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

30.9.09

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

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

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

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

28.9.09

September holidays.

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

23.9.09

Silverbeet: one word or two?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exactly.

*

Spanakopita.

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

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

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

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

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

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

18.9.09

Table manners.

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

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

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

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

*

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

*

Crumbed cutlets.

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

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

15.9.09

New varieties of things just keep popping up.

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

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

14.9.09

Solving a sticky problem. And a quick recipe.

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

I replied: with difficulty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fast carbonara with spaghetti alla chittara.

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

Oh, the recipe:

Set the pasta to cook.

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

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

11.9.09

Four in the morning.

Where had I met John Grant?

I couldn't remember. It was not in this book. It wasn't as if I had read Wake in Fright once before and then forgotten. I've heard of people reading the same book years apart and not realising until the end, if at all.

Nor had I met John Grant in anything like this Tim Storrier landscape where
Eventually the sun relinquished its torturing hold and the plains became brown and purple and gold and then black as the sky was pierced by a million bursts of flickering light from dispassionate worlds unthinkable distances apart.
Kenneth Cook paints landscape pictures like few other writers. I kept reading. It was midnight.

*

It hit me at four in the morning. I was dreaming. I was on a train rushing across a flat treeless plain when it screamed to a stop in an oasis of green, scattering potted plants everywhere. The plants were aspidistras. I woke suddenly and sat up in bed.

John Grant is Gordon Comstock.

Gordon Comstock is the petulant hero of George Orwell's semi-autobiographical 1936 novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying. While the Australian outback and London couldn’t be farther apart, Wake in Fright and Keep the Aspidistra Flying play out eerily similar stories on their vastly different stages.

Later that day I dragged out my old copy of Keep the Aspidistra Flying from its untidy shelf underneath about a hundred cooking books, some old diaries and a mildewed copy of Farewell My Lovely that I left out in the rain one summer night a few years ago.

I started reading the Orwell again.

Comstock's downward spiral finds him obsessively counting his dwindling cigarette supplies and money:
He was perishing for a smoke. However, there were only four cigarettes left. Today was Wednesday and he had no money coming to him until Friday. ... The money clinked in his trouser pocket as he got up. He knew the precise sum that was there. Five pence halfpenny.
(Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Page 1, Penguin)

Grant, in Wake in Fright, does the same:
... The first cigarette, the first of eleven that were left in his last packet, and all that a search of his pockets had produced was two shillings and sevenpence. ...
(Wake in Fright, Page 56, Penguin)

Soon, Comstock is reduced to pawning:
He learned what it means to live for weeks on end on bread and margarine, to try to ‘write’ when you are half-starved, to pawn your clothes ...
(53)

As is Grant:
Could he sell anything? Only his clothes and there did not seem much of a market for second-hand clothes. His watch was battered and old and worth a few shillings at most, and besides he knew of nothing that approached a pawn shop in the city.
(59)

Petulant Comstock unfairly suggests the affections of his girlfriend are dependent on his wealth. He tells Rosemary:
"Money’s got to do with everything. If I had more money you'd love me more."
(25)

Grant is similarly unreasonable:
But then Robyn was more used to money than he, and might not be so impressed at the idea of three hundred and forty pounds.
(47)

Bar scenes abound. Comstock opens the door of the pub:
The saloon bar was crowded ... One elbow on the bar, his foot on the stool, a beer-streaked glass in the other hand, he was swapping backchat with the blonde cutie barmaid. ... The warm fog of smoke and beer slipped through the crack. A familiar, reviving smell ...
(81)

Grant finds similar revival half a world away and several decades apart:
He leaned on the bar with his left elbow so that he could feel the scar by resting his head on his hand. In his right hand he held a glass of beer. ... He looked around at the drinking men, and the sweating barmaid in the smoky fug of the bar. A vivid joyousness quickened in him simply at being there, alive...
(203)

Finally, Comstock is homeless:
He was three days and four nights in the street.
(53)

As is Grant:
Grant looked at the barren heaps of worked-out earth as possibly being where he would spend the nights for the next six weeks.
(60)

Comstock wants a job:
All this time he searched desperately for work.
(54)

As does Grant:
The only possibility seemed to be to find some sort of work in Bundanyabba... If he could find a job in a shop, or an office ...
(58)

But in vain. Comstock scrounges:
But now, of course, there was no job to be had. For months he lived by cadging on the family.
(54)

No family nearby for Grant, so Tim Hynes buys his drinks before taking him home for dinner and free board:
At first Grant kept trying to bring the conversation around to his chances of getting work in Bundanyabba, but that only set Hynes off on the imponderability of Grant’s not being a Buff, and Grant couldn’t stand it. So Grant, who soon didn’t care much anyway, just gave himself up to drinking.
(68)

Then, the morning after Comstock’s night of drunkenness:
He perceived that he was lying on his side, with a hard smooth pillow under his cheek and a coarse blanket scratching his chin and pushing its hairs into his mouth. Apart from the minor pains that stabbed him every time he moved, there was a large, dull sort of pain which was not localized but which seemed to hover all over him. Suddenly he flung off the blanket and sat up.
(198)

Grant wakes after a similar night culminating, as it had for Comstock, in a failed sexual encounter:
He was lying on a stretcher. Thirst was ploughing furrows in his throat. His head hurt and hurt and hurt. Where the devil was he? He stood up and swayed as pain swilled around inside his skull.
(90)

A turning point. Comstock's realisation of his obduracy:
Gordon was sinking effortless into grey, deadly failure. He seemed to want to sink.
(240)

Grant sees the light:
It was as though he had deliberately set out destroying himself.
(181)

Finally, redemption for both. Comstock understands:
Yet it was foredoomed that he should come back, and he had known it even then.
(265)

As does Grant, although he can't think why he should be saved:
Then he thought, almost aloud:
I can see quite clearly the ingenuity whereby a man may be made mean or great by exactly the same circumstances.
I can see quite clearly that even if he chooses meanness the things he brings about can even then be welded into a pattern of sanity for him to take advantage of if he wishes.
'What I can't altogether see' – he turned his eyes from the stars to the blackness of the plains and back to the stars again – 'What I can’t altogether see is why I should be permitted to be alive, and to know these things...'
(204)

*

My conclusion? There isn’t one. I'm not suggesting plagiarism. Far from it. The whole thing is a coincidence. Writers have always been inspired by other writers and stories; and cautionary tales such as these have a million precedents.

It’s just that, for years, I had been vaguely troubled by that Wake in Fright title. Its format and style seemed slightly out of place with its contemporaries. Why the verb phrase title? Well, why not? Orwell's book has one. And is that a touch of alliteration with the title of Orwell's book, when you repeat them together? Fright and flying. Rosemary and Robyn.

I'm just imagining it.

But come to think of it (and now we are stretching things, but why not?) I have noticed that all of the letters of Wake in Fright - if we allow the initial ‘W’ to fall deferentially out of ‘Orwell’, are contained very neatly within Keep the Aspidistra Flying.

9.9.09

Haven't I met you before?

It’s only taken me 35 years. Wake in Fright was a Year Eleven text. It was the one I didn’t read.

A new edition of the novel was published this year to coincide with the re-release of the 1971 film. You used to see the film because you read the book; today it's the other way around.

*

I had been in the garden. First I picked some spinach that the snails had somehow overlooked on their progressive dinner through the garden. How could they? I thought they ate everything, like Jeffrey Steingarten. I must remember to lay some snail bait. Then I picked some parsley from the wave of green spreading up the sideway that looks like being even bigger than last year's massive crop. Then some rosemary, thyme and oregano and inside to throw the herbs into a huge pot of lamb stew - Irish-style, but with additions - that was bubbling away on the stove. The spinach would wilt into a tablespoonful of cream, a clove of garlic and plenty of pepper later, to accompany.

*

Then back to the book.

A sense of brooding menace runs through the pages of Wake in Fright like a seam of fool’s gold in a quartz reef. Thanks to his own pigheadedness, John Grant cannot escape an isolated and hostile outback town. A reluctant teacher in Tiboonda – ‘a variation of hell’ - he throws an unexpected windfall away in a kind of existential surrender to fate. Trapped, he embarks - in a dramatic, drawn-out scene - on a drinking spree culminating in a failed physical encounter and humiliation. Later, he is unable to recall the details and he progressively spirals into utter personal degradation.

*

Hold it right there.

I was halfway through the book. That brooding sense was crawling up my spine. Not of menace, but of some half-remembered thing. There was something familiar about this book.

I had met John Grant before.

But where?

4.9.09

Oh, there it is.

It's the little things that get you.

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

And no, I didn't steal it.

*

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

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

1.9.09

Spring: brought to you by ricotta and tomatoes.

Was that the fastest winter ever?

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

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

Prove that, someone said to me once.

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

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

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

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

Fettucine with ricotta and tomatoes.

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

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

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

*

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

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

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