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

31.10.04

Planning a barbecue step one: analyse the weather.

The Melbourne Cup is on Tuesday and I had planned a Cup eve family barbecue. It's a matter of picking the right break in the weather, so it can be like, OK, Monday evening's looking fine, do a phone-around ... 'Barbecue's on!'

However, the forecasts can be erratic at this time of year and it looks like yesterday's Derby Day was the pick of the carnival for good weather.

They are now forecasting rain for Monday and possibly Tuesday, so yesterday, we called everyone up and changed our barbecue to tonight - Sunday - the first night of daylight savings for the season. Fortunately, this suited everyone OK.

Everything is ready. Calamari, lamb kebabs, bratwurst sausages, felafels, salads, turkish and lebanese bread, hommous, eggplant dip, yogurt, fat black olives in a dish, hot tomato relish, hot mustard, pickled turnips and cucumbers, white wine, red wine, beer, fruit juice, trifles and crumbles, vanilla ice-cream swirled through with crushed pistachios and rose water - a bit of everything really ... have I forgotten anything?

Don't think so.

It's currently 28 celsius. I've got one eye on the radar weather report and the other on the western sky. I don't like the look of it.

28.10.04

Well, I wanted rain.

And I got it.

It's been hot and the garden was drying out.

But, next time, weather-gods, could we arrange maybe just a light shower in the morning? Just enough to water the garden?

My brother, who formerly lived in Queensland, once complained to me about the predictability of the weather, the endless blue skies, the monotonous sunshine, up there in Hervey Bay, near Fraser Island. You know, like paradise. He was missing the changeability, the volatility, the sheer capriciousness of Melbourne weather. You gotta be kiddin', bro. He lives in Alice Springs now.

The wild weather in spring means you never know what you'll be eating. You kind of feel like eating different things when it's 30 celsius than when it's 13.

Take my leeks, for instance. They may have ended up in a simple frittata - good for a picnic or eating out of doors - but it turned cold so I made leek and potato soup instead. Not the pureed version, but my favourite chunky leek and potato soup, almost a stew:

Slice leeks, chop potatoes into bite size cubes.

Chop two slices of good bacon into small pieces.

Melt some butter in the base of a heavy pot and toss in the bacon. Sizzle for a minute then toss in the potatoes and leeks, turn down the heat to lowest, lid the pot and let the vegetables sweat for five or so minutes, ensuring they don't burn.

Then add your stock (I used chicken but any stock is fine), to cover the leeks and potatoes with pepper and salt to taste.

Simmer for at least an hour. To serve, stir through some full-cream milk and top with grated cheddar or other cheese and parsley.

*

The rain isn't going away. There may be storms on Cup Day.

25.10.04

At the golf club.

It was a hot day in northern Victoria (it's always a hot day in northern Victoria - the clouds magically disperse once you cross the Great Dividing Range) for lunch at the golf club in honour of Jack.

He had been a favourite on the fairways where the feisty five-foot-six-and-a-quarter dynamo with his trademark highly polished shoes was reputed to have the shortest backswing and fastest follow-through ever seen; and at the nineteenth hole where his wit and good humour endeared him to all.

Some hundred-plus golf club members, friends and neighbours gathered; the speeches and anecdotes were in turn heartfelt and hilarious - many of course, to do with golf. One member recalled that Jack was such a bad driver that the others conspired never to let him take the wheel on their many trips to golf courses around the region; Jack had thought they were merely deferring to age - little did he know they had been whispering behind his back 'he's going to kill us if we let him behind the wheel again'.

Other stories involved Jack's motorised golf cart - he had bought it second hand - 'a bargain' - and they came to realise why. It kept breaking down. One day it refused to proceed at the tenth hole. There was no choice but for his fellow golfers to push and pull the cart - Jack aboard shouting directions - all the way back to the clubhouse. It started raining. 'Can ye nae push any faster, lads.' He was lucky they didn't tip him into the pond.

The tables were groaning with food - sandwiches of all kinds, homemade mini quiches, pies and sausage rolls; and cold beer was flowing at the open bar. Someone had brought along a tape of Scottish bagpipe music and it was playing away softly in a tape machine on a table near the bar.

Towards four o'clock, a cool breeze came through the open window overlooking the eighteenth hole. People were leaving, many heading back to their farms for the afternoon milking.

*

A friend from one of the farms had kindly delivered a bucket of freshly caught and boiled yabbies - freshwater crayfish. The family, especially my mother-in-law, were exhausted after the week past, so in the evening, my brother-in-law and I prepared supper by peeling the yabbies and cooking them - not forgetting the succulent claws from the larger ones - in white wine and garlic, just a few minutes, adding cream at the end. Served on rice, garlic yabbies may be the simplest and finest meal anyone ever tasted. We opened a bottle of wine.

Next morning, the drive back to Melbourne was hot to begin with. Then, as we crossed back over the Great Divide, the clouds magically reformed.

It was raining in Melbourne.

23.10.04

The service.

The speeches are one thing but the music is another.

Will Ye no' Come Back Again followed by Skye Boat Song brought a tear to the eye, but Amazing Grace gets you and won't let you go.

Before jointly delivering a eulogy and readings, Jack's five children leant against each other at the front of the chapel, arms around each other like so many little children, but there they were in their late thirties, forties and early fifties. Their mother gave a speech, brave and touching.

Afterwards, tears, reminiscences and laughter preceded a homely but magnificent supper for family and friends at brother-in-law's house; prepared by in-laws, friends and neighbours. The scotch flowed.

Will ye no come back again?
Will ye no come back again?
Better lo'ed ye canna be,
Will ye no come back again?

18.10.04

Vale Jack.

He'd been ill for many years. My father-in-law, T.'s father, finally succumbed late last week, aged 78.

Emphysema had set it in many years ago, when a doctor told him if he didn't stop smoking, he'd end up having to cut his legs off - doctors have such a sense of humour. A keen golfer, Jack took his advice. He may not otherwise have done so. Jack spent his latter years playing golf around the district, taking to the motorised cart when he could no longer walk.

Later, he suffered a heart attack which he blamed on a corned beef sandwich my mother-in-law had made for him. A bout of cancer saw most of one lung removed. In recent years, Jack had suffered minor heart attacks, gout, asthma, diabetes and various other ailments.

But Jack never panicked by doing anything silly like changing his diet or giving up the scotch.

*

My in-laws live in a small farming town 180 kilometres from Melbourne. Our weekend stayovers commenced with the offer of a whisky upon entry. As the afternoon wound down, the aromas of steak pie or perhaps a roast of beef would fill the house. With dinner there was always plenty of buttered mash and assorted well-boiled vegetables. Dessert consisted of trays of home-made shortbread or pumpkin and sultana cake or clootie dumpling being brought out and accompanied with Scotch whisky, on ice of course. Jack would always be passing squares of shortbread to the dog under the table. He loved dogs and they loved him. He was most upset when our greyhound died earlier this year. His own dog, a beautiful female Siberian husky, had died a few years ago. He wasn't able to take on another, so he enjoyed having ours visit.

Jack would always be first up on Sunday morning and have the kettle on. Later - nothing was rushed - breakfast would follow. Fried eggs and bacon and sometimes fried black pudding; buttered toast - porridge first if you wished; pots of hot tea. Fried clootie dumpling with bacon and eggs was another favourite. Lunch seemed to follow in a short time - sandwiches, scones, biscuits and coffee.

I have never been to Scotland but after a weekend like that I felt I'd grown up there. The endless stories helped. I heard most of them so often I could tell them myself.

Jack and his family had arrived from Scotland in 1964 - T. was the only child born in Australia - and his Scottish accent remained as broad to the day he died. He used to joke about Australians staring at him liked 'stunned mullets' trying to work out what he was saying in his guttural brogue. He refused to change. Everyone loved him. He was like a pugnacious pixie. He'd tell a joke and his face would break up into helpless mirth before he'd get to the punchline and everyone would be laughing along with him, sometimes none the wiser.

He was a master of the one-liner and would regularly pierce any perceived pomposity with a sharp retort. He was joking with the nurses until the hour he died. The kidneys failed in the end and he refused to travel a hundred kilometres for dialysis, which he'd beeen through countless times. He was moved into palliative care, my mother-in-law slipped out to get something or make a phone call and when she returned he was gone.

There is to be a service in Melbourne for family and friends and, later in the week, a 'wake' in the country for those who cannot travel to Melbourne. The latter event will be enormous. The communities in the area revolve around the golf clubs and Jack was well-loved.

Would you like a scotch, son, he'd ask, pouring out a good measure without waiting for a reply, I'm having one myself.

I'll have one again and drink a toast to wee Jackie, as he was known, ... wee Jackie, the father of my bride.




15.10.04

Friday night = fish.

Well, these days, not always.

But my memories of Friday night fish are as strong as the aroma, no - smell, that wafted through the house when I was growing up.

As a child, I thought all cooked fish was hard and brown. But it wasn't! That's just the way mum did it!

I didn't mind the smell and I didn't mind the overcooked fish. In fact, I loved it. Those crunchy bits and the blackened silver skin were delicious, especially with too much salt and a squeeze of lemon. Then I grew up and discovered restaurants charging way too much for blackened fish in some five-minute trend that went through in the eighties (There's nothing wrong with blackened fish, I'm just chary of food trends).

The fish and chip shop around the corner did huge business on Friday nights. It was full from about six o'clock through to eight or so. People were out on the street waiting. I think they had a number system or something. But they were fast. And you can't beat the steaming aroma of salted and vinegared fresh battered flake and potato chips wrapped in butcher's paper (in those days they used newspaper) with a wedge of lemon.

Sometimes on Fridays I make a simple marinara sauce - half a dozen each of calamari rings, prawns, baby octopus, scallops, mussels in the shell and a piece of any firm-fleshed fish, cubed; and all dropped into a pan in which is simmering a cup of white wine and the juice from a can of tomatoes with a clove of garlic and a few cracked peppercorns. Throw in a chile pepper for a spicy variation.

The fish won't take long, a few minutes. Throw the mussels in first to open up then turn down the heat and toss in the rest. (Mussels will produce extra fluid as they open so compensate with less to begin with.) Finish it off with a swirl of cream if you wish and shower plenty of chopped parsley over it.

I usually have the pasta already cooking in a big pot of salted water, ready to serve, it works well with plain spaghetti.

Serve with crusty bread to mop up the sauce. And a rich dry white bold enough for the fish. Or cold beer on a hot day. It's good.

But not as good as mum's blackened fish.

14.10.04

Shades of red. And a couple of yellows.

The weather is still wild.

We've had one calm, sunny spring day in about ten. The rest have been in turn unpleasantly blustery, rainy or stormy. Two nights ago the temperature at midnight was 27 degrees celsius. Yesterday was humid and cloudy. Shortly after lunchtime a white flash lit up the sky (lightning is weird when you're not expecting it) followed by the loudest clap of thunder I have ever heard. Every dog within miles started barking. Goldie was inside, she ran over to me and then started running around the house panting. Then the heavens opened up and it rained all afternoon.

Clearly, the garden is enjoying the wild weather. The last of the camellias are fading, three in a row: a candy pink smaller flower, a large mid-crimson and a large deeper red with a kind of mottled pattern. Don't know the varieties. Similarly the two magnolias, the final flowers giving way to magnificent foliage which shades the west-facing bedroom window, just right for an afternoon siesta in the heat of the coming summer. Lookin' forward to that!

The smaller rhododendron is in flower, has been for about a week, massive crimson blooms. The larger is just coming out now, its branches reaching over the side fence and proudly showing off delicate white flowers with brilliant tinges of pink like crushed raspberries folded through pure white gelati.

And the roses! Right now you can just about stand there and watch them grow. A few blooms braved the cold a few weeks ago; but this week, dozens have appeared. One of the five bushes has a very deep red bloom, the deepest red I've seen, almost becoming a kind of sheeny, velvety black down each petal. They're the size of a large fist. I must be doing something right. There's a bunch sitting in the entry hall, they look too big for the vase.

The others are two further deep reds but with slightly paler 'hearts', a delightful pale pink, a crimson; and the odd one out, by the front door steps, a rich buttercup yellow. That could be my favourite. (No - you can't play favourites with roses.)

The self-seeding calendulas are making their annual carpet of orange beneath the roses, they grow like weeds. Every year they come back. There's a few other plants here and there.

In the back yard, the apple is blossoming white-and-pink. The miniature potted peach has already busily blossomed and is now in leaf and fruiting. It's two feet tall! The old apricot has leaves and the beginnings of fruit. The three plums are slower.

And the lemon tree: two years ago it was five feet tall and there were maybe one or two lemons. Last year, a little taller and probably two dozen. This year: I just went out and plucked fifty big yellow beauties!

Lemonade anyone?


12.10.04

A what's-in-the-cupboard dinner.

There was a can of mackerel, a can of beans, some eggs and not much else.

Boil some rice. Boil two eggs. When the rice is cooked, drain it and quickly toss a generous amount of curry powder over it, stirring it through. Shell your eggs, chop them roughly and fold them through the rice together with some chopped parsley. Also fold through some beans.

Mackerel over the top. Yum. Kind of like an instant kedgeree, I guess. Except the fish should be smoked. And there's no beans in kedgeree. Whatever. (I grew up with kedgeree - my mother always used the leftover smoked cod which we'd had with a white sauce flecked with parsley and mashed potatoes.)

On the side, a salad of mustard greens* and chopped green onion with vinaigrette.

*In the garden, the mustard greens have TAKEN OFF! And just when I tamed the rocket. The snails appear not to have touched it, maybe they don't know what it is. Beautiful broad showy foliage shooting up and flopping outwards like a fleur-de-lys, all deep green with mottled purple. So we're eating mustard greens with everything. It's a bit like cos lettuce crossed with rocket. Less peppery, more bitter. I'm going to cook it as well.

11.10.04

Election day.

Late Friday, we were down the coast for the weekend.

Up bright and early Saturday morning to walk Goldie along the beach and get the weekend paper.

Breakfast reading the final election news and then off to the farmers' market - this week at Rosebud, a little further up the coast. It was drizzling and cloudy but expected to clear with the forecast of a fine afternoon.

But first, to vote. We 'absentee'-voted (i.e, out of our home electorate) at a booth in Rosebud. Party volunteers were handing out their respective how-to-vote cards, along with plenty of jolly banter. It's generally a friendly social day and often volunteers for one party will take over handing out an opposing party volunteer's how-to-vote cards while they take a break. The House of Representatives ballot paper was manageable enough but the Senate, with something like seventy-odd candidates, must have been three feet by two in size. Something to do with minimum type or something. I had to fold it about ten times to get it into the absentee-voter envelope. (Mathematical minutia: that is impossible. You cannot fold any piece of paper, no matter how thin or how large, more than seven times. How do I know this? Or more to the point, why do I know this - my head is full of useless facts.)

Then, a bit of a treat: an early lunch - midday - outdoors at the Blairgowrie cafe - no sign of Frank the fat dog - where the sun at last broke through and everyone was peeling off jackets. Again, several seasons in one day. Open sandwiches and then a massive piece of the most decadent cheesecake: a thick crust of crumbled ginger snap biscuits beneath a rich, creamy and totally delicious real cheese filling and on top, a layer of choc-dusted white chocolate which must have been a quarter inch thick. A squirt of raspberry sauce and a huge blob of double cream on the side. And two forks. No way one person could get through that, it was the size of an iceberg. The lady who runs the cafe makes it herself.

Well that killed the appetite for the rest of the day.

Almost.

Dinner was something I had tried to replicate from a childhood memory. Sausage meat with spring onions and a dash of paprika mixed through and formed into a loaf, placed into a baking dish, sprinkled with a packet of chicken noodle soup, surrounded with a cup or so of uncooked rice, half a litre of boiling water poured over the top and placed in the oven to bake. Water topped up a couple of times as the rice takes it up.

It turned out just as I remember, the rice goes all gelatinous and chicken-y and the meatloaf yields quite a lot - no wonder it was a favourite on the childhood dinner table with seven children to feed. And the leftover meatloaf goes in next day's sandwiches with tomato sauce - yummy.

Then, tuned into the election telecast, live from Canberra, with a result sooner than expected.

Mr Latham conceded, graciously, just before ten. At around ten thirty, Mr Howard came to the podium at the Wentworth Hotel, shushed the crowd and waved down the applause like a favourite uncle at a family wedding, then hemmed and hawed a little before delivering a humble but magnificent speech. No arms punching the air, no gloating.

We do like our politicians to be ordinary, knockabout blokes - and women. Along with Mr Howard, the star of the night for me, on the Channel 9 panel, was Amanda Vanstone - Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs - who is about as down to earth a politician as you're likely to find. She is verbally brilliant, someone in one of the papers dubbed her the 'panel smackdown champion' for her quick-witted repartee and no-nonsense manner.



Why is rocket rocket? And who is Brian Cadd?

Because it takes off like one.

So I pulled out four or five four-feet-high plants and stripped all the leaves.

Now what?

Rocket pesto!

Chop it all up, grind it with a couple of cloves of garlic, a bunch of pine nuts, plenty of good parmesan cheese and olive oil.

I like the rough consistency when it is ground instead of pureed.

So on Friday night we had an early dinner of breasts of chicken stuffed with rocket pesto and a slice of cheese (I used a local soft cheese but I think you could use any cheese on earth because cheese is cheese and all cheese is good cheese) and gently poached in white wine in a pan with a tight-fitting lid. With silverbeet from the school garden (masses of it came home) cooked with a dash of water and olive oil, a scored clove of garlic and cracked black pepper.

Then we went out to see a show by Brian Cadd, a white-bearded piano-playing rocker, kind of a cross between Leon Russell and Elton John I guess, who had a string of hits in the seventies with his groups The Groop and Axiom, went to the US to write and produce for twenty years and then returned to Australia to retire. And promptly went on the road again. It was a great show, with all his hits including Ginger Man, Show Me the Way, A Little Ray of Sunshine, Baby's Gone Again and a whole bunch of others.

And I'd forgotten how amazing Hammond organ sounds. Someone bring it back.

7.10.04

If you don't like the weather ...

... wait five minutes.

Just as well I mowed the lawn the day before yesterday as the perfect spring weather didn't last. Woke up yesterday morning to howling gale-force winds followed by thunderstorms later in the day.

The gusts and rain continued all afternoon, broken by short periods of sunshine. The radar map showed thick ribbons of cloud being blown across the state
by a strong westerly.

Later in the day, conditions worsened. The launch of the new helicopter helipad on top of the Royal Melbourne Hospital was cancelled as the chopper was unable to land in the conditions. A hospital spokesman said - what's the use of that, it's often in conditions like this we most need the chopper! I presume he and the PR guy are not talking this morning.

*

I had been to the market where the short, fat 'white' (actually pale with mottled green) variety of zucchini were the hit of the day.

Brought home a bunch of these, made some basic tomato risotto (introduce the rice to warmed olive oil and scored garlic cloves in a pot, add alternate dashes of white wine and hot stock so the rice takes it up gradually - if you get impatient with that, toss it all in at once, set it on the lowest heat possible and give a stir every now and then - and then add the juice of a lemon, a can of diced tomatoes and the chopped middles of the zucchinis, having sliced them down the middle and removed half their flesh.

Set the little zucchini boats in a casserole, load them up with risotto, place a sardine along each boat - they look like fishing boats bringing home a shark - pour in some more diced tomatoes or tomato puree around the zucchinis, add a cup of white wine or water so it doesn't dry out, toss over some pine nuts and parsley. Squeeze a lemon over it all or set a halved lemon in the casserole and bake slowly until the zucchinis are soft.

Boats. The way the rain's coming down, we'll need a real one. The guy on the radio just said, sarcastically - you'll be pleased to know the weather hasn't changed in the last foty-five seconds.









Spring afternoon.

It must have been about three in the afternoon, a picture book spring day, and the air was so still you could hear the bees buzzing.

Magpies were chortling in the old pine tree, birds of other types were flitting and swooping over the shrubs and the vegetables, coming to rest on the fence or the edge of a pot plant or a branch in one of the blossoming fruit trees, there to chatter away before flitting off again. Busy birds.

The purple heads of the newly-flowering sage reached upwards from their silvery green foliage towards the warm afternoon sun. Likewise the deep crimson flowers of the green beans, growing by the day.

Goldie dozed in the shade, her bone largely now devoid of meat and any further interest.

A perfect spring afternoon, ideal for a nap.

Then suddenly, R-R-R-R-ROAAARRRRRRRRRR!

Yes, I just had to mow the lawn.

A dreadful shattering of the peace, I know, but have you seen that stuff grow at this time of year?

Goldie slunk off to her bed in disgust.



3.10.04

Saturday morning at the market and a beef stew of some description.

A weekend down the coast found us at the Rye market Saturday morning, on the foreshore, literally metres from the gently lapping waves.

It's mainly a local farmers' market but there are stalls selling second-hand lawnmower parts, hoses and tap fittings, used books and records (single 45s fifty cents each), home-knitted Barbie costumes, hand-sewn pillow cases and sheets, and various other sundries should you require anything along those lines on a Saturday morning. There's also a stall which sells nothing but socks.

But most go for the fruit and vegetables, the potted plants, the eggs, the honey ... and the toasted egg and bacon sandwiches from the Rotary food van for $2.50. Have you any idea what grilling bacon and eggs and toasting bread smells like outdoors at 9.30 on a Saturday morning? Irresistible. The aroma drifts across the market and people literally stop in their tracks.

We came away with green beans in their pods, young slender leeks, apples from the apple specialist (he grows and sells a number of varieties you can't get in the supermarkets), more asparagus, some carrots, celery and twelve 'free-range' eggs. (I never know if the whole free-range thing is genuine or a scam pandering to inner urban sensibilities. I mean, OK, chickens should be able to stroll about at their leisure, as we all should, but I don't know that the eggs we buy are always the result of chicken nirvana. But then, as a cynic, I remember when most backyards had chicken coops, we collected the eggs, Dad lopped the chook's head off for Christmas and the chickenpoo went onto the garden. Win win all round. But then what happened? Local governments fell over themselves to ban backyard chickens for a variety of dubious reasons. Now the circle has turned and everyone wants the chickens to have backyards again - but at someone else's expense - and we all think it's some kind of new idea.)

Where was I? Oh yeah, the market. We looked at the potplants and tried to decide on a shrub for an empty corner (morning shade, afternoon light, temperate zone, sandy well-drained soil) but gave it up as too hard. Maybe next time.

Beef and leek stew.

It had been a warm morning, but there were clouds on the horizon.

Early afternoon, made a beef stew, no recipe, just threw it all in together. I started by browning generously floured-and-seasoned cubes of rump in olive oil, then simmering it in a pot with half a litre of red wine which I had used to deglaze the browning pan, a sliced carrot, a chopped stick of celery, a scored clove of garlic, three waxy potatoes sliced broadly, two leeks sliced finely, a very generous dash of ground white peppercorns, a bay leaf from the tree outside the window, a pinch of mixed dried herbs, about a litre of water and a mushroom stock cube. (Don't know if the potatoes are right with the red wine, they can take on a pinkish hue, but it was delicious.) I let that bubble away slowly for a few hours while we went to the beach for a brisk walk.

Later, I boiled the podded green beans until soft and served them with a squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of olive oil as a side dish with the stew, which was accompanied with broad tagliatelle-type egg noodles. And the rest of the red.