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

29.12.04

Enough about food for one year.

Boxing Day, we did it all again, at my youngest brother's place. It was great, but two days of food is enough.

Let's talk animals.

The Herald Sun print edition shows Cooper sitting on the vet's shoulder like a Professor of Surgery showing an intern what to do.

A Professor of Surgery with a grey suit and a sunburnt head.

26.12.04

Christmas lunch. And a walk.

Because of the mild weather, I had set up the tables in the garden late yesterday, right where they would receive the best shade between noon and four.

It was a warm morning. Half a dozen clouds wandered around the sky like lost sheep, wondering which way to go. They didn't take long to decide.

Linen on all the tables, drinks servery arranged on the long tiled outdoor sideboard and cutlery station beneath the apricot tree. Condiments as well.

One of the tables was covered in bread remnants. This table was beneath the plum tree by the garage - the tree the possums use as a staircase to the ground - and the possums had obviously used it as a dining table during last night's marsupial party, having stolen the bread I'd left out for the birds - from way over beyond the garden gate. I'm sure they appreciated the provision of a landing. And party food.

I cleaned the table and picked some roses.

Everything was done and now there was time to spare. I moved a vase from one table to another, and then I moved it back because it looked better on the first table. Then I went inside before I started moving tables around.

*

The buffet:

Corned beef (cooked with onions, peppercorns, cloves, apple vinager, sugar, bay leaves) served with two mustards, hot and mild; and hot onion sauce.

Spring leg of lamb, baked on a bed of mint, studded with garlic and rosemary. Hot mint sauce.

Three roasted stuffed chickens, cut into pieces, served cold.

Brother-in-law's baked ham with pineapple and cherries.

Parboiled then roasted potatoes baked in half lamb drippings and half olive oil.

Brother's green curry - hot.

Son's red chicken curry - mild.

Basmati rice.

Salads - sweet potato with raisins, toasted pine nuts and walnuts; potato with a simple vinaigrette and a red cabbage coleslaw.

We ate. There were twenty-one of us - brothers, sisters, mother, assorted spouses, children, nephews, nieces.

*

The afternoon drew on and the shadows danced around the garden. The children brought out the gifts and soon the lawn was a sea of paper and ribbon amidst squeals of surprise.

Desserts were served - lemon curd cake, an apple jam crumble, clootie dumpling with hot custard, ice-cream in cones for the children. Coffee. Tea. More wine? Scotch? Whatever you like.

After dessert, the perennial question arose - snooze or walk? We were evenly divided, some taking a nap in the shade on a rug or the outdoor lounge; while a bunch of us chose a walk to Merri Creek.

Around our crescent and out onto the main road, which was surprisingly quiet, then another ten minutes found us at the edge of vast parkland. Through this parkland runs the creek - unseen - along a deep gorge. A few more minutes brought us to the edge of the gorge. Stepping very carefully down a steep limestone track, we soon arrived at the creekbed. Walking half a kilometre along a barely discernible track, we crossed the creek where it narrowed, stepping across large rocks, ascended a very steep hill (trying not to think about the heavy lunch on board) and emerged, puffing, at the top on the opposite side of the creek.

Turn 180 degrees and right there, amazingly, are the tall buildings of the city simmering in late afternoon's blue haze, looking as if you could reach out and touch them.

Turn back the other way, walk another kilometre and you are on the edge of a sheer cliff. We looked down and saw the creek curling like a discarded ribbon along the floor of a plain. This is the site of protected aboriginal land. Hardly anyone comes here. We could have been a thousand miles away from the city. It's not that difficult to visit but you have to know where you're going and few bother.

We rested here a while. If you listened very carefully, you could hear the creek burbling softly, faraway. A family of wild ducks sat close to the rushes, floating on the slight current. Further downstream we saw a school of large fish - just black shadows - turning in unison this way and that.

It was only a two kilometre stroll across the northern part of the parkland to reach home. The parkland curves around to the north and we had walked a rough triangle.

- How was your walk?
- Good. Just a quiet stroll around the block.

*

Early evening, the children were yawning, thumbing through their Christmas books. Ten-month-old Aria woke up and burbled in the corner, warm evening sun streaming in the window, casting her face in gold on her first Christmas Day.













No silent nights around here.

They live in the trees next to the garage - three 30-foot conifers, standing there like giant Christmas trees, way too big to decorate. There must be enough living space in there to cater for an entire colony of possums. I think the colony is growing.

They must have come down some time after midnight, when no creature is meant to be stirring on Christmas Eve. I woke to hear their growling, if growling is what you would call it. It sounds like a giant being strangled and not being happy about it. A kind of deep, guttural, insane noise. At 2am it would frighten the life out of you if you didn't know it was possums. Cute, harmless possums.

The cute, harmless possums kept up their Christmas Eve racket for what seemed like hours. It wasn't just their manic song-fest; they kept going back home to the trees and then returning. To fetch what? Beer? Every time they did so, the crashing across the double garage steel roof sounded like a basketball team was up there practising their dribbling.

I fell asleep only to wake later to a mournful wailing rising to a sharp crescendo. I got up and threw the window open. White flashes shot off in opposite directions. Cats fighting. Why do cats fight? And why can't they do it quietly? Couldn't they just sit there and glare balefully at each other?

At around five thirty, the birds began their daily morning song, welcoming Christmas Day. That's a beautiful noise, at least.

Happy Christmas, world.

24.12.04

Insects.

It reached 37 degrees yesterday. (Handy conversion tables here. Thank you Janis.)

We sat outside in the cool of the evening, except there was no cool. It was one of those semi-tropical evenings during which every bug known to man was flying about heavily in the hot blanket of still air. Tiny ones with oversized wings. Red ones that fly like a jet into your hair, buzz loudly as they get caught in it and then fall to the ground on their backs to buzz some more. Mosquitoes of course. Houseflies, blowflies. It was a good night for insects. Goldie snapped up quite a few. She's quick for an old dog.

It was almost too hot to eat. Almost. Salmon patties (canned salmon, potato, spring onions) on a simple salad of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, carrot straws and steamed broccoli from the garden (the last of it). Sweet chili sauce.

It remained hot throughout the night. Finally, towards maybe five in the morning, a cool breeze made its way in the window and wandered around, stirring the curtains.

Uh, oh. Look what's coming over the border.

I'll have to look up some locust recipes.

23.12.04

We have a forecast.

It's close enough now to Christmas Day for it to be reasonably accurate. If that makes sense.

22 degrees. Not too hot, not too cool. Probably perfect.

Just like it was last year when we hosted T.'s family for Christmas. We had tables on the lawn, under the shade of the trees; and spread some rugs for the children. We had a buffet spread including roast beef, roasted potatoes, turkey, hams and salads. T.'s father sat in the dappled shade and enjoyed his last Christmas surrounded by his family. After lunch a niece gave a clarinet recital and we broke out the shortbread and Scotch. I seem to remember a lemon curd trifle and a Christmas cake with holly, but after the Scotch, who knows. It was a good day.

This year we are hosting my family. We'll do much the same kind of thing. I wonder if someone will bring a clarinet.

20.12.04

... nobody on the beach.

I lay on the beach and read a book for half an hour, paddled about in the water for maybe another half an hour, left the beach and two hours had passed.

It happens every time, like some weird time warp.

I put the book down on the sand and walked out maybe two hundred metres. The water depth declines very gradually and you can walk out for about half a mile before the water gets anywhere near going over your head. When you venture out this far and look back at the shore it feels like you are in the middle of Port Philip Bay.

It was warm. The sun was shining and there was no wind. A perfect summer day. All too rare this too-stormy early summer.

I looked back to shore. I could see about a kilometre up the beach towards Sorrento and the same the other way towards Rye.

An odd thing. The beach was empty, totally deserted. The week before Christmas, the children are on holidays, and a perfect beach day on one of the Peninsula's favourite beach playgrounds. Where was everyone?

It was dead silent as I waded back to shore. Although I think I may have caught the sound of a million credit cards being swiped, festively, in some not-too-far-away echoey shopping mall ...

*

We still don't know the Christmas weather forecast. The range of possibilities is, 40 degrees celsius plus. Or at the other end of the scale, 10 degrees with cold wind and rain.

Makes planning difficult.



16.12.04

And just when I'd gone and bought some seedlings ...

Just checked the vegetable patch. The two-week tropical weather burst has finished and literally scores if not hundreds of tomato and basil plants have sprung up, obviously having self-seeded from last year.

They should do well because they are among the best companion plants. They love each other. We also had a nasturtium which died about three years ago in the drought - that has returned as well. The plant nursery lady told me the seeds can survive several seasons.

Recipes could get very repetitive later in summer. Some years ago we had an excellent tomato and basil season and seemed to be eating bruschetta - crusty bread smeared in olive oil and garlic and lightly toasted, then piled high with finely chopped tomato and basil with a little onion and a drop of balsamic vinegar - every night. And pasta caprese - with tomato and mozzarella slices, basil garnish - at least once a week.

Might have to bottle some tomatoes this year. And make lots of pesto.

13.12.04

A very long and rainy baking day.

It has rained every day this summer. OK, summer's only twelve days old. But that's a lot of rain. Unusually, the rain has been accompanied by high temperatures - into the thirties celsius, giving Melbourne a tropical climate. I don't remember this happening before. There are dozens of tomatoes self-seeding in the vegetable patch, along with what looks like zucchinis, pumpkins or cucumbers. Maybe all three.

T. loves baking and took advantage of the wet weather. Here's what she baked yesterday, as the rain came down in buckets:

Clootie Dumpling. A kind of cross between plum pudding and fruit cake. The name simply means pudding in cloth. I love the way they still have these middle English words in daily use.

250 grams each of sugar, bread crumbs, suet, raisins, sultanas and currants. 375 grams of self-raising flour. Three eggs. A dessertspoon of mixed spice, a tablespoon of treacle, a quarter teaspoon of bicarb soda. Brandy.

The flour is sifted with the soda and spices. The suet is then rubbed into the spicy flour mixture, followed by the addition of the fruit, sugar and bread crumbs. Beat the eggs, add the treacle and a good dash of brandy and add this to the dry mixture. Mix well.

Now for the cloth. Boil it, remove it from water, lay it flat, sprinkle it evenly with flour to the edges. This creates a seal. Place the dumpling mixture in the middle, gather the edges and tie it firmly with string. Place it on an upturned dinner plate in a large pot of boiling water which should come three-quarters the way up the pudding. Sit the lid partially on. Boil for six hours, topping up frequently with boiling water. (Well, OK, this is not baking!) You'll have the kettle on all afternoon. Once it's done, remove from water, carefully remove the cloth and place the dumpling on a heatproof dish in a low oven until it appears dry. Remove and, when cool, wrap in plastic wrap and then a tea towel and place in refrigerator.

That was easy. Not much work in that, just a lot of waiting around. While T. was waiting around, she knocked out several of these:

Traditional shortbread. Beat 250 grams of softened butter and half a cup of icing sugar until fluffy. Sift in one and two-thirds cup of plain flour and one quarter cup of rice flour. Combine with a wooden spoon, press dough into a ball; knead lightly until smooth, shape into a half-inch thick, 9" round on a greased baking tray, pinching a decorative edge and scoring six wedges. Pierce all over with a fork, bake at 140 degrees C for 35 to 40 minutes or until set and browned. Cool on tray for 2-3 minutes, transfer to wire rack; when almost cool, cut through score marks into neat wedges using a bread knife and a sawing motion. Cool and store airtight.

T. made several of these, left most in the round, mounted them on stiff cardboard platters, wrapped them in cellophane and tied with tartan ribbon for Christmas gifts.

We ate the rest.

Meanwhile the dumpling was half done. What next?

Silverbeet and cheese burek. I went out in the rain and cut down the mountains of silverbeet rampaging through the now-tropical vegetable jungle, while T. mixed fetta, ricotta and eggs. We chopped the silverbeet and cooked it, just in its retained water with a dash of olive oil, plenty of white pepper and quite a few cloves of scored garlic, until wilted, then combined it with the cheese. Place mixture into the middle of the buttered and oiled burek pastry (filo in large rounds) in a shallow baking dish, fold over the edges and tuck them in, bake 25 minutes. You can make these ahead and freeze them. We made several, froze some for Christmas and had the other one for dinner.

The clootie dumpling was finally done. T. told me it was typically enjoyed cold for supper late on Christmas Day - and New Year's Eve - with Scotch whisky. T's father also loved it fried for breakfast with bacon and eggs.

I'll go with the supper and Scotch option, thanks.

11.12.04

Baby Aria's Big Appetite.

Aria has reached that age in infancy when babies start eating solid food - with their own tiny hands - with such gusto that the food, whatever it might be, spreads itself some several square metres around the baby diner.

Should the baby be sitting on you (in this case me) you end up wearing most of it.

Natalie had brought Shanra and Aria over for an early Friday night dinner. Their dad, my son, was working late. I had picked Canisha up from school so she was already here. T. had made up a hearty batch of pikelets - dainty little pancakes half an inch thick and four inches in diameter and when she came in, Canisha had demolished seven or eight with jam.

At eight, Canisha is mostly past the 'I don't like that' stage. Shanra, four, is at the height of the 'I don't like that' routine.

Aria, 10 months, cannot yet talk, has one tooth and not much hair, and likes everything.

She sat on my knee and her mum set a plate before her with some plain fettucine on it. Just warm, lightly olive oiled, and chopped into manageable lengths. She picked it up with dimpled hands and ate it, dropping only a few pieces. She slurped the fettucine like an expert. OK, let's try some of the seafood, shall we? A scallop. Ate it. A tiny piece of fish, being very careful to remove the cartilage. Ate it. Some more fettucine, now with some of the tomatoey marinara sauce. Ate it. The tiny dimpled hands are tomatoey and fishy, there's a scallop on the floor and tomato on my clothes. No matter. She's gurgling perfection with a one-toothed grin that lights up the room. Make all the mess you like. You're God's miracle. Here, have some more. You dropped the last piece.

Now an olive from the salad, being careful to remove the pit. And a little piece of fetta. Ate them. Then a purple piece of pickled turnip. Loved it.

Meanwhile Canisha's eaten her fettucine and is enquiring, to nobody in particular - just idly posing the question - to maybe the air in the room or the picture on the wall, - is there ice-cream?

- in the freezer? she adds helpfully, as if to clarify any confusion about whether the first question was merely a rhetorical one about the existence of ice-cream; and to reassure the air, the picture on the wall, anyone who might be listening, that she meant was there actual ice-cream in the freezer and perhaps more specifically, could she have some? Please?

Shanra still didn't like what she was eating. But she seemed to get through most of it nevertheless.

*

Fettucine marinara: A dozen large prawns, a dozen calamari rings, a couple of dozen scallops, roe attached, a dozen baby octopus, a dozen mussels in the shell, a large piece of skate, chopped into bit-size pieces.

A pack of fettucine. A can of tomatoes, diced. An onion. A couple of garlic cloves, scored. Cup of white wine.

Cook the onions in olive oil, add the white wine; when it boils add the mussels, when they open up add half a can of diced tomatoes, then add all the other seafood except the scallops. Simmer five minutes then add the scallops. Cook a few more minutes. Serve over cooked, drained fettucine.

Fettucine with ricotta and fresh tomatoes: Fold ricotta and tomato slices through cooked fettucine. Dust with parmesan and a little pepper.




9.12.04

New recipe, new name.

Sometimes I just open the fridge and see what jumps out. As we all do. Other times I'll vary a recipe and give it a new name.

An old favourite, spaghetti carbonara, hadn't been on the table for a while, so that's what I wanted to cook.

I had eggs but I didn't have bacon. But if you can use prosciutto in place of bacon, why can't you use some other meat? No reason at all why not.

I had been to Elli's deli in Sydney Road, the Greek deli that sells smallgoods from everywhere. They had a notice in the window 'Now stocking UK smallgoods'. I went in and they had a tray of UK smallgoods from Rob, the specialist UK butcher and smallgoods maker, including three kinds of black pudding, the English version, the Scottish version and the Irish version.

No wonder those three tiny countries in Britain were always fighting with each other. They can't even agree on a sausage.

The English black pudding varied from the Irish only in that the English version included pork fat in the ingredients list. I wonder if they do blind tastings of these things. The Scottish version included oatmeal. Of course. There's oatmeal in everything in Scotland. It's very good for you.

So I bought some black pudding. The Irish version.

And I thought, standing there at the fridge, it crisps up beautifully. There's no reason at all why I can't make spaghetti carbonara using Irish black pudding in place of bacon.

And so I did.

And it was very good. The eggs blended in sensually with the spaghetti (La Triestina, small pasta manufacturer since 1954) and the dark flecks of fried Irish black pudding set off the flavour superbly along with a shake of parmesan and a shower of parsley.

New name?

Spaghetti Connemara, of course.

8.12.04

Two Fat Peppers.

One red, one green. Otherwise known as bell peppers. Or capsicums.

Cut 'em into salads. Bake them until their skin turns black and peels off leaving sensual, unctuous baked pepper flesh which goes very nicely in strips, with anchovies, in spaghetti.

Or stuff 'em.

That's what I did.

Boil some rice. (I boiled four parts white rice and one part brown arborio rice - different pots, they take different times - and mixed them together for a more interesting texture.)

Toast some pinenuts - careful, don't burn them.

Cook some minced meat and onions. I cook the onions first in little oil, remove the onions, cook the mince, add back the onions. Then a bunch of fresh herbs from the garden - I used plenty of mint, parsley and a little sage. The meat - beef is fine, but I used ground pork and veal from the Italian butchers in Sydney Road. Try to drain away as much fat as possible.

Combine cooked mince and rice. Mine was about three parts rice to one part meat. Add spices - I used about a tablespoon of sumac and a dash of zatar. Salt and pepper.

Cut the tops of the peppers and stuff them with the rice mixture. Place their lids back on and lay in a baking dish. A lidded one works well, keeping the peppers moist. But an open one is OK, just watch the fluid level. Surround the peppers with a can of chopped tomatoes, add half a cup of white wine and the same amount of water. These proportions will depend on the size of your peppers. Don't drown them. Mine were huge. (Fit the baking dish size as close as possible to the peppers and their lids won't come off as the rice expands slightly.)

Bake. An hour should do it. You can do it the night before and reheat it.

Two Fat Stuffed Peppers. One red, one green. Delicious. Nice cold, too.

6.12.04

Food with funny names, mostly involving potatoes.

Anyone with ancestors from the UK will occasionally have had the pleasure of being treated to one or more of the following dishes, all bearing wonderful old names (the dishes, not the ancestors).

Colcannon: a creamy, yummy mixture of cabbage and potatoes with, variously, milk, butter or cream.

Champ: an Irish version of mashed potatoes blended with onions cooked in milk.

Boxty: hashbrowns made from leftover mashed potato.

Stovies: a combination of potatoes and meat in layers. May be a long-lost relative of Shepherd's Pie or corned beef hash. Not sure why it's plural. (Or why Boxty was singular for that matter.)

And, perhaps my favourite weird food name:

Clapshot: sounds like a very serious, and possibly fatal, medical condition but is actually mashed potatoes and swede - a frequent visitor on the family dinner table when I was growing up. Even more frequent was potato and pumpkin mashed together.

Then after you've eaten your 'tatties in various forms and guises, no doubt you'll be looking forward to dessert:

Cranachan: oatmeal with a slug of Drambuie.

Some Scotsmen I know would have it for breakfast. And hold the oatmeal!

3.12.04

Yum Cha.

We had to go shopping.

Dreadful, I know, but it had to be done, according to T.

I couldn't see it, but she insisted I needed new shorts for summer and a couple other things, and she needed this and that.

'Just don't make me try anything on,' I warned, ineffectually. (I have an aversion to trying on clothes in shops. If it weren't for women, most men would simply wear the same clothes over and over again until they turned to rags and fell off. Then we'd go right on walking around naked. Until it got cold. But let's deal with that when we come to it, huh? Let's not worry about the future, huh?)

So. Shopping. Jetty Surf. Cool. Billabong. Cool. Rip Curl. OK. David Jones. OK. A few other shops. Hmm. Target. Starting to fidget. Three more shops. Then some other shop filled with exactly the same clothes as the previous three. I'm turning into a zombie.

Fortunately at that point in time T. decided we were hungry and needed food instantly.

We were right there in Little Bourke Street which contains maybe a thousand Chinese eateries, while the laneways off Little Bourke Street are home to maybe a thousand more. That could be a slight exaggeration, but when you're standing in the middle of Little Bourke Street at lunchtime on a Friday, that's how it seems.

T. was in a Yum Cha kind of mood, so we joined the throngs at Dragon Boat, perhaps Melbourne's most popular Yum Cha restaurant.

Yum Cha is great because you can start eating milliseconds after you are seated, if not before. (We had to walk past the broccoli station where the broccoli chef - yes, there is a broccoli chef - prepares magnificent bundles of broccoli stalks glistening - in their special secret sauce - an almost irridescent green. Note to self: stop using so many parentheses.)

Tea comes first, we drank maybe 85 cups during the meal. It helps the digestion. And the powers of exaggeration.

The first trolley rolled past, pushed by a softly-spoken, smiling Asian girl. Sticky rice? Yes, please. Sticky rice encrusted around chinese sausage and all wrapped up in vine leaves. Pull it open, inhale the steamy aroma, add a dash of soy sauce, maybe some chilli, and you're in rice heaven, babe.

Next: seafood on beancurd. Delicious steamed white fish pieces sitting on slippery, moist beancurd mats. More soy. Try to pick that up with your chopsticks and you're in big trouble. Use the spoon. It's OK. You're allowed to.

Then some of that broccoli.

The place was filling fast. Chattering groups of old Chinese women, smiling and waving to the waiters. Business people power-laughing through their chopsticks. Students. Shoppers. Mothers with prams. Teenagers.

Steamed prawn dumplings were next cab off the rank. Then steamed corn dumplings. There were even peanut dumplings - crushed peanut with an assortment of herbs, coriander etc. You can choose fried dumplings if you wish, but steamed is better.

Who am I to criticise anyone else's chopstick technique? I picked up half a dumpling, the corn one, I think. It was drowning in delicious soy and chili sauce. The stuffing, a little round ball of yumminess, dropped out of the skin, bounced off the white linen tablecloth like a soccer ball and completed a perfect dive into ... one of our shopping bags. Oh, great - soy and chili all down T.'s new white summer top. I reached down and fished it out. Phew. Just missed. You can't take me anywhere.

Oh, look - here come the chickens' feet! My favourite! That's funny, the waitress announced the dish twice. Hmm. Maybe because I'm not Chinese. I can imagine diners, not familiar with all the manifestations of Yum Cha, just saying Yes! Yes! Yes! in orgiastic - or possibly even orgasmic - delight to every trolley that comes along and then passing out in horror or running out of the restaurant at the sight of large, gelatinous, yellow, deep-fried chickens' feet being placed before them. So - 'Yes, thank you, yes, I did hear you, and we will have some of the CHICKENS' FEET thank you!' Or rather, I will have some of the chickens' feet. They were just as I remembered, tasty, slightly sweet, delicately spiced and totally yummy. And, anyway, why waste them?

Then the dessert trolley completed its first triumphant lap of the floor, bearing coconut-encrusted goodies, little tarts with glazed custard and other sweets. Not for me. No way. Couldn't fit in another thing. Maybe another little cup of green tea. It helps the digestion.












2.12.04

New season.

December 1:

Out of the vegetable patch: six cabbages, a dozen large head of broccoli, far too many mustard greens for any normal person to eat, a few heads of garlic, some cute little onions, several bunches of silver beet, a bunch of russian kale and more broadbeans. And a lot of weeds. It was the wettest spring for years.

Into the vegetable patch: tomatoes, basil, pumpkins, cucumbers, zucchini. Mulch. Cow manure. Compost.

Happy summer to all. (If you're lucky enough to be in the right hemisphere.)