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

30.6.06

Somewhere, New South Wales.

In the hotel dining room, the tables were decorated with lace tablecloths and single flowers in cut-glass vases, which made the room look like something out of the 1950s. A log fire was dying slowly in the fireplace, crackling occasionally. On one side of the room was an ancient carved timber sideboard and, on the other, double timber and glass doors led to the lounge bar.

Soon the food arrived. My steak (rare, pepper sauce) came on its own plate. There was no room for anything else, so the vegetables arrived on another. T. had ordered fish and chips: a huge beer-battered piece of fish lay over a bonfire of fries with salad and vegetables. The chef, who must have been no more than eighteen - might have been the apprentice - delivered the food himself. Enjoy your meals! he enthused. Then he pointed to the sideboard, on top of which sat a tarnished and dented silver tray bearing bottles and jars of sauces, relishes, jellies and condiments. Help yourselves! he said, and disappeared behind a swinging door.

*

We had rolled into Narrandera, a medium-sized town in New South Wales, at about 4.30 on a cold Friday afternoon after an easy day's drive with numerous stops for morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, snacks etc. I like taking my time. I'm a slow traveller.

We checked into our room and then went out for a walk to survey the food scene. All four pubs in the main street boasted the best home-cooked food in town. There was a pizza place and a Chinese cafe and a fish and chip shop. For dinner, we chose the last hotel in the main street, at the top of the hill at the south end of town. Near the river. I forget the name. Good choice. When I ordered my steak, the waitperson said, Well, you must be hungry then! In a country town, that's a good sign.

*

After dinner, we walked back to our hotel room, warm on the inside. It was frosty and the trees that lined the main street (Narrandera's slogan - 'Town of Trees') were festooned with strings of fairy lights. They glowed fuzzily yellow in the cold air. The beat of music could be heard from one of the other pubs, and in the distance, the distant boom of interstate trucks on the main highway. Where to tomorrow? Don't know. We'll decide in the morning.

26.6.06

One.


Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday dear William,
Happy birthday to you.

20.6.06

Oops!

I cancelled the mail, diverted the phone and asked the neighbours to keep an eye on the house, but I forgot to post here that we would be away for a week or two. Apologies. Normal posting will resume shortly.

Right now we're in Bright, on our way back from mid-west New South Wales. It was dry and flat and stark and beautiful. Here in Bright it's cold, but no snow yet.

15.6.06

Braised chickpeas with spinach.

(This is the kind of thing I make as a side dish and then eat too much of it, so the main course goes back into the fridge for tomorrow.)

Finely slice two onions into half rings and saute them in three tablespoons of olive oil until translucent adding two chopped garlic cloves towards the end (I find the garlic tends to burn even on low heat).

Take the skin of a preserved lemon (i.e. cured in salt and lemon juice) and finely slice it into slivers, adding this to the onions and garlic along with two cups of cooked chickpeas (or a 410g can). Cook five minutes or so and then add half a bunch of spinach, roughly chopped. Cook until the spinach wilts. Add salt and pepper or sumac.

Serving suggestion. Make 'sandwiches' with fresh rounds of Lebanese bread: line the bread strips of chicken or lamb quickly grilled with olive oil and lemon juice, some of the braised chickpeas and spinach, topped with hummus, some yogurt and a squirt of lemon. Roll up and eat.

12.6.06

Sunday night.

Antidote to a cold Sunday night: take the family to a Turkish restaurant in Sydney Road. You may as well. Everyone else does. It looks like half of Brunswick is here. We were there for an early dinner with my son and his wife and their three girls, Canisha, Shanra and Aria.

I didn't realise how big the place was until we stepped inside. The takeaway section is at the front, off to the right as you walk in the door, and beyond that is the first part of the restaurant. Then, behind that, through an archway about the size of the arc de triomph (just to mix countries), is a dining room that probably holds several thousand people. I'd hate to be the booking clerk. Or the chef. We sat in the middle section.

Waiters were flying around the room with platters held high. Huge baskets of bread from the oven, sizzling plates of meats straight off the grill, plates of dips and vine leaves and stuffed things and all manner of Turkish cuisine. One of the waiters took our orders and whizzed off to the kitchen and soon baskets of hot, fragrant Turkish bread were in front of us. A newly-uncorked bottle of red and fresh bread from the oven, is there anything better on a Sunday night?

Platters of dips joined the bread on the table - hummus, babaganouge, taramasalata, cacik (yogurt with cucumber, mint, garlic and olive oil) and other delicious combinations. You have to be careful at this stage of proceedings in a Turkish restaurant; you could eat enough bread and hummus to sink a ship and then not be able to eat anything else. And that would be a shame.

Canisha, 9, had carefully read the menu before announcing that she would be ordering the lamb kofte balls. They were about the size of a duck egg but flatter and they were very spicy and came with dipping yogurt. Canisha ate one carefully, as if considering the ingredients, and then said, like an adult, because she had ordered them herself, Yes, they are very spicy aren't they?

Two standout dishes: hot stuffed vine leaves with yogurt sauce, and a sizzling platter of roasted red pepper and eggplant with a layer of grilled cheese, topped with a tomato and garlic sauce. Fantastic.

Then it was time for coffee - Turkish - and dessert; and down past the arc de triomphe the music had started up and children were whirling around on the dancefloor and some of their parents joined them and some stayed at their tables and had a third glass of red wine or a fourth piece of baklava.

11.6.06

Two perfect coffees and garlic seafood on rice.

The sun failed to penetrate the fog at all and it was grey and cold and drippy all day. We piled on coats and scarves and hats and went for lunch at an old favourite coffee shop with my mother and sister and niece and niece's daugher and of course, T. and William.

The coffee shop has been there forever and is toasted-ham-cheese-tomato-sandwich-and-cappucino perfection. Because sometimes you just want a perfect coffee and a perfect toasted sandwich; or in my case, two perfect coffees and two perfect toasted sandwiches.

The usual Saturday lunch crowd was out in force and the place was crammed. Is it only my imagination or is there a new baby boom on? There are prams everywhere you look. Imagine that, another baby boomer generation! Cop that, Generations X, Y and whatever they're up to now (Z? A2?) - you're surrounded by baby boomers!

The afternoon disappeared in the rear view mirror of life and I read too many newspapers full of angst, attitude and trivia. Why do I keep doing this? How many more forests do I really want to kill? I guess the food columns are OK. At least they have pictures.

Speaking of food, I was going to cook fettucine marinara but there was quite a large amount of cooked basmati rice left over so dinner became garlic seafood on basmati rice instead. This often happens. One thing becomes another.

Garlic seafood on rice.

Saute six plump scallops, a dozen large prawns and a piece of your favourite fish (mine is still rockling), cut into large cubes, in olive oil, a quarter cup of white wine and four finely chopped garlic cloves. Immediately add some red pepper chopped into fine dice - about a quarter of a cupful, two chopped spring onions and a chopped chile pepper (I added two - they are from the garden and not very hot. Lid on pan and cook until done, about five minutes, and the fish will still be plump and juicy.

Cook the rice to directions, drain it, mound it in large bowls and serve seafood over it with parsley and cracked pepper.

Delicious. Could have had more chile but that's just me. And the weather.

9.6.06

Gnocchi Provencale, according to Baker’s CafĂ©.

Once upon a time, many years ago, there was only one cafe in Brunswick Street north of Johnson Street.

Go on, laugh in disbelief. They all do. But it’s true. There were haberdashers and grocers and butchers and blacksmiths and typewriter repair shops (I had mine repaired there once, the ’ didn’t work so if you typed Today’s Specials it would come out as: Today8s Specials) and offices of the type that had an entrance of frosted glass panels on which was printed the business name in black lettering with a thin gold outline, leading to a timber-lined anteroom with green linoleum on the floor and a bare counter with a bell for service and a transom over the doorway to the inner office. Insurance agents, accountants, coin dealers, that kind of thing.

Then it was the 'eighties and no-one needed grocers or butchers or coin dealers any more and the insurance agents retired and all the frosted glass panels and timber counters were ripped out and the offices were turned into cafes which is why people didn’t need grocers and butchers any more.

At first, there was only Baker’s. OK, there was a milkbar and a fish and chip shop and a couple of burger joints, but Baker’s was the first of the new wave of cafes. Then Mario’s opened next door and there stood two of the very best cafes Melbourne had ever seen, cheek by jowl right there next to each other, two and three doors up from the Johnson Street corner. You could see people hesitating out the front, unable to decide which to enter.

Baker’s was my regular: a quick coffee and a toasted sandwich over the papers in the morning after dropping my children at school and before launching into my workday. Or I’d whiz up Brunswick Street for lunch, lentil soup and some crusty bread, maybe spaghetti carbonara and maybe some of their cold apple cake with cream afterwards. A man's gotta eat. In those days I was newly single with children and not into going out for dinner so I made a habit of getting takeaways from Bakers on Sunday nights: usually Gnocchi Provencale, a side salad, some bread and some of their chocolate rum torte to finish. I don’t know who supplied their chocolate rum torte but I’ve been looking for it ever since.

Gnocchi Provencale, Baker's Cafe-style.

Sweat the following ingredients in a pan over a very low heat: fifteen walnut halves, half a chopped red pepper, half a chopped green pepper, a dozen or so fat black pitted olives, half a dozen chopped button mushrooms, a cup of frozen peas and a chopped onion. Alternatively, sauté the onion first in some oil.

Now add a can of diced tomatoes with their juice and half a cup of white wine along with some chopped parsley and a chopped chile if you want some heat. Simmer for half an hour and adjust fluid if necessary.

Cook your gnocchi and spoon the sauce over the top. The walnuts give it a robust, meaty texture and flavour. Vegetarians go crazy over this. Everyone goes crazy over this.

Don't forget plenty of grated parmesan over the top.

*

Baker’s moved to the other side of Brunswick Street in the early nineties - about two hundred metres down. It remains there to this day, but in name only. It serves tapas.

8.6.06

Fog.

Six o’clock in the morning. Dark. A cold monochrome fog hung over everything like a wet blanket. I was out in the fog, going for a walk, getting the paper. There’s something nice about a foggy morning. I don’t know what, perhaps the fact that you can’t see anything except the fuzzy orange glow of the still-burning lamp on a telegraph pole down the street.

Back home for breakfast – porridge, fruit, yogurt, toast, vegemite and six gallons of tea. I left the house at eight. The fog was still there but tinged with gold as the sun hauled itself into action. By the time I reached the freeway the car heater was pumping out warm air. Volvos have the best heaters. I crossed the Bolte Bridge and the freeway swung around towards the city and all you could see were the tops of half a dozen of the very tallest buildings poking out of the fog, sitting up there in the sky like knitting needles sticking out the top of a giant ball of golden wool.

Later, the fog burned away and the sun shone and trees shed the last of their leaves and stood there, stark trunks sleeping in the sunshine.

It was dark when I hit the freeway again. Off to the right, the city was a mass of lights. People sure do work late. The elevated part of the freeway made a graceful curve around the city and the perspective made the closer buildings do that funny thing where they appear to move past the ones further back and all the lights intermingle with each other like a thousand people wearing diamond coats at a cocktail party. Melbourne, the jewel of the south. It might just be the most beautiful city in the world, but what would I know? I haven’t seen them all.

I made a slow descent into the suburbs where a million pots on a million stoves were cooking up cheer and comfort on a cold night in June.

Welcome to winter.

6.6.06

I told you it was cold.

The Weather Bureau agrees with me, having confirmed that last month was the coldest May since 1970, which for the majority of the population means forever.

But not for me! I remember 1970 as if it were yesterday! Maybe the day before.

So let’s indulge in a little nostalgic walk back in time to see what Kitchen Hand was up to during that freezing May.

- I caught the bus to school every day – a streamlined Ansair model still with 1950s styling: rounded edges, a sloping back, green glass windows and cream livery with a red pinstripe. Cool. It picked me up at the corner of my street and dropped me at Essendon Railway Station. I walked the last mile to school from there.

- It snowed in the school yard for the first time on record. It lasted probably five minutes and melted soon after that, but snow is snow.

- We dissected a mouse in science class. I thought, is this really necessary?

- Queen Elizabeth II’s motorcade rolled past the school on its way from Essendon Aerodrome to the city.

- We went on a school camp to Lerderderg Gorge, near Blackwood. Apart from the Alps, it is probably the coldest part of Victoria. We nearly froze. We had to plan and take along provisions appropriate for camping: canned meat, nuts, fruit cake, that kind of thing. I remember being amazed that my friend brought along a pack of Birds Eye frozen fish fingers. What was he thinking?

- Recession saw my father lose his job as a traveling salesman in the catering industry. Shortly after, he got another job in an allied trade, food manufacturing. He came home one day in a Holden HT station wagon, brand new, mid-olive green with green vinyl self-patterned upholstery and push-button radio.

- We spent two weeks of the May holidays at Inverloch and went to the beach every day, without swimming clothes because it was too cold to swim. However, we invariably ended up splashing each other and getting so wet we just went in the water in our normal clothes and ran home half frozen. I don’t know how my mother put up with us. Seven children and all their clothes wet.

- My youngest brother turned two.

- I was thirteen.

Was anyone else alive in 1970?

What do you remember?

1.6.06

The bone with a hole in it.

We grew up with shanks. They were poor peoples’ food in the fifties and sixties; disappeared almost completely, like crumbed brains, in the seventies and eighties and then returned, triumphant and trendily ‘Frenched’ - in the last ten years or so.

Along with osso buco, which is the same thing cut across the bone, shanks are now a winter staple on dinner party tables and in the pages of food magazines.

In posted my favourite lamb shank recipe here – a delicious one with barley - less than two months ago so today I will share with you my current osso buco recipe (it evolves, you see):

Easy osso buco.

Coat the meat – four medium pieces of beef or veal shank cut across the bone - in seasoned flour. (I put the flour into a plastic bag, add the meat, seal the bag and give it a good shake – perfectly coated.)

Seal the meat in olive oil and set aside. Finely chop an onion and finely dice a carrot and a large stick of celery. Add these to the same pan and sweat them over a very low heat for a few minutes until they absorb some of the flavour, then add two cups of stock and a bay leaf and cook for another minute or two. Add a can of diced tomatoes or some puree. Add a teaspoon of sugar to counteract the acid.

Pour all of this over the meat in a large pot. Use the stock to swish out all the flavoursome bits remaining in the pan from the meat-browning stage. Add a little oregano if you have it. Cook for several hours on a very low heat.

Serve with a gremolata of parsley, garlic and grated lemon peel. Or not. Pour a shiraz. Or a merlot. Whatever.

Some random observations and hints on osso buco

- While osso buco is often done in a Dutch oven, I usually do it on the stove top in a big heavy pot.

- I am using less tomato than I used to. It’s just a preference.

- Sometimes I add wine, sometimes not.

- Sometimes I add orange juice and grated peel, sometimes not.

- I prefer it with olive-oily mash – try a combination, maybe pumpkin and zucchini, maybe potato and parsnip. The latter is nice and sweet.

- For a real luxury, make some big home-made gnocchi with potato, ricotta and egg and serve the osso buco over that. Dreamy.

- Don't waste that leftover sauce! Make a ragu. Add a can of tomatoes and some peas or some roasted red capsicum, cook it down and serve it over egg noodles, or more of the home-made gnocchi, with lots of cheese on top.