Friday, 30 September 2011

Review: More than a Pretty Place? The Oaks Brasserie, Yarralumla

What better thing is there to do in Canberra on a nice day than ride your bike around Lake Burley-Griffin? ... Combine it with a brunch stop, of course. 
Mr D. and I headed off one recent weekend morning on our bikes to do exactly that.  After chasing Mr D.’s cracking pace for kilometres, we finally arrived at one of the most scenic parts of the lake foreshores – Westbourne Woods. 
The bike path wound its way through a stand of big, old shady trees and scraggy bushes, then across a little wooden bridge over a pond with water lilies, and up a long, long grassy hill.  On top of the hill stood a beautiful garden, and nestled in the garden was a little white cottage. 

The little white cottage in the garden was The Oaks Brasserie.   The cottage has been on the site since Canberra’s very early days, providing a home to Canberra’s first official nurseryman, who nurtured trees to beautify the young city and grow new forests in the surrounding hills.  Nowadays, almost 100 years on, the cottage is right in the middle of beautiful parkland on the shores of the lake.

The Oaks Brasserie really does trade on its fabulous location - it is not known for its food.  On this day, the breakfast menu was weighted with heavy eggy dishes and a little uninspired, with the effect that Mr D. and I settled for a simple croissant and jam.   The croissants seemed to be from a frozen box instead of a bakery and the coffee was not great.  However, the service was attentive and friendly, if a little inexperienced.
I had to laugh when I saw the section of the menu especially for dogs – yes, the cafe will serve your pampered pooch a plate of tasty pasta, chicken or sausages as long as it is well behaved.
Speaking of animals, the birds also gave me a laugh that morning.  A pair of currawongs and some other birds greedily eyed off our breakfast the entire time.  Quick as a flash, one of the currawongs swooped down and grabbed the last quarter of Mr D.’s croissant while he was away from the table.  I wasn’t quick enough to shoo him away, the cheeky rascal.  Can you see him smiling to himself in the photo?
So, a pretty place The Oaks Brasserie certainly was that morning.   But like so many other pretty things, there seemed to be not much else behind it.

Tell me, do you choose a book by its cover?  Or is it all about what you might find behind?

The Oaks Brasserie
Cottage 1 Yarralumla Nursery
Weston Park Road
Yarralumla  ACT
Open daily from 10am – 5pm for morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea
Open on Saturdays and Sundays from 8.30am for breakfast

Friday, 23 September 2011

Italian Cooking Adventures at 3seeds

It’s a special thing when you have a good friend who shares your passion for something you love.  In my case, I am lucky to have the Divine Ms M. to share my love of all things food related.  She and I have been friends for donkeys’ years, sharing the highs and lows of high school, uni, relationships and lots of other experiences.  While we’ve lived in separate cities (even separate countries) and gone down different paths, we’ve always managed to keep in touch.  A few years ago, the Divine Ms M. moved back to Canberra with her young family, to my delight.  Since then we’ve tried to catch up when we can for girls' lunches to talk about what’s been happening in our lives.  
The Divine Ms M. and I had been trying to do a cooking class together for well over a year, but never managed to coordinate due to one thing or another.  So, after careful scoping and scheduling, we finally locked into doing a cooking class at 3seeds recently.
3seeds has just moved to the Fyshwick markets and offers a range of wonderful cooking classes, including tapas, desserts, Thai and Middle Eastern, to name a few.  This particular day, the Divine Ms M. and I have chosen an Italian pasta class.  We are not disappointed.
Our chef and instructor, Andrew, greets us warmly and asks us all to put on our aprons and name tags.  He gathers thirteen of us around the large communal stainless steel kitchen table, explaining what we will be cooking today - basic egg pasta, sweet potato gnocchi, fresh pesto and simple roasted tomato sauce.  The table is laden with bowls of beautiful fresh produce from the markets below and we are ready to start.
First is the gnocchi, which requires peeling and mashing recently boiled potatoes and roasted sweet potato.  Only potatoes with red skin should be used, Andrew advises, and it's best to mash the potato using a potato ricer or mouli to get a nice, smooth result (although you can use a sieve). The two types of mash are mixed with flour (at a ratio of 1.5 : 1 : 0.5) and kneaded lightly into a surprisingly soft dough. Then it’s a matter of making little sausages out of the dough, ready for cutting small pieces off and throwing into boiling salted water.  When the sticky little dollops poke their heads up to the surface, they are cooked.
Next is the egg pasta, which requires blitzing flour, eggs and salt together in a food processor and kneading it strongly into a firm dough.  A tip from Andrew is to be sure to use special  ’00’ flour for best results (you can find this in most supermarkets). 
After resting the dough, the most fun part is rolling it through the pasta machine, of course.  The Divine Ms M. and I enjoy working as a team.  I decide that my next toy will be a large electric kitchen mixer with a pasta attachment! (hint, hint, Mr D.! J).  By the time we are finished, there is flour and pasta everywhere!  The pasta cooks within a couple of minutes in boiling, salted water.
Meanwhile, the tomatoes are halved and then squeezed firmly to remove their seeds and juice and placed on an oven tray for roasting, along with some salt and pepper and what we think is a rather large amount of sugar.  Andrew assures us that this is necessary to balance out the salty and slightly bitter flavours in the sauce.  In fact, a bit of sugar can fix all sorts of cooking stuff ups, he tells us.  I have to remember that!
The roasted tomatoes are mixed with some finely chopped red onion that has been sweated in a frypan with butter.  A few of us think olive oil would be better (especially for our arteries), but Andrew assures us that butter tastes better and makes a richer, glossier sauce.  The mixture is then blended with a stick blender to make a smooth pasta sauce.  We are surprised how orange the sauce ends up, so different from the rich red colour of the tomatoes.
Finally, the fresh pesto.  This is simple too – some lightly toasted pine nuts (toasting brings out the beautiful nutty flavour much more strongly, Andrew advises), fresh basil and rocket, shaved parmesan, roasted garlic (for a much more mellow flavour than raw garlic), lemon juice and salt and pepper.  These are blended until smooth in the food processer, then olive oil added slowly through the top of the machine while it is running.  We are encouraged to taste test as we go, to get the balance of flavours just right.
We serve up the two dishes, the pasta paired with the pesto and the gnocchi with the tomato sauce, and enjoy the feast.  The pasta is topped with some more toasted pine nuts, fresh tomato and grated parmesan.  The gnocchi is topped with some house-made Persian feta – light on the tongue, lusciously creamy, a little tangy, a little salty, and particularly delicious.  The flavours of the dishes are fresh and clean, affirming how good it is when you can make an entire dish with beautiful ingredients and a little time and love.  We all agree the food is wonderful.  We are all totally inspired!

While the recipes are simple, the expert instruction from Andrew (who is clearly passionate about what he does) makes the difference.  He helps us turn what would normally be good food into great food. 
It’s very pleasant to sit around with everyone in the group, getting to know them over the great meal we have all played a part in creating, along with a lovely bottle of wine.  The Divine Ms M. and I have a fantastic time and vow that we will do it all again.  Hopefully it won’t take us a year to organise it next time. J

So tell me, do you like to share your passions?  And what inspires you?

Fyshwick Markets 
(above Ocean Fresh)
Mildura St
Fyshwick  ACT 2609

The class cost $110 and ran for 3 hours (including eating time).  Girl About Town paid her own way.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Great Food Apps

I am totally addicted to my i-phone.  So much so, that it’s almost a permanent attachment to my hand (with Mr D. threatening to confiscate it J).   The wonderful world of smart phone apps is ever expanding, especially when it comes to great food apps.  I am never without inspiration thanks to them.  So now I’d like to share some of my favourites with you.

Nigella Lawson’s ‘Quick Collection’ - $4.49

Best design:   It has to be the Nigella app for pure food porn pleasure.  Beautiful photography and design, like a delicious set of playing cards.
Best feature:  Definitely the Nigella app’s voice activation, which lets you scroll through the pages of a recipe without having to get your sticky fingers all over your phone.  The Taste app comes a close second with its very cool ‘Inspire me - Shake to update’ feature (another lot of food porn playing cards).
Best everyday recipes:  Jamie Oliver’s app wins hands down for simple, healthy recipes to cook at home during the week.  Best looking recipes include tofu stir-fry with noodle salad, chicken curry with fragrant rice pilaf, tomato pappa (bread soup), to name a few.
Best chocolate recipes:  This is always a key test for me.  I can’t go past Nigella’s app – two lots of chocolate brownie and chocolate cookie recipes, plus lots more of her quick and easy favourites.  The Taste app again comes in a close second, with some lovely looking chocolate pudding recipes. 
Most informative:  Ever wanted to learn how to use your fancy chef’s knife properly in four and a half minutes?  Jamie Oliver’s instruction videos are awesome.  Worth a mention are the ‘How to Cook Everything’ app’s cute little instructional diagrams in its ‘how to’ items.
Best variety:  You will never run out of ideas with the 2000+ recipes on the ‘How to Cook Everything’ app.  Although, disappointingly, there is no food porn pleasure to be had with this one – not a single photograph (except for the mug of the author, famous New York food blogger Mark Bittman).
This post wouldn’t be complete without my most used app.  I just can’t do without my app for Google Reader, for keeping up with all those fabulous food blogs.

Note 1: You will need to have a Google Reader account already set up to use the Google Reader app.
Note 2: Jamie Oliver's app and Google Reader app are available also for Android. 
Note 3: All prices in Australian dollars, current at time of posting.
Keep an eye out for more apps in future posts.
Tell me, do you have a favourite food app to share?

Friday, 9 September 2011

Review: The Great Breakfast Debacle

We have a lovely little ritual on Saturday mornings.   You will usually find Mr D. and me enjoying brunch at Debacle in Braddon.  This place is our ‘local’ and we love it - we just have to stumble out of bed and wander down the road to get our fix of good coffee and yummy food. 
Debacle is wonderfully laid back and relaxed, and a great place to meet up with friends, although mostly it’s just Mr D. and me doing our own thing.  We’re usually able to walk straight in and find a cosy table just for the two of us, even on a busy Saturday morning.  The service is always friendly and efficient, which is what we want for a hassle- free start to the weekend.
Our favourite dish is the crepes with lemon curd and fresh lemon wedges to squeeze all over them.  The crepes are always light and fresh, although I tend to scrape most of the huge dollop of rich, buttery curd to one side.

French crepes with lemon butter and icing sugar- $11.90

The pancakes with pear, berry compote and ricotta are a close second for me.  They are so dense and satisfying, loaded with all that creamy ricotta, I can only ever get through half.  I’m also a big fan of the freshly squeezed juices on offer – the apple and ginger juice is a particularly spicy and delicious pick-me-up!
Pancakes with grated pear, wide berry compote and ricotta - $13.90
Mr D. and I like to take our time on such lazy weekend mornings.  Seated across from each other, Mr D. will engross himself in his favourite newspaper on his i-pad, while I become absorbed by the latest postings from my favourite food blogs on my i-phone.  Neither of us will say a word, simply just enjoying each other’s company.  Bliss!
Debacle definitely doesn’t live up to its name for a great weekend breakfast experience. J
30 Lonsdale St
Braddon  ACT
Open 7 days for breakfast, lunch and dinner

So tell me, do you have a favourite food ritual?

Debacle on Urbanspoon

Friday, 2 September 2011

The Best Steak Dinner?

Why is a good steak so hard to cook at home?  Why does it always end up cooked to a rubbery bit of old shoe leather at one extreme or a bloody mess at the other?  I still don’t know, but I am slowly learning a few little tricks.
It’s taken me lots of years of practice to get a consistently passable result.  I first started cooking steak regularly in the early days of Mr D.’s and my relationship.  He would really appreciate my cooking when he came over to my place, and I liked to try and impress him (or not) with my try-hard culinary skills.  Around once a week or so, I would cook Mr D. a steak dinner.  Every time I cooked it, my little apartment would fill with smoke and we’d have to open all the windows for half an hour to let it clear (which was a bit tough in winter in Canberra).  I’m sure the neighbours were far from impressed with the smoke alarm always being set off by my cooking.  Anyway, I later discovered a little tip about oiling the meat, not the pan, so these days there is far less smoke.
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire of course.  Not so long ago, I made my usual steak dinner dish for Mr D. and I – including deglazing the pan with balsamic vinegar and then cooking some sliced onions in it.  Whoosh, went the vinegar when I poured it into the hot, hot pan.  An alarmingly large flame shot up.  It scared the living daylights out of Mr D., who thought I was about to burn our kitchen down.  Another little tip – take the pan off the heat first before you add flammable liquid.  After that little incident, Mr D. always makes sure he knows where the fire extinguisher is kept. J
Have you ever wondered how some steaks get that lovely crust on the outside, while staying tender and juicy on the inside?  Another trick I learned from watching all those cooking shows on TV – season the steak well with salt and pepper first (no oil), then cook in a hot non-stick frypan (no oil).
It’s really all about the meat itself, I’ve discovered after a bit of trial and error.  My favourite – a nice bit of lean rump.   And accompaniments?  Good steak just has to be served with crisp fries, I reckon – just like the French do.   I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry on my first grown-up holiday to France a few years ago with Mr D.  After fantasising about all the wonderful French food I would eat, I discovered the national dish was steak and chips (or at least in the el cheapo bistros which were generally all we could afford to eat in at the time).

So tell me, do you like to cook a good steak at home?  Or will you die trying?