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

27.2.04

Stop me if you've heard this before ...

One of these days I'm going to inadvertantly repeat a recipe. I think most people have a few core favourites they cook over and over again.

Some folks even have a particular meal for each night of the week. Nothing wrong with that.

When I was a kid, our local fish shop was packed to the gills every Friday night. Just about the entire suburb lined up for deep-fried hake, flake, whiting, 'couta or bream with potato cakes (hash browns without the hashing, just sliced), chips (fries) done the old-fashioned hand-cut way, deep-fried scallops, mussels by the jar and pickled onions.

The things you remember. I can see her even now - wrapping the fish and chips in newspaper as if it were yesterday - the fishmonger's dark-haired daughter, big gold earrings accenting her beautiful olive Mediterranean skin.

Then the fish shop burned down. The deep frier caught fire. It was a local tragedy.

Now people get take-outs all through the week so it's nothing special any more. And the beautiful Greek daughter is a voice in a hole-in-the-wall speaker in the drive-through. Shame.

Where was I? Oh yes. Last night, something I've done a million times.

Chicken breast marinated in soy or tamari, ginger (powdered is fine), garlic and lemon juice. Marinate for at least an hour but twelve hours is better.

Barbecue or grill on high heat to sear the chicken and retain as much moisture as possible.

Serve it with a big mound of nice, buttery mash and some greens (rabe, spinach or silverbeet done in olive oil, garlic and a splash of water and finished with a touch of cream).

As a 'sauce' I like to gently cook some sliced button (or field) mushrooms in a pot with a close-fitting lid so that they 'sweat' and cook in their own juices. If the heat is low enough you need add nothing to the 'shrooms and they will just cook away in their juices. Then just spoon them over your chicken fillet.

That's great. Might do it again tonight! (Hint: if you have cooked chicken left over, it's great in sandwiches for lunch next day with some lettuce and maybe a scrape of mayo.)

26.2.04

A variation on pasta with pesto. And a neat tomato salad.

Late summer. Long hot days. Cool evenings.

We ate outside at our little table under the trees.

A simple pasta dish. We used pappardelle, those broad strips of egg pasta that don't need much in the way of a sauce as they are delicious - you can eat them with a coating of olive oil.

Tossed them in the last of the latest batch of home-made pesto (basil from the garden - eat, eat, eat, there's lots more! - pinenuts from the Turkish foodstore, garlic, olive oil), and then placed tomato and thin slices of kasseri, the piquant Greek cheese over the top.

The tomato salad: simple but fragrant and delicious. Dice some fresh, red tomatoes and a salad onion (any onion is OK). Toss them together with a handful of finely chopped parsley and, if you have it, some coriander or mint or both.

Squeeze a lemon over it.

It's perfect with grills but we ate it as a side salad with our pasta. Oops, tomato in both dishes, dinner party error!

And a glass of cold white wine.

24.2.04

Sushi and laksa.

We went to the asian supermarket in town, and were amazed at the discrepancy between its prices and those of regular supermarkets. Some things were less than half the 'regular supermarket' price. Well, I wasn't really all that surprised.

Picked up several things, some seaweed, tofu, sushi rice, miso, fish sauce, chinese basil (so aromatic!), noodles and several other things.

So. Our first attempt at handrolls. Seaweed. Sushi rice (it's easy to cook and doesn't stick together). And whatever you want to fill it with. We used avocado, cucumber, wasabi. (Next time I'll get some sushi tuna from the Victoria market.)

It's just an assembly job. Roll it up, the seaweed works as a natural adhesive. Slice. That's it.

Eat with soy sauce, chili sauce or more wasabi. Or all three.

We also made some laksa. Stock, herbs, a little coconut milk, poached chicken, tofu, bean shoots, spring onions, chinese basil. Delicious. (We used a laksa pack from the asian supermarket for the base spice stock - works fine.)

19.2.04

Vine-ripened tomatoes, mozzarella and fresh white crusty bread.

Vine-ripened tomatoes. Picked this morning at eight o'clock, accidentally. See post below.

Two fresh crusty ciabatta-type rolls from Mamma Ciabatta. Fifty cents each. Travel two suburbs south and you'll pay $1.50-$2. And these are better.

Butter the bread, add thick pieces of mozzarella, slices of tomato on top of that, salt and pepper and a leaf of fresh basil. Eat. Heaven on a plate.

Coffee to finish. Then outside for an early afternoon sleep on the lawn in the shade of a tree.

See? We don't just do dinner. We do lunch as well.

Day of the Triffids.

I was standing there wondering whether to illegally water the lawn (water restrictions are in force) when I noticed a huge tendril curling over the geranium/pelargonium (whatever, crimson flowers) hedge bordering the vegetable garden.

Oh. My. God. Over there by the garden shed, another tendril, creeping over the garden gate. Yet another snaking up the paling fence at the bottom of the garden.

The pumpkin has turned feral, if not actually science fictional. I thought I'd leave it be, but if it starts taking over the suburb and stopping traffic, etc, then I might have to take action.

And another thing. How many vines are there? Because beneath all that greenery, there seems to be several different varieties of pumpkin growing.

I poked about underneath the canopy checking out the different pumpkins, and way down low, on a tomato bush that was almost completely overshadowed by pumpkin leaves, was a vine containing a dozen perfectly formed, bright red cherry tomatoes. The first to ripen this summer.

How does that work? Everyone is saying the lack of sun has been the reason for this season's tomato failures, but these ones were completely out of any direct sunlight. I give up. I'm a 'whatever' gardener. It's easier that way.

By the way, I didn't illegally water the lawn. Oh, I did intend to. It's just that I co-incidentally caught the forecast for the next few days in the meantime - rain.

16.2.04

When it's so hot you can fry an egg on the footpath.

The temperature hit 41 celsius late Saturday, or 105 fahrenheit (sounds more impressive). Slow to rise, it was still low thirties around lunchtime.

Earlier in the morning we found ourselves at one of the Peninsula markets - a mixture between a farmers' market and a craft market. The farmers seem to be winning at present - who needs another pine knick-knack or a crocheted wall-hanging?

Also quite a few plant nurseries had set up stalls. Shrubs were walking out, must be a lot of planting going on along the bay. Natives, exotics, ornamentals, all kinds of plants. Rose bushes, etc etc. I never know what to buy.

One fruit and vegetable stallholder had a box of button squash in sizes ranging from about three inches to about twelve inches across. However, they were all the same price - a dollar each! I chose a medium-sized one to hopefully get the best compromise between value and flavour. Picked up some nice tomatoes, mushrooms and pale zucchini. Fat stone fruits - peaches and nectarines in several varieties - are sensuous and bursting with juice. You just want to bite them.

Spent the rest of the day on the beach as the temperature rose and rose - alternately sitting in the shade of the ti-tree just metres from the water's edge and strolling out into the water. The beach at Blairgowrie has a gradual drop meaning you can wade out about four hundred metres before it drops away into deep water.

Too hot to eat in, so back to prepare some food around six. Packed a picnic comprising an old-fashioned summer salad (tomatoes, cucumber, coriander, parsley, onion, quartered hardboiled eggs and cubes of cheddar cheese), some risotto with mushrooms (cooled) and a platter of sliced bratwurst and chili sausage. A cold bottle of white wine (didn't stay cold for long in the heat) and for dessert, some strawberries soused in sweet white wine.

Arriving back at the beach, we threw the tartan blanket on the sand, unpacked the goodies and watched the light fade. The heat was still intense. The dogs, Billy and Goldie, lay in the sand beside us, half-opened eyes on our dinner but too hot to show real interest.

Soon, the sea and sky merged into a steamy blue-grey blur as the sun went down. As it did so, the highlight of the evening ... the magnificent QE2 passenger liner, ablaze with lights, slid into view directly on the horizon and proceeded regally down the bay. Its sheer size meant that it seemed to sit lower in the water than the other ships that pass up and down. Maybe the fresh load of provisions on board - the champagne, the truffles, the caviar and the rest - were weighing it down. Does it gradually 'rise' in the water as it nears its next destination and the passengers exhaust supplies? So we speculated as we sat on the sand in the dying light, replete, draining the last of the wine.

12.2.04

Fast-track Osso Buco. Slow food purists, go back to sleep.

While February is usually Melbourne's hottest month, but yesterday was our coolest February day for some years.

So, a perfect night for Osso Buco, something you associate with winter. This was fast-track Osso Buco -sorry to the purists - but as I said earlier, if you don't cheat occasionally, you'd go very very hungry trying to be 'authentic'.

Chopped onion and garlic in the heavy-bottomed pan with deep sides (what do you call that thing?). Chuck in some olive oil and the cross-cut veal shanks in a layer. A tablespoon of tomato paste, a can of diced tomatoes, a cup of diced celery, the same amount of diced carrot, a cup of white wine and a half a litre of stock. Throw in some chopped parsley, salt and pepper and maybe a bay leaf.

Now simmer away for as long as you like, checking the stock level. It's cooked when the meat falls off the bone and/or you start salivating.

Meanwhile, cook some polenta. When it's done, layer some over your plate - it should be a nice consistency - place your Osso Buco in the middle, some of the vegetable over that, then some of the juices over the lot and garnish it with that mixture of grated lemon rind, parsley and garlic called gremolata.

Any red wine suits this perfectly, although since you've already opened the white, drink that first.

Sometimes I cheat.

Well, often. But for every time I cheat, there's a dozen times I do it by the book. By several books in fact.

Because every great recipe - no, dish - has many recipes and many versions. The best version is the one you like best, no matter what anyone says.

Personally, I think the best recipe is the one that is most suited to your own region and what it supplies, either from your garden, from your local primary industry, or at the very least from your local stores.

If there's something that annoys me as much as seeing people cart home truckloads of pre-packaged 'complete' meals from the supermarket, it's those who must so meticulously re-create an exotic dish or a cuisine in their own home that they go to ridiculously complicated and expensive lengths to procure ingredients.

This is particularly so for some peasant-type dishes which are a basic or a commonplace in their original home, where the ingredients are easily obtainable or grown locally. But which become, in other places, expensive and impractical to cook easily and practically on a regular basis.

Obviously, I am not talking about the occasional experiment, or the attempt to recreate a much-enjoyed meal experienced while travelling, for example. And, of course, I am not talking about those communities or individuals who have established regular special imports in order that they enjoy their homeland cuisines in their new lands.

I guess it's a matter of balance and common sense.

So go ahead and cheat. Because after all, sensibly substituting a very similar ingredient is not really cheating as much as flying in some rare ingredient from the ends of the earth just so you can have a 'genuine' regional experience in your own home.

If you were having that, you would be sitting down in that region to eat it.

10.2.04

It was one of those 'what's in the back of the cupboard' days.

And what was in the back of the cupboard was a can of beans. I think they were fava beans, red ones with black tails.

I threw the beans complete into a pan with two cloves of garlic, half a chopped onion, a chopped yellow pepper and the juice of half a lemon - quite a generous amount. The lemon and garlic work well together. While that was simmering I chopped some parsely from the garden and some fresh coriander, threw it over the bean stew, topped it with a generous handful of pinenuts and turned the stove down to very low.

Then I made a salad of halved cold boiled baby potatoes left over from an earlier potato salad, tomato, purple salad onion, cucumber from the garden (we discovered dozens growing like crazy under the pumpkin canopy!) and cubed mozzarella cheese.

Finally I heated through a couple of chapatis (bought ones but very good) and served everything up with some yogurt and cucumber on the side.

Well OK, the only thing from the cupboard was the can of beans, but it all came together pretty well, don't you think?

9.2.04

The vegetable garden under siege from giant pumpkins.

Despite what you may have gathered from the previous post, the tomatoes haven't been successful this year, and from what I've been hearing, many others have had the same experience. Plenty of foliage and flowers, but not many tomatoes. Whatever.

While the tommies haven't worked, the pumpkins have taken over. The entire patch has been overrun with pumpkin vines, their big green leaves creating a quite attractive canopy dotted with the yellow flowers, whilst down below, some monster pumpkins are growing.

Expect lots of pumpkin recipes soon. In fact, if you have any good ones, email me with them.

2.2.04

What to do with good tomatoes.

It's a summer pasta dish using fresh tomatoes, basil and parsley straight from the garden and a fresh cheese.

But the tomatoes have to be really good, very ripe, red and juicy. Bad tomatoes are starchy and pasty and just don't work the same.

Boil your pasta. Ordinary spaghetti works the best with this as it is very sensuous and silky the way it curls around and catches all the flavours.

Meanwhile, slice three or four tomatoes into fairly thin slices. Pick some basil and tear it into pieces, not too small; roughly chop parsley, a generous amount.

Slice a generous amount of cheese into thin strips. You can use any fresh cheese - I used mozzarella.

Drain the pasta, arrange it in a big serving platter, and quickly place tomato slices, basil, parsley and cheese on the pasta and either serve it like that or mix it through a little. The heat from the cooked pasta will warm the other ingredients, especially if you place a large lid over the dish for a couple of minutes.

Add cracked pepper upon serving. Eat with a nice white wine, maybe a semillon or a chardonnay. Anything really.

The acid and sweetness of the tomatoes contrasts with the creaminess of the cheese and the pasta, as the world's supreme 'carrier' ingredient - melds them together perfectly.

As I said, you need good tomatoes for this to work. If you've got bad tomatoes, use them for something else, I dunno, play cricket with them or something. That would be fun - wouldn't it?

When I was a kid we used to play apple cricket at the height of summer when the apple tree was full ... but that's another story.