Friday, 20 November 2015

Project United Kitchens: Croatian Cooking with Shari Wakefield

A little networking can take you places you don't expect. I recently attended a food bloggers conference where I met a great new wealth of people who all share my love of cooking and eating. This led me to find Shari Wakefield of Good Food Week. Shari's blog is a great resource for family friendly recipes and lifestyle advice and she has an intriguing story of marrying into a Croatian family. Through cooking Shari has embraced her husbands culture and now she is passing that love for Croatian cooking to me. This is proof that food can create bonds, open minds and with the sad news this weekend of the terror attacks in Paris we could all do with a little more of that in our lives.

Shari came to me with a recipe for Croatian doughnuts called Ustipci. Of course cooking these doughnuts for the pure pleasure of eating doughnuts is exciting but the story Shari told me about the doughnuts is what really intrigues me. She has inherited this recipe from her mother in law who came to Australia barely an adult and unable to speak English. On special occasions like Easter she cooks these up, Shari tells the story best "Now even though there is only about 15 of us she will make over 100 of these balls and some how at the end of the day - the majority of them have been eaten. I love arriving when she is frying off the doughnuts because she gives me the job of shaking the icing sugar over the top of them."

Shari from Good Food Week

Shari goes on to tell me more about her new family "Food is a massive part of their culture. And they cook traditional dishes to keep their connection to their homeland alive. Most Friday nights, we go to the Croatian Club in O'Connor (Canberra) for 'Fish Night' - they do the best whole snapper for $25. At big events, we will normally roast a whole goat on the spit - everyone stands around the goat whilst it cooks and it is a point of conversation as well as a way of bringing people together."

Coming from a big family with a love for food Shari has embraced the cooking of her new family she says "I've learnt to cook a few of my husband's favourite dishes Sarma, Schnitzels in sauce (he's actually not even sure what the actual Croatian name for this dish is) and Blitva. He thinks that my schnitzels are actually better than his mother's however his Aunt (Teta) makes the best Sarma. She has shared her recipe, but I think she has left out an ingredient or two - because it can't be that simple."

All this talk of food led to one thing of course. I spent the weekend not only cooking up Shari's Ustipci but a number of other Croatian dishes and what I found was a diverse cuisine with amazing depth of flavour. It is a cuisine that is clearly influenced by it's many bordering neighbours as well as a long history of ever-changing rule. To guide me through further Croatian cooking I turned to Rick Stein whose most recent book "From Venice to Istanbul" has a large selection of Croatian recipes as well as Maeve O'Meara's "Food Safari" which also covers the food of the region.

Sporki Macaroni

To get things started I cooked up Sporki Macaroni Courtesy of Rick Stein. This dish originates in Dubrovnik. The hero of this dish is the slow braised beef which simmers for hours in a rich dark sauce comprising of red wine and chicken stock with background notes of cinnamon, garlic, onion and a hint of tomato. I love braised carrots and once slow cooked with the beef in this dish they are meltingly tender and add a sweet note to cut through the beef. Once the beef is starting to fall apart you toss the whole lot with penne so the sauce coats the pasta to create a rich and hearty meal that would be ideal for feeding the masses.

Prawns Alla Busara
Next up I wanted to delve into the famed seafood that is so popular along Croatia's extensive coastlines. Again Rick Stein provided the inspiration with his Prawns Alla Busara. I had the plan to use Scampi as per the original Croatian dish but once I saw the $80 per kilo price tag I decided that jumbo prawns at $40 per kilo would suffice. And boy did we find some seriously Jumbo Prawns. These things spanned a dinner plate when stretched out straight and weighed in at nearly a kilo for 8 individual prawns. This recipe changed the way I look at Seafood. Cooking up the Vermillion red sauce with bold flavours of shallots, garlic, tomatoes all set off in a white wine base and highlighted with chilli and saffron I knew it was going to be unlike any prawn dish I have eaten to date. Serving up the dish in the centre of the table alongside crusty home-made bread we dived in hands and all. Tearing the prawn heads from the bodies released an ooze of juices which at first was a little confronting but when mixed with the sweet, rich sauce and mopped up with a hunk of bread it was a flavour explosion. With my front wrapped up in a bib to protect me from the red sprays released when tearing apart the prawns I ate these things like I was the King of Siam. It was decadent, dirty and just a little bit sexy. The red juices ran down my palms as I dunked the flesh back into the sauce for that extra coating. The bread became a vital part of the clean up to ensure not a scrap of sauce went to waste. When all was said and done and I surveyed the carnage both on the table and on myself I felt nothing but satisfaction.

For a change of pace my next dish was Sarma courtesy of Food Safari. Lumps of meat wrapped in fermented cabbage leaves this dish is far more Granny than King of Siam. Sitting at the table wrapping my meat mixture in these slightly rank smelling, soggy leaves I was worried. What was I getting myself in for here? This dish clearly has Hungarian roots with the sauerkraut and sweet paprika and it was well out of my comfort zone. Piling these little cabbage logs into the dutch oven and submerging in stock I was pondering what else was in the cupboards for dinner if this was an epic fail. As the house filled with the fumes of stewing meat and sauerkraut I could also see Martins enthusiasm turn to concern. Funky smelling Eastern European food featuring rotting cabbage is not really our idea of a gourmet dinner. To distract myself from the impending dinner failure I focused on making a creamy buttery mash of potato's, if that was going to be the only edible thing on the plate then it better be good. As the clock ticked over to 7pm I knew the hour was at hand. I served the Sarma with large helpings of the mash and tentatively took my first bite. All my fears were swallowed with that first mouthful of moist meat. The huge quantity of speck both within the rolls and used to flavour the sauce had made for an unexpected smoky quality and the sweet Paprika was the perfect backdrop for what turned out to be one of the best dishes I have cooked and eaten for some time. Thanks to SBS you can get that recipe on their website along with the Food Safari video to see how it is made.

To wrap up my Croatian Cooking Journey it was time to make Shari's Ustipci. Something sweet after all that savoury was well need. It has been a while since I was a cake decorator and I had forgotten the simple pleasure of mixing flour, sugar and fruits. There is something meditative about baking. This recipe being a yeast risen dough I popped on the heater as it was an unusually cold November day and our draughty house was not going to activate the fermentation to rise this dough. The recipe calls for a half hour rise but being temperature dependent it may take longer to get the dough to double in size. As I got a little distracted with my Sarma I waited around an hour and a half and the dough was perfect. Fluffed up full of air and ready for deep frying. To cook I used my deep fryer. I have a history of setting the stove top alight and prefer the safety of the machine. Experimenting with size and temperature I decided that ping pong sized balls of dough cooked at 160 degrees for 5 minutes was just the ticket. Any larger and they puffed up to a tennis ball that was uncooked and doughy in the centre and dark brown on the outside.

Recipe- Ustipci (Croatian Doughnuts)


2 cups of plain flour
20 grams of fresh yeast or 7 grams dry activated yeast
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp of sugar
2 egg yolks
3 tbsp brandy
200 mls of warm water 
1/3 cup of raisins
1/3 cup of walnuts
1 grated apple

2 cups of oil for deep frying
icing sugar - for sprinkling

In a large bowl add flour and yeast and mix. Then, add salt and sugar, egg, brandy and water until you get the mixture to dough consistency. Mix through the raisins, crushed walnuts and grated apple and then leave to stand for about half an hour until the dough has doubled in size. 

Once the dough has doubled in size, pinch ping pong ball sized pieces of dough and shape into rough balls. Deep fry in a pan with enough oil to submerge the balls or use a deep fryer at 160 degrees. Fry until just golden brown. As the balls cook they will float to the surface. You will need to rotate them to cook both sides evenly. Place on paper towel to dry excess oil and then toss in icing sugar.

Originally posted on Friday, 20 November 2015 by

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Unique Journey's: Foodie River Cruising

Being in the travel industry and talking travel all day gives me some unique insights. I am constantly surrounded by the latest travel trends, get first hand feedback from hundreds of travellers every year and am bombarded with industry reps touting their travel products and don’t forget the familiarisation and personal travel I undertake every year. 

All too often I see people fall into the trap of taking uninspired holidays. In this Series “Unique Journey's” I am focusing on bringing you unique experiences worldwide. One of a kind getaways and fascinating experiences to get you seeing travel from a new perspective. 

The experiences and properties you will see recommended here are not sponsored they are brought to you from my many years experience as a travel consultant. 

I have spoken in the past about the emerging trend of travel specifically designed with Foodies in mind. It started as a murmur with adventure orientated tour companies bringing out a small program of foodie departures which is growing rapidly and now we have the big players in the Australian luxury touring market jumping into the game. Australian company APT have a number of departures for 2016 that are bringing together food, wine and travel, just the way life should be.

APT are taking the concept one step further. Their hosted trips will bring experts right to you, on location, what could be better than that. Being the obsessed world food cook that I am I think the Mekong River Cruise hosted by Vietnamese/Australian chef Luke Nguyen is genius. There is no better destination for travel from a foodie perspective. I have said on many an occasion that if there was only one cuisine left in the world to eat I would want it to be Vietnamese, all the fresh herbs, steaming broths and complex flavours it is a foodie's nirvana. Starting in Saigon, Luke will escort you through the neighbourhoods to be a part of the hustle and bustle. Watch locals cooking up street food, meet Luke's extended family and participate in a cooking class with Luke himself. Finish up day one with a degustation dinner inspired by Luke. What a personal experience, so unique I have never really seen an itinerary like it. Luke will spend two days with guests in Saigon and another three days on the river cruise as you float through this fascinating country and on to Cambodia. Luke will also participate in a "get to know Luke" session where you can learn more about him and his passion for food, unique access to a public personality.  Anyone who knows Luke Nguyen's SBS television shows and his quality cookbooks will know that this will be a top class trip.

APT are also embarking on a number of European River Cruise departures aptly named the "Wine Ambassador Series" . Now I can't pretend I am a great lover of wine but I have had the privilege of cruising the waterways with APT and I can vouch that it is a unique way to see Europe and a once in a lifetime trip. These special river cruise departures incorporate expert vintners from across Australia with some of Europe's premier wine destinations and should be top of the bucket list for any curious wine connoisseur. The departures are spread across a wide selection of destinations including France, Spain, Germany, Portugal, Netherlands, Australia and Hungry and all aboard APT's luxury 5 star river cruise ships, your floating hotel.

Still on the European River Cruise theme APT also offer a French itinerary on the Rhone River with a Gourmet Traveller host where the activities are geared towards food enthusiasts. A decadent gourmet feast at L’Abbaye de Collonges, a restaurant owned by the famous Michelin-starred chef, Paul Bocuse should be enough to pique your interest or how about an exploration of Lyon's food markets, something I have done and can highly recommend. Just check out these to die for photos I took in the markets in Lyon, you would never see food presented this way in Australia.

From the perspective of an avid epicure and keen world traveller these moves to cater for the foodie market is thrilling. It is something I have seen slowly growing for a few years now and can only hope it is here to stay. Based on the reaction from customers when presented with a unique travel option such as these I think it just might have some staying power in a ever fickle industry.

Originally posted on Wednesday, 4 November 2015 by

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Getting Up Close With Spices

Spices are a big part of my life, I have containers overflowing with spices from all corners of the globe and their abilities to enhance if not create a dish is not quantifiable. I came home this week to find Martin rifling through the spice containers and capturing them under his new macro camera lens. At first I was only vaguely interested. I handle these spices all the time so I know what they are all about or at least I thought I did and then I saw them up close. Zoomed in on they take on an entirely different character. Hidden details, textures, shapes and forms are highlighted and magnified. I was so impressed I though you might like to see some spices up close as well. So here they are. I won't go into detail about where they are from and what you can do with them, just enjoy them in their magnified glory.


Star Anise

Bay Leaf

Cardamon Seeds

Green Cardamon Pods

Chinese Brown Cardamon Pod

Szechuan Peppercorns

White Peppercorns

Cumin Seeds

Poppy Seeds



Cassia Bark

Coriander Seeds

Fennel Seeds

Nigella Seeds

Originally posted on Sunday, 1 November 2015 by