On the barbie

Ok sportsfans, I want to share with you a simple, delicious, rinky-dink marinade for your barbecue.

I sort of happened across this. I found a recipe that looked interesting. I tried it and it was good, but uninspiring. It seemed to me that there was a better, and more obvious combination of ingredients that would elevate it from the so-so to the outstanding. I was right.

What we’re talking about is a marinade for chicken, and preferable thigh fillets because they are so much more juicy. You don’t have to barbecue this, but I reckon that’s when you’ll get the maximum flavour out of it. Worked for me.

Mix together some tequila, lime juice, olive oil and sugar – this is the base I started from and adapted. The original reciped called for garlic and mint. I kept the garlic, removed the mint, and added some finely chopped chilli (I included the seeds because I like it hot, but beware), and some coriander, likewise finally chopped. Don’t overdo the coriander, though it always adds great flavour. I tossed in some sliced onion as well, and seasoned it. Ok, toss your thigh fillets into the mixture and marinate, an hour at minimum.

I’m going to tell you how to cook it too. I see many people with bad barbecuing habits – why, for example, would you ever cook a steak on the hotplate when you’ve got a great grill to use? Not enough people take advantage of the hood either. It’s a waste if you don’t – you want real heat, use the hood. I’m not saying I’m an expert, but I’m a reasonable good and well practiced, and I know my way around a barbie.

Anyway, fire up the barbie and let it heat-up first – this should be standard regardless of what you’re cooking. Hood down will speed up the process. Cook your fillets on the plate at first in about 2/3’s of the marinade. It will sizzle and bubble and the sugar in the marinade will begin to caramelise on the meat. Close the lid to keep the heat up. Once the meat is sealed on either side and halfway cooked put it on the grill. Nothing beats that char grill flavour of cooking meat over a flame. Cook long enough that you get the stripes across the meat. To finish off put it back on the hot plate and tip in the rest of the marinade, which will coat the meat and finish of the caramelisation process. Because of the marinade and the innate juiciness of the thigh fillets the meat is innately juicy, and full of flavour.

You can eat them as they are, or you can do as I did. I sliced the fillets up, mixed them with some fresh coriander, the beautifully flavoured onion, and a dollop of real egg mayonnaise, and wrapped then up in a tortilla I’d freshened up on the grill. Man, was this delish!

The coriander has such a fresh flavour, but if it’s too much for you you could substitute some rocket. Likewise you could try chilli sauce, and/or pickled or fresh sliced chilli if you desire extra pungency. Use your imagination, and served like this is a kind of top-end chicken fajitas.

Memory of flavours

Seems like busy times in the H household right now. Pleasantly busy. We’ve sat here most of the day attending to different bits and pieces of business: answering emails, making calls, preparing quotes, paying bills, doing some reading for the job, and so on. In typically Melbourne fashion the weather outside went from bright sunshine to overcast with driving hail, then sunshine again. Once more the rain came, and now, just about G&T time, the sun is out again bright in a blue sky.

For the moment music plays in the background, an eclectic mix, Sufjan Stevens followed by Nina Simone, and somewhere in there Glenn Gould too. There seems things to do, at least things to think about. I look about me. Rigby catches my eye, wags his tail. “Later mate,” I murmur to him. I look beyond him to the house, the house that will soon be somebody else’s, and all the stuff in it, mum’s stuff, the stuff some of which will be handed out to various beneficiiaries, and the rest to be disposed of one way or another. That’ll be my job.

It will be melancholy, but for now I don’t feel it. It’s a job to be done, a job my mind is already ticking over to organise. I see beyond it, to another time, my time, somewhere else.

Still, a little while ago there was poignant pang. Mum has left her recipe books to my (now) evil step-sister. That’s a matter of little concern, but for the recipes that mum had collected over the years and had either pasted or hand copied into a notebook. Growing up I remember mum having two notebooks, the ‘wallpaper books’ we called them because they were clad in a wash and wipe, very garish, wallpaper.

In those books was the food that we had again and again from the time I was a boy until I was an adult. I sat at the kitchen bench in Lower Plenty eating those recipes, and later, in Eltham and Montmorency, in Templestowe, Toorak and Canterbury. Food is a such a resonant element in life, not just for what it provides but what it stirs up. We eat, we share, with family and friends, an experience that is as much about fellowship and community as it is about sustenance. It’s hard then to look upon recipes like this without memories being evoked.

The wallpaper books have long since fallen apart, and the pages from it pasted and taped into newer versions of those books. In the kitchen earlier I looked up at the shelf of recipe books. I’ll have to pack them up for the step-sister I thought. Then I thought, I can’t lose those recipes. From the shelf I picked out the thick notebook mum had copied the recipes into. I browsed through it, recalling recipes from long ago, reminded of mum by her elegant script, so familiar, and occasionally of her personality by the notes she wrote in the margins – ‘this is delicious’ or ‘yum, yum.’ There were recipes from my aunt – it was she who gave mum the wallpaper books – including the famous monkey gland steak recipe. She too is dead.

I found as I read so many favourite recipes that I could hardly think back without getting sentimental – or feeling hungry. I ripped a sheet of paper from a nearby newspaper, and as I went through the book placed a strip in each page there was a recipe I wanted. I would lose mum’s words, her writing, the memories that went directly with that, but at least I could copy out these favourite recipes for posterity – mum’s potato and leek soup say, many bowls of which I enjoyed on cold winter days over many years; or steak and pineapple, such a retro seeming dish now, but delicious; and her vanilla slices, famous for miles about with their passionfruit icing; and so on.

Funny, a Simon and Garfunkel song came on as I looked through the recipes, ‘preserve your memories’ they sang, ‘they’re all that’s left you’.

Real Chinese food

Did I mention that the food in China was great? Travelling there I was full of trepidation about the food. Chinese is not my favourite cuisine, though that’s more likely because of the bland, generally Cantonese skewed dishes we get served up at our local take-away joint. I had the idea in my head though too that it would be somehow confronting. Though I never consciously pondered it I feared I might come across a market with cute little dogs stuck in cages. Or else happen across the generally smelly and practical wet market you see across Asia.  I wondered to if the food itself, closer to it’s roots, might not be too unfamiliar to me, and challenging to swallow.

If you can imagine eating it then it’s probably here

As it turns out none of that occurred. I saw live ducks for sale at different places, and turtles in markets and by the side of the road, but nothing near as full-on as I feared. For the most part the difference in the food from home was well in China’s favour. I remember once being unpleasantly surprised by the presence of large, roughly chopped bones in a chicken dish, but that was mere inconvenience – the dish was delicious. In fact pretty well everything I ate was delicious. Should be no surprise, but it was about a hundred times better than the Chinese tucker here – and not once did I see a lemon chicken, beef and black bean, special fried rice or a number 46 on the menu.

The fact of the matter is that the Chinese we eat has been westernised to fit in with our generally blander palates and more delicate sensibilities. We get a narrow band of food in general, with the exception of some pretty good restaurants. China is a bloody big country, with different ethnic groups and regions all with their own particular specialties. For the most part we don’t get exposed to that here. Sure, we tuck into our spring rolls, like our dim sum, and delight in the variety of dumplings we can get here; we get plenty of Cantonese food, Sichuan cuisine is pretty well known, plus we get other bits and pieces from all over – I guess the greatest hits package. What we don’t get is the vast range of different food available in China, and little of the street food. It’s a lot to ask that we might be exposed to so much variety maybe, but really, we’re missing out on a lot.

Chinese love their food – in fact one of their common greetings translates to “have you eaten yet?” – but are also pretty matter of fact about it. I guess when you’ve got over a billion mouths to feed there’s not much sense in being squeamish about the available food sources. And so besides the conventional chicken and pork, beef and fish, there are plenty of other options that Chinese swear by – turtles obviously, and reputedly dog, donkey quite commonly, as well as a variety of insect life – beetles, centipedes, cockroaches, etc. There’s sheep penis (though, as a friend pointed out, more correctly ram penis), and the various nether reasons and entrails of lots of different formerly living things.

Sheep penis? Anyone?

I steered clear of all of that stuff. I’m all for adventure and believe one of the great delights of travelling is the food, but this mouth doesn’t need a penis in it, let alone a bug.

My adventure was largely with the street food, which was great. Dumplings obviously, but also fried noodles, a little shallot pancake the locals have for breakfast, a spicy chopped chicken wrap sort of thingy, and skewers, generally lamb, cooked over a small metal barbecue, as well as little sesame buns, and so on. All this is cheap, very popular, and generally delicious. I was happy to get by on street food.

Still, I ate out most days, and had some cracking meals. My favourite Chinese cuisine is Sichuan. I like it hot and spicy, and I sought it out while I was over there. I had plenty of meals chock full of Sichuan pepper and chillis. When I wasn’t having that I tried regional favourites from all over China, and found I liked the food from Tibet and close-by – but really it was all pretty good. The only doubtful meal was when I was in Xidi, where I got served a dark, liquid dish containing chunks of potato and glutinous hunks of fatty pork belly in a sauce redolent of star anise. It wasn’t bad, it was just a bit fatty for my taste, and I’m not a big fan of star anise.

Bottom line is that I return to Oz and Chinese food now is now one of my favourites – but the Chinese version, not the bland counterfeit we get too often here.

Sichuan in Shanghai

Bai, Dai & Miao folk food

Mr Sri’s famous, delicious, and very filling dumplings

Fattening up

Had two notable meals lately. A couple of weeks ago I went out for dinner with Becky to Ocha, just around the corner from where I live.

Ocha is a Japanese restaurant pitched towards the high-end, unlike most Japanese restaurants in Melbourne (Nobu being an obvious exception). Putting aside the plentiful Teppanyaki restaurants most Japanese venues are the casual, but stylish drink with food type dens, like Izakaya Den (great place); or else the the cheap sushi and California roll vendors. There are exceptions, the odd Japanese steakhouse and spiffy restaurant, but Ocha stands out I think because of the style and quality of its food. It’s well reviewed, and with pretty good reason.

We sat at the bar, I had a smiling Buddha beer from China and Becky a glass of wine while we pored over the menu. We shared Beef Tataki and Tatsuta for starters, and both were great. I love Tatsuta, and often order some variation of it (like Karaage chicken) when I see it. These were beautifully crunchy chicken pieces in my favourite panko breadcrumbs infused with ginger and other spices. Better than KFC, and guaranteed to get you licking your fingers. The beef, rare porterhouse sliced ever so finely, came with a ponzu dipping sauce. Becky got a sushi dish for main, while I got a steak smeared with a wasabi mash baked on top. Very good – but the best, or as good, was yet to come.

Dessert. For a start there was a magical selection. I really fancied the passionfruit mousse (and convinced Becky to order it), and also liked the idea of the winter pav, and the same, same but different banana fritter, but ended up ordering the doughnuts. The doughnuts arrived dusted green and deep fried, with a sauce of chocolate and green tea. Man, ultra decadent, and ultra delicious. As for the mousse – deliciously flavoursome. And somehow sensually indulgent, the sort of thing you’ll lick off a lovers nipples with extreme delight (for both parties I expect). But I digress.

It was a fabulous meal. Early days, but surely a contender for one of the top meals of the year. And the company was great too.

Last Sunday I caught up for lunch with mum at Chester White, another restaurant not far from where I live – in fact I walked there.

I’m trying to catch up with mum when she’s well enough, just so we can make the most of the time remaining. On this occasion there were also things I wanted to talk to her about. So we sat down, had a drink and a chat all very pleasantly while we waited for our meal to arrive.

Mum had barramundi, which she said was great. I ummed and aahhed a bit, contemplated the roast veal with porcini butter and polenta for a moment before quizzing the waitress as I do pretty well every meal out. So, I asked, is the Spatchcock boned? After some hesitation I said, yep, ok, bring it on. Great decision.

I’m wary of ordering spatchcock and other small birds for dinner. Delicious as they may be too often they’re fiddly – shreds of meat on small bones you nibble at in search of a good mouthful. For some reason I always think of Tom Hanks in Big when he’s at the party and he spies what to him are strange novelties: baby corn.After a moment of contemplation he shrugs his shoulders and commences to nibble at it as if it’s a full sized corn on the cob. That’s how I feel about spatchcock and the like.

If you’re going to have spatchcock then it must be boned in my book to make it worthwhile. This was, bar the drumsticks, and so the flesh was rounded, juicy hunks on delicate bones. It was served atop of some kipfler potatoes perfectly cooked and infused with the flavour of the bird and its juices. The spatchcock itself was served with an earthy sauce of thyme and garlic, with caramelised onions, and char grilled. It was a supremely rich flavour that suited me to a tee. Another great meal.

Just for the record perused the dessert menu but found nothing inspiring, so had an affogato instead. Lovely, lovely meal.

More, more, more…

The Destruction Of Sodom And Gomorrah, a paint...

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I had planned to go to the football on Saturday night. It was a big match and potentially a good match, but it was also my nephew’s birthday. I to’d and fro’d, urged and beseeched until I did what any good uncle would do and gave in. Off to dinner we went.

My nephew had chosen a restaurant in the outer suburbs he liked the sound of. He’s just turned 13, and I guess at 13 you are drawn to the sensational, the big, the loud, the outrageous, and his choice of restaurant was all that.

I was pretty certain I wasn’t going to enjoy the venue, but I was willing to give it a crack. When I pulled into the car-park there was a queue of about 30 metres along leading from the front door and curling around the corner of the building. This was the second sitting of the night. There were no parking spots so I parked in the street beyond – when I left I found cars parked illegally on the nature-strip and in the centre island. The doors opened and the queue of people tumbled in, much like at Myers on Boxing Day. We were led to a table in a corner while people went in all directions and noise reverberated around the barn-like structure.

Soon there were people with plates in their hands lined up to dig into the trays of Chinese food kept lukewarm by the bain-marie. It seems appropriate in a place like this that food should be measured by the metre – at this restaurant there was about 40 metres of food lined up of all types, mainly Chinese, stir-fries and dumplings and Peking duck and spring rolls and curries and seafood and sushi, then there were desserts. People came and went with plates piled high with food they scoffed at the table with a beer or a glass of wine, before going back for more. Empty plates were left on the table or on the floor to be collected by the Asian waitresses buzzing around like so many flies clearing up the mess. Conversation was raucous, but constantly interrupted by return visits to the feast laid out for our consumption.

I’m sure if Hieronymus Bosch were around today he might paint something like this, dark and decadent and ugly, on the theme of gluttony. For me personally it was just about the last place I could imagine myself being by choice. This for me was another level that Dante might of written of in his Inferno. I feel awfully moralistic these days, but looking around there seemed something awfully wrong in the scene before me. People ate unthinkingly, filling their plates and consuming as if it was being produced by a machine for their pleasure. It seemed less about enjoying the food itself – which was average – than actively participating in an orgiastic ritual of conspicuous consumption. Nero would have been delighted.

I spoke to my younger nephew at one point. He had returned from his third round of the food trays with a plate full of prawns. He ate 2-3 then pushed his plate aside. “I’m full,” he said. I looked at the plate of uneaten and never to be eaten prawns and felt a kind of outrage at the wastage. “You know,” I said, “they were alive once those prawns. They were swimming about until some fisherman got them and they died. They died so you can eat them, but if you don’t eat them they died for nothing.”

It might seem a silly argument perhaps, but I felt it deeply. I often think people have become disconnected from where things come from, and how they got there. There’s a certain arrogance when we simply expect to eat our fill without once considering how the food made it to our plate. We forget and we lose the value of things, which is the very heart of my complaints. Food is a commodity we can waste without respecting where it came from, which seems symptomatic of our affluent times.

I left as soon as I could. I don’t understand why anyone would choose to spend their Saturday night at a place like that, but I guess I’m the one out of step. The restaurant was outrageously, ridiculously expensive, so much so that we could have had a nicer meal in much more ambient surrounding at somewhere like the Flower Drum. There you pay for quality, and the elegance of the experience. Doubtless these food barns they factor in those gluttonous Homer Simpson types who go back again and again to get their money’s worth, and more. I did my best to get some of money’s worth, but was happy to leave when I live. You wonder how God, presuming there is one, views scenes like this. I’m sure Sodom and Gomorrah were cities of true vice, but it’s hard not to think it is in restaurants like this you see true modern decadence.

Perhaps I am elitist. I don’t doubt there is some cultural snob in me. What it comes down to, as always for me, is reason. I’m not making value judgements. I can choose not to go to restaurants like this (and generally do), and that may be the end of the matter. Except that there is something unhealthy in excessive and unthinking consumption. I love the all-you-can-eat as much as anyone, but without restraint, respect, and some kind of understanding it is but a display of debauchery that goes beyond the gastronomic.