February 26, 2006

good evening, and good luck

It's been about a week since I came here in Australia, and apart from some thunderstormy rains we had today, the weather so far has been very nice - hot but not humid like it usually is in Tokyo in the summer. While this isn't a vacation in a real sense to me, I do try to take my time and chill out, enjoying moments of the beautiful late summer, both foodwise and weatherwise...

The other day, my friend's husband got a bunch of vegetables and herbs from his parents' backyards. Among them were these large, plump, and juicy tomatoes that tasted lovely as is, but since we had a limited storage space in their kitchen, we thought we should do something with them before letting them spoiled... and here's a one of our solutions:

Roasted tomato tart, whose recipe I have kept from a long time ago without a chance to give it a try. Well, here it finally came; it was a very simple recipe - you spread a mixture of creme fraiche and Dijon mustard in a tart shell, arrange some peeled and sliced tomatoes on top, sprinkle with fresh thyme leaves, season with salt and pepper, and bake. Other than making short crust pastry dough, the hardest part must have been peeling the tomatoes, which actually isn't that hard after all.

With a dish this simple, what matters the most is the ingredients, which in this case was tomatoes. Since we used ripe, very solid and sweet tomatoes, there was little chance for the whole thing to go wrong, really - and it sure turned out lovely.

Now, packing up the tart and other dishes along with a chilled bottle of wine and loading the car with blankets and pillows, we went off to the botanic garden near the city center.

It was about seven o'clock in the evening, but it was still pretty hot, at about 90F.

There were already quite a few people there, eating, drinking, or chatting - enjoying a nice evening.

So were we:

We had a Sauvignon Blanc from a local winery, olives, artichokes, and stuffed small peppers from a deli, grapes, and the tomato tart and a salad which I'd also whipped up for the picnic this evening.

For the salad I used green beans that also came from the same family veggie gardens. The fresh beans were complimented by feta cheese, Kalamata olives, Italian parsley, and pine nuts, and dressed with olive oil and lemon juice, making a truly summer salad, a good match for the also very summery tart. The tart, by the way, tasted fabulous; it traveled very well as well, and I was even surprised by how the crust hadn't gotten so soggy despite all that ripe and juicy tomatoes.

Us having been well fed, it was now time for us to sit back and relax until it's ready...

Past eight, the sky and clouds finally started getting pinky.

And time for dessert:

Chocolate marble cheese cake, which by now I have made so many times I can't remember when I made this last time. It's from my trusted book called My French Kitchen: A Book of 120 Treasured Recipes by Joanne Harris and Fran Warde (2003, William Morrow), and actually recipes for the tart and salad I made this time were both from the same book. I found it quite fun to cook a whole meal out of one single book, like I had just done the other day. I think I'll do this again.

By the time we had finished our slices of the cake with a cup of tea, it was pretty dark and it seemed to be finally ready...

It was an outdoor film screening event called Moonlight Cinema, happening in selected evenings in several major Australian cities over the summertime. I thought it was a brilliant way to spend a long, warm summer evening, and obviously a lot of people had the same idea, specially on a sunny and warm day like this; the place was packed by the time we had finished our dinner.

I enjoyed the movie itself, but to me it was more of the whole atmosphere there - it was nice to lazily watch a movie in a large screen, with bright skyscrapers behind the trees and even decently many stars up in the sky. On the way back we dropped by a cafe for a cup of coffee to cap the lovely evening with. I've been having such a good time down here - I feel myself so lucky.

February 23, 2006

while it's still summer

With the summer slowly moving towards its end, vineyards are gradually getting ready for harvest while people still enjoy long daytime, warm weather and outdoor events, like a local wine-tasting festival we went to last weekend:

We started off with one winery for our first glass of the day and light lunch early afternoon on Saturday

Tried a couple of reds then chose one by glass, grabbed some food and got outside for a shady spot

Sausage with potatoes and bread with dips to share

There's nothing quite like enjoying wine while it's still bright, under the blue sky on a warm day like this.

Heading off to the next one:

This winery didn't participate in this particular event, but nevertheless offered wine-tasting opportunities; we tried all the wines on the list, starting with a sparkling wine, four whites, a rose, four reds, and a dessert wine, which I especially liked.

As this one wasn't part of the festival, it wasn't as busy as others there, making the whole atmosphere nice and relaxing.

Off we went to the next:

This one did take part in the event, and was busy -

Actually, they said there're always a crowd here as this is a relatively large, well-known winery.

As we were watching them produce wines, they gave us a cluster of wine grapes; this case it was Chardonnay. It was my first time eating fresh Chardonnay grapes, and they tasted pretty good, pleasantly sweet and tart.

Got outside and bought some bubbly

Sat down and relax in the shade

While looking over their vineyards

Lots of places had rose trees at the end of each raw of grape trees; white roses may represent white wine grapes, and red roses for red wine grapes - isn't that pretty?

Now we've finished both the wine and grapes, it was about time to call it a day before we got too tired-

Eh, they've got an idea, actually.

We thought we'd had quite some wine today, then -

Had some more with dinner at home, alongside some good bread, cheeses, and fruit spreads. Yum.

Day two: it was cloudy with some showers early on, but eventually clearing up

We started a little earlier this time, and when we got the day's first winery, there were already a lot of people there, drinking wines...

But our primary purpose there wasn't the winery itself but farmer's market held in the premise of the winery

There were a lot fewer shops there on that day, but I was thrilled just to walk around and check out what they had, sampling jellys here and fudges there...

And a sip of local beer. Why not?

As we all found this place too busy and loud, we decided to move on to a next winery - again, one that wasn't participating in the festival, but one of better ones around.

Here we again tasted all the wines on the list (a bubbly, four whites, a rose, and five reds), plus a 10-dollar sampling set of four premium wines including a white, two reds, and a dessert wine, all of which we found were too good to spit out; the dessert wine particularly was excellent

So much so I ended up leaving the place with a bottle of it. A little drunk, possibly.

Still, we tasted some more at the next winery

And actually bought a glass of wine for lunch

A bubbly again; I can never get tired of one

As we sat and relaxed, a puppy came and sat with us

By this time we had already had quite some wine and figured it was time to take a little break before even moving, especially for the driver, among others. So I took a little walk around in the winery, enjoying the pretty scenery

Roses again - this time one with a lovely smell as well as name

This must have been my first time seeing wine grapes on the tree so close

Even if some were behind a fence.

If by this point you are wondering what the hell I am talking about in the middle of winter, you have a point, except that it really was - and still is - actually summer where I am; I am posting this from warm and sunny Australia, escaping from cold and rainy Tokyo this past weekend. And the event we checked out was called Yarra Valley Grape Grazing Festival, participated by dozens of local wineries, most of which accept walk-in visitors on many weekends but some were open to public for this event only. It was only my second time doing on-site wine tasting, and I had a lot of fun; wines were generally good, food acceptable, atmosphere nice, and weather just gorgeous. My very first weekend down under couldn't have been better, and I am hoping to visit some more of local wineries for wine-tasting in the coming weekends, while there will be more food-related events to come, as well.

February 14, 2006

chef, re-interrupted

One weekend dinner went like this:

Seared brussels sprouts with thyme and manchego cheese to start with;

Alongside a Cloudy Bay 2001 Chardonnay;

Followed by Risotto with roasted kabocha squash and radicchio;

Slow-cooked salmon with apple-rosemary puree and herb oil; and

Goat cheesecake with thyme-lemon raspberry compote to wrap up, accompanied by Harney & Sons' earl grey white tea called Winter White Earl Grey.

It took me quite a while to cook all these up in one day, but it made an extremely fulfilling dinner for sure. Pressed with work, I hadn't been able to cook a proper meal lately, and I had had an itch for cooking, especially when I had just gotten a new cookbook, which soon became a new favorite of mine.

The book, called Chef, Interrupted: Delicious Chefs' Recipes That You Can Actually Make at Home by an NYC-based food writer and cookbook author Melissa Clark (Clarkson Potter, 2005), first caught my attention with its concept that is clearly stated in its (sub)title: "Delicious Chefs' Recipes That You Can Actually Make at Home". The author has chosen great recipes by chefs of renown restaurants - many of which are located in New York City but there are a bunch others from other places -, defined the essence of dishes then trimmed off what's not essential, and put it in plain words with clear-cut directions, so that there aren't four-page long recipes or daunting lists of ingredients or apparently infeasible techniques.

Now, if you ever try to make a recipe from a chef cookbook - or any cookbook, in fact -, you'd most likely be doing more or less this kind of "adjustments" by yourself, replacing some ingredients you can't find or shortcutting some procedures that you have decided not to undertake. In this book, Melissa Clark has done it for you in a professional manner, so that you wouldn't have to get lost or end up putting a wrong focus while missing out critical parts with a sophisticated recipe.

That's one benefit of the book, true. But what meant more to me when I flipped through a copy of it at a bookstore while in Honolulu last month (this is something that's usually hard for me to do when I live in Japan) was the selection of dishes itself; just about every recipe in the book appealed to me, (even if I haven't been to any of the restaurants mentioned in the book!) from Fois Gras Terrine with Asian Pear Marmalade to White Gazpacho with Crab, Green Grapes, and Almonds to Arugula-Mint Salad with Apricots and Cumin to Mushroom Risotto with Truffle Tea Foam to Roasted Pork Chops with Peaches and Basil to Fresh Fig Tart with Parmesan Ice Cream. I didn't need much time to decide to get a copy, but I did when choosing what to cook first out of the book back home.

Since I couldn't decide on one single recipe, I went with several at one time, trying to make a sort of a set menu, which you have just seen in the pictures above. The brussels sprout dish is originally by Andy Nusser of Casa Mono, risotto by Suzanne Goin of Lucques, salmon by David Bouley of Danube, and cheese cake by Claudia Fleming formerly of Gramercy Tavern, for the record.

I, however, ended up tweaking some parts of the recipes, anyways. For the risotto, I left the kabocha skin on since I like it too, and added some shallots to onions because, well, I had some at home. For the salmon, which was briefly cooked at a ultra-low temperature to create silky texture, I used sashimi salmon just to secure freshness, and used flat-leaf parsley in place of chive for the oil. I also didn't use a blender to mix the herb and oil because I don't own one, and simply finely chopped the herb to mix into the oil, while omitting the garnishing horseradish altogether. With the raspberry compote for the cheesecake, I added a bit of grated zest of lemon to complement thyme, since I didn't find - or have never found - lemon thyme in Tokyo.

Despite all these changes, everything turned out delightfully good, I'm pleased to say. We all found the salmon especially good, even if I seem to have a bit overcooked the fillets; the texture of flesh was absolutely mellow and the sweet apple puree combined with aromatic browned butter and soothing rosemary was divine. We also liked the subtly goat-cheesy, light-textured but rich cheesecake a lot, although I personally preferred the cake chilled rather than at room temperature as suggested in the recipe.

All in all, I was happy with everything I had cooked this time, and with cooking I had finally done for the first time in the past few weeks. It's good to be back in the kitchen after a while, even if it's only for a limited period of time. I have gained a renewed awareness that I love process of making food as much as I love eating it, and that I am so lucky to have family and folks who happily share what I have made with me. Honestly.