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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Bright and white

Sometimes, when life appears to be throwing a lot at us, the idea of big, complex food can be a bit much. By big and complex I refer to things which, although fabulous in their own right at other times, might just require more of ourselves than we are able to give in terms of cooking time and eating appreciation - think prep-intensive long-cooked casseroles; many-ingredient marinades and sauces; and fiddly, fancy Asian-style buffets with innumerable different dishes on the table at once. All good, but not what my body craves on a fragile day.

At these times, it's comfort that I seek, and even in my fairly broad culinary scope, comfort food more often than not entails white food. Fluffy mashed potato; saucy and gooey macaroni cheese (something which really deserves an entire future post of its own); eggy spaghetti carbonara; molten-cheese toasted sandwiches; and the above creamy leek and potato soup. Noticed the recurring carbohydrate theme yet?

So although I'm the first to admit that eating like this all the time is not where you want to be heading diet-wise (or cooking-wise if you like a challenge), the occasional day or two of white food can certainly have a calming and restorative effect on your emotional health. And that, really, is something precious.

Leek and Potato Soup

enough for around 4 decent servings

1 medium white onion, halved and thinly sliced

1 large or two small leeks, white parts only, sliced

2 cloves garlic, smashed

5 medium-large potatoes (I used Nadines, but most general-purpose/tending to floury potatoes will do), peeled and diced into about 6 chunks each

1 litre chicken stock (not too salty please, you can always season further at the end of cooking!)

enough cream to make you feel indulgent, not so much that you feel queasy

salt, pepper, parsley

Add a splash of olive oil to a large saucepan over medium-low heat and gently sweat your onion, leek and garlic without colouring until soft (if you find it's catching on the bottom, add the tiniest splash of water to give a bit more steam).

Add the chopped potatoes and increase the heat to medium. Add your stock and bring gently to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer until the potatoes can be squashed with the back of a spoon. Remove from heat and leave to cool a bit.

Blend your soup (I use a hand held stick blender for convenience, but batches in the food processor would also work), adding a touch of water or milk to thin it if necessary. Adjust seasoning to taste, then gently, over low heat, stir in the cream to reach your desired richness (I have, at health-conscious times, made this without any dairy additions and it's been just fine).

Serve in deep bowls with cracked pepper and a scattering of parsley, and maybe some extra-buttery garlic bread if you feel the need.

Will keep covered in the fridge for about 4 days (I find it best on the second day but can't usually wait that long to eat my first bowl!).

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Brownies...with Oreos?

I did promise in my last post to enlighten you regarding some purchases I made in Melbourne... Books for Cooks is the sort of store any cookbook lover wishes was right around the corner, particularly if you're a complete junkie like me. So, knowing that they're not just around the corner, it was with remarkable restraint that I left the store with only 4 new titles after a happy hour or so browsing the shelves (I will add here, however, that the restraint I speak of had far more to do with flight baggage limits and budget constraints than good sense).

As the picture demonstrates, my current cooking trend of 'all things chocolate' dominated on the day, although the Nigel Slater and Hugh F-W additions also made it in on the basis that I've had my eye on both books for some time...if you've never read/cooked with a book from either of these UK-based masters, well, where have you been? Both men are brilliant writers and dedicated foodies, and place strong emphasis on the origins and quality of what we eat - issues which are governing more and more of the foods I choose to buy and cook with.

I've gotten off track, though...Nigel and Hugh's books will almost certainly be featured in future posts (when I've had more time to go through them in detail), but today's recipe comes from one of my other 'newies', Lisa Yockelson's Chocolate Chocolate.

I'd like to state for the record that the purchase of this book did cause me some angst due to its 'American-ness'. Now before any US readers get all offended by my statement, let me clarify - I certainly don't dislike Americans or their books as a blanket rule, but being so far away geographically can have its problems when using US published recipes. Not so much because of the different measurement systems (there are charts to help with that if you're unsure), more because a lot of commonly used US-brand-name ingredients are unavailable here, and it's not always straightforward to substitute something if you don't know what the specified ingredient is similar to. And herein lay my problem with Yockelson's book; there are pages (and pages and pages) of meticulously compiled charts and lists at the beginning of the book detailing chocolate-based ingredients, their sale weights and characteristics, but unfortunately most of the ingredients aren't available in Australia (excepting some of the major European brands). You see my dilemma.

Having made my complaint, though, I read on and decided that this was still a book worth owning. The recipes are detailed and there are A LOT of them, covering just about any chocolate-themed baked good you can think of; most recipes have a photo; and when it comes down to it, it's just chocolate - pick a good quality version that you know you like, and it's more than likely to be a reasonable substitute. Oh, and the layout and design, though a bit flowery and flouncy, really suits the writing style and content (sounds simple but so often I come across a cookbook where this is really not the case, so it's worth mentioning the good ones).

So, the recipe.

On close inspection, there were several things I wanted to make, but these Rocky Road Mud Bars won out on the basis of pantry supplies and Chris' insistence that they were the best looking in the picture. And, apart from the Oreo crumb layer on the bottom, which could really be left out altogether next time (it didn't add much in terms of flavour/texture in my opinion, although I'll admit I've never been an Oreos fan), they really are pretty good. And I followed Yockelson's recommendation of chopping up extra nuts, chocolate and marshmallows and scattering these over the top of the mixture about 5 minutes before the end of baking. Definitely a worthy addition.

Rocky Road Mud Bars
from Chocolate Chocolate (Lisa Yockelson)

Chocolate Cookie Layer:
1 stick (125g) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to tepid
1 1/2 cups plus 3 tablespoons (way too hard to figure out, I just used one packet) chocolate sandwich cookie crumbs (such as crumbs made from Oreo Cookies)

Mud Brownie Batter:
1 1/4 cups bleached cake flour (plain white flour did the trick for me)
1/4 cup unsweetened alkalised cocoa powder (PLEASE use something good, my preferred brand is Barry Cocoa, but anything reasonable and Dutch will do)
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp salt
3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips (I used 60% buttons, roughly chopped)
2 sticks (250g) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to tepid
6 ounces (180g) unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled to tepid (again, 60% buttons)
5 large eggs
2 cups caster sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract (I used paste)
1 cup chopped walnuts (pecans)
1/3 cup miniature marshmallows

Preheat oven t0 325F (about 160C). Grease and line a 10x10inch pan (mine was about 26 x 22cm and made a pretty deep brownie).

Mix the cookie layer: pour the melted butter into the pan. Sprinkle the chocolate cookie crumbs evenly over the melted butter. Press down on the crumbs with the underside of an offset spatula so the crumbs absorb the butter. Bake the cookie layer for 4 minutes, then let stand on a cooling rack for 10 minutes.

Mix the batter: Sift flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt. In a small bowl toss the chocolate chips with 1/2 tsp of the sifted mixture (this will help prevent them from sinking to the bottom of the finished brownies).
Whisk the melted butter and melted chocolate in a medium-sized bowl until smooth. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs for 1 minute to blend, add the sugar and whisk for a further minute or until just incorporated. Blend in the melted butter/chocolate mixture, mixing thoroughly. Blend in the vanilla. Sift the flour mixture over and slowly stir in. Blend in the chocolate chips, walnuts and marshmallows.
Spoon the batter in large dollops onto the cookie crumb layer. Carefully spread the batter over the cookie layer using a flexible spatula.

Bake, cool, refrigerate and cut the sweet: Bake for 40 minutes or until set (don't overbake it, whatever you do - you want it still a bit gooey in the centre when tested with a skewer). Cool completely in the pan. Refrigerate for 1 hour, or until firm enough to cut neatly. With a small sharp knife, cut into quarters, then each quarter into 6 bars. Store in an airtight tin.

Bake and serve within 3 days (although we ate the last of them 6-7 days after baking and they were still ok).

Monday, May 5, 2008

Eating Melbourne

Somehow, somewhere along the line, I got the impression that Melbourne was over-rated and less than great. Maybe it was the 8 or so hours Chris and I spent there a couple of years ago for the purpose of a business meeting and - ostensibly - a bit of sightseeing. The same 8 hours wherein the fair city put on a fine show of its famed bad weather and we got on the homeward flight cold, wet and having seen nothing much except a rain-swept St Kilda and the inside of a peak-hour city tram.

Okay, I admit it. I was hasty in making judgment, and, it now seems, horribly unfair. Melbourne, despite its strange weather patterns (which were again on display this time around), is lovely. And, more importantly to my mind, a food mecca not to be underestimated.

Coming from Perth, which is deemed a 'small and isolated city' (but which is also a great place to call home, make no mistake), I'm always fascinated by the larger cities' ability to offer such a varied and thriving food culture. The sheer number of little boutique-style cafes and shops in these places would simply not be sustainable here due to our lesser population. Hence my excitement at eating my way through such places - the biggest downfall being the number of meals one can realistically cram into a single day, which severely limits my capacity to try everything!

The Tour

Apart from much general discovery, Chris and I spent a relatively fine Saturday morning in the CBD on a dedicated 'Foodies Walking Tour', led by the lovely and exceptionally knowledgeable Allan Campion. Not only is Allan an expert on his foodie information (partly due, I'm sure, to the research he undertakes to co-author the Foodies Guide to Melbourne each year), he also offers many 'hidden extras' about the history of particular businesses and locations as you go along. And although my inclination was to give you a blow-by-blow account of every place we visited on the tour, and what we ate, I think it might be best to tantalise just enough that you might go on the tour yourself, rather than experience it through your computer! So, in no particular order of importance, highlights were:

  • A visit to Maxims Bakery in Chinatown (cnr Little Bourke and Russell St's). Tiny, typically Asian and full to the brim with pastry delights. We tasted the interesting melon cake (which Allan rightly said was probably not something most 'Westerners' would choose, but was great to try) and the egg tarts during the tour, and were compelled to return a couple of days later for a gluttonous feast of curry beef buns, coconut buns, bbq pork puffs and curry puffs. I can happily say everything was great (and it's cheap enough that you can try A LOT of things withough blowing the budget, although the same probably can't be said about your waistline after you do this).

  • A stop at the iconic Grossi Florentino restaurant for a sneak peek at their upstairs Mural Room (complete with brief history of the business from Allan), followed by salt cod fritters and a glass of wine in the downstairs bar. We didn't have time to go back for a meal during our stay, but it will certainly be on the list for next time. A place that serves up handmade pasta with guanciale (pig's cheek, and no, I didn't know what it was until we asked!), cavolo nero and olives is a place I want to eat at...

  • Chocolates and a chat with the chocolatier at Koko Black. There are several stores around Melbourne, and if you live there but haven't visited one before then I would suggest it's high time you did. Classic high-class chocolatey goodness. Nothing else to say.

  • A wander past Quists Coffee, Melbourne's first commercial coffee roasters. They were unfortunately closed the day of our tour, however we went back to try their coffee and were not disappointed. I might add here that appearances can be deceiving - apart from their prominently-situated coffee machine (which is truly a thing of beauty), Quists doesn't look like much from the outside. One tiny macchiato, however, will convince you otherwise.

There were many other fascinating discoveries made during Allan's tour which Chris and I referred back to over the course of our visit, and I sincerely hope that whether you think you are a 'tour person' or not (I have to say that it's not usually my first inclination to go on a tacky guided tour of a city when I go somewhere new), you'll give it a try if you get the chance. It was well worth the time and cost, and something any food-oriented soul should enjoy.

The Restaurant

Oh, what a joy it is to go to a restaurant you've heard so much about and find that not only does it live up to your expectations, it actually exceeds them. On several occasions I've visited much-touted venues only to be let down by one thing or another and gone home a bit perplexed as to the deservedness of their reputations (the most recent that springs to mind is Sydney's Pier, where the service didn't quite match up to the setting/food/prices despite it's long-standing good name).

MoVida, in Melbourne's CBD, impressed on all counts. So much so, in fact, that I almost cry when I think about how far I must travel to visit again. The tapas style of eating is one which appeals a lot, due to its emphasis on eating many different things throughout the meal. Great for those of us who can never decide what to have, although at MoVida I wanted to try almost everything on the menu, which left another problem entirely: be a total glutton and try everything that looks good, or make a concerted effort to choose only the 'best' of the menu??

Ultimately, our party of four went with the recommendation of our fantastic waitress and chose around 3 tapas each, then 5 racion (mid-sized plates) to share. Although we probably could have gotten through another 1-2 dishes between us, our restraint was later rewarded with the ability to fit in dessert - it's always a plus when you don't leave knowing you've eaten so much that you won't be able to sleep that night!

I'd like to be able to tell you that everything we consumed has a matching photograph so you can actually see what was ordered, but, well, we were far too busy devouring it to worry about pictures! And to be honest, any photographs I could have taken would probably only detract from the deliciousness...a crumbed and fried ball of goodness might be about the best thing one can eat, but lets face it, there aren't many ways to make it beautiful on camera. So you'll just have to trust me. And if you really want to see it, their quirky website has a few funny little pics that will whet the appetite.

Highlights: the diminutive Croqueta, crunchy and golden on the outside, silky and mushroomy within; Vieira, jamon y espuma (baked scallop on the half-shell with jamon and potato foam), the potato foam giving a little nod to the molecular gastronomy groupies; the Gambas con pancetta (pastry-wrapped prawns with pork belly and chickpea shoots), possibly my favourite EVER prawn dish; and, surprisingly, an unassuming and simple little number of Espinacas con garbanzos (sauteed spinach with chickpeas and spices), which defied all expectation and was one of the best dishes of the night. The current menu lists these gorgeous treats and more.

Go there. Go there now. Although you will want to book a table - it's not a huge restaurant and reservations need to be made well in advance (it took us 5 weeks 'thinking ahead time' to get our Sunday night booking). And if you don't live in Melbourne, like us, you'd better start thinking about planning a trip. It's that good.

A couple of other things

Try a cheap and cheerful vegetarian lunch at the Trippy Taco if you're near Collingwood, and churros with an array of different dipping chocolates at Chocolateria San Churro (several locations, we patronised the Brunswick St store in Fitzroy more than once). Gills Diner in the city is also good for a casual dinner (despite a rather unfortunate brand of service from our less-than-friendly waitress - all other reports have been favourable, and the food was great).

Still to come in the next post: my newly-acquired cookbooks from a little shopping expedition during our trip, with a recipe full of chocolatey ooziness to delight one and all.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Digg me!

Sorry guys, no pictures today, although I promise a full write-up of our Melbourne trip over the next couple of days (including the Foodies Tour of Melbourne with Allan Campion and our fabulous dinner at MoVida). There's a fair bit of eating and book-shopping to talk about, so I've been writing a lengthy and time-consuming post over the past week to deal with it all!

Just wanted to let everyone know about a little way in which you can help me promote this blog to the world - head over here, sign up to use the Digg site (if you haven't already - it's free and relatively painless) and 'digg' this blog. The idea is that the more diggs your site gets, the more prominently it will be displayed on their site for other users to find, thus increasing visibility to more than just friends and family... hopefully a good way to gain a bit of new readership and encourage my desire to post often.

If you have a spare five minutes, Digg is worth exploring in general. Not everything is great (after all, anyone can add recommended sites, and we all know how many idiots are out there in internet-land), but I have come across several new blogs and websites this way. It's just about sharing the good things, really. :)

Delicious Melbourne stories soon, watch this space.