Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A liquid lunch (and breakfast, and dinner...)

With my jaw and gums still recovering from a wisdom tooth removal, meals in the where's the beef? household have been less diverse than usual. Michael has been doing a stellar job at catering to my whims and fancies where possible. Here's what I've been enjoying, as best my mouth allows me....

HIT: Michael's pumpkin and shallot soup. Nourishing and slightly sweet.

MISS: Michael's pumpkin and shallot soup, unstrained.

HIT: King Island yoghurt. I requested any lump/seed-free yoghurt and Michael pampered me with the best. The cinnamon and honey one is particularly soothing.

MISS: Attempting to eat rice pudding on day two. It fared better at breakfast on day four.

HIT: Chocolate ice-cream. It's years since I've shopped for ice-cream at a supermarket and it proved difficult to find one without nuts, cookie chunks or other hazards in it. Sara Lee's Ultimate Chocolate has a strange grey-brown colour but is otherwise just what the oral surgeon ordered.

MISS: Porridge on day three. Made with loving care by Michael, it turns out that home-made porridge is a lot more toothsome than the gruel I was eating at Freycinet Lodge. Ordinarily I'd be delighted, but this week it has meant guiltily relegating Michael's labours to the back of the fridge.

HIT: Mashed potato with gravy on day four. Flavoured with garlic and a bit of grated parmesan, this was a much-appreciated savoury treat.

MISS: Attempting to eat a water cracker on day five. After days of craving vegemite crackers and potato chips followed by a pain-free morning, I tempted fate and gingerly nibbled a quarter of a water cracker. What followed was reminiscent of Patsy Stone's first ingestion of food since 1973.

HIT: Lunar eclipse soup. Pictured above, this was my own invention, faithfully carried out by Michael. It consists of home-made pesto, a large can of crushed tomatoes and some vege stock, simply heated together in a large saucepan. Lots of flavour and a bit of texture, but all able to be swallowed without too much jaw stress.

HIT OR MISS? Michael and I have a special meal booked for Sunday but will I be equipped to enjoy it? Please send a little prayer to the food gods for me, that I'll be fit for play on the weekend, or that the restaurant will allow us to postpone our booking in spite of some recent attention.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

August 23, 2007: Roasted pumpkin and shallot soup

The extraction of Cindy's wisdom teeth has meant that we've been on a liquid-food diet for the weekend. To make sure that she had food available on Friday evening, we spent Thursday night in the kitchen: she whipping up her Indian mango pudding, and me having a crack at a pumpkin soup recipe from Ken Charney's The Bold Vegetarian Chef.

The recipe had a few quirks compared to regular pumpkin soup - not least the incorporation of a roasted pear. I was uncertain whether the pear was going to have any impact on the overall flavour (it was 1 smallish pear in amongst a kilo of pumpkin after all) and speculated that it may have just been a gimmick to make Ken's recipe sound exotic. It turns out I was wrong, the pear (along with a decent splash of lemon juice) added a level of unexpected sweetness to the pumpkin and shallots, to the point that this savoury option turned out to be a little on the sweet side given Cindy's limited food choices. The recipe also suggested a couple of crispy garnishes (fried sage leaves and roasted pumpkin seeds) that we skipped to avoid any unpleasant chewing issues.

Roasted pumpkin and shallot soup
4 shallots
1 pear, peeled, cored and chopped
1 - 1.5kg pumpkin
2 teaspoons dried sage
olive oil
200g silken tofu
4 cups vegie stock
juice of one lemon

Preheat the oven to 190 degrees.

Chop the shallots coarsely and toss with the pear, the dried sage and a teaspoon of olive oil.

Bake the shallot/pear mix and the pumpkin (cut it in half if you didn't buy pre-chopped chunks). The pear and shallots probably take about 25 minutes, while the pumpkin takes a bit longer - say 35. You want it to be nice and soft all the way through.

Once everything is baked, peel off the pumpkin skin and mix together the pumpkin flesh with the pear and shallots, along with the stock, tofu and some salt and pepper. You can add a 1/2 cup of wine or a splash of vinegar here as well if you feel like it.

Blend up the mix in batches in a food processor until it's a smooth, non-chewable consistency and put the whole lot in a large saucepan over low heat on the stove. Simmer for about 10 minutes and add in the lemon juice (along with more salt and pepper if required) and then simmer for a final few minutes. Depending on how your mouth is working - serve either with crusty bread or a frustratingly small teaspoon.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

August 22, 2007: Heidi's hasty, tasty tomato sauce

After more than two weeks of subsisting on meals prepared by cafes and caterers, I was looking forward to some simple, nourishing home-cooked food. Heidi (of 101 Cookbooks) couldn't have shared her favourite tomato sauce recipe at a more opportune time. It's a simple, very quickly prepared mix with a canned crushed tomato base, the requisite olive oil and garlic, then some much-needed zing from dried chilli and lemon zest. Following Heidi's recommendation further we served this with ricotta and spinach tortellini, then for some extra vege action baked portabello mushrooms with quick brush of balsamic vinegar. This was just the hint of summer I needed to put a spring in my step!

Hasty, tasty tomato sauce

1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon chilli powder
1/2 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 x 400g cans crushed tomatoes
grated rind of one lemon

Stir together the olive oil, chilli, salt and garlic in a saucepan without heat. Then heat the saucepan up to medium-high, giving the mixture less than a minute to saute. Add the tomatoes and gently simmer the sauce for just a few minutes. Take it off the heat, adjust the salt to taste, then stir in the lemon rind, perhaps reserving some as a garnish.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

August 18, 2007: The Cascade Brewery

Saturday was Michael's last day in Hobart, and we kicked it off with a wander through that tourist staple, the Salamanca Markets. It's dominated by crafts and gourmet foods rather than fresh produce, and I picked up some fudge and ground spices along the way. I'm looking forward to experimenting with my lemon myrtle and ground wattle seeds when I return home!

For Michael's last few hours in the city, we took the advice of our friendly waitress at Kafe Kara, grabbing a bus to South Hobart and visiting the Cascade Brewery for lunch. Giving the tour a miss, the gardens surrounding the visitor centre proved a pleasant diversion instead. In warmer weather it would be lovely to sit out amongst the greenery, but this wussy northerner preferred to enjoy the view from a window seat inside. As you might expect from a brewery, the menu is full of deep-fried munchies and meaty meals, though Michael and I were both pleasantly surprised when we encountered a "Cascade Stout and Mushroom Pie with crusty mash on top & served with vegetables". Then when our waiter arrived to take our order I had this conversation with him...

Me: Can I confirm that the stout and mushroom pie is actually vegetarian?

Silence - just a bewildered grin fixed on our waiter's face.

Me again: Is there any meat in it?


Waiter, vaguely and cheerfully: I think... I think there's a bit of meat in that.

More dead air.

Me: could you check that with the chef?

Turns out there's a heapin' helpin' of beef in that pie. Makes sense, I suppose, but when the rest of the menu touts its meat explicitly in the description I was mildly surprised that they weren't openly boasting about the juicy steak chunks here.

To be fair, the list of snacks, starters and sides offers plenty that's meat-free but I was quite put out by the complete incomprehension and passivity from our waiter. For visiting vegetarians, I'd recommend the idyllic Cascade visitor centre for a stroll, some beer and a snack, but make your meal booking elsewhere. We don't really belong here.

August 17, 2007: Something old and something new in Hobart

First, something new: Machine Laundry. As the name indicates, this is a laundromat. But it's also a brightly decorated, retro-fitted cafe where hipsters with angular haircuts serve breakfast and lunch. There are the usual breakfast suspects, but also a substantial number of off-beat vege-friendly dishes: savoury muffins and pancakes, fruits poached in vanilla, and below the DIY eggs and toast list, this message: "Don't want eggs? You can order any combo of sides". Could anything make me feel more at home here? (Answer: perhaps my own new angular and slightly pretentious haircut.) I was determined to eat lightly and a little more healthily, choosing the "machine-made granola" ($9, rolled grains toasted with slivered almonds & honey, topped with banana and yoghurt). Unfortunately it let me down, more chewy than crunchy, with too much honey and not enough fruit for my taste. Michael fared much better with the impressive "machine-packed roti bread" ($11.50), stuffed with scrambled eggs and served with chilli jam.

After an aborted attempt at visiting Mt Field, we spent the bulk of the day on the Peppermint Bay Cruise. It was all rather passive and the souvenir stop in Woodbridge was a bit of a "swank wank" (as Michael described it), but this was outweighed by the lovely vegetarian packed lunch they provided, the environmental knowledge of our guide, and most of all by the sighting of a white-bellied sea eagle, with its incredible wingspan and smooth plucking of a fish from the Derwent River.

Something old came in the form of a repeat visit to Sirens for dinner. Michael's sweet potato tamale of black eyed beans with coconut cream, apricot chutney and star fruit salad ($18) couldn't trump his blue cheese lasagna, but still went down well. Determined to save room for dessert, I chose the honey brown mushroom soup ($8) and a side of garlic lemon spinach ($6). The soup was deep in flavour, mercifully modest in size and set off with a couple of cheesy croutons; the spinach had a great tang.

For dessert, Michael waited the requisite 20 minutes for a freshly steamed warm apple and walnut torte with vanilla anglaise and mulled wine icecream ($11). The icecream that so intrigued him was only subtly flavoured but complemented the torte well - all up it was worth the wait. My choice proved to be a very adult deconstruction of a Golden Rough: a dense, buttery dark chocolate mousse with a cashew crust, served on a carpet of toasted coconut shards with rum sherbet and bittersweet chocolate chunks on the side ($10). Best. Vegan. Dessert. EVER. I would almost recommend you fly to Hobart from wherever you live just to order this dessert! Sirens truly delighted us from the first mouthful to the last.

Friday, August 17, 2007

August 16: Edible adventures in Hobart

Thursday brought four notable food experiences...

1. A tour of the Cadbury factory. It took us longer to travel to and from the factory via the suburban bus system than it did to embark on the 50 minute tour. At $12.50 per person, the tour is quite reasonable but it's more a demonstration of the moulding and packaging of Cadbury chocolates than the actual tempering/production. Each person receives a 95g box of Favourites on the way out, and there are discounted seconds available from the gift shop. I was mightily pleased that they've recently been making runs of Turkish Delight, scoring 750g of the stuff for $5.

2. Brunch at Kafe Kara. We were very restrained in our early morning chocolate consumption and keen for some real food by 11:00. Kafe Kara was the perfect fit, with a few unusual items on the menu and all the gluten-free, vegetarian and convertible dishes clearly marked. Michael's poached eggs on toast with spinach, KARA relish and sweet potato rosti (~$16) were above average but outdone by my savoury Scottish pancakes (~$15), containing caramelised onions and aged cheddar and served with spinach and relish. With a sleek but unpretentious look, good coffee and great orange juice, this cafe is a winner all round. Highly recommended!

3. Afternoon tea at Jackman & McRoss. We worked off our brunch and then some, spending almost four hours exploring the city, the Botanic gardens and the Cenotaph on foot (again, you can see our best non-food pics at Flickr). Late afternoon refreshments were had at this bakery, located very close to our hotel. There's a huge array of loaves and rolls, but the real temptations are the savoury and sweet pastries. Most go for about $6 apiece, they're generously portioned and of the utmost quality - my sour/sweet raspberry and rhubarb tart and Michael's poached quince, rum and marscapone tart are prime examples. My new favourite dessert partner is an unsweetened T2 Madagascan vanilla black tea.

4. Dinner at Sirens. Just when we thought the day's eating couldn't get any better, along came Sirens. This vegetarian restaurant is as organic, free-range, composting and recycling as possible, but it's no crusty commune. With its sophisicated and eastern-influenced decor and meticulously prepared and presented food ($15-20 for a main), it has a lot in common with Melbourne's Shakahari. Yet it seemed to offer something a bit more - maybe it was just receptive service on a slow weeknight, but each dish seemed a little surprising and perfectly balanced. Our parsnip and apple salad with walnuts, peppery greens and parsnip chips ($13) included the most exquisite miniature patties of roasted and mashed parsnip with a walnut, nigella and sesame crust. Michael's roast cauliflower and blue cheese lasagna with walnuts and grape concasse ($19) similarly hit the mark, with the blue cheese taking a supporting role rather than smothering the dish. For me it was roast pumpkin, goats cheese and sage souffle with golden shallot cream ($17), creamy and comforting for winter with pumpkin seeds and a rye toast crouton to add some crunch. My only regret is that I had no room for dessert!

Could our holiday eating possibly get any better than this? At the very least there might be a couple of repeat visits ahead to more fully sample some mouth-watering menus...

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

August 6-15: Freycinet Lodge and the east coast

I've been lucky enough to spend the last week attending an almost-all-expenses-paid workshop located at Freycinet Lodge in Tasmania. It's been an intense, productive and inspiring time shared with about 30 other scientists - a rare opportunity to tap into their creativity and the challenges they face, and to emerge with some exciting new ideas and collaborations.

Such progress has been aided by: (1) the incredibly comfortable and luxurious environment the lodge provides; (2) the equally decadent catering; and (3) the stunning surrounds of Freycinet National Park, guaranteed to clear the mind and make space for your own personal "Eureka!" moment.

What with this being a food blog, how about I give you a run-down of the catering? On our arrival at lunch time on Monday, we were greeted by a large deck with 180 degree views of sparkling Coles Bay and two chefs barbeque-ing us a gourmet lunch - charred and chunky vege skewers with dukkah and lemon juice for the vegetarians. If this weren't impressive enough, at 7pm it became apparent that we would be receiving three course dinners every night. At the table we received a nightly menu offering three different options for each course, one always being vegetarian. Here's what I had...

Monday: beetroot and chive bread;
cauliflower and pepperberry cheese soup;
kumara and pine nut risotto with sauteed spinach and brie cheese;
steamed banana and pecan nut pudding with anglaise and buttered pecan nut ice cream.

Tuesday: unidentified bread - I think it had a whiff of saffron;
char grilled Mediterranean vegetable stack layered with fetta and baby spinach enhanced with pesto;
Tasmanian organic tofu and aubergine coated with dukkah spices on spicy lentil puree;
lemon tart with creme fraiche and berry coulis.

Thursday: another unidentified but delicious bread;
carrot and cashew soup;
spinach, fetta cheese and walnut wrapped in filo pastry on a bed of spicy lentils;
chocolate parfait with pistachio ice cream and berry coulis.

Worth a special mention are the bread rolls - they were soft and warm, of a different flavour each night, and absolutely delectable. Freycinet Lodge emphasises local produce wherever possible, and this meant lots of fresh seafood for the wide-eyed meat-eaters, and wine and cheese all round. I found that this meant the vegetarian food was unrelentingly rich and usually cheesy - for example, I only could only eat about a third of the Monday night risotto. This should all really be special occasion food, and it was a bit over the top as a nightly occurrence, particularly when the super-sized morning and afternoon teas are taken into account. (Think scones, cookies and cakes bigger than your fist... twice a day.) The catering was exceedingly generous, but unfortunately had a bloating effect by the end of the week.

The only opportunity for sanctimony was breakfast, and even then a dazzling array of foods tempted. My personal favourites became the berry yoghurt with crunchy muesli (including toasted hazelnuts) and the porridge, flavoured with dried fruits and a dab of berry jam.

Michael didn't miss out on the fun completely - I'd reserved a cabin for us to share over the weekend after the workshop finished, and we're spending about a week making our way back to Hobart before returning to reality. We visited the Bay Restaurant proper for two dinners, finding the vegetarian meals to be of slightly better quality (probably because the chefs were not under pressure to produce 30 meals simultaneously), but still a tad rich and over-priced compared to what we can enjoy in Melbourne for just $15.

More generally along the east coast, it seems that lovers of King Island beef and fresh seafood will eat well even in the smaller towns. For vegetarians, however, the prognosis is less grand. The concept has certainly spread this far and it's not difficult to source a salad roll or spinach and cheese pastry for lunch. However the mid- to high-priced pubs and restaurants almost uniformly offer a $20 vege lasagne for dinner. The creative highlight has actually been the most processed and Aussie rendition of the vege burger that I've ever seen: a doughy white roll housing a Kraft plastic cheese slice, Kraft mayo, iceberg lettuce, tomato slices, a fried egg and a battered and deep-fried potato scallop as a patty. The venue, ominously called Pork's Place, proved to have more meat-free meals available than any other restaurant in Bicheno.

While the food has been somewhat hit and miss, the real reason to explore the east coast is the wildlife. In our two days based at Freycinet Lodge we walked roughly 25km, north to Coles Bay and then south to the Wine Glass Bay Lookout and beach, Hazards lagoon and beach and Fleurieu Point. The view from the lookout is spectacular, the beaches and different vegetation types are a feast for the eyes. We've had a few special encounters with fauna along the way, from wallabies feeding in the woods to scarlet robins and grey fantails boldly showing off their plumage. (If you're interested in a tour through our less edible photos, we've set up an album here.) Unfortunately an early morning tour of Moulting Lagoon failed to turn up many of the hundred or so species of birds present in the area due to heavy rain. (We bravely donned jackets and plastic bags and watched what we could, anyway, and learned a lot from our guide and keen birder, Tara.) The penguins nesting around Bicheno were much less shy.

The next few days will be based in Hobart, so the focus will no doubt swing back towards the edible delights of Tasmania!

Monday, August 13, 2007

August 5, 2007: Small Block

With Cindy heading off to Tasmania in the afternoon and nothing much planned for the morning, we decided to wander up to East Brunswick and find ourselves some breakfast. I was particularly hungry, so by the time we were in the cafe-heavy area of Lygon Street, the choice of venue was all down to whichever came first. Luckily, the winner was Small Block - a well-regarded cafe that we'd yet to visit. Thanks to our fairly early start, there was plenty of room available and we slotted into a corner table and studied the menu on the wall. The savoury options aren't particularly veg-friendly, with just a couple of non-bacon (or salmon) choices, while the sweet section of the menu was rich and varied.

Of course, I stuck with my savoury preference and chose the 'summer breakfast' - poached eggs with beetroot relish, avocado, spinach and feta ($14). The beetroot relish was an interesting addition to a fairly standard brekkie - it provided a nice flavour contrast with the salty feta, but it proved too sweet for me in the end. I could probably have managed with half as much. The eggs were perfectly poached and the feta was very tasty indeed. Throw in half an avocado (which was nice and ripe) and some delicious toast and you've got a very satisfactory breakfast indeed. The coffee was nice too, which was the icing on the cake.

Speaking of cake, Cindy ordered ricotta pancakes, which came with vanilla saffron pears and Barbados cream ($13). The pancakes were very sweet and cakey and the Barbados cream was also pretty sugary. The whole thing was right at the dessert end of the breakfast spectrum, and probably not something you'd order very often. At least if you were me. Cindy had a chai latte to drink and found it super-gingery - possibly because she was complaining about the weak, flavourless chai at a different cafe while hers was being made.

The food was pretty good, the service friendly enough and the atmosphere pleasant. It's probably short a few vego options for my taste and with Gingerlee and (the still unvisited) Poached nearby, it may be a while before we head back.

Address: 130 Lygon Street, Brunswick East
Ph: 9381 2244
Price: ~$6 - $14

Saturday, August 11, 2007

August 4, 2007: Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander

This weekend heralded the arrival of yet another Mike, this one a colleague from the US. To welcome him to Australia and Victoria in particular, Jane took us all on a half-day tour of the Yarra Valley. I packed a few super sandwiches and some fruit to line our stomachs as we travelled, since the main attraction would be wine tasting. It became apparent quite quickly that Mike knows a lot about wine, so the expedition proved to be as educational as it was enjoyable. We managed to cover five of the smaller vineyards, encountering a variety of hosts, almost all of them chatty, and Michael amassed a substantial collection of reds to take home (lucky Jane had a kombi, rather than a little hatchback, to fit them all in!). The added bonus (for Mike especially) were encounters with a laughing kookaburra, a small flock of galahs, and about a dozen kangaroos, one with a joey in its pouch.

As the clock ticked past 6pm we decided we needed something more substantial than even the local shiraz. The Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander winery in Healesville proved to be a worthy dinner location. It has a modern industrial feel, with high ceilings and glass walls that amplify the loud chatter of its patrons. The menu offers the kind of pizzas and snacks that you'd expect to find at a trendy pub or cafe, and also features a list of hotpots. I had eyes only for the housecut chips ($8, made from organic "Dobsons" potatoes and served with aioli) and so chose the avocado, rocket and "handmade in Healesville" corn relish sandwich ($9) to round out the meal.

The chips were super-thick cut, skin on, and just perfect with the aioli - well worth the extra couple of bucks over the standard around Melbourne. The sandwich was pretty good too (avocado in big, buttery slabs and very sweet relish), but I prioritised the chips since the quantity was all a bit much. Michael went for the vegetarian hotpot option, coriander fried rice cake with panang vegetable curry ($21). It similarly proved excellent, with curry samples had by all at the table. Also worth a mention is Jane's pizza, which included some amazing mushroom tapenade.

It'll be a while before Michael and I find ourselves in Healesville again, and the Healesville Hotel will probably always have the bigger reputation, but I'll happily recommend a meal (particularly dinner) at GS/IB.

Address: 336 Maroondah Highway (cnr Don Road), Healesville
Ph: 5962 6111
Price: veg mains ~$17

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

August 3, 2007: Casa Farro

Update 31/12/2014: Casa Farro has closed down, replaced by another Italian restaurant, Guseli.

When Cindy and I got a menu from Casa Farro in our mailbox with a Nicholson Street address, there was some confusion. I decided that the place we'd sampled at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival must have moved closer to us. It turns out that that place was called Pizza Farro, not Casa Farro and it seems as though Casa Farro has been on Nicholson Street for at least as long as we've lived here. Weird. Anyway, what both 'Farro' pizza shops have in common is a focus on spelt flour pizza bases. I guess it's good for people who have problems with wheat (although apparently not for people with gluten intolerance - I don't really understand the difference), but the difference isn't really noticeable. At least to me.

Anyway, having sorted out that Casa Farro was just around the corner from us, Cindy and I decided to give it a shot. We wandered in at 8:30 on a Friday evening and found plenty of free tables. The vibe is pleasant - the walls are filled with mirrors, wooden chopping boards and other atmospheric bits and pieces. The focus of the menu is pizza obviously, but there are also foccacias, pastas and a few other (meaty) mains. There are seven vegetarian pizzas on the menu, all of which sound delicious and a few of which are at least slightly unusual (artichoke puree anyone?). I was keen to sample a pizza each, but Cindy had her eye on dessert so we just settled on a funghi pizza and a green salad (although it turns out they brought out the wrong salad - we ended up having to pick out the crisp prosciutto). The pizza was great - cheesy (both mozzarella and taleggio), sprinkled with a variety of mushrooms, some fresh parsley and a dash of truffle oil. It was perfectly cooked and sufficiently large - Cindy made the right choice, two pizzas would have been too much.

Of course, sticking to one pizza also meant dessert - Cindy was immediately drawn to the many nutella-based options and the combination of raspberry, nougat and nutella all wrapped up in a calzone was too much to resist. She was pretty impressed - particularly with the filling.

I opted for 'Nonna's Tart' - an orange-y tart served up with ice cream. It was fairly light and very tasty - an excellent (and rare) non-chocolate based dessert. Nice one Casa Farro!

Address: 161 Nicholson Street, Carlton
Ph: 9347 2112
Price: Vego pizzas: $15-$17, Dessert: $6-$10