Tuesday, July 31, 2007

July 31, 2007: Misuzu's

On Tuesday evening, we managed to find time in Emma and Simon's schedule to meet up for dinner. Cindy had been talking up Misuzu's since dmargster's recommendation, so we navigated our way over to Albert Park to try it out.

Cindy's research had also told us that we needed to book, even on a Tuesday evening - indeed, when we rang them they stressed to us that if we were more than 20 minutes late we'd lose our table. Sure enough, when we arrived the place was overflowing with people - it's a good sign when a place is in such demand on a school night. We squeezed our way upstairs to our table and settled in for the evening. The menu is well-stocked with vegetarian option - a wide variety of starters and probably half a dozen mains. Japanese food is usually a struggle for those of us who don't eat fish, so it was nice to see so many choices.

Emma and Simon were kind enough to share the large vegetarian entree platter ($22.80) with us. Unfortunately, the photo didn't work out very well. Despite our inadequate chopstick skills, we feasted on a selection of sushi, little hot tasty things, some sort of dried sweet potato salad, bits of tofu and various other bits and pieces. It was tremendous - the sweet potato in particular was an odd and impressive dish. It was a fairly gigantic plate of food to get us started, but we were given enough time to rest between finishing it up and the arrival of our mains.

Which was lucky, because when they came, they were gigantic. Cindy ordered the tempura soba ($13.80) - seasonal tempura vegetables in soy-based soup with buckwheat soba noodles. Look at how high they piled that soup! The tempura vegies were plentiful and delicious and the buckwheat noodles were thick and tasty. There was, of course, too much for Cindy, but what she managed to eat she was very impressed with.

I opted for the vegetable don ($13.80): tempura veges stewed with finely sliced onion in a layered free-range egg omelette. It was terrific - full of vegies without being overly heavy, a generous slathering of egg and some tasty rice at the bottom. Again, it was a ridiculously hearty meal - I managed to get through it all, but there was no room left for me to help Cindy out.

Simon and I shared a nice bottle of wine, Cindy knocked back a ramune (Japanese old-style lemonade) and Emma had some sort of tea. The service was pretty good, the atmosphere was great (the mural behind our table was all kinds of weird) and the meal was remarkably affordable for the quality. So make a booking and try it out - Misuzu's is a fine option. Even if it is far, far away across the other side of the river.

Address: 2-7 Victoria Avenue, Albert Park
Ph: 9699 9022
Price: Vegie mains: $10 - $15

July 30, 2007: Leftover makeover - warm potato salad

Sunday's indoor picnic yielded a lot of leftovers (no cupcakes though, funnily enough!). For dinner on Monday night, I fried up some surplus winter potatoes (no extra oil necessary) until browned, added some strips of soy bacon and tossed with mixed lettuce leaves. It was an entirely new flavour and texture compared to the potatoes' previous incarnation, and heartily enjoyed.

July 29, 2007: Cappuccino cupcakes

To top off our indoor picnic, I baked a batch of Nigella Lawson's cappuccino cupcakes. This is only the second batch of cupcakes I've ever attempted, yet they seemed just the thing to enjoy on a checkered blanket in the sun. It was mighty tempting to team them with the espresso cupcakes on the facing page of the cookbook but with a final count of 9 people in attendance, it was more sensible to restrict myself to just the dozen.

I was hoping for a not-too-sweet coffee cake with bite, topped with something sweet and creamy, and was curious to try a cake batter that's made in a food processor. The method was as convenient as I'd hoped, but the flavours didn't quite live up to my expectations. The batter had a promising bitterness but it mellowed almost beyond recognition with baking. The icing, on the other hand, was the sweetest, sickliest thing I've encountered in years but I guess teaming icing sugar with melted white chocolate will do that, eh? I didn't use up the full quantity for fear of inflicting tooth decay on my guests. Still, I really like the concept of these cakes and I'd make the batter again with some extra coffee. The icing, on the other hand, needs a complete overhaul: I might attempt a lightly sweetened cream cheese next time.

Cappuccino cupcakes

125g self-raising flour
125g soft unsalted butter
125g castor sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 heaped tablespoon instant coffee powder (try two!)
2-3 tablespoons milk

160g white chocolate
60g butter
120g sour cream
260g icing sugar, sieved

cocoa powder, to dust

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C. Put all the cake ingredients except the milk into a food processor and whizz 'em up until combined. With the motor still run, gradually add milk until the batter is smooth but thick. Arrange cupcake papers in a muffin pan and then spoon the batter into the papers. Bake for about 20 minutes, cool in the pan for 5 minutes and then on a wire rack.

Only start the icing when the cupcakes are completely cold. Gently melt the white chocolate and butter, then let it cool a little. Stir in the sour cream. Sift and stir in the icing sugar. Nigella suggests a bit of hot water or more icing sugar if the icing's too thick or thin. Spread the cakes with the icing and dust them with cocoa.

July 29, 2007: An indoor picnic

Our community of Queensland migrants welcomed two new members, Kerrie and Daniel, this weekend. To celebrate their arrival I wanted to cook everyone a meal but with our posse stretching to about 13 members there was no chance of a sit-down dinner party. Instead I devised an indoor picnic, where we could enjoy lounging about on cushions and spill lunch on checkered blankets with the comfort of oven-baked food and protection from Melbourne's wayward weather.

I was in no doubt as to what would emerge from the oven: trays of golden brown pastry. Vegan pastry, no less! Borg's frozen puff pastry (it's at Safeway) is as tasty as any buttery supermarket pastry I've tried. I used it to make (non-vegan) "meat" pies and party-sized non-sausage rolls and had a jar of Chinese-style barbeque sauce at the ready (for the record, the pies are easily veganised and there's been some discussion of tweaking the sausage rolls with silken tofu).

The pastries were really the main event of this meal, and they drew the appreciative comments, but I knew I had to feed my guests some veges too. Pictured above isn't a couple of pear quarters, but actually some rosemary braised fennel. This recipe comes from Clotilde Dusoulier's first book Chocolate and Zucchini: Daily Adventures in a Parisian Kitchen. I've just borrowed the book from the library and it's a cute as the blog (and as Clotilde herself, of course!). This dish had the advantages of complementing the faint whiff of rosemary in the pie filling and of being served at room temperature, allowing me to prepare it early.

The second side was composed of potatoes, leeks and artichokes - another dish that can simmer away in a pot long before guests arrive and then be reheated just before serving. The recipe comes from the lovely ladies at Mondo Organics and is my favourite side dish for these pies. Leftovers can be wrapped up in pastry themselves as another winter meal.

While these sides are each excellent pastry partners, they ended up being rather similar in colour and texture. I probably would have done a bit better to choose just one of them and then rely on a crisp green salad for a bit of lift. Live and learn, right? Luckily Jo-Lyn stepped in with some crisp, fresh produce - cucumbers, mint and fruit for Pimms all round (pictured at the top)! This summery gesture was supported by a generous serving of sunlight through our north-facing windows.

You know that any meal managed by me would have to include dessert, but you'll have to wait until my next post for that one. For now, you just get a couple of new vege recipes.

Rosemary braised fennel
(from Chocolate and Zucchini: Daily Adventures in a Parisian Kitchen by Clotilde Dusoulier)

4 small fennel bulbs
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup stock
1 tablespoon lime juice

Cut the stalks off the fennel, quarter them and then cut some of the core off - make sure the 'leaves' are still connected together.

In a large pan, heat most of the oil over medium-high heat. Add about half of the fennel so that they're not crowded up, and then brown them on each side. Leave 'em for a few minutes and don't be too impatient! When the first batch is done, transfer them to a plate and repeat with the remaining oil and fennel.

Return all of the fennel to the pan, then sprinkle it with the salt and rosemary. Add the wine, stock and lime juice, bring it to a simmer and cover. Turn the heat down and cook the fennel until tender, about 20-25 minutes. Remove the lid and cook down the liquid until it's syrupy. Clotilde reckons this will only take about 5 minutes, but my fennel juice took at least 15 minutes.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

Winter potatoes with artichokes, leeks and mint
(from a Mondo Organics newsletter)

1 x 400g can artichoke hearts
500g potatoes, peeled
3 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons dill
3/4 cup olive oil (I'd suggest reducing this to 1/2 cup)
1/2 cup "chicken" stock
300g leeks, chopped
2 tablespoons mint
juice of 1/2 a lemon

Place the first 7 ingredients in a large saucepan or casserole dish and simmer on low heat, covered, for 45 minutes or until the potatoes are tender. Stir in the mint and lemon juice just before serving.

July 28, 2007: Hotel Lincoln

Saturday night provided our first chance to check out the Melbourne International Film Festival. Cindy had spent all day preparing for the indoor picnic we had scheduled for Sunday (coming soon!) and with a 7:30 movie (Snow Angels - okay, but a bit on the bleak side) coming up, it was time for us to find another local dining spot to save both energy and time. We're fast running out of interesting local places to investigate, but after racking our brains for a while we remembered the Hotel Lincoln, a 'foodie' pub at the southern end of Cardigan Street.

The pub has two sections - a front bar and a restaurant. Slightly confusingly, there's no real difference in the sections - you can order from the bar menu in the restaurant and vice-versa. It's a bit confusing (particularly when the menus are on blackboards meaning you have to walk back and forth between the front and back of the pub to suss out all your options). We settled into the restaurant section and kicked back with a drink each (apparently the wine list is quite impressive, but I was happy with Coopers on tap and Cindy wanted a lemon, lime and bitters).

Neither menu is filled with vegie alternatives - I think there was a curry and a pasta on the bar menu, but we both chose from the restaurant menu: homemade pesto gnocchi with wilted spinach, flaked almonds and pecorino ($18.50) for Cindy and a Middle Eastern cheese and pine nut pastry with mint yoghurt ($12.50) and a side-salad ($5.50) for me.

The food came out promptly and smelled delicious. Cindy's pasta was sprinkled with delicious cheese and was generously slathered in some mighty fine pesto. Gnocchi always wears me down by the end and so it proved for Cindy - she got through about three-quarters before filling up and, despite a slight over-abundance of oil, she was pretty content.

My pastries came out in a neat little tower with generous slathers of yoghurt sauce and a good sprinkle of walnuts. They were cheesy and delicious, but my side plate of greens proved a wise move - it might have been too much cholesterol for me otherwise.

The food was great, the service was quick (meaning we made it to the movies on time) and the atmosphere was pleasant - the scarcity of vego options means it may be a while before we return, but I'd heartily recommend the place to meat-eaters out there.

Address: 91 Cardigan Street, Carlton
Ph: 9347 4666
Licensed (obviously, it's a pub)
Prices: Vego mains $15-$20, entrees $10-$15

Monday, July 30, 2007

July 26, 2007: Camy Shanghai Dumpling & Noodle Restaurant

It should be no surprise that Michael and I booked tickets to see The Simpsons Movie on its opening night and Tracy, Lee and Brett were just as keen to see the yellow-skinned quintet up on the big screen. (We've all been enjoying Simpsonising ourselves on the website - check out Michael and I here!) In addition, the more normally-toned trio had a restaurant secret to share with us: Camy Shanghai Dumpling & Noodle Restaurant.

This is one of the most bustling restaurants I've ever visited, and I was glad to have Lee take the lead. A small but commanding man yelled in our direction and Lee confidently yelled and gestured "5!" back. We had a few minutes to wait but the next yelp of "5!" arrived as our cue to follow the maestro upstairs to another bustling room. We couldn't see a vacancy anywhere, until we saw our host shooing two sleepy-eyed students away from their table (all the while continuing to yell "5! 5!"), shepherding us into the seats even before they'd managed to pick up their coats. This set the pace for our entire visit: menus were presented, orders taken and food plonked on the table in the minimum of time - we couldn't help but instinctively bolt down our dinner before we, too, outstayed our brief welcome.

My hasty flick through the menu revealed a variety of different bits and pieces, with vegetarian options scattered throughout. I think I even noticed "vegetarian duck" in there somewhere, at the incomprehensible price of $3.50. Here's what we shared:

a large plate of greens ($7.90)

steamed vegetarian buns (4 for $4.50)

The star attraction is really the dumplings - these vegetarian ones were 20 for $6.50. Incredible! Very tasty too - as you can see, they contain discernible pieces of mushroom and spring onion rather than homogeneous mush. For fast and cheap food in the city, this dumpling plate alone has Camy Shanghai outdoing my previous favourite, Nila City.

Address: 25 Tattersalls Lane, Melbourne CBD
Ph: 9663 8555
Price: veg meals $3-12

Friday, July 27, 2007

July 23, 2007: Leftover makeover - potato cakes

Michael's fennel leek soup yielded a bowl full of limp and soggy veges, drained of colour and flavour for the sake of stock. I resurrected some of the fennel, leek and carrot by finely chopping them; adding some pepper, powdered stock and chopped soy bacon for flavour; then incorporating them into potato cakes. (The prep method here, using waxy potatoes, is a revelation.) Fresh greens and vego Worcestershire sauce to serve. The resulting golden-fried fritters reminded me of the hash cakes (quit your giggling!) that my grandmother used to make (I said stop it!) from leftover boiled spuds and corned beef.

July 21, 2007: Fennel leek soup

We needed a better excuse for our trip to Preston Markets than just the nearby bakery, so before we set off we dug up this fennel leek soup recipe from our Moosewood cookbook for Sunday night's dinner. It was loaded up heavily with vegetables and seemed like it would be a decent winter's dinner. The recipe took a bit longer than I anticipated - you basically end up making your own stock for the base of the soup - and the final product was a little short on flavour (at least partly due to my forgetting to put pepper in), but still heavy, warming and satisfying. The thin-sliced radishes were a fine accompaniment, as were the croutons that Cindy made up from the fresh bread we'd picked up at the markets, but the whole package was just slightly short of flavour. It's something to work on - maybe up the leek content for next time.

Fennel leek soup (courtesy Moosewood Restaurant's New Classics)
1 fennel bulb, trimmed
3 leeks
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
4 large potatoes, peeled and chopped
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups spinach, rinsed and stemmed
2 tablespoons chopped dill
Juice of 1 lemon
10 cups of water
Thinly sliced radishes

Trim off the odds and ends from the leeks and fennel bulb and rinse them (the odds and ends I mean) thoroughly. Keep the good bits aside for later. Place the odds and ends in a large pot along with the carrots, half the potatoes, the thyme, fennel seeds and some salt. Cover with the water and boil for 45 minutes or an hour to make stock.

While the stock is simmering, slice the fennel bulb thinly and chop the white parts of the leeks up. Heat the olive oil in a pan and saute the fennel and leek for about 15 minutes, until they're soft.

Strain the stock and then put the stock, the fennel and leek and the remaining potatoes back into the big pot and simmer it all for about 15 minutes. Stir in the spinach, dill, lemon juice and the rest of the salt (and the pepper!).

Puree the soup in batches in a food processor until smooth. Serve it up with a handful of radish slices and a few croutons floating on top.

July 21, 2007: La Panella

Cindy has been agitating for a trip to Preston for a few weeks now on the back of this review of La Panella vegan bakery over at this is vegan melbourne. We decided to make the trip worthwhile with a trip to the Preston Markets - a grungier, smaller version of QVM - it's got meat and deli sections, a little organic stall and a range of clothing and other household bits and pieces to go along with the regular fruit and vegie stalls. We loaded up with vegies for a Sunday night soup (watch this space for the recipe/review) and, with the smell of doughnuts driving Cindy crazy with hunger, headed off to find La Panella.

It's a little walk away along High Street and, unfortunately, doesn't have seats or tables. It really just seems like the kind of suburban bakery that I remember from my childhood - although in this case you can be reasonably confident that there's no anus in your pie. The crowd around the counter was quite pushy and it took some observant work from the lady behind the counter to save us from being left hungry while more forthcoming customers made their way forward. We blurted our order out and scurried across the street with our haul: a mushroom pie, a 'sausage' roll, a couple of packets of tomato sauce and four doughnuts.

The pie was for me and it disappeared in no time - it was the perfect bakery snack, slightly soggy pastry filled with gravy and unidentifiable brown things (which I'm pretty sure actually were mushrooms) slathered in tomato sauce. In terms of sheer pie-quality, it fell short of Cindy's homemade efforts, but for speed and price (something like $2) it was a winning effort.

Cindy opted for the sausage roll, which seemed to have slightly crunchier pastry than the pie. The filling remains unidentified, but it fulfilled the guilty weekend lunch role as well as more sausage-y rolls used to back in Cindy's meat-eating days. Again, it probably fell a bit below the home-made version, but at $1.50, who's going to complain?

The doughnuts (so daintily held in the photo below) were our dessert and were a little disappointing after the aromas at the markets, if only because they were served up at room temperature. I think there should be a rule that doughnuts are only to be eaten fresh from the doughnut making machine. But that's just me, Cindy seemed to have no such qualms.

So, with our mouths lined with tomato sauce and bits of cinnamony sugar and our arms laden with groceries, we made our way to the tram and back home, with the weekend off to a very satisfying beginning.

Address: 465 High Street, Preston
Ph: 9478 4443
Price: Pies $2, Sausage rolls $1.50, Doughnuts 4 for $1

Thursday, July 26, 2007

July 21, 2007: Walnuts

On Saturday morning, Michael and I made our first visit to the Preston markets and I noticed walnuts at many of the fruit and veg stalls. I've repeatedly read that walnuts go rancid quite quickly and that fresh ones from the shell taste different to everything I've encountered in the supermarket, so naturally I was keen to buy half a kilo and taste for myself.

I definitely noticed a paler skin on my shelled walnuts. They have a strong woody taste with only a hint of bitterness - I've always picked up these flavours before but in different proportions. I've also discovered that walnuts make a sweet couple with my Daim bars! For the remaining handful, I will have to resist the toffee and try toasting them to see how that affects their flavour.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

July 21, 2007: An edible epilogue

Less than a week after we bid farewell to three Brisbane-based friends, a surprise thank-you gift arrived at our local post office! Inside was a packet of knäckebröd and an avalanche of Daim bites. These became my favourite snacks on a two-month stay in Sweden last year. Knäckebröd are crisp-breads, somewhat like Ryvita, which I enjoyed eating with butter and vegemite. Daim bars are something else again: crisp toffee with a real burnt caramel taste, coated in chocolate. Sticks in your teeth for hours, of course, but what a blissful flavour!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

July 20, 2007: The Green Grocer II

Update 27/2/2014: Walking past the other day, I noticed that The Green Grocer has closed down and been replaced by Sixteen 83 Epicerie.

I am still struggling to adjust to a Melbourne winter and within hours of darkness setting in I tend to become lodged semi-permanently on the couch, ensconced in a blanket. Michael, meanwhile, suffers bouts of cabin fever as I bat away his invitations to venture out and about. So it was his prodding that got us to a new restaurant for dinner on Friday night. Thankfully the weather was relatively mild on this night and the Green Grocer had a fireplace to greet us at the other end - if anything the atmosphere was a little too warm and drowsifying for me.

The single page menu is almost meat-free from the appetisers through to the light mains (ranging from $8.50-$18.50), but organic meat dominates the heavier end. This suited me fine - my appetite was light and I figured that one of the larger starters should leave me room for dessert. Despite my vague protestations, the waitress was concerned that we might not have enough to eat and recommended a plate of bread and dukkah (~$5). This was an irresistible proposition for Michael and he quickly did away with almost half the plate. Meanwhile I was battling the most potent ginger beer I'd ever tasted, and was smothering the flames in my throat with my second bread slice when our mains arrived.

Here's Michael's wild mushroom ragu with soft polenta, truffle oil and shaved parmesan ($16). He says he liked it, but it got a bit monotonous by the end. He was more excited about his glass of red (which incidentally tasted terrible when combined with the residue of ginger beer in my mouth).

I had artichokes with a parmesan, parsley breadcrumb stuffing stewed in lemon and white wine ($12.50). The first few mouthfuls were the best - I could really taste the subtle interplay of artichoke with lemon. The cheese, breadcrumbs and dressing were used sparingly, allowing the artichoke a main role throughout. In these proportions it was a light but comforting meal.

Unusually we both found room for dessert, and our waitress rattled off the dozen items available - it really was a long list to not get printed on the menu. I eschewed my best friend chocolate in favour of the sticky date pudding with butterscotch sauce (~$12.50). The butterscotch sauce and ice cream (flecked with vanilla seeds) were top-notch, but the pudding itself didn't bowl me over. It was pleasant, a bit on the dry side, and nothing different from any other date pudding I've tried. Would you believe I didn't even finish it? (The sauce and ice-cream were cleaned up, of course.)

Michael did better with the choc-orange souffle. It was fairly firm and cakey as souffles go, with a not-too-intense chocolate flavour that sat next to the orange, rather than dominating it.

All up it was a pleasant winter dinner for two, polished off with a walk home in the cool air. I was glad to finally try the Green Grocer's dinner menu but with the bill clocking in at $83, the food wasn't quite as memorable as I felt it should have been.

(Read about our previous breakfast at the Green Grocer here.)

Monday, July 23, 2007

New index

Bulging with over 130 recipes and 120 restaurant reviews, an overhaul of our indexing system was very much in order. We've shifted from del.icio.us to a few tediously-created pages of our own, now linked in the side-bar. Scroll down a little further and you'll see a rather nifty label cloud! (That's Michael's fine work, of course.)

Apologies if we've been sending long and dull updates to your RSS reader throughout this process. Also, please drop us a comment if you notice any broken links or have some simple ideas about how to make our new index easier to navigate.

July 18-19, 2007: Nanaimo bars

This week Beth celebrated her birthday with a banquet at the Moroccan Soup Bar and about twenty well-wishers. Michael and I thoroughly enjoyed a night spent catching up with a few friends and meeting lots of new people along the way. Amongst the conversation was a verbal recipe from a Turkish fellow for the legendary yoghurt chickpea dish that's always finished first at the Moroccan Soup Bar. I madly scribbled down notes and will begin experimenting at home shortly!

But before all the meeting, greeting and eating, I made a batch of Nanaimo bars as a gift for Beth. I first encountered Nanaimo bars when a Canadian student baked them for a lab morning tea while I was at the University of Queensland. They're a triple-layer no-bake slice with a biscuit-y base, sweet vanilla filling and chocolate top, claimed by the city of Nanaimo, BC. Hers were super-sweet, a little gooey in the middle and luckily, plentiful - there were enough for me to take a second one, and (3-4 years later) I still remember that the person sitting next to me ate four or five! Surely a treat worth researching and recreating, right?

My main sources were the "official" recipe and, because I prefer vanilla extract to using custard powder, this vegan version. The base was a bit heavy on the coconut and crumbly, so I'd adjust the coconut and butter proportions if I made this again. Also, I relied on ordinary dark cooking chocolate for the top layer: it tastes fine but the overall effect is incredibly sweet. A more bittersweet chocolate (such as Lindt 70%) would probably make a better contrast to the sugary vanilla icing. It'll be quite a while before I pull out this recipe for another sugar rush, but Nanaimo bars make an attractive and relatively easy-to-prepare dessert.

Nanaimo bars

base layer:
1/2 cup butter
1/4 cup sugar
5 tablespoons cocoa
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 1/4 cups digestive biscuits, crushed
1/2 cup almonds, chopped
1 cup coconut (I would reduce this to 3/4 cup)

middle layer:
1/4 cup butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups icing sugar
~1/8 cup milk

top layer:
140g dark chocolate
2 tablespoons butter

Gently melt the butter, sugar and cocoa in a saucepan. Add the egg and stir well, then take the mixture off the heat. Stir in the biscuit crumbs, almonds and coconut. Press the mixture firmly into a baking tray. Refrigerate while you prepare the next layer.

Beat the butter and vanilla until smooth, then gradually add the icing sugar. Pour in the milk, a tablespoon at a time, if the mixture becomes too stiff. Keep beating until the buttercream is fluffy. Spread it gently onto the bottom layer: I found that some of the coconut and biscuit bits lifted and got caught in the cream but it turned out OK in the end. Return the tray to the fridge while you prepare the final layer.

Gently melt the chocolate and butter over low heat and allow it to cool slightly. Pour it over the slice and gently smooth it out into a glossy covering. Refrigerate to set and carefully cut into squares to serve.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

July 18, 2007: Beetroot pesto pasta

Today's dinner inspiration comes from A Veggie Venture. Cindy was in the mood for a simple pesto-based pasta and, to mix things up a little, I decided to have a crack at this beet pesto instead of the standard basil option. There was a downside to this choice - the process of roasting beetroots is a lot more time-consuming than rinsing basil, but there were upsides too: successful beet-roasting, an interesting new pesto flavour, and easily the pinkest meal I've ever cooked.

By the time the beets had spent an hour or so in the oven roasting, dinner was a snap - the pesto took about 3 minutes to throw together in the food processor and then you just stir it through some cooked pasta with a few mushrooms and a bit of capsicum and then dinner is served. Piece of cake. The pesto dyes the pasta shocking pink, and adds a sweet, nutty flavour to what would otherwise be a fairly bland meal.

Beetroot pesto
4 beetroots
3 cloves of garlic
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup pine nuts
Some leftover gruyere cheese (or whatever else is about the house)
1 bunch of coriander

Wash the beets and trim any unruly stalks off. Place them in a baking tray, splash a bit of oil and balsamic vinegar over them and then roast for an hour or so at about 200 degrees, turning a few times.

Once the beets are done (the skin will crackle and bubble a little, see above), take them out of the oven and let them cool. When they've stopped being too hot to handle, scrape the skin off and chop the beets coarsely.

Throw the beets and all the other ingredients into a food processor and whiz until it's a nice coarse texture (to be honest, for a pasta sauce, it might be better to up the olive oil a little).

Beetroot pesto pasta
Prepare beet pesto (above). Cook 1 packet of pasta, drain. Fry some mushrooms and capsicum in a little olive oil. Stir the pesto, vegies and pasta together. Voila!

July 17, 2007: Bean and tortilla bake

This dinner was very much inspired by Johanna's tortilla casserole over at Green Gourmet Giraffe. I liked the idea of tortillas baked and softened by a tomato-sauced, spicy beans and a crunchy, cheesy top. Even better, I had another packet of organic corn tortillas in the cupboard to trial it with. From that point, though, I just went with my intuition and the available ingredients rather than religiously following Johanna's recipe. My relatively neat circular tortilla layers were a successful alternative to Johanna's rip-'em-up approach but I didn't include enough canned tomatoes, rendering a moist but not saucy filling. This created a further misfortune: the chopped chipotle chilli spread its heat unevenly through the mix, supplying bland and fiery mouthfuls intermittently. These minor mishaps are easily addressed and I've noted below my intended changes for next time - I think this concept definitely deserves a second run. This dinner, however, was saved by a particularly good avocado, served on the side with a handful of salad greens.

Bean and tortilla bake

1/2 cup dried TVP mince
1 tablespoon oil
1 onion, chopped finely
3 cloves garlic, minced
6 button mushrooms, chopped
1 red capsicum, chopped
1 x 400g can red kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1 x 400g can crushed tomatoes (I'll double it to 800g next time)
1 chipotle chilli, finely chopped, with 1/2 teaspoon of adobo sauce (I'll probably substitute a tablespoon of Spanish Creole Adobo spice mix next time)
4-6 tortillas
2/3 cup sharp cheddar, grated

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C. Rehydrate the TVP with an equal volume of hot water.

Heat the oil in a large saucepan and fry the onion until softened. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for another minute. Next add the mushrooms, stirring to cook evenly. After a couple more minutes, add the capsicum, beans, tomatoes and chilli/spice. Simmer for 10 minutes.

Pour just enough of the bean filling into a casserole dish to cover the bottom. Fit a tortilla or two over the top, ripping them up to form a single layer that completely covers the dish. Alternate layers of filling and tortilla, finishing with a double layer of tortillas. Sprinkle over the grated cheese and bake, uncovered, until the cheese is melted and beginning to brown.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

July 15, 2007: Ray II

On Sunday morning we had only two hours to show our interstate guests another tasty Melbourne breakfast before they set off home and I entrusted Ray with the task. I should have remembered how popular (and thus, slow) their coffee service is. The laid back atmosphere of Ray is usually just my style but on this day we encountered service that verged on catatonic. L is of a more dynamic bent than I and it shouldn't be surprising, then, that when the wrong dishes were cooked and served to her (and I) and no apology was forthcoming, she was decidedly unimpressed.

On the bright side, Michael and L2 enjoyed their poached eggs with capsicum pesto, spinach, feta and this time, the promised sprinkling of dukkah. S had meatballs and as the calories hit his bloodstream, gradually re-acquired the power of speech. Meanwhile, L's and my chai lattes grew cold as we waited for our new breakfasts. How long does it really take to toast some pide?

As Michael cleared his plate, ours arrived: toasted pide with labna and rosejam ($7). The thick tangy labna is just the foil for the sweet, perfumey and sparingly-drizzled jam. I almost finished the three slices and enjoyed them very much but my ideal version of this breakfast would involve two slices of toast, self-service on the spreads and a bit of poached fruit on the side.

This patchy Ray experience is as much my fault as the staff's - I should have read my guests' need for faster food and more judiciously chosen our venue. But a little extra grace under fire would be a welcome addition to Ray's menu.

Read about our previous visit to Ray here.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

July 14, 2007: Nila City

Cindy and friends previously discovered Nila Junction in Brunswick and their experience was positive enough that, once our first plan of Los Amates fell through, we were keen to drag our interstate visitors into the city incarnation, Nila City. It helped that we'd just stumbled out of Hell's Kitchen bar a few doors down when we found out Los Amates didn't have room for us.

The menu is bursting with cheap Indian options. Insanely cheap. Entrees from $1.95, meals from $3.95 - it's like we'd stumbled into an Indian city. Or maybe the 1970s. Of course, I assumed that cheapness meant small meals and opted for the most expensive vego option on the menu: the vegetarian meal. It's basically a giant thali (although some would say all thalis are giant), with six different curries, a roti and a truckload of rice. The curries were all serviceable without being particularly memorable, but they were warm and spicy, and flavoured up delicious bread and well-cooked rice. It's hard to imagine another place where $10 can buy you this much good food.

Cindy also thought that she could handle more than just one meal. She kicked off with a potato bonda - masala mashed potato balls dipped in chickpea flour and deep-fried. Again, the assumption was that for $2, this would essentially be a bite-sized entree. Of course it wasn't - it was a substantial fried spud ball, served up with a tomato sauce. The potato was almost too spicy for Cindy's tastes.

She followed it up with a mini roti curry roll (before you even think it - the 'mini' in the title didn't reflect reality). Unfortunately, despite the menu's promise of a chickpea curry filling, the bulk of the roll's insides were stuffed with a potato masala very similar to the bonda. Still, the bready roll was tremendous (so much so Cindy ended up picking her way around the filling) and the bits of chickpea curry that were inside were great. No great loss at $3.95.

Our fellow diners were reasonably satisfied with their meat-based dishes and everyone walked away very happy with the impact on their wallets. So it seems that Nila City performs the same role as Nila Junction - reasonably tasty Indian that is bafflingly inexpensive. In fact, I think we'd save money if we just stopped cooking dinner and ate at Nila every night. Perhaps we'll give it a try.

Read about Cindy's previous Nila trip here.

Address: 13 Degraves St, Melbourne
Ph: 9014 8822
Price: veg food $1.50-$10
Website: www.nila.net.au

Again, Michael uses the wrong log-in for his review.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

July 14, 2007: The Rathdowne Street Food Store II

How to show our visitors a good time on a drizzly Melbourne Saturday morning? Brunch of course, and lots of it. With eight people to seat, we had to shop around for a while to find a place that would let us book. Luckily, the Rathdowne Street Foodstore is both convenient and amenable to bookings, so Cindy arranged us a table for 10am. We were tucked in the back corner (which I hadn't even noticed on our previous trip), with just enough space for us all to squeeze in amongst the dozens of cushions.

Comments on our last post convinced Cindy to sample the ricotta hotcakes, with warm honey syrup, poached pear and lavender ice cream ($14.50). She wasn't let down by the recommendations - the pancakes had a rustic weight, the ice cream was interesting without being overly floral and she was very pleased to receive an entire pear (see here for her previous rant about fruit shortages on pancakes). Nice job blog commentors.

As usual, I went for an egg-based treat: poached eggs on toast, with hash browns, baked beans and field mushrooms ($16). The eggs were slightly over poached (not as severely as El Mirage's efforts), the hash-browns were as delicious as Cindy told me they would be and the beans and mushrooms were flavoursome and filling. Even the toast was a winner - one slice of heavy rye and one of multigrain. I was starving, but it filled me up to a tee.

The coffee was great and the service was pretty efficient and friendly. The prices are probably a fraction high, but the Rathdowne Street Food Store is easily the best brekkie option we've found in Rathdowne Village and their willingness to take bookings will surely mean we'll return on future large-grouped breakfast occasions.

Read about our previous visit to the Rathdown Street Food Store here.

Monday, July 16, 2007

July 13, 2007: Brunetti VII

Update 27/1/2019: Brunetti is still trading, but has moved from Faraday Street into a huge custom-built space inside Lygon Court.

As I hinted in my previous post, I've been spending the weekend with a long-time friend, L. Her journey from Brisbane was made for entirely unselfish reasons - to introduce her internationally-acquired partner S to another Aussie city and to pull her sister L2 away from a demanding day job for a bit of fun. The trio managed to pack in a formidable five days of shopping, sight-seeing, eating and catching up with friends, with a day-and-a-half of it based at our home. On their Friday night arrival at our place, I decided to team a welcoming home-cooked dinner with a very Melbourne dessert out on Lygon St.

One of my favourite moments of the weekend was presenting the very vego-skeptical S with a plate of enjoyable meat-free food. Aware that he'd taken a shine to Australia's meat pie, I prepared a muffin pan's worth of TVP mince pies, fragrant with a rosemary gravy. On the side were lemony potatoes with artichokes (I'll make these again and blog them soon) and a handful of baby spinach leaves. Though there was plenty to talk about and fill each other in on, I didn't miss the look of wonder on S's face after his first couple of bites or his keen acceptance of seconds.

An hour or so later it was on with the coats and out onto Lygon St. The expansive and varied dessert selection at Brunetti has consistently impressed our visitors to Melbourne, and L comes in as second most excited ever (Emma wins by a whisker). Michael bravely claimed a table outside for us to squish around, and this mild discomfort was far outweighed by the cakes in front of us and watching the careful art with which L demolished this chocolate-topped tart:

I picked a winter pudding for Michael and he reported that I did well to match his tastes. It was a warm little rendition of the bread-and-butter-pudding, a concoction with custard, cherries and chocolate. For myself it was the triple chocolate mousse (pictured at the top of the post): I'm still not really sure how it's supposed to be eaten politely, with the plastic wall seeming impossible to remove. Perhaps I'm meant to genteel-ly leave those last smears of mousse on the plastic? (No chance!) Top to bottom, this mousse is a study in light to dense chocolate, beginning with a creamy white version and ending with a firmer dark mousse and thin chocolate biscuit layer. Its modest size proved to be more than enough to satisfy my choc-o-meter.

(You can also read about our other visits to Brunetti: one, two, three, four, five and six!)