Tuesday, 28 June 2011

grove & vine providore, south yarra

Grove & Vine Providore has a wonderful selection of organic and biodynamic wines from boutique wineries.

If you adore your reds, whites and everything in between, you'll love Grove & Vine Providore, located on 3/9 Yarra St, South Yarra, with their beautiful selection of fine wines from boutique, organic and biodynamic wineries lovingly hand-picked by owners Roger and Sherri. If you're not crazy about wines, however, you're still likely to be unexpectedly charmed by Grove & Vine - as I was.

I was alerted to Grove & Vine's wine tasting event on first on Twitter, then on Facebook and finally, on the day itself, while accompanying my cousin Daniel to a rental property inspection at Yarra Street, lo and behold, what do I spy but no other than an advertisement for the wine tasting perched on the reception desk in the foyer of the apartment building. The stars are aligned, and they are most definitely urging me to take a good look at Grove & Vine!

I'll have to confess I don't know a great deal about wine, and only drink it occasionally. I do come across a bottle I enjoy immensely every now and then, but generally, I don't see it as much of a priority in my dining experiences. Sacrilegious, I know.

Jars of jams and sauces at the food section of Grove & Vine Providore.

So when I first walked into Grove & Vine I was probably more taken in by the lovely gourmet produce they stocked. Teas, jams, chocolates, biscuits, cheeses... quantity there may not be, but every single item looked enticing. You'll find nothing but quality here, and what's more, they're affordable too - for example, a bottle of Maggie Beer verjuice was under $12, which I find to be quite a competitive price.

More gourmet produce at Grove & Vine Providore.

But of course, you can't visit Grove & Vine and bypass those wines. Daniel and I couldn't linger long as he had an appointment elsewhere, but we did manage to sample a few of the beautiful biodynamic wines available for tasting that evening, with guidance from the lovely Sherri (who's familiar with my blog, yay!) - and we found ourselves enjoying all of them. In fact, I fell in love with one in particular, the Krinklewood Lucia dessert wine. I took a sip and the sweet, clean flavours of apricot and peach just bowled me over. It was just so fresh... so smooth... so pretty. Perfect for a romantic night in, or anytime, really. I was sold, and happily bought a bottle to enjoy at Simon's place...

My gorgeous bottle of Krinklewood Lucia dessert wine. Exquisite.

I've always felt a little lost when buying wine at bottle shops or ordering wine at restaurants. However, Grove & Vine has opened up a whole new world of wines to me, and with their help, I think I can get used to this world. Oh, yes. I can get used to it very well indeed...

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Wednesday, 22 June 2011

chinese borscht / abc soup / luo song tang

If you have some kind of Chinese background, you probably know this soup, and you've probably made it dozens, maybe even hundreds of times before. At home, my mum calls this luo song tang (罗宋汤). My cousins call it ABC soup. I've seen Chinese restaurants with English menus refer to it as Chinese borscht. Whatever you choose to call it, it's delicious, ridiculously easy, and the meat and vegetables involved can be sourced very cheaply. Great taste-to-effort ratio, great ROI with simple ingredients. What's not to love?

chinese borscht, aka abc soup, aka luo song tang (罗宋汤).

Everyone seems to have their own way of making this soup, with slight (or not-so-slight) variations in ingredients plus other quirks. My mum always uses either chicken or pork, but I've seen others use beef. I've even tried making it with lamb, which is rather unorthodox but also wonderful. But that's not all. Which cut? On the bone or filleted? (For the record, I prefer using not-so-lean cuts, and I find meat on the bone tends to end up more lusciously tender.) Aside from that, the choice and balance of vegetables also vary. Then there's the matter of method and presentation. Some people like the ingredients fine and dainty in the form of little cubes - not me. Chunky and hearty is how I roll.

In the end, you play with the basic idea and make this your own. No one I know bothers with a recipe when they make Chinese borscht, at least not after their first attempt. It's rustic, adaptable, effortlessly delicious - and that's why we love it.

Without further ado, here's a rough guide to how I usually do it...

A lovely and nutritious soup-stew, perfect for any weather.

chinese borscht / abc soup / luo song tang 罗宋汤 (serves 2)

3 cups water (add more if it reduces too much during the cooking process)
2 medium potatoes, cut into chunks
1 medium carrot, sliced diagonally
1 large tomato, cut into wedges
1 small onion, roughly sliced
2 cloves garlic, whole and unpeeled (optional)
3 chicken thigh fillets, roughly chopped, or 4 chicken drumsticks on the bone
seasonings: light soy sauce and white pepper, or salt and freshly ground black pepper

I usually approach this in a fairly casual manner: I pour the water into a large pot over a robust flame, and while waiting for it to boil, I set about chopping up my ingredients and throwing them into the pot as I go.

I do either the potatoes or the carrots first, then fling in the tomatoes, onion and garlic. By this time, the water is boiling quite merrily and I'll put the chicken in, turn the heat down and let it gently simmer, covered, for approximately 45 minutes or until everything is superbly tender and the potatoes and carrots are almost, but not quite falling apart into the gradually thickening soup. Now all it needs is a final touch of light soy sauce and white pepper - alternatively, salt and cracked black pepper is also always a good bet.

Serve this as a soup entree, or have it as a main meal with steamed rice.

Oh, and one more thing! Feel free to double or even triple the recipe if you have a generously sized pot and ample space in the refrigerator, for after you finishing cooking this, the flavours will continue to schmooze and mingle even as it cools down, begging you to re-heat it again hours later for another meal. Your Chinese borscht then transforms from a summer-friendly soup into a winter-worthy stew. Either way, it's homely bliss to warm one's soul, over and over again...

come on, have a spoonful of chinese borscht!

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Wednesday, 15 June 2011

books for cooks, fitzroy

Cheery foodie decor at Books for Cooks on Gertrude St, Fitzroy.

Books for Cooks (233-235 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy) is a little gem of a specialist bookshop I stumbled upon recently whilst doing a late-night Google search for cookbooks in Melbourne. A store that sells nothing but books on food! What a wonderful concept. I visited the very next day...

Books for Cooks - a down-to-earth and warmly inviting space.

I adored the place immediately: on a cold winter's day, it embraced me like a warm hug, with its wooden floorboards, well-worn couches, and, of course, the books. The floor-to-ceiling shelves of books. Books on regional cuisine. Books on baking. Books on the art and science of cooking. Books on restaurants. Books on wine. Books, books, books... books full of words, pictures and recipes... all stuffed together in one cosy bookshop and jostling to delight a food-loving girl like me.

I loved perusing the cookbooks in the South American section.

I'd only just bought two books I really wanted a week prior to this visit, so I satisfied myself with merely a leisurely browse before sinking into the big couch by the window for a little rest and relaxation. Most conveniently, there was a shelf of books on South American cuisine just beside me - what a treat! I flipped through a few before going on my merry way, feeling a renewed sense of enthusiasm towards the cooking I planned to do later that day, and making a mental note to return to this lovely cushy cookbook haven the next time I want to buy a little piece of food inspiration...

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Thursday, 9 June 2011

flourless almond mandarin ricotta cake

Winter has arrived in Melbourne, and what better way to celebrate it than with cheesecake? But not just any cheesecake. A light yet soothing gluten-free mandarin ricotta cheesecake, studded with almond slivers, perfect as an almost-guilt-free treat with a hot cup of tea on a lazy afternoon. Alternatively, you may prefer the indulgent route, and have it with stewed fruit and fresh cream or ice cream, perhaps with the finishing touch of a drizzle of honey or syrup...

baked almond and mandarin ricotta cake.

Alright, so some of my almonds look almost a little too brown, and some of my cake didn't quite extricate itself completely from the bottom of the loaf pan. No matter. It was still delicious, and I can assure you that this is a great dessert option if you're looking for something that's relatively healthy and not too heavy. The crumbly baked ricotta, infused with the delicate citrus perfume of mandarins and laced throughout with the nutty, aromatic crunch of toasted almonds is quite a delight. If you're keen on a richer version, I would suggest that you could experiment by adding a little butter or cream to the mix.

sweet, sweet ricotta: fruity, nutty, and ready to be baked in the oven...

mini flourless almond mandarin ricotta cake
(mini loaf pan dimensions: 18cm (l) x 10cm (w) x 5.5cm (h) exterior, 15 x 8 x 5.5cm interior.)
(serves 2 - 4)

1 cup ricotta (approx. 250g or a little less), drained of excess liquid
1 large to extra large egg (55 - 65g)
1 very small and preferably organic mandarin (approx. 5 cms/2 inches in diameter)
1/4 cup raw sugar
1/4 cup slivered almonds
a pinch of salt
oil or butter, for greasing/brushing

Toast slivered almonds by dry-frying them in a pan till golden brown, moving them around frequently to prevent them from burning. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 180°C/350°F fan forced (or 200°C/390°F normal).

Prepare a petite loaf pan by brushing the inside with oil or melted butter. You may also use ramekins or a mini cake pan, and I dare say it could work with cupcake or muffin trays as well.

Peel the mandarin and remove any seeds. Blend or process egg, mandarin peel, mandarin flesh, sugar and salt, then add to ricotta and combine well. Stir in toasted almond slivers. Pour into the greased loaf pan and smooth the surface of the mixture with the back of a spoon.

Bake in the oven for 50 minutes or until golden brown on top and firm to the touch. Let it cool for 10 minutes and then turn the loaf pan over onto a plate or chopping board. Tap it to release the baked ricotta cake.

Slice and serve immediately, or store in an airtight container. If for some ridiculous reason you can't devour this lovely flourless cake the same day you make it, it will keep in the fridge for a few days.

I particularly adore this ricotta cake when it's still warm and moist after emerging from the oven, though it also tends to be more fragile at this time. But honestly, do I really care if my freshly baked ricotta falls apart a little when I'm shoving it into my mouth? No. I'm too busy shoving it into my mouth...

warm, freshly baked mandarin almond ricotta cake, sliced and ready to be consumed.

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Sunday, 5 June 2011

fresh from the market... feijoas

feijoas, lime and ginger, ready to be blended together for a fresh breakfast juice.

I don't come into contact with feijoas very often, so recently, when a pack of 5 organic feijoas beckoned to me at South Melbourne Market for the relatively affordable price of $3, I wasn't about to turn them down.

Feijoas, also known as pineapple guavas or guavasteens, are a fairly new addition to my life as an Australian resident. A few trips to New Zealand further cemented the presence of this rather unique fruit in my mind - fresh feijoas are ubiquitous there, and the New Zealanders use them keenly in a variety of applications - jam, candy, and even vodka.

However, this is the first time I've ever bought feijoas for myself. The very first thing that seduced me was their intriguing fragrance, which, to me, is a sweet whirlwind of strawberry, guava and mint - intoxicating, addictive and almost reminiscent of a scented candle. I had to wait a few days for my feijoas to fully ripen at room temperature in their brown paper bag, and during this time I would often gather them close to breathe in that pretty scent.

feijoas, sliced in half vertically. sweet, fragrant and ready to be eaten with a spoon.

When the feijoas finally yielded gently to my touch, signalling that they ready to be eaten, I sliced some of them in half, and simply scooped out the flesh with a spoon. I found the texture of ripe feijoas to be quite soft and creamy, but at the same time, it also had a hint of grittiness. The taste was, again, complex and fascinating. It was like the Fruit Gods got together one day to decide what a feijoa should taste like, and the following conversation ensued:

"They're related to guava, so I reckon they should taste like guava."

"You know what, I love the fresh taste of mint. Can we incorporate that somehow?"

"My dear compatriots, let's not forget about acidity. Something like pineapple and strawberry would be nice, yeah?"

"Oh, oh, how about soursop?"

The Fruit Gods are a quirky bunch indeed.

You can also peel feijoas if you like - I did this to the remaining feijoas, which I then popped into the blender along with some fresh ginger and lime for a quick and exotic breakfast juice. It was all gone in no time. I'm definitely going to purchase feijoas more often from now on, and experiment with them further to create some feijoa recipes.

What are your thoughts on feijoas?

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Wednesday, 1 June 2011

video! candy blowing in beijing, china

the candy man's wares.

Did you like my post on Beijing? Were you hoping for more? Well, wait no longer - I have a candy blowing video for you!

I knew before I went to China that the ancient folk art of candy blowing (also known as sugar blowing) was something I really wanted to catch in action. The number of craftsmen who practise it these days is on the decline, but luckily for me, we did see two or three of them scattered across the city.

One of them, whom I'll just refer to as Candyman, does his work on the vibrant Wangfujing snack street. Busy as this place was, getting business can be a tough gig if you're not selling practical food items. Whilst we were there, we saw hundreds of passers-by glance over at this guy's stall with a mild curiosity, but no-one stopped to buy. Fortunately for street artists like these, there will always be an enthusiastic traveller (*cough* sucker *cough*) willing to pay the price for a blown candy lollipop, and that night, that enthusiastic traveller (*cough* sucker *cough*) was me.

So I asked Candyman how much a lollipop would set me back. He offered three different options - from memory, it was something like 20 yuan, 30 yuan or 40 yuan. Even though I was regularly mistaken for a local in China, thanks to my appearance and my fairly fluent Mandarin, this is quite steep by local standards, and while it may be due to the rarity of candy blowers in modern China, it is also possible that I got a hiked-up quote because I had a white boy with me (hello Simon!). I did make a half-hearted attempt to haggle, but I think secretly we both knew that this girl wasn't leaving without some hot molten candy action so there really was no point wasting our time.

Now I also know there is no need to be frugal when travelling in China, but I chose the cheapest option. When you can get a bowl of noodles for 10 yuan, paying more than double that for candy just seems a little out of whack, even if it is candy art. So I put in an order for a basic, no-frills, 20-yuan lollipop. With the exchange rate at the time, that would be about 3 Australian dollars. I do have a slight twinge of regret at not going all out now. I guess this just means I'll have to return to China and do it all over again. Hey, you don't have to twist my arm.

Candyman asked me to pick an animal, suggesting that I could go for something from the Chinese horoscope. Simon and I were both born in the Year of the Dog, so a dog it was.

But I've rambled on long enough. Here's the video, courtesy of Simon. Enjoy!

P.S. In case you were wondering, the candy featured here is edible - though I'm not sure many people will want to eat it, with all that blowing and sculpting. It didn't last very long either, probably because we had the heater on in our hotel room - my lollipop became increasingly crumpled over the next few days, and was all but collapsed by the end of the week.

I didn't mind - I regard this as street art that you can take home and admire for a little while. What I really paid for was the up close and personal experience of watching a candy blower in action, and I think I totally got my money's worth, especially with this video shot at just the right spot - watching this is like being briefly transported back to Beijing again. The sights. The sounds. The hustle and the bustle. Thank you, China, for the good times!

If you would like to read more about candy blowing, try here, here and here - the guy in the last link, it turns out, is no other than the Candyman in my video!

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