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

30.1.09

Slice of lemon required.

45.1 a couple of hours ago. 44-point-something yesterday. (At this scale of heat the points are about as significant as a matchstick thrown into an inferno.) This stretch of 40 degree-plus days is unprecedented in Melbourne weather records.

Fires are burning near Mirboo North. (There is no Mirboo.) I drove through that district just last week on the way to my sister's property in Toora, taking a short-cut through dense forest up to Mt Best overlooking Wilson's Promontory.

Shade, gin and tonic, an old book, yesterday's newspapers and light food. How else do you cope? 37 tomorrow. Where's that lemon?

28.1.09

Heat is on.

42.9 in the city today; outlying suburbs were reporting 45 and 46. The display thermometer at Blyth and Lygon read 49 at 4 p.m. The Nylex sign always used to overstate the temperature as well.

43 tomorrow, but with an ugly northerly instead of today's tame light breeze. Not nice.

*

I picked up a jar of pesto in the supermarket. (What, with all that parsley and basil in the garden? Yes. Sometimes I get lazy.) The label read Pesto Genovese with Extra Virgin Olive Oil. I looked closer. The back label gave the contents in 6-point type: Sunflower Oil 42%, etc.; and the last ingredient, EVO 3%. I put the jar back. The label wasn't exactly lying but it wasn't truthing neither. I went home and picked a bunch of greens and made some pesto with macadamias, my current favourite nut.

*

We spent most of the day at the Rathdowne Street pool, an oasis at the bottom of what must surely be one of Melbourne's most beautiful streets. Lunch under sailcloth and trees of tuna, onion and cucumber sandwiches and hot tea from my all-steel thermos. Hot tea is cooling. My mother and father drank gallons of it during the heatwaves of my childhood. As far as I know my mother has never drunk water. Tea, tea, tea during summer. And none of that flavoured iced stuff. Hot, strong and sweet.

*

One eye on the water, the other on the business pages. Someone at the Commonwealth Bank was suggesting small retailers were faking the pain to encourage further government handouts. If I were a small retailer and Commonwealth customer I would be walking into my Commonwealth branch, closing my account and slamming the door on the way out. Apart from that, the Commonwealth spokesperson would have been well and truly aware that a significant amount of the first 'stimulus' package was fed straight into poker machines, with a large percentage flowing straight back into government coffers via gambling tax.

A few days ago a Macquarie Bank commentator was suggesting a new government in the northern hemisphere could right all those bad investments:
"Our market really needs a circuit breaker and that could come from overseas," Macquarie Equities associate director Lucinda Chan told BusinessDaily. "If we can get something positive from the Obama administration and we actually start to see he is giving money to the real economy to stop foreclosures, to help people with credit cards, then maybe it might help swing people around."
Pay off your credit card? Yes, we can! Just send your monthly account to the White House.

26.1.09

Holiday.

Happy Australia Day. The weather gods were merciful today, serving up a warm day without a temperature high enough to provoke a total fire ban. Barbecues are burning! Right now, the aromas of grilled lamb, fish and chicken marinated in a hundred different flavour combinations is drifting across the suburb - or maybe just from the house three doors up - and I can detect along with these barbecued corn, grilled zucchini and eggplant, potato slices crisping over rosemary and garlic and wedges of pesto-smothered cooked polenta sizzling on a hotplate. I hardly need to cook. I can just sit out here in the shade of the lilli pillis and the old grapefruit tree with a cold beer and smell everyone else's dinner arriving at intervals on the breeze, which tonight is a pleasant south-westerly.

*

In fact, we are not joining in with the barbecue set tonight but cooking up a large pot of seafood balchao with rice and fenugreek roti and very cold beer. Recipe here. Replace the kilogram of rockling with the fish of your choice. We are using using cubed swordfish and sliced calamari.

*

The south-westerly is blowing now but the rest of the week will be a dragon: 41 on Wednesday and 40 on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. I've been carrying the watering can around the garden to strengthen a few plants for the onslaught. As far as I know it's still legal to water your remaining plants with a watering can, but let me know if I'm behind the times. Bucketing water is not new to me; I remember the drought of '68. I must have been about ten. My brothers and sisters had a bucket brigade going up and down the garden while Dad gave directions. Fruit trees first, then ornamentals. That was the summer of the Lara fires when Geelong Road exploded in flames.

*

How do clean a three-year-old who won't go near a bathtub? William is afraid of the plug and nothing can convince him the noise is not the bath monster. Hot weather solution: hose him down in the back garden. He loves it. (Let me know, also, if hosing your children clean is illegal. I'd love to test it in court.) Fortunately, William is not the dig-in-the-dirt child that Thomas is. Yesterday the latter child emptied three pot plants; native seedlings waiting to be planted. Dirt everywhere. He just ran away laughing.

25.1.09

Radio Nowhere.

Even before video killed the radio star small films were made to accompany songs. It seems the director of this late 1960s slow-motion black and white artefact complete with squirrel had been watching too many Ingmar Bergman films. Or perhaps it was just the default three-minute clip style of the time.

Why post it? The song came on the car radio yesterday as I was crossing Bolte Bridge with a setting orange sun on the left and a gilded city on the right. Nice. The tight drum barrage in the chorus raises goosebumps. Not sure why. The haunting piano line was apparently played on Paul McCartney's white grand when the song was recorded in the Abbey Road studios thirty-nine years ago.

21.1.09

Heat and pumpkins.

40.5 degrees in the city yesterday. It was just a little cooler at the beach, the northerly blast slightly muted after its trip across the bay. The water was warm and William played in the shallows. Early in the afternoon the wind turned around and a southerly got up and rustled the ti-tree and came in at the kitchen window. I closed up the house and we drove back to town, surfing the cool change around the bay and along an almost empty Eastlink all the way through to Alexandra Parade. It was still 29 degrees at 8 p.m. but that's 11 degrees cooler than forty. It's all relative. The heat is to go on for the rest of the week and into next. I wish they would drop the predictions of showers from the forecasts because they just don't happen.

*

Back home: the pumpkins are coming. Three vines are in. One, a Queensland blue, has climbed out of the garden bed and is stretching itself across a vast expanse of lawn. One of the pumpkins is already as big as a basketball. Another, a butternut, is ascending the side fence behind a row of verbenas. This morning it pushed a tentacle through the top branches of the verbena at top-of-fence height and a triumphantly opened up a hairy leaf the size of a dinner plate. Bees were busy in the flowers. One was so yellow with pollen it could barely manage to take off, like an overloaded freight plane straining its engines.

*

Pumpkins are good recession food. They keep. They last even longer if you leave a section of their stalk on and keep them somewhere cool. One year we used one as a doorstop for the kitchen and then cut it half, like a ritual, on the first day of winter. Doorstop soup was never so delicious, with herbs and spices and cream and lots of salt and pepper and crusty bread and red wine. What else will there be? Pumpkin soup, pumpkin fritters, pumpkin-filled ravioli, pumpkin gnocchi, of course; all the usual things. Cold pumpkin salad with toasted pine nuts and an orange juice dressing is nice too.

But my favourite way to eat pumpkin is how my mother used to cook it in the 1960s, when people had a roast for Sunday lunch and it was called 'dinner' (and dinner was 'tea'). You put the roast, which was often a very large joint of mutton, in the oven scattered about with cut up pumpkin and whole potatoes and then you went to church. You could smell the roast blocks away, and sometimes even in the church during the sermon, but you never knew if it was your mother's or someone else's roast, because the whole street had roast on Sunday. The roast would always be well-done and the pumpkin pieces would caramelise on the outside, having been baked in delicious drippings from the tin on the bench next to the stove, except my mother never used the word caramelise, she would just ruefully announce it was burnt. It was delicious. While most swore by the joys of roast potatoes, I preferred the pumpkin's charred sweetness and its soft inner give. Dipped in salty brown gravy, it was heaven. The gravy sat in a chipped glass Pyrex pouring jug in the middle of the table and at the end of the main course was immediately replaced by a large yellow bowl of whipped cream to accompany the dinner's finale of self-sauced chocolate pudding which had gone into the oven when the roast came out. That's what I liked about Sunday dinner. The military precision of it all.

18.1.09

There goes the neighbourhood.

Nando's has opened in Sydney Road. Call me a food snob, but Nando's is just KFC with a different flavour, a xerox chicken shop with a few fancy ingredients to hide the homogeneity. What will be next? Subway? Once, Brunswick residents were treated on warm summer nights to the irresistible aromas of Turkish and Lebanese barbecue drifting across the suburb from the chimneys of scores of small independent cafes and restaurants that lined Sydney Road. Will it now be the smell of every other franchise-crazy food mall packed with the same half dozen fast food outlets selling the same food packed in the same wrappers to the kind of clientele that feels the need to drop the wrappers exactly where it is they finish gulping down the contents? Support your independents.

*

I had forgotten. Children grow. You have to keep changing the house around. They go from bassinet to cot to bed and each time, a new room configuration is required. This flows through the whole house because everything doesn't fit properly in the room any more so it has to go in another one.

Of course, I've been through it all before. The memories float back when your head and shoulders are jammed under a sleigh cot in the process of dismantling it, and you are trying to draw back the spring-loaded plastic fixture that holds the timber base in place preventing it from dropping to the floor along with the baby; and you find that in order to release the timber base you need to draw back the plastic fixtures at all four corners simultaneously, or else the others flex and pop their covers and the tiny springs fall out and bury themselves in the nap of the carpet. And you can't draw them all back at the same time because you have only two arms.

Self-assembly furniture is one of mankind's worst inventions, along with remote controls and plastic flowers. Ikea didn't exist in my grandfather's day. He had a piano in his small Ascot Vale terrace house for fifty years. And played it. Maybe they built the house around it. Maybe the house had wider doors.

*

Halfway through summer. Jacaranda's purple haze has given way to cool green canopies and now the oleander is blooming in toxic surf-resort colours of lurid pink, buttercup yellow, impossible red and the almost-but-not-quite pure white of bleached hair or sand. They just about sing.

Years ago, in another house, I had a crepe myrtle outside my bedroom. Its pale smooth delicate limbs were like the arching arms of an alabaster-skinned ballet dancer. During summer, in leaf, its shadow made a tracery on the white concrete render through the glass and its crimson floral display bowed in and out of sight on the warm breeze. When we moved in here, the first thing I did was to plant a crepe myrtle. Last week it flowered, crimson over green like a fire coming down the mountain.

9.1.09

Lighten up.

I don't know why we eat heavy food in summer. Yes, I do: Christmas. They should move it to July. The northern hemisphere might object, but I say to the northern hemisphere: you try eating turkey on a forty degree day. And that's our celsius forty, not your fahrenheit.

Fortunately Christmas was only mid-twenties this year so squeezing in the baked ham and the stuffed chicken and the plum pudding with brandy butter sauce wasn't as difficult as it might otherwise have been. But it is still nice to move on to cleaner food; salads and light pasta dishes and the like.

This is a pasta dish I made the other night.

Rigatoni with tomato, herbs and chick peas.

Chop an onion finely and toss it into a pot with a can of diced tomatoes. Warm through gently. Toss in half a can of chick peas. (I used Durra brand 7mm chickpeas - smaller, sweeter and softer than most. Available at the new food store at Sydney Road and Albion Street.)

Now run around the garden and gather herbs. In my case, I picked a leaf or two of basil and oregano and a little more of parsley. Chop and toss them in. A good amount of ground black pepper, but no salt. Half a teaspoon of sugar.

Boil up another pot and cook half a pack of rigatoni. Drain and serve with the sauce. Top with cheese if you wish.

4.1.09

Global financial crisis: Mrs Bryant not interested.

Here we are, dumped unceremoniously into the new year like a sack of Coliban potatoes being dropped in a darkened pantry and not knowing whether they are to be mashed, chipped, baked, grated or fried.

Ouch. Is that pessimistic? Maybe it's the hangover talking. The 2008 hangover.

*

Nobody knows what will happen otherwise it wouldn't, because we could avoid it. If that makes sense. It's just that if I were a close friend of mine, which I am not, I would not right now, just at the minute, be buying a house at a price five times the friend's annual salary on a deposit of 5%.

*

Know what annoys me about this whole financial crisis thing? The media regularly tout it as being something no-one could foresee. It was not. Many commentators have maintained - some since late last century - that a never-ending boom is an oxymoron. Yet the world forged on into debt like there was no tomorrow, secured against a future of ever-growing wealth that had to come from somewhere. Somewhere else.

Then we ran out of somewhere elses.

*

New Year's Eve was quiet. The only partygoers in the street vacated their celebration around ten to watch fireworks in the city. I’d rather go to bed. New Year's morning dawned damp and cool; drizzle followed until lunchtime. I spent those hours cutting holes in the sides of cardboard wine cases to make armour helmets for the boys. They looked like a pair of Sidney Nolan Ned Kellys galloping about and falling on the lawn. I think they enjoyed the boxes more than I enjoyed the contents.

*

Ring, ring.

Phone: Hello, it's Mum.

Me: Hi, Mum. Happy new year.

Phone (a little later in the conversation): Mrs Bryant wants to know if anyone wants a television.


It was going to be one of those conversations.

Me: Just a moment, Mum. First, who is Mrs Bryant? And second, what business is it of hers should I or anyone else be wanting a television, which I don't? I don't even want my own television - given the standard of programming - let alone someone else's.

Phone: Mrs Bryant lives six doors up. And it's a perfectly good one, she says; it's just that she doesn't need it any more.


It's not necessarily dementia or Alzheimer's, it's just a bunch of octogenarians, who seemingly all settled this district at the same time after the war, gradually sinking into a kind of collective eccentricity. Most of them have gone, of course, but the hardy ones are sticking with it and passing on televisions to fellow stalwarts and their families in a last return to the post-war austerity of their just-married years. You can kind of understand. (I remember Mrs Bryant. I went to kindergarten with her daughter Janet in 1961. We walked together each morning there and each afternoon home.)

Me: Just tell Mrs Bryant that everyone's gone out and bought plasma screen TVs with Mr Rudd's $1000 and that maybe she should donate it to St Vincent's or the Salvos.

Phone: Why, that's exactly the reason she's giving it away! She just bought herself a plasma screen television so she could watch Inspector Rex and be able to read the subtitles without having to wear her glasses, which she can never find.


We changed the subject.