Monday, July 24, 2006


... or (pilimenes, pelmenis)

Growing up in Australia one is most fortunate to have a vast resource of culinary traditions from which to draw . Not just in the formal sense of restaurants from a staggering variety of different countries’ cuisines, but often from the next door neighbours, your schoolfriends’ mums and dads, or someone who takes a fancy to your aunt and marries her, bringing their family and recipes along for the ride.

One tradition to which I was exposed from a very young age was Russian. Our neighbours, on Sydney’s Northern Beaches where I grew up, were a family who fled Russia after the Bolshevik revolution, settled for a time in Shanghai, then moved as refugees to Australia. Among the amazing recipes my mother learned to create were these little dumplings. I remember days where a posse of eccentric, exotic, vivacious women would huddle ‘round a table kneading, rolling, crimping, folding, and mixing to assemble infinite armies of these treasures, each one taking home their spoils at the end of the day, with farewell kisses on the cheek (three times) way before air kissing was fashionable. So too our family adopted the habit of sitting around on cold afternoons accumulating a militia of pelmenes to be poached and gobbled on a cold night.

I’m not sure how authenticly or strictly Russian this recipe is, but it’s the one we know and I imagine it has just a bit of Shanghai slipped into the Muscovite and Siberian originals. You can buy pelmenes at Cyril’s Deli in Haymarket (Sydney) or Russki’s Deli on Bondi Road, but although they’re very yummy, they’re never quite as full flavoured and spicy and the ones we make. Maybe it’s the work you put in that makes them taste so much better. If you want to make them, co-opt your friends and family to help, and you can catch up on some chat and gossip as you go.

I was prompted to blog this recipe because of an email from Kevin who wanted to re-visit a recipe from his past. Thanks for requesting it, and I hope it’s the source of many nostalgic meals for you!

Pelmenes (pronounced “pel-MAY-neez” or “PILL-a-MEN-eez”) are basically dumplings. You can eat them as they are, or with sauces. Or in a broth like soup – although I’ve heard only sissies and Muscovites eat them this way. Most recipes are simple comprising beef (or beef and pork) water, and salt and pepper. Black pepper seems to be one of the most important flavourings in all the recipes I’ve seen. But this is our recipe, from the old country, via Shanghai. It’s truly a labour of love, but oh so worth it!

500g plain flour
1 teaspoon of salt
1 whole egg
About 1 cup of warm water

Meat filling:
500 grams of beef (topside or rump, trimmed of fat, hand minced, or put through a food processor if you must. Don’t use commercial mince, you won’t get the right texture and they will be fatty, sticky, and slimy inside. You can also substitute 250g of the beef with 250g of minced lean shoulder pork).
1 cup (about 6 large leaves) of finely shredded Chinese cabbage (wombok)
¾ cup (about 6-7 large) finely chopped spring onions (green onions/ shallots)
6 cloves of garlic, very finely chopped, not crushed
Up to ¼ cup cold water
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons Maggi seasoning
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper.

For the filling, mix all the ingredients in a large bowl with your hands – it’s the only way. I’ve used measurements here that should give you the right outcome, but I can only tell when it’s right by the smell and feel. It should be a moist mixture, squishy to the hand as you massage it because of the cabbage and shallots, but not too liquid. It should smell salty and redolent of garlic and pepper, with the slight tang of onions. If it’s too dry add a little more water. It shouldn’t be too sticky – that’s why you use leaner meats to stop any fat emulsifying as you mix it. Transfer to a smaller bowl and cover, set aside in the fridge for 30-60 mins.

For the dough, make a well in the centre of the flour and add the salt and egg and about half the water. Mix with a knife until the dough just clings together, adding more water as needed (how much liquid you need depends on the day you make it and the flour, as flour absorbs water differentially depending on conditions). Go in with your hands and pull it together so it adheres. It’s better to have a slightly wetter dough at this stage, as you can always knead in more flour – it’s difficult to put water into a too-hard dough. Knead for 10 minutes until it springs back to shape when you push your fingertip into it. Cover and leave in the fridge for 30 minutes.

Now comes the laborious part that you want everyone to share :) There are gadgets made in Russia and elsewhere to cut and fill the pastry, but there’s nothing like hand moulded ones.

Cut a section of dough and roll it into a sausage about the diameter of a 20cent piece. Cut off portions about the size of a full dessertspoon and dust with flour – like you would if you were making gnocchi. Roll each piece into a circle. When you have a pile of dough circles start filling, or pass it on to a compatriot in your production line of helpers. Place a teaspoon of meat mixture in the centre of the dough and fold into a half moon, pinching the edges tightly. Lay these on a floured plate in one layer and place in the freezer until firm. When they are firm, remove them from the plate and place them in a freezer bag and return to the freezer.

When you’re ready to cook them, bring a large pot of beef stock to the boil (you can use water and beef stock cubes for this) and place them into the boiling stock straight from the freezer. Swirl them in the hot liquid to prevent them sticking to the bottom and simmer for 5-10 mins or until the pelmenes float to the surface. Scoop them out with a slotted spoon or ladle and serve. I like mine with a more Asian style sauce of soy and chilli, but you can also have them with soy, vinegar and coriander, or dill and sour cream. Enjoy – and then go and have a nap!

Friday, July 14, 2006

Uighur Cuisine

Intrepid. Vanguard. Trendspotters. So next week. Yep, that’s us. Helen and I set off on another adventure to the frontiers of cuisine; (music swells) to boldly go … you know the rest. And this time it really is a frontier in many senses of the word. In Australia we have myriad Asian regional restaurants, but I’d never heard of this one (not even on Food Lovers’ Guide to Australia) which of course is like showing a cat a closed door – it has to get to the other side.

Uighur (or sometimes spelled Uigyur, Uygur, and Uyghur, and pronounced “ee-yoo-wher-ger”, or as close as I can make out anyway from the quick lesson I had on Uighur language from the very helpful staff member) restaurants are springing up like autumn mushrooms around Sydney. As we trekked to our destination I kept seeing more of them – was it a conspiracy?

(meat in special Uihgur pastry, left)

But I digress. I’m sure you want to know more before we get to the food. Think Silk Road. Think Tibet and go up north a bit. Next time your up Everest, stand on the climber you’ve trampled over to get there and look over the edge – you can see it from there. The Uyghur are one of the 56 ethnic groups recognised in PRo China and although they live towards the China/former Soviet border, near the Pakistan/ Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan end, they are genetically closer to Turkish people than Chinese. Many Uyghur also live in parts of Russia, Turkey and throughout mainland China (and Sydney, it seems, as well – will their world domination ever cease?). In China they mainly live in Xinjiang province (which means ‘new frontier’ in Han Chinese).

Epitomised by the legendary Silk Road which runs through the region, Uighur cuisine is a melange of middle east, east and west. And as the predominant religion is Sunni Muslim, their food is also halal. So pork lovers, shove off.

(Spinach salad, left, Lamb kebab, below left)

So, here we are cross legged in our yurt ready to chow down, Uighur style. What do we see? Grape vines. No, really – it’s important. Know your Uighur restaurant by its artificial grape arbour, strung over the ceiling with leaves (sometimes in autumnal colours, but not today) and dangling bunches of red and green plastic grapes. You know I can’t resist asking such an important cultural question. For the Uighur this creates a pleasant atmosphere that reminds them of back home, where planted grape vines grow across the streets in summer, creating a cool haven. I’m told there is also tradition of homemade wine, but I can’t yet work out how this fits with Islam. Maybe next time. You’ll also see the walls bedecked with artefacts and crafts from the region as you listen to Uighur music piped through the room.

Walking through the entrance, you almost have to do an olfactory double take, because the scent of Turkish kebab shops is unmistakable. And indeed the lamb kebab (koy gosh kawapi $10 for 5 skewers) is one of their signature dishes. We choose the 5 skewers as we’re not quite hungry enough for the $350 whole lamb kebab. They’re crisply grilled and aromatic with chilli, lemon and what tastes like oregano. The meat isn’t quite as tender as it could be , but the flavour is pleasing. Unfortunately this is where much Uighur food may part company with the Western palate. Many of the dishes are more heavily laden with an animal fat taste (specifically lamb fat) than we’re used to with the influx of so much Mediterranean and lighter Cantonese and Thai cuisines, with their lean sweet and sour balances. Over two visits we tried the fried dumplings (tawa ban shir $7.80 for a dozen, pictured below), meat in special Uihgur pastry (gosh nun $10), and braised and steamed Uighur dumplings (Hoshang $8 for 5, and a bit like Russian piroshki, pictured above) all of which have a similar filling, are pretty heavy on the lamb fat, and not highly spiced enough to cut through the greasy taste and smell. But I guess that’s what you want when you’ve been out milking your yak at -20°C with the wind whipping off the steppes.

We’ve heard Uighur noodles are special, so undaunted by the likelihood of a high GI carbohydrate overdose, we try a long handmade noodle with chicken and vegetables (guiru laghman $8.50) and a square cut noodle with beef and vegetables (manpar saomin $7.80 both pictured below). As our blood sugars go off the scale, we find the noodles, while very filling, are a bit on the bland and starchy side unlike their finer and tastier Cantonese cousins. The stir fry sauce is spicy and a little vinegary, the vegetables crisp and crunchy, a welcome relief from the lamby dishes. The salad we choose is spicy spinach (palak hum sai $4.50) and its tart acidity also helps to cut through the fattier dishes. The meals are served with tea, unfortunately not very hot, but on our second visit we had a pretty brass tea pot.

Uighur cuisine might not be everyone’s cup of yak’s milk, but if you want to try something different, give it a go. Definitely try the kebabs, but my advice is to be judicious about the dumplings and noodles and select a couple of salads to balance out the meal. If you really baulk at a fatty meat taste, stay away from the dumplings and breads and go for the salads and stir fries. The servings are enormous, and we had piles left over to take away with us after the meals we had. The lasting impression is the service – the staff are extremely friendly and obliging, so much so that when I asked for a take away menu (you don’t think I remembered all those meal names off the top of my head, do you?) someone went down the road to a copy shop to photocopy the laminated restaurant menu. Nice :).

Uighur Cuisine
Shop 1, 2 Dixon St.,

(See also Silk Road restaurant next door and upstairs for similar choices - and if you go there, write about it and tell me what you think!)

Monday, July 10, 2006

Osso Bucco

My friend M who lives in the crisp, wintry Blue Mountains asked me for a recipe for Osso Bucco last week, which was a coincidence because I had just scored myself some stunning examples of the species from DJ’s butchery in the City. It’s a very easy recipe and like most Italian food, the key is to find the best ingredients – in other words excellent veal. It’s also one of the most warmingly satisfying cold weather dishes I can think of, so now is a perfect time to indulge in a plateful. The dish comes from Northern Italy, the Lombardy region and most notable are those from Milan, although you can find versions throughout Italy. Some very old recipes don’t use tomatoes (tomatoes only came to Europe after the 16th Century and were used in Italian cooking from the mid 19th century) but my version is from more contemporary recipes where tomato is included.

In Italian, Osso Bucco literally means ‘bone with a hole’ or ‘hollow bones’, so as you would expect this is the main feature of the dish. The traditional recipe uses veal shank sawn in 1-2 inch thicknesses horizontally across the bone so your cut of meat has a ring of marrow-filled bone surrounded by flesh. It’s this marrow cooked in the bone that’s the most luscious part to eat and imparts the rich flavour into the sauce. Many butchers sell beef osso bucco, but frankly I think this produces a ham-fisted (pardon the pun) strong tasting version of it and you should always go for veal, which is of course a smaller piece of meat and has a much more delicate flavour. You can also get veal or beef ossi bucci in supermarkets these days, but my problem with them is that they are too thinly cut – usually about only 1cm – causing the piece to curl up at the edges when you brown them. Go for the thicker cut and it will hold together much more effectively through the cooking process. So snuggle up to your butcher and ask for veal osso bucco cut thickly. 1-2 pieces per person should be an ample serve, 3 if they are small pieces from the thinner end of the shank.

This recipe will provide enough to serve 6 and even if you don't have 6 people it's great, nay even better, heated up the next day.

8-10 ossi bucci
seasoned flour (plain flour with salt and pepper added)
1 carrot
1 large stalk of celery
1 onion
2 cloves garlic, crushed
150 mls white wine
400 g can of Italian Roma tomatoes
sprig of thyme
1 bay leaf
strip of lemon rind
a few leaves of basil or oregano (optional)
about 500 mls chicken or veal stock

Prepare the vegetables by finely chopping the onion and cutting the celery and carrot into small dice. In Italian coooking this mix is called a sofritto and this step is important as the finely chopped veges give the sauce its body as texture.

Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy based pan to a medium hot temperature. You want to brown the meat but too high a heat will blacken the flour coating. Not good. Dust the meat with the seasoned flour, shake off any excess and fry in batches in the oil until browned, removing them to a plate as you finish each batch.

Turn the heat down a little, add another tablespoon of oil if the pan is looking dry and add the sofritto mixture, stirring to pick up any crusty bits left from browning the meat. Cook stirring occasionally for 5 or so minutes until the veges are starting to wilt but not colour too much. Add the garlic and stir. Add the white wine and cook until the alcohol evaporates - about 3-4 minutes - and add the tomatoes and herbs and lemon rind. Season to taste. Arrange the browned meat back into the sauce in one or two layers. One layer is better. The principle is that you want to simmer the meat undisturbed so the marrow doesn't fall out. If there's not enough sauce to cover the meat add as much of the stock as you need and shake the pan to distribute the sauce.

Cover with a lid and simmer at lowest temp on top of the stove, or place in a 160 C oven fanforced (180C if you don't have a fanforced oven) for 90 minutes - 2 hours until the meat is very tender. It shouldn't dry out, but check it once or twice and if the sauce reduces too much add a little more stock.
When you serve it, lift the meat out gently so as not to lose the marrow in each piece. It's gross I know but I love sucking the marrow out of these bones. It’s a creamy, meaty luscious flavour so please give it a go. I have several friends who find the whole marrow thing unpalatable and I always invite them round when I cook this dish because they donate their marrow to me.

Traditionally this is served with Risotto alla Milanese as I’ve done here (made with saffron, bone marrow, parmesan and butter), but you can serve it with any risotto, normal rice, pasta, wet polenta, or even mashed potatoes. Garnish with chopped parsley, or to be very authentic a gremolata. Take the zest of half a lemon, 4 tablespoons of finely chopped parsley and a finely chopped garlic clove and chop or mix together. Or throw the three ingredients into a food processor to chop and mix them. This is then sprinkled over by each guest onto their serving at the table.

Don't forget the parmesan :)