Darina Allen: What's new on the Australian food scene?

Wow, the food is fantastically good in Australia. I’ve just come back from a two-week trip to promote my new book Grow Cook Nourish. A whistle-stop tour where I visited Sydney, Melbourne, Byron Bay and Tasmania.

There were lots of radio interviews, TV appearances and a sell-out Grow Cook Nourish dinner at Merricks General Wine Store on the beautiful Mornington Peninsula outside Melbourne. So what’s new on the Australian food scene? It’s been over a decade since I last visited. The food was already fantastic, creative and delicious but on this visit, it was even more memorable. I should say that there was nothing random about my choice of restaurants, I can’t bear to waste even one eating slot so breakfast, lunch or brunch and dinner were all carefully plotted.

The most notable change was many of the top cooks and chefs are proudly incorporating lots of native ingredients into their menu and are showcasing indigenous foods. Some attribute this to the Rene Redzepi effect, the acclaimed Danish chef who changed the image of the Nordic peninsula and brought his whole team to Australia in 2016. He was intrigued by the wealth of indigenous foods and the knowledge and inherited wisdom of the Aboriginal people.

On my last visit over 15 years ago, I ate witchetty grubs, mountain pepper, marrans and other tasty bites but now there is a far greater variety, understanding and pride. I won’t easily forget Kylie Kwong’s salt bush dumplings at Billy Kwong. She and Ben Shewry of Attica in Melbourne have been serving native ingredients and herbs for years. Ben showed me his vegetable garden at Rippon Lea Estate. He pays tribute to aboriginal tradition by wrapping fish in paper bark which imparts a delicious smoky aroma.

Lennox Hastie’s food at Firedoor in Sydney was truly creative and delicious, each element was cooked on the open fire over different woods. I had an unforgettable evening sitting at the counter chatting and watching him cook.

Still in Sydney, I loved the warm oysters with horseradish cream at Ester and Gnudi with brown butter, currants and almonds at Cumulus in Melbourne, beautiful, simple food handmade with superb ingredients.

When I visited Melbourne, Stephanie Alexander took me to Auburn Primary School to see one of her Kitchen Garden projects, a seriously impressive school garden. They even had a wood-burning oven in the centre and a brilliantly equipped kitchen so the children could learn how to cook the wide variety of fruit and vegetables they grew. The teachers baked a pumpkin cake in my honour and sweetly shared the recipe.

Little purple society garlic flowers were everywhere, even on the new seasons’ asparagus. I enjoyed Fred’s in Sydney, where one of Alice Waters prodigies from Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California has created one of the hottest tickets in town.

In Oz they are just enjoying the first of the early summer produce as we snuggle up around the fire and tuck into stews. Perhaps my most memorable meal was at Fleet in Brunswick Heads near Byron Bay. It only seats 14 guests but I pleaded for a little space and Astrid, Rob and Josh squeezed me in at the counter. The smoked mackerel fish pâte was inspired by a dish I enjoyed there and the radish dipped in honey and roasted sesame seed was one of their moreish canapés.

Some say the Aussies invented brunch, I’m not sure but they certainly do some of the most exciting and tasty brunch dishes ever. I loved Three Blue Ducks both in Roseberry and at the Farm at Byron Bay and schlepped the cookbook all the way home. I met several of our Australian students during the trip and loved the super chic Old Clare Hotel in Sydney with Jason Athertons, restaurant Kensington Social serving up some delicious food.

I hugely enjoyed my trip and Grow Cook Nourish was warmly received in Australia at the beginning of their growing season.

Smoked Mackerel Pâté, Potato Crisps and Dill or Fennel Sprigs and Flowers

Cooked fresh salmon, smoked salmon, mullet, mackerel, trout or herring can be substituted.

Serves 6-8

Ingredients:

  • 110g (4oz) undyed smoked mackerel or herring, free of skin and bone
  • 50-75g (2-3oz/1/2-3/4 stick) softened butter
  • 1/4 teaspoon finely snipped fennel
  • freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1/2-1 clove garlic, crushed to a paste
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
  • Homemade Potato Crisps (see recipe)

Garnish:

  • sprigs of dill or fennel and flowers

Method:

First make the potato crisps.

Next make the smoked mackerel pâté.

Whizz all the ingredients in a food processor.

Season with salt and freshly ground pepper, taste, add freshly squeezed lemon juice and garlic.

It should be well seasoned and soft. Cover and chill until needed.

To Serve:

Put a generous tablespoon of smoked mackerel pâté on a small plate. Cover the entire surface with homemade potato crisps. Tuck tiny sprigs of dill (or fennel) in between the crisps and dill or fennel flowers.

Homemade Potato Crisps or Game Chips

Making chips at home is definitely worthwhile — a few potatoes produce a ton of crisps and nothing you buy in any shop will be even half as delicious. A mandolin is well worth buying for making chips — but mind your fingers! When these are served with roast pheasant they are called game chips.

Serves 4

Ingredients:

  • 450g (1lb) large, even-sized potatoes
  • extra virgin olive oil or beef dripping for deep-fat frying
  • salt

Method:

Wash and peel the potatoes.

For even-sized crisps, trim each potato with a swivel-top peeler until smooth.

Slice them very finely, preferably with a mandolin.

Soak in cold water to remove the excess starch.

Drain off the water and dry well.

In a deep-fat fryer, heat the oil or dripping to 180C/350F.

Drop in the dry potato slices a few at a time and fry until golden and completely crisp.

Drain on kitchen paper and sprinkle lightly with salt.

Repeat until they are all cooked. If they are not to be served immediately, they may be stored in a tin box and reheated in a low oven just before serving.

Gnudi with Roasted Almonds, Currants and Parmesan

Serves 6

Ingredients:

  • 500g (18oz) buffalo ricotta
  • 1 organic egg yolk
  • 30g (1 1/4oz) ‘00’ flour
  • 30g (1 1/4oz) freshly grated Parmesan
  • zest of 1 small lemon
  • 2kg (4 1/2lbs) semolina flour, for dusting
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 25g (1oz) currants
  • 25g (1oz) unskinned almonds, quartered
  • 25g (1oz/1/4 stick) butter
  • 50g (2oz) freshly grated Parmesan
  • lots of freshly ground black pepper and flaky sea salt

Method:

Day Before

First, make the gnudi.

Mix the ricotta, egg yolk, ‘00’ flour and Parmesan together in a bowl, then add the lemon zest and salt, freshly ground black pepper and mix again.

In a wide, deep baking tray or plastic container, spread out a generous layer of semolina flour, about 5mm thick.

Roll the gnudi mixture into 30 balls and then lay each one on the semolina flour in a single layer, making sure they do not touch each other.

When you have used up all the mixture, completely cover the gnudi with the remaining semolina flour and chill in the fridge for 24 hours.

By then, the semolina will have formed a crust on the gnudi – this helps the dumplings to hold their shape.

Next Day - just before serving

When you are ready to cook the gnudi, bring a large pan of salted water to the boil (1 level tablespoon of salt to 8 pints of water).

Dust the excess semolina flour off the gnudi (any excess semolina flour can be kept in the fridge and used again).

Cook in batches, a few gnudi at a time for about 3 minutes or until they rise to the top of the saucepan, remove with a slotted spoon, drain on kitchen paper. Reserve some of the cooking water.

Meanwhile, melt a little butter in a saute or frying pan. Bring to the boil, allow to bubble for a minute or two until the colour changes to hazelnut, add some of the reserved cooking water.

Add the raisins and almonds. Add the drained gnudi to the pan. Toss gently, season well with freshly ground black pepper and divide between the hot plates.

Sprinkle with a few flakes of sea salt, some freshly grated Parmesan and add a few rocket leaves.

 Stephanie Alexander’s Spiced Pumpkin Cake

Serves 20 approximately

Ingredients:

  • 350 g (12 oz) pumpkin (skinned and de seeded)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1-2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Pumpkin Cake
  • 180 g (6¼ oz) dark soft brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 150 ml (5 fl oz) olive oil
  • 250 g (9 oz) self raising flour
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon ground allspice
  • ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
  • Lemon Glaze
  • 250 g (9 oz) icing sugar
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • Fresh thyme sprigs, (to serve)
  • 2 x 1 lb loaf tin

Method:

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/gas mark 4.

Chop the pumpkin into 2 cm pieces.

Place in a bowl with olive oil and cinnamon; give a good toss making sure all pieces are coated. Place on a lined baking tray and bake for 30-35 minutes.

Allow to cool, then blitz with a food stick blender or in a magimix.

Line the loaf pan with baking paper.

In a large bowl, whisk the brown sugar, eggs and vanilla until thick and combined.

Pour in the olive oil and combine. Stir through the pureed pumpkin. Sieve over the flour and spices, stir together until all incorporated.

Pour into the prepared tin and bake for 35-40 minutes or until the skewer comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack.

Meanwhile make the icing.

Sieve the icing sugar into a medium bowl; gradually add the lemon juice until you have a thick runny consistency. Pour over the cake and decorate with fresh thyme sprigs.

Carpaccio of Sea Bream or Haddock or Grey Sea Mullet with Salmon Eggs and Dill or Fennel Flowers

Serves 4

Ingredients:

  • 225-300g (8-10oz) very fresh sea bream, haddock or grey sea mullet, filleted
  • freshly squeezed organic lemon and orange juice
  • salmon eggs (cured salmon roe)
  • little sprigs of dill or fennel
  • dill or fennel flowers
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • flaky sea salt

Method:

Slice the fish very thinly down onto the skin.

Arrange the slices in an over-lapping line across each of the chilled plates.

Squeeze some lemon and orange juice over the top. Arrange a line of salmon eggs along the centre of the fish slices.

Garnish with tiny dill or fennel sprigs and flowers. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with a few flakes of sea salt. Serve immediately.

Warm Oysters with Horseradish Cream and Chervil

Serves 6-8

Ingredients:

  • 24 Gigas oysters
  • Horseradish Cream (see recipe)

Garnish:

  • sprigs of chervil

First make the horseradish cream (see recipe), cover and chill.

To Serve:

Preheat the oven to 250C/500F/Gas Mark 10. Put the oysters into a baking tray on a bed of coarse salt.

Pop into the oven and cook until the shells just pop open.

Lift off the top shell. Spoon about a dessertspoon (2 American teaspoons) of horseradish cream over the oyster.

Top with a sprig of chervil and serve immediately.

The oyster should be hot and the horseradish cream cold.

Serve on a bed of seaweed or coarse salt.

Horseradish Cream

Serves 8 - 10

Ingredients:

  • 3 - 6 tablespoons (4-7 1/2 American tablespoons + 3-6 teaspoons) freshly
  • grated horseradish
  • 2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon mustard
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • lots of freshly ground pepper
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 225ml (8fl oz/1 cup) softly whipped cream

Method:

Put the grated horseradish into a bowl with the vinegar, lemon juice, mustard powder, salt, freshly ground pepper and sugar.

Fold in the softly whipped cream but do not over mix or it will curdle.

The sauce keeps in the fridge for 2-3 days, covered, so that it doesn’t pick up other flavours.

Hot Tips

Inaugural Shanagarry Potato Festival:

Shanagarry Design Centre and the Ballymaloe Cookery School collaborate to launch the first Shanagarry Potato Festival today to celebrate the history of our national treasure, the potato. Darina Allen will host a cookery demonstration of Exciting Potato Dishes from around the World at the Ballymaloe Cookery School at 10am. Tickets €30, 021 4646785 or www.cookingisfun.ie. There’s also an exciting programme of events at the Shanagarry Design Centre, see kilkennyshop.com/kkshanevents

East Cork Slow Food Event:

Alice Holden and Hannah Schlotter from Dagenham Farm in the London suburbs will share the exciting story of urban farming and gardening, making an urban farm productive for the communit, on Thursday November 30 2017 at 7pm at the Ballymaloe Cookery School. Further inquiries on 021 4646785 or slowfoodeastcork@gmail.com. Don’t miss and tell your friends.

Grow your own garlic:

Garlic is one of the easiest of all plants to grow. It used to be that one would buy a bulb of garlic (not Chinese), separate the cloves and pop each one into the ground, root end down on December 21, the shortest day of the year and expect to harvest it on the longest day of the year, June 21. However with climate change I’d be happy to get it into the ground in the next week or fortnight. It needs 30 days and nights below 10C to grow well and produce a head rather than a single bulb. Seek out West Cork Garlic, which suits our climate or mail order from The Garlic Farm on the Isle of Wight.

  • Want to know more about Aboriginal culture, native and indigenous Australian foods? Seek out a copy of Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe, unputdownable…..


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