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Esurientes - The Comfort Zone

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


Well, after 2 years in the planning, it's finally come to departure day. Tonight I'm jetting off to Rome for my vocal ensemble's second European tour. We started organising this soon after we returned in 2004 (and coincidentally, I started this blog straight after I came back from that trip) and it still doesn't feel like it's really happening....today!
After touring and singing with them in Italy, Switzerland and the UK for about 4 weeks (itinerary), I'm travelling to the Czech Republic and Germany on my own, then meeting my mum in England for a driving tour of the Cotswolds and Wales. I'll be back in mid-November. 8 weeks: certainly the longest time I've been away so far!
I really have no idea what the blogging situation will be like. Perhaps when I have some free time on my own I'll get to an internet cafe and do a few posts, but I'm pretty sure they'll be without photos. You'll have to hold on until I get back for that!
So....see you on the other side!

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Apple Apricot Cinnamon & Allspice cake

This is a variation of something I found in Tessa Kiros' very beautiful cookbook, Falling Cloudberries. This book includes family recipes from the various countries she has lived in throughout her life. She has an exotic lineage; a Finnish mother and a Greek Cypriot father, so she includes Finnish and Cyriot chapters, as well as recipes from South Africa, where she grew up, Greece, where family lives, and Italy where she currently has her home. The final chapter is a collection of recipes from around the world. It's a good book to have on your coffee table to flick through, and the photography is beautiful.
This is cake recipe I found in the South African section; in the book it is actually a pineapple upside-down cake, but she notes that you can use any fruit you like. I didn't have pineapple, but I did have canned apricots and fresh apples, so I used those instead.

My cake didn't look nearly as picturesque as her pineapple version. It was a bit wet and flabby looking on top when I turned it out, so I put it under a hot grill for a few minutes to get some crispage happening - a bit of crunchy caramelisation of the sugar syrup. It helped the texture and improved the presentation a bit.

I thought the cake part lacked a little sweetness, actually. Perhaps if you're using less sweet fruit, like apples you might need to add a little extra sugar to the batter. You wouldn't need to with sweet pinepples. Also, I found this cake just a tad too buttery. It uses a whole block of butter in the cake, plus more for the syrup and left your fingers and mouths a bit oily. When warm, that wasn't so bad, but when it cools down it might taste a little greasy? In my opinion you could cut down on the butter in the cake batter.

This was still warm when I served it on a cold, rainy Sunday afternoon. And I have to admit that after a few bites, somebody turned to me and said:
"Niki, this cake makes me HAPPY inside!"
Well, you can't ask for better than that, can you?
Read on for the recipe:

Apple & Apricot Cinnamon & Allspice cake
Adapted from Tessa Kiros, Falling Cloudberries

Spice Mix:
5 cloves
1 cinnamon stick
6 allspice (pimento) berries or 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
Rind of half a lemon

Juice of 1 orange
60g (2 1/4 oz) butter
70g (2 1/2 oz) brown sugar
I tin of apricots
1-2 apples, peeled, halved and sliced thinly.

250g (9 oz) softened butter
200g (7 oz) brown sugar
3 eggs
250g (2 cups) cake flour or plain (all-purpose) flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
185 ml (3/4 cup) milk

-Preheat oven to 200C (400 F). Make spice mix by grinding ingredients in a spice or coffee grinder and grind to a coarse dust (or use already ground spices to make things easier)
-Make syrup by putting orange juice, butter and sugar in a small pan with 1/2 teaspoon of the spice mix and bring to the boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 8-10 minutes until you have a thick caramel syrup
-Line a 24cm springform tin with tinfoil, so the bottom and sides are covered. Press the foil flat against the bottom and sides so it won't press into the cake. Place the fruit at the bottom of the tin, in a single layer, in an attractive pattern (I placed apricots around the edge and tried to make a central spiral of the apples).
-Make the cake batter by whisking the butter with electric beaters until fluffy and then beat in the brown sugar. Beat the eggs one at a time, then add the flour and baking powder. Mix to combine. Add the milk to thin the mixture. Add 1 1/2 teaspoons of the spice mix and combine.
-Pour the syrup over the fruit in the tin, making sure that it covers fairly evenly, then spoon the cake batter over the syrupy fruit and smooth the top. Bake for ~1 hour 20 minutes, reducing the temperature to 180C (350F) after 10 minutes and covering with foil after an hour. The cake should be a deep gold colour. Leave to cool slightly before turning out onto a serving platter. Remove the bottom of the tin, and peel away the foil.
-Serve with creme fraiche, ice cream or slightly sweetened whipped cream, or on its own, very slighly warm.
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Sunday, September 10, 2006

"A Taste of Slow" Food Festival

Abbotsford Convent courtyard
Well, there's certainly been a bit of blogging about this weekend's Slow Food Festival already, so I should get in with my photos and thoughts! Yesterday Belinda and I spent the day at 2nd A Taste of Slow at old Abbotsford Convent, and wandering around the Collingwood Childrens' Farm market. Belinda has already provided a great wrap-up of what we did, so instead of doubling up, please do check out what she's written about what we got up to.

We arrived about 11am, after grappling with the hoardes and decided to go to the Collingwood Childrens' Farm market first. I think half of Melbourne turned up, which is great for the event. We hadn't yet had breakfast, and I guess we should have first taken a wander and sussed what we wanted to eat, but when we saw the menu at the Farm Cafe we were sold. There was a bit of a queue and a 20 minute wait for coffees, but my breakfast bagel arrived within minutes. Belinda had to sit there watching me croon over the perfectness of my food, waiting for hers to come out. Eventually. AND mine didn't have a moth in it! I guess you really know it's organic lettuce when the moths are happy to eat it too....
Great bagel - one of the best I've had. The slightly sweet bread works well with the salty bacon and cheese. Poached egg - fine. The tomatoes had real tomato flavour (bonus!) and even this relish-hater loved the relish. Good for $6. The cafe's a permanent feature, so do make a visit.

A wander around the stalls. Isn't it a great setting for a city market? You'd hardly believe you were only streets away from industrial inner-city factories and major roads. We stopped at every stall and tried as many things as possible. I liked the jelly bean topping Belinda bought - which had ouzo in it for that real black jelly bean flavour. I bought a goats cheese called "Sensation" from the Red Hill Cheese. We would have liked to buy much more, but we're going overseas in a week and couldn't justify too many food purchases.

Up to the convent to enter A Taste of Slow. It would have been a good thing if they had large signs or pamphlets describing what the Slow Food Movement is all about. In a queue for the toilets I overheard some girls saying they thought the Slow Food Festival was all about casseroles and stews, and were pretty disappointed they hadn't found anyone offering casserole samples! I wanted to go up to them and explain the premise behind Slow Food, but I decided I'd come across as a bit of a nob, so I left them alone.
No, it's not about Slow Cooking, but slow food - as in the opposite of Fast Food. It's about taking the time to enjoy good food, grown well and cooked well. That food can be anything, not just stews and casseroles. It's also about maintaining regional recipes and culturally diverse food. The Slow Food Movement was established in Italy as a protest against a the opening of a McDonald's franchise. Why McDonald's when the local cuisine is so good? Why run the risk of losing those old recipes and our culture to a dull, standardised menu found all over the world?
So, yes, their mascot is a snail. It was pretty funny to see Belinda nearly run down by that very snail when she was looking the other way. LOL! This one wasn't so slow!
Incidentally, we were wondering if A Taste of Slow festivals were held in any other Australian cities. Anyone know the answer?

What a pity we'd already eaten. These were the lunch options at the indoor eating area. Various restaurant chefs were responsible for the canteen lunch each day. Not bad for the price!

A wandering folk trio, adding to the atmosphere.

Henry of Harcout ciders. We weren't taken by their apple or pear ciders, but the man doing the tasting was very entertaining. We weren't the only ones who thought this. As we were picnicking on the lawn later on a friend came up and announced "I've fallen in love! But I don't know whether it's with the cider or the man selling it!!"
If you're in the apple-growing Harcourt area (near Bendigo) and want to try some cider, I can recommend Bress Wine, Cider and Produce. I did a post on their cider last year - just like champagne but with an apply aftertaste. Yum!

Australia's doyenne of cookbooks, Stephanie Alexander. I feel like I've seen the queen now! Our friend told us she went up to get a book signed and she turned into a babbling, star-struck teenager who couldn't say much more than her name ("why would she care what my name is?!") and that she loved her books ("like, she's never heard that before! Oh, god, she probably thought I was an IDIOT!!!"). I choked with laughter on my gourmet rhubarb muffin hearing that. To think a cookbook writer can turn grown women to jelly, just like a rock star! (I could sympathise- I turned into a blathering idiot when I met Bill Bryson. Proves you don't need looks to be sexy!)

In the courtyard we saw people with boxes of fresh asparagus and packets of oysters. We still weren't hungry but when we realised they were coming from the "Taste of Tasmania" stall and they were doing tasting plates, we had to give it a go. For $12 you got the plate above, which included:
  • "get shucked" Pacfic Ocean oyster with Thorpe Farm wasabi mignonette
  • Scallop ceviche with a saffron rouille
  • Stripey Trumpter soused with cider seaweed
  • Bruny Island Cheese Co.'s O.D.O. (one day old cheese)
  • John Bignall's sheep's milk blue on rye with Julian Wolfhagen leatherwood honey

Seafood and cheese - who'da thunk it? The seafood was incredible, the cheeses were even better. My doctor told me to cut down on cheese. What does he know of the pleasure I get from it?!? Belinda's written what we thought of the platter - check it out.
Apparently the platter from the New South Wales tent included long sausages, venison and quail. That would have been worth trying!

We ended up finding a group of friends and picnicking on the lawn until the rain came, before taking shelter in the covent bakery and sampling some chocolate truffles. Yummy unusully flavoured chocolates we bought from the Collier Chocolate man. Swiss couverture with all kind of fillings; we decided to give the Picked Ginger and Wasabi truffles and the Cocksucking Cowboys a go (Butterscotch Schnapps and Baileys Irish Cream). Very, very good. Our favourite was the ginger and wasabi. Couldn't taste any wasabi, except for maybe a bit of heat on your palate, but the ginger ganache and dark chocolate were a sublime combination. I'd drive to Bendigo to get more!!

A great day with good food, surrounded by like-minded people. And it didn't even hail!

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Monday, September 04, 2006

Va Tutto

I've been meaning to post about this restaurant since last DECEMBER! I even have a photo dating from our Christmas lunch, which we celebrated here in 2005. I've mentioned I'm a bit lazy....now do you believe me?!
I love this restaurant, and it happens to be our local 'fine dining' place - literally not more than a 2 minute drive away, in Ivanhoe. Ivanhoe, despite being a nice, leafy, middle-class sort of suburb has always been lacking in dining choices. Uninspiring, to be more precise. In the past few years an excellent Indian (Cafe Saffron) and Thai resaurant (Bussaracum) have made themselves very popular, but for a 'nice' meal or a special occasion, people around here generally went across the river, or into the inner suburbs. But now we have Va Tutto, and the people of Ivanhoe are very happy. Actually, Stephen Downes of the Herald-Sun, recently named Va Tutto as 2006 "Restaurant of the Year", with a score of 19/20. Surely a little part of his reasoning has to do with the fact that he lives in Ivanhoe and has long lamented the lack of good places to eat!

I think Va Tutto's owners, Paul and Myrto Recinella, could see this culinary black hole they could fill. They both live in the area and have a long history of running a successful establishment; their previous place, Zio's, in East Melbourne was a favourite of my dad's. I wish he could sample what they're now doing close to home. You know they're serious about this current quest, because they paid an exorbitant amount to import and install a custom-designed kitchen set-up from Italy.
Each time I go past Va Tutto it seems to be full. There are 3 sections to the place; the restaurant, done out in white leather and with a sumptuous 'let's dress up for dinner feel', the more everyday bistro at the front and a casual area for coffee which includes an outdoors terrace. I think it's because they address the various needs of customers that they seem to be so successful.

So to the food. Well...in the three times I've dined here they've all been in the formal restaurant section. Well, la-di-dah to me! Yes, I'm very fortunate. Our extended family had Christmas lunch here last year, then I returned for lunch on my birthday in March, and then a dinner for my mum's birthday in July. Each time I'm spoilt for choice with the menu, which covers everything from Italian tripe to Asian seafood, but with an emphasis on European tastes. Here's a selection of photos from those 3 times I've visited.

From my birthday lunch. The spicy salt & pepper calamari; my mum's favourite choice from the entree list, and she has to fight the urge to order it each time. The calamari is the most tender we've tasted.

My entree from my birthday; octopus terrine with a radish salad. I don't know what they used to keep the terrine together, but it was very clean, and not gelatinous at all. The octopus wasn't tough, either, which pleased me. Perfect light flavours for the warm day it was.

My mum's main course from my birthday. Thai-flavoured fish cakes and fresh prawns. This is mum's favourite main course, and what she wants to order each time we return. I can understand why; the flavours are amazing. Lots of kaffir lime, coriander, citrus. Great balance of flavours. I remember my grandmother going into orgiastic raptures when she ordered this at Christmas! It's quite light though, so maybe not the best if you're a big eater...

...As I am. While mum was nibbling on her prawns, I had ordered ox cheek. "Goodness, you're adventurous!" said Myrto (who handles front-of-house) when I ordered this after my octopus. Well, no, I don't think I am, but maybe that's the case out here in the suburbs! This was an incredible dish, full of big, gutsy flavours. I get the feeling that the person who created this loves to eat winter food. For me it was perfect: sticky ox cheek, creamy mashed potatoes, bits of vegies for freshness and a rich, winey sauce. It's quite filling, though.

This is what my godmother ordered: a good veal scallopine. My godmother is a real Italian chick, and knows her Italian food. She said she'd ordered one the week before at a place in Carlton and it was so awful she wanted to improve on the experience. Luckily she wasn't disappointed. I think she said it was one of the best scallopine she'd tasted (other than her mum's of course!). I did a bit of an exchange with her, and agree this was excellent; the mushrooms and the marsala-spiked sauce were perfect. Incidentally, this was one of the cheaper dishes on the menu: about $22.

Back to Christmas day, 2005. I only took one photo - of the dish I had ordered - as I didn't want to butt into everbody's festive meals, but it was so interestingly presented I had to whip out the camera. This is their Duck Tasting Plate, for which they've become known. I don't think it will be taken off the menu any time soon. I'm a big fan of duck, so I loved this. I was a tad disappointed when it came out because it didn't look substantial enough to fill me up, but what I always forget is that rich flavours satisfy you quickly, and by the end of this I was copying the rest of the family in the festive, post-lunch groan-athon. Also on that Christmas Day menu was the most amazing steak I didn't order. Instead I kept attacking the plates of my male relatives. It had been hung and aged, and suddenly I understood what all those food writers have been going on about when they talk about aged meat. It's just incredible!
Top left is a duck spring roll with a sweet hoisin sauce, top right is sliced duck breast in master stock. Bottom left is duck leg in an incredible coconut curry and bottom right is the Euopean presence; a duck arancini with mozarella. Innovative, tasty and presented with the right amount of theatrical flair. One of their most popular dishes.

As is this dish, I believe. These dishes are from my mum's birthday dinner in July (hence the bad light!). This is their Seafood Tasting Plate. Mum and I ordered this because we were in a light, fish mood and thought it wouldn't be too heavy. With that in mind, I ordered a lobster risotto for entree (gorgeous!!!) which was fairly filling. Then THIS came out. Hell's Bells! This had everything on it from fresh oysters with lime, prawn dumpling, deep fried scallop and calamari and home-made tartare, an enormous breaded king prawn, a large piece of fish (can't remember what!) and Japanese marinated raw salmon. That would have been enough, but the centrepiece of the dish was a big bowl of really excellent Asian seafood stiry-fried noodles; wok-seared flat noodles with lots of prawns, rock ling, lime, chilli and Thai basil. It would be a very popular dish on its own.
I thought this meal was incredible, but had two reservations. One was the sheer size of it; it seemed designed to overwhelm. Certainly wasn't the light, healthy meal I had imagined! Also, some of the taste combinations on the one plate didn't complement each other very well; the creamy sauces didn't work too well with the Asian flavours in some of the other components. Also, you had to remember to eat your deep-fried things first before they got cold and yucky. But I saw lots of these going out to tables and I think it's one of their most popular dishes.

After seeing our seafood plates, my godmother had a severe case of food-envy but she was still very impressed with her seared tuna. It was served on a bed of...something I can't recall, but it looks orange. Pretty sure it wasn't polenta. I would have asked for a taste, but I was serious tackling-the-mountain-on-my-plate mode! I like the plate they used.

Back to my birthday lunch for dessert photos. This is a pandan and coconut flavoured creme brulee. Pandanus (or Screw Pine) is used extensively in South-East Asian cooking but I've only tasted it in savoury dishes before now. Its fragrant, fruity & nutty flavour was incredible. As were the sesame seed wafer and coconut sorbet accompaniments. In fact, the coconut sorbet was truly the best I've ever tasted and we all fought for spoons of it. What a way to combine East and West! This was ordered again for dessert at mum's birthday; it's so unusual and works so well I hope it stays on the menu.

My birthday dessert. Valrhona chocolate & zabaglione parfait. Apologies for getting stuck in before remembering to take a photo. Ahem! This was not overly sweet, which is a good thing in my book. But it was very rich & creamy, especially after a big bowl o' ox cheeks. In hindsight, I should have ordered something lighter (coconut sorbet springs to mind). But it came out with a birthday sparkler on it, so I was happy. :-)

Mum went for an affogatto: a shot of espresso coffe, a shot of liquer of your choice (Amaretto for her) and a bowl of icecream. You're supposed to add the coffee and liquer to the icecream and eat it up before it all melts, but mum takes the separate element approach and was still eating her dessert after we'd long finished!

Va Tutto is one of my favourite restaurants at the moment, not only for the interesting, well-prepared food, but also because it is so close to home. You don't always want to drive out for dinner; parking issues and drink driving spring to mind. But this place is close to home, so we can enjoy a pre-dinner, and even a post-dinner drink without much effort at all. I also think it's quite reasonably priced for the quality of food; most mains are around the mid to high-$20s mark. It's the wine which will bump up the cost of your meal. I haven't yet tried the more affordable bistro, but I'm hoping to get there soon. I know the owners were stunned when they were named restaurant of the year, and I hope it keeps them enthused and inspired to keep providing the people of north-eastern Melbourne a high quality dining experience!

Va Tutto
226 Upper Heidelberg Road
Ivanhoe Victoria 3079.
(03) 9499 7769 or (03) 9499 1430
Lunch from Sunday to Friday (midday – 3pm) Dinner 7 days (6pm – late).

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