Friday, 30 May 2008

Elaine's Pies

They say you shouldn't go shopping on an empty stomach, and it's probably true. I ducked into Dickson this lunchtime after a meeting, just to get some cash and pick up a couple of things. My list was tiny, but wandering around the supermarket at midday with the sweet smells of the bakery in the air, it was quite a challenge not to buy too much. I did end up with too much bread, though I suppose I can freeze some. And I have some of those microwavable soups and two boxes of cereal. Oh well, could have be worse, I could have got half a dozen choc iced donuts for a mere $3, for instance...

Anyway, I was hungry, and there was Elaine's. I don't know who Elaine is, but her pies are brilliant. The street address is an unhelpful "Shop 1, Dickson Shopping Centre". If you know Dickson, the shop is in the block next to Woollies and across from the library, just on the corner of the building with the Baker's Delight outlet. It's a simple sandwich bar and pie shop. They bake their own pies, pasties and sausage rolls.

The pies are huge domed affairs. I took a quick snap with my phone before digging in; it's not the best but I was in no mood to wait. The pastry is a simple short crust, competent but not dramatically special, and the filling is excellent. Huge thick chunks of steak and kidney in this case, in a tasty not too liquid gravy. Elaine's has a range of pies - minced beef, steak and mushroom, chicken, potato topped. There are vegetarian and meat pasties and sausage rolls, too. I've had a few and they've all been good, even though I actually don't like Elaine's sausage rolls that much. This is not because they are bad, but because I have odd tastes. They are too big and meaty for me; I prefer my sausage rolls smaller, milder and with more breadcrumb. But the flaky pastry on them is very good.

Elaine's serves the breakfast and lunchtime crowd at Dickson from Monday to Saturday. If you buy a pie, the sauces are there on the counter for free - no prissy little extra cost packets - and they will offer you a plastic knife and fork. If you're not heading straight home, take them. These pies are too big and too full of filling to eat one handed. They are around $5, which may seem a little pricy, but they are well worth it.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Can Stuffed Mushrooms be Fast Food?

We've been eating fast food this week. Burgers, hot dogs, stuffed mushrooms, pizzas... Hang on, stuffed mushrooms?? Life is too short to stuff a mushroom, according to Shirley Conran. I disagree. The stuffed mushroom is actually quite easy to throw together for a weeknight dinner. The trick is to use just one mushroom per person. One really, really big mushroom. Here's how it works.

Turn on the oven to 180C, and pop a couple of spuds in the microwave for 5 minutes to start the weeknight baked potatoes. While that's happening, clean the mushrooms and pop them in a shallow baking dish, with a drizzle of water on the bottom so they won't dry out and go leathery. Rip up a couple of slices of bread into crumbs in a bowl. One slice per mushroom. Add any herbs, spices, and bits and pieces that you like. Add some melted butter and an egg or two to bind. Squoosh into the mushrooms. Spray a bit of olive oil on top. Bake for 20 minutes, along with the potatoes. Make a salad or steam some greens while it's baking. All done in around half an hour. It's a nice vegetarian dinner, unless you've added ham or bacon or something.

I won't give a proper recipe, because actually this latest lot weren't the best. I had some shreds of sundried tomatoes, some caramelised onion, and some crumbled Small Cow fetta, and lots of pepper and parsley, so the flavours were good. But I tried going low fat, and the texture came out too dry. It was still quite edible, but definitely not one of my best efforts.

I'll make a few notes on the other fast foods we've had this week. Hamburgers are simply plain minced meat rolled into 100g balls, and squished into a frying pan. There are all sorts of recipes for hamburgers, with breadcrumbs, herbs, onions, and so on - and these can be fun, but are basically unnecessary. Serve the burgers in nice grainy wholemeal rolls with some salad. Don't forget the beetroot! We had caramelised onion, too.

Hot dogs - well, I kid slightly. We had some cocktail frankfurters left over from a party, and to bulk up the soup dinner we had some of them on the side. Frankfurters are a good addition to a lentil soup.

Pizza? Honestly, no Italian would acknowledge this variant. Wholemeal pita bread rounds with a commercial pizza sauce, topped as you wish, baked at 200C until nice and hot, and the cheese is melted. It takes about ten minutes. I made one without the sauce, with just caramelised onions and gorgonzola. The rest had cheese: a mix of cheddar odds and ends, not even mozzarella. Tonight I added some ham, olives, capsicum, pineapple and shallot. I was out of anchovies and pickled jalapenos. Make a quick side salad while the cheese is toasting and there's dinner.

You may have noticed the caramelised onion theme. These are not fast food unless you have them already prepared. To do that, all you have to do to is slice up a half dozen onions, pop them in a frypan with a little oil, and cook them very slowly for an hour, stirring occasionally.

Edit: as Fiona pointed out in the comments, both the stuffed mushies and the pita pizza are great for using up loose ends of things from the fridge. I originally forgot the "no waste" tag. Thanks, Fi!

Monday, 26 May 2008

Roast Tomato and Red Lentil Soup

My favourite soup recipe, recovered! Woohoo! I lost it - I was sure it was in my notebook, but no. I remember posting it on a bulletin board, but I got banned there. (Long story; if you fancy a bit of netdrama it's part of the IIDB debacle) Beth thought she had it, and very helpfully sent me three similar recipes, none of them quite the same as my fave. But finally I tracked it down in an old sent-email folder. Here it is for your delight. This is a most excellent soup.

We're having a variant on it tonight, because I couldn't find the recipe and improvised. I only had about 650g of tomatoes, and I used more lentils. And I forgot about halving the tomatoes, which does matter as you get more caramelised flavours. It's still good, but not the excellent balance I remember.

I expect we'll have some cheese toasts on the side, to make it more dinner-ish. Or just plain cheese and crackers. We have a lot of good cheese around, for some reason...

Recipe: Roast Tomato and Red Lentil Soup
1kg tomatoes.
1 litre good vegetable stock
180g red lentils
1 medium onion
1 clove garlic
1 tablespoon olive oil (or just a teaspoon works)
2 tsp oregano
salt, pepper

Halve the tomatoes, arrange in a single layer on a deep sided baking dish, roast in a moderate (160C) oven for 40 minutes. They should be well done, but not dried.

Gently fry the onion & garlic in the oil until onion is golden. Add the lentils (washed & picked over as needed), stock, tomatoes and oregano. Also add any juices from the bottom of the tomato baking dish. I slip the skins off my tomatoes, which is a little extra work but not much. I'm a bit weird about tomato skins.

Simmer until lentils are done - these are the type that go to mush, not the whole ones. Run through a blender to get a smoothish texture. Thin down with water or more veggie stock to your desired consistency, and add salt and pepper to taste.


Sunday, 25 May 2008

Grazing, Mt Majura, Lerida, Cheese

I went to two fantastic foodie events this weekend. On Friday night, the bloke and I hopped on a bus out to Grazing at Gundaroo, where we were regaled with an amazing many coursed dinner, with matching wines from Mt Majura Winery. And today I went out to Lerida for a Slow Food cheese and wine tasting event. Details follow...

Grazing is out at Gundaroo, in an old pub that has been elegantly restored from its more decrepit 1970s days. I remember those for the bus tours, kitsch Australiana, damper and lamb on a spit, and underage drinking. Our bus tour was totally different! This dinner was a special event, rather than their usual menu, and we had some brief speeches from the winemaker and the chef. We were seated at large group tables - there was one for Slow Food, but I wasn't with them. In my first ever foodie professional perk, I got to go for free, and I sat with the winery table. They proved to be very convivial conversation partners, and we enjoyed ourselves enormously. Thanks to Julia at Mt Majura!

We started with the 2007 rosé and canapes in the main building. Our group was spread over a couple of rooms with open fires, where we could see glimpses into the small warren of dining rooms with silver service ready linen draped tables. The rosé was spicy and not too sweet; the canapes were very good, with the caramelised onion, dried tomato and fetta tarlets the standout for a powerful burst of flavour. I want to make something like this soon!

We moved on into the stables, where the tables were set with an almost daunting range of cutlery and glasses. Our first course was based on local organic chicken: a consommé with truffled chicken dumplings, a terrine, and a chicken liver parfait. The parfait was amazing - like a pate, but lightened in texture and enriched with butter. We had two rieslings with this: the 2006 and the 2003. All the courses came with two wines like this; it was very interesting. I usually found the older ones more rounded, less sharp. I seem to be developing expensive tastes. Damn.

Our next course was saffron pasta with prawns and scallops, accompanied with two chardonnays, the 2006 and the 2000 vintage. Terrific stuff; the seafood was beautifully fresh and sweet, the pasta silky, the wines buttery and well matched. A few too many capers, I thought, in this one - it made for an over-salty flavour. But that's a minor quibble.

The beef course was the most outstanding dish. It's served with root vegetables; a caramel, herb and garlic jus; a truffled parsely aoli and more. It sounds ridiculous: so many strong flavours must surely clash! But they don't - it's a stunning blend of complementing flavours. Chef Tom Moore likes to use local produce, and this beef is a local grain-fed variety, that is exported to luxury markets in Japan. The herbs in the jus and the aioli come from the restaurant gardens, too. We had a 1999 "merlot" with this, that is not available for sale. It was made from the grapes on what later came to be called "Dinny's Block" - actually a mix of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2004 Dinny's Block was the younger sibling wine; both were very fine and robust. A winemaker (from another winery) who sat with us said that the older one was too green and grassy, but we liked it.

The final savoury course was a crispy duck confit, with pancetta, choucroute, winter greens, and mustard aioli. We had a 2006 Shiraz and 2007 Tempranillo with this. Good stuff - crispy duck, strong flavours. Of course, with all that wine in me, everything was going to be good stuff by now. We finished with petit-fours: a little almond friande, a rum ball, a candied feijoa and a raspberry marshmallow. Lovely.

I had a look at the Grazing website, and their menu is posted there. Most of these dishes are on the current menu; with prices at $16 for entrees, $23.50-$28.50 for mains, and $14 for desserts. There are two choices for vegetarians, and a $10 kids menu. I should think this would be pretty good value for money, assuming the service is good. Each dish has a suggested local wine match, at $7.50-$10 per glass. I'd especially think of taking out of town guests there for a special meal - it's a good showcase for the region.

I wish I could say more about the wine, but I'm really not an expert. One day I'll get around to doing a course and learning all the vocabulary. This was something of an issue today at Lerida, too, although we did get tasting notes which may allow me to sound more edumacated.

Slow Food hosts a lot of events, and this was one of the educational kind. My friend Beth drove us out to Lerida Estate, on the edge of Lake George. It was a beautiful day, and it's a lovely site out in the country, with pumpkins growing randomly around the car park and edges of the vineyard. We sampled 11 cheeses, and six wines, and had a lunch plate of charcuterie, antipasti and dips to finish off. About thirty of us sat in the back room off the cafe, a little chilly in the high ceilinged room with its barrel-lined walls. The wine maker and a professional cheese judge gave us some talks about what we were sampling.
We ate roasted chestnuts while we watched a video about the production of one of the cheeses. We sampled; and we cleansed our palates between cheeses with bread, fresh green apples, and water.

The cheeses were a Milawa Brie, Small Cow Fetta, Edith ashed goat cheese, Jensen's red, Heidi Tilsit, and Small Cow Blue from Australia. We had Spanish Manchego, French roquefort, and Italian Gorgonzola Piccante, Taleggio washed rind, and Bitto. The Bitto is an aged hard cheese from the Lombardy region, made with mostly cow milk, and about 10% goat milk. It's special because it's one of the Slow Food Presidia projects, and was imported specially for this event.

Slow Food's Presidia began in Italy in 1999. Their aim is to protect products at risk of disappearing in the shadow of industrialised food production. They focus on a regional group of producers, helping them to develop production and marketing techniques to keep their product alive and successful in global market. There's cheeses, sausages, and even animal species included in the Presidia projects. And green eggs. Really.

The Bitto cheese is a firm and tasty one, with a slightly granular texture. It can be served lightly grilled, which softens the texture and adds wonderful toasty flavours to it. I bought some of that to take home, as well as some Gorgonzola, Heidi Tilsit, and Small Cow Fetta. I also bought a bottle of the Lerida Estate 2005 Merlot - at $30 it's not super cheap, but it is rather amazing with rich oaky fruitcake flavours, and smooth tannins. Not the flabby merlots you often find.

We were encouraged to try to find our own cheese and wine matches. All in all, nothing seemed really brilliant to me, and I felt I could have done with more guidance here. The general principle is either match or contrast. For an instance of contrast, the blue cheeses went well with the sweet and fragrant 2007 Botrytis Pinot Gris. I tried this with the Gorgonzola, and it was great. I'm not a big blue cheese fan and I found the Small Cow Blue far too rough and bitter, and the Roquefort also a bit much for me. We also tasted the 2007 Pinot Rosé, a pleasant berry-fruited drop which went well with the washed rind cheeses. The 2006 Pinot Noir seemed to go best with the goat cheese, the unusually robust 2005 Merlot went best with the likewise robust hard cheeses.

This sort of thing is really quite hard to describe. It was a lovely day; the wines and cheeses were lovely. The winery is doing another cheese tasting day later this year, that will be open to the general public, so if this sounds good, keep an eye on their events page. Though I think I'll skip the $200 a head dinner this coming Friday... There's a cafe menu on that page, too, if you just fancy a much cheaper unstructured visit. Meals go from $10-20, and cakes around the $6 mark. A weekend lunch and wine tasting would make a nice short excursion. I'll have to drag the bloke along for that sometime.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Last weekend and its consequences

Last weekend was rather busy for me, and I didn't manage to get much cooking or writing done. I ate out four times - two meals for reviewing (Friday lunch, Sunday dinner); Saturday lunch with the Aussie Bloggers; and a quick lunch between rehearsals on Sunday. We were also out Friday night at The Hive; Saturday night for a friend's birthday drinks; and I had and all-day choir rehearsal on Sunday, with a dance class immediately following. Woah!

I meant to write a bit more about the bloggers' meetup at Lisboa, and Woden shops, but I just didn't get around to it. The bit of writing for the Canberra Times cuts down a little on my blogging. Not only do I have meals out that I can't easily record here, but also I have to spend the time writing up the review.

So how did I manage this week with minimal shopping and cooking? I did a little shop on Saturday in Woden for basic bread, milk & veg. I was able to work from home on Monday, and I assembled a quick curry at lunchtime, using a pack of pre-cut beef and a tub of paste. Basically everything was either quick, or prepared earlier.

We ate:
* Saturday - the briami leftovers
* Sunday - dinner out, to be reviewed in the CT later
* Monday - a Thai Massaman beef curry, with potatoes from the garden & sugar snap peas
* Tuesday - microwave chicken risotto & green veg
* Wednesday - baked potato with chilli con carne, from the freezer
* Thursday - assorted leftovers
* Friday - we're going to Grazing at Gundaroo, for a fabulous dinner out!

This weekend should be a little quieter. We're out for dinner tonight, but it's not for a paid review, and I'm going to a Slow Food wine & cheese tasting event on Sunday lunchtime. I'm hoping to do a good write up on those.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Microwave Smoked Chicken Risotto

The concept sounds like an abomination, so although my old friend Tania gave me this recipe over a decade ago, I'd never got around to trying it. On a whim, I had a go tonight. Tania's recipe is for a generic risotto - add your own flavours. It's actually surprisingly good. It's not quite as creamy as a stirred one, but perfectly acceptable for a weeknight quickie. Actually, the worst part of it was the cheap supermarket smoked chicken. Poacher's Pantry has spoiled me...
1. heat 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter on high for 2 min.
2. stir in 1 cup finely chopped onions and stir. Cook on high for 2 min.
3. stir in 1 cup arborio rice and stir. Cook on high for 4 min.
4. add 3 cups stock (the flavour seems to stick better than when cooking on a stovetop, so I generally use one Real Stock and top up the rest with water. Or wine). Cook for 9 min on high.
5. Stir. Cook for another 9 minutes on high.
6. Add cheese. Sit for 5 min (if you can cope). Gobble it down.

The cooking times vary a bit depending on microwave size and phases of the moon. It often needs a couple of minutes extra at the end (perfect for adding some peas or corn). It should be slightly gloppy when you finish cooking, as it absorbs the remaining liquid while sitting. But not sloppy.

My notes:
I kept the 3:1 ratio of stock, but used a full litre of stock. This makes four reasonable serves; so there's leftovers for lunch. Leftover risotto will actually microwave tolerably enough for a work lunch, but it comes out pretty thick and solid; not at all nice and creamy.

In keeping with the slacker nature of this recipe I used a tetrapack of Campbell's Real Stock. I also added 2 cloves of crushed garlic with the rice. Towards the end I tossed in 180g chopped smoked chicken breast and 50g chopped sundried tomatoes. At the cheese stage, I used 50g finely grated grana padano, and I also added a good grind of pepper and a teaspoon of rosemary-in-a-tube.

While it was resting I cooked up some broccolini and asparagus to have on the side. I'd have mixed the asparagus in, but the bloke would object.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Just Say No to the KK

Krispy Kreme, that is. Look at these. That's supposed to be a cruller and a traditional style devil's food donut. I'm not sure what "tradition" that is. Also, I note that it's not a doughnut. Doughnuts are yummy. My advice on these donuts is "do not". (Yuk yuk yuk; yeah, I know, don't quit the day job.)

I happened to find myself in Woden today for lunch with a bunch of strangers - hi to the Aussie Bloggers' Forum folks! I had a lovely time, and since I needed to grab some groceries on the way home, I parked over near Coles. There's a Krispy Kreme outlet on the way. Now these have got a lot of press, and people seem excited about them, so I thought I'd give it a go. I had tried one of their standard glazed donuts once, and it was nasty - super sweet and seemed a bit stale and dry. But, well, maybe that was a bad one, and maybe it was a bit old.

Nope. I bought two donuts, and they were super sweet and seemed a bit stale and dry. I was especially disappointed with the cruller, because I love crullers and you don't get them in Australia. When I lived in the US (a scary two decades ago now) the local Giant supermarket and a number of donut shops had crullers. They have that same twisty fluted shape that you see in the picture, but the ones I remember fondly were unglazed, and they were rather like a choux pastry - moist on the inside, and partially hollow. This KK monstrosity has an interior like stale cake.

The devil's food one is slightly better, being chocolate flavoured, but it's still nasty. It's got a very similar stale cake texture to the supposed cruller. There's something lingeringly chemical about the aftertaste. I've had a bite of each one and the rest is going in the bin.

To add insult to injury, not only are they disgusting, but also outrageously expensive. It cost me $5.20 for two donuts! I could get a half dozen fresh choc-iced or hot cinnamon sugared doughnuts from a normal bakery for that. I'd have got more pleasure from my $5 by folding it into an origami boat and launching it on the lake.

Friday, 16 May 2008


This is an excellent Greek vegetable dish, that is dead easy to make. I got it from a cookbook of Belinda's when I was last down the coast, and typically I've adapted it a bit. Here's the original recipe. We're having the adapted version tonight, with some Italian pork and fennel sausages, before we go off to see what The Hive are up to at Gorman House.

Recipe: Briami

1/4 cup olive oil
2 onions, sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 large red capsicum, cut in large squares
400g zucchini, thickly sliced
400g potatoes, unpeeled, in 1cm thick slices or rough chunks
1 kg tomatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
1 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp cinnamon
2 tblsp chopped fresh parsley
2 tblsp chopped fresh dill
salt and pepper

Fry the onions gently for 10 minutes in 2 tblsp of the olive oil. Add the garlic towards the end of the frying time.
Toss everything else, except the oil, together with the onion & garlic.
Tip into a large baking dish and drizzle the remaining oil over the top.
Cover and bake for an hour and a half at 180C, or until all vegetables are tender.

Notes: Well, this is such a simple concept. I didn't have the exact items today, though I was close. I only had two zucchini (200g) and a small red capsicum. I added some cauliflower florets, a small green capsicum, and a tin (drained and rinsed) of large white beans. I used dried dill instead of fresh, skipped the parsley, and used less oil. I was about 300g short of the full kg tomatoes, too. I took the cover off for the last half hour and popped the sausages on top, so it was truly a one-dish meal.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Resturant Pet Peeves

Since I've been reviewing restaurants, I've been thinking a bit more about what makes a good experience. But typically, it's easier to carp than praise, so here's some things that annoy me. I invite readers to add more...

Vegetable and salads as extras
I always want some salad or vegetables with my meal. I do not want a plate of some beautifully cooked meat in a pool of delicious sauce all by itself. I want a decently balanced meal. At a pub or club, when I order the schnitzel they ask me "salad or veggies?" and "chips or mash?" If they can do it, why can't a good restaurant?

This is extremely common in the higher end restaurants, and it is annoying. And what's more, most of the time you have no idea how large they are, or how much you need. Should I order one salad per person, or one between three?

BYO Wine Only
Snobs. You can get away with it if you have a decent beer list. But I bet you don't. If I want a James Squires amber ale with my dinner and a Kriek lambic for dessert, you won't fob me off with a VB or one of those supposedly premium, but deeply ordinary, Crown lagers. Good beer is readily available. Stock it, or let me bring it.

Bad Attitude Service
It is not my duty to bring semaphore flags to get your attention. It is not my fault that the drinks didn't arrive for half an hour, or that the chef put onion in the salad when I specifically asked you not to. It's your mistake, you fix it. An apology helps, as does some compensation - a free drink or dessert is a good idea. Actually, I can forgive a great deal with an apology alone. Anyone can make mistakes, or have a bad night now and then. It's how you deal with the mistakes that matters.

No vegetarian options
Get with the 21st century already.

Hidden extras
I know restaurants are doing it tough and need to increase the prices to stay afloat. I sort of understand this one, but again it's about how it's done. I don't mind paying corkage or "cakeage"; I am asking for service in those cases. Waiters and dishwashers are working for me.

Charging extra for vegetables is just one aspect of this. But what really gets to me is when there are a lot of little fiddly hidden charges that add up. Vegetables, corkage, bread, water, Sunday surcharge, sometimes even more obscure things. I hear crazy things from America, like a surcharge for splitting a plate, or varying a menu item, and even health insurance surcharges. I hope they don't catch on here.

Sunday, 11 May 2008


I've been enjoying the "Foody Blog Roll" widget down left on my blog. It pops up ten random food blogs every day, and I follow links now and then at whim. A couple of days ago I discovered foodycat, and more specifically her Chakchouka recipe. I managed to put this together today, despite something of a hangover, and I can report that it is quite easy and also delicious. And a fun word to say. Chakchouka!

I didn't bother with Foodycat's zucchini chips, and I used a mix of odds and ends of various cheeses, and I had some of my usual roast tomatoes to use instead of the tin. But basically it's the same thing - a spicy Tunisian stew of tomato and capsicum, with eggs and cheese. With a nice thick slice of olive sourdough, it made a good light dinner. While I was staggering around near the stove, I also assembled a spag bol sauce for tomorrow. Go me.

Friday, 9 May 2008

In the garden

Since I just mentioned the potatoes the other day, I thought I might do an inventory. I live in a Canberra suburban house, but it's on a smaller block than usual. The house is quite large, too, so there's very little garden space. I can't have a big veggie garden; there's not enough sunny space. The backyard is more like a large courtyard, with low trees around the edges.

I like to grow mostly edible things, but I'm a very erratic and uneducated gardener. I think of it as natural selection weeding out the weak. Whatever grows with my random attention and neglect can stay. Mostly I plant perennials, and try to choose edible varieties for most of the border trees and shrubs. There's a patch along the side of the house that gets enough sun for a few summer veggies, but is too deeply shaded in winter for much to grow.

The edible inventory:
2 feijoa trees, inherited from previous owners.
1 lemon tree, inherited from previous owners.
1 bay tree, so far about 1.2m tall, and thriving.
1 kaffir lime, struggling in a large pot.
1 fig tree, so far about 2m tall. I got half a dozen figs this year.
1 dual graft apricot tree, about 3m so far. No fruit yet.
1 olive tree, 1.5m, in a pot. Has 6 olives...
1 miniature white peach, 1m, in a pot.
1 desert lime, 1m tall.
1 finger lime, 1m tall.
1 red currant bush.
1 blueberry bush in a pot.
1 teeny gojiberry bush, .5m, just planted.
A couple of rhubarb plants.
The newly planted rainbow chard, still alive after a week...
A berry of some sort, I forget what. Youngberry, maybe?
1 something or other shrub that I've forgotten what it is, except it's supposed to have edible berries. Peruvian guava? A native thingo? I planted both, and one died, but which?

Herbs: rosemary, thyme (unwell), oregano, some weird variety of mint that just growed, lemon & lime balsam, tarragon (now dying for winter but it springs back).

Then there's marginally edible things like roses, violets, lavender, native mint bush, and native tea bush (that's white correa, not ti-tree.) And some random native berries rambling around the front that never get enough water to set fruit.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Alto and Cream

Alto is the restaurant on top of Black Mountain Tower, and I've heard for a while that it has become an exception to the "Never eat in a revolving restaurant" rule. Judging by their catering on Saturday, this is true. I can't tell you much about the cost, or the menu details, because I was there for a wedding reception. But it's fun to sit and watch the world go by below you outside the window - and the inside of the restaurant go by, too. All the tables are right up at the window; and there's no Siberia. Everybody got their turn by the bar, the wedding party, and the toilets...

The food was really quite spectacular. Entrees were sashimi tuna with microleaf salad and poached celery; fetta stuffed zucchini flowers; or a roast quail. Mains were duck with a waldorf salad; blue eye cod with broth and vegetables; a vegetarian pastry; and some sort of veal dish. Sides of fresh salad and crisp cooked green beans came along, too. We had wedding cake for dessert, so I don't know what the standard there is. But all the food I sampled was very good. They did seem to have a bit of a fetish for the microleaf salad, but that does no-one any harm. I'd be interested to go back sometime.

Cream is another place that I'd heard good things of. It's located outside along the edge of the new Canberra Centre; pretty much across the road from Gus'. I finally made it there for Sunday brunch with Belinda, and I enjoyed it a lot. They do brunch until a very civilised 3pm. We had blueberry waffles and blintzes, and they were delicious. My blintzes ($14) came with a wonderful bitter orange marmalade syrup, although the filling was a bit mild - lacking any sour cream or cottage cheese bite. The coffee ($3.20) was good; the atmosphere was cheerful and buzzing without being oppressively loud. It's a big barn of a place, but with the coffee bar in the centre, and banquettes along the edges, it's broken up nicely. The decor is retro modern, with lime colour accents. My only qualm is that the service was erratic. We were seated quickly, and got our first coffees and food in good time, but a later order of a second coffee took ages to arrive, as did the bill. I'll be going back there, too, and probably relatively soon.

Monday, 5 May 2008

They Came from Underground!

spudsLook what came out of the ground! That's a teaspoon there, for size. I dug these up yesterday from my almost non-existent veggie garden. That's about half my crop. Let me tell you how I grew them. It was hard work, I tell you...

1. Find sprouting potatoes in the cupboard.
2. On a whim, chuck into a spare patch of garden and cover with dirt and mulch.
3. Ignore for 5 months. Water? Well, it did rain a few times.
4. When plants fall over and look like they're dying, scrabble around in the dirt under them and extract potatoes.

I can't believe how simple that was, and how satisfying. Next year I'm going to do it again, but I think I'll pay more attention to keeping them covered. Remember, teh green wunz r poyzon.

My garden is much too small and shady for serious veggie gardening, so mostly I just grow herbs. I've tried popping some rainbow chard in where the spuds were, but I'm not very optimistic about it surviving my random neglect. I fantasise about doing better, but I don't really have the time.

I've recently read Barbara Kingsolver's book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and I recommend it highly. It's a fascinating account of a year that she and her family spent on a farm in Virginia, close to where Kingsolver grew up. They grew as much of their own food as possible, including meat, and bought everything else from local growers. It's full of fascinating anecdotes, and recipes, and odd tidbits of fact about agricultural practices, ancient and modern. I'm quite impressed by it - and it has helped increase my devotion to the farmers' market. Why waste scarce resources shipping food all round the world, when there's perfectly good seasonal eating right here, right now? In Australia, we probably don't have the quality of land to enable the one-hour transport limit that the Kingsolver family imposed on themselves, but I am becoming ever more fussy about buying Australian. And for stuff we can't get locally - well, go without, or choose fair trade if possible. I don't think we grow cocoa in Australia, but we do produce some good coffee. Spices are small and relatively cheap to ship; but I don't want expensive American cherries in the middle of winter.

I'll tell one potato related anecdote: early in the year, Barbara announced to a food-loving friend that "the potatoes are up!' She was met with puzzlement. "Exactly what part of a potato comes up?", asked the friend.

I wonder if we Australians have such a great disconnect. Does everyone still know that a potato is a part of a plant? It's an ordinary looking low plant, with leaves, flowers and a small tomato-like fruit (poison, do not eat fruit!). The potatoes grow underground, storing up starch to enable the plant to survive another year - until we heartlessly rob it of its labours and fling its corpse to the compost heap to rot. And meat is dead animals, and eggs come out of a chook's bum.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Pea and Ham Soup

We've had frost overnight; it must be time for soup. I've made a classic pea and ham, with a small twist, to have for lunches and quick dinners this week. I've also had a good weekend for all things food. A good shop on Friday at Choku Bai Jo; Margie & David's wedding on Saturday - with reception at Alto, up the tower; Sunday brunch at Cream; and some decent gardening and cooking sessions.

Tonight we had a vego dinner - giant mushrooms baked with garlic and thyme; home grown baby potatoes; and a warm salad of roast beetroot, marinated fetta and rocket. I've also got some African dishes ready for tomorrow, so when I get back from yoga it's just a mater of heating it up. There's a lemon chicken dish, and a mung bean dhal. I may post recipes later if I like them.

Soup recipe follows:
Recipe: Pea and Ham Soup
1 ham bone with plenty of meat on it
1 onion
1 carrot
1 stalk celery
2 bayleaves
6 cloves
12 peppercorns
1 cup dried split peas, green
1 1/2 cups frozen green peas (optional)

Put the split peas in a bowl, cover with water and leave to soak overnight.

Take your Christmas ham bone out of the freezer, and pop it straight into a pot of water. Add everything else in the list, up to the peppercorns. Put on the stove to simmer for 3-4 hours. Strain, and refrigerate the stock. Discard vegetables and spices, and shred the meat, throwing out bones, gristle and fat.

Next morning, cook split peas until tender. Drain, discarding the water. Scrape fat from the stock, and combine with the peas. Add frozen peas if desired, and cook until thawed. Whiz up with a stab blender. Toss in shredded ham. Taste for salt & pepper and adjust to your taste.

Notes: If you don't have a Christmas ham bone, you might be able to buy one from a deli. Or a ham hock will do fine. Also, you might like to have some carrot chunks in the soup. I prefer not, but it is traditional. I like the extra (totally untraditional) green peas, they add a nice colour and freshness. Also, the ham will be pretty tasteless after its long boil, and is mostly there for colour and to advertise the ham stock. If you have some more ham on hand, it's nice to throw in some extra shreds. Or you could add some sausage, like a nice European frankfurter or rookwurst.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

When did that happen?

There's a new supermarket in Civic. An IGA has sprung up from nowhere in East Row, where the library used to be. I noticed it yesterday when the bloke & I had a post work drink at the Phoenix. I wonder if it will last? There's a lot of competition with Aldi and Supabarn in the Canberra Centre, and a mini IGA over on Marcus Clarke St near the uni. But the bus zone location might help.

In case you're wondering what we're eating, because that's so what this blog is all about, I made a big batch of curries on Sunday which we've been working through. A pork vindaloo, with premix Indian spices, and a mixed veggie one from a Charmaine Solomon book. And we had dinner out Tuesday night for a future CT review (ooh, secrets, don't tell!), and Zambrero burritos yesterday.