Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Thinking & Drinking
at the Melbourne Writers Festival

August 23-27, 2014

Michael and I threw ourselves whole-heartedly into the Melbourne Writers Festival these past 10 days, attending all sorts of sessions - dress memoirs, life anti-hacks, TV tapings and queer commentaries among them. I was especially drawn to the food-themed events, turning up at four of those alone.

On the first Saturday I listened to American food writer Ruth Reichl. She seemed completely at ease on stage, with a warm, playful and occasionally passionate manner. Reichl was motivated to develop a discerning taste at a very young age, as her mother was an untalented and occasionally dangerous cook. In spite of this setting, she grew to love rather than fear food and went on to strike a deal for her first cookbook at just 21 years of age. She's been writing about food for decades since, working at Gourmet magazine in its heyday of extensive recipe testing and 10 onsite cooks. Seeking anonymity in her restaurant reviewing, Reichl developed an elaborate range of disguises and characters (even impersonating her own mother!) and these ultimately led to her recent foray into fiction. A newcomer to her work, I was as enthralled with Ruth Reichl's life story as any of the more clued-up fangirls in the audience.

Just half an hour later I slipped into a session on Crowdsourced Criticism featuring Lorraine Elliott (aka Not Quite Nigella), Tresna Lee of Yelp, and freelance food writer Dani Valent. The obligatory initial discussion of defamation gave way to some more interesting reflections on the unique opportunities of social media (e.g. conversations that include business owners) and challenges of providing rigorous critique.

On Monday night it was my turn to step up, joining a panel on Australian Fine Dining with Ronnie Scott and Andrea Frost (pictured above). Estelle Tang was our friendly and funny moderator, teasing this blog's "fancy schmancy" tag one moment and rightfully schooling us all on fair working wages the next. Ronnie and Andrea were clever co-panelists and I did my best to keep up. While we all agreed that food can be art, I think the session proved that we have as much affection for everyday eating as the posh stuff - Andrea's book really cuts away the pomp around wine culture, and Ronnie confessed to eating Pizza Hut for lunch.

Two nights later I returned to the Duke for a session on Food Ethics. This time Leanne Clancey MCed a panel comprising farmer Tammi Jonas, Sustainable Table's Cassie Duncan and sustainable designer Ewan McEoin. They highlighted the Aussie demand for cheap food; McEoin astutely pointed out that if it's cheap for us to buy, the cost is probably borne elsewhere - by the environment, by the farmed animals and by our fellow humans on the supply chain. The panel also discussed solutions, from long-term overarching structures to everyday actions. Their ideal is to shorten the string of transactions between food grower and food eater and Jonas boldly challenged the audience to make a difference by immediately ceasing to eat chicken from suppliers they don't know personally.

It's been wonderful to hear from some of Victoria's more thoughtful eaters during the festival (plus a couple of out-of-town guests) - credit goes to festival director Lisa Dempster and especially the Thinking & Drinking convenor Yasmeen Richards for seeking out such diverse opinions and styles.

I received free entry into Ruth Reichl's Delicious, Crowdsourced Criticism and a number of other Melbourne Writers Festival events as a participating artist of the festival. I will likely be paid a fee for my contribution to the Australian Fine Dining panel. I paid full-price entry to the Food Ethics panel.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Radhey Kitchen & Chai Bar

August 27, 2014

Back in May I spotted an empty shopfront on Brunswick St promising "wholefoods-vegetarian-raw-organic-vegan-Hare Krishna"; by July it opened as Radhey Kitchen & Chai Bar, and Brian reported enjoying lunch there on Fitzroyalty. A couple of our friends have checked it out, too, and gave us tips on what they liked best. We had our chance to sneak in for a very early dinner last Wednesday night.

The menu follows a basic formula with the details varying from day to day. Entrees include soup and pastries at around $7 per serve, mains include a curry, a burger, pastas and bakes ($13.50), while the display cabinets show off a range of salads, sandwiches and sweets. Everything is vegetarian and the staff are very mindful of vegan and gluten-free diets, not to mention super-friendly - they'll gladly talk you through your options.

We tried out the tandoori tofu burger with chips ($13.50). Tofu slabs run a high risk of being chewy and bland, and when this arrived at our table I thought the bun looked burned around the edges too. I could not have been more wrong on all counts: the tofu was tender and spicy, with a soft gently toasted roll and plain but fresh salad fillings. The chips were good too, with two fine dipping sauces.

The vegan meatballs seemed to be a mix of TVP and vegetables with a comforting (possibly fried) crust; they were served with spaghetti and a thick dousing of sweet tomato sauce ($13.50), plus our choice of the fresh salads - I chewed my way through some creamy-dressed kale and crunchy carrots. These were both generous, home-style meals - presented simply but executed skillfully, and great value for money.

We didn't have the time or appetite for sweets, and I want to go back for their specialty chai and something from the dessert cabinet. Everything in it was vegan on the night of our visit, an unusual achievement even for a vegetarian cafe.

This section of Brunswick St is already overrun with veg*n eateries, yet Radhey Kitchen has something extra to offer - simple, comforting food that steers away from the mock meat and (for now, at least!) a quiet, personable atmosphere.

The only other blog post we can find about Radhey is the abovementioned one on Fitzroyalty.

Radhey Kitchen & Chai Bar
336 Brunswick St, Fitzroy
9077 8858

Accessibility: I think there's a half-step up on entry and a flat interior. Tables are quite densely packed with a clear wide corridor through the middle. We ordered and paid and a low-ish counter, where much of the food is on display and chalkboard menus are easy to read. We didn't visit the toilets.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Kale & coconut salad

 August 26, 2014

Our veggie box dictates a lot of our cooking these days, and with just half a bunch of kale to finish off before the new box arrived we went scouring our cookbooks for a solution. This salad from Heidi Swanson's book fit the bill nicely - it was easy enough for a work night dinner, didn't require any shopping and held out the promise of delicious toasted coconut.

I didn't do a great job on it - I'm still mastering our rice cooker, and the brown rice wound up being a bit undercooked, while my faffing about with it meant that the kale/coconut mix was slightly overcooked. It was a masterful display. Still, the recipe is pretty forgiving - the kale crisped up almost to kale chip texture, while the extra dressing helped to soften the rice out and the sweet, crispy coconut flakes made everything better. We served it up with maple-miso tofu (another recipe that I messed up but got away with anyway).

Kale and coconut salad
(very slightly adapted from Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Every Day)

80mL olive oil
1-2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons soy sauce
100g of kale
85g flaked coconut
250g cooked brown rice (the original recipe uses farro, any grain will do)

Preheat the oven to 180°C.

Cut the stems off the kale, remove the biggest stalky ribs and then roughly chop the leaves.

Combine the olive oil, soy sauce and sesame oil in a small jar and shake well to combine.

Combine the kale and the coconut flakes in a large bowl with 3/4 of the dressing and stir well to coat.

Spread the kale and coconut mix in a large baking tray (or two if you need 'em) and bake for about 15 minutes, until the coconut is golden brown - keep an eye on it every 5 minutes or so and stir things around a bit.

Put the kale and coconut mix, the rice and the last drizzle of the dressing into a bowl and toss well.

Serve as a side dish for four (we paired it with maple-miso tofu) or a main for two.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Potato & almond koftas

August 24, 2014

I'm mighty fond of koftas, and I tend to eat them out at Indian restaurants far more often than I make them at home. (Nevertheless, I do have fried paneer and baked spinach versions in the archives.) Something had me overcoming my usual "Woe, the effort! Ugh, the frying!" kofta-cooking reluctance on Sunday, and I gave an Ottolenghi version a shot.

Yotam Ottolenghi's recipe centres around potatoes and feta with lots of green herbs, plus a crust of flaked almonds and freshly-ground spices. It's neither vegan nor gluten-free, but I found it pretty easy to convert both ways. Firm tofu has just the texture to replace feta, and I added some extra salt and a squeeze of lemon juice to boost the flavour. Chickpea flour behaves just as well as the wheat-based stuff, and a just-add-water powdered egg replacer sets the batter right (I bet a little cornflour and water would do the trick, too). I missed the dill Ottolenghi used, but it just wasn't practical to buy such a small quantity (note to self: plant dill.). I didn't need nearly as many almonds as he listed, and I've adjusted the quantity down in the recipe below.

For all my veganising, these have a hilariously eggy look - they're about the right size and have a crackly golden shell; inside they're a funny mottled mix of white potato and tofu with streaks of yellow turmeric and paprika. Michael sauteed a bunch of spinach with garlic, ginger and vege oyster sauce, which made an excellent accompaniment and kofta-nest.

Potato & almond koftas
(adapted from a recipe in Yotam Ottolenghi's Guardian column)

450g potatoes
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh chives, chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
1 green chilli, finely diced
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
generous squeeze of lemon
½ teaspoon caster sugar
75g firm tofu
1/3 cup chickpea flour
1 egg replacer, whisked
50g flaked almonds, chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons coriander seeds, crushed
3/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 1/2 tablespoons sesame seeds
vegetable oil, for frying

Preheat an oven to 220°C. Puncture the potatoes with a fork and place them on a baking tray. Bake them for about an hour. Allow them to cool enough to handle, then remove and discard their skins.

Place the potato flesh in a medium-sized bowl, drizzle over the olive oil, and mash them roughly so that a few lumps remain. Add the fresh herbs, chilli, spices and sugar. Crumble in the tofu and generously salt it all. Stir it all together to combine.

Place the chickpea flour in a bowl. Form the potato mixture into golf ball-sized koftas with your hands and roll them in the flour, lining them up on a plate or board. (I made seven koftas; Ottolenghi made eight.)

Whisk together the egg replacer in another small bowl. In a third small bowl, stir together the almonds and seeds. Roll each kofta in the 'egg' batter and then the nuts and seeds, pressing the nuts and seeds into the ball to form a crust; return the kofta to the plate/board.

Pour the vegetable oil into a small-medium saucepan until it is ~2cm deep. Bring the oil up to high-medium heat and fry the koftas, two or three at a time. I fried mine for 30-60 seconds on each of three 'sides', so that they looked golden all over, then transferred them to absorbent paper while I continued with the rest. Serve.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Ren Dao II

August 22, 2014

We've been making a good go of the Melbourne Writers Festival, starting out with a Book Club taping over in Elsternwick. It was a lot of fun, and a great excuse to revisit Ren Dao for a late dinner. They agreed to serve us after 9pm on a weeknight without a hint of annoyance, and a few more Book Clubbers trickled in after us to make it worth their while.

We did our best to be decisive, in spite of the seventy (!) items on offer, and our food was served in good time. The Assam Pedas ($23.90) was a little sour and a little spicy, with plenty of zucchini, carrot, capsicum and celery adding variety to some slightly homogeneous mock fish strips... and a canned pineapple ring on top. While we gladly polished off the lot, it didn't have quite the panache of their Kung Po Chicken.

Roti ($4) arrived too hot to handle and thicker around the edges than we prefer, but it was great for mopping up the Assam Pedas sauce.

The night's victor was the Hainanese Roasted Chicken Rice ($12.80). Michael was utterly enamoured of the thin and crispy bean curd skin 'chicken' strips, and the back-of-the-tongue heat of the chilli sauce took us both by surprise. The rice mound had a nice whiff of galangal about it, too.

While we finished up and paid the bill, our waiter shyly recommended a few of her favourites for next time (watch out, roast duck and coconut butter chicken!). It was a nice gesture that reflects the understated, welcoming atmosphere of Ren Dao and it had us looking forward to a future visit before we'd even finished this one.


Our first visit to Ren Dao is blogged here. It turned up on Veganise This! soon after but doesn't seem to have scored any recent blog attention.

Ren Dao
275 Glenhuntly Rd, Elsternwick
9523 0150
menu: one, two

Accessibility: The restaurant's entry is quite flat and wide, tables inside are moderately spaced. We received full table service. The toilets are unisex but located up a narrow, bending staircase.