Saturday, February 28, 2009

semi-dried tommy toes

All the way across the world Wendy, in snowy Scotland, is drying tomatoes.

Here is sun-drenched Melbourne I am giving away more tomatoes than I can eat. For a very small garden we have been spoilt with produce. Right now the grapes are dripping off the vine, the hot chillies are ripening, we have been harvesting an eggplant or three a week since mid-January and there is an embarrassing abundance of Tommy Toe’s and Grosse Lisse.

Encouraged by Wendy’s winter efforts, last night I did the first batch of dried Tommy Toes. This is my favourite tomato, a large cherry style about 3-4 cm across that grows in a little vine.

Batch number one is “semi-dried”, still a bit moist rather than leathery. Halved and placed on a rack with a light sprinkle of caster sugar, salt and cracked pepper, I cooked them for about 2.5 hours in a 100c oven. We went to bed breathing in the fruit scented air, a miraculous aromatherapy cure - I slept til 9am!

This morning I packed the semidried tomatoes into recycled anchovy jars with organic olive oil and fresh local garlic. Not being fully dried, it will be important to keep them well covered in oil but what a fragrant dressing the excess oil will make!

Now, just waiting for some cool weather to do a second batch. With the current ant plague I don’t dare dry them au naturel in the sun.

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Friday, February 27, 2009

a taste of Bali on a steamy Melbourne night

For the past twenty years a green oasis has decorated a modest shop front on the West Melbourne side of Victoria Street. Currently the council is in the process of prosecuting the owners of the many pot plants that welcome patrons to Warung Agus. It appears that while the local bars with their sprawling tables and chairs occupying the footpath are permissible (and within the access guidelines safeguarding the rights of the disabled), plants assisting much needed oxygen production are not.

While this little slice of Melbourne is not far from home it is still a car ride away, so we tend to only get to eat there a couple of times a year. But each time is a joy as Balinese food is such a rarity in this city. Over the years the menu (or the homely décor) has not changed, though the prices have kept pace with inflation. The yellow laminated menu is full of old favourites familiar to any traveller who has ever disembarked at Denpasar, such as gado gado, Babi Guling and nasi campur.

While the food is not highly spiced, the dishes are served with sambals on the side to satisfy all palates. Last night (or more accurately, early this morning) we got an unexpected surprise as the chilli sambal was much hotter than usual. But generally, this is a safe place to bring someone with unadventurous or spice-averse tastes as most dishes favour palm sugar and coconut more than fiery heat.

Some highlights include:

The Toge (gado gado) comes with generous cubes of fried tahu (tofu), cassava crackers, blanched vegetables and a generous dousing of satay sauce. There is no egg, which makes this a vegan friendly dish.

The SE cannot go past the roast pork (babi guling), which he swears is always succulent and comes complete with crackling. It is a dish best shared, as like the other meat and fish dishes, is not accompanied with vegetables.

My favourite seafood dish is Be Pasih Asem Manis, flathead tails cooked with tamarind and coconut milk which is served with roast potatoes. The flavours are simple and hit the right note of sweet, sour and salt.

A great way to get a taste of Balinese food is by ordering Nasi Campur. On the island this is a term that literally means “mix rice”, used to indicate a mini smorgesbord of dishes of the day. At Warung Agus it doesn’t vary – a large dish arrives with rice, tempe (crispy and delicious, tasting of kepchap manis), tahu, sesaur, pecel with peanut sauce. The carnivorous version has the addition of satay pork and chicken, babi guling and spicy chicken.

There are 8 main vegetarian/vegan dishes (most containing tofu or tempeh which provides good protein options for non-meat eaters) as well as 5 seafood (3 entrée and 2 main) dishes. Carnivores are well catered for with variations on pork, chicken and lamb. For those that didn’t get enough palm sugar in the ‘savoury’ courses, there are 5 desserts to choose from.

Warung Agus must be one of the few places in Melbourne to sample the Balinese firewater otherwise known as arak. Before my first trip to Bali I enjoyed a pre-dinner tipple of arak with lemon and sugar but after tasting it straight on holiday - my arak days are over! Drivers are advised to not touch the stuff, due to it’s high alcohol content. Co-owner Mary has been known to be diligent at policing that policy. Bintang beer is also available, along with a moderate selection of mostly Australian ales and wines.

Warung Agus is a delightful, family run eatery. Agus cooks up a storm, while Mary and their daughters provide personal and friendly service in the front of house. While a similar meal in Bali would be significantly cheaper, the food keeps the dreams of tropical holidays simmering between visits (and you won't get Bali Belly!).

Warung Agus
305 Victoria Street West Melbourne
Phone: (03) 9329 1737
Prices: mains High teens to $30
Note: Warung Agus is currently only open for dinner, Thursday to Sunday. As it is family run, the restaurant closes when they go on holiday. If in doubt, ring first to make sure it is open.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

sun, sea, rain, fish and roos

The flight from Melbourne to Canberra was smoke haze from end to end. Once the car park had been navigated, the SE sprinted me away from the nation’s capital and off to the blue beyond.

ACT and NSW were green and lush. I spent the first couple of days exclaiming “water!” like an excited child every time we crossed a river. After the parched earth of Victoria it was like entering some kind of Neverland.

Our first pleasant culinary surprise was in the delightful town of Braidwood. Snuggled in a wooded valley between Canberra and Bateman’s Bay, a town as cute as a button that yielded a wonderful eatery, the Albion Café. I’m not sure what the local’s first thought when their iconic pub, that deco style typical of all hotels of the age, was turned into a modern restaurant. One of those city gems found in the perfect country setting, I knew we were onto a winner the moment we walked over the threshold in search of a late lunch.

We sat at on comfortable seats, gratefully plonked down at a table. The menu was small but even for a fussy eater, I found enough choice to make me feel spoilt. The SE opted for a generous roast lamb sandwich ($10), while I went for the smoked trout salad ($16). The city slicker waiter was apologetic; sorry the delivery of trout was delayed. The downside of being in the country being that supplies could be unreliable. So too the glass of sauvignon blanc I ordered, replaced by a local pinot gris that was delicious and reasonably priced. My substituted smoked salmon salad came with roasted beetroot and potatoes on a bed of greens, garnished with thin spears of asparagus. The horseradish mayonnaise was light-on herbal pepperiness but a perfect lunch that restored my appetite. I’d cleared the plate for the first time in weeks.

Reluctantly we left and drove on through the forest. After a pit stop at Coles, to pick over the worst “fresh” produce I had seen in a while we headed off for our first night under canvas. I’d chosen Murrmarang National Park as suitable spot and left it to the SE to choose between the three beachside camping areas to head for. He selected the largest and furtherest away – Pretty Beach. It lived up to it’s name and although the 70 sites were small in National Park terms, it was sparsely populated with the roos and wallabies far outnumbering the humans.

It’s been a while since I’ve been camping and I was scratching to remember my old repertoire. One pot dishes work best on a small stove but after frolicking in the sea almost anything tastes good. We came up trumps on the second night when our vegetable Sri Lankan style curry expanded with fresh fish, an ocean salmon caught by our neighbour. I will never cease to be amazed at how many guys who like to fish, do not eat their catch.

Our trip home revealed no culinary gems. A pub meal in Tathra that specialised in jumbo serves of meat or seafood battered and fried, a rubbery stack of corn “fritters” the size of frisbees in Eden, The same town served up the worst coffee I’ve tasted in a while. When I sipped the local water I understood why, undrinkable in any form.

The sea air, vibrant greens, splashing in the waves and nights under the stars has restored my soul for a while.

Thanks for hanging in there while I’ve been off the air!

Albion Cafe
119 Wallace Street
Phone: (02) 4842 1422

our spot on pretty beach

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

blogging when I should be cleaning and packing

I have been very remiss.

And I am sorry to report things are not quite back to normal.

There was this of course, quickly followed by this.

Sadly there has been a lot more that February has thrown at the SE and me. Between us, amongst our friends and family there has been: three deaths, one just-been-diagnosed-with-a-life-threatening-illness, one having-brain-surgery-and-in-ICU and the usual, mundane business and family stresses.

The effect of all this has been something I have rarely experienced.

I lost my appetite for a week or two!

Imagine that.

I’d like to report I am newly transformed to sveltness but as it has been coupled with major inactivity, that is not the case.

To remedy all this I am going camping. Unfortunately it is paradoxically in a part of the country that appears to be under water.

In the meantime – the tiny backyard keeps producing yummy morsels, despite the hell-on-earth weather god’s best attempts to thwart them.

Hopefully there will be more left to harvest, to sate my reinvigorated appetite, when I get back in a few days.

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Friday, February 13, 2009

blogging while the state continues to burn

Life carries on as usual for those of us not in the front line. While there is the usual round of eating, sleeping (kind of), work and even catching up with friends – I have a new companion, ABC radio, the official emergency broadcaster.

This morning the sunrise was the kind of deep orange that I associate with a smoggy LA sunset. A super-real shade that would be pretty if it didn’t forebode the presence of smoke and as the saying goes, where there is smoke there is fire. This time the flames are licking the edges oft Healesville, the town that hosts my favourite winter retreat hotel. They’ve been on alert for days, the locals must be exhausted remaining vigilant for embers night and day.

With life going on as usual, the monster tomato plants (survivors of too many days in the mid 40’s Celsius) are ripening more fruit that I can use. Of course, the SE - the tomato lover, is away. A bowlful of tomatoes a day, not enough to bottle though a round of oven drying is a possibility depending on how hot the weekend is. But it is a nice feeling to give away more produce than I can eat.

I feel uncomfortable blogging while the state burns, people die and lives are devastated. I can find little joy in food right now, so will just leave you with a picture of tomatoes in the smoky morning light.


Monday, February 09, 2009

blogus interuptus

Thursday, February 05, 2009

stimulus bonus possibilities

63.5 bottles of Christain Lacroix mineral water?

David Jones food hall: feb 2009

I know we are being encouraged to spend, spend, spend to save Australia from going down the gurgler but who in their right mind buys stuff like this?

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

no Whistle Stop Cafe

...but sadly a lot of fried green tomatoes.

Not of the edible kind.

For those not in Australia or ardent tennis fans, we had an inhumanely hot week here in Melbourne. Train tracks buckled, so too did the brand new Melbourne "eye" which was shut down due to twists and cracks in the the metal structure.

We are only allowed to water the garden at a time in the morning that any sane person is asleep, finally when the temperature drops to the mere 20's. And only twice a week at that. Greenery was turned to a crispy black, some of the tomatoes fried and even the odd chili got burnt.

During this time I caught the cold that kept my partner bed bound for most of a week. I have valiantly tried to keep my business going but called an early finish on friday when the temperature hit 45.1 c.

We've been eating salads, salads and salads (beans, tuna, lettuce - whatever is on hand). Guzzling litres of chilled, cheap mineral water. But mostly I've been lying around like a limp dishrag, going to the movies and swatting mosquitoes that begin their menacing hum about midnight.

I loved the response to the last post about the economy - thanks. Keep commenting if you have any more thoughts on the subject.

When the fog clears from my head, I will be back.

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