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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Wednesday, March 19, 2008
Does Fat Mean Flavour?
If you watch enough cooking shows, you would have most certainly heard the term, sort of a television cook’s mantra – fat is flavour, usually when there is some fat appearing in their recipes, possibly to assuage one's guilt about eating it. But really, do they make you want to nip down to the local supermarket, buy a tub of lard and pop great dripping spoonfuls into your mouth to experience this so called flavour? Probably not. So what are all those cooks really talking about when they say fat is flavour?

First, it’s important to understand a little about fats and oils too, which both belong to the same group of chemical compounds, the triglycerides and differ from each other, according to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, only in their melting points – fats are solid at room temperature whilst oils are liquid, so in this article, fat refers to both fat and oil. He then goes on to say that fat’s fundamental purpose is simply to store energy and that it’s twice as efficient at storing it as carbohydrates, the other major source of energy for all living organisms.

Because fat is so efficient at storing energy, it has become the primary means by which all animals store energy for later use. If, for instance, humans were forced to switch to carbohydrate storage there would be much wailing and gnashing of teeth as the average woman would put on extra 13kg in weight, to store exactly the same amount of energy as fat currently does. It should come as no surprise therefore, with something so good at storing energy as animal fat, that its chemical structure bears a strong resemblance to other simpler, concentrated hydrocarbons such as petroleum. One powers our cars, the other, our bodies.

Fat is also essential to our overall health, we couldn’t survive without it as certain fatty acids are part of the building blocks of our very cells and are also necessary for bodily function. Our bodies are unable to synthesize some of these fatty acids, which we must obtain from our diet.

So it would seem obvious as to why humans developed a taste for fat, it is the highest quality and most concentrated fuel available - eating it is the equivalent of siphoning someone else’s petrol tank. But it’s also more than that. Besides that we enjoy its interplay with other foods, because of the extremely high temperatures fats are capable of, it also allows us to cook food in a way that contributes to both taste and texture – think of a golden, crunchy, fried potato chip or a simple pan fried steak with a delectable brown crust.

Think you don’t like foods fried in animal fats? Think again. It was only a couple of years ago that McDonalds stopped frying their world famous fries in beef tallow after a public outcry. But they didn’t change frying fats until after they were able to replicate the taste of fries cooked in tallow, so popular these fries were.

Fat also has another characteristic; it carries flavour compounds which it helps coat the taste buds with. Think of how the taste of bacon tends to linger a while in the mouth, as the fat, which carries both the flavour of cured pork and smoke, helps to hold the flavour on your taste buds, allowing you to savour the bacon long after it has begun its journey to your stomach. Fat also carries the flavours of a salad dressing and holds them in place as it coats all the salad leaves and other ingredients.

But for all that, is fat really flavour in the way television cooks mean it? I’m not so sure. There is no doubt that many common fats and oils have a flavour all their own, such as beef, lamb and duck fat, as well as olive, walnut and hazelnut oils and there is no doubt they contribute to dishes to which they are added, but their taste is far from the primary flavour of a dish, with perhaps the only exception, some seed and nut oils that dominate the taste of milder salad leaves.

If fat were flavour, wouldn’t a chicken raised in a cage, with all its extra fat, taste better than a free-range bird with hardly any fat at all? It’s quite the opposite in fact. Glenloth, a Victorian supplier of free-range chicken, use exactly the same breed of birds as those raised in cages in battery farms, the only real differences between them is the type of feed used and access to open spaces, yet comparing their birds to battery farmed is like chalk and cheese. Glenloth birds have well developed meaty flesh with an almost gamey flavour; those from cages have flaccid flesh which barely contains any real chicken identity, the extra fat contributes nothing at all flavour wise.

That exercise adds flavour is easily demonstrated with beef. Eye fillet is regarded as the premium cut, due to its tenderness, yet compared to other cuts from harder working muscles, it lacks mightily for flavour - this particular muscle does little work. The important difference between muscles that do little and those which work much harder, is the amount of connective tissue present, there is far more in a working muscle, the collagen of which acts similarly to fat, in that it melts into the surrounding tissue when cooked. And perhaps this combination of fat, muscle and connective tissue has far more to with flavour than any one part alone.

So why do television presenters persist with the fat is flavour mantra? It comes down to mouth feel and texture. Fat lubricates meat for example, making it easier to chew as muscle fibres slip apart and also makes it seem juicy at the same time. Have you ever noticed how a lean cut of meat such as veal, seems to become dry after very little chewing and how we place a premium on well marbled steak, waygu being the supreme example? At the same time, fat is also carrying flavours to all parts of your mouth and helping to keep them there. It's the reason why we like to butter our bread

It is this double whammy effect that fat gives to our food that makes it seem extra tasty. Fat is flavour? Not really, but food just wouldn’t be the same without it.
  posted at 11:05 am

Thursday, March 13, 2008
The Polish in Melbourne

Poles have a long and proud history in Australia; some well known people with Polish heritage are Michael Klim, Alicia Molik, Magda Szubanski and Karl Kruszelnicki, who it seems has given up on people ever pronouncing his name properly and calls himself Dr Karl. There are also some major geographical features with distinctive Polish names, such as Mt Kosciuszko and the Strzelecki Ranges; the way we pronounce some of these name causes some merriment amongst Poles, who have a language that is best described as having the sound of wind and rain.

Polish emigration here was fairly limited up till the end of the second world war, when two factors combined to increase their numbers dramatically, the Yalta Agreement in February, 1945 that forced Poland into the Soviet Bloc, causing many Poles to leave their homeland, particularly soldiers who feared persecution, and the Snowy Mountain Scheme, which, desperate for workers, offered good wages to people from anywhere in the world, who were willing to endure the hardships of building Australia’s largest hydro-electric plant in our isolated Alpine region. By the 2006 census, people of Polish descent were the 13th largest group in Australia, with about 140,000 in Melbourne alone.

It seems somewhat remarkable then, that so little is known here about Polish cuisine, with very few restaurants specializing in it and outside of filled dumplings (pierogies), beetroot soup (barsczc) and maybe jam doughnuts (paczki), no one knows much about the flavours of Poland, which is home to some quite wonderful dishes, not at all a dour meat and potatoes diet, which is a common perception.

The first thing to know about Polish food is that its meat cookery is based around pork, as it is in most East European countries. A whole spit-roasted pig is a classic Easter tradition, but apart from crumbed pork chops which they love with the same passion that Australians love crumbed lamb cutlets, it is what happens next that singles out the Poles as special. If their German neighbours to the west are considered the masters of fresh pork sausages in all their countless guises, the Polish are their equal with perfectly smoked dry sausages (kielbasa), also produced from pork. From slender, world famous kabanosy (cabana) to thick krakowska, Polish sausage reigns supreme.

That is not to forget their other smallgoods of the highest quality, cured and smoked hams and bacon that are carefully prepared and much sought after. A trip to the Polish Shop at the Queen Victoria Market is a must for its stunning array of smallgoods, though be prepared to line up for some time, it’s very popular, not just with Poles either. As you wait, you can see the various sausages and smallgoods, with the curiously named wedding sausage prominent; my sources tell me there is no such sausage bearing this name in Poland, it seems some wag here came up with the name, perhaps a boast about Polish manhood!

At another Polish butcher, Wisla, in Dandenong, they have an overflowing range of smallgoods, which are absolutely first class. It was in their sister shop in Windsor that I came to somewhat bemused by the names of some of their sausages. I ordered some frankfurters one day, only to discover that they had given me something other than what I expected, similar to a smoked kransky, only much thinner. Well, I wasn’t disappointed with this mistake for they were wonderful and we ordered them again and again after they explained that this is what they called a frankfurter, but when I tried to order some from the Polish Shop, they tried to give me a regular frankfurter. Sometimes pointing is the best option.

It is a combination of kielbasa, meat and kapusta (sauerkraut) that is bigos, the national dish of Poland. Whilst the French and Germans prefer to have large pieces of meat and sausage in their sauerkraut, the Polish version chops everything small and also relies on wild forest mushrooms for its character. Of course mushrooming is a national pastime, along with fermenting cucumbers and making jams and preserves; in the autumn, many of the people you see collecting mushrooms by the roadsides along the Mornington Peninsula and Mt Macedon are Poles and excess mushrooms are either dried or marinated, which leads to one of their very own tapas or meze – a shot of vodka with marinated mushrooms.

It’s safe to say that vodka arose somewhere in Eastern Europe, but Polish people think of themselves as its creator and it is their national drink, being relatively cheap and easy to make from just about anything, but the better versions are usually made from rye. There are flavoured vodkas as well with one, Zubrowka, containing a blade of an herb Hierochloe odorata, commonly known as bison grass, incidentally which, Poland is one of the few European countries that contains herds of native wild bison that were re-introduced from zoos, after being completely wiped out across Europe. Another flavoured vodka also popular is wisniowka, made with sour cherries steeped in pure spirit, mixed with sugar and diluted.

Soups (zupa) are much loved, from the aforementioned barsczc through to simple chicken soups with noodles or barley (krupnik). There are also some very unusual soups such as white barsczc, made with zur, fermented rye flour, which serves to not only thicken the soup but to give a pleasant, slightly sour tang, and zupa ogorkowa, which is made from fermented cucumbers and is very refreshing, especially in summer.

Vegetables are held in high esteem, from ubiquitous potatoes and beetroots through to little known kohlrabi and black radishes. Potatoes are most often simply boiled or steamed and sprinkled with dill, Poland’s number one herb, but no mention of them is complete without placki, the extremely popular potato pancake. Beetroot is also common, not so much boiled, but finely grated and mixed with horseradish as a salad dish; carrots are also finely grated along with apple and mixed with sour cream as another salad and kohlrabi is also grated and bound with mayonnaise. Another feature of the table is Polish vegetable salad, which consists of potatoes, carrots, fermented cucumber, peas and eggs, diced small and also bound with mayonnaise.

Saffron is a spice native to Poland and was very popular in the middle ages, but its use declined under communist rule, probably due to its cost, but all the other popular spices such as allspice, juniper and caraway seeds are a regular part of the Polish kitchen.

Poles are also excellent bakers as witnessed to by the number of bakeries and cake shops that have a Polish influence, especially around St Kilda, where in the early days, many Poles chose to settle. In Acland Street there is Europa Cake Shop and Monarch Cake Shop and in nearby Carlisle Street is the home of the well known Glick Bakery, all run or started by Poles. The pick of Polish desserts would have to be their creamy, dreamy cheesecakes, but in Europa they also have paczki, that irresistible yeast based doughnut, filled with rosewater scented plum butter, topped with lemon icing or just icing sugar, and on Saturdays, they also bake some of the best Polish bread you can find in Melbourne, a sourdough light rye loaf, tender crumb inside but with a wonderful chewy crust.

The Poles haven’t influenced food in Melbourne say the way Italians have, but their presence is all around, with some of the finest food in Melbourne. It is worth looking out for.
  posted at 7:36 am

Tuesday, March 11, 2008
Raspberries and Pears

The great thing about raspberries, is that they herald in two seasons, the first is summer, followed by a shorter second crop in the autumn which has just now reached its peak here in Victoria. But you know how it goes. A great big craving for raspberries develops, you go to the greengrocer to find them at $5 a punnet (150g) or worse. What are you going to do? Take yourself off to the source, where you can pick as much as you want at $11kg - that's right - per kilo!

Mind you, I'm not complaining about greengrocers or anyone else for that matter. Having picked a few kilos, I understand how perilously difficult it is just to pick a single, luscious ripe berry without crushing the beautiful jewel, which then needs to be carefully packed and transported before the fruit begins its rapid deterioration. But if you take on all that bother yourself, the reward is a surfeit of glistening raspberries at an excellent price, fit for a gluttonous feast.

All of our family loves this juicy slightly tart berry with its distinctive taste and there is nothing better than to whip up some chantilly cream and spoon enormous blobs of cream over an overflowing bowl of raspberries, it's one of life's little pleasures. But when you pick 3kg of fruit, there is only so much cream one can stand. There is also the thing with super ripe berries crushing under their own weight, making the bottom-of-the-container berries less than pristine looking.

It is these berries we commit to buttermilk smoothies, which couldn't be easier to make. Simply pour into a vitamizer as much icy-cold buttermilk and raspberries as you need, don't be shy with the raspberries, and a tablespoon of sugar for about every cup you are making and blitz until smooth. Of course if you aren't able to go picking yourself, there seems to be plenty of cheap, frozen berries with which you can do the same thing.

It seems for us no weekend is complete without a visit to Ikea. I've become quite the expert at assembling flat packs into something usable and reasonably good looking. Naturally, every time we go, I always check out the grocery section. Can't say there is any desire to have their Swedish meatballs, but there is usually something interesting and unique. They have the cheapest elderflower syrup around town and this last weekend, we spotted cans of sparkling non-alcoholic pear cider.

Those of you that have some English or French heritage would know of pear cider or perry as it's known. Up until this weekend, I'd never tried the stuff and curiousity spurred me on to buy a can of Swedish, Kopparberg pear cider, which we tried in the store. It was a seriously good drink with a clear, though nicely aromatic, pear flavour, not overly sweet either, very refreshing on a hot day. It was so good we bought a few more cans to take home. The hot tip the store assistant gave us, was that it is easy to turn it into an alcoholic drink by adding a shot of vodka. That of course, is up to you.
  posted at 9:05 am

Thursday, March 06, 2008
Chicken Salad with Apple, Celery & Walnuts

When I was thinking about the soup of couple of posts ago, the idea for it sprang from this particular salad. I'm not sure what that says about my thought processes, but I liked the concept of turning a tasty salad into a soup.

This particular salad is a summer fave, just brilliant with some crusty bread and a glass of crisp riesling - for those few of us who haven't given up the booze! The combination of fruit and nut, offset by the mild astringency of celery, marries perfectly with the chicken. The best chicken for this would be poached, but sometimes it is far simpler to pick up a ready cooked bird from your local supermarket. You might also like to buy some ready made mayonnaise to make things even easier.

Chicken Salad with Apple, Celery & Walnuts
(serves 2 or 4 with some bread)

1 cooked chicken, either poached or roasted
2 apples, peeled cored & diced
2 sticks celery, sliced finely
200g walnuts, roughly chopped
1/2 cup mayonnaise
finely chopped parsley - optional
salt & fresh ground pepper

If using poached chicken, strip the skin, remove all the meat from the bones and dice. If using a roast bird, you can leave the skin on. Place the chicken meat in a bowl and add the apple, celery, walnuts, mayonnaise, parsley if using and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve.
  posted at 8:14 am

Wednesday, March 05, 2008
The Gift
A couple of weeks ago, I made a small batch of chicken stock for a project I had in mind, which involved pumpkin as well. You can imagine my surprise then, when I came home after work to find a very delicious pumpkin soup waiting for me. I didn't have the heart to say anything about my intentions for those ingredients, after all, a good bowl of soup is its own reward. So last weekend, it was back to the chicken shop and out with the stock pot again.

There is something elemental about making home made stock, the delicious smell that permeates the kitchen, the way the stock pot just shivers, for a good stock is never boiled. I love how stock makes good use of those parts of the bird that otherwise seem so disposable, frames, wing tips, giblets and hearts, not forgetting the feet, which add unctuousness, allowing the stock to set at even room temperature. The way herbs like parsley, thyme and bay leaves cast their magical spell upon the brew.

Usually the first thing we do with a new batch of stock, is dip in a ladle, as we are in too much of a hurry to even drain it, having been teased and tortured with the redolence of chicken for a couple of hours, pour it into cups that already contain home made noodles and hungrily devour the soup. It's funny that, what was a minute ago stock in a pot, is instantly transformed into soup as soon as it's in a bowl.

Even though food manufacturers produce stock cubes, powders and even liquid stock in tetra packs, there is never that same depth of flavour that comes from creating your own, which has always puzzled me. Stock is so easy to make, so how is it that food companies never get it really right? In my cup, I can taste the essence of chicken, but that flavour is always absent from commercial products.

As we drank down our soup, my wife and I chatted. She told me that she was going to visit her fiercely independent aunt, who lived alone and wasn't feeling well. I put some stock into a bottle and asked her to take it with her, sort of the Jewish penicillin thing. The next day, her aunt called me and went to the trouble, in her very broken English, to tell me how much she enjoyed her chicken soup.

I've cooked over the years some mighty fine things and been paid all sorts of compliments, but I was surprised at the kick I got from my wife's aunt's pleasure from such a simple gift. It is cooking at a basic level, nothing fancy, just slowly drawing out the goodness and flavours of the composite ingredients. Sometimes in our rushed and pressured world, it is easy to forget just how important and nourishing the basic things can be and how they can connect us to each other.
  posted at 8:41 am

Monday, March 03, 2008
Walnut, Kohlrabi and Apple Soup

Many years ago, when I shared a house with a married couple, my mate's wife, Christine, showed me how to make several different things, a few of which have stuck with me over the years; braised red cabbage and red cabbage salad, the oddly named kartoffelpuffer - similar to a hash brown - and a lovely salad of chicken, walnuts, celery and apple, bound together with mayonnaise.

The other day, I poached a whole chicken for the first time in my life and immediately wondered why I hadn't done so sooner. Okay, there is no crispy chicken skin, but the offset is wonderfully moist flesh, much juicer than a roast chicken and ready in two-thirds the time. That set me thinking about the aforementioned chicken salad, how nice it would be to use poached chicken instead of roasted. All of a sudden, my mind went racing off on a tangent. Wouldn't it be great to make an autumnal soup with all those flavours?

I mean, the Spanish have a white gazpacho, made with almond meal, so for sure ground walnuts would work; apple would be easy enough to work in, but what about the celery? How about celeriac? There was just one problem, celeriac wasn't in season. Still, the idea seemed sound, so I would just have to wait. Oh, the heck with waiting, I wanted to make the soup and needed an alternative. The other day at the greengrocer, my alternative was lurking on a shelf in the shape of kohlrabi.

If celeriac isn't much used amongst home cooks, kohlrabi is used even less. A member of the cabbage family, it has a very mild cabbage flavour and would suit my purposes perfectly and after a quick session in the kitchen, a batch of soup was produced. My seven year old daughter M was asking for some lunch, so I handed her a large cup of soup. "Mmm, delicious", she said on her first taste, demolished her cup in short order and asked for another cup, then another. I had to pull her up at the third, as I needed a photo.

This soup has an intriguing flavour and none of the ingredients are readily identifiable, the walnuts gave it a smooth creamy texture without the addition of one drop of fat, the kohlrabi gave it body and the apple a little sweetness. Normally, I'm not fussed about chicken stock, happy to use stock powder or commercial chicken stock, but for this soup I strongly recommend home made chicken stock, especially one simmered with a few chicken giblets for a deeper flavour. A good home made vegetable stock would probably work well too. Really, once the stock is made, it couldn't be easier.

Walnut, Kohlrabi and Apple Soup
(serves four)

1.25 l home made chicken or vegetable stock
2 kohlrabi*, peeled and roughly chopped
2 apples, granny smith or other tart apple, peeled, cored and roughly chopped
125 g ground walnuts
salt and fresh ground pepper

Pour the chicken stock into a pot and put in the kohlrabi, apple and ground walnuts. Bring to the boil and simmer for ten or fifteen minutes until the kohlrabi and apple are tender. Pour the soup into a blender and blitz until smooth. If desired you can strain the soup to ensure no lumps, pour it back into the pot and season to taste. Serve.

*Celeriac would also be good.

This is also my entry to Kalyn's Weekend Herb Blogging, this week hosted by the lovely Anna from Morsels & Musings.
  posted at 7:36 am


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