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  And I was feeling the pangs of withdrawn, especially during this chilly fall weather.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.

Winding Down the Summer Season With Italian Vegetarian Magic – Kale & Zucchini Couscous Salad at Mela Cafe

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I have a confession to make.  I love Mela Cafe so much that I was thrown into conniptions a little over a month ago when I made plans to go for lunch and found the cafe closed with its lights off, its chairs off the floor, its shelves normally stocked full of tomato sauce completely empty and bare, and its signature “garage door” storefront covered with newspapers.  I smushed my nose against the glass door, peered inside, and nearly had a heart attack.  I turned around to face my boyfriend with my mouth gaping open, speechless for about a minute before I found my vocal cords and started babbling like a hysterical nut.  “Oh my god…oh my god…why aren’t they open?!  They couldn’t have packed up, that doesn’t make sense!  People love it here!  I love it here!  There would be a sign!  But why are the tomato sauce cans gone?!  Are they renovating?  I’m panicking.  Am I panicking?”  I walked around in a daze for the entire day and had no idea what to do with myself. 

Fast forward two weeks later.  I was in the area again during the day so I took a deep breath, and went over to Yorkville Ave. to see my beloved Mela.  To my utter relief, delight, and elation, Mela’s storefront was open with a smiling Roberto and a fresh coat of paint inside.  They had closed for renovation!  I skipped on inside, got a hug from Roberto, and was grinning from ear to ear – crisis averted.  I could go back to eating myself silly!  And just think, with fall upon us, I’m positive Roberto has a host of new menu items to dish out with fall fruits and vegetables.  I’m mega excited.

Tomorrow marks the 1-year anniversary of my very first visit to Mela.  Exactly one year ago, I walked along Yorkville Ave. like any other regular day in the neighbourhood, saw Mela’s bright orange storefront, saw the words “Italian Vegetarian Magic”, stepped into the Italian vegetarian and vegan eatery, and never looked back from that day on.  This past year at Mela has created so many sweet memories and as my favourite vegetarain and vegan place in the city, I can’t imagine it ever being absent from my life.  I took my mum, brother, and best friend here for the first time during the spring, got my best friend obsessed with their ravioli and vegan banana cream pies, made a sweet friend named Jennie who frequents Mela on a weekly basis, got to know Roberto and the other ladies who help him make his mouth-watering dishes, asked my boyfriend for his metropass while he was working at school so I could eat ravioli in the dead of winter, and had so much delicious food, including this salad!

Last time, I showed you all Roberto’s quinoa salad with crunchy cabbage, green beans, tomatoes, olive oil, and lots of parsley, and the time before that I proudly displayed his springtime salad with watercress, green beans, Shanghai bok choy, cauliflower, chickpeas, and olive oil.  THIS time, I have for you a sunny summer salad of fluffy couscous with zucchini and leafy kale!  It was a summer salad chock full of juicy tomatoes, yellow bell pepper, celery, cabbage, zucchini squash, and lots of fresh, crunchy kale.  When I saw the mountain of salad up on the food counter, I had to restrain myself from grabbing the large metal spoon used for scooping and just going to town with it.

I ate kale for the first time last winter (funny enough, I did so at Kale Eatery by Yonge & Eglinton) and I bought my first fresh batch from the Trinity Bellwoods Park farmers’ market earlier in the month and these days I just think to myself, “where have I been all this time?  I’ve been missing out!”.  Mela has not only been a place to make great friendships and to eat happy wiggling-inducing food but it’s also been a place to learn, specifically about all sorts of vegetables and yummy ways to pair them up with other vegetables, grains, and proteins.

I could eat the salads here endlessly and what I really love about the food here is the variety of vegetables and the ways that they’re paired together.  You’ll find everything from sweet potatoes to kale, rapini, beets, watercress, green beans, peppers, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, snap peas, asparagus, and more.  Not to mention there’s always a grain or a protein involved (chickpeas, quinoa, and couscous thus far I’ve seen) which bulks up the salad even more in its nutritional levels.  Mela’s salads aren’t overladen with dressing, they’re not dry and boring (lettuce and tomato does not make an exciting salad, ever), and there’s always something different.  This is the 3rd salad I’ve tried and I anticipate there will be a hundred more to try as time goes on!  Oh, and if you’re wondering about the plates of food on the table, no, they were not all mine!  I love to eat, yes, but I do not have the stomach to eat 3 plates of food!   

Summer might be winding down, but the memories of food and friends last forever.  Thanks for the memories, friendship, and an amazing delicious year, Mela.  I can’t wait to see what another year will bring.

*****

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.

Scrapbooking materials used: neon green, goldenrod yellow, indigo, and cobalt blue cardstock (Recollections); red paper; Grass & Flowers patterned paper (Sandylion); burgundy, beige, and black alphabet stickers (K&Company); green-and-brown alphabet stickers (Make It Special Crafts by Dollarama); olive green alphabet stickers (Recollections); violet flower stickers (Sticko); yellow jewel adhesive gems (Sandylion Essentials); red and black adhesive gems; scalloped edge scissors (Provo Craft); black felt tip Sharpie.