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, September 30, 2008

NEWS FLASH -- A little leprechaun has been seen in the vicinity of market gardens with a tin of green paint.

No, not really, but it sprung to mind when I saw this at my greengrocers the other day. It's a broccoflower and I was told that it tasted a bit more like broccoli than cauliflower and also has a very short season. He also lamented that he would most likely have to throw them out as there are too few people who like to try something so obviously different; bless him for putting unusual things on his shelves though.

For me, it was a case of in the basket first, ask questions later.

As you can see, it is a vivid green, but I wouldn't say it was that much like broccoli, though it would be fair to say it's milder and a little sweeter than regular cauliflower, which makes it ideal for kids...if they're happy to taste it. Ours was and took a big scoop of the mornay it was turned into.

If you see one, grab it, they're not just a pretty colour.
  posted at 9:07 am

A Spanish Style Salad

Just a little housekeeping, a picture of a Spanish style salad, the subject of a previous post, that we had at our grand final barbecue on the weekend. Having a Hawthorn supporter on my right side during the telecast, means I'm a tad deaf in that ear at the moment.

For those that check out the recipe, the sharp eyed may notice that the black olives are missing, so while they did eventually make it, you'll have to just imagine how they would look if a more capable cook had been given the task of salad making!
  posted at 8:50 am

Thursday, September 25, 2008
Saltbush Lamb
'Good day', said Mitchell.
'Good day', said the manager.
'It's hot,' said Mitchell
'Yes, it's hot.'
I don't suppose,' said Mitchell; 'I don't suppose it's any use asking you for a job?'
'Well, I won't ask you,' said Mitchell, 'but I don't suppose you want any fencing done?'
'Nor boundary riding?'
'You ain't likely to want a man to knock around?'
'I thought not. Things are pretty bad just now.'
'Na -- yes -- they are.'
'Ah, well; there's a lot to be said on the squatter's side as well as the men's. I suppose I can get a bit of rations?'
'Ye -- yes. (Shortly) -- Wot d'yer want?'
'Well, let's see; we want a bit of meat and flour -- I think that's all. Got enough tea and sugar to carry us on.'
'All right. Cook! have you any meat?'
To Mitchell: 'Can you kill a sheep?'
To the cook: 'Give this man a cloth and knife and steel, and let him go up to the yard and kill a sheep? (To Mitchell): You can take a forequarter and a bit of flour.'
Half an hour later Mitchell came back with the carcase wrapped in cloth.
'Here yer are; here's your sheep,' he said to the cook.
'That's all right, hang it in there. Did you take the forequarter?'
'Well why didn't you? The boss told you to.'
'I didn't want a forequarter. I don't like it. I took a hindquarter.
So he had.

Mitchell: A Character Sketch by Henry Lawson

Henry Lawson loitered around outback New South Wales awhile, penning vivid stories about life in the bush, very often from the point of the working man or the just plain down and out, with whom he shared a subtle connection. His peregrinations took him through the heart of saltbush country, useless for anything else but sheep and the odd bit of cattle.

Saltbush is a very hardy shrub that thrives in arid country and is extremely tolerant of salt, an important consideration in many parts of Australia. In fact, its value as stockfeed and ability to grow in very dry conditions has led to the commercial development of saltbush as a crop, with Old Man Saltbush (Atriplex Nummularia) now being planted on a wide scale across the country.

It has high levels of vitamin E, a powerful anti-oxidant, and is thought to be responsible for the unique flavour and incredible tenderness of lambs that feed on it, as well as naturally extending shelf life and maintaining the rich red colour of the meat, without making the meat at all salty.

Ironic too, that after a couple of centuries of battling the bush to establish pastures in an environment hostile to it, we are now taking a lead from the land itself and planting indigenous crops that are completely suited to our harsh climate, helping protect the land from erosion and salinity.

Having read much about salt bush mutton and lamb, but never actually seeing any, it seemingly a bush speciality, you can then imagine my happiness at finding some at Prahran Market last weekend under the Bultarra label. There nestled alongside the other cuts were boned out and cryovaced legs and shoulders as well as lamb cutlets.

Unlike Mitchell, we like forequarter and bought a boned out shoulder to try and slow roasted it to juicy succulence. Wanting to fully experience the flavour, the joint was only salted beforehand. The kitchen filled with the aroma of the roast, which seemed unlike that of regular lamb, almost like lamb essence.

After a short rest, the meat carved easily into neat slices. Tasting was an amazing experience, there is no doubt that it is different to its grass fed cousins, the meat was quite dense, similar to the taughtness of free range chicken compared to pasty supermarket birds, my wife commented that it was veal like in texture.

As promised, it was also very tender, but the flavour was the remarkable thing. There is no doubt in my mind that the salt bush confers a concentrated lamb taste, not gamey in any way, just full on, robust, flavour; it was almost like eating lamb for the first time.

Bultarra saltbush lamb is a premium product and its price does reflect that, but if you ever wondered about it or want something a bit different, it's worth a try. We'll be having it again.
  posted at 8:11 am

Friday, September 19, 2008
Brine vs Dry Cure
In last Tuesday's (16/9/08) extrabite supplement in the Herald Sun, Bob Hart points to an earlier article regarding processed hams containing up to 38% water and laments that dry curing ham could become a lost art, the inference being that dry curing produces better tasting meat.

But is that really the case?

My favourite ham comes from a Continental butcher who specialises in hams and smallgoods and is cured in brine, a heavily salted water bath, which starts the preservation process, before being smoked, another preserving technique. What I get from him is well flavoured ham that is also extremely juicy. This is the fundamental difference between brining and dry curing, brining adds some water, whilst dry curing, where the meat is covered in dry salt and the resulting moisture allowed to drip away, strips it out.

So is one better than the other?

Not really, they're both traditional methods producing vastly different results, it depends on the outcome required. Do you want moist juicy well flavoured meat that keeps for a bit longer than when it was fresh or do you want to preserve the meat for many months, but it's much drier?

The answer for me is both. While brined ham is good because it's juicy, prosciutto, which has had its moisture removed, has a far more intense flavour -- dry curing has concentrated it. Both styles have their place in every kitchen, whether brined hams, bacon or silverside, to the full flavoured dry cured prosciutto, Parma, Spanish jamon or schinkenspeck, to air dried beef, bresaola and bundnerfleisch.

So how to tell the difference? Brined meat tends to be light pink in colour, whilst dry cured becomes a very dark burnished brown.

Where Hart is right, it's much better to buy ham from a specialist smallgoods butcher, there is no comparison to the cheaper supermarket stuff. It really is a case of you get what you pay for.
  posted at 7:49 am

Vale Didier Dagueneau

From my in box, "Dear all, yesterday we received the terrible news that Didier Dagueneau had died in a light plane crash over the Cognac region. It is just a shocking loss of a winemaker so talented that Denis Dubourdieu described him as “… one of the great winemakers of our generation; an artist in the truest sense of the word.” He was person of enourmous intellect, humour, drive and presence and he was very also generous and warm (despite the sometimes gruff appearance). I had lunch with him in Pouilly-sur-Loire earlier this year and he was so full of life (as always) that it is very hard to imagine him gone. It is a great loss to all wine lovers. With a heavy heart,"

There aren't too many men with the courage and conviction to shake up the establishment, especially the French wine establishment, Didier was one who did and showed by dint of hard work, drive and thinking outside the box, what could be achieved.
  posted at 7:49 am

Monday, September 15, 2008
In Search of Perfection -- series 2
Heston Blumenthal's second series of In Search of Perfection has started (LifeStyle FOOD, Wednesdays, 8.30pm). John Lethlean's Saturday column was a paean to perfection, counterpointing an absent from the stoves Gordon Ramsey with the very much hands on Blumenthal.

It was somewhat surprising to see his positive assessment of the new show, given Lethlean's previous experience with a Blumenthal style roast chicken that seemed more raw than cooked, indeed, if Australia's leading restaurant reviewer was served such a chicken in a restaurant, what would he have made of it? Can't imagine that he would be as gentle as he appears to be with Blumenthal, as if somehow, he had missed a vital point.

What is it with molecular gastronomy that we have elevated its most ardent practitioners to stellar heights, awarding as many stars as can be seen in the heavens, whilst regular cookery seems to be now regarded as old-fashioned? I must seriously be missing something if the best restaurant in the world (El Bulli) is impossible to get into, then closes for six months of the year, so that Adria can retire to his laboratory, to pull new dishes out of a test tube.

Friends of mine dined in a Melbourne derivative of this style and while they said they were amazed by the food, they were in no hurry to repeat the experience, in fact, they were looking for something to eat afterwards. Isn't the first rule of going to a restaurant, being fed?

Apparently not any more, food that sustains is being replaced by food that entertains and the effect this has had on the jaded palates of restaurant reviewers world-wide is remarkable. They are telling the world that food coming from a laboratory is superior to that which comes from a real kitchen. That they are then willing to be told how to eat dishes placed in front of them is a testament to the power of persuasion these chefs possess.

As Ramsey might say, for fuck's sake, who needs to be told how to eat? Babies can do it, old people with Alzheimers can do it, eating is a reflex action that requires no conscious thought, it's as though novelty has blinded reviewers into following these new white coated pied pipers, whose strange magical melodies have them in myopic thrall.

How else to explain Lethlean's enthusiasm for this new series? It is nothing more than shameless self-promotion for Blumenthal's style of cooking. Think not? Did you ever notice that after each adventure in reconstructing classic dishes that Blumenthal pronounced each dish perfect? At least in the few episodes I saw he did. What sort of hubris is required to take a classic, dishes that were around before he was even born and to claim his version is definitive perfection? Even the times when things were quite clearly amiss. Does it not, too, miss the point of what a classic dish actually is -- a classic?

Like when he attempted perfect fish and chips. His batter was around a 1/2" thick, demonstrating a lack of awareness of the ratio between batter and fish and worse, the batter had delaminated from the fish in an effort that would make a proper fish and chip cook shake his head sadly. Putting probes into the batter to measure crunch doesn't really tell the whole story of why it's good, only eating can tell you that. Perfect though, he pronounced.

What took a battery of scientific instruments and days to accomplish can be done in mere seconds in your mouth, yet some appear to trust the use of science more than instinct; if something tastes good, what more do you really need to know? A crunchiness tester won't ever indicate if you will like a certain texture, as far as I know, there is no scientific instrument that can do what the human mouth does.

I don't even want to talk about what he did to Black Forest cake, there are things that are sacred and should never be messed with.

The other awkward thing for Blumenthal in the first series, was that he alone judged perfection. At least in Ramsey's case, he had the cajones to cook against various guests on one of his shows, then allow the food to be judged by diners, sometimes being beaten by homecooks in the process. Can't imagine Blumenthal ever doing that, people just aren't as dependable as science.
  posted at 7:59 am

Friday, September 12, 2008
Chicken with Artichokes
It was going to be a leftover night, an amalgam of several meals, but my wife D had just been to the supermarket and was unable to resist a heavily marked down corn fed chicken, that according to the use-buy label, needed to be cooked straight away. Not wanting a roast, I suggested fried chicken, but D wasn't up for that. Then I noticed a couple of likely suspects resting on the table, artichokes.

Just the other day, Lidia Bastianich had demonstrated chicken with artichokes, a wonderful springtime dish. With spring now so evident, with sweet and tender new season spring lamb, broadbeans so tiny they need no peeling, plump spears of local asparagus, why not do a dish that is particularly suited to early spring? Sure there's blossom on the trees, but I take my seasonal cues from the greengrocer.

Okay, I hadn't taken any notes, no matter, it was the idea I was after, a very good one too.

Chicken with Artichokes
(inspired by Lidia Bastianich, serves 4)

1 whole chicken, about 1.2kg or similar in chicken pieces
olive oil
2 medium onions, sliced
4 fat cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons plain flour
1 wineglass dry white wine
juice of 1 lemon
half litre chicken stock
4 artichokes, trimmed, each heart cut in four, dipped in acidulated water
handful black or green olives
salt and fresh ground pepper

Cut the chicken into even sized pieces, keep all the bony bits and dry everything with paper towels. If using chicken pieces, dry thoroughly. Heat some olive oil in a braising pot, large enough to hold everything and brown the chicken in batches, including any bony bits. Remove the chicken from the pot and add the onions, garlic, a pinch of salt and slowly brown till golden. When coloured add the flour and stir in, then pour in the wine, lemon juice and chicken stock. Scrape up all the brown bits from the bottom of the pan, then add the artichokes, olives and season to taste. Place the chicken pieces on top, there should be sufficient liquid to lap their sides. Bring to the boil, lower to a simmer and cook with the lid on for 45 minutes. Serve with rice.

Note: Using a whole chicken will give a better result, the bones give more flavour and body to the braise.

Edited to add: Looks like Martha Stewart liked Lidia's recipe too, you can find the original here. Seems I can't remember the difference between crushed tomatoes and chicken stock.
  posted at 7:51 am

Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Totally Bad Blogger
My 8yo daughter M was hungry and hovering as I put together dinner. There were two pots simmering away and when the contents of the first was ready, tipped into a baking pan and smothered with the contents of the second, then a little cheese was grated on top, before going in the oven.

"Are you going to take a picture dad?"

"Nup, we're just going to eat it"

As it baked, M stayed in the kitchen, shouting out,

"It smells really good!"

The taste lived up to the olfactory promise; to compound matters though, I'm not even going to tell you, no matter how delicious, what it was.

Cooking's like that sometimes, more instinct than instruction.
  posted at 7:31 am

Friday, September 05, 2008
The Greater Spangled Drongo
Matt Preston's guide to the different types of foodies was a fun poke at all the food obsessed folk around town, including bloggers. Showed it to an ornithologist mate who reckoned Preston shouldn't have left out the Greater Spangled Drongo, which is extremely closely related to the Spangled Drongo covered, but are in fact two different species, though some crossover has been known to occur.

The following is a rough guide to this quite unique and rare bird.

The Greater Spangled Drongo

Common names Restaurant Critic, Food Critic

Habitat Spends large amounts of daylight hours alone in the forest, pretending they can't hear the chatter of the Spangled Drongos, then flocking to restaurants in both small and large groups, which are easily identified by the cowering owners hovering nearby. For some inexplicable reason, they are unable to fly far and therefore congregate around inner suburban eateries, unless they get lost on the way and are begrudgingly forced to eat before the long return trip from the 'burbs.

Recognition A notebook and pencil are a dead giveaway, which they use many ruses to cover up; they might be scribbling on the margins of a newspaper or cleverly reading a book that in fact contains their notes. A stolen menu inevitably means that one has just flown the coop. In a territorial display, they like to puff up their plumage and viciously peck at Spangled Drongos, whom apparently irritate them no end.

Mating calls These are creatures that prefer to work alone, but will socialize in order to hand out business cards that contain as much contact information as possible. This extends to the articles they write which always have their email addresses at the end. This makes them more like Spangled Drongos than they care to admit.

Habit Have strong opinions which are usually well expressed, but unfortunately, their research can sometimes be sloppy, which was alright until bloggers came along, more care required.

Status They wield enormous power over people's livelihoods, if you get on the right side of them, the benefits are enormous, woe betide anyone who causes them gastric reflux, their pen can feel more like a dagger.
  posted at 12:49 pm

Thursday, September 04, 2008
From The Soul
Since they didn't manage to kill off the Queen in the first series of Great British Menu, the BBC reckoned it was on a winner and we are now up to series three (Lifestyle Food, Mondays 7.00pm). In this current series, Matthew Fort has rounded up the best chefs from around Britain and they have faced a four way cook-off for the right to proceed to regional finals, the winners then cooking a four course banquet at "The Gherkin", hosted by Heston Blumenthal.

While being interviewed, Angela Hartnett commented, "...I know what Matthew(Fort) likes", the clear inference being Hartnett could influence the outcome, simply by cooking food she knew he liked. A bit like the tail wagging the dog.

It gave me pause to reflect on the way I cook, for, with the exception of Mother's Day when a young boy, I have always cooked food that seemed tasty to me first and foremost. Anyone is welcome to come along for the ride and happily it would seem that my taste is in sync with most others, but the idea of cooking for someone else's taste is completely foreign to me.

How would one go about coming up with a dish to please another's palate? That's not to say you can't cook a dish that you know somebody else already likes, but coming up with a completely new dish is an artistic expression, one that has to have elements of the artist's soul driving the creative process, intuitively combining different ingredients to the right degree, then arranging them in an aesthetic way; good food is an ephemeral painting on a plate, but engages far more senses than any masterpiece hanging in a gallery.

Great chef that she is, it was no surprise that Hartnett made it to the regional cook offs, equally, it was no surprise that she made it no further.
  posted at 11:38 am


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