Thursday, August 26, 2010

Cooking the books

Every time I go to Melbourne I do new things. On a fine Tuesday morning, R. knew exactly what she wanted to do - go to Fitzroy and find Books for Cooks - and I was very happy to go along (though I couldn't resist pointing out that I was probably the only person she knew who could be counted on to happily spend most of the morning there with her). We caught the free No. 35 tram up to Carlton Gardens, walked up Nicholson St and turned right into Gertrude St. After a couple of blocks there are lots of beautiful designery shops along it, and another marvellous bookshop devoted to textile arts and crafts. My favourite title was The Anarchist Knitting Book.
          Books for Cooks is at 233-235, and it's - astonishing.

This is just one wall of its books - there are three more in its two rooms, plus many more fitted into the ends and the middle. As well as hundreds of new and recent and older recipe books covering every possible region and topic (we spotted Lois Daish and Alyson Gofton and some other NZers, though they were in the Australian section!) it has every other kind of book to do with food - classic reprints, histories, memoirs, art books, polemics, the lot. It has long out of print and second hand books as well, and lovely foodie cards. Heaven. The most esoteric book I found - which gives you a good idea of the incredible range of books there - was The Centaurs, by Patience Gray, a history of the Italian, Greek and Mediterranean food served on the ships of the Blue Funnel Line from the 1950s on. Harvey's birthday was a really good reason for doing more than just looking (I can't tell you what I bought, because he reads this).
       By the time we'd done our dash, and cash, it was lunchtime, so we sensibly asked the very helpful owner where to go. Just two doors up, he said, to the Gertrude Street Enoteca.

It was full, so we had to perch at one of the crates in the back part where there are wine bottles lining shelves from floor to ceiling, but we kept an eye on the marble tables in the front room and leapt to grab one as soon as it came free.

A smallish but satisfying menu. R. had the goat's cheese and sorrel tart with salad, and I had the winter plate - chicken salad, potato cake, winter salad, a soft stuffed baked onion, artichoke, tiny olives, green tomatillos, bread.

R. chose the wine (she's much better at it than me) - a delicious Australian pinot gris, but I forgot to note which one.  We sank into the lovely state of relaxed happiness you get when you're travellng and manage to find exactly the right place at the right time.

(PS - I've just found the winelist - it wasn't Australian, it was an Italian KRIS Pinot Grigio 2009.)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Salmon, pastry, leeks

We had K. and G., US friends we haven't seen for two years, here for dinner last night, plus their and our friend B. (who very kindly brought a marvellous apple cake for dessert, bless her). K. doesn't eat meat so we started with an antipasto of vege things, including pickled garlic and white bean dip, plus salami for the carnivores and herrings for her.

For the main course I bought a fillet of fresh salmon, creamed it in a white sauce made with wine and fish stock (French stock cubes) as well as milk, and wrapped the result in puff pastry envelopes - half a sheet, filling on one side, eggwash around the edges, pastry folded in half to make a big triangle and carefully sealed, baked at 220C for around 20 minutes.

I'm convinced, though, that my oven is quite seriously underpowered. In Melbourne I looked in Cuisine World, a supply shop for professional and serious home cooks at 245 Elizabeth Street; it had lots of different thermometers, but not one for ovens. I did get a very good baking sheet, and used it under the pastry envelopes.

To go with them, I made up a nice way of doing leeks. I cut all the tender parts into fine rings and microwaved them in half a cup of orange juice. Then I poured the leeky liquid into a small pan and reduced it with more orange juice, lemon juice, blanched orange zest, a splash of orange liqueur, and a little lump of butter. Just before serving I stirred the reduction into the leeks and reheated them. They had a lovely sweet-sharp citrusy flavour that went really well with the rich creamy salmon and pastry, and the colours looked good too. But I can't seem to take decent photos at night, everything goes yellow in the electric light.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Let them eat cake

So, Melbourne. Let's start with the cake.
Monday afternoon: we're flagging after our very early morning start (3.10 am in my case), so I lead my friend R. to Koko Black in the Royal Arcade off Bourke Street. Inside it's exactly like a classy Belgian chocolatier, everything is brown.

We divide the little $5 chocolate platter (I remember it from last time I was here): two small shortbreads trimmed with chocolate, a neat little mound of chocolate mousse, and a small chocolate cake. The hot chocolate is incredibly rich and smooth. We've scoffed everything before I think of taking a photo. Sorry.

Tuesday morning: It's fine, so we catch the free tram to Fitzroy and stop at Hudson's Famous Catering in Gertrude Street for coffee and a little something.

R. is more tolerant than me, but I can't help noticing that no one seems to be able to make a proper flat white like the ones back home. But as for the yoyo...mmm.

Wednesday morning: Damp, windy and cold, perfect for the art exhibition that's the excuse for our trip, but the gallery doesn't open till 10. Brunetti's is in exactly the right place for morning coffee. Not the glorious big one in Carlton, just the little one in City Square off Swanston St. R. has a modest biscuit, I have a sort of Italian cream horn, only it's filled with ricotta studded with lemon peel, not sweet at all, just right.

Wednesday, 5 pm: Grumpy after a fruitless trawl through Myers and David Jones (unlike R., I am not size 14), I go through The Causeway, the lane our hotel is named after, into Little Collins St, and on the corner I discover the glorious Laurent... and its macaroons.

Unlike the other cakes, they're only $2.20, and they're only little. Slightly crunchy outside and softly chewy inside, around the cream filling, with intensely pure flavour. Raspberry, vanilla, chocolate, mango and passionfruit... I take coffee and lemon back for afternoon tea. R. doesn't want any. Something tells me to save the lemon one for dessert that night. (See the next post...)

Thursday morning: Our last day. I cunningly inveigle R. to Laurent for morning coffee. It's too early for macaroons. So she has a passionfruit curd tart, and I have a raspberry frangipane.

Thursday afternoon: It's 2.45 and our shuttle is coming at 3.30. But Laurent is almost opposite our hotel (another really good reason for staying there). Time for one last afternoon tea, with macaroons. Very hard to decide, but I choose orange and lime. I don't regret this. Maybe I can learn how to make them...

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Away Days

I'm going to Melbourne very shortly FOR FUN - well, that's the idea. I'm going to take my camera - I plan to eat a lot of good food and take pictures of it and write it up when I get back. The friend I am going with is both the finest private cook and the most judicious food-finder I know, so we should have a great time.
        Meanwhile, just to be going on with, here's what I did with the wild venison last week. I browned the beautiful tender slices briefly in olive oil - not TOO hot, so they wouldn't toughen up. Then I took them out, poured in some red wine and reduced it over high heat. I turned it down to low medium, and put the meat back in for a few minutes; took it out again and let it rest while I added Ali's quince jelly to the pan; and when that had dissolved with constant stirring, some cream. Last came some grainy French mustard, stirred in well.
       This whole sauce-making process takes a very short time. The trick is not to let the sauce reduce so much that it burns or gets too thick. There was one large spoonful of sauce for each person's venison.
I served this with parsnip and potato mash and red cabbage softened gently in a little oil with red onion, a spoon of sugar and a bit of balsamic vinegar. (Apples are good too.)
        Didn't get any decent venison photos, so you'll just have to imagine it, but here's the mash and cabbage.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Taking the pissaladiere

If you're easily shocked foodwise, stop reading now. From time to time, instead of starting from scratch with the yeast and flour and blah blah, I buy ready-made pizza bases. Problem is, they don't work very well. So when my friend Camille told me to buy the thin Turkish ones instead because they make a much nicer thin crispy base, I listened.   
Tonight I decided to try one of these out. I didn't want to start with the usual tomato stuff, so instead I came up with a sort of modified pissaladiere, the famous Provencal tart made with fresh yeast dough covered in soft onion, anchovies and black olives. There's a recipe for it in the lovely New Zealand Vegetable Cookbook, which was launched on Friday (it's by Lauraine Jacobs, Ginny Grant, and Kathy Paterson, Random House, $49.99 - why don't they just say $50, I wonder?)
            Of course it would be much better to start with the fresh dough. I know that. But sometimes life gets in the way of food. And this was for dinner, so I wanted something a bit more substantial than onions on top.
             I chopped the onions fine instead of slicing them, added some thyme leaves, cooked them till soft and spread them over the base. On top went a layer of grated cheese, then the usual anchovies and olives (Gamboni's oil-cured Provencal flavoured ones) and a few scraps of bacon.

 The instructions with the base were to cook it for 6-8 minutes at 200C on a preheated tray or stone, but they were wrong. You need the oven as hot as it will go. For ours this is meant to be 230C but I think it's really only 220C at best, probably less.

After 15 minutes I was too hungry to leave it in any longer, though I should have. And the bacon didn't add much. Still, for an illegitimate quickie take on its wonderfully named original, it wasn't bad at all.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Mussels made moreish

I love mussels, but they do present a few problems. We used to buy them live from the excellent tanks in Woolworths, which kept them in constant running water. Then they changed the tank design. I'm sure they're still perfectly safe and healthy, but the percentage of broken and open ones seems higher these days. They also seem to be very large.
           What has had more impact on us is that Harvey used to put them in water under a very slowly running tap, then debeard them. After that they were simplicity itself to cook - into a big pot with good lid, along with a bit of wine, herbs, chopped garlic and shallots; cook over a high heat for a few minutes until they open, shaking them around; discard any that haven't opened; serve the rest in big bowls with lots of crusty French bread to mop up the juice.
            These days I tend to get a bit lazier still and buy a big vacuum pack of them instead. They're very lightly cooked already, but still in their shells, with their juice. And they're all more or less the same size, not too big and muscle-y. I buy them on Tuesdays, so the shells and feet and stringy bits can go out in the rubbish that night. Then I turn them into a kind of delicious soupy stew.

To serve four (or really hungry three), you need:
Vacuum bag of mussels, chilli flakes, thyme leaves, garlic, shallots or red onion, good olive oil, dry white wine, two tins of plain chopped tomatoes - or better still, a large jar of Italian passata - and chopped flat-leaf parsley.

Carefully cut open the bag of mussels, pour all the liquid into a bowl, and either remove the top shell from each mussel or take them right out of the shells (easier to eat, but not as pretty).
In a large pot, soften the chopped shallots/onion, garlic, thyme, and a good pinch of chilli in a little olive oil over a gentle heat.
Add about two glasses of white wine (or more!) and reduce it a little over a high heat.
Turn down to medium heat, and add the passata or the chopped tomatoes with all their juice. Add the mussel liquid and a few empty shells to the pot. Simmer gently for a few minutes and remove the shells.
Add the mussels and cook gently for another five minutes. Check the flavour and add salt and black pepper to taste. (You don't need much salt - the mussel liquid is usually enough.)

Ladle into large wide bowls, and scatter chopped parsley generously over the top. Have your favourite bread warm and ready to mop it all up. These days I like a good ciabatta or French country loaf better than a baguette.