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

26.3.15

Countdown continues: the top ten vegetables of all time.

NO. 9: ASPARAGUS

Although commonplace now, the semi-mystical asparagus still provokes sighs of pleasurable anticipation when served to grateful diners.

People go to any lengths (pardon the pun) to collect this delicacy, even risking encounters with snakes and traffic, as Donaldo Saveiro observed:
Robust ladies in rubber boots, carrying sticks to ward off vipers, can be seen constantly patrolling the highways and backroads here in Umbria from March through June in a perennial search for wild asparagus (asparagi selvatici) that grow along the roadways, so fond are the Umbrians of spaghetti alla boscaiola and tagliatelle con salsa di asparagi.
- La Vera Cucina Italiana, Macmillan, 1991

Unceremoniously chopped into pasta is one thing, but chefs are often tempted by the long, delicate slenderness of the asparagus spear to over-design. I was once served twelve asparagus placed radially on an oversize white round plate. A cherry tomato sat in the centre and black drops of some kind of infused oil had been placed meticulously between each spear, to give it the fashionable splattered look without actually having been splattered. In other words, artfully instead of artlessly. Apprentice chefs will know what I mean. I think the oil was truffle, but it might have been Castrol. The plate looked like a car wheel with worn bearings. I wasn't sure whether to eat the spears clockwise or anti-clockwise, then I remembered the old rule about tightening wheel nuts: you go next to the diametric nut. So I ate them that way.

The lesson is, never over-design food. The presentation of food should stimulate the appetite, not the inner architect.

What to do with asparagus:

1. Barbecue or grill a bunch of asparagus. Serve on an oval platter with a cruet of Vietnamese dipping sauce. Sprinkle with shredded Asian basil.

2. Steamed and serve with poached eggs, shavings of parmigiano and a light shower of freshly cracked pepper.

3. Cook angel hair pasta. Chop asparagus into one inch lengths and steam with snow peas. Lightly poach a chicken breast in white wine and garlic, then cube and toss with cooked pasta and vegetables.

4. Grill asparagus and scatter crumbled blue vein cheese, capers, cracked pepper and a dash of vinaigrette.

5. Asparagus, salmon and baby potato salad. Combine potatoes and asparagus in a bowl. Fold through a can of red salmon. Top with mayonnaise and a few capers.

6. Rigatoni with broad beans and asparagus: cook pasta, shell and boil a cup of broadbeans, steam asparagus, then sauté both for a minute in olive oil and chopped garlic, combine with pasta, add cubed feta and chopped parsley.

*

Historical footnote:
We take fresh asparagus for granted now (even if some of it comes from Peru in the off-season) but in the past more asparagus was bought in the tin than fresh. Edgell canned asparagus provided sandwiches for generations of picnic-day racegoers or government house open day guests. Quite nice actually, on wholemeal with a smear of mayonnaise and some cracked pepper, or rolled in crustless white bread.

18.3.15

Countdown: the top ten vegetables of all time.

A panel of experts commissioned by Mr Kitchen Hand has come up with a definitive list of the world's top ten best-loved vegetables.

The panel was plied with pizza and red wine during a marathon session behind locked doors before announcing the results. We commence the countdown at No. 10, below.

The Top Ten Vegetables of All Time

NO. 10: ZUCCHINI.

Zucchini is the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde of the vegetable world. Boil the hell out of it and you'll serve up a bland vegetable with a slightly bitter aftertaste - and you'll never cook it again.

But treat it with the respect this green marrow-like vegetable deserves, and it turns into a completely different article.

Marry zucchini with fiery flavours, barbecue it after marinading it, or stuff it with ... just about anything. Cheap, easy to cook, and widely available, the zucchini deserves its place in the Top Ten, despite the reservations of some of the panel.

Steamed zucchini.

Sounds innocuous, but makes a great side dish for a lamb roast.

Slice two large zucchini into rounds, put in a pot with two medium sliced onions, two tablespoons of butter, a dash of dried chervil (or use dill or other fragrant herb), a pinch of cayenne, a teaspoon of sugar, a tablespoon of chopped parsley and salt and pepper to taste. Add a few tablespoons of water. The idea is to soften the zucchini and onion gently so that they take up the flavours slowly. You end up with a buttery texture and magnificent flavour.

Stuffed zucchini with raisins.

Zucchinis grow quite large but are harvested at half their natural size. If you have larger ones (not too large - they turn into solid baseball bats), stuff and bake them. Try this Sicilian recipe for a change.

Take three large zucchinis, trim ends, slice two of them in two down the middle, and scoop out the pulp to produce a canoe shape with a quarter-inch shell.

Chop the third zucchini and the pulp of the first two.

Meanwhile, plump a heaping tablespoon of raisins in warm water.

Heat some olive oil in a pan, add the chopped zucchini, a chopped onion, and a scored clove of garlic. Sauté while stirring.

Add the raisins, a tablespoon of toasted pine nuts, a tablespoon of chopped mint, a pinch of chilli powder, salt and pepper. Stir. Add two tablespoons of white wine. Stir.

Now add a quarter cup of breadcrumbs and a tablespoon of grated parmigiano or packet parmesan. You want a firm consistency. Adjust with small additions of breadcrumbs and cheese.

Press into zucchini canoes, mounding them up. Place them on an oiled baking tray and place in oven. When doing this, try not to let the canoes slide off your baking tray, which is now effectively an oiled slipway. This happened to me the first time I did these.

Bake 30 minutes. Finish under a grill to brown.

*

All right, the pedants are on to us. Zucchini is actually a fruit, but that is only its botanical descriptor. The judging panel's position on the matter is: if it tastes like a vegetable and it looks like a vegetable, it is a vegetable. No correspondence will be entered into. Judges' decision is final. See PDS for details. This product may not be right for you. Etc, etc. Blah, blah. Several vegetables were harmed during the making of this survey. Terms and conditions apply. LMCT5555.

17.3.15

He wasn't Irish.

I've posted the following recipe before, but it bears repeating. It works well at this time of year in Australia when, during the cooler days of early autumn, thoughts turn to casseroles and stews. While today is forecast to reach 28 degrees, the sky is slate grey and the wind is whipping drizzle across the city, where sentimental workers are right now lining up at pubs and bars for Guinness.

Irish stew.

Roughly slice two large onions; cut four large potatoes into rounds as thick as the head on a pint of Guinness; chop four carrots the same way.

Place lamb forequarter or neck chops in a large pot with alternate layers of onions, potatoes and carrots. Add water to just cover; add salt and pepper and plenty of chopped curly-leaf parsley.

Bring to boil, skim and simmer 90 minutes. Cool and chill overnight. Next day, remove fat before reheating. Serve with barley, colcannon or simple mashed potato.

Colcannon.

Some consider this more delicious than the actual stew and they could be right. Peel four medium potatoes, cook until soft. Mash.

Meanwhile, shred a quarter cabbage (I prefer Savoy) and cook it for ten minutes, or until just turning transparent. Drain. Melt two tablespoons of butter in a pan, add the boiled cabbage and a cup of chopped spring onions. Fry, stirring, on low heat for a minute or two.

Now fold the cabbage and onion mixture through the mashed potato, add enough warm milk to give it a creamy consistency, add white pepper (never black), pile up on plates and serve with extra butter melting in its crevasses.

Pour a stout with a creamy foaming head and thank St Patrick, who incidentally was a Scot. There's a conversation stopper for your St Patrick's Day party.

*

My earliest St Patrick's Day memory is one of the annual marches at which Archbishop Mannix had Melbourne's entire Catholic school population gather in the Treasury Gardens, and then march up to the Cathedral in massed columns, like legions of Roman soldiers. Mannix had always been politically influential, but renewed his efforts after the Labor split of the mid-1950s, when half of Labor sided with the communists. These days they pal up with the criminal class.

13.3.15

High Noon.

Sometimes you can't help overhearing conversations. Even one-way ones. Occasionally the one-way ones are even more interesting, because having to imagine the unheard replies makes you listen even closer.

It was late morning on a warm, overcast autumn day. I stood at the checkout queue by the customer service desk at the Rye store of one of the two major supermarkets. While I waited I daydreamed out the front window towards the beach across the road.

A voice behind the service desk brought my attention back inside. It was a middle-aged staff member, talking on the phone, obviously to the store manager. She looked flustered.

"A customer is coming to see you. She was here about an hour ago. She bought about six bags of shopping," the staff member was saying. "She rang the store a few minutes ago. I answered the phone. I've just hung up. She wants to bring it all back."

Pause. It was the manager's turn to speak.

The staff lady again: "Everything. She said she had shopped for lunch, and when she got home her guests had cancelled, and now she wants to bring everything back. And she wants a refund."

Pause.

"It's all fresh food. I told her the money back guarantee was if you're not satisfied with the quality of the products, not if your guests don't turn up or cancel. She wouldn't listen."

Pause.

"Fresh bread, cheese, cold meat, salami, pate, cold chicken, oysters, prawns, that kind of thing. Fresh fruit, milk, juice, and a few other things. Couple of hundred dollars. I told her we'd have to throw it straight in the skip, because we can't resell fresh food. She said that was our problem, and she didn't care what we did with it, and she just wanted her money back ... "

Pause.

"No, she wouldn't listen. Then she said we could afford it more than she could. She's on her way back right now with her shopping. She'll be here in about five minutes. She wants to see you and demand a full refund. She'll probably tell you I was rude."

Pause.

"Thanks. I'll call you as soon as she arrives."

She hung up, looking relieved. By now I'd moved forward to a checkout. It was five to twelve. I left the store. But I did think about waiting around for the showdown.

*

Look at that big hand move along
Nearin’ high noon.

10.3.15

Why was the broom so short?

This city is obsessed with coffee, that milky, jittery, machined addiction made by poseurs who call themselves baristas.

Just look at our major waste problem, the environmental disaster that is disposable take-away coffee cups littering the inner city. Disposable was supposed to mean single use, not throw it on the footpath or out the window or leave it under the train seat or on the park bench. They're everywhere. And now, the disposables are carried in a disposable cardboard multi-cup carrier. Insane. Aside from all that, no drink should ever be taken from cardboard or that abomination, polystyrene. Ban the lot of them. Hot drinks should only ever be drunk from porcelain or glass. All those inner urban Green-voting hipsters should live up to their 3Rs mantras. Reuse, recycle ... or recant, pretenders.

That brings us to the superior drink, tea; drunk by the silent minority – perhaps even majority – and appreciated for its loftier qualities, its more subtle pleasures. While coffee tastes like mud, tea's myriad flavour nuances are almost impossible to capture in words, ranging from savoury crushed leaf to the zesty scent of distant trees on fresh highland mountain air; powerfully satisfying yet with a finesse no coffee could approach. No wonder legendary Japanese director Ozu made a movie celebrating tea's flavour, which is inscrutable (to use an expression that has fallen out of use, but is nevertheless a very good one). Coffee could never be described as inscrutable. Obvious, yes. Inscrutable, no.

I drained my teacup and turned my thoughts from comparing tea with coffee to the garden. It was still a jungle, but now I thought I had its measure. Amazing what a tea break will do.

First, I wondered how to get rid of the fire hydrant. I could surreptitiously place it on a street corner where it would look quite at home, posing less of environmental threat than ten million abandoned cardboard coffee cups.

Pondering that problem, I entered a shrubbery of some large-leafed exotic. Pushing aside a couple of leaves the size of elephants' ears, I gazed at several large pieces of semi-rigid steel mesh, the kind that is used for training espalier plants. The edges had been trimmed at the ends of the horizontals instead of the usual, and safer, continuous edge; leaving a dozen or so lethal rusty six-inch bayonets on each piece, pointing directly at the eye of whoever may happen to venture behind the foliage. Since the garden is still frequently played in by grandchildren who hit balls into the corners, I removed the steel mesh sheets, folded them by wrestling them over and over into smaller folds while standing on one end, and dumped them into the rubbish.

Later, while putting away some spare pots in the shed, I had to step over a 10kg bag of weed and feed. It was so old, the plastic bag was breaking down, and fine dust was seeping out, making a haze in the close air of the shed. Keep out of reach of children, the label read, where you could still read it. Wear a mask while applying, it said. And, wash hands after use. The contaminated shed also held cricket and tennis balls and bats and racquets and other playthings, doubling as a playhouse for the grandchildren of the household. I found a garbage bag, bagged up the weeping chemical cocktail and threw it out.

Back in the garden, I dug away layers of dirt and leaf mould in another corner to reveal some original edging that could have been decades old: a single line of carefully mortared red bricks on an edge strip of concrete. It probably hadn’t seen light since the 1970s.

Nearly finished for the day. I was clearing a pathway where I had removed some invasive seaside daisies. I should have used my own broom, but I'd left it in the car, and there was one standing by the fence. It was an odd short-handled one that looked like it was made for midgets. I picked it up and made one broad stroke. It was far too short. The end of the handle passed through my hands, something flew off its end, and I felt a kind of coldness in my small finger. I knew what had happened even before I looked. I picked up the broom. Sure enough. It was one of those cheap aluminium handle shafts that bend easily. Someone had at one time broken it right off, placing the cap loosely over the new end, which was jagged. It had cut through my finger like a knife. It was a clean cut, between the first and second joints. I threw the broom in the bin with all the other junk. That was the end of the day's work. Sometime I don’t know when to stop.

The yard had seemed much smaller now, than when I had grown up here in the 1960s. They always do.

6.3.15

Anyone lost a fire hydrant?

It was just a slightly complicated garden if you were visiting, but if you had to work on it, it was a jungle. I was working on it, first time in years.

"Mow the lawn," was the brief, but that was just shorthand for tidy the garden after forty years of neglect. And 'lawn' was a metaphor, albeit a possibly unintended one, unless she was being ironic. Language is difficult.

The canopies of some of trees were just about down to the ground so it was hard to get the mower underneath let alone myself, being six feet tall. I kind of laid flat and pushed it under like one of those roller trolleys mechanics use to slide under cars. Other sections of lawn were dotted with various rampant ground cover plantings that had wandered from the areas intended to be covered. I went around these and erred on the side of mowing as much of them back as possible.

Half an hour of lawnmower gymnastics and the air was thick with dirt. There hadn't been a lot of grass at many points.

The next stage was to do a bit of tidying. This meant I had to enter undergrowth, where daylight barely entered. It's amazing what undergrowth will hide. The ground in here was not even. Broken crocks; dirt-encrusted clay figures that looked like they came from someone's year seven art classes; a couple of Buddha figures, still smiling despite the humiliation of being covered in dirt and laying on their faces; old tennis balls with no colour left; some empty wire hanging baskets that were almost rusted away. Two maidenhair ferns, hanging grimly onto life, were not much more than compacted balls of roots and earth. Each sat on ancient 1970s plastic and tubular steel chairs. The plastic was half gone and the tubular legs were rusted through and when I moved them, they collapsed slowly, like shot gangsters in a B-grade movie. I threw the maidenhair ferns into a corner and took the chairs back out into the daylight, where the remaining plastic spontaneously turned to dust. That got me three feet further into the jungle, where it was even darker. In the gloom, beneath trailing vines and the foliage of several different varieties of shrub or tree, I found a road sign. A road sign? How did that get there? Then, in the corner, a fire hydrant. Yes, a fire hydrant. Someone in that family had been a serial civil infrastructure thief. I felt like an archaeologist, or a detective.

Two hours had elapsed. I moved to another corner of the garden. A very large clump of untidy jasmine was growing on the ground, as if in some botanical experiment to discover what jasmine does if you don't train it on something. Here's what happens: it sends fronds out, both above and below ground, and trains itself. If a fence or a tree is a hundred metres away, it will find it. I started reeling in fronds, or whatever they are called, with my bare hands. I must have dragged in several kilometres of the stuff. A lot of it was white, which meant it had travelled underground. The longest one would easily have travelled through the rear property, gone under Hoffman's Road, and reached Niddrie, possibly even St Bernard's College. When I had most of it back in its home State, I cut its parent plant off at the roots, rolled it up, and put it behind the shed for disposal later. It looked like one of those cable reels they string telephone lines under oceans with.

Then I rested. I was half done.

4.3.15

How memory works; and summer's best pasta dish.

It used to be said that humans can remember up to seven digits easily and it got harder after that; hence the original exchange-based seven-digit telephone numbers. You used to be able to remember the numbers of family and close friends without resorting to that exquisite 1950s Bakelite/plastic relic, the teledex.

Yes. I can prove that. Given that the 04 on today’s phone numbers is a given, that leaves eight digits to be recalled. Yet Tracy cannot remember her own phone number ... let alone anyone else's! And I'm not much better. QED, which is an old expression roughly translated into today's language as I told you so.

That figure - seven - occurs in more recent research, once again undertaken exhaustively across a control group of five, which showed that on average home chefs retain a shortlist of exactly seven recipes that they rotate regularly. Of course, beyond the magnificent seven favourites exists an infinity of possibilities with which the home chef occasionally flirts, sometimes even to consummation. Then they revert, satisfied, to the same old seven.

Now: the anthropological explanation, which is as mundane as it is obvious. Simply, man got used to associating a particular activity with each day of the week, as it (a) helped him remember what day it was and (b) meant not having to think too long about what to eat. Male thinks: Today is Thursday, therefore we are eating freshly caught deer, which I am about to go out and hunt. Female thinks: Tomorrow is Friday, and because he will be too tired to hunt after today, I will have to pick berries.

The following recipe falls into the occasional category, but is so tasty it should really be a weekly special, at least during summer. It is also ridiculously easy to make, proving that somewhere along the line man became addicted to hard work, probably when he had to drag home a deer.

Pasta with feta and cherry tomatoes.

Not every pasta sauce has to be cooked. The following is an old favourite which I have probably posted before in the dozen years of this weblog.

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to the boil. Drop in enough rigatoni for however many you are serving. Due to budgetary pressures, I have been using the 65 cent Coles home brand, which are fine to a point but can tend to fall apart if cooked too long. Yield is also less than the name brands which fill out better and hold their shape and texture longer.

Meanwhile, place in a large bowl a dozen halved cherry or similar tomatoes with a cup of chopped spring onions, a cup of feta cut into small cubes (or merely crumbled), half a cup of chopped parsley, and a tablespoon of chopped dill. Add a splash of olive oil and roughly combine ingredients with one rotation of the spoon. Those quantities will serve two – adjust accordingly.

Drain pasta when done to your liking, place into bowls and spoon over fetta and tomato mixture.

26.2.15

A short history of comfort food, part two.

After cheese mac, the world's second favourite comfort food - according to a recent authoritative survey of two people - is meatballs. When you add cheese to the recipe, the desirability of the recipe reaches stratospheric levels. Dishes such as these were frowned upon for years but, recently, 'experts' have decided that cholesterol is no longer harmful. All that wasted energy avoiding cholesterol has probably cause stress-based heart disease in millions of people. So the biggest health tip of all is: never listen to health bureaucrats' warnings.

Meatballs with cheddar and mushrooms.

Place a large fist-sized ball of pork and veal mince into a large mixing bowl and, with your hands, fold into it two or three very finely chopped button mushrooms, half a cup of grated cheddar, half a very finely diced small zucchini, one very finely chopped spring onion, a chopped clove of garlic, a dash of Worcestershire sauce, a tablespoonful of oatmeal, a sprinkling of polenta and a dash of pepper.

Using flour to cut the stickiness, form into balls the size of golf balls and drop into simmering tomato sauce – half a jar of passata, one can of diced tomatoes, plenty of fresh chopped basil and parsley from garden, pepper, salt and a dash of sugar.

Simmer until cooked through thoroughly. Serve over spaghetti and grate cheese liberally.

Drink: McLaren Vale shiraz. Cheers, health bureaucrats! What are you worried about this week?

19.2.15

Macaroni cheese or a carrot?

Nothing beats macaroni cheese. It's the ultimate comfort food. Would you rather go home to macaroni cheese or a raw carrot? My case rests.

Macaroni cheese is usually made with short pasta, for no better reason than convenience. It's the kind of food people eat while watching television. You can stick a fork in it and not have to avert your gaze from the screen.

But I use fettuccine instead, and this one small change takes the dish to a whole new level. As you turn your fork to unfurl the long strands of fettuccine from the unctuous clutches of the creamy cheesy sauce in the bowl, it adheres; producing a combination of texture, taste, aroma and culinary sensuality unmatched in fine dining. You just can’t watch TV at the same time, or you’ll flick cheese sauce all over the couch.

Dreamy fettuccine with three cheeses.

Melt 60g - just guess - of butter in a saucepan. Move saucepan off the heat and add enough flour to make a roux, stirring. Once combined, add two cups of milk, put back on the flame and stir until it starts to thicken. Then add a cupful of grated mature cheddar, half a cup of flaked or grated sharp parmesan, and – my secret ingredient – a teaspoon (or more) of hot English mustard. Stir until almost thickened. Cheese sauces may need different degrees of thickness according to their purpose; this must be baked around the pasta, so should not be too thick to start with. Add milk to adjust and keep stirring. When you're happy, scatter a quarter cup of chopped parsley through the sauce.

Cook the pasta quickly. It will cook more in the casserole, so stop at al dente. Drain and place into casserole dish. Drizzle pasta with olive oil. Pour the sauce over the oiled pasta. Draw the strands to allow the sauce to sink and coat all the pasta. Smooth over the top with a spatula. (Mine is, bafflingly to others, called Clark*.)

Before you put it in the oven, dot the top with extra sharp vintage cheddar - the kind that is so mature it cannot be grated but just crumbles - to give it an extra kick. Don't worry about breadcrumbs or any other fussy ingredients. They're a distraction at best and stick in your teeth at worst. Macaroni and cheese is the world's most literal recipe name.

Put the lid on casserole and bake for 30 minutes, then take top off and brown for another ten to fifteen minutes.

Serve with a large glass of Bendigo shiraz and sleep the sleep of kings. Unless you're the type to whom cheese gives nightmares.

*After the 1960s British singer. Ridiculous.

18.2.15

Greek-style baked prawns with tomato and garlic.

Prawns on the barbecue can be boring, especially if they're cooked even a few seconds too long, because they dry out.

Baked with white wine, they stay moist and have an enhanced flavour. Just make sure you buy Australian ones, because you never know what the Chinese ones have been swimming in, but I'm sure you can imagine, given recent news stories.

Peel, devein and clean two dozen large prawns, retaining heads and tails, and fry quickly in olive oil, barely a minute each side. Throw in four diced garlic cloves at the same time so that they will fry briefly but not burn. Now tip in a cup of white wine, shake pan, cook another 30 seconds and then put the lot into a casserole. Speed is the essence.

Tip half a dozen finely diced, very ripe truss or roma tomatoes (or a can of diced tomatoes) into the same frypan, add a few torn basil leaves and a good shake of cracked black pepper. Warm through.

Cut a piece of fetta cheese into a dozen cubes of the size you would add to a greek salad. Place these over the prawns in the casserole and tip over the warmed tomatoes. Bake ten minutes until cheese starts to melt.

Serve with crusty bread to dip into the juices, a bowl of jumbo black olives flecked with chili and herbs, and a large carafe of very cold white wine. Serve on a blue and white checked tablecloth and you could be in Greece.

11.2.15

A woman ahead of her time.

My first mother-in-law collected 1970s trash, which is cool today, but she collected it while the 1970s were still going. Now, her house would be a collector's gold mine. It was an old bloated Queen Anne style with bay windows and draughty hallways and return verandahs; plenty of space to fill up with useless knick-knacks.

The living room could have filled a copper mine. Or was it brass? On one wall was a life-size brass rubbing of a medieval knight, taken from some castle in England. Next to that was a massive copper pan hanging by its three-foot wooden handle on a very large hook. You could kill a burglar with it, if you could lift it. One another wall was an imitation knight's shield with an image of an English village pressed into it, showing a church spire, a farmer wheeling a brace of pigs to market, and a curved bridge over a river. It was the kind of thing you'd sit in your chair and look at once, and then wonder why anyone would go to all the trouble. Next to the shield was a pressed brass chicken. These objects were usually fish, for making 1970s-style salmon mousse, but this was a chook. Maybe some people made chicken mousse in the 1970s. That would have gone down well at an Australia Day barbecue after a few hours in the sun. Maybe that's why it was on the wall, never to make mousse again.

By the fireplace was an ornate brass bucket with wooden handles for holding briquettes or firewood, but it only ever held copies of TV Week with Graham Kennedy or Ernie Sigley on the cover. In front of the fire was a giant fireguard that would have stopped a bonfire falling onto the hearth, brass with a bas relief hunting scene. Over the fire, the mantelpiece was congested with brass ornaments, pewter goblets, a tarnished ice bucket and several silver photo frames.

There was so much metal in the place it rattled like a cannery in full production when the wind blew. I stayed overnight a few times and left with tinnitus each time.

But copper was not the only 1970s obsession.

There was macramé. My mother-in-law's kitchen was full of it. Macramé was big for about five minutes in the seventies. That little acute on the last 'e' gave it instant flair and chic. Macraaaaar-may, the suburbanites called it, with a long drawn-out middle syllable, as today they would order a moscaaaaa-to in a wine bar. Macramé was essentially bits of coloured rope tied into intricate, but ridiculous geometric shapes. Of course, the trend didn't last because it was ugly, impractical and useless. It was the stupidest craft craze ever, apart from framing completed jigsaw puzzles. Everyone threw their macramé in the incinerator or gave it to the dog to chew.

My mother-in-law was a secondary school teacher and very busy, so she never got around to throwing her macramé out. Anyway, her children gave them to her, so how could she? Her kitchen looked like the inside of a Greek fisherman's shed. Over the years, her dozens of macramé acted like miniature inert exhaust fans, collecting cooking fat in their thick fibrous strands, and they smelt of a thousand stale fish dinners. They also attracted flies, like flypaper, so they were not completely useless. You picked off the fly, leaving a leg or two stuck in the smelly fish fat-infused threads, and disposed of the rest of it down the insinkerator.

If you walked from the kitchen into the cavernous hallway, and past the rattling copper-filled lounge room, you could visit the bathroom and find more macramé. Here, it was mostly shades of green, to match the Village Apple Soap collection on the bathroom vanity in between the Victorian bath jug that contained two hundred dead moths and dozens of old toilet roll inner cylinders, and the Ali Baba wicker basket that held about fifty fraying burnt orange Dickies towels. The macramé in the bathroom were all spotty with mould, and smelt of stale hair conditioner. One, over the toilet, was festooned with geometric cobwebs that mimicked the craft of macramé in an unintended example of life imitating art. Or art imitating life. I don’t know. One or the other. My head hurts. Home décor was breaking my mind, like the Roy Orbison song.

Last weekend I was leafing idly through one of those newspaper magazines that give readers ideas for decorating: river pebbles on the dining table, clocks the size of Big Ben with numbers in different fonts, retro paperback books stacked for their visual effect and never to be read, tree houses in children's rooms, that kind of thing. You'd feel like you were living in a cross between a London railway station, a Dali painting and a page out of Where the Wild Things Are.

On one page of the magazine something vaguely familiar jumped out at me. Mounted on a wall, it had strands of cord hung on a foot-long wooden crossbar, every second strand interwoven with its next-but-one neighbour, so that they cascaded down in a regular triangular pattern in front of the untied ones, which hung down limply, like a miniature fly-screen door. Macramé, and just as I remembered it!

Someone in the magazine's editorial meeting – "Notice any new trends anyone?" – had thought it was a good idea. Or maybe they were getting desperate.

Macramé is easy to knock up in an hour or so, if you can tie knots.

Or, as the magazine said, you can buy one online. Starting from $139.

Got a dog? You can’t burn things in the backyard any more.

5.2.15

He Won’t Need It Now, by James Hadley Chase.

January 8, 2015. A large apartment hanging off a hill overlooking one of the world's most beautiful vistas, the sparkling cerulean waters of Sydney Harbour.

"This time we’re going to get him." Grenville turned to Archer, who was gazing at a small craft cutting a wake across the water. Both men were by the glass wall overlooking the harbour, whiskies in hand.

"How?"

"If you’ll listen, I’ll tell you."

Grenville was short, dark, moustached, and ageing. His kidnapping days were long gone, but he still did a little freelance hacking, and he harboured ideas like some people keep pet chickens.

"I'm all ears." Archer was tall and slim, with a eagle-like nose.

Grenville sipped his scotch and began. "You’ve met my attorney, Shapilo."

Archer nodded. He had. How could he forget? Shapilo had been active in the Griffith area in the seventies, which had been a good time for a lawyer with Calabrian connections.

"Shapilo has been out of circulation for years now." Grenville paused. "But he still knows things."

A pause. "Like what?"

"Like how to get into the Australia Day awards. Without being detected."

Archer's expression didn’t change. "Go on."

"So that’s what we’re going to do," Grenville replied, as if the answer were obvious. "We’re going to sabotage Mr Collegiality 2015's pet knighthood. And doing that will finish him as well! It should also finish his chief of staff, Helga Rolfe, whether she had any part in it or not."

Archer was still impassive. "Who is his pet knighthood? Or Helga Rolfe’s pet knighthood?"

"We don’t know yet. But, being Australia Day, and being a particular kind of year, with the death of a national sporting champion causing national attention and coast to coast mourning; and with that terrorist thing in Martin Place after that, Mr Collegiality 2015 is sure to have gone for a super-popular knighthood – the kind of award that makes every Australian – well, most – feel just that little bit warmer on the national day, and in doing so, improve his stocks, politically speaking. God knows he needs it. And God knows Australia needs a national hero right now to heal the wounds of one of its most difficult years. Plus there was MH17, the other Malaysian one, and Air Asia."

Archer grimaced, walked to the bar, poured another scotch, and offered the bottle to Grenville. "You're right. A national hero."

Grenville went on. "Remember the whole nation is on holiday on January 26. They're all gathered around their barbecues, talking about the morning’s news. And the big news on Australia Day – the only news – is the awards. The OAs. The AMs. But especially, the knighthoods. Bear in mind what the British do. They don’t take it too seriously. Who have they got? Sir Cliff Richard. A middleweight singer who has been around since Adam. Sir Elton John, a piano player married to a bloke – did a few good tunes until Honky Chateau, and then wall-to-wall Lion King. But still. Sir Paul McCartney, because John didn’t want one, or at least didn't want the MBE. And that Lloyd-Webber bloke, for turning theatrical scores into tripe. But that doesn’t matter. The papers love it, and it makes people feel proud of their country, because it's something they did, and the others didn't."

"So who do you think he's picked? An ex-cricketer? A pop singer?"

Grenville shrugged impatiently. "It could be anyone. It doesn’t matter."

He paused. "What matters is that Shapilo is going to break into the awards, change the nomination, and kill off Mr Collegiality 2015's political career in one fell swoop! Once the announcement is made, it will be too late! Who would believe him if he says it wasn’t his choice? He’ll be the laughing stock of the nation!"

Archer drained his glass. "And with whom are you planning to replace his nomination, exactly?"

Grenville smiled. "You’ll see!" Then he laughed out loud. "It will be too funny! Pass the bottle."

*

January 26, 2015. A newsreader drones the day's lead story on national radio to an audience of 20 million.

"It’s eight o’clock. Here is the news. The Prime Minister has announced the Australia Day awards, which he reintroduced last year to recognise prominent Australians for their achievements."

The newsreader paused, pressing the cough button.

"The major Australia Day award – a knighthood – goes to ... (another slight pause, this time probably involuntary) ... the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip of England.”

*

January 27, 2015, 4 a.m.

Mr Collegiality 2015 stirred in his sleep. He was having a nightmare. The suddenly, he awoke, sat up in bed, and remembered. It hadn’t been a nightmare at all.

The nightmare was now. There was no Shapilo, no Archer, no Grenville.

It had been all his own work.

4.2.15

In 2015, this kitchen will be more collegial than ever before.

I'll ask my children what they want for dinner and get agreement. If that doesn't happen, I'll call an election.

Just kidding. This household is a benevolent dictatorship.

*

On another subject, underpinning those Australia Day lemonised meat balls was the following rice dish.

Spanakorizo: rice with spinach and leek.

Chop a leek into quartered rounds. Cook it with two crushed cloves of garlic in oil until soft and fragrant. Add a cup and a half of rice – I used long grain – and stir to coat in oil. Add three cups of water, cover with a tight-fitting lid and cook over the lowest heat for 10 to 15 minutes. The rice is done when steam holes form in the rice and the grains stand on end and beg to be eaten. Well, that's what it looks like.

Meanwhile, cook a chopped bunch of fresh washed spinach in its retained water – or thaw 500g frozen spinach – and then fold it through the cooked rice.

Finish it off with quarter of a cup of chopped parsley and the juice of a lemon. Salt and pepper for the final kick.

This dish works as a hot side, a cold salad or even a main course. It is disarmingly, beguilingly delicious, pairing that captivating Mediterranean duo of lemon and garlic against the compliant texture of rice, reinforced with a leek and spinach backbone. One of the best rice dishes on the planet.

I had a cupful left over which stuffed a capsicum along with one or two lemon meat balls. Even better.

*

Who even uses that word in real life? Who even wants a collegial leader? Leaders are meant to make decisions, not run around asking people if they agree. The catch, I might point out to you, Mr Collegial, is that your decisions have to be good ones. It might have helped if you hadn't changed your phone number before Christmas and not told backbenchers the new one.

2.2.15

Various extended family members, Queen's Park, Moonee Ponds, last week. Photo credit: a passing stranger. My cousin can be quite persuasive.