Twelve months, one regional cuisine per month. I spent 2011 on a globetrotting mission to widen the scope of my culinary knowledge.
See where I've been what I've cooked up.
This is Harriet.
Harriet is a Kangaroo Island kangaroo, a subspecies of the western grey kangaroo, and she is a permanent resident of the Healesville Sanctuary, located about an hour's drive east of Melbourne. She's about three feet tall and a touch overweight, given that she spends her afternoons eating corn kernels and carrot slices from the palms of tourists. Harriet knows she's got a good thing going, and she has a practiced look of pleading sadness that will extract from even the hardest, most frigid soul a goofy grin and a few extra treats.
Harriet works it.
This is not Harriet.
The cut of meat shown here, rubbed with salt, pepper, and garlic and grilled to rare perfection, is the loin of a different, less fortunate kangaroo. I didn't meet this kangaroo. I don't know what species it was and I have no idea if it was male or female or if it had a name. The loin itself was a treat -- beefy, but also gamy and with a hint of grassiness. It pairs beautifully with shiraz, which Australians seem to draw from their wells.
And it was remarkably lean. There was hardly a vein or knob of fat to be found on the whole cut. That is why kangaroo can really only be enjoyed rare; cook it any longer and it will toughen and dry out into something horribly unpalatable. It's a meat that demands respectful treatment.
I'd built up the kangaroo-eating experience so much in my mind beforehand that it was sort of a shock when it managed to actually meet those stupidly inflated expectations.
There was also the strange component of having met and played with one of these exotic (to Americans) beasts prior to dining on one of its distant cousins. Living in the urban and suburban wilderness translates into few opportunities to meet one's meat. Seeing one of these bizarre and extraordinary animals and touching it and letting it nibble out of your palm, knowing that a different one will die somewhere distant and removed so that you can consume a portion of it, gives you pause. I was cavalier about it prior to the trip, but it actually had an impact on me.
Perhaps it's not enough to make one go vegetarian, but at the very least it compels you to make better choices, to seek out animal flesh that has been treated respectfully, and to do so in moderation.
Quality over quantity, and welfare above all. When you can actually put a face on your meat, and that face is Harriet's, it becomes an easy mantra to adopt.
Mrs. Culinarian called me at work in a slight panic. "I just talked to mom," she said. "She wants to take me for a Guinness." I asked if she could perhaps deflect her, maybe suggest going for coffee instead. "No, I tried that. She really wants to spend some time with me and she's insisting on taking me out for a Guinness. I don't understand it! She's never insisted on going out for beers."
Crap. We weren't ready. Relevant parties were still out of the country. We needed a couple of more days. I needed to think of something. Dinner. We'd invite her over for dinner. She couldn't say no, and it would give us some room to maneuver, some space to operate.
We'd be able to lie.
So on the evening of August 10, a Saturday, mercifully, my mother-in-law (hereafter referred to as "Suegra") came over to dinner, and I put my subterfuge into effect. Before she showed up I drove to the local shopping center and bought three bottles of wine: two reds, and a chardonnay. Then I went to the supermarket and picked up a bottle of white grape juice.
See, Suegra wanted to have a drink with Mrs. Culinarian and talk about the things that mothers and daughters talk about. But Suegra doesn't drink white wine. So, when she showed up for dinner, I happily poured two glasses of red for Suegra and myself, and a wine glass of chilled white grape juice for Mrs. Culinarian. They went out on the porch to chat, and I stayed in the kitchen to cook.
I stood in front of the stove, cooking whatever it is I was cooking and sipping on my wine and listening to Perez Prado belt out a few mambos. I moved to the fridge to grab something I needed and stopped cold. The bottle of white wine was right there, on the refrigerator door, unopened, full of wine. I panicked -- Suegra wouldn't drink the white wine, but what if she came in to get a glass of water or something and saw the unopened bottle there and figured out that Mrs. Culinarian wasn't actually drinking the chardonnay? What if she put two and two together? The illusion had to be maintained.
I couldn't just pour myself a glass of the white and hope she wouldn't notice -- the chardonnay and Mrs. Culinarian's grape juice were too far apart in color. Suegra would notice. She'd definitely notice the difference in color between the liquids in the two glasses because obviously that's something someone would notice. She'd get suspicious. I couldn't take that chance.
Perhaps not entirely rationally, I yanked the bottle out of the fridge, tore off the foil, and extracted the cork. I grabbed a juice glass from the cupboard, filled it with white wine, and chugged it.
There. An open wine bottle with roughly a glass-worth of wine missing. I grabbed my real glass of red wine and resumed cooking, slowly sipping while tapping my feet to Perez Prado.
Of course, when Mrs. Culinarian came in to refill her grape juice, I was thrown back into the same panic. Absolutely convinced that Suegra would notice that the quanitity of liquid remaining in the wine bottle was more than Mrs. Culinarian had consumed, I poured another juice glass full of chardonnay and slammed it down. And since I thought it would look suspicious if I wasn't also drinking red wine, I kept sipping that as well.
(For a partial explanation of my mental state at the time, I had just finished reading Operation Mincemeat, the story of an elaborate hoax perpetrated by the British to dupe the Nazis into thinking the Allies weren't going to invade Sicily. The book describes the absurd attention the Brits paid to the minutest details of the hoax in order to maintain its plausibility. This likely had an effect me. An uncharitable interpretation of this is that I consider my mother-in-law to be the rough equivalent of a Gestapo agent.)
The subterfuge continued throughout the night. I got absolutely smashed. Slurred speech, poor volume control, the works. I woke up Sunday morning feeling like so much hot garbage.
But the deception worked. It bought us the few days we needed before Mrs. Culinarian's father could return from Mexico and we could come clean. And if you still haven't picked up on the slap-you-in-the-face obvious reason for why I was behaving like a lunatic and irrationally panicking and chugging my wife's wine while she sipped on a non-alcoholic substitute...
Baby Culinarian, on the way, due to arrive in April 2014.
Collingwood, Victoria is a grungy, hip stretch of urban sprawl plastered with posters and flyers advertising local rock groups and concerts by big-name musicians. Walking along Smith St., you'll pass by odd boutiques and book shops and massage parlors until finally you arrive at a pair of large wooden doors that feature two heavy metallic pig's feet protruding where one might normally find handles. This is Josie Bones. This is where you eat meat when in Melbourne.
If the pig trotter door handles aren't enough of a clue as to what to expect, then the mural behind the bar should cure any uncertainty. It depicts a pig carcass -- head, feet, and tail removed -- striking a pose so seductive that it can only be described as Costanza-esque.
As you can probably glean from the photo, it is more than a little unnerving. But it also makes a statement! The mural depicts the parts of the pig that we know and consume on the regular. Josie Bones specializes in the bits of animals that don't typically show up on menus or at the Safeway: feet and innards and heads (one can order a roasted pig's head off the menu).
To wash the offal down, Josie Bones offers an impressively broad and sophisticated selection of beers, to include a phalanx of heretofore unknown (at least to me) smoked beers. The most interesting of the lot, enthusiastically recommended by the waitstaff, was the Rogue chipotle ale. It felt a bit silly to go to the other side of the planet just to drink a beer brewed in Oregon, but oh what a beer. The smokiness from the chipotle is muted and catches you on the back end, along with a gentle spiciness that just tingles the soft palate. If you can find it, get it.
But we're here for the meat, like this chicken liver parfait right here. Smooth, velvety, savory, and excellent smeared across a piece of crusty, oil-drizzled, wood-fired bread.
And this pig trotter, braised and thoroughly rich, and stuffed with sweetbreads, meaning that each mouthful felt as if it weighed about six pounds.
And other meaty morsels to include beef cheek with fried parsnips, fried bone marrow croquettes, and this heap of goat served with goat cheese and curry.
Then there's this...
This is kangaroo. Specifically, it is kangaroo carpaccio. It was my first taste of kangaroo and, given the degree to which I had hyped it up, a pretty big moment. And I can say with utter conviction and complete confidence that this kangaroo carpaccio was a total, almost transcendent disappointment. And it pains me to say that, given how much I very desperately wanted to try kangaroo and how uniformly delightful everything else on Josie Bones' menu was. This kangaroo was largely flavorless, boasting only a slight ferric tang that was easily overwhelmed by the arugula and pine nuts that accompanied it.
HOWEVER, the kangaroo experience extends beyond this sadly underwhelming introduction and will come to a happy conclusion...
Melbourne and its outlying suburbs are an eclectic mix of neighborhoods; a mish-mash of architectural styles and cultural scenes. Walk through any neighborhood and you'll get a sense of careful disorganization. It's a city that feels young. You hardly see any gray hair or creased faces. Seriously, it's like Logan's Run down here.
In South Yarra, so named because it sits due south of Melbourne's Yarra River, one gets the feeling of being in San Francisco. Stroll down Chapel Street and you'll pass several funky boutiques, cafes, bars, and residents, all of them tied together by a certain pleasant grunginess. All that's missing are the hills and the hippies.
Head north, towards the Yarra, and the city starts to feel a bit like Georgetown, with the Botanic Gardens and other green spaces wedged between narrow residential streets that encroach upon a bustling riverfront. Hop on the tram and head south towards St. Kilda and you'll feel as if you've discovered the illegitimate child of Coney Island and Los Angeles, with gawdy amusement parks and trendy shops abutting the palm-tree lined promenades along Port Phillip Bay. Speaking of bastards and St. Kilda, if you should find yourself in this Melbourne suburb then make it your mission to have brunch at Veludo, a sleek bar and restaurant on Acland St. that has a wall constructed from empty wine bottles and a menu that features the Big Pommy Bastard.
"Pommy" is Aussie slang for a British person, since newly arrived Brit immigrants would quickly sunburn to the shade of a pomegranate. The Big Pommy Bastard is Veludo's take on the English breakfast, though they've tweaked it to the point that there's nothing noticeably British about this mountain of breakfast food. Bacon, baked beans, tomatoes, bread, eggs, avocado, chorizo -- it actually feels pretty New World. While it might not strictly be a pommy, it certainly is one big bastard and not to be undertaken lightly.
If the Big Pommy Bastard feels too intimidating but you're still jonesing for a slang-slung brunch experience, opt instead for the Breaky Bap, seen below, a beef cheek-stuffed egg sandwich that bears the Aussie slang term for breakfast. The Australians do love their slang, I'm finding out.
We've been in Australia for less than 24 hours and already the gastronomic quirks are making themselves known. Pictured above are Tim Tams: chocolate covered biscuits that are a popular accompaniment to tea or coffee. They are so popular, in fact, that it is apparently not uncommon to bite off opposing corners of a Tim Tam and use it as a straw to suck up your hot beverage.
This is known as the Tim Tam Slam.
I like this place.
Right now Mrs. Culinarian and I are en route to Melbourne, Australia, and when I get there I'm going to eat a kangaroo. Not this specific kangaroo, and not necessarily an entire kangaroo, but certainly a piece of one. I've been told it's similar to venison: very lean, very red.
Declaring this intention to a collection of coworkers resulted in some tremendous grief being thrown my way, owing to the agreed upon cuteness of the kangaroo. Yeah, I guess, but cuteness is unequally applied as a limiting factor in the animals we consume. Sheep are cute. Cows are cute as hell. My god have you ever seen a calf and then eaten osso buco? You're main-lining cute at that point. Look at this baby goat jumping around. Adorable. Did someone eat that goat? I don't know but I guarantee cuter goats have been eaten.
But this is all ancillary to the main point which is that I'm going to eat a kangaroo in Australia. Because that's what one does in Australia. And I'm going to blog about it. And other things too. Melbourne is supposed to be the culinary heart of the world's favorite former penal colony, and DC Culinarian is going to document the gastronomy down under.
Oh, also my brother is getting married there. So I'm going to eat a kangaroo and (time permitting) go to a wedding. And I'm going to taunt a koala. And kidnap a platypus. And make a bunch of stupid dingo jokes and probably get punched. Probably definitely.
To hell with autumn. Actually, scratch that. Hell is autumn. Popular mythology describes hell as a place of fire and heat, forever burning, but that's wrong. Dante had it right -- the center of hell is windy and stormy and cold. Hell is forever autumnal.
Yeah, yeah, tell me about the changing leaves and Halloween and sweaters and pumpkin spice all the other nonsense the summer-weary get excited for. I don't care. Leaves require raking, Halloween is societally imposed extortion, sweaters itch, and pumpkin spice is nutmeg mixed with pencil shavings. There's only one redeeming factor to this abysmal season that keeps it from being a complete disaster.
Here's what you do. You go apple picking, you get yourself a healthy bushel, you crank up your oven as far as it will go, and you make one of these pizzas. (The heat from the oven will keep you warm as it starts to get raw out there because autumn is terrible that way.)
Apples don't typically find savory applications -- pork chops and apple sauce being the commonest, if generally unpleasant, exception -- but the potential is there and well worth exploring and exploiting. The apples you want here are the sweet ones -- no Granny Smiths. Go with a honeycrisp or Fuji, any variety with an elevated sugar content. The sweeter the apple the nicer the contrast will be with the saltiness from the pancetta and smoked mozzarella. And if you haven't yet tried smoked mozzarella, then you've been doing yourself a disservice all these years.
Pile all that and some caramelized fennel on top of a round of pizza dough and you've got yourself a sweet, salty, savory entree that is absolutely delicious and guaranteed to help you tolerate this awful season.
Recipe after the jump.
I live in the DC area but my baseball allegiance belongs to the Bronx. After convincing Mrs. Culinarian that it would be really fun, we drove up this week to attend the last home game of the Yankees' disappointing season -- the last game Mariano Rivera would ever play in Yankee pinstripes.
It was emotional and wonderful and terrible and inspiring and dejecting and all the confused, conflicting emotions that a child's game should not so easily inflict upon adults. This was my first time at the new Yankee Stadium since it opened in 2010, and walking around the mezzanine I noticed something that stuck with me...
The old Yankee Stadium was a dilapidated relic, built in the 20s, renovated in the 70s, and completely unequal to the needs of the modern baseball fan. It was old, creaky, historic, and wonderfully out of date. One of my happiest sports memories is walking down the stadium ramp after game seven of the 2003 ALCS, in which Aaron Boone capped an improbable Yankee comeback over the Red Sox, and feeling the whole structure vibrate to the rhythym of "LET'S GO YANKEES" *boom boom boom-boom-boom*. You had limited food options, the only fare a baseball purist would need: hot dogs, sausage, pizza, pretzels, beer.
The new Yankee Stadium is... different. The new Yankee Stadium has its own bubble tea.
There are times, and I assume this happens to every home cook out there, when you just nail it. You get this idea for something to make, and you get to making it, and then it's made, and then you look at it this thing you made and you can't really believe that what you made came out precisely as you envisioned making it and you just say to yourself with a tone of rapturous and disbelieving wonder: "Man... I made the shit out of that."
These moments don't happen often. They're vanishingly rare, in fact. But when they do happen, and when they happen at a time when it's really important, there are few things better.
This cake was one of those moments. The approach of autumn is marked each year by Mrs. Culinarian's birthday, for which I try to make something special. She's very much a fan of chocolate (understandable) and hazelnuts (weirdo), and something of a cake fiend, so the chocolate-hazelnut mousse cake emerged as the obvious choice.
Any idiot can bake a chocolate cake and dump some hazelnutty mousse on there. This one had to be elegant. Classy. Sophisticated. And the sure-fire, can't-miss method for classing up any dessert is the CHOCOLATE LATTICE, a brittle, interlocking web of chocolate that sits demurely above your pastry, providing both textural variance and a pleasing visual aesthetic.
Chocolatiering is typically a tremendous pain and requires vast reservoirs of patience, but the lattice actually isn't that difficult, compared to other, less-forgiving chocolatiering pursuits. And it'll lend whatever you're making a look of professionalism even though you have little idea what you're doing. Fake it while you make it.
The cake portion of the cake is chocolatey and tangy, owing to some elevated buttermilk content. The mousse gets its hazelnut punch from a generous helping of Nutella. It's both light and rich, courtesy of whipped cream and marscapone. With the lattice on top, it's all class. It does require some careful, artful construction and a little more know-how than a simple layer cake, but it's a special occasion kind of thing so quit whinging and put in a little effort for the people you care about.
The cake recipe is courtesy of Bon Apetit (the cake in the photo BA uses on the recipe page is tremendously darker than the actual cake, for some reason) and the mousse comes from Epicurious. Make a half-recipe of the cake (use a springform pan, if you have one) and a full recipe of the mousse and follow the assembly instructions below.