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

29.8.08

A cold night in Melbourne.

The Spencer Street end of town.

It was one of those bars with deep shadows and retro red furniture and lampshades everywhere; and cigarette smoke drifting through the open wall-width windows from the area smokers have to go to avoid choking the people in the bar.

You can tell it's an industry function because people smoke in a different way when they're networking. Kind of mechanically and efficiently, while trying to converse above the music and keying each other's phone numbers into cell phones. It's a desperate game. Every contact could mean business.

Waitpeople with leg tattoos and too-short skirts plied silver trays: chicken balls glazed with sweet chilli, rice rolls tied up like parcels with dipping sauce, savoury pastries, and things you couldn't make out in the semi-darkness. The paper napkins were sensibly black because you can't see the smudge of chilli sauce when you mop it away from your face.

Things were bad, was the general consensus. Are you busy? No. It is seasonal? Who knows. You could blame anything from the new financial year to the global credit crisis (has sub-prime become prime?) to the previous government. Because no matter what else happens in the world, there is always a previous government. Like blaming your parents. It makes you feel warm and secure.

More chilli balls and wings and spring rolls went past and more drinks were poured and the networking conversation got louder because someone had decided to turn the music up even higher. I hate bars.

Someone came in from the cold. He had come from another bar across the road where striking Fairfax journalists were gathering. He was a freelancer; had been working on a story to appear in the weekend papers. He wasn't sure if it would run because he had heard the Saturday Age might not be published. I would be very surprised if the paper were not to appear at all.

*

Seven editors ago, The Age was to be a national paper based in Melbourne. Instead, it became an inner urban paper with too many add-ons, too much cool and not enough news. It's easy to criticise The Age but the truth is Melbourne needs a paper like The Age more than ever. We once had the morning Sun and the evening Herald and both were good at what they did. They merged, and eighteen years later the Herald Sun is a B-grade celebrity shock rag printed on the back of Coles and Safeway advertising. Hey - there's a man going down in a plane and about to die. Hold the front page and blow up the photo! You can practically see him screaming in the cockpit.

All right, The Age ran the picture too. But you know what I mean.

Politically, The Age can only go in one direction. It's like when you're standing on the north pole.

Other than that, I expect The Age to go tabloid. Literally, not figuratively.

26.8.08

Abbacchio alla romana goes south.

Do pictures make a difference? I don't know.

My considered guess is that sales of cooking books and food magazines would crash overnight if there were no pictures of food. It wasn't always the way. A review of publishing over time would probably reveal a slow decline in food writing together with a steady increase in photography and food 'styling'. (Food photography quiz: what's the hardest food to shoot? My answer at bottom, but your opinion welcomed.)

What brought this to mind was a browse through a bunch of old recipes and food articles I keep in an old timber wine box in the back room. The older articles are mainly text, sometimes accompanied by a line drawing; for example, the excellent food column written by Steve Manfredi that used to be published in the Friday review section of the Australian Financial Review. The newer ones generally feature a prominent illustration or photograph. So if you want to make money in food, don't cook it or write about it - shoot it or style it instead.

A recipe from an old Launceston Examiner weekend magazine from 2001 caught my eye. Yes, the photograph was stunning. It was Guy Grossi's abbacchio all romana, a classic spring lamb dish infused with herbs and cooked in wine. Once you've tried it you'll never settle for ordinary roast lamb again.

Abbacchio alla Romana goes Greek.

What you'll need:
One kilogram lamb shoulder pieces.

Rosemary sprig, two sage leaves, handful of parsley, three cloves garlic, a red chilli (dry or fresh), half a cup olive oil.

Two chopped onions, half a can of diced tomatoes (or fresh ripe ones if you can obtain these), white wine, water.

Half a cup each of grated parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs; salt, pepper.


Place lamb in large bowl. Process herbs and oil. Pour over lamb. Marinate 12-24 hours. Place in baking dish with marinade. Sprinkle onions and tomatoes over. Add enough wine and water in your choice of proportions so that it comes halfway up the lamb pieces. Add salt and pepper.

This is where Guy Grossi stays in Italy and I go to Greece. He sprinkles the parmesan and breadcrumbs over the lamb; I omit the breadcrumbs and add crumbled fetta halfway through baking. Sorry, Guy. Mine is nicer.

Bake approximately 40 minutes. Ovens vary.

I add to the Greek flavour by cooking lemon potatoes to accompany: cut six old potatoes into 3cm pieces, place in bowl, add 30ml olive oil, 40ml lemon juice, a bare tablespoonful each of lemon zest, finely chopped rosemary and finely chopped fresh thyme - and a teaspoonful of cracked black peppercorns. Mix well and bake - very approximately - fifty minutes. So they will need to go in first, because the lamb will not take as long.

To drink? I already had open a bottle of Ulupna 2005 shiraz, although you would probably say this was far too heavy for spring lamb. In this case, the spring lamb had absolutely no objection.

Do you ever read wine labels? I love the way the wine tastes like something but the label thinks it tastes like something else. The Ulupna 2005 shiraz is described as 'rich in a variety of aromas of raspberries and slightly jammy fruit, persisting on the palate with a hint of blueberries and pepper.'

I didn't taste any blueberries at all. Instead, what struck my taste and olfactory senses was: the Athenaeum Club on a wet day. Just after lunch, which involved plum pudding for dessert. Cuban cigars. Leather chairs.

Why don't they ever write that on the bottle? Because people are hung up on food matching. The sommelier would not know what to say. "Rare beef sir? I suggest the Ulupna shiraz. It's all plum pudding and leather chairs." Diners would be dumbfounded.

*

Food photography quiz answer: ice-cream. It's extremely difficult to capture that fake ridge texture that never appears on real ice-cream, only photographed ice-cream. The lights melt the ice-cream in seconds. I was at an ice-cream shoot once where they used about seven hundred bowls of ice-cream before they got a decent textured ridge effect. They wasted enough ice-cream to feed a house of teenagers over summer.

22.8.08



'Buster' Tom in training to win 5000 metres Gold at the 2028 Olympic Games to be held at the National Sports Biosphere in Alice Springs, the new capital of Austrazealand following the collapse of Canberra after it was overrun by kangaroos and invaded by wombats, which dug extensive tunnels under the House of Representatives, causing it to collapse, trapping 128 parliamentarians for a hellish four days. The fledging nation combines previous South Pacific countries Australia and New Zealand, its national flag continuing to bear the Southern Cross but with the Union Jack replaced by the national coat of arms: the emu and the kiwi.

13.8.08

BureaucratWatch.

First there was FuelWatch, soon to be tossed out by the Senate, then there was GroceryChoice.

A website is a policy?

No. A website is a waste of time.

Of course, some commentators have already stated the obvious in that those most in need of price comparisons are less likely to have internet or access to it.

My mother thinks a browser is someone who spends Tuesday afternoons at the library.

Associate Professor of Competition and Fair Trade at UNSW, Frank Zumbo calls the GroceryChoice scheme a dismal failure:

... (The) GroceryWatch website ... another version of the discredited FuelWatch. ... provides a very limited monthly snapshot that will be out of date as soon as it is posted on the web.

GroceryChoice completely ignores wider issues such as breadth of range and regional variation of stock. Metcash, which the ACCC pointedly and unfairly criticises, stocks independent supermarkets under the IGA and other banners. In stark contrast to Coles and Woolworths/Safeway, these independent supermarkets are encouraged to provide localised offerings. They support myriad Australian manufacturers while Coles and Woolworths/Safeway continue to push them off their shelves in their insatiable drive for high-margin overseas-produced house branded products.

Harry Ergas of Concept Economics slams the ACCC and chairman Graeme Samuel over criticisms of Metcash:

No less questionable are the ACCC's strident criticisms of Metcash, the main wholesaler to the independents. Metcash, the ACCC implies, acts as a monopolist, undermining the independents' ability to compete. This is fanciful. Metcash arose from mergers that were approved precisely because they would create a wholesaler large enough and capable of exercising sufficient discipline over retail outlets to achieve scale efficiencies and reverse the precipitous decline in the independents' market share. This is what Metcash has done and has every incentive to do.

Worse, despite having up to 20% of the grocery market, IGA isn't even listed on GroceryChoice. The Daily Telegraph reports:

A kilo of bananas, a kilo of fresh chicken breasts and a kilo of shaved honey leg ham came to $27.94 at IGA Supa Store Doonside; the same basket of goods cost $28.87 at Coles Doonside and $32.39 at Woolworths Marayong.

Budget-conscious mother of three Kylie Thompson said she travelled an extra 4km each week from her home in Blacktown past her local Coles and Woolworths to Doonside to shop at the IGA Supa Store there because it was "much cheaper".

"We've shopped everywhere looking for the cheapest place to get our food and this is it," she said.

Southern Sydney Retailers' Association president Craig Kelly ... said the website was "misleading" and called for it to be "abandoned immediately".

"Every day it remains operational, the GroceryWatch website is only causing an embarrassment to the Government and making the ACCC a laughing stock, completely discredited in the eyes of the public."


Meanwhile, the ACCC ignores the Coles and Woolworths/Safeway stranglehold on key shopping centres and growth corridors, with behaviour preventing competitors from entering in behaviour that the reasonable observer might describe as collusion. Zumbo calls the ACCC to account:

The ACCC has identified restrictive terms in leases where Coles and Woolworths are allegedly given a reduction in rents if a new competitor is introduced by the landlord into the shopping centre.

The ACCC will only look at these rather than take immediate action under the Trade Practices Act.

Instead, the ACCC should immediately be looking to test lease restrictions in court.

As for the alleged use of planning and zoning laws by Coles and Woolworths to prevent entry of competitors, the ACCC should be taking immediate legal action under the TPA.

Consumer Affairs and Competition Minister Chris Bowen is seeking to refer these matters to state and local governments. That's just buck-passing. The ACCC has power to take immediate legal action and it should.


Case in point: Coburg, centre of massive new development under the State government's 2030 plan, is home to two Coles stores a hundred metres apart. 150 metres south of the first Coles is a Safeway and a Woolworths-owned Dan Murphy liquor barn; while 300 metres north of the second Coles store, on Sydney Road, construction of a new supermarket/fuel outlet recently commenced.

Safeway branding went up last week.

8.8.08

Dual purpose sweet potato and whole orange fruit cake.

I don’t bake: Tracy does.

Being of Scottish heritage, baking is like a sixth sense to her. Essentially, she opens the oven door and throws a bunch of ingredients and a baking dish in; and soon after there’s anything from a batch of muffins (chocolate and cherry was the last lot) to a fully decorated hummingbird cake on the table.

The following recipe has been on high rotation here this winter. Unfortunately, Tracy is as vague as I am about quantities but this is as close as I can establish.

Bring one and a half cups dried fruit to a simmer, then let cool, then drain. (Not packet dried fruit – we buy sultanas, currants, prunes and apricots in bulk from the nut shop.)

Process a whole orange in your blender. Or two mandarines for a nice variation.

Whisk two eggs.

Cook enough pumpkin (or sweet potato) for one cup when mashed.

Now: mix all of the above with two cups wholemeal and one cup white self-raising flour and a third of a teaspoon each of ground nutmeg, ground cinnamon and ginger.

Butter a round baking tin and line with brown paper, then bake at 180 celsius for one hour.

Purpose One: serve as an afternoon or morning snack with tea or coffee. Ideal for children, contains plenty of vegetable and fruit goodness.

Purpose Two: warm slices, and serve drizzled with hot brandy butter sauce and pure King Island cream. Heaven on a cold night.

6.8.08

Please consider the environment before you buy a newspaper.

Who knows what is true and what isn’t? I don’t. Take newspapers for example.

It was lunchtime Friday and I was in one of those diner cafes that provide tables if you want to eat in, and newspapers on the tables to give you something to do while you eat.

I ordered a chicken and salad sandwich and picked up the Australian Financial Review. A magazine fell out of it and hit my foot. It was one of those glossy numbers printed on extra heavy duty stock to show the upscale ads to best effect. Every second page had an ad for watches that are diamond-encrusted or waterproof to 300 metres or both. In case you drop it off the yacht late one night, I suppose.

A panel on the front page of the newspaper was headlined: “Luxury Magazine: Green Glamour.” The puff piece read: “Extravagance now comes with a clear conscience, as fashion designers, upmarket resorts and even luxury car makers embrace the environment.”

I took a bite from my sandwich – excellent sourdough - and read on:

“In this special issue, AFR’s
Luxury magazine reveals even the most politically correct eco warriors can have their cake and eat it too.”

Having your cake and eating it too in an eco warrior sense stirred something in memory. Was it the guy who flew around the world telling people to turn their lights off? What was his name? Michael Gore? Al Moore? Turns out he lived on a ranch half the size of the Northern Territory. Maybe he just lived in it one room at a time.

Never mind. I flicked through Luxury to learn how to be an eco warrior who is not quite able to get by without luxury and is looking for ways to rationalise it.

The opening spread featured a Miele oven about the size of a double garage. Or was it a fridge? The ad didn’t say but it had a coffee maker in it as big as a microwave. All right, it might have been efficient and German and minimalist in design but it would never fit in my kitchen. Flick.

Next was an ad for the Breitling watch, described as ‘a cult object for aviation enthusiasts’. This point was rammed home by a photograph of a Supermarine Spitfire, an aircraft with possibly the highest-ever fuel consumption to weight ratio for a machine that wasn’t a rocket. Nice. Strap on your Breitling and we’ll go for a spin in the Spitfire. Are we embracing the environment yet?

Further on, the new Alfa GT Monza now comes with a parking sensor. So even if you can’t park you can still drive a sports car named after a race track. I think I’m beginning to get this whole green spin thing.

After about twenty pages of ads we got to the actual editorial material, written by real journalists. One item featured the Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat, a destination so environmentally-friendly it would no doubt suck the carbon out of a pencil. No need to feel guilty about holidaying at Gwinganna:

“ …What draws (Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman) to this little pocket of paradise is the latest must have: green luxury – consumption with a clear conscience.”

They could have gone one better and stayed home. Two paragraphs later:

“When it’s time to leave, Gwinganna’s guests can climb into a helicopter or grab a limousine.”

Whoosh, whoosh, chop, chop. Sydney airport, thanks pilot. And order me a limo. I’m full of luxury and as guilt-free as hell.

5.8.08

A:

It's the very last decent $2 coffee in Melbourne*, possibly Australia. It can be found at Coburg Coffee Shop, 7 Victoria Mall.

The news is even better for short black and short macchiato drinkers who pay just $1.80.

I feel guilty paying the price, because the amount of sugar I take would make serious inroads into the very slim margin. They even do extra strong for the same price. However, there is a tip jar. Contribute generously.

You'll usually sit outside, because the coffee shop itself is tiny. There are two or three tables inside, a couple more under the verandah and the rest are scattered among the fast-maturing eucalypts that are a feature of the mall.

How much do you pay for a decent coffee?


(*Possibly excluding one or two outer-suburban shopping mall coffee lounges, but they don't count because their coffee generally tastes like someone dropped a jar of International Roast into the dishwater, scooped a cup through it, set it on a saucer and served it up to the customer.)