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

30.1.08

"I just want to hear some rhythm ..."

It was a long time ago. A warm night in 1975. I was driving my first car, a white XP Falcon four-door, to the Mornington Peninsula where my family had a holiday house at Somers. I had just turned into Coolart Road, that long stretch that always seemed to take forever.

1975 had not been a good year in music, unless you liked disco ducks or Barry Manilow. As usual, I was punching the radio buttons to find something decent with which to drive past endless pine plantations. I hit a button and a new song came on and by the time it had finished I was most of the way down Coolart Road without even noticing. A kind of haggard vibrato was dragged along by an insane chop of a beat that sounded like a Harley Davidson ticking over and then, near the end, a sax break blew the whole thing out of the water. In fact, it almost blew the speakers out of the car, which would have been a shame because they were only new.

That year they were calling Bruce Springsteen the new Dylan.

*

The other day I was making exactly the same trip; two wives, four children, countless cars, many dogs, one and a half careers and thirty-three years later. A song came on the radio right there at the same spot on Coolart Road and it took me back to a night in 1975.

But it wasn't Born To Run. It was a new one, title of Radio Nowhere.

How loud can you crank up a car radio when children are on board?

24.1.08



'Usually,' began the doctor, carefully feeling Thomas's forearm between his thumb and index finger, 'They bounce.'

But this time, Thomas hadn't. The doctor sent us off for x-rays that revealed a greenstick fracture of the lower forearm.

That was two weeks ago. Thomas adapted to the half cast perfectly well. He wore it like a vambrace, often taking to William with it. An excellent piece of armour indeed.

Food was a problem. Fifteen-month-olds play with it. His bandage was covered in mash after each meal. Then Tracy hit on the brilliant strategy of wrapping it in a plastic bag at mealtimes. As well as at the beach and at bath time.

18.1.08

What to eat when there's no restaurant and you can't cook.

Hardware store owners always look like hardware store owners and newsagents always look like newsagents, but the people who run motels never look like they run motels. I wonder why.

The woman in the office was in her fifties and tall, and had intelligent emerald eyes and a sensitive mouth and long hair stacked up in a kind of two-storey nest with a tortoiseshell stick the size of a chopstick separating the two storeys. She could have been a folk singer or a psychoanalyst or a society page editor, but here she was running a sleepy motel in a sleepy town on the northern slopes of the Great Dividing Range.

The woman looked up from behind the counter as I entered and I asked her if there was a room and she said, yes indeed, there was, in an Irish lilt. She gave me the key to room two and would I like any milk? Yes, I replied and she disappeared and came back with a small ceramic jug. I got back into the car and handed the jug to Tracy and drove the car fifty metres to room two and wondered where I should have placed the jug had I not someone in the car to hold it.

*

It had been another intensely hot day and we had been driving through central Victoria, picking our way through small towns, and this had seemed a nice place to stop for the day.

The room was like someone's 1970s lounge room. It was orange. It was comfortable in a three-star motel kind of way and had one of those old hole-in-the-wall air conditioners that rumble when they run and click off with a hiss, but the air coming out of it seemed cool enough. In the main room, there was a queen bed and a fold-out sofa. A television sat in the middle of a counter that ran the length of the wall. At one end, a tray held a kettle, two cups and saucers, two glasses and a plastic rack of sugar, tea and coffee sachets. A large ceramic bowl sat on a small square table by the window.

*

Eating can be a challenge in a motel. You can eat out - if there is a restaurant in town - or find take away. Generally the first thing I do in these places is check out the dinner options. If they don't look so good, I'll take the Third Way - visit the supermarket and make it up from scratch, bearing in mind the room has no cooking facilities.

Potato, asparagus and red salmon salad.

From the supermarket:
One can baby potatoes. One can asparagus tips. One can red salmon. A dozen snow peas and two medium truss tomatoes from the fresh section. A dozen feta-stuffed tiny red peppers and a small container of halved, marinated green olives from the deli section. Ensure cans have ring-pull tops unless the room is equipped with a can-opener. (I carry one in the car along with my basic picnic set of plates, cutlery, salt and pepper.)

I drained the potatoes and asparagus tips and placed them in the large ceramic bowl on the table by the window. I sliced the tomatoes into segments and added these, then topped it all with drained salmon chunks. The snow peas only need twenty seconds in boiling water - easy: I turned on the kettle and blanched them in the cups. (I've made couscous in this way in the past and it works fine. Kind of.) I dotted the tiny stuffed peppers over the salad and tossed over the green olives. The marinated oil in these became the dressing, along with the juice of half a lemon.

The other half of the lemon went into the gin and tonics. Yes, there was ice in the fridge. That's almost four-star.

Has anyone else made it up on the move?

11.1.08

The wind, the bees and the cucumber.

I lifted the sash window in the loungeroom and a blast furnace came into the room. I closed it again and the blast stopped, but the room was about ten degrees hotter than before. The loungeroom faces north and the wind was a northerly and it was a big wind and it was an angry wind.

The temperature topped out at 42 yesterday. The overnight was to be 30, about the same as Tennant Creek and Broome and a degree or two lower than Port Hedland.

Why so hot down here, then? The wind sweeps the country from top to bottom, across the dead heart, sucking heat from burning rock and molten sand and dumping it on Melbourne before blowing out across Bass Strait and on to Tasmania, the full point to the mainland's question mark.

*

The night swam by in a barely-remembered swelter of black heat. The boys slept surprisingly well. Tracy, not so well. I slept like a log. The heat doesn't bother me.

William had stood on a bee in the late afternoon. I had set up a small pool on the lawn beneath the spreading canopy of the old grapefruit tree to give the boys some relief from the heat; parched bees came from wherever parched bees rest and crawled over blades of grass seeking moisture. William stepped on one. I managed to extricate the sting without pressing the sac; and after a few minutes of bellowing, no further ill-effects were observed. We sat him in the loungeroom with a drink and placed his sore little left foot on the bottle of frozen water that we use to chill the travel cooler.

*

We ate outside. Nothing special; grilled fish with oregano and olive oil and the usual salad of tomato, red capsicum, feta, black olives and red onion. Too hot for bread. Not too hot for chilled white wine. William picked a cucumber (big crop this year) from the back garden (shoes on, now), brought it inside and I washed it and chopped it and put it straight into the salad. So much for your food miles, except it's paradoxically illegal to hose your vegetable garden. (You're allowed to drive to Safeway and bring one home in a plastic bag, of course.) I have to confess I have flouted the rule on one, perhaps two occasions. I used less water than I would have used by bucketing the stuff. Buckets tend to slop and spill. The water police will get me one day.

*

That was yesterday and this is today and it's 40 degrees again. What to eat? Might be a night for curry, spicy and hot and intense of flavour and a delight to the tastebuds when tastebuds are jaded by heat. Let's fight fire with fire.

9.1.08

Umbrellas.

7.30 p.m. Still 38 degrees.

I was in the bay, a few hundred metres off shore. Tracy was on the beach in the shade of some ti-tree with Thomas, who was snoozing on the big white and blue beach towel.

I was playing with William. The water is still only knee-deep here. Another few hundred metres farther out, timber depth markers indicate where the shelf drops off; and beyond that the jetskis go smack-smack-smack one way along the gentle swell and then smack-smack-smack the other way. You'd think they'd tire of it but they never do. Like mosquitos in the night.

William and I looked back towards the shore. You know what I miss about the beach? Canvas unbrellas. Espcially the old ones designed in alternate concentric circles of colour and white with fringed edges. Or segmented into primary colours between the ribs; green, red, yellow, blue, etc. You see them in pictures of the beach printed in photogravure magazines of the 1950s; delicately poised on the sand over canvas deckchairs and picnic blankets.

Now it's all beach tents. I had one of these once. I didn't like it. They don't breathe. The old umbrellas gave shade without stopping any breeze that may be pushing about looking for someone to cool.

Also, my beach tent proved almost impossible to fold up. You had to form the two self-contained arches into circles and then line these circles up together in order to squeeze it into its round bag, all the while stuffing the fabric in between the folds. There was no locking mechanism on mine; the bag was the only way to contain it. Packing it up was like wrestling two octopi.

Then one day, the arches of my tent refused to co-operate and became irretrievably bent out of shape and it was impossible to get it back into its bag. Of course, I couldn't leave it on the beach. I had to carry the deformed tent across Point Nepean Road at the lights, holding it together as best I could without letting the wind carry it and me away as I crossed the road in front of stopped traffic; and then try to squeeze it into the back of the car while lowering the tailgate on it. It shot out several times like some kind of weird bright blue and yellow escaping animal before I finally tamed it and slammed the boot on it. I got it home and backed the car in and opened the tailgate and the bastard of a thing sprang out like a bomb going off. I left it behind the gate in the driveway and flattened it with six housebricks until a hard rubbish collection took it away about six months later.

Umbrellas never do that.

*

I stopped thinking about umbrellas and we waded back to shore. Thomas had woken up and we did what everyone does here about this time on an impossibly hot night.

Fish and chips on the beach.

Grilled whiting, chips, potato cakes, two segments of lemon, tartare sauce and white vinegar. No salt on account of the children. Cold bottle of sauvignon straight from the bottle shop across the road; crockery and cutlery from the car. Quick set-up on the picnic blanket, two fold-up chairs.

It doesn't get any better. Back up the hill and through the ti-tree and home about nine in gradually fading light. Still hot.

8.1.08

Thomas.


One day, he wore a hole in his trouser knee. The next day he walked, and he hasn't stopped since.

7.1.08

The year in food. (And I found my brother.)

He rang me the next day from a hotel on the other peninsula. He had completely forgotten. I said not to worry about it, we'll catch up later. I might even visit Alice Springs this year, finally.

*

Back to food matters, Food Nazi posted this culinary summary of the year the week before Christmas. Here is my version, a little shorter, I'm afraid. I don't get about much any more.

Dish of the year:
Flash-fried steak, a minute each side and topped with a thin slice of blue cheese and warmed, thinned home-made pesto. Rich but stunning. Served with fine chips and a simple green salad.

Best eating experiences of the year:
1. See above.
2. A plate of glistening, quivering seafood dumplings at any number of the new Asian cafes that make the old sesame toast, sweet and sour, fried rice places look like something out of the 1950s. Which is what they usually are.
3. Barbecued salmon steaks under a setting sun.

Favourite cafe snack:
One man's journey through a world of foccaccia and ciabatta and zataared this and sumacced that always ends up where it started: sitting up at the counter at Pellegrini's (kitchen end), with a large thickly buttered cheese roll in front of me. And the newspaper and a strong cafe latte.

The kitchen accessory I finally bought this year:
A salad spinner. No more wet leaves.

Perennial favourites:
Breakfast: porridge with chopped bananas and sultanas; hot sweet white tea; newspaper.
Lunch: chicken and Swiss cheese sandwich on Flinders white bread thickly spread with home-made pesto.
Dinner: Linguine tossed with very finely chopped chilis, anchovies and semi-dried tomatoes.

Best bar:
I remember bars. I visited one once.

Melbourne food scene question of 2007:
How many cafes can one city support?

*

Over to you. How was your year, in terms of food or otherwise?

4.1.08

Roast.

In a large bowl, I tumbled quartered peeled potatoes and chunks of pumpkin in olive oil, salt and pepper, set them in a baking tin along with a whole head of unpeeled garlic and some rosemary and placed the tin in the oven.

It had been a cooler day. My brother - the vague one from Alice Springs - was coming to visit. He would arrive some time in the afternoon or early evening. He couldn't be specific. Things change. He might see something interesting on the trip from the city to the Peninsula and be diverted. A lot can happen in ninety minutes.

The rosemary was starting to get fragrant and I was chopping some more garlic. The radio on the shelf was broadcasting the cricket. I used to listen to the cricket just to hear the voice of Alan McGillivray. Now I listen to it to find out who is winning, if anyone. A five-day game that ends in a draw is a marvellously Victorian thing, like a steam omnibus. Cricket should be heritage listed.

Half an hour later. I made slits in two pieces of lamb loin, pressed in halved garlic cloves, rubbed the meat all over with olive oil and pepper and wrapped the pieces in foil, placing a sprig of rosemary in each. Then into the oven, amongst the vegetables in the pan.

A noise from the radio, louder than the usual hum. The ball had clearly hit Andrew Symonds' bat but the umpire had missed or ignored it. Dreadlocked Symonds failed to walk and stayed at the crease. Cricket is a gentlemen's game, but in these cliched 'inclusive' days, even those who are not gentlemen can play. In stark contrast was the Indian captain's gracious handshake for Symonds when the latter reached a hollow century. Unless the handshake was ironic, which I doubt.

Another half hour. Early evening now. I chopped two fat white zucchini into thick rounds and gave them the same oil, salt and pepper treatment and scattered them in the pan where the other vegetables were coming along nicely. Zucchini doesn't need long.

The boys had exhausted themselves on the beach - Thomas is now fully ambulant - and were asleep. The trees were golden outside the big picture window to the west. Tracy sat on the green velvet sofa, thought for a minute and said, 'No wonder he missed the plane from Alice Springs.'

'No wonder,' I replied. I grew up with him. Do we eat or do we wait? He doesn't carry a phone or I would have called him; but you kind of expect people to call you if they're running late, not the reverse. Unless you're running a restaurant, of course: 'Hi. You're fifteen minutes late. We'll keep your table another ten.' No. That wouldn't work for family. Give and take. Be nice to each other.

We waited. We are in the habit of eating late anyway. I like breakfast and lunch on time but I can eat dinner at midnight.

We waited until eight-thirty. The roast was good, tender and still pink in the middle. There was gravy and, just for a change, mint jelly instead of mint sauce. We took cloves from the whole roasted head and squeezed them, like a toothpaste tube, so that the softened garlic spat out one end, onto bread. This is delicious. You must try it. The garlic loses its bite, but the baking accentuates its earthy flavour. Even better, take the garlic-coated bread and mop up the gravy.

We ate at the table watching the gold on the trees deepen. In the branches, birds flittered and squawked and were gone. Far-off traffic groaned and there was the occasional distant crash of surf. It grew dark. He didn't arrive.