Friday, 31 October 2008

Internet Salmagundi VII

A blind cook writes about how he does it, in a Q&A session on Chocolate & Zucchini.

If you want over the top, this is possibly the most amazing dinner party recorded in history. Cena Trimalchionis come to life, but with a better class of guests.

Where does your cat go when you're not around? Attach a GPS and find out!

Some amazing food photography here.

While you're enjoying cool images, the Science magazine visualisation challenge results are amazing. This is a slide show of the 2008 winners.

And finally, can't get enough of loony Americans? No Palin this time. Instead, fundamentalist Christians prove they've never actually read that Bible that they keep banging on about. Praying to the golden calf. Err, bull. No bull! Srsly!1!!eleventy!111!!!

Thursday, 30 October 2008

How to Take a Salad to Work

Sunshine. 25 degree days. It's a good time to eat salad, but how do you stop it going soggy and revolting in a packed lunch? Of course it helps if you have access to a fridge, but a cooler bag will do. This bodgy photo from my phone camera shows today's lunch. (Caution: chocolate component may be hidden.) There are three tips illustrated.

1. Don't dress the salad. The larger box contains dry salad foods - in this case, rocket, baby spinach, pre-cooked asparagus tips, cucumber and ham. Keep the dressing separate and add just before eating.

2. Keep avocado from browning by coating it in the dressing. This is why I have a small box rather than a tiny jar for the dressing. The pink spots are finger lime pearls; this is the last of the dressing from the weekend.

3. Nothing to do with salad, but a cob of corn is nice, and very easy if you like it without butter or salt, just plain. I'm using a Glad steamer bag so it can go straight in the microwave for 2 minutes. There's a "tear-open" strip which would make them single-use, but if you exercise care on opening them up at the ziploc instead, you can re-use these bags. Steam can give you a nasty burn, so be careful.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Finger Lime Tart and non-recipe cooking

Saturday morning found me on the road to Bungendore again, off to another native foods cooking class at Le Tres Bon. This week's theme was native limes. Julianne and Anthony supplied a big box of finger limes for us to cook with, and we also saw some of the small desert limes and plants. The fruit ripens in late summer and autumn. But the limes freeze well, and we were using defrosted ones.

We made a vinaigrette, the tart, and an icecream base for gin and finger lime icecream. The vinaigrette was actually a perfect example of my non-recipe cooking. We each had a small jar, and selected from the range of vinegars and oils and herbs to make our own to taste. Mine came out very sharp (as I like it), and beautifully pink, with both the lime and native pepper contributing colour. Belinda's was more mellow, and brown, with a rich lemon aspen infused balsamic vinegar doing the colour. We ate them on a prawn and mesclun salad, and had some left over to take home. They were all good in their own ways. I'll put my recipe later on.

The tart and icecream are recipe material, and we got to eat ones that Julianne and Anthony had prepared earlier, and take ours home. With the tarts, the balance of filling to case wasn't quite right with the ones we made - as you can see, it's a bit shallow. But they are very, very delicious. Fi & I were simply forced to lick out our bowls and beaters, because you couldn't possibly waste any. The icecream wasn't as successful as the wattleseed variant - the little caviar pearls of the lime freeze solid, so you don't get the nice flavour burst. Tart recipe below the fold; I won't bother with the icecream.

For the rest of the weekend it's been non-recipe cooking. A big pot of chilli is simmering away for the week, and we've had chicken sorta-cacciatore, pizzas, and BLTs.

The BLTs were tonight - just simple sandwiches, so we'd have room for dessert. The bacon was from the Bungendore Food Lovers Deli, where the owner salt-cures his own ham and bacon from the local free range pigs. Good stuff. The pizzas were made at a friend's farewell party - he's moving to Melbourne. We assembled our pizzas on individual bases and shoving them in the oven, two at a time. With only about a dozen people this is fun; nobody has to wait terribly long. The pizzas only take 10 minutes and you can assemble, chat, drink, and generally hang about the kitchen. I put lots of anchovy on mine so nobody would steal it...

The other two no-recipe meals are the chilli and the chicken sorta-cacciatore. I don't bother with weights and measures and details - it will all work, even if it's never exactly reproducible.

For the chicken, I browned an onion and some garlic, tossed in strips of chicken breast and browned them too. Then I chopped up and added 5 fresh tomatoes, and a red and green capsicum, and some oregano and bay leaves from the garden. Add a dash of brandy, simmer for half an hour and serve with pasta and a green veg - asparagus and broccolini this time. I used fresh tomatoes because they needed using up. A tin would be fine. Mushrooms would be nice. Fresh basil would be good. White wine, maybe. It's a "whatever" dish.

Chilli is similar. I do follow recipes for particular variants, but as a generic no-recipe meal it works, too. I soaked and boiled some kidney beans - but a large tin, drained and rinsed, could do. I fried up onion, garlic, mushrooms, zucchini and minced beef - but kangaroo or even no meat at all is fine. And different veggies can go in - eggplant, perhaps, or corn. Add some tomato - a huge tin, or fresh ones, and some tomato paste, or tomato juice, or passata. Add herbs and spices - cumin and chilli are essential; maybe oregano, coriander seed, pepper, and even a dash of cocoa and cinnamon. Simmer it all together for a couple of hours; leave overnight to let flavours meld in. Add salt to taste at the end. It's very hard to go wrong. Though do remember you can't take chilli out, so add judiciously and taste as you go.

And now, as promised, the finger lime recipes. To prepare finger limes, slice them in half down the length. Use a teaspoon to scrape all the tiny "caviar" out. Remove any seeds once it's scraped out; it's easier than trying to get them out of the fruit. There will be a little juice, toss that into your mix, too. Discard the rinds. Actually, it seems quite tempting to try candying them, since the fruit is such a rarity at the moment. But we didn't. Maybe another time.

Recipe 1: Finger Lime Vinaigrette
2 tablespoons macadamia oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon ground native pepper
"caviar" of 1 large finger lime
tiny pinch of sea salt

Put all in a small jar and shake madly.

Notes: use a different oil:vinegar ratio if you prefer. I have a strong taste for acid, more than most people. And hey, look at that colour! That's basically from the pepper. The fruit colour is actually variable from very pale ice pink to a deep raspberry shade.

Recipe 2: Finger Lime Tart Filling
Pulp of 4 large finger limes
1/3 lemon juice
3 eggs
3/4 cup caster sugar
50g unsalted butter

Put eggs and sugar in a metal bowl that will fit over a saucepan. Mix well, then whisk in lemon juice.

Put basin over saucepan of simmering water, and whisk continually until it is very pale and thickened - around ten minutes. It should almost double in volume. Stir through chopped butter, and when it is melted in, fold in the finger lime pulp. Set aside for ten minutes to cool slightly.

Fill a pre-baked pastry shell (about 20cm) with the mixture, and refrigerate for several hours. It will set more firmly.

Notes: we used a sweet shortcrust made with self-raising flour, but you could use any sweet or plain short pastry, even bought pastry.

The filling is a sabayon, and it's a little sensitive. Keep whisking pretty steadily; it's important for it not too heat up too much or the eggs will get grainy and scrambled. Take it off the heat for a minute or two if you're worried.

Friday, 24 October 2008

The Cake

THE Cake. The one true Cake. It has left the oven and is now cooling.

Almost every year I make a boiled fruitcake for Xmas. Although last year, the first Xmas that I blogged, I didn't make it because I was in Bhutan at the relevant time of year. I am perhaps a tad late this year, but 2 months ahead is OK. Three would be better, and I have heard of people using a full year.

As a child, I disliked fruitcake, but then we only had shop ones. Mum never made one in my memory, though she tells me she did once when I was three. Somewhere about my 3rd year uni is when it changed - a bunch of us visited a friend's girlfriend's house, and her mother offered us cake. I took a small piece, just to be polite - and then I immediately demanded the recipe, and have been making it almost every year ever since. The recipe here is metricised from the old one, and I have varied it a little bit now and then. It's remarkably easy to make and very reliable.

Recipe: Boiled Fruit Cake

1 bottle brandy
500g mixed dried fruit
500g mixed glace fruit
250g almonds
250g butter
4 eggs
1 cup plain flour
1 cup self-raising flour
2 cups sugar
3 heaped tsp mixed spices
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

Put the dried fruit, butter, sugar, spice, carb soda and 2 cups of brandy in a very large saucepan, like a stockpot. Don't fill more than 1/4 of the way up. Bring to boil, stirring well to melt the butter, and simmer for 2 minutes. Remove from heat, cover and leave for an hour to soak and cool.

Sift the flour, and beat the eggs. Add glace fruit and nuts to the cooled mixture. Stir in the beaten eggs. Fold in the flour.

Tip into a brown-paper lined 25 cm square cake tin. Bake at 140C for about three hours, or until it smells done, and a testing skewer comes out clean. Pour 1/2 cup brandy over the cake immediately it comes out of the oven.

When cool, wrap it up - cake tin and all - in newspaper. Store in a cool place. Every week, open it up and drizzle over another 1/4 cup of brandy. Keep at least a month before eating.

Note: do *not* seal with foil or plastic, it needs to breathe.

Apply any of the following variations:
* Brandy - in the baking, you can swap in non-alcoholic liquids, like fruit juice. Or use half water, half brandy; or some sweet liqueur like Drambuie or cherry brandy. However, you must use alcohol for the post-baking marinading. This is not a cake for AA members. Brandy isn't obligatory: use whisky, rum or even sherry if you prefer, but not a sticky sweet liqueur.

* Dried fruit - I like to use mostly raisins and currants, but you could use chopped dried apricot, dates or craisins.

* Glace fruit - I like plenty of mixed peel, and some glace cherries and apricots. Often I add glace pineapple and ginger, but not this year.

Don't buy pre-mixed fruit from the supermarket - that contains nasty fake glace cherries made from gelatine. Health food shops tend to have better mixes.

* Flour - swap up to half a cup of cocoa for some of the plain flour. Especially if you like to use lots of cherries.

* Nuts - brazils and macadamias (unsalted, of course) are a nice alternative to almonds.

* Spice - this year I used Herbie's mixed sweet spice with rose petals. I mostly keep it quite simple with cinnamon and allspice.

* Decoration - it doesn't need any, but you can do royal icing if you like, or top it with glace fruit like the one that I prepared earlier. (Photo from 2006.)

Thursday, 23 October 2008

D is for Downer

It's a downer, man!

Sorry, I couldn't resist. Seriously, there is nothing there at all there in the way of food. Literally. Zip, zero, nada. Seven years ago, there was a corner store kind of grocery, a dodgy Indian restaurant, and an Italian one that I never tried. But one by one they succumbed to the proximity of Dickson, and now there's only offices and a martial arts studio. No food for you. Go to Dickson instead, or maybe Watson, depending on which side of Downer you are.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Spinach and potatoes

So you know that I made a spinach dahl and a keema on the weekend. The spinach is a very plain dish, just a mix of lentils and spinach, with quite few spices. I didn't like it as much as the spiced spinach that I've made before, but it's a respectable side dish. It's not a star, but quite nice when you add a dollop of Greek yoghurt for a bit of tang. We've had this for dinner on Monday and Wednesday, accompanying the keema.

The keema is a standard repertoire: last year I blogged about a keema variant with kangaroo and beans. This one was beef, with peas. And I had fresh coriander, so no need for the preserved substitute.

On Tuesday I made ham steaks, with steamed broccolini and asparagus, and braised new potatoes. I must have mentioned the trick with ham steaks: do not buy ham steaks! Buy ham and slice it up. Panfried with a little honey to glaze and brown, they came up nicely. And the spuds were terrific, as they always are with this method.

Recipes for the potatoes and spinach follow.

Recipe 1: Braised New Potatoes

8 medium sized new potatoes
25g butter
3 cloves garlic
fresh herbs to taste (optional)
1/2 cup water

* Wash potatoes well, and pop them in a saucepan with a good fitting lid. Try to get a pan large enough for the spuds to go in a single layer.
* Peel the garlic and flatten each clove roughly with a knife blade.
* Add butter, water, and garlic to the saucepan.
* Cook over a low heat for 20 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally to move things around.

Notes: These are good with some rosemary or thyme - chuck some fresh herbs in with the garlic, butter and water. And serving them with nice sprinkle of sea salt is ideal; or Murray River pink salt.

To make more, you could use a larger pan, or just stir them more often if you have to go to 2 layers. Add a bit more water to start it at about 1 cm depth. The potatoes are sort of half fried and half steamed, and definitely not boiled.

Recipe 2: Spinach Dahl
500g spinach
100g green lentils
1 large onion
4 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon cumin seed
2 small dried chillies, crumbled
1 tablespoon light oil
salt to taste
25g butter (optional)

* Wash lentils, and soak for 3 hours (or longer - overnight in the fridge is OK)
* Simmer lentils in plain water until soft but not mushy.
* Drain and set aside.
* Heat oil, add cumin seed and chillies and let them crackle a bit.
* Add chopped onion and cook until golden and soft
* Add garlic and spinach, and cook until spinach is wilted.
* Add lentils, and simmer for half an hour for flavours to meld.
* Add salt to taste, and stir through butter before serving.

Notes: Recipe from Favourite Indian Food, by Diane Seed. She says that although it's from Madras, it's delicate and mild, to use as a soothing accompaniment to the more fiery dishes. She's right, I guess, though spinach has a strong flavour of its own, which totally dominates this dish.

And yes, that's a lot of spinach. It's more a spinach dish than a lentil one. Frozen spinach can be used to save effort. I skipped the butter this time.

The quantity is much too large for the two of us, even for two meals. I'll be freezing some to use later. With the leftovers, I'm thinking of adding paneer and spices, or making a frittata.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Of noms and nibbles

We didn't eat proper meals on the weekend, but we still ate rather well. I made blueberry bran muffins on Saturday morning - my first muffins in ages, it feels like. I do love these, especially the darkness of the treacle flavour. And they're pretty healthy, too.

On Saturday night we ate good old sausage inna bun. When not made by CMOT Dibbler, this can be a very fine thing indeed. Make it with weisswurst from Eco Meats, Beerenburg chilli tomato sauce, Jarlsberg cheese, and turkish bread rolls from Ades in Belconnen, and OMG NOM!!! We had a bit of coleslaw on the side, for veggie content. I just made up a Woollies sweet slaw mix. We both quite like this, as long as it is well within its use-by date, so it's a useful shortcut.

On Sunday we went out for a fancy high tea in the country, and the food was amazing. Our hosts did a fantastic job with it, and we had to try everything. Several times. So after the mini arancinis, and spinach tartlets, and corn patties, and asparagus rolls, and cupcakes, and lemon slice, and almond shortbreads, and baby icecream cones, and chocolate cherry cake, and fruit, there was no way we'd have enough room for a real dinner. Not even with the little country walk to see the cows, and the view from the hill. When we eventually got peckish, we made up some ham and cheese toasties for dinner. Lebanese bread makes quite nice toasties in the sandwich press - they come out flat and crisp, sort of like quesadillas.

In between this, I made some curries for the week, because the bloke requested curry. Quelle surprise!, I hear you cry. This time it's a keema and a spinach dahl. I'll post more on that later.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

C is for Civic, with Lemongrass

Civic - it's what we call the city centre, and we usually forget that out-of-towners don't understand it. There's a lot there, even if you don't count Braddon or Acton. I've mentioned several over the year that I've been blogging: I have a review index, with nine Civic restaurant reviews so far. Ten when I add this one. (Maybe more if I check for ones that I forgot to link?)

Some of my favourites are currently missing from the list. I especially like the Wig & Pen microbrewery, Hippo bar, Flavour of India, Iori Japanese, and Kingsley's Steak - no, that's not the chicken fast food joint! I also like the fine dining at Anise and Courgette, and the casual Cafe Essen. I'd like Milk and Honey, and Cream better if they were less noisy.

I don't find Civic food shopping particularly notable. It's useful, though. You can reliably get most of what you want, what with all the offerings of the new Canberra Centre. Choose from Aldi or Supabarn for your supermarket needs. There's a decent deli, a good fish shop and a good butcher (the Meat Guru). Dobinson's does good sourdough bread, and there's a couple of other bakeries, too. I used to like the fruit & veg place before they moved, but the quality seems to have dropped. And don't forget Oxfam upstairs, for your ethical coffee, tea, and chocolate supplies.

Outside the Canberra Centre there are still a few odd corners to buy food: there's a nice Korean grocery downstairs near the bus interchange, and an IGA and the wonderful Croissant d'Or French patisserie on East Row. Another IGA is over on Marcus Clark St, near the Wig & Pen, catering to the university trade, and there's a wine & fancy foods outlet on University Avenue that I keep meaning to check out. Following round Marcus Clark St, there's some new places with the new developments, but I think they count as Acton rather than Civic.

Bars and restaurants are scattered all over Civic. I would be stupid to try to list them all. Garema Place has the town square feeling to it, with lots of outdoor cafes and ratbag pigeons and decrepit panhandling magpies. It's gradually been going more Asian than European in menu. Much to my sadness, my favourite Valentino's closed and was replaced by a noodle bar. The South American place turned into a Vietnamese restaurant. But Milk & Honey, Essen and My Cafe are keeping up the cafe culture, and Gus' is being renovated.

West Row has some of the classier restaurants. The edge of the Canberra Centre has some sound mid-range places including Wagamama and Koko Black. Sammy's Kitchen moved here, in case you missed it. And for the bottom end of the budget, there's plenty of cheapies.

Read on for the Lemongrass review - and feel free to add your own suggestions or favourites in the comments. I have delayed posting this because it felt incomplete, but I now think that I have no option. With a topic this big, I'm bound to overlook something good.

Yesterday three of us had a quick pre-theatre dinner at Lemongrass Thai, on London Circuit. The two word summary is "superior Thai", and I think that a lot of people know this. On Friday night it was completely packed out by 6.30pm. We only got a booking at short notice because we promised to be out by 7.30pm when our play started.

It's reasonably priced. For three dishes with rice, 3 beers and a tea, we came in under $70. And the food was, well, superior. The green chicken curry was nicely spiced; chili-hot enough to notice but not too strong. Plenty of eggplant and bamboo shoots, and well flavoured meat. It was not at all greasy, despite their use of thigh meat - this is a common failing of cheap Thai & Vietnamese places; I do wish Lemongrass' chef could share their technique!

The pad thai was a good one, though not outstanding. And the beef salad was delicious. The char grilled beef slices were lean, flavoursome and tender. It had the proper sweet-sour-salt dressing that comes from fish sauce, palm sugar and lime. It didn't have many herbs - I was expecting mint and coriander, but it came with mesclun lettuce. This is more like the one I make at home than a proper authentic version. But they do have a second beef salad on the menu, with the rice powder rub, so perhaps that's the more authentic kind? Anyway, we enjoyed our food very much, and the servings were generous, without being huge. I would have liked to try the special lotus nut dessert, but I was too full.

The service was quite quick, as you'd expect from such a busy place. We had a little trouble communicating with our waitress, as her English wasn't the best, but a bit of pointing at the menu helped. I didn't read the wine list, but it is licensed and does BYO. And there were a couple of good beers on the list.

Despite the roaring trade, the sound is muted to a low enough level that we could hear each other. The decor is simple smart casual, with Thai accents in the ornaments and shapes. All in all, it's well worth a visit. It'd be a regular of mine if only we could get our acts together to book in advance - the evening 7.30ish timeslots tend to fill up the day before.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Internet Salmagundi VI

I don't have a big list, because I've been playing a game: Avernum 5.

I have been besotted by the wooden periodic table of the elements. Amazing woodwork, amazing chemistry, fascinating samples; I have spent hours browsing this. Look! Uranium dinnerware!

The American elections are yielding a steady drip of total insanity, which is hilarious when it's not tragic. Check out the Palin as President flash game: just click around and see what happens. There's a lot to find. Or how about some blogs: the Palindrome, Teen Moms for Palin.

Another big site for addictive browsing is the tropes wiki. Despite the site name, it's not just about TV, but all media. I keep thinking that I ought to sign up to improve the list of food tropes. In another life, when I have the time.

And finally, don't forget to wash your coffee cups!

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Mmmm, mango!

I'm sorry, I'm a slacker. I haven't really cooked anything this week that requires a recipe, apart from the mango salsa. OK, I'll write that up properly. The week's menu has been pretty simple.

* Roast saltbush lamb and veggies
* Wattleseed fettucini with mango chilli chicken
* Grilled steak and salad
* Lamb pide sandwiches (leftover lamb, pide, hommous and tabouli from Dickson)

I do love mangoes. They're one of my favourite fruits, and every year I make a point of eating some on or near my birthday. It's early in the season, so they're quite expensive, but it does really signal that summer's on the way. This year I bought four expensive mangoes ($3.75 each); I probably won't buy any more until they come in under $2.50. Unless I get too tempted.

Mostly they just get eaten as is: just cut them up, and eat. This is easy, and if you google it you'll find videos. And OMG! you can even buy a gadget for it: the OXO mango splitter. I've not seen them for sale here yet and I wouldn't recommend it anyway. All you need is a sharp knife, and that will work on all sizes of mango.

This is how you slice a mango. Image credit to, because I ate all mine without taking a photo. Click on the image to see their how to.

First, find the stem end, stand the mango up with stem down. Then find the flatter sides. Slice these off the mango, cutting as close to the centre as the knife will easily go. Seeds do vary in size.

You now have two mango cheeks. The conventional advice is to cut these in a checkerboard pattern, not cutting quite through to the skin. You mostly want this 3x4 or 4x5, if it's too fine it gets too easy to squash rather than cube neatly. Turn it inside out and slice the cubes from the skin.

I mostly prefer cutting strips instead. To do this, score into three or four vertical strips each, and use a small sharp knife to remove the flesh from the peel. It takes a little practice.

I also like mangoes in salsas, salads, smoothies, lassis, and sorbets - in all cases the fruit is not cooked. I'm not very big on cooked mango, but I don't hate it either. The bloke, as it turns out, does not like it at all. Here's the salsa recipe

Recipe: Mango Salsa
1 medium mango, diced small
1/2 small red onion, diced small
2 jalapeno chillies, seeded and diced very small

Combine, rest for half an hour in the fridge for the flavours to meld a bit, and serve on grilled chicken or fish.

Notes: First, some herbs would be really good to add to this. Especially some coriander and/or fresh mint. Second, some people don't like a strong onion taste. Use spring onion instead, or blanch the onion under boiling water for a minute.

Also, it makes a simple sauce. You can simply heat this up, and bingo!, you have mango chilli sauce. The mango will mush down. But that is not something I'll do again, because the bloke didn't like it. I thought it was fine, but I much prefer the raw version, too.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

B is for Bungendore: a cooking class

Yesterday I spent the morning in Bungendore, which I will claim as B for my Canberra alphabet. It's only 20 minutes drive from my house - the same as Mawson - and it's a pleasant spot to visit. There's bookshops, antique shops, cafes, pubs, restaurants, and even some good food shops. The woodworks gallery and cafe is a favourite for breakfast, and for the amazing craftsmanship. When I win Lotto I will furnish my house from there. (Must buy a ticket one day. Or not, the odds are much the same.)

This time I was mostly up the back of Le Tres Bon, making wattleseed pasta, icecream and meringues with my friend Fi. She is a big bushfood enthusiast who writes the insufficiently updated Eat Australia. I gather she's been busy collecting chooks and digging gardens and training dogs and otherwise having a life instead of writing.

The cooking classes we're attending are not the ones run by Christophe himself, who is off in France at the moment. While he's away, Julianne and Anthony Cowley are teaching about bushfoods. They are a Canberra couple with a large bushfood garden, which they have on occasion opened to the public. I think I missed one showing this year. Julianne is an enthusiastic cook, and watching her knead pasta dough and prepare it is a delight. That unfussed smooth action must have taken her a lot of practice to develop.

I'm no dab hand with pasta, nor is Fi - her bloke is, though, by all accounts. We managed to produce some decent fettucini anyway, though with much less flair and panache, and much more overworking and compromise. Actually, we really didn't do ourselves proud at all: our meringues inexplicably failed to puff up and rise. Not my greatest moment. I had thought that if you got your egg whites safely to the firm peak stage that the rise was inescapable, but apparently not! Usually I use electric beaters, though, and hand whisking is clearly *not* better. Yay, technology!

Oh well. We had a lovely lunch of wattleseed pasta with a simple tomato sauce, followed by wattleseed icecream with a chocolate dipped wattleseed meringue, and wattlecino coffee. And we had leftovers to take home. Fi's & my skinny unrisen meringues actually taste excellent: a good strong flavour rush. I had a couple after dinner last night.

I wanted to pick up some of the wonderful ham from Food Lovers on my way home, but they had sold out. Fortunately I'm going to the next class in two weeks, so I've ordered some. Until then, I'll have to content myself with a garlic and rosemary rubbed leg of saltbush lamb, a couple of organic sirloin steaks and a pair of organic chicken breasts. I haven't decided on an exact menu for the week, but a Sunday roast lamb is always attractive.

Last night I used some of the chicken with a mango and native mint marinade from Outback Spirit. Served with oven chips from a packet, fresh steamed green beans and a simple mango salsa that was just half a Kensington pride mango, chopped with a fresh jalapeno and a couple of slices of red onion. Very yummy, though a bit expensive this early in mango season - I got two at $3.75 each, but I do love them.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

A is for Ainslie: Pulp Kitchen

Some friends are doing a "world tour of Canberra" - visiting every suburb in alphabetical order. Sounds like fun, but I don't think I can impose this discipline on my blog. I can't make the commitment to a regular event, since I have a job, and friends with other ideas, and a newspaper column to write as well. But I will make a tag and play with the idea of a Canberra alphabet. I have B to come soon after this post. C? Well, that's too far ahead to plan, but Civic and Dickson sound easy. Then Emu Ridge, Evatt or EPIC?

So A is for Ainslie, and I've already noted that Ainslie has a nice IGA with a good deli, including Poachers' Pantry smoked goods and free range BBQ chooks. There's also a chicken shop, a Brumby's bakery, a yoga studio, Edgar's pub, and an unusual Vietnamese place - takeaway and delivery only, no actual restaurant attached! There are two nice restaurants - 2602, which I haven't been to, is supposed to be pretty good though not outstanding.

On Friday night I went to the other one, Pulp Kitchen. It's where Bernadette's used to be, and has a similar simple decor - wooden floors and tables, big blackboards on the walls for the wine lists and specials, and a couple of large paintings. It's calling itself a European brasserie, which reminds me of how unusual these days to find modern cuisine without Asian accents.

Continue here for more detail.

The bloke and I went with two friends, and we had a good night of it. Nothing was a deal-breaker, though there were a couple of small irritants. It's a little bit too loud for my taste, though not so bad that we couldn't hear ourselves speak. The service was skating marginally on the slow side of good, though they did have a big crowd on the night. And the charges for corkage and cakeage - not that we used them - seemed rather snobby at $5 per person, and ungraciously expressed. Their download menu is in Word format - someone really needs to tell them about the concept of the pdf... Oh well - that's it, really.

On the good side, the menu was delightfully flexible. The majority of the dishes could be ordered in large or small sizes; many meaty sounding things had a note that they could be modified for vegetarians; and the oysters were served by the piece. They did not even blink an eye when one of our party asked for just two oysters kilpatrick ($5). And the quality was fine. It's not super gourmet, nor is there glam presentation - or even small garnishes. But it's good honest food, notably well prepared, in this classic bistro style.

I enjoyed half a dozen Coffin Bay oysters natural ($15) with a bloody mary granita to start. Others just had some bread, which was a good crusty wood-fired loaf served with a fruity olive oil. We all opted for small serve meals for our mains, in order to leave room for desserts. Steak and chips, liver and onions, spaghetti and meatballs, and and octopus and potato salad: costing $17-21 for the smaller sizes. Full sized mains are $23-$30. I was impressed with my calves liver - it was perfectly cooked, which is so important with liver, and came with some really good chunky bacon. Maybe a bit heavy on the salt, but I like that. Add $9 for a side of steamed green beans sufficient for all, and we were content, but still ready for dessert.

I had the bitter chocolate terrine with pistachio and vodka icecream ($12), and loved it - the silky smooth terrine and the velvety smooth icecream paired up well. Neither was too sweet, and the flavours matched beautifully. Kate's apple cake and calvados icecream looked good, and she liked it, but I didn't beg a taste. John and The Bloke had cheese plates ($19), which The Bloke describes as "better than average but not great". There were five cheeses, cut in sizes so small as to look a bit stingy to me. The customary three would have looked better, I think. The choice of cheeses was sound, a mix of Aussie and European. No megastars, but good stuff - that seems to have been the theme of the night.

All in all, it was pretty good and I'd be happy to go back there. The quality of the food and flexibility of the menu make it good value for money, as long as you don't blow it on the stupid corkage.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Of Chocolate Dogs, Curry Chicken, and Sinking Cakes

Sydney was fun. We saw the Lunamorph fashion show, and Meow Meow's Vamp, and went shopping, and met up with friends, and looked at the Art on the Street, and watched Fee from Gypsy Noir dance, and drank and danced at Ascension in our new finery. I can has new boots. Big black gothy buckly things, except of course it's me, so they're flat, not ludicrous heels or ridiculous platforms.

We stayed in a teeny box of a room in a South King Street hotel. Handy, but minimal. Amusingly, it was worse than anywhere I stayed in China. No air con - and it was 35 degrees on Friday - and no bathroom. Toilet and shower down the hall, which was all good except for the last day, when we needed to check out and so did everyone else. Cross-legged queues ensued.

A block away from the hotel, down at 549 King Street Newtown, you'll find the Chocolate Dog cafe. We liked it so much that we had breakfast there every morning. A friend recommended it ages ago (Hi Tania!), and I gather it's changed hands since then. But the coffee was excellent on day one, and still pretty good (though not quite as good) on the other days with a different barista.

The breakfasts were great. I had perfect poached eggs with turkish toast, and a generous serve of spinach and tasty mushrooms ($12.50) one morning. Another time I had apple hotcakes, with apple chunks in the batter and topped with berry compote, maple syrup and Greek yoghurt. The bloke tried the BRAT (bacon, rocket, avocado and tomato) and pronounced it excellent - lean bacon for the health-conscious, good fresh salads. Service was unfussed and prompt, and the ambience is fairly standard South Newtown: simple, lightly bohemian with local artworks. A nice spot. They do Mexican at night but we never got to try that. We did make a pitch for it once, but they closed the kitchen too early for us.

We came home on Monday, and I had time to do a little shopping and cooking for the week. Read on for more details including a recipe for coconut passion cake.
My agenda for the Monday cooking was twofold: to prepare for the week, including a curry by request, and to make a cake to take to work today. I wasn't feeling very inspired, so I just made up the curry from a Patak's paste: chicken madras, using those pre-skinned drumsticks sold as "lovely legs". I did a veggie curry as a side dish, using as base a Charmaine Solomon recipe for a potato curry. It's simply mustard & black cumin seeds popped in oil, fried ginger, onion, turmeric, chilli, cumin, then veggie stock and veggies. I used cauliflower, a tin of kidney beans and some frozen peas as the veg. A nice mix, even though I forgot to add the garam masala and lemon juice at the end. But there's lots of leftovers, so I can vary it a bit for tomorrow's dinner.

Why add cake? It's tradition where I work to bring in a cake for your birthday, and although that was last week, today was my first day back at work. I tried out a coconut and passionfruit cake from a book on Islander cooking that I picked up in Fiji a few years back. It went over OK, though I wasn't very pleased with it myself. The flavours were good, but it managed to be both a bit overdone at the edges and a bit underdone in the middle. Sometimes I despair of ever understanding my fancypants Smeg oven. Though to be fair, I don't really get much practice any more. I used to bake a lot more, but since I've been trying for healthier cooking I've mainly used the oven for roasts, casseroles and muffins. And I do do rather well with muffins, even if I say so myself.

Anyway, the cake was quite easy, and very nicely flavoured if you like coconut and passionfruit. It's got equal amounts of coconut and flour, so it's not a soft cake texture, but rather rough, almost macaroon-like. And the passionfruit-coconut icing was a good match.

Recipe: Coconut Passion Cake
150g butter
1 3/4 cups sugar
4 eggs
2 cups dessicated coconut
2 cups self raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup coconut cream
1/4 cup passionfruit pulp
1 cup chopped fruit (optional)

50g butter
3 tbsp passionfruit pulp
1 tbsp coconut cream (or a little more)
3 cups icing sugar

Cream butter and sugar, add eggs one by one.
Combine dry ingredients, fold in alternately with the passionfruit and coconut cream.
Fold optional fruit through last if using.
Pour into baking paper lined 25cm cake tin.
Bake at 180C in a non-fan forced oven for 1 hour, or until skewer in centre comes out clean.
Cool on a rack.
Ice when cold.

For the icing: cream together butter and icing sugar. Add passionfruit pulp, and then dilute with coconut cream to a spreading consistency.

Notes: Original recipe from Savour the Pacific by Annabel Langbein. I used tinned pineapple for the optional fruit - the recipe suggests anything acid, like berries or feijoas. And as noted, I had some problem with the oven setting - I think the cake sank a little in the middle because I opened the oven for the first test too early, at 45 minutes. But it's such a fast oven... I think it browned marginally too much at the edges because I left it the full hour. Tricky thing. But anyway, it got eaten and praised, so it wasn't totally bad, just slightly imperfect.

Friday, 3 October 2008

And off again

Going to Sydney today. I've done the first minor update on the travelogue post.

Back home on the food front I've cooked a spag bol, with regular beef and not any yak at all. Otherwise we've been eating Dickson pide, and Silo bread, and Silo lemon tart. Beth took me to Silo for my birthday lunch, and we shared a plate of sheep and goat cheeses, and a cheese & leek tart. Fantastic - we've been really craving cheese. And the tart is not bad at all, though I do like them more bitingly lemony.

For breakfast today I had my first mango of the season (not counting the brilliant one in Chengdu), and Silo rye sourdough toast. One piece with vegemite, and one with the Tasmanian lavender honey that Beth also gave me for my birthday. NOM!

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Well, I'm Back

Hi everybody, I'm back! I've had some very strange and unusual culinary experiences during my absence. I went to MacDonalds, KFC, and even Starbucks! Weird stuff, man. I mean, have you ever seen what Starbucks call a macchiato??!

Seriously, I've had a fascinating and amazing trip, but the food was mostly not amazing at all but quite disappointing. I was on a "Wendy Wu" tour, accompanying my mate Beth, who was in turn accompanying her sister and niece. It's not the type of tour either of us would normally pick: far too regimented and westernised and bland for my taste. And despite being classified as "active", it wasn't. Very lazy, very plush, very easy. We had an octagenarian on the trip, the easy going and charming Lesley, who managed it all with no problem, except for the very steep Great Wall climb.
I'm downloading my 1300-odd photos as I write this, and I will try to do a more comprehensive post soon. I'm about to go out for a birthday lunch though (CHEEEEEESE!!!!!), so here's just a couple of summary points.

We went to
* Chengdu - pandas, Szechuan food.

* Lhasa, Shigatse and Gyantse - temples, monasteries, soldiers, mountains, yaks, bad chinese food, occasional glimpses of Tibetan food, and one Nepali meal. Also, yak bolognese.

* Lhasa-Xining train - amazing views, mountains, yaks, surprisingly excellent railway food.

* Xining - Qinghai lake, bizarre Chinese Butlins-style resort, more yaks, peculiar local food and more bad Chinese.

* Xi'an - terracotta army, wild goose pagoda park, great hotpot dinner. And oh, those gorgeous honey rolls!

* Beijing - forbidden city, summer palace, temple of heaven, hutongs, great wall, massive crowds, huge apartment buildings, olympic tat. Dodgy food and not even proper peking duck. Excellent pizza, though!

I am going to come back and edit this post with some pictures and more detail, but I'll pop it up all incomplete right now, just to say hi!

First update: Chengdu
Pandas are the big thing here. We visited the panda research and breeding project and I took at approximate count a brazillion photos. It's a very nice spot, green with large enclosures and lots of play space for the young ones. They do seem to keep the animal welfare firmly in mind.

On the food front, this was probably the best we had. Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan, more often known to us as Szechuan. Not the spiciest food in China, as Hunan wins that one, but still powerful stuff. We got split into two tables: spice-lovers and others. Our spicy table got the best Kung Pao chicken and Ma Po tofu I've ever had. The famous szechuan pepper, when fresh, has some amazing citrus and cardamom notes, as well as its mouth tingling properties. We also had some delicious fried corn cakes, the fresh corn niblets barely held together by the least light batter. Yummo. I was surprised at how much corn and potato showed up. The Chinese in general seem to have really taken to these foods.

Unfortunately, the Kung Pao chicken never left us. It got progressively dumbed down as we travelled - still quite chilli fiery in Tibet but less szechuan pepper; then even milder as we went along, until finally in Beijing we got a version with no chilli at all, and cucumber instead of celery. And we had it every sodding day, at least once and often twice. AAAAARGGGH!!!!

More updates to follow...