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.

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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.

Hainanese Chicken and Rice

I’ve recently spent several months working in Melbourne’s outer south-eastern suburbs. Work-wise, it was a nice break from the hustle and bustle of the corporate environment in the CBD. For food and my lunch in particular, the outer south-east is a great area to sample some good fare. So beyond avoiding Sofia’s colossus pasta meals or averting the temptation of yet another six-inch Subway Club on honey oat with all the salads, extra pickles… no onion or carrot, a short drive to Glen Waverley or Box Hill in pursuit of finding the best Hainanese Chicken and Rice was a far more sporting challenge.

Hainanese Chicken from the Chinese island province of Hainan is actually known as Wenchang chicken, which is not to be confused with UK’s new wave pop group.

DanceHallDays_cover

Wenchang actually means ‘white cut’.

As the Hainanese settled throughout South-East Asia, the dish became prominent in both Malaysia and Singapore. Of course, there’s contention as to which is better; the Malaysian version, which is subtler in flavour or the Singaporean version, which features a more savoury rice. My preference is the latter.

Did I find my utopian chicken and rice? I don’t think so. Whilst I scoured the net to give me a few clues as to where I might find a really good serving of chicken and rice, I also came across some real shockers; chicken that had been boiled for far too long that resulted in tight, stringy proteins, flavourless rice, insipid or no condiments.

Surprisingly, the best and most consistent chicken and rice was from none other than China Bar on Kingsway in Glen Waverley, with its robust condiments, moist chicken and extremely flavourful rice.

Still, nothing is as rewarding as cooking it yourself and taking advantage of a quiet weekend, I could think of nothing more therapeutic than spending several hours creating this wonderful dish. Of all of the recipes I read through, there are key methods that largely remain the same, as do the core ingredients of chicken, ginger, garlic, chillies and soy sauce. Then there are the hundreds of variances in the methods and other ingredients.

Very few ingredients
Very few ingredients go a long way

This was the second time I had cooked chicken and rice and I decided to stick with Adam Liaw’s Grandmother’s recipe as my base recipe, which features in his book, Two Asian Kitchens. I’ve made a few modifications, which are largely made out of taking on some of the other techniques in other recipes plus a bit of cheating in an attempt to boost the flavour of the rice.

The Chicken:

1 whole chicken (about 1.5kg), at room temperature
a good handful of sea salt flakes
5 whole cloves garlic
5 thick slices ginger, unpeeled
1 tbsp sesame oil
coriander, sliced cucumber and spring onion, to serve

The Rice:

350g jasmine rice
625ml reserved chicken stock
2 thick slices ginger, unpeeled
1 sachet of Asian Home Gourmet Hainanese Chicken Spice Paste

Chilli Sauce:

3 red birds-eye chillies
3 red long chillies… the mild ones
2 tbsp grated ginger
2 garlic cloves
1 tsp caster sugar
1/4 tsp sea salt flakes
1 tsp lemon juice
2 tbsp reserved chicken stock

Spring Onion & Ginger Oil:

4 spring onions, thinly sliced
2 tbsp grated ginger
1/2 tsp sea salt flakes
3 tbsp peanut oil

The Dressing:

1 tbsp sesame oil
2 tbsp soy sauce
1/4 tsp sugar
50ml reserved chicken stock

One of the great tips I found was to give the chicken some love by means of an exfoliation. A handful of sea salt rubbed judiciously all over the chicken will leave you with one good looking bird. It’s amazing how much gunk is removed leaving the chicken with taught, smooth skin and a better final result.

Remember to exfoliate
Remember to exfoliate

One of the other handy tips to produce really good rice is the use of chicken fat. Trim any of the visible pieces of fat from the chicken; there’s usually a good amount inside the rear cavity and I also use the parson’s nose. Roughly chop all of the fatty bits and place them into a small saucepan and over a very low heat, in around 30-45 minutes, you should have 1-2 tablespoons of chicken fat.

Don’t throw away those crispy pieces of chickeny goodness either. Season them and stack them on top of your rice as a garnish or even better, crack a beer and have yourself a most excellent beer snack to keep you going whilst you’re cooking.

Ready for some gentle cooking
Spa Bath

After your chicken’s skin rejuvenation, it’s time for a spa bath. Place the garlic cloves and ginger slices in the cavity of the chicken and place breast-side down in a saucepan that is just bigger than your chicken. Ideally you want to make enough chicken stock to cook the rice, plus the small amount required for the condiments and at least a litre left over to serve as a cleansing broth. So that’s probably around two litres of cold water to cover your chicken.

Get the heat ticking to just under a simmer and keep it going for around 20 minutes, then place a lid on your saucepan and leave it to continue cooking in the residual heat for another 30 minutes. The end result should be a perfectly, ever so just cooked chook.

Remove the chicken from the stock, drain, then place your chook onto some plastic wrap.  Rub the chicken all over with a good drizzle of sesame oil, then wrap it up snugly. It will look a little like Laura Palmer.

Your chicken is now ready to cut up when it’s time to serve. Put your stock to one side as you’ll be needing it later on.

Laura Palmer
Laura Palmer

While your chicken is cooking and resting, it’s time to get stuck into making the condiments.

To make the chilli sauce, combine the chillies, ginger, garlic, sugar and salt in a mortar and pound to a paste. Adam Liaw’s recipe called for six birds-eye chillies, but to make this a little more kid-friendly with less heat, I used three long red chillies to keep the chilli volume without adding any more heat. Once I had a relatively smooth paste, I added the lemon juice and a couple of tablespoons of the reserved chicken stock. The result is a fragrant, spicy and sweet sauce that it much needed to cut through the richness of some of the other elements.

Chilli & Ginger Paste
Chilli & Ginger Paste

To make the spring onion and ginger oil, again in your mortar, add the spring onion, ginger and salt and pound lightly with the pestle. Heat the oil in a small frying pan until it just hits smoking point and pour onto the mixture. Once the crackling and sizzling stops, combine lightly with the pestle and leave to infuse for a few minutes, giving you a punchy, yet rich condiment.

Spring Onion & Ginger Oil
Spring Onion & Ginger Oil

The dressing for the chicken is pretty simple and serves as an integral background flavour for the chicken. Mix together the sesame oil and soy sauce with 50ml of the reserved chicken stock and add the sugar until dissolved. Adam Liaw’s recipe called for light soy. I didn’t have any, so I used normal soy. I also opted to add a touch of sweetness, hence the addition of a little sugar. You can leave it out if you want to.

My Little Secret
My Little Secret

My tweaks to the rice would most likely raise the scorn and ire of the purists, but it’s a delicious result, so I’ll stick to it. Heat your 1-2 tablespoons of chicken fat in a large saucepan over medium heat, add the ginger slices and the sachet of Hainanese Chicken Spice Paste, which is pretty much shallots, ginger and garlic. Cook out the paste until fragrant, then add the rice and toss until well coated and it starts to become opaque and begins to crackle… a bit like making a risotto. Add the reserved chicken stock, give it a stir and when it comes to the boil, pop the lid on, set your smallest burner to the lowest heat possible and leave your rice to cook slowly for 12-15 minutes. Try not to remove the lid and after the time is up, leave your rice to rest for a further 5-10 minutes.

The Final Result
The Final Result

To serve, slice the chicken up without hacking it into a complete mess. One day I’ll learn how to cut a chicken ‘Chinese-style’, which for me means annoying bones in every bite. Pour over the dressing and make it look pretty with some coriander and cucumber. Serve it with your most very flavourful rice, condiments and broth, which is the remaining chicken stock plus a little adjusting to the seasoning thanks to some salt and soy sauce.

Cooking Hainanese Chicken and Rice is most definitely a labour of love; given there are quite a number of steps. However, it’s more than worth the end result as it is one of those dishes that exemplifies how you can treat a very small number of ingredients with some care and respect to deliver a complete meal.

Merricote – 81 High St, Northcote 3070

I love my birthday. Not as much as I used to when back in the day, I’d exploit it to the hilt, spreading it across nine days (two weekends and five weekdays). Nowadays I’m lucky to milk it for no more than the day itself and the closest weekend to it.

This means that invariably, quality reigns over quantity and so my choice of restaurant for my Friday night celebration was to be a good one. But I also wanted to go somewhere that I’d been yearning to try, rather than heading back to familiar digs. Merricote was high up on the list of ‘my next place to go’, so the choice was easy.

The recent winner of the 2012 The Age Good Food Guide’s Best Short Wine List, Merricote has come on to the scene in a big way over the last seven or so months, yet when you walk in your first thoughts are… well, it’s quite unassuming. A simply decorated dining room features some large prints on the walls of the ‘staple’ animals we like to devour: pig, cow, chicken… and some quirky figurine farm animals feature here and there. To add to the simplicity, there is no bar or counter, allowing for more space between tables of this 30-seater, making the room feel totally devoid of that claustrophobic feeling you can experience at some places. It works very well in this relaxing, laid-back, lounge-room setting. Ideal for dinner with good friends. 

Bronwyn, co-owner (with other half, Rob, slaving away in the kitchen), sommelier and front-of-house made us feel very welcome from the moment we stepped in the front door, ushering us to our table promptly and offering us a choice of Northcote’s finest tap water (as featured in the drinks menu) or Antipodes sparkling mineral water.

Over a couple of glasses of pleasant French bubbles ($19) we perused the menu which featured four dishes each under the categories of charcuterie, small bites, starters, mains, sides, desserts and a highly anticipated cheese trolley. A degustation menu was also available at $65 for six courses.

Some exceptional house made bread rolls were offered; a choice of a seeded brown, dark beer-based roll or a floury white roll with fennel. Being ever so health conscious, I stuck to the brown roll which was outstandingly fluffy and even better with a generous spread of softened butter, which if I was a betting man looked and tasted like Naomi’s butter from Myrtleford.

Settling on the a’la carte menu, our first choice was a clearly obvious; a selection of charcuterie ($22). We were promptly presented with a board laden with thinly sliced handmade salami, capicola and some other tasty cured meat, served with some house made piccalilli and cornichons. I found the piccalilli a little too salty, K disagreed. Each to their own, I guess. We popped the top of a jar of the most delicious duck rillettes – the best rillettes I’ve eaten to date! A well judged ratio of duck fat to the slowly cooked and well-seasoned duck meat, which was chunkier than what you’d expect. It was more like pieces of confit duck than the finer shred of meat you’d expect from rillettes. Not that I was complaining.

A slice of pigs’ head terrine was paired with an excellent, chunky sauce grebiche. I also decided that I wasn’t a big fan of pigs’ head, which is absolutely of no disrespect to the kitchen. I’ve tried a number of times now; as brawn / head cheese, plus a number of variations. I don’t know… maybe it’s a texture thing. Anyway, that was my problem. Some (again) house made lavosh was on hand to scoop, spread and devour what was a great start to our night. In hindsight, the charcuterie selection was probably a little ambitious for just the two of us and probably better suited for 3 or 4 like-minded carnivores.

We also ordered the beetroot, walnut and goats cheese salad ($14) to share, providing an extra foil to the rich proteins. We were both unanimous in declaring this as a most perfectly balanced salad. Pickled baby turnips and baby beetroots featured with some very fresh pieces of walnut, twice shelled broad beans and various micro herbs – all atop goats cheese foam, which had all of the full flavour of the cheese combined with the lighter-than-air texture of a whipped mascarpone. Delicious.

Our choices for main dishes ($29-$32), as well as they were executed, seemed a little out of place as they would be much more suited to a Winter menu, as opposed to it being half way though Spring.

K chose the ‘nose to tail’ lamb; a couple of perfectly cooked and seasoned cutlets, some braised meat combined with mushroom and shaped into a cylinder, then pan fried, a crumbed and fried nugget of brain (which immediately found its way to yours truly) and, served separately en papillote, was a rich and robust braise with white beans. 

I opted for the rump of  beef, cooked to medium rare and served on a ragu (of sorts) of chickpeas, mushrooms and braised ox tail. The cooking of the rump was to order, although one piece was a little on the chewy side. By and large, the execution was bang on, but it just seemed a little too hearty for October.

We selected a refreshing shaved cabbage, mint and barrel-aged fetta salad, which was lightly dressed with tangy vinaigrette. An excellent counterpoint to our mains. We drank a 2008 Whistling Eagle Sangiovese. As a choice between the aforementioned and a Tuscan Sangiovese, we asked the advice of Bronwyn, whose recommendation did not let us down.

As much as we were already close to satiation, we had to see the famed cheese trolley. An awesome selection of 15 cheeses were wheeled over to us: soft, semi-soft, hard, goat, cow, sheep, washed rind, ashed, blue mould, wrapped in stuff… take your pick! There were too many to mention (or remember for that matter). If only we knew, we wouldn’t have made pigs of ourselves earlier. Still, we settled on the Holy Goat Veloute. Bronwyn took our selection from the trolley and deftly proceeded to slice the top off like a skilled surgeon. We selected a few dried figs and some more of the house made lavosh. The figs were a perfect accompaniment to dip into the ripe, creamy, sweet and slightly nutty gooey goodness.

Maybe the cheese gave me a second wind. Maybe it was birthday magic. Maybe it was just plain greed and the hope K was paying. I was determined to push on through to dessert. And I’m glad I did.

The aptly titled Dutch messhomage to all things orange lived up to its name. It was probably also the most carnival-esque and fun desserts I’ve had. A well thought out combination of bitter blood orange segments and jelly surrounded a disc of creamy vanilla ice cream. Delicate orange and yellow flower petals were visually stunning but added nothing to the flavour (perhaps some peppery nasturtiums instead?) and were a little feathery at the back of my throat. On top of  the largely bitter ingredients, a contrasting layer of light and airy orange blossom-flavoured Persian fairly floss and a precise scoop of orange sorbet featured. No one ingredient dominated another and alas, my life was a little less bright once it had disappeared.

A well made espresso rounded out the night and my birthday feast.

Questionable seasonality of the main dishes aside, Merricote is an absolute gem of a place and we’re quite spoilt to have it at the bottom of Ruckers Hill and The Estelle at the top. High Street, Northcote continues to the up the ante and the best thing is that us locals get to reap the rewards with good, honest and unpretentious food that’s combined with an extensive, well sourced wine list – all of which is excellent value and all of which Merricote delivers with aplomb.

Thanks for making my birthday special.

Merricote
81 High St, Northcote 3070
(03) 9939 4762
http://www.merricote.com.au/ (website coming soon)

Good For: Sticking it up the people on the other side of the river; we’ve got it better than them
Not Good For: Seasonal confusion

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Four in Hand – 105 Sutherland St, Paddington

My day job requires some interstate travel. These days, it’s Sydney and sometimes it’s an overnight trip. For most overnighters, I’m far too knackered to bother with anything remarkable for dinner. I’m probably more confortable at the hotel bar or a local pub over whatever book I’ve brought with me or, boringly catching up on work. How sad.

If I do grab something to eat, I’ll tend to head back to my hotel room and order room service. I cannot bring myself to sit at a table for one looking all forlorn, with my bottom lip quivering and all of the other tables of two; the couples and the other tables of four and six, looking over at me and feeling sorry for me because I’m eating alone.

Pathetic, isn’t it?

However my latest epiphany was to better utilise my occasional stayovers in Sydney. There are a whole bunch of restaurants north of the border that remain on my wish list and it would be remiss of me as a food blogger to let these opportunities pass me by, even if it meant [gasp] eating alone!

The likes of Marque, Quay and the other three-hatted establishments are probably a little too extreme for what really boils down to a simple meal out on a school night. Well, it’s probably a little more than that. Regardless, Four in Hand was my clear first choice, by a mile. After hearing a lot about Colin Fassnidge this year, I’ve remained intrigued at his refined take on the Nose-to-Tail food philosophy. Can you take such robust cuts of an animal and make them pretty? I was going to find out.

Four in Hand is a pub with a really good dining room attached… or is it the other way around? Anyway, the pub itself is your typical inner-suburban Sydney pub; tiled walls retained but not tired in looks… it reminded me a little of the front bar at the Lincoln in Carlton, albeit with a few pokie machines tucked away (nearly) out of view. With the youngish post-work crowd filtering in to take advantage of the $5 ‘happy hour’ schooners, served by the effervescent and quite attractive female bar staff, you would not expect there was a two-hat restaurant attached to this establishment. Only do you begin to realise that this is a little different when the specials board in the front bar reads Pork Rillettes and Crumbed Pigs Tail with Celeriac Remoulade.

After a few cleansing $5 schooners, I prised myself from the bar stool and made my way into the dining room, to be ushered to my solitary table for one [sob], near the window. On the converse, when you enter the dining room, you would not expect there was a bustling, lively pub on the other side of the door. It’s a great contrast.

The menu is fairly minimal, with six or so different starters and the same of mains. This makes good sense, given there’s so much care, attention and effort invested into some very pretty dishes. The over-sized mirror on the wall next to the kitchen lists the specials of the night; freshly shucked natural oysters and a tempting cumin-spiced 12-hour lamb shoulder served with baby carrots, colcannon, minted yoghurt and rosemary jus ($88 for 2 people). One of the number of waiting staff that served me on the night tried to coerce me: “it could feed one and if there’s any left over, we could organise a doggy bag”. Then I see the beast of a shoulder being served to another table. I don’t think so.

There was to be no ordering off the menu on this night. I was here for the whole experience and I given it may be some time before I visited Four in Hand again, I may as well go out with all guns blazing, taking no prisoners, etc, etc. There were two degustation menus to choose from; a five course degustation menu ($90 + an optional $60 with matching wines) or you could really give it a nudge with the Chef’s Menu; an eight course degustation menu ($120 + an optional $70 with matching wines).

I ambitiously opted for the latter and proceedings were duly opened with some top notch sourdough (from Iggy’s, which seems to be the bread of choice in good Sydney restaurants), good butter and a Delgado Zuleta ‘La Goya’ Manzanilla Sherry as a palate cleanser. This was closely followed by the kitchen’s amuse-bouche; a smoked fish, paprika and basil soup, aptly served in an espresso cup (the colour of the soup resembled a good crema). The soup was light and refreshing. A citrus zing hit the sides of my tongue, finishing on creaminess. A great start.

Soon after, my first course of seared Bonito with avocado, apple jelly and cucumber arrived. A very pretty dish, unusually served in a tuna tin atop some pebbles. An interesting touch but I’m not sure as to what it represented. It made me feel like I was eating a bloody good tin of cat food (note: this is a weird compliment) due to the tuna and jelly components. A 2010 Domäne Wachau Gewürztraminer, was a light and fruity accompaniment to the dish.

The second course was to become my favourite of the night. Sometimes you eat or drink something that instantly makes you smile because it’s so damn good and this dish did just that. A small mound of well seasoned, fresh crab, lobster and corn kernels were served in a shallow bowl with a soft, yielding braised pig’s tail. An accompanying petite jug of rich, fishy bisque was poured at the table by one of the waiting staff to complete this unforgettable dish. The saltiness of the bits of corn and seafood were heavenly against the sweetness and unctuousness of the pig’s tail and the creaminess of the bisque which also provided the slightest ever back note of spice. A perfect marriage of flavours and textures. In short, the most defining superlative is that it was just fucking amazing. The accompanying Denis Pommier Petit Chablis Chardonnay was again a great match, particularly with the creaminess of the bisque.

Course number three was a well cooked piece of roasted kingfish, smoked eel, beetroot reduction, beetroot leaves and a soft pillow of gnocchi. An exceptional range of textures, lightened by the beetroot leaves. The smokiness and saltiness of the eel played off against the sweet reduction. Just make sure you eat this dish with a little care and caution as the potential splashback from the beetroot could ruin one’s shirt if not careful. As for wine, my notes go as far as telling me that the accompanying drop was an ‘Italian white’… Great note taking, Paul.

We then moved into the serious stuff, crossing from the lighter dishes into some more hearty fare. Pig; head to toe or nose to tail… or something similar was a great example of an uber-rich dish done well, leaving you (greedily) wanting more. A piece of perfectly cooked pork belly, a chop from a rack (complete with crackling) and pickled snout were served on a dark wooden board with a number of accompaniments that worked very well to off-set the richness; kale, pickled turnips and a vanilla puree. Rustic food with some serious polish. An obvious match was from the lighter spectrum of reds in the form of a Tuscan Sangiovese (Casabianca Chianti Colli Senesi DOCG).

The second meat course was liquorice-braised beef brisket, an ever so tender slice of veal (tenderloin?) on top of a smoked puree, a small stack of some very precise onion rings and a carrot and Manzanilla sherry puree to accompany a generous length of roasted bone marrow. The sherry in the carrot puree was a masterstroke, another addition incorporated to off-set the richness, in this case the marrow. The liquorice sauce was subtle, sticky, rich and oh so warming, as was the familiar McLaren Vale Penny’s Hill Shiraz to compliment the dish.

I could have happily rolled out out of the front door at this point, but there was still a way to go. You observe a lot more  when you’re dining by yourself and earlier in the evening, sitting on top of a cabinet just below the stair case, I spied what was the largest cheese board in the world. An array of eight or nine, maybe ten, seriously good imported cheeses; three types of goat’s cheese, a very ripe d’Affinois, comté, cheddar, a couple of washed rind cheeses and a couple of blue cheeses. Had I not been five dishes into an eight-course meal, I would have loved to try them all, but I duly settled on the d’Affinois, comté, one of the blue cheeses and one of the washed rind cheeses.

As the cheeses were being taken into the kitchen to be sliced and served, three wine glasses were placed on the table, each filled with a different dessert wine to compliment the final courses. If my memory serves me correctly (as my notes surely don’t) there was a Botrytis Semillon, a Rutherglen Muscadelle (the ‘new’ name for a tokay) and a Pedro Ximenez – or something similar. Clearly, things were getting a little hazy at this point.

The cheeses were, as expected, exemplary and served with the lightest and bestest ever house-made lavosh I have ever come across. If Colin ever takes the Luke Mangan route and touts a whole bunch of stuff for people to take home, this is one thing he should consider selling… in addition to jars of pickled pig snouts.

The penultimate course was a prune puree, Armagnac cream, and hot ginger crumble. It’s a damn shame the cold months are over as I’ll be madly trying to replicate this crunchiest crumble ever recipe next winter, although the waiter hinted that Demerara sugar was used. Brilliant!

I barely had the room to manage the last course. Alas, it wasn’t the ‘4’s’ Chocolate Snickers, but chocolate and beetroot; a chocolate delice on a beetroot sauce, beetroot cubes, beetroot and ginger sorbet, chocolate tuile and a fine dusting of cocoa… I think I managed to remember everything. Sometimes you can come across some pretty naff pairings of beetroot and chocolate, but this hit the mark. The best example I have tasted of how and why these two ingredients can work so well together, in addition to the other things like the contrasting textures – crunchy tuile versus soft delice and the heat from the ginger against a cold sorbet.

Some Cointreau and chocolate truffles with a well made short black managed to find the last of the vacant room in my tummy, to round out what was a most exceptional and memorable experience.

As much as I don’t like eating alone and some will argue that you do not need good friends to enjoy good food, I am yet to agree. Sharing in conversation and sharing the experience are just as much, especially when it’s this good. Let’s hope I can rid myself of this self-effacing, oh-woe-is-me attitude so I can continue to discover Sydney’s other delights when I am again on my lonesome. I also hope Four in Hand hasn’t set the bar too high.

Four in Hand
105 Sutherland St, Paddington 2021
(03) 9362 1999
http://www.fourinhand.com.au/

Good For: Convincing staunch Melburnians that the Sydney food scene is smoking
Not Good For: Nothing, really. It was all too good.

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