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

4.8.15

Around the grounds: what's the food score?

I happened to be reading an old (pre-2000AD) copy of Bon Appetit, the US foodie magazine. By 'reading' I mean 'looking at' because when you read a recipe in a magazine, you don't take it in like you do when reading a detective story plot or a football match report. I have proven this theory dozens of times when browsing the cookbook section in bookshops: upon noticing a particularly delicious-sounding recipe and not being able to afford the book, I have attempted to memorise the ingredients. No matter how simple the recipe, I inevitably forget several ingredients by the time I get home. Yet I can always remember the smallest plot detail in a 768 page novel. For example, in which direction does Gandalf turn Shadowfax in Chapter Seven of 'The Return of the King'? The Barrow-downs, of course. Case proven.

Inside the back cover of the Bon Appetit was an interview with racing driver Richard Pretty. They asked him about the variety of food on the racing circuit. 'You eat at home,' he replied, 'or you eat hotdogs.'

There is a theory of stadium food. The theory describes a kind of upside down U-curve. At one end is big corporate stadium food: expensive pies, expensive chips, expensive bottled water, weak beer in plastic cup-like containers. That is just an insult. This year, big corporate stadiums tried to rectify the horridness of their big corporateness by reducing their food prices, while making crowd-'friendly' changes such as allowing children onto the ground after the game. But only on Sundays, when the game ends at about midnight! Nuts. Big corporate stadium head office probably had ten focus meetings and six power point presentations to think that one up.

The other end of the U-curve naturally goes from one extreme to the other, serving the kind of food I call Conspicuous Health Consumption. You have stalls selling sushi rolls in cute little plastic boxes with soy in little fishes, and quinoa salads that wouldn't satisfy a pregnant rabbit, and wholegrain rolls stuffed with pureed pumpkin studded with sunflower seeds and dusted with cumin powder. This is ridiculous. The whole idea of eating sushi while watching the third quarter of Collingwood v. Richmond is just so fundamentally flawed it doesn't even warrant discussing. Sushi properly belongs in one place, and that place has the gentle sound of a single wooden instrument, softly backlit windows and a lady in a gently shimmering silk kimono lingering in half shadow waiting to bring you some more saki. But at the football, no.

The middle of the U-curve is where you want to be. Take these ex-VFA grounds for example, now home to VFL matches; but maintaining their earlier VFA traditions, including volunteers serving the food.

Werribee.

Werribee, home of the sewage farm and Tim Blair, was a small country town when I first visited in the 1960s for a 'parish picnic', a long-forgotten type of traditional outing (note to Generations X, Y, Z and whatever they are calling the current one: 'outing' means a daytrip, not the forced revelation of someone's sexuality) complete with sack races, Irish dancing on the back of a tray truck, pony rides, barbecues and broom throwing. Yes: broom throwing. Times change. I counted 28 restaurants in Werribee's main street as we walked from the railway station to the football ground, the site of that 1960s parish picnic and this day's football match.

Half time. I always take food along to these games but you know what boys are like. Get the smell of a pie stall or a deep fryer across the grass and they're hungry again. We walked around the half-forward flank at the city end towards the members' wing, where the food stalls were set up in several volunteer tents next to one of those ubiquitous Coffee to You vans. One of the tents had a huge grill going, and not just sausages. Home-made patties were served in rolls as a hamburger; or in bread, as a sandwich. There's a difference. I asked for the sandwich, and there was a choice of salad. I chose the coleslaw, and the server extracted enough coleslaw from the tub to make the sandwich about six inches high. Three dollars. On the way back around the flank to our spot in the forward pocket, Thomas and William decided they were hungry again and shared the sandwich; not with me, with each other. I went and got another one.

Stadium food rating: four stars.

Sandringham.

It was that Sunday a few weeks back that saw the biggest July downpour in twenty years. You could hardly get into the ground: the entrance, slightly concave from decades of crowds, was a sea. 'That's not going to stop us,' I joked to the volunteer ticket seller as we crept around the six-inch isthmus of dry land alongside the ticket box. Welcome to Trevor Barker Oval, he said. Members of other clubs, $5. You don't even come close, Mr Corporate Stadium.

It rained all day. Coburg led 40 points to nil at quarter time before Sandringham wound it back. It was the start of a rollercoaster four weeks for the 'Burgers. The canteen is a small standalone brick structure on the Beach Road flank just around from the members' stand, staffed by volunteer ladies selling homely fare; salad rolls made by humans, dim sims, hot pies. Thomas had asked for a cup of tea. I ordered the tea and paid. Then the boys asked for a bag of chips, seeing some on the counter. You need actual cash at these places - no cards, of course - and unfortunately I was now out of spare change. Overhearing the conversation and presuming the tea was for me, and that I had denied my children a snack even while indulging myself with hot tea, the lady immediately and sympathetically offered them a bag of lollies, free. Volunteers are angels.

Stadium food rating: three stars.

Port Melbourne.

North Port Oval is legendary and notorious at the same time. Now the ghosts of the past – or is it the wind? – moan in the sadly-empty Norm Goss grandstand, a massive Victorian era structure that rises over the ground agape like the jaw of a dementia patient. We walked from the Fred Cook end around the southern wing to the rolador-window canteen just before half time, but the canteen was drinks and snacks only, and the man pointed to the lower grandstand. What a revelation. Underneath the stand is a walk-in servery as big as ... well, as big as it needed to be in the 1960s and '70s glory days of the VFA, when several hundred painters and dockers would fight to get to the pies and chips at half time on freezing afternoons. Today, we were alone in the space apart from the ever-smiling ladies behind the enormous bain marie and display cases featuring all the usual home-made fare, sandwiches, rolls, home-made cakes, etc. Six dollars for crisp, golden, hot, perfect chips in a bag the size of an SP bookie's.

Stadium food rating: five stars

Coburg.

I can't believe how many people don't know where Coburg City Oval is - probably because it doesn't front onto Sydney Road or Bell Street. It is landlocked behind the Coburg indoor pool to the north side, the Russell Street car park to the west, Coburg bowling club to the south and the wasteland of the old, demolished Coburg high school to the east.

On match days, we sit behind the pool end goal where we are frequently the only supporters. Sometimes Coburg legend Phil Cleary wanders past, snapping the odd photograph and chatting to anyone who wants to talk. The live telecast isn't the same without Phil, but come to Coburg City Oval on match day and you can talk to him live.

The kiosk is a two-minute walk around the west wing, at the grandstand end in the shadow of the cricket scoreboard. The aroma of hot chips and pies floats across the ground and is impossible to resist. Help yourself to sauce, mustard or vinegar from the catering size pump-pack bottles on the counter, gratis. Much better than having to pay for those tiny plastic sachets that never contain enough sauce when you try to squirt it onto your pie. There's a social club if you get too cold or want to sit in comfort and watch the football through glass, like the business networkers in Corporate Stadium land. I know where I'd rather be. Go 'Burgers.

Stadium food rating: four stars.

24.7.15

Label lore: a fascinating game of mystery, puzzlement and sheer idiocy to help you while away those boring shopping trips to the supermarket.

Aisle one.

Seen on a can of pineapple: Naturally Low in Fat.

Spent the next two aisles looking for sugar labelled Naturally Low in Salt, spring water labelled Naturally Low in Caffeine and legs of lamb labelled Naturally Low in Fish. Didn't find any, but the shopping trip was a quarter over, and I found myself in ...

Aisle five.

Seen on a can of tomato soup: Made from responsibly grown Australian tomatoes.

Now this was a hard one, and provided enough entertainment to get me through the next four aisles (which also made me forget two items on the shopping list). To start with, since grammar went out with old telephones, people throw words into sentences in any order. Was the adverb 'responsibly' even intended to modify 'grown'? And if so, how do you define responsibly grown tomatoes? Or irresponsibly grown ones? Left out in the rain? Letting cockatoos eat them before they ripen? Or did the manufacturer really mean that all Australian tomatoes are responsibly grown, compared to the cheaper imports? Who knows. I suspect the latter, and that the phrase was mangled by a semi-literate marketing executive and went unnoticed all the way up the line to the CEO. So many questions, so little time left to shop! This game is great. Into the home straight now.

The refrigerated aisle.

A health warning for Pliny the Elder.

Ancient Indian writings described yogurt and honey as the food of the gods; Abraham supposedly owed his longevity to the regular ingestion of yogurt; the biblical land flowing with milk and honey was reportedly fermented yogurt; ancient Greek cuisine included a dairy product known as Oxygala - a form of Greek yogurt; while Pliny the Elder is among many writers to mention the benefits of yogurt, which is, among other claims, responsible for raising the average Bulgarian age at death by decades compared to non-yogurt eating races.

Fast forward to twentieth century Australia. I picked up a tub of Greek yogurt, intending to coat some bone-in chicken pieces with it along with a selection of Indian spices before baking them, tandoori-style, and serving them with the three Rs (rice, roti and raita). But right there on the label, traffic-light style, was a star rating graphic, giving the product the low rating of just one and a half stars out of five. Australian bureaucrats had decided, after several millennia of opposing evidence, that GREEK YOGURT IS BAD FOR YOU.

The shopping trip was over, and I forgot only some shampoo and a tin of baked beans.

21.7.15

Happy birthday, Martin.

Tried to call you yesterday and you've obviously ditched the landline, like I did last year. Hope you had a good one.

*Rest of the world thinks: WHAT! No Facebook, no Twitter? These guys try to TELEPHONE greetings to each other? Nuts!*

16.7.15

Wake up and smell the onions.

John Lennon never wrote a song called 'Looking Through a Glass Parsnip'. No-one ever wrote a book titled Chokos in the Stew. "He knows his carrots" was never a figure of speech. There was never an online satirical magazine called The Potato. Booker T. and the M.Gs never recorded Green Beans.

There is a reason for this. The reason is that the onion is not just a vegetable. It is a cultural artefact.

The onion underpins more recipes than any other ingredient. It stars in its own right. It makes grown men cry. If there were no onion, it would be necessary to invent one.

The onion is the only vegetable in existence that can literally stop people in their tracks. I have proven this several times, when working on the Bunnings kindergarten fund-raising sausage stall. For some reason I always got to be the cook while the others handled the money or served the customers. This meant I was able to stand behind the grill turning onions and sausages, while gazing out over the vast car park, where thousands of home renovators would arrive, reverently, as early as 8a.m. on a Sunday morning. They should call it St. Bunnings. It is the new place of worship, supplanting churches. You can tell the home renovators from the tradies, because the renovators keep coming back for more of what they took home earlier – much more. They don't realise how much Spakfilla or Liquid Nails or Floating Floor they actually need until halfway through the job. Television renovation shows don't tell you this. They also don't tell you that, just off-screen, sits a B-double semi-trailer loaded to the gunwhales with hardware supplies and an army of crew to carry it onto set. The thing for the home renovator to remember is to buy four or five times as much of anything you need. Of course, you'll end up with a truckload of offcuts as well. Send these to the kindergarten for the children to play Renovate My Cubby with.

So it's eleven in the morning, and the sausages and onions are on, and I employ my technique of drenching the onions in oil, and then dredging them across the hottest part of the hotplate, so that they send up clouds of fragrant smoke, which drifts across the car park ... and the home renovators stop like pointers, mid-stride, and change direction towards the smell of the cooking onions that are vigorously frying to the point of caramelisation. When you've been digging trenches or painting a roof all morning, the smell of frying onions is irresistible.

The onion wins the countdown.

The onion sits proudly at Number One; immovable, like Dark Side of the Moon was through the long cold months of 1973; sailing on and on into 1974 and beyond, a triumph of majestic, dignified, imperial progressive rock in a sea of tawdry glitter, cheap glam and appalling disco.

The onion reigns over all. If this vegetable were a footballer, it would be Dick Reynolds, Bob Skilton, Wayne Carey and all three Gary Abletts* rolled into one.

Citing onion recipes is almost superfluous; most are clichés, such as onion soup, a masterpiece of taste, aroma and satisfaction, and yet a refugee from a 1980s bistro menu. And yet ...

Caramelised spiced onions and potatoes.

By adding the mystique of eastern spices, you will exponentially increase the taste and aroma power of already irresistible caramelised onions. Try this at your next barbecue and they'll be marching towards the serving tables like zombies, completely deprived of the power of free will. This recipe is the ultimate conversation stopper. Bring it out when they start talking religion, politics, or sex. Onions! Spices! Must eat! What was I talking about? Who cares!

Cut 750g of new potatoes in halves. Boil and then simmer until just tender. Don't overcook.

Cut a couple of onions into very thin slices. Heat a quarter cup of oil in a frypan; add two teaspoons each of hot paprika and powdered coriander, half a teaspoon of black pepper and a dash of cardamom powder. Stir spices through for half a minute then add the onion. Stir through, set to low and cook until caramelised, about twenty minutes.

Drain potatoes when done, rinse in cold water, drain again.

Stir potatoes through onion mixture, add half a teaspoon of salt, and cook another minute or two to combine, adding two tablespoons of lemon juice for a delicious acid kick.

Transfer to serving bowl, top with plain yogurt and chopped coriander. Often served as a side to crispy skin spiced fried chicken, but which is the real hero here?

*

Breathe, breathe in the air
Dont be afraid to care
Leave but don't leave me
Look around, choose your own ground
For long you live and high you fly
And smiles you'll give and tears you'll cry
And all you touch and all you see
Is all your life will ever be


*

*Yes, of course there were three Gary Abletts.

26.6.15

School lunch defines #2 vegetable of all time.

Never mind the old story about the Italians and the Greeks getting strange looks at their salami sandwiches on one-inch thick peasant bread. We were as Australian as gum trees, but our sandwiches raised eyebrows every day. Baked bean sandwiches. Canned spaghetti sandwiches. Beetroot sandwiches. Cucumber sandwiches. Sultana sandwiches. Some of those I would still eat. The rest, perhaps not.

We didn't always take our lunch to school. Sometimes, in junior grades, I went home for lunch – yes, walked the half mile all by myself – and I could scent the aroma of home-made vegetable soup a block away from home. The walk back to school was slower and more reluctant.

There was also a school canteen, staffed by volunteer mothers. In those primitive days, fulfilment in the workplace and paying $120 a day for childcare was just a pipe dream; and mothers did nothing all day except dust, and hold lunch parties, and drive their new Volkswagen Beetle to the church tennis club to play tournaments, and make canteen lunches at school for no pay. What a life. On bitterly cold winter days, the aroma of pastry from the Noon pies* and pasties warming in the six-drawer chrome pie warmer would somehow drift into the classrooms, and make you forget what the teacher was droning on about and wish lunchtime would come sooner. Pies, 10c. Pasties, 12c. In a brown paper bag. Help yourself to sauce.

On Fridays, at least in the cooler months, orders were taken for the local fish shop, which was on the corner, just a few houses away from the school. Its shingle was a large blue plastic shark. The fish shop and the shark are still there. Drive down Hoffmans Road and you'll see it.

Two children, one often being me, took the class orders to the fish shop in the morning, and went back at lunch time to pick up the parcels. They were newspaper-wrapped and boxed in a carton, and it took two children to carry it. The briny salt and vinegar aroma that rose from the box on the thirty metre return journey to the classroom was possibly the best thing I've ever sensed. Back in the classroom, we handed the parcels around. Names were hand-scrawled along the margins of the newsprint. It took a while to find them sometimes.

*

Your parcel arrives. Sit at your desk, tear open the newspaper package and smell the aroma. Then bite through a crisp golden crunch to a soft, yielding, steaming, semi-transparent white inner substance that was the most heavenly eating experience on earth: the potato cake.

*

How could such a humble vegetable be transformed; alchemically, almost – into such a transcendentally delicious eating experience? The magic of the deep fryer had something to do with it, of course, but it still comes back to what's inside the batter. For instance, some fish shops now offer other vegetables in place of the potato; but I just couldn't anticipate eating a 'pumpkin cake' with the same ardor as looking forward to a potato cake thick with salt and vinegared batter.

That one simple innocent uncomplicated food experience is enough to shoot the mundane potato into position number two in the top ten vegetables of all time countdown.

*

One man's cake is another man's fritter:
In Australia ... deep fried potato cakes are commonly sold in fish and chip shops and takeaway food shops. In New South Wales, they are usually referred to as "scallops" or potato scallops, however the term "potato cakes" is used across the southern states of Victoria and Tasmania and known in South Australia as a potato fritter. The potato cake is also known as a potato pie in Western Australia, and both "potato scallop" and "potato fritter" are used in Queensland. In the ACT, potato cakes are more commonly referred to as "scallops" - a term more commonly used in the surrounding areas.
- Wikipedia

*Thanks to Stef of Finding the Radio Book blog, a treasure trove of Melbournalia.

19.6.15

The first hero; and his brother.

I went back through the archives. (This blog is just a continuation of what used to be hand-written diaries. I keep them all in a box in the bungalow at the beach house. If fire ever roars through the Mornington Peninsula my life in words will be gone. No great loss. The early ones are just pre-teen terse two-line entries.)

I went back through the decades, right back to the early 1970s. I flicked through. It must have been winter 1970. April, May ... there it was:

Saturday 30 May, 1970. State cross-country championships at Bundoora. Saw Ron Clarke and got his autograph.

I hadn't remembered getting the autograph. All I had vaguely recalled was seeing the adidas-wearing Glenhuntly-singleted Olympian near the finish, face etched in pain as usual.

I had joined St Bernard's athletics club the previous month, after reading Franz Stampfl on Running, and Bundoora was my second race after Clifton Hill in pouring rain. I liked running and the rain never bothered me.

Two years earlier I had listened on radio as Clarke finished the Olympic 10,000 metres in Mexico, reportedly near death. From yesterday's Australian:
Realising his main rivals in the 10,000m would be from high-altitude countries, Clarke paced his race so he would be with the leaders at the 8000m mark. So far the race plan he had devised with famous Austrian trainer Franz Stampfl was working perfectly, because as the runners went through with only 2000m to run, he was only one of four who could win. But when he attempted to push the accelerator a lap and a half from home, his body didn't respond.

He couldn't get air. He staggered on, steadily turning greyer. Now, all thoughts of a medal gone, it was all he could do to finish; barely had he crossed the line for sixth than he collapsed. Up in the stands Australian team doctor Brian Corrigan was on his feet well before that happened and though there was a moat and several officious policemen in his way, he somehow kicked and fought his way to Clarke's side.

Incredibly, no resuscitative equipment was available, almost as though the then IOC president Avery Brundage was intent on demonstrating that racing at altitude was never a problem, so all Corrigan could do was give Clarke oxygen and pray. His image, holding an oxygen mask and praying, remains one of the most enduring photos of Australia's Olympic journey.
Ron Clarke had been a mesmerising figure for most of the 1960s. In 1965, when I was eight and in grade three, Clarke seemed to be never out of the news. In fact, he set nine new world records in 21 days in that incredible year. Melbourne's evening newspaper, The Herald, carried dramatic black and white pictures on both front and back pages from Europe. The morning papers couldn't get them in time. Dad brought in Clarke's triumphs every afternoon. We were a print family.

Ron Clarke's brother Jack was centreman in Essendon's 1965 premiership win, captained the team in 1962 and coached the Bombers in 1968 to a narrow grand final loss. No wonder the Clarkes were sporting heroes to a boy in Essendon.

Back to that 30 May 1970 diary entry. There was a second line:

Essendon beat Collingwood.

15.6.15

It's OK to gamble: chief croupier.

Federal treasurer Joe Hockey, in a casino-logic moment, says that if you think house prices are unaffordable, just get a better job. See? Simple. Croupier logic. Rake in more money and everything's great.

(Incidentally, 'Joe Hockey' could not be a better name for a hustler at a shady casino in a James Hadley Chase novel. But I happily admit that's just gratuitously nasty.)

As truisms go, Hockey's assertion is practically an axiom, or even a platitude. I don't know, I'm just throwing words around meaninglessly, as you do in a casino while you're waiting for the spinning to stop. Plenty of spinning goes on in Canberra. It's a money pit. Want a million dollar house? Get a better job.

Truism. Of course anyone can buy a house. All you need is a deposit and enough income to service the payments. Guess what? The commentators agreed with Uncle Joe.

But they're asking the wrong question, or shooting the wrong fish, or looking into the wrong barrel. Or something. I don't know.

Peter van Onselen in today's Australian (subscription required) crunched some figures. By averaging the salaries (circa $65,000) of three classes of public servants, van Onselen arrived at the conclusion that a pair of these earners could borrow in excess of $800,000. Case proven.

None of this figuring takes account of risk. Risk is everything. But wait, we're in a casino. Risk is an exciting part of the game; not a threat to your financial security. That last sentence is savage irony because even though it looks right, the truth is completely and utterly the reverse. Risk has to be minimised or at least covered first. Financial crashes have always started with the fatal flaw that you buy at the highest price you can afford. But prudence demands that you ask yourself if you could afford the loan if you no longer had the house. That is: if the bubble bursts; and you have to sell a million dollar house for $500,000; and you still have an $800,000 loan. There is no jingle mail in Australia. You have to pay off the loan even if you lose the house.

Van Onselen concludes:
"Hockey's comments were fair, reasonable and factually accurate."
'Fair' is in the eye of the beholder, we've already dealt with 'factually accurate'; and that leaves 'reasonable'.

Was it 'reasonable' for a federal treasurer to reprimand the electorate for worrying about astronomical house prices? Hockey's comments might have read like a statement, but to the electorate it came across as a cantankerous rebuke.

So no: it was not reasonable. It is not reasonable for a federal treasurer - or a croupier - to cantankerously rebuke his customers. A prudent treasurer would at least be more guarded in discussing any potential bubble which might affect millions of constituents.

Meanwhile, The Australian's Stefanie Balogh reported in a break-out story alongside van Onselen's column the comments of a losing bidder, who fell short of the $2.33 million sale price at a weekend Balaclava auction:
"Mr White said: 'I did hear (Tony Abbott's) comment earlier in the week that he owns a house and he's happy prices are going up ... and I thought it showed a complete disregard for people entering the market.' "
More gratuitous nastiness: if Joe Hockey is a good name for a crooked croupier, Tony Abbott is a great name for the fictional casino boss you find in the secret back office behind the red velvet curtains. If you can get past the bodyguard. Aah, Tony, there's a guy here wants to see you. Everybody wantsta see Tony ...

These people have the political nous of a housefly. Or a Clifton brick. One of the two. And the alternative is an ex-unionist being investigated by a corruption inquiry. Since when did politicians come from that background?

Oh.

*

Sometimes you just need a little perspective: at the Balaclava auction mentioned above, the gap between the reserve and the selling price was double the amount I paid for a Melbourne house in 2005. It went for two houses more (at 2005 values) than the buyer expected.

If that's not starting to look like a bubble, I'm James Bond. Or Phillip Marlowe. Or both.

29.5.15

Seventy years after.

"Any resemblance between pre-war football and today's game," football historian and Truth sports reporter Jim Main wrote in 1969, "is purely coincidental."

Main continued: "The old game died bloodily in 1945, when Carlton throttled life out of South Melbourne and gave birth to a professionalism that has matured into today's cold, calculated ruthlessness ... ."

Carlton was reigning premier when Main wrote those words; having achieved success by poaching the star player of the League's then most successful club, prompting one of the Sun News-Pictorial's better back page headlines: Carlton Draft: Melbourne Bitter. The act of unsporting bastardry so shocked Melbourne it never won another flag; Carlton blithely piled up another seven during the reign of nine coaches following Barassi, some of whom were summarily sacked - and two of which were reappointed, attesting to the board's erratic vacillations.

The word professional is no longer associated with ruthlessness. The Swans found professionalism, via its famous spin-free 'no-dickheads' mantra. On the other hand, Carlton just stayed ruthless and have not won a flag for twenty years. They would do well to apply the Swans' policy. To the board, of course.

*

Seventy years after the game known as the 'Bloodbath', Carlton and the Swans meet again - tonight. It could be another bloodbath; metaphorically this time, of course.

25.5.15

Stupid labels: #1 in a series of about six million.

It was on a can of pineapple in the supermarket.

It read: Naturally Low in Fat, as if to reassure the one in eighty billion shoppers who might think pineapple was as fat-laden as, say, a ham and cheese croissant or a jar of double cream.

What next? Naturally Low in Nuts on a leg of lamb? Completely Sugar Free! on a jar of salt?

19.5.15

Conversation in a hotel late one night.

The room was silent. Delegates had voted and were waiting for the result of the first podium finish – third – to appear on a large screen fixed to the wall. The barman moved around softly, collecting glasses.

The room was a private one at a rundown hotel in an inner bayside suburb; the kind of place once frequented by car dealers, waterside workers, blacksmiths and horse trainers. To say the clientele had changed would be like saying the sun had risen. Today, the faded curtains, the worn carpet, and the accidentally-antique bar furniture gave the establishment a raffish air that appealed to the inner-urban hipsters who had transformed the surrounding suburb from $10,000 workers' cottages into $1.5 million 'unpolished gems' by the simple act of moving in. Now, the hipsters were happy to mix with the remaining scoundrels of the area and the hotel was the place they did it.

Suddenly, a headline appeared on the screen.

The Top Ten Vegetables.

Silence. A subtitle appeared.

No 3: Pumpkin.

Borg broke the hush. 'Pumpkin?' he exclaimed, with a high, searching, inflection. 'Pumpkin? Third? That's ridiculous!'

Radnitz spoke. 'Yes, I admit, unexpected,' he said, looking at Borg. 'But we must not let professional jealousy cloud our judgement.'

'Professional jealousy?' replied Borg, with the same upward inflection. 'Ridiculous.'

'I can see it's going to be one of those evenings when everything is ridiculous,' said Radnitz, slowly and with only a hint of sarcasm. 'But you are, after all, a niche player. You do not like mainstream.'

Borg was a grower of organic chokoes for the hospitality industry. Very niche, but then again they were very good chokoes. Or so I had heard. I hadn't personally tried an organic choko grown for the hospitality industry. In fact, I hadn't personally tried an organic choko period.

Schwartz put down his double Scotch and entered the conversation. 'In some countries,’ he averred, 'pumpkin is mere pig food.' With that he drained his glass and walked immediately, as if by remote control, to the bar.

Chad Winters was impassive. He sat in a retro green brocade winged armchair, obtained by the hotelier at Fowles Auctions for a mere $100. Winters raised a lazy arm, the one whose hand was not around a highball glass. Heads turned.

'Radnitz is right,' he said. 'We should respect the voting process. A poll is not a fashion statement, nor a social media affectation, nor a twitter ejaculation. Nor is it peer self-congratulation.'

He paused and sipped his highball. 'As for your comment, Schwartz,' (Schwartz was back, glass in hand) 'that pig-feeding practice merely reflects one element of what is good about the orange gourd: its sheer abundance. They feed it to the pigs because it otherwise rots on the vine. You might remember my telling the story about my own bountiful harvest a few years back. After throwing down a few seeds at the start of summer, my garden became a sea of endless trailing vines supporting some ninety five-kilogram pumpkins by season's end. I decided never to grow pumpkins again, simply because there were always more than I could use, and it seemed a waste, even though they store for months.'

'Abundance is nothing without utility,' said Borg. 'Or taste.'

'I like that coming from a choko grower,' laughed Radnitz.

'Blandness may apply to many vegetables,' went on Chad Winters, ignoring the interruption. 'Yet the mark of a good home cook is - like the alchemists of old - being able to turn something into something else. Something wonderful.'

He paused.

'Right now, all over the world, housewives are turning pumpkins – the cheapest vegetable of all – into dishes they hope will hold sufficient interest for their husbands and children that they will go to bed both satisfied and nourished: the twin Holy Grails of the domestic culinary art. If anything can do that, pumpkin can. It can be used in casseroles, braises and stews; transformed into pies, both savoury and sweet; and baked into bread, scones and biscuits. Its flesh can fill pasta, can be cooked into risotto, or be sliced into lasagne. Its sweet caramelised flavour, when baked, is unsurpassed. Mash it alone or with potato or swede or carrot. Saute it until it starts to sear, chill it and turn it into salads worthy of a main meal with chickpeas and pine nuts, or avocado and walnuts, or green beans and cherry tomatoes. You name it. In some countries, longevity is measured in pepitas: the men chew roasted pumpkin seeds even while playing cards, smoking endless cigarettes and sipping ouzo. And - as I said - right this very minute, home cooks worldwide are preparing what is possibly the world's most ubiquitous soup, made perhaps with ginger and garlic and coriander and a touch of chilli, or a simpler version with stock and a swirl of cream.'

Borg rolled his eyes at the mention of 'ubiqitous'. Schwartz drained his glass. Radnitz stood up. The clock said five to ten.

'Last drinks, gentlemen,' called the barman, mopping the bar with a foot-long Carlton Draught bar towel.

*

Couscous with pumpkin, chick peas and chilli sauce.

Fry a finely-chopped onion in four tablespoons of olive oil in a large heavy-based pan. Crush and add a small cinnamon stick. Fry.

Add a large cubed unpeeled eggplant, three medium carrots cut into rounds, and two quartered medium potatoes. Stir to cover in oil. Fry ten minutes, shaking the pan or stirring.

Now add 250g pumpkin cut into large cubes, followed by two large ripe quartered tomatoes, a drained can of chick peas, a quarter teaspoon mixed spice, three teaspoons (or more) of your favourite hot chilli sauce, and salt and pepper to taste.

Add two cups of water, cover the pan and simmer until vegetables are almost tender.

Add a dozen trimmed green beans cut into batons and two trimmed zucchini cut into rounds. Simmer another fifteen minutes.

Serve over couscous cooked according to pack directions.

13.5.15

Countdown: top ten vegetables of all time.

NO. 4: THE MUSHROOM

Until the early 1970s, Melbourne was dead on Sundays. Everything was shut. TABs, casinos, $2 shops, brothels, liquor outlets, Kidzone, Domino's pizza, Northland, you name it. It must have been awful. How did people get through the day?

My father had a Sunday coping strategy. He took us on what was known as a 'Sunday drive', a quaint mid-twentieth century weekend activity that involved a whole family packing into an FC Holden station wagon and driving into the countryside on mostly deserted roads, although another vehicle might be spotted occasionally, embarked on a similar expedition.

He usually drove north-west. We were practically on the urban fringe anyway. West of Essendon was thistle and Avondale Heights, both of which were wild. Keilor Road took us across the Maribyrnong River bridge into Keilor proper, where the road became the Calder Highway. After that was nothing but farmland all the way to Bendigo. We would take an arbitrary turnoff onto some unmade road, rumble along a few miles and then stop, apparently at random. Somewhere near Greenvale, or was it Oaklands Junction?

We'd climb a barbed wire fence, glance around for bulls (probably the latter before the former), and then look for mushrooms, fanning out like a police line searching for clues. It was good clean fun, picking through cowpats and mud under a slate sky. The mushrooms* usually grew in clusters, and sometimes in an odd circular shape, like Stonehenge.

*

The following two recipes showcase the earthy flavour and meaty texture of the mushroom. But my most common use of the mushroom is to halve some button mushrooms, sweat them in their own juice and toss them over rare steak with a shower of pepper and a little garlic butter.

#1: Mushroom and cheese melt.

Slice half a kilogram of fresh mushrooms. Finely chop a large onion and fry in two tablespoons of butter until soft. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring, a few minutes until soft. Add salt and pepper to taste.

In a separate saucepan, melt two tablespoons of butter, stir in three tablespoons of flour until combined. Then add two cups of milk and whisk until smooth. Stir until it thickens, then remove from heat and fold through the mushroom and onion mixture and a cupful of grated cheddar.

Divide mixture between four soufflé dishes or ramekins, top with a quarter cup of cheese each, and bake until cheese melts to a golden crust.

#2: Asian-style mushrooms.

Soak a dozen dried Chinese mushrooms for 30 minutes. Drain, discard stems and cut caps in two.

Deep fry 250g pressed bean curd cut into triangles.

Add peanut oil to a wok, add two spring onions cut into short batons and the rehydrated mushrooms. Stir 30 seconds, add 150ml of vegetable stock, two tablespoons of dark soy and half a teaspoon of sugar. Simmer 15 minutes, then add the bean curd. Cover wok and simmer another five minutes.

Meanwhile, blend a teaspoon of cornflour with a tablespoon of water and stir through the sauce. It should thicken. Sprinkle over a teaspoon of sesame oil. Serve over fragrant steamed rice.

If using fresh tofu, omit deep-frying process, carefully slice the tofu and slide it into wok to avoid it breaking up.

*

The mushroom fields are long gone now, buried under double-storey fake Georgian houses with enormous rooms that hold couches the size of racing cars from which you can gaze at reality television on enormous screens. Nothing grows here in the dark any more except, perhaps, teenage terror suspects who sprout overnight and are dragged, when found, blinking into the sunlight, their relatives unaware of their online activities in the dark of night.

*OK, the pedants are on to us again: a mushroom is strictly the fruiting body of a fungus.

(Holden image thanks to holden.org.au. Serving suggestion only.)

4.5.15

The footy oval at the bottom of the valley.

Sixty years ago, several enterprising gentlemen purchased an abandoned building site in West Essendon. It was no surprise the estate was abandoned. Despite being close to sub-division, it sat on a cliff. The street plan had been submitted to the planning authorities, was printed in the 1955 edition of the Melways street directory, and then deleted in the next edition.

Potential builders looked at the site and were stunned. "Can't build on that," they exclaimed. "It's a cliff. Get a decent rain after you gouge into that, and you'll have a billion tons of mud and several earthmovers at the bottom of the valley floating down Steele Creek."

So they put it up for sale, to whoever would be mad enough to buy it.

*

The several enterprising gentlemen bought it. They wanted to build a school. But where to put the actual building?

"Never mind where to put the school," said one, who played football and had his priorities right. "Let's make a start on the footy oval."

They borrowed someone's earthmover and a steamroller, scratched out a zig-zag road to the bottom of the valley, and carved out a primitive oval on the mudflats next to the creek.

*

That oval, the home of St Bernard's Old Collegians, is still there, on the south west corner of the estate. They built the school about ten years later on the north east side on a shelf carved into the cliff. The south east end, being steeper, remained a virtual cliff until last year, when someone got brave enough to try to use the cliff-like hill to house football (and cricket) spectators.

They started digging in winter. Massive gouges appeared in the earth. The hill held, the reason being that it seemed to be mostly rock. Over the course of excavation, thousands of boulders were unearthed. Most ended up at the bottom of the valley, piled up next to the oval like a giant cairn. Later, they were used to rebuild the perimeter, half-buried in between landscaping grass amongst the weed matting, like studs in a leather couch.

One night last winter I was running slow laps on the oval. It had rained for several days and I expected a landslide to bury me at any moment. An earthmover was perched at a seemingly dangerous angle way above me. You'd have to be brave to drive an earthmover in a place like that. Clinging to the hill on a narrow cutting, it looked like one of those mountain goats that stand on cliffs. How do they do it?

After they made the first cut, they made another, higher up. Sheer madness. They were terracing the cliff! The idea was to tap into the iconic concept of drive-in parking, a feature of football grounds well known around country towns and some suburban ovals.

Then they joined the two levels via a hairpin-bended switchback, paved the lot, landscaped the hill and put in strong barriers for the inevitable occasion(s) when someone, parking, will hit the accelerator instead of the brake.

The view from both levels is like the upper tiers at Etihad stadium, except the sky is your roof (if you have an open-top car), and you don't have someone sitting half a centimetre away on either side.
In reviving this legendary and much-loved feature of the game, St Bernard's has turned the iconic footy drive-in into a cutting edge landscaping statement that thumbs its nose at the pastel plasticised anonymity of its grandstand contemporaries. As an example of urban infrastructure, it is as brave and as fearless as the feats performed way below on the oval.
- Uber-Urban Architect

*

Once again the blasts of car horns greeting every goal will reverberate across the valley. Not sure whether the residents in their mock-palatial 1980s mansionettes on the other side of the valley will enjoy it.

29.4.15

Mourning the condemned. And condemning the dead.

Mourning the condemned.

It was 1986 all over again. The Malaysian pair got as much publicity 29 years ago but still ended up in the same place as the Bali two (actually eight) did. The academics, literati and actors were on to it as usual; one male academic had a letter in the paper yesterday describing the pair as 'inspirational' who had lived 'redemptive' lives, and ended with the academic's clichéd 'I weep for you ... (and) pay tribute to your courage'. Signed, emeritus professor. Meanwhile the left-wing act-persons (if that's not redundant) got up an anti-Abbott campaign, prompting the retort: "They (the actors) are ghouls preying on the wretched plight of others to peddle their demonic Abbott hatred".

Condemning the dead.

Late one night last year, a woman was defiled while still alive in a filthy back street in Brunswick, murdered in cold blood, and then dumped in mud in a field in the middle of the night. Her body was still warm.

Some, among them a priest, said she should not have been out in the middle of the night in an inner city street. (He also said she might not be dead had her faith been stronger.) Incredibly, he said this to children.

A month or so ago, a woman was attacked in a Doncaster park and murdered.

Some, among them a policeman, said women should not be out in the middle of the day in lonely parkland.

Middle of the day or middle of the night; inner city street or open parkland. It's all your fault, ladies.

Yes. There is a yawning gap in logic between these two scenarios. We mourn the condemned even while obscenely condemning victims.

*

Inevitably, the mention of capital punishment always brings on the high keening wail of the politically correct. And that's just the blokes.

Capital punishment? You must be joking! Or mad! The letter-writing academic above mentioned ' ... "anti-drug" lynching groups baying for blood and the heartless authorities denying you mercy'.

There's the key. 'Denying' mercy. It's the age of entitlement. Everyone's entitled. The condemned are entitled to mercy and if not, it's a heartless denial. No suggestion of discretion, or choices, or caution; the past doesn't matter. Consequences are an authoritarian construct.

What was Jill Meagher denied? First her dignity, then her life and after that, when she was dead, her very blamelessness.

That man who took his two-year-old and shot it with a spear gun – his own child, whose last word was probably 'Daddy' – is right now breathing Victorian air. Ditto the man who threw his four-year-old – she was looking forward to going to school the next year – off the West Gate Bridge, while his other child sat in the car and watched. Will he ever be truly alive? The other child, I mean. Having experienced that. So why should the father?

*

I spoke to a person recently who had been threatened in Sydney Road late one night a short time before Jill Meagher's murder. She confided in me that she would be happy to see such murderers removed from society, for both the good of society and the safety of individuals. Not an unreasonable opinion. Hardly a heartless 'lynching group', just a frightened individual who no longer has confidence in the law to rigorously protect her or, failing that, to apply robust consequences.

*
"As far as capital punishment goes, I'm in favour of it in some cases ... only for certain crimes ... the ones which horrify the public most, child murder and sex crimes, terrorism, drug dealing on a large scale, and the killing of police and prison staff."
- Henry Bolte, in Bolte by Bolte by Tom Prior, Craftsman Publishing, Melbourne, 1990

27.4.15

Top ten vegetable countdown continues.

No. 5: Spinach

The Iron Man of the vegetable world, spinach is loaded with the ferrous mineral. To maximise uptake of its iron, eat it with other iron sources such as red meat or beans if you're vegetarian.

Possibly the best combination for sheer good taste as well iron uptake is fegato di vitello alla Veneziana (calves' liver Venetian style) with creamed spinach. Dine on that and you won't be able to walk past a magnet. For the spinach, rinse a bunch in water, throw it in a pot with olive oil, crushed garlic and cracked pepper, cook it until it crumples, add cream and reduce. Finish it with a squeeze of lemon juice and shake of salt. As children, we never had fegato di vitello alla Veneziana, but we had its second cousin, lamb's fry. Same dish, different animal. I liked it. It was good for your jaws. My mother overcooked it. You could have used the leftovers as doorstops. (A common complaint, it is nevertheless understandable that food was often overcooked in that era because of the common fear of spreading disease or causing poisoning through undercooking.) Nowadays we are far more educated and sophisticated; we outsource the poisoning to the Chinese, who supply us with fruit bathed in their sewage.

Couldn't end that paragraph fast enough. Now back to spinach. My top five spinach recipes, aside from the above:

5. Salad of baby spinach leaves, avocado, spring onions, halved cherry tomatoes, toasted pine nuts, balsamic vinegar, olive oil. Toss and eat. Simple and unpretentious but good.
4. Spanakorizo
3. Spanakopita (Made there with silverbeet)
2. Spicy spinach paneer, and the champion:
1. Spinach with caramelised onions and butter beans:

Slice and fry a large onion in olive oil until caramelised. Meanwhile, warm three crushed garlic cloves in olive oil in another pan. Rinse 250g spinach and add to the pan, cooking in their retained water until they wilt. Add a drained can of butter beans, the caramelised onions, salt and plenty of pepper. A dash of chili powder if you like. Squeeze the juice of half a lemon over the pan, and cook until warmed through. Serve as a side dish to Greek sausages – loukanika – (T-Deli, Sydney Road), then go out and run a marathon.