Sunday, January 31, 2010

January 25, 2010: Merrijig Inn

Michael mentioned that Port Fairy seems to have a high density of Good Food Guide-hatted restaurants for a country town and after having such a lovely experience at Beechworth's Provenance, we made sure to set aside some time and money to give one of them a go. Merrijig Inn took our fancy, based on an informative website that mentioned a dedicated vegetarian menu. We fancied them even more when, on our arrival, our waiter listed gin and tonics and Pimms with lemonade amongst the drinks we might start with. They also offered rainwater as well as the bottled stuff - much more pleasant than the soapy-tasting tap water in town.

Though there were a la carte options, we were sold on the vegetarian tasting menu - 6 courses for $75 - as soon as we saw it. It began with an amuse bouche of asparagus and truffle oil soup, as well as the requisite classy bread and butter. The soup was a thin non-creamy broth with very pure flavours - I couldn't taste anything but fresh asparagus, aside from the silky truffle oil resting on top. Very spring-like!

The first official course was called "Surf'n'Turf". I loved that they'd reappropriated this meaty meal name for a vegetarian plate, and was impressed all over again by the dish itself. The 'turf' is smoked, fried potatoes - like hash browns from heaven - cloaked in a thick sauce that I think included more potato and truffle oil. On top is a 'surf' of sea vegetables - samphire, sea parsley and sea lettuce. I have a tenuous relationship with seaweed (e.g. my sushi fondness vs the wakame dish at Provenance) but this hit just the right note for me - subtle saltiness, some crunch from the samphire and a gentle herbiness. No rubbery textures at all!

Surf'n'turf was followed by 'asparagus, Shaw River cheese, parsley'. The parsley, as well as making a pretty garnish on top, also made up the puree base. The cheese formed a thick custard, like a luxuriant savoury scrambled egg, and there was also a little more grated over the top. Thankfully, amidst it all, the asparagus spears were cooked lightly and simply. These flavours always meld well, and there were enough contrasts in texture to keep it interesting.

This is '"The Onion Family", smoked potato, roast garlic'. Most prominent are the four or five onion varieties, all cooked to tenderness - some still retaining firmness and a little astringency, others meltingly soft and sweet, one even pickled, I think. Underneath, standard and black garlic cloves were presented as purees. On top, tiny crunchy croutons. I don't remember there being more smoked potatoes, actually (and based on how much I loved them the first time, I think I'd remember them!). I love me some soft, caramelised onions and this dish brought some nice variety to that theme.

"Beetroot, apple, croutons, chard" was probably Michael's favourite amongst some terrific dishes. The beetroot arrived raw, cooked, as a 'soil' with pine nuts and as a dehydrated powder. The chard appeared as dainty sprigs, nothing like the boisterous bunches we've been eating at home! But it was the apple, some roasted some pureed, that had Michael moaning with appreciation. I think of beetroot as more of a winter vegetable, but some light touches ensured this wasn't too heavy on a warm night.

To close the savoury part of the meal, we were given 'carrot, hazelnut, brie, flowers and herbs'. It was so pretty and cheerful looking, but beneath that festive veneer lay an overpoweringly rich cheese. Nothing could stand up to it! I wished for a glass of matched sweet-and-sour wine that might cut through the cloying brie.

Dessert was 'orange, sheep's milk, basil'. The sheep's milk had been churned into a thick icecream, surrounded by orange segments, orange jelly, dehydrated orange meringue drops and grated orange cake, then covered in a green snow of basil granita. It was very refreshing, just barely sweet, and an ideal palate cleanser - Michael loved it, though I found the basil a bit overwhelming.

We finished up late with coffee, tea, and little hazelnut chocolates. It was a fine, even exciting, meal. Though it was a little short on protein, I didn't feel a lack of anything as I ate - the onions, beetroot and cheese were all substantial and there was overall a feeling that this chef loves playing with vegetables. I liked that most of the dishes had relatively simple flavour themes, with variety coming from the preparation methods and resulting textures. As a dedicated sweet tooth the dessert didn't quite meet my expectations, but it upheld that same standard of fresh flavours and contrasting textures.

Glancing a neighbouring table and looking now at the menu online, I can see that the vegetarian menu has been created almost independently of the standard tasting menu - only the beetroot dish looks like it might be a 'same, but without the meat' imitation. Even better - it's $30 cheaper per person than the omni version! The only drawback is that we weren't offered a set of matching wines (these are available with the standard tasting menu).

I don't know if or when we'll find ourselves eating extravagantly at Port Fairy again, but if we did I'd find it hard to choose one of the other hatted restaurants over a repeat visit to the Merrijig Inn.

Address: 1 Campbell St, Port Fairy
Ph: 5568 2324
Fully licensed
Price: vegetarian tasting menu $75 per person

Friday, January 29, 2010

January 23-26, 2010: Port Fairy

Cindy and I, like the majority of Australians, decided to turn the Australia Day holiday into a four-day long-weekend, and trekked off to Port Fairy to laze around. It's a nice little town - clearly well set up for foodie tourists, with possibly the highest density of Good Food Guide hats per capita of anywhere in Victoria. We didn't focus too heavily on the fine-dining (although there is another post coming about our one fancy meal for the weekend), instead surviving on a heady mix of local cafe food, trail mix and chips.

The weekend started off with a wander around the town - it's an interesting mix of historical buildings, trendiness and natural beauty. We focussed mainly on the natural beauty, heading through some nice little wetlands on the way to Griffiths Island.

Swamp wallabies popped up anywhere undeveloped - they're very cute, and quite used to people.

Griffiths Island nestles up against the south-east edge of Port Fairy and is connected by a short causeway. It's an old whaling station, although it has more or less turned wild again, with just the lighthouse still standing.

The main attraction of the island (for me at least) is the shearwater colony. Tens of thousands of short-tailed shearwaters use Griffiths Island to nest, with the whole island riddled with their burrows. These little birds head off to the Aleutian Islands near Russia in March each year and fly back across the world to breed in Australia around September. By January, the chicks have hatched and the adult birds spend all day out at sea feeding. Right on dusk they come flooding silently back to their burrows, the sky filling up with dark, swooping shapes in minutes. It's pretty spectacular.

Of course by the time the show was over, it was getting towards 10pm and Port Fairy had shut up shop - luckily we'd pre-packed some leftover haloumi and grape salad, which got us through until morning.

On Sunday, I somehow convinced Cindy that hiring bikes and riding for thirty-odd kilometres was an awesome idea. So, after a fairly forgettable breakfast we set off for Koroit on two of the hardest bike-seats ever built. They were basically just hard-plastic. Throw in a pedal that fell off within the first kilometre, and things weren't looking good. Luckily, the rail-trail between Port Fairy and Warnambool is a pretty easy ride - it's flat, relatively smooth and keeps you away from terrifying highway traffic.

The scenery is mostly farmland, but it's an interesting enough ride - you cut through a few bits of native bushland and there are the requisite farm animals along the away to keep things interesting.

Bike seats aside, there was only one problem with the ride - flies. As soon as the wind died down or you slowed down slightly to negotiate a yet to be completed bridge, the flies swarmed all over you. I stopped to read the map at one stage and could barely see it through the cloud of flies on my face. Not nice.

Still, with a last push up the first tiny incline of the ride, we found ourselves rolling into Koroit, our intended destination. First stop: chips.

The original plan had been to ride from Koroit another five kilometres or so down into Tower Hill Reserve, the crater of a volcano that erupted 7000 years ago and is now rich with native wildlife. But by the time we got to Koroit we were a bit sunburnt, had throbbing bums and were already feeling the ride back in our legs. So we just wandered down to the rim of the crater and looked across it. It's pretty impressive - I'm excited about going there properly one day.

The ride back to Port Fairly felt easier than the ride out but we were still pretty spent by the time we got back to the hotel, and the afternoon was spent mooching around reading and dozing. We decided to reward our endeavours with dinner that was a step up from the local pizza place, so we wandered into Saltra Brasserie to sample their grazing menu. They weren't laden with veg-options, but we managed to come up with: the warm artichoke dip with goat's cheese and ciabata ($11):

The grilled and battered saganaki with lemon ($8):

And the pizza with Shaw River buffalo mozzarella and tomato:

Throw in a couple of local beers, and this was a very satisfying post-ride dinner. None of it was outstanding but everything was well cooked and tasted great, which is all you can ask for really. We capped things off with an icecream from Rebecca's, the one icecream place open after 8pm.

After an early night, we woke up on Monday realising that we were both actually very sunburnt, so our original beach-based plans were swapped for a day of lazing about indoors. A disappointing wander through the op-shops and quick stroll to the wharf for more hot chips were our only outings as we hung out inside generating our own heat, doing crosswords and getting helplessly drawn into The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

All we had the energy left for was a dinner outing, which will be the subject of its own post shortly. Our Port Fairy jaunt was a pretty ideal long weekend - a bit of physical activity, lots of reading, too much sun, some good food and a little bit of nature.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

January 17-19, 2010: Saffron icecream

I think the best end to an Indian meal is something milky, cooling and sweet. I've got a few such recipes in my repertoire already, but I wanted to see what David Lebovitz and his Perfect Scoop cookbook could do for me. It turns out he does a fine saffron icecream. The ingredient list looks very much like that of a standard vanilla icecream, with the custard simply being infused with saffron instead of vanilla pods or extract.

In his perfectionist fashion, Lebovitz's recipe involved multiple bowls and saucepans and I couldn't help cutting a few corners. However, I didn't scrimp on the saffron - we received a sizable sample of this pricey spice for Christmas a year ago so I extravagantly doubled the recipe to make a litre of icecream. Actually, it's a rich dessert and a small scoop each after a large meal sufficed, so the original half-litre probably would have fed the six of us.

Saffron has a colour and flavour all its own, and it really permeates the custard. If anything, it reminds me here of honey, sweet and fragrant. I served rosewater-sprinkled orange segments alongside, and their gentle acidity made for a nice contrast.

Saffron icecream
(slightly adapted from The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz, quantity doubled)

1 cup milk
2 cups cream
1 cup castor sugar
scant teaspoon of saffron threads
6 egg yolks

In a medium saucepan over low-medium heat, dissolve the sugar in the milk and cream. Take the saucepan off the heat and stir through the saffron. Refrigerate the mixture for 4 hours.

Strain the mixture to retrieve the saffron threads. Keep the threads in a medium bowl, and reheat the infused cream in the saucepan. Whisk the egg yolks in a small bowl and whisk in a little of the infused cream. Whisk the egg mixture back into the saucepan and cook the mixture, stirring continuously, until the custard thickens.

Strain the custard into the reserved saffron threads and refrigerate the mixture until it's completely cold. Churn and freeze the custard according to the icecream manufacturer's instructions.

Monday, January 25, 2010

January 17-19, 2010: Palak paneer II with sweet-spiced lentil rice

Tuesday was my mum's last day in Melbourne so we invited her, her sister Carol, and some family friends of many, many years to come over for dinner. For our main meal, I had had the same awesome silverbeet-gobbling idea as wantingkneading: a greens-based Indian curry. We've made palak paneer many times before and eaten it even more often from restaurants, but since falling for Indya Bistro's version I thought I'd branch out and try a new recipe at home. My couple of Indian cookbooks were surprisingly not much help, but it didn't take much longer to find a version that appeared on SBS's Food Safari.

We did most of the shopping and curry-making on Sunday. Doubling the recipe meant that we used up all of our large bunch of silverbeet, two bags of spinach, and Michael even returned to the IGA for two blocks of frozen spinach to make up the full kilo. Believe it or not, I was actually worried that we wouldn't have enough - those greens sure do shrink down when they're cooked. The one alteration I made to the recipe was to add some stock after the blended greens, since it looked a little dry. (Maybe I squeezed too much water out of the greens.) Michael made the finishing touches of cream and garam masala on the night and I gotta tell ya, that cream makes all the difference to the texture. Even a little smoothes the texture out immensely and just melds the flavours somehow.

Rather than making a second curry, I tried out Kitchen Hand's recipe for lentil rice as a substantive side. It wasn't much of a looker, with the red lentils disintegrating into grey mush. However, the flavour was terrific - a sweet and mild mix of cloves, cardamom, cinnamon and nutmeg, scattered with gently cooked onion strips.

It's worth noting that neither of these recipes includes any chilli at all. It's a safe choice for a large group of guests, and we made sure there was plenty of chutney and pickle on hand for the few who wanted to kick it up a notch.

Palak paneer
(adapted slightly from the SBS Food Safari website, quantity doubled)

~1 kg spinach and/or silverbeet
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 generous tablespoon minced ginger
1 generous tablespoon minced garlic
1/2 bunch green onions, finely chopped
1 x 400g can crushed tomatoes
salt, to taste
~450g paneer, chopped into cubes
~1/2 cup stock or water
2 teaspoons garam masala
2 tablespoons cream

Bring a large pot of water to the boil and blanch the greens in batches for 3-4 minutes per batch. Transfer the leaves to a colander, refresh them in cold water, then squeeze out the water. Puree the leaves (in batches again) in a food processor until mostly smooth.

In a large pot, heat the oil and add the cumin seeds, ginger, garlic and onions. Fry them until soft and browning. Add the tomatoes and mush everything together to make a paste. Stir in the green puree and add salt to taste. Stir through the paneer cubes. Allow everything to heat through and add a little stock or water if the mixture appears too dry. Stir through the garam masala and cream just before serving.

Sweet-spiced lentil rice
(a recipe from What I Cooked Last Night, quantity increased by half)

1 1/2 cups red lentils
1 1/2 cups basmati rice
3 small onions, sliced into rounds
4 tablespoons ghee
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
5 cups boiling water

Wash the lentils, discarding the ones that float, and draining the rest.

In a large saucepan, melt the ghee and add the onions. Gently fry the onions until golden brown and remove half of them, setting them aside for later. Add the lentils and rice and stir them through the ghee so that they're well coated. Stir through the remaining ingredients and bring it all to the boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover the saucepan and cook for 20 minutes.

Serve garnished with the extra onions.

Friday, January 22, 2010

January 18, 2010: Toki Japanese Restaurant

Edit 28/12/11: Toki has now closed and there's a dumpling restaurant in its place.

What with living and working in the neighbourhood, I must have walked by Toki dozens of times without paying it any attention. Then That Jess Ho posted a picture of their 'Lucky 7' and I paid attention. I stopped by Toki for a Friday night dinner with a couple of friends and found the vego options pleasant, if not inspiring - mostly I was just disappointed not to see the Lucky 7 on the menu.

It's actually a permanent fixture on their lunch menu, so this week I craftily steered a group of colleagues there at midday. There are also a few noodle soups that look veg-friendly and I casually cast my eye over them, pretending I wasn't just here - and dragging my co-workers here - for a taste of the Lucky 7. I nonchalantly placed my order, and waited and tried to contain my anticipation as everyone else was served and my hunger grew and eventually, finally, my Lucky 7 turned up.

For $13 you receive "an assortment of at least seven different items, such as daily salads, poached vegetables, sushi rolls, noodle and vegetable tempura and deep fried tofu with miso sauce". I was disappointed that the tempura was stone cold, but ultimately those starchy discs were probably my favourite part of the meal. Other highlights included the seaweed salad, dressed with sesame oil and seeds, the lotus root salad, the miso-topped tofu, and the fresh orange-flavoured dressing on the cabbage. It's a lot of food, but most of it is light and bright and not bloating at all.

Toki's worth a shot for dinner if you're hungry in Carlton, but I think the vego lunch options might be where their best value lies.

Address: 88 Grattan St, Carlton
Ph: 9347 9748
Price: veg lunches $10.50-$13

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

January 16, 2010: Court Jester

Every time I think I'm on top of the great cafes of the inner-north, something new and wonderful turns up. Take the Sydney Road strip: we've happily chowed down at Ray, Tom Phat, Cafe 3A, Empire, Green Refectory, Minimo, A Minor Place and Robbies Stein and I was short on enthusiasm for the few places left. But then Brian started gushing about Court Jester and my ears pricked up. We've enjoyed Eastern-European style food before, but both Brian and Ange had pretty meat heavy meals and so I assumed it just wasn't going to work for us.

Still, it looked like a wonderful space, and once we'd had a quick peek at their menu and Cindy had seen the word 'blintzes', there was only one destination for our next trip northwards. Court Jester is tucked off Sydney Road a bit in a converted warehouse, with a massive construction site across the road. The ramshackle front garden and glorious graffiti murals give the place a welcoming vibe, and things only get better once you walk into the dining space. It's a stunning room - high ceilings, massive communal table, beautiful old furniture and walls covered in fantastic local artworks. Cindy and I sat there and soaked it up (along with the Modern Lovers pumping out of the stereo) - determined to like the place even before we'd looked through the menu. It's probably the most satisfying space we've been to in Melbourne. You can even add your own creative outpourings to the table!

Of course this was helped by the fact that we had the place to ourselves - people started to trickle in by 11, but at 10 in the morning things are still pretty quiet at Court Jester. Although if the food is as consistently great as ours was, then there'll be queues out the door in a few weeks. This. place. is. amazing.

The savoury options are split fifty-fifty between meaty and vego (although they'll happily change things around - see the rejigged kugel in Rae's post), and I was keen on the Brunswick green: poached eggs on Dench toast, with mushrooms, marinated avocado, asparagus and a deliciously garlicky horseradish mayo ($14.50 - it comes with tomato as well for those who fancy it).

So damn good. The avocado was herby and delicious, the asparagus marinated in a garlic oil and the mushrooms and eggs were perfect. The little touches, like the dashes of paprika and the insanely tasty horseradish mush took this from nice to outstanding.

Cindy predictably found herself in blintz-town: "Polish crepes filled with lemon zest infused ricotta in a mote of apple & berry compote topped with roasted almonds and fresh mint" ($10). Cindy didn't talk much during the meal, breaking her silence occasionally just to count off the reasons why this was the best sweet breakfast she'd had in ages: tasty and tender crepes! Rich and cheesy blintz filling! Oodles of poached fruit! Slivers of almonds! It was a win-win-win meal.

Cindy capped it off with a honey rhubarb drink ($4.50), which was not as sweet as it sounds - the tart rhubarb balancing out the honey flavour.

If you're still reading this and haven't already jumped on a bike/tram/train to Court Jester then let me reiterate: this cafe has a brilliant atmosphere, it serves up glorious food and is run by friendly and charming people. Oh, and they sell pierogis that you can take home and cook yourself ($20 for 15 - note to others: keep them in the freezer until you're ready to boil them!). If I had to find a downside, it was the lack of obviously vegan food (which I guess isn't that surprising in a Polish place). I'm sure that they'd be happy to put together something for keen vegans, and my toast, avocado, mushrooms and asparagus would make a pretty great animal-product-free brekkie.

Go there! Go there at once! (But leave a space for for us at the communal table.)

Read all the other rave reviews at: Fitzroyalty, Vintage Wonderful, Applecake Times and Vicious Ange.

Address: 15 Breese Street, Brunswick
Ph: 9383 3904
Price: $10 - $15

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

January 15, 2010: Tenth Muse

The dinner options were few and boasting long queues at the Supper Market, and line-up wasn't any better at Trippy Taco. Though we were hot and disappointed, this did lead us to try Brunswick St's Tenth Muse for the first time. This cafe does offer meat dishes but it proudly advertises its vegetarian and vegan options in the window, clearly marking the many vegetarian, vegan and vegan-adaptable items on the menu.

Michael and I shared two plates between us. First was the falafel wrap with tabouli, pickles and hommus ($6.90) and a side of chips ($1.50).

Our other plate was piled high with Muse bean nachos ($12.90), served with cheese, guacamole and sour cream.

These were both thoroughly enjoyable, if not mind-blowing - the kind of stuff you might happily make yourself at home on a Friday night in. (The chips - the one thing I wouldn't make at home - were great.) Portion sizes were huge and they allowed us to take home our remaining falafel wrap in a bag labelled "dog food", so it's also good value. Table service was friendly if not entirely efficient. However the food took a long time to arrive, even though ours was the only order with the kitchen at that time. Stop by for a cheap and unpretentious feed by all means, but give it a miss if you're running to a schedule.

Edit 10/07/11: The Tenth Muse has closed down, see Fitzroyalty for details.

Address: 365 Brunswick St, Fitzroy
Ph: 9417 7477
Price: veg snacks and meals $6.90-$14.90

Tenth Muse has also been blogged at In the Mood for Noodles (twice!), Fitzroyalty and Happiness is a Worn Pun.

Monday, January 18, 2010

January 10, 2010: Silverbeet-sausage frittata

Bananas are not the only item from our fruit & veg box that I need to use strategically - there's also been silverbeet for weeks now. I've been using it for cashew gratins, pizza, spanakopita and actually, far too much of it has wilted and been made into stock rather than eaten directly.

This week we found ourselves in the rare situation of also having a lot of eggs, so I made a frittata. The silverbeet stems were sauteed with chopped onion and some sliced spicy 'sausages', then in went the silverbeet leaves and, once they'd started to reduce, the beaten eggs with a little milk. I topped it with parsley and cheese. This was tasty, but a lot to share between two and messy to pack for lunch at work.

I've got one more silverbeet strategy up my sleeve, but I think there'll be more of the green stuff to come. Any tips?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

January 10, 2010: Malted banana icecream

Regular readers know the backstory here by now - Michael's banana hatred knows no bounds, but we're receiving these fruits in our regular fruit & veg deliveries and I'm trying to get through them on my own. A few I eat as is, but I've also been making banana bread, shakes and cookies. Once ripe, bananas store well (peeled!) in the freezer - this makes them an excellent chilly replacement for icecream in smoothies and shakes, and when thawed they're even easier than usual to mash for baking.

ABB and Ruth alerted me to the fact that banana can substitute even more directly for icecream - frozen ones just need a spin in a food processor and apparently they transform into a soft-serve style delight. (Thinking back, this is probably what we ate for dessert at Continental House last year.) This month I saw the technique popping up on stonesoup, Vegan Family Vs Omni World and Cook (almost) Anything at Least Once. While I liked the idea of Haalo's rum'n'raisin flavouring, it was Jules' use of malted milk powder that I had to try.

My first shot didn't work out so well - I thought I'd just use my stick blender on a small banana as a single-serve taster and it was difficult to whip the banana to complete smoothness and thoroughly mix in the accompanying ingredients. With my next two bananas I played properly, using our food processor, and all fell into place. The bananas smoothed out and fluffed up - the texture really was impressive! Very much like a soft-serve icecream when served straight up. I also put some back in the freezer for later - though the colour browned a little, I was impressed all over again at how scoopable it remained days later.

The flavour, naturally, is banana all the way - you won't fool the haters with this one. I didn't think my malted milk powder quite stood up to it. But others have recommended adding other fruits, nut butter or cocoa and I'll be giving these variations a go. I've got nothing to lose, except for my currently expanding frozen banana collection!

Friday, January 15, 2010

January 9, 2010: Plush Pizza

It's been remiss of us to only make it to Hawthorn's Plush Pizza now for the first time. Actually, it's been remiss of Melbourne's entire veg*n blogosphere not to blog it more often - I've only been able to find two reviews, both of them from 2007. Plush has a lot going for it - the menu boasts 19 vegetarian pizza topping combinations, they're willing to veganise just about all of them and they offer gluten-free bases (although I hear that these aren't great). They're right on the #75 tram line and while they've a few seats for eating in, St James Park is a short stroll down the street with a gourmet beer purveyor on the way (just take a bottle opener if you want much choice).

And for all that, they turn out some damn fine pizzas (thank goodness!). Michael couldn't resist the Hothead (pictured above, $15.80), and had the veganised version with tomato sauce, 'mozzarella', tomato, capsicum, vegetarian sausage, fried tofu, jalapenos, tobasco sauce, parsley and spices. This was sufficiently spicy that Michael advised me not to try it. Alternatively, it may have been so delicious that he didn't want to share it. I did, at least, get to try a chunk of the vegan cheese. It was pleasant, if bland - if I were going vegan I'd probably request no cheese rather than paying out extra for the fake stuff.

I ordered the Barbecue pizza ($15), layered up with tomato sauce, mozzarella, baby spinach, red onion, vegetarian sausage, roast potato, barbecue sauce and shaved parmesan. It was THE BUSINESS. The barbecue sauce was super-smoky, the roast potato chunks were gorgeously tender and caramelised and the spinach and light hand with the cheese kept it tasting reasonably fresh. The only downer here is that the barbecue sauce contains honey, so isn't vegan-friendly.

Most of the menu items feature a similarly high number of toppings but they look thoughtfully composed - I'm looking forward to trying the Aztec, Potato Swoon, Satay Sublime and Tom Yum pizzas, as well as testing Plush on the sparser classics like garlic, margherita and pesto. And if Plush's ideas don't appeal, they also offer extra toppings of your choice for a price - you could probably build up almost anything you wanted from their margherita.

The bases were good stuff, too - quite thin and crisp, but with enough substance to support the toppings. They're not up to the high standard of, say, I Carusi, but they certainly edge out the typcial takeaway competition, such as Crust. If only they did home delivery!

Edit 10/07/11: Sadly, Plush Pizza has closed - Melbourne veg community will miss it terribly.

Address: 85 Burwood Rd, Hawthorn
Ph: 9819 1188
Price: veg pizzas $6-$21, vegan cheese 50c-$1 extra

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

January 9, 2010: Small Block III

We weren't too upset when our first breakfast preference (Bar Idda) turned out not to be open on Saturday mornings afer all. It meant we could happily duck across the street and into Small Block, which was busy but not crowded. Cindy maintained her virtue from our breakfast at 3A last week, once again choosing muesli to get the weekend started.

This was bircher muesli, served up with poached rhubarb and organic yoghurt ($8.50). I'm not sure it was quite as impressive as the macadamia-garnished delight from last week, but Cindy and poached rhubarb usually make for a pretty good combination.

I tried something new on the Small Block menu: buck rarebit (a toasted bagel with seeded mustard, gruyere, poached eggs, asparagus and chilli jam - $14).

This was my kind of breakfast, with the mustard and chilli jam adding some spark to the smoothly poached eggs and lightly fried asparagus. It's hard to pick a fault with this brekkie - I was cleaning the plate with my fingers by the end.

Small Block is a consistent performer on the East Brunswick breakfast strip. It's never been my #1, but if they keep adding winning dishes like my breakfast to the menu then it will quickly rise through the ranks.

Read about our previous visits to Small Block here and here.

Some other recent reviews of Small Block are available at It Will Taste Better Tomorrow, Easy as Vegan Pie, Pheebs, Do You Want to Stay for Breakfast? and Sarah K.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

January 7, 2009: Chunky choc-cherry-almond cookies

Though it doesn't look like anything special, this cookie has made my week. This adaptation of the chunky monkey cookie just might pass for an empty-calorie choc-flavoured carb-fest, fooling even the anti-banana brigade. Here's how I mixed it up:
  • I went all the way and used only wholemeal flour and it didn't diminish the experience one bit. In fact it made my afternoon snack more filling and satisfying.
  • I upped the cocoa from 1/3 to 1/2 cup for madly chocolatey experience.
  • I used smooth instead of my usually-favourite crunchy peanut butter.
  • While I used mashed bananas for binding, I left out the extra chunky one and added some dried cherries and blanched almonds instead.
  • Instead of making trays and trays of dainty bites, I went all out an fashioned a dozen mega-cookies.
Supersized and studded with red and white treats, these feel like something I could've bought from some fancy company, even though I had everything I needed to make them already stashed in my pantry.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

January 7, 2010: Slow faux pho

Well, I didn't go through all that seitan kneading with no idea of what I'd make with it! I had my eye on the slow pho, another recipe from Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker. It has its own stock that takes a solid 6 hours to infuse - star anise and cinnamon ensure it's an aromatic brew, but I couldn't actually detect any heat from the chilli or ginger. It soaked into the seitan strips just as I'd anticipated but all up it wasn't quite as vibrant as I'd hoped.

Even so, this bowl o' broth had something to teach me - the comfort of noodle soups. Any number of food bloggers have described their nourishing, consoling and healing properties but I've always preferred the heavier European potatoes and pastry for this role. Now I think I get it. I'm not sure whether I'll come back to this recipe again, but my one experience with it has me keen to explore this corner of cuisine further.

Slow faux pho
(based on Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker by Robin Robertson)

1 onion, roughly chopped
1 large red chilli, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon mince ginger
2 whole anise stars
1 cinnamon stick
3 tablespoons soy sauce
5 cups vegetable stock
200g rice vermicelli
1 tablespoon peanut oil
125g seitan, sliced into strips
2 tablespoons miso paste
3 tablespoons vegetarian oyster sauce
juice of 1 lime
To garnish: bean sprouts, coriander leaves, basil leaves, more chilli, ...

Place the onion, chilli, ginger, anise, cinnamon, soy sauce and stock in a slow cooker; cook them on Low for 6 hours.

Place the rice vermicelli in a bowl and cover them with water, allowing them to soak for 15 minutes to soften. Fry the seitan strips in the peanut oil until they're lightly browned on both sides. In a small bowl, dissolve the miso paste in a small amount of boiling water. Whisk in the oyster sauce and lime juice.

When the slow cooked stock is ready, strain the liquid and return it to the slow cooker. Strain the vermicelli and stir them into the stock. Mix in the seitan and the miso mixture. Cook the pho for a further 10 minutes, before ladling it into bowls and topping with your chosen garnish.

Friday, January 08, 2010

January 4-7, 2010: Seitan from scratch

Impatient to use my slow cooker again, even in the heat, I thought I'd try my hand at seitan. Gluten flour has become increasingly accessible in the past few years and with this it's easy to make raw seitan. However the recipe in Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker takes the more traditional route; here you make a dough of flour and water, knead it under running water to rinse out the starch, and then simmer the glutinous dough in stock.

As a first-timer, it was the rinsing that was most nerve-wracking. Robertson merely instructs us to knead the dough in water until the water goes milky, then drain and replace the water, repeating until the water is clear. By the time I was up to my sixth rinse the water was as opaque as ever, my dough was getting slippery and difficult to handle, and I was losing small sludgy fragments of the dough down the sink.

I had better luck when I changed my technique. Transferring the dough to a colander, I set the tap at a trickle and got a little more aggressive with my kneading. Instead of my bread-making fold-and-turn I really dug my fingers into the dough, scrunching and probing it for starch. Meanwhile the milky water escaped through the colander, giving me a drier dough and better view of my progress. It takes a while and the dough shrinks a lot but this is as it should be. I might have been less concerned if I'd just read this site before beginning.

Once the dough had the texture of chewed gum (ewwww), I divided it into four blobs and plonked them into the slow cooking stock.

Six hours later, I assumed that my seitan was ready and scooped it out to dry. It smelled like roast chicken! Must be the bay leaves. The stock got bottled up and stashed it in the freezer for future meals.

I sliced and fried the first seitan blob for dinner; the rest followed the stock into the freezer for future enjoyment. While the straight-up seitan is soft and spongy, it didn't take much frying to achieve a crisp golden skin - pleasant to chew, though without further adornment its flavour is bland and bready. That spongy texture is just begging to slurp up some marinade so I'm looking forward to tinkering with the taste of these gluten globs.

Seitan from scratch
(recipe from Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker by Robin Robertson)

1 carrot, chopped into large chunks
1 onion, quartered
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 cup soy sauce
2 bay leaves
~3L water
6 cups wholemeal flour

Place the carrot, onion, garlic, soy sauce, bay leaves and 2.25L of the water in a slow cooker set to High.

In a large bowl stir together the wholemeal flour and remaining 3 cups of water to make a dough. I thought mine was too dry and added another 1/2 cup of water but I'd discourage you from doing this unless absolutely necessary! The next step is to knead the dough on a flat surface for 10 minutes and this is difficult if the dough's too sticky. After kneading the dough, put it back in the bowl, cover it with warm water and allow it to rest for 20 minutes.

Once the dough has rested, shift the bowl to sit in your kitchen sink. Knead the dough until the water goes white. Drain the water and transfer the dough to a colander. Under a slow stream of running water, continue squishing the dough until it reduces in volume (I think mine halved, roughly) and becomes stretchy like chewing gum. Continue until the water draining through the colander is almost clear.

Divide the raw seitan into four balls and drop them into the slow cooking stock. Turn the setting down to Low and cook the seitan for 4-6 hours.

Scoop the seitan out and let it cool on a baking tray. To store the seitan, keep it in the fridge for a few days submerged in some of the stock or freeze it without the stock. Any leftover stock can be used for other recipes.