Making dolmades with yiayia

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Delicious dolmades

I love to cook. No surprises there.

Pouring through the pages of a culinary tome and diligently following the instructions is a great way to reach gastronomic heights.

Or you can cook with my yiayia Alexandra and watch how she uses her instinct and years of experience to freestyle her way through a dish, never producing anything less than perfection.

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Yiayia Alexandra at work

My yiayia Alexandra was never taught to cook. She talks about her mother’s cooking with pride but never had a chance to learn from her because she spent her teens working in the family’s olive grove and was then whisked off by boat, alone, to Australia at the tender age of 19.

She initially lived in the small country town of Giri with her aunty and worked in the family café making sausage rolls and pies for the local farmers. It was only when she married and moved to Sydney that she learnt to cook and over the years of bringing up a family she became known for her culinary prowess. Not an easy task considering her husband, my Papou Peter, was a seafood chef.

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Dolmades are packed tight before being cooked

I’ve cooked and eaten many delicious Greek dishes from yiayia (I can’t think of a single occasion when she’s veered from Hellenic cuisine) but one dish I’ve never seen either of my yiayias cook is arguably one of the more recognisable Greek mezedes, dolmades.

I asked my Yiayia Maria once why this was and she told me it was because her husband, my Papou Con, didn’t like them. She had therefore never made them while he was alive and sure as hell wasn’t going to start now, even though he’s been dead for over thirty years.

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The bare ingredients

 

So I turned to Yiayia Alexandra to show me the ropes. I’ve only ever eaten rice stuffed vine leaves but it turns out yiayia had other ideas so we went shopping to pick up beef mince along with rice, parsley, onion, eggs and of course vine leaves.

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Yiayia works the mince mixture with her hand

Back in the kitchen, yiayia rinsed the salty packed leaves while I was tasked with chopping the onion and parsley. Yiayia worked them into the mince with her hands along with eggs, salt and pepper.

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Yiayia is a master at the stuffing technique

It’s the assembly stage of dolmades that takes time. We stood side by side for the next half hour, the concentration dripping from our pores as we carefully layed out the leaves, filling them with the mince mixture and rolling them up into little fingers.

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While I do my best to keep up

Yiayia would occasionally chastise me for using too much filling or holding the leaf the wrong way (the vein should be on the inside so the outside is nice and smooth).

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Meat and rice dolmades – delicious

The dolmades were layered in a pot lined with vine leaves, drizzled with olive oil and water, covered with a plate and then left to cook for an hour and a half or so.

Dolmades are not the most aesthetically pleasing dish in the Greek repertoire. But the taste is truly fantastic; the rice and meat are perfectly cooked and the flavours have deepened during cooking. A splash of avgolemono sauce would be a fantastic touch but we’ll save that for next time.

Yiayia said she hasn’t made dolmades in years yet she knew exactly how to turn out a perfect set. I can only hope to inherit that kind of foodie wisdom.

Hanging with Heston

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Shameless Heston selfie

It’s been a while since my last post (about a celebrity chef) and what do I back it up with?

Another post about a celebrity chef.

I promise I’m not a one trick pony and I’m also not friends with every celeb chef in town. I just happen to meet a few in my line of work.

I’m currently promoting Heston’s new TV show which has seen me work with him on a few shoots over the past few months. But I’ve been a Heston fan for much longer than that and can now proudly say I’ve been to every one of his restaurants. A bona fide groupie.

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Outside The Fat Duck in Bray

Let’s start with the biggie. The Fat Duck in Bray receives 35,000 calls a day from eager foodies trying to book a table. Yes, that’s 35,500 A DAY. It’s no wonder it took my friends and I over a year to get through, in fact it’s a wonder we made it through at all.

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The famous ‘Sounds of the Sea’ complete with iPod in a shell

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The even more famous Snail Porridge

It was and still is one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Everything about our lunch that day is etched firmly in my mind. The 90 minute drive out to the picturesque Berkshire town of Bray with Katia, Jess and Santosh. The 18 course degustation that surprised and delighted at every turn. I remember the £50 bottle of Taittinger we drank was the sweetest I’d ever tried and I still have the menu carefully stored as a priceless memento.

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Heston’s Bacon and Egg Ice Cream

We even convinced one of the staff to reveal to us the secret of the Bacon and Egg Ice Cream. While it looks like a bacon-flavoured egg is cracked into liquid nitrogen to immediately freeze into a smooth and rich ice cream, we knew there had to be another way. And no I’m not telling!

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Oxtail and Kidney Pudding with Suet Pastry alongside Thrice Cooked Chips

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Spiced Chocolate Wine Slush with Millionaire Shortbread

A few years later I tried the pub around the corner. Not just any pub when the Executive Chef is Heston Blumenthal. My friend Andy and I tried the most creative items on the menu at The Hinds Head, including Oxtail and Kidney Pudding made with suet pastry and Spiced Chocolate Wine Slush with Millionaire Shortbread. I still swoon at the thought of the Thrice Cooked Chips. If you think normal chips are good, imagine boosting them by the power of three.

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Meat Fruit – chicken liver pâté encased in mandarin jelly

Next I had to try Dinner at the Mandarin Oriental in London. It was the swanky restaurant on everyone’s lips and I wanted in. The place is all class – nestled comfortably into the moneyed bosom of Knightsbridge, it attracts the rich and famous with its modern interpretation of historic British gastronomy.

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Meat Fruit is revealed

This is where I first came face to face with Meat Fruit and we hit it off instantly. Apart from being one of the single most photographed dishes in the world, it’s also one of the most sublime. The smoothest, richest chicken liver pâté you can imagine, encased in a mandarin jelly made to look exactly like a mandarin.

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Tipsy Cake with Spit Roast Pineapple

That night I also tried the extraordinary Tipsy Cake with Spit Roast Pineapple. It is made to order and takes a good hour but is well worth the wait. The softest, most pillowy little brioche balls are bathed in butter, Sauternes, brandy, vanilla and cream as they’re baked in individual cast-iron pots. Each cake is served with a wedge of roasted pineapple which has been cooking on the spit for three hours. Words cannot describe how ridiculously good this dish tastes.

At that point I figured I’d hit the trifecta and could retire, safe in the knowledge I’d experienced all Heston had to offer.

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Powdered Duck Breast at Dinner

And then he announced he was coming to Australia. What followed was a six month residency of The Fat Duck in Melbourne, which turned into a permanent outpost of Dinner, plus a revamp of the original Fat Duck in Bray.

And how fortuitous for me to join the network producing an observational documentary about Heston’s aforementioned endeavours, at just the right moment.

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Want to heighten your enjoyment of wine? Just add an orgasmatron.

This is why I’ve been hanging out with Heston of late. I’ve watched him speak intently to camera, shared a crew lunch with him and looked on as he took an orgasmatron and applied it to the head of one of his biggest fans (and vice versa) in the name of a heightened sensory tasting experience.

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The purpose-built liquid nitrogen ice cream trolley at Dinner

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Ice cream is churned and served to order at the table with flair

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Individual ice cream dipped in pop rocks and nuts

I’ve also had the pleasure of experiencing the better part of the menu at Dinner in Melbourne. More Meat Fruit. More liquid nitrogen ice cream. And more perfectly executed dishes than should be allowed on the one menu.

Don’t even get me started on the drinks list. Like the Bloody Mary that looks like a glass of sav blanc because it’s made from Worcestershire sauce-infused vodka, clear tomato consommé and pepper distillate. Forget the stick of celery, instead you’ll find it by way of a celery oil finish.

Dinner is only slightly easier to get into than The Fat Duck. Either way start saving now. But do persevere, you won’t regret it.­­­

8 reasons why I love Nigella

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Hanging with Nigella

It’s no secret that I adore Nigella. And yes, I am being a shameless show off by sharing this photo of us from a few years ago. Indeed it’s framed on my wall, how did you know?

I had the honour and pleasure of working with Nigella a few years back while part of LifeStyle Food Channel and can honestly say that what you see is what you get. The smooth honey voice, cheerful disposition and infectious laugh? It’s there on and off screen.

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Nigella in conversation with Annabel Crabb

Fast forward a few years to last night and I was in the beautiful but decidedly un-intimate setting of the Sydney Opera House, watching Nigella as she engaged in conversation with the delightful Annabel Crabb.

It got me thinking of all the things I love and admire about Nigella. So here are my top 8.

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The hottest tickets in town

  1. She tells it like it is

For someone so seemingly posh, Nigella is pretty down-to-earth and practical.

Mid cooking demo at the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival a few years ago, she exclaimed a hair had fallen in the dish she was making.

‘Oh well’ she reasoned. ‘I must have eaten truckloads of my mother’s hair while I was growing up.’

How true is that? It’s just a hair people. Move it to the side and continue cooking.

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Nigella preps for her performance

2. She’s practical

‘Beside my bed I keep a collection of condiments: Maldon salt, Tabasco, chilli sauce, soy sauce.’

This admission came out last night as Nigella was telling us about her two ‘modes’ – the ‘moving at the speed of light’ mode and the ‘comatose on the couch’ mode. The condiments come in handy for the latter when she can only bear to eat food amongst soft sheets. Nigella revealed that one of her luxuries is expensive linen. And how she proceeds to ruin it by dripping soy sauce everywhere. We’ve all been there right?

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My eyes always go straight to Nigella’s engaging intro

3. She is a superb writer

No surprises here as she’s a trained and experienced journalist but this is really what sets her apart from the legions of other would-be-cooks in the world. She’s a writer who happened to fall into food and subsequently the recipes play second fiddle to her unique way of storytelling. Before you even get to the ingredients you know the provenance of the dish, the mood she was in when she created it and the occasion that inspired such a dish. Anyone can throw a few ingredients together but not many can transport you into the heart and soul of a dish before you’ve even stepped foot into the kitchen.

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The offending ‘recipe’ of avocado toast

4. She’s risen above avocado-gate

Oh yes. The culinary scandal of 2015. In her new series, Simply Nigella, Nigella takes a few minutes to extol the virtues of avocado on toast on any day for any occasion. She clearly notes that ‘this is hardly a recipe’, and goes on to suggest ideas for jazzing up this old classic with new flavours. The next day an indignant media declared that Nigella was hoaxing the public by ‘calling avocado on toast a recipe’.

For god’s sake people, did you not read the title of the show??

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A few more titles in my Nigella collection

5. Nigella loves mushy peas

She couldn’t possibly love them as much as I do but they factor high on her culinary scale. For years I’ve been walking into (UK) fish & chip shops, ordering a tub of mushy peas and walking out sated. When I’m not in the UK I rely on the canned variety or Harry’s Café de Wheels to tide me over. Look at Nigella’s back catalogue and you’ll see they have appeared in a recipe or two. Her rationale?

‘Whenever an ingredient is regarded as low rent I feel compelled to use it’.

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Nigella single-handedly captivates the entire crowd

6. She’s healthier than you might think.

‘People think that all I do is sit around and eat chocolate cake’ an exasperated Nigella told the Opera House audience. Although it’s hard not to think that when so many episodes of her earlier series’ end with her sneaking to the fridge in the ‘middle of the night’ wearing silk jimjams to steal a slice of the chocolate caramel fudge cake she cooked earlier in the series. I only wish I looked so good when indulging in midnight snacks.

The truth is that she does have a number of healthy recipes in her repertoire and even a section dedicated to ‘temple food’ in one book.

7. She’s a glutton and proud of it.

A boy once declared I was greedy. No this wasn’t in the school yard, this was a few years ago. To his credit he is French and he thought it was a compliment.

But it’s true. I am greedy. The definition of the word is ‘showing an intense and selfish desire for something’. I show an intense and selfish desire for food about 97% of the time. And so does Nigella. So that makes it okay.

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You guessed it, one of my most prized posessions

8. She’s humble

Before Nigella left the stage last night she turned to the audience and politely asked:

‘Can I please do something silly and infantile before I leave? Can I please take a photo of you all?’

She then proceeded to take a ‘selfie’ with everyone in the expansive hall.

Nigella you’re my hero.

New Year’s resolutions of a foodie

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My homemade miguelito margaritas

While the rest of the world is planning to ditch alcohol and make the gym a daily ritual, I look at a new year as an opportunity to eat delicious things and explore the world – all the while searching for more delicious things to eat of course. So this is what I wish for my 2016:

#1 More cocktail drinking. I’m keen to actually make more cocktails as well as just drink them – after all it’s an art form. So this year I pledge to invest in the proper bartender’s kit as I only have a dodgy cocktail shaker at the moment, which has been known to fling drops of pisco sour around my kitchen.

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I hope to discover more cuisines that revere beetroot!

#2 Last year was up there in the exciting foodie travel stakes – I discovered the cuisines of Transylvania, Iceland and Poland, amongst other places. Next year I want to up the ante – will it be okonomiyaki from Japan or feijoada from Brazil? Who knows – stay tuned!

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I long to recreate yiayia’s magic in the kitchen

#3 Make my spanakopita taste like yiayia’s. Okay we all know this is an impossible task and never going to happen. But one can always dream, right?

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There’s a liquorice takeover going on in my pantry

#4 Find a use for the plethora of liquorice items I have in my cupboard. If anyone has any suggestions then please let me know, otherwise my dad will be getting a liquorice-flavoured dessert on his birthday for the rest of his life.

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I want to shop like this every week

#5 Go to more food markets. I already dip into a few around town but it’s not enough. A new one has just opened in my suburb. So expect to see me there every Saturday morning… at 11.59am…

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I know I can do better than this next year

#6 Go truffle hunting again but this time two months earlier than I did this year – I want to go bang in the middle of the season so I collect a truly impressive haul. Read More

Sydney’s best foodie experience

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Getting fishy with it at the Sydney Seafood School

Yes it’s a big claim but I’m calling it.

To me a great foodie experience needs to be engaging, immersive, authentic, and above all, tasty.

There’s one experience that ticks all the boxes in my book and that’s a class at the Sydney Seafood School. I’ve now racked up about five or six classes over the years, so consider myself somewhat of a veteran.

Anyone who has spent some time in Sydney will be familiar with the Sydney Fish Market but the Sydney Seafood School takes the experience one step further

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Our expert seafood instructor

A stroll through the fish market and past the silent auction halls will most certainly put you in a fishy mood as you enter the school and take a seat in the cosy theatrette. In front of you is a demonstration kitchen that puts Masterchef to shame, with cameras capturing the action from every angle on overhead screens. The walls around you are covered in ‘leather’ wallpaper, made from dried Icelandic salmon skins. The designers really took the brief to heart.

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Raised screens capture all the action

Either a well versed home economist or high profile local chef will demonstrate 3-4 recipes which all use supremely fresh seafood, straight from the market floor. Classes cover everything from tapas and paella to how to barbeque seafood.

I most recently experienced the crab double act: Singapore Chilli Crab & Black Pepper Crab, over a three hour class. The heady mix of salty, sweet and hot flavours in these two dishes works beautifully with fresh green blue swimmer crabs.

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Fresh green blue swimmer crabs straight from the market floor

Everyone working at the markets is an expert on seafood so you always get the backstory on the ingredients being used. In this case we learn how to prepare various crabs (who knew crabs had a flap?) and the distinction between varieties and their provenance. Each dish is broken down into steps and we watch the process intently from start to finish.

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Our studious kitchen team

Then it’s time to step next door and put the lesson into practice. We form groups of 4-6 and congregate around our own free standing kitchen. Each person is armed with a recipe booklet and allocated a task so the prep moves at lightning speed. I don’t often cook with crustaceans so I get a thrill from cleaning and segmenting them, knowing I won’t have to clean up the mess. It’s fiddly business.

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Once the crabs are clean we start on the based for each sauce. I get cracking on the chilli crab by adding garlic, chilli, ginger and shrimp paste to a wok. A minute later I crank the heat and throw in the crabs.

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Neven works the wok

It takes less than five minutes for the shells to go from a deep blue to bright orange.

In the meantime a sauce is made from cornflour, fish stock, tomato sauce, fish sauce, rice wine and chilli and added to the crabs. The final flourish is the addition of a lightly beaten egg when the wok is taken off the heat, which creates threads of egg through the sauce.

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Voila! Singapore chilli crab

We plate up the chilli crab, sprinkle the dish with coriander and serve with rice.

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A tangle of legs and claws make up this black pepper crab dish

My fellow foodie friends are meanwhile putting the finishing touches on the black pepper crab which is arguably the more favoured dish in its home town. 

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We take our meal to the adjacent dining room filled with ethereal light fittings made from fishnets and bare bulbs. Before long we’re elbow deep in crab. The chilli has quite a kick to it so matches well with the accompanying Riesling. Nespresso coffee and Lindt ball are the finale to this delicious meal.

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Cooking schools are a great way to get to know a new country and its cuisine but are just as good for perfecting cooking skills in your own country, especially if you’re lucky enough to have a cooking school this good in your midst.

Marvellous Market #3: Great Market Hall, Budapest

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The Great Market Hall in Budapest

You know a city is serious about food when it builds a giant, purpose built market smack in the middle of the city (Sydney are you listening? Take note please).

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The market’s beautiful interior, looking down on the ground floor

That’s what the Hungarians did in the late 19th century when they built the Great Market Hall. Despite some knocks during the World Wars, a renovation has kept it looking sharp as one of the most beautiful buildings in the city.

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Rows of immaculately displayed local products adorn the food stalls

But it’s what’s inside that is really exciting. While the first floor features local handicrafts including traditional Magyar dress and collectables, the ground floor and basement are dedicated to food. Rows and rows of glistening fresh produce, endless stands of paprika and chilli and plenty of local delicacies are enjoyed by locals and tourists.

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Paprika and pepper in every possible form

The paprika stands are works of art – sachets, tubs and tubes of the stuff (spicy or sweet) are carefully arranged in colourful rows along with strings of dried peppers and garlic.

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How can you not smile at the Smiley Shop?

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Owls, ghosts, cats, mushrooms and other random pickle shapes

One thing Hungarians LOVE are pickles. Pickles and sauerkraut. They have their own dedicated area – ‘pickle alley’ in the basement floor. What I especially love is the creativity involved, with jars displaying cute messages and smiley faces made from the pickles, plus a massive array of sauerkraut-stuffed pickled vegetables.

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Sauerkraut is measured by the pitchfork

Read More

Why Greeks love weeds

Picking and cooking Greek horta with yiayia

Yiayia checks the horta thoroughly for dirt

Horta, or ‘weeds’, are a staple in every Greek household and foraging for these leaves is a national pastime. I’ve grown up eating mounds of these greens, lovingly tossed with olive oil and lemon, and nothing makes me happier than collecting them with my yiayia. And if I’m lucky, I get my own bag of weeds to take home.

‘Horta again?’ she wailed to her mum as the plate piled high with freshly steamed greens hit the table.

‘Yes’ came the firm reply. ‘They are so good for you’.

Okay so maybe that child was me. Admittedly I had little appreciation for greens back then but this quickly changed somewhere in my early teens and now I can’t get enough.

Picking and cooking Greek horta with yiayia

See why they’re called weeds?

Horta, from the Latin word hortus meaning ‘garden’, literally means ‘weeds’ in Greek and encompasses a range of indigenous greens including wild spinach, endive, fennel leaves, dandelions, amaranth and nettles. In the Greek countryside it’s a common sight to see yiayiathes bent over with baskets collecting wild greens. The Greeks were foraging long before René Redzepi made it cool.

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Yiayia’s row of planted horta

Those weeds were plentiful in our house while I was growing up because yiayia would regularly drop around piles of the stuff. The idea of having fresh greens dropped off on a weekly basis seems like such a luxury now.

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Rogue rathikia at their best

But I can still get my fill with regular visits to see yiayia. At this time of year it’s the rathikia (dandelion) that’s in full bloom, in a few months it will be vlita (amaranth).

Yiayia is so adept at growing horta that it shoots up energetically, not only from the vegetable bed but from random pockets all over her yard.

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A good healthy bunch of rathikia

On my latest visit, yiayia took her knife and carved out a number of rathikia plants for me. I honestly couldn’t tell if we were collecting greens or weeding the backyard. Read More

The Sydney restaurant that lets diners choose the price

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Lentil as Anything in Sydney’s Newtown

It’s extremely hard to make money in the restaurant business. Often the most creative and technically brilliant chefs are not adept businesspeople. Being the hottest new chef with a swag of awards doesn’t help either. A full restaurant does not equal a profitable restaurant.

My point is that pricing in restaurants is crucial – it has to strike a balance between covering costs and not scaring customers away with a $25 starter of bread and olives.

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Lentil as Anything has a pared back, student vibe

If pricing can make or break a restaurant then what happens when a restaurant comes along with no prices? Enter Lentil as Anything, a pay-what-you-can-afford, not for profit vegan restaurant that leaves the maths up to the customer. The restaurant is built on the idea that “everyone deserves a place at the table” and wants to offer everyone a positive dining experience, regardless of their financial state.

It’s a concept that made waves when it opened in Melbourne originally and then Sydney’s Newtown and begs the question – what do people do when paying is off the hook?

What would I do?

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The succinct menu for the evening

On the Wednesday night I visit with friends Ving and Bel, the place is packed. And everyone appears to be south of 25 in student-style attire. We ­could be in a uni canteen.

There are four mains on the menu, plus chai tea and one dessert.

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The restaurant’s philosophy and their tasty chai tea

We start with a small glass of chai which has much more depth and flavour than the sort of chai you usually get in cafes these days. It appears not to be made from powder which is an automatic win in my book.

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Spicy roast cauliflower, pepita and spinach salad

The mains on offer for the evening are: Moroccan tagine with black eyed bean couscous; creamy cashew and mushroom spaghetti with garlic bread; spicy roast cauliflower, pepita and spinach salad and ratatouille with rice and garlic bread.

Once a dish sells out, that’s it, so getting in early is advisable. Read More

Foraging for black truffles

A prized black Perigord truffle

A prized black Perigord truffle

I’ve always been intrigued by truffles. And I’m saddened by their current identity crisis.

How is it that this rare, expensive, hyped-up fungi can appear everywhere? Making a cameo in your eggs during Sunday brunch, moonlighting in your local Italian joint’s pasta, flavouring salt grinders in the condiment aisle. How can this be?

Chemically produced, synthetic truffle oil, that’s how. ‘One of the most pungent, ridiculous ingredients ever known’ according to Gordon Ramsay.

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A small but perfectly formed truffle

So it’s been a while since truffle flavoured anything has stepped foot in my kitchen. But my interest in the real deal has not subsided and I’ve been keenly watching the growth of the Australian black Perigord truffle industry.

Around 30 of Australia’s 150 growers are based in the Canberra region; the cool climate is perfect for cultivating truffles, much like its celebrated wines.

It was a bit late in the season when I visited Tarago Truffles so I knew the days of finding bucket loads of truffles were over, but was assured by owners Denzil and Anne that there should still be a gem or two out in the field.

A prized black truffle

Denzil holds up his first prize of the day

Denzil and I bonded instantly over our mutual hate for truffle oil. The only time he’ll go near it is when he takes visitor’s dogs out for a bit of truffle training – he soaks cotton wool in ‘truffle’ oil and uses this to teach dogs how to follow the scent. To train his own dogs he uses real truffle that’s been frozen from the last season.

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A particularly moist truffle is pulled from the ground

Growing truffles is not straight forward, there is no truffle ‘seed’ you buy at Flower Power. Instead an acorn and truffle fungi are joined in a lab to form a symbiotic relationship, 18 months later you plant the truffle fungi in the wild and hope for the best.

Denzil started his truffle journey in 2002 and now has 4,300 oak trees across 9 hectares. During the Australian season (May-August) he takes groups through the land to have their own truffle hunting experience.

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Every foot that steps on truffle territory must first be dipped in chlorine

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And that goes for Utah too

First step is to bathe your feet in chlorine to keep germs out of the paddock and prevent cross-contamination. Even the dogs have to quickly dip their paws in.

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Denzil and Utah set off to find truffles

Then it’s time to break into groups and follow one of the leaders who each have a specially-trained dog – the key to finding truffle gold. We quickly learn that Denzil’s son Matt and his dog Dusty have the canniest noses, leading to the biggest spoils.

Matt walks Dusty through an avenue of oak trees until Dusty stops and starts to sniff a particular spot – chances are this means there are truffles in the ground. Read More