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

30.7.04

Friday lunch.

Two fresh bread rolls - the ones with the sesame seeds on the outside that scatter everywhere when you cut the roll down the middle.

Plenty of butter, a generous spread of black, salty, delicious Vegemite and two thick slices of fresh cheddar cheese.

Buttery, salty, nutty, yummy.

Eaten reading the op-ed pages of today's Australian - sesame seeds all over the Letters column.

Then a nice cup of coffee.

28.7.04

Moroccan chicken, I guess.

Been playing around with couscous lately, so we tried a couscous stuffing for roast chicken.

Basically, expand the couscous in some boiling chicken stock with a tablespoonful of butter and then add the juice of a lemon, two or three cloves of garlic, a chopped onion, a couple of chopped prunes, a good dash of cumin, some pinenuts and parsley. Just blend it all roughly once the couscous has expanded.

Half a lemon went into the chicken with the stuffing for a more intense flavour.

It worked well. Instead of traditional roast vegetables, we boiled carrot, potato and onion with a knob of butter and salt and pepper, adding red bell pepper and zucchini towards the end.

Depending on how much couscous you use, the stuffing can be quite 'substantial' - carve a nice solid piece and spoon the fragrant vegetables and some of their buttery juices over the top next to your favourite chicken cut.  I'm a leg man myself.

26.7.04

I'll write the time down next time.

We planned lunch for my brother's birthday. I arrived at 12.30 complete with the usual 'contribution' - this time a large casserole of rigatoni bolognese.  

- Lovely to see you so early, said Mum genially as we walked in the door, but the others won't be here until around 2.30.

- Oh, are they running late?

- No, the arrangement was for afternoon tea, not lunch, she said, laughing.

Doh.

Son, partner and three girls arrived hot on our heels  (having been incorrectly advised by me it was lunch). So we all sat down and had some of the rigatoni and afterwards helped Mum set out the afternoon tea. Fresh scones with jam and cream and chocolate crackles onto the table, mini pies and quiches into the oven, tray of glasses and small plates to the old sideboard and teacups set up near the kettle. All the usual things.

In between all this the phone rang. It was old Mrs Turner from a dozen or so houses up the street. It's a funny neighbourhood. Probably half of the old houses in the suburb have been razed for new developments, multiple townhouses and the like; while the other half don't seem to have changed a bit and have their original inhabitants from like fifty years ago! Mum moved in in 1951 when the street was unmade and you could walk to school as the crow flies through empty blocks.

So old Mrs Turner is on the phone. Seems she had offered her lawnmower to Mum, while Mum's was being repaired (Mum still mows her own lawn, refuses to let anyone else touch it - we're working on it but she's refusing to budge so far!) There's like this network of oldies, they help each other with all manner of things.  I walk up the street and fetch the mower. Mrs Turner greets me with a huge hug, says she remembers me from childhood. Mum tells me later Mrs Turner had had no children of her own and remembered all the children in the street by name, of which there were dozens. I must say I was extremely touched. I mean, forty years down the track, and the old dear hugs me like a long lost nephew. I probably hadn't even seen her since grade six.

- Sadly, they'll all be gone one day, I'm thinkin' to myself as I trundle the Masport fourstroke back down the street.

By this time it was a quarter to three and everyone had arrived for afternoon tea.

So we're chowing into cakes and sandwiches, hot party pies and little quiches, cheese cubes and pickles, the full retro (without intending it to be retro!) deal, and then we get Bro No 1 on the phone in Alice Springs and everyone sings happy birthday to Bro No 3. (I'm Bro 2.).

A little later, niece 1 has arrived late (this numbering system isn't working, I'm going to start naming names) and she moves to the kitchen with her mum (my sister) and Mum (her grandmother) where they're suddenly a little louder than usual with a kind of semi-emotional twist to their voices. I had no idea (I'm sure female readers will already know exactly what's going on) and when I walk into the kitchen to get a coffee or something, Mum says - your sister's going to be a grandmother! So I turn to niece and give her a hug and say something stupid like 'How wonderful!' or similar and then qualify it meaningfully, as you do these days, with 'as long as you're really happy about it, of course' and then think how pathetically politically correct that sounds; and she laughs, 'Yes, but (boyfriend) is not so sure!'  -  'Oh, don't worry about him, he'll get used to it in no time!' says me (father at 19, grandfather at 38), with an almost  undetectable smirk.

Then we washed up. It was five o'clock.

 

 

 


  

 



23.7.04

Lunch in a cold climate.

I usually take my lunch to work. I'm finding that more and more people are doing this. (Must be the huge mortgages.)

There's a kitchen with a microwave and people bring in something left over from last night; some pasta, maybe some soup or curry, perhaps some sliced cold meat and salad. It's fun to see what people have cooked up.

The kitchen is fully stocked. There are biscuits, cookies and crackers of all kinds laid on; together with jars of salsas, spreads, peanut butter, margarine, cheese slices and other things that can be added to crackers or bread; crisps and corn chips in several different varieties; plus fresh fruit every day. There is always a stock of avocadoes as well, they are great for spreading on crackers. Then there are the drinks, tea and coffee, of course (plunger and instant); and another fridge full of mineral water, soft drinks, fruit juices, beer and wine.

If you wish, you can snack all morning and all afternoon; and at lunchtime, you can simply heat up what you've brought to work. Or go out and buy something.

I guess it's kind of lucky in a way that I'm not really the snacking type. I tend to eat only at mealtimes. But it's nice to know it's there, I suppose.

Now. Sometimes I like to go out at lunch time, just for a walk. Occasionally I'll eat out.

This week has been the coldest I can remember. I'd had enough of work by around midday; took the elevator down at around 12:30 and set off along Bourke Street. It was cold and grey and there was a chill wind blowing, making people wrap themselves up in their coats all the tighter.

I turned left at Hardware Lane where there are probably twenty or thirty cafes and restaurants, mainly Italian bistro style - pasta, grills, foccaccias and the like. They all have their outdoor sections and even in this cold weather, the tables are packed at lunchtime. (They have those gas heater things that project the heat downwards. Don't ask me how that works, I thought heat rose.)

Then I turned right into Little Bourke Street and walked down the hill past all the hiking, camping and outdoor shops, crossed Elizabeth Street and walked past Myer, the major department store. Myer is on both sides of the street, the glitzy cosmetics and beauty store on one side, the food hall on the other. Inside the window, there's a long bench with fixed stools where you can sit and eat, watching the world go by.

Proceed past David Jones, the 'second' department store, and you get to Swanston Street. On crossing that, you enter Chinatown, heralded by Chinese decorations at the entrance. The food gets really interesting up here, there are laneways and arcades all over the place, all jam-packed with cafes and restaurants. Mostly Chinese (Cantonese, Szechuan etc), some Malaysian, Japanese, Indonesian, the odd Indian, Vietnamese, Thai. Some are grand in the opulent Asian style of gold and red decor, plush furnishings and uniformed waitstaff, others are mere rooms with laminated tables, vinyl chairs and super-fast service.

I turned down a laneway and stopped at the door of a plain white building with 'specials' scrawled on a large sheet of paper stuck to the single window. Don't know what they were, it was in Chinese.

I opened the door, entered and found a table. Having been here before, I knew what I wanted: congee.

Congee is possibly the perfect cold-day asian meal. It's rice porridge, not a soup, not a stew - just a porridge. Hot, wobbly, comforting, delicious. I ordered the 'combination congee' - a huge bowl of the rice porridge with delicious pieces of assorted seafood and meat that you find as you reach down with your spoon to the bottom. Adding more flavour and texture are generous slivers of ginger and it's all topped with shredded spring onion (green onion). Chilli sauce and soy sauce bottles are on every table so you can spice up your meal as you wish; and Chinese tea is brought, by the pot, to every table. You can drink as much as you want, no extra cost.

I paid the bill - $5.50 - and walked back to work warm on the inside. I got out of the elevator and went to the kitchen to make a nice after-lunch coffee.

They were just breaking out the corn chips and salsa.

 

 



  

 



22.7.04

I felt like something orange. And red.

What to eat on a drab, cold, winter weeknight with nothing on the horizon but more cold, grey skies and work tomorrow?

My, what a pessimistic outlook! Actually, I quite like winter, but you do need a little colour to brighten it up occasionally.

Colour! OK, what's in the fridge? Two chorizo sausages from the Greek deli in Coburg where you stand for at least twenty minutes before being served, it's that busy. (They have resisted putting in a numbering system because they - perhaps rashly - believe people still have manners and common sense enough to know if someone was waiting before you. Bravo! It's worth visiting just for that rapidly diminishing common sense in a mad world.)

So. The chorizos  (yes, I know they're Spanish - the deli is run by Greeks, but they sell Italian, Spanish, German, Polish, Latvian and other smallgoods and products as well as Greek).

I boiled some cubes of pumpkin and a carrot chopped into fat rings, put some strips of red capsicum (red bell pepper/sweet capsicum/red pepper depending on where you are in the world) under the grill and simmered the chorizo in a little boiling water. When the vegetables were done, I peeled the capsicum and made a pot of couscous using the vegetable water. (By the way, you don't need a couscousier to make coucous any more than you need a ricemaker to make rice,  unless - perhaps just for convenience - you are making these staples every day).

Then I put the coucous in a big mound in a large platter, tumbled the chunky colourful boiled vegetables over the top and topped it all with the diagonally-sliced chorizos and the capsicum strips.  Showered it with a bunch of very lightly toasted pinenuts, and added a good dash of tomato sauce/salsa and sheep's yogurt.

Bit of a mixture; but colourful, hot and yummy. Don't forget the glass of rosé.




20.7.04

A few extra for Sunday night dinner.

We suddenly had more than expected over for dinner.
 
Son, partner and their three girls (7, 3 and 6 months) were coming over for our irregular Sunday night roast.
 
Then we had a mid-afternoon call from sister-in-law (who lives 90 minutes away on the other side of the city). She and husband were making an emergency trip to a hospital close by our suburb to visit a work acquaintance who had had a severe illness relapse - could she drop their children (boy 12, girl 8)  by our place while they visited the hospital?  Of course, we said - and, naturally, stay for dinner after you return from your hospital visit. They wouldn't be back from the hospital until well after six o'clock. 
  
Dinner was to be roast beef with a tray of baked potatoes, cauliflower baked in a casserole with cheese sauce, a tray of roasted pumpkin sections and of course peas; followed by a baked chocolate pudding. And ice-cream. And cream.
 
But this wouldn't stretch to six adults (sister-in-law's partner has an enormous appetite!) and five children. After a quick think, we found ourselves at the supermarket where we picked up a good-sized corned brisket which is good buying at the moment. In this way we could easily extend dinner with a one-pot solution. Corned brisket into a large pot with a few cloves, a dozen or so peppercorns, two whole onions, two thickly sliced carrots, four quartered potatoes and a bay leaf.  Cover with water, bring to boil and simmer for a length of time according to size of corned brisket.
 
The children were dropped off and we all went for a walk to the local park, taking the dogs. Back home they chatted about how they were going at school and played Uno.
 
Both stove-top and oven were switched on around five thirty. Soon, son and crew arrived; and shortly after that, sister-in-law and husband back from the hospital visit.
 
Dinner was on the table by seven o'clock - a large platter of sliced medium roast beef surrounded by roast potatoes and pumpkin with gravy in a jug on the side;  another platter of corned brisket with boiled potatoes, carrots and onions, mustard on the side; golden baked cauliflower with cheese sauce, boiled peas and spinach with garlic and cream - all served buffet style. I had also picked some fresh mint, chopped it, combined it with a quarter cup of  malt vinegar and a dash of sugar - instant mint sauce, delicious on peas, and meat of course.
 
The children had helped T. assemble the chocolate pudding and that went into the  oven when everything else came out. 
 
After dinner, the three girls went off to play (we have a stash of books, dolls, paper, pencils and games), 12-year-old Ian sat with us chatting in the lounge with coffee and baby Aria was bounced on various knees, she is the cutest! 
   

    
 




17.7.04

Hail on the roof, pie in the oven.

It was one of the coldest Saturdays in memory.  

A direct southerly, hard and fast,  dragged freezing air off the Southern Ocean or maybe even Antarctica and dumped it on us. 
 
Cross-country raceday at an elevated venue with a southerly aspect saw us taking the brunt of it. To get through the race, we had to keep reminding ourselves that tonight, we were to have an old-fashioned pie for dinner, one of T.'s mum's Scottish recipes.
 
T. had already made the filling, so assembling the pie was easy. Ground beef combined with grated carrot and onion and bound with Gravox, some tomato sauce  and a good dash of worcestershire sauce. Plus, plenty of white pepper. You want your pie filling to be peppery as well as piping hot. Homely rather than gourmet, baked simply in a pie dish with a flaky pastry lid. (T.'s mum encases the whole pie in pastry, but we only had enough for the lid.)
 
I soothed my tired muscles in a bath filled with hot water and Lectric Soda (sodium carbonate crystals, not sure of the science, but people swear by it for sore muscles) as the tempting smell of simmering root vegetables (potato, carrot, swede) found its way through the house, shortly followed by the totally enticing aroma of meat pie baking in the oven - is there any better?
 
Although it had been a chilly day, the rain had held off; and as we sat down to baked meat pie with vegetables, the skies finally opened. We could hear it beating on the roof.
 
Then rain turned to hail and the familiar clattering sound of hail against the window accompanied our wintry Saturday evening dinner.
 
As did that other great muscle relaxant.
 








14.7.04

Don't set the kitchen on fire.

On and off over the years I have been making a version of pepper steak that has been both easy and extremely yummy.

I always use the same brand of green pickled peppercorns from St Maur in France. They come in a small tin. I use the whole tin for two steaks - I do like my peppercorns, but it would actually be sufficient for six.

I tried to google the brand* but couldn't find it, but in doing so, I came across all these steak au poivre recipes that said I'd been doing it wrong all these years. For example, you're apparently supposed to remove the steaks and flambe the pan juices only. I always flambe the actual steaks.

Whatever. Mine's easy and still tastes great, and anyway, who am I, Paul Bocuse or Alain Ducasse? No. I am a lazy kitchen hand and sometimes I take shortcuts.

However, I found a recipe in Dave's Pepper Pages at fiery-foods.com under Pepper Profiles which seemed to confirm that the way I do it is at least ... done by someone else. If that means anything.

(Oh for God's sake get on with the recipe.)

OK.

First I sear the steaks in olive oil and a little butter. (I do one first and then throw the second in at the last minute - while T. likes her beef well-done, which I call burnt, I prefer to just walk the cow through the kitchen if you know what I mean.)

Then I toss a good dash** of brandy (I use this) into the pan and shake over the heat source.

The pan will erupt in flames which will impress your guests no end, or frighten the life out of your partner or dog should they be present and unaware of what you are about to do. It will also set your frilly cafe curtains ablaze should you happen to have such too close to the stove.

Shake your pan around as the flames die away then toss in the peppercorns, complete with the brine, another no-no, apparently. I find the brine in the small tin actually holds some of the heat of the peppercorns. Then toss in your cream, half a cup or less according to taste. I usually use tongs to 'sweep' the steaks around the pan, combining all the cream and juices; then remove the steaks to plates and after another minute or so of reducing, pour the sauce over the top.

Good with green beans and potatoes done any way.

*Couldn't find the brand then realised the can bears no actual brand that I could make out - the label says (ungrammatically): 'Green Peppercorns in its natural stage' with the following print beneath: ETS. MOULIN SAS 34 AV. PESSOT F 94100 ST MAUR. Imported by Manassen Foods 490 Victoria St Wetherill Park NSW 2164 Australia. Maybe 'ETS' is the brand. And maybe it isn't.

**I used to pour it straight from the bottle, but this could cause the entire bottle to explode if you're not careful then it won't matter a jot how well-done or rare your steaks are.

PS: I can't believe I'm blogging with footnotes.

13.7.04

Favourite chicken recipes # 1.

Chicken breast stuffed with cheese and pesto.

This is really a summer thing with fresh pesto, but the bottled alternative is just fine.

Take some chicken breasts, slice them in halves, add some cheese (I used a 'trecchia' that is sold locally, it's a kind of plaited mozzarella) and a generous amount of your pesto.

Carefully wrap the stuffed breast all around with some very thinly-sliced prosciutto. The thinner, the better, it kinds of 'wraps' better if you know what I mean. You may need to use toothpicks to secure it.

Brown very carefully and gently in olive oil, then add some white wine and some peppercorns, place lid on pan and allow to simmer very gently, turning the breasts after several minutes depending on thickness. Finish with cream, remove cooked breasts, raise heat slightly to reduce sauce and pour it over chicken.

One the side: rabe or spinach braised in garlic, olive oil and a dash of water; scalloped potatoes baked in the oven in chicken stock; or maybe just a nice salad.

And a nice buttery chardonnay.

If you have any chicken left over, slice the breast 'across the grain' and layer in fresh ciabatta with rocket.

5.7.04

George's special.

Down the coast last weekend - it's just as nice mid-winter as it is in summer, all stormy skies and windy foam-flecked waves.

Across the road from the beach, separated by the highway, there's a pizza and pasta place. It's cheap and cheerful, run by a Greek guy called George and his wife. (I think she runs it, he just has his name on it.) Sometimes their children sit at one of the tables, cutting out pictures, drawing, doing puzzles. There are Greek flags and pictures of Greece on the walls, fading to blue and white. Appropriately. There's a couple of tables out front as well. Sometimes in summer, the old Greeks and Italians stop and have an ice-cream in the sun - and a cigarette - before strolling on.

From inside, you can see the water. In summer the waves twinkle and sparkle, in winter they heave grey and misty.

George (or his wife) does this pizza, 'George's special' (he's got his name on that as well!). It has tomato and salami and is topped with fetta which melts - hot, creamy and salty - but doesn't harden or burn like some cheeses you get on pizza. Maybe they put the fetta on when it's halfway done.

You can have that with a Greek salad (more fetta!) or maybe just a simple Italian salad (iceberg lettuce, tomato slices, onion rings, olives, dressing, sprinkle of parsley) or some nice pasta. It's not fine dining, it's very homely.

On a previous visit, we had the girls for the weekend. Canisha and Shanra were fascinated with the girls on the other table, drawing their pictures - and were invited to join them, instant friends!

They spent the next hour and a half drawing busily with an assortment of coloured pencils and crayons (on the insides of those white circular pizza boxes!) and chattering in the way wide-eyed little girls do, while we sipped the rest of our wine.

We went home with two pizza lid artworks.

2.7.04

Scheherazade.

There’s a café in Melbourne bayside suburb St Kilda I like to visit occasionally.

Scheherezade was opened in 1958 by a Jewish refugee couple from Poland to provide for others who had migrated to Melbourne to escape the Holocaust.

I first went there in the late seventies. It doesn’t appear to have changed - neither the food nor the decor - in all that time.

It’s nice to go there in winter around lunchtime. How bittersweet to see the original customers now in their fading twilight years. The old men wander in and order frankfurts and potato salad, latkes, hot, spicy, robust goulash, hot borscht, chicken soup with kreplachs or gefilte fish.

I usually order the cabbage soup - a steaming bowl of delicious broth, magnificently spiced and reddish-brown with paprika, full of ribbons of cabbage and served with mounds of well-boiled potatoes breaking up in the soup like icebergs. You can order a basket of delicious rye bread on the side with little gold foil packs of creamy Tatura butter. You never ate better.

I thought of Scheherezade yesterday when bought some frankfurts from the Polish stall (they have hundreds of specialty sausages and meats) at the Queen Victoria Market.

Their frankfurts are studded with paprika and smoked - so strongly you can smell the smoky aroma when you open the fridge (I know that annoys some people but I love robust food aromas!)

Boiled the franks. Boiled a huge pan of cabbage with a few whole black peppers. Boiled a mountain of pink potatoes with an onion. Mashed the potatoes complete with their skins. Served it all up.

Doh! No sauce or mustard on hand. Can you believe that?

Had some tomato puree in the fridge, so I took a couple tablespoons of that and shook it violently in a jar with an equal amount of Worcestershire sauce. Not bad at all.

The windows were all fogged up as we ate and wondered who was dining at Scheherezade on this cold night.

1.7.04

A taste of summer in mid-winter.

I just love corn, it is summer on a cob.

Since it is the middle of winter here, it's time for a reminder, using canned sweet corn.

Tuna goes magnificently with sweet corn, the saltiness of the fish contrasting with the sweetness of the corn. The contrasting textures work well also.

Sweat some onions in a pan and boil some diced carrot in a pot until soft. Boil some potatoes.

Combine these in a casserole with two cans of tuna, a can of sweet corn, some roasted red pepper (capsicum) and some a nice binding sauce, maybe cheese and a little flour in some milk - just enough to bind it all, not too wet. Salt and pepper.

Top with mashed potatoes and bake until golden.

Yes, I know I've done similar things lately; including a Fisherman's Pie, but man! The weather! It's cold and it's blowing a gale and rainclouds are scudding across the sky.

It's casserole weather.

Can't wait for summer, when I'll be grilling those juicy, yellow corncobs on the outdoor grill, slathering them with butter, salt and pepper and crunching into their sweet juiciness.