Thursday, June 21, 2012

Week Twenty-Four: A Journey to Australia

I began this week’s exploration of Australian cuisine with an exotic vision of a barbie overflowing with kangaroo, lamb, and prawns, but when I started researching online purveyors of kangaroo meat, I discovered that everyone was out of stock.  Not to worry, my week of Australian fare offered plenty of other opportunities for meat as I discovered quickly that this is a “meat and potatoes” culture, not too dissimilar from my Southern roots.  Most modern-day Australian meals center on beef or lamb as the main protein although more exotic meats, such as kangaroo, occasionally appear on a grill.  In the coastal areas, prawns, lobsters, tuna, and salmon are the most commercially fished and most consumed seafood.   As with American cuisine, defining Australian cuisine becomes a difficult task because of its significant influence by European settlers who arrived in the late eighteenth century and almost immediately began establishing agricultural industries common to their cultures, instead of embracing those of the indigenous peoples who survived on native fruits and berries, kangaroo, emu, lizards, snakes, and other wild game.  As I set out to finalize my Australian menus for the week, I quickly found such a task to be daunting.  With so many dishes as common in the United States as they are in Australia, I struggled to formulate a week of authentically Australian menus, so I set out to discover the nuances and celebrate the key ingredients that define the cuisine.  I made some lists:
  • Basic dishes that celebrate the essence of the cuisine, such as Grilled Lamb, Lamb Roast, Grilled Prawns
  • Recipes with odd names that intrigue me, such as ANZAC biscuits, damper, pikelets, pavlovas, and lamingtons
  • Dishes similar to American “classics” with an Australian twist, such as an “Aussie Burger with the lot” meaning a hamburger piled high with a fried egg and a slice of pickled beet
  • Australian wines downstairs in the hub’s stash
  • Australian beers carried at Total Wine that are not Foster’s.
I began making my plans, but I just couldn’t find the “heart” in this week’s project.  I decided to turn to an expert, and I found the heart and soul I needed for inspiration.

As Executive Chef at Edge Steak & Bar in the Four Seasons, Aaron Brooks has transformed my notions for what a steakhouse in a swanky Miami hotel can be.  After attending two specialty dinners there in the last month (the first featuring BBQ, Whiskey, & Beer, and the second featuring Southeast Asian cuisine), I have come to appreciate his talent, style, and passion.  What does this have to do with Australian cuisine?  Chef Brooks is a native Australian.  It occurred to me that he might be able to point me in the right direction with this week’s planning, but I never expected such a warm, generous response.  He didn’t just tell me about the cuisine; he shared how the cuisine has been a part of his life.  That’s how I found the heart and soul of this week’s project! 

Monday Night:  Shrimp on the Barbie

Grilled Shrimp over a salad
of arugula and tomatoes
Shrimp on the Barbie is a requisite dish although my research leads me to believe that an Australian would definitely call them prawns.  (I guess “Prawns on the Barbie” doesn’t have the same pizzazz to marketers luring Americans to Australia.)  For these, I simply marinated them in olive oil, fresh lemon juice, garlic, shallots, and fresh parsley for about an hour.  Then, I grilled them in the shell and served over a salad of arugula and tomato. 

As a side note, when I researched which vegetables are most popular in Australia, I discovered that it’s mostly the same list as what we eat here in the United States.  I did find a June 2010 posting on the website of Food Safety Australia noting that the top ten vegetables purchased in Australia are potatoes, carrots, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, capsicum (peppers), mushrooms, broccoli, pumpkin, and zucchini.  In the spirit of this post, I served my Australian dishes with vegetables from this listing.

Friday Night: Rack of Lamb and Muscat-Grilled Pineapple with Sea Salt

Grilled Rack of Lamb
with zucchini-tomato salad
When leafing through recipes for grilled lamb in search of inspiration, I happened across a recipe for Grilled Rack of Lamb with Pinot Noir Marinade, which gave me the idea of using an Australian wine to make a marinade and sauce for our rack of lamb.  As it turns out, that idea proved to be a huge success story.  I followed the recipe and replaced the Pinot Noir with a 2010 Durif Shiraz Blend by The Black Stump.  (I also poured myself a nice big glass of this wine, which I really enjoyed…rich, fruity, but not sweet.)  The marinated the rack of lamb overnight in the wine, olive oil, rosemary, garlic, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper.  Before grilling, I poured off the marinade into a saucepan, added a touch of honey, and reduced it until I had a nice, thick sauce to serve with the lamb chops.  Big props to the hubs for his grilling performance on this rack of lamb!  He grilled them to a PERFECT medium rare, and they were absolutely delicious.  We loved the flavors of the wine marinade with the lamb.  I served them with a salad of grilled zucchini and grape tomatoes.

With so much grilling out, an Australian beer tasting seemed like an imperative.  Based on nothing more than Total Wine’s selection of Australian brews, I tried Coopers Original Pale Ale, Coopers Sparkling Ale, and James Boag’s Premium Lager.  James Boag’s was definitely my favorite of the three, and not just because Chef Brooks told me how much he liked it.  The brews from Coopers just tasted like good pale ales to me…no real significant flavor or finish to them.  The James Boag’s Premium Lager had a crisp refreshing quality with a nice carbonation and hints of lemon and hops.  A perfect beer for a hot summer day by the grill.  I would definitely buy this one, again.

Muscat-Grilled Pineapple
with Sea Salt
In Planet BBQ, Steven Raichlen cites an incredible statistic that 97% of Australian households own at least one grill.  That statistic alone speaks to the significance of grilling in Australian cuisine.  Raichlen shares a recipe for Muscat-Grilled Pineapple with Sea Salt that he learned from John Ryan, a Melbourne-based BBQ aficionado.  While this recipe may not be authentically Australian in its roots, it certainly captures the spirit of an Australian BBQ, and it sounded so delicious that I knew I had to try it.  Often times, the simplest recipes provide the most brilliant results, and this one meets those expectations.  I cored and sliced a fresh pineapple into rings.  Then, I marinated the pineapple in Muscat wine overnight.  (I tried to find Muscat wine from Australia’s Rutherglen district in Victoria to not avail.  I used a French muscat.)  When we were ready to grill the pineapple, I poured off the Muscat into a saucepan, boiled it, and reduced it to a sauce.  We grilled the pineapple over direct heat for a few minutes per side, and we were ready to assemble our dessert.  We topped vanilla bean ice cream with a slice of the grilled pineapple, poured a little muscat sauce over it, and sprinkled flaky sea salt on the pineapple.  The combination of flavors from the sweet wine, smoky fruit, and touch of sea salt culminated in a satisfying end to our meal.  What an amazing dish!

Saturday Snacks

ANZAC Biscuits
ANZAC Biscuits provide a great history lesson and an even better morning snack.  During World War I, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) deployed to Gallipoli off the coast of Turkey, and their wives, mothers, and girlfriends sent them Billy Tea tins filled with these non-perishable cookies made without milk and eggs.  For me, the most interesting ingredient in these cookies is desiccated coconut, a key component that keeps the cookies moist even when they are no longer fresh.  (I made desiccated coconut by spreading shredded coconut in a thin layer on a cookie sheet and baking it at 250°F.  I stirred it every five minutes until it felt brittle, about 25 minutes.)  A basic ANZAC biscuit dough includes butter, golden syrup, baking soda, boiling water, flour, desiccated coconut, sugar, and oatmeal.  The final results are delicious with a crispy edge and chewy middle.  The only thing I will do differently next time is to add a pinch of salt to the dough….and make two batches.  I have some desiccated coconut leftover that I had planned to use for Lamingtons, another Australian dessert specialty, but I suspect a second round of ANZAC biscuits are in my very near future. 

Meat Pie
Meat Pies are popular take-out menu items (or take-away, as they say in Australia).  These little individual pastries are typically filled with beef or lamb stewed in dark, rich gravy.  Chef Brooks shared with me that meat pies are particularly popular at sporting events and that “Four‘N Twenty” is the iconic brand eaten all over Australia.  I looked at the website for “Four ‘N Twenty”, and sure enough, they make fourteen different meat pies and include the tagline “Synonymous with sport, particularly AFL and NRL football, there’s nothing Australians love more at the game than a Four’N Twenty, the Great Australian Taste.”  Chef Brooks told me his favorite is Lamb and Kidney, which sounds delicious to me, but I had beef chuck in the freezer, so my homemade meat pies were filled with beef and onion stewed in beef stock, 2010 Durif Shiraz Blend by The Black Stump, tomato paste, and Worcestershire sauce.  I used puff pastry for my little pies, and they turned out fabulously!   (I finally found a good use for the Breville Pie Maker I received for competing in last year’s Slow Foods Pie contest.)  I tried them with and without ketchup (tomato sauce, as they say in Australia).  I must say that I expected to be snobby and say that the ketchup detracted from the rich flavors of the filling, but I actually loved the flavor of the sweet ketchup as a counterbalance to it.

Saturday Night: Lamb Roast and Pavlova

I knew that Lamb was popular in Australia, and based on Chef Brooks’ enthusiasm for it, I felt like serving it two nights in a row was more than appropriate.  Off the grill, he shared with me that his family would enjoy a “mixed grill” of chops, loins, kidneys, and sausages served family style.  For the ever-popular Sunday Roast, his family enjoyed Roasted Lamb with parsnips, carrots, minted peas, and gravy.  Even better, the day after Sunday Roast always included a breakfast of Bubble and Squeak, a hash with origins in the United Kingdom which is made with bacon, onions and leftover vegetables from the Sunday Roast.

Lamb Roast
Roasted Parsnips and Carrots
Fresh Peas with Mint
In all honesty, my original plans for this week did not include the Lamb Roast, but when Chef Brooks told me about Bubble and Squeak, I quickly changed my plans to cook a lamb roast on Saturday night.  I followed along Chef Brooks’ recommendations and roasted my lamb with parsnips and carrots.  I picked up some fresh peas at the farmer’s market for minted peas.  All in all, it was a nice dinner.  Nothing particularly stand out about it, except for the fresh peas, but I knew that Sunday morning’s Bubble and Squeak would make Saturday night’s lamb roast seem a lot better.

We followed up the Lamb Roast with an unforgettable dessert: Pavlova.  In many circles, Pavlova is considered the national dish of Australia despite the fact that it likely originated in New Zealand before Australians perfected it.  This meringue filled with fresh whipped cream and topped with fruit is the namesake of Anna Pavlova, a famous dancer who toured in Australia during the 1920s and danced “as light as a meringue”.  The significant difference in a pavlova and a meringue is the addition of cornstarch to the meringue mixture, which aids in forming a crisper outer shell and a more marshmallow-like interior.  I read numerous recipes for pavlovas, and most of the recipes for the meringues were the same, but the fruit toppings ran the gamut from mixed berries to kiwis.  Thankfully, Chef Brooks pointed me in the right direction noting that passion fruit is the choice topping, and in an even more fortunate turn of events, he mentioned that wattleseed is a common ingredient used in pavlovas and offered to give me some if I wanted to try it. I was thrilled, because I’d read about wattleseed but dismissed it as an ingredient I’d never find in Miami.  Wattleseed is made by from roasted Acacia seeds, and its use can be traced back to the indigenous Aboriginal tribes.  When roasted, its flavor is similar to that of coffee and chocolate.  For my pavlova, I steeped wattleseed in cream for three hours before whipping it to top the meringue.  I couldn’t find fresh passionfruit for the topping, so I paired fresh raspberries with a drizzle of passionfruit puree.  What a beautiful, delicious dessert, and of course, light!  In all serious, this is a brilliant dessert for summer.  One of my favorite things about this dessert is that it is not very sweet.  The meringue is the only really sweet element, and that sweetness is balanced by the wattleseed whipped cream and tart passionfruit flavors. 

Sunday Morning:  Bubble and Squeak

Sunday morning arrived, and I finally got to try Bubble and Squeak.  It was just as good as Chef Brooks described! As a child, I would’ve been much more excited about Crock Pot Roast if my mom had turned the leftover potatoes and carrots into this masterpiece for the next morning’s breakfast. 

Bubble and Squeak
I started by frying bacon pieces until they crisped.  I removed them from the sauté pan and added diced onion.  When the onions were cooked to my liking, I added leftover parsnips and carrots from the prior evening’s roast, the pieces of bacon, salt, and black pepper.  I cooked the hash until it developed a nice brown crust on the bottom, and then I stirred it up until it had another brown crust...about four times.  I topped the hash with a fried egg and sat down to enjoy this feast.  The sweetness of the carrots and parsnips with the smoky bacon and the oozy yellow yolk made for a breakfast to remember.  This was so tasty that I might start roasting parsnips and carrots on Saturdays just so I have them in my fridge for Bubble and Squeak Sunday mornings.

Obviously, I found the heart and soul of Australian cuisine!  It took a little longer than some weeks, but I appreciated it all the more.  I could not have experienced such a great week without the generosity of Chef Aaron Brooks, and really, that’s what I love most about this whole project.  Food is truly a universal element that unites us all.  We have favorite dishes that our moms and dads made, favorite restaurants that we love to visit with friends and families, and stories of new dishes discovered during our travels.  Those connections endure through the ages, and for me, they keep me searching for more.

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