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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A Matter of Opinion
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1001 Dinners 1001 Nights
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Sunday, June 29, 2008
Watching the movie A Touch of Spice, I heard this line...

"Granpa said the word gastronomer conceals within it the word astronomer. As such, my lessons in astronomy involved the use of spices."

Grandfather Vassilis was a culinary philosopher who had many more gems concerning spices. Wonder if the word gastronomer might solve a problem for those who don't like the word foodie? Too formal or just the right weight?

Watch the movie, there are some fascinating insights. Anytime you get Greeks and Turks on the same screen without a drop of blood being spilled, it's got to be worth watching.
  posted at 4:16 pm

Thursday, June 26, 2008
An Unfolding Scandal
From Hansard's report on the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport.

"Senator Heffernan - ...The second thing I would like to flag is the need in Australia, which the government may like to think about, to harmonise meat standards. What I am talking about here is the substitution of lamb for sheep, which is common practice now, and a good proportion of the hoggets."

Chris Groves, president of the Sheepmeat Council of Australia told the committee more succinctly,

"There is no doubt that misdescription of hogget and mutton for lamb occurs. This misdescription risks reducing consumer confidence in lamb."

You would think the peak body for meat and livestock, Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) would be horrified by such practices, but far from it. When informed of the issue by Senator Heffernan, they expressed a desire to keep such allegations under wraps and out of the media because the current lamb promotion is going so well.

In other words, MLA wants us, the general public, to keep on buying lamb, despite knowing that consumers are paying higher lamb prices for meat that isn't lamb. When approached to offer advice on how to identify what is real lamb at the retail level, an MLA spokesman, replying to my question, said they didn't have that type of information. This, from the peak body.

As well as an enquiry into lamb substitution, there ought to be an enquiry into MLA. Their attitude isn't good enough, heads need to roll.
  posted at 8:15 am

Wednesday, June 25, 2008
No Brainer
Senator Heffernan, talking about lamb substitution to a Senate Committee.

"I want to put on the record what is now happening because it seriously disadvantages genuine lamb providers. When I raised this matter a few weeks ago with the MLA (Meat and Livestock Australia), I gave them a heads-up. They said ‘Oh, Bill we don’t want this to get into the city media because we do not want to derail Sam Kekovich’s lamb promotion,’ and that is fair enough. It is a very good promotion, lamb is an excellent product and I recommend everyone eat bloody lamb—except if you are vegetarian, and you can tell that she is a vegetarian, the poor skinny little thing!"

Didn't actor Sam Neill explain the role red meat plays in brain development in another promotion – "If our ancestors hadn't eaten red meat, our brains wouldn't be the size they are today!"

Senator Heffernan, have you been eating your meat?
  posted at 3:59 pm

Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Bryndzové Halušky

My friend Tanna and I were conversing via email some time ago when she thought to ask if I knew anything about bryndzové halušky, the national dish of Slovakia. Given that Slovakia and Poland share a common border through the Carpathian mountains and that my wife is Polish, it was a reasonable question, but upon enquiry, ultimately fruitless.

Somehow though, bryndzové halušky became stuck in my mind, somewhat like an itch that couldn't be scratched and so began a slow investigation. It was a dish that was conceived in the mountainous region of Slovakia and Poland. The Carpathian mountains stretch all the way to Romania and it was Romanian shepherds who introduced sheep herds to the region, starting from the 13th or 14th century. Their name for cheese, bryndza, has come to be associated with the famous sheep's milk or shepherd's cheeses throughout the mountains.

Potato dumplings are common to many central and eastern European countries, but it was the combination of cheese and dumplings, that made this dish both satisfying and fortifying in this cold climate, especially of Slovakia, which is dominated by mountains.

A search of the internet threw up a few recipes in English, but one complication was that I had no idea how it should taste. Another difficulty was that the bryndza (soft sheep's milk cheese), which has a central role, pretty much can't be obtained anywhere outside the region, as it's made from unpasteurised milk.

If only I could find some Slovakians, maybe they could tell me how to go about it.

An email to the Slovakian embassy, here in Canberra, went unanswered. There was a blogger who had some Slovakian heritage, but her mother and grandmother couldn't help. You Tube had some folk preparing the dish on camera, parts of which were useful, but as they spoke in Slovakian, the full picture wasn't available.

I was on my own.

The halušky or potato dumpling part was really the easiest to get a handle on, as working with this mixture is something that is common in our kitchen and getting the shape wasn't too difficult either as instead of a sieve with large (1cm) holes through which the batter is coaxed, we had a spatzle maker, which made essentially the same shape, just a little smaller.

Bryndza was the problem child. Over time, there were a few different thoughts. A specialist cheese shop suggested using the more available goat's cheese, but that felt like it would change the character of it as sheep's milk is a bit sweeter and let's face it, not goaty. There was a semi-hard cheese that I bought, but had a change of heart when remembering that there needs to be a gently sour tang, which it didn't have. Fetta cheese melted into a bechamel sauce was another line of thought that was discarded as not feeling right.

Then came the breakthrough. How about some sheep's milk yoghurt mixed with some mascarpone?!!! Initially a spoon of each was mixed together and there it was, finally, a soft creamy cheese that was both slightly sweet and sour. From go to whoa, this point had taken some six months and now the dish could finally go ahead.

Bryndzové Halušky
(serves 6 to 8)

1kg white, starchy potatoes - not waxy
1 cup milk
plain (all purpose) flour
250g mascarpone cheese
500g sheep's milk yoghurt, drained in muslin for 2 hours
fried bacon pieces or melted dripping
sour cream - optional

In a large bowl, grate all the potatoes to a pulp, keeping all the water* that forms. Add the milk, salt to taste and enough flour to form a thick batter that holds its shape when dropped from a spoon. With a special halušky sieve or spatzle maker, pass the batter through into a large pot of boiling salted water. If you don't have these implements, pour the batter onto a board, tilt over the water and slice off noodles with a knife. They are cooked when they have all risen to the surface. Scoop them out into a bowl until the batter is all used up. Mix the mascarpone with the drained sheep's milk yoghurt and add to the bowl with the halušky and mix well, until all the noodles are covered. Ladle onto plates and garnish with bacon or melted dripping. Serve with sour cream if desired.

* some recipes call for this water to be removed, but you must carefully retain all the starch if you do this

NB: Sorry for the saffron hue to the photos, it was due to the light source. The dish is really a creamy white.
  posted at 3:00 pm

Thursday, June 19, 2008
C-c-careful, They Might Hear You
Ramsey won't f-f-fade away, is the title of a front page news story in The Age newspaper today, as they report on a Senate inquiry into swearing on television, instigated by Liberal senator Cory Bernardi who viewed an episode of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, where the chef described a sous-chef as "this little cunt" and used the fuck word 80 times.

What's fascinating is that The Age has jumped the gun with this story, before the Senate has even released its report, second guessing its conclusions. Why the hurry?

Do you think that perhaps they've noticed what is going on over at their rival newspaper, the Herald Sun? For their recently revamped Tuesday supplement, extrafood, the Herald Sun has commissioned Ramsey to write a regular column.

Maybe there's some nervousness over at The Age, who described Ramsey as a potty-mouthed chef. Is this the first shot in defence of Epicure, their regular food supplement?

Let me say this, Gordon Ramsey swearing is not front page news. Game on though.
  posted at 9:04 am

Wednesday, June 18, 2008
An English Breakfast
In my previous post, there was some mention of porridge being a national dish of Scotland and how the English used to look down their noses at it.

So what did medieval Englishman have for breakfast?

Well, for a start, there were two kinds of breakfast, one for the well off and one for the peasants. Bread would be in attendance on all tables, white for the wealthy and dark for the rest. In better households, breakfast would proceed with boiled beef and mutton, cheese, salt herring and ale or wine. Those less fortunate would more than likely fill up on bread, but sometimes would have salt pork or bacon, fish on Fridays and a mug of ale.

According to The Cooking of the British Isles, this meat and ale diet continued for some five hundred years. These days, it would seem alarming that the general population were drinking beer for breakfast, but in those times, general hygiene was poor and water was often contaminated and not safe to drink, beer was safer, which is perhaps one reason why tea drinking became so popular - boiling the water made it fit to drink.

There was also frumenty, which took the place of porridge and is thought to be one of the oldest English dishes known. Whole wheat or barley grains were soaked in warm water for a few days until the grains had absorbed so much moisture that they burst, in a process called creeing. The starch released then turned the whole mass into a thick jelly and this was eaten with hot milk, honey or sugar.

A class split continued up until the eighteenth century, the poorer had bread, cheese and ale, while those better off had also split, along gender lines, with the women partaking of chocolate, cakes and a gossip at 10 o'clock, whilst the man of the house had eaten his meal earlier, which might consist of chocolate, bread and meat.

From these beginnings, breakfast evolved into an important part of the day when the family came together and conversed with one another and remained this way through Victorian times, up to when it became a formidable Edwardian social affair, where, according to Harold Nicolson, a diplomat and author, one might see on the sideboard...

"Hams, Tongues, Galantines, Cold grouse, ditto Pheasant, ditto partridge, ditto Ptarmigan. No Edwardian meal was complete without Ptarmigan (a game bird). Hot or Cold. Just Ptarmigan...Edwardian breakfasts were in no sense a hurried proceeding. The porridge was disposed of negligently, people walking about and watching the rain descend upon the Italian garden. Then would come whiting, and omelette and devilled kidneys and little fishy messes in shells. And then tongue and ham and a slice of Ptarmigan. And then scones and marmalade. And then a little melon, and a nectarine, and just one or two of those delicious raspberries."

For others without resources, breakfast was a completely different, sadder affair, thin porridge and stale bread were their sustenance and up to a third of the population suffered from malnutrition or other deficiency diseases. These folk could only dream about chafing dishes full of crisp bacon, a truly English invention, like ham, or plates of soft boiled eggs, smoked haddock or kippers, breakfast sausages, fried wild mushrooms, black puddings with fried apples, potted meat, fresh fruit, honey and Dundee marmalade, or the recently arrived from India, kedgeree. Pots of tea and coffee were on standby along with hot rolls and different kinds of breads, there were cutlets in sharp sauces, game pies, cold ham and ale.

Like Scotland, things in Celtic Wales, things were far simpler. Siot, an oatcake soaked in buttermilk, was eaten along with brewis, an oatmeal broth, both very sustaining foods, like porridge (or porage), from which evolved today's trend of eating cereal with hot or cold milk.

These sorts of foods were essential in their day as times were much different to today. Work was far more physical, walking was how folk got around and energy needs as a consequence were much higher. Of course we no longer need to drink beer in the morning or have a shot of whiskey in our tea.

So tell me, what do you have for breakfast?
  posted at 7:47 am

Monday, June 16, 2008
Processed Food - Good or Bad?
How do the words, Processed Food, make you feel?

Like there is some huge multi-national conglomerate, profiting like a Dark Lord from our consumption of manufactured food, that concurrently and insidiously destroys our health and wellbeing by turning natural foods, straight from the farm, into a pale imitation or even a grossly deformed version of their former selves, lacking greatly in any nutritional value or virtue.

I was watching the absorbing series, Ray Mears' Wild Food, in which he and Gordon Hillman examine the diets of our Stone Age ancestors. Filming on a small island, just off the coast of Britain, where an archaeological dig had uncovered fragments of hundreds of thousands of toasted hazelnut shells from about 7,000 b.c., the boys demonstrated how it might of been done, by scooping out a pit, lining it with sand, placing in the unshelled hazelnuts, covering with more sand and building a small fire on top, producing a primordial oven of sorts, that toasted the hazelnuts perfectly.

In another segment, Mears and Hillman gathered wild acorns, ground them to a coarse meal with a stone, then soaked that in water to remove the bitter tannins, which makes consuming acorns quite an ordeal. They suggested that this would have then been cooked into a gruel, a precursor to the gruels that fed European and New World peasants for so many centuries.

It was then that the thought struck me that processed food is nothing new, our Stone Age ancestors had been processing food and eating it as a regular part of their diet and indeed part of man's success in dominating our planet can be attributed to this very ability to process foods that otherwise could not be used or not available to us in their natural form.

Think of wheat for example, one of the world's dominant grains. It is not really possible to eat until it has been processed in some way, the acme of which is flour, obtained by milling and grinding, but in prehistoric times, wheat grains would have simply been cooked into a gruel as they were or perhaps partially ground, which is processing by a combination of grinding and heating.

Sadly, it was the success of our ability to process grains as well as legumes and nuts that helped lead to the immense destruction of forests worldwide as mankind moved to an agricultural stage some 10,000 years ago and cleared the land for crop planting. The island on which Mears and Hillman were filming the hazelnut site was once covered in hazelnut and other trees, but was now completely deforested.

Even though our diet is somewhat different these days to what our ancestors ate, it is still possible to taste food exactly as it used to be all that time ago. If you roast some hazelnuts, their flavour provides a direct link to what our Stone Age forebears experienced, a rather humbling thought. Less appealing but very nourishing were gruels, a sort of liquid drink made from cereals such as millet, rye, barley, oats, corn and of course wheat, whose modern equivalents are porridge and polenta.

I've seen written in a John Lethlean article, that it was the Romans who introduced porridge to Britain, but that seems strange as oats were only first domesticated around the time of the Roman invasion of England. In the first century a.d.. Pliny, a Roman scientist of the time, thought oats were merely a diseased form of wheat. Also, the English disdained oats; according to Wikipedia, the English had a saying that "oats are only fit to be fed to horses and Scotsmen", to which the Scottish riposte was "and England has the finest horses, and Scotland the finest men", which sums up oats' importance to the Celtic people, most particularly the Scots, whom the Romans failed to conquer.

A more likely explanation is that as oats became renowned for their singular ability to thrive in cold, wet climates, where other grains like wheat cannot perform, they migrated westward along northern Europe, from their birthplace in near Asia, finding a natural home in the harsher north of England. It is known that when oats reached Britain, they were already being consumed as a gruel by the Teutons and Gauls and indeed the name porridge derives from the French word, potage - the strikingly similar word porage, which is still in use to this day, is another way Scots spell porridge.

This same Lethlean article also refers to another kind of porridge, one made from ground corn - polenta - which was also the Italian word to describe gruels made in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance from things like spelt, chestnut flour and the aforementioned millet and acorns. It went on to say that after the introduction of corn from the New World, "Maize soon became popular in northern Italy, resolving the feeding problems of mountainous folk in those pre-tourism times when dried corn, ground and turned into a satisfying gruel, helped them through snowbound winters without ski lifts and visitors from the city".

Maize polenta may well have resolved the problem of feeding mountain folk, but it was very much the poisoned chalice, causing outbreaks of debilitating pellagra or corn-sickness amongst those whose survival over the winter depended upon maize, which, if left untreated, eventually lead to death.

In an amazing triumph of food processing, the primitive people of the Americas, where corn is native, and who relied on it as a staple crop, had somehow worked out that by treating corn with an alkaline solution made from ashes or lime, that they could avoid pellagra and its complications. Unfortunately, the process wasn't understood and tragically rejected by those in the Old World, who suffered as a consequence, not just in Italy, also Spain and France, as well as other parts of the world where it was introduced.

No matter what you think about processed food, it is without a doubt one of the things that helps to define us as a species and made possible our stunning success in spreading across the world. Humans could not survive in our present state without it, it's integral to us. Love or hate it, it's here to stay.
  posted at 9:13 am

Tuesday, June 10, 2008
Fire-Roasted Potatoes

Potatoes cooked right on the hearth of an open fireplace.

Any baking potato will do, these were russet burbanks. It's difficult to give exact directions on how to go about it as there are a couple of variables - how hot the coals are, how far the potatoes are from them and how large they are. The cooking distance also influences the flavour; the closer the spuds, the more they char and get that baked-in-the-fire taste.

These potatoes took about an hour and a half, but weren't particularly close, though they finished up on the coals for the last ten minutes. Here's how to go about it.

Tear a double thickness of aluminium foil, enough to comfortably wrap a single potato, allow one large potato per person. Place the potatoes no further than six inches from the coals and cook for about 30 minutes, then turn around to cook the other side. They are cooked when a wooden skewer passes easily through them. If you like a slightly charred flavour, put the foil packets directly on the coals for the last ten minutes.

There are other ways to get different flavours too. Pierce the potatoes all over with a knife and insert slivers of garlic, rosemary or anything else you like, even pieces of truffle, into the gashes. If bacon's your thing, wrap streaky bacon around the spuds as well, all before wrapping with the foil. The bacon might be too charred to eat, depending on how closely to the coals you place the spuds, but its porky goodness will suffuse itself throughout.

Sour cream, butter, salt and fresh ground pepper are all good serving partners.
  posted at 1:14 pm

Friday, June 06, 2008
Lamb with Beans
Since this post about the nature of Australian food, I've been thinking to create a dish that at least I could call Australian. What I came up with contains nothing that could be considered native to this country of ours, but that doesn't disqualify it at all. Many countries have national dishes with ingredients that come from elsewhere, but have their own unique spin - can you imagine Spain without potatoes, Italy without tomatoes or Asian cooking without chillies?

Even the technique is right out of an Italian cookbook of the classics, but by making a simple substitution, the dish has a quintessential Australian feel to it. Lamb is a much loved food in this country from robust roasted legs of lamb to the delicate and ever popular lamb cutlets. Who hasn't thrown a bbq lamb chop on the barbecue?

At this time of year, as we shiver our way into winter, the fact is, lamb is not at its peak, which occurs late winter/early spring with the arrival of new season lamb, the tenderest of all. Whilst lamb is not at its most tender just prior to the new season, it does have bucket loads more flavour, which makes the tougher cuts perfect for slow braising, cuts like forequarter (bbq) lamb chops which are taken from the shoulder.

It's attractive to cook with for two reasons, one, it's cheaper than boned out shoulder and two, bone in always gives more flavour and body to the braise. Lancashire hot pot is one way of making the most of this cut and gives a very good result. But how about jazzing it up with a borrowed idea? Why not use a method that brings the most out of veal shank, another tough customer that is reduced to melting tenderness by a long slow cook with aromatic flavours? Can Osso Bucco become dinki-di Aussie?

You betcha!

Lamb with Beans

2 onions, peeled & sliced
3 stalks celery, rough chopped
2 medium carrots, peeled and rough chopped
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
100ml olive oil
2 tablespoons flour
1L chicken stock
1 tin diced tomatoes
1 bouquet garni of celery leaves, thyme, bay leaves & parsley stalks
6 forequarter (bbq) lamb chops, cut in half and trimmed of excess fat
2 tins beans, cannellini or borlotti
salt & fresh ground pepper
gremolata* (optional)

In a large casserole dish, heat the olive oil and put in the onion, celery, carrot and garlic and cook until the vegetable sweat down. Stir in the flour and cook for another minute, then add the chicken stock, diced tomato, bouquet garni and the lamb chops. Season with salt & pepper, then bring to the boil, put the lid on, and place in a 160c oven for 1 hour or until tender. Remove the lamb pieces and bring to a rapid boil on top of the stove and reduce until the sauce is thickened to your liking, stirring the bottom well. Add the beans and boil for 1 minute more. Serve with couscous.

*I'm not a huge fan of gremolata (grated lemon peel with finely chopped garlic & parsley) on Osso Bucco as it sort of takes over, but with this dish, the lamb flavour is more assertive and can stand up to it.
  posted at 11:11 am

Monday, June 02, 2008
Traditional Cheesecake

In our household, we love our potatoes.

For every particular recipe, we have a certain variety of potato for the job. Potato salad means kipflers, boiled spuds gives Dutch creams the chance to shine. For mashing, roasting or chip making, most folk would use sebagoes, a great all-rounder and generally known as all-purpose, but, if we can get them, russet burbanks are our number one choice for those three jobs.

That russets make great chips is beyond dispute, being the choice of McDonalds Corporation to make their world famous fries and is also one of the main varieties used by McCain, the world's leading producer of french fries. So when I lugged a ten kilo sack of russets home the other day, my wife D was most pleased.

"Good boy, I need those."

"What are you making?"


Honestly, you could have knocked me over with a feather.

That cheese and potato work together comes as no surprise. The French have aligot, the Swiss, raclette and the national dish of Slovakia is bryndzové halušky, a potato dumpling affair, slathered with sheep's milk cheese. But all the aforementioned dishes are savoury, not sweet.

D had been reading one of her Polish cooking magazines, Moje Gotowanie and in it were a number of recipes for cheesecake, which Poles have a deep and abiding love for. The recipe that caught her eye and my attention was the traditional version, one that contained potato, it was also a recipe she had never seen before, but was curious to make.

Most Polish cheesecakes contain a little potato flour, which may well have derived from using whole potatoes. Given that the recipe was called traditional, it is very likely that in times past, potato was a regular part of the filling, perhaps to help lighten the texture of the cake, or in straightened times, of which Poland has known a few, maybe as a way to stretch out the cheese, without interfering with the flavour.

Poland is not the only country to use potatoes in cheesecake. There is an old English recipe for Bishop Auckland Cheese Cakes that have no cheese at all, only potato, which was thought to mimic a cheesecake made with curd cheese. Another interesting fact, according to The Joy of Cooking, is that cheesecake is not a cake at all, rather, it is a baked custard.

Traditional Cheesecake
(adapted from Moje Gotowanie)

800g cottage cheese
3 medium white potatoes, peeled and boiled
6 eggs, separated
200g sugar
180g butter
50g sultanas
grated zest of 1 orange
grated zest of 1 lemon
vanilla essence

In a food processor*, blend the cheese until smooth, rice the potatoes and mix with the cheese. In a large bowl cream the butter and sugar, then beat in the egg yolks one at a time. When fully mixed gradually add the cheese and potato mixture, making sure there are no lumps, but do not overmix. Stir in the sultanas, the orange and lemon zests and vanilla essence to taste. In another bowl, whip the egg whites until just stiff and carefully fold into the cheesecake mixture. Grease well with butter a 24cm springform pan and pour in the mixture. Bake in a 180c preheated oven for 80 minutes. When done, turn off the oven and leave the door slightly ajar for 30 minutes, then remove from the oven and allow to cool completely in the tin.

*for a more delicate mixing, some like to pass the cheese through a mincer once or twice instead of a processor. Whichever way you use, be careful to not overwork the cheese.
  posted at 8:07 am


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