Category Archives: food

The Black Stuff

You know what umami is? I had to take to the ether (dictionaries being now redundant – and would they carry the word anyway?) and here’s what it said – ‘Umami or savoury taste is one of the five basic tastes. It has been described as savoury and is characteristic of broths and cooked meats.’ It was all news to me, but I checked it out to discern what Terry Durack was on about. I’ll raise it at my next dinner party – ‘Your cooking is terrific. I love the umaniness of this dish I’m relishing now.’ How does that sound? Just goes to show, you’re never too old to learn something new.

I loved it that food commentator Durack describes the black stuff in question as our national ‘salt-lick’. Like all of my generation, I grew up a Vegemite kid and the accompanying short piece bought viscous memories flooding back. The writer recalls it was quite ubiquitous. In his list of the delectable delights its umaminess would enhance back then he failed to mention how it lit up our school lunches. It was pasted between two slabs of snowy white bread. Maybe it was just the black stuff as it provided filling enough, but occasionally left-over lettuce – iceberg was the only choice back in the day – might have been included. Or, if you’d been especially good, maybe a coveted slice of Kraft cheddar. Just hold the tomato – that turned sangars into squishy mush.

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We never partook of Marmite – that was for Poms and wusses. Vegemite was the real deal – as Aussie as Kangaroos and Holden cars. And if the supermarket shelves are anything to go by – see, I’ve done some thorough research for this scribbling – it’s still immensely popular. I’ve noted that Durack adds it to casseroles and stews (what’s the difference?), as well as soups, in a similar way to what I do with that other retro black stuff, Worcestershire sauce.

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But then, by my teenage years, I was revolting. I got gastronomic tickets on myself, announced my disdain of the true blue product and switched to – wait for it – Promite!!! Now I can’t imagine why I thought it top-notch, but my dear, long suffering (of my foibles) mother duly added it regularly to her shopping list. My recall of it was that it was a tad sweeter than Vegemite and yes, it is still on supermarket shelving. I checked – is there no end to the lengths I will go for my art? But it takes up little space in comparison to the front-runner. Perhaps I should have purchased a jar and conducted a taste test, but that was a place too far. My lovely Leigh, now and again, has a yearning for toast and Vegemite, so it features in our larder, but I haven’t sampled either product for a good few decades. And, not since my childhood has the umami of that other black stuff tempted my taste buds.

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This other tarry substance was a rock solid element of my growing up – all the black muck that sank to the bottom of a bowl of dripping. It was religiously made, or added to, from the oily juices and the scratchings of our regular Sunday roasts by our ever-wonderful mum. Used during the week as a regular spread on our toast for brekkie and for snacks when we were ravenous, it was a true belly-filler. It was fatty as – and the charcoal-coloured bottom layer, if mixed in, gave it great piquancy and flavour. Delicious. Culinary heaven. But what additional oomph did it give to the oversupply of no-nos to my cholesterol count through the consumption of the greasy, oily lard – oh dear. Did it contribute to my high fat levels in later life for which I now take pills to contain? Probably, but I’m still here feeling relatively healthy. And it gave me utmost pleasure in simpler times.

And now Vegemite has gone the full circle and is an ingredient in many dishes in up-market restaurants – it being used, would you believe, as a selling point. Even Blumenthal and goddess Nigella have played around with it. So, three cheers for it being back in Aussie ownership. And three cheers for the black stuff of all our youths, no matter what form it took. Even the tack at the bottom of a bowl of dripping.

Terry Durack’s column + https://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/the-chefs-making-a-toast-to-vegemite-20181205-h18rp0.html

In a Cafe, Sitting Down with John and Bernard

Yes, I like my space too. I am removed from my comfort zone if I’m seated, elbow to elbow, with strangers for a dining experience in the cafes and restaurants of my town, of any town. When I am not out and about with my lovely lady or pals, I play it safe, very safe. In company I tend to be a tad more adventurous, but on my tod it’s usually the franchise watering holes, such as Banjos or Hudsons, that see me. In these I know I’ll be able to peruse a book or newspaper in privacy, without the thumpa-thumpa music that afflicts some coffee shops – take note a certain establishment in NoHo. When I am alone I keep to myself and expect others to do the same. And I shudder at the thought of those hipster establishments with their communal tables and as uncomfortable as possible seating as a badge of honour. Hipster-lite is okay. I have no objection to bearded baristas with top-knots. I like a quiet cafe – but, it’s a different matter with restaurants. There a degree of noise is expected, but you shouldn’t have to shout to be heard should you wish to engage in conversation with your companions.

When you are restauranteering you have less control over the situation and I try to be flexible, not obviously displaying it if I am irked by the choice of the venue or the quality of the nosh. But, as with Bernard, I do my best to avoid close table dining. Being a naturally reticent person I find such cheek to jowelness with my fellow humans somewhat confronting. If they are well soused and in expansive moods it can become a nightmare. And if there’s music being constantly increased in volume to compete, as was the case in a recent experience in my home city, then it becomes purgatory.

But I have had a couple of close dining experiences I’d like to relate to you, dear reader, when I actually let my hair down in a claustrophobic situation. One occurred in Adelaide, the other in Yarra City

My lovely lady and I had had a good run of dining out experiences in the City of Churches on the Torrens. We got it into our heads that we must not leave this Earth without having a Jamie Oliver experience. Adelaide had one available – his Italian restaurant on King William Street. It’s described in the blurb we read as a ‘…relaxed venue with rustic menu and antipasto bar.’ but, since our attendance, it has had a fairly up and down history. When my son was in the city, not so long ago, he reported it was on the nose. I think I read recently that the great man has now taken over direct control of it as matters at the eatery bearing his name had become so dire.

Anyway, when we arrived – no bookings taken – it was anything but relaxed. It was jam packed. But, after a considerable wait, we were finally ushered to a small table against a wall. Another couple arrived shortly after us and were practically seated on top of we two against the wall as well. We were so in proximity it seemed not to be an auspicious start as we realised we couldn’t possibly get through the evening without some sort of communication with these folk. It turned out the pair, roughly the same vintage as ourselves, were marvellous company, my tongue was soon loosened and we were away. I remember, as you do in Adelaide, that we soon got on to the topic of footy and they were both passionate on the topic – the fellow being mad for the Crows, she a rusted on Port supporter. How did their union possibly survive? I recall the tucker was adequate there without being anything extraordinary, but the waiter allocated must be one of the most idiosyncratic I have had the pleasure of being served by. He went out of his way to describe the provenance of every morsel on every plate so by the time he’d finish any warmth our selections retained from the lengthy trip from the kitchen soon departed, but it didn’t matter. His quirkiness just added to the loveliness of the evening, no doubt being assisted by liberal lubrication. I do remember the toilets downstairs were a real eye-opener as well. And had it not been for the seating arrangements, I’m sure I would not have retained such fond memories our night.

On the other occasion, I was in Melbourne with my lovely and sorely missed mate, Neville H. He was always the best of company out and about and very voluble, especially if fortified by a few reds. Come time to dine I guided him up to Hardware Lane and told him it was his choice from the array of eateries that stretched down two blocks. We promenaded along, he perused the menu boards, listening intently to the various spruikers cajoling for custom. Soon we were almost at the end. Nev had peered into several possibilities, but had come away shaking his head. I naturally assumed he wasn’t satisfied by what he’d seen on the plates being consumed, either in terms of quality, quantity or both. I was getting a tad restive by the time he stopped at practically the last watering hole. I watched as he examined the menu board in the company of a particularly comely young lady who was talking into his ear. He nodded quite enthusiastically before peering through the doorway. He then turned to me smiling and beckoned me in. As we were being seated I asked what was it about the food that had finally given this establishment the green light. He laughed and told me it was nothing about the tucker – it was the attractiveness of the female waiting staff he was assessing. And as it turned out, they were extremely gorgeous. But they weren’t the only examples of feminine gorgeousness we were to experience on that eve.

Now I cannot recall the name of the brasserie. I know it was something quite funky as it was fitted out in an attempt to attract the younger set. It seemed to be doing that quite successfully. It had a good vibe about it, but when I tried to seek it out on a later excursion across Bass Strait, there was no evidence of it along the dining strip. The reason for that could be implicit in what happened to us next on that joyous night.

Once we were in place the waitress explained to us that, as the venue had only just opened, it was still getting its systems up to scratch and we were asked to be patient. We were provided with a generous complementary drink in recompense. What ensued was the most shambolic experience I’ve ever had, but that didn’t matter. We were all in the same boat, therein being the beauty of the evening. I was hard up against a young couple at the next minuscule table for two. Sort of semi-circled around the four of us was a bevy of young damsels, obviously well tanked and out to make a night of it. Now it was rare for any food order to come to any of us during the course of proceedings that resembled what, in fact, was ordered, so the whole group of us sort of swapped plates around till we had, in front of us, something we were happy with. When these continual errors were pointed out to the servers we were placated by yet another bottle of sparkly stuff by the management. And even though we were old enough to be the fathers of all those vivacious young things seated around us, Nev and I were the best of friends with them by the time we made our departure. We both possessed bloated tummies due to the offerings, liquid and solid, we had consumed. Several of the girls that eve also had ample cleavage on display which added to the event for us two old farts. It is one of my happiest memories of times spent with my best pal – and all because, Bernard, it was an ultra-close dining experience. It brings on a smile to this day

So you see, Bernard and John, yes, close dining can be a pain and is something for me to avoid – but, on occasions, it can also be the exact opposite. Now, Johnny L, would I have been offended by a guy wearing a ‘F***K Fashion’ t-shirt? I doubt it, but you make a point. And as for kids in restaurants/cafes with digital devices, Bernard S, well, think it through, man. What would they be like without those devices? As for listening in to the conversations at other tables, I must admit I’ve been guilty of that. In fact, I’ve sometimes found the basis for a scribbling emerge from what I’ve overheard.

I guess, though, when it’s all said and done, Mr Lethlean gives the best advice – if an eatery isn’t up to scratch on any item on one’s check list then, as Neville H did all those years ago on Hardware Street, move on.

Bernard Salt’s article = https://www.theaustralian.com.au/life/weekend-australian-magazine/restaurant-tables-too-close-together-try-doing-this/news-story/abde24c189fef11bf3291247386a378d

John Leathlean’s article =

Cafe etiquette ain’t what it was – John Lethlean – December 9, 2017
The guy sits down opposite at the cafe where I’m quietly reading a (provided) newspaper, enjoying the music, sipping coffee. He has with him two kids, aged about three and four. One seems self-sufficient; the other is immediately set up with a smartphone (that will soon be in a puddle of chocolate milk) to watch a video. Without headphones.
I’ll leave the whole “children with video screens” subject to one side; my gentle morning – our gentle morning, because I’m not alone at this communal table – just became a multimedia cacophony: Father John Misty vs ABC Me. “Is that OK?” the dad asks us. I consider acquiescence, but decide a point needs to be made. “Not really,” I say. “It’s pretty much spoiling the atmosphere, don’t you think?”
At least he asks; it’s more than most. And turns down the volume. Cafe etiquette just ain’t what it was.
This is how I see it: about $4.50 buys a seat at the table for half an hour; it includes music I like, or can at least tolerate; internet connection; shelter; climate control; water; newspapers; and the difficult-to-value amenity of being around a group of fellow citizens – stimulus to some, distraction to others. Oh, and an excellent long macchiato. The cafe provides all this for a relatively modest sum.
And I reckon that we, in turn, have obligations under an unwritten code of cafe etiquette: to the staff; to our fellow users. Play nice.
I don’t want to sound like a grumpy retiree, but I think the obligation to actively engage in a social space is important. Playing video – by which I mean streamed entertainment, personal footage, FaceTime conversation, social media posts – on devices with the volume up is just the most front-of-mind breach of said code, and it’s certainly not confined to an age group or demographic. It’s amazing, I reckon, that anyone could think turning the volume up on their device to see the latest viral hit or grandkid splashing in the bath is kosher in a public space. But you find it everywhere these days. Ditto the conference call or speakerphone chat.
As users, we have an obligation to respect the cafe as a social space; making no noise is almost as bad as making too much. So don’t sit there with headphones in, tapping at a laptop – it’s not the office, and treating it as such for hours on end for the price of a single coffee only engenders ill-will. Greet the people next to you at that communal table with a smile and a hello. What goes around…
And dress acceptably. Seriously. I had to speak to management at a cafe once because a customer next to me was wearing a cap and a shirt with unbelievable profanities emblazoned on them. It was a family place. He was asked to leave; I don’t think he’d considered that the parents of children present might not want them asking, “What does ‘F**k Fashion’ mean, mummy?”
It all comes down to mutual respect, doesn’t it? And naturally, it cuts both ways. If your cafe isn’t holding up its end of the bargain, even if the coffee’s excellent, cut it loose. Move on.
Read something good, smile at the lady next to you and don’t pull the papers to pieces. Take your phone calls outside. And please, please share video with that little “button” in the screen’s corner. #cafeetiquette starts now.

Kitty and the Pav

Pork chops. For years I hated pork chops – or at least I thought I did. Then, recently, my brother announced he was doing pork chops on the Weber for me whilst I was staying with him and my sister-in-law at Sisters Beach – their place a little piece of heaven on this planet for me. Turns out the chops were a little bit of culinary heaven as well. But, I must admit, immediately after his announcement, I was a tad worried as I couldn’t really blurt out my up until then presumed abhorrence for what he was offering. But I knew I could put on a brave face and feign pleasure in the consumption. What Kim served up, though, was barbecued perfection.

So now, methinks, parsnips and walnuts are the only items of tucker I cannot truly abide. Pumpkin was a vegie I disdained for years too, like the pork chop, but now I love it. But there are some foods I think are totally overrated and if a choice is on offer they would take a back seat. One of these that I can’t particularly take too – sorry Kitty, sorry Australia – is pavlova.

I am not in any way akin to Ms Flanagan’s acquaintance who couldn’t keep quiet in mixed company about his similar opinion of pav. After all, it is a cherished national dish – and there are very few of those we can call our own. It’s up on a pedestal along with vegemite and chicko rolls. I am not overly fond of those either. With the pav I cannot see – or, should I say, taste – what all the fuss is about. I’ll consume it if it is served up, but, if there are alternatives on offer, I’ll bolt to them. To me the lauded pav is a bit like the strawberry, they are berry much the poor cousin when compared to blueberries and raspberries. I feel the pav will never match a cheesecake, a trifle or my dear mother’s sago plum pud. And sadly, pavlovas and strawberries seem to go together.

To me the confection that is a pavlova tastes little more than being of air and sugar – in other words, tasting of very little. Besides which, these days, sugar is the enemy. Our abode, to my sorrow, has been declared a Tim Tam-free zone. See there is a certain patriotism in me after all, tucker-wise. Super-market shopping takes much longer, these days, due to me checking out the very small print re sugar content. Brownies, Kitty, are also a no-go area for the same reason. As far as pork crackling and anchovies are concerned, I am ambivalent, but not totally opposed.

It’d be a dull old world if all tastes were exactly the same, but with some food I also wonder, well, how he/she could possibly not like that? I guess our individual collections of taste buds are all arranged differently. I once loved placing whole bunches of coriander in my stir fries. My buds would pulsate in ecstasy at the result. Unfortunately my lovely lady cannot abide my enthusiasm for this pungent herb. Everything with a bit of subtlety is her motto. So these days, with my Asian cookery, I substitute other flavours for it for fear of getting carried away. And I thought nobody could dislike the luxuriously delicious unctuousness of the avocado. Recently I gave my beloved mother her first sample of this fruit of the gods, now smashed worldwide, only to see her precious face screw up and I could tell she was doing level best not to spit it out. Safe to say she will not become added to its legions of fans. To her the magnificent av is what the walnut is to me.

Now don’t tell anybody Ms Flanagan, but, just quietly, I tend to agree with you on your other topic. More and more these days I prefer winter beaches to their summer mode when I now, in my dotage, escape to a strand nearby or far away. It’s all swings and roundabouts, swings and roundabouts in this life of ours.

The Kitty Flanagan opinion piece in question = http://www.smh.com.au/comment/whats-not-to-love-about-pavlova-plenty-actually-20171229-h0bc72.html

The Allure of Sprouts

It was the northern winter of ’80/’81 and I was in Madrid. I am a carnivore by habit but, after months of the heavy meat that had sustained me around Western Europe, I was looking for something a little lighter for that particular day’s lunch. My handy guide had recommended it and I recall I had to climb up some stairs to access it. Under ‘el vegetal’, on the restaurant’s bill of fare, I noticed an item, kindly translated into sprouts and bacon, which I duly ordered. I was mildly surprised that, when it arrived, the sprouts in question were of the Brussels variety. It smelt delicious and truly was. As for taste, it was nothing akin to how we served up this vegetable normally back home. Somehow roasted in the fat of the bacon, they melted in my mouth. In the end, being so, they were probably no more a healthier option than the tucker I’d normally ingest, but they were a revelation.

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Now I have always been particularly partial to Brussels sprouts – and yes, almost in totality, the boiled version. My dear mother, in contrast to the mums John Lethlean disses in his column for the weekend Oz (see below), produced something that certainly did not ‘…smell like rotten eggs.’ So delicious was my mum’s tried and tested methodology I’ve followed suit all my adult life, never, for some reason, attempting to replicate what I devoured all those decades ago in a foreign country. Yep, I probably over-boil the delights to within a millimetre of disintegration, but served up with lashings of Western Star butter and black pepper, I am in vegetable heaven. To my mind, they are only surpassed by the king of legumes – broad beans. Reading that aforementioned scribbling by Lethlean took me back.

Leigh was scrabbling away in the back of the fridge the other day and declared she had found some bacon. Knowing my adoration of the humble sprout, she then inquired, ‘How would you like it if I cooked you up some Brussels sprouts with this leftover bacon?’ Just imagine my delight, just days after perusing said article, to be asked that question. Now she claims she has cooked it for me before, but I have no recollection of her doing so. Now you would think I would remember it, wouldn’t you? And what my dearest produced was every bit as delicious and more-ish as occurred in that Spanish eatery way, way back. It was decidedly memorable.

Basically Leigh just used JL’s method – she fried up the bacon, chopped the sprouts into small pieces adding them to the bacon and its fat. As they cooked, she added water to keep it all moist, deglazing the pan with a small amount of pepper, salt and garlic. Divine. She’s promised them again for me in the not too distant future. Can’t wait.

Now the sprouts in Madrid were so tantalising I decided to go back to the same place the next day, my last in the city, intending to order the identical dish. But when I saw their paella being presented at a nearby table, I changed my mind. Big mistake. Sure, it tasted good too, but the after effects lingered long – fully a week or more. I remember it was Amsterdam before I fully unclogged. Should have stuck to the sprouts.

Thanks Brussels – John Lethlean – !6.07.16

It’s been a poor year for Brussels. Let’s make that appalling. The terrorist attacks by IS. Brexit. The continuing, downtrodden reputation of the cruciferous vegetable that carries the city’s name wherever underrated vegetables are eaten. Why does everyone turn their nose up at sprouts?
Is it because of that largely British-inspired technique of boil-and-serve many of us endured as kids? It is, after all, a well-known fact that overcooking sprouts – the default position of most mums, once – makes them smell like rotten eggs because of the high levels of sulforaphane they contain. Well-known now, maybe.
A few chefs fight the good fight – traditional with lardons or chestnuts; modern and raw, using leaves as a salad or shredded in a ‘slaw – but on the whole, sprouts remain about as popular as Clive Palmer. It’s time for change.
Brussels sprouts are delicious, texturally interesting if cooked the right way, full of good stuff that makes you healthy and a fine winter alternative to carb-heavy side dishes.
Two interesting facts. There are apparently more than 110 different varieties of sprouts. Commonly, in Australia, we see Churchill, Napoleon, Napoleon F1, Hastings and Arundel. And I have read that there are more than 9000 documented ways to cook a sprout. Let’s make that more than 9001, shall we?
Given that they appear in dishes going as far back as Roman times, it seems appropriate to give them a kind of Italian roasting. First, get a baking dish large enough to accommodate your new green friends loosely. They need room. Trim the white bases a little and cut an X across the crowns; this helps heat and flavours to penetrate and aids crisping.
Now, using your own preference for flavour emphasis, finely slice garlic, crumble dried whole chillies and chop anchovy fillets. I find about six anchovy fillets, one organic garlic clove and two small dried chillies for about 400g of sprouts does the trick, but my palate’s programmed to a kind of
Sicilian/Calabrian in-your-faceness. You might add some finely sliced onion at this point. Add sprouts and jumble it with olive oil and pepper; don’t salt.
Now, it’s a two-stage cook. First, with about 100ml of water in the pan, give the sprouts around 25 minutes in the oven on 150°C (fan). This will steam them through. When the water is fully evaporated, pull the pan out, add some more oil, swish around a bit and hit the throttle. Take your oven up to 11. Wait until it reaches maximum heat then give the sprouts a serious blast for about 10 minutes. But keep an eye on them, because different ovens do different things.
The point is this: when the extremities are turning brown, crisp and slightly caramelised, they will have a brilliant nutty/sweet flavour. The outer leaves will be a treat to chew/crunch and the inner sprout soft-ish and fragrant.
And all that salty/garlicky anchovy flavour will be addictive. You could even deglaze the pan at this point, pouring the juices over the veggies. It’s more than good. I don’t expect this to make the Belgians feel better about their terrible year. But it should make you feel better about winter.

john l

More recipes for Brussels Sprouts here = http://www.realsimple.com/food-recipes/recipe-collections-favorites/popular-ingredients/brussels-sprouts-recipes