Monday, 27 September 2010

dainty sichuan, south yarra: feisty flavours

My friend Sharon is a vegetarian, and Dainty Sichuan is where we always go with a few friends when she is back in Melbourne for a visit. No need to worry about bland or boring vegetarian dishes at Dainty Sichuan: the flavours here are bold and eager to make an impact.

We have accumulated a list of favourites over time, and we had the usual suspects on Friday. First up, stir-fried tea tree mushrooms. The mushrooms are tender, and the garlic shoots provide a nice crunch.

stir-fried tea tree mushrooms
Next, fish-flavoured eggplant. Despite the name, this is actually a vegetarian dish - the eggplants are flavoured with seasonings that were traditionally used to cook fish. These saucy deep-fried eggplants are almost liquefied inside, and utterly delicious.

fish-flavoured eggplant
The spicy tofu threads is a cold dish, and it's a good one that spurs on the appetite for more rice.

spicy tofu threads
And of course, the mapo tofu. This normally has pork in it, so we asked for it without. There's a lot of zing in this one, thanks to the abundance of Sichuan pepper, and the tofu is silky soft. 

mapo tofu
The garlic cucumber offers a cool respite from the heat, while still giving an unabashed kick to the tastebuds. 

garlic cucumber
Dainty Sichuan can be an engagingly spicy affair, depending on what is ordered, but for those who shy away from heat, the mild dishes are enjoyable too. If I do have one gripe it would be that the use of oil can sometimes appear quite liberal - but I don't come here often enough for that to pose a health hazard, so that's alright!

Dainty Sichuan on Urbanspoon

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Friday, 24 September 2010

pão de queijo: brazilian cheese bread

pao de queijo
I have mentioned before that I have a fondness for South American stuff, and it's because I train capoeira, which is a Brazilian martial art. I have wanted to make something Brazilian for a few months now and finally stopped procrastinating recently with a venture into pão de queijo, a Brazilian cheese bread, simply because it seemed like it would be pretty easy. So I made some last week, using a recipe I found online and halving it, but it wasn't quite as easy as I thought - even though I followed the recipe, the mixture was too fluid and impossible to knead - I ended up pouring them into moulds to bake. The feedback was still great, but I wanted to see if I could do it better a second time.

I gave it another go this week with some adaptations based on my first try, and with the benefit of experience, it was a success! The first time I made it, I added tapioca starch to the liquid mixture. This time, I did it the other way round and gradually poured the liquid into the tapioca starch (this tip is thanks to the recipe from a book called Street Cafe Brazil by Michael Bateman), and stopped once I got the texture I wanted. As always, the recipe is just a guide. Feel free to individually adjust the amounts of each item during the process to achieve a dough you can work with. My end result was soft, but still workable.

my little golf-ball-sized creations: pao de queijo in the oven

1/2 cup water
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup oil (I used rice bran oil)
1/2 teaspoon salt
225g / 1/2lb tapioca starch (also known as manioc starch, cassava starch etc)
1 egg
100g / 1/4lb finely grated parmesan (or similar) cheese

- In a saucepan, combine milk, water, oil, salt and bring to boil.
- Remove pan from heat and slowly pour the liquid on to the tapioca in a bowl while stirring it with a wooden spoon to a dough texture. (You may not need all the liquid mixture - stop pouring if the dough starts to become too soft and moist.)
- Stir in the egg, and lastly, the cheese.
- Grease hands, knead and make approximately a dozen little balls - mine were about the size of golf balls or a bit larger. (I had to shape rather than roll mine because my mix, while not liquid, was still quite mushy - and as you can see they're more like little lumps. They did end up puffing up nicely in the oven though!)
- Arrange on a greased baking tray, leaving enough space between each ball for expanding. Bake in an oven that has been preheated at 200°C (392ºF) for 20 minutes or till they transform into golden puffs.
- Best served hot or warm.

fresh pao de queijo after i bit into it. the interior is sticky when it's still warm, and more bread-like after it cools down.

And there you have it. A nice little batch of pao de queijo with crispy crusts that concede gratifyingly into a warm, chewy softness as you sink your teeth into them. Mm-mmm!

Note: Not having had the ones from Brazil, I'm not sure if these are true to the original, but I'm really satisfied with this batch and Simon loved them, eating about five in quick succession. So I'm putting this down as a triumph!

Update: My capoeira instructor, a Brazilian, has eaten my day-old pao de queijo and given me his high-five of approval. Yay!!

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Wednesday, 22 September 2010

anthony's schnitzels: a visual guide

the cooked schnitzels, served with a salad

Simon's housemate, Anthony, is a professional magician. He's also quite the whiz in the kitchen. So I like to say that he's a magician in the kitchen. Ah, what would I do without bad puns. Anyway, on a fine afternoon he told me he was about to make schnitzels from scratch, and if I would like to have a look at how he does it, so of course I seized the opportunity to watch and learn. 

When I get there, he's already got the kitchen bench all decked out with the ingredients:

- six pieces of chicken
- couple of eggs
- dash of red wine
- handful of parsley, chopped
- cup of breadcrumbs
- couple tablespoonfuls of finely grated parmesan

In a bowl he has a liquid mixture made from lightly beaten eggs, with a dash of red wine added. Now you can use your meat of choice, and on this occasion Anthony is using chicken. So the chicken pieces go in, followed by some chopped up parsley. We leave them there for awhile.

chicken and parsley in a liquid mixture consisting of eggs and red wine
In the meantime, breadcrumbs go into another bowl to create the dry mixture, along with some finely grated parmesan and a little of the leftover parsley.

the dry mixture for coating: breadcrumbs, finely grated parmesan and more parsley
The chicken is then retrieved from the liquid mixture and goes into the dry mixture. Turn them lightly so that the dry mixture adheres evenly to the surface of the chicken on all sides.

gently coat chicken pieces in dry mixture by turning them
And that's it! The schnitzels are now ready to be grilled, pan-fried, or baked. They can also be stored in the fridge or freezer to be used later as desired.

schnitzels, ready to cook or keep
These were cooked later that evening, but unfortunately I missed out on tasting them as I had other dinner plans. By all accounts, however, the schnitzels were scrumptious, and now I know how to make them myself!

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Saturday, 18 September 2010

cruzao arepa bar, fitzroy: venezuelan charm

cruzao arepa bar

The first time I went to Cruzao Arepa Bar for their Venezuelan-style arepa (corn bread) offerings was in early August, when it was a young business of only a few days old. I had the chorizo arepa while Simon had the slow cooked black beans and feta cheese. Both were cooked to perfection; the corn bread had a lovely texture and the fillings were tasty. (Note: It made a good snack or a light meal, but someone a little hungrier will probably want to supplement their arepa with other items from the menu.) I also tried papelón con limón, a sugar cane drink which is different to the Southeast Asian version I'm used to, but nice and refreshing in its own way.

The second time I popped by for a takeaway by myself, and opted for the roast pork leg in garlic and red wine. I was kindly treated to more papelón con limón and complimentary tequeños (crispy cheese sticks) while I waited. The tequeños, oozing with warm cheesy goodness, tasted, to me, like a savoury version of churros, and were very good. I also noticed they now had $12 weekday lunch specials which consisted of soup, arepa and dessert, and vowed to return for that.

So here I am again with Simon, and this time I have a camera and a blog. (Insert evil laughter of choice.) Unfortunately, they had now swapped the dessert in the lunch special for a coffee or tea, darn it! I was too late, but the new deal is still pretty good.

We start off with the cruzao, which is a meat and vegetable soup. It is served with coriander to add as you wish, and a piece of a corn on a stick. It's a comforting soup that reminds me of something that would have been simmering away at the stove for an hour at home.


I had the shredded chicken and avocado arepa this time.

arepa - shredded chicken and avocado with mayonnaise

Simon liked the black bean and feta arepa last time and he's sticking to it. I can understand why. We both rate this and the chorizo one our favourite arepas so far.

arepa - slow cooked black beans with feta cheese
Service here moves at a relaxed pace; the food is simple and down-to-earth. I may have a bias as I have a fondness for South American culture, but I like Cruzao Arepa Bar. Next time, I'll be trying their desserts!

Update: Have been back a couple times since - still haven't gotten around to their desserts! But the Fresca salad and the llanera arepa are my new loves.

Cruzao Arepa Bar on Urbanspoon

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Wednesday, 15 September 2010

oka yams... love at first bite

I was at Prahran Market last Saturday when some oddly-shaped, brightly coloured curiosities caught my eye at the M J Mow Gourmet Potatoes stall. 

NZ oka yams

I thought they were some unusual variety of ginger at first. Then I read the sign - they were oka yams from New Zealand (also spelt oca yams). There were also printouts of a recipe for those who wanted ideas on making a meal with them. I had a chat with the stallholder, Michael, and he gave me more tips on how to cook these oka yams. He described the flavour as nutty, and said that if I didn't have an oven as required in the recipe printout, I could slice them up and sauté them, which was good to know as I only have access to a working oven on certain nights.

They were $15/kg and I bought 200 grams to try. After mulling over it for a couple of days, I decided to cook them with the oven method, and came up with a recipe that took some ideas from the printout while also incorporating some personal preferences.

some of the washed ingredients, ready to prepare for baking

This is what I ended up using, and it makes just one serving...

- 200g NZ oka yams, ends trimmed
- 1 large banana chilli pepper, chopped (or any pepper)
- 1 tangelo (oranges, mandarins etc will do too)
- 1 large clove elephant garlic, chopped (or regular garlic)
- 1 handful celery leaves, chopped (you can use your favourite herbs as well)
- 1 knob butter
- 1 dollop Greek yoghurt
- 1 heaping tablespoon almond flakes, toasted
- salt and pepper to taste

As you can probably tell by now, I am pretty liberal/flexible about ingredients and measurements, so just take the above as a loose guide, and feel free to substitute the ingredients with similar items. I do recommend you at least double the recipe if you make it, and especially if you're sharing with someone, as I was lamenting that I didn't have enough after the first bite.

First, I threw the yams, chilli, garlic and half the celery leaves into a baking dish, then coated them all thoroughly with butter. Then I cut up the tangelo and squeezed the juice over all the ingredients in the baking dish, reserving one generous wedge for more drizzling later. Now it's ready to go into the oven for about 20 minutes. In the meantime, you can toast the almond flakes either in a pan or in the oven until fragrant and golden brown.

oka yams and friends ready to go into the oven

After 20 minutes, I took the baking dish out of the oven and the yams were soft and perfect, so I season them with salt, pepper, the juice of the remaining tangelo wedge, yoghurt, the remaining celery leaves, and the toasted almond flakes.

oka yams ready to serve

Mix it all up, and dig in...

oka yams ready to eat

I really liked this, and I'm already thinking about buying ocas again. They had a nutty flavour as was mentioned, and they were really tasty. I think I did them justice with my dish, too, if I do say so myself. After some of my recent cooking attempts, which could've gone better, I feel some pride and joy again.

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Monday, 13 September 2010

mao's, fitzroy: chinese with style

With the warm hues, the wooden decor, the teapot collection and the coquettish French music playing languidly in the background, Mao's just exudes old-fashioned charm with a modern touch. I don't go to Mao's as often as I do other places in Fitzroy, but only because it's slightly more upmarket than my usual haunts so it's relegated to the occasional treat. Not that they're that expensive, I consider their prices mid-range. A shared meal with friends here, not including drinks, usually comes to around $20 or so. I also consider their food pretty darn delicious. I grew up eating a fair amount of Chinese food and I can tell you, this is good Chinese food right here.

mao's interior

On Sunday, I went with the usual suspects, Simon and Kelvin. This is Kelvin's first time at Mao's, so Simon and I took charge of the ordering.

The spicy calamari is a favourite entree of ours. Crispy on the outside, succulent on the inside. Then there's the vinegary dressing at the bottom of the bowl, which we happily mop up with the salad leaves for a cool end to a hot dish.

spicy calamari

We also always seem to find our way to the Hunan style pork. I have loudly declared my love for fatty pork on this blog time and time again, because it is truly luscious when done well, and it is done extremely well here indeed. Just look at it!

hunan style pork

The waitress mentioned an off-the-menu steamed wild barramundi special, so we decided to try it. This was nice enough, though we noted that it doesn't quite have that disintegrate-in-your-mouth silkiness that you can get with some really excellent steamed fish. Still, no significant complaints.

steamed wild barramundi, an off-the-menu special

At this point, after having shared one entree, two mains and five little bowls of rice amongst the three of us, we decided to have a look at the dessert menu, but nothing really caught our eye, so thus ended another lovely dinner at Mao's.

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Sunday, 12 September 2010

random food encounters: a stranger's cupcake

You know what they say: don't accept food from strangers. Stranger danger, and all that.

Well, I did. I got on the tram this weekend and the girl on the seat facing me asks, "excuse me, would you like this cupcake? They gave it to me at the cafe, but I have allergies so I can't have it."

She seemed nice. She had a pretty face, sweet auburn hair and glasses, and I had also been admiring her sense of fashion prior to the cupcake offer. Not that any of those are necessarily good indicators of whether or not to accept a cupcake from a stranger. Anyway, I said, "oh okay, thanks!", and accepted the cupcake.

I held the cupcake in my hand for awhile, contemplating its potential hazards. Unfortunately, a cupcake with sticky icing isn't really the sort of thing I can just surreptitiously stash in my bag and dispose of later. I thought what the hell... I'll eat it. She had a hot takeaway drink in her hand, with the words "Cocoa Patisserie" printed on it. It does sound like the kind of place where you could get cute little cupcakes. And really, how many crazed serial killers are out there hopping on trams and offering poisoned cupcakes to random commuters?

I had a couple of bites before I thought hey! This would make a good story, I need to take a picture of this. So there you go.

cupcake from Cocoa Patisserie, courtesy of a stranger on the tram

I thanked her for the cupcake again after I finished eating it, and she said that before I got on the tram, she had tried offering it to a few people, and none of them accepted it. So I guess I was the only sucker.

By the way, the cupcake was quite nice, and I'm still alive. Lucky me! :D
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Saturday, 11 September 2010

soy milk + blackstrap molasses: a healthy two-ingredient sorbet

This weekend, I thought I'd celebrate minimalism with a simple sorbet. I remember a friend offered me a few things from her pantry last year when she was moving house, and one of the things I took was a jar of organic blackstrap molasses. Ever since then, I have enjoyed blackstrap molasses with soy milk - this is not only delicious but also apparently advocated as a great natural health remedy. I had a feeling the concoction would be just as awesome in a frozen form, so here we are!

a healthy organic vegan sorbet of soy milk & blackstrap molasses

Ingredients (serves 2):
400ml organic soy milk
approx.1 tablespoon organic blackstrap molasses (adjust according to taste)

The first step is easy. Mix the blackstrap molasses into the soy milk until thoroughly dissolved. As blackstrap molasses are highly viscous, you might want to ease the process by dissolving the blackstrap molasses in just a little hot water (not too much) before adding it into the soy milk. Also, if you are not familiar with blackstrap molasses, add a little at a time until the taste is to your liking.

Then, pour it into an ice cream maker if you have one. As I don't have one, I did it the old-fashioned way by pouring it into a container, and then breaking up and blending the ice crystals every hour or so with the help of a spoon.

The sorbet was just as scrumptious as I thought it would be - the blackstrap molasses imparted a rich, distinctive taste, balanced by the gentleness of the soy milk. It did turn out a little icy - I would probably describe it as the love child of a sorbet and a granita - but I think that can be improved with more practice and experimentation, and I definitely recommend experimenting with the wonderful combination that is soy milk and blackstrap molasses!

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Friday, 10 September 2010

yong green food, fitzroy: vegetarian and beyond

Yong Green Food is another place I frequent with Simon. A cozy little vegetarian place with a generous selection of vegan, raw, organic and gluten-free options in the menu, it successfully caters to a niche market while also satisfying those like us whose lifestyles don't revolve around any specific dietary requirements, but are nonetheless appreciative of honest, healthy food anywhere we can get it.

We both decided to choose something that we had never ordered before, and Simon went for the vegan Japanese curry. This is mild and delicate, prompting him to say that it could've packed a stronger flavour, but I personally quite liked the subtlety.

japanese curry

I had the rawsagne, which is raw, organic, vegan and gluten-free. As I bite into the crisp zucchini, it gives way to the creamy cashew cheese, which harbours a pleasing crunch beneath its soft and yielding first impressions. Mushrooms, onions and marinara complete the picture. I don't know if this is something that will appeal to the masses, but I found it interesting in a nice way. In fact, Simon took a fancy to this one and was hovering like a vulture towards the end, waiting to scavenge any leftovers. Yes, I did leave him a scrap.


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Wednesday, 8 September 2010

palookaville, fitzroy: an eclectic mix

Perched on the north end of Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, Palookaville seems to be just the sort of place you visit when you want to be a little adventurous, without having to worry about the possibility of getting bad food. The regular menu has an eclectic selection of dishes with inspiration from various regions, and if you ever tire of those, there's always a special or two that might take your fancy. I've been a few times now, and am yet to discover a dish I dislike. Not to mention that at $12 a pop for most of the mains, you'd be hard pressed to find similar dishes elsewhere which are nearly as affordable.

So I went to Palookaville with Simon and Kelvin last night and again we all left satisfied.

Simon had the tried-and-tested twice cooked pork belly. All three of us have ordered this before and all gave it the thumbs up, so I didn't even bother asking how it was this time.

twice cooked pork belly

I wanted the Persian lamb shanks, but they didn't have it so I settled for the chicken saltimbocca. This I think is a new addition to the menu, as I had not seen it before. The verdict: I would still have preferred the lamb shanks, but it's difficult to fault this. Both the chicken and the polenta were rich and moist; the salad counterbalances with pleasant acidity.

chicken saltimbocca

Kelvin, intrigued by the spaghetti with crab featured on the specials menu, ordered it, declared it tasty, and said that it was something he would order again.

spaghetti with crab

I still haven't tried any of their desserts yet. I think that is definitely a mission to be embarked upon next time!

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Tuesday, 7 September 2010

vegan with a punch: spicy japchae

I've been buying all sorts of things at the Korean grocery lately, and one of my recent purchases is dangmyeon, a type of cellophane noodle made from sweet potato starch. I'm familiar with rice vermicelli and bean thread noodles, but dangmyeon is pretty foreign to me, so I thought it would be fun to give it a whirl.


As a shout out to my vegetarian friends, and after looking at various recipes for ideas, I decided to make a vegan dinner out of the dangmyeon, my version of the Korean japchae. After preparing the dangmyeon according to the packet instructions, I added kimchi, steamed silken tofu, fresh cucumber, soy sauce and sesame oil.

spicy vegan japchae

Toss, and it's ready to eat! The dangmyeon had a nice slippery texture with a bit of a bite - I think it has the potential to be pretty versatile and I will be using it in soups, salads and stir-fries.

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Sunday, 5 September 2010

viet rose, fitzroy - rice vermicelli with grilled sliced pork

Another lazy night with Simon, another takeaway. Viet Rose is one of those places where some of the dishes can be just so-so, but their rice vermicelli with grilled sliced pork is one of my trusty takeaway choices when I'm in the neighbourhood. Yes, some of the slices of pork may be a bit fatty, but that is part of the appeal. Let it be known, I'm not interested in fat-free meat. Together with the crunch of fresh vegetables and peanuts, the soft vermicelli and the tangy, savoury dressing that ties it all together, it's easy to see why I go back to this one again and again.

rice vermicelli with grilled slice pork
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Friday, 3 September 2010

a taste of the forest: chanterelles for breakfast

barn-laid eggs, ficelle and chanterelles

Today is my day off, and I have been lusting after the truffles at The Vegetable Connection for awhile now, so I decided to pay them a visit this morning for some truffle goodness. Unfortunately, when I got there, I was informed that they had all sold out. They did, however, still have some fresh wild chanterelle mushrooms from France, which at a whopping $120/kg don't come cheap, so I bought a modest 50 grams. On the way back, I popped by Babka for a ficelle, which is like a baguette but thinner.

As I had never used chanterelles before, I decided to keep it simple, so I made omelettes.

the finished product

50g chanterelles, sliced
4 eggs (I used eggs that were 50g each, so 200g total)
1 tablespoon pure cream
knob of butter
fresh slices of lemon
salt and pepper to taste

- whisk eggs and cream in a bowl, set aside.
- add butter and chanterelles to a pan, cook till chanterelles are slightly soft but still firm, set aside.
- add more butter to the pan, and start on the omelettes.

- omelette #1: I poured half the egg mixture into the pan, waited till it was nearly done, added half of the chanterelles, and folded.

- omelette #2: I poured the rest of the egg mixture into the pan, and while the mixture was still semi-fluid, I scattered the remaining chanterelles on top. After the chanterelles sank in a little and were secured into the body of the omelette, I flipped it over.

- add salt, pepper and lemon juice to taste
- serve with sliced ficelle

chanterelle omelette #1, resting on a plate

chanterelle omelette #2, perched on a fork

I  loved the chanterelles! They had a gorgeous earthy flavour, and the simplicity of the dish suited them very well. I was happy with both the omelettes, but for me, the first one was much better as the lovely taste of the buttered-up chanterelles was more distinct. And in the end, this luxurious breakfast ended up costing less than, say, if we'd gone for eggs benedict at a cafe - it did take a little more time and effort, but with ingredients this good, I say it's worth it.

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Thursday, 2 September 2010

spudbar, fitzroy - takeaway

After a long week at work, watching episodes of The Office while munching on a hearty, healthy spud dinner sounded like a great idea, so off to Spudbar we go. My partner in crime, Simon, swooped in on the Chicken & Chorizo while I went for the Moroccan Chicken.

Simon took the simple route with just a sprinkle of salt on his...

Chicken & Chorizo Spud

I, of course, could not resist my usual helpings of dried chilli, garlic and onions. 

Moroccan Chicken Spud

Halfway through eating mine I decided to take one more picture, just because I adore playing with my shiny new camera and posting the photographs to my shiny new blog. I still wanted to get back to my food quickly though, so I did not bother too much with lighting. The consequences of my hastiness appears to have imparted a rather romantic aura to my half-eaten spud. Behold my masterpiece, The Massacre of the Spud by Candlelight.

mmm, yummy.

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