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

30.3.08


The first St Paul's church was built here in 1850, right on the bend in Sydney Road. The current building shown above dates from about 1897.

I first visited twenty years ago when my oldest son - William and Thomas' Much Older Brother - sang there as a member of the visiting St Patrick's Cathedral Choir.

Later we moved into the parish. William was baptised here in 2005; Thomas in 2006.

Just last Sunday morning, after the service, I carried William up to the bell tower for the first time (small window beneath the shuttered arch windows in the picture) and he watched a bellringer heave the massive rope to ring out Easter Day.

The bell will not ring again soon. Three nights ago, someone set two fires in the church. One succeeded.

28.3.08

Saving the earth one PR release at a time.

In between dodging charges of running a 'ruthless' and 'grubby' government, New South Wales Premier Morris Iemma must welcome diversions such as this week's Earth Hour. In fact, Mr Iemma earlier this month used the event to retreat to the moral high ground:

"It's utter rubbish to say that symbolism can't lead to change. Yes it's about symbolism but it's a very powerful one - it's about saving the planet."

Without any evidence of tongue-in-cheek, Mr Iemma revealed his entire bureaucracy would take part:

Mr Iemma announced that all government departments would take part in Earth Hour at 8pm on March 29.

March 29 is a Saturday.

But surely he was bluffing when he compared his speech with those of the following three gentlemen:

Mr Iemma invoked Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Martin Luther King as speakers who used symbolism to inspire lasting change.


Nice company, Morris. Shame they're all dead or they'd have the butler turf you out on your ear.

Mr Iemma's disingenuity is striking. It is not symbolism to which anyone objects, but tokenism. No-one cares if someone wants to symbolise their desire to save energy by standing on his head for two weeks. As long as he switches the lights off first. Otherwise it would be totally inconsequential, apart from the headache.

Tokenism example: The Langham hotel - and its leading-edge eatery Partington's - in Auckland, New Zealand reaped invaluable publicity through this report about its intention to invoke mood lighting for an hour on Saturday night.

No doubt the Langham has form on environmentally-friendly practice. Otherwise it would look somewhat hypocritical.

Well, no. The Langham is the hotel that just two years ago sunk $12 million into a major remodel, most of which appears to have been spent on chandeliers. Its PR release effused:

"Our guests expect a true five-star environment when they stay at The Langham ... but they also want hints of home," (manager John Dick) says. "Our newly-refurbished rooms ... feature elegant ... antique-styled furniture and lights ... enjoy 42 inch plasma televisions ... introduced high speed broadband internet access in each (business) room ... a spectacular centralized dome with ornate coving, chandelier lighting ... lobby bar, The Winery, ... transformed with ... a shimmering chandelier ... . (In) Partingtons at The Langham ... (features) flamboyant drapes, which part to reveal chandeliers sparkling from a 'trompe l'oeil' sky ceiling ...

The place is bristling with electricity. But for those 3600 precious seconds of planet-saving semi-darkness, how will guests see Chef Soper's stunning creations - presumably actually cooked, using energy - and indeed, eat them without jabbing themselves in the forehead with the cutlery? The answer is soy candles:

The Langham five star hotel in Symonds St will switch off about 3000 lights to be replaced by chemical free and non-toxic New Zealand-made soy candles. The hotel would also be serving complimentary carbon-zero wine ...

Beyond parody.

26.3.08

Coffee on a bend in the Merri Creek.

The coffee was surprisingly good, given that the machine is set up in a makeshift shed and chickens peck in a pen just beyond the post, rail and wire fence. Not that sheds and chickens are a bar to good coffee; but if the coffee is this good here, then there is no excuse for bad coffee in an actual coffee shop.

We were at CERES - the Brunswick farm on a bend in the Merri Creek - for its Wednesday morning produce market. CERES stands for something but I prefer its original meaning as the goddess of agriculture. The Wednesday morning produce sale is like a farmer’s market but without the novelty stalls and the jostling, poking weekend crowds. If you're shopping mid-week for fruit and vegetables, this is as good as it gets. You wouldn't go to a supermarket.

It was one of those mornings you dream about. Brilliant autumn sunshine, warm but never uncomfortable, a faint whisper of a breeze and cotton bud clouds drifting about in the blue sky. We walked in from the north, across from Sydney Road and along the Merri trail and into the rear entrance of CERES, over the crest of the hill and past the outlying fenced-off paddocks lying fallow. The café is tucked into the eastern corner, the market section faces north looking out on more paddocks and pens and the plant nursery is closer to the western entrance.

We sat on huge timber-slab bench seats along enormous timber tables and sipped the bitter, hypnotic brew. Unlike other tastes, coffee cannot be likened to anything else. It tastes only like coffee. Three sugars for me; none for Tracy. Coffee at your destination makes a long walk a journey of delicious anticipation.

What would we do without coffee? It is an addiction without consequences; the most seductively delicious brew in the world. And yet, to me, coffee without sugar tastes like bitter mud (which disproves a point I made in the previous paragraph). If there were no sugar I wouldn’t touch the stuff. (Which is why I avoid coffee shops that serve your coffee with one of those paper tube things containing about half a teaspoon of sugar and glare at you if you ask for more. It’s never enough.)

I digress, as you do when drinking coffee while sitting in the sun on a perfect morning. The produce comes from all over: potatoes from Colac, garlic from Swan Hill, salad greens from Cockatoo in the Dandenongs. Coliban potatoes, giant grapefruit, two-legged juicing carrots for $1.50 a kilogram, radishes, several varieties of pumpkins and a few oddments such as amaranth, described on its cardboard price ticket as the spinach of India, but I thought it was more commonly referred to as Chinese spinach.

We staggered home. Vegetables are heavy.

*

The CERES Harvest Festival is on this Sunday March 30. Click on events. The flyer advertises: Free Entry. Foods from the world's community kitchens. Feast Food, $5 per plate served all day.

Eat light the day before.

22.3.08

Non sequitur.

A sign appeared on Friday in a Sydney Road, Coburg cafe exclaiming in large letters:

OPEN ALL EASTER WEEKEND!!!

Two words below read:

EXCLUDING SUNDAY.

19.3.08

Rooster rendered irrelevant; Parliament told heatwave is evidence of warmth.

It came from the south west. It was grey and it grew and it stretched itself across the sky like a giant steel door over the roof of a stadium. I even thought it creaked like a stadium roof, but that was just the whistling of the breeze that blew the heat back into the land where it came from.

*

The night before last was the hottest I can remember. There was no breeze then, just a fierce northerly that roared all night like a lion with a large splinter in its paw.

I should complain. Adelaide, the city of churches, made it fifteen straight days with temperatures over 35 degrees. Note well: that is in autumn. Is there another city in the world that has ever completed an autumn stretch of fifteen consecutive 35 degree-plus days? I'm sure there is, but you wouldn't want to live there.

(Weatherzone reports: "Agriculture Minister Tony Burke has told Federal Parliament the 15 consecutive days above 35 degrees are evidence of the warming trend." I look forward to Parliament being informed that ice is evidence of freezing or that a forest is evidence of trees.)

So Melbourne's an oasis compared with Adelaide. Nevertheless, during the night I paced and stretched and sat and walked around again and raised windows and moved curtains and, at last, fell into fitful sleep around five a.m. Then William woke up and Thomas woke up and Tracy woke up and we said the hell with it and got up and had breakfast, rendering the regular six a.m. crow of the rooster in the middle distance - somewhere between Sydney Road and Merri Creek, perhaps even within CERES - superfluous.

The night before, we had eaten some of our Lebanese eggplants this way:

Tri-colour strozzapreti with eggplant and chargrilled barramundi.

It doesn't have to be strozzapreti but in weather like this it was the first pack of pasta that came to hand in the larder. And it looks pretty underneath a mess of grilled eggplant and fried barramundi.

Top and tail eggplants, cut in strips lengthways, brush with oil and grill.

Cook pasta.

Fry salted and peppered barramundi in an oiled pan on a bed of sliced garlic. Sprinkle a little zataar over it as well if you have any. Squeeze the juice of a lemon over it while cooking. Fry until it gets a degree of char, crisp and tasty.

Drain pasta and arrange on plates. Layer eggplant strips over the pasta, top with barramundi. Chopped parsley scattered over.

Cold wine. Lots of cold wine.

*

And now the heat is gone and today I walked down Collins Street and felt cold. But where's the rain? Heatwaves used to be broken by rain. Not any more. Now, they just slink off to the outback and sulk.

17.3.08

Green olives.

I have at last fixed the dateline. It was set on Pacific time for the last four and a half years, so that my posts were dated the previous day. Now it's set to Eastern time. I feared that changing the date would wipe out the blog but it appears to be there still.

Real time is early afternoon on a hot 17 March. 39 degrees on St Patrick's Day? Unheard of. I just missed the St Patrick's Day schoolchildren's march era that petered out in the early '60s, but were it still to be a fixture it might have been cancelled for the heat. I remember my oldest sister going off with her class to march from the Fitzroy Gardens to St Patrick's Cathedral and then on to Spring Street. Archbishop Mannix liked to parade the sea of green - literally thousands of baby-boom era Catholic schoolchildren - in front of Parliament. He liked to think the centre of power was two blocks back from Treasury Place.

These days St Patrick's Day is a little more than a novelty event. Green beer won't be of much use in the heat today.

*

Last night we crept back into the city under cover of darkness , in the relative cool of early evening. These days, the Monash tollway is virtually useless during daylight hours. It was still busy at almost nine p.m. but at least there was no stopping. I wouldn't want to be paying tolls every morning and afternoon to and from the city. It used to be called the south eastern carpark. The name is due for a return.

Late dinner: an assembly of cold boiled halved potatoes, a scattering of cherry tomatoes, twenty of so blanched green beans, the same of green olives marinated in chili and garlic, four halved boiled eggs, several anchovies and a seared piece of salmon. It's usually tuna. That's enough for two. Yes: another old favourite, nicoise salad. A cold glass of sauvignon blanc, Hewitson's LuLu (the names they give wine labels these days!).

14.3.08

Tasmanian mussels.

It just got hotter. The link in the previous post updates automatically and will show that today's top is 40 degrees with a demon northerly.

We escaped to the peninsula the day before yesterday. The theory is that the northerly that heats Melbourne should get colder, like an evaporative cooler, on its trip south over the bay, making the peninsula up to 15 degrees cooler than Melbourne. It's a fine theory when it works. It worked this morning. But around midday, the wind stopped in its tracks. The temperature shot up. Now it's a hazy, intense afternoon, the sun is burning a hole in the sky and even the trees are creaking in the heat.

It's strangely quiet down here. The summer crowds have gone. I walked down a baking street that was almost empty. The beach was practically deserted. And no jet-ski noise. The only sound was the distant hum of traffic on Point Nepean Road. A pelican flew slowly over the waves, beak outstretched, and some other seabirds were plucking small squid out of the shallows.

Mussels in white wine and garlic.

Last night, another old favourite. It's just fresh mussels, garlic, white wine, pepper and parsley, with chili if you wish.

The fish shop down here is now selling pre-packaged live mussels flown in from Tasmania. I was sceptical, but they were as good as the local ones. (Anyone else noticed how much great food is coming out of Tasmania: salmon, King Island cheeses and beef, Cascade beer, etc?)

Chop four or five garlic cloves finely. Warm through in a little olive oil in a big pot. Scatter in some cracked black pepper. Optionally, chop a chili finely and add that.

Before the garlic starts to change colour, add a cup of white wine. Bring to boil and quickly add mussels. Scatter over some finely chopped parsley. The mussels will clatter around in the pan as they open in the boiling fluid. I give them about two minutes. The general advice is that you wait for them to open.

Serve in deep bowls, pouring liquid over the mussels, making sure you scoop up all the finely chopped pieces of garlic that settle to the bottom of the pot. There is something uniquely delicious about the flavour and aroma of garlic in the briny taste of the mussel liquor, especially on a hot evening, especially eaten outside with the sun sailing away to the west, waving golden goodbyes.

Have bowls available in which to place the shells. Mop up the juices with coarse textured bread, sliced ciabatta or the like. Cold beer to accompany. Cheers. Enjoy the rest of the heatwave. I'm off for a swim in the bay. It's cold and blue and quiet.

10.3.08

Hot weather, prawns and cold beer.

Summer was relatively mild.

Autumn is shaping up as a scorcher: six days out of the next seven we are looking at 30 degrees-plus celsius. Today was 36.

Nights are relatively cool. Last night, barbecued prawns: marinated in tamari, ginger, garlic and some flecks of chili for a few hours, then seared on the grill after being greased with a little sesame oil and served on spinach soba noodles. Cold beer goes perfectly with this. I even put ice in it, sacrilege I know. (I first drank beer on ice at a Japanese restaurant to accompany the lightest tempura I had ever eaten. It was superb. Of course, if the tempura is not great, it will make any drink taste flabby and oily.)

6.3.08

Basil gnocchi with tomato sauce.

It seems no time since I wrote about making gnocchi with a child and the tactile pleasure they get from making food and throwing flour around the room. The child was Canisha; and now William is old enough to help with rudimentary cooking tasks, such as plugging the holes in lego blocks with cake dough. But today we made gnocchi.

First I set four medium peeled and chopped potatoes to boil, well back on the stove, until just soft. While they were boiling, William and I went into the garden to fetch a bunch of basil, which is still growing madly. (I noticed an abundance of eggplants, the longer Lebanese ones, as well. What to do with those?)

Then we came back inside and I chopped the basil finely, mashed the potatoes thoroughly, made a volcano top with them on a large breadboard, poured an egg, three-quarters of a cup of flour and some of the chopped basil into the crater and made a dough with them.

I rolled out the dough on the floured board to make sausages a centimetre in diameter and sliced these into one-inch sections. William transferred the sections to a lightly-buttered and floured plate. Some of the sections arrived on the plate intact and others changed shape along the way. A few didn't make it all and ended up on the floor. We definitely need to get a dog again. They come in handy cleaning up food spills and these days there are plenty of food spills.

Now the water's on to boil in a large pot and William is well out of the way. Drop the gnocchi, disfigured ones and all, into the simmering water and wait until they rise to the surface. Count to five - why? I don't know. A friend once told me her Italian mother did that - and scoop them out as they rise using a slotted spoon so you can transfer them direct to plates. Top with sauce and serve with grated parmesan.

The sauce: a finely chopped onion melted in oil, with a can of tomatoes added to the pan along with the rest of the basil, two chopped garlic cloves, a dash of white wine, half a cup of water, half a teaspoon of sugar and a sprinkling of pepper.

William preferred them without the sauce, but with the cheese. Thomas just squashed them between his fingers and dropped them on the floor, but then he does that with everything just now.

A britanny spaniel or a retired greyhound? Hmmm.

4.3.08

The last aunt.

One week passes, then two; and with it summer - even if there was one extra day this year. Already the sun has swivelled north, and turns the room beyond the kitchen to early morning gold, rather than blasting straight through the kitchen window slats into my eyes when I'm trying to read the paper at six-thirty. Read the paper? I haven't read a newspaper from cover to cover for two years. (Maybe not such a bad thing. At least the computer is back. But then the mobile phone ceased to function - hello, telecommunications company call centre, how's your voice recognition technology today? Would I mind holding? Yes, I would. Why do you ask? Do I have a choice? And no, I don't have my twenty digit account number in front of me.)

I've barely had time to do anything. Of course, using the death of an aunt as an excuse for not posting was entirely outrageous, if partially true nevertheless.

Aunts are fascinating creatures. Fiction is full of them. All the great writers wrote about aunts. They are close enough to be family but distant enough to avoid the kinds of issues faced by siblings and parents and children. Well, generally.

My late aunt was the last. There are no more. She was my father's eldest sister, Dorothy. Now there is only their youngest brother - the one who, when he was just a boy, had been protected from the grief of a brother lost at war.

In the mid-1960s, when most of my visiting aunts would arrive sedately by bus, Dorothy pulled into the drive in a 1962 cream Morris Major. It had arched-eyebrow headlights and a smiling grille.

As children, we appreciated Dorothy's imaginative sense of gift-giving, despite all the nephews and nieces to think of. In 1972, her Christmas gift to me was a Rod Stewart single, his last real rocker, You Wear It Well.

My aunt wore it well. Dorothy was the fashion plate of the family, made all her own clothes and looked like the Queen in two-piece suits and matching pearls and hats and bags. Her husband was a tailor in the city, a dapper man. He survives her. He took an age to retreat from the front row to the harsh sunlight outside the church, a bent old man on a stick. A widower at 92.