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

15.9.14

Little film lost: laconic actors lend murky realism to 1970s man vs nature tear-jerker.

Actors Jack Thompson, Ray Barrett, John Jarratt and John Hargreaves have starred in every movie ever made in this country. The federal government legislated in 1972 that no film could be released in Australia without these actors playing roles. It also legislated that they play the same characters in every movie. In comedy, disaster, costume drama and period romance, Thompson, Barrett, Jarratt and Hargreaves play the same laconic grass-chewing check-shirted semi-neanderthal ocker farmer/barfly/shearer characters, with minor variations: even in 128-minute art house films in which nothing actually happens. This has led to some truly innovative and creative Australian cinematic moments, which Hollywood has dismally failed to replicate. Also, titling services in Australia are much cheaper than other markets because the editor only has to change the font; the names stay the same.

1978 saw the launch of Little Boy Lost on to Australian screens. It played to vast audiences nationwide, sometimes approaching the hundreds. Based on the song, that was based on the true story, that was based on ... a little boy getting lost in the bush, the movie portrays Nathan Dawes playing Steven Walls running through the bush looking for his father, pursued by hordes of drunken check-shirted Jarratts and Hargreaveses (Thompson and Barrett were excused from appearing due to other film commitments), who fail to locate the yellow t-shirted four-year-old, who in turn thinks the rescuers are out to harm him. Dawes originally wore a green shirt over brown trousers, but on the second day of the shoot, the cinematographer stood up from his Arriflex, turned to the director and said "I know he’s meant to be lost, but I can’t bloody see him for the f*&%$@# gum trees!" Wardrobe then found him a red t-shirt but that flared, so yellow was settled upon. Halfway through the movie, the boy can be seen fleetingly in the red t-shirt due to a continuity mistake. In the final cut, the film editor said that since the scene was evening, it just looked like his t-shirt was reflecting the setting sun.)

It soon becomes obvious that, despite being based on fact, the movie could be a parody, but isn't. The boy is intercut so frequently into the search action fleeing horsemen, leaping into creeks, hiding under waterfall outcrops and generally evading capture that it seems he is actually attempting to escape the movie itself, and its stilted players, its wooden dialogue, its sheer plodding action. But he fails, and is rescued; and John Jarratt and John Hargreaves depart, check-shirted, jut-jawed and silently brooding, for the set of their next movie.

But there was something. The interiors – the kitchens and hotel bars – are dirty, and broken, and have things placed where things in movies should not be placed. It looks like someone filmed the inside of my kitchen, or in the bar of a waterside workers' hotel. Everywhere, the colours are murky, seemingly un-art-directed. Costumes look like leftovers from Wake in Fright (1971) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). The only attempt at colour correction is the boy’s yellow t-shirt. Perhaps they forwent the stylist in order to pay John Jarratt and John Hargreaves' compulsory fees. The effect is good, portraying the kind of 'real' realism you don’t see in films in which stylists and art directors construct either a clean minimalism or, at the other end of the scale, clichéd over-realism. A dirty, disquieting air hangs over the movie like flies over a kill. The camera is still, capturing the bush scenes honestly and directly, instead of waving about like a Byron Bay hippy drunk on fake gaia spirituality. Getting lost in the bush for half an hour is enough to divest you of gaia, let alone four days.

The boy’s fate creeps up on you like a submerged Northern Territory crocodile on an estuary fisherman. So that when he is found, possibly hurt, and only the bloodied face and shock of blond hair of his small form is visible in his rescuer’s encircling arms (check-shirted, of course), emotion takes hold. He’s been missing four days. If you don’t shed a tear, you’re not human.

The penultimate scene is a long, elevated shot of the townspeople witnessing the boy being passed from rescuer to mother, left of screen instead of the usual clichéd front-and-centre; a slow, dreamlike sequence of frames in which the viewer observes what might be the closest a human being can get to the concept of heaven, a concept which involves having being on the threshold of that other necessary construct – hell – and returning: for no apparent reason.

That’s what had just happened to the boy’s mother.

Little Boy Lost, 1978
Summary: a lost classic in which good triumphs over ... bad acting.

10.9.14

Diner-style café found in Coburg arcade.

Sunday, midday. The café was long, like a bus, with a row of tables down one side and the servery on the other. A mirror ran along the wall and wrapped around the back, giving air to an otherwise claustrophobic space.

Some tables spilled out on to the arcade, and there was an old coin-in-the-slot tractor for toddlers to sit on while their mother calms her nerves with a coffee. It's like something out of the 1970s; the very concept of a café in an arcade is dated. But there are no hipsters, and that is a huge advantage. Hipsters want a street frontage and a view while they yap into their devices and eat buffalo cheese and sweet tomato compote out of ramekin-like vessels.

Eddie was on his own. Staff are expensive when there are no customers. So far, we were the only customers. That is; me, Tracy, William, Thomas, Alexandra, and Erin. It was father’s day. I was being taken out for lunch on the cheap.

We ordered. Eddie got busy. An old, short Greek man and his wife drifted in, like two tired pigeons. They had come from the Orthodox church in Victoria Street. Eddie is Greek, so they have an affinity. They perched on a bench at the front. Another customer arrived with a child, who climbed onto the tractor.

Eddie buttered rolls, turned on burners, frothed milk. He was calm. But his customers are patient. They are old Coburg, some literally and some figuratively. The elderly, the tradesmen in fluoro vests, the checkout ladies from the supermarkets on their break. Also, the special needs people from the assisted accommodation on the other side of the railway line. There will never be a place like this again. I can’t see special needs people eating smoked salmon and blue cheese panini.

Eddie brought out the salad rolls. These were old-school, meaning they contained one of everything that could potentially be in a salad roll. A major feature: they contained beetroot. Eddie loves onions, so his salad rolls also encompass about half an onion each. This may be excessive for some tastes. But I gave the rolls five out of five. (Compare with bad salad roll experience.)

Old-school food is always accompanied by chips. Here they are fat, and of an appetizing pale yellow colour, crisping to nut brown at the edges. An initial crunch yields to a soft, steaming interior enhanced by liberal application of vinegar and salt. Pointedly, the chips arrived on an oval diner-style plate, courtesy Bristile super vitrified hotel china, made in Australia, with date-stamp underneath. You can’t kill these plates; and they don’t look ludicrous, like ramekins.

The elderly couple were pecking at their toasted sandwiches. Some takeaway customers came in and stood at the bar waiting. Eddie juggled brown paper bags, pans, knife and coffee machine.

Newspapers are supplied free for customers. I flicked quickly through the colour supplements. That weekend the supplements were fathers’ day special editions, because it ... editor briefs reporters ... was fathers’ day and you can generate four, six, eight, twenty pages, if you want, out of vapid interviews with fathers. Compulsorily, in today’s clichéd-journalism content, one page portrayed a small boy with two daddies. His eyes were bright, and he smiled for the camera with his two daddies. What kind of extraordinary contemporary self-regard can consign a child to motherlessness? Motherless children have a hard time, according to Blind Willie Johnson, when mother is dead, Lord. But this child’s mother wasn’t dead. I presume.

I threw the magazine back on its rack. Having seen off the takeaway customers, Eddie tipped pancake batter onto the flat grill. The pancakes arrived in two minutes, on invisible plates, because each pancake overlapped its edges, and was topped with twin mountains of plain white vanilla ice cream rising sheer out of a lake of maple syrup. Providentially, the boys were hungry, having spent the morning practising goal-keeping on the soccer pitch at the bottom of St Bernard’s valley, adjacent to the second football ground (in which has just been laid and sowed the new cricket pitch), while I walked laps. They could have eaten the vinyl of the seats. (Thomas, in fact, had already eaten his mother’s salad roll, minus onion.) The picture below is indicative, with Thomas in the shot for purposes of comparison, like a foot rule against a just-caught fish, as I don’t usually post pictures of food, especially in cafes. (Photographic credit: Erin.) The degree of difficulty in eating the whole pancake was judged: almost impossible. The boys proved the judges wrong. Alex helped with the ice-cream.

Size here is important, as reported by a commenter on a popular online restaurant t review site: "Swear to God, they (Twins Famous Burger) were as big as the MCG." The same reviewer estimated that Eddie was on first name terms with 90% of his customers.

Summary: Three adults, three children: forty bucks.

Twins Café. Foley’s Mall, 441 Sydney Road, Coburg. Experience it while you still can. Recommended: burgers the size of the MCG, chicken schnitzel sandwich, pancakes.

3.9.14

Once upon a time in Spain.

I'd been walking all morning, down from the mountains, and I crept up on a town built on the side of a hill crowned by a cathedral.

It was close to midday, and bright and hot, and the streets were empty. I opened a heavy door in the cathedral. Inside, it was dim and cool and lonely. I stayed long enough to cool down, and went out again into the harsh light.

I walked on. The claustrophobic streets were confusing, winding back on themselves and lined with tall, narrow houses. From some, laundry hung out over the street, high up. Caged birds twittered from open windows. Dark doorways lay open to allow the passage of air. I passed them. Every now and then an escalier – or whatever the Spanish call those narrow stairways that connect streets at different levels – ran upwards or downwards, scores of steps disappearing in the blinding midday sun. I followed one down. I was lost, but I didn’t care. I had all day; all week in fact. I was free that year. I was also hungry.

The descent ended at a narrow street beneath an overhanging wall that ran its length, over which grew vast hedged shrubs. Their foliage hung down almost to the tops of the doors. Between two vast whitewashed buildings, an old wrought iron sign that read Cantina Zafra hung from a portico. There was no mistaking the aroma of fish, garlic and herbs. I pushed the door open and went in.

The place was small and dark but still managed to hold a dozen or so dark timber tables, several of which were occupied. These were obviously locals and not tourists, their expressions betraying a kind of bored familiarity; a boredom more related to serenity than to any get-me-the-bill haste.

A small blackboard by the kitchen had one word chalked on it: soup, in Spanish, of course. That one word represented a now long-lost minimalism, serving both to inform the customer and to save work. In any case, there was no space on the board for a raw tuna salad with lemon foam and warm hints of wasabi - even had the waiter wanted to write out such nonsense. (The loss of minimalism has also seen the introduction of the indefinite article in menu descriptions. Whoever heard of a soup? But I digress.)

A waiter, who was probably the patron, materialised. He was small, like a jockey. He wore a leather apron over a white shirt and black trousers. I didn’t know if he was Zafra or just the hired help. He said nothing. I pointed to the menu. He went away. The room was silent apart from an occasional word or two uttered between the locals. Minimalism even in the conversation. And no phones.

A few minutes later the patron materialised again and put a glass of white wine on my table. Then a bowl of soup. The bowl was large. The soup was like a kind of stew. The soup itself – meaning the fluid essence in the bowl – was a sea rich with garlic and onion and saltiness. That's what I had picked up on the air outside. In the middle of the sea was a large mound of caramelised onions that tasted like they had been cooked for hours with herbs of some, or many, kinds. There was something warm, like paprika, or cumin, but I could not be sure. On the shores of the caramelised onion island sat large rounds of sausage that had been fried crisp on the outside. It was similar to, but not the same as, what we know as the clichéd chorizo. I hadn’t known whether to start with the fork or the spoon, and then the waiter had come back yet again, this time with a small basket of hard-crust bread in one hand, and a glass of water in the other. That was all. Barely a word had been exchanged between us. I ate and drank. Some more locals came in, and a couple left.

Later, the sun almost blinded me when I went outside after paying the bill. I took an hour or more to find my way out of the maze of streets to the other side of the town, but I wasn’t really trying. The soup kept me going until dusk.

1.9.14

Potato-free mash.

Nothing wrong with potatoes, but sometimes something different works wonders for a jaded palate emerging from a long, cold stew-filled winter. The following mash is sweet and sour, nutty and salty, smooth and unctuous and is easy to make.

Swede and carrot mash with pine nuts and prosciutto.

Take half a kilo each of swedes and carrots. Cut into chunks and cook in salted water until soft.

Meanwhile, lightly toast some pine nuts in a pan. Chop a few slices of prosciutto into pieces and crisp these in the same pan.

Drain the vegetables, retaining a little of the water. Mash, adding salt, pepper and a little nutmeg and place into a serving bowl.

Shower pine nuts and prosciutto flecks over the top and serve as a side dish with ... anything, especially eye fillet chargrilled quickly so it is still rare inside, drizzled with garlic butter.

*

Oh look! It's September! Spring! Football finals! Warm weather! Right now it's raining fit to flood the Merri Creek.


28.8.14

Spring into fish: baked Tasmanian Atlantic salmon with leeks, red onion and lemon.

1. Chop a leek radially into thin rings. Rinse out grit if necessary. Chop a large red onion into rings. Sweat the leek and onion in oil in a covered pan until they just start to soften.

2. In a bowl, combine three tablespoons of olive oil with the juice of two lemons, a handful of chopped parsley and half that amount of chopped dill. Season.

3. Place two large salmon fillets into a baking dish and cover with warm leek and onion mixture. Pour over the herbed oil and lemon mixture. Cover dish with foil. Bake twenty minutes depending on size of fish. Salmon cooks quickly, staying moist.

4. Serve with asparagus drizzled with lemon butter: boil and remove asparagus from pan, drain most cooking water, add the juice of two lemons and a pat of butter, reduce, pour over asparagus and add cracked black pepper.

21.8.14

Thirty years?

Impossible? 1984. It had always been in everyone's conscious future because of the George Orwell book, but then it arrived, and now it's thirty years in the rear vision mirror.

I got the grand final video out for the boys. The colour is muted. It had been an overcast steel-grey day with patchy rain. I had walked to the M.C.G, of course; lived in Carlton then. Through the Carlton Gardens, across at Nicholson Street, past St. Patrick's Cathedral. And yes, I dropped in. Call it superstition. Could you seriously walk past when your team is in the grand final against the club that won by more than thirteen goals in the same game the previous September? Through the Fitzroy Gardens. Yarra Park. In.

I watched the video with the boys. The soundtrack is strangely muted. The old commentators let the pictures speak for themselves, waited for the goal umpire before calling the score. Essendon hopelessly behind all day, and then that electric last quarter that will live on in the memory of anyone who was there that grey day. I had been hemmed in in standing room like a tinned sardine. That's hardly even a simile. You could barely get an empty beer can to the ground. Yes, we dropped them in those days, but that was simply because you couldn't move. Also, you could bring them in.

There is a ghostly passage of play in the dying light of the last quarter, when Nobby Clark tears out of the back pocket and fires a pass to Merv Neagle. That passage might be on a frequent loop at the 1984 Essendon premiership reunion next month. Only way to get those two players there.

15.8.14

Tail end of winter.

August could be my favourite month. While the weather is still intermittently bad, you can see the end of winter.

So now we're having a last rush of cooking winter dishes before h swept away by spring's warmer weather. Heavy stews like the following always taste better when the weather's cold.

Oxtail with red wine.

Take an average oxtail* and joint it. Hardly necessary: the butcher will do it for you. Boil the pieces ten minutes with a bay leaf, a clove of garlic and a teaspoonful of pepper. Drain.

Now sear the oxtail pieces in a cast iron pan and remove to a large pot.

Place two chopped onions, two chopped carrots and a scored clove of garlic in the pan in which you have seared the oxtail. Add a cup of boiling water. The residual heat will deglaze the pan juices, combining them with the vegetables. Pour the lot into the large pot over the oxtail. Add half a bottle of red wine and one jar of tomato passata. Add enough water to just cover the contents.

Simmer a couple of hours, then cool and chill. Next day, remove fat, reheat and eat. The meat will fall off the bone. Ideal on garlic mashed potato.

Turn the remaining gravy and meat into a ragu: add a can of chickpeas and a sliced avocado, reheat and serve over tortiglioni or rigatoni. Possibly even tastier than the original dish.

*What's an average oxtail? 1.5 kilograms according to a farmer I just asked.

29.7.14

The anti-road protest sticker read: No East-West Link.

It was on the back of a car.

26.7.14

Brussels sprout campaign resumes.

Once upon a time, many years ago, I embarked on a campaign to champion the much-unloved vegetable, the Brussels sprout. This robust brassica with its distinctive earthy, nutty taste is one of my favourites and lends itself to far greater cooking variety than it is generally credited with.

Linguine with bacon and Brussels sprouts.

Trim sprouts and slice in half through the core. Cook pasta and sprouts. This can be done in the same pot.

In a pan, cook a few scored cloves of garlic in olive oil. Add two or three slices of short bacon chopped into small squares. Take care not to burn the garlic. Add a slosh of white wine, a shake of white pepper and a third cup of cream. Reduce.

When pasta is done, drain. Pour creamy bacon mixture over pasta and sprouts. Top with fresh grated pecorino and chopped parsley.

Drink: McLaren Vale shiraz.

*

The boys are watching the Commonwealth Games. Comment: "Dad, this is not as exciting as the World Cup."

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.