Cocoro Review

I promised this review a while ago, but lack of any photography kept me from posting it. On the bright side this has given me an excuse to go back and more of their food and given me time to reflect.

As may be obvious to my followers, I really like Japanese food. Cocoro would normally be regarded as Auckland’s premier Japanese restaurant. Located in Ponsonby it is one of a growing number of fine dining restaurants emerging that area. Off the beaten path, Cocoro is the sort of place that will trade on reputation rather than location. It is set in a quaint brick building on Brown Street with the classic late 19th and early 20th Century villas lining the street. Of the fine dining establishments in Auckland, with the possible exception of Antoine’s, Cocoro, is probably in the nicest location.

The Food

Lotus Root chips

The first thing that is served is a bowl of lotus root chips. These are not far off a really delicious potato chip. They were nicely coloured (lotus root can discolour easily) and well fried, evenly browned, a delicious little hors d’oeuvre.

Lotus Chips

Lotus Chips

Miso grilled wakanui beef mince ‘Niku Miso’ with Iceberg Lettuce, spring onion, ginger

Beef mince grilled in a miso sauce served in two pieces of iceberg lettuce. The best thing about it was the miso based sauce that bound the beef together. Pungent, sweet, deep and complex of flavour, I really enjoyed that particular taste. The mince was also well cooked and relatively juicy. However the dish had several marked deficiencies. Firstly it was too big for chop sticks. This may seem a small complaint, but given Japanese food is generally prepared with chopsticks in mind, this dish clearly was not. As a result it was cumbersome to eat. More crucially the dish was uninspired, while the flavour of the sauce was nice enough, nothing could change the fact it was mince with some miso served in iceberg lettuce. I am a believer in a place for simple food. While complex and highly refined food may give us a sense of wonder, good food is still good food. I do not want to criticise the dish for its simplicity as an absolute problem, but in its context I do not think it worked. Either the technical aspects of the dish were not sufficient or the recipe itself failed to create interest. I would personally lean on the former, the lettuce while adequate was not inspiring and the dish as a whole failed to impress. Great food does not need many components, but it does need to impress. If the dish is simple it still should move the person eating it. Good sushi and sashimi are great examples of this. Also while I appreciate that brown mince and a leaf of iceberg lettuce is hard to present nicely, this was not the most visually stunning dish.

Sashimi (No 1)

Served in a triple tiered lacquer box that opened up, it looked impressive. The sashimi included Salmon, Bluefin Tuna (farmed) and another whitefish that I don’t remember. It also included fresh wasabi, pickled leather fish and pickled ginger.

Fresh wasabi in particular is a real treat. It is notoriously hard to cultivate, expensive and loses its flavour very quickly. The wasabi was grown in the South Island. Unlike the wasabi that we normally get, which is usually just mustard, horseradish and some old powdered wasabi, fresh wasabi is a markedly different experience. It is very intense in heat, but it does not last in the mouth like the paste you would normally get. The flavour is slightly different too, less mustardy, more fresh grass notes (which complements fresh fish pretty nicely).  One of the difficulties of fresh wasabi is the flavour does not last, once grated it begins to lose flavour very quickly, so it is only really worth buying fresh.

The actual fish was good but not outstanding. First up Bluefin (farmed) tuna; this is obviously a tremendous luxury and at one level it was delicious, fatty, mild and easy on the palate. There was also Atlantic (farmed) Salmon, which had lovely texture luxurious texture. Despite the superb texture, I prefer the New Zealand salmons in complexity of flavour. The other Atlantic salmon preparation, which I will discuss later, I think worked better. As sashimi, the salmon was luxurious, but added little complexity or depth. The white fish, which I do not remember the name of excellent. One of the aspects of it that I really enjoyed was the grassy overtones and the subtle complexity of flavour. The cured leatherjacket was actually my pick of the items with the sashimi and was served in what can roughly be described as ceviche style.

I have two small complaints about this particular sashimi dish, which would easily be answered for in the next. Firstly the farmed Bluefin and farmed Atlantic Salmon were good, but lacked a real depth of flavour. I think this would not be too detrimental in the context of the large platter discussed below, but this was more of an issue in the context of three primary sashimi fish. I felt no deep sense of place from the sashimi as a whole, since there was so little that was from New Zealand, and what fish was presented was dominated by the salmon and tuna. Not too fine a point should be put on this, but it was a little disappointing. Secondly the sauce served with their generic soy, it would have been nice to have matching sauces, like ponzu or other prepared soy based sauces to match the fish as appropriate.

Sashimi (No 2) – Platter

This was perhaps the most stunning of all the courses. Served in a traditional presentation style of a shared platter, what is pictured is a platter for four people. It also harkens back to the splendour of presentations before the move to individual portions. To individually identify all the fish presented and go through it is beyond the scope of this review, but I will pick out a few of the highlights.

The main feature of the platter was the Rock Lobster (what we wrongly call crayfish in New Zealand). This was served in two ways: raw and pickled. Both were delicious, paired with ponzu (yuzu, soy sauce and other ingredients allowed to develop in flavour for months). The ponzu was relatively light, which was a great pairing with delicate taste of the lobster. The cured lobster was also excellent and much more intense in flavour.

One of the nicest features was the diversity of New Zealand seafood, including snapper, mahurangi oysters, crab and New Zealand salmon. There were also imported seafood like Abalone (interestingly not paua) and Bluefin tuna. The abalone was served with a delicious sauce made from the livers, intensely flavoured and a wonderful contrast to the more mild meat. Unlike the smaller sashimi plate served with the normal degustation menu, I think the seafood made much more sense in context. Most of the fish was wild, not farmed and while we may wonder about the ethics of this, it meant that the fish tended towards a more complex and individual flavour. In that context, the farmed, luxurious fish, such as the Bluefin Tuna and to a lesser extent the salmon, made a lot more sense to me. We still were able as diners to enjoy, the diversity and the complexity of the fish, since only minority of them emphasised texture. Furthermore I find the farmed New Zealand Salmon better than the farmed (Australian) Atlantic Salmon as far as flavour complexity goes and so I think in the context of sashimi, where there should be an emphasis on fresh local fish, it made a great deal of sense.

The scampi was perhaps the highlight of the platter. I have never eaten them raw and they were superb, a bit of bite in them and perfectly paired with a little fresh wasabi and ponzu. Another very nice detail was the miso based sauce that was to accompany the cucumber; it was delicious and provided another excellent contrast.

Sashimi is in some ways a hard thing to analyse with our normal haute cuisine glasses on. Ultimately what you are eating is uncooked fish, with some grated wasabi and some pickles. One could level the criticism, that the majority of sashimi preparation is simply shopping and that it is not cooking. I however would disagree with this. Firstly sashimi and sushi, still involve significant technique (sushi especially). Sashimi is about the details, how the fish is cut, the match of the sauces, the quality of the fish chosen and the accompaniments. More importantly perhaps this presupposes certain techniques as superior to others, something I question anyway. Lastly I think rather than resorting to standards of whether the technique involved is complex enough, we should rely on whether the food itself is good. Simply, this was great sashimi, need we look further? The fact is sashimi is not all created equal. I have turned my hand at it, and cutting the fish so as to maximise its texture is not an easy task. It takes a deep understanding of the fish and excellent knife technique. In this sense I really enjoyed the dish, the lavish presentation, the mixture of textures, some crunchy, some supple, some a little chewy, all combined to make a wonderful dish.

Sashimi Platter

Sashimi Platter

Paradise Prawn.

Prawns are difficult to deal with in New Zealand because we do not have warm enough waters to really make our prawns commercially viable or of good enough quality. As a result we import our prawns. The difficulty here is that you have two options. Firstly freeze them as soon as they are caught in order to maintain freshness and thereby stop deterioration, but in doing so you reduce the quality, because they have been frozen; or you can pack them in ice and rush them into market and serve them as quickly as possible. This latter option has problems because shrimp quality degrades, very quickly. The result is, we will almost never have truly amazing shrimp in New Zealand. It seems however that Paradise prawns from New Caledonia are gaining popularity and as I discussed in my review of Kazuya, they can be excellent, although perhaps never as good as a truly fresh one. I state this from the outset, because I appreciate the difficulties of trying to serve fresh prawns and shrimp in New Zealand.

In this preparation the prawn was wrapped in shredded filo (kataifi) and cooked served with tartare sauce and a house made “Worcestershire sauce”, there was also a microgreen salad and the head was cooked as tempura. The biggest sin was the prawn, firstly it just wasn’t that well-cooked. I won’t say it was over cooked as an absolute fact, but it was definitely cooked through. As a result we lost a lot of the luscious sweetness of it. Then it was coated in kataifi and cooked until well brown. The kataifi surrounding the prawn was executed with technical efficiency, well browned and very evenly surrounding the prawn. However I did not really enjoy this as a combination. The excess of kataifi did contribute to the lost flavours of the prawn. The sauces were excellent by themselves and intense enough to stand up to the thick coating of the prawn, but all of them for me detracted from the prawn itself. When I think of how singular and self-reinforcing many of the dishes were, this one seems odd, instead of elevating the prawn, the emphasis became on the coating the sauces. The shrimp head was absolutely delicious and the highlight of the dish, which to me indicates that the tempura coating is much nicer than the kataifi one, no matter how clever it might be. I have discussed this dish with others, some of whom enjoy the dish. This is one of Cocoro’s signature dishes; it was served identically every time I had it. I just cannot seem to understand its appeal; it is dry and lifeless in comparison to what is otherwise live, vibrant food.

Prawn

Paradise Prawn

Queensland Spanner Crab Chawamushi/or Queen Scallop

When the waitress brought a spoon and chopsticks, I knew it would be savour custard cup (traditionally eaten with both). I was I admit excited; I had just been reading about them and was looking forward to having one. The dish was relatively simple. A savoury custard enriched with dashi and embedded with crab, topped with salmon roe, shiitake mushrooms and chives. This was absolutely delicious. It epitomises the economy, subtlety and depth of flavour that characterises Japanese food. The custard was superbly cooked, just set and still wobbly. It was delicate in texture, but deep in flavour with complexity from the stock. The shiitake mushrooms and salmon roe complemented the custard beautifully with a strong hit of umami. Even the very fine sliced chives (a classic pairing with eggs), added to the dish. This was probably my favourite of all the dishes.

Savoury Custard with Scallop, Salmon Roe and Shitake mushroom

Savoury Custard with Scallop, Salmon Roe and Shitake mushroom

Hokkaido Scallop and Spinach with Sea Urchin and Miso Sauce

One of a trio of small dishes served at the beginning of the Sushi and Sashimi menu. Hokkaido scallops are a very special piece of seafood. They are quite unlike any other scallop I have had. It is hard to describe the exact flavour, but I would say they taste almost a little smokey or earthy. They stand up to much complex flavours I think than normal scallops. This is why a miso and sea urchin sauce makes a lot of sense. The dish was good. The miso and sea urchin flavours were not overpowering and the scallop was well cooked.

Hokkaido Scallop

Hokkaido Scallop

Confit Atlantic Salmon flavoured with Cinnamon

This was one of the more exotic dishes. It was also surprisingly delicious. The use of cinnamon with the Atlantic salmon (that was farmed) I think was a better use of the fish than sashimi. Secondly cooking the fish confit was incredible, unctuous, soft and meltingly tender; it was a superb way to eat the fish. It was very clever and relatively simple dish, maximising the ingredients.

Confit Salmon

Confit Salmon

Miso Marinated Antarctic Tooth Fish with Stuffed Courgette Flower and Courgette Tempura, Pickled Cauliflower, Yuzu miso and Yuzu foam or alternatively served with Eggplant Tempura.

The tooth fish was superb, gelatinous, moist, fatty and scrumptious. The combination of the citrus was nice with the fish and helped break up the richness of the fish itself and the white miso added sweetness. The pickled cauliflower and ginger also gave a nice contrast, especially with the sweetness of the sauce.

The tempura was a mixed bag. I love courgette flowers and tempura in general, beautifully light and delicious. The pieces of courgette were a little large for my liking in this dish, but that is a small problem. The biggest issue is they didn’t fit the dish for me. The courgette flower stuffed was fine, but its pairing with the fish seemed off. Furthermore the decision to stuff with corn and rest it on a bed of cut in half corn was odd. The whole thing felt misplaced, the watery, slightly buttery nature of the courgette did not really complement the rest of the dish. I would rather the courgettes have been left off the plate or served as a small amuse boushe between the other courses. It felt unnatural and took away from the look and feel of the dish. So as a whole the dish was still pretty awesome, that fish was just amazing and even given the courgettes, it was hardly a failure, but it was not quite as tight or as good as it should have been.

Having said this eggplant tempura, pictured below, was far more successful than its courgette counterpart. The texture was complementary with the fish and the less watery eggplant seems a more natural fit. This version of the dish, I think was far better.

Toothfish

Toothfish

Grain Finished Angus Eye Fillet with Teriyaki sauce and parsnip puree

For some reason I always feel a little let down, after all the fish, when we finally get to the beef, but this dish was pretty good. The beef was well cooked, succulent and very tender. Teriyaki is not my favourite of the Japanese sauces, it can be a little sweet for me, but the sauce had good subtlety and did not overwhelm the dish. The parsnip puree was enriched with stock and quite savoury rather than sweet and no cream was added. I liked this and its lack of richness was an upside for me, the play of savoury puree, juxtaposed the sweetness of the sauce and added a lot to the dish. A solid course, but perhaps not as impressive as some of the fish dishes.

Nigiri Sushi – Bluefin Tuna, Snapper and Scallop. (No 1)

We paid the extra to get to try some of the sushi. It featured three Nigiri (handmade sushi), bluefin tuna, snapper and scallop. The bluefin was luxurious, but lacked that intensity that you might get from wild fish. Fresh snapper is an excellent fish, I really enjoy that it offers some depth of flavour, compared to other white fish. The best however was the lovely scallop, sweet and juicy. I had not had it before on sushi and it was excellent. The course was served with the same soy sauce as for the sashimi. More thought about matching sauces would have been good all served with fresh wasabi. I would have preferred instead of extra wasabi, that the chef had simply added what they thought was appropriate to the nigiri, rather than serve extra on the side, but perhaps this is forgivable in a western environment.

Nigiri Sushi – Bluefin Tuna with Truffle, Paradise Prawn, Salmon and two anothers – with Miso Soup and Crafish (No 2)

This was the final platter before the dessert. In classic banquet style rice was served with miso soup, nigiri counting as a rice dish. The nigiri was excellent, the pairing of Bluefin with truffle, while not traditional, was a really nice match; the volatile flavours of the truffle mingling with the luxurious fatty tuna. One of the fish, that looked to me to be terakihi, although I do not think that is what the waiter said introduced it as, was my favourite. I would have liked more wasabi applied to the nigiri itself rather than a “help yourself” stance. The miso soup was also superb. Again the use of lighter white miso, provided a little more sweetness and did not overwhelm the crayfish. It was wonderful to get to have three preparations of crayfish in a single meal, raw, pickled and poached.

Nigiri

Nigiri

Miso Soup with Rock Lobster

Miso Soup with Rock Lobster

Milk Marinated Strawberries, Soy Ice Cream, Green Tea Meringues and Gooseberries

The ice cream was pretty good. I think it was made without any egg yolks and so it seemed closer to me to a gelato. There is no problem with this, but it means it was lighter rather than heavy (this could also be from higher milk, as opposed to cream content as well). It was pretty good; the soy was a nice and not overly powerful flavour. I love green tea, so the small meringues were a treat. The strawberries were good and it was clever to marinade them in milk to complement the ice cream. It was a nice finish to the meal, relatively consonant flavours.

Vanilla and Yuzu Icecream, Candied Yuzu, Chocolate Mousse, Chocolate Cake, Black Sesame Tuile with Yuzu Puree

The ice-cream was again more in a gelato style, without egg yolk. The heavy use of yuzu in this dish really brought its flavours to the fore. Yuzu is a Japanese citrus, not unlike a grapefruit mixed with lemon in flavour (probably closer to a grapefruit, but without the bitterness). Surprisingly for me this worked with the chocolate and I think the pairings were very nice. The mousse was excellent, smooth, but thicker (perhaps no egg whites) than a traditional mousse. The tuile was delicious and the puree again brought the strong citrus flavours. My biggest complaint was the chocolate cake. It was a bit dry and dull. I think the dessert without it would have been stronger. Both of Cocoro’s desserts were good, but not outstanding and this was perhaps the weaker of the two.

Yuzu and Vanilla Icecream, Chocolate Cake, Black Sesame Tuile and Chocolate Mousse

Yuzu and Vanilla Icecream, Chocolate Cake, Black Sesame Tuile and Chocolate Mousse

Wine and Sake

I tried both wine matching and sake matches. I personally preferred the sake matches for the food; I think the fermented, yeasty characteristics of the sake, suits the cuisine at Cocoro better. The only miss was the initial sparkling sake that was too sweet for my tastes. There was an excellent dry sake served with tooth fish. Generally the matches were thoughtful and interesting.

Sake

Sake

Overall

Cocoro is an excellent restaurant. At its best, Cocoro serves some truly sublime dishes; the savoury custard is probably my favourite of all of their dishes. It is not however without its problems, particularly the desserts and frankly the signature dish of paradise prawn was a little lack lustre. Having said this Cocoro is head and shoulders above other Japanese restaurants in the city. It demonstrates interesting food with exceptional technique and range of ingredients. It is serving reasonably traditional food with great attention to detail. It costs between $85-110 for a degustation menu. Matching sake or wine is $60-65.

Rating – * (** Excellent * Very Good, everything else gets none)

Morita Restaurant Review

Nestled in the back streets of Auckland city is a basement restaurant called Morita. It claims to serve French and Japanese bistro food. Not as unlikely a combination as you might think, as I have discussed before on this blog. At the very least it is an intriguing possibility and it happens to match with two of my favourite cuisines.

Down a side street and down some more stairs, Morita is not exactly prime location, but perhaps like many great restaurants that eschew the trendier parts of town to survive on reputation this is what Morita is going for. Morita is spacious, tall ceilings, concrete everywhere, it is a basement after all. Translucent fabric hangs from the ceilings to help reduce the intimidating size. Empty wine bottles act as displays. Frankly it feels a little dated and kitsch. The concrete and size of the space makes it a little cold and distant. For me the whole place feels a little soul less, whether it is the large space, the concrete or the decor, I cannot shake a haunted feeling.

The service is polite and formal, but fortunately it manages to not be too patronising. There is little to say here, I do not think it was a detriment, but it was not superb either, efficient, would perhaps be a word for it. Not overly attentive, but by no means bad. I might describe it as perfectly adequate and above average.

The main thing I will deal with is the food. Morita, whether it is a good or bad, is intriguing. The menu appears to be exactly as advertised, A mixture of French bistro with Japanese food thrown in the mix. It is divided into two sections; a $10 per plate section and $20 dollar per plate section. You order a selection of dishes, which we generally shared, although there is no reason that you could not just order dishes for your self, perhaps as a kind of self made degustation. There is also a set menu available, but I am not sure if it is a better deal than simply ordering a la carte.

Chicken Galantine with Haloumi

Seeing galantines on menus is pretty rare. I enjoy cooking them, but to be honest, it is not often I see them. A galantine is a boned out chicken (or other animal, usually poultry), that is usually stuffed with forcemeat and then rolled and poached in stock. It is served cold. Its cousin, which is a bit more common is the ballantine, which is a boned out piece of meat, sometimes stuffed with forcemeat, rolled and usually roasted in the oven and served hot. A galantine is a technical dish. The chicken skin must be kept as whole as possible when removing it from the bone, poached to a perfect temperature and then allowed to cool in stock in order to absorb flavour. So this is the sort of dish I had to try.

The dish itself was pretty much as advertised, a boned out chicken, with a small amount of forcemeat, served with grilled haloumi and a salad. It was served at slightly above room temperature, not quite hot, but not cold either. I will admit the dish was underwhelming. It is really a kind of terrine or fancy sausage. I personally prefer a bit more forcemeat to add some punchy flavour, but the small amount of liver forcemeat did not really cut through the chicken. While the chicken was pleasantly cooked, which is good because dry chicken is pretty sad, it fell a bit flat. The accompanying salad however was excellent. The haloumi was also something I did not really understand. A part of me wanted to really appreciate this dish, understated, subtle, but refined. The dish however just could not bring that together. Haloumi is hardly a refined cheese, it is meaty and salty, without significant complexity of flavour. I think though the primary culprit was the galantine, while the execution was fine, the flavours did have that underlying complexity that a great galantine or terrine should have. These were not critical problems by themselves, but ultimately it just did not measure up, despite some excellent technical aspects.

Chicken Galantine with Grilled Haloumi and Salad.

Chicken Galantine with Grilled Haloumi and Salad. Photo thanks to LL

Lamb Tataki

Tataki is basically an equivalent to steak tartare, traditionally. Often at least in New Zealand it seems to be a carpaccio, which is similar enough to not raise any eyebrows. So this tataki resembled a carpaccio. The lamb loin was seared over coals, but left raw in the middle. It was then cut finely and served with mustard, avocado and fresh salads featuring daikon, radish, cabbage and carrot. While visually this dish may not look like much, it really is quite a triumph. There were three elements that went together to make this work. Firstly the lamb cooked over coals. This gave a smokey grilled flavour. What I loved about it was that it present in every bite. However it was not overpowering. My previous review was of an Argentinian BBQ, and this dish succinctly did, everything that the BBQ failed to do. It marshaled its ingredients, the grill instead of violently impregnating the meat, gently perfumed it, allowing the flavours of rare lamb to shine through. The attention to cooking and seasoning was also superb. The sauce was well balanced with the meat, allowing not only for the grilled flavour, but the lamb to shine through as well. Lastly the accompaniments were superbly consonant. Mustard is a classic pairing with lamb and the salad matched this as well, heightening the sharp mustard overtones.

My only complaints with the dish were small. Firstly the avocado puree was unnecessary. There is a beef tataki on the menu which I will discuss in a moment and I suspect the avocado is just a standard accompaniment in their plating, while it did not detract from the dish it added little. If they wanted a rich creamy pairing I would have gone with mayonnaise infused with a little dashi, but that is me. The second complaint is presentation. It looks jumbled and is not very neatly put together. Neither of these mattered much to me, because the lamb, salad, mustard pairing were so superb.

Lamb Tataki

Lamb Tataki

Beef Tataki

This is a similar dish to the lamb in concept. Rare thinly sliced beef, served with sharp flavours. This was also excellent, although the grilled flavour was missing. It was paired with avocado and mayonnaise. The avocado I found more complementary to beef and worked well. I think this was more nicely presented than the lamb too. A really good simple dish.

Beef Tataki with Avocado and Mayo. Photo Thanks to LL

Beef Tataki with Avocado and Mayo. Photo Thanks to LL

Soft Shell Crab Sushi

I have noticed several restaurants recently serving soft shell crab. This is a welcome addition to the New Zealand culinary scene in my book. For those not familiar, soft shell crabs are those that have just shed their previous shell and when cooked have a tender perfectly edible shell. This has a couple advantages as a cook, the most obvious of which is that the crab can be served whole without having the customer break it open to get at the meat. The dish itself did not disappoint. Tender crab, with acidified rice, mayonnaise and seaweed is delicious. I tried to order this on another occasion and was informed they had no crab, which may mean it is quite seasonal here. This was a really excellent dish.

Softshell Crab Sushi. Photo thanks to LL

Softshell Crab Sushi. Photo thanks to LL

Chicken Tatsuta

Two large fried chicken drum sticks served with chips. The dish was unexciting. Firstly I am going to give their chips a hard time. They were soggy, dull and lifeless, on repeated occasions the chips have been uninspiring and completely unnecessary. I am not sure how such a staple goes wrong, but bizarrely it does. Considering how good their potato puree is, by comparison, I do not understand why they bother. Chips are a real hassle in the kitchen, they have to be cooked to order, they do not handle sitting around very well. I would much rather a simple potato salad, potato puree or something else that can be reheated and is better executed. The failure of the chips maybe due to attempts to reheat. The chicken itself was better, in particular it was perfectly cooked, which is no small order given how they were prepared. Deep frying technique was evident here, perfectly cooked chicken, moist and succulent with an evenly browned exterior. It is a wonder given the relative technical difficulty of the chicken, that the chips were sub par. The chicken was served with a slice of lemon. There was nothing actually really objectionable about the dish, given the chips were a minor accompaniment, but it was not that exciting either.

Chicken Tatsuta

Chicken Tatsuta

Grilled King Fish Wing

Another very simple dish, grilled king fish with a slice of lemon. I liked this better than the chicken. Firstly the fish was very well grilled, beautiful crunchy skin on the outside and meaty steaming hot fish. It demonstrates the beauty of the wing as a cut. The fish is nestled in between bone and skin and kept moist with plenty of flavour. I personally prefer my fish a little less cooked, but I would accept that the fish was probably cooked to a satisfactory level of doneness. Fish is tricky to cook well, getting the absolute correct temperature is a real skill. Having worked a lot with sous vide and seen the variety of internal temperatures at really good restaurants (anywhere from 48 degrees Celsius to 60 depending on the fish and preparation), I would say that the fish was nearer the top end of this 57-60 degree range. My point is I think this is acceptable, especially with meatier fish, even if my preference would be for about 5 degrees colder. Which is to say I guess the fish was excellently cooked. What was nice about the fish is that because it was so simply served, it really allowed the king fish to be star. King fish is one of my favourite fish and I think grilling is an ideal way to serve it. It did seem odd not to serve a sauce with it, given how sauce intensive some of their dishes were, but a slice of lemon was perhaps all it really needed anyway.

Grilled Kingfish Wing

Grilled Kingfish Wing

Ox Tongue with mustard and demi glace

Ox tongue is a wonderful cut of offal that sadly, like most offal is not well regarded. I love it and if you have not eaten it, I would highly recommend it, even for those that are scared off offal normally. The dish was simple a thick slice of ox tongue covered in demi glace with a side of mustard and some potato salad. It was hard to fault, delicious, rich and tender ox tongue paired with a beautiful perfectly clear demi glace. Ox tongue itself is not overly technical to cook, but the sauce here was the real winner. A good demi glace takes a lot of work, hours over a stove skimming stock and sauce. Mustard again worked a treat as a pairing, a really excellent little dish, for only ten dollars.

Oxtail with Mustard and Demi glace. Photo thanks to LL.

Oxtail with Mustard and Demi glace. Photo thanks to LL.

Tempura

I love tempura, but it is a very demanding dish to cook. This is because if the batter is over mixed it takes on too much oil and becomes soggy. Regulating the heat is also extremely important and takes practice. Perfectly crisp tempura is a very difficult skill to master. Sadly while the tempura was not terrible it was not great either. The tempura was slightly soggy, while not the worst tempura I have ever had it lacked the crispness of really good tempura. This was a real shame, because the other technical parts of the dish were really good. The vegetables were perfectly blanched, the fish perfectly cooked and frankly, better technique in batter mixture would likely have solved the problem.

Tempura

Tempura

Lobster in Sauce Americaine

When Morita advertises its self as a bistro menu this is the sort of dish one might expect to see. This is a pretty good price for lobster. While I am discussing this, what is the difference between lobster and crayfish? In New Zealand this is a pretty good question. Technically lobsters live in the ocean and crayfish are fresh water. There are both endemic lobster and crayfish to New Zealand. However our colloquial terminology confuses the matter. The “crayfish” that most of us are familiar with is the Rock Lobster and lives in the ocean. It is a lobster not a crayfish. There is a freshwater crayfish called the Koura, which I believe is not harvested commercially, but can also be eaten. Anyway trying to identify whether it was actual crayfish or not is an open question. Rock lobster have no large claws and so do not look like a classical lobster. Anyway by taste I would say this was more reminiscent of lobster than crayfish, but then it had claws and did not look like rock lobster. This confused the matter for me and I left assuming that this was imported lobster, regardless it was pretty delicious. Sauce Americaine is a classic pairing with lobster and for good reason, rich, slightly spicy with paprika, enriched with stock, wine, tomatoes and sometimes tarragon, it is heady combination, that always leaves me wanting more. I will not say the actual lobster is the best lobster I have ever eaten, it was pleasant enough, but frankly the pleasure was to be served such a wonderful classic combination of flavours. It is a shame that this dish is not served more often in New Zealand. When I went a second time this was not on the menu, but given the difficulty of obtaining specific kind of seafood this is perhaps unsurprising.

Lobster with Sauce Americaine. Photo thanks to LL.

Lobster with Sauce Americaine. Photo thanks to LL.

Crayfish in Sauce Newburg

Another famous dish and classic accompaniment to crustaceans. Newburg is an egg yolk thickened sauce flavoured with sherry and stock made from the carcass. I think the crayfish was pretty good. I prefer sauce Americaine, but the flavour of the crayfish permeated the sauce. The crayfish itself was strongly flavoured, perhaps not as delicate as I would like, but well cooked. The potato puree quenelles were superb as well, buttery, rich and smooth. A good dish.

Crayfish Newburg

Crayfish Newburg

Duck with honey and mushroom demi glace

This is an odd dish. The technical elements are superb, the duck is perfectly cooked medium rare with great colour on the skin, the sauce is clear and free of fat, the potato puree, as with the crayfish is excellent. However the dish does not work for me. It is the combination of honey and mushrooms in the sauce. Individually both seem like good supporting elements for duck. Duck can benefit from sweetness and most meats benefits from the savouriness of mushrooms. However combined in the same sauce just did not cut it for me. A missed opportunity, given its technical excellence.

Duck with Honey and Mushroom Demi glace

Duck with Honey and Mushroom Demi glace

Wagyu Beef with Wasabi

I have had a lot of mixed feelings about wagyu. In principle it should be an excellent meat with its high fat marbling and tenderness. Since New Zealand wagyu no longer grain finishes its beef, the wagyu I have bought has been exceedingly lean, far more than the Angus and Hereford shire beef, which I generally think is superior in New Zealand. The beef though was excellent and again I cannot understate how much I appreciated grilled meat from Morita. Again the slightly charcoal flavours came through the beef, much like the lamb tataki. The sauce was well matched and the wasabi added some contrast. This was a simple dish prepared well, with excellent flavours.

Grilled Wagyu

Grilled Wagyu

“French” Sushi – Foie Gras and Duck Sushi

I am a sucker for foie gras and so if I see it on a menu I am willing to give it a go. The sad part for me is foie gras is not allowed to be imported fresh or made here. So all we can get are canned import varieties. This means people need to be clever about how the use it. It will never be of as good quality as one would like, but I think you can still make do. The most obvious use to me is in pate, parfaits and mousses, since all of these adulterate the foie gras anyway and make its quality slightly less important. This is why foie gras sushi, is actually quite a good idea. They turn the foie gras into a mousse and serve it with rice, all of these should help to keep some of the richness of the foie gras without putting it to the front too much. Furthermore from a chef’s point of view it allows you to extend your yield of foie gras which is expensive. However the dish does not really work for me. It has one major problem. The foie gras, once it has been turned into a mousse really struggles to cut past all the rice in the sushi. It is lost amongst the rice and seaweed. So unfortunately the foie gras part of this is all show. The duck sushi is ok, served with wasabi, but the dish is a little lackluster to be honest. While presented nicely and a great idea, it just does not work sadly, it is perhaps a bone to the pretension that accompanies much of the food at Morita.

Foie Gras and Duck Sushi. Photo thanks to LL.

Foie Gras and Duck Sushi. Photo thanks to LL.

I might mention that the wine list is pretty decent if you go there. Remembering that it is neither a bar, nor fine dining restaurant, it has a pretty reasonable selection including quite a few French wines. One very pleasant surprise and I hope more restaurants take to serving it was the Heron’s Flight Merlot grape juice. It is non alcoholic and really delicious.

So Morita is a mixed bag when it comes to food. Its general style is perhaps consistent with bistro cooking, simple dishes executed with excellent technique. In this sense Morita is what it advertises. The dishes never contain too many components and are relatively singular. They rely on the technical excellence of their cooking. I think there are problems though. The first is really just the oddness of the place. That is the incredible attention to detail on things like sauces, potato puree, grilling and the like and yet the rather odd flavour combinations, technical problems with the french fries and tempura. It feels a little like the menu is attempting to be style over substance, a tribute to refinement over serious food. Maybe it is psychological, given the relatively cheap price of the food it perhaps strains belief that we are getting great crayfish for $20 dollars. Another issue related to this is the garnishes. If you go to the effort of perfectly skimming your demi glace, why serve the same garnish on the plate for the duck as you did the ox tongue? It makes the dishes seem formulaic, protein added to the plate, with the same old garnish. Why so much attention to detail in one area, but not the other? Which is not to belittle their cooking, but Morita’s is so alien in approach, that it mystifies me.

Related to this is a perceived lack of cohesion between the dishes themselves. The garnishes being formulaic is part of it, but also the menu. The lack of any emphasis on vegetables for example. When incorporated as part of dishes the vegetables are often the highlight, but it is far too rare on their menu. The broccoli in tempura was excellent, but what about with the steak? or the duck? Simply serving more potato, no matter how good their puree is, does not make up for it. The traditional shredded vegetables is fine, but not every cold dish needs to have an identical salad. Furthermore the lack of cohesion extends a bit to the menu, where are the seasonal ingredients and dishes? They have a special, which does change, but again seasonal produce would be good to see. The only tip to this I saw eating there in both summer and winter was that in summer there was potato salad and in winter there was potato puree served a garnish.

I am going to rant about one more issue, which is hardly unique to Morita, but is worth mentioning. That is the issue of wasabi. It is all well and good for most restaurants in Auckland to serve mustard powder mixed with a bit of dried wasabi and call that wasabi. It is not, wasabi does not hold its flavour dried. That bright green stuff that we all eat that is called “wasabi” is not actually wasabi, or rather it has some wasabi within it, but that contributes no flavour. Wasabi has to be grated fresh and begins to loose its flavour after a mere 15 minutes. It is hard to cultivate to boot. So I appreciate wasabi, that is fresh proper stuff is not cheap. However other Japanese restaurants manage to serve it, namely Cocoro. I appreciate that they are probably a band or two higher in price, but here is the point I will make. I would rather have cheaper cuts of meat and fish, in order to have real wasabi. The fake stuff we get which is largely mustard powder, is no substitute. Morita is hardly alone is serving us the fake stuff, I have been to more expensive restaurants that also serve powdered wasabi, but New Zealand does grow fresh wasabi, in the South Island and it is possible to get.

Morita does however do a lot right. As I have tried to make clear a lot of the details in their dishes are really good. The potato purees, the sauces (although a little more intense flavour would be nice for their demi glace), the grilled meats and some of their dishes are excellent. I would not want the reader walking away without understanding this, that I do really appreciate what they get right. It may sound like I have a long list of complaints and I do, but I have exposed Morita to much more scrutiny than I might for many restaurants at the same sort of price level. I have because actually I really like what they are trying to do. The are trying really hard, it is obvious to me. Where many restaurants succeed with poor technique, treating their customers like idiots and have no attention to detail, I can see in Morita an ethic that could turn them into a truly great restaurant. Perhaps it is the economics, perhaps it is their pricing or maybe something else, but I see in Morita a great potential to be a superb restaurant. As it is there are some delicious dishes, the lamb, ox tongue, lobster, wagyu and soft shell crab, but work out a way to include vegetables without just having salads on the menu and find a better way to serve foie gras. Give me some seasonal produce, make the sauces slightly more full bodied and change up the menu, because I see real promise. So for my readers do I recommend Morita? Yes I do, I think it is an interesting and rewarding experience. Especially for the price, you will hopefully forgive my fine tooth comb analysis Morita is a fascinating restaurant, odd, surreal, but pleasant and enjoyable.

Rating: * (** Excellent, * Very good, nothing for everything else)

Four Courses for Winter: A Discussion of Cooking Dinners and Seasonality

Over the last few years I have cooked a birthday dinner for my partner. This year was a bit smaller than usual. I cooked only four courses for thirteen people. I was also limited in budget as well to under $200. Fortunately I did not have to cook a dessert and this did not come out of my budget. This gave me an average of just under $4 to spend per plate. In the end I came in just under budget which I was pleased with. The real cost was probably more of course; I had access to two things that significantly brought down the price of meals. Firstly was a good garden that could provide much of the produce. Secondly my cupboard was open to me and I did not factor this in, although I had to buy truffle oil and some other expensive expendables, which did not get used up, so it probably evened out. One of the aspects that I continually look at is price. Keeping costs down is what makes it possible for me to cook. If I did not, I simply could not afford to cook and so this is a big incentive. In this article I will lay out how to go about cooking a big dinner and try to have it act as a guide for those that are interested. I am not going to deal with table settings or the like, merely cooking the food. Having plates, table settings and people to help serve are always crucial for this sort of thing, but I will not cover that here.

Planning

The most important aspect of organising a dinner party is probably planning. Even though four courses is nowhere near the difficulty of twelve, which is the most I have done, it still takes a fair bit of planning. This takes some experience as well, but failure to plan, will make the whole exercise fraught. You need to know what is possible in the time available and you need to have a list of everything that will need to be done.

The Menu

Planning your menu is really crucial. You need to know what aspects can be done in advance and how far in advance they can be done. Generally speaking you want to do everything as close to the date as possible, to maintain quality. Secondly as I said pricing is important as is the practicality of cooking. You need to know how many people you are cooking for and how many items you have to get out all at once. Cooking for example having to cook 20 pan fried portions of fish, is extremely difficult to get out hot, whereas reheating braised meats are often a lot easier. Large items that can be cooked whole that are broken up, are much easier than individual portions cooked a la minute.

So with this in mind, let us look at my menu, so we can understand why I choose what I did.

Celeriac Puree – Thickened with Liaison, served with white truffle essence, maple cured bacon and foraged flowers.

The advantage of this course is most of the work is done in advance. Soups are great like that. I love soup and I try to serve it where ever possible, not just because I like it, but because it is a simple course that can be prepared in advance.

Celeriac was an easy choice for me. It was growing in the garden and so this kept the cost down. I had already cured the bacon, previously, so this was an easy component as well. White truffle essence was in the cupboard, again cost effective, especially since I would only use a very small amount. Foraged flowers were free. Lastly the liaison could be made with eggs from the hens, again keeping the cost down, only the cream, stock, potatoes and garlic would have to be bought. All of which I needed for other courses, so I could benefit from buying or making in bulk.

There are also some compromises. I like beef stock for my soups, but because I use meat for the broth, this can be somewhat expensive. I happened to need chicken stock already, so I decided to use a flavoursome chicken stock. The result was a sort of compromise. I used chicken stock, which is perfectly acceptable for the soup, but I heightened its flavour by adding a whole chicken, this increased the price, but it was still cheaper than the bouillon I normally use and the stock could then be used for other dishes as well.

The puree I made a day in advance, as it takes a good amount of time to push puree through a chinois. I used celeriac, a few potatoes, for thickness and a few cloves of garlic, all poached in the chicken stock. Then puree and sieve for texture. Once this is done, the majority of the work of the dish is actually done. The only thing that needs to happen is the puree is adjusted for consistency, when reheated and then the liaison is added. The bacon would need to be cut and cooked, but this was a minor job. The choice of white truffle is to complement the small garlic tones, I used in the soup.

For those that are not familiar a liaison is a mixture of cream and egg yolks that alters the texture, flavour and colour of a soup. It also thickens it very slightly. Effectively you turn a soup into a custard of sorts. It is not a lot more work once the soup has been made to make it a liaison, as it is added upon the final heating of the soup and adds only a few minutes to the preparation.

Recipe – Celeriac, Bacon, Flowers

The goal of this soup is to have subtlety. This is why I have refrained from adding too many roast flavours, other than the bacon itself. We want a very well flavoured stock, but that with the celeriac should speak for itself. I cure my own bacon and I like the combination of pork with celeriac, which is why it is served here. You can use any fine bacon or even quenelles of pork forcemeat (if not too heavily spiced), which I have served in the past. The flowers could be replaced with chervil, wood sorrel, rounds of ordinary sorrel, baby nasturtium leaves or anything you find fits. The flowers I used here were found by the sea and so were a little salty, with hints of mustard. I would not recommend replacing the white truffle essence with black. White truffle complements the garlic in the soup, where as I find black truffle does this less. I would recommend using another oil instead, thyme would be nice or garlic might do in a pinch, but be careful not to use too much, we want a hint of garlic. Failing that you could omit it the soup will be nice regardless.

650g Celeriac

150g Potato

8g Garlic

1 Litre Chicken stock or beef stock. Make sure which ever stock you decide to use has meat and not just bones, when you make it. It should have leek, onion, carrot, thyme, bay, leaf, parsley and garlic (if you like). You can add celery too if you want (but not too much)

3 Egg Yolks

240ml Cream

Bacon

Foraged flowers

White Truffle Essence

75g Unsalted butter (cultured if possible or good quality) cut into cubes

1) Cut the celeriac, potatoes into slices. Put in a pot, add garlic and cover with stock. 1 Litre is probably a little more than you need. Cook at a simmer until potatoes and celeriac are tender. Skim any particulate or fat that might be left (hopefully all this was removed from your stock first). Do not let your soup boil.

2) Puree the vegetables then pass through a fine mesh sieve (chinois), at least twice to get a nice fine texture.

3) Gently heat the puree again diluting with a little stock if too thick. Do not let boil, it should come to a very gentle simmer. A little salt can be added, be careful not to over salt and account for a small amount of reduction that will take place. Keep skimming if necessary, you want no fat.

4) Warm your bowls.

5) Cook the bacon, crisping on both sides in a hot pan. Use streaky bacon or cured pork made from the jowl. Keep warm.

6) After cooking the bacon take your egg yolks beat them with a whisk. Then beat in cream. When the stock is warm, but not boiling, take a ladle full and pour into the egg yolks and cream, while whisking at the same time to prevent the eggs from shocking. Add another few ladles until the egg yolk, cream and stock mixture is warm. This normally takes about four or more ladles full.

7) Add the mixture back to the soup on the stove. Heat the mixture to a temperature of between 80-85 degrees Celsius (do not go above 85 degrees or you will scramble the eggs), or if you lack and instant read thermometer, you can cook it until it thickens. You will notice a marked change in mouth feel when the eggs have begun to thicken. Once they have begun to thicken you can remove from the heat. Stir in butter a few pieces at a time off the heat; you want to keep them emulsified.

8) Ladle soup into bowls. Place a piece of bacon on the soup with foraged flowers on top. Then drizzle a few dots of white truffle essence on top. If you can get fresh white truffle, I would serve with that as well, grating it on top, the canned stuff is not worthwhile.

Surf and Turf – Oxtail, Monkfish, Salsify, Mushrooms

This recipe was lifted straight from The French Laundry cookbook. Oxtail is not as cheap as perhaps it should be, but is still much more affordable than premium cuts. Monkfish is reasonably easy to get here and reliable to cook. Salsify was from the garden and shitake mushrooms are relatively easy to get. The oxtail was marinated overnight in red wine, vegetables and a bouquet garni. It then was coated in flour and seared for colour. Finally it was braised in a reduction of the marinade liquid, veal stock and chicken stock. The only small alteration I made to the recipe was to sous vide the salsify rather than blanch it. This is basically slightly easier and less likely to overcook. I pan fried the fish, as well as the mushrooms and added tomato diamonds and a brunoise of vegetables into the braised oxtail. I finished the dish with parsley.

The biggest advantage of this dish was that the oxtail could be cooked in advance. In fact braises often improve I find over time when cooked this way. This makes a dish like this significantly easier. The choice to sous vide the salsify also helped in terms of advanced preparation.

Braised Oxtail, ready to be plated.

Braised Oxtail, ready to be plated.

For me keeping costs down was important. The stocks I had already made, but they did add to the costs. The veal stock in this recipe constituted a few dollars of expense. The chicken stock would be negligible, because it is very cheap by volume. Other than the meat, a bottle of wine required for the marinade, is probably the most expensive item. One of the biggest issues with cooking with wine is price. I get asked a fair bit whether the quality of wine matters and the unfortunate answer is yes. Up to a point the more expensive a wine used to cook with the better. The wine for a marinade is perhaps less important than for those used to flavor particular sauces like a bordelaise. I would say at the very least the wine you buy needs to drinkable, but you do not have to pull out your finest Bordeaux (although the sauce will be better for it). Despite the expense of fish, wine, oxtail, mushrooms and stock, I at least did not have to buy salsify, which was growing the garden.

Salsify is a pretty rare plant to get in New Zealand; I have never seen it in stores or on any menu, although I am sure there is a way to get it. So I had my partner grow some in the garden. It is often paired with seafood, so it was a logical addition. The main alteration to the recipe I made was simply to sous vide it. Salsify is famously difficult to cook, because it overcooks quite quickly. This makes sous vide an ideal way to cook it. In the end it was relatively easy to cook, it took about 50 minutes in the water bath and I was happy with it. I then browned it in a bit of butter in the pan.

Salsify

Salsify

The oxtail I think was a real pleasure to cook and try and get right. At one level it is a reasonably easy recipe, but in order to really balance the dish properly, a lot of effort went into refining the dish itself. The wine marinade was strained, skimmed and clarified, all fat was removed after cooking and the braising liquid had to be reduced. The oxtails themselves had to be coloured in the pan. Small additions like a brunoise of vegetables and tomato diamonds all added to the work required. It wasn’t an impossible dish, but what I enjoyed was trying to get each of these details correct.

Oxtail, with Monkfish sitting on top, waiting for mushroom and salsify.

Oxtail, with Monkfish sitting on top, waiting for mushroom and salsify.

There was one problem however with the dish. That was cooking 14 portions of fish at the last minute and getting them out. Fortunately I had a friend helping me in the kitchen for this, but it was still hard. Firstly the pan my friend was using was not ideal and failed to get consistent colour on some of them that he did (no fault of his). I knew this would be an issue, but I think I was overly optimistic of the management involved, as I had to heat the mushrooms, salsify, cook the fish and keep the oxtail hot all at once. This was difficult with only four burners. This is really a lesson for those trying this sort of thing. Having to cook individual portions is very difficult without a lot of cooks. So turning out 14 individual portions of fish all perfectly cooked and hot is pretty much impossible with only one cook and just a few elements. Whatever dishes you choose, make sure they work and are reliable.

Despite this problem, the dish was delicious and well worth the investment of time and money, I think.

Plating the fish, adding mushroom and salsify.

Plating the fish, adding mushroom and salsify.

Chicken and Egg – Confit Chicken, 62 Degree Egg, Garlic Puree

This is a recipe I lifted from the Mugaritz recipe book and have cooked a bunch of times now. The only really technical part of it is the chicken wings, which don’t take that much work. A big advantage of the recipe is that it is cheap. This is especially true for me because I can get free eggs from my Partner’s parents, who can provide beautiful free range eggs from their chickens. Chicken nibbles are also cheap, as is the garlic and fenugreek, which make up most of the flavouring. The only real expense is the olive oil used to confit the chicken. However it is still possible to feed 15 people for under 30 dollars with this recipe, if you can get your eggs for free, even adding that on, it still works out at about $3 per person, so pretty cheap.

The chicken wings are confit the day before in olive oil, garlic and fenugreek, until tender, this takes about four hours (if you have the book they claim one, but this is nowhere near long enough). Once the chicken wings are tender you have to debone them all. This is a pain, especially since you need to keep them in tact without breaking the skin or pulling out all the flesh. It also needs to be done while the wings are still hot. Once you have done this, the chicken wings are put back in the oil to cool. The garlic should be cooked and this can be pureed at this time, by passing through a chinoise. Already a great deal of the work for the dish is done and this could be done a further day in advance if necessary.

On the day, the wings are seared on both sides for colour and then coated in garlic puree in crisped in the oven under a hot grill. What is great about this is that the individual cooking of the chicken wings happens before their final grilling. So while it is time consuming to cook 45 chicken wings in a pan, without crowding the pan, this can be done an hour before service and then they can be finished in the oven. The second element of this recipe that is clever is that they do not require any coating to crisp up. Since the skin has been cooked once and this is grilled under high heat, the skin itself becomes crispy. So you have this wonderful contrast between the crispy skin and the tender melting inside.

The only other component is the egg, which is cooked in a controlled temperature water bath at 62-63 degrees Celsius, for 35 minutes. I cooked these closer to 50 minutes, because I thought the people eating them would appreciate that at this party. If you cook them longer, they become a bit firmer. Normally the dish is garnished with nasturtium, again from the garden, but I left the garnish at home… ooops.

What I like about this dish is that it is far more subtle than your standard spiced chicken wings, which would be overpowering in a fine dining menu. Secondly it is relatively easy to prepare and cheap. Lastly, it is very popular. Now that I have managed to get the chicken wing technique correct, I have a lot more confidence in the dish and given many portions can be turned out, almost all at once while still hot; it is imminently, practical too.

Chicken WIngs, waterbath poached egg, garlic puree.

Chicken WIngs, waterbath poached egg, garlic puree.

Pork – Sous Vide braised Pork Belly, Pork Sausage, Crackling, Sorrel Puree, Sauce Robert, Crackling, Sous vide Onion, carrots, mash potato and black truffle powder.

This was the most difficult and technical of the courses, largely because of the number of components. This also took a bit of planning. The pork belly and sausage could be made in advance. The vegetables could all be sous vide in advance and then glazed at the last minute. The sorrel puree, black truffle powder and mash could be made before serving as well. The main element of work, that could not be done in advance was the reheating and the sauce.

Cost wise, this was less expensive than you might imagine. Pork belly is probably the most expensive of the slow roast/braising cuts. It costs me $18 per kilo, for free range pork belly, which is not exactly cheap, but it was still within budget. Sausage, while labour intensive is not very expensive to make, only the sauce itself presents a significant cost.

The pork belly was relatively easy to prepare. I simply sous vide it with some wood sorrel and thyme for 12 hours at 75 degrees. Then chilled and kept in an ice bath. The sausage was more work and I won’t go into the whole thing here, but basically pork was ground down with spices, herbs and garlic and then moistened with chicken stock. The whole thing was sous vide. The nice thing about both these preparations is they could be done in advance.

The component I spent the most time on was the sauce. Firstly I reduced some of my chicken stock and veal stock down to a glaze. This is a thick syrup consistency. Then I cooked minced onion in a pan and added some chardonnay, which I reduced down to a few teaspoons, all the while skimming the fat back out. Then I added hot stocks, veal first, which I reduced down a bit at a gentle simmer and then chicken stock, which I also reduced down a bit. Again I was skimming the entire time. I reduced until I was just about happy with the consistency. I then passed through a chinois. After this I added the the chicken glaze and the veal glaze to add body to the sauce and then finally stirred through mustard and butter, ran through a chinois again and served. This revealed a number of important lessons. The stock you use matters a lot. The veal stock I was using was a little low in gelatin content and not quite the flavour I would have liked, although the colour and clarity were excellent. I would say most of this was because this is not really veal season. While it may be possible to get milk fed veal, I have not had much luck getting milk fed veal bones, out of season. As such the sauces never quite have the gelatin content I would like or the taste. It is important not to put too fine a point on this, they are still delicious, but it is a frustration I have. I think however it really crystalised how much work a really good sauce is. It requires great stock for starters and then a lot of attention to detail.

Pork being plated, you can see the sauce under the pork and mash.

Pork being plated, you can see the sauce under the pork and mash.

This dish was very challenging to plate. With so many components, most of which needed to be at least reheated, I was struggling to get it out hot. I did heat the plates, but having so much to put on the plate a few extra hands would have been pretty helpful. Also this meant a lot of the individual components did not get the attention they deserved, which is something I will have to work on. I would estimate that another 2-3 people to help plating would have allowed a little more margin for error and I could have spent more time finishing the components, rather than worrying about cooling plates. Ultimately it was a pretty yummy dish and I was very pleased with the sauce.

Considerations for Dinners

Seasonality

One of the first things I considered was the season that I was cooking in. Since it was winter this affected significantly the choices of food I served. Firstly it meant my vegetable choices would favour winter vegetables, you will notice I choose, celeriac puree for the soup, salsify to serve with the oxtail and monkfish. Carrots, onions and potatoes are relatively reliable throughout the year as are cultivated mushrooms. I avoided tender lamb cuts, because we are out of season for young lambs and they are starting to get older. Veal was also out for this reason. I considered serving braised lamb, but decided against it because of lack of lamb stock and I did not want to have to make it. There are several other seasonal choices I would have gone for, if not restrained for other reasons and that would have included, cavolo nero, bitter greens and oysters all of which are in season and delicious. I avoided tomatoes as these were out of season, although I ended up serving small diamonds with the beef, I tried to minimise their impact. So when deciding on the menu, try and consider what is in season and if possible use it.

Practicality

Probably the biggest hurdle is practicality. It is important not to set your sights too high, as I found out to my expense here. Dishes with lots and lots of components, still need to come out hot. How you do this important.

Finished pork, plated.

Finished pork, plated.

Advance cooking

Cooking in advance is crucial, but too much of this will limit your quality. You need to know what can be cooked ahead and what suffers for it. Sous vide is handy like this because it seals your food, in addition to cooking it, but some foods are better made in advance like braises. However many items suffer reductions in quality if made too far in advance. Vegetables, especially green ones in winter, should be left on the plant for as long as possible. Do not pick you vegetables too early. Cooking too far in advance will limit the quality of the product. I will list a few things that do well cooked in advance, this means a few days., generally not much is good cooked more than a week in advance, although your stocks might have to be and then be frozen if necessary.

A word of warning some things cook not as well as you might think in advance. While they can be made a day or two before, beyond that you get serious reductions in quality. Even though they keep well enough, that is they won’t go off, they don’t always taste or feel the same. Examples of this include ice cream, purees and dehydrated powders. Anyway be aware of what can and can’t be cooked in advance. You do not want to have to cook 15-20 portions of food to order, all at once, unless you have plenty of burners and other cooks to help.

The rule is generally cook everything as close to serving time as possible, but be practical with this. You cannot cook everything at once, make it manageable and have a plan.

Planning

You should have a list of everything that is to be done in the kitchen and a recipe at hand if necessary. Cooking from recipe books on the day, is usually detrimental, because they are bulky and annoying. Print out summaries of the recipes and use them if need be. Notes and lists are your friend.

Cook from Scratch

It is important to keep costs down and provide quality. Ready made items are almost never of good quality, with a few notable exceptions. Stuff like stock for example I think should always be made from scratch. There are now premium stocks that can be bought, at exorbitant prices that will work, but no veal stock current exists, which is a major problem. Stuff like cheese, should obviously be bought, as can butter and potentially bread (as long as it is good bread). However where possible scratch made items will reduce your costs and increase your quality, most of the time. If you do not feel confident to make it, I would suggest thinking about another recipe. While bought bread is ok, frozen sheet pastry is generally not. Anyway you can make your own mind up, but that is my feeling on the subject. Cook from scratch, it will make all the difference. It is worth noting that some kinds of pasta, if of good quality are worth buying machine made, rather than making by hand. Pasta that accompanies, fish and oily (rather than buttery/tomato based sauces) work well with harder machine pasta, however you should still get some decent brand of it.

Flexibility and Quality

You need to flexible. If things go wrong in the kitchen, you have to make things work as best as you can. You may not be able to get an ingredient on the day, that you planned to use, you will have to make do. The key is to always favour best quality if you can. That is say you planned to use a particular fish, but it looks not very good at the fishmongers, find something else that will work, but look for bright eyed, shiny fresh fish. It is better to serve a slightly different thing than you were planning that is of good quality, than serve a tired old piece of fish or vegetable that is past its prime. If you are flexible enough to account for this then you can still produce excellent food, even if you cannot get a hold of something or you ruin a component in a dish.

Mistakes also happen I have ruined things and left components at home. In the pork above I had made puy lentils to go with the pork. In the heat of the moment, I forgot to reheat them and serve them with the dish. In the end I don’t think it mattered and I made a delicious salad the next day from them, it was not disaster. I once forgot my bacon wrapped rabbit loins at home on the bench and they were ruined by the time I came back. Stuff happens, you have to make do.

I may post more at a future date, but I hope those interested in doing dinner parties find this helpful.

El Sizzling Chorizo

El Sizzling Chorizo

In the recently established Ponsonby Central is an  Argentinian Barbeque restaurant. This has been one of the more popular establishments in Ponsonby Central and it has a certain obvious appeal. Meats cooked on the grill, with rustic flavours imbued with smoke. It seems like the sort of food that will be popular with a lot of people and fortunately for them it is.

The restaurant itself is small with a bar and stools facing the grill, a couple tables inside and two outside. It is simple and as lacking in pretension as a place can be in Ponsonby Central, which is perhaps not all that much, but it is clear the focus will be on the rustic food presented. The service is fine, although no reservations are possible and you must stand around and wait for a table.

The Grill

The Grill

The question is however have we finally gotten good South American cuisine, at an affordable price? The prices are not expensive, but are not cheap either. A sirloin steak will run you $25 for 300g, which is a big steak and not bad on price. Even better is 400g of Ribs for $19. A tasting plate is $30.  An Entrée of chorizo is $10. Grilled bread is $3 I think and the most expensive side is the grilled potatoes with a mustard sauce, at $7. Given it is Ponsonby road, I think the prices are pretty reasonable, especially given the quantity.

All this however counts for little, if the food is no good. There are some real positives. Firstly meat that is basically hot smoked, is delicious. The subtle flavouring of smoke, with meat is an almost unbeatable combination. While I have little experience with Argentinian food, southern barbeque, is a wonder to behold. Meat permeated with smoke, falling of the bone with strong heady flavours makes the mouth water. In this respect the flavouring of meat from the smoke is delicious and gives some nice subtlety.

The food is simple and formulaic however. It is universally a protein served with the same side salad and sauce. I have no problem with this per se, it is fine that the restaurant is singular in its approach, but it will need to do that thing very well, if there is no real selection. I was fortunate enough to try all but two of the items on the menu, some several times. So I will give a quick rundown.

Sweetbreads – As I have mentioned previously I like sweetbreads a lot. This dish is simple, sweetbreads, grilled on the barbeque, served with chimichurri and side salad. This was probably my favourite dish. The smoke adds a really nice complexity to the sweetbreads themselves, they really benefit I find from the addition of other flavours. Secondly because this was cooked to order, it was actually quite well cooked. They had a nice colour and were delicious. The sauce was perhaps slightly overpowering for them, but it was good regardless. I will discuss the salad later.

Grilled Sweetbreads

Grilled Sweetbreads

Chorizo – This was served with grilled bread and the ubiquitous salad. I found the chorizo over seasoned and so salty. This was probably particularly apparent, because most of the other food was under salted. It was strong in flavour and was texturally acceptable sausage with plenty of fat. I would hazard that they were under coloured however on the grill. The sausage as a whole uninteresting, lacking an really subtlety. The grilled bread was a good idea, but was not wonderfully executed. It is a flat bread cooked right on the grill. However they were made a little too thick and so were not quite as cooked through as I would have liked. We had three breads in total of which I tried a piece of all off. Some were better cooked than others and the thickness was inconsistent. Those made at proper thickness, I found a nice accompaniment.

Argentinian Chorizo

Argentinian Chorizo

Empanadas –  These are a kind of pastry, similar to a samosa, where a meat filling is encompassed by pastry. These were pretty good and the meat filling was well flavoured and balanced and while the shell wasn’t amazing, it was not a significant detriment, either.

The main attraction however of the place is the barbequed meat. This was really where the restaurant is to make or break.

Skirt Steak – Out of all the meats, this was the most reliably cooked, which is a good thing, because badly cooked skirt steak is really tough and unappetizing. The skirt steak was cooked medium rare with a healthy colour on the outside. I love skirt steak, is really well flavoured, even if a bit chewy. However two of the biggest weaknesses that I found with El Sizzling Chorizo, were evident in this dish. Firstly it was poorly seasoned. The salt had obviously been applied not thoroughly enough and not far enough in advance, so it lacked penetration through the meat. Secondly the quality of meat, was just not that good. For the price I can understand this, perhaps, but there just was no flavour in the skirt steak and this was very disappointing, given this is the whole point of skirt steak.

Chicken Thigh – The chicken thigh revealed the last and probably most critical problem with the meat and this inconsistency of cooking. On one occasion my chicken thigh was over cooked, dry and completely cooked through it offered little culinary value. On another occasion it was cooked medium rare, fortunately I have no problem with medium rare chicken, but I suspect most people would. All were under salted and lacking in flavour.

Mixed Platter of meats

Mixed Platter of meats

Pork Belly – This at least was salted thoroughly, however inconsistency was again a big let down. On one occasion, the belly was falling apart, unctuous and delicious, in fact I wished you could have just ordered pork belly. The second time however it was under cooked. This made the pork belly tough, which is unforgivable. Why did they not just serve something else on the plate? I cannot fathom, how the chef, would have seen clearly it was undercooked and chosen to slice a bit off and serve it anyway. It seems contemptuous of the customer, to serve such food.

Lamb – They slow roast lamb shoulder. This was probably the most consistent, other than the skirt steak. It was tender and falling off the bone. It had obviously been cooked a long time as some of the bit on the underside of the forequarter were dry and crispy, which was actually nice. In general though the lamb least interesting in terms of its combination with smoke, I think the beef and pork submitted most readily to its charms.

Short ribs – The beef short ribs, was the best of the lot. They were consistently cooked both times they were ordered. While annoyingly under salted, they were still moist and delicious on both occasions. I also think they match the sauce really well. Lastly they were the cheapest main, at $19, so I think they are well worth trying, if you are going.

Beef Short ribs

Beef Short ribs

The chimichurri – The sauce that accompanies all the dishes is the same, it is a mixture of herbs, garlic and spices in oil. It is a good rustic sauce to accompany grilled meats and so I think this pairs nicely. The thing is that I do not think it works as well for chicken as I do for beef for example. I wonder if more detail could be paid to such pairings.

The salad – The same salad also comes with every plate. To be honest it is not very good. The greens are almost too obviously just supermarket bag mesculin. The dressing was overpowering and in general, it adds nothing other than a bit of green to the plate. I would happily not have had it and I love vegetables, but I see little point in serving greens with no flavour.

El Sizzling Chorizo delivers on two things people like. That is lots of meat and strong flavours. There is a time in my life when this would have been sufficient. I can see why it is popular, smoke in particular is a delicious flavour. However no amount of smoke or mirrors, can cover up the real failings of the restaurant. Even ignoring the chronic under salting and inconsistency of cooking, the meat itself, that fundamental underlying element, is just not that good. For the money, perhaps I am being to picky, but chicken for example is just flavourless, which I guess is hidden somewhat by the smokey flavour and the strong sauce, but the fundamentals are not there. Add to that the inconsistency of cooking, the lack of salt and the general technical problems and I think it is fatal to the restaurant, no matter, how much novelty value it has. Frankly El Sizzling Chorizo is ripe for the picking from competition, but it has no competition, in Auckland and so I think it can get away with serving, what is actually not good food. I perhaps am being overly harsh, but it is merely the expression of my frustration at the lack of attention to detail, when it seems without a lot more effort, we could have much nicer food. Real greens in the salad, slightly better meat (especially chicken), not serving underdone pork belly, and more commitment to the cooking process. The greatest difficulty I guess is that most of the food is not made to order. It is cooked and has to sit around waiting for people to order it. This inevitably leads to some inconsistency, but surely it is not an insurmountable hurdle and surely the staff can choose whether to serve something that is obviously under or overcooked. Underwhelmed, if you have to go, sweetbreads, empanadas and short ribs are the way to go.

 Rating:

(** = excellent, * = very good, everything else gets nothing)

O’Connell Street Bistro

O’Connell Street Bistro

O’Connell Street, High Street, Vulcan lane and the adjoining end of Shortland street, boast some of the few older buildings within Auckland City. On the corner of O’Connell and Shortland street lives that Auckland institution, O’Connell Street Bistro, neatly perched to serve the business people, lawyers and various other moneyed in sundry, that frequent the local area. They serve classic bistro fare, with a few Italian dishes thrown in. Mains range in price from about 35-48 dollars. There is a tasting menu as well.

The Room

The bistro itself is divided into two rooms. One is a small bar. The other is a dining room, which is also small and cozy. Anachronistic in feel, the walls are covered with artwork, tables close together to make the most of the small space, adorned with odd phallic lamps, that bring a mixture of unease and intimacy.  I have been there a few times and always in winter, the dining room has been warm, perhaps somewhat stuffy. The tables are close together in order to maximise their covers. While not altogether unpleasant and certainly sophisticated, the cramped conditions never seem ideal. Not all restaurants can spoil their patrons with room and privacy, O’Connell Street Bistro I think runs the edge of the boundary. Your neighbour’s conversations often infuse your own. The room is kept dark and so is somewhat gloomy. However it is not without its charms, nice artwork and details, not withstanding penis lamps, do distinguish it.

The Service

I have never found the service particularly good. It tends on the stiff and formal side of things. The wait staff never quite seem that friendly. The service is often patronising and formulaic. I have found this on repeated occasions. For example the staff thought it was necessary to explain that the Crayfish was from Coromandel, which was fine, but then explained that Coromandel was a peninsula that was a couple hours drive south of Auckland, or when they deemed it necessary to tell us all about the Bluff oyster and then explain they were harvested in the South Island. These are minor problems of course, nothing was disastrous, but I mention this because it is obvious that they are trying for excellent service. Even if it must be overly formal, the need to treat the customers like idiots is beyond me. At the very least talking to the customer would have revealed very quickly that we did not need to have it explained to us where Coromandel was or that there was this thing called a bluff oyster that we may not have heard of. Having said this, when we did receive a dish that was below standard they did not charge us for it and removed it without question. I would say the service is alright, but the formalism I think gets in the way and as a result it can seem a little unfriendly and cold. It is interesting to compare to the service at Kazuya, which is also very formal, but it feels much more personalised and less scripted, which is partly why O’Connell Street Bistro’s service feels less than it could be. They are trying, but perhaps a little hard.

The Food

The food is on the whole excellent. The food is in the style of classic Bistro cooking, as a result it is tradition bound in comparison to some of the other fine dining restaurants around. I will discuss a few specific dishes and then discuss the food more generally.

Vitello Tunnato – This is a classic Italian dish of veal cut thinly served cold with a mayonnaise and tuna fish sauce. If you have not had it, it may sound a little odd, but it is one of those combinations that just seems to work. The O’Connell Street version was pretty standard. The veal was served rare and was delicate in flavour. The mayonnaise was smooth and not heavily flavoured with fish. It was also served with potato chips. That is deep fried thin slices of potato. This was not really a technical dish, but the trick of Italian food is not to push complexity and flavours too far. The only real addition was another sauce, which added some piquant flavours, but given it is quite normal to contrast the veal with capers for example this mad a lot of sense. In this I think the dish succeeded admirably.

Vitello Tunnato at O'Connell Street Bistro.

Vitello Tunnato at O’Connell Street Bistro.

Leek Terrine – The leek terrine was probably the most interesting dish on the menu. It was paired with goats cheese and a few other components. Eating cold leeks with some cheese, does not perhaps seem that exciting of a dish. However I have to say this was not only clever, but delicious. Serving cold leek is difficult and I am not totally sure how the dish was executed, but they had vibrant flavour, slightly sweet and offsetting the lovely, somewhat sharp cheese. Excellent combination of flavour and texture.

Leek Terrine, excellent course.

Leek Terrine, excellent course.

Chicken Liver Parfait – I have no picture of this sadly, but it was probably the best parfait I have had. Served very pink, with plenty of mediera, it was sweet, impossibly smooth and deeply flavoured. It was served with a celeriac remoulade, which was equally good. This seems to remain on their menu pretty constantly and with good reason. I would say it is worth going there pretty much to just try the parfait.

I also tried a few of the other dishes, the oysters (reliably good), scallops (also excellent). In generally I would say they that all of the entrees were superbly cooked and flavoured. The only dish I have been slightly less than impressed with have been the veal sweet breads. I love sweetbreads, but I generally cook lamb, because I can only get veal frozen. Sweetbreads are normally blanched (in court bouillon) and then cooked again into dishes. The blanching process removes a lot of their organ flavour. It also should imparts some of the flavour of the court bouillon, so they should be pleasantly imbued with the aromatics in the bouillon. I will discuss this more when I get to mains, but I have found them underwhelming in this. Their texture is excellent, but they always seem a little flavourless to me.

Scallops and Ham at O'Connell Street Bistro.

Scallops and Ham at O’Connell Street Bistro.

Beef Cheek, Mash, Glazed Carrot, Onions and Veal Sweetbreads –  Technically the dish was next to faultless. The beef cheek was perfectly braised, unctuous and deeply flavoured. The flavour of the cheek, still holds strongly in my memory. It reminded me of dry aged beef, in its complex and slightly musty flavour. Beef cheek is always well flavoured, but this was particularly exceptional in that regard. The sauce was complex, free of fat and delicious. My favourite element however were the onions, with a moist almost gelatinous interior and sweet flavour seemed a wonderful accompaniment with the beef. They were both sympathetic in texture and contrasting in flavour. Served atop the beef cheek, were deep fried sweetbreads. I like the concept here, most of the other components, the beef cheek, vegetables and potato were all softer textures, the sweetbreads, with their crumbed coating provided contrasting textures. My only complaint as I alluded to above, is I think the sweetbreads lacked any real flavour. Both my encounters with sweetbreads at O’Connell Street have seemed that way. The technical elements of the dish were good, but together, while delicious, it was less impressive than some of the other dishes I had.

Beef Cheek with veal sweetbreads on top.

Beef Cheek with veal sweetbreads on top.

Venison, Hazelnut Gnocchi, Brussel Sprouts and Cranberry – Another truly excellent dish. The venison well matched with its accompaniments, was tender and perfectly cooked (I’m guessing sous vide given the moistness and very thin crust around the edges). The sauce was excellent, clean and complementary. Of particular worthy mention were the hazelnut gnocchi, which were cooked and then crisped on two sides. They had a great texture, light, but with some bite from the seared exterior. These were potentially the highlight of the dish. It combined several great conceptual features, highly textured, great balance of flavours and refinement of technique.

Delicious venison.

Delicious venison.

Ossobuco – I love ossobuco, It is another classic Italian dish, of braised veal shin. The previous versions that I have made and eaten are light of flavour. Unlike a French style braise, the broth used to flavour the ossobuco is lighter than french stocks in intensity, but is made with more meat than bones, so the dish is a little less heavy normally, but still broadly flavoured. White wine is also the primary flavour in the braising liquid other than the mirepoix and broth. There are versions of ossobuco, that use red wine as well, although this is less common. The version that I had at O’Connell Street Bistro was flavoured with red wine and made in a more french style, with a brown stock base, rather than blond. The sauce was thick and sticky and not as light as a normal Italian version. It was served on mash potatoes. I do love the traditional Italian version, however this was still an excellent dish, far more reminiscent of a French braise however, deeply coloured and intensely flavoured, it suited the rich winter environment, perhaps better than traditional ossobuco. Certainly in context of the entire meal, it made more sense, given the largely French perspective at the restaurant. Although I admit to generally preferring a more traditional Italian version generally.

I tried a few other dishes as well including, rabbit pappardelle, a vegetable and blue cheese pie and a few others. All of which were excellently cooked. However the sides were a mixed a bag. They had an excellent radicchio salad, but their mixed vegetables were terrible. The broccoli was overcooked, as were the green beans (very slightly, this was forgivable) and the grilled zucchini was not only out of season and flavourless, but it was too limp. This was perhaps the lowest part of all the food I had. Although they did not charge us for the dish, when this was pointed out. Interestingly I never got to dessert, on one occasion the heat of the room got to me and I felt sick and after that I favoured cheeses.

The cheese selection merits some discussion. On the menu were four cheeses. A Kapiti blue cheese, a Richmond Red, a French brie and a ash rind goats cheese. First up the Kapiti, I will never understand why restaurants serve Kapiti cheese. I find some of their cheeses descent, enough for kind of casual eating, cheddar is good, as is one of their blue cheeses, but none of the blues I think hold a candle to continental blues in this regard. They are two singular in flavour. They lack the complexity of a great Stilton, St Augur, Roquefort, Gorgonzola or any of the others. I am not saying that New Zealand blue cheeses are bad, but I do not find the Kapiti blues to be of sufficient depth of flavour to compare to their European competition. So this was a miss for me. The Brie de Meaux is not a bad cheese. It is reasonably complex, with a creamy rich texture, but it also failed to wildly excite, perhaps I have had it too much. The last two cheeses were excellent however, in particular the subtlety of the ash rind goats cheese (selles sur cher) was superb. Delicate, but complex in flavour and surprisingly less sharp than you might imagine. The Richmond Red from Nelson was superb as well. Again the depth and complexity of flavour here were excellent. The cheese itself was harder in texture and offered more sharpness than the others. They had excellent ginger biscuits that accompanied the cheeses.

The strengths of O’Connell Street I think is the cooking. Generally from a technical standpoint the components were well executed. There were on occasion a few things that could be improved, the consommé was perhaps not perfectly clear (although it was free from fat) and one or two components I suppose could be better, but texture and flavour wise, the food was cooked to excellent standard. However I think there are a few problems that warrant some discussion.

To say presentation is an issue is perhaps to overstate the point, but given the quality of food coming out of the kitchen, some of the presentations I think could have been better. The sauces were often a little sloppy in their plating for example, the consommé was not perfectly clear and other small problems existed. However most of these were forgivable, because in general the details were good, the perfectly coloured skin on deep fried items, the beautiful glazed carrots, the clear sauces and the like. However what I found disappointing was the plate composition. Some of them just did not look that good. I understand that it is a traditional restaurant in this respect and so there will not be the more adventurous presentations of more cutting edge restaurants, which I personally prefer, but I think more care could be given and inventiveness displayed in them. This is a small problem, the individual components were largely great it was more the composition of plates.

Pithivier or wild mushroom and  blue cheese. I found this presentation pretty uninspiring.

Pithivier or wild mushroom and blue cheese. I found this presentation pretty uninspiring.

The next issue for me is seasonality. The menu frankly lacks enough sense of season. For example our terrible mixed vegetables that we received included zucchini, why? In the middle of winter zucchini are going to be hothouse or imported and frankly of poor value. There are a plethora of winter vegetables that could be chosen from and cooked without a problem, but why choose zucchini as a choice? The venison advertised figs with it on the menu. As it turned out they used cranberries. It was not clear to me if figs would normally be served with it or not, but they are clearly out of season (and I would guess next to impossible to find good ones). Perhaps this why they serve cranberries, but regardless, it goes to show the menu is not updated for the season and so they obviously are relatively static in menu construction. Why serve lamb loin, when braised cuts would be best, given the relative toughness and flavour this time of year? Again there is a lack of season consideration, in winter where are the soups? Why serve green beans, when again they are not at their best in winter? Where are the cabbages? Celeriac? Beets? Salsify? What about truffle, they served only essence as far as I can tell? They did serve lots of broccoli, I suppose. At least the vegetable terrine featured a seasonal vegetable (leek), as did the venison (brussel sprouts), despite its inclusion of figs. This is disappointing for me, as it seems to be giving up opportunities for better  food for no real reason.

Lamb

Lamb

What I love about the restaurant however is that it cooks food that works as a whole. Each dish, never feels like a bunch of components slapped on a plate. They feel integrated, this may simply be because they are serving food deeply rooted within a tradition, but regardless it makes their food work. The central core of the food is strong and relies on excellent technique and for that reason I think O’Connell Street Bistro is an excellent restaurant. It does not serve the most challenging food, but it is richly rewarding to eat and savour. Some of the things do bother me, probably the service is my biggest annoyance, but I enjoy eating there and if you want something that serves relatively straight forward, but excellently cooked bistro food, you need to look no further. Other restaurants compete in this field, but I think that O’Connell Street Bistro is the best of them.

*

(for those who forget ** = excellent, * = very good. Everything else gets none. So you need to be a good restaurant to even get one *)

Stock Part Two – Making Brown or Veal Stock

I get a lot of questions about making brown stock or veal stock. In my previous article on stock I discussed this at some length. However I thought today I could work through some tips for making good quality veal stock or brown stock. In doing so I will examine the different decisions and techniques that are can be used.

Blanched veal bones.

Blanched veal bones.

What is brown stock?

Brown stock is a heavily flavoured stock that originally was a mixture of many different materials, but largely beef and veal. Originally this involved large quantities of meat as well as bones. Some classic recipes include bacon hocks and various other flavoursome meats. In the modern era stocks have been paired back in terms of ingredients, but more concentrated in flavour. The result is that classical stocks taste much different than their contemporary counter parts. I am going to discuss veal stock, which fulfils the same function as traditional brown stock. In the modern kitchen veal stock and brown stock are basically equivalent, so if you have a recipe for brown stock, veal stock may be used.

Finished stock to go in the fridge. You will notice the deep brown colour. There are some flecks of white, this is not sediment, but just some bubbles from when I poured the stock in the container. Ideally it should be free of fat. The digital camera makes this appear a little browner than it actually is. Your stock should appear a little darker than this.

Finished stock to go in the fridge. You will notice the deep brown colour. There are some flecks of white, this is not sediment, but just some bubbles from when I poured the stock in the container. Ideally it should be free of fat. The digital camera makes this appear a little browner than it actually is. Your stock should appear a little darker than this.

Why veal stock?

The next question is why use veal stock to begin with, why not chicken or beef? Well neither chicken nor beef are truly satisfactory equivalents for them. On e of the biggest reasons for veal stock is gelatin content. Veal is very high in collagen, especially the shin. As it cooks that collagen turns into gelatin, which gives veal stock its characteristic mouth feel and highly gelatinous nature. The gelatin is essential for sauces in order to thicken them without the use of roux.

In the classical kitchen, sauces were thickened with roux, many people still uses roux for gravies and bechamel, but in modern fine dining kitchens, this has fallen out of favour. Properly roux thickened sauces are excellent, but they are different from the modern heavily reduced sauces, I don’t suggest one is better from the other, but they are different and because the modern convention is to move away from roux thickened sauces, veal stock is absolutely essential for sauces. This is because the stock itself is generally the only thickening agent in the sauce. The veal stock is reduced to such a level where the gelatin, even when hot thickens the sauce. If the stock lacks gelatin or is not adequately reduced then the sauce will be runny and not the proper consistency.

Veal stock has one other big advantage and that is a relatively neutral flavour. Unlike pork, which can also be high in gelatin, veal is much more suited to accompanying other meats. So veal stock meats a happy balance of requisite flavour and high gelatin content.

Recipes

There are a ton of recipes for veal stock. The basics are usually the same, but there is some variation. The first thing you need to be aware of is good veal stock takes a lot of work. It not only has a very long cooking time, but it takes a lot of skimming and careful temperature control. I personally like Thomas Keller’s recipe from The French Laundry cook book or from Under Pressure.  This recipe is labour intensive, but I think the best I have tried. They do not use a pressure cooker, which has some down sides, I will discuss the advantages of pressure cookers later, but largely because the cost of a pressure cooker of requisite size, I don’t use them. I would say my biggest criticism of many veal stock recipes is that they are not cooked long enough. Some extract gelatin for as little as 3 hours, which is just not sufficient, it is barely sufficient to get enough flavour out of your vegetables. It takes a long time to get out enough gelatin from the bones of the veal. To be honest the only reason I can see this is the case is to try and appeal to home cooks. Stock that is not adequately cooked is better than no stock, but without sufficient gelatin extraction, you won’t be making great sauces. Be prepared to cook your bones ideally for 12+ hours. Cook them at least 6 hours, I’d say regardless of recipe.

Bones and Meat

Fortunately the modern stock uses only bones. This makes stock much cheaper, veal bones, even if they are the most expensive only run only at most a dollar or two a kilo. Meat is not necessary for the stock, although it does add to the flavour. Bones tend to be higher in gelatin, although some quite gelatinous cuts like shin and cheek are decently high in gelatin as well. I use bones only, largely because of cost and the fact that highly reduced stocks, tend to have enough flavour intensity without the use of meat. However when I make stock, particularly for soup, I will often add meat, but the veal stock we are discussing here, is not stock for soup, but for sauces and braises (normally, you could make soup from it, but it is probably a waste).

Vegetables, Herbs and Spices

One of the biggest impacts of for flavour of your stock is mirepoix. The vegetables you use matter. You are welcome to experiment with different flavours. Classically leek, carrot, onion and celery were the base for stock. Most modern recipes omit celery, because it can be a bit strong. A bouquet garni is also important. This means parsley, bay leaves, thyme and other herbs. Again there are variations, the use of cloves is not unheard of and garlic is quite common. The quality particularly of your vegetables can make a big difference here, so I try to get decent vegetables. Remember the only thing that flavours your stock is what you put in it, despite the thinking that anything can go into a stock, it is not an excuse to empty your compost bin to make food, stocks like this, while better than no stock, will not be of high quality. This isn’t to say stock isn’t a great way to use up left over ends of vegetables or even ugly looking ones, you don’t want to present, but putting potato peelings and the like into your stock offer nothing for flavour and may well simply cloud the stock.

Tomato Paste

Tomato paste is extensively used in brown stock recipes, it contributes significant flavour and colour to the stock. You need to make sure you buy tomato paste with as little salt as possible. Most of them have some, but some are heavily salted, say 3% salt. The problem with these, is that while they often taste good, is that you can’t reduce the stock sufficiently without it becoming too salty. So just be aware. Also buy the best tomato paste you can afford. It contributes significant flavour and is important, even if it means you spend 15 bucks on tomato paste, you will be rewarded in the end.

Blanching or Browning

Normally bones are browned in the oven on high heat (220-250 Degrees C) for several hours to give them a nice brown colour (don’t burn them). This adds roasted flavours to the stock. However several modern chefs now blanch the bones in water and don’t roast them. This helps significantly with the clarity of stock, as a great deal of the scum can be removed before you even start making the stock. To blanch the bones cover in plenty of water and slowly heat to a simmer. It usually takes about 1 1/2 hours I find to reach the simmer in my 20L steel stock pot. The first technique is definitely more appropriate for classical brown stock, because it is usually less reduced and flavour intensity is more important. For modern stocks, that are heavily reduced, blanching is fine. Even with heavily reduced stocks, there is nothing wrong with browning the bones. So do which ever one you like, you can try both and decide which flavour is better.

This is an example of blanching veal bones. The red colour in the water is the blood that is being drawn out. This saves having to skim it later and adds generally to the clarity of the stock.

This is an example of blanching veal bones. The red colour in the water is the blood that is being drawn out. This saves having to skim it later and adds generally to the clarity of the stock.

Skimming

Most of us can buy veal bones, some veggies and throw them in a slow cooker or stock pot and simmer for 12 hours. What separates such stocks from really good stock, is for a large part skimming. There are several different methods, but you need to understand what you are skimming out. Firstly there is the fat. This collects on the surface in little droplets. They tend to congregate around the side of your stock pot. The fat needs to be removed. The simplest way is to wait until the end put the stock in the fridge and once it has set, remove the fat by hand as a solid piece. This is fine if you don’t want to go the extra mile. The truth is that to get a perfectly clear stock, you need to remove all the fat. Simply taking out a large chunk of it at the end probably won’t get it all. So you need to skim the whole time it is cooking. It may seem impossible, but eventually you will remove it all. More will bubble to the surface, which you then can remove. The vegetables and tomato paste tend to interfere with the skimming process, so I add my vegetables after I have heated the stock and skimmed it significantly. The vegetables need less cooking anyway, so this gives me time to extract as much fat as I can before I add them.

The most important and difficult thing however to remove is the sediment. This comes from several sources. Firstly particles from the bones, meat and blood. You need to skim all the scum off the surface of your stock, as it comes up. If left too long it can emulsify again in the liquid. Initially you will get particles of blood with some bits of meat and the like floating to the top. Remove these. Once the vegetables and tomato paste are added you will also get particulate from them. These need to be removed as well. The idea is to get as clear a stock as possible. If these are left in they will cloudy the stock and ruin the presentation somewhat. They are not necessarily crucial in terms of taste. In fact removing the tomato paste particles, means you have to further reduce your stock to get it to a sauce, since the particles act as a network for the gelatin to hold onto and thicken it somewhat. If you want best quality stock you need to do this, but if you just want something tasty, it isn’t crucial. I find once I have all the fat out in the final reduction, I still have to skim particulate, it will form a kind of foam at the top of the stock and this will be largely tomato paste.

The last part of skimming classically was to remove the “skin” that forms on top of the stock. This is worth doing because it allows more particulate to be removed. I just look at it as part of general skimming, but if you get a skin on top feel free to remove it.

Skimming the stock is important. Here you can see there is a little fat on the surface, but it is largely free. Also note the relative clarity, which denotes a lack of sediment.

Skimming the stock is important. Here you can see there is a little fat on the surface, but it is largely free. You can see the tomato paste, which will eventually be skimmed off. The small bubbles on top will also be skimmed.

Temperature

Temperature is crucial for stock. Many of the first stocks I made lacked the requisite brown colour and came out red. You want a very dark brown, almost a little black, once you have reduced your brown stock. In order to do this you need to have a high enough temperature to encourage browning reactions to take place in your stock. However most crucially, stock must never, boil. The trick is to have as high a temperature as possible without risk of boiling it. This takes a little experience, a instant read thermometer can be hand so you get a feel for what the stock looks like at the right cooking temperature. Just remember to not boil your stock. It will emulsify your sediment, which will cloudy the stock.

Pressure Cookers

I am not a fan of pressure cookers in general, for many tasks, especially cooking meat, however, they make a lot of sense for stock, but there are some draw backs. Pressure cookers make the time spend cooking stock way less. I am still unsure of how much less cooking is required, I’ve heard claims of only 45 minutes at the simmer for veal stock (I suspect this will not give adequate extraction), but regardless they can take what is 12 hours cooking down to say 2 hours pretty easily. However the advantages of pressure cookers go beyond this. They maintain more of the volatile flavours in the stock itself (assuming you want these). On paper these are great, but there are a number of practical problems, that while not insurmountable, take some sorting out.

The biggest impediment, at least here in New Zealand, is cost. Pressure cookers are expensive. To get a 10 L pressure cooker is almost $500, let alone a 20L or preferably a 24L. So while you could make a small amount of stock in a 10L it just isn’t big enough I think to make enough stock that will adequately reduce for the time it takes. If I make stock I want to make a bunch of it. It takes hours of time and a lot of effort to do so. Working for a day on stock and yielding less than 500ml is just not worth while. You never get a big yield out of veal stock, but cutting your yield in half doesn’t sound like fun to me, especially for the price, which is expensive. A 5L will still set you back several hundred dollars and could yield as little as 250ml of actual usable stock. So if you have a pressure cooker, of sufficient size, this is fine, but for many of us this isn’t really an option.

The next issue is skimming. A lot of the time making stock is not just cooking. It is bringing your stock to temperature, which needs to be done slowly. This takes a good 1 ½ hours. Once at the temperature it takes time to skim all the impurities out. By the time you actually finish this usually the stock has been at the simmer for a while. Fat will continue to rise to surface throughout the simmering so removing it once does not prevent the need to continue skimming. Stocks in a pressure cooker cannot be opened to skim, so this will need to be done at the end. In the case of fat, this is not too much of an issue, but sediment, does need to be skimmed. Having said this, there are points where a pressure cooker could be used, particularly in the case of white stocks, that require less skimming thanks to the lack of  tomato paste. I am not sure how much of an issue this really is. It seems possible to adequately skim before adding the lid and after, without compromising the stock, after all Heston Blumenthal uses pressure cookers and Modernist Cuisine advocates for them as well. I am not therefore saying this is a complete bar, but it can be a hurdle.

One of the supposed advantages for pressure cookers, is perhaps not as great for veal stock. That is maintaining the volatile compounds within the stock. I say this because with veal stock, a significant portion of the cooking time and frankly the loss of volatile flavours is in the final reduction. That reduction takes many hours and entails the loss of liquid and inevitably the loss of flavour through that reduction. I can see no real viable way around this. Now obviously you would still prevent some volatile loss, but then in preventing these flavours from escaping you are also preventing reduction, which you will end up carrying out later anyway, thereby loosing the flavours. However for stocks that are not heavily reduced, I can see the advantage holding, in the case of chicken or white veal stock for instance. The biggest advantage seems to be time taken for veal stock.

The last objection to pressure cookers is they in my experience are more difficult to use and determine the best heat for the stock. I say this because I can tell the temperature of the stock by the way it behaves by looking at it in the pot. Since you cannot see it and also cannot add a thermometer to it, there is no way to accurately gauge the temperature. Also very consistent heat is really helpful here, induction elements are great for this. Again this is not fatal, experience with the cooker can overcome this, but one of my experiences with a pressure cooker yielded cloudy stock. Now however with requisite care, this is not too much of a problem.

Overall I see great potential in pressure cookers for stock. Unlike meat, which becomes overly dry in pressure cookers, this doesn’t matter for stock, as only flavour extraction is important. Pressure cookers significantly speed up the gelatin extraction and the browning reaction in the stock. The biggest hurdle however is clearly cost. If you have a 5L pressure cooker and intend to make only a small amount of stock, I say go ahead and use it.

Removing the Stock

Stock should be ladled out of the pot through a sieve, to catch any mirepoix that gets into the ladle. You can use a china cap, which is what is used professionally, but any sieve will work. Try not to disturb the bones at the bottom of the pot, this will likely cause sediment, that attaches to the bones to get into the stock. Once you have gotten all the stock you can with a ladle, you will be left with a small amount of stock at the bottom of the container. This can be discarded, as it is likely to contain a lot of particulate. However this seems wasteful to me, especially since it tends to be a little higher in gelatin content. You can then pour it into the rest of your stock, being very careful to disturb the bones as little as possible, which fortunately largely not be in contact with much of the stock. Alternatively you can keep this stock aside for tasks that require less clarity, where the sauce is not going to be presented formally, your own cooking or where the stock is used to flavour purees, forcemeats, mousses or something similar where clarity does not matter. I personally would keep it, as its flavour should be superb.

Straining Stock

Veal stock needs to be strained. This is because the remain sediment, usually tomato paste can significantly muddy the stock itself. As such you need strain out anything that remains. You will need a fine chinois (conical strainer) or professional stock strainer for this. Make sure you set this up so you do not have to hold it, as the stock can take a while to get through the fine strainer. Do not press on the solids. If the chinois becomes filled with sediment, pour the stock into another container and clean the chinois. Then strain again. You need to allow time for this to happen. It takes a while to filter a litre of two of stock. Some times when you finish making veal stock, because of the effort involved, this can be a real pain, but if you have left time for it and expect it, then it is less of a drama.

Cooling Stock

Stock needs to be thoroughly cooled. You should not leave it overnight with the lid on or anything like that. Once you have finished cooking, it should be cooled as soon as possible for hygiene reasons. This matters for cooking large quantities, because it takes so long for the heat to dissipate and can make an ideal ground for bacterial growth. There are several ways to do this. You can take the stock pot and put it in a sink full of water (ideally ice water). I usually strain my stock quickly after making it into a pot in the sink full of ice water. The straining helps to cool it down, as does the pot and it is easier to cool the stock without the bones and mirepoix in it. Once it is room temperature I put it in the fridge to continue the work.

Cooling stock is essential for hygiene reasons. Failing to cool your stock, especially when dealing with large stock pots, can ruin hours of work.

Cooling stock is essential for hygiene reasons. Failing to cool your stock, especially when dealing with large stock pots, can ruin hours of work.

Double Cooking?

Many recipes for veal stock, but not all cook the bones and mirepoix twice. Escoffier recommends this, as does Thomas Keller. Basically the same ingredients are used to make two stocks, which are then combined and reduced. I really like this method, as it gives plenty of time for skimming and yields a very high grade stock. However it is time consuming and takes a lot of fridge space. The biggest issue is that for home cooks it is hard to stop. Once you have finished the first stock, you need a way to cool the stock, bones and everything and then store it in your fridge until you are read for the next stage. I never have enough room, and so I just start the next stage immediately. The result is that I spend 20-30 hours making a batch of veal stock and I do not get any sleep. I cannot recommend this, unless you are insane. If you have enough fridge space, it works pretty well, because you can stop for the day and start the next day, be warned.

Another method that is sometimes used, is when another stock, often chicken is used instead of water to make the stock. This will yield a very richly flavour stock and one that is quite expensive too. I you want to go for it, but it adds another layer, make sure you are making your first stock from scratch, otherwise you will ruin your veal stock, also make sure there is no salt, or very little salt in this stock.

Colour and Taste

Ultimately you need to use your judgment. As you cook more you will begin to get a feel for when your stock is done. Different techniques will yield different results and knowing when to stop is important too. You want a nice deep brown colour when you are done. The flavour needs to be strong too, but should have some sweetness, as well as a little acidity. Taste your stock as you go, get a feel for how it develops. Most importantly, it should not taste watery.

The colour continues to darken and the flavour will intensify and improve as the reduction continues.

The colour continues to darken and the flavour will intensify and improve as the reduction continues.

How much of this do I need to do?

I have tried to outline a lot of the things I find makes a better quality stock. The fact is that simply putting bones and some vegetables in a pot with water and cooking it, is still useful. I am assuming though you want stock that is capable of supporting a modern sauce, which means adequate gelatin content and good flavour. Since veal stock is heavily reduced it needs to be relatively free of fat. Too much fat will ruin the mouth feel and taste of the sauce, so I think some fat removal needs to take place. If you want to make it more easily, just wait till the stock is cool and remove the solid fat on top. The rest of the skimming, is really to make a completely fat free stock. Sediment is also not that big a deal. It makes a difference for clarity of presentation and some differences in mouth feel and I think taste, but these are small. Even veal stock with sediment is still pretty yummy. All that reduction and time spent cooking means that it is going to taste pretty amazing, there is no substitute for it, beef stock does not cut it. Again if you want to pour your stock and not ladle it out go right ahead, this won’t ruin it. You should definitely cool it though, I would hate for all that hard work to be wasted for lack of cooling.

Sample Veal Stock Time Line

  1. Wash and Blanch bones 2 Hours, then wash them again once blanched or Brown in the oven 2 Hrs

  2. Put bones in pot cover with fresh water and bring to boil and then reduce to simmer. Skim for particulate the entire time, this is important 1 ½ Hours

  3. Add your mirepoix, boquet garni and tomato paste very gently so as not to disturb the bones. Bring gently back to the simmer. 1 hr – skim. At this point you could add the lid of your pressure cooker, if you were using.

  4. Cook, skimming as much as possible if you are not making two lots of stock, cook for 10 hours or so.

  5. Check flavour and mouth feel. It should be done. Cool stock immediately and pour through a chinois. 1 hr. It may well need reduction at this stage, depending on the recipe and the reduction that has taken place so far. Discard the bones and mirepoix.

  6. Reduce stock at a simmer to requisite strength, depending on the amount of liquid this can take another 4-8 hrs.

  7. Strain stock again through a chinois and cool immediately. 1 Hr

Make sure you leave adequate time. Recipes almost never allow time to cool the stock or bring the stock to a simmer. Do not be fooled just by cooking time.

Trouble Shooting

My Stock is red not deep brown

  • There may not be a lot you can do, if the flavour is right. This comes usually from either not enough components capable of browning, namely tomato/tomato paste and browned bones or from inadequate heat. The latter is most likely the problem. Try cooking your stock hotter, but do not let it boil. Also look at how much tomato paste you are adding, there needs to be enough to provide colour. Lastly, if you are blanching your bones, you can move to browning them in the oven, this may help

Notice in this sauce, that there is still a bit of red colour. This is because I probably did not get as dark a stock as I would of have liked. Ideally the sauce should be a very deep dark brown. This was made with duck stock, not veal, but the principle is the same.

Notice in this sauce, that there is still a bit of red colour. This is because I probably did not get as dark a stock as I would of have liked. Ideally the sauce should be a very deep dark brown. This was made with duck stock, not veal, but the principle is the same.

My stock tastes watery

  • There are two possible reasons for this. Inadequate cooking time is the first. If your vegetables are still hard, this is a good indication more cooking is required. They should be mushy and relatively tasteless, this indicates they have given their flavour to the stock. This is likely to be the reason if you are cooking for less than 3 hours once a simmer has been reached.

  • The second possible reason and perhaps more likely is that you have not reduced your stock adequately. Slowly reduce it at a simmer and see if that helps (it should).

  • If you have reduced it and it still tastes watery, add more vegetables next time and more bones. Also you could consider adding some meat. This will boost your flavour significantly.

  • If you are in the process of reducing the stock and you are worried that it will not taste good, do not worry, just keep reducing and have faith. I have always found it tastes delicious.

My stock is red not brown

  • This is likely because you have not maintained a high enough temperature when simmering. You should be able to fix this by further cooking and reduction at a higher temperature. It is still important not to boil it.
  • There is a careful temperature balance between having a decent temperature and keeping it below a boil. The occasional bubble is fine, but nothing that will disturb the surface too much.
  • If you use a pressure cooker this is less of a problem since it maintains a higher temperature.

It is impossible to skim off all the fat or I loose so much stock.

  • It is not trust me, patience and diligence is the key. However remember if you fail to skim it all, it is not the end of the world. Just make sure you get most of it.

  • You will loose a lot of liquid skimming, do not worry, it is part of the process.

I have used tomato paste with too much salt

  • Not a lot to do about this, you won’t be able to reduce it as much as you would like. Make sure you do not reduce it too much. Taste it reduce as much as you can. Hopefully you will have good gelatin content and it will work.

  • The stock will not be ruined, but it may struggle to make highly reduced sauces. You could make more classical roux based sauces however.

My stock does not have enough gelatin content.

  • You can reduce your stock further, which will concentrate your gelatin. However this will also concentrate the flavour and reduce your yield.

  • Buy white (bobby) veal bones. The best veal bones are from milk fed baby veal, they extremely high in gelatin. They also yield I think the best flavour. In New Zealand the season for this is August to November. Get as many bones as you can and make stock then. Many other countries have it all year round.

  • Even if it is a little low in gelatin content, it is still worth using, as the flavour hopefully will be great.

I have let my stock boil

  • This is not the end of the world. Even if it does become clouded it will still yield good flavour, it just might not be as perfectly clear as you would want.

I can’t get my bones to brown in the oven.

  • This is likely because the pan is crowded. Make sure your bones are in one layer with some room in between.

I do not have time to make veal stock, are there alternatives?

  • In short probably not. Double chicken stock, cooked with chicken feet can provide ok gelatin content if sufficiently reduced, although the flavour is not the same.

  • Duck stock can be high in gelatin and can substitute for veal stock for duck. I really like duck stock because it is relatively quick to make.

  • Game stock can also work ok for game dishes and lamb makes pretty good demi-glace and so can be used for lamb dishes. Ideally however all such sauces would also contain veal stock, but you can used a more specialised stock and leave out veal stock. The problem is really beef. Beef stock is not a good alternative to veal stock in this regard. I suppose you could use a little beef stock with some double chicken stock to try and fix this, but given the time and expense of beef stock (I make mine with meat) I would probably not use this unless I had to.

How long does stock keep in the fridge?

  • I find it lasts about a week. Many professional books say three days, although I suspect this is conservative, but to be safe you should assume that.

  • You can freeze stock and this prolongs its life significantly. I try to avoid freezing if I possibly can, but the stock does not seem to suffer too much. I package it in small zip lock bags that contain about ½ cup worth of stock, so I have a small useable amount to make a sauce with.

  • Try to avoid freezing in large containers, as these are impractical later, when you want to thaw it.

Can I use kitchen scraps to make the stock?

  • In short not really. Remember what ever you add to the stock flavours it. While the texture is obviously less important, the flavour is not.  So generally no, but it could be a good place for off cuts of vegetable or even veal that you are not using. For example if you are cutting a julienne and wasting some of the side bits of carrot, there is no reason to not use those, but stuff like peels from potato, beets or other flavours that do not belong should not be used.

Can I turn my pot to high to bring it to a boil before simmering?

  • No, you need a gentle heat. By slowly bringing the stock to the boil you allow the blood and particulate to gently coagulate and float to the top to be skimmed. A big stock pot can of course be made to boil or simmer faster than 1 ½ to 2 hours, but the key is you do not want to. Let it come to the simmer gently.

How big a stock pot do I need and what kind?

  • I recommend 24 Litres, but at least 16 Litres I think is a minimum. Below that and you are not making much stock and the exercise does not seem worth it.

  • I use a steel stock pot as it more evenly distributes the heat over aluminium. They are more expensive, but I have a great kitchen supplier, that sells them relatively cheaply.

Can I use a crock pot or slow cooker?

  • Yes you can, but you need to be careful. The biggest issue with slow cookers is temperature control. Often the high setting will boil and the low setting is not hot enough. However if you can work out a good way to achieve constant temperature and it is big enough, go right a head, there is nothing innately bad about them.

Lid on or off?

  • Unless you are using a pressure cooker, French stocks should be cooked with lid off to allow for reduction.

My recipe says I am reducing 24 Litres of Liquid to just 1 Litre is this right?

  • In short yes it is. Most modern veal stocks are highly reduced. You need to gauge when to stop based on flavour. This varies a bit. I find I end up with about 1-2 Litres of veal stock when I finish, from 24 Litres of liquid (using the Keller recipe), but you may find differently. I reduce it to “braising” intensity, rather than to what I would use for a sauce, which would be further reduced.

I will try to cover white stocks next time. Chicken, veal, beef and similar types of stock.

Orange Roughy, Ethics and the Wolves

A friend of mine recently called me up on something I wrote in my year in review post a while ago.  He pointed out that I was advocating the eating or orange roughy and this was unethical as it was unsustainably fished. I had wanted previously to post about the issue of ethics, but it is a very fraught area and quite complex. There are many topics that I think are interesting from the eating of meat and vegetarianism, to sustainability, to foie gras production and many others. As I was challenged on this issue, about fishing, I thought I might discuss it. From the outset I will say that I largely agree with my friend, it is probably a good idea to abstain from orange roughy. For that I can apologise.

What I want to discuss is why sustainability matters. I want to approach the issue from a different context than that which is was presented to me. There are many arguments for and against sustainability, that carry significant weight, that I will not delve into today.

I tend to use this blog to advocate for what I would loosely describe as post structuralist analysis of issues. That is that we should not treat ethical values as universally and absolutely true. What I will advocate today is a version of sustainability that tries to grapple with this contradiction and tension between physical necessity and a need for ethical actions and structure of ethics. At a base level, am I denying the need for sustainability, by denying the truth that sustainability is an absolute physical need? On first blush it appears that way, but lets back up a bit and explain some of the concepts first.

Ethics

I take ethics to mean any normative assumption. What does that mean? Every time we should, ought, shall or must act, there is a normative assumption. To help think about what this means lets say broadly speaking we can talk about the way things are in the world. “This is a door”, “this is a dog”, “there is a big yeti standing in the corner that only I can see”, etc… These are descriptions of the world. They can be true or false, but they do not tell us anything about how we should be. Normative assumptions are those that say what we should or should not (must or must not) do. For example “I should brush my teeth”, “I should not kill people”, “I must go for a run every day”, “I must not eat babies”. However normative assumptions, can be more fundamental than this. For example “I should be convinced by good scientific arguments”, “I should accept logically valid arguments which have true premises”, “I should accept the laws of mathematics”, “I should speak the way I do”, “I should adopt a particular language”, “I should use a particular dialectic”, “I should hold this to be axiomatic”, “I should define this word as such”, “I should draw this distinction”. I would say all these are normative, or questions of ought and hence questions of ethics.

Hume famously pointed out this distinction, which has pointed out many times, that purely from talking about the world as it “is”, it does not tell us what we “ought” to do. This is the classic is/ought problem, that has confounded people for a long time. Now this is the sort of esoteric debate, that perhaps does not seem relevant to many of us, especially since we are concerned here with food, not meta-ethics. However there is a point in here. That is that our ways of knowing, are not logically neutral, they are ethical questions.

David Hume in an attractive bonnet.

What we should take away, in my own view, is that ethics can include much more than moral distinction, it “should” include the systems that give us meaning. Hence we cannot avoid ethical accountability, merely, my sticking to a code of morality, but how we think about things, is an ethical distinction.

Sustainability

The conflict comes down to this. Sustainability, might suggest that none of us should eat a particular fish, that is endangered or consume a food that causes massive depletion of the top soil or encourages greenhouse gas production. It is a normative set of behavioral patterns that acts as an ethical guide about what we should and should not do with regards to the consumption of food. Some people would see this as a case of absolute prohibition. That is, normally ethical rules are absolute. To do X is wrong. In a Kantian sense this might be to do something with a bad will or it might be to do something that violates our moral sense. What ever the case is generally the idea is that the action is wrong absolutely.

To extend this to ideas of sustainability is to say that there should be an absolute prohibition from the eating of a particular food, so as not to support a system that endangers the sustainability of the environment, or at least our food sources. I suppose if that food were to become sustainable it would then be alright to eat it.

This has a sort of intuitive persuasive value. We should not ethically support things that are wrong. If the production of a particular food is wrong, then by eating this we are supporting it and contributing to its wrongness. What I do no like about this view, is that it can assume things in the abstract. For me things are ethical, because of the context of the situation. Therefore it is wrong in many situations to eat babies, but not all situations. Say the baby is dead and you are about to die of hunger, is it ethically wrong to eat the baby? What if the baby was alive, but eating would save the lives of 1,000,000 people, would that be wrong? From my perspective, what makes things right and wrong is the context that they exist in. Now I accept this is not going to be universally held. Instead of seeing absolute morality, I see a layer of interconnected happenstances, that generate meaning from a context. More importantly, holding that something is wrong in the absolute, I find ethically wrong in itself. There are situations, where such an action is likely justified. What matters is whether the situation itself justifies that action.

So when it comes to food, what I want to get away from is the idea that any food, in the absolute should never be eaten. There are circumstances that change the meaning of its consumption from cultural practice to sustainability. To only value one of these things, is ethically troublesome to me.

However

It is important not to escape moral and ethical culpability here.

Orange Roughy

Is a deep sea fish that is under threat internationally. Orange Roughy take a long time to get to breeding age and so are susceptible to over fishing. The practice of bottom trawling can be quite damaging to eco-systems because it disturbs the sea floor, ripping it up as the boats trawl their nets along the bottom. The fish often drown or struggle for significant periods of time before being brought to the surface. Quotas in place are often breached.

One the good side, in New Zealand orange roughy fishing has generally not been expanded beyond a few areas that have already been bottom trawled and presumably already destroyed. It also does have a quota system, although recent cases have made it harder to set the quotas.

The question becomes is it ethical to eat this fish?

How we evaluate this will be different. There are circumstances where I think it could be ethical. For example you are starving, orange roughy is a traditional and spiritually important fish for you to eat and you are allergic to all other food. However, what about in my case, where I go to the fish mongers and see dozens of kinds of fish, all of which I can afford. Should I buy orange roughy, even if orange roughy is something I want to try?

I can offer you little absolute reason, other than my general sense of the matter. That is that privileged people in my position, faced with a massive plethora of choice, should not eat orange roughy. In the absolute I will not hold it to be true, but it seems like a good idea not to eat it.

So to my friend, you were right.

Fish Stock - using the entirety of an animal, including fish is a great way to reduce the consumption of the number of animals you can consume. Stock is an excellent use for fish carcasses.

Fish Stock – using the entirety of an animal, including fish is a great way to reduce the consumption of the number of animals you can consume. Stock is an excellent use for fish carcasses.

There are interesting ethical issues to consider here. What about in Japan, where certain fish, most notably Blue Fin Tuna, are so essential to their style of cuisine. Is it ethical for traditional sushi makers to sell and eat it? It is an interesting question, but one that I will not delve into now, but merely raise the question.

Sous Vide Part One

What follows is a discussion about sous vide cooking. I originally wrote this as an entire discussion on various aspects of sous vide, but I have chosen to break it down and publish in sections, as I think it will be more readable.

In this first instalment I will discuss what sous vide is, what advantages it has, some of the arguments against its use and a basic primer for sous vide equipment. The follow up articles will discuss my use of sous vide over the summer in relation to various foods.

What is Sous Vide?

Sous vide is the process of sealing food under pressure and then usually cooking it in a controlled temperature water bath. It is very similar both in concept and function to poaching. The basic technique usually involves vacuum packing food in a plastic bag and then cooking it in a tub of water with immersion circulator. It was invented almost 50 years ago now, although its acceptance into fine dining has taken several decades.

Why Sous Vide?

Sous vide cooking has a number of real advantages. The first is that it is easy to cook perfectly. That is the temperature of the water bath ensures, that food is cooked to exactly the right state of doneness, every time. Since the temperature of the water bath is the temperature you want your item to be, it cannot go above that. There is no carry over cooking either, so once the temperature has been reached, it should not overcook. For those interested Medium rare for non-fish meat is at least 60 degrees Celsius. Rare is at least 50 degrees Celsius.

Secondly sous vide as a cooking technique produces qualities in the food that we would normally view as favourable. This includes a high moisture content, minimal flavour loss, perfectly even cooking and a strong sense of the basic qualities of the food being cooked. This is because of the two parts of the cooking working in concert. The vacuum packing ensures that moisture is not lost and there is no significant oxidation. This helps to maintain volatile flavours within the food. The vacuum packing also stops moisture evaporating and so ensures that the food does not dry out. The gentle heating from the water bath allows the heat to penetrate evenly throughout and so there is even cooking. Unlike poaching, where often the water bath is slightly higher than the desired temperature so as to cook the food quickly enough to prevent leaching, sous vide evenly cooks the foot through.

If required however sous vide cooking can still allow cooking in liquid, as stock, oil and other liquids can still be packed in the bag. In this case the liquid can penetrate and impart flavour to the food, but the even heating of the water bath and the relatively small amount of liquid helps to ensure even cooking and no excessive flavour loss.

Lastly it is convenient. Unless you are using sous vide cooking on the stove, it takes no burner space. It allows items to be cooked, then chilled and reheated for service. You can put stuff on and just forget it, until time has elapsed. There major practical advantages to the chef, as it does not require constant attention, but merely an awareness of how long the food should be cooked for.

To summarise the advantages

– No evaporation, so high moisture content

– Volatile flavours are kept in the food, so the food is intensely flavoured

– Perfectly even cooking

– Technically simple

–  Convenient

Sous Vide and Stuffed Chicken Thighs.

Sous Vide and Stuffed Chicken Thighs.

Why not to sous vide?

It seems obvious perhaps that sous vide is an ideal way to cook. It is easy and produces high quality results, so why not just cook everything that way? Well the answer is in the detail. On the face of it, it seems like there are no downsides to sous vide, but what is lying under the surface here are assumptions that we take for granted, but are probably not absolute.

Lets look at juiciness for an example. Pre-sous vide, it would generally be accepted that in the Franco-European dining tradition moisture content of meat should be maximised if at all possible. That is in conventional cooking we wanted as high moisture content as we can get and yet still have the food cooked. Lets assume that this is true, no part of this tells us that in absolute terms we should have as high a moisture content as possible. That is to say the level of moisture content was in relation to standard cooking techniques. There is no reason to think that something more moist than was possible under traditional cooking techniques is necessarily ideal. Now don’t get me wrong, it may or may not be better than traditional cooking in that regard, but we can’t assume that our previous standards were absolute, after all we were not eating the meat raw, which would yield similarly moist food. So when we refer to juicy steaks, we don’t mean in absolute terms, but in terms of relative to expectation. So the first point is that we assume that all these possibilities are good in the abstract, whereas they might not be.

This however is a rather theoretical approach, but I think it underlies the main objection to sous vide cooking. That is that the results of sous vide cooking are not necessarily better. Inevitably you lose something. By maximising the volatile flavours, we assume to begin with that we want such flavours, this isn’t always the case. We often cook food to rid ourselves of some these flavours. Cooking fish en sous vide for example, is amazing, but it is very intense to eat. I am not convinced this is always better than just traditional poaching for example. This is where the heart of the matter is. Why is sous vide superior to traditional techniques? It brings out particular flavours and textures, but frankly we may not want these. Andrew Carmellini in article from the New York Times, commented that something is lost in sous vide cooking. This is precisely the point. It isn’t the same, it is different. We have to work out what we prefer and there is plenty of scope for disagreement here.

I think there is a strong case to be made, against sous vide. Ultimately it depends on what we like and why we like things. Traditional techniques are still excellent and sometimes more pleasurable. Having said this, there is a movement against sous vide, that I think is often misinformed. One offender in New Zealand that I have read is Alan Brown. He discusses sous vide, by implication in his book Smoke. Brown suggests that chefs are more interested in texture than in flavour and hence they are missing out on the more flavourful cooking, involved in non-sous vide food. With respect I would beg to differ. Food cooked en sous vide is often intensely flavoured, in fact this is the main reason for it. To suggest that many of the great cooks of our generation are sacrificing flavour for texture, is I think wrong. I absolutely think that sous vide can be an inappropriate cooking style and is not always superior in all contexts, in fact I enjoy the lack of it at Brown’s own restaurant, but what I take exception to is that sous vide is done for texture. Meat cooked sous vide is really no more tender than food cooked properly in any conventional method, except perhaps it has a smaller layer of cooked crust, generally. This is a relatively minimal consideration. The water content, might be seen as textural, but I think we can agree that moisture content even in non-sous vide food is important. More to the point, the issue is whether there is a trade off in achieving this. I have yet to have a convincing argument laid as to why this would be or even that it is true. The flavour is undoubtedly different (in sous vide cooking), as generally the volatile flavours are not lost and those compete with the other flavours in the food, but I do not see it as an absolute loss of flavour, different of course. One may be preferable in context over the other, but it is that context that matters. We should be careful of discarding ideas simply because we don’t like the ideology that goes with it, or perhaps the pretension around sous vide, but this is no excuse for poor argument. Those who are in favour or against sous vide have reason for their views I am sure, but let us not assume that such technique absolute and of necessity.

Sous vide Eye fillet, Sous Vide Glazed Carrots.

Sous vide Eye fillet, Sous Vide Glazed Carrots.

The equipment

The biggest thing that holds a home cook back from sous vide cooking is equipment. I will outline a few of the devices and techniques available.

The first thing you will need, is something to cook your product in. That is a device that can heat and regulate the temperature of a water bath. The professionals use immersion circulators. These are basically a device that can be put in a tub of water that has three components. Firstly it has a heating element to heat the water. Secondly it has a thermometer to measure the water and regulate the heating element and thirdly there is a device to circulate the water in the bath. This allows a more even temperature in the bath as the water is circulate and evenly heated. These are expensive. They start around $1000 US, to buy them in New Zealand is a lot more expensive. This puts them out of reach of most amateur chefs, unless you have a lot of money. The biggest advantage of these devices is that they can heat the water relatively quickly and also give very consistent temperatures.

So for the amateur this is out. There however a number of less reliable methods, that still give good results. The first is the commercially produced sous vide machines. These are only hundreds of dollars, I think around $600-700 in New Zealand. They give reasonably reliable results, although are less versatile than the professional ones, because they can’t go into any container, they are a stand alone device and hence can’t be used for large amounts of sous vide. Not all circulate the water either, which makes them again worse than professional circulators. They are however still quite expensive. For the price of a machine, you could buy yourself some pretty serious cookware, so I still think this can be price prohibited.

The next option are the home sous vide kits that turn your crock pot or rice cooker into a controlled temperature water bath. They involve a box with a temperature sensor (usually a thermocouple), which regulates the temperature of your crock pot, by turning it on and off. The disadvantage of these is lack of circulation and a slow heat up time, which is really not ideal. However some of these advantages can be overcome as a home cook. Firstly you can circulate the water yourself every once and awhile with a stirrer, which is useful when you have added food. Secondly you can overcome the slow heating, by starting with a bath that is at slightly above the required temperature and carefully adjusting the bath to the required temperature by the addition of extra hot water, after the cold food is added. This is fiddly, but workable. The main advantage of this method over the next two, cheaper ones, is that you can reliably sous vide braise things with this method. That is you can simply leave it for 8-10 hours if you like. The box that regulates temperature can be ordered online for between 100-200 dollars, or can be made yourself if you have a bit of knowledge about such things.

Cooking in a pot is another quite viable technique, especially if you have good pots and are not cooking for extended periods. In this method a simple thermometer is used in the pot (preferably with a clip on, or specially designed top, that can have it inserted). The advantage of this, is that it is cheap, for the price of a thermometer (which you should have anyway), you can sous vide. Another advantage over the previous gear is that it has a much faster heating time, because you simply cook strait on the stove. The downside of this method, is you need to watch the temperature and get it to sit at a particular temperature. This is certainly possible and not that difficult, but in extended cooking even a very gradual rise in cooking can eventually make a pot boil. The result is this is a great way to cook things that are not braised or slow cooked, but harder for long cooking items. One of the other disadvantages is the unevenness of the heat distribution. A good pot will overcome a lot of this, but having your heat come only from the bottom, without a good distribution can cause problems, so circulating manually can be helpful. If you want to give it a go this is a great way to try it, if you have a good pot.

The last technique is to use a water cooler as a bath and simply hope that the insulation in the cooler will prevent too much drop in temperature, before the food cooks. The advantage of this is that it is cheap and there is no heating applied, so the water should have pretty good consistency of temperature. The disadvantage is that the temperature will not hold forever and like the crock pot method, you will have to add extra hot water to bring it to temperature, once you have added the food to the bath. Because it can only lose heat, it is not suitable for long cooked braising techniques. To be honest, I’m not sure there is much to recommend this over cooking it on the stove very carefully, other than once at temperature you don’t have to worry about it.

The second piece of equipment you will need is some way of vacuum sealing. The best method are professional vacuum chambers. These are however enormously expensive, while a rich amateur might fork out the money for a professional circulator, I doubt many of us will get chamber vacuums. Retail, the small ones are over $4,000 in New Zealand, half that in the US. They are very expensive. The biggest advantage of chamber vacuums over other methods is that you can put liquids in them and get a good seal. Furthermore, they allow variation of pressure, which is useful for fish and more delicate items. The vacuum bags for them are cheap, they are around 10c each and can be bought at varying grades, including ones which can withstand boiling, which is ideal for high temperature sous vide. There are two further advanced techniques that are best in chamber vacuums. The first is using the fact the low pressure lowers the temperature at which liquid boils. This allows warm liquid to boil when in the chamber. This is normally a disadvantage, but can be used to macerate fruit and vegetables slightly, without actually cooking them. Secondly chamber vacuums are best for compression of things like melon, which intensifies the flavour of it.

Failing buying one of these, however there is another option. Many butchers have chamber vacuums as it allows them to extend the shelf life of their products. If you are on good terms with your butcher, they may well vacuum pack your meat, at least for you. Make sure they salt it first and they may be willing to even put some stock, herbs, etc… that you take a long. The problem with this, is that you are unlikely to convince said friendly butcher to vacuum pack fish or veggies, but it can be a good interim measure if you want to try some sous vide. Make sure the bags are capable of withstanding temperature.

If you are going to buy and do not have unlimited money, your option is a standard vacuum packer. These are adequate if you are not adding liquid. I would recommend getting one with a pulse function. I have a sunbeam 660 and it works great, but you don’t need a really fancy one, almost any vacuum packer will do, but you want one with a pulse, if you possibly can. The downside of this, is that liquids, unless frozen or containing sufficient gelatin cannot be used. Secondly, some of the more advanced techniques are either not possible or not as good. You can still compress melon slightly for example, but it is not as good. Thirdly the maximum pressure that can be exerted is usually significantly less than chamber vacuums, so it is harder to get as tight a seal. Many sealers also do not allow variation of pressure, so you need to manually account for this. Lastly and perhaps most annoyingly the bags are expensive. You need specialty ones, not generic bags and these are sold from the manufacturer for large amounts of money. I have calculated that a single bag is close $1.00, this makes cooking sous vide a lot more expensive. There maybe some generic bags, but I have not tested these and are needless to say not recommended by the manufacturer (although I will try some and report back at a later date). Lastly the bags themselves often struggle to deal with the higher temperatures of braises of vegetable cooking, although this is less of an issue than it sounds.

The last way, is to simply use a zip lock back and use a water bath itself to push the air out. This method, while cheap ithis is not ideal. The first problem is that the vacuum seal is pretty poor, it will only have the pressure of the water at whatever depth you are doing it, to push the air out underwater, it is also quite fiddly. Importantly zip lock bags are generally not designed to be heated, as a result can break down in higher temperature, so you need good sturdy bags, but I understand this is doable. I would recommend only using this as a last resort, it is far better if you can to get it properly vacuum sealed.

Grilled Steak with white asparagus, parsnip puree and demi glace.

Grilled  T-Steak with white asparagus, parsnip puree and demi glace.

Hygiene

There are a number of hygiene issues you need to be aware of with sous vide. While vacuum packing does prevent a lot of microbial growth, it does leave you open to anaerobic bacteria. This is not an problem if the food is kept chilled or cooked to high temperatures, but the most common use of sous vide is at a low enough temperature that can provide an ideal environment for several forms of bacteria. The most dangerous is the bacteria that causes botulism, which can be fatal. I would advise all those attempting sous vide to look into the real risks around this. I recommend Thomas Keller’s book Under Pressure, which lists guidelines to minimise microbial growth. As a general rule, do not leave items cooking at below 80 degrees Celsius or at room temperature for more than 4 hours. Keller suggest storing items in the refrigerator, before and after cooking in an ice bath. To be sure this advice is for professional kitchens, but it is still useful, for most people at home, it is very unlikely we will be cooking things at such temperature for more than 4 hours, but don’t for example leave your vacuum sealed food out all day on the bench, just sous vide it and eat. You have a decent window and there is no need to worry, but don’t disregard the risk either. I am perhaps being overly cautious, but for those who do this at home, inform yourself.

Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art – Review

I have been struggling to think of what book to review. Torn between luxurious, if somewhat impractical for most people, books about famous fine dining restaurants like, or focus on classics like Le Guide Culinaire, Simple French Cooking, French Provincial Cooking, Modern Cookery, or the like. I thought about discussing categorisation of cookbooks, but I think this is a philosophically bankrupt practice at best anyway. In the meantime I started the research on my own forays into Japanese cooking. In doing so I read the now classic text Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art by Shizuo Tsuji. It struck me reading and cooking from the book, that I might start here, with my thoughts about  the book and work out what to tackle next.

The book itself is divided into two sections. The first is a basic primer on Japanese cooking as a whole, including basic techniques and philosophy. The second section is a more comprehensive recipe section with some more advanced techniques included within the recipes themselves. While this makes the book slightly annoying from an organisational standpoint, it makes reading it more pleasurable and helps to focus the development of actual culinary skills. The book is about 500 pages featuring about 150 recipes. Japanese Cuisine Covers a range of topics including an in depth discussion on Japanese ingredients, knives, filleting, cutting techniques, menu order, types of Japanese food and some explanation of cultural traditions.

A bit of History and the influence of Japanese Cuisine

Please note the history I am about to discuss is a pretty surface reading of the impact of various styles on modern European cuisine. I merely want to bring the relationship to the fore in the telling, in order to give some historical background.

French Cuisine, whatever that may be, has had periods of expansion, influence and growth from other style of cuisine. To view it as an unchanging entity would be wrong. However the common conception is that Haute cuisine remained somewhat unchanged From the beginning of the 20th Century up until the 1970s, when a major revolution took place. What cuisine was, how it was served, and more generally its philosophy all began to rapidly change. Now we might argue about the truth of such changes, but it is safe to say that the general perception today is that a major revolution took place. We can see this in the development of Nouveau Cuisine, California Cuisine and the influence of Japanese cuisine and philosophy in the west.

The conventional view can be summarised thus. Previous to the changes of Nouveau Cuisine, food was based on the classical style, little changed from Escoffier. The food had become too heavy, too complicated and failed to reflect the local, seasonal nature of food today. This argument still takes place today with relation to fine dining and more rustic cuisines (I may discuss this at a later date in other posts). Simpler lighter dishes, became the norm. Sauces started to no longer rely on rouxs for thickening, but rather intense reduction for higher gelatin concentrations. New flavour combinations became popular, like fruit paired with meat in ways that had not been used before. Food was served presented on the plate, rather than silver service (large dishes served at the table). The emphasis started to be fresh local ingredients, rather than necessarily expensive foreign ones. The conventional view is that there was a revolution in food, bringing forth fresher, less over the top food, that suited the modern palate.

Now I am sceptical of many of the claims made in this traditional interpretation, but an overturning of such conventional thought would take far more time and effort than I intend to give here. It is safe to say that the above is a rough guide for the change in cooking that occurred during the 1970s and 1980s. Interestingly Japanese cuisine started to become influential and you can perhaps see why. There was a real awareness of this at the time, Elizabeth David discusses as much in French Regional Cooking for example. In particular Japanese presentation and philosophy were greatly admired. Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art was published in 1980, while Nouveau Cuisine and California Cuisine were in full swing. Japanese cuisine I think was approachable and analogous enough to western cooking to make sense from those with classical training. It is a rigorous tradition, as much as any of the great cuisines and its approach to freshness and presentation fit comfortably into the tenets of Nouveau cuisine.

Much of the philosophy particularly around absolutely freshness and locality of ingredients, particularly important in sushi and sashimi preparation, are at the heart of Nouveau cuisine. Japanese cuisine also uses stock of a sort (dashi). Dashi’s ability to be high in umami, but yet retain a very fresh taste was an attractive characteristic that set it apart from long cooked veal stock. I personally still find Japanese presentation one of my favourite aesthetic styles, along with more abstract modern presentations and you can see the attraction. Japanese cuisine emphasises knife skills and produce excellent knives. Japanese plates, bowls and pottery can be of exceptional quality and complement the more modern presentation styles. There is a great deal of convergence between these food movements. It is hard to know exactly whether the influence from Japan presupposed Nouveau cuisine or not, but it would be safe to say that they developed together, in the west, at about the same time and period. By the time Japanese Cooking was released it was obvious perhaps of the increasing influence of Japan upon fine dining.

The Book

Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art is a wonderful cookbook. Tsuji presents a disciplined interpretation of the cuisine. He is reasonably rigorous and stringent with his requirements for quality of ingredients, attention to detail and adherence to technique. From his discussion of why soup should be served as hot as possible to detailed analysis of how the cutting of fish for sashimi affects the way the fish tastes and is experienced; Tsuji approaches his subject with serious intent. By presenting the cuisine in such a clear and at times regimented way, it is easy as the reader to begin to understand the general philosophy that surrounds the cooking and there is some deeper sense of integration into the culture as a reader.

Japanese Cuisine: A Simple Art

Japanese Cuisine: A Simple Art

On a personal note, I have always been entranced by cookbooks with a strong and forceful voice. Those that make arguments, rightly or wrongly about food, but due so with a voice of experience behind them. Marcella Hazan for example has always been one of my favourite food writers, like Hazan, Tsuji is forceful in style and is excellent at conveying a sense of the palate required to appreciate the food.

It is important however not to put too fine a point on this Japanese Cooking is ultimately a relatively practical book. Tsuji acknowledges that many of the ingredients will not be possible to get. In that vein he readily suggests substitutions and discusses the usability of canned and dried products. He is quick to point out that these are not ideal, but may be a cook’s only option especially in the west, where items like yuzu and the plethora of different mushrooms ones are difficult if not impossible to get. What I particularly enjoy however is that he does not suggests that such substitutions will not matter, but rather that good food can still be had, even if it will not be a truly authentic meal. I appreciate the frank and honest discussion in this regard. Too many cookbooks are willing to compromise and suggest that it makes no difference. Tsuji is practical in that some things will be next to impossible to get, he does not pretend they will be the same, but he offers his best advice anyway.

The recipes of the book are traditional and tend to be straight laced. I see nothing wrong with this, it is welcome in a book that purports to inform the reader about a particular genre of cooking, but it is hard to tell how interesting the recipes are in and of themselves, for some one already versed in the style. The structure of the book also helps to create this distinction. The first half of the book tends to feature recipes which are more “standard”, while the latter half feature some less conventional recipes. The recipes I have made, have been excellent and I have had no difficulties with them.

Japanese Cooking is a book that is now thirty years old. It was produced in an age with very different expectations about the visual style of cookbooks. While there was colour photography in many cookbooks, there were also many, notably great cookbooks that used drawings and simpler less adorned pages than we might have now, especially in high end cookbooks. In my 25th Anniversary edition there are a number of colour photos, at the beginning, but generally the entire cookbook utilises black and white hand drawn pictures. As a personal preference I enjoy this understated and minimalist style. The drawings are comprehensive and I think aesthetically beautiful, but they are no modernist food pornography either. They emphasise a certain functionality. I have no problem with this, in fact the size of the book and the fact it is not full of big pictures makes the book far more functional and enjoyable as a read.

The content of the book combined with the clarity of writing is perhaps the biggest selling point. Tsuji is meticulous in describing technique. He discusses in detail many of the basic techniques. Perhaps unsurprisingly a plethora of different methods for cutting fish and garnishes, including filleting and various sashimi cuts are discussed. As a non-Japanese cook it is hard for me to assess how good the information is, but from my sense, most of the book is excellent in this regard, given practical, good reasons for various technique in Japanese cuisine. There are perhaps a few bad explanations here and there for various techniques. This is largely because our understanding of food science has changed in the last thirty years, but generally this is only of minor importance, as usually only the justification is wrong, not the technique itself.

As I mentioned extensively in the introduction, the philosophy of Japanese cooking, or more accurately the philosophy that Tsuji is espousing is particularly strongly articulated in the book. This is probably one of the best aspects of Japanese Cooking and certainly one that I enjoyed immensely. As a reader I began to understand Japanese cuisine in a way that I had previously failed to do. It crystalised some of the tradition and techniques for me that heightened my appreciation of eating, cooking and generally understanding Japanese cuisine as a whole. A book that can alter the way you perceive the food you eat. is the mark for me of a great book. I mentioned Marcella Hazan previously and perhaps the strongest comparison for me, as a person experience has been the way both writers were able to alter the way I thought and even tasted the cuisine. Tsuji, could shift my perceptions, not just as a cook, but also someone who was eating the cuisine.

I really like this book. Its writing style is pleasurable to read and informative. I think the book is worthwhile, for that reason alone. The cooking is almost secondary, it is a class in understanding the tradition, technique and culture of Japanese food. It has slowly seeped into my cooking informing how I think about ingredients and how I cook things. The consideration of size of an item to the person eating, the freshness and quality of fish or even how I think about serving soup, are all arguments Tsuji is able to make without even feeding me. Since reading the book made an effort to dine at more Japanese restaurants, to try and entrench, my tuition.

The book is a must for those interested in learning about Japanese cuisine. It is better I think than many of the other more well regarded texts, by writers like Elizabeth Andoh (who also has great books too). This is not because they are bad, but because the comprehensive space that Japanese Cooking carves for itself tends to overshadow the other books. It is not overly technical either, most of the recipes are relatively simple and can be cooked at home, so it is practical. A truly great book, that understably was part of a great revolution in food.

Chicken Thigh stuffed with dashi infused mousseline, miso glaze, hot dashi jelly and daikon. A fusion tribute to what I've learned from this book

Chicken Thigh stuffed with dashi infused mousseline, miso glaze, hot dashi jelly and daikon. A fusion tribute to what I’ve learned from this book

Sidart Review – Food of its Own Dialectic

I was planning to release my review of Cocoro, but unforeseen circumstances have meant that I have had to release this one. Please note all the photos for this were taken with my phone and rather poor quality. I forgot my camera on the day, but I have decided to include them anyway, to help give some impression of what it was like.

Sidart is a fine dining restaurant located in Ponsonby, near the three lamps intersection.  It serves modern fine dining cuisine. Ten courses is $140, wine pairing is $80. I went for a friend’s birthday, so I can’t say how indicative the following menu is of a normal meal, but I wanted to give an indication of the sort of pricing at the restaurant. I have been to sidart a few times and I have enjoyed the food there, but I had not been for a while and was interested in trying it again.

The Food

Normally I would review each menu item in order. I will do this as I can, but  I did not take full notes on the meal at the time, so some of my memory is hazy, especially because of the number of items in each dish and there was a lack of a written menu to refer to.

The Amuse Bouche
– Trevally Sashimi
A single bite of trevally accompanied by a mayonnaise. A delicious little morsel to start with. I will discuss sashimi more in my review of Cocoro and I don’t think a comparison to more traditional Japanese expectations of sashimi is reasonable, however the same basic principles apply. The fish needs to be fresh, well cut, and the sauce needs to match well. The fish is perhaps the biggest component and it was excellent, I am partial to trevally anyway. Oilly fish make excellent sashimi. One of the advantages of using a wild fish found in New Zealand waters is that the quality of fish is likely to have more developed flavour and be of superior quality. I personally would generally rather have a very nice fresh fish, than one slightly older, but more “luxurious”. It would be unfair to discuss the cutting of the fish in classical style, as that would be to judge it by the wrong criteria I think, but the cut was adequate for the type of fish and presentation. The sauce was a kind of mayonnaise. I liked it, but one of the interesting things about it was that it foreshadowed some of the upcoming flavours. Mayonnaise was used in at least one of the other courses later, but more interestingly, that particular flavour of the sauce to me carried across into many of the flavour profiles that would come, the particular savouriness of that first bite set the road ahead. All the amuse boushe were wine matched with a prosecco.

Trevally Sashimi

Trevally Sashimi

– Cured Beef, Mussel Crumb and Creme Fraiche
The second amuse bouche was a mini surf and turf. The combination of cured beef and mussels was interesting. There was quite a bit of Creme Fraiche. The mixture of dairy, shellfish and beef is an interesting match, even if the rather lightly flavoured beef was a little lost amongst the stronger flavours.

Cured Beef, Mussel Crumb, Crème Fraiche

Cured Beef, Mussel Crumb, Crème Fraiche

– Salad with ash crumb and some other stuff.
This was a cute little salad presented in actual pots. I really enjoyed this amuse boushe. The greens were very fresh and the dish contained their aroma and more volatile flavours. When you put your nose in the pot, you could smell the greens and traces of ash. My only complaint is I found it a little sweet, for me, but overall the complexity of flavour and presentation, made this a very enjoyable dish, one of the most enjoyable bites of the evening.

Salad

Salad

Tomato and Strawberry Consomme with Compressed watermelon, goat cheese, strawberry and spinach

Technically the first of our ten courses. Displaying a number of techniques from the modernist repertoire of cooking. The consomme was a gelatin clarification of tomato and strawberry juice. For those unfamiliar this creates a clear, but pure flavoured liquid, which would form the “soup”. The watermelon here is compressed (under vacuum) which intensifies its flavour.

This was a challenging course. There were two very strong elements of the palate competing here. The dish was both sweet and savoury. The sweetness coming from the strawberry and melon in particular. The savoury and umami elements came from the tomato and goats cheese. You might say that this mix of palate was a consistent theme throughout many of the dishes.

Consomme, before the actual consommé was poured in.

Consomme, before the actual consommé was poured in.

Crab

The second substantial dish was smoked and deep fried crab with a chilli peanut sauce. We were informed by the waiter that this was a dish influenced by the chef’s recent travels to Singapore. The dish was served in glass sealed jars to keep in the smoke. This is a pretty trendy modern technique that I have seen at many restaurants recently. I suppose it adds some novelty and aroma. The sauce was slightly sweet and it was not very spicy, just a hint of chilli.  A pleasurable dish to eat.

Crab Shut

Crab Shut

Crab open

Crab open

Seared Tuna with Cauliflower Puree and Squid Ink Mayonnaise

I think this was Yellowfin (although it might have been bigeye) seared on one side with cauliflower puree, squid ink mayonnaise, and dehydrated cauliflower. While I will discuss Tuna more, when I publish my Cocoro review, where I had bluefin, it was interesting to note the differences between the fish. Outwardly the two fish look quite similar, both being tuna this is perhaps unsurprising. Yellowfin tuna has a lower fat content and is slightly less dark of colour. As a result it isn’t quite as velvety, smooth and luxurious as blue fin. However this isn’t to criticise the fish, it has its own characteristics that are also enjoyable. In particular the tuna had a more grassy taste. The dish was served with a squid ink mayonnaise. This looked beautiful, as the black contrasted the white of the puree and cauliflower nicely. However I do have a complaint and this is linked to a more general issue I have almost always found at Sidart. That is the overuse of mayonnaise. At this stage of the meal we had two fish, both served with mayonnaise, the trevally sashimi and now the Tuna. I appreciate that the first was an amuse boushe, but I find my palate remembers the mayonnaise and carries it through. My complaint is that I start to feel mayonnaise disrupts some of the subtlety of the dishes, as we get a build up of that associated flavour and then it dominates the palate. To me the combination of this with say the creme fraiche of the cured beef and even the sweet foam of the salad, was beginning to wear on my palate. This is less a single technical issue with the dish and more a complaint about the flow of the dishes. In and of itself the mayonnaise is delicious and well made. However I find it a flavour that tends to dominate and it can be overdone in context.

Tuna

Tuna

Charred Scallop,  Kingfish, corn and walnut foam.

This was a lovely dish, the scallop in particular was delicious. I liked the charred crust on the outside of the scallop and the mix with the sweetness of the corn. The smokiness combined with corn, brings memories of southern barbeque. The microgreens on this were particularly tasty, they gave a sharp tones of mustard to the dish (I’m guessing a brasilica of some kind). The fish was cooked much the same way as the previous course, both seared on one side. I think it would have been nicer for a little more contrast especially since both fish are somewhat similar. Despite this, excellent course.

Kingfish and Scallop

Kingfish and Scallop

Quail

I don’t remember everything in this dish. It was soy (I hope, might have been miso don’t remember) glazed quail with carrot and some other things. I’m guessing the breast at least was sous vide, it was very juicy. Another really good dish, the quail was succulent, very nicely glazed, and just well cooked. Quail is a personal favourite of mine, so a real treat.

Quail

Quail

Duck breast and deep fried leg confit

Again I don’t remember all the components for this dish. The leg was delicious and the breast was perfectly seared so that the skin was stunningly cooked. However it had the same problem that I run into with duck. The duck breast I was cooked sous vide initially. It was very juicy and consistent in its colouring. The duck breast was on the tough end. Many of our party of 13, did not finish the breast, because of this. I have found on several occasions that cooking duck breast sous vide has yielded tough duck breast. I think the problem is with the duck breast rather than the cooking technique, although this could be wrong, since the last conventionally cooked duck breast I did, seared and then finished in the oven, seemed to be more tender, however this may have been because of other factors.

As a follow up to this issue, I contacted Sidart to see what they thought about the duck. Sid (hence the name Sid – art) the head chef came back to me and suggested that it could have been a particular duck. He mentioned that he has used gameford lodge ducks for years and never had a problem. These are the same sorts of ducks I use (and generally commercially available). It is a subject I may explore further in future, but to date I have yet to come to a firm conclusion.

Duck

Duck

Venison and Chioggia Beetroot

The final main course was Venison. I particularly liked this course as it was paired with a delicious French red. A nice pairing of the lean game, with the sweetness of the beets, chioggia are one of my favourites. I’ll note however that these beets were good, but not truly excellent, but I may be spoiled on this front as the ones from my garden are particularly good, perhaps a little unfair to compare with. What I particularly liked was the relative simplicity of the dish in terms of flavours. It felt focused and this gave room for a real appreciation of the complexity of the meat and wine, rather than the busier flavours of the previous courses.

Venison

Venison

Roquefort “Cheesecake”

This is the chef’s signature dish. Roquefort ice cream, pears, red wine jelly and biscuit crumb. It is intensely flavoured the roquefort yields an uncompromising take no prisoners dish. Even those that like blue cheese might find the very savoury roquefort with the sweetness of ice cream to be much, about half of the 13 people at our table did not enjoy this dish. Personally I like the dish. I have had it in different guises on three other occasions, so I knew what I was getting myself in for. I have served dishes that combine sweetness with cheese. It is often a difficult ask for anyone. Frankly, some people like the strong earthy complexity of cheese with sweetness, but other do not. It is an acquired taste, but I enjoy the oddity of it. Some dishes need to push boundaries and this one still does. There is a further aspect of the dish, that I think is particularly nice as well. That is the relatively narrow and concise flavour profile. I will explore this aspect in more detail later, but to me dishes such as this feel focused and tight.

Roquefort Cheesecake

Roquefort Cheesecake

Italian Meringue, Basil Sorbet, Fresh Berries

This was a delicious fresh dessert. I have always been a fan of herb and spice sorbet/ice creams. The pairing with the beautifully cooked Italian meringue and the tartness of the berries was delicious. Fresh, light and slightly acidic. A very pleasurable course.

Berries, Sorbet

Berries, Sorbet

Chocolate Mousse, Curry Marshmallow, Cherries

Another excellent course. The curry marshmallow may seem odd, but it makes a great deal of sense to me. Chocolate and spice go hand in hand together for me.  Texturally the relationship between mousse and marshmallow is a nice play. Cherries also seem complementary both to spices and to chocolate, helping to form a bridge between flavours.

Chocolate, Marshmallow, Cherry

Chocolate, Marshmallow, Cherry

Macarons

After the final substantial course was a final Amuse Boushe, Macarons, beautifully made, light, not overly sweet, with a delicious shell.

Macarons

Macarons

Thoughts About the Food and Issues of Representation

One of the other reasons that I was slow in publishing this is that I wanted to really think about the food. In many ways Sidart is pushing some of the most challenging food in Auckland. I held off because I am struggling to discuss this without falling into the tropes of Asian food discussion, so I will do my best to discuss that issue first.

Asian food (whatever that might be) is often said to be about the balance of palates, that is sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savoury. Putting to one side the questions of what Asian food might actually be as a category (I will come back to that), I want to unpack this multiple palate thing. The implication seems to be that western food doesn’t have this same characteristic. Well first of all I think that is not true. Tomato ragu balances sweetness from the slowly reduced tomatoes and milk with the sourness from wine and again tomatoes with the savouriness (umami) again of tomatoes with the saltiness, well from salt. While i can’t think of any especially bitter notes, there is still a balance of flavours a good ragu is pretty paramount. The same can be said for many, many dishes in pretty much any European style, sauces in particular often mix palates considerably, especially stock based ones. The point is that I do not see the balancing of different palates within a single dish as uniquely Asian. I agree that Asian food takes a different palate that phenomenologically appears different than say European food to my culturally determined tastes. I see this more as people unused to particular palate structures and flavours finding it difficult to balance those flavours, just as someone from another culture might find it hard to make a nicely balanced veal stock sauce.

The second issue for me is Asian food, is that even a category? Asian food, as in food from the Asian continent is amazingly disparate and while some styles share similarities, they are also remarkably different, even within countries. To think of Asian food as a single style, is to represent something as a homogenous, clearly delineated whole, that is not. Anyway do have a point and I’m getting there.

I wanted to talk about how Sidart was this new Asian food, balancing flavours and palates in ways we are unused to. However when I reflected a little on this, I realised how deeply I was misrepresenting the foods from the Asian continent. I did however lead me to this though. From a rather colonial, European perspective, describing the food at Sidart as “new Asian” in that context, might provide us with some metaphorical understanding of how the palate at Sidart seems disparate from our current perspective and that is what I was getting at. The food is challenging often bringing many flavours to bare, balancing them against each other and this is frankly difficult, both to develop and at times, to eat. The dishes are complex and broad of flavour. For this reason I have a great deal of respect for the food. Unlike say Kazuya, where the flavours were very consonant, even when challenging in and of themselves, Sidart mixes and plays with our expectations. Not as Asian or European, but as food of its own dialectic. Of course there are the plays upon our already established meaning of senses, but for me to represent them of a particular culture, is to put my own assumptions too much into the food.

All this can be simply put. I like Sidart. It is challenging, delicious food, that makes you think. I will however add a few caveats. As a personal preference I prefer more consonant dishes, they feel more focused and allow my palate to appreciate the subtleties more easily. I am not saying there is no place for the wonderfully complex dishes that come from Sidart, but I do long for in such a complex and diverse menu for more courses that feel narrower and more focused. Courses like the Roquefort cheesecake or the crab. Not too many, but a few more, I enjoy the challenge, but sometimes my palate was overwhelmed, so I felt I couldn’t appreciate the technique, I was lost swimming in a churning sea of foam, ash and emulsified sauces. I needed just a few more rocks to cling too.  Also there were quite a few sweeter notes. I would personally love to see a bit more bitterness, although this is a general problem I have with a lot of restaurants in New Zealand.

Another thing I appreciated, was the quality of ingredient. I have come to expect this, but eating at a few other fine dining restaurants recently has reminded me, that even when paying top dollar, you do not always get the best. I found pretty much all the produce excellent (although the chioggia beets I grow myself are better). I mentioned my issue with the duck, but this is probably the only issue I had, excellent produce, vibrant greens and vegetables.

The Wine
Good wine, generally nice matches with the food. The French red was the standout for me. I can see some of the courses would be more difficult to match, given their complexity.

Service
Good service as well. I appreciate how hard our table of 13 was to serve, so full credit to the staff. Perhaps two waiters explaining each dish would have been nice, I often did not get to hear about everything on the dish.

Overall
As I said, I like Sidart. Technically I think it is an excellent restaurant, challenging, original, with superb presentation. I recommend it to those who have not been. Auckland’s food scene is certainly richer for it.

**

As a reminder
* is good
** is excellent