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It must be Australia Day: not-quite-poutine meets vegemite

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Update (26 Jan): added link to this month’s “Cheese please!” challenge, hosted by Fromage Homage. Check out the post about tasting Colin, the home-made cheddar.

I’ve resurfaced! Mid-January was a time of mysterious illnesses (caught from work colleagues who caught it from exotic holiday locations), early bedtimes and absence from the blogosphere. Thankfully the exotic bugs have departed, and I’ve picked up the camera again.

Just in time for Australia Day. And what could be more Australian than vegemite? (If you like the sound of golden toasted cheddar on polenta chips with just enough vegemite to add a salty kick, read on, this is a post for you.)

Vegemite

The black, unctuous, salty, umami-laden yeast extract spread that seems to be a practical joke for everyone else, and a Masterchef ingredient for us.

The taste of the stuff seeps into the memories of old time Aussie kids, as does the ditty that can rouse a hipster crowd to a sing-along:

“We’re happy little Vegemites / As bright as bright can be. /
We all enjoy our vegemite, / for breakfast lunch and tea. […]”

Even growing up in a migrant family, I ended up eating and loving the stuff. When we were travelling through Copacabana, Bolivia, a couple of years ago, we met another group of Australians. They had packed a family-sized tube of vegemite and were having it on toast at the breakfast table. And suddenly I had such a fierce hankering for vegemite, that I asked them if I could have some.

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‘Poutine’

In October 2013, vegemite turned 90. With that in mind, I thought about making something involving vegemite for Australia Day. Somehow we ended up with a riff on poutine – a poutine in concept rather than execution.

The idea developed like this, in a Smeagol-vs-Gollum style interior dialogue:

think vegemite –>
mmm cheese –>
ok think vegemite –>
cheesy polenta chips –>
ok, let’s think vegemite –>
Cheesybite! (vegemite and cheese spread) –>
eww Cheesybite –>
I’ve got it, polenta chips with vegemite and cheese –>
erm, you serious? –>
with vegemite gravy and cheese! –>
with polenta chips? –>
sure, it’ll be like poutine, except with polenta chips, and vegemite gravy –>
*looks dubious, but goes with the flow*

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Pizza, Eastern Mediterranean, Syrian

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A few years ago, shortly before the Arab Spring, we had the trip of a lifetime in Syria. We met a friendly hotelier who used to live in Perth, Australia (his neighbours called him Abu Salim of Australia), saw some incredible Roman sites and Crusader-era castles, and wandered around the ancient cities of Damascus, Hama, Aleppo.

Some of our most cherished memories are of food. Knowing no Arabic, we looked, wondered, pointed, smiled, and began to understand the meaning of true Arabic hospitality. We walked into bakeries by the street, and walked out bearing bags of round, soft, silky bread, more refined than any lebanese-style bread we could find at home. I bought bags of fresh nuts, walked past sacks of spices – so many colours and smells, many barely recognised.

We walked past shops that sold rounds or pockets of silky bread. Some had a smear of lamb and tomato and mysterious spices, others were stuffed with unknown (but so tasty) white cheeses and herbs. Each one we tried was delicious. We had something similar on our day trip to Baalbek, Lebanon. Knowing no Arabic, we called them Syrian/Lebanese lamb pizza things.

A couple of years later, I found a recipe for the lamb pizza in Greg Malouf’s Saha, a culinary journey through Syria and Lebanon. The proper name is lahm bi ajine. (But I still call them lamb pizza things)

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This is a long-winded way of saying this week’s Tuesdays with Dorie (TWD) assignment, Eastern Mediterranean Pizza by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, reminded me of those lamb pizzas. Both use a mixture of chopped tomatoes, minced lamb and spices on a thin dough base, which is cooked quickly on a hot pizza stone or baking tray. I made both the (Greek?) pita dough and Greg Malouf’s yoghurt dough, but played around with Greg Malouf’s recipe for pizza topping.

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