Thursday, January 31, 2008

January 31, 2008: Banana bread

The short week it took for Michael and I to finish the tray of bubble slice is embarrassing... particularly when you consider that we were away without access to it for three of those days! Determined that my next round of baking would be less cheeky, I picked out a recipe for whole wheat banana bread from Nicole of Pinch My Salt. At first glance it looked very much like my mum's recipe for banana cake, though closer inspection reveals differing quantities of sugar and rising agents. I'm always keen to incorporate wholemeal flour into my snack baking, but have been concerned about simple substitution leading to dry, leaden results. So with Nicole's recipe already specifying wholemeal flour I was ready to go!

This banana bread does have that wholesome, filling quality but it's not at all leaden. While it's not exactly fluffy, it does retain that cakey consistency I was hoping for. Yes it's a bit plain and unexciting to photograph - I might stretch to throwing in some walnuts next time, but there'll be no chocolate chips or icing for my banana bread. This way, it supplies all the comfort and nourishment I want.

Oh, and one other thing: I was impatient and used ripe, rather than over-ripe bananas. Fifteen minutes in a moderate oven had them perfectly black and squishy for mashing. I got the idea from this much more naughty banana recipe.

Banana bread

125g butter
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
~3 bananas, mashed (aim for about 1 cup, I had a bit more)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups wholemeal flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chopped walnuts, optional

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C and grease a small-medium loaf pan.

Cream the butter and sugar together in a large bowl. Beat in the eggs, banana and vanilla.

Sift together the flour, baking soda and salt into a separate bowl, then stir them into the butter mix. Add the walnuts, if you're using them.

Pour the batter into the loaf pan and bake for 45-60 minutes. Nicole specifies the full hour, but I found that mine took a lot less time!

January 30, 2008: Strawberry and spinach salad

The use of fruit in salads is a bit controversial. Yes, I know that tomatoes and cucumbers are fruits, strictly speaking, but I'm thinking more about oranges, nectarines or apples. I've been quite a skeptic myself but I'm gradually coming around. I've long reconciled myself to salads of bitter green leaves, pear and cheese; this sandwich wouldn't be the same without apple; and grapes give a new dimension to a haloumi salad. Even so, adding strawberries to a green leaf salad seemed a step up - don't those red heart-shaped fruits belong with chocolate or cream?

I took a chance on Molly's spinach strawberry salad anyway, and I'm glad I did. This unlikely pair get along surprisingly well, and the almonds add another deliciously confusing element - I felt as if a mouthful of strawberry and almond should be followed by sweet pastry! The accompanying pomegranate viniagrette is rather nice too. I made a couple of changes to suit my tastes, completely omitting the salad onion and dry-roasting chopped whole almonds rather than using raw slivered ones. The deeper roasted flavour was fantastic and I'd recommend that anyone else trying this recipe do it too!

To bulk the salad up into dinner territory, we added Helen's Kitchen brand Vegetarian Chicken Tofu Steaks. Knowing it pairs well with strawberries, I brushed a little balsamic vinegar on the steaks as they cooked. To be honest, these didn't do much for us. They were rather tough, and that may be my fault for overcooking them. However they didn't have much flavour of their own, and I reckon I'd do just as well slicing up a block of extra-firm tofu instead. This didn't mar the overall experience at all, and I do plan to invite that eccentric couple spinach and strawberry over for dinner again.

To try this salad for yourself, refer to the recipe over at Molly's blog, Batter-Splattered.

January 25-28, 2008: Sorrento - a tale of two breakfasts, two slices and too little Indian

Michael and I took advantage of the long weekend to make our first visit to the Mornington Peninsula, nabbing an overpriced room in Sorrento. There were walks and swims and ferry trips but we're all here for the food, right? Without anything more than a kettle in our room we were eating every meal out. Here are some highlights.

(Update 31/12/2014: Sunny Side Up is now closed)

Breakfast number 1 was at Sunny Side Up. This cafe was just our style - casual and beachy with smiling, friendly waitresses. Michael gobbled down a plate of rustic beans with parmesan cheese, basil and poached eggs ($15), while I kicked off the weekend with Bircher muesli (~$10). It was a great Bircher, with finely diced fresh apple and orange to lighten up the oats and strawberries and almonds sprinkled liberally on top.

It became quickly apparent that the Continental Hotel had a meal for every occasion, should we want it. We first visited for a lunch of bread, dips and salad and also returned for our final Sorrento breakfast. The menu was a bit meat-heavy, but there were no problems altering the standard dishes to our preferences. Michael's green eggs and ham omelette ($17) was a cast-iron pan of cheesy spinach-y eggs; I ordered my Danish waffle stack ($14) without bacon. The "what the...?" moment of the weekend arrived with my waffles, which were garnished with chives. I guess they were supposed to enhance the original sweet/savoury combination of maple syrup and bacon - I'm not convinced that that'd work, and it was downright weird with just the fruit and syrup. I didn't think the mashing of the banana was really necessary either, what with me still having teeth. Oddities aside, the waffles themselves were fantastic, and avoiding the chives was a small price to pay.

Next door to the Continental Hotel, Just Fine Foods has a reputation for excellent vanilla slice (pictured on the right). We snagged a table, a slice and a coffee on Sunday afternoon for $10.50 and watched roughly 60 serves fetched from the display cabinet while we ate. The pastry was golden and flaky, and the flavour was pleasant, but the custard texture was, dare I say it, a little too mucous-y for me. (Well, it's called a snot block after all!) But the inside story from Dromana semi-resident Purple Goddess is that the Continental Hotel does a fairly mean vanilla slice of its own (pictured left). In a head-to-head battle, I'd pick it too. While the pastry wasn't as flaky, the firm flavourful custard really won me over, and the squeeze of berry coulis was the perfect tangy garnish to offset it. I'm not going to deem it Sorrento's best - for starters, I don't want to tread on anybody else's turf. Besides, there are one or two other untested bakeries on Ocean Beach Road that do their own version.

(Update, 31/12/2014: Let's Go Greek is now closed)

I failed to set the VCR before we left home, and on Sunday night it was time to again make a song and dance about Bollywood on SBS. Unfortunately we couldn't locate any nearby Indian restaurants for dinner. International dining was limited to the Chinaman's Hat and Let's Go Greek so we went Greek. Actually, we first visited the Continental Hotel yet again for a cocktail. Strangely the bar that'll give you breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert isn't actually that interested in cocktails, though one of their lovely ladies whipped up something berry-flavoured and potent for $15 apiece. If only we'd known that Let's Go Greek had a cocktail menu, and it was a lot cheaper! Nevertheless, we took advantage of their Vegetarian Feast ($20.50). The spanakopita was cheesy-delicious and I don't want to, but I'm gonna say it: these lemon potatoes kicked the arse of the bowlful we received at the Press Club. Tender inside, caramelised and super-tangy on the out. So good!

Sorrento wasn't a perfect fit for us. (Sorrento's perfect fit seems to be a couple of empty nesters in a silver 4WD with a penchant for seafood and designer chutney.) Nevertheless, there was plenty for us to enjoy over our few days there. Best of all, the beach walks don't cost a cent.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

January 24, 2008: Leftover makeover - Bubble slice

After my baking disaster on Wednesday night, I called for my Mum. But it wasn't quite the desperate and childish plea you might think - I just wanted the no-bake slice recipe that I so enjoyed as a kid. I figured it'd salve my sore ego, fill the snacking void left by the muffins, and use up some of the rice bubbles I recently bought.

What I've made here only bears a passing resemblance to my Mum's version, which itself bore only a passing resemblance to the original recipe that she emailed to me. It began as some kind of muesli bar slice, with toasted muesli and seeds. I think the toasted muesli may have been phased out of Mum's, and I don't ever remember encountering seeds. For my texture-intolerant brother, there was the bare-basics version: just rice bubbles bound together with the molten butter/peanut butter/honey/sugar mixture. I liked dried apricots in mine, and for an occasional after-dinner treat, it would be spread with a top layer of dark cooking chocolate.

My updated version retains the dried apricots and bring almonds into the mix. The binding mixture is hardly the stuff of nutritionists' meal plans, so I buckled completely and put some chocolate chips in. Those things are designed to hold their shape when chucked into a 200 degree oven but funnily enough melt all over the place here, so rather than than having golden bubbles with fruit, nut and chocolate dots, it's a more uniform caramel colour.

Rather than being a healthy afternoon alternative to the vending machine, I think of these as a slightly less guilt-inducing way of satisfying a genuine chocolate craving. The rice bubbles add some bulk, the dried fruit and honey extend the sweetness, and the peanut butter and nuts bring some richness so that only a small amount of chocolate is required. You could also make these vegan by replacing the butter with Nuttlelex, and the honey with another sweetener - maple syrup, rice syrup, golden syrup... maybe I need to taste the golden syrup version for myself! There are still a few more rice bubbles left...

Last minute edit: Heidi of 101 Cookbooks just posted a power bar recipe with a similar style. I would never have thought to add coffee to this but now I can't wait to try it!

Bubble slice

3/4 cup almonds, chopped
3 cups rice bubbles
1/2 cup dessicated coconut
1/4 cup sesame seeds
1/2 cup dried apricots, diced
1/2 cup dark chocolate chips
125g butter
4 tablespoons honey
4 tablespoons peanut butter
1/2 cup brown sugar

Grease a medium-large tray. In a large bowl, stir together the first six ingredients.

Melt the remaining ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat, bring to the boil and then simmer for 5 minutes.

Pour the sweet butter mixture over the dry ingredients and stir to combine. Press the mixture into the tray and refrigerate for at least an hour. Slice into squares and serve.

January 23, 2008: Mistaken muffins

If you're a regular reader of this blog, this picture has probably already triggered a line of thought: "Huh, Cindy's never-ending quest for the perfect afternoon snack! More muffins... probably with wholemeal flour looking at the colour of them. I wonder what the dots are?"

Those dots are $12 worth of organic dried blueberries, and they're encased in the world's worst tasting muffins. Ever. I shan't name and shame the recipe, because the shame's all mine. I just took a couple of peeks at the internet-sourced recipe over Michael's shoulder while he busied himself with Pro Evolution Soccer, sifting the 2 tablespoons of baking soda I thought belonged into the batter. Only it was meant to be 2 teaspoons.

Surprisingly the muffins didn't overflow like volcanos into the oven, retaining their usual shape and colour. They smelled like my vegan muffins. But they tasted like... cement, putty, bricks? Something better suited to home renovation.

January 21, 2008: Cauliflower dal with panch phoran

SBS has kicked off another run of weekly Bollywood films, giving us all the reason we need to indulge in weekly Indian dinners. The 9:30 start and typical length of Bollywood offerings meant that we decided to tape the movie on Sunday night and watch it on Monday evening. This week's musical marathon was Parineeta, a faintly ridiculous (yet seriously-toned) romance, which lacked the humourous sparring that is the key to our Bollywood enjoyment. Still, it gave us an excuse to sample this dal, which lives up to to Susan's raving.

Dal is tricky - it's almost always adequate: something liquidy and a bit spicy, perfect for soaking up rice or dipping bread into, but there are a lot of dal reicpes which really don't offer much more. This one does: the cauliflower adds texture to the mushy lentils, and the panch phoran (which we were introduced to by Dominique at Mondo Organics, but have strangely not blogged about) gave it a bit of a zest. This recipe is a great reminder to us to pull our packet of panch phoran out of the freezer occasionally. And although the cauliflower florets were tender stand-outs on the first day, on the second they collapsed into the dal for a super-thick and comforting meal. The spicy flavours developed further and it was fantastic with paratha. With five weeks of these Bollywood movies still to come, perhaps we'll be repeating this sooner rather than later.

Monday, January 28, 2008

January 20, 2008: Caribbean rice dessert

As Michael hinted in his last post, the Caribbean-themed wraps we enjoyed for dinner were chosen to match this Caribbean rice dessert. The dessert is January's featured recipe in our World In Your Kitchen 2008 calendar. I must admit that I'm not a big fan of rice desserts (this one excepted) and the Caribbean treatment didn't do much to sway me. I liked the sweet buttered nuts and coconut, but there just wasn't enough of them! The mixture was fairly dry and bland, but perked up with a few cherries on top. (Not only are they in season, but a bit of internet research revealed them to be appropriate to the theme.)

Here are three ways that I might alter the recipe for future use:
1. Halve the amount of rice. This'll up the flavour with a greater density of sweet, buttery fruit and nuts.
2. Fresh fruit on the side. I already sorted this out the first time around, and I think it's essential.
3. Use the rice as a savoury side. Retaining the original proportions of rice to flavourings, this is a cute (if less healthy) alternative to plain rice, much like a peshwari naan. In fact, we poured a dhal over the second half of the rice and couldn't get enough of it. It's neither Caribbean nor Indian, but it's good.

Caribbean rice dessert

225g rice
6 brazil nuts, chopped
1 tablespoon sultanas
1/2 - 1 teaspoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon butter or margarine
2 tablespoons desiccated coconut

In a saucepan, cover the rice with hot water and add half the coconut. Bring to the boil, then turn down the heat and cook for 10-15 minutes until done. Drain the rice.

In a large pan, melt the butter. Fry the nuts, sultanas, sugar and remaining coconut for a couple of minutes, until golden and fragrant. Add the drained rice, combine well, and serve.

January 20, 2008: Caribbean beans and greens wrap

For reasons that will soon become apparent (i.e. after the next post), we went looking for a Caribbean themed meal on Sunday night. Preferably something straightforward. Luckily, Moosewood came through with the goods. These wraps are remarkably easy to put together and have at least a hint of the Caribbean about them. The biggest problem involves the need for collard greens - we tried Piedemontes, but were forced to settle for chicory, which was probably a bit of a stretch. Anyway, that aside, the whole process took about twenty minutes and served up a filling, healthy and thematically appropriate meal. Like a lot of Moosewood recipes, it was probably a little on the bland side for my tastes - but a sprinkling of jalapenos was all it took to resolve that problem.

1 cup diced onion
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 cups of greens (chicory in our case, collard greens in the original recipe)
1.5 cups cooked black beans (we just used 1 400g can)
3 tablespoons orange juice
1 tablespoon oil

Saute the onions and garlic in the oil until they're nice and soft (8-10 minutes). Add in the thyme, allspice and greens and a splash of water. Cover and let cook for about 5 or 10 minutes, until the greens have wilted away.

Push the greens to one side of the pan and pop in the beans. Give them a quick mash and a stir, add in the orange juice, stir it all together and take it off the heat. Warm the tortillas in a pan, fill with the beany mush and eat.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

January 19, 2008: Filter

Stop the press! A where's the beef breakfast post in which I have a sweet breakfast and Cindy goes savoury! I've just spent 10 minutes skimming over forty-odd breakfast posts from the last 18 months or so and, amazingly, this is the first non-savoury breakfast I've eaten out since we moved to Melbourne. What came over me? Who knows - a lack of standout savoury vego options on the Filter menu, an enthusiasm for poached pear, a burst of unpredictability? Who can say? Regardless, I wound up eating pancakes, while Cindy chowed down on mushrooms on toast. Strange days indeed.

Filter's right in the middle of Brunswick Street, but was surprisingly empty when we turned up at 9ish on a Saturday morning. Things filled up as the morning went on and bleary-eyed trendsters made their way out of their houses for their morning caffeine and eggs, but we had a prime table and attentive service. As my rambling above indicated, I went for pancakes: ricotta pancakes with poached fruit and cinnamon ($14.50) to be precise. The pancakes were light and fluffy, and smothered in some sort of berry syrup and poached fruit (mainly pear, but maybe some plum as well - it was all stained berry coloured, so it was hard to tell). These were pretty good - although I think I've decided that the best sweet breakfast will always fall short of the best savoury breakfast from my perspective. If I want sweet, I'll stick to dessert.

Cindy opted for something up my alley (although minus the eggs I require for sustenance!): mushroom, fetta and avocado on toast, with a basil dressing ($11.50). I had the last bite, which managed to include a bit of everything (it was a big bite). The avo was the star of the show for me, but it was all impressive - crumbly fetta, perfectly cooked mushrooms and a tasty basil pesto-y sauce. Throw in a poached egg and I'd have been in heaven.

Filter is a pleasant, reliable cafe, that doesn't seem to try too hard to be trendy - it's got some sort of hipness going on, but it's unforced. Throw in the pretty decent menu, the pleasant staff and the reasonable prices and it's a trusty place to fuel up before hitting the Fitzroy shops.

Edit 24/02/09: Fitzroyalty has just announced that Filter has closed. We're sad to see it go!

Read about our previous visit to Filter here.

Monday, January 21, 2008

January 18, 2008: Friday Featre Food - Lord of the Fries II

In 2008, Michael and I are stepping into the unfamiliar world of high culture with a subscription to the Melbourne Theatre Company. Thus, on seven Fridays in the next ten months, we'll be hunting for delicious dinners around the CBD that we can gobble down before the curtains rise at 8pm. I'm clumsily dubbing this series of posts Friday Featre Food. We've got a few ideas for future meals but we're also keen for your recommendations - casual or classy, just be sure it's tasty and timely.

First up, an old favourite with a new flavour: Lord of the Fries. They have a second outlet now at Shop 5 Flinders St Station, facing Federation Square. We picked up the $13.40 deal - an original regular-sized burger, a spicy regular-sized burger and a cone of chips. The night's sauce of choice? The Indian chutney/yoghurt mix. It was pleasant enough, but the Belgian mayonnaise holds a special place in my heart (or is that arteries?). We relaxed on the grassy south bank of the Yarra and watched the city suits drink themselves silly while we ate.

Also new to Lord of the Fries are breakfast burgers and hash browns. Coming soon to a where's the beef? post near you...

(You can read my original write-up of Lord of the Fries here.)

Edit 25/09/08: Drat! After all these months I was finally able to venture into the city on a weekday morning, only to find that the LoTF breakfast burgers are no more. They've scaled back to opening only at 10:30am with their standard menu.

January 16, 2008: Fruit, nut and tahini slice

Old habits die hard, as evidenced by my afternoon snacking in the previous week: a packet of corn chips here, some peanut butter bliss balls there, an ice-cream somewhere in the middle, with a scattering of jelly lollies on top from a generous colleague. Time for some premeditated baking. The recipe of choice is a no-added-sugar slice with many incarnations, but the key ingredients are all fruit, nuts and seeds. It all started with Cassie from Veggie Meal Plans, but I was hooked when Kathryn of Limes & Lycopene added tahini to the mix. Then Johanna chimed in with a rave review of her own and it was obvious I had to give these a shot.

I find that tahini can be a bit of a love/hate ingredient - it tends towards sticky messy bitterness on its own, but it can lend a fabulous rich nuttiness when used judiciously. In my slice the tahini was borderline - in a couple of mouthfuls it was too pronounced, while in most others it was a very pleasing undertone. Obviously I need to stir things a bit more vigorously in the future, but I might try reducing the tahini a little at well (upping the dates just slightly to retain the moisture quotient). I think it'd be fun to try replacing it with other nut butters too. (Mmmm, cashew butter... so good but soooo expensive.) Dried apricots and almonds are my fruit and nut combination of choice, and I also added some leftover citrus peel. It was OK, but I shouldn't have messed with my favourite couple.

The surprise outcome is that Michael has enjoyed this slice at least as much as I have, meaning that stocks have disappeared only a week later. At least it's quick and easy to bake up another tray...

Fruit, nut and tahini slice

1/2 cup dried dates, diced
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup tahini (or try a nut butter)
3/4 cup rolled oats
1/4 cup spelt flour (or try another flour of your choice)
about a teaspoon of spice: I went for a mix of ground cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg and star anise
1/3 cup almonds, chopped (or any other nut you like)
1/3 cup pepitas (or another seed you're into)
2/3 cup dried apricots, diced
1/3 cup dried citrus peel, diced (replace these with a cup of any dried fruit)

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C. Lightly grease a small baking tray.

Put the dates and water in a saucepan and simmer them for 5-10 minutes, stirring occasionally. It'll all mush into a thick mixture together. Take it off the heat and cool it a bit, then stir in the tahini.

In a medium-sized bowl, mix together the remaining ingredients. Pour in the date/tahini mixture and stir to combine. Press the mixture into the baking tray and bake for about 15 minutes, until golden on top and just browning around the edges. Allow it to cool before slicing.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

January 15, 2008: Brunetti IX

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

After spending two weeks in regional Victoria with her sisters, my Mum had one last free night in Melbourne before flying back home to Brisbane. It was about time we introduced her to Brunetti, right? Two of her sisters, Lynne and Carol, also joined us. They are an indecisive bunch when gathered together and the variety available at Brunetti was the catalyst for a good 20 minutes of umm-ing and aah-ing. But everyone got their coffee, cake and seat in good time.

I picked a cake that I haven't seen displayed before. The Domino ($5.90) is a sizable slice of chocolate cake, layered with strawberry cream and kirsch, then iced with chocolate. It far exceeded my expectations - I was anticipating a dense brick of a cake with impenetrably hard icing, but instead encountered a yielding ganache and almost sponge-light cake that retained plenty of flavour. The cream and kirsch were sparing, adding only a smidge of extra richness. It's fortunate that I arranged to share it with Michael - I would otherwise have consumed all of its deceptive lightness and been rather sorry afterwards. It's still a triple-layered chocolate cake, after all.

Want to read about our previous 8 visits to Brunetti? They're all here.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

January 13, 2008: More morsels for the Moonlight cinema

Michael's dips were a fine contribution to the picnic rug, and I couldn't resist making a few contributions of my own. After Michael's excellent cosmo-in-the-thermos work on the previous weekend, I ad-libbed my own cocktail to share: a bottle of limoncello and bottle of lemonade garnished with mint and sliced ginger. Simple, refreshing, and deceptively alcoholic.

Johanna inspired me to make some savoury muffins, and her recipe came from Rose Elliot via a post on 101 Cookbooks. (What a pedigree!) With cottage cheese, eggs and almond meal, they're incredibly moist, almost as much quiche as they are muffin. I flavoured mine with parmesan cheese, sundried tomatoes and caramelised onions. They are perfect picnic food, and I think I'll be making this recipe again and again, perhaps experimenting with different flavourings.

Once the films were underway, it was time to bring out dessert - peanut butter cannonballs from Yeah, That "Vegan" Shit. When I spent a semester studying in the U.S. in 2004, I got seriously addicted to Reese's peanut butter cups. We're talking coming-home-4-kilos-heavier kind of addicted. These might just be better. Inside the dark chocolate shell is soft sweet peanut butter, with little crunches of peanut and rice bubbles. Mine were kinda ugly shaped but this didn't diminish anyone's bliss, either at the movies or at work the next day when I shared around the leftovers. They are a tad fiddly and time-consuming to make, though, so my waistline's safe for now.

Peanut butter bliss-in-a-ball

1/4 cup butter or margarine, at room temperature
1 3/4 cups crunchy peanut butter
1 cup icing sugar
1 1/2 cups rice bubbles
a shake of salt, only if the peanut butter has none added
up to 500g dark chocolate

In a medium-sized bowl, mix together the first five ingredients. Cover and refrigerate for 30-60 minutes, so that the mixture's firm.

Cover a tray with foil or baking paper and make room for it in the freezer (this is no small task in our house). Use a teaspoon to measure out small quantities of the peanut butter mixture and roll them into balls, placing them on the tray. Aim for balls of 1.5 cm diameter, and handle the mixture as little as possible.

I needed to do about three trays full but could only fit one in the freezer at a time. I put the first tray in the freezer for about 15 minutes and returned the remaining peanut butter mixture to the fridge. Once that first tray were firm, I transferred them to a lunchbox where I could store them more densely and returned them to the freezer. I repeated this process until all the mix was used up and I had a lunchbox full of sweet peanut butter. Continue to store them in the freezer until all of them have had a good hour in there.

It's difficult to know how much chocolate you'll need. Start by melting 250g of it and take it off the heat. Plonk a peanut butter ball into the chocolate and use two forks to maneuvre it until it's coated all over in chocolate, and keep going with more balls until your old foil/paper-lined tray is full of them. Return the tray and the lunchbox to the freezer for 10-15 minutes, then continue the staggered process of chocolate coating the peanut butter balls until they're all done. You may need to re-melt the chocolate or add some more along the way. I actually decided to double-coat the balls in chocolate which lengthened this process interminably.

These store well in the freezer if you're going to transport them somewhere like our picnic, but can otherwise be stored in the fridge.

Postscript: On the following Wednesday night, I made another batch of the savoury muffins using the original sundried tomato and basil combination. I've had mixed results when baking with basil in the past, but it was all good here. We ate them with beet leaves (salvaged when Michael made his dip), sauteed in the oil that the sundried tomatoes were packed in.

January 13, 2008: Morsels for the Moonlight Cinema

Between Cindy's network of expat-Brisbanites and my stash of $10 tickets, we rounded up quite a gang for a Sunday evening at the Moonlight Cinema in the botanic gardens. The evening's entertainment consisted of a selection of shorts from the Melbourne International Film Festival, but of course the real focus of the evening was the pre-film picnic. After some success with my previous dip-focussed picnic food, I decided to repeat the performance. This time I flicked through our cookbooks rather than Cindy's bookmarks, and came across a couple of relatively easy and tasty-looking choices.

First up was the amazingly straightforward garlic, herb and bean pate from our CookSmart Vegetarian flip book. This takes all of five minutes to make and is really pretty tasty. I might go a bit lighter on the garlic next time, as it really was a bit overpowering.

Given how simple the first dip was, I decided to be a little more ambitious with the second. This beetroot hummus recipe came from our little Vegie Food cookbook and looked a delicious and bright addition to the relatively plain bean dip. It turned out even pinker than the picture in the book suggested and was worth the extra effort. A word of warning though: this recipe makes an awful lot of dip - we're still working through the leftovers.

We brought along a pile of chopped carrot, cucumber and capsicum as well as some Turkish bread to dig into our dips. Really, between these two dips and Cindy's muffins (coming soon!) there was enough food to feed our whole gang, but of course everyone else had prepared for a picnic as well and we were all stuffed to the gills long before anyone's provisions were exhausted. Better to be safe than hungry I guess. Indeed, by the time the films started, we'd all decided that this picnic idea was a winner, and one we could probably replicate without needing to pay for the privilege.

Still, the films were mostly pretty entertaining, with a couple of odd, slow ones that tested the crowd's patience. Unfortunately the cold drove some of our group away before the last couple of shorts, which were easily the best: Advantage (a ridiculously creepy encounter on a tennis court) and Spider (both disturbing and hilarious, watch it here).

Garlic, herb and bean pate

1 410g can of navy beans (the recipe wanted flageolet beans, but we couldn't find them anywhere), drained
125g quark (the recipe specified cream cheese, but Cindy was keen to buy more quark, and it seemed to work fine as a substitute)
2 garlic cloves, chopped
3 tablespoons pesto (I used some of the leftover agresto)
2 chopped spring onions
salt and pepper

Stick everything in the food processor and whiz until combined. A splash of olive oil probably wouldn't hurt, if the texture is a little dry, but is otherwise unnecessary. And that's it, you've got your first dip.

Beetroot hummus

500g beetroot
1/3 cup olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 tablespoon ground cumin
410g can of chickpeas, drained
1 tablespoon tahini
1/3 cup plain yoghurt
3 garlic cloves, crushed
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup vegie stock

Scrub the beetroot and boil in a large pot of water for about 40 minutes, until they're nice and soft. Drain them and let them cool for while and then peel (the skin should come off really easily).

Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a fry pan and cook the onions for about five minutes. Add in the cumin and stir it through, cooking for another minute or so.

Chop the peeled beetroot into manageable chunks and place it in the food processor with all of your ingredients except for the oil. Whiz everything together until it's a smooth paste. Pour the olive oil in with the processor still whizzing and, once everything is combined, you've got yourself a giant, pink mush ready for dipping.

Friday, January 18, 2008

January 12, 2008: Nirankar

Cindy and I are still hunting around Melbourne for a standout Indian restaurant - we liked Bala da Dhaba, but it's too far away for regular visits, while local options like Fitz Curry Cafe and Kake di Hatti have been satisfactory without blowing our minds. On Saturday night, after a bit of internet research, we decided to give Nirankar a go.

Nirankar is on a quiet stretch of Queen Street in the CBD, and there was no danger of us being turned away despite being bookingless at 7ish on a Saturday night. The menu had abut the usual number of vegetarian options, but there were a few non-standard choices, like Khatta Meetha Bangain (eggplant and capsicum with tangy herbs). There was also a variety of kulfi on the menu, so we decided to skip the appetiser section and save room for dessert.

We ordered our usual mix: two curries, one bread and one serve of rice. The garlic naan was slightly crispy and slathered in buttery garlic, just the way I like it. Four our curries, we opted for the Shahi Matar Paneer (cottage cheese cooked with green peas and almonds in a creamy tomato sauce) and the Makkiwali Mushrooms (fresh mushrooms and baby corn tossed together in an onion-based sauce) and were not disappointed. The paneer in particular was wondeful, a well-spiced tomato-y and nutty sauce, generous chunks of paneer and a smattering of peas. The mushrooms were pretty good as well - slightly too spicy for Cindy's tastes, and maybe a little bit too oniony. Still, we polished off almost everything, which is unusual for us - normally there are leftovers to be had (Nirankar's explicit refusal to give doggy bags may have contributed to our voraciousness).

Even having knocked off all of our mains, we were game to tackle dessert and both wanted to try the pistachio kulfi. It came out in neat little circles, but was unfortunately a little on the frozen side for immediate eating, leading to much hilarity as we tried to dig into it without sending the little blocks of green icecream flying across the room. Good times. It tasted pretty good, but I've yet to sample a kulfi that measures up to Cindy's efforts - I think she's pretty heavy-handed with the cardamom.
On the whole, Nirankar was pretty impressive - a good selection of vego curries that were deliciously cooked, good service, interesting (if slightly underwhelming) desserts. On the other hand, the prices are a little high for Indian food, and they're not well placed for takeaway, so I'm not sure we'll be back there again particularly soon. If anyone out there can suggest worthwhile Indian alternatives (particularly around Fitzroy, Carlton, Brunswick etc, but anywhere will do), we're all ears.

Address: 174 Queen Street, Melbourne
Ph: 9642 1995
Prices: Vegie curries: $13.50 - $14.90

Sunday, January 13, 2008

January 11, 2008: Leftover makeover - pastry squares

I gobbled up the remaining sundried tomato hummus with veges and crackers, but the very nutty agresto was a little more difficult to shift. The most successful use of it has been on these savoury pastry squares - topped with tomato for me, and with olives and cheese for Michael. They only need 15 minutes in the oven and a handful of spinach leaves on the side for a quick and tasty weeknight dinner or weekend lunch. Subsequent squares have also featured caramelised onion (leftover from an upcoming recipe): it's incredibly good but doesn't fit the same quick-and-easy bill.

January 12, 2008: Fandango

Mike and Jo-Lyn differ in many matters of taste. Jo knows all the cool hang-outs and likes things a bit artsy. Mike, however, doesn't hesitate to claim "wanker!" at the first whiff of pretension. So there could hardly be a higher recommendation for breakfast at Fandango than that they both love it. And now we love it too.

We contributed to the very brown decor by kicking off with a coffee each - iced for me, and a habitual flat white for Michael. I'm no connoisseur but mine was pretty good; Michael deemed his 'exceptional'.

I took a chance on the pancakes ($8), served in a stack of three with banana, strawberries, homemade honeyed cream cheese and maple syrup. Our waiter even left a bottle of real maple syrup on the table in case I wanted a top up. I didn't, this was perfectly sweet as it was. It looked gorgeous, it had a reasonable serve of fruit, and the cream cheese was lovely (even though I'm not usually a fan of honey). At $12 it would be excellent value, and at $8 it's a steal! The serving size might look modest but it was actually more than I could handle - I barely even began the last pancake (though Michael had a good shot at it).

Michael's main meal was poached eggs with beetroot and fetta relish, spinach, sourdough and mushrooms ($14.50). He had no trouble polishing off this large plateful either. The mushrooms were particularly good and the egg well poached.

So, another great little breakfast spot discovered in our local area. (Will we ever run out of them, or will the inner north cafe scene continue to proliferate until every kitsch shop-front and terrace house has an espresso machine and a twee cakestand?) In Fandango's favour is its proximity to the Queen Victoria Markets - a recipe for many more where's the beef? breakfasts to come.

Address: 97 Errol St, North Melbourne
Ph: 9329 0693
Price: veg breakfasts $4-$14.50

January 9, 2008: Bimbo Deluxe

Although Michael lunched at Bimbo Deluxe in his first week of living in Melbourne, it's taken me 17 months to get my mouth around one of Bimbo's famous $4 pizzas. There have been a few opportunities, but the crush of hipsters at peak times has put me off. And Bimbo Deluxe is relentlessly and grungily hip: a dimly lit bar with big old couches and retro fittings, such as vinyl records decorating the wall. The kids with nonsensical hats and haircuts and the just-too-loud music reminded me that while still in my 20s, I'm old and cranky. Apparently the roof-garden upstairs is brighter and breezier, but it's super-popular and there are rarely spare seats. At 7:00 on a weeknight, the entry level seating is pleasant and roomy enough anyway.

Dinner is all about pizza: of the 19 types on the menu, an impressive 11 are vegetarian. (Check out the menu for yourself at their website, if you can navigate around the trendy pictures.) The prices are always good (none of the pizzas exceed $8), but in peak times they're a bewildering $4. Apparently Bimbo makes a loss on every one of them then makes it up on drinks, as evident from the $4.50 half-pints we drank. The pizzas are the size of the dinner plate and have a thin base, alternately crispy and chewy. I think the size is bang-on to serve one comfortably.

We tried the El Greco (in the background of the photo): it's topped with haloumi cheese, green olives and a wedge of lemon. It's a guilty-delicious oil-fest and so, so salty. (That' s how they get you buyin' up on the beer, I guess.) The Funghi was a little more nourishing, with lots of fleshy dark mushrooms, a restrained sprinkle of cheese and smattering of herbs. A smarter girl than I would also order a salad on the side.

There are also a few sweet pizzas on offer, but we were in no state to sample them. Haloumi takes all.

Address: 376 Brunswick St, Fitzroy
Ph: 9419 8600
Price: veg pizzas $4.90-$7.90, all $4 each during peak times

January 7, 2008: Kamel

Cindy and I had vague plans to cook something on Monday evening, but for some reason she picked up a crazy vegie hot-dog craving while she was at work and we decided to make a return visit to Bowl of Soul so she could get her fix. Unfortunately, they seem to have taken a summer holiday, and we were met with a firmly closed door. We opted for second best: a quick walk over to Albert Park and vegie burgers from Andrew's hamburgers. Alas, they too were enjoying a well-earned January break. With our hunger levels increasing and our Cheap Eats guide at home, we had a quick wander around Albert Park hoping to stumble onto something appealing. And that's when we found Kamel. There were no hot dogs on their menu, but a wide array of vaguely Middle-Eastern tapas plates, at least half of which were meat-free. Score!

We had a quick consultation with our waitress, and decided that three of the plates would be about right for two fairly hungry people. After much agonising (it's hard to believe that a menu would have 'broccolini with peri peri butter and roasted almonds' and 'field mushrooms with feta and herb oil' and that we'd order neither dish), we started with pistachio-crumbed goats cheese with fig paste & Turkish bread. The crumbed cheese was crispy outside and creamy inside, the quince paste added some fruity flavour and the well-dressed rocket helped us pretend it was healthy.

Next up was fried cauliflower in mint, coriander and chickpea batter with a balsamic reduction. The herb flavours weren't overly noticeable, but the crispy batter and the balsamic flavours were the perfect complement to the perfectly cooked cauliflower.

Cindy started to slow down a little at this point, but the food kept coming: zucchini and mint fritters with yoghurt to finish off. These were some substantial fritters: huge patties of herbed zucchini and a giant dollop of creamy yoghurt. To be honest, these were a little blander than I expected - I think because I imagined them as haloumi and zucchini patties and they lacked the salty punch I was expecting. They benefited hugely from a pinch or two of salt - after I'd sussed that out, they were deliciously flavoursome.

We didn't quite get through it all, but that was really no critique of the food - it was a fantastic find with a reasonably affordable, varied and very veg-friendly menu. There's a good handful of menu items I'm still keen to try, so stay tuned for a Kamel update in the coming months.

Address: 19 Victoria Avenue, Albert Park
Ph: 9696 1386
Price: Vegie plates: $6-$12

Thursday, January 10, 2008

January 6, 2008: Lazy day peach and apple pie

Naturally I was in charge of dessert for our picnic, and I took my inspiration from the Age newspaper that was delivered to our flat that very morning. Inside the vacuous Sunday Life magazine was Karen Martini's free-form apple and peach tart. I was keen on enjoying some stone fruits and the weather was mercifully cool enough to crank up the oven in the early afternoon. But I didn't want the temptation of a pie in our fridge all week so I decided to halve the recipe.

This decision caused a minor problem that I didn't anticipate but enjoyed modelling mathematically later. The problem is that volume (the quantity of pastry dough) and area (the size of the rolled-out pastry circle) change at different rates. A half-quantity of pastry, if rolled out to the same thickness as the original, doesn't have half the diameter of the original, it has 70% the diameter of the original. Therefore you don't necessarily want to halve the quantity of fruit. As it happens I bought a bit of extra fruit, had extra left over after the pie construction, and thoroughly enjoyed eating it while the main event was baking.

The pie is delicious - all golden juicy fruit up against a buttery crust - but a bit heavy for hot weather. I suppose it's well-suited to Melbourne's summer, where the peaches are plentiful but there's the occasional 20 to 25 degree day. And right on cue, the breeze whipped up and the sky darkened a little just as it was time to eat out in the little park. The crust was plenty firm enough to support the filling as we ate with our hands and got everything sweetly sticky. If served more genteelly at home, it would be an absolute treat with a dollop of cream on top. I'm keen to try replacing the nutmeg with some grated fresh ginger in a future pie, too.

Lazy day peach and apple pie

150g butter
75g icing sugar
1 egg
300g plain flour
1 large granny smith apple
2 peaches
75g raw sugar
1/4 nutmeg, grated
grated zest of 1/2 a lemon

Use a food processor to combine the butter, icing sugar and eggs. Add the flour and process until the dough just comes together in a ball. On a large sheet of baking paper, roll out the dough until it's about 3 cm thick. Wrap it up and refrigerate it for 30 minutes.

While the dough's in the fridge, peel and core the apple, slicing it into wedges. Cut the peaches into 8 wedges each. In a bowl, gently toss together the fruit with the raw sugar, nutmeg and lemon zest. Set the fruit aside for the flavours to develop.

Preheat the oven to 190 degrees C. Once the pastry's ready, roll into out in a rough circle to about 1 cm. (Martini reckons 2 cm but she's crazy. Even a 1 cm crust makes a hefty pie.) Pile up the fruit in the centre of the pastry, leaving a good 4cm or so crust around the edge. There'll probably be some juice settled in the bottom of the bowl - don't plonk it in the pie, but do save it for later. And don't use all the fruit if you think it's too much! Gently pull the pastry sides over the fruit on the edge - begin by levering up the pastry with the baking paper, then use your hands to gently mould the pastry together.

Lift the entire baking sheet onto a tray and bake for 30-45 minutes, until the pastry is golden. If there are any juices in the pie or reserved, brush them onto the pastry while the pie's still warm.

January 6, 2008: Picnic in the park

After a few ridiculously hot days, Sunday was a mild and pleasant Melbourne summer's day (an aside: I still can't get my head around Melbourne summer - when the temperature can drop 10 degrees in 10 minutes, nothing makes sense anymore) and Cindy and I were inspired to put together some sort of picnic and head off to enjoy the late evening sunshine.

We decided to keep things reasonably healthy (at least pre-dessert): a couple of dips and lots of fresh vegies. I took on dip responsibilities and raided Cindy's bookmarks to find sun-dried tomato hummus and agresto.

The hummus was ridiculously easy to make and was the star of the show - the tahini was noticeable without being overpowering, the few unblended bits of sun-dried tomato provided a bit of texture and the lemon juice gave things a little acidic tang.

The agresto was a little more problematic - there were too many ingredients to fit into our mortar and pestle and I gave up after a little while and reverted to the food processor. Also, I nearly forgot the roasting nuts and things probably tasted a little more charred than it was meant to. We specially purchased verjuice for the recipe, and I must admit that I didn't really notice its impact. Still, it was fine - just a little bit too nutty and too un-basilly for my tastes. I think if I put in half as much parsley, twice as much basil and maybe two-thirds as many nuts I'd be happier with the end results. (Regardless, it worked very well as flavouring in the little pastry treats Cindy and I had for dinner tonight, which I'm guessing will appear on here in the next week or so.)

To cap things off, I packed a thermos full of freshly shaken cosmopolitan. Fantastic.

It should be noted, not only are the Trin Warren Tam-Boore wetlands a fine place for a picnic, there's some pretty good bird-watching to be had as well - I saw my first Australasian Grebe!

Sun-dried tomato hummus
(a recipe from Pinch My Salt)

6-8 sun-dried tomatoes
1 x 400g can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 tablespoon tahini
juice of 1 lemon
4 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste
shake of cayenne pepper

Puree everything together in a food processor. Taste, and adjust the flavour balance to your liking.

January 5, 2008: Shanghai Noodle House

Update 27/1/2019: Shanghai Noodle House is permanently closed.

Having done Camy a couple of times, we were due to take Jen and Buttons' advice and visit Shanghai Noodle House next door. It's somewhat smaller and as a result the service does feel more personable. Lining the walls are coloured pieces of paper listing many of the dishes available, in English and Chinese. Promises of eel and pork liver might put a vego off, but there's actually a dedicated vegetarian section in the pink laminated menu with 36 items to choose from. I find it difficult to place my first order at a restaurant like this - the prices are low and it's difficult to imagine being satisfied with just a $5 plate per person. Besides, there's too many appetising names to choose between!

Michael left the decisions up to me and I tried not to dilly-dally. First cab off the rank were the spicy vegetable stir fried rice cakes ($8). I suppose we were expecting three or four fritter-like things consisting mostly of rice - instead we were surprised by this mountainous plate of glutinous things that looked like water chestnuts. (Once they did turn up I began to recall a post I'd once seen on Kitchen Wench...) I can imagine the rice cakes bulking up a well-dressed salad or stir-fry nicely, but we barely made a dent in this plateful. They're listed on the menu as standard, spicy or Sichuan (with a warning chilli next to it) and I hoped the intermediate version would suit our tastes. Alas, it was too hot for me (though OK for Michael). But that's the fun of trying something new - you win some, you lose some and you can always learn something along the way!

It was inevitable that I'd order a plate of the vegetable fried dumplings ($7). They arrived fresh out of the frypan, with the requisite texture of one side chewy, the other side crispy with oil. The filling was pretty good too.

My final order was for three vegetable buns ($4). Again they arrived super-fresh, all soft and sweet on the outside, with salty-bitter mushrooms and spinach within.

Needless to say, Michael and I were stuffed to the gills, with food (and money) to spare. It's probably more fun to eat here in a larger group, allowing you to order a larger range of dishes and taste them all. Even so, the Shanghai Noodle House still makes for a fast, cheap and tasty dinner for two and is a worthy alternative to Camy.

Address: 2/242 Little Bourke St, Melbourne CBD (enter via Tattersalls Lane)
Ph: 9662 9380
Price: veg plates $4-9

January 4, 2008: White Lotus III

Edit 11/11/2017: Sadly White Lotus is no longer in business, but there's a Loving Hut here now.

Friday found Cindy craving a fix of Chinese-style fake meats, so we met up after work at White Lotus in West Melbourne. White Lotus leads the way following our preliminary explorations of the fake-meat scene in Melbourne, and has the added advantage of being on our side of town. We continued our exploration of their menu: curry 'chicken'($13.50) for me, sweet and sour 'pork' ($13.50) for Cindy and some steamed vegies (pictured above, $12) for the pair of us to pick at.

The chicken was great - tender and melty the way good curried chicken should be. The curry was fine, with a good amount of spice and some nice fresh vegies, but I couldn't help imagining how great it would be to find an Indian restaurant that made fake meat curries with pseudo-chicken this good. I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed a good chicken korma.

Luckily for me I resisted tasting Cindy's sweet and sour pork until she was eating the leftovers for lunch the next day. Otherwise I could easily have found myself volunteering to knock the leftovers off on the night, which could only have ended in some sort of terrible over-eating related accident. Suffice to say: it was pretty damn good.

The prices have gone up slightly, but the service is still friendly and the food remains worth the trip. A note for next time: it's BYO, remember to BYO!

Read about our previous trips to White Lotus here and here.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

January 3, 2008: Chocolate and zucchini pasta

Zucchini #3 was devoted to a recipe from Ms Chocolate & Zucchini herself, Clotilde Dusoulier. She miraculously managed to develop a savoury recipe featuring the title ingredients of her blog - pasta with zucchini slices and a sprinkling of unsweetened cocoa nibs. This isn't all that's unusual about the dish. Clotilde also introduced me to the absorption method of cooking pasta. Similar to risotto, the pasta is thinly coated with olive oil in the pan before absorbing water or stock until done. Rather than gradually adding the stock and stirring continuously, most of the stock goes in at once and the pasta needs only an occasional, relaxed stir.

The use of stock brings extra flavour to the pasta and I liked adding the veges in to cook with it, making it a one-pot meal. But the real flavour revelation is the cocoa garnish! It adds a depth and darkness to an otherwise mildly flavoured dish, playing the role I'd usually hand to mushrooms. As much as I love parmesan, it's best to add it here with a light hand - its combination with cocoa nibs is surprisingly rich.

Clotilde posted this as a meal-for-one on her blog some time ago, and it's also printed in her first cookbook to serve 4 (this is the version I referred to).

Chocolate and zucchini pasta

3 tablespoons olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 onion, finely chopped
400-500g dried short pasta
6 cups stock (I only actually used about 4 cups)
1 enormous zucchini (or 4 small, or 2-3 medium), slicely finely into rounds
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons cocoa nibs, coarsely crushed
grated parmesan

Heat the oil in a large pan. Add the garlic and onion, cooking for a couple of minutes over medium heat. Next add the pasta and stir thoroughly so that the pasta is evenly coated in the oil. Pour in stock to cover the pasta and set aside the rest. Turn the heat down and simmer the pasta with the lid on, giving it the occasional stir for even cooking. After about 5 minutes add the zucchini.

Continue simmering the pasta with occasional stirring. The pasta will start absorbing the stock and the stirring becomes more important to ensure even absorption as the liquid level decreases. After about 5 more minutes, test the pasta for texture. Add more stock or water if the pasta is dry but not finished, and repeat the covered simmering and stirring until it is al dente.

Season to taste and serve sprinkled with cocoa nibs and parmesan.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

January 1, 2008: Zucchini #2

Zucchini #2 was transformed into Ceviz's lemon zucchini in olive oil, a good side for spanakopita (which included most of the eggs received with the zucchinis). It's a bugger using the oven in this weather but the large batches do well at room temperature, stretched over a few days.