Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.

23.4.14

Hit the spice shop.

I never met a spice I didn't like, and I especially enjoy throwing as many in one dish as possible. The following recipe is the most tantalisingly fragrant dish I have ever cooked and always results in people (family members, guests, passing neighbours, small children, etc) demanding some, even if they profess to dislike curry. All the spices are freely available along the Sydney Road Little India strip.

Fragrant curried chicken breast.

In a food processor, blitz four cloves of garlic, a large peeled knob of ginger, five whole dried red chillies, an inch of cinnamon (or a teaspoon of powdered), five cardamom pods, five cloves, a teaspoon each of black peppercorns and cumin seeds, and half a cup of vinegar until it resembles a relatively smooth paste.

Meanwhile, fry two finely chopped onions in ghee or oil or some of each until soft. Then add a can of diced tomatoes and a teaspoon of salt. Cook a few minutes, stirring. Add the paste and a teaspoon of sugar. Saute a few minutes. Add two chicken breasts diced into one-inch cubes, and a few fresh curry leaves.

Serve with naan bread, yogurt, and fresh pappadums for a little crunch on the side. Drink: beer. This is hot. Up- or downscale the chillies as preferred.

4.4.14

Red is the colour ....

Well, actually she doesn't wear a lot of red. I'm talking about food. (What is that song?*)

Red capsicum prices have come down from the stratosphere so let's cook some.

Pasta with swordfish and capsicum.

Swordfish is a robust, tasty, magnificent fish that holds together when cooked, making it suitable for barbecuing, etc. According to some, it is also endangered, so get it while you can. (That last comment shocks some of my politically correct friends just like sacrilege would have shocked the middle classes fifty or sixty years ago, proving that eco-obsession has filled the need for religion in an increasingly atheist society).

Slice the fish into three quarter inch cubes and marinate it in lemon juice and a dash of balsamic vinegar.

Meanwhile, roast a red capsicum, peel it and cut it into strips.

Cook some tomato fettucine (I use La Triestina, made locally - in Brunswick).

Sear the fish in a heavy pan, cook a minute or so longer, and add it to the drained pasta. Decorate with the roasted red pepper.

To finish, toss some capers over the pasta and add a shower of cracked black pepper.

*

*Yes It Is, the Beatles, 1965

2.4.14

Little red footballs: the last of the summer tomatoes.

It was the first day of the second month of autumn and it reached 35 degrees. I hadn't counted, but the tomatoes must have got into the thousands; which makes growing them, especially cherry ones (slightly oval, like miniature Sherrins), worthwhile despite having to fiddle about with stakes, pinch out lower branches, and tie up vines with old stockings etc. It's not that much work if you have the time. My tomato growing rules: plenty of compost and good soil but no tomato dust and no pesticides. Plant basil and other herbs around them and they’ll keep most bugs away. Most of the tomatoes came straight off the vine and onto the table or into the pot, but I ripened some on the front window sill.

Several of this year’s vines were taller than me and, late in summer, were still sending out tendrils in all directions, like a besieged Dustin Fletcher on a bad day.

And now I was down to the last few dozen red orbs. I thought I’d send them out with a bang: one of summer’s great dishes.

Pappardelle with vine-ripened cherry tomatoes, fresh ricotta and basil.

Wide strips of pasta such as pappardelle or tagliatelle are best with this dish, although you could use any pasta at a pinch.

Cook pasta to your liking. Al dente is regarded as superior because it still has a 'bite'; however some prefer it cooked more fully. A better reason is that pasta beyond the al dente stage is replete with fluid, and will therefore 'slip' when combined in its final dish; whereas al dente pasta remains pervious and will therefore adhere better, or give better grip, to its fellow ingredients. That’s the real reason beyond the usual 'to the tooth' literal translation of the phrase.

Carefully slice ricotta into cubes. It has to be silky, shimmering fresh. Some of the Sydney Road supermarkets and delicatessens stock new supplies every day, otherwise don't bother.

Slice cherry tomatoes in two. Scatter the ricotta and tomatoes over the pasta, along with ripped basil leaves. To finish the dish, shower cracked black pepper over it. The bland, slightly sweet ricotta marries with the fragrant acidity of the tomatoes, while the cracked pepper sets off fireworks in the background. The slinky pasta strips are the sheets on the marital bed. Toast the result with a glass of Hunter Valley Semillon, something with a bit of body.

Dessert, as if needed, featured the rest of the ricotta dressed in a different costume; albeit equally fetching. Scatter toasted and shaved almonds and very ripe figs sliced carpaccio-thin over the ricotta with a drizzle of honey. Add six or so droplets of sweetened espresso and a coffee bean on each serve just to be pretentious. Serve with a shot of ouzo. Then go to bed.

*

Another summer gone. I watched the children run, and swim, and eat ice cream, and grow tanned, and wake to hot northerlies, and fall asleep, exhausted, to the sound of crickets and the hissing of summer lawns. Oddly enough, the song that for me best recalls summer is from a country on the other side of the world. But we were there not too many generations ago.


Take me back, take me way, way, way back
On Hyndford Street
Where you could feel the silence at half past eleven
On long summer nights
As the wireless played Radio Luxembourg
And the voices whispered across Beechie River
In the quietness as we sank into restful slumber in the silence
And carried on dreaming, in God

And walks up Cherry Valley from North Road Bridge, railway line
On sunny summer afternoons
Picking apples from the side of the tracks
That spilled over from the gardens of the houses on Cyprus Avenue
Watching the moth catcher working the floodlights in the evenings
And meeting down by the pylons
Playing round Mrs. Kelly's lamp
Going out to Holywood on the bus
And walking from the end of the lines to the seaside
Stopping at Fusco's for ice cream
In the days before rock 'n' roll

Hyndford Street, Abetta Parade
Orangefield, St. Donard's Church
Sunday six-bells, and in between the silence there was conversation
And laughter, and music and singing, and shivers up the back of the neck
And tuning in to Luxembourg late at night
And jazz and blues records during the day
Also Debussy on the third programme
Early mornings when contemplation was best
Going up the Castlereagh hills
And the cregagh glens in summer and coming back
To Hyndford Street, feeling wondrous and lit up inside
With a sense of everlasting life
And reading Mr. Jelly Roll and Big Bill Broonzy
And "Really The Blues" by "Mezz" Mezzrow
And "Dharma Bums" by Jack Kerouac
Over and over again
And voices echoing late at night over Beechie River
And it's always being now, and it's always being now
It's always now

Can you feel the silence?
On Hyndford Street where you could feel the silence
At half past eleven on long summer nights
As the wireless played Radio Luxembourg
And the voices whispered across Beechie River
And in the quietness we sank into restful slumber in silence
And carried on dreaming in God.


- Van Morrison, from 'Hymns To the Silence', 1991

26.3.14

Steam power.

The less you mess about with fish the better. Proof: (a) the Japanese eat it raw, and (b) turning salmon into mousse and stuffing it into a salmon mould is not as popular as it was in the 1980s. I have to point out that the dishes was so common it was frequently served at open-air luncheons with the temperature in the high 20s and the table in the sun ...

If you don't fancy raw fish, steaming might be the the next best thing. Despite the fondness I occasionally display for the food I ate as a child, the fish I was served was quite often cooked Cajun-style, but without the exotic spices: blackened. It might have been my fault. I always came in late for dinner.

The other night I steamed some firm white flesh fillets in foil in the oven using a few Asian flavour enhancements.

Oven-steamed fish.

Take your fish fillets, lay them in some double-folded foil, and add some finely grated ginger, a splash of soy sauce, a splash of mirin or rice wine, and a couple of finely chopped spring onions (or shallots if you live in another State). (Having said that, Victorian shallots would work just as well.) Close the foil, folding carefully to prevent fluid loss in transit to oven. Bake long enough to just cook the fish, time depending on size and thickness of fish.

Serve on rice or noodles with Asian broccoli or other greens steamed and tossed in a little oyster sauce.

*

ANGELA: Honestly, darling, I'm so embarrassed. It really is embarrassing. I mean,...

HOWARD: I suppose... [mumbling]

ANGELA: ...to serve salmon with botulism at a dinner party is social death for me.


- The Meaning of Life, 1980

19.3.14

A shorter history of table decoration.

Trends come and go, some faster than others. In some cases, keep the original article and you won't have to buy another every time it comes back into fashion. You'll save a fortune. Take table decoration.

There are three types of people in the world. People who dine on tablecloths, those who use placemats, and others who eat from plates set on the naked table top.

I have been each of these at various times, but returned to the first category thanks to my collection of retro tablecloths. The collection includes cloths of Irish linen that are virtually indestructible. Tablecloths went out of fashion somewhere around 1970; the only ones you could buy subsequent to that were horrible cheap imports that pilled when you looked at them, or bunched up exasperatingly when you moved a plate. They also lost several shades of colour after one hour on the clothesline after the first wash. By contrast, the earlier ones were so heavy you had to starch them and the colours in the retro-patterned checked ones are as fast as the day they first graced a table in, for example, 1952. My mother used to have a box of starch under the sink to iron tablecloths the size of tennis courts. It was a big family.

Then there are placemats. I first had placemats decades ago, because I got married. People never buy placemats, they are only given them. My first placemats had a lime green floral pattern with a matching border. It was vile, but in the '70s, entire dinner parties were accented in lime green; kitchen cabinets, holland blinds, vases, sofas, lamp shades, crockery, you name it. Even the car you arrived in was lime green*.

Later placemat mistakes included cork ones topped with images of English towns; brass ones with etched images of knights; ones made out of seagrass which caught fire when people dropped cigarettes on them (yes, people actually smoked at 1970s dinner parties, but that was the least of it, although smoking would probably most scandalise today's politically correct society). You could fold the fabric mats and store them with the tea towels, but the rigid ones had to be stacked in a cupboard or sandwiched between books on the bookshelves. I also had some of those plastic ones that had a glossy wipe-clean surface and rounded edges and bore typical 1980s designs in white, green and black. They were dreadful, their only advantage being that they drew your attention from what was on the plate, such as chicken with apricots showered with toasted almonds. Now, wait a minute. I've only been married twice. So where did all these placemats come from? Eventually I threw the lot out. Even the opportunity shop didn't want them, so they went to landfill, awaiting future archaeologists who will regard them as some form of primitive art.

You can laugh at the 1970s and 1980s, but things got worse. In recent times, decorator magazines have encouraged such table top banalities as five large timber pears in a row, long dead sticks in glass tumblers, autumn leaves in a shallow bowl, and candles perched in large flat river pebbles in wide bowls.

We might have set fire to seagrass placemats, but those ridiculous dead sticks could put an eye out. And you can do a lot of damage with river pebbles after several gin and tonics.

*

In Australia, St Patrick’s Day is one of the occasions better suited to the climate, occurring as it does in our autumn. While Christmas in Australia - the height of summer - is totally unsuited to traditional fare, St Patrick’s Day falls around the time when the aroma of fragrant stews is welcome after a summer of unbearable heatwaves. This year, we metaphorically crossed the Irish Sea to Wales for a variation on the traditional Irish stew.

Lamb and leek stew.

Trim 4 rashers of bacon and 4 forequarter chops. Fry the bacon in oil or dripping in a deep heavy-based pan until almost crisp. Remove. Brown the chops in the same pan. Remove.

Peel 4 large potatoes and 3 carrots; cut the potatoes into thick slices and the carrots into diagonals. Chop a leek into thin rounds, rinsing if necessary. Chop an onion into thick rounds.

Line the pan with a layer each of potato, carrot, leek and onion. Add white pepper and half the bacon. Arrange the chops on top.

Repeat with more potato, carrot, leek and onion and the rest of the bacon. Add a teaspoon of chopped fresh thyme and add enough beef stock to just cover the vegetables. Cover the pan, bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer for an hour or longer.

Served on the retro green check tablecloth circa 1959, with chopped parsley and a glass of stout, not too cold.

*Thanks to Joshua of the Queensland Falcon GT Owners' Club for the image of his 1972 Falcon 500 GT in Lime Glaze.

6.3.14

Golden brown potato pancakes.

Tuesday night was pancake night and this year we made potato pancakes for a savoury change. It’s usually maple syrup, or lemon and sugar, or blueberry and ice-cream or even mandarin segments and lemon yogurt.

The pancakes were crunchy and delicious. They have to be cooked well to develop that crisp, salty, potato flavour, like classic potato cakes from old-style fish and chip shops.

Next morning, the children were walked over to the church at ten o'clock from their classrooms for the Ash Wednesday mass. The school principal had invited parents and grandparents to attend if they were free.

The priest distributed the ashes. Towards the end of the service, a phone rang. Or, to be more precise, it chirped. Whoever owned the phone had made its ring tone a bird's noise. In the church, it sounded odd, like someone had brought their pet budgerigar along. Some people looked around.

A woman at the end of the pew in front of the one I was in put her hand into a handbag and pulled out a phone which, now out in the open, chirped louder. More people looked around. She poked a red fingernail at her phone, put it up to her ear and said hello to it.

Meanwhile, up in front, the priest was leading the Lord’s Prayer.

"Thy kingdom come," he said.

"Oh, Angela, it's you," the woman said. It was a statement, not a question. "I'm not in the office." She was in her late 50s and was dressed for work. She wore a no-nonsense black jacket over black trousers, her hair was red-dyed and cut short, and she was wearing a pair of those dangly sharp earrings that are about a foot long and would cut your head off if she turned her head suddenly and you were close enough.

"On earth as it is in heaven ... "

"Who?" the woman spoke. "What? She shouldn't. It's not her job," she snapped. It might have been the first time in history that someone has snapped in a church, or at least this church, during the Lord's Prayer.

" ... and forgive us our trespasses and lead us not into temptation ... "

"That's not right. I'll handle that when I get back," the woman went on. "I'll be in this afternoon."

She kept talking. The Lord's Prayer finished and the organ started playing – Palestrina or Allegri or Byrd or something similar – and she talked over it, glaring at the pipes as if they were making it hard for her to hear her phone. Bloody middle ages music, written by some dead white male and still bothering people five hundred years later. Well, I don’t know what she was thinking, but it could have been that judging by the expression on her face.

"Just tell her to go on with the power point presentation," she said into the phone.

"Peace be with you," the priest said.

"See you in the office," the woman concluded. She tapped her nail on the phone and returned it to her bag. Some of the older ones in the congregation looked like they had seen a ghost.

*

Potato pancakes

1 onion
2 eggs
3 tablespoons flour
4 medium potatoes
Salt, olive oil

Grate the onion and potatoes. Place in a tea towel or muslin and squeeze out excess fluid. Combine with flour, eggs and a good pinch of salt.

Heat oil (optional) in a non-stick frying pan, fry tablespoons of batter, press down slightly to flatten out, flip after a minute or so (go by colour and texture: crispy golden brown) and serve when other side is done. Serve with sour cream.

26.2.14

Hot chocolate: a memory of Mexico.

Last time I was in Mexico, a housewife passed on to me the following deceptively simple recipe ....

That was never going to work. I've never been to Mexico*, but I kind of like the music, to quote a 1970s songwriter; but he was talking about Spain.

This is a deceptively simple recipe, but it works well if you like the intense heat of your chili hit softened by a smoky cocoa and cumin background, like a Gulf breeze rolling across the Yucatan peninsula.

Chili con carne.

Brown 500g of beef mince in a little oil. Remove. Dice an onion and saute in the same pan with a little more oil. Dice a red capsicum, crush a clove of garlic, chop one, two or three small hot chili(s) and add these to the softened onion. Cook a minute or two. Add a tablespoon of cumin powder, two teaspoons of coriander, and half a teaspoon each of cinnamon and cocoa powder. Stir to combine.

Add the cooked mince, two tablespoons of tomato paste and a cup of vegetable or beef stock or plain water. Stir and cook ten minutes. Add a drained can of red kidney beans. Cook another 20 minutes.

*

I haven't been to Mexico, but I remember something that happened there once.

It was a radio broadcast, one hot spring afternoon in October 1968. I was ten or eleven. I had walked a mile or so to Buckley Street for a haircut at Tony the barber's, near the corner of Fawkner Street. Tony was cutting a customer's hair so I sat in one of the waiting chairs and picked up a Man magazine from the stack. A radio on the shelf was playing Elenore or Delilah or possibly Mrs Robinson on 3UZ. It was the year of female names in song titles, the degree of formality not necessarily indicating the nature or the relationship between subject and artist. (In Delilah's case the relationship went very badly wrong.)

The song finished and John Vertigan announced a cross to Mexico for the Olympic 800 metre final. Tony had finished the last customer and I was in the chair now. The race started. Something about a Kenyan in the lead. A Ryan's bus roared past the barber shop, and the commentary was inaudible for a while. Tony kept snipping. Then the bell: one lap to go. The Kenyan in front. Two hundred metres. Then the commentator mentioned an Australian. Tony stopped mid-snip. The home straight. Ralph Doubell hit the front with metres to go, and won the gold medal. Tony finished my hair, and I paid him and left. Outside, another Ryan's bus was ploughing its way towards Essendon station. It was still a hot day, but the air felt cold on my shorn head.

19.2.14

Cannery Row.

Now let me get this straight. The federal government refused to hand over a fistful of dollars (yours and mine) to the Shepparton Preserving Company so the canner could build, I don't know, some new sheds? A mechanised fruit picker? A bin for peach and apricot pits? A new office for the managing director?

Despite this obvious, sensible and prudent move, the Victorian government's premier, Dr Denis Napthine*, stepped into the dispute and handed over $22 million (yours and mine, but only if you live in Victoria) to the 'embattled' canner for product 'development', embattled meaning no-one is buying its tins of fruit any more.

Now to the point. I went to the supermarket. Rows and rows of cans with convenient ring-pull tops.

Then the SPC cans of fruit. No ring-pull tops. You have to rattle around in your kitchen drawer and find a manual can opener (I also have an electric one dating to the 1960s in my collection of kitchen oddities) and physically open your can of SPC pears or fruit salad, for which you paid $3.80 to $4.20. You could have paid as little as $1.49, but you are patriotic, and you are happy to throw $2 or more at SPC, like a street beggar, every time you buy a can of fruit.

SPC is owned by Coca-Cola.

Dr Napthine has donated $22 million of Victorian taxpayers' money to a worldwide corporation to introduce the same technology it had already been using in its cans since the 1960s.

Denis Napthine, you are a prize chump.

* The "Dr" title refers to the premier's original career as a veterinary surgeon, a qualification that means he knows only too well how to flog a dead horse.

18.2.14

Tomatoes arrive in the heat.

They are coming in all at once, clusters of orbs changing overnight from pale green to orange and then to red: not burgundy red or crimson or any one of a number of other reds, but that unique red of ripe tomatoes that is as warm and deep the sun dropping into the Indian Ocean, a sight I have not seen since the great autumn of 1988 and, before that, the seminal coming of age summer of 1971/2, when Australian cricket spawned a new sensation, the moustached fast bowler named Lillee who would inspire, both in style and in facial hair, another sensation forty-one years later.

That was exhausting to write so I can imagine how it reads. Yes, it's Bulwer-Lytton time again; the competition that asks you to write the opening sentence of the worst-ever novel. Shouldn't be hard: just read the average corporate mission statement or the introduction to a bureaucrat's PowerPoint presentation.

*

The crop had not looked great, but that changed last week. Most are cherry tomatoes, best eaten in a simple salad. Chop an onion, halve the tomatoes, combine in a bowl cut side up, drizzle with very good green olive oil and a dash of vinegar, scatter a shard of fresh basil over and shower with salt and pepper. Heavenly as a side dish to grilled fish or spoon over fresh crusty bread.

There are more coming. I'm looking for ideas.

5.2.14

The Cult of Non-Celebrity: Four Chefs You've Never Heard Of.

Postage stamps used to depict noteworthy individuals such as queens, explorers or generals; or significant events such as the hundredth anniversary of the invention of the combine harvester.

Not any more. Australia Post has just released a new series of stamps portraying celebrity chefs, obviously having decided that these people do not get enough exposure via television, radio, newspapers, weblogs, Facebook, Twitter, and life-size cardboard cut-outs in supermarkets.

The subjects for the stamps include Neil Perry, who once franchised his name to cardboard packets of airline food, Kylie Kwong and some others whose names I forget. Octogenarian Margaret Fulton features as the token ‘retro’ food celebrity, which is like serving ironic lamingtons at your dinner party.

There is a sense of clichéd obviousness about this, as there is about most of popular culture. It would have been far more interesting to depict some of Australia’s unknown chefs. Chefs who had never been on television, signed an autobiography, had a Facebook 'like' or cooked molecules.

Here’s a few suggestions:

Cimino

Cimino was head chef during the early 1980s at the 1950s relic the Pink Pussy Cat bistro in the Carlton Club hotel. Cimino had a surname but no-one knew what it was. In his late forties, he had a red face and was bald on top. He looked like Gene Hackman. Cimino was often belligerent and sometimes hostile. The Pink Pussy Cat’s clientele was diverse, and Cimino faced great challenges, from catering for the enormous appetites of the entire Carlton football team after training on Thursday nights, to dealing with the dietary peccadilloes of pale academics from Melbourne University, who were organic vegetarian locavore fair-trade single estate aficionados decades before the rest of the world slavishly followed.

Cimino was notorious for throwing pans when given special requests from diners. When steaks were sent back as not ‘well done’ enough, he would char them to carbon and send them out again, smoking. Conversely, he famously once sent out a completely raw piece of eye fillet – straight from the refrigerator – to a diner who complained his steak was not ‘bleu’ enough, pronouncing the word ‘bleu’ to Giovanni the head waiter in a preciously correct French way. Giovanni, an expert mimic, banged through the kitchen doors and, at the top of his voice so that everyone in the place could hear him, shouted "Cimino, it is not bleu enough for ze gentleman! Please make it even more bleu!" The customer ate the raw steak.

Cimino’s legacy was bridging a no-nonsense dining epoch into a new era of culinary self-absorption which would ultimately result in the invention of the word ‘foodie’ and the practice of people taking overhead photographs of their restaurant meals.

Cimino became an alcoholic and wandered the streets of Carlton until his death in the 1990s.

Henri-Gerard LeBateau

Remaining in Australia after competing in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, Henri-Gerard LeBateau became a chef on board the cruise ship Ocean Star, at a time when sea travel was the preserve of rich people with manners. LeBateau cooked what was then known as international cuisine, essentially classic French with a nod to other great world cuisines. Passengers, dressed appropriately for dinner, would sit down to chateaubriand or coq au vin with aged French wines while a palm court orchestra played soft strings. Later there would be dancing to jazz, before couples departed quietly for their rooms.

Two decades passed. LeBateau was now executive chef on the Fairsea Wanderer, a ship serving an entirely different clientele. In the galley, international cuisine had given way to the 1970s culinary concept known as the ‘buffet’, a kind of bastardised smorgasbord. This suited the new category of traveller, who no longer had to wait for a snooty waiter to serve him at table in due course, but could stand in front of the six-foot-high wall of food, pile up his plate on the spot with one of everything, slam it on the nearest table and proceed to eat exactly half of it, leaving a quarter camembert, several spicy chicken wings, a couple of cold potatoes in foil topped with sour cream and chives, two buttered mini bread rolls and a chewed piece of turkey for the waiters to collect. More food was thrown overboard than eaten during the shipboard smorgasbord era, and the shark population of the world doubled in that time. Waiters, freed from table service, were now effectively firemen, hosing down decks after the diners had staggered noisily, often in groups of more than two, back to their quarters.

Henri Gerard LeBateau had had enough by 1986, and returned to his native France, where he ran a small boutique pig farm, raising rare prized Cul Noir de Limousin pigs for their delicious flesh. "I was feeding pigs swill anyway," he said, as a sow nudged him lovingly with her big snout. "So I thought it might be nicer to feed real ones."

Henry St John

Henry St John was a little-known chef on several inland expeditions in the 1830s. He travelled variously with Charles Sturt, Ludwig Leichhardt and Edmund Kennedy. One such expedition navigated the inland rivers west of the Blue Mountains, when the region was known colloquially as the promised land.

Years of drought had made the terrain inhospitable. Minor vegetation ceased, culinary herbs were raised with difficulty and crops failed outright. St John conjured meals from sacks of flour and barrels of salt pork, towed in a broad-beamed, shallow-draughted skiff behind the major vessel. He resourcefully followed the natives’ example of smoking possums out of dead tree trunks, while being always cautious not to engulf the party in fire. Camp grounds had to be cleared because bush fire could cause the entire party to be incinerated along with much of the dry continent.

One day en route, the major vessel hit a rock and pitched, dragging the supply skiff across the same jagged underwater boulder, causing it to sink in twenty feet of murky water. The party took days to salvage what was left of the flour and pork, much unusable. St John struggled for five years to supply his crews with enough nutriments to keep their starving bodies going in the harshest of all environments. On the other hand, today’s television chef faces such perils as having to perform three takes for a precious director who thinks he is Hitchcock reincarnated.

Henry St John disappeared with a party of seven on an expedition to the Simpson Desert in 1939.

Vera

Like Cimino, Vera, a war widow, was only ever known by her first name. She was in her sixties and formidable, a large-framed woman still with jet-black hair around a friendly face that could turn to thunder in an instant. Vera was an old-school Australian cook who had ruled country hotel dining rooms with an iron fist for decades, feeding generations of farmers, shearers and farmhands.

By the late 1970s, she was in semi-retirement at a western suburbs reception centre called Goldenreagh that specialised in intimate weddings for up to 500 guests in each of two vast chambers, the ‘Opal’ and ‘Sapphire' rooms. Often both were booked, serviced by one immense kitchen. Such venues present a unique challenge for their chef, who has to turn out up to a thousand identical meals at almost exactly the same time, which is after the freeloading guests have been oiled by several pre-dinner sherries accompanying canapés; but before they start falling down drunk having drained the carafes pre-arranged on the tables while listening to the double-entendre telegrams being read out by the best man. At these functions, guests generally had two dinner choices: ‘beef’ or ‘chicken’, with vegetarians expediently catered for by being told to leave the meat on their plate and just eat the vegetables (of which there plenty), a commonsense solution since shouldered into the landfill of history by the era of entitlement and special treatment. Vera held the Australian Hotels Association award for the most covers ever cooked by one chef. It is estimated Vera cooked around seven million meals in her career, mostly 'chicken' and 'beef'.

For the really big occasions, Vera had an ingenious technique of par-cooking the steaks in the oven and then finishing them off on a flame-griller the size of a rocket launching pad. Brigades of waiters would line up at the kitchen dispatch point and troop out to the waiting throngs lined with plates like Roman armour. Vera’s arms were strong, the legacy of years of wielding a can-opener on gasometer-sized tins of Campbell’s Caterer’s Blend minestrone or Crème of Chicken soup.

One night, Goldenreagh went up in flames. They managed to get the guests out, although a bride's dress caught alight; but Vera was incinerated. "She died what she loved doing best," they orated, but I always find that rationalisation trite.

30.1.14

Picnic in a heatwave.

One very hot day in January. The main street of Daylesford was like Sorrento. Audis backing out of angle parking spots, BMWs indicating one way then turning another, people with phones glued to their ears jumping out onto the road in front of traffic, jam-packed cafes called 'Bocconcini', that kind of thing. I had wanted to stop and go into the double-storey bookshop next to the bank, but decided to come back another time when half of Melbourne wasn't visiting.

I drove straight through and down the hill, past the right turnoff to the top lake (unsignposted despite being Daylesford's best attraction) and turned left to the lower lake. Two kilometres and another turnoff. Past a gate was a caravan park office and several old caravans, including one painted bright green. Over the caravans, gum trees held thick pale limbs in the air. I camped here under one once and worried it was going to drop a branch on me. In the near distance, glimpses of cool water - Jubilee Lake - could be seen shimmering between European trees and stretches of lawn. Picnickers on blankets. A playground.

From Daylesford's main street to here was a world away. Picnickers and people who frequent cafés are two different species. The latter talk endlessly on devices, or power-laugh with each other, or shout order, or guzzle café lattes, or get impatient when the waiter has other customers to fetch panini and biscotti for.

On the other hand, picnickers never shout. They just sit quietly on their tartan rugs ignoring time and eating sandwiches they have made themselves. I have never seen a picnicker talking on a phone while slicing a piece of home-made fruit cake. It might have happened, but I have never seen it. They might swing into action when a child falls in the lake, or cry out when they spill hot water from the thermos on their leg; but aside from emergencies, serenity defines picnickers.

We changed all that. The blanket part ran to formula, with sandwiches and cake and thermos tea, but then the children played cricket, jumped in the lake, ran wild. There were eight of them, three families.

Later, I fell asleep on the blanket. I woke up, wondered what time it was and stared at pixillated sunshine through the giant canopy of leaves. I thought I could hear someone power-laughing in a distant cafe, but it was just some kookaburras in a tree across the lake. I fell asleep again. Peace.

16.1.14

Cool, clear water.

44 degrees? Poolside. Children splashing. Lunch on the lawn under an ancient peppercorn tree. The 14-year drought meant there had been little grass for years in places like this; now it is as lush as you like.

Not all that many people here. This place used to be packed in summers long gone. I suspect many children are parked in front of air conditioners and screens. This is heading towards an "in my day" harangue so let's leave it right there. And anyway, it's 46 degrees in Adelaide today. That's Celsius. Or Centigrade, as it used to be known.

Dinner that last hot night was risotto using 75/25 rice and lentils with a lot of garlic and onion and a little cumin for a dish that might have originated from slightly further around the Mediterranean. Served with sectors of ice-cold truss tomatoes and sprinkled with lemon juice for ample acid bite against the warmth of the cumin. Sensational on a hot night. Cold white wine to accompany.

And so, chilled leftover risotto on the lawn for lunch overlooking the pool, where merely looking at the water brings your core temperature down. What to read? The daily newspaper or another gruesome James Hadley Chase? I brought both along.

Alexandra is swimming. She goes underwater and then pops up again like a seal. That's all three of them waterborne. None had lessons, just pool time. Now to get her diving like Thomas in the link above.

*

Say Dan can't you see that big green tree,
Where the water's runnin' free.
It's waiting there for you and me
And water .... cool, clear water.


8.1.14

Never buy another jar of tomato sauce.

I used to. No more. Napoli sauce is easier and faster than going to the supermarket for a jar of Barilla or whatever it was I used to buy.

Dice an onion and cook it in a decent glug of olive oil and a splash of white wine. Drop in a chopped clove of garlic when onion is almost soft. Cook until just soft; do not brown, much less burn. Now add a tin or two of diced tomatoes, a dash of dried basil or a few leaves of fresh and salt and pepper. Don't be timid: pepper makes this. I put in half a teaspoonful per tin of tomatoes. I also add half a tablespoonful of butter for richness and a small dash of cumin powder. Half a teaspoon of sugar balances the acid.

Simmer, adding a little water to maintain sauce-like consistency. I always add a little milk to round out the creaminess towards the end.

Perfect on La Triestina giant spinach and ricotta ravioli. (Cooked well, they expand to the size of a playing card.)

30.12.13

The goats of Christmas past.

Several Christmases ago, I was giving an average five goats or wells to Third World villages in lieu of receiving gifts from friends. The number dwindled in recent years; and this year, none. The chattering classes seem to have given up on sanctimonious and conspicuous charity dressed up as Christmas cheer.

So why do I feel guilty? Every gift I unwrapped this year brought visions of a Third World villager peering to the horizon for a goat who would never come.

Happy new year to all.