The things I love

I haven’t posted anything since last September. Time tends to get away from you a bit… family, work, moving house. One month becomes two, then six. I haven’t really been eating out as much either. A few places, but nothing new… except for a trip to New Zealand. Cibo in Parnell, just out of the Auckland CBD, was great, but I forgot to take photos, otherwise I would have written a review.

There have been a few articles of late that spruik the latest and greatest food fads, which are more or less titled [insert number here] of the [best / weirdest / latest] foods you need to eat before you die. I don’t want to think about dying in that way. On my deathbed, with tubes inserted into every orifice, connected up to a machine that goes ‘ping’, the last thing I’d be thinking about would be a truffle-filled cronut wrapped in lardo. Maybe.

But it did get me thinking about my top 5 things that I love. The things that I tend to revert back to and revere. They’re not necessarily fancy or expensive, nor would they rate too highly on someone’s culinary bucket list (some might).

My Top 5... make that 4

So, without trying to sound like John Cusack in High Fidelity, here is my all-time, desert island foodie top 5…

5. Bread
Coeliacs, look away now. I’m not talking about your standard Wonder White variety that I feed to my kids. I’m talking about bread with character. Stuff that’s been made with love. A Treat of France is a Boulangerie and Patisserie that is only a few doors down from my place. They make the best olive sour dough I’ve ever eaten. Hit that shit up with some Myrtleford Butter, Pepe Saya or at the very least, Lurpak.

Random bread pic from Google

Northcote Bakeshop make the bestest, densest fruit loaf. Cut thin and crisped up in a low oven. Forego butter and opt for a tangy, creamy blue or a perfectly ripe triple cream brie.

Toasted sandwiches also rate a mention… on Wonder White if that’s all you have. I originate from Adelaide, so it’s not a jaffle either. Nan used to make us toasties with that Kraft processed cheese that you bought in the aisle, near the Vegemite or with tinned braised steak and onion that was so hot, you couldn’t taste anything else for a week until your tongue healed.

 

Kraft Cheddar anyone?

These days, simple ham and cheese is just fine or at the very least, the perfect medium for left-overs… like the meat from the previous night’s lamb shanks with cannellini beans. The best baked bean toastie there is.

4. Coffee
I only started drinking coffee when I started my first full-time job in 1994; nearly half my life ago and of course, it was Nescafé from one of those cafébar things where one click of the dial dispensed the recommended amount.

One click or three?

Way back then, I think my three clicks into a plastic disposable cup bred my love of a strong coffee. Fortunately, my tastes in coffee have matured, as has my passion for making the best coffee I can. I use St Ali’s Steadfast Blend, (formerly known as Orthodox and before that, known as Chompy) and with my Breville Smart Grinder and Gaggia Classic, I can belt out a most very decent, rich creamy shot, time after time. It seems more satisfying with the more tactile process of making an espresso with a manual machine. People may scoff at the rest of the process. Skinny milk in my favourite rabbit mug, heated in the microwave for 70 seconds, topped with a double shot and half a teaspoon of panella sugar. Hey, that’s how I like it.

STSKFW 0.5

I also feel like a bit of a wanker when it comes to ordering my small strong skinny flat white with half a sugar. I always have this feeling that then they write STSKFW 0.5 on my coffee lid with a sharpie it could also mean stupid skanky fuck wit. I hope they don’t mean that.

3. Condiments
I know that’s a pretty broad brush to paint with, but life without condiments would be joyless and somewhat less tangy, fruity, sweet and delicious.

I moved house recently and it was a good time to take stock of what lived in my fridge. Six kinds of mustard; Sweet Alstertor Mustard (that comes in the small beer mug), which we slather on sausages to get our German on, Maille Dijon and wholegrain mustards for cooking, Masterfoods Mild English for Lily’s ham and cheese roll for school, Hot English (Colman’s, of course) and that yellow stuff you put on hotdogs.

condimentspoons

There is also Gochujang chilli paste, hoi sin, miso, pickles in many forms. Countless jars of preserves, chutneys, sauces. Hank’s Chilli Jam goes with practically everything. They will all be required at some point… maybe to make up a quick BBQ sauce for ribs with tomato sauce, mustard, plum sauce and sriracha. I also keep a big jar of homemade chimichurri sauce in the fridge too. It goes with everything. I start with this recipe from Matt Preston, but vary the heat and herbs depending on how I’m feeling at the time.

2. Asian Food

And you thought condiments was a pretty broad brush. Unfortunately there’s no better way to describe so many dishes that I love that cross Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, Malaysian and Thai borders. There are probably more too. It’s safe to say that of the 14 lunches and dinners available to me per week, some form of Asian cuisine would take up at least 10 of these spots.

I love dumplings. But then if I just had dumplings on my list, I couldn’t have pho or sashimi or bibimbap or any of the meats that feature in the window of a good Chinese restaurant.

Mmm... window meats

Other favourites are Hainanese chicken and rice, Korean fried chicken (and beer) with pickles and kimchee, a laksa that blows your head off, crispy crunchy Vietnamese coleslaw and rare beef salad with roasted rice, broken rice with a perfectly cooked pork chop and a punchy nuoc cham, freshly made banh mi with lots of coriander, pickled carrot and chilli, gua bao, agedashi tofu, My discovery of the raw prawn dish, Gung Chae Nam Pla, Karē Raisu, okonomiyaki, satay, red duck curry, chicken skin yakitori… any yakitori!

Gung Chae Nam Pla

A fresh Thai dish that can nail the perfect combination of hot, sour, sweet, bitter and salty can be just as exciting as a simple and comforting congee. I love it all – I’m enjoying a Bulgogi Hot Pot for lunch even as I write this; rich, sweet stock, a little heat from chilli, slippery sweet potato noodles, tender beef… You don’t get that from a salad sandwich or something from Red Rooster.

So what’s number one? Number one is tough. There are many things I’ve missed, like beer, potatoes in many forms, good hamburgers, ice cream, eggs, pigs, fresh strawberries at their prime, roast chicken, a perfect steak, ribs… or fancy stuff like truffles or even the Chinese deliacy tong zi dan, where every spring in the city of Dongyang, eggs are boiled in the urine of young schoolboys (I’m not making this up).

Sadly, there is no number one. Yet… and this remains a top 4 for now (sorry John Cusack). Fact is that there are so many things in the culinary world that I revert back to and revere and I guess that’s part of being a so-called foodie.

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St. Ali North – 815 Nicholson St, Carlton North

The great north of the river versus the south of the river debate. Which is better? The generalisations are that the South is pretentious and the North is full of unwashed bohemian hippies, but don’t quote me on any of that.

When I moved to Melbourne in 2002 (cue Ministry of Sound Chillout Sessions 3), I started out south of the Yarra and being a newbie to this town, not only was I was oblivious to North versus South rivalry, I was also quite unaware of what the North had to offer. On the surface, I thought it was a dirty shithole full of full of unwashed bohemian hippies. I made the occasional trip to Brunswick St – with great disdain because it took, like, forever. And when I crossed the river again, between Richmond and South Yarra train stations, I felt at ease being back on terra firma. I enjoyed my little world in and around St Kilda; saying hello to the prostitutes whilst on my way for a walk along the Esplanade, beers at the Prince of Wales, the awesome delis on Carlisle St and I spent many a Friday night playing lots of pool at the Arcadia Hotel in South Yarra. Good times.

Once my Sister had moved to North Carlton and other friends were settling nearby in Collingwood, it was inevitable that I moved closer. I got as far as Richmond in 2004 and since then, I’ve progressively moved further north; spending the last 6 years in Carlton North, Fitzroy North, Thornbury and recently, back to Fitzroy North. I’ve also increasingly become more passionate and parochial about the north. It’s my life. It’s where relationships have been forged and failed, it’s where my kids were born and raised and it’s part of me. If an unknown rich relative bequests me a decent amount of cash for a house deposit, I’ll happily spend the rest of my life here. As for the south? I just think it’s pretentious.

Fortunately for me, as my deep-seated love for the north increased (as did my passion for all things food), the north became the biggest jewel in Melbourne’s culinary crown (southsiders may disagree), with Gertrude St becoming the new Brunswick St, then Smith St became the new Gertrude St, then pockets of places-to-be on St Georges Rd, High St in Northcote and Thornbury and the cool end of Lygon St.

Poor Nicholson Street missed a lot of it. Sure, there’s Pope Joan / The Bishop of Ostia and Milkwood, but they’re up the end past Brunswick Rd… and that’s East Brunswick, which is too cool for school anyway. Nicholson Village is the bit that roughly starts at one end around Reid / Richardson Sts and ends at Holden St / Brunswick Rd and for all it’s gems like Milawa Cheese, the two butchers, Artastic – for all your picture framing needs (gratuituous plug), it’s always been a little hit and miss for coffee and food.

Bramble & Vine is unfortunately not very well known, which is a damn shame because it’s great (review coming in the new year), other places like Birdie Num Nums were good, now are not so good. Then some guy from the, ugh, south had the temerity to expand on his ‘little’ cafe in South Melbourne and along came St. Ali North… BAM!

St. Ali North - Pic courtesty of Essjay

Putting a coffee shop on the Capital City Trail on Park Street, just off the corner of Nicholson Street, was always going to work. I would imagine that many others (myself included) would have had that idea in the back of their heads at some point. Fortunately Sal Malatesta and Jesse Gerner did it and from my (so far)  five visits, they have done it very well.

It’s not without it’s minor faults, but please bear in mind (that’s you, discerning urbanspoon reviewers) it’s been open for a little under a month and the reputation of its southside sibling has clearly preceded it. There was absolutely no way this place was going to get away with a soft opening, in December, during the festive season. I mean, people loved the concept of having the St Ali brand in their neck of the woods, some bastards stole their brand spanking new twin Synesso Hydro coffee machines, around $45,000 worth of kit

I haven’t had enough visits to get all funky with St. Ali North’s range of coffee offerings, but all of the strong skinny flat whites, short blacks and short macchiatos have been consistently exemplary and I’ve become so addicted to adding a tiny bit of the panela organic cane sugar (an unrefined, caramelly sugar that does not detract from the flavour of the coffee), I was compelled to leave with half a kg under my arm after today’s visit.

As for the food, I will continue to work my way through the menu and vow to not have the same thing twice until I’ve exhausted this promise… however the burger will be sure to get a more frequent work out. The ‘St. Ali Royale’ ($16) is a Wagyu beef burger topped with aged cheddar, house bacon (just look for it hanging in it’s own shrine), Russian dressing and housemade pickles on the side. Anywhere that offers a burger from 7am deserves a medal; especially if it’s made by someone with the same last surname (Chris Hamburger, as opposed to Chris St. Ali Royale… I don’t know where he works. Or if he exists).

St. Ali Royale

‘My Mexican Cousin’ ($21.50); a favourite on the South Melbourne St. Ali menu also features at North… fried sweet corn fritters with kasundi, halloumi, greens, tomato and poached eggs. I liked it, but overall the dish was a little on the dry side. My poached eggs were a tad over and perhaps some gooey-er yolks or the addition of some of their avocado mash would have provided some better balance.

My Mexican Cousin

Villa Verde free-range eggs come four ways – poached, scrambled, fried or 63’ 63° ($10.5o). You can add field mushrooms, haloumi or bean ragout for an extra $4 a pop. For $4.50, you can add either bacon, house-smoked salmon, morcilla or feta and avocado mash.

On another visit, trying to be a little bit healthy before Christmas, I stuck to poached eggs with bean ragout and avo mash. The avo was mash midly spiced and flecked with feta. The beans, whilst well flavoured, were a little tough, like when you salt the water when cooking any legumes. Overall though, it was great. I regret not getting the bacon though.

Poached eggs, bean ragout and avocado mash - Pic courtesy of Essjay

Other dishes tried by my various brekky partners include the house-baked fruit toast, with fruit conserve and labneh ($7.50) – it’s fruit toast, but damn good fruit toast – and Bircher muesli with mango, lychee and toasted nuts ($12.50) which is what Maximilian Bircher-Benner might have eaten when he went on holidays to Thailand.

Bircher with Mango & Lychee - Pic courtesy of Essjay

A simple kid’s menu is also offered. For $8 you can choose from several dishes, like scrambled eggs with bacon or a cheese toastie with tomato sauce on the side.

Due to the design and the concrete floors, the decibel levels can get a little out of control, but you can live with it.

Welcome to the neighbourhood.

(Thanks to SJ from essjay eats for loaning me a couple of pics. You can read her take on St. Ali North here)

St. Ali North
815 Nicholson St (on the bike path on Park St), Carlton North VIC
(03) 9686 2990
http://www.stali.com.au/

Good For: Raising the bar on great food and great coffee in the North
Not Good For: Impatient people; you could wait a little bit for a table and people with sensitive ears (you could listen to your iPod)

St Ali North on Urbanspoon

The Burgers are Better…

I love a good burger. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I really also love a bad burger in the wee hours when I’ve drunk far too much. Who doesn’t?

For around 40 years, Australians accepted the mediocrity of the Hungry Jacks and McDonald’s duopoly until a bunch of various entrepreneurs decided to challenge the status quo. The mid-2000’s brought us the likes of Grill’d, Urban Burger, Burger Edge, BBNT; all of which seemed to practically pop up over night to rival the competition; each claiming to offer an alternative burger that’s well made (in that it vaguely looks like the picture above the counter) with quality ingredients (that don’t taste like cardboard) and in some instances deliver nourishment that isn’t two times your daily intake of calories in one sitting.

Some tried, some failed. Most though, are still around. Even before the great burger revolution of circa 2005, there are long-standing Melbourne icons like Andrew’s Hamburgers in Port Melbourne, Danny’s Burgers in Fitzroy North and even the Embassy Café in West Melbourne, where all the taxi drivers hang out.

They’ve been a staple on most pub menus, amongst the chicken parmas and beer-battered fish & chips, but some places are kicking it up a notch. And it makes sense, because they’re popular, can cater to most tastes and in most instances, a relatively inexpensive feed.

The Tramway Hotel, an iconic local pub in Fitzroy North recently changed hands. With the change of owners came a much-needed refurbishment and another attempt at opening the kitchen, which in years gone by has failed repeatedly. Although this time around, the canny owners went on the premise to focus on something particular and do it well. With 8 or 9 burgers on offer, some are constants that remain on the menu and others are seasonal. Your omnipresent Fitzroyalty vegans and vegetarians are covered, as are your hungry carnivores, coeliacs, pescetarians, etc. All washed down with a few beers, is there anything better?

But how much is too much for a burger? Many coveted two-hatted establishments also jumped on the burger bandwagon because it was cool, like, if you didn’t know. Rockpool Bar & Grill’s Wagyu Burger is probably the most renowned with its brioche bun, gruyere cheese, bacon, zucchini pickle from the Zuni Café in San Francisco and of course, its namesake, a David Blackmore Full Blood Wagyu burger patty. Some may scoff at paying $24 for a burger, but it’s probably a reasonable price point in the context of the venue and although it’s around four times the cost of a Whopper, it’s only twice the cost of a burger at Grill’d.

Of course, the more you pay for your burger hopefully indicates that you are getting better quality ingredients. Although the ongoing publicity surrounding high fat, high sodium take-away food has meant that the ‘alternative’ burger franchises attempt to win over customers by offering stuff like “97% fat-free beef”, which as far as burgers go, defeats the purpose of what actually makes a good burger. Fat equals flavour and provides the much needed moisture to make your hamburger juicy. As I continually need to explain to my four-year old daughter, a burger (amongst all of the other junk food she likes) is a ‘sometimes’ food and I’d sooner have a juicy, tasty burger occasionally than a ‘guilt-free’ 97% fat-free burger patty, which will give you nothing more than a dry, tough and tasteless puck of meat.

Making a burger at home is a very satisfying undertaking, especially with some care and forethought. Although my home version is naturally better and far more satisfying than that famous  twoallbeefpattiesspecialsaucelettucecheesepicklesonionsonasesameseedbun, there are a couple of elements in my burger that pay homage to the evil duopoly, because at the end of the day this is what I grew up knowing a burger to be and let’s be frank, some things just work so there’s no point in trying to reinvent them.

As I’ve also mentioned previously, you can go as far as Heston Blumenthal and make your own ‘processed’ cheese like he did in his In Search of Perfection series. Perhaps even go the whole hog and attempt to make every single element of the burger from scratch, like this guy did.

Personally, I don’t have 30 hours to kill. However there is one non-negotiable that must be obeyed and that is the meat patty. Like I said before, there needs to be a reasonable fat content. There are many lean to fat ratios thrown around as to what is the ultimate and everyone’s get a theory on the best cuts to use. As for fat, the general consensus is around 80:20 (80% lean to 20% fat). Chuck steak seems to be the preferred sub-primal cut, although if you’ve got lots of time on your hands, you can mix it up with ratios of chuck with some brisket, sirloin and even beef short ribs (boned, of course), each cut adds a different dimension in terms of meatier flavour, texture and mouthfeel.

You can buy the meat and grind it yourself, if you have the equipment and enthusiasm or your butcher can grind it for you. If you’re really pressed for time (here’s my first tip that might cause a little unease as to my pedigree as a ‘foodie’, but hey this is my recipe and my thoughts on my favourite burger to make at home. If you disagree or have other thoughts, I would love to hear them), buy regular standard minced beef from any of your garden variety supermarkets. Don’t buy the premium quality 5-star lean, or 4-star for that matter, as both are too lean. The regular 3-star mince has the appropriate lean to fat ratio for this purpose.

The next step is to flavour your meat. Of course, there are lots of options here: garlic, onion (raw or sweated off first), breadcrumbs, herbs, spices, worcestershire, mustard and so on. Personally, I don’t want to add anything to the meat other than some salt and a little white pepper before it hits the grill. Both enhance the flavour of the meat and I do not like to detract from this at all. There’s enough going on in a burger with the other ingredients and condiments, than to have to add more flavour to the meat.

You do not need egg to bind your minced beef, nor do you need to slap or overwork the meat – it just makes it tough. Simply make sure your meat is well chilled and formed into uniform patties. There’s no need to handle the meat more than you have to… unless you’re into that kind of thing. Also, a tip I’ve stuck with is to place your burgers in the freezer until they’re very chilled, but not snap-frozen. An hour or so before cooking on the grill is just about right.

Size is everything. Too big and you’ll end up with most of the burger in your lap as you struggle to get your mouth around it. Too little and you’ll lose the meat flavour amongst the other wonderful things you add to your burger. I’ve already briefly mentioned uniformity. Call me anal, but when I’m making burgers, I’ll grab the scales and weigh out the meat. Not to stop the fights because “her burger’s bigger than mine”, but so I can get the burger size right in respect of the bun I am using, the accompanying ingredients and whom I am cooking for.

According to my maths, McDonalds’ Quarter Pounder is 112.5 grams in the metric system. I find the substance of one patty at that weight just a little underwhelming and two a little too much meat. I’ve found making a burger with a weight of 150g – 170g is a good sized patty for an adult. For kids, no more than 100g will suffice. Just remember, varying sizes will require different cooking times.

Next is the bun. Controversial tip number two is that I don’t mind using your run-of-the-mill, store-bought hamburger buns. As long as they are fresh… and they don’t tend to stay too fresh for long either. Those flat, squished looking buns that supermarkets and bakery chains sell also do a reasonable job. The bun needs to be able to withstand the juicy ingredients, without falling apart and making you angry. You also don’t want a bun that’s too tough, bready or doughy.

I’ve made my own buns on a number of occasions and if I’m making burgers on a weekend and therefore have the time, I would probably do just that. There’s a really good brioche-style bun recipe I’ve used a number of times. They’re light enough to not dominate the other ingredients and sturdy enough to hold up.

Cooking your burger is the same as cooking any piece of meat; it has to be done right. Season your meat just before you cook, that way the salt doesn’t start to leach out all of that much loved moisture and get your BBQ or grill as hot as you can to sear the meat well. You only need to flip the burger once and please try to refrain from squishing your burger when it’s on the grill, as fun as it is. As for cooking your burger on a hotplate or directly over grill, the choice is yours. I am a big fan of the smoky flavour imparted by cooking directly over the grill, however once I’ve flipped the burger and there’s only a minute or so of cooking time to go, I’ll add the cheese so it begins to melt and transfer the burger to the hotplate, so the cheese doesn’t melt through the grill and onto the hot coals. Remember to rest your meat.

As for the remaining ingredients or condiments, it’s all about personal taste. Sometimes, if there’s an excess of onions in the pantry, I might get all fancy and make up some onion jam. However, mainly at our place it’s the usual suspects: lettuce, tomato (for me only), beetroot, egg (again, for me only), bacon, cheese, pickles, mayonnaise and ketchup.

Remember, these ingredients are just as integral to compliment the whole burger, so use them judiciously. I’ve searched far and wide for my favourite types of condiments and I’m happy to say that I’ve found my preference for each ingredient, which I’ve listed below in terms of importance:

Pickles. Ah, the polarising little things. My sister hates them. When ever she had a burger, I was the fortunate recipient. Unfortunately I now live in a house with pickle-lovers, so as judicious as they may be served in the burger (three slices only), there are usually a few extra slices served on the side or eaten whilst preparing the other ingredients. The best pickles I’ve found are of course, American. I discovered Vlasic Sea Salt Kosher Dill Pickles at Costco, but they are also available through a number of online American food stores in Australia.

Mayonnaise. Although K loves the Thomy Deli brand, I find that Best Foods or Hellman’s (same thing, just different branding) is better in a burger.

Ketchup. Since I lived in the UK, I’ve been a fan of Heinz Original Ketchup. Not sauce, whether it be Big Red, Rosella or Fountain. The only acceptable sauce I’ve found is made by Three 3’s and it’s packed with flavour through the addition of some extra spices and some horseradish.

Lettuce. Iceberg, sliced into 0.7mm shreds. Don’t ask me why, but it can’t be too thick or too thin. God invented iceberg lettuce for two reasons; Sang Choi Bao and hamburgers. Save your fancy lettuce for another day.

Cheese. If you must, you can go all fancy and buy some mature or tasty cheddar slices. Most people are accustomed to your bog-standard Kraft cheese slices and that’s OK with me.

Mustard. I’ve stopped putting mustard on my burgers as I found it was one condiment too many, but if you’re that way inclined I recommend French’s Classic Yellow Mustard. Yet again, it’s American and it’s as close as you’ll get to the mustard used in McDonald’s.

Order of stacking is also important. Do the salad ingredients appear above or below the meat? Is this important? I don’t know, but everyone seems to have a theory. There’s a school of thought that the lettuce should go on the bottom of the burger to protect the bottom part of the bun from moisture and imminent collapsing. However, if you’re using shredded lettuce, it might not make too much difference. Maybe a slice of cheese is better? My preferred order (bottom to top) is: Bottom bun, meat, cheese (melted onto burger whilst cooking), egg, bacon, ketchup, pickle, beetroot, tomato, lettuce, mayo, top bun.

Finally, if you wish to replicate the experience of a burger that’s been sitting under a heat lamp and / or in that brown paper bag until you get home, I suggest wrapping your burger in baking paper and bunging it in the microwave for 25 seconds before eating. It just adds a little more authenticity to your homemade masterpiece.

So this week, I suggest you dedicate some time to think about burgers and without getting too hungry and heading for your closest drive-thru, wait until the weekend where you can have a go at mastering your own burger.

You won’t be disappointed.