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

30.9.09

Property agent to company principal: "What are we in this week, property or food?"

What do real estate agents know that we don't?

Some time ago, Mornington Peninsula agent Briggs Shaw took an each-way bet by making one of its offices both a property agency AND a cafe.

Now, prominent Point Nepean Road agency Paul Basso Real Estate has rebranded - and is now calling itself Fruit.

28.9.09

September holidays.

Tracy is on holidays from the special developmental school at which she teaches. We're at the beach for a week and my mother-in-law is with us. The boys' Scottish accents are coming along nicely and they are being fattened up on shortbread. Nice work, Grandma. On Saturday her team won the Grand Final. Not really 'her' team, but the team her late husband - the boys' Grandpa - followed. So a sentimental moment. "We are Geelong, the greatest team of all ..." to the tune of Toreador.

23.9.09

Silverbeet: one word or two?

No-one seems to know, but I prefer one.

Spelling aside, there is a forest of it in the new garden bed we cut into the front lawn last year to save money; or rather, divert money from buying vegetables to watering the garden bed. (Latest water bill: water usage $25; utility charges $160. And they want us to save water?)

Don't grow carrots. Their yield is not worth the investment in garden space. They are cheap anyway. Cos lettuce: brilliant. We had a constant supply of leaves for Caesar salad through autumn and early winter. Rocket: far too much. Plant rocket in between ornamentals. It's a waste of vegetable garden space. Which brings me to silverbeet.

I grew up on silverbeet, the earthy-tasting green otherwise known as Swiss Chard and probably sixty-three other names. Silverbeet always entered the house riding rampant, like a triumphant knight's fleur-de-lys, on top of the box of vegetables my father walked in with after his Tuesday visits to the Victoria market in the 1960s.

My mother just cooked it plain, never fooling around with garlic or pepper or chilli flakes or cream or anything like that. Boiled. In the colander. Help yourself. We did.

But this is today, and today we know better. We are educated. We are multicultural. We are people of the world. We threw our mother's cookbook into the recycling bin years ago. Instead, we cook what we saw five minutes ago in some glossy food magazine costing $14.95 at the newsstand that we will throw out next month. Or on a television show hosted by a person who is famous because they are on television.

Exactly.

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Spanakopita.

Rinse an entire bunch of silverbeet, ensuring all the bugs, soil, grubs, snails and grit have made their exit. I did say it was out of the garden.

Melt it down slowly in a heavy pan with the moisture remaining on its leaves, in a little oil, with a chopped onion, a clove of garlic and a shower of pepper.

When done, press out liquid and transfer to a large bowl. Add cheese to about two-thirds the weight of the silverbeet. Guess, because you can't go wrong. Crumbled feta with ricotta is often used; we made it with two parts feta to one part kefalograviera. Hell, you can use Kraft cheddar or Bega Bar-B-Cubes if you wish. I must try it with King Island blue one day. That would be delicious.

Cut filo sheets into strips about three inches by nine. Place a spoonful of silverbeet mixture in corner of filo nearest you. Fold the end of the shorter edge to the longer side, ensuring the mixture is enclosed. Brush top of fold with melted butter. Now fold the opposite way, and brush again in turn, to the end. Seal with butter.

Bake until filo is golden brown, and cheese is bubbling. Twenty minutes in most ovens is more than enough on 200.

My mother would have just boiled it. I miss that taste; mingled with mashed potato next to a pile of white-peppered mince stew.

18.9.09

Table manners.

Thomas bit the head off a broccoli floret and threw the stalk full force across the table at William.

So he eats his vegetables but he throws his food. What do you do? You can't reward and punish simultaneously. The dilemmas you face.

The fact is, he likes broccoli so much he eats it raw. It is growing in the garden. You pick a floret and he will eat it right there.

It was half past six on an early spring evening, an evening that was still glistening with rain. That was the rain we needed. The forecast had been cloudy and the first drops had fallen around ten in the morning when I had been driving along Bell Street and down the ramp onto the freeway where Moonee Valley falls away and you feel like you're landing at Essendon Airport. The drops only made a red mud of the windscreen dirt that had blown in earlier in the week on the dreadful winds, but by lunchtime the rain had set in properly. My rain gauge (the wheelbarrow) was full by morning.

*

Thomas's next move was to steal a piece of broccoli from William's bowl. William was complicit in the crime. Happy to see it disappear. A brother who eats your broccoli! Send him around, I can hear a million children begging. William picked up another buttery potato wedge and said nothing. Thomas ate the floret and placed the stalk ostentatiously in his bowl; as if to say he wouldn't dream of throwing another child's food.

*

Crumbed cutlets.

Cut from the rack, these lamb chops are among the most tender of ways to eat meat. Simply dust well in flour, coat with egg mixed with a little milk and dredge through breadcrumbs - I used a mixture of breadcrumbs and wheat germ. I fried them in ghee in a very hot cast iron pan four minutes each side.

Serve with potatoes cut into batons, boiled and rolled through butter; and broccoli.

15.9.09

New varieties of things just keep popping up.

Welcome back to At My Table's Neil who writes of a waiter, when asked for the name of a particular variety of French mustard, returns from checking the name on the jar to announce, "It's called moutarde!"

Reminds me of the Coles checkout girl who, when scanning a parsnip for my pot of winter vegetable soup a few months ago, enthused: "Wow! A white carrot! How long have they been around?"

14.9.09

Solving a sticky problem. And a quick recipe.

Reader Johanna asked me how I got my pasta strands not to stick together.

I replied: with difficulty.

The stock answers to the question are (a) use a larger pot and more water, (b) salt the water well, (c) add oil to the water, and (d) do all of the above.

I've had pasta strands stick together in all of these cases. Furthermore, the solutions are not always practical; for example, we don't salt the water when cooking pasta for the children.

I suspect other factors are at play. Pasta quality is one, obviously. Water quality might be another. Water hardness inhibits soap suds; perhaps it also inhibits the action of boiling water 'sealing' each strand of pasta. I don't know. I'm no scientist. I'm just wondering.

My solution is to stir the boiling water gently while adding the strands one at a time so that they float off around the pot like logs setting off down a river. Laborious if you are feeding fifty people. Or even five. But you get used to it. I kind of fan the strands across my right palm and drop them in sequentially, while stirring with my left hand. And around they go.

Square (on the crosscut) pasta such as linguine and bavette is more likely to stick together due to its unrounded surface areas 'clamping' onto other strands.

Shells will often hide inside each other, like stacked chairs, and refuse to come out. Lasagne sheets are notorious for sticking together.

Home-made gnocchi will cleave (is that the only word in the English language with two completely opposite meanings?) to each other. I once made a pot of gnocchi that all stuck together and came out in one bulbous grey shape like a space station from a 1950s B-grade science fiction movie. I ate it anyway. It still tasted good. It was the world's first unpretentious gnoccho.

Fast carbonara with spaghetti alla chittara.

This dish takes virtually no longer than the time it takes to cook the pasta. Local company Da Vinci (their pasta is as good as their website is bad) makes a good chitarra (square-cut spaghetti) that has the slipperiness, flexibility and flavour of fresh pasta. Da Vinci's home page says the company was set up because the founder thought he could make a better standard of dried pasta than others. He's right. The shame is that Da Vinci is not widely available outside the inner suburbs. It should be. Why buy expensive - or even less expensive - Italian imports? It's nothing to do with food miles. It's jobs: the farmer's flour and eggs, the packaging printer and all the rest. Buy enough Da Vinci pasta and they'll be able to afford a web page designer.

Oh, the recipe:

Set the pasta to cook.

While it is doing so, fry a few strips of rindless bacon, chopped into small squares, in a small amount of olive oil. When nearly done, add half a cup of white wine, a chopped garlic clove and a shower of cracked pepper.

Drain pasta when done. Toss into cooked bacon and stir around while adding two eggs. Stir to combine on low heat. Switch off heat as egg sets. A minute will do it. Remove immediately to serving plates. Strew chopped parsley.

4.9.09

Oh, there it is.

It's the little things that get you.

Like when you reach for something you absolutely must have at that particular second, and it isn't there. Because if it isn't there, it could be anywhere; which means whatever you are doing in the kitchen will be ruined by the time you make enquiries of the rest of the household as to the whereabouts of the missing item: your best knife, the corkscrew, the only colander in the house, an oven mitt, the kitchen sink plug. Whatever. All of these things have a number of potential alternative uses in a household that comprises inventive or enterprising people.

Take my favourite small dish, for example. It was just the right size to hold olives or a pat of butter for the table. Emblazoned with the University of Melbourne crest and the words Melbourne University Union House Cafeteria in black, the white porcelain bowl also made an excellent talking point. (And no, I didn't steal it.)

One day, a long time ago now, I had taken a stick of butter out of the fridge, chopped it in half, cubed the half and reached for my Union House bowl. Not there.

I found it months later in Tracy's artroom filled to just below the crest with dried paint; red mixed with yellow to make a perfect orange for her painting of sunset over citrus groves after one of our trips to Mildura, the city built by the Chaffey brothers, out of nothing, in a desert.

How could I be annoyed? Who says the bowl was any better utilised mixing paint than it was holding butter? Or sitting on a table in a cafeteria at Melbourne University Union House, for that matter? Except that the latter no longer exists. In fact, no cafeteria exists any more. What replaced cafeterias? Beats me.

*

Speaking of unlikely favourite items, my best butter knife has a similar background. It could be a hundred years old. The handle is of the old-fashioned bulbous kind, swelling at the top in elegant silver filigreed with scrolls and arabesques. The blade is broad and slightly flexible, providing excellent butter - and vegemite, of course - coverage with a couple of efficient sweeps of the hand. The handle bears the crest and motto of the Athenaeum Club.

And no, I didn't steal it.

*

Finally, a universal kitchen mystery: teaspoons. Where do all the teaspoons go?

Over to you: the answer to the question immediately above, along with stories of missing items from your kitchen, or your souvenirs - stolen or otherwise - please.

1.9.09

Spring: brought to you by ricotta and tomatoes.

Was that the fastest winter ever?

Well, yes: actually, it was. I've had this conversation before, so skip to the recipe below if I'm boring you.

Time seems to disappear into oblivion faster as the years go by, because each is a smaller amount of time relative to one's entire lifetime.

Prove that, someone said to me once.

Time is just perception, I replied. It exists only for sentient beings.

Several sentient seconds went by, and then: Prove that as well, followed by, also: billions of years of Earth's existence before human life appeared says you are wrong.

A rock doesn't know how old it is, I replied, quickly.

The great thing about not being a scientist is you never have to prove anything.

Fettucine with ricotta and tomatoes.

Cook some fettucine until just done. Drain. Toss through a little olive oil.

Break up some fresh ricotta (you can buy it still warm from Elli's Deli in Sydney Road although the horde of elderly Greek ladies waiting to be served means you could be standing there for half an hour - have a coffee at Andre's while you wait) and strew it through the pasta along with some sliced tomatoes, if you can find any at this end of the season. Dust with cracked pepper and sprinkle parsley.

Drink: lightly chilled rose. Yes, it's fine to drink rose again. Just not the Portugese one in the fat bottle.

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Mt Feathertop note: I first walked the spur as a teenager. Somewhat irresponsibly, I wandered away - a mere few hundred metres - from the bushwalking group's morning tea break and nearly fell down a slope. I clung on with a bootcap and fingernailed my way horizontally along the hard snow until the grade had softened sufficiently that I could climb out without hurtling to my death.

The real chill went down my spine when I returned to find the group leaving - without apparently having noticed my absence.

I suspect Tim Holding won't walk the track alone again, at least not in winter.