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


What to do with a pumpkin.

Peel it and chop it up. This is easier said than done. Pumpkin's dense texture means a good knife and a steady hand are essential. One slip and you'll lose a finger. The following recipe means the peril is worth risking.

Pumpkin with spinach, corn and fresh basil.

I am fond of the vegetable known in some parts of the world as being food fit only for pigs. (Only? The pig is one of the noblest creatures, if your moral universe extends to an animal pecking order. Orwell was right, but he got the order wrong. Squealer should have been a snake.) I like pumpkin’s sweet, mellow flavour when it is baked or sautéed, especially when eaten with contrasting flavours or textures. I’m not so fond of it when mashed together with potato, a common childhood side ('golden potato') and one which, it seemed to me, masked the assets of both vegetables.

Having arduously made small cubes of a one-kilogram pumpkin, don't put away the knife. First, chop two onions and then cut six slices of prosciutto into postage stamps. Crisp these in a large pan, add the onions and the pumpkin, give it a good stir, and lid the pan. Depending on how much fat the prosciutto has rendered, add a little peanut oil. Sauté on a low heat for fifteen minutes, stirring often, until the pumpkin is barely soft. It will soften further in due course.

Now add a chopped bunch of spinach or one of those 250g freezer packs of frozen spinach blocks, thawed. At the same time, add a drained can of corn. Or equivalent volume frozen corn. Or fresh, depending where you are in the world and what’s available. Stir and put the lid back on the pan and cook gently until corn is hot and spinach wilted. Mere minutes. Season to your liking.

Serve piled high in bowls as a main sprinkled with torn basil for extra aroma and taste. Serve with small bowls on the side, one containing tahini to drizzle; the other with warm, freshly toasted pine nuts or macadamias to toss over. Or both, for a crunchy, nutty treat. Finish it off with a squeeze of lemon. You'll never eat golden potato again.



Sunday. Late afternoon walk under grey skies heavy with the threat of more rain. It had rained all the previous night, a welcome soft hissing sound with a background slash and groan of the midnight traffic.

Merri Creek was in spate, flooding the bicycle pathway that runs beside the northbound path on its left bank at several points. I followed it past its junction with Merlynston Creek, detoured at Bakers Road, crossed the baseball park to Mathieson Street and back onto the pathway. Blocked again, I backtracked to Queens Parade, and rejoined the creek where it turns east. Here, it was running as wide as a river. I hit water again and climbed the hill to the Fawkner plain where the creek turns north again and drops into a valley. It was running brown and fast and flattened reeds on either side showed its high point, reached earlier in the day. There is a new bridge here that crosses to Reservoir, but I turned west with the creek, followed it around, and eventually came out at Sydney Road and walked south and home. Yes, it was a long walk.


The State held it breath as election counting went on; or didn't go on, I'm not sure, during Sunday. Having seen or heard no coverage I had turned on the radio at 10.30 on Saturday night at a point when Mr Brumby was in the middle of a victory speech. So that's it, I thought. No, it wasn't. The victory speech was a we haven't lost until the last vote is in and counted twice just to make sure speech.

Arrogance was evident months ago. A local candidate was handing out material from a generic electioneering tent in Sydney Road one Saturday morning. The material was contained in fabric bags marked Go Green. So you're the Green party candidate, then? I asked the candidate. Ah, no, came the reply. Labor, actually. Where's the Labor sign, I wondered. You're already guaranteed Green preferences, I offered. Why try and steal their primary vote as well? The candidate muttered something out of the politician's book of pat phrases about everyone doing his bit to save the environment, and one of those party room hacks got up from a chair at the back of the tent and glowered across to me and mumbled something in a way that would have been more aggressive than merely sullen had it not been an electioneering tent.


The hell with them. And no-one in the media had a clue. Mr Brumby's fate was to never be elected. He was catapulted into the role after the last poll when both previous premier and vice-premier walked away complacently after being elected last time round. Arrogance. They built a pipeline to siphon water away from the northern rivers and run away to the sea, and then they built a desalination plant to clean the water and pipe it back in again. Let's hope the new government hasn't a minister as pedestrian as the previous planning minister, who was unable to name the height of the new Windsor development.


Duelling bands: a timeline. The first eleven years.

1964 The first sung words of my younger sister, born the previous year, are 'yeah yeah yeah', from the Beatles’ She Loves You. Father brings home plastic Beatle mop-top imitation wigs, a giveaway at Golden Fleece service stations (or were they?). They resemble punctured black soccer balls with a section missing.

1967 The battle begins in earnest. My older brother purchases the Rolling Stones' Ruby Tuesday single with Let's Spend the Night Together on the B side. Neither mother nor father impressed with lyrics of latter song. Older sister trumps with the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Ten-year-old Kitchen Hand doesn't buy into the debate, considering Tom Jones' Green, Green Grass of Home to be the vocal performance of the year.

1968 Older sister triumphantly brings home the Beatles’ double white album. Travelling to a cub camp in the family car one day, I boldly turn the car radio to full volume when a newly-released song comes on. 'I met a gin-soaked bar room queen in Memphis ...' My father snaps the radio off and corrects his steering on a sharp bend.

1969 My older brother gets Abbey Road for Christmas. I get Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkel. How did they decide? Had I walked around the house that year singing Sounds of Silence?

1971 John Lennon releases Imagine. The Rolling Stones release Exile on Main Street. Take your pick.

1973 The Rolling Stones in Melbourne, playing Kooyong one sweltering never-to-be-forgotten day in January. Paul McCartney releases Helen Wheels. George Harrison does his own Imagine with Give Me Love (... give me love, give me peace on Earth ...). I preferred Harrison's. It was less sanctimonious.

1975 Music died this year, the moment symbolised by Barry Manilow murdering a perfectly good Scott English original, renaming it Mandy. Mush. Disco in full swing, if you can call it that. Paul McCartney and Wings play Melbourne at the Myer Music Bowl. I attend, half-pretending it will more than 25% of a Beatles concert and come away knowing it was much less. My father buys a Barry Manilow record. I leave home.


What happened to 'good morning'?

People used to approach me in the street with a loud greeting and a smile and I would open my mouth to answer them, and then they would walk straight past me and I would realise they were talking on phones connected by wires to their ears.

Then I would shut my mouth and determine not to be fooled again by such an obvious if unintended trick. But I always was.

Now it's different. No-one looks at you any more because they're walking down the street with their heads down, gazing into 'apps', a word I don't like.


The old spice jar and this year’s best barbecued chicken.

There comes a time when a spice jar gets so old you keep it anyway, for curiosity value. I have a nutmeg jar, nearly empty, that has ounce weight on the label. That makes it pre-1972, when we changed to decimals, much of which nobody understands. How tall is a 165cm gangster? Beats me. The nutmeg jar is a nice imitation cut glass design with a silver and blue label and a red Hoyts logo. Since spice jar use-by dates give you a few years, someone must have bought the jar in the late 1960s, possibly when Hey Jude was topping the charts. How did it come to be in my kitchen? No idea. Picked it up somewhere. Probably borrowed it from my mother's kitchen years ago.

Spicy barbecued chicken.

One tablespoon each chili and coriander powder
One teaspoon each turmeric, fenugreek leaves, peppercorns, and salt
5 green cardomom pods
1 black cardomom pod
1 piece star anise
2 cloves garlic
1 inch peeled ginger
1 inch cinnamon
1 clove
1 pinch asafoetida
1 grate of nutmeg
One half-teaspoon sugar (brown or jaggery if you want to be pointedly but pointlessly authentic, but it will just vaporize anyway. The recipe won’t know the difference. Or you could use honey.)
Vinegar, about three-quarters of cup to blend the ingredients into a sludge with a grainy texture. I have variously used cider, brown and white. All fine
1 cup yogurt
One chicken, jointed

Process everything except the yogurt and the chicken. Then fold the yogurt through the mixture and coat the chicken pieces, pressing the mixture under skin or into slashes where applicable. Store chicken in the fridge in a covered marinade dish for at least a couple of hours.

Fire up the barbecue. I use a hill of coals or charcoal piled up to a couple of inches beneath the grill, tapering down from the summit to allow for heat variation. When coals are ready, grease with a little melted (it soon will melt, if not actually explode) ghee and place chicken on grill. Cooking time is entirely dependent on your grill, prevailing weather conditions, wind direction, which gin and tonic you’re up to, etc etc. Cook each side of the chicken pieces on the hottest part of the grill and then move to a cooler part for cooking through without burning. Lid? Yes. My barbecue does not run to a hood, so I use the large lid of an old wok to cover what's cooking. It recirculates the smoke perfectly and turbo-charges the barbecue flavour before releasing the smoke at last to drift on the evening breeze probably as far south as Glenlyon Road. The fat drips and flares, the spices crackle and burn, the chicken crisps and, sometimes, heads pop over the fence.

On one corner of the coals, I cook the rice. You can do this inside, of course, but the mellow aroma of quality Basmati rice slowly simmering in a pot on the barbecue adds a further dimension to the whole shooting match. Smoke and steam. Then there’s the fenugreek roti of course. I buy that in, and just heat it. I’m no baker.

Serve the chicken on the rice and drizzle a raita 'salad' of yogurt, tomato, cucumber, white onion, and a sprinkling of cumin seeds over the chicken. Slices of ripe tomatoes, wedges of lemon and a sprig of coriander to garnish. Drink: very cold beer.


Decision reached after 47-year deliberation.

I started thinking about this in about 1963, or around the time car model names started ending in '-a' (e.g. Falcon Futura, Vauxhall Viva, Toyota Tiara); and I have made a decision.

The Rolling Stones were better than the Beatles.

Your indignation, concurrence, outrage, praise, fury, shock, abuse, favourite songs, sightings, anecdotes etc etc in comments below.


This year's poppy.

I don't plant them any more, they come up all by themselves right on cue for November 11. Previous poppies: 2009, 2008 (scroll down to November), and 2007.


I was in town this morning, waiting to cross Swanston at Collins, close to 11 o'clock. Before the town hall clock struck the hour, two cops stepped onto the road and stopped both directions of traffic. Trams heading in three directions ground to a halt and the horses pulling carriages for tourists shook their heads. A few pedestrians ignored the cops and crossed anyway. Cars idled. Then a howling roar. Four RAAF planes in formation screamed overhead, following the spine of the city towards St Kilda Road and the Shrine of Remembrance, and were gone. In the sudden silence, a uniformed bugler stepped out of the shadows on the north-east corner of the intersection and marched onto the road. You could hear his footsteps. The horses shook their heads. The bugler raised the bugle and played The Last Post. Then a minute's silence. Then he played again, finished, turned on his heel in a neat military spin and marched back into the shadows. The cops waited a few respectful seconds and then switched on the city again with a wave of their gauntlets.


It was early evening on the day after the Melbourne Cup. I was walking up Sydney Road towards Dawson Street past the cafes and bars and vintage clothing shops and second hand book stores. It must have been almost eight o'clock. The footpath and road were partially taped off and a large vehicle with a flashing orange light was standing in the blockage and its crane was propped against the Brunswick Town Hall and workers were at the top of the crane in a cherry picker. They weren't putting out a fire; they were hanging the year's first Christmas decorations on the town hall. Merry Christmas.


I came out this morning about five-thirty to get the paper from the shop around the corner and the world was red. It wasn't just in the east. Bars of orange and pink hung in the sky right over to the west. It was gone within half an hour. There is stormy weather expected.


Rigatoni with asparagus and broadbeans.

One box rigatoni.
One bunch new asparagus (i.e. local rather than Peruvian or Chinese).
One cup fresh shelled broadbeans.
One pack fetta (local is fine; it doesn't have to come from Greece or Bulgaria or Denmark).
Olive oil.

Boil rigatoni, adding broadbeans and asparagus chopped in two a minute or two before completion.

Drain. Return to pan having added a little olive oil and a finely chopped garlic clove. Stir over low heat to coat in oil and garlic shards.

Serve with fetta crumbled over.

Drink: chardonnay, if you can find one that still tastes like chardonnay. They used to call it the red wine drinkers' white, but that was a long time ago.


Arnott's biscuit sales to crash in upcoming home-baking frenzy.

Tracy, the gin and tonic thief, submitted the following recipe to this year's most important publishing event, the kindergarten cookbook.

250g butter, softened
½ cup icing sugar, sifted
12/3 cups plain flour
¼ cup rice flour

Baked in a pre-scored round for easy dividing into segments, the secret to this shortbread is kneading the dough minimally, resulting in the crumbly texture characteristic of traditional Scottish shortbread, not found in the commercial product. Children love a segment of this shortbread with milk for morning tea.


1. Beat butter and sugar in a bowl with an electric mixer until light and fluffy.

2. Sift in flours and combine well with a wooden spoon. Press dough into a ball. Lightly knead. Over-kneading will result in too fine a crumb.

3. Cut dough in half. Shape into two balls. Pat into rounds one centimetre thick.

4. Place rounds on a greased baking tray. To decorate, pinch edges with floured fingers, score radially into eighths and prick each sector with a fork a few times to assist even baking. Bake at approximately 150C for 35-40 minutes or until lightly golden brown.

5. Remove from oven, leave on baking tray for a few minutes to cool slightly then transfer to a wire rack. Sprinkle shortbreads with a little caster sugar. Use a knife with a light sawing action to slightly deepen score marks so that shortbread segments will break apart easily when cool. Store in an airtight container for up to 5 days.
Five days? That's academic. And forget the milk. Try it with Scotch after dinner on a biting cold night. You'll think you've just come on from the highlands. Maybe you have.


When the Melbourne Cup was run ...

It's funny how you remember where you were.

1962: Even Stevens. In the garage shed with my father in a sea of wood shavings. HMV radio on shelf. He was building a boat. I was five.

1963: Gatum Gatum. The shed. The boat. The radio. Bert Bryant, 3UZ.

1965: Light Fingers. In the backyard. Family lunch. Mother won the sweep.

1968: Rain Lover. Inside the rail at Flemington with my father, photographer. Watched the horse round the turn alone. It won by eight lengths.

1971: Silver Knight. At home in the living room. Bert Bryant on ancient radiogram.

1973: Gala Supreme. In father's studio in back yard. I used to paint and read there. Taped the race on my new cassette recorder. I still have a scrap of Bill Collins' call on 3DB.

1974: Think Big. Living room at home.

1975: Same horse, same place.

1976: Van Der Hum. Abandoned picnic in Dandenongs due to weather. Pulled car over halfway down mountain due to heavy rain. Read Peter Smark's Epicure column in The Age while waiting for Cup broadcast. Bill Collins called the winner despite blinding rain.

1977: Gold and Black. New home, new wife, new baby: W., T. and A.'s Much Older Brother was 10 months.

1980: Beldale Ball. Media and Communications faculty party at head lecturer's house. Conspiracy theories, warm dip, warm cheese cubes and warm Brown Bros cask wine. Winning horse not approved of; owned by media mogul.

1985: What a Nuisance. Driving through Gippsland with W., T. and A.'s Much Older Brother and Sister. Sister picked the winner, liked the name. She was five, the same age William is now.

1986: At Talaq. At home in Brunswick. First of a new breed of unpronounceable horse names, at least at the height of the race.

1987: Kensei. Home alone. First post-divorce Cup.

1988: Empire Rose. In a South Melbourne studio, probably AAV, recording some appalling radio ad or other.

1989: Tawrrific. See 1986. How the hell did they call that at the finish?

1993: Vintage Crop. Royal Park and then Brunswick Street.

1999: Rogan Josh. At home. Takeaway curry from Singh's that night.

2006: Delta Blues. Picnic at the lake.

2009: Shocking, ahead of Crime Scene. At sister-in-law's house in mountains where radio reception is difficult. Race is inaudible static. But with names like that, was the call really worth hearing?

2010: We'll see. An uncle of my older children has trained a horse for the race by the name of Buccellati. It is not favoured. One tipster has it last.