Tuesday, 30 December 2008

The obligatory Christmas post

Christmas cracker

The family and I had a lovely Christmas this year, even though we did miss my brother Buster heaps. He had a traditional English Christmas with family friends of ours on the island of Jersey - celebrations that included a traditional dip in the English channel (!!!). Here's a round-up of what we got up to here in the land down under.

Tacky Christmas lights

The houses across the road from best-friend-K in Northcote were completely blinged out in hideous Christmas lights. When I went over there for dinner on the 23rd, we walked along the street and marvelled at the tackiness and the carbon footprints. There were lots of people viewing the lights, and even a Santa handing out candy canes ("Santa I want an iPhone!!" shrieked a young girl)...

Tacky Christmas lightsTacky Christmas lights

Several items on this year's Christmas menu were on last year's menu (hey, if it ain't broke...). For Christmas Day lunch with the Italian side of the family, Mum made more sensational salmon gravlax, relying on Stephanie Alexander's trusty recipe once again.


Dad dutifully sliced it up. It was served with pieces of toasted bread and dill mayonnaise.


Mum and Birdie both decorated the table, using a red, white and gold colour scheme.

Christmas table

Just look at these monster tiger prawns! Our friend C had them sent down to her by friends who caught them up in northern Queensland.

Monster prawns

I took a photo including my hand, to give you some sense of scale. :)

Monster prawnsMonster prawns

We marinated and barbequed them, and served them up with a lime aioli. Divine!

Monster prawns

Mum handmade the Christmas crackers, using toilet rolls, gold tissue paper, white ribbon, gunpowder strips, little red reindeer and daggy jokes she looked up on the internet. Each cracker also had a personalised gift for the designated guest.

Christmas table

Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without a glazed ham. We entrusted the carving to D - as he's a surgeon, we figured he'd do a good job.

Christmas ham

For main course I partook of the ham, Nonna's stuffed roast chicken with pureed vegetable sauce, zia P's red salad, beans and fluffy roast potatoes, done Nigella style.

Christmas lunch

For dessert, Mum whipped up some gorgeous little raspberry and cranberry jellies, using a recipe from the new Women's Weekly Christmas & Holiday Entertaining book.

Christmas jellyChristmas jelly

My contribution was a 2.5 kg box of ubercherries I'd preordered and picked up on Christmas Eve from Damian Pike's at Prahran Market. Although the cherries came at vast cost to the management, boy oh boy were they good.


The ubercherries were served with a bowl of Wilson's Wonder walnuts from Myrtleford.

Ubercherries and walnuts

Mum also made her best ever mince pies. Like Sarah did, Mum started with a bottle of Robertson's mince, then jazzed it up - Mum added grated apple, lemon rind, almonds, dried cranberries, Cointreau and whiskey. They tasted brilliant. What I loved about these mince pies most of all though is that rather than pressing big circles of pastry down into a muffin tray, Mum painstakingly constructed each pie out of two pieces of pastry - the disc that formed the base, and a longer strip to form the side.

Mince tarts

The mince tarts and mini Christmas puddings topped with melted white chocolate were served with a Flamigni panettone - the fancy brand we have as a treat only on Christmas Day.

Panettone and mince tarts

With all these yummy desserts, we had two amazing wines: the 2008 Petersons Moscato Traminer, which we picked up when we visited the Hunter Valley in August, and a Tintara port... vintage 1945!!

Family xmas1945 Port

On Boxing Day we sacrificed attending Day One at the MCG to drive down to Paradise, a heavenly little part of the world just inland of Apollo Bay, where my Aussie aunt and her husband run a bed and breakfast. They'd closed the B&B for a night and invited all of the family clan down overnight for a Boxing Day lunch/celebration, which started at about 2:30pm and finished after 10pm.

Paradise Gardens

As you can see, the anglo side of the family does Christmas banquets just as lavish as the Italian side!

Boxing Day lunch

Aunt M did her speciality, smoked salmon trout.

Salmon trout

Aunt J made a delicious semifreddo, containing raspberries, pistachio and chunks of Turkish delight, topped with rose petal flavoured Persian fairy floss. Since my Aussie grandfather passed away, cousin-in-law J now makes the traditional Christmas pudding.

SemifreddoChristmas pud

As well as the options of custard and ice cream, we always serve hard sauce with the Christmas pud. Love the way the spoon stands in it!

Hard sauce for pudding

Between main course and dessert, we wandered down to the lower garden and held an epic bocce tournament, with up to twelve people competing at any one time. Only once did I manage to get my ball closest to the Jack!

Family xmas

Monday, 22 December 2008

Update and pre-Christmas treats

Christmas tree decorating platter

Well Christmas is upon us and I'm looking forward to a nearly three week break from work - I'll be staying in Melbourne for most of it, apart from the odd jaunt down to the beach. In between all the boozing and parties I've been popping over to Mum and Dad's a fair bit in the lead-up to Christmas - we're all missing my brother Buster a lot.

My poor Mum had her wisdom teeth out last week and has developed a (temporary) condition called trismus, so she can neither open her mouth wider than an inch nor chew! She's getting pretty sick of soup, I can tell you. But that didn't stop her yesterday from whipping up an amazing couple of plates of bruschette for the rest of us! As well as several with tomatoes and basil, we had some with mushrooms and parsley and a few with crumbled Persian feta and anchovies. Mum's bruschetta tips: be sure to rub the grilled bread with a clove of garlic, and always ALWAYS use top quality EVOO!

Mum's bruschette

Last Friday night we had our annual tree decorating ceremony, and Mum prepared a equally sensational platter of her miniature Christmas puddings, handfuls of über-cherries, berries she and Birdie had picked, a wedge of fancy nougat and slices of Stollen (German Christmas cake), all washed down with glasses of Armagnac and cups of tea.

Christmas tree decorating platter

Feel like watching something Christmassy? If you've never seen it, I suggest you watch the beautiful and bittersweet The Snowman. I first watched it when I was five growing up in a little English village, and we watch it every year. So sad but so so good.

As I mentioned on the blog last year, the other Christmas film I watch every year is It's a Wonderful Life, when it's shown during the Christmas week on the big screen down at the Astor. Looking forward to our curry laksa/Jimmy Stewart double again this year... :)

Christmas tree

Oh, and one other Christmas video - if you've never seen it, check out the surreal but awesome carol duet between David Bowie and Bing Crosby, filmed a month before Bing's death in 1977. Love that counter-melody Bowie sings!

Sunday, 21 December 2008

An impromptu Yum Cha Posse at Dragon Boat Palace

Dragon Boat Palace
149 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne (map)
9639 0888


Two Saturdays ago Miss L, Miss B and Miss T came along to hear me sing in a concert - afterwards, they suggested an impromptu Yum Cha Posse for the following afternoon, prior to F&H's engagement drinks. It had been AGES since the last YCP! We settled for John So's Dragon Boat Palace, and M and H also joined us.

Dragon Boat Palace

We yummed up a whole lot of dumplings to start with, including har gow (prawn dumplings - my brother Buster's absolute favourite yum cha dish) and prawn and vegetable. My absolute favourite yum cha dish, chee cheong fun (rice noodle rolls), is just visible there in the background.


For our fried dish, we eschewed the chewy calamari and opted instead for these excellent whitebait in batter.

Fried whitebait

We also enjoyed the sticky rice (again, barely visible in the photo below) and several
rolls and dumplings encased in bean curd skin. The gingery prawn ones were especially good.

Yum Cha

While I don't think Dragon Boat Palace is the best yum cha restaurant in Melbourne, I find it's pretty reliable for pretty good yum cha. One of the things I really like about it is the side galleries - it breaks up the space nicely but one still gets full access to all the trolley goodies.

Dragon Boat Palace

The egg custard tarts were still very hot when they came out. Mmmmmmmm.

Egg tarts

Miss L suggested we also get some silky tofu for dessert. Despite adoring silky tofu in Chinese dishes like ma po fofu, and having read about this dessert with interest when Mellie from Tummy Rumbles reviewed Shark Fin House last year, I had never tried this dish before - silky tofu in a light ginger syrup. It's delicious and subtle and as Mellie said, the perfect post-yum cha palate cleanser. I'll be ordering it every time from now on!

Silky tofu

We were a bit early for the engagement drinks, so we wandered along the Chinatown alleyways, admiring the street art and stopping in at Section 8 for a quick sunny drink.

Section 8

LOVE these pashing skeletons! They immediately reminded me of Björk's All is Full of Love robots. I particularly like the way it looks like one skeleton's arm has snapped off due to the passion of the embrace. Anyone know which artist's handiwork this is? Many thanks to the reader who identified Vexta as the artist... check out her website, her art rocks! :)

Pashing skeletons

Hey kid... wanna get famous?

Stevenson Lane

We eventually made our way up to Rooftop to congratulate F and H on their impending nuptials... spent the rest of the afternoon basking in the sun on overstuffed cushions and drinking Pimms cocktails. Not a bad way to finish the weekend!

Rooftop Bar

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Fledgling Herb Garden 2: The Re-fledgling

Fledgling herb garden

Last summer I set up a gorgeous little fledgling herb garden, despite my complete lack of know-how in all matters gardening. "Surely I can keep a bunch of herbs alive, right?" I thought to myself. Well, not quite. It goes without saying that I was devastated when I discovered that herbs have a tendency to (a) go to seed, and (b) die in winter. I don't mind telling you that by September, my pots were looking pretty fucking woeful.

So I set up my new fledgling herb garden last weekend... but alas, as you can see, while the Vietnamese mint, Italian flat leaf parsley, sage and one of the basil plants are thriving, the lemon thyme and the other basil plant on the left have already met with a little accident. See, they were positioned directly under the edge of the eaves of our house... and yesterday's ridiculously monsoonal weather (Tropical Depression Suri, housemate DJ calls it) meant that torrents of water overflowing from the drainpipe were pouring directly down onto my poor little herbs, sending potting mix flying, exposing the roots and battering the itty bitty leaves. :-(

A swift transfusion this evening of replacement potting mix, pinched from Mum and Dad's garden shed when I went over there for paella and pinot, means they're looking a bit happier NOW, but how long will that last??

Stay tuned for the next hair-raising installment of FHG!

Auction Rooms revisited (and revisited)

Auction Rooms
103-107 Errol Street, North Melbourne (map)
9326 7749
Open 7 days for breakfast and lunch, PLUS NOW Thursday to Saturday for dinner

Disclaimer: the lawyer in me feels compelled once again in the interests of full disclosure to state that Andrew Kelly, one of the proprietors of Auction Rooms, is a friend of mine. But like I said last time, this fact does not unduly influence my opinion as to the awesomeness of Auction Rooms!

Auction Rooms

I've revisited Auction Rooms several times in the last few months, and continue to love it as much as I did the first time.

I'm writing about it again for two reasons: the breakfast/lunch menu has been substantially revamped for the warmer months, and Auction Rooms is now open for dinner on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays!

The (many) photos below are compiled from several visits with different people (I think that with one or two exceptions, I've got every dish from the breakfast menu covered!).

Auction Rooms

In November, Auction Rooms hosted a great exhibition of black and white photographs, Burmese Dreaming by Tim Syrota. That's S and B admiring them below. They looked great against the distressed brick wall.

Auction Rooms photos

Some of the breakfasts: house-made banana and walnut bread served with honey on the side ($7.50), and toasted house-made muesli with yoghurt and poached pears, served with milk or soy on the side ($9.50). Upon tasting best-friend-K's banana bread, housemate DJ promptly ordered some as his SECOND course (!) when we all went for brunch. It was delicious - toasted but still moist.

Banana and walnut breadAuction Rooms muesli

I loved the original Counter Bid available during the winter months, but this one rocks too: avocado and soft ricotta on toasted sourdough with mint and chilli ($11.50). It's Mum's absolute favourite - she orders it every time, even though she usually doesn't like mint. The ricotta is ever so slightly grilled, so it keeps its shape beautifully.

Springtime Counter Bid

The Real Deal and the Shady Deal. The Real Deal ($13.50) consists of grilled chorizo with cheesy onion polenta bread and slow cooked spicy beans. Love the beans, but the dish overall is a shade too hefty for my tastes. Less filling but still packing a real punch is the Shady Deal: fried egg with onion, garlic, chilli, spices, lemon and fresh mint on house-made flat bread ($14).

The Real DealShady Deal

One of the best-looking dishes on the menu has to be the Sweet Deal, which is coconut pikelets served with sweet vanilla pineapple, crème fraîche and orange syrup ($14.50). I tasted cousine H's when she ordered them last Saturday - the touch of coconut was what really made the dish for me.

The Sweet Deal

Another dish I like is the Eggs Catalan ($14) - poached eggs with Catalan tomato, anchovy, olives and fresh basil on toasted sourdough - the slightly acidic tomatoes were a great foil for the salt of the anchovy and olives.

And how cute are these Gingerbread people?! :)

Eggs CatalanAuction Rooms gingerbread people

Ex-office buddy J came along with me one lunchtime when we were doing our Masters subject. I tried the Shaw River buffalo mozzarella, with a citrus and roasted baby roma tomato salad and fig vincotto ($19.50). Gorgeous light lunch.

Mozzarella and citrus salad

When Buster was in town, I took him to Auction Rooms for lunch. He tried the frittata of Goulburn Valley smoked trout and chive, served with fennel, red onion and grapefruit salad ($13). Andrew's partner G joined us - she had the calamari lightly fried and served on crispy Asian salad with a green chilli relish ($17.50/$22.50).

Trout frittataCalamari

I had what is now my absolute favourite dish at Auction Rooms: the carpaccio of beef marinated in soy and black pepper, with confit egg, beetroot and miso aioli ($19.50/$22.50).

Just LOOK at that egg yolk!! It is poached in 65-70 degree water for two hours so that the yolk cooks but the white doesn't. It tastes fantastic and has a texture like gelatinous butter (I see from Ed's post yesterday that I'm not the only Melbourne food blogger currently obsessed with sloooooow-cooked eggs).

But it's not just the confit egg - the carpaccio is fresh and mouth-watering, and mixes beautifully with the miso aioli and the cubes and matchsticks of beetroot. Mmmmmmmmmm.


Andrew sent me an invitation to Auction Rooms' evening opening night, which I gladly accepted. As well as asking best-friend-K and CD, I invited along Lucy, Melbourne-based author of the fantastic design blog The Design Files. I'd been wanting to meet Lucy since I first started reading her blog, and I knew already that she liked Auction Rooms, so it all worked out very nicely. She turned out to be just as lovely as her writing suggests! :)

Auction Rooms

Likewise, Auction Rooms looks just as splendid at night as it does during the day. It was a lovely balmy night, so the huge front windows were wide open, letting in the faint breeze.

Auction RoomsAuction Rooms

A special on opening night was a complimentary amuse-bouche of delicious Moreton Bay bug consommé, served in an espresso cup with a coriander leaf floating on top.

Moreton Bay Bug consomme

Faced with menus, we decided to share a selection of dishes between us. Of course I couldn't resist getting us the carpaccio with confit egg! We also had b-f-K's favourite, char-grilled asparagus. It came served with panne egg and a salad of persian feta, citrus, apple and herb ($18.50). Will have to check with Andy, but I believe it was a crumbed poached egg? However it was done, it was very tasty.

Chargrilled asparagus

The consommé having whetted our MBB appetites, we all tucked into the Morton Bay bugs, which came with a green papaya and hot mint salad, and a chilli palm sugar dressing ($19.50). This was Lucy's favourite dish - the hot mint and chilli met their counterbalance in the cool papaya, allowing the bugs to speak for themselves. Bloody marvellous.

Moreton Bay Bugs with green papaya salad

Special mentions also to the fillet of kingfish steeped in coconut juice with pickled cucumber, snake bean salad and steamed jasmine rice ($27.50), and the crispy pork belly with sautéed shitake, cabbage and baby corn served with an aromatic sweet orange sauce ($27.50). The crispy pork belly was v sinful but v good, and the sautéed shitake were equally memorable.

Fillet of kingfishCrispy pork belly

I love the photo below, the girl in white looks a bit like a ghost. The guy standing at the bar in a navy shirt is Mark, who was working the turntables that evening. I was pretty rapt when he played a song from Waltz for Koop, and then obliged me by playing the title track, my favourite song on the album. :)

Auction Rooms

Between the four of us girls we found the room to share two very nice desserts: roasted apricot and nectarines in botrytis jelly with crème anglaise ($9.50) and tiramisù served with Auction Rooms' own espresso and biscotti ($9.50).

Roasted apricot and nectarineTiramisu

That red beauty of a coffee roaster is still going strong: Andy has been roasting up different blends, including blends for milk-based coffees and blends for black coffees. The roasted beans are available for separate purchase, so be sure to sniff some out when you visit.

Auction Rooms

Finally, one of the coolest things on the dinner menu is the "coffee as cuisine": a siphon-brewed single origin coffee served black (cream on the side) in a brandy balloon, prepared personally at your table ($6 siphon for one, $9 siphon for two). I saw young Aaron here brewing one for my friend G and her dining companion on the night I was there, but I didn't try it myself.

Auction Rooms

Looking over my photos this week, I asked Andy to explain what "that coffee contraption" was to me. The full history of these vacuum coffee pots can be found here, but the basic process is this:

Water starts in the bottom chamber. A spirit lamp or other heating device such as a powerful halogen heats the water, forcing it up the glass tube into the 'funnel' (top glass bowl) where it mixes with the coffee. Coffee and water is agitated and allowed to brew for the determined best time, whereupon the heat source is removed, and the vacuum created in the bottom vessel causes the brewed coffee to be sucked down from the top vessel, leaving the coffee grounds up in the top vessel, contained by the filter that separates top and bottom vessels.

It's regarded as producing a subtle, nuanced, 'clean-tasting' brew of coffee, and became huge in Japan/Cantonese China and, in the last five years, amongst Anglo coffee afficionados, especially through Blue Bottle in San Francisco (which was set up, I was amused to read, but a "slightly disaffected freelance musician and coffee lunatic"). :)

Siphon coffee

Sufficiently intrigued by the description, I asked Andy when I was over at his place yesterday whether I could give it a try (regular readers may recall that as a rule I never drink black coffee, cos it tends to make me feel sick). He demonstrated how to brew up a batch in the gorgeous siphon pot he has at home, using new Kenyan beans he'd roasted the day before.

Siphoned coffee

Wow. I think I may have been converted! :)