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

30.3.07

It came in on a soft autumn breeze.

It was a difficult growing summer but I read somewhere - one of your blogs, I forget which one - that it had been a good year for basil.

It sure was. We put ours in late, a dear little row of seedlings along the sideway, where it gets good sun in the middle of the day but doesn't get scorched in the afternoon. The seedlings shot up and we kept the snails of bay and now they're about two feet tall.

The row of basil is bookended by the jasmine creepers I put in last year when we moved in. The jasmine has thrived and now it's festooning all the way along the fence. William's double sash bedroom windows open on to the sideway and every now and the curtain moves and in comes jasmine, and now basil, on the soft breeze.

Now, where's my list of things to do with pesto? Click, click, click ... here.

May I add to that smearing a generous amount on top of anything barbecued?

By the way, we were out of pine nuts so walnuts were used instead.

29.3.07

Thank you ...

... for your helpful suggestions and interesting comments and anecdotes following my quandary over the engagement party fundraiser request.

I have worked for many charity clients over the years but I had never until now been stumped for an idea. I must be getting stale.

So thank you. Your suggestions helped and I managed to convey to the party, without offending her, that there is no right way of holding your hand out.

27.3.07

"You're a writer! You'll solve it!"

A work associate came to me and asked a favour, the kind of favour that is like asking a doctor you know socially for a gratuitous opinion about a condition.

The lady is getting engaged and is sending out invitations. She wants to receive money instead of actual gifts; and the favour was that she wanted me to write this for her in a way that 'didn't sound tacky'.

Five minutes of online research confirmed what I already knew: there is no way you can ask for money instead of gifts. You just can't. But some people think a writer can re-write bad etiquette into something that is acceptable, via some verbal sleight of hand.

I'm at a loss, which is rare for me. What do I do? Ignore her? Tell her she can't do it? Or write some tacky nonsense about a wishing well or a money tree and to hell with it?

Sometimes I wish I were a nuclear scientist. I bet they don't get asked favours.

26.3.07

The Restaurant in History, Part Two.

1977: Pieroni, upstairs in Little Bourke Street. Pre-dated the South Yarra Pieroni by a decade or so. Climb the narrow staircase and eat spaghetti bolognese for $2.20. Minestrone, 90 cents. Bread, free. Guy Grossi worked here. The occasion: I worked around the corner in Elizabeth Street's London Stores building and I ate here frequently. Other favourites were the Cambrooke Cafe, the White Hen Cafe, the upstairs bistro at the Royal Parade Hotel, Centrepoint Tavern, the London Tavern and downstairs at the Hub Hotel. No, I never went hungry. I worked hard.

1978: I'm no food snob but whoever burnt down The Swagman deserves three Age Chef's Hats. The smorgasbord was about the size of a tennis court and by the time several hundred queueing 'diners' bussed in from Cranbourne or Altona Meadows or Boronia or even Fitzroy North had pawed over it, it looked more like Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles. Cigarette stub in your portion of lasagne, anyone? The occasion: a Christmas work function. Never again.

1979: Fanny's, upstairs in Lonsdale Street. Ate: Whiting, fries and green salad. Drank: an exciting new grape variety called chardonnay, by Karlsberg, a now-defunct Barossa winemaker. The occasion: lunch with a gourmet work friend.

1980: Bim's. A vast two-storey Victorian edifice in East Melbourne, home to one of the last of Melbourne's old money, old menu, old manners restaurants where the conversation level was as quiet as the hum of the Bentleys parking out the front. The occasion: my first wife's birthday. Ate: Steak tartare. Incident: an ancient, wizened waiter was quietly polishing silver cutlery and putting it away the open drawer of a massive Victorian chiffonier when the drawer fell out and crashed onto the parquetry floor with an explosion that would have deafened an F1 driver. The hum of conversation paused for about half a second and then resumed as if nothing had happened. All class.

1981: Rabelais. Rimbaud. Rousseau. Rembrandt. Suddenly, Melbourne is full of restaurants named after dead French guys. No, wait ...

24.3.07

Freaky Friday.

It was 36 degrees. I was sitting on the 27th floor gazing out the window in the general direction of Southbank and wondering whether I'd do any work or have a cup of tea. I've only been gazing out windows for most of my life. The tea part of the wondering was winning when I noticed the smoke.

I knew straight away. Online. Nothing yet. Then within minutes, reports of an incident. Then specifics. Three people lost. It must be said the tunnel's safety system may have saved lives.

I had to go to Eaglemont at lunchtime. Melbourne was pretty much in a state of gridlock. There was some kind of other incident on the Monash Freeway and cross town traffic was trying to loop the city. Also, Richard Stubbs on the radio was warning of an approaching dust storm. The dust storm didn't make it to town. I think it got stuck in traffic.

I couldn't get back into the city. I had to drive across the top, dump the car at Coburg Station and get the train back to town. Guess what? The boom gates were down at Bell Street which was already choked with traffic. The train was delayed twenty minutes, even though the railway station employee said it was coming any minute. I could have jumped on the tram instead. Hell, I could have walked. Even in 36 degrees.

The elevator dinged twenty-seven at exactly ten past three. I missed a meeting that was in progress. That was the day looking up. Missing a meeting is a good thing, because nothing of any value ever happens in meetings except sandwiches, usually the chicken and avocado or turkey and cranberry variety. They help you try to forget the powerpoint presentation but somehow you never can. You follow each and every word painstakingly, like watching grass grow. And you listen to the presenter reading each and every word that you can see perfectly well right up there on the screen.

I digress. (By the way, I'm posting this on Saturday afternoon even though the dateline says Friday.) After work, the city was still gridlock. It's gridlock any Friday, let alone freaky Friday. The train back to Coburg was cancelled. I racewalked to Elizabeth Street and caught a tram instead, and was getting ready to jump off that and walk because I knew Royal Parade and Sydney Road would be carparks.

There was something to look forward to. Tracy had planned an evening picnic in Princes Park, on the grass (yes, there is grass in Princes Park). I fell in the door, tore off my sweaty clothes, showered in two minutes flat.

We had no sooner put the picnic basket in the car than the sky opened up. Clouds had gathered within about ten minutes. It didn't stop raining all night.

We ate our picnic on the loungeroom floor. It was nice. The cool breeze was nice as well.

Then all the lights went out, along with the Count Basie music on the CD player. A fire in an electrical substation somewhere caused a blackout across several suburbs.

Gin and tonic tastes nice in the dark. So does lamb vindaloo, aloo mutter, roti bread and pappadums.

22.3.07

The Restaurant in History, Part One.

1966: Pellegrini's, Bourke Street. The occasion: Lunch with my father, who was a catering industry salesman, and Leo. I was nine. Ate: spaghetti saltati.

1968: David Wang chinese restaurant, Little Bourke Street. The occasion: my brother's birthday. The whole family went. Arrived in: Yellow Cabs HR Holden taxi with the chrome grab bar across the back of the front bench seat for passengers to hold, and smash their teeth on in a crash. Ate: the $2.50 per head banquet. Historical note: the cafe was part of the long-gone David Wang department store.

1969: McClure's, St Kilda Road. (McClure was the Four'n Twenty pies McClure.) Tartan carpet. Enclosed booths with banquettes and telephones via which diners ordered their meals. Real waiters subsequently materialised some time later with your telephoned order. Chicken a la King. Chateaubriand. Oysters Mornay. If you had a problem you had to call them up again. It was like room service without the room. Drink: Yalumba Carte D'Or Riesling. (Not me - I was 12.)

1973: Valentine's Italian Cafe, Elgin Street, Carlton. The occasion: dinner with my oldest sister who was 19 and studying zoology at Melbourne University. Ate: lasagne. We were served by the chef, a jolly old woman who came out from the kitchen to greet customers and take orders.

1976: Lebanese House, Russell Street. Melbourne's first Lebanese cafe, established 1958. The occasion: many. Student dinners. It was close to campus. Ate: Moughrabia with tender garlicky chicken and studded with soft chickpeas. Foulia, hot beans densely flavoured with garlic, olive oil, lemon juice and spices. Kebbeh, lamb mince blended with crushed pinenuts and yogurt, deep fried and served with mint, lemon juice and dipping labne. Lahmi ahjin, spiced mince and onions on a bed of filo pastry and eaten with taboule. Drank: gallons of Brown Brothers red.

21.3.07

17 March.

The old shed has no windows. At certain times of the day, a shaft of sunlight pierces the gaps in the weathered timber and lights up the interior like a laser sword in a science fiction movie. Right now, a sword of sunlight was pointing to a corner, shining on some old screenings and dirt.

It was Saturday, mid-afternoon. I'd been clearing the shed for next week's hard rubbish collection and had already removed a huge metal and timber structure that occupied an entire corner in the shed. The structure was made from an old gas heating unit and had a hinged metal lid over a metal tub with a floor of timber slats. There were two holes in one end, as if to provide ingress and egress for something. The timber slats were littered with old lead fishing weights. I figured that the thing was some kind of rudimentary smoke house. It weighed a ton. Somehow I got it onto the front lawn.

Then I went back into the shed. The shaft of sun shining on the old screenings and dirt had crept along a little way and it caught on the rim of something small and round and partially buried, something that glowed with the lustre of silver. I picked it up and blew some dust off it. It was a 1938 crown. I recognised it straight away, had one when I was a kid. I laid it on a bench, cleaned some more dust off it and took it out into the sunlight. It had been pierced at the top and the back had been ground smooth and was inscribed: D. A. Mathwin, VX51309, A2, A. I. F.

This was an easy guess: the hole was for a necklace so the coin could be worn by D. A. Mathwin as a good luck charm when he went off to war with the Australian Imperial Forces.

Five minutes research at the Australian War Memorial confirmed the theory: Donald Mathwin, born Brighton 1919, enlisted Northcote 17 March 1941, joined 2/6 Australian Infantry Battalion, discharged 1946. Next of kin, Joan. Wife or mother? Who knows. He was only 22 on enlistment, so probably mother. Five long years away, in Palestine, Ceylon and New Guinea, defending his country.

And the crown he wore while doing so turns up in a dusty tumbledown shed more than sixty years later, 17 March 2007.

Wait. Check that enlistment date again.

Poll frozen.

That poll was fun and worked for a couple of days but this morning, this blog would only load down to the headline of that post, the poll had completely disappeared and the sidebars would not load at all.

I tried loading the site on another computer, a Mac. Same result. Then I checked another blog which had posted a blogpoll and it had exactly the same problem. So I removed the poll and all is fine again.

By the way, more than half of respondents could not bring themselves to name their favourite meal. My sentiments exactly. After all, the best meal is the next one.

20.3.07

Assembly line cooking.

According to a comprehensive tracking study undertaken by a vast panel of leading academics, comprising me and someone I asked, five out of ten people don't know what they'll be cooking for dinner when they reach the kitchen.

But five out of ten people don't need to panic. They no longer even need to flip through old copies of Cuisine, Bon Appetit or Super Food Ideas. All they need to do is open the fridge door and google what they see + recipe. Magically, up comes six million ideas!

I'm only half joking.

Sometimes I'm too tired to think about cooking, so I just assemble instead. Assembling dinner is fun. It's like shopping at Ikea, without the crowds and the ball pool, plus you don't need an allen key.

Here's what I assembled last night (without the use of google) from the contents of the fridge and the kitchen cupboard:

Couscous with sardines and pinenuts.

From the fridge: cherry tomatoes, turkish olives, tahini, butter.

From the cupboard: Canned sardines, canned chickpeas, pinenuts, sesame seeds.

Pour boiling water over couscous in a pot. Add a knob of butter, swish it around and let it expand. (Maybe a minute or two on low heat if it's reluctant. That's hardly cooking.)

Place two mounds of that hot, steaming goodness in two bowls.

Add sardines (or tuna), cherry tomatoes sliced in two, a few olives halved and pitted, some drained chickpeas, a small handful of pine nuts, a generous splodge of tahini and a shower of sesame seeds.

That's about four different continents' worth of ingredients, so let's go the whole hog and add a fifth, as an afterthought: who would have thought sweet chili sauce would go so well with couscous and sardines?

16.3.07

Hometown landmarks, many involving food.

Terry Oglesby of Possumblog fame invites readers to take part in his weekly three-question Axis of Weevil Thursday Three.

Here are his questions and my answers:

1) If you had only one hour to show a visitor something interesting in your hometown, where would you go?

We would take a tram ride down Lygon Street through the city and across the Princes Bridge (far classier than the Sydney Harbour Coathanger) and down magnificent St Kilda Road past the Arts Centre (much better than the Sydney Opera Barn) and the Shrine of Remembrance and ending up in Acland Street. There we go, one hour exactly. And just in time for lunch.

2) If you then had to find that friend a great place for a quick bite to eat, where would you go?

Well, we're in Acland Street, so there's food everywhere you look. But you said quick bite, so let's go to Scheherezade for some chicken soup or latkes or coffee and butter cake.

3) Now that you’ve entertained and fed your friend, it’s time to send him on his way. You’re not sure which way he’s going, but he’s got a fast red convertible, and you want him to see something nice as he drives. What route from your home to someplace else, either to the north, south, east, or west would you recommend to him as the most scenic drive?

I wish he'd told me about the fast red convertible before we creaked our way around town in a tram. No matter, let's go: I hear the call of the Great Ocean Road.

Now. What are your favourite hometown landmarks?

15.3.07

How many food bloggers does it take to change a light bulb?

Scientist finds another use for red wine.

Look out, Milan. It's the return of the little red dress.

Australian researchers are making dresses from fermented fabric, using bacteria to grow slimy dresses from wine and beer.

Laboratory technician Gary Cass says the University of Western Australia's Micro'be' project combines science and art. "We're looking to provoke some discussion about future fashions, about the possibility of other material we can use instead of our normal cottons and silks," he said.

So now you really can pour yourself into a dress.

Mr Cass, who also writes science fiction, ...

I saw that coming.

14.3.07

Farewell Summer.

There is always one day when you know. It’s not about the temperature, it just kind of feels different, like you’ve moved on.

*

Near midday, we walked down the hill and along the street towards the beach. At first you can’t see the water but you can see ships passing by, as if they were sliding down Point Nepean Road along with the cars.

The Blairgowrie café was the usual jumble of dogs and people and prams and waitpeople running in and out with plates up and down their arms. We sat outside, as always. There was a new steel in the wind, a coldness I haven’t felt for months. Yesterday the bay was all twinkling blue in the sunshine. Today the water was grey and had little white caps.

We kept our jackets on and ate. Tracy ordered the open salmon sandwich which came out about a foot high and had a blizzard of capers and an avalanche of house-made mayonnaise on top. I had the house salad which was big enough to feed a hutch of rabbits for a week, if only they could get their noses into the bowl it came in. It was one of those silly things with a rim that orbits 45 degrees off the horizontal, like the earth’s trajectory around the sun. Eating out of them is like eating out of a 1960s chair.

Then we had cake. See? Cooler weather hits and you just keep right on eating. Did someone mention ships on the bay? The slice of pear and walnut cake was about the size of the Sorrento ferry. Its bow jutted out over the edge of the plate which was as big as Port Philip Bay and syrup rained down on its deck and it was anchored with double cream and a strawberry. We got through it. It was magnificent as well as large. We won't be needing dinner.

*

Late in the afternoon, I drove to the beach, climbed down the hundred or so stairs to the lonely ocean beach roaring to itself way below. Here, it’s always cloudy. The clouds scud in on a southerly and break up when they hit land. They were already orange-tinged by the westering sun, even though it was only five o'clock. I carried William onto the sand.

The beach slopes down dramatically to the water and the waves charge in like trains. It’s the kind of beach where the surf looks higher than your head. We walked along a little way. I put William on the sand and he tried to make a game of running almost into the water, down the hard packed sand towards the roiling sea. I hoisted him high just as the waves came and tried to grab our legs with briny hands. The backwash only came up to my ankles but it felt like it could drag a tree out of the ground. These beaches are dangerous if you don’t know them well. I know them well. You don’t mess with them.

The only other people on the beach were a straggle in the distance, walking. After a while they got closer and approached us, handed me their camera and asked me if I would mind taking a photo of them on the beach. I said I wouldn’t mind. They were Indian tourists, young men in their twenties, impeccably polite and impeccably dressed in brightly coloured designer clothes, but barefoot for the beach. I took their photo and they thanked me very much and went on their way.

After a while William and I walked up the sand and climbed the steps to the craggy carpark and drove back to the beach house in soft silent rain.

13.3.07

Vegetable matters.

I never met a vegetable I didn't like. I'm no vegetarian but I believe vegetables and their preparation are under-represented in the national culinary consciousness. Maybe it's the name. What sounds more appetising: 'Fancy some vegetable?' or 'Fancy some rare barbecued sirloin?' I rest my case.

When I met Tracy, she was borderline vegetarian or maybe she just wasn't sure. She's Libran. They can never make up their minds. (I don't think she even said 'Yes' or 'No' when I proposed. She accepted the ring, though, so I took it as 'Yes' and went off and organised the wedding.)

Anyway, when we first went out - those heady, carefree days of sitting around starry-eyed in cafes eating hummingbird cake and drinking endless caffe lattes - Tracy was always making hunza pies and lentil burgers and pumpkin soup and Thai beef salads without the beef. So I naturally tried to impress, responding with some of my meat-free specialities, including a provencale sauce for pasta and a layered salad thing that had cold potato and onion rings on the bottom and slices of capsicum, mushrooms and tomatoes in the middle and cold cooked fresh peas on top.

But then, one weekend, I met the folks. They lived in the countryside and we stayed overnight. Dinner was steak pie. Breakfast was fried black pudding and bacon. Either Tracy hadn't told her parents she was vegetarian, or they had ignored it. I still haven't figured out which. I must ask her one day.

Here's one of the vegetable things we used to do. It still makes frequent appearances on the table, because it is delicious.

Sweet potato with chili and coriander butter.

This is ideal for smaller sweet potatoes. Bake four of them whole in an overproof dish in a moderately hot oven for half an hour. Skewer them down the middle to speed up the cooking time.

Meanwhile, mash half a cup of chopped coriander, a couple of finely chopped red chilies and a dash of salt into three quarters of a cup of butter. Reset in refrigerator in clingwrap if necessary.

When sweet potato is done, slice lengthways and top with butter mixture generously, slicing it off in rounds. Serve with thin slices of rare barbecued sirloin. Or not.

11.3.07

Labour Day, train tracks, Mark Twain and jugglers.

Thanks to everyone who replied to my last post, of which I have concluded: I'm not alone in disliking after-dinner mints (Red Tulip brand here); and Australia must immediately exporting Vegemite to all markets.

Monday is Labour Day. Meaning you don't. From Wikipedia: The celebration of Labour Day has its origins in the eight hour day movement, which advocated eight hours for work, eight hours for recreation, and eight hours for rest.

If the union movement gave me eight hours leisure a day, I want to know who took them away again. Wikipedia goes on:

In Australia, the Labour Day public holiday is fixed by the various states and territories' governments, and so varies considerably. It is the first Monday in October in the Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales and South Australia. In both Victoria and Tasmania, it is the second Monday in March (though the latter calls it Eight Hours Day*). In Western Australia, Labour Day is the first Monday in March. In both Queensland and the Northern Territory, it is the first Monday in May.

Solidarity, anyone? It's a bit like train tracks, really. All the States had different gauges, something to do with trade barriers. It's a wonder we ever got federated, really, with all that arguing and red tape. In 1895 Mark Twain wrote:

Now comes a singular thing: the oddest thing, the strangest thing, the most unaccountable marvel that Australia can show. At the frontier between New South Wales and Victoria our multitude of passengers were routed out of their snug beds by lantern light in the morning in the biting cold to change cars on a railroad that has no break in it from Sydney to Melbourne. Think of the paralysis of intellect that gave that idea birth; imagine the boulder it emerged from, on some petrified legislator's shoulders. It is a narrow gauge to the frontier and a broader gauge thence to Melbourne. One or two reasons are given for this curious state of things. One is that it represents the jealousy existing between the two colonies—the two most important colonies of Australasia. What the other is I have forgotten, it could be but another effort to explain the inexplicable.

We need more Mark Twains.

*And the former calls it Moomba Day, in celebration of the parade of assorted clowns, musicians, jugglers, floats, decorated trams, television 'personalities' and comedians that starts at the top of Swanston Street and ends up by the Yarra River, and in some cases, in the Yarra River.

See you next week. Happy Labour/Moomba Day!

9.3.07

What goes with what, and what doesn't.

A few weeks ago, Lucette posted a list of What Goes With What and What Doesn't in between writing a novel (a task which requires much fortification). Here's my version:

What goes with what.
1. Curry and eggs. The curried egg and lettuce sandwich is the king of sandwiches. Curry and eggs also meet in kedgeree, gado gado, nasi goreng and an actual egg curry itself.

2. Potatoes and sour cream. A potato, baked in a fire until blackened, then cracked open and loaded with sour cream and showered with salt is a truly beautiful thing.

3. Soy and wasabi. Wasabi-joyu. Sublime with raw fish.

4. Snails and garlic. I would probably never eat snails without garlic. I do however, frequently eat garlic without snails.

5. Butter and vegemite. Who, as a child, didn't love the combination of butter and vegemite in RyVitas, or any cracker that has holes? Butter and vegemite them generously and then press them together and the combined butter and vegemite comes out the holes in little curls. Salty and delicious.

(Speaking of butter: why is it now the default position for sandwich hands to omit butter when making a sandwich unless specifically requested? Instead of saying 'A cheese and salad sandwich, please. Hold the onions' you now have to say 'A butter, cheese and salad sandwich please. Hold the onions'. It's getting to be like ordering a coffee which now has about eighty-five different options. This is madness. All that extra talking is contributing to global warming.)

And what doesn't.
1. Chicken and apricots. My late father-in-law used to reject relatives' offerings of the signature 1980s meal of chicken cooked with apricots. He would sit there at the table with his scotch glass and epigram grumpily: 'If I'm going to eat fruit, I'll eat it with dessert,' then take a draught of scotch and slam the glass down on the table for punctuation. He got away with it because he was a lovable Scottish midget with a cheeky eye and a sense of humour.

2. Chocolate and mint. I lived through the seventies when dinner parties ended with little brown paper squares on your coffee saucer containing a thin white substance that tasted like toothpaste encased in chocolate. It was like finishing your dinner and cleaning your teeth at the same time.

3. Ham and pineapple. What is it with people ordering ham and pineapple pizza?

4. Maple syrup and bacon. Just wrong.

5. Tomato sauce and chips. Salt and vinegar, please: sauce is for meat. (The Belgians put mayonnaise on their chips. Just as bad.)

So. What works for you?

And what doesn't?

Food Blog Title of the Week.

Says it all, really.

8.3.07

The bookshop in the old church.

Lunch over, now let's walk. We're invigorated. Lunch does that to you. Either that or you want to go to sleep. Today we wanted to walk.

We walked across the threadbare lawn and out of the gardens and across the road and up the hill. We turned right into the main street and on the corner was an old Wesley Church that wasn't a Wesley Church any more, but a second-hand bookshop.

We went in through the arched doorway, which was big enough to get the twin pram through even though only one half of the arch was open. It was still like a church inside; only there were more books, quieter music and fewer customers. Fortuitously, the babies had just fallen asleep - both! together! - so we parked their pram on an old persian rug on what would have been part of the nave, right in between Crime and Biographies.

You always see the same books in new bookshops, but a good second-hand bookshop takes you back to the past. The Cooking shelves had an extraordinary range of books in excellent condition, including:

The Enlightened Cuisine, by Renée Verdon.
Cuisine of the Sun, by Roger Vergé.
The Hundred Glories of French Cooking, by Robert Courtine.
The Classic Book of Pasta, by Vincenzo Buonassisi, 1973. (Including 41 varieties of pasticcio - layered pasta. And you thought lasagne was lasagne.)
La Cuisine Réussie, by Alan Senderens.
Greek Cooking, by Robin Howe, 1960.
Carrier's Kitchen.
Boozing Out in Melbourne Pubs: an Occasional History and Sociological Study of Melbourne As Seen Through the Bottom of a Glass, by John Hindle and John Hepworth, 1979. (The sub-title is satirical. A ribald and entertaining look at some of Melbourne's most famous old pubs before many were destroyed by the wrecker's ball, the one-armed bandit or the renovator.)
American Regional Cooking for 8 to 50.
Cake Decorating, by Jean Bowring, 1969. (Full colour plates - this book would have threatened the world's coloured ink stockpile.)
Jean Jacques Seafood, by Jean Jacques Lalé-Demoz, 1986.
101 Australian Ways to Cook a Sheep, by J. & B. Hay, Sunbooks, 1969.
Continental Cooking in the Australian Kitchen, by Maria Kozslik Donovan, 1955. (First edition, black and white and two-colour illustrations. Chicken Kiev, anyone?)
The Graham Kerr Cookbook. (Full of those overhead step-by-step photos that were so popular in the sixties.)
La Méthode, by Jacques Pepin, 1979.
The Pedant in the Kitchen, by Julian Barnes, 1988.
Convicted Tastes: A History of Food in Australia, by Richard Beckett (who, as his alter ego Sam Orr was once one of my favourite food writers).

Remember the books that everyone seemed to have in the 1970s and then disappeared? They were here: Craig Claiborne's A Kitchen Primer, with its yellow cover art of eggs, bowl and beater (Penguin edition); and the all-brown Whole Earth Cookbook, by Cadwallader and Ohr. I picked up the latter and suddenly it was 1972 again and I was sitting on a brown corduroy beanbag eating a salad with mung beans and lentils and shaved carrot and sultanas in it, while the Edgar Winter Group thumped out of a Thorn stereogram and a summer breeze ruffled the bead curtains in the doorway. Then someone poked me in the ribs and I woke up.

Bookshops do it to me all the time. Sometimes Tracy makes me cross the road when she sees a bookshop ahead.

7.3.07

Lorikeets.

Queenscliff sits on a hill.

Down the hill towards the bay are the gardens, where a lawn like an old threadbare carpet sweeps down almost to the water. Here, ancient pines soar and their time-ravaged limbs point brokenly at nothing and they creak and grind and if you listen carefully you can hear the topmost branches whisper.

We sat on a drift of pine needles beneath one of the old trees and ate lunch. It was cooler in the shade. On a slight breeze was the tang of brine and seaweed mixed with the spice of hot pine. The distinctive aroma is one of my earliest memories. I must have been one or two when first taken to the beach on some broiling day in the late nineteen fifties.

Five or six rainbow lorikeets darted and swooped in one of the pines but they didn't stay long. They like berries and flowers on their trees. In another pine, magpies ogled and danced. Magpies don't care about the tree. Their eyes are on the ground.

Lunch was simple. We had brought a picnic of bread rolls, cheese, olives, avocado, tuna, lettuce, quartered tomatoes, mayonnaise. In between eating little pieces of cheese, William stooped over the pine needles, arms out and back, and studied them like a botanist. He picked up a pine needle, carefully, between index finger and thumb, walked over to me, held it out.

6.3.07

Queenscliff.

First you see the lighthouses, then you see the ferry terminal sitting grey and squat on the dock. The dock is off to the north west of Queenscliff on a little point, where Port Phillip Bay meets Lonsdale Bay, maybe a kilometre from town.

If you're a foot passenger, you disembark and walk into town along a sandy track edged with native grasses near the sand dunes, listening to unseen waves crashing onto the shore beyond. Or you can take the road that leads past the kinds of rundown buildings you always find at the ends of fishing villages; old shipyards with rusted anchors and ships' bells in front, leaning weatherboard houses with half-open front doors and awnings pulled down over verandahs, faded maritime museums, nissen huts built for long-forgotten reasons.

We walked into town.

We'd left the car on the other side of the bay and the babies rode abreast in their brand new twin pram; except they are not twins. Thomas is exactly four months and William is exactly twenty months (hence my current pet name for them: Four'n Twenty). Thomas lay, and William sat up; and we took the sand dune route into town and William chattered all the way.

Queenscliff is one of those towns that feels like you’ve been there before, even though you haven't. Something about the atmosphere, the brooding history. An old railway line curves in alongside a bird-filled wetlands and stops at a station at the end of the main street. In the 1880s the train brought the Western District's well-to-do to Queenscliff for carefree summer holidays of genteel bathing, Saturday night dances in the grand halls and Sunday picnics on the foreshore. Then the railway fell into ruin and stayed that way until enthusiasts restored the line, repaired the old station, fixed the broken steam engines, fired them up and shunted the town gloriously back to the nineteenth century.

The architecture is gold boom brash mixed with old money grandeur; and in the 1880s there was no shortage of money. The buildings are vast. They look too big for the size of the town but the gentle rising and falling away of its topography from sea to wetlands gives the place something of a terraced effect. If it were flat, it would look crowded. But it doesn't. The guest houses sprawl, the hotel balconies soar and over it all, the seagulls circle lazily in the late summer sun.

Queenscliff could be the most beautiful seaside town in the world, but I haven't seen them all.

5.3.07

The ferry.

The booking office is a white weatherboard building at the end of the pier. Inside, a small waiting room looks out on Port Phillip Bay. We were sitting in the booking office watching the twinkling water at a quarter to ten on a late summer Saturday morning.

Soon the ferry rounded the point and honked into view, hummed closer, did a neat swivel and started to back into the dock which comprised four rubber-lined concrete stanchions, each about the size of a small lighthouse. The ferry misjudged too far to starboard, edged out and came again. Perfect. Just like reverse-parking the Volvo.

Then the ship's stern ramp - a kind of supersized gangway for vehicles - clanged down onto the edge of the pier and a few dozen cars, some towing caravans, rolled off; while a straggle of foot passengers disembarked and wandered away into the morning, clutching day bags, hats, sun umbrellas, newspaper colour supplements. The lazy paraphernalia of summer daytrips.

There are two ferries. They leave every hour, on the hour, from opposite sides of the bay, crossing the main shipping channel into Melbourne and passing each other midway. In peak hour you can barely move for the container ships and the cruise liners rolling in and out of port, the fishing vessels and other craft picking about the bay and the jet skis that buzz around pointlessly, like march flies, except you can't swat them.

We boarded Ferry One, took the elevator up to the top deck, came out blinking in the sun and took up a spot towards the front of the boat in the shade of the bridge.

After a while the stern ramp creaked up again and banged shut and the engines roared and water thrashed and the ship moved away from the dock, turned around in its own length and cut its way into a gentle swell towards Queenscliff.

2.3.07

Seven TV chefs, and why I liked them, in exactly ten words.

1. Stefano Di Pieri. Genuine Italian cuisine in an outback city by the Murray.

2. Antonio Carluccio. Travelogue more than cooking show, a delicious journey through Italy.

3. Two Fat Ladies. Repartee, eccentricity, political incorrectness and wonderful fat-laden British food.

4. Nigella Lawson. Do I have to explain? No, I didn't think so.

5. Ken Hom. Introduced me to Chinese cooking, along with David Wang's cafe.

6. Ian Parmenter. Chef makes 450 TV shows; retires to Margaret River vineyard.

7. Delia Smith. Beautifully simple cooking including the basics. No annoying background music.

Who did - or do - you like?

1.3.07

Canned heat.

If I took the name of this blog literally I would have to describe all those nights when I stare vacantly into the open refrigerator and then turn to the cupboard, take down a tin of baked beans, warm them up, toast a piece of stale bread, butter it, tip the beans onto the toast and eat.

But I don't take it literally.

Which is just as well because I'd bore you to tears.

But that doesn't mean I don't use tins of food. Everyone does. It's just that some tins are more interesting than others.

For example, the other night I bought an 825g tin of Sarson Ka Saag (curried mustard greens) and a pack of fresh chili roti from Desi Needs, the quaintly named spice shop in Coburg.

I warmed up the mustard greens, cooked a pot of potatoes, mashed them with a little butter and a few mustard seeds and plenty of salt and pepper, heated the square roti under the grill, sliced it diagonally twice into four crunchy triangles, piled the potatoes into a large bowl, poured the hot Sarson Ka Saag over, sat the roti on the side and that was dinner. Of course, I could have made the Sarson Ka Saag at home.

Sarson Ka Saag (Curried Mustard Greens)

One kilogram finely chopped mustard greens. (Other greens will suffice if you can't get them.)
A quarter kilogram finely chopped spinach. (I have noticed different recipes vary the ratio of mustard greens to spinach.)
A large onion.
Two green chillies
Four cloves garlic
Two centimetres of ginger
Two red chilies
Two tablespoons gram flour
One tablespoon ghee or butter
Four tablespoons ghee
Salt


Boil the mustard greens and spinach in two cups water until soft. Drain excess water, mash and set aside. Meanwhile, mince the onion, green chillies, garlic and ginger and chop the red chilies finely. Saute all of these for a few minutes in four tablespoons of ghee. Now add the mashed greens and a good pinch of salt. Make paste of the gram flour* with a little water, add it to the above mixture, cook for twenty minutes, adjusting liquid if necessary, and serve topped with butter with roti on the side.

*Which I am assured must be the genuine channa dal flour, not the commonly mistaken chickpea flour, but then my half-an-hour of internet research tells me these are one and the same thing. The hell with the internet. It's a waste of time.