The ghan, our transport for the 3000km trip from Adelaide to Darwin, has a galley kitchen only about the size of a large caravan.
Yet despite the cramped cooking conditions and their ethnic differences, the two head chefs - John from Ireland and Bernard from France - whisked up first-class, modern, three-course, a-la-carte meals for the 170 passengers on this great, three-day Australian rail journey.
Their menus are designed to take advantage of regional Australian produce and, yes, we did enjoy a kangaroo fillet for dinner, although I tried not to look out the window while eating. There was a plentiful supply of fish including barramundi - served with a chardonnay/viognier butter sauce, and Tasmanian ocean trout.
The Ghan was named after the hardy Afghans whose camel trains provided the only means of transport from Adelaide into Alice Springs and the Red Centre in the late 1800s.
Today, camel satay is sometimes on the menu. Yummy vegetarian and gluten-free choices are also offered.
The chefs served 20kg of delicate baby carrots and 10kg of mushrooms over two days.
I mentioned to John that I know home cooks with bigger kitchens.
He showed me shelves containing chilled fresh food that had been portioned before delivery. And fan ovens with numerous racks.
The well-organised team cook meals from scratch.
Guests with gold and platinum tickets are served in the comfort of the elegant Queen Adelaide Restaurant dining car with its old-world charm. Crisp white cloths adorn the tables; the wine list showcases a cross-section of the country's vintages; guest camaraderie develops; and meals are savored and lingered over. You can retire to the lounge for an after-dinner drink or return to the cabin with tea or coffee.
If you're backpacking or travelling with the family then a red ticket offers you a more affordable ride with a fully licensed diner providing light meals, snacks and drinks to purchase.
Today's recipes are my interpretation of dishes served on the Ghan.
WARM TREACLE TART
I used Pavillion gluten-free pastry from my supermarket freezer. However, regular sweet short pastry - store-bought or homemade - is fine.
300-400g sweet short pastry
335g (almost 1 cup) golden syrup
2 tbsp treacle
Finely grated rind and juice 1 lemon
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup gluten-free or regular fresh breadcrumbs
Thaw pastry, if necessary. Set the oven to 180C.
Roll the pastry to 3mm thickness. Line a 22cm flan or tart pan with pastry. Chill for 30 minutes. Trim the edges. Line pastry with foil, fill with baking beans or raw rice. Bake blind for 15 minutes.
Remove foil and continue baking for another 10-15 minutes, until golden. Cool.
Whisk remaining ingredients together in a bowl. Pour into the cooled pastry shell. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until set. This can be cooked ahead and warmed in the oven or microwave before serving. Serve with whipped cream or icecream. Serves 8.
ROASTED VEGETABLES, HALOUMI & BALSAMIC GLAZE
Use baby carrots that still have their leaves attached. The stems can be trimmed to about 2cm long.
12 baby carrots
6 each: small portabello mushrooms, courgettes
2-3 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp dried mixed herbs
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
200g haloumi cheese
3 cups baby spinach leaves
1 cup balsamic glaze
Set the oven to 200C.
Trim carrots, slice mushrooms, halve courgettes lengthwise. Toss with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil.
Place in a large roasting pan, arranging each variety together. This way they can be removed from the pan when cooked allowing the remaining veges to continue cooking. Season with mixed herbs and black pepper. Roast for 10 minutes, stir well and continue cooking until carrots and courgettes are crisp-tender. Mushrooms should be well cooked.
Meanwhile, thickly slice the haloumi into 4 pieces. Cut each piece into half on the diagonal to make triangles of cheese.
Heat the remaining oil in a non-stick pan. Pan-fry the cheese for about 2 minutes each side, until golden and crisp.
Pile the spinach in the centre of 4 serving plates. Top with the vegetables and cheese. Drizzle the balsamic glaze in a zig-zag movement across the veges and cheese. - Serves 4 as a light meal.
CAULIFLOWER, THYME & BLUE CHEESE SOUP
2 tsp olive oil
1 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 potato, peeled and diced
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
4 cups vegetable or chicken stock
1 medium cauliflower, chopped
1 cup cream
100g blue cheese, crumbled
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Heat oil in a large saucepan, saute onion, until softened. Add garlic, potato and thyme and stir-fry for 1-2 minutes. Add stock and cauliflower. Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes, until cauli is cooked.
Puree in a blender or use a hand-held blender.
When smooth, reheat and stir in the cream.
Just before serving, stir in the blue cheese and black pepper.
Great garnished with blanched cauliflorets and served with crispy parmesan croutons. - Serves 8.
INDIVIDUAL MUSHROOM PIES WITH PARSNIP CREAM & SAUTEED LEEKS
I made my own little pastry shells. You could use small savoury tart shells from the supermarket.
However, the filling in this recipe would be enough for 8-12 small tart shells.
On the Ghan, these delicious mini-pies were finished with a little white truffle oil - add a teaspoonful if you can
3-4 sheets ready rolled short pastry
Parsnip: 350g parsnips, peeled and diced
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tbsp each: butter, cream
Mushrooms: 5g dried porcini mushrooms
1/2 cup boiling water
250g Portobello mushrooms
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp mushroom essence
6 small button mushrooms
Leek: 1 medium leek, trimmed and well washed
Set the oven to 190C. Lightly oil a 6-hole Texas muffin pan. Using a bowl about 13cm in diameter cut out 6 discs of pastry. Carefully line the muffin holes. Press foil into each shell. Bake for 15 minutes, remove foil and continue baking for about 5 minutes, until golden.
Cool for 5 minutes then remove from pan and cool on a wire rack. These can be prepared several days ahead and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator or freezer.
Place parsnip in boiling water to cover. Simmer, until tender. Drain well. Season and add butter and cream. Mash until smooth. Place aside. Soak porcini in boiling water for 30 minutes.
Thinly slice Portobello mushrooms, pan-fry until tender and dark. Add porcini and half the soaking water. Simmer until the water has evaporated. Add the mushroom essence. Place aside. Saute button mushrooms, until tender.
Dice leek and saute in butter, until very tender.
To serve, heat pastry shells, mashed parsnip, mushrooms and leek separately. Fill the shells with the mushroom mixture then top with the parsnip. Top each pie with a button mushroom. Place each pie on a serving plate and surround with a little of the leek. - Serves 6 as a starter.