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

27.2.06

Bacon or prosciutto?

OK, I've done this before but it deserves a high rotation on the repertoire. And you can vary it.

Pasta carbonara is generally made using bacon and often cream. I don't use cream in this dish and I was out of bacon so I used prosciutto instead.

I cooked shredded prosciutto in a little olive oil and a small dash of white wine until it was almost crisp. This takes very little time. It dries to deliciously salty and flavourfilled flecks that really add punch to the eggs and pasta.

Cook the pasta at the same time - this time I used egg noodles for an even richer, more unctuous, taste. Drain, place back into the pan with just a little of the cooking water, toss around until some of the water evaporates off, add the eggs - just crack them straight in - fold them through and add the shards of prosciutto. I like to add some grated parmesan or grana padano or romano or whatever you have into the pan while folding through the eggs - or you can simply add it afterwards.

Add plenty of cracked pepper and lots of chopped parsley and you have a delicious meal. Especially with a nice glass of red and some very fresh crusty bread.

25.2.06

What did childhood summers smell like?

1. The smell of new paper in the Puffin paperbacks I was given for Christmas. I think I read every Puffin printed.

2. The smell of pine needles on a hundred-degree day. We had fahrenheit when I was a kid.

3. The smell of the rubber tyres on toy tin cars on Christmas morning.

4. The smell of sunburn cream rubbed on my sister's red shoulder.

5. The smell of cigarette butts in the sand at the beach. (Dad's, not mine. And no, I don't know if he subsequently 'disposed of them thoughtfully'.)

6. The smell of rain, before it arrived.

7. The smell inside my grandfather's new two-tone Vanguard Spacemaster, complete with clear plastic-covered red leatherette seats with cream piping. It took us on Sunday picnics to Gisborne.

21.2.06

To sleep, perchance to dream ... of garlic prawns.

... but more likely, perchance to wake up again three or four times every night with a baby who is teething.

*

Having slept on his back for his first seven months, William has now decided he would prefer to sleep on his side. This wakes him up. Since he was born, T. has been using the 'binding' method of putting him to bed in which a muslin is bound snugly around the baby and tucked under, holding his little arms in place. The theory is that they feel secure and fall asleep easier. My theory was that at some stage they are going to become too strong to be bound, fight their little arms out and wake themselves up anyway. This is now happening. But what would I know? I do know one thing: there are too many books, too many theories and too many experts. We have almost as many baby and childcare books as cookbooks. No, wait, that's a WILD exaggeration. But you get the drift. Having all these competing theories is like having fifty strange mothers standing in your loungeroom telling you how to raise your baby. Why don't we just listen to our own mothers and throw the books away?

*

Having said that, the baby care book that is getting the most use right now is one about cooking for babies. So far William has had fish, chicken, liver and beef, all mixed in with various vegetables: potatoes, zucchini, leek, onion, garlic, sweet potato, pumpkin, carrot, parsnip, various greens, cauliflower and more. He loves avocado and you don't have to cook it, just mash it up like ripe banana. Fruits have included banana, stewed apple, orange juice, papaya, mango, pear, berries and others, all pureed in various combinations. Then there have been yogurt, rice and porridge and the other day I made us an old-fashioned pot of spaghetti bolognese - no salt - and T. pureed some of the pasta with some of the sauce for William. He loved it and he ended up all orangey-red around the mouth from the meaty-tomatoey sauce. So did the table in front of him.

*

When I'm tired I start mixing my words. William bellowed the other day when T. put him in his pram. I tried to say 'It's just a cry of frustration' but it came out as 'It's just a fry of crustacean'. I must have been thinking of my old favourite prawn recipe:

Garlic Prawns: a Fry of Crustacean.

Take half a kilogram of prawns, remove heads and shells and leave tails on. Squeeze the juice of a lemon over them. Warm a little olive oil in a heavy pan and then very carefully add half a cup of good white wine, ten very finely chopped garlic cloves and two chopped chillies, having removed their seeds. The chillies are optional. Then simply add the prawns to the pan and cook over a high heat for a few minutes. Add salt and pepper, more lemon juice and chopped parsley.

Pour a lovely chilled chardonnay, serve the prawns with a simple green salad and some crusty bread on the side. Enjoy. Until the baby wakes again. Then go in and fetch him out of his cot and let him sit on your lap and watch the sun go down with you.

And to hell with the baby How-To books.

20.2.06

Children, popcorn, Angela Lansbury and sugar.

Mr Taco writes of the funny things children say, quoting his five-year-old asking him if whales drink water. I replied, recalling my five-year-old daughter once asking me, right out of the blue, what size I took in bowling shoes. (We had never been bowling.)

The other week I took Canisha and Shanra to the movies to see Nanny McPhee. It should be compulsory viewing for all children. Let me rephrase that. It should be compulsory viewing for all parents.

We bought a ridiculously large box of overpriced popcorn at the snack bar. It was almost as big as Shanra. She carried it in and was almost invisible behind it. The girls ate the popcorn in silence and Shanra turned to me just once during the movie, informing me, "We never have popcorn at daycare, Pop!"

*

On an entirely different subject, but speaking of Nanny McPhee, the brilliant Angela Lansbury, as an eccentric aunt, at one point rudely demands her nephew omit 'unhealthy' milk from the tea he makes for her; and then, when he asks if she takes sugar, replies without batting an eyelid, "Six, please!"

I agree with the old dear. I like sugar in my tea and coffee. Lots of it. I detest those tiny paper tubes that are supplied at some cafes in place of a nice big bowl or pouring jar of sugar at the table, for customers to help themselves. The paper tubes don't contain enough sugar, they are fiddly and the resulting bits of torn paper are messy and blow about all over the table, because there are no longer any ash trays in which to deposit them.

The other day, we - a group of four - dropped in for coffee at a cafe in Rathdowne Street. It always had good food but snooty staff. It's still the same. The snooty waitress with her nose in the air emerged with our coffees with ONE paper roll of sugar each. Now let me see. My companions take, in turn, two, two and three teaspoons of sugar - good heaping teaspons. I take two and a half. Translated into paper tubes, I figure that to be roughly three, three, five and four. Total, fifteen. We have been given four between us.

I walked into the cafe (we were sitting outside) and politely requested some extra sugar. The waitress didn't ask me how many would I like, but peremptorily handed me exactly one paper roll of sugar and turned away. What do I do? Share the extra roll between four cups of coffee, eking out the grains? Ask her for another ten? Stamp my foot? Drink unsweetened coffee? Get a life? Maybe the latter. I can't believe I'm complaining about sugar in a cafe. Get a grip, Kitchen Hand.

No. I helped myself to a good handful of the accursed things. I felt like a thief as I walked out the door and back to the table.

19.2.06

Pug.

Nine-thirty on a glorious late-summer Friday morning, not a cloud in the sky. Twenty-five degrees, a nice fresh salty breeze, not much traffic about, a few shoppers here and there, a delivery van idling in the side street, children back at school, everything back to normal.

A man was sitting at a table under a broad umbrella outside the Blairgowrie cafe. He was holding the morning broadsheet out in front of him and he was staring intently at the op-ed page with a deeply furrowed brow.

The pug on his knee was also staring at the opinion page but the pug had a mad grin on its face.

A waiter brought out a coffee. The man placed the dog gently on the ground with a look that said I'm really, really sorry but coffee is very, very hot and it could burn you if you knock it over. Then the man went on reading the editorials and the pug sat blinking in the sunshine on the end of its leash tied to the leg of the man's chair. The leash was one of those novelty ones you can buy from pet superstores - an imitation string of sausages.

Later, the man's coffee was finished and the pug was back on his knee and this time he had his paws on the table. They were reading the sports pages together. The man was looking a little more relaxed now and the pug a little more serious.

17.2.06

The other leafy green vegetable.

Saturday morning market, about a quarter to ten.

The sun was out but a cool breeze swept across the bay, crossed the road and gently ruffled the flaps and ropes on the stallholders' tents. We walked up and down and compared produce and prices.

At one of the tents, a Greek guy sells a green he calls vlita. It is not as shiny as silverbeet, nor as deep green as spinach. I find it closer in texture and taste to rabe or some of the Asian greens.

And the bunch is like magic! It goes on forever. Spinach boils down to nothing, silverbeet and rabe less so. But this stuff seems to hold its bulk and yield more from each bunch.

I made a huge pot of it, boiling it with just a cup or so of water and some garlic. You can eat it just like that with lemon or vinegar but I gave it the deluxe treatment with a good dollop of double cream after it had boiled for a short while followed by a shower of salt and pepper and when it was all done it was served in a large bowl with fetta crumbled over the top. A perfect side dish for just about anything, but we had it with grilled fish.

That was only a third of the bunch. The second third of the bunch I turned into a delicious pureed soup with half a pack of frozen green peas, some mashed potato for body, a touch of chilli powder and some yogurt to serve.

What to do with the rest?

14.2.06

Dessert and post-dinner drinks.

The waiter clambered out of the the stairwell for probably the twentieth time and I wondered aloud to the person next to me, the one that had had the perfectly pink rack of lamb with the pillarbox and the triple underscore of jus, why the million buck interior design hadn't run to a dumb waiter, that is, a mechanical elevator from the kitchen with a food dispensary at the upper level. The waiter must have been exhausted. All those plates.

A few more hours wound off the clock and then dessert came out. There were warm things involving sorbets and salads and consommes. I love the way today's chefs are calling sweet things by savoury names and vice-versa. Just like the way today's parents are naming their dogs Alexander, Charles and Kenneth and their children Sam, Jake and Max.

My dessert was redolent of chocolate and had the texture of a cloud. A nimbus cloud, I grant you, but still a cloud. I didn't eat it, I inhaled it. It was the best thing I never ate and I still don't know what it was. I missed coffee because by now we were doing Alice in Wonderland moves around the table and talking about as much sense. Have some wine, said the March Hare in an encouraging tone. No. It was the waiter, still selling the sauvignon blanc. I bought.

Then someone had the bright idea of doing rounds of tequila slammers. It was one of those moments that sounds like the best idea of the night at the time and the very worst in the morning.

The tequila came out in little science room beakers with graduation marks. My God! It really is a laboratory down there in the kitchen! I thought I was only kidding.

Speaking of tequila, there are no floral notes on the back palate. Or anywhere else.

*

We tipped the waiter generously. He's obviously in training to become a UN diplomat, maybe even a peacekeeper. A very fit one.

13.2.06

Still at the restaurant.

Where was I? In a concrete bunker eating a two-inch round of risotto from a giant white plate. It looked like a snail on a wagon wheel.

Soon we had finished and the waiter cleared away the steering wheel plates and took them down the dark stairwell and then came up again and poured another half-inch of wine into my giant wineglass. I was getting to like it. I still couldn't detect what the notes on the palate were but I was starting to think wet hay in a barn.

The main course rolled around after a while, maybe three hours, but who's watching the clock? Let's take our time. There's wine to be drunk and people to chat to. I had ordered the assorted gyoza of roast vegetables and it arrived on a plate as big as the previous one except this time it was square, like a ceramic flag, just for a change. A citrusy dipping sauce was in its own dear little dish over in a corner of the square plate while a few other ingredients came along for the ride and just hung around on the plate not bothering the gyoza.

Once again, technically perfect cooking but I didn't know whether I was in Japan or France and I wasn't even in either. They call it fusion cuisine. I add a prefix. Both cutlery and chopsticks were on the table and I picked up the chopsticks. Actually, I cut the gyoza in half with the knife first, and then I picked up the chopsticks. I bit the gyoza and a broadbean fell out and looked forlorn on the plate, as if it had been snatched away from a big bowl of sage-buttered brothers and stuffed into a piece of pastry along with a tiny piece of pumpkin, a shard of red bell pepper, a pea and three capers. I put it out of its misery. I ate it.

The diner to my left had chosen the roast lamb rack with this and that. It was cooked to pink-cloud perfection. The chef had been busy with the scalpel again, removing every last shred of visible fat. The rack lay in a little rainpuddle of fluid. There was an eclectic red vegetable pillarbox next to the rainpuddle and an evergreen shrub of something, maybe seaweed, maybe not, beyond that. The whole performance was underlined, literally, with three very thin parallel lines of sauce or reduction or whatever the hell we're calling gravy today. Why the parallel lines? I don't know. Ask the chef. I just eat here.

We helped ourselves - after you; no! after you! - to sides, one of rocket fluttered with shaved parmesan and the other, a dainty boat of little roasted potatoes. Cute.

Then one of party decided to give a speech and it was funny and there was laughter.

The waiter's head popped out of the stairway yet again followed by the rest of him and, clearing his throat 'ahem', he asked our intimate little party, could we please be just a teensy bit quieter? because there was a couple dining downstairs - we could see them from our concrete and metal loft - and they couldn't hear each other whispering sweet menu ingredients to each other? He was as polite as a diplomat about it, and we immediately racheted our conversation level down from landing jumbo jet to ticking-over helicopter.

Then he busied himself splashing more sauvignon blanc around. Crushed limes? Hibiscus flowers? I don't know.

Where's dessert?

11.2.06

The restaurant.

It's all black render on the outside and all concrete and metal on the inside, like a bunker. It has that half-finished look that says a million bucks have been spent on the interior design.

Like every other up-to-the-minute bar or brasserie or whatever they're calling them these days, it has a single-syllable one-word name, all lower case and of no particular meaning, in raised but very small chartreuse lettering set into the black render.

We pushed open the doorway, glass and etched metal, and climbed single-file up a dark narrow stairway to a kind of loft overlooking the rest of the restaurant. We were a party of about twenty and it was the crazy week before Christmas. We sat down.

In between the cutlery, a roneoed sheet listed all the latest grigios and viogniers and some lurid cocktails.

After a while, a waiter emerged from the stairway and set about taking drink orders. After another while, a longer one, he was pouring a splash of sauvignon blanc into the large glass in front of me. Large? He could have poured the entire bottle into it. You get better notes on the nose with a big glass, petals of orchid, mown grass, a spring morning in September. Or maybe they just make you drink more.

The menu didn't have dish titles, just lists of ingredients. Millefeuille of confit raviolo with balsamic jelly shiso and a sardine icecream cappucino of freshly shucked oyster wasabi sorbet. With purple basil. I made that one up. I think. So it was kind of hard to decide what to have. Would puree of spring onion go better with shards of duck with amontillado syrup or with a gnoccho infused with plum wine? And what the hell is a pithivier? You can't ask, because you can't pronounce it.

- This word here, waiter - how do you pronounce it?

- It's pith-iv-i-er, sir.

- Great. What is it?

- It's something in puff pastry, sir.

- Well, why don't you say that?

- I just did, sir.


It would take too long. And that's just one word. There are veloutes, cassoulets, things en papillote, other things truffled that don't sound like they would like to have been truffled, and lots of warm things. I prefer my food either hot or cold but I suppose warm is a nice compromise and reduces split-second timing in the kitchen, especially when the chef is busy making tiny dishes out of a thousand different ingredients, probably using a microscope.

The menu spelled millefeuille millefueille. You should only be allowed to misspell French words if you are actually French. Other people should get them right.

OK, let's stop being picky about the menu and order. I chose the risotto, but the menu took ten words to say it. After what seemed like an hour and a half but was probably only eighty-nine minutes, the waiters emerged triumphantly from the stairway with six plates up each arm. I love how waiters do that and never drop anything. My plate contained a perfectly formed disc of risotto, like a spanish hat without a brim. Two inches in diameter, it arrived on a plate the size of your average truck wheel. I practically had to walk onto the rim just to get at the food. It was nice, and there was a scallop in it.

More later. It was a very long dinner.

9.2.06

Things I never ate as a kid.

1. Lamb. We had mutton - gamey, delicious fatty roasts and other cuts from the older beast. They used to call the roast 'leg of two-tooth'.

2. Ham. We had strasburg, mortadella and devon, but not ham. Why? I don't know. We just didn't. We had bacon, in crusty glazed steaming egg and bacon pies as thick as your phone book, but never ham.

3. Steak. We had roasts, we had corned beef, we had oxtail, we had every cut off the cow you've ever heard of and a few you haven't - all cooked to within an inch of their lives (if that's an appropriate turn of expression for something that is dead, but you know what I mean), but we never had steak. Well, not fillet, anyway. The first fillet I ate was at Nine Darling Street in 1973 at my cousin's wedding reception. I was seventeen. She was a dark-eyed classic sixties beauty, all mascara and stacked-up raven hair and miniskirts and bikinis and a sexy raspy voice, like a soft drink commercial from 1967. She's still the same except the bob is grey. Where was I? Oh, the steak. It was about five inches thick, the knife slid through it like butter and it ran red in the middle.

4. Avocadoes. I never saw an avocado until one popped up on a bistro menu in the seventies. As far as I was concerned, avocadoes were invented by a chef who had too much vinegar and olive oil on hand. The same chef also had too many cocktail glasses and had to invent prawns and thousand island dressing, although maybe that was the fifties. It just took a while to catch on here.

That's four. It's all I can think of.

Anyone else?

7.2.06

Erratum.

In the previous post, a recipe which I described as 'easy', I left out the water, so if anyone has tried it, and I don't flatter myself that that is the case, then they may have, to put it bluntly, burnt their pot.

I discovered long ago that leaving the water out is not a good idea. One of the first things I cooked was a boiled egg. I put it in the pot and on the stove, forgetting to cover it with water. If you've ever wondered what happens in this situation, here's what happens: the egg explodes. It doesn't actually quite cook before it explodes, so you end up with uncooked, but very hot, egg and thousands of eggshell shards all over your kitchen ceiling, walls, windows, curtains, mantlepiece, clock, canisters, dresser, cat, table, chairs and floor coverings. Not to mention any people that may happen to be foolish enough to be in the kitchen while you are conducting egg explosions.

Sorry about the error. I have fixed it using italics.

6.2.06

Give the ratatouille a rest.

Grill them, boil them, make ratatouille out of them, julienne them into salads, grate them into a frittata, but make sure you do this with zucchinis. It is a perfect side dish with just about anything and it is so easy.

Thinly slice a couple of large zucchinis (or more small ones) and chop a couple of medium onions. Throw them all into a pot with two tablespoons of butter, a pinch of dried oregano, a generous pinch of cayenne pepper, a teaspoon of sugar, some chopped parsley and a few tablespoons of water. Cook until done, about ten minutes, and serve, pouring the juices over and adding more parsley and salt and pepper to taste.

It's one of those dishes that gives off an irresistible aroma while cooking.

3.2.06

Recipe overload.

It happens every time, and it happened this time.

I read this great recipe and thought, I'll do that. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe next week. It sounds great. I have all the ingredients.

Then tomorrow or next week comes and I decide to make the recipe and so I go back to the book where I read it - the one about Indian cooking by Madhur Jaffrey - the second one from the left on the second bottom shelf. Easy.

Check index ... scan contents ... OK, just thumb through the whole book, I'll remember it by the picture. Not there. Must have been the third book from the left - the one about barbecues by Steve Raichlen. Or the third from the right, Margaret Fulton's Recipes of Australia. Or the Italian one by Carluccio. Or Tarts With Tops On by Tamasin Day-Lewis. Or Cooking for Juniors, the book my older kids made their first pancakes from.

No luck with the books. Maybe it was in yesterday's paper, the food liftout, where readers write in with their favourite recipes and there's always recipes for cheese scones and chicken with apricot and curried sausages with pineapple and caramel fudge.

Maybe I read it on the internet. Check history of visited pages. Check a few food blogs. Check a few normal blogs. Read blogs instead, forget about stupid recipe. Takeaway sounds good.

*

That night, I had one of those four-in-the-morning moments where you sit up in bed and remember.

I had seen the recipe on the back of a packet of jasmine rice on the third shelf in the second aisle at the supermarket.

And I didn't even buy the rice.

And I don't remember the recipe. Except that it was a kind of curried something ... maybe with pineapple ... or was it chicken?

1.2.06

Just before dinner.

The back garden in the little country town in the middle of nowhere is divided into sections.

The back door leads onto a verandah with a table and four nice comfortable chairs, just right for a beer in the afternoon. Beyond the verandah is a square lawn, fenced off with rose bushes all around the edges in raised garden beds and a raised boxed vegetable garden on the right side.

At the back of this lawn there is an open gate leading to the next section of garden. Out here, a wide expanse of eucalypts with wild limbs, more lawn, less well-manicured, and a clothes line over to one corner.

I was sitting at the table on the verandah, sweating away quietly to myself trying to read a newspaper but only getting it wet. It was only about 39 degrees. I had just opened a very, very cold beer. It must have been 7.30 or so. Round about dinner time. Delicious smells were scrolling out through the wire screen door and saying come and eat me. They always say that.

The shadows were getting longer and one caught my eye as it drew across the opening in the fence. It wasn't a shadow. Shadows don't slither. It slithered along the back, keeping to the fenceline as if not to intrude, did a perfect right hand turn when it reached the side and then kept right on going until it reached the vegetable plot. It was glistening black, about four feet long. It coiled around the back of the vegetable garden, emerged on the far side, returned to the front and stopped. It raised it forward quarters. Do snakes have noses? They must have. This one sniffed the air like a Golden Retriever. Then it poked about a bit distractedly, looking for something.

It didn't find anything. Instead, it ascended the vegetable garden without even seeming to move. Have you seen a snake climb? It is the most graceful motion on earth.

Then it wasn't graceful any more. It flung itself up against the fence comically. Up it flew, using its rear coiled end to project itself upwards. It failed. Three times it tried this. The fence was too high. Disappointed, the snake retraced its journey along the fenceline, a left turn at the back and along the fence to the gateway. It turned right and disappeared. It had to go the long way round.

I finished my beer in the sultry silence broken only by crickets and stopped trying to read the paper. It was full of rubbish anyway.