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, October 19, 2009
Fancy Chef
Letter from Your Turn in The Age supplement, Good Weekend.

'Your article on the world's best restaurants by Matt Preston (September 26) stimulated my palate. It must be an honour to travel the world tasting the likes of "strawberry rose air" or "beetroot on earth", but I don't know if my stomach could handle all those exotic dishes and there's not enough on the plate anyway. No offence, but give me a good, old fashioned baked dinner any day.'

Lea Pustetto
Malabar, NSW

It's hard for me not to have empathy with this writer's sentiments as this letter betrays my attitude towards the rarefied echelons of modern dining in its present pretty form.

What the world's best restaurants have in common is a highly technical approach to cookery with results that can only be achieved in a commercial kitchen with the most up-to-date gadgets, some of which seemingly belong in a well equipped laboratory.

Right there is where my problem lies. Some of these dishes seem more like the triumph of science over inspired culinary talent, in which a degree in food technology is more important than anything a catering college could teach an aspiring chef.

Never has the gap between top end restaurant kitchens and anything the home cook could plate up been as large as it is now. It is virtually impossible for even the most gifted home cook to attempt many of the dishes that define those restaurants at the top of the world rankings.

But what is it about those dishes offered by the best that drives us to such a frenzy that six billion or so email hopefuls apply for a mere handful of sittings at the acclaimed El Bulli? Is it anything more that the opportunity to be amazed? Is it really about the food?

Given the propensity for dishes that are barely a mouthful, it hardly seems likely. How does one get into the groove of enjoying a dish when it's gone at first bite? Could one really eat (and enjoy) flavours and textures that are either overly intense or overworked if in a larger serving, or would the palate become tired and jaded before the end was reached? If the wisp of foam was an ocean, or the dirt a mountain.

I suspect not.

Restaurants of this ilk are more about mastery of food than its inherent taste, why else would one deconsruct a pea and then make the result taste like one, what is the point?

Give me a rare steak, bearnaise sauce and chips - call me a neanderthal if you want, but I know what I like.

  posted at 8:51 pm

Sunday, October 18, 2009
Monsters Attack!!!

I can't ever recall buying a bottle of wine for the label. There was that 20 year old bottle of burgundy bought at auction which had a label some might call romantic, others, very suggestive, but I new nothing of that when placing my bid.

But when this bottle popped into view, I was completely helpless, it had to come home.

Who can resist a garish fifties monster scene, crashing and burning his way through a scared and frightened city - not me, that's for sure!

'A full 750ml of monster mayhem.'

Where there are fierce laser eyed monsters, there are sure to be damsels in distress, ahem, these appear to be ladies in undress. They sure need saving anyway!

Looks like the dudes who've perpetrated all this monster madness. Can they make wine? I have absolutely no idea. Do they know how to have fun? What do you reckon?

Available Prince Wine Store.
  posted at 4:58 pm

Friday, October 16, 2009
The Great Souvlaki Debate
Isn't life funny?

You can be happily giving food bloggers a bit of gratuitous stick one minute, then, out of the blue comes a totally unexpected bagging.

Dave O'Neil, comedian and breakfast announcer on Melbourne's radio station Vega 91.5 fm and champion of the greasy spoon had a few strong words to say about George Colombaris's souvlaki.

According to fellow announcer Dicko (Ian Dickson). O'Neil claimed that Colombaris's souvlaki is no good, preferring those from the former champion Carlton footballer, Anthony Koutafidies's Souvlaki Hut.

The main point of contention was that there was no garlic sauce (tzatziki).

Calombaris's reply stopped me dead in my tracks.

"You can't have garlic sauce in a souvlaki, 'cause you know what, it overpowers it and in Greece you'd never get (it)...."

Well, I might never have been to Greece, but in every recipe and reference around, even Greek ones, garlic sauce is always involved. I wouldn't even consider getting one without it.

Did he say that to defend his use of mustard in its place?

That's no misprint, he uses mustard, saying it makes it 'pop', whatever the hell that means. Mustard in souvlakis is considered heretical by purists, along with the chips that Colombaris also uses.

Yep, chips.

There is something very Michael Jackson about all this. Just as the late pop star's skin changed colour, George's souvlaki is changing nationality, from wog to skip.*

Unfortunately, worse was still to come, O'Neil claiming the meat was too dry and also reporting a conversation he'd had with one of Australia's most respected food critics, Matt Preston, who told O'Neil that a takeaway shop, Lambs in Chapel Street, do a better souvlaki.

Makes you wonder if all the celebrity madness has taken Colombaris's eye off the ball. Given his recent outbursts, not just against bloggers, but also journalists, could he be trying to emulate another international English chef famous for his trash talk?

*Greek to Aussie.
  posted at 9:02 pm

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Can you pick the speck?

Easy, isn't it.

Look again, there are two lots of speck on the platter. If you picked the pickled mushrooms or fermented cucumbers, hang your head in shame!

Any self respecting German would point excitedly at the pure white fat slices at the bottom and exclaim, "That is the real stuff", while an Austrian would remonstrate with him that the only true speck was at the top.

Both would be right...and wrong - for each are indigenous to their respective countries and have the right to be called speck.

The German version is pure pork fat, called lardo in Italy; it's salted and cured, sometimes cold smoked, whilst the Austrian speck is more easily explained as a deboned prosciutto that has been slowly cold smoked.

German speck can be eaten thinly sliced, just as it is, though your cardiologist might be a tad nervous. It has the same silken unctuousness of good smoked salmon, but also finds its way into many of the local dishes as the fat of choice.

It would be easy to mistake Austrian speck as good quality prosciutto, but the gentle smoking makes it presence subtly felt and the meat seems to retain a bit more moisture. Whilst it is superb eaten as is with some crusty bread, it also brings a special flavour to cooked dishes.

I really recommend trying the Austrian speck if you can get your hands on some, it's sometimes known as raw smoked ham. In Melbourne, it's available from Malvern Continental Butcher & Delicatessen, 79 Glenferrie Road, Malvern, or you could try your local Continental delicatessen.
  posted at 8:08 pm

Monday, October 12, 2009
Artichokes with Asparagus and Broad Beans

When you have a surfeit of produce, like a box of artichokes, you need a variety of ways to deal with them. The previous post featured preserved artichokes, which is an excellent method of using up a large quantity of small ones, but to make the most of them, recipes keeping things fresh and vibrant really herald in the spring season.

What better than to feature a trio of vegetables at their peak right now and only available for a short spectacular time, asparagus, broad beans and artichokes, done in a very Italian manner.

Italians have an effortless way with vegetables and deftly manage to produce dishes entirely from them that unless you really think about it, in no way seem to be vegetarian. With a slice or two of bread, they fully satisfy a hungry stomach, leaving no craving for a bit of flesh.

At this stage of spring, broad beans are by the bucketful and still slightly immature, not needing to be double podded; thick meaty asparagus spears, the size of which would bring a smile to a Trojan warrior, are all about. Full and hearty, tightly wound globes of artichokes are in abundance, ready to be picked apart leaf by leaf.

Artichokes with Asparagus & Broad Beans

100ml olive oil
1 onion, peeled and sliced
4 large or 10 small artichokes
1kg broad beans, podded, double podded if necessary
8 spears of asparagus, cut into segments
50ml white wine vinegar, don't use a harsh one
salt & fresh ground pepper
handful roughly chopped parsley

Peel all the tough outer leaves of the artichoke until you reach the tender centre, cut off the top leaves and trim the bases, if large, cut each one into quarters. Drop them into a bowl of water containing the juice of two or three lemons as you go. When done, gently heat the olive oil in a pot and put in the onion slices and wet artichokes. Give a good stir, turn the heat to low and place on the lid. Leave to cook about 20-25 minutes, occasionally stirring until the artichokes are tender. Then add the broad beans and asparagus sections, white wine vinegar and season to taste. Put the lid back on and cook for another 5 to 10 minutes until all the vegetables are tender, stir in the parsley and serve with some crusty sour dough bread.
  posted at 4:33 pm

Sunday, October 11, 2009
Preserved Artichokes

One vegetable's arrival we eagerly look forward to each spring, is that of the artichoke. This fantastically shaped treat is the flower bud of a thistle plant, which would otherwise, if not picked, burst into a fabulous pink/purple bloom.

There are quite a few varieties, ranging from green through to purple and violet, some with thorns, some without. What all have in common, are tightly packed hard fibrous leaves protecting the tender edible core; incidentally, this arrangement lead to the Sicilian mafia becoming known as cosca or artichoke for the way in which they organised their crime families.

On a single plant, there are many variations in size of the chokes. Typically, Italians have the most poetic way of describing them. The head of the plant gives the largest bud and is known as 'la mamma', further down the plant come 'figli', the children and below them the smallest buds are called 'nipoti', or nephews.

In Australia, one doesn't often see the smaller artichokes, though sometimes Italian greengrocers carry them, so it was something of a pleasant surprise to find a stall at a Farmer's market selling whole boxes of them for the princely sum of $10, a mixture of 'figli' and 'nipoti'.

'Nipoti' are the perfect size for preserving in jars for blissful summer antipasti dishes and is really not hard to do, though it must be said there is a little bit of work to peel down to the tender heart and properly trim them; they may be smaller than 'la mammas', but their dwarf size doesn't mean any more tender, they have to be treated exactly the same as any other artichoke - peel ruthlessly!

Preserved Artichokes
(adapted from Antonio Carluccio)

1.5kg small artichokes
1 litre quality white wine vinegar
500ml dry white wine
3 dried chillies or equivalent in chile flakes
100g salt
15 cloves
3 sprigs rosemary
6 bay leaves
500ml olive oil

Put all of the ingredients except the olive oil in a large pot. Pull off as many leaves off as necessary to reach the tender heart of each artichoke, cut off the top and trim the bases, dropping each one into the pot as you go, this helps to stop the artichokes going brown. Bring the pot to the boil, then lower to a simmer and cook for 20-25 minutes or until tender.

Drain the artichokes in a strainer or colander and leave to completely drain and cool, about two hours. At this point, you can no longer touch the artichokes with your bare hands as you might contaminate them with bacteria, use clean rubber gloves.

Have ready enough sterilised jars to comfortably hold all the artichokes and place in them a few of the boiled bay leaves and rosemary sprigs, discard the cloves. Pour some olive oil into a clean bowl and using your rubber gloves, take each artichoke and dip it into the oil and gently squeeze to force any air out, letting the oil penetrate to its centre, then drop each one into a jar, don't overfill as all of the artichokes must be under the oil. When done, fill each jar with olive oil to cover, seal with the lids and gently shake to remove any more air. Store the jars in a dark cupboard for two months before using. Once a jar is opened, refrigerate any unused ones.
  posted at 9:54 pm

Saturday, October 10, 2009
Milk, Two Ways
At Chez Neil's we really enjoy our local cheeses, yes we do. Some Australians that feature regularly on the menu are Red Hill Cheese, Tarago River Cheese Company, Holy Goat and in a welcome return to form, Pyengana Cheese Factory.

Artisan Australian cheeses are a fairly recent phenomenon, Will Studd in his excellent book, Cheese Slices, wrote about what he discovered in Australian cities after he migrated here in 1981 with his young family.

"... Fresh produce was abundant and extraordinarily cheap, but when it came to interesting cheeses, there was absolutely nothing. Most of the Australian cheeses available were blocks of industrial Cheddar with strange names such as 'Tasty' and 'Coon'. The range of interesting European cheeses was also extremely limited, and their quality and presentation were depressing."

Studd worked hard to change the landscape and much has been achieved since those lacklustre and pedantic times; who can ever forget his consignment of Roquefort that was sent to the tip by the Quarantine Department?

These days, specialist cheese shops sell wonderful products from both here and around the world, including some once forbidden unpasteurized cheeses. There is even a bit of dabbling in locally produced unpasteurized cheeses, despite some fairly strident opposition.

We have a lot to thank Will Studd for.

(Buffalo mozzarella on bread with ham, tomato, basil and extra virgin olive oil.)

Producing artisan cheeses is a very difficult business and learning how is like embarking on a long journey, there is much to know about the subtleties of preserving milk, the slight differences in things like culture and temperature that stand between the mundane and brilliant.

Australian cheesemakers have made great strides, but the journey is far. The outstanding qualities that make some imported cheeses sing can elude their best efforts. Buffalo mozzarella is one example, despite some impressive efforts from Shaw River.

The problem is a textural one. Italian Mozzarella di Bufala Campana have a sweet creamy texture, almost custard like, with just a hint of lactic tang, so totally addictive; Australian versions have yet to overcome a slight rubberiness.

Something else, very European, has also started to become available and popular in this country, cultured butter. Traditional Australian butters are made by churning fresh cream, but in Europe, bacterial cultures are added that convert milk sugars to latic acid, giving their butter a richer, rounder flavour, a revelation spread onto good bread

"What are the three secrets of French cooking? Butter, butter and butter!" - No Reservations.

French Lescure butter converts all those who try it, and is deservedly popular, but to my mind there is an even better brand, Belgium's Carlsbourg. The only way to describe the flavour is that it's extra buttery, like the dairy has somehow concentrated the buttery goodness.

Chef Didier: "You and I, we know the secret to life: it's butter." - Last Holiday

Once you get the taste for it, it's hard not to use it everywhere, giving an extra dimension to cakes, mashed potato and sauces. One thing I wouldn't make with it however, is a burnt butter sauce. Due to cultured butter's high moisture content and ample milk solids, it will spit viciously at you before burning very rapidly. But those two properties usefully combine to make this butter more spreadable than butter made from fresh cream.

Both Carlsboug butter and freshly airfreighted Pomella Mozzarella di Bufala Campana are available from Kirkfood's new retail online store, www.ideli.com.au/. If, like me, you go weak-at-the-knees over things like tins of hazelnut oil or confit duck legs, you'll love it.
  posted at 2:33 pm

Wednesday, October 07, 2009
Once Were Cooks
Has anyone noticed lately, the scarcity of television cooking programs that actually teach cooking? Furthermore, how is everyone going with programs like Iron Chef, Come Dine With Me, Great British Menu, Chopping Block and others of this ultra-competitive ilk?

Personally, I've had my fill of their incessant theme that one dish or cook is better than another. For heaven's sake, there is even a commercial that pits a man against a women in the kitchen just in case one missed the gladiatorial aspect suffusing all things food.

Where have all the teaching presenters gone, how have we come to this winner-takes-all cook-off mania?

Apparently, according to Michael Pollan, it's my fault.

If you're a bloke reading this, it's your fault too.

In a recent article in The Age, Pollan writes about Erica Gruen, who is credited with putting the Food Network on the map with her observation that "people don't watch television to learn things", switching the target audience from those who love to cook to those who love to eat, a far bigger market and, importantly for a cable network, one that contained a much larger number of men.

Men that like the thrill of competition.

So what happens to those of us who like to cook?

It would seem we are on the way out. In the same article, Harry Balzer, a food marketing researcher, gave this chilling analogy.

"A hundred years ago, chicken for dinner meant going out and catching, killing, plucking and gutting a chicken. Do you know anyone who still does that? It would be considered crazy! Well, that's exactly how cooking will seem to your grandchildren: something people used to do when they had no other choice. Get over it."

The clear implication is that food manufacturers will take over as the providers of all family meals and the only skill we'll need is the ability to switch on the microwave. If you look in any supermarket, there is a huge array of ready-to-eat meals or products for the time poor, the fresh food section is now just a tiny corner in comparison, seemingly there to give an illusion of healthy eating.

Melbourne writer and food critic John Lethlean, some time ago bemoaned the launching of a new cook-in-the-bag rice and wondered how anyone couldn't cook something as simple as rice from scratch.

The answer is, a great many of us just can't be bothered.
  posted at 9:15 pm

Thursday, October 01, 2009
Dear George
The normally cheerful Australian MasterChef's George Calombaris has revealed something of a dark side in a recent article in the Herald Sun's extrafood supplement.

In a piece on Melbourne food bloggers, Calombaris was interviewed and revealed his disdain for the food blogging fraternity, in particular, online restaurant reviewers.

In a quite bizarre and previously unheard of restaurateur-lauds-food-critics moment, he had this to say.

"They monitor it and see what's going on. These are trained professionals. These critics know what they're talking about. They've got a palate. They eat, that's their job, that's their living. (Bloggers) have no idea about restaurants. They've no idea how they're run."

Been getting a little cosy with Matt Preston lately?

Mate, let me tell you a secret.

Criticizing a dish or the service or even the decor has nothing to do with knowing how the restaurant is run. Do you really think food critics hold back because of that knowledge, or are they out to inform readers with their honest opinion?

I can tell you something else. Reviewers may hang around fashionable places like yours, giving the impression of monitoring you, but the sad truth is the vast majority of restaurants have only one chance to impress them, There are far too many for a second look.

There's no doubt food critics are trained professionals, they're journalists, university trained - to write. But unless there is some secret food-mason society that no one else has heard about, how exactly do they obtain their palate? By eating out, often. Reading what others are writing about, or even, heaven forbid, actually cooking.

Which seems to be what most food bloggers are doing.

Perhaps we don't say it as well or wittily as a journalist would, the right word may escape us, the grammar may be out of kilter, but we manage to get our view across. That's the essence of blogging. Those that get it right and manage to connect are read, the others fall by the wayside.

A bit like the restaurant business wouldn't you say?
  posted at 8:38 pm

The Quiet Hunt

photo Elliot Rubenstein

After three long dry years, it's nice to see the return of some old friends. These are Australian morels (Morchella elata), sometimes known as black morels.

At first, they are hard to see amongst the forest floor litter, but soon, your eye gets in. The best places to look are in the box-ironbark forests of central Victoria. You can pick them is State parks with a licence, or on private property with permission. National parks are a no-no.

We adore them fresh in their very brief season which lasts two or three weeks only. What doesn't get used can be frozen quite successfully, but drying is the preferred option as it concentrates the exquisite mushroom flavour.

Despite the good rains, our usual spots haven't yielded as much as previous years, so we'll have another look this weekend in case the main flush has been delayed.

Fingers crossed.
  posted at 8:06 pm


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