Wednesday, 30 May 2012

cibi: touch the heart - tasting night & workshop

A few weeks ago I meandered along to Cibi's website and made the serendipitous discovery of a free and upcoming exhibition-slash-event that I would otherwise never had known about. It was a tasting night, incorporating a workshop, called "Touch the heart: Eat & learn at Cibi".

"Greetings from CIBI.

We hope you are well and enjoying the autumn chill which is great for driving us into the kitchen with lovely autumn/winter produce, to create heart-warming food.

In a change from past exhibitions, this time we want to introduce and showcase our "fresh approach to simplicity" in the kitchen, which is the heart of our CIBI food philosophy.

It promises to be a tasty and fun experience, with wide range of dishes, introducing over 30 different ingredients and vegetables.

Please join us to enjoy a relaxing and interesting evening with our friends at CIBI.

We look forward to seeing you soon.

Best regards

CIBI team"

Lured by the promise of free food and education, Simon and I breezed in right on time, ready for our little evening adventure. The following pictures are courtesy of Simon and his DSLR camera. (I really should enlist his services and/or his camera more often...)

Shelves upon shelves of seasonal ingredients greeted us cheerily as we walked in... a beautifully rustic sight to behold.

seasonal fruits and vegetables galore at cibi's "touch the heart" event.

We were each given a plate with specific instructions on how to navigate the buffet. This is not an eat-all-you-can circus! All the dishes were already arranged on the tables in individual portions to be lifted into our plates, in specifically designated spots, to be treasured and savoured.

We started off with a scoop of chestnut rice, and then we each got to pick a main, which consisted of either a small piece of miso fish, a ginger chicken meatball or a teriyaki tofu round. Once that was done, we moved on to the sides. We helped ourselves to a portion each of the pickled daikon and purple carrot, the eggplant and chickpea stew, and the mushroom, persimmon and chrysanthemum leaf salad. There were also cups of root vegetable soup, as well as tea (I believe it was of the hojicha variety).

I really enjoyed the food - light and gentle, they had a soul-soothing quality to them, as well as a balanced sense of care and thoughtfulness. I felt - somehow - intrinsically nourished.

a petite but well-balanced meal at cibi's "touch the heart" tasting night.

I also participated in the onigiri workshop, where we basically had to try to emulate what the lady at the booth was doing to create triangle rice balls. No prizes for guessing who's who in the picture!

onigiri workshop at cibi's "touch the heart" event.

My finished product was an appropriate representation of my fumbling efforts. I clearly won't be quitting my day job anytime soon to be an onigiri master. Nor a hand model, for that matter. (P.S. The specks on my fingers are the delicious remnants of bonito flakes that I failed to incorporate fully into my onigiri.)

eating, learning, and making onigiri (the latter with limited success)...

To finish, we had desserts. It was a beguiling selection. Kinako (roasted soybean flour) cookies and matcha (green tea) cookies, earthy and crumbly. Adzuki bean chocolate ganache pieces, rich yet delicate - a delightful revelation.

an assortment of desserts to cap off cibi's "touch the heart" event.

I walked away that night with renewed inspiration, Cibi's philosophies lingering in my mind. I vowed that I would continue to try my best to celebrate the diversity of different ingredients, to stay true to them, and to combine them with holistic sensitivity. To chew slowly, to linger upon the tastes and textures. To enrich myself, and the environment, through the food I choose to eat.

To create meals that touch the heart.

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Wednesday, 23 May 2012

odds and ends #1: a few things I tried lately...
(goats cheese ravioli, cheese donut, kombucha, lemon myrtle yoghurt)

Too often, I try something here and there, take a few pictures... and then, regrettably, I let the memories languish in my camera.

Well, no more of that! Here's a post on what I've sampled lately, and hopefully this will be the first of many more to come.

I rarely mention product names and brands in my blog, so just to make it clear - since this post does break from the norm - as per everything else I've written about in my blog thus far, I purchased all these items with my own money, and I have not been paid to write about them.

Now, boring statements aside, let's get on to the FOOD.

Earlier this year, my capoeira group did a pasta drive to raise funds for our annual year-end festival. I was a little skeptical at first. Why is it called Alligator Brand and is it going to be any good? I soon realise my ignorance when I did a bit of research and find out that they actually have a pretty awesome reputation. I put in an order for 4 kilograms of pasta and 6 jars of napoli pasta sauce - it's all for a good cause, right? - and wait eagerly for the delivery.

Well, I can tell you that for days afterwards, Simon and I were both devouring pasta for lunch and dinner. And we weren't complaining one bit. On weekdays I would text Simon after work - "I'm coming over tonight. LET'S HAVE PASTA!" - and these pasta dates would inevitably end in debaucherous pasta weekends spent together in a pasta haze. We got the goats cheese & pesto ravioli, and the spinach & ricotta tortellini. They were both excellent, and quite similar, with a toothsome bite and sexy, creamy fillings. The goats cheese ravioli, in particular, despite the insufficient specks of pesto, was an utter joy of tender, pillowy goodness. The gentle tartness of the rich red napoli sauce pulled it all together with simple elegance.

Just in case any of my capoeira friends are reading this, can we do the pasta drive again? Pretty please? It's so much better than the chocolate drive. (Yes, I said it.)

fresh, fresh pasta - goats cheese and pesto ravioli and spinach and ricotta tortellini from Alligator brand.

As you may be able to tell, I could rave about pasta forever, but let's move on to something else. A month ago, I stumbled upon cheese store and laboratory La Latteria. My hands were full at the time, but I couldn't walk on without buying something from their fascinating array of specialty cheese and dairy products, so I got myself a cheese donut studded with delicious sun-dried tomato and basil. It's a little bit on the salty side, but also quite addictive. I hear their burrata (mozzarella filled with curd and cream) is drool-worthy and that's what I'll be getting next time, along with, perhaps, some of their very wholesome looking non-homogenised milk.

cheese donut with sundried tomato and basil, from La Latteria.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I went on a major shopping spree at Ripe the Organic Grocer, and got a bunch of things that caught my eye. One of them was a bottle of kombucha, a fermented tea beverage that is touted for it's health-giving properties. It reminds me of a diluted and slightly fizzy apple cider vinegar not just in its pungent, acidic taste but also in appearance, right down to the wispy bits of mother-culture in it. The one I got is by Mojo.

Mojo lemon citrus kombucha with living cultures.

I was also intrigued by a jar of Marrook Farm lemon myrtle yoghurt that day. One of my favourite soaps has the natural fragrance of lemon myrtle essential oils, so I have to admit, when I first tried this, the connection was a little unsettling. I got used to it after a while, though, and grew to rather enjoy that lemony herbal sharpness in the beautifully silky yoghurt  - an assertive yet gentle accompaniment to my morning muesli.

biodynamic full-cream lemon myrtle yoghurt from Marrook Farm.

So that's it for my first Odds and Ends post. I hope you have enjoyed reading about my latest finds, and I look forward to sharing more of my discoveries with you in the future. Till then, feel free to share some of your odds and ends with me, too, in the comments below...

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Tuesday, 15 May 2012

egg, shallot & samphire salad with smoky lemon dressing

The slender, knobbly green fingers beckoned.

"Try us," they beseech. "You've never tried us before."

It's true, I hadn't. Oh, I knew of samphire, of course. I've heard about the languid foraging excursions undertaken by intrepid food-lovers; I've spied them on the slickly written menus in expensive restaurants. But they were so quaint and far removed from my regular life that for all I was concerned they could be a made-up ingredient from a fairy tale.

marsh samphire, also known as sea asparagus.

It turns out they are quite real, and I have finally met them in the flesh. The label on the packet instructs, slightly awkwardly: "This unique vegetable, to be used steamed. Yummy in stir-fries or blanched and used as a bed under seafood."

I broke off a small piece and ate it raw, to give myself an inkling of what I was getting into. So what did it taste like? Imagine a crunchy, hollow vegetable shaped like a spindly, rugged drinking straw that's absolutely zonked out on sea water, and that's pretty much what marsh samphire is. Given how briny it was, I decided to boil it, hoping to strip away some of the excess salt. This seemed to help a little, but it was still very salty, and I can see that this is one ingredient that could require a nifty balancing act.

So this is what I did, based on what I already have at home. I boiled four eggs until their yolks were just set, then peeled and sliced them, rejoicing at their creamy, vibrant orange goodness. For the dressing, I sloshed together some lemon juice with extra virgin olive oil, swirled through a sexy dose of smoked Spanish paprika, and then, spying a shallot on the counter, chopped that up, too, and flung it in. It's tangy, it's smoky, it's savoury - what's not to love?

These joined forces proved to be a good match for the samphire. The tart and spicy dressing tamed the excessive saltiness, and the eggs, in their simplicity, were calm and gentle amongst the veritable ocean of flavours. I would definitely make this again.

egg, shallot & samphire salad with a spicy, smoky, tangy lemon dressing.

egg, shallot & samphire salad with smoky lemon dressing
(makes 2 light serves)

50g marsh samphire / sea asparagus
1 shallot, finely chopped
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon Spanish hot smoked paprika (Pimenton de la Vera, Picante)*
4 large medium-boiled or hard-boiled eggs, sliced

Trim and discard the tough, fibrous stems near the root end of the samphire stalks. Roughly snip the samphire into shorter sections to make them more manageable when eating.
Bring a pot of water to boil, then throw in the samphire and let it cook for 2 - 3 minutes. Drain, then lightly rinse the samphire with cold water.
Mix shallot, extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice and Spanish hot smoked paprika to create a dressing.
Toss the samphire with half the dressing, then top with egg slices and drizzle with remaining dressing. No need to add salt!

You can have this salad for breakfast or brunch with some buttered toast - if you like, you can tear the toast into pieces and scatter them through the salad. This would work very, very well indeed. Alternatively, you could also serve it with any meal as a punchy little side dish.

*Pimenton de la Vera aka Spanish smoked paprika can usually be found at specialty and gourmet food stores, spice shops, or Spanish grocery stores. In lieu of the hot (Picante) version, you may use the mild, sweet version (Dulce) or medium, bittersweet version (Agridulce).

P.S. I love the dressing in this dish. It flavours the eggs beautifully, and if you don't have samphire, feel free to improvise with other vegetables - I imagine green beans, broccolini or asparagus would work well. The only difference is that you will probably want to season with a pinch of salt if using these substitutes.

I purchased my samphire from The Vegetable Connection in Fitzroy. The samphire is packaged by Outback Pride (please see their site for a list of other stockists in Australia). Note - they seem to pop up in the shops quite sporadically, so get ready to pounce if/when you see them!

egg, shallot & samphire salad with lemon, hot smoked paprika and extra virgin olive oil.

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Wednesday, 9 May 2012

phat brats, fitzroy

I live south of the river, Simon the north. Neither of us own a car.

I'm usually the one tramming it to his place, and whilst it can sometimes be a bit of a chore, I don't mind too much. Let's face it, life can be exciting when you're seeing someone who lives in the vicinity of Brunswick Street. Exciting in an "oh my dog where shall I eat tonight?!" kind of way.

Phat Brats (320 Brunswick St, Fitzroy) is a new kid in town and I remember anticipating its opening when I first observed the sign on the window earlier this year. With a chain-store-like appearance, albeit one that is sleek and dark, Phat Brats, unsurprisingly, is all about the hot dogs and fries. Snazzy gourmet combinations are rife, with vegetarian dog options (pumpkin, ricotta, & tarragon, or bean, lentil & veggie) if you're not into meat. The buns come in classic, seeded and gluten-free. The fries are beer-battered and are available with house-made seasoning, cheese or chilli. 

I like how the Phat Brats boys strive for natural, wholesome ingredients and source them locally. I also like how the hot dogs come sliced neatly in half - perfect for sharing! But what I really, really love is their fries. I've been there twice now, and if you want a summary of my experiences, it's this: the hot dogs may be what initially attracted me to Phat Brats, but it's probably their fries that will keep me coming back.

Now that we've got that out of the way, let's move on to the individual items we've sampled.

Simon the sauerkraut lover quickly decided upon the beer-soaked bratwurst on our first visit. We both agreed that it was a decent dog, if not particularly memorable.

local beer soaked brat sausage with sauteed onions, sauerkraut, bavarian mustard and green pickle relish, $8.90.

The wagyu beef and black pepper wasn't as juicy and fatty as I would expect from a wagyu-based sausage, but I did like the crowning touch of crispy shallots, and the horseradish cream was lovely, though I think Simon got more of that on his half, while mine was a little lacking. So unfair!

wagyu beef and black pepper sausage with house gravy, raw slaw, crisp shallots and horseradish cream, $8.90.

But all is forgiven when I tried the chilli fries. "Wow, these fries are really good," I say to Simon as I shovel them down. Ruggedly crisp and fluffy, they were a textural triumph. The chilli sauce was pretty spicy, but I like the heat. Simon, however, claims that he is not the biggest fan of fries with chilli - hurrah, more for me!

chilli fries (comes with either spicy ground beef or spicy bean mix), $7.

We visited again a few weeks later with our friend Georgina. She went for the cheesy smoked kransky, and it was the first to arrive at the table. Compared to the other dogs we'd observed, this one was HUGE. The potato salad topping also made it quite fiddly to eat, but from all accounts she found it satisfying.

cheesy smoked kransky sausage with german potato salad, dill pickles and bavarian mustard, $8.90.

The spicy chorizo was up next. The pairing of beans and sour cream made this snag feel more Mexican than Spanish, but I'm cool with that. It's hard to go wrong with that punchy arrangement.

spicy spanish pork sausage with pinto beans, shredded lettuce, sour cream, jalapenos and house tomato sauce, $8.90.

The pork and sage is quite possibly our favourite out of all the ones we've tried so far. I'm not convinced by the airy, flaxen crackling - I usually go for the dark and handsome kind - but overall, with the salad and aioli, this was a beguilingly fresh and sophisticated dog with a gentle disposition. Totally the sort you'd take home to meet your parents.

pork and sage sausage with braised apple and red cabbage, shaved fennel, pork crackling and aioli, $8.90.

Last but not least, cheesy fries. The fries were just as good as they were the last time, again with that moreish bite - and the sultry bechamel sauce made this a winner all around, so I had to make sure that Simon doesn't steal more than his share. Though you can't really blame him if he tried.

cheesy fries, $6.

Considering how conveniently located they are for us, I think I can safely say that there will most definitely be a third visit to Phat Brats - I've got my eye on the chicken and thyme snag, and the po' boy. Plus more of those fries, of course.

Phat Brats on Urbanspoon

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Tuesday, 1 May 2012

live below the line: how i ate on AU $2 a day

From May 7th - 11th this year, thousands of people from around the world will be getting a tiny glimpse of what it means to live on the poverty line when they partake in the Live Below the Line challenge.

From the Live Below the Line website:

"Close to a quarter of the world's population lives below the extreme poverty line, which means they have just AU$2 a day or less to cover all their daily expenses - housing, education, health, transport and food.
Surviving on such a tiny amount, almost all their income must be spent on food. Even then, they can generally only afford two basic meals a day.
They have little to no money left for the other necessities of life - and if anything ever goes wrong they have no safety net to rely on. They are often the victims of broken systems: lacking access to the education, services and the job opportunities they need to break the cycle of poverty.

Live Below the Line seeks to combat extreme poverty in two distinct ways: raising funds for educational opportunities in the developing world, and creating widespread awareness of this important issue (HINT: conversations are the key!)."

I've always thought I was pretty frugal. But having a skimpy AU$10 to spend on food for 5 days? That's a big challenge. One I wasn't sure I could meet.

I decided to give it an early go, last week, and I am glad to say that I have emerged triumphant. Yes, it's possible. No, it's not easy. Yes, I now appreciate what I have, more than ever... and I hope this post will go a little way towards contributing to the cause and the conversation.

A Golden Delicious apple. With its droopy stem, it almost seems as if this apple sympathises with my plight.

First things first. This is a food blog, after all, and I'll bet you want to know what I ate over those 5 days, and how I suffered. (Yes you do, you schadenfreudenistic ol' pal, you!)

The key is to plan ahead. Fortunately, I shop for food often, so I have a list of usual suspects, in terms of the type of things I can usually get cheaply, and when and where to get them.

I knew this was going to be a big week for carbohydrates - pasta or rice was definitely on the table. Another aim was to get some cheap protein, either tofu, canned sardines, eggs or offal. I also thought about lentils or chickpeas, and I hoped to have enough left over to squeeze in some fruits and green vegetables.

Markets tend to go crazy in the half an hour leading up to closing time, especially on the weekends. Sometimes you can get great value on staples in ethnic grocery stores. The big supermarkets will occasionally turn up with a decent discount.

One way of looking at this is to think about how many calories/kilojoules you need to keep you going for 5 days, and what you can buy with your money to get close to that figure. You want something that will fill you up, and hopefully be reasonably nutritious too.

So draft out a tentative meal plan before the challenge, but be prepared to be flexible, and keep an eye out for good deals. Once you get your ingredients, draft out a properly adjusted meal plan. I spent most of my money during the days leading up to the actual event, but had a couple of dollars reserved, which I was very glad to have for the wriggle room it provided. I spent most of that towards the end of my challenge, and even managed to splurge on ice cream and chocolate! Guilty glee!

What I bought:

I sourced most of my fresh produce from South Melbourne Market, and dried staples from Cato in Prahran. If I'd been organised enough, I would've also made a trip to Aldi and Queen Victoria Market, where I suspect I would've gotten more bang for my buck. I got my condiments from Japanese grocery Fujimart in South Yarra, where I was lucky enough to find heavily discounted individual miso sachets.

I did this on my own, but if you can get someone to participate in the challenge with you, you get to pool your money and share the bounty, which means more buying power, and better variety.

Oh, and one more thing. If you're not at home most of the time, get used to preparing your food well in advance, then packing it and bringing it with you. Don't want to sit down at work only to realise you forgot your lunchbox! (Luckily, that never happened to me. Phew.)

But enough talk. Here's what I got for those 5 days, in the order of how much they cost.

500g chicken livers = $2.25
1 bag apples = $1
1 bag potatoes = $1
500g pasta = $1
200g dried chickpeas = $1
1 bag carrots = $0.80
1 head broccoli = $0.70
1 packet spicy Korean instant noodles = $0.55
1 stash chocolate = $0.50
1 McDonald's soft serve ice cream cone = $0.30
4 sachets miso @ $0.05 each = $0.20
1 sachet soy sauce = $0.10

Grand total = $9.40

That macaroni-like pasta is paternosti lisci, and it works well in soups.

How I did:

On Sunday night (the day before I started my challenge), I cooked up a big batch of miso pasta stew/soup with the potatoes, carrots and chicken liver, and this formed my main meals for most of the challenge. Whenever I ate this, I was confronted with an odd mix of emotions. Jaded resignation as I faced the same dish again - and yet - anticipatory joy, as this was carefully rationed food that would finally stave off the increasing spectre of hunger.

I was grateful for my apples - I had eight large ones, and I'd have one for breakfast, and sometimes one later in the afternoon or evening as a snack. Crisp, fresh, and tangy, they were just what I needed to break up the monotony of the never-ending pasta soup.

I had boiled chickpeas for brunch a couple of times. They were reasonably filling, though a touch of salt would've been nice.

I found the challenge most daunting on the first day. In fact, I caved in that night and treated myself to an ice cream cone from McDonald's for 30 cents! I adapted to my new routine and expectations soon enough, though, and found the subsequent days somewhat easier to take in stride.

I didn't really socialise much during the challenge, but on Thursday, we had a birthday celebration in the office for a colleague, and I had to forgo cake. (I did sneakily save a slice so I could indulge after I finished the challenge, though...)

On my last day, I got something different for dinner. I had finally ran out of pasta, so I enjoyed spicy noodles with broccoli, plus chocolate for dessert, all of which I bought with some of the leftover money I had. The broccoli gave me as much pleasure as the chocolate, as I had so missed having green vegetables. Hurrah!

And then - I looked forward to midnight, to the dawn of a new day, when everything would return to normal. The occasional snack. The occasional takeaway. The abundance and the variety. All the everyday indulgences I took for granted. The whole world opened up with possibilities again.

For me, at least.

For others, this is their normal, and for them, there is no end in sight. It is a sobering thought, and one that I hope to never take lightly, in the days to come.

For more information on the Live Below the Line challenge (which will run in United States, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand), or to donate to the cause, please go to the Live Below the Line website here. I can't stomach the idea of doing this all over again for the official challenge, but if you would like to sponsor one of my food blogger friends, fatboo and winceee, that would be great! (Sponsor links now removed as they are no longer valid.)

If you want a breakdown on where the money goes, see here.

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