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

30.4.09

Turkish takeaway.

I am making my way through the cookbook section (among other sections including motoring, biography and fiction) at Coburg library. Who can afford to buy books at the rate we are reading them these days? Early this week I took home Turkish Cookery edited by Sally Mustoe (Saqi 2006).

A prologue by culinary historian and writer Turgut Kut to the book (it also has a preface and an introduction) mentions the ‘first Turkish cookbook’, Resource of Cooks, which was published in 1839 and went into nine editions until 1888. The author of the early cookbook, Mehmed Kamil, had studied old books and selected recipes for the most delectable and rare dishes to ‘bring relief for those who had previously to be content with tripe soup’, a fast-food staple of the nineteenth century markets.

Turkish Cookery does the same almost two centuries later for those, at least here in Melbourne, who equate Turkish cuisine with Sydney Road’s scores of kebab houses. It’s a sampler of favourite Turkish dishes submitted by guest contributors along with short chapters on Turkish wines, cheeses and olive oils; a history of Aegean cuisine and a last chapter on the spread of Turkish cuisine throughout the world. If you can’t imagine cookbooks without pictures, the photography gives you plenty to salivate over. The full page shot of apricots with cream, almond and pistachio will see you off to the deli where you will have to procure some Turkish coffee because this is what the sweet accompanies.

I tried kirmizi kahana (page 49) - red cabbage with onion and vinegar, a surprisingly fragrant and delicious side dish of four ingredients (that does not appear, as far as I know, in any of those Four Ingredients books).

The recipe calls for a medium onion to be chopped and fried until soft in two tablespoons of sunflower oil, to which a chopped ‘medium cabbage’ is added along with four tablespoons of unspecified vinegar in a covered pan. The recipe adds that this is delicious with roasted sweet potatoes.

I used a quarter of cabbage; even that required far more fluid than specified. One person’s medium cabbage might be another’s Brussels sprout. I added some white vinegar and then some red wine vinegar. That was soon absorbed, or evaporated, despite the closed pan. So I added the juice of a lemon and a splash of water and it became more and more fragrant. (I had also added three scored cloves of garlic.) The cabbage cooked on lowest heat for an hour or so, by which time it was soft but still holding its shape in the shaved but discrete sections. It was just superb.

But no roasted sweet potato: instead, a small mountain of mashed potato, a hillock of the braised red cabbage and a thick cut cracked-peppered T-bone steak with fillet, grilled rare on a very high heat for two minutes each side.

28.4.09

Something to do with the trees.

Half page ad for Safeway supermarkets in today's Herald Sun (I wasn't reading it; I just happened to be on the tram) promoting "100% pomegranate juice" in "four delicious flavours".

If it's 100% pomegranate .... ah, forget it.

26.4.09

Anzac Day afternoon.

The weather turned, at last. Anzac Day dawned cold and steel-grey and the weather deteriorated into the afternoon.

Two football teams shivered onto the Melbourne Cricket Ground to play a game that Collingwood was always going to win and Essendon was always going to lose; especially when, after two minutes in, ruckman Hille landed awkwardly after a leap, smashing an anterior cruciate ligament. He weighs a ton. Cruciate ligaments are built for gazelles. So Ryder has to take over. Ryder is a footballer in a high-jumper’s body. Remember Bob Beamon in ’68? No, wait, he was a long-jumper. Ryder should be over the road at Olympic Park, flopping over a bar onto the mat, not here in the middle of the Melbourne Cricket Ground trying to fend off eighteen grown men by leaping and flopping. Impossible.

The sky grew darker. The game laboured on. The score see-sawed. Late in the game Collingwood lifted, moved ahead. A three-goal break. You know the game is over when people move like ants towards the exits and out of the colosseum and into a frozen Jolimont Park. The game was over. Except it wasn’t.

Then the rain came, pencils of light reflecting back at the fluorescent flyswats in the sky. A few minutes left. The electricity seemed to flood the field; brought down by the wash. Something happened. A figure in red and black - Jetta? Davey? - grabbed the wet ball. Ran, ran. Collingwood players looked left and right, fell away. The figure in red and black threw the ball to a leg and the ball flew, wet and glistening, to the arms of another red and black figure which turned and goaled, as easy as putting the cat out for the night.

Tick, tick. Two minutes on the clock. Still impossible. The rain kept on pixillating the light and the ants moving out of the stadium kind of hesitated and looked again at the field - no, they couldn't win, could they? - and red and black figures on the grass returned to formation like fighters after an attack. Anzac Day was a day of infamy, thousands sent to their deaths, needlessly. What a day for a national celebration. Or is it a remembrance? I forget. Don’t interrupt.

One minute thirty. Now the ball crosses the half forward line, rolling and spinning maniacally like a wheel fallen off a sportscar at speed. Red and black figures swarm, eyes alight with something new; black and white figures fumble, drop, skid. The rain glistens on red-black skin. That’s the skin of the islands. Now Dyson has it, a mile away from the goal, in the right corner of the field where you are blinded by the flyswat and you have to guess where the goal is and kick into nothing. Someone in the commentary team yells ‘He’s a left-footer’ and Dyson’s left foot gives the angle an extra five degrees and the ball drops into the five degrees: an impossible goal, but a goal. But the play has cost time. Seconds remain.

Bounce in the middle. Dribble. Splash. A flash of light on red leather between a flay of legs. Two brown hands reach. A red and black sprinter – it’s the full athletics team on the field today – flashes and carries. Over to Zaharakis, who has never kicked a goal, let alone here on the hallowed MCG turf, let alone with four seconds left in a transcendent Anzac Day match. The ball rises, floats, flies. A roar rises, echoes around the arena.

Siren.

It’s just a game, but sometimes a game unfolds with the carefully studied precision, the taut drama and the stark beauty of a poem. I don’t know, Robert Frost?

22.4.09


Oh, dear. Not again. The other arm this time. On the bright side, he seems to have abandoned his trains for my cooking tongs. Move over, Gordon Ramsay.

19.4.09

A late dinner.

Easter Sunday’s status as a day of tradition and ritual, even if it just involves chocolate, makes subsequent Sundays feel conventional and routine, in a mundane village-life kind of way.

And now it is a week after Easter and instead of hiding eggs early in the morning, I am hauling half a kilogram of store catalogues out of the newspaper hole over the letterbox, reminding myself for the twentieth time to put up a No Junk Mail sign, although I would prefer the words Letters Only, Please. An hour later, Tracy leaves the house to walk to Bunnings and chop onions at the kindergarten fundraiser sausage-sizzle stall set up at the entrance to the hardware store. (Yes, W. is at kindergarten now. It seems only yesterday that he arrived, noisily.) Then it is lunchtime and I am standing at the sink mixing water and a tablespoonful of Keen’s mustard in an eggcup - just like my late father did for years - for the sandwiches of corned beef left over from two nights ago, and wondering whether the Keen's mustard tin is one of the last original pack designs still available, and deciding that it is, along with Vegemite and Pecks Anchovette.

Woven through all of this, yelps and cries and laughter of two small boys; and then silence, first as they eat (no, not the mustard) and then as they sleep, and after that just the Sunday afternoon sounds of faint traffic on Sydney Road and the horn and distant thunder of a down-line train.

*

So now it is time to read some books that have waited patiently on the table beside my armchair, in a pile getting dangerously high. Where do they all come from? I don't know. I wish the publishing of books could be halted until I read all the old ones. But first, here's what I cooked last night.

Pasta with chicken, pesto, avocado and green beans.

Saturday afternoon had been spent chasing Wm. and Thos. all over Wheelers Hill, a windswept park that looks across a valley at the Dandenongs. Now we were home and the boys were asleep, exhausted; and a glass of wine and uninterrupted conversation and a leisurely dinner was all that stood between now and Sunday.

First, I ran outside and picked some basil and a lot of parsley and brought it back in and processed it with parmesan cheese and two cloves of garlic and olive oil and walnuts. Then I boiled the pasta. Fettucine works well with this dish, but any type will do. When it was almost done, I added four quartered Brussels sprouts and a dozen green beans.

In a lidded pan, I poached a chicken breast in a very little wine wine, several good shakes of pepper and a clove of garlic on low heat. You want tender chicken that is just cooked. You can cube the chicken first, but I took it out after it sealed, quickly cubed it and returned it to the pan. Then I peeled and cut an avocado into cubes or slices, added this to the pan and did the same with a ripe tomato. They will warm through as the chicken cooks.

When the pasta and vegetables were done, I transferred them to serving bowls, folded through the very fresh pesto and added the chicken, avocado and tomato. (If you turned your nose up at the mention of Brussels sprouts with pasta, reconsider. They bring a soft nuttiness that works well with the contrasting tomato and pesto tang.) The key thing with this dish is never to overcook the chicken. If it gets to the chewy stage, just reserve it and use it cold in tomorrow's sandwiches.

Serve with flaked parmesan, cracked pepper and chopped parsley.

16.4.09

Rolling in the mist.

Easter Sunday, early, around seven. Kettle on. First things first.

I went out on the veranda. No mountain. The view was closed: mist had dropped like a theatre curtain bang onto the stage. You couldn’t see past the back fence. Even the newly naked lemon tree was ghostlike, shrouded in fog.

The kettle whistled, summoning me back inside. I made tea and picked up yesterday's newspaper. This is a nice time of morning, before the boys have woken and start stomping around like elephants.

I got to read about two lines.

*

Mid-morning. The boys are out on the lawn with grandma, who is introducing them to an Easter tradition from Scotland, and other places I suppose. We're going to have one of those who-thought-of-it-first conversations again. The tradition is egg rolling and it is meant to have something to do with rolling away the stone from the tomb. Somehow, a tune comes into my head and stays there.

Grandma has hard-boiled some eggs and the boys have painted them and they are going to roll them down the hill and try not to damage the shells. The winner is the one whose egg sustains the least damage.

Grandma gives each boy a painted egg. The younger will go first.

Thomas winds up and delivers an overarm toss reminiscent of Dennis Lillee about to smash 31 English wickets in the 1972 Ashes tour. His egg explodes at a distance of ten metres; the yolk rolls into the fence. Four! But no prize.

William sees his chance and comes in with an underarm toss, reminiscent of Trevor Chappell to New Zealand's Brian McKechnie in 1981, that sends the egg rolling perfectly straight, despite its shape.

William's egg sustains only minor cracking. William is the winner.

Later, we ate the rest of the painted eggs in sandwiches. You can't do that with cricket balls.

*

The mist lifted a tick before midday and there was a perfectly good autumn afternoon that I wasted in cutting and stacking lemon tree branches and separating the thick branches from the twigs for the purposes of disposal. I need one of those machines where you toss a tree in one end and mulch sprays out the other.

*

Early evening. We left grandma and her lemon tree and her mountain and floated back down through the sepia forest to the ribbon freeway that was gold in the setting sun, back to the city, swinging around north across the Bolte Bridge, as the sun dropped out of sight, and exited at Moreland Road. Home at eight. A late dinner. I like it that way. The boys are in bed.

*

The tune struck me later. Roll Away the Stone, with that unforgettable piano intro. That was a great song. It's probably on YouTube somewhere. Everything else is. Whatever happened to Leon Russell?

Roll away the stone
Don't leave me here alone
Resurrect me and protect me
Don't leave me laying here
What will they do in two thousand years?

14.4.09

Into the mountains.

Once upon a time Good Friday used to be quiet, in a strict, muscular kind of way; as if no-one dared to make any noise, or hold parties, or mow the lawn; for fear that someone would object. This year, Good Friday had an uncertain calm, an unusual serenity, for which people seemed nevertheless grateful: as if they had suddenly discovered that occasional peace, immobility and silence were actually a good thing. Then, somewhere in the distance, in another street, a car’s engine screeched and roared. So forget all that and let’s start again.

Saturday was steel grey. Late in the morning, coffee in the swarming mall. Papers on the table and two boys in their double stroller, picture books in hand and not seeing the crowds tearing past in a frenzy, as if the 'closed' signs in the shops on Good Friday had been a bad dream.

Early afternoon. The freeway was a silver ribbon in the grey gloom, sweeping across the state. Then off and up towards the mountains. A strange thing happened. Colour suddenly drained out of the landscape and we were driving through one of those sepia photographs they used to place behind glass in Victorian Railways carriages: pictures of Healesville, the Maroondah Dam, the Grampians and the Dandenong Ranges with sepia treeferns and sepia mountain ashes and sepia people.

The sepia was dead forest near Labertouche, eight weeks after the fires. But not all dead. Some eucalypts were already sprouting new leaves from unlikely parts of their jet black trunks, like moss growing on telegraph poles. A roller coaster ride through Jindivick and out the other side; down, down and another rise, past Tarago Reservoir and there we were at the house on the hill where lived Mrs Mac: Tracy's mother; Grandma to William and Thomas.

Late afternoon. How do you prune a lemon tree? With the radio on. I positioned the car close to the garden and left the door ajar and switched the radio to 774 Melbourne that used to be 3LO or Radio One, and some ex-footballers crackled about why one team was winning and not the other. The art of the sports call is dead. Now they just over-analyse and shout. Snip, snip, snip. I had to get the saw out to remove a couple of boughs. This tree hadn’t seen secateurs in years. Some of the branches were like fretwork. I found a golf ball lodged in a branch junction, like an egg in a nest. It might have been there for years.

The land falls away sharply. The lemon tree is on a slope at the back of the house, that is really the front, under a verandah overlooking a lawn sweeping down to a valley. When you sit on the verandah you stare at the mountains across the valley and they stare back at you and are so close you think you can touch them.

Noises on the verandah, and voices, and rattling cups. Afternoon tea. I threw down the saw, switched off the car radio, shut the door and went inside.

Hours later. Dinner. Tracy’s mother - Scottish - produced a pot of fragrant stew she called 'stovies'. It’s like a northern British version of Irish stew; but my mother-in-law would prefer the reverse description. The human race is endlessly concerned with who thought of what first. There’s no useful answer to this. But the stew was delicious. More please. Pass the salt and pepper and yes, I will have another slice of bread to mop up the juices.

Stovies.

Melt some dripping in a large pot with a tight fitting lid. Line pan with a layer of thinly sliced potatoes. Top this with a layer of thinly-sliced carrot and onion and then a layer of sliced lamb or beef (traditionally leftover roast but this was fresh lamb). Repeat layers, and again. You might need a taller pot. Season with salt, pepper and all-spice. Add stock or water to just cover. Cook over a low heat for up to two hours or until the potatoes are melting. Serve with chopped parsley, chives or spring onion.

You can use oil if you're squeamish about dripping but the flavour won't be quite the same. Plus, Scotch cuts through the fat beautifully. Cutty Sark on ice, anyone?

12.4.09



Happy Easter to you and yours.

9.4.09

Google your books.

What's the most important part of a cook book? The pictures? The recipes? The author's puff piece on the back cover?

No. In fact, some of my most useful cook books have no pictures at all. I already know what food looks like. The most important part of any book about food is its index.

The indexes (-ices to be pedantic) of my cook books are my personal search engines. I could type 'cabbage' into google and get 60 billion results but I don't want 60 billion results about 'cabbage'. Fifteen or so would be enough. 60 billion dinner ideas is far too confusing. How could you make decision? There's far too much information these days, and most of it is useless.

I had rather a lot of cabbage for some reason. It has always been a favourite vegetable. I grew up with the stuff. My mother used to boil it up in a huge pot and it became a side dish to whatever was on the table, especially winter stews and the like. We would add sections of it to soups in the way that people add toasted bread, peasant-style.

But I didn't want boiled cabbage. The reality is never as good as the memory. So I looked up cabbage in two or three of the books I thought likely to have some interesting variations. I struck gold straight away, in Steven Raichlen's The Barbecue Bible (Workman, 1998), a book that resulted from the author's three-year, 25-country pilgrimage around grills of the world.

Lalapan or Javanese Long Bean Salad Plate with Cabbage Wedges.

Essentially a herb and vegetable platter, this is served with Indonesian fish that is brine-marinated (lime and salt), double-basted (garlic, shallots, turmeric, butter) and quickly grilled on banana leaves. It's the kind of thing the Asians do so well, contrasting textures and tastes to create surprisingly refreshing and appetising meals. We should eat like this all the time.

The recipe preface indicated that the genuine article requires daun mangi and daun rispong but since these are not sold at the author's corner store, he recommends epazote, a Mexican herb with a ‘clean, woodsy, pleasantly bitter’ flavour. He also allows Italian flat-leaf parsley in place of epazote. I led the recipe further astray by adding to the parsley two kinds of basil, Thai and Greek. By the time we get around to eating, this recipe could be something completely different.

Cook half a kilogram of long beans (from an Asian grocer; try High Street Preston) or green beans three minutes in salted boiling water. Drain, refresh, drain. Cut half a medium cabbage (I used a red cabbage) into half-inch wedges, a cucumber in quarter-inch slices and two tomatoes into wedges. Arrange on platter with lemon-balm basil and parsley.

I took it into a totally different direction, adding quartered boiled potatoes and processing the herbs with garlic and lemon juice for a kind of Asian gremolata. I poured this over the vegetables and showered the lot with chopped spring onions and served it with a hot peanut sauce. We're heading towards gado gado territory.

File under: hire a copywriter.

Headline over a half page display ad run by a Victorian government agency in this morning's Herald Sun:

Free public transport is available to bushfire victims.

Probably a little late, Mr Bureaucrat.

2.4.09

Salman Rushdie on Tolkien; me on Alvin Toffler.

In a recent article on film adaptations of novels, Salman Rushdie considers The Lord of the Rings films superior to J. R. R. Tolkien's trilogy.

The case against film adaptations thus remains unproven and, when we look below the level of great literature, a plausible argument can be made that many cinematic adaptations are better than their prose source materials. I would suggest that Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films surpass Tolkien's originals, because, to be blunt, Jackson makes films better than Tolkien writes; Jackson's cinematic style, sweeping, lyrical, by turns intimate and epic, is greatly preferable to Tolkien's prose style, which veers alarmingly between windbaggery, archness, pomposity, and achieves something like humanity, and ordinary English, only in the parts about hobbits, the little people who are our representatives in the saga to a far greater degree than its grandly heroic (or snivellingly crooked) men.


I can't add to the discussion, never having seen the films. Why not? I didn't get around to it, which is a thing I do frequently these days.

However, a chink of something else comes into the reasoning, like a faint glister of gold from a tiny piece of lost treasure in a dark cave. That faint chink is the thought, back there in my mind, that I do not want to lose the mental imagery that was created the first time I read Tolkien's books. Watching the films would wipe my mental screenplay, choreography, art direction, character imagery and voiceovers and replace them with something else; the products of someone else's interpretations. And in any case, my mental imagery of the books remains 'sweeping' and, in turn, 'intimate and epic'.

I first read The Lord of the Rings as a teenager across six months in 1973. A weird kind of a meteorological contemporaneity followed me and the books. I started The Fellowship of the Ring in the depths of winter as the hobbits were crossing cold, forbidding mountains. Half a year later, I turned the last few pages of The Return of the King on a burning hot beach in the summer of 1973 as Frodo struggled at the fiery crack of doom.

I don't know who wrote the soundtrack to the celluloid The Lord of the Rings, but for me it was Pink Floyd's then newly-released Dark Side of the Moon. Of course, I was reading other books at the time. The Lord of the Rings was light relief to school texts such as the truly horrible Future Shock by Alvin Toffler, who sounded like a glam rocker of the day but was in fact a self-termed 'futurologist'. Toffler was the man who invented jargon as a way of turning normal English into a money-spinning business theory, inspiring a generation of best-selling business gurus and change-agent theorists who all mangled the language. Future Shock was full of 'durational expectancies', 'lifestyle models', 'adaptive ranges' and 'technocratic planning'. Essentially, the book's theme was: life is getting busier. The irony of someone taking 541 pages to write a book about information overload wasn't lost on me in 1973. That summer, when the academic year was over and I didn't have to worry about 'Toffler the waffler' (as we called him in class) any more, I used my copy of Future Shock to prop open my bedroom door to let in the breeze. Toffler would have termed it 'adaptive change'. I called it a doorstop.

As far as I know, no film has been made of Future Shock. Salman Rushdie might have been a little hard on Tolkien.