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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Monday, August 25, 2008
Food Fighters
Our daughter M is very passionate about her food. Perhaps not in the same way I am, or even you, gentle reader, just in a very particular way about which foods she will and won't eat. For instance, in a previous post, there was her distaste for apples, in any way shape or form and her ability to sniff out any attempt to hide or disguise said fruit would make her the envy and peer of many a truffle hound.

In fact M won't eat any fruit with but just one exception --raspberries, which is one of the reasons why we like to pick-our-own, it's way cheaper than the tiny, puny punnets on sale.

It wasn't always like this. In her early years, M pretty much ate whatever we put in front of her, even, surprisingly, fermented pickles. But there comes a time when kids start to realize that they can control what they choose to eat and get a heady whiff of the conscious control of power over their parents.

Mealtimes can then become like trench warfare, with parents as the hapless soldiers, forced to leave the safety of the trenches and out into no-man's-land to face withering bursts of machine gun fire from the muzzles of their very own children. Like trench warfare, there are no winners.

Far better for parents to become guerrilla fighters with all the sneakiness that entails, ambushing kids with healthy choices at every opportunity and even starving the enemy out, it is amazing what a hungry child will eat as opposed to one who has been snacking.

But the best weapon in a parent's armoury is patience. What is too horrible to be eaten one day can decisively turn heavenly the next. Time can often solve what a war-weary general using full frontal assaults cannot.

We were sitting at the table a couple of Sundays ago, my wife and I with bacon and eggs, M with her cereal and milk. She suddenly reached out and grabbed a rasher of bacon, ate some and announced, "I like bacon!" I bet my face was a mirror of the stunned look of my wife's. We had tried, not too hard, to get M to sample our Sunday breakfast, to no avail. Perhaps she now realized the meaty strips she happily wolfed down in pasta alla carbonara was pretty much one and the same as that resting on our plates that morning.

Even though she now eats bacon, M is yet to make the connection between the silky smooth egg sauce of that same pasta dish and the look of a poached egg staring at her with its yellowy eye.

It may not seem to some that eating bacon would be cause for celebration, but to us it is, M's taste is maturing. What is a small leak in the dyke wall may soon become a torrent. Maybe, just maybe, our dinner table can become all quite on the western front.

We still need help with bedtime though.
  posted at 12:18 pm

Thursday, August 14, 2008
Shop 'n' Save with Samuel
If you are dealing with the heavyweights in any industry, who are continually flexing their anti-competitive muscles, it would be a great idea having someone to deal with them who had some of the characteristics of a bull, strong, determined, single minded and with the ability to gore recalcitrant operators.

Graeme Samuel of the ACCC is none of the above and is about as useful as tits on a bull.

After his exhaustive enquiry into petrol pricing practices, we still have the weekly price cycle, whereby petrol fluctuates by around 10c a litre regardless of the barrel price of oil and even worse, as soon as the world oil price goes up, so does the pump price -- for gas that was bought at a lower price.

Then when the oil price comes down, the pump price always lags behind at the higher level, sometimes by as much as two weeks.

So now that Samuel has somehow singlehandedly managed to retain the status quo there, despite an overwhelming public interest to the contrary, he has since turned his hazy gaze towards grocery prices.

You all need to read kitchen hand's report into the bizarre goings on there.
  posted at 7:54 am

Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Risi e Bisi
One of the favourite dishes at our place is risi e bisi, which I've been making for many years now. It's the Italian name for pea risotto, at least in my mind it was right up till the other day.

I shop at one of those greengrocers, that when things get a bit quiet, very kindly shell their peas, borlotti beans and a couple of other things, ready to buy and use. Convenient. Loving convenience so much, I have always used frozen peas for my pea risotto, except when someone has already shelled the fresh ones.

Frozen peas have long been considered the success story of frozen vegetables, but for those who know, there is nothing like the flavour and texture of freshly shelled peas, though frozen peas seem that little bit sweeter, perhaps because they go pretty much straight from the field to the freezer, whereas fresh peas linger a little longer before making the final journey to the kitchen.

As I rummaged between the okra and early new season broad beans, nestling next to the beans were a couple of punnets of pre shelled peas. Jackpot. Honestly, why does anyone bother to shop at supermarkets for their veggies when a well run greengrocer beats them for variety, service, freshness and price everytime? For those of you in Sydney, especially this one.

I didn't so much pick up the peas as they jumped into my basket, with nary a thought as to how they might be used. That's my thing...see something good, grab it and think later. Look out you sexy bunch of radicchio, you're coming home with me where I'm slowly going to dress you with my best olive oil, until you shine just so, then put you in a tart and lusty threesome with some lemon juice, yeah baby!

Huh hmm, back now.

It was when I got home and thinking about how to use my peas that it occurred to me that I had never used fresh ones in a risotto. Marcella Hazan in her The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking has a recipe that incorporates fresh peas along with some of their pods, but do you think I could find it leafing through the risotto chapter? There was actually a pretty good reason for that...it wasn't there! A quick index search revealed it to be in the soup category. It seems that somewhere down the track, I had mistakenly come to believe that risi e bisi was a risotto dish.

Hazan tells of the 25th April, that while all of Italy celebrates their liberation from Fascist and German rule, the Venetians also used to celebrate the birthday of St Mark, patron saint of the republic that lasted 1,000 years and in honour of him had the first taste of risi e bisi for the season, on this day.

It was actually very pleasing to discover that this was a soup, for it pretty much does away with all that stirring, which all risotto makers know is so time consuming. Bung it all in the pot and some twenty or so minutes later, a steaming hot, thick and hearty soup. Though having saved us all that stirring, Hazan advises using a couple of handfuls of the actual pea pods to sweeten the dish, which means a little skinning of the inner membrane. Maybe one day I'll try that...

No doubt she would tut-tut over my use of bought stock too.

Risi e Bisi
(serves 4)

50g butter
1 small onion finely diced
360g fresh peas
1 cup risotto rice, vialone nano is good
1.5l chicken stock
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
50g parmigiano-reggiano cheese freshly grated

Put the butter and onion into a large pot and gently sweat the onion until very soft, then add the peas and a pinch of salt to retain their colour. Cook for another 2 or 3 minutes, stirring well. Add the rice and stock, bring to the boil and cook at a steady simmer until the rice is done to your liking, about 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the parsley and Parmesan, then check the seasoning. Serve.

Note: I didn't measure anything except the peas, so the quantities aren't exact, it might need more or less stock. The idea is to end up with a soup that is quite thick but runny enough to need a spoon to eat it.
  posted at 10:20 am

Friday, August 08, 2008
Food Technologists
Saw a rather alarming set of figures last night; 100 years ago, there were 1.5 billion humans on the planet. Today there are 6 billion.

How are we going to keep on feeding them all?

It was a nice counterpoint to a John Lethlean article last weekend about the crap that's being sold in supermarkets these days. But when you have 6 billion to feed, its more a case of never mind the quality, feel the width.

Something tells me that a vast part of the world's population would be very happy to be able to shop at his local supermarket and even happier to be able to eat the sort of food he scoffs at, well, maybe not the coffee, with perhaps the exception of my dear departed mum, who was known, okay loved, to get her coffee fix from a tube. It was a coffee, milk and sugar paste that you squeezed just like toothpaste into a cup and then added hot water to and whose flavour probably came from being waved a couple of times over a roasted coffee bean.

In the article, Lethlean asks, "Can someone please tell me why the "great" chefs of Europe insist on seeking their inspiration from food technologists?" Nice point, and so long as he speaks Spanish, he'll be able to ask in person without even boarding a plane. Hola Adria.

As much as it pains me to say this, the real point is, how the hell are we going to feed everybody without food technologists? Is it coincidental that this enormous rise in population has come about at the same time as the rise in food technology? I think not. It is an iron rule of nature that a population explosion in any species can only come about in the event of enough food being available to support it.

In the case of our species, we have not only been able to grow enough food to do that, but aided by food technologists, have been able to convert that food into something that can be stored safely for a very long time, so that in times of plenty, excess production is not wasted, but ultimately converted into another human being.

So whilst a self heating cup of coffee might seem analogous to the NASA moon program, somewhat useless in itself, the spin off effect has the greater importance. Hands up everyone who has ever had freeze dried coffee.

We might like to blame food technologists for most of the rubbish lining supermarket shelves, but no matter how much we rail against them, their industry is growing in importance. Sure, some of the things they do can be regarded as no more than frippery, but our world could not survive in its current form without them.
  posted at 11:05 am

Monday, August 04, 2008
Shannon Bennett

Elliot from 1001 Dinners 1001 Nights and I were ushered into the kitchen, the bustling hub of Vue de Monde and seated at a smallish table, just by a huge stock cooker that contained the gently simmering carcasses and trimmings of chicken. We had been granted an interview with arguably Australia's best chef, Shannon Bennett and I did come to wonder, given his well known antipathy towards some food critics, if perhaps a few of them might not be floating there.

The kitchen itself was humming along in pre-lunch mode, with all the chefs going about their work with quiet efficiency, there was no shouting or any sign of aggravation, everyone was dedicated to getting the coming job done.

When Bennett arrived a few minutes later, he somehow seemed smaller that imagined, his good looking face set off by long wavy hair and sparkling eyes that glowed with an inner determination. He carried himself with an easy confidence without any hint of the arrogance and hubris that besets some chefs.

It was a remarkably open interview, with Bennett happy to talk forthrightly about any topic. Something that became obvious during the course of the interview was that he cares very much for all the people around him, not just family and friends, but also his staff and takes very seriously his role as a mentor to kids that have got themselves into trouble, not in a way to draw publicity to himself, like a Jamie Oliver, but to promote the organization he volunteers for.

Do you have a favourite dish of your creation?

It’s hard to nominate any one dish as they are always changing and evolving, but one that comes to mind is our liquid cep gnocchi, made by cooking then pureeing ceps (porcinis), adding some sodium algaenate, then placing the mixture in a foam gun and piping that into a water bath containing calcium chloride. It then becomes a liquid centered, intensely flavoured jelly - true to the taste of earthy mushrooms, but created in a completely new way.

What is your favourite ethnic cuisine?

It changes all the time, at the moment Ethiopian is one that I like, but I also have a soft spot for Moroccan cuisine, especially tagines, as I spent some time there.

Is there any one person who has had a big influence on your cooking?

Marco Pierre White is the first to come to mind, but I can't leave out John Burton Race either. Their discipline in their approach to food left a large impression on me, even though they both have a very, let's say, unique attitude. Discipline is very important in food.

When you have the time to relax, what do you like to do?

Play with the kids and have time with my family, watching DVDs is good too. I don’t mind plane travel because there are no mobile phones, it's a little bit of peace. Sunday is my day off and that's when I can catch up with my friends, but I don't like to socialize every Sunday as it is my only time to relax, so I end up seeing my friends maybe two or three times a year.

Some think you have resurrected fine dining in Melbourne, do you feel that?

To a certain extent. In Vue de Monde, the front of house is very important, creating a good atmosphere is crucial and part of that is having quality cutlery, stemware and the like. But more than having all the best accoutrements, what sets us apart is our ability to treat guests as guests. What I’ve noticed, is that in Sydney for instance, their approach to service is behind that in Melbourne, though their food is just as good.

Do you sense any new directions in the Melbourne restaurant scene?

There seems to be a greater casualness. Behind the scenes we are focusing on a greater staff to patron ratio as well as greater attention to sourcing quality ingredients with a preference for local produce and taking different approaches with them. We used to change the menu quite often, weekly for instance, but as some patrons heard about certain dishes and booked especially to try them, we are leaving things on the menu a bit longer, looking to the seasons to be our guide. Bloggers talking about local food has also caught our attention.

Did you consciously work towards attaining 3 hats and Restaurant of the Year, or was that incidental to your mission as a chef?

My goal was to be the best I could be and there is still a long way to go with that, for instance, I’m looking to improve the front of house at the moment. We are also looking to be a leader in training our staff, in a very supportive way without ego and in a way that benefits the hospitality industry as a whole. It is important to us to support our own industry and to be a leader in that.

How did you feel when Neil Perry so publicly lost one of his hats for Rockpool?

Very disappointed for him and the way in which it was done. Neil is passionate and determined and should have been shown more respect. Why couldn't they approach him behind the scenes and tell him of their intentions to give him the chance to address the issues raised. To rip one away like that cheapens their own system. It’s as if the guide doesn’t understand the importance of their own hat system and is now delivering some very random and confusing results.

Does being restaurant of the year mean that Vue de Monde diners have heightened expectations?

YES! But for me that means constantly trying to raise the bar. For instance, we now top up empty glasses for wines that are matched to courses as long as our guests are still eating, at no extra charge. We are always looking for ways to improve things for the diner.

What ingredient gives you the most pleasure to work with?

Seasonal products, though with climate change it’s difficult to say what the seasons are anymore. Seafood is another thing I love to work with. We have wonderful Moonlight oysters from Batemans Bay, that a grown in a special way to optimize the flesh and presentation. I also love cooking a freshly caught mountain trout, straight into the pan with it. For most other seafood though, the day after it's caught is best as the flesh gets a chance to relax, otherwise it can be a bit stiff.

Is there any big name chef that you would like to work with for a special dinner?

Alex Atali, I cooked with him in New York and he uses some amazing products from the Amazon. Ferran Adria, need I say more? Andoni Aduriz from Mugaritz is someone else I admire.

Who would you like to invite for a dinner party?

Gordon Ramsey, I've met him and he's great, also his father-in-law, Chris Hutcheson, he's quite a character too. Other than that, I would invite all my good friends with whom I have limited time to catch up.

Is there anything you can’t get enough of?

Fast cars on a racetrack. It’s a bit of a hobby and I’m currently going for my CAMS licence. I also love mentoring kids through Whitelion, kids who have had some problems in life and gotten on the wrong side of the law. It’s great to see how they respond when someone takes an interest in them and shows them a few things. To see their self belief develop when they realize that they can actually cook something like an omelette, is uplifting.

Do you have a funny cooking moment?

We had a well known food critic in the other day who told us of 11 different food allergies they had, including allergies to all sugar and gluten. I could just see the headline, ‘Bennett kills food critic!’ But seriously, how does someone with so many allergies manage to be a food critic?

When Bono of U2 talks about their album, The Joshua Tree, he mentions that it manages to capture some of the melancholy and ache of the Irish. With your Irish heritage, do these emotions inform either your character or cooking?

I see the Irish as a friendly people who like to have a good time, express themselves and their opinions over a pint or two. They are a passionate people and that part, the passion, comes through in my food. Also the hospitality, the Irish are very hospitable people and that comes through in my approach to the restaurant, I want my guests to not only to have a great meal, but a great time as well. Another Irish thing is that I also don’t hold back when expressing an opinion, I tell it like it is.
  posted at 7:07 am


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