Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Master Stock Chicken

When I was in Beijing I was told that some restaurants have had their master stock on the go for centuries, passing the coveted liquid down from generation to generation. I haven’t had mine for quite that long, but it is true that it ages well and can be kept for long periods of time in the fridge or freezer. I love cooking chicken this way because it’s so bloody (opps – apologies to people from the UK) easy and the texture and taste of the chicken is divine. The gentle cooking gives the bird a succulent silken quality and it’s just as nice eaten straight away warm, or cold shredded through a salad. I usually cook two small chickens so I can enjoy it both ways.

The basic stock I use is adapted from a recipe of Master Chef Cheong Liew of the Grange Restaurant in Adelaide.

100 ml dark soy
10 g fresh ginger, bruised
50 ml light soy
100 mls shao xing tice wine
3 or 4 pieces of dried tangerine peel*
6 pieces of dried liquorice root*
100 g yellow rock sugar*
500 ml water
1 teaspoon of szechuan pepper
5 whole star anise
½ teaspoon whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
½ teaspoon chilli seeds or dried chilli flakes
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds

* You can get these from Asian supermarkets

Combine everything in a large pan, bring to the boil, and simmer for 1 hour (you can put all the spices in a muslin bag, making them easier to remove, but if you strain the stock anyway it’s not absolutely necessary). Turn off the stock and let it cool for a while before straining out the aromatics.

Return the stock to your pan and bring the heat back up to just below boiling. Wash your chicken and pat it dry. If you want to, you can blanch the chicken in boiling water, lifting it in and out for a minute or so, then put it into the hot master stock. I rarely bother with this step but if you put it straight into the stock you need to re-boil the stock and strain it before you store it to make sure there are no impurities and nasty chicken bugs.

Place the chicken breast side down into the stock and make sure the chicken is immersed all the way through cooking otherwise you can end up with raw bits. You can put a heavy plate on top to make sure. Bring the master stock to the boil, turn it off, cover with a lid and let the chicken steep in the hot stock for an hour. (I’ve actually left it there to cool totally on occasions if I’m using it for a cold dish). Remove the chicken gently from the pot and place it on a plate to rest for 30 minutes, slice (Chinese style if you can) and serve.

If you’ve never done this at home before, I urge you to give it a go. The chicken is so sweet and fabulously flavoured and the consistency is like moist soft silk. I also love the contrast between the deeply caramel skin and the snow white chicken meat underneath – it’s almost like a magic trick the contrast is so dramatic. Serve it with rice, fresh rice noodles is my personal favourite, or steamed/stir fried vegetables.

Once you're finished with the stock, strain it, re-boil it for about 10 minutes, let it cool and store in the fridge for a week or so or the freezer if you want to use it monthy or less frequently. Add more water, soy and aromatics as it ages.

Black Pepper Thai

Find of the week!

Tucked away in the busy traffic thoroughfare of Harris St, Ultimo, is a wee converted terrace that’s metamorphosed into a Thai restaurant. I’ve looked at the ultra simple menu and marvelled at the (low) prices and filed it under ‘must try’. It’s now been open about a month, so four of us lobbed in for a test drive.

Do you remember Looney Toon cartoons where people would rush into an empty room en masse, mill around and make noise, then leave all at once leaving an empty room again? This is the same. At 12.20 we walked in and the place was empty. By 12.30 it was full to the brim, every table taken, and at 1.30 it was empty again. The little dining room is packed with sturdy wood tables and stools, with a couple of outdoor tables on the street side. The kitchen is up the back and armed for quick output.

The menu has a basic and very workable selection: a list of 17 styles, broken up into red, green or panang curry, satay, stir fry, noodles, and two crisp dishes, and three types of content including vegetables and tofu ($9.50), chicken, beef or pork ($9.50), or seafood / prawn ($11.50). So you pick what base style you want and what variety of meat, veg or fish you want it made with. The stir fries offer a choice of oyster sauce, cashew nuts, chilli jam, chilli basil, garlic and pepper, sweet and sour or fresh ginger – all with vegetables and rice.

It’s designed for a one person per plate feed, or with a share table in mind, so it’s adaptable for small or large groups. Orders taken, the food is woked and brought out lightening fast so you can make the most of a lunch hour if that’s all you have. We choose a chicken satay (top picture) which comprises three generous juicy grilled sticks and a chunky aromatic sauce with a salad and rice, a chicken pad Thai noodle (above), a prawn pad see ew flat rice noodle (last picture), and a crispy pork with rice (below). All are delightful with pungent scents and flavours, and fresh, crisp, crunchy vegetables in the noodle dishes. We devour the lot, delighted at subtle changes in flavour and texture. I am now committed to returning and trying the curries, because if they are as good, it will be a real treat.

This is not Royal Thai cuisine a la David Thompson and Martin Boetz, but it is honest, fresh-cooked-on-the-spot, fragrant and filling Thai food. And for the price ($40 for four of us, and no charge for BYO), I really don’t think I could possibly ask for more. The service is quick and diligent, but they certainly don’t mind if you linger. During lunch, quite a few patrons turn up for take away, leading me to assume that because this place is not yet open for dinner, there will be a few yummy, tasty instant suppers being heated up around the city that night. I can’t imagine they would be as delectable as the same freshly dumped out of a hot wok, but sometimes when you’re tired after work you can’t be that picky.

Black Pepper Thai

635 Harris St., Ultimo (between Maryann St. and Macarthur St.)
Eat in or take away
Open for lunch & dinner

*Stop Press! I went back yesterday to try the curries and YES they are just as good - the green (we had it with prawns) is peppery hot, and the red (we chose beef) is warm and slightly sweeter. Both dishes include those wonderful crunchy fresh veges too. Also, Black Pepper is now open for dinner!

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Peach chutney

Millions of peaches … peaches for me

The other night I had a dream I was drowning in peaches. I can’t stop buying them. I can’t make enough peach pie and bellinis to keep up. Damn these infernal peaches. So…

I’m on the preserve trail. $2.50 at the fresh food markets will buy you enough peaches to turn into something you might not want right now, but will relish (pardon the pun) later in the year when it’s cold and you want curries or something ot accompany sharp cheese wedges by the fireplace.

1.5 kg fresh peaches, blanched with boiling water and drained. You do this so the pink blush stains the flesh making a more attractive chutney colour. Peel the skins off the peaches and discard, seed the peaches and chop roughly.

Add the peaches to a pan and add in the rest of the ingredients:

6 chillies. Suit your taste and heat tolerance, de-seed them if you want to cut back on the heat. There were red habaneros (read: blow your head off heat) at the markets this week, so I used them, but use milder ones if you prefer. Habaneros have an earthier taste than other chillies – less pith and less sweet capsicum notes, more woody flavours. Mixed with the cinnamon in this recipe the simmering chutney takes on an almost sandalwood quality and perfumes the kitchen (… house, apartment, whole apartment block, suburb) with a sweet incense.

2 cups of vinegar: cider vinegar is good for chutney and keeps an earthy fruit taste to the mixture, but white wine vinegar is acceptable.

2 cups of sugar: I prefer light muscovado – keeping the earthy caramel theme by using this or brown sugar.

1 large onion, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh green ginger, grated
1 cinnamon stick
Rind of 1 lemon, sliced finely or zested.

Stir without boiling until the sugar is dissolved. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 1 ¼ hours or until the chutney is thick and pulpy. Stir it and check it often, particularly as the chutney thickens towards the end of cooking, to make sure it doesn’t burn or stick to the base of the pan. Remove the cinnamon stick before bottling into sterilized jars.

The flavour will develop in the jar and be even better after a month or two.

Monday, March 27, 2006


Many people I know have choux phobia. Certainly not in terms of eating these delicate, light-as-air delights, but making them. Something about a little bun whose construction seems to defy gravity breeds fear into most cooks. Some have even been convinced that to make them one has to somehow magically form a hollow sphere from raw ingredients and deep fry it to achieve the crisp empty shell that swallows up all manner of scented creams or louche patisserie fillings. Easy peasy Japanese-y, I say. And forthwith, whipped up a batch for admiring onlookers after lunch the other day.

Originating in 16th century Florence, and brought to France by Catherine de Medici, the current incarnation of terminology was adopted in 1760 by Monsieur Avice, a famous French Patissiere. He believed the little buns resembled cabbages, or ‘choux’ in French.

Pre-heat your oven to 200°C

Put ¾ cup of water and 60 grams of unsalted butter into a large pan and bring to the boil, making sure the butter is all dissolved. Immediately add 125 grams of sifted plain flour and a pinch of salt all at once, remove from the heat, and stir briskly with a wooden spoon until combined and the raw pastry clumps up and pulls away from the edges of the pan into one lump.

Off the heat add three eggs one at a time, beating well with each addition of egg until they are incorporated. Your pastry will be smooth and glossy.

Drop teaspoons or tablespoons of the mixture onto a baking sheet lined with silicone paper (depending on whether you want dainty girly ones or big butch ones) and bake in the oven for 20-40 minutes depending on the size of the buns. Don’t open the oven door for at least the first 15 mins of cooking. They need the initial burst of constant heat to puff them up and make them crisp. If they start looking too brown, knock back the heat by 10°C or so. The pastry will puff and dry out as cooking progresses and you can help this along by removing them from the oven a few minutes before the end of cooking and making a slit in the side so the interior dries out a little more. You can also slit them and turn off the oven leaving them to dry out for 10 minutes or more after cooking is finished. Make sure you leave the oven door ajar so steam doesn’t build up and make them soggy. Finish by cooling completely on a wire rack.

Then your imagination can run wild. The easiest dessert presentation is a simple whipped cream and chocolate coating. To 250 mls of cream add a teaspoon of vanilla paste or extract and a tablespoon of liqueur and whip to stiff peaks. Spoon or pipe the cream into the puff. Melt about 150-250 g of 63 -70% (cocoa solid content) couverture chocolate over a double boiler and allow to cool slightly. Drizzle over the filled puffs and it will set to a crisp hard chocolate coating. Voila!

Friday, March 17, 2006

Gung Ho done gone and went

Ultimo-Haymarket, at the southern fringe of Sydney’s CBD, is populated with a never-ending supply of cheap, quick café’s. And there’s good reason: two University campuses, a large TAFE complex, the ABC, and several massive apartment blocks, so there’s plenty of opportunity to provide nosh for the masses of students, workers, and residents in the area. Against this backdrop I went with Helen (you can read her review here) to check out a sparkly (literally) new spot on Quay Street.

Helen had walked past a few times and, dubiously drawn like a moth to a flame (or like a foodblogger to a new eatery), would look in and regard the menu. I imagine a bit like driving past a car crash when you feel you shouldn’t gawp but can’t resist because you might witness something truly awful. I could understand why when I arrived to meet her. With the luminosity of a small supernova, the tiny but bright, mirrored interior sheds light on the pavement during daylight. At least we’ll be able to see what we’re eating. We toyed with the idea of aborting the mission, but I argued that now our pupils had adjusted, we could end the pain of curiosity there and then. So we sat and pondered our illustrated, laminated broadsheet menus.

The term ‘gung-ho’ is a pidgin English derivative originating from Mandarin Chinese (kung meaning work and ho meaning together). A dictionary will tell you it means ‘intemperately and naively enthusiastic”. This knowledge arms us with a reasonable understanding of the place and the food. Gung Ho, their literature extols, are “Eurasian Cuisine Innovators” whose motto is “makes life so much more”. Wow! all this within three square metres (excluding pavement chairs). Without wondering too hard about “… more what..?”, we take them at their word. From the lists of bedazzled finger food, fatbuster salads, a body + soul section, spice up your life laksas, light + easy fried rices, fast + furious stir fries, ying + yang soups and work + out grills, we are spoiled for choice and I feel more like I’m choosing a day spa treatment than ordering lunch. We try to choose something that looks like a Eurasian cuisine innovation that will raise our lives to new spiritual and corporeal heights.

We find our zenith in the form of mango chicken spring rolls (4 large at $7.80, pictured above), fried chicken with passionfruit sauce ($10.80) and a more regular sounding pepper and lemongrass calamari ($10.80). Frankly, we can’t find too much Eu in the Eurasian, but they do have deep fried fish & chips, curiously placed in the grill list. Whatever.

Snappy service with woks aflame and our bedazzling spring rolls materialise. Apart from Helen enduring a mouth numbing attack of molten mangoes, they are … an interesting flavour. The accompanying “mango sauce (home made)” takes me back to my childhood because it tastes like the liquefied outer coating of a Splice ice cream, except sweeter, and makes me wonder exactly whose home it was made in. Maybe Mr Streets is involved and channelling energy into our lives even as we eat. Trippy.

With trepidation we await the passionfruit chicken (pictured left and above left), realising we’ve unwittingly turned - or maybe subconsciously willed - lunch into something which is a paper umbrella short of a tropical luau. And it’s right on the money. Lemon chicken in fancy dress, studded with little black seeds and imitating Carmen Miranda with a shoestring grated carrot hat (hang on, they ALL have the same hat!). But passionfruit? Maybe there’s a world shortage and it’s mock passionfruit hidden in lemon sauce with extra sugar. Well there is a war on, you know. The two mains come with rice and a cleansing (and, mercifully, not sweet) clear soup. The calamari (left) is pretty tender and has a salty spicy chilli garnish and almost no sugar.

Our bodies + souls are now well and truly drenched in hydrogenated vegetable fats and sucrose, so we figure it’s time to seek enlightenment elsewhere and pass on the desserts.

You may find your acme of existence here at Gung Ho, Grasshopper, and there are extensive budget priced, lifestyle-branded menu selections to suit your unique consumption and karmic profile, all served within three minutes for the lunch time-poor. Your journey of innovation awaits you ….

Gung Ho, open for lunch and dinner 7 days
Shop 9 107-121
Quay St.,

Lamb cutlets with Baharat

It’s always fun finding a new spice blend that you’ve never heard of before. Which if you are a denizen of blogs, food mags, associated cooking columns, food and cooking TV, and have a gazillion recipe books, is a fairly rare and exciting thing. I’ve heard mention of this in the last week in various places and publications, so I decided to check out Baharat.

It’s an Arabic spice blend that comes generally from the Persian Gulf area and has varations that include the cuisines of Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Tunisia. Baharat means "spice" in Arabic, derived from the word bahar (pepper) so it’s a mixed spice that’s based on black pepper and usually allspice. It can include paprika, coriander seeds, cassia bark (or cinnamon), sumac, nutmeg, cumin seed, or cardamom seed. In more exotic versions it can also contain dried rose petals and dried lemon/lime.

So here’s the version I put together, based on what I had in my pantry:

2 tbsp whole black peppercorns
3 teaspoons of cumin seeds
2 teaspoons of coriander seeds
2 teaspoons of cardamom seeds
2 whole star anise

Grind this to a powder in a spice mill and add to it:

2 tbsp hot or sweet paprika (depending on your preference, or use ½ & ½ )
2 teaspoons of ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg.

Mix well and store in an airtight jar. You can either mix it with a little oil to form a paste or rub it on dry to cuts of meat – I used lamb on this occasion, but it would also go well with chicken thighs or beef, grilled or BBQ’ed. You can also use it to spice up ground meat dishes, couscous, tagines, vegetables & vegetable stuffing, and egg dishes.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Yee King Northern Chinese Noodle and Dumpling joint

Just a little hole in the wall on Sussex St., almost opposite the illustrious (and astronomically more pricy) Golden Century, is this little carbohydrate heaven with photographs of its famous dishes lined up along the glass front and mounted triumphantly on the restaurant walls. Small tables, wooden stools, and a décor that isn’t really intended to make you want to linger over your lightning speed-served meals. None of this matters when you have dumplings and noodles on the brain. Which we have. We are single minded and don’t even bother to look at the specials or the rest of the menu. Almost before we grab our stools we order up a plate of pork and chive pan fried dumplings as they take about 10-15 minutes to cook fresh.

The noodles are made out back too, so to accompany the dumplings we have prawn noodles with XO sauce, and a plate of salt and pepper calamari. Both arrive pronto and fresh from the wok, the slippery thick noodles coated with lip-slurpingly unctuous sticky sweet sauce, studded with medium sized prawns. The calamari is hot and flash fried, garnished with garlic, chilli and green onions.

But then the treat we’ve made our pilgrimage for – the fat pillows ‘with little burnt bottoms’ (as G calls them). Black vinegar and soy adorn every table to dress these little babies, and if you ask, a small dish of incendiary chilli sauce is ferried to your table to accompany. It is an art to eat your dumpling without either dripping the exploding sweet juices down your own chin and onto your shirt, or squirting your fellow diners with a projectile of steaming liquid across the tiny tables and branding them with dumpling juice for the rest of the afternoon. But who cares – they taste so good you can wear a dumpling or noodle accident badge with pride and make the rest of your compatriots green with envy at what you’ve lunched on!

All the above, including tea and two Tsing Tao beers, for $45. Easily enough to satiate the three of us. But after loading up on carbs it’s away to walk off lunch in Hyde Park and the Botanic Gardens, which almost makes a dumpling pig-out part of a virtuous outing.

408 Sussex St., Haymarket.
Open 7 days 11am – 10.30pm

Mee Goreng

A quick Saturday supper for few friends and a reasonable way to use up leftovers:

400 g hokkien noodles, blanched in hot water to loosen
A few cups of leftover roast chicken from the other night, shredded
2 cloves crushed garlic
Those leftover lemongrass stems hanging around in the vege crisper, white tender parts chopped
1 chopped onion
2 eggs
½ cup chicken stock, 2 tbsp tomato sauce, 2 tbsp soy sauce, 1 tbsp sambal olek, 2 tbsp rice wine, mixed together.
A few handfuls of bean sprouts
Whatever other leftover veg looks a bit suspect
Coriander, green onions, sliced green chilli, and fried shallots for garnish.

Heat up the wok and add a little peanut oil, swirl it around to coat.
Mix the eggs lightly and throw into the hot wok to make an omelet.
Remove and cool, slice up into strands

Add a little more oil to the wok and toss in the aromatics, followed by the noodles, toss, adding a little more oil if it looks to dry. Add the veg and the omelet, then the mixed sauce. Toss. At the last minute add the bean sprouts, give it a final toss then chuck on the garnish. Dig in.

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Traditional tomato ketchup

With summer tomatoes luscious and ripe, and only a few bucks a box, now’s the time to turn them into stuff for the rest of the year. The scenario: you have enough bottles of passata to feed a small Italian village for 6 months and they are stashed in every conceivable corner of your abode. You’ve eaten insalata caprese or some variation of a tomato salad every night for the last two weeks, and there’s still more tomatoes left. So what else do you do with them to enjoy their ripe goodness into the colder months?

I made ketchup this time last year with a box of tomatoes, and even divided up among family and friends, my final bottle only ran out last week. Once you’ve made it you’ll never go back to the shop bought stuff. It’s also one of those recipes that doesn’t take that much effort, but requires a little time to simmer and reach a good consistency. This is adapted from a recipe that appeared in Cuisine magazine last year.

5 kg ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
1.5 kg brown onions, roughly chopped
500 g brown sugar
500 g white sugar (or you can use all brown or a deeper flavour and colour)
2 tbsp chopped fresh ginger
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tbsp salt
1 litre of spiced vinegar

Place all the above in a large pan and bring to the simmer. Let it simmer gently uncovered for 2 hours until pulpy. Cool slightly and pass through the fine blade of a mouli (food mill) to remove the skins and seeds. You’ll end up with a fine puree.

This next bit takes a little judgment. Put the puree into a non-reactive pan and add about 750 mls – 1 litre of spiced vinegar*. Bring to the boil and boil for 30 - 90 minutes or more until it becomes the consistency of a thick sauce and looses any watery later at the top. Taste it, and based on the taste and consistency, add more vinegar if necessary. It’s better to err on the side of less vinegar to start off with in case the sauce is too tart – you can always add more if it’s too sweet. If the sauce isn’t thick enough, boil it for longer to reduce to the right consistency and stir occasionally to stop it catching on the base of the pan. Pour into sterile bottles, seal, and store on a cool dark place. Refrigerate a bottle once you’ve opened it. Makes about 4.5 litres.

The reason this is a bit fiddly at the end, and the final boiling times so broad, is that so much depends on the level of acidity in the tomatoes, their ripeness, and their water content. Consequently you need to play around with the liquid content to get the right thickness towards the rnd of the process. If you find after storage or refrigeration it’s looking watery, just re-boil it to reduce it a little further.

* You can buy spiced vinegar from supermarkets or deli’s, but if you can’t find any, crush a teaspoon each of fennel seeds, whole cloves and coriander seeds, add to a decent white wine vinegar, bring to the boil for a minute or two, remove from the heat and let stand until you need to use it. Obviously the longer the better, but even a few hours will give you a spiced-up result.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Product Review: Taj Mahal Tandoori Paste

Available from the SMH Good Living Growers Markets, this tandoori paste was snapped up with the idea of an easy and not too complicated weeknight dinner. It’s made locally in Rockdale, south of Sydney, and is a member of a suite of products from the same producers that include meat and vegetarian samosas, curry pastes and pickles. I’ve tried their samosas and they’re a great stand-by if people drop in for nibbles – straight out of the freezer and into the oven or frypan.

I usually prefer to make my own tandoori paste, primarily because I’ve never found a commercial one that tastes any good. They're either too 'raw', with a predominant tannic uncooked spice flavour, too salty, tasteless etc etc. However this product is pleasantly surprising.

Apart from the fact they must have been up all night thinking of the name, the lurid orangey-red paste mixed with a few tablespoons of yoghurt produces a very acceptable tandoori – notice I don’t say ‘authentic’ as I don’t want to cause consternation among Indian cooks with more finely tuned sensibilities and taste buds than I.

For 1kg of thigh fillets I used about ¼ of the 250g jar and 3 tablespoons of yoghurt, and marinated for 6 hours. I may possess a bench-top pizza oven, but I have not yet graduated to a home tandoor (not through lack of desire to do so, but because of inner city fire regulations) so I grilled these succulent little morsels to get the blackened crusty bits so reminiscent of the real thing. My regular market expedition buddy Jannet, who put me onto this product, advises that it works a treat on the BBQ as well.

I used the ‘hot’ paste (it also comes in ‘medium’) and the resulting juicy tandoori was intensely flavoured with a good well rounded chilli kick. There were no lingering metallic salty residues or front-of the- palate uncooked spice bitterness so typical of commercial products.

Served with a cucumber, mint and garlic raita, plus a side dish of puppodums it was a great and convenient weeknight dinner that didn’t compromise on taste or flavour. Leftovers are also yummy wrapped in pita bread with salad and yoghurt. Well done to the Tah Mahal team.

Taj Mahal Tandoori Paste in medium or hot, $7.00 per jar.
Manufactured by Humpty Dumpty Pies P/L
50 Frederick St., Rockdale, NSW 2216.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Lunch at Il Baretto

Il Baretto (‘the little bar’ in Italian) is an established respectable Surry Hills resident for a number of reasons. Consistent, no fuss, simple Italian food. It’s inexpensive. It’s cute and buzzy. It’s inexpensive. The coffee is excellent. Oh, and it doesn’t cost too much to eat there either. However, since the last time I visited in 2005 the prices are slightly higher, the menu has expanded a little, and there are renovations in the form of wooden wall baffles that dampen the din in the small, echo-y, all concrete interior.

I’m put off by a loud “hello girls!!!” screeched by a waiter as I walk in, and I look behind me to see who he might be talking to. Apparently it was me and one of my lunch companions. I felt like saying, Little Britain style, “no, no young man, I’m a LAAAAAdy” but I resist and just nod, looking as non-plussed as I can. As we walk down into the back section to meet Mr Burger and Giovanni, the same screechy waiter yells after us flailing his hands “Girls! Girls! there’s nothing set up down theeeeeere!!” which seems odd as there’s a table for four with glasses and cutlery etc ready to go. So us Laaaaaadies sit down anyway and let him flap off to orbit some other imagined disaster. Oh well, luvvies always get a bit strung out in Mardi Gras week.

The basic menu is written on butchers’ paper on the wall and hasn’t changed much since the immensely talented Antonio Facchinetti opened it several years ago. He left in 2004, and despite the change in management, they haven’t mucked around too much with the homey menu that obviously keeps people coming back - expect a queue on busy nights. Bruschetta (left), polenta with sausage, and risotto pesto e pollo. Home made gnocchi, fettucini, penne, and spaghetti, with a mix and match choice of sauces (Arabiata, Napoletana, Carbonara, Piccante, Bolognese, Pesto). There are a number of extra specials today, delived in rapid fire by our tattooed, rockabilly waitress who insists on silence from the room so she doesn't have to repeat it to all the tables one by one. If available there is usually spaghetti vongolé bianco in a sauce sauce of white wine, parsely, oil and a little chilli, (as there is today).
We choose one of the additional starters, the caramelized fig salad to share, as well as the luscious tomato and basil bruschetta pictured above. For mains there is a beetroot and goats cheese ravioli in an Arabiata sauce, as well as a generous helping of beef lasagna. I can rarely pass up the gnocchi, made on the premises and as delicate and light as they come. I choose gorgonzola sauce above a tomato based one, knowing I will never finish it anyway. The servings are enormous, so don’t think you can tuck in to two courses unless you’re stopping in on your way cycling to Melbourne.

The star is the fig salad (above and below left) . Gently caramel-warm figs with rocket, semi dried tomatoes and proscuitto, dressed scantly with balsamic and olive oil, tastes perfectly balanced and whets our appetite. The ravioli is also pretty good – a more exotic offering than the farmhouse Italian staples the menu offers, but difficult to share a picture with you as it's drowned in sauce and looks like, well, a plate of tomato sauce. It’s hard to go wrong with the bruschetta at this time of year with ripe full-flavoured organic tomatoes enveloped in a film of excellent olive oil. The lasagna (below) is a bit ordinary to my taste – I prefer a little more herbiness and pepper. But it does the trick and warms the tummy.

The gnocchi is a floating cloud of cheesy indulgence and luckily everyone tucks in to help polish it off. If you go for dinner don’t pass up the papardelle with duck ragu which is a real treat and a signature dish of this trattoria.

Panna cotta, tiramisu and affogato, plus a selection of counter treats and gelato, comprise the dessert fare. Today we look past these temptations as we have something special waiting back at my house.

What used to be a hearty meal for about $15-18 each is now up ‘round $25 plus each (without dessert or coffee), but that still represents value for money. This particular Friday lunch time I notice that it’s not as packed with patrons as it usually is, maybe reflecting the elevated prices, or the increased competition and choice in the area. The service and staff could be described as either absently laid back or hysterically theatrical (so very Surry Hills). When Il Baretto was many dollars per person less expensive than it is now, you could forgive almost any temporary lapse of memory on a busy shift, or bit of grit on a salad leaf or baby clam. But with higher prices comes higher responsibilities to diners who are parting with their hard earned sheckles, so as long as the game is lifted to match the financial outlay it should remain a stayer in this restaurant-rich pocket of Sydney.

Il Baretto is BYO only (with a $1 pp corkage, or ‘screwage’ as I prefer to call it when you have to open your own stelvin-capped bottle of white without them ever having laid a finger on it) and doesn’t take bookings or credit cards.

Il Baretto
496 Bourke StSurry Hills, 2010
Open breakfast, lunch dinner, Tuesday – Saturday,
Breakfast til 3pm Sunday. Closed Monday.

Heaven on a Spoon

Lime and Ginger Crème Brûlée

The inspiration for this dessert comes from the cover recipe of this month’s delicious magazine. I say inspiration because I have been told many times by many people that I cannot leave a recipe alone. I have to muck around and tinker with it. Guilty as charged, and caring less.

The Valli Little version is based on a baked custard that is brûléed later. Uh Uh. Not on my watch. A baked custard gives a certain texture that sort of cleaves in two when confronted with a spoon. I’ve always been of the opinion that a brûlée should be made from the creamier, more homogenous custard that’s, for want of a better descriptor, gloopier and denser. So I used the ingredients from delicious and the method I’m more used to from Stephanie Alexander, which calls for a custard cooked on the stovetop ‘til thick, then chilled in ramekins to have its sugar top incinerated at a later point in time.

700 mls of thickened cream
2 kaffir lime leaves, slightly bruised
1 vanilla pod, split and seeds scraped

Set this on the stove and scald (bring up to boiling point) then remove from the heat and let the flavours infuse for about 5 minutes. Remove the leaves and pod.

7 egg yolks
¼ cup caster sugar
Grated zest and juice of 1 lime
2 tsps ground ginger
1 tsp corn flour ‘insurance’

Whisk the yolks and sugar, but don’t put too much air into them. Add the other ingredients and whisk until combined. (My Great Aunt always taught me to put a little corn flour into a stove-cooked custard as it dramatically reduces the possibility of it curdling if you somehow stuff it up and overheat it). Add the still-warm cream mixture to the yolk mixture, whisking to distribute the heat from the cream. Pour back into the saucepan and stir over a low heat until the custard thickens and coats the back of a spoon. Pour into ramekins to within a few millimeters of the rim and leave in the fridge for a few hours to chill and set.

Just before serving sprinkle with a layer of demerara sugar to cover the set custard (actually you can use normal sugar but I find demerara gives a better crust, more depth of flavour, and is easier to work with as it doesn’t burn and blacken quite as readily as white sugar). Now the fun bit for the pyromaniacs among us. Spark up the kitchen flame thrower and gently circle the flame across the top of the sugar to melt it and create a toffee crust. This takes a bit of practice, but once you’ve got the knack it’s easy to do. You can do this a little ahead of time and put the brûlées back in the fridge, but only for a few hours or the toffee crust will soften.

The best fun with a brûlée is to bash in the hard top of the toffee crust with the back of a spoon and get to the smooth, cold, flavoursome custard underneath. The sublime taste of this one is scented with zesty lime along with the the background warmth of ginger. The heady vanilla lifts the creamy sensation of the mouth-soft custard, and is satisfyingly contrasted by ocassional shards of crunchy toffee. It's not just the fabulous taste, it's the textures that help delight the senses. As many would know, I'm no dessert junkie, but even I think this is stupendous. I served it before coffee when we came back to my place after lunch at Il Baretto. No conversation was entered into while everyone consumed this luscious treat, a sure sign of real reverence for a classic dish with a new taste twist.

Gadget alert: Not everyone has a blowtorch, so you can opt to make the toffee crust by placing them under a very hot grill. This will do the trick, but in my opinion, heats up the custard and the ramekin too much. Professional torches can cost between AUD$80-150.00, but Victoria’s Basement has an S&P brand set consisting of refillable mini torch and 4 ramekins on sale for AUD$29.95. Butane to run the torch costs about three to four bucks and lasts for ages. The torch is effective enough for a domestic kitchen and works a treat. At this price, there’s no reason not to have one in your kitchen! Brûlées away!!!

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Cotoletta alla Milanese

Yummy, crummy veal. Veal, I mean real veal, is pretty hard to find. Many butchers pass off yearling topside as veal – ptoooey to them! I have scoured suburb after suburb in pursuit of the pale, creamy, young and tender meat to use in Italian cooking. Of course in Italy it’s another story. Scads of the stuff on every street corner, in every osteria, although I must admit the ethics bell goes off in my head when I wonder how they get such large cuts of meat off an animal that’s supposedly only been fed milk. In Sydney, when it’s in season, you can sometimes find good veal at AC Butchery or the fridge at Fratelli Fresh in Alexandria.

A strictly non-Italian addition to my version of this dish is to use Japanese Panko breadcrumbs. While it’s nice to make your own from stale bread, I find that when shallow fried they soak up way too much oil and as a result the veal and coating can go soggy quickly. Panko also gives a slightly thinner more compact crumb coating, in the unlikely event I am caring about the ratio of carb to protein. But the resulting coating is also crispier which is the main aim of the game.

Rather than the Teutonic potatoes and cabbage tradition with schnitzel, I prefer a light crisp salad dressed with a sharp vinaigrette – in this case tomatoes, basil and spring onions. It assuages the conscience for the indulgence of naughty crispy fried veal.