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

31.12.07

Case solved.

QANTAS couriered my brother's lost case to my mother's house - where he is staying - 24 hours after they lost it. Where was it for 24 hours? Had it remained in the spot the baggage handler mistakenly placed it, surely suspicions should have been raised. In all likelihood it was diverted to a subsequent flight. An implanted GPS chip might have been interesting. Meanwhile, I had packed up some assorted clothes and delivered them to my brother. We are much the same size in clothes and shoes.

*

On Thursday we packed up a simple picnic, placed the boys in their double stroller (we are occasionally asked if they are twins), strolled to the station and caught an empty train into town, got off at Flinders Street, walked down a sunny St Kilda Road, crossed at Nolan Street, entered the Botanic Gardens at the cactus garden gate and found a spot under the impossibly large canopy of an ancient tree in a spreading lawn overlooking the lake. We ate turkey sandwiches. The boys tottered and rolled on the lawn. After the pace and urgency of Christmas, there is something nice about sitting on some grass somewhere in the shadow of a tree and eating a lazy sandwich.

26.12.07

A happy Christmas: eccentric behaviour, missed planes, lemon curd sponge and Old English.

They used to be called merely, and possibly kindly, eccentric; but these days, people who display somewhat odd behaviour are apt to be labelled with some medical description, even by people who are not doctors.

However, the 'A' word came into even my mind when, on arrival at my mother's house for Christmas lunch, I found ten cellophane packs of patterned paper plates stacked up on the sideboard. Thanks to my late father's career as a sales representative with a catering supplies company, my mother has the world's largest collection of fine crockery. So what was with the paper plates?

I don't want anyone washing up on Christmas Day, she explained, which had a certain grim logic to it, but have you ever tried to cut roast pork on a paper plate?

Of course, I had wondered, when she returned from Turkey earlier this year with a badly gashed leg which had landed her in an Istanbul hospital for stitches. What happened? I had asked. Oh that, she had said dismissively, I fell off a fence. As if falling off a fence was a perfectly natural thing for an eighty-year-old to be doing. I still don't know why she was climbing fences in Turkey. I'm not sure I want to.

*

Christmas lunch was like holding a private feast in a transit lounge. People kept coming and going. At least the conversation was never dull. Every time you looked up from your glazed ham or roast pork or tofurkey (why don't they just eat vegetables?) you'd find a different person sitting next to you.

It was partly my brother's fault. He missed the Christmas Eve midday plane from Alice Springs, just by being his usual vague self; but managed to obtain the last three seats on the Christmas Day flight, arriving at ten to three. I drove to the airport after the main course to pick him up. He might have got lost. Maybe he's getting Alzheimer's as well. After his plane landed we were delayed because QANTAS managed to lose one of my brother's cases. (Q.A.N.T.A.S: How was your flight? Quite A Nasty Trip Actually, Sir!) Meanwhile, a niece had made an early exit from lunch because she was on a Christmas afternoon flight to London.

*

We arrived back in time for dessert, a buffet affair to which Tracy had contributed a lemon curd sponge with whipped cream and white chocolate and crowned with blueberries served in a crystal bowl the size of the Parkes radio dish. The sponge was light enough to balance the heaviness of the main fare and the lemon curd was tart enough to rejuvenate the taste buds and the cream and white chocolate was the icing on the cake, if a literal metaphor is allowable, which I doubt. Recipe soon. Other sweet-tooth highlights included shortbread, fine and crumbly and dusted with sugar. (I consider quality shortbread, i.e., shortbread made at home by an expert baker, usually Scottish, to be far superior to fruit cake as an after-dinner sweet. It also pairs much better with Scotch whisky.)

*

The day drew into evening. Christmas night is a good time for a game or a puzzle. Back home, I dug into a stack of old Spectators and sat back with a drink and found this article about the use of Old English-derived words in language. It mentions UK communications company Optimum which tells you, via its online analysis, how many Old English-derived words you use, compared to Greek or Latin ones. The more Old English, the clearer your writing:

By Optimum’s analysis, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four takes 74.2 per cent of its words from Old English, only a nose ahead of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice at 74.1 per cent. The percentage for Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is 76.9, compared to 78.3 percent for Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and 78.4 per cent for a helping of T.S. Eliot’s poetry.

Mine varied widely but I did manage to hit 84.93% for the third paragraph in my previous post. How did you score?

Happy Christmas everyone.

24.12.07

The fourth Christmas.

The drive to Gippsland was a whole new experience, as if Pakenham had never existed. The bypass is open at last. Now you don't get thirteen sets of traffic lights, just a view of the town from the south - a sea of red orange roofs and a shopping centre tower rising out of the middle. Once it would have been a church steeple. The tower was painted with a red Coles logo that could have been seen fifty kilometres away if not for the occasional drifts of heavy rain.

It rained most of the way and the wind whipped. Clouds hung low and black. The boys dozed in the back seat. Music makes them sleep. A golden oldies station was doing a retrospective of 1972 and it went from a six-minute Argent progressive rock piece with a Hammond organ solo in the middle, to a Rod Stewart hit, to early Eagles, to the late Billy Thorpe, and then Led Zeppelin's signature song. When was that a top 40 hit? I wondered. It wasn't. Stairway to Heaven was an album track never released as a single; but remains, apparently, the most-played track on FM radio.

Sometimes when you are almost half asleep and hear a song from the past it can take you back, and you hear it like you heard it then. The middle section of the song, gently progressing electric guitar chords, became the brimming heartbeat of a fifteen-year-old teenager with a whole life of possibilities ahead. 'Oooh, it makes me wonder ...'. A guitar is a wonderful thing. It can make you believe anything.

I wasn't half asleep; I was driving under a leaden sky on a long freeway to the distant dark hills and that is thinking time.

*

It rained all afternoon. I left Tracy chatting with her mother and planning dinner, and drove with William in the car up the hill into town. We just looked around and picked up a few things from the store. Later, dinner was chicken gumbo with sides of potato mash and buttered zucchini and cauliflower. Amberley chenin blanc accompanied. This is a rare variety now, it used to be quite common. It's a refreshing change from chardonnay which, even I must admit, is sometimes just too woody or buttery or peachy.

Afterwards, there was a rich fruit cake, Tracy's mother's own. She's a baking expert, being Scottish. Then there was an excellent cheese platter - that wasabi-infused cheese sounds unlikely but it was fabulous - and the Scotch came out. We sat and drank Scotch and looked at Tracy's father's golf trophies on the sideboard and, alongside, his smiling face in the photo taken at the golf club in 2001. This will be the fourth Christmas without him. Time flies.

21.12.07

The school, Sydney Road and a barbecue idea.

Back in town.

It has rained intermittently for two days; yesterday morning heavily enough to stop traffic on Bell Street as I ploughed west and onto the freeway. I circled Essendon Airport and pulled off at the next exit. By the time I pointed the car down the long, sloping, winding driveway to the school, the rain had passed.

Schools on the edge of holidays always have that same tired atmosphere. The year's work of pictures, drawings and posters stuck to classroom windows were already yellowing and curling and odd items of left-behind clothing hung on hooks or on the backs of chairs. The students had finished earlier in the week, and the few remaining teaching staff wandered here and there, tying up loose ends and looking forward to lunch. Then they were gone and I spent a lonely day in the staff room working on the book.

There's something kind of melancholy about an empty school. At least you don't get interrupted. I locked the place up at four o'clock. It echoed.

*

I got my griping about Christmas over early this year, so now let's be gracious about it all and patient with the traffic and ignore the noise and the rain and the heat and the flies and even try to enjoy festive season shopping.

Mid-morning I drifted along Sydney Road cherry-picking gift ideas. Found some nice dried kalamata string figs - probably one of the most ancient foods known to man - and several different types of Turkish halva, the sweet you have when you don't have a sweet tooth; some slightly soft, white torrone flecked with delicate almond and pistachio pieces and wrapped in simple clear cellophane with a gold label; some little rounds of panforte in boxes and the usual array of panettone - including miniature ones, boxed, at $2.99 in IGA. Mediterranean Wholesalers had the usual huge range of a thousand different types of pasta including fresh; canned delicacies; whole cheeses the size of semi-trailer wheels; enough preserved meats to feed an army of gastropods, and a vast array of liqueurs and wines. Then there's the bakery and the ceramic goods section and the coffee bar. You could shop for everyone on your list in here and then have lunch.

So that's what we did.

*

When the rain passes, which might not be soon, we'll eat outdoors again. Here's an idea. I've probably suggested this before; but this weblog is more than four years old and I have no index.

Meatballs with mint and Greek yogurt.

Place in a large bowl 600g lean minced steak, a cup and a half of finely chopped parsley, half a cup of finely chopped mint, a teaspoonful of oregano, two crushed and chopped cloves of garlic and a good dash each of salt and pepper.

Mix with wet hands and form into walnut-size balls.

Bake in a closed barbecue until done. Timing depends on heat, your barbecue size, the prevailing wind direction and whether you remember to check them in between downing your second glass of chardonnay and knocking up a quick salad of rocket, tomato, red onion, feta and balsamic vinegar. But allow 25 minutes.

Squeeze plenty of lemon juice over the meatballs and serve with Greek yogurt mixed with diced cucumber, chopped mint and sprinkled with dried oregano and paprika.

Too many? They won't go to waste, they're perfect cold next day.

18.12.07

South.

Sometimes you forget to look at the scenery.

I was driving south on the Nepean Highway out of Mt Eliza and behind Mt Martha towards Safety Beach. The road bears inland for a short way and then dips down and curves around in a wide arc, so that the view opens up like a curtain in a theatre. And you see the water.

Endless blue stretched away towards the southern peninsula. In the haze, a ship trudged up the horizon towards the city. Here the road turns back towards the bay along a ridge parallel with Martha Cove. This was the old way into Safety Beach and Dromana, before the freeway came; and houses hung on the cliff on both sides of the road enjoying the unchanging view. Now some of the older houses on the lower side are gone, bulldozed for the new development. A few cling on, like elderly aunts who refuse to go into the nursing home.

Two years ago, Martha Cove was just a long scar in the earth of an undeveloped section of the peninsula. Last year it heaved with excavators, and earthmoving trucks trailed in and out, looking like ants from up here on the ridge. Then they built a viaduct connecting the cove to Port Philip Bay and re-routed the coast road underneath, and the water flowed in.

I drove under the viaduct and gazed up at giant spikes, designed to look like sharks' teeth, or the strokes in dollar signs. In the pristine waterways of Martha Cove, brand new boats were tied up outside brand new two-storey houses. Reflected water was dancing in the sun on their walls.

I drove on through Dromana, and around the McCrae escarpment that was once a barrier to entry to the southern peninsula, in the days when the only way to reach Sorrento was by water and the steamboats ran daily from Melbourne. Now it's a ninety minute drive. Except in summer when everyone heads south. They should bring the boats back.

15.12.07

Eleven days to Christmas.

It was hot and humid well into the evening.

The sun hadn't broken through the haze all day. Late in the morning I had had to drive to East Kew, commonly referred to as Far Kew, because it stretches almost to North Balwyn; and the roads were choked with traffic, the kind of traffic that doesn't know quite where it's going, like Christmas shoppers torn between Chadstone and the City and ending up at Northcote Plaza.

Something should be done about Christmas. Three million people (or is Melbourne four millions now?) swelter in traffic jams on their way to marathon shopping trips at plazas the size of suburbs and emerge hours if not days later laden with iPods and DVD players and home theatre systems and other necessities of life for anyone older than six; and then when the day arrives they sit down at midday in forty degree heat (but that's OK, the air conditioner's on; just don't tell anyone we voted for the Green Party) to a table of roasted turkey, glazed ham, roast potatoes, plum pudding, butter sauce and Christmas fruitcake with table decorations featuring snow-capped pine trees and snowmen.

Nuts.

No, I hadn't forgotten the accompaniment to the pre-dinner drinks, I mean: it's insane. If John Howard had promised to move Christmas to July, he would still be in Kirribilli House with an increased majority and Kevin Rudd would not currently be in Bali back-pedalling on climate change.

Anyway, I made it home. (But while I'm on the subject of Christmas, would people - random strangers in supermarkets - please stop asking a two-year-old, let alone a fourteen-month-old, what 'Santa' is bringing him for Christmas? I know they are only being nice, but some two-year-olds and fourteen-month-olds don't know what or who 'Santa' is; and some of their parents don't want to them to find out soon. There will come a time.)

On the way home, I stopped at the fishmonger.

Grilled swordfish with individual warm capsicum salads.

The fishmonger had, as usual, a very fine array of fish, from which I chose two fine swordfish steaks. These I grilled in a very hot pan, scattering them with plenty of dried oregano, grown in the garden and hung in the kitchen near the stove to dry, and for ease of reach. A little salt and a lot of pepper on the fish as well.

I had a couple of extra-large capsicums; the longer, finer ones. I baked these on a rack in the oven, whole, for half an hour until they were soft. Then I rolled them in a brown paper bag until they collapsed in on themselves, took them out and placed them on separate serving plates. In this state they formed a slight well, into which I placed six cubes of very good feta and six black mammoth olives each. I drizzled it all with plenty of olive oil, scattered it with oregano and salt and pepper and placed on each capsicum a sprig of basil from the back garden.

A potato, tomato and egg salad accompanied the meal: three waxy yellow potatoes, cubed and boiled until almost soft, drained and combined with four very good vine-ripened tomatoes, two cubed hard-boiled eggs and one small red onion, and bound with olive oil, vinegar and the juice of a lemon.

We ate outside in the warm evening haze, and the boys tumbled around on the lawn. They had eaten earlier, of course; and were not ready for bed. William has developed a liking for olives and came to the table for more. And just this week, Thomas is trying to walk. Step, step, step, bump.

12.12.07

Christmas party.

I have an invitation to a Christmas party, the theme for which is 'Las Vegas'. Why? I've got no idea, but I do know I can't stand parties with themes. They get in the way of the conversation, like loud music. I went to a party once that had a Hollywood theme. You had to go as a movie. Fortuitously, my next-door-neighbour at the time, an actor with Polyglot Theatre, had a full size shark suit in her shed, and I went as Jaws. No-one knew who I was and I didn't get a thing to eat.

Yes, I know Las Vegas is a city in the United States and I think of gambling and Wayne Newton and flashy buildings.

But do I go dressed as the punter or the floor show?

Or one of the buildings?

10.12.07

Once upon a time.

I should never have started it. I volunteered. Why? Because I didn't want someone else to make a hash of it.

And now I am in the middle of it, lost and adrift and wishing to be shipwrecked on the shores of a wild inhospitable island where who-knows-what lives; a fate at least less harrowing than washing about on the waves just waiting to drown. At least there might be coconuts on the island. And fresh water when it rains. And a tree for shelter. And maybe a Girl Friday with wild hair and wild eyes and a gently swaying walk ...

I woke up. It was three in the morning; exactly the time - for every writer who ever lived - when the book seems further away and less likely than at any other time of day or night. With a far closer deadline. In fact, the book is impossible at three o'clock in the morning.

By seven a.m. the book's chances have improved and the deadline seems to have loosened a little. Must be the sunshine, warm and caring and nurturing and strength-giving.

I should complain. I'm not even writing the whole thing. I'm editing submissions for an oral history and writing the introductions and the links and the bits that make disjointed sections jointed again and searching archives for ephemera and selecting old photographs to accompany the text and checking facts and factoids and fixing spelling and syntax and wondering how much a writer can edit oral history because then it wouldn't be.

But there are not enough submissions. Nowhere near enough. And those I have are all the same, formulaic.

And the deadline is approaching, like a tiny dot on the horizon turning into the biggest ocean liner you've ever seen.

It would be nice if the Girl Friday has a laptop. Or even a pen. I could dictate.

6.12.07

Pasta for a hot night.

The taste of summer is salt and brine and the faint indistinct tang of the sea coming in from a hidden bay, way down off the cliffs, or the gently roaring ocean somewhere beyond, over the other side of the peninsula.

It seems like a stretch, but you can taste that in a bowl of pasta on a hot night when the sun has almost gone except for a last tinge of gold in the tops of the trees.

Spaghetti with vongole.

Cook a scored clove of garlic in a little oil, add a dash of white wine, two cups of diced tomatoes, some torn basil and salt and pepper.

When simmering nicely, add 500g of clams. Most clams from the market are grit-free, but if not, first soak in a bucket of water for at least half an hour. They will expel the grit. They must know. Cook for a minute or two until the clams open up. Toss out any unopened ones.

Cook 250g of pasta. I use my favourite bavette - or linguine - and when cooked to your liking, drain and combine with the sauce. More torn basil over the top (right now, ours is growing as fast as we can eat it - pesto, here we come) and a shower of cracked black pepper.

Simple green salad on the side, along with a nice cold buttery chardonnay and some crusty bread for the salty, briny sauce.

It's dark now and the ocean is louder than before. It will be another hot day tomorrow.

2.12.07

First day of summer. Let's make a curry.

The product ranges at the two major supermarket chains, Safeway and Coles, continue to dwindle in favour of their own house brands of doubtful provenance; in fact of unknown provenance as far as the consumer is concerned. The smaller IGA chain of independents allows its member stores to stock product according to local need, something Safeway and Coles can't or won't do.

IGA deserves support. A huge number of small businesses have been cut out of representation on Coles and Safeway shelves across Australia by the two majors, in favour of cheap imports. If that's globalisation, I'm not buying. Give me quality and the hell with China.

Example: Margaret Rowland Authentic Indian has been manufacturing genuine high quality curry products for more than forty years; but, as far as I am aware, has never been stocked by Safeway and Coles. Margaret Rowland probably can't manufacture in sufficient quantities for their vast supply chains. All the more reason to support Margaret Rowland. Another reason to support her is that - as I read on the company's quaint website - in between manufacturing genuine curries, pickles and spices, originally in East Preston, she had ten children. That's a busy woman.

I bought a jar of Margaret Rowland tikka masala paste from the IGA store in Brunswick, right there at the tramstop on top of the hill, next to Rumeli's Turkish restaurant.

Tikka masala is apparently a traditionally hot curry for chicken, but it is of course ideal for currying any kind of meat or vegetable. You can follow the recipe on the jar, but I varied it as follows:

Potato, cashew and tomato curry.

Fry a finely chopped onion in a little oil. Now throw in a good handful of raw unsalted cashews, two chopped cloves of garlic and a teaspoon of grated ginger. Stir until the cashews just start to brown.

Add two large tablespoons of tikka masala paste and a dash of water. Stir until smooth. Add a teaspoonful of fenugreek powder and stir through. The Margaret Rowland tikka masala paste is mild; I added some extra chili here.

In another pot, parboil two large potatoes cut into one inch cubes and half that amount of similarly cubed pumpkin until barely soft. Drain and add to curry. Stir to coat. Add another onion, sliced into eight segments. Continue to add water - from the pot in which the vegetables boiled - gradually, to maintain consistency. Simmer very gently for ten to fifteen minutes. Now add two very good largish tomatoes - the truss or vine-ripened type, not billiard balls - cut into eighths. Simmer until the tomatoes have softened but retain their shape.

Serve on long grain rice, squeezing lime juice over. And here's to a long, hot summer. (With a little rain every now and again, of course. We don't want the lawn to die.)