Archive for August, 2009

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Eager for Uighur

August 21, 2009

stephuighurThis week’s column from the Empress in Good Living is a beauty, and extra fun for us to read because we were crash test dummies for one of these Chinese muslim restaurants with her – the Western Orient in Hurstville. It’s loads of fun going on these excursions (as we’ve discussed before, it’s so easy to get geographically locked into your own tiny suburban area of this city), and I can vouch for the divinity of everything Steph mentions in her Western Orient review.

The waitress, Candy, and her mum, the hidden chef, were incredulous that a bunch of gweilos would enjoy their fare. But once we convinced Candy that we actually really would like the noodles that she insisted were ‘better for Chinese people, not Australians’, she became our new best friend and recommended all sorts of goodies.

After the meal the Empress went to do her ‘candid camera moment’, where she tells the restaurateurs she wants to feature a dish of theirs, and which is always nice to witness as they get very excited. And this time, once that bit was done and we’d paid the bill and were about to leave, Candy returned to the table with a giant tureen of “Egg FlowerSoup”, compliments of her mum. As we were all completely stuffed, we groaned inwardly at the idea we had to eat yet more food, although obviously couldn’t insult the hostess by refusing. But at the first spoonful, an expression of utter ecstasy came over every face at that table, and then it was a fight to the death for the rest of the soup. The clearest, most delicate chicken broth with an egg-whitey streak, it was simply unfrickingbelievable.

And the rest of the meal, as detailed in the Empress’s column, was excellent too. She also visited two other fab-sounding Chinese Muslim joints too – so go along and check one out.

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A Woman of Style, Substance & Hedgehog Slice

August 19, 2009

hedgehogI have just heard tonight that Mrs Spain, one of my mother’s dearest friends, died this week. My mum died 15 years ago, and I haven’t kept properly in touch with her friends … so it came as a great shock to hear that Marie, who was without question the most glamorous woman in my parents’  country Catholic family circle, was in her seventies (I realise I have always pictured her as still resolutely, elegantly 47), and had had Alzheimer’s for some time, and in the past week apparently decided her time was up, and refused food and drink, and faded away with her daughters by her side.

Marie Spain was quite a woman, let me tell you.

When were small, our family of seven would turn up to Mass late, every week, with each one of us kids looking as if we’d been torn through a bush backwards – hair fuzzed, clothes misbuttoned, faces unsuccessfully tissue-swabbed, still squirming and tearfully or viciously swatting at one another over some outrage committed in the Kombi on the way to church. Once they got us into the pew, I think our exhausted parents simply closed their eyes with relief at the hour of enforced silence to come (somehow the presence of God, incense and altar boys, combined with an icy parental stare when necessary, momentarily stilled the Beelzebubs within).

But though we were always late, there was invariably one family who arrived later – but oh, so gratifyingly so. Each week, with a regal air I am certain they never knew they had, would enter a procession of Spains, all nine or twelve or sixty of them (they had multitudes of kids, plus various extraneous extended family members of all generations in constant residence, I seem to recall…) and take up their series of pews down near the front.

The differences between my family and the Spains were many and various (mostly to do with sporting prowess and wide smiles and great warmth and good looks on their part, vs wan, lankhaired, spottiness and physical clumsiness on ours) but by far the most enthralling of these differences was that the Spains – all of them, but none more than Marie – always dressed like a million bucks.

I don’t think they had a million bucks,  but Marie was one of those women of our mum’s generation who could sew. I mean really sew, not the apologetic crookedly-pinned, wonkily hemmed A-line skirts we would labour over under Mum’s bored, lacklustre supervision and the Singer threaded too tight. Marie’s stuff was serious art: the kind of French-seamed, gorgeously satiny lined, perfectly fitted stuff we would all pay thousands for these days if we could afford it, which we never will, because that kind of skill and eye for beauty is priceless.

So Marie arriving at Mass was something akin to Audrey Hepburn taking a stroll down the aisle of Our Lady Help of Christians Church, Cooma North, every Sunday. I’m talking elaborate hats, and, when called for, minxy black mantillas. I’m talking gorgeously tailored suits in sumptuous fabrics, gleaming, unscuffed shoes and matching bags, fashionably barbaric jewellery. This was the seventies: Marie wore fur, and tartan pantsuits, and slinky boots, and in one glorious phase the Spains would come to church each week accompanied by a new movie-star mother, in a fabulously funky wig: platinum bouffant one week, redhead flapper the next.

We would gaze along the pews past our mother, past all the other perfectly presentable women like the ones we girls would grow up to be, and who paled (and still do) into the faded green baize carpet in comparison to Marie Spain. If she  happened to be hovering in her grotto on the wall above Marie that week, the boring old Virgin in her chipped blue plaster sack, with her downcast eyes and her lank defeated hair, simply never stood a chance.

Marie and her husband Brian – a tall, strong-boned, confident, handsome tennis champ with warmth to burn – made a dashing couple. Their arrival at Mass was as if a pair of birds of paradise landed on the church steps every week, with a brood of chicks-in-training-plumage  stepping along behind.

I’m told that the priest there now, a young chap, never knew Marie. It’s kind of unthinkable to me, that her funeral might be presided over by someone who never witnessed this Sunday spectacular. Not his fault, obviously. But just in case he happens to read food blogs, this is for him: Marie was a woman of a steady, powerful gaze; slender shoulders; a firm handshake; perfect lipstick (red, I think); excellent Twiggy-style haircuts; bold earrings; immaculate tailoring; a husky, throaty, flirtatious laugh; a complete absence of bullshit; a conception of love and family (and god, I reckon, for that matter) that surpassed all boundaries of blood or duty, to embrace anyone having a moment of loneliness or need; a woman of boundless love, enormous verve, enormous fun.

When our father got sick and died at 53, Marie and Brian were there, instantly and at all times for my mother, and for us. When our mother got sick a few years later, Marie and Brian were there, instantly, by her side, full of love and outrage. When Brian, super-fit and indestructible, suddenly became ill himself and died devastatingly young, my family was shaken to the core for all the lovely Spains. It was impossible that he had gone, and still feels like that. They were a team.

So tonight I feel the same all over again about Marie herself, though I haven’t seen her for decades. I simply cannot get my head around her being old, being gone.

There is one more thing about her.

Every year on my father’s birthday, Marie would show up at our house with a small plateful of her famous chocolate hedgehog slice. This stuff is legendary. And in her typically stylish fashion, Marie’s slice made an entrance – a few perfect squares, artful on a white plate, or wrapped in some elegant paper – and on this day, once a year, the package was always strictly for Dad, and Dad alone. The hedgehog slice would go straight into the fridge, in its special wrapping, until he got home from work. We kids were never allowed to even sniff it, though we stared longingly, with the fridge door held open, and I guess now and again we must have been given enough of a tiniest taste for me to have developed the Pavlovian drool that still starts up whenever I think of it.

I think it took a woman with a hundred kids and every demand under the sun upon her to understand something about the specialness of the biscuit equivalent of A Room of One’s Own – how she managed it every year I don’t know. But the hedgehog cake was Dad’s birthday treat, delivered by Marie every year without fanfare, without fail, and savoured every time.

So Vale Marie: fashion icon, generous soul, deeply  loved woman with exactly the right overabundance of style and substance. I proffer this recipe for hedgehog slice, which cannot possibly measure up to hers, but all the same, I offer it in her honour and memory, with love.

Hedgehog Slice

  • 250g plain sweet biscuits (e.g. milk arrowroot)
  • 3/4 cup chopped hazelnuts
  • 125g butter
  • 125g sugar
  • 2 level tbsp cocoa
  • 2 tbsp coconut
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 beaten egg
  • 200g good quality dark chocolate

Crush biscuits, leaving some lumps, add nuts.

Combine butter, sugar, cocoa, coconut and vanilla in a saucepan and cook for 2 minutes.

Cool slightly and add egg, then add to biscuit & nut mixture.

Melt chocolate and stir thoroughly into mixture.

Refrigerate until set, about an hour. 

Cut into squares, reserving five or six to take on a small plate to your friend on his birthday.

* This recipe, while pretty good, nowhere near approaches Marie Spain’s hedgehog slice. If I ever get my hands on the original recipe, I will most definitely post it here.

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Pot, stock (& two smoking barrels)

August 16, 2009

roastvegstockOne of the (let’s be honest, rather many) obstacles to me becoming a vegetarian – as opposed to a passionate lover of all kinds of veg – would be what do to about stock.

I often toy, more than idly, with the idea of abandoning meat for all the good ethical & environmental reasons – but also love the richly layered flavours, velvety texture and million uses for a good chicken stock.

In the past, whenever I have made veg-only stocks, they’ve always been watery and bland affairs. But recently, prompted by dinners for total vego guests, I have begun making a kickarse vegetable stock, given a huge lift in flavour, texture and colour by first roasting all the veg until seriously caramelised.

It’s so simple – chuck whatever veg you have in the fridge into a pan, slather with heaps of olive oil, turn up the heat and blast it in the oven. My latest batch, pictured here midway through the roasting, included pumpkin with skin on, carrots, shallots, red onion, garlic, lots of celery, a bunch of spinach stems and a tomato. Once they’re lovely and roasted almost as dark as you can get them without burning, remove from the oven and toss into a big pot of water with the usual peppercorns, bay leaves, and salt.

I simmered it for a good few hours, reducing by a third and then topping up and reducing again, then straining it. The result is a gorgeously dark golden stock full of flavour and a very light sheen of olive oil.

This stock was perfect for Friday night’s vego dinner for eleven.

The starter, smoking barrel number 1 (stay with me, I’m clutching at headline straws here!)  was a mighty good caprese-style salad with burrata, that decadent mozzarella ball filled with cream, that you break into luscious pieces and plonk down with slices of ripe tomato, torn basil and some salad leaves; I dressed it with the usual balsamic & good oil. SB # 2, dessert, was a high-fat free-for-all known as Karen Martini’s baked lemon cheesecake with pistachio & biscuit base… we’re talking ricotta, cream cheese, goat’s curd – hmm, must add that to the festival of cheesecake from last week.

Returning Now to the point –  stock came in with this pumpkin risotto courtesy of the River Cafe (first cooked for me very recently, like so many good things, by the Empress…). It is delicious and easy. So moreish, in fact, that a guest who “doesn’t eat pumpkin” (and who was somehow swindled by his wife, I believe, into thinking this was sweet potato – a whole other post coming up on food aversions!)  happily hoed into a second helping. The stock, I reckon, certainly helped give it some oomph and silkiness.

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Eat her words…

August 12, 2009

eating booksJust listened to the good ol’ Book Show on Radio National, to a piece I missed a little while back with Helen Greenwood, a very experienced food writer who, among her other many gigs, apparently  teaches workshops in writing about food. I’ve actually been toying with the idea of having a crack at teaching such a workshop myself (about food in fiction, only), but from what I hear Ms Greenwood probably does it better. In this interview Helen pretty much covers what is so riveting about grub – not just the eating, but its tendrils into everything else that’s important: history, art, culture, medicine, love, conflict, ethics, death, emotion, memory … no wonder what’s on the plate is so endlessly interesting to mind, body and soul.

Anyway, check out the audio of Helen Greenwood’s interview here – and as I twirled around the net after Ms Greenwood, I came across another good bit of her work here, in a review* she did quite a while back for the SMH of  a brilliant-sounding anthology of food writing, rather boringly titled Choice Cuts: A Selection of Food Writing from Around the World and Throughout History. But though the title may be dull as dishwater, the book itself sounds excellent – one for the Christmas list I say, if it’s still around.

*I have to say the first line of this review, where Ms G takes anthology editors gently to task, gave me a leetle shiver; ours is out in November and I’m the editor who might be copping it –  yeek… but you know what? I don’t reckon I will. Because the stories in our book, Brothers & Sisters, are fricking gold. Take one Nam Le, mix with one Cate Kennedy, one Tegan Bennett Daylight and a Christos Tsiolkas, and blend with one Robert Drewe, a Roger McDonald, an Ash Hay, a Tony Birch, an slug of newness a la Virginia Peters & Michael Sala, rounding off with a sprinkle of One, and I say that is one impeccable recipe. Oh, how a metaphor can be stretched and mangled. Believe me, though – unlike this blather of mine, the book is a cracker.

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Say cheese (cake)

August 12, 2009

This week the Empress’s Good Living column discusses the only dessert apart from chocolate that I am officially in love with – cheesecake:

stephcheesecakeThink cheesecake and most of us have an image of the high American baked versions, rich with cream cheese, eggs and sugar. Sometimes known as Lindy’s cheesecake, after a now-defunct New York restaurant, it rests on a buttery base of crushed biscuits, flavoured with citrus rind and often topped with fruit compote. Even though there are more cheesecake recipes from the US than anywhere else, other cultures have their own versions using other cream cheeses.

To follow her investigations of the best three cheesecakes in Sydders, check out her column here.

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Shelf help

August 7, 2009

cookbooksToday’s post is inspired by two things – first, the empty space we now have in our new cookbook shelves; and second, our chat here about Julia Child, and especially Julie’s & Fiona’s recollections of working from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which Fiona so beautifully described as “my first cooking book mother – the human mother being a frozen chop sort of cook…”

Now, as you can see, in place of our crappy old single cookbook shelf jammed into a corner of the living room are these spacious purpose-built cookbook shelves in the kitchen itself (I know, the top one is a leetle cramped, but good for mags perhaps?)

So I discover to my delight that we need more cookbooks. We did chuck out a few duds when we cleared the place for the reno, so pretty much only useful ones remain.

And all this Julia Child talk has made me think about classics I should own but do not – and I would love your advice. I want to hear about your ‘cookbook mother’ – the book that got you into cooking in a way your own mum didn’t.

I know we’ve touched on this via my Elizabeth David ramble here, but I want to hear more about your early cookery book love affairs. After Elizabeth, it was two Aussie blokes who led me up the kitchen garden path – Paul Merrony, with a slender (almost self-published-looking) book called The New French Cooking in Australia: Recipes from Merrony’s Restaurant, and the other was Geoff Slattery, with a very workable and appealingly instructive book called Simple Flavours. Both of these propelled me wonderfully towards fresh, simple yet classic dishes and flavour combinations. What about you?

And what about those classics every cook should have – you must have at least two or three on your shelves that One doesn’t?  Help me fill the void!

Postscript: A couple of recent birthdays round here have suddenly yielded two beauties since I wrote the above – Marcella Hazan’s The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking and Greg & Lucy Malouf’s Saha: A chef’s journey through Syria & Lebanon. Happy, happy days in this house!


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The martian’s pizza

August 6, 2009

stephmartianThe Empress’s SMH Good Living column has been the most emailed SMH article so far today – and with good reason. This week she checked out an outlandish (to boring old Anglos like me!) Japanese dish called okonomiyaki, which her husband has described as “a martian’s idea of a pizza”.  Writes the Empress:

This could be one of life’s weirdest dishes. Having said that, when done well it’s compellingly delicious. Cabbage with pork, seafood or a combination of both are lightly bound in a flour, egg and dashi batter that is fried as a thick round. This is where things start getting trippy: once cooked, the okonomiyaki is covered with squiggles of Japanese mayonnaise and special sauce that is like the Aussie barbecue variety, sprinkled with nori flakes and piled with bonito shavings, which wave slowly in the pancake’s rising heat.

To find out where to eat this strange delight, visit her column here.