Notes from Melbourne 1

August 25, 2014

My first taste of Melbourne: a plate of oysters at the counter at Cumulus.  Brinier than any American oyster, crisper too, each one like a little gulp of the ocean.  Hello!

Cumulus is a lovely introduction to the food of this city. Casual and friendly, it takes its food (and its wine) very seriously.  The waitress will hunker down with you over the menu, considering the options.  Should you have the fried cauliflower?  Yes indeed; sizzling with Middle Eastern spices, it makes you wonder why you've never had this dish before.  Cauliflower was born to fry!

The woman next to me is eating roasted pumpkin that's been slathered with pomegranate molasses and topped with shards of cheese, uttering little moaning sounds that make me sorry I didn't order that as well.  But I'm happy with my house-made pastrami, shaved paper thin, served with terrificly sour pickles, horseradish cream, and crisps of rye that shatter at a touch.  What makes this sing, though, is that dusting of fresh horseradish.


I loved these silky green beans too, in their chunky hardboiled egg mayonnaise and their topping of fried shallots.


People here don't talk about Pei Modern- but they should.  I absolutely loved my (admittedly very large) lunch. It began with this delicately fried whiting, served simply on a crumpled piece of paper.


Went on to the most wonderful little chunk of fried headcheese with a ruffle of culatello on the side:


and then a shower of dishes.  The lightest little gnocchi, scented with almonds, kept from floating into the air only by that wonderful green sauce.


Burrata topped with miners lettuce – a juicy green succulent – and smoky slices of house-cured fish. The textures here were remarkable, the soft cheese snuggling up against the powerful severity of the fish, the gentle juiciness of the greens.


Surf clams in a smoked dashi broth, dotted with caviar and tiny nasturtium petals.  Pure delicious luxury, a new interpretation of surf and turf.


 But the tour de force of this meal was this: an entire grouper tail, so gently smoked the fish was still sweet, soft and tender, clinging to the bone.  It came away in large tender chunks. 



Dinner at Flower Drum – a venerable restaurant, wonderful in its old fashioned graciousness. Space between tables, dignified waiters, food served with care and a certain amount of pomp.  This is classic Cantonese: pristine ingredients, properly cooked and beautifully served with excellent wines. 

My favorite moment of the evening was this first bite, pearl meat with scallions. (Pearl meat is the main muscle of the Pinctada maxima, the huge pearl oysters which are harvested in July and August.  Its simplicity, its pure clean flavor, reminded me of extremely tender abalone.)  



The other high points were crab:

Chinese crab

Peking duck – so properly presented that even the hoisin sauce next to the pancake had been slightly warmed….


and what was possibly the most elegant fried rice I've ever eaten….

Fried rice

Other memorable moments in Melbourne, included a very fun lunch at Chin Chin, the raucously mad Thai restaurant on Flinders Lane, and a fantastic dinner at Moon Under Water.

I was on stage at Moon Under Water speaking with sommelier Campbell Burton (Som of the Year) and the wonderful Virginia Trioli, so I didn't photograph the meal, but I loved every bite.  The high point was the Aylesbury duck – rare roasted breast, confit leg – paired with quince and an entire medly of toasted grains.  The wines Campbell chose- all Spanish – were impressive.  I especially liked the 2010 Equipo Navazos La Bota de Vino Blanco "Florpower", which was served with the artichoke, scallop and black truffle soup. 

And one day, walking along the street, I stopped in at Primavera for a salted caramel chocolate chip gelato of remarkable subtlety.  


But the high point of the trip was dinner at Attica.  It was truly remarkable. Coming up next……



My Dinner at Elan

August 20, 2014

Sea urchin guacamole?  I was skeptical.  How is it possible for the delicate flavor of sea urchin to survive the onslaught of heat?  How could the soft pillowy texture not disappear into all that avocado mush?

But that's what's so great about David Waltuck: he knows what he's doing.  One taste of this and you say, "How come I never thought about putting wasabi into guacamole?"  It's the perfect heat for all those avocados.  The sweet richness of the urchins comes shining through. And somehow – I'm not quite sure how – the roe does not disappear into the vegetable.  It's a great dish.


The fried oyster had that same quality: it tasted like an oyster in a crackling package, rather than something fried withthat happened to be seafood. The caviar remoulade on top: pretty perfect.


This is the dish everyone's talking about: the foie gras pop.  (Well, they're also talking about the foie gras burger with bacon and too many other ingredients, which I could not bring myself to try.)  I was less impressed with this; it's a party trick, a talking point. A big ball of foie gras mousse with a heart of figs and a coating of pistachios.  What's not to like? So much excess; so few bites.


Impossible to take a pretty picture of this, but I loved finding a zucchini blossom that was not, for once, fried into flavorlessness.  Lightly stuffed, surrounded by tomatoes and plunked into a little puddle of lemon creme fraiche, it tasted like the flower that it is.  Fresh, bright. Lovely.


 "General Tso's sweetbreads."  A tangle of sweetbread, leeks, chiles, and onion in a lightly citric vinegar sauce.  If only you could order this in from your local Chinese take-out!

But my favorite dish of the evening might have been this:


Grilled mackerel with a risotto made with dashi broth, laced with clams and plunked into a yuzu-scented sauce.  It's not tricky, but it is original and the flavors are bright, the char of the fish perfectly accented by the tang of the yuzu.  And you know what?  That risotto made a perfect breakfast the next morning. 

I loved David Waltuck's cooking at Chanterelle, and I'm so glad he's back in this pleasantly understated room. He seems liberated by the casualness of Elan. The food is not the same, but hte spirit reminded me of the original Chanterelle, before it moved to Tribeca and shouldered the burden of being the restaurant where downtown people went when they wanted a grown up meal. 

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Playing with Fire

August 18, 2014


The weather was glorious. The food was fantastic. The chefs were happy – well, everybody was.  

A group of American and Canadian chefs gathered yesterday in a field in the Hudson River Valley( just outside of Hudson, New York),  to grill food, share ideas and raise money for the FarmOn! Foundation. These multi-chef events are often disappointing. This one was definitely not.  

A few highlights:

Jeremy Charles

Jeremy Charles, of Raymonds in St. John's Newfoundland. Everybody was talking about his dish, Canadian Snow crab topped with the most minusucle ear of corn and the loveliest sea greens.  This picture does not do it justice: the corn was the size of a child's pinky, fresh and delicate, underlining the pristine sweetness of the corn.  


April Bloomfield's whelk scungilli with tomatoes, peppers and corn on garlic bread: everything you expect from April. An astonishing explosion of flavors and textures.



Tigelle with goat and harissa, from Rob Gentile, of the wonderful Buca, and Bar Buca in Toronto.  An intense little sandwich, rocking with flavor.




Matt Jennings, of Townsman in Boston, was serving the best tomatoes I've had this season, mingled with bits of eggplant, really great Parmesan and topped with a gorgeous squiggle of whipped basil cream.




Jamie Bisonette and Lee Cooper of L'Abattoir in Vancouver  had chickens whirling on a spit outside their tent.  They shredded them, tossed them in an intense Southeast Asian sauce and served them on little bits of cabbage. The flavors danced. They also had this season's great peaches (and if you haven't had a peach this year, what are you waiting for?), on grilled flatbread with chicken livers.  Chicken livers love peaches.



Zak Pelacio and Jori Jayne Emde picking the pig from Climbing Tree Farm.  They served the pig on roti, , with pickled red cabbage, herbed yogurt  and lots of herbs.  But the don't miss event at this booth wasn't the pig itself – fantastic as it was – but their southeast Asian succatash, the vegetables tangled in a spicy homemade fish sauce and vinegar mixture.  I couldn't stop eating it.Zak


Meanwhile Sean Brock (up top), was happily grilling a mixture of hominy and tiny vegetables, rhapsodizing about the quality of the vegetables.  They were…. great.


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How To Cook a Perfect Egg

August 14, 2014

There's no beating a gently-cooked egg. You’ll certainly get a silkier curd with slow cooking, but the real boon is flavor: like the difference between an egg from your own chicken and an egg from an assembly line, slow cooked eggs just taste better. They’re more deeply themselves. 

Alice B. Toklas cooked her eggs in a double boiler, using lots of butter – and plenty of time. The eggs are fantastic, but the process takes patience.  If you're not up for that, consider coddling your eggs.

A friend just gave me a set of extremely pleasing glass egg coddlers.  The steel handles do double-duty as clamps, so they don't leak. Almost without thinking – in a lot less than 40 minutes – you can butter the glass, crack in an egg or two, add a splash of cream, shake in a bit of salt and pepper. Clamp on the lid, and keeping an eye out for bubbles, bring the water to a steady simmer. Let it stay there: don't rush.

When the whites begin to set but are still short of completely solid, grab the coddler handles and set on the table. Serve with toast.

Fully-rounded, a little indulgent…delicious. 


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Notes on Milkweed

August 12, 2014

Growing pods
I took these milkweed pictures yesterday; my entire driveway is lined with milkweed plants.

The photographs are mine; the information comes from, which no longer seems to be available online.

Flowers and Fruit

In midsummer the unopened flower buds can be gathered. They look like miniature heads of broccoli but are softer. Dice up a small handful of these and toss them into a soup, casserole, pasta dish, stuffing, or stir-fry to excellent effect. To eat larger servings of the flower buds alone, boil them, drain the water, and season. Many people consider this the best part of the milkweed plant. I think they taste almost identical to the shoots and the pods. There is one small warning that must be made with milkweed flower buds: sometimes they are full of tiny monarch caterpillars.

Usually the first milkweed flowers in northern Wisconsin appear in early July. The blossoming season is over a month long. The multicolored flowers have a sweet, musky odor and are a favorite of insects. I have read that certain Native American tribes boiled and mashed the flowers to form a kind of sweet sauce, but I have not had any success with this. I have eaten the flowers in small quantities raw, and they have a rather pleasant flavor.


As the flowers wither away, seed pods will form in their place along the upper parts of the stem. Even though a cluster contains dozens of flowers, it rarely ends up producing more than four or five seed pods. In a season, an average milkweed stalk produces only four to eight pods. They first appear about the size and shape of a teardrop. When fully grown they will be three to five inches long. Until they are about two-thirds grown the immature pods make a superb vegetable. The smallest pods, under an inch long and still firm, are most desirable. When the pods are fully formed they become tough and unpalatable and should not be eaten.

Milkweed pods are excellent in stew, stir-fry, or eaten as a vegetable side dish. They are delicious with cheese and bread crumbs. The pods can also be made into pickles, but they become soft after boiling.

The best time to gather milkweed pods is late summer (from early August to early September around here). The size of the pods varies greatly from one plant to the next. An immature pod on one specimen may be larger than a full-grown pod on another, so determining which pods are immature can be tricky. The pods that are too old tend to be rougher on the outside than the young pods. They also tend to have more pointed, curved tips. These are tendencies, not rules, however. There are a few more reliable ways to determine the age of pods.


There is a line running the length of each pod, along which it will split open to release its seeds when mature. If you pull apart on both sides of this line and it splits open easily, the pod is probably too old to use. For the beginner, it is best to open up several pods and examine the insides to get an idea of which ones are in the proper stage for harvesting. In an immature milkweed pod (one that can be eaten) all of the seeds will be completely white, without even a hint of browning. The silk should be soft and juicy, not fibrous. It should be easy to pinch through the bundle of silk or to pull it in half. Immature pods are also plumper and harder than mature ones. Don't let this seem more complicated than it really is – with time you will know, at a glance, which pods to collect.

A few times each season I gather a large quantity of milkweed pods. I work my way through my favorite patch and fill a cloth bag, which doesn't take very long, since milkweed often grows in large, prodigious colonies. I leave the tiny pods for next time, and ignore those that are questionably old. When I get home I sort through the pods, keeping all of those less than about 1.5 inches long to be eaten whole. If I do not use these immediately, I can or freeze them (after parboiling). Milkweed pods, after they are picked, begin to toughen in a few hours, and may become unpalatable in a day or less.

The immature pods which are more than 1.5 inches long are used to make a unique food product that is called milkweed white at our house. Milkweed white is simply the silk and soft white seeds from immature pods. I open up each pod, remove the white from the inside, and discard the rind. (The rind is actually edible, but I don't find myself having the appetite to eat all of it that is left over.) When raw, milkweed white is sweet and juicy. (I only eat small amounts of it raw, however.) When boiled, it has a mild, pleasant flavor and a chewy texture. Mixed with other foods, the boiled white looks, tastes, and behaves surprisingly like melted cheese. In fact, most people assume that it is cheese until I tell them otherwise. I often add this boiled silk to rice, pasta, casseroles, and soup, and it has never disappointed me. (It will disappoint you, however, if you expect it to be exactly like cheese.)


The lowly common milkweed provides two different useful kinds of fiber (stalk fiber and silk), plus six different vegetables (shoots, leafy tops, flower buds, flowers, immature pods, and white). It is abundant, easy to recognize, familiar to many of us, and is a perennial that appears in the same place year after year. It's blossoms feed numerous kinds of butterflies, including our most beloved, as well as hummingbirds and honey bees. Pretty amazing, huh?


For a really useful post on milkweed, try this one from Forager's Harvest.