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

29.6.10

How to eat spaghetti.

It was the coldest Saturday morning I can remember. I walked out to get the paper and it felt like Sir Ernest Shackleton’s third expedition. I must buy a scarf and a hat. The sun came out mid-morning but made no difference to the temperature, and then it disappeared again, probably to sulk behind a cloud. It stayed cold all day. We went out for lunch, to a warm place with hot food.

The warm place with hot food had brown brick walls inside, and we walked through to the back and past the kitchen and under a brown brick archway and sat at a dark-stained timber table in a dining nook far from the wind and the rain. Pictures on the walls showed a house by a sunny lake in Umbria, and cottages of many colours cascading down to a small bay of electric blue water. Either would be nice right now.

*

Writers are ambivalent about Lygon Street. The first line of Michael Harden’s Lygon St. - subtitled Stories and Recipes from Melbourne’s Melting Pot - reads ‘Lygon Street is one of Australia’s well-known streets.’ Faint praise, in not the most exciting opening line in publishing history. Most well-known? Best-loved? No. The author continues, in an oddly defensive introduction:

Nobody who heard about this project had to ask what or where Lygon Steet was, though there were plenty who questioned why you would devote a whole book to it. The most common responses were evenly divided between those who dismissed the iconic street as a clapped-out tourist trap and those who viewed it as a hotbed of organised crime.

Then why write the book? The reason for the defensive prelude may be that in a food-obsessed city, Melbourne writers are fixated with finding the latest fad, which they drop like a hot brick when it is discovered outside their inner circle. It’s hard to get an angle on something that’s been around forever when the weekend food columns are full of riesling jelly and biscuit gravel. (Biscuit gravel? I used to give butternut snaps to my adopted greyhound Billy for a treat, and in one loud crunch he’d wolf them down, sending a shower of biscuit crumbs all over the floor. Pass me the brush and pan! That stuff is culinary gold!)

*

It was not long after midday but steaming plates and bowls were already coming out of the kitchen. There were pungent aromas of garlic foccaccia and yeasty pizza dough and briney pescatora sauce and fresh ground coffee. This is a regulars’ place. You can tell by the way they enter purposefully. New customers stop in the doorway and look around and sometimes point, as if getting off the train in a foreign city. Regulars push the door open and wave to the front of house, nod at the cook in front of the pizza oven, smile at the waitress and head to their table without breaking stride, while unfurling a newspaper from under their arm.

*

Then we forgot about the lake and the coloured houses on the walls and the other customers, regular and irregular, and we ate hot minestrone dusted with parmesan and plenty of crusty pasta dura and butter, and calzone stuffed with ricotta and egg flecked generously with hot prosciutto, and the boys ate spaghetti competently. They have learned to twirl. Why obsess about teaching them to count? That will happen. Forget the baby Bach nonsense. Who cares if a child is a genius? Teach them to eat spaghetti. That’s all that matters, and then you can take them out for dinner. If they can eat spaghetti they can eat anything. Mind you, they have relapses.

Then coffee; bitter, sweet, hot, strong. And crepes with strawberry. No blobs of jus or bits of chocolate stuck to the plate here, just very good large crepes rolled around hot thick strawberry sauce that oozed when you depressed the lightly sugared dough with a fork. I looked out the window. There are tables on the street if you wish to sit outside and watch the world and the Doncaster buses go by. You won’t freeze. Those gas heaters that look like a flying saucer on top of a rocket put out so much heat you could sit there in a T-shirt and read The Saturday Age and pretend it was springtime. Several customers were doing just that. One set aside his newspaper as the waitress approached. He ordered inaudibly and the waitress nodded and smiled and said something to him in return and came back inside, and the customer picked up his newspaper again. At the next table, a family was eating pizza.

*

Papa Gino’s
221 Lygon Street, Carlton


Lygon St. Stories and Recipes From Melbourne's Melting Pot.
Michael Harden
Murdoch Books, Sydney, 2008

24.6.10

Bread and wine.

Everyone hates garlic bread. Waiters hate it because they have to 'sell' it - 'Garlic bread, guys?' (And don't call me 'guys'.) Customers hate it because they dislike having to refuse it when waiters sell it - or its close cousin, 'herb' bread. Chefs hate it because someone has to prepare it and it sure as hell isn't going to be him. Or her. No-one likes garlic bread.

But I do. Because I make it at home. I never order it in cafes. Never have. Cafe garlic bread spoils your appetite. (There is a third kind of garlic bread: supermarket garlic bread. This 'product' is ideal for taking on a picnic to Coburg Lake: you feed it to the ducks while you eat proper food.)

Home-made garlic bread is entirely different. For one thing, it can be just about the entire meal when accompanied with some very good red wine and maybe some cheese. You don't need to cook anything else.

Gourmet supper: sourdough garlic bread.

I chopped six cloves of garlic finely and dropped them into a small bowl - I used a mortar - along with a generous tablespoon of butter, 'generous' in this case meaning two tablespoons. Let's not hold back. You need plenty of butter. Butter is good for you. To the butter and garlic, I added a good dash of coarse-ground black pepper and pounded the lot with the pestle. I spread the butter thickly on three doorstop-size slices of two-day-old very good sourdough bread, stacked them, wrapped the stack in foil, and threw it in the oven.

Then I poured a glass of Jupiter Hill cabernet. The idea is that the bread is ready when you have finished the first glass, or are half-way down one of those giant ones that contain half a bottle. Don't be too slow. You'll burn the bread.

The bread will be steaming when you peel back the foil. The aroma of garlic stewing in salty butter with an undertone of sourdough will hit your nose. A desire to eat immediately will overcome you. Resist and pour another red. You have to savour this. And anyway, you can't stand at the oven and eat. If you prefer a toasted texture, place the baked slices under the grill for half a minute. That's it. Thick, steaming garlic bread and red wine. It makes the perfect late supper, unless you have an early meeting next morning. However, if you are being summoned to a powerpoint presentation, go ahead and eat all the garlic you like. Anyone putting on a powerpoint presentation in the morning deserves to be blown away in a garlic gale.

If you must eat greens with every meal, chop some parsley finely and add to the butter at mortar and pestle stage. Dessert? Easy: spread some good blue cheese at room temperature - any cheese for that matter; Bega Bar-B-Cubes would taste as good - on the last piece, place it under the grill for twenty seconds and eat with the last of the red. Or if you've enough red, accompany it with a Stanton and Killeen port. Garlic bread, bubbling cheese and port. You'll sleep like a baby.

*

My first father-in-law was a great one for gourmet suppers. After a movie or the theatre he'd have us over for champagne accompanied by thin, crustless toasted bread spread with caviar. Unlike the garlic bread above, this was light; and you could sip cold champagne and crunch delicious salty toast with that curious caviar popping texture for hours. You had to with my first father-in-law. He could talk. He was an amateur thespian. It would be past midnight before you knew it. You'd go to bed happy, and penniless.

22.6.10

793 sausages.

It was just after 8 a.m. on a very cold, grey Sunday morning. I was standing in front of a large grill in a tent outside the Bunnings Hardware store. Four of us were in the tent to raise funds for the kindergarten by cooking and selling sausages in bread. One to prepare, one to cook, one to sell and one to take the money. I cooked. I had the easy job.

Despite the day, the time and the weather, vehicles - many of which were utes - were pulling into the vast carpark in front of Bunnings. Must be a lot of renovating going on, I thought as I turned sausages.

We did shifts. In three hours I cooked 793 sausages. I knew it was 793 because we went through seven short of eight 100-packs of serviettes.

I also cooked six buckets of onions. There must have been a hundred onions to a bucket. Onions are important. What really gets people is the onions. The smoke from the sausages cooking on the grill is one thing, but the aroma of cooking onions is a showstopper. People are busy these days. They don't eat breakfast. Then they catch the smell of grilled onions and sausages on the cold morning air - on an empty stomach and a Sunday morning hangover - and then they realise they are hungry. I watched them through the tent window while I cooked the sausages and swirled the onions. Smoke was drifting across the carpark and they were getting out of their cars and their noses were hitting the air and they were stopping like gundogs in mid-point. The ones who were already walking before they caught the scent changed direction without breaking their pace, like racewalkers turning a corner. Look out, here they come!

$2 for a plain sausage on bread; $2.50 with onions. I cooked half the onions well on one section of the grill, and half of them lightly on another section, and mixed them for a contrast of caramelisation and texture on the sausage. Peak hour was around 10 a.m. Some of them took their sausage and bread into the store and came out later for another one. Shopping for flanges and pipes and power tools and paint and garden water features is hard work. Makes you hungry. Our best customer bought five. Two for the wife! he said, walking away with the sausages a pyramid in his mitt and a length of galvanised downpipe under the other arm. I watched him climb into a plumber's ute, laying the sausages on the seat like new babies. I bet he scoffed the lot in the car.

You also had a choice of tomato sauce, barbecue sauce or mustard sauce. No extra charge. All three if you want. About half the customers chose plain sausage; the other half had onions. 70% took tomato sauce, about 15% each - guessing - mustard or barbecue. Telling you this in case you're planning a sausage sizzle to raise funds for your school or kindergarten or scout group or bowls club or whatever.

But get in quick. The talk around town is that bureaucrats don't like sausage sizzles. Or chocolate drives or lamington drives. They think these items don't 'send healthy messages'.

Guess what they want us to sell to raise money instead? Toothbrushes. They think selling toothbrushes 'sends a healthy message'.

Might send a healthy message but won't raise a lot of money.

17.6.10

Streets of your town # 2: Nicholson Street, North Carlton.

Nicholson Street is a twentieth century shipwreck of architecture. It is a magnificent mess. It is a proud dowager wearing a faded dress and cobwebs. It is a jumble of Victorian shopfronts and Edwardian houses and 1950s grease monkey workshops and accountants’ offices and suburban law firms and Thai cafes and factories making God knows what. Nicholson Street is tattoo parlours and ugly video stores and bicycle shops and newspaper publishers and pasta manufacturers and student houses with Tibetan flags across their front doors, bikes on their front porches and naked bulbs glowing in uncovered windows.

And trams run through it.

*

I was on foot, heading south on the west side, the North Carlton side. It was dusk, almost six o’clock, and bleak. A tram trailing phosphorescent dust flew north, loaded to the gunwales with scarved and wired commuters bound for the home fires of East Brunswick, and red wine, and Mozart. I walked past Bande a Part, a pizza place for Franco-cinephiles where you can wear a beret and pretend you are Jean-Paul Belmondo while you read last week’s Le Monde - or at least the Tour de France results in the back of The Age. No Gauloises, however, unless you sit out the front in the cold air. As I passed, the door opened and a woman who looked like Anna Karina appeared in the doorway. Long dark hair framing brooding black eyes, full red lips and a worried expression. Or was that a half smile? ...

I didn’t know. I was walking too fast to notice. Anyway, I always preferred Truffaut. Godard took himself way too seriously. Although any 1960s French movie is galaxies ahead of the juvenile rubbish Hollywood pumps out these days. Walking makes you think such things. I was walking fast because I was on my way to the weekly exercise class I have taken up to ward off arthritis, and the thirty minute walk is my warm-up.

At the top end of its shopping strip (meaning Park Street – Nicholson Street meanders through to Coburg) the early iron verandahs that shade the footpath still bear some of their original wrought iron lacework; except where some wayward truck has torn it down leaving ugly gaps, like a Frankston smile. The older shops at this end have been hanging on for years; but they are, one by one, slamming their cast iron cash registers shut and giving way to the whirring credit card culture of a new era of cafes and bars and the 'eco-friendly' trade. But some old stores refuse to go, and crouch under their section of darkened verandah hoping no developer will notice. But they will, eventually. Some of the old traders still do good business, of course. Canals seafood has a sign on the front window that reads 'since 1917'. Natural Tucker bakery dates back a few decades, and if you happen to be out late at night you can watch through its front window as the bakers shove trays into the ovens. The smell of baking bread on the cold night air makes this a worthwhile experience. Next door, the dry cleaners has been emitting fumes since 1949, but only during the day.

I walked on. Now another cinematic allusion: Birdie Num Nums - a café, not a pet store or stock feed outlet. Then an organic fruit and vegetable store, the Milawa cheese shop, a Thai restaurant, and a kebab shop. I crossed the road near Moonlight Receptions, a fat square green 1980s building that is so ugly, they grew giant palm trees around it and festooned it with fairy lights. It looks like a bull elephant trying to be a ballet dancer; a piece of Gold Coast kitsch wedged into a Victorian streetscape. Next door is a specialist Italian sportscar workshop, so you can get your Ferrari fixed while you’re drinking spumante at the wedding.

Later, after the class, I walked back up Nicholson Street from Alexandra Parade. It was a clear, cold night and a crescent moon hung in the north-west sky, and a bright star beneath it. The moon was leaning back as if straining to tow the star across the sky. I walked past the art deco San Remo ballroom, which stares across the road at St Brigid’s church. In the old days the locals would have met on one side of the road and married on the other. Maybe they still do. Farther north, next door to each other, are Woodstock and L’Osteria, two old-style Italian eating places full of gingham tables and dark timber and customers and moustached waiters. More Edwardian houses, then on a corner, Fireflies wine bar, which has restored the lost art of exterior neon lighting. A few doors up, El Gaucho Argentinian Grill had a sign in its window Watch the Worl Cup here. I felt like adding the 'd'. Across from El Gaucho, Il Carretto was busy. A cook was twirling pizza dough in the window and a painted two-wheeled jinker sat out the front just to ram home the theme.

Then past the North Carlton bus and tram depot. At night the red and yellow buses fade to monochrome under the moon and their rooves glisten with dew. The buses are parked on one side of enormous diesel fuel silos. On the other side, behind locked cyclone wire gates, a brigade of W-class trams sits two abreast in stony silence, their Cyclops eyes staring at the old buildings across the road, as if to say We're older than you. Tomorrow, they will thunder and crash out onto Nicholson Street, just as they have done every day since when, 1912?

Visit: Happy Inn. A time-warp Chinese café with venetian blinds in the window and signage that is a bad imitation of the typeface that ANZ Bank used in the 1970s.
Browse: The Little Bookroom, a specialist children's literature store named after the Eleanor Farjeon collection of stories. I've been buying books here since the 1970s - originally for William and Thomas' much older brother and sister - but the store was in Elizabeth Street then.

*

I might quit the exercise class and just do the Nicholson Street return walk. It's more interesting than falling off a Swiss ball. And cheaper.

7.6.10

Something else, again.

Of course, these days we eat leftovers. You have to when you have children, otherwise you’d be throwing out enough food to feed an army. I find it difficult to throw out food, another reason I could never be a chef. In my waiting days I was always astounded at the way people paid a fortune for food and then left half of it on the plate. A thirty dollar steak becomes a sixty dollar one (on paper) if you eat only half because it was too well-done for your liking. Why not stay home and cook it yourself – to your liking – and toss screwed-up fifty dollar bills into the fireplace afterwards instead? Because they’re plastic these days, I hear you say; and you can’t toss them because they float and flip in the air and land well short of the hearth and you’re right. It was a shame when paper money was phased out, because you could no longer liken yachting to standing under the shower tearing up hundred dollar bills. A waste of a good metaphor. We started this paragraph eating leftovers and ended up sailing off the Whitsundays. Life’s unpredictable. Now let’s get back to the subject.

We cook up a mountain of pasta for the boys and they don’t eat it. Or rice. Or toast. Or broccoli. So it gets turned into something else later; and when they have gone to bed and stopped brawling and there is a beautiful, rare serenity in the house, we eat and pretend two toddlers haven’t already pawed over dinner in its previous manifestation. But then, you never knew what the chef in the restaurant did to your food either.

The other night Tracy whipped up a small mountain – Mt Baw Baw below the snowline perhaps – of potato mashed with pumpkin. They ate their broccoli and they ate their crumbed cutlets (children’s gourmet food) and they ate their carrot sticks and their slices of buttered bread and their home-made crispy apple cake and custard, but they left the mash. Then they went to bed. And every story about children should end with that sentence.

I could have just fried it and slapped it on the plates. But I spooned it onto a board and made a caldera and cracked an egg into it and more than half a cup of flour and some snipped basil (still hanging on into winter in the sunniest part of the front garden) and folded everything through to make a pliable dough. Then I rolled it into thick cigars and cut the cigars into sections. Gnocchi.

You can’t tell how gnocchi will cook unless you’re an expert who has done it for years. The ingredient ratios and variables mean they could either float, or self-destruct under water; or something in between, like stricken submarines attempting to surface while shedding air manifolds and ballast tanks and conning towers. However, this batch floated brightly to the top and were green-flecked yellow sea-going dirigibles in the threshing water. I lifted them and drained them and placed them in dry-dock bowls and smeared them with melting butter and scattered shards of parmigiana and more basil ticker-tape over them and that was it. They were so light they just about floated off the plate. Complete coincidence, of course. But nice for leftovers.

3.6.10

Old photographs: #3 in a series.


World bantamweight boxing champion Lionel Rose photographed by my father at the 1971 combined Mercy Sports, Arden Street oval, 1971, at which two of my sisters were competing. Rose is pictured with Mother Superior who is holding a sports program wrapped around an aluminium baton. Was she contemplating running an anchor leg of the 4 x 100?

A well-dressed boxer engaging in polite conversation with nuns at a catholic schoolgirls' sportsday?

Yes, it was a long time ago. These days the boxers wear the hoods.

*

Earlier photographs in this series here and here.

1.6.10

Where to drink coffee.

It was half past nine on a late autumn morning that had a golden haze in the air. I drove up out of the valley and into the main street that ran along the top of a ridge. Out of town, the ridge turned north and I was looking at dark blue shadowy hills in the distance. The ridge drops away on each side here. Down below you can see well-balanced cattle grazing on the steep green hills. Friesians. I drank their milk on my cereal this morning. Thanks, cows. Most of Victoria’s milk comes out of these hills.

Farther along, the spine of the hill dropped into a chasm. You couldn’t see into it because it was covered in a white sheet that was cloud, and the road was so steep it felt like we were descending in a plane. Suddenly we were in the cloud, and all you could see was white mist flying past at a hundred miles an hour, or so it seemed. Want to eat cloud, boys? I called over my shoulder. I pressed the button and the window rolled down and the blast that came in the car was cold and clean and smelled of mountains and wet pine trees. The boys had toddler hysterics (laughing ones) in the back seat and I rolled the window up again.

Then we were under the cloud, and the road fell to the valley floor and we came to a fork. Left, Melbourne via Powelltown; right, the mountain. We turned right and soon we were rising again but no rolling green hills here, just dense forest. The road narrowed. There were no white marks in the middle so you had to keep hard left when the logging trucks loaded with felled mountain ash barreled around hairpin bends and past you. It was another forty-five minutes of twists and turns and giant treeferns to the peak, past the logging coupe and a couple of towns that were closed. I couldn’t work out whether they opened in summer for the cool air or winter for the snow trade. A sign outside a shop read: No Petrol.

Up past the snow line and into bright sun now. I drove right into the village Welcome to Mt Baw Baw. There was no-one here, of course, except workers preparing for the snow season. There was little snow but just enough, piled up under the eaves of the buildings scattered about the village, for the boys to toss about. Never seen snow before; but they didn’t take long to be throwing it at each other. I took out our lunch and we sat at a picnic table that was still cold enough, despite the sun, to require sitting on a blanket. I opened the flask and made coffee and unwrapped a package of sandwiches and took out the newspaper. You can see Gippsland from up here, far away, where the cows are. Bass Strait is beyond that. Coffee tastes good in this situation. In a little while I had another one. I didn’t read the newspaper.