Thursday, November 30, 2006

November 29, 2006: Thaila Thai

Tracy from Brisbane was visiting Cindy's lab group so, as with her last trip, Cindy gathered up a posse of ex-Brisbanite ecologists and hangers-on for after work drinks. Those of us with stamina ended up dining at Thaila Thai in Brunswick East - a giant two-storey restaurant with a tiny, open kitchen by the front door and a bevy of svelte, androgynous Thai waitstaff. Turning up unannounced with a group of seven seemed a risky plan to me, particularly when confronted with the hubbub around the kitchen, but we were cheerily ushered upstairs where there were still a few tables spare.

The menu is simple and effective - a selection of stir-frys and curries and a choice of meats (plus tofu!) to go with them. Throw in the optional extras (cashews etc) and a fairly stark looking one page becomes a mix-and-match sensation with dozens of options . Mike and Jo-Lyn had visited previously and Cindy followed their recommendations (Mike: "It's so good you'll... you'll wet yourself") and ordered a Pad Thai, while I couldn't say no to a red curry (both with tofu). Cindy's pad thai was a tiny bit burnt, but otherwise tremendous. My curry was wonderful - a wide array of fresh vegies (pumpkin, potato, broccoli, zucchini, capsicum and, surprisingly successfully, asparagus), some slightly crispy tofu and plenty of delicious spicy sauce in which to drown the rice. The other meals around the table looked equally impressive and by the time we stood up to leave, our earlier plans for dessert at GeloBar seemed a tad optimistic. Ah well, it's good excuse for another venture to upper Lygon Street to sample some more of Brunswick East's wares.

Address: 82 Lygon Street, Brunswick East
Phone: 9387 0659
Price: veg mains $12
BYO only

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

November 26, 2006: Lord of the Fries

I have been wanting to visit Lord of the Fries since I first saw it listed on the Vegetarian Network Victoria website. This Sunday afternoon offered the opportunity, preceeded by a walk from Carlton to the CBD, which diminished my chip-guilt. Lord of the Fries is essentially a burger stand opposite Flinders St station, and it seems to be designed with me in mind. First, it's 100% vegetarian. Second, they offer a multitude of condiments with their chips. Third, they sell miniture burgers as well as regular-sized, because they know that some of us like chips more than burgers.

Between us, Michael and I almost demolished a box of chips with Belgian-style topping (mayonnaise). The chips were tasty and soft in the centre, though not as crunchy on the outside as those at Grill'd. The thick mayo is actually on a par with home made, far superior to Kraft or any other supermarket brand. The burgers are like vegetarian Big Macs, though the soy protein patties might be beefier. The buns are doughy and sweet, and my mini-burger had the distinctive combo of pickles, ketchup and mustard. Michael order a spicy one and he commented that it was pretty hot. My big gripe is the lack of foliage: even Macca's include some limp iceberg lettuce and I would have enjoyed a generous handful of leafy greens to cut through my sauce sandwich.

Our teenage afternoon was completed with a visit to the Tezuka manga exhibition at the National Gallery. I can foresee LOTF cravings in my future, and indulging will assuage my conscience for cruelty but not calories.

Edit 02/06/07: I snuck over to LOTF for a burger today and their menu proclaims NOW WITH LETTUCE! Yep, it's limp Macca's-style iceberg lettuce but I'm happy to see it there amongst the multiple condiments.

Address: corner of Elizabeth and Flinders streets
Price: burgers $2.50/4.50, fries $4/4.50

Sunday, November 26, 2006

November 21, 2006: Walnut Pesto Pasta

The recipe is another result from our typical weekday search for a recipe that'll give us both dinner and easily-packed leftovers for lunch. It's called Ziti with Walnut Pesto, Zucchini, and Red Pepper, from Ken Charney's Bold Vegetarian Chef cookbook. Michael bought a little more than the required walnuts for the pesto, so I made extra and we tested it out on crackers while we cooked the pasta: it was a little too sweet for me and the raw garlic was really intense. I'd reduce the maple syrup and roast the garlic if I made this again just for snacking. I used the pasta I bought from Mediterranean Wholesalers a while ago instead of the prescribed ziti, but otherwise stuck faithfully to Charney's recipe. In this context the sweetness and garlic of the pesto became more subtle, creating a light but creamy coating on the pasta. The zucchini and red capsicum were just the right vegetable choices, and in the future I reckon I'll reduce the quantity of pasta and up the veges a lot. We split this into a dinner and two lunches each and I thoroughly enjoyed it fresh, re-heated and at room temperature, making it the ideal weeknight meal!

Walnut pesto
(from the Bold Vegetarian Chef by Ken Charney)

In a food processor, combine 3/4 cup (75g) of walnut pieces, 3 garlic cloves, 1/4 cup of coarsely chopped parsley, 1/4 cup of olive oil, a tablespoon of lemon juice and 2 teaspoons of maple syrup. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Walnut pesto pasta

(also from the Bold Vegetarian Chef by Ken Charney)

500g pasta
1/2 cup (60g) pine nuts
1 large red capsicum, cut into strips
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 zucchini, sliced into half-moons
1 cup vegetable stock
1 cup walnut pesto (recipe above)
1 cup cooked chickpeas
1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
salt and pepper
fresh basil leaves, to garnish
grated parmesan cheese, to garnish

Bring 4L of salted water to the boil, add the pasta and stir often. Cook for 10 to 12 minutes (or according to the recommended time on the packet) and drain.

While the pasta is cooking, toast the pine nuts in a frypan until lightly browned. Set aside and use the frypan to cook the red capsicum in the olive oil. When the capsicum is soft and starting to blacken around the edges add the zucchini and cook for a further couple of minutes until the zucchini is tender.

Transfer the veges to the pasta saucepan. Boil the stock in the frypan until it has reduced in volume by half. Stir in the pesto and cook for another minute. Mix together the pasta, veges, chickpeas and pine nuts in the pasta saucepan and fold through the sauce and lemon juice. Season to taste and serve garnished with the basil leaves and parmesan.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

November 19, 2006: Mario's

Another morning, another serve of eggs. Having visitors is a really fine excuse to dine out every meal of the day, and Cindy and I took Doof to Mario's Cafe on Brunswick Street. Mario's has been around for over twenty years and, apparently, was the first to bring the all day breakfast to Fitzroy. It's maintained a good reputation as a breakfast place, so I was looking forward to it.

It's a strange little place - a completely out of focus tv on one wall, posters promoting Mario's 20th anniversary wine and gift-packs on another and concert-posters covering the entryway. Despite the generally casual atmosphere, the waiters stroll around in black trousers and waistcoats, it's all very odd.

The menu is full of breakfast standards, without too many fancy options. Doof and I had both got a taste for poached eggs at Cafe Varda the day before, and we both ordered them again (me with hollandaise, and he without). Cindy's anti-egg agenda continued and she opted for mushrooms, hash-browns, avocado and tomato with toast. I really enjoyed my eggs - poached to perfection and with a sauce that wasn't too thick or gluggy. I'm pretty sure Doof was well satisfied with his eggs - they were demolished very efficiently. Cindy was a bit less enthused by her meal - all of the components were tasty enough, but it seemed like something she could have easily prepared herself. That's what you get for skipping out on the eggs I guess.

Address: 303 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy
Ph: 9417 3343
Price: Breakfast from $7 to $15


Thursday, November 23, 2006

November 18-19, 2006: Johnston St Hispanic Fiesta

After an hour or two of recuperation and a lunch of strawberries, Doof, Michael and I hit the Johnston St Hispanic Fiesta. Doof was psyched for dancing in the street and we arrived in time for the last few minutes of a salsa dance class on the main stage. Michael and I were feeling more timid and, more importantly, I was hungry. We walked the length of the festival to check out our options and made our initial selections.

Michael and Doof both bought bean-stuffed soft tacos. These were good fresh fare as far as stall food goes: rice and salad and deep-fry-free.

I lined up for some corn cakes: choc-full of kernels with just enough batter to bind them together, and some crunchy shallots too.

After all that eatin', it was time for some sangria at the incredibly crowded Spanish Club. After all that sangria, it was time to soak up the alcohol with some more food!

Michael and I hung around the Los Amates stall, but by this time (6:30 or 7pm) they were selling their last stores and referring customers back to their restaurant. We took some of the nachos, which were crunchy and fresh-tasting, even though they were essentially the dregs of the stall. (The least scary "cheese sauce" I've ever encountered!) I also bought a large cup of lemonade a few stalls down, which was the ideal thirst-quencher in the late-day sun: very tart and not overly sweet. Doof had some sort of savoury crepe, which was fantastic. I have no idea what it was flavoured with and wish I knew.

Although we stayed in the area for several more hours, I didn't get a chance to return for Hispanic sweets on Saturday night. Doof and Michael were keen enough to return on Sunday afternoon for churros. Naturally I was twice as keen!

They were the perfect festival dessert: deep-fried to crispness with a sweet doughy centre, squirting lolly-ish jam... I wanted to save the chocolate 'til last, yet had to eat it straight away to minimise the mess on my fingers. Heaven in the mouth and almost immediately heavy and regrettable in the stomach. How else could you possibly stop eating them? (Only if you'd spent all your pocket money.)

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

November 18, 2006: Prahran Market and some more BVnT

After breakfast we browsed the Chapel St shops. Doof and Michael bought the only shirts they tried on: meanwhile I selected four different items, sending the shop assistant back for a second size of one of them, eventually rejected them all and bought a Devo figurine instead. However I could hardly be a picky customer once we hit the Prahran Market. We bought punnets of strawberries and raspberries within seconds of entering, and they proved to be the cheapest (99c), sweetest, juiciest strawberries so far this season. The charming French man at the Monsieur Truffe stand courteously laid out the origins of all his cocoa products, along with toothpicks and samples. Doof and I didn't need too much coaxing to choose a small packet each, and as we turned to go, Monsieur Truffe urged us to refrigerate our treasures since they're preservative free.

As we looked over the fresh produce and organic dairy Michael lamented that we didn't have a recipe to shop for, but it was a hot day and we wouldn't be home for hours. Instead he and Doof satisfied themselves with sampling all the cheese and olives on offer in the deli section. When Michael encountered an Indian chutney, mixed with yoghurt and smeared onto crackers, he needed a jar of his own. We coveted the fine and generally overpriced goods at the Essential Ingredient, and I bought a little bottle of elderflower softdrink. It was deliciously flowery and refreshing as we hit the hot dry air outside.

We continued to cover the shops until we hit Borsch, Vodka and Tears. None of us had room to eat, nor did they have room to feed us, so we sat at the bar and perused the lengthy drinks menu. Doof quickly picked out a cognac/vodka, served in a balloon glass and warmed over a tumbler of hot water. Michael ordered cherry vodka, and I had a hot lemon, honey and ginger drink. All were excellent, though the entire Polish experience didn't really fit with the hot and slightly dusty day outside... Michael and I were just too keen to share the highlights of Melbourne dining with our guest.

(Read about our previous visit to Borsch, Vodka and Tears.)

November 18, 2006: Cafe Varda

Update 31/12/2014: Cafe Varda has closed, replaced by Luck Thai.

Our vague plan to entertain Doof on Saturday morning was to go for a wander along Chapel Street. The first step, however, was to find some breakfast. A quick scan of Cheap Eats gave us a few options, and the description of Cafe Varda as "a comfy slipper in the heart of stilletto land" struck a chord. The menu and setting were very much comfy slipper material, so much so that I was slightly concerned that the food would be cheap and greasy. It was certainly cheap, but the chef soon convinced us that it would make our tastebuds "explode" and we settled in.

The chef's enthusiasm was infectious and when Doof ordered a short-black, he rolled up his sleeves and promised to make a special, velvet coffee - like real Italians drink (he even made one for himself to prove the point). Doof was suitably impressed, although after the build-up he really couldn't have reacted any other way.

The menu focussed on the basics, with a few vegetarian options. Doof and I both chose the Ant special: a poached egg served on a tomato and avocado bruschetta with pesto, while Cindy opted for the tastebud-exploding vegetarian melt: oven-baked veges, tomato, pesto, marinated mushrooms, cheese and chutney melted on to a huge soft piece of white bread. Everything in the Ant Special was amazing - the avocado was fresh and tasty and made the bruschetta about a million times better than plain tomato bruschetta, the egg was poached to perfection and the pesto topped it all off. Both Doof and I were finished in no time. Cindy took longer over her melt, but she assures me that her tastebuds did in fact explode.

It was a fine breakfast, made special by our gregarious host. Trust me, it's well worth seeking out Cafe Varda instead of one of the more stylishly decorated and expensive places along Toorak Road.

Address: 69 Davis Avenue, South Yarra
Phone: 9867 6444
Price: $4 - $15

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

November 17, 2006: Revisiting Polly and the Vegie Bar

On Friday, a work-day, Michael and I were obliged to leave Doof to his own devices. To make up for it in the evening we devised a dinner-and-cocktails plan on Brunswick St in Fitzroy. We unintentionally picked the same two venues that Krusty and Jason introduced us to on our visit to Melbourne last year. Admittedly it's not such a huge coincidence, given (a) Polly and the Vegie Bar are both a lot of fun, and (b) both Doof and Krusty are vegetarian, too.

So, a few more samples from the menus:

Since we didn't have a booking, we figured that entering Polly early in the evening would give us a better chance at a table and we did indeed score some pretty armchairs towards the back. My first cocktail was an S&M: "mandarins crushed with lime, mint and apricot syrup, shaken with Havana Anejo Blanco and mandarin liqueur, topped with soda." I also ordered a bowl of shoe-string fries with sweet chilli aioli to share. This combination was a flavour explosion: an intensely alcoholic apricot and mint fizz with sweet-hot and salty all in one mouthful. I calmed down, eating and drinking in turns, after that. Loved the fresh apricot pieces in amongst the ice, and struggled to fish them out genteel-ly with my flimsy plastic straw. Spilt ice instead.

When it was eventually time for round two, I was ready for dessert: a plate of fairy bread and Grand Marnier truffles to share and a Rocky Road cocktail just for me. I'm a little perplexed by the portioning here: surely the truffles are the more expensive part of this dish and we received 5 for $4. I'm not complaining at all, just wondering why the powers at Polly then gave us half a slice of bread's worth of the sprinkled stuff? It seems ludicrous that the other half a slice of white bread would languish in the kitchen until someone else wants to revisit their childhood. Both components were excellent, really, and the truffles were probably prepared on site: there were tell-tale bits of solid chocolate that I doubt would appear in "professional" ganache.

My Rocky Road cocktail consisted of "Marshmallow Vodka, shaken up with Chambord, Cherry Brandy, Chocolate Liqueur, Frangelico and a lil’ dash of soy milk, finished with crushed hazelnuts and vodka soaked marshmallows". It was dessertingly good, but not really my thing: I love the texture contrast that nuts give to food but I don't want them floating in my drink. I don't love marshmallows either. Maybe now you're asking "So why did you order a 'rocky road' if you don't want nuts or marshmallow in your cocktail?" I was asking it by then. I guess I just wanted a sweet reason to order the fairy bread.

By this time I'd well and truly had my fill of alcohol and we wandered down to the Vegie Bar to eat something more substantial. It was pumping, and we were tucked at the end of a communal bench, right next to the kitchen. No biggy. Doof ordered a tofu burger, Michael and I had pizzas. All supersize considering the price (less than $10 each, including non-alcoholic drinks). The waitress must have misheard my order over the din because the wrong pizza turned up for me, but I didn't mention it 'cause what I got looked pretty good. A bit overboard on the cheese, but who whinges about cheap and cheesy pizza when they're inebriated?

As we exited the Vegie Bar, it was only 9pm and our mouthes could consume no more. Instead we fed our eyes and ears at the Nova Cinema before calling it a night.

(You can also read about our previous visits to Polly and the Vegie Bar.)

Monday, November 20, 2006

November 16, 2006: Dinner for Doof

To welcome our Bris-friend Doof to Melbourne's fair shores, a home-prepared Indian meal was necessary. With Krusty, Jason and Sharon included on the invite list, we had to upscale from 'meal' to 'feast'. Luckily, Cindy and I are well-practiced in the art of Indian feast-making and we called upon some previous successes: palak paneer and mango rice pudding. To make sure we had enough, we decided to add some roti bread (picked up ready-to-fry at IGA) and broccoli pilau to the menu.

Broccoli Pilau (from Mridula Baljekar's low-fat Indian vegetarian cookbook)

Wash about a cup of basmati rice and soak it in cold water for about 20 minutes.

In a good sized saucepan, fry a teaspoon of fennel seeds, half a dozen cardamom pods, 1/2 a teaspoon of peppercorns, a bay leaf and a cinammon stick in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. After about 30 seconds, add a finely chopped onion and a couple of chopped green chillies and fry until the onions have browned slightly.

Add a teaspoon of turmeric and the rice. Stir-fry for a couple of minutes and add about 3 cups of broccoli florets. Keep stir-frying for another minute or so and then add two cups of hot water. Bring to the boil and simmer, covered, for about 10 minutes or until the rice is cooked.

Everyone was very enthusiastic about the meal and there were at least a few trips back for seconds. The palak paneer is a sure-fire winner and it went down pretty well with the bread and pilau, while Cindy's dessert was as fantastic as last time. To be honest, I was too excited to see Doof again to really pay much attention to the food. At lunch the next day I found the spinach a bit gritty and got annoyed with the remnants of the cinammon stick, but on the night it was a roaring success.

November 15, 2006: Egg and 'bacon' sandwich

On Wednesday night I put together a slap-dash but satisfying dinner of egg and soy bacon sandwiches. As I previously mentioned, I have a love-hate relationship with soy bacon: it really doesn't hold up against the taste and texture of real bacon, but I still enjoy eating it occasionally as I enjoyed the occasional KFC burger in my pre-veg life. On Turkish bread, I layered soy bacon, fried egg, sliced tomato, black pepper, lettuce and Worcestershire sauce. Note that standard Worcestershire sauce isn't vegetarian: I try to buy the fish-free kind, but sometimes resort to the more convenient Holbrooks.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

November 14, 2006: Cindy's careless cannelloni

On Tuesday night I improvised a cannelloni style meal, with the purpose of making a dinner that would use up some lasagne sheets and provide leftovers for lunch. As you can see from the picture, lasagne sheets do not make pretty, closed pillows and actually created a bit of a mess all round (this is a cold next-day one, which was at least a neat square). Still, both Michael and I loved the flavour: with a couple of tweaks and some proper cannelloni tubes, I'd cook this for guests.

Cindy's careless cannelloni

Filling: Michael peeled, chopped and roasted some pumpkin with a splash of olive oil. It'll take roughly half an hour in the oven at 180 degrees: the aim is to get the pumpkin a bit caramelised and soft enough to mash. Then I transferred the pumpkin to a bowl and, you guessed it, mashed it up. To the bowl, I added three huge tablespoons of quark (from the Collingwood market), a small packet of pine nuts that I'd toasted in a frypan, some leftover sliced mushrooms, and some ripped up fresh basil leaves.

Cannelloni-ing: Next I filled up the frypan that I used to toast the pine nuts with hot water and cooked the lasagne sheets in batches. I didn't cook them until they were completely soft, just until they were pliable. Then I'd plonk one into a baking dish, spoon a line of filling down the middle, and use another sheet to roll around the filling. In an ideal situation, you could probably fill up cannelloni tubes without pre-cooking them, then bake the lot for longer to ensure that they've softened enough.

Sauce: I briefly fried a few cloves of garlic in butter, then added a huge can of crushed tomatoes. After it had reduced a bit, I added some more ripped up fresh basil and some chopped parsley. I'll omit the parsley in the future because I thought its flavour overpowered the basil, pumpkin and pine nuts. (They're really the key combination here, I think!) The sauce gets poured over the cannelloni and cheese is sprinkled on top (leftover parmesan for us). Then it all goes in the oven until the cheese is melted and the pasta's cooked to your liking.

November 13, 2006: Gopal's II

Before visiting the famous Spiegeltent on Monday night, Michael and I revisited Gopal's for another quick and cheap meal. He ordered the enormous chef's special again, and this time I had the concession special: a kofta ball with green salad and rice for $5.90. This kofta was enormous, spicier and more substantial than any I've eaten before. I couldn't finish even this down-sized Krishna meal!

(You can see our last visit here.)


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

November 11-12, 2006: Tapas

Our swag of goodies from the Collingwood markets had me pulled in all sorts of directions for the rest of the weekend's eating. Once I'd hit upon it, I become set on the idea of preparing a series of tapas-style tasting plates for the evening. Michael was feeling lazier, but kindly chipped in anyway.

Round 1: strips of home-roasted capsicum with Holy Goat silk cheese, torn basil leaves, black pepper and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. The capsicum and cheese were a perfect pair, the cheese being as smooth as the name suggests and very mild in taste. The balsamic added the acidity it needed, as did the tiny glass of iced limoncello I had on the side. A fabulous start, inspiring me to return to the kitchen for...

Round 2: shitake mushrooms fried in a little butter, flavoured with garlic, chilli and parsley. I intended to buy Swiss brown mushrooms but was careless at the shops (wish we'd hit the markets before the mushroom stand closed). I found the shitakes too rubbery in texture for this dish, but the flavour was spot-on.

Round 3: white bean and roasted garlic spread on toasted rye and caraway sourdough, with baby spinach leaves on the side. The dip comes from The Bold Vegetarian Chef and it's made by processing a head of roasted garlic, 2 cups of cooked white beans, 2 teaspoons of ground cumin, 3 tablespoons of lemon juice, 3 or 4 dashes of Tabasco sauce, 3 tablespoons of chopped parsley and basil, salt, pepper, and a bit of milk to thin it out. I found the fresh herbs a bit overpowering, and a bad clash with the caraway seeds in the bread. We'll know what to do on our next attempt!

By this time Michael and I were well fed and not inclined to make our final dish. We saved it up for lunch on Sunday:

Round 4: Steamed aparagus with lemon dressing and a sprinkle of parmesan. Sensational, especially with a bit of bread to mop up the leftover dressing. You can make the dressing by whisking together the juice of one lemon, 3 tablespoons of olive oil, 1/2 a teaspoon of salt, 1/4 of a teaspoon of pepper, and a 1/4 of a teaspoon of nutmeg. (Kudos to Kurma Dasa and World Vegetarian Food for that recipe.)


November 11, 2006: Collingwood Children's Farm Farmers' Market

In the past few months, Cindy and I have been slowly visiting Melbourne's many food markets. Saturday dawned sunny and warm and a quick check of our Cheap Eats Guide informed us that we'd luckily hit the right Saturday for the farmers' market at the Collingwood Children's Farm. A glance at the website for the on-site cafe was enough to convince me that we should head off straight away and have breakfast once we were there.

The first thing we noticed when we finally made it to the Children's Farm after the long walk up Johnston Street was the greenery: trees, grass and little farm plots everywhere.

Melbourne seems to specialise in these inner-city havens - at both CERES and the Children's Farm it's remarkably easy to forget that you're basically in the middle of a city of almost 4 million people.

The first order of business was breakfast. Cindy had snacked before our departure, and settled for a lemon poppy seed muffin, whereas I'd starved myself in anticipation of the 'grass green breakfast': poached eggs with spinach, mushrooms, avocado, tomato, sourdough toast and pesto.

What a breakfast! The veges were fresh and delicious, the pesto was as tasty as anything we've made at home, the eggs were perfectly runny and there was enough toast to mop everything up. The only problem were the chickens peering over my shoulder - they roam free around the cafe, which makes for a nice farm atmosphere, but adds to the competition for space.

After polishing off brekkie, we had a quick stroll around the first part of the farm. As well as the roaming chickens, there were a few different chicken pens and a little cage full of baby chicks. Chicken-tastic!

After the chickens, we finally made our way to the market part of the farm. By 10:30 in the morning, a few of the stalls had already started to close, but there was still a big crowd of people wandering around the remaning stalls. My enthusiasm got the better of me and after we'd inspected the first few stalls I'd already picked up some fresh asparagus, a punnet of cherries and some goat's cheese. I calmed myself down and we wandered the rest of the stalls picking up a few other delicacies (a loaf of rye and caraway sourdough, quark, nectarines, limoncello and a box of citrus-twist tea) and soaking up the sunshine.

Following a lap of the markets, we went on an exploration of the rest of the farm - paddocks housing goats, sheep, cows, horses and donkeys seemed to go on forever. We got up close with a few of the animals and I was tempted to push the kids out of the way to get my turn to feed the goats and horses. But I patiently waited and eventually got my turn.

Laden down with our bounty, we did a quick tour of the fete that was on at the Sophia Mundi Steiner school. It was enjoyable enough, but the heat and the walking caught up with us and we caught the bus home to admire our treats.

The Farm Cafe
St. Heliers Street, Abbotsford
Phone: 9415 6581
Price: $7-$15

November 9, 2006: Eastern Vegetarian Burgers

After a few days of surviving on very poor conference food and some tastier night-time outings in Cairns, Thursday found me back in Melbourne and raring to cook. Cindy and I had our usual indecisive conversation about exactly what it was I'd be cooking, before settling on the Eastern vegetarian burgers from Mridula Baljekar's excellent Low-Fat Indian Vegetarian Cookbook. Seeing as I had a free afternoon, I decided to add a baby spinach salad (also from the book) and a made-up raita to the mix. The burgers were a spicy treat - the patties were 'meaty' and tasty and combined well with the salad and raita. They probably could have used some further accompaniment (e.g. tomato, for those who like them), but I was pretty satisfied.

Seed a small cucumber and chop it into little pieces, combine with a small tub of plain yoghurt, a few tablespoons of chopped coriander and a couple of teaspoons of ground cumin. And that's it.

Baby Spinach Salad
Chop up about 200g of baby spinach leaves and grate a medium-sized carrot and mix together in a large bowl with 1/4 cup of dessicated coconut. In a small saucepan, heat a tablespoon of olive oil and throw in 1/2 teaspoon of mustard seeds and 1/2 a teaspoon of cumin seeds. Let them sizzle for a couple of seconds and kill the heat. After the seeds have settled down a bit, pour the mix through the spinach and add in a generous splash of lime juice and a dash of salt. Make sure it's all mixed together and it's ready to go.

Eastern Vegetarian Burgers
Combine a cup of dried soya mince (we use Sanitarium TVP) with a cup of hot water and allow it to sit for about fifteen minutes until the water has been soaked up. In a large bowl, combine the soya mince with a finely chopped onion and a couple of finely chopped green chillies, teaspoons of ground coriander, cumin and garam masala, 2 tablespoons of finely chopped fresh coriander, a generous tablespoon of tomato paste, 25g of polenta, 2 beaten eggs and a sprinkling of salt. Mix everything together thoroughly.

Shape the burgers into appropriately sized patties (we got about 6 out of this recipe, although the book expects it to make 8). Dusting each burger pattie in plain flour helps to keep them together for the frying. Heat a couple of tablespoons of oil in a frypan - once the oil is hot (if you start too soon, your patties will crumble) gently place your patties in the oil and fry for about three minutes on each side. You'll be able to tell when they're ready for flipping by carefully testing each pattie with your spatula - they should feel quite crisp on the bottom.

Sit the patties on some absorbent paper to soak off some of the oil and then serve in fresh bread rolls with your prepared accompaniments.


Saturday, November 11, 2006

November 8, 2006: Balti Indian Cafe

Update, 27/1/2019: Balti has closed down.

Making risotto cakes and gelato earlier in the week had me all cooked out, and I still needed to bake some more muesli for breakfast. Sufficient excuse for a takeaway dinner, I'd say. I denied myself an afternoon snack with the promise of an early Indian meal, and wandered over to the Balti Indian cafe when I finished work. The cafe has a very pleasant interior and I probably would have enjoying eating in, but I was all psyched up to go home, maybe watch what remained of The Cook and the Chef, and get some muesli into the oven. I picked out vegetable samosas, navrattan korma, basmati rice and a plain naan and they were ready in about 10 minutes.

I particularly enjoyed the samosas: the pastry was thin, crispy and not flaky; the centre was mostly smooth flavoured potatoes. The rice and bread both provided good support to the curry without being remarkable in themselves. I was underwhelmed by the korma: the potato pieces were very firm and I'm not a fan of peas; the spice blend was adequate but not complex or exciting. There was plenty leftover for my lunch the next day: by this time the sauce had deepened in flavour but I still wasn't thrilled by the vege combination. I won't be dragging Michael to the Balti cafe next weekend but it's a convenient and relatively cheap takeaway and I'm willing to sample more from their sizable list of veg mains in the future.

Address: 126 Lygon St, Carlton
Ph: 9663 9906
Licensed & BYO
Price: veg mains $10-12.50, bread and rice extra

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

November 5-7, 2006: Chocolate gelato

My least essential kitchen appliance is, paradoxically, the first I ever bought. I was still living with my parents when I bought my ice-cream maker, so practical kitchenware wasn't a high priority. It cost me about $60 and it has churned out a lot of sweet creamy fun over the last 6 or 7 years. With my recipe for chocolate ginger biscuits falling off the main page, I thought it was time for another home-made dessert this weekend. Never mind that November in Melbourne is proving to be gloomy and chilly: cool weather makes the churning process easier and surely ice-cream weather is on the horizon...?

The flavour choice was determined by a special on Lindt chocolate at Safeway ($2 per block!). I remembered a super-rich gelato recipe that I'd made a couple of years ago, grabbed some 70% and consulted my flip-book. I printed it from a website a few years ago, and it seems that the recipe is now only accessible by subscribing to Atlantic. My paraphrased version here has less chocolate in it, but with Lindt it still has a strong cocoa flavour and isn't overly sweet. It really is intense enough to stop at one scoop... maybe one and a bit. As such, it's probably better comfort in this grey spring weather than it would be as a refresher in the springtime I'm more accustomed to.

Chocolate Gelato
(based on a recipe at this site)

2 cups milk
1/2 cup cocoa
100g good quality dark chocolate
3/4 cup sugar
4 egg yolks

Whisk the cocoa into half of the milk in a medium-sized saucepan. Bring it to the boil, then remove it from the heat. Break up the chocolate and stir it into the cocoa-milk until it has completely melted in. Taste it if you must, but you're unlikely to really enjoy it unless you're a fan of the 85% cocoa stuff.

In a second, smaller saucepan, warm the remaining milk and dissolve the sugar in it. Whisk the egg yolks in a bowl and pour in a little of the sugar-milk in as you whisk. Now pour the warm egg into the sugar-milk saucepan. Cook the custard over low to moderate heat, stirring constantly and scraping the bottom of the saucepan, until it thickens.

Stir the custard into the chocolate mix, pop a lid on, and refrigerate until it's really cold (ideally overnight). I got a bit lazy and left it two nights.

Once the mixture's really cold, strain it into another bowl. There'll probably be a couple of cocoa or egg clumps that interfere with that velvety texture. Put the bowl of mixture in the fridge while you lick out the saucepan.

Retrieve the mixture and churn it according to the ice-cream machine's instructions. Mine has a liquid-filled cannister that has to be frozen overnight, and it takes about 40 minutes to whip up a litre of soft-serve-texture stuff. Use this time to lick out the bowl.

Spoon the soft-serve into a lunchbox and pop it in the freezer for a few hours (don't use a metal spoon). Lick out the cannister.

If you're not already full of gelato mixture, serve single scoops in dainty cups.


Tuesday, November 07, 2006

November 5, 2006: Risotto cakes

Michael hopped into a taxi, off to Cairns, at about 2:00 and the afternoon stretched out in front of me. My main task was to prepare something for dinner that would hopefully extend to a few weekday lunches too. I spread out some cookbooks, searching for a recipe, something that I like more than Michael does. I've always enjoyed a good mushroom risotto and the only way to make this creamy treat even more decadent is to crumb and fry it! I used a recipe for chestnut risotto cakes that I've made a couple of times before, though not for well over a year. I've always replaced the chestnuts with a smaller amount of pine nuts, and usually used fresh mushrooms instead of dried porcinis. This time we had some dried porcinis at home from Mediterranean Wholesalers, so I gave 'em a go.

These are at their best with a squeeze of lemon juice and mountain of fresh greens (they assuage a bit of the guilt that goes along with this pleasure). The polenta crust is crunchy, the centre is gooey with cheese, and the mushrooms and pine nuts are dots of extra flavour. These risotto cakes are also pretty good at room temperature, and I've taken a big flat lunchbox of them (garnished with the recommended lemon and greens) to a picnic with great success. On this evening I settled in with something of a chick flick and tackled my plate with relish. A girl, even a girl home alone with a chick flick, doesn't need dessert after a dinner as indulgent as this.

Risotto Cakes
(adapted from Chestnut Risotto Cakes in CookSmart(TM) Vegetarian)

15g dried porcini mushrooms
100mL hot water
80g pine nuts
1 onion
3 cloves garlic
500mL vege stock
1 tablespoon olive oil
175g arborio rice
30g butter (I used 50g and thought this was too much)
75g parmesan cheese, grated
1 egg, lightly beaten
50g polenta
vegetable oil for shallow-frying
lemon wedges and mixed salad greens to serve

1. Pour the hot water over the porcinis in a small bowl and let them soak for at least 10 minutes. While you're waiting, dry roast the pine nuts in a frypan for a couple of minutes. Keep an eye on them because they can go from golden to burnt quickly! Finely chop the onion and mince the garlic.

2. Drain the mushrooms and strain the liquid they were in. Pour the mushroom liquid into a small saucepan, along with the stock, and heat it (no need to boil). Chop up the mushrooms. Haul out a large saucepan, heat the olive oil in it, add the rice and stir to coat the grains in oil.

3. Add the hot stock to the rice and bring it all to the boil. Reduce the heat, put the lid on ajar, and simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring frequently, until the stock is absorbed. You don't need to be quite as fussy as you would with a traditional risotto, but make sure it's not sticking to the bottom of the saucepan. Transfer the rice to a large bowl.

4. While the rice is absorbing the stock, pull out yet another frypan. Melt the butter and gently cook the onion and garlic for about 5 minutes. Once the rice is in the bowl, add the onion along with the mushrooms, pine nuts, cheese and egg. Mix well.

5. I find this step a bit easier to do once the mix has cooled a bit, so consider putting it in the fridge for about 15 minutes. Pour the polenta out on a plate. Scoop out generous dessertspoonfuls of risotto and shape them into little patties, rolling them in the polenta. You'll probably find that a few pine nuts fall out. Eat 'em up now, they're too expensive to waste and oh so tasty! Heat the vege oil, half a centimetre deep in the now-empty onion pan, and fry the patties until golden. More pine nuts might escape and fry solo. Scoop 'em out and wait for them to cool before you eat them. Drain the patties briefly on absorbant paper before serving on a bed of salad leaves. Don't forget the lemon juice!