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Welcome to the countdown to this year's Gourmet Traveller Restaurant Awards, our salute to the talent delivering the finest eating and drinking in the country. Here are the finalists.
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Last night, I cooked a very special dinner: roast pheasant with bread sauce, burnt butter and a hazelnut and witlof salad. It’s an old Damien Pignolet combination and it was absolutely delicious; the rich, gamey flavour of pheasant and brownedbutter together are divine. We don’t think of pheasant as an everyday event – it seems posh, exotic, and there’s a mystique about how to cook this game bird. But it always has a wow factor with guests, which I like.
Despite the wonderfully gamey flavour, pheasant is quite a lean bird and so it requires careful and delicate cooking. Once, I simply roasted a whole pheasant with a prune stuffing and sage butter tucked under the skin; it was delicious and surprisingly tender. The breast can tend to dry out a little, so a good knob of butter under the skin and regular basting help. Some cooks lay slices of bacon over the breast. Pot-roasting is also a good way to cook pheasant because it retains moisture. The legs are absolutely sublime braised – I have cooked them with butter, shallots, Calvados and tart green apples and finished with crème fraîche.
Pheasant farming is a relatively small industry here in Australia. Glenloth, in north-west Victoria, is one of the biggest suppliers. Ian Milburn has been breeding game birds for years and is a natural. He breeds Chinese ringnecks, which require intensive observation and management. Once they’re four weeks old, the pheasants can roam outside, protected in pens, until they reach 18-22 weeks. Farmed pheasants do not need to be hung in order to age and tenderise the meat, whereas their European cousins are truly wild and would be quite tough at any age unless they were hung. April to August is pheasant season and you can purchase them from specialist poultry suppliers and butchers.
About this time of the year I look forward to cooking traditional Blaukraut, German-style red cabbage. When I make it, I go all the way and have a German night and serve it with Schweinebraten (roast pork) and dumplings – very traditional and really delicious.
Cook finely sliced cabbage gently in a casserole with speck – or some kind of fatty smoked pork – and onions, green apples, a few cloves and a bay leaf. When the cabbage is just soft (about 1 hour), add a touch of red wine vinegar and a little sugar and keep cooking until meltingly tender. It can be made the day before because it keeps very well. It also goes happily with roast duck or quail. Red cabbage makes a really lovely coleslaw to have with, say, a poached brisket, mustard and rye sandwich. I make a dressing with caraway seeds, lemon zest, olive oil, garlic and vinegar, which is very nice and a bit un-usual. When making coleslaw, it’s best to cut the cabbage as finely as possible, sprinkle with salt and stand for 10 minutes before dressing to allow the cabbage to soften. A member of the Brassica genus, red cabbage is in season now and suits the cold weather. Look for a cabbage that is unblemished, heavy for its size and has a sheen to the leaves.
Part of the chicory family, and also known as Belgian endive or Belgian chicory, witlof is coming into season now. The Belgians developed a special technique of growing witlof to keep its pristine whiteness. It is dug up as a young plant and the roots and top are trimmed. It is then buried in sand and kept in complete darkness until the witlof spear appears. It needs to be stored in purple paper or black plastic to keep it unblemished and white.
This very pretty salad vegetable is a favourite of mine – a long and bulging white spear with pale golden tips, crisp and slightly bitter. It goes well with roasted walnuts or hazelnuts, young goat’s cheese, and watercress or radicchio. But witlof is also beautiful cooked – cut it in half and lay it in a shallow casserole dotted with plenty of butter, salt and pepper. Pour in just enough chicken
Apples, cumquats, custard apples, grapefruit, kiwifruit, lemons, limes, mandarins, melons, nashi, nuts, oranges, pears, persimmons, quince.
Asian greens, avocados, beetroot, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots, cauliflower, celeriac, celery, fennel, ginger, horseradish, kale, leeks, onions, parsnips, potatoes, pumpkins, shallots, silverbeet, spinach, swedes, sweet potatoes, turnips.
Deepwater flathead, King George whiting, king prawns, Pacific oysters, sand whiting, sea mullet, yellowfin bream.