Saturday, November 28, 2009

it’s a jungle out there

Another downpour last night! The garden is lush, a small forest of tomato plants, spring onions, cos lettuces and silverbeet.

But there are some people in this city who live in a different kind of jungle; under railway bridges or in temporary accommodation, sleeping with one eye open.

No crispy cos salad straight from the garden or delicious morsels at Bistro Flor for them.

A timely reminder that StreetSmart is in full swing in the eastern states, until December 24th. Support your favourite local restaurants supporting Street Smart – getting money to the grassroots organisation in your community that are helping those impacted by homelessness.

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Thursday, November 26, 2009

spring dolmades

All the recent heat and rain has sent the garden into a frenzy. The parsley has gone to seed, there are more tomatoes self-seeded than I can find homes for, the super hot chillies are flowering, there is a bonanza of spring onions and the cos lettuces have bolted skywards and need devouring.

Each spring I anxiously wait for the first signs of the grapevine coming out of hibernation. This year the leaves are lush and it is fruiting once more. How it survived last year’s heat, I do not know.

I vowed to make dolmades while the leaves were young and soft this year and as luck would have it the date we set coincided with gentle weather after a weekend of rain.

Once more Lucy and I collaborated, devised a new recipe and spent a pleasant afternoon rolling and sipping chilled fino.

Taking on board last years experience we started afresh with our filling. I watched this great video which I’d recommend all first or even third time dolmades makers view. It has great tips and techniques, especially if you just want to make a small batch. Update December 2009 - this video no longer seems to be available.

If you don’t have access to vine leaves, keep reading, there are lots of great alternatives for your flavoured ricey parcels of deliciousness.

The recipe below makes a lot of filling. If you are just doing one layer in a fry pan, divide by about a quarter. This quantity easily filled many layers in a large Le Creuset Dutch oven. I found my last tub of summer’s roasted tomato and garlic pasata and almost swooned when I defrosted it. There are some good, organic tomato pasata’s around (without the garlic) that would make an acceptable substitute. Quantities are approximate, just use the recipe as a guide for flavours.

Dolmades spring 2009

Lots of medium to large sized young vine leaves or other green vegetable leaves (eg: chard/silverbeet, lettuce, cabbage)

1 cup long grain rice, cooked in boiling water for 5 minutes, run under cold water and drain
1 onion finely diced, cooked low and slow in olive oil til translucent
3-4 tablespoons tomato pasata or similar (I used some of last summers roasted tomato and garlic puree)
1/2 - 1 tsp allspice
Handful of parsley, chopped
Handful of almonds, chopped (small chunks but not blitzed to breadcrumbs)
Salt (it always needs a little more than you think – start with a generous teaspoon then taste)

Simmering liquid
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup olive oil
2 cups warm water
4 cloves garlic, crushed

Boil the rice, rinse well under cool water and drain. Chop and mix through the remaining ingredients for the stuffing.

Gather your leaves and dunk in boiling water til softened. Depending on the type of leaf it might take anywhere from 30 seconds to 3 minutes. Drain on tea towels.

Roll the dolmades, use the video link above as a guide if you don’t know how to do it. Place in either a heavy based large pot or fry pan with a lid and arrange the dolmades snugly together. It’s a good idea to line the pot first with a few extra leaves. If making a large batch, you can place more leaves between the layers. Top with more leaves or a disc of waxed paper cut to size to cover the dolmades.

Whisk together the simmering liquid and pour over the dolmades.

Add an upturned plate to weight down the dolmades, cover pot with a lid and simmer on low for about 1 hour.

The verdict

So the mystery wrapper we tried out for our top layer was the abundant Cos from the garden. It cooked quickly, needing only 30 seconds. Squish the thick spine at the base with your hand or the back of a spoon to help them roll more easily. The leaves seemed very fragile and soft and to be honest we weren’t sure they’d stay together through the long simmering.

But, oh boy – the cos lettuce dolma rocked!

Cos makes a great alternative to vine leaves, so give it a go.

This years filling was perfect. The onion was subtle, so too the roasted garlic in the pasata. Lucy’s stroke of genius, the almonds, were perfect both texturally and taste-wise and much nicer than pinenuts. So too her magic sprinkle of allspice.

Enjoy the fruits of the seasons.

Are you rolling any other kinds of leaves?

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

rainy days and mondays

Nothing like a cool change to get the spring back in my step. This week my mind has re-engaged with the world of food once more. Hallelujah!

Here’s a quick update – with more to come soon.

I’ve started a ginger beer bug, so that means in two weeks we can bottle up our brew. About once every decade or two I give this a go. I like mine lemony and not too sweet. Can’t wait to experiment with the final mix.

In two weeks time I’ll have a ginger beer bug to give away, so if you are staying in Melbourne over the festive season and need a project, let me know.

I spent a rainy day thinking about vegan truffles. Will do a test batch soon and let you know how it goes. Can you temper chocolate (to give the truffles a harder coating and longer life) without a thermometer? Any tips?

Yesterday Lucy and I spent a delightful day stuffing vine (and other) leaves. We came up with a superb new recipe that I will be sharing soon. Even better – if you don’t have a grapevine we found an in-season alternative that won us over.

So a teaser, look at the morsels in the photo on the top layer. Can you guess what we used?

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Monday, November 23, 2009

obsession and the "C" word

According to Stephen Fry the only people obsessed about food are anorexics and the morbidly obese. Unless I’m suffering from some blinding degree of body dysmorphia I’m pretty sure I suffer from neither of those conditions.

But the other day a good friend did mention my preoccupation in a kindly way, as in “you’re obsessed with food, I’m obsessed with food but there are some people who aren’t”. I’m guessing she wasn’t meaning it in the Fry sense.

The trigger for this remark was the surprise news that my family will be flying over from New Zealand to have Christmas with me. This has never happened before and is unlikely to happen again. I feel a mix of excitement and trepidation. It’s a small family but one with diverse emotional and culinary needs, so I’m bundling my anxiety and desire to please into meeting the latter category. What to feed them?

I’m focusing on a casual feast for the day itself but as Melbourne’s restaurants can be fickle and tend to be shut in that week between Christmas and New Year, I need to stock the larder and gather some thoughts for standby meals to tempt the different palates. We range from traditionalists to modern, fussy eaters.

I have been writing lists, further evidence of my food obsession, making plans more than a month in advance for possible meals. My shopping list will include iceberg lettuce, the only salad green my father will grudgingly eat. There will be a truckload of eggs, potatoes, garlic and onion. At odd moments of the day I remember things like the only fruits my father is not indifferent to are pineapple and strawberries, and that we all love corn fritters and dark chocolate (though perhaps not together).

As for the feast itself (I’m having difficulty calling it Christmas – my sister is a Buddhist, I’m more atheist than theist, my mother has always been indifferent and my father just wants a hot meal) it’s about creating a memorable day. There will be no turkey roasting for a start. Apart from that being a crazy notion at the best of times in this climate, there are only 4 of us, only 1.5 of them eat meat and the cook and her assistant are non-meat eaters. Fortunately we all like prawns and fish.

A few plans are forming. The rich, dairy-free family favourite chocolate mousse will be a feature. Thinking of other classics my mother made has lead to a desire to create a modern take on a prawn cocktail. Growing up in the 60’s/70’s this was the standard “special meal” starter. Decent prawns are hard enough to come across in NZ now, let alone then, so it starred canned shrimps. Who were we to know the difference? I recall a bed of shredded iceberg lettuce, shrimps and a tangy “mayonnaise” (in fact a salad dressing made from condensed milk and mixed with tomato sauce). What else was in a classic 70’s prawn cocktail and how would you concoct a modern version? I’ll be keeping the lettuce and using the best prawns I can find (of course they will triple in price for that week in December), there will be real mayonnaise with tomato sauce (or Gordon Ramsay’s marie rose sauce) in fact his whole recipe looks good. Does it require anything else? The trick is it needs to have enough familiar elements to cater for the traditional eaters but be fresh, luscious and utterly “blog-worthy”.

Rarely do I borrow other images but in case you never had prawn cocktail love growing up, I adore the look of this version from BBC GoodFood

Obsessed about food? Yes. Food is a way we share our love. But it’s good to know that I’m not alone in it.

The final Christmas menu.
The prawn cocktail recipe.

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Saturday, November 21, 2009

morning in the kitchen

Shhhhh….can you hear it? This my friends is the sound of contentment. Not a whinge to be heard. Everyone in Melbourne has cooled off and is instantly happy.

For now.

Taking advantage of the break in the weather I’ve been digging out excess, and now very large, tomato seedlings and passing them onto new homes. Strangely the more I pull out the more there seems to be. If you want any – please bring a pot with soil as we’ve almost run out.

In return I have received a neighbourly bounty of lemons, mulberries and kaffir lime leave.

There are far too many better things to do than clean the strained and splattered kitchen!

Have a good weekend.

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Friday, November 20, 2009

getting my head around summer

At 2.30 in the early hours of Thursday morning the thermometer got stuck on 30c (86F). I’d had a delightful evening, going to a massive exhibition opening, catching up with many people I hadn’t seen for a year and then walking through the balmy streets in search of a cheap dinner with friends. The humidity reminded us of our recent holiday and at the suggestion of a Malaysian friend we wandered off to his favourite student haunt on Swanston St. At Norsiah’s Kitchen we sat outside and ate our nasi lemaks and tahu telurs, enjoying the tasty food and good company. Reluctantly we headed off to our respective homes, relaxed and laughing.

After a sticky sleep I headed off to the market an hour or two earlier than usual. The weather informed my choices. My favourite organic stall seemed to be offering specials on my favourite and usually most expensive fruits. I bought a few punnets of fragrant Victorian strawberries, unblemished mangoes, a big wedge of watermelon and some stinky papaya for the Significant Eater. It was harder to get my head around vegetables but figured wombok (don’t you just love the name) would get turned into an Asian coleslaw or smoked fish salad at some point in the week.

Inspired by watching the carnivores devour their nasi lemak the night before I sought out kangkung and tempeh for a less meaty version of the dish. My not-quite-vegetarian nasi lemak turned out a treat but it’s still a work in progress – coconut rice, crispy fried tempeh with a splash of kecap manis, my favourite kangkung dish with some extra sambal reserved to have on the side with the rice, boiled eggs and cucumber. I ran out of steam before I roasted the peanuts and or contemplated the ikan bilis. But you get the idea. Next time I’ll prepare most of the components in advance, so it’s more about assemblage at dinnertime rather than being driven wild by the aroma of the sambal that caused my brain to send a warning message “must eat now!”

We’re slowly getting into a summer routine. I’m making friends with dawn, not usually my most loved time of day. My inner alarm clock is waking me at 6am and after a couple of weeks of this I’m learning to laugh at the precision of the timing and head outside to the relative cool of the mid-20’s with my journal, a drink and attentive felines. I’ve reacquainted myself with the local pool and remembered the sheer joy of plunging into the water in the morning light.

It’s going to be an interesting summer.

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Saturday, November 14, 2009


Still too hot to cook. Explaining, not whining.

The mint has died and anything else edible in the garden has bolted. I have far too many self-seeded organic tomato seedlings desperately in need of new homes before the heat claims them (they are also getting a tad big and need to be weeded out and staked).

If you know me and are in the neighbourhood wanting to take some off my hands asap (this weekend) outside of the hottest part of the day, get in touch.


Thursday, November 05, 2009

so you need another good excuse to eat out?

StreetSmart is back for another year. From Monday through to Christmas you have yet another excuse to eat out. The twist is that by dining at any of the participating restaurants and donating a mere $2 (or more) to Street Smart when you pay the bill, the money goes directly to helping the homeless.

The organization supports grass roots charities, so the money goes straight to the people who need it, rather than getting gobbled up in administration and fundraising costs. Last year over $127,000 was raised in Victoria alone. Have a look at the grants to see how that money was spent.

I’m very excited that I now have another reason to go eat at Bistro Flor. That place is just too convenient to walk to and you have got to admire a place with such excellent food that keeps all its delicious wines by the glass to a mere $8 (or there abouts).

The food blogging community’s old friend The Commoner is participating and you can through in an extra couple of bucks when you rock up to Birdman Eating for some baked eggs for breakfast. Many of my old time haunts in the CBD have signed up. Maybe that’s enough to lure me back to Punch Lane for old times sake?

Let’s face it, if you live in Melbourne (or any of the other Eastern states) and read this blog you are likely to be asking yourself “Where should I eat tonight?” sometime in the coming weeks. Street Smart makes it just that much easier.

And don’t forget, the donation is not in lieu of your waiter’s tip. Many of them will be on an unpaid break through those quiet weeks in summer when every restaurant you want to go to is shut. So let’s keep them off the streets as well.

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