Monday, December 31, 2007

December 30, 2007: Fetta stuffed zucchini with sweet potato chips

A few days after Christmas I visited a family friend and returned home with zucchinis and eggs. Maybe the zucchinis don't look all that intimidating at first glance, but compare them to the biro posed at the top of the picture - these are big zucchinis. Over the following week I managed to knock 'em down with one dish per zucchini.

For my first trick, I tried stuffing one. I think the mild, watery flavour of zucchini works well with firm salty cheese like haloumi or fetta so I decided that fetta would be the feature ingredient. Add some garlic, capsicum and parsley and it's actually a rather flavoursome and very summery dish.

On the side I had a shot at sweet potato chips. They didn't work spectacularly, but I didn't have high hopes - it's difficult to get them crispy! I just sliced the potato thinly and baked it in a bit of oil. The chips may have fared better if I'd been able to spread them out so they weren't overlapping - the few leftover ones worked nicely under the grill this way.


There was no leftover zucchini #1 to eat with the chips, but there was a bit of filling. It was just the thing for a toasted sandwich.


Fetta stuffed zucchini

1 massive zucchini (or 2-3 normal ones)
1 capsicum, chopped
3 cloves garlic
pepper
~80g fetta
1-2 tablespoons parsley, chopped roughly
1/4 cup breadcrumbs (optional)
oil

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C.

Slice the zucchini(s) in half lengthways and scoop out a hollow in each piece. I found it easiest to gently trace the borders of the hollow I wanted with a knife before digging in with a spoon. Set the zucchinis hollow-side-up on a flat oven tray. (Lightly grease the tray if you wish, but I don't think it's necessary.)

Roughly chop the zucchini innards. Heat a small amount of oil in a frypan and cook the zucchini innards and capsicum over medium heat. Add the garlic after a couple of minutes. When the capsicum has softened, transfer the veges to a bowl. Add pepper to taste, crumble in the fetta and stir in the parsley.

Gently pile the filling into the zucchini hollows. Sprinkle on the breadcrumbs if you want them, and drizzle on a teensy bit of olive oil if you feel like Jamie Oliver. Bake until the top has browned slightly and the zucchini is tender but still firm. (About 15 minutes, from memory.)

December 30, 2007: Coco Loco

After a wander along High St on a hot day, I finally managed to steer Michael into Coco Loco for a proper look. I've been keen to visit this chocolate shop for some time - it's vegan-friendly, organic and uses only Fair Trade cocoa and coffee. The menu is long and impressive: there are hot and iced chocolates, mochas and cocktails as well as a display cabinet of house-made truffles. Chocolate promenades with various fruit, nut and spice combinations; drink orders are made with your preference in temperature (hot or iced), milk (dairy, soy or Kashew Mylk) and chocolate concentration (light, medium, deep).

We both needed a deep chocolate fix on ice, and gave the family Kashew Mylk recipe a go. They were frothy, icy cold and not too rich - just what was needed in the prevailing weather. However there was a bit of a powdery texture (whether from the chocolate or the cashew I'm not sure) which wasn't ideal. The orange in my Kleopatra's brew ($10) was barely apparent, thought the lemon myrtle in Michael's D'Amore (also $10) was stronger.

I think I like Coco Loco more in theory than in practice. I dig the ethically-sourced ingredients but think the prices are a smidge steep. The menu looks incredible, but the product (while good) didn't quite match up. The vibe is modern and very clean, but also a bit pretentious. I guess I'll just have to buy a few more chocolates to help me determine my true feelings for Coco Loco!

Address: 219 High St, Northcote
Ph: 9482 7033
Price: iced chocolates $10
Website: www.cocoloco.net.au

December 27, 2007: Min Lokal


After a busy few days hanging out with Cindy's family, we had the 27th free to amuse ourselves. Our original plan was to spend the day wandering from St Kilda to Brighton, but the sunburn from our day at the MCG meant that the idea of a long walk in the sun seemed like a bad idea. So we opted for a short walk in the sun and a stroll around Fitzroy. Starting with breakfast.

We tracked down this review of Wild Flour bakery on The Breakfast Blog and decided it was worth a visit (particularly since The Commoner doesn't open until 10a.m. and we were hungry at 8). When we got to 422 George Street we were a little confused by what we saw: it was clearly the same basic place as Jamie had visited, with a couple of big communal tables and some tiny outdoor seats, but it didn't seem to be the Wild Flour bakery anymore. Certainly there was a big sign saying 'Wild Flour bread available here', but the name on the door appeared to be Min Lokal (which is Swedish for My Local according to my research). I didn't ask the guy working there what the story was, so I'm still not entirely sure that I've got the name right (after all, google turns up precisely no references to a Min Lokal on George Street in Fitzroy), but in the end it barely matters: the menu looked impressive and the place was open and welcoming.

First, the limitations: they have no freezer, so Cindy had to forgo her desired iced coffee, no real sweet brekkie options (e.g. pancakes, french toast) and their breakfast menu is pretty heavy on the eggs (although there was a haloumi option that was unfortunately unavailable). That aside (and, to be honest, I wanted a proper coffee, like savoury breakfast and love eggs, so I wasn't particularly bothered), the menu looked great: there were a good number of delicious sounding vego egg-based dishes, toast with a variety of intriguing sounding spreads and a smattering of other options. The stars of the show were the claypot egg dishes - basically they're baked eggs, but they're not made in the pans that people complain leave a metallic taste - instead they're baked in claypots, which leaves a slightly mushier texture and no metallic aftertaste.

Three of the four claypot options were vego and, after much agonising, I opted for the napoli eggs with fetta, pesto and pinenuts. It would be hard to overstate how good this dish was - the pesto was amazing, but the modest swirl didn't overwhelm the other flavours. The fetta added a salty tang and the pine nuts gave some crunch to the soft tomato-y egg-mush. It was superb. It left me even more keen to go back and try some of the other claypot varieties (one with artichokes and caper paste in it sounded stupendous).

Cindy, hamstrung by the unavailable haloumi dish and lack of other non-egg based choices, settled for the fruit toast. After weighing up her options (fancy jams, some sort of quince paste, a labna-y creation), she settled on maple hazlenut butter. The little dish of nutty butter was small - just enough to cover the two pieces of fruit toast - but delicious. Cindy would have happily smeared twice as much on if she had the option, but was well-satisfied with the delicious toast (I'm not sure if it was Wild Flour bread - a few people came in to buy their loaves and were sent away unsatisfied as the bakery wasn't baking over the Christmas/New Year break) and interesting topping. Now if I can just convince her to return to try some of the other toast toppings I can dig into the rest of their egg varieties.


Address: 422 George Street, Fitzroy
Ph: 9419 1391 (although this is the old Wild Flour number, I can't confirm that it's still accurate)
Price: $7 - $13

December 26, 2007: Boxing Day

Like Christmas day itself, Boxing Day has its traditions. Mountains of sandwiches made from leftover ham or turkey, or perhaps an ultra-competitive excursion to the nearest department store for the end of year sales. Or just planting yourself squarely in front of the Boxing Day test with a cold drink and an optional afternoon snooze. For this Christmas in Melbourne we made the latter a live experience accompanied by my brother Liam, my Mum, and two of Mum's sisters.

My main knowledge of sports ground catering revolved around lukewarm meat pies, so a small insulated bag of veg-friendly food seemed a necessary, if cumbersome, accessory. Number 1 essential ingredient? A 2 litre bottle of water, half of it frozen overnight and then topped up in the morning. Sitting all day is thirsty work.

No leftovers here, thankyou very much. Instead we had fresh super sandwiches for all. I was astounded to discover that the MCG now houses a falafel stand, so a lazy vego can still be guaranteed a feed without their own personal sandwich stack!

As a kid I only ate the fruit to earn myself an icecream, but now I actually crave it in the heat. I ate two nectarines and my stomach thanked me for it.

Here come the obligatory leftovers, all of them sugary.

A beer and chips are still part of the experience. Just don't peak too early! You'll miss the streaker when he somersaults onto the field at 5:00.

I hope none of us need a lecture about being sun-smart: hats, sunglasses and sunscreen should be the uniform. But here's bit I didn't heed - even when it's 20 degrees and breezy in the shade, the light reflection will get you. It's the only way I can explain my sunburnt eyelids and forehead.

December 25, 2007: Christmas Day

Christmas traditions have generally faded as my grandparents have passed on and the grandkids have grown up, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing. If anything we're better able to appreciate the food and company that does come together without any preconceptions. Three years ago, Michael and I turned up in Melbourne late on discounted flights, then spent the afternoon eating chips and avocado while watching DVDs with my brother, Mum and Mum's sister Carol. I don't think there were even any gifts or a decorated tree but the sense of togetherness was much more real than the photo stories Coles Myer would have us buy into all November.

This year we shared Christmas lunch with some of my Mum's family on the north side of Melbourne. It was a very Aussie barbie with bread and salads - for the hot plate, Michael and I brought along a lunchbox full of caramelised onions, and four enormous mushrooms brushed with balsamic vinegar and crushed garlic.

These reindeer cupcakes, also my doing, were dessert. I owe their look entirely to Melbourne's other food blogging Cindy, and their ingredient list almost entirely to Nigella Lawson. They're based on her burnt-butter brown-sugar cupcakes. The cake batter has a convenient throw-everything-into-the-food-processor method, but getting the burnt butter for both the cake and the icing is a bit strange. It involves heating and clarifying the butter, and Nigella promises that it'll be solid (albeit soft) in less time than it takes to preheat the oven. Even in 20 degree weather it took an hour in the fridge to do that. I reckon it would have taken all day sitting on the bench as directed! These were a tad greasy against the paper cases but otherwise great - light, moist cakes with buttery sweet icing and a hint of brown sugar. I'd use it again as a base for decorative cupcakes. However I ended up with about twice as much icing as I needed for this smooth finish, so consider reducing it by a third to a half. If you just want to thickly pipe or slather on the sweet stuff you might want the full quantity below.

And what made this Christmas really Christmas? Making up a bit of lost time with my cousins Seona and Trudy; getting to know Seona's almost-husband Phil and viewing Trudy's foray into film-making. Then watching Mum and three of her sisters muddle their way through a practice pitching of their new tent on the front lawn.

The day wasn't completely free of gifts either - in the post came a World in your Kitchen calendar from Michael's mum via Oxfam. Each new month will bring a new vegetarian recipe from Africa, Asia or Latin America, so we've a new theme to feature on our blog for 2008. Watch out for a Caribbean rice dessert in January!


Reindeer cupcakes

cake:
150g unsalted butter
125g plain flour, sieved
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder, sieved
60g castor sugar
65g brown sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2-3 tablespoons milk

icing: (reduce by a third to a half for smooth reindeer faces)
150g unsalted butter
1-2 tablespoons cocoa
250-300g pure icing sugar (I might try reducing this to 200g next time)
2-3 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

plain salted pretzels and assorted lollies for decorating (I used 12 jaffas, 24 dark choc chips, and some red sour jubes trimmed with scissors)

For the cake: Put the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring until it becomes dark golden. The milk solids should separate quite easily and rise to the top. Strain the butter to remove those solids - lacking a decent strainer, I also used a spoon to gently skim off more solids. Rest the butter until it's solid but still soft - I still reckon this requires a stint in the fridge.

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C and line a muffin pan with 12 paper cases. In a food processor, pulse together all the cake ingredients except for the milk - stream it down the funnel. Drop the batter equally into the 12 paper cases, then bake for 15-20 minutes until a wooden skewer comes out clean.

For the icing: Repeat the butter clarification method above, perhaps before or while the cakes are baking. When the butter is cool, sieve in a tablespoon of the cocoa and about half of the icing sugar and beat together the buttercream. Beat in more sugar, cocoa and milk in turn until you achieve the colour and texture you want, then beat in the vanilla at the end.

For plain cupcakes, slather or pipe the icing on generously. To make reindeer faces, spread the buttercream thinly and smoothly over the cakes with a knife, ideally forming a seal with the paper cases over the cake. Arrange a face by pressing the lollies gently into the icing, starting with a red nose in the centre. Cut pretzels into the antler shapes pictured above and press them into the side of the cake. If your reindeer have to travel at all, you might like to store the decorating lollies (particularly the pretzel antlers) in a small container and decorate just before serving.

Friday, December 28, 2007

December 24, 2007: Christmas Eve (and its eve)

At this time of year, it's not only food bloggers that are preoccupied with food and its preparation. People who haven't preheated an oven for 12 months suddenly start preparing gingerbread, while the keener cooks go into overdrive. I tried not to go too crazy but with some family meals scheduled, it was important to me that I contribute something to the table. Firstly, because making and giving food is my primary method of showing people I care; secondly, because I didn't want feeding two vegetarians to make anyone else's Christmas more difficult.

We didn't need to worry about that on Sunday night, Christmas Eve Eve. We visited Emma and Simon's home and were spoiled with five incredible Indian-inspired vegetarian dishes. The entree was battered deep-fried balls of spiced potato stuffed with fetta and served with yoghurt dressing and chutney - one of the most memorable dishes of the summer. We were sent home with boxes of leftover curry, as well as a Christmas tradition from Emma's family that reveals her American origins: pecan cinnamon scrolls with maple flavoured syrup. Although they make a habit of eating them for breakfast on Christmas day, Michael and I have been rationing them out for afternoon tea. Our small contribution to the evening was a dessert of homemade vanilla icecream served with mixed berries and pomegranate syrup.

Christmas Eve was spent with my dad, his wife Anne, and Anne's family. In the home of Anne's sister Sue, we exchanged gifts and shared an enormous meal. I baked another round of Haalo's chocolate orange butter biscuits and gift boxed them for Sue. If Anne and Sue's dad is anything like my own grandparents, I thought, the cocoa nibs would be difficult for his teeth; so for Max I made the same basic biscuit dough and sandwiched the baked biscuits with lemon curd.

Michael and I were spoiled with multiple edible gifts: chocolates from Haigh's and Lindt, as well as fruit trees and farm packs destined for East Timor and Sri Lanka via Oxfam unwrapped. We were well catered for at dinner time, too: there were a wealth of salads as well as sweet potato slice and vegetarian lasagne purchased especially for us. Between us Michael and I prepared a large tray of our long-time favourite non-sausage rolls with Chinese style barbeque sauce on the side. I was proud to win a few more fans from unexpected corners of the table.

It was a night of blended families and mixed traditions; not seamless, but with a sense of sharing and humour we should have many more pleasant Christmas meals to look forward to.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

December 18, 2007: Muhammara

Like Johanna, I recently bought a bottle of pomegranate molasses for the first time. Pomegranate molasses has orbitted my culinary consciousness for quite some time, but for the most part I was content not to own this specialty ingredient. I wasn't convinced that I'd use it much or particularly like the taste. Then I saw Clotilde's recipe for muhammara, a Middle Eastern spread. This mixture of roasted red capsicum and walnuts looked like the star of a few excellent bread-and-dip plates I've ordered out. She suggested that balsamic vinegar, which I already had, would make a suitable substitute but all of a sudden pomegranate molasses had taken on an aura of irreplacability, as if it must be the secret ingredient on those dip platters.

And far from disappointing me, my experimental taste from the bottle confirmed that this was my kind of syrup. Sweet and languidly viscous, but with a very fruity tang. Balsamic vinegar would do, sure, but the molasses fills out the flavour of this spread perfectly to my taste. The dip is sweet and savoury simultaneously, with a texture that's smooth and wholesomely nutty in turn.

We ate the muhammara in wraps with felafel and veges. Its moist sweetness worked well against the sour edge of the packet-mix felafel. A few days later I made a batch of vanilla icecream based on this recipe and tried swirling the pomegranate molasses through. It sunk to the bottom instead of remaining suspended, but the flavours really worked! So pour it on some good vanilla icecream and fruits - we chose blueberries, strawberries and blackberries.

The muhammara recipe is available here.

Monday, December 24, 2007

December 16, 2007: Raspberry ripple icecream`

'Tis the season for berries and icecream, and I found just the recipe to celebrate on A Cracking Good Egg. It's raspberry ripple at its best. The vanilla custard is thick, sweet and contains whole eggs so it doesn't leave any whites in my fridge to stare at me for a week afterwards. (I don't have the courage to utilise my aging egg whites for this...) The raspberry syrup is luridly hued and as tart as the real fruit that goes into it, the perfect counterpoint to the rich vanilla. I shared it with Michael, Mike and Jo-Lyn after our meal at Blue Corn, receiving repeated oohs and aahs.

I'll be making this again, if not to win more friends and influence people, then certainly to perfect my swirling technique!

Raspberry Ripple Icecream

250mL milk
3 eggs
160g castor sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
500mL single cream
125mL water
juice of half a lemon
250g raspberries

In a saucepan over low to medium heat, bring the milk not quite to the boil and then set aside. Whisk together the eggs, 120g of the sugar and vanilla, then add the hot milk, still whisking.

Put the mixture back on low heat, whisking, until it thickens a little. Turn off the heat and add the cream, still whisking continually. Cool the mixture and then store it in the fridge until completely cold, at least an hour.

In a small saucepan over low heat, combine the water, remaining sugar and lemon juice and bring to the boil. Simmer until it has reduced by half, then turn off the heat. Blitz it in a food processor with the raspberries until smooth. Strain the syrup and refrigerate.

Retrieve the vanilla custard from the fridge and strain it - there may be a few solidified egg bits if you're a lazy custard-stirrer like me. Churn the custard in an icecream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions. Transfer the vanilla icecream to a container a quarter at a time, swirling through some raspberry puree in between. Freeze for several hours until firm.

December 16, 2007: Blue Corn

Cindy and I had good intentions for dinner on Sunday night following our gluttonous Saturday, but they were thrown out the window by a spur of the moment invitation to join Mike and Jo at Blue Corn in St Kilda. Jo had told us previously of her fondness for Blue Corn, and the menu seemed to cater fairly well for vegos, so we were keen to give it a try. We wandered in at about 7:00 and had no problems getting a table - there was even a spare place for us in their lovely courtyard, which was the perfect place to dine on one of Melbourne's pleasant summer evenings.

Things started out with a shared platter: Bluecorn's dips & cornbread with spicy chickpea, mushroom & blackbean dip, pipian rojo, guacamole, tomato salsa, mixed chile olives & fresh corn chips. It was as impressive as it sounds - dense cornbread and an unbelievably flavoursome array of things to spread on it. The blackbean and mushroom dip was a particular standout, but everything on the platter was wonderful.

For the main course, Cindy picked out the Blue Masa goat's cheese quesadilla with black beans, tomato rice, tortillas, guacamole and sour cream. I assumed I'd get a taste at some stage, but Cindy wiped her plate clean. A rare endorsement indeed. She did find it all a little bit too cheesy (with the goat's cheese filling and the generous smother of melted cheese on top), but the fresh guacamole and light sour-cream sauce helped her through it all.

I went for the other main-sized vego option (although there was at least one more on the specials board): the vegetarian burrito on corn tortilla with spinach, rice, peppers, corn, black beans, iceberg, guacamole and salsa. It was one of the best burritos I've ever tried: a crispy tortilla stuffed with delicious mexi-mush and covered in perfectly melted cheese. A dash of hot sauce and I was in heaven.

So Blue Corn was a winner - everything was incredibly fresh and flavoursome, the service was friendly and the courtyard had a lovely relaxing summer afternoon atmosphere. The prices aren't particularly cheap, but it's good value for money and a worthy competitor for Los Amates.

Address: 205 Barkly Street, St Kilda
Ph: 9534 5996
Licensed
Price: vego platters and mains - $19.50 - $21.50

Sunday, December 23, 2007

December 16, 2007: Interlude postscript

On leaving Interlude, we received a small gift to take home and enjoy later - apparently #7 in their instant pudding series. We had Interlude's interpretation of Xmas mince pie for two prepared in a matter of minutes, using only a saucepan and some water.

The 'mince' is a slightly gelatinous concoction, dotted with raisins and wafting with traditional Christmas spices. On top are soft buttery pastry crumbs. How nice to linger over our special meal a little longer!

Friday, December 21, 2007

December 15, 2007: Interlude

Michael mentioned in his previous post that I got my ears pierced on Saturday, and that can only mean one thing...

It's my birthday! And I'm 10 years old!

Well, it's half true. What my birthday really means is that it's time to pull out the credit card and eat something fancy. This year I chose Interlude at the venue. What initially attracted me to Interlude was their 5-course dessert degustation menu - I like a restaurant that values the sweeter side as much as I do. Then, while browsing their website, I noticed that Interlude offers a vegetarian version of their 7 and 11 course menus (though presumably not the full 16-course tour). It would be unfair of me not to try some savouries as well, right? It was with this sense of duty *cough* that we ordered the intermediate vegetarian tour.

Michael also ordered matching wines for himself - even though it was my night, I really can't enjoy the food to its fullest with that volume of alcohol. Regardless, the sommelier generously brought out two glasses with each wine so that I could have a small (and sometimes not-so-small!) taste.

The quality of these photos (and potentially my descriptions) diminishes as the night goes on. Apologies in advance...

The first nibbles to arrive were deeply roasted salt and vinegar beer nuts, and a dish of housemade crisps with salt and vinegar foam. Chips! Just the thing to set me at ease. I must admit that they didn't win me over on their own - they were intentionally unseasoned and the texture reminded me of uncooked pasta. But with the intensely flavoured but light-as-air foam they were great.

This is a "cucumber sandwich": freezing cold and distinctly cucumber sorbet with a wafer, Pimms caviar and a garnish of watercress. Troubled by the inclusion of caviar on a vegetarian blog? No animals were harmed in the making of this product. Pimms was meted out using a pipette and subjected to a calcium chloride solution (read more about it here), creating solid little spheres with a liquid centre. Served with champagne, it was the taste of a genteel British summer served with entirely new temperatures and textures.

Here's "char-grilled corn", served as bread, jelly and foam with a few puffed kernels as well. Three completely different textures, all giving the most delicious sweet, salty, buttery flavour.

Interlude's usual "pea and ham" became just "pea" for the meat-free guests. Members of the pea family were served roasted and crisp and as a sorbet. This sorbet really did evoke the frozen peas of my childhood and unluckily for Interlude, they were my most hated vegetable at that time. The crunchy roasted ones were much more akin to the fresh ones I'm learning to love as an adult. But if we're gonna riff on Australia's favourite side veges, I'll have the corn.

Earlier this year, Ed from Tomato brought the Interlude tube to my attention. ("Somewhere between... sucking on a crack pipe and a cock.") Given that it contained herring roe I assumed it was out for us but I was cheered to see it turn up on our table slightly altered - we slurped up cauliflower puree, bergamont basil (?), apple and chervil. Like Ed I wasn't sure that I could fit it all in my mouth at once but I did, in three staccato sucks. It was just gelatinous enough cling to the open-ended glass tube but soft in the mouth, with all the sweet and herbal flavours holding their own against the others.

And then came the bread and butter. We were offered slices of walnut & fig, green olive white sourdough, and raisin & fennel slices and left with curls of unsalted sheep's milk and salted cow's milk butters. All were fabulous, of course, but I restricted myself to one slice all night. I only had one stomach to store this parade of food in!

Yeesh, this is where the photos really take a dive. Interlude's signature dish of "bacon and eggs" became eggs with a white onion consomme. The egg is poached in the shell at the low temperature of 65 degrees for about 2 hours. The yolk is still liquid and spills its richness into the consomme when you delve in. Puffed rice and a garlic wafer provided some crunch, though the fragile (pungent) wafer melted on impact with my mouth. (It bore a striking resemblance to the dehydrated garlic that so impressed us at 3, 1, 2.) Funnily enough, I have textural problems with eggs and onions, and this dish overcame 75% of them. The egg still had me a bit squeamish.

Here's the "tomato explosion". I think this is a small pasta shell filled with liquified tomato. The object is to put it into your mouth whole and get a burst of juice. Tomatoes are Michael's pet textural hate and he really dug this seed and flesh-free version. For me, I get at least this much enjoyment out of a cherry tomato.

The "garden salad" was just beautiful. Yes, spring is green leaves and flowers but this dish digs deeper. Below the pretty colours are earthier mushroom "snails" and "soil". We couldn't fathom what the crunchy dark soil could be, and our waiter explained that it's brioche, cooked to a crumbling crisp in scandalous amounts of butter, with some black food colouring.

This plate actually travelled to our table with what looked like a little goldfish bowl sitting upturned on it. It was trapping the vapours of our eucalyptus smoked handmade silken tofu, with fennel marmalade. The aroma took me straight back to our previous weekend in the Grampians! As at 3, 1, 2, these guys have perfected the technique of coating the silkiest cube of tofu in a crisp but featherlight crumb coating. Eucalyptus and fennel were a surprisingly good but bitter pair, with the marmalade preparation of the fennel offering a counteracting sweetness.

This is "escabeche jelly, beer foam, carrot macaron". The waiter explained that escabeche is a Spanish vinegar-based marinade for fish and in spite of the name, I was surprised when I dipped my spoon in and hit solid jelly! An acidic, savoury jelly dotted with fresh herbs and veges. I clumsily destroyed my beer foam with a spoon so didn't really taste it properly, while Michael thought that garnishing anything with the head off a drink was a bit pointless. The tiny macaron was from another planet than Duncan's - contrary to most of the dishes here, it emulated the looks but little of the texture and nothing of the taste. I noticed another table receiving this dish later in the evening, topped with smoked eel.

The final savoury dish was a ratatouille. Here was a selection of roasted vegetables with jalapeno jelly and eggplant puree. They were tasty, of course, with the super-smoky eggplant puree the standout. For non-vegos, the ratatouille is served with lamb.

Here are "peaches and jasmine" with a little surprise, promised the waiter. What you see is a tangy, airy peach sorbet and foam, tapioca pearls, puffed millet, and a dense disc of jasmine parfait. What you don't see lies under the sorbet. Michael giggled - "it's going crazy in my mouth!". Powdered pop rocks! In spite of the sophisticated jasmine, my image of this dish is of childish fun, all pink and white bubbles crackling in the mouth.

Here's a little cup of egg nog, simultaneously seasonal and completely unseasonal (thanks to the northern hemisphere for giving us such a skewed idea of Christmas). It was frothy, it was subtly spiced and it was sweet, but mostly it was super rich and alcoholic. It transformed a soothing drink into the most intensely delicious version of that drink possible, like 3, 1, 2 did for pumpkin soup. (And if the secret ingredient in either case is just butter, I don't want to know.)

I wasn't concentrating enough on the identity of this dessert, but based on the website I'd assume it's "cassis, broken savarin, tonic water". If you're still confused (I clearly was, 'cause I couldn't write it down), cassis is black currant and savarin is a rich yeast cake. It seemed kind of insubstantial when I started, but by the time I was at the other end of this dessert line, I was saturated with the dark sweet flavour of the black currants. I think the airy crunchy pink sticks were meringue, and the wisps of green (an unidentified herb) were unexpectedly just the thing to perk up the picture (and the flavour).

Here comes the palate cleanser: eucalyptus sorbet, lychee consomme, grapefruit. The consomme was heavenly, and frustrating to get onto my spoon from such a flat plate. The sorbet sure did cleanse, but I wasn't sold on it. Once the image of eating Vicks Vaporub with a spoon entered my head, it just wouldn't leave. Michael was more into it.

Michael was up for coffee, and with it came these petit fours: malibu marshmallows, red capsicum jellies, salt and vinegar chocolate sticks and ganache infused with Earl Grey tea. I was so full I could barely nibble at these: the red capsicum jelly really worked, the chocolate, salt and vinegar didn't quite fuse, and the ganache was subtle but excellent. I couldn't face a marshmallow. Ultimately, dinner usurped dessert.

It's a shame that a number of the vegetarian dishes are simply the standard dishes with the meat removed. Most obviously, the ratatouille seemed a strange climax without the lamb; unlike our degustation at 3, 1, 2 I didn't get that sense of build-up as we ate through the savoury dishes.

On reflection, it's obvious that a huge amount of work and technical skill was required to create a menu such as this. But what was more obvious while I was eating was the sense of fun and play, and the element of surprise. This is novelty food. As such, I don't have a huge desire to return. (I'm much more curious as to what might feature on Andrew McConnell's vegetarian summer menu.) But it was tasty, it was fun, and it was worth doing - I just hope I haven't spoiled it for you, or for the winner of this year's Menu for Hope Interlude voucher.

Full disclosure: A little over half way through the meal, one of the floor staff gave me a big smile and asked, "So, are you a blogger?" It's true that I wasn't being particularly secretive in my note- and picture-taking, but it was still a surprise. Turns out she's a friend of Ed's. As Ed has already noted, the folks at Interlude are very blog-friendly and they were all happy for our interest, two of the staff asking the name of our blog. But the service was nothing short of fantastic and friendly beforehand and we (Michael) paid for our meal in full, so we have no reason to believe that any other customer wouldn't receive the same service that we did. If anything, it affected our behaviour, ramping up the self-consciousness a notch. So read into this account what you will.

Edit 13/11/08: Interlude closed its doors on October 25 this year. Apparently these folks are planning something new to open in the city; check their website for more news and information.

Address: 211 Brunswick St, Fitzroy
Ph: 9415 7300
Licensed
Price: intermediate degustation $125 per person, matching wines $75
Website: www.interlude.com.au

Thursday, December 20, 2007

December 15, 2007: Ice Cafe Bar

Cindy had scheduled a mid-morning ear-piercing in Prahran and, to fill the time beforehand, we decided to find ourselves some breakfast somewhere around Chapel Street. The Cheap Eats guide was full of places that sounded interesting, and in the end we just chose the one closest to the piercing shop: Ice Cafe Bar. We arrived at 10ish to find the spillover from Chapel Street's night club scene winding down with champagne and eggs. Luckily, there was room for those of us who felt that sleep was a good precursor to breakfast and we slotted in to one of the windowside tables.

The whole place felt a little like an after-party: quiet but insistent beats on the sound system, ridiculously friendly waitstaff who looked ready to throw their hands in the air at the slightest provocation and lots of people more fashionable than us. The only thing out of place were the few family groups with little kids. Still, the kids were pretty snappily dressed.

Anyway, moving on from the very un-northside atmosphere. The menu was reasonably large, but not particularly full of vegetarian choices. Cindy decided to take things into her own hands and order the corn fritters minus the customary bacon. The staff were kind enough to offer up some mushrooms and fetta in exchange, which is better than you can say for some places. It was all pretty delicious (the avo looked particularly good from where I was sitting), but was maybe a little on the salty side.

I returned to an old favourite that I'd been neglecting for a while: eggs florentine. (It really has been ages - I just looked over our old posts and found my last eggs florentine on June 1!). This was a pretty decent attempt: well-poached eggs, a creamy (if slightly bland) hollandaise and generous piles of spinach. Nothing outstanding, but a welcome return to the buttery goodness of a hollandaise-based breakfast. The coffees were great (and came out very quickly indeed) and the service was really outstanding - no struggling to flag someone down for my 2nd coffee or surly cooler-than-thou attitude. Sure, these guys were undoubtedly cooler than Cindy and I, but they didn't rub it in. I appreciated it.


Address: 30 Cato Street, Prahran
Ph: 9510 8788
Licensed
Price: vego breakfasts - $6-$14
Website: http://www.icecafebar.com/ (check it out - it's hard to imagine a more minimalist web presence.)

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

December 12, 2007: Queen Victoria Night Markets

The Queen Victoria Night Markets are back! At this time it's packed with people Christmas shopping or, like us, just after something to eat. The stalls are looking rather similar to last summer - the okonomiyaki (from Akari) are still hot, saucy and full of cabbage but have risen to $5.

We couldn't resist revisiting Gringo Vibes, ordering a soft bean taco each ($3.50 apiece). Jalapenos and hot sauce are added to your preference.

Surprisingly it was Michael who pushed for dessert, ordering fruit of the forest crepes ($7). It was a very large serving, with good vanilla ice-cream and a slurp of maple syrup on the side.

Although the chorizo stand's smoke will contaminate anything you eat, there's still plenty for vegos to choose from. The panzarotti are back, there are Indian curries and Ethiopean stews, Thai and savoury crepes. For dessert I spied Queen Vic institutions the jam doughnut van and churros stall. Aim for the floral pink stand to view lots of prissy pastel cupcakes, but be prepared to use your nails if you want to progress through the ranks of cooing women and possess one.

It's crazy and crowded and you're probably better off skipping the crafts but just once this summer, head to the Queen Vic Night Market and eat on your feet.

You can read about our previous visit to the night market here.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

December 10, 2007: The Vegie Bar

Cindy and I returned from our big weekend in the Grampians lacking the energy to cook for ourselves. Luckily, the Vegie Bar provides the kind of varied and affordable menu that can fulfill almost any lazy desire. Not only that, they provide a welcome respite from a weekend of excessive port-drinking with a wide array of delicious freshly-made juices. Refreshing!

Cindy was immediately taken in by the promise of the 4 mushroom pie with chips and salad ($10.50) on the specials list. It wasn't overly sauced - the mushrooms really did all the flavour-work, still not quite living up to Cindy's own TVP and mushroom spectacular.

I was just after a simple stir-fry, and the Vegie Bar have a range of options. I went for the satay sauce variety and I've never seen a bigger satay stir-fry. It was humungous - filled with tofu, vegies, sauce and rice. It fitted my mood perfectly - maybe a little extra spice would have been worthwhile, but it's hard to complain when you're paying $12.50 for a ridiculous mountain of fresh, tasty food.

The Vegie Bar is probably not the most exciting vego restaurant in Melbourne (I think Shakahari leads that race), but it's consistently good, has a magnificently varied menu and is great value for money. Which explains why this is the 5th time we've blogged it. Read about our previous visits here: one, two, three, four.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

December 10, 2007: Brambuk Bush Tucker Cafe

And so we walked and watched. From up high...

... from down low...

and up close.


Also worth a visit is the Brambuk cultural centre. First up, there's the usual National Park information about walks, precautions and camping, and bookings for organised outdoor activities. A little further back is the painstakingly and beautifully designed Aboriginal cultural centre, sitting low to the ground like one of the local cockatoos. I thoroughly enjoyed the half an hour I spent in the late afternoon, slowly winding my way up the serpent-like ramp, reading and thinking about the past, present and future.

Unsurprisingly there's a gift shop, as well as a cafe. But what's notable is that the cafe offers something more than the soft drinks, ice-creams and soggy sausage rolls I anticipated. This is the Bushfoods cafe, where the menu features gourmet preparations of kangaroo, crocodile and emu. The vegetarian options are a little more tame, but you can still find native herbs in the soup, scrambled eggs, damper and coffee.

I tried the wattleseed damper with quandong and peach jam, and cream ($5), as well as a wattleseed latte ($4). The damper was crusty, warm and of generous proportions and though I could see the ground wattleseed all through it, its flavour was much weaker than in my home-baked muffins. Kudos for the fresh whipped cream! (Those aerosol ones should be outlawed.) The ground wattleseed was more potent in my latte, which was served scaldingly hot and drunk much, much later. I enjoyed it, though Tracy and Michael liked their takeaway ones far less.

Michael chose the vegie burger, served with lettuce, tomato, wild rosella chutney and a side of chips ($10). He liked the chutney a lot, and though the chips looked pale and undercooked they were actually very tasty.

The Brambuk Bushfoods cafe has a surprisingly diverse menu. The prices, especially if you're into bush meats, are very reasonable; probably better than any of the restaurants serving dinner. The staff were lovely, too. It's the ideal place to fill up on maps, local history and food before soaking up what the Grampians really have to offer.