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Cookbook Review: Culinary Quickies with Mel Alafici

Chef Mel Alafici runs the vibrant Vanilla Zulu Cooking School in Teneriffe.

In late February, a girlfriend and I went along to the launch of Mel’s new cookbook: Culinary Quickies. The book itself is great, but first let me rave about the launch night. Tickets were $50 and for that princely sum we enjoyed:

Wine on arrival. Vanilla Zulu has always been BYO and now they are licensed, too! A cooking school with a bar: it’s a yes from me! Mel treated us all to a wine or beer on arrival and we were able to purchase more wine throughout the night. Some guests brought their own and at $5 corkage, why not? I’ve heard of other cooking schools not ‘letting’ guests drink their wine until it’s time to eat, but Mel has a much friendlier approach. Guests are free to enjoy a drink as they learn, chat, cook and prep. On the night of the launch we relaxed even further, with Mel doing all the cooking as we sat back and watched.

A lively cooking demonstration. It’s obvious as to why Mel isn’t an executive chef hidden in the kitchen of a fancy restaurant: she was born to perform! We laughed and learned as Mel took us on a protein palooza: pork belly, lamb shoulder, lamb backstrap, salmon, barramundi; I lost track! There were tips and tricks along the way with plenty of witty anecdotes peppered throughout. This woman needs her own TV show.

All of the food you could possibly eat. Mel is the most generous of hosts. There was such an abundance and variety of recipes prepared from her cookbook that we could have fed another 50 people! Mel also had us plate our own food as to allow us the opportunity to practice plating techniques.

My girlfriend and I had such a fun night, as did all who attended. It'd be awesome if Mel could run a cooking demonstration regularly - it was such a fun night out!

The cookbook itself has an intriguing layout and is full of original ideas. There are tips on food shopping, how to avoid menu fatigue and a dozen ways to jazz up everything from cheese platters to humble mince!

Some of my favourite recipes to date include:

Culinary bark – Mel espouses the virtue of making these quick, easy, cheap and impressive crackers for cheese platters. She also alerted me to the fact that we pay between $70 - $110 a kilo for water crackers and shards of bark in deli stores! I’ve made these a few times now and have impressed all and sundry. It’s hard to argue with a recipe that only needs 5 minutes in the oven.

Whipped butter – I’m amazed I didn’t think of this before. Who doesn’t want several flavoured butters in their freezer just waiting to add love and lusciousness to the plate? Truffle butter using Aldi’s truffle salsa has been a huge hit in our house. Steak has never been so delicious.

Sun-tanned beer-braised pork belly – I’ve made this four times! I was commissioned to do a cooking demonstration in February and needed a pork belly recipe that could be done in a three-hour window. Not an easy task! Mel’s magic recipe allows for as little as 75 minutes cooking time and perfect crackling every time; I swear! I’ve done this recipe with a 1kg piece and with a 3kg piece – same cook time, same result. Absolutely fabulous and a crowd pleaser I’m thrilled to have permanently in my repertoire.

Blinged Goats Cheese Balls – a modern take on the infamous 70's Cheese Ball! Goats cheese or cream cheese balls, rolled in pretty petals, spices and seeds! These are lightning fast and look gorgeous on a cheese platter.

This book has been a mainstay on my desk for the past month.

I look forward to exploring more of what Culinary Quickies has to offer and to joining Mel for more cooking classes this year. If you’d like to grab your own copy, you can grab it directly on her website for $29.95.

Brisbane Foodie was an invited guest to the cooking demonstration at Vanilla Zulu. All opinions are her own, unless borrowed from someone who already said it better.

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