The Finale

It’s been 981 days since my last post. Did you miss me? I didn’t think so.

This is the last post from farfromfamished and then it will be no more.

I love words and the construction of them to evoke the imagery in a readers’ head, but social platforms, like Instagram, proliferate and an overabundance of pictures have replaced the narrative. A picture is worth a thousand words, after all, and a thousand words… at least my thousand word-essays, took a lot of time. Time to write, time to refine and refine some more. Time that I have not had for a few years now.

So, how does this end? The simplest out would have been to fire out a review of Scott Pickett’s latest, Matilda 159. I’ve been there three times in the last month (go there, please. You won’t regret it). But instead, it’s time to start playing Green Day’s ‘Good Riddance’ in your head whilst you read on. This last post is farfromfamished’s eulogy and my homage to my food journey thus far, that has largely lived on through this blog.

This blog was born eight years ago; nearly to this day and this technically makes my blog my middle child, as Matilda, my youngest came along in October 2010. As I look through the reviews over the years, many of the places are long gone – some bring a pang of longingness for their revival; places like Josie Bones (best chicken skin ever), the short lived Little Hunter and Papa Goose, which has only recently closed.

In July 2011, I stumbled across a guy in his first restaurant as Chef Proprietor. It was called Estelle. I loved the kitschness of it; the retro pink and grey tiles, complete with matching crockery, the bar made from a ten-pin bowling lane and some scruffy looking dude that came across as a little bit mischievous, but it was all seriousness when he stood at the pass in chef’s whites with jeans. The food was sublime, but more so, this chef’s genuine caring for us as new customers on the night established what would become a seven-year fascination with Scott’s journey and ongoing success, many meals at Scott’s restaurants and perhaps a small man-crush too.

Another Estelle review led to me documenting my first culinary experiment and extending the repertoire of farfromfamished from just restaurant reviews; I made Duck Prosciutto.

The next month, in August, was my first deep dive into the world of truffles, ramblings about pho and throwbacks to recipes from my childhood. My little blog was slowly taking off and gaining some readership. I was also meeting some wonderful and inspiring sages along the way. People like Suzanne (Essjay) and Ed Charles, who were instrumental in creating some very memorable grass-roots food events in and around Melbourne, through their Fringe Food Festival. Folks like these were old hat at food writing and intimately knew the Melbourne cooking fraternity.

Thanks to interstate work trips, I was also venturing out and reviewing places in Brisbane (Malt) and Sydney, eating at Four in Hand and 4Fourteen, when Colin Fassnidge, aside from being a master at cooking pigs, was better known for his witty repertoire on Twitter than his now regular spot as judge and mentor on MKR.

This little blog kept me sane through divorce and satiated my needs to be creative through words and food. It kept me close to the Melbourne food scene and drove me to conquer new techniques. I can happily and confidently cure my own meats, cook via sous vide and my baking is a lot better. Culinary trepidation and impatience when things do not go right has been replaced with confidence and persistence.

Cooking and writing made me feel good. A brief relationship with someone, that sadly ventured out of my life through circumstance just as quickly as they became a part of it, was the catalyst for my favourite and one of my more poignant posts. The post itself was a tribute to this person and aside from the cooking I shared with them that had challenged me (see: raw prawns), it also reinforced the distinctive human connection through food; people, sharing, memories. Thank you, CEJ.

It was the untimely and unfortunate death of Anthony Bourdain that got me thinking again about my blog. Bourdain, the bon vivant and bard was the sole catalyst that turned my like into a love, an interest into an attraction and he did it through his words.

A small digression… in August 2000, a month-long trip across Western and Eastern Europe evolved into a five-month backpacking journey that continued east until we found ourselves back in Australia. This journey opened my mind in many ways; so much so that I am sure it has been crucial to shape the me that writes this today. And whilst I didn’t think about it at the time, food was a commonality and core to the fabric of the families we met and throughout the communities – it was core to culture. Nearly half a life later, the details may have become a little more hazy, but I can still remember that afternoon where we sat in a Turkish family’s living room, on their dirt floor, sharing their lunch of a tomato and meat stew, the biggest piece of bread I’ve ever seen and chunks of fresh peppers.

Fast forward to early 2001 and when I first read Kitchen Confidential. This guy got it. This guy transported me to his places with his food experiences that had shaped him. I was hooked. His books and TV shows combined my love of food and travel, with a prose that made it addictive viewing. It was made for me.

Sadly, his passing didn’t resurrect the spark of going back to find the time to express my food experiences through my words on this blog, but it did make me decide that like all good things, they should come to a definitive end.

A three-year hiatus could have simply continued. Several people over the years have asked why I stopped posting. I don’t eat out as often, but when I do, my brain kicks in about what I’d write. Sadly, I don’t have the four, maybe six or so hours, nor the inclination to follow through. And I forget to take the ubiquitous and bad iPhone photos. I still cook a lot and I always will. I even reference my own posts if I forget the intricacies of loved recipes; Hainanese Chicken and rice, bao buns and the ratios of ingredients for the batter in my okonomiyaki recipe.

We have now come to the end. To those known and unknown that have fuelled and fostered my passion; my hobby, my relaxation, I thank you all sincerely.

Bon Appétit.

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Dinner by Heston – Level 3, 8 Whiteman St, Southbank

There are a small handful of chefs that I genuinely revere because I’m enamoured with their style, technique and use of ingredients and flavours.

Heston is within this handful and he has been for a long time now. I was livid when the arseholes of the finance world hired IT experts to game The Fat Duck booking process, but I can now finally say that I’ve experienced a Heston meal and although it wasn’t The Fat Duck, Dinner by Heston was a magnificent consolation.

In the past, there has been a tendency for me to bang on about value; taking in all things considered – food, wine and the overall experience. Surprisingly, Dinner by Heston is a lot better in the value stakes than I had expected, although you may not think that when you peruse the à la carte menu; the food is on the pricey side.

The average price for a starter is $35, mains are around $55 (unless you want a steak, which will set you back $75-$85) and desserts are in the vicinity of $25-$30. Sides are $12. It’s the wine list though that has the potential to not cause too much damage to your credit card; that is, if you can also resist the temptation of supping on a $24 cocktail, whilst waiting for your table to become available. The vastly extensive and (literally) heavy wine list book will take some time to work your way through and if you’re on a budget, you can find some much-loved gems on the list that still have a typical restaurant mark up, but aren’t overly steep in price. Of course, like we did, you can also place your trust in the hands of the Sommelier if you find the list overwhelming.

Like a number of other reviews I’ve read, the theatre begins when you attempt to negotiate your way into the restaurant. Maybe it’s a test. We passed… albeit eventually and an automatic sliding door led us to a stunning open kitchen that overlooks a dining room with dark colours, tempered by light green chairs and tan leather banquettes. It’s instantly inviting and comfortable. The kind of place that makes you pleased that you’ll be spending the next 3 or 4 hours here.

Our table wasn’t ready, so we were ushered to the bar for a cocktail (call me cynical, but it does makes me wonder whether this was a subtle tactic). This is apparently Heston’s first endeavour into extending his repertoire into bars, so we played along and had a cocktail that was swiftly expedited. My Olive Leaf Martini (c. 1930) was clean and crisp. It was explained to me that the olive leave flavour is an extract from distilling the leaves. I like my martinis dirty, so perhaps the technique was lost on me. My dining partner has an aversion to gin, so he settled for a Pineapple Sparkler (c. 1910), which formed the basis of some objectionable jocularity for a few minutes until our table was declared ready.

Again we were ushered, this time to our table and we were given a prime window seat, overlooking what was a very clear Melbourne night. Sadly, this was an evening of platonic bromance and therefore any romantic inferences were completely lost on us.

One week into being open to the public, after a couple of weeks of offering soft openings, Dinner by Heston was still running at half capacity, with a full complement of staff. Needless to say, the service was impeccable; prompt and very attentive. But also friendly too, which added to the pleasantness of the evening.

So, down to the food. It was great. It was delicious, precise and pretty. But this is Heston, so you should expect no less.

The Menu

Meat Fruit (c.1500, $38) was ‘the’ dish that I have always wanted to try. An ever-so delicate chicken liver parfait that is expertly covered with a thin film of mandarin gel, textured so it looked like a mandarin more than some mandarins I’ve seen in Coles.

Meat Fruit

The parfait was sublime; light as a feather, not too rich and the citrus flavour from the mandarin gel was a perfect contrast.

Meat Fruit

Bromance opted for the Salmagundy (c. 1720, $36), which by definition is a fancy salad containing all sorts of things. This one contained chicken oysters, braised artichoke stems, marrowbone and pickled walnuts atop a well-balanced horseradish cream.

IMG_0391

We drank a modestly-priced Torbrek Woodcutters Semillion, which was, I don’t know… maybe $50 – a standard mark up for a $20 bottle.

Mains were hard to choose and as much as I wanted the Black Angus Rib eye with mushroom ketchup and fries (c.1830, $85), it was a steak. And whilst it would have been a damn fine one too, this was about trying other things, so I settled on the Powdered Duck Breast (c.1670, $54), which was cooked in Ale and served with charred artichokes. Sadly, we ate all of the bread, so there was none left to mop up the sauce. I didn’t ask, but should have.

Powdered Duck

Bromance went for the Lamb & Cucumber (c.1830, $56), which was a marriage of roasted best end of lamb with a braised cucumber, crumbed sweetbreads, broad beans, barilla & mint. Sunday roast on steroids.

Lamb & Cucumber

Our accompanying sides (Green Beans with Shallots and Fries) were underwhelming for not only the cost, but also the disparity in quality against the other quality dishes. They were pretty pedestrian and when you put fries on a menu, I expect fries. Not chips.

We turned to the Sommelier for advice on a red to compliment both the lamb and the duck, with a price point in mind ($100). He successfully recommended a French Grenache, which was fruity, but packed a bigger punch in the tannin stakes. Ten out of ten for matching and drinking.

Chocolate Bar

For dessert, Bromance chose the Chocolate Bar (c.1730, $26) with passionfruit jam and ginger ice cream. He liked it, but he wasn’t successful in masking his diner’s envy. My Brown Bread Ice Cream (c.1830, $26) vied for dish of the night with Meat Fruit. The ice cream was drizzled with malted yeast syrup and perched onto a bed of salted butter caramel. Little bits of fresh pear alternated with crisp miniature brown bread croutons. Heavenly.

Brown Bread Ice Cream

Whilst desserts come with a recommended dessert wine, we are but humble and creatures of habit and unanimously settled on much loved De Bortoli Noble One Botrytis Semillon ($80).

If you have room, there is also cheese and for some additional theatre, the wait staff will wheel out the Nitro Ice Cream Trolley and serve you a personalised cornetto, hand-churning your ice cream with liquid nitrogen, at your table. Sadly, not for us, but maybe next time.

If you’re a fan of Heston; seen the TV shows, read the books and even made the recipes, then this is something you should experience… as long as you know that a lot of the molecular gastronomy kit was packed up and shipped back to The Fat Duck in Bray. This is not the holistic Heston experience where you’ll eat Lego that tastes like bananas with whale penis… you know; like all of that Heston stuff you see on TV. But I knew that and I was up for seeing how Heston and his team have recreated some of the ye olde foods of ye olde times and thrown in some Australiana for good measure. And it works.

ESP – 245 High St, Northcote

Well, hello there! It’s been a while since my last post. In fact, I’d dare say that my vain attempts at even considering myself as a part-time food blogger would be stretching the truth. But in an effort to possibly be the first person to publish a review of Scott Pickett’s newest incarnation, Estelle by Scott Pickett (aka ESP), I’ve decided to come out of food blogging hibernation.

Scott features heavily in my blog. There are a couple of reviews of the Estelle… maybe three, plus a couple of truffle dinner posts hosted at The Estelle. Some might also call it a man crush. For the record, he’s just a really top bloke who just happens to cook awesome food that I dig in a big way. Also, I am slightly biased towards fellow South Australians.

It felt as though ESP was a bit of an enigma, through lots of local council bureaucracy that delayed inevitable deliciousness; what was meant to be an April opening finally took place on Friday, but it was well worth the wait.

The Menu

The fit out is incredible. It’s dark and moody, but in a good way. All the focus is on the open-plan kitchen, with ample bar seating around the perimeter for diners to watch in awe during and between courses. Why you’d want to sit at a boring table is beyond me.

Hard at work at the Pass

So, what’s the difference between ESP and the ‘old’ Estelle, before it was reinvented as a bistro? Basically, things have gone up several notches. In a sporting parlance, it’s the ‘one percenters’ that should take ESP to that higher level and happily reside with Saint Crispin as a solid two-hatted establishment.

Some of the aforementioned one percenters are the dark linen napkins and the Laguiole knives, both fashioned with the well-recognised ‘E’ emblem, the house-made butter perched on its own little wooden log plate, which accompanied the warmed miniature bacon and onion scroll or (actually, in my case AND) pretzel roll and of course, there’s the theater in the dexterous and attractive presentation.

Bacon Scroll or Pretzel Roll? Have both!

But thank God we do not just eat with our eyes; the flavour combinations were outstanding! My new favourite dish – Mud Crab, Cauliflower & Vadouvan (for the uninitiated… like me, before I googled it, is a sweet, mild, aromatic Indian spice blend, said to be developed by the French colonists in India). The aromatic curry flavours were incorporated into the cauliflower puree and highlighted the sweetness of the mud crab.

Dish of the night... Mud Crab, Cauliflower & Vadouvan

A serendipitous July opening meant that there was sure to be truffles featured on the menu and there were, featuring in a truffle-infused custard and onions executed with different techniques, burnt, pickled and as a consommé… with a generous shaving of truffle as a garnish.

Black Truffle & Onion

Scott’s homage to mentor Philip Howard was delivered in the form of hand-rolled macaroni, a delicately tender sweetbread and the equally tender loin of White Rocks Veal and Mustard Leaf.

White Rocks Veal, Mustard Leaf & Hand Rolled Macaroni

Tasting menus are funny things, you get to course two or three and you’re happy, you’re smiling. You have a large chunk of the night still ahead of you and you’re so, so thankful that there are still a good number of courses to go. Time passes, courses come out, wines are poured and you begin to lose count… is this the sixth course or the fifth? Before you know it, dessert is being placed in front of you.

Then you know it’s really all done when the Lemon Aspen Doughnut and Raspberry Vinegar Ganache ball arrives. It’s over. You fondly look over at the people across from you. They’re newbies, only just tucking into their Cod Roe & Potato Soufflé amuse bouche. They have so much to look forward to (sigh). You want to be those people.

When these arrive, you know it's over...

Still, all good things do come to an end and ESP’s eight-course tasting menu will set you back $130. There are two wine matches apparently available, Premier ($90) or Grand ($120), although on the night, I wasn’t given the option. Service was relatively slick and will get even better with every service they chalk up.

Man crush aside, this is a real winner. Standing outside waiting for my Uber at the end of the night, I stood on the footpath, looking into a very full Estelle Bistro and an equally full ESP next door and felt proud for Scott, Josh and his team; they’ve worked long and hard to build up the Estelle brand and we deserve places like these. As for ESP, book now or you probably won’t be able to get in for a while.

Cheeky

Several weeks ago, I had a go at making my own bacon. This was my second foray into the world of simple homemade charcuterie, after duck prosciutto, which I recommend as a good entry-level effort to the craft of curing.

Bacon is pretty easy. Buy yourself some good quality, free-range pork loin or belly… or even better, the loin with the belly attached. Cure it in a mixture of salt, sugar, some cure #1, plus whatever other flavourings you want to add and then massage it into the meat. Chuck it all into a big zip-lock bag and put it in the fridge for a week, turning it every day or so. Once it’s cured, you can hot smoke it or in the absence of a smoker, cook it in a low (120C) oven for a couple of hours.

To make it smoky, you can lightly spray the meat with a liquid smoke before it’s popped into the oven. The one I bought from Misty Gully is great and smells like Cheetos’ Cheese & Bacon Balls. There are a few more steps to it than what I’ve outlined, but this post on the Overclockers Forum is a great resource if you want to give it a go yourself. Kudos to kodo78.

bacon

As for my attempt at bacon – it looked like and smelled like bacon. Finely cut and pan fried, it also tasted pretty bacon-y and damn good between two pieces of bread, butter and a good dollop of HP sauce.

Wanting a greater challenge and with some spare time on my hands at the moment; I sought some inspiration from Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie to seek out my next curing venture. As space is a bit of issue at my place, there was a requirement to stick to a smaller cut of meat, so I decided that Guanciale would be the most viable as it could be used in a number of recipes, as well as being delicious on its lonesome.

The direct translation of Guanciale is ‘pillow’, which may relate to the delicate texture, thanks to the higher fat to meat ratio in the cut. Or the simpler inference is that its name is derived from the Italian word for cheek (guancia). Either way, the cured and dried pork jowl is a little stronger in flavour than pancetta and as any staunch Italophile will tell you, is the only meat to use in a Carbonara or Amatriciana sauce.

Now you would think that with all of the various bits of pork we consume regularly, the cheeks and jowls would be a little more omnipresent and therefore easy to find, but they’re not. That is, until they probably feature in a future series of Masterchef and Coles will start to sell them at ridiculously-inflated prices. Alas, it wasn’t as simple as walking to either of the butcher shops on my street. I suspect the local restaurants might get first dibs, given jowl is so meltingly delicious.

After unsuccessfully widening my search to incorporate the surrounding suburbs, the next obvious place was Victoria Street, Richmond. Sadly, after 10 minutes, I was zero from six on Victoria Street and so I decided to cut my losses and head to the most next obvious place – the Queen Vic Markets.

Thirty five minutes, a further nine butchers, eight bucks for parking and a doughnut from the American Doughnut Van later (alright, it was two), I was still jowl-less.

A quick Google search had me back in the car heading towards the next, next most obvious place –  the Footscray market, which in hindsight was probably what I should have done in the first place.

By butcher number five, my luck had changed and the guy was only too happy to hack off a couple of jowls right before my eyes… All for the bargain price of $4.50, later finding out for an extra dollar, I could have purchased the whole pig’s head. Perhaps next time.

Cheeks getting a trim
Cheeks getting a trim

Sourcing the jowls was easy, compared to my next dilemma; to cure or not to cure with curing salt. And if I did use it, which cure do I use? Cure #1 or Cure #2? There were so many conflicting recipes that used different cures, if at all. Now I wasn’t in the mood for seriously harming my family and friends through some serious food poisoning or worse, botulism.

Therefore a bit of research is always a good thing. In Cure #1, the sodium nitrite only keeps the meat safe for a short period of time, as well as imparting that nice ‘cured’ taste. It’s also assumed that anything cured with Cure #1 is cooked after curing. In Cure # 2, the sodium nitrate breaks down over time and transforms to sodium nitrite, which is further broken down to become nitric oxide; the key oxidising agent that keeps the meat safe from that nasty old botulism. This cure is reserved for the likes of salumi, etc; things that aren’t intended to be cooked before consuming.

So knowing which cure was the best for me, the rest of the cure recipe was pretty simple and the one I used was from Nuovo Mondo, by Stefano de Pieri & Jim McDougall.

Guanciale (for 2 cheeks)

2 pork cheeks
300g table salt
300g caster sugar
5 garlic cloves, smashed
30g black pepper, lightly crushed (I only had white pepper on hand)
½ bunch thyme, chopped (stems and all)
2.5g Cure #2

The cheeks needed a bit of a trim up for starters. Mainly to get rid of some of the flappy bits, as well as to remove some of the glands that still may be attached to the jowls. The glands are pretty obvious-looking things; they’re grey in colour so they are usually pretty easy to distinguish from the fat or muscle.

Simple ingredients
Simple ingredients

Once trimmed, they were ready for the cure, which was as easy as combining all of the ingredients together. As for the amount of cure, I used the cure packet as a guide. The 100g pack was enough to cure 40kg of meat, so using my trusty brain and a calculator, I worked it out to be 2.5 grams of cure per kilo of meat. My jowls weighed in at around 1kg after trimming, so 2.5g of cure was mixed well into the salt and sugar before adding the thyme, garlic and pepper.

As the cure was going to draw out moisture from the jowls, I added an extra base of salt to the bottom of my container before rubbing down the cheeks with the cure mix and placing them into the container. I also made sure that the cheeks were only in contact with the cure mix and not the container or each other.

See you in a week
See you in a week

There was nothing left to do, other than pop them in the fridge and let the cure do the rest, for about a week. Every day or so, I check on them and ensured that they were happy and the cure was still covering each cheek.

After a week, it was time to wash the cure off the cheeks, but not with water. So, unless you were a magician, like Jebus, white wine was the traditional method for washing the cheeks and I thought I’d do the same thing. I can’t remember the last time I’d bought a cask of goon and sadly, I thought Fruity Lexia might be a tad too sweet for washing the cheeks, so I opted for a drier, more highfalutin Semillon Chardonnay.

Goon-ciale
Goon-ciale

Once the cheeks were well washed in the good stuff, I patted them dry with paper towel, ready for the next step. They had firmed up in the cure nicely and now they were ready for a rub down of spices, ready to hang. I used a combination of juniper, green peppercorns, fennel seeds and chilli. I went for green peppercorns as I wanted a milder pepper flavour. Juniper, fennel and chilli are fairly traditional spices as far as Guanciale goes.

Ready for hanging
Ready for hanging

The last step before hanging was to weigh the cheeks. I’d read that the same principle I’d followed when making duck prosciutto was also relevant to making Guanciale; that was when they’d lost 30% of their initial weight, through loss of moisture, they were done.

Actually, a precise figure of 30% is a little subjective. Jowls that contain a lot of fat won’t lost as much weight as the moisture is lost. I guess I just had to wait and see. My cheeks had lost around 100 grams in the fridge cure, so I was aiming to lose around 120 grams. In my little wine fridge, set at 13 degrees Celsius and with a humidity of around 65 percent, this could take anywhere from four to eight weeks.

Patience
Patience…

Fast forward to just shy of six weeks later and my impatience had gotten the better of me. On the scales, they hadn’t met the ’30 percent’ rule (closer to 20%) and since I first checked on them at the one month mark, there had been very little additional weight lost over the past two weeks. However, they were nice and firm; I was pretty sure that they were ready.

Worth the wait
… is a virtue

From the first cut of the knife, I knew my impatience was justified. The flesh was a rich and red in colour and the fat was lovely and firm. It smelled fantastic and tasted even better! Rich, buttery and a little nutty. A little bit of sweetness lingered from the cure and the spicing rounded it out perfectly.

A wee favour called in at Maria’s Deli (a few doors down from me) and soon enough their meat slicer had transformed one of my cured cheeks into paper-thin slices.

Patience truly is a virtue.

Thrifty

They say that 2015 is going to be the year of recession, so maybe we should get in early and start to tighten our belts. As I’m not working at the moment, I’m already trying harder to not be so frivolous with my money. I am not yet at the stage where I am making my own moonshine or clothes, but I am spending far more time planning when it comes to grocery shopping, so there is less spent on the weekly shop and as a bonus, less weekly wastage.

Our household still produces its fair share of waste; but more recently, it’s been a case of an increasing awareness to minimise what is getting binned. Any bananas that are still around at the end of the week are chucked in the freezer and when there are enough, I’ll make banana bread. The abundance of lemons that are often given to us are turned into curd and any vegetables that look like they only have another day left are easily turned into pakoras or okonomyaki with a few other pantry staples.

It’s led me to think more about the things that we would normally throw away; things that could easily have a second chance as something else to enjoy, rather than simply becoming landfill or worm food. Stuff that we simply do not think about or most likely; couldn’t be bothered doing anything about. Using vegetable peelings for stock is one that comes to mind. Sadly, I’m just not that driven to be that overtly conscious, although I should try harder.

With summer fast approaching, my kids love nothing more than eating their bodyweight in watermelon and I’m quite partial to the stuff too, particularly as a salad with marinaded goats feta, mint and olives. I hate the wastage though. Over half of what is bought usually gets dumped in the bin or at the very least, if you buy a whole melon, you can make a zany helmet to wear to the cricket.

Using watermelon rind for a jam or pickle has been in the back of my head for a few months. A friend of mine in Adelaide is running a stall at a local market that sells a range of naan breads and other home-made treats. Their preserves and pickles have been big sellers and their watermelon jam is a winner.

This was enough for me to give it a go and see for myself. Is this the epitome of turning waste into a delicious commodity of a condiment?

So, what to make? A Pickle, preserve or chutney? What would I use more? I opted for a pickle to start with. It’s pretty interchangeable with chicken, pork, charcuterie or even with a good, crumbly cheddar.

The recipe is pretty basic. No more than 10 minutes of prep and 15 minutes on the stove.

Pickled Watermelon Rind (makes approximately 500ml)

Rind from one mini watermelon (mine was the size between a lawn bowl and a bowling ball), including some of the red flesh
1 cup cider vinegar
2/3 cup caster sugar
1 tbsp salt
2 star anise
1 cinnamon stick

I used a boning knife to cut the flesh from each half of the watermelon, leaving about half a centimetre of flesh on the rind, before using a vegetable peeler to remove the green skin.

After cutting the flesh from the rind and using a vegetable peeler to remove the green skin, I cut the rind into a half-centimetre dice. One mini watermelon gave me a little over four cups of peeled rind.

The rind was paced into a medium-sized saucepan with the other ingredients and simmered over a medium-high heat for around 15 minutes, until the rind becomes a little translucent.

If you leave it to cool, then refrigerate for a few hours, it’s ready to go. Otherwise, you can pop it into a sterilised jar, where it should keep for a couple of weeks. It’s a reasonably small quantity, so hopefully it won’t last you that long.

I’ll never be as inventive or inclined as Joost Bakker, but this is a great step forward in turning potential waste into deliciousness… one recipe at a time.

Thank you for Smoking…

I love birthdays. Especially mine. It’s one of the only times of the year I can usually get away with frivolous purchases, without the follow-up question of “do you really need that?”

This year, I was the grateful recipient of a Hark Electric Digital Smoker and happily ticking the frivolous box with a big fat red marker, the most problematic issue is that where I am living has no private access to an outdoors area… just a public laneway. Obviously, this makes it a tad difficult to crank up the smoker indoors (yes, I foolishly tried) and in the laneway, I’d hate for a panicky neighbour to think that their place was in danger of catching fire.

Fortunately on a recent weekend, I headed up to a friend’s property near Geelong for a few days; a great opportunity to load the smoker into the boot of the car along with several kilograms of ribs and some chicken.

Hark Electronic Digital Smoker

Ribs seemed the most fitting for the maiden trial of my smoker. Get it right and you are rewarded with one of the messiest, most delicious sharing dishes I can think of.

Way back when, there was little thought or effort that went into cooking ribs, other than ‘making’ my own sauce from a blend of commercial sauces, maybe some extra sugar and perhaps a few seasonings and whatever I could find that was on hand. Then it was a case of chucking them in the oven for a couple of hours, in foil, on a slow heat, followed by cranking up the heat as high as possible to caramelise the ribs.

I didn’t know any better or indeed know what better could be until several years ago when Melbourne became slowly indoctrinated to North American Barbecue, largely thanks to people like Burger Mary.

Nowadays, every third or fourth pub has revamped it’s menu to pay homage to the Pit Master and, like all the other food trends that we have embraced over the years, most of us are aware of what makes good Barbecue; meat, rubs, smoke, heat and lots of love, time and care… and perhaps a lick of BBQ sauce.

I’ve learned a lot about Barbecue over the last few weeks. Much more than I thought I would from just watching episodes of BBQ Pitmasters on Foxtel. For starters, there was a lot more to know about ribs than I thought I already knew. From a little piggy’s fourteen rib bones, there are two common cuts; Baby Back Ribs and Spare Ribs. Further to this, there are also St Louis-cut ribs, which are Spare Ribs that have been trimmed up (removing the sternum and flap of meat at the bottom), effectively squaring up the ribs to make them neat and more uniform (I found a really great post the Serious Eats website on how to trim ribs). Then there are also Country-style cut ribs, which are extremely meaty and cut from the sirloin or rib end of the pork loin. Rib porn.

Far Left: Spare Ribs, in their entirety. Top: St Louis Ribs. Centre: Baby Back Ribs. Bottom: Country-Style Ribs
Far Left: Spare Ribs. Top: St Louis Ribs. Centre: Baby Back Ribs. Bottom: Country-Style Ribs

The common Baby Backs are the from the ribs found closest to the backbone of the pig and connected to the loin. They bones are smaller, curved and pretty close together and most of the meat is on top of the bones. When I was a kid, Mum would buy these ribs for maybe no more than a dollar or two for a couple of racks. Back then, they were tantamount to dog bones and were most likely sold as such. Today, they command around $20 per kg, which is a lot given that there is more bone than meat.

As you move further from the spine, you find the Spare Ribs, where the bones get larger, flatter, straighter and wider apart with more meat between the bones. Also, the further you get from the spine, there is a greater amount of marbling because it’s closer to the belly. In fact, because of their affiliation with the pork belly, the belly itself can be sometimes sold as ‘boneless spare ribs’. It’s kinda technically true, but it’s just pork belly.

Credit Photo: TMBBQ (http://www.tmbbq.com)
Baby Back Ribs on the left, Spare Ribs on the right… with respective loin and belly attached

Sadly, most ribs in Australia are butchered to be devoid of very little meat, which is largely due to the demand of other pork cuts that would otherwise be compromised if ‘proper’ rib cuts were made available in Australia. The vast majority of Australian butchers and retailers purchase specific cuts through a commercial boning room. Therefore the proposition of buying and breaking down an entire pig for awesome ribs would be to the detriment of leaving cuts that are not too popular in the Australian market, so unfortunately, it’s uneconomical.

Perhaps with an emerging demand for other not-so popular cuts of meat, we may find better ribs in the near future. For now, I’ve found the best quality spare ribs are from Costco at around $16 per kg. They’re meaty and require very little trimming up, unless you want to make them St Louis-style. One rack (around 1.6-1.8kg) will set you back about $28-$30, which is enough for two moderately hungry people. However, smoking just one rack seems pointless, so stock up and get your friends over.

BBQ sauces are fairly subjective as far as flavours go. As you move through the BBQ belt in the United States, flavour profiles are tweaked from region to region. A Kansas-style BBQ sauce is your typical tomato-based sauce. It’s unctuously sticky, dark and sweet from molasses and it’s the sauce that most people will duly recognise; albeit a far cry from the overly sweet sauces that most of us are subjected to, thanks to the mass-produced brown muck you find in squeezey bottles.

Sauces from North Carolina are all about tang that is driven from a big dose of vinegar. Pork in its many forms (but think pulled pork) is the most popular meat in this part of the world, so the preference of a vinegar-driven BBQ sauce that cuts through the richness of the meat makes perfect sense.

Tennessee sauces contain the ubiquitous slosh of whiskey, whereas Texan sauces tend to be on the spicier side and Louisiana sauces are even hotter.

With all this in mind, I started to trawl various BBQ forums and recipes to look at the more common ingredients so I could build a sauce of my own at this is what I came up with.

Paul’s BBQ Sauce (makes 1.5 litres)

200g Celery, very finely diced
200g, Onion, very finely diced
50g Butter
50g fresh Ginger, finely grated
500ml Tomato Ketchup (I used Heinz)
125ml Molasses
100g Brown Sugar
125ml good quality Bourbon
1 tbsp Habanero Tabasco Sauce (Note: start with a ½ tbsp and if you feel you need more heat, add another ½ tbsp.)
2 tbsp Worcestershire Sauce
4 tbsp Apple Cider Vinegar
1 tbsp Mustard Powder (I used Keens)
125ml Orange Juice
60ml Maple Syrup
125ml fresh Espresso

Quite a number of rubs and sauces contain celery seed or salt. I opted for fresh celery and onion (as opposed to powder) to use as my aromatics, as well as to thicken the sauce after blending. I sweated this mixture down slowly with some butter (lid on, but stirring frequently) for 10 minutes, then added the ginger, leaving a soft, fragrant and translucent base to continue adding the rest of the ingredients.

Once the ketchup had been added and incorporated into the softened aromatics, the remainder of the ingredients were added judiciously, in the order of ingredients listed above. I tasted the sauce as each ingredient was added to understand how each ingredient contributed to the overall flavour. Over the slowest heat possible on my biggest burner, the process took around 40 minutes of simmering and adjusting until I was happy with the consistency and flavour. The espresso was a last minute addition and I’m glad I used it. The coffee notes really brought out the bourbon and the acidity helped to further balance some of the sweetness.

Once I’d blended the sauce to make it nice and smooth, I stored it in the fridge overnight to allow the flavours to develop. When I tried it the next day, it was good, but not great and perhaps a little too spicy to be universally kid-friendly.

With some corrective action, I poured the sauce back into a saucepan over a low heat and added another 125ml of molasses. It was nearly there, but not quite. Rather than add more molasses or brown sugar, I added 125ml of kecap mains (ABC Sweet Soy) for a little more depth and colour. Finally, to further balance the sweetness with a little more acidity, another 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar was stirred in. At this point, the sauce was only back to blood temperature; enough heat to allow the new ingredients to emulsify.

The end result encapsulates all of the key elements of the various regional BBQ sauces from all over the US; the tempered heat from tabasco, the sweetness from the molasses and brown sugar, the twang from the apple cider vinegar and a cheers to the folk in Tennessee with a generous splash of Bourbon.

Another key step to smoking is the process of marinating the meat with a dry rub.

Ribs after a rub
Ribs after a good rub

Dry rubs are exactly as their name describes; a mix of dried herbs and seasonings that are rubbed onto the meat to impart flavour. Meat, obviously being moist, will make the rub tacky when left for several hours or overnight, meaning most of it will remain on the meat before and during cooking (although some rib recipes call for a thin layer of mustard on the ribs, which, additional flavour aside, also allows the rub to stick to the meat). Sugar also features as a key ingredient as it allows the meat to caramelise.

Like BBQ sauces, dry rubs are also very personal in flavour. Most recipes are a combination of sugar, salt, paprika, chilli or cayenne, pepper, powdered garlic, onion and ginger and dried herbs, like oregano, rosemary and thyme. From there you can then play with the combinations of the above or add your own personal touches. I’ve got an idea of maybe trying some freeze dried pineapple powder, but for my first rub, I stuck to a fairly generic recipe.

Generic Rib Rub (makes 2 cups)

3/4 cup Brown Sugar
3/4 cup White Sugar
1/2 cup Paprika
1/4 cup Garlic Powder
2 tbsp Black Pepper, freshly ground
2 tbsp Ginger Powder
2 tbsp Onion Powder
2 tsp Oregano, dried

On the day prior to smoking, I trimmed the ribs up, removing the flap of skirt meat that runs diagonally on the backside of the ribs. I ended up cooking the flaps separately, but in the same manner as the ribs, which became a tasty and fuss-free meal for my 4 year old. I also removed the thin, papery membrane from the back of the ribs. I’d never done this before, but many sites and forums advocated this for the sake of allowing better smoke penetration (also conversely refuted by other sites and forums). Another apparent and more practical advantage was better texture once the ribs are cooked. This made more sense. It’s quite a tricky and laborious step. The membrane is a slippery little sucker, but after a couple of little knife nicks to the fingers and some quality swearing, it was job done.

Once the ribs are trimmed, they’re given a generous coating of rib rub, then left to marinate in the fridge overnight until you’re ready to fire up the smoker.

Ribs at the ready
Ribs at the ready

The Hark Electric Smoker works well. My only gripe was that initially the door wasn’t flush with the body of the unit, which meant that smoke billowed out where the door seal wasn’t sealing adequately. Sadly, Hark did not respond to my photos, which was disappointing. I fixed the problem with some self-adhesive fibreglass tape I picked up at a BBQ store for around $25. A cheap, effective fix, but unnecessary when you’ve forked out $600 for a brand new smoker. Gripes aside, it’s also pretty economical, only requiring a scant 1/4 cup of (apple) wood pellets, so that 10kg bag I purchased might take a little while to use.

The cooking method I used for the ribs was the popular 3-2-1 method. This method consists of placing your rubbed ribs in the smoker for 3 hours with your wood chips or pellets, uncovered and untouched. This is followed by a further 2 hours in the smoker, wrapped in alfoil. Finally, the ribs are unwrapped and placed back in the smoker for another hour, lacquering every fifteen minutes or so with BBQ sauce and a trusty sauce mop. The temperature of the smoker remains at a constant 110 degrees Celsius throughout the entire process. I also threw in some bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs and a couple of chicken marylands, adding them to the smoker after the ribs had endured their first three hours (I added some more wood pellets at this point to give them a chance to smoke).

The end result
The end result… with some delectable chicken thighs for the no-pork peeps

The whole process is most definitely a labour of love and time. But by God is it worth it. There are so many other things to try next… brisket, pork butt (neck) or shoulder. Maybe all at once. All I need is a backyard. If you can provide me this, I’ll promise you a meal you’ll never forget.

The Estelle + Truffles = Love

A refresh of The Estelle is, so far, paying dividends.

It sounds a bit weird given it only opened three years ago, but things appear to move pretty fast in Scott Pickett’s world.

In a little over the last twelve months he’s opened Saint Crispin with Joe Grbac. Then last October, chef and business partner, Ryan Flaherty, left the business to start his own restaurant, Mr Jennings (Bridge Rd, Richmond), which coincidentally opens today… I can’t wait to check it out.

More recently, there has been an impressive renovation of the courtyard (previously home to a fire pit and suckling pig on a spit) which delivers full overhead cover and comfortable heating to increase patronage by around 30 seats and an excellent refurbishment of the amenities.

This is all topped off with the addition of Josh Pelham as Head Chef in the kitchen. Like Scott, Josh is an alumnus of Phil Howard’s two Michelin-starred London restaurant, The Square, where Josh was Head Chef.

See? Whirlwind.

I dined here several weeks ago and noticed that there have also been a few alterations to the menu. What once was a choice of 5, 7 or 9 courses has become 6, 8 or 10. And gone is the ‘adventurous’ beverage pairing, which offered some more left-of-field alternatives to the more basic wine matches; like maybe a sake or a simple cocktail. Alas, making a cocktail (to order) is a far more laborious task within a very busy restaurant and relying on the next beverage match to be ready for its accompanying course is paramount. It makes sense.

As for the food, it was better. The pork jowl, apple and turnip has become my all-time favourite dish, closely followed by the Phil Howard-esque hand rolled macaroni, featuring pine mushrooms, parmesan and (in addition to a $15 supplement) a generous shaving of black truffle.

And to my not-so-subtle segue.

Last night, was the Fringe Food Festival’s fourth annual Truffle Dinner hosted by The Estelle (with the exception of last year, which was held at Saint Crispin), with truffles lovingly supplied by Madame Truffles.

The Menu

Winter staples are a perfect vehicle for the unbridled addition of truffle; rich pasta dishes, creamy sauces, under chicken skin and many other delights where buttery and cheesey goodness go hand in hand with nature’s black gold… I had a crack at a few recipes myself a few years back. And yes, we all know that high amounts of this stuff is not good for you in the long term, but The Estelle does moderation quite well and to be frank, the truffle season is very short indeed.

Truffles (Braidwood, NSW)

Last night’s menu kicked off with salty and warm – fresh from the oven – foccacia with truffled olive oil. This is opposed to the various incarnations of ‘truffle infused’ olive oils which are in most cases inferior. The olive oil was grassy and rich with the perfume from the very visible shaved truffle from Daylesford (VIC). Bagel and Pretzel mogul, Dan Taranto and I took turns seeing who could capture the most bits of shaved truffle onto our focaccia. It was a draw.

A delicious scrumpy-style cider from WA’s Custard & Co accompanied a most delicious Isle of Mull Cheddar and Truffle cheese soldier to whet our appetites. I’m not a big cider fan; my foray into fermented apple drinks was largely killed off thanks to the likes of Strongbow as a teenager. I will be heading to Wine Republic later this week to pick up a flagon (such a great choice of receptacle) or two as I am now a convert.

Cheese Soldier

The warming and satisfying Jerusalem artichoke veloute with pine mushrooms and a 63 degree egg (for 40 minutes) was topped with the nutty crunch of toasted rice and truffle from Pemberton in WA.

Jerusalem Artichoke and 63C egg

For the next course, we stayed in WA for a little longer. Western Australian marron was teamed with the most famous hand-rolled macaroni, basil and pan fried Brussels Sprout leaves. The sauce that embalmed the pasta was heavenly; rich with flavour from what I assume was the shells of the marron.

WA Marron

A quick trip from the west coast to the east coast was taken for our next course. Truffles from Braidwood (NSW) were paired with meltingly tender, slow-cooked beef shin, oyster mushrooms, miso and oyster mushroom puree, jus and a small nugget of deep-fried bone marrow.

Wagyu and all the trimmings

We closed the night closer to home, with truffle from the Yarra Valley (VIC) featuring in the (truffle infused) sponge cake and the ice cream, as well as honeycomb crumb and charred pear. I was a little apprehensive about the ice cream. I’ve had great truffle-flavoured ice cream in the past, but some former versions have been far too dominant in flavour, overpowering the other elements of the dessert and the wine. This version was quite redeeming.

Dessert

Another memorable night at The Estelle and if you’re quick, you may be able to snag a ticket to next Monday’s Truffle Dinner (details are here), which coincides with Bastille Day.

You wouldn’t think it could get any busier for Scott, but it does. There’s also a book coming out in November. Teaming up with renowned Australian food writer, Rita Erlich, Scott’s next foray delves into stories and recipes that have shaped and pay homage to his so-far 25-year journey in cooking.

I know what will be on the top of my Christmas list.