Friday, October 31, 2008

October 21, 2008: Town Hall Hotel

This meal was our first real test of the Melbourne Veg Food Guide. We had tickets to a Melbourne Arts Festival show in North Melbourne, and consulted the guide for some nosh in the neighbourhood. The Town Hall Hotel seemed the pick, and though I was anticipating a grand, expansive building we found something else - a rambling and cluttered terrace house with barely a spare seat in the front bar or dining room, even on a Tuesday night.

After relying on a blackboard menu and ordering food and drinks at the bar, I was a little surprised to receive complimentary bread and butter delivered to our table. It didn't have that ubiquitous Melbourne sourdough look, but I liked its softness and flecks of pepper even more.

The menu offers about three vegetarian mains - not a terrible effort, for a pub - so it's hardly coincidence that we picked out the same dishes as the Veg Guide reviewer. The vegie burger ($14) no longer contains a pumpkin patty, but there's plenty else going on - an oversized mushroom, polenta-crumbed eggplant, goats cheese, red capsicum, greens and onion, lemon mayo and tomato chutney, as well as a generous side of chips. It's a little too much going on, actually; while I loved the super-fried eggplant slice and the mayo, the goats cheese was a little overbearing. Apparently this kitchen doesn't mind veganising the vegetarian meals, so I'll take that path in the future and give the goats a break. The chips were pretty darn good, boasting seasoned salt.

Michael's lentil shepherd's pie ($14) arrived a bit later than my meal, and for all that was still searingly hot. You'd think this was ample opportunity for me to clean my plate before he'd picked up his fork, but apparently not - he scooped up the cheesy mash-topped tub in record time!

I don't think the Town Hall Hotel will be luring Melbourne's vegans and vegetarians away from the East Brunswick Club any time soon, but it turns out a fine meat-free meal at a reasonable price. Better yet, it looks like you could count on it for a rollicking and unpretentious atmosphere just about any night of the week.

Address: 33 Errol St, North Melbourne
Ph: 9328 1983
Fully licensed
Price: veg mains ~$14

Sunday, October 26, 2008

October 19, 2008: Banana soup

This month's World In Your Kitchen recipe was one I had to take on by myself - banana soup from Malawi. There was no way that Michael was going near banana anything! Unperturbed, I cooked up a half-quantity for my Sunday breakfast and was pleasantly surprised. It's thick and nourishing, though not as heavy as porridge. Though it's unmistakably banana, the orange peel adds something special. Regularly dirtying up the food processor for breakfast doesn't exactly appeal to me but I can see myself making this again.

Banana Soup

4 bananas, peeled
3 cups milk
grated peel and juice of 1/2 an orange
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon cornflour

Use a food processor to thoroughly blend the bananas, then gradually add the milk (reserving 2 tablespoons for later) to form a thick liquid.

Pour the banana mixture into a saucepan. Add sugar and salt to taste, then stir through the orange peel and juice. Bring the soup to the boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.

In a cup, dissolve the cornflour in the remaining 2 tablespoons of milk, then stir the mix through the soup. Serve the soup hot or cold, sprinkled with cinnamon.

October 18-19, 2008: Cherry slice experiment II: the next hypothesis

You know the Simpsons episode where Lisa becomes vegetarian and Homer starts a catchy conga line with the chant "You don't win friends with salad!"? Totally not true. On this Sunday, Michael and I made a whole bunch of new friends over the most impressive array of salads I've ever seen or eaten. We'd been invited to a vegan potluck, where we met many of Melbourne's vegan bloggers (Lisa, Kristy & Toby, Buttons, Miss T & Philippa) for the first time and many other cool peeps besides (including Emily from Aduki)! For more thorough write-ups of the event, check out these posts by Lisa, Kristy, Miss T and Philippa. Non-salad food highlights for me were Miss T's white bean pesto & asparagus tart and Kristy's ice-cream sandwiches. After my own recent foray into ice cream sandwiches, I'd like to think it was a case of great minds thinking alike, but my mind had never conceived the wonder that is peanut butter caramel! Wow.

Predictably enough, I hoped to charm the crowds with sweets. In particular, I embarked upon my second round of cherry slice experiments. Having identified the dried royal cherry as my favourite manifestation of the fruit, I went about soaking it in different liquids, hoping to find something that would allow the cherries to meld better with that white, crumbly coconut. In addition, I utterly confounded my experiment by topping the slice with a different kind of chocolate to my previous experiment. (Bad scientist. Bad bad scientist.) The Lindt 70% of slices past is short on sweetness, and I replaced it with Tropical Source choc chips to great effect. Let's hope it didn't interact with those soaking liquids! Here are the candidates...

1 Plain. As I previously noted, this version is tasty but doesn't provide a great meld - the coconut barely takes on any cherry colour and is quite crumbly.

2 Sugar syrup. Even after an hour of soaking, this syrup took on only the barest hint of cherry colour. It did provide some nice extra binding and a shot of extra sweetness.

3 Apple juice. The juice quickly acquired a distinct pink tinge, providing a little extra binding for the coconut, though not as much as the sugar syrup.

4 Black cherry syrup. I bought a Saba brand cordial from Medditeranean Wholesalers and it may well have transferred more colour and flavour to the dried fruit than the other way around! There was a hint of the ol' cough syrup about it, but it really worked for me - such vibrant colour and flavour compared to the other versions. It provides excellent binding power for the coconut, too.

I think we have a winner! Though, you know, the crust really is a bit crumbly, especially when I try to slice it up small. I can see a third suite of hypotheses forming in my mind already...

October 18, 2008: Gingerlee II

27/04/2014: Gingerlee has just had a makeover and become The Old Bike Shop Cafe. It seems that some of the same key staff are involved.

I made good use of the spring morning and headed out very early for a wander through Studley Park and along the Merri Creek trail (highlights: red-browed finch with nest, nankeen night-heron, collared sparrowhawk). Cindy enjoyed a bit more of a sleep-in, and we coordinated our arrival at Gingerlee for a 9:30 breakfast. It had been a while, but things were still running smoothly at Gingerlee - attentive service, an interesting menu and lots of windows and light. The coffee machine gets a bit overrun, but the coffee that eventually comes out is worth the wait. I resisted the eggs this time, instead opting for the Moroccan tagine style baked beans, with yoghurt, coriander, lemon and sourdough toast ($10.50 - see above). This had it all going on: wonderful crunchy toast, warm, slightly spicy beans and some stronger flavours from the coriander and lemon. I was famished after walking 8 or so kilometres and polished the beans off before Cindy had even made a dent in her meal.

She opted for the bircher muesli with stewed rhubarb and cinnamon yoghurt ($8.50). It was pretty stunning to look at - the green sprinkle of pistachios and the pink of the rhubarb looked very appealing. Cindy enjoyed it a lot, but needed some milk to cut through the density of the muesli. I'm still surprised she didn't order the French toast again. We were both much healthier this time around with our Gingerlee orders, and the food hit the spot again - the prices are starting to look pretty good these days too (at least in comparison with El Mirage).

Read about our previous visit to Gingerlee here.

Friday, October 24, 2008

October 17, 2008: Bittersweet Symphony Slice

A mere week after my lab had their annual culinary competition there was a department-wide picnic, with a bake-off for dessert. I rolled up my sleeves and had a shot at the Dietary Requirements category, producing this vegan and gluten-free specimen. It's a double-sized variation on the chocolate mousse slice that I made last week - here's what I altered:
  • First, I replaced the plain flour with a gluten free substitute. It's a mixture of corn, tapioca and rice flours. I found that this gluten-free base was quite brittle and my first attempt split in half when I tried to remove it from the tray. However, it tasted good and didn't ultimately go to waste. My second, more successful attempt was baked for less time.
  • Next, I went for a chocolate-coffee filling by stirring some instant coffee into the sweetened melted chocolate. I just kept adding a tablespoonful at a time; tasting, tasting until it was what I wanted.
  • Once the slice was set, I cut it into 36 pieces, each little more than an inch square, and topped them with a walnut half.
With that, I had a more complex mix and mini size to temper the richness of my first version. In honour of the coffee and walnut elements, I dubbed it Bittersweet Symphony Slice for the competition. And what do you know? It won!

I'm submitting this recipe to this month's coffee & tea-themed Monthly Mingle, hosted by Meeta from What's For Lunch, Honey?.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

October 16, 2008: Anada

I was a bit sad when I first noticed Anada on Gertrude Street - Cindy and I had grown quite fond of Ume Nomiya, so its replacement with a pricier, meatier, Spanish restaurant wasn't something to fill me with joy (even if the chefs did have Movida connections). Still, once it opened the positive reviews starting coming in, and on a quick stroll past one lunch time I confirmed that they offered enough vego treats to feed us. So, months after all the buzz, we finally got our act together and tried it out.

All the rave reviews combine with the growing hipness of Gertrude Street to guarantee that Anada will be busy. We booked a couple of weeks in advance to be on the safe side - and then decided we needed to reschedule a few days beforehand. Which worked out well, because Anada had no record of our booking. Weird. Luckily they could still fit us in on a Thursday night, so there was no harm done.

It's a bustling little place, with tables jammed in fairly close together, moody lighting and the hippest of indie hits on the stereo. The menu is divided into tapas ($3-$6, almost no vego options) and raciones ($9-$30, 7 vego options). After much debate and some discussion with the staff, Cindy and settled on 4 raciones between us, while Mike and Jo chose a much more complex combination of tapas and raciones.

Our first two dishes came at the same time: Patatas a lo pobre ($10.50) and an aubergine and tomato pilav, with dill and yoghurt ($9.00). The poor man's potatoes - slow cooked spuds with peppers and bay in oil - is basically the same as the Movida version. It's a traditional Spanish dish, so that's hardly surprising, but by inviting such a direct comparison, Anada is taking a bit of a risk - these spuds were pretty good, but they didn't measure up to the divine version turned out by the Movida folks (and were $1 more expensive!).

The pilav ($9) came smothered in a delicious yoghurt and sprinkled with something crispy, salty and delicious. The pilav itself was quite good, but they were a bit sparing with the aubergine and tomato - it was mostly about enjoying the delicious rice and the flavours on top.

Next up was the saffron chickpeas and spinach ($9) - we've had this kind of thing a bit lately, both out and about and at home. This was a pretty impressive version - creamy, rich and full of flavour.

Finally came the obligatory Setas al Jerez ($9.50) - grilled field mushrooms in sweet sherry. These are a whole lot of mushroom and, despite being beautifully prepared, they were a bit overwhelming by the time you'd chomped your way through a whole one. It would probably have been better if they'd come out first so we could mix things up a little more.

Bafflingly, we walked away without sampling the dessert (if only Cindy had read Claire's review first, I'm sure she'd have been more interested), although the dessert options all looked intriguing (to me anyway). All in all it was a slightly disappointing meal - if only because expectations were high. The prices (for vegos anyway) are comparable to Movida, and the food and service both fell a little short of those standards. Regardless, I think that vegos and Spanish tapas don't really belong together - I'm not sure we're the audience that they're really shooting for. Still, we did end up with four very enjoyable dishes for less than $40, so there's not really anything to complain about.

Address: 197 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy
Ph: 9415 6101
Prices: Vego raciones $8-$10.50

October 15, 2008: Green-on-green salad, kicked up with potatoes

It's well and truly time that we got salads back on the menu. First, we revisited the green and gorgeous spring salad, and it was as green and gorgeous as ever. Since Jules did so well with that recipe, I dug through her archives for more inspiration and found this one for broad bean and baby spinach salad with minted pea dressing. Not only does it do those much-needed greens three ways (fresh baby spinach, boiled broad beans, mashed pea dressing), it also takes advantage of this brief bean season we're in. Michael wielded his TasteMaker once again, and we were rewarded with a fresh main meal, tangy with lemon and alternating tender and crunchy. While the asparagus and avocado in the green and gorgeous salad are best gobbled up quickly, the leftovers of this green-on-green salad were still most appetising at lunchtime the next day.

The greens were always intended to take centre stage, but I also baked a few potato wedges on the side. For the seasoning, I tried Chef Erik's Kicked Up Texas mix. It had a nice, slow burn but perhaps a little more sugar than we needed. It was a great change from my salt/pepper/olive oil routine, anyway.

Green-on-green salad

1kg broad beans, podded to yield ~400g
500g peas, shelled to yield ~150g
1 bunch mint, leaves picked
1/2 clove garlic
juice & zest of 1 lemon
4 tablespoons good quality olive oil
4 handfuls baby spinach

Fill a saucepan with hot water and a pinch of salt, and bring it to the boil. Put the peas into a strainer and lower the strainer into the water so that the peas are immersed - cook them like that for a minute, and then take 'em out and douse 'em in cold water. Do the same for the broad beans, but cook them for about 4 minutes instead. The broad beans will need to be skinned a second time when they're cool enough to handle.

Next, get your mortar and pestle (or TasteMaker!) out to prepare the dressing. Roughly smash together 2/3 of the mint, 2/3 of the peas, the garlic and lemon zest with a pinch of salt. Stir in the lemon juice and oil, taste, and adjust the seasoning to your preference.

Time to assemble the salad! You could just toss it all together but it's also nice to layer it up, starting off with the spinach and beans then working up to peas, mint and dressing.

I'd like to submit the green-on-green salad to My Legume Love Affair, the fourth helping. Originally conceived by Susan, the Well-Seasoned Cook, it's being hosted by Sra of When My Soup Came Alive this month.

October 12, 2008: Double P pesto

CERES provided us with some delicious olive oil and rosemary bread and some fresh parsley to turn into a speedy lunch. Throw some pistachios, olive oil, salt and the parsley into the mortar and pestle, grind it all together and serve it up on some freshly sliced bread. If you're feeling gluttonous, you can add a bit of cheese on top. To be honest, parsley isn't the best base for pesto, but this was still a low-effort high-reward lunch. Good times.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

October 11, 2008: CERES cafe

With summer on its way Cindy and I are trying to get back into the weekend morning market habit. What better place to start than CERES? A great little bread shop, a wide selection of organic fruit and vegies, chickens and a lovely cafe to start things off. We've blogged about CERES before - it's a pretty reliable source of slightly expensive breakfast treats. We weren't going to bother boring everyone again, but I wanted to quickly mention my order: hot Indonesian eggs (fried free-range organic eggs on white rice served with chilli sambal, spring onions, mint, coriander, sweet soy, peanuts & salad greens). Not too shabby. The slightly salty soy, the chilli and the herbs really complimented the eggy goodness. And it had greens, so I was being healty! We still love CERES - it's busy, noisy and slightly disorganised, but the food has been pretty consistent and the atmosphere of the whole market can't be beaten on a sunny spring day.

Read about our previous visits to CERES here, here and here.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

October 10, 2008: The annual lab culinary competition

Though my workplace does indeed have an annual culinary competition, you may not remember me writing about it last year. That's because I didn't - I was in Queensland, visiting friends and relatives and not cooking much at all. By all accounts the competition was at least as incredible as the one I was present for two years ago.

The premise is this: once a year, to coincide with the birthday of a certain lovely lady and long-standing lab member, everyone retreats to their home kitchen and brings out something special to share for lunch. Rather than more food, Lady Jane brings some or all of her sons and they eat, judge, and give out prizes for whatever catches their eye. And what a bunch of eye-catching contenders! Take a look...

These cute cream cheese-and-asparagus crackers came in salmon and cherry tomato varieties. I think I put away four of the veg ones!

Hummus and pita chips arrived with our non-cooking business manager, thanks to her super-cooking Lebanese mum.

Home made dolmades - I missed out on trying these, they were very popular!

Dainty cucumber sandwiches.

The first of very few non-vegetarian entries - beef and coriander pancakes prepped by lab leader Mark. He's a highly competitive fellow who's won multiple awards in the past. This year he was awarded the "Wins too many awards so here's the last one" prize.

These little bites won the Best Masking of Meat award. That tapenade's chock-full of anchovies!

These were much more veg-friendly - salty cheese and herb fritters topped with tomato jam. One of my favourites of the day.

There was a preponderance of balls in the savoury category. (A couple of us joked that this was a rarity, with females making up 85% of the lab.) I, for one, brought some soy bombs and Chinese-style barbeque sauce. And, carried away with all the new food, I didn't photograph them. Oh well - you know what they look like!

Next up were these mystery spheres with sweet chilli sauce. It's more likely than not that they included chicken, as well as corn and water chestnuts.

The spinach balls came with home made tomato sauce and handy toothpicks.

Tuna and potato croquettes - these received good reviews, though obviously I can't confirm them myself.

This is kachumbari - a fresh, tangy salsa-like dish from the cook's home country, Kenya.

This carrot salad won the Taste of Spring award.

Here's a herby salad of beetroot, lentils, walnuts and labne and a walnut bread. They were both created by one of my co-cooks at Stu's bread-baking bonanza, and this bread earned an award for most belonging to a cooking magazine.

She was also responsible for this gorgeous buttermilk and maple cluster. I'm a sucker for a bit of geometry!

These rustic loaves came from a visiting participant, and she won the Home Baking award for her efforts.

Nope, this isn't more meat - these are Liz O'Brien's non-sausage sausage rolls, enhanced with home-grown veges and tomato chutney. They were crowned the best faux-meat creation of the day.

Cheese and spinach pastry triangles. They were great, but actually won an award on the basis of arriving very, very late.

This dish warrants some explanation. During a past culinary competition, this particular cook (a marine biologist by day) won a prize of dried algae, Durvillaea antarctica to be precise. In a most enterprising gesture, she resolved to prepare and serve said algae as her entry this year! Apparently it's used in Chilean cuisine, and she went to some effort to obtain a translation of the Spanish-language recipe for Cochayuyo Chilote. It's a casserole of sorts, including potatoes, eggs and cheese. This was surely the most hard-won award of the day.

Phew - we've made it through all the savoury entries. Perhaps you'd like a drink before we proceed to dessert?

Can I offer you...

... some raspberry and orange punch?

If you're after something stronger, there's sangria served in an aquarium. It won the "Eases the Friday arvo pain" award, as well as the grand culinary competition prize.

These home-made fortune cookies came with hilarious home-made fortunes. They won the Good News award, since the judge's cookie assured him "It's benign". The other news wasn't quite so good, with one eater being warned "The greatest danger to you may be your own stupidity" and another, "That wasn't chicken".

These pavlovas utilised the canned jackfruit that their creator won last year. Boy, were they sweet!

The gluten-free ginger biscuits won the Child-Labour award in honour of the 3-year-old that co-baked them.

A luscious lemon yoghurt cake.

A lemon meringue pie, winner of the Light and Puffy prize. It had some excellent pastry going on, too.

This one labelled itself!

This is the biggest bowl of gulab jamun I've ever seen! They won the Culinary Enigma award, because most people weren't even sure whether they were savoury or sweet until they tried one. Once tried, they won many many fans.

The best (and only) liquifying of a solid food - doughnut soup! I had seen this before on Hungry in Hogtown, but tasting it was another experience entirely - like drinking Dunkin' Donuts, cheap coffee'n'all.

The classic choc-chip cookie.

The more novel smartie cookie.

This chocolate cake won the inaugural Gluten-Free Envy Award. Sadly it's not flourless, thus disappointing the newest, gluten-free judge.

And finally, my sweet entry. Here are a few choc-ginger icecream sandwiches that I photographed earlier! They are made from two dependable recipes I've prepared many times - Martha Stewart's chocolate and ginger biscuits (no longer rolled in extra sugar) and the vanilla component of this raspberry ripple icecream. Getting them together and in to the lab was a minor logistical challenge, and I had to keep them cold and hold off from presenting them to the group until most people were ready for dessert. Though they didn't win a prize, I think it was worth the effort. They were delicious!

There are many days in the year that I'm reminded of what a lovely group of people I work with. But I think their enthusiasm, humour, creativity and generosity is never more obvious than at the annual culinary competition!