Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Food Lab

There are so many great food blogs out there.  It's easy to lose hours and hours reading the threads of different flavour profiles and then the great blogs that other great blogs love themselves.  My favourites usually have a focus on whole foods and fresh seasonal ingredients, often with a vegetarian bent, illustrating the type of food that I'd like to cook more often (alongside cuts of meat that have been lovingly braised for hours, don't get me wrong). Some of these are:

All complete with gorgeous photography, they are always a joy to scroll through.  But today, I want to share a blog that I think is even better than pretty photos and lovely recipes: The Food Lab.  Part of Serious Eats (which is a great online food resource in itself, especially if you live in the States as they have city-specific forums), The Food Lab is committed to "unravelling the mysteries of home cooking through science".

Screen shot of The Food Lab homepage

While J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is also the Chief Creative Officer at Serious Eats, on The Food Lab he creates all of his recipes from laboriously testing every element, with the home cook in mind.  He investigates simple foods like grilled cheese sandwiches and crispy smashed potatoes to more complex recipes like taco al pastor and traditional Vietnamese Pho (or the best Pho possible within an hour) providing evidence of what each key step of the recipe means for the resultant dish.  Recently, he has also opened up his blog to reader's questions on cooking and preparation techniques, which he answers by similarly  testing the theories through a clear scientific methodology.  For example, recently he's answered: "Can I start my pasta in cold water?" or "Do I need to preheat my oil?"

Understandably, not everyone is interested in the why or how or what (making Kenji's early "Get Recipe" links at the top of the page very convenient) but I love learning about the chemical processes and cause-and-effect of the techniques used in our every day cooking. Gaining this kind of deeper understanding about food is what I think makes me a better home cook, and probably the reason why I spend more time reading cookbooks than cooking recipes word-for-word out of them.  For me, it's not about doing what I'm told but figuring out the principles so I can tap into these when I'm cooking, often with whatever is lying around.

Knowledge is power!

And I hope you'll get as much out of The Food Lab as I do.  If not, Kenji's dogs may keep you amused:

From 'This Week at Serious Eats headquarters', photograph by Robyn Lee.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Great Global Food Gap

Ever wondered what your weekly intake of food looked like spread out in front of you?  This photo essay on The Daily Mail compares families around the world, counting what they've spent and capturing what they have to show for it.  The collection of photos speaks for itself, but it makes me wonder: how would I go surviving on £3.20 (around NZ$6) a week?  And that's even before figuring out how much per person that is for the family in Bhutan.

(l-r, top to bottom) Ecuador, USA, Japan, Britain, Germany and Chad: a sample of the families documented on The Great Global Food Gap

Last week I sponsored my friend in Melbourne for her efforts on the Live Below the Line challenge and have just signed myself up to be notified when similarly-minded New Zealanders make a collective effort to live on around NZ$2.25 a day for a mere five days.  To fundraise for those actually living on that much every day, do you think you could do it?

Friday, May 10, 2013

I want to go to Venice

Last week I went to the new restaurant Ombra twice, and loved it.  Twice.  Meanwhile, a couple of weeks ago, I spent my lunch break reading Polpo: A Venetian Cookbook of Sorts by Russell Norman and found myself wanting to make and eat everything immediately (besides loving the cover and craftsmanship of the book itself).  In fact, I've just ordered it online.  The common thread?  Venice.

Ombra, corner of Cuba and Vivian Street, Wellington

Ombra is Wellington's newest addition to the restaurant scene and the first one to get me really excited in recent months.  Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of great places to eat in this lovely city but maybe it's because I've lived here for around 7 years now that I've started to get a bit bored and a little miffed by how much it costs to eat mediocre food.  However, I do have high standards and it's often really the service that let the whole show down.  The most recent additions that have gotten me talking (food-wise) were Prefab, Pickle and Big Bad Wolf, but for Cuba Street, Ombra has lifted it's whole game up.

While the cafe and restaurant scene in Wellington is worthy of it's own post, today is just about Ombra.  I went for two successive days of lunch breaks, each with a different set of people, yet the reactions were the same.  It was good.  The maitre d' explained to us that ombra means "shadow", referring to the time when merchants kept their wine cool by wheeling their carts from one shady spot to another.  These days, ombra is slang for a small glass of wine which makes it a shame that we weren't able to enjoy the beverage list (an excuse for another time).

As for the food: the cicheti are what make the bacaro.  Small plates, or simply bar snacks, they're similar to Spanish tapas but completely unique to Venice.   Typically the cicheti menu consists of dishes like (but not limited to) crostini, arancini, crocchette (croquette) and a version of sardines, but here is only where you warm up.  Both days in Ombra, I had baccala crostini which is salt cod whipped into a creamy luscious mousse served over a perfectly crusty slice of bread.  A sensational contrast of textures, it was rich but light.  The arancini used a tomato-base risotto which I wasn't particularly partial to, but the crisp crumb to it's exterior was exactly that: as it should be.

Baccala Crostini

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Strawberry Pavlova tea???

Yes, I was intrigued too.

Verdict: Delicious.  Strong strawberry flavour, with hints of having eaten the meringue-y crumbs that have fallen off the pavlova after it's been cut... Miraculous (though I'm not sure that this may be everyone's idea of an appetising flavour?).

The ingredient list is also reasonably mystery-free - though it does list "Flavours" as one.

I'll look past this however as next time I want to try this as iced tea.  Yum.