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

28.6.04

I think they were bratwurst but I can't remember.

I can't remember the first thing I cooked, I can only remember the first thing I burned.

As as kid, I spent my whole life in the kitchen because it was like, a communal family room, with a huge table around which everyone sat. We did school homework around the table and played boardgames on Saturday afternoons, had arguments, played cards, all the usual stuff.

So we were always party to any cooking that was going on, we kind of got insinuated into it. 'Shell these peas while you're sitting there.' 'Peel these potatoes, will you?' (Peelings wrapped up in newspaper and into bin, peeled 'taters into cold water). 'Butter this bread and put it on a plate for dinner.'

Fringe benefits: tasting the cake mixture! Scraping the bowl! Man, to a kid, that stuff tastes WAY better than the actual cake. (Maybe even now.)

Later in the evening we would usually adjourn to the lounge and watch the black and white television while dad filled the room with smoke, turning the room blue in the glow of the TV.

Then the rogue tidal wave of late adolescence swept away my childhood idyll and I found myself, aged 19, living in a small apartment with a girlfriend. A pregnant girlfriend. A pregnant girlfriend who couldn't tell an oven from a TV. Actually, she could tell an oven from a TV.

The things we get ourselves into. We married but it didn't last. However, thank God for my two beautiful children.

*

1977

So I turn on the burner, place the pan on the stove, place the sausages in the pan.

I waited.

Then, they spat. They hissed. They jumped. They split. They jumped and spat again.

Then the smoke started.

- This can't be right, I thought to myself, opening all the kitchen windows.

- Maybe I should turn turn down the heat, I thought to myself, switching on the exhaust fan.

I turned down the heat. I cooked the sausages.

We ate the sausages.

They were a bit black.


*

Life is just a learning curve.

I learned.



25.6.04

Cutting edge.

At the place which provides me with both (a) a job and (b) blogging time, there's a bunch of nice people, which I sometimes think is even more important than (a) or (b).

So I guess I've hit the jackpot (although I'm planning to leave work soon - I need more time in the kitchen and the garden and walking the dog and blogging ... and ... and ...).

They all have their little ways, however. Like G.

So G. comes back from lunchtime shopping expeditions loaded with boxes. She does this most weeks. The stores seem to be forever having sales nowadays, and G. is forever saying I got 30% off this and 50% off that.

Which is fine, except poor G. is always complaining about never being able to pay off her credit card and never being able to afford to buy the house of her dreams, which of course is a mansion. So she spends like thousands of dollars a month on upscale junk.

Yesterday, G. went shopping at lunchtime and came back with cutlery. Not nice cutlery. Ugly cutlery. Ugly 'cutting edge' cutlery. Ugly expensive 'cutting edge' cutlery. Even at the '40% off' price tag.

So G. drags a knife and fork out and waves them in the air and says:

- How cool is this, 40% off! Dinner party, here I come!

I'm like, what is that, dangerous daggers made from scrap metal offcuts? That is cutlery?

That's what happens when a fashion label decides to go into homewares, gets some jumped-up square-spectacled designer to come up with some 'cutting edge' designs (we can't be seen to be mainstream, can we?), has them manufactured in China or somewhere for next to nix, packages them in faux-cool packaging to appeal to the designer set for whom even the packaging must pass the cool test, and sells them at stratospheric prices.

Plus, instead of a normal canteen, these pieces were sold in individual 'per person' packs, allowing the manufacturer to hike the price up even further.

I just don't get 'edgy' design, especially for anything to do with the home. It is often hard-angled and impractical; more about attitude than usability.

And for special occasions, I prefer the rounded, flowing beauty of traditional items, even when the patina of age or the occasional chip may have dulled their previous splendour.

I didn't say any of this to G., of course. I just smiled and said, 'Looks like you got yourself a bargain, G. Again! Don't cut yourself, now!'

22.6.04

A traditional pie for the shortest day of winter.

Speaking of funny conversations in the butcher's (we were), we had this exchange:

- It's freezing. Steak and kidney pie would be nice.

- My mother always made it without kidneys.

- Well if she made it without kidneys, it's not steak and kidney pie, is it? You can only have steak and kidney pie if it's got kidneys in it. By definition.

- The English make it with kidneys, the Scots never use kidneys.

So we start with a discussion of what to have for dinner and in a few sentences we're discussing the reasons for the Battle of Bannockburn.

Amazing isn't it? No wonder so many of them migrated to Australia ... to leave behind all that warring. (And the weather's better, despite current conditions. At least you can still drink coffee outdoors in the depths of winter.)

Steak and kidney won, by the way. I got to cut up the kidney and remove the tubes. What is it with women and offal?

There are many recipes for steak and kidney pie, with two broad streams of thought. The first holds that the meat is cooked first. The second is that it is all baked in the pie. I prefer the second, but we went with the first.

Season and flour the cubed steak and lamb, veal or ox kidney (ox kidney may have a distinctive perfectly natural aroma which can be reduced by first soaking in water for an hour or two). Cook in oil and butter until no longer pink, then set aside. Cook a chopped onion in the same pan, adding more oil or butter as necessary, until almost translucent. Then add the cooked meat, some sliced mushrooms, a bay leaf, a little tomato puree or some worcestershire sauce and enough beef stock to almost cover it. Simmer for thirty minutes, checking the fluid level. It should thicken a little. Set aside to cool slightly.

Invert your pie dish over rolled-out puff pastry and cut out the 'lid'. Cut out another strip to press around the edge.

Remove the bay leaf, place the meat filling in the pie dish with some chopped parsley, brush the dish edge with egg, press the pastry lid into place, add the extra strip border and flute it with a fork. Cut an air vent dexterously in the top, brush it with egg, and bake for 45 minutes. If the pastry starts to blacken, cover with foil.

Serve your pie with lashings of steaming mashed potatoes, honeyed carrots and peas piled up high, with tomato sauce in a gravy jug on the side.

And a beer on the other side.

21.6.04

Like lasagne but different.

Awoke to a bleak day on Saturday, one of this winter's coldest.

Off to the market in scarves and coats. Coffee before commerce, as usual - steaming cappuccinos in a glass, piled high with dense froth and dusted with chocolate - in the plaza which was busy despite the cold.

An old man was feeding pigeons; a couple of joggers went by, bravely baring skin; an anti-war group was trying not very successfully to sell newspapers and the local scouts were doing a roaring trade at their 'sausage sizzle' stall - a sausage with fried onions and your choice of tomato sauce or mustard sauce in bread, $2. If you want to know how appetising the aroma of frying onions can be, visit Victorian Mall on the third Saturday morning of each month.

At the butcher's stall, a man was telling the butcher his wife had asked him to get veal shanks and 'was there only one kind of veal shank?' as he didn't want to get the wrong thing. You can't make up stuff as funny as you hear in real life. Maybe he, or the wife, meant whole as against cross-cut or vice versa. I hope he got it right, he sounded quite worried.

The icy wind strengthened during the afternoon, whipping sporadic rain across the sky.

*

Later, made a baked pasta dish with 'abissini' (small shells - don't know the origin of the name).

Cook the shells and lay them in a baking dish, cover them with a bolognese sauce and then cover that with a cheese sauce. We used a Greek-style cheese sauce - with eggs - for a more robust dish. Top this with more cheese and bake until bubbling and ready to eat!

Bolognese (one of hundreds of different versions): cook onions in oil, add ground meat, cook until browned, add a hot Italian sausage after removing its casing (or some chopped salami, sopressa or similar), add finely chopped carrot and celery and some oregano and pepper, stir it all around, add tomato paste and canned tomatoes or tomato puree, a good amount of red wine and some water. I like to add a lot of water and let it simmer away for hours, topping up the water if necessary and scraping down the sides of the pot where the tomato tends to coagulate. It's ready when it's a silky and glistening consistency.

Cheese sauce: melt butter then add flour (off the heat) to bind, then slowly add milk (back on low heat) while stirring. It will thicken. Again off the heat, cool a little then add cheese and a couple of whisked eggs, stirring through. It should now be a thick cheesy sauce.


The golden bubbliness of this beauty emerging from the oven is a sight to see. The shells give it a robust texture and take up the sauce beautifully. The windows are steamed up, the sun has gone for the day, and there's a glass of red at hand.

Heaven.



19.6.04

Hungry for reading.

When I was a child entertainment wasn't what it was today so I and my six siblings spent time reading. Boring, huh?

Imagine life without DVDs, personal computers, MP3s, gameboys, childrens' mini karaokes that plug right into their parents' widescreen home theatre system (with FULL volume - perfect for next time they have a dozen six-year-olds for a sleepover!), laptops, cellphones with text so they need NEVER be out of touch with their scores of friends and televisions in the back seats of their parents' SUV.

My god, it makes my childhood sound like the Dark Ages - I'm surprised I actually survived and made it into adulthood. Maybe I didn't. Maybe I'm in permanent arrested development, a victim of technology-deprivation syndrome as a child.

So when we weren't outside pointlessly climbing trees, making billycarts, investigating frogs in the local stream or riding low-tech bicycles aimlessly around the neighbourhood, we would read anything we could get our hands on, taking turns with all the books.

(Yes, I am aware that children have never really stopped reading - against all odds, given the above distractions - and yes I have heard of Harry Potter.)

Enid Blyton's adventure books were one reading stage we went through and they were always packed with food and dogs - the children in the books would be sitting down to some gargantuan meal or unpacking a massive picnic at least every dozen pages, the dog joining in as well, of course.

One particular volume had the children staying at an isolated guesthouse on the bleak Welsh coast, where the old owner Mrs Jones was forever praising the standard of the cooking. 'The finest food in all the world ... come in and try it ... come and smell what's baking now ... very good cooking, oh yes! Very good cooking! You shall have the best of food ... breakfasts ... and picnics ... and suppers!'

The expression caught on with us and 'Very Good Cooking' became a default phrase for yummy food.

'Supper was ready for them. It began with chicken soup, went on to a fine joint of beef with mounds of roasted potatoes, garden peas and the finest runner beans, and finished with an ice-cream pudding set round with dainty biscuits of all kinds ...

'Breakfast was as good as supper had been. Cold ham, boiled eggs, hot toast, home-made marmalade, creamy butter and scalding hot coffee ...'


Very good cooking indeed. I've never forgotten the expression. Hence the URL - nothing to do with my cooking, it's all about cooking in children's fiction!

18.6.04

Pasta with chickpeas etc.

I keep inventing pasta dishes. Some work, some don't. How do you know until you try?

Spaghetti. Chickpeas, chopped canned tomatoes complete with juice, walnuts, olives, a chopped chile (mild or hot but not too hot).

Cook the spaghetti. Toss the cooked spaghetti over low heat with all the other ingredients. When the juice from the chopped canned tomatoes reduces a little, serve.

How easy was that? And delicious.

Maybe I should give it a name. Pasta with chickpeas etc. doesn't really sound all that appetising.

17.6.04

Drink your oranges.

Everyone knows this, but it's good to remember how easy it is and how yummy:

A late night - I knew nothing was in the fridge, so called by the supermarket which had fortuitously just renewed its stocks of fresh fish.

I usually try to buy fish at the market but the supermarket is OK as a last resort. And the girls who work there are so sweet. Sometimes, at the checkout, they ask you what something is so they can key in the right code, like:

- 'oh, are these oranges?'
- 'yes, they're oranges.'
- 'thanks.' (keying in code)
- 'that's OK!'

No sarcasm intended - sometimes the grapefruits are more orange than the oranges (some oranges at certain times of the year are greenish-skinned, even though they are perfectly ripe and juicy inside), then there are the tangelos and the blood oranges and the oversized mandarins.

So: fish. Arrive home, unpack fish - a nice white-fleshed, slightly translucent freshwater fish - place on double layer of foil, add a chopped onion, chopped garlic clove and some chopped fresh ginger, a good splash of soy and a drop of sesame oil, a few slices of lemon or a squeeze of the juice, wrap it all up and place in the oven (remembering to switch it on - I've made that mistake MANY a time).

Then go off and relax, change into whatever you change into, or whatever you don't change into, pour your favourite drink, pat the dog, check the TV guide, decide to listen to music or read instead - whatever - and the fish will cook away to its heart's content. When you catch the aroma of that delicious infusion of soy, ginger and garlic - twenty minutes tops - it's ready to eat. And so are you.

Serve with ... rice? The quick method - two to one volume of water to rice in a pot, bring to boil, simmer 10-15 minutes and switch off. I find that produces perfectly good rice, but it all depends, as always, on your pot (copper-bottomed with close-fitting lid) and your heat source.

Or a nice salad, maybe a mound of greens with tomato, walnuts, avocado and a nice dressing.

Oh, the oranges - I nearly forgot:

The best drink on earth - one part pure rye vodka to two parts freshly squeezed sweet orange juice.





15.6.04

Holiday weekend.

Monday was the Queen's Birthday Holiday (in all States - and New Zealand - except Western Australia, where it is celebrated on 27 September). Go figure, the actual birthday of Queen Elizabeth II (the Monarch, not the ship) is 21 April.

Any excuse for a gin and tonic.

So. Three wet, rainy days on the coast. I wouldn't call it miserable, I'd call it perfect weather for long walks along the ocean beach clifftop culminating at the cafe where dogs frequently outnumber people. Well you do enjoy the walk more when you know there's coffee at the end of it. Or in the middle in this case.

It wasn't all that cold, we were able to sit outside and watch the massive black rainclouds scudding across the sky and the waves crashing beyond the ti-tree. Against the clouds, four pelicans - such ungainly looking creatures when not in flight - hovered in formation on the wind, before being joined by several more, whereupon they all wheeled off together in some other direction, maybe to their nests in the cliffs somewhere along the craggy coast.

Goldie had an eye on the other dogs. There was the usual bundle of Golden Retrievers and Labradors, a couple of Irish Water Spaniels, a Boxer or two, several terriers, assorted toy dogs and a couple of Cavaliers.

Then Frank the Fat Dog arrived. Frank lives locally. He is a Staffordshire crossed with maybe a Labrador and maybe something else. White with a large black patch over one eye, Frank is very fat, very well-mannered, and very happy with his lot in life. Every day, his owner allows him to wander around to the cafe, where he ambles from table to table. He can recognise food, probably by the plates being delivered. So he will completely ignore you if you order only coffee.

Once orders have been delivered, Frank will sit close by your table as if a member of your party, and wait patiently until he is given a morsel. A piece of the house-made sausage from the giant all day breakfast with the lot, maybe a slice of smoked bacon from the egg and bacon foccaccia, perhaps a crust from the blueberry cheesecake on a chocolate biscuit base. If you ignore him he will wander away to the next table. And the next. And the next. Frank is living in a world in which food never ends.

One day, Frank will die of heart failure. Ah, but the quality of life! What lonely dog, tied up in some suburban back yard, would not trade their life for Frank's?

Coffees finished, we left the cafe to continue our walk, leaving Frank lusting (politely) after someone's gourmet burger (foccaccia, rocket, tomato, bacon, poached egg, cheese, beef pattie, house-made chutney in a little pot on the side).

Later, the black clouds could hold their contents no longer and the heavens broke open. There's nothing like watching a heavy downpour over the sea.

In the early evening, we visited the local cinema where The Day After Tomorrow was playing. Couple of hours later, we emerged, glancing anxiously at the glowering sky.

Home late to grilled porterhouse steaks, rare, with braised mushrooms as a sauce and colcannon on the side.

The rain beat down on the roof. Goldie snored on her tartan rug.

8.6.04

Anyone know how to peel an egg?

Bought way too much fish, the rest went into a Fisherman's Pie, the 'seafood' version of shepherd's pie.

Flake the leftover cooked fish and add it to the juices and any remaining cooked vegetables from last night's baked fish dinner (see previous post). Make a cheesy white sauce, not too thick, and combine it with the fish, adding plenty of chopped spring (green) onions. Throw in some capers as well, if you have them. Place the mixture in a baking dish.

Meanwhile, boil some eggs, two or three, until just done, then peel them carefully (I have never learned to do this successfully without peeling off parts of the flesh!), slice them in halves (or leave them whole) and lay them in the baking dish along with the fish mixture.

Boil up some potatoes and mash them when done with your usual favourite accompaniments, grated pecorino is nice.

Place it over the fish mixture, top it with some thinly-sliced onion rings and a little paprika and it's ready for the oven.

Serve steaming hot with some white zucchinis (or whichever varieties are available) boiled with a little water, paprika and a tablespoon of butter.

T. had some for lunch the next day at work, microwaving its yummy flavourness until just right.

Someone said, 'What's that smell?'

It's fish. Get over it.


5.6.04

Baked fish, haven't done this in ages.

So I hope it's as good as I remember.

The market had Sea Perch (no doubt it has eight other names as do so many fish - so confusing) fresh at $10 a kilogram this morning so it's fish for dinner tonight (I'm posting before the fact).

It's very simple.

Quarter an onion and thickly slice a carrot and a parsnip and place them in a lidded glass baking dish. (You have to like parsnip - if you don't, use something else or leave it out.)

Half cover them with water and a dash of white wine. (Note: this combination produces the most remarkably fragrant aroma that fills the kitchen.)

Bake until they are minutes away from soft, then remove dish from oven, carefully place your fish fillets over the vegetables, add a knob of butter and a shake of pepper and return dish to oven.

The fish cooks quite quickly due to the residual heat of the fluid in the dish - it almost steams. Depending on thickness, anything from ten minutes upwards.

Serve with some greens, mashed potato, or leeks sauteed in butter (my favourite). And a glass of rich white, like a chardonnay or whatever.

4.6.04

Winter's here.

Winter has arrived with a vengeance and I found myself reflecting - in fact, marvelling, in a weird kind of way - that it will be the very first winter since 1904 that my grandfather will not be here. How amazing is that thought - all those winters through war, depression, another war, baby boom, prosperity, disco(!) ... he was there.

Born in February 1905, he died three days before Christmas last year. Just a few weeks before, I had been visiting his house (he lived on his own, refusing to go into a rest home) and, showing some other relatives the plants in his small back garden, I pointed out a clematis. 'It's not a clematis, it's a WISTERIA!' boomed his voice from inside the house. He was totally on the ball. And the selective hearing was 100% accurate to the end!

So - winter.

The infamous London yellow fog (and occasionally, a Melbourne fog) was called a pea-souper after this:

Take a ham hock or some bacon bones, place them in your largest pot with a chopped onion, a chopped carrot, a chopped potato, a couple of cups of split yellow peas, a bay leaf and some pepper.

Bring to the boil and simmer for a couple hours or until the peas break up.

Serve on a bitterly cold day.

There are plenty of recipes for pea and ham soup. Soak the peas overnight, cook the onions first in butter, include garlic, include thyme, include this or that, remove the hock and dice the meat back into the soup before serving. It's really whatever works for you.

When I was young, it was always made with long narrow bacon bones. Man, they were seriously salty and delicious. They tended to soften up during the cooking and I remember *we children* fighting over the bones, gnawing the softened ends and sucking the juices out. Totally disgusting. And totally delicious.

(Of course, having grown up, I'd never do anything like that now. Would I?)

However you cook it, I imagine pea and ham soup would be at its best with a touch of fresh farm cream stirred through, a good sprinkling of emerald green parsley on top, a Guinness to hand, and the rain coming down in sheets onto an iron roof. Look out, I'm channelling the Irish O'Briens again ...




2.6.04

My best meal ever.

The best meal I ever ate, or should I say, the meal I remember most, was when I was like about four or five.

Well I wouldn't call it a meal as such.

It was a cheese sandwich.

I had been sick with some horrendous stomach bug that had kept me and my six siblings - no wait, when I was five I only had three siblings (I'm Mr Middle) - projectile vomiting for days.

My mother used to give us only flat lemonade until our stomachs settled down.

After 24 hours of flat lemonade, mine was fine and raring to go.

Lunchtime rolled around. The baker (who used to go door to door) had delivered a delicious still-slightly-warm unsliced high-tin white loaf - the kind with the bakery's name in raised lettering along the side of the loaf (how did they do that?) and that shiny, black, glazed top that was so incredibly nutty and yummy. I can still smell that bread.

My mother sliced it and smeared the slices with butter - yummy, creamy, salty.

Then she placed a generous slice of cheese on the butter and the other slice of bread on top.

Then a clean, sharp knife through the middle,holding it with the other hand so that the dough compressed ever so slightly.

I remember biting into that cheesy, buttery, doughy, heavenly sandwich with the black crust.

I've never forgotten it.