Monday, April 26, 2010

Standing up for Vegos

I am an avowed omnivore - love a good steak and wouldn't give up cooking and eating good things like goat and rabbit and duck and venison and kangaroo for anyone. However for the last 27 years I have been preparing two separate meals most nights of the week because I am married to a vego and my oldest daughter went over to the other side at age 15. I am known to mutter darkly about these arrangements, but in reality I think the whole family is a lot healthier because for my sanity we tend to all eat vegetarian at least two nights a week and do eat much less meat than the average Aussie family.

As a result of my long experience cooking for vegos I have little or no tolerance for restaurants which don't cater for them. There's nothing worse than going to a function where you've informed the venue that a vegetarian meal is required and having them essentially presented with the vegetables served up with the meat option. Of course the opposite can be true too - sometimes vegetarians end up with a better quality meal because it is prepared individually (and airline food is often better if you tell them you're a vego).

The other night we were catching up with friends (both of whom are vegetarian) and I booked a table at a new local restaurant about which I had heard really good things - small menu, nice atmosphere and apparently excellent food. We arrived and I checked out the small menu (around 7 mains in total) to find that the only choice for vegetarians was no choice at all, a mushroom pasta or a roast vegetable salad (this on a cold, wet hills night). The 3 vegos insisted that the pasta would be fine, but I just didn't think it was good enough and did something I've never done before - I politely told the waiter that we wouldn't be staying because there really wasn't enough choice for the vegetarians. We walked up the hill to Earthly Pleasures cafe where among their choices were a tasty roast vegetable and goat's cheese stack, vegetarian lasagne or a vegetable tagine. I enjoyed a beautiful wild Barramundi steak served with a reduction of the sweet sticky sauce in which it had been marinated. Earthly Pleasures is a great example of a restaurant playing to it's audience; the chef and owners are locals who have worked out their market - a slightly grungy, alternative, environmentally and socially conscious crowd who care about the provenance of their food (all produce and wine is organic). The old bluestone house (built by the Jorgensens) is very atmospheric, and is much more laid back than when it was home to the fine dining Jorgie's restaurant. There is enough choice in the menu to cater for different budgets, and importantly they also know that the hills are alive with vegetarians (and their meat-eating partners) who'll patronise the restaurant and tell their friends (and blog-readers).

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Canberra's gourmet delights

I know I know, one doesn't usually associate our national capital with a rich foodie culture. And over my several years of visiting there on book buying trips what has struck me most is the difficulty of finding something other than the generic, cookie-cutter Italian and Asian restaurants in the local shopping strips. However I have to say that I sell almost as many cookbooks online ( often really esoteric and specialist ones) to residents of the ACT as I do to NSW; and on my latest trip last weekend I also discovered the Farmer's Market out at EPIC - the Canberra showgrounds. There were lots of locals selling really excellent fresh produce, around 4 stalls selling organic locally-grown lamb and pork, several with beautiful baked goods, wine, honey you name it. David and I were on our way out of town for the drive back to Melbourne, so stocked up with muffins for breakfast and piroshki for lunch as well as beautiful new season apples and.... mushrooms.

I am a sucker for mushrooms of any sort but these weren't just any mushrooms - they were exotic varieties of a sort I hadn't seen since the Farmer's Market in San Francisco. They are sold by the man who grows them, in a disused railway tunnel in the NSW Southern Highlands, and were a delight to behold. We bought $20 worth of wood ear, enoki and king brown and that night sauteed them up in a stir-fry vaguely based upon the Monk's Dish - quickly fried with lots of garlic, sesame oil, oyster sauce and a touch of soy.

We followed that up with figs also bought from the market which I combined with frozen raspberries, drizzled with honey and topped with my standard "I don't feel like making pastry" crumble mix. After an 8 hour drive home witha boot full of books for the Clunes book fair (May 1st & 2nd) it was lovely comfort food.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A late Christmas present - Cooking class at Bella Vedere

I have written elsewhere about my enthusiasm for Gary Cooper's gorgeous Yarra Valley wine country restaurant, Bella Vedere. When I discovered on my last visit that Gary runs cooking classes from the restaurant I demanded one as a combined Christmas gift from my family. They obliged and on Thursday I was able to de-stress from the previous two days baking and cake decorating efforts with a wonderful morning cooking and then eating the results.

It was a small hands-on class, in which rather than going step-by-step through basic recipes, we worked with Gary to prepare some dishes for lunch-time service. Bella has a purpose-built room on the first floor beautifully laid out with gas burners and sinks around the edge and two huge wooden tables in the middle for prep. We started with something I often have difficulty with - a tarte tatin, in this case a rhubarb version. Whenever I have attempted caramel in the past, the sugar always lumps or burns, and it was really instructive to watch as Gary heated up a large copper frying pan, covered the base with castor sugar and gently swirled the pan over the heat until it started to melt and then turned a beautiful golden and then going to brown. He then added a vanilla bean and two large bunches of rhubarb, which we had washed and chopped into lengths (without de-stringing, which apparently is what causes rhubarb to turn into pulp - who knew!?). This was topped with a sweetened croissant dough and taken downstairs to the bakehouse to cook.

The next dish was a Bella perennial favourite: locally-farmed rabbit braised with pancetta and cooked for around 45 minutes with apple cider, shallots, garlic, rosemary, seeded mustard and (lots) of cream.

We also prepared a free-form lasagne with a filling of smoked eel, mustard fruits and bechamel sauce, and I was gratified to see that even in a professional restaurant wonton wrappers are an acceptable substitute for fresh pasta.

The final dish prepared was ravioli stuffed with roasted pumpkin, feta and amaretti biscuits. While the pasta dough had been prepared beforehand, we rolled out the dough and made the tortellini, forcing me to finally face up to one of my cooking fears - the pasta machine. I was given one for a birthday present about 15 years ago and have always been too scared to use it - and for good reason I discovered today - it's not as easy as chefs make it look and people like me who are more than a little uncoordinated can have problems getting their heads around the process. After a few stuff-ups (patiently rectified by Gary) the tortellini was finally done. We then spent a pleasant half hour in the picturesque kitchen garden, created by a Kallisa local Jenny Hoogland, who also runs the kitchen garden at the local primary school. After a relaxed couple of hours wining and dining on the fruits of our labour, I meandered my way back to the hills, thinking once again how fortunate I am to live where I do.

Friday, April 9, 2010

A cupcake adventure

My daughter Hayley has just been witness/bridesmaid at the wedding of a close friend. The wedding was very small (25 guests) and low-key and I offered to make a cake for the occasion. The bride settled on a cupcake cake with a small cutting cake, only slightly complicated by the fact that she is gluten-intolerant. Because I have no familiarity with gluten-free cooking, I decided not to risk adapting one of my recipes and instead resorted to a couple of good quality gluten-free cake mixes. I did a test run a couple of weeks ago and was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the end result. The chocolate mud cake in particular was excellent, dense and rich and still moist a week after the practice run (the mix contains 1/2 cup of olive oil which helps).

Immediately upon arriving back from our Easter break, Dee and I, with help from Pippa, got down to work. Dee has recently done a cupcake decorating short course so her help was indispensable, particularly given I have a familial hand tremor that makes piping anything a VERY shaky endeavour. We were all quite chuffed by the end result - the cutting cake was decorated to mirror the wedding invitations and looked very cute (if I say so myself). Most importantly the bride was thrilled.

Easter feasting - Pumpkin Tortellini

I've just had a wonderful Easter break with the whole family in the beautiful and serene Bogong Village, half an hour from Mt. Beauty on the road to Falls Creek in the Victorian Alps. David and I used to have regular holidays there with the kids when they were little, so it was a little bit of nostalgia plus the desire to completely unwind that took us there again. The thing about a holiday at Bogong is that there are no shops in the village and the nearest ones are a 16km winding road down to Mt Beauty. This means that you literally have to take all the food you think you may need with you. Luckily the house we were in was very well-equipped with cooking gear, and while mostly meals were uncomplicated, I did decide to take advantage of time and our crop of butternuts at home to make pumpkin ravioli. I wasn't brave enough to attempt fresh pasta in a new kitchen, so instead we used wonton wrappers and stuffed them with roasted pumpkin and ricotta cheese mixture. With the help of Jonathan and Ryan they turned out very well. After a couple of minutes in boiling water I gave them a couple more minutes in a fryin pan in which I'd fried up fresh basil leaves in olive oil (I'd forgotten to take butter with me). Definitely something I'll try again, although it may not be the same without the entire family mucking in to help; now there is just the three of us at home, I do miss the communal nature of our cooking and meals.