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

27.9.06

Hardly a recipe.

They sat in the pot, simmering away for probably half an hour.

Blop, blop, blop they went, which is the closest I can come to describing the sound of simmering.

I waited until they began to break down, like glaciers in an Al Gore documentary.

Then I drained them over the sink and all the steam rushed up and misted the double sash windows looking out over the back garden and for one minute, the new ornamental pear just coming into leaf was all pixillated green.

Then I tipped them into the bowl, still steaming.

I sat in my favourite chair and sat the bowl on my knee and took up my fork and tasted one. Heaven.

I ate six. It was my first meal for a day and a half.

Well-boiled potatoes with absolutely nothing on them except the merest whisper of salt. So plain. So obvious. So delicious.

Sometimes you have to go back to basics, if only to appreciate everything else.

26.9.06

Long story ends.

Kuen (Ken) Cheng was born in China in 1922, fled the Japanese invasion, took a job with the United States Marine Corps, ended up stationed with US troops in Darwin and then either worked his way down to Melbourne or arrived as a personal chef to General Douglas MacArthur during World War II, depending on whom you believe.

Given that CV, you'd have to believe anything. Or nothing.

By 1949 Ken Cheng was selling his dim sims trackside to brown-suited and hatted punters at Caulfield Racecourse and in local hotel bars after the last race, encouraged by the publicans because they were salty and made the customers thirsty.

Ken's dim sims became so famous he realised his customers would come to him instead of he to them, so he set up a stall at South Melbourne market in the 1950s where it remains.

Ken Cheng died last week, aged 83.

A big city is nothing without its characters and Ken Cheng was a great Melbourne character.

Pass the soy sauce, thanks. And have another one yourself.

25.9.06

The Bug.

It's going around, as they say.

It came to us. It wasn't nice.

The headline and first two paragraphs are probably enough warning about what is to follow, so if you're still reading, here's what happened: we were sitting there in the lounge room after a lovely dinner - linguine with some ragu, nice and light for spring - when T., who had been idly flicking through a magazine, said she didn't feel so well. Within a second she was propelled back into her chair by some kind of weird G-Force, while at the same time something shot across the room at the speed of light and all of a sudden we had an unfinished Jackson Pollock on the opposite wall. Maybe a finished one. You never know with Jackson Pollock.

No warning at all. The bug is like that.

T. spend the ensuing hour or two adding to the Jackson Pollock, just not in the lounge room, and then went to bed and writhed in agony. And she doesn't even like modern art.

In the morning, I played Mr Nurse and plumped up the cushions and threw up the blinds and I put T. on our traditional regime for recovering from stomach bugs: flat lemonade and bed rest, then in the evening dry toast with a thin scrape of vegemite, which will cure anything, and the next day whe was almost back to normal.

Meanwhile, I felt a bit odd but tried to hold off because I had to work Friday. I can do that with illness sometimes. I think most people can. That's why everyone gets sick on holidays. The making-money instinct has finally defeated the let-the-body-recover instinct.

It hit me on Saturday. I couldn't even sip water. The worst of it was that I had a raging thirst that couldn't be slaked. In the evening, I sat a glass of lemonade on the bedside table. I tossed and turned and didn't sleep. I gazed at the lemonade, took a tiny sip, felt sick and lay down.

At midnight I thought it was morning because it was light. The bedside lamp was on. Then I must have fallen asleep again because during the night, the glass of lemonade turned into a crystal clear stream of water with delicious bubbles of spritz rising out of it, hissing. I tried to drag myself towards it, craving water like a man in the desert, but the stream became a mirage. Then it stopped being a mirage and turned into a deep waterhole, cool and peaceful, and I crawled over the edge and dived into the precious clear liquid and tried to drink some of it but ended up with a mouthful of dust and dead beetles. Then I woke up.

*

They call it the Twenty-Four Hour Bug. Which is a good name because you know it will be over in a day, as it was for both of us, but getting through each of those twenty-four hours is like trying to roll a giant boulder half a mile and shoving it off an abyss.

22.9.06

One thing I didn’t know about Steve Irwin.

I didn’t know he grew up in my suburb, a few streets away, or that he first looked for critters along the Moonee Ponds Creek, where I did, in 1971. (I didn’t want to. It was a school project.) I learned this after his death.

Now he has been farewelled and in the words of his brave daughter Bindi, I will never see a crocodile without thinking of Steve Irwin. I’ll just get well out of the way first.

21.9.06

Food-free post. (May contain traces of nuts.)

The Monash Tollway used to be the Monash Freeway and before that it was the South Eastern Freeway and before that it was the South Eastern Arterial Road. But it has always been known colloquially as the South Eastern Carpark. If your car is automatic, you don’t actually need an accelerator pedal at all to drive on it in peak hour. You just select ‘Drive’ and your car will idle all the way to the city and all you need to do is to occasionally touch the brake to avoid hitting the 260 km/h-capable Lexus in front of you travelling at an average 7 km/h. Most of the work performed in city offices is actually done in cars on the way in and out of town. Because you don’t have to do a whole lot of driving at 7 km/h. You just have to be there; like a lighthouse keeper, without the vertigo or the stairs.

We were on the way out of town on the Monash about ten in the morning, a Friday, heading to the beach house for an extended long weekend. We took the new turn-off that originally just said ‘Cranbourne’ until about six months later when the two vital words ‘Mornington’ and ‘Peninsula’ were added because thousands of Peninsula-bound motorists were ending up in Berwick or Warragul or a cow paddock near Korumburra and wondering where the HELL someone had moved the Mornington Peninsula to. Who gets to decide what words go on freeway signs? And who gave them a job?

I don’t know. We were about seven kilometres south of Dandenong, near Lynbrook, which is an old aboriginal word meaning Thousands of Acres of Brand New Supposedly Environmentally-Friendly Houses None of Which Have Eaves or Verandahs But Do Have Huge Glass Walls and Enormous Open Plan Interiors that Cost a Fortune to Heat and Cool.

Just at the top of a rise, the car made a very small noise. It was an almost imperceptible sound, like a baby sighing or a summer breeze caressing a newly opened Hibiscus flower.

Then the almost imperceptible noise stopped and the engine stopped with it. All I could hear were the tyres rumbling along the road and the sound of T. saying ‘Do you think we’ll make it to that Shell service station?’ which was some three or four hundred metres away which is not a very long way in decimal currency but is forever when your engine has stopped and your car is coasting along without power.

Incredibly, the car came to a gentle, sedate, possibly even regal, stop twenty-five metres inside the service station right there on the apron next to the shop, in the shade.

The RACV guy was there in ten minutes. He got under the back of the car and eliminated fuel pump because it ticked and then he thought it was the ignition switch until I put the car in ‘Drive’ and the engine died again so he eliminated that and that’s when we called the tow truck. The RACV guy very kindly drove me back to Dandenong – the part of it where all the car rental places are – and I got the last available car in Australia, it being Friday. Someone had cancelled on a Hyundai Accent, and after signing seventeen insurance disclaimers and promising not to drive to Darwin in reverse, or through any swollen rivers in flood or off any cliffs, I was soon back at Shell where we transferred the luggage, waved the Volvo goodbye on the back of a tray truck, said Thank You to the ladies in the service station who had shown great hospitality to T. and William, who had been very patient, and were on our way.

*

We sat down to lunch outside the Blairgowrie café at one o’clock under a brightly shining sun. It was nice. I was hungry. Then we went over the road to the beach and William practically ran into the water, which is amazing because he can’t even walk yet.

20.9.06

I found it!

In the supermarket, bicarbonate of soda is in the flour aisle near the cake-making things (hundreds and thousands, patty pans, birthday candles, etc).

I know I’ll forget again.

17.9.06

Turn the lights down low. And eat your turnips.

I was browsing through my collection of old articles torn out of magazines. (Does anyone else do this or is it just me? I have probably an entire old-growth forest of old magazine tear-outs that I imagine I will one day get around to reading - along with War and Peace, A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu and Kevin Sheedy's cleverly-titled autobiography Sheeds.)

Anyway, I found an article about turnips by Simon Courtauld, who I must say is a great writer, just so you know I don't keep any old magazine articles about turnips.

Courtauld, a kind of forensic food historian (which I suppose would be a forensogustologist) writes that the turnip had been known from Roman times and was at one time regarded as an aphrodisiac. He quotes an unnamed culinary commentator as saying that the turnip 'augmenteth the sede of man, provoketh carnall lust'.

Well! Butter me up some turnips, slip into something more comfortable and put on some nice background music. And stop throwing valuable dollars away on oysters.

Aside from aphrodisiac qualities, turnips are also good to eat per se. Courtauld writes that turnips, being very good at absorbing fat, are ideal with lamb; while cooked whole, they are delicious with a sauce made with chicken stock, thick cream, chopped parsley and a little sugar. (Then again anything would be delicious under that lot, including tripe.)

He writes that in Scotland, mashed 'neeps' are offered with strongly-flavoured sausages such as venison; while in Ireland, they are fried in bacon fat and served with a few rashers. In Wales, a puree of turnip and potato is known as 'punchnep'. Courtauld himself recommends turnips cooked in butter with turmeric, cardamom, ground coriander and yogurt. Sounds good to me.

My favourite way to eat turnips? I wrote about it once.

14.9.06

The old curio shop.



Tea for three: William enjoys afternoon tea in the garden. (You can tell we're in the mountains - the teapot is wearing a woolly jumper.)

Way up there in the mountains is a sleepy little village called Wandiligong, but which is known locally as Wandi. Just five kilometres out of Bright, it's so close you can walk there. So I did, pushing William in his three-wheeler. T. drove, being just beyond walking the ten kilometre return trip at this stage.

There's not a lot to look at in Wandi if you ignore the breathtaking scenery, the heritage buildings, the river running through the valley, the glorious stands of trees, the spring wildflowers nodding away in the sun and the lilac mountains to either side.

There's not a lot to do either, apart from the annual Nut Festival. But there's a tiny shop that used to be something else in the 1800s, maybe a miner's cottage, maybe a post office, which sells interesting things that are not antiques and not curios but something in between. Things that you pick up and say, 'My grandmother had one of these in the 1960s and it was ancient then.' There's a Jaguar Mark II 3.8 grille in the front garden, sitting there like a gnome in the sun. No-one steals it.

The shop also does teas and you sit outside, in the garden, and the lady of the house brings everything out on a large anodised aluminium tray, circa 1955, stepping onto a timber verandah and down three steps to the lawn, where the tables are set. There are three tables. Off to the side there are trees with old wagon wheels leaning up against them, as if out of breath. Beside an overgrown shed is an ancient rocking horse which still rocks. I know because I put William on it and rocked him. Down the end of the yard, an old grey Labrador wakes up, stretches, wonders whether this is heaven or not and can't decide and goes to sleep again.

The scones were light and fluffy and had just the right amount of glaze on top, meaning hardly any. The jam was plum, home-made right there. Plum jam is often overlooked for the more glamorous berries but a good plum jam is superior to almost anything else. Not as sweet as the obvious berries, it has that magnificent earthy taste that complements a well-baked scone and thick cream so well. William enjoyed his scone and had great fun plastering jam and cream everywhere.

The tea was marvellous - genuine leaf tea. The place looks as if it has never seen teabags, let alone served them. Wandi only got electricity in 1955.

12.9.06

Distance.

Five years ago I was in the city and T. was in the country. We were in our country house period and I was commuting three times a week, staying in town and returning midweek and at weekends.

It was September 12 here. I knew nothing until I went out and retrieved the newspaper at half past six in the morning.

Then the phone rang. It was T. 'I don't want you to go to work,' she said, perfectly rationally and perfectly irrationally, both at the same time. It had happened on the other side of the world, but what's that got to do with it? Evil can happen anywhere.

I went to work and stared out from the top floor of my building at all the other buildings and thought thoughts that I never thought I would think and should never have had cause to think.

Distance that day meant nothing.

11.9.06

Put the kettle on.

I always wondered why it was so often said that making risotto was difficult. All that standing around stirring.

Then I realised. I grew up on porridge and have been making it ever since. Making porridge properly makes cooking risotto look like boiling the kettle. For a start, you're not cooking risotto at six in the morning half asleep and still trying to figure out what day it is.

I suppose it's a similar principle. Like rice, the oat grains need time to absorb the fluid, slowly, so they expel their gluten or whatever it is before taking up some more fluid and so on until the whole mess becomes creamy porridge.

Sometimes I still get it wrong and the grains remain discrete and chewy instead of melting into creaminess. Soaking overnight is meant to help and is it really too much trouble to put them in the pot and cover them with water before going to bed; along with putting out the cat and the bins, locking the back door, switching off the heater, turning off the lights and checking the baby? Yes, well maybe it is. There's nothing like running through checklists before going to bed to keep you awake until three in the morning.

Porridge purists might serve it with nothing but milk and maybe a little sugar, with a pinch of salt in the mix; but I add all sorts of things to it, after cooking, such as bananas and sultanas; sliced peaches and chopped walnuts; wheat germ, plain yogurt and honey; stewed apples and cinnamon. My favourite is just with honey and milk. And six cups of tea to wake me up.

When I was growing up it was always stewed apricots because of the tree. It gave millions of apricots each summer and there we would sit at the breakfast table at the height of summer eating hot porridge with chilled stewed apricots and I can taste it to this day. Exotic, sweet, homely and totally delicious.

What's your breakfast?

8.9.06

Low fat weblog.

Posting has been light lately, although since this weblog is usually about food, I suppose it should be 'lite' in a slender, slightly italic, sans serif font, maybe with a nice flowery asterisk over the 'i' instead of the dot.

That doesn't mean I haven't been eating. Or cooking. But before we eat, or even cook, we have to buy stuff at the market, the butcher and (gritted fingers typing here) the supermarket. (Sorry, Mr Keyboard.)

And before we buy stuff, we have to have money to pay for it. Sometimes I use a credit card, which in my view of the world, involves no actual expenditure. You can use it for months and you still have exactly the same bank balance.

But then something really weird happens. One day, usually a cloudy one, a Letter Arrives in the Mail containing a bill. A big bill. A very big bill. But it's a nice big bill, because in the section where it tells you how much you have to pay this month, the amount bears absolutely no relationship to the total outstanding amount. Like, you could owe $21,357.16 on your credit card, but the box that tells you the mimimum amount payable this month says: $1.56.

That's why I love my credit card. It is so forgiving. So understanding.

And that's why I have to work very, very hard this week. And very, very hard next week. And maybe even the one after that. That's why I haven't posted much lately.

Is it just me, or do other people have credit cards?

4.9.06

Five meals ...

... to eat before you die* was the subject of a brilliant post by Neil at Food For Thought, involving wonderful things like wild barramundi and boletus edulis.

Neil kindly invited my contribution.

1. A bowl of onion soup, a loaf of bread and a glass of red wine in a tiny café in a village in rural France in spring, followed by an afternoon nap under an ancient tree on a hillside.

2. A piece of cheese, some fresh laid eggs and some good ham from a friendly farmer's wife during an extended walk through rural England on a warm day in high summer.

3. Some quickly chargrilled fresh-caught squid and a glass of white wine on a balcony on a Greek Island with the sun sinking into the sea.

4. A plate of borscht and some vodka late at night in the dining car of an express train in the middle of a Siberian winter with snow hammering on the windows.

5.

Can someone suggest number 5?

(*Part of a joint project - we seem to have gotten over the word 'meme', hurray! - developed by Melissa at The Traveler's Lunchbox, where she is tabulating all responses into a masterlist - email her yours or comment at the post and she will add them. Over a hundred lists of five greatest meals can already be seen at the post. Interesting and appetising reading!)

1.9.06

Anyway, they originated in Afghanistan. Or somewhere.

As part of my one-man global campaign to raise the public profile of the humble Brussels sprout, I present the recipe below.

I’ve always loved Brussels sprouts. It’s the name I object to. They sound like diminutive Belgians instead of tasty green vegetables with an earthy but mild flavour and a texture that is kind of creamy-soft yet holds together beautifully. Brussels sprouts never go floppy and fall apart like some other vegetables I could name. You can depend on Brussels sprouts.

Brussels sprouts with bacon and pine nuts on polenta.

Boil, or over-boil, depending on your preference, your sprouts.

Dice some very good bacon (as against bad bacon, of which there is plenty around) and sizzle it in a pan until it is almost crisp, at which point throw in some very finely chopped red onion and a handful of pine nuts. Take the pan off the flame after a minute or two or when the pine nuts are just starting to brown.

Meanwhile, cook up a pot of polenta. Actually, start the polenta first. It takes longest unless you use the instant stuff. Feel free to throw in plenty of your favourite flavour enhancers – butter, parmigiano, olive oil, salt, pepper. Or all of them. Make it nice and creamy and cheesy.

Drain the sprouts very well and toss them with the warm, crispy bacon and toasted pinenuts. Serve over the cheesy polenta and top it all with sour cream.

That’s it.

Now go out and buy Brussels sprouts!