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Greece – Gyros and Tzatziki

Football:

There is a saying that goes along the lines of ‘the whole is greater than the sum of all the parts’. For me this summed up Greece in the Euro 2004 championships. A rank outsider, Greece went on to do what some considered impossible at the time – they won the competition. Having got through the group stage they then went on to beat France, the Czech Republic and then a hotly fancied Portugal in the final. I currently live in Melbourne which has the biggest Greek population for a city outside of Athens (in 2006 Greece played a friendly with Australia in Melbourne and over 95,000 fans attended). The celebrating here was incredible, partly under a cloud of disbelief, but mainly with praise and adulation for a team that on paper was going to struggle to qualify. The owner of my local deli here still has the ‘Greece Euro Champions 2004’ stuck to the wall, ten years later.

This time round Greece has qualified by the skin of its teeth for the second round. Needing to beat Côte d’Ivoire it was level at 1-1 when in the dying seconds of injury time Greece were awarded a penalty. Can you imagine the pressure on Samaris, the Greek player who was taking the penalty? Not only was the weight of hope of a whole nation on his shoulders, but there was the little consideration of a global audience of a couple of billion people. Coolly he stepped up and scored and in the same breath took Greece in to the second round of a World Cup for the first time in its history.

Next it faces Costa Rica, another unfancied team that has blown its group away. On paper the Central Americans should get through, but with 2004 as inspiration who would bet against Greece doing it again.

 

Dish:

When it is Greek New Year our neighbour usually has a whole lamb on a spit, and the smell is just amazing – and for me that sums up Greek food; it’s real comfort food that celebrates Greek ingredients. I love dolmades for their vine leaves, spanakopita for its harmony of spinach and feta in crunchy filo, lamb slowly cooked in olive oil, crunchy and salty whitebait, pickled octopus and one of my all-time favourites, a bowl of warm chilli marinated Kalamata olives.

Today, I have attempted a classic Greek dish that really should only belong in a place that has a rotisserie and time to produce the succulent and fatty meat that the dish is synonymous with. But alas, I am sucker for that tasty marinated meat with garlicky tzatziki in a warm dough flat bread wrap and so I have attempted to recreate at home, the gyros. I admit that it is not like the real gyros, but it is still a beautiful version of it.

There is also somewhat of a sentimental reason in making it. My first memorable trip to London was during my very early teenage years and it was during this visit my flavour sensors were awoken with something very close to gyros; a Turkish kebab. Being from Yorkshire I was brought up on homely and traditional food, so I had never tasted anything so exotic before; slow grilled meat, sauce with a punchy garlic kick all set off with zingy lemony tomato. To me it was an awakening and I fell in love with those flavours, and this gyros captures those flavours.

 

Serves: 4 |   Preparation: 20 minutes + 2 hours marinating   |   Cooking Time: 20 minutes

 

Ingredients:

For the meat:
1kg Boneless pork loin |
2 tsp. Sweet paprika |
1½ tsp. Sea salt |
1 tsp. Dried oregano |
2-3 tbsp. White wine vinegar|

For the tzatziki sauce:
1 Lebanese cucumber | Deseeded and diced. Lebanese cucumbers are smaller than continental cucumbers.
1 large Garlic clove | Chopped.
½ lemon Lemon juice |
1 tbsp. Fresh dill |
200g Greek yoghurt |
Pinch Sea salt |
Grapeseed oil for frying

To serve Warm doughy flat bread |
To serve Thick slices of ripened tomato |
To serve Red onion | sliced (optional)

 

How to:

For the meat: create the marinade by grinding together the sweet paprika, sea salt and oregano. Slice the pork in to thin strips. Now using a rolling pin or meat mallet bash each strip so it’s about ½cm thick. In a large flat bottomed dish put a layer of the flattened pork. Now sprinkle over some of the marinade and a little drizzle of white wine vinegar. Repeat the process for the rest of the pork and marinade building up the layers of meat. Cover the dish and leave in the fridge for at least 2 hours to marinate.

For the tzatziki: add the cucumber, garlic, lemon juice and dill to a food processor and blend to a puree. Mix the puree and sea salt in to the Greek yoghurt and leave in the fridge until ready to use.

Once marinated cut the pork in to 1cm wide strips. To cook the meat put a large non-stick frying pan over high heat. When really hot add a teaspoon of cooking oil and a handful of the pork strips. Cook the pork until it goes a golden and deep brown allowing some of the edges to crisp a little. Put the meat in bowl and keep warm whilst you cook the rest, using a little cooking oil each time.

To serve, warm your bread and spread over a generous spoon or two of the tzatziki sauce. Lay down some slices of ripe tomato and a good serving of that beautiful pork. Spoon over some more tzatziki sauce, fold over the bread and eat hot.

Spicy Caramel Pork Loin with Vietnamese Papaya and Apple Slaw

Introduction:

This dish is a great combination of healthiness and ephemeral non-healthiness; that being from the spike of sugar. Well, there is also the long-term consideration of the effect of belly pork on one’s rotundness if one eats the original dish from a great restaurant called Red Spice Road in the centre of Melbourne. I have eaten at the restaurant and made the exact dish at home. It’s spectacular with a fatty, sugary, spicy and salty meaty kick, off-set by acidity, tartness and fragrance from the slaw.

I had the in-laws over last weekend, and as is now customary, and because I chuffin’ love being in the kitchen cooking all day – seriously I do – I decided to do a partially experimental 3-courser. Partial in that some of the processes and elements I am cool with but some of the flavour combinations I had not tried before.

This post, however, is all about the starter.

The original version of the chilli caramel pork and apple slaw is a real filler and is best suited to those of a ravenous disposition, as a main course. The flavours are just majestic though, so I set about converting the dish to an entrée. Out went the belly pork for leaner chops of pork loin and there was a reduction in quantity of the chilli caramel to just a wet coating rather than a sticky ocean. I added green papaya to the slaw, as this was something I had done when making a salad when in Vietnam and I really liked the freshness and texture of it. A green papaya is unripened and therefore only takes on a very mild flavour compared with its ripened form, but with the addition of herbs and a great zesty, salty, spicy and sweet dressing it is transformed in to the miraculous.

In fact thinking back, I first saw green papaya being prepared by my uncle’s partner in Thailand. I remember her peeling away the skin and then chopping in to it with a cleaver to about an inch deep. After a fair few chops she then peeled the flesh and the fine papaya strips fell away. This is how I prepare green papaya now.

I have modified the slaw and the nước chấm to what my palate thought was a good hit. Also, some cooking times have been modified from the original. I have also introduced some crunchy texture by adding crumbled five spice pork crackling as a garnish on the dish.

The result was a classy dish that managed to capture everything I had done with the original dish, but with the benefit of still leaving plenty of room for the main course (dessert one can fit in anyway regardless of the quantity one has already consumed).

The main course was a poached sole fillet on a bed of wild rice and finely julienned squid, topped with a very smooth and silky Sri Lankan curry sauce. And dessert? A Chocolate fondant with a salted caramel centre topped with chocolate sauce and cream (a Raymond Blanc classic). These will come later.

 

Serves: 4 as a starter   |   Preparation:  20 minutes   |   Cooking: 2 hours 30 minutes

 

Ingredients:

For the pork loin:    
2 x 250g Pork loin chops | Remove the fat; it will be used for the crackling.
Enough to cover the pork loin Chinese master stock | Recipe for Master stock is here.

For the crackling:    
2 strips Pork fat | From the pork loin chops above.
2 pinches Chinese 5-spice powder | Recipe is here, but it can be bought from Asian grocers – or you may have your own version.
2 pinches Sea salt |

For the Chilli Caramel Pork:    
50g Arrowroot (tapioca flour) |
1 tsp. Chinese 5-spice powder | See here for recipe.
½ litre Grapeseed oil | For frying. Other non-fragrant oils can be used e.g. groundnut or canola.
1 serve Chilli caramel | Recipe for 1 serve of chilli caramel is here.

For the Slaw    
65g Green savoy cabbage | Cut chiffonnade.
½ medium Granny Smith Apple (green) | Core the apple and thinly slice. Cut the slices in to fine matchsticks (julienne).
20g Green papaya | Thinly shredded.
12 leaves Mint |
Vietnamese Mint 12 leaves  
12 small sprigs Coriander | A small sprig has about 3 leaves.
To taste Nuoc cham | Used as a dressing, the recipe can be found here.

 

 

How To:

Pre-heat an oven to 150 deg C (300 deg F). In to an oven proof dish place the pork loin chops (with the fat removed) and then pour over the master stock until the chops are completely covered. Tightly cover the dish with foil.

Score the pork fat strips on the outer side (that is, the side that was not attached to the flesh). Sprinkle the sea salt on to a bench surface and then press the scored side of the fat into the salt. Now sprinkle the Chinese 5-spice powder over the scored side. Line a baking sheet with baking parchment and place the pork fat, scored side up, on the sheet.

Put the pork loin in master stock on the top shelf of the oven, and the pork fat on the bottom shelf. Cook for 2 hours. After 2 hours remove the pork from the oven, take it out of the master stock and place on a cooling rack until completely cool. The master stock can be reserved (see master stock post).

Put the pork fat on the top shelf of the oven after the 2 hours are up and the ramp it up to 220 deg C.  Cook for a further 15 minutes until the crackling is bubbled and looks really crispy. Remove the crackling from the oven, leave it to cool and then crumble it so that the pieces are big enough to give a nice crunchy texture.

When the pork loin has completely cooled, carefully, using a sharp thin knife otherwise the pork may flake, cut it into strips.

To a bowl add the arrowroot and teaspoon of Chinese 5-spice and mix. Now carefully, so as to avoid breaking them, coat the pork loin strips with the powdered mix shaking off any excess.

Heat the grapeseed oil in a wok or deep frying pan until the temperature hits about 180 deg C. In batches of two or three fry the pork loin strips for about 3 minutes until the coating has browned. Set the strips aside.

Now prepare the slaw. Put the mint, Vietnamese mint and coriander in iced water for about 10 minutes to ‘crisp’ them up. Put the julienned apple, chiffonnade cabbage and shredded green papaya in a non-reactive bowl. Drain the herbs from the iced water, and tear them up into the slaw.

Warm the caramel chilli in a wok (low-medium heat) until it becomes liquid. Add the fried pork strips and stir until well coated and warmed – this will takes about 2 minutes.

Add the nước chấm to the apple slaw, enough to wet the slaw but not so much that it is calling out for a life-jacket. Mix it with your hands.

To serve place a neat pile of caramel pork strips onto each plate and pour over any excess caramel (share it of course). Carefully place a handful of the apple slaw on the pork and finally sprinkle over some crackling crumbs. Chúc ngon miệng.

Garlicky Tomato and Fennel Gratin

Introduction:

Did you know that the term gratin originally referred to the crust that adhered to the cooking receptacle and was scraped off? Its derivation is from the French word gratté which means scraped or scratched.

Now a gratin is more commonly referred to when describing the  golden crust that forms on the surface of a dish when it is browned in the oven or put under a grill. A gratin is also associated with toppings of cheese, breadcrumbs or egg and breadcrumbs. As a method it’s a great way to protect the food underneath the crust from overcooking or drying out, whilst creating an intense flavour, and sometimes crunchy texture, on top.

This gratin is a French classic (although it wouldn’t look out of place in Italy) using the combination of ripened tomatoes, the wonderfully aniseed-like fennel and of course being of Gallic origin, garlic. It is topped off with a crunchy and cheesy topping which wowed my other half and two ankle biters.

 

Serves: 4 as a side or 2 as a main.   |   Preparation:  20 minutes   |   Cooking: 35 minutes

 

Ingredients:

For the filling:    
1kg Fennel bulbs | Note that the total yield of fennel will be less once the core, stems and outer layer have been removed.
1 Large Red onion | Thinly sliced.
½kg Ripened tomatoes | Use nice ripe tomatoes such as a Roma or a  beefsteak tomato. No need to use heirloom or anything similarly luxuriant.
2 cloves Garlic | Crushed.
4 tbsp.  Olive oil |

For the topping:    
60g Coarse bread crumbs | I make my own. For this recipe I used multigrain bread blitzed in a food processor until the breadcrumbs were coarse. White bread can be used.
70g Grana Padano cheese | This cheese is not as strong as Reggiano Parmesan, but still adds a strong bitey edge to the topping. Ensure that it is made in Italy if you want great flavour.
1 small lemon Lemon zest | Grated.
1 clove Garlic | Crushed.

 

 

How To:

Preheat your oven to 200 deg. C (400 deg. F). Put the kettle on to boil. Take a 21 cm square gratin dish and grease it with butter or olive oil.

To prepare the fennel remove the stems, fronds and any tired looking outer layers. Remove any tough core at the bottom of the fennel bulb. Cut the fennel length ways and then thinly slice.

Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan over a low to medium heat. Add the onion and soften for about 4 or 5 minutes. It’s important not to brown the onion as browning will impart a deep caramelised flavour that doesn’t work with this dish. Now add the garlic and cook for a further 2 minutes. Add the fennel and cook this until it has softened and has taken on a golden hue. This should take about 7 to 10 minutes.

The kettle should have boiled by now. Take the tomatoes and carefully score the bases with a cross. I do this with a small sharp paring knife. Put the tomatoes in a bowl and pour over the hot water from the kettle. Leave for about 25 seconds and then remove the tomatoes carefully and plunge them into a bowl of cold water (with ice). If the tomatoes were ripe the skins will be gagging to be removed. Peel the tomatoes, roughly chop them and add them to the fennel and onion. Cook for another 5-7 minutes, until the tomatoes are soft. Season and taste; as French chefs will tell you “taste, taste, taste!”

For the topping add the breadcrumbs, grated cheese, lemon zest and crushed garlic to a bowl. Mix with that fine tool they call the hand.

Line the gratin dish with the cooked vegetables and evenly sprinkle the gratin topping over them. Put the gratin in the oven for about 15 minutes or until the topping looks golden brown (easier to see with white breadcrumbs) and has a crispy texture. Serve immediately. Bon appétit!

 

Notes:

–        I served this with a pan fried pork loin chops (these have the characteristic T-bone shape).

Chả Lụa – Pork Terrine

Introduction:

Stern faced, the guard in a snowy white uniform, gripping a menacing looking rifle and holding an intense stare that penetrated the thick grey granite, suddenly flicked his eyes my way and moved his head to the side in a manner filled with such focussed intent that I disembarked from my momentary pause and continued to walk, silently, swiftly and sullen faced. Fifteen seconds later I had ‘walked the line’ and emerged back in to the cold wind swept morning disturbed and exhilarated. I had just seen Uncle Ho, the revered hero and much praised leader of this great nation.

Embalmed to an incredibly life-like presence, he lays there with a perfectly wispy beard; arms delicately crossed on his upper torso; and wearing his favourite khaki suit. I have just seen a body that left this mortal coil in 1969 but looked as if it had been trapped in time, never to suffer the rigours of the ageing process again. It was eerie, disconcerting and surreal, yet given the context of what this person achieved and how people from around the world are intrigued by him, and how the locals’ are so still enamoured with him and driven to succeed through his accomplishments, it was also a wonderful, majestic and inspirational experience.

The Hanoians are terribly proud of their Uncle Ho, and this pride runs through it food. As he still forms part of the locals’ daily lives, so does cooking and eating together, and socialising. No more so when Hanoi’s classic dishes are on the table, one of which is chả lụa, or pork terrine.

Historical French occupation is still evident when one sees the number of bakeries and locals selling fresh baguettes on street corners; the smells could be from une rue de boulangeries à Paris, was it not for the intermissions of smoking char-grilled pork aromas. But these baguettes call out for something most European in its invention: pork terrine with pickled vegetables, tomato, cucumber and lettuce.

I first tried chả lụa courtesy of our friends in Hanoi, who declared that they have a relative nestled in some back alley downtown that produces the best chả lụa in Hanoi. It was magnificent; from the unwrapping of the banana leaf and local newspaper that is was encased in to the wonderfully smooth texture. I attempted to replicate this in Hanoi and only having the use of a cleaver and a pestle and mortar could not get the pork fine enough or paste-like enough to obtain that silky finish. It was something that would have to be worked on back home.

Fast forward 5 months, and a few chả lụa(s) later I have finally managed to make that beautifully aerated and smooth terrine; one that will never be quite as good as Hanoi, but nonetheless very close. I am sure Uncle Ho would have been proud.

 

Serves: A few  |   Preparation:  10 minutes   |   Cooking: 1hour + resting overnight

 

Ingredients:

500g Pork shoulder | Get your butcher to mince this on the finest setting if you don’t have a mincer at home.
2 tbsp. Fish sauce | A good quality fish sauce if you can obtain it.
1 pinch Sea salt | I use Maldon sea salt.
1 large egg Egg white | Free range.
2-3 Banana leaves | Can be bought at many good Asian grocers, fresh or frozen.

 

 

How To:

Put a large pan of water on heat until it is simmering. Next put hot water into a sink and soak the banana leaves for about 5 minutes, then remove the leaves and pat dry.

The next stage can be a) pretty easy if you have a good food processor b) very healthy if you don’t as you’ll need to expend a fair bit of energy to pound the meat. I did it the second way when in Vietnam, but now I am back in Melbourne I opt for the first way.

a) Add the mince, fish sauce, sea salt and egg white to a food processor and process for about 3-4 minutes. The result needs to be an incredibly smooth paste.

b) Add the mince to a large mortar and pound the meat with a pestle until a very fine paste is achieved. Then add the fish sauce, sea salt and egg white and pound a little more until consistent. This method can take anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes.

Lay one banana leaf along your bench top and then place the other at right angles across the middle of the first one (You should have a large cross shape). Place the smooth pork paste in the middle in an as close to a cylindrical shape as possible.

Now take one end of the banana laying parallel to the bench and gently, but fairly tightly, wrap it over the pork paste. Now do this with the other end and then tuck the excess banana leaf underneath. Now with the banana leaf at right angles to the bench take the end furthest away and wrap it over the meat, towards you. Now take the end closest to you and fold over the meat, away from you. Now roll the parcel to take up the excess banana leaf. You should end up with a tightly wrapped cylindrical parcel. Roll the parcel a couple of times to ensure the meat paste is cylindrical. Now tie the parcel with string, ensuring that it is tight enough to hold the banana leaves together but not too tight to ‘dent’ the meat paste.

Place the parcel in the simmering water; the heat should be on the lowest setting. Cover with a lid and cook for 1 hour. When finished allow the parcel to cool to room temperature and then place in the fridge overnight. Your chả lụa is now ready. Open at one end and slice. Keep it in the fridge wrapped in the banana leaf so it stays moist.

 

Notes:

  • Traditionally eaten in Hanoi with fresh baguettes, pickled vegetables, tomato and cucumber.

Spaghetti Bolognese

Introduction:

Hovering over a cauldron of hot meat, somewhere in a poky flat in London, two students of chemistry fervently debate what they honestly believe to be the finer points of an Italian classic. No, no, one must dissolve the stock cube in 40 degree water before-hand…ah but my learned friend, one can just simply sprinkle it straight in to the meat, and considering the energy coefficient of solubility it will be fine. We beg to differ, but surely anyone worth their salt would cook the meat first and then add onions. Oh my fellow collegiate, it is all but obvious that one cooks the onions first and then adds the meat. But why Balsamic? I mean why are you throwing a carboxylic acid in to a meat sauce, you’re mad…..Ahh yes but this acid will be offset by the coefficient of not really knowing what we are doing.

Through all of this intense, and what we thought was intellectual, debate not once was the true understanding of what we were doing discussed. In particular thinking about flavour, texture and the science of what really happens.

I remember a two day residential course during my A-level years (16-18 year old) at a university in the North of England and being bedazzled by the professor of organic chemistry who could synthesise the most incredible molecules from basic reagents. But this is not the reason why the experience has stuck with my all these years later. It was the sheer brilliance of the man when it came to making coffee. And it was brilliance because it was so bad. A lumpy (undissolved powdered milk), weak and tepid mess that was more Damien Hirst than Delia Smith.

Luckily for me, I managed to overcome the handicap of being a chemist to be able to cook with a degree of flair and efficiency, I hope. Years on from that meat cauldron I  have been able to understand more about what happens when cooking – and do now consider flavour- and feel confident enough now to share with you my latest, and proudest, version of the Italian classic, spaghetti Bolognese.

Fortunately I discovered two things: the first is the wonderful mirepoix, and the second is that I can cook the meat and onions at the same time, in different pans. Now try telling that to a professor of chemistry. Enjoy.

 

Serves: 8   |   Preparation:  30 minutes  |   Cooking: 2 ½ hours

 

Ingredients:

1 kg Pork and veal mince | Of course lean beef can be used, but I love this combination.
2 Pork sausages | If you can, purvey good English style pork sausage from a good butcher – or the equivalent weight in sausage meat.
5 tbsp. Olive oil |  
100ml Red wine | Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz – not too expensive though unless you are going to drink the rest.
1 tbsp. Balsamic vinegar | A good aged one works well. There is something about the balsamic that seems to ‘lift’ the flavour of the sauce.
2 Carrots | Finely diced.
1 Brown onion | Finely diced.
2 Celery sticks | Finely diced.
1 Baby fennel | Finely chopped – this is optional but does add a super subtle aniseed note.
1 Leek | Finely chopped – white part only.
2 pinches Sea salt |
250ml Vegetable stock | Chicken or beef can be used. See here for chicken or beef stock.
2 tsp. Tomato purée |
2 x 440g cans Diced tomatoes | This can be made with fresh tomatoes, but quality tinned tomatoes are just as good.
To season Salt and black Pepper |
Your call Spaghetti | Dried or fresh. If I have time I will make fresh, otherwise dried is perfect.
A glug Olive oil | Used to loosen the spaghetti when cooked.

 

 

How To:

Pre-heat your oven to 150 deg. C (300 deg. F).

In a large heavy based frying pan over medium to high heat add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. When hot add the mince and work with a wooden spoon to break it down as it cooks. Cook until brown.

In the meantime add 3 tablespoons of olive oil to a large casserole dish or heavy based pan that can be put in the oven, and put over a low heat on the hob. When the oil is hot add the carrots, onion, celery, leek, fennel and 2 pinches of sea salt. Mix well so the vegetables are coated with oil and sweat the vegetables for 10 minutes or so, stirring occasionally. Do not allow the vegetables to brown (caramelise).

Back to the mince: once browned add the sausage meat. If using sausages squeeze tiny balls of meat from the skin and add to the mince. Once it’s all added, stir and cook on a medium heat for about 10 minutes. The mince will start sticking which is good, as this will add lots of flavour to the Bolognese.

Once the vegetables are soft and translucent add the tomato purée and stir. Once the meat has cooked add it to the vegetables and put the frying pan on high heat. Add the red wine and balsamic, and scrape the stuck on bits from the pan’s surface. Once the wine and balsamic have been reduced by half, add to the vegetables and meat, ensuring that the loosened sticky bits go in as well.

To the meat and vegetables add the stock and tinned tomatoes, stir and bring to the boil. Cover with a tight fitting lid and put in the oven for about 1hr 45 minutes. After an hour check the sauce. If it is looking a bit dry add a little hot stock or water to moisten.

Meanwhile for the spaghetti, cook according to the instructions on the packet. Once cooked, drain and reserve about a tablespoon of the cooking water. Put the spaghetti back in the pan, add the reserved cooking water and a glug of olive oil, stir and the cover the pan. This should keep your spaghetti fresh for 10 minutes or so.

Remove the Bolognese from the oven, season according to taste with sea salt and black pepper, and serve on the spaghetti. Buon appetito.

…Dinner for 8 – Insanely Great

The title says it all. What an absolutely insanely great success the dinner party was on Saturday night. There were many factors that contributed to this. The company of course (for anyone that went and is reading this 🙂 ) was fervent and lively with an appreciation for food, life and of course liquid refreshment. There was an eclectic mix of music ranging from some golden oldies to up-to-the-minute dance and pop tunes. The mix of pinot grigio, shiraz, champagne, beer and stickies (dessert wines) meant that this was more of a sit down, stand up, dance around, sit down kind of dinner party. But of course for the two chefs of the night it was a wonderful mix of team work and skill to deliver the seven courses on time and wonderfully presented, whilst also being able to sit down and enjoy them. I have to say that towards the end trying to present became a little precarious as the jumping grape and carbonated hops were taking effect, but nonetheless all was great.

To backtrack a little, the success of the dinner party was down to careful planning and a couple of days of mis-en-place. The first elements were the stocks; in this case lamb stock and chicken stock. These were made first, as a lamb stock for example takes about 5-6 hours to prepare. Then you have things like preparing sauces, the base for the dessert, sorbet, and other components that can sit in a fridge or freezer for a day or so. The real fun bits were some of the creative elements. For example, I played around with the idea of a tomato based shooter which I can tell you morphed from gazpacho jelly spheres suspended in a thickened tomato water through to a gazpacho sorbet with tomato foam. I really love playing around with things like this, and was extremely happy with the final version.

 

Tomato Cappucino Shooter

Tomato Cappucino Shooter

 

Irene (the co-chef) played around with elements of the starter which she had invented; a magnificent and stunning looking pepper (capsicum) lasagne. Also, there was sugar work going on, ganache being made, lamb being marinated, vegetables prepared, chestnuts being peeled (which I have to say is the most painful and laborious of all the preparation), mousse being set, racks and racks of dishes being washed and much toing and froing across the street from one kitchen to another.

 

Mushroom Soup and Truffle Oil

Mushroom Soup and Truffle Oil

 

As a team we worked incredibly well, and because everything was planned there was no stress or pressure whatsoever; even through service everything just seemed to run a like a finely tuned Swiss watch.

So here is the final menu from the night:

Bite Sized Aperitifs

Slow cooked salt marinated pork

Porcini mushroom soup with marscapone, truffle oil and croutons served in espresso cups

(to drink: Sieur d’Arques Grande Cuvée 1531 de Aimery)

Soba noodles with sesame oil and salmon roe served on spoons

(To drink: Asahi beer)

 

Entrée

3 colour pepper (capsicum) lasagne with candied smoked pancetta crisp, yellow pepper puree and parsley oil.

(To drink: Tar & Roses Pinot Grigio)

 

Refresher

Chilled tomato cappuccino: gazpacho sorbet with Smirnoff topped with tomato water foam and smoky paprika, served in a shot glass.

 

Main

Lamb shanks marinated venison style with redcurrant sauce and Jerusalem artichoke puree, braised chestnuts with double smoked Kaiserfleisch lardons, braised baby onions, peas and broad beans, and pea mousse.

(To drink: Tar and Roses Heathcote Shiraz)

 

Dessert

Chocolate ganache delice and praline crunch with raspberry coulis, raspberry vinegar marinated raspberries, black pepper sugar decorations and a caramel and crackle surprise.

(To drink: in a true un-sommelier type fashion I don’t have the name other than ‘dessert wine’ – however, at this point I think we were all not too fussed what the name was)

I will start to post recipes on the blog over the next couple of weeks. I hope it can provide you with inspiration and ideas. Ps. Sunday was a rather slow day.

Vietnam – In Sapa

We disembarked from the overnight train in Lao Cai, after a 9 hour overnight, truly Vietnamese, truly bumpy, truly noisy but truly exciting journey. It was nonetheless an incredible experience travelling through the North Vietnamese country in the dead of night. The children slept for 8 of the 9 hours. My wife and I sat mesmerised looking out of the window picking out silhouettes of shacks, hills, trees, rivers and small villages. Ever so often we would pass a tarpaulin propped up with sticks under which people would be sat around a fire at the side of the track. A far cry from downtown Melbourne.

It was 5.30am and wearily in the cold morning air we grabbed our backpacks and found our minibus amongst the hustle and bustle of the melting point of global travellers, hotel operators, taxi drivers, playing card sales ladies, hot chestnut purveyors, Lao Cai locals and government officials. The next part of the journey was a 35km passage to Sapa, along an ever climbing, curvaceous and undulating road, which involved being thrown left, right, up and down for over an hour. We hoped Sapa would be worth it.What seemed like a lifetime soon ended and we were driving through a built up and bustling town literally carved into the side of a mountain.

It is quite amazing to think that this hill station had been built by the French in 1922, but had been inhabited many, many years before by the tribes’ people of Northern Vietnam. Here we were in 2013 parked outside our hotel.

 

The Train to Lao Cai

The Train to Lao Cai

 

Was Sapa worth it? If I had travelled this journey only for one view of this earthly wonder then it would have been more than worth it. As we dumped our backpacks in our room and then stepped outside, the cold mist had lifted and we were presented with the most breathtaking panorama imaginable, which included on our doorstep mount Fansipan – the highest point in Vietnam.

 

Panorama of Mount Fansipan

Panorama of Mount Fansipan

 

From our vantage point we could also see the bustling market place only 200 metres away and of course for me the most important aspect of that was the array of fruit, green leaves, herbs, meat, fish and noodles I could see. I was itching just to be let loose in Sapa, to smell, see and consume.

Our hotel, Cat Cat View, overlooked a village, named Cat Cat, 3 km away. We had heard reports before arriving in Sapa that the weather was cold and very misty and therefore visibility was low. On our arrival the mist had lifted the sun had broken through and all of a sudden there was a mass of blue sky. This meant we could clearly see Cat Cat and the incredible giant steps that cascaded down the hill sides; the rice fields. You could also see banana plants, paddocks of lettuce, greens and herbs, and roaming animals such as ducks, roosters, wild pigs and buffalo – a truly self-sufficient environment.

 

The Rice Fields in Sapa near Cat Cat

The Rice Fields in Sapa near Cat Cat

 

By now it was about 7.30 and with a ravenous family in tow breakfast was beckoning, so we ate breakfast at the hotel with other travellers that were staying there. The first thing that struck me on the menu, which I am afraid to say was very un-Vietnamese, was a full English breakfast. After the journey we had just had I chose this over the Pho. The idea for the ‘English’ breakfast on the menu became apparent when we met an English chap in the restaurant. He was married to the Vietnamese hotel owner and had a great story of how he arrived in Vietnam.

He was a teacher, teaching in Southern England when he came out to Vietnam as a traveller and on arrival in Sapa did some volunteer teaching in the local school. It was here that he met his sweetheart, but after his visa expired he had to return to England. Realising that the long distance relationship could not work, and being tired of the same routine in England, he tried to find a way to move closer to Vietnam. He managed to secure a teaching post in Hong Kong, which although not ideal, meant he could be closer to his loved one. He spent some time commuting between Hong Kong and Sapa, which over time was draining. A decision had to be made as even though they loved each other very much the distance between Honk Kong and Sapa was still too much. His loved one was running the hotel in Sapa, and as it was (and still is) a family business, it was just not possible for her to move. As fortune would have it a teaching post opened up in Hanoi at an international school and so he was able to move to Vietnam, with the commute now an overnight process. And this is where they are right now. He manages to go to Sapa every month or two, which is still not ideal as he now has a young daughter in Sapa who misses him terribly when he’s not there, but I am sure in the very near future the family will all be together permanently.

Back to the breakfast – it was great. Imagine, it consisted of wild pork (bacon) grown and cured in Sapa, duck eggs, locally grown tomato and cucumber, freshly baked French bread, a frankfurter-like sausage which we have seen lots of around Hanoi, and fried potatoes. This was a full ‘Vietnamese’ not ‘English’.