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.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Billy Kwong

August 19, 2014

I've managed to set up my current employment situation so that I get to make semi-regular trips to Sydney for a week at a time. I usually stay somewhere near the beach and haven't really stumbled across too many places worth blogging (let's just say that I eat a lot of cheap Thai food). But clearly I've been talking food with my colleagues, because on this trip one of them booked me in for a Tuesday night outing for something a bit fancy. Our original plan was Berta, but their special Tuesday night meal doesn't include a vegetarian option. Luckily, my friend had plenty of fall-back plans and we were able to snare a table at the one on the top of her list - Billy Kwong.

Billy Kwong is a stalwart of the Sydney scene - run by celebrity chef Kylie Kwong with a strong emphasis on local ingredients and sustainability, it's a regular presence in lists of 'must try' Sydney restaurants. It's a tiny and crowded space and has only recently started taking bookings after years of long queues for tables. We felt lucky to nab a booking on the day - rainy Tuesdays are probably the best time for impulsive trips to high demand restaurants.

The menu changes regularly, and the current iteration isn't its most vegetarian friendly - there weren't quite enough dishes available for us to order the $95 chef's banquet. The staff were lovely though, suggesting dishes and helping us come up with more than enough options to form an excellent meal. The style of the menu is fascinating, pioneering a kind of bush tucker Chinese food, whereby relatively standard Chinese dishes are tweaked with the addition of local ingredients. Most famously, Kwong advocates for the use of insects as a sustainable protein source, serving up cricket and prawn dumplings and fried rice with meal worms (for the record, my dining companions sampled the crickets and described them as just adding some crunch to the dumplings). Vegans do almost as well as vegetarians here - all the savoury dishes I had were vegan and the dessert would just need a sour cream substitute.

We split a couple of the veggie starters among the three of us. The saltbush cakes with house made chilli and soy sauce ($18) were a brilliant way to get started, with the slightly salty greens seasoning the crisply fried cakes and the chilli adding some bite. Note to self: next time, don't share these.

Next up was the vegetarian sung choi bao ($26) - big lettuce leaf cups to be stuffed with a black fungus, saltbush, organic vegetables, coriander and chilli sauce.

I'm sure there's a knack to making neat little parcels out of the lettuce leaves, but I wound up with chilli sauce and veggie pieces dribbling down my chin. Messiness aside, this was a dish bursting with freshness and flavour - the fungus got a bit lost, but this was all about big crispy bites of vegetables.

I got a whole main to myself - steamed silken tofu with ginger, shaved kombu, chilli, shiro shoyu and sesame oil ($26) and we split a $15 plate of the stir-fried native greens with ginger (my note-taking failed, but I think it included Warrigal greens and some more saltbush). The tofu was creamy and a tiny bit sweet, but otherwise fairly featureless, taking on the flavours of its accompaniments - a salty, umami flavour from the kombu, mild shoyu and a decent ginger kick (I must admit to not really noticing any chilli, but we were a few wines deep at this stage). It's a lovely dish, but probably one that's better shared - it all got a bit samey by the end. The gingery native greens provided a nice contrast, with some sharp flavours.

There's just the one dessert option - poached pears with hazelnut praline, home-made sour cream and crumbled dark chocolate ($15). We split this between the three of us - it was fresh and pleasant, but strangely unexciting given the fascinating dishes on the savoury menu.

In light of her Writers Festival appearance, Cindy and I have been talking a bit lately about what's distinctive about Australian fine dining, and Billy Kwong provides some answers. Kylie Kwong has taken excellent Chinese cookery and given it a really distinctive Australian twist. I was very impressed. It's not a cheap place to eat (e.g. a similar tofu dish at Rice Queen goes for $16), but the focus on sustainable and organic produce, the friendly and efficient service and the imaginative approach to food just about make it worth the money. Billy Kwong is doing something quite unique and is well worth a visit if you're looking for somewhere exciting to eat in Sydney.


A couple of veg-bloggers have visited Billy Kwong previously, and both Tales of a Vegan Food Fetishist and Not Another Mushroom Risotto were very impressed.

Billy Kwong
3/355 Crown St, Darlinghurst (although it's soon to move to Potts Point)
(02) 9332 3900

Accessibility: There's a flat entryway but a very tightly packed interior. It's full table service. We didn't visit the toilets.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Vegan soul in a bowl

August 10, 2014

Australia's experience of soul food has been pretty shallow, on the whole. A few years ago we might have been able to nominate fried chicken or collard greens as soul food staples, and now there's no end of Melbourne bars and restaurants serving up cornbread, mac'n'cheese, hush puppies and pork fat everything. But you'd be hard-pressed to learn much of this cuisine's roots, deeply entwined with African-American history. There's a context of slavery, African and Native American ingredients, home gardening, game meats and offal, and a spirit of sharing and making the best of what's on hand.

I was struck by this sense of generosity and family connection when we visited soul food restaurant Seasoned Vegan in New York back in June. Like the Seasoned Vegan team, Bryant Terry has been reinterpreting soul food for the contemporary vegan, though he tends to leave the mock meat and dairy aside and prioritise sustainable whole foods. (Here's a great article where he fondly recalls the home-grown produce and seasonal cooking traditions in his grandparents' neighbourhood.) I recently acquired a second-hand copy of his book Vegan Soul Kitchen and it's been fascinating to flip through some really unfamiliar recipes, drawing together spices and produce in ways that I haven't tried before.

We tried out three of these recipes for dinner on a Sunday night. This wasn't quite the ordeal it sounds - the preparation methods aren't too fussy, and we scheduled the oven and stove times well. The main protein was tofu, drizzled with a little oil, paprika and fresh rosemary before baking. I was impressed with the golden crust it developed but the spices just didn't carry; I'll have to try tinkering with the quantities here.

We had better success with the sweet potato puree - fluffy yet filling and very, very sweet. It played well with the chewier and more acidic lemon tahini-dressed chard and spinach. I reckon we'll be making these two recipes again - as a sweet-and-sour team, mixing and matching with other Vegan Soul Kitchen dishes, and perhaps even integrating them into our other cooking habits.

The sweetest potato puree
(from Bryant Terry's Vegan Soul Kitchen)

1.8kg sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks
4 tablespoons agave nectar (or less)
6 tablespoons coconut oil, melted
1/2 teaspoon salt
165mL can coconut milk

Preheat an oven to 200°C.

Place the sweet potato chunks in a very large bowl. Toss through the agave nectar, coconut oil and salt. Spread the potato chunks out over a large high-walled baking dish and roast them for 30-40 minutes, giving them a stir at 10 minute intervals. Let the potatoes rest for 10 minutes or so. Puree the sweet potatoes and coconut milk in a food processor until smooth, working in batches if necessary.

Lemon tahini-dressed greens
(slightly adapted from Bryant Terry's Vegan Soul Kitchen

large bunch of chard, sliced into bite-sized pieces with stems and leaves separated
large bunch of spinach, leaves sliced into bite-sized pieces with stems discarded

1/2 cup tahini
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup lemon juice
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

Whisk all the dressing ingredients together, by hand or in a food processor.

Set a large frypan over medium heat. Cook the chard stems for a couple of minutes, then add the chard leaves, and after a few further minutes the spinach leaves. Stir them often, cooking until everything is just wilted. Transfer the greens to a bowl (if there's water in the frypan, hold it back from the bowl). Pour in the dressing and toss it through the greens.