Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Mecca Bah, Manuka

It is a slightly chilly night when me and a friend go in search of a cosy restaurant in Manuka to eat and catch up on a few hours worth of chatting. After a drink and a few sweet nibbles at the Wine and Cheese Providore outside at Manuka Plaza, we take a little wander around. It is early, so we are in no big hurry. After a lovely little browse at Paperchain bookshop, we start some conversation around choice of restaurant. As often does, Kopi Tiam comes up as an option, but since I have been there quite recently (see previous post) I suggest perhaps somewhere different. We eventually settle on Mecca Bah, having been a very pleasant experience on previous visits.

One nice thing about Mecca Bah, especially when taking guests from out of town or for a special occasion, is the lovely decor and atmosphere. Outdoors is excellent for summer and warmer days and evenings, with a water feature, Moroccan influenced styling and well placed greenery. Inside is so cosy and quite intimate, despite being fairly large. At nighttime, the lighting is dimmed a lot, (including in the toilets!) which seems to enhance the lush colours of the fabrics surrounding the couches on the edge of the room. There is also a fireplace with a coppery rangehood, which adds greatly to the atmosphere. I think it would be quite a romantic place for a date!

Unfortunately, the lack of bright lighting also means flash photography, which meant a lot of my photos were a bit washed out. It also meant I couldn't capture accurately the decor, it looked quite ordinary with a flash. Oh well!

The outdoor area at Mecca Bah

As we consult the menu, we realise that it is going to be a difficult choice. Mecca have a very comprehensive Mezze menu which means that it is a genuine option just to share lots of mezze plates and feel quite satisfied, especially for lunch. Every mezze plate I have tried there so far has been fantastic and there is a good mixture of vegetarian and meat dishes.

The main sized dishes are also wonderful and this is where we have some trouble deciding. After some consultation with the waitress we decide on a combination of mezze and mains. We have two mezze plates to start, the Spicy lamb and pine nut boureks, and the kofte. The boureks come out on a colourful Moroccan plate, and both dishes sit atop a bed of thick and delicious yoghurt sauce. There are three servings to a plate. Both dishes are very tasty, particularly the meaty, moist kofte which is great with the yoghurt giving a luscious, tangy edge to the dish.

Kofte with yoghurt sauce

Lamb and Pine Nut Bourek

Our next dishes were the mains choices, a Chicken tagine with tomatoes, almond, sesame seeds and honey. I have tried this dish several times before and it has become a favourite. The sweetness of the honey is offset by the tartness of the tomato and the couscous at the base of the liquidy tagine combined with the sesame gives a pleasant grainy texture to the dish. The chicken is fall apart luscious and perfect cold weather food, satisfying to the body and spirit.

Chicken tagine with Tomato, Honey, Almond and Sesame

We have also ordered a Moroccan spiced calamari with Turkish bean salad. The calamari has been braised until incredibly tender and moist, the texture so far from the rubbery calamari I have tried at many restaurants. The tomatoey, oily, spicy marinade is in great contrast to the simple bean salad the calamari sits atop. With both long green beans, parsley and butter beans, the salad adds a freshness to the dish that works well with the rich calamari meat.

Moroccan Spiced Calamari with Turkish Bean Salad

Mecca also have a good selection of wines both by the bottle and the glass. I am not a big drinker but decide on a rose as a good match for the dishes, and choose a glass of the quirkily named 'Jose the Rose', which is quite sweet, but nice and cold and refreshing with the rich dishes.

At this point, the stomach capacity is diminishing, but my friend and I are so tempted by the dessert menu that we decide we can fit in a little more. I can't resist the icecreams, particularly as they come in a three scoop serve which means you can try three different flavours. I choose baked apple, date and vanilla and raspberry sorbet, and am not disappointed. My favourite is probably the date and vanilla, the milky, fragrant icecream studded with sweet sticky pieces of date. My friend has the pistachio maamoul, which is a bit like a dense shortbread pastry mounded over a thick, coarse pistachio paste. It is tasty, but I think I prefer the icecream to finish. We also partake in some of the T2 teas on offer, with more unusual varieties such as lemongrass and ginger and turkish apple.

Trio of Icecreams - Raspberry Sorbet, Baked Apple and Vanilla and Date

Pretty tea tray with Moroccan tea glasses!

So, a lovely finish to a lovely meal. Mecca Bah really is quite unique in its place in the restaurant scene in Canberra for several reasons, including that of being the only Moroccan restaurant that I know of. I am also quite impressed with the fact that the high quality of food and service seem to have been maintained since its opening, unlike many other restaurants that I have experienced here, which start out wonderful and then get sloppy as time passes.

All in all, highly recommended! And don't forget this one guys for major romantic brownie points.... :)

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Silo Bakery, Kingston

Aaaah, Silo. Thy name triggers a deep welling of pleasure in my soul. Silo bakery is a bit of an icon in Canberra, due to the fact that they make some of the best sourdough, tarts and pastries in Canberra. Possibly the best, although I have heard that both Cornucopia in Braddon and Flute bakery in Fyshwick are pretty amazing too. Silo also do beautiful lunches, breakfasts, and have a gorgeously stinky cheese room with glass windows so the customers can drool over the products while waiting in line to purchase or order their bakery items.

They also tend to have a bit of an 'elite' (read: snobbish) air about them, partly due to the fact that they know there is little competition in Canberra against them. They don't open on Sundays, which is the one day when people often have the most time to relax and eat out or visit the bakery. Not all breads are baked every day - some only on particular days of the week or weekend. They also don't have signs/labels in the glass display cases and baskets behind the counter, which can make it a bit difficult to know what's what and prices etc. for non-regular visitors.

Still, it is definitely worth braving the crowds of customers patiently waiting for their goodies on a Saturday morning. Once you have tried Silo bread, it kind of ruins you for any other kind. The traditional light rye sourdough is heavy and roughly textured in a really rustic way with that beautiful sour, yeasty, floury smell. The crust is thick and deep brown and the inside is chewy and spongy at the same time, with a full and deep flavour. This is real bread, not in any way related to the bland, tasteless, textureless white sliced at your local supermarket. Completely swoon-worthy!

Silo's light rye sourdough

They also have a really, really good raisin bread. I was lucky enough to score the last loaf (not just of raisin bread, of everything!) on a Saturday afternoon at about 2.00pm, which goes to show how popular they are. The raisin bread is full of the plumpest, moistest, most luscious raisins I've ever had in raisin bread. I don't normally even like raisins that much, but this is so moreish! The bread itself is lighter than the regular sourdough, with a crisper crust, but still with a great texture and heft to it.

Silo's Raisin Bread

Silo's pastries are also to die for. The absolute best is the chocolate and blueberry snail, with a buttery, soft interior studded with juicy blueberries, bittersweet chocolate pieces and deeply caramelised, flaky layers on the outside. If you close your eyes while eating one of these, it might just give you a tiny taste of what heaven is like!

Unfortunately these also sell out first, being so good, so when I visit I opt for one of the few tarts that are left, a passionfruit and mascarpone tart. This also has that excellent pastry, so delicate and flaky, with a sweet and light passionfruit flavoured filling. Much lighter than I expected, the mascarpone flavour is less strong than anticipated, but on consideration I think this worked well for this delicate tart.

Passionfruit and Mascarpone Tart

Silo is open Tuesday to Saturday 7am to 4pm, so if visiting, be sure to get in early to be able to choose from the full range of products. Even though I'm not a morning person, this is one thing that is worth forgoing the sleep-in for :)

Monday, May 11, 2009

Abell's Kopi Tiam, Manuka

It had been a while since I had been out to dinner, due to a number of reasons, not least because now I am working part time I have less money to do it. Hard for a foodie, but made slightly less so knowing that the GFC (Global Financial Crisis) is spurring many on to be equally frugal when it comes to eating out. And it has been nice eating lots of healthy home cooked meals.

An opportunity to have a nice restaurant dinner presented itself though, with Mother's Day, and a family favourite, Abell's Kopi Tiam in Manuka came to mind. Excellent!

So, at 6pm on the Sunday night, having pre-booked well in advance, we turned up, ready for some yummy Malaysian eats. Although it was quite a chilly Canberra autumn night, it was very warm inside, with tables quite close to one another, and a cosy, bright colour scheme on walls. There is also a display of about 8 photos for sale on the wall, done by a waitress who works at the restaurant. When we are served by her, she helps with advice on taking photos of the food, but politely refuses a request to be photographed with her works, telling me that 'photographers prefer to be on the other side of the camera'. A common refrain from the photographers I have met!

Inside the restaurant

Kopi Tiam is apparently Malaysian for 'Coffee Shop'. I had fond memories of Kopi from a couple of years ago, with typically Malaysian dishes such as Char Kway Teow, Nasi Goreng and a dessert favourite, the green Pandan Pancakes, topmost amongst those memories. They are still most definitely on the menu, and this time we go for the Nasi Goreng again, along with Crispy Chicken with Ginger and Shallot sauce, Stir Fried Oriental vegies with Wood Fungus, and Twenty Chilli Lamb Curry, which is indeed very hot, causing some minor choking fits and furious rice eating in an effort to soothe seared palates.

Stir fried vegies with wood fungus, pumpkin and enoki mushrooms

Nasi Goreng

Crispy Chicken with Ginger and Shallot Sauce

Twenty Chilli Lamb Curry

While waiting for mains, I enjoy a tea with condensed milk, deliciously sweet and caramelly. They also offer this as an iced drink, and coffee with condensed milk is also a very popular drink.

Other drink options are fairly standard, although they do offer a few choices in pots of tea - jasmine, green and black tea are all available by the pot.

Chefs hard at work in the kitchen!

The dishes are all delicious, with the crispy chicken being our favourite - lean but moist chicken breast coated in batter and fried until very crispy then topped with some capsicum and a tangy sauce filled with thin pieces of fresh ginger. As my sister said 'it's like a Malaysian version of KFC'. Except much fresher and less greasy!

The stirfried vegies add a point of interest, with the interesting slippery yet chewy texture of the wood fungus, and the firm triangles of pumpkin.

For dessert, we went for the favourite Pandan Pancakes and some Sticky Black Wild Rice with Coconut Cream and Palm Syrup. The rice dish was so moreish and comforting - the combination of the chewy warm rice, the coconut cream and the sweet syrup was absolutely gorgeous and a lovely end to the meal.

Pandan Pancakes with icecream

Sticky Black Rice with Coconut Cream and Palm Syrup

As it is Mother's Day, we have been told when booking that the table will need to be vacated by 8pm. We take our time over dinner and it is not until past 8, when we have completely forgotten about this, that the waitress gently reminds us that the table is needed. It is representative of the friendly and polite service that we experienced throughout, with little things such as opening the door for customers at the beginning and end of the visit and topping up water glasses regularly making all the difference. So we gather our things and brace for the cold outdoors, with the memory of good food to keep us warm until we get to our cars.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

A Locavore's Dream - Fruit and Veg from Local Growers

Oh, how I love farmers' markets. I love the delicious smells of samples (often sausages and the like) sizzling. I love the snapping, dewy freshness of the produce. I love meeting the people who grow and make the stuff. I love supporting local producers, and I also love how the stuff keeps so much better in the fridge than the often wilted and sad produce at supermarkets.

But I also love my sleep-ins. And this is a problem, as the farmers markets here finish at about 11am. Sleep always wins out in the battle between this and getting lovely fresh food.

I recently heard about a local growers outlet, though, that is based at North Lyneham shops. It is called Choku Bai Jo (funny name!) and not too far from where I work. And is open until 7pm on weekdays - perfect!

So I visited on a Friday night after work, excitedly anticipating some interesting and tasty treats. Well, I wasn't disappointed. Everything looked so good. There were all sorts of exotic sounding varieties of apple and potato that I hadn't even heard of before. And while the organic stuff was definitely a bit more expensive, the non-organic stuff wasn't too badly priced at all. I picked up some baby bok choy and tatsoi (which I'd never seen before in the shops) for about $1.80 a bunch, as well as some lovely firm zucchini, mushrooms, fresh chives for $1.00 a bunch (much cheaper even than Woolies!). I also bought quinces, the freshest rhubarb I've ever seen, some strawberries, and some local honey and fresh soft organic pecorino cheese. All up, it cost about $30.00, which wasn't too bad considering the quality.

They also stock a limited range of organic packaged goods such as jams and snacks, free range eggs, organic milk and locally made tofu.

Some of my haul from Choku Bai Jo

Inspired by the lovely ingredients that I had, I started using them straight away. For dinner that night, I added the zucchini and mushroom to a HOT pasta sauce that I received as a gift, bought from Fratelli Fresh in Sydney. It is made on the premises and is delicious, but very chilli-laden! I sauteed the vegies, then added the pasta sauce to the frypan and warmed through. Ladled over gluten free pasta, and with some organic pecorino thinly sliced and mixed through, it tasted great. And with a glass of red wine on the side, very warming :)

Later on, I pulled out the quince and rhubarb, which I had decided to gently stew with a little sugar and serve for brunch the next morning with yoghurt and honey/maple syrup. As you can see from the photo below, the rhubarb was an amazing colour, it almost shimmered on the benchtop.

Pretty-as-a-jewel Rhubarb!

After the rhubarb was nearly cooked through, I added some sliced strawberries at the last minute. The quince was nice, although I maybe should have cooked it for a little longer so it was softer and mushier, it was less luscious and moist than the rhubarb which when cooled thickened to a tart-sweet soupy consistency, with whole pieces of rhubarb and strawberry mixed with the softened pieces and thick juices. Gently warmed the next day and served with a dollop of Jalna plain yoghurt, some muesli sprinkled on top and drizzled with maple syrup, it was a suitably autumny, healthy but satisfying dish.

Mmmm...Rhubarb soup!

Cooked quince

My last dish with the goodies was fish baked in foil with bok choy, tatsoi, ginger and chives. I chopped the bok choy and tatsoi roughly, laid it on the foil, then placed a couple of small frozen hake fillets on top. I topped the fish with thin slices of fresh ginger, sliced lime, fish sauce, chives and a little sweet chilli sauce. Tasty but kind of messy looking once cooked, so no photos! It took quite a while in my non fan-forced oven, at least 45 mins. I might try defrosting the fish next time.

Looking forward to my next visit to Choku Bai Jo! I think I'll try some of those exotic apple varieties next....

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Cosy Kitchen - Rice Pudding and Reading

Autumn - such a beautiful season in Canberra, with the crisp, clean air and beautiful reds and yellows of the deciduous trees spread across the landscape. It also puts one in mind of starting to cosy up inside with the heater or hot water bottle, and perhaps some good reading materials and comfort food as accompaniments.

For several years now I have been in constant search of good 'foodie books' - not just cookbooks, but books about peoples' lives with food - what it means to them, their family, their community, beyond simple sustenance.

I have been lucky to find some really interesting and touching stories, such as 'La Dolce Vita', by Isabel Coe, about a Swiss-Italian family's food heritage, and Ruth Reichl's autobiography, split into two books - 'Tender at the Bone', and the sequel entitled 'Comfort me with Apples'. I re-read Ruth's books recently and enjoyed them just as much as the first time - such an honest, emotional and frequently funny account of her journey from a tumultuous childhood growing up with a manic-depressive mother, to life in a hippie communal household in California in the 70s, and finally a career as a food critic for some of America's most prestigious publications.

Ruth Reichl's Autobiographies

I am now waiting excitedly to receive in the post my latest food book, a series of stories/essays called 'Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant' - on the topic of solo dining, cooking and food adventures. Perfect for my single self, who sometimes still struggles with trying to look and feel comfortable and cool when eating alone on holidays!

And for the single cook at home, a recipe from a Family Circle cookbook, 'Cooking for One', for Baked Rice Pudding, a delicately sweet and comforting pudding for the colder months. Made without eggs, it is less rich than baked custard, but still has that caramelised taste and slightly custardy texture produced by the reduction of milk to a creamy sweet consistency.

I didn't have a two-cup baking dish as specified, so baked it in two 1-cup ramekins, although I found it even took a bit longer to absorb all the milk than the recipe said, probably all up it was in the oven for at least 1 hour and 30 mins. This may have been caused by two factors - firstly, my oven isn't fan forced, and secondly, I used arborio rice, which did have a beautiful texture in the finished product. In the picture, the one on the left has had the 'skin' that formed removed after baking, so you can see the texture underneath.

Baked Rice Pudding

2 tbsp medium grain rice
1/4 cups (315 ml) milk (full cream is a must)
3 tsp caster sugar
2 tsp sultanas ( I used currants as I prefer the taste)
Pinch grated nutmeg

1. Preheat the oven to 160 degrees Celsius (315 deg. Fahrenheit). Lightly grease a 2 cup ovenproof dish.

2. Place the rice in a bowl and stir in the milk and sugar. Leave for 10 minutes. Stir in the sultanas and nutmeg, then spoon into the prepared dish and bake for 1 hour and 20 minutes, or until cooked through.

3. Leave for 5 minutes and remove the skin on top of the pudding, if desired. Serve with cream or a little extra milk. Serves 1.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Three Delicious Things

Well, since last post I have been quite busy with study, work etc. I have managed to fit in quite a few food adventures, but since my mind was full of assignments etc. I kept on forgetting to take my camera along. Quite sad, as there were lots of lovely things partaken of, including Silo's blueberry and chocolate snail (quite possibly the best pastry I've ever eaten - soooo good!) and a loaf of their delicious sourdough; a yummy meal at the Asian Noodle House at Tuggeranong, with tasty Hainan chicken and Pad Thai, and some great baklava from Little Istanbul next door to the Noodle House.

Anyway, I have a few pictures to go on with from recent times, one being a really warming, spicy, great goulash that my sister made in her slow cooker - so good on a cool Canberra autumn night, some lovely and pretty green tea (made from little rolled 'pearls' that open up in the hot water), and the last one - delicious, but not food related - a gorgeous cat picture (I did promise there might sometimes be random cats in this blog!)

So, onto the next lot of study, with hopefully many more food diversions along the way, and a camera to capture the action! :)

Slow-cooker Hungarian Goulash

Green tea 'Pearls' opening up

One of my favourite cats! Prrrr....

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Raspberry Cream Butterfly Cakes

Well, I've been doing a lot of baking lately. Baking is my therapy right now, whenever I'm not feeling good I get out the flour, butter and sugar and turn on the CD player or radio and feel instantly calmer. The soothing heat of the oven and the stirring and kneading and delicious sugary buttery smells just set off something in my brain that I imagine might be just a little bit like a cigarette to a smoker or a spin class to an exercise junkie (though both of these are so far from my mode of living it's hilarious!). Not to mention the eating - I have read that the consumption of refined carbohydrates stimulates the production of serotonin in the brain, and I'm sure that is the case for me, I find that a sweet scone or piece of cake is an instant happiness fix.

It is also so gratifying to see the finished product arrayed on a wire cooler or plate. I am enjoying taking photos for this blog in that I get to preserve an image of the finished product before it is eaten.

I was doing some late night shopping recently at Coles and spied the new Gourmet Traveller, instantly falling in love with the Raspberry Cream Butterfly Cakes displayed so prettily on the front cover. Having decided this would be my next baking project I stocked up on the requisite ingredients.

They didn't turn out quite as perfect and pretty as the photograph in the magazine, but I consoled myself with the fact that there are food stylists and photographers working for hours to convince us that is how food really looks.

This recipe uses very little baking powder, relying mostly on the beaten eggs and sifting of flour to provide volume and air. As a consequence, the texture of the cakes is denser than your average sponge cupcake.

The raspberry mixture before swirling into cream mixture also makes a great quick raspberry jam to serve with scones or toast!

Gourmet Traveller's Brown Sugar Butterfly Cakes with Raspberry Cream

100g (2/3 cup) plain flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
4 eggs
55g (1/4 cup) caster sugar
40g (1/4 cup) brown sugar
50g butter, melted and cooled

Raspberry Cream

125g raspberries ( I used frozen and they worked just fine)
75g caster sugar
Juice of 1/2 a lemon
100g creme fraiche
100ml pouring cream
30g pure icing sugar, sifted

1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Triple-sift flour and baking powder into a bowl and set aside.

2. Whisk eggs and sugars with an electric mixer until pale and tripled in volume (5-8 minutes). Sift over flour mixture and fold in with a metal spoon, then fold in melted butter. Divide mixture among 12 hole muffin tin lined with paper patty cases, filling to 5mm below rims and bake until risen and pale golden (15-20 minutes), turning tin halfway through cooking to ensure even baking. Cool in tins for 5 minutes, then cool on wire rack. Cut a circle part-way through each cake to about 1cm deep and about 3-4cm diameter. Remove with sharp knife. Halve each round and set aside.

3. Meanwhile, for raspberry cream, combine raspberries, sugar and lemon juice in a small saucepan and stir over medium-high heat until sugar dissolves. Bring to the boil, cook until jam-like (6-8 minutes), remove from heat and cool completely. Whisk creme fraiche, cream and icing sugar until soft peaks form, then fold in raspberry mixture to form a ripple effect. Transfer to a piping bag without nozzle and refrigerate until required.

4. To serve, pipe raspberry creme fraiche into holes in cakes. Top with reserved halved cake circles, dust with icing sugar and serve immediately. Best eaten on day of making.