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

31.12.08

2008: the year in pictures.

(UPDATED 1/1/09; more pictures added)

January

Australian Open: tennis on the lawn.


February


Forty celsius: herbs and succulents baking in late afternoon heat.


March


Mystery dish: Lasagne? Moussaka? Sweet potato layered with cheese sauce? Can’t remember. But the green thing in the middle is a basil leaf.


April


Instant circus: elephants dance on cans of peppers and beans.


Crescent moon: brittle sky on a cold late autumn evening, as seen from Merri Creek trail (moon right of centre, barely visible - click to enlarge).


May


Apprentice chef: Thomas with saucepans.


Downpour: Lygon Street in flood.


June


Birthday: William turns three.


Winter fun: Thomas reinvents library steps; clears shelves in search of favourite book. Mr Horse unimpressed.


July


Winter sun: lunch at Blairgowrie café: Tracy's hand and coffee obscured by giant cake serving.



August



Surf's up: early afternoon on a freezing Portsea ocean beach.


September


Snack time: two boys in a chair; Mr Owl looks on.


Storm: waves batter Point Lonsdale sea wall as obscured cargo ships heave across a spumy horizon.


October


Thomas turns two: chocolate sponge filled and topped with cream, strawberries and grated chocolate, a Tracy specialty.


November


From the Kitchen Hand observatory: stormy dusk in late spring.


Accurate to the day: the Travelling Poppies bloom without fail on November 11.


December


The week before Christmas: Thomas and pasta primavera.

28.12.08

Green Christmas.

It was early afternoon on a hot Christmas Day. Inside a million houses across the country you’d be deafened by the roar of ripping paper, popping corks, slamming oven doors and everyone talking at once. But outside in the heat, it was so quiet you could hear a dry gum leaf scratching along the street in the breeze.

I got the car out and we drove east on an empty freeway to where the suburbs are green and leafy. Twenty minutes later I took an exit ramp, crossed over the freeway, turned right into a side street and a kilometre later, turned right again back over the freeway along a narrow bridge road that ended at a steel gate. The gate slid open. We drove through.

Someone – one of Tracy’s cousins - had had the brainwave of organising Christmas lunch on a golf course. Christmas lunch on a golf course makes sitting at an over-sized dining table for three hours in a too-small inner-city terrace house dining room with twenty other people on a hot day feel like a prison sentence, especially when the only alternative is to join the smokers in the cramped back courtyard, where you sit your drink on the switched-off water feature and they butt their cigarettes in the agave pot. How have you been? How was your year? Hot, isn’t it?

A dozen tables sat under shady umbrellas outside the clubhouse, on a rise of lawn overlooking the fairways. That’s where we ate lunch. While we did, a boxer dog bounced around with the kind of playful smirk that only boxers can make. I won’t go into details about the meal except to say that it was enough for about five hundred mouths, although there were just twenty-five of us. We seemed to get through a large part of it. Go on, have another drumstick. You’ve only had six. Think of the poor people in Africa.

Later, the boxer dog was asleep under a table, snoring. It probably only ate a side of beef. Monty, my old brittany, would have done better. He would have eaten six chickens as well. I’ve heard Labradors also have large appetites. The things you talk about over the Christmas meal.

Several of the human guests were looking sleepy as well, but others were looking forward to finding out what happens when you try eighteen holes on a stomach full of scotch whisky, turkey and cranberry sauce, plum pudding and brandy sauce and a litre of red wine. Half a dozen sailed off for the first tee, golf bags in tow equipped with extra provisions in case of starvation or death by thirst out on the eighth hole. I went for a walk in the opposite direction for safety, taking the boys.

A golf course is a great place to go for a walk when there are no hordes of golfers on it. William and Thomas wore wide-brimmed hats to shade their faces from the hot sun. Together, they tottered along a fairway that sloped northwest up a rise towards a stand of old gum trees. Then they sat down on a green that was in the inky shadow of some acacias.

The air was still and the acacias were motionless, so that the shadow’s edge seemed to be etched into the close-cut deep green. The boys had a small toy car in each hand, and they played with them on the lawn, and muttered to each other and smiled. I didn’t catch the words. We look back on the past so often that we forget that, sometimes, we exist in a future past where two small children can make a conversation that no-one will hear and no-one will remember, not even themselves.

I had no idea of the hour. Once in a long while, time seems to stand still. Then some cool air came from somewhere and the wattles moved just a little.

The boys grasped their cars and we walked on. Way down the fairway in the distance was a straggle of figures. One, farther from the rest, made a sudden circular move: the rapid swing of a club. The figures drifted on, probably to look for lost balls. The boys and I wandered through more fairways and greens and bunkers and stands of trees and then we were at the base of the hill below the clubhouse. The acrid but welcoming aroma of hot coffee drifted down.

Now the tables held mountains of shortbread, plum puddings, Christmas cakes and bowls of sticky substances incorporating combinations of cream, egg white, jelly, fruit, sponge cake and shaved chocolate. The boxer dog was awake and smirking and leaping again, just a little slower this time.

The sun had dropped but it was still hot. The golfers appeared over the hill, red-faced, and called for beer.

24.12.08

Banks may fall ...


... corporations fail, globes warm, economies cool, rates crash and economists argue but we're all agreed that afternoon must tea go on. Another cup, thank you. And pass me a piece of chocolate cake.

Happy Christmas.

17.12.08

Tomato and chick pea ragu.

The rain is still around and the days have been cooler and Christmas is coming. I cooked this osso buco recipe a few nights ago and it was good. It seemed a shame to throw out the fragrant sauce that was left over.

So I didn't. I made a sauce for pasta - a ragu. I chopped the remaining cooked meat, returned it to the left over sauce and added a can of diced tomatoes, half a can of chick peas, a cup of white wine and a sprinkling of chopped parsley.

For this meat sauce I cooked a pot of rigatoni, a grooved pasta robust enough to carry the fragrant ragu. The whole thing was capped off with a heap of shaved parmesan and more chopped parsley. It must have been good. Even the children ate it. Except for the chick peas.

15.12.08

As I walked out one Sunday afternoon.

Apparently it was the most rain in one day since early 2006.

Most of it ended up in the bay of course, but the downpour coincided with a new government campaign to encourage people to use less water. The campaign material shows two pictures of a dam, some years ago and now, with the recent picture showing a lower level of water. A cynical counter-campaign would show two identical photos of a empty valley entitled The Dam the Government Failed to Build. The irony is that the north-south pipeline currently being built to divert water from the Goulburn to backyard water features in Melbourne is now cutting a swathe through more wilderness than would have any dam.

*

Early afternoon Sunday, the clouds drifted away to the north. Sunday is a day of rest but rest is what you want it to be. For me it means avoiding shopping malls full of frantic shoppers and taking a long walk along Merri Creek. Off I went, pushing the wakeful child (Thomas) in the three-wheel pram while the sleepy child (William) took an afternoon nap with his tired mother. We walked for miles.

The Merri Creek trail was flooded where it runs under the Newlands Road bridge near the waterfall; and to the north, at Queens Parade and Derby Street, Fawkner as it veers east across a bridge over a roaring stormwater drain. That northern section was paved recently but it still floods when there is a heavy downpour.

We walked through the plains of Fawkner, a largely treeless suburb of 1960s yellow brick houses, crossed Sydney Road near Gowrie railway station and picked up the new section of bike path that runs between the railway line and Fawkner Memorial Park. Thomas had fallen asleep. The bike path runs for a mile and then stops dead at Merlynston where its continuation is obscured and cyclists need to crane their necks to proceed. The zig-zagging continues all the way to the city, rendering the Upfield bike path useless as a commuter stream. Most cyclists take their lives in their hands on Sydney Road where cars run them off the road in their attempts to accelerate past trams. These northern suburbs have one of the highest concentrations of cyclists in the city. A proper bike path is a policy no-brainer. Except no politician seems to have had it yet. They're too busy bailing out failing car companies.

*

Home by three. Thomas woke. William was already awake. Time to think about dinner. I like Sunday afternoons. Plenty of time for thinking.

10.12.08

Signs.

It was a warm Tuesday morning. I caught the train into town, got off at Parliament station, walked down a wind-swept Lonsdale Street, climbed a hundred steps up to the entrance of a vast grey office block and entered through sliding glass doors big enough for an aircraft hangar. No wonder. You could have parked a jumbo in the lobby.

I crossed the marble floor to the lifts. One whispered open and took me to what felt like the eightieth floor. I was the only person in it. The digital clock on the electronic floor indicator read 9:15 and I wondered what time the other million people in the building must have started work.

I sat in a glassed-in reception area for about ten minutes reading one of those free newspaper magazines full of ads for diamond-encrusted watches and articles about how to cope during a recession. Then a woman burst through the door, smiled and grabbed my hand, shook it furiously and then led me down a passage-way and around three corners to an office cubicle the size of a cupboard. In it was a desk and a computer. Next to the computer was a stack of A4 pages about two feet high. That was the job.

*

We got the computer going and set up a guest account and a password and a user name, both of which I immediately wrote down so I wouldn't forget them. Then I set to work.

It wasn't all that hard. It was just long and convoluted and full of jargon and there were ten acronyms to a page. My job was to make it readable by humans. The problem is that this kind of writing has meaning only to those who wrote it. Once you take the jargon out it doesn't mean anything at all. Alter the words 'strategic implementation' and the rest of the paragraph collapses around it like a house of cards. That was why, despite almost never worrying about work when not actually doing it, I had had nightmares about it the previous night. Mid-morning I decided coffee might help. The kitchen was two corners and a quite lot of passage-way back towards the reception area.

Printed signs were all along the walls with the kinds of preachy messages you expect to see in a kindergarten or a Uniting Church meeting hall. One read Diversity and had a picture of two disembodied hands shaking; another was Excellence with a magnifying glass as if any excellence around the place was hidden in a file or somewhere; a third was Co-operation with two smiling flowers. Then I reached the kitchen. There were different signs in there. One over the sink read DO NOT LEAVE YOUR DIRTY DISHES HERE. PUT THEM IN THE DISHWASHER. THIS MEANS YOU all in 72-point serif type with 'dirty dishes' and 'you' underlined to add extra emphasis to the expression of latent, seething hatred between the fellow workers.

I opened the fridge for some milk for the coffee. It was full of nearly-empty packets of caramel Tim-Tams, scraped-out plastic tubs of Kraft French onion dip and mouldy jars of Old El Paso nacho salsa. There was no full cream milk, but plenty of skim. To make up for the Tim-Tams, of course. Coffee tastes like mud with skim milk. What a beautiful place to work.

*

I went out for lunch at a sunny open sandwich bar on a mezzanine overlooking Bourke Street and read the Financial Review. Peter Ruehl on the back page was asking, if we thought bailing out GM-H was such a good idea, why we hadn't we already gone out and bought a Holden? Indeed. Holden's specialty is marketing dinosaur V8 utes to knuckle-dragging oafs, and the government says 'Here's billions of dollars, go make some electric cars.' Sure.

I walked back to the office and bashed away at the computer all afternoon, slashing and burning text and destroying acronyms and dragging capitalised words off their high horses and back to humble lower case along with all the other words.

Then I signed off and walked towards the lift lobby past a sign that read Harmony with an illustration of a musical note. The elevator chimed when it opened. It was a happy sound.

7.12.08

The man who noticed things.

A new book came across my desk: The Man Who Ate the World.

Now, where have I heard a title like that?

Rummage, rummage.

Ah, here it is. In the row of books behind another row of books in the long, low timber cabinet in the lounge room. I really should get rid of some books. In fact, I really should get rid of some cabinets the books are in. Problem is, you can't throw out the books you've read because you like them and therefore you will always keep them; but paradoxically you cannot throw out the ones you haven't read, because you might like them when you do read them. It's a problem I don't know how to solve without the introduction of a 28-hour day.

I pulled out the book: The Man Who Ate Everything, published in 1998. Tracy gave it to me one Christmas.

But it's by a different author - Jeffrey Steingarten - so the title similarity had not indicated, as I had thought, a sequel, a prequel, one of a series or book two of a trilogy.

And yet there were other likenesses.

The subtitle of Steingarten's The Man Who Ate Everything contains the word 'pursuit'; the subtitle of Rayner's book contains 'search'.

Mere coincidence? Not when the titles are so similar.

Extracts from the usual glowing reviews on the books' respective covers include the following phrases:

On Steingarten's book: 'gastronomic writing of the highest order'.
On Rayner's: 'really gets the gastric juices flowing'.

On Steingarten's book: 'Wildly funny'.
On Rayner's: 'laugh-out-loud funny'.

On Steingarten's book: 'wittily knowledgeable'.
On Rayner's: 'huge wit and knowledge'.

3.12.08

Recipe for a busy time: spaghetti with chickpeas, garlic and prosciutto.

This is easy, fast and surprisingly good.

Take a can of chickpeas, a 500g pack of spaghetti, two cloves of garlic and a thick slice of prosciutto, diced.

Cook the spaghetti. Puree two-thirds of the chickpeas with the garlic cloves, a tablespoon of olive oil and a little salt.

Sizzle the prosciutto in oil in a pan and when almost brown, add the reserved chickpeas.

Drain the cooked spaghetti reserving a little fluid, place the spaghetti in the pan with the prosciutto and chickpeas and combine. Add a small amount of the pasta cooking water if necessary.

Transfer to serving bowls and top with pureed chickpeas and plenty of chopped parsley if you still have acres of it in your garden as I do.

1.12.08

Three pieces of sky, as seen from my back garden.


7:30 p.m. Chimney and terra cotta tile roofs from the 1940s; poplars of a similar age; storm clouds gilded by setting sun.



8 p.m. Clouds drift beyond the sharp lines of post-art deco apartments that were once small-scale factories.



8:30 p.m. Evening turns monochrome; 1919 Lincoln mills chimney in distance, a lonely sentinel of a long-gone manufacturing era.