Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Beast Game

In a past London life I lived with my very good girlfriend Josie. Josie has a special and motivating gift, amongst many, of morphing all activities into competitions.  I think having an Olympic athlete as a father can result in this rare and special power, but regardless, if there is an act, let there be a challenge. And if there be a challenge, let me be the winner.  Living together, we made things happen. Well, one of us did, the other one sulked the loser’s sulk while the winner punched a meat carcass and tucked their track pants into their socks.
Our kitchen after The Fridge Game
The Fridge Game was Josie’s way of prompting my other housemate, Olivia and I into clearing from our bulging Electrolux (not a product endorsement, just a proper noun) those miscellaneous foodstuffs with unclear heritage and ownership.  Premise: Who ever cooked the best dish using the highest number and greatest volume of ingredients from the fridge wins.  Prize: Winner takes the glory, that’s all, and maybe a little extra space in the fridge. Proviso: Victory is subject to disqualification in the event of any illness directly resulting from ingredient heritage out dating recommended usage parameters. Is it just me or do competitions start to become a little less fun when three lawyers lay the ground rules? 

The Luggage Game was Josie’s way of expediting our airport departure time on mini-breaks.  The person who removes their bag from the luggage conveyor first is the winner, the others are all losers.  Obstruction, in any way (rugby tackle, impromptu blindfold, hot man decoy) of any player in pursuit of their bag is permitted.  Post holiday bruising has been more common than a tan to me in recent years.

Beef: The favourite...but the winner?
Since Josie moved home to Australia, we have had to content ourselves in pursuing the greatest and most intellectually rigorous of all our competitions. The Beast Game.  Which beast contributes the most to the world? Our world for this purpose is a fairly narrow concept. Our eyes, our mouths, our bellies.

Rungis, Paris.  The big beef!
Cows bring us milk, milk maids, beef, beef jerky, bone marrow, all dairy derivatives, nouns and slurs for human attribution – “you cow”, “such a heffer”, “what’s your beef”, tasteless bachelor furniture and floor rugs, the capital of Phillip Island and the perfect carpaccio accompaniment to truffle oil and parmesan. For that I am thankful. 

Poultry (for a chicken alone cannot challenge a cow, but we’ve all seen Birds, Hitchcock’s warning of the power of collective wings) brings us fillets (both meaty and gel like for a little extra lift), feathers, eggs in all proportions, claws, chicken salt, Kellogg’s branding, a menu item for unadventurous diners and iconic Christmas imagery (non-Jesus related).

Rungis, Paris: Poultry lined up waiting to be counted
It’s odd actually that fish and sea life never entered our duels.  Although while controversial consumption items like the whale may multi score well on contribution to world museum collections, the Darwinian short fallings of the soft-shell crab and it’s life of constant and crushing fear must surely damage any advancement of seafood in the debate.  Perhaps the current infatuation of chefs and foodies with tuna spinal marrow might be worth a punt with Josie next Skype session.

The one to watch: Seafood, the future challenger.
But Orwell, E.B. White, Josie and I all agree there is one winner. One superior beast prevails, perhaps not in variety, and perhaps not if you consider a vast number of the world’s population are prohibited from its consumption,  but in our hearts.  The Pig.

Pork belly, chorizo, pork crackling, bacon, salami, Iberico ham, if pigs could fly, trotters, bacon Cheetos, piglets, suckling pig, Babe, hog roasts, Pumba, bush pigs, pig outs, pig nose, “You pig!” (Risso, Grease, 1978), Porky’s, telling porkies, pork pies, what a porker!, pig tails, three little pigs, pork chops, lardo, sausages…oh sausages, how could I forget sausages.  Bacon….bacon!!! You get my point, all proudly presented by our good friend the swine. Pigs bring home the bacon (oh, Dad!).

Porteno - The perfect pig!
I’m not a religious person, but I do believe my devotion to this delicious beast reveals a path for me through every city in which I live or visit.  In London, to Brawn for pork rillettes and any number of cured and seared contortions of the oink.  In Sydney, to Porteno for dripping, juicy and glass crisp serve of asador slow roasted sucking pig.  In Paris, to L’avant Comptior for a bowl of caramelised pork belly broken on my palette with a strong glass of Morgon. And most recently to New York…

The Meatball Shop - Naked Balls
At The Meatball Shop in the East Village, I devoured a bowl of spicy pork naked balls.  I respect not only the innuendo loaded menu options (and website sound effects which pronounce BALLS in a dirty disco voice across my office) but the low-key, bare brick, wear your own tattoos aesthetic the place effortlessly propagates.  Like a lot of restaurants in New York you understand the City really fosters independent personality and self-expression from its chefs and restaurateurs.  Heritage pork shoulder and hot pickled cherry peppers, doused in classic tomato sauces, lashed with parmesan and politely sided by seasonal vege, addictive, simple and worthy of your best elastic-waisted pants…or a tattoo of your best elastic waisted pants inscribed where your real paints should otherwise be.

Momofuku Ssam: Steamed Pork Buns
While my failure to navigate the time space continuum with grace meant I had to defer my Porchetta roast rolled pork sandwich until next time, my belly was on site for David Chang’s pork belly at Momofuku Ssam Bar. David hates bloggers, is famed for his ‘meteoric rise’ in the international restaurant scene, is a leader in iPad food publishing and…really…I’m all about his buns…pork…I mean pork buns.
Sweet, sticky, fatty, pork belly floating between the cheeks of an inexplicably light steamed bun - glossed with hoi sin, Sriracha, pickles and spring onions.  This wasn’t even an “I would marry this pork bun” kind of situation.  As I said, I’m not religious, I wasn’t waiting until we got married!

Buns with something to prove...
If you can’t get to New York for Momofuku, buy David Chang and Peter Meehan’s book, Momofuku, and make them yourself. Read the book too.  The determination, navigation of luck (of all varieties), stoic self-belief and ‘chef as rock star’ persona of David weave in and out of all Momofuku’s best dishes. If you don’t like to purchase or read, cheat and find the recipe here…then learn to enjoy reading and join a read-a-thon. 
Devour Ssam Diet Steamed Pork Buns
As for my buns: texture was right, colour not quite, pork…well, I was forced to slim it down to fillet at the behest of my guests.  Flavour paid the price (belly is always, always better) but it still worked.  If you do the same, just roll, tie, oil and season the fillet, sear and finish in the oven until still pink – this is a quick process, don’t kill it! The United States Department of Agriculture guidelines now dictate that pork is safe for consumption at 145°F/63°C so get used to it! Without undermining my stance on pork, I also prepared a marinated steak version which I think may actually have been better.  But then I remembered how odd udders are and went back to championing pork.  

Momofuku Ssam: Bev Eggleston’s pork shoulder steak – ramps, hominy, queso oaxaca
I’m thinking when Josie arrives for her next Euro trip I’ll surprise her at the baggage carousel in Gaga style hoof boots and a meat dress. I’ll take her down before she reaches her bag and then take her home for pork buns...and a side dish incorporating every single item in my refrigerator. Yep, that sounds balanced.  Win!


p.s. If you liked this post, read this: Bacon, we have a problem.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

I had nearly given up...nearly

I’ve watched Weird Science one and a half times this week, inserted two packets of Mentos into Diet Coke bottles and pondered the brilliance of my Year Two volcano project for at least 8 seconds.

I feel nothing.

I’ve changed my alarm theme to Catalan Morning Shine, alphabetised my recipe collection by method and slept in my chef whites every night.


Did air transport enthusiasts feel this way disembarking the final Concorde flight?  Probably not, they were wearing travel luxe complementary flight jumpsuits.  They would have felt embarrassment. That’s something.

So this is what it feels like to experience El Bulli. Huh…

Such a food tourist!
I entered every ballot, each competition, crossed every limb hoping for a reservation at the greatest restaurant of our time.  I spent much of my late teens and early twenties fearing that my number would come up before I ever had the capacity to pay for the journey from Australia (bakery bunnies in the 90’s didn’t earn the glamour money they do today).  Unfortunately, my number never came up and bankruptcy from such an insignificant financial vantage point remained irrelevant. To be honest, it kind of still does.

Twice before I came close, missed out and wept in the way only those who have seen The Notebook understand. Actually, also those who have also seen Blue Valentine and the crushing evidence of Ryan Gosling’s demise into 30-something follicle recession.

El Bulli closes, for good, at the end of July.  That’s 6 weeks away.  I had nearly given up. Nearly…

I received an email last week from one director of my company announcing a countdown to his own El Bulli moment.  I swiftly responded with a plethora of bold italic exclamation marks representing my enthusiasm for his luck, and then qualified my email with an acknowledgement that a small part of my soul was now slaughtered by jealousy’s spear.

He must have assumed me odd and grammatically incorrect. But I didn’t weep.

Instead I felt a light zephyr, an air of hope if you will.

Gorgonzola balloon, broken and eaten bite for bite with the glass sheer olive oil crisp.
The first “chapter” of cocktails and canapés, served outdoors,  violated (with consent) every sector of my culinary understanding whilst holding my hand through disappearing bursts, crystal shards and clouds of fizz.  
Not long after I received a visitor at my desk.  My exclamation key was happy for the reprieve. It was my director. Not The Countdown Director. The Direct Director.  The director who, I was informed, would be unable to take his place at the table of culinary history in front of Ferran’s kitchen and dine at El Bulli.  And so it was, because of him, my time had come.

Moving indoors, flowers paper, adult fairy floss dotted with flavoured flowers. We cannot confirm or deny but our taste buds did pass out for a while at this point.
At this point I did weep.  It was actually a little less meek than weep.  I think a dance, jump, squeal, sob in the fairground vein of Wilbur the Pig is more correct. 

It’s funny and revealing to me that even as an adult a physical reaction is sometimes so unbridled.  I was shaking a little, bright red and my brain was utterly incapable of forming a coherent thought which did not involve spherification or freeze drying (pronounced with a Catalan thah).  I took a moment in the staff car park to gather myself, although the resident carton of smokers quickly drove me inside after a failed and jarring heel click. Damn you Grandpa Jo, you make it look so easy.

Carbonara tagliatelle with a consomme noodle. How?
Last Thursday when I met Ferran in his kitchen at El Bulli I was as red and as shaken.  Right now, remembering it, I am the same…although I have resigned my brain to accept a home spherification is impractical and I will never be able to speak Spanish.

I have to be honest, not my favourite course, but seriously sexy plating...and it did turn me onto caviar.
El Bulli was 49 courses to which I have no comparison. Ferran and his team are artists and inventors, creators of culinary mythology, presenting dishes of humour and wit whilst encouraging contemplation and rediscovery of flavour and taste.  I will happily slide down every vortex of cliché ever written or expressed about El Bulli but I have tried to avoid use of the word genius.  Shift F7 suggests Wizz Kid.  I don’t think this quite works. 

Apple rose
I will never eat, feel or see anything like El Bulli again.  Although my family home in Melbourne does challenge El Bulli on a units of bull dog design items per square metre basis. Our 3-year-old French bulldog, Montesquieu, may just tip the scales in our favour.  

Not to be confused with my family home, El Bulli's dining room.
I’m convinced the only thing stopping us from physical and cerebral combustion was the juxtaposition of our Dr Who menu and the aged wood, velvet and personality rich dining room.  Feeling like we were eating in a friend’s home placated any urge to panic from fear of course 42 arriving.  Wine lulled our surprise discovery of a mimetic almond shattering under bite.

I'm never washing this page again!
A week on, I still have my signed A Day at El Bulli open on my coffee table.  I recall bites, flickers and waves.  I’m trying to reassimilate. I’m annoyed easyjet don’t issue travel jumpsuits. I cannot believe I made it to El Bulli!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 


Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Curious Case of Mr Basil

In 1995 I read in a magazine that you should never consider the birth and raising of a child if you are incapable of cultivating and maintaining the life of a plant.  This seems like a solid proposition to me. 

Although it was Cosmopolitan magazine and I did at the time question the topical expertise of "How To..." girls musing on the credentials of parenthood or horticulture, I have utilised this statement as a shield to the numerous grandchildren themed conversation segues attempted by my parents over the years.

"Did you know David's daughter Lindy, well she and her husband, Michael, they are expecting their..." 

"Mum, I killed my Ficas"

"and Susan, since her daughter Andrea had..."

"Actually Mum, I've been meaning to tell you, the Pilodendron, I dropped him."

You can imagine then the risk I take in writing this post about my only and greatest herbaceous achievement.  Mr Basil.

Mr Basil's early days were fairly standard as basil plants go, spending his formative years in the fresh greens isle of Waitrose.  It was here that I found him, middle of the pack, one Saturday afternoon.  I wrapped him up, bought him home and sat him in the window of our kitchen (which receives about as constant a flood of sunlight as any window in London ever could). Then I stared at him.  He didn't do anything.  It's similar to the anti-climax you may confront by when visiting a friends new born for the first time. Little Benjamin looks cute, healthy, but he doesn't really do anything...then he does do something and you remember you really needed to be somewhere else. Fast. Apologies to any friends with children reading this, I'm not referring to your baby, he's different, of course.

One of Mr Basil's more classic accomplishments:
Lemon, hazelnut and basil pesto with roasted chicken and fresh goats cheese. 
After weeks of mediocrity and C's in school, Mr Basil pulled himself together and grew up, ferociously. He seemed to miss that awkward and uncertain teenage phase (which is good, I wasn't ready for the psychology of teenage self doubt) and went straight into his bold and cocky twenties.  The girls started coming on the scene about this time too.  Rosemary, Parsley, Chives.  Mo Honeys, Mo Growth. Our window sill became the hottest place in town. An unfortunate bi-product of his swift development, he's not quite as sweet as he used to be.  More anise and tarragon than I really like, but I expect as he continues to mature the grassiness will return with a little cinnamon and clove. But, if he choses to pursue to drama and the arts over a more rounded career then so be it. 

People come from all over the neighbourhood to see him, touch him, marvel in his shadow.  Lesser herb growers bring their failing crops from across town just to sit them close to Mr Basil in the hope they too will be inspired to greatness.  A Televangalism scout noticed him on the street the other day and left me his business card.  He thinks Mr Basil has great potential and charisma and could be a true healing saviour to other plant.  The Amazon really needs him.

I'm encouraging him to learn another language, but Italian just comes naturally.
Pasta, wild mushroom duxelle, rocket, walnuts, poached egg, torn basil and a dash of truffle oil.
But for now, Mr Basil is just weighing up his options.  I'm still watering him three times daily with a simulated rain shower every second day (this is a genetic over-compensation, my parents dogs are fed peeled grapes for breakfast, a little fake rain is nothing).  We apologise with a kind stroke every time we pick him and I always make sure I shield him from the sight of his leaves being torn over hot foccacia or being blitzed into pesto.

So there you have him. Mr Basil. But just in case you're wondering Mum and Dad, he could die any day now, don't get too excited.