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

28.4.08

Roadblocked.

Local authorities have a game. They vie with each other to see who can take longest to perform a task. There are degrees of difficulty: extra points are scored for inconveniencing the greatest number of people for the longest time.

O'Hea Street is currently rubble. It has been for a while. O'Hea's Bakery is accessible behind the rubble. No worries: just climb over it to get to the front door. What's the problem? Complain, always they complain. What's the matter with you people? It's only rocks, Madam; your pram could do with some off-road work. Park up the road, Sir; there's a vacant spot somewhere north of Gaffney Street. It will do your legs the world of good.

I thought it was VicRoads. I should have known better. It's Moreland Council, from Clown Hall on Bell Street. The crowd behind 1999's great Sydney Road Six-Month Footpath Reconstruction which saw several retailers almost go under; and the Victoria Mall rebuilding project of the early 2000s, a 'project' that saw a couple of concrete benches, some bumpy paving and a bunch of gum trees earn the architects an award for excellence in public space design.

Smile as you pay your rates. And watch the kerb. There isn't one.

*

O'Hea's (the spelling of this name varies but that is the correct way) Bakery has been there since 1956. Now it's a deli. I go there when I need cakes, cured meats, a can of tomatoes or beans for the minestrone, some great parmesan cheese, a bouncy, chewy, sesame-encrusted Vienna loaf ... or an eat-in toasted sandwich and a nice coffee sitting in mid-autumn sunshine at one of the little tables in the window. Overlooking the rubble.

24.4.08

Coffee in St Kilda.

Another warm autumn day, the air completely still. CFA burn-offs continue on the ciy's fringes. Geographically (or is it topographically?), Melbourne is a bowl with a lip, a circle ringed by low mountain range. The smoke has dropped into the bowl and the sky is a haze.

I drove down Beaconsfield Parade towards St Kilda and you couldn't see where bay met sky, an optical illusion in which the view to items in the water - boats, depth markers, buoys - was foreshortened and they seemed to hang in the haze like small pictures in oil on a grey wall. Coffee at Scheherezade, strong and bitter and necessary.

Late in the day the sun was deep gold, then red. It slipped down the sky and disappeared through a slit in the cloudy murk like a coin dropping into an envelope.

ANZAC Day tomorrow: the dawn march and service will take place under more haze unless an April wind whips up tonight. I doubt it. We'll remember all of them of course, and especially my unknown uncle, lost in Malaya in 1942 and never found.

*

To Neerim South in the morning for a picnic at my mother-in-law's, perhaps by the Tarago River. There will be too much food. Saturday will be my mother's 80th birthday dinner. Someone will distract her in the afternoon and she will be returned to a house full of friends and relations and even a neighbour or two. She has a strong heart. There will again be too much food.

Sunday? Rest, of course. No wait, we have children.

17.4.08

Lentil rice with cardamom and fried onions.

Well, that was nice. I do like a lamb shank, hanging off the bone and fragrant with herbs.

Now let’s get to work on those stockpiles of rice and lentils. I did an official tour of the Wimmera wheat belt once – during the mice-plagued summer of ’84-’85 - and I guarantee there’s more grain in this larder than the Dunolly wheat silo. (No mice though, thank goodness.)

Lentils. How many lentils does one household need? There are red lentils, green lentils and lentils that I am not even sure are lentils at all. Toor dhal. Chana dhal. Urad dhal. Too many shopping trips to Desi Needs and not enough cooking.

Lentil rice with cardamom and fried onions.

A wonderfully fragrant dish, of which you’ll catch the aroma halfway down the hill if you happen to be trudging home from the train at the time, which was about six p.m. on a golden-skied April evening with a fresh southerly stirring the upper leaves of the yellow-tipped poplars at the end of the street.

The first time I made this dish its simplicity and ease of preparation astounded me.

You’ll need: one cup each of red lentils and long grain rice, two large onions, 2½ tablespoons ghee, 2½ teaspoons salt, ¼ teaspoon each ground black pepper, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon and nutmeg and 3½ cups boiling water.

Wash the lentils, removing any that float. Drain thoroughly.

Heat the ghee in a largish lidded pot or pan. Slice the onions into thin rounds and fry them until golden brown, stirring. Remove half the onions and set aside.

Add lentils and rice to pan and stir for a minute or two to coat in hot ghee.

Add water and spices, stir well, bring to boil, turn down to a very low simmer, lid the pan tightly and walk away. Have a drink and read the paper.

Come back in twenty minutes exactly and dinner’s ready. The just-softened lentils give the dish a creamy unctuousness that takes an otherwise ordinary rice dish into another dimension, a higher plane.

Serve immediately and garnish with the extra onions. Accompany with fenugreek roti (my personal favourite; spinach, garlic or plain will suffice), yogurt and coriander chutney - I used Laziza brand: its deep green colour looks innocent but it has a kick like a mule.

15.4.08

White pepper.

The days are gold and warm but late in the afternoon a cold something materialises in the air and it whispers: cook comfort food and make it steam with the aromas of slow cooking and herbs.

So I do. It’s a good time of year to haul out all those jars of grains and legumes and nuts that have remained untouched over summer, abandoned for the seductions of summer's fresh salads, vegetables and grills.

I opened the cupboard, creak. Rice of about six different kinds, lentils - the same, barley, polenta – instant and not instant. Let's get cooking.

I started with a simple lamb shank stew, taking two lamb shanks, two carrots cut into rounds, three potatoes cut into thick discs, two onions cut into quarters, a sprig of rosemary, lots of white pepper and a dash of worcestershire sauce.

It couldn’t be easier. I just simmered the lot, covered with water, for two hours, adding a scant cup of barley and quite a lot of finely chopped parsley with three-quarters of an hour to go.

Meanwhile I boiled some more potatoes and whipped them to creamy smoothness with butter, white pepper and more chopped parsley. I think I’m entering a white pepper phase. I find it hotter yet more subtle than black, with a cleaner heat that suits winter foods. After all, white pepper is just the seed of black pepper. The latter includes the fruit of the berry.

*

I placed a hill of mash on the plates, placed a lamb shank astride each and the stewed vegetables and barley around, drizzling some of the stew juices over the shank. Salt, more white pepper and a further dash of Worcestershire sauce.

Red wine made a welcome return. Well, what a coincidence: check the the final tasting note.

11.4.08

The café in history, part one.


Is there a Melbourne milk bar, greengrocer, post office, bootmaker’s shop or haberdashery (is the word even used any more?) that hasn’t been turned into a café?

They spring up like mushrooms after a week of rain. Every time a café opens, local property-for-sale boards exhort buyers to 'live the latte lifestyle' and house prices leap 50% overnight. Suburbs like Seddon and Yarraville surely now have more places to eat out than houses.

What did people do before there were cafés? The short answer is that they went to other, earlier cafés, just not as often. And they weren’t called cafés. Eons ago, I’m not sure when, probably in the Middle Ages or the Dark Ages or even as long ago as the 1970s, cafés went under another name. They were called coffee lounges.

Like the dinosaur, most coffee lounges died out due to major genetic faults that included lace in the windows, embossed plastic tablecloths, toasted sandwiches sitting upright like the Pyramids in wicker baskets and appalling coffee. Some survived against the odds and live on to this day, serving grey insipid cappuccino at scalding temperatures in bad cups at outer suburban shopping malls like Mountain Gate or Fountain Gate or whatever the hell it's called.

However, one particular 1960s artefact of early Melbourne coffee culture - one of the better ones - remains unchanged to this day. While it wasn't until the mid-eighties that cutting-edge places such as Baker's and Mario's served coffee in glasses, Moonee Ponds cafe Bruno's (above) had been setting the Vetravirs and Duralexes up on the bar in front of the espresso machine since 1961.

It hasn't changed. Bruno's menu is vintage '60s. The open grilled chicken, avocado and cheese with coleslaw and potato salad on the side is the thing to go for. Or try the ravioli bolognese or the grilled whiting or the lasagne, all under ten dollars. The sandwiches are classic toasted with not a ciabatta or foccaccia in sight. Not that there's anything wrong with ciabatta or foccaccia but on a bleary Saturday morning there's also nothing wrong with a classic steaming toasted ham, cheese and tomato or crisped bacon and egg sandwich in white bread with butter on top.

The coffee glasses sit in vintage tooled leather holders. The only part of the 1960s missing from the picture above would be the ashtray overflowing with Viscount and Turf cigarette butts. The TAB was once next door in the arcade in Puckle Street and on Saturday mornings Bruno's was packed to the rafters with chain-smoking punters clutching pink form guides from the Sporting Globe. The TAB, the cigarettes and the Sporting Globe are long gone but everything else about Bruno's is the same. I took the photo on Friday. Then I had a toasted egg, cheese and tomato sandwich.

And the coffee is still good. You can tell by the colour.

9.4.08

Well, there's a milestone. Tracy has returned to work for two days a week - consecutive - and guess who's minding the boys on Mondays and Tuesdays? Sure, I can write when they're asleep.

We used to have dogs. Feeding small children (William is two years and nine months; Thomas is one year and five months) is rather more difficult. And you can't do it outside in inclement weather.

I always wanted a kitchen that you could hose out; a kind of medieval flagstoned affair. That would help. Where's the broom?

5.4.08

Changing highways.

I was sitting under a 1950 Harley Davidson. It was on a display stand at head height, hanging over the table at which I was sitting. I was hoping like hell it wouldn’t fall on me. It was the night after the storms and a Harley breaking its moorings would have made a shocking mess of my head. And my dinner, which was Cajun fish.

Sometimes, fish is so tender you hardly need a knife. The flesh of this fish was moist and just opaque and it came away in quivering flakes with a touch of the fork. The whole thing was held together by a faint, sheeny crispness flecked with warm, dark Cajun spices. Someone in the kitchen knew exactly how to grill fish. The accompanying salad was robust and had enough variety and colour and interest to last the whole meal. Some salads are boring after the first crunch and you start looking at what everyone else is eating.

I looked anyway. There were gumbos - the prawn and okra gumbo looked good - and grilled steaks and fried chicken and burgers and chilli and even pasta and pizza. There was a thing called Idaho wedges and a four-cheese lasagne. This place does it all with a degree of finesse rarely found in theme restaurants. And the staff are nice.

Except it is not really a theme restaurant. Highway 31 is run by Harley enthusiasts, like a fraternity. A kind of Returned Services Club with bikes, not just a tacked-on theme. It is adjacent to Harley City, one of the largest Harley dealerships in the world. Harley owners come into Highway 31 for drinks on their own or dinner with their families or to talk to other Harley people. Outside in the street there are Harleys everywhere. Purely by chance, when we arrived, enough Harleys had vacated the space directly out front to back in a Volvo. I parked without knocking over any hogs or softails or v-rods.

*

It’s a funny thing about Harley Davidson motor cycles. No-one ever buys one until they’re fifty. How ironic: you finally get to feel the wind in your hair and there isn’t any.

It’s not about attitude. When men have mid-life crises, they buy crass things like red sports cars. You buy a Harley for a different reason: because it’s a machine. Other bikes are just devices. Harleys groan and roar and use oil and are built from nuts and bolts. Other bikes just whiz you somewhere else fast and have computers and coffee holders and GPS and air conditioning and are about as exciting as a Toyota Camry.

*

No, I didn't buy one. But I thought about it while I ate my Cajun fish and drained the last of my white wine. The small wine list is somewhat overpriced, but bikers generally don’t sip chardonnay with their steak so I suppose the wine subsidises the beer.

It was about nine o'clock now. The traffic growl on Sydney Road rose and fell in waves and the flashing coloured lights on the verandah outside Highway 31 shone in the window and turned my empty white plate a different colour every few seconds. A band had set up in the corner near the bar and started playing a Neil Young song, Changing Highways from Broken Arrow.

3.4.08

The last tomatoes.

The roof stayed on, but half the dirt up at the top of the state near Mildura blew down and landed on the car and the other half landed on the washing line. Now the car is red and so is the washing. Yes, it's like 1982 again. No wonder they have to dredge the bay. Most of Victoria ends up in it over time.

*

Speaking of red, I picked the last tomatoes for the year. It was a disappointingly small crop, but they were good. They had that abundance of juice instead of pulp and that almost overpoweringly sweet aroma with the acid in perfect balance. In this condition they need neither salt nor pepper. I sliced them thinly, scattered them with chopped, marinated green olives and served them as a kind of bruschetta on lightly toasted and buttered Potts Swiss white bread.

*

And the basil continues to come. Plenty of parsley as well, so I made a pesto with equal measures of the two herbs with garlic, cheese and walnuts and used this as an ingredient in one of my favourite pasta dishes:

Pasta with chicken, avocado, red pepper and pesto.

Cube a chicken breast and poach the pieces very gently in a little white wine and water with a sliced garlic clove in a tightly covered pan. Add slices of red pepper. These will soften in the poaching fluid. Add slices of avocado. Cook until chicken is done. It won't take long. Have pasta cooking meanwhile - linguine works well.

Place drained linguine on serving plates. Top with chicken, red pepper and avocado, retaining pan juices. Add a good spoonful or two of pesto to pan, swirl around over high heat, add a dash of cream if you wish and pour over pasta.

1.4.08

Who'd be a food writer?

David Herbert's excellent food column in the March 15 edition of The Weekend Australian colour magazine (March15) featured seasonal lamb recipes. Mr Herbert wrote:

Lamb is a great dish at this time of year; I much prefer lamb at the end of summer when it has more age to the meat and a better depth of flavour. If you are lucky you may even find some hogget (two teeth or about 12 months old) or some of the delicious milk-fed lamb that is starting to appear. Be guided by your butcher and try to buy the best quality you can afford.

Good advice. One of the featured recipes was a variation on lamb souvlaki. Two weeks later, the following letter to the editor appeared in the same magazine:

David Herbert's Lamb Souvlaki is a trendy lamb parcel. Traditional souvlaki is simply skewered cubes of lamb marinated in olive oil, lemon juice, oregano and pepper, cooked over a barbecue and given a squeeze of lemon while cooking. I have never seen cumin in a Greek recipe and there is no place for Spanish onion, cayenne pepper, yoghurt or spring onions. His dish may be tasty but please do not insult the Greeks by calling it souvlaki.
Rhett Senior
Kings Point NSW.


Nonsense, Mr Senior. The recipe is merely a variation; it still comprises the basic building blocks of seasonal lamb and pitta bread. You'd think Mr Herbert had recommended using the Greek flag to strain feta.

Here's David Herbert's recipe:

Lamb souvlaki
225g lamb fillet
1 small red onion, finely sliced
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 large pitta breads
4 tablespoons plain natural yoghurt
1 teaspoon chopped, flat-leaf parsley or fresh oregano
3 spring onions, sliced
1 lemon, quartered
Combine lamb, onion, garlic, cumin, cayenne pepper and olive oil in a mixing bowl. Season with plenty of freshly ground black pepper. Cover and marinate in refrigerator for at least 30 minutes, longer if time permits. Place a heavy-based frying pan or ribbed grill pan over medium heat until very hot. Add lamb to pan and cook 3-4 minutes each side (alternately, char-grill or barbecue lamb). Allow to rest 5 minutes, then cut lamb into 1cm slices. Meanwhile, warm pitta breads in a low oven and halve them to form four pockets. Fill pitta pockets with freshly cooked lamb, yoghurt, herbs and spring onion. Serve each with a lemon quarter. Serves 4.
Mix & Max
A good Greek red such as a robust, blackberry-fruited agiorgitiko or leathery, tannic xynomavro would be perfect – but if you have trouble finding either of these (and, let’s face it, you will) – an excellent alternative would be the classic Aussie souvo match, the shiraz cabernet blend.


I don't normally post other people's recipes, so to thank the author here's a link to his book. Buy it. It's good.