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


The meeting.


HAROLD (COMMITTEE CHAIR AND PRINCIPAL): Thanks for coming, everyone.

GEORGETTE (COMMITTEE SECRETARY): Thanks, Harold, but most of us didn’t actually come; we’ve been here since the last class of the day writing reports.

HAROLD (LAUGHS): Me too! Now. Where do we start?

GEORGETTE: The motto, I think.

ANNE (NEW COMMITTEE MEMBER): Is that the mission statement?

GEORGETTE: No, the mission statement is the ten paragraphs in the inside front cover of the school annual.

ANNE (PICKING UP AND FLICKING THROUGH A HEAVY PAPERBACK A4 PUBLICATION): Oh, that one. I thought that was our five-year plan.

HAROLD: That’s something else again. The five-year plan is essentially the strategy to implement the mission statement. All going well, that is! It’s in here. (HOLDS UP ANOTHER PUBLICATION WITH A PICTURE OF THE SCHOOL’S FRONT GATE ON THE COVER WITH THE WORD ‘SCHOOL PROSPECTUS 2009’ AT THE TOP IN LIME GREEN CAPITALS WITH A YELLOW DROP SHADOW OUTLINED BY A BLACK KEYLINE)

ANNE: Of course. I do get confused.




PETER: Spend more time writing all this stuff than teaching children.

HAROLD: Got to be done. The Department insists on it. The inspectors are coming next week.

PETER: Never taught a child in their lives. Will they get to see any actual classrooms or just spend all day auditing mission statements?

HAROLD: Up to them, I guess. So. The motto. Where do we start?

ROBERT (TEACHER AND COMMITTEE MEMBER): Well, we like to do things differently. How about ‘innovation’ as a starting point?

HAROLD: Brilliant, Robert. No wonder you’re the English teacher. What else?

WENDY: We do things as a team. ‘Together’?

GEORGETTE: Excellent, Wendy. Innovation and Togetherness.

HAROLD: Innovating Together.

ROBERT: Together We Innovate.


ANNE: Something funny, Pete?

PETER: Just imagining that motto plastered all over the shelter shed. Plenty of togetherness and innovation there over the years.


GEORGETTE: Hmm. Maybe we can say it in a different way. What other words can we use? Something different. Something no other school has used.

PENNY: Discere et Agere worked for me when I was at school.


PENNY CONTINUES: Latin is classic, timeless, elegant and succinct. And we always took pride in learning – and explaining to others - its meaning.

HAROLD BREAKS A SHORT SILENCE: Latin is elitist, Penny. And it is not a good idea to have your marketing tool in another language. Especially a dead language. People won’t get it.

PENNY: I thought it was a motto; an inspiration for the children. Now it’s an advertising slogan to recruit students. Gosh. I am so last century. Why don't I just shut up and continue planning the sports day refreshments tent?

ANNE SEGUES TO HELP PENNY OUT: Speaking of competition, we do have to acknowledge some parents’ aspirations for their children, I suppose. ‘Aim high’?

HAROLD: Yes, but without alienating the others.

PETER: The underachievers.

HAROLD: We don’t call them that, Peter. What about ‘achieve’ rather than ‘aim’? Achievement doesn’t set a bar.

PETER: Exactly. You can achieve getting out of bed.

GEORGETTE TURNS TO PETER: I know you’ve been on the committee since children were reading The School Paper and Eighth Grade Reader and sending away for projects through The Commonwealth Trades Alphabet, Peter, but do you think you could temper your negativity with a little enthusiasm every now and then?

PETER: I don’t lack enthusiasm, Georgette; I just know you can’t distil a dozen meaningless politically-correct cliches into one trite sentence and make any kind of sense to anyone.

HAROLD (GUFFAWS): That’s why the mission statement runs to ten paragraphs, Peter.

PETER: And aside from all that, I saw a motto outside a primary school in North Fitzroy the other day that was disarming in its simplicity.

ALL: What did it say?

PETER: ‘I Love Learning’.



HAROLD (STIFLING A YAWN): So. Where are we?

ROBERT (NOT STIFLING A YAWN): I think we have a result: ‘Achieving Together Through Innovation and Excellence’.

GEORGETTE: Beautiful! That says it all. That’s our brand! Our point of difference! Our Unique Selling Proposition!

HAROLD (CHUCKLES): You said that as if it had a little ‘TM’ after it, Georgette. The Department will love it. No-one else has anything like it! Nice work, everyone. By the way, where are Peter and Penny?

ROBERT: They’re in the kitchen preparing supper.

ANNE: Best idea all night. There’s a chocolate cake, I believe.



Fragrant white zucchini stew over peppered polenta with a gremolata of kale and rocket.

Recipes are few and far between here these days, so here's one with a long restaurant-style name (that must by chefs' law include at least every item in the recipe, often with several descriptors each).


Not so long ago Australian olive oil was an expensive 'gourmet' item. Now production is a torrent and it is available in four litre cans in supermarkets. About time. Who wants to pay top dollar for supposedly '100% olive oil' from Europe that isn't? All right, we've been through all this before, let's on with the recipe.


Saute a large chopped onion in olive oil (Cobram Estate, near the bees, see yesterday's post) until tender/translucent/melting/choose your own description. Or about five minutes if you prefer a prescribed time. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don't; although a prescribed time is dependent on variations in cooking heat and utensils so I veer to words. If they convey the sense well enough.

I digress. The onions are soft. That's it! Soft. Now add two scored garlic cloves, a tablespoonful of grated orange zest, a teaspoonful of cummin and a half teaspoonful of dried crushed red pepper. Stir through the onions until well combined. Or a minute. Now add about a half kilogram of white zucchini (or green, but the paler ones looks nicer in this dish) chopped into centimetre dice, two cans of diced tomatoes with their juice and bring it to the point where it is bubbling.

Turn down the heat and simmer until the zucchini is tender. Ten minutes will do it. Now add a can of drained and rinsed chickpeas and twenty pitted black olives. Simmer another ten minutes at least; add water if necessary.

Serve over peppered polenta: cook polenta, crack twenty black peppercorns in mortar and add them along with salt to taste and grated parmesan cheese (optional).

Garnish with a gremolata of what you have available: I chopped a sprig of parsley and a leaf each of rocket and kale and mixed these with minced garlic and grated lemon zest.


The Sting.

Timbercorp liquidators have convinced three banks - ANZ, Westpac and Bank of Scotland - to stump up the $3.4 million needed to truck 1.6 billion bees to the Murray region in an attempt to save the $100 million almond crop.

But is it too late?

"The order for the bees was required to be placed on 16 July, and as a result of the delay no guarantee as to the effectiveness of the pollination can be given, but we remain hopeful," (liquidator) Mr Korda said.


The new rose.

Monty arrived in 1986 when my now grown-up son - William and Thomas' older brother - was ten years old, and his sister seven. Monty was an eight-week-old Brittany spaniel pup; a breed known now simply as the Brittany, because the dog is more of a pointer or a setter than a spaniel.

Monty lasted thirteen years. The children edged into their teenage years, there was a divorce, the children finished school, I remarried, we moved house. Changes. Monty went along with all this and never complained and sat quietly in between walks - on my chair if I wasn't in it - and hardly ever even shed hair. Although he did eat my dinner once, and another time chewed up a brand new pair of ASICS Tiger Excalibur-GT running shoes, the very best running shoe in history, bar none.

Brittanies have boundless energy. Monty would run ten kilometres. I knew: I ran with him. In the old days. Except he zig-zagged, so he probably ran twenty.

Then, suddenly one day he was old and he faded, and succumbed to kidney disease in early summer 2000. You get attached to a dog that has accompanied you on long journeys, and not just foot ones. I was going to spread his ashes in one of his favourite places, but I couldn't decide whether that was Princes Park, Merri Creek or the beach. So I didn't. He sat on a shelf instead. In one of those jars the pet crematorium people give you, with flowery pictures and your dog's name in an ornate script. Except 'Monty' always looked wrong in an ornate script. He was a Times New Roman kind of dog. Bold.


On Sunday I planted a new rose in the garden, and you know the rest. This house is two doors up from the old one. We moved back into this street in 2005 after five years away. Now Monty is in the front garden of the house he used to trot past at the start of his walks; and next to the house where his friend the one-eyed chihuahua lived.


Spammers appear to have mastered word verification. What next?


Is Skylab still out there?

I went out to the letterbox and fished out the mail.

There was an insurance bill. It was heavy. I tore it open.

A book fell out.

Terms and conditions.

One hundred and seventy-seven pages.

Gloss cover in heavy stock. Perfect bound.


They don't call it terms and conditions any more. They call it a 'product disclosure statement'. With capitals. To make it sound important.

Now, let me see. What could they have usefully fitted between the front and back covers?

The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James Cain? You'd get that in almost twice. Albert Camus' The Stranger? Conrad's Heart of Darkness? Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby? James' Washington Square? Animal Farm by George Orwell? Lawrence's The Virgin and the Gypsy?

Easy. Most of those novels have chapters, of course, meaning plenty of blank pages; but this product disclosure statement just ploughed along, type falling on page after page like a concertinaed train wreck.

And what a wreck. Check this - about roofs - from page 141. Roofs are important, as anyone who lives in a house will be aware. This is what they say about your roof, when it gets torn away in a storm or a plane hits it or your hot water system explodes and blows it off:

"(When) roof sheeting is damaged we will only replace the damaged roof sheeting, not the undamaged roof sheeting, even if the closest match available to us is a different shade or colour to the undamaged roof sheeting."
Great. Multi-coloured roof. Same deal with the walls.

One hundred and seventy-seven pages.

Perfect bound. Four colour offset.

The bill part itself, the bit that tells you how much to pay, was still in the envelope. I pulled it out. It was eight pages long.

On a positive note, from page 71 of the 'book':

"We cover damage caused by the impact of space debris."
I went back inside. There was a burning smell. I'd been cooking. I'd cut up two onions and set them to soften in oil in a heavy pan.

They were past soft and back to hard again.


But what was the date on the moon?

Two days of winter warmth. A north-easterly off the alps in the morning, picking up some warmth after midday; perhaps turning slightly westerly and dragging in some heat off the flat floor of 10 million acres of Mallee desert.

Too early to be thinking about spring. But buds are forming on the trees. The pruned roses are starting to shoot. And this evening, did I notice the light seemed to hesitate before failing?


The papers - all media - have been full of moon landing nostalgia, dutifully pointing out that it was 21 July 1969 here and 20 July 1969 elsewhere, and even releasing 'previously unreleased footage', like new Beatles songs or an extra reel of The Godfather. I don't remember this degree of coverage on the tenth, twentieth or thirtieth anniversaries. Maybe they're just warming up for the half-century.


Rice again. This time, another winter favourite that is more a lunch thing; indeed, a breakfast thing in Asia.

Congee with fish.

Bring to boil two cup of rice in sixteen cups of water. Simmer low until rice breaks down. Stir frequently. When almost done, add fine strips of ginger; then slices of white-fleshed fish. Cook until fish is done, fibve minutes should do it.

Scatter chopped spring onions (or dried fried onions) and a dash of sesame oil to serve. And hot chilli, ground or sauce, in a bowl on the side, along with a cruet of soy or tamari.

What I love about this dish is its soothing warmth and the heat of the chilli and the salt of the soy against the blandness of the rice. A true winter warmer.


All right. I'll tell you. I was 12, in a classroom on the ground floor of a two-storey red brick school building watching the telecast on an ancient HMV black and white television. The astronaut took forever to step down onto the moon, and then he finally did, and we all cheered and got to go outside and play.


Send bees.

1.6 billion bees - 120 semi-trailer loads - required urgently or we don't eat almonds.

"We have just a two-week window to get the hives and have them in place when the trees bloom next month," he said yesterday.
The numbers are staggering: 52,000 hives, each containing 30,000 bees; to pollinate 12,000 almond trees grown by 7,000 growers producing a $100 million crop.

Many of the trees border the Murray Valley Highway from Boundary Bend to Robinvale, probably my favourite drive ever; Murray River to one side, seemingly endless almond groves to the other. Further north the almonds give way to red soil and orange trees and beyond that, Mildura; and then nothing but vast emptiness and interstate trucks.


Winter turns a corner.

It was 5 o’clock on a darkening Monday evening. I was in the local library doing some research, called browsing, with one eye on a book and the other on the high window that looks over Victoria Street and beyond. Outside, the north-west sky was a giant black cloud crying its heart out. Beneath it was a grey veil of rain stretching from Footscray to Broadmeadows. The cloud moved nearer and the downpour hit the library like thunder. The street outside turned that intense storm colour, a kind of seething yellow grey, like reflected lightning. The lights in the butcher shop and the shoe store across the road pixillated and a flash of red was a raincoat running for cover towards the shopfront verandah.

By the time the rain stopped and the black cloud had rumbled east towards Heidelberg and Kew, it was almost dark anyway. I walked home in the cold wet dusk to the white house with the perennial borders. The pelargoniums are still in flower. Or again. They never stop.


Oh look, Al Gore is back in town, visiting from the other side of the world to tell us to turn off a light. Being a politician he's doing it diplomatically:

"I don't want to interfere with Australian affairs -- or at least I don't want to be caught doing it," he said.
Thanks, Al. Goodbye. Ah, Al: that’s the road to the airport. You didn't fly here, did you? If a balsa raft was good enough for Thor Heyerdahl ...


It's that critical time of winter, a kind of seasonal hump day when you think to hell with all this heavy food.

So to hell with all that heavy food, just for a night. Let's try something lighter. How about some nice fish steamed with garlic and ginger with fresh greens and aromatic rice? Not a bacon bone or a potato or a shank or a jug of gravy in sight.

Steamed Tasmanian salmon with a trio of greens.

I wrapped two slices of fresh salmon (skin on, the flavour is better) in foil with a splash of tamari, a teaspoonful of grated fresh ginger, a scored garlic clove and two spring onions sliced on the diagonal into one-inch strips.

While that was steaming, I set some rice to boil - a cupful of basmati with a tablespoonful of red rice. The red rice on its own can be a little heavy but mixed with the white makes a nice change. Then I quickly cooked a bunch of pak choy - washed and sliced - in its residual rinsing water and a dash of sesame oil, with the rest of the bunch of spring onions complete with their green sections, once again diagonally cut, and a dozen snow peas thrown in with a minute to go. A squirt of oyster sauce to finish it off.

Fish on a plate, rice beside, greens over the rice. Jasmine tea.


Wild weather; comfort food.

I was five feet up a ladder propped against a tree that was growing at a fifty degree angle to the ground, which was a hill. I was on the south side of the tree, because of the hill, and a northerly off Port Phillip Bay was blasting into my face, as was the sawdust from the branch I was sawing off.


It was Saturday afternoon. The weather was appalling, but I had a backyard full of overgrown ti-tree, a sharp saw and no excuses. I switched the radio on, tuned it to the football, turned up the volume loud enough to hear over the wind and positioned it on the ledge of the open window of the bungalow, facing out.

Then I climbed the ladder, lopped branches and listened to the game.


I have criticised football commentators in the past, but I must say that Gerard Whateley has all the accuracy, enthusiasm and tonal qualities of Bruce MacAvaney but none of his verbal tics. Whateley is probably the best currently calling. (The commentator always does a better job when your team wins, of course. Not sure why.)


We've had this place ten years. The ti tree and moonah seem to have doubled in size in that time. Their canopies once sat on the fence line but are now way above. I'm not sure of their lifespan but I've taken out several dead trunks in the last couple of years. Meanwhile, an old pine in an adjacent block has spread well into our south-west corner.


No chainsaw. I use a Sandvik, the Volvo of handsaws. It does the job fine if you don't hack, and just let the teeth do the work.


The rain came and I threw the Sandvik into the tiny Colorbond cubicle they call a shed. The ladder doesn't fit inside, even folded, so I stashed that behind, went into the bungalow and switched off the radio before the post-game analysis started. Then I started thinking about dinner. It was that time of the afternoon.


Polpette with cheese.

It's just cheesy meatballs. But delicious. To 300g of chicken mince, I added a cup of grated cheddar, good tablespoons of polenta and finely chopped parsley, a finely chopped garlic clove and salt and pepper. I mixed these and formed them into golfballs and dropped them into a simmering pot of tomato puree cooked with garlic, salt, pepper and a dash of white wine. They took about fifteen minutes to cook through.

They were served over steaming tagliatelle with grated parmesan as the wind roared and the rain lashed.


The shorter emu?

The owl, especially in children's literature, is often illustrated as an impressive, silent, imperious creature; brooding on its perch like an old judge. It helps that it is a nocturnal creature, of course. It's harder to draw an owl at night, in flight.

I was reading Squirrel Nutkin to Thomas and referred to Old Brown, a particularly wise and patient owl, as a bird.

"You are wrong, Daddy!" Thomas declared, finger in the air. "Owls walk!"


Lies, damned lies and Bosch dishwashing machines.

The colour ad in the magazine that fell out of the weekend newspaper was the usual cliched rubbish designed and written by a creative team earning $300,000 p.a. between them. A stupid-looking man (they have to look stupid, or the casting agency won't cast them for the job) wearing oversized pink rubber gloves was standing in front of a kitchen sink full of bubbles as if wondering what a kitchen sink was and why he was standing in front of it wearing a pair of oversized pink rubber gloves. Advertising cliche #2,143.

The ad declared that Bosch dishwashers used a fraction of the water used by obviously stupid people who refuse to buy a dishwasher.

It then went on to quote 'research' supposedly showing that while the dishwasher used 15 litres, the amount used by the human dish-washer to wash the same number of dishes was 103 litres on average.

103 litres?????!!!!! On average?

(I hardly ever use multiple exclamation marks, let alone question marks, so this better be good. It was good.)

Such a statistic, casually dropped into an ad, is usually swallowed whole by your average hungover breakfast weekend newspaper reader whose mental focus is simultaneously engaged in hoovering up a plate of eggs florentine on sourdough with fried mushrooms on the side and a strong latte, maybe two, at any number of inner city cafes. It's the same everywhere. Drink, chew, read a few lines of a newspaper, drink some more, flick the page, chew some more, read some more. What's a statistic on a Sunday morning? A number, that's what. Doesn't mean a thing. Finish the coffee. Pay the bill. Wink at the waitress. Shuffle out into Brunswick Street. Go home.

To use 103 litres of water when washing the dishes, even a setting for twelve, I would have to call the fire brigade, take the dishes out into the front yard, wait for the fire brigade to arrive and then have them blast the food off the dishes using their most powerful hose.

So how the hell does Bosch come up with the figure? I guessed they must have chosen households without plugs. I guessed kind of right:

(the) ‘carefree-dish-washer’. Typical for these persons washing practice is to have the tap water running most of the time (sometimes also during drying the dishes!).
If I can follow the semi-literate report, the figure blew out with 'many' of the hundred-plus test washers using in excess of 200 litres and one individual using a staggering 447 litres:

Looking on the consumption values for water (Fig.4) and energy (Fig.5) no
homogenous picture is given anymore. In both measures a big variation is visible.
On water a first centre may be identified around 30 to 100 litre, while a second is
around 130 litres. But there are also many test persons who have consumed more
then 200 litres, with the most extreme one at 447 litres.
Maybe they used monkeys.


Tasklist: get a life.

Remarking that I have never watched an episode (does reality television have episodes?) of Masterchef gets a similar response to when I let drop that I have never seen any Star Wars, James Bond or Quentin Tarantino movie (or in the latter case, film). The second admission covers most movie audience types, so there's always a falling jaw.


Layers of meaning.

If you visit a place called The Tofu Shop you kind of know what you are going to eat.

I used to eat there when I worked near Bridge Road, in that old red brick building that used to be a shirt factory and became an office block in the late eighties, when Australia was busy exporting manufacturing. The old red brick building had a neon sign on its roof that read 'PELACO' and I worked directly beneath the 'E'.

I used to go to The Tofu Shop ('The' was part of its name, hence the capital T, although it looks wrong) because I liked the way they layered their dishes. You didn't just get a slab of soy curd, slippery and shaking like a jellyfish, on a plate. Instead, they used to layer textures and tastes in a way that kept you interested, like reading a thriller. Frameworks of steamed vegetables, grains of various kinds and legumes were built over with salads, the starring home-made tofu, or a combination of ingredients; and then topped with yogurt, or garlic or chilli sauces. Or both. Or neither. Or all three. Higher and higher. Then a vortex of pickled ginger, or maybe some tabbouleh. As a garnish? Why not? Or a wafer of crisped pita. You had to eat for about ten minutes before you got to see the view if you sat in a window seat overlooking Bridge Road.

And I wasn't even vegetarian.

Since then, I have tried to do the same kind of layering at home. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. The highs are high and the lows go in the bin, but only because we don't have dogs any more. This one was a high:

Warm salad of rice, pesto and chick peas.

I picked a heap of rocket and parsley and processed it with walnuts, olive oil, garlic and parmesan cheese. (The combination of ingredients is forgiving; it just needs to be silky smooth and very slightly 'wet' when done.)

Then I cooked some brown rice, enough to make up two cupfuls; folded two tablespoons of the pesto through the rice, and added a can of chick peas, heated and drained, and half a cup of fresh cooked green peas. (You can use frozen.) The brown rice adds a robustness to the taste and texture of the whole dish. It's not just a health thing. Or try barley.

The warm salad was served on a bed of fluffy couscous, and topped with sour cream and a dash of chilli sauce.

With food like that, I could turn vegetarian. For a while, anyway. A week?


The house on the hill.

Of course, we used to visit relatives there. Still do.

The new freeways have cut the trip to the Dandenongs by about 45 minutes. My father used to take Elgin, Johnson, Studley Park, Barkers, Canterbury and Burwood; a tour of Melbourne’s Victorian and Edwardian streetscape and architecture. On the freeway, you get to look at these.


I took the Monash freeway to Eastlink, ignored the faux art, hooked off and under at Ferntree Gully Road and then up into the hills. Within twenty minutes, we were curving into the narrow main street of Belgrave, where the shops seem to lean into the road like eager spruikers trying to shoulder each other out of the way.

Past the strip, we turned south across the railway bridge, coasted down the hill into a long gully and turned into an unmade road that followed the bank of a creek towards a forest.

We were visiting a relative. I had had to consult a map, because the relative had recently moved house. We found the house on the high side of the gravel road, on a west-facing slope that dropped down to the street and Belgrave Creek beyond it. Behind the house, a 1960s timber cottage, the slope rose at an impossible angle through a terraced garden, overgrown with rhododendron, camellia, photinia and any number of natives. At the top of it all, along a high ridge, was a line of eucalypts and bare poplars. These would be invisible on a foggy day.

The car crunched to a stop on a gravel forecourt and we climbed the timber steps to a verandah. The front door opened. The relative smiled us in. “Like the house? It’s a bit of a mess. I haven’t finished unpacking yet.”

Does anyone ever finish unpacking? I’ve moved four times in ten years and I still haven’t opened boxes from the first move.

“It’s great. And the view!”

The relative smiled again. Happy in a kind of tired, relieved way. She looked around as if she couldn’t believe she was in a new house. Maybe she couldn’t.

They were divorced a year or so ago. Now the children travel to and from their father's house in a kind of a daze, and not just from being teenagers.


A lot of people in this situation. Careening through their thirties and forties, carrying the baggage of their lives, and several hundred books, and a brand new mortgage for a couple of hundred thousand dollars, to a new place; a bit quieter and a bit lonelier. Don't think about the mortgage. It will look after itself. Or not. But never leave the books behind.


We sat on chairs on the veranda at the front with cups of coffee and watched the kookaburras in the treetops, beyond the gravel road and the trickling water. A small valley with a stream running through it. Later, we walked along the pathway that follows the creek into the State forest where coloured birds – crimson rosellas – swooped raggedly, in groups but no real formation, through the clearings in stands of eucalypts. There were bellbirds as well. Their call is unmistakable. It whips and echoes. I remember the sound from years ago, climbing up a block in forested Selby, when there were no houses, just dreams.


The boys and I looked down from a ridge edged with treeferns. Down below, two women - sisters - chatting, out of earshot, at the edge of the trees. Laughing like the teenagers they were then, when they lived in the draughty house in the Dandenongs.