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

30.8.04

By the river.

We had the girls Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. How to entertain them? Spring is in the air so we went down to Studley Park to see the ducks and swans ... and have coffee at the outdoor cafe by the river (there's always an agenda for the adults!).

We sat with our coffees and ice-creams, watching people hiring rowboats from the boathouse and then just kind of paddling round in aimless circles, some staying within a hundred metres of the launching ramp. Wouldn't you think if you were to hire a boat, you would actually row it somewhere? Maybe not.

There were birds of all kinds swooping about, kookaburras, bright green and red rosellas, sparrows, pigeons (what a mixture - sounds like city square meets rainforest!). You really had to watch your coffee lest an unexpected deposit render it undrinkable.

It was the most beautiful day - glorious late winter sunshine, bright pink blossom buds popping out on the trees, long-sleeved tops giving way to bare arms ...

Afterwards we rambled along the river's edge before driving home late in the afternoon.

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Dinner was a mixture. Mashed potato and broccoli florets. Plain boiled eggs. Baked beans. And 'kofta' burgers: half kilo ground veal and pork (50/50), a minced onion, a tablespoon of finely chopped parsley, a teaspoon of salt, half teaspoon each of cumin and ground black pepper. Form into small sausages, grill.

Delicious cold the next day for lunch served in Lebanese bread with tomatoes and lettuce with a splodge of plain yogurt and tomato or chili sauce.

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We have a big round wicker basket full of toys and books for the girls when they visit. They played with those for a while, then to bed.



26.8.04

Menagerie.

We've had a few house moves over the last few years.

The house we are in now has something in common with the last. (Well, apart from walls, rooms, roof etc.)

Both houses had possums in the garden and a parrot next door.

At the last house, there was an old lemon tree that produced hundreds of lemons each season. It was the most prolific lemon tree I've ever seen. I used to hand bags of them round to all the neighbours. You can only drink so many gin and tonics.

The possum (or possums) would get into the tree at night and eat the rind off of the lemons. I'd come out in the morning and find perfectly peeled lemons still hanging right there on the tree.

Why didn't they eat the flesh? How did they manage to eat all the rind without knocking the lemons off the tree? And where did they go during daylight?

I don't know.

We have a young lemon tree in our current backyard as well. The possums haven't discovered it yet.

The other weekend, when we were away, I left the green waste bucket containing a couple of dozen squeezed orange halves outside the back door. We arrived home to find orange halves neatly sitting all around the back yard, with the squeezed flesh completely eaten out and only thin rind remaining.

So you've got your citrus rind-eating possums that leave the flesh and your citrus flesh-eating possums that leave the rind. Each to his own, I guess.

The parrots: our neighbour's parrot does its good morning raaawwwrrk and occasionally lets loose in the afternoon. It lives outside in a big cage.

Next door's parrot (white, yellow 'do) at our previous house lived inside, occasionally venturing out to take a stroll along the roof gutter, the front porch or the side fence. It was a lovely thing. When it was inside, we could hear it clearly through our open kitchen window.

The funny thing was, our neighbours there were Turkish, and the parrot would enunciate 'He-llo Co-cky!' in a distinctly Turkish accent.

25.8.04

Baked skate with risotto.

I've been cooking skate for years, it's an inexpensive ($5 a kilogram) fish yet delicious and easy to handle and cook. A flat fish with two wings, it contains no bones - the flesh is on a cartilagenous skeleton - far easier than bones to deal with.

We baked two pieces of skate in half a cup of white wine, the juice of a lemon and dash of water, with a clove of garlic and rings of red onion in the dish. Cooks in twenty minutes.

Served with a nice, basic, creamy risotto on the side - a little onion and garlic in olive oil, arborio rice in the warm oil to coat, alternative dashes of white wine and hot chicken stock to absorb slowly until cooked, half a cup of grated parmigiano or other grating cheese for creaminess at the end, salt, pepper, plenty of grated parsley.

And a rocket salad on the side - since the rocket is taking off (!) again in the garden - dressed in nothing but a squirt of balsamic vinegar. (How ingenious, salad leaves that come already peppered!)

PS: In summer, I enjoy barbecuing skate. It holds together beautifully. I marinade it in garlic, lemon, maybe some soy and ginger - anything at all - and blacken it on the grill, peeling away the outer layers to reveal beautifully tender and fragrant flesh inside.

23.8.04

Plump orange mussels in garlic and white wine with a touch of chili. Bougainvillea optional.

One Friday lunchtime in summer, many years ago, I sat at an outdoor table with work friends, eating one of the most memorable meals I've ever had - mussels in white wine with garlic and chili.

It was a hot day and the 'beergarden' was shaded by masses of bougainvillea growing over timber beams. We sat in the dappled shade with ice-cold beers. The mussels were served in large bowls of clear glass - giving you plenty of room to manoevre the shellfish. On the side was another bowl for the shells, while a third bowl contained water for rinsing the fingers. A basket contained thick slices of fresh, crusty bread. It was quite a crowded table as I remember.

After plucking the plump, delicious mussels - flecked with garlic and parsley - out of their shells, you dunk the bread into the salty, garlicky juices. I can't think of a nicer meal right now.

Mussels from Portarlington were in at the market on Saturday, so I bought a bag - about a kilogram. (Portarlington is a sleepy fishing village on the Bellarine Peninsula, most famous for its caravanning retirees and golf course. And, of course, the mussels - big, orange, sweet. When the boats come in you can go onto the pier and buy them direct from the fishermen.)

The hardest part about cooking mussels is debearding them, which is simply removing the seaweed with which they attach themselves to their colony. But then that's on a par with peeling potatoes so it's not hard at all.

Chop seven or eight cloves of garlic finely. Chop a handful of parsley finely. Warm some oil in a large pot, toss in the garlic, add about half a litre of white wine (careful! don't splash!), half a chopped chili, a dash of pepper and the parsley. Crank up the heat and when it approaches boiling point, tip your mussels in. Lid the pot.

After a few minutes they will open. A minute or so more and they're ready! Make sure you have everything else prepared because they should be served immediately.

Serve in large bowls on an old wooden table set under bougainvillea, grapevines or wisteria in dappled sunlight. Drink ice-cold beer. Soak all the delicious juices up with crusty, fresh bread. Fall asleep in a deck chair afterwards.

(It's still winter here so I just imagined the last paragraph. We ate at the table watching the Olympics and I drank wine, not beer!)





19.8.04

Way too many green beans.

They seem to be good at the market at the moment. They must be in season. Either that or they truck them in from Queensland or somewhere.

There are huge piles of them on the market tables, sometimes two or three still stuck together on their little piece of vine. Old ladies pick through them for the most succulent ones - they are bright green with a kind of translucent sheen (the beans, I mean).

Coincidentally T. and I came home with a bagful each. We like our green beans.

So we ate beans. We had some simply boiled well, then tossed in butter and a sprinkling of curry powder. Nice with a squirt of lemon juice.

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For Sunday lunch I did this:

Beat six eggs.

Topped and tailed green beans. Boiled them well.

Poured egggs carefully into the pan I thought would I most likely be able to extricate eggs from after cooking without it all breaking up. I've had omelette disasters in my time. (I chose a non-stick one and oiled it with olive oil just to be sure.)

Placed the beans carefully into the eggs, cartwheel style.

Covered the top with strips of thinnest prosciutto.

Cooked it for about 15 minutes on a low heat to avoid burning it. I covered it with a lid from another pan, as the non-stick one hasn't one. When it was done, I lifted the lid and all the eggs were puffed up.

That was it. Sunday lunch. With thick slices of fresh vienna bread and butter and a nice rocket salad with tomato, olives, fetta, balsamic dressing ...

... and a few steamed green beans.


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My mother used to cook beans until they were grey and soft. Of course, as we grew up, we would discover fashionable al dente cooking and underboil everything so your sides with the roast were never sure whether they were meant to be salad items or boiled vegetables! I must say, the grey, soft approach did have its appeal on reflection. The beans developed a kind of earthy taste that the snappin' fresh blanched ones just don't ...


18.8.04

Gnocchi provencale.

Here's another old favourite pasta sauce that I brew up every now and then when I feel like something hearty. I made this last Saturday night, feeling hungry after a day outdoors in the elements. I prefer this sauce with gnocchi (the packaged stuff is fine but home-made gnocchi is heaven on earth). I used packaged gnocchi, too tired to do home-made.

Saute a chopped onion in olive oil, toss in a clove of garlic, chopped, scored, smashed, whatever; now add half a chopped red or green pepper or both, a dozen or so fat black olives (be sure to pit them or someone will break a tooth), a dozen or so walnut halves, 6 or so chopped button mushrooms, a can of diced tomatoes, half a cup of white wine, some chopped parsley and a chopped chile (optional).

It's such a robust recipe you can pretty much toss everything in together. It cooks in minutes if you need a quick fix but it improves overnight.

Throw your gnocchi in boiling salted water and when they rise, drain, spoon over the crunchy, nutty, tomatoey sauce and scatter lots of lovely grated parmesan over the top.

Glass of red, please.

(Vegetarians love this because it is such a robust dish with so many flavour and texture contrasts.)

16.8.04

Spaghetti carbonara with a roasted pumpkin and cos salad.

Spaghetti carbonara has always been one of my favourites. I usually use bacon but I made it the other night with prosciutto.

It's such an easy dish to make. While you set your pasta to cook (plain spaghetti is best but I have used fettucine, spirals - even gnocchi, which comes up magnificently) cook a few strips of prosciutto sliced into small pieces in olive oil in a pan (it will cook very quickly) along with a scored garlic clove. Add a dash of dry white wine and a sprinkling of cracked black pepper and swish it around. It will now be deliciously aromatic.

When the pasta is ready, drain and quickly toss into the pan with the prosciutto, now back over heat. Immediately crack an egg or two over the pasta and fold it through along with a good tablespoonful of grated parmesan cheese. (I also throw in some finely chopped parsley.)

You will see the egg set and the cheese melt before your eyes. Combine carefully, lifting the flecks of prosciutto through. Switch off the heat. It will continue to set, particularly if you have a heavy-based heat-retaining pan.

Serve immediately. The cheese and the egg make it silky smooth and unctuous, rounded out by the salt of the prosciutto and the crunch of the parsley. More cracked pepper and grated cheese over the top if you wish.

It's probably my all-time favourite pasta.

We had this with the following salad: sliced cos lettuce; chunks of roasted pumpkin (the second last stored pumpkin from last summer!); rings of spanish onion; avocado slices; rings of lebanese cucumber; toasted pine nuts; lemon/olive oil dressing tossed in a jar with a scored garlic clove; chopped dill garnish (just because it was there).

(The cos lettuce: T. had brought a bunch home from the school garden. She runs the garden as a kind of tactile teaching aide for the developmentally-impaired children. The children enjoy planting seeds and seedlings, they watch them grow, they harvest them. And sometimes they just rip the plants right out of the ground with big smiles on their faces! They get to take their produce home, but there's always plenty left over.)

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PS: Comments is playing up, but I'm just amazed blogger continues to exist - with millions of people now blogging, maybe one day it will just like, burst and disappear from the face of the earth (the face of cyberspace?).

12.8.04

First, build your moat ...

They're invading:

A GIANT colony of invading ants has spread 100km across Melbourne. Argentine ants have been found from Taylors Lakes to Sorrento, and Altona to Blackburn. The species, first identified at Balwyn in 1939, is among the world's 100 worst invaders, and may pose a serious threat to Melbourne's biodiversity.

Be very afraid. You could say they are on the warpath, but that would be wrong:

"In Argentina, their native homeland, ant colonies ... are highly aggressive towards one another. ... When they arrived in Australia, a change in their structure occurred, changing their behaviour so that they are not aggressive towards one another."

All our migrants are like that. Something to do with the good weather. Or the beer.

The small brown argentine ants are about 4mm long, and are not considered dangerous to humans or pets.

They are hazardous to foodstuffs, however. We grew up in one of the earliest ant zones and got quite used to seeing thousands of ants marching in a straight line along the kitchen windowsill in warm weather. It kind of heralded summer, so I didn't really begrudge them walking back out the other way with a chocolate cake onboard ...

My mother has had this three-storey art deco biscuit barrel for like forever, I think it was a wedding gift. Over the years, no matter where she put it, the ants would sniff it out. On a high shelf, at the back of the pantry, in the laundry, wherever. She eventually took to placing it on top of the fridge, and in a huge bowl filled with water. (Never mind the ants, it made it difficult for us to raid it!) Then the honey jar got its own moat, then the jam jar ...

Last year I found ants in my freezer.

What the hell are ants doing in the freezer? I thought.

I mean, they weren't doing anything - they were frozen. But the odd thing is, there were hundreds in there over all the frozen items. Yet you would think that they would snap freeze upon entry. But they clearly didn't - they like, walked around for a while before freezing.

Pesky frozen ants.

10.8.04

Early dinner at Florentino.

Caught up with a couple of friends I used to work with at Florentino on Bourke Street, one of Melbourne's oldest restaurants.

Best known for its grand dining room and matching (although not exorbitant on a world scale) prices, Florentino also has the Cellar Bar, a warm, wood-panelled room serving simple rustic Italian food (from the same kitchen, of course, as the main restaurant) in a cosy atmosphere and at inexpensive prices.

I left the office at around 6.45 on a cold winter's night and strolled down the Bourke Street hill, through the Mall with its arcades, department store windows aglitter, across busy tram-lined Swanston Street and past Bourke Street East's bookstores and fashion shops, pushing open the door of the Cellar Bar just on 7pm.

Tim and Yvie had just arrived and we were shown to a round table and presented with menus. Warming glasses of red all round as we caught up with the news.

We ordered our meals. A platter of crusty bread and olive oil for dipping was placed on the table as we chatted about old times in the office - the stress, the shouting, the tears ... and the hours we spent doing online crosswords!

After a while our meals arrived. Spaghetti matriciana for Yvie - a simple tomato sauce with flecks of prosciutto and a hint of chili. Tim chose the tortellini, fat little housemade parcels of spinach and ricotta shaken in a butter sage sauce. For me, the day's special, rigatoni with black pudding. Now that requires a confident chef to present on his menu! Ten-cent-size discs of superb black pudding (you have to like black pudding and I always have) tossed with rigatoni in a little butter and olive oil and scattered with toasted pinenuts. A dusting of parmigiano from the waiter. Magnifico. You won't get a more robust dish than that, perfectly suited to a cold winter night.

Later, we lingered over the wine, ordered espresso and chatted some more.

A brutally cold wind was blowing down Bourke Street as we went on our ways.



6.8.04

Another curry: barramundi with chickpeas and spinach.

Barramundi is one of the great fish and at just under $10 a kilogram it was a bargain.

I seem to be going through a curry phase at the moment, I just love it.

So I sweated a chopped onion, a clove of garlic (scored) and some ginger chopped into thin slivers for a few minutes in oil and then added a teaspoon each of garam masala, cumin, hot curry powder and ground coriander seeds. Two cups of water into the mix and set it to simmer.

After a while, I added a can of drained chickpeas and some chopped spinach which T. had brought home from the school garden. I also sliced a red chile pepper and dropped that in, not knowing how hot it was going to be. (It's very confusing, every chile I pick has a different heat level, I must read up on chiles.)

While that was bubbling away I put on some basmati rice - yes! we have rice! I went shopping! - (two cups boiling water to one cup rice, simmer, ready in ten minutes) and sliced the barramundi into generous cubes. Into the curry it went. Good fish doesn't need long to cook and the pieces stay succulent and plump.

It was delicious. But the chile wasn't hot at all, just warmish. (This curry could be made richer with coconut cream, but sometimes I just like it plain.)

4.8.04

The unspeakable tragedy in Paraguay.

The toll just keeps getting higher, and I can't help thinking about the woman who was found clutching her poor child, protectively but in vain, to her breast, and then this morning they brought out another child, miraculously alive.

What do you do, pray? I don't know.

I hope and trust they are in a better place.

2.8.04

What am I going to do with all this rice?

So I had all this organic brown arborio rice that I'd cooked last night in desperation, having run out of long- and short-grain rice to go with the curry (see previous post).

But of course it doesn't go with curry. It's too nutty and substantial. (You could argue with this and say it goes perfectly well, but we just decided to have the curry on its own!)

So what to do with it? Make a rice salad, of course. Brown rice salad sounds like a favourite from student days, but don't let that stop you. By making this I remembered just how good some of those 'healthy' dishes from simpler (poorer!) days actually were.

Take a large can of corn and drain it. Same with a can of cannellini beans. Chop an onion finely. Chop a red bell pepper into small squares. Same with a sweet green pepper. Slice a good stick of celery into small pieces. Now toss it all together with the cold cooked rice. Easy! No wonder it was a student favourite.

The sweetness of the corn contrasts with the nuttiness of the brown arborio rice, the grains of which are larger and more succulent than your normal brown rice. And the beans give it an extra robustness.

Dress generously - I used olive oil, white vinegar and plenty of lemon juice shaken in a glass jar with a scored garlic clove. Salt and pepper to taste.

Good with sliced cold meat or cold fried chicken as a picnic lunch outdoors.

(We still had some rice left over, so T. made a delicious breakfast: warm the cold rice with some milk in a pan, add a generous spoonful of honey, chop a banana through it, add a couple of chopped walnuts and a sprinkling of wheatgerm. Serve with your favourite yogurt. I like mango-flavoured yogurt, reminds me of summer.)

Mid-rice crisis.

Thought I'd try Mum's chicken curry, the homely one where the chicken falls off the bone and the potatoes fall apart. It's quite mild, Mum always made it to Dad's taste - Dad died twelve years ago but she stills makes it the exact same way - isn't that sweet!

Fry onions in whatever oil you prefer, I used olive but it might be too strong. Add garlic and a tablespoon or two of standard curry powder, Mum uses Bolsts, I used fresh bulk-packed curry powder from the spice shop in Coburg. Might be a little different.

Then add chicken pieces on the bone, breast, thigh etc. Stir for a minute or two then cover with half chicken stock, half water.

Add potatoes, quartered.

Cook away for hours on end. Mum seems to have hers going all day. She adds a little corn starch at the end to thicken it slightly.

I cooked mine the day before, switched off, cooled, refrigerated and then re-heated the next night. It was simmering away beautifully when I thought I'd better put the rice on. Now where is that rice, he thinks, hunting through the cupboard.

We were out of basmati rice. Out of short grain rice. Even out of arborio rice. (We did have some sushi rice, but T. had accidentally used it to make the dogs' mince instead of the cheaper rice - lucky dogs!)

We did have one packet of unpolished i.e, brown arborio rice which I reluctantly set to boil but it was going to take 35 minutes.

So we had curry without rice. Who needs rice! We had some nice chutney and lime pickle to go with it. It was delicious with all the melting potatoes and chicken falling off the bone.

It was different to Mum's though. Well, she's been cooking it for like fifty years.

1.8.04

A day in the country.

Out of the winter gloom dawned a day - Saturday! with the promise of brittle late-winter warmth. The sun rose higher and showed a renewed confidence, as if it had been hibernating for winter. (You might argue with this if you are on the other side of the world!)

So we found ourselves at ten in the morning sitting in the sun on a low brick wall at the university by the old athletics track, waiting for the others to arrive.

They gradually straggled in, some bearing take-away coffees. We set off in convoy for the annual Harcourt to Bendigo relay race, 48 kilometres of running around the countryside.

After a stop at the bakery in Malmsbury to pick up supplies for afternoon tea, soon we arrived in Harcourt, where a furious bout of organising went on to work out the logistics of dropping runners off at the various checkpoints and arranging to pick them up after each leg.

Several hours later, the day's running around the countryside was all over. We counted heads to make sure someone hadn't been left in a cow paddock or at the top of some remote hill, and then it was time for the important part of the day to begin: afternoon tea at L.'s house in Bendigo.

Everyone had brought something along and when we gathered around the huge dining room table here is what was on it:

A carrot cake (home made), raspberry muffins, a white chocolate ring cake, an apple tea cake, a chocolate fudge cake with little profiteroles on top, a plate of chocolate royals, some vanilla wafers, almond croissants, chocolate croissants, a huge fruit platter (purple grapes, sliced canteloupe, banana, orange segments, apple slices), a savoury cheese pull-apart, various varieties of crisps/chips/cheezels and various chocolates and candy. Several other items I can't remember.Coffee and cold drinks were off to the side.

Then, as if that wasn't enough, L. produced from the kitchen two gigantic platters of piping hot mini sausage rolls - deliciously-spiced meat baked in little cylinders of pastry. Tomato sauce for dipping. There must have been about eighty of the delicious little parcels of spicy flavour.

Well, no-one had eaten lunch and it was past five o'clock so this pretty much served as dinner.

It was a nice after-dark drive back to Melbourne. You see the lights of the city about 30 kilometres out and it's a slow descent into town from there. At some points, it almost looks as if you're in a plane coming in to land.