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

31.7.05

Now I know what my mother-in-law was talking about.

The bext biscuits in existence are these, even though they are called cakes.

My mother-in-law has been going on for years about oatcakes. The Scots have them with breakfast, lunch and dinner, she said. They are a staple in certain parts of Caledonia, she said. They are delicious, she said.

She was right.

It's just that the name - 'oatcakes' - makes them sound like bircher muesli or wholemeal scones or hunza pie or similar horrors (I actually quite like bircher muesli).

But oatcakes are not like that at all!

Try this recipe for the perfect Scottish supper for two anywhere in the world (it helps if it is winter):

Go for a walk along the wild ocean coast, after an early dinner, when the sky is just a strip of fading gold beneath a massive black cloud merging into the darkening sky, like a blind drawn down to within an inch of the window in a lit room.

Return with an appetite.

Lay six oatcakes on a plate. Drape two with smoked atlantic salmon. Spread two with cream cheese. Pate or liverwurst on the last two. Now, pour a single malt or fine blended Scotch into two wide glasses. Place them, and the oatcake platter, on the little table in between your favourite chairs in front of an open fire.

Enjoy the quiet, unhurried moment.

Then:

Oh, is that the baby crying?

No, you stay there, I'll get him.

Baby comes out, wide awake, face glowing in the reflection of the fire.

He wants his supper, too.

30.7.05

The beach in winter.

William's first little holiday - three days at the beach.

*

Drove down mid-morning on a perfect winter's day, sun shining, no wind.

Then, first things first: lunch at the Blairgowrie cafe where its sun-drenched north facing window overlooks the sparkling blue water of Port Phillip Bay.

William managed to fend off the many admiring glances with the jerky wave of a little clenched fist and slept on as we ate - 'big' toasted sandwiches on Flinders bread: chicken, avocado, cheese and mayonnaise; coffee, of course; and then, How about some of that sticky date pudding I see over there in the cake display case? It is served in a wedge practically the size of a sailing boat, toffee sauce sloshing over the edge and onto the plate like a giant frozen wave. Creme fraiche. Strawberry.

*

In the evening, William kicked happily in his pram, refusing to go to sleep; while we enjoyed a rich beef stew with sweet potato and carrot (floured, seasoned beef sealed in oil; onions, sweet potato, carrot and garlic sweated in pot; add beef back to pot; add red wine and stock; cook. Serve with mashed potatoes and mushy peas all sprinkled with parsley.)

Sipping our wine, we figured William out: he's living in a different timezone. Maybe we should move there!

26.7.05

Number Six.

William's first family 'party' was my brother's fortieth birthday lunch a week or so ago.

He met all his cousins and aunts and uncles and nieces. Yes, nieces.

My brother and his wife had cooked up a storm based around their magnificent obsession - the food of the subcontinent. There were curries of all kinds in wonderful combinations including a delicious okra and potato one. We crunched on pappadums. Everything was mild and chilli was available to add if required, along with yogurt, spicy chutneys, delicious pickles (lime, mango, lemon etc) and some crunchy salads. There a massive bowl of basmati rice, cooked with saffron and then flecked through with toasted coconut, coriander and all manner of exotic spices.

*

My brother's other obsession is Super 8 film-making, a skill he learnt from my father who chronicled our 1960s childhoods on little reels of flickering yellow celluloid. My brother started making science fiction films on Super 8 as an early teenager. The back shed was always full of painted sets and massive polystyrene space stations. He even managed to film a few explosions without blowing up the neighbourhood. Or even the house. These days, he quietly walks around filming family functions - no zooms, no pans, no tracking shots, no fancy work; he just lets the scene talk. Or not.

*

After dessert - a massive decorated cake - it was showtime.

My brother had digitised forty years of Super 8s and edited highlights of his life into a film entitled Forty Years of Me, complete with a period-style jazz track and subtitles such as Why was I always wearing dresses? Sure enough, there he was, a chubby three-year-old in 1968, dancing around the backyard wearing dress-ups with a beach bucket on his head. In twenty short minutes little bro' grew up before our eyes and finally it was his wedding day and the film ended with a freeze frame of him kissing his wife. Then the credits rolled, and the last line brought the house down: 'Thanks to mum and dad for being catholic and not stopping at five.'

My brother was No. 6.

24.7.05

Chicken.

Sometimes you just feel like roast chicken.

I used to do a roast chicken with basil and currant stuffing - delicious - but one night last week I just couldn't be bothered so I went out and picked one up from Red Rooster, having prepared sides (halved and then finely sliced potatoes done in the oven with chicken stock and milk - what is that called - hasselback? anna? dauphinoise? - not sure); corn (from a can, but still delicious) and a pot of Gravox (traditional, none of your modern 'flavoured' versions, thanks).

Mmmm, roast chicken, roast potatoes, corn and gravy.

And cold chicken leftovers for sandwiches next day.

Doesn't get much better.

21.7.05

Mid-winter. Oxtail stew.

We are well past the winter solstice and, although I have noticed the evenings are light for just that little bit longer, it still feels like we are just getting into the depths of winter.

*

Not that winter is especially harsh in these parts. Right now, I'm on the 27th floor of a building on Bourke Street, gazing down over this beautiful Victorian city of the South, sparkling in the bright early afternoon sunshine like your grandmother's ornate diamond ring. To the north, the Great Dividing Range rolls lazily around Melbourne, a rim of hazy blue, shaking hands with the blue Dandenongs to the east. Swivel around to the south and there is Port Phillip Bay, azure today, and as flat as a fresh sheet of A4.

*

Early this morning, a rare winter northerly bit my face as I walked out in the early light, Goldie, the elderly Brittany, by my side. The northerly, tending slightly east, blows straight off the Australian Alps. It's a sharp, tingling, energising cold; not the the bone-numbing misery that blows from the south off Bass Strait, Southern Ocean, maybe Antarctica.

Goldie, 13, is on arthritis medication but runs like a new pup when off the leash. My last Brittany - Monty - lasted until a day before his fourteenth birthday and was exuberant until perhaps the last two months. They are brilliant dogs but they must have plenty of exercise.

*

It's been a week of shortcuts, leftovers and soups from the freezer (what did we do before freezers?) but I picked up some nice oxtail from that great butcher in Lygon Street (near Ti Amo) and created this nice winter stew, an old favourite from childhood.

Oxtail stew.

Toss your oxtail segments - I used about six or seven - in seasoned flour (use a plastic bag, it's easier) and seal them in some dripping (I'm doing this the old-fashioned way) in a large heavy-based pot. Remove.

To the pot, add a large chopped onion, two diced carrots, two finely chopped sticks of celery and a scored clove of garlic. Sweat these for five minutes or so and then slosh in a cup of red wine.

Add a generous dessertspoonful of tomato paste and a large can of chopped tomatoes or a jar of passata. Return oxtail to pot and cover with water or stock. That's basically it but you can go wild with other ingredients. I added a can of borlotti beans and some chopped red capsicum.

Let it simmer away for a couple of hours while you consider what you would like to eat with it. It's probably best with mashed potatoes, but I made some instant polenta and cooked some silverbeet in olive oil and garlic.

Don't forget to sprinkle lots of parsley over the top. It's good for you.

Next day.

After you have enjoyed your mid-winter oxtail stew, you will be left with a magnificent gravy or sauce that makes a brilliant ragu. Add a can of chopped tomatoes and throw in some frozen peas, reduce it a little and serve with pasta - especially good with rigatoni and home-made gnocchi. And some nice crusty bread to clean the plate.

18.7.05

What I cooked FAST last night.

These days, I'm looking for shortcuts.

Which is good. It's a perfect fit with my inner laziness.

Here's a good shortcut I invented the other night, unless someone else invented it before me.

Creamy lentils.

Take a can of lentils and boil them in their juice. Drain, add two tablespoons of baba ghannouge, a dash of olive oil and a squirt of lemon juice and fold through to a creamy consistency.

That's it. I served it with chicken breast fillets cooked with garlic and a sprinkling of sumac. Nice. And a simple tomato, lettuce and onion salad on the side.

*

I used Chtaura baba ghannouge - it's available in many of the delis and groceries along Sydney Road. It has a nice, smoky flavour and a genuine home-cooked texture, unlike some commercial baba ghannouges (babas ghannouge?) that look like this and possibly taste like it as well, although I can't be sure, I've never tasted the latter.

15.7.05

Forty.

I can't believe my brother is turning forty.

I used to read to him when he was four. I must have been eleven or twelve. The book I read most to him, probably a couple of hundred times, was A Fish Out of Water - he used to get very excited as Otto the fish grew bigger and bigger.

Four! Now he's rising forty.

He loves cooking and makes technically perfect dishes including his speciality, curries. So I bought him one of these, I guess you can't have too many casseroles, especially Denby.

The lunch party is on Sunday. It will be William's first family outing.

13.7.05

Look! A food survey! (Sorry - a meme.)

I love surveys and questionnaires, I can't resist them.

Sara has invited me to answer the following questions. Apparently this is known as being 'tagged' with a 'meme'.

So here are my answers. Hope this not too self-indulgent.

What is your first memory of cooking on your own?

Four years old. My older brother and sisters are at school and I have to amuse myself. At the end of the garden, behind the garage, is a circular concrete drainage outlet - a 'gully trap' - with a raised lip and a grille at the bottom. This is my stove. I fill it with timber offcuts from my father's workshop, take a battered pot from mum's kitchen, fill the pot with water, add some fallen camellia flowers and 'cook' them on my makeshift stove.

Who had the most influence on your cooking?

Mother - she turned out millions of perfect home-cooked dishes over fifty years (still does) and critiqued every one of them. "It's a bit burned!" (about perfect lasagne), "I just threw this together!" (about some elaborate stew), "They're like rocks!" (about her scones), "It's not gourmet, it's just ordinary food ..." (about some magnificent meal that everyone has thoroughly enjoyed). She's the most self-deprecating cook ever. She doesn't believe she has ever cooked anything that was any good, despite our reassurances.

Do you have an old photo as evidence of an early exposure to the culinary world?

My brother and I had a banana eating competition when I was about ten. He won, downing 14. I only managed 12. No, wait, that's not culinary, that's gluttony.

Somewhere there's an old photo of me picking mint and radishes from Dad's vegetable garden when I was about five. Mint for the Sunday lamb roast; radishes for the salad (lettuce, celery, quartered tomato, halved hard-boiled egg, scored radishes and cubed Kraft cheese).

'Mageirocophobia' - do you suffer from any cooking phobia?

No, but I will probably never make head cheese although I would quite happily eat it. There's a great deli near me that stocks it, otherwise known as 'brawn'. Lovely in sandwiches with pickle.

What are your most valued or used kitchen gadgets or what was the biggest letdown?

Just last year, I threw out my worn-out egg slide after owning it for probably twenty or more years. It was split laterally across the slide section and wobbled horribly when I flipped something, but I just kept using it. (I used to wonder why, when I pay $50 twice a week to fuel my car, I held onto a $7.50 broken egg slide for that long.)

Letdown: any product - every product - with a sticker on it that reads: 'As Seen on TV.'

Name some funny or weird food combinations or dishes you really like, at which others turn up their noses.

Brains - Lebanese style with lemon, garlic and olive oil at Lebanese House in Russell Street.

Tripe - in soup at Mekong Vietnamese cafe in Swanston Street (sign in window: Bill Clinton had two bowls, how many will YOU have?)

Toasted cheese and vegemite sandwich - at home.

All three totally delicious.

What are three edibles or dishes your simply don't want to live without?

What! Only THREE???? That's impossible.

Your favorite ice cream?

Two favourite ice-creams.

To the Sunday roast lunch mentioned above, my grandfather always brought a 'brick' of Peter's triple-flavoured Neapolitan ice-cream, packaged in waxed cardboard in those far-off pre-plastic days. Of the three flavours, I liked the chocolate. As kids, we would do trades with each other - 'I'll swap some strawberry for your chocolate!'

My other favourite ice-cream: Streets Creme-B-Tween which I licked around the edges until just two wet wafers were left. (Summer of 1967, Essendon Baths, mercury thermometer nudging 100 fahrenheit, loudspeaker booming out All You Need is Love. I was 9. All I needed was ice-cream.)

You will definitely never eat:

Whale. Or savoury muffins. That's just wrong. Muffins should always be sweet.

Your own signature dish:

Ribbon pasta with: cubed chicken breast poached in white wine, asparagus, peas, red capsicum and mushrooms; all bound up with home-made pesto. Unbeatable.

*

And now, in the manner of 'meme-tagging', I understand that the correct protocol is for me to invite three others to answer the above questions; varying, ignoring or adding questions as they wish. For this purpose, I have chosen three people whose blogs are not primarily focussed upon food.

They are: Filegirl, Janis Gore and Kimbofo.

10.7.05

The kitchen drawer.

Babies change your life. For example, you need a lot more room. For baby stuff. And these days, there is a lot more baby stuff around than say, 25 years ago (when my daughter was born). Product development managers in babycare companies specialising in paper products such as wipes for both ends, liners for one end and many other products of various descriptions have excelled themselves in the last quarter century and forests covering at least the equivalent of several medium-sized countries have no doubt paid the price.

So I had to clean out one of the kitchen drawers to make room.

Here's what was in it:

2 large rolls adhesive tape.
1 large roll masking tape.
1 Tala icing syringe - tin - with fittings, made in England circa 1950. In original box. May fetch a good price on eBay.
2 Wiltshire Bar-B-Mates (barbecue all-in-one tools with angles and blades that go every which way and make you look like Edward Scissorhands so naturally I never use them).
1 Wiltshire Bar-B-Tongs.
1 Wiltshire firelighter lighter.
1 Wiltshire carving knife - unused in packaging.
1 dozen 15" metal kebab skewers.
1 Bosch gas stove lighter - not working.
1 pack bamboo kebab skewers.
1 wooden spoon.
1 Safeway discount fuel voucher - expired.
1 tea strainer.
1 timber-handled ball-drive rotary whisk - probably antique, eBay again.
1 wok spatula.
2 roast carving forks.
1 manual knife sharpener.
1 local council hard waste collection voucher.
Six batteries, 4 x C, 2 x D.
1 colour photo of Katie, our sponsor shelter donkey (click on Donkey Picture Gallery).
2 double adaptors for power points.
1 bottle opener.
1 Huro manual can opener.
1 rubber spatula.
1 reversible pump-action screwdriver complete with 3 interchangeable bits.
1 regular screwdriver.
2 expired driver's licences, one showing my 1984 photograph, the other 1989.
2 Vev espresso machine metal filters.
1 broken Esteele pan top handle surround (don't buy Esteele, the plastic bits break).
1 telephone socket adaptor.
2 spare wheel compartment retaining clips for Volvo 240 wagon.
1 x 1 metre fold-up ruler.
1 Stanley tape measure.
1 ball garden twine.
1 ADSL filter.
1 parking fine - paid.
1 10-function fold-up pocket knife.
Several plastic forks.
1 Wendy's plastic spoon (I've never been to Wendy's).
1 cactus design wine bottle decorative stopper, probably Alessi, (never used - why would you?).
1 bulldog clip.
3 foot length of cream sheer ribbon - good for wrapping gifts.
Several spare buttons.
A London bus (poignant right now) fridge magnet which my daughter brought home from Great Britain in 1998.
4 permanent markers, 2 ballpoint pens, 2 HB pencils and a red whiteboard marker (I don't have a whiteboard).
1 old toothbrush.
1 old picture-rail hanging hook, circa 1940s.
1 TV antenna attachment.
5 old kitchen knives, mostly worn down.
1 box souvenir matches from Dooralong Valley Resort, NSW.
5 more fridge magnets.
8 sets of 4 small safety pins (salvaged from fun-run numbers).
17 elastic bands and 24 twistie-ties.

That's just one drawer.

Three to go.

8.7.05

Where did that week go?

I don't know.

I do know that William has made himself quite at home and is feeding and sleeping at regular intervals.

He even sleeps for significant portions of the night.

*

Lots of homely food this week. Soups, stews, nothing too spicy. There's plenty of time for that.

An old favourite, an easy mid-winter warmer:

Potato and Leek Soup.

Slice two leeks. Sweat them in a little olive oil in a big pot while you peel and chop five potatoes into cubes. Then add them to the leeks, add a Star chicken stock cube and add water to just below the tops of the potatoes. Cook until vegetables are tender. Puree. Add a cup of full cream milk.

Reheat gently. Serve with a good sprinkling of grated mild cheese - I use Kraft cheddar - this is not dinner party food, it's comfort food. So pile it on.

*

The first song I sang to William was Wee Willie Winkie, of course. He blinked as if to say, What on earth is THAT all about? T. prefers Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. She is cooing it right now.

*

William's first dining out experience was brunch on a sunny morning at Universita Restaurant. OK, he didn't actually sample the menu but he was in attendance, albeit asleep, in his royal blue pram with the white wheels and the gingham quilt trimmed with lace.

2.7.05

Home.



On a golden winter afternoon, to a snug, warm house.

All was quiet as we carried baby William inside.

Then the noise started. No, not the baby - the telephone. The baby was as quiet as a mouse.

I manned the phone while T. settled Wee Willie into his new surroundings. Hope he likes them, we're not re-decorating again.

Above: William at 36 hours of age, taken by eight-year-old Canisha, who is clearly a budding photojournalist.