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

29.5.08

One peasant dish, a million recipes.

Google chicken cacciatore and you'll find recipes variously calling (aside from chicken) for carrot, capsicum, celery, brown sugar, balsamic vinegar, anchovy fillets, rosemary, flour, capers, basil, parsley and olives, among other ingredients. If I kept searching I'd probably find one with pineapple in it, from the 1960s. But then again, everything in the 1960s had pineapple in it.

All of which is fine, apart from the pineapple of course, but personally I prefer chicken cacciatore to feature just the bird and mushrooms, accompanied with tomato and a few herbs. Like this:

Brown a chopped onion and a scored garlic clove in oil. Remove from pan. In the same pan, fry one kilogram of skin-free chicken pieces on the bone until browned. Place chicken pieces in a casserole. Place the cooked onions and garlic over the chicken.

Into the same pan, place a can of diced tomatoes, half a cup each of white wine and chicken stock and one-inch sprigs each of fresh thyme and oregano. Bring it to the boil and simmer five minutes. Add pepper liberally; salt less so if the stock is salted.

Now pour the tomato and mushroom sauce over the chicken. Bake forty-five minutes. Your house will smell exactly as a house should in one of the coldest Mays in Melbourne for nearly thirty years.

Serve your steaming, aromatic casserole with sides of creamed spinach, mashed potatoes flecked with quartered black olives and fresh crusty bread. Drink this.

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Cacciatore: It., lit. "hunter," from pp. of cacciare "to hunt, chase," from V.L. *captiare (see catch).

Funny how words find each other again. The first syllable of the Italian word sounds like our word 'catch' and in fact they share a common origin from Roman days. V. L. being vulgar Latin. From the street.

(Etymology from one of my favourite websites, the Online Etymology Dictionary. Don't go there. You'll lose hours of your life.)

27.5.08

Moreland Council puts up sign; tractors grind on, slowly.

Could EastLink be finished before O'Hea Street? It's a better bet than Essendon for the flag.

But progress has been made. Moreland Council has bowed to pressure from this blog. A new addition to the roadblock, a sign advising that O'Hea's Bakery is open, can be seen in the picture below.

(Isn't it typical of bureaucracies to do things in triplicate? Not content with a double-stacked Road Closed sign in two different type sizes on the left, they have a third at the right. Just to make sure you really understand that the road is closed.)

25.5.08

Fast-fried greens, soup dumplings and the Kevin Borich Express.

Saturday morning means market.

Queen Victoria, Preston, Footscray, farmers'. It doesn't matter.

The buzz of the crowd is a kind of magic music that blows the cobwebs of Friday night into oblivion and, like a drug, masks the memory of the workday week just gone and helps you forget that the longer this day lasts, the sooner Monday comes.

All right, it was a bad week. But it would be a good weekend.

*

Saturday evening. A glass of chardonnay to get things started.

Into the kitchen. From the market this morning, three bunches of bok choy, a bunch of asparagus chopped into two-inch sections and a dozen whole snow peas.

Into a sizzling pan. The green vegetables cook in minutes over a fast heat with just a splash of sesame oil and the water in which they were rinsed. Turned out onto a serving platter, they sizzle and glisten. The asparagus retains a degree of crunch.

To accompany: prawn soup dumplings, little fat pillows of heavenly flavour with the added tactile bonus of slurpability. Dipping sauces on the side: soy and chili, vinegar and ginger. On a cold Saturday night spent indoors, is there anything better than hot soup dumplings with dipping sauces?

*

If you are into music, check out Channel 31 at nine o'clock on a Saturday night. Wrokdown (sic) is a goldmine of footage and interviews with musicians from the 60s to the 80s. All without ads, interruptions, station promotions or the kind of inane lowest-common-denominator commentary that makes almost every program on commercial television unwatchable. Hosted by Wendy Stapleton, the program is Channel 31's highest-rating. Last night's subject was Kevin Borich, veteran guitarist and member of various groups including New Zealand's La De Das and the Kevin Borich Express.

An earlier Wrokdown episode - which I missed - featured Bill Putt and Mike Rudd who sound like a couple of garden gnomes, but were actually members of Spectrum, the band responsible for I'll Be Gone.

*

Look out, Monday's on its way.

21.5.08

Sending coffee; saving theatres.

Last year, I wrote about my friend not being sure whether a proposal would clarify a certain issue. He followed her anyway and is a man of leisure while she carries on life as an academic at a campus somewhere in the USA. Oregon?

They are both coffee addicts. Here, they lived within the shadow - well, maybe the winter shadow, let's not exaggerate - of Brunetti's. Visits were sometimes twice a day. Excessive? Maybe. They are coffee addicts.

My friend emails regularly. He bemoans the lack of coffee of a similar type or standard in the region. I don't know if 'region' means campus, street, suburb, city or state. I haven't been there. I wouldn't know.

I was at Brunetti's one morning last week (I'm less of an addict, maybe twice a week) reading a story about the sad demise of La Mama in The Australian while gazing out across a dripping Faraday Street to the theatre itself. Sad. It is one of the best small theatre spaces of its type in the world.

My coffee came out and I set it in front of me at the bench in the window and took a close-up shot of it. I thought I would email it to my friend to remind him what he was missing. I sent it off, along with a bunch of other shots; family, etc.

My friend emailed back, telling me he had set the coffee photograph as his screen-saver.

Is this helping a friend? Or teasing?

*

La Mama is raising funds to save itself. Its website is here, with a flash page that is slower than a night of Beckett.

It's worth contributing, if for no other reason than if La Mama goes, another restaurant opens. That's the last thing Lygon Street needs.

15.5.08

William with toy, Dromana beach, 11.30 a.m. today.


Beach huts, seagull.


Dromana pier, Mt Martha to the right.


21 degrees Celsius, no wind. Just about perfect. Ate lunch on the beach. Home-made curried egg and celery sandwiches on Baker Boys' sourdough. Then a perfect coffee on a table in the sun at a cafe over the road and a milkshake for William. Stop the clock, somebody.

*

Took the coast road home just to remind myself how sharp the curves are around Mt Martha. One minute you're staring at sparkling blue water; the next it's away to the left. Does anyone remember drum brakes? That would have been fun. Or not. I first drove this road one night in February 1978 in a 1965 Humber Super Snipe, a hulking great car with front discs. I had a 12-month-old baby on board: William and Thomas's Much Older Brother.

Thirty years gone, just like that. I remember it like it was yesterday.

12.5.08

Another Saturday night.

I parked in Franklin and walked four blocks through the city. It was Saturday night and early queues were gathering outside the nightspots in Queen Street.

Around the corner into quieter Collins Street and up the hill. The entrance to the club was between two columns almost the size of the ones holding up the Parthenon. I expected a guy with gold braid on his shoulders to greet me but instead two glass doors slid apart with a soft humming sound.

I walked on carpet through to a plush timber-lined room with display cabinets around the walls containing ceramic artefacts. The room was half-filled with people wearing dinner suits and black dresses. A waiter was weaving around them with a drinks tray. Yes, thank you.

More people arrived and after about half an hour, waiters opened a curtain and started the seating process, which is not too far away from how a kelpie rounds up merino lambs. They circle and make shooing gestures with their arms. Nicely, of course. It is a club.

By now it was close to 8.30 p.m. The first announcement after we were seated was that the bar would close at 10.30, the music would stop at 11 and all out at 11.15. Well, let's get on with it then.

It was the annual awards night for the university athletics club. Clubs attached to universities always like to celebrate their occasions with a kind of bohemian formality, in a slightly eccentric and even raffish air. The next nhalf-hour was spent getting up and down from the table and drinking toasts to absent friends, deceased members and assorted persons no-one had ever heard of. It's called tradition.

The first course came out during the toasts. It was a scrabble of peppered calamari pieces all going one way, scattered through with ribbons of lettuce all going the other. It looked like a snakes and ladders board. It was fine if you like calamari with lettuce.

The first actual speech after the toasts was given by a spectacled old-timer in a dinner suit and an out of shape bowtie who had been a sprinter of some note in the '60s. His subject was how great the athletes were in that decade. The speech sounded like he made it to himself every night, but it was over in five minutes, so he received thunderous applause anyway.

Then he climbed radiantly off the stage, like an Olympic medallist descending the dais; and as he returned to his chair, waiters with plates up their arms started dealing the main courses around the tables.

It was a set menu and the main course was roast beef. Each plate bore a circle of meat of compact disc diameter and about half an inch thick. On closer inspection there appeared to be vegetables on the plate, but the chefs had cleverly tucked them underneath the beef, as if to comfort them or keep them warm or something. The habit of placing the meat on top of the vegetables is one chefs just can't seem to shake, like Gordon Ramsay's speech problem.

The beef was fine. I would have preferred it rarer, but then others would have sent it back. They weren't cooking them to individual order of done-ness. Over the beef and dripping down past the hidden vegetables (a split kipfler, some sticks of zucchini and a few shards of mushroom) was a gravy known in the trade as a red wine jus reduction, which is three words too many.

More speeches followed with a background of clink-clinking cutlery: the sound of a hundred people eating. A restaurant never sounds like this because the meals never come out all at once. Then the trophies were handed out in record time; either because of inferior performances over the past year or because time was running out. I'm not sure which. It was just after ten.

Dessert followed. There was only one choice: a triangular slab of chocolate pudding with an almost fudge-like density and that bitter-sweet flavour that characterises very good chocolate. There was a curl of real cream and a strawberry on the side. Only a few diners swooned.

Coffee was percolated. At $70 a head, there probably should have been an espresso machine, but what the hell. Half of Asia is under water or blown away and I'm complaining about coffee. Get a grip.

The younger members were champing at the bit to get to the afterparty at a dive in Flinders Lane. What is it with afterparties? The very concept is some kind of weird entertaining attention deficit disorder. You've just paid $70 a head. Wouldn't you prefer to stay where you are for an hour or two and talk about the year gone by with a quiet drink in the comfort of leather, timber, compliant waiters and ceramic artefacts? Obviously not. They want crowds, vodka shots and unintelligible music in some concrete basement bunker.

I walked back up Queen Street to Franklin. The queues outside the nightclubs were longer. Near the corner of Little Collins, two police horses stood at the ready, their riders in riot gear.

9.5.08

A long-winded preface and a recipe for rigatoni with chicken, ricotta and herb sausage and butter beans.

And here we slide, headlong into the colder months. Again. The drought means it is no longer socially acceptable to complain about the rain, but I don't have to like it, do I? Especially when it kind of just drips all day. I'd rather a good downpour and then be done with it.

I don't understand why people even like cold weather. I've never met a heatwave I didn't like. What's there to like about grey, dripping skies, a howling southerly direct from Antarctica via King Island and shivering and catching cold for five months of the year? Ah, they say, it's all about snuggling up in front of the fire. So you do like heat, I reply. I prefer my heat in its natural environment: summer.

The only good thing about winter is the food. In colder months good eating seems homelier, more robust, stronger of flavour. I grew to like winter food as a schoolboy fortunate enough to be able to go home for lunch. I would still be halfway up the street at one o'clock on a freezing, grey Melbourne day when I would catch the aroma of a freshly concocted batch of vegetable, lamb shank and barley soup or some chicken and vegetable soup or an oxtail stew or whatever my mother happened to be making that day. I'd be salivating by the time I walked in the door.

Quite frankly, even the occasional bowl of hot Rosella tomato soup with a slice of cheese on top and buttered toast on the side was a treat compared with chewing on a rainbow-lunchwrapped cheese sandwich in a glacial concrete schoolyard.

The only problem was I never wanted to go back to school.

*

Rigatoni with chicken and ricotta sausage and butter beans.

I cooked this the other night and it was delicious.

Gourmet sausages from Jonathan of Collingwood are now stocked in independent supermarkets and I found some chicken, ricotta and herb ones at Piedimonte's.

I had some fresh rigatoni from Donnini's in Lygon Street left over; the first batch I had cooked with a sauce of onions and tomato puree flecked with chopped black olives, anchovies and capers. Puttanesca, I suppose, if you want to give it a name.

I boiled the sausages, peeled away their casings, sliced them into discs the size of $2 coins, opened a tin of butter beans, cooked the rigatoni, drained it, combined it with the sausage and the beans and gently bound it all with a swirl of home-made pesto. I didn't bother with any cheese because of the ricotta in the sausage and the parmesan in the pesto.

Pour a red. Here's one of the best I've tried for a long time: a Munari Beauregard Shiraz from Heathcote. To think I used to drive past the cellar door six times a week when we lived in the country and I never called in.

Torch climbs mountain; goats unimpressed.

So the Chinese took the Olympic torch to the top of Mt Everest.

Big deal. Before the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the torch was carried the entire length of Bell Street. Mt Everest would be a cakewalk compared with Bell Street.

Seriously, this whole Olympic torch relay nonsense is completely out of hand. Next they'll be flying it to the moon or past Venus and making it do a space walk. Just get on with the Olympics and the hell with torch relays.

4.5.08

Twenty Years After.

I spent 20 minutes of most mornings in 1988 standing at the bar in University Cafe. Ham, cheese, tomato croissant or sandwich; strong latte. Maybe two, if a really busy day was in store. This was after dropping my children - William and Thomas's much older sister and brother - at school and before hitting the office. They were busy days. It was a good time. And we were younger then.

*

No, I was never a fan of eighties mainstream pop music, much of which was complete rubbish. But sadly and somewhat ironically, amidst the Stock Waterman Aitken dross there was some great stuff.

And so this year is the 20th anniversary of Under the Milky Way by The Church. If there is a better pop song ever recorded, let me know. Or at least wait for the bagpipes solo. You'll never sneer at bagpipes again.

The Saints' Grain of Sand and Just Like Fire Would came out around the same time, maybe a year earlier. And 'golden oldies' radio plays Farnham and Barnes ad nauseam?

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A review appeared in the paper this morning, prompting this post. The review is of a new album by Robert Forster, one half of the Go-Betweens. Grant McLennan died a year or so ago. Their song, Streets of Your Town, was recorded in 1988; a sad, haunting, melodic pop confection that has that uncanny ability to strip the years away and recreate, just for three or four minutes, the place where you were then. Place being more than geographic.

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And so, back to Lygon Street. These days I hang out more often at Brunetti but University Cafe is still there and the same as it ever was. Here's Lygon at Faraday on Friday, just prior to lunchtime. We had had coffee at Brunetti and were browsing some new books, first in Readings and then in Borders. Thunder boomed, lightning crashed and we came out to almost flooded street. Rain was pouring through a downlight just inside the sushi bar next to STA Travel. I haven't seen a rainstorm like it for years.

1.5.08

Autumn enters home straight; cold, wet snap hits Melbourne.

It doesn't help that it was 40 degrees six weeks ago. I like autumn. Let's have some. I'm not ready for winter. Where are the balmy days, the golden skies?

I can't control the weather, but I can continue the great Kitchen Hand Grain Clearing Program in which the scores of jars and containers clogging the larder are cleared to make way for winter provisions.

Oh look, here's some brown rice in this jar and wild rice in that one. Both at least least a year old, maybe two. Maybe three.

I took the jar down and thumbed through some old recipe books to find something to do with brown rice. (Maybe I should stockpile it. It might double in value in the time it takes to cook.)

No. That would be avaricious. Let's just cook the stuff.

Wild and brown rice salad with almonds.

Cook half a cup of wild rice (which is apparently not really rice but a seed or grain or something. Who decides these things?) and one cup of brown rice separately until just tender. Drain, rinse under cold water and drain again. Refrigerate to chill before assembling salad.

Bake a quarter cup of slivered almonds on foil until golden.

Chop a tablespoon each of parsley, basil and chives. Combine rices with the chopped herbs, fold through a dressing of up to three tablespoons of light oil mixed with two teaspoons of white wine vinegar. Top with almonds and serve.

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Just to be on the safe side, I might slip up to Desi Needs and pick up a ten kilogram sack of best basmati.