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

22.1.15

Australia Day: first pick your lemons.

The following recipe is Greek-derived but since there's a lemon tree in every Australian back yard - at least there used to be - this is as Australian as the other Australian back yard icon - the Hills Hoist (also rapidly disappearing).

Grilled lemon meatballs.

Put 750 grams of mixed veal and pork mince into a large mixing bowl.

Use your hands to mix through an egg, 100 grams of grated parmesan cheese, three chopped garlic cloves, half a chopped red onion and three tablespoons of chopped parsley.

To the meat mixture, add the juice and the grated zest of one large lemon. Add salt and pepper and divide the mixture into golf-ball size orbs. Flatten them slightly and grill until done to your liking. Or you can do it Greek-style by putting them between two lemon leaves (the idea being to stop them charring prematurely over an open fire as well as to add more lemon flavour via the oil in the leaves).

This is a good alternative to the usual patties, the lemon adding a refreshing acid note to balance the fattiness of the meat. Ladies, bring out the chilled sauvignon blanc. I'll stick with very cold beer for this.

Serve with a traditional salad of lettuce, ripe tomatoes, onion rings and halved boiled eggs with mayonnaise dotted on the yolks, the whole thing sprinkled with plenty of shredded parsley. Or a hot side dish of shredded silver beet cooked with olive oil and garlic and scattered with walnuts fried until a deeper shade of golden brown.

*

I read a recipe for an Australia Day barbecue in the paper the other day. It suggested that you " ... grill a piece of meat for ten minutes each side and then rest in a warm place." Australia Day barbecuing is obviously hard work.

10.1.15

Holes in the garden. And summer's best dinner.

Very few tomatoes this year. And another thing: white flies are everywhere, or are they something else? Everything has holes in it. The new acanthus (planted last year from neighbourhood seeds) leaves are like colanders. The parsley is all pitted. Even the normally untouchable geraniums (which are really pelargoniums) are shot to bits. I don't want to spray unless I can find something that won't kill the spiders, ladybirds, etc. This garden warfare is too hard. I might concrete the whole lot. My father started doing that back in the sixties; covered probably 30% of the yard in concrete to make riding space for our bikes.

Meanwhile, you still can't beat fresh pasta with garden tomatoes and ricotta for a summer meal. The dish makes itself. Cook pasta; slice tomatoes; press a garlic clove into serving dishes to impart flavour; top cooked pasta with tomatoes and a drizzle of olive oil; top with ricotta; scatter fresh basil leaves over. Crack pepper over the lot.

I've just noticed. Not a single hole in the basil. Basil is indestructible in the garden.

8.1.15

The bureaucrat, the new year's resolution and the cucumber.

Bureaucrat Jerril Rechter tells of her descent into addiction:
"It's a habit I fell into easily. ... every evening after work, I'd go home and sit down to a refreshing tonic water and lime. It's just what I did at the end of a day."
Yes. There is no 'gin' in that sentence. The VicHealth CEO was hooked on tonic water, or possibly the lime; and every new year was a hellish groundhog day:
" ... every year on January 1, I'd resolve to reduce (sugary drinks) from my diet. And every year, by January 31, I'd have given in to my habit."
One heroic month without tonic and lime, and then back on the turps. Rehab? Counselling? Cold turkey? No. Rechter's own organisation comes to the rescue.
"I finally managed ... by signing up to our H30 Challenge, committing to swap every energy drink for water for 30 days."
Enter the cucumber:
"I also found it helped to have a jug of water infused with cucumber and mint or lime and ginger chilling in the fridge to enjoy when I got home."
Work in a bureaucracy and go home to cucumber-flavoured water. It's the Australian dream come true. Jubilant, sugar-free and awash with H2O, Rechter exhorts readers:
"Get family and friends to sign up for the challenge with you ... just register at www.h30challenge.com.au."
I tried to imagine the online stampede of thousands crashing the VicHealth website in their haste to pledge to drink cold water with vegetables in it, but failed.

Ironically, or by editorial design, an item pillorying the 'fun police' appeared adjacent to Rechter's sermon. On calls to ban McDonald's from a new children's hospital, Rita Panahi refers to
"the joyless fun police" ... "the most irrational reaction ... folk foaming at the mouth ... fevered response from some vexed souls ... miserable do-gooders ... a sneering attitude ... rooted far more in hysteria and snobbery ... ."
She then goes on to tell us what she really thinks.

But the last word belongs to Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, who is in for a fight with his bureaucrats, being quoted this morning as saying that people calling for a McDonald's ban should "get over themselves".

Eureka! A straight-talking politician!

Two better uses for cucumber than drowning it in water.

Summer’s best relish: cucumber, tomato, red onion and chilli.

Finely chop two very ripe tomatoes. Peel and dice a medium cucumber. Retain peel. Finely dice a small red onion. Chop a small green chilli very finely. Shred a small bunch of coriander. Juice a lime.

Combine ingredients, add a teaspoon of salt and a dash of chilli powder. Add liberally to swordfish kebabs, or wrap up with grilled chicken and a little yogurt in fenugreek roti.

Cocktail.

In a highball glass, top up two fingers of Pimm's with half and half dry ginger and lemonade. Add ice, a few strips of cucumber peel and a slice of orange and enjoy shamelessly while bureaucrats cringe over their enfeebling glasses of water. Old-fashioned, but bitter-sweet refreshing on a very hot day.

31.12.14

Happy New Year.




From the top: Alexandra at just under 2; William at 2; Thomas at just under 2 (wearing my running shoes).

Or is it at William the top, Thomas in the middle and Alex below?

No, wait ...

23.12.14

Picture in post below resized for readability.

22.12.14

Deck the Food Hall


(Click to enlarge.)

Roz Chast's illustrations of domestic desperation are like hand grenades with fool-proof pins. There's TNT in there but it never goes right off. Her characters keep a lid on it somehow.

Satire or reality? My mother has every one of those teas. Not that she's a foodie: far from it. People keep giving them to her. 'Gourmet' teas seem to have achieved a kind of exotic attraction beyond their actual composition and have become the default gift - like aromatherapy kits about twenty years ago - for old ladies who have, or have had, everything. My mother's tea collection sits at one end of the kitchen bench, in a corner near the stove. The tea, loose or in bags, is in tins with lids, tins without lids, spilling out of opened boxes, packed in unopened boxes, piled up in wicker baskets and just laying loose, a tea mountain which occasionally collapses with outcrops of organic, fair trade, single estate, sustainable, ethical and socially responsible caramel-flavoured tea crashing down like miniature avalanches.

Every time my mother puts on the kettle for a visitor - including family members - she offers the entire checklist of flavoured teas, even though you have told her a hundred times all you want is ordinary black tea with milk and two sugars, as you have for the last forty years.

The boxes, of course, are flammable, and the dry tea probably is as well. One day the kitchen will go up in flames, and West Essendon will be shrouded in Earl Grey, English Lunch and Bunny tea smoke. It will be a very civilised fire.

*

Happy Christmas shopping. The above scene is being enacted in millions of stores right now all over the world.

20.12.14

A case of mistaken identity. Or was it?

The boys were convinced Ishant Sharma works part-time as a security guard in Coles. They saw him there several times when we were shopping after school. But he wasn't there while the first test was on. That was proof enough for the two boys. "Why don't you ask him?" I said. "And find out once and for all?" They haven't seen him since; but we are in the middle of the second test right now. He must be in Brisbane.

This incident mirrors what happened to my younger brother when he visited India years ago, and was accosted by scores of young Indian boys, who asked him if he was Australian, and then if he was Geoff Lawson; as if one followed the other logically. If you're an Aussie, you must be Geoff Lawson.

*

Recipe for a hot summer night:

Sweet potato with chick peas and pine nuts.

Peel two large sweet potatoes, cut the flesh into centimetre cubes, and cook until just tender.

Meanwhile, heat through two drained cans of chickpeas.

Toast half a cup of pine nuts.

Finely dice a quarter of onion; or chop a few spring onions.

Cook enough couscous to fill a cup when fluffed up.

Combine the sweet potato and the warmed chickpeas. Gently mix half a teaspoon each of cumin powder, cinnamon, powdered ginger, pepper and salt through the fluffed couscous. Now fold through the sweet potato and chickpea mixture and dress with the juice of a lemon and a little white vinegar.

To finish, shower the salad with toasted pine nuts, the onion and some chopped coriander.

10.12.14

The Iron Horse.

Titles roll. Music.

Scene one: day

Tableau: the ancient shed at the end of the yard leans to the east. It was built in the 1940s, a simple rectangular steel frame with sheet-iron walls and a corrugated roof. It has one door, no window, and no light, because power was never connected. It is pitch black inside. You prop open the north-facing door to admit light. This works best in winter when the sun is further north, slanting in.

Action: I enter screen left and pull open the crooked shed door. Ancient hinges complain. My eyes become accustomed to the darkness, and a great shape can be made out in the corner: a hulk of cast iron on wheels. Covered in dust, it resembles an abandoned steam train in some long-forgotten rail yard shed. Tracking shot: I somehow I drag it out into daylight. Locked-off camera: I hose the dust off the iron horse, and exit screen right. It dries in the warm air.

Scene two: evening

Against a painted backdrop of a line of ornamental pear trees and a hedge of x. cupressocyparis leylandii, I load the iron horse up with coal, beautiful coal; bane of the eco-warrior (yet to exist, of course) and friend of the locomotive engineer and the barbecue lover alike.

Extras furtively enter stage right and steal pieces of unlit coal for their tepee fires. I light the coal pan with some kerosene-soaked firelighters, and that dramatic fiery moment signals the commencement of barbecue season, a quasi-religious experience akin to the lighting of candles at the start of Advent, coincidentally occurring in the same week.

Cutaway: barbecued lamb.

The meat
Take four lamb leg steaks, beat them with a meat mallet to flatten out slightly and arrange them on a plate. Over the meat, scatter four finely chopped cloves of garlic and ten chopped mint leaves. Add the juice of two lemons, a squirt or two of olive oil and sprinkle cumin, salt and pepper.

The salad
Meanwhile, rinse, spin and chop a bunch of parsley as finely as possible. Take a dozen mint leaves and despatch the same way. Cut six spring onions finely and mix all three together.

Rinse and drain 75g of bulgur (use couscous if you have no bulgur but don't rinse) and mix with the juice of two lemons and three finely chopped tomatoes. Digression: there's only one way to cut a tomato and that is with a very sharp knife. Hate to state the obvious, but many people are afraid of sharp knives. A chef recently said that the old saying about blunt knives being more dangerous is nonsense, and that a very sharp knife can do severe damage in the wrong hands. He was right. Tracy, for example, refuses to use a sharp knife at all and prudently uses a serrated knife on nearly everything in the interests of safety. She should have been called Prudence, but was stuck with Tracy, because she was born in 1965 and in that year every girl in Australia was christened Tracy. Whence (sic: SOED, entry 4) there were sixteen Tracys in her Grade One class at Doveton Primary School in 1971. Sixteen! The rest of the girls were Cheryls, Susans and Donnas.

Meanwhile, back on set so to speak, combine the tomatoes, lemon juice and bulgur mixture with the parsley, mint and onion mixture. Fold through a few tablespoons of olive oil and watch the mesmeric blend of deep green, bright red and white gain a sheen as the oil does its unctuous job. It will be difficult to prevent yourself eating it on the spot, because the aroma that arises from the mixing bowl is as irresistible as any aroma ever smelled by mankind.

Sauce or dressing?
You decide. Blend a can of butter beans (as a change from the ubiquitous chick pea) with a cup of yogurt, a few leaves of mint, a clove of garlic and salt and pepper. It will have a runnier consistency than hummus. That makes it a sauce or a dressing rather, than a side. But that's just pedantry.

Scene three: the meal

The coal blazes, lighting up the frontier set and casting a golden radiance on the faces of milling extras. As the flames die and the coals glow, meat sizzles, chargrilling and spreading tantalising aromas across the set. Extras queue. Meat is distributed, sauce/dressing added and plates piled high with tabouleh and yogurt, and served with fresh flat bread. As the night cools and the colour drains from the painted desert sky, extras gather around the iron horse, which radiates its comforting warmth. You need heat. Heat is good. It keeps people alive. It's the cold that kills them.

*

The Iron Horse, directed by John Ford, 1924.

"One hundred cooks were required to feed the 5000 extras involved." – Peter Cowie, from John Ford and the American West, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2004

*

It feels like that around here. I should have worked in movies.

3.12.14

"I'll see you out in the middle."

It was one of Australia's greatest speeches ever made.

That makes two in five days: by one man.

"The same blades of grass ... the same stands ... the same fence ..."

28.11.14

27.11.14

Lobby Loyde tells us what he really thinks.

Now that’s funny. After mentioning Lobby Loyde, Melbourne guitar legend (except he was real) somewhere the other day, an article in last weekend's newspaper quoted his opinion on the late television music show, Countdown.

Countdown commenced in 1974, replacing the excellent un-hosted GTK. Why do you need a host? Just play the music and cut out the middle man.

I did not like Countdown. I didn't like the mostly rubbish music acts; the live screaming teen audience that yelled the same high-decibel hysteria for every performance no matter how good or bad; the jabbering host who was always one jaw-drop away from actual dribbling; and the terrible theme music, if you could call it that.

In other words, I was a music snob.

Or was I?

I looked up Thomas J. Guest’s very important reference work, Thirty Years of Hits: Melbourne Top 40 Research, to see if the music at that time was as bad as I remembered.

Turning to the year Countdown first screened, 1974, I ran my eye down the ten best-selling singles of that year. Let's have a look.

At the top of the list - 1974's best-selling song - was 'My Coo Ca Choo' by Alvin Stardust. That is not a joke. It might sound like a satire on – or an outright theft of – glam rocker David Bowie's Ziggie Stardust persona. But no. Alvin Stardust was a real singer and 'My Coo Ca Choo' dogged the airwaves for sufficient weeks in 1974 to make it a huge, enormous, mammoth hit. But utter rubbish nonetheless.

Number two for 1974 was 'Seasons in the Sun' by Terry Jacks, sporting such lyrics as 'we had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the ...'. No, I can't even bring myself to type the stupid rhyme.

Third for the year was Stevie Wright's 'Evie', a reasonable three part ballad/rocker. Debbie Byrne's tired cover of 'He's a Rebel' came in at No. 4, followed by another local cover, the cheesy 'Hey Paula', performed by TV talk-show hosts Ernie Sigley and Denise Drysdale. Enough said. On air, you could imagine the opening bars of that track accompanied by the sounds of thousands of listeners punching their radio off-button.

Sixth biggest song of 1974 was 'The Lord's Prayer' by real nun Sister Janet Meade, whose rock-mass trilling was responsible for thousands of churches abandoning Palestrina, Byrd, Victoria and Allegri, their organists - and possibly even their organ itself - and replacing them with amateur rag-tag 'choristers' who thought they could play guitar, turning every response into twanging dissonance and reinventing church music into contemporary 'hymns' that were kind of faintly deified versions of post-flower-power pop songs minus the drug and free love references. It was vile.

Then came Paper Lace's frothy 'Billy Don't Be a Hero' followed by William Shakespeare (correct) who sounded like a cross between Gene Pitney and Bon Scott while burbling in falsetto a forgettable song entitled 'Can't Stop Myself From Loving You'. Shakespeare had been groomed into a glam rocker by his handlers, and subsequently mirrored Gary Glitter's career in more than just costume.

Daniel Boone (it was the year of wacky pop star names) was ninth with his tacky 'Sky Diver'.

That leaves the tenth biggest song of the year. David Bowie's 'Sorrow' was head and shoulders above the first nine, yet it was the only one of the ten not to top the charts during the year, peaking in second spot in January.

There's proof! Extrapolating that top ten result, only 10% of songs in 1974 were any good. In 1974, those nine frightful songs beat offerings from Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Elvis, the Rolling Stones, several Beatles, Bryan Ferry, Elton John, the Hollies, Grand Funk Railroad, Billy Thorpe, the Steve Miller Band, the Bee Gees and many more class acts.

And given that Countdown picked up on every novelty hit and fleeting musician who came along, let's hear what Lobby Loyde had to say about the show, if not the music industry more broadly at that time:
" ... the death of music ... definite Satan land ... a shit show ... the beginning of the f..king end."
I had to laugh reading that. I've spent the last thirty years thinking I was a music snob, only to discover that one of Melbourne's best musicians agreed with me. Cop that, Countdown fans!

*

(The jabbering host, Ian Meldrum, was paradoxically a very good music producer, having delivered one of Australia’s all-time great songs, the mind-bending eight-minute colossus, Russell Morris's 'The Real Thing', a track that sounds fresh even today. The ABC couldn’t find a professional host for Countdown - reputedly suggesting the aforementioned William Shakespeare for the job - but ended up leaving Meldrum floundering in the job for more than twenty years.)

The Never, Um, Ever Ending Story: Life, Countdown and Everything in Between. By Ian 'Molly' Meldrum with Jeff Jenkins. Allen & Unwin, 458pp, $39.99 (HB)

Buy it for your parents for Christmas. They probably watched Countdown and will enjoy the nostalgia, even if they hated the show.

26.11.14

There's more danger in the carpark.

Why would I stop my children playing cricket? Every time we exit the cricket ground, I have to shepherd them against the mad drivers in the car park that also services the main street shops. It is those idiot shoppers, not the sportsground patrons, who drive like possessed demons. Not the ute-driving cricketers or footballers; but the four-wheel-drive mothers who aren’t looking because they’re staring into devices, or who think they are bulletproof in the massive vehicles they cannot control properly; or who are just too plain stupid to care about pedestrians.

Meanwhile, a prayer for Phil Hughes.

24.11.14


Photograph taken by my father, 1970. Cnr Mt Alexander Road and Ormond Rd, Moonee Ponds.

22.11.14

Inspired by Herge: drawing the Volvo Polestar S60 in action.

After last Sunday's thrilling finish to the Phillip Island 400, the boys got to work with their HBs. The Polestar is a beautiful piece of machinery, its sculpted lines reminiscent of the hulking powerhouse racing cars of decades gone by.

Garry Rogers of Garry Rogers Motorsport, whose driver Scott McLaughlin stole Sunday's race in the last straight, posted the resulting pictures here. Well done boys. Now it's a hard career decision: commercial artist or racing driver. Hmmmmm.

(Herge, who wrote and illustrated the Tintin series, started out as an illustrator in the automotive industry.)