Sunday, 24 April 2016

Transformer x 3

Spanning November and December, surprisingly I managed to go to Transformer no less than three times. My one experience of the Vegie Bar was a little underwhelming, probably because of bad ordering on my part (necessitated by eliminating all the more interesting dishes that wouldn’t be appropriate for takeaway), but I was hopeful that the spectacular experience of the management plus a more sophisticated menu would spell excellent food.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Visit one was for brunch with my mother. I can’t remember what she had, except it wasn’t vegan and so probably had eggs, but I had the savoury crumpets. I don’t think these were particularly crumpety - more like a hotcake - but they were superbly hearty. Topped with herbs, coconut yogurt, sweetcorn, heirloom tomatoes, avocado and some welcome crunch from red quinoa, these were so good that even the portion size didn’t defeat my enthusiasm.

Visit two (no photos) came on graduation day, accompanied by my mother, and aunt and uncle who had graciously come down from Sydney to share in the festivities. Slightly incongruously, we drank a bottle of Perrier Jouet 1996 vintage champagne, which had been saved up for 15 years, intended for various celebrations that turned out to be anticlimactic when they came. This time there was real cause for opening the bottle.

I had agonised slightly about where we would go for dinner, since I am the only vegan and was outnumbered by voracious omnivores. Fortunately the Transformer dinner menu is so good that we were all satisfied. Indeed, there were exclamations all round for some of the dishes.

From memory, we had:
  • organic popcorn (wicked)
  • padron peppers
  • roasted sweet potato, togarishi, coconut yogurt (we all agreed, this was exceptional)
  • heirloom carrots (goat’s curd on the side)
  • grilled king oyster mushrooms (consensus - even better than the sweet potato)
Visit three (again no photos) was a bigger family gathering with members from intra- and interstate, and international; diners were a mix of vegan (me), vegetarian, pescetarian and omnivore, with assorted food allergies. We went for the feed me option, and though I feel that as the GF vegan I had a slightly less sumptuous selection of dishes, everyone was very impressed with the food. Again, those sweet potatoes and the mushrooms were uniformly regarded as splendid.

So in summary. Transformer: a place you can take sophisticated omnivore guests for an excellent meal without any need to apologise for the food being vegetarian.

Monday, 4 April 2016

Cash for Comment

Fairfax, what has become of you? Granted I have been complaining about standards since 1997, and the partnership with HuffPo has resulted in a homepage wiggling with clickbait, so maybe I am expecting too much. Now the Good Food section is running advertorials. Even more irritating is that you have to get to the bottom of a rather long article to find this out.

Trying to compete with the monetised end of food blogging doesn't impress.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

February - The Glass Den

On Saturdays when lassitude and embarrassment don’t completely overcome me, I go to adult beginners’ ballet classes. Or at least, I did so intermittently last year before taking a few months off. The classes, slightly mortifyingly, don’t seem to be attended by beginners as I see them, rather, women who have done quite a bit of ballet in their past and are now keeping it up in adulthood. Whereas I have not danced, and am very much proving that not only can you not teach an old dog new tricks, you can’t teach grace to a person who has had a lifetime of clumsiness programmed into their cerebellum.

There are also two consequences of ballet that I didn’t really anticipate. One, is that it is mentally very taxing. I have a hard enough time getting my feet in the right place, let alone arms, posture, head, core, and trying to look graceful. The first class left me as drained as when I sat the GAMSAT. The other consequence is physical - I am not really aware of getting a work out, per se, when doing the class but the following day I am acutely conscious of muscles I didn’t really know I had.

This being the case, I feel that brunching is a very reasonable way of following a class. Since the school has moved from Brunswick to purpose-build studios in Coburg, this gave me an excuse to try out The Glass Den, a cafe in the old Pentridge Prison redevelopment that apparently caters well for those with awkward dietary requirements.

The cafe occupies one of the old bluestone gatehouses, renovated and with a pleasant covered area out the back which would, I imagine, be rather nice in the evening. The menu offered various temptations, including black sticky rice pudding, and some rather spectacular-sounding vegan, gluten-free pancakes. Were I not still persistently “off” sweet food, I would’ve been very tempted by the latter, as it’s unusual to get pancakes that are vegan and gluten free.

I prevaricated over the menu, seeing elements of different dishes that interested me but accompanied by others that were less interesting. I asked if I could build something out of the “sides” selection, only to be told that sides had to be ordered with the eggs-and-toast option.

Why so prescriptive? One, I was going to have several sides, equivalent in cost (to me) to one of their complete menu items. Two, it is, in fact, my lunch and if I am to eat it perhaps it should be at least slightly to my liking? Three, isn’t the whole point of the hospitality/customer service industry to serve the customer?

In general, I found the staff disengaged at best. I realise that working in a cafe might not appeal to everyone, but at least pretend that you don’t loathe or resent the customers. I repeatedly had to walk over and get more water for the table because no one was keeping an eye on this. It’s not as though the cafe was very busy.

I was semi-prepared to order the avocado dish but was quickly advised that it was now $20, on account of avocados having gone up in price. (Note, I don’t see why said cost of fruit should be equivalent to $4; and while I’m at it, paying for avocado at a cafe is a massive rip-off given the total lack of preparation and labour required to slice it and put it on a plate. This is why I usually don’t order the avocado thing.)

I turned to plan B. The confit pumpkin with beetroot relish toasted sandwich. It looked a bit small and sad, and the bread was absolutely not toasted enough (the beetroot made it unpalatably soggy - a huge crime against sandwiches) but it was pleasant. I did have the feeling that it was missing something from the filling, though, and the rocket didn’t add much. 

The plate was excellent, though.

My mother had the brioche bun burger thing, which was more like a large steak, with some spectacular piping hot chips. One of the disappointing thing with chips is that they are often rather tepid and lacking in bite, so she was impressed with these.

It was too late in the afternoon for me to risk coffee, so we paid and left.

The Glass Den should have a lot going for it, particularly with all the vegan and gluten free options, but I felt a bit let down today.

ETA: Since drafting this I have seen Johanna’s extensive review, including her account of having ordered the same vegetable sandwich that I had. I was pretty miffed to see that mine was a sad and diminished version. I don’t think this was just because I had asked for gluten-free bread.

Incidentally, cafes of Melbourne, if you are going to put a significant mark-up on GF bread at least make it decent. There are good options out there. Moreover, not substantially more expensive than a decent gluten bread - certainly not enough to justify the additional dollars. How I miss the Mule cafe in Brunswick that charged $4.50 (the normal rate!) for a very generous helping of Black Ruby's seeded toast.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

January brunching - Smith & Daughters

What better way to see in the New Year than to meet up with friends for brunch at Smith & Daughters. It had been over a year since my first and last visit, and a slightly tweaked menu had been introduced.

I was unsurprisingly flummoxed by the tyranny of choice, which is probably the only down-side of eating at a vegan restaurant. This necessitates a certain amount of strategy - one, don’t order what other people are having if they will let you have a bite; two, don’t order what you could probably do yourself at home; three, maybe try something you wouldn’t normally eat. Sometimes these conflict with internal drives, like cravings or health considerations.

I have a long-standing desire to try the mushrooms, but thought it was a bit wintery for a bright, sunny day, and ended up opting for the corn-jalapeƱo hotcakes and coconut bacon, with the maple butter on the side. I thought this might be a sweet-salty-savoury combination but - to me at least - it was just very, very sweet. I tried a variety of the hot sauces on the table (none of which were hot enough for me - ! - though I appreciated the opportunity to try the Diemen's sauce I was considering buying) to no avail. 

The pancakes were enormous and in triplicate, largely very good (emphasis on large) but with a slight cornflour-y/baking powdery aftertaste which seems common with vegan GF pancakes. The maple butter was pretty excellent, but I’m glad I had it on the side. As for the coconut bacon, maybe I was just so overwhelmed but I couldn’t really detect anything smoky about it and it went pretty soggy with all the syrup. Nor could I discern the jalapenos, but then I am virtually desensitised to all but the most ludicrous of Scoville ratings.

I had to get one of my dining companions to eat the third pancake as I could not find room. It was an achievement to manage two, but I couldn’t bear to see the third go to waste.

For those who love pancakes, I’d certainly recommend these. For me it was probably a case of bad ordering, and I should’ve known better. Next time, and there will be a next time, those mushrooms!

I must also make sure I get myself to the Deli soon

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Christmas 2015

Christmas isn't really a thing for me or my immediate family. There was some observance when I was a child in the form of pagan decorations (tree, candles etc, largely influenced by my mother's formative years in Germany) but no interest in turkeys, bread sauce and brussels sprouts. 

Once I started cooking as an adolescent, I took some interest in making vast fruited cakes, lovingly fed with brandy for weeks and covered in homemade marzipan and royal icing; enormous loaves of stollen; fragrant fruity, boozy mince pies with orange-scented pastry. 

No longer doing a boring job, which forced me into cooking as a means of relaxation and a sense of feeling useful, complex cookery is somewhat less important to me. Hence my infrequent updates (though I have a small backlog of brunching).

Nonetheless, I felt I should do something a bit different this year, and so it was that I investigated the possibility of a vegan Christmas roast.

I thought of nut roasts, but I also wanted to have a go at doing a tofurkey. Unable to decide, I incorporated the bits I liked of the former into the stuffing for the latter.

And so we have this - salad, braised red cabbage with figs and raspberry vinegar, steamed snow peas and broccolini, roasted sweet potato, tofurkey with chestnut stuffing, gravy. 

Tofurkey as follows.

Put something heavy (I used a bottle of sparkling wine) on top of a 450g packet of firm tofu, or use whatever method you like to press it.

Put about 10g of dried porcini mushrooms in a bowl and cover with hot water; leave for 20 minutes.

Saute 200g sliced chestnut mushrooms; season. 

Put a tin of unsweetened chestnut puree into a food processor with fresh thyme, fresh rosemary, a tablespoon of yeast extract (I use Mighty Mite, loathing Kraft), pepper. Blitz. Add the cooked mushrooms and porcini. Pulse so that it is partly amalgamated but there are still mushroom bits. Add a tablespoon or so of ground linseed and mix well, then stir in 50g dried cranberries. 

Line a small (450g) loaf tin with baking paper.

Drain off the liquid from the pressed tofu. Crumble the tofu into a mixing bowl. You want it very well crumbled, i.e. like breadcrumbs. Add 2 tbs nutritional yeast, a tonne of dried herbs, salt and pepper. If you have Massel chicken stock powder, use that (I didn't). 

Use about 2/3rds of the tofu to line the bottom and sides of the loaf tin. Press it down firmly. Fill with the stuffing mixture. Use the rest of the tofu to cover the top. Bake until cooked. My mother's awful oven has to be set at 200˚C and required about an hour and a half before it was done, but a normal oven will probably be more efficient. 

Give it a few minutes to cool, then slice with a sharp, preferably serrated, knife. 

Firms up well in the fridge later. I am looking forward to leftovers. 

Note that this probably isn't conventional stuffing. I can't remember eating stuffing but I get the impression it is usually quite dry - I didn't use breadcrumbs or similar, so mine is more moussey. It is probably misleading to call my mixture stuffing in that sense, but it works nonetheless.

As an emergency I used Orgran gluten-free vegan gravy mix, which I would NOT recommend in future. Make something less weird and salty! 

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Feast of Merit

It's been a long time since proper brunch happened. The last few months have been hectic and exhausting, at least compared with the beginning of the year, with both revue rehearsals and shows coinciding with an unexpectedly time-consuming hospital rotation.

I had a break from veganism, and discovered that I don't like cheese and yogurt as much as I thought I did, and am more or less returning to a completely plant-based diet (though I am going to squeeze a trip to Messina soon so I can convince myself I don't really like gelato either).

Meanwhile, Spring is coming in fits and starts, and today was a glorious opportunity to break out the SPF50 for a bike ride south of the river to celebrate a friend's birthday.

The location was Feast of Merit, which I have had bookmarked in my "To Eat" folder since it opened, ticking both gastronomic and ethical boxes (profits go to YGAP).

The menu is middle east-inspired, which works so perfectly in Melbourne whatever the season and the dietary requirements of the diners. Indeed, I was torn between a sweetish, breakfasty thing or a more lunchy savoury thing - that is, muesli versus two of their salads (available for vegans today were the roast pumpkin and chickpea, and broccoli and hummus).

Having foregone muesli on previous occasions because it was too cold, I had to get my fix. The menu lists this as "Ginger, barberry and macadamia Yousli, spiced almond milk, seasonal fruit - Uncrystallised ginger, dry roasted macadamias, pistachios, organic puffed amaranth, toasted coconut flakes, barberries, organic currants, activated buckinis, raw buckwheat, raw cinnamon."

I was slightly put off by the thought of the ginger - I use it copiously in stir fries, and am addicted to the pickled stuff, but don't particularly like it in a sweeter context. And, when it came to eating it, I was mildly alarmed by its presence. Similarly, the spiced almond milk was initially quite overbearing. However, these elements were mitigated by the muesli itself, and I appreciated the macadamias and pistachios, as well as the poached fruit. (Reminding me that I have a bunch of rhubarb in my fridge that has yet to be dealt with.)

When I saw the salads that others in the group ordered, I had a pang of food envy, but I wasn't disappointed by my choice. A good effort, and good feelings all round.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Supermarkets and superficiality

There has been a very half-hearted attempt in Australia, following a half-hearted attempt in the UK and slightly less half-hearted in Europe, to embrace fruit and veg that don’t fit some weird Photoshopped Platonic ideal. Woolworths, which is otherwise open to criticism for their unimpressive and extortionate offerings, is pretending to be responsible by selling slightly knobbly tomatoes etc in “The Odd Bunch” packaging (the packaging is a big fail: too much plastic) for only slightly-inflated prices. Other groups are apparently trying to educate the public that just because it looks weird doesn’t mean it tastes funny (or vice versa).

Anyone who eats a reasonable amount of fresh food and hates the duopoly has probably cottoned on to shopping at greengrocers and markets, where the apples are far from round, the cucumbers bendy, and the carrots range from friendly to obscene.

I particularly like selecting the most unusual looking carrots from my preferred organic greengrocers, and I know I am not the only one. Personally, I will take whatever laughs I can get.

I also have no qualms about a mango with a spot or two, an aubergine with bruises (since they get cooked into tenderness anyway), or a bunch of kale with the odd yellowed leaf. In many cases, these things are either removable or can be cooked into oblivion. In the case of ripe fruit, I chop it up and keep it in the freezer, as an alternative to Hepatitis A berries in my smoothies.

Be confident.

One of my local organic shops sells random selections of slightly tired fruit and veg, with the invocation to "Embrace the Ugly". I am more than happy to do so as this is virtually the only way organic food is affordable on a student budget. Less depressingly, it also forces me to try different things and cook different foods, though I was too intimidated by the basket that had a couple of artichokes in it.

I think that it’s a pity that the variety and spontaneity of organic* shapes are so derided, be it our food, our trees being lopped to accommodate man-made structures, our animals being selectively bred for peculiar and unhealthy novel characteristics, et cetera.

It doesn't take a great leap of imagination to draw parallels with the pursuit of perfection in humans (career, status, appearance). We live in a ridiculous, superficial, easily-manipulated era.

*this time, not in the sense of an agricultural practice.