Bumping into an old friend

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It is hard to know what to say.  There is always that awkward silence after the initial chit chat.  Once the pleasantries are over, you are left with the gaping chasm of what the bloody hell to talk about.  Too much time has passed for it to be an easy conversation.  Well…here goes.

How are you guys?  What have you been up to?  I have moved to Melbourne.  The itch came back to my feet and before I knew it, I was on another long haul flight to the other side of the planet.  This seems to happen to me often, maybe there’s a cream I can get for that.

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Food is a major comfort right now.  Whether that be the galaxy minstrels that I buy from the old fashioned sweet shop for an exorbitant price and eat in bed whilst drinking tea and feeling melancholy or the big bowls of noodle soup which I ply upon friends after hours in the kitchen slaving over the broth.  Now, I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, when you move to a new place, you have to make new friends and that takes time. Fact.  I am at peace with the fact that relocation is a slow process, the actual geographical relocation of my tiny little self takes no time at all but the starting a life malarkey takes a while.  Therefore, as you can imagine, between the unemployment and the no friends (yet) thing, I have a bit of time on my hands.  Time which I use to eat, to cook, to learn.  My stomach is definitely testament to the eating part of that statement.  I have littered this post with a few photo’s from the last few months, just to get you all salivating.

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I have been exploring the cheaper culinary delights which Melbourne has to offer and can say that I have thus far, only had one bad meal in this city.  There was heartwarming goodness to be had at Teta Mona which has been serving up delicious lebanese food for the last few months, to much applause.  We went with a big crowd on a hot day, the byo policy meant that the table was soon littered with empty beer bottles as we all drank too fast in a desperate attempt to ignore the cloying heat.  Looking back, the highlight of that meal must have been when one of the owners walked up to the table, dressed in his adidas shorts, thongs (flip flops) and singlet, with half a flat bread hanging out of his mouth to enquire as to whether we needed any more food.  Relaxed Aussie hospitality at its best!

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There have also been a myriad of pho’s consumed, in my dogged hunt for the best pho in Melbourne.  I have eaten at four different pho emporiums so far but nothing is quite hitting the spot.  The trouble is, I want it to taste like the pho I used to have three times a week at Tre Viet in Hackney and that is never going to happen.  The search continues… I haven’t even been to Richmond yet so really haven’t touched the tip of the iceberg.

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Souvlaki never tasted so good as the cheeky little number I had at George Colombaris’ nifty little venture Jimmy Grant’s.  Incredibly good value, boisterously fresh ingredients and just bloody tasty.  Great concept, great place.

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There was also a quick sojourn to my old home, Margaret River.  It was an epic trip.  So many beautiful moments shared with some incredibly good friends…  And not only was I afforded the gift of spending time with friends but also the luxury of fantastic food.  Across the board, I was deeply satisfied with everything that passed my lips.  My first pit stop was at a wonderful winery and restaurant where I used to rattle the pans, Hay Shed Hill.  It is a place which resonates with great memories for me and I was not disappointed when I stopped in for lunch.  A soft shell crab salad full of Asian delights was simply delicious, perfectly balanced and humming with life.  Alongside this, was an octopus and chorizo salad which was voluptuous and smoky.  As if this wasn’t enough, I topped it off with a great gluten free pizza.  I love visiting the places I used to work at, especially when they are this good.  If you are in Margaret River, go there.

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A restaurant which has been a long time coming has opened in Margaret River, Miki’s Open Kitchen.  Miki has been working in the region on and off for years and there have long been whispers in the chef community about him opening his own restaurant and everyone waited with baited breath and now, finally, it is here.  I chose to order the ‘Trust’ menu where the chef sends 6 courses of his choosing.  We were sat overlooking the kitchen as the chefs worked their magic in presenting us with various delights.  I was having such a good time that I forgot to take many photo’s and made limited notes so you will just have to look at the picture below and take my word for it.  Also, go there too!

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I think that is quite enough catching up for now.

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Putting the Am in Amsterdam

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The Netherlands is not exactly renown for its culinary prowess.  This prospect filled me with dread.  I am also not exactly renowned for being capable of consuming mediocre food with much enthusiasm.  This didn’t bode well for my imminent trip to Amsterdam.  I did as much research as possible, with only two days in the fabulous city, there was no time (or weight) to be lost.  I asked around my chef friends for recommendations and they came back with zero.  Now I was really worried.  However, my friend recommended De Kas.  Half greenhouse, half restaurant, it sounded right up my alley.  Only it wasn’t in an alley, it was in the midst of a pretty park, sitting quietly under a sky made glorious by the abundant sunshine.

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As we stepped out of the biting October wind and into the calm interior of De Kas, we were greeted by staff that made you feel safe, we were in good hands.  I just knew it.  Everything had been considered. There was a quiet confidence, a certainty about the place which made it all seem rather effortless.  The space itself was impressive and not just for its vastness.  It would be easy for a glass and steel structure with a high ceiling to emit a chilly air, but the inclusion of large fruit trees and soft furnishings made it comfortable and then some.  For me, I have no issue paying for quality food and I am heartened by restaurants which display generosity.  After we were seated by the helpful staff, it took only a heartbeat for them to return to the table, laden with offerings.  They didn’t have to bring three small bread buns for one person and they didn’t have to bring olives and marinated zucchini and they didn’t have to bring luscious basil oil to accompany the bread and they didn’t have to top up said supplies of olives and oil when my dinner companion had inhaled them all.  They didn’t have to do any of this but they did.  And this simple fact made me smile.  They also didn’t have to top up our wines when we had drunk our matching wines before the accompanying food had appeared but they had clearly spotted a mile off that we were unapologetic lushes.  For all of this we were grateful.

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De Kas is all about the produce and the produce definitely stole the show.  Amongst the three starters to share, there was a pumpkin soup which tasted so much of itself, it was positively resonating with pumpkin.  This was accented by the inclusion of sweet, meaty little shrimp and various vegetal matter.  There was a carrot salad which spoke to me, I’m serious, we had a word; it was quite special.  The carrot had been roasted and paired with feta, celery and caraway seeds.  Each facet of the dish hummed with enthusiasm, glad to be out of the greenhouse and on the plate of an eager diner.  Carrot which had been roasted to the pinnacle of its possibilities, it was sweet and rich and sultry…add in some creamy feta and the genius of a few caraway seeds and you have yourselves a winner ladies and gentleman.  There was a dressing which tasted like perfect caramel, when I enquired as to its origins, I was told that it was carrot juice which had been reduced to a ridiculous extent and been buddied up with some ginger etc.  Gosh darn it, it was good stuff.

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We had turbot for our main course, lovely nuggets of the stuff.  On the side, there was red cabbage which I think had been roasted, it tasted good enough that it became a topic in its own right.  Love a good roasted brassica!  If food is making me talk, it is due to two reasons, one – it is so good that it deserves praise,  two – it makes me so angry that is deserves denigration.  I am not exactly lacking in the verbosity department but still…  For me, when a food becomes more than the sum of its parts, you have succeeded as a cook/a chef/a human.  You know sometimes you taste a food which tastes more like itself than you could have imagined, it tastes concentrated, exaggerated, potent.  There were many points in the meal which echoed this notion.

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After scoffing down various gems from the greenhouse and beyond, there was no way I was going to pass dessert by.  And so I found myself ordering an apple creme caramel malarkey with a cheeky glass of Pedro Ximenez.  Atop its quivering form was an apple crisp that was a delight in itself, I would gladly have eaten a bowl of those for dessert.  De Kas illuminates and gives flight to the possibility locked within fantastic produce.  If you start with something screaming with freshness, quality and integrity then you are more than half way there.  Beauty is born, it is innate, it cannot be faked.  All we can hope as chefs and home cooks alike, is that we embellish that beauty.  De Kas does this wholeheartedly.

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I am in love

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I don’t know about the rest of the country but with every week that passes, I fall a little more in love.  Of course, he is a French man.  Who doesn’t come to Europe to find themselves and fall hopelessly in love with a French man?  I know many of you will find the age gap slightly icky but I really don’t think it hinders our relationship at all.  What is a 32 year age gap between friends???  Of course, I am speaking of my lovely Raymond Blanc.

In the past few weeks he has been gracing the screens of the nation, teaching us all how to cook and teaching me how to swoon.  He has been ‘ooh la la’ing’ his way through the basics of cookery and has made techniques  which are sometimes perceived as difficult, accessible to the masses. As a result of my obsession, I was moved to make the Asian inspired slow cooked beef shin which he showcased in his show about, you guessed it, slow cooking.  I must say, I was salivating over that particular plate of food almost as much I do over Raymond himself.

The rich sauce had a melting, unctuous quality which no doubt was made all the more sumptuous as the marrow from the beef shin relinquished over the course of the 5 hour cooking time.  Over the years I have eaten many a European style beef shin dish and therefore there was something comforting and familiar about the meat, however, the inclusion of various Asian ingredients made it a little special. I pulled out the giant beef bones and gently combined the meat with the silken sauce which I had reduced to a thick but not cloying liquor.  Before I served the dish, I stood the two shin bones proudly in the centre of the bowl, a gentle reminder of the meats origins.  My guests sighed and raved over the mellifluous  meat.  And I sighed contentedly, safe in the knowledge that Raymond was worthy of his place in my heart.

You can find the recipe here.

N.B. If memory serves me correctly, a very good friend of mine worked for Raymond once and had a not very nice time of it, so my heart remains a little conflicted…

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Stop the press – Good pub roast found in London

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Do you ever get the feeling that you can’t find a good Sunday roast in a pub?  I know I do.  After years of studiously avoiding pub roasts as they generally fall into the ‘could of done it better myself category’, I was shocked and awed at the discovery of a good roast, very good in fact, in a good pub, with a good energy about the place.  Now folks, open your ears, pay attention, I am going to ask you to remember some numbers and letters…The Water Poet, 9-11 Folgate street.  This information is valuable, commit it to memory.

I often wake up on a Sunday with a deep seated desire to eat large quantities of Sunday roast, drink several pints of cider, followed by several red wines and read every Sunday news supplement under the sun.  And unfortunately this desire all too often goes unsated.  The newspapers are readily available, the booze is never far away but the roast…the roast consistently evades me.  I’ve been to many a great restaurant and had rubbish roasts, I’ve been to bad restaurants and had rubbish roasts.  If I want a roast dinner I usually gravitate towards my sister or my Mum.  They make the sort of roast that I want to eat, this may seem obvious, we all crave the food of our youths to some extent and my sister being a little culinary whizz not only makes as good a roast as my Mum, she actually makes a better one!  Now, this is the point where I’m quivering in my boots and praying that my Mum doesn’t read this post.  Sorry Mum, but you know that Sis makes the best roast potatoes.  Sis makes better roast potatoes than me and I trained for three years to be a chef so don’t be too disheartened.  Your swede and carrot mash is better than Sis’, probably something to do with the 100g or so of butter that you sling in there with the salt and pepper.  Anyway, now that I have essentially created  a family feud, onto the matter in hand.

The Water Poet is a pub that I have been to for drinks a couple of times and always thought it was a nice enough pub, on a quiet little side street not far from Liverpool street.  It is one of those unexpected places, it, in a way, stands alone, unencumbered by its surroundings.  When you walk in the door, you simply know that you are in a nice place and want to stay a while.  And on this particular Sunday, after circumnavigating Hyde park and taking in a bit of art, I was dangerously in need of food and booze.  I generally never get my hopes up that I will be able to have a pub roast as there is usually some element of the dish I can’t have due to its glutenous qualities, often its the gravy and I’m sorry but I’m not the kind of heathen who would eat roast without gravy.  This is a crime in my book, punishable by death.  Harsh but fair.  However!  On this day, the gods must have been smiling down on me (it was a Sunday after all) as the roast was gluten free.  I nearly cartwheeled round the dining room on hearing the good news but managed to restrain myself and instead settled in with a glass of Viognier and some great company and waited for my pork belly.

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When a laden plate of food was proffered not too much later, I knew we were onto a good thing.  Generous portions, vivid vegetables and lashings of gravy, as requested.  Now this was not fancy food but it was food done well.  The pork belly was juicy and pink, the vegetables had a nice bite and the gravy was rich and flavoursome.  The potatoes, as I so often find, were average but far from bad.  All in all, a damn fine plate of food.  Go there, enjoy food.  Simple.

Just in case you’re wondering what that photo is up there, it’s the art what I saw innit.

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Mediocrity malaise

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So…I did make a cake.  And unfortunately, like my health, it was pretty mediocre.  You see, I have a compulsion to cook.  There is very little choice involved and therefore, I end up cooking when I should be sleeping, eating, working, resting etc.  And that’s how you end up making a chocolate, banana and cardamom cake when you should be in bed attending to more pressing matters, like blowing your nose.  And the worst part, after all that effort, the cake was several shades of average.

We can’t win them all but we can look at pretty pictures of food and make ourselves feel much better about the world.  So here are a few recent photo’s which I hopefully haven’t shared with you yet.  I promise there will be a restaurant review this week.  Little Chef just needs a wee bit longer to get her mojo back.  Hopefully these will distract you until then…

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A lovely little risotto I made for myself in Italy.  Fresh, local produce.  So simple, so good!

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Delicious, nearly savoury peanut butter cookies I made for my lovely colleagues.

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A very rich chocolate mousse I made for my beautiful friends in Italy, I candied some fennel and orange and topped it all with a local hazelnut praline.  The best hazelnuts I have ever tasted.

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Accidental pork scratchings… Oops, I accidentally made bacon popcorn and this was a rather serendipitous by-product of that process.  Happy days.

Oh and that jelly hiding way up the top there is a champagne jelly, it is ridiculously good and super simple. The brainchild of my lovely, lovely ex Executive chef.

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Fish for friends

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I have a cold.  If I was a man I would be calling it flu.  But it’s not.  At this juncture, it is an elephant sitting on my chest, watery-eyed, swollen glands, tickly cough kinda number.  I was trying to find a polite word for mucus but gave up.  You get the idea.  It sucks.  And mostly because, prior to this goddamn cold gatecrashing my usually semi ordered life, I was attempting to be super productive.

Times they are a’changing in Little Chef’s world and there is lots to be discovered, researched and planned over the next few weeks.  Unfortunately for the curious ones amongst you, I cannot divulge the nature of the aforementioned excitement…yet.  However, if you can hold tight for a few weeks then I promise I will tell you all my darkest secrets.  Well, maybe not all of them but at least the relevant food related ones.

So, moving onto things I can tell you about.  I made some pretty delightful meatballs for dinner last night.  Impressive under the circumstances.  I managed to prise myself out of bed for long enough to take a walk in the momentary sunshine and pick up some rather special ingredients.  A wander past a lovely little deli ended in me purchasing some nice gluten free spaghetti and some lush, verdant organic wild garlic.  My destination however was The Ginger Pig butcher, which is the sort of place that takes my breath away.  You can see whole carcasses hanging up out the back and the counter is festooned with giant chunks of forerib with a beautiful thick layer of fat, aged appropriately and just begging to be bought.  However, I’m not a millionaire and forerib don’t come cheap so I headed towards the mince.  I make my meatballs with mixed media meats, a little from column A and a little from column B.  No, i’m not talking about the oh so British institution of slipping a little horsemeat into my meatballs, I’m talking about good quality pork mince making up two thirds, good quality beef mince making up the other third and then a wee bit of bloody good chorizo making up the last bit that I didn’t factor into my super duper mathematical equation.

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Not only were the meatballs a pretty sexy dinner when coupled with corn spaghetti, wild garlic and a glass of red but this morning they were reincarnated.  Fridge beans took on a whole new meaning when they were coupled with spicy meatballs and yet more chorizo. Heck yes!  Something else I made for a friend the other day which was rather lovely was a baked whole mackerel with some braised fennel and a rocket and tomato salad.  It was just what the doctor ordered, healthy, tasty and simple.  I feel like I might have just enough energy in me to make a banana and chocolate cake later but that means I will have to leave you good people, take a quick nap, dose up on some meds and fire up the stove.  I might even pop in tomorrow with news of the cake, if I can tear myself away from ‘Breaking bad’ and bed for long enough to make it into the kitchen tonight.

P.s.  Apologies to any of you who receive my blog via email and got sent a half finished blog yesterday.  Note to self, do not write blogs at 3am on your new kindle (which you don’t know how to use yet) whilst suffering from a brain debilitating cold, as it leads to you publishing half finished blogs!

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Sometimes you need to get lost to find yourself…in Italy

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Some of you may know and some of you may not… I have embarked upon an Italian adventure.  After spending eight months in London, in the heart of my family, it was time to spread my wings again and do the thing I was always too scared to do.  Travel.  Alone.  I think, like most people, I am capable of more than I realise.  Virtually all of us have a strength inside us which we rarely test, it lies there waiting for the day it is called upon.  And yesterday I knocked at the door of my strength and asked if I could come inside.  This may be verging on cloyingly sentimental and philosophical but if I am going to share this journey with you all, I should start with absolute honesty.

Yesterday was my first proper day in Monforte D’Alba.  It was a beautiful day, I had the pleasure of experiencing Italian hospitality firsthand, this hospitality basically means that you cannot enter someone’s house without being offered a plethora of food and drink and you are certainly not allowed to leave until you have consumed large quantities of said food and drink.  My friends who I am staying with not only were generous enough to introduce me to all their friends but also took me to a fantastic restaurant in Verduno.

Trattoria dai Bercau offers a 9 course degustation menu and that is all.  You do not go there for a quick feed, you go to be with family and friends and enjoy the bounty of the region.  We arrived at 12:30 and left at 17:00.  Now, this is not the kind of degustation that might spring to mind, there is no fancy pants fine dining malarkey, it is good, honest country food and lots of it.  They bring plates of food to the table and serve you as much or as little as you like.  After four different generous antipasti, all brought out one course at a time (you need to pace yourself), we then moved onto primo, the first course, of which there are two, obviously!  So, I opted out of the ravioli course but relished the tender rice of the saffron and asparagus risotto.  Thankfully, the food started taking its time to appear at the table.  After a brief respite, the meat courses were being introduced, secondo.  They come to the table with sliced meat and you say how many pieces you would like and you get a little of the cooking juices poured over the top and that is it, no vegetable sides, just meat.  I rather enjoyed this concept, as you get to truly appreciate each ingredient.  We had two meat courses, one of milk fed spring lamb ribs, which were delicious but more bone than meat and one of turkey.  Turkey is far from a favourite of mine, it usually brings forth memories of dry, overcooked breast meat but this ‘tacchino’ was rich, moist and full of flavour, the best turkey I have ever eaten.  All of these delights were finished off with a light, fluffy goats milk panna cotta and a delicious cup of coffee.

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After what was a spectacular day, I looked out over the stunning mountains, with the small Italian towns nestled in the foreground as the sun set behind the church and; I had a wobble.  Ridiculous I know, but something about staring out at the vastness of it all, seemed to compound every fear I have ever had about this trip and more besides.  What if I don’t like it?  What if I break my leg and there’s no-one to pick me up?  What if I can’t find work?  What if I freak out and want to go home?  Home being the ultimate ambiguous concept, I currently have no home so where does that leave me?  Some time later, when I had run every negative question possible through my brain, things became a little clearer, things became a little less terrifying and it dawned on me… I have nothing to risk and everything to gain.  When you are building a life or at least an adventure from the ground up, anything is possible and I am absolutely in charge of this adventure.  I think we are all prone to a wobble every now and then, but the important thing is to pick yourself up, put two feet firmly on the ground and know that the road WILL rise up to meet you.

Once the fear started to melt away, I remembered that I am blessed to be in this position, I am blessed to have freedom and I am blessed to have family and friends whom I love very much.  I might not have the security of a home but am safe in the knowledge that no matter how far I travel, I carry the people I love in my heart.

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