Holidays arrive at sadly irregular intervals when you are working in the hospitality industry. Last week I took a sorely needed 7-day break from the kitchen - my first in over four years. I deliberately kept the sabbatical simple and serene. A quick 2-hour drive south of Sydney and I found myself in the home of my former sous chef and still a dear friend.
She is now working in a fabulously up market, and yet cosy countryside restaurant - one which happened to be closed the 2 days I was staying with her. All was not lost however - after a brief chat with the owner, keys were secured, alarm codes were exchanged and four of us were heading off to enliven a dark and closed country restaurant.
As soon as we arrived fires were lit, wines poured and doves began spilling from the restaurant speakers. Now came the fun part. We four poked our heads into the kitchen cool room and decided what we were to cook for ourselves. The produce was dazzling in array and freshness. Veal fillets, grain-fed pork loins, open-range chicken breasts, local green lobsters and hellishly appealing 400 gm steer T-bones.
The first task was to get plates of stimulating entrees on the table and my former kitchen colleague quickly took up a good-natured challenge of two of her dishes versus two of mine. She assembled some simply stunning starters - pork and coriander root dumplings perched atop a heavenly dollop of Szechwan eggplant, then nori rolls, enveloping glass noodles, duck, snow peas and roasted peanuts - dipped in a tempura batter and crisply fried.
The competition was tough - this was divine food. I grabbed some local quail and a bag of organic oolong tea, then set up a hot smoker. Oolong smoked quail with crisp fried celery leaves, sea salt and lemon was my first answer to her awe-inspiring output. The next ingredient I spied could not be passed by - yabbies.
Yabbies are a freshwater crayfish (Cherax destructor) that are found in dams and fresh water estuaries around the world. They once were a source of poor countryman's tucker in Australia, but recently have found a place as an expensive gourmet item. I chose to quickly stir fry them so as to retain their juicy texture that can easily be ruined by overcooking. A tantalizing sauce of fiery red chilli, yellow rock sugar and coconut vinegar completed the picture.
Of course, yabbies may not be easy to come across, so now is time to substitute. Keeping it seafood, try prawns, shrimp, scallops or lobster tail. However, there is no reason that you couldn't try the same dish with chicken or pork fillet - or even firm tofu if you are vegetarian. Just make sure all the ingredients are spankingly fresh and you cook them super-quick.
12 yabbies (or substitute - Roughly 1 kg (2 lb) shellfish weight or 500 gm (1 lb) meat weight).
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 very hot red chilli, finely chopped (with seeds, if you can stand the heat)
1 Tbs Chinese yellow rock sugar (or palm sugar)
2 Tbs coconut vinegar (or Asian rice vinegar) ¹
1 Tbs fish sauce
2 Tbs water
1 Tbs vegetable oil
1 bunch tatsoi (or other Asian green - bok choy or gai larn)
2 Green onions, sliced
1 Tbs coriander leaves (optional)
If you are using yabbies, break the carapace where it meets the lower shell and peel away the entire outer coating - leaving the heads intact. This is much the same way you would prepare prawns (or shrimp) - the shells are just harder.
Place the garlic, chilli, sugar, vinegar, fish sauce and water into a wok and simmer for a minute until it is combined. Pour this sauce into a bowl and rinse out the wok. Heat the wok to the fiercest heat your stove can manage then add the oil. Place the yabbies into the wok and stir fry for about 60 seconds, or until the shells start to turn orange. Add the tatsoi and green onions and cook for another 90 seconds to 2 minutes - so the yabbies are just cooked through. Pour the sauce into the wok and stir to combine. Pile the yabbies onto a serving dish and scatter with the coriander leaves if using.
Serves 4 as a starter, or 2 as a main - with steamed jasmine rice.
¹ Don't substitute European vinegar in this dish - it would be too overwhelming. If you can't find coconut, palm or rice vinegar, simply use freshly squeezed lime or lemon juice instead.