Above is a collage of photos from the dinner I planned and executed for Omani Tourism. We had the dinner at the beautiful Embers Mezze Bar in Darlinghurst. My main man was head chef Simon Zalloua – a brilliant Lebanese-Australian chef who trained at Rockpool and who brings much needed discipline, skill and technique to Sydney’s Middle-Eastern scene. I totally encourage you to go try out Simon’s food. It’s contemporary and clever without being pretentious. I included some of Simon’s dishes for the event and they worked perfectly with mine.
From top left:
I’ve been commissioned to organise a Middle-Eastern feast for a cool PR event and this dish is one of the first on the menu. I always attempt to use ingredients that are typical in the Middle East but rarely seen in restaurants. I feel people get a sense of authenticity, despite any contemporary take on the ingredient. This dish, for instance, is not one you would find anywhere in the Middle East. The ingredients are eclectic and not singularly regional. But they work.
This salad is all about balance, freshness and texture. The lentils need to be cooked just after the al dente stage, the pumpkin needs to be creamy, and roasted hazelnuts add crunch and nuttiness. Oven-dried tomatoes are a great alternative to fresh tomatoes: they’re sweet and not overly moist. Preserved lemons and fresh thyme contribute that “je ne sais quoi” element, where the flavour is somewhat fleeting and exotic, only identifiable by an experienced palate. The real kicker here is isot pepper – one of my favourite all time chilis, second only to Maras chili. I went crazy for isot in Turkey and am always well stocked. Find a Turkish shop and buy some. That smoky sweet flavour of isot pepper goes with anything.
Since this is a salad, quantities and proportions are up to you. Want a bit more kick? Add some more isot pepper. Love preserved lemons? Go crazy!
Mix the following ingredients together:
In effort to further learn how to make specialty foods from scratch, I gave sauerkraut a go around 2 weeks ago. I’ve been eating sauerkraut in serious quantities ever since I switched to a Paleolithic diet. It ticks many boxes – sauerkraut is very low in carbohydrates, its acidity helps when eating copious amounts of butter and meat, and it’s full of beneficial bacteria that are supposed to help with gut flora population and all that. My go-to brand was a German-style sauerkraut from my local supermarket, but then I read somewhere that most, if not all, supermarket sauerkraut are actually pasteurised. In essence, my sauerkraut was dead, killed by heat. The beneficial bacteria I thought I was consuming were no longer there.
That upset me for a while, but then I decided to look on the bright side and that it was a chance to have a go at making it myself. I bought half an organic cabbage from Eveleigh markets and took it home. My experience with fermented food had so far been limited to yoghurt and beer, both of which need the bacteria/yeast to be introduced from an external source. Sauerkraut is somewhat magical: its starter bacteria grow on the cabbage leaves while the cabbage is still in the field. Sauerkraut can be made flavoured by using caraway seeds, juniper berries or the like, but for my first go I decided to stick with plain sauerkraut. I tried the traditional method of fermenting the cabbage in a jar, and I also came up with a different approach and fermented the cabbage in vacuum bags. I’m yet to taste the vacuum bag patch (if that works, I’ll certainly be doing that from now on), but have tucked into the jar and it’s unlike any other sauerkraut I’ve ever tasted. There’s a delicate flavour of vinegar, but overall the flavour is earthy and somehow malty, similar to a beer. It’s delicious and the leaves are still crunchy and crisp. Making sauerkraut is easy and recipes abound on the Internet, so I won’t give detailed instructions. Find a recipe that appeals to you and try it (here’s the one I followed). But at a high level, you simply chop up the cabbage leaves and rub them with salt. Then, you put them in a clean jar, press them down and close the jar. A few weeks later, you have sauerkraut – healthy, living sauerkraut. And you become the god of millions, if not billions, of beneficial bacteria. It might be useful for you to know that my sauerkraut did not develop a bloom or scum like the recipe suggested would happen. I’m not sure if that is due to winter temperatures or anything else. In any case, the recipe worked really well is and is worth following.
Got any tips to share on making your own sauerkraut? Leave a comment below. We’d love to hear from you.
I started watching Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” yesterday. I know I’m a few years late on this, and yes, I am completely aware that Season 1, Episode 1 of No Reservations does not classify as hot off the press, but hey, let me have this one.
Episode 1 kicks off in Paris – and what better place to start a food show than in Paris, really? Let me say, seeing that man leave a blazing trail of smoke around the city makes me want to have a cigarette myself. I’m no smoker, but there’s something deeply attractive about wandering around ancient Parisian walkways with a pack of Gauloises Blondes.
The show took me back to the time when I visited Paris a few year back and it reminded of what I loved about that city. You guessed it – the food. Man, the French know how to eat. Twenty minutes into the show and I was depressed. I wanted to have what these people posses in such abundant surplus. I wanted to trade Sydney for Paris. I yearned for a food culture. A real one. Still now, I am aching for a local, unpretentious bistro, somewhere where I can be a regular, where I can grow old eating the same dish for 60 years, week in, week out. Somehow, I don’t think the local chicken stir-fry with cashew nuts will meet my requirements. Please, find me a pot of coq au vin made with a proper rooster or suitably old chicken. And also, while you’re there, some potatoes cooked in duck fat and a big glass of red would be great, too.
We have good food in Sydney, but it’s not always around the corner and not always budget-friendly. With food being so trendy here, a good feed almost always comes served with a big dose of celebrity chef ego and a side of the ensuing foodie crowd. Honesty is out the window. Another gripe of mine is the quality of food. In the city, I struggle to find anyone serving chicken that is not intensively farmed and it’s nearly impossible to get grass-fed meat (unless you’re willing to pay through the nose). Has anyone else noticed that pubs and restaurants try to make grain-fed beef sound like it’s a good thing? Are we that susceptible to marketing?
To avoid disappointment, I now mostly eat at home. For a slice of Paris, cheese and wine are a good, easy go-to option. Australian wine is world-class and I’m lucky I have access to a great cheese. Small Cow Farm is a local family business making cheese out in the Southern Highlands and they produce a bloody awesome blue – one of the best I’ve had. The milk is locally sourced from happy, grass-fed cows from Country Valley in Picton (Country Valley also provides the cream that makes the unbelievable @pepesaya butter, and their milk is worth seeking out, too). Get yours from Eveleigh Market on Saturday from Ester Winbourne (@DairyGoodness) and tell her I sent you. I might get a discount next time I’m there.
For a while now, I’ve been wanting to share some of my favourite food findings on The Food Blog with my readers. I wasn’t sure what the best way to do so was. Today, I came up with the idea of doing a weekly post that highlights a product that I love and think is worth sharing. The recommendations I make are my independent views – I haven’t been paid to namedrop (see here) and, unless otherwise stated, have fully paid for the product myself. I follow an ethical code of complete disclosure.
The inaugural Awesome Food of The Week is Booza, a high-quality Levantine ice cream made locally in Tempe. The Levant is the region that covers Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Israel, as well as parts of Cyprus and Turkey, and “booza” is the Arabic word for ice cream. The distinctive thing about Levantine ice cream is its stretchy texture, achieved by the addition of salep, a thickener from wild Turkish orchid tubers. This is the ice cream I grew up with, and it’s such a treat to have access to a premium version (made with high quality ingredients) right here in Sydney. I first tried Booza a few months back and was extremely impressed, and have since visited and revisited the owners factory in Tempe so many times that they’re probably sick of me. I really love the halewe (sesame halva) booza, but I have also used the pistachio praline booza as well as my favourite, fig and walnut booza as dessert in my latest pop-up dinner and it went down a treat. You can find more details on Booza including where to buy it from at http://www.booza.com.au.
Yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald included this month’s copy of the(sydney)magazine, and I’m extremely excited to see my own contribution in there. The article is a short story on a trip I took to Gaziantep, a city in south-eastern Anatolia in Turkey. I talk of my journey through the city streets in search of kebabs and pistachio desserts, and the interesting encounters I had during my brief stay there. Click on the image above to have a read and let me know what you think.
It took me a few months to get around to read Mezze to Milk Tart, the latest book by Sydney’s own Cecile Yazbek. Now that I’ve finally had a chance to sit down and go through it, I’ll tell you upfront, it’s wonderful. Yazbek, a Lebanese who grew up in the old South Africa (hence the Mezze to Milk Tart), ran a vegetarian cookery school in Sydney and is the author of Olive Trees Around My Table, her memoire about growing up in South Africa under apartheid. Yazbek became a vegetarian early in her youth for political reasons; she couldn’t justify eating meat as the cost of a meal for her family could feed a poor South African family for a month on a plant-based diet. Mezze to Milk Tart is her vegetarian cook book, full of a lifetime of vegetarian recipes.
Regular readers of my blog probably know where I stand with regards to meat eating (I’m for it). So, a book on vegetarian cooking might not seem like the ideal subject for me to be reviewing, given my bias toward an animal-based diet. But Yazbek’s book really appeals to me, for several reasons.
Last October I ran a series of secret dinners, one of which was a vegetarian event. One of the main challenges I wanted to overcome was to showcase the role of “vegetables” in a vegetarian diet, since, as much as I am a supporter of an animal-based diet, I am equally in complete opposition to a grain-based diet. My food had to focus on real vegetables, nuts and plant-based fats, and I believe I did so successfully. Focusing on grains (disregarding their detrimental effects on health) is an easy way out for the vegetarian cook. There are so many wonderful dishes one can make with vegetables without relying on grains, and Yazbek seems to agree. Yazbek’s book is an example of real generosity in vegetarian cookery and for the most part focuses on true vegetables. Think okra, artichokes and eggplants, with recipes so deliciously simple that often the list of ingredients is longer than the cooking method itself. I quite like that. Also, her cooking is richer in legumes than it is in grains, and that makes me happy.
There are also stories between chapters where Yazbek tells us about her life and her food. Read about her journey out to Sydney’s west in search of mafrouki, a traditional Lebanese dessert of semolina, clotted cream and candied orange blossoms. Lebanese story-telling genes are evident. Her stories are almost timeless and folkloric, with wonderfully stereotypical characters described with the skill of a writer, not a celebrity chef.
The book itself is slightly different to what we’ve come to expect from a cookbook. It is in paperback, has more photos of people and places than of food, which makes it lack the glamour people look for in a cook book. But I feel that what it lacks in glamour, it more than makes up for in honesty and content. The writing is wonderful and the recipes are rich. The cuisines Yazbek borrows from are perfect for her topic, where the dishes are not simply trying to replace meat, they are wholeheartedly and generously vegetarian. You can find Mezze and Milk Tart on the Wakefield Press website.
I’m certain a mathematician can work this into a formula, perhaps a beautifully plotted graph that demonstrates in didactic elegance the relation one experiences with recipes and ingredients, with passing time as a factor. Like the rest of my generation, following from milk, I started out eating nothing but Cerelac, a simple, bland sort of food that my mother used to get me onto solids. Soon after came fruit, then rice dishes, vegetables, yoghurt, cheese, meat and the rest. And there was no stopping progress. Retrospectively, Cerelac was my Big Bang moment, a taste experience before which there was nothing, but after which nothing would be the same. Unknown molecules start forming and binding to each other into new recipes and dishes, pushing my personal Food Universe into an ever-expanding state in both breadth and height, giving rise to new experiences.
When you start cooking for yourself, and if you have that kind of obsessive grain within you, you might throw yourself at it whole-heartedly. What was ultimately a nutritional exercise quickly transcends the Get-It-In-Ya experience as you discover that so-called Joy of Cooking. Your one bedroom studio closes in as more and more recipe books pack against the wall and more and more utensils are stacked above the kitchen bench. Your fridge will almost certainly contain foods with exceedingly exotic origins, superbly interesting qualities and utterly unpronounceable names. (While we’re on the subject, how DO you pronounce galangal?). With the ammunition well-stocked, experimentation ensues and with it, the inevitable successes and failures.
To me, that seems to be the era of chaos that precedes universal order. At one point in time, not too long ago, a cookbook mutiny threatened to over-throw my sanity; I had over 50 ingredients in my fridge, the same amount in my pantry and more pots and pans than you can poke a slotted, wooden dessert spoon at. But gradually, things changed. I stopped buying utensils and use a frying pan and a cast iron pot for most of my cooking. Instead of purchasing more cookbooks, I rely on 2 or 3 that I own already and love the most. I make stir-fries with 4 or 5 ingredients instead of 10. My fridge stocks a limited variety of food. It seems my Food Universe has reversed and is now shrinking. And I love it that way. My dinner might be a pastured steak fried in good butter with some hot English mustard on the side. If I am feeling adventurous, some glazed carrots might find their way to the plate. Good quality eggs make a meal, with need for little else. Some good cream mixed in there, and a just-set, custardy omelet is a decidedly brilliant dinner. Dessert need be nothing more than Pepe Saya’s phenomenal mascarpone with some berries on top. Or a slice of good cheese. If the ingredients are of high quality, there’s no need to diversify. Focus on the singular and you will find happiness, that’s my new mantra. Sure, I might not be heading straight back to Cerelac, and perhaps the universe is getting more focused rather than shrinking. Order. There’s a quiet enjoyment to be found in minimalizing a repertoire; a kind of meditative calm, an asserted certainty; and if you look closely enough, an infinity of choice.
How about you? Are you eating more variety than you did a few years ago? Do you find you are happier with more food choice or with less?