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

30.4.07

Another car nut.

Over at Counting Sheep, Jo's father has a new toy, a Willys Jeepster, the original two-wheel-drive four-wheel-drive. If you can see a family resemblance with a Jeep Wrangler that's because the Willys is its great-grandfather.

Now what's that parked next to the Willys? Looks like a nicely-preserved Jaguar Mark II with wire wheels. That would make weekend motoring a delicious choice. Round here, it's Pick Your Volvo. I might have to broaden my automotive tastes.

27.4.07

Weekend weather forecast: rain. Weekend kitchen forecast: long, slow, aromatic cooking.

Lamb shanks with rosemary, red wine and a head of garlic.

Rosemary comes to the fore in this highly aromatic dish which will have family, friends, neighbours, random people passing by your front door etc swooning, because of the aroma. A whole bottle of red wine and a dozen cloves of garlic makes it irresistibly rich. Carrots add a further sweet dimension.

It's easy. The hardest part is battling the wet weekend crowds to get to the butcher for the shanks.

Place six lamb shanks in a plastic bag with a tablespoon of flour and salt and pepper. Brown them three ate a time in olive oil a heavy pot.

Remove browned shanks to a bowl and place two chopped onions, three carrots chopped into fat rounds and twelve minced garlic cloves in the pot. Turn the heat down and sweat them for about ten minutes.

Now add: a bottle of red wine
(not the Grange or Hill of Grace - a Lindeman's Bin line is fine); two cans of tomatoes; three cups of chicken stock; a tablespoon of fresh rosemary and half a tablespoon of chopped thyme.

Take a moment to savour the emerging aroma.

Return the shanks to the pot. Yes, it does need to be a big pot.

Bring to boil, turn the heat down, put the lid on the pot and simmer for a couple of hours. Then simmer with the lid off until meat is about to fall off the bone, about another half hour. Transfer shanks to covered platter. Turn up the heat under the pot and boil the juices until thickened, ten to twenty minutes.

Serve shanks on a bed of mashed potato into which you have folded shards of black olives and flecks of anchovy; pour sauce over the top; creamed spinach and white beans on the side.

Now's the time to open the Grange or Hill of Grace. If your hand falls on an unopened Lindeman's Bin, you've poured the Grange into the stew.

Which means the dog doesn't get the leftovers.

26.4.07

Would you like your bag in a bag?

Shoppers have rushed to Sainsbury's stores in the UK, many no doubt driving actual motorised vehicles, to snap up the retailer's entire 20,000 stocks of cotton shopping bags emblazoned with the words I'm not a plastic bag.

The bags were described by one paper as the 'latest must-have celeb eco-statement', which, as a collection of words, is beyond parody.

So why did people go nuts over a cotton bag? I don't know. There could be a number of reasons:

1) Because the bags are good for the environment.
2) Because the bags were designed by a famous designer.
3) Because every B-grade celebrity (i.e. people you've never heard of and don't want to or people you have heard of but wish you hadn't) is toting one around London and people want to look like B-grade celebrities.

We can rule out reason one immediately because even the most rudimentary research reveals that cotton is bad for the environment in terms of both water consumption and usage of chemicals in growth, processing and manufacture of finished items.

So it must be reason two or three. Let's ask the designer, Anya Hindmarch:

'Basically, we want people to decline plastic bags wherever possible. We can make it cool for people to do the right thing and fashion gives people a platform to do that.'

Like it wouldn't occur to people in a million years to do the right thing if it wasn't 'cool'.

So yes; reason two or three, take your pick. Any environmental benefit is good, but coincidental. Otherwise if B-grade celebrities did stupid things like starving themselves or taking drugs, people would ignore them. No, wait. Hold that last comment.

Miss Hindmarch added: 'People have gone ballistic. David Cameron wants one ... .'

David Cameron? He would want one. He's the UK politician who rode a bicycle to work to show how 'green' he was - while a car followed him carrying his bag.

This is sheer media-driven tokenism. If people haven't figured out prudent habits for themselves, then they'll never get it. Everything else is just a stunt.

Meanwhile, fun with anagrams: rearrange the letters in the words I'm not a plastic bag and you get, variously, Lambasting a topic, It's placating a mob and, my favourite, Campaign a bit lost.

Disclosure: I avoid plastic bags as much as possible. I avoid supermarkets as much as possible. I avoid celebrities as much as possible.

24.4.07

Reviewer: 'Something has gone badly wrong at this restaurant.'

The above quote appears on this restaurant review site.

And yes, something has gone very badly wrong at the restaurant. Brace yourself.

20.4.07

Food magazines and opera houses.

Cooking, working and raising children doesn't leave a whole lot of time for reading, so why we continue to subscribe to food magazines is a mystery. Maybe because they are fun to read. My personal favourite is New Zealand's Cuisine.

I've got old food magazines stacked away in cupboards, spare rooms, in the boots of Volvos and just lying about on coffee tables and floors and in bathrooms, ready for a quick flip through in an increasingly rare spare moment.

The May edition of Bon Appetit just arrived. It features the cuisine of Australia among those of other lands and it has a picture of the Sydney Opera House on the cover. Inside, the first several pages are glossy double page ads. One of these is a for a shipping line advertising tours to Australia. It shows a couple gazing out of their tour ship at ... the Sydney Opera House.

What is it with the Sydney Opera House as an Australian symbol? The Sydney Opera House was someone's idea of a post-modern architectural joke. Building contractors scratched their heads for years and almost couldn't build it because of its complexity. When they did finally finish it in 1973, its cost had overrun by something like 1400%-1700%, depending on who you ask, and yet the 'waterproof' joints between the roof shells had a projected life of 12 years with no provision made for inspection, maintenance, or repair. By 1989, the Sydney Opera House was falling apart and needed another $500 million thrown at it.

All that, for an acoustically-inferior concert hall that endangers the hearing of the musicians, has serious shortcomings for performers and looks like a yacht race in a cyclone.

A Federal Government Department of Environment report into the state of the building provides the following 1998 Sydney Opera House Trust comment. (They are bureaucrats, so we will need to call in the translators.)

'Since being completed twenty-five years ago, the Sydney Opera House has become an international icon, instantly recognisable to people all around the world.'

Translation: everyone recognises it, so we're stuck with it.

'The Sydney Opera House Trust has decided to embark on a long-term program aimed at achieving two significant objectives.'

Translation: 'long-term' means we can push costs onto future administrations, because we're not sure if it will work or whether it's worth it.

'The first is to safeguard the Sydney Opera House and its site for the benefit of future generations.'

Translation: it's falling down.

'The second is to address the current effectiveness of the building’s function as a contemporary performing arts centre.'

Translation: it's falling down and it doesn't work.

'In establishing these two objectives, we are mindful that they must be achieved within the design principles established by Utzon.'

Translation: the design was nuts and our task is probably impossible.

'The challenge now facing the Trust is to safeguard the integrity of Jørn Utzon’s vision, whilst assessing the functions of the building to ensure that it can continue to perform as the world-class performing arts centre that Utzon intended it to be.'

Read: unfortunately we can't pull the bastard down.

The Opera House would never have been built in Melbourne. The irony is that to most Sydneysiders, that's a criticism.

18.4.07

Speaking of orange swedes ...

It's autumn, when tubers and other root vegetables crawl out of their holes and make their way slowly, with a yawn and a rub of their eyes, back onto plates everywhere, via the pot, of course.

I am partial to root vegetables. I never met a tuber I didn't like.

I often bake slices of parsnip and carrot and onion, in a little white wine and water - which means it is not strictly baking but stewing - in a covered casserole in the oven until they are almost done. (The aroma from this is a revelation.)

Then I take the casserole out of the oven and place over the vegetables some fish, any white-fleshed fish such as blue grenadier or trevally or rock ling, along with a generous pat of butter and some fresh ground black pepper, and put it back in the oven and a most heavenly dinner is ready in ten minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish.

Then there's the swede. The yellowy, orangey vegetable is almost an object of derision in some circles. In Scotland it is mashed and served as 'neeps' with haggis. Go on, laugh. Everyone else does. Maybe it's the name.

But I'm undeterred. I like their intriguing nutty flavour and their second cousin status and their shadowy history and doubtful heritage. (Swedes are a cross between the turnip and the cabbage and originated in Siberia, according to an academic I know who works at Google University, Wikipedia Campus.)

Here's a handy swede recipe:

Swede and carrot mash with pine nuts and prosciutto.

Take half a kilo each of swedes and carrots. Cut into chunks. (How big is a chunk? As big as you want it to be.) Bring to the boil in salted water in a large pot and simmer for twenty minutes.

Meanwhile, lightly toast some pine nuts in a pan. Cut a few slices of prosciutto into pieces and crisp these in the same pan. Drain the vegetables, retaining a little of the water for mashing. Mash, adding salt, pepper and a little nutmeg and place into a serving bowl.

Shower pine nuts and prosciutto flecks over the top and serve as a side dish with lamb shanks slowly braised with tomato, onion and olives and served with gremolata of lemon rind, garlic and parsley. Pour a shiraz.

There you are. A swede in every garage and a swede in every pot.

17.4.07

Tangerine Dream.

Good morning, sir, your new car is ready.

Shall we run through a few features?

Outside the vehicle, there's a nice long bonnet finishing in a cutting-edge seventies shovel-nose grille and a bumper that juts out like the cow-catcher on an overnight freight train.



Now if you'll step around to the driver's door, we'll take a look inside.

As you can see, there are acres of velour. It's the last word in 1970s interior comfort.



As you requested, we have fitted the front seats with the factory-accessory padded black velour headrests. These can be zipped off for ease of cleaning.




Right below the cigar lighter, you'll notice the Town and Country push-button AM radio. We've pre-tuned it to Melbourne's top five stations - 3AR, 3LO, 3DB, 3AW and 3XY. The speaker in the top of the dash.

Pardon?

Yes, one speaker: it's an AM radio, why would you need two?



You'll notice the big, bold instrumentation. That big disc in the middle is the space for the optional tachometer; however, since your vehicle has the automatic transmission, I doubt you'll be needing one.

Now finally sir, take a look at the odometer. See? The car is barely run in.



Here are the keys. Enjoy your car.

Good day to you.

16.4.07

'Security check, camera B!'

I hear that every time I go to the supermarket. I always think they're looking at me.

I don't know why. I've never stolen anything in my life.

13.4.07

A room with a view.



Sometimes I have to work. I know, a great shame, but there it is. Money doesn't grow on trees, unless you're a cherry farmer like my cousin in New Zealand.

One small compensation for working, apart from money, is the view. In between working and blogging, I gaze out the window; just like so many years ago in school, when I sat at a wooden desk with an inkwell and stared out at a line of poplars turning gold in the autumn sunshine while Miss Burns read the next chapter of Mavis Thorpe Clark's The Min Min, Ivan Southall's Hills End or Colin Thiele's February Dragon.

Unfortunately, there's no Miss Burns to read books to me here, so I have to do it myself, when I'm not blogging or working or gazing out the window. Recently I read John Buchan's Greenmantle online at Project Gutenberg:

Almost at once I struck a road, a big highway running north and
south. I trotted along in the bitter morning to get my circulation
started, and presently I began to feel a little better. In a little
I saw a church spire, which meant a village. Stumm wouldn't be likely
to have got on my tracks yet, I calculated, but there was always the
chance that he had warned all the villages round by telephone and
that they might be on the look-out for me. But that risk had to be
taken, for I must have food.


That's exactly what I think as the clock moves towards midday. Must have food.

Oh, the view. The slender spire at left is the Arts centre, rising out of the murk of the Alexandra Gardens. The photo isn't very clear, I'm afraid.

To the right of the spire, tomorrow's Herald Sun and Weekend Australian are right now being written in the shorter and fatter of the two ugly brown buildings.

The rocket in the middle is Eureka Tower, and if you think that's in bad taste you haven't seen its website. The small smudge of red to the immediate right of the building below Eureka is the Burnley Tunnel smokestack. It is from this that I saw billowing smoke a few weeks ago, following the crash in the tunnel.

The rest is just a bunch of buildings - the AXA one was once one of Melbourne's tallest when it was the National Mutual Centre. It had a top-floor restaurant called Pamplemousse.

Does anyone else have a room with a view, either at home or at work?

12.4.07

Spaghetti with chicken and zucchini meatballs in fragrant tomato and basil sauce.

Who doesn’t like meatballs? Well, yes, vegetarians, of course; but I'm talking about the texture and homely appeal of these little orbs of hot deliciousness dressed in a fragrant sauce - irrespective of their actual content. Vegetarians may substitute a combination of cottage cheese and ground nuts or tofu for the flesh.

It's really very easy - I combined 750 grams or thereabouts of chicken mince with half a cup of bread crumbs, an egg, two tablespoonsful of grated parmesan cheese, a couple of finely chopped garlic cloves, half a very finely chopped zucchini (cutting the zucchini in two radially, cross-hatching on the cut surfaces progressively, an inch or so at a time, and then slicing thinly, radially again, to achieve very fine dice), half a cup of milk, a handful of chopped parsley and some salt and ground black pepper.

The measurements are inexact but you are trying to achieve a consistency that sticks together but isn’t too dry, with the milk balancing the added dry ingredients. I also threw in about half a tablespoonful each of polenta and couscous and a little extra milk to be taken up by these.

(It helps if you’ve thrown everything into the mixing bowl before you start combining because I found that taking the lid off a jar of bread crumbs when your hands are covered in chicken mince is not a good idea.)

Then I formed the mixture into little egg-shaped meatballs and placed these in a large pan in which was cooking a jar of tomato passata and two cans of diced tomatoes complete with their juice added to some browned onions. The mixture needs to be fluid enough to boil the meatballs. Twenty minutes will do it. Add torn strips of basil out of the garden.

Cook spaghetti to well done. Al dente doesn't work with meatballs. I prefer regular spaghetti or bucatini but thin tagliatelle or fettucine will suffice.

More parmesan over the top. Glass of red. Crusty bread. Enjoy.

11.4.07

Summer hat.

Exultets and eggs.

A faint pinprick of light appeared in the distance and then approached rapidly, grew larger and passed with a whoosh of something that whooses as it passes; and then it disappeared into the rear vision mirror of life.

It was Easter.

At least the hot cross buns and chocolate eggs are out of the goddamn supermarkets. Now it's hello, Christmas decorations, I suppose. For supermarkets it is eternally Easter and Christmas, like a cut-rate liturgical calendar.

*

The days were hot and windless and golden. The sun is still powerful but lower in the sky. Every year around this time, Melbourne turns gold and copper and bronze. Do you remember those Copper Art commercials with the Peter Smith voiceover on television in the early eighties? People used to fill their houses to overflowing with the stuff - fake escutcheons to hang on walls, fireplace implements and coal buckets to stand uselessly by the gas heater, kettles you couldn't boil and a thousand pointless ornaments that were today's fad and tomorrow's garage sale junk; and I used to think if they had only dragged themselves off their sofas and away from their lurid flickering TV screens and out into their back gardens, they could have bathed in enough Melbourne-sunset copper and gold to burnish a thousand suburbs and streetscapes and parklands and have enough left over to fill a hundred mines.

*

We were sitting in the Achillion cakeshop on a glorious Saturday afternoon, about three o'clock, with the sun slanting in the window and shining on a tray of honey-gold galaktoboureko. I had a Greek coffee and a glass of water sitting on the laminex table in front of me and Tracy had a cappucino and the babies were in their double pram and William was eating a crumbly Greek egg biscuit and watching the ceiling fan go around. Behind the counter, Greek Easter cakes - the ones with red-dyed eggs baked into the middle - were stacked to the ceiling. We bought one to take to Easter Sunday lunch.

*

Bonfires, darkness and music make the Easter vigil the most obviously dramatic service of the year. When one candle spreads to several hundred tapers, the soaring stone pillars and carved timber detail light up slowly like sunrise in an ancient forest. Then the Exultet. It's the kind of spine-tingling experience that seems to ring down through the centuries, bringing it with something out of history, like a piece of aural archaeology. The cantor's voice was spare and powerful and rang clear like crystal. Then it was over and the last organ notes died away and for a second there was utter silence in the packed church and right then William, in his pyjamas in my arms, threw his little hands skywards and let go with a loud 'Hooray!', as though the Wiggles had just finished singing Big Red Car.

*

Sunday lunch was the usual mega-production at the ancestral home in Essendon. Well, it's been there since 1954. That's more than 25% of European settlement in Australia, so that's ancestral enough for me. Mum will never move out. The place will fall down around her and she will still have the kettle on the boil and something baking in the oven.

The usual assortment of siblings and cousins and friends and uncles and aunts and even someone's ex- gathered around several overladen tables groaning with food and another groaning with mis-matched crockery and cutlery and glassware and a pile of paper napkins bearing little Santas. Mum is not into seasonally-themed table accessories. She's not really into accessories full stop. You can't eat a look-at-me square glass vase. Or the rock in it.

There were roasted chickens and platters of barbecued fish and baked pasta casseroles - cannellonis and lasagnes and timbales - and tureens of spiced rice and a something jalfrezi and side platters of roasted vegetables and cold salad platters and several unnamed things that were anonymously delicious. At the end there was an enormous pear crumble served with vanilla ice-cream and pouring cream, just in case you happened to be hungry.

Mum won't leave things alone. She won't settle. She has to cut up bread, offer things around, make sure no-one is starving to death in a corner, check everyone's drink levels, press some more of something onto a vacant square inch of someone's plate, that kind of thing. She was in the kitchen with a knife and there was a sudden crunching noise. She was cutting up the Greek Easter cake into even segments, including the red egg in the middle. 'I thought it was some kind of fruit in the centre,' she said, 'like in a Danish pastry. I didn't realise it was an egg!'

10.4.07

Skyfish.

Sneak preview.



One of only two early 244 emblems in Australia with an as-new, unfaded black background.

The other? On the passenger side, silly.

As I walked out one mid-autumn morning ...


... this is what I saw from the porch. It was ten to six, the air was warm and there was a faint hum in the air, as if at a great distance. I didn't know sunrise made a noise. This one did. It was like the morning of the earth.

3.4.07

How to rob a restaurant.

First, never shoot your accomplice.

'A bungling armed robber shot his female accomplice as they held up a restaurant in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne overnight.'

Second, remember that the plastic bag doesn't always contain the takings:

'The pair demanded the staff member hand over a black plastic bag, which it is thought they believed contained the restaurant's takings. However, the bag actually held left-over bread rolls, which the staff member was planning to feed to his chickens.'

Third, never try to deny chickens their bread rolls.

'Restaurant General Manager Horst Lantzsch said the bandits then demanded the staff member's car keys. He said as the staff member handed over the car keys, the shotgun discharged, wounding the woman in the stomach.'

General Manager Horst can't resist a handy food metaphor, even in the face of a crisis:

' "She dropped to the ground like a sack of potatoes." '

He would know potatoes, of course - the Cuckoo is a German theme restaurant.

Horst talks about the robbery here.

He doesn't mention the chickens. I hope they got their rolls.

2.4.07

The car.

Some people collect stamps, some people collect cookbooks. I collect old Volvos. (I collect cookbooks as well but they fit on a few shelves. Volvos clog up the driveway.)

I looked at a 164 a couple of weeks ago, a model by noted designer Jan Wilsgaard. A 164 is kind of like a scrap metal art installation that you can drive to the supermarket if you get sick of just looking at it, which is unlikely. 164s handle like the Queen Mary. It’s still coming around the corner five minutes after you see the headlights. I made an offer on the car and I knew the owner would hold out. She thought the car was beautiful and when they say that, they always ask too much money.

Then I happened to see an ad for an old 244, an early '76 car. There's usually nothing special about these - most are being scrapped now because the cost of fixing them is more than what they’re worth.

Something made me check it out. The car was in Eaglemont. I went to Eaglemont early on a Thursday afternoon, drove up to where it is quiet and leafy and the streets are steep and the mansions look way down at the Yarra River valley. The house was a vast 1950s waterfall brick affair hanging off a hill and it was overgrown with the kinds of shrubs that everyone had in the 1950s; weigela, hibiscus, plumbago. I climbed about a hundred steps to the front door and an old dear came and opened it and told me to go around the side and up to the garage.

I went around the side and fought my way through a jungle of shrubs and found the garage sitting way up the back, past a dried up sunken lawn with a clothes line in the middle and one lonely teatowel drying on it. The old dear took the short route and was there before me. She got the garage door open and a big round headlight peeked out at us. We went in and she told me he hadn’t used it much earlier, and not at all later. And then there had been no choice.

It didn’t look like it had been much used. The duco was a riot of 1970s tangerine. The car looked like a giant crate of oranges. I wiped my finger along it and the paintwork gleamed underneath a thin layer of garage dust. I opened the driver’s door. The car had a matching tan-orange interior, a white roof lining and unmarked rubber floormats. Then I looked at the odometer and tried to suppress a gasp. 40,065 kilometres.

The old dear showed me the service records. They showed 9,000 kilometres by the end of 1977 and almost 30,000 kilometres by the end of 1982. That left 25 years for someone to drive the other 10,000 kilometres. That’s 400 clicks a year. I bought the car on the spot.

I returned on Saturday afternoon to drive it home. I backed out of the garage into the laneway behind and the old dear patted the front of the Volvo and had a kind of confused look on her face: happy because it wasn’t going to scrap, but a little sad because the last time someone drove the car, it was her late husband.