Wednesday, November 30, 2005

A gift for the foodie who has everything

With Christmas fast approaching our minds turn to the sometimes stressful task of gift buying. I love the festive season, especially buying presents for my friends and family, but every once in a while someone comes along who is especially difficult to buy for.

One of the most challenging in this category is the foodie who has everything. What do you buy for the person whose every truffle, Roquefort cheese or Iranian saffron need has been fulfilled? Well if you’ve got money to burn, the enterprising and technologically savvy Shanahan family in the little township of Wooli in northern NSW has the perfect solution. They are offering shellfish connoisseurs 10 dozen personally grown Sydney Rock Oysters, delivered fresh to the door for only $250.

Brian Shanahan runs the Oysters for Connoisseurs venture with his wife Diane and daughter Louise. He has been farming oysters for 35 years with 33 of those in the Wooli Wooli River. In the months of November to February Brian and his family place trays of three-year old oysters in the river where they grow for about a year before being picked and then delivered in a special oyster esky.

He said the experience of a fresh four-year-old oyster would be a new one for many punters.

``Normally it isn’t profitable to do that but that’s the service we’re offering,’’ Brian said.

``You’re getting an oyster you can’t get from a corner shop.’’

Last year the oysters were delivered in the week of Christmas and Brian is hoping it will be the same again this year. He said the oysters were a popular gift for 50th birthdays with 80 percent of last year’s customers signing up again for this year.

``It’s like eating strawberries, for that one week they are fabulous, the week before they are green and the week after they don’t taste as good,’’ he said.

``So we don’t give an exact time for when you receive them.’’

While low on the instant gratification stakes, if you are gifting someone the ten dozen oysters they can keep up to date on their progress throughout the year via regular web reports and photos on http://www.theoysterfarm.com.au. Or they can pay the oysters a visit and sample a few straight out of the water.

``Everyone who comes up loves it, they see the fish in the river and we get their oysters up and sample a few, even if they’re not ready,’’ he said.

With a Christmas delivery looking likely, if you don’t want your recipient to wait another 12 months there are still a few trays available in this years' batch. Brian and Diane can be contacted on (02) 6649 7355.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Asparagus soup

Asparagus is always a highlight for me in spring. Right now it is out in abundance and at a very reasonable price. I purchased three bunches on the weekend so decided to try something I had never cooked before, asparagus soup.

Soup may seem like a strange meal to be cooking in hot weather but this sweet soup tastes just as good served at room temperature.

This recipe is one my housemate adapted from The Margaret Fulton Cookbook (Hardie Grant Books). The main difference is the addition of a few potatoes for a thicker consistency.

2 bunches asparagus, woody ends trimmed off and diced
2 medium sized potatoes, peeled and diced
6 cups chicken stock or chicken-style vegetable stock
cream, salt and pepper (optional)

Boil the stock and add the diced asparagus and potato. Reduce the heat and cook for 15-20 minutes or until vegetables are soft.

Let the soup cool for a little while, then blend with a food processor or put through a blender. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cream can be added prior to serving.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Sea cucumbers: tasting a slug of Australia's history

It is hard to fathom a sea floor dwelling slug rating as a delicacy but the sea cucumber is so highly prized it can retail for $150/kg.

It also has the honour of being Australia’s oldest documented export item.

I had the pleasure of seeing and tasting this slimy delicacy at a cooking demonstration at the South East Asian Seafare Festival at the National Maritime Museum earlier today.

According to SBS-TVs Joanna Savill, who hosted the demonstration, the Macassan people sailed from Indonesia to Australia to fish for sea cucumbers as early as the 1700s. They employed the assistance of Aboriginal people, paying them with food, tools and canoes. Joanna has recorded a segment about this interesting piece of Australian history for the next season of The Food Lovers’ Guide to Australia.

She said the sea cucumber is still fished for by the Macassan people and a local company has just entered the market selling freshly frozen slugs rather than the pricey dried variety known as trepang.

At the cooking demonstration, Alice Lee and Tom Leung from Sky Phoenix Chinese Restaurant, used a trepang to make enoki, dried scallop and sea cucumber soup.

Alice Lee, co-owner of the restaurant, said sea cucumber is such a prized ingredient it is only eaten on special occasions like New Year and in wedding banquets, and is similar in prestige to shark fin soup. She also referred to it as ``beauty food'' for its skin enhancing properties.

``It is so precious because it is rich in protein and has zero cholesterol,’’ Alice said.

``Plus it is difficult to get and the process takes a couple of days.’’

Preparing a dried sea cucumber involves soaking it overnight, and then boiling it in cold water and leaving it in the pot until the water is cold. This boiling/chilling process is repeated four or five times until the cucumber is soft.

Chef, Tom Leung, had already prepared the trepang prior to the demonstration, and I was lucky enough to try the soup he made.

The soup itself was a tasty and warming broth but the sea cucumber tasted more like the enoki mushrooms it was cooked with than a piece of seafood. It had a firm, jelly-like texture and was pale in colour.

While I doubt I'll be rushing to track down a sea cucumber for my next dinner party, I left the demonstration feeling healthy on the inside and out and felt honoured to have tried this delicacy and little known piece of Australian history.