Summertime, and the grilling is easy: verses 1 to 3

When Australians travel overseas, it is not uncommon for them to be asked to describe Australian cuisine. After all, the typical foods of most other countries are pretty well known; and businesses preparing these dishes can be found in most large cities around the world. Think Italian and Chinese, for starters! But how often have you seen a food establishment offering Australian dishes in, say, Paris, San Francisco, Tokyo, or Istanbul? (London, yes, but that’s mainly to cater for homesick Aussies; or Singapore, but that’s in our neighbourhood.)

Providing an authentic answer to such a question is complicated by two general facts about Australia. Firstly, Australia occupies an entire continent, similar in size to the USA, with a great diversity of climates and geographical features. Secondly, a large proportion of the population are either immigrants or are descended from persons who migrated here less than 100 years ago; there has been little time to develop national or even regional culinary traditions.

There is, however, one method of cooking which is common to all parts of Australia, even if to varying extents according to climate: barbecuing on a grill, over flame or radiated heat, mostly outdoors but occasionally indoors, eg restaurants. In so doing, we have built on one of the main cooking methods of the original inhabitants and incorporated the preferred ingredients and flavours of each wave of immigrants.

We have recently entered the summer period in Australia. In Melbourne, this was preceded by an extended winter, so Maggie and I are making up for lost time by using our Weber Q barbecue to prepare the centrepiece of most of our main meals. And this season, we have set out to apply new flavours and methods to some of our favourite cuts of meat.

Here are three of the new items on our char-grilling menu, tested and modified to the point of complete dining pleasure.

Rump steak

Bought from a reputable butcher, this cut of beef has good flavour and, if given a good rest after it is cooked, won’t be too chewy. Beef rump steaks also cope quite well with being marinaded.

You can find the recipe that we took as our starting point here.

We have made two small changes to the recipe and, having just two mouths to feed, we have also halved the overall volume of marinade to produce enough for up to 700g or 1½ pounds of steak. So, our list of ingredients is:

3 cloves garlic, crushed or grated
1 tsp Dijon mustard
15ml Worcestershire sauce
15ml balsamic vinegar
15ml soy sauce
>¼ tsp black pepper
30ml olive oil

Marinade the meat overnight and turn it in the morning.

The balsamic vinegar helps to produce a good char on the meat but some people could find it a little too sweet; use just 10ml if that is the case. And you might feel that the soy sauce makes the end result a little too salty; again, use just 10ml.

   

Pork shoulder chops

As Martha Stewart alludes in her recipe, pork shoulder chops are suitable for chargrilling because there is more marbling in their meat. So, they don’t dry out too much. A pork loin chop, say, would become tough to eat when barbecued; not very wise when your teeth are as old as mine!

We have made some modifications to the original recipe and dispensed with the barbecue sauce element altogether.

We find that one large pork shoulder chop has enough meat for the two of us; we fill out the meal with such side dishes as a Waldorf salad or a fresh fennel and orange salad.

For that one chop, we slash the rind at 3cm intervals, to help reduce curling during the grilling process, and make the marinade paste from: 12 fresh sage leaves, shredded; 2-3 cloves of garlic, grated or crushed; 1 tsp salt; and 1 tsp olive oil. As instructed by Martha, we cover the chop with an everyday beer – no need to go boutique for this job – an hour before cooking the chop.

Once the grill is very hot, we cook the drained chop on one side for 8 minutes, then flip it and cook for a further 7 minutes. The end result is juicy and delicious.

   

   

Butterflied quail

The third recipe in our current repertoire of cooking in an Australian style was actually created by a local chef, leading chef/restaurateur Neil Perry.

You can read the original recipe here.

With our modifications, the list of ingredients is:

3 cloves garlic, grated
2 cm piece of ginger, grated
2 spring onions (white part), finely chopped
1 tsp sugar (in lieu of maltose)
30ml soy sauce (2 tbsp in Australia = 40ml)
30ml oyster sauce
1 tsp white pepper
1 tsp Chinese five-spice powder
1 tbsp Chinese cooking wine
2 tsp sesame oil

We have modified the cooking method too.  We prefer to cook the quail for 4 minutes skin-side up, 3 mins skin-side down, then a further 1 min skin-side up. In our Weber Q, this sequence ensures that the skin becomes attractively charred, with minimal loss of skin from sticking to the grill.

   

Quail isn’t everyone’s idea of an appealing food – it can be fiddly to get at the meat and it has a gamey flavour. However, we enjoy it on a regular basis and this recipe produces a delicious result during Australia’s barbecue season.

(In a subsequent post, I will share recipes for barbecuing veal escallops and sections of lamb leg.)

Title note: click here to hear Billie Holliday’s rendition of Summertime

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Char-grilled pork belly cubes

Here in Melbourne, we are in the last week of the calendar’s Spring. After complaining about the cold weather and needing to heat our home for much of the first half of November – the coldest start to the month in decades – we are suddenly in the midst of our city’s longest end-of-Spring heatwave in recorded history. Go figure!

Naturally, we are now using our Weber Q to prepare the main elements of our evening meals. Until recently, the meats we char-grill on the Weber would usually be cuts from beef, lamb or chicken, as well as prawns or calamari from time to time. But over the last year or so, we have begun to add pork, veal and quail to the mix.

Last night, we cooked ourselves some cubes of pork belly, flavoured before grilling with a spicy paste. It was delicious and here is how we did it.

As you know, pork belly has a high fat content, so we render much of that fat and enhance the texture of the meat by simmering it in a flavoured stock for an hour or so. I have previously posted the recipe for this procedure.

Once the pork has cooled, we cut it into cubes, about 3cm x 3cm square. Then we apply the paste to the surfaces of each cube.You don’t have to do this very far in advance, as it is a superficial flavouring rather than a marinade; one hour is plenty.

We set up our Weber for grilling but we place an open trivet on top of the main grill, to make it easier to manage the cubes as we cook them. Once the temperature is quite high, say, 400C, we put the pieces of pork on the trivet, with one of the meaty sides facing down. After 5 minutes under the lid, we turn each piece, some of them going skin-side down, others as dictated by gravity!?

After a further 4 to 5 minutes, with some attractive charring, the pork cubes are ready to be taken off the grill.

Here are some ‘before and after’ shots. We served them with two salads: shaved fennel & fresh orange segments with some vinaigrette dressing; and chunks of boiled, fresh beetroot dressed with a combination of sour cream, mayonnaise and grated horseradish.

Paste for flavouring pork belly to be char-grilled

5-6 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
2 tsp sea salt
3-4 cm piece of ginger, peeled and grated
2 tsp chilli flakes
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp olive oil
1-1½ tbsp sherry (or red wine) vinegar

Place all the ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Leftover paste can be stored in a well-sealed container in your freezer.

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Not your typical variety of Australian national garden!

Here in Melbourne, we’ve had an atypical spring season. For much of September and October, the weather pattern was dominated by strong, cold winds, without the mitigating presence of good rainfall. Then, late in October, we had a short burst of warm days, quickly followed by a cold, showery beginning to November. The coldest in 23 years, in fact!

Finally, the showers eased and the temperature sputtered its way towards 20C, giving us a window of opportunity for an open-air outing. (Today we are being punished for our impatience, with a maximum of 33C or 91F.)

We decided to venture into a range of hills, known as the Dandenongs, which overlook the eastern half of Melbourne. Much of this range is covered with thick Australian native bush and tall forest trees, including some groves of temperate rainforest. However, our chosen destination was a garden largely devoid of Australian plants: the National Rhododendron Garden.

The soils and climate of the Dandenongs, with good winter rainfall and summer fogs, are well suited to growing rhododendrons and such related species as camellia and azalea. So, in 1960, a group of rhododendron enthusiasts persuaded the government of the day to set aside a large parcel of land which had already been stripped of most of its eucalypts and other native plants. Soon, they had begun to create a garden planted with rhododendrons from the diverse regions of the globe to which they are native.

More than half a century later, the garden has flourished to become a popular destination for both tourists and Melbourne residents. The garden is now managed by Parks Victoria and will soon be given the status of a botanical garden. You can learn more about the garden here.

The grounds of the National Rhododendron Garden also contain numerous picnic tables , garden bench-seats, a cafe and a gift shop. Here are some more photos from the pleasant hour or so we spent wandering along the well-made paths.

     

   

  

 

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Aussie-flavoured pudding fit for festivities

In the 1960s and ’70s, when Maggie and I were growing up in Melbourne, the food that was served during festivities associated with Christmas Day reflected the predominantly British heritage of the Australian population. Yes, the mass migrations from southern and central Europe following the second world war meant that there were thousands of Australians who adhered to different festive-food traditions, but we were blissfully unaware of them and our anglocentric media did little to enlighten us.

So, despite our antipodean climate, with Christmas Day temperatures often above 30 degrees Celsius, we would sit down to meals in which the feature items included roast stuffed turkey, baked ham, steamed ‘Christmas’ pudding and brandy custard. The only Australian twist in the typical menu was a prawn cocktail. (Happily, contemporary festive menus are much more aligned with our climate.)

The pudding, packed with a variety of dried fruits, would be full of flavour but it could also feel uncomfortably heavy in the belly. This was especially the case when the pudding’s fat content was derived from the beef fat known as suet.

About 15 years ago, I twice made such puddings, ie using suet. It was a smelly exercise while the pudding was going through the hours of its initial cooking. However, it must have been an exceptional recipe, as I don’t have any other bad memories of it.

Then I came across a recipe in an autobiography written by Ian Parmenter, an Australian television producer who was also an excellent cook. Ian’s recipe included ground macadamia nuts, which was the only source of fat or oil in the pudding. His other innovation was to use dark beer, or stout, as the main source of moisture. In deference to the indigenous macadamia nut, as well as the local dried fruits, Ian called it an ‘Australian Christmas Pudding’.

Within weeks I had made two puddings using Ian’s recipe. I was enchanted at how pleasant it was to prepare and cook, and how light it was to eat, compared to a traditional pudding.

You can find the recipe here. The only changes I have made are to vary the spices – I use ½ tsp grated nutmeg, ½ tsp powdered ginger, ½ tsp powdered cinnamon; add the brandy to the pudding mix rather than flame it over the pudding before serving; and to cover the puddings with two sheets of aluminium foil rather than cloth.

Maggie and I made a batch of the puddings ahead of the recent lunch we hosted for the 70th birthday of one of my cousins. Victoria is a vegetarian and we wanted to give her one of the puddings as a birthday present.

Last week we decided to heat up one of the two remaining puddings – the mix had stretched to three bowls – and enjoy it with friends who were coming for dinner before heading overseas for a month. To heat the pudding, I suggest you take it out of your fridge at least one hour beforehand and then heat just as if you were cooking it for the first time, ie in boiling water that comes at least half way up the outside of the bowl, for about 2 hours.

We served it with some low-fat ice-cream and a good quality commercial vanilla-bean custard. It was delicious, as it has proven to be on three further occasions – it reheats readily in a microwave oven – but you do need to have some sweetness in the bowl to complement the tang of the fruit and the bitter edge of the beer.

   

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Birthday beetroot blush

My late father’s father, who died well before I was born, was the oldest of four brothers. The youngest of those brothers, a renowned architect of the post-war era, had just the one child, a daughter Victoria, who was born in 1947. So, although Victoria is of my father’s generation, she is actually much closer in age to me.

If you do the maths, you will find that Victoria has a special birthday this year; quite recently as it turns out. So, Maggie and I invited her and some other members of the extended Grounds family living in and around Melbourne to come to our home for a celebratory lunch, held last Sunday.

Now, Victoria is a vegetarian, which is not a frequent category of dish in our household, especially when Maggie is sitting at the dinner table. However, we do have a favourite dish of open lasagne featuring cauliflower, mushrooms and hazelnuts. So we decided to prepare eight individual ones and make the pasta ourselves. And I proposed that we make a starter of beetroot & feta terrine, using a recipe which I had road-tested when Maggie spent a few days with her son and his family a few weeks ago. Everyone else undertook to prepare either a salad or a dessert, to round out the menu.

I found the original recipe, for beetroot and feta soufflés, on the internet.  I made some changes from the outset, Maggie and I made further modifications in the lead up to the lunch and I have also formalised the various elements of the recipe. Here it is, followed by some photos which show some of the key steps, followed by the finished product, as served to our guests.

Ingredients

400g beetroot (300g for soufflé), dirt and roots removed
15ml olive oil
½ tsp each of salt, cumin seeds and fennels seeds
4-6 sprigs of thyme
40ml vegetable stock (30ml for soufflé)
25g butter
40g flour
125ml milk
generous pinches of nutmeg and ground black pepper
75g feta cheese, crumbles
15g grated parmesan or pecorino
3 x 67g eggs, separated

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 170C
  2. Cut beetroots into 6-8 wedges, depending on size
  3. Toss beetroot wedges in olive oil, salt, seeds and thyme sprigs and transfer to baking dish lined with baking paper. Roast for about 45 minutes, turning every 15 minutes, until they test just tender to a fork.
  4. When the beetroot wedges have cooled, process them with the vegetable stock. For the terrine, process only briefly to produce a blend that includes plenty of visible small chunks
  5. Melt the butter in a saucepan over a medium heat, add the flour and stir to cook for a minute. Off the heat, add the milk gradually; this is a thick sauce, so it will take a bit of work to make it smooth. Return to the heat and stir constantly until it has thickened.
  6. Preheat oven to 180C
  7. In a bowl, mix the sauce, nutmeg, pepper and processed beetroot together. Add the cheeses and the egg yolks and mix well to combine.
  8. Grease four 1 cup ramekins (three for soufflés), dust with plain flour and shake out any excess.
  9. Whisk the egg whites until soft peaks form and gently fold them into the beetroot mixture in 2 or 4 batches.
  10. Divide the mixture evenly between the ramekins and bake in the oven for about 20-25 minutes.
  11. To serve as a terrine, place cooled ramekins in refrigerator for at least two hours, carefully remove the ‘soufflés’ and slice into wedges, about 10 per ramekin.

The following five photos relate to steps 3, 4, 7, 9 and 10 of the method.

  

   

Here are the cooked soufflés, fresh out of the oven.


And here is how we served them at my cousin’s birthday lunch, with a refreshing salad garnish of shaved baby fennel, segments of peeled blood orange, a dash of vinaigrette dressing and a fennel frond. Quite pretty, and very delicious.

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Francakes make apple fans happy

Many moons ago, possibly around the time people stopped believing that the Earth is flat, I was a Boy Scout. I belonged to one of five Scout troops at my school and we would attend regular weekend or vacation camps at a bush property owned by the school, where each patrol would set up sleeping and kitchen tents, do some hiking and other typical Scout activities, and cook our own meals.

By the time I joined the Scouts, I was already interested in cooking, so I willingly put my hand up to help prepare the meals and, within a couple of years, that job became mine on a regular basis, freeing me from such chores as digging latrines, hauling water up from the creek, collecting firewood and putting up the tents.

So, I have fond and vivid memories of the food we ate during Scout camps, including a dish of apple fritters. We would be given the raw ingredients and a recipe and the rest was up to us – making the batter, peeling the apples and cutting them into chunks, heating the oil for semi-deep frying and keeping the fritters warm to serve after the last fritter had been cooked.

From time to time during my adult years, I’ve had a hankering to relive the pleasure of eating an apple fritter, except for the semi-deep frying-in-oil part. Eventually, well just last year, I came across a recipe, in a blog I used to follow, which solved the challenge by using grated apple. Yes, I know. Blindingly obvious! (I have tried, without success, to find the original recipe, in order to give credit where it is due.)

Here is our modified version of that recipe, producing a moist and flavoursome result, known affectionately in our kitchen as an apple francake.

Ingredients

1 cup plain flour
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp baking powder
1 tbsp sugar
>½ tsp mixed spice
1 egg
½ cup milk
¼ cup Greek yogurt
½ tsp vanilla extract
1 large apple, peeled, quartered, cored and grated

Method

  1. In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients: flour, salt, baking powder, sugar and mixed spice.
  2. Whisk together the egg, milk, yogurt and vanilla in a smaller bowl.
  3. Combine the wet and dry ingredients with a mixing spoon or whisk. Do not overmix. When the batter is just combined, gently fold in the grated apple.
  4. Warm a non-stick frying pan over medium heat and melt a little butter. Drop large spoonfuls of batter onto the pan and flatten with the back of the spoon.  Cook until golden brown on the bottom, just over 2 minutes, then flip and cook for another minute or so.
  5. Serve with cream or ice cream, to taste.

Just one tip: if the middle of your cooked francakes seems to be a bit ‘doughy’ in texture, you might have put too much batter in the pan, as we have done sometimes. A case of less is more. In the last photo, the base of our pan is about 15cm (6″) wide, so each francake is about 7cm x 10cm; 6 x 9 would have been better.

   

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Fennel-flavoured feed of duck

The weather has been quite wintry since mid-July, when Maggie and I returned to Melbourne from our travels in North America. Even when the clouds have cleared to let some sunshine in, cold winds have made it feel bleaker than it looks.

So, for the last seven weeks, all of our meals have been prepared and consumed indoors. And, in the main, we have reprised some of our favourite cold-weather dishes. Think boeuf bourguignon, chicken cacciatore, beef goulash, spicy pork steaks, corned beef, spag bol, cauliflower & mushroom lasagne, homemade burgers, steamed mussels, minestrone, braised duck marylands, roast quail, fish curry and veal osso buco.

However, we have made room for three new recipes, one inspired by some belt-tightening, the other two by our local supermarket introducing a regular bargain-priced offering of good quality duck breasts and whole quail.

The belt-tightening – a rehearsal for living on a modest, fixed income one year soon – has lead us to use cheaper cuts of beef more often, assigning the more expensive cuts to special occasion dining. Taking advantage of ‘specials’, we have produced enough food to provide us with six dinners each using less than $25 of what is known here as gravy beef; some of you might know it as ‘shin’ beef.

We use this cut to produce both boeuf bourguignon and beef goulash. However, keen to expand our repertoire of cheap-but-tasty meals, we went looking for a third option. The one we found most appealing was located by Googling ‘how to cook the perfect beef casserole or stew’. This took me to one in the regular series of ‘how to cook perfect …’, published in the British newspaper The Guardian. (My good friend Bill introduced me to this column last year and I have gone to it several times since.)

You can read the beef stew column here. It worked well enough but the flavours and textures fell just a little short of what we experience with our two established faves. Still, we might give it another try next year, after we return to yet another local winter from northern hemisphere travels (Scotland and Norway, more news of that another time).

The novelty of nearby access to fresh quail prompted another search. This time, I found something on the Australian recipe website taste.com, for a dish called hunter-style-quail. (That would be quaglia cacciatore in Italy.) The recipe worked well enough but, when we make a second attempt, we will delete the red-wine vinegar – it served no purpose and made the sauce so astringent that we needed to go to some lengths in order to rescue it.

The third new recipe took advantage of the local supply of duck breast. Again, we found it on the taste.com website, one of more than 50 recipes featuring duck breast. Only a few of these recipes appealed as a source of winter comfort and this one struck a chord for us with orange and fennel in the mix of ingredients.

We began to modify the recipe from the outset, made further changes before our second attempt and have tweaked it yet again to settle on the recipe below.

We served it on a bed of basmati rice and mixed quinoa (two parts to one), with the salad as a side dish. The slightly untidy look of the sauce on top of the duck meat is due to the fact that we choose not to strain the fibre out of our hand-squeezed orange juice.

And here is how it looked the second time we made it, with the orange juice strained and some further tweaking of the recipe.


Ingredients

Spice rub
4 tsp fennel seeds
4 tsp cumin seeds
generous pinch of chilli flakes
3 tsp whole black peppercorns
2 tsp salt flakes
2 duck breasts

Sauce for 2 duck breasts
125ml fresh orange juice
100ml dry red wine
125ml chicken stock
1 tsp port-style wine
1½ tsp caster sugar
½-1 whole star anise
a few dashes of thick cream, to taste

Salad
1/2 small fennel bulb, trimmed and finely sliced
1 small or 1/2 a large flavoursome orange, peeled and cut into small segments (remove as much pith and membranous material as you can)
vinaigrette dressing

Method

  1. Place the spices in a small non-stick pan over low heat for 2 minutes. Transfer spices to a mortar and pestle with the salt and crush, then grind to a fine powder. This will produce enough powder for for six duck breasts.
  2. Score the skin of the duck breasts in a diagonal criss-cross pattern (see photo below).
  3. Using one-third of the spice powder, rub it into the skin and flesh of the duck breasts. Cover and refrigerate for at least two hours. Remove from the fridge at least 30 minutes before cooking.
  4. Heat a non-stick pan over medium heat, place the breasts in the pan skin-side down and cook for 4 minutes. Turn and cook for a further 2 minutes. Turn again and cook on the skin side for 2 more minutes. Remove pan from heat and transfer breasts to a warm plate.
  5. Remove all but 15-20ml of the rendered duck fat from the pan; try to scrape out as much of the gritty spice residue as possible. Return pan to heat, add orange juice, wine, stock, port wine, star anise and caster sugar to the pan, bring to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer until reduced by at least half, to produce a thickish syrup (12-15 minutes). Adjust seasoning, especially salt, and finish with some cream, as suits your taste.
  6. Return the duck breasts to the pan and cook gently for 4-6 minutes, until cooked to your liking. Cut breasts into slices, serve on warmed plates and spoon the sauce over the meat.
  7. Meanwhile, make the salad by scattering the fennel across the base of a dish, add the pieces of orange and spoon some vinaigrette dressing over the top (see photo below).

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