Friday, August 24, 2012

An Italian Classic

Heading home tonight I realised I had no plans as to what to make for dinner - a pretty rare occurence for me! Friday night after a long week, I wanted something with simple ingredients, tasty and satisfying - but also quick to throw together. I love pasta, but we don't tend to eat it very often at home, so I thought that for a treat I would make that Roman classic - Carbonara. It contains just a handful of ingredients, but is full of robust flavours and that gorgeous rich texture that is pretty irresistible.

Carbonara is usually made with either spaghetti or bucatini (thick spaghetti that is hollow in the centre) I chose bucatini, which is thicker and slightly chewier to eat than the more delicate spaghetti. There are a whole range of stories about this famous pasta dish - some say that it was named from the word carbonaro which means charcoal burner in Italian, and that it was a hearty dish made for coal miners. Another story goes that it is named for the specks of black pepper that make up part of the seasoning, that look like coal dust on the top. Regardless of where the name comes from, it is a fabulous dish that can be whipped up in just a few minutes.

This recipe is very simple and traditional. Just some cheese, fresh eggs and some diced speck or pancetta. Carbonara does not - I repeat -  not contain cream. Never, ever, ever! I have eaten some truly awful versions of this dish in my time. I'm having food flashbacks to horrible, wallpaper paste like concoctions containing pressed ham or mystery meat, usually served from a bain marie. Ewwwwwww! It beggars belief that anyone would try to "improve" on something that is already simple perfection just as it is. The Italians didn't feel the need to gussy up the dish by drenching it in cream and god knows what else - and as far as I'm concerned, neither should we.

Carbonara should be made just prior to serving - it is not a "do ahead" recipe, and it is not suitable for freezing either. Cook it fresh while everyone is at the table -  forks in hand, ready to dig in. Buon Appetito!

Bucatini Carbonara

You will need: 300g Spaghetti or Bucatini, 250g diced speck (or pancetta), 1 whole peeled clove garlic, 2 large fresh free range eggs, 1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan, splash of olive oil, black pepper, salt.

Method: Whisk together the eggs, a pinch of salt, pepper and about half of the parmesan. Set aside.

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add the pasta and cook until just al dente. Be careful not to overcook it, as it will cook a little more when you create the sauce. Drain the pasta and set aside.

Working quickly, heat the oil in the pasta pot and cook the speck/pancetta and the garlic for about 5 minutes, until the meat starts to colour. Remove the whole garlic clove.

Add the drained pasta to the pot and toss the speck/pancetta through. Remove the pot from the heat and add the egg mixture, combining it quickly. The heat of the pasta will cook the egg mixture in a very short time. Add the rest of the parmesan, season with plenty of black pepper and serve right away.

Serves 2-4 people


Sunday, August 19, 2012

A Weekend Food Diary

This weekend I had an old friend from overseas staying with us, and because we wanted some quality catch up time, our plan was to stay pretty close to home, cooking, enjoying a few glasses of wine and taking the rare opportunity to spend time together. I thought that I would share what we have been enjoying over the last few days, all cooked at home with the exception of a Sunday morning brunch trip to nearby Addison Road Markets in Marrickville, where we ate a very eclectic breakfast and picked up a few fresh ingredients to bring home on the way. All of the dishes were quite simple and easy to put together, but they were big on flavour. Looking back on the weekend, we have certainly enjoyed a diverse menu!

My weekend food diary begins with a Japanese inspired Friday night dinner. A selection of shared dishes, served on some of the lovely Japanese ceramics we brought back from our recent trip. We began with crispy calamari and a creamy wasabi mayonnaise, and a dish of pickled radish, fennel and carrot for a tangy, crunchy contrast.

Crispy Calamari with Wasabi Mayonnaise
Radish, Fennel and Carrot Pickle

Next, a sticky, chilli coated stir fried tofu and snake bean dish, made extra delicious by the addition of dried shaved bonito. I love the very savoury dimension that dried bonito always adds to a dish - the ultimate seasoning I think! I used a medium firm tofu for this dish - it is quite forgiving as far as being handled goes and retains it's shape really well.

Chilli Tofu with Snakebeans and Bonito

For the final component of our meal, I took a beautiful smallish piece of beef fillet and coated it with a crushed mixture of fragrant black, white and red peppercorns. I seared it in a pan with a little oil, then transferred it to the oven for about 15 minutes to continue cooking. After resting it for another 15 minutes, I sliced it very thinly and served it drizzled with a simple teriaki sauce and topped it with sesame seeds. The texture of the meat was soft, moist and buttery - so tender you could pull it apart with your fingers. Washed down with a few glasses of Sake, our Japanese inspired dinner was a lovely way to kick off the weekend.

Fillet of Beef Teryaki with Sesame

It was a lovely sunny Saturday, so for lunch we decided to cook outside. We headed off to the fishmonger and bought some locally caught octopus as well as some fresh Australian prawns, which we brushed with a simple and very quickly thrown together olive oil, paprika and garlic marinade. We cooked the whole lot over coals in the back yard, and ate our seafood with crusty bread and a salad of mixed leaves which we drizzled with a small amount of fruity olive oil and some cherry balsamic. So simple, but a lovely lunch.

BBQ Prawns and Octopus with Mixed Leaf Salad

Now, there are unfortunately no pics of what we ate for dinner Saturday night - I got a bit trigger happy with delete function on my camera - so you will just have to imagine the twice cooked pork belly, served with a dollop of creamy mash and new seasons zucchini flowers, which I stuffed with a little feta cheese, parmesan and sorrel picked fresh from the garden. Rich, tasty and very delicious. I always get very excited when I start to see zucchini flowers appearing at the greengrocer - it means spring is on the way, and it is the perfect time to enjoy these delicate, beautiful vegetables.

Zucchini Flowers

Sunday morning dawned bright and sunny - perfect for being out and about - so we headed off to Addison Road Market in Marrickville to do a little bit of produce shopping and to find our breakfast. Unable to make up our minds on what to choose, we ended up trying a selection of dishes. Of course we can't visit the market without tasting the delicious hawker style roti - this time served with a rich and flavoursome lamb curry sauce. Surely this has to be one of the best breakfasts on the planet - one of my all time favourites anyway!

Roti with Lamb Curry Sauce

Delicious rustic style corn fritters were next, served with crispy bacon, homemade tomato relish, a pile of fresh herbs and a dollop of creamy aoli - yummo!

Corn Fritters
with Bacon, Homemade Tomato Relish and Aoili

In a nod to yum cha, we also shared a plate of freshly steamed dumplings - prawn and vegetables wrapped in a sticky rice wrapper, a BBQ pork bun and plenty of hot chilli sauce. I love the clean taste of a steamed dumpling, teamed with that eye watering chilli kick - certainly enough to wake you up on a Sunday morning!

BBQ Pork Bun and Steamed Dumplings

Wandering around the market, I picked up a few produce items, including organic, picked-that-morning broccolini, freshly baked ciabatta bread, crisp red radishes, pumpkin, King Edward potatoes, yellow heirloom carrots, a rack of organic lamb (from a local producer who was trying his product at the market for the first time) and some super soft and rich flavoured white rind cheese.

From Addison Road Market -
Organic vegebtables, Lamb, Ciabatta and Soft White Rind Cheese
When we arrived home from the market, we were definitely too full to eat lunch, so we had a glass of wine sitting in garden instead. I did however make a start on Sunday night dinner. I had gotten my hands on some ox cheek from our local butcher, which I was keen to slowly braise, hoping to bring out some of the amazing rich flavour that this cut of meat can deliver. It's funny, I see this ingredient on menus quite regularly, but until this week had not seen the raw product for sale at the butcher. When I saw it, I grabbed a couple of kilos right away.

Ox cheek requires very long, slow cooking - and we certainly weren't going anywhere - so it was a great time to make this hearty, comforting dish. I cooked it super simply - just seasoned and seared the meat, cooked a pile of onions, chopped carrot, parsley stalk and garlic in a little good quality olive oil and topped the whole lot with some plain beef stock before putting it in the oven for 5 hours at 120C. The resulting meat was buttery and melt in your mouth, with a dark, rich gravy. I think the secret to getting a really rich sauce is using lots of onions - I used sweet Spanish onions, which broke down during the cooking process to give a rich, caramelised flavour and body to the sauce.

Slow Braised Ox Cheek
with King Edward Potato Mash and Buttered Peas

I served the Ox cheek with a creamy mash made from the King Edward potatoes I bought at the market, and buttered peas. Nothing fancy, but hearty and full of flavour. Because the meat is very rich, we only needed small portions, so the leftover meat will be frozen, to be topped with golden puff pastry sometime in the future and reinvented as a delicious pie. A great way to have something special after work that can be thrown together quickly - all the hard work is pretty much done. I was really pleased with my first attempt at Ox cheek and will definitely keep my eyes open for it at the butcher. It wasn't expensive either - although I'm wondering if it will go the way of lamb shanks - something that butchers would almost give away a few years ago, and that now commands a top price due to a sudden fashion for that particular cut of meat. Time will tell.

So, that was the weekend in food.

And then.....
Next weekend we are heading up to my lovely in laws on the Central Coast for a Sunday family lunch, and have decided to make a weekend of it - driving up on Saturday via the Hunter Valley Region. The plan is to explore and enjoy some of the culinary delights of the area on Saturday, spend the night at The Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley and then drive across to the coast Sunday morning. The last time we were there, we discovered a farm that sold the most incredible tasting non homogenised milk, and we are taking an esky this time, so that we can stock up. We also purchased some gorgeous quality free range eggs (most turned out to have double yolks) from the same farmer, so we will be sure to pay him a visit again. Will have to do some research this week on what else we might want to check out - I hear there are cheese producers and all kinds of other food delights in the area, so there will be no shortage of things to do. Will be sure to pack my camera and my notebook, so I can share the highlights with you all.

Have a delicious week!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Review - Iggy's

So, there hasn't been a huge amount of cooking worth reporting since I've been back from Borneo/Singapore, just basic things as I catch up with my work schedule (although I did cater a lovely function on Saturday night and am kicking myself that I didn't get pics - too busy getting the dishes out!) so I thought I would share another restaurant review with you - this time for the much talked about Iggy's restaurant, which I had the opportunity to visit in my recent travels.

Iggy’s is the Singapore establishment of restaurateur and sommelier Ignatius Chan. Recently named as the number one restaurant in Asia, and number 26 on the Pellegrino 50 Best Restaurants in the World list, I was really eager to visit when I travelled to Singapore in July. There is no head chef as such – a team of chefs share the creation of the menu, based strongly on the extensive travel and dining experiences of Iggy himself. The restaurant has a reputation for innovation, so when I visited, I was prepared for something very different. I love having my boundaries pushed, and tasting foods and combinations that are new to me, so Iggy’s seemed like a must do dining experience when visiting Singapore.

Located within The Hilton Hotel on Orchard Road, the entrance hidden behind a sliding screen accessible only by buzzing the intercom and being let in by the wait staff, there was certainly a sense of occasion and expectation on arrival. Led down a stylishly dimly lit corridor, I was a bit let down when all that build up led into quite a bland looking dining space with some decidedly 1980’s looking back lighting. But still, for me, it’s all about the food so a bit of d├ęcor letdown wasn’t going to get in the way of a fabulous food experience.

The ten course degustation menu began with an interesting twist on sushi – beautiful fresh fish, with the rice component being a savoury rice meringue that dissolved in your mouth. The textures worked really well and quirky twist on the traditional sushi.

A deconstructed molecular version of Nasi Lemak, the classic rice dish was a real surprise – and one of my favourite dishes of the night, with aromatic pandan and coconut teamed with a gorgeous steamed fish base and toasty topping that was just delicious.

Deconstructed Nasi Lemak

The following dish of langoustine, watermelon and tomato jelly was fresh and pleasant, although not outstanding, and from here I’m afraid that the meal pretty much stayed at this level. The sea urchin and abalone dish failed to wow us (although to be fair to Iggy’s, the week before I had eaten Tetsuya’s sublime sea urchin dish at Waku Ghin and comparisons were going to be inevitable) A pork belly, sweet pea and fig course was enjoyable, although I have eaten far better pork belly dishes and the conger eel with yuzu and spring vegetables was crispy and pleasant – but again, there was no wow moment. Throughout the savoury dishes, which included lamb and black truffle courses, I felt there was something lacking that I just couldn’t put my finger on. The produce was top notch, the presentation was nice enough, but there was just no excitement there for me. Technically well done, but with absolutely no heart. It kind of just left me cold.

With the arrival of the dessert courses however, things really picked up. Not being a big dessert person (I am almost always happy to forgo dessert for some good cheese!) I loved the dessert of peach, yoghurt and elderflower – the peach component in particular was so fragrant and beautiful. But surprisingly, the dish of the night went to the final dessert of bitter araguani chocolate, banana, hazelnut and espresso. Texturally it was brilliant – combining chewiness and crunch, creaminess and crispness. Great flavours, a texture surprise and looking just beautiful on the plate. If only every dish had succeeded like this one.

Araguani Chocolate, Banana, Hazelnut and Espresso

It would be wrong to suggest that the Iggy’s experience was bad. There is so much about it that works in theory, the wait staff is friendly and professional, the produce is of excellent quality and what arrives on the plate is nice enough, but the experience fell way short of expectations, and to be honest I can’t imagine that I would be returning. Does it deserve its rating as number 26 in the world? Look, this stuff is all totally subjective, but for me it doesn’t come close to being in that league. Reading some other accounts of this restaurant, I'm left wondering if maybe they were off their game the evening I dined there, or if I'm just missing something here. I’m also a bit confused about Iggy’s reputation as a culinary innovator. I saw very few examples of innovation in the ten course menu – for the most part I felt that it was treading pretty familiar ground, and not hugely successfully, given the restaurant's reputation for excellence and the big price tag.

The Hilton Hotel – 581 Orchard Road, Singapore
For reservations phone: +65 6732 2234
$275.00 per person (Singapore dollars, food only)