Saturday, September 27, 2008
You know you're super-lucky when you have friends who will make breakfast for you. And not just some cereal-dunked-in-milk affair but a grand buffet with hand-squeezed orange juice and beans simmered for 12 hours and egg orders being sent via SMS (fried, poached or scrambled?). There were enough sides to make your ceramic plate quiver. It wasn't so much breakfast as slipping into a dream-on shoot for a food magazine. It was that fabulous.
This breakfast was thrown by the incredible Tabitha and Nathan, who put the 'epic' back into 'epicure'. There was a "mountain of tea" to choose from (as Karmen described it) and even "bressert" (breakfast dessert) which was fruit bread made that morning by Beth and Jeff.
The joke often is that the breadmaker is the "dud wedding present", destined to take up guilt space in the closet until a mean springcleaning streak finally banishes it many years later. But Jeff and Beth's breadmaker (received after their getting wedded) sounds like it is 12 kinds of awesome - it can be set to bake bread at 6am so you wake up to a crisp crust-fresh smell instead of a nagging alarm-clock bleep. It even makes pizza and jam (!).
I had my slice with tiger-striped-jam - ie an indecisive and greedy have-it-all combo of three flavours: fig, rosehip and sour cherry (which, as Tabitha said, tasted a lot like eating black forest cake).
I guess those pesky nutritionists are right - breakfast is the most important meal of the day. You'd never want to skip out on a spread like this.
Saturday, September 20, 2008
So I haven't been doing the Burger Dance (like these Lego dudes hopped up on patties-and-buns obviously are) but today I kick-started a food segment on Weekend Lunch, the FBI radio show presented by the amazing Anna Burns. Today we had our first go (or "first course") and it was a lot of fun.
Running with the idea that a degustation is like the "mix tape of dining", the segment was about having your own DIY degustation - except a more lo-fi, low-maintenance version that didn't involve having to wash 1000 tiny plates at the end of the night (or as Anna said, spending a week cooking vats of tomato soup only simmer it into a tiny thimble-sized reduction).
So the first suggestion was throwing a toast party. It's an idea I've mentioned here before - but it's so fantastically easy and fun that I thought it was worth bringing up again (sort of like a classic recipe you keep returning to). All you need is some killer bread - some crusty slices, fruit loaf, bagels, whatever scratches your bakery itch - and lots of fun condiments. Throw in some oddball, left-field ones just to make it interesting. (Even if you're not into something as weird-ass as raspberry and garlic jam, it definitely turbocharges the conversation around the table.)
A good place to do some pre-toast party 'research' is a local food market - like the Organic markets that are held on schoolgrounds and stall-sturdy patches throughout Sydney each week (from Penshurst to Marrickville). Such markets are full of tables with taste-test-ready jams and oils and other samples - so you can scientifically refine what you'd like to bring to the party (and pad your stomach at the same time).
This is how I came across the endlessly spoonable passionfruit and lemon curd, sold at The Rocks market in Circular Quay and made locally in Erskineville.
For more Toast Party ideas - you can roast some vegies or add some antipasto from your local deli and add that to the table. On a breezy, warm day, it's nice to add some fruit, ricotta and drizzle-worthy honey too. Just pile up the bread, slather on the spreadable and sandwich-building ingredients and crunch away. It's a nice, low-key to have a mealtime catch-up with some friends.
Other variations on this social degustation idea - have a Dumpling Party, where everyone brings a flavour lottery of different dumplings. All you need is to plop the little parcels into boiling water and add some Asian sauces and garnishes to your table. If you want an easy-to-make broth, just grab some instant miso from your supermarket or nearest Asian grocer.
You can get fresh uncooked dumplings at certain dumpling restaurants - try the "Dumpling Belt" in Ashfield (a row of dumpling restaurants known as Little Shanghai, not the state of Anna's tummy as she hilariously suggested!). I get mine from the sometimes-surly Shanghai Dumpling on Liverpool Road. Nearby is the famous Shanghai Night where you can see the dumplings being flour-stretched and handmade in the corner. Next door is New Shanghai.
You can also try Chinatown or any Asian foodie precinct.
A variation on this is to get your friends to all buy different kinds of fresh stuffed pasta (porcini-stuffed tortellini, beetroot-and-goat's-cheese ravioli and those other fancy combinations that give you deli-lust when browsing through a gourmet shop). Then have a big boil-up and dress the pasta lightly in good olive oil, parmesan shavings, cherry tomatoes and a dash of herbs. Or as Anna suggested, the good ole pairing of sage and butter. If you're on a pasta-hunt, try David Jones Foodhall in the city or Bondi Junction. The The Pasta Factory in Leichhardt has some affordable picks. Pasta Emilia in Bronte has scored a lot of attention for its organic selection.
Or why not have an afternoon tea with a chocolate degustation - where everyone invited has to bring some fancy chocolate for sharing? Check out the amazing range at Belle Fleur in Rozelle, where the ingredients range from wattleseed to lush pralines and there is literal eye candy on display (like a life-size telescope or musical instruments crafted from chocolate). The Essential Ingredient in Crows Nest has a worldly and eye-wowing range of chocolate - including 100 per cent cocoa content dark choc from France. I'm not yet brave enough to try it (a friend once did and it sounded like a brain-blitzing experience) but offering the hard stuff at a Chocolate Party could be a good conversation-starter.
And you will need some tea, so consider Tea Centre in the city, where you can sniff the different blends from the tins. You can even pick up a Sydney brew. Which seems a good note to end a segment on Sydney food.
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Monday, September 15, 2008
If I had a cameo in a fairytale, I wouldn't be suckered into near-incineration by a gingerbread house, but I would definitely be tempted by something in the size and shape of the Orange Grove Organic Markets in Rozelle.
I like the fact that you can buy killer bread there - slicing through the fruit loaf from the Shepherd's Bakehouse stall is like slicing through an actual fruit shop display, for instance. Sticky cross-sections of figs and other oven-wrinkled surprises peel away from your knife. Half a loaf of this managed to pull me through a very painful session of copywriting and the other half served as my well-toasted dinner the next night.
Once, when I turned up late, and their display window was almost swept-clean-empty, I sheepishly asked if they still had any fruit loaf left (even though anyone with functioning eyes could tell there wasn't any to be seen). Luckily, I managed to get the second-last loaf. It turns out it was hidden away from the display case - the stallholder told me they have to do this, because in the past, fights have started from people trying to tussle over the last one.
Killer bread indeed.
I would like to try their Pumpkin and Sour Cream or Bush Tomato loaves - or their Chilli and Garlic sourdough one day. But if someone more muscly gets there first, well, I'll just be wimpy and let them get their carb fix.
There's another bakery stall nearby - I haven't tried their crusty rolls or flour-dusted offerings, but I do like the Grumpy Baker's adventurously flavoured Passionfruit and Kaffir Lime Leaf Muffin. I like that its neighbour on display, the Chocolate Muffin is generously tiled over with bricks of chocolate. I haven't tried it yet, but anything with such a cocoa-high construction method has to be fairly decent.
While there is a sizeable range of things you can fill your bags with at the markets - from fresh organic produce to jams, teas, bouquets, vegan food (or honey and port cured bacon and egg rolls, if you're more of a nose-to-tail type) - my arms have always been loaded with only one thing so far. Sweets, of course.
The last time I was there, I was all sticky-fingered from the Breakfast Roti (which is filled with kaya - a coconut and pandam jam) and regretting the fact I had no room to try the Organic Banana and Raw Honey Gozleme. If only my appetite had the roomy dimensions of a gingerbread house.
Orange Grove Organic Markets, Orange Grove Public School, Cnr Perry Street and Balmain Road, on the edge of Lilyfield and Rozelle. They end at 1pm on Saturday, but also travel through Sydney - from Bondi Junction to Frenchs Forest - throughout the week. Check out the website here.
Sunday, September 7, 2008
Yesterday, I went to a lovely wedding - the kind that makes your heart buzz and dart like a dragonfly.
There were hugs aplenty, dancing and a lot of emotional sniffling (damn witty and beautiful speeches!)
And of course, there was wedding cake.
This one was made by the amazing Tabitha: 11 cakes baked over two days on an ordinary oven (she took annual leave to complete the batch). They were stored in pizza boxes before the big day and involved more than two kilograms of melted chocolate (and I'm sure, a hell of a lot of marathon stirring - she's bound to have some impressively buffed arm muscles as a result).
And it was so good I had to have more than the amount I originally rationed for myself (which really isn't so dragonfly-like, in the end).
Tuesday, September 2, 2008
Eating birthday cake is nice, but having four-course dessert ($35) is taking it to the next candle-blowing level.
With Bentley restaurant in Surry Hills offering a quadruple-scoop of such sweets on their menu, that's how we ended up celebrating Will's birthday.
First, we got the support-act savoury dishes out of the way - nibbling small treats so as not to blow our appetites too early. I had the always-amazing Gazpacho 3 Ways ($11), three colour-themed glasses that instantly blitzed my tastebuds. It was a lottery of fresh, zippy flavours: from the slight tang of the creamy almond milk to the livewire tomato & capsicum to the breezy cucumber drops.
I also had the Basil Pudding with Sweetcorn Puree and Asparagus ($18), which was a mini-installation of green-and-gold vegetables, a palette that's a little flag-wavingly patriotic or reminiscent of Van Gogh's Sunflowers, depending on how much you like to over-analyse colour schemes. I've gotta say though, it was more memorable on the eye than the other senses. No matter, we were gearing up for dessert.
Dessert Contestant #1 was the Warm White Chocolate and Passionfruit Ball with Citrus Salad. Can you go wrong with that star ingredients list? Sure, white chocolate can be screamingly sweet and "OTT", but in small flakey doses and restrained by the tart fruit dollops, it was exhibiting model behaviour. Fun to eat, and a surprise with each spoonful, this "ball" definitely was a goal-scorer.
(PS. Don't be freaked out by my Joker-esque appearance in the glass!)
The dessert menu seemed to be operating on the mix-tape principle - open with a grand attention-pleaser, then slink into weird-genre territory.
So next up was the Black Olive Sorbet with Carrot Cake and Coffee Crunch (which you can get on the normal dessert menu for $16). Sure, the idea of olive-flavoured sorbet is bound to freak a few tastebuds out, but I admit, I like it - in the same way I like some alienating music or weird TV shows or hard-to-explain art. I know not everyone's going to dig it and disliking it is not some kind of failure - in fact, it's totally valid and understandable (Will wasn't so into it, judging from his nose-screwing expression). What I like about the sorbet is its disarming sweetness that reminds you of how much olives burst with contradicting flavours, all fighting for attention in one big salty-sweet-tangy smackdown.
That said, you only need half as much sorbet to make the point - and once it all melts, it resembles one big Exxon Valdez oil slick on your plate.
The Coffee Crunch was the dessert-saver here, its caffeinated grit was all ground-up goodness (with none of the wound-up jitters of its liquid equivalent - the one that powers office meetings and keeps poor work experience kids stumbling out of cafes with Jenga-like trays of takeaway cups).
There was also a bonus burst of orange blossom jelly - a little gelatinous surprise that played into Bentley's favourite game of texture mix-and-match.
Like a mix tape, the dessert menu swung back from experimental boundary-testing territory to pure pop bliss. The third course was Rhubarb Custard with Tonka Bean Ice Cream. The custard was rolled in hazelnut praline and partly smeared with rhubarb puree. The fact it was crowned with a pretty-in-pink corkscrew just lifted the whole dish into that extra level of delightfulness. Scattered around the plate were Turkish Delight pebbles - which were dreamy to look at, and dreamier still to eat. This dessert was geared to bring out the bounding, over-excited inner kid in everyone. Especially when you discovered there were more multi-coloured candied pebbles hidden in the ice cream - it fast became a quick-to-be-unburied treasure.
So after all the fun and games of the third dish, the grand finale felt more grown-up and serious. Sure, the White Chocolate with Mandarin Ice Cream and Fizz has a sherbet-like buzz, but it's a dessert that's about sophistication galore. A watchtower of white chocolate stands over a patch of choc-grit and zesty ice cream. It's brilliant - but I've had it in two similar incarnations at Bentley before, so it's like discovering a song you already know on a mix tape your friend has made for you. You can understand why they made that pick - but it doesn't have the surprise of something totally foreign and jolting.
Which, of course, is why I didn't just stop at the Four Course Dessert Menu ($35), but had to indulge on one last extra thing - the Toasted Banana Marshmallow and Warm Banana Milk ($6).
After all, there's nothing like a birthday to give you licence to completely spoil yourself (even though it wasn't me who was counting candles on the night!). The banana milk was nothing like the powdery instant drinks you churned out after school while watching cartoons. It was a glass full of milk bubbles - so drinking from it led to a satisfying gurgle as you hoovered the chocolate straw over every last 'drop'. For something so airy, each bubble was impossibly ripe with banana flavour - and sucking the whole thing up was like some fun experiment from The Curiosity Show.
And the marshmallow didn't need much explaining at all, but boy, it was good. A toasty, perfect moment to cap off a rather kid-like night of adventurous desserts at one of my favourite restaurants.
It wasn't even my birthday, but with food that dazzled the eye like prettily-wrapped gifts (that happened to be as rewarding as real presents), it sure felt like I had something to celebrate.
Bentley Restaurant and Bar, 320 Crown Street, Surry Hills, (02) 9332 2344, www.thebentley.com.au