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


A shorter history of the vegetable garden.

Beans take a few months to grow, and then you have enough to feed a suburb. Unless you preserve them and who can be bothered doing that?

Our childhood household had a preserving set that was thrown out unceremoniously during the Great Food Revolution of the 1960s, when everyone abandoned vegetable gardens and turned to the supermarket for salvation. It was called liberation, from chores and peeling; from chopping and wrapping up scraps in newspaper to be placed in corrugated galvanised iron rubbish bins with lids that clattered along the street in a storm like hubcaps off a car.

My father persisted with his vegetable garden through the flower power years, growing radishes well into the early seventies until everyone stopped eating them. People laughed out loud when they saw them on his salad platters, as if they were some kind of odd food relic from an earlier time. Yes! They are edible! So the 1970s arrived and the radish was out and the exotic avocado was in; but you didn’t grow avocadoes, you bought them, just like asparagus, which came in cans, limp and grey, to be served in crustless sandwiches. Liberation! And cans of vegetables!

So Dad retired his vegetable garden and took up eclectic pursuits such as painting in oils, reading the form guide, raising zebra finches and drinking endless cups of tea. The garden was turned over to some kind of surly perennial and the only edible plant on the property that remained, apart from the mint border that you couldn’t kill, was a straggly choko vine that clung to the garage, holding it together. I don’t remember ever eating a choko; but once the vine went, the garage fell apart; but my brother’s gargantuan Mark IX Jaguar might have had something to do with that. (He stored it behind the garage when he went overseas, and had to excise part of the garage wall to angle the car out a couple of years later; because a tree had grown larger, blocking its egress. The things you don't think of.)

Now everything old is new again and people are ripping up old lawns and digging lumps of concrete and old bricks out of the ground and doing soil analyses so that they don't poison their children with lead and arsenic in the guise of ‘returning to the earth’. It’s the new liberation: liberation from the supermarket that was once salvation from labor. No wonder religion gets a bad name.

Now all we need is a Fowlers Vacola preserving set. (Funny thing: everyone had Fowlers Vacola sets in the fifties - along with pressure cookers – but they were unsighted until they all turned up about ten years ago at garage sales, meaning they must have sat in attics for around forty years before people turfed them out. My sociological conclusion: people keep things they know they will never use for forty years, just to be sure. Proof: recently, I have noticed an abundance of orange or lime green electric fry pans circa 1970 at garage sales and op shops, complete with grimy old brown plug-in cords. Yes, it's safe to throw them out now! Bingo: a thesis. Where’s my grant?)


Back to the beans. About three thousand of them ripened at once, necessitating a day of harvesting and picking. I am proud to say that Thomas sat on the lawn, in the shade, and podded (yes, that is a word, we used to do it in the 1960s) a whole colander full of broad beans, occasionally chewing on one. A job not to William’s liking; he rode his bicycle up and down all the while, singing Ridin’ the Rails, à la Johnny Cash: "Mm, mm, mm, mmmm."

Middle Eastern-style broad beans pureed with garlic, cumin and coriander.

Harvest a kilogram of broad beans. Get your children to pod them. You don’t have to peel the individual beans, a job that would take you about a week.

Meanwhile, cook two chopped onions in olive oil in a large heavy pot for three or four minutes, add two scored cloves of garlic, cook a little more, and then add two teaspoons of ground cumin, half a teaspoon of cayenne pepper and a dash of ground coriander.

Now add the beans along with a cup or so of water. At this stage, I had to upgrade to a larger pot. How are we going to eat all of this? Cook on low heat until the beans soften.

Now add half a cup of lemon juice, two or three more tablespoons of olive oil, and process in batches to a semi-smooth consistency. Reheat if desired, adding chopped coriander or dill.

Ideal on grilled fish; wrapped in pita or Turkish bread with kebabs; as an accompaniment to chick pea and tomato stew; on toasted Lebanese bread with zatar (particularly delicious); dipped with those red pickled turnips you find in middle eastern shops; dipped with fresh blanched new-season asparagus; served on baked potato and scattered with toasted pine nuts and blackened sesame (again, particularly delicious); eaten straight out of the jar with a spoon standing in front of the fridge, etc etc etc, ad infinitum, so on and so forth.


Now: what am I going to plant where the beans were?

Maybe radishes. Maybe not.


How Hospitals Work, Part Three.

Ward Four South on a cool spring day. I’m sitting on a chair next to my mother’s bed. The doctor had called me a couple of hours earlier to tell me the surgery had been completed and all was looking fine. He sounded jovial, like someone who has just come into the clubhouse after eight rounds of golf.

There are tubes and clipboard charts and electronic bed elevation controls all over the bed and I’m afraid to come too near for fear of disconnecting something or tipping my mother onto the floor. I tell her not to talk, because she can’t. She ignores me. She talks. She is euphoric in that delirious post-operative way when the drugs are still working and before the pain hits.


The fourth admission had been successful. The planets had aligned, three months after the first attempt. When you finally get into the system, it works perfectly well. Meaning doctors, not necessarily hospitals in the wider sense. If you could have doctors without the bureaucracy: Médecins Sans Hôpitaux.

We sat and looked across the ward, where the view from the window is partially blocked by the northern wing. Beyond that, part of the roofline of University High School and the tops of some straggly old eucalypts shivering in the fresh afternoon breeze.


Next day she was not in the ward when I visited. I asked at the nurse station and the nurse pointed to the other end of the floor and I found her in a smaller, two-bed ward looking north over Parkville's Victorian slate rooftops towards peaceful, empty Royal Park. Less euphoric now. And sore. But eating. And desperate for a cup of tea. Tea: the wonder drug of my parent’s generation, and others. Strong and hot and sweet. They used to drink on hundred degree days. It cooled you down, they said.

She was tired. They had moved patients around after an altercation in the larger ward the previous night during which patients had been kept awake by disruption at one of the beds; someone’s quarrelling relatives. Why would you quarrel in a hospital at night? Drugs. I asked if they had had the quarrelers removed. A little law and order, perhaps? No, they had brought in a counselor. Imagine that. Late at night in a big-city hospital and they bring in someone to sit down and flap ineffectual hands and try and negotiate or arbitrate with drug addicts. What a job. What a world.


She went home after five days and much discussion between hospital factions. One faction, the throughput analysts, kept telling my mother she was to go home the second day after surgery; and the second faction, the doctor, kept overruling the first.

We are taking it in turns to tend her over the next few weeks. She may not lift anything heavier than a very small pot of water. Every time we visit she tries to leap up and put the kettle on. And then she remembers. We might have to tie her to her chair. For her own good. With the radio close by, so she can turn Radio National up loud.


How Hospitals Work, Part Two.

Three or four weeks after the scan. The required procedure or operation or whatever they call it was a laminectomy, which sounds like what you do when you renovate a 1950s kitchen, but is actually a way of easing pressure on the spinal nerve where it was being squeezed by the spine at the neck where it passes close to the gullet, or was it the oesophagus? The procedure was required soon, because my mother was having trouble breathing properly and couldn’t raise her arms, because the nerve radiates out and down the shoulders and arms. Don’t quote me on it, I’m not a doctor.


She was admitted four times. They rang her up and told her she was top of the list, and to be ready and prepared, like a parachute-backpacked airman set for a night mission, or an alert fireman on a hot day. Also, don’t eat anything after ten the night before, they said. And be here at the crack of dawn, they said. Fine. Four times.

The first time there was an emergency, meaning a more urgent case came up that morning, while she was already there, having arrived at the crack of dawn. Apparently they don’t have spare surgeons sitting around twiddling their thumbs or drinking coffee or surfing the net. It must be the only profession in the world with no down time. I used to work in one of the busiest industries in the world, and I still went nuts from boredom every second week. I should have been a doctor. They call my mother’s case ‘elective’, meaning you don’t die if it’s not done today. So they sent her home after five hours and told her she was still top of the list. That was nice to know.


It’s all her own fault, of course. The fact is, she wouldn’t die if they didn’t operate today or next week or next year. She’s fit as a fiddle and twice as mobile, strong as an ox and twice as stubborn. She walks a mile - each way - to the shops in North Essendon every day, and sometimes twice a day because she can’t lift anything heavy; so it’s bread in the morning and milk in the afternoon. She’s a voracious reader so she has to double her trips to the Moonee Valley Regional Library because she can only carry two or three books at a time. She gets on the tram that roars up Pascoe Vale Road, turns the corner into Fletcher Street, sails along Mt Alexander Road through the date palm plantation and tears around into Keilor Road; and she’s read three chapters of the first book before she gets off and walks the mile home. Of course, I deliver the heavy shopping, but she's always thinking of an excuse to do the Keilor Road dash. She's never driven a car.

Another three weeks drifted past, and she was called in again. This time the anaesthetist went missing. This is how hospitals work. It’s like the alignment of the planets. It might not happen often, but it does happen eventually. First you get the patients in and then you find an anaesthetist, a surgeon, a nurse, a sergeant-major at the front desk, and someone to count them all; and if one doesn’t turn up or is called away to an urgent case or gets stuck in Monash Freeway traffic or has a headache, you tell the patient to go away and come back next week, or next month, and good afternoon.

Being a person of generous spirit – she always has waifs and strays to Christmas and then they keep visiting – she did not become annoyed after the first or the second or even the third wait (only three hours this time), but her condition was not improving either. The odd thing is that the always very pleasant admitting staff became more and more apologetic about each cancellation, and so the effect was that my mother felt guilty and apologised right back to them, for being a nuisance or something. People are like that. It’s a funny world.


How Hospitals Work, Part One.

I was sitting in a waiting room in a hospital again. The parent this time; not a child. Again the waiting room was empty. Again a television was talking to itself in a corner, like a mad vicar preaching to an empty church. Again there was a sign that read Do not touch television controls. Again I switched it off.

It was eight o'clock at night. My mother had the last appointment of the day. I had driven her to Grattan Street and we walked through the maze that is the new RMH, now grafted to the RWH, and we were confused because you don't know which hospital you are in any more.


We had walked along half a kilometre of corridors and through sets of those flapping doors you only find in hospitals and restaurants, and then we had found the right place and we had gone in and sat down and a smiling Indian male nurse had come out and given my mother a two-page form on a clipboard that asks you to confirm you don't have any conditions and you are not micro-chipped and you don't have a gun in your pocket and you won't sue anybody for anything because they are not responsible, and he had asked her to read it and sign it. Fine. She read it and signed it.

Then the smiling Indian nurse had whisked her away through a door to a room where a giant CT scanning machine the size of a spaceship lay waiting to emit strange discordant whirrs and beeps and high-pitched screams and base drones, with my mother inside it, while it flew her to Mars and back.


I sat in the waiting room and read Blake Morrison's And When Did You Last See Your Father? in the kind of silence you get when you are the last appointment of the day in a hospital clinic, and the only other person there is the cleaner who wanders through quietly, empties the waste paper basket quietly and closes the door quietly. And When Did You Last See Your Father? is a chronicle of child’s farewell to his dying father and is probably not the best thing to read when you are in a hospital waiting room with your octogenarian mother; but neither were the trashy magazines with lurid out-of-focus cover pictures of half-dressed B-grade celebrities on the table.

In a little while my mother came out and we walked back through the maze, anti-clockwise this time, and I drove her home and turned the car radio to Radio National. She listens to Radio National all the time. She loves it.


Out we go.

One-inch pillows of fresh salmon, poached ever so gently in a little wine and garlic. Strips of avocado added to warm through.

Egg noodles cooked until just done, drained and draped in ringlets on white plates. Salmon pillows and avocado strips placed in little cairns on the pasta.

A little cream in the pan juices, reduced in the wine with salt and pepper and poured over each dish.

A large glass of cold chardonnay, glinting yellow in the gathering dusk.

The first outdoor evening meal of spring has to be special and it was.


We had an afternoon tea for Thomas's birthday; crustless sandwiches, and small open pastries filled with lightly beaten egg and tiny bacon squares and shards of spring onion. And tea: my favourite Earl Grey.


I'd been discussing euphemisms earlier in the day with a teacher. Teachers know all about euphemisms. They have to use them. It's enforced by Education Department bureaucrats. We had been discussing reports in the news of students stealing from convenience stores, vandalising property and being drunk in a public place.

The default language now used to describe this behaviour is 'making poor choices'. That really grates. Making a poor choice is when you choose a strawberry milkshake when you really prefer caramel; or buying a Hyundai Excel when you're six feet tall; or buying your wife an iron for Christmas. Stealing and vandalising are criminal acts and should be described thus.

Another one, or maybe it's just a stupid cliche, or lazy language: the government keeps stating that asylum-seekers will be sent to Indonesia to be 'processed'. Makes it sound like they're going to be turned into cheese spread.


Ice-cream on the lawn is always a nice idea, mid-afternoon on a warm spring day. Thomas will be three tomorrow.


"And your special subject is ..."

The best food books have just one subject. No, not food itself: I mean a single subject within the vast world of cooking and eating. Here are four of my favourites:

I Love Cheese by Teubner, Mair-Waldberg and Ehlert

Read this book and you may never eat another Kraft Singles sandwich again. There are cheeses in this book that even the man behind the cheese counter at Leo's in Kew may never have heard of: Slovakian Ostiepok, a smoked ovoid cheese, brown like a baked potato; Queso Ahumado, smoked and made from goat’s, cow’s and sheep’s milk; Burrata; Israeli Galil, like Roquefort; Irish Crimlin Fourme d’Ambert. The latter is described by the authors as a cheese with 'surface flora adding to its pronounced taste' and you can just about see the surface flora growing and smell the result in the the accompanying full colour photograph.

Then there are the recipes, revealing the alchemical nature of cheese in being able to turn an ordinary foodstuff into a meal fit for a king.

Take the gratin of celery: lengths of humble celery are sweated in butter and spring onions, cooked in stock, layered in a rectangular baking dish, scattered with sliced prosciutto, and baked with the reduced stock poured over, along with double cream, grated pecorino romano and grated parmesan. I want some now.

Oh, and have you ever tried obatzter? It's a snack traditionally eaten with beer in Germany: ripe Camembert mixed with onions, paprika and pepper. Beats Bega Bar-B-Cubes.
(Alto Books, 2008; translated by Transedition from Teubner Edition.)

Sauces by James Peterson

Throw out the White Crow, you'll never use it again. This third edition could be your only cookbook and you'd never be short of a meal idea. A history of sauces, cookware, ingredients, stocks, national and regional sauces including asian dipping sauces, dessert sauces and more. Sauces clears up the confusion of pompous restaurant menu descriptions and clarifies (pardon the pun) the differences between concassees, coulis, purees, jus, reductions and gravies. You might even be able to turn the tables on the waiter (pardon again) and rebuke him for a menu misnomer, Stephen Downes-style.

What makes a book is the quality its writing. Mark Bittman: "...what's special about Sauces is the text: it reads so well that this is the kind of book you can take to bed." Don't fall asleep while holding it up: a dropped hardback of 612 pages could damage you.

From Page 486: Indian mint pesto - process a cup of mint leaves, two tablespoons each of jalapenos and onion, a little finely chopped ginger, four teaspoons of lemon juice, three tablespoons of almond butter (toasted almonds pureed with butter) and salt. Nice on chargrilled fish with a sprinkling of coriander.
(John Wiley & Sons, Inc 2008)

The Barbecue Bible by Steve Raichlen

I've mentioned this book several times in the past. Raichlen toured the world to find barbecue such as the following:

Senegalese Fish Yassa
Fish – ideally darker, rich-fleshed - is first marinated in lemon, salt and pepper and then direct-grilled and served with a tangy sauce of onions, Scotch bonnet chiles, paprika, seed mustard, lemon juice and distilled white vinegar.

Tuna Raito
Raichlen visited a barely-inhabited island off the Cote d’Azur to find lightly-grilled tuna steaks served with a reduced and pureed sauce ‘Raito’ – of onion and quite a lot of garlic with tomato, red wine, thyme, bay, olives and capers.

Read this book and you’ll never look at another burnt sausage in white bread again. If you ever did.
(Workman Publishing, New York,1998)

Tarts with Tops on by Tamasin Day-Lewis

All you ever wanted eat between, on top of, or below pastry. My earlier review here.

Any other favourite single-subject food books?


View from the Bridge.

It must have been the reminiscing about Chinese food. Or sitting on top of the West Gate Bridge for two hours. But that night, something fast and tasty was needed on the table.

Was there no warning?

It seemed the whole of Melbourne was on the bridge, going east or west; not that you can go north or south, but you know what I mean. 'Delay' signs are everywhere at the best of times, but that could mean five or ten minutes. Two hours is not a delay; it's half a day. Ten years ago, the State government changed a perfectly good Victorian motto from 'Victoria On the Move' to 'Victoria The Place to Be'. 'Victoria Expect Delays' would have been more accurate, although there were plenty of people with nothing to do but 'be' as they sat on top of the bridge on Saturday staring down at the docks and the half-loaded ships and the grimy river. By the way, avoid the bridge at weekends until Christmas. There’s always the western ring road via Thomastown if you want to go to west; but that's like going to Adelaide via Broken Hill. You'll get there eventually but it's a long journey. Not that I'm comparing Broken Hill with Thomastown.

We took the long way home. North up Williamstown Road, hook into Geelong Road, across the Gordon Street bridge overlooking the Western Oval (where Jeff Fehring famously kicked a goal from behind the centre in 1978), down into Gordon Street, Van Ness Avenue to Maribyrnong Road, Waverley Street to Buckley Street, east and back home to civilisation. Speaking of Moonee Ponds, why is every second car in Puckle Street a black Mercedes these days? And who are all those glowering men with shaved heads, sitting at outdoor cafe tables, smoking sullenly and not drinking their coffee?

Just wondering. I spent every Saturday morning of my childhood in that street, while Mum and Dad shopped in Silman's the grocer and Gilbertson's the butcher; and there were never any Mercedes Benzes, let alone black ones. And there was only one cafe and that was Bruno's. And men were too busy to sit around.


Almost home now, Caulfield Cup on the car radio. That man again: Bart Cummings' seventh Caulfield Cup winner, but his first since 1991. Viewed also won last year’s Melbourne Cup. Funny name for a horse.


So it was a long day. Dinner was late.

Baked trevally with Asian vegetables.

An excellent Asian meal can be prepared in minutes if you have the right ingredients ready. I placed a thick, fresh, glistening piece of trevally (silver warehou) on foil, splashed it with tamari, sprinkled it with grated ginger and chopped spring onion and a little chili, double-wrapped it in foil and threw it in the oven. Don't take 'threw' literally. Place it gently.

While the fish baked, and it didn't take long, I heated some peanut oil in the wok and tossed around a chopped onion and strips of red capsicum. Three minutes of that and then in went three small bunches of buk choy chopped into two-inch lengths right down to, and including, their bases.

Meanwhile, I boiled the kettle to pour over some rice noodles. They cook in seconds.

Within fifteen minutes, the baked soy-and-ginger fish aroma was too much to bear so I dragged it out of the oven and the fish was was opaque and moist and steaming and perfect.

Noodles in the base of two bowls; vegetables over the top; sections of fish over the vegetables. Chopsticks to serve: they make Asian food taste better. Not sure why. Someone must know.


A shorter history of the Chinese cafe.

I can remember, but only just, those distant days of long ago when earlier civilisations - oblivious to the coming of a whole brave-new-world raft of hybrid, clichéd acronyms and abbreviations that were destined to stride the world’s consciousness like a tech-savvy hyper-eco-warrior driving a Toyota Prius to the airport to catch a Jumbo jet to an ETS and CPRS global warming conference on the other side of the world - walked to the Chinese takeaway on the corner and fetched fried rice in pots.

Yes. You took a vessel - a large saucepan was commonly used due to its utility in both fetching and serving, also it had a lid - to the Chinese takeaway and returned home with it full of steaming freshly-wokked fried rice, fragrant with spices and soy and slivers of peppery scrambled egg and cubes of salty ham and tiny piquant prawns and fat hot green peas that popped in your mouth like fuschias pressed between a finger and thumb. The ever-smiling Chinese takeaway man – or lady – would decide a price according to the size of your pot, and the price would vary every time, but that was part of the fun because it was always cheap. A whole pot of fried rice for $2.50! Or even $1.95!

That was then. The bureaucrats stamped on it pretty smartly, because of Regulations. For the next forty years you left your pot in the cupboard and your Chinese takeaway food came in plastic containers with lids, inside plastic bags. And lots of them, because a teenager can eat three plastic containers of fried rice and seven sesame toasts.

Then the bureaucrats stamped on plastic because of Regulations, again; and Chinese takeaway food came in glossy white open cardboard boxes with little swinging metal handles, about the size of a doll’s handbag - and looking just as ridiculous - and you needed five or six to feed a teenager.


My favourite takeaway place for fried rice in the early days was Jan Chong in Bulla Road while, later, Smith Street’s Middle Kingdom made great butter chicken, and szechuan dishes that blew your skull off. Then there was Harvest Moon. No, that was a Neil Young album.

I dined at Middle Kingdom on the night Essendon defeated Hawthorn in a Grand Final. How do I remember this? Here's why: the owner, who used to walk around dispensing port to his favourite customers out of a Chinese tea pot ("Special Chinese tea," he explained, with a Jackie Chan grin) told me the chef was a Hawthorn fan and was very upset that night and might poison us if he found out we were celebrating. As it turned out, the szechuan chicken was particularly spicy that night. We dined at Middle Kingdom regularly and, one hot night the following summer, after a Test match at the MCG, the owner pointed out a diner at the next table to my eight-year-old son (William and Thomas’s much older brother) and asked him if he realised who the man was. He didn't. "It’s Clive Lloyd!" the owner revealed triumphantly, Jackie Chan grin frozen in place, waiting for the boy's reaction. Lloyd turned around genially, smiling, waiting for the inevitable request for an autograph, or at least a shaken hand. "Who’s Clive Lloyd?" replied my son, brow furrowed, chopsticks poised in mid-air. Clive Lloyd and Jackie Chan roared with laughter. Not be recognised by face or name during a Test in a cricket-mad city made Lloyd’s night. Then we all had some more special Chinese tea and my son had a banana fritter.


Other Chinese cafes I’ve eaten at, or ordered takeaway from: Red Harvest, New Moon, Moon Harvest. Fu Lu, Num Fong. Red Emperor (or was that a fish?), Lucky Kingdom, Lucky Corner, Lucky Dragon, Lucky Lantern. Double Happiness, Happy Inn, Jade Inn, Jade Princess, Jade Valley, Dragon Valley, Dragon Temple, Bamboo Dragon, Old Panda, New Panda, Golden Panda, Golden Swan, Happy Swan, Happy Stork, Fairy Stork, Ping On, Chung On, Sing Tao, Chiew Yong, Sun Luk, Yu Palace, Orchid Garden, Silver Chopsticks, Lotus Pond, Ming Court.

There's at least one of these in every outer suburb and small town in every country of the world to which the Chinese migrated. It’s all about the name. That, and the flock wallpaper, and the oriental prints on the walls depicting Far East rivers and mountains, and the Chinese opera lady who sounds like a melodious cat in the tinny speaker in the ceiling, and the mysterious red curtain at the back that doesn’t quite conceal the roar and sizzle and alarming flashes of flame from the kitchen. These characteristics make a Chinese café. It’s not just about the food.

For example, I’ve never eaten at the Ivanhoe Chinese Restaurant in Upper Heidelberg Road. The appeal just isn’t there. Why couldn’t they call it the Happy Dragon?


Sometimes the fragrance of that pot of original fried rice comes floating back through some intricate fifth-dimension conduit – like the Internet (famously, once, "a series of tubes"; laughed at as if it were ridiculous, but I thought it unpretentiously, naively poetic) that carries only cooking aromas, throughout the universe, back to those who smelled them once, long ago, in a saucepan.

Fried rice with ham, peas and shrimps.

Boil rice. You need four cups of boiled, cooked, cooled rice. I figure that to be one and one half cups of uncooked rice.

Lightly beat two eggs with salt and pepper, pour into a small pan and scramble lightly, drawing uncooked egg with fork; switch off heat when egg starts to set. Place lid on pan to complete setting process. Tear or cut into strips when set.

Chop some good ham into small strips or cubes. A little less than a cupful of chopped ham should be enough. Cook a cup of peas. Chop two spring onions into small rounds. Open a can of shrimps, if you can’t be bothered obtaining fresh small prawns. The canned ones are fine for fried rice.

Peel a medium onion and chop it through its axis into slender segments. Heat peanut oil in a wok and fry the onion over high heat, tossing it around. Add ham, fry a minute. Add rice and peas, stir through over heat for two minutes or until rice is hot.

Now add the egg, the spring onions and the prawns; toss in two tablespoons of good soy sauce. Heat through well and serve.


The Flavour of Green Tea over Rice.*

Thomas tried to spoon some of my tea over a bowl of freshly cooked rice, telling me it tastes delicious.

There is no Japanese blood in my family. As far as I know.

*I saw the movie years ago in Cinema Studies 1 at RMIT's old Radio Theatre in Bowen Lane (probably my favourite cinema ever) and while I can't remember the plot, I've never forgotten the name.


Poppies arrive early.

The travelling poppies have put in their annual appearance, this year a week or two early; deciding to position themselves in the very hot north-facing bed that catches the mid-morning sun, and which last summer saw the demise of the hedge of Pale Lilac Perennial Balsam, Impatiens Oliveri. 2008 poppy here (scroll down to November) and 2007 version here. Seems they're travelling north year by year.


Further garden clippings: this morning, I put in Tigeress and Amish Oxblood, which sound like horses from yesterday’s Caulfield Guineas but are in fact two heirloom tomatoes (Tigerella is a different, hybrid version in some countries). They went into the front vegetable strip which is currently sprouting broadbeans in all directions.


Digressing wildly, and speaking of yesterday’s races, the final seconds of the Toorak Handicap were a dramatic triumph, the kind of finish that has the caller struggling to reveal the outcome with several horses hitting the line as one, and the actual winner’s name only mentioned for the first time milliseconds after the finish, having come so dramatically from behind. Yesterday, Bart Cummings-trained Allez Kingdom, carrying the lightest weight, grabbed the prize. (Leading up to the spring racing carnival and the Melbourne Cup, it is worth noting that Cummings’ first involvement in a Cup was in 1950 when he strapped for his father who trained Comic Court to victory.


Did I mention the brisket was a touch under two kilograms? No, I didn't. Apologies.


Tonight's dinner - start yesterday. Or the day before.

A hot day. A canvas marketplace somewhere in one of earth’s most ancient lands. The heat of a torturing sun was tempered, only just, by a murmur of a breeze from where - the Mediterranean? Must have been. Aromas drifted on the haze: the sweet tang of dried fruits, the heat-amplified reek of spices, an earthy blend of nuts and grains and flours and grinds, and that must-eat-now scent of seed- and herb-flecked bread, probably just out of a stone oven. It was near lunch time. Puffs of blue smoke drifted out of the inky darkness of one of the tents. Someone was grilling something. Let’s hope they keep the flames well clear of the canvas, I said to myself. Don’t worry, I replied. They’ve been doing it for years. The smoke was redolent of mint and garlic.

For a moment there was no sound. The market was eerily silent. Noon approached. Time stood still. Then the market buzz resumed and the aromas drifted on the breeze and the griller kept barbecuing. The marketplace stood in a place where history has faded into a distant past of lost civilizations and long-forgotten wars and crumbled buildings and vanquished peoples and sand.

I realised the griller was me. Then I woke up.


The throwaway food media of magazine and television is obsessed with recipes that can be prepared with little expenditure of effort or time, and contains few calories. ("Dinner will be on the table in no time! And your waistline will love you!") A lack of ingredients also helps get recipes past the editor. Ingredient lists take up valuable column inches. Surely, taking time to cook something is a waste of time when there are important things to do in life, like watching Celebrity MasterChef, Celebrity RoadRage or Celebrity SelfAbsorbed.

On the other hand, the following dish takes forever to prepare, is loaded with fat and will have you stinking of garlic for days (because there are leftovers). But it is more satisfying - both in the preparation and eating - than, I don't know, linguine with rocket? no matter how beautifully styled, art-directed and photographed. And the aromas will transport you to a place between sea, sand and mountains, somewhere near the cradle of civilisation.

Beef brisket, Middle Eastern style.
Process 100g dried apricots (I use the dark, almost black, organic Turkish ones available from the Victoria Mall nut shop – superior to the bright orange supermarket ones but still cheaper), two garlic cloves, one teaspoon each cumin and salt and a quarter teaspoon cinnamon. Press one half of this processed mixture into deep slits in the brisket and then sprinkle all over with salt and pepper. Set aside the rest.

Seal brisket all over in oil in a heavy pan. Remove, transfer to plate, and spread extra apricot mixture over top. In the same heavy pot, saute three cups chopped onions five minutes, then add two chopped carrots, a tablespoon of minced ginger, a teaspoon of ground coriander, a pinch of cayenne pepper, four garlic cloves, two teaspoons cumin and a cup of red wine. Reduce, pour over brisket in a large baking dish and add two cups beef or vegetable stock.

Cover and roast two hours on 170C, basting every thirty minutes. Then add 100g each of chopped pitted prunes and chopped dried apricots. Roast another thirty minutes, allow to cool uncovered and chill overnight. Remove solid fat – there will be plenty – and remove brisket to chopping board and slice thinly across the grain. Meanwhile, place gravy in pot and simmer to reduce. Pour gravy onto overlapped brisket slices in shallow baking dish, cover and heat thirty minutes.

Serve with couscous, potato mash or polenta.

Cold meat ideal in sandwiches. Try flat bread with hommus and yogurt added.


George Harrison leaves toddlers speechless.

Ten to six last Friday. It had rained all afternoon but it was still light behind the heavy cloud. I drove to the supermarket in Sorrento for milk, a can of peaches, a jar of dried basil, some Dargo walnut cheese and a light bulb to replace the ‘eco’ one in my reading lamp that had lasted two weeks before going fffft. By contrast, the ancient cobwebbed one in the porch light at the front door is an old Phillips 40 watt pearl that could be twenty years old. Or thirty.

The boys are lively at this time of day. They tear up and down like greyhounds, or scream or laugh, or just throw toys at each other in silence. It depends. They had been lively in the supermarket, but Coles has cleverly supplied a small number of special trolleys fitted with forward-facing twin dickey seats, fitted with four-point seatbelts. Tighten them nicely and the boys can be as vocal as they like. But they can’t move!

Back home along Point Nepean Road, snaking around the bay. To the left, the water was liquid silver under one enormous billowing cloud of gunmetal grey. 3RRR was on the car radio, just to compete with the noise from the back seat. Or drown it out. I braked gently and pointed the car into the Blairgowrie marina car park, high over the water, just to watch the setting sun turn the big cloud orange. On the radio, announcer Stephen Walker, a kind of self-styled Wolfman Jack known as the Ghost, was talking about the new Beatles re-release, marveling at the re-master quality. 3RRR goes MOR golden oldies. But he was right. The music is a revelation. As Walker said, you can just about walk through the layers of the songs. Then he played While My Guitar Gently Weeps and there was silence in the back seat.

The cloud was orange now, almost red. We drove home for dinner.


I don’t know why nobody told you how to unfold your love

It looks like a slab of a sentence but in the song it unfolds like an opening spring flower.