The Owl House, Darlinghurst

It was a greatly appreciated distraction from job hunting (oh, the joys of redundancy!) when I met up with a dear friend last Thursday evening at The Owl House in Darlinghurst. We had both expressed a desire to go there some while ago, but I was concerned that the menu lacked options for a vegetarian; I was proved quite wrong!

Monica is sitting at the bar in the small, candle-lit ground-floor room when I arrive and she is already excited about the venue, saying that it reminds her of bars in her homeland of Spain. I join her in a glass of rosé, a 2010 Coates Pinot Noir Barrel Fermented Robe from South Australia, and we climb the narrow, creaky staircase to the dining room upstairs. At the front of the building there’s an extremely narrow balcony with a shelf to eat off and we perch ourselves on stools there, feeling quite like the eponymous bird-life, peering down from our coop at the quiet end of Crown Street.

We order three very different dishes, all vegetarian, and are genuinely delighted by the originality and fabulous flavours of all of them. A whole grilled baby cos lettuce comes on a wooden board draped with Spanish white anchovies, semi-dried cherry tomatoes, kalamata olives, chunky sourdough croutons and parmesan dressing. A robustly flavoured adaptation of a Caesar salad, the char-grilled lettuce is surprisingly moreish and the anchovies fat, shiny and sweetly briny, all drenched in creamy, cheesy dressing.

Grilled baby cos lettuce, spanish white anchovies, semi dried cherry tomatoes and kalamata olives with chunky sourdough bread and parmesan dressing

Grilled baby cos lettuce, Spanish white anchovies, semi-dried cherry tomatoes and kalamata olives with chunky sourdough bread and parmesan dressing, The Owl House

Cured bonito on pickled papaya and mint salad, with yuzo gel, chilli jam, wakame and radish is altogether a different story with refined, clean Asian flavours. The fish is of superior quality, like sashimi, beautifully complemented by the umami flavour of the seaweed salad and the papaya which is pleasantly reminiscent of mango chutney.  It’s pretty as a picture, too, with its vivid pinks and greens.

Cured bonito on pickled papaya and mint salad, with yuzo gel, chilli jam, wakame and radish

Cured bonito on pickled papaya and mint salad, with yuzo gel, chilli jam, wakame and radish, The Owl House

Also very attractive to look at is a warm salad of quinoa, broad beans, Boston Bay mussels and zucchini flowers, served with foamed mussel sauce. The most unusual of our three dishes, the crisp Spring vegetables and softly granular quinoa hide a wealth of large, plump, sweet mussels at the bottom, and the light sauce has a lovely lemon acidity with perhaps a touch of white wine.

Warm salad of quinoa, broad beans, Boston Bay mussels, zuchini flowers, served with foamed mussle sauce

Warm salad of quinoa, broad beans, Boston Bay mussels, zucchini flowers, served with foamed mussel sauce, The Owl House

To finish we share a butterscotch panna cotta with caramelized nuts and coffee liquor, served with almond chocolate candy. Monica declares it a proper Spanish ‘flan’, which is better known in Australia and the UK as a crème caramel. The contrast between the cold, very smooth, panna cotta and the crunchy, sticky nuts is inspired, and the butterscotch and caramel flavours are right up my alley.

Butterscotch panna cotta with caramelized nuts and coffee liquor served with almond chocolate candy

Butterscotch panna cotta with caramelized nuts and coffee liquor served with almond chocolate candy, The Owl House

This is a great little bar with an international wine list, adventurous and delicious food, and warm, friendly service. I expect we’ll be back!

The Owl House
97 Crown Street, Darlinghurst
Visited 8 November 2012


Cucina Italiana

Luciana Sampogna appears to the waiting, aproned class members, petite, dark and slightly harried looking. With the briefest of introductions she begins sweeping a pile of flour into a wide well on the wooden work-top and cracking in eggs. Beating the eggs with a fork she gradually incorporates some flour until the mixture is no longer runny, then begins scraping and squashing in the remaining flour with a broad, bladed tool until it forms a dough. She explains the crucial contribution of the moisture in the air and that we will all have to put up with the un-air-conditioned heat until after we have made our pasta dough. “Now you must go in and see if he complain,” she says in her wonderful accent. Translation: test if the dough has too much moisture. She then demonstrates a kneading action used to feel if the dough is sticky. Her eyes are barely open as she communes with the pillowy mass and adds more flour, a sprinkling at a time, until it reaches “just past the complaining point”. Now it’s time to knead the dough for a full six minutes to activate the gluten and make it stretchy. She uses her whole body as she rocks her weight from back foot to front foot, leaning into the dough with the heel of her hand before pulling it back towards her. It’s a labour of love. “Dancing with the dough,” she calls it. Just watching her in this simple repetitive act, you see, you understand her yearning, desperation even, to hand down the secrets of her food culture and in doing so ensure its survival.

Cucina Italiana, Luciana’s cooking school, runs from her own home, a beautiful heritage-listed Italian villa in Annandale, built by the Melocco Brothers for their mother almost a century ago. Growing up near Venice, Luciana learned a love of Italian food from an early age, watching her mother and grandmother cook. She studied under the famous Simili sisters, Margherita and Valeria Simili, in Bologna. Since 1998, when Luciana opened her first cooking school in Auckland, she has upheld the sisters’ philosophy of passing on the traditions of regional Italian cooking to thousands of eager students.

All 24 of us make our own pasta dough from the neat hillocks of flour already measured out onto the benches in the split-level kitchen. The eggs are piled into rustic wire baskets in the centre of the tables and we each have a fork and a scraper. Once we’re done our kneaded mounds are placed under a large upturned mixing bowl to rest and keep moist. Meanwhile we move through to the dining room to watch Luciana make antipasto. We’re seated at a long, white-clothed table laid for dinner underneath an ornate moulded plaster ceiling with a chandelier. Luciana takes centre stage and mashes borlotti beans with a potato masher, to keep them chunky. She adds finely chopped red onion, a few drops of red wine vinegar, chopped parsley, salt and pepper, a shocking amount of extra virgin olive oil (there are a lot of us, after all) and some olives. She tastes and checks the seasoning, her eyes flickering as she goes inside herself once more, then spoons the beautiful, unctuous concoction into two large bowls for us to eat with warm, dense Italian bread. It’s so simple and yet so delicious – the texture of the beans, the mild kick from the onion, freshness from the parsley, all bound by luxurious olive oil. Accompanied by a glass of wine, poured by Luciana’s two kitchen hands, it’s a majestic start to the meal. As we eat, Luciana explains that bread is a big part of traditional Italian cooking, padding out a meal and providing comfort to the stomach in times of great poverty. In Tuscany, where this antipasto recipe comes from, they eat a lot of beans and vegetables and not much meat.

Once we’ve finished, Luciana whips up a quick coffee-flavoured semifreddo – egg yolks, sugar, espresso, cream and egg whites – and bungs it into the freezer in a clingwrap-lined loaf tin. Next we’re back in the kitchen rolling out our pasta using a pasta machine. Once at the correct thickness we form it into ‘tortelli’ with two pre-prepared fillings of roasted pumpkin and beetroot, both mixed with parmesan, salt and pepper, freshly grated nutmeg, and egg to bind. Our little parcels are left on racks to dry in front of an electric fan while Luciana demonstrates ‘scaloppine with herbs’. She beats and stretches thinly sliced chicken breasts (you can use veal, too) with a smooth mallet, “to make the husband think he has a big piece of meat on his plate!” Dusting them in seasoned flour, she briefly pan fries them in butter and olive oil. Many in the class gasp every time she adds salt, butter, oil or cream to anything. She acknowledges the current fear of salt but says, “You eat salt, you get heart disease. You don’t eat salt, you get mental disease. Which you want to die of?” which produces a laugh. The sauce for the scaloppine starts with chopped garlic and chili in olive oil, gradually heated from cold and stirred constantly so that the garlic imparts all its flavour to the oil and colours only slightly before being deglazed with white wine. To that she adds fresh herbs, lemon juice and zest, and chicken stock and lets it reduce a little.

Meanwhile, the kitchen hands have been cooking the pumpkin tortelli and they bring them over, still in their enormous pot of boiling water. Luciana makes a sauce from melted butter, thickened cream and nutmeg and scoops the tortelli from the pan straight into the sauce, swirling to coat them. Colanders are a no no for fresh pasta, given it’s so fragile, and she uses a wonderful large wooden implement called a ‘mandolino’ that reminds me of a lacrosse stick. We’re told she can only find them in Italy and brings them back to Sydney by the suitcase load! We’re herded back into the dining room and soon they’re serving the tortelli to us in shallow bowls, three of each kind. The beetroot ones are coated simply in melted butter with sage leaves and a sprinkling of poppy seeds. Perfectly al dente, they’re worthy of any restaurant and I can’t believe they’re made by our own fair hands! The scaloppine come next on large plates in a pool of the herby, wine sauce with more fabulous bread (from Haberfield, next to the IGA) to soak up the juices. Luciana turns the semifreddo out of its tin, peels off the clingwrap and dusts it generously in chocolate powder before it’s taken away to be sliced and plated. It’s a lovely cool, sweet, creamy end to the meal. Luciana takes questions during which she tells us we can use any leftovers in tortelli, including roasted meats – that’s the Italian way.

“I aim to record and safeguard the Italian cooking heritage which has been lost in many misinterpreted recipes around the world… I aim to preserve the soul of Italian cooking – so rustic, so simple but so defined,” says Luciana in the introduction to her book Light of Lucia: A celebration of Italian life, love & food. A little bit in love with her, I can’t resist buying it at the end of the class and in a large, florid hand she writes inside: ‘Caroline – Enjoy the flavours of Italian life – Luciana – 6.11.12.’ I feel this as an entreatment rather than a friendly wish; an urging to take what I’ve learned, practise, improve, continue to learn, at all costs keep the knowledge alive. As we gather our belongings she implores us all to make pasta again at the weekend, “otherwise you forget”.

Well, I’ve done as I was told (Luciana is slightly scary, after all) and I made tortelli for dinner last night. The pasta dough did not form as easily for me on my own as it had in class, but it came good in the end and tasted just the same, which makes me think it must be quite a hardy substance, unlike, say, pastry dough. As luck would have it Mr T had roasted some pumpkin and parsnips earlier in the week and there were loads left over, so I felt I was being authentically Italian in using them up in the filling. Luciana would most definitely approve. We may not have eaten until 10pm and the kitchen may have looked like a bomb site, but the result was enormously satisfying – as were the oohs and aahs from Mr T! Exhausted and happy I felt something of Luciana’s labour of love, her mission to preserve her culture, and in some very small way, felt I’d done something to contribute to that great goal.

Tortelli di zucca, drying before being cooked

Tortelli di zucca, drying before being cooked

Tortelli di zucca with butter and cream sauce and parmesan

Tortelli di zucca with butter and cream sauce and parmesan

Cucina Italiana
84 Johnston Street, Annandale
Class taken 6 November 2012

The Grounds, Alexandria

There are many features of The Grounds’ interior design that come straight from my fantasy kitchen checklist: farm-house style timber cabinetry with granite tops, plenty of industrial shelving and glass-fronted cupboards, and floor-to-ceiling white tiling reminiscent of old-fashioned butchers’ shops. Now imagine all of this in a large, high-ceilinged former pie factory with polished concrete floors and exposed brick walls and you’re half-way to conceiving the splendour of The Grounds. Add to that an enormous semi-covered garden with long trestle tables under groaning hanging baskets and simple glass lanterns, and veggies and herbs grown in raised beds built from old rail track sleepers. Then there’s the coffee research facility where they test different roasting profiles and techniques on the single estate and single origin beans which they source from various regions of the world. And we haven’t even started on the food yet!

The Garden at The Grounds

The garden at The Grounds

The breakfast menu is available only until 11.30am so a return visit will be in order. I thoroughly approve of its emphasis on free range eggs with various mouth-watering accompaniments: lemon myrtle mushrooms and brioche; tomato sauce, cannellini beans, spinach and labneh; double smoked ham, avocado, Persian feta and pesto; house cured ocean trout, dill crème fraiche, pickled cucumber and herbs. Lunch features salads, sandwiches, a burger, a cheese board, a pasta… nothing radical but all of it utterly delicious sounding and featuring plenty of veggies and herbs from the garden.

A slow cooked lamb salad with roasted pumpkin and chickpeas is fresh and plentiful with tender, rich pulled lamb complemented by a sweet, sharp sherry vinaigrette.

Slow cooked lamb salad with roasted pumpkin, chickpeas and sherry vinaigrette

Slow cooked lamb salad with roasted pumpkin, chickpeas and sherry vinaigrette, The Grounds

Tea smoked kingfish rillette is beautifully smokey, as you might expect, and comes served in a glass preserving jar sealed by a veneer of butter, with a crusty seeded baguette, pickled radish and salad garnish topped with pretty edible flowers. We share a brown paper cup stuffed with fat, dark golden, salty chips, their outsides fluffed up slightly to make them incredibly crunchy. To drink there’s ginger beer served in glass jars with handles and fresh mint from the garden.

Tea smoked kingfish rillette with crunchy baguette and pickled radish

Tea smoked kingfish rillette with crunchy baguette and pickled radish, The Grounds

Having admired the cakes and tarts on the way in we simply have to add a couple to our bill as we pay on our way out. For afternoon tea, back at the office, we share a dark chocolate dipped florentine and a divine peach tart, its frangipani filling light and moist and the fruit juicy and intensely peachy.

The Grounds

The Grounds

The Grounds is ridiculously popular at the moment – deservedly so – which means that even on a week-day you’re likely to wait for a table. We waited, on a Thursday, only ten minutes, which we passed very pleasantly perusing the menu in the garden, but Clare has queued for an hour at the weekend. Another option is to line up for takeaway and eat it in the garden. (I’m not sure why they’re not doing table service to the garden; perhaps that will change.) The takeaway menu is much more concise, however, so my advice would be to go the eat-in option and don’t be in a hurry – you’ll be richly rewarded.

The Grounds

The Grounds

The Grounds
Building 7A, 2 Huntley St, Alexandria
Visited 25 October 2012

Bruschetta: satisfaction in a slice

Question: What do you do with a handful of broad beans and a loaf of bread when you haven’t much else in the house? (This is what I was contemplating at around 3pm today, lunchless and lazy.) Answer: Bruschetta! I know, I was sceptical too as I had only half the ingredients listed in the Thomasina Miers recipe. But not to be defeated, I ploughed on.

Broad beans

Broad beans

I eased the broad beans from ten furry pods, like precious jewels inside velvet-lined cases, and boiled them in salted water for about ten minutes. In a small mixing bowl, I tossed the drained beans with extra virgin olive oil, a dash of white wine vinegar (in the absence of a lemon), torn basil leaves from the pot outside my front door, and salt and pepper. Once toasted, I rubbed a thick slice of sourdough bread vigorously with the cut surface of a garlic clove and drizzled it with olive oil. Spreading generously first with Meredith Dairy goats cheese from a jar in the fridge, I then spooned my beans and their juices over the top.

Goats cheese and broad bean bruschetta

Goats cheese and broad bean bruschetta

So simple, so quick, so OMG there’s a party happening in my mouth! First the earthy tang of goats cheese, the hum of garlic, the crunch of toast. Then the beans, bursting forth rudely, shiny and bright green, from their puckered greyish jackets. And all enveloped in luscious olive oil offset by the sharp vinegar and aniseedy basil.

Goats cheese and broad bean bruschetta

Goats cheese and broad bean bruschetta

As luck would have it I also had at my disposal a couple of lovely tomatoes, half a red onion and some pine nuts, so come dinner time I was able to try out another of Thomasina’s bruschetta toppings.

Tomatoes and red onion

Tomatoes and red onion

I chopped my two tomatoes into chunky cubes and about an eighth of a red onion into fine dice, tossing them in a bowl with a scattering of toasted pine nuts, a small handful of shredded basil leaves, extra virgin olive oil and a slosh of sherry vinegar. (The recipe called for balsamic vinegar but I’m in love with the sherry variety at the moment.) I seasoned with salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar and left the mixture to stand for ten minutes. Meanwhile, I prepared my bread as before – toasting, rubbing and drizzling – then piled on the marinated tomato mixture. Barring the addition of pine nuts, this is probably the best known version of bruschetta. The simple combination of ripe tomatoes, a little onion, basil leaves and a vinaigrette dressing is nothing short of magical. However, I found the pine nuts added a welcome richness and textural contrast.

Tomato and pine nut bruschetta

Tomato and pine nut bruschetta

It may interest you to know that bruschetta, an Italian antipasto, dates back to the 15th century. In Tuscany it is called ‘fettunta’ and is usually served without any topping, especially in November when it acts as a vehicle for tasting the very first olive oil of the season. Now that’s simplicity!

Two Italian ways with squid (and fennel)

Given that I had the second half of the chutney to make on Sunday (before the apples started to get too old) I wanted something simple to cook for dinner. Just as well considering we didn’t end up eating until 10pm! I’d found a recipe for a lovely looking tomato, fennel and squid salad in Jamie Oliver’s Jamie’s Italy so I popped up to Illawarra Road (taking in the Marrickville Festival while I was at it) for a fennel bulb and some squid – everything else I already had. I realised when I started prepping the ingredients later that the squid were pretty huge and I’d only need to use half, hence squid part two a couple of days later…

Take four medium squid (or two large ones as I did – I bought the tubes so no gutting or cleaning required; next time I’ll be braver as it’d be nice to have the tentacles too), slice them open along one side and flatten them out. Score the inside flesh in a criss-cross pattern with a knife. Cut 200g of tomatoes (I had vine ones, but the recipe suggests cherry and plum tomatoes) into chunks and put in a big bowl along with a half a red onion, finely sliced. Pinch the ferny tops off your fennel bulb and save for later, and finely slice the fennel and add to the bowl. Add the juice of one lemon and one orange, a teaspoon of dried oregano, three tablespoons of red wine or herb vinegar, seven tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper and toss together. That’s a lot of liquid so I actually eased back slightly on the vinegar and olive oil.

Cook the squid on a griddle pan (or a barbecue) so you get nice charred bits. Before putting it on (and make sure the pan is seriously hot), rub the squid with a bit of olive oil and sprinkle with salt, pepper and chili flakes on both sides. I found it quite hard to cook the squid as they need three to four minutes each side and they very quickly start to curl up, so I had to wrestle with them with two sets of tongs to try to keep them fully in contact with the pan! It might well be easier with smaller squid, I think. Once they’re cooked, slice them into wide strips on the diagonal and add to the salad, tossing everything again. Serve sprinkled with the zest of one lemon and the reserved fennel tops.

Tomato, fennel and squid salad

Tomato, fennel and squid salad

This was a lovely light, quick supper that tasted to me of Mediterranean holidays! The squid had that wonderful chargrilled flavour (and we had a house full of smoke!) and the oregano, citrus juices and the aniseed of the fennel all worked beautifully together. Mr T wasn’t too keen on the red onion and I tend to agree that the amount could be reduced a bit, but the salad does benefit from some to give it a bit of kick.

On Tuesday I used up the rest of the squid in a pasta recipe from the same book: simply, spaghetti with squid, or, far more romantically, ‘spaghetti con calamari’. Sauté, stirring often, a finely chopped fennel bulb (tops reserved, again) along with two cloves of garlic, finely sliced, and two teaspoons of fennel seeds, freshly crushed. (The smell of sweet, spicy, aniseedy fennel seeds in your mortar is divine.) Turn up the heat and add four baby squid (or two large ones) cut into rings, a finely sliced chili and a large glass of white wine and stir until the liquid is reduced by half. Now turn down to a low simmer and cook your pasta – I used fettuccini, rather than spaghetti, because that’s my favourite. I was a little worried that the squid would go hard and rubbery in the 10 minutes it takes for the pasta to cook, but it didn’t. When the pasta is done, drain and toss with the squid mixture. Remove it from the heat and add about five tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, the reserved fennel tops and a handful of chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves (I actually forgot the parsley but it didn’t seem to matter). Toss it all together and check the seasoning. Serve sprinkled with the zest of a lemon.

Fettuccini with squid (before the pasta is added)

Fettuccini with squid (before the pasta is added)

After tasting it we squeezed over the juice of said lemon as well which really lifted it and gave it some zing. Also providing some added punch were the two chilis I included (rather than one), seeds and all. I also loved the warmth of the fennel flavour, intensified by the fennel seeds. It was so delicious and so simple and quick to make – I’ll definitely be adding this one to my week-night repertoire!

Nom Pizza, Marrickville

I’m going to say it – Nom Pizza is now my favourite pizza in Sydney. Hell, I even like the crusts! Opening in June this year on the corner of Sydenham and Victoria Roads in Marrickville, a handy (and dangerous) five-minute walk from our house, Nom is the real deal. They make ‘la vera pizza Napoletana’, or true pizza from Naples, characterised by a thin, crisp base, sparsely topped with a few simple, fresh ingredients and cooked in a brick, wood-fired oven. At Nom they make the dough once a week and if you’re really lucky you get it a few days old (as we did on Thursday night) when the flavour and texture is fantastic: chewy, slightly salty and… oh, I don’t know what the flavour is, it’s just delicious!

Prior to this week I had tried the pumpkin and feta (roasted pumpkin, feta, pine nuts, rocket, truffle oil), the prawn (buffalo mozzarella, garlic prawns, chili) and the BBQ meatlovers (BBQ sauce, buffalo mozzarella, double smoked leg ham, salami, chorizo, pepperoni). They were all divine, although the BBQ meat lovers is clearly a bit of a concession to Australian tastes and would no doubt be considered an abomination in Naples!

On Thursday night as I’m walking home from the station, two of the guys are standing out the front of Nom with freshly made pizzas on wooden boards, offering slices to passers-by and trying to drum up a bit of custom. I’m drawn in by a cheeky smile from the other side of the junction and I avail myself of a slice of the ‘funghi’ with thinly sliced mushrooms, fior di latte cheese (like mozzarella but drier), a scattering of dried chili flakes and a drizzle of olive oil. It’s so damn good I decide right there on the spot to put the defrosted snags in the fridge for another day and persuade Mr T it’s a Nom Pizza night. It doesn’t take much to twist that rubbery arm so we’re back an hour later for more. We can’t decide what to have so the manager Ryan’s advice is to let the two Neapolitan pizzaiolos (trained artisan pizza makers) ‘go freestyle’ and create something unique for us. Alfredo stays fairly traditional with tomato sauce, fior di latte, salami, marinated aubergine, black olives and anchovies.

Tomato sauce, salami, marinated aubergine, black olives, anchovies and fior di latte

Tomato sauce, fior di latte, salami, marinated aubergine, black olives and anchovies, Nom Pizza

The other guy (whose name I missed, unfortunately) lets his imagination go wild and we watch in amazement as he forms two mini calzone (Ryan calls them ‘mezzaluna’, or half moon) on opposite sides, one filled with feta, the other with assorted meats. Down the middle he puts tomato sauce, fior di latte and rocket which, with a slosh of olive oil on top, wilts in the oven. Once cooked he drapes three generous slices of prosciutto on top and some shavings of parmesan. And another drizzle of olive oil for good measure!

Freestyle pizza with feta, assorted meats, tomato sauce, fior di latte, rocket, prosciutto and parmesan

Freestyle pizza with feta, assorted meats, tomato sauce, fior di latte, rocket, prosciutto and parmesan, Nom Pizza

Following much banter and taking of photographs with our new best friends, we race home as fast as our legs will carry us to engage in an absolute orgy of overeating. The pizzas are both to die for, the first one a perfect example of great quality, proper, simple pizza, the other an extraordinary piece of sheer theatre. Mr T cuts it into thick slices as if it were a loaf of Turkish bread. We could really do with a knife and fork but it’s so much more fun to slurp the wet, oozing, salty goodness into our mouths direct from the plate!

Nom don’t deliver as they don’t want the pizza sitting around deteriorating in cardboards boxes any longer than necessary, so you’ll have to collect it yourself. But they’re such a charming bunch of blokes that you’ll enjoy the interaction – and seeing the amazing wood-fired oven that dominates the shop. They do have a few tables and chairs outside on the pavement (make that old giant cable spools and hessian-covered milk crates) but no alcohol license, not even BYO, as yet. Here’s hoping! In the mean time they do have 1.25L bottles of brightly coloured, old-fashioned Saxby’s fizzy drinks in flavours like creaming soda and toffee apple. I’m not going to say any more except go there, and don’t spare the horses!

    Tomato sauce, fior di latte, salami, marinated aubergine, black olives and anchovies

Tomato sauce, fior di latte, salami, marinated aubergine, black olives and anchovies, Nom Pizza

Freestyle pizza with feta, assorted meats, tomato sauce, fior di latte, rocket, prosciutto and parmesan

Freestyle pizza with feta, assorted meats, tomato sauce, fior di latte, rocket, prosciutto and parmesan, Nom Pizza

Nom Pizza
Shop 2, 205 Victoria Road, Marrickville
Visited 18 October 2012

The best apple chutney

At this time of year my mind turns to Christmas and the things I should start making now so they have time to mature, like Christmas cake (which, of course, has to have brandy drip-fed into it for at least six weeks) and, for little presents, chutney. This fantastic chutney recipe comes from a book of my mother’s titled Preserving, published in 1971 as part of the Cordon Bleu series. It has been made for decades by my granny, my mother and now me, and is delicious with cold meats and hard cheeses.

(My mother has some fantastic cookbooks, incidentally, including the Supercook books which were serialised in the early 1970s. Collected religiously over a number of years, they formed an impressive encyclopedia that takes up about a metre of shelf space in the larder at my parents’ house. It is constantly referred to for certain recipes like chili con carne and Brunswick stew which were firm favourites of mine growing up and are always top of my request list when I’m visiting home now.)

A word about apples: In the UK you can get Bramley apples, otherwise known as cooking apples. The thing about a cooking apple is its high acidity and low sugar content which mean when cooked it a) breaks down to a mush and b) retains its flavour. In Australia it seems you can’t get Bramleys and the alterative suggested is Granny Smiths. They’re not the same at all (if you tried to eat a Bramley you would wince quite a lot!) but it’s the best we can do, I’m afraid. If anyone happens to know where you can get Bramley apples in Sydney, please leave a comment below!

Bramley apples

Bramley apples (photo borrowed from

The recipe begins in rather startling fashion with ’36 large apples’! When I made this last weekend it became quickly apparent that I was only going to fit half that in even my biggest saucepan, so I halved all the quantities of ingredients which yielded nine jars of chutney, and I’ll make the other half this weekend. (I do have a 15L stockpot but it’s cheap and nasty with a very thin base and the last time I made this chutney in it it stuck to the bottom and burned. When I realised and mistakenly stirred like crazy to dislodge the burned layer – only serving to distribute it throughout the pan – the chutney tasted like a used ashtray and I had to ditch the entire batch. Time to chuck out that pan and get a good one.)

So, I’ll quote the halved quantities here for which you’ll need a pan at least eight litres in size with a good thick base. Peel, core and slice 18 Granny Smith apples. The quickest way to core them is to simply chop around the core from north to south pole in four cuts making a square. Chuck the cores or give them to your worms/compost container/pet rabbits.

Apple cores

Apple cores

Cut the pieces of apple into slices about 5mm (1/4 inch) wide and put them into your pan. Add to that ¾lb of sultanas, 1½lb of demerera sugar, 2oz of yellow mustard seeds, one sliced fresh chili, half a rounded dessert spoon of turmeric, 1oz of ground ginger, ¾lb of thinly sliced Spanish onions, three cloves of garlic crushed with salt, and one pint of malt vinegar. Mix well with a big wooden spoon (it helps to lever the spoon against the edge of the pan) and put on a medium to high heat. Bring the mixture to the boil, stirring regularly to give everything a chance to get near the heat at the bottom. It will feel at the beginning as though you’ve got very little liquid in there, but as the apple starts to soften it gives up its juice and you’ll get something that looks a little like this:

Chutney making in progress

Chutney making in progress

Now it’s just a case of simmering it gently, stirring occasionally, for an hour and a half to two hours, or until it turns to a brown pulply mass like this (I might have gone an extra half hour, I think):

Chutney ready to go into jars

Chutney ready to go into jars

Meanwhile, sterilise your jars to prevent mould and bacteria forming. First set your oven to 150°C. If, like me, you’ve been hoarding empty jars, get them out, pick the prettiest looking shapes and give them a good wash, along with their lids (don’t use ones with plastic lids), in hot soapy water, rinsing well to get the suds off. This is also a good time to soak them for a bit and scrape the labels off so that you can decorate with your own labels later. Put the jars and lids in a big roasting tin and dry thoroughly in the oven for about 20 minutes.

When your chutney is ready, allow it to cool for five minutes (just so it’s no longer at boiling point) and fill your jars while they’re still hot out of the oven. I found it helpful to fill a jug with a ladle and then pour (or gloop!) the chutney into the jars, helping it with a wooden spoon. Put the lids on straight away and secure tightly, creating a good seal. Put the jars away in a cool, dark place (they don’t need to go in the fridge until opened) and leave for at least a month, in my humble opinion, before eating… if you can bear to wait that long!

Apple chutney

Apple chutney

Mamma Contaldo’s ricotta dumplings

I had such a satisfying day of cooking yesterday that it makes me feel warm inside every time I think about it! First I made apple chutney (more of that later), then for dinner I made ricotta dumplings with tomato sauce, a dish I discovered watching the fabulous Two Greedy Italians on telly with Antonio Carluccio and Genarro Contaldo. According to the BBC website, where I found the recipe (although I have just discovered it’s on the SBS website too), these dumplings are traditionally made in Contaldo’s home town of Minori, on the Amalfi Coast, on the feast day of the town’s patron saint.

Minori, Amalfi Coast, Italy

Minori, Amalfi Coast, Italy (royalty-free image,

(I’ve added the above photo to get you in the mood. I found it on Google Images and I’ve credited the website that it comes from so I hope I don’t get into trouble. Please excuse the watermark across it – although I bet you didn’t notice that until I pointed it out!)

Having never made fresh pasta before these ricotto dumplings seemed like a fairly simple place to start, but it wasn’t quite as easy as they made it look on TV! You put into a big mixing bowl 200g 00 flour, 225g ricotta, three egg yolks, 30g freshly grated parmesan, salt, pepper and a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg. Work this into a dough with your hand – it will come together eventually. (Watching the TV clip on YouTube again afterwards I noticed that they mixed the ricotta, egg yolks, parmesan and seasoning together a bit before adding the flour which seems like a good idea). Put your dough onto a floured board and knead for three to five minutes. Then, roll your dough into thin sausage shapes and, with a knife, cut into 2cm long pieces. You can sprinkle a little more flour over the dumplings to stop them sticking to the knife.

Before cooking the dumplings, make your sauce. Sautée three thickly sliced garlic cloves and one sliced chili in a good glug of olive oil for about a minute before adding two tins of good quality tinned whole tomatoes, cutting each tomato in half. Bring to the boil and allow to simmer for five minutes. Meanwhile, cook your dumplings; the recipe says they take three to four minutes. Tip them into a large pan of salted boiling water. Put the lid on straight away to help bring the water back up to boiling and them remove the lid again. A helpful tip they mention on the TV clip is that once they float to the surface, they need a further two minutes on simmer. Lift them out with a slotted spoon and add them to the tomato sauce. Stir to coat, spoon into hot bowls, garnish with basil leaves and serve with extra parmesan to grate over the top.

Ricotta dumplings with simple tomato sauce

Ricotta dumplings with simple tomato sauce

I absolutely loved the simplicity of this meal but I’m not sure if my dumplings turned out as they’re meant to be since they were quite solid and doughy. They did say on the program that they would be heavier than their cousin, potato gnochi, but still I felt that they could be improved. Next time (and I can’t wait to make them again!) I’ll put a timer on for the kneading part to make sure I do that for long enough, and I think I’ll cut them a bit smaller. I was delighted with the sauce and couldn’t believe it needed so few ingredients, but I would say that it’s really worthwhile buying the best tinned tomatoes you can for this. I really like the Ardmona ones as they have a lovely thick juice.

From spicy Malaysia to sunny Spain

I promise I will cook some Italian food soon (later today, in fact!) but first I want to write about two eateries I went to on Thursday – the hugely popular Malaysian restaurant Mamak in the city, and Spanish bistro El Bulli in Surry Hills.

Unseasonably cold and rainy on Thursday, Mamak is the perfect destination for a warming, comforting lunch. Going there at lunch time affords one the added benefit of avoiding the long queues down the street which are there every evening. That said, there’s plenty to entertain while you wait – the various types of roti are made on a bench looking directly out of the large glass frontage and you can see them being skillfully spun in the air like whirling dervish skirts, becoming increasing large, thin and translucent. It’s fascinating to watch. Once they’ve reached full size (about that of a bicycle wheel) they’re put down on the bench, stretched into a square shape and then carefully folded in on themselves into a mound once more before being oiled and spun again. I suppose the process is something like making puff pastry where the fat is gradually incorporated in many layers.

Roti being made

Roti being made, Mamak

Roti being made

Roti being made, Mamak

While I’m busy trying to capture the perfect shot of the roti being made, our food has already arrived at our table. We share an original roti (roti canai) which comes with two curry dips and a hot sambal sauce. The roti is golden, crisp and flaky on the outside and soft and doughy inside with a wonderful elasticity. One of the dips is mild with lentils in it, the other hotter, and the sambal sauce is very piquant and tastes strongly of dried shrimp.

Roti canai with two curry dips and sambal sauce

Roti canai with two curry dips and sambal sauce, Mamak

We share three main dishes between the three of us which is more food than we can possibly eat so we take the leftovers back to the office in a doggy bag. (I’m the lucky one who gets to have Mamak curry for lunch twice in a row!) A slow-cooked lamb curry (kari kambing) has plenty of tender chunks of meat in a rust-coloured, complexly flavoured sauce that includes cloves, cinnamon and chili as well as many other spices I can’t identify.

Kari kambing - lamb curry

Kari kambing – slow-cooked lamb curry, Mamak

The fish curry (kari ikan) has generous pieces of a dense white fish along with tender eggplant chunks, okra, tomatoes and large whole green chilis in a bright caramel, sweet, shrimpy sauce. It’s a bit hotter in chili terms than the other curry.

Kari ikan - fish curry with fresh tomatoes, okra and eggplant

Kari ikan – fish curry with fresh tomatoes, okra and eggplant, Mamak

Our other dish is called ‘rojak’, a Malaysian style salad with prawn and coconut fritters, fried tofu, hard-boiled eggs, shredded yam bean* and cucumber topped with thick satay sauce and a sprinkling of sesame seeds. It’s refreshing, crunchy, sweet and coconuty, a great complement to the curries. (* A yam bean is a tuber vegetable with crunchy white flesh, similar in texture to water chestnuts.)

Rojak - prawn and coconut fritters, fried tofu, hard-boiled eggs, shredded yam bean and cucumber, topped with satay sauce

Rojak – prawn and coconut fritters, fried tofu, hard-boiled eggs, shredded yam bean and cucumber, topped with satay sauce, Mamak

As we wait at the front counter to pay, I survey the large, buzzing room packed with Asian students and suited office workers. The bill comes to $25 per head, great value for a huge and very delicious meal.

Having had such an enormous lunch I only need a snack before the theatre that evening so Mr T and I head to El Bulli for tapas, conveniently located a mere two-minute walk from Belvoir St Theatre. Once housed in a small, intimate venue about 50m north of their current location on Elizabeth Street, El Bulli is now in much bigger premises with five dining areas and an impressive long, highly polished wooden bar cut from what appears to be a single tree. Dimly lit, the decor is all dark wood, sumptuous curtains concealing the busy street outside, and tealights twinkling in red glass containers. Outside the ladies bathroom is a richly upholstered chaise longue and more dramatic curtains opposite a mural of a couple locked forever in the passionate embrace of flamenco.

The bar at El Bulli

The bar at El Bulli

Our gorgeous Spanish waitress chats with us about Spain and I ask her if the Iberico ham on the menu is the real deal, as I witnessed on Rick Stein’s Spain the other night. Sadly not, she says, as there are difficulties with importation. (I’m now determined to try to track some down!) So instead we have deep-fried white bait (cornalitos fritos) and some paella balls (albondigas de paella), and I have a glass of rosé, sweet and full of summer berry flavours. The whitebait are crunchy little nuggets of fishy goodness which we dip into aioli, and the paella balls are crumbed on the outside and filled with sweet saffron-colored rice studded with chicken and chorizo, topped with more aioli and flecked with parsley.

white bait

Cornalitos fritos – deep-fried white bait, El Bulli

Albondigas de paella - paella balls

Albondigas de paella – paella balls topped with aioli, El Bulli

It’s a highly pleasurable pre-theatre bite but we’ll definitely have to go back with an appetite and give the extensive menu a good workout, perhaps on one of their regular live music nights. It’d be a great place for a celebration dinner with a big group of people. Now there’s a thought!

15 Goulburn Street, Sydney

El Bulli
504 Elizabeth Street, Surry Hills

Both visited 11 October 2012

Affirmation and some exciting news

Last night I was reminded for about the gazillionth time how much I love food. And I wasn’t even eating – well, not at that precise moment! Sitting on the sofa watching Rick Stein’s Spain, lapping up his childlike enthusiasm for Iberico ham and garlic soup, with a big soppy grin on my face and imploring Mr T to ‘Take me to Spain!’, I felt literally drunk on joy.

I also got some good news yesterday which might have contributed a bit to the ‘drunk on joy’ feeling. I have been accepted to study for a Graduate Certificate in Food Writing through the University of Adelaide next year – the only course of its kind in the country. Now I just need to find a new job to finance it! Anyone need a great PA?! (There’s also the small outstanding matter of submitting to the university admissions centre my degree transcript which is hopefully winging its way from the UK as I type, but I’m not one to let formalities hold up the celebrations!)