Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Last Post for a While

I don't know when or if I'll have a chance to blog in the next month; and even if I have a chance, I may be too busy to care. I'm off to Bhutan and India, on a motorcycle trip run by Saffron Road. We go to Sydney tomorrow, and fly out to Kolkata on Friday morning. Today's been a busy run of collecting all the doco and bike gear and toiletries and gadgets and cables and clothes. I haven't packed, but I have piles of stuff set out ready to be packed tomorrow morning. I decided to take my new phone with me, and leave the iPod at home and I've been spending the evening transferring music over to it (after a quick run in to Civic to buy a 2GB memory card). And greasing up my boots with leather conditioners, and charging batteries and testing the photobank hard drive storage thingo...

Food has not been very exciting; I've been on a use-up campaign. Last night Belinda came over, and we had some champagne and an all-microwave extravaganza dinner. I reheated a mixed dhal from the freezer, with basmati rice, pappadams, and one of those Indian ready-meals. All microwaved. Add some yoghurt, pickles and chopped tomato and cucumber salad and it was quite satisfactory. The "MTR" packet palak paneer wasn't great, I must admit, but it added a bit of variety. Then tonight we used up the cheese, tomatoes, spring onions, bacon and capsicum in a simple pasta sauce. We're about out of everything now, so I think we'll have breakfast at Satis tomorrow.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Marinaded in Bourbon

Kangaroo fillets, not me. We had this with broccoli, and a beetroot, fetta & onion salad.

Recipe: Bourbon marinade
1/4 cup bourbon
1/4 cup soy
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 small onion, chopped.
Combine all, and marinade red meat, turning occasionally if you get the chance. Grill meat as preferred, brushing with marinade from time to time. Quantities work for about 500g meat.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

ZenYai disappoints, pineapple muffins are good

Last night we had a beer at the Wig & Pen, dinner at ZenYai Thai, and saw Rod Quantock's show at the Street Theatre. It should have been a good night, and it was, except that ZenYai was very disappointing. I've been there before, though the most recent visit was about a year ago. They won awards in 2003 & 2004, and I really enjoyed their food back then. I wonder if they have a new chef, or if they have changed hands?

We didn't have a dinner booking, and were just wandering in along London Circuit looking for a place to eat. We didn't get in at Lemongrass, and then at ZenYai the waitress quite apologetically offered us a small table near the door to the toilets. That was OK with us; we were only in for a quick bite before the show, not a leisurely dining event. We ordered mostly very standard food - spring rolls and steamed wontons; red curry chicken and beef salad with garlic rice. It arrived promptly, as did our first drinks. Second drinks were a bit harder to obtain; the bloke had to resort to semaphore to get any attention for our table in Siberia.

I am unfamiliar with Thai steamed wontons, but I trusted in the good name of the restaurant - clearly a mistake. As far as I could tell they, and the spring rolls, were straight out of the supermarket frozen dim sum selection. There was nothing distinctly Thai about them, and the wontons were just very ordinary small dim sims, a bit overdone and leathery. The red curry was passable, though quite mild and dull of flavour. It was not very rich, either. I've made better myself with a tub of paste and tin of coconut cream - especially since I took a Thai cooking class a couple of years ago and learned a few tricks. And the beef salad was a great disappointment. I really love a good Thai beef salad - Yum Nua - and it needs to have fresh herbs in it. Coriander, mint, onion and chilli are essential... ideally some roast rice powder, maybe the salad vegetable choice is optional, maybe some Thai basil can go in, but definitely there MUST be herbs. Just google for a recipe, go on! ZenYai's had none, just slightly limp lettuce with cucumber, carrot, tomato and onion. Their dressing was rather short on the palm sugar and lime and long on the fish sauce, too. Overall, the whole meal was bland and dull.

Oh well. Rod Quantock's show, "The John Howard Farewell Party", did not disappoint at all. It was great fun. Rod corralled a bunch of people from the back of the queue to be official "latecomers". We got caught up in that, and were made to sing Mandy Vanstone's hilarious pastiche of Land of Hope and Glory while the rest of the audience pretended to be an orchestra - except for one designated heckler. I did my loudest bad soprano schreech, just because I could.

This morning I woke up and made pineapple muffins, and wrote this blog post. Yum. Here's the recipe.

Recipe: Pineapple upside-down muffins
Dry Mix:
1 cup white SR flour
1 cup wholemeal SR flour
2 tsp ground cinnamon
3/4 cup rolled oats

Wet Mix:

2 eggs
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup light oil
1 tsp vanilla
300g crushed pineapple and 2 tablespoons extra juice
1 large carrot, grated (1 cup)
1 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup chopped macadamias


1/4 cup chopped macadamias
12 tsp brown sugar

Preheat oven to 200C.
Grease your muffin pans, if you haven't already moved to silicon. Put the topping into each of 12 muffin cups: 1 tsp brown sugar and some chopped macadamias apiece.

Mix all the dry ingredients well in a large bowl. In another bowl, beat the eggs and sugar well with the vanilla and oil, then add the rest of the ingredients for the wet mix and combine evenly. Fold gently through the dry mix, and then divvy up into your muffin pans. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until golden, then turn out onto a rack and leave upside down to cool. Or do like we did and scarf some of them down piping hot.

Notes: This is adapted from this recipe. I used cranberries rather than raisins only because I'd run out of raisins. I used a 400g can of crushed pineapple in juice, and currently have some left over in the fridge. Next time I do this, I'll add the extra pineapple to the topping - this version came out quite solid, not caramelly and syrupy as the original recipe suggests. It's good, anyway.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

On Losing Weight

I've done it. I lost 12 kg in 2006. In 2007, I've gained and lost and gained and lost a couple of kg, but I've kept the big loss. Eventually I want to lose maybe another 15-20kg, which would take me down to the "normal" BMI range. I'm not really doing much about it now, though. I'm settling around the BMI overweight/obese border - and if you think that makes me an elephant, well, here I am in my burlesque alter ego. Not skinny, sure, but not exactly spherical. (Photo credit to the amazing Allyeska.)
I've been reading some sites that made me think about this thing. The evidence of harm from obesity per se is nowhere near as solid as you might think from the media. Or, for that matter, from common wisdom and diet books and government advisory offices. I'm especially impressed by Junkfood Science here at blogspot. And this particular post from Shapely Prose summarises a lot of the common arguments. As a die-hard skeptic, I especially appreciated CSICOP's take on the subject. I'm not quite so sure of the credentials of this one, from The Center for Consumer Freedom, whoever they are; it has a slight astroturf flavour. It can be hard to judge the truth of what's on teh internets.

It's looking more and more as if the main health issue is fitness, well over and above diet. And with diet, it's about being mostly healthy, rather than obsessively meticulous about counting calories and avoiding fat or carbs or whatever. And BMI is a sucky measure. People with lots of muscle turn up as overweight or obese. People in the "overweight" category seem to have a lower risk of death from heart disease, cancer, and most other diseases, than people in the "normal" category. And the whole fat-morbidity correlation goes away when you factor in fitness. I'd better get back on that bicycle!

This ties in with some other things I've been reading, such as the "Don't Go Hungry Diet" of Dr Amanda Sainsbury-Salis and the "low GI diet"of Dr Jennie Brand-Miller. There's sound scientific reasons for not starving yourself, and eating the slow-release carbs can help with that. All you need to do is simply eat a good variety of food, with most of it healthy, traditional foods - whole grains, fruit, veg, dairy, seafood, lean meats. Or even more fatty foods if you're off for a day's heavy toting of barges and lifting of bales, but most of us aren't these days. And add a bit of sugar or oil for the taste; it will not kill you. Listening to your body is the best guide. That New York Times article by Michael Pullan that was being passed around the net a while back was similar - remember, the one that started with "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

It sounds sensible and unarguable, but surprisingly, even this is unsupported by actual research. Diet seems to matter less than anyone thought. On the whole, though, I think the popular idea of healthy eating is largely correct. When really eating "ad lib", I naturally want to eat plenty of fruit and veg; I start feeling logy and bloated if I eat too much high fat food. I'm satisfied by very small servings of chocolate or cake.

One thing that I think is missing from most of these discussions is the problem of "portion distortion". This page has some contrasts in standard serving sizes from 1950 to 2003, or you could look at the slightly annoying portion distortion quiz. Other research suggests that we are psychologically very easily led to overeat simply by large plates and containers. The "not too much" in Pullan's piece is a very important part of the puzzle. It's also a theme in the popular "French Women Don't Get Fat" book. Sure, eat your patisserie and fry your steak in butter - but in small amounts. Take the filet mignon, not the 2lb steak challenge. The Japanese variant mentioned the same thing, as I recall from skimming in the bookshop. (I couldn't bring myself to buy "Japanese Women Don't Get Old or Fat". Really?? What do they do? Shoot them? I have every intention of getting old thank you.) But anyway, it's like the French one: eat many tiny portions of varied and beautiful food, and stop when not quite full. Mmm, must go to Iori again sometime.

I found that my few months with Weight Watchers was simply invaluable for getting a grip on sane serving sizes. I needed this. I hated the primary school hectoring style, and the group-think, and the commercialism, and the lame educational materials that assumed that everyone was a housewife, but I still feel that I got my money's worth. I've never been much of a junk food eater. I couldn't give up soft drinks, or stop eating chips in front of the telly, because I'd never started. But I could reeducate myself on how much pasta or rice or butter or steak was a reasonable serve. It took a few weeks of feeling that I was eating far too little, but it eventually stuck, and I readjusted. I'll need to watch that this does not creep back up.

I'm pretty sure that I will lose more weight eventually. I'm getting more active, although I lapsed badly over winter with my many illnesses. I'm getting better at stopping eating when I've had enough. And I'm get better at eating what I really want, rather than just what's there on the tea table, or comfort food. This is surprisingly hard - genuinely eating "what you want, when you want" requires a fair bit of emotional self-awareness and maturity. A bad day at work doesn't necessarily have to mean chocolate or beer - though usually it does, still. A plate full of chips doesn't need me to eat it just because it's there. There is no shortage. Over time all of these changes have got to have some effect. But if I just get healthier, will that be enough for me? I don't know. I'm not too obsessed with the BMI and kilogram numbers. But I do want to be a size 14 again, as I was in most of my 20s.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Using things up

Everything I gave recipes for in my last two posts has reappeared in some form, as a quick weeknight dinner. I served the remainder of the larb heated, stirred through some bean thread noodles, and with a side of gai lan. The beer can chicken I chopped and stirred through pasta with the last of the jus, and some cauliflower, peas, dried tomatoes and provolone cheese. The kibbeh is simply reheated, and served with some roasted cauliflower sprinkled with sumac, and a tomato, parsley and fetta salad.

I'm trying to use things up, and not buy too much more food. I need to leave the fridge relatively clean for our housesitter, and it's only 8 sleeps until take-off! In case anybody who doesn't actually know me is reading this, I'm going to ride a motorcycle through Bhutan, Sikkim, Assam and Darjeeling, on a guided tour by Saffron Road. And next year I'm going to take the train from Tibet to Beijing - I paid my deposit today!

Monday, 15 October 2007

Mince, mince, mince, mince, mince, mince, mince, mince...

... wonderful mince. </SPAM song>

I had to clean out the old fridge to get the new fridge in place. In so doing, I found a few surprises up the back of the freezer. I had some very old stuff that had to be thrown out; and I also discovered that I have so much mince in the freezer that it's ridiculous. Apparently I regularly buy a kilo when it's on special, freeze a portion, and then forget about it.

Things I threw out:
  • 3 Boost smoothie bars that did not survive their time in the esky.
  • A weight watchers chocolate ice cream cup. (Is it just me, or do these taste weirdly salty?)
  • Some very old fish fingers.
  • A single serve of a rabbit and bean casserole that had been in the freezer since last winter. (That's 2006, not the winter just gone.)
  • And, sadly, a Poachers' Pantry smoked chicken breast. It may have been OK, but it dated to 2005. Oops.
And we're eating more mince this week.

Recipe 1: Pumpkin and potato kibbeh-topped mince
Potato layer:
750g mixed potato
and pumpkin
1 medium onion, grated
1 & 1/2 cups fine burghul

2 tablespoons fresh mint, finely chopped

1/2 cup parsley, finely chopped
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon pepper

Mince Layer:
500 g beef mince

2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
1 tsp allspice
2 medium onions, sliced thinly

1 tsp olive oil


1/4 cup pine nuts

2 tablespoons olive oil

Cook potato and pumpkin for mashing, turn into a bowl and mash. Soak the burghul in cold water for 15 minutes, then drain in a sieve. Press it down with a spoon to squeeze more water out. Add to the mash, along with the cinnamon, mint, parsley, salt, pepper and onion, and mix well.

For the mince, fry the onion in the oil until softened, but not brown. Add the mince, and stir until browned. Mix in the pomegranate molasses and the allspice.

Turn the mince mixture into a large square cake tin (25cm square) or a casserole dish. Top evenly with the potato mix; smooth surface and score surface into squares or diamonds with a knife. Sprinkle over pine nuts, pressing them down gently into the mixture. Drizzle with olive oil.

Bake at 200C until top is a nice golden brown. Eat hot or cold. Serves 6-8, so about half has gone into the freezer for another day. With luck I won't lose it until 2009...

Notes: Lamb would be more authentic than beef, really. Or maybe camel :-) This recipe is derived from The Complete Middle Eastern Cookbook, by Tess Mallos - one of my oldest cookbooks; it came out in 1979 and I bought it shortly after. I'd worked that summer in a dodgy Lebanese restaurant and loved the cuisine. The original potato kibbeh recipe is vegetarian, with just onions below the kibbe mix. Traditionally kibbeh is made with lamb, so I guess this is named by analogy. (Kibbeh, Kibbe, Kibbi, there are many spellings.)

Recipe 2: Larb (Thai minced pork salad.)

2 stems lemon grass (white part only)
2 teaspoons sesame oil
500 g lean minced pork
1 teaspoon chilli paste
1/4 cup lime juice
2 teaspoons finely grated lime rind
1/3 cup fresh coriander leaves
1/4 cup small fresh mint leaves
1 small red onion, very finely sliced
1/3 cup roasted peanuts,
1/4 cup crisp fried garlic

Salad: lettuce, tomato, cucumber etc

Fry the pork, lemon grass and chilli in the sesame oil until throughly cooked, around 8 minutes. Taste for chilli, add extra if desired. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly. Stir in the rest of the ingredients, except the salad. Serve on top of a plate of roughly torn lettuce leaves, surrounded by tomato wedges and cucumber slices and other salad veg as desired.

Notes: I used shallots instead of garlic as that's what was in the cupboard. These are available in jars from Asian grocers. A jar of chopped lemongrass is handy to have, and sambal oelek is a good all-purpose chilli paste that I always have on hand. The meat should not be hot: serve it warm or cold as you prefer.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

A cartoon octopus taught me to cook chicken

Tako the octopus' online cooking show is one of the delights of the internet. It hasn't been updated in a while, but it's worth a look. What could be funnier than an accident prone cartoon octopus chef who lives in a bucket and argues cookie baking technique with his purple haired Mom? (He's an American cartoon octopus, despite his name.) They are flash shows, with recipes in an associated archive. It's hilarious, but also contains real cooking and food science information. Episode 1 contains the recipe for beer-can chicken, which I have taken and adapted as my own. I've also seen this elsewhere on the net, sometimes called "beer-butt chicken", but the cartoon octopus got to me first.

Tako's recipe can be found by selecting episode 1, then extras, then recipes. As you will see, it refers to other recipes for a marinade and gravy, and is a bit fiddly in technique (injecting the marinade?). I have massively simplified this for routine use.

Recipe: Beer-can Chicken & Jus
one large chicken (1.8kg is good)
one can of beer
A herb or spice rub of your choice
Spread the rub over your chicken, getting some under the skin if you can. Preheat your oven to 220 degrees. Open your beer and drink about a third of it. Set the beer can in the middle of a roasting pan, or a metal cake tin, and shove the chicken on the can vertically, legs down. Don't be bashful; make sure it's all the way on. Roast at 220 degrees for 15 minutes, then drop the oven temperature to 180 degrees and roast for another 45 minutes, or until chicken is done.

Remove the chicken to a carving tray, and deglaze the roasting pan with the beer from the can. Use a gravy separator to skim the fat off; tip the rest into a small saucepan and boil down to reduce by about half. Serve with the chicken.

Notes: you almost certainly won't be able to have two oven shelves in, as you would with a reclining chook, which is why I use a cake tin for the chicken and a loaf tin for roasting vegetables on the side. The beer doesn't have to be anything special - plain old VB is fine.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

The big catch-up: the Front, the Fridge, and more

Too much to blog about! It's been a very busy couple of days on the food front. On Friday I revisited Bahrat for lunch (goat vindaloo, yum); Satis for coffee; had dinner at Delissio; and drinks and a show at the Front. And today I went and got a new fridge and had lunch at the George Harcourt. I think I'll write a separate post about dinner tonight; it deserves its own title as you will see...

I've already reviewed Bahrat and Satis, and I remain happy to revisit them regularly. I don't think I can do Delissio justice - we were a large group there for a birthday, and we had a banquet meal of assorted antipasti, pizza, pasta and risotto. I don't have a bad word to say, but banquets are always intended to please a wide variety of tastes, and come from the unchallenging end of the menu. The service was very good, and the food was all very well made. The calamari was crisp-battered and tender; the crumbed spiced olives very more-ish; there was an excellent silky fresh pasta. I would be very interested in returning to try it out in a smaller group.

And ah, the Front! This little gallery-cafe-bar in Lyneham shops is hosting the most interesting events. Yesterday night "Red Shoes presents Tableaux Vivants", and it was a beautiful night! Because of the birthday dinner, we were late, and missed the first hour or so. But we still saw Gypsy Noir, Tom Woodward, Andi & George, and an assortment of the Tableaux Vivants or 'Living Pictures' - a 19th century artform featuring poses by silent nudes, in styles echoing classics of art history. Tiana was a very Goya Nude Maja. Four members of the band posed angelically with their instruments, one tableaux reminiscent of an Ingres cello-girl. They were accompanied by gentle live music - koto and violin, Andi singing to the guitar. The room was full of people sketching the tableaux - even I gave it a go and managed one not-too-dreadful portrait. The audience was wonderfully dressed - tutus, corsets, steampunk, vintage fashion. I felt rather underdone in my black and gold brocade.

It was sad to come back to reality, but it has to happen. Today we had a big run out to Bunnings to hire a trolley, and thence to collect a second hand fridge which I bought from a friend's parents. It's huge! It fits into our fridge space with a little width to spare, but no height. I'm happy to have it - but of course I've spent the day schlepping fridges and contents of fridges about. We were pretty weary and hungry after the major haulage bit, and went to the George Harcourt for a beer and some lunch. I'm not wild about this place, though I don't mind the occasional visit if we happen to be out that way. The food is pretty low-end catering - the cheapest mass-market pickles and cheese in the ploughman's lunch; burgers of pre-made frozen patties. Peh. Though, y'know, edible. And the decor is a kitsch pastiche of an English pub: mock Tudor with chamberpots and teacups hanging from the fake beams. On the good side, it does have a nice beer garden out the back, with plenty of shady trees and climbing plants, and it has a few decent beers on tap. And the decor can be amusing if you're in the right frame of mind.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Chocolate and Asparagus

Not together, of course. Eww. Last night we had some friends around, and we ate pide, salads and chocolate cake. I made the salads, and Belinda made the cake, and the bloke made the martinis. A good time was had by all, featuring furniture assembly by candlelight in the Red Room, and a discussion ranging over blue lycra crab costumes, lolcats, Dita von Teese, and the correct pronunciation of Xian and Chengdu.

I liked my asparagus salad, and the cake was amazing, so herewith are the recipes. The cake looked like a magnificently crumpled ruin, archaeological more than culinary, and it hit you with chocolate richness. It's not an original recipe - she found it somewhere out on that thar intarweb thing, as you can tell from the American ingredient list. The photo must be from the net, Belinda's wasn't glazed and was more walnut-nobbly on top. A lot of sites come up when I google for the title, so I don't know who to credit.

Recipe 1: Asparagus Salad
2 bunches asparagus (15-20 spears)
100g fetta cheese

8 sundried tomatoes in oil, well drained

1 tablespoon macadamia oil

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Cook the asparagus as you prefer. Cool it and combine with the crumbled fetta, and the chopped tomatoes. Dress with oil and lemon. Easy.

Notes: I microwaved the asparagus, but this would be great fresh off a barbecue grill.

Recipe 2: Tunnel of Fudge cake
1 3/4 c. butter, softened
1 3/4 c. granulated sugar
6 eggs
2 c. powdered sugar
2 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
3/4 c. cocoa
2 c. chopped walnuts

Beat butter and granulated sugar in large bowl until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Gradually add powdered sugar, blending well. By hand, stir in flour, cocoa and walnuts until well blended.

Spoon batter into greased and floured 12 cup Bundt pan or 10 inch angel food tube pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 58-62 minutes. Cool upright in pan on cooling rack 1 hour. Invert onto serving plate. Cool completely. Spoon glaze over top of cake, allowing some to run down sides. Yields 16 servings.

Note: Nuts are essential for success of recipe. Because cake has soft tunnel of fudge, ordinary doneness cannot be used. Accurate oven temperature and baking time are critical. In altitudes above 3500 feet, increase flour to 2 1/4 cups plus 3 tablespoons.

3/4 c. powdered sugar
1/4 c. cocoa powder
1 1/2-2 tbsp. milk
Combine sugar, cocoa and milk in small bowl until well blended. Store tightly covered.

I love how this recipe is so precise. Alterations for altitude! 58-62 minutes?! 63 shall not be the count, neither count thou 57, excepting that thou then proceed to 58. 65 is right out.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Spiced Spinach

I called on my new recipe book again today, for a spinach dish to accompany the leftover meatball curry. This is a north Indian one, so I'm mixing cuisines. And then I have a totally invented tomato salad to go with it. Whatever. Fusion, man.

Silverbeet greens can substitute very successfully for spinach in most recipes, and that's what I did tonight. The stems are perfectly edible, but I removed them for this recipe . I'd leave them in for a lot of dishes, but slice them finely so they cook in the same time as the greens.

To clean spinach or silverbeet you need to wash it well in plenty of water; it can be sandy or gritty. With our water restrictions, I don't like to let all that go down the sink, so I wash it in a large bowl, which I then empty into a bucket. And then the bucket goes on to the garden. If I do this for all my veggie washing, I don't need to water the front garden. Yeah, so this is a garden tip rather than a cooking tip, but we do need to watch our water use.

And one final technique tip: a microplane grater is brilliant for grating jaggery or palm sugar. What did we do before these fabulous gadgets? And if you accidentally end up with too much jaggery, just toss it onto some natural yoghurt for a quick dessert.

Recipe 1: Spiced Spinach (Moghlai Saag)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 tsp fennel seeds
4 cardamom pods
2 large brown onions, halved and thinly sliced
3 cm piece fresh ginger, cut to thin sticks
1 kg spinach, thick stems removed
pinch salt
1/2 tsp chilli flakes
1/2 tsp garam masala
2 tsp lemon juice
Heat oil with fennel and cardamom in a large, heavy based pan. Fry for a couple of minutes until aromatic, then add onion and ginger. Cook on low heat for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until onions are golden brown. Add spinach, and cook until well wilted, stirring frequently. Stir in salt, chilli, garam masala and lemon juice immediately before serving.

Notes: I used silverbeet - 1kg is about two standard market bunches. I've altered the quantities a bit. A half cup of fat is not for those of us who need to lose weight. I used a mix of mustard and canola oil; the original recipe has 1/4 cup each of butter, and oil, to 3 onions and 1.5kg spinach. Lemon juice is my own addition; I think it's an improvement.

Recipe 2: Tomato & onion salad
1 large tomato, diced
3 spring onions, green and white, chopped
1 tablespoon coconut vinegar
1 teaspoon grated jaggery
1/2 teaspoon garam masala
Mix it all up. Serve.

Notes: I often do this salad with tamarind, but I'd run out. So I looked for something else for the sweet and sour effect.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Pub Night & Curry Day

I got the bloke home from Chicago yesterday, and we ate out - a post airport breakfast at Satis, dinner at the Old Canberra Inn. The OCI is another favourite place. It's one of Canberra's very few actual pubs, and it's quite close to us, on Mouat Street, Lyneham. It's based on an old slab hut that predates Canberra, and it has a main bar with wooden beams, fireplaces, and old maps on the wall. There's often functions out the back, in the old stables, and a room with a couple of pool tables. It's got totally ordinary beer and standard pub grub - no boutique microbrews, no cocktails, not much top shelf spirits. The food ranges over nachos, burgers, steaks and chicken schnitzels. The burgers and steaks are usually pretty good, reliable tucker, and for $10-15 a meal, I'm not going to quibble!

The OCI also has regular blues nights, which is the big lure for us. Last night local boy Jonno Zilber and Kyla Brox, from the UK, were on the bill. No cover charge, just great music. Jonno is a young lad, and he keeps on getting better and better. He did an acoustic guitar set, with his own material and a spot of Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits. Kyla Brox had a band with her; and she had a mix of classic blues and her own more funky R&B. She has a huge deep bluesy voice, amazingly powerful; I wish she had done a few more of the classic blues, as I liked that better. We only stayed for her first set, as the jetlag was setting in.

So onto the food. I bought yet another cookbook during the week, at a Co-Op Bookshop sale. Regional Indian Cooking is the one - I got it for $11. Resistance is futile. As the bloke was due home yesterday, I just had to make a curry dinner. His usual response to the question "what would you like to eat this week?" is "curry". With the occasional variant into "chilli", and once, shockingly, even "vegetables". But relying on the popularity of curry, I made a South Indian lamb meatball curry from my new book. On the side I've got some chopped tomato & cucumber, mango chutney, pappadams, a carrot and peanut raita (sort of from the book but adjusted to ingredients I had on hand), and I've whipped up one of my favourite cheat foods - fake dhal makhani. This is nothing but a mix of tins, but it's great.

Lamb meatball curry
Part 1: Meatballs
500 g lamb
1 egg
1/4 cup fine semolina
1 tsp crushed garlic
1 tsp grated ginger
Spices: 1/2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp turmeric, 1/2 tsp chilli powder, 1 tsp coriander, 1 tsp cinnamon, 1/4 tsp ground cloves.
Part 2: Sauce
2 tsp oil
2 medium onions
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1 tin tomatoes
1 cup veggie stock (from a cube is fine)
40g dessicated coconut
blender spices: 2 tsp cumin, 2 tsp chilli powder, 2 tsp coriander
whole spices to fry: 10 curry leaves, 2 whole cloves, 5cm cinnamon stick, 3 cardamom pods
1/2 lime
chopped coriander

Meatballs are easy: just mix up the lamb, egg, semolina and spices. Roll into meatballs of your preferred size. I made 20.

Toss tomatoes, coconut and blender spices into a blender. Blend.

Slowly fry onion in oil until golden. Add whole spices to fry, and cook another 2 minutes. Add ginger and garlic, and cook for another minute or two. Add contents of blender to pan, then add stock to blender and whizz to get the rest of the tomato. Toss that in the pan, too. Simmer for 5 minutes or so, add salt to taste, then add meatballs. Cover and cook over low heat for at least 20 minutes. (Longer will not hurt.)

When ready to serve, stir in lime juice and sprinkle with chopped coriander.

You'll want to wash your hands well after you roll the meatballs or they'll go all turmeric yellow. Also, feel free to use whole spices and grind them up. I had a mix of whole and pre-ground that was different from my recipe book. As with all curries, a mellowing overnight improves it.

Cheat's Dhal Makhani
1 tin dark red kidney beans
1 tin brown lentils
1 tin chopped tomatoes with Indian spices
2 tablespoons yoghurt or sour cream or cream

Drain and rinse the lentils and beans. Toss into a saucepan with the tomatoes. Simmer for 15 minutes to thicken up. Add the dairy. Simmer more until well amalgamated. Add extra chilli and salt to taste.

Notes: This will surprise you by being actually really nice, despite the tinned assembly job nature of it. Ardmona brand tomatoes are the ones I found with the curry spice mixed in already. It seems quite strong on turmeric and very mild on chilli. You could use a dessertspoon of your favourite curry paste or powder, and a normal tin of tomatoes instead. I've used non-fat yoghurt, full-fat sour cream, and "lite" sour cream at various times. You may need to be careful not to boil it too vigorously once yoghurt is added, as yoghurt can separate. Or stabilise it with a little cornflour. I guess that a bit of coconut cream could also do, if you don't want any dairy. Or butter or ghee if you want to get closer to the original idea.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Rocksalt reviewed

Rocksalt is a fine dining restaurant at the Hawker shops. I had a very pleasant evening there last night with some people from my choir - good company, good food, good wine, good service. The style is modern Australian, and the decor is clean-lined, with a mix of linen tablecloths and wood, and the occasional bit of corrugated iron. There is carpet on the floor, which helps to buffer the sound and keep it possible to converse with your companions.

The food is very good indeed, well prepared and presented. A champagne sorbet was served between entree and main. There is a separate vegetarian menu, and several items marked as suitable for celiacs. All dishes in the menu are matched with a suitable wine, that is available by the glass. The menu has a nice mix of relatively traditional and more creative dishes. No-one was quite bold enough to pick the blue cheese baked cheesecake for dessert, though...

I had a half dozen huge fresh pacific oysters with a Thai cucumber salsa, a beef cheek "tarte tatin" with a Morton bay bug, and a citrus sabayon dessert. My beef was meltingly tender, the jus rich and tasty. The dessert was outstanding, with the little orange cakes accompanied by blood orange segments, and a blood orange and licorice sorbet. Magnificent. Other people were equally happy with their meals - the lamb shanks looked huge, generous and falling apart, the mushroom dish met with praise from our vegetarian, the lemon and white chocolate mousse in brandysnap basket was impressive.

I could quibble a little over details, and I will since it's fair to hold a high priced meal to much higher standards than the pub. The menu seemed a bit on the heavy side, with perhaps too much on the fried and rich end of the spectrum. A good winter menu, but it is spring now! The pastry on the beef "tarte tatin" was swamped to irrelevance by the pool of sauce. The meals are inconsistent in vegetable content - mine had just 3 spears of asparagus, while other people had more greens. This makes it a bit hard to decide whether to order sides of vegetables or salad. I don't like having to do that: I believe that restaurants should always include a decent serve of vegetables or salad, for the sake of a well-balanced meal. Finally, I thought that the tokay recommended with the citrus dessert didn't really match very well. Perhaps a moscato would have been better? Not that I'm a great wine expert, I just think that citrus is hard to match and it made the tokay taste a little thin and bitter. It was delicious to finish afterwards, though.

These are only minor quibbles, and I'd heartily recommend Rocksalt for a special occasion dinner. It worked out to about $80 per head, though we were an abstemious party - only one bottle of wine, a couple of pre-dinner drinks and a couple of dessert wines among the six of us. For moderate drinkers, you could expect about the $100 mark.

Friday, 5 October 2007

I'm a bunless cut-wienered kraut-eater

I haven't been cooking much this week. With the Bloke away, I've been eating less formal meals - using up leftovers from the freezer, or just a sandwich and fruit. Last night I amused myself with a bowl of sauerkraut, with chopped low fat frankfurters, and hot mustard, tomato sauce and chilli sauce on the side for dunking, and a couple of slices of rye bread. It's yummy, and makes me laugh. If you don't understand the title, or why it's funny, go read this.

Today I'm going to Rocksalt for dinner, and cooking curries in anticipation of the Bloke's return. More on that later.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Eating with the Gods, and native produce

The Gods Cafe at ANU, that is. It's attached to the ANU Arts Centre theatre, on the edge of Union Court. It's not a student cheapie, it's a quality cafe which just happens to be on campus. They've recently won an award for the best ACT cafe restaurant. I had lunch there yesterday, and breakfast today, and then spent the rest of the morning at a meeting, in which our morning tea and lunch were catered by them. Over the top? Well, no. Judy and Tony do great coffee, and delicious food, and I'd happily eat my way through their entire menu if I had the time and the cash. Not that it's hugely expensive - my salad lunch was $18 with a glass of Pinot Gris, and breakfast about $15 with a large coffee.

I managed to keep up my healthy eating plan without much trouble. For lunch, I had their house salad with home-cured salmon, asparagus and avocado. Breakfast was a big bowl of the house muesli, with a berry compote; lunch was chicken and rocket wraps with fresh fruit. Morning tea foiled my good intentions a bit - the mini berry pastries were light and crisp and delicious. My visiting friend, who also hosted the meeting is also a big fan of The Gods. She powered her way through a dish of mussels and a side salad of rocket and parmesan at lunch, and next day had a big eggs benedict style breakfast with salmon and spinach. It looked terrific, but it was too early in the morning for me to cope with that sort of thing. I was more tempted by the croissants, from the Cornucopia bakery, or the blueberry maple marscapone bruschetta, but I resisted.

I'm quite excited to have got some comments on my blog from people who I don't even know. Hello!

Mako asked about sourcing native Australian ingredients. I wish I had a really good supplier, but no. It's all here and there, and erratic. Spices are getting much easier these days - even Woolworths & Coles now have some. So does Oxfam, and there is a man at the Saturday morning EPIC markets who sells a wider variety of bush spices, including aniseed myrtle and native mint. The Essential Ingredient in Kingston sometimes stocks frozen produce. I've seen bunya nuts and riberries, as well as some of the Vic Cherikoff range. The dried quandongs mentioned in an earlier post came from the Port Douglas market, so that's not too easy to repeat. Ironbark cafe in Manuka might be good people to ask; they often have native fruit desserts. And then there's mail order from Vic Cherikoff. If anybody else has good sources, please add a comment - I'd love to hear about it.

My friend Fiona, at Eat Australia, is busy planting out warrigal greens and midyim berries. She's the only person who's ever supplied me with fresh ingredients. I'm wondering about planting my own warrigal greens - Fiona says they are almost unkillable, so that would suit my dreadfully lax gardening style. I have a very tiny garden by Canberra standards, but I am trying for just a few native food plants. My desert lime survived the winter, though my brush cherry died. Oh well. I might try again and actually water it this time...

Monday, 1 October 2007

Nom nom nom it are my birthday

I'm a fan of the lolcats, and I've been sending this particular one around to everyone I know who has a birthday. It's not Plummet, though the colouring is similar. It's just some random cat from the infamous icanhascheezburger collection. Actually, while I'm at it, I also have especially enjoyed the stranger end of the lol-phenomenon: loltheists, lolpilgrims, loltrek, lolcthulhu, lolgrammar, lolbible, lolcode...

It are indeed my birthday and I've been baking. I've made lemon yoghurt cupcakes in my new rose-shaped silicon muffin pans. The recipe is from this month's Delicious magazine, and they were for afternoon tea today with a couple of friends. They were good - quite dense and moist, and very lemony. I also made Nigella Lawson's Chocolate Guinness cake, from her book Feast, to take to work tomorrow. I'm not completely happy with that one - the Guinness cake has sunk a bit in the middle. But I've tipped it upside down and iced it, and it looks good enough.

I'm not as good at baking as I used to be. I'm out of practice. Since I've been trying to lose weight, the baking of cakes, biscuits, puddings, pies & tarts has had to be quite drastically curtailed. And I'm not sure I ever quite adjusted to the speed of this oven, even though I've been here for 5 years now. Just how much does one reduce the temperature to compensate for the fan forcing? It's all very well with roast dinners, but baking is more sensitive.

Anyway, I've been away down to Solar Springs in Bundanoon, for a girlie weekend with my mates Belinda and Beth. It was heaps of fun, though with a few minor annoyances. The service tended to the production line in style; it was not quite the pampering we were expecting. The mealtimes got to be quite wearing, as the dining room was very noisy. It did have a gorgeous view out over the mountains, though, and the food was good - healthy, and really fresh and well made - brilliant salads at lunchtime; nicely done steamed veggies at dinner. It's unusual to find vegetables at a buffet in a bain marie that are actually still crisp and fresh; all kudos to the cook for that. I was especially taken with the sesame, sweet potato & spinach salad; and the whole baked salmon en croute. I think it would be quite hard to lose weight there, despite all the walks and swims and gym classes - the food is just so appealling, and the little bicycle shop cafe down the road is so delightful (and has cake).

While I was there, I had a really good massage, a fitness test, two bushwalks, a sauna and spa, and a go at archery. I also had a "face and feet" treatment which I did not like, and a mud wrap, which I did enjoy. The mud was soothing and warm and relaxing, as well as rather silly. I'm not sure what was wrong with the face treatment, but I ended up feeling really twitchy and uncomfortable and had to go wash the stuff off. It was all supposed to be hypo-allergenic, but I ended up with a big rosacea flush, so maybe it wasn't.

I've put on about a kilo in the last month, having been too sick to exercise most of the time, but not too sick to eat. Now that I'm feeling a lot better (though still not at 100%) I should be able to start up the exercise again. My fitness test was not too bad - glucose, cholesterol & blood pressure good; flexibility OK; weight & body fat definitely too high; and my aerobic capacity not so good. I really noticed how much of that hard-won fitness I'd lost in the last few months when I was walking back up the hill from the glow-worm glen. It was very rough, a lot harder than when I walked up Mount Ainslie just before I got sick for the first time this season.

I have a number of special events with food temptations coming up. Today is my birthday; tomorrow is the work morning tea; Friday a dinner out with the choir; on Saturday the bloke's due back, and not too long after that we'll have my belated birthday dinner; it's a friend's birthday in two weeks... Clearly I need to have an action plan to get back on track. There are too many opportunities to eat a lot of rich food. So my plan is to give in to temptation at these designated events - though ideally in small tasting amounts rather than big pig-out amounts - and make sure I eat very healthy for all the rest of the time, until I go overseas. And exercise. Right, that's sorted.