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

30.11.06

Herb or spice? That is the question.

What is the difference between herbs and spices?

I researched the question. Nobody agrees. Here are some of the answers I found:

* Herbs are grown in the northern hemisphere; spices in the southern. (That makes the parsley in my garden a spice. Unlikely.)

* Herbs are medicinal; spices are not. (Like brandy is medicinal and vodka is just for fun?)

* Herbs are the leaves; spices are the seeds. (What about cinnamon? Isn't that the bark of a sub-tropical tree?)

* Herbs are or used to be green; spices are not. (I like this simplistic theory - it would save a lot of argument if it were true.)

And

* If it's in a brown jar it's a spice; if it's in a yellow jar, it's a(n) herb. (Mine are in assorted plastic tubs, cello packets and screw-top clear glass jars.)

And from The Guardian:

* A Herb is a respected jazz musician; a Spice is one of five talentless C-grade celebrities.

Help me out, please, with serious or not so serious opinions.

29.11.06

Where was I?

Cooking fish. It was great. But there were leftovers.

Garlicky Fisherman's Pie.

I stripped the skate flesh from the cartilage (it's dead easy, I don't know why people are frightened of fish, it's easier than negotiating a T-bone steak), chopped it roughly and blended it with some just-boiled and mashed potatoes, a cup of milk, a good amount of olive oil, some chopped parsley and spring onion and plenty of salt and pepper.

Into a baking dish went this glistening fragrant mess. I thatched it with a roof of grated colby, placed the dish into a hot oven and baked it until the cheese was brown and crunchy.

Possibly the finest fisherman's pie I have ever tasted. Even if I do say so myself.

26.11.06

Warm Friday night. Let's barbecue some fish.

The tops of poplars reach away to the east, way above roofs of terracotta tiles. Off to the south, lillypilly canopies turn gold in the setting sun. Birds sqawk and shriek in them. Beyond the fenceline, red brick chimneys poke upwards here and there; while along the fence itself, a white cat moves silently, as if on tiptoes, before disappearing so suddenly you don't know if it was really there.

Sit in the back garden and that's what you'll see, if you look around. Of course, you could just sit at the table and have a drink and try to catch up on the week's papers you haven't read yet. That's what I usually do. There could be fifty cats.

After a while, the barbecue is hot enough to grill. I use coals and you have to be patient. Don't watch it. Go inside and make a salad and that will speed things up.

Barbecued skate in soy, lemon and garlic.

Marinate a piece of skate in plenty of chopped garlic, the juice of a lemon and some good soy. I always use tamari. I bought the fish in the morning so it had about ten hours to soak. Score the fish along the cartilage lines to let the juices in.

To go with the skate, make some skordalia. Even though the fish has a kind of eastern flavour with the soy, I find the potato and garlic suits it perfectly - as it does any grilled fish. Mash up four cloves of garlic with the flesh of a couple of boiled or baked potatoes and a few tablespoons of white vinegar. Tart, smooth and with a magnificent depth of flavour, it complements the fish beautifully.

Now cook the skate. Throw it on a very hot open grill. Turn after about four or five minutes depending on the thickness of the fish, brush with more of the marinade. Pour a glass of good New Zealand sauvignon blanc.

Meanwhile, grill some strips of zucchini, eggplant and red pepper brushed with olive oil. Turn them when they start to blister.

When the fish is done, serve immediately with the skordalia on top, the grilled vegetables piled up in little fireplace stacks on the side and another glass of sauvignon blanc. Delicious.

There's that cat again. Or was it?

23.11.06

Wagyu: don't order it lean or well-done.

Wagyu is everywhere, like Bert Newton. But unlike Bert, Wagyu is often mistaken.

Wagyu is the breed. It can be bred anywhere. Kobe Wagyu is Wagyu bred to Kobe specifications, but I understand it can be bred and grown anywhere in the world and then shipped back to Japan for preparation to Kobe standards and then re-shipped. So if you are eating genuine Kobe Wagyu, it may be very a well-travelled cow.

Ed Charles in The Australian takes an appetising look at preparing Wagyu in various cuts at Jamon Sushi in South Yarra:

Our first taste is a tartare of chopped fillet sitting on top of an upturned shiitake mushroom. Easy. The next dish is more of a challenge: cooked tongue cut from the tip as well as a slice from further down the organ. Generally, wagyu doesn't taste beefy, yet the firm tongue tip is just that. The other cut is softer. We are also given chunks of muscle from the tongue's root, which has the texture of leftover roast beef.

Bit of a change from the jellied tongue sandwiches of childhood. Then:

Time for chuck steak, but not in a stew, as you might expect. Greenfield painstakingly slices this cut raw with his handmade Japanese knife. The fat protecting the meat is already melting under the blade. What's amazing is that Greenfield serves the raw meat nigiri-style: in other words, he simply tops a warm, sticky football-shaped clump of rice with a slice of the meat ... The meat shines: it has an appearance and texture like tuna.

Don't try that with your $6.99 chuck steak.

21.11.06

Leave out the egg.

Yesterday was 36 celsius. Today's forecast top is 39. Less than a week ago some parts of Melbourne failed to top ten degrees, meaning there has been a variation in daily peak temperature of thirty degrees celsius within the same week. Are other places like this? I like variety but this is ridiculous. I pegged out a load of washing this morning and it was dry by the time I got all the way around the rotary hoist, like the guys painting the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

*

Last night I made up a pasta dish from things we had in the fridge. Kind of a mixture, but let's call it pasta nicoise.

I slowly fried some red capsicum strips, right down low so they didn't burn; boiled some diagonally cut crisp green beans; sliced some previously boiled new potatoes (they were in the fridge, excess from a weekend potato salad) into quarter inch discs and boiled some penne until it was done.

To complete the dish, I drained the pasta leaving just a tablespoon or so of the cooking water in the pan, lay the capsicum strips, the beans and the potato discs on top and then added a can of good tuna in olive oil, some black olives, a few shards of red onion and a scattering of capers. Forget the egg, it's too much with the pasta. Then I put the lid back on the pan and let the whole thing sweat, just for a couple of minutes until the latter ingredients warmed up.

A nice dish for a summer night and an interesting variation on an old theme.

*

The original - salad nicoise - is one of my favourites. I make it when people come over for a barbecue or a lunch or a dinner. I even have a special dish for it. You wouldn't call it small, it's about the size of this one. The potatoes go round the edge and everything else sits in the middle, piled up, with the tuna on top, freshly seared. Eyes pop out of people's heads when I present it at the table. If I can find room.

*

However, the salad 'nicoise' I remember best was at an expensive restaurant in South Yarra during our early courting days; a time when swanky eating places go with the territory along with arthouse movies, wasting entire mornings or afternoons drinking caffe lattes and eating carrot cake in cafes and staying at B&Bs with frilly curtains, gingham tablecloths and hosts who just about sit in your lap at breakfast. Thank goodness we got married.

The particular salad nicoise at the restaurant in South Yarra (whose name escapes me but it was in the Como centre) sat on solid foundations of halved new potatoes and rose up from there, triumphant, like a tower of Pisa except it didn't lean. All the way up, segments of tomato and egg formed the brickwork while green beans served as crossmembers - pull one out and the whole thing would collapse. The interior was filled with olives and red onion and shreds of lettuce and at the top, five capers sat on a disc of seared tuna like sparrows on a roof. I remember trying to eat it from the top down, like dismantling a derelict building. That's difficult when you're courting.

17.11.06

Melbourne suffers severe climate change; Kitchen Hand reverts to winter favourite.

The US Chief Weather Forecaster and part-time filmmaker, Al Gore, is in Melbourne again and to honour his visit this week we have put on EVERY kind of weather. He'll go home either very happy or very confused.

(Mr Gore informed The Age newspaper that Nuclear is Not the Answer. Sixty years after bombing the crap out of Japan, the US tells a small foreign country that nukes are not the answer for non-military purposes? The Japanese would be amused.)

*

Meanwhile, over at Kitchen Hand's place, it was dinner time. It had been raining and hailing and sleeting and snowing all day, as if it couldn't make up its mind what it wanted to do. And it was cold, the mercury hovering around nine degrees celsius. Just the right weather for:

Steak with Green Peppercorns.

Take two steaks - porterhouse is ideal but I used eye fillet - and sear them in a little olive oil and butter to your preferred doneness. I like mine blue, so thirty seconds either side on a very hot pan or grill is enough. Tracy likes hers well done. I try to explain to her what damage she is doing to the environment - all those carbon emissions! - but she won't listen, so I just have to char the thing and to hell with the environment.

Now comes the fun part. Take some brandy and slosh a tablespoonful or so into the pan. Shake the pan back and forth, tilting it slightly, and the brandy will ignite. (KITCHEN HAND HINT: Don't tip the brandy straight from the bottle.) I was out of brandy so I had to use some cognac (Camus, which is so good, the French named one of their best writers after it) but oh! the aroma! and oh! the curtains nearly caught fire. But not quite.

Now remove the steaks to a warming platter. Throw a can of those dear little green Madagascar peppercorns into the pan along with their vinegar, closely followed by a good glob of thick cream: the real stuff, not the type with gelatine and thickeners in it.

Shake the pan to combine the peppercorns and their vinegar with the cream. It will start reducing straight away. Pour over the steaks.

Serve with garlic mashed potatoes and a simple salad of greens dressed in a nice vinaigrette and some finely chopped parsley stalks. And a glass of red. Just to warm you up.

15.11.06

Two days ago we were swimming in the sea. Today it snowed.

Well, it's frozen and slippery so it might as well be snow.



Like the car? It's completely original and has over 440,000 kilometres on the clock or whatever that is in miles. The right headlamp guard was taken out by a cockatoo (might have been a galah) early one morning in 2002 on the Northern Highway just south of Elmore and I haven't been able to find another since (the guard, that is - there are still plenty of cockatoos around). I'm thinking of removing the left one to even up the look of the car but let's not rush things.

Here's the front lawn:

14.11.06

Baked pasta stuffed with veal and ricotta.

I can't believe that in three weeks we had a new baby, the 'old' baby was sick for five days, my sister finally formalised her divorce, the new baby caught and recovered from bronchiolitis, my mother finally booked in for serious surgery, my oldest son flew to Finland for another three weeks work and the weather turned cold again. I think I did some work as well. Also, they ran the Melbourne Cup. A horse won.

So there hasn't been a lot of posting of actual recipes. Let's resume with a good one.

I don't know why home-made pasta frightens some people. It's not that hard. Quite frankly, when you've done this a few times, it's easier than putting together a Sunday roast.

Make the pasta.

First we will make three sheets of pasta, each of a different colour. Each will take a cup of plain flour, half a teaspoon of salt and an egg. For the green pasta, add two tablespoons of leaves - rocket, spinach, basil, whatever you have. For the yellow, half a teaspoon of saffron dissolved in a tablespoon of hot water. For the red, a tablespoon of tomato paste or some pureed baked red capsicum. Mound the flour and salt in each case, place the egg and colouring agent in the middle and knead into three doughs, adding water or flour if necessary. Wrap and rest for thirty minutes. (Not you, the pasta.)

While it's resting, do the stuffing. See below.

Roll the pasta out into thin sheets. Use a machine if you have one. We don't have one. We have a rolling pin. It works a treat. Cut the sheets into strips a couple of inches wide.

Prepare the stuffing.

Gently fry a chopped onion in olive oil for a few minutes. Add half a kilogram of chopped veal and a few leaves of sage and a few of oregano. Season with salt and pepper to your taste. Brown and then add half a cup of white wine. (Something drinkable but don't waste your money. A Dan Murphy cleanskin is ideal and will be good enough to drink the rest with the meal. Or even while you cook it. If you prefer a branded wine, try the De Bortoli Chardonnay Semillon. At $4.99 it's a steal.)

Where were we? Oh, yes: simmer the meat for twenty minutes. Now take out the sage and oregano and add a little minced thyme. (It's not that you're changing your mind about the herbs, it's just that the flavours do a kind of interchange-bench swap, like resting a full-forward after he's kicked a goal.)

Now process the meat and juices to form a paste. Fold through this 250 grams of fresh ricotta, an egg and a quarter cup of cheese. You can use Parmigiano Reggiano if you're throwing money away this week, but the Perfect brand or any substitute is just fine.

Pipe the mixture onto the sheets of pasta and roll them up into cylinders. Cut them diagonally.

Make the sauce.

Melt two tablesoons of butter in a pan and add a quarter cup of flour, whisking: and then add two cups of hot milk and half a teaspoon of salt. Whisk, whisk. Bring to boil, them simmer low until it thickens.

Bake the pasta.

Spread some of the sauce on the bottom of a baking dish, arrange the stuffed pasta cylinders in the dish radially - like the rising sun, except it's multi-coloured - top with the rest of the sauce then a further two tablespoons of melted butter and a further cupful of Parmigiano, grated. Bake for half an hour in a pre-heated oven at about 180 celsius.

Is there any wine left? I might open another bottle, then.

12.11.06

1965.

When I saw this shot of Janis Gore's family, I thought: bring out those old photos.

Here's mine. I'm front and centre, age eight. The two older children are not in the picture; possibly one is behind the camera. The youngest is three years away from being on this earth.



Over to everyone else.

8.11.06

It helps if you like food.

In today's Melbourne Age was this article about collecting cookbooks, featuring a specialist bookshop called Books For Cooks.

The item appears in the Money section rather than in Epicure (which itself can be found under the Entertainment tab rather than Life and Style on the paper's website.)

Whatever. The article's author nails an eternal truth:

An example of quality is the "beautiful, elegant writing" of Elizabeth David whose books, he believes, helped changed the way the English-speaking world thought about European casual food.

How true. It's always about the writing, no matter the subject. People want to read good writing. But then:

Books classed as "different" include publications such as the Liberace cookbook. White says this type of book tends to be collectible because it's "quirky and unusual and there were only one or two print runs".

So even though a book might not have sold because it was rubbish, its very rarity ensures collectability (I prefer this spelling for the noun, it looks better with fewer 'i's).

So there's your formula if you want to make money out of cookbooks: invest in both kinds - really good ones, and really bad ones.

By the way, in a glaring error, the article omits the bookshop's address: it's in Gertrude Street, Fitzroy. Or google Cooks For Books.

6.11.06

William helped, of course.



By paddling in the freshly watered garden bed. He loved it. It's okay, it's clean dirt. The hot bath afterwards was fun, as well.

4.11.06

Gold bunny invades garden.

Well, it hasn't exactly invaded yet. So far it is just sitting in the corner.

I put my Gold Bunny in on Thursday, the day it rained more than for the whole of October, so it should be off to a good start.

It will eventually cover a fence and be seen from inside the house, a cascade of glorious yellow.

2.11.06

Barbecued Tasmanian Alantic salmon with grilled orange pepper and zucchini.

They stole an hour from the morning and gave it to the night.

Waking at five thirty to brilliant sunshine was nice, but ultimately a waste. For one, I don't always wake at five thirty and for two, there's not a lot you can do that early. I mean, you can go for a walk or plunge into the sea or make a cup of tea and sit out on the porch and watch the birds messing up the garden beds and throwing the mulch that you swept up only last night all over the pathway; but you can't have a barbecue.

But you can at night.

Summer's first barbecue is just for practice. Just to check everything out and see if it still works. Just to see if you still know how to light a fire and not make clouds of white smoke or singe your fingers or burn the place down.

The old iron barbecue is still as solid as a supercharged Bentley, and nearly as heavy; but the outdoor table has cracked and will need replacing. The view hasn't changed. The poplars rise over the line of rooves and shimmer gold in the late sun, some birds curve and dart across the sky and a single cotton cloud turns pink and drifts out of sight.

What did we eat? Orange pepper brushed with oil and grilled. Zucchini strips, likewise. A hot potato salad with red onion and shreds of rocket. The main event: barbecued Tasmanian Atlantic salmon marinated in tamari, ginger, garlic and lemon juice. A glass of chardonnay, one of the Dan Murphy cleanskin specials. It was just fine.