Saturday, March 24, 2012

A Food Travel Flashback - Bali

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to spend a couple of weeks up in the lush hills of Bali, learning about traditional Balinese cuisine. As well as discovering the indigenous plants and ingredients, I also got to spend time with some of the local women, cooking, exploring the market and marvelling at the beautiful flavours, colours and aromas that characterised the local food. I also built up my biceps from hand grinding all those gorgeous spice pastes!

Traditionally, cooking for an average day is done once in the morning - and that dish is eaten throughout the day, with rice. I remember waking up to the sound of roosters crowing, frogs in the rice paddies - and the beautiful smell of cooking early every morning, as the women in the various family compounds around where I was staying prepared food for the day. Early morning in the Balinese hills has a very distinct smell - like an exotic aromatic cloud made up of woodsmoke, incense, chillies, lemongrass, tumeric and flowers. Totally intoxicating.

Today I have a craving for some of that aromatic gorgeousness, so I thought I would share one of the dishes that I learned in my travels. I haven't made this for ages, but it is really beautiful and full of layers of flavour. Making your own spice paste may seem fiddly, but it is absolutely worth the effort - and you don't have to use a mortar and pestle if that doesn't appeal to you. A food processor is fine.

You will find all of the spice paste ingredients at any asian grocer or market. Be sure to use the fresh versions of the ginger, lime leaves, lemongrass, galangal and tumeric - dried won't cut it for this recipe. A note about the fresh tumeric - it stains like crazy, and if you get it on your clothing you will never get it off, so wear an apron and gloves when you are preparing it - unless you want ruined clothes and yellow Homer Simpson hands!

So here is today's recipe, courtesy of the gorgeous Indonesian island of Bali. This golden coloured aromatic curry is quite mild and "safe" to serve to those who might be a bit hesitant about spicy food. But of course if you are a chilli devotee, feel free to add more chillies - or leave the seeds in for extra punch.

Kare Ayam Tuwung
(Chicken & Eggplant Curry)

You will need: 6-8 skinless chicken peices (I use legs or thighs on the bone - much better flavour. I wouldn't use chicken breast for this as it will dry out too much),1 large eggplant,1 large sliced red onion, 1 tablespoon peanut oil, 1 cup coconut milk, 4 lime leaves, 1 stalk lemongrass about 10cm long,2 large tomatoes, 1 tablespoon palm sugar (you can substitute brown sugar if you don't have palm sugar),salt, pepper, 3 cups water.

For the spice paste: 6 shallots, 1 peice of ginger the size of your thumb,1 tablespoon fresh galangal, 6 cloves garlic,2 long red chillies with the seeds removed, 1 tablespoon fresh tumeric,1 tablespoon coriander seed,1/2 tablespoon cumin seed,2 teaspoons tamarind paste,1/2 teaspoon shrimp paste,3 grated candlenuts,1 teaspoon black peppercorns.

Method: Cut the eggplant into peices about half the size of a matchbox. Sprinkle with salt and place in a colander in the sink to drain. In the meantime, start preparing the spice paste.

Take the coriander seed, cumin seed and peppercorns and place them in a pan on a low heat. Gently toast them until you start to smell the aromas releasing. Be sure to move them constantly so they do not burn. If they do, start over, as burned spices will give an unpleasant bitter taste to your dish. Remove them from the pan and grind them to a powder (I use a mortar and pestle for this)

Chop the shallots, ginger, galangal, garlic, chilli and tumeric roughly. Place these in a food processor or large mortar and pestle. Add the cumin, coriander, peppercorns, candlenuts, shrimp paste and tamarind paste.Add about a third of a cup of warm water to the mixture and hand grind or process these until you have a fragrant paste. If the mixture is a little dry, add a few more teaspoons of warm water. Set the paste aside.

Cut a cross in the base of the tomatoes and place them in a bowl of boiling water for about 5 minutes. Remove the tomatoes from the water and peel off the skins - they should come off easily. Roughly chop the tomatoes and set aside.

Rinse the eggplant with cold water and pat dry with paper towels. Set aside.
Bruise the lemongrass stalk, still keeping it in one peice (a mortar and pestle is good for this!) Tie the stalk in a knot - this makes it easy to remove later and stops the fibres from breaking up through the dish.

In a wok or large saucepan, heat the peanut oil on a medium heat. Add the spice paste and allow it to cook for about 5 minutes, stirring constatntly. Add the sliced red onion and cook for another 5 minutes. Add the chicken, eggplant, lemongrass and lime leaves.

Cook the chicken, stirring occasionally for about 10 minutes. Now add the tomatoes, water, palm sugar and a little salt. Simmer gently for 20- 25 minutes.

Now stir through the coconut milk. Turn up the heat so that the mixture is boiling a lot more rapidly and allow it to cook like this for 5-10 minutes remembering to stir it from time to time.

Taste the curry and adjust the seasonings to taste - add more salt and pepper as needed. Remove the lemongrass and lime leaves before serving.

Serve with rice and fresh chillies if you like it hot.


Sunday, March 18, 2012

Culinary Adventures in Melbourne

For quite a while now, I have been keen to get down to Melbourne to dine at Cutler & Co, chef Andrew McConnell's inner city restaurant. It seems that in every bit of foodie press I came across in the 2 years or so since they opened, their praises were being sung over and over. Named the Gourmet Traveller Restaurant of the Year in 2011, McConnell's establishment has the reputation for being one of the country's finest. The planets seemed to align this month when a cheap airfare offer and an overwhelming desire for a weekend away sealed the deal, and I finally headed south to see what all the fuss was about.

The restaurant is situated in what was originally a small factory in Fitzroy, inner city Melbourne. The dining room is frankly gorgeous, beautifully designed and just the sort of place you can happily spend a few hours. We chose the degustation menu in order to sample a range of dishes - although there was a moment when we did consider ditching that option when we saw that one of their specialities is suckling pig! Drool.... Still, we don't get to Melbourne often so we decided on the option that would give us the maximun experience of what Cutler & Co has to offer.

Dining Room - Cutler & Co

From the moment our waiter brought us a selection of the to die for house made bread, we knew we were going to be in for a treat. We began with a selction of appetisers, including an earthy and moreish smoked octopus, fresh as the sea oysters, marinated green olives and the most amazing foie gras "cigars" - crispy on the outside, velvety, creamy on the inside, served on a cigar box. The courses that followed were just one perfectly executed flavour hit after the other. Building from lighter seafood dishes and moving up to meat and game, the menu is perfectly balanced. The transition from one to another makes complete sense and there isn't an attempt to get over contrived and fussy for any reason.

Some of the dishes are beautifully simple - the heirloom tomato salad is a case in point - where others showcase more complex flavours and presentation - the duck, beetroot and grape course for example. The produce is first rate, featuring some of the best our country has to offer. I was very excited to finally get to try some fresh white truffles from Tasmania in the process. The meal was just perfect as far as I'm concerned - the kind of food I like to eat, prepared and served by people who clearly take pride in what they do. Despite huge expectations, Cutler & Co did not disappoint. For those of us who don't live in Melbourne, it is well worth the plane fare.

Although we travelled to Melbourne for the Cutler & Co experience, we also had a couple of other noteworthy meals worth mentioning, that gave us something of a restaurant trifecta!

Neil Perry's Spice Temple puts it's culinary focus clearly on regional China, avoiding standard Cantonese fare, which we are most used to seeing here in Australia. The menu pays homage to regional Chinese delicacies and draws inspiration from the provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, Hunan, Jiangxi, Guangxi and Xinjiang. We randomly turned up at their door just before they were opening for lunch, thinking that it was going to be unlikely that we would get a table, given the crowd of people waiting to get in. The accomodating staff managed to get us a table, although we had to be out in just over an hour - which was fine for a lunch date.

Dining Room - Spice Temple

The dining room has a distinctively dark and sensual vibe, which really appealed to me, and a gorgeous backdrop for the beautiful regional food we were about to enjoy. The lunchtime menu focuses on yum cha style options, once again giving us the chance to sample a number of dishes. And they were all fabulous - from the succulent, juicy fleshed, crispy on the outside pork belly and the salt and pepper tofu with a knock your socks off hot and spicy relish, - to the best BBQ pork buns I have ever eaten. Just wonderful.

Sunday night saw us catching up with good friends, who had booked us in well in advance for what ended up being our third gold star food experience in Melbourne. When we arrived we understood why - the place was rocking - packed out and buzzing early on a Sunday night. Located in a laneway just off Flinders Street, chef Frank Camorra creates his beautiful Spanish tapas at Movida. Earthy, voluptuous and real are the words that come to mind. But this isn't standard tapas. With a few deft tweaks of creativity and an eye for gorgeous presentation, the food goes from luscious to simply exceptional. Sardines with tomato sorbet, the to die for Baccalau (traditional salt cod) croquettes, pressed quail and the textural and taste bonanza of the pork jowl with jamon, the menu impressed.

Dining Room - Movida

As well as the recurring theme of really great food, our trip to Malbourne also highlighted the pure delight of experiencing first rate service. All of the above establishments not only excelled from an eating point of view, but also with their knockout service skills. Waitstaff who all knew the menus down to every minute detail, could answer queries about those menus and the ingredients, were professional and efficient without being stuffy or overbearing and made the whole dining experience a delight. Waitstaff of Melbourne, we salute you.

For a whole selection of pictures from our culinary weekend, including individual menu items and some gorgeous shots of Melbourne, head to the following album:

The next major event on the dining agenda is an evening at chef Mark Best's restaurant Marque, to celebrate our first wedding anniversary - another experience that has been on my must do list for ages. Marque has recently been judged by Gourmet Traveller as the number one restaurant in the country for 2012. I have been looking at the menu online and it looks amazing. Expectations are high to say the least.

Other plans later in the year include a trip to Borneo, where I'll be sampling as much of the local food as I can get my hands on, and towards the end of the year, a 2 week culinary road trip that will see us follow the route of the major stages of the famous Targa Tasmania Rally around Tasmania. Andrew will get to indulge his love for cars and racing circuits, and together we will be sampling the culinary delights of our island state along the way. Lots to look forward to, with the usual Gourmet Goddess updates along the way.

Contact details:

Cutler & Co - 55-57 Gertrude Street Fitzroy VIC (03)9419 4888
Movida - 1 Hosier Lane, Melbourne VIC (03) 9663 3038
Spice Temple - Crown Complex 8 Whiteman Street Southbank VIC
(03) 8679 1888.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Catalan Fish Stew

A note about today's recipe: You will notice that today's entry is not accompanied by the usual photo of the finished dish. I did, in fact take a number of suitably arty shots that were destined for my Gourmet Goddess readers' eyes. However, due to a rather unfortunate incident involving me getting a bit thumb happy with the delete function during the upload process, Andrew and I are the only ones who will ever know how pretty the dish actually looked. And it was so pretty, I promise! Next time I will pay a bit more attention. So, apologies everyone - you will just have to enjoy a groovy poster advertisement for Spanish olive oil that I found instead. I will be more careful next time!

Now, to the dish itself. The inspiration for today's dish comes from Spain - or more specifically, Catalonia. Catalan food is extremely diverse and dishes in different parts of the region will depend entirely on what grows well there. Away from the coastal areas, the focus is more meat such as pork - both fresh and cured meat, wild mushrooms, local vegetables and olive oil. Along the Mediterranean coast, particularly around Barcelona, they celebrate the abundance of fresh seafood. Being a big seafood lover, I thought I would share my version of a delicious Catalan Fish Stew  or "suquet de peix".

The stew has a rich tomato base, enhanced with aromatics such as fennel seed, peppercorns, fresh garlic and thyme - and heaps of succulent seafood. The sauce has extra depth with the addition of saffron and a little almond meal that is stirred in towards the end of the cooking process. Ground almonds or hazelnuts are commonly used in Catalan recipes to thicken sauces and to add another flavour dimension.

This dish is very robust and rustic and would be great served communal style -  in a generous serving bowl, with plenty of fresh crusty bread to mop up the sauce. Feel free to use whatever seafood you prefer - I think clams and scallops would be a nice addition. Using a couple of different varieties of fish would also provide extra flavour and possibly some texture contrast.

Pure Spanish Olive Oil

You will need: (For the Sauce) 1 large red onion diced finely, 4 cloves garlic chopped, 1 cup finely diced celery, 1 cup finely diced red capsicum, 1 fennel bulb (the white part) diced finely, 1/2 cup finely diced carrot, 1 tablespoon olive oil (I used a Spanish one - seemed appropriate), 3 cups tomato passata (or tomato puree), 4 anchovies, 1 bay leaf, 1/2 tablespoon fresh thyme, 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, 1 teaspoon black peppercorns, 1 tablespoon sweet paprika, 2 teaspoons brown sugar, 1 tablespoon almond meal, 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads, 2 teaspoons sherry vinegar, 3 cups fish stock (you could also use vegetable stock if you wanted to), pinch of cayenne pepper,salt and pepper to taste.

(For the seafood) 1 large fish fillet (it should be at least 2cm thick and about 30cm long), 10 black mussels, 10 large prawns in the shell, 1 large squid.

Method: In a mortar and pestle, crush the peppercorns and fennel seeds. Set aside. Put the saffron threads in a small cup of boiling water and allow to infuse while you continue the preparation.

In a deep pan, heat the olive oil and add the ground up fennel and peppercorn mixture. Add the onion, celery, capsicum, fennel,and carrot. Cook for about 10 minutes until the mixture begins to go soft.

Roughly chop the anchovies, and add to the mixture along with the garlic and the bay leaf. Cook for another 5 minutes. Add the passata, paprika, brown sugar, sherry vinegar and cayenne pepper and combine well. Bring the mixture to a gentle simmer.

Add the soaked saffron (including the water) and the fish stock. Allow to simmer gently for around 45 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and adjust if necessary. Stir through the almond meal.

Now prepare your seafood. Remove any bones from the fish with tweezers and cut into chunks. Clean and de-beard the mussels, clean and skin the squid and cut into rings.

Heat a heavy based frypan with a drizzle of olive oil. Cook the fish, prawns and squid in small batches and set aside. Make sure you do not overcook your seafood - each batch will only take a minute or two.

Add the prawns and the mussels to the simmering sauce. Put the lid on and cook for a couple of minutes until the mussels open. Disgard any that don't. Gently stir through the fish and squid. Remove the bay leaf before serving.

Serve in pasta or soup bowls with crusty bread and a sprinkling of fresh continental parsley.

Serves 4 as a main meal or 6 as an entree.