Thursday, May 28, 2009

being in the moment

Maybe it was my sister's undoing. She phoned an hour ago as I was contemplating making fish pie for dinner. A few minutes into our chat said, "You sound tired".

Until that moment I'd felt fine, then as if by magic the word inhabited me and I was filled with a gnawing sense of fatigue.

There are numerous incomplete blogposts demanding attention but instead you will get this, a moment of sunshine in the kitchen this morning.

Soup made from a base of last seasons homegrown tomatoes, roasted with garlic then pureed and frozen.
Finely diced carrots, parnsips, some slices of onion and fennel, a can a white beans.
Simple stuff.
A pot of hot soup shared with friends on a dim autumn day.
This is what matters

Taking a moment in a busy morning to snap a few photos.
Watching how a glass of water plays with the light.
Becoming entranced by butter smears on a knife.
Little things that bring a sense of calm and wonder.

These things matter to me more than writing a post about food right now.

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Hellenic Republic and sweet anticipation

My journey to Hellenic Republic (HR) began months earlier, with a media generated yearning to find out what all the hype was about in this new eatery. Its massive popularity meant planning, rather than a chance seat being available when the whim took me. For a while it all seemed to hard until a special occasion came around.

At this point in our lives, most of my friends are Very Busy People, juggling fulltime work, parenting and post-graduate study. A particular dear friend has all three balls up in the air and one of the few times of the year we have one-on-one time is our birthday ritual. Twice a year, near each of our birthdays we find time for a lunch or dinner together. It is usually a long, slow event where we savour the company as much as, or more than, the food.

As these rare events are planned weeks in advance, finding a table at a popular restaurant is never a problem. In fact, it was the woman who took the booking that provided the next ingredient in the total experience that became dinning at HR. Her manner was welcoming and professional; there were no games about “squeezing us in” or mention of any fabled waiting list. But most of all we weren’t subjected to limited times to eat with rigid seating session, common to other busy restaurants. Then came the clincher when she politely enquired about any dietary restrictions. Never before has an a la carte restaurant asked me this. My dairy allergic heart (or rather belly) skipped a beat with excitement over that simple question. I felt included and welcomed, assured I would have sufficient choice of dishes.

As the weeks passed between booking and dinning, my anticipation grew. In a way it didn’t matter where we would be eating, what emerged was a forgotten ritual of looking forward to something new. I’ve eaten in many top restaurants over the last couple of decades but what has been lost in the intervening years is the wait. Good food and great dinning has become so accessible and so often immediate, that this crucial step of savouring has been all but lost.

So finally the day arrived. I arrived on the dot of 1 pm to find my friend seated beside the window welcoming me with a wave. The restaurant was packed, even the few seats at the bar had a couple of people merrily chowing down of plates of food.

Service was efficient and unpressured. We were given guidance when requested, in particular navigating the wine list where every bottle of wine was Greek. After describing the style of wine we were after (white, dry, crisp) a slightly floral, zesty Peloponnesian number was suggested with the bonus that is was the cheapest on the menu ($45). The wine was good and very drinkable, suiting our food choices well.

We selected four dishes. Of them were two whose reputation preceded them: the fried saganaki with spiced, caramelised figs and the hand cut potatoes (that my friend, a connoisseur of fries declared, “possibly the best chips I have ever eaten”). To balance the meal a grilled whole snapped and a bowl of horta was also ordered.

So did the experience live up to the hype? Once again I caution this is not a review, merely a reflection on a single dinning experience.

As mentioned the wine turned out fine but given it came with an old fashioned cork, I would have expected to be offered a taste. Unlike stelvin seals, up to 1:10 bottles have cork taint and therefore the traditional tasting should apply.

Saganaki: Not being able to tolerate cows milk, a little taste of sheep’s cheese went down a treat. Pairing the figs with the saganaki was ok but it didn’t blow my mind as everyone had promised. The small hair on the sizzling hot plate however was a greater disappointment.

The snapper was perfectly cooked and at around 400 gm just the right amount for two. The only curiosity was the presentation of the dressing to accompany the fish. This was basically a lemon/olive oil emulsion, served in a small bottle. However the said bottle arrived in a clear ice bucket with three carnations peeking out of the top. This didn’t bring back any dinning experiences I had in Greece but maybe it is a regional thing? I know everything old is new again but carnations? In the wine bucket? Odd, very odd.

Horta – I was wondering where they would get chicory at this time of year but given the traditional nature of the dish I was hoping some other wild greens would be on offer. Unfortunately it was silverbeet. As much as I like silverbeet I was hoping for something a little more exciting. It was a traditionally cooked lemony, leafy green served at room temperature but although the literal translation for horta is “grass” or “green vegetable” traditionally the greens were always wild.

We were rather full but wanted to linger a little longer and try one more dish. There are the usual Greek sweets on offer but the cheap and cheeky “spoon sweets” (GLYKO TOU KOUTALIO) caught our eye. A traditional bitter/sweet spoonful (or in this case small plate) of preserved fruit was on offer. We choose orange and cherries. The berries were deliciously tart and the thick swirls of orange rind held on to their innate bitterness balanced by the sweetness of the heavy syrup.

The restaurant is decorated with tasteful Greek touches but suffers from the hindrance created by too many hard surfaces, meaning when at capacity like it was, voices need to be raised to be heard. This makes feel instantly old by noting it, but it does get rather tiring after a while.

Overall, rogue hair and oddities aside I would certainly visit HR again. But the best lesson for me was reacquainting myself with the deliciousness of anticipation. It really did make the experience all the more sweeter. I thoroughly recommend you plan and savour your next big night out and see how it tastes.

Total price $116.50 (4 dishes, 1 bottle of wine, 2 small sweets, 1 bottle of mineral water)

I realised afterwards (though I didn’t check to see if the fish was floured before grilling) our meal was apparently gluten-free. The menu is omnivorous but contains options for most of the common food allergies and dietary choices – including Paleolithic, vegetarian, vegan, low GI and the likes.

Hellenic Republic
434 Lygon Street,
Brunswick East,
Ph: 9381 1222
Breakfast: Sat/Sun
Lunch - Fri-Sun
Dinner: Tue-Sun

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Monday, May 18, 2009

Residential - North Carlton

Residential opened on the quietest stretch of Lygon Street a few months ago. I was going to call it the dead centre, being a scant block from the cemetery but that is not exactly true as Enoteca carves a niche for itself on the opposite side of the road. I’ve lived near the spot for 22 years and businesses on the Princes Hill side of Lygon often seem to struggle. The last scalped claimed being Kin that threw in the towel after only 18 months.

Residential has a good provenance in its co-owner Dur-é Dara, a stalwart of the Melbourne restaurant industry. The layout is crisp and the décor bold. The decoration gets a lot of mention, with Mondrian-esque slabs of colour painted directly on the walls, while off-white blank canvas are displayed mockingly, gallery style. There is a variety of seating, including a large 12-seater table, welcoming those who wish to eat or drink solo.

I don’t believe a review can be written on a single visit. So take my words as a preliminary testing of the waters. Though I have been meaning to get to this latest kid on the block for months, it is usually on a Monday I think of going and as the place is only open Wednesday to Sunday, I often forget later in the week.

The words that came to mind when I ate a late Sunday breakfast at Residential are “under whelmed”. I arrived at a quiet time and the large café was barely at a quarter capacity, Dur-é was hovering, a barista did his thing in an unhurried manner and two young female waitstaff manned the floor. It was a low-pressure hour, yet the service was haphazard and slow. Not only my own meal, but many other patrons within view suffered from mixed up orders and drinks took a minimum of 10 minutes to be delivered. Apple juice that was supposedly freshly pressed came homogenized from a large plastic bottle, though on delivery the mistake was acknowledged without prompting. My serve of poached eggs and mushrooms was modest, served on a single piece of toast ($13.50). Even the plural “mushrooms” was stretching the definition; though there were two, one was half a medium sized portabello and the second was complete but the size of a 20 cent piece. My dinning companion received only the solo half in his order but with a decent serve of bacon and spinach on the side it didn’t look so measly.

Though I was almost tempted by the sweet option and considered springing a tenner for homemade crumpets, the breakfast menu was adequate but unexceptional. In short, nothing particularly blogworthy.

But what did look interesting was the weekend lunch. We were politely asked to vacate the large table around noon by co-owner and chef David Stimson, as he prepared to set up the Sunday lunch. As we finished our late breakfast we watched an enticing array of dishes bought out including an interesting rolled fish dish, roulade style with a prawn mousse and garlic chives in it’s centre. There was a fragrant pile of chicken pieces in a Indian marinade, lots of vegetable dishes including a tempting bowl of steaming potatoes. But no punters. All dressed up and nowhere to go, those spuds would soon be cold. I almost wished I was hungry enough to eat a second meal. The $30 deal of soup, a glass of wine and the smorgasbord on offer seemed very reasonable and the dishes tempting.

We talked to David as he assembled the meal and it was that conversation that redeemed Residential for me and made us want to give it a second go, with a group of friends for a weekend lunch. We were told that if we called a couple of days in advance he’d make sure there were enough options included on the table for a someone such as myself with some special dietary requirements.

But that’s the problem. Before Residential opened last year Dur-é Dara described it in Epicure as “a café”. Part of Residential's problem is that it is a food business that has got an identity crisis. Despite the blank canvases and acres of laminated timber, it could be a friendly neighbourhood cafe. There is space for prams and a collection of toys at toddler height in an area to one side of the entrance. The regular menu is modest and they seem happy for you to just drop in for coffee or a slice of something sweet. But after breakfast on the weekend all bets are off, no late brunching, no access to the regular lunch menu - it's the set meal or out you go. That doesn't fit with the cafe concept or the cozy area for parents and bubs. In fact we saw one family roll up at midday looking for cafe fare, who sadly left as they wanted a late breakfast, a cafe lunch or something less than $30 a head.

Stay tuned. When this eatery finds it feet it could be a stunner. In the meantime you can see the chef has a great heart, the restaurateur knows her stuff but it has a little identity crisis to overcome first.

Update 22 October
It’s taken awhile for us to go back to Residential, this time for dinner. The mid-week service was even quieter than the weekend brunch had been but there had been changes. It appears that the owners have taken onboard the identity issue. Gone are the Weekend buffet lunches and the menu now offers a few pizzas to meet the need for in between sized meals. They are interesting too – the carnivore had pig cheeks, potato and lemon zest and it was a winner. The rest of the menu has stuck to a daily offering of two soups, a handful of entrees, mains and desserts stay.

Residential has clearly got over the “identity crisis” I mentioned earlier. Dur-é is at pains to welcome newcomers, be at pains to reiterate it’s a place for locals to pop in and call their own – whether they want an afternoon coffee, a quick pizza or work their way through three courses but something still doesn’t work. Is it the cavernous architecture? Not necessarily. The open warehouse style should work well. The problem is when the place is quiet like it was on our last visit, despite softening the lighting you feel exposed. Fill it with people, jazz up the music and the architecture would clearly not be an issue. So what about the food? The food on offer is good. It is well thought out using seasonal produce and the chef clearly knows how to execute it. The problem for me (and I own this entirely with my unusual diet) is I have so little choice.

So, once again I am left under whelmed, yet wanting more. I want it to work. I hope Residential get the formula right. I’m glad it doesn’t bow down to popular food choices – though no matter how excellent the corn bread is, a potato dish on the menu would never go astray. If you are a local, or passing through North Carlton, give it a go and tell me what you make of it.

499 Lygon St,
Carlton North
Ph: 9381 2388
Breakfast/lunch/dinner Wednesday - Sunday

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

the joy of eating

Blogging, in particularly for those of us who like to write about food, has become very serious of late. There are conferences, a move for a code of food blogging ethics, much chatter on twitter and the likes. I see them as growing pains, like our clamour to be acknowledged in Melbourne’s own food festival.

But there are only so many hours in the day to indulge in food worshipping. My favourite forms of devotion are my weekly trips to the market to buy organic produce, attempting to cook more consciously rather than going into automatic when bringing food to the table and putting aside an hour or two a week to write about it.

There are other more vital practices in my life – my small business that I crafted 17 years ago and continues to be work in progress, enjoying a partnership, friends, family and social life, crafting words for different purposes and of course, the ongoing devotion of feline creatures. Sometimes the food component of all things joyous in my life feels like it gets a little too much attention.

However – on the subject of the ethics of food blogging, this sums it up perfectly for me.

Now what about the food? How about I do something with these rather homely Yarra Valley apples and pears I bought at the organic market in Healesville yesterday, rather than sit inside tweeting on a sunny autumn day?

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

marinade and tofu love

I like tofu. You might as well click on something else right now if you don’t because there will be a little tofu love going on in this post.

The Significant Eater has been a bit antsy lately, wanting to add meat to the menu and that is just is not my thing. The barbecue is a great vehicle of compromise. A steak can be cooked in minutes and domestic life can return to an even keel.

With a little sunshine on the weekend I was summonsed to throw something for myself to eat, onto the grill for lunch. Having only had breakfast a couple of hours earlier, I really couldn’t be fussed. Tofu is mercifully light and versatile. I often stir fry it plain, without marinating but on the barbie I like to add some flavour to meet the robustness of the smoky flame. The following is one of the simplest marinades for tofu, it doesn’t take long and it also works well with mushrooms.

Barbecued tofu open sandwich

For the marinade
Tamari – I used Lucy’s lovely syrupy mandarin tamari that gave it a little extra depth but regular is fine
Mirin – the sweetness is the key, saki will do at a pinch
Chilli, garlic and or root ginger

I use about 2 parts tamari to 1 part mirin. You are aiming for that moment when salty and sweet flavours meet in the middle. Just mix, taste and adjust as necessary. It’s not rocket science. Finely microplane or chop your herbs. Garlic and ginger is my favourite combination but with the abundance of chillies at the moment a little hot chilli on its own worked just fine.

Use firm tofu (not silken), drain, wrap in a clean tea towel and gently press. Or leave wrapped, on a plate with another plate and a weight on top to remove excess water. Pat dry. Cut into desired shapes eg: slices for a burger, cubes for kebabs. Place tofu in the marinade, turning occasionally for 20-30 minutes.

Shake of any excess fluid and barbecue or pan fry.

This made an excellent open sandwich on lightly toasted shallot bread, a dab of mayo and crowned with the SE’s excellent salad. We grilled some corn in their husks, my favourite way of cooking it, which occupied the empty spot on the plate.

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

not Mosaic Monday*

But a mosaic on monday none the less!

Some recent shots from the kitchen, gathering virtual dust in my photo file. I think it is my farewell to the sunshine, storing the memories to warm me through the dim days of winter.

Featuring the colourful makings of a vegetable stir-through sauce for pasta, weekend scrambled eggs, Masterchef inspired eggy bread made with leftover noisette fig and apricot loaf and the last eggplant from the garden and Lucy's wonderful mandarin tamari from the woman herself, that has reached a wonderful syrupy maturity.

The tamari made a gorgeous marinade with some mirin and fresh chili for barbecued tofu on the weekend. But that's another story.

* Mosaic Monday on Flickr

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putting reality back into television and the truth about mash

I’ve been more than lukewarm about the latest hyped reality television show – Masterchef. I love food, like cooking but have known enough chefs to get an inkling of just how tough being an actual chef really is. Hospitality has nightmare working hours and conditions. Commercial kitchens are uncomfortable and at times dangerous places, just look at the scarred hands and arms of those who work there. As for the lifestyle of your average chef, ”Kitchen Confidential” wasn’t a piece of fiction. Yet many brave souls follow their passion, get paid ridiculously low wages and sign up for apprenticeships to become chefs. Good on them.

Celebrity chefs/cooks are not a new phenomena. Graham Kerr, “The Galloping Gourmet”, first started broadcasting in 1959 and no one can forget Julia Childs. Both were more television personalities who cooked rather than classically apprenticed, restaurant chefs. Kerr’s parents owned hotels and his first job was in management rather than the kitchen. Childs took herself off to Le Cordon Bleu to study and started teaching cooking classes. So perhaps considering the lineage of television “chefs”, it is not so crazy to turn a home cook into an overnight media sensation, with a little training in technique and a lot of PR.

Celebrity chefs are an extension of the “food porn” industry, complete with glossy cookbooks, Nigella pouts and Oliver’s home ware. Food is sexy and so therefore are those linked to it (though cravat wearing food critics may be pushing it a bit, a woman that unattractive, chunky and with such bad taste in clothes would never have got the gig). Reality television is the home of the overnight sensation, so our current obsession with food and watching Ms Average getting all teary on telly is an obvious hit. However when it comes to those who actually go into the industry the old fashioned way, the reality is most chefs don’t even get a guest spot on Ready, Steady, Cook, no matter how skilled they are.

Masterchef will not turn these home cooks into chefs. There’s not enough graft or training to do that. I doubt if any in the top 20 (or more than a handful of the 7,000 hopefuls who auditioned for the show) would be prepared to swap a future in the law, their current established career or at the age of 40-something actually choose to step onto the bottom rung of the commercial kitchen hierarchy. What attracts people to the gig is fame and fortune, book signings and the odd gig demonstrating a dish. Will any end up in a restaurant kitchen and if they do could they stick it out? I find it very doubtful.

My food nazi moment for the week was the episode that was actually of interest to anyone who has a passion for cooking, rather than the soapy storyline the series is trying to spin. This week featured an actual masterclass, a down to earth; here is how you make restaurant food demonstration. Four simple dishes - some lamb (a great basic intro for carnivores), mash, eggy bread (fantastic loved that one) and a simple though creamy chocolate mousse. For me this was the standout of the whole series. In fact can we cut the hype, jettison the star making, drop the amateur dramatics and just have Gary and George do some simple cooking demos - no cravat wearing critics need apply.

But the genius of adding lemon zest to French toast aside, the health abiding person in me loved the reality-check moment when Gary made mash (or pomme puree, if you prefer). Just watching the skinny, food loving female contestants faces when he threw in the stick of butter was fantastic. Yes this is what restaurant food is all about. Bourdain didn’t just dish the dirt on the secret life of kitchen staff but he drove home the message to readers that the amount of butter in traditional chef-cuisine is literally heart stopping and don’t forget – never order the fish on a Monday!

But back to the heart stopping pomme puree. The spud cooking technique was brilliant – whole jacked potatoes cooked at 160c for 2 hours, baked on a bed of sea salt to draw out the moisture. But wait here comes the butter. The demo showed Gary throwing in 100gms per spud, with an extra dollop for luck plus some whole milk for good measure.

In nutritional terms that worked out to over 720 calories/3000 kilojoules of 80% fat butter, in each modest serve of mash – over a third of your daily food requirements in the side dish alone. Nowhere on this site have you seen the dreaded word “kilojoule” before. It is a cold hard technical term, not sexy and definitely not part of the vernacular of food porn. But “reality” television in its truest sense has driven me to it.

So the take home message. If you have any respect for your health – skip the mash. Go for a steamed potato, even by comparison a scant handful of chips doesn’t look so bad.

But most of all, stick to being a cook, just use a modest splash of fat in your mash at home. Even if this won’t bring the dreamed of book deal you hanker for, you might live long enough to achieve a whole lot more.

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Thursday, May 07, 2009

simple #3

Am a bit of an empty vessel lately.

It’s not as if I cook extravagantly at the best of times. I like simple. So here is some more simple food in lieu of formal recipes.

Soup de jour: Mushroom – simply finely sliced onion, garlic, the best mushrooms I could find. Simmered in good vegetable stock (Marigold) and seasoned with black pepper, a dash of brandy and a knob of butter.

Leftovers: The SE made his signature dish, “Spicy Baked Fish with Vegetables”* from “The Essential Seafood Cookbook” (Murdock Books). The next night I combined some of the leftover spiced and roasted fish/potatoes/olives with a little beaten egg, shaped into patties, dredged in cornflour and then shallow fried. Fabulous. The wonderful spices and caramelised flavours stayed intact and the patties were studded with large chunks of salty olives.

Persimmons: My favourite seasonal fruit of the moment. Simply cut into segments, biting the flesh away from the skin.

* I’ve never posted the recipe as I’ve felt ownership belongs with the creator of the dish but have just discovered a large chunk of the book is previewed here at Google books, scroll down to page 292 in the second to last frame and you will find this stunning recipe. The trick is a very hot oven!

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Saturday, May 02, 2009

still life

I’m back.

Or at least, I’m present again.

These last 12 days have been a bit of a haze. Stupid deadlines (a 5,000 word article and my quarterly accounting due at the same time, plus a radio show and work as well), a sick partner and of course, you know how this story will end – in bed with a lurgy myself on and off for days. I jettisoned the article, valiantly got my accounts completed and BAS submitted on schedule. I dutifully attended work and other commitments when there was no other choice.

But the best part was submitting. For three days in a row and a number of other times aside, I took to my bed. A cold is just a pesky virus, bronchitis an even peskier complication. Not Swine Flu. Not influenza of any kind but an immune assault mighty enough to knock your socks off none the less.

Giving into a transient illness is something our culture does not encourage. We are told to swallow drugs and soldier on, however in reality all that means is you still feel dreadful and pass the joy onto other people. Despite a few bouts of self pity, once I resigned myself to the inevitable I reveled in the luxury of taking to my bed. With my laptop for company I watched movies, listened to podcast and sucked up far too much dross from the internet. Total submission. Despite feeling crap, it was wonderful

Months ago I bought tickets to see the Laughing Clowns. Their songs had been part of the soundtrack to my late teens and they held an even dearer place in the SE’s heart. Last night going to the gig after dragging myself through a day at work was one of the last things I felt like doing, though I consoled myself with the promise of all Saturday in bed and thought of far worse ways to spend the night. Settled in a comfortable booth at The Forum, while the SE boogied in the mosh pit with similarly aging rockers, I was transported to a time in my past with such a force to be unsettled. An experience that was neither uncomfortable nor cosy, just vivid and unexpected.

Despite a late night I woke up with the birds this morning, under slept but strangely….normal.

To celebrate the return of good health I snuck out to the garden with a delightful cup of coffee, my journal and a cat for company, soaking in the warm autumn light.

Excuse the indulgent ramble, I’ll be back with some food soon.

In the meantime, I encourage you to embrace your day – sick, well, happy, sad, busy, bored or even contented. Just sit with it and be.

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