Beautiful ingredients

I think there is only one secret to delicious cooking. It’s not, as the French might have you believe, butter. It’s beautiful ingredients. That sounds obvious, but I think a lot of cooking shows and cookbooks are missing that important step in making a fantastic meal.

You do not need an ice-cream maker or a sous-vide water bath to create something spectacular. You need fresh, vibrant vegetables, decent olive oil and perhaps some quality cheese or protein. Don’t get me wrong, I love kitchen gadgets and I also love eating at fancy restaurants full of foam, gel and freeze-dried-who-knows-what. But it just occurred to me the other day how little attention we give to selecting and appreciating the basic ingredients.

So today is ‘ingredients appreciation day’ on my blog. Here’s a picture I took of rhubarb. Just rhubarb. Isn’t it beautiful? Those gorgeous pink stems on my bright green plastic chopping board. It’s sexy! It’s inspiring. (And no, I’m not high, just take a second and look…)

rhubarb pic

A place where you can really appreciate the beauty of ingredients is farmers markets. Regular readers will know that I LOVE markets. I’m also lucky enough to live fairly close to the Queen Victoria Markets. I adore going and looking at (and buying) the displays at markets. Everything is a little imperfect, plentiful and displayed in a happy-organic sort of way. You can pick things up, see them in natural light rather than under fluorescents and, of course, smell them! Markets also give you an appreciation of what’s in season. You know it’s mango season when they’re going for under $10 a box. You know mushrooms are at their best when the mushroom man has eleven types on display. And you know it’s summer when berries’ prices halve. I personally don’t haggle at food markets, but that is also a fun element to shopping at markets if you’re into that kind of thing.

At the Queen Vic markets, it is easy to get overwhelmed, since the markets themselves are huge and, especially on weekends, completely packed. You could spend ( and I have spent) a fair amount of time wading through cheap handbags and dodgy looking kids’ toys before you find the fresh produce and even then, quality varies between stalls. I’ve been hitting up the markets for fresh produce since 2007 and have spent way too many hours dawdling round the stalls, sniffing oranges and squeezing avocados. Below are a few of my recommendations for beautiful produce at the Queen Vic:

Curds and Whey
This is a great cheese and dairy shop in the deli section. I particularly like it for its extensive and well labelled range of vegetarian cheese, including an organic Italian parmesan. They also sell butter (salted or unsalted) from huge blocks on their counter, quark, yoghurt, vanilla beans, saffron and other little gourmet delights. Most importantly, they’re always happy to offer you a taste before you commit to that wedge of cheddar or block of gruyere.

The Queen Vic Deli
I love this place for one reason: hummus. Their homemade hummus is the best I’ve ever had. I think they mix in a fair bit of tahini, making it really creamy and yet still tangy and tasty. The selection of olives at this deli is also worth a stop, though I think some of the other offerings are a bit overpriced.

Garden Organics and VicMarket Organics
These are my two favourite fruit and veg stalls. Both stock almost entirely organic produce. They also indicate if the produce is locally grown, which is helpful if you’re considering food miles. The staff are friendly (if not a bit cool) and really care about their produce. Plus Garden Organics has precious tiny little perfect pink lady apples (when in season) which I’m kind of obsessed with…

Also worth a mention not so much for gorgeous ingredients but for great snacks and prepared food, are the Borek shop in the deli section (and their sister shop further down on Elizabeth Street which has THE BEST gozleme), the Traditional Pasta Shop for fresh pasta and really good bake at home garlic bread and market juice for yummy (but super sweet) smoothies and my favourite Evia brand of yoghurt.

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