Book elver

image1 (22)As I write this I am terrified of what I am about to do.

I’ve just looked over, and re-looked over the plans of an apartment we might be looking to buy and move in to, and I can see one opportunity within the place for a bookcase.

I worked for six years at Megalong Books, my familial home was and still is filled with books, my ideal home has a library with a secret annex, and I also – pragmatically – know how hard and expensive it is to find and obtain some books, and what low resale value most have today.

The fiction is slightly easier to deal with than my non-fiction books; I’ve given away many of my favourite paperbacks in a natural cycle, with the full heart of someone who knows that this is going to enrich someone else’s life, too. The rare, first edition blah blah, of course, that doesn’t go. The ‘what I haven’t read’ section is a trickier thing: but really – hard hat time – it is closer to the chop.

It’s at my cookbooks and reference books that I’ve now fallen in a heap (I’m the heap – there is no other heap, unless you count the ‘nooooooo, not that one’ heap).

I’ve culled over the years – you cannot rent, move, live overseas etc repeat, and not. And I’ve bought three cookbooks in the three years that we’ve been back in Sydney. So it’s not like my shelves are brimming with Yotem Marie Claire Ottolenghi or even Recipes To Give Up Sugar And Be Smug.

What I’m having to wrestle with – in an era of internet-easy recipe discovery and reference – is: ‘what makes a recipe book worthwhile’, now?

I suspect my husband thinks that I have more cookery and food reference books than I do because I built such a clever two-way milk-crate (I’m watching you over-priced Scandiwegian designers for my idea now), bookcase, that on one side he can’t see all his biographies of incredibly exciting runners (as in, when they’re running, but boring subjects), and he thinks it’s a Babylon of medieval Catalan egg-emulsions (you hear that everyone? Emulsions are in the oldest cookbooks).

Unfortunately, I cannot dig a hole like a pirate (or, that fabulously English bloke who built a castle under a tarp – the local council was not pleased), and bury my treasure. And my parents have suffered enough. So, I have to work out what I should ditch (and let’s face it – sentimentality is as naff as adult colouring-in), and what I will miss, genuinely, in five, or ten years.

But more importantly, why KEEP, a cookbook, today? Of course there are reasons – I’m just in the midst of battling that question in a life-or-death situation. I am not a photographer – but Robert Carrier has obviously made a Great Dishes of Pain recipe book? Whereas despite the cheap production, Carnival comes up looking like the weekend you wish you were about to have): image1 (23).JPG

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Aged: food, not me

Sometimes the determination to lose one kilogram sees you eat the leftover pavlova for breakfast. Don’t judge hastily – some of us are innately contrary creatures. What it can result in, however, is an interesting foray into recipes past – before refrigerators.

The most immediate observation is the cream has taken on cheesy characteristics: at once the dessert is more savoury than it was the day before. A lot has been written about the Victorians embracing sugar – as if they ate sugar in the same way that we do, today. However, what if sugar (and salt, for that matter), were not eaten in the same way that we do, but were mutable forces in the face of a very, very different eating experience?

This week I sought to experience that and at a not-too-dangerous-temperature-time-of-year kept my own food (not the athlete’s), at room temperature before consumption. Like tomatoes from the fridge versus from the bowl I expected a new landscape of smells and flavours. And of course, I live and travel by my own adage that ‘what doesn’t kill you, makes you lose weight’.

I’m in good stead: growing up I was routinely told to ‘add garlic’ if the meat smelled odd. In our house it wasn’t the two second rule, it was the ‘add garlic’ rule. And I can say with hand on heart that I have never really had food poisoning in my almost-middle-aged-life. Sorry, various employers. Proviso: this is not to denigrate serious food-borne bacteria – it’s just to say I have been very laissez-faire and have not suffered.

Current food safety handling rules are routinely ignored. For good reason. ‘Protein must be kept above 60C or below 5C’ clearly does not apply to rare meat or silky room-temperature sashimi. A pet issue of mine is that dietetics and nutritional science in Australia always lags behind current thought. Coconut fat is still being taught in schools as ‘bad’ fat, as the ‘healthy eating pyramid’ is still being taught as best in practice nutrition. In my book, it’s a FAIL. Perhaps I’m as bad as a climate change ‘denialist’ (read ‘an idiot’), however I’ll keep espousing chicken skin and leafy greens.

Speaking of chickens, ideally I’d like to get my hands on a freshly killed chicken: meat changes flavour over time, hence the ‘high’ flavour of hung game. In Kenya it took 24 hours to slow cook a wild chicken to tenderness, and the flavour was pronounced but not rancid, suggesting that it was fairly fresh.

Traditionally meat was hung to tenderise it. Steaks cut from a hung beast are tenderer but also have flavours more akin to Parmesan than blood. The skirt or onglet steak in particular, are susceptible to aged flavours as they literally ‘hang’ (hanger steak) within the organ cavity, so age more quickly than sirloin (a very boring steak), within the muscular sections.

Slicing and cryovac-ing is not so good. As someone who routinely buys fish in cryovac this exercise has made me think about what is happening to the fish – if so obviously there’s so much not good going on with ham. I think I won’t be allowed to experiment with fish on the bench.

In regards to the cheese: clearly cheese wins in life. In fact, I’d suggest that the Quicke’s cheddar was improved by removing from the bag – anaerobic maturation is less pleasurable than the normal cheese ageing process. We can all take something from that. 

And in regards to the apple: we don’t know. It had been cold-stored before the experiment. Lovers of room-temperature fruit understand the frustration with that.

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Mashed in Bolivia

Bolivia is a country famous for potatoes and salt: what’s not to love? Oh, and coca (okay, it’s probably better known for its coca). It’s not so famous for its cuisine or the quality of its football, on a continent famous for both. Neither of us had Bolivia on our travel radar until the athlete of the two us won tickets to South America – but I’m so glad we went.

Bolivia 1The flight ascent (La Paz has the highest international airport in the world), into Bolivia is gob-smacking. It’s not just (just!), the sheer majesty and starkness of the Cordillera Real de los Andes mountain range, but that even the most desolate plateaus are dotted with small houses – in some parts I imagine this is what Kansas would look like if it were 5000 metres above sea level. Flying into the airport the plane skims the clay-brown city of El Alto (once merely a higher up suburb of La Paz), and as it lands the altitude pressure seems to reach into your skull and squeeze a bit. This was a sensation we would have more than once on our trip (most notably post a night out on the town, that started with a French brass ensemble and singani – a Bolivian brandy – and ended being kept awake all morning by a brass marching band that kicked off the Boliva National Day celebrations right outside our hotel window – and kept kicking all day).

I have only a few superpowers but one is surely finding the restaurant in the middle of nowhere and within two minutes of researching our trip to Bolivia I’d found Gustu (owned by Noma’s Claus Meyer), to book in La Paz. It was just a happy coincidence that Gus the bartender used to live and work down the road from us in Sydney, so after a spectacular meal that included one of the most utterly delicious potatoes – with a potato flavour so bright it was neon – I’ve ever eaten (a tiny, blue/purple skinned Pinta Boca), he showed us behind the scenes. We saw sketched recipes in progress, boxes of freeze-dried ‘chuño’ potatoes, punnets and punnets of dried raisin-like chillies and a tiny but perfectly-interesting cellar. A week later we returned to shoehorn in another meal before bolting for the plane, and pick up two superlative bottles of Bolivian gin ‘Republica’ and several bottles of wine (including the lovely saddly 2007 Sausini Cabernet Sauvignon). Interestingly, Gus told us that BoliviaBolivia 2n wine ages quite rapidly because of the altitude. I read that as encouragement to drink them quickly (it’s going to be a good Christmas!).

If Gustu was all about the Noma approach to Bolivian produce, eating next to traditionally-dressed Aymara women as well as garishly-dressed coca lords, our other eating highlight was a different world altogether. In mining town Potosi we slurped kala purka, a glorious, rich and rib-sticking soup, thick with white corn and studded with crunchy pork crackling – a chunk of hot volcanic rock setting it into a bubbling frenzy. Far from a tourist-trap or gimmicky restaurant we ate alongside impassive miners with rough faces and hands, in the shadow of a mountain that is on the verge of collapsing on the town.

Bolivia 3Now, I’m pretty certain that the coca leaf sweets I may or may not have brought back don’t have any effect of any interesting kind –  on the other hand, I bought what I thought was a quinoa toffee in the supermarket before a long drive, but what I discovered was actually quinoa soap when I munched into it. I ate almost a whole bag of coca leaf sweets trying to get the taste out of my mouth, but didn’t notice any euphoria as I gently blew bubbles breathing. Such are the pitfalls of adventurous eating, on occasion!

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Dissecting beef

old-cattleOne of the interesting things about Australian, British and American butchery is that it cuts across so many muscles, when each muscle in the bovine geography (thank you John Newton for that term), is so utterly different from the next.

Head into the supermarket and see blade steak at the bottom price point of the shelf – and yet, within that cross-section of shoulder reside some of the most delicious muscles in the whole beast. The Americans have cottoned on – the flat iron steak is one of the hottest (excuse the pun) steaks on the market in New York, and for good reason. It’s a version of the Australian oyster blade steak (the infraspinatus muscle), but cut to remove the connective tissue that runs through the middle of the Australian cut. The steak is marbled even in lean animals, and being in the shoulder, where there’s plenty of activity, it’s one of the tastiest as well. Pay attention: if you care about trends this is the ‘new’ hanger/onglet/skirt steak. But I’d prefer if you didn’t pay attention because there are only two on every beast. And at least one of them should be mine.

Learning the muscle names is very helpful when you wish to eat well, and to your preference. For some, nothing surpasses the (in my opinion often frankly mushy) tenderloin, however, could I suggest that muscles just as tender, but tastier can be found? It’s just a matter of poking about. Try the ‘butter of the beef’ which is actually often discarded – I know, crazy – from the outside of the tenderloin, the spinalis. Or consider three muscles/French cuts in the rump of the animal to rival onglet – le poire, le merlan and l’araignée.

After months of reading on this topic (see the Beef Compendium) I’m still interested in finding experts. In Victoria at Warialda Beef they have been marketing a ‘new’ steak from the heel (I think I know what it is but I won’t say), and in the US, Mexican and South American cuts are making headway – things like the rump tri-tip and the matambre (a large piece of skirt).

I haven’t even dipped into Korean beef cuts (what they don’t know about the subsections of rib meat truly isn’t worth knowing). A factoid that I cannot substantiate – even though I have tried for six months now – is that the Koreans and the Bodi tribe in Ethiopia have the most designated cuts for the beef carcass. If you can give me any more information (particularly on the Ethiopian side of things) then a good bottle of wine is coming your way. But as far as I know, the Bodi tribe claim was created by an anthropologist (and that’s never happened before…). Two bottles of good wine if you’re actually from the Bodi tribe, as well as providing The Answer.

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Why go to Lebanon?

If I’d stuck to raw liver I’d have lost weight I imagine, however what with eating hommus three times a day and the myriad sweets drenched in butter and syrup, not to mention the incredible breads… I did not. Oddly, the question we got asked all the time was: “Why go to Lebanon?”

Asbeh & liyye

Asbeh & liyye

Beirut, the crazy, honking, hammering city love-child of Cairo and Berlin, is just full of great food. Tawlet – the first all-you-can-eat restaurant I’ve ever loved – offers home-style Lebanese cooking by women from different regions who do guest stints and cook specialty dishes from their village (there’s never been a number put on just how many varieties of kibbe there are). When we visited we ate dishes from the mainly Christian Maronite region Jezzine, and this being the lead-up to Easter the dishes were Lenten (vegetarian). The buffet table groaned under tomato and lemon zest salad, kibbe filled with tart wild herbs, and sautéed or stewed sweet and sour eggplant, tomatoey potato, garlicky zucchini and greens with crisp fried onion. We were as stuffed as kousa and couldn’t even approach the sweets.

In the remote Hermel Mountains near the Syrian border we were introduced to awarma, a lamb confit of sorts, whereby finely chopped lamb or mutton is cooked and preserved in sheep’s tail fat. Hearty dishes of bulgur wheat and lentils topped with sheep’s milk yogurt, and local river trout split and cooked over a charcoal grill with a sauce of raw garlic, lemon juice and local olive oil were prepared by local Hussein, who owns Lazzab Eco Lodge. Hussein told us that he also often uses juniper berries from the ancient trees that dot the mountains to rub onto the fish or onto lamb before barbecuing.

In Baalbek, thanks to our guide Gilbert we finally got to try the dish I’d been wanting to since I first found out about it researching the book on Sheep: raw sheep’s liver (asbeh) and tail fat (liyye). In a restaurant where hunters gathered after their early morning shoot in the mountains, we were served the dish with hot, bubbly tanoor bread and a saucer of salt, ground chilli and za’atar. We tore a piece of bread and pinched a piece of liver and piece of tail fat before dipping in the spices. The raw liver was less odorous than cooked liver, and creamy in texture but bloodier in flavour than cooked, and the raw fat was soft and mild, yet unmistakably from a sheep. I can’t say it was a Eureka moment but I think I could learn to love it – just as we learn to love oysters, dark chocolate and beer.

Australians are familiar with hommus, kebabs and tabouli, but perhaps don’t realise the wealth of Lebanese cuisine. Crushing a juniper berry between my fingers, picked off a tree over three thousand years old, I inhale the cold pine aroma.

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Sheep & Genghis Khan

Post writing about goats it was on to Sheep for my project. Perhaps I’d been prejudiced by firstly writing about goats but researching and writing about sheep just didn’t grab me in the same way. That is, until I started talking to Anissa Helou about fat-tailed sheep.

A few years ago I wondered why they docked the tails of lambs, and, more to the point, whether anyone ate the tails anywhere. I just wondered and didn’t check it out any further until I started reading about sheep and the incredible accounts in historical literature of sheep in the Middle East and Central Asia with tails so fat that shepherds made little carts for the tails so that the sheep could walk without dragging them. Quite a few historians believe that Genghis Khan’s army, for example, favoured sheep like this simply because they could cut off a tail to eat on the move without halting the army or killing the whole animal.

According to Helou, this tail fat is delicious: because it swings off the back of the sheep it has a lower melting point (being cooled by air and not susceptible to the heat of the animal’s organs), and therefore has the mouthfeel of silk. Whilst used for cooking, it is apparently at its finest eaten raw, for breakfast no less, and preferably with slices of very fresh raw sheep’s liver. Now ever since, in good old-fashioned parenting-style, I was made to eat cold, partially regurgitated fried liver for breakfast before being allowed to leave the table (I hadn’t finished my dinner the night before), I’ve not been a fan. But this sounded fascinating. Raw liver I can find, and fresh at that, but I’m on the hunt for sheep’s tails now, and then I’ll have me a traditional Lebanese breakfast.

But back to Genghis. When his army took the city of Merv in present day Turkmenistan they slaughtered over 1 million people by judicious accounts. The city of Merv, considered to be one of the most populous and prosperous cities in the world, never recovered. The reputation of Genghis’ army was that they shed the blood of humans more readily than they did of sheep. Now, here’s the interesting bit: that’s true, because traditional slaughter of sheep involved (and still does in Central Asia) making a small incision in the sheep’s chest, and reaching in to stop the heart with your hand (or pinch the aorta more specifically). Ideally, no blood is shed on the ground so that it is all saved for food. I spent a morning watching videos online of this slaughtering practice, and whilst the reputation for the technique is that the animal feels no pain and it is over in seconds one video took five minutes from start to finish, so either the Mongolian fellow in question was rubbish at it, or it might be a case of wishful thinking.

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Goats – no, I’m not crazy

For the past few weeks I’ve been busy researching and writing about goats.

I’ve enjoyed researching goats enormously. Oddly enough as a tiny child my first word was ‘Jodie’ the name of our milking goat, so I feel I’ve some kind of affinity with these much maligned creatures. Any subject that allows you to research heavy metal, witches and masturbation in its scope is a rich one. I’d better explain: the heavy metal reference is to do with goat iconography in the genre, witches were accused by the Spanish Inquisition of worshiping goats, and Diogenes the philosopher joked that the half-goat half-man god, Pan, taught lonely shepherds how to masturbate.

I figured I’d better cook with a bit of goat meat, too. So for Christmas in August (we were a little late, after getting back from the UK, for Christmas in July), we ordered a couple of Booma Boer goat legs from Feather and Bone and marinated them in loads of brandy, honey, lemon balm and olive oil. We roasted them in a hot wood-fired oven along with a killer garlicky potato gratin, being careful to top up the roasting pans with water. After a good 30 minute rest we served the legs sliced with pan-juices. They were moist, tasty and velvety textured.

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