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

30.8.07

Ten pots until Spring #1: Oxtail stew, in the manner of the roman butchers.

I've been tired and busy and jaded at the end of a long cold winter and it's been a week since my last post.

But never mind because here we sit, perched precariously on the edge of Spring, teetering gently and expecting to drop headlong into a half-remembered world of blazing sunshine in blue skies and endless fields of daisies in which new lambs gambol and skip.

But not yet. Not before we take our leave from Winter with one last hearty meal: our old favourite, the oxtail stew.

(Why 'oxtail'? Why not 'beeftail'? Apparently the name goes back to the days when oxen were bred for transport first and eating second; rather than for eating only. Oxen subsequently became cattle, the English language’s only mass noun, with the females known as heifers prior to calving and thenceforth as cows; and the males as bullocks and then bulls, unless they become steers in which case ... . Ah, forget it. This is about food, not language, although I must say it is interesting to note that cattle derives from the Latin ‘caput’ (‘head’), and is closely related to ‘capital’ and ‘chattel’.)

Oxtail stew.

This is adapted from an old and fairly complex recipe - Coda alla Vaccinara - (of which there were many variations) for the cooking of the ox's tail after the animal had outlived its usefulness as a beast of burden in the Rome of old. No wonder the stew was cooked for a very long time. Today you are purchasing the tail of a far younger beast, so such extensive cooking time is not required; however, as with most dishes of this type, the flavour will probably improve in complexity if the dish is eaten the day after cooking.

Chop six celery stalks into small pieces by cutting first several times along the grain and then across. Chop an onion and a carrot into pieces about the same size as the celery. Score two cloves of garlic. Chop some parsley into at least half a cupful. (Parsley chopping hint: place parsley in a tumbler and snip with scissors.) Chop four slices of prosciutto into tiny squares.

Flour about a kilogram of oxtail segments and brown them in oil in a heavy pot. When browned, turn down heat and add chopped vegetables, parsley and prosciutto. Stir lazily for five minutes or so.

Add a tablespoonful of tomato paste, one jar of passata and half a cup of marsala, or a whole cup of red wine. (Donaldo Soviero in La Vera Cucina Italiana, his volume of sometimes very complex old Italian recipes uses marsala in a particularly rich and somewhat sweet version of the dish. Early Roman chefs often added bitter chocolate or dried fruits towards the end of cooking. I'm getting the idea that old ox tail was not an overly sweet meat.)

Season with salt and plenty of freshly ground pepper. Throw in a bay leaf and three or four cloves. Cover with water and bring to boil.

Simmer for an hour or two. Chill and reheat. Serve on garlic mash and shower the lot with more parsley. That's a lot of parsley - it balances the sweetness of the dish.

Drink: Mt Burrumboot Heathcote Merlot. The winemaker notes: 'Inky, dark, voluptuous and velvety are the words that spring to mind here. If you thought Merlot was a lightweight, think again. There is a reason why the great wines of St Emilion and Bordeaux - the Petrus and Cheval Blancs - are mainly based on this variety. And as with all great Merlots, this wine will age and age - lucky collectors will see the results of cellaring this beauty. Even jaded wine writers love this one.'

And jaded bloggers looking forward to Spring. Bring it on!

24.8.07

The Restaurant in History Part Three: 1984-1994.

Continuing an infrequent series on restaurants I have known.

1984: Num Fong in Swanston Street. Red velvet curtaining the walls, Lazy Susans on round tables, a host called Henry and a menu that never changed. The occasion: family lunches and dinners. We lived about a kilometre away at the time. My older children were under ten then. They loved the sesame toasts, the chicken and sweet corn soup and the banana fritters. Num Fong only just closed earlier this year, swamped by a new wave of Asian eateries on Swanston Street that were faster, fresher, cheaper. Farewell, Henry.

1985: Baker's opens next to Mario's in Brunswick Street. The occasion: most days. This was my ‘office’ for some time. I wrote a small children’s book there, on paper napkins. (Baker's moved further down Brunswick Street in about 1989.)

1986: Acland Street's Fairy Stork. The occasion: our regular Sunday night dinner spot. Lobster tails in garlic sauce, whole steamed fish, rice, Wyndham Estate chardonnay.

1987: Flower Drum. The occasion: a pre-Black Monday work dinner. New money was everywhere and tables of cashed-up, cellphone-toting, power-laughing executives are drinking pre-dinner beers from the neck of the bottle and trying not to choke on the lemon while ordering up big on abalone and Moet. Greed is good? I thought greed meant you kept money. In 1987, people were throwing it around like confetti.

1990: Romeo’s, Toorak Road. The occasion: most Friday lunches. I worked nearby. The Caesar salad or the triple decker pancakes with flaked almonds and honey? The spinach lasagne or the spaghetti carbonara? Romeo’s is still there and the food is still the same. If you walk in right now, someone will be having the pancakes and someone else, probably some old dear with gold coiffed hair and gold Gucci sunglasses, will be picking at the Caesar salad.

1993: I take a date to Shogun, a Coverlid Place Japanese restaurant with no reservations that I had previously known and loved, only to find it closed. Instead, we go to a noisy Thai place in Little Bourke Street and sit on opposite sides of a too-wide table, dining on small helpings of something that is overspiced and overpriced. We can't hear each other all evening. I married her.

1994: Kitchen Hand dumps Lygon Street's University Cafe as Official Breakfast Supplier and appoints the Rathdowne Food Store. Fresher, tastier, more interesting menu, better coffee and, vitally, easier parking. My Official Breakfast Supplier was immensely important in those days. I was divorced, had teenage children at home most of the time and worked a stressful job. That morning half-hour of coffee, toasted sandwich and newspaper was bliss. I would have gone nuts otherwise.

22.8.07

Ten pots until Spring #2: Leek and potato soup with speck.

You can’t go through winter without making leek and potato soup at least once. I seem to make it at least fortnightly and I often vary the ingredients.

This version takes a flavour boost with the addition of that herb-flavoured German version of prosciutto known as speck. The soup works better if you don’t puree it. Robust and packed with flavour, it is definitely main course fare. On a cold day, it’s an absolute winner.

Chop two leeks finely, lengthwise twice first, and then across the grain, so you end up with finely chopped quadrants.

Sweat the leeks with a scored garlic clove in half olive oil, half butter - about a tablespoon of each - in a heavy pot. In another pan, fry a couple of tablespoons of finely cubed speck. Use good bacon if you can’t find speck.

Chop four large potatoes into fairly small cubes. Roughly crack ten black peppercorns in a mortar and pestle. Chop some parsley or dill. You’ll want a good tablespoonful.

Now tumble the fried speck, the potato cubes, the cracked pepper and the herbs over the leek, which has now been cooking very gently for five minutes. Place the lid on the pot. Let it all sweat together on very low heat, to cross-pollinate the flavours and aromas, for another ten minutes. The heat must be low. Move the ingredients gently around with a wooden spoon every little while.

After ten minutes, cover the ingredients with chicken stock and bring to a brief boil, then simmer until the potato starts to break down. Longer is better. Maybe an hour.

Ladle the chunky pieces and the fragrant liquid into large oven-proof serving bowls. Top with grated cheese - a nice nutty Swiss or maybe Jarlsberg, whatever you fancy. Place under griller for a minute or two until cheese starts to bubble.

Serve with buttered rye bread and a nice hoppy beer that is not too cold.

Time plays tricks.

One night, a very long time ago, I went to a concert at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl with a friend. We had cheap tickets to the open grass area. It was cold and it rained the whole night. I was soaked. I had parked the car in Alexandra Avenue and I shivered all the way home with the dash heater on full blast but barely making a difference with its feeble heat. The year was 1978. The concert was performed by a Mr Bob Dylan.

The thing is, I remember thinking Mr Dylan was old in 1978, but he was in Melbourne again last weekend, so he must be about 120 by now. I didn’t go to his concert. I already know what he sounds like. He sounds like an itinerant cane toad with laryngitis, although cane toads are actually less itinerant than Bob; who has visited Melbourne several times over the years, while cane toads have yet to migrate this far south.

When I want to remind myself again what Bob Dylan sounds like, I play one of his two Daniel Lanois-produced albums in my collection: Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind. Daniel Lanois knew exactly what to do with Dylan’s voice. He built an aural stage around it and filled the stage with weird atmospherics like crickets and far off bells, all made out of wurlitzers and hammonds and various guitars. Dylan’s voice is haggard in the mix, but Lanois wrenches notes like hard cold crystals out of a frozen sky and scatters them about like glittering diamonds.

Shadows are falling and I've been here all day
It's too hot to sleep and time is running away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I've still got the scars that the sun didn't heal
There's not even room enough to be anywhere
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there.

21.8.07

Someone has their eye on your scraps. And it's not a magpie.

The Australian reports on a hot new energy source: your food scraps.

'Around 15 million tonnes, or 3 per cent, of Australia's greenhouse emissions are caused by organic matter - mainly food and garden wastes (which) … break down without oxygen and in the process produce methane, which is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

Potato peels are killing the earth. Of course, anyone with a compost bin in their backyard (I have two, which provide enough compost to cover the garden twice a year) will not be surprised that it is a potent source of energy. The heat generated by these bins is amazing, especially a day or do after the grass clippings go in. No wonder cows give off methane.

'To date, waste policy in Australia has focused mainly on how to recover the seemingly more valuable waste packaging and paper fraction. The value of these mixed recycled materials can be as much as $200 a tonne but the cost of collecting and sorting them is much higher. Kerbside recycling in Australia doesn't flourish because it makes money, it flourishes because it is an environmental service demanded by households that derive satisfaction from the hands-on reward of doing their bit for the environment each week. The households pay for it in higher council rates.'

Environmental lip-service at its best. Call me cynical, but I have always been sceptical about the priority given to recycling schemes to the detriment of slashing consumption in the first place. Check out the amount of wrapping and waste carried out in the average supermarket trolley. Not to mention plastic soft drink bottles - which, for some reason, people feel they need to purchase by the slab-load. But we're not about to reduce organics consumption, which actually rises with environmentally-friendly kitchen practice; i.e, growing, preparing and cooking your own food.

'The stinky organics fraction has tended to be overlooked for all the same reasons in reverse: there is little history of using it, it is difficult to collect and processing, and markets are pretty well non-existant (sic). A consortium of Australian companies ... last week asked governments to incrementally ban all organic waste going to landfill. They think the technology exists to process garbage to eliminate its greenhouse footprint and convert it into value-add composts and biofuels.'

I can see where this is going. While diverting food scraps from garbage to compost bin is a good thing, it will still emit the same amount of methane, just in a lot of different places. So what will they do - make us sell our organic waste to an outside processing agency and then buy it back as compost after the energy has been removed - and onsold?

Hands off my compost!

20.8.07

Ten pots until Spring #3: Congee with fish, ginger and coriander.

6am. The windscreen was iced up again. It’s the time of year: winter is losing the battle during the day, so it bites back at night. While it still can. I crunched across the icy front lawn and around to the side of the house where the gas meter is and found the watering can and filled it up at the front garden tap. A week or so ago, on a similarly cold morning, I had tried hosing the ice off the car, but the pressure busted the connection. The hose was frozen. I should have known. So let's try the watering can. I poured the water over the 'screen, splashing half of the freezing water over myself, and crunched across the grass again and put the watering can back in its place. Then I walked back to the car and got in. My fingers were not quite frozen. I could feel the keys as I turned the car on. Just.

The day turned out sunny but stayed cold. I made congee. Here’s how.

Congee with ginger, fish and coriander.

How much rice and how much water? One part rice to sixteeen parts water in volume seems to be the generally accepted ratio. So let’s say half a cup of long grain rice and eight cups of water.

Rinse the rice and set it in cold water overnight with plenty of salt and a dash of oil. (No salt, please, if you're cooking it for children.)

Next day, drain the water and place the rice in a pot with the fresh water. Bring to the boil, turn down heat, add a dozen or so slivers of fresh ginger and simmer for about an hour and a half until smooth.

Towards the end, add pieces of white-fleshed boneless fish, small enough to be fished out of the soup with chopsticks. Or a fork. When the fish is just done, serve the congee in big bowls. Garnish with finely chopped spring onion or dried fried onion. I like it with chopped coriander, sliced preserved ginger and a dash of very hot dried chili ground with oil and an anchovy. Now, that has a bite.

Accompany with jasmine tea.

Of course, if you can't be bothered making congee, you can always try it at one of my favourite Asian eateries, Wing Loong in Heffernan Lane.

17.8.07

Why, why, why? And a fresh pasta dish.

There was a cooking show on TV. I was kind of half-watching it. I’m not sure why. I have about six million cookbooks. The last thing I need is more food ideas.

Anyway, it was the type of food show that is a vehicle for selling products. The announcer kept mentioning websites and in half an hour he said ‘w w w’ about twenty-five times.

Whatever were the inventors of the Internet thinking? Why did they choose the longest letter of the alphabet for the domain: 'doubleyou, doubleyou, doubleyou'? That’s nine syllables.

They could have chosen 'eee', for 'Earth's Electronic Encyclopedia'. Or 'iii' for 'Intercontinental Information Interchange'. Or 'ccc' for 'Complicated Communications Channel'. Or even 'ttt' for 'Terminally Twisted Tubes'.

Any of these alternatives would save six syllables on every repetition of a website address.

Having said that, why do people keep repeating 'doubleyou, doubleyou, doubleyou' anyway? Isn't it a given? It’s not like there’s an alternative. Which is a real shame. Because if there were, I’d like to see these:

mmm.chocolate.com
sss.reptiles.com
zzz.beds.com
rrr.tigers.com
yyy.questions.com

Alright, enough nonsense about the Internet. Let’s have lunch.

Pasta with fresh root vegetables, ricotta and pine nuts.

This is possibly the healthiest pasta dish I have ever made. It’s also surprisingly tasty. It could almost be described as a warm pasta salad; as the vegetables are grated and added raw to the pasta. The ricotta adds unctuous balance; oil the pasta if you wish.

Cook linguine - definitely al dente for this dish.

Grate half a cup each of fresh beetroot and carrot into one- to two-inch shavings. Lightly toast a couple of tablespoons of pine nuts.

Toss beetroot and carrot with drained pasta, fold through half a cup or more of ricotta and toss pine nuts over. Garnish with finely chopped celery leaves. Salt and pepper to taste.

16.8.07

Well, the salad was irresistible.

The little speaker on the ochre-rendered wall outside the cafe at Blairgowrie was playing MIX 101.1FM, or whatever they're calling it this month. It used to be TT-FM and decades before that - when there were actual announcers speaking in smooth tones instead of foul-mouthed oicks broadcasting their coarseness in bass-enhanced stereo - it was 3DB.

Anyway, the radio station was broadcasting its daily noon-to-1pm 'eighties' program and Simply Irresistible by Robert Parker - no wait, he's the wine guy - Robert Palmer was playing. Twenty years after it was a hit, the song still sounds to me like a caveman trying to frighten a lion away by shouting at it while somebody hits two steel rubbish bins with cricket bats in the background.

Eighties music gets worse every time I hear it, which is far too often. It's no wonder so many people switched off their radios on 31 December 1979 and switched them on again on 1 January 1990. It was a dreadful decade for music. They should destroy the master tapes. Now radio stations are playing the stuff all over again, as if the eighties never went away.

*

The cafe faces north. It's just across the road from the water. You can see the bay twinkling through the ti-tree, and every now and then you’ll see a ship sliding down the horizon towards freedom, the high sea.

It was a perfectly still, almost warm early afternoon. Like most weekdays, the traffic on Point Nepean Road was all retirees in their Mercedes and Veradas driving slowly and delivery vans and tradesmen trying to pass them. Every now and then the Portsea bus wheezed to a stop to let someone off and wheezed slowly away again. If you’re going to be a bus driver, this is the bus you want to drive, all day up and down a lazy highway next to one of the prettiest bays in the world.

*

By the time lunch came out, Robert Palmer had stopped shouting and Duran Duran was making some weird droning noise with lots of echo, no tune and idiotic words.

The house salad doesn't come with bread because you don't need it. In a large white bowl, a bed of interesting greens that never includes iceberg lettuce was surrounded, fort-style, by a fence of finely sliced cucumber, discs of beetroot, shards of carrot, cross-sections of mushroom, rings of red onion and strips of red capsicum. In the middle, tomato eighths sat on the greens like red boats and on top of it all, folded around and around like a turban, sat a mound of smoked salmon showered with capers, which are getting to be my favourite ... what the hell are capers? Vegetable? Herb? Flower? Fruit? I don't know, but they taste good. The salad was about a foot tall and a little cruet of house-made dressing was delivered alongside it so you can decide whether or how to use it. I used it as a dipping sauce rather than tossing the whole lot over the bowl. Crunch, crunch. It’s huge. Tracy’s cream-kissed pumpkin soup was spiced up with chili and coriander and came with a fresh-baked savoury muffin about the size of a boxing glove, warm and full of shards of grilled vegetables. Even though I didn’t need any bread, I had some anyway: William’s cheese sandwich made with Flinders bread was always going to be far too big for even the hungriest two-year-old, so I helped him eat it. Thomas just gazed and smiled and showed off his five teeth. He'd already had his lunch.

*

Someone in the café tired of 101.1FM and switched it off and put on a CD: the 'best-of' collection by Crowded House, Recurring Dream. Is that one of the best compilation albums ever put together in the history of recorded music?

Yes, it is.

And seven worlds collide
Whenever I am by your side
And dust from a distant sun
Will shower over everyone.


*

We walked slowly back up the hill to the house. William and Thomas fell asleep in their double stroller along the way in the sun and the early afternoon quiet.

That sound in the distance was the Portsea bus groaning back along Point Nepean Road.

14.8.07

New life in the garden.

Six in the morning, not light yet. I walked up the street and around the corner to get the paper from the shop that opens early. A few brittle-diamond stars trembled in a frozen cloudless sky as if they were trying to hold on to the night. It was one of those clear but very cold mornings that turn into perfectly still days.

It’s my morning routine, the same every day. I like looking at the eastern sky and trying to figure out what the weather will bring. Apart from all that, if you want the paper early around here you have to go and get it. In my street you never hear the thwack of rolled-up papers hitting driveways, fences, trees, windows or cats before 7.30, and I eat breakfast an hour earlier. Not that I get a whole lot of reading done over breakfast these days.

I walked back from the shop with the newspaper under my arm and my hands folded into their opposite sleeves to keep warm. I scraped open the front gate. The stars were nearly gone now and there was enough light from the eastern sky to make out the vague shapes of the plants in the garden. In between some shrubs, I saw something I hadn’t noticed before - a riot of mottled purple in the shape of a fleur-de-lys. The mustard greens are back.

Mustard greens have two advantages: they grow fast, and the snails don’t like them. You can see the snail trails making a neat arc around them and continuing on directly towards the cabbages and broccoli. Snails don’t know what they’re missing. Mustard greens are delicious.

Mustard greens and spinach pie.

Saute an onion, add a scored clove of garlic.

Add roughly torn or chopped washed mustard greens with the water that clings to them. When wilted, add a defrosted pack of frozen spinach or a bunch of fresh spinach treated in the same way as the greens. Cook for a few minutes, let cool slightly and squeeze out excess fluid.

Now fold into the greens a tub of fresh ricotta and an egg. Add salt and pepper.

Lay out a sheet of pastry - filo is good but we used a sheet of puff this time. Place mixture in middle of pastry, fold up corners to make a bundle.

Brush oil over pastry, shake sesame seeds over and bake in an oiled dish or on a tray twenty minutes to half an hour.

10.8.07

Ten pots until Spring # 4: Pasta e Fagioli.

Why is pasta e fagioli one of my favourite soups?

It must be something about the texture. While it has its own soothingly earthy flavour, the pureed bean substrate upon which this soup is built has the strength to carry, on its back, like some culinary magic carpet, the salty bite of pancetta, the kick of onion and pepper, the zing of tomato and the sweet tang of chicken stock. It even manages to encapsulate a breath of fresh herbs which rises from the finished soup like flowers and grass jumping out of a newly uncorked bottle of sauvignon blanc. Then, as you eat the soup, the tiny, soft pasta shapes work like little gear wheels, agitating and amplifying all the tastes. In terms of flavour, pasta e fagioli is not so much a symphony as a 3.8 litre engine driven through a six-speed gearbox.

Because I am a creature of habit, I regularly eat pasta e fagioli at Papa Gino’s, where it is accompanied by a basket of crusty, chewy, fresh Italian bread and little foil-wrapped pats of butter. If you think pasta e fagioli tastes good on a spoon, try dredging some buttered bread through it. (Once I had a quite bad pasta e fagioli at a formulaic pizza-and-pasta Italian place in Sydney Road. Twenty undercooked beans looked like tiny boats trying not to sink in a becalmed sea of Heinz tomato soup. Pasta e fagioli is the litmus test of every decent Italian eatery, and the question it asks is: is mother cooking in the kitchen or not?

Here’s my current favourite recipe for pasta e fagioli. You will need: a large pot; six slices of hot (spicy) pancetta; six spring onions; a third of a cup-plus of olive oil; a teaspoon each of chopped parsley, oregano and rosemary; a can of diced tomatoes; four cans of cannellini beans; four cups-plus of chicken stock; salt and pepper and a cup of small pasta. I like stellini - little stars.

Chop the pancetta and spring onions and add them to the olive oil in a large pot along with the parsley, oregano and rosemary. Cook gently for five minutes. Mmm, aroma!

Now add the tomatoes and cannellini beans (two cans of beans with their liquid and two drained) and four cups of chicken stock or broth. Bring to boil and simmer twenty minutes, then puree or mouli. You can do this in sections; alternatively you can puree just a percentage of the whole. Return to pot, add salt and pepper and bring to boil. Now add the pasta. Add more chicken stock if necessary.

Cook until pasta is just done and no more.

Serve, topped with your choice of options: (a) a drizzle of olive oil, (b) chopped parsley, (c) grated parmesan, or (d) a shower of grated black pepper. I prefer no options; but you might like all four. And why not?

Wine? Red or white. Doesn’t matter.

Don't forget the buttered bread. And end the meal with a perfectly made espresso coffee.

8.8.07

Ten pots until Spring: halfway there.

The degrees are climbing slowly and laboriously up the thermometer, inching their way towards Spring.

Yesterday was almost warm; but unfortunately the wind was showing signs of its Springtime truculence. I was working at the big building where they have staff kitchens the size of football fields. They said, help yourself to coffee. It's in the kitchen.

I will, I said. I went into the kitchen and looked for a cup. I asked someone, are there any cups?

Oh no! he laughed, you have to bring your own!

Like I'm going to walk into a contract job with a cup tied around my neck or bulging out of my briefcase. Nuts.

So I went out at lunchtime and walked down to the run-down mall near the big building and bought a sandwich and a coffee from a rundown takeaway cafe and a paper from the newsagent and I sat outside the cafe and tried to eat the sandwich and read the bad news in the paper. The wind whipped and banged the cafe awning and blew over a table and then it snatched up half my newspaper - the news pages - and hurled it across Tooronga Road and I thought, to hell with the wind, to hell with the news and to hell with the big building. I ate my wind-blown sandwich and drank my coffee and read the sport section of the newspaper. Somebody won, I forget who.

Ten pots until Spring # 5: Baked potato salad.

Everyone eats potato salad in summer, but who eats it in winter? Now you can. Just bake it first. This is a great take on the usual baked potatoes; and the celery and red capsicum add colour and crunch and interest in a world of horrible weather and bad news and interest rate rises and faceless businesses with no cups for visitors.

Cut four medium-to-large potatoes into large chunks and boil until not quite done, then remove from heat and let stand ten minutes for further softening without falling apart.

Chop a thick rasher of quality bacon into strips. Combine this with potatoes and add: one chopped onion, half a chopped red capsicum and a tablespoon of chopped parsley. Mix carefully and place in an oiled baking dish.

Combine two tablespoons of yogurt or sour cream with three tablespoons of vinaigrette and a good dash of cracked black pepper and pour over potato mixture. Top with grated cheese.

Bake 15-20 minutes in a moderate oven.

For a nice lunch, this makes an ideal accompaniment to soup.

5.8.07

Ten pots until spring # 6: let's bake some pasta.

I think a pasta bake fits our definition of hearty winter fare. Here's what I made last night.

Lumaconi Farcite.

Which sounds like the name of an Italian Formula One driver, or at least of his car. But no! It is a whole lot slower than either of those. I believe it means stuffed snail shells; which, while not being such a good title, at least gives you some idea of what you are about to eat.

You could use any large shells, but these lumaconi have a neat little 'handle' separating the holes - one smaller and one larger - in each end, which serves as both a restraining strap for the stuffing and a handle with which to set them into the baking dish. You'll see what I mean when you prepare them.

Cook the pasta in plenty of boiling salted and oiled water and drain carefully. The oil should help prevent the insides sticking together once cooked and drained.

Prepare the stuffing: place in a food processor a dozen pitted black olives (I used Greek mammoth kalamata); half a cup of chick peas; a small can (85g) of quality tuna in oil with the oil; half an inch of mild chili; a cup of grated cheese (whatever you have on hand, I used cheddar and it was fine but half-and-half ricotta and parmesan would be perfect); six chopped spring onions; a clove of garlic and a third of a cup of tomato concentrate. Process twenty seconds. You want a mixture with reasonably discrete bits, not a puree. The mixture should be moist but stiff: more tomato to loosen, more beans or cheese to thicken.

Place large teaspoons of stuffing into pasta. Use thumb of hand holding lumaconi to assist by pressing down lightly over teaspoon as it is withdrawn, to effect a clean transfer of stuffing. Place each in a baking dish sized to hold twenty stuffed lumaconi snugly, over a half-inch layer of diced canned tomatoes. Cover with lid or foil and bake until stuffing is warm. Remove from oven, scatter fresh breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese over, bake another ten minutes.

These are highly delicious, intensely flavoured little pasta packages and seven or eight will satisfy. I had additional cooked unstuffed lumaconi left over, so I placed these in another casserole, laced them with butter and cheese and popped them into the oven for five minutes.

Stuffed lumaconi with the buttery cheesy ones on the side makes one of the nicest winter pasta dishes I can imagine. Serve with crusty bread and a semillon, not too cold.

2.8.07

Ten pots until Spring #7: a little soup history.

August at last! I have always liked August. I have fond memories of the often sunny and quite warm late-August fortnight that, in faraway schooldays, marked the end of second term. The pleasure was two-fold: the onset of Spring and the prospect of only one school term left until Christmas and the long sun-drenched holidays from December until early February.

But for now, the earliest days of August, a new glimmer of light at six o’clock in the evening is the only hint of warmer days ahead, while a biting cold wind hammers and roars; and so we resume our Spring countdown. This is a very nice soup that makes the perfect mid-week dinner with some fresh bread from the baker in O’Hea Street.

Three bean soup.

Don't panic, it’s three types of beans, not three in total. There will be enough for everyone.

Lightly fry a chopped onion in olive oil until it starts to turn transparent, then add a scored garlic clove and stir for two more minutes. Don’t let the garlic catch. Immediately add a cup each of cooked (or drained, canned) red kidney beans, cannellini beans and chickpeas plus five cups of boiling stock - beef, chicken or vegetable. I used beef, because I had some. Cook for ten minutes.

Now dissolve a teaspoon of cornflour in a teaspoon of cold water and add to the soup. Return to boil and add half a cup of pure cream (the King Island cream left over from the other day’s pudding should still be fine) and a good dash of salt.

While the soup is cooking, toast a slice of well-buttered bread and slice into croutons (which, incidentally, used to be called sippets; while the word 'soup' itself originally referred to the bread immersed in the liquid, not the liquid itself, which was potage.)

Back to the recipe: beat two eggs with salt, scramble in olive oil and slice into strips. Chop a spring onion. There's a lot to do, but the effort is worthwhile once you sit down to eat.

Scatter croutons, scrambled egg strips and onion over soup and add freshly ground black pepper.