Saturday, September 30, 2006

September 30, 2006: Spanakopita, Ratatouille and Relatives

This weekend my Dad and his wife Anne have flown down from Brisbane, and on Saturday they came over to check out our flat for the first time and have some lunch. Michael and I have hit upon a winning combination in spanakopita and ratatouille. They're easy to prepare, although it takes a while, and they're guaranteed to generate lots of leftovers that are equally enjoyable reheated or at room temperature, teamed up again or served separately with other things.

Michael chopped and stirred for a couple of hours on Friday night, making a half-batch of this ratatouille recipe. I like to keep cooking this until the veges are disintegrating into each other, but I think they're meant to be a bit separate and discernable, really. Makes a pretty good side for meat pies, and would also be well matched with buttered crusty bread or couscous.

I got the spanakopita recipe from the only women's magazine I've ever respected in the morning, Bust. It has a great section in which some hip young femme shares a favourite recipe handed down from her mother, grandmother, or other fine-cooking female ancestor.

I'm going to go off on another tangent now and remark upon the fine eggs I bought at the Vic Markets. Huge and speckled, looking farm fresh. Super-yellow yolks that you have to stab with a fork to break. Organic and free range. Definitely the way eggs should be!

OK, OK, here's the recipe:


Mix 500g chopped spinach, 250g crumbled feta cheese, 1 teaspoon parsley, 1 tablespoon dill, 1 large grated onion, a bunch of scallions (chopped fine), 4 eggs, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 60g butter. Unfortunately I didn't buy the best feta in the world, it was a bit rubbery and didn't crumble well. Fortunately this dish forgave me.

Next you need a 375g box of filo pastry sheets. My box of filo dough proudly proclaims that it's cholestrol free. That's because it looks and tastes like paper, and whatever recipe you use is going to tell you to butter it up good. This recipe doesn't specify how much butter to use, and it's probably a matter of personal taste how much you want. I think I used about another 60g, but I'd recommend just melting a little bit at a time until you're done assembling. The other thing about filo dough is that it dries out easily, so lay it out on a damp tea towel and cover it with another one while you're working.

Now layer a 1/3 of it into the bottom of a large baking dish, brushing melted butter between the layers. Don't slather it too much, just dab it around and feel artistic. Spoon half of the spinach filling on top and make it reasonably level. Repeat with the next 1/3 of the pastry and the remaining spinach filling. Top with the rest of the pastry. Make sure you seal the edges so that the juices don't seep out and don't be too neat and perfectly aligned with your pastry layers: random and crumpled looks cool. Actually, I gave this recipe to Carlo a while ago and he criss-crossed strips of pastry on the top in a grid. It looked way cool. (Apologies to Nadiah if it was you who did the decorating, I just want to give someone credit for that idea.) At this stage, you might think this looks like a tray of your most hated vegetable from childhood, messily wrapped up in greasy butcher's paper. I promise you, the oven has magical transforming powers. Set it to 200 degrees, pop in your tray, and remind yourself to visit it in about 40 minutes.

Here's the interlude where our guests arrived, bringing wine and cheese from the tour of the Yarra Valley they did yesterday. Served with crackers and the cherry chutney I didn't bake into cupcakes.

Check up on the oven. Is the pastry looking good yet? The recipe recommends baking for an hour, or until the pastry is brown. I reckon I took it out after 45 minutes. Transformation complete!

Michael gave the ratatouille a reheat and we were ready to go.


Thursday, September 28, 2006

September 28, 2006: I-can't-believe-it's-not-meat pie

In his omnivorous days, meat pies were one of Michael's guilty pleasures. I developed this recipe for him after we went veg and I discovered TVP (textured vegetable protein). TVP comes as dried up flaky bits, and is made mostly of soy flour. When the flakes are soaked in water they fluff up into a pretty convincing substitute for beef mince. They don't taste meaty, exactly, but mince is so often hidden in sauce or other flavours that I reckon it'd do the job almost all the time. I've had a couple of omnivores comment that they wouldn't have picked the difference in this recipe if they hadn't known I was vegetarian. You can get Sanitarium brand TVP from most supermarkets, and some health food shops sell other brands of it too.

I was going to submit this recipe to the "We Do Chew Our Food" pie review, but I wanted to post it here because it's one of the dishes of which I'm most proud. I invented it from scratch!

Cindy's I-can't-believe-it's-not-meat pies

Mix 1 cup of TVP mince with 1 cup of hot water, and set it aside to fluff up.

Finely chop a small onion, and about a cup of mushrooms. Mince or chop 3 cloves of garlic.

Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a reasonably large saucepan. Cook the onions and garlic until the onion starts browning. Add a tablespoon of flour and keep stirring so that it doesn't stick to the bottom. Next you need about 2 cups of liquid: try any combination you like of stock, red wine, milk or plain ol' water. Keep stirring for a bit, and the liquid should thicken. Next flavour that gravy up: try vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil, worcestershire sauce, chopped herbs. There's gotta be black pepper. Make sure you taste it and adjust the flavours to your preference.

Now that you know how to make gravy, I'll tell you that you can just buy a sachet of Gravox and add hot water. It sure ain't any worse than what you'll get in a meat pie.

Take the gravy off the heat and stir in the mushrooms and the TVP. Set the oven to 200 degrees.

Thaw out three sheets of puff pastry. I'm thinking of the standard ones that are about 25cm x 25 cm, at the supermarket. Grease up a muffin tray, then cut the pastry sheets into four squares each. Gently mold the pastry squares into the muffin cups and spoon about 2 tablespoons of the mince mix into each one. It's tempting, but don't fill them up too much or they'll overflow in the oven. Fold up the corners and pinch them together a bit, but allow some gaps for steam to escape. If you've got little pie dishes or you want the traditional flat-top look, go ahead: I just find this approach easy, it doesn't waste any pastry, and I don't need to buy any extra dishes. Bake the mini-pies for about 30 minutes, or until the pastry is golden and a bit flaky. If you haven't experimented and got the filling levels right, consider putting an extra tray under the muffin pan to catch any overflow.

Serve with lots of sauce! We are a divided household on the sauce issue, with Michael preferring Worcestershire. I'm more of a traditional tomato girl, myself. This time I still had some home-made arrabbiatta sauce in the freezer as a slightly gourmet treat. Our favourite sides are garlic mashed potato and wilted spinach leaves.

It's official: vegetarianism is no longer unAustralian.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

September 25, 2006: Culinary competition

The office was quiet and poorly attended on Monday morning, as a few people put the final touches on their competition entries at home. I spent several hours at my desk, skimming a textbook and clock-watching, until people started flowing in at about 12:20. There must have been twenty or thirty eager stomaches and appreciative palates, creating a very enjoyable hour of catching up with friends, striking up conversations with unfamiliar people, and trying to sample as many dishes as possible. (For me there were more unfamiliar faces than for most, and I was trying to photograph as well as taste all the dishes!) Two of the birthday gal's sons judged the food, creating 13 quirky award categories with the purpose of giving away 13 prizes, each a random item from an Asian supermarket.

Here are most, but not all, of the entries:

Home-made hummus. With a real lemon tang, just the way I like it.

Tofu balls with dipping sauce. Winner of the "Best Imitation of Meat" prize.

Hot, home-made felafel. Winner of the Visual Aesthetic Award. I missed out on trying one of these, dammit.

Filo rolls filled with Mediterranean-style eggplant. Winner of the "Looks most like this prize of a small bottle of mustard oil" prize.

Marinated mushroom mix on polenta squares. Can't believe these didn't win a prize, but their creator won two others.

A spinach and fetta pie, topped with cherry tomatos. Winner of the "Gourmet's Choice" award.

A passionfruit cheesecake. Creamy, not gelatinous. Mmmm.

Banana cake, just like grandma would make. I took two slices home and ate them for dinner.

A chocolate fountain! Winner of the award for Best Unhealthifying of Fruit.

Best Use of a Blowtorch: meringue cupcakes.

The Imitation Award went to the two entries of passionfruit tarts.

The Mystery Ingredient prize went to this perplexing dessert. I plucked up the courage to sample it on my second wind at 5:30pm and went back for seconds. This is a subtly sweet Thai creation with water chestnuts in the bottom layer and coconut milk in the jelly top. Surprisingly morish when there's half a tray of it in front of you!

My cupcakes won a prize for best miniturisation. I got a packet of dried dates. There were a handful of other awards for dishes I failed to photograph, but this lot are a pretty good reflection of the variety and quality of our party food. I reckon this is just how a competition should be: plenty for participants and spectators to enjoy, awards that celebrate the diversity of submissions, and prizes that preclude any serious rivalry whatsoever. Nevertheless, there's a good chance that I'll spend the next year filing away candidate recipes for the next competition!

Sunday, September 24, 2006

September 24, 2006: Chocolate-cherry cupcakes

Nigella's recipe for chocolate-cherry cupcakes was just the kind of dessert entry I was after: easily made the day before and prepared in single portions, with a look that combines a fun party treat with dark chocolate elegance. It calls for morello cherry jam in the cake batter, and Nigella likes to buy it at Sainsbury's. With the nearest Sainsbury's almost 17000 killometres away I decided to scout around for an alternative, finding zero perfect but three promising options. The first was a 670g jar of morello cherries in syrup at Safeway, which could also replace the glace cherries that Nige suggests for decoration (I hate glace fruit). Less than $4 and yum to snack on too. The second find was some black cherry jam, also at Safeway. It lacks the sourness of morellos, but has the right texture for the batter. Third is a comparatively expensive jar of sour cherry chutney, bought from a French food stall at the Vic Markets. It certainly had the right cherry taste, but also a vinegary savoury aspect that I was hesitant to shovel into a cake recipe. My solution was to throw in a third of each candidate when the recipe requested jam.

This is a really no-fuss cake mix: none of that creaming butter and sugar stuff. It starts with melting 125g of butter and 100g of dark chocolate in a saucepan. I created my own minor fuss by habitually having "holds shape when baked" dark choc chips on hand which are, funnily enough, specifically designed not to melt. Michael patiently and loyally fetched some melts while I distracted myself with preparing the knish veges. The rest of the batter proceeded as planned: taking the saucepan off the heat, I mixed in 300g of cherry stuff, 150g of sugar, a pinch of salt, 2 beaten eggs, 150g of flour, and 3 teaspoons of baking powder.

Next I dropped big spoonfuls into patty cases, lined up in a muffin pan. Janelle from Ready Steady Cook always says that you have to get the spoonfuls the right size in one go, and not dab in extra bits. I can't remember why, maybe it was something about air bubbles, or misshapen tops? I failed to do so, anyway. I noticed that the mix was already becoming a bit thick and dry with bubbles appearing, and I'm not certain that I used the right amount of baking powder to substitute for self-raising flour. Nigella reckons this recipe makes 12 and the ones pictured in her book must be larger than I thought, because I made 16 or 17. She also directs us to bake them for 25 minutes at 180 degrees. I toned my fan-forced oven down to 160 degrees and found that a skewer came out clean after 15-20 minutes. Is this an appropriate method for testing the doneness of cupcakes? It was only at this time that I realised I'd never attempted cupcakes before. I turned them out to cool, and Michael and I shared one. It was a little burnt on the bottom and around the edges where it flowed over the patty case, but cooked through and overall rather tasty. Next time I'll try baking on a higher shelf.

Next comes the icing! Even the word icing has me bracing for an intense sugar hit that I might not want. My favourite part of this recipe was that the cupcakes are iced with chocolate ganache. Creamy, rich, and only as much sugar as your chosen chocolate brand lends. Make it by gently melting 100g of chocolate with 100mL of double cream, then whisk it until it becomes thick and smooth. Spread it on the cooled cakes before you taste it, otherwise none of it will get that far. This quantity only covered about 14 or 15 of my cakes, but is probably plenty if you make the prescribed dozen.

Finally, a garnish of cherries. My little cakes looked sweet and tasty but they didn't live up to the smooth, luscious, uniform creations pictured in Nigella's book. I'm too perfectionist.

A dozen of these fit neatly into a tray, so I figured that we could sample one or two more. As anticipated, the ganache was divine. I will never eat sugar icing again, this time I mean it. However the cake yielded a fibrous and fragrant little surprise: a whole cardamom pod! The last ingredient in that chutney, 'mixed spice', seemed so innocuous. I hope no-one else discovers unchewable chunks tomorrow. By this time I only half-cared. Hours of cooking left me weary and uninterested in dinner, a clear sign that I should savour the experience of preparing and sharing one dish, instead of trying to prove myself with a double act.


September 24, 2006: Knishes

My new workplace is turning out to be my kinda scene, with a culinary competition to be held tomorrow in honour of the birthday of one of my colleagues. For a day or so I fantasised about winning friends and influencing people with entries far superior to anything else on the table. Then I reflected on a conversation with the guest of honour in the past, in which she talked about making her own harissa paste. I struck up an innocent conversation about last year's entries, which turned out to include Thai fish cakes, gyoza with water chestnut filling, and souffles with goats' cheese oozing out of them.

OK... tough competition. I pared back my plan to simply to keeping up with the Joneses and not looking like a culinary klutz. Well, a little more than that: the email invitation incites me to "Increase your chances of winning!! Unlimited entries!!" I still have enough ambition to submit an entry for each category, Antipasto/Entree and Dessert. (Really, when I think about it, I'm not sure if it will increase my chances of winning. A good cook's always going to have an advantage over a lesser one, and maybe taking on more than one project will decrease the quality of each project, thereby reducing their individual chances of winning.)

My antipasto/entree submission is a plate of knishes from our Kurma Dasa cookbook. Knishes are something of a Jewish tradition, heavy European pockets of dough with a vege or meat filling. Kurma has his own vegetarian Krishna-style take on it, of course. The filling starts off with ground caraway seeds and asafoetida powder in butter, then a finely chopped mix of cabbage, carrot, green capsicum, celery and flat-leaf parsley are added and cooked until tender. Next are more spices: paprika, salt, pepper and sugar. The filling is bound with mashed potatoes and a bit of sour cream.

I'm relatively new to the making of shortcrust pastry, though I have long known that the frozen stuff is no substitute in both the taste and texture stakes. Having a food processor makes it achievable and I remember being surprised at how easy this recipe came together last time I made it. Unfortunately that meant that this time I was a little blase about it. Check out that first picture and note that this batch does not have quite enough water. This meant that the pastry was too crumbly and not sufficiently elastic. I made a better-hydrated second batch (and used both). This time I saw the tell-tale point where the dough wraps itself up into a big ball in the processor and whips around erratically. With both batches I struggled to roll out the pastry thin enough, and it stuck to the rolling pin a lot. I expect I'll gradually master the art, but I welcome any advice that will speed up the process!

Likewise, the oven is still a trial-and-error experience and these fellers don't change colour much as they cook. Might have helped if I'd looked at my watch when I put them in. I sampled a crumbled up one with more sour cream: tasty, but not exactly water-chestnut gyoza. During the pastry-making, I was kept company by Sunday afternoon TV: more specifically the 1976 version of 'Freaky Friday' starring a young Jodie Foster. By the time I was testing my careless cooking, Jodie was moralising about the responsibilities of being an adult, and of being a teenager. Between this and my dessert competition entry, I might have my own lesson to learn about biting off a little more than I can chew.


Saturday, September 23, 2006

September 23, 2006: Roasted potatoes, chickpeas, and spinach with spicy cashew sauce

One of reasons this blog continues to be updated so frequently is the limited social lives that Cindy and I have been living in Melbourne so far. Things are gradually improving, but this morning rolled around and we realised we had nothing better to do tonight than cook. So after a quick flick through the Bold Vegetarian book, we picked out tonight's recipe and headed off to the Queen Vic Markets. Both our trips to the markets so far have been in the midst of the crazy Saturday crowds and have made the whole experience a bit trying, but the glimpses we got of the antipasto and cheeses on the deli counters mean that we'll have to find a time to return when we can browse with a bit more leisure.

Anyway, onto the recipe.

Roasted potatoes, chickpeas, and spinach with spicy cashew sauce

1 kilogram small red potatoes, scrubbed and quartered
1/4 cup peanut oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 cinammon stick
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1 chipotle pepper, chopped finely (the recipe wanted a jalepeno, but I thought it best to try to use up the chipotles )
2 inch piece of ginger, peeled and grated
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 cans chickpeas, drained
1/2 cup cashew butter (like peanut butter, with cashews! Who knew?)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
400ml vegetable stock
1 bunch spinach washed, stemmed and chopped coarsely

Stage 1 is to roast the potatoes for about 40 minutes. I'm still getting used to our oven here, so I checked and turned them about 8 times more than is stricly necessarily (i.e. once). Once the potatoes are almost done, toast the fennel, cumin and turmeric in a large saucepan for a couple of minutes. Before the spices start to burn, throw in the peanut oil, onion, garlic, ginger and chipotle and cook, stirring constantly, for about 5 minutes. (Take the potatoes out of the oven about now if you haven't already!) Throw in the vegetable stock (we used prepackaged stock this time rather than go through the stock-making ordeal again), chickpeas, cashew butter and tomato paste and stir everything together. Simmer for another 5 minutes and then stir in the potatoes and spinach, cooking for a few more minutes, until the spinach has wilted and everything is well coated in the sauce.

Ideally you would probably serve this with rice or some sort of bread, but Saturday night apathy overtook us and we ate ours unaccompanied. The chipotle provided a much stronger kick than I'd imagined it would, but didn't overpower the variety of other flavours in the sauce. The roast potatoes were perfect (if I do say so myself) and the spinach and chickpeas allowed me to pretend I was eating a healthy meal and forget about all that cashew butter.


Friday, September 22, 2006

September 22, 2006: Mr. Natural

A squally, rainy Friday evening put paid to our vague plans for a jaunt through the city and we scurried home to spend an evening lounging about the house instead. We had some vague plans for cooking dinner, but the lack of soy bacon at the local Safeway sapped Cindy's enthusiasm for home made burgers, so it was time for more takeaway. I've been hoping for an opportunity to sample one of the three vegetarian pizza places in Melbourne and we're outside the delivery limits of both Plush Pizza and Nostralis, leaving us with only Mr. Natual in North Fitzroy. They boast wholemeal bases, rennet-free cheese and fifteen different vego pizzas and offer two medium pizzas delivered for $20. Score. I chose the broccoli pizza (tomato, cheese, broccoli, mushroom, peppers, onion, olives, feta, parsley, garlic, herbs, sesame seeds) and Cindy wanting something plain, considered the marguerita, before opting for the mushroom. Unfortunately, I got distracted and ordered her the marguerita (tomato, cheese, onion, olives, herbs) instead. Whoops. My broccoli pizza was smothered in toppings, leaving the base a little soggy. I was happy enough with this trade off, enjoying the onion-y, cheesey mush. Cindy's was a little crisper and the more minimalist approach to toppings worked very well indeed. The flavours of both pizzas were a little muted (the olives in particular tasted a bit duller than I expected), but the wide range of vegetarian options and reasonable prices will keep us coming back.

Address: 469 Brunswick Street, North Fitzroy
Ph: 9481 7775
Price: Medium - $11-$12, Large - $13-$14.50


September 20, 2006: Haloumi sandwiches

After a couple of virtuous lunches and dinners dominated by salad, it was time for some fried cheese. I previously praised haloumi in my last days of cabin fever in remote Sweden, where the delis are few but high quality dairy products are abundant. I think haloumi is at its best straight out of the fry pan, where a bit of olive oil has seared the outside golden, hot and a bit oozy with cracked pepper and a big squeeze of lemon juice on top. But there are better ways of making a meal of it than piling your plate with six such slices. You can treat a big slice as a burger patty, for example. We layered Turkish bread with home-roasted capsicum (no oil), grilled zucchini, fresh basil and baby spinach, then the haloumi with lemon and pepper. On the side are potato chunks baked in the oven with olive oil, salt, pepper, and some rosemary left over from the stock-making (thanks to Grill’d for that idea). Make two sandwiches per person and the next day’s lunch is sorted!


September 19, 2006: Donnini’s Home-Made Pasta

Wandering up and down Lygon Street we’ve noticed appetising looking pasta replicas in the window of Donnini’s Home-Made Pasta. Donnini’s supply more than twenty varieties of fresh pasta, from ricotta and sun-dried tomato agnolotti to basil taglieatelle. They also do a range of sauces, but we decided that we’d invent our own simple sauce to go with the artichoke, pine nut and ricotta ravioli. So we roasted and peeled a couple of capsicums and blended them up with some balsamic vinegar and cracked pepper. Combined with the subtle and slightly salty pasta, some parmesan cheese and a big pile of salad, it was a wonderful meal.


Thursday, September 21, 2006

September 17-18, 2006: Tofu kebabs with cucumber-yoghurt sauce

Even though we had takeaway for dinner on Sunday night, we didn’t completely slack off on cooking. While Michael was picking up our spicy dinners in Fitzroy, I was spicing up a tofu marinade for Monday night’s dinner. The recipe was our first test of “The Bold Vegetarian Chef” and the recipe did promise bold flavours, as I mixed together caraway seeds, fenugreek, lemon juice, tamarind paste, coriander, garlic, mustard, turmeric, sugar and Tabasco sauce with yoghurt and a bit of olive oil.

This concoction got smeared all over some firm tofu cubes and refrigerated overnight. In the morning I rotated the tofu bits to make sure all surfaces were flavoured.

The sauce, which we prepared on Monday night, was a raita-like mix of cucumber, coriander, red onion, garlic, salt and pepper with lots more yoghurt.

It was a simple but messy job to line up the tofu cubes on skewers, then fry them. I guess the point of the skewers is to make turning the tofu a bit quicker, but Michael found it no more convenient than tossing the remaining cubes around in the fry-pan. There was a lot more marinade glugging up the pan than necessary, but we did use some of it to flavour our carrot, capsicum and beans, which were quickly stir-fried separately in a wok. We served it all up on a plate of leftover green leaves, with yoghurt sauce dripping over the kebabs. The super-firm tofu is not my favourite texture, but it does hold together reliably when being tossed around in marinade and then a frying pan. Next time I’d like to slice it in smaller cubes or perhaps thin rectangular ‘patties’ to maximise the marinating surface area (I know it’s not the global maximum, but some kind of three-dimensional fractal really isn’t practical…). The flavours had heightened the next day, and my lunchbox received a few interested eyeings-off. The downside was the lingering aftertaste of garlic and red onion throughout the afternoon, reigning over the feeble chewing gum I threw at it. For private enjoyment only, perhaps.


September 17, 2006: Fitz Curry Café

The observant reader will notice a preponderance of Indian food within these pages . I’ve always been something of a curry connoisseur, but Cindy’s Indian enthusiasm is a relatively recent development, stemming from a trip to the US that involved sharing a house with an Indian American and spending 10 days staying a few blocks from Manhattan’s Little India. Going veg has no doubt played a part in her conversion as well – you’re rarely short delicious vegetarian options when you choose Indian takeaway. Whatever the cause, it’s meant that one of our first tasks on arriving in Melbourne has been to seek out a convenient and delicious Indian takeaway option. So far, The Fitz Curry Café is leading the race. It’s a vaguely organic-themed Indian place about 15 minutes walk from our flat. The vegetarian menu is a strong point, with thirteen choices (including two types of kofta!), and the prices are reasonable ($8-$10 for a vegie curry). After a mammoth cooking day yesterday and a few hours tramping around Prahran and Toorak today, we opted for a lazy Sunday night takeaway of: navaratan korma, saag paneer, vegie samosas and a garlic naan. The samosa(s) unfortunately come in serves of one, so were left with only half of their stuffed pastry deliciousness (the mint yoghurt sauce that they came with was a cooling bonus). The curries were also slightly on the small size, meaning our lunches will be a little light tomorrow. Both were tasty enough, although I failed to notice the dried fruit that was supposed to be in the korma and found the paneer a little bland in the saag. Neither curry was particularly spicy, meaning that they really needed to have distinctive flavours, and neither quite excelled. The garlic naan, on the other hand, was generously garlic-ed and I’ll be tasting it on my breath for at least the next few hours. So an affordable and tasty meal, but not necessarily a winner in our quest for a local Indian eatery.

Address: 44 Johnston St, Fitzroy
Ph: 9495 6119
Price: Vegie mains $8-$10, rice & entrees $2-$5

September 17, 2006: Grill’d

On Sunday we took a tram to posh Chapel St, Prahran to find some people even yuppier than us and take a peek at the markets. The people were indeed posher and yuppier than us, but lacked variety in their dress and manner. Their primary means of self-expression seems to be the pedigree of pampered pooch that they tether outside the cafes or cradle in their arms. It was at little disappointing but not so surprising that the market stalls were mostly closed at 1:00 on a Sunday afternoon, but the organic grocer and specialty mushroom shop encouraged us to come back again on a Saturday morning when it promises to be more lively.

For lunch I was craving some vegetarian-friendly pub food. More accurately, I wanted some chips. As we walked further south along Chapel St the shops decreased in sleekness and median price. The bright and perky Grill’d appeared at just the right time to feed me. It sells beef, lamb, chicken and vege burgers, but most importantly it sells chips. They fit the bill and more: golden and crunchy with flecks of rosemary adding a unique flavour. Not too greasy. The herbed mayo was OK, but I’m probably getting picky having recently enjoyed home-made . I was pleased to be offered a choice of three vegetarian burgers and a wholemeal bun; the burgers were huge and we probably should have shared one. My Garden Goodness burger was missing the promised avocado and the veggie patty was a bit bland, but otherwise it was well prepared. Michael enjoyed his Bombay Bliss. Fresh salad ingredients on both. I wouldn’t cross town for another burger, but I might for the chips.

Address: 157 Chapel St, Windsor
Ph: 9510 2377
Price: vege burgers $8.50, chips extra

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

September 16, 2006: Vegetable stock & cream of mushroom soup

Ex-officemate and now email cooking contact, Carlo, has been getting into French cooking and perfecting a recipe for meat-based glaze. I didn’t feel like I was missing out on much until I saw his cream of mushroom soup, and he helpfully sent me a link to this site so that I could have a go at a vege-based glaze/stock. I figured I’d best do it straight away before spring takes hold, and made a shopping list to take to the Ceres markets.

We got started in the early afternoon with lots of chopping. We had more of most of the ingredients that the recipe specified, so we ended up making 1 ½ to 2 times the quantity. This was probably not the greatest idea on our first attempt, during the browning stage in particular. We must have stirred those things around in our biggest pot for at least 45 minutes, with the parsnips browning slightly and the rest just turning to greyish-green mush. The base of the saucepan developed a layer of hardened mush that couldn’t be scraped off easily with a wooden spoon, so we moved onto the next step despite the recipe creator’s emphasis on browning. My guess is that less veges on a higher heat would probably be a better approach.

The amount of liquid we needed to add to double the recipe couldn’t fit into the pot, so we did the simmering part in two stages. All up it took about an hour and a half to reduce the liquid to half its original volume, but it would probably take less if you read the recipe properly and simmer it uncovered for the entire duration (I realised my mistake after the first half hour). We strained the mix first with a fairly coarse sieve and then again with a clean Chux cloth. The second straining yielded some thick paste, roughly the consistency of tomato sauce, and we weren’t sure if we should be keeping it or not. We eventually discarded it, wanting to avoid potential weird textures in the soup. Although the recipe creator suggested a taste test here, it didn’t enlighten us much. The taste of stock on its own doesn’t do much for me, but it was rather peppery, probably due to the half-ground bits that came out of our pepper grinder along with the whole peppercorns. We didn’t salt the stock, planning to get it right later when we made the soup, nor did we reduce it further. It was already less than 2 cups in volume.

By this time it was already after 6pm and time to get started on our cream of mushroom soup. We used a recipe from our new mushroom-themed cookbook, and chose a combination of shimeji mushrooms (reduced to clear at Safeway!) and ordinary white button mushrooms. Otherwise the recipe gets its flavour from shallots, sherry and of course a generous slurp of cream. I wanted to have a thick-ish soup with some mushroom pieces so we kept about a third of the mixture aside while we whizzed the rest in the food processor.

Given our small amount of stock we only made enough soup for a bowl each, served with pumpkin bread from our morning market trip. The taste was outstanding: thick, rich, deep, earthy. In hindsight, that was really rather concentrated stock and we probably could have thinned it out with about half as much water and made more soup.

By the end of the stock-making process I was feeling rather harried and sick of cooking, but the result was spectacular. Filling the house with the aroma of stock simmering on the stove should be a comforting winter activity, and our sunny morning at the markets was a wonderful way to welcome spring. I doubt I’ll be bothered making my own stock again, at least until next autumn, and in the meantime I’ll appreciate good quality restaurant soups even more.

September 16, 2006: Ceres Organic Market

Each weekend since we moved down here, Cindy and I have made vague plans to visit one of Melbourne’s dozens of markets. Apart from one overwhelming trip to the Queen Victoria Markets, we’ve repeatedly found other things to do with our Saturday mornings. But after a relatively early Friday night, we were waiting down at the tram stop by about 10ish. Following some tram-related delays, we managed to find our way to the Ceres Organic Market in East Brunswick before all the fruit and veg had been sold. The market is attached to a fairly substantial market garden, and the fruit and veg on offer appeared to be limited to stuff that was grown on-site. This guaranteed fresh, organic produce, but did mean that the selection (at least by the time we arrived) was a little limited. Still, we loaded up on veges for our first attempt at making our own stock (Cindy will post about this ordeal shortly), grabbed a pumpkin loaf from the sourdough baker and then just relaxed and soaked up the hippified atmosphere.

The mood was very reminiscent of the West End markets in Brisbane – dozens of fairly tacky craft stalls, little kids and dogs everywhere and a couple of cafes dispensing coffee and other treats. While I wandered around patting as many dogs as I could find, Cindy was getting pretty keen on morning tea.

She grabbed herself an almond biscuit and a sparkling blackcurrant drink and I, of course, opted for sweet, sweet caffeine. Sitting in the sunny park with our snacks, the upcoming stressful afternoon of stock-making seemed miles away.

Address: 8 Lee Street, East Brunswick