Ten Healthy Food Trends I Will Not Be Adopting

A new cafe, called Code Black, recently opened up in North Melbourne (sister to Code Black in Brunswick) and my partner and I naturally had to try out its brunch, multiple times. The brunch was good, not mind-blowing, but very tasty with a nice range of options. They even did a good chai latte and over cooked my eggs, as per my request.

Feeling confident with the menu after a couple of visits, I decided to branch out and have a smoothie with my breakfast. There were no flavours listed – just a daily special. Great, I thought, they must pick seasonal fruits for their smoothie, so maybe it will be a berry one, or even mango and banana (my favourite). Luckily I asked what the daily flavour was before ordering, because it turned out to be a goji berry and almond milk smoothie.

Sorry what? I mean, WTF? Does anyone actually want to drink a goji berry and almond milk smoothie?? Ever?

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Avocado, beetroot and seeds all in their proper place, not hiding in cakes.

Code Black is definitely not alone in their use of slightly oddly placed ‘super foods’ on their menu. Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of plenty of healthy foods. I have fully embraced kale, I am pro-quinoa, I am a paid up member of the organic-vegetables-of-Australia party. However, there are some healthy food trends I just can’t wrap my head, or my tongue, around. My top (or bottom) ten healthy food trends that cafes should just stop trying to sell me are:

1. Avocado as butter or cream: I very much enjoy avocado, but please don’t sneak it into my banana cake, or even worse, try to sell me something called ‘avocado cheesecake’. I may consider taking a claim to the ACCC for false advertising if you do.
2. ‘Surprise’ ingredients in smoothies: see above, I don’t take kindly to weird ingredients in my smoothies, especially in the mornings and doubly if they’re lumpy.
3. Spirulina powder: the super green colour is pretty awesome looking, sadly the taste does not reflect this. It tastes and smells like a combination of industrial waste, sunscreen and seaweed.
4. Goji berries: see above, these things taste like sweaty arse. Sorry, but they do. Don’t bother coating them in yoghurt or chocolate either, then it’s just sweaty-arse-flavour-covered-in-chocolate. While that actually potentially sounds very ‘in’ and Fifty Shades of Grey-esque, it’s really not worth the calories.
5. Chia seeds in drinks: nothing against chia, but once you put those little seeds in liquid they puff up and get slimy and it’s like drinking frog spawn. Not that I have had frog spawn recently, but you get the idea. Shudder.
6. Seaweed: fine at a Japanese restaurant for dinner, definitely not fine sprinkled all over my avocado and toast in the morning. Seriously.
7. Oat milk: this is the loser of the milk family, even rice milk refuses to play with oat milk in the school yard. And I’m calling it – enough with the new ‘milks’ please! You can’t just soak anything in water, sieve it and call it a ‘milk’. What is next? Reclaimed floorboard milk? Handpicked dandelion milk? Recycled plastic bag milk? Gahhhh!
8. Quorn: if you’re not vegetarian you might not know this one, but it’s basically a healthy meat substitute. It’s made from a micro fungus or something like that…which says it all really. Avoid.
9. Beetroot chocolate cake: I like beetroot. I definitely like chocolate. But I cannot get behind this one, I’ve tried it so many times and every time I just think ‘oh great, now my perfectly nice chocolate cake has a weird aftertaste of dirt.’
10. Green tea flavour: green tea is not delicious, it tastes like grass clippings. Why would you want to impose this grass flavour on perfectly nice things like cupcakes, KitKats and ice-cream? Wheatgrass also falls into this category (the ‘I actually taste like your lawn’ category). So no, I do not want a wheatgrass shot with that, thank you!

PS – should dandelion milk take off as a ‘thing’, you heard it here first. Or Fifty Shades themed goji-berry treats…that one could actually be a winner.

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Actually delicious ‘super’ foods: fresh fruit and berries.

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The gouda, the bad and the ugly: food puns

I love puns and I love food (obviously), so I rate food related puns pretty highly. The wine shop on Errol street often has cute puns on its blackboard outside the store. They had one up a few weeks ago that I’ve heard before but always love: ‘Sweet dreams are made of cheese, who am I to dis-a-brie?’ It’s both funny and true, since many of my sweetest food dreams are made of cheese (baked cheesecake, five cheese pizza and Vue de Monde’s famous cheese cart, I’m looking at you…) Cheese puns are actually my favourite sub-category of food puns. I mean, puns just tend to sound fetta when cheese is involved. People think I’m a bit of a quark anyway, so why not just go totally emmental with the cheese puns? But I should stop milking these terrible cheese puns and move on…

There’s also a roaring trade in Melbourne for restaurants with puns in their names. A couple of my favourite include the successful ‘Lord of the Fries’ chain and veggie heaven ‘Lentil As Anything’, plus there’s the new ‘Jimmy Grant’s’ which apparently is rhyming slang (not technically a pun) for ‘immigrants’. There’s a fairly new cafe at Southern Cross Station in Melbourne called ‘Hunger Game’, which is not a bad little use of the film title and no doubt gets a few smiles out of commuters in the morning, even if their pre-packages sandwiches and soggy croissants look about as appealing as eating spicy food during a severe bout of Bali Belly.

Jimmy Grant's menu board

Jimmy Grant’s menu board

Speaking of Bali…that’s where I’ve been for the past week! Indonesia is technically north of Melbourne, so I feel that a little bragging about my lovely resort holiday on this blog is allowed. And there is a legitimate tie-in to my blog about puns (or should I say Thai-in? No, that just sounds a bit racist and geographically challenged doesn’t it?). Anyway, while on holiday in Bail I spotted a takeaway chicken shop called ‘Chicken Run’, replete with intellectual-property-infringing giant models of the two main characters in the film Chicken Run, Ginger and Rocky. Now maybe the owners of the restaurant simply had not seen the movie. Maybe they didn’t understand it, or were rooting for the cold hearted villain Mrs Tweedy. But to me, it’s a very odd and unfortunate choice of name for a chicken shop. I mean, the film is about chickens escaping from a horrible chicken farm. The heroes are chickens, who narrowly avoid being turned into chicken pies. It is kind of like opening a cafe that served pork belly and calling it ‘Babe’. Or opening a Japanese restaurant that served whale burgers and calling it ‘Free Willy’. Or a dodgy dim sim place and calling it ‘101 Dalmations’ or ‘Aristocats’. Ok, ok you get the point. Maybe it’s just the overly sensitive vegetarian in me, but it just seems very wrong.

Anyway, back to cheesy puns and other names that stink. Deliberately pun-y restaurant names are clearly not limited to Melbourne. There’s been many articles and even books written which record and collect these silly foodie names. A couple of my international favourites which I dug up while googling include: ‘YacDonalds’ (fast food in Nepal), ‘Maquis de Salade’ (salads and more in Budapest), ‘New Cod on the Block’ (fish and chips in the UK), ‘Brew’d Awakening’ (coffee shop in the USA), ‘Amy’s Winehouse’ (a poor taste winery in the UK) and ‘ThaiRiffic’ (several Thai restaurants, including one I’ve eaten at in Sydney). And I can see why restaurants opt for funny names. Perhaps they don’t scream ‘fine dining’ but they’re memorable and worth mentioning, if only for the silly name, to friends. Plus, if the name was actually very funny or clever, I might be more inclined to go in and check out the restaurant. I love restaurants that don’t take themselves too seriously, that have a sense of fun about them or reflect the quirkiness of their owners and I’d probably be much more likely to go into a fish and chip shop called ‘A Salt & Battery’ (in New York) than one called ‘New York Fish and Chips’.

I guess, like in anything you do, you just have to be careful when you’re picking a restaurant name, whether you’re trying to be funny or not. Otherwise you might end up owning a place called ‘Phat Phuc Noodle Bar’ (to be fair it apparently means ‘Happy Buddha’ in Vietnamese) or the ‘KKK’ (chain, or should I say klan, of restaurants in the Philippines), ‘Jee’s Pot’ (in San Fransisco – you know it’s a good spot right?), ‘Butt Sweet House’ (sweet treats in Abu Dhabi) or Melbourne’s own ‘Kum Den’. Yes, I know, I am a child, but seriously, google these things people, or say them aloud a few times before buying a sign!

Fruit and vegetables: they really lettuce make a whole bunch of fruitful puns

Fruit and vegetables: they really lettuce make a whole bunch of fruitful puns

Review: Cafe Court at Emporium

So I resisted, for several weeks, the lure of a new shopping complex. I tried to protect my credit card from the harsh realities of my addiction to shoes. But eventually all that shiny-ness got to me and I just had to check out Emporium, the new deluxe shopping centre wedged between Melbourne Central and Myer in the CBD. There are still a lot of stores ‘coming soon’, but it’s definitely starting to take shape, with a mix of high quality Aussie brands (e.g. Saba, Jac+Jack and Aesop) and new and exciting overseas staples, like Uniqlo.

To go with the deluxe feel, the centre doesn’t have a ‘food court’ but rather a ‘café court’ on level 3. Honestly, it’s just spin, like real estate agents calling a tiny apartment ‘cosy’ or chefs calling a nice sauce a ‘jus’. Emporium doesn’t really have a courtyard full of cafes, but that’s not to say that the offerings there aren’t a cut above your average shopping centre food court. There’s a lot more than a McDonalds and tired looking juice bars. In fact, there’s no McDonalds at all! Yay!

Given I’m likely to be spending a fair amount of time (and money) in Emporium in the coming years, plus its central location in the city, I decided it was worth surveying the food offerings there and reporting back.

There’s quite a few what I’d call ‘traditional’ Melbourne food court staples, like Spud Bar, Guzman Y Gomez and a host of non descript but okay looking Asian noodle/sushi places. There’s also Cafenatics, which is a chain I know well since they had two outlets near my old workplace. The coffee must be decent given its popularity with the often exhausted, caffeine addicted lawyers I used to work with, but the cakes and pastries at the court’s outlet looked pretty pedestrian. It’s very much oversized muffins and over glossed danishes. Personally I’d much rather walk through to Myer (I love that you can do that again after so many years being closed!) and get a cake at the Brunetti’s instore on level 3. My current Brunetti’s favourites include the Royale cake (flourless almond cake, lots of chocolate mousse, biscuit, caramel) and the French Custard Tart (short buttery pastry, smooth custard and juicy cherries).

The new Emporium "café court"

The new Emporium “café court”

Anyway, back to Emporium’s café court – in addition to these recognisable outlets and chains, there’s a few places I’ve never seen or heard of before, like ‘Bing Boy’ which describes itself as ‘urban Asian street food’ and looks quite cool – with wraps cooked on big crepe hotplates filled with things like prawns, smoked salmon or avocado and salad. There’s also ‘Thrive’ which offers super healthy sounding gluten free meals, smoothies and tubs of trail mix. The court’s juice bar – called Top Juice – looks fun and vibrant and more dynamic than the usual juice bar. They’re super popular, with the line to order constantly 3 to 4 people deep. I had a small ‘Happy Juice’ (pear, rockmelon and strawberry) which was delicious and served really well chilled too.

Then there’s a few special places, the Diors and Chanels of the café court, including Jimmy Grants and Earl. Jimmy Grant’s is George Calombaris’ latest venture into Greek-style street food. He’s also got outlets in Fitzroy and at the pop-up site at Rue & Co on Collins Street in the city. The reviews to date for the Jimmy Grants at Emporium have been a bit mixed and underwhelming, but it was popular when I visited. Souvas aren’t really my thing and it felt a bit naughty ordering chips for lunch, so I skipped Jimmy Grants, but will definitely have to try it in future, especially given how much I like Gazi. Earl, like Jimmy Grants, now has a couple of outlets across Melbourne. I think it is a great option for a healthy and tasty lunch. They sell big salads for under $10 that you actually want to eat, including my favourite ‘superfood’ salad, which has broccoli florettes, red quinoa and cranberries in it. There’s plenty of other salads to choose from too, with ingredients like broad beans, red salmon, kipfler potatoes and sumac flavoured veggies. Finally, the last big drawcard in the court is a rather flashy looking burger place called Charlie & Co Burgers. Unsurprisingly, they’re from Sydney originally, but it got good reports from my partner, who knows his burgers!

View of the seating at Emporium

View of the seating at Emporium

Top Juice's delicious looking display cabinet

Top Juice’s delicious looking display cabinet

Earl at Emporium

Earl at Emporium

While not exactly ground-breaking, I think it’s great to see a shopping centre recognise and reflect the city it exists within. Melbournians are foodies. We don’t like eating in dark food courts that smell like grease and we’re spoiled for choice in the city when it comes to tasty lunches and snacks. By attracting higher-end eateries into the centre, shoppers are enticed to stay and shop longer, which is exactly the point, I guess! I’m certainly one such swipe-happy shopper, having splashed out on a new winter coat to go with my lunch and fresh juice.

Top Juice on Urbanspoon

Earl Canteen Emporium on Urbanspoon

Eco baking?

My parents are ex-hippies. I consider myself a fairly environmentally friendly kind of girl, for someone living in a first world country like Australia. I turn off lights and taps, I don’t own a car (primarily because I don’t drive…), I buy environmentally friendly cleaning products and I care about the whales. But as I was walking home yesterday, sweltering in the ridiculous summer heat and pondering climate change, it occurred to me, how eco friendly is baking? Is my passion having a positive, negative or neutral impact on the environment and is there anything I can (or will) do to change this?

So first, the positives. While I haven’t got studies to prove it, it seems like common sense that cooking a meal at home is going to be more environmentally friendly than eating at a restaurant or buying takeaway. You reuse dishes rather than having to produce and then throw away takeaway containers. Home cooking is likely to be more simple and use less resources than a restaurant meal – no tablecloths to wash, you drink tap water not bottled and fewer ingredients in meals means less food miles, less water and fertiliser and land used. Also, eating at home means you don’t use your car or other transport to go out. And it’s not that I’m against eating out, I absolutely love it, but I’m trying to get an overall picture of the good, bad and the ugly of my baking and cooking habits.

Also in the positives is that I shop locally and buy a lot of Victorian produce at the Queen Vic Markets. This reduces my ‘food miles’, the carbon emissions needed to transport food from the farm to me. I do think about seasonal availability when planning meals. Just yesterday I made a cheesecake, choosing to make it a strawberry one since those berries are at their best (and cheapest) in summer. In addition, being vegetarian and cooking only veggie meals and baked goods does reduce your carbon footprint quite significantly, since meat production is resource heavy and animals like cows and sheep produce large amounts of methane. Methane is many many times more powerful than carbon dioxide when we’re talking about global warming. In fact, it’s so significant that there’s actually a National Livestock Methane Program in Australia aimed at reducing methane emissions on farms!

One of my eco friendly vegan salads using home-grown basil and market produce

One of my eco friendly vegan salads using home-grown basil and market produce

On to the negatives now. I might not be eating meat but my baking does use a hell of a lot of butter, cream, milk and eggs – all produced by lovely yet methane emitting animals. Plus most of the baking ingredients I buy come in packaging, much of which is not recyclable. Then there’s my love of kitchen appliances. Chief among these is of course my Mixmaster, but there’s also a blender, juicer, rice cooker, sandwich press, toaster, kettle, ice-cream maker and vegetable dicer thingie. The ABS has actually done studies showing the trend for household appliance ownership is steeply upwards as we become more affluent and appliances become more affordable (apparently!). All those appliances I have use energy. On the other hand, they only use it for short periods of time, unlike, for example, a second television, my Mixmaster isn’t plugged in at all times. However, I would never plug them in if I didn’t own them because I didn’t do any cooking or baking.

My (climate busting?)baking: caramel popcorn and marshmallow brownies

My (climate busting?) baking: caramel popcorn and marshmallow brownies

Sigh! Pondering this is now starting to give me a headache. Maybe it’s a sugar cravings headache from lack of baked goods…I certainly don’t have the answers and I’m not about to stop baking and become a raw food fruitarian. But there are sites where you can buy eco baking supplies (think unbleached baking parchment and mixing bowls made from recycled plastic or bamboo), so it’s clear others have pondered this issue too, even made successful businesses out of it. There’s also plenty of blogs out there with enviro-friendly tips for the kitchen. I’m a big believer in there always being room for improvement, so it’s something I’m going to look into. It’s definitely worth contemplating…while enjoying a slice of my strawberry cheesecake!

Eating dessert first

First, important news on the North Melbourne café front: Di Bella has a new summer menu. This is partly the reason for my delay in blogging, I’ve been too busy enjoying the intermittent sunshine and eating my way through the new menu. Favourite newbies include the omelette with beetroot, goat’s chees, heirloom tomatoes and awesome super thin crouton-crips. Another standout is the peach toast. It’s basically like eating an elaborate peach cake for breakfast. And it’s very very pretty on the plate. It looks and tastes like the essence of summer.

Di Bella's peach toast

Di Bella’s peach toast

Eating dessert-like substances for breakfast brings me to the subject of today’s blog, which is ‘eating dessert first’. It’s one of those slogans you see printed on tea-towels and fridge magnets, you know, ‘Life is short: eat dessert first’ and then a silly cartoon of a glamorous woman from the fifties holding a huge cake. There’s many blogs and foodie newsletters based around this phrase, even T-shirts and other cutesy-giftware. But do people actually do it? On a regular basis I mean, like, as a way of life?

Being a massive sweet tooth, this concept does have some appeal for me. But being a cautious ex-lawyer type, I in fact normally eat my veggies first, safe in the knowledge that my second ‘dessert’ stomach (because there is such a thing I assure you) will find room for that chocolate éclair or blackberry crumble with vanilla bean ice-cream.

There’s even some nutritionists who’ve argued it’s not a bad idea to eat (a small amount of) dessert first, before your veggies. Apparently the fat in the dessert will help you absorb more nutrients out of the veggies and also help you feel fuller for longer. Not sure about that theory (wishful thinking?) but it’s an interesting thought…

So I don’t eat dessert first, but I do read dessert first. When I look at a menu, my eyes can’t help but to just slide across and down, towards the dessert section. If I know/think it’s likely that we’re having dessert, I’ll usually spend those first few minutes perusing the dessert list and making a selection, before going over to the savoury section. Once I’m safe in the knowledge that I’m having the cheesecake for dessert, I can exclude the four cheese pizza from my potential list of main meals (too much creaminess). If I’m going for the lemon tart, then I won’t have the lemon and asparagus angel hair pasta, because that would just be a bit samey, wouldn’t it? You get the idea. I prioritise the dessert choice. My partner and I also play a little game where, when looking at a menu in a new restaurant we haven’t been to before, we try to guess which dessert the other person is going to go for. It’s normally pretty easy though – since we’ve shared rather a lot of meals and we both have a kind of dessert kryptonite which gets us every time (me: anything chocolate, him: salted caramel or lemon tart).

Things get trickier for my selecting dessert first method when the dessert menu is separate to the rest of the menu. Quite a few places do this. I love The European on Spring Street, but they are an offender in this category. Some places use it like a ‘reveal’ at the end, hoping you’ll be so excited by the blood orange trifle on the suddenly proffered menu that you’ll overcome the food coma you’re slowly sinking into. Others keep them separate because their dessert menu is more like a specials list, with a small number of desserts that change regularly. I guess they are the experts and know their business. But for a dessert strategist like myself, it’s rather offputting to have no idea if it will be a brulee or baklava at the end of the meal. First world problem, I know!

We’re programmed to like the sweet stuff because it contains a whole lot of energy. Back when we were cave people, running around all day with a honey-filled bees nest or handful of ripe berries a rare occurrence, it made sense to eat dessert first. Now it’s customary to eat dessert last and sit down for most of the day. If we eat dessert first, are we undoing evolution? Or just giving into our natural tendencies?

Perhaps, with Christmas feasting coming up, it’s possible I might just start eating dessert first and last…

Omelette at Di Bella

Omelette at Di Bella

Di Bella Coffee Roasting Warehouse on Urbanspoon

Beautiful ingredients

I think there is only one secret to delicious cooking. It’s not, as the French might have you believe, butter. It’s beautiful ingredients. That sounds obvious, but I think a lot of cooking shows and cookbooks are missing that important step in making a fantastic meal.

You do not need an ice-cream maker or a sous-vide water bath to create something spectacular. You need fresh, vibrant vegetables, decent olive oil and perhaps some quality cheese or protein. Don’t get me wrong, I love kitchen gadgets and I also love eating at fancy restaurants full of foam, gel and freeze-dried-who-knows-what. But it just occurred to me the other day how little attention we give to selecting and appreciating the basic ingredients.

So today is ‘ingredients appreciation day’ on my blog. Here’s a picture I took of rhubarb. Just rhubarb. Isn’t it beautiful? Those gorgeous pink stems on my bright green plastic chopping board. It’s sexy! It’s inspiring. (And no, I’m not high, just take a second and look…)

rhubarb pic

A place where you can really appreciate the beauty of ingredients is farmers markets. Regular readers will know that I LOVE markets. I’m also lucky enough to live fairly close to the Queen Victoria Markets. I adore going and looking at (and buying) the displays at markets. Everything is a little imperfect, plentiful and displayed in a happy-organic sort of way. You can pick things up, see them in natural light rather than under fluorescents and, of course, smell them! Markets also give you an appreciation of what’s in season. You know it’s mango season when they’re going for under $10 a box. You know mushrooms are at their best when the mushroom man has eleven types on display. And you know it’s summer when berries’ prices halve. I personally don’t haggle at food markets, but that is also a fun element to shopping at markets if you’re into that kind of thing.

At the Queen Vic markets, it is easy to get overwhelmed, since the markets themselves are huge and, especially on weekends, completely packed. You could spend ( and I have spent) a fair amount of time wading through cheap handbags and dodgy looking kids’ toys before you find the fresh produce and even then, quality varies between stalls. I’ve been hitting up the markets for fresh produce since 2007 and have spent way too many hours dawdling round the stalls, sniffing oranges and squeezing avocados. Below are a few of my recommendations for beautiful produce at the Queen Vic:

Curds and Whey
This is a great cheese and dairy shop in the deli section. I particularly like it for its extensive and well labelled range of vegetarian cheese, including an organic Italian parmesan. They also sell butter (salted or unsalted) from huge blocks on their counter, quark, yoghurt, vanilla beans, saffron and other little gourmet delights. Most importantly, they’re always happy to offer you a taste before you commit to that wedge of cheddar or block of gruyere.

The Queen Vic Deli
I love this place for one reason: hummus. Their homemade hummus is the best I’ve ever had. I think they mix in a fair bit of tahini, making it really creamy and yet still tangy and tasty. The selection of olives at this deli is also worth a stop, though I think some of the other offerings are a bit overpriced.

Garden Organics and VicMarket Organics
These are my two favourite fruit and veg stalls. Both stock almost entirely organic produce. They also indicate if the produce is locally grown, which is helpful if you’re considering food miles. The staff are friendly (if not a bit cool) and really care about their produce. Plus Garden Organics has precious tiny little perfect pink lady apples (when in season) which I’m kind of obsessed with…

Also worth a mention not so much for gorgeous ingredients but for great snacks and prepared food, are the Borek shop in the deli section (and their sister shop further down on Elizabeth Street which has THE BEST gozleme), the Traditional Pasta Shop for fresh pasta and really good bake at home garlic bread and market juice for yummy (but super sweet) smoothies and my favourite Evia brand of yoghurt.