Saturday, June 27, 2009

Crisis what crisis?

I am an oddity in the Melbourne food blogging community. I rarely do high end, big name dining and I have what some would consider an abnormal penchant for beancurd. But after a frantic couple of weeks of eating out - all I want for dinner is tofu and vegetables, at home on a Saturday night.

The SE’s mother and uncle were in town recently from Sydney. As we trailed from breakfast to lunch to dinner in what felt like an endless haze of eating (and occasionally drinking) they’d keep saying “There’s no recession here!” followed by, “Do people do anything else in Melbourne other than eating?”.

While Sydney has its share of noteworthy restaurants, I’ve always found it hard to find mid-range, good value dinning in that town. A taxi driver once said that in Sydney people eat out less frequently but spend more. Perhaps that explains it, in Melbourne we want to eat out often but demand a decent bang for our buck whether it is a work night dinner at the local, or a Big Night.

A piece this week in The Age muses on the conundrum , why are so many of Melbourne’s restaurants booked out at a time when 80% of Australians say they are eating out less? The other weekend we slipped into Bistro Flor at 6.30, early on a Sunday evening. Fortunately we had a booking for even at this hour the place had few spare tables and was certainly at full capacity within a short time of arriving. Everyone appeared to be enjoying a slow meander through the menu. The staff were helpful, without being pushy. We worked our way through 3 delicious courses, a bottle of excellent wine plus a few extra reds by the glass, all for little over $60 a head. This is fine yet unfussy dinning in the shadow of a recession, making its patrons very happy indeed.

We had a weekend late lunch at a packed out Cookie. Prowled Rathdowne Street to find a Sunday brunch, resorting to a third choice of café after finding the first two full up. I snuck a midweek catch up with a friend at Movida Next Door to grab the last pair of barstools at 5.45 pm, watching all the hopefuls arriving after us being turned away. At an old favourite, De Los Santos, they were still taking walk ins on a Saturday night but the place was close to capacity, with a good turn over of tables. I enjoyed one of my best meals there ever, with a great batch of specials, two to three courses each plus alcohol for around $50 a head.

On the other side, I fortunately missed a cheap but decidedly not cheerful meal at an Italian chain pronounced the “worst pasta ever” by all three (you think we would have ended up eating there if I’d been around?). As for our local stand by, The Kent Hotel, our long serving waitress seemed unusually frazzled, mentioning the amount of complaints she’d been receiving from regulars as budgets got tightened. The food that had previously ranged from good to very good - was spectacularly unexciting. Not bad exactly, just didn’t compare favourably with all the other similarly priced meals of the week. In its current incarnation I think it would still stand out as a great neighbourhood eatery in most Sydney suburbs but Melbournians are decidedly fussier.

I have vague memories of big name Melbourne restaurants that I could never afford to eat in, closing in the early nineties. For someone on my budget it was a strangely positive turn of events, heralding a new era in better quality, mid-range dining. I suspect as prices and expectations have risen in the recent boom, a little pruning may not be a bad thing. Awful for the industry, yes, I’m sorry if my words sound flippant. But for the punters, it just ups the ante.

And as for the cheap eats – couldn’t get a table at The Abyssinian on the weekend, so its not just Cutler & Co or Movida as The Age had implied. Good food that is priced appropriately will continue to thrive in Melbourne but those whose food, staff or prices don’t meet expectations (or I’m guessing most of the restaurants at Crown), its going to be tough.

In the meantime, simple home cooking will never go out of style. The more great food I eat out, the greater I crave “clean food” – steamed vegetables, legumes and brown rice.

More recipes here soon - I promise!

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Home...I guess I'm already there

It's Refugee Week and a lovely meme is circulating the globe. Beginning in Scotland, Wendy via Johanna ask for three photos that represent “home”.

“Home” rouses complex emotions for me. I was born and raised in the same house til I left at 18 and began the semi-nomadic existence of a student/traveller/housemate. After living in Wellington, Sydney and London, on a third visit to Melbourne it was anointed as my home. Though oddly I can be "home" in New Zealand or Australia, yet homesick for something quite intangible. I often catch myself singing the melancholy lyrics of a Talking Heads song:

Home - is where I want to be
But I guess I'm already there

When you move to a different country on your own and live in a new place with no family, the concept of “home” changes. I am lucky; I did this through my own volition. What is more, I am free to go back to my birthplace and revisit my old life as well as the people in it, whenever I choose.

I have been privileged to get to know a number of political refugees - their lives threatened by brutal regimes, perilous journeys, not being welcome in a foreign land, finally gaining entry to another country with odd customs and an even stranger language, starting from scratch. I salute you! May Australia grow more tolerant and understanding, for it is a better country with you all in it.

What does home mean to me?

Wellington, New Zealand

These misty hills of green are my true home. I may kick against it sometimes but this is the landscape, the people and the culture that shaped who I am.

bricks and mortar

The roof and walls that create my own tiny home. I love this table best surrounded by people talking, laughing, eating soup.

loving creatures

A home is an empty shell without living creatures. The Significant Eater, our friends and the community provide the heart.

But lets be honest, it’s the cats that really welcome me home at the end of the day!

Please feel free to do this meme if it inspires you - three photos on the theme "what does home mean to you?" - check out Wendy's link above for more details.

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

a bloomin' icon apparently

I’ve lived in Australia for longer than the two decade old “Outback Steakhouse” chain has been in existence but I’ve yet to come across the “iconic”, “original Aussie appetizer”.

Have I missed a well-known cultural experience? Has anyone in this vast land ever experienced the “Bloomin’ onion”?

Though I’m not a fan of the infomercial, this is 60 seconds well-spent learning about “The Gloria” and a dish with 34 spices in it! Fortunately your arteries can’t harden just by watching it!

I give you – ”The Bloomin’ Onion”.

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Sunday, June 14, 2009

beyond Ramsay and another box of oranges

Karl Quinn, in The Age, is suggesting the Ramsay-Grimshaw stoush was a set up. Call me cynical but I get the feeling the senior writer for Fairfax is trying to create his own controversy.

What I learnt from seeing Ramsay last weekend is that most of the audience didn’t find him particularly charming or even funny but some will do almost anything to win a small appliance or have their few seconds of fame. To be in the proximity of a celebrity is what it is all about.

But it has nothing to do with cooking. The guy for all his ugliness can cook. Uncouple the dreadful banter and infamy from his demo in the celebrity theatre and just let him create good simple food. Free him of the expectation to perform as anything other than a chef and I would have been happy to pay good money for the experience. After all the bloke used tahini for goodness sake and for me I can find redemption in popularising deceptively simple, healthy food.

You see we, the viewing public, have created Ramsay. We are the ones that demand the swearing (people left the theatre actually disappointed to not hear a single f*ck from him). We are the ones getting our jollies from the fallout with the ACA host. We are the ones that have turned cooking into reality television. Yes, we are the monster that created Masterchef (tune out, let the ratings drop and we will be free of it next year, I promise you).

This week I have cooked and eaten an awful lot. There has been quinoa pilaf, a simple chickpea curry made from imagination, a hearty bean and vegetable soup, an unexpected lunch at Cookie and generally lots of shared food around the table. Not much is what I would call “blogworthy”, mainly due to it being just regular simple fare, no bells and whistles or because I have documented here on these pages before.

Everything has a season. It is June, the SE’s birthday and with it comes his family from Sydney and a box of home grown oranges and lemons. There will definitely be another jar of preserved lemons, the orange cake might even get made this year but inevitably at least half the citrus will simply be squeezed and drunk. Sure there might be an intense orange jelly set with agar. There could be the spiced lemon pickle I didn’t get around to making last year. But you know, it doesn’t matter because merely squeezing it and drinking it straight is a delicious, simple experience in itself.

I know that if I miss messing with the fruit this year, the opportunity will come around again. Everything has a season – the anticipation, the first taste of the year, the inevitable glut that turns the sort after into the every day. Round and round it goes.

Enjoy the zesty citrus, roasted chestnuts and hearty soups that make winter what it is. For now, I am loving a bowl of steaming hot porridge with a dash of maple syrup before work, almost as much as anticipating bed with a hot water bottle at the end of the day. I can wait for spring to fall in love with asparagus again and summer for my first mango of the season but for now an orange grown with love is fine with me.

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Monday, June 08, 2009

GFWS 2009 -the good, the bad and the downright sexist

If you love big exhibitions, buy those supermarket-chain food magazines and watch programs like Masterchef – you will love the Good Food and Wine Show. However if the term “foodie” gives you heartburn and you find the cult of the celebrity chef distasteful this event might not be your thing.

As for me, I left the GFWS feeling a tad queasy.

The Good

Most exhibitors were generous with samples. You could more than recoup your entry fee on the wine tasting alone and after work on a Friday and that was what a fair few people seemed to be doing in the grog enclosure.

Food-wise two products stood out and both involved people doing things with real food. One exhibit did a great job of demystifying quinoa from cooking it in vegetable stock as a base for a casserole, to creating a delicious salad. The second standout was an avocado promotion. The smoothies made with pineapple, avocado, honey, orange juice and a little desiccated coconut was so good we went back for seconds.

We were given currency to use in the restaurant enclosure. Four chefs devised a simple menu with an entrée, main and dessert each. Of them, Gordon Ramsay’s simple and healthy offerings were the only ones fitting my criteria. Just as well because his salmon was a standout. It was while we were polishing off an early meal we were approached by an employee desperate to give away tickets to Ramsay’s next show in the kitchen stadium. We said no at first, neither or us a fan of the man though when we heard he’d be demonstrating how to cook the salmon we were sold.

The Bad

Product warning! Later in the year a Tasmanian company will be launching their Australian grown and canned tinned salmon. I wanted to like it but to be honest, I suspect there are cat foods on the market that taste better. I am their target market, with a stack of Wild Alaskan tinned salmon in my cupboard but the local product was so unbelievably foul I shudder just writing about it.

Speaking of cat food, as always there were far too many exhibits devoted to off theme products – pet consumerables, wash cloths, really pushy Asian massage hawkers that created a kind of visual and aural spam.

The Ugly

Gordon Ramsay doesn’t have a pretty face (even if it may or may not have been made less mobile thanks to botox). But that is not what makes him unattractive. I don’t own a single cookbook by a television celebrity and unlike the women whooping loudly in the front few rows – I am not a fan.

We rocked up to the half-full “Celebrity Theatre” just as the show was getting underway. The person seated next to us whispered they’d been sold out last year. Had Gordo lost his mojo with the GFC, infidelity and all? We endured the never ending warm up segment where audience members willingly humiliated themselves in the hope of winning show bags, until finally the man himself arrived with only moderate cheering from the audience and not a single pair of knickers thrown on stage.

Oh boy, what a big disappointment. Minute after aching minute of woman-hating rhetoric in the name of comedy spewed out of his mouth. He continually dissed Tracy Grimshaw, Susan Boyle and womankind generally to lukewarm response. For a man so keen to rub his genitals against the opposite sex, his blatant disrespect for the gender was from a different century.

With over half the allocated time now wasted he finally started cooking and attempted to redeem himself. Yes the man can cook. He knows how to dumb down a recipe for the public and what he created ticked all the boxes for simplicity, good produce and even health.

But the man himself, like the canned salmon left me feeling quite nauseous.

Disclaimer: I attended the show and ate at the restaurant courtesy of Stellar Concepts. Entry prices for Melbourne and Sydney are $27.50. The Ramsay Salmon dish with a glass of wine is available for $24.

Tickets to Gordon Ramsay ($47.50) were provided independently, by the event management on the day.

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Sunday, June 07, 2009

the post where AOF meets the modern world of viral marketing

Free stuff, no strings attached, yeah? Publicists are gathering their list, they are checking it twice and have woken up to the fact that social media is a low cost way of spruiking their wares. Unlike jaded journos, bloggers feel flattered to be offered freebies. Right?

Last year a new pomegranate juice hit the market – you may have read bloggers gushing about it. Some 'fessed up it was a freebie, others did not. Not sure if any wrote a negative review on the stuff either way.

Elsewhere in the blogworld Gluten Free Girl and the Chef feature new recipes with pork, choosing to be transparent that it is a paid gig, Pim has become an ambassador for a new range of dairy products and the list goes on. But is one post disclosing the commercial relationship enough? Should every mention of pork (or shot of a Le Creuset pot) thereafter have a disclaimer at the bottom of the post, so the casual reader versus the blogging fan can know the full story?

Viral marketing thrives on social media. When a whole heap of bloggers start posting about the wonders of pork or jump on the Weston A Price wagon, in the guise of gushing over “Nourishing Traditions”* I get a little suspicious. Is it just synchronicity or is this viral marketing at work? Then there is twitter - in 140 characters or less there is no space for disclosure making it the perfect vector to disguise product placement.

So be prepared for some write ups about the Good Food and Wine Show (GFWS) as it tours Australia, as many food bloggers (as well as journalists who blog) have been offered free entry to the show, tickets to the chef events within the show and meals at the GFWS restaurant.

And I am one of them.

Conflicted. Hell yes! You see, over all I have more negatives than positives to say about the event. Do I blog it or not?

You decide.

More on food blogging ethics as The Food Blog Code of Ethics.

* A not for profit “Health” foundation backed by various people in the meat and dairy industries, telling us soy is poison and it makes good sense to eat more animal products. “Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats” is written by its founding president Sally Fallon.

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Thursday, June 04, 2009

another quickie

I’ve been a bit glass-half-empty of late, as we sprint towards the winter solstice.

On the upside I am embracing the food of the season. Currently on high rotation:

We’ve having a cavolo nero love for the last few week. My favourite so far is a long slow cook with onion, garlic and white wine, as part of a pasta sauce.

Carrots are particularly sweet and vibrant right now. I rediscovered my tin of zataar and added it to onion/garlic and grated carrots. The combo worked really well, especially when mixed with some canned tuna for a speedy meal on rice. (This may qualify as weird food confessions #1).

Rhubarb is in season once more. This was the winter fruit of my childhood, while everything else in the garden died with neglect or just gave up on the hard, clay soil – the rhubarb still thrives. Pity Wellington is a little too far away to pick a bunch whenever I want some. The last market batch was stewed up with sultanas, raw sugar and a splash of rosewater.

Porridge (oatmeal) is back on the breakfast menu. The past week I have soaked the oats then cooked them with some stewed rhubarb. Weird confession #2 is any leftover porridge – all pink and mushy - gets a quick warm through in a fry pan with a knob of butter then eaten as a dessert with a drizzle of maple syrup. I doubt you’ll find that one on Masterchef!

Though talking of unorthodox ways of eating oats, this recipe for skirlie over at Mostly Eating has me fascinated.

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

no place like home

How nice, New Zealand has just been named the most peaceful country in the world. It seems that Iceland has been toppled off its perch due to a bit of unrest with the GFC and all.

The latest issue of Vogue Entertaining has a mouthwatering multi-page feature on the joys of Wellington. It seems my compatriots really know about coffee as well as quirky cafes and fashion these days. To be honest it whet my appetite to visit this exotic city. Until I cottoned on to the fact that it was my home town. I just didn't recognise it in the sunshine and all.

For the sake of New Zealand's economy, do go visit. Stay a few days and drink the coffee. Be kind to the waiting staff if they are not quite up to scratch as they locals don't tip very often, so the culture of attentive service is not universal.

Just pack some woolies!

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