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

30.8.06

Fake banana alert!

Banana experts ("Hi, I'm a banana expert!") predicted that bananas were going to take years to recover from Cyclone Larry, which completely destroyed 90% of the Australian banana crop.

Years? No: they're creeping back into stores just five months after the late-March cyclone, despite the facts that the banana plant has a nine to twelve month life cycle and imports from overseas are banned in Australia.

I suspect someone is manufacturing them in a factory somewhere, maybe from excess grapes and oranges.

29.8.06

To the mountains.

The door creaked as we went into the shop. I like shops with doors that creak. It gives them a kind of old world atmosphere. Combine old world atmosphere with French baking and you have a patisserie called Savoie Salon de The.

We were back in sub-alpine Bright for a few days and one of our first activities was a visit to Madame Pichot's little shop on the corner. She bakes all manner of French cakes and pastries and retains the original names. So you have your amandines and your Paris-Brest (which is a long delicate cream-filled pastry like an eclair) and your Religeuses which look sinful and your Mocha Eclairs and dozens of other petite delicacies. There's a little chocolate boat with a white sail icing called a Barquette.

Mme Pichot made us coffee and served us two of the nicest escargots - the pastry kind - I've ever tried. That set us up nicely for a long day of walking in and around Bright in the fresh late winter air under a perfect blue sky.

27.8.06

Fish with tamari, ginger and garlic.

This is one of the easiest fish dishes I make. I've done it with many different fish and it always turns out great. Last night I used butterfish, an unctuous yet firm white-fleshed fish. (However, our old fish ID problem rears its head here - several species bear the name butterfish around the world.)

Anyway, here's the recipe. It just about cooks itself.

Finely chop some peeled ginger, maybe half an inch; and two cloves of garlic. Place in a wide lidded pan with a little oil and sweat them very gently. Do not burn. Add your fish fillets to the pan. Pour over a quarter cup of water, the juice of half a lemon and a very generous squirt of tamari or soy. Throw in some finely sliced onion - or spring onion - and simmer very gently until just done. Don't overcook.

Serve on a bed of rice or noodles with some braised greens on the side - chinese cabbage or broccoli, or regular broccoli.

23.8.06

The tail end of winter.

Winter is in its last week, it's lighter earlier and later, the birds are getting noisier and trees are blossoming everywhere.

My street is a riot of pink blossom on the prunus x blireana in the nature strips - one in front of every house. When the blossoms have gone, a beautiful deep red foliage will replace it, giving lovely shade as you walk down the street. These trees are not meant to fruit, but ours does. Not a lot, but enough to keep the birds interested.

But before winter disappears into the rearview mirror of 2006, let's brew up one of our all-time favourite winter stews.

Oxtail stew.

This is a dish to enjoy at home for reasons of decorum. You have to get up close and personal with oxtail in order to get the meat out. I have seen people trying to eat it in restaurants, delicately trying to extract skeins of meat from the furrows in the bone using elegant knives and forks, but it just looks wrong. You have to pick those babies up and gnaw them. But just stay home and do it.

First I rolled the oxtail segments in some seasoned flour and then I browned them in some oil, which is difficult to do, because they are knobbly. But we got there after much poking and rolling.

Then I set them aside while I browned some onions in another pan. I diced a carrot and two sticks of celery, went outside and picked a bay leaf, came back in and put the browned oxtails into the pot with the onions and threw the celery and carrot over the top.

I turned the heat down and just let it sweat for a few minutes while I boiled the kettle, made some stock using a chicken stock cube because I was out of real stock, poured it into the pan in which I had browned the oxtail (to get all the 'bits') and then poured that into the cooking pot. Finally, a can of diced tomatoes and a very good amount of hot paprika, probably a tablespoonful.

You can cook this for as long as you want but a couple of hours should be enough.

To serve, make a mountain of olive-oil-and-garlic-mashed potato, place an oxtail segment or two on top and rain down some of the delicious gravy over it. Parsley on top. Some nice bread to accompany, maybe a slice of Flinders sourdough. And a glass of red or three.

22.8.06

Also:

Foster carers wanted, urgently.

ODTAA*.

I flooded the kitchen.

To be more precise, the running tap flooded the kitchen, aided and abetted by the plug in the sink. 'I' simply failed to apprehend the two culprits. They did it overnight when all weird things happen in kitchens.

The water ran down into the cupboards below the sink. Everything was soaking wet and the water crept under the linoleum - probably fifty years old - that lined the cupboard shelves.

On the positive side, the timber underneath the linoleum was first quality hardwood, as solid as the day it was built. (I once flooded a newer cupboard with shelves made of fibreboard and that means disaster, since fibreboard turns to papier mache when wet. Fibreboard is definitely one of mankind's very worst inventions, along with the leaf blower and the internet.)

So I spent the next day or two airing the cupboard. Its contents - pots, pans, colanders, vases, baking dishes, rubber gloves, bits of soap on saucers, detergent, dishrags, scourers, rolling pins, cookie cutters, old jars, breadboards, knife sets and a number of other things that were invented specifically to go under kitchen sinks and nowhere else - were spread over several rooms. Isn't it great eating dinner with your entire kitchen cupboard contents out on display?

I spent the two days after that flat on my stomach sealing and painting the shelves under the kitchen sink. I must say they did come up particularly well. One coat of primer (acrylic, wash up in water) and two coats of high gloss (oil, wash up in turps) and we have sparkling new cupboards.

*Title of 1926 book by John Masefield who was eighty years ahead of today's acronym-obsessed world.

17.8.06

Finn Family Moomintroll.

Canisha's Dad (my son, William's much older brother) is in Oulu* on business and her Mum has her hands full with the other two. Every time a plane flies over, Aria points and says, Daddy’s on that! Then Shanra says, No, he’s not, he’s in Thinland! She’s learning to pronounce her ‘th’s as ‘th’s and not ‘f’s and when she heard someone say ‘Finland’ she thought they were in error and actually meant ‘Thinland.’ (And also, who decided the word ‘lisp’ had to have an ‘s’ in it? Talk about cruel.)

Where was I? OK, Canisha came over Sunday and we spent the day together.

It was a food-filled day. We started with a picnic in the gardens: sandwiches with boiled eggs, thick slices of colby cheese, an old-fashioned salad of cucumber and tomato and T.'s home-made chocolate muffins to finish. They were still warm and gooey in the middle with pieces of real chocolate.

Then we went for coffee at the Italian restaurant where William's much older sister (Canisha's aunt, my daughter) works. She always takes William out to the kitchen to show him to the chef who is the restaurant owner’s mother and we always hear squeals of delight and we’re not sure whether it’s the old lady or William.

Then we went home to cook dinner.

Canisha’s Gnocchi.

If you’re cooking with children, try this. It’s exciting, involving and tactile – children love to throw flour around and not be regarded as naughty - but it’s also dead easy and no fuss as long as you don’t mind your kitchen covered in flour.

Ingredient list: three potatoes, a cup of flour and an egg.

Boil the ‘taters, then mash and combine with flour and egg to make a dough. Roll the dough on more flour into a snake with a diameter of about an inch then cut the dough snake into half-inch sections and place them on a floured tray.

Boil up a big pot of salted water and have your sauce cooking or reheating if you want sauce**. Drop the gnocchi very carefully into the water. When they are ready to be eaten, they will rise to the surface. How do they know? asked Canisha. I don’t know, I replied, typically.

I do know they were delicious because Canisha ate her whole plateful. Then she had another chocolate muffin.


* * * * *


*I only ever got to go to Sydney on business. (Although I did have to go to Launceston once. I suppose that’s overseas.)

**We had a meat ragu from a previous day, almost a Bolognese sauce but not quite; speaking of which, Neil has posted a good recipe here, cooked for hours, just how I like it. Of course, you don’t need a sauce - you can eat your gnocchi drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkling of parmesan or lightly grill them with a shower of crumbled blue cheese and some torn sorrel leaves or put them in a casserole, pour some thick béchamel and a sprinkling of paprika over them and bake them until the edges are almost crunchy.

15.8.06

Candles.

It sure was dark in there. Unexplored territory is always a little frightening at first. Soon I got used to it and after a while it was fun, in a nostalgic, ‘look-what-I-just-found’, ‘I-remember-this! From-1971!’ kind of way.

Of course, my mother never uses the top shelves in her kitchen cupboards any more. Hasn’t for years. It’s not that she’s too short, which she always has been, it’s just that getting up on a chair to reach down canisters of flour or tins of treacle or to search for an old bacon stock cube that she is sure must be there somewhere is not a good idea after a certain age.

The funny thing is that even though she lives on her own, all her kitchen cupboards are fuller with stuff than they ever were when there were seven children and two adults and a cat living there and visitors on Sunday.

So I got to clean them out. We made a morning of it. Mum and T. sat around the kitchen table drinking cups of tea and William crawled around the floor, well out of fallout range.

The shorthand of it is that I filled the recycling bin with dozens of old glass jars and tins. The longhand I’ll spare you except to make the following observations.

When my mother loses something in the cupboard; for example, sago, she simply buys another packet and makes up another jarful. So, over the years, she has replicated dozens of foodstuffs. I found jars of flour and powdered milk and caster sugar and split peas and breadcrumbs and barley going back several generations.

The most replicated item was not a foodstuff. It was: birthday candles. There were large jars and small jars and tins and boxes and unopened new packets of them, along with dozens of those frilly, patterned paper decorative things that you put around birthday cakes and which went out of fashion in about 1960, probably because they used to catch fire from the candles. Some of the candles were probably on my brother’s second birthday cake and he’s on the wrong side of fifty now. Modern birthday candles are spindly and lurid in colour, but these were the old pastel-coloured stumpy ones with widened bases like the serif on the letter 'i'. How can you throw stuff like that out? It’s hard. It’s my family’s life. I compromised. I filled one large tin with them which went back up into the cupboard and the rest went in the bin.

So that was the morning gone and then we had lunch, Mum’s vegetable soup.

The saucepan cupboard is next.

10.8.06

Driving the Internet truck, possibly on the Road to Morocco. Possibly off it.

I add posts to my blog (which sounds more like a primeval Scandinavian building a rudimentary timber shelter than a twenty-first century Australian tapping on a keyboard) from a number of different places. Some of these are places where I work (yes, I do work occasionally, despite being called, from way over on the other side of the world, an 'idle slump'). Others include the internet cafe (which is not a cafe but a DVD hire store) at the beach, because the beach house is not wired for tubes. I am not currently posting from my Prime Place of Residence because the lease was up on the computer and we didn't renew because we Want a New One. Given the speed at which I prosecute my plans in life that could take Some Time Indeed.

The point of all this Unnecessary Verbiage and Gratuitous Capitalisation is that I have noticed that some computer terminals 'read' my apostrophes differently and place an extra space after them and before the 's' in the case of a possessive. Or a contraction. So if it looks like a mistake, it could be the Internet. Alternatively, it could be a mistake. But now you'll never know!

Also, there's no secondary scroll bar on Blogger when accessed from some Mac terminals which is annoying because I prefer to write towards the top of the screen due to neck strain. Any other complaints? Yes. Sometimes these rogue terminals won't let you comment on people's blogs. They just put up a stupid message saying something like "Invalid X-gkjkk" or "Error vv-^^^!"

In fact, sometimes I wish the Internet was a truck and NOT a series of tubes, because then you could drive it off a cliff and the hell with it.

We should all be writing books anyway, not wasting time on blogging.

*

OK, we've driven the Internet truck off the cliff (it was using too much petrol anyway) so now let's eat.

Moroccan Curried Fish Pie.

(It's Moroccan only because I used my pre-made packet of Ras el Hanout, otherwise it could have been Bolst's Curried Fish Pie or Fern's Curried Fish Pie or even my own curried fish pie had I bothered to grind up a few of my own spices.)

I had made a very simple curry of fish - onions and garlic in butter, then the Ras el Hanout, then the juice of a lemon, then large pieces of very fresh Blue Grenadier and a little water, simmered only until just done. I also inverted the two halves of the lemon peel from which the juice came (to release the lemon oil) and threw those in to the stew to give a more lemony flavour, removing them before serving. We had the fish curry with basmati rice, some flaky roti and some lime pickle, just to mix up a continent or two. Maybe three.

But there was quite a lot of the curry left over, so the next night I placed it in a casserole, topped it with sliced sweet chili (which are very good at the moment) and chopped onion and topped it all with mashed potato and a sprinkling of chili powder, baking it for half an hour. It was delicious - the blandness of the potato yields to the sweetness, tang and heat of the curry.

9.8.06

Sunshine in a tin: Orange Cake.

Late last week, we drove around the big circle from midday to six o'clock. Midday is Melbourne, six o'clock is the house at the beach and Port Phillip Bay is the clockface. (Ships sail in and out of the bay through a very small and extremely dangerous gap between six thirty-six and six thirty-nine.)

The days have been cold and overcast. On Friday, the fog over Arthur's Seat refused to move but hung there as if it were loosely tied down, like a wet tarpaulin on a HQ ute. Later, the sun's rays tried a few exploratory pokes through the mist and then gave up.

Saturday was brighter. Out early to the market where we bought a few things, bunch of carrots, bag of potatoes, an old book. It's a farmers' market but they have junk as well if you're bored by vegetables. Then an early lunch outside the Blairgowrie café in pale sunshine amidst the usual Saturday tangle of people and prams and newspapers and dogs.

In the afternoon I mowed the lawn and pottered about and read the papers and then had a late afternoon plunge into the bay about five-thirty. The shock is merely sudden and passing. Blood rushes around the body and soon you are glowing and impervious to the chill. Five minutes of that and you feel like you could conquer the world; but you don't, you go home and have a hot bath if you've got any sense.

Sunday held the promise of some sunshine in the afternoon, a promise fulfilled in glorious fashion. While T. and William slept, I went off for a long walk along the beach which was silent, deserted and peaceful. There was no wind and the sea was a mirror. The sun, still seasonally low in the northern sky, bounced off the mirror and made the atmosphere even warmer.

When I got back to the house, sweating, the sleepers had woken. T. was baking a cake. William was on the floor bashing saucepans and colanders with wooden spoons. The noise was deafening.

Super moist orange cake.

No wonder it's so moist. It uses the whole orange.

Chop and puree a whole orange in a processor. Add 185g of melted butter, 3 eggs, a cup of caster sugar and one and a half cups of self-raising flour. Mix well. Pour mixture into greased and lined 18cm cake tin and bake in a moderate oven for 50 minutes or until cooked when tested.

Ice with orange cream cheese frosting: icing sugar, a pack of cream cheese, half a cup of butter, a dash of vanilla and the juice of half an orange. Decorate with more grated orange zest or candied orange peel.

8.8.06

Heard any song lyrics lately?

Well, if you haven't, they don't go like this any more: 'Her name was Joanne and she lived in a meadow by a pond'.

A few meadows and ponds wouldn't go astray in today's songs.

If anyone actually knows what they are any more.

7.8.06

A little background.

As Kimbofo noted in comments, there is something of a baby boom occurring here in Victoria and the Kitchen Hand extended family is a major contributor.

In reality, it is the second such boom in my family. My mother has thirteen grandchildren, with two on the way (my younger sister is expecting at around the same time as T.). While four of these grandchildren were born since 2001, the first five were born in the seven years prior to 1981. Then, over the next twenty years, there was an average of only one every five years. Essentially, the older children in my family had their own children early; while the younger three waited until their thirties and forties, mirroring current societal trends. As the middle child of seven, I typically followed both patterns, not being able to decide which half I belonged to; and became a father in 1977 and 1980 (I was 19 and 22) and now again in my late forties.

Complicating the issue (well certainly at Christmastime) is that the older grandchildren have themselves started having children - my mother now has six great-grandchildren. Further, until 2003, when my grandfather died the week before Christmas, my own son's first two girls were themselves great-great-grandchildren; making me that fairly unique species, a grandfather with a grandfather. For seven years we were blessed with five generations on earth at the same time.

I think I need a rest now. It was exhausting figuring all that out.

5.8.06

Deconstructing dumplings.

We were at one of our favourite noodle and dumpling places for lunch, T. and William and me along with Canisha, Shanra, Aria and their mum. It's a good place to take children.

Shanra, 5, was carefully peeling the skin from her har gow dumpling and eating it after dipping it in a tiny dish of soy, leaving the filling. She did the same with another five dumplings, attempting the last two with chopsticks. I must admit the translucent, slippery, delicious skins are exceptionally good eating, even if you don't eat the middle. (While Shanra is still picky with her food, Canisha has left childish eating habits behind and likes to order and eat 'grown-up' style. One day she'll order the chicken's feet or the chili tripe and I won't be surprised.)

The dumpling fillings didn't go to waste. I added them to my noodle soup. They reminded me of a recipe I found in an old cookbook. (Hold on to your seat while we switch continents in one paragraph, from Asia to southern Europe.)

OK. Now we're in Italy. The following recipe is called Malfatti which apparently means badly made, but the author of the old book speculated that it may have come about after a batch of ravioli, tortellini or similar pasta-wrapped dumplings fell apart, losing their skins. In other words, how to use up the little nude dumplings after their skins came off, which then developed into a recipe of its own. I don't know. I had never heard of them. But they sounded good, and they were.

Malfatti

Cook half a bunch of spinach in a few drops of water, a little oil and a sliced clove of garlic. When well wilted, mix this with a cup of ricotta, a quarter cup of grated parmesan, a cup of bread crumbs, a quarter cup of spring onions, a handful of chopped basil or dried equivalent, two eggs and a quarter teaspon of nutmeg.

Roll the dough with floured hands into logs, cut into one inch sections and set on a floured surface or baking sheet.

Drop carefully into salted boiling water. Reduce heat and simmer four to five minutes.

Lift out carefully with slotted spoon, drain and place on serving dishes. Serve with your choice of sauce - good with a simple tomato-based sauce or a ragu. Or lightly fry them in some sage butter and top with parmesan.

*

So if you don't like ravioli, peel the skins off. Instant malfatti. Or get your kids to do it. They'll probably enjoy it.

3.8.06

Where did I put that book of names?

William's arrival in June last year was, of course, a very special surprise. After a long, long time of hoping, we had accepted that there would be no children and had turned, happily enough, to dogs and gardening and cooking and the extended family, not in that order. But then we were blessed with William and, given our ages, imagined that he was to be the only one - a special gift to parents who were already way past a certain age. (Well, speaking for myself, anyway.)

So, some time ago, it was an even greater surprise to find that William is to become a brother to a sibling who will arrive in November.

Nothing for ten years and then two in seventeen months. And just when we've given away most of his baby clothes! And the bassinet!

And I really don't know what we've done with that book of names. We've moved house in between. It could be anywhere.

2.8.06

We're not cavemen but we still hunt. (Excuse me, don't prod my dinner.)

Together, we’ve sailed through the cold, dark seas of June and July, battling the waves of wind and rain that buffeted us and blew us and made us miserable before unceremoniously dumping us here on the faintly sunny shores of August, where we now sit, staring around us idly and wondering what to have for dinner.

(Of course, it is still winter but I always feel that once the Ju- months are over, spring is just around the corner, along with flowers, warmth, romance, weeds springing up like triffids in the garden and the lawn growing three feet in a week.)

*

Thinking such muddled thoughts, I drove to the supermarket at half past six. It was dark and raining and the carpark was full of puddles reflecting neon lights. The supermarket was packed with jaded city workers hunting for their dinner after a day of exhausting powerpoint presentations. You can tell they are hunting for their dinner by the way they have no shopping list but cruise slowly along the meat department with a look that says: "I don't know what to have for dinner so I'll just walk along here very slowly until something leaps out at me. And that's what I'll have." Often, they'll pick up a tray of meat and gaze at it, as if waiting for it to speak to them, maybe tell them how to cook it. When it doesn't, they put it back, sadly. Then they pick something else up: maybe a porterhouse or a rack of lamb or a veal schnitzel or a mini leg roast. Sometimes, they'll even prod it. Why? I don't know. Perhaps they are channelling their cavemen antecedents who prodded the woolly mammoth to see if it was dead yet. People prod bread, too. They never prod jars of jam or cans of tuna, only soft, vulnerable things like meat and bread and cakes. After a while, they go back and take the first thing they prodded and walk off to the check-out breezily; having completed a successful dinner hunt, stopping along the way for a jar of instant sauce, an onion, a trashy magazine and a bar of chocolate.

*

I avoided the meat section because, quite frankly, I can't bear the thought that other people have been prodding my dinner. Instead, I went to the pasta section and picked up some Da Vinci fettucine and a jar of Carmelina artichokes marinated in oil with chilli. Dinner was easy. I cooked the pasta, warmed the artichokes in some of their chilli oil, drained the pasta, rolled it over with some nice grated parmigiano to coat and served it with the artichokes and some flecks of parsley over the top. Kind of a looking-forward-to-spring dinner.