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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Who is reading your reviews?

I didn’t intend to post a review for Richmond’s Prince Alfred on farfromfamished. It was a pretty poor experience and I didn’t believe it warranted the time and effort to produce a full post; however in my opinion, it did necessitate a review on urbanspoon.

What I didn’t expect was a phone call from the Prince Alfred, on the same day I posted the review.

This post is not about the review. It’s more about the events that followed and observing how influential social media is these days. I guess some context will better establish my rationale for this post, so you can find the review here.

So, on the evening of the day I posted this review to urbanspoon, I received a phone call from Caroline at the Prince Alfred, who not only apologised for the indiscretions we experienced in both the meal and the service, but also confirmed that a number of actions had taken place since the review was posted; including agreeing the paella was bad and it should have never been on the menu. Although she was also at a loss as to what alleged pre-mixed shandy might have actually been lurking downstairs in the cellar and I still am unsure as to whether the ‘wine guy’ is actually on the payroll at the Prince Alfred.

We continued to chat about what did work, what the Prince Alfred was aiming for in terms of offering its customers and it all sounded favourable.  

On the back of our conversation, Caroline offered the opportunity to prove themselves in both the food and service that they feel they can offer by way of complimentary food and beverage for me and three guests, which after some thought and discussion with a few people, including a couple of bloggers, I politely declined.

If I wasn’t a blogger, I probably would have taken up this offer. As a blogger, even through it’s not my profession, integrity and balance in what I write comes first and I don’t want to compromise this.

In no disrespect to the Prince Alfred; it’s always going to linger in the back of my mind that although they might be going out of their way to ensure everything for me on this complimentary visit is just perfect, are all diners going to receive the same experience?

Complimentary meals aside, the important thing is that instances like this demonstrate that in a time where diners are more discerning than ever before and referring to ‘non-professional’ reviews as a means to deciding where they’ll spend their dining dollars; it’s gratifying to see that the Prince Alfred is taking the feedback from its patrons seriously to get it right.

Where’s the Beef?

Which is better? Grain-fed or grass-fed beef?

Initially, I guess I didn’t really care; as long as it was a quality piece of beef, cooked in accordance to the cut and to my liking. I could easily give an opinion (informed or otherwise) on what I believe to be the best cut for a steak, whether dry aged is better than wet aged, marbling and how much, when to season your meat, pan or BBQ, etc, etc.

But as for grain versus grass, I have had no opinion; nor frankly do did I care.

Google will, as always, bring up a number of opinions (informed or otherwise) and generally there are three main points of contention. First off, there’s the topic of ethics. In terms of benevolence, when people think about grass-fed moo cows, they think of happy bovines that roam majestically across rich, green pastures without a care in the world. This is opposed to grain-fed cattle, which are fattened on grains and often in feedlots, resulting in a higher than normal growth rate where yield tends to compromise flavour.

But this is not always the case with grain-fed beef. There are ethical, grain fed productions, who focus on a slower growth rate over a longer period of time, resulting in a flavoursome and tender, high quality product.

Verdict: Grass. The greater perception that grass-fed beef is more humane is hard to argue against, regardless of ethically minded grain fed beef. Better still, you should take some time to source your beef from a reputable supplier and understand its origin, feed, rearing, etc and you won’t go wrong.

Secondly, there’s the health debate. Most research is skewed towards grass-fed beef being a much healthier option. Our ideal diet requires a 4:1 balance of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids and these good fats are meant to reduce the risk at heart disease, reduce inflammation and it makes us smarter by promoting a better balance of fatty acid concentration in the brain, which is believed to be particularly supportive in cognitive and behavioural function.

A US study found that beef from grass-fed cattle contained sixty percent more Omega 3 fatty acids and a more favourable Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio, as well as almost double the quantities of beta-carotene and almost three times the amount of Vitamin E. Are sixty percent more Omega 3 fatty acids and a more favourable Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio going to prolong my life beyond 75? Probably not. My liver’s bound to fail me first.

Verdict: Grass. But we’re all going to die anyway.

If none of the above matters, then thirdly, the most important (and interesting) points are flavour and texture. Tender beef is nice, but most people are so concerned about a sourcing a steak with the ultimate tenderness that they simply forget that good beef should actually taste beefy.

God it’s hard… Do I trade flavour for tenderness? Am I satisfied with a marbling score of 6? Did the cow on my plate live a happy life?  WHY IS EVERYTHING SO DAMNED DIFFICULT?

I just want a nice piece of steak [sob].

Fortunately for me, last night the bulk of my pent-up beef frustration dissipated, as I attended one of two experiences that should be compulsory for all Australians (the first is Defensive Driving). As one of a number of excellent events organised through the Fringe Food Festival, last night saw a beef tasting and education night, led by chef Ron O’Bryan at The Vine Hotel in Collingwood.

Ron’s recently taken over The Vine and in keeping with the feel of “a pub that your dad would have gone to”, aesthetically he hasn’t done too much to the place, which is fine by me as it suits the back streets of Collingwood like… well, a good fitting tracksuit. More importantly, the kitchen is the heart and soul of this place and in my opinion there should be more chefs owning pubs – how many times have you been let down by a saggy parma, bad chips or a steak that resembles a pair of Havaianas? You’re not going to get that here. These are pub staples (including a few old school favourites, like crumbed brains and bacon) that are done well.

Anyway, back to the meat. We kicked off proceedings with some mingling over a variety of oysters from Tasmania & South Australia, Red Hill Brewery’s Imperial Stout and an interesting, textural, cloudy white made by Neil Prentice. Neil calls it Reverse Cowgirl, in that it’s crafted using a different technique to your standard (missionary) wine making.

After we were seated, we were presented with a taste of Neil’s other passion: Moondarra Grass-Fed Wagyu, in the form of tartare. A shared charcuterie platter was also placed in the middle of the table, which featured even more of Neil’s passionate handiwork (I was beginning to love this man): wagyu bresola and salami.

Artisan Charcuterie Plate

Several other meats from other producers also featured on the charcuterie board, including a pastrami, chorizo, a pork-based salami and some lovely hand-made pickles. Meat heaven. 

The Wagyu tartare was a pared back version, served only with a cured egg yolk to compliment the richness of the Wagyu, and Pont Neuf (which is a fancy term for a big, fat chip). The usual suspects of shallot, cornichons and so on were not missed, letting the real flavour of the meat speak for itself.

Adam Foster was also on board again, matching his Foster e Rocco Nuovo Sangiovese with the first course. This young red is a versatile drop; its lightness and smooth tannins complimented the meats, with neither dominating the palate.

Next up was our first lesson in attempting to find a difference between grain versus grass. We were each served a generous slice of rump cap from a grain fed bovine and a grass-fed moo cow. Both were prepared and cooked (rare) and rested in the same manner. The grass-fed rump was a far superior, in both taste and texture, whereas the grain fed rump was very tough. Many people around the table left the grain fed rump unfinished, declaring a resounding thumbs up for grass-fed.

Then came the coup de grâce. A selection of grain and grass-fed beef – four different cuts; porterhouse, rump, scotch and another one which escapes me. Our challenge: to enjoy and accurately identify which was which.

The Test

Personally, I struggled to remember which was which, making it very hard when it came to the judging. What made it even more difficult were the ‘pub-appropriate’ sides of battered onion rings, chips, green beans and red wine jus. Deliciously distracting.

For what I thought were the grain fed cuts (porterhouse – bottom of the place, rump – on the left), they were far more tender than the initial grain fed offerings. A little more buttery in flavour too.

However, the grass-fed morsels were again more superior in flavour and texture.

The accompanying Foster e Rocco 2009 Syrahmi (rhymes with salami) Shiraz held its own in an expected steak / red pairing.

We rounded out the night with some locally made Artisan cheeses; a thimble-sized fresh goat’s curd, a washed rind cow’s cheese and a cheddar – all exemplary and washed down with a Foster e Rocco 2010 Syrahmi Mouvedre.

So what did I learn?  I learned that the consensus on the night also leaned towards grass-fed, which although unsurprising, poses an even greater dilemma. The bad news is that the bulk of domestic retail beef sold in Australia is grain fed and unfortunately profit dictates over flavour and quality in a number of ways. 

 To keep up with demand, most beef sold is processed (killed) as yearling beef, which is up to 18 months old. Veal is generally processed at around 10 months. Yearling beef hasn’t lived long enough to develop any flavour. Young Prime Beef is processed at around 36 months. Far superior in flavour, but the math is obvious.

Once your beef has been processed, the next step to give you more flavour on your plate. But there’s wet ageing your meat and then there’s dry aging or hanging your meat, which is vastly different. Your typical supermarket ages its meat for around 14 days via a wet ageing process. Simply, the meat is vacuum packed and refrigerated. Although this process allows for the cells and muscle tissue of the meat to break down, thus naturally tenderising the meat, the ageing process rate of vacuum-packed meat decreases with time, with about 70% of the improvement in tenderness occurring in the first 10 days. It only does so much.

Dry ageing is a process where the entire carcass is hung in an environment with a controlled temperature (2-3 degrees celsius) and humidity (up to 90%) for up to 2 -4 weeks. This process intensifies flavour, however this is also as a result of losing up to 30% of the initial carcass weight due to the loss of moisture. This of course greatly reduces the profits of your average meat seller, who still want to pass on an inferior product at $9.99 / kg.

Basically, we’re stuck with the stuff we get at the local supermarket. They won’t change, but you can. Which is why you need to find a good butcher that knows where his or her meat has come from, how old it was, what it was fed, how long it was aged, how it was aged and so on. Better yet, get along to your local farmers market and buy it (and other goods) straight from the loving source (thanks Alli).

I’m never going to source a 36-month old, grass fed, dry-aged for 30 days piece of beef from Coles. Although such a cut could command a price upward of $50 / kg, quality doesn’t come cheap. And you know what? We’re only meant to eat a moderate amount of red meat, so if you’re willing to buy a little less, spend more on quality and really enjoy your beef, then you won’t need that whopping 450g beast that hangs off your plate. But if you do, then I suggest a colonoscopy every now and again.

Verdict: Buy the best you can afford and enjoy it.