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

21.11.08

Sun shines in.

I was reading an old cooking magazine from about 1999 when I came across a recipe featuring a 'cappucino' of something, demonstrating that some fads last longer than others. Except now they call it a froth or foam, and although these substances of tiny bubbles oozing across your food undoubtedly provide a memorable dining experience, they merely remind me - as they will anyone who has ever owned dogs - of the latters' more emetic moments.

Which, changing the subject very quickly, makes me wonder how long you maintain a trend before it becomes simply boring or mindlessly imitative, if not outright plagiaristic. After all, plagiarism in writing is a hanging offence, even in places that no longer allow capital punishment. There's always an exception. Remind me never to copy someone else's writing.

Anyway. The death of fads: one day soon a chef will place a piece of meat next to the mash instead of on top of it and the sauce on the meat instead of squirting it around the plate in pointless circular drips, and the moment will resonate like the culinary version of a collision of tectonic plates.

And another thing: restaurant names with no capital letter at the start is becoming tiresome. Soon typographers will no longer need capitals at all and no-one will know what a proper noun is any more.

Which brings me to coast, an eating place across the road from the bay beach at Blairgowrie. Sit on a north-facing chair at one of the weathered timber tables under brown umbrellas outside on the footpath and you'll see ships smudging across the horizon. When two pass they look like they will collide, until one suddenly slides out of sight behind the other.

Coast (the idiocy of a lower-case name is exposed at the start of a sentence when grammar trumps design - but for how long?) is in the style of a timber-lined boat shed lit dimly by tea light candles, with old surfboards strung from the ceiling, banquettes lining the walls and a bar running the length of one side behind which a thousand bottles await their fate. It's well-stocked. The place functions as a de facto hotel bar, as Blairgowrie does not have a hotel. (Nor, incidentally, does the town have a tattslotto agency in the newsagent's; which means you never have to queue for ten minutes for a newspaper while dozens of people in front of you spend fortunes to have less chance of winning a million dollars than flying to the moon.) Both of these omissions make Blairgowrie a quieter place than the towns it shoulders along the bay.

Coast opens onto the street via full-width fold-back windows across a timber deck. The deck is a gathering place for the locals; retired media and business types, old lawyers and sailors or both, and ex-Brighton or Sandringham types who have tired of the city. On Sunday nights a resident band (keyboard, sax, banjo, vocalist) plays Proud Mary and Sweet Caroline and everyone thinks it's 1969 again.

*

We walked past the deck and sat on banquettes. It was close to empty inside and the dim lighting was compensated by the glare of the lowering sun on the street outside. It's a nice place to eat. I stared out beyond the deck, the footpath tables and the ti-tree on the shoreline to the sea beyond. It was a warm night. The female waitperson, also known as a waitress, brought a very cold bottle of Scotchman's Hill chardonnay and we read the menus.

Coast offers appetisers, entrees, main courses and sides. We mixed them, ordering an appetiser of spiced wild olives, main courses of grilled whiting and fettucine marinara and a side of broccolini with green beans.

The bowl of wild olives contained dozens of tiny spiced brown-to-black berries, more than enough to while away an afternoon with a cold drink. The warm broccolini and beans were trimmed to six-inch lengths and dressed in a citrus butter sauce.

Four-sided plates are a fad I can put up with if the food on them is good. The large oblong of white china bore several pieces of very good fast-grilled whiting, accompanied by a woodpile of chips, a salad of tomato, rocket, red onion and cucumber spears and a bowl of house-made tartare. The seafood pieces - fish, scallops, prawns - accompanying the pasta had also gone via the grill before being tossed through the strands and were succulent, briny and smoky all at once against the oily softness of the pasta. Four out of four. This place is good.

Coffee was nut-brown and perfect; dessert was an explosion of chocolate sauce moating a stranded upside down chocolate pudding and a cruet of cream to play with. Why don't they call them cruets any more?

*

I paid the bill and we left. The sun was going down now but it was just as warm as before. The band was still channeling 1969. Something about the age of aquarius. It must have been a good year.

13.11.08

Real estate agents try new selling techniques.

We drove to the beach house to take advantage of this string of hot days. It's still quiet here mid-week, but the busy season is coming.

An old corner cafe (it used to be Anime Del Mar) at the Rye end of Point Nepean Road that has lain empty for some time has reopened as a 'Real Estate Agent and Cafe' under the old Briggs Shaw banner. Excuse me for laughing. Just imagine: the unique skillsets of verbose menu creators merging with those of real estate agents to create a newly enticing style of property prose: Solid red brick cottage on a bed of concrete topped with sundried terra cotta tiles and a side of julienned palings and finished with an aromatic herb garden. Then the price: 1650000, devoid of dollar sign or decimal point so that it looks cheaper. On the other hand, perhaps you'd just get a brash waiter with a clipboard and a red tie refusing to take no for an answer to his question of whether you want garlic bread - before you'd even sat down and gotten comfortable.

*

I didn't laugh long. We arrived at the beach house to find an auction board out the front complete with the phone number of the agent (not Briggs Shaw) and his name.

I called him.

- Mike Phillips speaking.

- Hi Mike. (Kitchen Hand) here. How much to buy my house?

- What house would that be?

- The one with your name on it out the front on the auction board. I didn't know I'd put it up for sale. Maybe my wife did. Maybe the bank did. You never know these days, do you? So what's it worth? How much are you selling it for? And what's your commission? I don't remember asking you.


He was mortified and promised to break a couple of legs. I said probably one would be enough. It's hard to put up signs in the wrong place with your leg in a cast. In fact, it's hard to put them up anywhere. The sign guys came along in the afternoon and moved the sign to a house down the street. They took about ten seconds to do it.

*

Of course, it didn't bother me in the least. Mistakes happen. Also, I used to write for a real estate agent years ago, when selling a house meant selling a house. Then the boom came along and houses sold themselves and people had fist-fights at auctions to determine who would go into debt for a million dollars. (Throughout the boom, agents still made the same commissions, however, in order to save up for the next crash - which is why the Federal Government is right now bailing out Ford Australia, General Motors Australia and Toyota Australia but not Barry Plant, R. T. Edgar, Hocking Stuart or Kay & Burton.) Mike Phillips rang me back in the evening to apologise again. He seemed to be admitting that while there is a range of minor real estate agent indiscretions, selling the wrong person's house is one of the really big ones.

10.11.08

Sign gets it half right, at most. And a rare recipe for spring.

More supermarket nonsense. I was walking down the canned fish and vegetables aisle when I noticed a huge sign which read 'New & Improved!'; the exclamation mark no doubt being thought to add enormous power to the selling proposition in the mind of the writer. Can you imagine the damage to an already trashed economy if there were no exclamation marks? I digress, but only until the aisle-end display of pallet-loads of branded cola, Australia's largest-selling supermarket item in dollar terms. Maybe the economy's not so bad if people are happy to pay money to rot their teeth and other body parts. Maybe I digressed a little further. Then I stopped dead. 'New' and 'improved'?

*

This was no ground-breaker, no earth-shatterer, nothing really special at all, just a pot of napoli sauce. But I never seem to get it quite right. Then again, neither do those cheap Italian places that specialise in pizza but do basic sauces for pasta that are so salty they make you wake at night and go to the kitchen to down gallons of water.

This time it turned out nice. Acid but sweet, spicy but mellow and with a touch of basil. Greek basil, which I am growing this year.

Place a tablespoon of Australian olive oil (throw out the cheap imported stuff, it's got solvents in it) in a saucepan. Chop a medium onion finely and cook it gently until it cries instead of you.

Add a scored garlic clove and continue cooking very gently for a minute or two then add a handful of chopped basil straight from the garden. I'm amazed at how basil absolutely refuses to wilt in the sun. It's an amazing plant. Cook for another minute.

Now add one tin of diced tomatoes and another tin of puree - or the same volume of passata - and a little more pepper than you would imagine. I used a flat teaspoonful of white ground pepper. Salt? About three-quarters of a teaspoonful. Quite frankly, you don't really need it.

Finally a teaspoonful of sugar to, I don't know, balance the acid or the salt, I suppose - and cook down to your preferred consistency. Add a little more olive oil if you like a more unctuous sauce. Serve sparingly on pasta. Don't drown it. It should just coat the strands.

Or you could use it a thousand other ways; dip excellent bread in it, top thin layers of eggplant, zucchini and cheese with it and bake it, colour risotto with it and add fresh prawns and cubes of swordfish. We've got all summer to think about things like this.

9.11.08

47-year-old wins election.

This election was so little reported here in Australia, that in a straw poll of twenty people I conducted in the last seven days:

1) 15 did not know New Zealand was going to the polls Saturday.
2) 16 did not know the name of the opposition leader/Prime Ministerial candidate.
3) Not a single one knew the name of the opposition deputy leader/Deputy Prime Ministerial candidate.

The election result story was printed on page 36 of this country's largest selling newspaper this morning.

Make nothing of it. It's just an observation about our nearest neighbour, ANZAC alliance partner, close trading associate nation and the only other prosperous western democracy in this corner of the world. Since most of Australia's twenty millions live on the south-east coast, the two nations with a shared heritage practically stare at each other over the Tasman Sea.

No wait, it's an observation about Australian media, not New Zealand.

Footnote: the headline writers have already exhausted their pun supply.

5.11.08

Wise heads prevail.

The first Melbourne Cup I remember was 1965. It must have been a warm day. My father held a family Cup sweep and we listened to the race in the back garden on his portable HMV. My mother sat under the peach tree and held her winning sweep ticket as 3UZ’s Bert Bryant called Light Fingers across the line. My younger brother was beside her in the old wicker pram draped over with an old crocheted insect net. He was three months old.

Bart Cummings trained the winner that day, his first Melbourne Cup win; although he had first trained a starter in 1958. Yesterday he won his twelfth Cup with Viewed on the golden anniversary of his first try.

Like the numbers? Here's an even more impressive one: Viewed’s owner, Dato Tan Chin Nam first raced a horse in 1948 and has four Melbourne Cups to his credit. The two octogenarians make a great partnership. Cummings on Chin Nam:
"He is a benevolent owner. He never complains and knows what we do is best for the horses," Cummings said.

Everyone needs a client like that. Compare that approach to that of the Irish syndicate. Coolmore sent its three horses off like 400 metre runners in a marathon and then, when they ran out of legs, blamed the track for being too hard, the horses for being not ready or out of sorts (one of the jockeys said he was on the wrong horse) and the stewards for asking questions after the race with two of the syndicate's three horses pulling up lame. Reporters had a field day, one Herald Sun writer describing Septimus as 'looking for a lie-down' 600 metres out.

*

Previous Melbourne Cup posts from this blog: 2007, 2005 and 2004 and sundry.

2.11.08

All Saints' Day.

A little to the left of the climbing rose, and closer to the house, down the garden a little way, were beans. Broad beans. They took their time this year, grew slowly. No giant at the top and no Jack at the bottom. No reason to hurry. Now they are out and it is November and we have a hill of beans and the summer herbs are in. November 1.

Three cloves of garlic - scored, i.e., finely cross-cut but not right through - in olive oil - Australian, remember? - in a pan. Just until they are warm. Do not burn or even brown. Now throw in two handfuls of beans, just as they are. I didn't peel the skin, they were not big or tough enough. Sweat gently. Add plenty of pepper and not as much salt. Now a half-glass of white wine: simmer gently until done. We are drinking sauvignon blanc now. Given up on chardonnay. The makers have lost the plot. They are either over-oaking it, putting in too much alcohol or trying to make it taste like sauvignon blanc, which it isn't. I miss Len Evans' Cowra chardonnay from the early nineties. It tasted like nectar. Oaked nectar. But not too much oak. It had backbone and flavour but it didn't throttle you with wood and the acid didn't pucker your mouth. Perfect.

Back to the beans. Cook some arborio rice in the way you personally favour, with all your preferred stock, wine, pepper, salt, butter or olive oil additions. When rice is almost done, fold through cooked broad beans. Now add some butter and grated cheese. Serve with crusty bread and the rest of the sauvignon blanc. The herbacious nose and flavour is a good foil for the beans.

November 1. I can't believe it's nearly Christmas. I can't believe the album from which the following lyrics are taken is nearly twenty years old. I still play it all the time. It stands up well with plenty of sax and hammond organ and a spoken-word track called On Hyndford Street which, played late on a hot night, takes you straight to Belfast. But this song is All Saints' Day:

See the streamline blue horizon
With you baby by the way
Won’t you come and see me, All Saints' Day?
You can make your reservation
I will meet you at the station
When you come to see me, All Saints' Day.