Food, wine and sommeliers

Food and wine – what else is there?

My brother’s partner has a birthday close to mine and my husband’s – 5 days in between each – so this year we celebrated all three together here in Sydney.  My brother and his partner live in Auckland and they planned to arrive Friday night (the day after Helen’s birthday).  We didn’t want anything high-end – we’re all struggling financially but we all also felt that we’d “been there, done that”, so low key but fun was the plan.

We decided on Berta’s in Sydney and I booked a bar table – always much better fun than the more formal settings – and had a lovely night with great food (Chui Lee Luk, formerly of high end French restaurant Claude’s, was currently cooking there) and fabulous Italian wine.

Next day we met for lunch at Yellow – one of my favourite Bentley Bar places; in fact, the Bentley is one of my all time favourites, dating from way back when it was a tiny place in Surry Hills.  Sommelier Nick Hildebrandt who is also Front of House, is warm and friendly and extremely knowledgeable and helpful when wondering what to drink.  Deservedly, Nick has been awarded Gourmet Traveller’s Good Food Guide 2015 Sommelier of the Year, while Brent Savage was awarded SMH Good Food Guide’s 2015 Chef of the Year. The two are quite a team, but so are their staff, and it’s this aspect – great friendly service – that makes the Bentley bars such good fun.  Which brings me back to our lunch at Yellow.

Because it was such a simple affair – really we were only going to have a glass of champagne and a nibble before going on to see a performance at Hays St theatre – we ended up ordering toasted sandwiches.  Doesn’t sound very interesting but my smoked brisket pastrami with cheddar and pickled cabbage (Reuben) was the best I’ve ever had – and I’m very fussy about my Reubens.  Two of us had these while the other two opted for a pulled pork and chilli mayo sandwich – I can’t remember what else was in them but there were groans of delight at first bite.  So what to drink?  We had started off with a glass of Roger Coulon – superb. To go with both the pork and the pastrami (very different flavours) we thought perhaps something white but decided to ask the sommelier. I don’t know why people don’t like (or is that they are are scared of?) sommeliers.  To me, they are the source of all knowledge:  what shall we have with all these different dishes?  Our sommelier that day was fantastic – a young guy who works in fashion and moonlights in restaurants to make money.  He was great fun: chatty, friendly and incredibly knowledgeable about the wine. He recommended a nebbiolo which was not only the perfect match but absolutely delicious.  Could have stayed there and had another bottle.

So, if you’re ever confronted with a wine list where you just don’t know any of the wines – ask the sommelier.  He’ll make recommendations.  A good sommelier will even give you a taste of the wine he recommends to see if you like it – no pressure.  Really. And its such a great way to try new wines.

What to do with adzuki beans

I’ve been seeing an acupuncturist who is helping me adjust my system.  She’s working on my kidneys and suggested a number of food that would help, one of them being adzuki beans.  Because most people (me included) don’t know what to do with them she gave me a recipe – and its really good: pumpkin and adzuki beans in a thai-style curry. Unlike kidney beans, adzuki beans (also called aduki or azuki beans) are small, reddish-brown beans with a cream coloured seam and sweet, nutty flavour.  They originated in China and in Japan are regarded as the king of beans due to their health-giving properties:  benefitting the liver and the kidneys. In both Japan and China, adzuki beans are often puréed and mixed with sugar to make a paste to use in cakes and desserts.  In Traditional Chinese Medicine, adzukis are said to support kidney, bladder and reproductive function. They’re also low in calories and fat and easy to digest 🙂

The beauty of this dish is that’s its really easy to prepare – no need to grind/blend ingredients to make a curry paste, just use a few dry spices and some tamarind.  It makes a lot so you can have leftovers.  In fact, I used this as something of a ‘master curry’ and kept adding to it – extra coconut milk, fish sauce, extra pumpkin, then more beans and one time:some pork- so much so that we ate it – with variations – for 4 days!  Now that’s one good curry.

Adzuki beans are available dried in Asian shops or good health food shops.

Pumpkin adzuki curry with coconut, lime & ginger

If you’re using uncooked adzuki beans, soak them for between one and four hours, rinse them thoroughly and cook for 45 minutes before adding to the curry.
Ingredients:
1 medium brown onion
splash olive oil or 1 tbsp ghee
3cm knob ginger, cut into thin matchsticks
2 hot chillies, finely chopped (I find this very mild so if you want to turn up the heat, add more chillies)
1tsp ground turmeric
1.5tsp ground cumin
1tsp ground coriander
1tsp tamarind puree
half a small to medium-sized pumpkin, cut into large 4-5cm pieces (leave the skin on)
1 cup Adzuki beans
400ml coconut milk
400g tin whole tomatoes, chopped
8 kaffir lime leaves, 4 of these finely shredded
juice of 1 lime
splash fish sauce
 To serve: lime wedges, chopped coriander, mint and/or Thai basil

Method:
Heat oil or ghee in a large heavy based pot over low-medium heat. Add onion and cook for five minutes, then add ginger and chilli and cook for a couple of minutes. Stir in the turmeric, cumin and coriander and cook for another couple of minutes. Add the chopped tomatoes (or add them whole and roughly break them up in the pot) and tamarind puree. Cook for five minutes, then add the coconut milk and whole kaffir lime leaves. Return to boil then reduce to low simmer.

Add the pumpkin pieces and cook for about 8 minutes, checking on the pumpkin – you don’t want it to turn to mush. Add the adzuki beans about two minutes before you think the pumpkin is just cooked. Sit the lime juice and shredded kaffir lime leaves and a good splash of fish sauce before serving.
Serves 4

If anyone has any other interesting recipes for adzuki beans, do let me know.

Cooking for foodies

What to cook for foodies who have eaten everywhere?  When we get together with my brother and his partner here in Sydney we generally go out one night and then have a night at our place – cooking, drinking, eating, drinking.  A lot of drinking.

Generally we confer on a menu and then all pitch in to cook.  Food is most often Asian – Vietnamese or Thai – and always lots of little dishes.  It’s a lot of work.  I usually begin a few days in advance, making lists, shopping, preparing rubs and marinades and then on the day I’m generally in the kitchen chopping, mixing, etc while everyone else is either sitting reading papers or standing around chatting to me.  Its a small kitchen so more than two people gets a bit, well, let’s just say it cramps my style.

This time, celebrating three birthdays we decided that we would do low-key and simple.  And just for a change: Indian.  My husband is a great South Indian cook, having lived in India for seven years – he make fantastic dishes including lots of vegetarian ones as well as delicious fresh chutneys. One of his most outstanding dishes is a chicken liver curry.  Sounds weird but it is to die for.  Its very rich and very hot (lots of green chillies) so we don’t have it often (maybe just once a year). For anyone who is a fan of chicken liver this is a must try dish.

For entree I made crab and prawn cakes wrapped in banana leaves with a coriander and mint chutney.  M made a coconut and red chilli chutney to go with the curry as well as a vegetable dish with zucchini and carrot cut into matchsticks and then  tempered with traditional South Indian spices:  mustard seeds, cumin seeds, black gram dhal, asafoetida, split red chillies and curry leaves.  To temper: heat a tablespoon of ghee and when hot throw in a tspn of mustard seeds, cumin seeds, the black dhal, half a teaspoon of asafoetida (this is very strong smelling) 2 split red chillies and a handful of fresh curry leaves.  When the leaves begin to split and the seeds pop add the raw vegetables and a few tablespoons of water, put a lid on the pan and turn the heat off.  The vegetables will steam and absorb all those wonderful flavours. Its quick and easy and incredibly delicious.  You  can add shredded coconut over the top.

 

Although none of us are really dessert people it never feels right to me not to make something.  But it has to be light and not overly sweet and not complicated.  So I thought a coconut panna cotta would be the go – rounding out the flavours of cardamon etc in the previous dishes, I roasted some peaches with cinnamon, cardamon pods, rosewater and a dash of wine.  It was the perfect ending to a flavour packed meal.  And to top it off:  coconut vodka!

Celebrations

My birthday and my husband’s birthday falls just 5 days apart.  This is always awkward.  Celebrating two birthdays in the one week in style is just overkill, but then who’s birthday get’s the big celebration and who’s ends up with “well lets just stay at home and have some great champagne and good food”?  Generally its my birthday (falling first) that we go out for – and not always to high end places, sometimes its just a fabulous lunch somewhere or a causal place like “…” in Newtown – just somewhere that I would like to go to eat.  I’m not really into the big flash dinner thing.  Perhpas we’ve done too many of them but I’d rather go to those places on the spur of the moment rather than as a planned event.  Too much pressure.

The trick to celebrations – birthdays/anniversaries etc – is to make them feel special.  One year I took my husband (and daughter) to the Sydney Fish Markets early in the morning.  We bought some wonderfullly fresh oysters and had them with a bottle of champagne and some lovely ripe brie and huge juicy strawberries.  We sat on the pier – picnic style and watched the boats unloading.  And then we all drove home and off to work/school.

Another time, for an anniversary celebration I decided to do something right out of the box:  a night time picninc by the water.  But I wanted it to be a surprise. So I told my husband I had made a booking for a flash restaurant where the dress was very formal.  Meanwhile, Pip and I shopped and cooked and prepared everything and packed the car with picnic rug and chairs and t-lights, plates, linen napkins, glasses, champagne etc.  I can’t remember what I made (although one of the dishes was a pigeon and pickled walnut terrine – that took days to source ingredients for, another was individual plum frangipane tarts).  Pip and I scurried around getting everything ready and packing the car in a bit of a frenzy before M got home.  Secrecy was the key.

And then it was time to get dressed and go.  I wore the Akira outfit I had worn for my wedding and M put on his tux.  Stylish.  And then we got into the car and I drove.  M wondered where we were going – he started to recognise some of the landmarks so the next step was to blindfold him.  We drove to Neilson Park and Pip and I set up our little picnic spot near the water, lighting all the candles and setting out the food while M sat in the car – no doubt wondering what was going on.  We then led him out and only when we were at the spot did we let him see.  The look of surprise on his face and pure joy was so worth all the effort we’d gone to.  It was, relatively, such a simple thing – a picnic at the beach – but it was so enjoyable – we even danced barefoot on the sand with the waves lapping our feet – that it remains in my memory as one of the best celebrations ever.