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

30.6.08

Gold in the hills, part one.

It was another bleak morning, an anonymous winter Wednesday. The sun was up there somewhere but you couldn't see it, which made the morning grey as well as cold. I loaded the car and slammed the door.

A stiff south-westerly was blowing as we drove west and then north-west out of town on a freeway shining steel-grey with wetness. The rain spat at the windscreen.

On this side of Melbourne, you hit green fields far sooner than you do when you're going in the other direction. Head east and you endure entire suburbs of vast furniture barns and endless homemaker centres and then you hit Ringwood. Hello, Car City.

But go north-west and the farms start as early as the airport. Directly south of Tullamarine, jumbos roar off over acres of cabbages and rhubarb and radicchio in the Keilor plains.

This road once wound through scores of towns on its way to the goldfields. They have fallen away, one by one. Keilor in the early days: imagine all of today's Bendigo traffic going along Keilor Road.

Later, Woodend disappeared, with its pretty avenue of honour exit and the Bentinck. Is the Bentinck still there? Who knows.

Eventually, the road avoided Kyneton and its dreaded T-intersection and swept an arc around a sunny north-facing hillside that is dressed in thousands of daffodils during winter.

Now, along with Taradale village in its dear little valley, Malmsbury has gone. How will the bakery survive? Malmsbury was a natural stopping place, a half-way point. The bakery was always crowded. But the freeway stops for no-one. Except for those grotesqueries they call service stations that have one of every fast food brand outlet all on the one multi-coloured site, so you can gorge yourself on the fried fat and salt of your choice. Medusas of the countryside. Call me a travel snob, but I refuse to stop at them.

We did stop at Chewton, however. I stepped out of the car to fill up the tank and the wind hit me in the face like a block of ice.

Chewton is the remains of an early gold town, a shallow alluvial goldfield originally called Forest Creek. For originality, forget Sovereign Hill and its lace and tat and bad taste. The road through Chewton sways and diverges and rises and falls exactly as it did in the 1850s. It is lined with tiny miner's houses, small because why build it any bigger? We'll be rich next week and out of here! The place grew so fast with prospectors there was no time to properly plan a town, so what was the original gold track is now the highway.

Then a few more pitted valleys - don't wander around or you'll disappear down a mineshaft - and suddenly you're in Castlemaine. Castlemaine is as full of grand architecture as most goldtowns. There are four grand nineteenth-century hotels for every nineteenth-century bank, which means that for every successful miner who put their fortunes into the bank, another four drank theirs in the pubs.

*

The sun came out at last. We parked up the hill from the main street outside Renovator's Barn, a vast emporium that is a virtual museum of twentieth-century architectural details and hardware. There are entire bins filled with neatly sorted items recycled from demolished houses of every era. If you need a between-the-wars door handle (I did) here's where you'll find it. There are also rooms full of crockery. I found a Grindley saucer (1969) to add to my collection: $2.

From Renovator's Barn, straight across the road for lunch. Saff's is on the south side of the street, on a rise. We sat at a window table in the warm sun and just about purred. Lunch: red lentil, roasted capsicum and coriander soup. If one dish can be so totally perfect for the moment and the place, this was it. It arrived in a large bowl, three-quarters full, and was accompanied by three large triangles of warm, fresh Turkish bread, fragrant with sesame. The soup was infused with just enough chili to create a kind of warm glow, an insinuation of heat.

Saff's is the kind of place that draws everyone. Tables of real estate agents wondering where the next listing is coming from; mothers with children in prams; tradesmen queuing for takeaway cappucinos and the local art crowd sitting on the outside tables and keeping the tofu chef busy.

Saff's: gold in the hills.

23.6.08


Three candles and a chocolate cake.

22.6.08


Sunday lunch at Brunetti.


Then a little Lygon Street window shopping: gazing at the coloured rocks in Crystal Heart. William turns three tomorrow.

18.6.08

Extra-ordinary.

Last week, the Herald Sun launched its new 'extrafood' liftout following a blaze of publicity featuring Britain’s most famous Gordon (ahead of the Prime Minister, the gin and the Big Engine).

Gordon's face - with lines as deep as the cracks in an overcooked orange sponge - filled the front page of the launch edition.

But how would the editors top Gordon for the front page of edition two in yesterday's paper? The answer was sheer genius: Gordon Ramsay! Again! But a different shot!

Just in case you happened not to see the cover, another shot of the celebrity chef dominates page two. And then you turn to read what Gordon Ramsay has to say.

And the answer is: nothing. Extrafood has picked up five recipes from a Gordon Ramsay book – without any introduction or writing at all by the chef himself - and called them 'exclusive'. Exclusive? Gordon Ramsay is about as exclusive as a city-bound tram on St Kilda Road at 5.30 on a Friday night.

What a con-job on Herald Sun readers. The paper had trumpeted Ramsay's 'signing' as a 'coup' in a pre-launch story subheaded The world's hottest chef is joining the Herald Sun:

'Gordon Ramsay ... will contribute a recipe column each Tuesday in our new extrafood section, beginning next week. ... His new column comes as he prepares to visit Australia this month to attend a Sydney food show and launch his new book, Healthy Appetite. ... Herald Sun editor in chief Bruce Guthrie said Ramsay's signing was a huge coup.'


'Joining the Herald Sun', 'contribute' and 'his new column' give the impression that Ramsay is writing, as in actual copy - thoughts, ideas, opinions - exclusively for Herald Sun readers. Forget it, suckers. Take out the spin and the release could have read: We've bought the rights to print a bunch of Gordon Ramsay recipes that you can read in a book anyway.

In fact, the headline should have been Gordon Ramsay Doesn’t Write For Us; But We Print Some of His Recipes Instead, Will That Do?

No, it won’t do. A recipe without accompanying copy is just a recipe. It doesn't matter who wrote it. It's not writing, it's typing, as someone once said about something else.

I’d hate to be a sales representative for extrafood. Not that much advertising has been sold: in yesterday's edition there was a 10x7 strip ad for That’s Me!bourne (sic) on behalf of Docklands (but that’s taxpayer-funded so it doesn’t count – bureaucracies throw advertising money around like confetti); another strip of the same size for the South Melbourne market, and a half-hearted 10x2 for Crown Casino. That’s it, unless you count the host of ads on the all-advertorial spread page, which I don’t.

The rest of the liftout is largely the same as it used to be. Stephen Downes chews his way meticulously through dinner at Attica, pondering the mysteries of thick-lipped soup spoons, his review accompanied by a photograph of a plate on which sits three upturned carrot batons among other indeterminate components, captioned ‘quail breasts with a palette of accompaniments’; Kate McGhie presents more editorial-free recipes and a double-page spread of potted restaurant reviews offers a star grading system starting with ‘nice’ and getting better from there. That’s helpful to the diner. (One amusing feature: aside from Ramsay's overkilled visual presence, a headshot of each writer appears on the masthead of each page next to its title. For some reason, Ed Charles remains unseen. In Ed's place runs a picture of a tasty loaf of bread.)

Food runs out about halfway through the liftout and the editor fills it up with an assortment of what it clearly regards as waifs and strays including arts columns by Herald Sun journalists Harbant Gill, Jeff Makin, Chris Boyd and Kit Galer; theatre listings, starsign predictions and the quiz.

The latter includes the following question for one point: 'Which popular female British TV chef has decreed that camera crews are "not allowed to shoot my bum unless it is out of focus"?'. For three points, the Herald Sun reader has to answer this poser: "What does the French phrase cordon bleu literally mean?"

Says it all really.

17.6.08

Saturday night special: lobster tails.

I first ate lobster tails at Fairy Stork, a Acland Street Chinese restaurant that used to be known as St Kilda's Flower Drum. The food was as good, the waiters were as plentiful - and friendlier - and you could eat a banquet there for the price of a Flower Drum prawn cracker. I spent many a Sunday night there in the eighties and early nineties. I was in the habit of passing on dessert and picking up cakes from Le Bon or Monarch instead.

So that makes it long time since I've eaten lobster tails. I hadn't forgotten how good they are, however. Just don't overcook them.

Lobster tails with scallops in ginger and garlic.

Before you cook the tails, set some white rice to cook on the stove. It will be ready when the lobster is done.

Using scissors, cut the lobster tail shell through the under-middle side to the end of the tail and and then peel back the shell from the left, across the top and away at the right. Easy as taking off a shirt. Segment the tail into half-inch pieces and set them aside.

Chop an onion finely and fry it for a minute or two in some peanut oil with a dash of sesame oil added.

Now tip in half a cup of dry white wine, an inch of ginger - peeled and finely-sliced - and four cloves of finely-diced garlic. Shake the pan. Cook another minute or two. Do not allow to catch or burn.

Now add the lobster tails and the scallops. High heat for a minute or so, shake the pan. If you want a creamier 'sauce', add a teaspoon of corn flour dissolved in two teaspoons of water and stir.

The tails and scallops are done once they turn fully white. Serve immediately on just-finished rice, top with finely sliced spring onions and a dash of tamari.

13.6.08

Forty.

This week my youngest brother turned forty, making this family officially Old.

He was born in the year in which Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience topped the charts (is it any wonder I grew to hate guitar-free '80s music?); Carlton pinched an Essendon flag by three points; Melbourne University runner Ralph Doubell pinched gold in the 800 in Mexico and Rain Lover strolled to an eight-length victory in the Melbourne Cup*. On the food scene, I ate my first Chinese meal at David Wang in Little Bourke Street and, just around the corner, Hofbrauhaus opened. (The latter restaurant must have saved thousands of dollars over the decades by never having to print a new menu.)

My mother had brought home to the older ones a younger sibling in each of the winters of 1963, '65 and 68. I kind of believed that babies were a winter phenomenon. Being fourth in the sequence, I hence became Mr Middle. This meant that while I watched the older ones sail serenely up the decades as time went by, I was also able to vicariously hang on to the younger ones' ages as a kind of youth-enhancement by relativity.

So to me, my brother is still a teenager. Or at least a twenty-something.

Happy birthday, youngest brother.

*I witnessed this event. I was inside the rails with my father, a freelance press photographer. Adjusting his Pentax, he asked me to let him know when I saw the horses enter the straight. 'I can see them, Dad,' I replied. 'But there's only one.' He nearly dropped his camera in shock.

10.6.08

For a cold night: baked sweet potato gnocchi with roquefort.


Queen's Birthday Monday. A northerly blew all morning. It wasn't particularly cold until around lunchtime when the wind flipped around and found some rain somewhere and spat it at us. That made it the kind of afternoon best spent in front of the fire and the television, so naturally I went out. I took Thomas, above, with me. William has a cold and stayed in. The picture was taken about 4.30 p.m. on Portsea back beach. That red stain on his coat is spilt raspberry couli from the giant slice of hummingbird cake Tracy and I tried to eat at the Blairgowrie cafe earlier, until Thomas hijacked it. William passed. He's not a cake boy.

And then it was dinner time and the long weekend was all but over.

I peeled a large sweet potato, chopped it into two-inch cubes, boiled it until it was soft and pressed it through a ricer onto the marble workbench, let it cool for ten minutes and made a crater in the top. Into the crater I cracked an egg and added the yolk of another.

Then I added some flour and a little polenta and a clove of very finely diced garlic. I pressed and kneaded the mixture and added more flour until it all held together. (I read a recipe for gnocchi once that said you must do this using only one hand, leaving the other free to add the extra flour; but I used two and they were covered in sweet potato batter and then the phone rang. It always does.)

I finished the conversation, holding the phone between a forearm, a shoulder and part of my skull; dropping it only twice, and then I rang off, formed the gnocchi into two cylinders and sliced these into sections.

I dropped the sections into salted, oiled boiling water and soon they rose to the top like little whales coming up to breathe. After leaving them to bob about in the water for a few seconds I lifted them out with a slotted spoon and let them drain before placing them into a glass casserole dish.

That was the hard work out of the way. I topped the gnocchi with about a quarter of a cup each of grated emmental and grana padano. Emmental has a nice bland sweetness and the grana adds bite. The roquefort goes in later.

Into the oven for ten or fifteen minutes, then out again for the roquefort - just crumble it liberally over the top - and back into the oven for a few minutes more. It will keep melting at the table.

Serve with fresh buttered baguette. Gnocchi might be Italian but the roquefort takes it over the border.

4.6.08

Fog. And a jar of green curry paste.

I was driving home late on Sunday night when it rolled in. I turned into my street and the fog swirled and billowed and seemed unreal, like movie set fog. I pulled into the driveway and got out of the car and slammed the door in a kind of surreal amber atmosphere made by the pixillated orange light from the lamps in the street.

The fog hasn't lifted for days. The obscured sun has been a gleaming silver disc, like the rear vision mirror on an old motorcycle.

Tonight, the cold, heavy fog was counterbalanced by a large pot of boiling rice steaming up the windows inside. That was accompanied by the fragrant aroma of a Thai-style curry. Winter? It's not so bad.

Thai-style chicken and green beans.

Gently cook a kilogram of cubed chicken breast in oil - add a few drops of sesame oil to the cooking oil - in a large pan or a wok. Cook until the chicken just loses its pinkness, no longer; and then remove to a bowl.

To the pan, add two chopped onions, three scored garlic cloves and a few inches of lemongrass, peeled and chopped. Sizzle and add more oil if necessary. Now add four generous tablespoons of green curry paste and stir to coat vegetables and herbs.

After a minute or two add 400ml of light coconut milk, a dash of fish sauce, a cup of chicken stock, a drained can of peppercorns (the little green tin you'll find in most supermarkets) and a couple of kaffir lime leaves. Bring to a gentle simmer.

Return the chicken to the pan, add 20 topped and tailed green beans and simmer for five minutes or until beans are just starting to lose their snap but are not yet limp.

Serve with rice. I prefer basmati but you'll find it paired most often with jasmine. Conversely, drink jasmine tea. It's my favourite drink with Asian food. You can drink gallons of the stuff and it won't fill you up.