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

27.5.09

Coming from good stock.

Yes, Portarlington mussels are better than those prepacked ones that are supposed to be asleep. Decision confirmed, after much deliberation, by a jury of two on a cold winter's night, the event accompanied by a rich, buttery chardonnay with - yes - oak maturation. To cut through the garlic, which makes sauvignon blanc taste like ... oh, you know.

Everyone knows the mussels recipe; I must have posted it at least a half dozen times in the almost-six years I have been writing this blog. However, if you just arrived, it goes like this (if not, go to the next paragraph): buy a kilogram of fresh mussels; de-beard them (this is cosmetic only; the wisps won't kill you if you happen to cook them); warm six very finely chopped cloves of garlic in a little oil, a lot of cracked pepper and a cup or more of white wine; cut up six spring onions; place the mussels into the wine and garlic on high heat; cook them five minutes; scatter in the onions and serve immediately in large bowls with crusty bread to dip in the briny sauce. That's enough for two as a generous main course, or four as a side or entree.

This time there was about a cup of fluid left over, full of garlic shards. I was a little heavy-handed on the wine and garlic. Too good to waste (an expression I have been using more and more lately). The following night I heated the fluid through, added a jar of passata, two cans of good tuna in oil and a cup of peas, cooked it for twenty minutes or so and served it over thin, slippery fettucine. Delicious, with a depth of flavour that comes only from good stock.

26.5.09

Boats and trains.

Across Port Phillip Bay on a lonely thrumming ferry in the cold early afternoon of an anonymous Tuesday, to an empty Queenscliff. An hour inspecting restoration works at the Bellarine Peninsula Railway workshops, William and Thomas agog; an hour in the Hesse Street library; a very short look into some shops (the bookshop is closed Tuesdays) and a coffee in the sun outside the 1902 Queenscliff Inn (the coffee is good, the menu looked great and the waitress smiles).

Then back to Sorrento across the swell of a blackening sea in the early evening; and home to this dish, prepared in the morning.

24.5.09

A national symbol of Wales; an English cheese from Maffra containing an extract from the tropical Americas and four local eggs.

Talk about food miles. I just set a record.

Leek and Red Leicester omelette.


It was a nice lunch. Perfect for a lazy Sunday.

Crack four eggs into a jug; whisk lightly with half a cup of skim milk and a good dash of salt and pepper. Slice the white section of a leek into very fine rings. Grate a cupful of Red Leicester, the cheddar-style cheese infused with annatto, an extract of the seeds of the achiote plant (although the manufacturer's website declares annatto to be the plant. Don't ask me). I used Maffra Red Leicester and wondered, as I grated it, how much longer they will be permitted to use the Leicester name. Red Maffra doesn't sound the same.

Pour the egg mixture into a melting teaspoonful of butter in a non-stick pan. Scatter the leeks and cheese over the egg. Lid the pan. Cook on lowest heat for fifteen minutes maximum. Sometimes less. Depends on your stove.

Slide off onto a plate. Segment into quarters. Serve quarters with a salad of rocket, grated beetroot, grated carrot, walnuts and mayonnaise. Surprisingly delicious. And some crusty white bread.

That was it. The afternoon beckoned. Weekend papers or a walk on the beach?

21.5.09

A shorter history of gingham.

I love the sounds of industry. Especially when it is someone else being industrious.

A year or so ago, Tracy bought her first sewing machine. Now, in the evenings, after dinner, a gentle wheezing hum can be heard in the house. Whir, tac-a-tac, whir. Tac-a-tac, tac-a-tac, whir. In at one side goes a piece of material and out the other comes a cushion cover, a tablecloth, a quilt ... all right, I know it’s not that easy. Sometimes the machine is silent and Tracy sits on the sofa sewing one piece of material onto a larger piece that will become a quilt or a coverlet or a bedspread or whatever they’re calling them these days.

We spent last winter joining the small town dots of this state, Tracy visiting second hand shops in the search for interesting old materials. We were in no hurry. Like anything else, you turn over tons of rubbish before you find what you are looking for. I went off and browsed through bookshops (there are good ones in Castlemaine, Euroa and Echuca) or played in parks with the boys while Tracy was tossing aside acres of 1970s stretch in the quest for retro 1950s prints. Well, they call it ‘retro’ now, like anything else old and in favour again, but back then I suppose it was just what everyone had in their windows.

The car was tail heavy on the return trip, loaded with bolts of material, much of it checked gingham. We didn't quite need a trailer. You never do with a Volvo wagon.

I remember gingham. My first girlfriend wore it: it was the school uniform. We were in Grade Three. We were eight. Her dress was royal blue check with a white-edged scalloped collar, puffed white-trimmed short sleeves and a check belt with a white buckle. In a declaration of undying love before the year’s end, I swiped a gift I had earlier set under the Christmas tree for one of my sisters, re-wrapped it and gave it to the girl in gingham when the bell rang on the last day. It was only then that I realised I had no money left and would have to account for the gift. I was saved by my grandmother’s annual ten shilling note and Christmas card in the post that afternoon, Christmas Eve. I tore off to the shop before it closed. But I never saw the girl again.

Of course, my three sisters had worn the same uniform; then, many years later my own daughter – W. and T.’s much older sister – wore the same style of dress in the early 1980s that my sisters had worn in the 1960s, except it was green check, matching her green eyes. In the intervening years the only gingham I knew was the tablecloths I spilt wine on in cheap cafes. Carosello in Moonee Ponds (standout dish: Barramundi baked with lemon and capers) and La Botte in Pascoe Vale South (hottest vulcano pizza in Melbourne) come to mind. Acres of gingham both of them. The checks started merging if you drank too much wine.

And now gingham is about the house again. Tracy made the everyday coverlet (comforter, throw, counterpane?) below for William’s bed – and another for Tom’s - from some offcuts. She fashioned some motifs – jet, star, car - from contrasting pieces. Historical note: while the check fabric is second hand, the fillets of chenille in between the gingham blocks have a pedigree. They are taken from a single bed blanket given to my mother by her best friend in the early 1950s for one of my older siblings. The central motif of the original chenille blanket, a pale blue chenille mickey mouse, is intact and will be used in another piece. Don't look too closely at the stitches, Tracy said. It's an early effort. They look fine to me, I said. But what would I know?

18.5.09

Potato-lovers' mince stew.

Not that it was ever called that. It was just mince. Or mince stew. But it includes potatoes three ways; quartered feature ones, diced support ones and mash, just because mash goes with stew like nothing else.

All this talk of food nostalgia prompted me to try to replicate the original; or at least my mother's original. She used to serve it for dinner and if there was any left over, for example if half the family were suddenly called interstate, my father enjoyed it on thick buttered toast for lunch the next day. Lucky man.

Take a kilogram of minced steak, six medium waxy potatoes, one old potato, three large carrots, a large onion, a garlic clove, two sticks of celery, a Massell or other mushroom - or other stock - cube (or your own stock, of course), and pepper. Three quarters of a cup of rice. Any rice, but I used Arborio for the larger grains. Or use barley.

Chop the onion finely. Dice one carrot and a half of one celery stick as finely as possible. Score the garlic clove. Place all these in a heavy pot with a tablespoon of olive oil. Sweat the vegetables very gently, stirring. Add the meat, turn up the heat. I brown it fast and evenly without sticking by using an egg slide with a short, fast chopping action, breaking the meat up and shuffling it around the pot.

Dissolve the stock cube in a litre of boiling water and add it to the pot when the meat is browned. Add the rest of the carrots in large rounds, the rest of the celery in half inch sections, the waxy potatoes peeled and quartered and the old potato diced finely. The latter should break down and help thicken the mince. Add more water if necessary. (Optional: you can boost the flavour with a tablespoonful of dissolved Gravox; or can just hit it with your favourite sauce at the table: Worcestershire, HP, barbecue, whatever. I prefer the Gravox now and no sauce later.)

Now add the rice. Cook the mince down on low heat. Watch the fluid, the rice drinks it. You want the viscosity of decelerating lava; say, several kilometres from the crater. (If you're in a volcano zone, excuse the inappropiate metaphor.)

Meanwhile, boil some more potatoes, quantity depending on how many are dining, and mash them with milk and butter and half a cup or more of chopped parsley. Don’t hold back. Parsley is full of iron and its Vitamin C content helps the absorption of this, as well as that contained in the meat. We may as well be healthy about it.

In a separate pot, boil a quantity of green beans, chopped zucchini and a chopped onion. Drain.

Place a mound of parsley mash in a large shallow bowl. Top with mince and place boiled vegetables (used to be called 'medley') to the side.

Drink: Black and tan, comprising one-third Grand Ridge Hatlifter Stout and two thirds Grand Ridge Gippsland Gold. More iron!

13.5.09

Recollections of a hungry child.

Jo at Amuse Bouche invited me to reveal what food reminds me of home, which I take to mean childhood home. Let's take it from a different angle: the following are some memories of home associated with food, or possibly the reverse. We have touched on this topic in the past, but a little nostalgia never goes astray.

Here are ten memories that come to mind:

• The pipe-loaf bread that was delivered to our door daily, still warm and soft and fragrant, by baker Mr Goodwin driving his Baker Boy (brand) Morris J-type delivery van. During school holidays we could even choose from the huge wicker basket he carried to the front door loaded with poppy-seed buns, long rolls, high-tin loaves with black tops, French sticks and fruit buns.

• The milk bottles delivered by horse and cart at 5 a.m. every weekday - early to avoid milk spoilage on hot summer mornings. In winter if I was awake, I watched through my front bedroom window as the horses emerged out of ghostly mist, their hooves ringing on the cold road. They frightened me.

• The aroma of the pie-warmer in the canteen at primary school. Not strictly home, but the aroma - today rarely encountered outside country football match kiosks - never fails to bring back the feeling of being nine and hungry.

• The herb-and-onion fragrance of a mince stew, starting to cook, smelled when coming in from school. Waiting for dinner was torture. How could a child do homework? You had to get out or you would drive your mother crazy. Here, eat half a loaf of buttered bread and come back in an hour. Yes, we had an appetite.

• Rice pudding baking in the oven. Cinnamon, nutmeg, egg. A brown top that still quivered. A rectangular 1950s Pyrex dish, yellow with line-drawn black flowers.

• Fish and chips in newspaper brought home by my father from the fish shop. The heat of the fish and chips made the newsprint smell like it was hot off the press. Splash on some vinegar. Delicious.

• Picnic sandwiches at Gisborne, on the hill near the pine forest. We were too many to travel in Dad's Holden so I got to go with my grandfather in his Vanguard.

• Toffees in paper patty pans at the annual school fete on Caulfield Cup day. Acres of the things. You'd bite into them and your jaws would lock. I think it was a parent-led conspiracy: the mouths of hundreds of parish children must have been shut for days.

• The unofficial dinner gong for my family for several years in the late 1960s was the Dr Who theme music, which came on just as my mother was serving dinner. This unforgettable piece of electronica is described by Wikipedia thus: The theme has been often called both memorable and frightening, priming the viewer for what was to follow. I should use it on William and Thomas. "Get to the dinner table or I'll play you the Dr Who theme!"

One more:

• One day in the very late 1970s, when the ardour - and arduousness, too - of raising seven children finally found my mother bending ever so slightly towards economy of labour, there appeared on the dinner table something never before seen in my family: a pack of frozen supermarket garlic bread (cooked too long in the oven, of course). The trend was short-lived, for which I feel both guilty and glad.

Readers: your childhood memories associated with food in comments below, please.

12.5.09

The string bag.

Footscray, some time in the mid-1950s. Winter. Shoppers swarm Barkly Street. It is a Saturday morning. The shops close at midday. The butchers are auctioning trays of meat to clear the window before closing for the weekend. "Tray of topside - at least five pounds – who’ll give me ten shillings? I’ll throw in a couple of shanks. Madam?"

Women press closer to the counter, kicking through the sawdust on the butcher shop floor. They wear coats against the winter chill, buttoned at the neck or right through. Sturdy shoes. Hair pinned back. Gloves. Lipstick.

Look closer. Nearly all are carrying a compact item that expands as they place their paper-wrapped parcels inside. Yes. A string bag. They buy them for a shilling at the Coles variety store around the corner in Paisley Street and they last forever. The fancier ones had round handles and they carried home as much shopping as you could heft and then you hung it on the inside of the back door until next time.

Midday. The shop doors bang shut. Car engines cough and start. Shoppers melt away into the weekend. Some are on foot, some stop at the corner to wait for the ancient, wheezing, tram-green M&MTB bus that lurches around the corner; and then up they climb, string bags full of weekend dinners and teas, and the bus roars off in a cloud of diesel towards Geelong Road, crunching its gears.

*

2009. A lounge room. A vast armchair under a glowing standard lamp next to an overloaded side table, on which sits a stack of books, a half-read newspaper, a pair of spectacles and a purring grey cat. In the armchair a woman - old, round, comfortable - is almost dozing. But not quite. Her grandson is reading aloud a magazine item (Bon Appetit, April 2009, p. 44) he thinks might be of interest to her.

"Look Grandma," he began. " 'The super eco shopping bag'. That's the headline. 'Knitter extraordinaire Tracy Hachler wanted a reusable market tote that is environmentally friendly and would fold up to fit in a purse'. "

He paused. Grandma’s eyebrow was raised in a what-on-earth-was-all-that-about kind of way. He continued. " 'And for this eco-conscious fashionista' ... "

Grandma’s eyebrow went up to another level, if that was possible. He glanced at her. "Oh, it’s just a cliché that journalists use," he explained, probably unnecessarily. "To make the subject of their article sound more interesting. You see the '–ista' suffix everywhere now. It’s just the same as '–ist', meaning practitioner, but the extra 'a' gives it a kind of super-edginess."

"Let’s hope the trend doesn’t catch on with dentists and chiropodists," the grandmother replied with just a hint of something in her eyes, something approaching faint irony.

Her grandson continued. " ... 'it also had to be stylish'," he read.

"Of course," Grandma interjected. "God forbid anything be plainly utilitarian." The cat got up, stretched, arched its back and sat down again in between the books and the newspaper, without touching either.

" 'It’s super-durable because Hachler has meticulously double-woven six-ply hemp yarn on the side and bottom seams to create extra support.' "

"I’m glad," said Grandma, without a hint of sarcasm. "I had visions of apples and potatoes rolling all over the bus."

" 'With this smart shopping bag, being green has never been more chic.' "

No interjection this time, but something like a snort came from Grandma's general direction. Then, "Is that all?" she asked.

"Almost," replied the grandson. "Just the price at the end. $75."

7.5.09

Late dinner: pasta with leek sausage and green onions.

An Indian summer brought us almost to the end of April and then we lurched headlong into a week of dismal weather and everyone caught colds.

Yes, at least it rained and softened up that back lawn. And seedlings are growing - rocket, beans, broccoli. We are halfway through the pumpkins. They'll stretch into spring if we don't go wild with pumpkin soup over winter. Apparently they store better on their sides if you can get them to sit that way, a fact for which I am indebted to Mr Peter Cundall, currently writing Australia's best gardening column:

"Strangely enough, I never tasted pumpkin until I came to Australia in 1950. I remember sitting at a table with a group of other Poms, all soldiers recruited in Britain, when we noticed what looked like great lumps of carrot sitting on our plates. It was, of course, steamed pumpkin, but it was a profound culture shock for all of us when we took our first mouthful, expecting the taste of carrots."

An early example of Pom-baiting, perhaps. Now he's growing some of the best in the land and telling us how to grow them. A Pom's revenge.

*

It was cold and late. I'd been working. I hate working late and I hate cold weather. I needed something that wouldn't take forever. There was a pack of Da Vinci tri-colour pasta - tagliatelli - in the pantry and a leek sausage from Elli's Deli in the freezer. I thought they were called loukanika, but Mr. W. Pedia tells me that this name refers, strictly speaking, to the Greek sausages that contain orange peel (also stocked at Elli's). Further information provided by Mr. Pedia, an exceptionally knowledgeable person, revealed that the leek sausages are often known as Macedonian sausage. A Greek or a Macedonian might like to enlighten. Or not.

Pasta with leek sausage.

Cook pasta. Place frozen sausage in cold water and bring to boil, then simmer.

Cook six sliced button mushrooms on low heat in a pot with a tight-fitting lid until they sweat and give off their juice. Add two tablespoons of cream to this and reduce slightly.

Chop two spring onions into rounds. Slice cooked sausage into half-inch rounds, drain pasta, place sausage on pasta, pour creamy mushrooms over, sprinkle with crunchy green onions. Add flaked parmesan.

3.5.09

The bone doctor.

One day last week: it was the kind of clear, still autumn morning that chills you early, but by 9 o’clock when the sun gets going, you have to take your scarf and coat off again.

We were sitting in an otherwise empty waiting room, first to arrive for the morning outpatients clinic in the orthopedic department of the RCH. This was a week or so after Thomas’s fall. Earlier in the morning we had had follow-up x-rays taken, through the plaster cast.

The waiting room had long benches for seating, and running the length of one wall, below the windows, was a shelf holding books and pencils and drawing paper, all neatly stacked and ready for the day’s devastation. A television was playing on another wall and a small sign below it read: Please do not change TV settings. I didn’t change the settings, I just turned it off. Televisions should never be placed in waiting rooms, let alone switched on.

After a while, the face of a tall, happy-faced blond woman, like a private school matriculant twenty years on, which is probably what she was, looked into the waiting room and called: 'Thomas' - giving the name two notes, one for each syllable, as if she were calling him for lunch. Then she disappeared. We guessed room one. We were right.

‘Sorry!’ she laughed. ‘I forgot to say which room, but you found it.’ She turned to Thomas. ‘Hello,’ she smiled. ‘I’m the bone doctor. What happened?’ Thomas told her about falling off the cardboard box on Easter Monday onto the back lawn. Back lawns are hard this year. Thomas had fallen on his bent wrist, over-flexing it.

*

I have seen this hospital during three separate periods - the third being now, the second when my older children were young in the early eighties and the first when I was a child. The hospital was brand new then. It opened in 1963, an airy, layered rectangle of cream brick and white concrete that rose like a mushroom out of Royal Park and had a curving concrete ambulance entrance off Gatehouse Street that looked like a Jeffrey Smart painting. The hospital replaced the old one in Nicholson Street, a rambling Victorian red-brick affair of dark wards and starched nurses and iron beds. The new building looked south over the city and north over the green tracts of Royal Park and the zoo. In the 1960s I used to gaze out the west windows and watch 727s and DC-9s slanting and dropping, like models, into Essendon airport far on the horizon.

*

We looked at the x-rays and the bone doctor pointed out the two blurs that were the now-healing cracks in the ulna and the radius, with a further small longitudinal crack up towards the joint. Thomas wasn’t interested in the x-rays and gazed out at the sunny day. The doctor sat back and looked at Thomas thoughtfully and said that we might keep the plaster on an extra week. Just to be sure.

*

The main entrance of this hospital building was originally reached via a long sloping atrium, like a nave, with floor-to-ceiling glass opening on closed gardens either side. To a child, it was like walking through a cavernous glassed-in pathway in a jungle. Adding to the sunny, optimistic atmosphere was a happy painted mural about the size of a movie screen that hung over the sliding doors at the lower end of the atrium. Later, hospital authorities tired of this architectural indulgence and replaced the entire front section with offices, poky consulting rooms, a chemist shop, a McDonald’s restaurant, play areas and a maze of stairways and ramps. Now, the whole building is cramped and tired and out of date, which is why they are building a new one right next door. And cream brick is so 1960s.

*

The plaster comes off in three weeks. We walked home all the way, the two boys in their fast stroller. It was that kind of morning. Through Royal Park and then all the way up the bike path. Thomas wanted to get out and run.