Affairs of the heart exposed
Adriano Zumbo. Photo: Marco Del Grande
It could be a lifelong passion, a great love, or a fresh obsession with something new and exciting. Sometimes it's the one thing they just can't live without. Good Living asks six chefs about their love affairs with their favourite ingredients, why they adore them and how they use them.
''I am currently obsessed,'' the always-passionate Kylie Kwong says, ''with organic old man saltbush leaves.''
Kylie Kwong. Photo: Quentin Jones
Which requires some explanation: saltbush is a familiar sight in outback Australia. The beautiful and abundant grey-green hardy plants are not usually known as food, except for wild herbivores.
But last year Kwong met Gayle and Mike Quarmby, who run an organic nursery in Reedy Creek, South Australia, that specialises in Australian native bush food.
''Mike has, over a period of 12 years alongside the CSIRO, developed a special selection of saltbush for the food industry, which has resulted in amazingly tender leaves with an appealing natural creamy flavour,'' Kwong says. ''I love this product not just because of its physical properties but also because of what Mike and Gayle's Outback Pride Project stands for - [it] promotes the Australian native food industry by developing a network of production sites within traditional indigenous Australian communities and provides indigenous Australians with jobs and training.''
Lauren Murdoch. Photo: Quentin Jones
The chef says integrating Australian native bush foods into her Chinese menu at Billy Kwong is a perfect extension of her personal cooking tradition. ''It makes the the notion of Australian-Chinese food so much more authentic and meaningful. I am really excited about this discovery and it is allowing me to go even deeper into my food philosophy,'' says Kwong, who also uses organic warrigal greens, fresh samphire, sea parsley, desert limes and passion berries on her menu.
''At Billy Kwong, I simply stir-fry the old man saltbush leaves with young ginger, organic tamari, sesame oil and stock, and serve it as a simple vegetable side dish. I also like to toss it into my caramelised pork belly dish, or I like to use it as a filling for our vegetable dumplings.
''When using it at home, I like to saute it in extra virgin olive oil and, when serving, I squeeze in generous amounts of fresh lemon juice. The leaves are quite robust in their texture, looking and feeling a little like pieces of draped fabric, and need longer cooking than an English spinach leaf, for example, but they impart the most incredibly delicious creaminess, which is so unusual and a flavour profile and mouth-feel I have never experienced.''
Grant King. Photo: Quentin Jones
This one's from right out in left field: Adriano Zumbo, pastry chef extraordinaire, a master of sugar and egg whites and a self-confessed slave to chocolate, loves chicken.
''I was born in the Chinese year of the rooster, so maybe that explains my affinity with chickens,'' Zumbo says. ''When I get home, it's what I cook. I love it. It works well for me because it's a lean meat that's high in protein and since I eat a lot of cakes with fat and sugar all day, I need something lighter to finish. It's also great to play around with because it's a more subtle-tasting meat and goes with so many flavours.''
Justin North. Photo: Quentin Jones
Zumbo looks out for organic and free-range chickens for better taste and texture, and because ''you know they haven't been locked up'', but will buy any chicken if it's all he can get.
He makes favourite dishes of home-made chicken soup, Portuguese chicken, crispy-skin chicken with ginger and shallots and a classic roast.
''I put herbs and butter and garlic from the mortar and pestle under the skin and some herbs and lemon in the cavity,'' he says. ''If I am feeling really adventurous I will vacuum-seal the bird and steam it in my oven on a really low temperature of 100 degrees for a few hours, then take the chicken out of the bag, turn the oven up to 250 degrees and really blast it. The skin becomes really crisp and the inside is so moist and tender.''
And pastry? ''I do the odd pie, or quiche or sausage roll.''
And, of course, the fried chicken macaron. ''Yes, it's true, I did one late last year and it sold out. It was savoury but it had a sweet aftertaste. It was definitely different!''
As chef and director of the Rockpool restaurant empire, Neil Perry's cooking traditions effortlessly straddle East and West. One ingredient covers the cultural divide and ignites his passion. ''It has to be chilli,'' Perry says.
''Because for me it walks across both sides of my life. If I'm having yum cha or cooking a steak at home, there has to be chilli.''
We're talking chilli sauces in the fridge, dried chilli flakes, chilli powder, wild green Thai chillies, bird's eye chillis and green and red jalapeno chillis, which Perry says have a distinct ''citrussy'' element.
''We use the ripe red ones to make an amazing sauce,'' he says. ''We boil them, then we dry them in the oven, then boil them again with vinegar, sugar and garlic and it makes this amazing Thai sauce.''
Perry uses fresh jalapenos for guacamole.
''Take the jalapenos and crush them in a mortar and pestle, really pound them, add some coriander and Spanish onion and avocado and lime juice and you have a fantastic guacamole with nice heat and citrus flavours,'' he says.
''I can really handle the heat but if you can't, just take the seeds and membranes out of the chilli to make them a lot more benign. I just usually throw the lot in.
''If I'm cooking tacos I always want to have something fresh in there so I'll add shredded cabbage, raw onions, coriander, cucumber and always some chopped jalapeno.''
Perry uses different varieties of chilli for different cuisines: dried flakes for pasta sauces, fresh red chillis for Chinese food, fresh red and green chillis for Thai food.
''I also love the smokiness of chipotle … Sometimes I'll put tomatoes in a pan and sear them until they are almost burnt, then add a bit of olive oil, a lot of chilli powder, a lot of lime juice and salt and pepper and you've got a great salsa for grilled meats.''
''Brown butter would make a shoe taste good,'' the head chef at Felix restaurant in the city, Lauren Murdoch, says. ''It's the most beautiful thing in the world.''
Murdoch says she couldn't live without butter, full-stop.
''I remember being a kid cooking with my mum and trying to eat butter as though it was cheese, and mum saying, ''No, no Lauren, you can't do that.'
''So from a very young age I have loved eating it, loved cooking with it, I love the smell of cakes and pastries baking, I love butter sauces. I love garlic prawns with loads of butter and garlic and bread to mop up the melted butter, I love butter on steamed potatoes.''
This is clearly true love. In cooking she always uses unsalted butter regardless of a sweet or savoury result, so she can carefully measure the added salt. For eating she favours a demi-sel Lescure.
At Felix, Murdoch employs butter sauces often, beurre blanc (''Just reduce white wine or lemon juice then whisk in butter - you're eating mostly butter but it's in disguise'') or beurre rouge on swordfish or lamb shoulder, and brown butter on skate, with lemon juice and salt.
For potato gnocchi she makes a brown butter sauce with toasted pine nuts and currants, finished off with goats cheese, lemon zest and parsley.
''I have also cooked with black butter before in a restaurant I used to work in. You cook it until it is very, very dark, until it's almost got black flecks in it … You're probably not supposed to eat it!
''I was making friands and financiers and the flavour was absolutely fantastic.''
''Why do I love foie gras?'' Grant King asks. ''Because it's bloody delicious.''
At his Kings Cross restaurant GastroPark, King's imagination sees him playing with texture and form, chilling the foie gras until it is almost frozen then grating it to make a ''dusting''.
Foie gras served with red cabbage granita involves a tube of beetroot, wild hare, plum vinegar and nasturtiums but King can go into raptures about the unadulterated product, too.
''At home just put it on toast - but a good quantity of it. You can add grilled peaches and some good-quality vinegar and it's beautiful.''
His passion for fattened goose or duck liver was inflamed in Europe by the raw, unpasteurised product, not available here because of import regulations.
''The first time I saw it in a book - Marco Pierre White's White Heat - I was looking at the book wondering what the hell it was.
''The first time I ate it in London, I thought, 'My god,''' King says.
''I'm from a little town in New Zealand and it was so foreign to me, and people talk about caviar because of its exclusivity and rarity but this was amazing.
''You could pan fry it like a scallop - everyone in Europe does … in the end it's a liver. It's a bummer that the raw product isn't available here. ''
King makes use of excellent vacuum-packed imports - you will never, he says, find really good-quality foie gras in a tin or a glass jar.
He says while many people believe foie gras should not be eaten at all, given the controversy surrounding the force-feeding of animals to fatten their livers, you can source an ethically produced version from Spain.
''But nothing compares to French foie gras. It's probably the richest food on the planet and you have to treat it right. When you put it in a pan most cooks ruin it because it splits and scrambles and you have the leftover protein - it takes a lot of skill to cook.
''It's not comparable to anything, it is absolutely unique.''
''Really, if you're going to have a love affair with an ingredient, it's got to be chocolate. There's something really sexy about it,'' says the chef and owner of Becasse, Justin North. He is a compendium of information about percentages, the balance between milk solids and cocoa, bean provenance, the general diversity of the product and what he would like to do with it.
''If I want to kid myself that I'm being healthy, I'll eat a couple of squares of really dark chocolate. But if I'm sitting on the couch watching a movie, give me 54 per cent milk chocolate; you play around with it with your tongue, it melts and you roll it around your mouth.''
At Becasse, North might make an extravagant chocolate dessert using 68 per cent Alto Beni Zokoko chocolate with cumin caramel. At home, he'll make brownies, muffins, chocolate-chip cookies and fondants.
''I have never tempered chocolate at home, I've never been bothered. But if you want to I would invest in a small marble slab and a chocolate thermometer, if you're that serious about chocolate and want to do something fancy.''
North's favourite experiences recently include an Australian-produced chocolate from Mossman Gorge in far north Queensland, where banana farmers are building a secondary industry growing cocoa - ''It's got these bizarre green banana-y tones about it'' - and also Zokoko Tranquilidad 72 per cent chocolate, from a wild organic cocoa plot in Bolivia.
''I've got a crazy sweet tooth and I just love chocolate in general - the diversity of it, from the milky sweet chocolates to the extremely high percentage chocolates that are almost unpleasant to eat,'' he says.
With those, up around the 90 per cent mark, North uses them in winter braises of hare or venison, just a couple of squares added to enrich the sauce.
''We work so much with chocolate at the restaurant, from both ends of the scale,'' he says.
''But for me personally, if I'm feeling a bit lazy and need a sugar hit … It makes the world a better place.''
From Good Living