Sunday, August 30, 2009

Taste Melbourne

A certain question hangs in the air... Taste Melbourne, will it be, well, tasty?
Turns out that thankfully- it was. Decidedly so.

Can there be anything more satisfying than gathering a great gobful of 'the best that Melbourne has to offer' into one place and being able to have a teaser-taste of each? When you're right there in the steamy, fragrant, pungent and spritzy thick of it.... I think not.
Let's be honest here, in rickety financial times not all of us can afford a degustation at the three hatted Jacques Reymond or the celebrity chef helmed The Boathouse. But that doesn't mean that we wouldn't like to be flavour raiding with the best of them- and so why should we miss out, when Taste Melbourne comes to town.
This year I opted for the midway ticket (between general-entry and the deluxe-super-charge versions) that included some crowns to spend on the food on offer, but also allowed the luxury or adding more or less as I felt so inclined.
It's not necessarily a cheap exercise by the time you've sampled everything that makes your saliva ducts hit overdrive, but the alternative would leave your back pocket decidedly more deflated.
Weigh it up growling tummies of Melbourne!
It's a bit of a wonderland if you don't mind the ravenous crowd (and later in the evening the slurring and staggering hoards). It's all part of the fun as far as I can see and it's nice to find so many people on the trail of a good food experience. Eat it up!

The Press Club- Spring Bay half shell scallops with Tarama:
Scallops on the half shell are a most beguiling dish, particularly when they're still attached. Buried under a springy pile of salad, dressed in a creamy tarama sauce redolent of fish-fresh ocean spray and flecked with salty black olives, each mouthful was a textural Odyssey, mostly taken by sea.
Crunchy, soft, silky and creamy all in one and served in an abundant, vibrant and artistically tangled mess.

Jacques Reymond- Tempura of quail breast, tajine flavours & whipped Persian fetta:
This was one of the prettiest dishes on offer- a daintily tottering stack of lightly battered quail giving a satisfying crispy crunch, topped with a delicate cream-lemony dressing and decorated with a streak of shrieking green herb sauce scribbling the pate.
The black rice underneath was a little gluey and non-descript (which was a shame)- but perhaps my taste-buds had already been assaulted by too many other flavours...

Hellenic Republic- saganaki with peppered figs:
A pizza wedge size of crispy fried cheese is every cheese-o-philes dream. Hence I was in creamy, salty, crispy-with-a-gooey-centre heaven. It helps that saganaki makes my world complete- but topped with peppery and sticky stewed figs, the sweetness combines with the cream like BrAngelina- a perfect and sexy match. The best part being that this serve wasn't skimpy and there was plenty of surface area crunch going on.

Maha- Turkish Delight filled doughnuts, with pine nut sugar & rosewater honey:
Just when I thought I was all flavoured out- I ventured into dessert. And then I lost my mind.
Balls of puffy, fluffy, golden fried dough exploded in my mouth into a lava flow of melted Turkish delight. Drenched in lightly floral rosy-honey syrup and dusted with crystals of nutty sugar I felt my jaw clench with the sugar rush. It was better than my first memories of candy floss and just as sticky sweet. Good thing I was full, otherwise my blood sugar would have blown the roof off.

If you didn't make it this year, note the date and start planning for next year. Because with all the best under one roof... it's one hellava mouthful of fun.

Where the wild things grow: Virgin Voyeur article

Pig's head and Sherry tart...

Seems 'twas a Spanish weekend. From a Saturday lunch at MoVida to a Sunday night dinner of pigs head with my none too squeamish food loving friends.
The thing is, if you are interested in food, it's easy for a whole weekend to be blissfully taken up with plots and plans for eating, tasting, experimenting and examining food.

Who wants to see it as fuel alone when it can bring so much joy?
Not me.
And if I don't know how to deal with in ingredient, I'm sure as hell gonna spend some time trying to find out.
So Saturday night dinner was an all-in-food -adventure. And when HAM gathers his food group contingent together around his enormous wooden table, it's not for the faint hearted.
You must be; A.) interested in food and generally inquisitive (there's not too much room for the picky or diet conscious... unless it's a legitimate allergy or intolerance).
B.) Prepared to get your hands dirty if anything is required of you in the kitchen. And C.) Happy to chat about it in minute detail over red wine while the dishes bubble, boil and crisp in the open almost industrial kitchen.
Saturday night's theme was Spanish- with the centre piece of a slow roasted pigs head.
Sides and accompaniments included and entr
ee of sliced leek topped with the tenderest slow cooked octopus, a hotpot of chorizo, potato and beans (simmered in stock made with the pig brain), and salad of pine nuts, cabbage and blood orange. Quite a feast and all cooked up by friends.

My addition to the evening was a Spanish dessert of sherry, quince and almond tart- and I have to say, it's one that will now grace my repertoire of 'what can I bring to the party' dishes.
Like any tart you need to allow the time to make the beautiful, buttery short crust case, so it doesn't fit into the 'ill just whip it up' category, but it's certainly worth the effort and it beats bringing the bog standard chocolate cake to dinner.

The recipe is from the October 2008 edition of Australian Gourmet Traveller (The Spanish Issue).

Almond and sherry tart with quince jam:
  • 300grams quince paste
  • 120ml sweet sherry'
  • 3 eggs
  • 100gm caster sugar
  • Finely grated rind of one lemon and one orange
  • 300gm almonds- roasted and finely ground
  • 1/2 cup plain flour
  • 75gm butter- melted and cooled to room temperature
  • 1/2 cup pure icing sugar- sieved together with 2tsp ground cinnamon

Cinnamon Pastry:
  • 200gm plain flour
  • 120gm butter- chilled and coarsely chopped
  • 60gm pure icing sugar
  • 2tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 egg- lightly beaten

Sherry Syrup:
  • 250ml sweet sherry
  • 1 cup caster sugar
1.) For cinnamon pastry process four, butter, icing sugar in a food processor until fine breadcrumbs form. Add egg and then process to combine. Turn onto a work surface and bring the dough together using the heel of your hand. Form it into a disk and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate for about 2 hours or until firm. Roll out on a lightly floured surface to 2mm thick and use to line a a 26m tart case (or spring form cake tin me my case), trimming the edges, refrigerate until firm (about 1/2 hr). Preheat oven to 180degC and blind bake the crust (weighted down with beans etc) for 12-15mins. Remove weights and bake until just golden (about 7mins). Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
2.) For sherry syrup, stir ingredients in a saucepan over medium high heat until sugar dissolves and the liquid boils. Reduce heat to medium and simmer for around 12mins or until sauce is syrupy. Set aside.
3.) Combine quince paste and 80ml sherry in a saucepan, stirring over medium heat until melted and smooth. Then spread it evenly over the bottom of the tart case, painting a little way up the sides if you wish.
4.) Whisk together eggs, sugar and citrus rinds until thick a pale. Then fold in almond, flour, butter and remaining sherry. Pour into the tart case and bake until golden and springy to the touch (30-40mins). Cool on a wire rack, dust with cinnamon icing sugar and serve drizzled with sherry syrup.
It's one of those tarts that remains nice and moist without being to sludgy, and the footprint of quince jam in the base looks very pretty when you serve up a slice.
Beware however, there will be none left to take home and it's certainly holds a case for seconds, even if you're full.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

From scratch: the rise of the in-house specialty item

"From preserving vanishing skills to saving the bottom line, 
Jane de Graaff looks at the reasons that chefs are staying in-house for specialty items."

Featured on the wonderful website 

With special thanks to Ron O'Bryan and the Barca family for including me in their salami making. 

Rocky and Ron crank out the salami: the machine is the Barca family sausage machine- an old school manual crank handle that Rocky remembers from his childhood. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Because everyone deserves a treat: Cookie- Melbourne CBD (Review)

I'd like to be very clear. 
I'm a fan of Cookie
For one very simple reason: 
It's always fun. 

From the minute you climb the inner city ribbon-round-the-lift staircase and enter the non-descript door, there's just something so lively about the bar/restaurant space with it's noise, clamor and mural drenched walls. It's noisy, yes. But in a 'we're-the-life-of-the-party' kind of way. And when you ask to see the wine list and are presented with a veritable bible of a book, then you know you're in for a good night, and the noise level is understandable. 
There's also something really pleasing about the almost too casual service and the fun flirting of the bar staff. Let's face it, what girl doesn't like to batt her eyelashes when she places an order? And it's easy... once you've had dinner, you can just about roll from the restaurant to the bar on the other side of the partition continuing your conversation all the way. 
But Cookie didn't just win my heart for its obvious style and convenience. It backs it up with consistently good food. So they might not rotate the menu to maximise seasonality or to catch the latest trend, but it's a reliable Thai fusion feel with signature dishes that never fail to impress. 
This visit, I had a friend from Sydney in tow and as well as a Melbourne local, which brings up the proverbial 'you can please some of the people'- but on this occasion, we were 'all of the people' and we were all pleased.
Dishes are best shared and come in the small, medium, large variety priced from $8.50-$38.50 and it's easy enough to add dishes as you go. 
Being a fan of hands on puzzle style food, I couldn't wait to order the betel leaf salad with smoked fish, chicken and roasted coconut. Presented on a floral plate the glossy green leaves make an eye catching and sticky-finger fun starter. We tried spooning sedate little heaps of smokey fish into the leaf wrappings, but quickly abandoned such decorum in favour of stuffing the leaves to bursting point and shoveling them into our mouths before they lost their guts. 
The mushroom salad was a cool and slippery-slurpy dish to follow- with coriander kicks. And the Thai sausage certainly delivers a chili tasty treat- thank god for the side of cucumber to cool burning lips.
But let me tell you about the pork belly. 
Pork belly is a carnivorous delight in any language. 
However, when you deep fry it and then smother it in fragrant and coconut-creamy red curry, laced with fresh peppercorns and crunchy green beans, well, then you've taken decadent and upped the ante. There's a crunch in your mouth, followed by an explosion of melted fat and curry. 
We licked that bowl clean. 
Lady like as we are... We. Licked. It. Clean. And then licked it some more... just for good measure. 
Cookie has been on the winners list for sometime and with such a mix of fun, food, inexhaustible booze (of every kind) and inner city chic, it's gonna be there for a while longer yet. Just make sure you book for dinner, order enough of the pork belly to go round and opt for a non-school night- so you can take full advantage of the wine list. 
The verdict? Like I said; all of the people, all of the time. What a treat.

Name: Cookie
Address: First Floor Curtin House, 
252 Swanston Street Melbourne CBD

Phone: (03) 9663 7660

Mon-Thurs & Sun: 12noon-2am
Fri & Sat: 12noon-3am

Nooks and crannies: Von Haus- Melbourne CBD (Review)

Don't blink, or you'll miss it. 
Yep you guessed it, it's another Melbourne bar hidey-hole and it's sure as hell one cosy little place.
Picture this; you're skipping down Crossley Street in Melbourne's alley-wayed CBD when you spy a nondescript door with a cheekily small and tantalising 'Von Haus' sign- in Melbourne, this is an open invitation to find out if the door leads to a bar/club/artists loft/warehouse/sale or (worst case scenario?), strippers. Either way, you simply have to take a peek- otherwise where's the fun?
You wander down the short corridor, and through another studiously blank door to the left, you find it... possibly Melbourne's smallest bar. 
Von Haus is pretty much a single room with a large communal table in the centre and few other perches for intimate tete-a-tete's scattered round the edges. 
And it's lovely- right from it's distressed paint-peeling walls to it's wooden floorboards. The artfully cluttered open-kitchen view and shelves of wine and preserves create the feeling of a European lounge-room at dinner time, don't mind if we stumble on in.
Daily cakes and hunks of bread line the rustic counter with stacks of produce boxes underneath. Flowers perch on the mantle of the period fireplace and a chalkboard menu proclaims wines on offer by the glass.
There's a low humming buzz of muted conversation and a certain amount of arty-intelligence hangs in the air. Soak it up, soak it in. It's a lovely addition to a tin plate of cheese that might be organic Roquefort or farmhouse aged cheddar. Von Haus is open for breakfast and lunch, but it's the snacks and small plates from 2pm that lured us in. 
Try Sicilian anchovies with bitey fresh radish and fennel, or smokey trout and pear salad spiked with fragrant mint. 
If it's too hard to choose between nuts roasted with lavender and thyme, or goats curd and pickled peppers, then take a step back from decisions and order a Haus selection to see what rolls your way.  
But really, when you're squirreled away in a circa 1800's nook, with your Collazi Chianti and contemplating the kitchen splash-back made of wartime shaving mirrors, there's something quite comforting about the uncomplicated offer of bread and butter with honey or jam. 
It's cozy. It's simple. 
And a little bit like having wine with nursery tea. *Sigh* 
So let the mist snake on down the alley-way, snuggle on in to your selected spot and drift away on a European dream of Von Haus... 

Name: Von Haus
Address: 1a Crossley Street, Melbourne CBD

Phone: (03) 9662 2756

Friday, August 7, 2009

To eat the dough, or make the cookie...

I think I'm the odd one out- the person who doesn't eat cookie dough. 
Ok, so I admit that I'm a little bit strange, but something about the 'rawness' of the flour and butter just ain't my thing. 
My other half? Patience? He just loves the stuff- cake batter to pasta dough- raw is good and licking the bowl is better.
But I've found a happy medium. Something that completes my baking desires, yet still provides the 'doughyness' that all the cookie-dough eaters of the world could wish for.
Vanilla sugar cookies they might be, but they stay soft and a little gooey in the centre. Better yet, I get to fill the whole house with that fluffy, cushiony warm smell of baking cookies that smells just like a bear hug would (if it had a smell)- without depriving the dough-eaters of their bliss. 
It's a win-win. Without the raw edge.
They take all of 15mins from go to woe (unless you are lacking baking trays like me and need to do a couple of rounds in the oven).
  • 225g butter (one whole block, cubed and at room temperature- salted is fine)
  • 200g white sugar
  • 2 eggs (room temp is best)
  • 1 dash vanilla extract
  • 370g plain flour (sifted)
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
Preheat oven to 190 degC. Line 4 x baking trays with greaseproof paper.
 If you don't have 4 baking trays, you can do 2 x batches in the oven like I did. Cream butter, sugar and eggs in the blender until very light and fluffy.
Add vanilla, flour and baking powder and blend to combine. The dough will be very light and fluffy.
Place six tablespoons of dough onto each tray with ample room f
or them to spread. There is no need to pat them down as they spread when the butter melts. 
Put them in the oven for 8mins- then check them. If they look like they could use a little longer, leave them in for another 2mins, but then remove them so the middle stays nice and soft.
Let them cool before you move them (or they will be too floppy), dust them with icing sugar and then crack them open for the doughy centre inside.
Perfect if you have unexpected friends and full of squeezable buttery goodness. Comfort food at its best.

And now you can please all of the dough-eaters, all of the time.

Note: this recipe was is a modified version of one found at, and the original can be found here

Thursday, August 6, 2009

If only I could cook for peace

There's a lot of terror in the news.
War. Terrorism. The war on terrorism. 
There's bombs and drugs and weapons of mass destruction.
And I just can't help thinking, if all the people learning to cook-up bombs and deadly gasses were preoccupied with cooking up good food instead, perhaps the world was a better place?

As I read sad stories of drug labs, bomb kitchens and terrorist training schools, I can't help wondering about diverting this 'cooking' into real kitchens. 
It's a simplistic thought I know. And obviously one from a safe, generally secure and happy individual. But the terror-cooking that is going on seems like such a waste of life and time. And if the inclination to mix and cook and experiment is there, why shouldn't we channel it into nourishing rather than destruction? 
At this moment I'd love to say that I have the answer- to come racing to the aid of mankind with nothing more than a wooden spoon and a baking tray. To announce to the world that I know how to turn one kind of cooking into another. But I don't. 
I just see the similarities and hope that in a world of cooking bombs, I can turn my hand to bomb alaska. 
(Note: image borrowed from, click through to original image)   

Monday, August 3, 2009

Bombay Sapphire: degustation dinner

Every now and then a blogger gets invited to something really worthwhile. This was one of those occasions. 
True it was a PR dinner (don't condemn me yet), but this time it was quite educational, and I'm not one to turn down a lesson in gin from the people who know their stuff. 
In the interests of being totally transparent: The event was a dinner and cocktail degustation with Merlin Griffiths, ambassador for Bombay Sapphire Gin (you know, the pretty blue bottle with a dour looking pic of Queen Vic), at Lamaros in South Melbourne.  
The purpose of the dinner, of course, was to showcase all the different botanicals and accents that set Bombay apart from other run of the mill gins. So not forgetting that this was an exercise in brand awareness, I was still left drooling by the four courses of cocktails and matched plates. 
It's not often that the drink on offer and the dish served with it are built from the ground up to complement one another so well. And as more than one dinner guest noted, when it comes to wine matched with food; 

'The wine is already in the bottle, you can match the food to it, but you can't change the wine.' 

What I came away with was this: the beauty of the cocktail degustation is that the cocktails and dishes are developed side by side, both tweaked and tested to bring out the best in the complimentary pair- an idea that in this instance paid off, and one that is still more than a little novel.
From Bombay cured salmon with a lavender infused Sapphire Norfolk Aviation: lemon, maraschino and Bombay combination, to the roast saddle of venison paired with a syrupy Sapphire Clover Leaf: raspberry, balsamic vinegar and Bombay mix, the effects were heightened awareness of the falvours in both the food and the drink and a sense of creativity in the dishes served.

It's true that by the end of the evening more than one of the guests had probably lost all sense of decorum, but with a cocktail for each course, surely that's to be expected, and part of the fun?
In the meantime, I vowed that I would keep my head and take advantage of the tasting notes supplied, rather than give in to unexamined pleasure. I think I pulled it off, just. 
Suffice to say that I could still detect the play of flavours when dessert rolled out a coconut panna cotta showered in rhubarb and almond, served with licorice ice-cream to draw on the licorice botanical in a Bombay Red Currant Reviver; redcurrants, absynth and Bombay. 
Nice touch.
Rumor has it that traditionally this is a 'morning after' cocktail... and anyone greeting the day with that will certainly have a good morning. And noon. And evening. 
At the risk of sounding like a PR go-to, I was genuinely impressed and I can only hope that the cocktail/dinner degustation takes off- god knows I've been scouting around town to see what others are on offer. 
So far I have only turned up cocktail tastings with limited canapes, or devoid of food entirely. 
Tonight a gin degustation, tomorrow a vodka breakfast! 

By way of a disclaimer; I'm not a sell-out, I just happen to like gin. And as for Bombay Sapphire, that was one hell of a marketing move...   

NB: I have since received a number of cocktail degustation suggestions, but I am always looking for more- if you hear of any, keep them coming? Cheers.