Thursday, February 26, 2009

Post maturity stage in the life cycle

A business life cycle (I feel all my high school business studies flowing back to me now) is said to start with a development stage followed by an introduction phase, then one of exponential growth to be followed by a peaking then flattening maturity stage. In squiggly line terms, something like:

whereby the x-axis represents time and the y-axis sales or profits or something like that. The maturity stage is generally follwed by a stage of decline unless some smart thinker comes up with a renewal. At which point the line resumes the direction of the introduction and growth stages and starts all over again.

And it's not just business. I was just thinking about how it applies to a professional 'life cycle' as well, if the y-axis were to represent learning or fufillment. If one gets to the nice, stable maturity stage without considering the need for renewal and further growth, there's only one way to go. I suppose one could try to prolong the maturity phase - but where's the fun in that?

Maturity is fun when you can deem a weekday afternoon suitable for a long lunch and perhaps throw in a visit to the pub. This day it's Surry Hills although any suburb surrounding the city these days is bursting at the seams with a heady, tempting throng of cafes and pubs. Not so helpful for the indecisive.

Indecision is not much a problem at Il Baretto - a little Italian cafe on the relatively quiet Bourke Street of Surry Hills - as their succint menu does most the work for you. The street is quiet but that's not to say that you won't run into a friend or, I don't know, comedian Judith Lucy on her way out of there in the middle of my meal.

The space is tight but friendly with equal doses of Surry Hills grunge and funk. It's a lovely afternoon to enjoy the wide open window and we're certainly not the only ones making the most of these final summer days.

There's a big selection of panini and salads on the menu, but I can't go past the pastas of which there are also two daily specials on offer.

Pappardelle with duck ragu from Il Baretto, Surry Hills

Pappardelle is probably my favourite pasta type and the lowering of the plate in front of me wafts steamy meaty, creamy smells into my nose. I can barely wait to attack but for a bit of freshly ground black pepper.

It's a pretty huge plate, very generous with the pieces of duck meat. The duck ragu wins in the what-do-I-taste-first race and it turns out to be an appropriately light, mildly creamy sauce with the tender, gamey meat starring. With a tomato base and addition of baby spinach leaves upping the vegie quotient, I'm more than happy to indulge in the meat and carbs fest.

The pasta was a little flatter than others I've had and so lacking the al dente aspect. Instead the long, wide ribbons took on a silky smooth texture that made the dish a lot lighter than expected, and welcomely so given the late onset richness of the duck.

I think there was a bit of mutual plate envy as the dishes arrived, especially when I looked over to my fellow diner's beautifully-vibrant salad.

Chicken salad

Again it was huge and looked appetisingly simple despite the myriad of ingredients. Fried chat potato slices were a surprise and a delight - a naughty , sophisticated chip. The pile of dressed mixed leaves propped up golden grilled chicken tenderloins, topped with a thick, creamy, herbaceous sauce. Wedges of tomato, olives and roasted capsicum slivers completed the simply dressed salad.

Plate envy got the better of us as there was a mid-meal plate swap, seemingly to the amusement of the waiters. I couldn't fit in dessert nor a coffee after the meal so a little lounging about is order of the day. Leaving Il Baretto we take a tiny stroll before making the next crucial decision - which pub?

My inevitable Bermuda Triangle of pubs on Crown Street is the Clock Hotel, the White Horse and the Dolphin Hotel. And fated polygon not necessarily in a disastrous way, just in a way that does not see me surface for several hours. They all have sunny balconies, the distinct feeling of being in some friend's inner city uber apartment, booze and food of varying levels.

The marine mammal wins this time and within moments we're sitting in the Dolphin's upstairs swinging cane cocoons on the cloudy but warm balcony with glasses of yet another interestingly-labelled bottle of sauv blanc. (Promise next wine choice will not be a sauv blanc - renewal is a good and necessary thing).

Zilzie Selection 23 sauvignon blanc at the Dolphin Hotel, Surry Hills

Lazy weather, straightforward wine, swinging seating - it's a dangerously tempting combination and makes one wonder why anything ever needs to change.

Il Baretto on Urbanspoon

Dolphin on Crown Hotel on Urbanspoon

Monday, February 23, 2009

Top weather for Tropfest

I'm really not sure if the last couple of days is worth writing about. There have been a few too many visits to McDonalds than I would care to admit or remember. But at the very least I'm thankful that the weather held up for the annual pilgrammage for the Tropfest short film festival in the Domain.

Crowds at the Domain for Tropfest

The umbrella came in handy for shielding the wine and I from the sun - a pleasant change from drizzle. Wiling time away in the sun with a glass of wine - is there a better way to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon? Along with about 70,000 other Sydney-siders, I don't think so.

A sun-protected Four Sisters sauv blanc

I'm starting to pick up a penchant for unique wine labels, much like judging a book by its cover, although a little less effective as I can't really flick through a bottle, now can I? This Four Sisters sauvignon blanc turns out to be a little diasppointing to my palate although a fellow drinker and Tropfest-er enjoys the lightness. Drier and lighter than what I'd prefer with only a hint of muted fruitiness.

I have mountains of cheese, live music, people, flying foxes and spring-inspired short films to distract myself. That's Tropfest for another year, the warning signal that the end of summer is nigh.

And a quick note on my most recent chocolate discovery. A block of Lindt is barely a guilty pleasure so long as one doesn't finish the whole block. They're portioned into thin, sensual slices that melt in the mouth. Their version of chili chocolate is broodingly dark with a late, warm chili tickle in the throat. Oddly enough the chili doesn't affect the tongue - isn't that a bit strange or perhaps just me?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Dumpling crusades

I'm not sure if I wholeheartedly believe the adage that one has to suffer in order to appreciate the good times. It's certainly an optimistic outlook to have during bad times. And it does ring true to some extent, although the hedonistic nature within can quickly subsume and return one to a state of taking things for granted. There doesn't seem to be any thing to balance this state of mind. Fear of losing what you have, perhaps. Who would think fear relates to appreciation? And you can always underappreciate things but is there such thing as over-appreciation? If there is, it might apply to my relationship with ice-cream. Although I'd probably class that more as overindulgence or addiction.

Following prior disastrous dealings with dumplings, it would seem there are some mental wrongs to right; that is, I must convince and remind myself that dumplings are good and that I like them. And considering the options and venues I have at my disposal, I don't think this will be a difficult task.

We head to Din Tai Fung at World Square where the promise of luscious steamed dumplings awaits. We arrived at a reasonably early time for dinner, although there are already several tables well into their meals. We're seated at a banquette table and get cosy and nosy with the nearby table's menu choices. Their noodles look good, and as we look around even more it seems every table has a noodle dish or two.

I'm excited as I grab a checklist on a clipboard that resembles a menu. A bit odd but I'm nevertheless happy to have been delegated the role of selecting tonight's dishes. While the checklist is detailed enough, I'm even more excited when I find the proper menu sitting redundantly to the side of the table. Oh. The checklist is not for me. The big, laminated, pretty picture-filled publication is for me.

It's pretty easy to make a choice here as the menu is broad but not daunting. There's many an interesting sounding appetiser, dessert dish and even drinks. There's Tsing Tao, a favourite Chinese beer, on the menu which is great because I seldom see it. Even more intriguing is a Shanghai beer and a Taiwan beer - now that's different and I'm keen to try the former. Alas it's not available this night so Taiwan beer it is. There's the choice between a standard one and a gold medal one - for just an extra 50 cents, I'm going for gold.

Taiwan Beer (Gold Medal) from Din Tai Fung, World Square

It may have been slightly inappropriate with a delicate dumpling meal, but refreshing still and appropriate in the sense of celebrating the return to blue skies after many a drizzly day. Cheers to that! A quick survey of dining companions (along the lines of how hungry, vegies and seafood - in question form) and a lovely and efficient waiter is upon us to take orders.

In a strange and pronounced hierarchical staffing arrangement, the food is essentially transported to the table by a worker in white coveralls and cap, to be served by one of the black vested waiters. I didn't notice the arrangement with the drinks but it was as if the 'whites' weren't to serve the food, although on one occasion in the absence of a 'black' a 'white' did serve us in an uncertain manner.

Our appetiser arrives shortly after the drinks, and here I must comment that the timing of food to the table was impeccable - whether by design or coincidence. The sound of cucumber salad does not have my companions enthused, but on sight I'm extremely glad to have ordered this bargain-priced appetiser.

Cucumber salad with vinaigrette dressing

A vibrant green cucumber castle topped with a red chilli flag - if this doesn't get kids eating vegies, I don't know what would. The child in me is even excited as I de-flag the tower and take my first piece. I expected a pickled vinegar flavour hit but instead it's a subtle, savoury flavour that greets me. It's oh-so refreshing, still crisp in a pickled way and eventually reveals a softly hidden chilli hit. I never thought I'd have one but this is now my favourite cucumber dish.

Another plate of greens arrive next - not quite as exciting but upping points on the health factor of this meal. I only wish it would negate the fast food lunch.

Water spinach with garlic

At first I wasn't quite sure what water spinach was - it's not really a commonly seen vegetable outside of Asian kitchens and grocers, I think. In Chinese it's known as 'hollow heart' choy for its thin hollow stems, like tubes or straws. This dish is heavily garlic flavoured with additional fried garlic bits on top. It seems it's a healthy, minimal oil sautee job that simply emphasises the freshness of the vegetable.

Jia Jiang noodles

Our copycat order arrives and it seems small bowls have materialised on the table out of nowhere for our sharing. That or I'm just a little ignorant, in the land of fairies sometimes. My companion nearest to the noodles does the motherly task of mixing through the meat sauce with the rice noodles and then portioning out servings, ensuring that each small bowl has enough noodles or sauce. The sauce leans towards sweet whereas I prefer a bit of spice, but is interesting enough with minced pork, diced mushrooms, green (broad?) beans and shallots. The addition of chilli oil from the condiments tray doesn't really add any heat, which I keep in mind for future dousings.

And next comes the star of the show: the xiao long bao in a large bamboo steamer. I opted for the pork version over the more luxe crab meat and roe version as one really has to try the original first.

Pork xiao long bao

I can't wait to sample one of these and am aware of their liquid-y dispositions. There's even a cute how-to-eat instruction card on every table. Their saggy postures and thin pastry give indication as to their liquid content and it is with care that I get one onto my soup spoon. Now to dehydrate, I nibble a hole in the pastry and suck in soupy goodness. The flavour hit is delightfully moreish and still leaves me pondering how they get the soup in there. Post-steaming injection?

The actual dumpling is somewhat less tasty than the soup alone, which has me thinking for a moment of just de-souping them all a la muffin tops in that Seinfeld episode. Silly thought though because this is where the condiments come in. Soy, vinegar and chilli oil, and that little dish of white ginger strips which I now realise would have been perfect with the dumplings. I shan't be wasting that next time.

Prawn and pork Jiao Ji

Our final dish of prawn and pork jiao ji arrives with a bit of a self-assured flourish, with me squealing about their delicate prettiness. They're bigger than their dumpling cousins but of the same pastry family. It's a sturdy pastry, thin but happy to play second fiddle to flavoursome fillings. The jiao ji filling is not as finely textured as the xiao long bao and not quite as tastebud tantilising either.

I'm already planning choices for my next visit here and we all agree that Din Tai Fung is a very pleasant alternative to the increasingly same-old and usually greasy yum cha meal. The dessert menu did look tempting but the loud, chatty atmosphere doesn't quite complement the consumption of sweets, in my opinion. I like to linger contemplatively over dessert - that sounds rather silly but there's nothing like a sweet treat to make me think.

We leave Din Tai Fung, passing by the glassed-in dumpling kitchen. It's quite a sight. There was one employee looking after steaming it seemed and then a huddle of seven or eight around big bowls of raw filling. Each and every one in the huddle was hand making dumplings. Quite a sight indeed; next time I'll keep a closer eye to see where the soupiness happens.

It's still early in the evening with blue skies and warm temperatures. How does one not love Sydney summer evenings? We trundle on over to the newest Passionflower venture with dessert on our minds. I know I can rely on Passionflower for my dessert fix for there is always a flavour or three of their mouthwatering Serendipity ice-cream to tempt quite regardless of time, occasion or fullness of my stomach.

Eastern Sunrise dessert from Passionflower, George St, Sydney

We share the Eastern Sunrise dessert which includes a scoop each of taro, sticky rice and green tea ice-creams in a waffle basket garnished with fresh banana and orange and tinned lychee pieces. The green tea ice-cream has the strongest flavour of all but taro is probably my favourite. It's all washed down with a curiously named Chinese Monkey green tea and laughing conversation and musings. With bellies full of dumplings and ice-cream, I'm appreciating happy days indeed.

Din Tai Fung on Urbanspoon

Passionflower on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The fun of new

New toys have that fantastic ability to be irresistable for short periods of time, to then be relegated to the collection with all the others. What is the appeal of the new in this sense that doesn't translate, for some, to other areas? For example, a new job. Surely it's the same motivations: new games, new abilities, new possibilities. I know life and jobs aren't exactly equitable to toys but I think the appeal of the new should be the same.

My new toy has been a curiously noisy stick blender. At this point we're only playing one new game together and that is pumpkin soup. To be honest I'm not entirely sure what other purpose the stick blender has other than vegetable-based soups. I'm keen to try out a cauliflower soup recipe that looks pretty simple (cauliflower, milk and some flavourings, from memory) but in the meantime I'm still playing around and attempting to perfect the pumpkin soup.

My first attempt came out quite well, except for the excessively hot and spicy pepper kick in it resulting from my overeager addition of peppercorns. It was probably most likened to an orange-coloured pepper soup, but of perfect consistency and even pumpkin sweetness. I've learnt my lesson or so it would appear to my hapless taste testers.

I've used the remainder of a butternut pumpkin this time, which is generally recommeded as less appropriate as Jap pumpkins. The latter tend to be more flavoursome and so better suited to soup. But I persist and chop up onions, celery, potato, a bit of left over sweet potato and ginger and throw it all into a frying pan. Actually, the onion first as I'm trying to get a caramelisation effect happening to limited success.

Pumpkin and other vegies in the frypan

Once there's some browning happening and just before the onions turn black, I plop it all into a stock pot with loads of water. Stock is the other option for a deeper flavoured soup but I haven't any handy and am not keen to use packaged stuff or cubes - never really liked them. I've counted about 10 peppercorns versus last time's random shake, and added cumin and salt so it's all ready for a good boil.

Ingredients steaming in pot

I like that I don't really have to keep a close eye on this because the vegies can boil for as long as they like really. As long as everything is soft and verging on mushy and not boiled dry of water. And then comes the fun, new toy part. It's actually not as easy as one would expect, what with finding power outlets and extension cords, but a good few loud minutes' whizz with the blender, plus the addition of some milk, and voila - we have a smooth pumpkin soup. If only everything new were so fun and simple.

Pumpkin soup

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Cold and wet, wet and cold

I'm a weather person. When it's sunny, I'm happy. When it's cloudy, I reach for long sleeves and I'm not so happy. When it's cold and raining all day, I want a blanket and nothing to do with the world. So I myself am a little baffled and surprised to have spent the bulk of a day in a poncho tiptoeing around mud bogs (in Havaianas, mind you) in a mud-boggled Centennial Park on a miserable, grey, non-stop rain day for the Good Vibrations Festival. I can say, at least, that I have a new-found appreciation for the seemingly flimsy sheet of plastic that constitutes a $1 poncho. I am indebted to my poncho, which I callously discarded at dinner, for keeping me relatively dry and for the steaming effect that kept me relatively warm for most of the day.

A long, energetic day calls for subsistence of enduring and nurturing qualities. One obvously needs sustaining energy to keep going till night and you don't want anything exotic or greasy that may not be entirely comforting in a jumping-around sort of environment. The 350g packet of jelly lollies played a minor but important role in this throughout the day and night. As for something slightly more resembling proper food, we made an unplanned visit to that healthy fast food chain, Subway.

Ham and turkey six-inch from Subway

Freshly baked carbs, processed protein, various nutrients and vitamins from multiple vegetable servings in a handy, clutchable form - the ideal urban meal on-the-go in the rain in a poncho. Well, sort of. It lined the stomach surprisingly well for the afternoon and evening to come, filled with tents of pumping music; exorbitantly priced beverages; dancing and jumping about like an idiot; the odd bit of poncho-less running from tent to tent; whinging about the cold and wet; feet and thongs submerged in mud puddles; friendly banter with fellow queueing throngs at the portable toilets; and other drenched festival activities.

By the end the non-stop rain was persisting and a new level of cold was starting to seep in through wet clothing. The poncho-ed trudge back towards the buses was entertained with the washing of feet and footwear in water puddles and thought of hot, warming food. The first thought was immediately Chinatown followed quickly with images of steaming bowls of soup or congee. Warm thoughts excited the stomach - which seemed very enthusiastic for congee; a meal I am normally not drawn to - but the feet were tired, cold and in a not-talking-to-me mood.

The bus ride was loud and jovial and we were all too happy when we got off near Chinatown. The rain continued and got plenty heavier as we dashed towards Goulbourn Street with ponchos working overtime. I think it was relief I felt as we entered the brightly lit, dry and warm doorway of Super Meal, pulling off my plastic hero and shaking off the drops.

They have a proper dinner menu of dishes to be eaten with rice or a menu of one-dish noodles or rice meals. As I caress a cup of hot tea and skim the latter menu, I think my feet give up their obstinance and rejoin the rest of the body. I'm craving something warm, and again, not too exotic or greasy. My fellow freezing festival-goer and diner goes for somthing not so exotic but high on the grease scale. And we add an order of dumplings as there's always room for delectable dumplings, right?

The first to arrive to the table is my companion's noodle dish. I fight to control my laughter as the plate is bigger than probably two of my heads, piled up high and steaming. Here I include shots of the meals on arrival and the meals after our pretty lame attempts at their consumption.

Seafood combination chow mein

Seafood combination chow mein after eating

The huge pile of crispily fried thin egg noodles is covered with tubes of squid; big, white pieces of mostly boneless fish; a couple of scallops; a few prawns; choy sum and carrots. The seafood is in a mild, thickened white-ish sauce that becomes cloying before too long. I must say that fellow diner did rather poorly on the meal, perhaps due to the oily mouth feeling after a few helpings, but a suitable lunch to take home for tomorrow I'd think.

I've ordered something much plainer and appealing to my tongue, stomach and all the way down to my toes. Its arrival also provokes some laughter as it seems I've scored a steaming bowl the size of my head plus a half.

Plain egg noodles in soup

Plain egg noodles in soup after eating

The photos may look deceivingly like I just drank all the soup and ate the choy leaves, but I did have a good go at the noodles. The soup was exactly what I was after - hot, savoury and not tasting overtly of flavour enhancers. It was, however, a little too subtle in flavour paired with the egg noodles, although I didn't want to sully the soup with soy sauce or chilli. I kept mostly to the soup and the tender choy, taking in as much warmth and goodness as possible.

I love a good dumpling and I almost don't mind a mediocre one - that's how much of a dumpling fan I am. It's very rare that I won't finish a dumpling, lest it contains some version of animal blood or fish skin or other unappetising ingredient. Sad to say, these dumplings were way beyond mediocre - and I mean beyond in the not good direction.

Pork meat dumplings

They looked promising; a plate of plump, juicy bundles before us. I splashed mine with a bit of red vinegar sauce and bit into the doughy pastry, chewing thoughtfully. I disregarded my initial reaction to covertly spit it out to give it a few more chews and a bit more of a chance. To no avail.

Pork meat dumpling after eating

The pastry was thick and soggy and encased a red-hued, textureless, tasteless minced pork mixture. There didn't seem to be any vegetable inclusion in the mix, or none that we could discern anyway. It was like mush wrapped in a thick, mush pastry, perhaps edible in less sober times. I left the bitten dumpling and its fellows alone.

I believe quantity reigns over quality here but I guess as much can be expected for any late night dining establishments. I might chance a second visit to try the proper dinner menu or even another highly recommended noodle dish, but for this night I'm just happy that it's been warm and dry.

Supermeal Chinese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Safe for a rainy day

From my rather poor memory of anything academically inclined, the feeling of safety is one of human's basic needs. It sits somewhere after your very basic need to breathe, eat, drink, sleep and the sort. So there is a deep-seeded psychological explanation for the damsel in distress act, for example, that's not just environmental or circumstantial. Everyone wants to feel safe - away from scary things, painful things, things they don't understand, embarrassment, cockroaches. The means to the ultimate ends is where an aspect of individuality comes into play. We don't all feel safe through the same way. That seems a bit of a no-brainer because it's obvious that we all don't achieve happiness through the same means. But I'm not sure that happiness is a basic human need.

Doesn't matter just now because our favourite Spanish tapas restaurant makes us feel both safe and happy. The world needs more distractions that make us feel safe and happy. Encasa is one of those restaurants that seem eternally busy - well, in the later days of the week anyway. There's seldom an occasion that I've been there and they're not turning customers away, although it is a backpacker/passer-by heavy location. We always know to book in advance now for a good value, sumptious tapas fix.

The feeling of being hurried out of there is one of the downsides of this uber popular, friendly little restaurant but suits rather well when you're in a hurry too. We order quickly and sensibly, meaning that there will be no stuffing of stomachs tonight.

Encasa do a delightful range of reasonably priced salads and we always go for the ensalada con queso, a simple combination of mixed leaves, roast capsicum, olives and a mild goat's cheese drizzled in balsamic vinegar. It is effortlessly tantilising - if only getting dressed and looking good could be this easy. I'm reaching some new low here - I'm envious of a salad.

Our selection of tapas arrive shortly after the salad, with our serve of bread to follow after a calm wait and then friendly reminder.

Grilled baby octopus from Encasa, Sydney

First to emerge is the relatively huge plate of char grilled octopus, golden and blackened in a good way. As soon as it hits the gingham tablecloth (that's new...?) it gets the tastebuds salivating and the eyes sending messages to the brain to dig in. Now. A quick spritz of lemon juice and we obey the brain. The tentacles are tender yet chewy with the tips grilled to a satisfying savoury crunch. The octopus is fiercely independent; its taste and texture needing no sauce nor side. It goes divinely with my glass of a bashful Marlborough sauv blanc, probably even better than with sangria.

Yes, I had tapas without sangria. I find it improper and edging Rudd's binge drinking policy to have a jug all to myself. It's available by the glass but where's the fun in that? Moving along, the poultry and crustaceans turn up to the table together.

Chicken skewers with capsicum, olive oil, cumin and vinegar

The chicken breast skewers are piping hot and filling, if not a little bland. Whatever flavours the chicken is a little too muted making the accompanying sauce - capsicum based yet creamy almost like mayonnaise - essential.

King prawns in spicy tomato salsa

The prawns are a favourite tapas dish here with the tomato salsa making it a sin to not order bread rolls for dipping. A steamy and splattering arrival in a terracotta dish, the prawns taste fresh and are succulently crisp swimming in a tomato sauce loaded with onions and garlic, and this time huge chunks of whole peeled tomatoes. And this time the chef seems to have been a little heavy-handed on the spice factor - there is definitely much more heat packed into the sauce than ever before. Thank goodness for the soft bread roll.

It's nice when you can walk out of a restaurant (a) not having overeaten, and (b) when it's still bright outdoors and it seems like there's still more to be made of an evening. I leave the safety of Encasa to head into the wallet-endangering safety of a nearby bookshop where I indulge in a little more happiness.

Encasa on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Baking up a gloomy week

In the wake of weeks scorching, we have a week of cooler climates and can only hope that there is some relief where it is most needed. In times like this it tends to drive home the message that life is short and that you have to make the most of it at every and any opportunity. I tend to forget that and mis-prioritise life sometimes. And of course there are less selfish thoughts to be had too. It's devastatingly sad but we persevere and hope for the best.

Gloomy days are perfect for a bit of kitchen baking - not only does the oven keep things toasty and warm but there's always the promise of comforting and reassuring smells emanating from trays within. Overripe bananas in the fruit bowl mean only one thing: banana cake. And since I'm feeling a little less than energised today I vow to take as many shortcuts as edibly possible, numbered in brackets following.

As an aside, I've found that when attempting to be lazy and taking shortcuts it often backfires and I end up using more time and effort than if I were to do the job properly. I guess the lesson is to treat shortcuts with a sensible and respectable amount of suspicion.

For the most part my shortcuts are of the minimising washing variety as I proceed to microwave the only remaining, small chunk of butter in the mixing bowl I intend to use (1). I'm actually a bit short on butter and these days our toast spread options are a cholesterol-reducing one and an olive oil based one. I deem them both inappropriate and the corner store too far so sunflower oil it is then (2).

I measure in the sugar, brown because there isn't enough white opened (3) and I like the tanning effect of the darker sugar anyway. I pull out the trusty wooden spoon (4) because it's such a hassle to get the hand beater out, and then cleaning the beaters. For anyone's information, the mentioned mixture doesn't so much cream as a normal softened butter and white sugar mixture would. It rather clumps, but that's okay as I crack in an egg.

The bananas are spotty black all over and instead of getting a separate bowl to mash them, I peel them straight into the mixing bowl (5) intending to mash them with the wooden spoon (6). Turns out they're not as ripe as their skins would indicate (don't judge a banana by its skin?) so I end up needing a fork (-) to aid the process. Not so difficult though the mashed banana is somewhat chunkier than I would normally have - not worried.

There's subsequent throwing-in of spices, bicarb soda, flour and milk - all together now - and a good deft mixing with the wooden spoon, trying to emulate the results of the electric mixer but giving my arm a pretty good workout at the same time (+).

I'm making mini cakes rather than a bar or loaf to cut down cooking time (7) and attempt to fill the muffin tin with just the wooden spoon. Alas, the wooden utensil has served me well but it is truly the job of a spatula to clean out the bowl. That or fingers. I love the taste of raw cake dough, in particular, I think, that raw flour taste and texture, which is one of the main parts that I'm told is not so good for consumption.

Banana cake batter in tin

The minimalist washing up effort - not bad, hey?

Ten minutes into the baking process and those promised smells were wafting - ever so sweetly delectable with their cinnamon tinge. If ever there's a reason to love baking it's got to be for the smells alone. The actual outcome is a close second. Another 15 minutes and my mini cakes are peaking - cakes always seem to do that in my oven, maybe except brownies.

Out of the oven

Peak a boo

A quick poke and it seems they're ready to greet the world. Out of respect for the health-conscious, the lactose-intolerant (he doesn't know there's milk in it) and the icing-dislikers of my family, I opt to forgo the stickily tedious job of icing these cakelings. A citrusy, cream cheese icing would be divine.

Coming a nearby third in the 'why I love baking' reasons is the opportunity to taste creations piping hot from the oven. Although I have greased the non-stick tray, my experiences past with removing baked goods from 'non-stick' surfaced trays has been questionable at best.

These banana-ry babies need no coercion more than a quick side loosening and a delicate twist out of their individual holes. Piping hot indeed, I drop them to cool on a rack and slowly eye off the first victim. The cakes turn out surprisingly more light and fluffy than ever - I'm not sure if it's my super wooden spoon-beating or the smaller sizing (though I've made banana cupcakes that weren't this fluffy).

There's even some rustic, textured chunks of banana visible in some of the cakes. So much for sloth being a sin, today I've found it rather serendipitous and efficient.

Banana chunk

Monday, February 9, 2009

Comebacks and fast food

What is it with late nights and fast food? In my world (and a few others out there, I dare say) there seems to be an inexplicable connection between the two that is detrimental to both my wallet and waistline. Yes, fast food outlets are positioned conveniently close to late night venues and are entrepreneurially open similar hours. But why is it that I must custom one after the other to then head home and plop to bed?

Scraping the barrel here for anything remotely food related but I must digress ever so slightly to subduedly rave about a last night's gig at the Oxford Art Factory (OAF) by "Phase II" Australian rock band, 'White Feather'. The thinking is that this is a non-too-subtle test for the new reincarnation of said rock band with our favourite, afro-ed, legend of a frontman, Andrew Stockdale, at the helm.

'White Feather' frontman, Andrew Stockdale
at the Oxford Art Factory, Sydney

I really enjoy the OAF venue for its intimacy, complete lack of pretensions and huge variety of beers available. Last time I went they were serving longnecks in brown paper bags - hilarious - though I didn't see that this time. It's a fun night out guaranteed and made all the better with Wolfmother hits and newbies alike, a great warmer of New Zealand band Die! Die! Die! and their on- and mostly off-stage antics, and a great big bunch of happy, sweaty music lovers.

Post-gig, you just gotta go, or so it's said. We headed across the road for a fast food fix at Oporto's that was admittedly oh-so-satisfying. I probably could have done without my second serve of chips (for the road!) but we were definitely happy, rocking campers after this.

Regular Bondi Burger from Oporto's

Not so appetising in hindsight but it felt so much better than a salad at the time. It downright looks like roadkill at the moment. Lettuce, mayonnaise, two grilled chicken breast fillets and fiery chilli sauce in a hamburger bun worthy of a two-handed clutch.


Personally, I think Oporto's have the best chips out of all the fast food joints. Not too thin, nor overindulged with chicken salt, they're rarely soggy and have an appropriate crispy to fluffy ratio. But then let's not overanalyse chips. They're yummy and it feels like they soak up alcohol.

The late night fast food jaunt is definitely one of merit, of a non-nutritious type. One can't go straight home after a night out, what with the buzz and/or gossip of the night still ringing vividly in the mind. It's a pause; a moment to recollect, ponder, re-evaluate if necessary, and plan the next night out and associated eating options.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

All hot and bothered

The papers are talking about it, it's usually the first thing talked about when people see each other, and it's generally on everyone's mind during the day. It's hot. The newspaper headlines scream heatwave. "How are you?" you ask; "I'm hot," is a common reply. Public transport is an un-fun experience at the best of times, let alone times when everyone around is perspiring, to put politely, like hell. This is summer for certain.

On the food front it can be a bit of a shame as wiping sweat and constantly fanning oneself serves as quite a distraction from eating. In fact, I find my appetite rather supressed by the heat and I'll just be happy to have an ice cold drink. Which is probably why I wasn't too fussed with lunch yesterday. Which is probably why I felt a little woozy after being relieved of 470mL of blood. It all makes sense now.

Just quickly on that, they test your haemoglobin levels before you're permitted to donate blood. A finger prick test produces a drop of blood which goes into a sometimes accurate machine reader and determines whether your haemoglobin levels are high enough (120g per litre is the cut off). My nurse tells me that consumption of red meats and other iron-rich foods in the weeks leading up to testing can affect haemoglobin levels, so my cramming of beef tataki, beef sausages and a vaguely beef steak pie in the days leading up to Friday were probably of minimal benefit.

And that's the thing, although I'm a happy and proud carnivore sometimes I'll end up having a vegetarian day without knowing it. Toast and cereal for breakfast, a salad for lunch, pasta for dinner and before you know it, I'm a real life, living Lisa Simpson.

Anyway, the test on my left middle finger reveals a level of 117. That's a fail. The test on the right middle finger says 123. I'm confused, but I pass. Considering that I am right-handed and the right hand is more active than the left, might that explain the varying red blood cell count?

To more palatable topics that don't turn legs to jelly, a companion and I tried in vain to escape the heat and retreated to the open balcony of Well Connected Cafe yet again. I need nourishment and I need something cold.

Raspberry and mango frappe from Well Connected Cafe, Glebe

Suitably red and gooey (sorry, must stop thinking about blood), my frappe is just the treat although it has already started its melting process before even meeting me. I quite like that they add in a couple of ice cubes to keep the substantially-sized drink cold. It's not too sweet and full of blended raspberry flavour and seeds. I do, however, think it a more appropriate hot weather drink than a milkshake - just something about heat and dairy doesn't go down well with me, but it's not my drink so I shan't complain.

Double chocolate milkshake

It doesn't look super airy nor thick and is enjoyed all the way down to the slurped bottom where it seems some chocolate powder resides. We've been a bit cheeky and brought in what my friend insists is the best Turkish pide around from a store just across on Glebe Point Road. I have to admit it's pretty darn good and not at all like the very bready versions available at a lot of kebab shops. I promise a crispy, filling-dominant pide-specific visit another time. I like to have a few vegies on the side with meals so I order the chickpea salad - which simply sounds more interesting than the canivorous salad options.

Chickpea salad

Baby spinach leaves and cucumber slices take the frontline with chickpeas, diced and chunks of tomato and Spanish onion playing about in the background. The dressing is somewhat nondescript: a pale orange colour, creamy, a little sweet, a tiny bit tart, perhaps a touch overwhelming for the spinach but ideal with the chickpeas.

As the afternoon sun continues to threaten shade on the balcony, we retreat to indoors post-meal where it isn't much cooler but if it were I may have fallen asleep on that sofa and missed dinner. Now to look forward to and seek refuge for the heatwave weekend.

Well Connected Cafe on Urbanspoon

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Good old days of sushi

When the phrase 'comfort food' comes up I tend to think of hearty, warming meals that are almost English in their nature. Maybe I see it as an English term although really it should be any food that is personally comforting. It would be food that makes me feel safe, and not in a hygiene sense. I'm not really sure that I have a definitive list of comfort foods but odd as it may sound, sushi is one of them.

Perhaps not so much the sushi rolls that can be hit and miss on quality, but freshly made sushi from a restaurant usually hits the spot. In some ways it's a bit of a shame because a visit to a Japanese restaurant is no longer a special affair, notable exclusions aside. But fear not, I shall not be bored in safe hands, just comfortable.

There are a tonne of Japanese restaurants in Sydney, and especially loads in Chinatown. Sometimes it's difficult to know which ones are of superior quality, which ones have certain menu items, which ones are pricey, which ones are a diamonds in the rough. One of the restaurants I used to regularly frequent with friends is Yumei in the arcade by Capitol Theatre.

In the times since we've been going there, essentially everything has changed. First, I think, the name changed. Then the refurbishment. This time, after a half year hiatus at least, the menus have changed, in terms of content and appearance. They're much prettier and correspondingly more expensive.

Yumei also has those waiter-attention-seeking doorbell contraptions which I still find so impersonal but so efficient. Our drinks orders are away within seconds but back shortly as two of the ordered items aren't available. Sometimes the well-trodden path is just more reliable.

I cherish the communal dining culture of many Asian societies, which can be such fun when among close friends and family because you're well aware of others' preferences and so forth. Admittedly a little dangerous when among not so familiar dining colleagues. Anyway, tonight I'm after a bit of a red meat iron fix before giving blood later this week. Another diner is after sushi and another is after a light feed with sashimi. Easy.

We begin with edamame, which are warm and flecked with salt flakes but the shells are a little on the soggy side - not that it should really matter but I wonder if this is a function of cooking time or ingredient freshness. My iron fix comes in the form of the beef tataki.

Beef tataki from Yumei, Haymarket

The pretty presentation did not last long. Almost immediately the lemon is squeezed over everything, the beef slices submerged into the sauce and the centre garnish tasted - it actually turns out to be thinly sliced raw onion rather than the radish I was expecting. A good portion of the edges of the beef are cooked through leaving the centre red raw. I find the beef a little too thick and a little overcooked thus a touch chewy, and the ponzu dressing a little too mild in flavour. Disappointed but chock full of iron, I suppose. And then comes our array of sushi and sashimi - a platter and two roll selections.

Sakura sushi and sashimi platter

The boat platter looks a little light on cargo, which unfortunately look less interesting than their wooden carrier vessel. There is a small but fresh and tasty gathering of salmon, tuna and kingfish sashimi slices on the far side; nigiri of salmon, octopus, kingfish and cooked prawn; and a few pieces of a salmon hosomaki (thin rolls). It's pretty basic and uninspired but I can't complain about the freshness.

Tasmanian futomaki (top) and spicy tuna futomaki (bottom)

Tasmanian futomaki (salmon and avocado)

The thicker futomaki are much more interesting and enticing. The unusually named Tasmanian roll is your basic salmon and avocado roll masquerading as an Aussie state, topped with some additional salmon, superbly unripe avocado and a few pearls of not-so-fresh tasting salmon roe. The spicy tuna roll, however, is not involved in a masquarade of any sort - it is spicy! The raw tuna in the roll is coated in a very spicy red bean paste and rolled up with slivers of cucumber. Again, fellow diners regard my tastebuds as sensitive and seem surprised that the sushi is hot. Again, I'm laughing.

Even after our table is cleared, the staff happily allow us to remain chatting and laughing possibly a little loudly. Granted it was a quiet Wednesday night for them, but we talked our way into the night's darkness and almost felt as though it was the good ol' days. Except we used to eat ourselves to the point of being stuffed. So in a way this night's experience is better; however with the plethora of competing establishments for our seemingly recession-proof dining dollars I'm not sure we'll be returning anytime soon. I only wonder what will be different the next time.

Yumei on Urbanspoon


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