The Fall Harvest Series – Potato & Mushroom Pie with Parsley, Kitchen Fun, & a Return to Mela Vegetarian Cafe

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Welcome to Mela. Welcome home.

Frowning in concentration, I leaned over my steaming hot plate of food, pointed my camera at it, promptly lowered it, turned my plate 45 degrees, pointed my camera at it again, looked at my screen, and smiled.  Ahhh.  That was the shot I wanted.  Click.  Time for a top down shot.  Click.  Gotta get one head on at eye level from the side.  Cli-

“May I ask what your occupation is?”

And just as I was about to click, I abruptly froze, camera in mid-air.  I looked over to my right and was greeted with two very amused facial expressions and two pairs of male eyes staring back at me curiously and expectantly.  I chuckled shyly.  “You must be wondering about the photos and the camera.”  And so began my spiel about how no, this wasn’t my day job exactly, but something I did on the side every day, something that was very much a part of my life in every way that counted, and yes, I write a blog and do a lot of food scrapbooking and photography, and oh, would you like my business card so you guys can check it out?!

Beet risotto with broccoli and Mela’s famous tomato sauce.

With the sounds of sizzling skillets on the stove top, the smell of fresh tomato sauce bubbling away, and two scrumptious and delicious plates of warm, steaming, comforting Italian vegetarian food in front of me, I felt right at home.  It never gets old seeing the curious gazes of nearby patrons watching me snap away, it never gets old pointing my camera at my food, and it never gets old sitting in my foodie home away from home, the Italian vegetarian magic that is Mela Cafe.

A giant wave of joy washed over me as I sat inside my favourite vegetarian spot, Mela, for the first time in 8 months.  8 months!  My last Mela Cafe post was 7 months ago, my last visit 8.  Since that unforgettable first meeting back in October 2010, I’ve never gone that long without a meal from here.  And I was feeling the pangs of withdrawn, especially during this chilly fall weather.  Mela does spring and summer fabulously, but I have to say, nobody kicks it in the pants during fall doing fall comfort food like Mela.  And were Roberto and Rachel ever dishing out and cooking up a comfort food storm!  Eggplant parm, beet risotto with broccoli, fresh ricotta lasagna with tomato and basil, cauliflower and soy pie, a spaghetti frittata with lentils and vegetables, red lentil soup, apple, beet and carrot salad, and of course their famous crispy, savoury breaded eggplant and basil panini sandwiches.

Fresh homemade eggplant parm, ready to get sizzling hot!

Roberto in the kitchen (with Rachel in the background!), whipping up a batch of pizza dough from scratch!

This was such a special visit.  For starters, it felt so wonderful being back after so many months, eating such yummy food.  Second, it was fun talking to fellow foodies about food and blogging.  And third, I was beyond giddy when Roberto waved me over into the kitchen to watch him make pizza dough from scratch.  I got to stand in the kitchen!  Well, colour me absolutely ecstatic!  It’s just one of the many reasons why I continue to love Mela so much.  I don’t feel like I’m a “customer” here.  There’s no wall, no barrier, no pretentiousness.  I feel like I’m part of a family.  We talk about our lives.  I make new friends.  I stay awhile and soak in every experience to its fullest.  I never feel like I’m a nuisance with the photo snapping.  And best of all, I make unforgettable memories each and single time.

This time around, I sunk my hungry teeth into a giant slice of potato and mushroom pie ($8.41) doused in their famous tomato sauce, as well as a dish of beet risotto with broccoli ($8.41).  I was in heaven.  Absolute vegetarian heaven.  I have to apologize for the lack of beet risotto photos though.  The tomato sauce and beet risotto were so close in colour family that I couldn’t get a good enough distinguishing photos.  But take it from me, it’s wonderfully delicious and I took most of it home for my family to try, especially my mum who loves beets.  Their potato mushroom pie was inches tall and piping hot with chunks of potato, sauteed mushrooms, and parsley melting into every forkful and bite.  Comfort food at its best.  The parsley was the perfect touch, giving little bursts of freshness and greenery to the dish.

When I was younger, I never used to like parsley.  I would always pick it out of my Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches.  Now?  I love it and get so excited when I see it garnishing or sprinkled onto my dish.  The parsley played a starring role in this one, cutting through the inherent “meaty” texture of chunky potatoes.  The potatoes were chunky yet soft; meaty enough to hold its own as a hearty meal with that great potato starchiness but soft enough to sink your teeth right through them.  The whole potato and mushroom pie was lovely because it sopped up the tomato sauce so well – I didn’t have a lick of it left by the end of the meal!

And oh gosh, the top of the pie was fantastic!  It was crispy and golden brown and tasted like a cross between a hash brown and rosti.  The dish is a fab variation of the traditional mashed potatoes, potato salad, and plain roasted potatoes and with the generous amount of tomato sauce, all the flavours were lightened up and intensified.  I mmmed my way through the entire meal, loving every minute and bite of it.  I waved goodbye to Rachel and Roberto and as I was opening the door to leave (as much as I didn’t want to!), Roberto smiled and called out, “don’t be a stranger!”

I won’t, ever.  I promise.

*****

Mela Café is located at 7 Yorkville Ave., north of Cumberland St. and just west of Yonge St.  All dishes are either vegetarian or vegan and prices range from $4-$8.50.  They are primarily a lunch cafe during the week, open until around 4:30pm-5pm from Monday to Friday, and with later closing hours on Saturday.  They are closed on Sunday.

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Happy First Day of Fall! Whipping Up a Batch of Butterscotch Pecan Cookie Bars

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Happy first day of fall, everyone!  Well, for those of you who enjoy four seasons that is.  The tree leaves have been changing to reds and oranges, it’s chillier, I’ve started shopping for new sweaters (my selection of cardigans is rather sad), and my craving for fall comfort food is just getting started.  So, how did I celebrate the first day of fall, my favourite season?  By sleeping in (I can’t even remember the last time I slept in until 10:45) and then hauling out my baking bags of goodies and electric mixer for some good old fashioned fall baking!  I’m already thinking well ahead into the holiday season but before I got too ahead of myself, I thought it would be nice to bake another batch of cookie bars and what better way to ring in the new season with a batch of yummy butterscotch pecan cookie bars? 

I’ve been so inspired by fall food that I’ve been doing a ton of research on restaurant items around the city including searches for apple menu items (both sweet and savoury), pumpkin, butternut squash, and pecan.  I think I’m covered on the pumpkin and butternut squash for the time being, but I’m still searching high and low for some standout pecan dishes.  Pecan pie is wonderful and I can’t wait to sink my teeth into some, but aside from that, all I’m really finding is salads with candied pecans and while that’s nice, it’s hardly what I’d consider out of the ordinary, you know?  I’m going to keep digging around, but in the meantime, here’s some fab butterscotch pecan cookie bars to celebrate our first taste of fall!

Recipe for Butterscotch Pecan Cookie Bars (adapted from Chocolate-Chip-Pecan Cookie Bars recipe from March 2011 issue of Food & Wine magazine).  

Makes 12 big squares or 24 smaller rectangular bars.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup pecans
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened (1/2 a stick)
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil 
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour (*Deb’s Note: the original recipe called for whole wheat pastry flour but I didn’t have any and also didn’t feel like buying any so I just used regular all-purpose flour!)
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup butterscotch chips (*Deb’s Note: the original recipe called for semisweet chocolate chips)

Directions

  • Preheat the oven to 350°F and line the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with parchment paper.  Spread the pecans in a pie plate and toast for about 8 minutes until golden.  Chop the pecans and let cool.  (*Deb’s Note: I didn’t toast my pecans and went straight to coarsely chopping them as they were.  It’s entirely up to you if you want them toasty or not!)
  • In the bowl of a standing electric mixer (*Deb’s Note: I used a hand-held electric mixer and a plain old mixing bowl), beat the butter and oil with the granulated sugar and brown sugar until creamy.  Beat in the egg and vanilla until smooth.  In a small bowl, whisk the flour with the baking soda and salt; beat the dry ingredients into the wet mixture at low speed.  Add the butterscotch chips (or chocolate chips if you’re following the original recipe) and pecans; beat just until incorporated (*Deb Note: I didn’t use my mixer for this step, I just mixed it all with my hands).
  • Transfer the dough to the prepared baking pan and press into an even layer.  Bake for about 20 minutes, until lightly browned and nearly set in the center (*Deb’s Note: I baked mine for 18 minutes).  Let cool completely.  Using parchment paper “handles”, lift out and cut into squares or bars.

I sprinkled mine with cinnamon just before I popped the baking pan into the oven because I felt like it, but you could also drizzle some melted white chocolate over top after they’ve finished baking and cooled to jazz things up.  These would so good with some vanilla ice cream too!  For next time though, I would adjust the bake time.  I know the original recipe called for a 20 minute bake time, but I never follow it to a tee because my oven runs hot so I normally knock 2 minutes off.  I would even do for around 16 minutes the next time, just so they can be a little gooeier on the insides and a little more chewy.  I loved using the butterscotch chips though because the squares tasted like a cross between rich caramel and butterscotch brittle.

*****

Recipe adpated from Food & Wine magazine.  “Dessert Redux: Chef Recipes Made Easy”.  Food & Wine March 2011: 86.