Grow your own – Chilli’s Chilli’s Chilli’s (Week 1)

For a country that is so heavily influenced culinarily by Southeast Asia, Australia sucks for chilli’s.  Some Aussies have a palatal penchant for the peppery pain, but for the most part, we’re a population that would rather eat a Vegemite Pizza (I shit you not) than sweat through a Vindaloo Pork.

Yes, I’d eat it. Vegemite Pizza sounds like a culinary fusion made in Italo-Austral heaven. Photo courtesy of fellow food blogger Wasabi’s Food Safari,

Add to this the fact that Aussies seem to have made a connection that equates Chilli’s to pain and suffering, and we have decided not to explore the multitude of mild chilli’s out there that taste absolutely amazing.  Even Capsicums (aka Bell Peppers) have been called Capsicums as if to deny their Chilli heritage.  Yes people, the Capsicum is a Chilli pepper.

Zero on the Scoville scale…the mildest Chilli of them all

One of the main disadvantages of this capsaicin averse culture, is that those of us who enjoy the occasional chilli cleansing have a difficult time finding a good range of chilli’s to satisfy the craving, and that most of the chilli sauces you do find, are Asian based and packed with sugar.

To this end, I have turned to the garden.  It’s not that I have a green thumb, God knows I don’t, but I am tired of not being able to get the chilli’s I want…and not just the hot ones.  So 4 of us at work pooled our resources (meaning cash), and we spent $100 on a decent variety of Chilli seeds to try and plant ourselves.

Two weeks later, and a small package arrives in the mail, filled with 11 varieties of Chilli’s, and my new adventure begins.

For the next few months I am going to keep you all updated with my growing efforts, and report weekly (with photographs, hopefully) on the progress of my micro crop.  I will use these subsequent posts to tell you about the chilli’s I have planted, and maybe give some recipes for each of the varieties to show that not all that is Chilli is hot.  Of course, some of the Chilli’s I have planted arrived with a health warning, and are so hot that you might have to put latex gloves on just to read the blog and view the pictures.

The rest of today’s blog, is guaranteed pain free however, as I will show you what I’ve done to get these Chilli seeds started.  15 types of seeds, with the 11 shipped and 4 I already had (thanks to Cec at work).

Using my collection of empty paper egg cartons (see honey, I told you collecting them would come in handy some day…I might just soundproof a room with the other hundred or so I have) I fill each “cup” with a heaping of potting mix. Tamp each carton down with another carton, and voila!

A single seed in each cup, and label the cartons so I don’t forget which is which (a good plan, given the potency of some of these chilli’s).
The magic of Photoshop clears the writing away, because I am going to unveil the varieties one week at a time.

A final covering of potting mix, and a good watering using a Seaweed based fertilizer (I hope that was a good idea), and my babies are ready.
4 of each of the 15 varieties…60 seeds in total.

And now we play the waiting game.  I’ll keep these watered, and hopefully before too long we’ll see some action.

Next week, I’ll talk about the first 3 varieties.

Scorched Calimari – Recipe

Scorched Calimari – Recipe.

Pineapple Upside Down Cake

I am not much of a baker.  I think that good cooking requires an understanding of balance and flavour combinations, whilst baking requires precision.  Baking is as much about controlling a reaction, as it is developing flavours, and I just don’t have the experience in the genre to be able to do it well.

My style of cooking usually involves looking a recipe and using it as a base for inspiration, taking the concept and making it my own.  Vary from a recipe for a cake, or a cookie, at your peril.  You’re not just altering the taste, you’re altering the behaviour.  And whilst that’s not quite as important in general cooking, when baking you can be left with disastrous results.

So, when my family requests something for desert, I usually shudder a little on the inside.

A cake I can actually bake…well, almost

Fortunately, here is a recipe that I have been able to tweak and reproduce consistently.  I am not going to say I’ve “mastered” it, because I haven’t.  In fact, tonight this cake ended up being cooked in two sessions.  The second session because the first slice through the middle demonstrated that I had cooked a very pale looking lava cake.  Unfortunately, this cake should not flow.

All you need to make the magic happen

Ingredients:

Base

  • 60g Softened Butter
  • 1/2 Cup Brown Sugar
  • 1 x 440g Sliced Pineapple (in juice, not syrup)

Batter

  • 125g Softened Butter
  • 1/2 Cup Caster (or Superfine) Sugar
  • 2 Eggs
  • 1 1/2 Cups Self-Raising Flour
  • 1/3 Cup Milk
  • 1 tsp Vanilla Essence
  • 1/3 Cup Crushed Pineapple

Method:

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees and grease and line a baking dish with baking paper.  Drain the pineapple slices, and dry them on a paper towel or absorbent cloth.  Whip the brown sugar and 60g Butter until creamy and spread the butter/sugar mix on the bottom of the pan.  Place the pineapple slice on top of the mix.

Cream the remaining butter and sugar, then beat in the vanilla, and the eggs, one at a time.  Add the milk and self-raising flour, 1/3 at a time, alternating each addition.   Stir in the crushed pineapple.

Pour the batter onto the pineapples, and smooth the top using a spatula.

Ready for the hot box…get baking!

Cook in the 180 degree oven for 45 minutes, and test with a skewer for doneness before removing (a step I failed to do).

Let cool for 10 minutes before turning out onto a dish and peeling away the paper.  Let cool a little longer and serve!

Finished! Well, almost. Those bakers out there will notice the tell tale pale gooey centre threatening to erupt from between the rings of pineapple. 10 more minutes, and it would have been perfect!

Anyway, cooking time aside, the result was delicious.  The texture of the base (which obviously becomes the top) is such a great contrast to the moist cake and soft pineapple.

I would certainly recommend serving this whilst still warm, with a generous scoop of Vanilla Bean Ice-Cream.  Unfortunately for us, we were fresh out of ice-cream (or cream for that matter).  Still, the cake was delicious enough by itself.

Curried Balsamic Onion Jam

Ingredients:

Ingredients

  • 5 Large Onions (about 1.3kg or 3 pounds)
  • 1/3 Cup Brown Sugar
  • 1/2 Cup Balsamic Vinegar
  • 4 Tbsp Curry Powder
  • 1/2 Tbsp Salt
  • Chilli to taste (optional)
  • 1 Tbsp Butter

Method:

Beautiful Onion

Peel and slice the onions about medium thickness.  I use a mandolin for speed and consistency, but be wary.  Mandolins can bite.  Always use the guard.

A medium thickness slice

In a large saucepan (with a lid), over medium heat, melt the butter until it starts to become fragrant.  Add the onions, and sprinkle the salt on top.  Then add the Curry powder, and place the lid on the saucepan.

Add the curry powder and salt

Cook, stirring every few minutes, until the onions have broken down, and have become translucent.  You want them cooked, but not caramelized.

Cooked but not caramelized

Add the brown sugar and vinegar, and stir to combine.  Put the saucepan back on the stove, and cook while stirring, until all of the liquid is about gone, and the mix is resembling a sticky jam.  Taste, and season accordingly.

Cooked and ready to bottle

Put the mix into sterilized jar, and keep in the fridge for use.

Finished, and ready for the Steak Sandwich

Best uses?

  • Hamburgers/Steak Sandwiches
  • A great topper for Roast Pork or Lamb
  • Serve with your favorite Chop
  • A spoonful on top of Mashed Potatoes
  • Serve alongside a piece of fried cheese, like Haloumi or Saganaki

This is probably close to a chutney really, but it doesn’t have any of the fruitiness that most chutneys have, by virtue of the fact that it is only made from onions!  Still, it packs a huge hit of sweetness, which is nicely balanced by the spice of the curry and the acidity of the balsamic vinegar.  Without any chilli added, it is as mild as the curry powder you choose, but I would recommend you choose the best curry powder you can find.  It will make a difference.  I added about a teaspoon of cayenne pepper powder at the end, and it has a small kick that would be mild enough for all but those really sensitive to the heat.

The inspiration for the jam came from tonight’s dinner menu.  Having got my hands on some Eye Fillet steak, we had steak sandwiches with salad and chips, and the onion jam was outstanding on the sandwich.  It’s not always that the reality lives up to the inspiration, but tonight it did.

Enjoy!

Eastern Port Yum Cha

One thing Mackay doesn’t lack is Asian Restaurants.  Unfortunately, they mostly cater to the quick lunch trade, and are focused on pushing out a fast meal, rather than a good meal.  Sure, there are a few exceptions to this, but for the most part I have been disappointed in the quality of Chinese (and other SE Asian influenced dishes) that I have found so far.

Just looking at this makes me hungry

A new restaurant set on the perimeter of a Shopping Centre, and within a stones throw of a Sizzler, did not raise my hopes of Eastern Port being any different.

Walking into the restaurant, it ticks off most of the prerequisites for a typical Chinese restaurant.  There’s the ornamental fish tank behind the maitre ‘d stand, there’s a row of fish tanks vigorously bubbling away while lobsters, fish, and large crab peer out at diners, and there’s a rack of glossy tanned ducks hanging behind glass, just inside the kitchen.  Coupled with the rest of the modern decor, with Chinese art and cultural hints, Eastern Port actually pulls of a neat trick of providing a pleasant dining atmosphere whilst food service staff scurry busily pushing yum-cha carts around tables of hurried diners surrounded by prams, shopping carts, and plastic store bags full of groceries and department store essentials.

It’s not a real Chinese Restaurant unless it has one of these

Eastern Port also has a small curb-side dining area, as well as the tables inside the restaurant itself, which is consistent with the other cafe’s and eateries in the area.  It also makes a great place to people watch on a sunny afternoon, as you are enjoying a prolonged yum-cha session.

Jeri and I are quickly led to our seats (inside), and it is seconds before the yum-cha cart arrives, offering it’s wares for the luncheon rush.  We both decide that we want to look at the menu before deciding on what we will select.  Immediately my eyes are drawn to the laksa.  Now, there aren’t many things that I would prefer to eat than yum-cha.  I love Chinese dumplings like fat kids love chocolate.  But Curry laksa is one of those dishes.

It also shows both the good and bad in Australian Asian restaurants.  There are not too many places where you will find yum-cha sharing menu space with laksa, and your trip across Asia doesn’t end with China and Malaysia.  The menu also includes Thai tom yum , Singapore noodles, mee and nasi Goreng from Indonesia.  The menu is, however, predominantly Chinese and Malay, so I decide to give the laksa a chance.  In a shock, Jeri also orders a soup.  Wonton soup is her choice, which surprises me as she is a self proclaimed soup disliker (ok, hater would have been too strong a word, so I chose to make one up instead).

Just after the waiter scurries off to bark the order at the kitchen staff, the yum-cha chart stops at our table and we are encouraged to choose from the dozen or so offerings.  Not today, we explain…we’ve ordered from the menu.  Confused, the cart operator races off to the next table.  It seems they really want to sell yum-cha.

A good looking Laksa right there

Less than 10 minutes later, our soups arrive with a flourish of fragrant steam, and the moment of truth is upon us.

Now, as a lover of laksa I have eaten it hundreds of times, and I have had the pleasure of eating some of the best, and the misfortune of being disppointed by some of the worst, including an insipid version last week from another local noodle bar, but this laksa was actually quite good.

The good:

Well balanced, and reasonably flavourful, I would have to concede that it was the best laksa I have had in Mackay.

As a seafood laksa, the prawns were generous, and the vegetables were fresh and vibrant.

The bad:

I thought the broth could have had more flavour.  It’s really the key part of a good laksa, and it just let it down a little.

The squid and the mussels were also over cooked, which is a really difficult ask for a laksa, but I have had perfectly cooked and tender squid in a laksa in the past.  Also, the tofu was a non event, as was the fish cake (too bland and thin).

I also felt that there should have been more condiments on the side to customize the flavour.  The sambal that was included had no kick at all, and the soup really needed it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely going back to the Eastern Port, and I’m also going to recommend the laksa as a good option.  The issues I have are purely a question of degrees of flavour…the flavour was there, and the soup was good, it just lacked some key elements that could have made it great.

Crayfish, Crab, and Dumpling Steamers…maybe next time

I’m also looking forward to trying their yum-cha some day, and even exploring a little deeper into their menu of South East Asian standards.  For this visit, however, I am going to give it 3.5 little piggies.

Master stock – Are you ready for the commitment?

There are two things in a kitchen that say “I’m really serious about my cooking”.  One is a well aged sour-dough starter, whilst the other is a master stock.

Both of these things can, and do, last decades, and in some extraordinary circumstances, can be traced back to centuries.  Obviously, through use and replenishment, the origins of the stock or starter are long gone, but history behind these culinary natural wonders show a level of commitment that goes above and beyond what the normal home chef might do these days.

I have been wanting to get both going on my kitchen for quite some time, and thanks to a mid-week discussion at work, today marks the birth of my own master stock. The sour-dough?  Well, that will need to wait for another day.

A master stock is a flavoured broth that is used to poach meat; typically pork, fish or fowl (including chicken, duck, etc).  Originating in Cantonese cuisine, it’s base is usually water, soy sauce, and Shaoxing wine (Chinese rice wine).  To this liquid base, a variety of aromatics and spices can be added, though these usually include: star anise, citrus peel, peppercorns (often Szechuan), cassia bark (cinnamon), ginger, garlic, mushrooms, onions, and/or shallots.

My master stock consists of the following (at least for now):

Simple beginnings – The birth of my Master Stock

Ingredients:

  • 1.5 litres water (purified or filtered)
  • 1 cup Soy Sauce
  • 1 cup Chinese rice wine
  • 150g Palm Sugar
  • Peel from 1/2 mandarine
  • 4 x Star Anise
  • 4 x Cardamom pods
  • 1 Tbsp Garlic
  • 1 Tbsp Ginger
  • 1 Tbsp Chicken stock power (low sodium)
  • 3/4 Tbsp Peppercorns
  • 2 tsp Cinnamon

Method:

Bring all of the ingredients to boil in a large pot.  Reduce the heat and simmer for another 30 minutes.  Store in the fridge or freezer until next use.

Once used, top back up with water and flavourings as you see fit.  Bring back to the boil, and skim off any impurities.  Strain and store as before.

To use a master stock, it is heated in a pot to boiling before the meat is carefully lowered into it.  Then it is brought back to a boil, and then reduced to a simmer until the meat is almost cooked.  The pan is then removed from the heat and the meat allowed to cool in the liquid.  Once the meat has been evacuated, the liquid is returned to the boil, and any impurities skimmed off the top, before it is strained and stored (frozen, usually for home cooks) for use next time.  If needed, the stock can bee topped up with water, or dressed up with more aromatics and spiced, but the usage of the stock over time will gift it a complex flavour that makes each use more sublime than the last.

Keeping a good master stock is an investment, and takes a commitment that goes beyond the world of convenience we currently live in, which is a bit ironic given it is a very simple and quick way to supercharge the flavour in a chicken or slab of pork.  So, take the plunge today and start your own master stock today.  If you get a chance, let me know about your experiences, and what you put in your master stock to add flavour. And sometime in the near future, i’ll let you know how the chicken goes!

Enjoy the meal.

Chicken Lasagne – No boundaries, no borders

There are two schools of thought when it comes to regionalized food.

One school of thought is that you should preserve the recipes and techniques that are synonymous with all of the various regions and cultures found around the world.  That the dish “Spaghetti Bolognese” or “Pot au feu” should be recreated faithfully to the time honoured practices that have made the dish the signature dish of the area in which it was created.  These traditionalists argue that preserving the dish in it’s original form is preserving culture, and that changing it whilst maintaining the name is perpetuating a lie that will ultimately dilute the truth bring about it’s eventual demise.

Pot au feu - photo courtesy of Wikipedia

The other school of thought is that food culture evolves, and through exposure to new ingredients and techniques, tastes and recipes develop to maximize the environment of the day.  Culinary preservation is important to document, as history teaches us a lot about why we are what we are today, but preserving recipes for preservation’s sake is to risk losing potentially new and great dishes solely for stubbornness.

I actually take a very uncontroversial view, and believe that there is room for both.  I think that we should preserve dishes exactly as they have been created for centuries, and the food world should work together to ensure that proprietors and restauranteurs worldwide who carry out these traditions are supported and encouraged to continue through future generations…almost as living museums.  Whilst others use these creations as inspiration to take the dish elsewhere, in new and exciting directions.  All dishes, even the classics above, owe their creation to a single departure from some other dish, so you never know when the new gun Chef is actually creating the classic dish of tomorrow.  Even Lasagne, a dish that can evoke many arguments about how to create the best version, is an evolution of French and Greek recipes, with the catalyst change being the hottest new ingredient in the market place, the tomato (courtesy of Christopher Columbus).

A traditional Lasagne - Photo courtesy of Dee Catering & Logistic Services (Western Australia)

This version of Lasagne was inspired by a meal I had in a Restaurant that actually disappointed me.  I saw “Chicken Lasagne” on the menu, and ordered it, but felt the intensity of the tomato based sauce totally killed the chicken in the dish.  Two days later I created this recipe, or something very much like it (as I did not write the original recipe down, it was more the concept that I am replicating here).  In essence, it’s a blending of a creamy chicken Alfredo or Carbonara, using Lasagne techniques and pasta.  It’s one of those dishes that I make that seems to be an instant hit, yet no one seems to have joined the dots and made a version commercially yet…at least I have never seen one in any Restaurant or cookbook.

Chicken Lasagne with cream, bacon & mushrooms.

I hope you get inspired by it and give it a try.  Again, don’t pay too much attention to the recipe itself, just the idea…and make it your own.  Let me know what you do, and how it turns out.

The ingredients to make the magic happen...

Ingredients

  • 1kg Chicken Thighs (boneless & skinless)
  • 200g Mushrooms (Sliced)
  • 200g Rindless Bacon (Julienned)
  • 1 1/2 Red Onions (finely diced)
  • 2 Tbsp Garlic
  • 1 Tablespoons Olive oil
  • 3/4 Cup White Wine (good enough to drink)
  • Zest from 1/2 Lemon
  • Juice from 1 lemon
  • 2 Tablespoons Butter (3 Tbsp if using fresh or pre-cooked pasta)
  • 2 Tablespoons Flour (3 Tbsp if using fresh or pre-cooked pasta)
  • 1 1/2 Cups Milk or Cream (or blend)
  • 1 1/2 Cups Chicken Stock
  • 1 Cup Sour Cream
  • 1/2 Cup fresh Parsley (finely chopped)
  • 150g Grated Parmesan Cheese
  • 2 Cups grated Mozzarella Cheese
  • Salt/Pepper (freshly ground) to taste
  • Lasagne Sheets (fresh or dried)

Cut the chicken thighs into large cubes and add half to a food processor.  Pulse for 10 x 1-second pulses, then 1 x 4-second pulse (full seconds…one-one thousand, two-one thousand, etc).  Turn out into a bowl, and repeat with the other half.  You can use chicken mince instead, if you want, the result will be more consistent.  You can also use breasts, which will actually whiten up the dish a lot, as thighs tend to be a bit grey.  I like the flavour of thighs though, so I tend to use them a lot.

Add oil to a large frying pan and add the bacon.  Cook until almost crispy over a medium heat, stirring often.  Using a slotted spoon, remove the bacon to a bowl, and reserve.

Delicious rendered bacon

Add a quarter of the chicken to the bacon grease, and cook until almost done, trying not to brown the chicken at all.  Clear the centre of the pan by moving the cooked chicken to the sides, and add the next quarter.  Repeat until all of the chicken is cooked.  Using the slotted spoon, remove the cooked chicken to the bacon bowl, and reserve.

Move the cooked chicken to the edge, and add the next batch in the centre.

Add the onions and mushrooms and garlic, with a pinch of salt, and cook slowly until the onions are just translucent.  You don’t want any browning as it will colour the dish.

De-glaze the pan with the white wine and lemon juice, and cook until almost evaporated.

Notice the base of the pan where I moved a spoon through the mix. When the liquid takes a while to fill the path made by the spoon, you've reduced enough.

Add the chicken and bacon mix, and stir to combine, then set aside.

Combine the chicken stock and milk in a microwave proof container, and cook on high for 3 minutes.  If it is not yet steaming, cook for 1 minute bursts until it is.  Careful not to boil the liquid, however.  Add the butter to a sauce-pan and cook until fragrant.

Liquid gold

Add the flour to the butter, and stir until all lumps are gone.  Cook for 1 minute and then add the hot milk/stock mix, stirring constantly until thickened (about the consistency of cream).  Remove from heat and add the Parmesan cheese.  Stir until all of the cheese is melted, the add the sour cream and stir until is well combined.

Added the Parmesan Cheese to the sauce...

Add the cream sauce to the chicken mix, and stir to combine.  Taste, and season with salt and pepper to taste.  Stir in the chopped parsley, and set aside.

Everyone in the pool! Now just the layers...

In a bowl, mix the Mozzarella cheese with the lemon zest.

Preheat the oven to 180C (350f).

At this point, we consider the pasta.  I just use bought dry pasta sheets, and place layer them as is.  I do not pre-cook them, and I try not to buy “Instant” either, as they are usually thinner.  If you are using fresh, or precooked, get them ready now, and hopefully you used the higher quantity of flour and butter (for a thicker sauce).

In a high sided baking dish, spread a thin layer of the chicken mixture, just enough so that you cant see the bottom of the baking dish.  Top with a sprinkling of the Mozzarella.  Layer the pasta sheets on top, without overlapping them.  Repeat this layering until you reach the top of the pan, at which point you do not add a layer of pasta on top of the cheese.

Just to show the layering of the sauce and cheese with the pasta.

Cover the lasagne with foil, and bake for 45 minutes (30 minutes for fresh or pre-cooked pasta sheets).  Then uncover, and bake for 15 minutes more.

Just out of the oven...now the wait.

It is important that you let the Lasagne cool before you cut into it.  You really want to let it sit, covered loosely with foil, for 90 minutes before serving…if you can.  Good luck with that.

Serve with a side of steamed broccoli, and maybe a nice bruschetta. Oh, and a glass of the white wine you used in the dish.

Again, let me know if this dish inspires you, and share with us all where you take it in your kitchen.

Enjoy the meal!

Maria’s Donkey – Tapas Treats along the river

We live in a beautiful part of the world, and this is the time of year that the region shines.  The wet season is behind us for another year, and the warm tropical days are washed away with balmy evenings and cool nights while the rest of the country is bracing for winter snows, and chilling rains.

Maria's Donkey on the Pioneer River

This is the time of year where you can’t decide whether the week should end with a Friday evening stroll amongst the palms along the riverfront, or sipping margaritas as the sun sets, painting the mangroves in hues of amber and burnt orange.  This week we chose the latter.

Mackay is really doing some exciting things along the Riverfront, and it’s about time.  Downtown has always been a club haven, where nights are filled with echoes of dance music and peels of intoxicated laughter, but it’s not been a great place to go out for a quiet drink…or two.  This is slowly changing.

The promise of a nice quiet drink, and some great Mexican food (according to the rumour), is what took us along to Maria’s Donkey on River Street.  It’s on the Eastern side of the Forgan Bridge, just before you get to the Fish Markets, and is marked by a small swinging sign with the picture of a hatted donkey.

For a good time, enter here...

Like many of the buildings in the area, it’s built on piers over the top of the mud flats that edge the Pioneer River, and stepping onto the entryway takes you off of terra firma, as the river bank drops away beneath your feet.  This afternoon a party was enjoying exclusive access to the patio at the far end of the building, but other nice seating was available along the side patio, and inside offered cozy couch seating, as well as stools along the bar.

The first thing that caught our attention was the sign “This is not a restaurant, this is a bar” and it turns out that Maria’s Donkey is a Tapas bar, rather than a restaurant proper.  It basically means that it’s not really a place for kids, though the manager explains that weekend lunches and afternoons are not really an issue.  I actually like the Tapas Bar concept as a place where adults can gather and share a few drinks with great small appetizer portions of finger foods.  A place where you don’t have to dodge under-supervised children.  A place that doesn’t quite cater to the cashed up and testosterone fueled miner, who is two days into his five day break, and is sharing the second day of his “bender” with everyone else within earshot.  Maria’s lives up to the promise of a nice quiet drink, and gentle music plays in the background…loud enough to enjoy, but quiet enough to allow conversation to be held at a normal level.

Delicious Chorizo Hotpot

Looking over the Tapas offerings, the selection had an eclectic Mediterranean feel to it, rather than the Mexican we had hoped for, though the menu does change daily.  The specials board spruiked a range of seafood choices, including oysters, mussels, prawns and calamari, while on the menu proper Arabic, Greek, Spanish and Italian inspired dishes shared space with some Mexican offerings.  Today we honed in on the Chorizo Hot Pot, though the Empanada’s (Chicken and/or Beef) were calling my name, as was the Cherry Tomato and Chorizo skewers, with Feta and fresh Basil.

I thought the prices were quite reasonable, and the Hot Pot  was enough food for a good lunch by itself.  Essentially a tomato and Chorizo stew, it was packed with sausage and full of flavour.  It was rustic and simple, very hearty, and I thought great value at $12.  Unfortunately we weren’t that hungry, we actually shared the one hot pot, as it was only late afternoon, but I’ll update the blog with other food tastings as I visit again.

One of the other things that caught my eye, was the range of beers and cocktails available.  For a smaller bar, I thought the range carried a good mix of beer styles and flavours.  Red ales through to light lagers were all represented, and I don’t think anyone would walk away from Maria’s without finding a beer that they would enjoy.  Normally I would have been all over the ales, but this afternoon we had a thirst for something else.  Something with a lime’s sharpness, and a crust of salt around the rim of the glass.  The word “Margarita” stuck out like a sore thumb on the Cocktail list, and it reminded me that it had been an awful long time since I had had a good Margarita in a bar.  Could this be the place?

Now the view is perfect

So, also at $12 a pop, the Margarita wasn’t cheap, but it was good.  No, it was great.  Maybe we were here on a “pop-in” visit, just on a whim, but the Margarita they served actually put the wife an I on a Tequila and Triple Sec fuelled adventure that night.  We went home and broke out the blender, to perfect our own at home, and we got close to Maria’s quality…but a great Margarita is a hard thing to find, and even harder to replicate, and Maria’s was one of the best.

This is not a very detailed review of Maria’s Donkey, but I wanted to get this post out quickly, rather than wait until I had tried more of the menu, and the cocktail list.  7 weeks it’s been open, and places like Maria’s really need our support.  Not just because it’s a nice place for adults to enjoy a drink without drunken yobo’s spilling XXXX Gold on our shoes and shirts, but because it’s a place that delivers on it’s promise.  Good honest simple food, great atmosphere, an excellent selection of beverages, all reasonably priced.

I will certainly be back, and I’m giving it 4 little piggies.

Bacon Wrapped Meatloaf – Version 1

As a kid my favourite meal was Meatloaf and BBQ sauce.  The thick sweet glaze surrounding a rough log of savory beef, and served with a steaming pile of mashed potatoes…It was what MY birthday meal was, year in, year out.

Behold the lovely Loaf

As I’ve grown, my sweet tooth has somewhat disappeared, but my love for the loaf remains unabated.  Over the years I’ve also learned that a great meatloaf comes in many guises. The meatloaf of my childhood was a beef meatloaf, as is the recipe on this post, but I’ve learned that the humble loaf is more versatile than just a log of ground steak baked in the oven.

I’ve developed recipes for beef versions , chicken meatloaf, pork,  game, exotic meats (kangaroo, as an example), and sometimes combinations of these beasts (often you HAVE to combine them, to get a great result).  In fact, the only thing I’ve not made is a vegetarian or seafood meatloaf, and mostly because I’ve never thought of it…until now!

So, this may be my first recipe and post for meatloaf, but it almost certainly won’t be my last.  Please feel free to change the ingredient list as you way see fit, you may have a great recipe for your meatloaf already at hand.  But take note of a few tricks and techniques that I use, and think about adapting them to your own recipe.

Ingredients:

The Meat

  • 500g Chuck Steak
  • 500g lean Minced Beef
  • 14 Strips Bacon (Streaky)

A carnivores dream

The Mix

  • 1 egg
  • 3 Carrots
  • 1 Medium Onion
  • 2 Sliced Bread (any)
  • 1/4 Cup Red Wine
  • 1/4 Cup Tomato Paste
  • 1 Tbsp mustard
  • 1 Tbsp Garlic

Most of the mix...minus onions, carrots, and an egg

The Herbs & Spices

  • 2 Tbsp Dried Sage
  • 1 Tbsp Salt
  • 1 tsp Ground Pepper
  • 1/4 tsp Oregano
  • 1/4 tsp Thyme
  • 1/2 tsp Cumin
  • Red Pepper Flakes to Taste

Spices for the Meatloaf

I make no apologies for the 18 ingredient list, for what is a simple comfort meal.  Nothing is complicated here, but every flavour is a note to this symphony.

Step 1, the meat.

Like my burgers, previous post here, I like my meatloaf to carry some texture.  I am not after a consistent grind in the beef, because I like the additional interest that a surprise chunk of beef makes in the meatloaf as a meal, but I also want to reduce the fat in the end product and this still needs to be a loaf…so I blend my self chopped chuck steak with some low fat mince.

Cube up the chuck steak into medium cubes, and chop them in a food processor in 2 equal batches.  Pulse for 10 x 1 second pulses (full second pulses…one thousand one, one thousand two…etc) and then for 1 x 4 second burst.

Dump the chopped chuck into a bowl, along with the mince.

Step 2, the mix.

Using the food processor (again), chop the bread slices until they become bread crumbs.  Tip the contents onto the meat.

Put the onion in the food processor and puree it.  Tip it onto the meat and breadcrumbs.

Everyone into the Pool!

Grate the carrots, and add to the meat mix, along with the rest of the mix ingredients.  Add all of the herbs and spices, and mix using your hands until well combined.

OK, so maybe I'm getting carried away with the photo's...
All mixed together...check out the texture...hmmmm

Step 3, Construction:

Preheat the oven to 180C (350F)

Lay out a large square of plastic wrap or baking paper.  Construct your bacon weave on the plastic film, one strip high by one strip wide.

Here begins the weave...just like a reed basket, only porkier

Baby blankets should be this awesome

And the plastic magically appears. Don't forget it on the first loaf, like I did.

Shaping the mix into a log, place it on the bacon weave, ensuring that it comes to the end of the weave, but not beyond.  Then lift the plastic wrap and use it to roll the bacon up and over the log.  Keep rolling until the entire loaf is covered, then remove the wrap.

Dressed for the ball. Prom King, no doubt

Step 4, Cooking

Place the meatloaf on a wire rack that fits in a backing tray.  Slide it into the hot oven.  Place a loose piece of foil over the meat loaf, so as not to overcook the bacon.

After 40 minutes, remove the foil and drop the temperature to 160C (320F)

Continue to bake until the internal temperature hits 66C (150F).  Remove from the oven, and cover again with foil, letting it rest for 20 minutes.

If only you could smell this...OH MY GOD! Look at the pink ring just under the bacon.

Slice and serve with some of your favourite BBQ Sauce, and a couple of sides.  Mashed potatoes is a match made in heaven.  As for another side, well, I’ve gone for some fried cabbage this time, but a nice salad would work just as well.

The moment of truth...enjoyed with a lovely Cab Sav.

The magic of Meatloaf is the leftovers.  It’s almost as easy to make 2, as to make 1, so double the mix and make 2 loaves (as I have).  Think of all the meatloaf sandwiches…nom nom nom

Enjoy the meal!

Birthday Breakfasts – Breakfast Sausage

One of the things I came to love whilst living in America was Breakfast Sausage.  Sadly, in Australia, they have no concept of what Breakfast Sausage is (but almost strangely, Sausages or Sausage Links in America mostly leave a lot to be desired). In fact, even the ubiquitous Sausage McMuffin in Australia is a tasteless beef patty sharing culinary space with tasteless cheese and overcooked eggs (all on a beautifully microwaved English muffin).

Behold, the power of Pork. Don't stare too long, it's hypnotic.

So it’s no surprise that when we decide to do a special breakfast or brunch, Breakfast Sausage features highly on the menu.  What does one do when one does not have access to breakfast sausage at the local Mega-Mart?  Well, one makes ones own.

The ultimate twist to the tale is that home made Breakfast Sausage is soooo much better than anything you can buy in a store.  Jimmy Dean has nothing on home made sausage.  So, the moral of the tale is:  regardless of where you are, and what access you have to store bought Breakfast Sausage, make your own.  It’s really simple, and positively amazing.

This week Garan, our eldest boy, turns 15.  As with all Birthday’s in our household, the meal of your choice accompanies your birthday.  In this case, young master wants a brunch of Sausage and French Toast.  That’s a good lad.  I never need much of an excuse to break out the pork products, but his “demand” just serves as a convenient excuse to dust off my Sausage recipe.

Ground Pork

  • 1kg Ground/Minced Pork, or
    • 800g Shoulder Pork
    • 200g Pork Fat

Taking the easy route, pre-ground pork

Ideally, you would use the pork shoulder and fat.  Chilled, you would cube it and chop it in the same way as I do for my “Take Back the Burger” post.  To save time, pre-ground pork is fine, and mostly what I use, if I’m being honest.  Whilst the shoulder mix is a superior result, particularly the texture, using bought mince is better than buying pre-made Breakfast Sausage by miles.

Seasoning

Meet the players...

  • 2 teaspoons dried sage
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried marjoram
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar (or maple syrup)
  • Crushed red pepper flakes to taste (optional)

Method

Mix all of the ingredients together in a large bowl, and let sit for 1 to 4 hours in the fridge (or refrigerate for up to 5 days, depending on the freshness of the original pork).  You will want to cook these from the fridge.  This will help keep them together.

Form the mix into patties, of your preferred size and thickness.  The English Muffin is my preferred bread type for these, so i tend to make them about that size, and about 1/2 the thickness of a muffin.  Then cook them on a medium heat, in a non-stick pan with a little cooking spray.

Perfect Patties...mmmmm

The sugar content of the mix will cause it to brown quite quickly, so you want to adjust the heat so that the outside browns as the inside is cooked.  Another option is to brown them, and then finish them in the oven.  Use an instant read thermometer to ensure the pork is cooked (go for about 75C or 170F).

Variation 1 – Heston Blumenthal

If you have time on your hands, and you have a nice meat grinder, you may have chosen the pork shoulder method.  It occurs to me that Chef Blumenthal’s labour intensive hamburger method would make a great breakfast sausage.  So, if you’re running a breakfast joint that wants to charge $30 for a breakfast sandwich, or you want to take the time to make something truly great, here’s the link.  Just use the ingredients listed above, and use his method.  Let me know how it turns out.

Variation 2 – The Crumble

Let the mix come to room temperature, and then drop the desired portion into t medium non-stock pan with some cooking spray.

Using the sharp end of a spatula, chop up the mix as it is cooking, until you get the desired result.  Serve as you wish, but for me this is heaven with scrambled eggs and cheese, wrapped in a tortilla…a little hot sauce and I’m a happy camper.

Variation 3 – Sausage Brownies!

OK, so it’s sounds weird when you put it like that.  This is actually my preferred method.

Press the mix into the bottom of a baking dish, to the desired thickness.  Bake in a moderate oven until cooked.

Sausage Brownies...sort of

If I am doing this, I will usually cover the pan with foil.  I want to avoid the Maillard reaction, as I want the cooked sausage to be soft from the outside in.  Frying or baking uncovered will brown the outside, and create a crust.  Normally a good thing, but not for sausage…not for me.

Once cooked, the handy Pizza Cutter makes the best tool for slicing.  Cut to your desired size.

If you want sausage for your pizza, I find this the best method.  You can dice up the sausage once cooked, and it hasn’t gone crusty so a second cooking wont dry it out.  Chop it fine and top your pizza with it.

It’s also the best method for a breakfast sandwich on square bread, obviously.

Regardless of how you choose to cook it, you really owe it to yourself to make this recipe for breakfast.  If you’ve never had Breakfast Sausage before, you will be converted and it will become one of your favourite things to make and eat.  If you have had Breakfast Sausage before, make it anyway.  It’s too easy to make to buy store bought crap that’s full of chemical stabilizers and artificial colours/flavours.

I usually make a big bunch, and then cook and freeze the squares or patties.   Then it’s a quick reheat while I am frying or poaching an egg, and toasting a muffin.  Faster than a detour through a drive-thru, and way better.

Enjoy the meal.