they're still around today is that they are extremely tasty and very moreish. In our household, if you don't get in early, don't expect anyone to save you a biscuit, all you will find are a few crumbs!
  posted at 7:47 am

Wednesday, November 07, 2007
Hazelnut Cake

I watch all the Daring Bakers with a degree of admiration, for I know just how complex some of the recipes they attempt are. Perhaps this hazelnut cake doesn't have a great degree of difficulty, but it does have a ton of flavour and moistness. It's also evidence of why, probably, I shouldn't become one of their ranks. You see, this little cake has a tale to tell.

It's not being a bloke that stops me joining up, after all, baking is slowly becoming more fashionable amongst guys; a male friend of mine is in a baking club at work and all the men take it in turns to bring in baked goods. We have even discussed the merits of certain baking books. Rather, it's my sometimes less than disciplined approach to the necessity of following a recipe exactly, which as any baker will quickly tell you, is vital to the success of the enterprise.

I can see sager heads than mine, nodding in agreement here.

I first made this cake in the early nineties, after seeing the recipe for it in Pierre Koffmann's book, La Tante Claire. If you have any interest in French cooking at all, especially French country cooking, you ought to search out this book and its earlier companion, Memories of Gascony, they're not just great cookbooks, they're great reads as well.

After this cake first caught my eye, I made it a few times; it was the first cake that I ever baked for my wife, before we were married, at the dinner where we first met, so it has also led to a great deal of happiness. When I worked at the Melbourne Congress Centre, this cake came to work a couple of times, and the pastry chef that headed the section where I worked was so taken with it, he ordered a sack of hazelnut meal and told me that he was going to put it on the menu. His face dropped somewhat when he discovered that there was in fact, no hazelnut meal in it at all!

But this is now a cake with a serious split personality. The first time in making this, I followed the recipe exactly, which we all should do the first time around, after all, someone has gone to the trouble of writing it down just for us. But after that, well, it's kind of a free-for-all, recipes are adapted and made your own. Only thing is, when I made my adaption, it wasn't exactly intended. Because I had already made it a few times, I only needed the list of ingredients, or so I thought. What I forgot to do, was at a crucial point, when the dry ingredients are halved and one half is pressed into the cake tin to form the base, me, who thought he remembered the instructions, forgot all that and proceeded to mix ALL the dry and wet ingredients.

Pierre, I don't know how to say this, but everyone thought the cake was now better than before!

Of course that is not the only indignity the recipe has had to suffer. Sometimes the sour cream is just scooped out of the jar and straight in without measuring, the baking powder is very often near enough is good enough, what size is the egg? Who cares? The only thing I wouldn't do is substitute white sugar for the brown. Just to show I do care though, where the recipe advises to roughly chop the hazelnuts, because I like the way they look when chopped in neat halves, after roasting and skinning, each hazelnut is individually cut. The recipe can easily be multiplied too, the cake in the roasting tray is three times the quantity.

Hazelnut Cake
(adapted from La Tante Claire)

150g brown sugar
120g plain flour
65g unsalted butter, slightly softened, but not melted.
120ml sour cream - I use continental style, about 20% fat
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 egg
100g hazelnuts, lightly roasted and skinned*

Roughly chop the hazelnuts into halves. Line with baking paper and generously butter a 19 X 19 X 3cm cake tin (can be round too). In a bowl, mix together the brown sugar and flour and rub in the butter until the mixture looks like coarse sand. Spread half the mixture in the cake tin if you want to follow the original recipe, or simply whisk the sour cream, baking powder and egg and add to the bowl containing the pastry mixture, mixing well. Pour this into the cake tin and spread evenly. Sprinkle over the chopped hazelnuts and bake in a 180c oven for about forty minutes.

Leave to cool in the tin, then invert to a plate, so that the hazelnut topping is on top, sprinkle with some icing sugar.

*Most people use a tea towel to rub off the skins, My friend Tanna advises that an onion bag with fine mesh does an even better job. Always roast more hazelnuts than you need, try one, you'll see why.
  posted at 7:31 am

Friday, November 02, 2007
Melbourne Cup Carnival
It's the Melbourne Cup race next Tuesday, the penultimate event of the Spring racing carnival, so like most Melburnians, we're having a break for four days. That's right, Melbourne goes into party mode for four days, starting out with Derby Day tomorrow, probably the premier day in all Australia for quality race horses.

As kitchen hand has already given a tip for the major race, The Derby, I've consulted my horse racing guru, who has kindly given a couple of tips for the lead up races, with some each way value. Race 3, The Fuzz and race 4, Serious Speed. Like kitchen hand says, just don't put the house on it.

See you after the break. With some cake.
  posted at 12:04 pm


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