Meat-Free Monday

Eating meat ethically means, in part, eating less of it. So, we’ve instituted Meat-Free Monday in our house, although we’re aiming for more than just one night a week. Being a fairly carnivorous cook by habit has posed some challenges, but I’m gradually building up a repertoire of go-to non-meat dishes. And I’m certainly not feeling deprived in any way; on the contrary, it’s been fun to experiment with some new tastes and ingredients.

One option is to use your familiar recipes and simply replace the meat with another protein, like tofu or legumes. For example, I’m now pretty happy with my tried-and-true Thai curry made with firm tofu instead of chicken. I also use shop-bought curry pastes to save time, but I highly recommend sourcing them from Asian grocers for authentic flavour and kick. Another brilliant discovery I made some years ago is that you can use tinned Carnation coconut-flavoured milk in your Thai curries; it tastes just as good as real coconut milk and contains a fraction of the fat!

A favourite summertime meat-free staple is my own invention, the Mexican tuna salad; see my post from earlier this year for the recipe. As with meat production, however, there are many problems with aquaculture, which have been documented recently in the excellent SBS TV show presented by Matthew Evans, What’s the Catch?. My tuna salad post suggests a Greenpeace-endorsed, responsibly caught brand of tuna you can buy from supermarkets.

If Mr T is out, I’ll sometimes just have eggs (free-range, of course), poached, on toast with baked beans and maybe some fried mushrooms, all things that Mr T dislikes and I love! I’m also very partial to a good skakshuka, and on Monday night this week I improvised this dish with some pre-made ratatouille that I spiced up with a squirt of harissa paste. I cooked two eggs in little hollows in the sauce, spooned the somewhat messy result onto sourdough toast and sprinkled with sea salt and chopped coriander leaves. This dish is too good to have to wait for weekend brunches!

Yotam Ottolenghi, Israeli-born London-based chef of the moment, is credited with sexing up the vegetable, so who better to turn to for some veggie inpiration! Here’s a simple and delicious recipe from his new book Plenty More, which I’ve adapted slightly – adding baby spinach and chickpeas – to make it more of a light meal than a side-dish. The contrasting flavours – sweet, spicy, garlicky, fresh – and colours are just wonderful!

Pumpkin with chilli yoghurt and coriander sauce

Ingredients

(Serves 4 as a light meal)

  • 1 butternut pumpkin
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 90ml olive oil
  • 50g coriander, leaves and stalks, plus extra leaves to garnish
  • 1 small garlic clove, crushed
  • 20g pumpkin seeds
  • 200g Greek yoghurt
  • 1½ tsp Sriracha (or another savoury chilli sauce)
  • 4 handfuls of baby spinach leaves
  • 1 tin of good quality chickpeas
  • Salt and black pepper

Method

Preheat the oven to 220C, or 200C fan, or gas mark 7. Cut the pumpkin in half and scoop out and discard the seeds. Chop into wedges about 2cm wide by 7cm long. Toss in a mixing bowl with the cinnamon, two tablespoons of the olive oil, ¾ teaspoon salt and a generous grind of black pepper. Spread the pumpkin out on two baking sheets, skin side down, and roast for 35-40 minutes or until tender and slightly singed at the edges. Remove from the oven and put aside to cool. Meanwhile, to make the coriander sauce, put the coriander leaves and stalks, the clove of garlic, the remaining 4 tbsp of olive oil and a good pinch of salt into a food processor and pulse to form a smooth paste. Alternatively, as I do, pound these ingredients in a pestle and mortar for a slightly rougher texture. Reduce the oven temperature to 180C, or 160C fan, or gas mark 4. Put the pumpkin seeds onto a baking sheet and toast in the oven for 6-8 minutes. (You can also toast them in a heavy bottomed pan on the hob-top, but watch them like a hawk!) When you’re ready to serve, put a handful of spinach leaves on each plate, divide up the pumpkin wedges between the plates, and scatter with chickpeas. Swirl the Sriracha into the yoghurt and drizzle the mixture over the pumpkin and chickpeas, followed by the coriander sauce. Sprinkle with the toasted pumpkin seeds and reserved coriander leaves, and serve.

Ottolenghi's pumpkin with chilli yoghurt and coriander sauce

Ottolenghi’s pumpkin with chilli yoghurt and coriander sauce

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Meat feast at The Commons

Eating out is one of my most favourite things to do, but restaurants and cafés that serve pasture-raised meat are few and far between. So it’s very exciting when we discover a new one, and even more so when they’re offering seven-hour spit-roasted lamb supplied by Feather and Bone, our wonderful local sustainable butcher. The Commons in Darlinghurst has been holding regular ‘spit’ nights – alternately lamb and pork – since May, and we finally made it along last week to their final one for the year. Their calendar is filled with functions over the festive months so the carnivorous feasting will resume in February.

So, date night with Mr T last Wednesday, one of his rare nights off from rehearsing Sport for Jove’s upcoming production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we pedal our treadlies from our respective work-places to The Commons to catch up and eat meat! Mr T has snagged a table outside in the pretty, plant-bordered sunken courtyard at the front of the sandstone heritage farmhouse on quiet Burton Street. A divine Italian waiter from Verona (“yes, I used to pretend my name was Romeo… until I got a girlfriend!”) comes to talk to us about the menu, and on discovering that not just the spit-roast but all their meats are sustainably sourced, we order a charcuterie plate to nibble on before the main event. Another delicious, possibly Spanish, waiter brings me a zesty glass of Chenin Blanc; I should have written down what it was because I can’t find a wine list on their website.

Charcuterie plate: bresaola, prosciutto, finocchiona, salamino and n’duja

Charcuterie plate: bresaola, prosciutto, finocchiona, salamino and n’duja

The Commons sources its charcuterie from Pino’s Dolce Vita in Kogarah, a family-run butcher and smallgoods producer which buys all its meat from small farms with high standards of animal welfare, like Taralga Springs Beef and Gundooee Organic Wagyu beef. Bresaola (air-dried beef), prosciutto, finocchiona (a variation on salami, laced with fennel), salamino (pepperoni) and n’duja are all included on the charcuterie plate, served with crisped sourdough and Parmesan bread sticks. All are deliciously sweet, spicy, fatty and salty to varying degrees; a standout is the fiery coloured Calabrian n’duja which packs a potent chili kick. Our slow-cooked Moorlands biodynamic texel lamb, supplied by Feather and Bone, is generously portioned (as you might hope at $37 the dish), with parts on the firm side and other parts wonderfully soft and pull-able. It comes with wedges of herby roast potato and a very well made ratatouille where each vegetable is distinct, rather than part of a general mush.

Moorlands biodynamic texel lamb, roast potatoes and ratatouille

Moorlands biodynamic texel lamb, roast potatoes and ratatouille

We’re far too full for pudding, so we thank our handsome Mediterranean hosts, waddle our portly bodies to our bikes and roll on home. We’ll definitely be back to pig out on the pork next year. (Yes, I never tire of that pun!)

Have you found any restaurants or cafés that serve sustainably raised meat? I’d love to hear about them.

A butcher engaged in big ideas, not big claims

I’ve done quite a lot of banging on on this blog about Marrickville butcher Feather and Bone and how wonderful they are. Anyone would think I was on their marketing team! I’m not. I just genuinely love and admire what they do and am very thankful to have a local supplier of ethically raised meat. To give you a greater level of insight into why I think they’re so great – and why you should too – here’s a (slightly edited) article I wrote for a uni assignment a few months ago, based on an interview I did with Feather and Bone co-owner Grant Hilliard.

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Food producers have been known to make some fairly spurious claims, but have you ever heard of a butcher that denied selling meat? In March this year, Marrickville butcher Feather and Bone sent out their weekly e-newsletter and alongside the usual touting of their current wares was the out-and-proud claim that they weren’t, in fact, selling meat, but soil. An uninitiated reader might have assumed they were barking mad, but those in the know about this providore would not have been surprised.

This announcement formed part of Feather and Bone’s response to Meat Free Week, a national campaign to raise awareness of the quantity of meat we eat, and the effects on our health, the environment and animals. These are all concerns that Feather and Bone shares but they had “a bone to pick” with Meat Free Week. Their gripe was that eating a vegetarian diet does not eliminate the problems since intensive crop farming is extremely harmful to the environment. Instead, they proposed, we should have a Where Does My Food Come From Week.

But why would a butcher shop stick its head above the parapet and align itself, in any way, with an initiative trying to get us to eat less meat? Feather and Bone is an enterprise that grew out of passion and principles, and their desire to engage in a discussion about the issues surrounding meat production has always taken priority over commercial considerations. “It’s a business built on ideas,” says Grant Hilliard, co-owner of Feather and Bone. “It wasn’t conceived of as a business, it was conceived of as an interest around genetic diversity, initially. And what it is now is an acute awareness of how genetic diversity, soil health and water health are the base level requirements of food security.”

Hilliard’s interest in farming was sparked by visits to vineyards as a sommelier working in restaurants. He was fascinated by how the grapes were grown and the health of the soil they came from. Moving on to lambs, he tracked down an old breed he’d heard of, the Southdown, for his boss Sean Moran and two other restaurateurs. He bought three carcasses in 2006 and that was the seed for Feather and Bone. Today the thriving business still buys only whole animals, raised outside, direct from farms they have personally visited and vetted. Hilliard and co-owner Laura Dalrymple support small-scale growers who believe in rare breeds, animal welfare and minimal use of chemicals.

“Saying for the first time that we’re not selling meat but we’re selling soil is a crystallisation of currents that have been swirling around for eight years but have really come together,” Hilliard asserts. The pair sees meat production as just part of an interconnected system that depends on the health of all its parts to be sustainable. Healthy soil produces healthy crops that, in turn, feed healthy animals, and so long as stocking density is not too high the soil remains healthy and is enriched by the natural waste from the animals it supports. Thus, they conclude, Feather and Bone is actually selling “the concentrated essence of the goodness that is inherent in healthy, vibrant soil”.

The flip side of the agricultural coin is factory farming, intensive meat and crop production on an enormous scale. Negative impacts on animal welfare, the environment and public health have been well documented in such publications as Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. Factory farmers are known to claim that it’s the only way to feed a burgeoning global population, but Hilliard rejects this logic and questions how, with “declining soil fertility and declining water quality… you’re still going to be able to treble your production. It’s a ludicrous idea”. For “truly sustainable production… you have to have a system which has decreasing inputs for an increasing output”. Factory farming relies on huge chemical inputs to deal with lifeless, overused soil and is therefore an unsustainable model.

There are currently nowhere near enough of the kind of farmers that Feather and Bone supports to feed the world at our current levels of meat consumption. But we can all try to eat less meat and also use more of the animal. Customers are encouraged to buy a variety of cuts throughout the year and recipe suggestions are included in the e-newsletter. You can buy bones for stock, various types of offal, or even a tanned hide for your living room floor. “We call it eyeball to arsehole, now! ‘Nose to tail’ is so sweet, [but] let’s be a little more accurate about what it is that you’ve actually got here!” jokes Hilliard.

This humorous and honest approach to communication is typical of Feather and Bone. And it’s refreshing in a world where some food producers and supermarkets exploit the lack of enforceable standards in marketing and labeling to deceive well-intentioned customers and charge a premium to boot. Free range eggs is just one such contentious issue. Feather and Bone may allege that they’re selling soil, but they don’t claim to be an ethical butcher. “We would never say that we’re an ethical butcher, because that’s a value judgment, really. What we say is that we try and make the process as transparent as possible,” Hilliard explains.

“What we tried to do from the beginning was to say this steak, for instance, came from this body of beef, which was grown on this farm… it’s this breed, it may or may not be organic, it was fed this thing, it was grown by this person, it was killed on this date and we’ve aged it for this long. And that’s just a series of qualities that describe that steak; it’s up to you to decide if you think it’s delicious or whether it has other qualities beyond that,” Hilliard says. “If you think this sort of information is important to you, this is a business that can offer you something.”

Judging by Feather and Bone’s growing flock of loyal customers, people are increasingly interested in the provenance of their food. Maybe a Where Does My Food Come From Week is not such a crazy idea. A lot less crazy than a butcher that sells soil, that’s for sure.

The dark secrets of dairy production

What could be more innocent and wholesome than a glassful of creamy, frothy milk? The food of babes, our breakfast staple, the source of so many other good, nutritious things: yoghurt, cheese, cream, butter. And yet, did you know that 700,000 calves per year in Australia are killed at just a few days old in order to produce the milk you put on your muesli or have in your latte each morning? Well, I didn’t, until just recently, and I feel as though the metaphorical rug has been whipped out from under me, leaving me dazed, confused and not a little disgusted. Perhaps I’m supremely naïve to have reached the grand old age of 41 without realising this truth, or perhaps, once again, it’s largely the result of the secrecy that exists around most animal agriculture practices.

In order to produce milk, dairy cows must give birth once a year, and are therefore kept in an almost constant cycle of reproduction. The majority of the female offspring grow up to become dairy cows themselves, but male calves are superfluous to dairy production and, currently, there isn’t much market for the meat of dairy cows as it’s not considered prime beef. With no commercial use to the farmer, these ‘bobby calves’ are taken from their mothers shortly after birth, hand-fed, and, at just five days old, sent to the slaughterhouse. At this age they would normally suckle five to ten times a day and are not up to the rigours of long journeys, yet, amazingly, regulations allow for them to be transported for up to 12 hours and to go without food for up to 30 hours.

I always understood why vegans didn’t consume dairy; any food that is harvested from an animal necessarily involves its subjugation, be it meat or cheese or honey. But aside from having to stand in a stall with clamps on their udders from time to time, I had blithely assumed that the whole process of collecting milk was relatively benign for the cows; after all, they didn’t have to be killed for it. In re-evaluating my food choices this year with regard to meat, I had felt secure in the knowledge that dairy was an ethical source of protein. I had no idea that its production involved the disposal of hundreds of thousands of sentient beings as an unwanted by-product, brought into the world only as a means to an end. I know, of course, that all farmed animals are technically a means to an end, a commodity – and I’m having enough trouble with that concept these days – but something about their very brief lives makes the fate of these bobby calves particularly distasteful to me.*

So, what to do? There are, of course, a variety of milk alternatives made from soy, almonds (and other nuts), rice or oats. I’ve never much liked the taste of soy milk but I’ve had rice milk before as part of a yeast and sugar-free diet and I got used to that. However, I’d rather have my cake and eat it, as with meat consumption, and support those farmers doing the right thing. The Alt.milk directory lists small-scale, family-run dairy farms using ethical and sustainable practices. I know that one brand included here, Country Valley, is sold at two markets close to where I live – Eveleigh Market in Redfern (Saturdays) and Marrickville Market (Sundays) – so that’s a good place to start. There’s no information available on their website about their treatment of bobby calves so I’m going to send them an email to ask. I’ll let you know how I go.

What do you think about this issue? Is it something you were aware of? Have you ever considered giving up dairy because of this? Have you found any good non-animal alternatives? Or any ethically produced dairy products? Leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts.

* As it turns out there are many other welfare problems inherent in dairy production, such as poor health, dehorning and tail-docking, and the live transport of pregnant heifers. You can read more about these issues at the Voiceless and RSPCA links below.

Sources and inspiration:

Illi Hill: a review

Just shy of a month since it opened, Marrickville’s newest cafe on the block has already settled right in to the ‘hood with packed tables every weekend. Perched on the brow of a hill on Illawarra Road (see where they got the name?), opposite the hugely popular Henson pub, Illi Hill has taken over the site of Con’s Delicatessen, which ceased trading on 16 May this year after 47 years. Illi Hill’s facebook page reports that Con and his wife Mary still live in their home out the back, and since retiring have taken a trip back to Greece, their first since emigrating to Australia.

Illi Hill business partners Oleh and Perry have done a beautiful job creating a light-filled, welcoming space whilst keeping many of the original features of the old corner shop, including its white and blue tiles, pressed metal ceiling, an old set of suspension scales and even the hand-painted “fruit and vegetables” sign on the window. Oleh, a friendly, flat-capped, down-to-earth chap who also restores secondhand furniture, has reused the shop’s dark timber shelving to clad the front of the cafe’s bar and storage cupboards.

The clipboard menu comprises a cheer-worthy round-up of breakfast (available all day) and lunch (from 11.30am) dishes, with winners like baked eggs, ricotta hotcakes, a Reuben sandwich and slow-cooked lamb. You can also build-your-own breakfast from eggs, “any which way you can”, plus sides such as haloumi, house-made baked beans and chorizo. Drinks include well-made coffee from Little Marionette as well as freshly squeezed/whizzed juices and smoothies. Ingredients are seasonal, local and ethically sourced, with an avowed rejection of factory farming: meat is pasture-raised from Marrickville’s Feather and Bone, bread from Bourke Street Bakery social enterprise The Bread & Butter Project and 100% pure milk from Country Valley in Picton.

More like a dessert than breakfast (but hey, who’s complaining!), two large ricotta and buttermilk hotcakes, with dark crusty edges, arrive in a pool of warm liquid marmalade, topped with vanilla-flecked labne, a splayed saffron-poached pear and shards of dark pistachio-studded chocolate. Fans of the divine combo of dark chocolate and orange, this will blow your mind! Baked eggs have become a staple on Sydney breakfast menus and this version doesn’t disappoint: a cast-iron skillet with two runny-centred eggs in a sea of baked beans (white beans braised with tomato, celery and carrot), with balsamic field mushroom, roasted plum tomato, sugar peas, tangy feta, sesame and sunflower seeds and micro herbs, plus sourdough toast to scoop up all the goodness. A side of thin, crispy pasture-raised bacon adds a swoon-inducing umami note to this excellent dish.

Ricotta and buttermilk "jaffa" hotcakes with saffron poached pear, vanilla labne and dark chocolate

Ricotta and buttermilk “jaffa” hotcakes with saffron poached pear, vanilla labne and dark chocolate

Baked eggs, braised white beans, sugar peas, balsamic field mushrooms, heirloom tomatoes, feta, fresh herbs, pepita dakkah and sourdough toast

Baked eggs, braised white beans, sugar peas, balsamic field mushrooms, heirloom tomatoes, feta, fresh herbs, pepita dakkah and sourdough toast

A deeply satisfying cheeseburger features a thick, juicy, slightly gamey organic beef patty and aged cheddar, Swiss and blue cheeses on a sourdough bun with zingy pickled cucumber, caramelised onion, tomato, mixed leaves and chipotle mayo. Their Reuben, an oft attempted but rarely perfected sandwich, is a jaw-dislocating doorstep of rye toast stuffed with thinly sliced sweet and spicy corned beef (a little more would have been welcome), sauerkraut and pickled purple cabbage, pickled cucumbers, melted Swiss cheese and “Russian dressing” (mayo and ketchup, apparently) that dribbles pale purple juices onto your plate and halfway down your arm if you’re not careful. Both lunch dishes come with a fresh, crunchy more-than-just-garnish salad of finely sliced fennel and radish with strands of lightly pickled carrot.

Triple cheeseburger (aged cheddar, Swiss and blue), Feather & Bone organic beef, pickles, caramelised onion, tomato, mixed leaves and chipotle sauce

Triple cheeseburger (aged cheddar, Swiss and blue) with Feather & Bone organic beef, pickles, caramelised onion, tomato, mixed leaves and chipotle sauce

Reuben - house-made corned beef, sauerkraut, Swish cheese, pickles and Russian dressing on rye toast

Reuben – house-made corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, pickles and Russian dressing on rye toast

There are plenty more reasons to go back, like the breakfast salad of seasonal greens, avocado, baby peas, micro herbs, almond flakes, lemon zest labne, poached eggs and toast, or the salad of six-hour roasted lamb shoulder with chickpeas, roasted beetroot, quinoa, tomato, cucumber, herbs, seeds and mint lime yoghurt dressing. Not to mention the lovely staff and relaxed vibe. And back we certainly shall go!

Farm to table in NYC: Part 2 – ABC Kitchen

Our best meal in New York City started, for me, with a very good, very strong Manhattan, poured, at our table, over three brandied cherries on a stick. Well, really it started when we put on our glad-rags in our tiny Airbnb garret in the East Village, hailed a cab to East 18th Street in the Flatiron District, entered a buzzing, dimly lit space, confirmed our reservation with two young ladies behind a desk, were welcomed warmly (as though we were members of a secret club) and shown to our table in an enormous, high-ceilinged space, artfully divided into sections to give the illusion of intimacy.

ABC Kitchen is the highly reputed farm-to-table restaurant my sophisticated bosses are dying to go to. I’ve tried to get them in there – twice! Fortunately, by the time it came to making a reservation for myself I was well practised. As the clock ticked over to 11pm on Sunday 17 August, exactly one month out, to the second, from the first opportunity to book for our chosen date, I hastily dialed the number. And we got in! For our final night in New York, our last supper of an amazing two weeks of bicycling, art, theatre, photography, architecture and food. So, expectations were running high. And, I’m pleased to report, ABC Kitchen did not disappoint.

Before I get entirely distracted by the food, ABC Kitchen belongs to the eatery arm of a big, beautiful, expensive homewares store in New York called ABC Carpet & Home. The restaurants are stunningly decked out with consciously sourced materials and locally crafted objects, and you can buy everything – from the furniture to the artworks to the cutlery – in their stores. ABC Kitchen’s pale colour palette of whitewashed brick walls and white moulded tables and chairs is warmed by timber floors, heavy wooden beams, the odd large round table recycled from fallen trees, two huge gnarly drift-wood sculptures, and those exposed, golden Edison-style light globes we saw everywhere in New York. This clean, natural look is contrasted by such quirks as mismatched vintage floral dinnerware, a Venetian-style white glass chandelier, and large framed black and white prints of Hitchcock-esque birds.

ABC Kitchen’s philosophy on food is “to offer regionally grown and/or organic, cruelty-free and otherwise environmentally conscious foods, from the farm to our table”. Their fresh produce comes from “local farms that practice sustainable techniques and strive to not use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides or GMOs”, and they list 25 of them on the menu, the majority in New York state. A further four farms are credited for the meat, which, they insist, is all produced with “humane treatment for the animal”. An entire A4-sized page of the menu is devoted to letting you know where everything comes from. This kind of transparency is the future, I tells ya!

While I sipped on my Manhattan, as we pored over the menu, Mr T sampled their house-made sodas, including a lip-smacking, herbaceous lemon thyme flavour. Later, with food, I lingered over two glasses of the most delicious pinot blanc from Alsace, France (‘Kritt’, Kreydenweiss 2012), full of dried fruit flavours. Sadly I can’t seem to find an outlet in Sydney!

The first section of the menu, ‘Market table’, reflected a literal table to the side of the room piled high with fruit and veg from nearby Union Square Market, enhanced by vases of assorted flowers and studded with tea lights, like a shrine to agriculture at a Harvest Festival church service. From this selection of appetizers came our first dish, a fat, juicy chicken and pork sausage, golden brown outside, rough textured and flecked with herbs inside. Accompanying it were a few waxy new potatoes, fine slices of peppery radish, fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves and a strong seedy mustard dressing. Seemingly something of a trend at the moment, fatty meat, fresh leaves and acidic dressing is an endlessly satisfying combination.

Next, kindly divided into two small bowls since we were sharing everything, came a tomato and peach gazpacho. This was the dish I’d most looked forward to trying when I spotted it on their website. Silky-smooth, peppery, sweet tomato-peach nectar was offset by tiny cubes of crunchy cucumber, fine strands of basil, and gobs of rich, creamy goats cheese. Mr T declared it “One of the most delicious things I’ve eaten this century!”

Putting in a serious bid to compete for this accolade was the confit pork: a brick of sweet, falling-apart meat topped with zingy plum marmalade accented with fresh ginger, and chewy nuggets of thick smoky bacon. Served on a smear of buttery, super-smooth mash, it was encircled by palate cleansing, translucent-white turnips with their long green stalks left on. A wafer of crisp crackling was a hidden surprise.

I’ve had lobster at most three times in my life and this was one of them, so amazed were we that it wasn’t astronomically expensive. A whole small oven-roasted lobster was split down the middle exposing warm, incredibly tender, sweet flesh, dressed simply with oregano and a lemon-chili vinaigrette and served in the shell, with the claw meat already neatly extracted in one piece. Divine!

Sides provided more good acidity: chargrilled sweet corn kernels with cherry tomatoes, chili, fresh herbs and lime juice, and a medley of warm, comforting dressed heirloom beans.

As if all that wasn’t good enough, the desserts took things to a whole other level. My sundae contained four globes of very smooth, burnt-sugar-flavoured salted caramel ice cream topped with clusters of candied popcorn and a quenelle of whipped cream, giving way to a deep aquifer of dark, rich, warm chocolate sauce and candied peanuts. Salty and sweet, cold and warm, crunchy and smooth, this was officially “The best dessert I’ve ever had!”

Mr T’s chocolate cake was the darkest I’ve ever seen, with several layers of malted dark chocolate ganache running through it, encased in toasted white marshmallow icing. This was one heavy duty, insanely rich chocolate cake, even by Mr T’s extreme standards and he longed for the flavour-quenching effect of some vanilla ice cream to go with it.

ABC Kitchen was an experience that appealed on so many levels, from the exquisite design, to the relaxed but professional service, to the very high quality food, to the care for animals, people and the environment in everything they source. I feel as though I have glimpsed the future; I do hope it’s coming to Sydney soon.

Flatiron Building, New York City

Flatiron Building, New York City (near ABC Kitchen)

PS Apologies for the absence of food photos but I forgot my camera on this occasion!

Farm to table in NYC: Part 1 – the burger joint

We took a break from ethical meat eating on our just-completed two-week holiday in New York City. I fully admit that the morality of this kind of part-time, only-when-it-suits-us attitude to animal welfare (and other associated issues) is highly dubious, but I feel slightly better for being transparent about it. The decision was based on an unashamed desire to experience the pleasure of eating whatever we wished to, and also the convenience of being able to do just that. We wanted to indulge in every clichéd foodie landmark on the American culinary map, from burgers and hotdogs to barbecued pulled pork and ribs, from corned beef and pastrami to fried chicken and steak. And we did, and we thoroughly enjoyed it. And now we’re back on the wagon; in fact we’ve already restocked our freezer with pasture-raised pork ribs, oxtail, braising beef and mutton from Feather and Bone. (Our doubts about mutton were firmly allayed when we tasted tender, succulent chunks that they had marinated and barbecued at the shop yesterday – a revelation!)

Confessions aside, we did actually eat at a number of restaurants that sourced their meat consciously, and it was clear that New York is some way ahead of Sydney in promoting these policies to diners. You might assume that the restaurants in question were all at the higher end of the price spectrum (more on that later), but we were surprised and delighted to discover, quite by chance, two burger joint chains that fitted the ethical meat bill.

The first was Bareburger, a franchise with 18 outlets, mainly in New York. We hurried into their branch on West 46th Street when, short of time before seeing a Broadway show, we couldn’t find the Turkish restaurant we were looking for. Subsequent research has shown that our instincts were good; Bareburger has been voted one of the top ten burgers in New York for the last four years by the user-review website Zagat. The extensive burger menu, which features elk, bison and wild boar among its protein choices, boasts that, “all Bareburger meats are free-range, pasture raised, humanely raised, antibiotic, gluten and hormone-free”. Since they list all the suppliers they use I was able to dig a little further. As far as I can tell, their meat comes from two butchers: Blackwing Quality Meats in Illinois and Pat La Frieda Meat Purveyors in New Jersey. Blackwing’s website claims that all their meat is pasture-raised and free-range, some of it certified organic, while that of Pat La Frieda says, “our product is sourced from small farms across the country. We ensure that all animals are raised without the use of antibiotics, hormones, or growth promoting drugs. Animals are treated humanely, fed a diet of grass and hay for most of their lives and finished on corn.” These businesses don’t divulge the names of the farms they buy from so that’s the end of the line for my research, unless I was to call them and ask for more info. The burgers were very good indeed with generous, juicy patties and inventive accompaniments, as were crumbed onion rings with assorted dipping sauces and a chocolate milkshake so thick Mr T had to eat it with a spoon!

The second restaurant was Bubby’s, which has just three locations, two in New York and one in Japan. We visited the outlet in New York’s Meatpacking district after walking the High Line, an elevated green oasis created on the old abandoned freight rail line that snakes through this area on the west side of Manhattan. The service here, as with practically everywhere we went in New York, was excellent, and on learning it was our first visit to Bubby’s our good-natured waiter proudly explained their philosophy on provenance. They buy pasture-raised steers and heritage breed hogs from small local farms and butcher the animals themselves. Some cuts of meat they buy from Heritage Meat Shop at Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side, who in turn source only whole bodies of “non-commodity, humanely raised meat and poultry” from a selection of farmers listed on their website. Although the burgers are a specialty on Bubby’s menu, we opted instead for the ‘Pit BBQ’ of pulled pork and ribs, smoked over cherrywood, and sides of coleslaw, succotash (lima beans, corn and tomatoes) and mac ‘n’ cheese. Since Bubby’s was originally famous for its pies we couldn’t leave without devouring large wedges of sour cheery and key lime, served with their house-made ice cream.

It was so encouraging to find two mainstream restaurants serving mid-priced, all-American fare and making provenance a selling point. It means regular consumers – not just the wealthy ones – are starting to demand greater transparency about what they eat, and there lies the seed of change.

Habanero Express: pepperjack, lettuce, tomato, poblano pepper relish, red onion, spicy pickle chips and habanero chipotle mayo with elk pattie

Habanero Express: pepperjack cheese, lettuce, tomato, poblano pepper relish, red onion, spicy pickle chips and habanero chipotle mayo with elk pattie

Hamming it up, or what to put in the lunch-time sangers

One of the things about deciding to eat non-factory farmed meat is the need to plan ahead. You can’t simply buy a cooked chook on the way home from work when you haven’t thought about dinner, or nip to the supermarket on a Sunday night for a packet of ham for weekday lunch sandwiches. When your source of pasture-raised meat is open Tuesday to Saturday 8.30am to 4pm, you need to be a bit organised and make good use of your freezer.

We have solved the ‘what to put in the sangers’ problem in a couple of ways. Cooking a roast on Sunday, just as my mother did throughout my childhood, is not only a great tradition that brings family together, it’s also a very efficient way to cook and means plenty of leftovers for the week. Alternatively, we have been buying up half bone-in hams from Feather and Bone. At $31.50 per kilo for a 3-4kg ham it’s a bit of an eye-watering outlay, but we’ve been slicing it up, wrapping it in plastic wrap and putting it in the freezer in week-sized batches (plastic takeaway containers are great for this), and it keeps really well and lasts for ages. Plus, hand-carved ham off the bone is seriously one of the most delicious things ever and leaves the processed supermarket stuff for dead!

And today, in the spirit of getting our money’s worth and using every bit of the animal, I’ve made pea and ham soup from the bones, which we also chucked in the freezer until we were ready to use them. I used the bones of two half-leg hams, plus an additional smoked ham hock, also bought from Feather and Bone, to provide some extra meat. Below is the recipe, which I got from my mother. I imagine it probably came from her amazing encyclopedic collection of 1970s Supercook books which takes up a least a metre of shelf space in the larder at my parents’ house.

Ingredients for pea and ham soup

(Serves 6)

  • 500g green or yellow split peas
  • 2 smoked ham hocks (or replace one hock with the bones from two half-leg hams)
  • 3 litres water
  • 4 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 4 celery stalks, roughly chopped
  • 3 onions, peeled and chopped
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 3 tbsp chopped parsley
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Method for pea and ham soup

Soak the peas in plenty of cold water overnight and drain. Place the ham hocks (or bones) and the water in a large pot and bring to the boil, skimming off any froth that comes to the surface. Add the peas, carrots, celery, onion and bay leaves and cook for two hours, partly covered, at a gentle simmer. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.

Remove the ham hocks and bones and shred the meat, discarding the bone, skin and fat, The peas should have melted to a thick purée; if not you can purée half of the soup in a blender, keeping the other half chunky to provide texture. Add more water, if needed, to form the desired consistency. Return the ham meat to the soup, gently reheat and serve scattered with parsley.

Pea and ham soup

Pea and ham soup

Eggs is eggs, right? Why some free-range eggs are freer than others

Do you buy free-range eggs? Are you confident that the brand you buy fulfills your expectation of what free range should mean? Did you know that there are currently no legally enforceable standards for free-range eggs? A Model Code exists, which is entirely voluntary, that recommends free-range chickens be run outside at a maximum of 1500 per hectare. According to Choice, however, up to 30% of producers who label their eggs free range have 20,000 chickens per hectare. This situation is set to change with agreement reached in June this year, by Australia’s consumer affairs ministers, to set a national standard for free range. A draft is due to be presented in early 2015, but who knows how long it’ill take until the final outcome starts impacting our supermarket shelves. In the meantime, fellow ethical eaters, we’re on our own!

Today’s post is inspired by a friend who linked on facebook this week to a news.com.au article about the terrible plight of caged layer hens at a facility that supplies Pace Farm, Australia’s largest egg producer. The piece includes footage, provided anonymously to animal rights group Animals Australia and passed on to news.com.au, showing row upon row of small wire cages, each crammed with six scrawny, de-feathered birds clambering over one another to get to the feed tray. Below the cages are pits filled with mountains of faeces and a few escaped birds pecking around trying in vain to find food. It’s a pretty shocking sight.

Animals Australia made a complaint about this to the RSPCA, and that’s currently under investigation following a prior complaint about the same operator last year which led to two penalty notices being issued. Pace Farm’s response has been that the farm at the centre of the allegations is Egg Corp Assured (ECA) under Australian Egg Corporation Ltd’s industry audit program. This is meant to be a mark of quality but the body is industry owned, a fact that might lead one to suspect consumers – and, indeed, chickens – are not its greatest priority. As evidence of this, the Australian Egg Corporation was widely condemned in 2011 for proposing lifting recommended free-range stock limits from 1500 to 20,000 birds per hectare, a push that was thwarted. But, of course, all of this is bliss compared to the conditions of caged egg hens.

In the past five years, the market share of caged eggs has fallen from 68 per cent to 51 per cent, and that of free-range eggs has risen from 27 per cent to nearly 40 per cent. Whilst this is clearly a move in the right direction, consumers wanting to buy free range are hampered by a baffling array of labels and terms without any clear definitions. Furthermore, eggs sold as free range invariably carry a higher price tag and there’s no way of knowing if you’re being ripped off. Until a legal standard is finalised and enforced it’s unfortunately up to the consumer to do their own research.

Here are a few online resources that you might find helpful:

The website Animal Welfare Labels takes you through 46 brands of eggs – including Pace Farm, Woolworths and Coles – and tells you exactly what they do and don’t do (so far as they are able to find out) in terms of stocking density, antibiotic and growth hormone use, beak trimming and wing clipping, and other factors.

This Good Food guide to free-range eggs is a very informative read and suggests, at the end, four brands of eggs you can trust and where to buy them.

Our local ethical butcher Feather and Bone sells a couple of brands of true free-range eggs, including Farmer Brown Pastured Eggs whose hens are kept at a luxurious ten to 15 birds per hectare!

Also, check out farmers markets, like Eveleigh Market at Carriageworks in Redfern, where you’ll be able to buy eggs direct from the farmer and ask questions about the conditions their chickens live in.

And, because it’s packed with handy info and cute chicken graphics, have a look at this video clip on eggs from the ABC’s excellent consumer affairs program, The Checkout.

Happy shopping, folks – and, hopefully, happy chickens! And remember, free-range eggs may cost a bit more, but what kind of farming do you want to support with your money? As consumers we have the power, ultimately, to end the appalling conditions of caged egg hens for good.

Sustainability at Takapuna Beach Café, Auckland

On the second morning of my flying weekend visit to Auckland to see much loved friends, we strolled the length of Takapuna beach on the north shore for brunch at Takapuna Beach Café, an evidently very popular spot with panoramic views of the volcanic island Rangitoto and Waitemata Harbour. Despite the hoards of people we didn’t have to wait too long for a table; we were seated outside on the deck, too – a bonus given the surprisingly warm winter’s day.

I’m not calling this a review because I can only write about the one dish I ate; it’s so much nicer to chat to one’s greatly missed friends than quiz them about the flavours and textures of their food! But I did want to write about this place, briefly, because I was excited to discover, on the inside front cover of their menu, that they were passionate about provenance and sourced only humanely and sustainably farmed meat. According to the note they have their own farm (where all their fruit and veg comes from) and their own butchery (where their red meat comes from) in Kumeu, a small town about 25km north-west of Auckland. Their fish and poultry, apparently, come from partners who share their commitment to the environment and sustainability.

Sadly there is no further information on their website, and this is a problem. It’s very tempting to take these sorts of claims at face value but it really is necessary, if you want to be sure, to do some further research. If I were a good journalist (and I’m not a journalist but I’m trying to be good!) I’d call the café and ask some questions about the farms their meat comes from and specific details of their practices. For example, are the animals all pasture raised? Are they kept in small stocking densities to ensure they have enough space to indulge their species-specific behaviours? Are they given antibiotics or growth hormones? Are the chickens’ beaks clipped and are the pigs confined in farrowing crates when they give birth? And if the answers weren’t yes, yes, no and no, respectively, I wouldn’t call that humane and sustainable farming.

I have to admit, I’m not intending to call this café because I don’t imagine I’ll be back there very soon. If they were in Sydney I would definitely go and have a chat to the manager, because I really want to support those establishments doing the right thing.

As for my brunch, I settled on a robustly flavoured, earthy mushroom-lovers feast of assorted fungi with French shallots and potato dumplings, crowned with a perfectly oozy, orange-yolked poached egg. And because I desperately wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt I went for the optional crispy pancetta, too.

Mushrooms, shallots, poached egg and pancetta

Mushrooms, shallots, poached egg and pancetta

Takapuna Beach Café
22 The Promenade, Takapuna, Auckland
Tel. +64 9 484 0002
Monday to Sunday, 7am ’til late