Thursday, February 11, 2016

Las Chicas II

Cheap Eats 2006, a decade on 

February 7, 2016

We decided to broaden out our Cheap Eats 2006 project by heading south of the river for a return breakfast at Las Chicas, a place we'd last visited almost exactly nine years ago. It's managed to maintain a healthy buzz over the decade, meaning we were confronted with a queue for a table at 11:00 on a Sunday. When we were shuffled in after 10 or 15 minutes we were slotted into the back bench of the courtyard, overlooking one of the most picturesque carpark views in town.

The menu is massive and well-stocked with vego items. Vegans have seven dishes to choose from, including coconut sago ($14) and shitake mushrooms with marinated tofu and miso broth ($16). Prices must have gone up since 2007 - our old post has the most expensive vego brekkie at $12, while nowadays you can get a vegetarian big breakfast for $25.

Cindy ordered something similar to the dish I had way back in the day - the pumpkin, polenta and sunflower loaf with avocado, feta, pomegranate, fresh herbs and lemon ($17). The presentation is a bit fancier these days and the dish itself was an improvement on my old baked beans-based version - the loaf was lighter and not as dry, with the feta and avocado serving as delicious condiments. The salad was basically all basil, which was kind of overkill, but that was the only minor complaint that Cindy had.

She paired the meal with a banana and honey smoothie with milk and yoghurt ($8). The two feature flavours were prominent and very sweet.

I opted for one of the vegan meals - Vik's vegan wrap, an overstuffed wrap filled with broccoli, marinated tofu, mushrooms, onion and vegan mayo and drowning in avocado and a tomato salsa ($16).

There's nothing fancy about it, but this is a massive and hearty plate of fresh, tasty food. The vegan mayo was great - not the low-fat Praise option that we usually fall back on - and the mushrooms and tofu provided the rich savoury flavours to balance out the bright freshness of the broccoli and avocado.

We were pretty impressed with our return to Las Chicas - the coffee's good, the staff are friendly and they've really got their systems together. Despite the crowds of people queuing up for tables, service was brisk and the coffee and food turned up speedily. They've stuffed so many tables and chairs in though that it doesn't feel like a very relaxed setting - you can't really avoid the feeling that you're being rushed through so they can clear the decks and cram the next group in. Still, the food is great, and the menu is huge and varied - there are heaps of things I'd love to go back and try. We'll just try to make it at a quieter time of the week.

Read about our first visit to Las Chicas here. Since then it's reputation has remained strong, with positive write-ups on veg blogs Vegan Sparkles and Nouveau Potato plus loads of omni-bloggers: Eat and Be Merry, for Tomorrow We Die(t), Available All Day, Ichigo Shortcake, Fitzroyalty, The Very Very Hungry Caterpillar, Brunch Addict, Travelling in Mary Janes, msz knowitall, The Baroness of Melbourne, Yum Yum, Juganaut's Foodie Thoughts, KittyBaroque, Mr and Mrs Kong, The Melbourne Glutton, ps: I heart you, SouthSideBrunch, Painting Rachel Red, One Fat Cow, Melbourne Places, Tell Her She's Dreaming, Melbourne Din(n)ing Blog, A Food Trail, My Diet Starts Tomorrow and The World Loves Melbourne.

There are just a few people with less than rave reviews - see Howie's Melbourne Food Blog, The Epicurean of Southbank,Yellow Eggs, Juju's Gastronomy and two fat buns.

Las Chicas
203 Carlisle St, Balaclava
9531 3699
breakfast menu, lunch menu, drinks menu, specials

Accessibility: There is a flat entry, but the space is crowded with people and tables. There are a mix of regular tables and higher benches with stools. We ordered at our table and paid at a low counter.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Moroccan roasted carrot salad

February 7, 2016

Here's a big, bright salad that's been sitting among my to-make bookmarks for a couple of years. We've actually already got a Moroccan carrot salad in our archives; by comparison, this one streamlines the spice list and has a greater variety of vegetables. Their roasting is brief - the carrots retain a hint of crunch while the onions are soft. Chickpeas are just barely warmed through and lemon wedges collapse in your hand, spreading juice and vesicles across the salad.

Everything's warmly spiced with cinnamon and paprika, while slivered almonds and dates add extra texture and a bit of sweetness. The original recipe also includes a dressing of yoghurt swirled with pomegranate molasses, but we found that there was plenty of moisture and flavour without it.

This salad would make a nice light lunch on its own, with the chickpeas lending just enough substance to satisfy. We teamed it with a watermelon salad for a lovely early dinner, and had plenty left to pack for work.

Moroccan roasted carrot salad
(slightly adapted from a recipe on Delicious Everyday)

1 bunch small carrots
1 red onion
1 lemon
1 clove garlic
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cumin
salt, to taste
1/4 cup slivered almonds
400g can chickpeas
1/3 cup dates
1 cup baby spinach leaves
1 cup rocket

Preheat an oven to 180°C.

Wash the carrots and trim off the stalks. Slice each carrot lengthways into four or more sticks and place them in a baking tray. Peel the onion, slice it into eight chunks and add them to the baking tray. Slice a lemon lengthways into four wedges and add them to the baking tray. Mince the garlic and add it to the baking tray. Drizzle over the olive oil, then shake over the paprika, cinnamon, cumin and salt. Gently toss the veges around the distribute the oil and spices. Bake them for around 30 minutes - the carrots will still be quite firm, and the onions should be soft but retaining their shape.

While the veges are cooking, place the almonds in a separate small baking dish and toast them in the oven, around 20 minutes. Be sure to check them every 5 minutes just in case they need less time - they can burn quickly.

Drain the can of chickpeas. When the roasted vegetables are done, add the chickpeas to the drain and stir them to catch some of the spicy dressing. Let the vegetables cool down for around 10 minutes. Use this time to finely chop the dates.

To serve, spread the spinach leaves and rocket across a serving platter. Arrange the carrots, chickpeas and onions over the greens; sprinkle with almonds and dates and garnish with the lemon wedges.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Ray V

Cheap Eats 2006, a decade on

January 28, 2016

Our recent morning visit to Ray was handy for making comparisons to our earliest Ray breakfasts in 2007. But we were actually much more curious about the evening menu that the cafe has introduced of late, including a $30 per person vegan degustation on Thursdays. Just two days later we arranged to meet our mate Troy there and get a more extended show of their vegan cheffing skills.

Course 1 of 5 was a nice array of finger food - Tooluka olives in sherry vinegar with charred quinoa bread, and steamed edamame seasoned with a lively coriander salt and squeeze of lemon.

Course 2 really raised the stakes with molten cauliflower & miso 'cheese' croquettes, sitting atop piccalilli puree. A pretty salad of raw, pickled and fermented vegetables added piquancy and crunch, and included dabs of black tahini and hemp oil.

As our third course arrived, it was clear that Ray was willing to provide quantity as well as quality. A dish of crushed Kipfler potatoes was dressed with tarragon and a white wine vinaigrette and garnished with caper berries. I couldn't believe it was bettered by a risotto! This one was barley based, offering both bite and comforting brothiness, made green and fresh with peas, asparagus and watercress. The nooch on the side made it clear that this kitchen knows its vegan staples.

The course was made massive with these dense lentil kofta, served in a 'hummus' that reminded Troy of Indian butter chicken sauce, with dollops of macadamia cream and a sprinkling of duhka. This will be the dish that we'll always remember from the meal - hearty yet fancy, with gorgeous spices.

The fourth course was a lovely dial-down, a modest dish of watermelon cubes with a show-off garnish of pomegranate seeds, coconut 'cheese', microgreens and a tart raspberry dressing.

We finished up with chocolate - hooray! A rectangle of soy chocolate icecream sat with microgreens and a medley of crunchy and caramelly bits of biscuit, popcorn and smoked almond butter. The more formidable block of 'cheesecake' tasted equally of chocolate and banana, with just a hint of chilli.

While we've always known Ray to be a damn good cafe, this did not prepare us for the spectacular bargain offered by their Thursday night vegan degustation. The complexity and variety of these dishes rivals Transformer, yet at $30 a head it's half the price. Mock meat-free and vegetable-centred, it's generously portioned and very filling. (Of course, what's served will vary week to week with produce availability.) Whether you've got a special occasion to celebrate or you're just really very hungry, we urge you to find an excuse to visit Ray on your next available Thursday night.


332 Victoria St, Brunswick
9380 8593

Accessibility: There is a shallow and slightly narrow ramp on entry. Tables are quite densely packed, but there is a clear corridor through the cafe. We ordered at our table and paid at a low-ish counter. Toilets are unisex, fully accessible individual cubicles.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Meringue nests with green herb sorbet

January 24-26, 2016

I often like taking dessert to Ottolenghi club, and this month I had a special request from our host to make a recipe that had recently appeared in Ottolenghi's Guardian column. It's the kind of recipe that calls for an open mind as much as a sweet tooth, featuring a green sorbet of apple, celery, parsley, basil and tarragon. This herbal curiosity is supported by a more traditionally sweet base of meringue and crème fraîche.

The sorbet needs a really good blender to puree all that green produce, and I trialled and rejected our food processor and stick blender before finally blending the mixture in our spice grinder attachment in 3 small batches. (Thanks for washing up, Michael.) Even then I can recommend a thorough straining to really get this down to a velvetty, verdant scoop - imagine how off-putting it would be to find a stray celery string in your sweets. A hefty 300g of glucose syrup keeps the sorbet soft, sweet and scoopable.

Ottolenghi's recipe includes baking your own meringues, but I really couldn't be bothered. I just stacked up some supermarket ones with the crème fraîche, confident that this green sorbet would take all of the attention. It sure did! A small serve proved refreshing and unexpected, with just enough richness to satisfy.

Meringue nests with green herb sorbet
(adapted slightly from a Yotam Ottolenghi recipe on The Guardian)

300g glucose syrup
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup water
3 royal gala apples
3 long or 5 stubby celery stems
1/2 cup parsley
1/4 cup tarragon, plus extra for garnish
1/4 cup basil, plus extra for garnish
8 meringue nests
200g crème fraîche
2 teaspoons dill, to garnish

In a small-medium bowl, whisk together the glucose syrup, lemon juice and water. Pour it all into a large blender.

Peel, core and roughly chop the apples; blend them into the glucose mixture. Trim and roughly chop the celery stems; blend them into the glucose mixture. Roughly chop the parsley, tarragon and basil; blend them into the glucose mixture. Continue blending very thoroughly, until the sorbet mixture is as smooth as possible. Strain the sorbet mixture through a fine sieve, pressing through as much juice as possible and discarding the pulp. Churn the sorbet in an ice-cream maker and freezer in an airtight container for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.

When it's time to serve, place a meringue nest in a serving dish for each person. Spoon a tablespoon of creme fraiche into each nest. Gently place a scoop of the green sorbet atop each nest. Lightly scatter the dishes with tarragon, basil and dill leaves. Serve immediately.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Plenty More salads

January 26, 2016

Our semi-regular Ottolenghi potluck club had its first meeting for 2016 on the January 26 public holiday. With warm weather forecast and a whole day to prepare food, I decided to whip up a couple of salads from Plenty More as our savoury contribution to the spread (the full feast is on display over on our facebook page). My first choice was pumpkin with chilli yoghurt and coriander sauce (pictured above), at least partly because it was pitched as the simplest recipe in the whole book. Given I was turning the oven on to cook the pumpkin, I stuck to the 'roast' section of the book and added the roasted cauliflower, grape and cheddar salad as dish #2.

The pumpkin dish was indeed easy - you roast up some cinnamon-coated pumpkin wedges, whiz together a herby sauce and stir some Sriracha into yoghurt and you're done. The results belie the relative simplicity of the recipe - the sweetness of the pumpkin perfectly complements the tangy yoghurt and the slightly salty coriander sauce.

The cauliflower salad also proved to be relatively simple (I'm pretty amazed that each of these recipes just have one fresh herb and leave it at that). Again, the pay-off easily exceeds the effort put in - roasting cauliflower really brings out its sweet nuttiness while adding some slightly smoky hints (if you get the charring level right). The remaining ingredients - grapes, cheddar, hazelnuts, raisins and parsley - are just about a perfect combination of flavours and textures. 

Making these two recipes in one hit is a relatively efficient way to get stuck into Plenty More - all the miscellaneous prep can be done while the pumpkin and cauliflower are roasting, so the whole process should take less than 90 minutes. We've already remade the pumpkin dish once, and I reckon both of these will slip into our semi-regular Ottolenghi rotation.

Pumpkin with chilli yoghurt & coriander sauce
(very slightly adapted from a recipe in Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty More)

1 large butternut pumpkin
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
90ml olive oil
1 small bunch coriander
1 garlic clove, crushed
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds
200g Greek yoghurt
1-2 tablespoons Sriracha chilli sauce
salt and black pepper

Preheat the oven to 220°C.

Halve the pumpkin and scoop out the seeds. Cut the pumpkin into thin wedges (about 2cm thick and 10cm long). Leave the skin on. Put all the wedges in a bowl and mix through the ground cinnamon, 2 tablespoons of olive oil and a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper. Lay the pumpkin wedges out on a baking tray (or two) with the skin down. Bake for 35-40 minutes until the pumpkin is cooked through and starting to brown up.

Combine the coriander (leave a few leaves aside for garnishing), garlic, the remaining olive oil and another pinch of salt in a small food processor and blitz to a smooth paste. 

When you've got about 10 minutes left on the pumpkin roasting, pop the pumpkin seeds in on another tray to roast. Keep a close eye on them and pull them out when they've just started to blister and crisp up.

Swirl together the yoghurt and the chilli sauce.

Allow everything to cool a bit. Lay the wedges on a platter and drizzle over with the yoghurt sauce and the herb paste and then scatter the pumpkin seeds and reserved coriander leaves on top.

Roasted cauliflower, grape & cheddar salad
(very slightly adapted from a recipe in Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty More)

1 head of cauliflower, broken into bite-sized florets
90ml olive oil
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon maple syrup
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup hazelnuts, toasted and roughly crushed
100g crumbled cheddar cheese
100g red grapes, halved (and seeded if necessary)
1/2 bunch parsley, roughly chopped (about 3/4 cup)
salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 220°C.

Toss the cauliflower with half the oil and some salt and pepper. Spread them out on a baking tray and roast for 25 minutes, stirring a couple of times. You want them to come out golden brown. Set aside to cool.

Whisk together the rest of the oil, the mustard, the vinegar, syrup and some salt. Add the raisins to the dressing and let them marinate for 10 minutes or so.

When you're ready to serve things up put the cauliflower in a large mixing  bowl, along with the hazelnuts, cheese, grapes and parsley and then pour over the raisins and the dressing. Toss everything together gently and serve.