Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Magical Mushroom Tour

There's not much that would get me up on a Sunday morning at the crack'o'dawn, drive for an hour and arrive to see the the frost still glittering coldly on the grass, unless of course, it was an opportunity to go on a guided tour of a mushroom tunnel.

The mushroom tour was organised as part of the Cool Flavours Festival, an annual foodie festival in the Southern Highlands. Directions were a little imprecise, but we managed to find the swimming pool car park that was the meeting point. We had to travel by mini-bus to the actual tunnel, which was only about 500 meters away but, because it was alongside the railway track, we weren't allowed to walk.

Once the mini-bus had done three trips to drop everyone off, (to pass the time, Mum and I tried to name as many mushroom varieties as we knew) Noel Arrold introduced himself and his business - Li-Sun Exotic Mushrooms. Noel started his working life as a microbiologist before taking over a disused railway tunnel between Bowral and Mittagong to start cultivating exotic mushrooms. Starting with Swiss Browns over 20 years ago, then moving to exotic Asian mushrooms like shiitake, oyster, shimejeii and wood ear, he now supplies restaurants  (including Tetsuya's) and wholesalers with around 1,500 kilos a week of up to eight different varieties. Some of these varieties are grown at the laboratory which is in a different location to the railway tunnel.

Growing mushrooms underground is not new. The first mushrooms grown in tunnels in Australia were under Circular Quay in the 1930s. Mushrooms have also been grown in the catacombs under Paris and in 12 square kilometres of former limestone mine in Pittsburgh, USA. This tunnel was built in 1886 and has been unused by the railway since 1919. After being used as a munitions store in World War 2, it has been revitalised as a mushroom farm.

Although the tunnel is a stable 16 degrees, it felt warm and humid after the chilly start to the day. It was very clean with an earthy smell. Row upon row of bottles, some with little mushrooms peering out, were at the beginning of the 650 metre tunnel.
Shimejii mushrooms

Two different types of enoki mushrooms
Nameko mushrooms

Some of the mushrooms are grown in these bottles, some on logs made of sawdust, others in heavy plastic bags - all are inoculated with the specific mushroom spore that have been gathered in the laboratory.

Racks of logs inoculated with shiitake mushrooms
Like something from Avatar....

Hot pink oyster mushrooms - a variety from South America

Most of the mushrooms grown here are originally from Asia, where they grow naturally. Mushrooms play an important part in the carbon cycle by breaking down the trees in the forests there. Mushrooms were first cultivated 930 years ago outside Shanghai. It is now an industry employing ten million people.

Oyster mushrooms

Mushrooms that need specific tree types to grow under, like porcini, chantarelle and morel cannot be grown here and are imported as dried mushrooms.

Everyone on the tour received a punnet of mushrooms, ours had King Browns, enoki, shimejii and woodear mushrooms. Stay tuned on how I cooked them!

We finished our morning in the Southern Highlands with a visit to Tennessee Orchards at Yerrinbool, stopping to buy a box of deliciously tangy Lady Williams and a bottle of clear, flavourful apple juice.

What's the most exotic mushroom that you've used in cooking?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

What's On

Don't you hate finding out about things after the fact?
Why does the first Saturday of every month go past and I forget to grow to the Grower's Market at Pyrmont? Same with the first Sunday of the month and the Artisan Markets at Eveleigh.

And whilst I love reading about foodie events and activities, I'd love it even more if I had the opportunity to consider attending the event in the first place!

So, in the interests of keeping you informed of my interests, here's the on-going and upcoming list of events - mainly food inspired, but also some other items that tickle my fancy.

And hopefully, through the miracle that is the interwebs, I'll be able to post an actual calendar with recurring and upcoming events.

So - this coming long weekend, the Highlands Foodie Group presents the first (of I hope annually) Cool Flavours Festival over the June Long Weekend.

With a variety of activities at local farms, restaurants, cafes, vineyards and orchards, there's plenty to choose from. Check out the program and map here for all the details of the many events.
I was keen to do the cheese-making tour at Small Cow Farm in Robertson (various times on Saturday and Sunday, $10 per person - how cheap is that!) but couldn't fit in into my schedule, so have decided to go on the Mushroom Tour at Li Sun Exotic Mushroom Farm on Sunday. (Various times on Saturday & Sunday, $25 per person). The mushrooms are grown in a disused railway tunnel.
Hopefully, after our tour we'll pop into Joadja Winery for a bit of lunch and some jazz. Rick and I visited this winery a couple of years ago and was impressed with the friendly owner and tasty wines. I remember seeing a vat of balsamic vinegar that wouldn't be ready for awhile so I'm keen to see if it has matured enough yet!

And then next week, I'm off to see Gary Mehigan of Masterchef judgeship fame at a "Modern Pie" cooking demonstration organised by the Harvey Norman Gourmet Institute and promoted through Gourmet Traveller magazine. It sounds like it could be a lot of fun, and I would rather see Gary than little George bouncing up and down!

There's a great selection of other top chefs every month until the end of the year. The Adriano Zumbo one looks particularly interesting - an early Christmas present perhaps?

Let me know of anything interesting that you have heard about. And call back here often, I hope to keep adding to the regular and semi-regular events!

Friday, June 4, 2010

Oh for fork's sake

Our latest household dilemma finally reached crisis point this week. Allow me to explain:

We had suspicions earlier in the week, but had managed to soldier on. Last night however the previously mentioned crisis point was reached when, even with a just cleaned load of cutlery from the dishwasher, the number of forks remained at one per diner – seven.

Given that we have a household of two adults plus assorted teenagers and twenty-somethings, numbers for dinner can be a little fluid. People are encouraged to invite others for dinner (on their cooking night) but having seven forks was cutting it a bit fine, I suggested that next time anyone invites someone for dinner they tell them to BYO fork.

I was worried that we were going to get down to so few forks that we would no longer be able to encourage each other to ”use the fork Luke – use the fork” (in spite of the fact that no-one in our house is named Luke this joke never wears thin).

First of all – what has happened to the forks? We still had the regulation amount (ie more than enough) knives and spoons. Could it have been the workers or the students of the house – taking a spoon to eat lunchtime leftover pasta or was it late-night snacking culprits with the cutlery hiding under their beds – I didn’t want to go there.
An antique fork, probably found under a teenager's bed five hundred years ago

Laying blame was not going to solve the problem in the short-term, how to solve the current cutlery crisis?

I considered switching our regular diet to spoonable meals only, but the prospect of only soups, stews and risotto, whilst doable in the short term, could start to wear a bit thin by summer.

Not wanting to spend a small fortune on cutlery, which I keep promising myself I will do one day, I took myself off to the local $2 shop – a misnomer if I’ve ever heard one considering it sells some furniture upwards of the two hundred dollar mark, confident of making a purchase of an extra few forks for the household.

The shop had cane baskets full of cutlery – knives, spoons, teaspoons – no forks. Moving down the aisle to the pre-packaged cutlery section there were packets of teaspoons, spoons, knives, ridiculous looking seafood forks, a set of six cocktail forks – but no regular dining forks.

Unfortunately these handy, yet lethal finger forks are no longer in stock...

I approached the girl packing the shelves with the eternal question – “were there any out the back?” She rolled her eyes at me (at me! I've been eye rolling since before you were a speck in your own eye rolling father's eye girly!) and said she would check. She returned with a variety of plastic forks. I considered them momentarily, especially the sturdy looking metal coloured ones, but decided against them in case they melted in the dishwasher.

So, obviously this is not a phenomenon only occurring in our home but in the wider area – where have all the forks gone? I will of course venture further to search over the next few days, but in the meantime I can only conclude that they have gone off to join their spiritual cousins – the single socks.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Pikelets - Masterchef Style

There are some recipes where repetition, or longevity, mean that they achieve “off by heart” status, no longer requiring reference to the cookbook – in this case I think it was the ubiquitous Good, Cheap Cookbook that has now sadly fallen apart.

In the olden days – when the kids were all at school and I was a stay-at-home mum this was one of those great recipes that I could whip up when they came home from school and let me feel like some sort of freakish super-mum.

These days it’s morphed into flapjack style pancakes for lazy weekend mornings, (now made by Rick) achieving new heights when I made them whilst we were camping for Nick’s birthday, served with the requested raspberry butter (a la Fireworks Café).

But, in my capacity as an assistant leader for Saints Plus (our church’s Sunday School group for kids in Year 6 – Year 8), I thought it would be fun to have a Masterchef style pikelet cook-off. Fortunately on the night, there were 6 kids – three girls and three boys. They were separated into two groups, strictly by gender of course.

After encouraging the boys by informing them that all the best chefs in the world were men, both teams managed to be quiet long enough for me to tell them the ingredients. The boys started well, but perhaps slightly overshot the mark with a giant pikelet, which then turned into something resembling “The Blob”.

The girls meanwhile were fashioning piping bags out of foil (all they could find), creating perfect circles and cute heart shapes and plating up their pikelets like something from, well… MasterChef.

So the winners were (taking into consideration team work, cleanliness & tidiness of work space, presentation and above all taste) Team Girl!

Of course, the winner on the night was the pikelet with lashings of jam and before I could stop BOTH teams, some extra sugar sprinkled on top!

So what’s your favourite “off-by-heart” recipe? If you send me the recipe, I’ll try it out and let others know all about it!

Recipe for never-fail pikelets:
2 cups self raising flour
1/3 cup sugar (caster if you have it)
2 eggs
½ cup milk (add more if necessary)
30 g melted butter (optional – makes the surface of the pikelets softer)
Extra butter for frying

Mix the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir until smooth. Leave to rest if you have the time.
Heat a frypan until the butter sizzles (but does not brown). Add spoonfuls of mix to the frypan, well spaced.
Turn over when bubbles burst on the top.
Remove when golden brown and repeat until all the mixture is used up.

Serve with: jam, cream, maple syrup, lemon juice and sugar or my personal favourite, fresh seasonal fruit (think mango, strawberries, banana, passionfruit) and yoghurt.

Add frozen blueberries to the mix just before cooking for blueberry pikelets.
Add grated apple to the mix or, finely slice apple, fry slightly in the butter, then pour the batter over the top. Serve with maple syrup.
For a savoury variation, omit the sugar and add corn (tinned or fresh), diced spring onion, grated zucchini and grated cheese. The mixture should still be able to hold together. Serve these fritters with bacon, caramelised onion or tomato relish – good enough for breakfast or dinner!

Raspberry Butter
This was an experimental venture, and I was camping at the time, so measurements are a little flexible. When I added the raspberries, it looked like brains as the butter/ sugar mix separated, now that I beat the butter/sugar/ raspberries with the conveniences of a modern kitchen, this doesn’t happen!

125g butter – unsalted is best if you have it
100g caster sugar
150g frozen raspberries

Beat butter & sugar until light & fluffy, then beat in defrosted, drained raspberries. Adjust raspberries & sugar to taste. Serve dollops on warm pancakes.


Thursday, March 4, 2010

I'm baaaacckk....

Ok, after desperate entreaties (polite enquiries) from many of my followers (two cousins and a friend from church) I have decided to jump back on the blogging band-wagon. I'm not quite sure how I fell off, because there is plenty to talk/ photograph/ eat/ cook/ write about. I guess I am busy, but no more than pretty much every other person I know. I'm actually surprised that when I went back to my blog, the last post was in December, I feel that I have plenty of things to write about that according to my diary (in my head only...and trolling through old emails) actually happened in November.

And I think that is the crux of the matter - that there is just SO much to write about. And where to begin. Do I start from now and keep going? Or do I look back at my list and try and re-hash (get it? the foodie reference??) the events/ dinners/ circumstances.

I think I will try a combination of the two, and to keep me honest I will put a list here of blog topics that I want to write about (from the recent past).

Cooking for 20+ for a weekend at craft camp - not just the cooking, but the fun of talking it over with my co-conspirator Michelle, the planning and the shopping.
GingerBread House Decorating - too much fun...and also a little too serious....
Austi Women's Night Out: Food for body and soul - recent cooking demonstration at my church.
Christmas - Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Week before Christmas family Christmas celebration - you get the drift.
An amazing Champagne Hour Champagne Tasting - 4 bottles of top notch champagne, 5 thirsty girls...

So many new restaurants/ cafes opened in the northern suburbs of Wollongong towards the end of last year! All are still open! And there is not really anyone else writing (good) restaurant reviews. Some of the places we've been to:
The Point - new cafe on Point St Bulli - rough review: good
Sea Salt - where Ruby's used to be - rr: not good
Flanagan's - at Thirroul. Have blogged a work lunch but have since been there for dinner and lunch again - rr: great
New sushi place in Woonona (the name escapes me right now...aahh thank you google - it's Sushi Moon) - rr: good with reservations
Gone Burgers - hip & funky beer and burger place in a Woonona laneway (who would have thought Woonona was NSW's answer to Melbourne?) - rr: good
The Bar Next Door to Samuels - aka TBNDS. Where the cool kids go - rr:great
Chedo's - at Coledale. An oldie, but a goodie. rr: good
One on Park at Woonona. Dan's workplace, but it would be good anyway. rr: good
Bon Aroma - had a lovely Christmas get-together with "the girls" with an absolutely hilarious meal. rr: interesting
Berry Sourdough Bakery - on the way to camping - rr: great
The Gelati Clinic, Bermagui - holiday time - rr: fantastic
Mimosa Winery, near Bermagui - luxury lunch - rr: good
Cream, Bermagui - great cakes, great coffee, always the first place we head to - rr:great
Montague Cafe, Bermagui - and I wonder why my nephew-in-law calls us "cafe campers" - rr: good

Cookbook and books about cooks reviews:
I gave, received, read and even compiled some great cookbooks since Christmas, mainly:
The Songs of Sapa- Luke Nguyen
Food Safari - Maeve O'Mara

Camping - we had some fantastic meals while we were camping. Including:
A seafood extravaganza for Nick's birthday
Yum Cha - yes, whilst camping, then repeated a fortnight later...
A birthday breakfast extravaganza

The cooking roster also continues, pretty much without fuss (from me that is). Everyone is starting to get their specialities, which I will let you know about.

Onions vs Shallots vs Spring onions - I think this is what did my head in and made me stop blogging - way too much research...
New Year's Eve on Cockatoo Island- the food was good, but the experience was fantastic

And if you've read this far, my most ambitious idea for the year ahead is a Cookbook Swap. I'm still working on the logistics and the fine print, but I hope to go ahead with it soon. I'm thinking along the same lines as a clothes swap, but am still working on it. Any suggestions gratefully received...

So, sorry there's no photos this time around, I'm on the wrong computer. Please let me know what you would like to hear about first, plus I'll be keeping current - the aim is to blog at least twice a week.

Monday, December 7, 2009

It's in! It's in! It's in! It's in!

Our lovely new oven and cook-top was installed today. You may recall my excitement when we bought the oven a few weeks ago. The gas company ended up surprising us by installing the gas in only two weeks instead of six, but then we still had to prepare the space.

Before: Originally this was where the wood stove was, our fire-place is behind it, with a shared chimney. By the time we bought the house, there were already cupboards here. When we renovated the kitchen in the early 90's, we put the cook-top above the large cupboard.


During: We had always wanted to tile the space around the stove top, so this was our opportunity. Who would have realised there were so many different white rectangular tiles? Well, lots of other kitchen/ bathroom renovators I guess, but it allowed for some frank exchanges of opinion between Rick and myself. I thought I didn't mind what we did, but then when something was suggested I would recoil in horror at the idea! And the edging of the tiles! That was another major topic of discussion, negotiation and compromise :-)

During - the hole in the wall

But, I did learn a new skill - you can call me "The Tile-cutter". I don't think I'll be giving up my day job any time soon to go into the tiling trade, but it was very satisfying to learn something new and be able to help Rick who did the majority of the work.

Of course, in an old house, there are no square edges and few straight ones, but Rick suppressed his engineering exactness and fudged as necessary.

After: At last! It's in. I was at work and popped in at lunch time to see a pot of pasta that Jono had already cooked on the new stove! With cherry tomatoes and home-made pesto no less.

Jono and his friend Danny then christened the oven by baking a deliciously moist apple cake. I hope this cooking style continues (ie me NOT cooking).

All that was left by the time I got home.

I didn't get an opportunity to cook on it tonight as we went out for fish and chips with friends, but here's a picture with the complementary grill plate in place and the wok - ready for action!

I feel ready now to tackle lots of Christmas cooking.... any requests?

Monday, November 30, 2009

Feeding the five thousand

Well, not really… maybe 50 – max. But the biblical allusion stands, because I was cooking for our church’s café. Every Sunday evening, different groups or families take turns to provide a meal and dessert for people to enjoy together after the service. A nominal amount is charged – just to cover costs. Coffee, tea and biscuits are free! Some nights the meal will be pizza by the slice, other nights it will be something a little more wholesome. Occasionally, we’ll go all out and do a special themed night as a fund-raiser. This night however was something a little more prosaic – pasta bake.

Although I find myself often cooking in bulk, it can sometimes be a bit hit and miss. In this instance I had a recipe (in my head) and then timesed (ie multiplied – sorry a relic of primary school children’s maths) it by either three or four (depending on, hhmmm… what it was? how I felt? the weather?).

Seeing as how I usually cook for at least six people, everything is either a multiple or divisor (?) of that. So if it’s just Rick and I, I will divide it by three (actually that’s not true – we’ll go out for dinner :-)). A few extra for dinner – 1 ½ times. Craft camp – 3 or 4 times (20’ish people) Cooking for café at church – 3 or 4 times (servings are smaller).

So back to the pasta bake. I used 1 ½ kilos of mince (for 6 I would use 750g). We are trying to get less meat and more vegetables in our diet, so we grate carrot & zucchini in with our “spaghetti bolognaise” sauce. Grating and chopping things is a lot easier with my wonderful new food processer – much quicker than trying to coerce a son to do it. The meat sauce also includes tomatoes and tomato paste or passata – whatever is in the pantry. The complete recipe follows. You will have to do your own mathematical calculations if you don’t need to feed 30 or so – like this batch ended up doing.


Meat sauce:

1 ½ kilo mince
6 x 400g tinned tomatoes, chopped
1 jar tomato paste or passata
3 zucchinis, grated
4 carrots, grated
3 onions, finely chopped
6 garlic cloves
4 tablespoons sugar, or to taste

3 x 500g packets pasta (spirals are good), cooked

Cheese sauce:
1 ½ litres milk
Enough corn flour to make a smooth paste (sorry I can’t be more precise – there are instructions on the packet)
300g cheese, grated

Bread crumbs (fresh is best, I processed 4 bread rolls that were slightly stale)
Paprika, to taste
Mixed herbs, to taste
Salt & pepper , to taste

Brown the onions and garlic with some oil and then add the mince to cook. I do all of this in my large electric fry-pan, so don’t really need to do it in batches, but you may have to if you’re using a smaller pan. Strain the liquid off if there’s a lot of it.

Add the rest of the meat sauce ingredients and let it simmer, at the least, while you’re preparing the rest, at the most 2 hours.

Simmering in the frypan

Cook the pasta, and prepare the cheese sauce.

Combine the ingredients to make the topping ( I had a little “accident” with the paprika, so mine had a bit of a fake tan look about it, 1 tablespoon would probably be enough).

To assemble:

Spray oil the baking dishes and divide the meat sauce between them. Put the cheese sauce on top and then the bread crumb topping on top of that. Cook in a moderate oven for around 20 minutes, or until the topping is nicely browned.


...and after!

If taking the dish elsewhere (like church café), wrap it in foil and then in an old towel to help keep it warm.

Each baking dish should feed 8 – 10 people, even more if you add garlic bread and a salad.

Pasta bake... as far as the eye can see

Happy eaters

Happy talkers & helpers

Quote from Zanko: "that was a-maz-ing"

Next week, loaves and fishes ;-)