Sheer arse in the Barossa.

I say potae-to and tomah-to. I also say shiraz. I don't really see the need for the posh 'shirah-z'. When it comes down to it though, shiraz or shirahz are both just sheer arse. Who cares how you say it? That which we call a rosé by any other name would smell as sweet.

Enough with these frantic semantics though- it's wine time.

In bridge, it's considered prudent to lead with your winners. Get the trumps out, play your aces, then you can jostle for the scraps. With that in mind, there is no better wine to start with than a Barossa shiraz.

The Barossa Valley is about an hour's drive north of Adelaide. About four hundred million years ago, the Delemarian Orogeny built a serious series of mountains that have now come to be known as the Adelaide Hills. In an inspired moment, the Barossa Valley was thrown in. A relatively small drainage depression between the moutains and the coast, it is close enough to the ranges to receive the rich erosional soils and sands, but close enough to the coast to rely upon a bit of natural AC. If one believed in Intelligent Design, then this would be your cornerstone: surely such a perfect shiraz growing region is the result of a supreme being?

Holy history or not, the Barossa is hot for shiraz. They were made for each other. Together, they make wine that defines what a shiraz should be. Other regions can try, and some do a great job. Coonawarra makes a soft and subtle shiraz, very demure and rounded. The Adelaide Hills give it a good shot and generate some warm, rich, heady bottles. Even for those who prefer these variations, they are still judged in comparison to the Barossa.

The best place to start your education is Gibson. Walk in the door and you'll be greeted by... no one. Wait a moment, and a scruffy lad in flannellette will follow you in from behind. He's got dirt on his hands, sun in his eyes, and cares not for the mud his scuffed boots track in to the cellar door. He'll show you their whites happily enough, and lead you through the reds, but there's clearly a goal here. The shiraz is where it's at. They release them young here, only a year or two old, so the wine's still growing into its boots. It can be a tad awkward, not yet used to civilised company, but it clearly shows its pedigree. The Gibson shiraz is big, bold, and boistrous. It's yummy. Your mouth fills with spice and pepper, but the flavour is gone as soon as the wine is. It's time to move on.

I mean that literally- it's time for you to move on. I've got to head off, so you may as well too. The rest of the Barossa shall have to be covered in a day or two.

Chickpea & olive bruschetta

Olive & chickpea bruschetta

It's hard to beat dried chickpeas on economy or taste (there's a nice series of posts about chickpeas at A Life (Time) of Cooking), but the canned variety are great for quick, tasty, nutritious meals that don't need to be planned 24 hours ahead. Like most bruschetta, this is recipe is really simple. You'll need olive tapenade, which can be bought freshly made at continental delis or made easily at home (recipe here soon [Addendum: Recipe here now]).

Chickpea & olive bruschetta

Ingredients:

  • 2 thick slices of fresh Italian bread
  • 1 clove of garlic, halved
  • 2/3 cup cooked, drained chickpeas (canned okay)
  • 1/4 cup olive tapenade
  • Extra virgin olive oil (about 2 tbsp)

1. Heat the oven grill (aka broiler). Brush your bread on both sides with olive oil and grill close to the heat until toasted on the outside but still soft in the middle. Turn over and toast the other side. When toasted, rub one side with a cut garlic half then discard the garlic.
2. Meanwhile, heat 1 tbsp of the olive oil in a hot pan, then add the chickpeas and sauté until the begin to brown.
3. Remove from the heat, and toss with the olive tapenade. Pile the dressed chickpeas onto the toast and drizzle with the remaining olive oil. Serve warm.

Michael Ruhlman & "celebrity" chefs

There's a great interview with Michael Ruhlman over at Carol's French Laundry at Home. In case you don't know who I'm talking about, Ruhlman is a chef/writer who has written extensively about cooking and has had the opportunity to work and write with some of the best chefs in the world. One of his greatest achievements has been writing Thomas Keller's The French Laundry Cookbook, a book that changed the way I think about cooking. I used to be a simple man, happy with me beans on toast — now I can't serve a soup without thinking, "I could probably strain this one more time". They were of course Keller's techniques and recipes that I was reading, but Ruhlman was able to communicate Keller's passion for perfection so clearly that it became my passion. No doubt because it became his passion, too. I can't wait to read Soul of a Chef next.

Meanwhile, I got a pamphlet advertising 'Celebrity Chefs 2008'. A bunch of restaurants around Adelaide are each offering small fixed-price tasting menus throughout July and August. The idea is to visit all of them, get your pamphlet stamped, and be rewarded with a $100 gift voucher to spend at any of the participating restaurants. In other words, a yuppie version of the Subway Sub Club. The idea's fine and there are some good bargains to be had, but wasn't this called the 'Festival of Food' the previous two years? And weren't there pictures of food selling the event rather than the smiling mugs of the restaurants' head chefs? Speaking of that, since when were any of these people celebrities? It's embarrassing, really.

Who's putting this crap into their heads? Dear Adelaide "celebrity" chefs: Wake up. If you want to be famous, build a reputation based on years of hard work and excellent food. Even then people may only know your restaurant, not your name. That's okay. It's not about you.

Gordon Ramsay & Heston Blumenthal on YouTube

Something for those of you who are fans of Gordon Ramsay or Heston Blumenthal. A generous Dane who goes by the name Postmester is gradually uploading hours of video to YouTube featuring the two three-star chefs. Currently you can watch Ramsay's Boiling Point, Beyond Boiling Point, The F Word and some extras, and Blumenthal's In Search of Perfection, and Kitchen Chemistry. It's perfect for those who live in, say, Australia, where none of these shows (as far as I know) have been broadcast. Get them here.

They're all worth watching, but I particularly recommend Boiling Point. Filmed back when Ramsay was starting out at Royal Hospital Road and just becoming known to people outside the restaurant scene, it's a great look at where it all began. There's some delicious irony peppered throughout, such as in the first episode where he says to an interviewer who accuses him of being a 'celebrity chef', "I'm not interested in signing a multi-million pound deal that I can conduct a kitchen from an office". I can't help looking back at his early days and marvelling at how well Ramsay played it — the Bramley apple incident and his row with Australian food writer Cherry Ripe are just two examples of how skillfully he used television and the media to build the Gordon Ramsay image into the brand it is today.

Update: The videos have since been removed.

Braaaaains

Lamb's brain

Hungry yet?

One of the problems with lamb's brains is that they look like, well, brains. So unmistakably like brains. They feel like you'd expect brains to feel like too: firm inside their membrane, but squishy and very fragile. When you handle these you can't help but instinctively use the kind of care normally reserved for donor hearts or baby birds. Maybe it's some subconscious respect for brains?

I'd never tried brains before this. I didn't even know where to get them. When I imagined asking the butcher for them, I half expected everyone around me to gasp and go silent as the butcher calmly went into the back room to call the police. When I told friends I was cooking lambs brains, most of them looked at me as if I'd just offered them a plastic bag full of used syringes. It was going to be a challenge getting anyone else to try them.

In the end the brains were lunch for one. The taster was away, my friends were all mysteriously busy or in the process of becoming busy, so I defrosted two, put some Michael Jackson on, and gots to the devouring.

Thriller: Music to cook brains to

Wine and roses

A poem:

So life's year begins and closes,
Days though shorting still can shine,
What though youth gave love and roses,
Age still leaves us friends and wine.
-Thomas Moore

Now, if we take this poem as absolute fact (and we will), then there are two things to note:
1) Love and flowers are transient, ephemeral pleasures. There is no need to dedicate much time to them.
2) Friends and wine are what we're stuck with when we're old.

Therefore, to lead a truly enjoyable life one should dedicate themselves equally to developing good friends and good wine. I call this 'Moore's Law'. It rhymes, see? It also sounds a little like coleslaw, but that is purely coincidental. Enough of this though. Onward:

The nature of friendship is such that this will require many years of shared joys, a gradual development of trust, and countless hours of communication.

Fortunately, the nature of wine is such that you can just buy it ready made.

Based upon our incontrovertible premise (that a good life will be spent seeking wine and friendship in equal amounts), then one must spend as much time drinking wine as one spends with friends.

"But wait!" (I hear the uneducated cry), "we barely have enough time to spend with friends as it is! How can it be that a truly moral life requires us to match this in our search for wine?"

My first response is this— this is the method for a good life, as prescribed by the above poem. It was never claimed to be easy. Nonetheless, there is a solution to the dilemma of chronological constraints. Pay attention now, as this is where it gets complex:

Drink wine with friends.

In doing so, the poetic faithful can fulfil their obligation to strengthening friendships as well as their obligation to drink wine, and can do so with maximum temporal efficiency.

In conclusion: though it may be difficult, those who seek the holy path must drink wine and have friends. Praise be to Moore.

Addendum: this is the origin of the phrase 'Please sir, I want some more' in Oliver Twist. Dickens, a devout follower of Moore's Law, penned the original phrase thusly: "Please sir, I want some Moore". At the time, this was a common way to request either a rendezvous with a friend or a tipple of vinified beverage. Young Oliver was, therefore, asking for a glass of wine to help him on his way to enlightenment. Unfortunately, Dickens' editor was a soulless heathen to Moore's Law and made the 'correction' that has since become part of the text we know.

The believers among us can attempt to resist this gentrification of the phrase by saying "can I have some Moore?" whenever our glass is empty. Listen out for it. We're everywhere.

How to make potato gnocchi

Gnocchi bolognese

Last week I posted about a failure, sweet potato gnocchi. It was ill-conceived from the beginning — sweet potatoes are different to regular potatoes in all but name, and I was a fool to think they could be made into tender dumplings using the same method as for potatoes. A gosh darn fool.

For regular potatoes however, this method works perfectly. Gnocchi is one of those things that is best done by feel rather than strictly adhering to a recipe but there are some things to keep in mind.

Eating from the long tail of Italian cafés: Bocelli

Fettucini gambieri

I don't understand how this place is always packed. The prawns in my fettucini gambieri were rock hard, and my sister's penne con pollo was too salty. To make matters worse the servings were enormous. Even the best food can get overwhelming if there's too much of, and this is not the best food. It's not the worst food either, it's just very mediocre and not worth the inflated prices.

Italian food is about not being afraid to showcase your ingredients. Buying the best and treating it simply. Eating at Bocelli, you get the impression they don't really care about their ingredients. Tasteless, dry chicken. Stodgy, gummy gnocchi that's obviously bought in. The specials board was advertising 'Beef fillet on the bone' (what bone?), and when I asked whether the crab linguine special was made with fresh crab the guy taking our orders (the owner, no less), rolled his eyes and replied, "I don't know, probably frozen".

In Adelaide there are a handful of terrific Italian restaurants (Chianti Classico I can vouch for, and I've heard great things about Enoteca and Àuge), several good ones, and a long tail of mediocre ones. Bocelli fits into column three.

Bocelli Caffe Ristorante
81 Hutt St, Adelaide

Penne con pollo

Don't be scared of curries: beef & chickpea curry

Beef & chickpea curry

Mmm, curries. Warm, satisfying, aromatic, and yet intimidating to so many cooks. I know heaps of people with Indian or South East Asian cookbooks who have only cooked a curry once or twice, if at all. When they did, they went and bought fourteen different spices which I guarantee you are now sitting at the bottom of a cupboard gathering dust — each one a meagre teaspoon less in volume — then spent the whole day cooking the thing. For many the end result was probably delicious, but others ended up with tough meat or bitter flavours and it was such a pointless bother they'll never do it again.

That's the problem with cooking by rote, blinding following a recipe without thinking about what you're being asked to and why. It's the reason people attempt Sandra Lee recipes. She's such an easy target, but look how many people covered tempura prawns in a whipped cream and jarred mayonnaise sauce. And put it in their mouths!

Sorry. Just because you've had a hard time making a curry, I'd never accuse you of wanting to make a Sandra Lee tinned pineapple and ketchup pie (link coming eventually, it'll happen). It's just that curries lend themselves to rote cooking because people aren't confident enough with Indian cooking to second guess the recipes. If you've never had a fenugreek seed, how would you know how much to add? How would you know how much to toast it? Unless your Mum was Indian, well, you probably wouldn't know. And that's okay.

But you can know. Curries are basically Aromatics, Spices, and The Rest of It. It's such a simple framework that can be turned into a million different curries by someone who knows how to handle the ingredients. Start here, Meena will show you how. She'll be the Indian Mum you never had. Now here's a curry I made yesterday afternoon to use up some beef and freeze for busy evenings.