Thursday, July 28, 2016

Salt Rising Bread

July 11-17, 2016

From Washington DC, I took a bus to Morgantown, West Virginia. I'd spend the week working in a quiet office, and the nights lodging in a cottage just across the border in Pennsylvania. I did not expect that I'd gather any material for this food blog.

How wrong I was! In Mount Morris PA I met Jenny. Jenny runs Rising Creek Bakery, a business that's preserving a little-known traditional of salt rising bread. Rather than yeast, salt rising bread uses some combination of potatoes, cornmeal, flour, salt and/or sugar in hot water or milk. These ingredients form a starter, fermented at around 40°C to form the bread leavening. By all accounts it gets very stinky! But a stinky starter leads to a distinctly appetising, aromatic loaf that smells like toasted cheese.

I picked up one of these loaves and also borrowed a copy of Jenny (aka Genevieve Bardwell) and Susan Ray Brown's brand new book, called Salt Rising Bread. The book is an affectionate and well-researched history of salt rising bread, which originated with the earliest European settlers in Appalachia; the earliest recipe they were able to find dates back to 1778. As well as consulting libraries and food historians, they've called on oral history, interviewing and profiling numerous rising bread bakers. Many of these stories are in the bakers' own words, interweaving family anecdotes with their breads' successes and failures.

Salt rising bread evokes nostalgia in many of the folks who know it, and Jenny posts loaves all over the US through her bakery's online system. The bread is golden with a thin crust and a dense crumb; several contributors to the book say a good loaf looks like pound cake. And of course there's that unique, cheesy aroma that settles in the air and on your hands after eating it. Most fans prefer to eat it simply toasted, with a little butter or jam. Another tradition is to place a slice in a bowl and then pour over coffee, sprinkle on brown sugar and then add cream or milk - a lazy cook's tiramisu, perhaps? At the bakery, you can order two slices of salt rising bread smothered in tomato gravy for breakfast (pictured above). The gravy is thick and hearty, based on milk and flour and then tangy and sweet from the tomatoes.

Rising Creek Bakery also sells some goods that aren't based on a salt rising starter. In Jenny's home, I ate a slice of mushroom quiche with a crumbly, buttery crust. One of their bestsellers is a cookie sandwich inspired by the Nutter Butter. These peanut butter cookies have my favourite, favourite cookie texture, smooth and a little chewy - it's hard to tell where the cookie ends and the creamy honey-and-peanut butter filling begins. The pecan squares are biscuit-crusted, a little gooey, and have just the right little dose of salt mixed in.

It has been such an unexpected pleasure to learn about this local tradition, in a part of the world I could easily never have visited. Having spent just a week with salt rising bread, its unique and comforting scent has marked my memory - in a few more weeks, the nostalgia it spreads will probably take hold.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Washington, DC III

July 7-9, 2016

As my week in Washington went on, I ventured a little further on foot and via the Metro. This allowed me to track down some of the more hip veg-focused eateries hidden around the city.

The first was the aptly-named HipCityVeg, an all-vegan burger joint near Chinatown. It's light and bright, with an emphasis on nutrition, sustainable practices and keeping it cruelty-free. The burgers are based around mock meats, mushrooms or tofu, fries are made from sweet potatoes, and their kale lemonade is promoted over the modest range of sodas.

I got myself acquainted with a Disco Chick'n burger (US$9.55 ~ AU$12.75). I loved the sturdy multigrain bun, bit o' spice on the mock chicken, smoked tempeh strips, pickles, soy mayo, lettuce and tomatoes (and picked out what little raw onion was included). It was the fun kind of messy, not turning soggy or disintegrating completely.

My soy-based vanilla milkshake (US$5.65 ~ AU$7.55) was sweet and slushy. I could barely believe that its packaging was compostable, but everything served at this eatery is!

My one wish-list eat for the trip was Fare Well, a vegan bakery, diner & bar that had only been open a couple of weeks (lucky for me a DC mate mentioned it on facebook!). It turned out to be a pleasant 20 minute walk from my hotel so I visited two nights in a row, first with a couple of friends and then again on my own.

First, the bar. Fare Well has an experienced bartender who's put together a nice cocktail menu (US$11 ~AU$14.70 each) including some housemade specialties with local names. The Tiber Creek (above left) was citrussy and brutally boozy, but not quite as complex as the passionfruit/ginger/lemongrass/grapefruit ingredients going into it. The Queen of H Street (above right) was raspberry-wrapped vodka, shaken with an egg white substitute (I asked the bartender if it was aquafaba, but he said they had better results with soy lecithin! Huh).

Onto the diner options, which include breakfasts, small plates, mains and desserts without time restrictions. The Buffalo cauliflower dip (US$8 ~ AU$10.70) had a nice cashew creaminess and tender cauliflower florets that squished nicely on the (too few) toasts. On my own, I treated the mushroom scampi appetiser (US$8 ~ AU$10.70) as a leaving-room-for-dessert dinner. It echoes the same cashew cheese on toast theme, but was made more complex with sauteed mushrooms, capsicum, a smear of garlic and a smattering of fresh greens.

My friend Matt tried the mushroom-chickpea burger (US$14 ~AU$18.70) and was positive but not effusive in his feedback. The seitan platter's (US$14 ~AU$18.70) presentation suffered for how pale and gluey American gravy always looks - it smothered some nice Southern-fried seitan cutlets and a no-longer-crispy potato cake, balancing it all out with sauteed kale.

Finally, the bakery. Fare Well has a gorgeous range of baked goods available to take away or eat in - the layered cakes (US$8 ~ AU$10.70) are especially striking, with a dense crumb and sculpted buttery frosting. My friends were impressed by the Neapolitan version (pictured bottom left), which was clearly based on real strawberries and not dependent on food colouring. Out of curiosity, I tried a cookie dough cake (pictured top right) and enjoyed the light caramel flavour and scattered chocolate chips. The coconut cream pie (pictured bottom right) seemed constituted of a can of coconut cream whipped with sugar (fitting, I guess).

Fare Well has a bright atmosphere and great menu - I enjoyed both sharing it with friends, and sitting alone at the bar with a book. Nothing disappointed but, equally, nothing really wowed me. I reckon Melbourne's best vegan food more than matches it.

Though Union Market boasts of its long history, it's a very current-day enterprise too. It's not really a spot for accomplishing your weekly shopping or picking up boxes of cheap, seasonal produce. Rather, it's all about fancy cheeses, home-made kimchi and homewares that belong in goop.

The market is even more heavily dominated by stalls designed for eating in, with the astroturf and picnic tables reminding me of Melbourne's food truck scene. I did a long circuit of the building, trying to decide whether I wanted a crepe, tofu taco, dosa, or just fancy icecream for lunch, ...

I started out with parmesan cheese grits from puddin' (US$5 ~ AU$6.65), served with a little tomato-butter sauce. Contrary to the name, I found grits to have the soft bite of rice pudding and fluffiness of mashed potatoes - definitely a starchy comfort food. (They make a handy benchmark for making my own grits from Vegan Soul Kitchen.)

Next I moved on to Arepa Zone. The Dominó arepa (US$6.50 ~ AU$8.65) was deceptively cute and compact in its checkered wrapper, unravelling into a delicious mess of saucy black beans, queso fresco and toasted corn.

Finally, Sarah introduced me to toli moli, which she said was the new dessert craze. These layered desserts are based on south-east Asian falooda, and I initially mistook them for variations on the Malaysian cendol. All the toli moli creations seem to centre on basil seeds, then bring together fruit pieces and jellies, icecream and milk on a flavour theme. I tried their vegan Mango Mogul (US$7.99 ~ AU$10.60), with fresh mango and sorbet, turmeric almond "melk" and flaked coconut. It was a lot of fun but on a hot, humid day I wished that more than just the sorbet had been stored cold.

Exploring the veg eats around DC was a great motivation for walking the streets and visiting neighbourhoods I had no other reason to be in. I ate extravagantly, and by the time I was done I looked forward to the simple granola bowls, salads and toasties that I subsisted on one week later in the country.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A Fan's Notes II

Edit 02/01/2021: A Fan's Notes is now closed, but its owner runs Ballard's.

July 9, 2016

We had a pretty decent breakfast at A Fan's Notes last year, but it was a pretty low-key brunch place at the time, so I was surprised when I read on facebook that they'd started doing fancy degustations on the weekends. They take it week about: meaty one week and vegan the next. I hit up the vegan night with a couple of friends to try things out.

You get five courses for a very reasonable $40, and they've got a good selection of vegan beer and wine to accompany the food. The staff are casual and friendly, and the atmosphere is still more dive bar than fine-dining, which suits me down to the ground.

Onto the food! The first course was a sesame and peanut crusted rice paper roll, with enoki, pickled cucumber, burnt eggplant and miso dressing. This was a fancy twist on a a classic - crunch from the cauliflower and peanut, and a lovely mix of smokiness and umami from the eggplant and miso. 

Next up was probably my favourite dish of the night: heirloom carrots, polenta, zucchini & pinenut puree with olives and seeds.

This dish really lets the veggies shine, with the polenta chips adding some salty goodness. Simple, but effective.

Next up was a butternut and caramelised onion agnolotti with smoked hazelnut pesto, artichoke and white bean puree.

This felt like the most 'fine dining' dish of the night - dustings of powders, dabs of pesto and micro-greens garnishing a soft and sweet agnolotti and a wedge of caramelised onion. Fancy.

The last of the savoury dishes was a crispy fennel-stuffed onion with potato puree, toasted corn and truffle.

This was another winner - the little roasted ball of fried goodness sitting on top of a smooth smear of creamy potato, all backed up by the salsa-esque corn. 

The dessert course finished things off: an apple and date trifle with coconut custard, pistachio crumb and mandarin.

This was another lovely mix of textures and flavours - not too sweet and with plenty of fruit, but still indulgent enough to be a worthy ending to a fine meal.

At $40 a head, this is a really good value meal - among the best value vegan meals in town. Ray's vegan degustation was cheaper, but it's been discontinued (at least over winter), meaning only Shu is really offering a similarly-priced vegan degustation. It's a lovely venue, with great staff, good music and a really fun atmosphere. Hopefully A Fan's Notes keep these degustations running - you should really get along as soon as you can to make sure they do.

Read about our last trip to A Fan's Notes here. I can't find any blog reviews of the degustations yet - hopefully the buzz will keep building.

A Fan's Notes
787 Nicholson St, Carlton North
9943 8373
our menu (it changes every fortnight)
facebook page

Accessibility: There's a flat entry way to a slightly crowded interior. You order at the table and pay at a high counter. We didn't visit the toilets.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Washington, DC II

July 4-6, 2016

This year I was in Washington DC for the 4th of July. Lodged in a hotel just blocks from the US Capitol, I anticipated garish, crowded celebrations and mawkish patriotism. I found little of it, just the floats pictured above and a glimpse of the evening's telecast. At this time of year the National Mall actually hosts a Folklife Festival that casts a spotlight on another country and culture.

In 2016 the festival presented Basque culture. We witnessed metalsmithing, pottery, stone-cutting, boat construction, weaving, painting, cheese-smoking, sports, singing and some truly unique performance. It was tough to imagine what was to come as we watched a troop of men (pictured above, click to embiggen), in what looked like petticoats and soft dancing shoes, lacing each other into furry coats as if they were corsets and strapping enormous bells onto their backs. Joaldunak proved very entertaining, and gave a friendly, generous translated interview about their village traditions, the family connections among the team, and the new all-woman group that's started up in their region.

Jovial cooking demonstrations ran throughout the day, with at best half of the jokes making it through to those of us who don't understand Basque. It was hard for me to imagine recreating any of their dishes at home, as they prepared fish three ways, and later added four kinds of red meat to a breakfast skillet. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the demonstrators' banter and pride in their traditions.

We did manage to find a few veg options at the Basque food stall. A cold bean stew didn't sound so exciting but was actually rich and well spiced, colourfully garnished with pickles and peppers. My hosts urged me to try Basque ciders - they have a particularly astringent aftertaste, ranging from sour to olive-y. The almond custard pastry we shared for dessert was a much more typical crowd-pleaser.

I spent rest of the week seeking veg-friendly dinners around the city centre. We, The Pizza was located just around the corner from my hotel. It's a bright and casual spot with an eye-catching display of enormous New York-style slices. A US$4 (~AU$5.30) slice of Forest Shroomin' Pie was enough to call dinner, but I grabbed a nice little Farmers Market Salad to diversify my veges (and took a slice of Spinach & Artichoke Pie away for next day's lunch). I also liked that they make a range of sodas with their own syrups. The Co, Co Nut Soda (US$3 ~ AU$4) was unusual and refreshing, but not a great match for cheesy pizza.

Happy Cow pointed me towards British-themed pub The Alibi. Their credibility was somewhat undermined by the inclusion of Cinnamon Sugar Sweet Potatoes with Vanilla Icing, Shrimp Po' Boys and Gumbo on the menu, but I was there for Vegan Fish And Chips (US$13 ~ AU$17.20).

These guys got the plate off to a good start by using Gardein mock fish - I reckon it's the lightest, flakiest fake-fillet on the market. The triple-cooked chips were a respectable tribute to the mother country, and the tartar sauce was much appreciated. (Honestly, I would've loved some green veges on the side.) Unfortunately my ginger soda (US$4 ~ AU$5.30) lacked both bite and bubbles.

Located in the business district, the pub was comfortable but a little cheesy, a spot for after-work drinks and tourists rather than neighbourhood residents.  While I didn't have the stamina for more than one pub meal in a week, it might have be fun to try their other veg options, including sausage rolls, devilled eggs and mushroom burgers.

As the week went on I honed my hipster-vege eating, so stay tuned for few more DC eateries.

I also visited and blogged about Washington DC two years ago!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Seattle & surrounds

June 28-July 3, 2016

I didn't just cloister myself away in Seattle's all-veg restaurants (or indeed, the city itself) during my stay. I was also inducted into the world of baseball, witnessing the Seattle Mariners defeat the Pittsburgh Pirates. I'd expected that the refreshments would be restricted to hot dogs and beer and I swooped on these Dirty Tots as soon as I saw them - the 'tater tots are scattered with surprisingly sharp, soft cheese, pickled peppers and, if you're not me, bacon. I washed them down with the smallest Mountain Dew I could find and tried not to notice the oil pooling in the bottom of the tray.

Actually, there was a broader variety of food than I'd expected - I noticed wood-fired pizzas, tacos and even a Thai noodle stand further around Safeco Field. I was delighted to match up the real baseball experience with what little I'd learned from The Simpsons - the organ music, the spruiker throwing bags of peanuts and, on my way out, evidence of a stand selling nacho hats.

As well as the Mariners, Seattle is the home of Orangette, a food blog I've been reading for nigh on a decade. Its author Molly Winzenberg and her husband Brandon own a pizza restaurant with a bar next door; these venues were on my wish-list for the trip. Three of my Aussie friends obliged in joining me there one night.

I assumed that Delancey and Essex would be located on a hip retail strip and was surprised to see them nestled unobtrusively in a residential area. This didn't seem to dim their popularity - we put our names on the waiting list at Delancey and settled in with drinks and bar snacks at Essex. I had a potent little cocktail called Cedro in Thyme (US$12 ~ AU$16) and made from vodka, Salers, pear brandy, Acqua di Cedro, and a house-made thyme tincture.

We nibbled on bright, sweet Castelvetrano olives (US$4 ~ AU$5.30) and an intermittently hot and sugary snack mix of cashews, rice bubbles and flaked coconut flavoured with vanilla and Aleppo peppers ($US6 ~ AU$8).

Delancey didn't keep us waiting any longer than we'd been warned, finding us a table for four in the back corner. It was a little loud and dimly lit. The pizza menu has the very American style of just a small number of toppings per pizza, although here they take extra care and pride in sourcing high-quality ingredients from local suppliers.

The bases were relatively thin, crisping up at the edges and softened with sauce in the centre. The white pie (above left, US$16 ~ AU$21) was a festival of cheese with house-made ricotta, fresh and aged mozzarella, Grana, and a bit of garlic. The Crimini (above centre, US$14 ~ AU$18) was generously scattered with its namesake mushroom, a little thyme and a strong whiff of truffle oil.

To drink, I tried a non-alcoholic house-made beetroot shrub (above right, US$4 ~ US$5). It was such an unusual, almost savoury soda, and it suited the pizzas well.

We opted to pack up some of the pizza and order some desserts to share. Delancey is known for its chocolate chip cookies sprinkled with grey salt (US$3.50 ~ AU$4.60) - so much so that you can eat them baked, as dough, and/or matched with a Ramos Pinto 20-year tawny port. My companions tried every combination! Preferences for baked vs dough varied, but we agreed that we preferred mixed-in salt to the concentrated sprinkle here.

I had my eye on the bourbon roasted peaches (US$9 ~AU$12). Although I expected more fruit and more syrup on my plate, I nonetheless enjoyed their combination with crumbled corn cookies, anise hyssop leaves and brown butter icecream.

Neither Delancey nor Essex are really designed for vegetarians (and I don't think vegans would have much fun there), but I was very glad to visit them - I think I'd be a fan even if they didn't have a blog connection that's special to me.

On my last day on the west coast, my mate Kim and I ventured out of Seattle, and she suggested the Black Diamond Bakery for a breakfast stop. The bakery's brick oven was built in 1884, but the adjoining cafe serving breakfasts is a youthful 25 years old by comparison. The menu is a classic diner selection of eggs and bacon and chicken fried steak, pancakes and French toast and hash browns. Everyone is served half a canned peach in syrup and a miniature blueberry muffin to begin.

There are a few incidentally vegetarian options, and they'll also happily omit the meat on other items (like Kim's burrito). I took on a veggie and cheese omelet (US$11.99 ~ AU$15.80), a brightly yellow egg batter wrapped around sauteed spinach, capsicum, onion, mushroom, tomato and a long, stretchy thread of orange cheese. I must admit to being more enamoured with the sides, a huge serving of home-made crispy edged hash brown and, in preference to toast, a gorgeously fluffy biscuit spread with butter.

On a clear day, the Black Diamond Bakery supposedly has a view of Mt Rainier, but we weren't blessed with one of those. We thought their garden was charming anyway.

We did eventually find our mountain views, though, and a waterfall too before we turned back to town (see pics below). Here we queued up for one of Seattle's other attractions - the original Starbuck's.

I'm not much of a coffee drinker (much less at 5pm) so I revelled in Starbuck's diluted conception of this drink, ordering a 'tall' (i.e. small) S'mores frappuccino. My straw first hit on a thick chocolate syrup base before working through a sweet, milky vanilla coffee; I could barely suck the 'marshmallow-infused whipped cream' through my straw and, honestly, I didn't really want to. 

To finish, here are a few snaps of the more natural beauties of Washington state...

Friday, July 08, 2016


June 25-30, 2016

Hello from the U S of A! I'm visiting four places for a week apiece for work reasons, and finding scraps of time around that for sight-seeing and fun eating. My first stop has been Seattle, a new city for me. I was based in the U(niversity) District, which had a relaxed school's-out-for-summer atmosphere and affordable, veg-friendly restaurants. Here's a run-down of the exclusively-vegetarian places I checked out.

I arrived on a Saturday evening - the late sunlight allowed me time to shower and get my bearings, then settle in for a modest meal at Chaco Canyon Organic Cafe. With mosaics on the walls and sprouts on the menu, this place has clear hippy roots. It offers the distinctly American suite of soups, sandwiches and salads, plus some bowls and breakfasts. There's French toast and a little seitan, but the vibe is overwhelmingly wholesome.... just what I needed after 26 hours of airports and planes.

I tried an Artichoke Melt half-sandwich (US$10.20 ~ AU$13.60), a comforting savoury concoction of artichoke pate, vegan cheese sauce, veganaise, cucumber and sprouts between slices of lightly toasted and perfectly unAmerican sourdough bread. It was served with a big house salad full of leafy greens and sprouts lightly dressed in an apple garlic vinaigrette. To drink, I nursed a mug of hot apple cider (US$3.85 ~ AU$5.10), an apple juice spiked with ginger topped with frothy pulp and cinnamon.

By the next night, I was ready to embark on something more uniquely American. I found it at Pizza Pi, a vegan pizzeria located at the northern end of the restaurant strip on University Way. It's intended for take-out more than eating in, but my two game non-veg companions and I were able to grab a flour-dusted table and settle in 'til closing time.

As is usual here, the salad came out before the mains - this large house salad (US$6.75 ~ AU$9.00) was based on lots of greens, and was dotted with tomatoes, cucumbers and some great crunchy croutons. We picked the honey mustard dressing and dabbed at it judiciously.

My least hungry co-diner ordered a half-serve of the mac'n'yease (US$6.50 ~ AU$8.70) - it was a nice, Daiya-based version that was light on the sauce.

As for the pizzas, the range is somewhat overwhelming and tends towards the outlandish and the mocking. Phoni-pepperoni, Aloha, Indian Curry, BBQ Chicken, and even a mac'n'yease pizza... it was tough to choose. (I didn't even entertain the appetizer, sandwich or calzone options!) My second co-diner went with a small Bruschetta Delux (US$8.25 ~ AU$11.00) and I was really impressed by its thick layers of white garlic sauce and cashew ricotta topped with a piquant bruschetta tomato mix and a little sliced field roast.

Its lurid orange-green counterpart up there is the saucy and spicy Buffalo Chicken pizza (US$8.25 ~ AU$11.00). Here the white garlic sauce was overwhelmed by the Buffalo-style chicken and a pourover of ranch dressing. Fresh celery pieces are true to the theme, but didn't really appeal to me as a pizza topping.

As well as Pizza Pi, Seattle obsessive @dimsimkitty recommended Wayward Vegan Cafe. It was a longer walk away from my base, but I gladly made it twice. This diner is lodged in a boxy commercial building but the internal soundtrack of Elastica, The Breeders and Hole assured me that I had definitely come to the right place. Wayward boasts another enormous menu: several dozen different breakfast fry-ups, over a dozen sandwiches and subs for lunch, plus salads, bowls and miscellaneous other plates for dinner.

For my late, large breakfast, I focused on the fact that they do American biscuits (8 ways). The Backwoods Biscuit Stack ($9.00) was really a big fat sandwich made from a fluffy herb biscuit and stuffed with a small vegan omelet, crumbed 'chiggen', strips of tempeh bacon and country gravy. It was all very salty, and I was glad for the equally-enormous side of garlic steamed greens.

A couple of days later I returned for a late lunch. They were all outta ribs so I satisfied myself with a Wayward Burger (US$9.00 ~ AU$12.00). The accompanying French fries were tired and floppy, and the burger had a nicely charred patty but was similarly lacking liveliness. The staff kindly comped my drink after I had to wait awhile for my meal. While the Wayward menu holds a dazzling array of vegan diner foods, the execution seems uneven - for me, it was worth it for the biscuit.

My final veg-specific stop was at Araya's Place, a vegan Thai restaurant I'd spotted nearby Pizza Pi. It's got the fried noodles and rice, green & red curries and spring rolls we've all come to expect, plus a few interesting additions. The appetiser list goes pan-Asian with Chinese leek-stuffed rice cakes, pot stickers and veggie tempura; there's a fried Brussels sprout salad, and curries containing mango, avocado or banana.

I bravely took on the latter option, a Massaman Banana Curry (US$13.95 ~ AU$18.60). The few banana chunks noticably infused the sweet-and-sour coconut sauce, and I enjoyed sifting through it for fried tofu slices, decoratively sliced potato chunks, capsicum and peanuts. Unfortunately the accompanying roti was woefully undercooked, little more than rolled-out dough without a sliver of flakiness.

Though the meals were mixed, I had fun exploring the veg-focused eateries of the U District. They fortified me for some long work-days and scattered city sight-seeing, including a night at the Spaceneedle and another viewing a Wearable Art exhibition at the EMP Museum.