Saturday, March 23, 2013

Beyond Vegemite

No worries, the Aussies do not just eat Vegemite they in fact eat very well thanks to a new breed of creative Chefs. Lamb is their staple, especially for Sunday dinners. It is roasted or grilled and served with pumpkin, potatoes and a green vegetable if available.  Pumpkin is any winter squash in Aussie lingo. The Binnie household carries on the tradition.

When Mindi and I along with baby Alexander dined out, it was for lunch. There were Asian inspired menus, Thai, Chinese, Pan Asian, Italian, Indian, English, Irish and amazing sushi to choose from. Menus are broken down into courses much like in America or Italia.  Entrees are actually appetizers but priced like upscale "entrees" over here IE $16-$19.Aus $, "Mains" are Entrees and priced higher usually $26.Aus $ or more. We always ordered Entrees to share. One afternoon we went to an old famous pub, Gunyah Pub near Belmont with nice Lake Maquarie views . The menu, called "Swill 'n' Grill" was diversified and typical of upscale restaurants as well as being tongue in cheek Aussie. We chose Salt & Pepper Squid and Kataifi (Filo crusted) Prawns, both on a bed of salad greens with dipping sauces and both very flavorful.  You order food at one station and your drinks at another. The food is served but you take your drinks away. If the wine wasn't finished ( which it never was) it was corked and bagged to take home. Take a peek at their website and the "up the gut" entertainment section.

A less than successful menu was offered at Cave's Beach Hotel and Resort, a new club that was quite nice as far as the amenities went. The Bistro has a huge play area for kids to run around in, slot machines in another, adults only, area and a cafeteria counter where you order your food. Harrison ate the largest plate of "hot chips" that I ever saw. 

Hot Chips
Mommy & Pat's snack
This was one place that Mindi nixed as a lunch destination. Check out the menu, it looks fantastic, however, I saw the plates. A special of "roasted" lamb ( looked grey and boiled) with weird potatoes and some overcooked green beans sitting in a pool of "gravy", Chicken Schnitzel looked like it was from a frozen TV dinner and the Roasted Salmon fillet wasn't looking too good either. I understood her concerns. Obviously no upcoming creative chef was in this house. The one fun thing was a strange looking bird that was wandering around the patio and garden area.  I asked the cashier what it was and she didn't have the foggiest idea.  I googled Australian birds of which there are hundreds and there it was "purple swamp hen".  Even Aaron didn't know what I was talking about. We saw them everywhere after that.

At the Binnie home fantastic meals were made. Mindi had a hand cranked Atlas pasta maker stashed in her cupboard that was a wedding gift from 8 years ago still in the sealed box. I offered to teach her how to make pasta. The day after our trip to Hunter Valley I pulled it out and cleared the countertop for a Pasta making afternoon.  Little Harrison got into the act making us laugh with his 2 yr. old enthusiasm. Flour was flying and the Atlas was cranking!  We decided to cut the dough into fettuccine with the cutter provided.  Now, what to do for the "sauce".  I dug around in the well stocked refrigerator drawer-this house has two drawers, one is a freezer and the other a refrigerator and they can be interchanged.   On a sheet pan I roasted sliced mushrooms, garlic and onion with rosemary and olive oil. When they were just about done, cut up tomatoes and local Spanish-style chorizo slices were added to roast further. In a skillet I reduced some beef stock and added the contents of the roasting pan to heat through.  The pasta was bubbling away in a pot of salted water.  Mindi made a salad and cut bread.  I tossed the pasta into the skillet with a little of the pasta water then added a tablespoon of sundried tomato pesto, 2 tablespoons of that rich Greek yogurt and finished it off with fresh herbs from the garden and a sprinkling of grated Parmesan cheese.  We cracked a bottle of Shiraz and enjoyed the silence from sleeping babies. Needless to say it was a big hit and I hope Mindi has dragged that pasta maker out again.
Harrison getting his "crank" on

Another evening Aaron grilled a Sirloin roast "Santa Maria" style, meaning rubbed with chile powder and other spices. They do not have tri-tip as an option over there like we do here on the Central Coast of Cali. It wasn't a true Santa Maria Barbecue like the ones Mindi grew up with here on the Central Coast- there weren't any beans or garlic bread so we turned the meat into Aussie tacos using flour tortillas instead of corn along with salsa fresca, grated cheese, cut up cucumbers, yogurt and avocado slices and that incredible grilled roast. The only thing missing were Margaritas. Did I mention that the meat over there is really, really good? Just sayin.

Mindi makes a killer hamburger. She fills them with ingredients sort of like meatloaf.  I made oven baked "hot chips" and set out the condiments. Aaron grilled the burgers along with thick slices of onion. Instead of tomatoes the Aussies put "beetroot" on their hamburgers. Beetroots are pickled beet slices.  They are a household staple in Aus. Now I have another use for my roasted and pickled beets.

I happened to be in Australia when Americans were celebrating Thanksgiving. Turkeys are scarce and expensive so  Mindi stuffed a chicken and roasted it along with some of the usual trimmings, squash ( pumpkin) mashed potatoes, green beans and gravy. Very yummy substitute but a bittersweet day for me as in America it would have been Steve's and my 43rd anniversary. 

As luck would have it we got a call from Aaron's sister Tracy Shaw inviting us out to her house for a traditional American Thanksgiving on Saturday. Woo hoo!  Dan and Tracy Shaw lived in Paso Robles for years, he as a wine maker for J.Lohr, Calcareous as well as being in demand as a consultant.  Tracy was the manager of Eagle Castle Winery in their start up years. The Shaws now have 4 darling little boys and have lived in New Zealand where Dan was a winemaker and one of their boys was born. He proudly considers himself a "Kiwi". The family moved back to Orange, NSW so Dan could take over as winemaker at Phillip Shaw Winery. Phillip Shaw is Dan's fathers' winery. Aaron and Mindi decided to pack it up and drive the 4 hours west to Orange. We planned on staying overnight so the pack out was huge for this trip.

Because this trip would be a long one they brought out "Dorothy the Dinosaur"  and "The Wiggles" videos to keep Harrison entertained. We stopped for lunch at "Apple Bar" in the Blue Mountains. I was dying for a salad and ordered their version of "Moroccan Green Salad"-Spinach, fennel, oranges, pomegranates, nuts, ricotta drizzled with local honey- delish. Mindi ordered Crispy fried pork strips and Aaron gave the Honey Prawns a go. It was perfect until Mindi looked up into the rafters and saw a nest of "Red backs". These are extremely poisonous spiders. We immediately checked under the picnic table and all around us. It was panic time for awhile but we decided the spiders were quite content to hang out 12 ft above us and search for bugs. The Apple Bar was a real find. The food was amazing and the cafe is pretty upscale for being in the middle of no where and they make everything on the premises. If you look at their menu you will find Kangaroo fillet. I did NOT taste Kangaroo anywhere, anytime while in Australia!

Continuing the drive through the Blue Mountains reminded me of some ancient tribal place of worship. The blue haze is thought to be caused by mie scattering bouncing off of the abundant eucalyptus trees in the mountains.  They are in fact inhabited by Aboriginal tribes.  The Gundungurra people have been there for over 22,000 years! They are now represented by the Aboriginal Council in the town of Katoomba. The plan was to drop me off on the way back from Orange for an overnight in Katoomba and from there I was to take a train to Sydney where I had rented a studio apartment.  I was looking forward to that adventure.

We arrived at Tracy and Dan's house a little late after a detour in the countryside due to an accident on the only two lane highway that goes that way. 
Countryside in Orange NSW

Many hands in the kitchen and all mates.  Tracey got it perfect. They deep fried the turkey ( total American) and were in the process of roasting a huge ham, mashing potatoes and pumpkin, steaming green beans, glazing carrots and setting out huge bowls of stuffing.  I like to roast my brussel sprouts so Dan took the cue and did just that. Simply trim the brussel sprouts, cut in half if large, toss with olive oil, salt, pepper, maybe some pearl onions or shallots and thyme sprigs. I finish them off with a splash of balsamic vinegar.  I don't know where Tracey procured it but there was cranberry relish!
Mindi and I were in charge of "traditional" spinach dip. All of the ingredients were there except the spinach was frozen. We quickly nuked it to defrost and I squeezed out the water. We added dried French onion soup mix, but the kicker was that we got to use creme fraiche! It is sold in little pouches and is as fantastic as the Greek Yogurt. I fiddled with the dip adding some spices and a little cayenne for heat. It was a hit!  Mind you the guests were all Aussies! There were about 14 adults and 20 kids. The weather was springtime and warm, similar to many California Thanksgivings.

Crikey!! Deep fried turkey and roasted ham, Oh My

The dessert table was loaded with Pumpkin pies, cheesecake, apple pie and Ice cream. Everyone gave a little speech about what they were thankful for and the loaded plates were tackled. I shed a few tears.

Dan had quite the selection of wines. Surprisingly they were from Paso Robles!  He had carried over some older J. Lohr Cabernets, Calcareous "Tres Violets" ( one of my favorites") as well as Zinfandels. I was anxious to taste some Phillip Shaw wines.
Also on the tables were bottles of old Rum, Tequila, Brandies and liqueurs. Everyone was in a food and alcohol induced stupor. The music and laughter carried on for hours.
We were set up to stay overnight at Phillip Shaw's winery which doubles as his home.  Aaron was fine to drive after the 5 hour feast. Other couples had one DD or were staying at the Shaw house. I meant some really nice people that day.  As a matter of fact I did not meet any "not nice" people the whole trip.
Good on ya!

Off we went to Phillip Shaw's house/winery for a sleepover...

Friday, March 8, 2013

Shiraz-Syrah, same same

In most foreign countries the language is subject to interpretation. Over in Australia a few words have no connection to the American "English" language. Similarities yes, but one wonders how a sweater became a "jumper" or diapers became "nappies" and tomato sauce is ketchup. Now French fries called "hot chips" I can almost see. I guess "chips" are cold.  Syrah, the French and American name for this grape varietal became Shiraz. Wine aficionados would argue that Shiraz, a Persian grape, came first and was interpreted as Syrah when the grape was cultivated in France. The Australians prefer Shiraz.
I did not have a bad wine in Australia. Some were more noteworthy than others but I loved them all. Mindi and I have a history together. She hired me at Peachy Canyon winery where I worked for almost 9 years.  In the meantime she fell in love with the Australian "cellar rat" who came to work a harvest.  My late husband, Steve, used to say that Aaron stole our Crown Jewel when he spirited her off to Australia.
Once in Australia she managed to get a great job with a wine distributor so continued her passion for the fermented grape.
I followed her recommendations when purchasing Aussie wines during my visit. Boy did we drink some delicious wines!

On a sunny, cool Sunday I woke up anticipating a drive out to the closest and oldest wine region in Australia, Hunter Valley. To back up, I woke up to incredible smells wafting out of the kitchen.  Mindi was busy making an Indian Coconut Lamb Curry for our dinner later. Fresh curry leaves, Ghee, curry powder  and other ingredients were laid out, lamb was sauteing and my camera was hidden away in my purse. It WAS only 7 am!
I put together a fruit platter with Australian Greek Yogurt, which by the way tastes closer to Creme Fraiche and is scary good, along with  local grainy bread toasted for our breakfast.

Packing up 2 toddlers is a chore. The bottles need to be sterilized and filled, biscuits (crackers) and vege snacks baggied, the aforementioned (in the previous blog) baby food in squeeze tubes and of course "nappies"are packed in  Mindi's "diaper" bag, a designer mini suitcase. She can pack an unbelievable amount of stuff into it and it is gorgeous to boot. Harrison finally puts his little green Crocs on, baby Alexander is settled into the car seat, toys are distributed and off we go.

Hunter Valley vintners primarily grow Chardonnay, Semillon, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. A few wineries had Pinot Noir. Chardonnay-Semillon blends were common and very good. The area is beauty and not packed with vineyards like California but you still feel that you are in a grape growing region.  Our first stop was at Hungerford Hill. Their Semillon was delicious but I bought the spicy Cabernet Sauvignon. I noticed that the Cabernets took on nuances of what I associate with Shiraz-Syrah. Amanda, the woman who poured wine tastes for us was wonderful and sent us to a few of her favorite places.  Aaron was wonderful too as he entertained the boys.
Scarborough Vineyard

Overlooking Hunter Valley

Our next stop was for lunch at a popular cafe, Enzo's. It is located near David Hook Wines tasting room, actually on the same property.  All was good except the, up to now, cool weather suddenly turned to sunny and hot. We were seated on the patio which turned into a sauna.  Our food arrived and for the most part was lovely.  We started out with Ciabatta and three little dipping sauces. Aaron had Linguine with huge prawns,lemons and tomatoes. I ordered a simple Smoked Salmon salad with fennel and orange ( simple it was), and Mindi had an unsuccessful version of Duck and Asparagus Pate. It was two huge slabs, grilled, with a little sauteed red cabbage and a sort of jam plopped on top, no bread or pickles. Certainly not appetizing for a hot day.

 Meanwhile the boys were starting to fuss and Mindi was having a heat attack. She dressed for cooler weather and I could see how uncomfortable she was.  We asked the waitress to box up the Pasta. She informed us that it is against the law to box up any food with seafood as an ingredient. So there!  We abandoned the rest of  our plates (except mine as it was small ) and evacuated the cafe heading for the cool cellars of David Hook. Mindi bought two of their fine wines. We made one more memorable stop at Scarborough Winery where we were seated at a large table with plates of cheeses and "biscuits" and very good mostly white wines. It was a large open space and Harrison could run around and charm everyone.
Scarborough Winery
Harrison w. Mommy's necklace- the green Crocs were gone

We had to do some "kid time" for the boys so we set off to see the "Largest Kangaroo Lolly".
There is a trend in Australia to display "Large or Largest" statues of animals, sea creatures and who knows what else along the roadside to attract visitors.  They are called "Big..." as in Big Prawn, Big Lobster or in this case Big Lolly Hop. Lolly Hop was located in a candy-ice cream-tourist trinkets store.  Outside was a seaplane that allowed visitors to climb into the cockpit. Mils of picture opportunities.  The main attraction was inside. A huge Kangaroo made entirely of jelly beans! Of course no one was allowed to touch it, but again photo opts.
Lolly Hop was at least 6 ft tall

We all had ice cream, Aaron and Harrison climbed into the plane, then we piled back into the car for the drive home.

It was a pretty long day for the little ones and after crying and crying they fell asleep. On the way home I saw my first real Kangaroos. Usually they are nocturnal but there they were munching and hopping on a golf course.

Back home the Indian Curry with a Hunter Valley wine was our dinner after putting babes to bed.  Yummmm.
Here is the link to the recipe Mindi uses for the Coconut Lamb Curry