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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Creatures of Habit

We are all creatures of habit. We like stuff a certain way and if that stuff is a little bit different from the last time, we can become a little perturbed.

“Can you please put the [insert sauce here] on the [insert protein here], but not on the [insert vegetables here]?”

God forbid if there’s gravy on the vegetables. I’ve nearly sustained a fork in the groin for getting that wrong.

There are also the burger people, who proceed to dissect the burger, eating each layer individually. I’ve done this for as long as I can remember, much to K’s disdain. Mind you, she eats the least favourite thing on her plate first and so on until she gets to her favourite thing on the plate… which is usually the meat.  See? We all do something weird when it comes to our food preferences.

My typical weekday lunch is to grab a sandwich and take it back to my desk to eat it (without deconstructing it). However today I had a few errands to run, so rather than grab something when I got back, I decided to take a few minutes to sit and enjoy something a little more exciting than a ‘sammich’.

Phở is becoming a favourite of mine and is a healthy alternative to most lunch options, as is most Vietnamese cuisine. A good phở can be hard to come across, particularly if the broth is insipid, but a quick check of Vietnamese Restaurants, Melbourne CBD on urbanspoon narrowed it down for me.

Mekong was busy, so that was a good sign. I was quickly ushered to a spare seat next to a guy that looked like a phở junkie from way back. It can be a little weird dining by yourself, but in a place like this where most of the tables are communal, it didn’t really matter. I decided to order the Phở Ga Dac Biet, also known as Chicken ‘Special’ …

Waiter: [pauses] “Umm… you know…”

Me: “Yes, I know”

Waiter: [excited that the gwai lo / farang / or whatever the Vietnamese vernacular is for a Westerner, is giving Phở Ga Dac Biet a crack]: “OK, cool”

To clarify, the ‘special’ part relates to the special parts of the chicken. You know, most of the bits that repulse most Westerners and are often discarded; namely offal.

For those unfamiliar with phở, origins aside, it’s a clear broth with a specific cut of white rice noodles (called bánh phở’) and is usually served with beef or chicken.

The broth for beef phở is generally made by simmering beef; bones and meat, charred onion (for colour), charred ginger and spices, including cinnamon, star anise, ginger, black cardamom, coriander seed, fennel seed and clove. Chicken phở is made using the same spices as beef phở, but the broth is made using only chicken meat and bones.

Beef phở usually comes with finely cut boiled beef (steak, flank, brisket) or thin slices of raw flank. Tendons, tripe and balls (meatballs, not testicles) can also feature. Chicken phở is served with breast meat and commonly features the giblets, hearts, livers and sometimes an unborn chicken egg, which even I would probably draw the line at.

But the best part of slurping down a steaming bowl of phở are the condiments and whilst I was sitting there waiting for my lunch to arrive, it dawned on me… All of these people around me had their own routine regarding phở. It was brilliant!

Accompanying the phở is a side plate which contains lemon wedges, bean shoots and Vietnamese mint, which you add as much or as little as you like. The table is also crammed full of other delicious condiments; vinegared white onions (hành dấm), fresh green and red chillies, chilli paste, hoisin sauce, fish sauce and a variety of other bottles and jars of flavours, which I’ve yet to discover.

The guy next to me looked as though he was counting the slices of fresh chilli to get the heat ‘just right’, the guy opposite me tore his mint into tiny, teeny pieces and mixed them through his phở for even distribution, then made sure his bean shoots were well immersed into the broth. As for my routine, I’m still finding my true preference, but so far it’s a small squirt of hoisin for a little sweetness, a squeeze of lemon for some acidity, a little chilli paste for some warming base heat and a generous amount of fresh chilli.

Next time, I will spend more of my time people-watching to discover other’s secrets to build the ideal phở.

I will also spend some time observing the secrets as to how not to splatter broth on my shirt as I am far from getting that right.