Thursday, April 17, 2008

Autumn nights

Autumn is my favourite time of the year for baking. The cooler mornings and the late afternoon chill in the air make me want to tuck myself away into the kitchen and bake all day with a hot stove to warm the house. Images of thick soups, hearty casseroles and steaming puddings float into my mind, displacing summer's BBQs, salads and ice-cream. Autumn also seems more inspiring for the food magazines, as the latest issues have the most gorgeous pictorial spreads of autumn feasts.

The best thing about casseroles is the minimum effort required to transform a simple mix of vegetables and chunks of the cheaper cuts of meat into a glossy, bubbling cauldron of goodness. Most casserole recipes require you to bung everything together into a cast-iron casserole dish and cook it for several hours in a moderate oven, meaning that dinner can cook while you get on with other jobs or relaxing with a glass of wine. Leftovers mean that tomorrow's lunch or dinner is also taken care of.

Delicious magazine features a good selection of casserole recipes each season. This week Adam reminded me of a Jamie Oliver stew made with Newcastle brown ale that we ate several years ago and thoroughly enjoyed, so I dug out the July 2004 issue and refreshed my memory. This is an easy casserole to make and is hearty enough to satisfy you on even the coldest winter night. Don't be put off by the amount of beer - although it smells overwhelmingly beery when you first start cooking, the liquid simmers down over time to become a thick sauce with just a hint of a hops undertone. It makes an enormous quantity and I find that I have to cook it in two separate casserole pots, as I don't have one big enough to fit the whole lot in.


1kg shin of beef (or use flank or neck), cut into 5cm chunks
2 Tb (1/4 cup) flour
olive oil, for frying
3 red onions, roughly sliced
50g pancetta or bacon, chopped
3 celery stalks, chopped
leaves of 1 small handful rosemary
1.3L Newcastle brown ale (about four bottles - use other brown ale if you can't get this)
2 parsnips, roughly chopped
2 carrots, roughly chopped
4 potatoes, peeled, roughly chopped

1 1/3 cups (200g) self-raising flour
100g unsalted butter, chopped
2 sprigs rosemary, leaves chopped

Place beef on a plate, season with salt and pepper, sprinkle with the flour and toss around until well coated. Heat a large frypan over high heat until it is good and hot, add a little oil and fry the beef in two batches until nice and brown.
Transfer the meat to a large casserole dish, mixing in the flour that was left on the plate after coating it. Put the casserole on medium heat, add the onions and pancetta, and cook until the onions are translucent and the pancetta has a bit of colour. Add celery and rosemary. Pour in the Newcastle brown ale and 285ml water, adding parsnips, carrots and potatoes. Bring to the boil, put on a lid, then turn down the heat to low and leave it to simmer while you make the dumplings.

To make the dumplings, blitz all the ingredients (with salt and pepper to taste) in a food processor, or rub between your fingers until you have a breadcrumb consistency, then add just enough water (about 1/4 cup) to make a dough that isn't sticky. Divide it into ping pong ball-sized dumplings and put these into the stew, dunking them under. Put the lid back on and leave it to cook for two hours. Taste it, season it and then serve the stew with greens and loads of bread to mop up the juices.

From Delicious magazine, July 2004

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Dinner at Donovans

Donovans in St Kilda has long been on my list of restaurants to try. It has consistently received good reviews for many years and long-time chef Robert Castellani received The Age Good Food Guide's 2006 Professional Excellence Award. So, in keeping with my new year's resolution to actually get out and try places, rather than just listing them in my notebook as places to try, we finally dined at Donovans.

Situated on Jacka Boulevard and overlooking the St Kilda foreshore, Donovans' glass windows provide a stunning view over Port Phillip Bay that is equally pleasant in summer or winter. In summer, you can watch dusk and night gently creep in, while in winter the lights from the Spirit of Tasmania and other boats glow like diamonds on the water.

Inside, the restaurant has a cosy charm and it feels like you are in a friend's upmarket beach house. One wall is covered with photographs in frames of varying size and shape, while shelves lining other walls are filled with vintage crockery, such as floral-patterned jugs and coloured-glass cups and bowls.The soft carpet means noise from surrounding diners is kept low and is not intrusive. The wait-staff are impeccably attired, well-spoken, knowledgeable and attentive, but not intrusive.

The lengthy modern Mediterranean menu offers a list of quality produce cooked in interesting ways. Seafood dominates the starters offerings, all of which look tempting. But our eyes are drawn to the dessert menu and we work backwards, deciding we will forego an entree so that we can fit in dessert. A Black Angus T-bone from the Western District, a medallion of salmon, or Queensland leader prawns grilled with chilli and oregano are some of the offerings of the BBQ. But Melbourne is feeling the first chilly hints of the forthcoming winter, so my choice is the old-fashioned chicken pie with mushrooms and a pastry lid. It is elegantly served at the table: a plate with a garnish of vegetables is set in front of me, then the waiter produces the chicken pie with a flourish. The pastry lid is lifted off the pie and onto my plate and the waiter proceeds to ladle out the pie filling onto the pastry. This is a much more pleasant way to eat pie than having to cut through the pastry lid and scrape out mouthfuls. The pie filling is thick and creamy, with a gentle spice rounding out the chicken and mushroom flavours. This is comfort food elevated to an art form.

Adam's old-fashioned beef stew and grilled porterhouse with creamy mash and autumn vegetables looks very different on the plate to how we imagined it. Dark, glossy beef chunks are laid around the edge of the plate, alternating with small, fat bricks of porterhouse, with the vegetables and mash artfully arranged in the centre. The beef chunks are the essence of a slowly simmered stew, while the porterhouse has been lightly seared to bring out the best of its flavour. It is a richly satisfying dish.

The dessert menu is filled with tempting dishes: apple, rhubarb and raspberry crumble, white chocolate and macadamia tart, lemon gelato with a slosh of grappa or caramelised apple creme brulee. But chocolate on a dessert menu always attracts my attention and I can't go past the hot chocolate souffle with espresso ice-cream. The dark-coloured mound is more like a fondant pudding than an airily light souffle but it is still a fine dessert. It oozes a rich aroma and each mouthful is a dark, bitter hit of the finest chocolate, beautifully offset by the espresso ice-cream. Adam chooses the white chocolate and macadamia tart. Served with butterscotch sauce and double cream, it is far too rich for me but he devours it, declaring it one of the best desserts he's eaten.

Donovans was a wonderful experience and I'm sorry I waited so long to try it. Although its prices mean a visit here will have to be more of a special treat than an everyday experience for us, the quality of food and service is excellent and it offers a quintessential Melbourne dining experience. Donovans feels like a place where "just a night out" becomes a special experience. If I was crafting a dining itinerary for interstate or overseas visitors, Donovans would definitely be on my list.