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

30.1.06

Trifle and deck chairs.

The storm wasn't really trying. The clouds rolled aimlessly around the sky for a while then slid off somewhere else, taking the fading boom-boom-boom of the thunder with them like a blind giant blundering off into the distance.

So bathed in pale gold sunshine we had our barbecue and it was good, especially the lamb steaks marinated in lemon, dried rosemary and garlic. Nicely grilled on the outside, pink and juicy inside.

There was a trifle to finish, T.'s specialty: layers of sponge cake and custard flecked with roughly grated white chocolate and then rich cream over that and a top layer of mixed berries - raspberries, blackberries and strawberries, all spreading their red juiciness down through the cream and almost into the custard. Over all of this delicious yumminess was another very generous shower of grated white chocolate.

*

Earlier in the afternoon, I had walked outside with William to sit for a while in the garden and watch the butterflies. I sat down with him in my arms on a deck chair of tubular steel and what passes for canvas these days and suddenly there was a RRRRRIP! and then there was nothing there and I hit the ground hard. The fabric had ripped clear across - weather-worn, evidently, but not noticeably - and my legs and back scissored together and I folded up like a waiter's corkscrew and went straight through the metal frame grazing every vertebral bump in my backbone on the way through. I couldn't break the fall with my arms because I was holding William. I just instinctively held him up with my hands under his little armpits as I collapsed beneath him.

Lesson: IT ISN'T CANVAS! It's a cheap imitation and it will eventually give way even though it still looks fine. The chair has a pair and I tested it by giving it a good downwards shove with both hands. Sure enough, it gave way. Now they're both in the trash. Check your deck chairs. And don't buy the $19.95 ones from Bunnings.

*

Coincidentally (or possibly ironically) I had only last week examined a pair of genuine ship deck lounges, made in Italy and used on cruise ships in the sixties, for sale in a garden shop. White-painted hardwood frames that looked like they would survive a shipwreck and bob all the way to shore, heavy duty canvas that would withstand a gale and neat little overhead adjustable sunshades to shade your pretty head while you lazed about toying with a Campari and wondering what to have for dinner and why the sea is so blue.

I might go back and have a second look. They were $300 each. Worth it?

29.1.06

Thunder.

Rolling thunder has been creaking around the sky like a clapped out lorry for three days but rain? - no. A few insolent spots then more humidity and more heat.

Now I'm firing up the barbecue and the thunder's getting louder.

A couple of friends are coming over and here's what we'll eat outside if it doesn't rain:

Swordfish kebabs with lime.

Chicken steaks three ways - soy and ginger, chile and tomato and basil and lemon juice.

Calamari with lemon, garlic and some oregano from the garden that has been drying in the kitchen.

Some salads. Bread. Trifle. White wine. Beer.

We'll eat inside if it rains.

28.1.06

A bit dusty up Birdsville way.

Nothing a spot of hoovering and a wipe over with Mr Sheen and a duster won't fix.

Report here.

Full picture here.

I watched this one roll into Melbourne 23 years ago. I was standing on St Kilda Road approximately one kilometre to the left of the white Arts Centre spire. I went home with the cuffs of my trousers full of red dust. Cuffs were in fashion then.

27.1.06

A town in the middle of nowhere.

Most of Victoria is parched and baking in the heat. Some parts are already on fire.

The road out of Melbourne is a strip of molten licorice. Off to each side, everything is yellow. Not wheatfield yellow or canary yellow but faded dust yellow. Here and there, clumps of straggly eucalypts; occasionally a line of old broken pine trees.

The road follows long low rises and shallow falls. It's like driving across a series of saucers. Top a rise and you can see cars far ahead crawling up the next rise like hot bothered scarab beetles.

Then the yellow turns to dirty olive scrub and stark hills with their sides gouged bare. The farmlets and occasional shacks turn to broken lines of houses, then endless car lots, dusty motels, caravan parks and eventually shopping malls. One of the few cities not built on or near a natural water supply, Bendigo was built over the goldfields. But you can't drink gold. The city is a gaudy, ostentatious and faded Victorian where fortunes were made and lost in the 1860s. The Sacred Heart Cathedral dominates the entry into the city, sitting high and proud, way up on the hill, well out of the tawdriness and the golddust.

The road out the other side of Bendigo is lined with yet more car lots. Dozens of them. There must be more cars for sale in Bendigo than there are people. Soon the city is a just a smudge in the rear vision mirror and now we're off the main highway, riding a B road and heading towards river country. Now the soil is red and the vegetation is the scrub of the desert. Signs warn of kangaroos: they're always bounding across the road and getting hit by cars.

Another couple of hours of this and then a right hand turn and another twenty minutes and a left. Then, shimmering in the distance and the heat, is a wheat silo and a water tower and a couple of church spires. That's our town.

Every small town like this has a general store on the main street under a vast verandah with a dog tied up out the front, a screen door that bangs behind you when you go in and is cooler than any airconditioned building even though it has no airconditioning.

The main street is wide enough to turn a camel train. I idled the car along it and then turned left around a corner, pressed along a block or two past timber houses with cool verandahs on every side and striped awnings at the front and pulled in at the curving driveway of a white house with a grapevine looping and arching all over the front verandah making beautiful, cool shade underneath.

We had barely rolled to a stop before T.'s mother had emerged from the front door under the grapevine and had William out of the car and in her arms. She kissed him and cooed at him and he gave his best smile and gurgled.

We're here for a few days. It will be nice.

Stay cool, everyone. Or warm, if it's cold where you are.

23.1.06

78-year-old woman bitten by deadly snake in lounge room while knitting and watching tennis; moves to another couch.

It's so hot, even the snakes can't stay outdoors.

The great-grandmother was bitten right there in her own lounge room by a deadly 1.5 metre brown snake. No dramas. She just moved to another couch. Her daughter tells the story:

"She got up and switched couches. She said 'I'm not sitting there with the snake underneath me'."

Plus she didn't want to miss a minute of the tennis, of course. Or drop any stitches in her knitting. Check the crisp, economical dialogue at the height of the crisis:

"She said 'Jan'. I said, 'Yes mum'. She said, 'I've been bit by a snake'. ... I said, 'Yeah mum, no worries'."

Then, a couple of twists:

The snake is believed to have been in the house since at least Saturday night.

She knew the snake was there and just went right on watching tennis and knitting? Plus:

Ms Milinkovic said the house had been locked overnight.

The snake BROKE IN!

There is a picture in the print edition of the ranger releasing the snake back along the river (it's illegal to kill them).

Do snakes remember?

22.1.06

Smoke.

It's late in the day and still hot. Forty degrees hot.

*

Early in the morning, about seven o'clock when the air was still relatively cool, probably 26 degrees, we slipped out of the house and walked through the ti-tree lined avenues. Not many people about. An elderly lady was walking away from the shops carrying a bag of groceries in each hand. A Labrador was walking beside her, holding his leash in his jaw, just to help. She didn't have a free hand and he knew. I love the way they know.

*

Early breakfast at the Blairgowrie cafe. Scrambled eggs. Toast. Coffee. Then across to the beach for a dip before the sun got too far up the sky. Other people had the same idea and children were running into the water, still warm from yesterday's heat. William loves the water, loves the sand, loves the seagulls. Home by ten thirty. Into the cool house.

*

About three in the afternoon the heat was intense and thick. I was lurking in a corner of the garden on a lounge, trying to read a book and reading the same sentence over and over. Then I put the book down and saw a butterfly struggling in a spider web in a dark corner of tangled ti-tree and ivy. I took it off gently and it wobbled off into the hot air. They only live, what? twenty-four hours? a week? Why let a spider shorten it. There are plenty of flies around.

I fell asleep for what seemed minutes and when I opened my eyes the sky was gold like sundown. It was only minutes and it wasn't sundown. Smoke had plumed and billowed up from a bushfire across the bay and followed the north-westerly down our way and covered the sun and made everything pink orange gold with a black menacing undertone.

There's a cool change due this evening. Good. But it will be accompanied by strong winds that could fan the bushfires. Bad. We'll see.

*

Ignore the dateline. It's late Sunday here. My dateline is still fixed to the default time for Blogger which could be Mars Eastern Standard Time for all I know.

21.1.06

Saturday night.

Forty degrees at five p. m. Too hot to cook. But I did.

One pan. Egg noodles, cooked for seven minutes.

Another pan. Broccoli, green beans, snow peas. Cooked until done.

Another pan. White wine, black pepper, garlic and a touch of cream. Into that, sliced mushrooms and a whole sliced avocado.

Now. Green vegetables over the egg noodles. Mushrooms and avocado cream sauce over the vegetables.

Too many pans. But it tastes good. With a very cold beer.

And tomorrow will be 43 degrees.

19.1.06

Old crockery.

If you were in Bourke Street about half past eleven in the morning, and you hadn't had coffee (what have you been doing all morning?), why wouldn't you stroll up the hill, past the cinemas, past the Southern Cross redevelopment that is taking forever, past the Hill of Content bookshop, past the magnificent and expensive Florentino and past the magnificent and inexpensive Florentino Grill to the little cafe bar on the corner with the red and green flashing neon light that reads: Open 8 a.m. ? Well, of course, you would.

As we did.

We sat up at the bar at the window end of Pellegrini's where the counter curves right around the coffee machine - the one that has probably made more cups of coffee than any other machine in Melbourne - and parked William, in his pram, so that he could look out through the glass into Bourke Street.

In the fifties and sixties, my father sold crockery to Pellegrini's and Melbourne's other grand old cafes and restaurants - the Latin, the Society, Mario's, Virgona's, and here, you can eat off some of the originals.

The food is similarly dated. But it's magnificent. Steaming bowls piled high with pastas that are barely remembered in more contemporary places. Who serves spaghetti saltati any more?

You order to the guy behind the bar and he relays the order to the kitchen at the rear by speaking into a little bakelite radio unit - probably original - at the bar near the coffee machine. He shouts the order at the top of his voice. Why does he need the radio? I don't know. Sometimes the cook shouts back, not using her radio. He hears her fine.

We shared a minestrone and the aforementioned spaghetti saltati. Both were accompanied with a doorstop of crusty, delicious, chewy Italian bread. Perfect for dipping in the soup and wiping up the sauce of the pasta. Which we did. Because it's that kind of place. The spaghetti saltati serving was big enough to feed a starving tiger, if tigers ate pasta.

On a sideboard behind the bar, there's a spread of Italian home-style salads and antipasto things and, behind that, a shelf of cakes, baked apple cakes, creme caramels, chocolate this and that.

Ah, but the coffee. In the morning you can just order a cheese roll and it's fat and buttered and stuffed with several slices of delicious fresh cheese, sometimes a provolone dolce if you're lucky. The guy shouts into the radio panino formaggio and the cook from the kitchen brings it out and she slams it - nicely - on the counter in front of you and the bar guy slams down your coffee - nicely - next to it and it's the best breakfast you've eaten for a long while.

*

Oh - then we went shopping.

15.1.06

Hey, pesto.

The heat took its toll on the garden and several shrubs that went in perhaps too late into spring were scorched. Even the tomatoes suffered. The sage appeared to be gone but is coming back. The crepe myrtle gets summer shade and will be fine. Queen Elizabeth was severly scorched but I cut her back and she'll take off again. I hope.

The basil? The basil seemed to enjoy the heat and is going like wildfire. I picked bunches and bunches of it. So it's pesto time of year again.

Linguine with vegetables and three-greens pesto.

Three greens because I threw in some dandelions and a couple of silverbeet leaves. Along with the basil, loads of it.

The food processor swallowed it all up busily with the help of several glugs of olive oil, half a dozen large garlic cloves, half a small block of grated parmesan and of course, pinenuts. Bzzzt. Bzzzzt. Bzzzt. And an extra long bzzz-zzz-zzz-zzzt at the end just to get it really fine and green and oily and delicious.

I boiled the pasta and in another pot, some cubed sweet potato, pumpkin, potato and then zucchini in at the end, just to soften.

Drain, toss the vegetables through plenty of pesto and serve on the pasta with more grated cheese. And some more leaves of basil. Just to use them up.

13.1.06

The other bay.

The beach house is at the pointy end of the peninsula with a tame bay on one side and a wild ocean on the other.

Further up the peninsula, at the fat end, on the ocean side, there's another bay. To get there, you drive up into the hills of the peninsula past houses hanging off the sides of steep slopes like trinkets on a Christmas tree. After a while you reach the top and the slow descent to the other side begins. The road picks its way through rises and valleys laced with vineyards here, orchards there. Occasionally a massive stand of ancient pine trees; windbreaks planted by early farmers. Crest a hill and you'll get a sudden thrill of blue - the crystal clear sea beyond the broken coast. Bass Strait, one of the most violent stretches of water in the world. Looks calm today.

At last everything flattens out and a couple of seaside towns disappear in the rear vision mirror and then you're in the quietest village on the whole peninsula, because you don't go through it to get to anywhere else. It's my family's favourite summer haunt.

*

1959 memory #1: the holiday house had no bath so my mother bathed me in the stream, lowering me backwards. I didn't feel so much frightened as kind of awkward, like rolling backwards downhill in a car that you think has no brakes. I must have been two.

1959 memory #2: on the beach. My mother was all glamourous '50s sunglasses and bikini, reclining like a starlet on a striped beach towel under a tasselled beach umbrella with a jar of sun lotion, a drink and some book or other. Suddenly my sister's head disappeared under the water - just like that - and I shouted. The book flew one way and my mother flew into the water and her sunglasses flew another way and she grabbed my sister and got her up on the beach and first she hugged her and cried and said thank god your brother shouted then she smacked her and scolded her for going too far out in the water. I love the way mothers have mood swings like that. The event lives on in family history as The Day Mum Lost Her Sunglasses in the Sea and Saved My Sister (in that order!).

*

And now it's what, 47 years later and once again we're on that same beach - my mother, my sister, me. Along with my niece and her daughter and T. and William, all taking a long slow stroll on a long slow afternoon.

My sister has taken the house for a fortnight. You can see an arc of bay through the big picture window. It's as hot a day as you could have without the sun showing - the kind of sultry, humid weather that has everyone sitting around and dripping and looking out the window for signs of an offshore breeze. Nothing. The gum trees are shimmering in the heat and that's it. So after lunch - salmon and cheese sandwiches, a simple salad, fruit, nutloaf, coffee, tea - we take a stroll along the beach, a wild refuge of seaweed and driftwood and rockpools. You can see all the way to Cape Schanck and the villages in between are little smudges on the coast, just as they always were.

*

Later, we said goodbye and waved and pointed the car back through the wine country and the orchards and the pines. Then we reached the top of the peninsula overlooking Port Phillip Bay. In the grey haze, a ship was labouring down the bay towards the heads. It seemed to be going slower than they usually do, as if it were trying to cut its way through the humidity as well as the water.

11.1.06

William picks up a clam, Dad cooks calamari.

Down in the shallows again. Another hot day. The tide is out, leaving a little pool of water that is about four inches deep. The water is warm from the day's sun and now it is five in the afternoon.

We sat in the shallows and William slapped the water and then he picked up his very first shell. It was a live clam. This boy is going to enjoy his seafood.

*

Later, in the fish shop. I love fish shops - big boxes of glistening fish, slippery squid, octopus, clams and mussels and oysters and I can never decide. The fish shop down here is doing a roaring trade with the summer crowds. The fish are walking out. So to speak.

This time, I chose the calamari. I never get bored with calamari, I just get bored with the way I cook it.

So I did it a different way.

I cooked it in a pan with a little oil, a chopped clove of garlic, a good splash of soy sauce, a tablespoon of coriander paste (a good alternative to fresh coriander - ours had finished and the market was fresh out), the juice of a lemon and about a third of a cup of water.

It cooks in minutes. Remove calamari to serving plates over a bed of lettuce, and to the fluid remaining in the pan, add two tablespoons of thick cream and half a tablespoon of cummin powder. Reduce this quickly and pour over the calamari.

Delicious. Nice with cold beer.

8.1.06

Goldie.

She was a great old dog, a purebred Brittany.

We gave her an extra five years. I found her, almost accidentally, when thumbing through a week-old newspaper in early 2001. The ad said Brittany. 9 years old. Free to good home. My first Brittany - Monty - which I had had from a pup had died just weeks before. I rang the number. The dog had belonged to a recently deceased elderly gentleman and the family no longer wanted her. They had received no enquiries and she was about to go to the shelter.

So I guess we saved her. It felt right. It was like saying thank you to dogdom for the companionship Monty gave me for 14 years.

Around the same time we started fostering greyhounds. The people at the Greyhound Adoption Program liked placing younger males with us because Goldie would take no nonsense from them. She loved all the greyhounds and they loved her. She used to jump up to their ears and nip them playfully. Then we adopted Billy and the two of them became inseparable.

And now they're inseparable once again.

*

The next bit you wouldn't make up because it is too corny. But because I'm not making it up, here it is:

We have a timber key caddy inside the front door. The caddy has a picture of a greyhound printed on a round aluminium disk inset into the timber above the key hooks.

We arrived home from Goldie's last trip to the vet.

The greyhound picture had detached. It lay face down on the floor.

6.1.06

Seven random letters.

I know it's tiresome but I've installed word verification.

5.1.06

Summer's best pasta dish.

First the intense heat went away and then the rain came and then that went away and another morning dawned on a big blue six-o'clock-in-the-morning sky as fresh and innocent as a day in 1960.

A sea breeze hummed softly to itself all day and picked up a few leaves and dropped them somewhere else.

Mid-morning, we took a stroll through the shady titree-lined streets to the beach. Far out on the water, but not too far out to be heard, half a dozen jet-skis buzzed around in incoherent circles like demented blowflies on a windowsill, except that you couldn't swat them.

Outside the Blairgowrie cafe, people sat under big umbrellas eating late breakfasts - plates variously piled high with doorstop sourdough toast, clouds of eggs, bacon, mushrooms, smoked salmon, halved fried tomatoes, piles of spinach and sometimes all at the same time; while their dogs lolled around in the sun snapping at flies or waiting for tidbits. (We are no longer accompanied by Goldie, she is now too unwell to go for an extended walk.)

William, bonnetted, sat in his pram waving his arms like windmills. Later, a stroll back up to the house, retracing our steps under the ti-tree. Through the early afternoon William had his longest daytime sleep - almost three hours. He had slept fitfully during the recent heat.

A quiet afternoon, then evening.

Pasta with two cheeses and fresh tomatoes.

Nice and easy. Cook your pasta - I used Da Vinci fettucine (don't you just love their logo!) - then slice a couple of very ripe tomatoes and fold them through the pasta along with some very fresh ricotta. Then shave or grate some parmesan over it, drizzle it with olive oil and give it a good shake of salt and pepper and eat.

Add torn basil leaves if you have any.

1.1.06

New Year's Eve. And a salmon recipe.

Yes, it was hot - the hottest New Year's Eve on record.

(I'm posting this on New Year's Day although the dateline says December 31. Maybe I should fix the dateline.)

A cool southerly kept the morning relatively cool and at 10 a.m. the weather bureau revised its forecast top from 42 celsius down to 33. Someone hit the forecast release button seconds too soon - the wind stopped dead in its tracks and the mercury shot up like a fairground hammer bell. Melbourne hit 42.9 at 5.14 p.m. while Horsham cranked out a lazy 46. I wonder what the temperature was on the bitumen into the wheatbelt town?

Down here at the beach, the shallows were rippling gently when we finally panted onto the sand around five in the afternoon. It was simply too hot earlier and we had stayed in the shade of the back garden with cold drinks.

On the beach, William wore nothing but a cute bonnet, pale blue gingham with a lace trim around the face and two tie ribbons under his fat little chin. He laughed at the wavelets. T. and I lay in three inches of warm Port Phillip Bay brine, cradling him as he sat and smacked the water with his dimpled hands, laughing some more as the boiling, angry sun moved a bit further west but not a lot.

Back to the house about seven. We had a simple salad and some chilled wine and William had some pureed peas and potato and got it all over his little hands and all over his little clothes and all over his little rocker seat. Did I mention he loves his food? He's on solids now (along with his mother's milk) and is loving every last spoonful.

But here's what we had the night before:

*

Baked Tasmanian Atlantic Salmon.

I usually grill it but T.'s mother suggested a Scottish method, baking it with just a dash of malt vinegar and half a cup of water. I sliced an onion over the top and added about twenty capers and a dozen whole white peppercorns - they're more aromatic than the black ones. I baked the fish twenty minutes and meanwhile boiled up some sweet potatoes and sebago potatoes chopped into large chunks. Snow peas in at the last minute.

I poured the juices from the baking pan into a pot, added a dash of cream and boiled it down a little then poured it over the salmon to serve.

It was a superb dish. Try a nice buttery chardonnay. Or a cold beer. Or a Scotch with water. There was plenty of salmon and potatoes left over and this made the basis for a New Year's Eve heatwave lunch - chilled salmon and potato salad.

Dead easy - place the leftover cold potatoes in a bowl. Add mayonnaise. Add slices of beetroot. Add some finely chopped onion. Flake the smoked salmon over and throw in some more capers if you ate all the ones in the original dish. Add some chopped dill.

*

As I mentioned, it's New Year's Day here. Three in the afternoon. It's pouring rain right now. I might go outside and stand in it for a while.