Thursday, December 31, 2009

December 29, 2009: Savoury sundaes

The last vegan potluck of the year was a picnic near home and there was particular enthusiasm for icecream. In anticipatory online discussions, one joke led to another and I started wildly promising savoury icecream. I think I was concerned that sweet icecream would be a molten mess by the time everybody was ready for dessert but I needn't have worried - these two iced boxes froze hard and I snapped one spoon handle and bent another on failed scooping, while everybody ate their fill of the other savouries, before this dish was ready.

The first savoury icecream I made was always going to be avocado. Several years before I began this blog I made a few controversial batches of gently sweet avocado icecream, studded with roasted hazelnuts. That recipe, from Gail Damerow's Ice Cream! The Whole Scoop, had an intriguing variation involving grated onion and yoghurt with a call to "pass the tortilla chips"! Curiously it didn't direct me to reduce the quantity of sugar, but I decided to tone it down from 2/3 to 1/4 cup. My taste testing confirmed that some sweetener did improve the overall flavour, so I'd advise against omitting it completely. Since it was a vegan gathering, I tried Nestle Carnation soy creamy cooking milk in place of dairy milk and cream. I think this product is intended as a direct replacement for evaporated milk and it certainly had the right look. I found its soy flavour very intense, though, so I'd only use it for dishes with other strong masking flavours.

For my second savoury flavour, I thought something tomato-based would be complementary and I fell upon a suitable looking sorbet in NPR's archives. I didn't have access to fresh tomatoes beyond tasteless supermarket ones, so streamlined the process with some canned produce instead. I hoped a blended fresh chilli might liven things up but didn't actually notice it at all in the frozen sorbet. Some balsamic vinegar adds a nice depth of flavour, though.

My savoury sundaes had a varied reception. Some people were curious and not entirely won over; others declined to try these at all. A few people nominated their favourite of the two flavours (I think the tomato sorbet was the more popular). I suspect that I actually enjoyed these more than anyone! Expecting the onion powder and chilli that distinguish these from dessert, I approached them as chilled guacamole and salsa dips and liked them most in combination with the corn chips. Even so, I'd recommend eating them in small serves... that is, if you dare to eat them at all!

Savoury Avocado Ice Cream
(inspired by a recipe in Ice Cream! The Whole Scoop by Gail Damerow)

3 small (or 2 large) avocadoes
juice of 1 lemon
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
375mL can soy creamy cooking milk

In a food processor, blend the avocadoes until smooth. Add the lemon juice, sugar, salt and onion powder and blend until thoroughly combined. Taste and adjust the flavourings to your liking. Add the soy milk and blend further until evenly mixed. Refrigerate the mixture until it's very cold, then churn and freeze it in an ice cream maker.

Tomato sorbet
(inspired by a recipe at the NPR website)

1 red chilli, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
810g can crushed tomatoes

In a food processor blend together the chilli, sugar, lemon juice and balsamic vinegar. Add the tomatoes and blend further until everything is well mixed. Chill the mixture thoroughly.

When the mixture is very cold, strain it. I spent 10 minutes or more squeezing as much liquid out of the tomato pulp as I could. Discard the pulp, then churn and freeze the liquid using an ice cream maker.

You can see other delicious picnic offerings over at Vegan About Town.

Four years on, I'm contributing this to Catherine's tomato-themed food event.

December 29, 2009: Jock's Ice Cream & Sorbet

I only just heard of Jock's Ice Cream & Sorbet this month on Melbourne Best Cheap Eats, though apparently it's been in business since 2001. It's clear on entering that they've spent this time rapidly perfecting their craft, with their wall boasting numerous awards.

There were over two dozen different ice cream and sorbet flavours on offer, covering the range that most people will look for - cheery-hued fruits, chocolate, coffee, caramel and vanilla. There are also a couple of seasonal novelties - at the moment there's plum pudding and my pick, Obamarama (peanut butter and jelly). While I detected the peanut butter and jelly distinctly in my first few licks, soon enough my tastebuds dulled and it was more of a homogeneously sweet experience.

What's notable about Jock's ice creams is their texture - more akin to an airy, creamy soft serve than a dense frozen custard. It was luscious to lick on that 28-degree day, but I imagine this style of ice cream would rapidly be lost on the ground in a puddle if the weather were any hotter.

On a warm day, this is ice cream worth crossing town for. And if it requires such a journey there's the opportunity to stock up on takeaway tubs while you're there, so bring an esky! Located only a short stroll beyond Kamel, Misuzu's and Andrews Hamburgers, I'll be making the trip for more before summer's done.

Address: 83 Victoria Ave, Albert Park
Ph: 9686 3838

December 27, 2009: Mushroom and chestnut risotto

Our tofurkey escapades left us with half a can of chestnuts. I had a little nibble on one and thought its earthy flavour might be enhanced by mushrooms, so I worked a mushroom and chestnut risotto into the week's cooking. I started with this recipe as a guide, skipping the butter and going light on the parmesan at the end. This way it's relatively low-fat, soft and tender without being creamy, and easily veganisable (by omitting or substituting the parmesan).

The recipe was an understated success. The chestnuts and mushrooms did indeed work well together. Even so, I probably wouldn't hunt down more chestnuts just to repeat this recipe - I like a straight-up mushroom risotto just as much.

With only Dad and I sharing the goods there were lots of leftovers and I converted them into risotto cakes. I had been hoping to just ball the mixture up and dust it with cornmeal as I have previously but it was too dry - at this stage I ditched the vegan-friendly angle, adding a beaten egg and a little grated parmesan to achieve more malleable, fry-able patties. They were terrific with a generous squeeze of lemon.

Mushroom and chestnut risotto
(based on a recipe from Chestnuts Australia Inc)

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 onion, finely chopped
1 1/4 cups arborio rice
2 1/2 cups stock (I needed an extra ~2/3 cup of water as well)
1 cup mushrooms, chopped
1/2 cup chestnuts, chopped
salt and pepper
1/2 cup parmesan, grated (optional)

Heat the oil in a large saucepan and saute the onion until soft. Add the rice and stir it through until it is evenly coated in the oil. Reduce the heat to low and add about a quarter of the stock. Once the stock is stirred through add the mushrooms, stirring often as the stock is absorbed. Continue adding the stock in small portions and stir the risotto regularly as the stock is absorbed. Stir in the chestnuts with the last portion of stock. Test the rice for tenderness and cook further, adding small amounts of water, if necessary.

When the rice is cooked through, season the risotto to taste and serve topped with grated parmesan.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

December 25, 2009: Frozen chocolate crunch

When I set my heart on icecream for dessert on Christmas day, I didn't go searching for something new and exciting from one of my favourite cookbooks or blogs as I usually do. Instead I wanted to restore a family summer tradition that faded a decade ago. My dad's and my birthdays fall only a day apart, and for many years we took it in turns to request Frozen Chocolate Crunch as our birthday cake. It doesn't look any more special than just layers of vanilla and chocolate icecream with a few biscuit crumbs, but there's just something about it. It could be the use of real chocolate, the whipped egg whites, or the coffee liqueur in the chocolate layer, or it could just be the numerous parties and holidays that I associate this dessert with.

My tastes have shifted and expanded since I last ate frozen chocolate crunch, but to my surprise and delight I enjoyed it just as much this year as I ever have. The one I made differed a little from the original recipe that I'll give below. For starters, I halved the recipe because Mum noted that she usually reduced it by a third and my memories were of a very large cake. The topping is typically a mix of toasted biscuit crumbs and slivered almonds (except for the time that Mum used Dad's favourite sweet, Smarties, for his 40th birthday) but I omitted the almonds for my nut-averse brother. I found that I didn't have enough chocolate mixture to make top and bottom layers, but this was plenty rich with the single chocolate base layer. What's more, there was plenty to share around twice on Christmas day with Mum, Carol and Liam, and still keep aside three generous slices for Dad, Liam and I a couple of days later.

Frozen chocolate crunch
(as copied by my mum, from recipe card to email)

125g coconut biscuits
125g slivered almonds
155g marg
1 cup icing sugar
3 eggs, separated
1 teasp vanilla
2 tblsp coffee liqueur
250g dark cooking choc
2 litres vanilla icecream

Crush biscuits coarsely, combine with slivered almonds. Spread on oven tray, heat in slow oven until crisp and golden. Cream butter and sugar, add egg yolks, vanilla and coffee liqueur, beat until fluffy. Melt choc in double saucepan. Cool, then add to butter mixture. Fold in firmly beaten egg whites.

Press half biscuit mixture in base of foil-lined cake tin. Pour half choc mixture on top, press down so nuts are held in mixture. Spoon ice-cream over choc, top with remaining choc, then biscuit mixture, pressing nuts into choc. Freeze overnight.

Monday, December 28, 2009

December 25, 2009: Pizza IV

It was agreed only a few days in advance that Christmas day would be spent at my house. This was not as daunting as it might seem - the guest list extended only to my mum, aunt and brother, and none of us sought anything elaborate or ceremonial. I quickly settled on a menu of pizza and icecream, delegating drinks and snacks to others.

I was so relaxed about this plan that I didn't shop for pizza ingredients until the afternoon of Christmas Eve. At the deli the young attendant and I muddled and joked our way through finding some pizza-appropriate ham. I moved on to the bread section - I was not planning on getting caught short with another home-made base mishap on Christmas day, but found an insufficient supply of ready-made pizza bases. I was going to have to supplement them with something home-grown.

Praise be to delicious, where it only took a couple of clicks to find Lindy Loo's "easiest pizza dough in the world". Using dry yeast (I had the not-yet-expired kind this time), this dough would allegedly be ready in 15 minutes. And it seemed to be, though with all the chatter and drinking and snacking it actually had a little longer to prove. I rolled two messy tray-shapes out of it and they baked into lovely medium-thick crusts - a little airy in the middle and plenty crispy on the base to support the toppings. I won't hesitate to go back to this recipe next time I'm making pizza at home.

For the first round I kept it simple, sprinkling the base with olive oil, crushed garlic and black sesame seeds - it worked both on its own and slathered with dip; I think it would have been spectacular with a little rosemary added but I knew that not all of my guests would have agreed. For round two, my aim was to use up some vege-box-delivered mushrooms and silverbeet. I layered up a splash of olive oil, silverbeet sauteed with garlic, sliced mushrooms and a couple of rehydrated porcinis, then light scatterings of mozzarella and parmesan cheese. Finally, I couldn't resist revisiting the apple-pesto pizza.

It was great stuff for lounging around a grazing over, and it's been a pleasure to eat the leftovers in different topping combinations in the following days.

The Quick and the Dead Tasty pizza dough
(using a recipe seen at Yeah, That "Vegan" Shit, where it's credited to Everybody Likes Sandwiches)

7g sachet dry yeast
1 cup warm water
2 1/2 cups plain flour
1 teaspoon agave nectar (or 2 teaspoons sugar)
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, chopped (optional)

Preheat an oven to 200°C.

In a large bowl, stir together the yeast and warm water until the yeast has dissolved. Add the flour, salt, agave/sugar, rosemary and olive oil and stir until well combined. I found that this dough was a lot drier than other pizza doughs I've made, and it took a while to pick up all the floury bits and incorporate them into the dough. Allow the dough to rest for 10 minutes.

Lightly flour a clean bench top and roll out the dough to fit your pizza tray - I found that I could make two medium-thin bases with this quantity of dough. Sprinkle cornmeal over the tray, place the base on top, and arrange over your toppings. Bake the pizza for 20-25 minutes, or until the crust is golden.

December 21-22, 2009: Macadamia-date balls and vanilla-vegan bubble slice

This year my Christmas baking wasn't baking at all - I went the melt-mix-chill route. It has much to recommend it: it's quick and simple and it doesn't get you too hot and flustered amidst the warm weather and general Christmas chaos.

My first priority was a gift for my step-grandfather, Max. He's been having some health problems in the last few months so I wanted to give him something tasty and treat-like that wouldn't be overly bloating or calorific. The date macadamia balls that Jo posted on It Ain't Meat, Babe seemed to fit the bill - my one-day foray into raw food proved the power of dates' sweet caramel flavour, and the creamy richness of ground macadamias. The bit of cocoa in this recipe only enhanced the treat factor. If I made these again just for myself, I'd sacrifice the sweetness and up the cocoa even further.

The second treat loitering fuzzily in the background is our old family favourite, bubble slice. It's appeared here in various guises before, and I'll dub this version the 'vanilla-vegan' one. Actually it doesn't contain vanilla at all, but rather is the plainest, bare-bones version of the slice without any added nuts, dried fruit or chocolate. The original recipe uses honey and butter, but I made the vegan- and pantry-friendly choice of substituting golden syrup and Nuttelex. In spite of these alterations the aroma of the peanut-butter caramel mixture bubbling on the stove took me straight back to my mum's kitchen. It remains a crowd-pleaser, going down equally well with my country-living, meat-eating brother and the inner-city vegan friends who dropped by for tofurkey sandwiches.

Macadamia-date balls
(based on this recipe from It Ain't Meat, Babe)

1 1/2 cups macadamias
1 cup fresh dates
2 (or more) teaspoons cocoa
~ 1 cup shredded coconut

Blend the macadamias to a powder in a food processor. Add the dates and cocoa and continue to blend until the mixture forms a smooth dough.

Form tablespoons of the dough into balls and roll them in coconut. Store them in the fridge until you want to scoff them.

Vegan-vanilla bubble slice

5 cups rice bubbles
1/2 cup dessicated coconut
125g Nuttelex/margarine
4 tablespoons golden syrup
4 tablespoons peanut butter
1/2 cup brown sugar

In a large bowl, stir together the rice bubbles and coconut.

In a small-medium saucepan, melt the Nuttelex, golden syrup, peanut butter and sugar. Bring them to the boil, then simmer for 5 minutes. Pour the caramel mixture over the dry ingredients and combine thoroughly. Press the mixture into a small baking tray, using the back of a spoon to smooth over the surface. Refrigerate until set, then cut into squares.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

December 19-20, 2009: Ginger-lime cheesecake icecream

We shared our first tofurkey meal with my mum and her sister Carol, and I followed it up with this icecream. The source of my inspiration was a cheesecake icecream recipe from Mitch's Ice Cream Sunday - the custard replaces some of the milk and cream with cream cheese and a bit of lemon juice, and then crumbled up digestive biscuits are swirled through the icecream.

This reminded me of the packet of gingersnaps that had been taking up space in the pantry for too long. They're very hard on the teeth, perhaps meant for dunking in a hot drink, and experience has taught me that crunchy biscuits also fare well in icecream. To match the ginger I thought I'd swap the cheesecake's lemon juice for lime.

While the idea of ginger-lime cheesecake icecream seems a little convoluted, the result is straight-up delicious. The gingersnaps have a gentler texture but still hold their own against the tangy icecream. It's sweet and creamy without being devastatingly rich. For a special occasion, I'd love to press a gingersnap crust into my springform tin and pour the lime-spiked icecream over the top, as a frozen but fully formed ginger-lime iced cheesecake.

Ginger-lime cheesecake icecream
(inspired by the cheesecake icecream at Mitch's Ice Cream Sunday)

125g cream cheese
200g sugar
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
200mL milk
300mL cream
zest and juice of 2 limes
100g gingersnaps, broken into pieces

Beat together the cream cheese, sugar, eggs and vanilla. In a medium-sized saucepan, gently heat the milk, then beat it into the cream cheese mixture. Transfer it all back into the saucepan, heating and stirring until it has thickened slightly. Whisk in the cream and lime juice and zest. Chill the mixture thoroughly.

Once the mixture is very cold, strain it and churn it in the icecream maker. During the last 5-10 minutes of churning, gradually add the gingersnap pieces. Freeze the icecream for at least 4 hours before scooping and serving.

Friday, December 25, 2009

December 19-20, 2009: Christmas tofurkey

'Round Thanksgiving, I read enviously of any number of veg-friendly treats developed by north American bloggers. Then Michael found Bronwyn's tofurkey recipe and we made a pact to give this faux-bird a go together before parting ways for Christmas. On Saturday morning we stocked up on ingredients - one and a half kilos of tofu, herbs, cranberries and chestnuts. Chestnuts! If only I'd realised this tofurkey was so similar to the pecan-stuffed one in the Age, I might not have splashed out on that bafflingly expensive can of chestnuts.

Not that I was too regretful - we'd set all of Saturday aside to follow this recipe to the letter. Michael had even bought cheesecloth!

The cheesecloth is used to line a colander, which moulds the tofurkey. The outer layer of 'white meat' is made of tofu, blended with herbs and stock powder. We were lucky with the variety we bought - it was quite firm and blended into a malleable dough. But the water needs to be squeezed out to ensure it makes a firm shell. This takes a couple of hours.

This is plenty of time to make the stuffing - the typical savoury base of onion, carrot, celery and breadcrumbs is flavoured with herbs and a sweet mix of apples, chestnuts and dried cranberries.

Then more tofu goes on top and gets pressed down...

... before the terrifying tip-over! You can also mould tofu drumsticks and wings for a more turkey-like look, but we found that we needed all of the tofu to wrap around the stuffing. Besides, the tofu 'meat' is a little bland and dry - it's at its best with a generous serving of the stuffing.

Finally, this 'bird' needs glazing - with a fab concoction of port, balsamic vinegar, pomegranate molasses, wholegrain mustard and more herbs.

Just look at how that glaze bakes up! It's glorious.

It's quite a pleasant sight in cross-section too.

We served our tofurkey with instant vegan gravy, carrots and beans, and zippy warm potato salad.

I liked it even better as leftovers on sandwiches - I ate mine with tomato, lettuce, mayonnaise and Dijon mustard.

While the tofurkey is certainly pleasant to eat, I wouldn't recommend the hours of work it takes simply for its flavour. I think it's well worth the effort, though, for the event. As much as the eating Michael and I enjoyed building and anticipating the meal, then sharing our showpiece with friends and family.

For the recipe, check out YISBLOG.

Monday, December 21, 2009

December 20, 2009: Cutler and Co

First things first, a quick rant:

Cindy and I have been big fans of Andrew McConnell. He's wowed us at three, one, two and Cumulus Inc, been a drunken food critic at the Circus Pie Classic and consistently included vego options when he does the recipes for the Good Weekend magazine in The Age. So I was pretty excited to hear last year that his new restaurant, Cutler and Co, was opening right across from where I work. Unfortunately, as part of the process of opening it, McConnell started a whispering campaign in an attempt to force my workplace out of Gertrude Street. I'm happy to admit that the clientele of the drug and alcohol centre I work at are unlikely to be dining at Cutler and Co any time soon and that they're not always the most stable folks but, y'know, it seems pretty important that they have access to health services. While Gertrude Street is gentrifying like crazy, I'm not impressed by a high-end restauranteur that turns up and tries to sweep people who've been around the street for decades away to somewhere a bit less visible. Thankfully it all blew over fairly quickly and the lowering of the tone from our side of the street hasn't seemed to damage Cutler and Co's reception too much. But it meant that I kept up a silent boycott for the best part of a year, despite rave after rave after rave.

Finally, with Cindy's family in town and a fancy lunch on the agenda, I decided to get over myself and see if Cutler and Co could live up to the hype. It's a good time of year to do so, what with them supporting the StreetSmart campaign. It's a big, beautiful space, with an odd mix of stark (bare concrete ceilings) and ornate in a high-ceilinged old factory building. Sunday lunch-time is fixed-menu time at C & C, so we weren't stuck with too many difficult choices: the entrees are set, so all you have to do is choose a main and a dessert from short lists (a choice of 1 for vegos in the main section). We'd let the staff know ahead of time that we had two vegetarians, so they'd made a few tweaks to some of the entrees to ensure we got to try everything.

Our first plate was a mix of French breakfast radishes and cute little bread chips with smoked tomato dolloped on top. Even a tomato-skeptic like me was enamoured by the smoky, sweet mush on top of the crunchy bread pieces. It was a pretty great start. The radishes provoked a few raised eyebrows - do we just crunch into them? Turns out we do. They're more tender and less tart than I'd imagined, and were basically a burst of freshness in my mouth.

Next up were the peppers de padron, which had ambushed Cindy at three, one, two the first time we at there (these are like russian roulette in pepper form with the odd viciously hot one amongst the generally mild majority). This time around we didn't seem to get a loaded pepper, with just six perfectly cooked little bundles of sweet, warming adventure.

Our next entree, zucchini, smoked tomato and salted ricottta, was probably the most visually appealing plate of the meal, with the greens and yellows of the zucchini standing out against the bright white of the ricotta. Luckily, it had more than just good looks, with the gloriously fresh zucchini proving the perfect vessel for all the other flavours on the plate.

Our asparagus and egg sauce came out without the terrifying sounding 'prawn floss' promised, meaning we could happily chow down on these lightly cooked spears of deliciousness.

The most substantial of the entrees was the cous cous salad. This was probably my favourite dish of the day, with a depth of flavour that belied its seeming simplicity. Sweet currants, crunchy almonds and a mysterious green herb were the obvious ingredients, but this was much more than the sum of its parts - I had to restrain myself from scarfing the whole thing before anyone else had a taste.

Having shared our way through five plates, it was time for the mains. Cindy and I had just the one choice: Fataya pastry, filled with fetta, silverbeet and almond. This was a thick pastry bowl, stuffed with tender, herby silverbeet, topped with what we think was shaved fennel and served with a hommoussy sauce. It was well cooked and combined some great flavours, with the herbs (more fennel maybe?) working with the soft, salty fetta and the earthiness of the silverbeet.

With two desserts (plus a cheese plate) to choose from, Cindy and I could happily sample both the sweet treats on offer (unfortunately for Cindy, the ice-cream sandwich that she was pining for is an a la carte only option).

I went for the sheep's milk yoghurt, beetroot icecream and almond sponge, purely for the thrill of trying beetroot icecream. Colour aside, I'd never have picked the beetroot flavour, which was an intriguing sweetness with maybe a tiny hint of beetroot's earthiness. The almond sponge was mostly just a sop for the fast-melting icecream, while the spongey yoghurt square and the clear floral jelly were nice textural oddities, but didn't have the most memorable flavours.

Cindy's dessert was a poached apple with salted caramel, spiced biscuit and burnt butter icecream. This was another fun combination of textures, with a firm apple, crunchy little biscuit bits, gooey caramel and soft icecream. Cindy made little combinations of everything on her spoon and enjoyed the mix of flavours without being quite as blown away as she was expecting (I think she was still in mourning for the icecream sandwich at this point - we'll have to follow Claire's lead and do a Trippytaco and Cutler and Co combo one night).

At $65 a pop, this isn't a casual Sunday lunch, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a more enjoyable place to go for a daytime special occasion. Everything was well-considered and brilliantly executed, and we had none of the service problems reported occassionally elsewhere. Despite my misgivings about Cutler and Co's aggressive gentrification of Gertrude Street, it's hard to argue with the result - outstanding food with excellent service in a beautiful space. I'm going to bury the hatchet I think - I'd only be punishing myself.

Address: 55-57 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy
Ph: 9419 4888
Price: Sunday lunches, $65 (typically entrees will set you back about $20 and mains about $40)
Website: (be warned, it's one of those ludicrous fancy slow sites)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

December 19, 2009: Auction Rooms

For some reason I've always had a kind of knee-jerk anti-Auction Rooms stance. It may have been that their initial menu looked pretty meat-tastic, or possibly some misguided loyalty to Fandango, but despite countless rave reviews, I've never pushed for a breakfast trip to check it out.

But Mike and Jo convinced us to give it a shot early on Saturday morning, and we strolled in at 8 to our selection of tables. Nestled in a booth near the back, we missed all the action around the coffee machine, but were happy to have a bit of space and enough quiet to converse at normal levels. It's an impressive place - bigger than I thought and fitted out with a laid back but calculated style. Thankfully, the menu seems to have been updated since we first checked it out, and there are a reasonable selection of vego breakfasts to choose from.

Cindy typically scoured the sweet section of the menu, settling on the house-made banana bread with espresso butter ($7.50). Regular readers will know my feelings about banana bread, but Cindy spoke highly of this, with the generous slatherings of slightly coffee-flavoured butter complementing the sweet bread. She caught herself eyeing off Mike's ricotta hotcakes a few times, suggesting that she's already sorted out her order for our next visit.

I was a little disappointed that the Auction Rooms couldn't remove the bacon from the breakfast nasi goreng to give me a vegetarian option, but they made up for it by offering what seems to be a vegan savoury main (I didn't check, but I can't think of any reason that this dish would have dairy or eggs in it): scrambled tofu with sauteed Asian mushrooms, coriander and kim-chi on Dench toast ($16). Everything about this was perfect - from the herbs in the tofu to the spicy kick of the kim-chi, I was in breakfast heaven. The idea of spicy pickled cabbage as part of breakfast is hard to sell, but kim-chi is some kind of breakfast superfood - it really made this meal.

Throw in some excellent coffee and friendly service and it's clear that The Auction Rooms know what they're doing. My only regret is that it's taken us so long to realise it.

Many, many, many other bloggers have already given The Auction Rooms the once over - we're typically twelve months behind the times. Check back this time next year when we finally get visit Proud Mary.

Address: 103-107 Errol Street, North Melbourne
Phone: 93267749
Prices: Vegie breakfasts, $6.50 - $16

December 17, 2009: Barbecue veges

When it comes to planning our Christmas party, my lab tends towards a DIY style. It's not difficult to see why - there are numerous talented cooks amongst us so the catering is guaranteed to be excellent. This year we held a barbecue and I volunteered to bring something vegetarian for the hot plate. Mushrooms were an easy option - I just sprinkled them with garlic slivers, rosemary leaves and balsamic vinegar.

These skewers required only a little more effort - they're made up of tofu and red capsicum chunks doused in a smoky marinade much like this one (I just added some apple cider vinegar for tanginess). They were well worth it.

Elsewhere on the hot plate were tender zucchini fritters and the saltiest haloumi I've ever sampled. The trestle table groaned under the weight of salads and snacks. I was impressed by the colleagues who merrily took charge of the barbecuing in the midst of a downpour, and amazed at the entire group's good cheer and perseverance in the face of bad weather - bocce went ahead and many people kicked on right until we had to surrender the venue.

December 15, 2009: Slow-cooked summer chili

At 3:30am on my birthday, when I couldn't sleep, Michael gave me a slow cooker. Until now, my knowledge of slow cookers has extended to stews and dried beans - the stuff of winter. (But, as Michael observed, "your birthday's not likely to fall in winter anytime soon".) Michael also supplied me with Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker by Robin Robertson, author of Vegan Planet and 1000 Vegan Recipes. This book quickly set me straight - as well as the chapters on stews and beans that I expected, there are also sections devoted to appetisers, breakfasts, desserts and beverages! Sitting on my bed at that early hour, I got a little over-excited as I scanned a dessert section with multiple vegan-friendly cheesecake recipes and a beverage section featuring warming winter punches. If this slow cooker were a little more cycle-friendly, I could see myself taking it to every vegan potluck for the next year.

In the later morning light, I scaled back my ambitions and focussed on making something we could enjoy during a week full of social activities. I returned to the more conventional sections on stews and vegetables, finding several chili recipes and settling on one that emphasised summer vegetables. Chopping and sauteing all the veges took some time, so the slow cooker wasn't a labour-saver in this instance. (In particular I found the eggplant peeling and corn-cob shucking a real drag.) However it did produce a chili different from any I've eaten before. While the vegetables were gorgeously tender after 8 hours of cooking, I was amazed that they hadn't disintegrated - the eggplant cubes and corn kernels still retained their own structures and textures.

Chili like this is wonderfully versatile: we ate it on rice, slathered it over corn chips to make nachos, and stuffed it into toasted sandwiches.

Slow-cooked summer chili

(based on Farm Stand Chili with Chickpeas from Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker)

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 stick celery, finely chopped
2 small eggplants, peeled and chopped
1 green capsicum, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 generous teaspoon chilli powder
1 1/2 cups water
400g can crushed tomatoes
400g can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 cup corn kernels
salt and pepper

Heat the oil in a large frypan and gently saute the onion, celery, eggplant, capsicum and garlic for 5 minutes. Stir through the chilli powder and take it all off the heat.

Tranfer the sauteed veges to a slow cooker and add the remaining ingredients, seasoning to taste. Cover and cook on low for 6-8 hours.

Friday, December 18, 2009

December 14, 2009: Marquis of Lorne

Update, 31/12/2014: The Marquis of Lorne was closed for a while, but has recently reopened with a bit of buzz. I gave it a brief scoping out and was pretty unimpressed by the vegetarian options, so it might be a while before we update this review.

Our most recent pub club outing was to the Marquis of Lorne, nestled on Fitzroy's residential George St. The entry level is a pleasant and unassuming bar; one level up and you're in the dining room; one further is a more partially enclosed bar space, this one with comfy second-hand furniture. It seems that there's also some pool tables in the basement!

There's only one meat-free main amongst the steaks and parmas, currently a risotto with asparagus and oven-roasted tomatoes, shaved parmesan and basil pesto ($18). Risotto - snore. So often the bland, uninspiring default for vegetarians. Worse, Michael tells me that this one wasn't even cooked through.

It's also easy enough to fashion a meal out of the bar snacks, starters and sides. I found that the grilled saganaki on a roquette and watercress salad with lemon and lime dressing ($12) made for an enjoyable light meal, with plenty of peppery greens and acidity to cut through the salty cheese.

We also shared some wedges 'round the table. Though they cost an above-average $8, it's also an above-average portion, with plenty of sour cream and tomato sauce for dipping.

Unusually, there wasn't anything on the dessert menu that captured my interest so we retired upstairs for more drinks and debate. On a quiet weeknight the Marquis of Lorne is a lovely spot for such things, though I won't be inclined to eat more than the bar snacks in future.

Address: 411 George St, Fitzroy
Ph: 9415 9904
Fully licensed
Price: veg food $5-18

December 14, 2009: Leftover makeover - apricot and walnut bread pudding

When I made baked artichoke dip recently, I scooped it up with a terrific walnut sourdough baguette. Then we went away for the weekend and the leftovers went very, very stale. I was determined to revive them and thought a bread pudding might be the solution - it proved to be a good one, since I was also able to add some past-their-best apricots and too-dry dried cherries.

The only other ingredient required is some custard to soften it all up. Though I prefer the taste of an egg-based custard, one made with custard powder is more pantry-friendly (and is easily veganised). The custard's flavour didn't dominate but it did the perfect job of restoring some tasty but unchewable ingredients.

Apricot and walnut bread pudding

1 1/2 cups walnut sourdough bread, cubed
1/4 cup dried cherries
1 tablespoon custard powder
2 teaspoons sugar
1 cup milk
10 small apricots, chopped

Preheat the oven to 180°C.

In a small saucepan, stir together the custard powder and sugar, adding a little milk to form a paste. Whisk in the remaining milk and bring the custard to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer the custard for about 2 minutes.

Mix together the dried cherries and bread cubes in a casserole dish, then stir through the custard. Stir through the apricots.

Bake the pudding, covered for 15 minutes. Remove the lid and bake for a further 5-10 minutes, until the top is dry and golden.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

December 13, 2009: Gigi's of Beechworth

We only had a short time in Beechworth post-Provenance to explore (long enough for bird #263, a white-winged chough) and the first order of business was some sustenance to get us through the day ahead. For a food-tastic country town, Beechworth wasn't overflowing with breakfast options on a Sunday morning - we'd been warned off the bakery (pictured above) and there wasn't a great deal else on offer.

Gigi's looked promising, with a reasonably varied menu and enough veg options to get our hopes up. Not to mention the Age Good Food Guide sticker on the door - sure sign that this place knew what it was doing. Unfortunately, they didn't - the service, while friendly enough, was all over the place - it took too long to get menus and even longer to have our orders taken, but the biggest problem of all was the coffee. Usually you order a coffee, it comes out before your brekkie and you're ready for another by the time you've finished eating. It seems as though Gigi's was trying to cut our caffeine intake by limiting us to the post-meal coffee - we didn't see a hot drink until after everyone had finished eating. Pretty poor form. And even then the coffee wasn't outstanding.

The food was reasonable without being particularly thrilling. I ordered the home-made baked beans on sourdough with poached eggs and spinach ($15).

The eggs were excellent, as was the bread, while the beans were a little too firm for my taste and lacking a bit in the spices that I'm looking for in breakfast beans. At $15, these fell a fair way short of the cheaper Mixed Business variety.

Cindy went sweet again, with a warm house-baked fruit brioche served with cinnamon butter ($8.50).

I'm not sure what qualified this as 'brioche', but semantics aside, Cindy was pretty happy with her meal - mostly because they used such a heavy hand on the cinnamon butter.

It's hard for me to be too generous about Gigi's - if you're going to position yourself as the fancy breakfast place in town, you really need to get fundamentals like coffee sorted out. Maybe Provenance should muscle into the breakfast market.

Address: 69 Ford Street, Beechworth
Ph: 5728 2575
Prices: Vegie breakfasts, $6-$15

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

December 12, 2009: Provenance

Ever since I read this review in The Age, which combined raving positivity with an explicit focus on the number of vego options, I've been keen to head out to Beechworth and sample the vegetarian degustation at Provenance. After a number of false starts, Cindy and I managed to find a weekend where both ourselves and our dining companions (and drivers!) were free and we booked in a food-focussed road trip to Beechworth. Given the hype (e.g. Best New Country Restaurant, 2009), it's surprising how few bloggers have made the trek out to Beechworth to sample Provenance's wares (I guess if you're setting up a foodie road-trip, then Dunkeld is probably higher on your list). Jess' seems to be the only review out there, and her unbridled enthusiasm had me optimistic that we'd be enjoying something pretty special.

The restaurant has a la carte options (including a vego entree and main), but if you're driving three hours for dinner, then you're duty bound to try the six-course degustation ($80; $130 with matching wines). Okay: to the food!

First up was a confit of baby artichokes, with buffalo mozzarella, pangrattato and tomato butter. A fantastic combination of textures and flavours, with the crunchy breadcrumbs, tender artichokes and slightly rubbery cheese combining wonderfully with the smooth and sweet tomato butter. What a start!

The second course - roasted broccoli served on broccoli puree, with lemon, preserved lemon and fried garlic - was one of the vegie meals that feels a bit like they've just picked the meat off the standard option (which was basically this with anchovies and crisp pig fat). Lucky it was so fantastic then - the little crispy garlic pieces were ridiculously tasty, and broccoli and lemon is clearly a match made in heaven.

Next up was a house made orecchiette, with peas, chilli, ricotta and pecorino. Fresh peas are great. Fresh peas with hints of chilli and pecorino are astounding. The little pasta pieces were fresh and tasty, but this was all about the peas for me. This was another dish that had been vegetarian-ised (by removing bacon) and, unlike the broccoli, it felt a little bit lacking.

By the fourth course it was time to shift onto more main-style dishes: deep-fried silken tofu, soy and wakame salad. Cindy was turned off this by the seaweed flavours, but I loved it - it had a slight sweetness along with the usual fishy taste, and worked well with the delicate tofu and fresh beans. (It's worth noting that the tables were turned here, with the meat-eaters getting a slice of our leftovers as part of their beef course.)

Our last savoury dish was the biggest: spring vegetables with a crisp rice cake, Arabian curry sauce and preserved lemon. This was the perfect vegetarian degustation dish - lots of wonderful vegetables cooked to perfection, with a rich, complex sauce. The rice cake was a little too crispy for me by the end, but everything else was top-notch.

Strangely, the vegetarian degustation included a different dessert to the meaty one. This gave us the option of doing some quick plate swapping leaving each couple sharing two different desserts - it was almost like adding a seventh course.

This was the vegetarian dessert: Tocino del Cielo, confit pineapple, coconut crumble and toasted coconut icecream. Hilariously, the vego dessert was the one that included Tocino del Cielo, which literally translates as 'bacon from heaven'. It's the little disc of caramelised sweetness on the right and was the highlight of dessert for me (I just read what goes into one of these and I imagine they're a hairsbreadth away from being banned as health hazards). The pineapple and icecream were excellent as well, but they paled in comparison.

The meaty dessert (which I'm pretty sure was meat-free) was a plate of berries (Wooragee strawberries and Stanley raspberries apparently), served with pressed green tea cake, scorched pistachios and marmalade cream. The berries were about ten times more flavoursome than the ones you get in the supermarket, but I was surprisingly unenthused by this - I think I needed some chocolate.

Provenance put on an excellent meal for us - friendly, helpful service, and outstanding array of vego dishes, great wine and a spacious and relaxed setting. You can see why they're winning awards. From the looks of other reviews, they change the menu around fairly often, so we'll have to make a return journey when they've mixed things up a bit.

Address: 86 Ford Street, Beechworth
Ph: 5728 1786
Prices: $80 for 6 courses, $130 with wine