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


Spring racing carnival tip.

Football's over for the year and we're well into the spring racing carnival. The Melbourne Cup runs next Tuesday - 3200 metres, one and a half laps of Flemington, clockwise - and once that's over, you're staring down the barrel of Christmas.

Isn't that a nice prospect? Of course, Christmas junk has been in the supermarkets for weeks, probably since Easter. Today, walking through IGA, I saw a rack of Simpsons Advent calendars.

Moving suddenly onto the recipe, because there is no possible segue, unless you can think of one.

Prosciutto-wrapped chicken breasts with cheese and pesto.

Slice two chicken breasts in half, but not all the way through. Stuff them with a generous amount of pesto and a slice of cheese. I used a nice creamy havarti.

Now wrap the breasts in slices of prosciutto. If this is very thinly sliced, its texture will ensure it stretches and holds well when wrapped carefully. Otherwise use toothpicks.

Now cook the wrapped breasts very gently in a little olive oil to start with; just until the prosciutto begins to crisp, then add some white wine - maybe half a glass - and a few pink peppercorns. Place the lid on the pan and simmer very gently, turning the breasts after several minutes, depending on their thickness. When they're almost done, toss in some good cream, remove the cooked breasts, raise the heat to reduce the sauce and then pour it over the chicken to serve.

On the side, spinach cooked with garlic, and mashed potatoes flecked with shards of semi-dried tomato. Drink a chardonnay with backbone.

Oh, the tip: cook a couple of extra breasts as above, chill them overnight, slice them across the grain and lay the slices, with rocket or radicchio, in fresh baguettes. (Keep them chilled on the way to the races. I'm amazed at how many people produce 'warm' chicken salads and other unchilled chicken items at spring and summer events.)

Bonus tip: Kibbutz in Saturday's Victoria Derby at Flemington. But don't put the house on it.


Spring cleaning.

Yes, that ti-tree and moonah is nice, but it throws a lot of rubbish, especially as it matures and ages. The beach house is not on an overly large block but I've spent days cleaning up. Several older trunks were rotten and had to come out; the younger ones have thrown down enough junk to pose a hazard come high summer. The foliage and finer twigs dry out, drop off and make a carpet of flammable material; while wind regularly blows down larger branches.

Summers around the world this past year seem to have produced a greater number of particularly disastrous fires, or is it just that I'm more aware of them? Anyway, I'm taking no chances. Rake, rake, rake.

Then there's painting to be done. Sea air is hell on woodwork.


Garden party.

Five days out, the forecast was 21 degrees and fine. Two days out, 24 and fine, with late rain. A day prior and we were looking at 31. On the morning of the garden party for Thomas's first birthday, the Bureau had revised yet again: 34 degrees and windy, with late rain. 34 is getting uncomfortable, but 'windy' can mean anything from ruffled tablecloths to detached roof shingles.

We proceeded, with one eye on the sky and the other on small children climbing under the table. The wind stayed reasonably civilised and cloud cover kept the temperature down to about 32. It was very humid. The air smelled of rain and about one drop hit my head around three. I doubt it would have made it to the ground in any case.

The last guests departed around six.

It was still 27 degrees at midnight. A cool breeze blew through the house early next morning.

Thomas enjoyed his first birthday, thank you very much.


The Return of the Falcon.

If pigeons annoy you when you're trying to enjoy an uninterrupted five minute conversation with a cup of coffee at Brunetti's in the city square, help is on its way. The help takes the form of a 350k/mh air-to-air missile that takes out the pigeons out mid-flight. They will never know what hit them.

The falcons were wiped out, as I mentioned in November 2004, by some idiot poisoning the pigeons, obviously unaware that the poison would move along the food chain and subsequently kill their predators, the falcons.

Now, peregrines have returned to city pigeon duty:

'The fastest animal on earth, a peregrine falcon dives on its prey at up to 350km/h. The sheer force of the bird's striking talons stuns the doomed victim, which is then whisked back home to a simple box, filled with sand, fixed to the window ledge. ... The new chicks, two males and a female, are believed to be 17 days old. Their grey-white fluffy down will be shed in about a fortnight as they prepare to take wing. Volunteers yesterday weighed, measured and banded the chicks. The protective parents flew about like mad missiles, dive-bombing and screeching until their chicks were returned.'

Are the parents the grown-up chicks from an earlier brood of the poisoned falcons?

'The parents are thought to be about four years old. The female has a 1m wingspan and at 1.2kg is more than 400g heavier than her mate. Victorian Peregrine Project co-ordinator Victor Hurley said the birds would remain faithful to their new home, returning to breed each year.'

'Brood', not 'litter'. Corrected.


Canisha's blueberry pancakes.

When I mentioned her in my first post at this weblog on Sunday 9 November 2003, she was six, almost seven. She will turn eleven next month.

Canisha and her younger sisters visited last week. She read books to William. It seems not so long that she was as young as he, and we read books to her. She is William's niece; William's much-older-brother's eldest daughter.

During the afternoon, we cooked and ate blueberry pancakes.

Blueberry pancakes.

I do pancakes by consistency. I never measure the ingredients, but mete out milk to the point at which the batter runs like honey on a hot day. Is that exact enough? Of course not. What honey? How hot the day?

Never mind. Pancakes are rarely tripped up by the recipe; more often by the pan. They can stick. I try to pour the batter into the half-tablespoonful of oil I add to the pan, so that it pushes the oil outwards like a concentric wave and creates a barrier. This usually works but sometimes doesn't.

I once bought a non-stick pancake pan; but the pancakes didn't sizzle, they just kind of cooked silently and sulkily and the results seemed somewhat rubbery and were devoid of that fine tracery of sear that results from the pancakes sizzling on the pan.

Place a cup of plain flour in a mixing bowl. Break an egg into it. Add a cup of milk. Stir. Add more or less milk depending on how thick or thin you like your batter and, ultimately, your pancakes.

Open a can of blueberries and place them in a pot with their juice. Heat. Add a tablespoonful of butter. Stir until melted and blended and slightly reduced.

Heat your pan, add half a tablespoonful of oil and immediately pour the batter into the oil. I pour in enough batter to result in pancakes of about eight inches in diameter. (This is a complex mathematical formula involving the speed of outward advance of the batter and the heat of the pan; but since I was no good at mathematics, I originally kind of played hit and miss until I got it right - 40,000 pancakes later - and then I just kept doing what I was doing after that. Slight exaggeration on the numbers, as usual.)

Jerk the pan to free the pancake from sticking. You may need assistance with an implement until you are expert; then it becomes second nature. Later, you can even learn to assess exactly the right time to flip the pan. This is usually when sufficient little airholes have appeared at the top of the batter. Too early and it's batter splatter; too late and the first side is burnt. But it's a lot of fun learning.

Flip it over and a minute later it's done. Flip it onto a plate and it's plain sailing after that and the pancakes pile high. You do need to watch the heat under the pan, however.

Two pancakes to a plate, blueberry sauce over the top. Maple syrup on the side to pour as necessary. Scoop of ice-cream if you wish.


What to eat with the Sunday papers. And my favourite asparagus salad, via Nice.

I picked up a steamed new season's spear, plunged it into the pesto, sour cream and yogurt mixture, then raised it to my mouth.

It snapped sweetly, making a faint 'snick'. Some food even sounds delicious.

Asparagus is in season.

Steaming aparagus and dipping it into your favourite sauce, dip, dressing or whatever is probably the ultimate way to enjoy it; even if it is sometimes a little indelicate.

For a late Sunday breakfast in summer, I sometimes steam asparagus and dress it with a light vinaigrette and serve it on oval plates alongside two or three very lightly poached eggs and barely toasted, buttered sourdough bread. You dip the asparagus spears into the egg and afterwards you mop up the egg remains with the barely toasted sourdough bread while idly searching the Sunday papers for something worth reading. Dip, dip, dip. Flick, flick, flick.

This year, to start the asparagus season, I made my favourite salad, a kind of hybrid nicoise salad.

First, I hauled out my large, white, flat, round salad platter from its winter resting place under the kitchen sink. It's too big to go anywhere else; unless I keep it in the shed or the boot of the car or under the bed or somewhere.

Around the edge of the platter: quartered boiled waxy potatoes alternating with quartered vine-ripened tomatoes. (If you can't find good tomatoes, leave them out. Waxy potatoes are good, waxy tomatoes are billiard balls.)

Inside the circle of potatoes and tomatoes: chopped cos.

Scattered about: large, black, fat home-pickled olives. A dozen or fifteen steamed round beans. A dozen or fifteen spears of asparagus, lightly steamed.

In the centre, on top of the cos: a one-inch thick tuna steak, seared on the outside and still just slightly pink in the middle. (Sear it in lemon and garlic and shower it with cracked black pepper towards the end.)

Around the tuna: six eggs, lightly poached. Or boiled (so that the yolk is still slightly runny) and quartered.

Scattered over everything: Capers. Anchovies. Parsley. Sea salt. More cracked black pepper.

Finally: Not genuine, but delicious - shavings of fine parmesan cheese.

If your construction skills are good, the salad should now resemble something like one of the pyramids. Take care pulling out an asparagus spear. The whole thing might come crashing down.

Asparagus fact: White asparagus are just green ones that grow under the ground or in the dark. Either that, or green ones are merely white ones exposed to the sun. You decide.


Two years.

The almost-ill-fated move was October 2005 and it seems like just weeks ago. (Reminder: never move with Max.)

Now, two years down the road, let's take a look around the back garden.

East fence: was totally bare; now all covered in jasmine, two types to make it a little more interesting, and now all in bloom. Throw up a window in the house, and in comes the scent.

South fence: was totally bare, syzygium australe now seven feet tall with a bullet. Look! It has edible berries!

West fence: was totally bare, viburnum hedge now four feet tall and growing.

Lawn central: ornamental pear, ten feet tall. Will provide good summer shade in years to come.

Now let's take a walk down the path, through the side gate and into the front yard, which slopes north directly into the sun. Along the eastern boundary, the weigela I planted as a one-foot shrub is growing strongly and will create a hedge with the older ones already there. They bear masses of deep pink, smallish flowers. The Queen Elizabeth rose, pink, almost crimson, has doubled in four weeks after a particularly savage pruning. QE arrived from the last house in a pot and seemed to suffer dreadfully last summer.

The beds running along the fence and around the house now have a larger retaining wall, allowing for deeper mulching. In and among the shrubs are flowers and vegetables of various types; regular readers will recall mustard and other greens and various herbs and lettuces. Along the front fence remains the hedge of ever-reliable pink-flowered pelargonium. It has been there probably forty years.

It all looks nice right now: around the 'L' of the white house flows green lawn, all bordered by shrubbery of a deeper green and flecked all over with shades of pink. Is there a 'stop' button for gardens?


Print, stick, cook.

Back in August, Dr. Alice linked (scroll down) to
this list of 101 summer recipe ideas published by the New York Times.

I found it brilliant in its simplicity. Every recipe is appealing and is described concisely in a line or two. Some of my all-time favourites are listed in some form or another; such as 5, 34 and 96.

Print it out, stick in on your fridge and cross them off as you cook your way through a long hot summer.

Thanks to Dr. Alice.

The lake. Blossoming cherry and tree ferns obscure towering mountain ash and eucalypt.


The lawn overlooking the lake. Yes, he had to run down it about twenty times. Only tumbled over once.



The hills are in the East and they are soft blue at this time of year and if you go up into them on a quiet weekday you will be a world away from the suburbs they rise up from.

I took a right turn off the highway and away from the furniture barns and the traffic snarls and the giant intersections that would take five minutes to cross on foot, and pointed the car into the relative quiet of the lower slopes. Then we climbed.

The first thing you notice up here is the size of the plants. Everything grows larger due to the crisp air, the cooler temperatures and the rain. I rounded a sweeping curve and an immense photinia hedge came into view, glistening in the sun and hiding an old house except for the top of its faded tiled roof and a red-brick chimney with twin terracotta pots. Viburnum with dense clumps of white flowers gave way to rows of camellias and an occasional jacaranda. Eucalypts made a grey-green background and, around another curve, a massive late-flowering rhododendron canopy appeared, almost too red, as if a sloppy artist had painted outside the lines.

More winding and climbing; tighter now, with hairpin bends. And then the mountain ash appeared. Nothing prepares you for these. They are jaw-droppingly huge and they grow next to the road. The bases of some of their boles actually encroach into the roadway. Drive carefully here.

The gates of the Alfred Nicholas Memorial Gardens were open but the gardens were not doing much business. I crunched into the car park, a flat gravelled parcel cut into the gum trees on the opposite side of the road to the gardens. A sign told us where to cross the road and we crossed the road and paid some coins into the honour tin inside the gates. '$6.70 for adults?' Tracy wondered, 'on an honour system? Wouldn't it be easier to have a round figure? Who's got the right change?' I thought about it for a while but couldn't think of a reason, so I slipped fourteen dollars in coins into the slot and took a flyer out of the perspex-flapped timber dispenser. We walked along a gravelled path towards the lake, following the map on the flyer.

Alfred Nicholas didn't invent aspirin; but he and his brother were granted the rights to produce it in Australia when they replicated the formula after supplies dried up during the First World War. The laboratory was right up here in the hills of Sassafras, next to the gardens, which Alfred lavished with imports. The story goes that he imported a Scammel truck from England in 1930 and drove it around the streets of Melbourne buying mature European specimens and trucking them up here to plant in his garden. Imagine: it's the Depression and everyone is short of money and someone pulls up outside your house in a giant truck and says, How much for the elm in your front garden? There's a movie script in this.

The gardens are twenty acres and they fall away into a natural valley and at the bottom of the valley is a little lake, very shady and with a kind of Japanese theme - cute little raised timber bridges, water trickling from a mechanised waterfall and cherry trees spreading over the scene. They were in blossom.

We sat on a sweeping lawn beneath a giant sequoia overlooking the lake and ate a picnic lunch. The sequoia wasn't giant yet, but that is its name. It was maybe fifty or sixty feet tall, just a baby.

Then William presented Tracy with a little wrapped package that we had smuggled in. It was her birthday present.