Tuesday, May 24, 2011


This past week, the Sydney Writers’ Festival was taking place. Because I was working I didn’t see a lot of the events (an occupational hazard), but there were authors here that if you ever have the time, are worth reading if you haven’t already: novelists David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) and Michael Cunningham (The Hours), and new literary star Tea Obreht (The Tiger's Wife). Food writers A.A. Gill and Anthony Bourdain were also here, though the term food writer hardly covers the scope of their commentary. Bourdain set the rock-and-roll world of chefdom on fire with Kitchen Confidential back in the year 2000. As for A.A. Gill, the food he writes of is almost secondary to his fatally funny perspective of world.  
On a more serious foodie note, Quay (to your right) won the best designed book of the year at the Book Design Awards. Deservedly. I’m being patriotic, but not biased, in saying that Australia leads the rest of the world in cookbook publishing. If you want to argue with me, I suggest you buy this book first.
SWF was again down around the historic Rocks (convict destination of yore) and as there were a number of international visitors here, it renewed the spectacle of my hometown through their eyes. 

Yes, this really was one step away from ‘work’.
It reminded me I often take for granted what’s right here on our doorstep. We do harbour and beaches well. But Sydney does food just as show-stoppingly. 
Because we are so multicultural, the food culture has forgotten the need to play by the food rules of their forefathers. It’s fusion, revved up in a way I’ve never experienced in any other destination with a longer culinary tradition. Experimentation, access to incredible abundant fresh produce, and the exposure to European, Asian and American influences, results in a food story that still spins surprising new plots.
On the home cooking front, Sydney’s belief in their cooking prowess probably took off before I noticed, but the entry point for my generation was the congruent moment of having some cash to play with (finally) and the arrival of Cookbook mania, with Mr Sydney Food himself, Bill Granger releasing his first book, in the year 2000. An instant classic, Sydney Food brought the sunny simplicity of Granger’s food from his table to ours. His follow ups just gave us more, please.

Linguine with Clams and Tomatoes
Serves 4 to 6
400g linguine
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, finely sliced
2 small red chillies, finely sliced, 
or 1/2 tsp of dried chilli flakes
sea salt
1/2 cup white wine
500g cherry tomatoes, halved
3 tbsp parsley, chopped
freshly ground pepper
Bring a large saucepan of salted water to boil, and add linguine. Cook for 12-14 minutes until al dente.
Meanwhile, heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large frying pan, and add the chilli, garlic and salt. Cook gently for one minute. Add the white wine, tomatoes and clams and combine. Cover the pan and cook for 3 minutes, or until the clams open. Remove from heat.
Drain the pasta, and with the parsley, add to the pan. Toss to combine, season, and serve immediately.
After a week of talking, drinking, and canape-ing, Bill’s cooking is a reminder of all that is elemental about this town. Sydney may sometimes seem to be high on its own glitz, but what we have, and do best, is local produce, fresh flavours, sun, ocean, salt air, and simplicity. The rest is just tricks.
And this random entry below? I couldn’t resist throwing in this dessert from a dinner party last week. It’s an old recipe, and I don’t know where it originates  from, but if I have to guess, it seems at home in a dark cafe on a cold afternoon in the vicinity of Vienna? Verona? Geneva? 

Hazelnut Meringue and Chocolate Torte
from Elle Cuisine (out of print)
Serves 12
hazelnut meringue*
8 eggwhites
pinch of salt
1 1/2 cups of caster sugar
1 tbsp cornflour
1 tsp cinnamon
200g (1 1/2 cups) roasted hazelnuts, finely chopped in a food processor
Dutch cocoa powder, to decorate
chocolate ganache
500g good quality dark chocolate, coarsely chopped
250ml (1 cup) thickened cream
30ml creme de cacao liqueur
Preheat the oven to 150 C. Line 2 baking trays with baking paper. Trace 3 20cm diameter circles onto each piece of baking paper.
Place the eggwhites into a mixing bowl and whisk until aerated and peaks form. Add the salt and gradually add the sugar continually whisking until stiff peaks form. Sift the cornflour and the cinnamon over the eggwhites. Add the hazelnuts and gently fold until the mixture is combined.
Divide and spread the meringue mixture between the 3 circles on the prepared baking trays. Run a knife around the edge of each meringue to form a 2.5cm high edge. Bake in a preheated oven for 1 hour and 20 minutes or until light golden and crisp. Remove from the oven and transfer to wire racks to cool.
Meanwhile to make the chocolate ganache, place the chocolate and cream into a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of simmering water. Melt the mixture, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is smooth and combined (don’t lose patience and push the heat up as the mixture might split). Add the liqueur and stir until combined. Set aside and cool in the fridge for 20 minutes or until the chocolate has slightly set and has a spreadable consistency.
To assemble the torte, remove the baking paper and discard. Place one of the meringue layers on a cake plate. Spread half of the ganache over the meringue disc. On top place another layer of meringue and repeat the procedure with the ganache. Then add the final meringue layer.
To decorate, evenly sift the Dutch cocoa powder over the assembled torte.
To serve, cut a small slice and dust with extra cocoa if desired. 
*I found the meringue mixture was enough to make 4 layers, but it was a stretch to fit all 4 in the oven. So if you have the room knock yourself out, though you may want to make more of the ganache. I ate the 4th layer during the week with cream, as the meringue can last a couple of days in an airtight container. And on that note, you can make the meringue a couple of days in advance and save as above. 
Yes people, I got back in the (meringue) saddle and cooked like there was no tomorrow for friends. This was the certifiable hit of the evening, resulting in not much left to photograph (I apologise), but I’m sure you get the drift as to how decadent this dessert is! 
Until next time...

Sunday, May 15, 2011


Not even a soufflĂ© could save me this week. I couldn’t cook. No reason, except the Black Dog was lurking, and while I love dogs (golden retrievers, in particular), this dog is not one I plan to adopt. Better to meditate, then. A meditation teacher once told me that if everyone meditated just 10 minutes a day, it would eradicate most crime. It’s hard to be bitter, aggressive, and prone to fits of road rage if you’ve given yourself the space to remember you are in control of your time and your destiny, by taking a moment to exercise your heart muscle to flex naturally to openness and generosity.
So I took it as a sign, that the most recent of the Meditation Oasis podcasts was a session around patience, since so much of the annoyance of urban life is in the lack of civility. They’re worth checking out if you’ve ever wanted to get a handle on meditation without having to join a group, but don’t want to fly solo. It’s a lot easier than focusing on your nostrils, or chanting Om. Actually, Meditation Oasis’ podcasts are so good I wagged the meditation session at the ashram I was at in Rishikesh, India, last year (the chanting was really getting old). I did this meditation in my room instead, and when I walked out onto the balcony overlooking the Ganges after, I saw this. He stood there for over an hour. Now, that’s chilled. I doubt I’ll ever quite get there.
Bear with me here, there is a segue, albeit a messy one. After 2008, a bad year of bruising disappointments and heartbreak, I started the new year with one touchstone, one mantra, that had to pull me through, or else. When in doubt, cook. I knew I had to do this, because in times when the ground has given way, I’ve almost stopped eating all together. That place where you’re barely breathing for all the shrapnel in your heart. You remember? I felt cooking had to be the way to put one foot in front of the other, one recipe step at a time. That was all that was required, when my mind was too scrambled to calm down enough to meditate or even trust in life, to remember this too shall pass
I remember dragging myself into the kitchen every night. The scent of crushed thyme on my fingers, the hiss of onions in the pan, the sight of mushrooms that had doggedly, gloriously come into their own ugly beautiful perfection, 

and the simple act of using my hands to create something, anything, after all the words that had come to nothing. 
All this required attention, and it’s difficult to catastrophise when you’re in the moment. And then of course the outcome of every step that’s come before: the taste. You need food to live, but it is plunging into the senses that cooking a meal requires that can deliver you back to life. For that reason, cooking is as much a spiritual practice as any other chosen path, at least for me. 
So this last weekend, after a week of indifference, I got back into the kitchen, and I made risotto, simply because you have to find the patience to make it, and patience with life, with timing, with the occasional crap, is a spiritual practice I know I have to undertake (being one of those people who was not genetically blessed with this virtue). And making risotto is the most pleasurable way to do so. The process of adding stock to the rice, watching, stirring, watching, then stirring some more, is a meditation in and of itself.

Oh, and did I say it tastes great?
Risotto with Wild Mushrooms
Serves 4
8g dried porcini mushrooms
300g assorted fresh mushrooms, as shown above
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp butter
2 garlic cloves, finely sliced
2 tsp of thyme leaves
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 onion, finely chopped
300g arborio rice, unwashed
150ml dry white wine
750ml vegetable or chicken stock, heated
2 tbsp parsley, finely chopped
2 tbsp grated parmesan
Cover the porcini mushrooms in boiling water and set aside.
Clean the fresh mushrooms by wiping them with a damp cloth and slice. Heat 1 tbsp of olive oil and tbsp of the butter in a frying pan, add the garlic, the thyme, and the sliced mushrooms, and toss well until softened. Add the porcini mushrooms and its water, salt and pepper, and toss until tender. Set aside.
In a heavy bottomed large saucepan, on medium heat, melt 1 tbsp butter with the remaining olive oil and add the onion and cook for 10 minutes, until softened. Add the rice and stir for 2 minutes, ensuring it doesn’t stick to the bottom. Add the wine, and let it bubble away until it is absorbed by the rice. Turn heat to low, and add a half cup of stock, stirring gently until the stock is absorbed. Repeat the process until all the stock is used and the rice is creamy (it should be neither gluggy nor dry, but should flow gently when tipped).
Add the mushroom mix and the parsley, stirring well and heat through. Serve and scatter with shaved parmesan.
I’ve thought a lot about wonder this week. Choosing to remain open to experience is the antidote to indifference, but it requires a risk not easily taken. But it is the only path. In the words of The Verve, the drugs don’t work, nor does hoping someone else will save you. If you want to see someone talk about this more eloquently than I could ever manage, then take a look at Brene Brown’s talk on Whole Heartedness here.
It’s a choice, and sometimes a battle. But from someone who knows the trenches well now, it’s the only war worth fighting, and it’s the one you have to win. Next time you’re there yourself, please stop by.