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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Tuesday, May 27, 2008
Uncle Ben's Express To Lethlean's Hell
From John Lethlean's recent article on Uncle Ben's Express rice.

'If you want rice but cannot get it together sufficiently to simply rinse and cook some of the stuff on a basic heat source, or in a proper rice cooker, allowing the 12 or so minutes it takes for it to be ready in time for everything else you planned for dinner, you're pathetic. You're wasting the household budget and I think you should be ashamed.'

Well John, tell me, where are your articles railing against instant couscous, two minute noodles and five minute polenta - from a vast array of manufactured convenience foods, why single out just Express rice for a serve? What's up with the Mother Superior tone that's reeking of food snobbery? Worst of all, you've just called pathetic the tens of thousands of ordinary, hard working Australians who use this product.

You're ahead of me in as much as you've actually tried the stuff, but what of those who choose to not cook your way, or, simply don't know how, it's their choice to eat this rice, one they needn't be ashamed of, especially if it stops them from getting something else less healthful, like take-away. It isn't such a big stretch to imagine someone coming home dog-tired, unable to think past popping their dinner in the microwave and giving it a zap.

Sure, it's never going to be as tasty as rice cooked your way, but some people really don't care about the difference, they just want to be fed; for them, food is fuel, nothing more. The quicker and easier it is, means more time to do something else. That's what they're paying the extra for, it's buying time and also peace of mind.

Doubt the peace of mind? Check out this non sequitur.

'What is hard about cooking rice?
Give it a rinse. Add the correct amount of water. Seal the lid with foil. Put the pot on a very low heat. And wait.
The only difficult bit of that is adding the right amount of water, which is a bit of a learnt, intuitive thing.'

If someone had never cooked rice before, it's not so easy after all. That's why this stuff sells.
  posted at 8:45 am

Monday, May 26, 2008
Of Mushrooms and Fish

This is my mate Henry Kernot, the last of several generations of a fishing family dynasty from Tooradin. What does a fisherman do when the weather turns cold? Pick mushrooms of course!

We filled the basket in a couple of hours last Saturday, with slippery jacks (Suillus luteus) and saffron milk caps (Lactarius deliciosus), otherwise known as pine mushrooms. With the long term continuation of dry weather, which now appears to have become a permanent feature, mushrooms of all descriptions are getting harder to find - just like the fish which were once so plentiful in Western Port.

Faced with declining fish stocks and pressure from amateur angling bodies, after a previous voluntary buy-back, the government has compulsorily acquired the last of the netting licenses for Western Port.

The latest acquisition hasn't affected Henry - he sold his license voluntarily when the realisation hit that the fish which formed his livelihood wouldn't come back because of the degraded state of Western Port. The seagrass beds, 70% of which were lost between the mid seventies and mid eighties, that were home to many of the commercial species like King George whiting, garfish, leatherjackets, calamari et al, have mostly died off and huge numbers of fish that relied on them have disappeared in an environmental disaster.

When I was a young lad watching forty years ago, Henry used to stand on the bow of his father's fishing boat as it worked up the extensive channel system of the bay and call out the fish he could see, through 20 feet of crystal clear water. Nowadays, one would be lucky to see the bottom through 5 feet of murkiness.

If this had happened in Port Phillip, there would have been outrage, enquiries and commissions, but Western Port has long been the poor cousin, to which the government could only muster the lame response of a licence buy-back in the hope that fish stocks will recover. But let me say this Mr Brumby, you could ban all fishing in Western Port, professional and amateur alike and the fish still won't come back - not until their habitat is restored.

Before, it was too easy to blame the pros, now you can't. But we can certainly blame you for not acting to take up the challenge of saving and returning to its former glory, what was once Victoria's finest fishery, bar none. Henry will help, he's got nothing else to do.
  posted at 8:14 am

Friday, May 16, 2008
Food Traditions
I was talking to my eldest daughter P, from a previous marriage, just after Easter and enquired as to whether she had enjoyed her Easter Sunday lunch. She replied not really and complained they always have the same things whenever her extended family get together. You know, things like tabbouli, kibbe - both raw and cooked, vine leaves, baba ganoush and many other dishes that are bringing a tear to my eye just thinking about them. Things that I would kill for to the extent that I've ashamedly even asked my kids to steal some from the table for me.

But I know what she means too. At my wife and her sister's Polish table, the same traditional dishes appear year after year. White barszcz, pierogi of all persuasions, potato or Polish vegetable salad, beetroot with horseradish and so on.

These traditional dishes are like insects that have been trapped and preserved unchanging in amber.

I tackled my wife about it after our Easter lunch, suggesting that perhaps we could try some new recipes to keep things fresh and alive, but she said that these are the dishes we have to have, they are a part of her - though she is pragmatic enough to discard the buying of the Christmas Eve carp and keeping it alive in the bath for the week before and as much as I like spit-roasted pig, I'm silently pleased that I don't have to cook one at Easter.

But I do get where my wife and every person who has left their country of birth is coming from. It is their connection to a culture left behind and brooks no changes because that is simply how they remember the past. It is like every immigrant carries a time capsule of the food of their country in their hearts and minds and to cook that food is a celebration of their homelands.

But food doesn't stand still anywhere. Just after Easter my wife was talking to her mum, who told her that they had tried some new dishes for lunch. The amber was broken. It hit me then, that a visitor from Poland invited to one of these lunches might take the view that the food, as good as it is, was old-fashioned, which seems to sum up how my daughter feels about the food at these occasions.

It is something you see time and again with ethnic restaurants, you go to one Greek restaurant for instance and you have pretty much been to them all, you know there is a formula; at the start, they catered to the homesick and other interested people just came along for the ride. But when was the last time you tried a new dumpling at yum-cha or Greg Malouf aside, saw new dishes at Middle Eastern restaurants?

Perhaps immigrants are caught between a rock and a new place. Which is understandable but a shame - I'm not the only one ready for the new.
  posted at 8:00 am

Sunday, May 11, 2008
Rolled Roast Beef

Clothing fashion is a funny thing. What is cutting edge one year can suddenly find itself in the charity bin the next. So it is with food, many are searching for the next great taste or texture and in the process some wonderful dishes can so easily be discarded or just forgotten.

There is no doubt that molecular gastronomy is the haute couture of the moment. Its very nature of cutting edge experimental ism sometimes changes the way we perceive food, achieved by rather unconventional and even bizarre cooking methods often involving food chemistry, which can make us forget in all the dazzling excitement of the new, just how good some of the dishes of an earlier time really were.

This particular roast is a pertinent example of that. When I was growing up, roast beef at home always meant one thing, unless one grew up in the posh suburbs of Toorak or Brighton where a standing rib roast was king - everywhere else, rolled roast reigned. Every butcher's cabinet held this cut of meat, for good reason too, it always cooked up a treat and full of glorious flavour, which the nobler and much more expensive eye fillet really lacks.

But these days one rarely or never sees this cut; as society has grown more affluent, we all like to have the prime cuts for roasting, eye fillet, rib roast and so on. The lesser cuts have largely been left behind and in these days of high heat roasting, no one remembers how to cook them, for if they are treated in the same way as the prime cuts, the result will be tough and chewy meat, leaving no desire for a repeat performance.

So this last Mother's day, I decided it was time for a revival of the rolled roast. My sister-in-law was excited to hear what I was cooking as she remembered how good it was too. My local butcher, Zepp, from Ormond Meat & Smallgoods (9578 5049), also seemed happy about producing something from a bygone time.

He explained to me that this particular cut is a flap from the top rib, next to the rib eye (scotch fillet) which explains its good flavour and that in order to get a nice round rolled shape, some of the brisket is added in. In the old days, butchers used to spear the roast with wooden skewers held in place with twine to hold the roast together - but simply tied on the outside with loops of twine works just as well, then there is no need to remove the skewers before carving.

In order to tenderize a tough piece of meat without drying it out, it needs to be cooked long and slow, very slow. Pretty much regardless of weight, a rolled roast needs about 3 hours at 140c and we covered ours with foil, lifting it off for the last half hour to slightly brown the roast. There was also plenty of meat juice with which to make the gravy.

Because of the long cooking, this will never be rare or medium rare, the meat will be fully cooked through, but when done right, retains all its juices and becomes oh so tender with magnificent beef flavour. As it's rolled, when carving, there is a tendency for it to unroll or fall apart. To counter this, slices need to be at least 1cm thick, so a single slice becomes a portion.

Bother your butcher and get him to tie one up, you won't be leading the fashion field, but you will be wearing your comfiest slippers.
  posted at 5:05 pm

Thursday, May 08, 2008
Pasta alla Carbonara
Just what the world needs, another recipe for pasta alla carbonara, an all-time favourite.

It is a dish full of myth and intrigue over its origins, though the version I like best is the one about the American servicemen during the Second World War, supplying local Italians with eggs and bacon, who then gave birth to this dish.

However it came about, pasta alla carbonara is one of those dishes whose sum is greater than its parts. Cured pork, eggs and cheese, seasoned and cooked in the residual heat of steaming hot pasta, usually spaghetti.

In Italy, the choice of pork is guanciale, pork jowl or cheek, rubbed with seasoning then cured for a few weeks, but not smoked. Everywhere else pancetta is used, or even bacon and while the smokiness of bacon is not disagreeable, the delicacy of unsmoked pork gives the superior result.

Pecorino Romano is the cheese preferred if chasing authenticity, but by no means discount Parmigiano Reggiano or its close cousin Grana Padana, both of which make worthy substitutes, in fact Grana is the cheese I use most often to make this dish.

Funnily, considering that two salty products, pork and cheese, are used, the beaten eggs can take up quite a bit more salt than you would think - of course, a good grinding of black pepper is essential.

But perhaps the real secret of a creamy, coating sauce, is to hold back a little of the pasta cooking water. When the pasta is first mixed with the sauce and the eggs start to cook, the whole dish looks claggy and sticky, a little water soon loosens it into irresistible unctuousness. Some use cream for the same effect, but that is gilding the lily.

Pasta alla Carbonara
(serves 4)

5oog dried spaghetti or other pasta
200g guanciale, pancetta, or bacon, cut into thin lardons*
knob of butter
5 eggs
60g grated Pecorino Romano, parmesan or grana cheese
salt & fresh ground pepper

In a large pot of boiling salted water cook the spaghetti. Meanwhile, melt a knob of butter in a fry pan and gently cook the guanciale, pancetta or bacon for one or two minutes - the meat must remain tender and juicy, in no way crisped or browned. Beat the eggs in a large bowl and put in the slightly cooled meat, the cheese and season to taste with salt and pepper. When the spaghetti is cooked to your liking, take out a cup of the cooking water, drain the pasta, place in the bowl with the egg mixture and immediately mix it with the sauce. Check for consistency and if at all sticky looking, mix in a splash or two of water, until everything looks creamy. Serve with extra cheese for grating.

*have your butcher slice the meat thin, thin lardons adhere better to the pasta than thick ones.
  posted at 1:52 pm

Wednesday, May 07, 2008
Ripon Street Tree

Don't ever think they took all the gold out of Ballarat.
  posted at 8:06 am

Tuesday, May 06, 2008
Ruhlman vs. Cherry Pitter
“As a rule, any tool that has only one use should be avoided: examples including the shrimp deveiner, cherry pitter, hand crank fruit peeler, special slicers for butter, eggs, avocado, mango et cetera...."
From The Elements of Cooking by Michael Ruhlman.

Did he just write cherry pitter?!!! What on earth is Ruhlman thinking?

The humble cherry pitter is a tool in desperate need of a champion. It is one of the most useful implements in our drawer and that it only ever gets pulled out once a year to do its job, in no way detracts from that usefulness. A cherry pitter's design is elegantly simple, yet does its work with ruthless efficiency.

It would probably be safe to say that Ruhlman does not preserve cherries, nor remove their stones before making a clafoutis. Dentists all over the world should annoint him their patron saint as they take their expensive overseas holidays, financed in part by unsuspecting teeth, broken on unforgiving cherry kernels.

According to The Elements of Cooking the most useful kitchen tools are a chef’s knife, a large cutting board, a large sauté pan, a flat edged wood spoon and a large non-reactive (Pyrex ideally) bowl. As useful as all those things are, that list makes Ruhlman seem like an ascetic, possibly prone to the odd troubling vision of Anthony Bourdain's tool kit.

Here's how it really works, someone makes gadgets, we buy them. Why? Because some of them actually do work and besides, tinkerers need a job too, plus, I don't need to be made to feel like a Catholic, guilty at eyeing off a brand new Thermomix.

But perhaps the real reason he has got it in for cherry pitters has nothing at all to do with their alleged lack of usefulness. Have you ever pitted a substantial quantity of cherries, say more than 5kg at a time? The resulting kitchen scene resembles the aftermath of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre with bright crimson splatters all over the work area and to locate the serial killer responsible, one needs to merely look in the mirror.

But as a tool, I wouldn't be without one.
  posted at 10:01 am

Monday, May 05, 2008
Fermented Cucumber Soup

Soups fulfill all kinds of roles - warm you up on a cold day, make you feel better when you're sick, even evoke childhood memories when served a particular soup your mum made for the family. Soups can be light and refreshing or hale and hearty, there is even one particular group of soups, mainly Eastern European in origin, that are slightly, even strongly sour, such as the gently sour white barszcz, made with fermented rye flour or the quite tart flavour of sorrel soup.

Fermented cucumber soup is also up there with sorrel in terms of tartness, indeed, there is a lot of similarity between them in the way they taste. Both soups are good all year round, especially in summer when they come into their own with their refreshing zing.

The Polish have a love affair with fermented cucumbers and most families bottle their own, it's common to see row upon row of jars stuffed with cucumbers in Polish pantries and they believe no meal is complete without them.

They are simple to make, all that is needed are small cucumbers, water, salt and a few flavourings such as garlic, dill and mustard seeds. All these are placed in a sealed jar and the magic of fermentation begins, turning the cucumbers pleasantly sour after a month or so. There is no vinegar used at all, cucumbers pickled with vinegar are completely different in taste.

This soup is a Polish classic, but there are variations throughout the region. Do not try to make this with vinegar pickled cucumbers, the taste will be too harsh. As fermented cucumbers are well salted, you probably won't need to add any salt, also, if you like things really sour, you can add some of the cucumber brine to make it stronger.

This is also my entry to Kalyn's Weekend Herb Blogging, this week hosted by a local Melbourne girl Anh at Food Lover's Journey, who it seems, is rather missing summer.

Fermented Cucumber Soup

3 or 4 fermented cucumbers, depending on size
1.5l chicken stock
25g butter
3 medium potatoes, peeled & diced
1 large carrot, peeled & diced
1 tablespoon rice
salt, if needed
optional: cream or sour cream, chopped dill

Coarsely grate the cucumbers, place them in a pot with 1 cup chicken stock and the butter, bring to the boil and simmer gently for 30 minutes. Put the potatoes, carrot and rice into another pot* with the rest of the chicken stock, bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes, then put the contents of this pot into the pot with the cucumber and simmer for 5 more minutes. Add salt if necessary. When serving, if desired, add a spoon of cream or sour cream to each bowl and sprinkle on a little dill.

*you can of course cook it all in one pot, but, as the potatoes cook they will pick up the cucumber flavour and some of their smooth contrast will be lost.
  posted at 7:37 am

Friday, May 02, 2008
Jamon Sushi
Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in and hold it, don't breathe out for the rest of the night as you enter into the tiny space known as Jamon Sushi, a 14 seat sushi bar that for a short time is featuring a Wagyu menu. One needs to be comfortable with being up close and personal, for space comes at a premium in this shoebox joint - touching of bodies is inevitable.

Floor to ceiling windows means all the action is visible not just from the eight stools along the kitchen counter, but also from the street. There are also a couple of tables, with unforgiving, hard plastic seats, by a wall where lurid Manga scenes are projected onto throughout the night.

Charles Greenfield presides over all this bustle and motion much like a priest conducting an Easter mass, such is his reverence for this exclusive meat from 3 to 4 year old cattle with a 9+ marble score. Wagyu refers to certain breeds of cattle, that due to their genetics and methods of production, produce meat with extensive fat marbling

A palate cleanser plate of marinated mushroom, daikon and pickled ginger prepare the tastebuds for the first course of sashimi (raw) scotch fillet. The fine filigree of fat throughout the meat melts in the mouth like ice on a summer's day and there is a herbal or perhaps a sweet hay character that marks this meat as something extraordinarily special.

This same meat then found its way into rice rolls, partnered with mushroom and kelp; in the same way top quality raw fish is not at all fishy, the raw meat did not dominate, only giving a silken delicacy, a theme continued when the eye fillet made an appearance alongside crisp, peppery asparagus - tender slices which just fell apart; one diner cut a piece in half with a toothpick!

To cook or not, to season or not, those are the questions posed when served with slices of both scotch and eye fillet, charred briefly and served very rare, resting on zucchini shreds, nestling up to mushrooms brushed with the meat's cooking juices.

The scotch was completely au naturel, not a grain of salt had defiled its purity whilst the eye fillet had been touched with soy and ginger prior to cooking, which divided opinion as to which was the better and also caused discussion of accompanying sauces for the meat courses, which despite the love and attention lavished upon them - one tuna based sauce took nine hours to make - at times they seemed unnecessary distractions.

A dashi appeared, containing ginger, daikon and mushrooms with a slice of raw fillet draped languidly over the edge, to be cooked in the residual heat of the soup. Light and lifted, it was the perfect way to remove the cooked flavour of the previous course to allow for a bit of fun that Greenfield announced as a world first - squid stuffed with wagyu, assembled sushi roll style then sliced thin to contrast the pink and white colours, which then seamlessly segued to a spicy squid salad eaten with baby batons of cos lettuce.

Porterhouse sashimi with cucumber and softly poached daikon ramped up the meat flavour, sacrificing no tenderness at all in the process.

If restaurants have a soul, Jamon Sushi's was to be found in the next course. It was a simple bowl of soba noodle salad with nibs of raw scotch fillet and a slurp of broth in the bottom. Simple is perhaps understating things a little. This bowl of soba and wagyu managed to encapsulate the qualities of both in a way that transcended their sum - even though neither packs a flavour punch, their partnership was sublime.

No dessert was offered, but refreshing slices of nashi pear drizzled with lime juice rounded off the evening perfectly. Oh, almost forgot. Phew, breathe out.

Jamon Sushi
3 Murphy St, South Yarra, Melbourne.
Phone: (03) 98045710.

The night was very graciously organised by Ed Charles of Tomato and was a pared down version of the full menu.
  posted at 8:06 am

I'll Show You Mine...
I was at out to dinner and discussing food with a fellow food lover, when I thought to ask him, what was the dish that defined his cooking, his signature dish. After he answered, he turned the question back on me and it was surprisingly difficult to come up with something that could define the way I cook. After a few minutes pondering, the reply I was most comfortable with was the everyday dish of steak & chips, a firm family favourite.

That got me wondering, what would be your signature dish? I'd love to know, you can leave your answers in comments. It's not as easy it sounds to think of just one, so mention as many as you like.
  posted at 7:53 am


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