Friday, November 25, 2011

Another thyme, please!

My friend Bechora is one chef I absolutely trust my palate and my plate to, so when he brought me a herb from his garden, I was interested.

“Do you know this one?” he asked. Well, it looked a little like rosemary, but the leaves were too soft. It smelled faintly of ….. of what? I hesitated and he helped me out.

“It is thyme. Lebanese thyme.”

Bechora should know. He grew up near Tripoli in Lebanon and he would have often walked through the mountains as a child, crushing this wild herb underfoot. Here, in Australia, he has it in his garden and it grows luxuriantly in the Mediterranean climate of Mudgee in the central west of NSW.

Next morning he surprised us with this herb made his own special way, in oil and lemon juice, and topping slices of toast. Could there be a simpler and healthier way to start the day?

Lebanese people are noted for their generosity and so it was no real surprise (but a welcome and delicious treat) that he packed us a hamper to bring home: pickled pink turnips, glace lemon, a huge bunch of the wild thyme, pots of stewed rhubarb, pickled thyme, tarator (a white garlic dip found in some shape or form throughout all the eastern Mediterranean countries), and his wonderful creamy soft-curd cheese. Oh, and a huge bunch of spinach, freshly picked from the vegetable plot.

Bechora and his wife Sybil run Deeb’s Kitchen in Mudgee, a hugely popular place to dine as their welcome is as genuine as their meals are generous and authentic. Best of all, most of the fresh ingredients – herbs, veggies, fruit – come from their garden. They even have a couple of rooms for B&B guests, one of which we had stayed in for the weekend.

Back home in Sydney I felt I wanted to continue my ‘Deeb-experience’ so here is what I made using the goodies he had given me – and let me tell you, I think Bechora would have been pretty pleased with it too.

1 bunch spinach, well washed, ribs removed

2 sheets puff pastry (I use 25 percent fat-reduced)

6 button mushrooms sliced and sautéed in butter
2 tablespoons wild thyme, pickled in oil and lemon juice
2 tablespoons tarator (garlic dip)*
125g grated haloumi cheese (or sheep’s cheese)
3 eggs
salt and pepper to taste

Place the whole spinach leaves in boiling salted water and bring to the boil then turn off heat and leave for at least 10 minutes. Drain (reserving the water for another use if you like) then chop finely. Place spinach in a bowl and add all the other ingredients, mixing well.

Line a 20cm square cake tin or similar with one sheet of thawed puff pastry, pressing in well at the sides. Prick and place in a preheated 200C oven and bake for 15 minutes until becoming golden. If it has puffed up, just prick a few times to let out the air.

Remove from the oven and pile in the filling, then top with remaining pastry sheet. Turn the overhanging pastry back on top at the edges and press well with a fork or your fingers. Prick the top with a fork and return to the oven, baking for a further 30 minutes or until the pie looks well browned. Cool on a rack and serve cut into pieces.
Serves 4-6.

* alternatively use 2 cloves crushed garlic and 2 tablespoons yoghurt.

Have you discovered a new herb or spice recently? Please tell us about it.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

When Alice meets Adrià

“Eat this one first,” says Vicky, introducing herself as a ‘guide’ (not waitress) for our meal at Ritual Restaurant in Nelson Bay, north of Newcastle. She’s not wearing a headband, but there’s a definite Wonderland feel about her comment.

She brings a slim dish of three bite-sized morsels. They don’t look like anything I have ever cooked – or eaten.

Carl and Kelie Kenzler have arrived at this point – running this tiny restaurant seating just 12 diners, in a country town shopping strip – from widely different places.

In practice Kelie uses her scientific knowledge from her background in marine biology, while Carl applies his cookery skills and together they come up with some truly amazing concoctions. It works like this.

Once Kelie has selected the foods she feels should balance each other, according to their flavour molecules (I told you it was tricky), Carl’s role is to develop the recipes. In some dishes he partners eucalyptus and blackcurrant,  in another parsnip, pear and vanilla – but the aim is  never to shock or alarm, simply to alert the tastebuds. To surprise you. And they do that, for sure.

Chef Kenzler’s batterie de cuisine is not mainstream either – a soda syphon for gases, a dehydrator (for ice cream shards) a domestic fairy floss machine, and a thermomix. Most of them don’t come cheap. In addition to grappling with the logistics of preparation, his artistic eye envisions the colours, placement, shapes and design of the food on the plate.

‘Molecular cuisine’ is not quite the right term, for what they are attempting, they say, despite the couple’s familiarity with the careers of Ferran Adrià, Hervé This, and the one they lean towards most, Heston Blumenthal, chef-proprietor of Fat Duck, at Bray in England.

“He really does look at how things work, how to make the entire experience the most memorable. He is an amazing man,” they tell me.

”Just call our cuisine avant-garde,” Kelie decides.

Surprised locals are warming to the ‘Tasting Journey’ that presents 10 or more mini-courses and forty foods over a couple of hours. Palate cleansers prepare for the next combination, there are ‘interim dishes’, and occasional ‘edible menus’ where your choice of flavour combinations decides which dish will be served next. A culinary detour, if you like.

The complex set menu changes according to the season, and organic produce is used if possible. Even the paint on the walls is chemical-free.

Challenging food prejudices is not easy, and winter in beach towns means the dining scene gets quiet, so the couple use their expertise in other ways with Carl sharing his skills with young chefs at the local TAFE college.

More recently the couple have moved their menu towards providing ‘multi-sensory experiences’. Whatever that is.

After my mind-blowing meal wandering through 'wonderland', I reckon I can trust this couple to do that sensationally too.

Guess I’ll just have to go again to see what they are up to. Soon.


Ritual Restaurant, Armidale Avenue, Nelson Bay, NSW, 02 4981 5514, Tasting Journey, evenings by reservation only, set price for menu only or matched with tasting glasses of wines.

The special invitation-only twelve-course multi-sensory dining experience, the Twelve Days of Christmas menu, is available from 12th to 24th December, 2011.

Please tell us, what is the most unusual place you have dined at?