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

30.12.05

Heatwave.

If Port Phillip Bay is a clockface, Melbourne lies, smug, maybe even complacent, at twelve o'clock. The suburbs extend to maybe four o'clock and then the vineyards and ti-tree of the Mornington Peninsula begins.

Sometimes I take the road around the coast instead of the inland freeway. It's prettier. After Dromana, it edges past a cliff that reaches right down to the water and sometimes sheds rock. Houses cling impossibly to the cliff, picture windows the size of cinema screens staring vacantly at the stupendous view, the vast blue that sometimes turns grey, sometimes silver. Now we're at six o'clock on the big clockface, where the peninsula narrows to a few kilometres in width, the bay on the inner side and the roaring angry ocean on the other.

Here for a few days, up on the hill in the little beach house with the aganpanthuses grinning stupidly in the sunshine and the ti-tree creaking in the heat.

It's heading towards forty degrees.

*

Christmas was the usual amiable muddle, with siblings and cousins and second cousins and friends and other relations coming and going all day. Somewhere in the middle of the day there was a gargantuan meal that came out of nowhere and went back into nowhere after a few hours. All right, I'll try and remember what there was.

Nephew had pork and beef spinning away merrily on a spit in the back yard by 11 o'clock. By eleven thirty, things were coming along far too quickly. There were too many coals, the spit overheated, the electric motor melted and the pork and beef stopped spinning. After shovelling out half the coals and turning the pit manually for the next hour, nephew turned out the most magnificent pork and beef we've ever had, seared on the outside and pink on the inside.

He also baked fish and potatoes and pumpkin. A niece made a salad involving prawns and fetta amongst other things - magnificent. Mum made a warm salad of chickpeas and spices that she found in a book about the food of the ancient Egyptians. I stole this recipe for Goan Prawn Balchao from deccanheffalump. It was fantastic. Thanks, deccanheffalump. You can use mild chillis if you don't want to blow your guests heads off. I used mild chillis.

Later there was shortbread (T.'s - her mother's genuine Scottish recipe) and a stunning Sicilian festive cake containing pine nuts and dried fruit. And more besides.

*

So, William's first Christmas Day, spent with his cousins Amali and Darcy. They gurgled and slept and awoke in turns through the commotion. Three new little people, barely aware of the world around them and all it holds.

It hasn't been plain sailing for everyone in 2005. A sister's marriage collapsed, her daughter has been sick all year, two nieces separated from their partners, a nephew's business crashed and another sister's country lifestyle faltered and she moved back closer to town. It might have been the lack of running water and power but then again maybe she just missed us. Meanwhile, a brother and his partner are struggling through the latter stages of an immensely frustrating and so far unsuccessful IVF program - while all around them everyone is having babies.

But for one day, everyone was smiles and laughter and all was right with the world.

I guess that's the spirit of Christmas. May it live forever.

And Happy New Year to you all.

29.12.05

The painting.

My friend had an exhibition. Said he wanted to clear his artroom, which is probably his loungeroom.

Darren lives on his own because he doesn't like people. He likes painting and surfing. He is probably one of the nicest people I know, in that paradoxical manner of the likeable curmudgeon.

So he had the exhibition and I went along to the opening and most of the paintings sold. Everyone seemed to think they were underpriced. 'I just wanted to get rid of them,' he said, viciously, as if he knew each painting too well, like a nasty aunt.

They are idiosyncratic and strange and modernistic and populated by odd stretched-out people in vast land- and seascapes. I bought one that was blue. I planned to put it in the beachhouse, in the room where we sleep, the room that catches the roar and howl of the ocean at night when the wind is up.

Each painting had an anecdote attached, typed out on a piece of paper. The anecdote on my painting was about surfing. Darren surfs all over the world, obsessively. All over Australia, naturally; and every year he goes to New Zealand and a couple of months ago he was somewhere in the US.

The anecdote on my painting was how he once wiped out badly somewhere while on a surfing trip, so badly that it nearly killed him. The painting is all blue and white swirls with a thin black figure circling and pointing down, as if to his doom. Well, the painting looks better than I describe.

- Where did this happen? I ask.

He tells me. It rings a bell.

- Where is that exactly? I ask.

He tells me. Oh my God. Out of all the surf beaches in the world, all the hundreds of beaches and coves and secret places that obsessed surfers know, I had, without knowing, chosen a painting of the exact cove from which that fearsome howl gets up on wild nights, making its way into my open window at midnight.

Now, when the surf roars at night, I look at the blue swirls on my wall, lit palely by the moonlight which creeps in the open window, and it is like the painting has come home.

21.12.05

Chicken and corn on udon noodles.

Lesley emailed me this recipe - perfect comfort food at a time like Christmas when there's far too many parties and far too much heavy food - particularly in our climate (it's 34 degrees and humid outside right now).

Simmer some chicken pieces in a litre of water. Throw in a packet of chicken noodle soup, a can of creamed corn or corn kernels, some sliced mushrooms and broccoli and whatever else you have in the fridge. Cook until the chicken's done. Pile some snow peas and udon noodles in a bowl and spoon the soup over them.

Yum. Thanks Lesley.

19.12.05

The Shortbread Dilemma.

Every year old Mrs Hartney makes shortbread for mum. She's been doing this for years, it's a Christmas tradition. She brings it around in a tin. (Mum looked after her children during the school holidays in the late '60s as Mrs H. had to work - our backyard was always full of kids, us and other peoples' - and Mrs H. has remained eternally grateful.)

So Mrs H. rocks up with the shortbread, only to find mum not home. She doesn't leave it on the doorstep or near the back door or under the potplant, she takes it to a neighbour, Mrs Snaith, who lives two doors away. Mrs Snaith is also not at home, but Mr Snaith is.

So Mrs Hartney leaves the shortbread with Mr Snaith with strict instructions to look out for mum and drop it in when they can see she is at home. Only problem is, Mr Snaith has Alzheimer's Disease. Maybe Mrs H. doesn't notice. Maybe Mrs H. is heading that way as well.

Then, later that evening, Mrs H. rings mum and she's like, Did you get the shortbread?

And mum's like, No. Was I supposed to?

- Yes you were supposed to. I left it with Mrs S. but she wasn't home so I left it with Mr S.

Mum twigs.

- Just go down and they'll give it to you, trills old Mrs H.

Mum, of course, knows that Mr S. could have done anything with the shortbread - fed it to the dog, flushed it down the loo, placed it in the linen closet or on the garage roof or posted it to Africa, for that matter. Or simply eaten it. Or just left it right there on the kitchen table. At best, Mrs S. will simply think one of the neighbours has dropped in a welcome gift.

So there's no way mum is going to knock on Mrs Snaith's door, walk in and say, Hello and Merry Christmas and By the way, that delicious-looking shortbread on the table is mine!

Which raises another problem. Mum is the most punctilious of people and could not bear not to return Mrs Hartney's shortbread tin, as she does every year.

How and on what grounds does she retrieve it? (Presuming it hasn't been posted to Africa!)

16.12.05

Leftovers.

Is this weird or does everyone do it?

We swap leftovers.

Mum had a large piece of corned beef that she couldn't use. She had someone coming for dinner, I don't know, an aged aunt or someone, and bought a piece of corned beef the size of two footballs.

So they have their corned beef dinner and mum hardly eats any meat anyway and the aged aunt or whoever it was has a bird-like appetite and eats probably two slices of corned beef sliced so thinly you can see the roses on the plate pattern (Grindley, England, 1927) and so there's a corned beef left over in the fridge and when we visit mum says, 'There's a corned beef in the fridge for you.' Just like that.

*

I boiled up some peeled, quartered potatoes with a carrot and dropped a few cloves and some peppercorns into the pot along with a bay leaf (because there was a sprig of them there, drying on the wall). After the vegetables had boiled for a while I added some chopped cabbage. Savoy.

Then I sliced some the corned beef - thickly - and lay the slices in the steamer which I placed over the boiling potatoes.

Now for the best part - the mustard.

I make it the way my father used to make it. A little Keen's mustard powder in an eggcup, add some water, mix it, add some more powder because there was too much water, add some water because it dried out again, continue trying to balance the water and the mustard powder until you've got WAY too much mustard for one meal and after you have your dinner the eggcup will go into the fridge and two weeks later you will take it out again and the mustard will be rock hard and impossible to remove. That's exactly how dad did it, bless his heart in heaven. Every time.

*

All right, the corned beef's ready and the vegetables are done. Drain the vegetables and arrange them around the beef on plates. And watch that mustard. It's powerful stuff.

*

Later: ring, ring.

- Hello?

- I've made too much lasagne. Can you use it?

15.12.05

Cans.

Half a can of red kidney beans and half a can of corn kernels sat on the middle shelf in the fridge along with not much else. Half a forlorn avocado, the glass jar we use to make dressings in, an almost empty and probably flat bottle of tonic water, some tired celery and a sad, soft carrot in the crisper.

We've been busy and it's nearly Christmas and it's hot and we need to go shopping and the dog's arthritis has flared again and she needs to go to the vet to get some more Rimadyl and maybe we'll go shopping tomorrow. And maybe we won't. Maybe we'll just order takeaway until January. Or February.

Imagine: crisp, delicious fish and chips all wrapped up in paper one night, followed by spicy Turkish adana kebab the next; maybe pizza on the third night - fragrant with melting cheese and salty anchovies and tart tomato and fresh herbs - then some spanakopita and cakes from the Greek shop; roast chicken and some baked potatoes from that chicken shop on the corner that always smells GREAT; some extra-hot curry from Desi Needs and then some sushi from the Japanese place. Then start all over again. I could rename my blog What I Took Home Last Night ...

Where was I?

Looking at a can of beans in the fridge. Dreaming.

OK:

Half a can of red kidney beans and half a can of corn into a pot. Add to that a can of diced tomatoes and a can of tuna with chili (just because that's what was in the pantry - it could be tuna with anything. Or nothing).

Chop into this an onion and the left-over half an avocado that was in the fridge.

Let it all simmer for a while you make a flat gin and tonic with the rest of the tonic water. Then wander over to the pantry to see what there is to go with the simmering sauce. Hmm, couscous. That'll do. Easy and quick.

Cook the couscous, sauce over the top.

T. grated cheese over the top of hers. I left mine plain.

It was nice.

14.12.05

Royal flush.

When we moved house recently, Queen Elizabeth came with us. I drove her down in the back of the Volvo, not exactly a limousine but comfortable and spacious enough.

She had lived in a pot at the old house, with a sunny northerly aspect that seemed to suit her just fine.

But here at the new house, there was a gap in one of the garden beds - a gap that catches the afternoon sun - and I thought of the Queen straight away.

You have to be careful when transplanting roses, of course. Some say you need to prepare the hole months in advance. This hole was prepared a few minutes in advance, by throwing in some Black Gold branded compost (they swear it by at the nursery) and building up a little throne of earth in the middle for her to sit upon.

Then I lifted her gently out of her pot, teased her roots a little and down she went, as gracefully as a crowned monarch can.

Then I tramped on the earth all around her to make sure there were no air pockets, rocked her gently to and fro to make sure she was comfortable and gave her a good watering-in.

Two months later, she is thriving. Today, she is boasting a new flush of beautiful pink flowers and she has vigorous new shoots pointing skywards.

And now there's a nice bunch of pink flowers on the mantlepiece. Thanks, Queen.

13.12.05

Sunday buffet.

Outside, the midday sun glared, but inside the church it was cool and still and dark, just like it always is in churches everywhere. Marble and polished woodwork. Statues and silence. Stained glass and last week's parish flyers on the pews.

William slept through the whole thing. He woke momentarily when the priest poured the water over his head but was asleep again in seconds. Then the oil on the forehead. Then the blessing. Then it was over. William's baptism day.

Then everyone came back to our place for what was a kind of cross between lunch and afternoon tea. And it was a bit of a mixture. All the usual things. Sandwiches of many kinds, T.'s mini sausage rolls, little bowls of this and that, cocktail frankfurts, cakes; and - outside help this time - for the curry lovers, I had ordered some food from my new favourite grocery/deli/caterer, the quaintly named Desi Needs. A huge bowl of channa masala, another of magnificently spicy pepper chicken and a platter of pakoras, probably the best I've tried. With some pickles and chutneys and raita on the side.

There was chilled white wine and gin and tonics and cold beer. There were pots of tea for the tea drinkers and cold fruit juice for the children. Some sat outside on picnic blankets on the lawn, some stayed inside. Others just walked around and made sure everyone had a drink and enough to eat.

Then we had a lemon yogurt cake and champagne and coffee and more tea. And for the children, I got out the tub of vanilla ice-cream, a box of cones and a bowl of 'sprinkles' and they all lined up to be served ice-creams. Kids love that at a party. Canisha had two. Aria took hers around the side of the house and dropped it into the dog's water bowl. So the dog got an ice-cream as well. Aria was given another and did the same thing. She's almost two. You can't tell them anything.

She didn't get a third one, however.

9.12.05

Another one!

One blog. Two years. Three babies.

Now there's number four.

My youngest brother has become a father for the first time. Darcy Rose is an adorable baby with the biggest blue eyes I've ever seen on a newborn. In her white cotton gown she looks like an angel in a Mirka Mora painting.

She was 8lbs something (we've had metrics since 1972 but babies still come in pounds and ounces) and mother and baby are fine.

Darcy becomes my mother's twelfth grandchild, the others of which have produced six great-grandchildren.

Christmas is coming. It's back at Family Central this year. We need the space.

7.12.05

A few days at the beach.

I was out early to get the paper, around seven o'clock. I walked back along the beach and the water was silver glass as the sun rose over Arthur's Seat on a perfect day.

*

After breakfast, we drove along the bay and were in Sorrento in five minutes. Like weekend resort towns the world over, it's a sleepy village during the week. The main street stretches lazily up the hill from the beach, the cypress pines and the ferry terminus.

We parked and unpacked the pram, lay gurgling William in it and set off for a stroll in the cool shade of the shopfront verandahs. The shops had that ten-o'clock-Monday-morning buzz. Not yet busy, just enthusiastic and waiting. A vacuum whirred in the darkness of one and further along, in the doorway of the real estate business, sat the resident staffordshire - Buster - with a giant grin on his face. Can't blame him. He's in real estate.

A little shopping then back to Blairgowrie. Lunch at the cafe, under an umbrella. The bay winking in the sun right across the road. Toasted chicken, avocado, cheese on Flinders rye. Coffee, nutty and sweet. Can we fit in a slice of hummingbird cake the size of a small launch? I think so.

*

Afternoon - a book and a deckchair in the garden. Butterflies rolled around each other in the hot air, occasionally lighting on the lawn or a flower.

*

Dinner started out as a warm potato salad and became something else along the way. To six delicious pink potatoes cubed, boiled and drained, I added a can of fat yellow chickpeas, a whole finely-chopped onion, a finely chopped clove of garlic, a can of flaked tuna, a shower of chopped parsley, a dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, a squirt of vinegar and a blob of mayonnaise. Plenty of pepper and not too much salt. I suppose it was still a potato salad but it was moving stealthily into nicoise territory. You can't control these things.

There was enough left over for lunch.

1.12.05

One-sentence dinner.

Zucchini are coming in so I picked up some small pale green ones, about two inches in length, from the market and stewed them whole with some chopped onion, canned crushed tomatoes, a small amount of stock, a handful of rice and more herbs from the garden; and when they were done, I sprinkled them with sumac and served them with warm turkish bread and pickled turnips with tahini on the side.