Sunday, October 29, 2006

An accidental degustation for Pixie

Degustation: "A tasting or sampling of food or drink”

Pixie arrived bright and early on Thursday morning. I whisked her away from the airport and with little ado swung by Babka for breakfast. After some gentle grazing and caffeinating in this warm and cozy bakery, the real food worshipping began. After all it was Thursday, which for this outspoken female means only one thing - Vic Market.

How delightful to take someone new on a long, leisurely stroll though this foodie Mecca. This is also a great time of year for fresh produce – with mangoes down to 99c each and thin spears of organic asparagus for a mere $1.50 a bunch. Pixie was most taken by the biggest custard apples I have ever seen and rushed off to purchase one.

The dairy hall furnished us with nibbles – luscious Kalamata olives and the best dolmades in the market. But it was the fish aisles that gave us the biggest dilemma – shall we have crabs with lime mayonnaise, oysters, prawns or a whole fish? “Oh prawns, they remind me of Australia!”’ she cried – so that was that.

Our precious cargo was taken home, the fridge loaded and more planning and touristing awaited.

But back to the food…

From the afternoon we grazed on:

A platter of raw vegetables, olives and dolmades.

Avocado and tahini dip

Steamed asparagus with wasabi mayonnaise

Fresh shitake mushroom gyozas

Oysters – with lemon (or for me, who can only face this crustacean raw every few years, I managed one with a large splash of the gyoza dipping sauce which turned out to be a winning combination)

Roasted jap pumpkin and baby beets

Prawns stir fried with garlic, chili, fresh coriander and a small dash of fish sauce

By this point we could take no more – so the tropical fruit just had to wait for breakfast.

The wine – Hamelin Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2005 (which may explain the lack of focus in some of the pictures)

Good food, wine and friendship – what more could a woman ask for?

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Sunday, October 22, 2006

A very rare post on the joys of dairy

I grew up a cheese head. There was always a kilo or 2 of yellow cheddar or tasty cheese in the fridge. Not far away would be a mouldy chunk of blue, my father’s favourite that was referred to as the “stinky cheese”. My parents for all their conservatism liked strong flavours. My dad not only loved old stinky, but the strongest, most garlicky salami he could find. He also taught us a curry is declared worthy only when it’s hot enough to cause you to blow your nose. Some years working in the Far East, before the rest of the obligatory OE* in London, had fortunately ‘ruined’ his palate for good.

The freezer always held icecream – vanilla, plain or if we were lucky, chocolate. I remember the brick like blocks in waxed cardboard, before the plastic tubs. Milk was used in baking, splashed on cereal or sometimes in an attempt to make us actually drink the stuff, whisked up with Quick (banana or chocolate). But cheese was all time favourite.

Discovering 2 decades ago that I was dairy allergic was a tragic day. I remember when I came out of denial, having had a big cheesy meal and feeling my heart galloping in response. I might have ignored the twisted feeling in my gut and written off the 10 colds a year to a weak immune system but the palpitations after I had done a ‘fast and challenge’ got me by my throat and onto a new path.

Occasionally I’ve strayed. Butter every now and then causes no ill effects and the odd sheep or goats product seems to get past the keeper. If I push it though, I get sick and no food is worth a week in bed.

One of the best things, I have discovered living in Melbourne is the odd indulgence in Sheep’s yoghurt from Meredith. Sure, as a child there was a stray pottle or 2 of Ski yoghurt in the fridge. They were highly sugared, with a synthetic flavour and it’s no wonder that I never took to the stuff. But Meredith Dairy’s creamy ambrosia is that of the gods. Or at least the Greek ones who fed me yoghurt and honey for breakfast every morning when I holidayed in Crete. This is luscious, unsweetened and made the old fashioned way.

My cat shares my passion. It is a rare treat when we get some sheep’s yoghurt, but we both appreciate every mouthful. This has been one of those weekends. Princess Prissy Paws is happy for a heaped spoonful on her plate. While I borrow from the Greeks and give it my own twist – a small snowy mound with a drizzle of maple syrup and at this time of year some fresh organic strawberries.

Sated now, dreaming of sunny islands, while the furry one retires with a smile that would put a Cheshire cat to shame.

* Note for the Non-Antipodians. "Overseas Experience" is the custom of Kiwis and Aussies going to the northern hemisphere, usually London, to work and travel.


Thursday, October 19, 2006

nostalgia with more than a pinch of chilli

Last week I had a massive buy up at the large Chinese grocery store opposite Vic Market. I needed new bamboo steamers, the largest that could fit my wok, to mark in my own strange way the growth in my household. Those itty-bitty single-girl size steamers just wouldn’t do anymore!

I only allow myself to wander around the store when I have adequate time left on the parking meter It’s a bit like entering a black hole, as I amble down the spice aisle, check out the Japanese food section and see what new bowls are in stock down the back of the shop. The store is also a soy wonderland, selling every product from the bean imaginable. The fridge is full to the brim with tofu in every form but it was the dried varieties in a dusty aisle that got me. In the end I trotted out with bean curd skins in every hue, determined to make some forgotten treasures.

I can no longer find the recipe, but I remember the inheritance of the first dish I ate made with dried bean curd sticks. In one of the houses I lived in, the last time I was a student, only one of the residents was home for the initial interview. We chatted away amicably, but the conversation really fired up when we hit the topic of food. In the end he just opened the fridge door, as if to say “This is who I am”. There was an instant connection and the rest, as they say, is history.

Some time later the housemate came home with tales of a vegetarian curry made by his sister, which he set about reproducing at the soonest opportunity. It featured the oddest little bundles of not-quite-tofu. Dried bean curd sticks, or bamboo yuba, are actually a by-product of soy milk manufacturing. It is made from the skin that forms on the top when the milk is heated. This is skimmed off and dried in sheets, either flat (yuba, used as a “skin” to wrap other ingredients in before steaming or frying) or bundled into sticks or knots. The dried sticks look yellow and leathery, but are surprisingly light. They are also extremely cheap and have a close to unlimited shelf life.

The curry was coconut based with root vegetables. I remember the sauce becoming trapped in the bundled layers of the bean curd skin, releasing it as I chewed. In the aisle of the Chinese grocery store all this came back to me and I decided it was time to honour this humble food and make my own version of this long forgotten dish.

To cook with bamboo yuba, it’s easier to break the bundles into smaller lengths and soak in cold water, either over night or a good few hours ahead of cooking. As the skin rehydrates it swell up but still remains curled up together.

The curry I made was predominantly pumpkin. I had the remains of a sweet chunk of Jap that had been so tasty in the red lentil and pumpkin soup on the weekend. The sweetness, I knew would also marry well with the blandness of the yuba and smoothness of the coconut milk. I made a Thai red curry, following the lazy template of my curry in a hurry recipe. However, there were a few fresh spices asking to be used so I jazzed the premade paste up with some coriander root, ginger and chilli pounded together in the mortar and pestle, and adjusted the flavour once the coconut was added with the juice of a lime I found on my tree and a generous splash or 3 of fish sauce. Once the sauce was simmering I added thin wedges of onion, cubes of pumpkin, potato and the soaked bamboo yuba cut into lengths of about 3-4 cm. Towards the end I tossed in some zucchini and served the curry on brown rice.

Eating the meal brought back a range of complicated emotions, from time in that little innercity house to camping trips in the dessert, with characters that no longer inhabit my life. Like the curry the memories were sweet and spicy, making a nostalgic but satisfying meal with a kick.

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Monday, October 16, 2006

Red lentils and pumpkins

With the weather see-sawing of late, the dip in the temperature gauge on the weekend created a perfect opportunity to make the last batch of soup for the season. With what was in the fridge I made a variation on the red lentil soup I’d cooked earlier in the year.

This variation: chunks of pumpkin, flavoured with onion, garlic, coriander root and cumin, with a stock made from organic bouillon. Red lentils thicken the soup perfectly without making it a heavy meal. A great trans-seasonal soup, regardless of what hemisphere you are living in.

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The drop down boxes in the sidebar are multiplying, in case you haven't noticed. There are 2 new zones, reviews (of restaurants, at this point limited to Australia and New Zealand, but watch this space!) and detox food. The feedback and hits suggest that people can't get enough of the healthy stuff, so when any recipe is low-allergy, non-dairy, low-fat, usually gluten-free and packed with guilt-free goodness, it qualifies for the category. Of course, 90% of the rest does too in its own way, as after all - this is the Food Nazi!

Keep emailing or commenting with feedback.


Saturday, October 14, 2006

snack attack

Almost too ridiculously healthy AND scrumptuous for words, my latest favourite snack combo:

Take a slice or two of the best bread in the world - Natural Tucker's Schwartzbrot. This is 100% rye, with that sourdough tang and a hint of caraway seeds. Its chewy, filling and am guessing it must put those other loaves to shame that have the odd grain in them and claim to be 'low GI'. Nothing beats it.

Spread with a hefy amount of some freshly made parsley pesto. The avocado makes it creamy, the lemon rind and garlic gives it some zest and the pistachios contrast the green with vibrant purple.

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Thursday, October 12, 2006

Gorgeous grains

I’ve been cooking more than writing lately, finding a good balance between experimenting in the kitchen, enjoying old favourites and eating other people's food. Last weekend was a festival of grains – a millet and pumpkin pilaf one night and a quinoa and shitake mushroom dish the next. Both are ridiculously easy grains to cook, very tasty and much more interesting than say, couscous – the little pasta balls that many people mistake for a wholegrain.

These grains are wholesome and healthy, the millet pilaf can be oil free if you wish making it another great detox food.

Here’s the simple millet recipe– from a Tony Chiodo wholefoods workshop I did a few years ago.

Millet, pumpkin and almond pilaf

1 cup hulled millet
1 1/2 cups water (I used vegetable stock, made from organic bouillon powder)
1 cup of pumpkin, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1/2 cup onion, diced finely
1/4 cup whole almonds (on reflection, they’d be better halved or even toasted flakes sprinkled on top when serving)
1/4 cup parsley, chopped finely
sea salt

Optional flavourings: olive oil, lemon and ginger juice.

Rinse the millet, drain and place into a pot with the water. Add the pumpkin cubes, onions, almonds (and salt if you haven’t used stock). Bring to a rolling boil, then place on a flame deflector (heat mat – so you can cook on low heat without thinking about it) for 25 minutes. I covered the pot while doing this so it steamed. Turn the heat off and allow to rest for 5 minutes before uncovering.

You can jazz it up with a dash of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon (or a little lemon zest would be nice) and some ginger juice (use one of those Japanese ceramic ginger graters which can be picked up cheaply from Asian grocery stores). Stir through with the parsley and serve.

This made a great side dish with a spicy chickpea creation the Significant Eater conjured up while I prepared the pilaf. Basically he sautéed onion, garlic, gingers and cumin, added a few vegetables, a can of chickpeas and a can of tomatoes. Then topped it up with a little vegetable stock to give it a bit more juice. He seasoned it with freshly crushed black pepper, quite a lot, that gave it heat and a delicious flavour. Both took under 3/4 of an hour to prepare and worked well together. A great piece of collaborative cooking!

Note on quantities: my notes say the pilaf serves 5, but as half of a meal the 2 of us polished off the whole lot. This recipe multiplies well so you will have no problems making larger quantities. Just remember like all grains millet swells up so use a large pot.

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Monday, October 09, 2006

Beyond rabbit food

I got a delightful email from a reader living in KL who is missing the vegetarian delights of Melbourne, which prompted me to go back to the most enduring vego restaurant in this city and count my blessings.

201-203 Faraday Street, Carlton, Melbourne
Ph: 03 9349 1754
Prices: entrée around $12, mains $17-18, dessert $9-10

I first went to this landmark Melbourne restaurant about 20 years ago, when it was hardly a new kid on the block, having at that point clocked up a decade of service to the vegetarian community. Down the road were other vego stalwarts like Lord Lentil and Vegetarian Adventure, which have sadly long since hit the dust.

Shakahari has survived and moved from Lygon Street to just around the corner in Faraday. The move swished up the décor a little, especially the sense of arrival in the plush red corridor. Despite this, there is still an odd feeling of austerity that clings to the place. Maybe it’s the unadorned planked wood tables, or the mustard coloured walls that are desperately in need of a makeover. I have only been told to quieten down or vacate a restaurant twice in my life - both in large groups at Shakahari (a venue that has always catered well for big table get togethers). It’s as if they want you to be a little more reverential and have a little less fun.

But that aside, the food is delicious. The vegan portion of the menu has greatly increased over the years and there is a good mix of old favourites (the satay and croquettes) as well as new tastes. There is attention to detail for flavour, using spices that I still can’t name and mouth feel. The servings are generally high on vegetables and low on stodge, unlike some other veggie establishments that rely on lots of rice and bread to fill you up.

Entrees are light and tasty, though not skimpy. The green mango salad was succulent in a sweet soy dressing that honoured the fruit. The old favourite (and ongoing reminder of the now defunct sister restaurant “Madam Fang”) tempura fried avocado rolls, are so delicious that I still order them though they contains capsicum, for which I do not have a fondness.

There is always a curry on the menu. It’s presentation has evolved from the more utilitarian compartmentalised metal tray, to a terracotta pot. Here the chef’s use of herbs and spices sets it apart from any other curry I’ve eaten. The flavour relies on a wide palate of flavours rather than searing heat. A generous serving of pickled vegetables with tender shavings of lemon grass and a small side of rice accompany the dish. If vegetarian protein is more in order, tofu and seitan are plentiful in the trademark satay skewers, or tempeh and fried tofu in a flavoursome laksa.

I am not usually a pasta fan, but with a seasonally changing menu it is worth keeping an eye out for inventive vegan options. I once had a ‘lasagne’ featuring the most delicate, citrus flavoured sheets of pasta – that still brings back many happy memories.

The serving sizes allow most people to eat 2 courses without feeling uncomfortably full. But it’s a dilemma to go savoury or sweet. Even with a modest menu, it is hard to choose. For me – a creamy vegan dessert is a rare treat and here I have to recommend the tofu caramel. This is a silky mound of tofu, richly flavoured by the caramelised pistachios and lashings of sweet syrup.

Other than the atmosphere, the only other small quibble about Shakahari is with vegetables being centre stage, they would have tasted even better if they had been organic. With such a delicate balance of flavours, not laden with heavy sauces, my organic acquainted palate can detect the difference - but it is still top end vegetarian eating, at a reasonable price.


Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The question everyone seems to be asking

I've noticed in the last week or 2 an increasing amount of searches for a review of Melbourne Fifteen, has bought people to the blog. Some have googled about the prices, other the menu but everyone wants to know - is it any good? The lack of substantial reviews in the mainstream media is puzzling. Apart from the plush opening, which has been reported, are they too waiting in a queue for the friendly call centre person to take their booking and can't get in til January? Have some snuck in a decided that they'd give the restaurant another go before writing their review? Or are they too busy working their way through the hundreds of other eateries in the CBD?

I'm finding the silence rather ominous. So has anyone eaten there yet and wants to spill the beans? Readers far beyond Melbourne and even Australia are very keen to find out.

Update: By now every blogger and her dog has linked to the Stephen Downes incident and others like Ed have been asking some interesting questions (keep checking him out because he's getting some very interesting answers too)

Over a week later I'm still getting numerous hits a day on the topic of 15. Oh, and I've been quoted on a forum discussing the show that launched the restaurant. So much hype around one little restaurant? Well no, you, me and everyone else is just being manipulated by the media, but when the show ends we are still left a little hungry.

Updating the update Finally some answers to the questions! Great review by Ukulele over at We Do Chew Our Food, while Ed has promised a bit of kiss-and-tell in his article about the Fifteen and the charity behind it, in The Bulletin tomorrow.

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Monday, October 02, 2006

Lunch in the sun

Cookie252 Swanston St, Melbourne.

The thing about Melbourne’s great City bars is they are either tiny little bolt holes in challenging to find laneways or huge spaces where noise has a habit of reverberating and multiplying. Most are known for their beers or cocktails. Few for their food. Cookie is in a straightforward location, with some clever private zones amidst its massive floor space and has a reputation for food as well as its 3 different, comprehensive alcohol menus (1 multipaged masterpiece for beer alone).

Having only experienced Cookie on a Friday night as it heated up with the after work/uni crowd, although the Thai inspired menu looked interesting it has either been the wrong end of the evening or so crowded your senses can be almost too overstimulated to contemplate eating.

When a friend suggested this be the perfect place for a long lunch, while the rest of Melbourne got excited over a football match - I was quick to agree. Weekend lunch at Cookie is not about DJ’s or atmosphere (of which the place has by the bucket load at night), the place was uncharacteristically quiet though the private dining “rooms” created by the row of Juliet balconies were of course already claimed. We were confident however that by the time our food arrived and the starting siren had blown they’d be a place for us out in the sun, overlooking Swanston Street, and that’s pretty much what happened.

The menu is divided into three sections offering small, medium and large plates. Just like clothing sizes for women, there is no guessing just how tiny or generous each serving size will be. Cookie tends to be on the roomy side, as small turned out to be quite a generous entrée and medium close to a regular serve. I’m glad we didn’t order any large dishes – as we would have had to have stayed all night as well as the afternoon to devour them. Though that wouldn’t have really been a problem, in our own little balcony world.

So the food. Sadly, there is no website to get the exact details from an online menu. I do remember a delicious Italian Pinot Grigio for Friuli. A crisp light white, perfect for lunch. Actually, I’d had this wine a number of times before and swear that despite it being so drinkable, even sizable amounts haven’t resulted in a hangover! To accompany the wine, conversation and glorious sunshine we ordered three dishes. One small but plentiful offering of shrimps (I’m sure they were described as prawns, but they weren’t by the general Australian definition) with some vegetable content, wrapped in a large rice noodle to create two rolls. They were served with a soy sauce. It was flavoursome but nothing to rave about. A medium dish of “fried fish” and green papaya salad was a little puzzling. The fish component was tasty but didn’t contain any visible chunks of fish – more a liquid matter that had been deep fried, to create this crispy, lacy layer underneath the pawpaw. The accompanying dressing was based on fish sauce, citrus and sugar. Strange but compellingly moreish. Lastly a simple dish of sweet potato and eggplant in coconut milk. Both went well with rice.

Cookie has many quirks – the plastic bowls to eat from, the bill presented in a Golden Book and waiters that ran both hot and cold. Overall the food was better than average bar food and a reasonable price – but I’m sure it tasted better eating it out on our private little patio.

Update March 2007: I've eaten at Cookie a number of times in the last 6 months and it grows on me more each time. Most nights the place buzzes and hums and the air traffic controller at the door says "Hm, well we can give you a table but only for an hour because we have a booking". But they can deliver with a subtle speed that doesn't make you feel rushed. Each time I explore a different section of the menu. The drunken prawns are worth a taste. The soft shell crabs with fish broth are great. The rice salad with pear and avocado - very odd, but kind of works. Definitely quirky.

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Sunday, October 01, 2006


Confessions of a Food Nazi has hit 100. Fancy that.

Most popular post: Gyoza - by far the most searched item. Though give it another year and the series I did recently on detoxing looks like they might rival it.

Runners up: The gluten-free spinach and fetta pie and cooking whole fish.

Most controversial: My musings on Fifteen Melbourne.

Most searched for review: On dining in Wellington, New Zealand.

Original recipe that I loved the most: I don't know about you, but my new found love of roasted cauliflower and the dip that I created from it is certainly up there for me.

So thank you for popping by. If you've enjoyed the confessions thus far tell me what has given you pleasure reading or would like more of.


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