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

30.9.07

Flag comes home to Victoria, accompanied by cold blast and driving rain.

And so, after seven years, the Premiership flag or cup or whatever it is they hoist in the air at the end of the Grand Final comes home to Victoria, if not quite to Melbourne; which means my team, Essendon, remains the last Melbourne club to triumph on that One Day in September.

But today, the people of Geelong are the happiest in Australia, especially if they own a bottle shop. I have some sentimental attachment to Geelong. My sister lived there in the mid-seventies; I visited her frequently in the winter of 1976, driving my first car, a Falcon XP base model with the 144 c.i. engine, no heater or demister and a radio that kept playing Fernando. I hated ABBA. Later, Geelong was my regular halfway stop on journeys to and from my family's house at Birregurra.

Today's weather seems as cold as those faraway drives down Geelong Road. Last week's taste of Spring has been snatched away from us like a toy from a toddler and replaced with a cold blast blanketing the city in rain driven by a fierce south-westerly. Brr. Time for another curry. This one is deliciously fragrant and not all that hot.

Chicken saag.


Slice eight chicken thigh fillets into forkable pieces.

Wilt 250g of washed mustard greens, or spinach, or a combination, in a little oil in a covered pan for about five minutes, then place it into a processor and puree it along with an inch of grated ginger, a chopped green chili, two crushed garlic cloves and a quarter cup of water.

Sizzle half a teaspoon of peppercorns and two bay leaves in oil for a minute or two, add a finely chopped onion and cook for five minutes. Add half a jar of tomato puree OR a can of diced tomatoes OR four chopped ripe tomatoes (if you can lay your hands on some) to the cooking onions and simmer five minutes.

Now add two teaspoons of curry powder, a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of chili powder. After another two minutes (these time intervals are very forgiving, by the way), add the puree of greens and three quarters of a cup of water. Stir through three tablespoons of natural yogurt, a little at a time.

Add the chicken pieces at this point, cook for thirty minutes and serve with roti bread and rice, with more yogurt to serve, coriander to scatter and some mango pickle on the side.

And now, all together, to the tune of Toreador, from Bizet's Carmen:

We are Geelong
the greatest team of all
We are Geelong
We're always on the ball
We play the game, as it should be played
At home or far away
Our banners fly high, from dawn to dark
Down at Kardinia Park.

27.9.07

Salad days.

I was at my second office reading a forty page powerpoint printout about some marketing genius's idea of what 'sets a company apart'. It was full of words like 'innovate' and 'respond' and 'focus on the customer' but it was devoid of any common sense at all.

My second office is the front bar return, tucked in next to the wall, near the orange juicer, at Brunetti's. The bar is of solid marble and it is wide and there is space enough between the padded stools to unfold a broadsheet and not take anyone's eye out or knock their coffee over. I was up from the beach house for a meeting in town and I had to read some background notes before going to the early-afternoon meeting in some airless skyscraper in St Kilda Road. Since when did background notes comprise forty pages of powerpoint jargon? Probably since companies have had marketing departments full of people on $250,000 a year.

Coffee first. The coffee was good. Then lunch. Something light. Something that wouldn't put me to sleep during the meeting, no matter how much I would like to sleep. The girl behind the bar misheard my request for a tuna and bean salad to eat in. She thought I wanted take-away. I must have looked like I was in a hurry. The salad came packed in a large round plastic container which was then wrapped in Brunetti's signature pink and white paper with a silver and black oval Brunetti seal. Beautiful.

Now, the point of all this: the salad could have fed four people. It was huge. Which brought me around to thinking that if I were too busy to make salads for a barbecue this summer, or just couldn't be bothered in between marinating chicken fillets and swordfish steaks and ribs and cleaning the grill and setting out plates and cutlery and having a glass of cold chardonnay in the sun on the lawn, I could just slip down to Brunetti's and order a few take-away salads, nicely packed, and whizz them home and pile them high on my flat white salad bowls. And pass them off as my own. Just kidding on that last point.

Brunetti's rotate their salads. They had a Caesar, spelled the right way, with very good shaved parmigiano but no croutons; the aforementioned tuna and bean which was packed with quality tuna, red onion, white beans and very fresh green beans; a kind of pesto rigatoni salad with half-orbs of bocconcini and sections of semi-dried tomatoes and another of just fresh halved vine-ripened tomatoes, bocconcini and a balsamic dressing.

The meeting? It went for an hour and a half and that's all I can remember about it, apart from the view over leafy St Kilda Road and beyond to Fawkner Park and beyond that to the rooftops of South Yarra and Toorak. Beautiful.

25.9.07

Sound waves.

Sydney Road to High Street is a long walk with a stroller, but it was a good day for a long walk. The early Spring sunshine was warm without biting and a nice fresh breeze was making little shirred ripples on the wider parts of Merri Creek as we went south along the bicycle path. We picked it up at the Harding Street suspension bridge and followed it all the way to Arthurton Road, stopping at the Ceres outdoor cafe for coffee. The coffee was okay but their food prices are a little on the high side. The cafe was doing great business with a slew of tired-looking parents whose kids were tearing around in the toy-filled sandpit. William joined them.

Then along Arthurton Road past St Georges Road towards High Street. Music could be heard in the distance, waves of sound in turn growing louder and then fading, as distant music does on a blustery day. A little closer and you could smell the barbecue.

*

The annual High Street festival is more about music than food, but you wouldn't have gone hungry on Sunday; although it seemed a lot of traders were taking the easy way out and putting on sausage sizzles. Flames flared from dripping fat and clouds of fragrant smoke drifted over the shopfront verandahs.

We sat on some cool lawn in the shade of a pepper tree in the foreground of a red-brick Catholic church in a street off High Street and ate lunch. At the 'T' of the intersection, a band was blasting out noise from the 3PBS-FM soundstage at festival central. The boys sat in their stroller and ate little sandwiches and tiny cubes of cheese and shards of apple. We stayed there for a while, listening to the music. An hour passed and the shade moved and then we were sitting in warm sun and I almost dozed.

Sitting in the sun and listening to loud music with an almost year-old baby ... hmm, where was I the last time that convergence of circumstance obtained? Hmmm again ... the gearwheeled machinery of memory clanked about for a while and then ... ah, yes! Almost exactly thirty years earlier; a hot cloudless day on the flat treeless plain of Calder; a day-long concert: Santana, Little River Band and a resurgent Fleetwood Mac. I was nineteen and William and Thomas' much-older brother, now thirty, was eleven months old. I got drunk on a clear liquor called Cointreau. Liquid sunshine. Is it possible to remember a song you heard thirty years ago? Yes: Santana played a version of the Zombies' She's Not There, a three-minute pop classic to which Santana added twenty minutes of screaming solo guitar that soared and howled and dragged notes from all over the scale and hurled them into the sky, from where they rained down on the audience.

*

I think I fell asleep on the lawn. The music on the 3PBS-FM soundstage was more muted now, some kind of hip-hop. The boys had fallen asleep in the stroller and Tracy was suggesting another cup of coffee. We disappeared into the crowd on High Street and found coffee in a cafe called Peppercorn and then we walked home. The music faded gradually in the distance and was gone by the time we hit the Merri Creek bicycle path. We didn't stop at Ceres on the way and were home by four.

21.9.07

Slowly, the shed door creaks open, and from the darkness within emerges a black metal monster set on four industrial-strength castor wheels. Four feet high and six feet long, it is dusty and it creaks. It looks like an antediluvian mechanical monster that has been in a dark cave for too long.

It's my barbecue. It's out for summer. I'll dust the lid and grease the grill and oil the wheels and scrape out the ashes I left in it after the last cook-out seven months ago, and then I'll just look at it and admire it and wonder what I'll cook on it this summer. In terms of detail, it's a basic affair with no bells or whistles; just a large grill in the middle over a coal binnacle of just the right depth, trays at either end and a storage bin below. But it barbecues better than anything else I've ever used. The whole thing is made of cast iron. It is heavy. You wouldn't want to get it on a hill and take the castor-wheel brakes off.

*

Incidentally, I procured this iron marvel quite some years ago at A1 Bakery in Sydney Road, which The Weekend Australian's Ed Charles describes as an Aladdin's Cave of products. I think A1 Bakery still builds barbecues to order. Mine cost under $200.

*

First crop to hand: the mustard greens. They are in full fleur-de-lys formation right now, purplish-green mottled and crinkled leaves resplendent over the surrounding greens, cos and chicory. Last night I picked a bunch and washed it in cold water and chopped it roughly, boiled it in a little more water and a scored garlic clove for six or seven minutes, drained most of the water, scattered it with crumbled blue cheese still in the pot, waited until the blue cheese melted and then served one of the simplest but most delicious side dishes you could imagine.

*

My sister's second divorce was finalised in the last six months. She is tired. She is to travel abroad tomorrow, accompanied by our mother who is a few months short of eighty, has serious arthritis and has been warned a severe jar to her neck could render her paralysed. They are going on a three-week walking tour of Turkey. They are looking forward to it.

18.9.07

Changeable weather, and a potato and bacon frittata.

Melbourne weather is changeable at the best of times but in Spring it goes nuts.

I spent a pretty blue-skied weekend clearing all the rubbish that the Ti-tree and Moonah insist on throwing down. They might be pretty but they make one hell of a mess. The mess was burning nicely - better now than in a summer bushfire - by late afternoon Sunday, when the sky turned that ominous shade of purple-tinged grey that says 'storm approaching'. Within five minutes a westerly gale-force wind whipped across from Point Nepean, sucking behind it several cloud-loads of rain which seemed to move horizontally. The rain failed to put out the fire and next morning there was a fresh load of wind-scattered tree rubbish to be picked up.

Today is a diamond. Still and warm. The bay is twinkling again and there is a slight haze on the bay, blurring the horizon. What's for lunch?

Potato and bacon frittata.

Fry two finely sliced onions and two chopped rashers of bacon in a little oil.

Beat five eggs with a quarter cup of milk in a large bowl. To the eggs, add the onions and bacon together with 500g of diced, almost-boiled potatoes and half a cup of grated colby cheese.

Pour into a greased pie dish. Bake in a moderate oven until almost set, finish under the griller to brown. Let stand five minutes before serving.

Makes an excellent lunch after a morning of gardening; or take a cold one along on a Spring picnic. And an umbrella.

16.9.07

Four wheel drive.



Thomas was born with a shoulder that appeared to the doctors upon examination to have suffered some very slight damage at birth. To them, he appeared to be favouring it, although the layman would have noticed nothing amiss. A few sessions of gentle physiotherapy had it functioning to their satisfaction. Then, when Thomas started crawling a month or so ago, it was on one hand and one elbow, bumping along like a car with a flat tyre. However, without the need for any further physio, he gained strength naturally and now is the fastest baby on all fours. He chases William around the house. Yes, they make noise.

*

The kitchen has never been busier. William eats practically everything; while Thomas is, of course, on solids. Having recently superseded the fully-pureed stage, he is currently eating semi-pureed with a number of discrete pieces and is starting to accept small items by hand, such as a tiny square of bread. Neither William nor Thomas ate commercial baby food, not that we object to it: but they did. So everything is prepared from scratch. Is it any wonder parents eat leftovers? While Tracy chops and purees and attempts to lodge a percentage of the results in two mouths with varying and seemingly ever-changing numbers of teeth, I cook our dinner. The kitchen is not large, but we rarely collide.

*

I obtained some excellent semi-dried tomatoes preserved in very good olive oil. While the flavour of properly-ripened late-summer tomatoes cannot be matched, semi-dried ones make a good substitute at this time of year. Their concentrated acid sweetness is a great way to bring jaded winter tastebuds out of hibernation. Last night, an old favourite with a twist. It's easy - on the table in minutes.

Pasta with semi-dried tomatoes and feta.

Boil some pasta. I used bavette: its thin flattened strands take a non-liquid coating very well.

Chop half a cup or more of semi-dried tomatoes into small pieces. Do the same with a similar amount of kalamata olives. Bring to room temperature a piece of good feta.

Drain the pasta, retaining just a little of the water. Return it to the pot. Add finely chopped semi-dried tomatoes and olives, fold through and top with feta. Lid pot until feta starts to warm through and melt. Serve, scattering chopped parsley over.

13.9.07

I came, I saw, I ordered Caesar salad.

Caesar salad never goes away. I'm sure that some chefs wish it would; like seafood cocktail and chateaubriand, but it will probably stay right on the menu as long as people like me keep ordering it.

I have eaten Caesar salads all over town, most often at the kinds of lunch places that aren't quite as good as high class restaurants and aren't quite as bad as greasy diners. You see them up and down St Kilda Road. People in suits tear in, bolt their lunch and tear out again. Except on Fridays when everyone is a little more relaxed. I order Caesar salad almost by default. It's the acid test of a good lunchtime eatery.

Most Caesar salads around town are pretty ordinary; occasionally they are excellent and every now and then you strike one that is truly appalling, such as the one I ordered in a cafe in Bourke Place, the busy food court down the legal end of town. Whatever green remained in the rust-edged lettuce leaves failed to show through the grey oozing mass that wasn't mayonnaise any more. There was no crunch left in the leaves. They were transparent and soft, like when you accidentally freeze a lettuce. Beneath this mess were some soft, gelatinous particles, which closer inspection revealed to be the remains of bacon after someone in the kitchen had earlier apparently removed the flesh, possibly to prepare someone's breakfast toasted bacon and egg sandwich. The fatty rind, roughly chopped, ended up in the salad along with last Monday's lettuce bin leftovers. This appalling concoction was finished off with a dozen cold, wet, soft bits of old toast pretending to be croutons and not fooling anyone. They were wet because of the fat. You know there's too much fat in a crouton when you bite into it and the fat oozes out. It was cold and rancid. It was the worst Caesar salad ever assembled in the history of the entire world. I should know.

But while that Caesar salad was truly horrible, I noticed that it followed what seems to be a kind of weird unwritten rule of bad Caesar salads in restaurants. On the menu, it was misspelled 'Ceasar salad'. Wherever I have eaten a bad Caesar salad, they always get the name wrong. Why? I don't know.

It might be Caesar's revenge.

10.9.07

Turn that oven down.



Stuffed red peppers:

Boil two cups of rice.

Toast half a cup of pine nuts.

Cook half an onion and a clove of garlic in a little oil, add minced meat. (I used pork and veal, conveniently ground together by S&R Butchers in Sydney Road.) Then fresh herbs from the garden - mint, parsley and a little sage.

Combine cooked mince, moist boiled rice and toasted pine nuts. I like about three parts rice to one part meat. Throw in some spices - I used sumac, about a tablespoonful, and salt and pepper.

Cut the tops off the peppers, clean out the seeds and the membrane and stuff them with the rice mixture. Place their lids back on and stand them to attention in a baking dish. Surround the peppers with a can of chopped tomatoes, add half a cup of white wine and the same amount of water, depending on various dimensions, including peppers and dish.

Bake about an hour. OK, so mine went a little black on top, but then I'm not a food stylist, I'm just a ninth-tier blogger; and that background is my kitchen, not the studios of Vogue Entertaining. (And no, pictures of my dinner will not become a regular feature here. Just occasionally.)

The cake? Whole orange cake, meaning it uses a whole orange, skin and all. (Obviously the cake is not whole, we couldn't wait until after dinner.) It's an old favourite.

8.9.07

Remember those personalised pencil cases we had when we were kids?



They still exist.

Duelling botanists.


The view looking East from the front porch, 8pm.

"Coastal Moonah Woodland is dominated structurally by Moonah Melaleuca lanceolata subsp. lanceolata. The Moonah trees, which are often twisted into fascinating shapes, range in height from five to ten metres. Canopy cover of the community usually dictates classification by Specht and Specht (1999) as a low open-forest. However, Gillison ... refers to woodland as a ‘structural plant formation usually with a graminoid component, dominated by perennial woody plants over two metres tall which do not have their crowns touching’. As Gillison (1994) points out, this broad definition overlaps the open-woodland, woodland and open-forest definitions of Specht and Specht (1999)."

Thank you.

That white thing is the moon.

5.9.07

A busy day with a nice meal at the end of it.

The morning of the first day of Spring called for a visit to the Mornington Peninsula market. It is an everything market: produce, second-hand items, food, plants, craft, bric-a-brac. It doesn't pretend to call itself a farmers' market, but regular stalls are held by small-holding local farmers. We came home with a bag of Peninsula apples, three varieties, and some fresh vegetables; several potted African daisies, the ones that not only survive drought but spread; and a second-hand rotary lawn edger for $10, the kind that you push and gives you a cleaner edge than motor-driven ones.

*

These early Spring afternoons are made for work and I spent three hours in the garden of the beach house wielding a hoe in bright sunshine. The weeds gave way easily. There had been rain, the garden bed is elevated and the soil is slightly sandy. You could have filled the compost bin four times. I made a mound in the far corner. The weeds can break down in the open.

What to put in the ground? It will have to be hardy; we are not here all the time to water seedlings. The African daisies went into the front garden where they can nod their pretty heads at passers-by.

*

The fish shop has changed hands again. It looks promising. The new owner told me he has changed suppliers and is stocking the best fish. I knew something was up when I saw, on several days, a sign in the shop window that read: "Sold out. Back tomorrow." This was at eleven in the morning. That's a good business plan: the customers get to eat better fish and the fishmonger is home by lunchtime.

Garfish with parsley sauce.

Garfish have long been among my favourites. These were magnificent, long and fat and silver-sheeny. They were already cleaned.

Make the parsley sauce: blend half a cup of mustard seed oil, three cups of flat leaf parsley, three cloves of garlic, half a cup of drained capers and three tablespoons of lemon juice. Salsa verde is easy. Why not make it more often?

Poach the fish: whole in a little oil, a couple of tablespoons of white wine, a dash of lemon juice and some cracked pepper. Ten minutes gentle poaching will see the flesh perfectly white.

Serve with: new baby potatoes boiled and dressed in a simple vinaigrette; new season's broad beans.

Drink: a chilled Cooper's Creek sauvignon blanc from our sauv blanc experts across the ditch.

Welcome to Spring.