Monday, November 26, 2012


The fourth Serendipity Dinner for 2012 was notable for being the largest one I've ever held. Sixteen diners pushed not just the limits of my dish and chair supplies, but also the physical space of my house. But with a helluva lot of careful planning, I managed to get everything cooked and served in at least a semblance of order. And it even tasted good!

Entree was a tomato, orange and white bean soup with coriander and garlic olive oil. Main course was orange and ginger chicken, served with roasted potatoes and a complementary salad of rocket, orange slices, black olives, marinated feta and red onion. Dessert was a panettone bread and butter pudding.

Apart from the chicken taking half an hour longer to cook than advertised, everything went smoothly and every course was remarkably delicious. The soup was based on a Matt Preston recipe which unexpectedly uses baked beans as the base. However when I tested it I didn't like it much, so I made a few changes and improved it. The chicken made up for taking forever to cook by being wonderfully tender, and it was beautifully complimented by the salad. And I never liked bread and butter pudding when my mother made it, but then she used ordinary white bread rather than rich Italian pannetone... and she didn't soak it in sherry and brandy either.

As I mentioned earlier I was initially disappointed with the baked bean-based soup, which, when I tested it earlier in the week, tasted like a tomato themed milkshake - there was far too much dairy. I replaced the milk with orange juice, then added fresh coriander and garlic olive oil to offset the fairly basic flavours of the beans, tomato and orange. As such, I think I can publish the recipe without breaching copyright.

Tomato, Orange and White Bean Soup

Take a 440g can of best quality baked beans and heat it to a simmer in a saucepan, then take a stick blender and whiz them into a chunky paste. Add 50mls of cream and 150mls of orange juice and stir through, then heat back up to a simmer. Serve with a scattering of fresh coriander and a swirl of garlic-infused olive oil.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


Some months ago I met one of The Mechanic Institute's barmen when he was doing a moonlighting shift at Ezra Pound, and he told me about the plans for The Mechanics Institute, which was just about to open.

I liked what I heard. A bar intended for the older (ie 30+) crowd. Cheap, simple cocktails. A place for men and women to have a sophisticated drink rather than a place for teenagers to get shitfaced. I made a mental note to go as soon as I could.

Fast forward to a few nights ago, when I finally got to The Mechanics Institute... and discovered that the intentions didn't quite match the outcome.

Even at 7.30pm on a Tuesday, the place was packed. There were a few older suits, but mostly they were 20 year old sub-hipsters, and they were all violently drunk. The girls squealed like fingernails down a blackboard as they staggered drunkenly against the furniture. The guys bellowed testosterone at each other before slobbering over their girlfriends faces.

"Ah", I thought. "This must be the price one pays for cheap cocktails." Then I ordered a Hendrick's gin martini.



That is, in case you're wondering, about 40% of the RETAIL cost of an ENTIRE bottle of Hendrick's gin.It is, in addition, about 20% MORE than you'd pay for the same cocktail at Ezra Pound, Must, The Aviary or any of the other high-end small bars in this part of the city.

Perhaps the crowd was a one-off event. Perhaps the cheap cocktails only come during Happy Hour, then the staff make up the numbers by gouging everyone else. Perhaps the terrible music - a mishmash of pop songs from the 70s to the 90s that was irritating rather than ironically nostalgic - was the product of somebody accidentally plugging their mother's iPod into the sound system.

All I know is it made a very bad impression, and I will resist the urge to return.

Mechanics' Institute Bar on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


The third Serendipity Dinner for 2012 rather pushed at the conceptual limits of serendipity, since I had to accommodate thirteen diners and spent so much time cooking that I barely had a chance to eat, let alone chat. But such is the challenge I have set myself. And as we've established, I am an idiot.

Entree was a classic Waldorf salad. Main course was lamb koftas, skewered on rosemary twigs, with pita bread, hommus, quinoa tabbouleh and couscous with pistachios and dried apricots. Dessert was blueberry and ricotta icecream with pastry stars.

The Waldorf salad was serviceable but not very exciting - it would have benefited from some dried cranberries or something. The lamb koftas looked more upmarket than they tasted, but that may have had something to do with the fact that they were 30% pork: the butcher didn't have enough lamb mince. Still, they were tasty. The couscous was good, laced with mint and coriander, but the quinoa tabbouleh was sensational... I'll definitely make it again. The icecream was a little icy, but the ricotta gave an interesting roundness to the flavour and the pastry stars complimented it perfectly.

And since I own the recipe, I'm free to give it away to you:

Blueberry and Ricotta Icecream with Pastry Stars

Using a stick blender, blend 250g smooth ricotta, 200mls cream, 200mls milk, 1 teaspoon vanilla essence and half a cup of caster sugar. Churn in an icecream maker until mixture resembles a thick slurry, then fold through a punnet of fresh blueberries, transfer to a sealable container and freeze.

Use a star-shaped cookie cutter to make stars from a semi-thawed sheet of frozen shortcrust pastry. Sprinkle each star with icing sugar then bake for ten minutes in a medium oven.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


The second of the 2012 Serendipity Dinners was attended by six people, and continued the somewhat retro theme in cookery I’ve been on lately.

Entrée was baked field mushrooms stuffed with ricotta, sundried tomato and olives with fresh herbs. Main course was a gourmet meatloaf, served with spicy relish and a green salad. Dessert was my own creation; a freeform, Scottish-inspired take on the traditional trifle.

It was all very successful and, just as importantly, very easy and straightforward. The mushrooms were delicious and simplicity itself to make. The meatloaf was a little crumbly, because I didn’t have the time (or the inclination) to dice the carrot and celery really finely, but it was infused with prunes and bacon, giving it a rich and smoky flavour. As for the dessert I was very proud with the way it turned out, so much so that I will share the recipe… such as it is.

Blandwagon’s Messy Scotch Trifle Thing

Take a couple of dozen sponge fingers (left over from last week’s tiramisu), and heat them in a moderate oven for ten minutes or until they brown slightly and the sugar starts to melt. Arrange them on a serving platter.

Take 300mls of ricotta (left over from the stuffed mushrooms), 300mls of whipped cream, and 50mls of scotch and fold together. Pour the cream mix onto the warm sponge fingers.

Scatter a punnet of blueberries over the top, then drizzle it all with 2 tablespoons of warm-to-hot honey heated in the microwave.

Serve at table, since it looks terrible once it all gets pulled apart. But it tastes amazing.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


Recently my friend Junior, who like me is a Lego nerd, bought himself the Excavator Transport set at a sale.

Being a generous sort, he let me help him put it together while we drank Manhattans and watched 1984's 'Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo'. Yes, our lives are just that rich.

It wasn't until we'd nearly finished, and I happened the lay the set's two minifigs side by side, that I discovered the greatest ever proof of the Lego Corporation's subversive side:

Me: Sweet merciful crap!

Junior: What?

Me: These minifigs... it's uncanny...

Junior: Why?

Me: Do they remind you of anyone?

Junior: Hmmm... wait... sweet merciful crap!

For those of you who are a little slower on the uptake, here's a clue:

It's awesome. Lego could never get away with making an official 'Breaking Bad' set... but they can still find a backdoor way to deliver us Walter and Jesse.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012


The long-term reader of this blog, who no doubt reads it while propped up in bed at the Home for the Criminally Undiscriminating, will know that every November I host a series of dinner parties called Serendipity Dinners. The process is simple: I invite everyone I know to come to dinner on one or more Fridays in November. They get to choose which one(s). They don’t know who else is coming, and I don’t know, until 24 hours beforehand, how many there will be. Sometimes there’s three or four, sometimes thirteen or fourteen.

And just to make things more difficult, I have to produce three courses that I either haven’t cooked before, or a I haven’t made in years, or which didn’t exist until I dreamt them up.

Basically I’m a cross between a chef, a masochist and an idiot.

The first dinner for 2012 was last Friday, attended by myself and four friends. Entrée was a roasted pumpkin, sage and apple cider soup. Main course was the retro classic Salade Nicoise. Dessert was an old-school tiramisu.

The soup was very good; possibly a little too thick but the flavours were great and I didn’t hear any complaints. The Salade Nicoise was surprisingly filling… and surprisingly expensive, given that the only fresh tuna I could find was $36 a kilo sashimi-grade yellow fin. But it was delicious, and lovely to look at, with the bright green beans, bright red tomatoes, glossy black olives, glossy white egg and the subtler pinks, browns and greys of the tuna and the baby potatoes. The tiramisu was a bit of a disappointment, and not simply because I had to drive to three different supermarkets to find one that stocked marscapone. The marscapone and cream mixture was a little too dense, and I used brandy rather than coffee liqueur so the coffee flavour was not as intense as it should have been. But that didn't seem to stop us devouring it all.

Now I just have to come up with more brilliant ideas for this Friday. Sigh.