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

31.5.07

Recipe for a cold night in front of a gas fire. (Warning: elephants on the loose.)

It was a cold day, a Tuesday, and it rained all morning and all afternoon. Now it was early in the evening and William was being an elephant in the hallway, as you do when you are 23 months old and it's six o'clock at night. Thomas was laying on his side in the portacot, holding a soft toy block with big coloured numbers on each side and beating it against the side of the portacot as you do when you're seven months old and have just discovered motor skills.

The radio on the mantlepiece was playing some jazz music broadcast from 3MBS, Melbourne's first FM station. There was an aroma coming from the kitchen. It was good.

Smoked pork hocks on garlic mash.

Place two smoked pork hocks in a pot with a chopped onion, a chopped carrot, a chopped garlic clove, a bay leaf, a teaspoonful of peppercorns and half a cup of chopped parsley. Cover with water, bring to boil and simmer, covered, for at least a couple of hours and possibly longer; until the kitchen windows steam up and the aroma fills the house and you can't stand it any longer and you absolutely have to eat right now.

Make potato mash - fold through three or four cloves of roasted garlic, a tablespoonful of horseradish and some chopped parsley. Place pork hocks on top and serve with our current favourite beer.

It's winter in a few days. There'll be more of this kind of fare.

*

7.30pm. The gas fire is humming away and the 3MBS announcer, the one who talks too much, has stopped telling the composer's life story and is playing his music instead.

The elephant is no longer stamping. It is snoring in a little heap in a corner holding a teddy.

30.5.07

Meet the Welsh What I Cooked Last Night.

Rippers is a sports journalist in Wales who drives a temperamental black Fiat Tipo named Boo and likes getting drunk and cooking, not necessarily all at the same time.

His blog is an hilarious blend of sports writer banter, some pretty damn good recipes and the odd personal disaster:

"Ever had one of those moments when you have woken up and are
a. far from your bedroom and
b. totally bemused at your surroundings?"


Rippers doesn't appear to have a huge number of readers yet, so go and say hello to him here.

29.5.07

Bureaucracy Tales #7,639: The Man, the Book, the Photo and the Librarian.

I'll get back to food very soon (if the mice don't eat it all) but in the meantime, here's an anecdote about a friend who went to Shanghai for ten days. So sit back, put your feet up and listen, all of which I realise is impossible, but you get the drift.

He had borrowed one of those tour books from the library; you know, the ones that tell you where to eat, where to go shopping and how bad the government is if it's a Western capitalist democracy and how good it is if it's run by a guy like this.

Anyway, he turns up in Shanghai with his tour book and has the notion to photograph himself holding up the book right there on The Bund at Yan'an Road, so that the view behind him is exactly what is on the cover of the book. Neat.

Then he comes home, and the book has to go back to the library. So he takes the book to the library and thinks he will leave a copy of the photo in the book as if to say, Hey, this book about Shanghai has been to Shanghai!

But instead of simply dropping the book in the slot, he thinks it will be a lark to take the book in and show the photo to the librarian. They might even display the book on the counter with the photo, like a little advertisement. Cool.

So he hands the book over and shows the photo to the librarian.

No reaction. No smile. Nothing.

Then: That will be $1.60.

Friend: Pardon me?

Librarian, again, deadpan: That will be $1.60.

Friend: But the book isn't even overdue.

Librarian: That's the prescribed fine.

Friend: Fine? For what?

Librarian: For taking the book out of the country.

My friend was gobsmacked, lost for a reply.

So he hands over a two dollar coin. The librarian, deadpan, silent, hands back forty cents change.

Friend (on receiving his forty cents change): Thank you very much.

Life is too funny. Sometimes you just don't realise it.

(I just want to know who set the penalty of $1.60 for taking the book out of the country, and by what process they arrived at that particular figure.)

25.5.07

Mice.

So as I was saying, we shouldn't have congratulated ourselves on getting rid of the feral cats.

Because just weeks after the cats left, the mice arrived. One ran across the floor in the kitchen late one night. It tried to run in an arc but lost its grip on the lino and kind of scrabbled sideways with its rear end out of control like a Mini Cooper in the Monte Carlo rally, before disappearing under the cupboard on the bathroom side of the kitchen.

Next day I was talking to our veterinarian friend down the street - the one who had helped de-feralise the neighbourhood. Mice had invaded her house as well, despite having several - domesticated - cats and dogs in residence. (Her house has a cat cage along the entire side and back so her cats can roam in relative freedom without killing local fauna.) She told me that, despite handling all manner of small animals at work, a mouse running across her floor totally freaks her out.

So there are mice everywhere. Blame it on the drought. Blame everything on the drought. Anyway, I needed a mousetrap.

So I beat a path to the doorway of my local supermarket.

There was one mousetrap left. All the others had been snapped up, which will be my last bad pun for several paragraphs.

Personally, I don’t mind mice. The house I grew up in always had them. In the sixties, Essendon was an outer suburb. There was the aerodrome to the north and a few cream bricks houses to the west and beyond all of that there was scotch thistle and then a volcanic basalt plain and then Mt Macdeon. Plenty of country mice made their way to the city and stopped by at Essendon and feasted on scraps of macaroni bake and Kraft cheddar and Brockhoff Thin Captains and Guests Teddy Bears and Baker Boy bread and Noon pies.

So I felt a bit guilty, especially since Wikipedia states that mice live commensally with humans, meaning kind of together in the same house without acknowledging each other; like when your mother-in-law comes to stay and isn’t saying when she is going again. But then that last thought got me in the mood to setting the trap. So I found an old piece of King Island Blue in the fridge and that went onto the trap and the trap went under the cupboard out of the way of little hands and I went to bed.

Next morning, the cheese was gone and the trap was still set. I depressed the lever. It didn’t spring. The trap hadn't worked. I reset it and checked the mechanism and still it didn’t work and then when I wasn't looking the bastard went off and my fingers were in it and I got mad and threw it in the trash and went to the hardware store and bought another one, a different brand.

Why are things that you really need to work don't, because they're so ludicrously cheap (even though you'd be prepared to pay more than the 68 cents I paid for the mousetrap); while things that don't have an actual function often cost a bomb? I don't know.

We’ll see if the second brand is as bad as the first brand.

24.5.07

Cats.

Of course, we shouldn't have congratulated ourselves after having successfully gotten rid of the feral cats infesting the neighbourhood and destroying birdlife along Merri Creek. Although it was an immensely difficult task.

There are two ways to do things, the official way and the way that works.

The official way was to 'apply' to the council for a cat cage, 'apply' meaning ring up about a hundred times to get put onto a 'list'. Ringing up and actually being put on the 'list' are not things that happen on the same day or at all - lest you think someone at the council has a pen and a piece of paper and a telephone all on the same table at the same time. Every time we rang up to find out how the 'list' was progressing, our name was no longer on it.

During this time, the council was engaged in holding meetings to Free David Hicks, meetings at which his father, Mr Terry Hicks, was feted. Speaking of freeing things, I suggest we free the council of all of their appointed tasks, allowing them to work full-time on Freeing David Hicks. This would be a win for council, since councils are basically incapable of carrying out any practical task whatsoever; and a win for ratepayers, for exactly the same reason. Object to your rates being used for political purposes? Hell, no. I'd pay well over my annual thousand dollar rate bill just to get council off my back. If that results in David Hicks walking around lowering - or maybe raising - Adelaide's average IQ, fine by me.

Anyway, eventually a guy rocks up with a cat cage. It was a lovely cat cage. It was battered and the gate didn't close properly and it still had a filthy decaying old chop bone in it from the last ratepaying feral-cat infested house. Council hadn't cleaned it. Nice. Maybe they thought leaving the bone in it was 'recycling' and that my feral cats would enjoy having a bit of a chew on it.

To cut a long story short, we caught a cat in due course. Then they took away the cage and the cat. So it's Goodbye Pussy #1, but what about the other eighty-five? You have to apply again for the cage.

Where's my gun? Just kidding. We took matters into our own hands. A neighbour is a veterinary nurse and she obtained a multiplicity of cat cages - clean - and over a period of several weeks, we managed to trap enough cats to keep Andrew Lloyd Weber in musicals until he thinks of something worth watching.

22.5.07

Kitchen Hand mows lawn; solves drought; makes giant pot of soup.

I spent the weekend mowing. I had to cut the grass because you could no longer see William toddling around the garden. It was like a jungle.

Either the drought is over or it's raining in the wrong places. The State government is still resolutely ignoring my masterplan for large mobile reservoirs to be towed around on the back of Kenworth prime movers following the rainclouds.

It's not my fault they built the dams where it doesn't rain. Probably the same idiots built VFL Park in a rainbelt. I went to hundreds of football games there over the years and it rained every time. I often wonder why, when the AFL abandoned the ground, they didn't just seal the place with plastic liner and use it as a giant water tank. It would have been perfect.

*

It's getting colder. I started off the cold season by brewing up a giant pot of lamb shank soup on Sunday afternoon. I don't know what was more appealing: the smell of freshly mown grass coming into the house or the aroma of the soup going out.

Lamb shank soup.

Soak a pack of soup mix (split peas, barley, lentils) for a few hours. Drain and place in a large pot. Add: one or two chopped onions depending on size, a diced turnip, a diced parsnip, a diced carrot, two finely chopped sticks of celery, a lamb shank or two and a good shake of white pepper. I didn't bother with stock; this is aromatic enough on its own. I just covered the lot with water.

Bring to boil and simmer for an hour or so. If you can resist the temtation, this soup is better the next day, but the amount I made will keep us going for a week. Sprinkle plenty of fresh chopped parsley over the top and enjoy with crusty buttered bread and a stout.

But which stout? There are some good ones, but here's my current favourite (Slogan: The Bird. The Beer. The Belief.) That is a hilarious website by the way. Click 'Moonshine' on Page 6 in the history page and read about how they workshopped a new name for a beer originally named after a rat poison.)

21.5.07

17.5.07

Where's my ice?

It was late and it was still warm and we had just arrived home from the beach house and I had unpacked the car and put a load of washing on and bathed William while Tracy fed Thomas and put William to bed and got him up again because he wouldn't sleep and read him a story and got dinner going while Tracy bathed Thomas and put him in his cot.

At that point the voice in my head whispered 'gin and tonic', which is not surprising because no other three English language words really cut it at that time of the night.

I poured a slug of gin and a splash of tonic and went to the fridge to get some ice. There was no ice. The ice trays were full of blocks of green and yellow and orange frozen substances.

That was because Thomas is now eating solids. He's six months. The kitchen is busy. When there are children you do six things at once. Meals for the adults, different meals for the toddler, different meals for the tiny one.

William never took to commercial baby food; we bought a couple of the little jars for convenience, for example when going out. He tasted one and spat it out, then he tasted another and spat it out and pulled a face and then he tasted another and spat it out and pulled a face and gurgled with displeasure as if to say "What do you not understand about I Don't Like Store-Bought Baby Food?"

So we're not even trying with Thomas. Tracy's pureeing and freezing skills were honed to perfection with William and now Thomas is enjoying a wide variety of home-made mixtures - pureed broccoli and pumpkin, avocado and potato, sweet potato and carrot, all that kind of thing. Just thaw and heat and there's baby's dinner. I have to point out at this juncture that the unit cost of these meals is about a tenth of the cost of buying baby food in a jar or tin; the major cost components of which are, of course, the jar, the transport and the retailer's markup.

*

William finally went to bed and we had a late dinner. One of our quick and easy specials:

Pasta with tuna, peas and avocado.

Cook pasta. Throw in a cupful of frozen peas a few minutes before draining. Drain. Return to pan. Open a can of good quality tuna in olive oil. Stir through pasta. Slice an avocado and fold through pasta. Add grated cheese. The cheese melts and the whole dish is silky smooth and delicious.

16.5.07

The beach.

There was not even the hint of a breeze and the soft May sun was warm.

We walked to the beach, down the street where the moonah stretches up and over to form an arched tunnel with a light at the end that is sky. And, past the light at the end of the tunnel, ships pass by; and they look like they are sailing along Point Nepean Road, because you cannot see the water from there.

The bay was a mirror and the sand was warm. Twelve or thirteen black swans were paddling about in the shallows. I've never seen them here before; I suppose they were en route somewhere and taking a rest.

William played around on the sand and we read papers while Thomas flapped in his pram and then Tracy took him down to the water and dipped his tiny toes at the edge and first he gave a kind of shudder at the cold chill and then he shrieked for joy.

The beach was quiet. It was late morning.

I swept William up in my arms said come on, let's go out into the water. We walked out for maybe two hundred metres and the water was only up to my thighs. I turned around and we looked towards the shore. It shimmered in the haze, a strip of yellow sand and a dark line of trees. Houses rose out of the trees and hung on the hill staring at the sun and the water. Cars made a lazy buzz along Point Nepean Road.

Then back to shore. It was time for lunch.

15.5.07

Two conversations.

7a.m. at the kitchen table.

William: Dogs haf’ tails.
Me: Yes, dogs have tails.
William: Horsies haf’ tails.
Me: Yes, horses have tails.
William: Bunnies haf’ tails.
Me: Yes, bunnies have tails - cute little fluffy ones.
PAUSE
William: Pipple haf’ tails - NOOOOO! (Furious shaking of head)
Me: No, people don’t have tails.

4p.m. at the boardroom table.

J: Guys, the pre-launch two-state test is about to roll out. We’re implementing the Thoresian strategy based on prior learnings going forward. We’ve got above the line, through the line and below the line and it’s been successfully focus-group tested.
K: Great. Ambient?
J: Check. Plus viral. We’re excited about viral. It’s big.
K: It’s huge.
Me (THINKING): WTF?

I don’t know why I go to work, really. I can get more sense out of a 23 month old baby than a room full of adults.

11.5.07

Stone soup.

It's funny how sometimes an expression you have heard early in life never leaves your consciousness.

I was checking out some blogs - click, read, click, read, click, click, click, read - and over at Here's the Veg, Michael was talking about a recipe for celeriac and worcestershire sauce he had found at Stone Soup.

Stone Soup, I thought. I wonder ...

I wondered correctly. It hit me straight away: the title of a book I read at school when I was about six - Stone Soup by Marcia Brown, published 1947.

Jules of Stone Soup (the blog) mentions a slightly different version of the story and she recalls how it inspired her to cook with her mother:

' ... I raced down to our closest creek and picked myself the tastiest looking stone I could find. After lugging my treasure home I persuaded my mum to humour me and help me create what in my small mind was a masterpiece with my new found stone and whatever soup ingredients she could spare.'

How heartwarming is that?

I've never forgotten the story, even though I haven't seen the book since primary school.

10.5.07

Bureaucrats a few slices short of a pizza.

Everyone from Antony Jay, Jonathan Lynn and Aldous Huxley to Terry Oglesby, Scott Adams, Frank Dickens, George Orwell and Douglas Adams have satirised bureaucrats.

But no-one seems to have made a dent. Bureaucratic stupidity must be Kevlar-coated. When it comes to bureaucracies, there are kangaroos loose in the top paddock everywhere you look and they just keep getting worse.

Take this story for example. The pizza shop was held up. The pizza guys caught one of the robbers. Nice work, pizza guys! But wait, there's an investigation. The police?

No. It's the WorkSafe people, investigating the pizza guys for not following Bureaucratic Guidelines for the Implementation of Outcomes-Based Strategies During Outsourced Asset-Stripping Exercises by Socially Disadvantaged Asset-Poor Participants in the Non-Legal Economy Assisted by Projectile-Emitting Non-Porous Metallic Devices (IoOBSDOASEbSDAPPitNLEAbPENPMD). Bureaucrats, in between turning the entire English language into acronyms, are also good at stating the obvious:

' ... WA WorkSafe Commissioner Nina Lyhne was concerned people might think trying to overpower an armed robber was a good idea. "If a person is desperate enough to commit an armed robbery, you can never be sure how violent that person may become," she said.'

Unless they're desperate and stupid. But never mind, like all bureaucracies, Planet WorkSafe has a solution:

'All-hours workplaces needed armed holdup procedures and all staff trained in their use, Ms Lyhne said.'

At any other time and in any other place that would mean armed protection. But not on Planet WorkSafe, where everything is solved by regulations in triplicate and endless PowerPoint presentations.

They should stick to hunting down rogue flattened cardboard boxes.

9.5.07

An ordinary Tuesday.

It was ten minutes to two on an ordinary Tuesday and I was walking through the city by taking the lanes and alleyways. It was a cool afternoon but not cold. Even so, scarves and coats were everywhere. Maybe people are thinking, It’s May. Wear a scarf and a coat.

It has always been possible to walk entirely through the CBD on foot via lanes and alleys. It’s fun to do this and avoid the major streets. But now there are even more lanes and alleyways than before, and they all seem to be full of cafes and fast food stalls.

I was walking through a new development heading towards Elizabeth and Lonsdale and in the alley that was more of a breezeway, there was one of those cafes that only sells chocolate. I thought, what is it about chocolate? How can you make money selling only chocolate? What if a customer wanted a steak or a chicken sandwich?

They were making money. The place was packed to the rafters and there were extra seats in the alley. You could smell the chocolate. It hung on the air, even though it was a breezeway. Maybe it was the smell of money. Kind of dark and metallic with a warm, happy afterglow.

The thing I noticed was the plate in front of one of the diners. Sometimes melted chocolate is so seductively silky, it actually has a mirrored surface. The chocolate on the plate I saw had a mirrored surface. You could have looked at yourself in it. It was all over the plate like a volcano spill, with a dramatic lip at the edge characteristic of a substance that is thicker than fluid, but not yet solid. It was oozing down from a mountain of the deepest, darkest brown sitting in the middle of the plate like the Rock of Gibraltar. The mountain looked like cake but I think it was fudge; because, just as I passed, a gleaming stainless steel spoon slid into it without any apparent yield from the texture around it. Cake would have yielded. There was more chocolate on top, shards of the stuff, curled into sensuous come-hither shavings. The spoon lifted and a hunk of the dark stuff came away, bringing with it a sludge of the semi-molten glistening brown fluid as well as a few of the curly shavings. I think that was all but there might have been more. There might have been thick cream and pure vanilla ice-cream and berry couli and angels and harps but I didn't notice; I caught the scene in just a glance. But I did notice that everywhere there, people were eating similar kinds of things in various warm dark brown hues and textures and fluids and powders.

The funny thing was, they weren’t eating like people do in a normal cafĂ©. They were eating slowly, and they were staring as if transfixed. As if they were having some kind of out-of-body experience.

8.5.07

Winter is coming.

Dr O. has retired. I suppose it had to happen. He looked after my two older children since about 1980; and then William and now Thomas this past year or so. I'll miss Dr O.'s wit and his intelligence and his eccentric practice. He never computerised. (Some doctors sit there and tap your disease into a keyboard and print off pages of information about your condition. The hell with that. I want a doctor to talk to me.) I wonder what Dr O. will do with the six thousand wooden toys and three million dog-eared picture books in his waiting room?

Dr O. recommended another practice, which was a relief, because how do you doctor-shop unless you're a doctor yourself?

Thomas cried on and off all night. It's just a cold. William woke on and off all night. He's getting molars. They'll be fine. Tracy and I will yawn our way through the day.

Last night I threw dinner together after we got home from the new doctor.

Vegetables with chick peas, tahini and sesame.

Three large potatoes peeled and chopped into quarters. One large sweet potato peeled and chopped into pieces of a similar size. Boil. After five minutes add: a quartered onion. After another five minutes add: some florets of broccoli, a zucchini chopped into rounds, a sliced red bell pepper and a cup of peas. Boil another five minutes. Drain. Plate. Add a tablespoonful of chickpeas. (Heat them if you wish; I added them, drained, straight from the can.) Chop parsley or coriander and disperse over the vegetables and chickpeas. Now drizzle tahini and shower sesame seeds. Eat.

This is disarmingly delicious and, I don't need to add, extremely healthful. We're coming down with colds as well. I suppose I should have drank orange juice or something with it, but I didn't. I had a glass of red from South Australia: a purplish cabernet blend with overtones of plum. Nice.

4.5.07

Stop me if you've heard it before.

The blog is entitled What I Cooked Last Night and it's been running nearly four years? You'll forgive me if I repeat myself.

You'll also forgive that I occasionally wander off into another realm like a charged proton blundering into another dimension - posting pictures of cars or children or broken teapots or clouds; complaining about ugly buildings or celebrity shopping bags; narrating the trivialities of a cocktail party at Docklands or a holiday in Queenscliff or a dinner at Mother's or my plate collection.

Then again, some people eat the same thing for each night of the week - fish on Friday, baked beans on toast Saturday, roast on Sunday. Your blog would end in seven days.

The recipe below is a favourite. You might have seen it before. But there's no escaping the truth: it's what I cooked last night.

Pasta with chicken, red capsicum and avocado.

Cube a chicken breast fillet. Slice a red capsicum into one inch strips. Chop some button mushrooms into four. Simmer these gently with a scored garlic clove on a low heat in a tightly lidded pan with a dash of oil, a tablespoonful of white wine and some cracked pepper.

The mushrooms will exude fluid, the capsicum will steam, the chicken will poach. You want the chicken to cook to opaqueness, not sear. This will take around twelve minutes. You might need to turn the chicken cubes. After you do this and before you replace the lid, place slices of avocado over the cooking chicken and vegetables so that it warms through.

Cook some pasta - bavette, designed for pesto, is perfect. (I had some snow peas left over from the other night so I threw these into the cooking pasta a minute before draining so they stayed crunchy.)

Drain the pasta when cooked. Fold some pesto through the cooked chicken and vegetables, then spoon the mixture over the pasta. Decorate with shards of parmesan.

Drink a bold, oaky chardonnay. The rich flavours of this dish will overpower anything too delicate.

3.5.07

Cooking with a wok.

See? I proved it. I proved - although no newspaper sub-editor in the world would agree - that it is possible to write a pun-free headline containing the word 'wok'. Wok puns are so dreadfully ubiquitous that I estimate nine out of ten people reading the above headline would be looking subconsciously, if not consciously, for a second meaning. THERE IS NO SECOND MEANING.

Poached fish with wok-tossed greens and udon noodles.

I'm liking fragrant food at the moment. It must be the weather. This recipe was perfect for dinner on a cool, mid-to-late-autumn (oh my, is winter really only 28 days away?) evening.

Marinate some fish - I used fresh salmon this time - in the usual suspects: soy, ginger, garlic. I threw in some finely chopped lemongrass as well and a squirt of lime juice.

Chop a bunch of choy sum - sometimes referred to as Chinese flowering cabbage, brassica parachinensis, flowering pak choi or the one with light green leaves and the slender stems. Chop ten spring onions diagonally into one inch sections.

Place fish in a lidded pan and allow it to poach with its marinade. I had half a can of light coconut milk left over from something else, so I added this; but it's not essential. It sure made it tasty, however; mixing with the soy and ginger and lemongrass and lime to make a delicious sauce.

While the fish is poaching, toss the choy sum and the spring onions in a wok with a little peanut oil and a few drops of sesame oil. Throw in a dozen or so snow peas. Add a dash of boiling water, lid wok and allow to steam for a couple of minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare some noodles. I used fresh udon ones which only needed heating in boiling water. I drained them and added them to the wok, folded them through with the wok ladle and added a dash of oyster sauce to the mix.

Transfer noodles and greens to serving plates. Add fish and pour over any remaining sauce.

Sauvignon blanc, please. Or jasmine tea.

Gremlin.

Sometimes, Blogger loses your photos. I clicked edit, reloaded the photo and compared. The reloaded photo's HTML was different to that of the lost photo.

Why? I don't know. I just blog here.

1.5.07

Ball park.



The ball was his first birthday present. It was inexpensive. The electronic beeping, tooting 'interactive' Christmas toys bored him months ago; but he takes the ball everywhere with him.

He throws it high and kicks it low and shouts 'catch!' and then he puts it up in the air with a jerk of little arms and I catch it and give it back to him and he does it over again.

He's twenty-two months. The ball is wearing out. The pattern is fading.

We'll go ball shopping soon. We'll wrap it up in some nice paper and he can open up a birthday ball, all over again.