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


Rabbits on guard at supermarkets.

For seemingly months now, since the last rolls of Christmas wrap were pensioned off in discount bins, supermarket entrances have been lined with tinsel-wrapped chocolate rabbits standing in rows and staring at entering customers like mute soldiers. People have generally been sensible enough not to buy them yet, but occasionally one gets dragged off its cardboard sentry box and thrown unceremoniously into a trolley, never to see the light of day on Easter morn. Hot cross buns are a little further in, near the bread wall; but in their own racks, like a baked goods minority sect. They seem to be selling better than the rabbits, but there must be plenty thrown out. They won't keep until Good Friday.

I prefer to wait for Easter for Easter things, but even so I won't be buying any hot cross buns from any supermarket. I have my sources and they are not far from home.

One Eastery thing, however, does come early for me. Of course, smoked cod is available all year round but I associate it with Good Friday because I had it on that day for as long as I can remember. I don't know why. Must have been a family thing. Shops once never opened on Good Friday, so smoked cod was bought early and kept better than fresh. (Shops never opened on Sundays once either, but that's another story. Imagine if shops still didn't open on Sundays: people wouldn't know what to do with themselves. They'd go nuts. All that peace and quiet.)

Digressing aside, I bought some smoked cod and cooked in the way it was always cooked: with an onion-flecked, bay-infused white sauce that, combined with the fish, creates a delicious house-filling aroma that for some reason seems to fit perfectly with these golden autumn days, still warm, of longer shadows and cooler nights.

Smoked cod with onion sauce.

Simmer your smoked cod in enough milk (full cream, please; skim is becoming the default choice in many 'fridges but full cream has its uses) to barely cover it, adding a few peppercorns, a bay leaf and a chopped onion.

Simmer twenty minutes. Remove fish to plates. Melt 50g butter in a saucepan, add a couple of tablespoons of flour and stir through off the heat; stir into white sauce to thicken. Add chopped parsley if desired. Pour sauce over fish. Serve with creamy mashed potatoes.

Cod is inexpensive, so buy extra and make kedgeree out of the leftovers: flake the fish into cooked rice and add a selection of spices; for example, freshly ground coriander seeds, cardomom pods, a little chili, crushed curry or fenugreek leaves, cumin, garam masala etc etc. Add salt, fold through a little cream. Top each serve with a gently poached egg and sprinkle with finely chopped spring onion.


Quiet night in the suburbs.

There comes a time when you cook for yourself again, instead of cooking for children and eating their leftovers.

Then you regress. It's one step forward and two steps back, most of the time. (Was that a song?)

One evening last week William and Thomas had been packed off to bed, having eaten good dinners of spaghetti and meatballs made with mushrooms and cheese and diced zucchini and oatmeal and silence had descended on the house, hesitantly, like a reversing moon module trying not to stir up the dust. A small dark brick of rare roast beef was sitting on the board, resting prior to my carving it, and its ex-oven aromas were twisting around each other in the air like invisible double helices, radiating nucleotides of red wine, garlic, pepper and herbs through the house and to our waiting olfactory cells, which obligingly passed the news on to the cortex, which translated this into plain English as: "Dinner ready, smells good, eat now!"

Then crash! went a door. And crash! went another door, further away.

The boys were not asleep.

This is easy. You just tell them to go back to bed and they go back to bed and they fall asleep. I read it in a book once.

Or else they don't.

Five minutes later Thomas was standing by the table chewing the carved end - the well-done tasty crust, where most of the flavour resides, my favourite part - of the dark brick of roast beef. He liked it. It was to his satisfaction. He all but congratulated the chef.

Whose dinner is this exactly?

What they need is meters on their foreheads to show if they are really hungry or not. Like a petrol gauge. No, you are not hungry, your meter shows full. Go to bed. Or: You’re running on empty. Pull up a chair. Here’s a fork. You’ll fade away.

But they don’t have meters so you need to figure out: (a) if they are still hungry based on the amount of physical activity and play undertaken that day and whether a growth spurt is current, necessitating urgent additional nutrition; (b) if they are merely stalling for time and are winding you around their little finger or (c) if you give a toss at all about (a) or (b) anyway. The latter is the easiest option because you then simply - as a friend of mine puts it - bundle them back into their beds, bolt the door and crank up the stereo in the lounge room with something louder than the children; for example, Use Your Illusion 2 c.1991 or Ragged Glory c.1990. The chainsaw guitar introduction to the first track (Country Home) of the latter work will immediately block the noise of laughter and toppling bookshelves but – warning – it will also the impede the sound of the sash window being raised and exited into the garden. Also, dinner’s ambience will not be precisely the same as almost described (but not quite because we didn't get to it) in para. 3 above. But life is full of little compromises. You wanted Mozart quietly, and you got Neil Young, loud. It’s still music. Look on the bright side. The glass is half full.

Mine was empty. I refilled it. On this occasion it was judged by two expert parents taking a wild guess that the boys were in fact experiencing a growth spurt necessitating further sustenance. Half the dark brick of rare roast beef and several vegetables disappeared at a rate faster than at any time seen in this family since Goldie the Brittany left us in early 2006 and Greyhound Billy before her and Monty before him and several foster dogs along the way.


And so it was that we came to be eating, later, the rest of the meatballs: the meatballs that were the boys’ first dinner, before their second dinner – my dinner - of rare roast beef.

I must add that they were delicious. I congratulated the chef, in person. The house was quiet now. Small children don't snore. They make enough noise when they're awake.

Meatballs with cheese and mushrooms.

Place a large fist-sized ball of mince - I used pork and veal this time - and mix into it two or three very finely chopped button mushrooms, half a cup of grated cheddar, half a very finely diced small zucchini, one very finely chopped spring onion, a clove of v. f. chopped garlic, a dash of Worcestershire sauce, a tablespoonful of oatmeal, a sprinkling of polenta and a dash of pepper. No additional salt for the children - salt your own to taste later, on the plate.

Using flour to cut the stickiness, form into balls the size of large cherry tomatoes and drop into simmering tomato sauce – half jar passata, one can diced tomatoes, chopped basil and parsley from garden, pepper, dash of sugar. Simmer until cooked through thoroughly. Serve over spaghetti and grate cheese liberally.


Pumpkin detective required.

They grew from seeds that survived the compost, so I don't know their varieties, apart from the Queensland Blue Heeler. No, wait ... that's a dog.


A return to green. And my first annual plant awards.

Suddenly, green. St Patrick's Day was just a coincidence.

Yesterday, I noticed green everywhere. Patches of it spreading across lawns, parks, nature strips. Perhaps the yellowing foliage is assisting the illusion. But a week or two of reasonably consistent rain is the real reason.

Plants are resilient, some more than others. And so, following a summer vicious beyond belief, below are the top five garden plants for surviving in the heat, as judged by an expert panel of one.

In 5th place: the pumpkin vine. Long vines grew out of small sections of garden, snaked up supports and across lawn and their broad foliage was like layers of parasols for the caravan of fruit that sprouted below. Ingenious and fascinating. Harvesting continues. We're up to a dozen.

In 4th place: viburnum. Heatwave? What heatwave? They do get some shelter in the afternoon and so lose points for that unfair advantage.

In 3rd place: weigela. One of the legion shrubs that are sadly ignored these days in favour of supposedly drought-proof plants that failed the test this summer, such as cordyline and other flaxes or grasses. Four weigelas faced the sun up to twelve hours a day and soldiered on like the old faithfuls that they are. Over strappy gardens with too many rocks and no lushness? Plant weigela!

In 2nd place: roses. While everything else wilts, roses smile at the scorching sun and defy it to burn them. Queen Elizabeth (deep pink) and Climbing Gold Bunny take out even honours.

And the winner is: pelargoniums. The gardens of this house had nothing but pelargonium borders when we came here four years ago (except for a sadly neglected but now resplendent grapefruit tree). We replaced some of the pelargoniums, sometimes known as geraniums, and sometimes I wish we hadn't. You simply cannot kill a perlargonium. They are not as beautiful as some plants, tending to legginess, but as a flowering border they are magnificent. It has to be noted that while I sometimes water just about everything else in the garden, the pelargoniums never receive a drop apart from what comes out of the sky.


Fegato all veneziana: Italian cuisine on the cheap.

Liver is out of fashion. It should not be. This delicacy is consistently cited by nutritionists for its easily-absorbed iron and vitamins of various letters of the alphabet. It is also delicious when cooked in the right way, i.e., not overdone.

It is also inexpensive, a factor that is starting to trump fashion. I bought a calves liver for $3 at Victoria Meats, one of several very good butchers at the top of Sydney Road, a precinct that now beats the Brunswick end of the street pointless for value and variety.


As the onions in the following recipe melt down with the lemon juice, wine and nutmeg, the resulting aroma will have your neighbours at the door if you're not careful. Lock it from the inside before you start.

Chop three onions finely and fry them on low heat in half butter and half olive oil - about a tablespoonful of each - to the point of translucence. Add a cup of white wine (that cleanskin from Dan Murphy's is just fine) and the juice of a lemon. Grate some nutmeg into the onions (or a shake of powder if you haven't a nutmeg) and add salt and pepper. Keep the heat low and cook the onions until the fluid is reduced and the onions are shimmering.

Remove onions to serving plates and using the same pan, quickly fry thin slices of liver adding a little more butter and olive oil if necessary. A few minutes either side is adequate depending on thickness. Aim for faint pink in the middle, like lamb.

Place liver on the onions and serve with spinach and polenta or baked scalloped potatoes.

There was enough for five servings, a cost less than a dollar per serve if you buy your vegetables well.

Still don't like liver?


Do you really need that newspaper?

You read it everywhere. It's a cliche, a platitude, an unoriginal idea. It goes like this:

Did you know if you cut out that cup of coffee every day, you will save six million dollars over fifty years on the average eighty trillion dollar mortgage?

(My figures, and not to scale.)

The banks have been parroting it for years in their puff pieces about how you could sack your mortgage in a puff of smoke if you follow their cost-cutting tips (and take out an expensive mortgage offset account or wealth package).

Now that there's a recession, the newspapers have discovered the idea.

Do you really need that cup of coffee? they challenge chirpily, as if we had been living under a rock. I read it again yesterday and I will read it again tomorrow and next week and the week after that, ad infinitum. Or at least until there are no newspapers any more, which is looking extremely likely, because advertising is drying up, fewer actual newspapers are being sold and no-one pays for online content. How could they not fail?

But I digress, as usual.

The answer to your question, Mr Lifestyle Reporter, is: Yes. I really need that cup of coffee.

And why would you give up your daily hit ahead of, for example, something of equivalent or greater value in your supermarket trolley?

After all, you get more than just a cup of coffee for $3 (or $2 in my case). You also get - depending on how long you spend at the cafe - valuable relaxing time and quite often, the day's endangered newspapers thrown in as well. Let's say you stay 45 minutes. For a $3 coffee that's an hourly rate of $4 for tranquility, the day's papers and a coffee thrown in. Unbeatable. There's no better value. Who would want to give that up?

There's also the issue of supporting small business. Newspapers are not the only endangered industry: restaurants and cafes are doomed as well thanks to the government's punitive awards legislation. Yes, that government - the one that is meanwhile bailing out overseas banks and car manufacturers.

Enjoy your coffee. I did.


Get out the atlas.

I was in the canned vegetables aisle of the supermarket looking for some capers. There they were on the top shelf: two brands to choose from.

The first jar's front label read:
Sandhurst Fine Foods
Baby capers in wine vinegar

Underneath that:
The All Australian Company

The back label read:
Sandhurst Fine Foods
Italian Specialities made for Australian tastes!

And underneath that:
Product of Morocco

The second brand revealed that the capers were made in Australia from imported ingredients. How do they do that?


Half a century apart.

Thomas, 2009, at home.

Kitchen Hand, c.1959, Alexandra Gardens, Melbourne.