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

27.2.07

Newspaper food writers vs. online food writers.

Last week I mentioned The Weekend Australian’s Food Detective column (17-18 February) in which Elizabeth Meryment warned restaurateurs to be ‘wary of diners taking notes and what seem to be more (sic) than happy snaps at the table.’

The column renewed its attack on online food writing at the weekend, warning of a ‘similarly concerning trend: the proliferation of online restaurant guides, particularly those which allow diner reviews’.

What's so concerning about diners writing about their restaurant experiences online? Food Detective exemplifies, quoting a diner who posted the following review at an online restaurant forum:

' "What a shame great food is ruined by amateur service ... When paying nearly $50 for an aged steak it is an indulgence. One that should be rewarded with attentive and professional service ... (but) the waiter had little knowledge of the menu and by her own admission had had no orientation to it despite having worked there for several weeks. She spent so much time dealing with complaints from other customers she not surprisingly had little time to look after our party of four".'

I don't quite see Food Detective's point in quoting this. She ripostes with a gibe at the name of the restaurant the anonymous diner had chosen to review: ‘Detective’s not quite sure why anybody would pay $50 for a steak at a place called Ribs & Rumps ...’

Ouch! OK, so Ribs and Rumps is a hokey name. But the place appears to take its meat seriously. From its website: King Island has become world renowned for producing the finest beef ... rolling green hills and pastures that stretch as far as the eye can see. The high salt content in the air gives the pastures a very special quality which in turn flavours the beef ... because of the island's isolation from the mainland there are no growth stimulants, chemicals, arial spraying or tick dipping that would affect the composition of the beef ... total unpolluted ecology ... the climate is cool and the rainfall perfect ...

If the steak is that good, I don't care if the place is called Uncle Joe's Greasy Spoon. If I were the chef at Ribs & Rumps and someone sneered about my work like that in a national newspaper, I’d throw a pan across the kitchen. Maybe two.

Yet another piece on food bloggers appears in Tuesday's Herald Sun. It's not online - you'll have to stump up for a hard copy. The story focusses on the anonymity of food bloggers in reviewing retaurants. Here, it should be noted that both Food Detective (February 17) and Mike Bruce in the Herald Sun article mention or interview Ed Charles as a food blogger. Ed Charles is a very good food blogger but he is also a writer for both The Australian and the Herald Sun. (Food Detective disclosed the connection, Bruce did not.) To me, this reads as lazy journalism.

For the record, I read many online food writers and many newspaper food writers. The quality varies greatly in both camps.

23.2.07

When everything else succumbs to drought, sage thrives.

Apparently it grows through rocks around the Mediterranean, so no wonder it hasn't turned its toes up like so many of its fellow herbs in my garden. (At the beach house, there is a five-foot rosemary bush that hasn't seen a drop of water in ages. There would be enough rosemary on it to make a lamb or mutton roast of every sheep in Australia. Possibly New Zealand.)

So if you're drought-affected, plant sage or rosemary. (Of course, once you do, it will rain for a fortnight. It's like washing your car or lighting a cigarette at the bus stop. Also, have you noticed that when you try to look at a street directory in the car, a red light will immediately turn green?)

Yet again, I digress.

Gnocchi with sage butter.

Take a kilogram and a half of old potatoes, cook them in their jackets and then peel them and rice the flesh. Mound this on your work surface and make a crater, maybe even a caldera, and tip into this the yolks of three eggs, a handful of flour and the same of parmesan. Combine, folding inwards. Add flour to mitigate wetness. It all depends on your potatoes. Old, floury ones work well.

Once you have a nice consistency, roll out and cut sections about an inch or so long, depending on how you like your gnocchi. Personally, I am a large, freeform gnocchi person. You, on the other hand, may prefer the neat, even, fork-tined type. So you've rolled them and cut them or shaped them. Now let them stand. Stet.

While the gnocchi rest, melt a couple of tablespoonsful of butter in a pot and brown it. Place some sage leaves in the butter and switch off the heat.

Cook the gnocchi. Place them carefully into gently boiling salted and oiled water and lift out, equally carefully, when they float about on the surface. Drain and plate. Pour sage butter over, then scatter more parmesan.

Accompany with strong leaves; rocket, sorrel etc. Wine? I prefer a red with this. Even in this heat.

21.2.07

How to eat in the heat.

What do you eat when it's hot? I like barbecue and salads. Easy grills with flavours appealing enough to raise an appetite when all you really want to do is sip a cold drink.

Lemon meatballs.

Serve these with yogurt and a simple Greek salad. And cold beer.

Place 750 grams of combined veal and pork mince into a large mixing bowl and add an egg, 100 grams of grated parmesan cheese, three chopped garlic cloves, half a chopped red onion and three tablespoons of chopped parsley.

Combine, with your hands.

Now add the grated zest - ah, my new zester! - and the juice of one large lemon. Add salt and pepper and divide mixture into balls about the size of a rising full moon to the naked eye. Alright, a round egg, then. Flatten them slightly so that they resemble flying saucers.

Grill between two lemon leaves, ten minutes or to your liking. You're not supposed to undercook mince, but I do, for two reasons. One, I trust my butcher; and two, I don't like burnt meat.

We had these for a late dinner when the boys were in bed - asleep! - a few nights ago. We ate on the little balcony with ti-tree towering overhead and birds flitting here and there. The sun was low in the sky but still radiating furiously.

It's been over 35 for several days in a row, and it was 39 both days last weekend. We spent much of the weekend on the beach, early morning and later in the afternoon. William taught himself a new game: running away from his shadow. Right there on the big sand flats that slip down to the roaring waves at the ocean beach, he turned, ran, stopped - all the while looking at his shadow and squealing - turned the other way, ran. Still the shadow followed him. Little pink sandy toes, nimble though they are, couldn't carry him away from his shadow. He stopped after a while and we went into the water.

20.2.07

Torrential rains strand southbound banana-laden trucks; Federal Govt. urged to fly them out.

So up go the prices again:

With most of the crops stranded, there were calls for the Federal Government to fly the bananas out of the area as rain continued to destroy crops. Australian Banana Growers Council chairman Patrick Leahy said more than 10 per cent of the crop had been destroyed and that the damage bill could exceed $600,000.

I love the way they want to call in the airforce. Bananas must be saved!

And just when we thought bananas were back for good*.

*Check out the banana-and-blueberry stuffed French Toast. I want one now.

18.2.07

Oh, that Paul Kelly.

In this weekend's The Weekend Australian, Elizabeth Meryment's Food Detective column refers to a February 4 story from the New York Times about the growing influence of foodbloggers.

Ms Meryment writes: '... the Times story makes disheartening reading for those in the restaurant trade because it centres on the antics of one exceedingly annoying creature, self-dubbed Restaurant Girl, a nobody "former actress" by the name of Danyelle Freeman, who is trying to get herself noticed by reviewing restaurants on their opening nights.'

The NYT article reported that the blog had been the first to break the news that the Russian Tea Room was re-opening.

But the New York Times was wrong, and issued a correction on February 11.

It's deliciously ironic that newspapers frowning at the caprices of bloggers trip up on their own big, goofy, mainstream-media feet.

At least the New York Times corrects its mistakes. Papers here never seem to get around to it. I wrote an piece for The Sunday Age once and they printed my name wrongly as Paul Kelly. I rang the editor.

'Thanks for running my story,' I told her.

'That's all right,' the editor replied. 'Did it look all right in print?'

'It looked great in print. I love Times New Roman nearly as much as as I love Helvetica, and that's saying a lot. Just one thing,' I added.

'What's that?' she asked.

'If I'm going to be Paul Kelly, which Paul Kelly do you want me to be - the singer, the football player, or the Editor-in-Chief of The Australian?'

She was lost for a reply. I'm still waiting for a correction.

16.2.07

World's smallest busy cafe gets busier.

There's a sign in the window of Don Don: 'Staff needed.'

Where are they going to work?

On the footpath out the front?

Pasta seen in the company of potato.

Like two people conducting an illicit relationship, potatoes and pasta are not often seen together; apart from gnocchi, but that's a marriage.

But, also like the above simile, potatoes and pasta can go together surprisingly well.

I have made this recipe many times since a reader sent it to me a couple of years ago.

Here's a simpler variation. I made this on a sweltering drought-ravaged late-summer's night and we ate outside in the cooler air, watching the clouds gather round and then go away again without dropping any water. I felt like reaching up and grabbing them and wringing them out like a dishcloth. They looked close enough.

Pasta with potatoes and red capsicum.

Cook two cups of pasta spirals. Toss in two potatoes, chopped into half inch cubes, so that they are just ready when the pasta is done. They should be not too soft.

In another pan, gently cook a chopped onion, a scored clove of garlic and some strips of red capsicum.

Drain pasta and potatoes when cooked, combine with onion and red pepper mixture. Scatter with chopped parsley. Grate cheese if you wish, but I added some sardines - just the humble canned ones - and omitted the cheese. Because of the potato, you won't need bread, but a simple green salad would be nice, just your iceberg, red onion, tomato and olive variety.

14.2.07

Cooking? What's cooking?

Tonight, I could eat Thai, Portuguese, Japanese, Italian, Indian, Korean, French, Afghan, Egyptian, Indonesian, Mexican, Spanish, Argentinian, Greek, Eastern European, Jewish, Lebanese or several regional Chinese cuisines. The place is so full of ethnic restaurants, I don't know where to look.

But if I am an average Melburnian, I probably won't eat any of them. I'll probably go to the supermarket and buy a box with a photograph of a meal on it containing a frozen food-like substance made in a factory and take it home and microwave it and sit in front of the television and watch The Biggest Loser or maybe heat up a jar of glop and tip it over some gluey spaghetti and call it pasta or order a takeout cardboard carton containing a disc of flat burnt dough with ham and pineapple on it and call it pizza.

If you don't doubt that there has been, over several decades, a net loss of cooking skills and food culture, take a look at the trolleyloads of packaged junk and slabs of Coke lining up at checkouts in the supermarket. And take a look at the people pushing them while you're there.

Our mothers shopped like that? Oh no, they didn't. They didn't look like that either.

The cover story in yesterday's weekly Epicure section in The Age savages current standards of culinary knowledge. Richard Cornish interviews food writer Jennifer McLagan, who takes a dim view of what people know today about food and cooking. Her book Cooking on the Bone: Recipes, History and Lore talks about the problem in relation to the cooking of meat, but there's no doubt it applies to all types of cooking.

"A few years back now, I had made an oxtail dish for a photographic shoot and afterwards the photographer, who was in his late 20s or early 30s, tasted the oxtail and asked me how to make it. To which I replied, 'Oh, just the same way you make a stew.' His answer alarmed me: 'How do you make a stew?' ... It was then I went, 'Whoah, What's going on? These people don't know how to make a stew?'"

OK, so one arty stew ignoramus doesn't make a summer of food idiots. But it's more than that. McLagan sees the loss of generations of accumulated knowledge:

"Eating is one of the most important things that anybody can do. You need to eat and you need to eat well, and you really should be cooking for yourself. This is a skill that is close to totally disappearing ... We teach our kids how to balance their chequebooks at school but not how to feed themselves. We're putting people out into the world today without cooking life skills because their parents are working and did not show them how to cook. They'll have never tasted a roast, an osso buco, a homemade stock. They will have no memory of them. Within a generation these recipes and dishes and techniques could be lost."

But we think we're enlightened because we can buy a jar of Simon Johnson sumac ... for about $10. Perhaps the vast array of international ingredients glistening on the shelves is blinding us to the fact that the food skill-set of the vast majority of the population is seriously tanking.

Incidentally, Epicure's new editor ironically recalls - in the same edition that carries the above story - her childhood in which she was part of 'the vast majority of an Australian population force-fed at home on the inevitable lamb chop and three boiled veg served with buttered, white, sliced bread.'

The image of a 1950s Australian culinary wasteland is a tired cliche that is frequently wheeled out by journalists, like a senescent aunt. It has been done to death like an overcooked turkey. Plus, I resent it. Chops and three 'veg' (I hate shortened words) were never on high rotation in the house of my childhood, but irrespective of that, any dinner plate with three vegetables on it is going to be a whole lot healthier than the pre-packaged rubbish parents are 'force-feeding' - to use the editor's term - their children today; when they're not taking them out for chicken nuggets, that is.

McLagan's analysis is closer to the mark. Generations of food skills are going down the drain, and that is a far worse scenario facing our children than growing up without the world's cuisines to pick and choose from.

13.2.07

The cocktail party: the speeches.

Paul tapped on the microphone and shouted over the noise of the party, calling everyone to attention.

There is something hilarious about someone announcing speeches in their own honour. Paul had organised three speakers, one representing each branch of his family and the third representing his friends. It sounds like he's conceited but he's not, he's just eccentric. (He also got one of his film crew friends to film the whole party. The guy had been walking around all night with a Arriflex on his shoulder followed by a sound man with a boom.)

Someone from Paul’s father’s side of the family, a shaggy professor of something or other at some university, got up and droned on for about half an hour about fighting the good fight and never giving up and being a rebel and the Eureka rebellion and union struggles and doing everyone proud; and in between all of that, he told a few anecdotes, apropos of what I'm not quite sure. Tittering and chattering could be heard from the back of the room. It was the kind of crowd that only half-listens to speeches. After about twenty minutes I thought I heard the professor say Have a Happy Birthday Paul but I couldn't be sure. It could have been How's the Weather in Perth, y'all? He had a beard, and it muffled his words. His beard was still going up and down when someone dragged him away from the microphone by the arm of his leather-elbowed jacket. It think it was Paul.

Then someone from his mother’s side of the family, the English side, got up to speak. It was a distant aunt or a second cousin or something, a short, strong-featured woman in her fifties wearing a tweed jacket over trousers and a pork pie hat on her head. She looked like a cross between Princess Anne and Ronnie Corbett. Did someone say eccentric? The aunt started her speech by announcing that she was writing a new book and then she spoke at length about her old book, gushing at the crowd as if expecting everyone to rush up and ask for a signed copy. Then the aunt described the countryside where she lived and after that she discussed the habits of beetles, for all I know. I wasn't really listening. I was wondering what extended family life would have been like for Paul while he was growing up.

Towards the end of her ramble the aunt seemed to remember where she was and that's when she mentioned Paul, in passing, like a footnote; as if she had only just met him. Maybe she had. The aunt floated off the stage with an assymetrical grin on her face.

Then the third speech. The friend took the microphone. He was one of Paul's musician mates, a session guy with the droopy moustache and the long grey hair and the down-at-heel semi-western denim look they all affect so effortlessly. He had humour in his eyes and a no-nonsense manner and he got straight to the point, something no academic on earth has ever been able to do.

'I have just realised in the last few minutes,’ he started, with a flourish of his arm across the crowd, 'that I am the only normal person in this entire room.’ He paused for effect. The tittering and chattering started to die down.

The musician friend went on: 'Out of Paul’s entire family, one half are loony lefties ... if that's not a tautology ... (another pause for effect, during which the air suddenly got colder) ... and the other half are completely off the f****** planet!

He beamed a huge smile around the room, as if he’d spoken an obvious truth.

The room suddenly went very quiet. You could have heard a pin drop, except they never do. All you could hear was the quiet chattering hum of the Arriflex, filming everything.

A moment like this always ends in one of two ways. The first way - the way you want it to end - is that the comment is taken as a joke and there’s polite laughter at the front and a few louder knowing guffaws at the back. The second way - the way you don't want it to end - is that there is an all-in brawl, the speaker is lynched and the party ends in a riot. This happens especially if it’s getting late and the party isn’t fun any more.

Several seconds passed. Then someone laughed and was joined by some more people. The party must have still been fun and nobody wanted to mess their clothes up yet. The musician friend resumed his speech, outlined Paul's achievements, congratulated him on reaching fifty - 'against the odds', he said, casting an eye at Paul's assorted relatives - and was off the stage in five minutes flat. I liked it.

Then it was time for another drink and maybe another snack and a chat with the friendly waitress. The things on the trays were sweet now, little biscotti and petit fours numbers and tiny chocolate shapes that looked like they were crusted with jewels but it was just sculpted sugar frosting.

Some time later, the musician was back on the keyboards and the band was playing Crossroads and people were dancing like it was 1970. The guitarist was no Eric Clapton but he was passable. Over in a corner, the professor was deep in conversation with the pork pie lady. His beard was wagging up and down furiously and she was nodding and beaming. I wondered what they were talking about, and then they left together.

Out on the balcony, the judge was all by himself in an easy chair facing the water. An empty glass was on the table beside him. His head was tilted way back and he was still as loud as before. He was snoring.

12.2.07

The cocktail party, continued.

A band was warming up on a platform in the corner and waitpeople were doing tours of the room with trays. It was a warm night and early guests had taken up positions out on the balcony. I wandered through the open doorway. There was a nice cool breeze. Out on the harbour, a brightly-lit ferry was backing away from a pier, loaded to the gills with a party. Music drifted across the water.

Four or five people were standing at the edge of the balcony and a large florid man with a brandy balloon in his hand was entertaining them with his loud voice. If you didn’t pick him as a retired judge by the too-rounded vowels and the extended delivery, you would by the red nose. He sounded like 3AW's breakfast announcer John Burns after a couple of bottles of red. But then John Burns always sounds like he's had a couple of bottles of red, even at six in the morning. The florid man was waving his brandy glass around in circles to emphasise whatever he was saying but didn't appear to be spilling any brandy except into his mouth. He was in good form.

A drinks waiter drifted by and offered me a tray of tall flutes filled with fizz. I took one and then a hand grabbed my shoulder. 'Heeeey!' It was Paul. It was his party, for his fiftieth birthday. Paul is the kind of friend you might only see a couple of times a year, but when you do, you just continue the conversation as if you had merely been interrupted. I met Paul at an advertising agency in the late 1980s. Nobody actually knew what he did, but he always had the coolest sound system on his desk and he was always dating the work experience student. Over the years his girlfriends have matured, just not at the same rate he has. He probably dates 28-year-olds now. They probably depress him.

A waitress and her tray wound around some guests and stopped in front of us. On the tray were some of those flat transparent rice paper things all stacked up against each other like today's unopened mail. They were glistening with the sheen of sesame oil and there was a little pile of miniature red chilies on the tray, just for effect. 'Thanks, I will,' I said, responding to the raised eyebrow and half smile that means would you like something to eat in roving waiter language. We helped ourselves and I took a chili and wrapped it in the pastry. Lemongrass, coriander, soy, prawn and hot chili all in one delicious crunch. The waitress smiled pleasantly and said she wished more people would eat the chilis. 'They just go to waste, otherwise,' she added conversationally, with a frown. 'Have another one!' she added. I did. Then she wandered off into the growing crowd. Why are the waitpeople at standup functions always friendlier than the ones in restaurants? I don't know. Maybe it's because the customers are friendlier as well. It's easier to complain when you're sitting down.

The trays came and went all night, and the food was delicious, even when I didn't know what it was. There were tiny marvels of crustacea and rice, little pastry thimbles with unusual fillings, miniature hot orbs of various proteins with exotic dipping sauces, vibrant shards of vegetables infused with the flavours of East and West, tiny toasty homey crunchy things with soft melty centres, and delicately crafted items that looked more like they had come from a laboratory than a kitchen. I would like to eat like this all the time, but I would never know what I had eaten and I would never know when to stop. I suppose if you time it right, you could just keep eating and never get full.

The fizz guy came by again and topped up my glass. Paul was shaking hands all around the room and the red-nosed judge was still out on the balcony making rhetorical circles with his brandy glass and he was still loud and he was only just starting to slur. He'd had plenty of practice.

9.2.07

The cocktail party: finding it.

I was blundering around Docklands looking for a place.

It took a while to find the place for two reasons. The first reason was that about thirty bars, restaurants and those odd places called venues were housed in a massive new steel-and-glass development that had only one street number, and my invitation didn't show the number of the actual venue. The second reason was that it was dark.

Other people were having the same problem, wandering around like lost sheep then clustering together and asking each other where to go. Arms were pointing in all directions, like those old crossroads signposts.

I asked a man in a blue shirt who was pushing a broom if he knew where I was. He knew. If you're lost, always ask the cleaner. Cleaners know everything about a place. He pointed to a glass door that opened onto a stairway leading towards a balcony. The glass door was only about three steps away and there was a large sign on it with the name of the place I'd been looking for in two-foot-high letters in yellow out of blue which I could have seen if I'd looked.

Not that you could blame me for getting lost. The problem with new developments is that everyone follows the same trends and all the restaurants, bars and venues sound the same. WaterFront. WaterCity. NewQuay. QuayViews. BeachView. I had to pull the invitation out of my pocket about six times to recall the name. Also, why does everyone jam two words together and leave out the space? That space had a perfect right to be there.

There was a security guy at the top of the stairs. I showed him my invitation and he let me in, opening a glass door onto a huge red-carpeted room lit with fairy lights arranged like a tree dangling upside down from the cavernous ceiling. The effect was Aladdin's Cave with sea views: the room opened out at one end onto a balcony that ran the length of the building and looked out over the water, which rippled and glistened in faint moonlight.

Of course, all of this wasn't even there a few years ago. The new Docklands precinct was built on the site of a neglected wharf that had been rotting into the harbour for fifty years. I visited the site in 2000, just before building commenced. It was closed off to the public. No wonder - entire sections of the actual wharf were missing and you would fall into the black, oily, evil-smelling water. The original sagging, creaking timber cargo warehouses were home to rats and even graffiti artists avoided the place. It must have looked a treat once, maybe when steam was still powering the ships that berthed there.

Now the place is alive again and the rats are gone, if you exclude gambling venue operators.

8.2.07

Fun with double-barrelled names.

Why is gado gado gado gado? I don't know. But I think I just invented a way to run four identical words together in a sentence and still mean something.

I suppose the same question could be asked of Woy Woy, Wagga Wagga, Grong Grong, Mitta Mitta and Lang Lang, which is both a renowned concert pianist and a small dusty town halfway between Melbourne and Phillip Island complete, according to its website, with 'Church's' and 'Bank's'.

As usual, I digress. But it was fun! Digressing is even more enjoyable than procrastinating.

I had some gado gado at a Thai cafe, Aloi something or other, in Hardware Lane recently. Yes, I know gado gado is Indonesian but they had it on the menu with a Thai twist. It was good but it took forever. If you're in a hurry, go to Don Don.

Anyway, I thought I'd try it at home. It's dead easy if you have the ingredients.

Peanut sauce for gado gado

You will need:
Half a cup of crunchy peanut butter (I only had smooth)
Two small hot chilies, finely chopped (more if you like it hot)
Two tablespoons of tamari or soy
One tablespoon of fish sauce

Two minced spring onions (which are called eschallots in Sydney, shallots - incorrectly - in other parts of Australia, gibbons in Wales, cibies in Scotland, green onions in the United States, escallions in parts of the Caribbean and scallions everywhere else. But we're right and they're all wrong. They're spring onions.)
Two teaspoons minced ginger (how do you mince ginger without it going all stringy? Just wondering)
One teaspoon minced lemongrass
One teaspoon of finely chopped coriander root
One minced garlic clove
Two teaspoons of sugar
The juice of half a lime
(keep the other half on hand).

Now, just toss it all in a pot and cook it, stirring, on low. Adjust consistency with extra lime juice. It should not be too liquid but not too dry either - think molten lava. I did - I used four chilis.

Pour the sauce into a dish and set the dish on a large platter. Around the dish, arrange the following: segments of tomato, red onion rings, boiled quartered potatoes (I used Red Rascals), blanched snow peas, blanched broccoli florets, slices of red capsicum, halved button mushrooms, a thatch of bean shoots and some parboiled carrot sticks. It's whatever you fancy, basically. Genuine gado gado calls for halved boiled eggs and sometimes tofu. Garnish with sprigs of coriander.

Now I know gado gado is vegetarian, but I've already made it Thai instead of Indonesian, so I may as well add protein to it and completely destroy the whole original concept. I had a beautiful piece of rock ling, as fat as a rich man's wallet; and I poached this, very, very gently, so it almost didn't notice, but just got fatter, in a delicious liquor comprising a dash of fish sauce, a squirt of tamari, a splash of pomegranate juice, a little peanut oil and some chopped lemongrass and coriander root. When the fish was at its fattest, about five minutes' gentle poaching, I gently segmented the fish into one inch cubes and let them stand in the covered pan for a few more minutes, to cook through.

Then I tumbled the fish pieces along with all the juices into a bowl and set it beside the vegetable platter.

That was dinner.

7.2.07

With apologies to Mr Kilmer, the poet.

Every year, I have a summer love affair with a flowering tree.

One year it was oleander. Maybe it was the name. Oleander rolls off the tongue sensuously and speaks of summer romance. Or maybe it was the colours - white, pink, occasionally orange, crimson; like the stages of passion.

Another year I lived somewhere else and everywhere I looked that early summer, there were smudges of an unearthly blue, like low-lying clouds, except clouds could never be that colour. They were the fleeting canopies of jacaranda trees and they seemed to hover and drift and then, like summer romance, they were gone.

This year, red flowering gums have taken my eye. They are everywhere, unashamedly displaying their vermilion fire. They line streets, they lean over fences, they soften the verges along railway lines and they mass together in stunning parkland plantings. They are red like you've never seen red.

A few days ago I walked from the train station at the end of a dry, windy day that was still as hot as an oven and on the way I picked a spray from the flowering gum at the end of the street and took it home and stuck it in the old glass cream bottle I use for a vase - one half pint is embossed on the thick glass - and I put it on the table and it was the nicest centrepiece for a summer dinner you could think of.

*

I think that I shall never hum
A song as lovely as a gum.


*

(The linked photographs are from Association of Societies for Growing Australian Plants, whose website is a good place to look if you're in love with a gum tree and you want to know her name.)

6.2.07

The Fastest Cafe in the Universe.

I was seventh in the queue one minute and being served the next. I'm not sure how it happened. The staff seemed to be picking off customers like snipers. There must have been twenty of them behind the counter. One took my order, the next took my money and shoved some change at me, a third banged a black lacquer tray down on the counter, someone's hand came from behind that person and placed a bowl of wasabi and soy and a serviette on the black lacquer tray and the last person pushed me off the production line with a wave and a smile that said 'Please sit down!' I sat on a stool that was slightly too big for a midget and placed the tray on a tiny semi-circular table that jutted out of the wall and within seconds another waitperson had placed my lunch on the tray and disappeared. I'd been in the place about two minutes.

I've never had such quick service, anywhere. It's not just speedy, it's noisy. All those wait staff behind the counter don't work by sign language. They shout. That means the music coming out from a speaker in the low ceiling has to be ratcheted up to steelworks level just so you can hear it. The music was that mad kind of live jazz where the pianist, the drummer and the sax player are all doing their own thing, there's no discernible tune but it must have worked because when it finishes there's thunderous applause. Then it starts again.

The place is called Don Don and I visited it after reading this post at Tummy Rumbles. I ate the Sashi Don shown in the picture and it tastes even better than it looks, which is pretty good for something that didn't exist twenty seconds earlier.

There's a principle in business they call just-in-time delivery, which is a highly complex inventory model that delivers goods exactly when required, eliminating the need to hold stocks in valuable warehouse space. They spent millions developing just-in-time, but they might just as well have sat around watching the Don Don staff at work. Your order is being made from the minute you decide what to have. Probably before. The staff work bucket-brigade style and your finished work of art arrives, almost as you sit down, looking like it has been crafted lovingly by someone in a backroom for a couple of hours. That's the thing about the Japanese. They make everything faster and cheaper than everyone else.

So if you're having a boring morning at work in the city and feeling sleepy, drag yourself up Swanston Street and have lunch at Don Don. You'll come back wired and you won't even need to drink any nasty office coffee.

5.2.07

Enough about the food. Let's talk about the plates.

I mix and match crockery because I like the English faded glory look at the table. They call it shabby chic, but of course it is neither shabby nor chic. Eccentric, maybe. What I don't like is a table that is so pristine, ordered and up-to-the-minute that it looks like you're trying to impress someone instead of being hospitable to them. Plus I don't live in Templestowe.

If you come to dinner or lunch or afternoon tea, you might drink and dine from one or more of the following:

Richard Ginori Manifattura di Laveno ironstone dinner plates and soup bowls, purchased from David Jones in 2001. Each plate and bowl has a different herb design in green on plain white: parsley, marjoram, oregano, sage, thyme, basil. Very pretty. Did I say ironstone? It chips when you look at it. It wasn't cheap. Typically Italian. Glad I didn't buy the whole set.

Hutschenreuther Schumann, Bavaria. Dinner and side plates in white china with a floral and lattice embossed rim and a fluted edge with a fine gold line, now wearing away. Understated design, extremely durable. Typically German. Came from a Myer or David Jones sale, late 'eighties.

Figgjo Norway coffee set. Serial number 3557x78, which I think denotes the year of manufacture. Plain white. Unchipped despite heavy use since 1979, when it was purchased from Georges. The old Georges.

Denby of England oatmeal bowls and coffee mugs. Supposed to be ironstone, but they chip under moderate use. One shattered when I dropped it on lino. It shouldn't have, but then I shouldn't have dropped it.

And now, the mainstay of the fleet: Bristile Super Vitrified Hotel China. Sundry dinnerplates, cups and saucers and soup bowls in white with a fine, elegant blue edging design. Set these babies up on your table and you could be a commercial traveller taking breakfast in a city hotel in 1961 or a honeymooning couple on Hayman Island, flying Ansett. Each item is dated: mine are from 1952 to 1977. The brand logo is an elegant flowing script until sometime in 1975, when it becomes an ugly stretched block letter affair, like everything else designed in 1975. You cannot kill this stuff. It seems to be unbreakable, which says something about either hotel customers or hotel kitchen hands.

Sundries. Wedgwood unicorn logo plate with a gold-edged green rim. Aynsley saucer, white with a buttercup yellow rim adorned with sprays of roses, pansies, daffodils and clematis. Keeling and Co of England plate, blue with a three-stage painted floral and lattice edge.

My only complete set: Royal Albert Lady Carlyle. It doesn't come out often because it is so English you can only imagine using it to serve stilton soup, roast pheasant with bread sauce and royal potatoes and steamed treacle pudding. And we don't have those all that often.

An oddity: I have the very last item, a side plate, from a complete Conway Fenton dinner set given as a wedding present to my grandparents in 1928. My mother ate her bread and butter off this plate as a child growing up through the depression and the war.

What are you eating off tonight?

2.2.07

The Wrong Rice.

I hate it when things run out.

I ran out of rice. It's OK if you haven't started cooking yet, but I had already scored a couple of garlic cloves, diced the flesh of a red capsicum and chopped some delicious fresh calamari into one-inch sections.

Stock ready, white wine ready.

Stove on.

Olive oil in the pan.

I don't do everything backwards, just some things. I went to the pantry for the rice jar. There was about an inch of arborio in it, enough for maybe half a serve. I wasn't about to rush to the supermarket. It was late. I was tired. I was hungry.

The hell with it. I'll just use the rest of the arborio and add some other rice to fill it out.

But what other rice would go best with arborio? I had: parboiled rice, red rice, white short-grain rice, sushi rice, jasmine rice, basmati rice and brown rice. Plus barley, which makes great risotto, except it isn't, it's orzotto.

But barley would take longer to cook than arborio, so I chose the sushi rice. It worked kind of fine. And now I can recommend Sushi Risotto with Calamari and Red Capsicum.

The world doesn't need another risotto recipe.

So I'll just tell you what I did.

I got the rice going slowly on a low flame, teasing it lovingly around in the pan with some finely chopped onion, some good olive oil and a dash of white wine. Then, when the rice was all warm and glistening and ready, I caressed it with the stock, very slowly, spoonful by spoonful. Risotto doesn't like being rushed when you handle it. It likes you to take your time. If you take your time, the rice slowly takes up the fluid and gets fatter and soon it issues its starch and goes all creamy and just about sighs with pleasure. Now I added the diced capsicum and it suffused the rice with a soft pinkness, like a blush on white flesh; and close to the end, when we were nearly done, I added the calamari, so that it was just-cooked, but meltingly tender.

Then we ate.

1.2.07

William and Thomas's Much Older Sister.

She was only eight when she first moved out from under my roof, leaving me with an emptier feeling than when, a year previously, my marriage to her mother had ended.

When a partner leaves there is sadness and emptiness, but this is sometimes leavened, if that is the right word, with an oddly sustaining self-righteous anger. When a child leaves, there is only sadness and emptiness and nothing else.

My former wife and I had an arrangement whereby the children, then aged ten and eight, could move, within reason, between our houses by mutual agreement; rather than having enforced blocks of time at each place. At first they lived with me, with regular visits and stays at their mother's. It worked as well as things can work after a divorce. A year later, in 1988, my daughter, now nine, wished to base herself at her mother's, with regular trips back to me.

So one Saturday morning, we moved her clothes and her toys and her school things and her dolls and her bicycle and herself; and that night there was just me and her older brother and the quiet house suddenly felt wrong, like too-big shoes.

(Some years later, her brother told me that because his mother had gone and then his sister followed, he had feared that one day I would go too, and that he would be left to live alone with his dog in a house that once held an entire family. Children are like that. They fear separation more than anything else.)

Ten years went by and the children grew through their teens and there were schools and choirs and laughter and tears and holidays and a million trips to concerts and friends' houses and sport events and family occasions. I had remarried and my daughter, now eighteen, moved back in and stayed for a couple of years before going overseas. When she returned, she moved in with friends close to university.

Now she has come home again. The lease ended on her apartment, she is enrolled at a new campus for more studies and she will stay with us for some time.

For the first time in my life I have three children under one roof. William, of course, already knows and loves his Much Older Sister. Now he can see her every day. Thomas will get to know her. She adores them both. In fact, she is a sister to four boys. Her mother remarried and had another child who is now ten.

It is an improvement on the day, so many years ago, when her parents separated and her world came crashing down.