Friday, January 25, 2013

Australia (food) Day - January 26

According to Wikipedia (the source of information for the lazy curious), the antipodes of any place on Earth is the point on the Earth's surface which is diametrically opposite to it.  

Being diametrically opposite the ‘old world’’ has been a good thing for Australian food.  We have the opportunity to do our own thing unrestrained by convention and tradition.  So while our chefs and cooks may learn from the techniques and recipes developed by old world cuisines, experimentation is welcomed and our food is therefore, more worldly.  Being closer to Asia, we are also very much influenced by the techniques, fresh flavours and exotic ingredients of the region, which are as an added benefit, often locally grown and therefore readily available.  

The varied cultures of our immigrants have assisted this no doubt.   In the early days, immigrants were predominately from the British isles.  The first Asian immigrants were the Chinese who rushed to the goldfields in the 1850‘s.  Then, after the Second World War, hundreds of thousands of displaced Europeans settled in this country.  Many of their children were tormented in the school yard for their ‘wog’ food (really sorry about that everyone!) but as a nation we have benefited from exposure to these varied food backgrounds and now celebrate this diversity in our strong epicurean culture.  The embarrassing White Australia Policy which excluded all non-European people from immigrating into Australia from the 1890s to the 1950’s, was an unofficial policy of mainstream Australian politics.  While it continued into the 1970’s, the Vietnam War and the settlement of almost 100,000 Indo-Chinese refugees in Australia  put an end to this ill advised and prejudice policy and saw the introduction of  multiculturalism, the acceptance or promotion of multiple ethnic.

This meant that for the good part of the 20th Century, Australia was a predominantly European nation on the edge of Asia, taught to fear being demographically overwhelmed by non-European cultures.  This has caused ongoing debate and controversy surrounding the issues of asylum seekers, mandatory detention and ‘boat people’.  As an island nation, close to many of the world’s political trouble spots, border protection and immigration are not surprisingly hot issues, as well as generally poor dinner table topics of conversation.

Hopefully, we will remember the central premise of multiculturalism:  the equitable status of  distinct ethnic and religious groups without promoting any specific ethnic, religious, and/or cultural community values.

Based on our past experiences, I believe food is the key to true multiculturalism and ethnic tolerance.    

The influence of indigenous food however, has been one of the more recent food phenomena in Australia  Prior to the 90’s at least, we ignored 50,000 years of indigenous food knowledge and tradition.  Thanks to small producers, indigenous chefs, and the exciting ingredients themselves, there is enormous potential in native ingredients such as quandong, finger limes, lemon myrtle, salt bush, wattleseed, Warrigal Greens, Illawarra Plums, mountain pepper, Akudjura and bush tomatoes.  

One of my favourite local ingredients is the finger lime (Citrus australasica) pictured above.  They come in a variety of skin and flesh colours (yellow, green, pink, red and clear) and freeze really well, which means their limited natural season can be extended in the kitchen.  I discovered their appeal when I bought a plant purely out of curiosity several years ago.  I was rewarded with 100’s of fruit in a couple of short years.  They are probably the thorniest citrus in the garden though, so it’s a painful experience harvesting them if you are not to careful!  Unlike most citrus, the little juice vesicles are rounded, and stay in one piece when you squeeze them out.  They burst in your mouth with a pure citrus flavour, like citrus caviar which makes them perfect with any seafood, particularly raw dishes like sashimi, as well as Asian dishes, salads, dressings, and desserts.  They are fabulous in cocktails and drinks.  I love them in an Australian gin and tonic.

Probably our most well known indigenous ingredient, is the macadamia. Here is one of my favourite macadamia recipes:

Sweet Potato Crumble

1½ kg sweet potatoes (kumara), peeled & sliced into 5 cm rounds)
2 tablespoons olive oil
A few sprigs of thyme
1 or 2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
2 leeks, cut in half lengthways, washed then thinly sliced
50g (1 oz) butter
1/4 cup cream

Crumble topping

2 slices of day old bread, sourdough, Italian or other rustic bread
50g (1oz) butter
1 tablespoon chopped continental parsley
½ cup Macadamia nuts
2 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Salt & pepper

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius (360F) while you prep all the ingredients, and grease a suitable ovenproof serving dish.

Coat the sweet potatoes in oil, garlic thyme salt and pepper cook in the pre-heated oven until tender.  You can simply steam the potato if you are in a hurry.  Roughly mash the potato once cooked - remove the garlic if you wish -  then sauté the leek and garlic in butter in a small fry or saute pan.  Fold into the mashed potatoes with the cream, salt and pepper, and place into the greased serving dish.  

Place all the crumble ingredients into a food processor and blend (pulse) until just combined but still chunky.   Scatter the crumble over the top of potatoes the potatoes.  Bake about 30 minutes until golden.

This is a great accompaniment to roast meats, along with a green vegetable.  I often serve this at Easter or Christmas.

What will I be eating on Australia Day?  A simple meal of fresh school prawns,  local sourdough bread, real butter and a great bottle of Australian white wine like a Hunter Semillon or Clare Valley Riesling.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

International Day of Italian Cuisines - January 17

The International Day of Italian Cuisines (IDIC) was launched by the Virtual Group of Italian Chefs in 2006, who state their aims at ‘protecting the right of worldwide consumers to get authentic and quality Italian cuisine when they go to eateries labeled as “Italian”. '

Each year, a classic italian dish is selected to be researched, documented and shared on line.  Dshes featured in previous years are Ossobuco, basil Pesto, Tagliatelle Ragu, Risotto Milanese, and Spaghetti Carbonara and I definitely intend to give their 'traditional' and sanctioned recipes a test.  These 'official' recipes can be found on the IDIC website.  The history and notes make for some interesting reading.  But try not to get too offended by the views expressed about other nations interpretations of some dishes.  They sound particularly upset about Spaghetti Bolognese.  For more, read the Tagliatelle Ragu pages.

This years dish is Tiramisu, a favourite and a very easy dessert.  I was somewhat surprised to learn that despite the dishes huge popularity in Italy and around the world, Tiramisù is a fairly recent Italian dessert, its origins probably only dating back to the the 1970’s.  Even the essential ingredients:  mascarpone, Marsala and savoiardi, are recent culinary inventions, compared to many other traditional Italian foods.

Anyway, Tiramisu is a very easy dessert to make and a great Italian dish to start with if you are new to cooking.  Why not give it a go on the 17th January?  The following recipe and the above image are from the IDIC website. 

Let me know via comments how you go and how everyone enjoyed celebrating the International Day of Italian Cuisines.  
'The Authentic Recipe'
INGREDIENTS (10 to 12 serves)
220g Egg
100g Sugar
500g Mascarpone
80g Marsala wine
50g Coffee
Savoiardi biscuits 
Separate the yolks from the egg whites.  Beat the yolks and the sugar.  Whip the whites and the salt.  Add the mascarpone to the yolks and sugar.  Lighten the mixture by adding the whipped egg whites.
Add the marsala to the coffee.
Soak the savoiardi in the mixture of coffee and marsala and lay them out in the desired mould.
Alternate layers of mascarpone with layers of savoiardi; top off with the mascarpone cream.
Refrigerate and sprinkle with cocoa.
Serve at 6 to 8 °C  
I think this is about 43 to 47ish degrees Fahrenheit.  Basically it means serve it cold, but not straight-out-of -fridge cold (under 5 degrees Celsius, or under 40 Fahrenheit).   I suggest you take it out of the fridge and allow it to 'unchill' a little, but serve soon afterwards.  Depending on room temperature, this will vary so there is no point me recommending times!
Note: due to food safety reasons, the authors have added a note that it is recommended to use pasteurised eggs or to cook the preparations with the eggs at 71 ºC (160 ºF).  Home cooks won't bother with pasteurised eggs and I would be interested to know how you can 'cook the preparation'.  If any readers had any ideas let me know via a comment as I am interested.  However, as this is a raw egg dish, the usual precautions SHOULD be taken which means that the ill, elderly or pregnant women should avoid the dish.  Sorry ladies (and gentlemen)!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Gift ideas for foodies

GADGETS.  Ok, so as a foodie we are begrudgingly into them.  They clog up our kitchen drawers (who ever has enough of those?) and most are either stupid, useless, or the tasks they claim to simplify, are just as easily performed with a paring knife, whisk, spoon or a skilled pair of hands.  See what is missing from your foodies kitchen.  Some things like an inexpensive set of digital scales, 1gram accurate ($20-50) are a must in every serious kitchen.  So, if you MUST buy a gadget, go for beautiful design (Eva Solo), or humorous.  And here's my tip.  Don't buy a drawer full of colour coded gadgets.   They all look the same and are impossible to find.  Buy a variety of colours and it is much easier to hunt a particular item down.

COOKING SCHOOLS.   A trip to a local or coveted international cooking school like Ecole de Cuisine Alain Ducasse in Paris, Giancarlo Caldesi’s courses in London's Marylebone; Rick Steins’ Padstow Seafood Cooking School (classes are also sometimes held at his home in Mollymook, Australia); Tasmania's, The Agrarian Kitchen; Ballymaloe Cookery School, East Cork, Ireland; River Cottage Cooking School (Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall et al); or Meat-centric classes at Victor Churchill Paddington (Sydney) - ‘the most beautiful butcher shop in the world’.  Research a favourite cuisine like Italian, French, Mexican or Spanish and you will find wonderful classes in your own backyard or theirs, such as Susana Trilling’s Seasons of My Heart in Oaxaca, Mexico (had a great time there recently - more on this in post next week).  Then there are speciality classes such as cheese making, chocolate, cake decorating etc... all designed to teach amateur cooks more about their favourite food topics. [I’d be happy to add others if you would like to contribute]

DIY ENTHUSIASTS.  Buy them a cheese making kit, a chook tractor or rent a chook, cheese making kit, preserving kit, a few potted herbs, worm farm, composer etc....

COOKBOOKS.  A word of caution.  If you aren't sure buy an AMAZON GIFT VOUCHER.  Everyone knows I love cookbooks but my tastes are quite specific.  I have received several books more suited to beginners which are kind of insulting.... And not evrycook wants to make cupcakes!  Better to give a voucher so we can buy one of hundreds of food books on our Amazon wish list!

LINEN.  Quality linen tea towels, beautiful linen napkins or a good apron is always appreciated.  Quality is the key, and no BBQ aprons, ones with (larger) tits or stupid jokes please.  We take the kitchen seriously!

POTS, PANS AND SAUTE/FRY PANS.  Everyone lusts after something:  Like a Mauviel Copper Jam Pan, (actually, anything copper); cast iron casseroles, beautiful modern functional design stainless steel pots.  If you have some $$$$, go for it, but do a little research and see what we are lusting after first.  No one needs more than four saucepans so don't fill our limited space with unwanted items.

PRESERVING JARS.   Pickling and preserving is IN so if you love a foodie, facilitate their obsessions
DISHWASHER.   As amazing as it may seem in the 21st century, some kitchens still don't have dishwashers (take mine for example..).   A commercial dishwasher one with a three minute cycle would be even better to get through loads of washing up after a cook-fest!

SPECIALIST EQUIPMENT.  Paella pan, tagine dish, or tortilla press, pasta roller.....  Get the idea?  Medium priced items the average foodie may feel guilty buying for their infrequent use, but would love to own.  NB. Buy authentic, not electric

TABLEWARE  Mini cast iron cocottes, or tagines for table service, some to-die-for dinner plates or cups and saucers like the colourful Limogue’s gold edged individual pieces, slate serving dishes, or timber chopping boards if you want trendy pub style service (from commercial suppliers so they can go in the dishwasher!)

BUDDING FOODIES.  Do they have the essentials? Stick blender, blender, food processor, hand mixer,  stand mixer.... (in that order).  There are loads of articles on line about equipping a kitchen.

MOLECULAR GASTRONOMISTS?   Sous vide, vacuum sealer, dehydrator, syphon brewer, Immersion thermal circulator, spice grinder.  You can even buy some inexpensive items like ph test kits, agar agar spaghetti kis, syringes, smoke gun kits etc....

FOODIE AND PHILANTHROPIST?   Make a donation on their behalf to a charity which focuses on hunger, feeding the homeless, nutrition issues or food education.  Their are many good charities at home and internationally.

SUBSCRIPTIONS.   Old fashioned paper or ipad versions of journals and magazines like Lucky Peach (particularly for younger foodies), Saveur, Gastronomica, Bon Appétit, Saveur, Cook's Illustrated, Culinary Trends.

VINTAGE AND ANTIQUE COOKBOOKS (available online).  Think of your foodies particular interests and search for something in that vein

DIY GIFT VOUCHERS.  If you are low on cash this may be the perfect solution.  Make your own vouchers for:  I will wash up at your next request, I will take you to a new restaurant once a month, I will not complain about your food magazines and books all over the house for a month, I will not moan about the pantry full of obscure ingredients and no 'food' for a week, I promise to go to the next ......... food market with you.

GOURMET COOKING INGREDIENTS.  A truffle, truffle oil, truffle butter, (ok, truffles are good), foi gras, fancy butter, salt, chocolate.  Visit gourmet retailers sites for ideas


Electrical appliances particular ones that makes anything that can be cooked in a frypan or oven:  pie maker, sandwich maker, pizza maker, waffle maker.   Actually anything that end in 'maker'!

Beginner type anything - books (as previously mentioned), equipment or ingredients

Like most foodies, my kitchen overfloweth, but there is always room for more somewhere... Perhaps I had better add some more stainless steel shelving to that list

Slow Roast Belly of Pork

Recipe (for 4)
Have your butcher remove the bone and keep the skin on.  Take the pork bone home and use it as a trivet to roast the pork on (so the meat doesn't catch on the bottom of the baking dish), or give to your doggie


I kg joint of belly of pork
A small handful of rosemary sprigs (stems removed)
3 small cloves of garlic sliced
Salt, pepper and olive oil

Rub the port all over with a little olive oil, salt and pepper.

Place the pork, crackling side down, in roasting pan and rub the sliced garlic and rosemary over the bottom of the piece of pork.   Place a piece of foil over this  to hold the garlic and herbs in place.

Put the bones into a heavy roasting dish to form a trivet.  This will help prevent the bottom burning.

The key to perfect crackling is a hot oven, but in contrast, they key to a falling apart tender roast, is slow baking.  So I heat the pre-heat the oven to 200 C and roast for about 20 minutes, then reduce the heat to  125 C for another 3 1/2 hours until cooked and tender.  If you are not confident, invest in a meat thermometer, which tells you how the meat is done.

Remove the meat from the oven, and let it rest for at least 10 minutes.  If you skip this and slice the meat prematurely, the meat will dry out.  
Slice or simply pull the skin off then shred or pull apart and serve with pickled red cabbage and a simple green or citrus salad. 

Tip:  If you skin doesn't crisp simply pull it off and throw under a medium-hot grill.  Watch it carefully as it blisters quickly, and burns twice as fast.

Alternative:  Spice it up Asian style with crushed (mortar and pestle) Sichuan pepper, chinese five spice powder, and equal parts salt and pepper.  Serve with steamed rice, and asian style greens (bok chow, asparagus or beans in a simple sesame oil/soy sauce with some toasted sesame seeds thrown in).

Monday, August 27, 2012

Last cold winter night meal for the season


This is a rustic and hearty meal on any cold night, but when we are experiencing some lovely warm days in this last month of winter, its a quick meal to prepare after a hard day’s work when we get one of those surprisingly cold evenings.  Ideal for a family meal, it would equally satisfy a bunch of friends with a nice bottle of red, some crusty white bread, and a simple green salad of fresh, crisp leaves with a good home made dressing. 

The dish was inspired by a recipe from Rick Stein COAST TO COAST (BBC Books, 2008).  I have added a kilo of good quality everyday sausages made by the local butcher, roasted chat potatoes, and extra beans so the dish will very economically serve a larger group.  If you are preparing the dish for children, use a mild chorizo, otherwise a spicy one such as a parrilla chorizo picante is ideal.


2 x 400g cans of butter beans, or dried butter beans soaked overnight
500g small chat potatoes
1kg thin pork and veal sausages (Italian seasoning is ideal), in natural skins.
1 spicy chorizo sausage  
Olive oil
5 garlic gloves finely chopped
2 onions, roughly chopped
1 cup of red wine
400g can chopped tomatoes
1 tablespoon thyme leaves
4 tablespoons chopped flat-leafed parsley

If using dried beans, drain the soaked beans, and place in a large pot with lots of water.  Bring to the boil and simmer for 1 hour or until tender.  Drain and set aside.  If you are in a hurry, canned beans are quick and almost as good, rinsed and drained.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 200oC.  Cut the potatoes in half and add to a heavy baking dish and generously drizzle olive oil all over, then season generously with sea salt and freshly cracked pepper.  Place into oven, and roast the potatoes about half an hour or until they are golden and crisp.  Turn them frequently so they get nice and crispy but not burnt, on all sides.

While the potatoes are roasting, cut the chorizo into thin slices.  Put a large splash of olive oil into a heavy casserole dish on the stove top heat over high heat, then add the sausages and half a cup of water.  Prick the sausages to allow the fats to escape, and place a lid on.  The water will steam the sausages, and eventually evaporate.  As they start to fry in their own juices, the sausages will also start to brown.   Remove the lid and cut the sausages into chunks.  Once all the water has evaporated, add the chorizo and onion.   Cook until the chorizo slices are just browned on both sides, then add the garlic and cook until transparent.  

Add the red wine and cook until almost all the juices have reduced to almost nothing.  Add the tomatoes and thyme, and butter beans.    Simmer for about 15 minutes.  Taste for seasoning, add half the potatoes, then scatter the parsley over.   Serve in warmed bowls with the rest of the potatoes scattered on top. 

Saturday, February 12, 2011


You may have noticed a rather large gap in my blog posts…. Extremely bad form I know.  My intention was to prepare a few  tasty blogs well in advance so I could regularly post at least one or two per week.  I have no shortage of food ideas but they sit in my draft blog files waiting for appropriate photos and illustrations to be uploaded.  Add to that, when spring was almost upon us, I decided I wanted to create a kitchen garden. I’ve always been a pretty keen gardener but with a bunch of kids, work and the usual distractions I have simply not had the time to devote to a proper kitchen garden. My partner’s never been that keen on the idea either, and without a bit of muscle, I could it see it all being a lot of hard work for me alone...

Well things have changed and the other half was suddenly keen on the idea. I have had a concept in mind for some time, formulated a few years ago when we planted 9 fruit trees in the area I had envisaged for the kitchen garden.  These poor fruit trees have sat in lonely isolation like little lost soldiers ever since….

After some initial thought as to the layout, the first thing we did was build three big compost bins out of recycled timber. They are enormous and it will take several months to fill one, but once I get my chooks (another story!) and get serious with our green waste and composting in general, we should fill them and will be able to recycle our waste into the vegetable garden. We completed the bins in a weekend and felt all the better for the hard work.

The plan was to build raised beds using old railway sleepers with gravel paths between. It is important to buy non-treated sleepers for use in the vegetable garden.  Some sleepers were treated with creosote to prevent termite invasion, but the creosote is poisonous and definitely not suitable for use near a food source such as the kitchen garden. After dinner one evening, and over a glass or two of a very nice Barossa Shiraz, I drafted on paper, the layout of the garden beds with the fruit trees - lemon, lime, two blood orange, a native finger lime, a fig, two peach (I thought one was a nectarine), and a bay tree - at the centre of each grid. As the construction involved heavy lifting, I knew I would have a small team of workers assisting at short notice (we run a construction company so ‘spares’ come in handy occasionally), and a reasonable plan for them to work from would be essential.

So from the first draft I prepared a coloured diagram which was definitely not pretty, but served it’s purpose well. The colour coding meant it was clear to everyone where the trees were, where the gravel went, and where the garden beds were to be constructed. I was hoping to garden organically so we laid thick wet newspaper at the bottom of each bed and imported virgin soil of top to fill the raised beds and we raided the horse paddock over our back fence for some well rotted manure.  It took several trips in my ride-on-mower and little trailer, to move about 3 cubic metres of manure which I then dug into the beds.

Once the beds were all in place and filled, we laid about 100mm of decomposed granite on top of the grass to create the intersecting paths, which we then compacted with a vibrating plate. The gravel goes quite hard and generally resists weeds. It’s also a lovely natural colour and will allow easy access with a wheelbarrow around the beds.

The next job was to build a fence to keep thieves out. Hares that is, not humans. I’ve never really seen many hares before and they are quite funny looking.  Certainly not as cute as rabbits.   If we arrive home late at night, they look very comical hopping down the lane in the car headlights, with their big hind legs and bums up in the air. Our golden retriever Fletcher, is the garden guard, and patrols each night. His energies are supplemented by the occasional fresh snack – of hare. I’ve seen the odd hairy-hindquarter lying around the garden, so he’s an effective guard and has recently packed on a few kilos (weighing in at 46kg). Of course my girls are all horrified by this wanton display of carnivorous activity in our otherwise placid and gentle dog, but it’s natural after all, a bit like the kitchen garden, and saves on doggie food miles… The vet actually suggested we cut back his dried food by 50% so he’s becoming pretty cheap to maintain thanks to the hares.

The garden took shape over several weekends and after much deliberation, I decided on a hardwood fence of 125mm pointed posts with 4 x 125 x 50mm recycled hardwood rails (much like our external garden fence) finished with 2.5cm thin gal wire to keep the night-time marauders out. We placed a sleeper boarder about 500mm around the outside, so we could simply mow the edge. My now enthusiastic partner got a little carried away and sprayed roundup to kill the grass between the fence and sleeper boarder, and I was of course quite disappointed in this breach of organic protocol but soldiered on all the same.

These perimeter beds such as the one to the right, is devoted to 'fruits rouges'. Plantings of blueberry bushes, a redcurrants, ligonberries (a cross between blackberries and raspberries) a thorn less blackberry and four raspberries bushes. This weekend I planted strawberries in baskets on the top fence rail. After some heavy late spring rains, we topped this bed with thick newspaper, and straw. We’ll top that with mushroom compost late next winter, prior to planting a little hedge around the edge. 

Initially I started digging everything with my trusty spade, but when the other-half finished his extensive carpentry work, he decided that was too much trouble and needed a ‘proper tool. I must admit it our new little rotary hoe, he does a day’s hard labour in half an hour and will come in handy as we prepare to replant the beds.

Out front, we built an arbour to frame the entry, and have planted the only non-edible plants in the kitchen garden so far: a pretty climbing white rose which will ramble the entrance. On either side I think I will plant small single trunked pear trees which will be espaliered to maximize and allow easy harvest in the minimal space. The process is illustrated below by, where I will buy my bare rooted stock – Faccia Rose, Corella and San Giovanni next year. I might do almonds on one side but these will be a pretty long term commitment as they take several years to fruit.

On the sunny north western side, I have planted a few different varieties of passionfruit, and there is one bed at the rear (semi-shaded, facing north east) which will have some root perennials such as turmeric, ginger, galangal, horseradish and wasabi. A local restaurant, the Hungry Duck at Berry, has a beautiful kitchen garden, and owner Dave Campbell has promised to swap some horseradish roots for some my finger limes if I don’t have any luck.  We love David’s modern Asian menu, and dining in the garden in the warm summer weather is a real treat.

Under my dripping tank tap, I filled a half wine barrel with water, planted some watercress in a plastic pot, and submerged it in the water where it will happily flourish.

The vegetable beds have been planted in a five bed rotational system. Rotated in the appropriate order, one group of plants either depletes or enriches the soil for the following group of vegetables.  Bed 1 is for Brassica's and legumes (broad, borlotti, and baby green and French yellow beans, and peas cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage. In bed 2 are root crops and alliums. Potatoes have a long bed along one side to themselves and are now ready for harvesting. I planted planted Kipfler, Desiree, Nicola, and Sebago varieties so we have floury, waxy and general purpose varieties. Down the other end are a bunch of yellow and green/black zucchini’s. The male flowers are picked for stuffing (ricotta, fried and chopped sage, lemon zest, pine nuts, salt and pepper). The female flowers which are not picked grow to maturity. We had an abundance yesterday so I made a zucchini slice. The Cucurbits (pumpkin, cucumber and watermelon) have a wide bed along the back of the kitchen garden where they can ramble away.  Corn is planted down one side, with perennial asparagus to the inside, as well as a few rhubarb crowns. There are also some leeks, and Swiss chard in a variety of colours. A fifth bed is dedicated to solanaceae (eggplants, chilli, and capsicum). Outside I planted a Lemon Verbena shrub (Aloysia Citrodora) which grows 2-4 metres and was too large for the veggie patch.

There is a dedicated tomato bed, lettuce bed, and several small beds dedicated to herbs. One small bed is dedicated to herbal teas including German chamomile, Moroccan tea, Lemon Balm and some Stevia Rebaudiana – one leaf infused in teas makes a whole pot sweet without the addition of sugar. I am also after some black peppermint which has attractive red and green leave to complete the tea pot/bed.

Another small bed is for Asian herbs: lemon grass, Vietnamese mint and Thai basil. Another is dedicated to coriander which I can never grow enough of.  There is a sage bed including the pretty purple one, and another bed devoted to several varieties of thyme. There are chives and garlic chives for stir fries, and a bed of delicate chervil, and garlic under plants the bay tree. A companion planting of basil is scattered amongst the tomatoes along with flat leaf parsley and there is marjoram and sorrel in large terracotta pots. I also put some French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) in with the thyme so I can find it. I have planted several previously and they get accidentally ripped out along with the weeds.  I’ve a large established rosemary bush in my original herb garden but will grow lots more so I can harvest the stems for lamb skewers, as well as the leaves for roast potato and lamb.

I want to plant a mini hedge around the outside boarder, and am thinking of Korean box for a nice year round green. the neat little hedge will provide some permanent structure during dull winter months and some of the overgrown summer weeks.   I’d also like to try some sweet cicely which can be used when cooking acidic foods like rhubarb. With the additional of a few leaves, you can apparently cut down the sugar required by half.

While I said earlier that the entire garden is edible, this doesn’t mean we don’t have flowers. We have grown some marigolds and edible nasturtiums (flowers and leaves) to encourage friendly bugs. I’ve planted some pretty borage at the edge of the cucurbits.   From past experience I know it can spread like crazy so I’ll be careful with it, but the are pretty flowers and are lovely to freeze in ice cubes to add to a summer Pimms punch.  There are also a few roses I’d like to add if I can find a spot.  Rosa mundi for rose petal jam or sauce and Rosa Gallica ‘Versicolor’, the petals of which are edible.  There is French and English Lavender used as companion planting to stone fruits, which are said to encourage good bugs as well as being used in herbs de Provence and in delightful lavender ice cream. I didn't manage to sew sunflower seeds this year, but will next summer, and we’ll also make a scarecrow to keep the birds away from my precious figs which I have under-planted with strawberries.  I am not certain the scarecrow will work, but my number one young helper Tylah, will certainly love it.

It’s a while since I have grown strawberries and I had forgotten how much birds love them. I read a tip in Harvest, by Meredith Kiting, which suggested putting the baby fruit into glass jars for protection as they ripened. As you can see, it worked a treat. The only additional tip I would add is to ensure the jar is able to drain. Recently after a series of heavy rainstorms, my strawberries were sitting rotting in a half filled a jar of water!

As a vegetable garden novice it all seems to be going remarkably well and after only a few short months, we have an abundance of produce already.  The heirloom tomatoes: green zebra, black krim, Principal Borgesse and a few others, were absolutely bursting with real flavour.  Dealing with that abundance was interesting in itself, and my first efforts at preserving were quite successful. 

The garden has been pretty hard labour but an absolute labour of love. I can’t wait for the changes in season and the opportunity to plant some other goodies like Jerusalem artichokes. We are lucky that we are in a little spot where it gets quite cold overnight, mid-winter, (one + degrees below zero Celsius), so we can plant lovely berries and other crops which need some sub zero temperatures.

Having gotten into the food plant mentality, I have also thought of some more trees I want to plant in the wider garden such as a stone pine (for pine nuts), an English walnut , Chinese pistachio, macadamia tree as well as another weeping mulberry (we have a face and clothes staining baby black one) and a white mulberry  and even hazel and willow to make stuff for the garden. OK, maybe that’s going a bit far but it sounds so much fun…

The final element to the garden, our pretty wire gates, were delivered and installed finally giving the dog a break.

Monday, December 6, 2010

ORTIGA for a carniviourous feast up north...

With an interstate family celebration planned, we decided to spend our last night of a weekend in sunny Queensland, in Brisbane rather than the bland Gold Coast.  With less than 24 hours available, we decided to stay in Fortitude Valley and get in some retail therapy, good dining following by a good nights sleep, before returning home and to the grindstone.

We checked into The Emporium mid afternoon, hung over from the previous night’s celebrations.  A night in bed with room service and a movie would have been perfect, but I had made a reservation about a month before for Sunday dinner at Ortiga.  I had read a little about this new tapas bar and restaurant and decided to try it just prior to the restaurant receiving a number of awards including Gourmet Traveller’s best new restaurant and a top ten place in Queensland (was it number one?)  Lucky for us as the staff told us they have been virtually booked solid ever since.  Whilst a pain for keen diners it’s great news for owner and staff who all invest heavily of time and money in any new restaurant.

So reluctantly, we showered and dressed and made our way to the restaurant in Brunswick Street.  The new restaurant and tapas bar has been open since early 2010 following the closure of former restaurant, ISIS Brasserie by its owner, Simon Hill, and subsequent reincarnation as Ortiga.  The building has obviously undergone a major interior renovation and refit which took almost a year to complete, but the outside of this old Brunswick Street building, looked deceptively small for a bar and restaurant.  Once inside the bar, which is located on the ground floor, we realized the space was quite large, but the bar was rather empty being a Sunday night.  We were led downstairs to the basement restaurant which had a great pared back, rustic style.  Much of the old character had been retained having been essentially stripped of all but structural walls and beams, and fitted out with a sparkling stainless steel open-style kitchen, and minimal decorative elements to distract the diner.  There were a few odd dining spots I would prefer not to be seated in but every restaurant comes with these, and as long as I am not seated there every time I dine, I am comfortable with that.  Lighting was perhaps a little dim, but while a constant criticism of many restaurants, its a tricky one to get right.

This place was clearly about food.  And wine, which took up the other end of the restaurant.  Menu’s in hand we set about taking that first nervous look.  Am I going to love the place and find it hard to make a choice, or will the menu disappoint?  One brief look and I knew it was going to be good.  Lots of meat, lots of offal, (of course, it’s Spanish) but with some interesting, less predictable elements. 

  We selected five dishes including a cured sausage plate as an alternative to the great but rather predictable jamón plate.  Many of the sausages were one’s I have not tried before, including a rich blood pudding type sausage called morcilla, and sobrasada, a spreadable, pâté-like pork paste, red with paprika served with some nice chewy crusty bread.  Dishes were listed mostly (and appropriately) in Spanish with English descriptions.  A few did not have descriptions so we played a game of guessing what they were while we waited for our waiter to provide some further information.  Of course we did not wait long, as service was prompt, friendly and spot on.  Our interpretations were usually wrong, which is why when travelling, we often receive surprise dishes that are a complete surprise.  We generally avoid restaurants and café’s with English menus, designed for boring tourists, finding those which cater for the locals more authentic, if not always superior.

I would have loved to try the whole slow cooked lamb shoulder with patatas a lo pobre and lemon puree which Ortiga is well known for, but with our hangovers hovering, lighter meals were called for.  We had some unusual light cheese Croquetas (croquettes); unusual in that they were not the obligatory cod.  Croquetas are always on the menu, but the main ingredient is varied.  We had a lovely fresh little salad, the contents of which I cannot recall except that it included baby French breakfast radishes.  I was growing them in my garden so I recognized them immediately on the plate.  (It wasn’t because it wasn’t good that I don’t remember, but it did serve the purpose of reminding me to take a note book and pencil to dinner!)  We also had a dish which was called something like The Pigs Head.  The dish consisted of a crumbed and fried snout, ‘crackling’ ears and a tender cheek.  I did say there was a lot of meat and offal on the menu and it’s definitely not the type of place to take your new vegetarian girlfriend/boyfriend or potential client.  The standout for me was a dish of sweetbreads, balmain bugs, and potatoes served in a creamy cod sauce.  It was a special but we were told it was to go on the new menu so definitely try it if it is there.  The unusual combination worked beautifully with a salty seafood tang delivered by the cod, but which didn’t somehow overpower the sweetbreads.  I find it hard to pass up sweetbreads whenever they appear on a menu, and thank all those who will not touch them, ensuring that thought few and far between, they are available to me occasionally.  Strict and sometimes idiosyncratic health controls in local abattoirs unfortunately ensure that a lot of offal is condemned and does not make it to our tables.

While a glass of coke would have been my poison of choice (thanks to the hangover), with this good food a good wine was essential.  I was delighted to hear that Ortiga serve half glasses, so we were able to have a matching half glass to suit each of our varied dishes but not overdo it.  The wine list claims to “showcase a wide range of wine styles and producers, ranging from Spain, France, Italy, New Zealand, Australia”  which it certainly did.  We are novices when it comes to Spanish wine, so we were keen to explore further.   The somellier selected some lovely wines, at reasonable prices and we enjoyed these new varieties.  My only regret was that I stalled at three (half) glasses and didn’t get to enjoy any Spanish Sherry which I love so much. 

My partner (who “isn’t a sweets man” said in a very manly voice) had a girlie looking parfait which he seemed to seriously enjoy.  I had a Milhojas de Cabello de Angel which was a like a millefuille of pumpkin.  It sounded so unusual I had to try it.  It was nice enough.  On a better day I may have been more enthusiastic in my praise but I had really had enough to eat, and the pastry was just slightly too heavy, in ratio to the pumpkin cream.  One less pastry layer would have been perfect.  It was a blast however, to watch the chef prepare the desserts.  Chefs are so hard working, often big and manly, but watching them handle such delicate desserts is something.

I can’t remember the cost of the evening, but I do recall that we were really pleased with the value.  Perhaps we had drunk a little less than usual which would make a difference but all the same it was good value for excellent food, and excellent service, and excellent wine.  What more could you ask for?  This is my kind of restaurant.  Good food and service without the stiffness of ‘fine dining’; where the diner can enter in a decent pair of jeans and feel comfortable, or dress up if it’s a special night.  Bravo Ortiga.  I hope I will be back.

If not, a trip to the newly opened Porteno in Surry Hills might have to salve my meat craving  until we head up north again.  That or the temple of steak, Rockpool Bar and Grill.  I can always do with a dose of that to satisfy my lust for meat.  

446 Brunswick Street,
Fortitude Valley QLD 4006 
(07) 3852 1155