Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Asian Roast Duck (made with a kick-arse Masterstock)

I will say upfront that I "borrowed" (and modified, slightly) Red Spice Road's wonderful recipe for roast duck (page 117, "The Red Spice Road Cookbook - an experience in Cooking South-East Asian Food", by John McLeay). Therefore, I feel justified in blogging about it and sharing the recipe with my readers. Also, I've previously raved about RSR's amazing menu and bar so, free advertising can't be a bad thing.

To prepare any self respecting asian duck dish you'll first need a good masterstock, to simmer the duck in. The key to a getting it right is achieving the right balance of flavours: sweet/salty, a touch of acid, rich, and with complex undertones - citrus? caramel? aniseed? It's not exactly rocket science but remember that once it's simmered down from the original mixture you'll end up with something earthier and more intense.

Once your masterstock is simmered and flavoured to perfection (and strained), bring it to the boil in a big pot and place a whole duck inside; simmer for 15 minutes. You might need to "weight" it to ensure the whole bird remains immersed - I used a large pot and put the steamer basket over the top, then shut the heavy glass lid and it worked fine. If using smaller portions of duck (or chicken), simmer for only 5 minutes or so. Place on a rack in a baking dish and bake in a 200C oven for 50 minutes. Alternatively, RSR's suggestion is to cut large chunks of carrot and place in the bottom of the baking dish, the benefit being that you get lovely roasted sweet carrot as a side dish at the end.

Masterstock (a variation on Red Spice Road's recipe):

- 3 litres of water
- 500ml white wine
- 100ml rice wine vinegar (this and the white wine was my substitute for "shao xhing" wine)
- 100ml light soy sauce
- 100ml Ketjap Manis (sweet soy)
- 250g dark brown (muscovado) sugar
- 5 cloves roughly chopped garlic
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 3 cloves
- 6 star anise
- 4 cardamom pods
- 1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns
- 1tsp cumin seeds
- 1 tsp coriander seeds
- 1 tsp fennel seeds
- peel from one large fresh orange

Put all ingredients into a large pot and bring to the boil; reduce heat and simmer for half an hour. Taste, adjust seasoning if needed (salt/pepper/sugar). Cool, then strain. Can be frozen for later use, and re-used again and again, as long as it's strained after each use.

This duck is wonderful served with plain rice - I made coconut rice which soaked up the juices nicely. Accompany with some chilli oil for heaven on a plate.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Mystery Bay

Having spent the last several Christmasses with my side of the family, this year it was my husband's family's turn. And what a celebration! We headed up the coast with T's parents, aunty and uncle, a cousin as well as sister, brother in law, niece and nephew - all of us congregating at a farm stay near the beach, with amazing views all around.  T and I were even lucky enough to score our own lovely cabin - look what I woke up to Christmas morning:

Christmas Day turned out to be a low key but fresh and delicious occasion, made all the more special by spending quality time with my in laws, going on walks, fishing, sailing, barbecuing, or just hanging about chatting.  The entire stay was very relaxing with lots of great activities available nearby, most of the focus being on the beach and lakes - all within walking distance from our accommodation - and the weather was also quite kind to us.  I even managed to book in an amazing (and very reasonably priced) massage from the lovely J, one of the managers of the property.  It was wonderful observing T's family interactions too:  they all live quite some distance from each other, either interstate or overseas; but they are a close family nonetheless.

Before I set off for Mystery Bay, my mum gave me two of her homemade puddings as a Christmas contribution. They were devoured by us all, along with my father in law's home made custard, mum in law's many cakes and slices, and a bottle of ice-magic.  My sister in law (who lives in Sweden and is generally very healthy and a sensible eater) is totally obsessed with the stuff; whenever she visits Australia she indulges her sweet tooth as it cannot be bought in Europe.  Note the excessive amount of chocolate and token slice of pudding accompanying the huge bowl of vanilla ice cream.  Impressive!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Not buying into "Christmas Craziness"

I promised myself I wouldn't go on a sanctimonious rant on my food blog about rampant Christmas commercialism and consumerism.  About how it turns normally good and level-headed folk into shopping centre car park road-rage enthusiasts.  Normally "green-minded" people suddenly and inexplicably become plasticky present wielders, bearing gifts containing palm oil and non-free trade cocoa.  I myself can't claim higher moral ground; I too have been sucked in by the bright lights of Chaddy and the Myer Christmas windows, swiping my credit card again and again like some rich heiress to the point where the magnetic strip practically disintegrates.  Christmas these days seems to be on steroids - or, well, crack.

I ... promised ... myself ... I ... Oh to hell with it, it's my blog.

In case you hadn't figured by now, Christmas also tends to put me in a grumpy state of mind.  But before you accuse me of being a grinch there are some fairly understandable (I think) reasons for this, one of the main ones being that it serves as a painful reminder of my inability to have children, and the several years worth of countless (and fruitless) tests and procedures to find out why.  December can be such a confronting month; excited parents throw Christmas parties where young kids congregate and mothers compare notes about where to find the most child-friendly restaurants.  Dozens of little smiling faces line up excitedly in streets and shopping centres to see "Santa".  Nowhere is sacred - Facebook and Twitter: "I just spent way too much on my children's presents!" and "wow I can't believe this time next Christmas I'll have a 6 month old!" and "I'm thinking about giving my kids away as gifts this year, I've had enough of them!"  My way of coping is to just generally get on with things and pretend it's not Christmas at all.

In the lead up to this year's festive season, I decided to give the following gifts to myself (and those around me):

  • To not buy into Christmas Craziness 
  • To treat myself to things I wouldn't normally
  • To enjoy my challenging and busy career (and to stop apologising for it)
  • To spend time with people who make me feel good
  • To forget about making babies for a while and appreciate the home and family (and cats) I already have
  • To take good care of my mind and body
  • To give home made goods as gifts 
On the last point, today I made up numerous little goodie boxes containing a variety of baked sweets using Chinese take-away containers (purchased for two bucks per four boxes from my local "cheapy" shop).  All up I think each gift works out to about $1.50 each - but the contents are hand-made by yours truly and each one is personalised with a little note inside to the recipient.  I'm feeling better already.  :-)

Monday, November 29, 2010

Dinners with Fish

I've been fairly time-poor over the last couple of weeks.  Hell, let's even say the last couple of years.  Between my full(+) time career and my husband's new business, selling a house, being involved in several weddings, babies born of friends and family, too many funerals and throw into the mix a few unexpected personal crises as well - it's been an intense time to say the least.  I started blogging almost a year ago, to get some balance back in my life; something just for me, combining my indulgences in good food, literature and self reflection.

So being a busy gal, I'm constantly on the look out for simple dishes that I can throw together on a moment's notice with little preparation involved (and photograph and blog about).  I love good fresh flavours and it just feels so damn good to eat well.  Certain cuisines tend to lend themselves to easy and healthy eating, such as your Mediterranean staples - such as pastas with three-ingredient sauces; or lightly cooked, in season vegetables.  There's also a lot to be said for seafood - especially because it's summer, and it's so easy and quick to cook. Usually the only hurdle is actually sourcing good quality and fresh seafood - once you've found it, you're about 90% of the way there.

I'm a fan of salad too - again, for it's simplicity and healthiness - and it matches wonderfully with seafood and fish.

A couple of examples you might feel inclined to try:

Green baby spinach and rocket salad with toasted pine nuts, shaved parmesan, marinated zucchini and aged balsamic, served with dukkah-crusted bbq'd rainbow trout.

Pan fried swordfish in garlic butter, topped with ruby red grapefruit and mint salsa, served with stir fried asparagus and lime.

Ruby Red Grapefruit and Mint Salsa topping for fish:

One ruby red grapefruit, peeled and segmented
lime juice
olive oil
mint, torn roughly
half a red onion, finely sliced
garlic clove, crushed
fish sauce

Put grapefruit segments in a bowl (keep juice), add juice of one lime.  The trick now is to add the remaining ingredients and taste along the way, adjusting flavours as you go.  Add about 2 tbs olive oil, 2 tbs mint, onion, garlic, and then shake in a very small amount of fish sauce and taste.  Season with salt and pepper, if you think it needs a little extra zing, add some vinegar or more citrus juice - lemon, lime or more grapefruit works well.  Leave it for about half an hour before coating the fish, the flavours tend to develop better.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Going to the "chapel" ...

On Friday I was honoured to be part of my little sister's marriage to a wonderful man, someone she's lived with for many years and who has already become very much a part of our family.  The whole shebang was very unique in some ways; but also with a large number of guests and quite traditional in others.  Overall though it was a great reflection of the kind of people my sister J and her new husband T are: fun and sociable, with great taste and a sense of child-like appreciation for the good things in life.  Lots of great music, food and dancing - which I suspect is really the true reason weddings were invented in the first place.

As usually happens, the heart-felt speeches and declarations of devotion and love got me reflecting on my own marriage, and the contrast in how my husband and I chose to tie the knot compared with so many of our friends and family.  Ours was a small ceremony (an overstatement) held in a small courthouse in a country where we did not speak the language, with less than half a dozen family members in attendance.  There was no white dress, no cake, no reception, or honeymoon; and the photos were taken by my new brother in law (and beautifully & simply done).  Fresh and lovely flowers were hastily bought as an afterthought on the way to the ceremony; and afterwards we stepped into a dimly lit, warm pub and shared a chilled Scandinavian beer, before enjoying a lovely dinner for four at a tiny restaurant nearby.  In a sense, the whole thing was unplanned and, some might (and did) argue, unfair to our parents and loved ones back home who would have no doubt loved to witness our "official" union as husband and wife.

But - romance and selfish needs aside -  there were other considerations.  Before T, I had already been engaged.  Twice.  And not overly keen on repeating the dramas, logistical difficulties and financial pain (not to mention politics) involved in organising a wedding.  We had both been involved in other people's weddings over the years, all too aware of the stress involved and wanting to keep things low key.  We'd dated for a year and had discussed our feelings for one another, knowing we shared the same important values and wanting to share our lives - but at the same time we knew we wanted to do something honest and true to ourselves.  Meaningful.  Quiet.  No-fuss and non-conventional.  We concluded that a marriage is far more important than a wedding.  We're very practical; but it doesn't make us monsters.

I'm by no means anti-wedding or a marriage naysayer (I believe in the power of love .. yeah!); but I am cynical about the wedding industry.  Which I'm sure anyone who's got half a brain - married or not - would agree with.  Even my well educated and normally very sensible and level-headed sister, on the eve of her wedding last week exclaimed (over a very strong cocktail on Chapel St) "I swore I wouldn't, but I've turned into a bride-zilla.  This is fucking BULLshit!"  Plus, marriage itself can still be deemed a status of sorts and tends to draw out all sorts of judgements from the very people who often have no business casting it.  I drew the conclusion a long time ago that marriage - while I still believe is a fundamentally good and wholesome place to be in any romantic relationship - doesn't always equate to a healthy and lasting union, and that some absolute gold medal partnerships are actually (gasp) "living in sin" or some other equally insulting reference to not having their relationship recognised in the legal or financial sense.

All that said, I'm glad my Dad got to walk at least one of his daughters down the aisle.  The look on his face and his glorious speech made me glad my sister had a "proper" wedding with all the trimmings; not to mention the wonderful opportunity to catch up with loads of relatives and friends in one fun filled evening.  It nearly made all of the cost, organisation, drama and tears worthwhile.  But most importantly, it was about two people declaring their love and devotion to one another, deciding to continue sharing their lives and loved ones by maintaining their creative, fun and whole selves.  I look forward to being part of it.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

"Japanese" panko chicken salad

It's thanks to Masterchef Australia season two - and namely, one of its finalists Alvin - that I am now familiar with the wonders of a very special version of bread crumbs.  I remember well his double crusted fish and chips, made all the more crispy by using Japanese panko flakes.

So I went and bought some.  And then they sat in the pantry for a while until I stumbled across them this week.  I was inspired by watching Nigella recently.  She explained that her creative inspiration often comes from random ingredients or objects from different countries.  She then tries to do something easy with everyday "English" ingredients but reminiscent of the traditions of that culture.

I had the idea of a crispy chicken panko salad because it's nice to have a crunch contrasting with salad - sort of like croutons.  I chose a soft buttery lettuce and coated it lightly with some lime juice and good quality olive oil, salt and a little white pepper.

Put enough oil in a deep frying pan to shallow fry the chicken, and heat.  In the meantime, get three bowls: one with plain flour (seasoned with salt and pepper, and whatever else you feel like - dried herbs, chilli flakes - up to you!), one with two lightly whisked eggs, and one with half a pack of panko.

I use chicken tenders because they cook quickly and crisp up nicely, but you could use larger chicken pieces if you like.  First toss them in the flour, then shake off the excess and dip in egg.  Then transfer to the panko and coat well, gently pressing the flakes into the chicken.  Once the oil starts to shimmer in the pan, fry the chicken in batches until golden brown (turn to fry each side) and drain on paper towel.

Arrange them on top of the lettuce so they retain their crunch.  It's always nice to have some sort of dressing - keeping to the Japanese theme, I put small dishes of "kewpie" mayonnaise, mixed with a little wasabi paste on the side.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

When life hands you lemons...

The last time I visited my mother in law she gave me bags and bags of lemons from her trees.  I use lemons frequently but even for me it was a lot!

Today I baked up a batch of friands, using one of the lemons and also a small amount of lonely looking raspberries that were sitting in my freezer.  I just have to share this recipe with you as it's super simple, and friands kick butt over muffins any day.  And the great thing about this recipe is that you don't have to fiddle around with half a dozen egg whites either.

Raspberry and lemon friands (makes 12)


-  Juice and finely grated rind of one lemon
-  100g unsalted butter, melted & cooled
-  1/3 cup plain flour
-  180g icing sugar
-  3 eggs, lightly whisked with a fork
-  100g almond meal
-  frozen raspberries, approx 36

Pre-heat oven to 180 degrees, and line a 12 hole muffin pan with patty cases.

Sift icing sugar and flour into a large bowl, mix in almond meal.  Add lemon juice, rind, melted butter, and eggs - stir until combined.

Spoon mixture into cases (they should be about half full), then top each one with a few frozen raspberries.  Put into oven and bake for 20-25 minutes or until risen and slightly golden on top.  

Best eaten warm with a big strong cup of tea.

Friday, November 12, 2010

That's one big chocolate bar

Happy birthday to my wonderful husband T - who turns 34 today.

T is a massive chocolate lover so it was fitting that I gave him a massive chocolate present...

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Summer and Salad

I had hoped that over the last couple of weeks - given I've been on leave - I would have had plenty of opportunities to hang about at home perusing lovely new cookbooks relaxing, baking and blogging; but it was not to be.  As is often the case, the moment I have some time off from work, the rest of my life quickly melts in until all the days are full; family from country Vic and interstate who haven't been seen for months, bridesmaid duties (three times in the last three years, I think this is my life's quota!), and taking the first tentative steps towards IVF that I'd hoped I'd never need to, along with several medical appointments.  Then, in true fashion, on my second last day of leave, I came down with a cold.

I used to always look forward to summer; not just the warmer weather but also the extended daylight hours.  Last minute trips to the beach or lake, enjoying a wine and conversation with a friend on a weeknight, BBQs and picnics.  I've decided that this year, I'm going to look forward to summer with the same enthusiasm I did before working in fire and emergency management.  Bring it on; and I'm sure I could use the Vitamin D.

Last weekend bought with it a magnificent day of sunshine, coinciding with my sister's hen's day, held at a huge beachside holiday house with a bunch of excited girlfriends.  It was BYO booze and salad; and the girls enthusiastically bought their favourites to comprise a magnificent buffet of summer food.  It got me thinking about my own salad favourites, and last night hubby T and I created an interesting combo of bbq'd chicken and haloumi, baby spinach, beetroot greens, mint and a creamy japanese mayo & garlic dressing.

One of the reasons I love salads so much is that there are no rules about what goes into them.  The possibilities are endless!  Think about the creation of a salad as putting artwork onto a canvas.  I often like to start with a base of salad greens which could include rocket, any variety of lettuce or other green things - use your imagination.  Then, put in some colour - such as roasted sweet potato, or bbq/grill some capsicum, chicken/lamb/beef, red onion, whatever takes your fancy.  Next, think about putting in some "zing" to lift the salad and complement the main flavour.  For example, if you've used grilled lamb, crumble over some feta.  Haloumi and fresh mint leaves go fantastically well together, as do toasted pine nuts with pumpkin or sweet potato.  And finally, dress it.  Balsamic glaze (available in most supermarkets) is an easy way to marry sweet and salty flavours.  Or use a base of mayonnaise (I love the japanese "kewpie" mayo, again, available in most supermarkets), mixed with crushed garlic, lemon juice, pepper and a little olive oil.  Just remember: you need some acidity to "lift" the salad from bland to special - a good dressing can also tie flavours together and turn your humble salad from a side dish to the star of the show.  Also consider combining different textures - think chunky crunchy sourdough croutons, toasted nuts, seeds, or creamy or crumbly cheese.  Go crazy!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

All things ginger

My weekend begun at 7am Saturday; I baked a Sour Cream and Ginger cake from the Kylie Kwong recipe book, for my brother in law who recently lost his mother after a long illness.

It's a simple, unassuming looking cake.  Golden and rustic-looking, sunken in the middle.

But cutting into it reveals the delicious and unusual little secret - an inside layer of sour cream.  I'm never sure what the ethics of reproducing other people's recipes in my blog are - particularly when I can't find it published anywhere online.  So let's just say this: before baking, the cake batter itself is quite thick.  You make an indent in the top of the batter after you've spread it into the cake pan, and pour in some light sour cream, which then bakes through the whole cake, making it moist and slightly savoury on the inside - a little like having a cheesecake centre.  On the top, raw sugar is sprinkled so that it forms a sweet crust above the sour cream.  It's a nice combo of sweet + ginger + savoury + tart flavours, as well as several different textures; cakey + soft + a gentle crunch on top.

Sunday I took a friend to Gingerboy for her birthday, for the Sunday Hawker lunch.  A whopping FOURTEEN courses consisting mostly of different types of dumplings, along with some obligatory chinese broccoli and sticky rice.  Some favourites:  spicy fried calamari, chicken satay dumplings, oxtail potsticker dumplings, salt and pepper tofu, and the apple & cinnamon dumpling at the end.  Oh, and the Cherry Gimlet cocktails were a lovely tangy accompaniment to the flavours on the degustation menu.

Where are the photos of the actual food?  Sorry, it simply wasn't on the agenda today, I was too busy enjoying the flavours to worry about the visuals.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Buttery almond coconut cake (gluten free)

A fellow food blogger posted this recipe from a book I have in my collection - Belinda Jeffrey's "Mix and Bake".  It's a favourite among friends who've had the pleasure of indulging in the buttery, almost fudge-like cake.

Rather than reproduce the recipe here, I'll let someone else deal with potential copyright issues (I'm never quite sure what the protocols are) and instead refer you to http://ieatthereforeiam.blogspot.com/2008/08/buttery-almond-and-coconut-cake.html

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Soft chocolate and apricot biscuits

I love the food blog world.  Thousands of people, from all over the world, all baking and blogging in delicious harmony.

On a rare day of "nothing", after having dusted (yes! dusted!) our many bookshelves, I spent an hour or two trawling the many interesting food blogs I've accumulated in my favourites list over the last 9 or so months.  I came across a simple recipe for soft chocolate cinnamon and apricot biscuits and decided to give it a go.

The recipe can be found here, in the "I Bake For You :-)" blog.  I had to improvise a little (no SR flour = added extra baking powder; ganache = used 80g dark choc melted with a splash of cream in the microwave), but they still turned out very well.  You could add extra apricots for a more rustic texture, or slightly more sugar or milk chocolate instead of dark for a sweeter biscuit.

These ones were light and fluffy, 'cakey', and not too sweet.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Funeral Food

My poor old Nanna Z lost her battle against old age and a raft of illnesses this week, and was farewelled at a small and simple country funeral yesterday.  Being a flower freak, she would have loved the floral arrangements adorning every spare surface.  As for the food ... while I can imagine her salivating over the range of delicious rustic looking home made cakes and slices; she would certainly have had some "constructive feedback" for the well intentioned caterers.

She was very creative but an absolute perfectionist as well; resulting in her producing some pretty spectacular craft work over the years, including watercolour paintings, flower arrangements, and a visually stunning garden.  But the thing Nanna Z was best admired for was her was her baking.

A perfectionist to a fault, she would have made a fantastic pastry-chef.  Things that I still struggle with after years of practice - spongecake, eclairs, scones, blinis - she would whip up one handed in a matter of seconds, without ever referring to a recipe.  Once I asked her "how do you make your scones rise so high?"  She responded, without batting an eye, "don't bugger around with them too much".  Another oddly fond - if somewhat confusing - memory, was when she grabbed some exposed skin where my jumper had crept up over my jeans, accused me of putting on too much weight, at the same time serving me up a huge plate of jam drops to have with my tea.

She was your quintessential ex-C.W.A. queen, a no-nonsense, frugal, post-war, straight-talking, teetotaling, grey-haired pocket rocket.  Always confrontational, never boring, at times highly entertaining (even if it was occasionally at her expense).  She would bring me to tears of frustration and anger many times - I once went through a period of not speaking to her for almost a year, after a particularly fraught Christmas lunch.  She could be abrupt and rude, controlling, and downright mean.  But that was Nanna.  My mother's mother.  She taught me how to bake, and bake well.  

The Perfect Hollandaise

It's no coincidence that the word "hollandaise" bears a remarkable aural resemblance to "holidays".  And don't we all tend to associate a good hollandaise accompaniment to a lazy long late breakfast of perhaps eggs and some perfect pairings: smoked salmon, baby spinach, grilled tomatoes, avocado, good sourdough, or anything else which takes your fancy at that time of day.

I think I need holidays, I mean, hollandaise.  Here's my almost foolproof version:

Simmer some water in a small saucepan, and put a heatproof bowl over the top (I use a small ceramic pudding dish).  Add 4 room temperature egg yolks and add 2 dessert spoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice, whisk with a fork until combined.  Dice up an entire stick (250g) of unsalted (also room temp) butter, and add in one piece at a time to the yolks.  Keep whisking, adding a few pieces of butter at a time, until melted and the sauce is thick.  If it starts getting too thick just remove from the heat immediately and add in a small splash of hot water if necessary (keep the kettle boiled in case you need this contingency).  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Let cool slightly to thicken more, then spoon over your favourite breakfast.  Try not to eat it by the spoonful - remember how much butter went into it!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Taste Melbourne wrap-up

I've just arrived home from a day out in Carlton, exhausted and full to bursting, but satisfied and happy.  The wonderful people at Hothouse Media & Events were kind enough to not only provide three double passes for me to give away to some lucky readers for Friday's long lunch; but also gave me a double pass for me to enjoy.  At $30 a pop on the door - and considering you need to purchase all food and classes (excluding free tastings) in addition - it's pricy, so I really appreciated not having to pay the entry fee. 

Okay, so let's be honest about the negatives:  it's a heavily commercialised event where you essentially have to pay to have a bunch of companies market their stuff to you at every turn.  It's packed with people, in-your-face and noisy.  Events like this tend to turn us into animals; the chocolate stands in particular attracted hoardes of jostling piglets, hogging spaces in front of the free samples, grabbing multiple handfuls as soon as the plates of 70% cocoa were replenished.  I'd like to say I wasn't one of them but I'd be lying. 

That aside, I still think the festival is well worth a visit.  Especially if - like me - you're a passionate foodie with a list a mile long of fabulous restaurants you want to visit, but the budget won't allow it more than once every couple of months.  Where else can you sample some of Melbourne's best signature dishes from our top restaurants, for around ten bucks a plate, all on the same day?  The highlight for me was the King Island Dairy and James Squire's cheese and beer tasting session.  $12 bucks got us generous chunks of several different cheeses, matches with various accompanyments and different kinds of beer, plus a comprehensive commentary from two very bubbly hosts.

Other highlights included dishes from Embrasse (crispy pork belly with purple potato, hazelnuts and chocolate parfait & meringue in the shape of a mushroom on a 'forest floor' of chocolate 'soil'), The European (duck tortelloni with truffle oil), The Palace (wagyu burger), and Stokehouse (bombe - strawberry sorbet, white chocolate parfait and toasted meringue).  The exhibitor stalls were ok (some better than others) and the marketing people at Smeg would be pleased to know their new range of bright, pretty, retro fridges took my breath away - although for a 270 litre at over $3200, I think I can get something that holds more food.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A simple vanilla Creme Brulee

I'm going through a stage of searching for good old fashioned and simple comfort food recipes.  The classic winter staples - student pasta, slow cooked casseroles, apple pie.

It happens to be a perfect time for me to reflect on this because I've succumbed to one of those nasty colds every other person seems to be walking around with at the moment.  And while I'm hardly in the mood to get up from the couch - let alone cook - I did feel motivated on the weekend to try making one of my all time favourite desserts:  creme brulee.

Creme brulee is one of those things I tend to order at any given opportunity simply because I'd never made it myself and because it seemed like a difficult thing to do.  There are literally dozens of variations on making the custard, on flavouring, and on how to achieve the perfect "crack" texture on top, further adding to my creme-brulee-reluctance.

After some experimentation, I managed to work out a super simple way of making the perfect, classic, vanilla creme brulee. 

Basic vanilla creme brulee.

Pre-heat oven to 120c.  Put 600ml cream and a split vanilla pod (or 1/2 tsp vanilla essence) into a saucepan and heat to scalding point - take it off the heat just before it boils.  In a bowl, beat together (with electric hand mixer) 6 egg yolks and 1/2 cup caster sugar until pale and creamy.  Pour over the hot cream mixture (take out the pod first) and keep beating for a minute.  With a large metal spoon, skim off the froth from the top of the mixture and discard, then pour mix into four small/medium size ramekins.  Put the ramekins into a deep sided baking dish, and pour in boiling water until it comes halfway up the sides of the ramekins.  Place into oven for 40 minutes until just set - a slight wobble in the middle of the custards is good.  Cool before chilling them in the fridge for a few hours.  When ready to serve, evenly sprinkle 1/2 tsp caster sugar over each custard.  Place under a hot grill, or use a domestic blowtorch to heat the tops until browned.  It should "crack" with the back of a teaspoon when you hit it, and the custard underneath should be semi-set.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Taste of Melbourne 2010 - Long lunch tickets giveaway

Calling all foodies - it's so ridiculously easy to WIN a FREE DOUBLE PASS to Friday's long lunch at this year's Taste of Melbourne festival, you'd be mad not to enter!

The festival runs over four days, providing a golden opportunity to catch up with chefs, see live cooking demonstrations, and enjoy gourmet produce.  The best thing about the festival is the "choose your own adventure" style of eating.  You purchase your ticket depending on a preferred session time (lunch or dinner), and use the festival currency, - known as 'crowns' - to peruse and buy whatever takes your fancy from some of Melbourne's best restaurants.

Some of this year's fabulous food establishments include big names like Longrain, maze, Stokehouse, and Embrasse, plus many others sure to tempt the tastebuds.  In addition, there's a produce market with dozens of stalls, and speciality areas where you can check out demonstrations, wine tasting, Yarra Valley farmer's market and cocktail making.  This has surely got to be foodie heaven.

The festival runs over four days from August 26-29.  Tickets for standard entry come with a free Gourmet Traveller magazine and cost $27.50 if pre-purchased online.  However, I'm running a little competition for blog readers to win one of THREE, free double passes.  All you have to do is write me a quick comment below on your favourite restaurant or producer featuring in this year's festival along with your email address, (and join my blog, if you aren't already a faithful member) by midday this Friday 13th August. 

The three winners will be drawn randomly and will be notified via email.  Good luck!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A weekend of family and baking

I had one of those weekends where I just couldn't stop baking.  Maybe it's because I'd been away from home all week and needed to re-connect with my kitchen.  Or perhaps it's because we had people coming to stay and I just love looking after houseguests.

Pear and cinnamon cake - courtesy of a Weight Watchers recipe.  Trust me - it tasted every bit as delicious as it looks!

My sister has a cupcake fetish and I just love making them too - seeing as she was one of the guests staying over I figured it was a nice excuse to bake some.  My latest creation: mocha "bunny" cakes.  I used a cheap packet mix (buttercake) and added espresso, also adding coffee to the buttercream.  The ears are simply marshmallows cut in half.  The flavours worked really well; the cake wasn't sweet at all - almost bitter with the espresso - the buttercream is super sweet but also balanced out by the coffee.  Sis took most of them home; my brother and his girlfriend (who also stayed) took the remaining two. 

The morning after the night before.  With two guests left (my brother and his girlfriend), I thought it was a perfect occasion to cook up some fluffy pancakes from my "Cookery the Australian Way" book - still my favourite, and first ever, cookbook. 

I had some smoked salmon in the fridge (not unusual!) and felt like someting savoury, so topped my pancake with salmon, light sour cream, dill and lots of cracked pepper.  So simple but delicious.

My brother's girlfriend, A, made the suggestion to have chocolate pancakes.  I happened to have some dark chocolate in the cupboard - which was roughly chopped and mixed into some of the batter - the chocolate melted as the pancakes cooked and oozed out when they were cut into.  I didn't try any myself but everyone assured me they were tasty.  How could you go wrong with melted chocolate, really?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Billy Kwong

I had wanted to dine at Kylie Kwong's restaurant in Surry Hills ever since I chanced across an episode of her Simply Magic series some years ago.  I was blown away by her passion and love of Chinese food and culture, and shortly afterwards I ate my first Shanghai dumpling - beginning a love affair of my own with Chinese cooking.  And I've since had the pleasure to meet several friends who have lived in China, all of them only too happy to educate my palate.

The guiding philosophy behind Billy Kwong restaurant is:  "to leave as small and light an environmental footprint as possible, to give back to the community whenever and wherever we can, and to think globally and act locally".  Ahhh - be still my beating heart.

Under the red moody glow of a huge Chinese silk lantern in the small dining area, we ordered Sung Choi Bao, Kylie's signature Crispy Skin duck, fried rice, steamed Chinese greens - and the night's special, yabbies with thinly sliced vegetables and a chilli sauce.

The Sung Choi Bao was earthy and delicious, and served with a magnificent chilli sambal - which I put aside to have with the main course - it was also fantastic drizzled over the rice.  The yabbies came served in half shells, the meat pulled out first by our forks, until we got more confident and lost our manners - poking indexes in and pulling the meat free, shoving it in our mouths and licking the juice from our fingers.  But the highlight for me was the duck.  The portions were very generous - it may have been almost the whole bird - the skin not only crispy but also disintegrated  and gave way upon biting into it, and the meat so succulent and juicy it was hard not to race back to the plate for more.  The sauce it was swimming in was perfect - robust and sweet, with orange segments and cinnamon quills scattered about.  And the fragrance, incredible. 

Billy Kwong's does not accept bookings so we were left to chance getting a table - as it turned out we had to share a large table with another couple, who were enjoying a vegetarian degustation.  I did feel a little sorry for them, sharing with us ravenous duck-loving Melburnians- who made a disgraceful mess of our side of the table, adding to the general ambiance with our meat aromas, slurping and vocalising our delight at each mouthful.  We felt so comfortable there and were surrounded by many fellow food lovers who also didn't bother too much about table manners.  It was very refreshing - not only in terms of the food, but also the overall atmosphere - it felt good to be eating there on so many levels.

The evening was topped off by a simple dessert of poached pears with an almond praline and yogurt sauce.  It cleaned the palate well and was a perfect full stop behind succinct sentences of spice, sweet, crunch, salt, sour and succulence.  I couldn't resist purchasing a signed copy of Kylie's book "It Tastes Better" -  my husband joked that maybe their signature duck dish recipe would be in there and we shared a laugh.  Until I opened the book to discover that, yes - the duck dish was indeed included in the book.  Generous as her servings, Kylie Kwong is also willing to share recipes which some other high profile chefs would - justifiably - rather keep to themselves.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Bavarian Bier, B and B's, and Blasts from the past

This week hubby T and I took a trip to Sydney, "just because".  Both of us had flagged things we wanted to do well in advance.  He had spent many happy childhood summers on the sunny northern beaches with his family at his grandmother's home and wanted to take a trip down memory lane - we also caught up with his father one evening, who was in town on business.  I on the other hand wanted to - you guessed it - go restauranting. 

I used to work in a job that required me to travel frequently to Sydney for up to a week at a time, and got to be very familiar - thanks to an enthusiastic foodie colleague - with some of the good food in and around the CBD.  This being my first trip there in over a year (and the first trip that wasn't work-related for 10 years or more), I was keen to do the tourist thing and actually relax and enjoy the sights.  No taxis.  No rushing between offices or hotels.  No stress.

We flew in around dinnertime on Monday evening, with the option to head up to my husband's family flat on the north shore, but instead decided to grab some cheap accommodation in town, dump our luggage, and enjoy a meal at Lowenbrau in The Rocks.  I have a thing for saurkraut and sausage - and strangely, lederhosen - so this really hit the spot.  Similarly, T is a pork belly lover and I refuse to cook it as it stinks out the house, so he got his fix too.  All mopped up with warm pretzels and washed down with crisp bavarian beer by the 1/2 litre, we also enjoyed a naughty dessert of beer battered fried apple fritters dusted with cinnamon and sugar, which was so mouthwateringly good.

As luck would have it, I stumbled across the Australian Heritage Hotel in the Rocks while surfing the net earlier.  $69 per night "B and B", queen sized beds and clean and comfortable rooms (shared bathrooms).  I was dubious, but curious, and I'm so glad we gave it a go because it was fantastic.  The pub downstairs closed around 11pm so we weren't bothered by noise, no lining up to use one of the bathrooms/loos, there was even a shared living room area with games, tv and ... a tray with a carafe of port.  The next morning a nice lady buzzed around the living room as we munched on toast, cereal, juice and tea - making sure we had everything we needed and even offering to hold our luggage for the day.  Considering hotel accommodation in The Rocks generally starts at $250+ (for a basic room) - this was incredible value.

The next day we made our way via ferry and bus to T's family flat, where we again left our luggage and went exploring.  Lunch at the "Collaroy pie shop" - chicken avocado and brie pie! - before a walk around the beaches and then a bus trip up to "Summer Bay" (Palm Beach).  Beautiful beaches and scenery but we deemed it would be better to go back in the summertime, when the place really comes alive.  We enjoyed dinner back at Manly at the Bavarian Bier restaurant near the ferry terminal - again, T ordered pork belly, and I, sausage and saurkraut - pricier than Lowenbrau but the food was a step up.  Although the atmosphere at Lowenbrau is what makes it fun - where else can you be serenaded by a trio of brass instrument playing, german singing, lederhosen wearing gents as you enjoy your 'wurst (except maybe the Cuckoo)?

Speaking of which, I'll be at the Cuckoo this Saturday, enjoying a quirky Christmas in July with my sister, brother, and assorted friends and partners.  Three bavarian restaurants in less than a week (not including a breakfast on the run at the Vic Market last week) - I think I'll need to detox this week to give my liver - not to mention my lower intestine - a break.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Catering Experiment #1: Dinner Party Degustation

As an experiment, my friend J and I agreed to cater a dinner party for 14 guests, as a favour to J's local church.  The dinner party was actioned off and a small budget set for the purchase of ingredients. 

The challenge:  to provide a relaxed, restaurant-like atmosphere to the guests, serving quality home made food using local, fresh and in-season ingredients. 

We spent weeks fine-tuning our seating plan and menu, then finalised the list of ingredients and spent the afternoon before the party at the Queen Vic Market sourcing the best quality fruit, veg, meat and seafood.  This also allowed us to save money and choose the best looking produce.

Setting the table was the fun part.  J had the brilliant idea of making a flower setting for the centrepiece - I'm not a big flower person so couldn't really see the vision, but I'm glad I trusted her judgement as it turned out amazingly well.  I think J even surprised herself!

We then set the "placemats" (embossed paper squares), napkins (tied with vine-leaf ribbon), candles (tealights in espresso glasses) and cutlery, and voila!

Light some candles, add a couple of floor lamps, and the atmosphere is set...

The guests started arriving, and promptly tucked into french brie, drizzled with truffle infused honey (donated from my pantry) and roasted walnuts.

This was followed up by smoked marinated trout, and smoked salmon on toasts and mini frittatas, with dill and cream.

These were demolished quickly - J and I may have scoffed a few before sending them out of the kitchen.  The final canape we served was fried prawn wontons with a sweet and sour dipping sauce.  The prawns were simply marinaded in a little soy and sesame oil, before wrapping the wonton and deep frying.  Easy!

The guests were then seated, and we served up fresh bread using our respective breadmakers (multigrain and plain white), and a pear and parsnip soup.  I don't have a picture of the soup, but the bowls all came back clean so I think that's a good sign.  One of the guests asked for the recipe, which is simple:  Combine 2 peeled/chopped and roasted pears with 3 peeled & chopped parsnips in a pot, along with 1.5 litres chicken stock.  Cook, then add 1/4 cup sherry and 1 cup cream, puree in a food processor until smooth.  For the diet conscious, substitute the cream with light sour cream or skim milk.

Main course was free form curried chicken and mushroom pies.

And for the finale - dessert was a choice of sticky date pudding with salted toffee sauce, or chocolate tart with raspberry coulis:

From the clean plates, outrageous conversation and laughter, and reluctance of the guests to leave (we were still cleaning up at midnight), the night was a huge success.