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



Melbourne is a bowl and the Dandenong Ranges sit on its the eastern rim. From where I grew up, you could see the Dandenongs clear and blue and serene above the smoke and dust of Collingwood and Fitzroy.

The Dandenongs were a frequent weekend destination, with fern gullies full of lyrebirds and wombats, quaint cafes full of lace and hot scones and villages hanging off the slopes at every turn. After years of day trips, my parents bought a block of land in then semi-rural Selby. The block, on a steep slope, was covered in blackberry and you strode up the hill almost knee-deep in fallen bark from the gum trees. We never got around to building on the block and eventually my parents sold it to buy an old farmhouse at Birregurra instead.

But I never lost my fascination for the hills at the eastern end of Melbourne. During my supposedly bohemian student years, which were about as bohemian as a weak cappuccino, I knew poets and actors who retreated up to Olinda and Emerald on frozen winter weekends to sit in front of blazing log fires and drink red wine and write verse or rehearse lines for their next play at La Mama or the Playbox while gazing out windows at gently falling snow and the twinkling lights of Melbourne below, a carpet of stars.

I used to visit the hills often. During the 1980s, I took my older two children on day trips to the Alfred Nicholas Memorial Gardens, to the National Rhododendron Gardens, to the narrow gauge railway that runs - whistle shrieking through the eucalypts - out to Emerald; and sometimes, at night, to one high point or other, just to gaze down at that carpet of light. And then home again to the cosy inner suburbs.


Tracy, on the other hand, spent part of her childhood in the Dandenongs. She lived in a house in the hills, beneath a canopy of mountain ash and fern, and hated it. She found it dank, cold and boring. It was incessantly wet. If it wasn’t raining, the fog was heavy enough to soak you anyway. You don’t notice this when you are able to return to your wide-streeted suburb on Sunday night. My romance of winter was her slog of seasonal survival; trudging to school in fog or rain and loaded down with backpack and textbooks and coat and scarf and hat. Later, Tracy moved far away from the mountains, first to buzzing Fitzroy where warm cafes and restaurants line the streets just as gum trees do in the Dandenongs; and then to Brunswick, where we met, and I found myself not visiting the Dandenongs all that much any more.

I suppose it’s all about perception. And how much your house leaks.


Nice bright colours/dreams of summers/all the world's a sunny day.

My brother recently found some old slide photographs taken by my father in the early 1970s and posted them on his weblog. The colours are unearthly: golds you can almost feel, unearthly greens; even the shadows have a tangible depth. I remember the day. I was there, but not in the shots. The pictures are nothing special, just family and friends fooling around in the back yard at a beach house at Somers. But those colours!

So that was Kodachrome? I shot some slides once. I'll look for them. They are in a box somewhere.


Pea and ham soup in an era of cultural change: some critical insights.

The heavy pot lives under the sink, off to the side, next to the wok and in front of a rotary food mill that I have never used. Lifting the pot out requires a manoeuvre straight out of an Eastern stretching guide, but putting up with the complicated move has two advantages: I get to the keep the $100,000 for a new kitchen and the $40 for an Iyengar yoga class.

The heavy pot in question no longer has its lid handle. When I cook with it, I have to kind of flip the lid up with one hand - gauntleted with a tea towel, catch it with the other hand and try not to sustain steam burns. Apart from all that, the pot is in perfect condition. Why throw it out?

I dragged it out for the annual mid-winter pea and ham soup ritual. Imagining I had posted a recipe for this at least once a year on this web log, I searched the archive but couldn’t seem to find one more recent than 2005; in any case this new recipe is probably a better one.

Pea and ham soup for the winter solstice.

I sliced the end – about a tablespoon’s worth - off a stick of butter, paper and all, peeled off the paper and threw the butter into the pot. The butter melted lazily, barely bubbling, barely hissing, as if going to sleep. Then I crept up on it and threw in – all at once – two large onions, two medium carrots, two sticks of celery and one parsnip; all in small dice.

Then the broken lid went on and the vegetables steamed in the butter on a low heat for ten minutes, or enough time to drink a cup of coffee and read The Weekend Australian in which an article was suggesting that ‘social media’ (sixty billion people huddled, alone, over sixty billion computer screens is ‘social’?) such as Twitter was changing the face of business:

“ ‘Plenty of smart companies are using [Twitter] to build a brand, turn their customers into a community and cement the names of their products in the minds of their market.’ ”
One Tweet and you’re cemented. Academia is jumping onto the bandwagon as well, bringing with it, in a satchel over its shoulder, its unique brand of jargon:

“... the Digital Cultures program in the faculty of arts at Sydney University ... encourages an understanding of the ‘crucial connections between technical innovation and cultural change’. Director Chris Chesher sees social media as ‘part of cultural literacy’. He says employers will be looking for people who combine technical skills ‘with that broader critical insight of an arts education’.”
As against the oafs who come out of the sciences building? My personal critical insight is that employers are not currently looking for people at all; let alone those enhanced by broader critical insights and the ability to send diary messages of no more than 140 characters.


The vegetables were sweating. I rinsed one and three-quarter cups of green split peas and added them to the pot along with half a kilo of bacon bones (excellent butcher’s own from the Blairgowrie butcher; very aromatically smoky and no fake red colour) and ten cups of water.

When it came to the boil, I turned it down, threw in a sprig of thyme from the garden, put the lid back on and left it for two hours.

Later, I chopped and fried some pieces of bread the boys had left and made crunchy, garlicky croutons. The soup was served in large bowls and garnished with the croutons along with fresh parsley and pepper. No salt; the bacon is salt enough.

So that was it. No better dinner on a cold winter solstice Sunday night.


“I found her notebook underneath a tree/she’d been twittering all about me/the words she’d written took me by surprise/you’d never read them in her eyes.”

(Apologies to David Gates.)


Recession-busting tips # 2157: get your children to make their own birthday cake.

Happy birthday, William. And a glance back at 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008.

(Car spotters' note: the toy in Thomas's hand is the original 1960s Matchbox 'Models of Yesteryear' 1929 4.5L Bentley I was given at age ten; currently his favourite toy. William plays with its companion, a pale green 1907 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. Here's a Bentley in closer detail.)


Newspaper sub-editor likes pizza.

This story from yesterday's paper is headlined: Thai tops pizza as fattiest takeaway.

As a generalisation, that takes some beating.

So let's go along with it and generalise. Generally, Thai food is packed with vitamin-dense vegetables, herbs and spices. Generally, in terms of mass sales at major pizza outlets, pizza is packed with ham that was scraped off the abattoir floor, compacted and then shot out of a mulching machine. Generally, Thai food is fiery and flavourful and is accompanied with and balanced by healthy, non-fat steamed rice. Generally, pizza's key flavour drivers are fat-dense ingredients such as cheese, and it is accompanied by z-grade television and beer. Generally, Thai food is served in moderation. Generally, pizza comes in a box the size of your DVD player, but squarer.

So how do we arrive at Thai tops pizza as fattiest takeaway? By extrapolating the contents of one Thai dish - Pad Thai - across the whole cuisine. The only way pizza - generally speaking - is healthier than Thai is if you eat the box and give the contents to the dog. (And since pizza is accompanied by z-grade television and beer-drinking, I'm sure it has happened and no-one has noticed except the dog.)

But no, consumer group Choice is sure Thai food is out to kill us:

"Pad Thai, which is probably one of Australia's favourite takeaway meals, tops the list of all the Thai dishes both because of the fat content - it's a noodle dish so it's energy dense - and also the sodium involved," Choice spokeswoman Elise Davidson said.
Ignoring the 'fat content/noodle dish/energy dense non sequitur, is Pad Thai really 'one of Australia's favourite takeaways? Maybe in Elise's neighbourhood. But let's look at some Australia-wide facts. According to IBISWorld, which provides high-quality industry market research analysis and reports to people who want facts instead of spin or some spokesperson's jaundiced opinion, Australia's top five takeaway food companies are (1) McDonald's; (2) Yum! Foods Asutralia (KFC, Pizza Hut, etc); (3) Competitive Foods Australia (Hungry Jack's, Domino's Pizza, Fasta Pasta, etc; (4) Quick Service Restaurants Holdings Pty Limited (Red Rooster, Chicken Treat, Oporto, etc) and (5) Domino's Pizza Enterprises (the part not owned by Jack Cowin of Competitive Foods above).

Not a whole lot of Pad Thai being sent out by that lot.


Email me your email address and I'll email you a recipe.

Recipes were flying through cyberspace between Tracy and her mother. Mother is not great with email and took three goes to get the message through. Kept putting spaces or capitals or @ signs where spaces or capitals or @ signs should not go. A letter in the mail used to be such a beautiful thing. Now you have to telephone someone three times to get their correct email address because the telling of it does not flow like normal human communication; i.e., words. What is all that underscore and backslash rubbish anyway?

Then they go and change their email address on you.

The recipe could have been described over the telephone. But mother had to go off and find it in a book somewhere, and she has six million cookbooks. It must be in one of them, she said, as if that meant looking through six million books were not a great deal.

Potato scones.

A month later, an email arrived with the recipe. We could have googled it, but that's just cheating and, furthermore, it would have rendered the complicated email interchange a complete waste of time. Just be patient and wait. You haven't eaten a potato scone in your life; what's the hurry now? Potato scones are not scones in the sense of pumpkin scones; they are more like potato pancakes. Aside from that, our 'scones' are known as 'biscuits' in some places.

The recipe involved a few boiled potatoes mashed with either bacon fat or butter (not margarine, the use of which is a capital offence in Scotland, and oil goes in your car's engine) and quite a lot of salt, and then combined with just enough flour that it does not become too dry. The mixture is then rolled and flattened into discs and these are quartered and pricked all over, for air when cooking, and then fried on a griddle dusted with flour.

Why don't you just squash a gnocchi, I ventured. It's much the same thing, isn't it?

Tracy glanced at me a look that could have darkened Culloden.

They were tasty. You can grill two of them together with cheese in the middle as a variation, and they can be eaten hot or cold. I wouldn't want them cold, especially in this weather. Perhaps I could add a scrape of vegemite in the cheese variation. The combination is all the rage right now, but it's nothing new; I've been eating cheese and vegemite sandwiches for years.


Cook your own takeaways.

You won't starve on the five-kilometre walk along Sydney Road from Glenlyon Road to Bell Street - one I have completed many times, both ways - especially if you like Turkish food. It's grilled meat lover's heaven and the quality is generally high, especially after the temporary closure of Alasya some years ago.

A favourite of mine is adana - kebabs of minced lamb generously spiced with chilli and wrapped in bread. But now I like to make my own and avoid the queues. Anyway, I prefer adana in Lebanese flat bread - available fresh every day for $1 a pack at every second ethnic grocery shop along the strip (the supermarkets charge $2.20 and the bread is usually a day older).

To make your own adana, simply combine minced lamb - or a combination of veal and lamb - with chilli powder or hot or sweet red pepper flakes and salt to taste: this is sheer trial and error. (Some recipes variously use cummin and other spices.) I used a ground pepper from a sampler pack of chilli peppers grown in North Fitzroy by my green-thumbed friend Hamish. The only problem was I had forgotten which pepper was which. It was, however, hot; but one man's hot is another man's mild so that is no clue.

After adding pepper flakes and salt, form the meat into cylinders, flatten slightly and grill. When done, throw a round of bread over the meat for a few seconds to warm it and to take up some of the smoky flavour; then wrap your kebabs in the bread along with some sliced onion, grilled or fresh tomato wedges and lettuce if you wish, or grilled red pepper strips. Or the lot.

Add yogurt, and chilli sauce to crank up the heat even further if you dare. It was a cold night, winter's coldest yet. I added more chilli sauce.


Rocket fuel.

So far this winter, the weather has offered a sullen series of half-hearted south-westerlies delivering slow-moving patches of rain in between teasing sun.

Today, it hauled off and hurled a frozen blast at us, straight from the north and right off the alps, where snow has just fallen. The icy blast rode in on the same north wind that destroyed half the state by fire just four months - 16 weeks - ago.

I put on a coat. That fixed it. Then I went for a long walk.


Last night I cooked - with a little assistance - comfort food, fuel for a cold winter: home-made gnocchi with rocket from the new vegetable garden (that is, so far, a major success thanks to its northerly aspect).

To five old potatoes, boiled and mashed, I added - in a large bowl - a cup of plain flour, 30 grams of melted butter, cracked peppercorns and half a cup of grated parmesan. Any parmesan will do - if you have to have the imported stuff, save it for the top of the dish. Then I threw in seven or eight rocket leaves finely snipped.

Mix and knead four minutes. Turn out on a floured board. (William and Thomas were watching me and trying to help. During the afternoon, they had been making playdoh models with their mother, and they thought this was the continuation of the game.)

We rolled up the dough into cylinders the diameter of a spark plug's thickest part. (I use Champion.) Then I cut the cylinders into one-inch sectors and lined them up on another floured board like small, fat, green-flecked Formula One racing cars on the grid.

Boil water, carefully, on the back burner. Add a few drops of olive oil and some salt. Drop the gnocchi in once the water is boiling and retrieve and drain them two minutes after they return to the surface.

Sauce: more rocket and parsley from the garden (yes, the parsley is back; not quite as prolific as the late jasmine, which amounted to two large green waste-bin loads) thrown into the processor with unmeasured quantities of pine nuts, parmesan, garlic clove and olive oil. Whizz, whizz and it's ready. Toss the steaming gnocchi in the sauce and eat. More parmesan on top.


Later: "Daddy, why are you eating playdoh racing cars?"


Letter of the day.

From one of this morning's dailies:

To parents whining about fast food outlets offering toys with food, the word you are looking for is "no". These tactics are not new. In the '40s and '50s football cards were were offered with chewing gum, and toys were put into cereal packets. Our parents knew the word "no", and we respected that word. Fast food once in a while will never hurt anyone. It's about moderation - another word modern parents may like to look up in a dictionary (if they have one).
- Glenyse Sims-Ellis, Invermay

Well said, M/s. Sims-Ellis. I like the parenthesised crack about the dictionary in the last sentence. Talk about dripping with sarcasm. And perhaps a little unfair, but in keeping with the tone of the letter.

My favourites were the collectors' cards from Shell (transportation, flowers and trees, animals); stamp packs from AMPOL petroleum; 45 r.p.m. popular records from Golden Fleece service stations; moulded plastic train engines and carriages from Kellogg cereals and the Twisties football cards, which never quite lost the Twisties aroma, or the slightly orange hue.

Geographical note: Invermay is a suburb of Launceston, surely one of Australia's prettiest cities. (That is apropos of nothing. Just thinking out loud.)


Product of the Month: No. 1 in a new series.

Victoria is no longer The Garden State, The Place to Be, On the Move or even the People's Republic of.

Instead, it is now the swine flu capital of Australia. If you read newspapers, you will have noticed that at the political level, the swine flu epidemic has moved from 'contain' to 'sustain' (or vice versa - I have no idea what they mean) to 'high farce', with Victorian bureaucrats accusing New South Wales and Queensland of 'retaliating' for stealing their citizens as tourists. The level of the discourse could not sink any lower, but it just did:

JOHN BRUMBY (PREMIER OF VICTORIA): I do know that we launched a very successful tourism campaign in New South Wales just a little while ago. I do know that there are lots of New South Wales citizens who are being attracted to Victoria and maybe it's a bit of a retaliation for a successful tourism campaign.

Victoria has also given up on testing people for swine flu and is, instead, hoping it will all go away, like the drought and crime in the city.

So forget Tamiflu and Relenza. Now is the perfect time to return to one of mankind's most ancient cure-alls: garlic. Down the ages, garlic has been suggested as a cure for just about any ailment you care to name.

The garlic pickle above will keep more than swine flu at bay. It is one of Mrs Fernandes' best products, packing a powerful flavour punch with a little simmering background heat, a perfect sour pickle-to-sweet balance and a finish that lasts and lasts. Until morning.

Ferns' products come all the way from the town of Pune in India, so there are plenty of food miles involved, but with 85 million jars of Ferns pastes and pickles riding the boat across the Indian Ocean (plus remember the boat took a load of stuff there in the first place), you may actually be 'wasting' less carbon than a sanctimonious Prius owner driving across the suburb to get The Age. So to hell with food miles.

Try Ferns' Garlic Pickle on any mild curry with yogurt and a swathe of chopped coriander.

Available from Desi Needs, Waterfield Street, Coburg. (I walked.)


How to make gravy.

Item on supermarket shelf: Continental Bangers and Mash (recipe base).

Instructions: Just add sausages and potatoes.


Day of the Triffids, Part Two (Apologies to John Wyndham)

I was sitting in the doctor's waiting room wondering if they would ever discover a cure for arthritis and reading an old Burke's Backyard magazine when suddenly a sentence jumped off the page and smacked me in the face and I had one of those light bulb moments (which, by the way, will never be the same with those twisty eco bulbs).

"Jasmine is a thug," Don Burke had written.

"Eureka!" I almost shouted before remembering I was in a doctor's surgery. Not that it mattered: the television was blaring - out of reach above and beyond the reception desk - and an obvious dementia case was conducting a loud soliloquy in a far corner, so a man with a bandaged knee shouting "Eureka" was hardly going to make a huge difference to the ambience, if grey plastic racked chairs and carpet that would have been the colour of coral in 1988 could be called ambience. There's good ambience and bad ambience.

Because I knew all along. I just wouldn't admit it. Jasmine is one of those plants that everyone loves. "Ah, jasmine! Such a beautiful fragrance! And the flowers!" You can even drink them. Jasmine tea is delicious. I drink gallons of the stuff every time I eat in Chinatown.

Perhaps I was still fooled by that quintessential hippy song from the early seventies. Summer breeze makes me feel fine; blowing through the jasmine in my mind. That track sold a lot or records and a lot of jasmine plants. Probably a lot of other green plants as well. Dried.

But the jasmine had another life that I didn't know about. I soon learned. I had four pots of it. We moved house. I took them out of the pots and put them in the ground, near the fence. And against the shed. Just for a bit of green in winter and a bit of fragrance in summer on the grey palings and the cement sheeting walls.

A bit?

That was late 2005. Not four years ago. The jasmine travelled. It set up base camps along the way. It does that. Every now and then the ground-travelling tendrils take root. Jasmine travels light and needs no water. It is the camel of the plant world. It would probably cross the Nullarbor (aboriginal word meaning 'Latin for no trees') if you didn't cut it back. And I didn't cut it back. Well, I cut back some of the visible bits but jasmine is smart and sends out shoots in the places you don't look.

Tendrils travelled pale pink and white, saving chlorophyll, through the shed floor and walls, across the dusty rafters, out the other side where they turned green again, along the back fence, into the property at the rear, into its shed and, for all I know, off into the rest of the suburb, through sewerage pipes, underground gas lines, broadband optic fibre cable networks and storm water drains. If you live in the Brunswick/Moreland/Coburg corridor, that leafy tendril waving over your back fence is my jasmine. Shoot it.

I'm looking forward to next summer: See the smile a-waitin' in the kitchen, food cookin' and the plates for two. See the arms that reach out to hold me, in the evening when the day is through.

Yeah, and the breeze won't be blowing through any jasmine. I'm off to Bunnings. Secateurs are on special this week. It might be too late.


Journalism: how to do it.

Thanks to Jon Kudelka, who I'm sure won't mind me displaying his work from Rupert Murdoch's Weekend Australian if I provide a link to his excellent site.

Meanwhile, over at another Murdoch newspaper, Herald Sun editor Simon Pristel gushes about his 'new-look' Weekend liftout:

There is also a funny piece by Wendy Tuohy on those killer high heels. We made her wear them for an entire day - taking the kids to school, and driving her car.

Tuohy describes her heels as '14cm'. Go ahead, kill your reporters in the line of duty; but try to keep their children out of it. Simon Pristel is the man who last year splashed convicted drug dealer Roberta Williams in a bikini on the front page of the Sunday Herald Sun.

Murdoch wants people to pay for his papers online. Good luck with that.

Wine flavour confirmed by six-year study.

In comments at the previous post, Neil wondered who first associated sauvignon blanc and cats' urine.

Apparently, it is official, according to a six-year study by wine scientists:

The team spent more than $12million defining the flavours of the country's most popular grape variety, which has a unique flavour and character that has captured the world's interest.

They concluded it was a winning combination of sweet, sweaty passionfruit, asparagus, and cat's pee.

But what on earth is 'sweaty passionfruit'?