Friday, December 29, 2006

The Red Ochre Grill in Cairns, Australia

Kangaroo, crocodile, emu, fresh yellow-fin tuna, wild boar- these are the ingredients of modern Australian cuisine. Like many of the inventive restaurants in the US, Asian influences abound in Australia. Last night at the Red Ochre, instead of barbecued croc on a stick as you might imagine you’d find in the Australian outback, we ate crocodile filled wontons. The Kangaroo was sesame crusted with a horseradish sauce, the emu in the form of a pate. Chef Craig Squire seems well versed in traditional French techniques, splashing his dishes with Asian flavors. My main course was kangaroo, or “roo” as the server referred to it when she asked how my dinner was. I’d had heard it tasted gamey before, and I think that is an accurate representation. The flesh was extremely lean, I found not a bit of grissle or fat in the cut, and it tasted very similar to venison. The roo was served with a quandong chili glaze and Chinese bok choy. The side starch was an inventive and highly caloric sweet potato fritter. It was like eating a donut filled with shreds of sweet potato. Very tasty, and thankfully, Lou helped me with much of it.

Lou ordered the special yellow-fin tuna. It was served with lentils and greens. The fish was a large cut (everything here is served in HUGE portions) and was prepared correctly, but the lentils were a bit bland. Lou liked it, but it was nothing memorable. I will, however, never forget the Aussie Asian-fused Roo at the Red Ochre Grill.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Christmas on Bondi Beach

Lou and I arrived in Australia on New Year's Eve. It was a rainy day so we toured the famous Opera House and walked around the city to get acquainted.

Bondi beach is a quick train and bus ride from downtown Sydney and reportedly the place to be on Christmas day, and so we went. A large mass of hot, silky sand was welcoming after a few cold, rainy days back in San Francisco. I had expected the beach to be filled with Australian families spending quality holiday time together while throwing some “shrimp on the barbie” but in reality it was full of young Aussies hanging out with their friends. It could have been mistaken for an American 4th of July had it not been for the Santa hats everyone was wearing, and some of the red Santa bikinis trimmed with white fur.

The beach goers brought pre-prepared picnic fare instead of the imagined barbecues. The natives were eating buckets of shrimp cocktail while a group of Asian immigrants who sat close to us put soy sauce on their sandwich rolls. Much of the food was not only pre-prepared, but pre-packaged. Chips that taste like chicken seem to be all the rage. The few ocean-side barbecues we saw in action were not emitting the sweet, succulent smells you’d imagine from shrimp and crab, but of over-charred red meat which lay across their grills. Needless to say, it was not a “foodie’s” event.

We ate a late lunch at a sidewalk cafĂ© where we had originally just stopped for a drink, but since Lou was ordering a beer, we had to also order food due to the Christmas day licenses issued for sidewalk seating. (Apparently, Bondi beach is trying to tone down the Christmas festivities.) I ordered a mixed chicken and steak fajita that turned out to be more Cajun than Mexican and Lou ordered some garlic and butter prawns-you can’t go wrong with shrimp in Australia.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Hot Crab and Artichoke Dip

It is not often that I try a new recipe in which I am completely disappointed, but this was certainly one of them. I made this "Hot Crab and Artichoke Dip" for a casual Sunday night gathering with a few friends and it did not turn out as I expected. It was quite bland and even a dash of tabasco on each serving did little to bring it to life. I was left with a mostly untouched casserole dish full of dip that I had no idea what to do with. After wondering what to make for dinner the next night, it dawned on me that we might be able to reinvent it as crab cakes. I added a little mayo, lots of tabasco, some garlic, shallot, and pepper. Then rolled them in Japanese bread crumbs, fried them in olive oil, and voila...they weren't half bad. Much better than the dip we started with. I served it with some fresh baby romaine and a herb/mayo/white wine vinegar dressing and the total package was worth much more than the sum of it's parts. So you might ask, what's the moral of this story? 1) don't bother making this crab and artichoke dip, there are much better alternatives out there, and 2) you can usually salvage anything if you put a little creative effort towards it.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Perfect Peanut Brittle

I've experimented with Peanut Brittle since I was a kid. Confectionary cooking was my entry into the food world. Not only did I enjoy eating the fruits of my labor, but I've always been entrigued by the chemistry of cooking- the way temperature affects sugar particularly interests me. If you cook the sugars to too high of a temperature, your peanut brittle will not be brittle, but rock hard. If you don't bring it to a high enough temperature, it'll be peanut chew. Then, when the brittle's off the heat, you can add some baking soda and it becomes foamy instead of glossy and dense.

The keys to great peanut brittle in my opinion are: make it foamy, cook it to exact temperatures (use a good candy thermometer), and use lots of peanuts chopped up to just the right sizes -some chopped fine, some left in halves. I find an easy way to do this is pulse them in a food processor. The resulting inconsistent chop is just right. The smaller pieces blend into the sugars and flavor the candy with rich peanut taste, while the large pieces make for a nice chunky brittle.

I think the absolute best recipe is the one for "Old Fashioned Peanut Brittle" on It can be made weeks ahead of time, then stored in an airtight container so it was the first sweet I made for the holiday season. Although, I mixed up a batch a week ago and I'm almost out-with two weeks to go until Christmas. I plan on making another this week to make sure everyone gets a taste and to try to stretch it until the 25th.