Friday, January 22, 2021

Revisiting Ottolenghi's Simple

 January 13, 2021


I've been off work the past couple of weeks while Cindy's been hard at it, so I put Wednesday aside to make a big ol' Ottolenghi feast. The centrepiece was this old favourite - quinoa salad with Persian dried limes - but I wanted to fill it out with a couple of new dishes from Simple. We chose a couple of nice, easy veggie sides - the kind of dishes that need company and suit a big, fancy feast.


First up: roasted asparagus with almonds, capers and dill. This relies on butter-fried almond slivers and the crispy capers to punch up some straightforward roasted asparagus spears. It's an effective combo though, with the capers' acidity cutting through the buttery richness of the nuts and the earthy asparagus. It's super easy - you can get the almonds and capers ready while the asparagus is roasting.


Our other side was roasted beetroot with yoghurt and preserved lemon, which had the added bonus of making use of some preserved lemon a kind friend had given us. This one takes a bit longer, with our beets taking a full hour to roast to tenderness. The dill and preserved lemon give this some strong flavours, but they worked really well with the more subdued quinoa salad.

The whole meal took a while to put together and used up all of our saucepans twice over, but there's nothing tricky here - it just needs you to be a bit organised timing-wise. And the pay-off was phenomenal!

Roasted asparagus with almonds, capers and dill
(from Yotam Ottolenghi's Simple)

600g asparagus, woody ends trimmed off
3 tablespoons olive oil
30g butter
20g flaked almonds
30g capers
10g dill, roughly chopped
salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 200°C. 

Mix the asparagus with a tablespoon of the oil, salt and pepper and lay out on a baking tray. Roast for about 10 minutes, until it has softened and started to brown up in a few places. Set aside.

Heat the butter in a small saucepan over medium high heat and throw the almonds in once it has melted. Fry the slivers, stirring constantly, until they've gone crunchy and golden brown. Pour the almond and butter mix over the asparagus. 

Fry the capers in the rest of the olive oil over high heat for a couple of minutes - you want them to go a bit crispy if you can (it helps to pat them dry before you pop them in the hot oil). Scatter the fried capers on top of the asparagus along with the dill. 

Roasted beetroot with yoghurt & preserved lemon
(from Yotam Ottolenghi's Simple)

1kg beetroot, scrubbed but skin on
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 red onion
1 preserved lemon, finely chopped
2 tablespoons lemon juice
15g dill, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon tahini
150g Greek yoghurt
salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 220°C. Wrap each of the beets in foil and roast for 30-60 minutes - you want a skewer to go through easily - ours took a full hour. Unwrap them and let them cool a bit before peeling and cutting into 1/2 cm slices. 

Heat the olive oil in a small plan and fry the red onion with the cumin seeds for 2-3 minutes, until the onion has softened and the seeds have started to pop (Ottolenghi leaves the onion raw, but fried is better I reckon). Pour the oil, onion and cumin seed mix over the beets and add the preserved lemon, lemon juice, most of the dill, salt and pepper. Mix together well and transfer to a serving platter.

Stir the tahini and yoghurt together and then dollop it on top of the beetroot in a few places, mixing gently and topping with the leftover dill.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Billy van Creamy

 January 10, 2021


I've been banging on about Billy van Creamy to just about anyone who will listen for a couple of years! I think they're making some of the best vegan icecream out there (in addition to their terrific dairy-based flavours). I've eaten at their Fitzroy North shop, seen cartons stocked in a few supermarkets, and during 2020's lengthy lockdown I regularly ordered litre-sized boxes to be delivered directly to my home. 

I was near-ecstatic when Michael saw signage for a new Billy van Creamy shop close by on Sydney Road. There was a month more of anticipation, telling any friend I thought might care, before I saw their soft opening announced on social media. They've got a pretty pastel shopfront all sorted out, though the options for now are more limited than in their sibling shops.

The most important things are there - roughly a dozen icecream flavours, including vegan options, served in cups and cones. There are small takeaway cartons tucked away in a freezer. The more elaborate trimmings - fudge sauce, sundaes, shakes and other beverages - aren't available at this stage. COVID seems to have done away with the reusable cups too. I'm sure there's more to come for this little shop but as long as I can order a scoop of peanut butter choc chip or peppermint fudge, I'm one happy local customer.


Billy van Creamy
146 Sydney Rd, Brunswick

Accessibility: There's a shallow ramp on entry. Low stools and benches line the walls and windows, and there's substantial open flat space in the centre of the room. We ordered and paid at a low counter. We didn't ask about the toilets.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021


January 7-10, 2021

Interior of the Northern Arts Hotel

We popped our bikes on the train and took a long weekend in Castlemaine early in the new year. We've previously done little more than pass through on the way to other places, and it was great to get to know this town better. We walked and cycled, browsed op shops and book shops, visited the art museum and took in some live music at a pub. Our hotel room didn't have kitchen facilities, so we also made the most of Castlemaine's restaurants and cafes. Here's a quick tour through the ones we most want to recommend.


First, I actually want to mention the Gold Exchange Cafe in nearby Maldon. We set aside Friday to cycle the rail trail running from Castlemaine, through old Muckleford station to Maldon. We picked the Gold Exchange for second breakfast, almost at random from the three or four cafes on the main street. The menu is mostly the simple stuff you'd expect from a country cafe - eggs on toast, build-your-own-sandwich, and a display case of stout cakes - but we also noticed a vegan lasagne, and I pounced upon the iced chai. The pancakes were cheap ($9.50) and excellent, and the one staff member was everything to everyone - taking orders and payments, making coffees and cooking meals, ensuring we all felt welcome.


After our cycle to Maldon and the two breakfasts that fuelled it, we still needed lunch. Super Hero Banh Mi to the rescue! Their vegan option ($10) is stuffed with especially good sticky tofu and a bonus sprinkling of peanuts. We sprayed crusty rolls and pickled carrot shreds all over the hotel balcony.

Castlemaine's former Woollen Mill is a now a space for local businesses; mostly foods, beverages, arts and crafts with a huge vintage bazaar at its heart. Many were taking a summer holiday but Icecream Social was open and we made sure to support them daily. They rotate their flavours regularly - the apricot cheesecake (pictured left) and ricotta-orange-chocolate (pictured right, $5 each) were favourites across the ones we tried, and I missed my chance to try the tiramisu before it was replaced by pavlova, which had a lovely compensatory passionfruit swirl. We also overlooked their offer of split scoops, i.e. getting smaller scoops of two flavours for the price of one regular scoop. These guys also have an outlet closer to home, in Thornbury.

Our icecream mission also led us past the Shedshaker Taproom, and we noticed that their pizzas looked alright. Indeed, they're around $15 apiece, the perfect size for one, and the veg*n options are good! We split the funghi (garlic, parsley, mozzarella, three kinds of mushrooms, thyme and stracciatella) and the patate (garlic, caramelised onion, mozzarella, goat cheese, potato) and couldn't even think about dessert afterwards (luckily we'd already ticked Icecream Social off earlier in the day). We also noticed two vegan pizza options, one including a non-dairy mozzarella.

We made the most of both the menu and the live music at The Bridge Hotel. Veg*n options were abundant and well-labelled, from a Lebanese pearl couscous salad to mac'n'cheese croquettes ($16, pictured above left). Portions were enormous - I could have stuck with the 'small share plate' of tempura broccolini ($16, pictured above right) and called it dinner.

Phamily Kitchen was a surprise treat! Rather than a fixed menu of familiar Vietnamese dishes, they offer seasonally shifting plates with lovely flourishes. We ate most of the vegan options on offer: bắp ngọt chiên/corn croquettes ($9.50, pictured above), equally stunning bánh khọt/mini coconut pancakes filled with pearl mushrooms ($10.50), đậu hũ rang muoi/peanut-dressed fried tofu and eggplant atop a huge salad ($24). It was all so good I couldn't leave without trying (a non-vegan) dessert, so we split the kem sữa chiên/custard fritters ($9.50) with diced mango and salted coconut cream, and didn't leave a crumb on the plate.
We bookended our trip with food from Johnny Baker's Drive-In. At the moment, it's more like Johnny Baker's Queue At 1.5 Metre Intervals, Only Three Masked Customers In At A Time; a good system under the circumstances. We picked up some alright pasties and veg rolls for lunch when we first rolled into town, then choose some pastries for breakfast on our way out of town. My spinach and cheese croissant (~$5, pictured left) was still warm from the oven, and ranks among the best savoury pastries I've ever eaten! We saved the silky-smooth salted caramel and chocolate tart ($7, pictured right) for the train, stretching our Castlemaine fun just a few moments longer.

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Tahini & halva brownies

January 5, 2021

I had one of my very occasional urges to make sweet stuff this week. We wanted something portable, and Cindy suggested these brownies from Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh's Sweet. We'd been lucky enough to eat them before but we'd never actually made them. They're fancy, but super easy - there's no separating egg yolks and whites, no complex techniques, just pretty basic baking.

They're incredibly rich, stuffed with halva on top of all the chocolate, butter and sugar, but they're really, really good. 

Tahini & halva brownies
(very slightly adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh's Sweet)

250g butter, cut into small cubes
250g dark chocolate, broken into pieces
4 eggs
1 1/4 cups of caster sugar
1 cup plain flour
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
200g halva, crumbled into 2cm pieces
4-5 tablespoons tahini

Preheat the oven to 200°C. Grease a 30 x 20cm baking tin and set aside (you can line with paper too if you're cautious, but mine came out fine).

Gently melt the butter and chocolate in a saucepan until you've got a thick, shiny sauce. Set aside to cool down to room temperature.

Whisk the eggs and caster sugar in a large bowl until creamy, about 3-5 minutes with electric beaters. Gently fold in the chocolate mix.

Sift the flour, cocoa and salt into a small bowl and stir them together. Fold this dry mix into the chocolate mix and combine. Gently mix in the halva pieces.

Pour the mixture into your baking tin, smoothing it out with a spatula if necessary. Dollop the tahini onto the mix in 10-12 places and swirl them with a skewer to make a marbled pattern.

Bake for 20-25 minutes - it will come out looking like it needs more time, but will set as it cools. Leave for at least half an hour before cutting it into brownie sized pieces. 

Saturday, January 02, 2021

where's the best in 2020?

Dawn XXXIII by Sabine Marcelis, currently part of the NGV Triennial

It's a bit nonsensical to put the words best and 2020 in the same title. In January 2020 Victoria experienced catastrophic bushfires and Melbourne was engulfed in smoke; the mood was apocalyptic and I didn't have the heart to blog at all. Little more than a month later we were plunged into pandemic lockdown, and it has driven our choices ever since. 

It's meant that we've depended more than ever on home cooking. We've always lived close to the supermarket and stopped in every couple of days, rarely planning further ahead than what we felt like for our next dinner. This year we shifted to shopping just once per week, and found that we can easily carry supplies on foot between the two of us, ideally escaping the crowds and having it all packed away before working from home on a weekday. It's been safer, it's taken up less head space, and it still actually serves my eating whims well enough. I hope to keep it up.

A Singaporean 'fish' curry

Home cooking has been big on comfort food. We've been making lots of old favourites again and again. New favourites entering our where's the best? page include Rachel Ama's peanut stew, a roasted tomato and white bean stew, pastitsio, a Singaporean curry, and an over-the-top cornbread. A welcome distraction during Melbourne's first lockdown was working through the recipes in my Lab Farewell Cookbook, and I completed them all by the end of May. It was a bright spot in my day to send notes and photos to the recipe givers, and ask how they were coping at home. 

These recipes also got me in the habit of baking cakes, which we'd slowly ration out across the week, and I continued baking through much of the year. I've picked out the pre-COVID Brunsli chocolate cookies and mid-winter red velvet cookie sandwiches as the best of the bunch. As Melbourne has warmed up and tentatively opened up I've been revelling in picnics. They've often just involved convenience foods, but when I had the energy I was also proud to share around a blueberry and cream cheese crostata, and most recently some raspberry ripe cups.

A red velvet cookie sandwich

We ordered takeaway food about once a week. Old faves Mankoushe, Bhang, Origin Tales and Vegie Mum were on regular rotation. I followed through my vow to explore Brother Bon's menu via home delivery, and I'm looking forward to visiting them on site again soon. We tried and loved Green Acre Pizza and Jaen Jumah for the first (and second, and third...) time. We've been eating out a little this summer, but haven't yet figured out the extent of restaurant closures around Melbourne. East Elevation no longer seems to be running as a cafe (but remains a function venue), and Samba's Jhol Momo has been replaced by Luther's Scoops.

The world has changed in 2020. For us, food has been a comfort and a distraction, a way of showing care for each other, a way to remember people and places, and most recently a way of reconnecting with friends and family face-to-face. Though our posts are less prolific with each passing year, we still intend to check in to share the foods that bring us joy.

Optical (tinted) by Stuart Haygarth, currently part of the NGV Triennial