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Beautiful and historic, the Rocks precinct is the perfect place for weekend strolling, gallery visits, market trawling and lazy lunching. Nestled between Sydney Cove and Walsh Bay, a walk in The Rocks affords some spectacular views of Sydney Harbour, the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. It’s a popular area for tourists and on market days it can be hard to navigate your way amongst streaming tourists, but well worth the effort if only to admire the sandstone beauty and historic charm of the area. A walk taken further afield to the backstreets will take you through some quaint looking alleyways and winding staircases, with more expansive views of the harbour the higher you climb. On this occasion, we walked all the way around to the Walsh Bay area, an urban industrial locality home to numerous performing arts venues, theatres, restaurants and other gentrification projects. At the inner core of this harbour strip between the historic Rocks and Walsh Bay area lies the infamous Sirius Building, a 1970s concrete apartment block built to house public tenants displaced during redevelopment projects of the 1960s and 1970s. Residents of this one and only high rise building in the Rocks will be safe to stay until 2030, when ownership transfers back to the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority. It will be interesting to see what comes of the building then. Other public housing properties remain in the area and many are marked with yellow ribbons in doors and windows, signifying opposition to redevelopment plans in nearby Millers Point and Barangaroo.

If you have the energy to walk up the hill to Sydney Observatory, you’ll be rewarded with some great views of the city and the harbour, not to mention the sky. Also, you will feel righteous enough to stop off on your way  back down at Le Renaissance French Patisserie for some delectable macarons and super-fine pastry treats.For lunch in the Rocks, my favourite spot is the MCA Cafe and Sculpture Terrace at the Museum of Contemporary Arts. With a seasonal menu, a stunning view of the harbour and contemporary art exhibits at your fingertips, you simply can’t go wrong.

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I’ve been doing some baking of my own this weekend for my sister’s birthday. This recipe for Chocolate Brownies is tried and true in our family. I added a little bit of extra dark chocolate this time around, but they are delicious with or without it.

Chocolate Brownies, Tried and True

150g butter

1 1/4 cups castor sugar

3/4 cup cocoa

3 eggs

1/2 cup plain white flour

100g dark chocolate, finely chopped

1 tsp vanilla extract

2-3 tbsp pure icing sugar

Preheat oven to 160°C and grease and line a 23cm square baking tin. Melt the butter, sugar and cocoa together over a medium heat and the sugar is dissolved and the butter melted. Beat the eggs in a mixing bowl, then add in the vanilla extract and the melted chocolate mixture. Fold in the plain flour, followed by the chocolate pieces. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Let the brownies cool completely, then dust with icing sugar and cut into squares.

 

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Over the weekend I went to see The Past, a French film made by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi (also known for his recently successful film A Separation). Intelligently designed and subtly executed, it’s a family melodrama that explores the values of truth and uncovers secrets from the past in cleverly unfolding layers.

In the film, Marie asks her estranged husband to return to Paris from Iran in order to finalise their divorce. Upon his arrival, Marie takes him to the somewhat ramshackle yet beautifully dishevelled home they used to share in the outer suburbs of Paris, where it becomes clear that she has taken up with another man. Samir and his son Fouad have moved in with Marie and her two daughters and together they are in the process of restoring the house, which is in an evident state of disrepair. However it soon becomes apparent that the broken pipes and drying paint are a cogent metaphor for the crumbling facade of the family bond, and that the paint is still not yet dry on matters of the past.

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Warm and kind, Ahmad soon becomes drawn into the lives of this newly formed family and together they delve into a past imbued with secrets and emotional truths that are cleverly drawn out to propel the narrative forward to its inevitable conclusion.

A beautifully sad and reflective film, The Past teaches us something of the value in staying the course through times of trial, even when no resolution is readily apparent. As the paint begins to dry and the new fittings go up, things seem to go from bad to worse as the past is unravelled and matters are complicated further by Marie’s beautiful and sullen eldest daughter Lucie.

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They say that truth comes from the mouth of babes, and while Fouad’s role is somewhat peripheral to the story, he brings us one of the central resolutions of the film with an achingly honest declaration on a grimy Paris metro.

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Territorially dangerous, the past can be a murky place of secrets and burdens, yet I walked away thinking that cautious navigation of the past can help us arrive at the heart of a matter and to a place where love, loyalty and truth will prevail.

It must be the Iranian influence on screen that got me thinking I should try this recipe from the Good Food Weekly Meal Planner.

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Easy to make, this dish has subtle flavours that are surprisingly satisfying and made for a great start to the week. I used French green lentils as I didn’t have brown, but either would be delicious. I’m thinking this would make a great side dish to take to a dinner party and that some fresh goat’s cheese crumbled over the top would take it to another level, but in lieu of that it will still taste delicious with natural yoghurt and mint.

The Past is written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, with Bérénice Bejo as Marie, Ali Mosaffa as Ahmad, Tahar Rahim as Samir, Pauline Burlet  as Lucie and Elyes Aguis as Fouad. Rated (M).

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Somewhere along the line I fell out of love with potatoes and almost never ate them unless they were drenched in olive oil, sea salt + cracked black pepper and baked to perfection (in which case, I was more than happy to indulge). Recently though, I’m experiencing something of a revival of my former tastes, and am once again a fan of the humble and versatile wonder that is potato. The recipe below is a simplified version of a recipe found in Jamie magazine by Jamie Oliver, and is a wholesome dish to satisfy the whole family or even just one or two, with the promise of oh-so-easy leftovers for subsequent weeknight dinners. I just couldn’t resist posting this potato pie alongside a sunflower cityscape taken in passing on a recent trip to the America: Painting a Nation exhibition at the New South Wales Art Gallery in Sydney city. If you’re keen to visit, you better get in quick because it finishes up on 9 February 2014. Chock full of painted works spanning the period 1750-1966, it’s an interesting display of American history, society and culture and includes some beautiful landscape pieces that have me lamenting the seemingly fading art-form of paint on canvas. I’ve included a list of some of my favourites (and the recipe!) below.

Charles Sheeler, Cactus (1931)

Jackson Pollock No 22 (1950)

Frederic Edwin Church Cotopaxi (1855)

Thomas Moran, Grand Canyon of the Colorado River (1892, 1908)

Severin Roesen, Flower Still Life with Bird’s Nest (1853)

Chicken Potato Pie

4 chicken thigh fillets, diced

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 brown onion, sliced

1 clove garlic, crushed

2 celery sticks, sliced

100g swiss brown mushrooms, sliced

250 ml liquid chicken stock

4-6 medium sized desiree potatoes

30g butter, melted,

Prepare the potatoes ahead by placing in a pot of boiling water and simmering until just soft. Drain and set aside until completely cooled.

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Heat the olive oil over a medium-high heat in a heavy based cast iron pan that will fit in a standard oven. Cook the onions and garlic until translucent, then add the chicken and cook until the meat is sealed all over. Add in the celery and mushrooms and let them cook, stirring occasionally for about 5 minutes. Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil, then let the whole thing simmer for about 10 minutes. If it looks a bit dry, just add in a little water to keep the whole dish nice and loose, but not too liquid. Remove from the heat and leave to rest for a minute or so.

Slice the cooked potatoes thickly, then place in a layer over the top of the chicken mixture in the pan. Use a brush to spread the melted butter over the potatoes and season with sea salt and some black pepper if you like. A little fresh thyme would also be perfect if you have it to hand. Place in the oven for 30 minutes or until the potatoes are lightly golden on top.

*Serves 4

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A recipe I’ve been meaning to post for a few weeks, this Mediterranean Rice Salad was my contribution to our family’s Christmas dinner. It’s a summery and fresh salad with Christmas colours to boot, and I thought it would fit in nicely with these photos from a recent trip to Balmoral Beach in Sydney’s Harbour.

Mediterranean Rice Salad

1 and 1/4 cups arborio rice

1 red capsicum, diced

1 red onion, diced

3 celery stalks, finely chopped

1/2 cup kalamata olives, finely chopped

1 cup fresh flat leaf parsley, finely chopped

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

Juice from 1-2 lemons

To cook the rice, bring a medium sized saucepan of water to the boil, then add the rice and cook for about 10 mins or until the rice has softened but retains a little firmness. You don’t want it to be too soft as it will be too mushy for the salad. Drain the rice into a sifter and rinse with cold water, then set aside to cool.

When the rice has cooled, simply place in a large bowl with all of the salad ingredients and mix well to combine.

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With so many cafes and restaurants on offer on Darling Street, Balmain, it’s easy to miss a good one – especially when you find a cafe or two that you can’t seem to go past on account of their high standards of food and service. Ciao Thyme has been one such cafe for me, just that little bit further from the main cluster of shops and restaurants so handy to my own front door. Yet this weekend I was rewarded by my efforts to go the extra (half) mile and have found another brunch hot spot to add to my treasury of favourites.

A small but airy and inviting corner cafe, Ciao Thyme has an italian inspired selection of deli foods including quiches, sandwiches, pastries and salads as well as a blackboard list of breakfast menu items cooked to order with most of the usual suspects on offer. It’s quiet when we go but clear that it’s a well run and efficient business with attentive staff and fresh food well done, without pretence.

Although I could easily have chosen any of the deli items presented with today, I settled on the smoked trout, rocket and eggplant quiche, beautifully made, with a flaky buttery pastry that didn’t buckle under its filling. To accompany said quiche, I chose a sweet potato salad with chickpea, feta, olives and parsley, which delivered a satisfying combination of flavours and textures, and inspired me to become a little more adventurous with my own salads. My sister’s toasted chorizo focaccia might have provoked some envious sidelong glances had I not been so distracted by the deliciousness of my own lunch. All such feelings were avoided at the dessert stage as we made an amicable decision to share a raspberry and almond slice with coffee that, both agreed, was the best we’ve tried in Balmain to date.

Ciao Thyme is everything you want your local cafe to be – casual but distinctive in character, with a regular rotation of seasonal dishes (which I know because I walk past here most days of the week) and high quality produce. Now to make up for the many months it’s taken me to discover it!

Ciao Thyme, 212 Darling Street, Balmain, NSW 2041 (02) 9555 5455

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Even though I understand coconuts are available year round, for me they are the essence of summer. Just the scent of coconut transports me straight to the beach no matter how far from one I may be. Conjuring memories of road tripping the NSW north coast with my surfer brother, coconut surf wax drifting through the haze from the boot outwards, coconut is the emblem of vacation. It also recalls golden days of childhood adolescence reaching for the third fourth piece of coconut slice in that special tin of Mum’s, always and ever a family token. Memories aside, coconut has also captured my imaginations of the present this summer, and it’s been the feature ingredient on my mind these past few weeks. A morning tea at work this week gave me the perfect excuse to bring out an old and treasured family recipe for coconut slice that is so easy and quick to make that it can be done in half the time it takes to get to the supermarket and back.

Since I can’t be on a proper holiday this summer I’ve been making the most of what my home city has to offer, and Sydney in January really isn’t such a bad place to be. The roads are quiet, the nights are long and there’s plenty going on around town as part of the annual Sydney Festival. I couldn’t resist including some pictures from a recent trip to Palm Beach, Sydney’s northernmost beach and a beach haven/heaven for lovers of sunshine, surf, beach walking and lazy summer days.

My tips for this recipe are to make the slice a day ahead and to let the slice cool completely before icing. I tend to pour the icing on to the slice and pick up the tin to move it around, because if you use a knife or spatula the crumbs from the slice will mix into the icing. After icing, store in the fridge overnight before removing to slice and serve. This will ensure that you get nicely cut, even squares (or rectangles, if that’s how you like to roll).

Coconut Slice

125g unsalted butter, melted

1 cup self raising flour

1 cup desiccated coconut, plus extra to serve

1/2 brown sugar, firmly packed

~2 cups pure icing sugar

Juice of 1/2 lemon

Preheat oven to 180°C/350°F. Grease and line a 28 x 18 cm slice tin. Combine the flour, brown sugar and coconut in a bowl. Add in the butter and mix well. Press into the slice tin and bake for 20 minutes or until lightly golden. To make the icing, sift the icing sugar into a bowl and mix in the lemon juice. You may need to adjust the amounts to get the consistency you are after, which should not be too thick. Scatter the desiccated coconut over the slice and set in the refrigerator.

*Makes 18 squares.


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It seems I just can’t get enough of the beach this summer, and I’m wondering how it is that I managed to spend the last five or six summers of my life living away from the coast. Since moving back to Sydney I’ve been taking every opportunity I can get to head to one of Sydney’s many spectacular beaches to explore new spots and rediscover some old favourites. This morning I headed over to Collaroy on Sydney’s Northern Beaches and took a walk from the south end of the beach, which took me around the headland and over to the north end of Longreef Beach. There’s an aquatic reserve along this stretch between Collaroy and Longreef, and a rocky reef plateau perfect for wanderers (and wonderers) like me. The headland at Longreef is a popular spot for paragliders, and on a morning like this I could definitely be tempted to give this sport a try. Definitely Maybe, that is. For today though, a walk and a swim was the perfect way to start a summer Saturday. The water has warmed up significantly since I first started swimming in the ocean again in September and if I had come better prepared with sunscreen I could have stayed on the beach all morning.

A summer swim can’t be without a summer breakfast, and this muesli provides the perfect sustenance for a Sydney summer’s day. Surprisingly easy and satisfying to make, I wonder why I haven’t been making this myself until now. The best thing about making your own muesli is that you can make it just exactly how you like, and not have to deal with ingredients you find offensive. I can’t say that I have any specific aversions for my muesli ingredients, but I will say (again) that the simplest combinations are often the best, and there is definitely a place in my heart for the humble dried apricot. Here’s my recipe for homemade apricot muesli, which you can adapt or adhere to as you please.

Apricot Muesli

2 cups rolled oats

2 cups wheat-bran sticks

3/4 cup coconut flakes

1/2 cup sunflower seeds

2 tablespoons slivered almonds

150 ml fresh orange juice

2 tablespoons honey

3/4 cup dried apricots, chopped

3/4 cup sultanas

Preheat oven to 150°C. Combine all of the dry ingredients except the slivered almonds and dried fruit. Heat the orange juice and honey together over a low heat until warm, then mix through the dry ingredients. Spread the mixture out on a large baking tray or shallow dish and bake for 30 mins or until the mixture is lightly toasted. Toast the slivered almonds separately in a dry pan over a medium heat until just toasted. When both mixtures have fully cooled, stir to combine with the apricots and sultanas added. Store for up to one month in an airtight container.

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For me, roquefort = indulgence. I bought some recently after making Teresa Blackburn’s Crispy Almond Sea Salt Crackers, for which you can find the recipe on her blog Food on Fifth. The sweet and salty almond biscuits turned out really well and only needed the sharp and distinctive flavour that is roquefort cheese to really set them off. Also known as blue cheese, roquefort is defined by the region in which it is produced and aged in the natural Combalou caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, in the south of France. Blue cheeses from other regions are prevented from bearing the origin protected name of roquefort and simply designated ‘blue cheese’ (or, if it hails from one of several Northern Italian production regions, it is known as gorgonzola). At $131.95 per kilo at my local grocer, roquefort is definitely a special occasion cheese and one to be savoured. Not having a whole lot left in my kitchen cupboards tonight, my leftover roquefort cheese more than made up for a lack of ingredients in this simple pasta dish.

Fusilli with Walnut, Sage + Roquefort

400g dried fusilli pasta

120g walnuts

120g roquefort cheese

20 fresh sage leaves, or thereabouts

60 ml olive oil

Cook your pasta according to the instructions on the packet, or until cooked as you desire it. When you drain the pasta, reserve a little of the cooking water so you can add some to the pasta if it needs a little loosening up.

While the pasta cooks, toast the walnuts and sage leaves by placing them in a dry pan over a medium heat for a minute or so. When lightly toasted, you can either use a food processor or a mortar and pestle to grind the nuts and sage. I like to grind the walnuts into crumb sized pieces rather than to a paste. I use a mortar and pestle because it gives me more control over the consistency of the sauce (and also because I don’t have a food processor!). Add in the olive oil and mix to combine.

Once you have drained the pasta, let it sit to cool for about a minute before returning to the empty pan. Add in the walnut sauce and a little of the reserved cooking water if needed, and stir to combine. Crumble the roquefort over the pasta and gently mix through the pasta.

Season with cracked black pepper.

*Serves 4

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One of my recent food discoveries has been the humble, but delicious, Lima Bean. I came across a recipe for pork sausages with white beans in Jane Price’s Dinner With Friends, which has some very fine recipes that bring restaurant fare to the home life and are relatively easy to make. It was the beans in the photograph that caught my eye, and so I decided to get some from my local wholefoods supplier, The Source, and give them a try. The beans require soaking for about 8 hours so a little advance planning is required, but they are well worth the effort. I was surprised by the delicate flavour and buttery texture of the beans, which married perfectly with the pork sausage. To add to their appeal, lima beans are an excellent source of iron and protein, and also have cholesterol lowering properties and the ability to stabilise blood sugar levels. I’m already thinking of other ways to use them, so stay tuned for more where these little gems come from.

Pork Sausages with Lima Beans + Thyme

350g dried white lima beans

6-8 pork sausages

1 white onion, finely chopped

1 bay leaf

1 green capsicum, finely chopped

1/4 teaspoon chilli flakes

1 teaspoon paprika

3/4 cup tomato passata

1/2 cup water

1 teaspoon cider vinegar

Soak the beans in cold water ahead of time for 8 hours or so. Drain and rinse, before placing them in a large saucepan with enough water to cover them by a couple of inches. Add the bay leaf, bring to the boil and then reduce the heat slightly and let them cook for 30 minutes or until they are soft. They should still retain a little bit of firmness, as you don’t want them to be too mushy. When cooked, drain the beans and remove the bay leaf.

Meanwhile, prick the sausages 5 or 6 times and lay in a separate pan. Add enough water to the pan to reach halfway up the sides of the sausages, then cook over a high heat until the water is reduced. At this point, let the sausages brown a little in the pan, then remove and set aside. Add the onion, capsicum and chilli flakes to the pan and cook over a low-medium heat for a few minutes until the onions are translucent and the capsicum has softened. Stir in the paprika, followed by the passata, cider vinegar and water. If you prefer the sauce to be a little thicker, just add less water. Bring the mixture to the boil, then reduce the heat and season to taste with salt and pepper. Slice the sausage and return to the pan with the other ingredients to heat for a minute or two.

To serve, divide the beans among your plates and place the sausage mixture over the top with a little fresh thyme and cracked pepper.

*Serves 4

(Adapted from Jane Price’s Pork Sausage with White Beans, in Dinner With Friends)

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Once you have mastered the basic technique of a risotto, the possibilities are endless. I learned the basics from Jamie’s Kitchen, still my most favourite Jamie Oliver cookbook and one that has guided me successfully through many culinary experiments in the past. One of the best tips I’ve picked up from Jamie is that you really need to keep stirring the risotto to give it the creamiest of textures. Many times I have nursed a sore arm due to this tip! In my little kitchen, my two hot plates sit atop a miniature bench oven, which means that I also have to stand on tippy toe to see inside the pan! But I digress (and exaggerate). A perfectly cooked risotto is well worth the effort, and the pain is not so bad as I make out ;-) Tonight’s dinner turned out really well, as I was looking for something really simple yet still flavourful, and this risotto was both of these. I used a small sprinkling of chilli flakes in this recipe, but you could easily do without if you prefer.

Prawn Risotto with Lemon and Thyme 

1 and 1/2 cups arborio rice

1 onion, finely chopped

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 teaspoon dried chilli flakes

1 teaspoon lemon rind

2-3 cups chicken stock

1 wineglass of a dry white wine

400g uncooked fresh prawns

Juice from 1/2 lemon

A few sprigs of fresh thyme, to serve

Heat the oil and butter together in a medium to large saucepan. Slowly sauté the onion until translucent, then add the rice and chilli flakes and coat in the oil and butter mixture. Add in the lemon rind, followed by the white wine. Adding the wine first will cook off the alcohol and leave behind a rich and deeper flavour. Keep stirring the rice until all of the liquid is absorbed, then continue to add ladles full of the chicken stock, stirring between each addition until the liquid is absorbed. It should take around twenty minutes to get through all the liquid. Just before your last addition of liquid, add the prawns and stir through with the rest of the liquid until just cooked. Remove the risotto from the heat, add the juice of half a lemon and place the lid on the top of the pan. Let the risotto sit for a minute or so, but not too long, else it will dry out. Divide between your plates and sprinkle the fresh thyme over the top of the risotto.

Bon Appétit!

*Serves 4

 

 

 

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