Saturday, March 31, 2007

March 31, 2007: Saturday night improv

As is often the case, Saturday yielded some food wanderings: first a trip round the Queen Vic Markets on my own and then a browse through Casa Iberica with Michael, lunch at Ici, and a quick pick-up of a few remaining essentials at Safeway. Even with all this new food to enjoy, a fairly large and full tray of tandoori veges and rice was taking up space in our fridge and on my conscience. So I blended the old with the new in an omlette/frittata-type improvisation, combining the rice and veges with market-fresh eggs and serving them with some organic rosemary olive oil toast. Some fresh greens really would have brightened this very yellow meal (in texture and nutritional value as well as colour) but unfortunately my planning didn't stretch that far.

As always, dessert was far more about novelty and self-indulgence than about obligation. I picked up a cheap kilo-and-a-bit of apples at the markets and vaguely plotted some little apple crumbles - there's typically oats, butter and brown sugar stashed away at home. But Casa Iberica had other plans: one of the first items that jumped off the shelf and into my hands was this can of caramel. Canned caramel isn't big on my list of weaknesses, but Kitchen Wench's recent post on dulce de leche made me think it should be! Within an hour or two my mental apple crumble looked more like candied apple pie.

I made a half-batch of the pie crust I used on my last apple pie and filled it with four sliced apples, soaked in lemon juice. I anticipated pouring over the caramel but this wasn't pouring material! Thick, sweet, gelatinous goop. (Gelatinous in a vegetarian way - agar is the setting agent.) I did my best to evenly distribute spoonfuls of the caramel across the top of the apples, but had to take it out of the oven after a few melting minutes to do a better job. The result was at least as sickeningly sweet as you would imagine! Michael and I both enjoyed it, but it's probably not a dish I'll repeat. I'm a dessert lover than doesn't actually crave the super-sweet, and I think the caramel is probably at its best without this post-can heat treatment.

March 31, 2007: Ici II

Update, August 1 2013: More news from Fitzroyalty! Looks like Ici is reopening very soon. 
Update, July 5 2013: As reported by Fitzroyalty, Cafe Ici has closed down.

Saturday found us in Fitzroy for a visit to Casa Iberica and thoughts quickly turned to some sort of lunch while we were out and about. Our first attempt was Babka, but the queue was almost out the door, so we decided to escape the crowds of Brunswick Street to the quieter backstreets and Ici. Unfortunately, Ici's reputation ensures that even tucked away on Napier Street, there's seldom a spare table to be had. Despite being told we were next in line for a table, we ended up waiting for twenty minutes or so to be seated. I'm not entirely sure if this was just down to people lingering over their coffees or if the staff forgot about us a few times, but with the cold wind picking up we took matters into our own hands and pounced when we saw a vacancy near the door.

The last time we'd visited Ici I'd had an immensely satisfying breakfast, and I was interested to see if their lunch menu measured up. It turns out that they really are a breakfast focussed establishment. The brekkie options take up at least three-quarters of the blackboard menu. Still, there was a small range of foccacias, a salad or two and some soups to choose from, so there was enough to work with. Cindy agonised for about ten minutes before resisting the temptation of the French toast and ordering the noodle salad. Alas, they'd just run out of noodles, so she could order the French toast free of guilt. It came piled high with figs, blackberries and slathered with cured orange mascarpone and looked almost too delicious to be true. Cindy tells me that, despite the mascarpone lacking much of an orange flavour, the whole concoction was divine. It certainly showed, with her lunch disappearing faster than mine, a very rare event.

I had ordered the vegetable dumpling broth with shiitake mushrooms and coriander and my awkwardness with chopsticks combined with the slipperiness of the dumplings had slowed me down somewhat. The broth was strong and peppery, and filled liberally with green vegetables (broccoli, coriander, bean sprouts) and a handful of tasty mushroom dumplings. It suited my mood, without being a particularly memorable meal. In future, Ici will strictly be a place to visit for breakfast - especially on days when we're not in a rush to eat.

You can read about our previous visit to Ici here.

Friday, March 30, 2007

March 29, 2007: Tandoori veges with lemon rice

The last installment in SBS's Hooray for Bollywood movie series was the fabulous Kuch Naa Kaho. It's a fine example of a modern Bollywood romance and includes one of my favourite musical numbers, where a traditional engagement party in a lavish setting is transformed into a battle-of-the-sexes dance-off: how frustrating that subtitles for the lyrics disappear half-way through!

To accompany the movie, we prepared tandoori veges and lemon rice. Since sampling the delicious tandoori cauliflower at Tandoori Times, I've been re-inspired by the marinade that is so often only seen on chicken. Michael noticed a pouch of tandoori spices at Spice Bazaar last weekend and immediately I had to own it, I had to try my own hand at tandoori veges! After looking at one or two recipes on the internet, it was Michael who adlibbed his own marinade and it turned out very well. The resulting veges didn't closely resemble their TT inspiration, but a lack of oil and fake colouring can only be a good thing. A hot oven doesn't give as much charring as I like, but we did pack the veges in pretty tightly together. A barbeque would probably be an effective alternative cooking method.

What I particularly enjoyed about the Tandoori Times cauliflower was the distinct lemon tang, and this was what had me chasing up a lemon rice recipe as an accompaniment. It's another gem from Mridular Baljekar's Low-Fat Indian Vegetarian Cookbook - the mustard seeds and cashews are a real treat, and the luminous colouring comes not from scary fake lemon, but from ground turmeric.

Tandoori veges

Lots of peeled and diced veges: we used 5 medium potatoes, a huge carrot, a head of cauliflower, 2 red capsicums and 8-10 large white mushrooms

For the marinade:
1 1/2 cups yoghurt
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon tandoori spice mix (a quick internet search will give you an idea of what ground spices to combine if you don't have a pre-mixed combination like ours)
juice of one lemon
1/3 cup water

Whisk together the marinade ingredients and a bowl. Arrange the veges in a couple of baking dishes and pour the marinade over. Gently stir the veges around so that they're evenly coated in the yoghurt mix. Let the trays sit for half an hour so that the flavours develop, then bake at 200 degrees for about half an hour. Stir the veges occasionally to recoat with the settled marinade.

Lemon rice

1 cup basmati rice
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
a handful of cashews, roughly chopped
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons lemon juice

Wash the rice in cold water and leave it to soak for 15-20 minutes. Drain.

Heat the oil in a saucepan and then add the mustard seeds and cashews. Let them sizzle for no more half a minute, then remove the cashews (it doesn't matter if some of the mustard seeds come out too).

Add the rice, turmeric and salt to the saucepan and stir-fry for 2-3 minutes. Pour in 2 cups of hot water and the lemon juice. Bring the rice to the boil and continue to boil for two minutes.

Cover the saucepan, reduce the heat to low and cook for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let the rice stand for 6-7 minutes. Only now should fluff up the rice with a fork.

Serve the rice, garnished with the cashews.

March 29, 2007: Gertrude Street Grub - Radio Bar & Cafe

The only downside to swanning about town on Wednesday night is that lack of leftovers for Thursday lunch. Still, it's the excuse I need to run down another Gertrude Street lunch review. Today's lucky venue was Radio, a cosy bar almost directly across from work. I've not been there for an evening out, but the Kirin on tap and the old soul, reggae or funk tunes that are always spinning on the record player make me think it would be a nice place for some post-work drinks.

During the day they do a bit of food and some very nice Brazilian coffee. The food menu is pretty limited: cereal, muesli or toasties for breakfast and a selection of about 5 baguettes for lunch. The $6 baguettes all come with rocket, tomato, avocado, swiss cheese, a divine homemade mayonaise and your choice of 'meat'. The only vegetarian option is grilled eggplant, but it works pretty well with the rest of the fillings, so I was fairly content. The baguettes are fresh and crunchy and all the fillings are great, but it's really all about the mayo - it could make any sandwich a winner.

Update: Things have changed a little at Radio since this review. They've added a selection of outstanding pizzas to the lunch menu, a daily soup special and they've broadened out the brekkie options. Everything's a little more expensive, but it's still my favourite lunch place up my end of Gertrude.

Address: 79 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy
Ph: 9417 4723
Price: Baguettes $6, Breakfast $3-$6

March 28, 2007: Breizoz

Michael and I finished our dinner at Umi Nomiya quite early, and I wasn't feeling completely full. And yeah, OK, I had my eye on a dessert venue on Gertrude St too! It didn't take too much persuasion to get Michael to Breizoz, the local creperie. Compared to the coolly airconditioned and reasonably minimalist vibe of Ume, Breizoz was warmer and had a homely clutter, scattered with fragments of its culinary inspiration of Brittany.

Breizoz offers a long list of savoury and sweet crepes. The savouries tend to include a maximum of three ingredients, and if you're going to be bypassing the ham and the lamb sausage you'll generally be choosing between different combinations of cheese, egg and mushroom (you can see the full menu here). The blackboard special of cheese and leek sounded pretty good too!

But enough of that, let's get to the sweet ones! There are plenty of fruity, alcoholic and otherwise naughty options. I initially chose the rhubarb one with pistachio ice-cream from the specials board, but our waitress apologised that it was no longer available. My second choice, the jaffa crepe ($9), didn't taste at all second class. The crepe was a good measure of crunchy and chewy, the chocolate sauce was of an acceptable quality, but the highlight for me was the candied orange peel: sweet, sour and a little bitter with lots of syrup to spread around. Michael had something with apple, but I barely even glanced at is as I rationed out my orange slivers across the expanse of thin folded batter.

On a quiet Wednesday night a customer might expect a little more attention that usual, but I would still like to commend the service at Breizoz. Our jug of water arrived within seconds of us sitting down, and a nearby table of French visitors were served completely in their mother tongue. Another customer, when his EFTPOS bill was mucked up, received a compensatory packet of meringues to take home, even though he hadn't raised a complaint.

This would have been a sweet and satisfying end to our evening, but we had only completed the edible part. The next few hours were spent at the Forum Theatre under the spell of Jarvis Cocker's charms. A decade after I discovered his band Pulp, I finally had a chance to witness his theatrics in person and it more than lived up my expectations. It will burn brighter in my memory than our dinner or dessert venues but they were worthy support acts. Even better, they're far more accessible for multiple visits!

Address: Cnr of Gertrude and Brunswick Sts, Fitzroy
Ph: 9415 7588
Price: sweet crepes $5-$13

March 28, 2007: Ume Nomiya

Michael had been keen to visit a Japanese restaurant near his Gertrude St workplace for a month or two. I've already mentioned once or twice my vegetarian reservations about the average Japanese restaurant menu, and so I didn't respond with much enthusiasm... until I tasted Umi Nomiya's shiitake mushroom balls at the Flour Festival last weekend. They were an incredibly tasty change from the tempura veges I always rely on when everyone else is gobbling down sashimi. Michael revealed that this was the restaurant on his wishlist and I was now much more amenable to a visit - so amenable that I made a wet umbrella-less walk to meet Michael there less than a week later, as the early dinner stop on a night out.

Ume is really more bar than restaurant - high stools along the bar, which offers a dozen kinds of sake, probably provide a third of the seating. It's small, dimly lit and sparsely but elegantly furnished in an urban-Oriental style. At 6 o'clock on a Wednesday there were few punters, and the girl behind the bar provided us with casual but very helpful table service. The menu is divided into sushi plates (all fishy: pass), bar snacks (two thirds vegetarian), and mains (1 out of 6 is vego). The vegetarian items are clearly marked and exclude fish, which makes skimming the options much simpler for V-kids like us! We picked out three of the bar snacks to share and settled in with a beer each.

Our snacks arrived, staggered over ten minutes or more, but this gave us time to inhale those shiitake balls and make room for another plate on our tiny table. We had to revisit those rice croquettes: "rice balls with caramelised onion, shiitake, konbu and umeboshi mayonnaise" ($8.50). This really is deep-fried food at its best! (And even more enjoyable with a cold beer, which we were without the first time.) Next up were the gyoza: "garlicky vegetable and ginger dumplings served with chilli oil dipping sauce" ($7.50). Michael absolutely loved these; I was less enamoured of the spinachy filling, but the skins had a nice charred edge to them. For round three we had the harusame salada: "soaked vermicelli noodles, melon, cashew, tofu and greens" ($10). It was a welcome respite from the deep frier: fresh baby spinach, crunchy roasted cashews and silken tofu, liberally doused in sesame seeds. The melon was also refreshing, but not an intuitive combination with the spinach and soy-sauced noodles for me. I have much to learn about the art of Japanese cooking!

These bar snacks are a cut above the $5 chip bowl that I'm accustomed to buying at the pub, and more filling than I initially thought. Ume Nomiya is a bit too flash to be adopted as my local, but I can feel some future shiitake rice ball cravings coming on...

You might have noticed the nice little comment from a Yuzu rep on our flour festival post. This turned up several hours AFTER I wrote this review so we didn't score the free drink, nor has it influenced the content!

Edit (6/5/2008): Unfortunately Ume Nomiya appears to have closed (replaced with a very hip looking Spanish place. We're not sure whether the catering arm of the business remains active.

Edit (26/10/2008): ... and now we've visited the Spanish restaurant in its place, Anada. You can read our review of it here.

Address: 197 Gertrude St, Fitzroy
Ph: 9415 6101
Price: vege bar snacks $5-10, vege main $14

Thursday, March 29, 2007

March 26, 2007: Sweet potato soup

I think winter 2007 will be the season of soup for Michael and I. In years past I've been the foot-dragger when it comes to soup - there have been a small number of dinners where I've become bored by the homogenous texture long before I actually get full, resulting in late-night snacking. Now I'm discovering the joys of textured soups and the simple pleasure of just the right piece of fresh bread on the side of the smoother varieties. It's the latter kind that's going to take over our weeknights, I think - minimal chopping, half an hour of bubbling on the stove, a quick whizz in the food processor and a relatively easy and nutritious meal is born. This is one such example, which Michael picked up from this website during Monday in a bid to use up a sad-looking leftover sweet potato in the fridge.

It's just as well I'm warming to soups because there's a wisdom tooth removal on my horizon!

Sweet potato soup

a generous shake of vegetable oil
1 leek, chopping quite finely
3 cloves garlic, crushed
3 small sweet potatoes, diced
2 Massel chicken-style stock cubes, dissolved in 1L of hot water
1/2 cup milk
1/3 cup fresh coriander, chopped finely

Heat the oil in a saucepan, add the leek and garlic and fry until softened. Add the sweet potato and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 more minutes.

Add the "chicken" stock and bring to the boil. Reduce heat and simmer for about 20 minutes until the sweet potato has softened.

Blend the soup in batches. Stir in the milk and coriander and serve.

March 25, 2007: Jungle Juice Bar

After a fairly unsatisfying scrum through the crowds of chocolate and coffee connoisseurs at Fed Square, Cindy and I decided to hunt down lunch somewhere away from the crowds. We strolled up through Degraves Lane into Centre Place and stumbled onto Jungle Juice Bar, a tiny hole in the wall offering up a wide selection of bagel-based meals, juices and sweets. We perched on the primary-school sized plastic chairs around a little table in the alley way and watched the hipsters stroll by as we perused the menus (which are bound up in covers of old Golden Books). There are very few vego options on their list, but they're happy to prepare things with meat components excluded. I opted for the Royale (minus the bacon) - poached eggs with rocket, tomato, mozzarella and homemade mayo in an open-faced bagel sandwich, while Cindy went for the vegetarian bagel, with rocket, tomato, cheese, tomato and a splash of tobasco. We'd both ordered fresh juices (mine just OJ and Cindy's orange, pineapple and ginger) and they washed down the bagels splendidly.

With the exceptionally low table and tiny chairs, I was forced to balance my plate on my lap, inevitably resulting in bits of egg and tomato ending up on my trousers as I tried to saw my way through the bagel. Mess aside, it was a pretty satisfying lunch - probably a little cheesy for me, making it impossible for me to even pretend it was healthy - but otherwise a success. Cindy really enjoyed her bagel sandwich, and it brought back some fond memories of her trips to New York. It wasn't quite the East Village, but we were both entertained by the trendy youth of Melbourne wandering past.

Address: Shop 20, Central Place, Melbourne
Phone: 9639 8779
Prices: Food $6-$13, Juice $4

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

March 25, 2007: Melbourne Food and Wine Festival - Wicked Sunday

My most anticipated day of the Food Festival was Wicked Sunday, which promised rich sweets of all kinds as well as some coffee and cheese. We arrived in the early afternoon and River Terrace was filled with like-minded eaters. The first stand I saw, Babycakes, was already sold out of four of the six cupcake flavours listed on their menu. Even so, I was determined to walk a round of the stalls before committing to any purchases. Michael was less strict, quickly picking up a $1 latte.

Over the next 20 minutes, I learned that Wicked Sunday was more than "filled with like-minded eaters" - it was swarming with wicked rivals! The process of glimpsing the wares of each stall, let alone hustling in for a taste-test, was just too competitive for me. The Chocolate Precinct, located in the Atrium, was even rougher. Here sampling bowls were cleared to crumbs in mere seconds! I asserted myself well enough to buy small samples from two stalls and then exited the crush.

The first two truffles are from the Chocolate Lover (I tried their mousse at the Queen Vic night markets earlier in the year): I bought two coffee and one cointreau chocolate truffle for $5. The other two are a more novel $3 pack from Cacao, an apricot cognac truffle, and a passionfruit and peach caramel. (These photos were taken after the chocs spent a few hours in my bag, one coffee truffle "disappeared" along the way so they're not pictured at their peak.) All of the chocolates were delicious, of course: the first two truffles have a slightly rough and very pure dark chocolate taste, while the Cacao shapes were more sleek and sweet to taste. None are your everyday chocolate treat, mind!

Wicked Sunday didn't quite meet my (very high) hopes but that was probably because of my inability to fight for my share of the fancy food, and not a true reflection of the quality of extravagent treats on offer.

Monday, March 26, 2007

March 24, 2007: Aussie-Asian stir-fry

After the gluttony of Saturday, Michael and I were looking for something fresh and light for dinner. We picked up some veges, noodles and tofu on the way home from the Flour Festival and I got the tofu marinating. As a change from the usual soy sauce-based marinade that I throw together, I tried a packet mix (I bought it at Oxfam the other week along with the endangered species chocolate!): it's Outback Spirit Lemon Myrtle Chilli Dry Marinade ($4.95). The instructions make it clear that it's intended for white meats and seafood, but it proved to work equally well on diced firm tofu. The moisture on the tofu is just enough for the powder to adhere to, and it doesn't pull away once it's all in the non-stick frypan, either. It tastes great: the lemon myrtle reminds me very much of lemongrass, a natural pair for chilli. Combined with some fresh crunchy veges, this was just the meal we needed after a lunchtime of stall food. The downside is that the first ingredient on this pre-packaged marinade is sugar! (It doesn't taste overly sweet, but there you go.) For this reason I'm not planning to buy the marinade mix again - instead I might pick up a jar of lemon myrtle and try my own hand at a seasoned flour mix.

March 24, 2007: Melbourne Food and Wine Festival - International Flour Festival

Fear of food-overload had kept me from joining Cindy's Saturday morning jaunt to Allergy Block. With the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival in full swing, Cindy had booked in the Flour Festival and Wicked Sunday to follow on from our Friday evening cocktails, and the weekend was rapidly shaping up as a bit of a feeding frenzy. The International Flour Festival at Fed Square promised to be one of the few events of the Food Festival that catered easily for both vegetarians and those with more Cheap Eats than Good Food Guide budgets, so I was saving myself to feast on flour.

The main action was down by the Yarra, with food stalls crammed along both sides of the footpath and swarms of people exploring the culinary options. In keeping with the flour theme, there were a good number of bakeries represented, along with pizza stalls, Indian, African, Mexican and Japanese places all serving up at least some bread-based options and a few completely non-flour related stalls selling things like gelati or cheese. It really seemed as though the theme should just have been 'food' rather than 'flour', but perhaps that'd be a harder sell.

I was ravenous by the time we arrived and dived straight in to the queue at the Yuzu Japanese catering stand. It turns out that Yuzu catering are the people who run Ume Nomiya, a Gertrude Street restaurant that I've been meaning to check out for ages. And having tasted the Japanese Sun Balls, I can almost guarantee that we'll have eaten their before Easter. They were delicious: little balls of rice, caramelised onion and shitake mushrooms fried to crispiness and served with pickled plum mayonaise ($8). A fine start indeed.

We battled our way through the throngs of people checking out most of the offerings. Cindy wanted to wander all the way through before we ate anything else, to make sure we didn't fill up too quickly and miss out on something special. When I started thinking about buying a $25 cheese showbag, we quickly realised that I'd need to eat something else immediately or end up with a backpack full of takeaway treats. Luckily, Pizza Farro was on hand serving up pizzas made using spelt flour and topped with a range of unusual flavour combinations. I went for the Melanzane ($8.50), which combined eggplant, zuchinni and red onion with pistachio nuts and oregano, all served up on a tomato base with a restrained amount of mozzarella melted into it. The spelt flour base was crispy and light, a particularly impressive effort for premade pizzas heated up under a grill, but the toppings were where things really shined. The vegies were roasted to perfection, the cheese and herbs were tasty and the pistachios were crunchy little treats hidden under everything else. Wonderful.

At this point I relaxed a little, my stomach was no longer gnawing angrily at its own lining and I could soak up the atmosphere without being driven insane by all the tempting food smells (although high appetite-suppressant points must go to the chorizo stand, wafting burning meat smells across the whole event). We eventually strolled beyond the food festival zone and stumbled onto some bits and pieces somehow related to the swimming championships on in Melbourne this week. The food stalls looked much less interesting, but the toadstools dotting the hillside were kind of fun.

Fighting our way back into the fray, we found ourselves at the Spice Bazaar stall, which combined an impressive range of packaged spice blends for sale with some mezze plates to satisfy more immediate desires. I browsed through the spice range (if browsed is really the word to use when you're scrabbling through a small spice stand with a dozen other people all angling to get to the free tasting plates) and settled on a selection of four blends (Ras el Hanout, Achiote Powder, Tandoori and Spanish Creolo Adobo, $12) to take home and experiment with.

With the warm aroma of spices bringing back our appetites, we settled in with a mezze tasting plate. For just $5, the mezze plate was loaded up with a pile of Turkish bread, hummus, harissa yoghurt a pumpkin tagine and some smoked vegetables, sprinkled with sesame seeds and sumac. The hummus and the pumpkin were particular highlights, but the whole plate was quite impressive.

By now I was fully sated - stuffed to the gills with pizza, rice and mezze - and starting to find the crowds a bit frustrating. But the afternoon wasn't over yet - Cindy had spotted the San Churro stall and, despite the promise of a whole day of chocolate-themed treats on Sunday, wanted to cap things off with some dessert. The hot chocolate was unfortunately still lukewarm when we turned up, so Cindy opted for a cold chocolate ($5) and a couple of little chocolate cups (one peanut butter and one caramel - $1.50 each). I had a taste of the drink, but it was too rich and thick for my tastes - more chocolate than milk I'd wager. But Cindy seemed to enjoy both it and the little sweets.

With both of us completely satisfied, we wandered up through the atrium (stumbling on a micro-brewery event, complete with beer-tasting - if only I'd saved some room!) and jumped on a tram back home to flop on the couch and recover.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

March 24, 2007: Allergy Block open day

Allergy Block is a great shop around the corner from where I live, filled with products for people with all kinds of food allergies and intolerances, as well as vegetarian items, natural cleansers and organic groceries. They've scored more than one mention in the pages of this blog, and every time I visit I like to browse all the shelves because there's a good chance that something unexpected will catch my eye and follow me home.

On Saturday they held a special open day, with a store-wide 10% discount (and a handful of much bigger discounts too!) and stands from a number of their suppliers promoting their products and offering free samples. As you would have picked up from the picture above, I made the most of the reduced prices! Pictured, clockwise from the left are: a litre of organic milk, a packet of the sage & marjoram vege sausages that I recently discovered, some roasted organic cashews, organic vegetarian Worcestershire sauce, a jar of chilli capsicum salsa, gluten and wheat-free sweet chilli and kaffir lime biscuits, and some vegetarian Thai style cakes.

The salsa and gluten-free biscuit purchases were inspired by the samples that I tasted out the front of the shop. The biscuits are part of a local range of wheat-free biscuits (sweet and savoury) called Decadent Alternatives. At $5.30 (the usual non-discounted price) for a 100g pack, these are definitely decadent in price but a worthy treat for gluten-free eaters. No such problems here, I'm happy to say, yet I still couldn't resist taking home some of the savoury ones! The chilli capsicum salsa is also known as Kangaroo Punch and is made by the Chilli Factory. This supplier had at least a dozen different sauces, salsas, chutneys and the like, all rated on a scale of 1 to 10 for heat.

In addition to the stuff I bought and tasted, I also scored a number of free samples. As I paid for my goodies, some organic fair trade ground coffee sachets and another one of drinking chocolate were tucked into my green bag. But the biggest haul of all came from the friendly and generous John, representing Willow Confectionery...

He was the first person I encountered on the street as I approached Allergy Block, offering me a sample of his nut- and egg-free chocolate and chatting about its cocoa content and the Easter rush on their products. Then he thrust two handfuls (over 300g!) of his chocolate samples on me before I moved on. As he registered my bewildered look, he gave me his card and assured me that the Allergy Block staff wouldn't accuse me of shoplifting as long as I showed that to them. I was more concerned that Michael wouldn't believe my story that a "supplier" forced this chocolate on me in the street at no cost. (And who would believe such a story from an addict, really?) While this experience has probably positively biased my judgement, I can tell you that the dark chocolate is pretty tasty for its modest 50% cocoa content. And it brought a smile to my face to see a few excited kids with limited diets dancing around the display of allergen-free chocolate bunnies inside.

I've obviously been a fan of this shop for a while now and it was great to see it full of people trying something new or discovering alternatives versions of foods they thought they'd be cutting from their diet. As well as a one-day spike in sales, my hope is that Allergy Block have made a lot of new long-term customers.

Update 10/5/10: Allergy Block, which has been our convenient supplier of so many vegan-friendly, gluten-free and other goodies seems to have closed down. They were originally heading to new premises in Moonee Ponds, but that appears to have fallen through and the business is no longer trading. It's very disappointing.

March 23, 2007: Chillipadi II

Update 27/1/2019: Chillipadi is permanently closed.

Between cocktails at Double Happiness and dinner at the Little Malaysia Restaurant, we were having quite the eastern-themed night with Tracy and Lee. As I drained my beer and the waiters neglected our table, I wondered vaguely if there was somewhere else we could show Tracy and Lee before heading home. Chillipadi came to mind almost immediately: I made no secret of ogling their dessert cabinet on our previous visit and I was pretty sure Tracy would like seeing (and sampling!) it too. Best of all, it was right on the way to the newcomers' tram stop.

The cabinet was at least as well-stocked as my last visit - green tea tiramisu, choc-caramel tiramisu, oreo cheesecake, what appeared to be chocolate-chilli cupcakes, and a lone tall piece of some kind of chocolatey cake were all on offer and passed over. Instead Lee relished a triple-layered chocolate mousse served in a large martini glass ($8 and not pictured, unfortunately). He was kind enough to offer the rest of us a taste each, and it was great. Tracy picked out the peach and vanilla panna cotta (pictured below). It had me most intrigued on my previous visit, partly because of its lurid fruity top layer but mostly because it's contained in a conical glass which is then balanced in a round glass. I'm not a big fan of gelatinous foods but I did like this - it's more creamy than rubbery.

The final dessert on offer was my choc-mint cheesecake. As each of us took a spoon in turn, we paused for a moment and could only utter '...weird'. The neat piping had me assuming that it would be soft, yet it took quite some force to dig out a bite. This had me guessing that the cream cheese must have set in the very cold display cabinet. Nope! It was barely below room temperature, and its flavour didn't even hint at a cheesy tang - just faintly sweet and minty. What is this stuff? It wasn't quite marshmallowy, but it left me suspicious that it was a lot more processed than I'd care to know about. What you can't see from the picture above is that the glass tapers to a smaller section, densely packed with a chocolate biscuit base. It's pretty tasty, but the cocktail glass makes it difficult to enjoy the filling and the base in a single mouthful. Oh, and the mystery spheres on top are Mint Slice Balls, in case you were wondering!

As you might have noticed in the pictures, all the desserts are served with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream - it was melty and pleasant, but not really necessary with the cheesecake or pannacotta in my opinion. The wonders of the Chillipadi dessert cabinet weren't uniformly wonderful, but I'm glad that we gave them a go. It's more likely that I'll return for the chips!

(You can read about our last visit to Chillipadi here, or more musings about the dessert cabinet here.)

March 23, 2007: Little Malaysia Restaurant

January 2016: Doing a bit of blog tidying up and it looks like this place closed down in mid-2015.

Cindy had read about the two-for-one cocktails on offer at Double Happiness during the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, so along with recent immigrants from Brisbane, Lee and Tracy, we squeezed our way into the tiny space for a drink. The cocktail on offer was based on ginger-infused vodka, with mint, apple-juice and lime. They were very refreshing in the heat of a humid Friday evening. Unfortunately, by the time we left the bar and started looking for dinner, the humidity had turned to rain and, with one umbrella between the four of us, we looked no further than our laneway location. The Cheap Eats Guide recommended Horoki, but with the rain halving their table space, they had nowhere for us to sit.

Luckily, the Malaysian place across the street had space for us and we scurried in before we were completely drenched. The menu was substantial, with a range of curries and other dishes. Despite the variety, Lee, Tracy and I all settled on roti-based meals - Tracy and I with a vegetable curry accompaniment and Lee with something beefy. Cindy was a bit more original, and went for dried crispy tofu with rice. The roti and veg. curry were delicious - simple but spicy curries and fluffy fried breads. The roti to sauce ratio was almost perfect, although both Tracy and I ended up with a couple of bites of bread that were a bit short of sauce to soak up. Cindy's tofu reminded me a little of salt and pepper tofu, although it was given a more Malaysian feel with red chilli (which Cindy carefully picked out after an early coughing fit) and spring onions. The tofu squares were crispy and tasty, although with just tofu and steamed rice (and a few vegetable garnishes) it was probably a tad lacking in variety.

Still, for a random choice on a rainy Friday evening, the Little Malaysia Restaurant was a pretty good find - if the prices were a fraction lower, I'd happily recommend it to anyone looking for a spicy evening meal.

Address: 26 Liverpool Street, Melbourne
Ph: 9662 1678
Price: Vegetarian mains: $12 - $19

Friday, March 23, 2007

March 20, 2007: Kulfi

Kulfi is Indian-style ice-cream. I first encountered kulfi when I spent a semester at Cornell University in upstate New York in 2004. I had an Indian-American housemate and she invited me to a fundraiser for Asha, where the local chapter prepared a three-course vegetarian Indian meal. The kulfi had been frozen in little cups - it was sweet and milky with occasional crunches of slivered almonds and an intriguing taste that I couldn't identify. I now know that taste was ground cardamom, and the spice has become intrinsically linked with Indian sweets in my mind. Since then I've noticed that many Indian restaurants have kulfi on their dessert menu, but I tend to make it at home instead: not only did the Cornell Asha Chapter put on an inspiring dinner, but they gave their guests recipes for all the dishes served. Rather than stirring almonds into the mixture, I served kulfi scoops surrounded by toasted slivered almonds. It was quite the treat to enjoy with Main Hoon Na!

(makes roughly a litre)

Whisk together roughly equal parts of sweetened condensed milk, ricotta and cream (I used a can [~400g] of condensed milk, a 250g tub of ricotta and 300mL bottle of cream). Stir in about a teaspoon of ground cardamom, then chill the mixture. When it is very cold, freeze in an ice-cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions. Serve with slivered almonds or pistachios.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

March 20, 2007: Jumbo samosas

Remember that pie event I took part in last month? The product is an epic post of 65 pie recipes from all over the globe - I spent a highly enjoyable lunch break discovering new blogs and bookmarking the most appealing of the pastry-based recipes. As SBS's Hooray for Bollywood series of movies came around again this week, Michael set the VCR and I retrieved a bookmarked recipe for spicy potato and pea pasties, the pie contribution from Mitchenall of . But rather than making my own dough and deep-frying, I just re-created the filling and used it to make larger, baked pastry triangles of frozen puff pastry. They were great! The filling is slightly sweet with cinnamon and currants, tangy with lemon juice and mildly spiced. Mango chutney was a perfect moist condiment, and Michael chopped up a refreshing bean and radish salad on the side.

Jumbo samosas

1 large potato, peeled and diced
1 cup peas
2 tablespoons currants
2 tablespoons fresh coriander, chopped
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon chilli powder
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
juice of half a lemon
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 sheets of frozen puff pastry, roughly 30cm x 30cm each
a little milk

Boil the potato until tender and drain. Combine the potato in a bowl with the peas, currants, coriander, cumin, chilli powder and cinnamon until the spices are evenly distributed. Gently stir in the lemon juice and soy sauce.

Thaw the puff pastry and cut into square quarters. Spoon the filling onto a triangle-half of pastry, leaving a centimetre border around the edge. (It's tempting, but try not to over-fill!) Brush the border with milk and fold the pastries into triangles. Press the border together with a fork, make two or three slits on the top side and brush the top with a bit more milk. Bake the samosas on a lightly greased tray at 200 degrees for about 15 minutes, or until puffed up and golden brown.

March 19, 2007: Pumpkin and chickpea salad

Funny that Kitchen Hand just posted about assembly-line cooking. After a weekend of eating out, and eating out in a very unwholesome way, dinner on Monday night was little more than throwing together some nutritious ingredients without too much fuss or creativity. (Though to be fair, one might consider KH's combination of couscous, sardines and sweet chilli sauce to be highly creative!) Thankfully this assembly-line dish doesn't skimp too much on flavour.

Pumpkin and chickpea salad

Roast two red capsicums until the skin is black. While they're roasting, remove the skin of a quarter-pumpkin and dice the flesh into cubes.

Once the capsicum skins are blackened, take 'em out of the oven to cool. Use their tray for the diced pumpkin, drizzling with just a little olive oil. Bake the pumpkin in a moderate oven for about 20 minutes, giving it one or two stirs along the way.

As the pumpkin bakes, rinse two cans-worth of chickpeas. Once the capsicum is cooled, peel off the skins and chop up the flesh into strips. Make a dressing of two tablespoons of mustard (preferably wholegrain, but I used Dijon) with a bit of honey or sugar. Don't over-sweeten, the pumpkins will add their bit.

Once the pumpkin is tender, mix the lot together in a large bowl, along with generous handfuls of baby spinach leaves.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

March 16-18, 2007: Sydney

While Melbourne's Food and Wine Festival began in a haze of car exhaust, Michael and I skipped over to Sydney for the weekend. Our excuse was to celebrate the engagement of our friend Brent to the lovely Jamee, but we also found time to see a couple of the city's other sights and restaurants.

Our first memorable eating experience was at Chilli Chimney. There's nothing to distinguish it from countless other Indian restaurants and takeaways in the inner-city suburbs except for our fabulously friendly waiter. More than simply reciting the evening's specials, he took great delight in explaining that he'd never seen such east Indian dishes on any menu and described their contents in meticulous detail. Michael and I were correspondingly delighted that the specials were vegetarian and consequently ordered them. On the left are deep-fried "chops", patties of moist grated carrot and beetroot, along with a host of spices that I can't remember. On the right is a dish of cabbage kofta with garlic sauce. It was wonderful, and if I were a local I would have urged that enthusiastic waiter to introduce them to the regular menu.

For Saturday morning I had booked us a table at Bodhi in the Park. This is a vegan yum-cha restaurant nestled in Cook & Phillip Park, the grazing vegetarian's dream: at any ordinary yum cha it's easy to become the staff's least favourite customer as you inspect every dish for pork mince and/or meat stock. It's a real treat to greedily take a plate of anything that looks appetising, and greedy I was! Take a look what Michael and I called 'breakfast':

curry buns

satay salad

spring rolls with
sweet and sour sauce

soft bean curd

mushroom balls

fruit salad

passionfruit jelly: don't forget to pick up a spoon from the waitress, 'cause it's mighty awkward trying to use chopsticks as I did!

Others have complained about the patchy service, but we were pretty well attended to. With park views, sunny skies and a few cute children to watch at neighbouring tables, I can't think of a more pleasant way to watch a Saturday morning become afternoon.

Other highlights included catching up with Jackson and Emma, friends from Brisbane who were also visiting for the engagement celebrations, and seeing the shortlisted entries for the 2007 Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes at the Art Gallery of NSW (just a short walk across the grass from Bodhi).

If you'd like to read more about vegetarian eating in Sydney, I'd recommend checking out the Veggie Friendly blog: the front page is temporarily filled with NYC reviews but check out the archives, listed by city, for lots of reviews.

Monday, March 19, 2007

March 15, 2007: Koko Black IV

On Thursday night we got together with Mike and Jo-Lyn for dessert at Koko Black. Michael picked one of the ice-cream martinis ($7.50): latte ice-cream with chocolate sauce, chocolate shavings and tuille. This is the decadent kind of dessert I've come to expect from Koko Black, and Michael did an admirable job of stringing it out over a good half-hour. A boisterous conversation with Mike and Jo-Lyn is one of few things that can distract us from our food!

While Michael's martini was more sundae than spirits, I went for the real deal with a Raspberry Dark cocktail ($15): Creme De Cacao, Vodka, Chocolate liqueur, raspberry puree and Belgian chocolate ganache. We received the same great personality-stamped service as on our last visit, with the cheerful waitress who took our order informing me that it was her pick of the menu. Unfortunately I didn't share her opinion: the slightly bitter chocolate and sweet raspberry flavours were there but it turns out that I prefer them as separate entities, clashes of texture and taste. But I will share her happy outlook on Koko Black, striking the Raspberry Dark off my list and leaving plenty of space for the rest of the menu.

(You can also read about our previous visits to Koko Black: one, two and three.)

March 13, 2007: Sweet potato and adobo pies

We're only having the odd cool autumn day in Melbourne but the calendar has given me permission to launch into warm, comforting pies for dinner. Less than a week after our sausage rolls I was into the puff pastry again, for a recipe that I'd bookmarked from 101 cookbooks. The filling is a creamy but cheese-free concoction featuring diced sweet potato and corn kernels. But don't be fooled by its meek and mild appearance - the delicious smokey aroma comes from the addition of some fiery adobo sauce!

The only change I made from Heidi's recipe was to substitute plain flour for the cornstarch: it's what I had on hand and it thickens the sauce just as well. Our adobo sauce supply was running low and I probably didn't add the full tablespoon - even so, my initial test-tasting of the filling had my throat aflame! I was worried that I wouldn't be able to do more than nibble this meal but by the time the pies emerged from the oven, I found that the sauce was much milder.

On Tuesday night I imitated Heidi's pretty picture by filling ramekins and topping with pastry. My photos might not be quite as professional but I can assure you that this didn't diminish the eating experience at all! On the side we had our usual baby spinach leaves, wilted in just a touch of olive oil. With the leftover mixture I constructed larger square pies, as in the top photo. They're a bit less fiddly and have a higher pastry-to-filling ratio. Michael and I both thoroughly enjoyed this recipe, and it will no doubt reappear on our table once we've replenished our adobo sauce stocks.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Endangered Species Chocolate

Last weekend I had the pleasure of spending a gift voucher at Oxfam, and with a few spare dollars after my first choice (a pretty necklace made in Kenya!) I lingered over the chocolate and coffee. For the sake of variety and trying something new, I picked out four bars of Endangered Species Chocolate. This brand promotes ethical buying on multiple fronts: the cocoa is grown sustainably, its farmers are paid fully and fairly, and 10% of the brand's net profits are donated to help support "species, habitat and humanity". Each flavour of the 40g bars features a different endangered species with a write-up of its life history, behaviour and the nature of threat against it - and they cost $3.95 a piece!

Over the course of a week, I sampled dark chocolate with cherry (featuring the koala), dark chocolate with tangerine (zebra), milk chocolate with peanut butter (giraffe) and milk chocolate with mocha (snow leopard). These are all combinations that I'm into, far more than mint or caramel, yet I was disappointed by this chocolate. The milk version (52% cocoa) had a slightly waxy, rather than creamy, texture. The dark chocolate (70% cocoa) was better, but reminded me of the underwhelming Dagoba chocolate, probably because the additions were barely detectable. But Dagoba is held in high esteem elsewhere by greater connoisseurs than I, so these two brands may appeal to other chocolate-lovers: they're just too subtle for my vulgar tastes! It needs to be acknowledged that both Endangered Species and Dagoba brands are produced in relatively ethical circumstances, and buying a cheaper and more enjoyable block of Lindt isn't exactly a direct trade. So, what can a chocoholic do with, say, $20?
  • Buy 5 of these 40g Endangered Species bars (that's 200g of the good stuff), safe in the knowledge that's its a luxury at no-one else's expense but underwhelmed by the tantalising flavours promised;
  • Buy two blocks of Green & Black's (also about 200g and available from Oxfam), and have quite a few dollars extra in my pocket. It's more to my taste and it's also fair trade and organic.
  • Buy two blocks of Lindt - its flavours are bold, its the cheapest of the lot. The downside is that I know nothing about its origins - my $12 change is probably best used as a donation to Oxfam or another worthy charity.