Sunday, September 28, 2008

September 28, 2008: Broad bean bruschetta

Cindy: Though this is really Michael's post to write, I wanted to give a bit of back story. Michael's the mortar-and-pestle master of this household, and when he saw an ad for Jamie Oliver's Flavour Shaker last year, he was keen to get one. I did a little shop around in the lead-up to his birthday and ultimately decided against purchasing. The standard model cost upwards of $30 and to get a bonus spoon that would fit inside the blessed thing and scoop out the flava cost over $40! Not my kind of price range for a fun little extra gift - I'd already ordered some Dr Who merch from the UK.

Fast forward a few months and Purple Goddess' fab feller Furry puchases a non-endorsed version - it's larger and much, much cheaper. A couple comments here, a few emails there and this rockin' couple organise our very own Taste Maker to arrive in the mail! Food-bloggin' folks is some of the best folks in the world, I tell ya.

Anyway, enough of my gabbing. Check out the first meal Michael shook up with his brand new Taste Maker!

Okay, my time to shine. I was pretty excited by the Taste Maker - mushing things up with the mortar and pestle makes for some wonderful flavours, but can be hard, messy work. I was pushing for a pesto to break it in, but Cindy had other ideas. With spring on the way, she's been bookmarking pea-filled recipes, and thus our Sunday lunch was this: broad bean, pea and goat cheese bruscetta. I'm not going to reproduce the recipe here - it's all pretty easy, if a little time consuming. Basically it's all about shelling everything, blanching them, double shelling the broad beans and then mushing up a delicious paste. Easy.

Quick note: buy heaps of peas and heaps of broadbeans - they're aren't many little green blobs inside each pod. I didn't buy anything like enough - it still took me a fair while to strip out the all the peas and broad beans, which ended up giving me less than a cup of each. So, buy lots and give yourself plenty of time to shell them. Once you've blanched everything, you have to shell the second layer of broad bean skin off - it's a bit fiddly, but well worth the effort.

Now the fun bit: shaking! The peas and beans quickly mush together into a paste. The addition of the goat's cheese (I actually used feta) was a bit more of a struggle - the little granite ball clogged into the cheese and it took some serious arm action to get things combining.

Still, it was nothing my arms couldn't handle - and look at the deliciousness that resulted! Don't take the whole beans on top as an indictment of the Taste Master - you stir some uncrushed peas and beans back into the green, cheesy paste that comes out of your little egg.

Smear it all on some toast (with a bit of garlic squished onto it first) and you've got yourself a green, cheesy bruschetta which tastes almost exactly like spring. Who'd have thought?

I'm looking forward to many more smashing good times with our fun new kitchen gadget - thanks Purple Goddess and Furry!

September 26, 2008: Friday Featre Food - Ezard

Our final night at the theatre as MTC subscribers was a memorable one. For starters, we had my dad and his wife Anne joining us as our belated 2007 Christmas gift to them. Then, after reading Jon's great experience, I decided to book the four of us in for Ezard's pre-theatre tasting menu (four courses, $65) to round out the evening. So the stakes were high when Michael and I lost the four theatre tickets. Nevertheless, I cheerfully confirmed the details of the night to my Dad on the phone on Thursday with nary a mention of the house in disarray around me.

My faith in the Melbourne Theatre Company proved well-founded. On Friday morning one of their employees endured my convoluted explanation of how we purchased those four tickets in two pairs and on what days and which names might have been used and gosh, I'm so sorry and embarrassed, and within half an hour this unfazed gent had worked out our precise seat numbers and arranged for passes to be picked up on our way in to the show. Don't try this at home, folks.

We didn't go to quite the same lengths to put the staff at Ezard through their paces, but I suspect they'd likewise meet our requests with aplomb. They tolerated our staggered arrivals, some dilly-dallying over wine, and were most attentive and prompt throughout the evening. We started off with soft bread, olive oil infused with parmesan, garlic and rosemary, and three house-made seasonings. The first was prickly ash, a mix of salt and Szechuan pepper (thanks Adski!); the second combined Chinese yellow rock sugar and chilli; while the third, advised our waiter, had fish flakes so I didn't note the details. (Props to her for letting us know!) These novel flavourings were replenished throughout the evening so that we could use them on all our dishes as we pleased.

Next came an amuse bouche of green mango salsa, lime caramel and a savoury pannacotta. It was a delightful little clash of sour with cooling creaminess.

The first 'real' course included corn puree, tempura baby corn, shredded coconut, chilli, coriander and spring onion with a crown of crispy fried sweet potato. The shredded mix in the middle was incredibly potent - just the thing to lift the blander flavours (but great textures) of the corn and potato.

Next up was the only savoury dish across the menu not displaying an Asian inspiration. Interestingly, our waiter flagged it as her favourite - a pickled beetroot salad with feta, pomelo and salsa verde. Michael loved it; I enjoyed the flavour a lot but wasn't wowed by the concept.

Our final savoury course was a bit more wow-some, so much so that I forgot to photograph it - sorry! Picture a bed of wilted bok choy with some dabs of green herb-infused oil, a small stack of rice-crumbed tofu, with another explosive garnish of spring onions, chilli and coriander. Then, at the table, the thickest, richest spiced coconut broth was poured into the bowl. Just superb.

Finally, we were treated to this pretty dessert: a thin ginger snap topped with honeycomb icecream, honeycomb pieces and a lacy toffee garnish. Boy, was it sweet! The ginger snap lent a nice accent, but the overall effect was too sugary for me. I wonder whether it was a ploy to counteract the intense sour, hot and herbal flavours that featured throughout the rest of the meal.

I can see why Ezard ranks amongst the hippest high-end restaurants 'round Melbourne. The space is modern and just a little flashy, and I was most impressed that the noise levels weren't too high even when all the tables were occupied. The up-to-the minute Asian-inspired dishes were sensational but I found their names cumbersome - each was just a lengthy list of their ingredients. The dessert didn't thrill me as some have at, say, Interlude or Attica. And the service, while very good, was a bit stiff and formal. Nevertheless, the four-course pre-theatre special is excellent value for money. Furthermore Ezard does a great job at catering to vegetarians and vegans - I'm more than a little curious about the eight-course extravaganza!

Address: 187 Flinders Lane, Melbourne CBD
Ph: 9639 6811
Fully licensed
Price: four course veg menu (to be finished by 7:30pm) $65

September 24, 2008: Millet munchables

When I read that the theme of the 2nd Let It Grain blog event was millet, I made myself a stern mental note to join in. I've had a bag of millet in the pantry for well over a month, you see, and not used it at all. Thankfully, Lucy of Nourish Me had recently come up with just the kind of recipe to get me excited about it! The millet is cooked with brown rice in tea rather than water, mixed with tahini and herbs and rolled into balls, and finally plopped into a soup or fried into patties.

I tried the latter approach. Even with a heat diffuser my grains cooked hotter and faster than they should have, and I added more water to cook them longer. This wasn't the greatest of ideas, with my grain mixture ending up rather mushy. Even so, the patties held together well in the pan and we were rewarded with some rather rich, nutty nuggets. We ate them with a salad lightly dressed with pomegranate molasses, and they worked well with this fresh and tangy contrast. The rooibos tea didn't shine through, but I'm keen to try cooking millet and other grains in it again, perhaps constraining the other flavours they have to compete with.

Millet munchables
(one permutation of Lucy's "amaranth and brown rice cooked in rooibos tea")

1 1/2 cups rooibos tea, strained
1/4 cup millet
1/2 cup brown rice
sea salt
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons tahini
1 tablespoon tamari
1/2 tablespoon butter or oil
small handful of celery leaves
vegetable oil, for frying

Put the tea, millet and rice into a saucepan with a pinch of sea salt. Bring it all to the boil, but then turn it down to the lowest heat possible - Lucy suggests using a diffuser. Cover and simmer until the liquid is absorbed - Lucy reckons 40-45 minutes but my grains were parched before 30 minutes were up! Either way let the cooked grains rest off the heat, lid still on, for 5 minutes.

Add all the other ingredients (except the frying oil) and combine well. Roll generous tablespoons of the mixture lightly in your hands and then flatten them slightly to form patties. Fry the patties in a little oil until golden brown on each side.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

I eat I drink I... write

In any other year, I would be oblivious to Fine Food Australia - it's a food and hospitality exhibition intended for folks in the industry, not amateur enthusiasts such as I. However, last week I was able to enter Jeff's Shed in the guise of writer for I eat I drink I work. (Full disclosure: I received no monetary payment for this gig, and the opportunity just to be there and eat a lot of food samples was reward enough.)

You can read my based-on-a-true-story article here. Many thanks to Duncan and Cam and for inviting me along for the ride! I'd like enter them as a duel nomination for the Pushyjuice™ Award for Keeping Cool Under Pressure.

Keep an eye on I eat I drink I work over the coming days, because articles from one or two more of Melbourne's food bloggers will be appearing soon.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

September 20-21, 2008: The cherry slice experiment

Though I don't buy them often any more, Cherry Ripe bars do have a special place in my sweet tooth. As a 3rd-year uni student, I would buy one every Thursday night in the break between grueling hour-long statistics lectures. They were the Aussie treat I missed most when I was studying in the U.S. - the American candy-coated interpretation of a cherry's flavour is entirely different. I've never been a huge fan of the cherry-coconut slices that imitate the chocolate bar, but Bella's vegan version still set the cogs whirring in my head. After all, there was no need to use those icky glace cherries now that I'd discovered the divine dried ones, right?

Bella warned me that this might not turn out quite as I envisaged, so devised an experiment. I'd make the slice in four ways, using a different cherry mixture in each one.

They are (clockwise from top-left): morello cherry jam, glace cherries, dried cherries and morello cherries preserved in syrup.

I pressed and baked the base, and it proved to have just the right level of sweetness, though it was a little thick and crumbly (I think I overcooked it). It was a little challenging to quickly stir the agar mixture through four separate bowls of cherry-coconut filling, but it was surprisingly easy to press this mixture into four neat quarters over the base. Finally, I spread over a mixture of coconut cream and dark chocolate - Lindt 70% made this a more bitter than sweet layer.

How'd my four test batches fare? Here's the break-down.

Glace cherries. The original cherry-coconut slice filler, the glace cherry's sweet syrupy flavour and lurid colour will be familiar to most. The copious coconut does well to soften its medicinal edge, and is faintly tinted pink.

Dried cherries. I suspect that not all dried cherries are created equal. I've previously bought some that were shriveled, mouth-puckering and still clinging to their pits, but these royal cherries from the Queen Victoria Market are pitted, still plump, sublimely tangy, and.... $40/kg. They do taste lovely in this slice, but they fail to meld at all with the coconut.

Morello cherry jam. This spread a cute (though not quite cherry-like) purple colour through the coconut. Unfortunately this jam was far too short on actual fruit pieces, and the flavour just didn't carry.

Morello cherries preserved in syrup. This option struck a good compromise across the board, without excelling in any category. The cherry pieces had a pleasing tang but are a bit watery compared to the dried cherries, their syrup lends a nice subtle colour to the coconut, and the overall meld is OK.

I'm not sure I can declare a clear winner! The glace cherries are traditionally popular, but don't float my boat. The preserved cherries look good and would probably have broad appeal. Yet it's still the dried cherries that I'm interested in exploring further (soak them in juice? reduce the coconut?). At this price, I'll have to be efficient about it.

September 20, 2008: Otsumami

Cindy and I rarely make the trek across to Northcote - it's not as though it's particularly far, it just doesn't fit nicely onto one of the nearby north-south tram lines, so it tends to get ignored until there's a sufficiently interesting gig on at the Northcote Social Club. This is a shame, because there seems to be loads of interesting eating places around High Street for us to explore.

Take Otsumami for instance - it was a new entry in this year's Cheap Eats Guide, scored three stars and snagged a little 'v' for veg-friendly, so it's pretty remarkable that it's taken us most of the year to try it out. Still, it was only one candidate on the list of places I'd drawn up as options - the fact that it's more or less next door to the venue for our post-dinner entertainment was enough to make it #1. Luckily, we had no problem finding a table - Otsumami have a couple of large communal tables which I presume you can't book, so even on a bustling Saturday evening in Northcote, there's a good chance that they'll be able to find you a seat.

The menu is laid out in three sections: small food, medium food and big food, and a little blurb at the front tells you that the food will come out as soon as it's ready (i.e. there's no strict entree/main structure). There are vego options scattered throughout the menu, but the highest concentration of them is in the the medium food, so that's where we focussed our ordering, opting for three medium dishes and a small to get us through.

Our small dish was endamame ($5) - baby soybeans boiled in their pods and seasoned with salt - healthy chips basically.

The 'small' dish wasn't really very small (I was expecting maybe a dozen pods), and we were hard at work popping the delicious little beans out of the pods and into our mouths for some time. I don't think we were even half way through the bowl when the first of our medium dishes arrived: okonmiyaki! For $9 you get three little chunks of vegie pancakes, filled with capsicum, carrot and other bits and pieces, slathered with a Japanese-style mayo and sprinkled with nori (make sure you ask them to hold off on the fish flakes!). We've enjoyed okonmiyaki before, but these were in a different class - particularly the sauce. I was preparing to launch chopstick raids on Cindy's plate until she generously offered me most of the last chunk.

Next up were the gyoza: sweet potato and chive mash dumplings, served with a soy dipping sauce ($8). These were six impressive little parcels of flavour -lightly fried and stuffed with a sweet mash that combined well with the salty soy.

Our last dish was Nasu Dengaku: eggplant cooked in a sweet miso and sake sauce and served on a bed of spinach ($10), recommended by the Cheap Eats Guide as reason enough for a return visit.

They weren't wrong - this was easily the star of the show. The combination of sweet and salty flavours was again outstanding, and the eggplant pieces were lightly battered and superbly tender. I was most impressed by the sauce - by the end of the dish I'd stopped caring about the stares of our communal table colleagues and was happily scooping up the last dregs with my fingers. Shameful.

Cindy has her own shame of course: a crippling dessert addiction that no treatment can improve. So despite feeling pretty well satisfied, we weren't leaving until we'd tried something off the final section of the menu. It's not a huge section: two kinds of icecream and some sort of sweet bean dish. Cindy decided to try the black sesame icecream ($5), and I was happy to share.

It was quite pleasant, but I didn't find it a great revelation (in the way that kulfi, for example, was). Still, like me Otsumami is more concerned about divine savoury dishes than sweet fripperies, so the lack of a killer dessert is hardly a big deal (especially with Coco Loco down the road). Otsumami is probably pushing beyond our definition of a 'cheap eat', but at less than $20 each, this was well worth the money - I'm not sure how we're going to try all the other places in Northcote now we know about this one.

Address: 257 High Street, Northcote
Ph: 9489 6132
Price: vego smalls: $3-$8, mediums: $8-$10, bigs: $14-$17

Our fridge door

Us food bloggers usually discuss what's behind them, but Wendy wants to know what's on our fridge door. Take a look! (And click on the image to enlarge if you want an even closer look.) Ours is primarily a repository for takeaway menus and novelty magnets, but you can also find a map of our neighbourhood, a postcard from Michael's mum, and a scrawled image of Michael watching TV.

What's on your fridge door?

September 18, 2008: Baba

Edit 20/05/2012: Baba has been replaced by burger joint The B.East - it has a veg option but we didn't love it.

While the Brunswick end of Lygon St has been a breakfast paradise for some time, this strip may soon also become known as a stylish dinner destination. Rumi's been there a while, George Calombaris has got something on the boil, and recently Baba has opened. With tickets to an 8:30 movie booked, we arrived well before 7pm to try it out. Though the restaurant was completely free of patrons (and waitstaff) as we entered, it filled in ten short minutes!

By the terrace-house dimensions that I measure the inner north in, this is a large and open restaurant with generous spacing between tables. The fit-out is primarily sleek and sophisticated, though the huge murals and shiny retro turntables hint that the lights go down and the music goes up up up when the clock strikes 10.

But let me tell you about the menu. The theme is Levantine, and though Baba is most certainly an omnivorous restaurant, there is a lot for a vegetarian to choose from - one claypot, three pizzas and too, too many mezze. What to do? Check our wallets, give the nod, and embark on an East Brunswick mezze and pizza food safari at $25 apiece. They're more than happy to vegify it.

The process of obtaining menus and drinks took a lot longer than it should have, but once the chefs were on board they set a fine pace. First up was some soft, warm pide with three dips. The carrot one was subtle, sweet and pleasant but completely upstaged by the other two: a chickpea smash vibrant with citrus and parsley, and the smokiest, garlicky-est eggplant ezmesi. (And check out my drink - a Shirley Temple!)

Though we were setting a hungry eating pace of our own, we weren't through the dips when the grilled zucchini arrived, dressed in warm sheep's yoghurt and olive oil, sprinkled with sweet currants and and tangy pomegranate seeds.

Next up, another cute little claypot with a base of warm yoghurt. On top, carrot and saganaki fritters fresh from the fryer and delivered directly by the chef. Perfect crisp crumbing and though the filling looked to be all carrot, there certainly was that strong salty cheese flavour.

The felafel came with more yoghurt and a tomato-based chutney. While they were as well-prepared as all that preceded them, the balls' slightly bitter herbs were an abrupt change from all the rich saltiness.

This photo doesn't give a true sense of scale - buy this stage we were filling up and these pizzas were looooong. Yet they were so tasty we managed to finish them off! (The thin bases must've helped.) On the far side is a pizza topped with kasarli cheese, fresh tomato, olives, radicchio, cucumber and oregano - a delightfully piquant mix. In front are toppings of spiced pumpkin smash, fetta, walnuts, dates and purple radish shoots. This final dish was stunning, all sweet and warmly spiced - it almost counted as a dessert.

And it had to count as dessert, as we didn't have room in our schedules or our stomachs for anything more. But how I want to try Baba's dessert menu! It promises rhubarb and rose petal pannacotta with rhubarb and pomegranate jelly, cinnamon sugared doughnuts with pistachio and thyme honey, Turkish delight gelato, a dessert of the moment and a cheese boar...... whoah, I think I blissed out there for a moment. Thank the food gods (or just Baba's head chef) for the Tatli mezze, a taste plate of the sweets.

This restaurant still has a little work to do on its speed of service, but I'm sure that'll smooth out soon enough. The staff can certainly be commended for good humour and grace in the face of high demand. And with food this good, I can't see demand for more waning any time soon.

Address: 80 Lygon St, East Brunswick
Ph: 9380 8534
Fully licensed
Price: vegetarian mezze and pizza $25 per person

Thursday, September 18, 2008

September 17, 2008: Cookies'n'malted cream icecream

Spring affects different people in different ways. All it took was one 20 degree day to have Michael planning weekend trips away and a birding expedition within the city limits. Me? I had an overwhelming desire to pull out the icecream maker and get churning. The only problem was, there was no room in the freezer to store it. Pastry, spinach, bread and paratha were in the way. Oh, and two lunchboxes full of too-crunchy chocolate cookies. Whoops.

It took me a day or two to work out the obvious solution - cookies'n'cream icecream! By then I'd seen Steph's vanilla-malted icecream, so I set my sights on a choc-malt twist. I started with my favourite vanilla icecream base, went light on the sugar and added 1/4 cup of malted milk powder after the cream. After an hour or so in the fridge, I strained the mixture and poured it into the churner. Twenty minutes later I added about a cup of coarsely chopped cookies. Done!

This icecream was even better than I'd hoped. The crunchy cookie pieces soften but don't disintegrate as they float through the custard; the custard itself is velvety and rich. It's so rich, in fact, that one scoop is enough... at least until tomorrow night.

September 17, 2008: Pantry challenge chickpeas

What's a pantry challenge? In our home, once every week or so, I tend to delve into the bottom two shelves of the pantry, looking for a half-finished packet of something that can be entirely finished for dinner. Noodles, quinoa, rice paper sheets or felafel mix - these dry and colourless ingredients can actually be a great launching point for a brand new meal, given a quick trip to the shops for some fresh veges on the way home from work.

That's hardly a challenge, though, is it? Well, on Tuesday night I managed to create a meal using only ingredients already at home. I realise that's par for the course in many households, but it's highly unusual here. We often don't plan our meals any more than hours ahead, and buy groceries up to five times a week. (For the record, my pantry meal consisted of stir-fried mock chicken and shredded Brussels sprouts with soba noodles and Happee Monkee's dark caramelised garlic sauce.)

Kathyrn from Limes and Lycopene has set an even greater pantry challenge. Can you create a tasty and nutritious meal using only ingredients from her list of 15 non-perishable foods? I reckoned I could, though many of the items don't typically reside in my own pantry (Michael eyes frozen vegetables with deep suspicion, and we don't even hoard tinned legumes, though we eat them often). It's not exactly the on-the-table-in-20-minutes affair that most folks are looking for on a weeknight, but that's because I wanted to slow cook the onions for maximum soft sweetness. However this recipe still doesn't require too much effort - just set the onions cooking as soon as you can and spend the next half hour ticking off another task. Answer your mail, write a note to long-distance friend, or give your mum a call!

Moroccan spiced chickpeas

250g box frozen spinach
2 x 400g cans chickpeas
2 onions, sliced into rings
a small splash of olive oil
~1 tablespoon ras el honout (a Moroccan spice mix, or substitute garam masala)
salt and pepper

Put a small splash of olive oil in a non-stick frypan and add the onions. Cook them over very low heat, stirring occasionally, for 30-45 minutes, until very soft. While the onions are cooking, take the spinach out of the freezer to partially defrost, and drain and rinse the chickpeas.

Once the onions are ready, push them to the side of the pan and plonk the spinach into the centre. Gently break the icy chunks up with your spatula or wooden spoon as it thaws. Once it's completely thawed, add the chickpeas and stir everything together. Sprinkle over the spice mix and season to taste.

If I were unconstrained, I'd suggest finishing this off with some lemon juice and a side of couscous. As it is, a splash of vinegar and some toast does very nicely.

September 15, 2008: Black bean and avocado soup

We'd loaded up on goodies at the Queen Vic Market on Saturday and had decided that we should buy some dried black beans and then get ourselves organised enough to actually use them. Thus, by the time Monday rolled around we'd had a couple of cups of beans soaking for a good 30 hours and were ready to turn them into dinner.

My first port of call for Mexican-y recipes is Ken Charney's Bold Vegetarian Chef, possibly my favourite in our cookbook collection. He didn't disappoint, providing us with a recipe for 'Beautiful black bean and avocado soup'. It all took a bit longer than I imagined it would - despite our preparedness, I didn't realise how long the pre-cooking of the beans would take. I had them simmering for about an hour, but they still ended up a little bit firmer than I'd have liked. Still, that was the only minor complaint about this meal (well, that and its lack of visual appeal).

The soup had a spicy zing, complemented by the citrus tang of the lime and the coriander. Throw in the rich, dark beans and the fresh ripe avocado, and you've got yourself a delicious treat. I probably went a little overboard on the spices, which meant that the spice range was a bit beyond Cindy's preference, but I enjoyed it very, very much.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 red onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon cumin powder
2 teaspoons of achiote powder (instead of the recipe's chipotle chilli powder)
2 cinnamon sticks
2 tablespoons sugar
1 cup chopped coriander
5 chopped tomatoes
4 cups cooked black bean (you might want to simmer them for 90 minutes)
1 litre vegie stock
2 ripe but firm avocadoes
Juice of 1 lime
Salt to taste

In a large pot, heat the oil and fry the onion for about 5 minutes - until it's soft.

Add the garlic, cumin, achiote, cinnamon sticks, sugar, salt and half of the coriander. Cook, stirring often, for a couple of minutes.

Throw in the tomatoes and beans and stir everything together. Cook for a couple of minutes and then pour in the stock. Bring to the boil and then simmer for about 20 minutes.

Take out a couple of cups of beans and liquid and puree them in a food processor, and then stir it back into the pot.

Cook for another few minutes and then kill the heat. Add the avocadoes, lime juice and the rest of the coriander and stir it all together with a bit of salt and pepper.

This is our entry in this month's Legume Love Affair, started by The Well-Seasoned Cook and hosted by Lucy at Nourish Me.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

September 12, 2008: Trippy Taco II

Trippy Taco has long been one of Michael's favourite places to buy lunch near his work place. But he took his sweet time letting me know that they're open for an early dinner! Thankfully we had plenty of time to stop by on Friday between work and ACMI's Jim Henson rarities. The layout is still just as Michael described it 19 months ago, though I think the menu has expanded. They're now fully licensed and cook several kinds each of quesadillas, tacos, taquitos, burritos, nachos, as well as breakfast variations thereof. Everything (except possibly the fries, but I think they're working on that) is vegetarian, and the menu is scattered with tips for vegans - letting you know where to request soy milk, soy cheese, tofu instead of eggs, dairy-free chocolate spread instead of nutella.

And though they won't keep you waiting too long for food, you can pass that time with snakes and ladders! There's nothing like a quick victory to pique the appetite, even if no personal skill was required.

Michael ordered one of the priciest dishes on the menu, huevos rancheros ($12): fresh home-made corn tortillas topped with fried eggs, ranchero sauce, black beans, cheese and avocado with a side of chipotle chilli and a couple of extra tortillas.

I picked one of the current specials advertised by the cash register - a sweet corn tamale with salad, cheese and ranchero sauce ($8.50). Having never eaten a tamale before I wasn't sure what to expect - it's actually a cornmeal dough steamed in a corn husk. I must admit to thinking that this lump of dough looked kinda boring and bland but just one taste proved me absolutely wrong. It's tender, sweet and bursting with corn flavour! Also dense and filling, thie tamale is just the thing to transform a salad into a real meal.

I reckon Trippy Taco deserves a first class ticket on the hot tamale train. These folks have developed my ideal weeknight eat-out. It's vegetarian, inexpensive, not junky or supersized, yet still stimulating and satisfying. I think I'll be stopping by Michael's office on the way home a little more often from now on.

(You can read about one of Michael's previous trips to Trippy Taco here.)

Address: 48 Smith St, Collingwood 234 Gertrude St, Fitzroy
Ph: 9415 7711
Fully licensed
Price: veg meals $8.50-$12.50

September 11, 2008: A minor place II

To welcome various people back from their travels, a gang of us decided to catch up for dinner on Thursday night. Mike and Jo were talking up Tiba's, as was Cindy (thanks to a very old post by Truffle). What we weren't planning on was Ramadan. Tiba's was overflowing with people - huge groups gathering to break their day-long fast and just to hang out and be sociable. We were told that there was a two-hour wait for a table, so we decided to move on. Our first port of call was Nila Junction, but it was unexpectedly closed. By this stage we were getting hungry and a little frustrated, but Jo-Lyn saved the day by reminding us that A Minor Place offers more than just great breakfasts.

The dinner scene is much, much, quieter than breakfast - we wandered in and were presented with a corner booth that comfortably seated the six of us. The menu comes in two parts: dumplings and snacks ($5 - $9.50) and tapas ($9 - $13), both of which were reasonably well-stocked with vegetarian options. Cindy and I started things off with the battered eggplant and soybean, with chilli, onion and sweet soy ($11).

This was basically tempura eggplant and tempeh, slathered in delicious sauce and sprinkled with some crispy onion bits. There was a hint of chilli, but it was mostly about soy sauce and crunchy tempura batter (which avoided the soggy trap, despite the heavy saucing it got). And it's really very good - I'm pretty sure I had a fair bit more than my fair share, just mindlessly digging back in for more.

Next up were the dumplings: steamed mushroom and tofu dumplings, with soy and chilli dipping sauces ($9.50).

The dumplings were served still in their steamer and were fresh, hot and filled with delicious mush. With a bit of clumsy splashing about I soon had mine dunked in both sauces and was happily scarfing them down (again knocking off more than my share no doubt). I really enjoyed these, but they fell short of the dollars per dumpling ratio set by Camy (20 for $6.50 or 32.5c per dumpling compared with 9 for $9.50 or $1.06 per dumpling here). I guess you have to factor in ambience as well, which makes for a more complex equation - it's certainly a much more relaxed dumpling experience at A Minor Place.

Our final savoury choice was the spiced chickpeas with spinach and lemon ($10). Strangely, the menu description didn't mention the cinnamon, which was by far the strongest flavour in this dish. Whatever other spices they used the chickpeas were a little bit swamped, but the lemon was strong enough to shine through a bit. I really enjoyed it, but I was glad that we were sharing - a whole bowl of this would give you cinnamon poisoning.

We couldn't leave without sampling the dessert menu - there were only three options: portugese tarts ($4.50), spiced sangria granita with blackberries and mascarpone ($5.50) or churros with cinnamon sugar and warm chocolate sauce ($4.50). It was churros all round at our table - sweet, crispy churros.

These things were smothered in sugar - so much so that Jo-Lyn was shaking hers off before digging in. This kind of shamefully healthy behaviour was absent from our end of the table, and we quickly demolished our batch. The only downside: not quite enough chocolate sauce - Cindy and I were scraping the bottom of the sauce pot very quickly. With even more wanton disregard for health, Bode, Cindy and Jo split a Portugese tart - Cindy made some vaguely positive noises, but said it was a bit heavy on the eggs.

After a bit of a struggle to find somewhere to eat, we ended up scoring a hit with A Minor Place's dinner menu. The staff were friendly and helpful - coordinating our tapas arrivals so that our table wasn't overwhelmed and nothing went cold. It was nowhere near as cheap as Tiba's delights and at around $20 a pop plus drinks, it's probably not a place to go every week, but it's well worth stopping in when you're in the mood for something a little fancy.

Read about our breakfast trip to A Minor Place here.

September 9, 2008: I Carusi II

I arrived home in time for dinner on Tuesday night, though not really in time to shop and cook for it. Thus, Michael and I headed to I Carusi for pizza - given the freezing drizzle that Melbourne 'welcomed' me with, I needed a reminder of the finer things this city has to offer.

I Carusi's looking a little slicker out front than last time (professionally painted signage!*), though their MO remains unchanged - high quality mid-price pizzas and accoutrements. Michael generously allowed me to choose the two pizzas we'd share, and I tried to reciprocate by picking some toppings I knew he'd particularly like. Up top there is the Broccoli ($13): "in bianco, fior di latte, broccoli, lemon, chilli & parmeggiano". The freshness of the ingredients made it great, though the uneven distribution of the chilli created a bit of a rollercoaster ride.

This is the No. 26 ($13.50): "gorgonzola, sauteed leeks, fior di latte, in bianco". So rich, soooo good. I am starting to get the hang of these pungent cheeses! The only disappointment was a slightly burnt crust - the ugly shadows my photography cast do not account for all of that darkness around the edges!

I probably wouldn't be subjecting you to these terrible photos at all, except that this time I ordered dessert. This is the dark chocolate and strawberry dessert pizza ($12). I'm generally a little wary of dessert pizzas - a chewy, bready crust is no match for some buttery pastry as far as I'm concerned. But I Carusi did it well. Fresh from the oven, the base was soft and not too thick or rich - a fine vessel for the dominating gooey molten chocolate.

*Edit 21/09/08: Actually, the signage probably isn't new at all - I just caught sight of it in full daylight and it's as cutely uneven as ever.

You can read about our previous visit to I Carusi here.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

September 5-7, 2008: Old friend, New Farm

On this weekend, Michael and I had rare chance to share some time and food with Doof. A lot has happened since Doof and I were co-renting five years ago, yet it was surprisingly familiar and comfortable sharing wine and takeaway pizza with him and his current housemates in their New Farm home. His beige and brown crockery, which once held my mediocre pre-vegetarian meals for one, probably helped.

Doof's housemate was on the receiving end of a painful accident and some poorly executed medical attention that week, and a combination of medication and wine had her excessively apologetic that she hadn't made cake for dessert. She had this great cream, you see. I didn't, but figured some cake was achievable enough.

With my hosts' blessing I raided their cupboards for cookbooks and ingredients, converting a Donna Hay recipe for a rectangular maple cake into a dozen golden syrup cupcakes. Though they were nothing spectacular, I was quietly proud of my resourcefulness and spontaneity and my companions loudly expressed their own appreciation. The cream did turn out to be special - a $7.75 jar of thick, pale yellow bliss from an exclusive dairy in Tasmania.

Saturday morning's plan was a mini-road trip to the hippy-ish hinterland town of Maleny. So what better way to start the day than the Alibi Room's Kombie Drivers Breakfast for two?

$35 gets you this vegan-friendly monstrosity: soy coffee and fruit juice for two, heavy toast with nuttelex, sublime sweet chilli scrambled tofu, a mountain of mushrooms, baked beans, spinach, tomato, soy bacon, haggis-like sausages, sweet potato chips, and four of the biggest, greasiest, most fabulous hash browns I've ever seen or eaten. Needless to say, we didn't need to eat again for some time.