Tuesday, January 30, 2007

January 28, 2007: Choc-nutella pudding


When I recently read about World Nutella Day I figured it was about time I participated in my first blogging event! Although Nutella didn't appear too frequently in my childhood, its occasional visits were certainly welcome. The fun starts at the supermarket where there's a good chance that the smooth, chocolatey spread will be sold in an array of cartooned drinking glasses. This week I scored a tumbler with three Nickelodeon characters: Jimmy Neutron, Angelica from Rugrats and Spongebob Squarepants!

The usual reason for the appearance of Nutella was that Mum would be making a super-sized choc-nutella pudding to cater for a weekend lunch with her friends and their offspring. It's a family-friendly recipe, with a moderately moist and chocolatey cake, and a layer of rich nutella sludge underneath. Fresh out of the oven, it's definitely a comfort food: impossible to serve neatly, with extra scrapings from the bottom heaped on the side, this pudding will instead win you over with the smell that emanates from the kitchen as it cooks. (I baked it in a retro dish that I inherited from Mum.)

Part 3 of my nutella-savouring is to eat the room-temperature leftovers of this pudding. While the cake becomes firmer and a little less enjoyable, the sauce sets into a smooth ganache-like consistency with chewy edges. I love those chewy edges. My specific memory of Mum baking this pudding for a crowd involves a visit from long family friends, the Thurlows. It appeared at lunch time and in the evening the grown-ups went out for dinner. Dan Thurlow and I, at about 14 and 15 years of age, were left in charge at home. We proceeded to finish the pudding for dinner and didn't for a second wish we were eating whatever fancy French stuff the old folks were chowing down on.



The final installment in The Enjoyment of Nutella according to Cindy is one that I bet features in a few other childhoods: sneaking the remaining nutella from the jar, one stealthy spoon at a time!









Choc-nutella pudding

serves 6-8

1/2 cup Nutella
1/2 cup cream
90g butter, softened
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup castor sugar
2 eggs
3/4 cup self-raising flour
1/4 cup cocoa
1/2 cup buttermilk (or just plain milk, if you like)

Grease a cake pan and preheat the oven to 180 deg C. Whisk the nutella and cream and spread the mixture over the base of the pan.

Combine the remaining ingredients. I use the unwashed bowl that had the nutella and cream in it, and go through the usual cake process: cream the butter and sugar, mix in the eggs one at a time, sift the dry ingredients and add them gradually along with the milk.

Pour the cake mix into the pan and bake for about 35 minutes. (Test it with a skewer, it's ready when the skewer comes out clean.)

Serve with ice-cream or whipped cream.

January 28, 2007: Flavours of Lakhoum

Update, 31/12/2014: Flavours of Lakhoum is closed, replaced by Noir, a fancy looking French restaurant.

After our lazy Saturday, Cindy and I decided to make Sunday a bit more active. We started with a trip to the sneakers exhibition at the NGV, an entertaining pop-culture diversion amongst the 18th century European art, and then wandered around the Yarra until we hit Richmond.

Our target for the day was Flavours of Lakhoum, a Middle-Eastern cafe famous for its delicious, cheap food and the coffee art of Chris Phillips. The interior was cool and welcoming after our hot walk to get there, and the coffee art adorning the walls convinced me that we'd be sticking around for post-lunch lattes. The service was a bit erratic, keeping up with the floods of weekend patrons seems to stretch the staff to capacity. The vegetarian options on the menu were not overly numerous: a haloumi and spinach pastry, wraps, sandwiches and meal plates based on either zucchini pancakes or felafel along with a decent array of salads to accompany them. Cindy chose the zuchinni pancake, with tzatziki, tabouleh and a mediterranean salad, which she enjoyed immensely. I went for a felafel wrap - pita bread stuffed with felafel, tabouleh, hummus and salad. It was probably the best felafel wrap I've ever had - the $3.50 specials at King Ahiram were tremendous value, but the felafel at Flavours of Lakhoum was far superior. And it was gigantic - I struggled to fit it all in, but the flavour went all the way to the bottom of the wrap, so I had to keep going.

After a brief post-lunch breather, it was time for the coffee art! Cindy was too full for coffee, but I had to have one just to get a first hand look at the artwork. My flat white came complete with a mysterious woman peering out of the froth - an impressive effort. Luckily, the taste was at least as good as the art - strong and rich, leaving me recharged for the rest of the day.

Address: 175 Swan Street, Richmond
Ph: 9425 9805
Price: veg mains $8-$12

Sunday, January 28, 2007

January 27, 2007: Tortilla soup

A new regular food-blogging read for me is vanesscipes, which is written by a vegetarian who cooks in her small Brooklyn home. For dinner on Saturday night we attempted our first recipe from her site, a new posting of tortilla soup. This is a fabulous concoction, which can be made as simple or elaborate as you feel (just vary the garnish). The soup is fairly watery, but it's choc-full of veges, beans and tortilla chunks, meaning that it's a filling meal on its own and every spoonful offers something interesting and different. You can also pitch the chilli dosage to your preference, from a comforting warmth up to a firey attention-grabber! Vanessa uses corn tortillas, but Mexican supplies are more constrained in this part of the world and I used flour ones. In doing so we've missed out on a "deep, toasted corn flavor", but I don't think the processed, rubbery corn tortillas at the local supermarket would be supplying that anyway. Instead I reckon I'll add a 1/2 cup of fresh corn kernels next time I make this. My leftovers won some admiring looks at lunch on Monday, too!

Tortilla Soup
(adapted slightly from vanesscipes)

2 medium tortillas, torn into inch-and-a-half chunks
vegetable oil
1 onion, diced
1 green capsicum, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
810g can of crushed tomatoes
500mL vegetable stock
400g can four bean mix (choose any beans you like)
juice of half a lime
3/4 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon chilli powder
1/4 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon salt

Tortilla chip topping:
4 additional tortillas
salt and paprika/cumin/chilli powder
extra garnishes of your choice, maybe: chopped coriander, grated cheese (these are what we used), jalapenos, avocado, ...

In a large pot, fry the onion and capsicum in a little oil for a few minutes, then add the garlic. Continue cooking slowly until the veges are softened, then add the crushed tomatoes, vege stock, beans, lime juice and spices. Simmer the soup for 20 minutes.

If you're making the tortilla chips, do 'em while the soup's simmering. Slice the tortillas into strips and lay them flat on a baking tray. Sprinkle with salt and spices, then grill for a few minutes until crunchy, turning half-way through. Prepare any other garnishes as needed.

When the 20 minutes is up, add the ripped tortilla chunks to the soup. Cook for a few more minutes so the tortillas soften, ladle into bowls and serve, piled up with your chosen garnishes.

January 27, 2007: Inkari

Saturday was the lazy day of our Australia Day long weekend - so much so that by the time our lunch hungers kicked in, we'd still not managed to get to Safeway and buy food. Rather than go through the ordeal of shopping on an empty stomcah, I convinced Cindy that we should head straight to Inkari. The lunch menu is fairly substantial, and there are four or five vegetarian options to choose from. Cindy and I both went with sandwiches: hers the mollete (refried black beans cooked to a traditional Mexican recipe with roasted capsicum and tomato, tasty cheese and avocado - $6.50) and mine the tortilla omelette (potato omelette with red pepper, green salad, tomato and home-made mayonaise - $7.50). Both were enjoyable - the mayonnaise on mine was delicious, but the beany flavours of Cindy's were the highlight.

You can read about our previous trip to Inkari here.

Edit 19/12/07: Sadly, Inkari appears to have closed permanently.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

January 26, 2007: Las Chicas


With the weather for Australia Day forecast to be superb, Cindy and I planned an outing to some parts of Melbourne we'd yet to visit: breakfast in Balaclava to get us started, and then a wander around the bay from St. Kilda to Brighton. Cheap Eats and the breakfast blog had made me very keen to try out Las Chicas - anything that gets both a V (for vegetarian friendly) and a little toast picture (for good breakfasts) in the Cheap Eats Guide is always going to excite me.

Despite some Australia Day Parade-related tram confusion, we made it to Las Chicas without too many difficulties. It's directly across from a tram stop and about fifty metres from a train station, so there are no problems with accessibility. And, luckily for us, there were no problems accessing a table either - we were seated straight away at a communal table in courtyard area out the back. Cindy quickly ordered an iced coffee to boost her failing system's sugar levels - 11 o'clock is a bit late for her first nutrients of the day.

Once the remnants of the previous customers' breakfasts had been cleared and our drinks had arrived, we settled down to study the menus. The heading 'Vegetarian Favourites' was a good sign! Cindy mixed and matched, combining a breakfast bagel with a half serve of porridge, while I almost put together my own breakfast combo, before realising that my choiced added up to about $20. As a compromise, I opted for the baked beans brekky: pumpkin and polenta loaf with beans and spinach, topped with a poached egg. The loaf was thick and tasty - I knew straight away I was going to be satisfied for hours after getting through it all - but probably a little on the dry side. A second runny poached egg would have solved this problem, but probably killed me in the process. The beans were delicious and the spinach provided the illusion of healthiness - a great combination. Cindy wouldn't stop raving about her toasted brekky bagel, topped with citrus pistachio ricotta, so I made one last effort and squeezed in a mouthful. The ricotta mix was tremendous - sweet with a slight citrus tang. Cindy enjoyed it so much that she was basically licking it off the last bit of the bagel that she couldn't fit in. Her porridge sounded good too, with fresh bananas and strawberries stirred through along with almonds and maple syrup. It disappeared before the bagel, suggesting it was well enjoyed. While all the food was tremendous and the service was friendly and efficient, the most exciting thing about Las Chicas was probably the menu - it's a fair way to go before eating, but with so many fantastic sounding options available, we'll almost certainly be returning soon.

The rest of the day was taken up with the walk around the bay - it was a beautiful day and an extremely pleasant stroll, despite the fact that we under-sunscreened and both ended up burnt in various places.

Some pictures from the walk:







Address: 203 Carlisle Street, Balaclava
Ph: 9531 3699
Licensed
Price: veg breakfasts $9 - $12

P.S. This post would not have been possible without the kind and honest staff of Melbourne Central Lion Hotel - in a sunburnt and tired haze after our long wander, I foolishly left the camera on a table there, after enjoying a much-needed cold beer. Luckily, they picked it up and kept it behind the counter until I shamefacedly returned - they seemed quite bemused by all the pictures of fruit on it.

Friday, January 26, 2007

January 25, 2007: Mini fruit pies

During their three weeks in our home, Emma and Simon had clearly noticed our food blogging habit. We were photographing food at home, photographing food out and about, then spending hours reviewing our pictures, tapping away on the computer and talking about 'the Amateur Gourmet' and 'Mellie from Tummy Rumbles' as if they were either personal friends or fêted celebrities. Thus, on their departure, Emma and Simon generously presented us with a wireless router and a set of six ramekins! Now we can blog from anywhere in the house (I think: we haven't gone so far as testing it out in the bathroom) and I can make all those cute little single-serve puddings and cakes in tempted.

On Thursday night I tested out two of the ramekins for the first time. After a holiday hiatus, Veronica Mars was back on American television and we had a new episode to watch. (Legal note: where's the beef? does not condone dowloading of copyrighted material unless your local free-to-air station is shunting your favourite program from timeslot to timeslot, with months between screenings.) This warranted a lazy night in: catching up on the previous weeks-old episode with egg and 'bacon' sandwiches washed down with cider, followed by an all-new ep and dessert. Dessert was a fridge-leftovers concoction, starting with two plums each, sliced into chunks, and a sprinkling of blueberries.

Into each ramekin I then stirred about half a teaspoon of rasberry jam. With a spare half-sheet of puff pastry from the freezer I made pie tops, pressing them firmly around the edge and cutting air holes around the centre. As an experiment, I brushed the pastry with some more jam, thinned with a bit of hot water.



Then into a 180 degree oven for about 20 minutes!

As you can see from the first picture, one of the pies puffed up high, while the other got a bit water-logged with the fruit liquid. Michael likes to mush up his pastry in the fruit and actually preferred the latter one. I, on the other hand, like my pastry golden and flaky. To achieve this I think you need to leave a bit of an air pocket between the fruit and the pastry, and this is quite feasible with relatively tall, narrow containers such as these. It's a problem that I haven't completely solved for larger, multi-serve pies.


The fruit centre was piping hot, a bit too sweet and very liquidy. The jam was probably an unnecessary addition, and the extra effort of stewing the super-juicy plums to evaporate some of the liquid would have yielded a better filling. But we both loved the pastry and these were a pretty satisfying accompaniment to an hour of crime-solving, partying and romantic intrigue at the college with the highest enrolment of slim attractive students in America.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

23 January, 2007: Gertrude Street Grub - Trippytaco

Welcome to an exciting* new regular** where's the beef special - Gertrude Street Grub. Cindy and I usually sort out enough leftovers from our meals to provide ourselves with weekday lunches. Having house guests in the last few weeks however, has resulted in much fewer leftovers and many more trips out to buy lunch. I've discovered some pretty great places and have decided to put together a weekly*** series of posts reviewing lunch places around Gertrude Street (where my office is) and the southern ends of Smith and Brunswick Streets.

The lucky first place (and, in truth, the inspiration for this entire series) is Trippytaco. From what I understand, Trippytaco started out as a caterers who ran food stalls at Meredith and other Victorian festivals (although surprisingly I don't remember them being at the Hispanic Festival). They've recently set up a shop on Smith Street in Collingwood where their vegetarian Mexican food is on sale all year 'round. The menu is small - a couple of breakfast options, tacos, a burrito, nachos and a few sweets. For a bit of variety, the blackboard usually has a special on it, and the menu suggests that taquitos are 'coming soon'. The room matches the menu for size - a few small tables scattered through the back and a couple out on the footpath, with the kitchen right in the front next to the cash register. But all of this is unimportant, what really matters is the food. I've sampled a fair chunk of the menu already, and it's all been fantastic, but the focus of today is the tacos.


Based on homemade soft corn tortillas, these tacos are bursting with fillings (black beans, salad, salsa and cheese - although there are vegan alternatives) to the point where folding them into a taco shape is impossible. Black beans are hard to find, so the generous serving was particularly welcome, while the fresh, grated beetroot and avocado were tremendous additions to the standard lettuce/salsa/cheese fillings. With two kinds of Mexican hot sauce on the table, friendly staff and an all-veg menu, the only disappointing thing is that this place isn't full to bursting with appreciative customers every lunch hour. Hopefully the clientele will grow, 'cause now I've discovered it I can't imagine surviving without it.

Address: 48 Smith Street, Collingwood 234 Gertrude St, Fitzroy
Ph: 9415 7711
Price: $4.50 - $9.50

* May not be exciting
** Will almost certainly not be regular
*** Monthly

January 21, 2007: Greenie pie


Even though I'm now located two states away, I still receive the Mondo Organics email newsletter each month. Amongst other news there's always at least one recipe included, and this month it was for mushroom, silverbeet and cashew tart with oaty pastry. I had two incentives to give this a go: first, I have a stash of raw cashews left over from my vegan ice cream; and second, I bought an oven thermometer on the weekend! Ellie tipped me off on Cake Deco, a fabulously crowded and slightly ramshackle shop of all things baking, located in an arcade off Flinders St. I picked up the thermometer for about $10 and enjoyed browsing through the cake pans, biscuit cutters and other decorative kick knacks.

Anyway, the ladies at Mondo have always been mindful of vegetarian, vegan, dairy-free and gluten-free eaters and their recipe caters for all of them.* (That's one of the reasons I've dubbed it greenie pie!) I substituted the soy milk for dairy, since it's what we always have on hand but the recipe remains both vegetarian and gluten-free. I think it's intended to be a quiche-like dish and the cashew-spinach mix does have a soft, light texture. I initially found its colour a bit alarming - it looks like the "I don't know" goop from You Can't Do That On Television! The pastry had a pleasant taste but was a bit tough and crunchy: I think I overcooked it, and adding a bit more oil might also improve the consistency. Even so, I suspect that spelt flour pastry isn't ever going to quite achieve the elasticity of dough made with wheat flour. The tart made for an enjoyable dinner, but it was quite time-consuming and I'd probably be more inclined to repeat Michael's asparagus and mushroom tart before this. However I would consider giving it another go if vegan or gluten-free-eating guests ever turn up!

On the side are fresh sliced roma tomatoes (Will's recommendation from the Queen Vic Markets) and finely diced cauliflower and potato, baked in a little olive oil and then tossed in a teaspoon of za'atar. I liked these so much I made them again for the next night's dinner.



*Edit 02/02/07: Since writing this post, a bit more internet research has shown me that spelt is not actually gluten-free, although it can be eaten by some people who are intolerant of wheat flour. If you think you have health problems related to gluten or wheat flour, please take dietary advice from someone more in the know than me!



Greenie Pie

(adapted from the Mondo Organics January 2007 e-newsletter)

Pastry:
250g spelt flour
100g oats
25g ground almonds
25g sesame seeds
1 teaspoon soy sauce
2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil (next time I might increase this to 4 tblsp)
cold water

Mix together the flour, oats, ground almonds and sesame seeds in a bowl. Make sure your hands are clean, and mix in the soy sauce and olive oil with 'em. Gradually mix in cold water, a tablespoon at a time, until the pastry holds together but isn't too wet. I used about 6-8 tablespoons of water, but next time I'd increase the oil and hopefully much less water would be necessary. I suspect my dough was a bit wetter than it should have been, anyway. Let the pastry stand for 10 minutes.

The recipe says, "roll the pastry out until it becomes difficult to roll". Frankly, this was immediately. It took a bit of effort to gently roll and then smoosh together the cracking bits, but eventually I had a slab of pastry roughly 4mm thick and circular. Grease a pie dish and gently fit the pastry inside: this took Michael, me, and some gentle slow-mo work. Poke some small air holes in the pastry with a fork and bake it at 180 degrees for 10 minutes. Allow the pastry to cool before filling.

My thermometer tells me that our oven heats to the required temperature much faster than it lets on, and then overheats some time after that. It probably could have done with a bit less than 10 minutes!

Filling

8 mushrooms sliced
1 onion, finely sliced (I'd reduce it to half an onion next time)
200ml olive oil (I used at most 150mL, and you could try reducing it further)
200g raw cashews
250g silver beet, washed (I used English spinach, 'cause the shop was out of silverbeet)
340mL milk
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon ground mustard seeds (I used 1/2 tsp whole black mustard seeds, 1/2 tsp hot mustard powder)
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons cider vinegar
paprika to dust

Saute the onions and mushrooms in a little of the olive oil until softened. The recipe instructs you to spread these over the pastry case, but next time I would wait and stir them through the green mix instead.

Grind the cashews in a food processor, then add the silverbeet/spinach, milk and spices. I had to add the greens in a couple of batches to fit it all into my small processor. With the motor running slowly, add the remaining oil (most of it, I hope!) and the vinegar. If you haven't already spread them over the pastry, stir in the mushrooms and onions then pour the mixture into the pastry case. (I had a lot of green goop left over.) Sprinkle the tart with paprika and bake in the centre of a 180 degree oven for about 25 minutes, or until the top is firm to touch. I ended up baking mine for much longer, because a knife in the centre came out gooey, but it turns out that's OK! This is not going to set all the way through like eggs would. You'll have to be a bit gentle, but it will still be possible to cut fairly clean slices.

Serve hot or cold: my room-temperature leftovers were just fine!


Monday, January 22, 2007

January 20, 2007: Burger Republic

Update 31/12/2014: Burger Republic has been taken over by Urban Burger - we've visited their Richmond branch but haven't been back to Errol Street to check out this outlet.

After missing out on a taste of Burger Republic the other week, there was an undercurrent of chip cravings in our home for quite a few days. This manifested itself in a couple of meals with olive oil baked potatoes as a featured side dish (my subconscious at work), which were received with murmurs of "Mmmm....chips" from Emma. The situation was finally resolved on Saturday night. Emma and Simon had spent the day moving their belongings into their new home, and it was clear that beer and a burger would be a hearty and most deserved dinner for the pair.

Burger Republic has an online menu, making the call-and-collect approach most convenient! Above is Michael's lentil burger ($8.50), with avocado, coriander, salad, relish and aioli. On the right is my red republic ($8.50), which contains a sun-dried tomato and capsicum burger, goats' cheese, pesto, salad, relish and aioli. These burgers are enormous, with the rolls being ~20cm in diameter. (RR also offers mini-sized burgers, but only in beef and chicken varieties.) Emma and Simon relished their beefy counterparts after a hard days' work, and Michael similarly polished off his with ease. I loved the pesto, but couldn't detect the taste of tomato or capsicum in my patty, and found the roll to be a bit too sweet and doughy. I decided to save the second half for lunch, and in the meantime focus on the main event:


This is a full-size dinner plate piled with three serves of chips ($3 each). These definitely met expectations: crunchy outside and soft within. We also sampled the aioli dipping sauce, which was silky smooth but a bit bland. In the end our Heinz tomato sauce proved a superior accompaniment.

Even though I wasn't wowed by these burgers, I was clearly in the minority, and the chips more than made up for that. I certainly won't be declining any future visits to Emma and Simon's neighbourhood for seconds.

Address: 47 Errol St, North Melbourne
Ph: 9328 1781
Licensed
Price: enormous vege burgers $8.50, chips $3
Website: www.burgerrepublic.com.au

Sunday, January 21, 2007

January 19, 2007: Brunetti VI

After a few months' Brunetti drought, we managed to find two excuses to visit this week! Our first companions were two of Michael's relatives, visiting from Queensland. Since Emma and Simon arrived almost three weeks ago we've had vague intentions of taking them, but it took Emma firmly setting aside this Friday evening for it to happen.

I was a little concerned that my over-blown promises of aisles and aisles of glorious cakes might mean that they would actually be underwhelmed by the Brunetti experience. Far from it! Emma lingered over the enormous pre-ordered cakes (Happy birthday Helen! And John! And our blessings on the child being christened on Sunday the 21st!) and was photographed in front of one of the display fridges before she even noticed the dozens and dozens of single serves she could have for herself. Then there was some time spent hovering around the multiple profiterole flavours before she finally picked out two. Without quite so much external deliberation, Simon ordered a large slab of mud cake.

Michael found a slice of warmed apple strudel to his liking, which he pronounced to be one of his better Brunetti experiences. I picked out a hazelnut brittle ($2.60), a dainty little sandwich less than two inches square. This was an intensely sweet, rich treat with unexpected textures. The brittle wasn't brittle at all, instead a soft and slightly chewy piece of toffeed hazelnut chunks. The ganache filling didn't ooze under pressure: it was firm and smooth with flecks of hazelnut meal. The package was then cemented together with choc-dipping at one end. Such complexity and richness really is best enjoyed in this modest serving size, ideally with a strong coffee alongside! Unfortunately my caffeine sensitivity prevents such a thing in the night hours, and I resorted to their too-sweet chai latte instead.

(Read about our other Brunetti visits: one, two, three, four and five.)


January 19, 2007: Mario's

Simon spent Saturday afternoon browsing the Cheap Eats guide for some dinner inspiration. He was particularly keen on Italian, and Mario's was recommended both by Cheap Eats and by us. Mario's breakfast menu was fairly traditional, so the wide range of vegetarian entrees, pastas and mains was a surprising and welcome discovery. We shared the obligatory shared plate of garlic bread, and our readiness for dinner can be judged by the mysterious bite that appeared in the bread before the camera was ready.

Cindy opted for a light meal: the watercress salad with warm kipfler potatoes, brie, grapes, parmesan croutons and a hazlenut oil dressing. The combination of flavours and textures, from the soft, warm spuds to the sweet, crunchy grapes, was well received. The few bits of brie I managed to pinch were delicious as well. I think it would have left me hungry, but Cindy found the potatoes enough to fill her up after her share of the bread.

I wavered between the vegetarian shepherd's pie and some of the pastas, before finally settling on the orecchiette (I've just discovered orecchiette means 'little ears' in Italian, which describes the shape better than I was going to) with green pea puree, roasted pumpkin, flaked almonds, spinach and mascarpone cheese. It was tremendous - the pumpkins combining particularly well with the pea puree. It's unusual to find a pasta option on the menu that's particularly interesting or surprising, but this was both. And it was a substantial portion size to boot. Emma and Simon enjoyed their omnivorous meals as well and Mario's has now impressed me both at breakfast and dinner. Maybe it's time for a lunch trip next.



See details from our previous trip to Mario's here.

Friday, January 19, 2007

January 17, 2007: Hako

On Wednesday night we had tickets to the Melbourne Theatre Company's latest rendition of Don's Party lined up. Faced with the task of getting a reasonably quick and early dinner, Michael took our typical approach of refering to Cheap Eats. Out of the CBD section came Hako, a tiny Japanese restaurant that scored the full three stars and a veggie-friendly V.

We met Mike out the front and our reservation for three probably took up 20% of the seating! The list of specials was written on butchers' paper and taped to the wall, offering roughly as many dishes again as the main menu. Only a small proportion was actually vegetarian but these options looked appetising enough. Our Asahi beers arrived within minutes of our order, and we easily passed the time before the first meal arrived nutting out how the angle of the earth's rotation affects the seasons and day lengths across different latitudes, with the aid of a pen and a beer. (The topics occupying Mike's mind at any time are varied and unpredictable!)

The first picture above is of Michael's agadashi tofu entree ($9.80), deep fried bean curd with light soy. He happily gobbled it down before our other food arrived, the next dish being his choice from the specials board: bok choy and oyster mushrooms cooked with Dashi sauce ($10). Although he liked this too, Michael would have preferred to find a few more mushrooms involved.

Predictably, I ordered the vegetable tempura ($12.50). Arriving on a plate that dwarfed both my veges and our little table, I didn't expect to be filled by this serving. However it turned out to be just the right size; the batter was crisp and hot, the veges fresh and tender. It would have been a winner all round, if my rice had turned up.

Hako fit the bill for our pre-theatre dinner, but it didn't quite live up to the expectations that that big red Cheap Eats V built up. While the lunch-time bento boxes might be a hit with omnivorous Japanese food fans, the options for a vegetarian novice such as me are pleasant but not worth crossing town for.

By contrast, Don's Party fulfilled and exceeded my expectations! The ensemble cast of eleven were sharp and funny without exception: David Williamson's tale of electoral, social and sexual politics still resonates on two out of three levels and is an interesting snapshot of another era on the third. And the 1969 set design was a delight!

Address: Shop 7, 250 Flinders St (enter from Degraves St), Melbourne CBD
Edit 08/11/07: new address 310 Flinders Lane, Melbourne CBD
Ph: 9650 0207
Edit 08/11/07: new phone 9620 1881
Licensed
Price: veg entrees and mains $3.50-13.50

Menu for Hope III raffle drawn!

This week the prizes donated for the Menu for Hope III raffle were drawn (check out Chez Pim for the full list of winners.) Michael and I were lucky enough to score a prize each! Somewhere between here and Auckland, New Zealand travels my new copy of the Taste Favourites cookbook, which was donated by Barbara, the author of Winos and Foodies. Michael's winnings need only make their way around Melbourne, since he picked up a $50 voucher to eat at Chilli Padi. This was organised by Cin of A Few of My Favourite Things.

Thanks to Pim and the regional organisers of Menu for Hope; to Barbara, Cin and all the other food bloggers who donated prizes; and finally a big thanks to everyone who bought a raffle ticket! Menu for Hope raised over $US 60 000 for the UN World Food Programme, more than tripling the takings of last year's campaign. That means a lot more food getting to those who need it most.

January 16, 2007: Brunetti V


Brunetti usually proves to be an impressive dessert stop for interstate guests, and our night with Michael's Uncle Lee and Aunty Chris was no exception. Above is Michael's sour cherry tart: the cherry flavour verged on the medicinal but was agreeably sour, as promised.


At 1 inch diameter and $1.40 each, I figured I could afford to taste two mini-tarts. The passionfruit custard was just the right combination of smooth, sweet and fruity, but the chocolate version didn't grab me. Still there's no harm done at this size, with the offending pastry probably having been walked off by the time I arrived home!

(You can read about our previous visits to Brunetti here, here, here and here.)


Thursday, January 18, 2007

January 16, 2007: Los Amates II

My Aunt and Uncle (Chris and Lee) were in town for the Australian Open tennis and had set aside an evening to catch up with Cindy and I for dinner. We've yet to settle on a Lygon Street venue that will wow visitors (although Trotters did work pretty well for us last weekend), so we decided to take them up to Fitzroy for Mexican at Los Amates. The four of us enjoyed some pre-dinner drinks (including a rather tiny margarita for Cindy) as we perused the menu - Lee in particular struggling to come up with a suitable option. After much humming and hawing, everyone was settled and we ordered. Cindy eventually convinced me to share the Plato do Enchiladas Mixtas with her. I had intended to go my own way after we shared last time, but the enchiladas just sounded too good: three sets of two enchiladas, each with their own sauce: mole, salsa verde and salsa roja, served with rice, frijoles and salad.

Cindy found the mole particularly outstanding, smoky and full-flavoured with the barest hint of chocolate, while I'm always a sucker for tangy salsa verde. The frijoles and rice made a nice accompaniment, and the salad was something to nibble on to convince ourselves we were eating healthily. Chris and Lee enjoyed their omnivorous offerings as well, and while we all managed to leave room for a trip to Brunetti, everyone left Los Amates feeling very satisfied.

(Read about our previous visit to Los Amates here.)



Address: 34 Johnston Street, Fitzroy
Ph: 9417 0441
Licensed
Price: $10 - $25
Website: www.losamates.com.au

Monday, January 15, 2007

January 14, 2007: Chocolate star anise cake with coffee caramel cream

On Mum and Carol's second visit to our place I knew there'd have to be dessert of some description: after any meal they are just as likely as I to start craving something sweet. On their last visit we introduced Bev and Carol to Koko Black, and this time I figured it was my turn to prepare something; something from our new dessert cookbook. Of course there must be chocolate involved, yet this still left 62 recipes to choose from! Emma and Michael perused my shortlist, discarded a few, and after a couple of days deliberation, I selected the chocolate star anise cake with coffee caramel cream. Bev's chocolate consumption is invariably teamed with a cup of coffee, and we share a preference for rich, creamy desserts. The presence of ground star anise piqued my interest: in recent years I've become hooked on chocolate spiked with chilli, chai, mountain pepper, and other aromatic spices.

On Saturday Michael and I had braved the city shops, armed with a Coles-Myer gift voucher, and I came away with a spring-form cake tin, but not an oven thermometer. (It seems others bought up Melbourne's entire stock for their Christmas roasts!) The tin was a breeze to use, with the cake neatly coming away from the sides and base. However, in about 10 minutes less than the recommended baking time, my cake developed a burnt layer about 1 mm thick along the base and 2-3 mm thick along the side. Even so, I would not have wished to cook the centre of the cake for any less time. Clearly I have yet to master our fan-forced oven, and I'm hoping that the acquisition of an oven thermometer might speed my progress.

Even with this minor hitch, the cake was quite a success! I was a bit concerned that the recipe didn't include a rising agent, and it was only 4-5 cm tall, yet it wasn't overly dense in texture. The cake had only a mild to medium chocolate flavour, and this allowed the star anise to come forward and add depth, rather than richness. The elevation from simple to decadent dessert was the coffee caramel (double) cream, which had just the right amount of coffee bitterness but was too sweet for my taste.

Food styling (i.e. the selection of the least-wilting sprig of mint from the bottom of the fridge) was provided by Emma.

Chocolate star anise cake with coffee caramel cream
(from tempted: 150 very wicked desserts)

Ingredients:
200g dark chocolate
125g unsalted butter
4 eggs
2 egg yolks
115g caster sugar
50g plain flour, sifted
2 teaspoons ground star anise
50g ground almonds

Preheat the oven to 190 degrees C, and grease a 23cm round springform cake tin.

Melt the chocolate and butter in a saucepan over a pan of simmering water.

Beat the eggs, egg yolks and sugar in a bowl until thickened, about 5 minutes. Fold in the flour, star anise and almond meal, then fold in the melted chocolate mixture. Look how it sinks to the bottom in the 4th picture! Don't worry if it's all a bit runnier than a normal cake batter.

Pour the mixture into the cake tin and bake for 30-35 minutes, or until it passes the skewer test: stick the skewer gently in the centre, if it comes out clean your cake is done! Cool it in the tin for at least 5 minutes before transferring it onto a wire rack.

Serve cold with coffee caramel cream.

To make the coffee caramel cream: Whip together 125mL double cream, 3 tablespoons of brown sugar and 2 tablespoons of cooled espresso coffee. If you're not much of a sweet tooth, consider reducing the sugar to 1-2 tablespoons.


January 14, 2007: Trotters

After a month of cruising Victoria and spending time with her sisters, my Mum returned to Melbourne and came by for lunch with next-youngest sibling Carol in tow. On their previous visit, Michael took charge of dinner and then we ate out for dessert: thus, I thought I'd turn the tables this time by going out for lunch and preparing a dessert to enjoy later at home. Once out on Lygon St, Mum swiftly picked out Trotters restaurant based on a glance at the menu. It was looking pretty crowded but a waitress said she'd open up the second level, where we'd have plenty of room and a specials board all to ourselves.

The dish at the top of this post is mum's "mushroom filled arancino crumbed & served on tomato with rocket & parmesan" ($13.50). This is like an enormous risotto ball, with a centre of mushrooms:

It was rich, a bit heavy, and very, very tasty. Carol ordered "soft polenta with mushrooms and pecorino cheese" ($14) from the specials board.

I didn't taste it, but Carol thought this was great and happily polished off the entire plate. This is high praise, given Carol's aversion to large helpings of anything: she's more of a grazer, as Mum noted that day.

Michael's "spinach & ricotta filled agnolotti arrabbiata (spicy tomato sauce)" ($14.20) was the least exciting meal in the looks department but, according to him, it easily made up for it with a full flavour.

While Mum and Carol were starving, I was still feeling the effects of a heavy but tasty meal the night before. Thus I took a chance on one of the smaller options, the bruschetta ($5):

This camera angle doesn't emphasise the generous portion I received: three sizable pieces of sourdough toast, topped with up to two tomatoes, diced. I often find sourdough a bit tough, but the bit of butter melted evenly into these slices ensured that wasn't the case. The parsley, garlic and teensy bit of cheese worked in subtle harmony, not overpowering the tomato at all. The tomatoes weren't of the finest quality, but I've struggled to find any better than this for years. If anyone out there can recommend an outlet of red, flavoursome tomatoes in Melbourne, please, PLEASE leave me a comment!

Ahem.

The four of us entered Trotters with different appetites and all walked out thoroughly satisfied and not too out of pocket (especially me, 'cause Michael paid for my meal). Although its offerings are omnivorous, our four meat-free dishes show just how spoilt for choice a vegetarian can be, with several of the specials also being meat-free. Highly recommended for a casual cafe-style meal.

Address: 400 Lygon St, Carlton
Ph: 9347 5657
Fully licensed
Price: veg mains ~$5-15
Website: http://www.trotters.com.au/