Archive for the ‘Cooking’ Category

Kingfish tataki

In our town, we revel in our Food Capital status. And so we should. At any hour, we can partake of the great multi-culti banquet that built our reputation. We can taste the authentic stuff or sup on elite spins of every folk cuisine from Cambodia to Kabul.

But there’s one continent that’s a little under-represented. God, how I miss the Americas on a plate.

My homesick stomach led me to Nacional in Albert Park. Here, Chef Leena Monson is quietly playing with broad American flavours as any hip New York chef from the West Village to Williamsburg might. But the American undercurrents of this menu have been overlooked since a 2009 debut. These undercurrents are easy to miss. On the face of it, Nacional could pass for another chic, inner-suburban joint. The interior and ambience screech Melbourne, from the artfully designed lighting to the impeccable row of tea canisters from T2. At breakfast and lunch, Nacional balances the cafe-restaurant divide with grace. At dinner time, Monson lets loose with the remarkable American flavours about which she is clearly passionate. Meat matched with fruit, like a daily special on the board of pork chops and peach, is a quintessentially American marriage. From there, her unions go South in the best way. From New Orleans, we have BBQ prawns and grilled corn bread. A south-west and Central American influence creates blue corn-crusted soft-shell crab with mashed avocado and lime. Then, we really cross the border with ingredients and condiments like annatto, chipotle and chimichurri.

Prepared for our Tex-Mex, Cajun, mid-west and Central American fusion, we order from a list that comprises 38 beers. The wine list is hardly underdone. But, tonight, it’s time for a Corona.

Eager to sample Monson’s talents broadly, we order from the printed menu. Here the focus is on small plates designed for sharing at around the $18 mark.

Four pieces of complimentary warm grilled flat bread arrive unadorned shortly after our beers. A good start.

Spiced gazpacho with crab salsa, served in an oversized shot glass was a great appetiser. The tomato base was nicely spiced and avoided the chunkiness of clumsier gazpachos. Smoked paprika cured kingfish tataki (pictured), annatto oil and lemon thyme was less successful. The just-cooked thin slices of fish were light on the smoky flavour suggested by the inclusion of the paprika. Likewise, the influence of annatto was negligible. This colour and flavour enhancer derived from the achiote tree is the South American equivalent of turmeric. It was somewhat lost. A squeeze of lime across the plate before it hit the pass would really bring it out and balance a dish that deserves to shine.

The roast pork belly with pickled watermelon rind again suffers from a lack of execution. But, the concept is wonderful. On our visit the pork arrives overcooked and dry, adorned with chunks of superbly flavoured watermelon rind. The chicken escabeche with black garlic had Partner giving me that “Why don’t you cook this?” look. It was near perfect. A real stand out, however, is the beef pincho with chimichurri. It’s not often a girl has something of such quality in her mouth. The chimichurri, a South American salsa verde, is spot on, the perfect counterpoint to nicely cooked skewers of quality beef.

Nacional has all the right ducks in a row, but the pistol’s just not always firing. With a little daring and a touch more care, this new gunslinger could command a fan base of Modern American foodies.

Nacional, 36 Mills Street, Albert Park Ph: (03) 9645 0977

$110 for two, including two beers each.


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DT 1

David Thompson inspects the produce in Springvale

‘Please, please have him back by 2pm.”

Martin Boetz, executive chef at Longrain, sounds exactly like a troubled father. He looks at me like I’m a bikie about to take his wayward 16-year-old out on a date.

Not a problem, I assure him. We’ll be back by two.

“He has a tendency to wander,” says Boetz, unconvinced and with genuine fear in his eyes. I wonder exactly how much wandering havoc a chef with a Michelin star can wreak.

A couple of years back, as part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, David Thompson presented a series of dinners at Boetz’s Longrain restaurant. For devotees of Thai cuisine, it was an obligatory event.

Thompson is acclaimed as an authority on Thai culinary technique. His book on the subject, Thai Food, is regarded as a Bible by cooks eager to dish up something more genuine than a tepid green curry.

Since leaving Australia and opening Nahm at London’s Halkin Hotel in July 2001, he has become the world’s sole purveyor of Thai food to win a Michelin star.

I was slavering at the thought of Thompson’s salted chicken wafers with longans and Thai basil, Murray cod with apple eggplants and, most of all, his taste for authenticity.

First, though, I was taking David Thompson shopping.

After an elaborate exchange of emails and promises, I had a tentative “yes”. Chef would join me for an afternoon of shopping and eating in Melbourne’s little Thailand, Springvale.

Thompson darts around Springvale’s produce markets like a fastidious bee. Amid the glorious hodgepodge, he never settles on one ingredient for long and he covers every inch. He’s full of culinary counsel and I’m paying careful attention. “Lemongrass must be thin and young,” Thompson says, hovering near some thick, dried-out stalks. “Galangal must be pink and vibrant.” I’m taking it all down. I nod.

“Fish sauce isn’t simply fish sauce,” he says, before launching into a sermon on the lesser brands.

“Bad fish sauce tastes like a decomposed cat has fallen into a vat,” he says. While my palate has never detected anything cat-like, I have often felt disappointed by the quality of this salty elixir. Thompson recommends Squid brand as a dependable and widely available cat-less stand-by.

I nod. I buy some Squid.

Thompson, as his protege Boetz will affirm, is an eager teacher. Ask a question and he will respond with warm, encyclopedic force. Ask him about fusion cuisine, however, and he turns hotter than a habanero.

“I hate fusion food. Hate it with a passion,” he has been quoted as saying. For Thompson, the marriage of, for example, teriyaki with chilli shows a poverty of skill and imagination.

This chef is not a fusionista. Nor is he inclined to tag along with food trends. The popularity of molecular gastronomy among young chefs has him a little concerned. “It was interesting, and the understanding of chemistry was helpful, but I fear it’s gone too far,” he says of kitchens conjuring airs and foams.

Thompson prefers authenticity to fusion and fashion. This was evident in the presentation and flavours of his astonishing food at Longrain. I’d never devoured his creations before and had, perhaps, expected gravity-defying stacks of Thai by way of France, by way of a science lab.

Instead, each dish was an accomplished but earthy conversation of sweet, salty, hot and sour. Served in communal bowls, harmonising dishes are eaten together for the full score to emerge.

Although critics of Nahm have been aghast at this style, Thompson is resolute in maintaining the presentation. He is also a determined student of traditional Thai techniques.

Trained as a chef in Sydney, Thompson went to Thailand in 1986 and fell immediately in love. “I went for a holiday and was seduced by the place,” he says. Some years later, he emerged from his lemongrass haze, returning to Sydney to open his first restaurant, the acclaimed Darley Street Thai “in the back of a bloodbath of a hotel” in St Peters.

It was in Thailand that he encountered “an old woman who cooked the most delectable of foods. A depth of palate, seasoning, and textures that was just fantastic. Her cooking transformed my understanding of what Thai food was, from being quite pleasant, photographically delightful street food into something else”.

With partner Tanongsak Yordwai, whom he met on that first trip to Thailand, Thompson has collected and translated a substantial assortment of Thai “memorial books”. It is the custom in Thailand to publish a booklet when someone dies. It documents the deceased’s life; their habits, hobbies and often their favourite recipes. Some in Thompson’s collection are more than a century old. He calls this collection of about 600 books “a delicious treasure trove” and uses many of the recipes on his menu at Nahm.

With the spectre of 2pm looming, I whisk Thompson and Yordwai into Pa Wan for lunch. They pore over the menu, which offers arresting departures from the standard Australian neighbourhood Thai joint, and point out that many of the dishes are Cambodian or Laotian.

Thai restaurants in the West are commonly a mishmash, they tell me. Natives of neighbouring countries frequently man the stoves at your local takeaway.

It’s something of a modern miracle that Thailand remains almost singularly unconquered, its cuisine untempered by foreign influence and its citizens blase about defection to the West.

“There are no Thai refugees,” says Yordwai. Consequently, an undiluted version of Thai cuisine can be hard to find.

At Pa Wan, we select sai oung, a northern Thai pork sausage made with curry paste, coriander and lime leaves; nam kra khoa phod, pork ribs deep fried then cured in garlic and sticky rice; yum nhun plar grob, a crisp fish-skin salad; larb gai, the minced chicken salad popular on Australian Thai menus; and gang pa moo, a “jungle-style” curry of pork, baby eggplants, and bamboo.

Each dish inspired a lesson from the master of Thai cuisine. Each market stop was an education.

It was easy to lose my way in this afternoon of higher learning. I may have been a little lost in the extraordinary world of David Thompson but he didn’t go missing for a moment.

In fact, I had him back to Longrain and a grateful Martin Boetz by 10 minutes after two.

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Potato Stall, Union Square Market, New York

Potato Stall, Union Square Market, New York

Of the great passions to which I’ll publicly admit, two are gambling and food.  Every Monday night, I combine both.  At a shady poker league, I make the rules.  One of the unbreakable ones demands that last week’s pot winner provides next week’s snacks.

Usually, the blokes just lay down a lazy fifty for some average pizza.  One memorable night, however, a fella made baked potatoes. The pizzas arrived as usual, but the sizable Irish contingent in our league looked as though they’d just seen the Pope.  Through a misty vale of tears, six young men from County Wicklow landed on the spuds in preference to pizza with a passion.

Carb count aside; if you’ve a little Irish in you, there’s no point in denying your love for this humble root vegetable.

Although, my mother did do her best to ruin the potato for all time.  Thanks to the foul alchemy of over-boiling, she turned them into grey, chalky flavourless little pellets.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Now is a decent time to go on the hunt for out-of-the-ordinary potatoes. There’s an excellent spud seller at South Melbourne Markets and some upright purveyors at Prahran and Queen Vic. Here, you’ll almost certainly be able to find the new staple of posh kitchens, the Dutch cream.  This waxy, rich cream-coloured veg is a genuine indulgence au gratin. It’s of such sterling quality, though, that you can just enjoy it gently boiled in its skin with a little sea salt.

You’ll need your ready reference guide to match a tuber with its purpose.  If it’s mash you’re after, add butter, double cream and waist-band inches to Nicolas, Desirees, Bintjes, or King Edwards. For fries, select low sugar varieties such as Sebago, Russet Burbanks, and Bintje. For potato salads, favour waxy varieties like Pink Fir, Patrone or Pink Eyes. If you’re preparing the classic Nicoise or any of its wonderful springtime variations, you may not use anything but Kipfler. I also like to use chats in a salad. And Malaysian curry powder, crushed peanuts, coriander and good mayonnaise to the little boiled bullets.

My favourite way with potatoes, perhaps a Sebago, is to slice thinly and layer the discs in a baking pan with olive oil and a goodly amount of minced garlic between the spud sheets. The taters turn out equally soft and crispy in all the right places after about 40 minutes at 190°. As winter does not seem to be done with us, this could be served in the next few weeks with quality kransky or wurst and some sauerkraut.  What cold afternoon is not improved, after all, by a good continental sausage?

Potato in an even simpler form is the buzzing gastronomic dish right now in Melbourne.

Ripponlea’s Attica is serving “A simple dish of potato cooked in the earth it was grown” to scores of die-hard foodies. I adore all this swooning over Ben Shewry’s $20 spud. I haven’t tried it yet, but I’m on the root-vegetable waiting list.

You have to respect the sort of simplicity that requires eight hours to achieve.  Just as much as you have to respect carbed-up Irishmen at the poker table.



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Chicken Pie

Roast chicken, sweet potato & cauliflower cheese

Roast chicken, sweet potato & cauliflower cheese

Sharing a roast chicken between two people almost always makes for leftovers. And leftover roast chicken makes for an excellent pie. I always make excess gravy for the roast as well, as it makes for a competent pie filling binder.

I never muck around with making pastry. The frozen puff pastry sheets, even the home brand ones, work well enough for me not to bother. With chicken for filling, which I roughly chop, I either go for mixing it with sauteed leeks or mixed vegetables. Carrots, celery, onion, peas, corn, green beans and asparagus are all chickenlicious.

Chicken, vegetable and gravy pie filling

Chicken, vegetable and gravy pie filling

Puff pastry needs a hot oven to crisp up nicely. 25 minutes at 220 degrees Celsius is the go. I brush my pie with a mixture of egg and a little bit of milk to get a nice golden colour.

Chicken pie

Chicken pie

As the pie will usually last two meals, say dinner and lunch the next day, I manage to stretch the one chook across three meals. If I make a stock from the bones to create a soup, which I often do, then it can stretch to four or even five.

Pie with rocket and avocado

Pie with rocket and avocado

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Summer Sausage, Cheddar & Wholegrain Mustard Sandwich at  The Lady Killigrew Cafe, MA, USA

Summer Sausage, Cheddar & Wholegrain Mustard Sandwich at The Lady Killigrew Cafe, MA, USA

I’ve just  bought a cookbook on eBay that I’ve been hunting down for years. Seven Hundred Sandwiches was compiled by kindred spirit Florence A. Cowles back in 1928. As hard as I try, I cannot conceive the idea of 700 sandwich recipes. This is why I must own the book. At some point Florence must have become insane with boredom. I’m hoping the recipes conceived on those down days will raise a smile. But I’m also hoping there’ll be a handful of sandwiches that will blow my mind. It was in this book that one of my favourite sangers of all time, the BLT, was first referenced.


There’s not much point in trying to improve the word of the sandwich god, but like any zealot, I’m always hoping to twist the original scripture.

Although the sandwich bible might not tell you, a great BLT requires bread that’s thick enough to toast without becoming brittle, and whole egg mayonnaise. In my heaven, heirloom tomatoes, thinly sliced Spanish onions and a fiery hot sauce complete the picture. It may not be authentic, but sandwiches provide an excellent canvas for combining flavours you really enjoy. There aren’t many ‘don’ts’ in the world of sandwich construction, and the creation stories behind the most famous sandwiches usually involve a combination of boredom and available items. Just like religion itself, in fact.

Great sandwiches can be found all over the globe. Felafel, souvlaki, Vietnamese bánh mì baguettes, Indian masala dosa, and tacos all qualify as sandwiches in my book. The epicentre of all that is holy wrapped in bread is, however, the United States. Philadelphia Cheesesteaks, Po’ Boys, Reubens, hoagies, hot dogs and hamburgers are all designs worthy of their own scripture.

Burger at Five Guys, Pennsylvania, USA

Burger at Five Guys, Pennsylvania, USA

My most recent sandwich obsession came about from watching an episode of 30 Rock when hungry. The characters all get sandwiches from a secret place in Brooklyn frequented by teamsters. While the contents of the sandwiches aren’t revealed, Tina Fey’s snack-induced rapture got my imagination firing. And not about Tina Fey.

Here’s what I imagined the sandwich to be: a crusty French roll, the kind you get at Vietnamese bakeries, topped with five or six spiced meatballs in a thick tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese. It would be grilled until the cheese is bubbling and the edges of the bread are golden brown. A judicious sprinkling of finely diced onion and hot pickled green peppers would finish it off. Having conceived of them, I set about making them the very next day. They ended up being roughly the size of my calf, and after devouring them, we weren’t quite right for two days. It may have been a colon crime, but it was the best damn sandwich I’ve ever eaten.


The ultimate meatball sub

It pays to be inspired and experimental, but as flexible and forgiving as the sandwich formula is, there are times when being a purist is vital.

The Club Sandwich should always, always simply consist of turkey on the bottom layer and bacon, lettuce and tomato on the top, separated by three layers of toast.

It’s a staple of room service menus and nine times out of ten it’s a crashing disappointment.

It remains to this day my Holy Grail of divine carbs.

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One of the best things about roasting a big hunk of meat for two people is how cheaply you can eat for the following couple of days. Leftover roast beef makes for good fajitas. Here is what I used:

Everything you need to make fajitas

Everything you need to make fajitas

To make the fajitas I used half a red and half a green capsicum along with one small onion and around 150-200gms of the leftover beef. I sliced the beef and in a bowl added to it the juice of half a lime and a good shake of fajita seasoning. I covered that and refrigerated it for 30 minutes.

Marinate the beef in lime juice and fajita seasoning

Marinate the beef in lime juice and fajita seasoning

With the avocados, chilis, and the other half of lime I made guacamole. When the beef had about fifteen minutes of marinating to go, I wrapped the tortillas in foil and popped them in the oven at 160 c. I sliced the onion and capsicum thickly, and heated a smidge of olive oil in a large frypan. When the pan began to smoke ever so slightly I carefully added the capsicums and onion and stirfried quickly for about a minute. I then added the beef and kept all the ingredients moving around the pan for another minute or so.

Ready to serve

Ready to serve

I served the beef and peppers with the warmed tortillas, guacamole, sliced pickled jalapenos, sour cream and habanero hot sauce.

The perfect fajita

The perfect fajita

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A good roast depends on good gravy. Beef, chicken, lamb, it doesn’t matter. What matters is gravy that you’ve made from scratch, the best kind. And it’s almost as easy as instant.
Gravy depends on fat. Chickens and lamb legs generally have enough for gravy, but when selecting beef be sure to pick a cut with a nice layer of fat. Tonight I cooked a bolar blade roast. This shoulder cut of beef is great for casseroles and slow-cooking, but needs a gentle hand to roast well. After sprinkling the fat with salt and pepper, I cooked my 1.25kg piece for 1 hour and 10 minutes, fat side up. For the first 10 minutes at 190 c, then 180 c for the duration. Here’s how it turned out:

Roast beef Bolar Blade (Shoulder)

Roast beef Bolar Blade (Shoulder)

After removing the roast from the pan to rest, I scraped the pan for bits and poured the fat into a saucepan.

Drippings and bits from the roasting pan

Drippings and bits from the roasting pan

On a low heat I added as much flour as I reckoned there was fat, and stirred until combined for about a minute. I then added a splash of beef stock.

Fat, flour, and a splash of stock

Fat, flour, and a splash of stock

Continuously stirring, I added just over a cup, in small splashes, of stock. The trick to gravy is to keep adding stock until the desired consistency is achieved. I add about a half a teaspoon of Vegemite for colour and a flavour boost.

Just be sure to keep stirring and you’ll have the best gravy you’ve ever tasted.

Roast beef with bok choy, roasted red capsicum and baked sweet potato

Roast beef with bok choy, roasted red capsicum and baked sweet potato


Equal parts pan drippings and flour,  stock, Vegemite

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