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


More things to do with olives.

Next month the days start to get longer again, I mused as I threw half a cup of flour (too much) into a tear-off plastic bag containing two large veal shanks (whole ones). I added a teaspoon of salt (about right) and the same of pepper, twisted the bag and shook it violently to coat the shanks in the seasoned flour. Too violently. The bag broke at its sealed end. At least I didn't drop the shanks.

Our winters are not very cold so I shouldn't complain, of course. But as we head towards June and the house shades almost the half of the back garden, I look forward to seeing the shade recede again.

A haze of seasoned flour settled serenely around the kitchen as I warmed some oil in a heavy pan and seared the shanks, rolling them around like logs and then standing them on their fat ends for a last sizzle on the cross cut. Then I laid them down and added to the pan a finely chopped onion, a diced carrot, a diced zucchini and two scored garlic cloves. I shook the pan and lidded it and turned down the heat and left it three minutes to steam the vegetables under and around the shanks. Then, a cup of red wine, a tin of diced tomatoes, a small tin of tomato puree, and the empty diced tomato tin refilled with water and swished around to get all the remaining tomato out.

Once it boiled, I removed the veal shanks to a heavy baking dish (the clear glass one so you can see the contents bubbling) and continued simmering the sauce in the pan on the stove top, adding two dozen pitted black olives. It's International Year of the Olive in this house. The boys eat them pickled and I cook with them. I haven't worked out how to get them into a dessert yet. (William prefers the green stuffed ones but picks the red middle out.)

Ten minutes later, I tipped the simmering sauce over the shanks and covered the baking dish and put it into the oven on medium for two hours. Ninety minutes might have been sufficient. But reheated next day would have been even better.

We ate the shanks over potato mashed with fresh basil (more leaves appeared in the garden after this week's sun) and a sprinkling of parmesan; but last time I made this dish polenta was the platform. Either is wonderful. You set the shank in a dip in the middle of the mash and pour the sauce into the pool and it spills over and stains the potato or polenta and the result is as voluptuous a meal as you're likely to eat, especially if you pair it with a glass of McLaren Vale Kangarilla Road Shiraz. (Kangarilla - Peramangk origin: 'caring place', 'kangaroos and water'; 'kangaroos and timber' and several other possibilities.)


Rice and olives?

My mother-in-law was here for dinner. She had read the boys about a hundred books, and they were in bed if not asleep, and I made her a gin and tonic with a slice of lemon from the tree.

I roasted a red pepper. This was going to be good. It ought to be at $10 a kilogram. Vegetable prices are snaking upwards again, along with water, mortgage rates, council rates, fuel, kindergarten fees, electricity and gas, the latter two receiving a further upward boost thanks to Kevin Rudd’s mining tax that he stole from the thesis of two American academics. All those actors’ bright ideas at the 2008 thinkfest and he steals one from two academics in America. The odds are shortening about Kevin Rudd being jettisoned before the election, and we have a Prime Minister named Julia.

I peeled the pepper and set it aside, and put a finely chopped onion and a scored clove of garlic into a large warm pan in which a knob of butter was curling around as it melted, like a daydreaming figure skater. I let the onion and garlic soften for a few minutes in the gently hissing butter and then tipped in two cups of arborio rice, stirring it around. I splashed in some white wine and stirred some more, and then poured in enough hot chicken stock to stop the rice sizzling.

Meanwhile I had six slices of trimmed short bacon sputtering in a fry-pan. When it had sputtered enough I chopped it into squares about the size of one layer of a licorice all-sort. I kept one eye on the rice and kept topping up the fluid and stirring. You have to be an octopus to cook and not burn things. I usually burn things, especially toast in the morning. I'd hate to be a chef. Bacon done, I peeled the roasted capsicum and sliced the glistening flesh into pieces the same size as the bacon squares. Now for the olives: I pitted two dozen very good fat black olives and set these aside with the pepper and bacon.

Now the rice was almost done. I added the bacon, pepper and olives and stirred them around, and then in went a large tablespoon of grated parmesan and another knob of butter. I stirred the whole thing through switched off the stove and set the lid on the pan to let it warm through thoroughly via the accumulated heat in the heavy base.

Then onto plates, and all done except for a final touch: I took the last jar of home-made pesto – the final summer basil that lasted well into autumn – out of the fridge and spooned a generous amount into the middle of each mound of rice as a kind of gremolata or salsa or whatever we’re calling the icing on the cake this week: a splodge of unctuous green in the middle of a sea of black- and red-specked white. Just to add extra colour and texture to the usual bland beige risotto.

Olives in rice? My mother-in-law had been surprised. Then later, I'll take a little more, thank you. And a little more pesto. I topped up her gin and tonic as well. Reading books to pre-schoolers is hard work.


Streets of your town.

Shopping malls are like airports. Thousands of people pass through them, they're all the same inside, you have to park miles away and they never have good coffee. In fact, shopping malls are arguably worse than airports because when you leave, you go home again instead of somewhere different.

On the other hand, no strip – or on-street – shopping centre is ever the same as any other, they attract smaller crowds, you don’t have to park in another suburb or get mugged in the car park, and you are more likely to find good coffee.

This series will take you down some of my favourite Melbourne shopping strips. Your list might be different. I haven’t visited them all.


Puckle Street, Moonee Ponds

Puckle Street makes this list for one reason: I virtually grew up in it. My mother and father shopped there every Saturday morning of my childhood and I went with them along with any other willing siblings, until we got older and rebelled. I didn’t return until I was sixteen when I got a job in the menswear store next to Sim’s Sports, and they used to come and visit me in the shop and I’d try to sell my father a shirt or a pair of braces. He never bought.

But in the 1960s we’d follow mother and father up and down the strip. They’d split up and he’d go to the greengrocer while she went to the butcher. On rainy mornings my brother and I stayed in the car, parallel-parked outside Gilbertson’s or Ezywalkin (I never realised until later that the name was just a bad pun) or Kift’s or Plarre’s cakes or the TAB arcade. This was the golden era of neon and the verandahs were underhung with flickering signs. H. G. Palmer had white, rounded Astor refrigerators and His Master’s Voice televisions in the window and Victa lawnmowers lined up out the front. Coles and Woolworths were variety stores then. Maples sold linoleum cut from huge rolls. The supermarket era had not commenced and the two competing grocery stores were Silman’s and Moran & Cato. Take your pick. We shopped at Silman’s, a huge barn of a place with a soaring ceiling and a fine coat of flour on everything. Delicatessen at the front, tinned goods in the middle; and dry goods counter at the rear, where a long, narrow sunlit walkway led through to the car park at the back. Biscuits by the bag were served over the counter, from large paper-labelled tins reached down by the grocer from a high shelf. Broken biscuits were half price. Guest's teddy bears are everybody's favourite, a sign read.

Today you can buy most things in Puckle Street but you can’t buy a banana. There are no greengrocers left. You have to go to Coles or Safeway and neither is in the street itself. Puckle Street is a café strip and the locals in their Ed Hardy t-shirts sit over endless lattes and big breakfasts and whisper conspiracies and gossip and read the Herald Sun. In between the cafes are look-alike fashion stores that sell clothes that came out of a container ship from China. They tried to remodel the place as the Chapel Street of the north. It didn't work. The four banks have large signs in their windows, all advertising lower rates and better service. Every now and then, pale men wearing tracksuits walk into the Cash Converters store carrying large electrical items on their shoulders.

Despite all that, Puckle Street still has a certain charm. The ornate Victorian or Edwardian top storeys crumble quietly overhead while the winter sun creeps under the south verandah and warms the cafes, and the aroma of toasted sandwiches and coffee drifts up the street. The newsagent has the best range of magazines and newspapers on this side of the city, and Sims Sports is one of the oldest remaining shops on the strip. My first task each morning at the menswear store next to Sim’s was to sweep the footpath out the front. Meanwhile Sim’s owner, Don Furness would be sweeping his shop. We used to chat and pretend we were a couple of street sweepers. Don died in the 1990s. Today his son runs the store. I still buy my walking shoes there. You walk to the back of the shop and up two rickety flights of timber stairs dating to the 1920s and past the poster of Linford Christie and there in the upstairs room is the largest range of running and walking shoes in Melbourne.

Lemon Soul. It used to be the Glen Ord cake shop, a Devonshire tea kind of place beloved of old Moonee Ponds matrons. Now it’s all modern café and acid colours and lower case lettering, but they still make the cakes and you can still get Devonshire tea. Try the thick pancakes drowned in red berries, syrup, ice-cream and cream.
Bruno’s. The time warp coffee lounge marches on. Bruno's decor has transcended outdatedness and is now the embodiment of what Smith and Brunswick Street cafes try so hard to re-create. Try the chicken, avocado and cheese open grill with house-made potato salad and coleslaw on the side. And coffee, of course.


Moving finger writes; and, having writ, presses ‘send’.

Building the Education Revolution: first, spend billions on libraries, then throw out the books:

ENGLISH teachers have questioned the value of a stand-alone literature course in the national curriculum for years 11 and 12 in an "increasingly media-driven and digital society".
They could give up on literature and teach jargon instead. They are very good at it:

"Key considerations will focus on whether, in an increasingly media-driven and digital society, a stand-alone literature course is the most appropriate focus for the final two years of formal school study and indeed whether the suite of courses proposed is sufficiently forward looking," the association says.
"Sufficiently forward looking"? With language like that, they shouldn't even be in the classroom.

ETANSW executive officer Eva Gold said the English courses "tend to privilege print medium" over digital and multi-media texts.
Never let a 14-line sonnet get in the way of a 140-character tweet.


1001 Nights.

This is the one thousand and first item posted to this weblog. I would never have known, except that blogger tells you how many posts you've made at the top of the edit page. A thousand dinners were always bound to become a little repetitive; hence regular digressions into observation and outright opinionism.

Of course, this blogging thing is just a lazy way to keep a diary. My paper diaries date to 1970. I kept them. They're in a box somewhere, a mixed assortment of Landseer, Folio, Collins, Vane and other types including the old National Bank of Australia notebooks issued to schools in the 1970s. I always wanted to commit events and thoughts to paper. I don't know why. The fear that I might forget? Can't be that. I have a memory like an elephant's. Ironically, I detested writing and hated writing essays at school.

Now I enjoy it. But it helps that somewhere, someone might be reading this. So thank you to everyone who visits this weblog. And now for the second millennium of web posts...


Pass me the map.

The book was printed and delivered in time for the College's seventieth anniversary year launch at a function to which the original pupils of the inaugural 1940 class had been invited. These were among 200 in attendance. They drank beer and reminisced.

So I'm away for a few days. For a rest. A rest? We're taking the boys. It won't be a rest. Just a change of scenery.


Baked shells with spinach and three cheeses.

We're eating boats for dinner, boys, I told them. Sailing ships filled with cargo. I hope they don't sink.

We fetched the boats from the pantry. They were large pasta shells about two inches from bow to stern. They were 24 of them. I boiled them and drained them and put them in cold water.

To fill them, we needed 500g spinach, 500g fresh ricotta, 100g mozzarella, 50g parmesan, two eggs, a good dash of nutmeg and three cloves of garlic.

I melted the spinach: took a bunch of it, rinsed it, placed it in a pan with the water it held after rinsing, threw in a dash of olive oil and a scored clove of garlic, put the lid on the pan and heated the spinach slowly until it turned to green mush.

Then I mixed the spinach with the ingredients in the third paragraph in a large bowl along with a gust of salt and a gale of pepper. Then we loaded up the boats to their upper foredecks. That was fun, especially for the boys. There was ricotta mixture on the ceiling. How did that get there?

Then I poured a cup and a half of napoli sauce into a casserole (or baking dish with foil) and lowered the the laden boats into the red sea of spicy basil-infused tomato. It reached halfway up their rounded hulls, so I tipped in another cup or so of sauce and placed the lid on the casserole. You might use more or less sauce depending on dish dimension, shell size, prevailing wind etc. It went into the oven for an hour. (Baking time similarly flexible. Check them after 45 minutes.)

The boys enjoyed their boats. So did we. They went very nicely with a stormy purple Heathcote shiraz.


Vegetable garden too much for bumbling bureaucrats.

Last month, Darebin Council threatened to fine a local resident for growing vegetables on his 'nature strip' lawn at the front of his property. Get those vegetables off that nature strip!

The council was forced into a humiliating back-down but not before a media blowtorch was applied to its intimidating behaviour.

Darebin Council's actions - compared with the jargon-ridden 'promises' in its mission statement - demand closer scrutiny.

Darebin official policy:
"Our goal is to demonstrate leadership in climate change action and environmental sustainability, beyond both the local environment and the short term. We will demonstrate, through action, that sustainable behaviour is practical, affordable and necessary. We will develop policy and programs that foster the ongoing development of a sustainable community."

DAREBIN Council has backed off fining a Northcote guerrilla gardener for refusing to remove a flourishing vegetable patch on his nature strip.
If, in Darebin Council's view, 'practical' or 'sustainable' behaviour does not include residents growing their own vegetables, then what does?

Darebin official policy:
"Our Promise. As a democratic and accountable local government, we will strive in all that we do to achieve fairness, through innovative and progressive leadership
that respects and reflects our diverse community."

Urquhart St resident Randy Anderson said he was shocked to receive a council letter stating he would be fined $200, face prosecution and have his garden forcibly ripped out by council officers if he did not remove it by March 30.
Forcibly ripping out someone's vegetable garden is 'fair' and shows 'progressive leadership' that 'respects' the community?

Darebin official policy:
"We will engage the residential and business communities in improving environmental behaviour through the encouragement, promotion and education of sustainable practices ... "

When Mr Anderson called the council to contest its decision he was told he had until April 7 to remove it but was also sent an application form for a strip garden.
Forget 'improving environmental behaviour'. It's all about the application form. Nothing but empty rhetoric, a million miles away from reality.

Darebin official policy:
"As a Council, we plan to move forward. Our community faces many challenges, and needs a response from Council that goes beyond simply continuing to deliver services and managing a series of small, incremental changes. We need new thinking, and new ideas."

We need a new council.


Let's talk health over beer and nuts.

I had an email from the Old Collegians, who organise events - usually golf, football or wine tastings - that they consider might be of interest to the college community:

Dear Old Collegian

A happy healthy lifestyle - that's what we all want.

As a member of the Old Collegians community, you are warmly invited to the Life Insurance Advisers' Men's Health Forum on Wednesday 12th May from 7pm.

Prominent speakers will discuss Nutrition Made Easy, Heart and Kidney Tips and much more. Free on-the-spot blood pressure, cholesterol and body mass index tests will be conducted, with a Doctor on hand to discuss results if required.

Enjoy complimentary nibbles with drinks from the bar.