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

22.7.14

In the dead of winter, the aroma of an old classic recipe drifts across the suburb, setting noses twitching.

We don't have central heating, so sometimes I warm the place with the aroma of food. Not sure how this works but the smell of a joint roasting in the oven, for example, makes the house feel a few degrees warmer.

The following soup recipe does the same as it bubbles away slowly on the stove. It reminds me of coming home after school when I could detect the delicious aroma about a block away, produced by the unbeatable combination of onion, beef herbs and root vegetables.

Scotch broth.

1. In a litre of water, simmer 750g of lean beef cut into pieces for two hours. Skim if necessary.

2. Now add half a cup of barley, a chopped onion, a diced turnip and a chopped leek. Cook another half an hour; then add a diced carrot and a few stalks of celery, finely chopped.

3. When carrot is just tender, remove meat, shred it and return it to the pot. Season and add white pepper.

4. Serve broth in large bowls sprinkled with parsley, and hot thick buttered toast on the side.

Drink: scotch whisky, of course.

17.7.14

Drop punt perfected.

The first time around, meaning marriage mark one - many years ago - our two children were in creche or day care or after care depending on their age. We worked; and they came home at six from paid care, and they had dinner and they went to bed. No time to play on weekdays. I was in a career, and a career means you have to have 'quality' time with your children.

These days, since I am freelance - meaning quite often not working - I can pick up the boys from school and take them to the football ground and kick the ball with them until darkness. This is the pinnacle of life. It doesn't get any better. I have had a business career, a sporting career, houses, girlfriends, wives, cars, wine, holidays, money, gourmet food, dogs, holidays, books. Some I have lost. (Not just the books.)

However, spending endless unharried - and unhurried - hours kicking a ball around on the well-kept lawn of a mostly deserted football ground defeats everything else. Sometimes the sun falls behind the 1920s grandstand and casts a lengthening shadow over the green grass; sometimes the wind blows and the ball floats and you can't catch it; or the rain has turned the goal square to a bog.

A few weeks ago the older sibling finally perfected the drop punt after four or five years of blazing away, and now his ball turns over and over, end on end, in a perfect lazy back-spinning arc, straight to the chest of the younger sibling, who has taught himself to fly for a mark. His blond hair makes him look like ... well, whoever you like, or remember: Knights, Van Der Haar, Anderson? And the pleasure is only tempered by the thought that he might hurt himself. The older one is slow and patient and takes longer to learn but once he learns never drops his skills; the younger is fast and showy and impatient and what the football writers used to describe as 'mercurial', a word not seen in the press for probably twenty years.

None of this would matter if they didn't love it. They love it. There's no Auskick, no junior football teams, no pressure; just out after school onto the park to play with the ball. Sometimes they bring friends along and have a match or play markers-up. Sometimes it's just me and them. Sometimes we just go home and they play in the street - we live in a cul de sac - but those days are fewer because they kick farther and fall heavier now. There are several buildings around the place with one of our balls on its roof, including the Coburg Leisure Centre, and a factory near the velodrome. One ball recently was kicked over the old Pentridge wall. The boys waited a week, and the day I bought another new ball from Rebel Sport, the old one was thrown back. So now they have two.

5.7.14

Don't have a famous name? Put one in the title.

My Salinger Year is a fascinating 'insight' (a greatly overused cliché) into how a writer met a famous author, whom she didn't know from Jerry Seinfeld. Or else it is a cynical exploitation based on the most tenuous of links. You decide.

While the title technique cannot be ignored, has it been utilised to its full search term potential?

I have never met a famous author, but I do have an uncle who saw Bryce Courtenay signing books in Angus and Robertson once. He didn't buy one.

Me and J. R. R. Tolkien, W. E. Johns, Enid Blyton, George Orwell, P. L. Travers, Hugh Lofting, James Hadley Chase, Raymond Chandler, Dan Brown, Clive Cussler, Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, Ovid, Ernest Hemingway and Dr. Seuss.

There's a connection somewhere.

30.6.14

Film directors throw away their chairs in disgust.

You can't act the expressions on the faces of the Costa Ricans as they shot for goal.

And there's no take two.

27.6.14

Chicken with a kick.

The flat screen television in the café sits high over the pasta shelf, and the volume is adjusted cleverly so that it becomes audible over the café talk when a goal is imminent or a vital passage in play occurs, thanks to the rising pitch of the commentator's voice. In this way, you miss none of the important action while not having the sound predominate.

After 9 o'clock in the morning, when the rush commuters have 'grabbed' their lattes and run for the train, the slower customers arrive: the real estate agents from across the street come in for their takeaway coffees; Moreland council workers hunch over their cups around an outside table; the old Greek men come in and put coins on the counter for another short black, keeping their caffeine/talk ratio meter going.

Occasionally the picture on the television pixillates, turning national colours into screen bloodshed. A player runs towards goal, stops unnaturally, shoots forward several inches, and then his head explodes into squares of red and white or yellow and green and his legs disappear. Then the picture reverts to normal again and the ball is in the net, or not. The effect is stunning with multi-coloured strips such as Cameroon or the Ivory Coast.

*

A little background history always illuminates an event. Christian Eichler's Football 365 Days is 744 pages of World Cup archival photography with history and commentary. Published prior to the 2006 world cup, the book is dated but worth a read. Its sheer size will help speed the hours away until the 2 a.m. game starts. Along the way you can decide who, out of at least seven players, was the best ever. They include Cruyff, Beckenbauer, Pele, Puskas and two or three Mullers. Maradona? No. In most fields of endeavour, history loves humility, a quality that makes a champion champion-like. After all, sport is just play-war and you could have been dead.

*

World Cup Fried Chicken

This recipe uses lean chicken breasts, which must be cooked fast. This makes them ideal for World Cup consumption, because you don't want to be spending time standing over a stove, and anyone who doesn't mind doing so has long gone to bed.

Take four chicken breasts and slice into half inch pieces. They will marinate for as long as you like up to 24 hours, but they must be small enough to cook in a minute or two.

In a large bowl, toss the chicken pieces in a third-cup of peanut oil and a tablespoon each of cumin powder and chili powder, six finely chopped garlic cloves, a tablespoon of soy, a shake of salt and a dash of white pepper.

Heat some more oil in a cast iron pan. Fry chicken, turning when one side is sealed. Cook until just done. Serve on rice; or as hand-food rolled in lettuce and soft white bread. Drink: cold beer.

25.6.14

World Cup spiced broad beans.

Take a kilogram of broad beans, pod and peel them (peeling individual beans is optional).

Cook two chopped onions in olive oil in a large heavy pan for ten minutes, add two scored cloves of garlic, sauté a few more minutes, stirring; and then add two teaspoons of ground cumin, half a teaspoon of cayenne pepper and a dash of ground coriander.

Now add the beans and a cup or so of water. Cook on low heat until the beans soften. Adjust fluid if necessary.

Add half a cup of lemon juice, two or three tablespoons of olive oil, and stir. Remove from pan and process in batches to a semi-smooth consistency.

Reheat when desired, for example, at 2 a.m, when a World Cup game is about to commence and you need food to keep you awake should the game fail to excite. Add chopped coriander or dill for an extra flavour zing, as if it needs it.

Ideal on toasted Lebanese or Turkish bread with zatar. Just swipe the bread through the bean mixture and eat. Also ideal as a dip with blanched green vegetables including asparagus, snow peas, green beans, celery sticks, etc. Also great on baked potato with added sour cream and then scattered with toasted pine nuts and blackened sesame.

Or eat it straight out of the jar when your team loses.

*

Anguish this morning in the coffee shop where I have my morning coffee. They had had the Italian flag in the window all last week next to the Australian one. The Australian flag was the first to go. Every four years, he was saying this morning. Every four years they do it to us. It's quadrennial agony. That's what happens when your team is a real contender, or is supposed to be. Australia can lose three games and heads are held high. But the Azzurri ... Why didn't they just attack?, he was saying to customers at large as he made my coffee. Every four years they do it to us. The coffee was perfect. Not a hitch. A professional.

18.6.14

Pesto without machinery.

Cook enough linguini for however many people you are feeding. I used to have one of those spaghetti utensils with punched-out measuring holes for various quantities, but these never were accurate. Trial and error teaches quantities best.

Meanwhile, warm some olive oil in a large pan and add half a cup of white wine, plenty of cracked black pepper, and two scored cloves of garlic. Cook gently without burning garlic, and then add a dozen or so halved walnuts*. Cook gently for a few minutes, stirring. Add half a cup of cream, reduce.

Fold several torn basil leaves through the cooked linguini and add the sauce. Finish with shards of parmesan or the genuine reggiano if you can afford it.

*Or if you have pine nuts, leave out the walnuts, toast the pine nuts and scatter over the finished dish.

14.6.14

Another day, another front page.

From Bernie's Two Minute Friday, the weekly St Bernard's Old Collegians email bulletin:
Essendon, fresh from another bout of controversy courtesy of the ASADA witch-hunt ... er, investigation, will be fired up to put a scoring-challenged Melbourne team to the sword.
No comparison. History's most infamous witch trial went for only fifteen months, from February 1692 to May 1693. This one looks like running for years.

10.6.14

Swordfish with fiery cashew sauce and coconut milk.

Chop two onions, and fry them in your preferred medium and pan until soft.

Take a dozen roasted cashews, a teaspoon of chili, a knob of peeled and chopped ginger, a large clove of garlic (or two small), half a teaspoon each of cinnamon and garam masala, two cardamom pods, a couple of rays of star anise (optional) and half a cup of vinegar and blitz them all together in a food processor.

Reserve half the cooked onions and add the cashew mixture to the rest of the onions, and stir in one large can of coconut milk. Simmer gently for a minute or two.

Meanwhile, place a couple of tablespoons of raisins into a small pot of just-boiled water, to which you have added a teaspoon of turmeric. Steep for ten minutes, until they fatten and then drain and add them to the simmering sauce.

Now cube some firm-fleshed fish such as swordfish or salmon and dredge the cubes through a little salt and pepper. Add the fish to the sauce, stir and cook very gently until fish is just cooked. Adjust fluid if necessary.

Switch off, let the pan rest for a few minutes and then serve fish with its fragrant, nutty, fiery sauce over rice. Top with the reserved onion and plain yogurt with coriander chopped through it.

6.6.14

Winter weekend cooking task: hot spicy peanut sauce.

Recently, six out of ten people, when asked in a survey where peanuts grow, replied: "On a tree."

I have nothing to add to that. But it brought to mind the man that used to circle the old suburban football ovals with a hessian sack containing paper bags full of peanuts. "Peanuts, 10 cents a bag!" he'd call out. It was usually around half time, and beer made you hungry. Mmmm ... peanuts, in the shell.

*

In a pot, I heated about ¾ cup peanut butter, a quarter cup of crushed peanuts, four tablespoons of hot chili sauce, two tablespoons each of tamari and white vinegar, a good squeeze of harissa paste, and the juice of a lime. I like it spicy so I usually use more chili paste and sometimes a raw chopped chili.

Serve as a sauce for blanched vegetables such as zucchini, florets of broccoli etc. Or try it with sweet potato: split a sweet potato down the middle, bake it and top it generously with peanut sauce and sour cream, and a squirt of lime juice and a shower of coriander.

3.6.14

Fragrant rice- and lentil-stuffed red capsicum with the Five Cs and a few other spices.

In a large heavy pan with a tight fitting lid, fry two sliced onions in ghee or oil.

Stir in a quarter teaspoon each of cardamom, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg and pepper when onion has softened.

Now add a cup each of basmati rice and rinsed red lentils, three and a half cups of boiling water and two teaspoons of salt. Stir. Lid the pan tightly. Turn down heat very low and leave it for 20 minutes. When the rice grains have ballooned, it’s done.

During the twenty minutes, top three red capsicums and remove seeds and pith. Stuff the capsicums with the fragrant rice and lentil mixture. (You'll have some left over.) Replace tops and place stuffed capsicums in a casserole, which should be of a size that roughly holds their tops in place.

Take a jar of tomato puree, add a little water and stir through a teaspoon each of coriander and cumin. Pour into casserole so that it comes halfway up the capsicums. Bake until capsicums collapse, about an hour. Adjust fluid if your oven is particularly hot.

Serve with yogurt and sweet lime pickle.

28.5.14

Rosemary, garlic and a bottle of red: a Saturday night dish with a Bob Dylan soundtrack.

3RRR announcer Brian Wise plays plenty of Bob Dylan, but on Saturday he used the excuse of Dylan's birthday - and the announcement of some Dylan concerts at the Palais - to crowd the playlist. We were in the car, on the peninsula under a cold streaky sky alongside a grey heaving sea, heading for town. Music sounds better when you're driving. The two hours made the boys Dylan fans, continuing a long family tradition dating back to me. I told them Dylan's frog-like growl makes him either the worst good singer in the world, or the best bad one. They thought about that for a while. Put his voice over that Warner Brothers cartoon where the frog sings opera, I said, and you'll see what I mean. It fits perfectly.

Close to town now. "Changing of the Guards" from Street Legal even took me by surprise. The year that album came out I saw Dylan play a night concert at the Myer Music Bowl; I had an open air ticket, it rained, I could barely hear the music, and I drove home freezing. I've never forgotten it. Then, "Jim Jones", a track I had almost forgotten (from Good as I Been to You), about a convict being transported to Botany Bay. Should be on every Australian child's school playlist.

Lamb with rosemary and quite a lot of garlic.

Rosemary comes to the fore in this highly aromatic dish that will blanket the neighbourhood with tantalising aromas of lamb braising in red wine with herbs and garlic. (Is garlic also a herb?)

In a plastic bag, dust six lamb shanks with a tablespoon of flour and salt and pepper.

Brown the seasoned shanks in olive oil in a large heavy pot in batches. Remove browned shanks to a platter.

Chop two onions. Cut two carrots and four sticks of celery into small dice. Mince twelve garlic cloves. Place these in the pot with a little more oil. Turn the heat down lowest, put the lid on, and sweat the vegetables for about ten minutes. Stir them occasionally.

Now return the shanks to the pot and add a bottle of red wine, two cans of tomatoes, three cups of chicken stock, a tablespoon of fresh chopped rosemary – yes, it is a large amount - and half a tablespoon of chopped thyme (optional: one leaf of sage and some chopped parsley).

Bring pot to the boil, turn the heat down, put the lid on the pot and simmer for a couple of hours. Then take the lid off and simmer another 30 minutes. Transfer shanks to covered platter. Turn up the heat under the pot and boil the juices, stirring, until thickened, ten to twenty minutes. This will vary according to pot, stove, volume of fluid, hemisphere, phase of the moon and elevation above sea level, for all I know.

Serve shanks on a bed of mashed potato and pour over thickened sauce so that it runs down the mash like rivers to the sea (wait for me, wait for me). I like to add interest to the mash by folding through flavour bursts such as a mere sprinkling of diced black olives or, even better, tiny flecks of anchovy. Added sparingly, they add an amazing taste sensation and work well with the flavours of the stew. Sides of creamed spinach, or green beans, or broccoli tossed in toasted and pounded pine nuts.

Drink: shiraz.

*

PS: Cheers to Neil Croker at the Palais.

21.5.14

Layers of meaning.

Leek and zucchini casserole.

Chop four large onions and one leek into fine rings. Slice two large green (or four small white) zucchini into thin rounds. Peel and chop two medium potatoes into thin slices.

Place a layer of the onion rings in a large casserole dish and drizzle with a little olive oil. Add a layer of zucchini, a layer of leeks and a layer of potatoes. Brush each with oil as you go and add some tomato puree (or diced tomatoes with the juice), to moisten each layer. Repeat layers until casserole is three quarters full. Top up with balance of a cup of tomato puree, half a cup of white wine and half a cup of stock. Ensure there is enough fluid to cover the vegetables.

Sprinkle a teaspoon of crushed dried rosemary over the top.

Add salt and pepper. Place the lid on the casserole and bake until bubbling. Top with chopped parsley.

Serve with crusty bread smeared with home-made pesto, tapenade or the like.

14.5.14

A dishwasher recalls.

The more I think about it, the uncannier the similarities. (See previous post.) One 1980s drink-waiting job - although I was more of a plongeur carrying out jugs of beer and carafes of wine in between shifts at the sink - was at a reception centre in Melbourne's working class 'heartland' (upper classes don't have a 'heartland' - their suburbs are 'leafy' instead). The kitchen was a vast space with a central cooking area and a rabbit warren of passageways running off three sides. (The dining rooms were to the north side, through sound-proof plastic kick doors shielded from view by two enormous curtains.) In the passageways were rooms for the storage variously of foodstuffs, casks of wine, cases of spirits, rows of steel and vinyl chairs stacked at life-endangering height, spare round tables on their sides like giant cartwheels, sound equipment, cleaning items, linen, office supplies and, of course, the day manager's office which was always locked at night. The room in the closest passageway to the dining room was the refrigerator. The reception centre catered weddings, annual or awards dinners for the surrounding manufacturing industry businesses (Hose Fitting Salesman of the Year 1981, etc), Christmas parties for local football teams and similar events. The drinks waiters raced to supply fifty tables with a central jug of beer and carafes of red and white wine, each of which would be immediately drained; invariably beer first; white wine second; red last. The second round was as desperate a race as the first. After that things would slow down to a fast jog until the end of the night. Fights were not uncommon, usually at weddings, not so often at awards dinners and most rarely at Christmas. Perhaps the presence of the Santa Claus (usually an employee of the client, and always semi-drunk) was a calming influence. But weddings were different. Mixed marriages saw ethnic pride, turbo-charged by alcohol, turn multiculturalism into fights to the death, although some didn't need cultural differences to start a brawl. Possibly the worst was when a father-in-law attacked his new son-in-law of mere hours, causing an all-in fight. The waiters doubled as peacemaker and cleaner during and after these altercations. Cleaning was frequently complex, involving alcohol, blood, human hair and smashed plates or glasses.

The noise was always incessant except when entering refrigerator room. You pulled a large metal locking arm on the outside, and the door seals unstuck, and the massive door opened, and you passed into another world. Sometimes the door swung closed behind you, completely sealing out any sound. It was cool and almost dark, the only light being the fluoro strips behind the interior glass doors to illuminate the contents. Carafes were filled from ten litre casks that sat in a row on chrome wire racks. The faint backlight shone weirdly yellow through the glass and you watched mesmerised as the fluid swirled up and around the litre container. A surreptitious long draught was taken many a time from an overfilled carafe on long, hot summer nights. There was another way of getting a drink. You could mix a drink for a customer at the spirit dispenser in the front bar and then forget to deliver it. You sat it on the undershelf, unseen, where you could sip it or down it in one go. The pace was frantic, so you could get away with anything. No-one noticed anything. The singer in the house band regularly rewarded himself with bottles of spirits, which were stored adjacent to the sound equipment room, a design error never rectified by management. I suppose he could have stolen towels or linen were the sound equipment room placed elsewhere. Or chairs. No. A bottle of scotch sat beautifully snug inside a guitar case. You couldn't get anything else in there.