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

30.9.10

'Would you like a snow pea?' he asked. 'Why, thank you!' she replied.

I'd never grown snow peas before.

Last year in the front garden bed we had a row of carrots. They didn't grow, and they took all winter to do it. They sulked and took up space that could have yielded something more useful than hard orange sticks good only for horses to chew. My fault of course. Probably didn't feed them enough. I'd heard of horse carrots when I was a child. Always wondered what they were. (Always wondered what those warning signs on the back of horse floats meant, as well. Caution horses, the signs used to read. I asked my father. He told me they were very careful horses, never bucked or shied.)

So no more carrots. (And never believe your father when he has a smile playing about his lips.) We planted snow peas in winter instead. They grew, and they started sprouting snow peas a month ago. The vine winds about a simple three-sided pyramid of three stakes meeting at the top. The pods come out and dangle like earrings, or decorations on a Christmas tree. The boys have been picking them and they break off with a satisfying snap. Much more satisfying than digging up horse carrots. I've been finding them all over the garden and in their clothes. I was in Vipond's paint shop last week with the boys when William pulled two snow peas out of his pocket and offered them to the lady behind the counter. She accepted them graciously. Thomas was busying himself with the pantone colour cards at the time. Shades of green.

*

Pasta with spring vegetables in a cream sauce heavily infused with garlic.

Cook half a 500g pack of linguine. Add a cup of florets of broccoli two minutes from end of cooking and a cup of snow peas half a minute from end of cooking, then drain.

Meanwhile, in a large pan, to some warmed olive oil add half a cup of white wine, plenty of black pepper, and two scored cloves of garlic. Cook without burning garlic, and then add half a cup of sliced button mushrooms and an avocado sliced into segments. Cover and cook gently for three minutes. Remove lid, add a tablespoonful or more of cream. Reduce.

Drain pasta and green vegetables and place into serving bowls. Pour creamy mushroom and avocado sauce over. Add parmesan and chopped parsley.

28.9.10

What comes out of a cow and isn't something that churns into butter?

The Heart Foundation is stressing about a rise in butter sales thanks apparently to Junior Masterchef.

Relax, Mr Heart Foundation. Stress is bad for your health. It gives you heart attacks.

Aside from that, don't they realise that that 9.3% rise in butter sales means more people are going to the supermarket to fetch ingredients to cook their own meals? With completely natural products? Would they rather people phoned out for pizza and burgers? That would really give them a coronary. But no; cooking at home instead of ordering takeout is a big health hazard if that toxic substance, butter, is involved:
Heart Foundation healthy weight director Susan Anderson said MasterChef "does certainly seem to be contributing" to the problem. "When we ask people what's the reason for using butter, they say it's because that's what the recipe says," Ms Anderson said. "It would be great to see leading chefs use margarine in their recipes."
What the hell is a 'healthy weight director'? And by the way, there wouldn't be an agenda here with margarine, would there? From the purer-than-pure Heart Foundation's own site:

Flora Buttery. New and improved Flora Buttery will melt your heart. Churned with real buttermilk, you’ll find the rich buttery taste ... simply irresistible.

And:

Make a healthier choice for your family – Did you know you can remove up to 2.85kg of saturated fat from your diet in one year by replacing butter with a healthier plant based spread such as Heart Foundation Tick approved MeadowLea?

And:

Add flavour to salads and sandwiches the healthier way and use Tick approved Praise Traditional Mayonaisse.

'Mayonaisse'? And that was their 'Product of the Month'. The Heart Foundation is a marketing organisation. Big Margarine and Big 'Mayonaisse' are paying them to promote their products over valid competitors under the guise of a reputable government health authority. But the 'healthy weight director' doesn't tell you that in her juvenile press releases.

That's Big Brother tactics. Buy butter and save a cow.

And to hell with the Heart Foundation.

27.9.10

Saturday afternoon.

The first warm day. It was latest arrival of spring I can remember. I sat on the beach reading the weekend broadsheet while the boys tore up and down the sand. Then, following a story I had read them earlier about a windstorm blowing a beach away, they threw it. I was the victim. The idea was I had to use the paper as a shield or a tent against the gale of sand. It worked well for them. Next morning my pillow was full of sand.

Tracy joined us with the small one. The gale had subsided by then and they were ready for afternoon tea. Their mother produced fresh shortbread, still warm with the characteristic grainy texture provided by the use of a combination of rice and wheat flours. They sat and munched while the small one blinked tiny eyes at her first view of sea. What do they think?

Later, I walked back to the house with Tom through quiet ti tree-lined streets. It was unnaturally still. Dead. Not a car. Not a human. It was a ghost town. It must have been early in the last quarter of the football grand final. The entire country was gathered around television sets or radios. The only sounds were shrieks coming from a house here and there. The shrieks grew higher in pitch progressively; almost strangled. That meant a close score. Then nothing. Not a sound. We walked along. We reached the house and I turned on the radio. I had already guessed the result.

It was eerie. Collingwood's three nightmares are enshrined: mention 1966, 1970 or 1977 to a Magpie and they turn green. This result was the spirit of all three. The opponent was St Kilda, which won by a point in '66. In 1970, the Magpies threw away a half-time lead; they did the same on Saturday. 1977 was the last drawn grand final, Collingwood losing the replay. It's going to be a long, nerve-wracking week if you're a Magpie. I'm not. But I like the drama.

23.9.10

Old photographs.

Two weeks ago, my brother posted this photograph dating to 1971. The two aunts - sisters - at far left and third from left died in 2001 and 2008 respectively. By chance everyone else in the picture met again last week at the funeral of the middle aunt's husband. He made 95. My second-cousin, holding her grandmother's hands, is now in her early forties. Her hair is still the same colour. Second from right is my mother.

21.9.10

10,000 reasons not to wear polar fleece.

The drought is over and wool production is on the rise:

The rain has come at the right time for wool producers. For three years sheep numbers have fallen and last year the state produced a record low of 50,000 bales of wool. This year growers are expecting to fill about 10,000 more bales.
William wears vest by Grandma Annie. (Thomas as usual wouldn't stand still, but he'd thrown off his vest (same pattern, red/navy colourways) earlier.

Alexandra wears hat by Aunt Kirsty.

Get knitting, ladies. Those bales are piling up. And anyway, polar fleece is made from petrochemicals. (How many hats in a bale, at a minimum 110kg?)

13.9.10

Midnight special.

Late one night. Home from work in an office in the city by train that was late and dirty and full of those newspapers they give to commuters to stare vacantly at while they ride the rails back to suburbia, and then strew on the floor as they get off at Ginifer or Alamein or Mount Waverley or Mooroolbark. They call it Mx, but it's just tomorrow's Herald Sun without the Terry McCrann column.

Close to midnight. But you have to eat.

I turned on the radio. There are two classical music stations. Sometimes they play classical music. Other times the ABC one plays endless audience applause while the announcer draws out his vowels, ABC-style, and gushes. It sounds like a live weather report. Over at MBS the announcer tells you the composer's life story and then plays a two-minute minuet. I rolled the dial to an oldies station.

Pasta shells with tuna, cheese and peas.

I set a pot of water on the stove and salted it and threw in a few drops of oil and lit the burner. Yawn.

Then I walked to the larder to get a tin can of tuna. There was one there, I seemed to remember. The tuna cans are wider, so they sit underneath the cans of beans and corn and tomatoes and asparagus on a shelf at head height. I looked and found it and pulled it out and four cans of beans fell to the floor with a resounding crash that was sure to wake the household, or at least some of the louder members of it. I picked the cans up and put them back.

I walked to the refrigerator to get some cheese for grating. A dish like this is ideal for using up leftover cheese. There was a stub of kefalograviera in the shelf in the door of the fridge, and a piece of Jarlsberg almost down to the rind. I grated these and a piece of cheddar, making about one cup of grated cheese.

Then back to the larder for the shells. Shells were made for tuna and cheese. Food is all about aroma, then eye appeal, then flavour, then texture. Texture jumps a couple of places with this dish. The cheese melts and hides in the shells, capturing shards of tuna and the odd pea. You bite into the shells and the soft, warm melting cheese oozes across your taste buds and then your teeth hit the pea and it yields. If that's not over-analysing it. Half the stuff written about food is rubbish. You just don't know which half. I poured a glass of white wine and decided not to write any more rubbish about food.

The water was boiling. I tipped the shells in, stirring them around so that they wouldn't sink to the bottom and stick to each other in fright. Now it was a waiting game. I went outside and picked some parsley in the dark, by feel. I came inside again and pulled the weed out of the parsley, and got a bowl and a fork out of the dresser and some grated parmesan out of the fridge and the pepper from the top of the fridge. I keep it there so I know where it is, along with my portable 1960s HMV radio, the car keys and today's mail. All life's essentials in one convenient place.

I opened the can of tuna and drained off some of the oil and left some of it in. The pasta was almost done so I reached the frozen peas out of the freezer and tipped a cupful into the roiling water straight from the pack. This is tricky. Sometimes the pack collapses and the peas spill. You can try to avoid this by making only a small cut in the corner of the pack, but then you have to contend with frozen lumps of peas. Life's dilemmas. Why don't they sell frozen peas in a stiff board pack? The things you think of at midnight.

The peas take seconds to heat through. I drained the pot, returned it to a low flame, tipped the tuna and cheese in and folded them through the pasta and pea mixture until the cheese melted. Twenty seconds depending on the heat retention qualities of your pot.

Then into the bowl. Top with grated parmesan and chopped parsley and pepper. Definitely no salt. It's salty enough.

I ate in the infinite silence of the midnight hour, when the louder members of the household are dreaming too deeply to wake. Dream on, sweet children. One day you too will eat at midnight.

*

And they march you to the table to see the same old thing.
Ain't no food upon the table, and no pork up in the pan.
But you better not complain, boy, you get in trouble with the man.

10.9.10

Caesars I have known.

Long-term readers might recall, or they might not, my search for the perfect Caesar salad 'experience'. Once, I encountered, in fact ate, a particularly nasty one in a food court at the law end of Bourke Street. Another, ordered at one of those mezzanine outdoor cafes at the base of a St Kilda Road tower, was quite good but blew away before I could eat it. It was a very light salad of dressed lettuce and wispy croutons served in a shallow bowl. The café was like a wind tunnel and bits of eggy lettuce kept blowing off into the air, probably ending up up in the plane trees on the St Kilda Road median strip, or maybe even on a tram into town. My dining companion that day said I should have ordered the lasagne, which she declared the best she'd ever eaten, as well as not blowing away. My worst Caesar salad ‘experience’ to date was in a café in the Keilor Road, North Essendon, shopping strip one day last year. It was served from a chiller display cabinet in which they put all the good bits on top, perfectly styled to look appetising. My serving must been dragged from underneath. It was stale mayonnaise garnished with brown lettuce and there was a triangular piece of toasted bread stuck in it pretentiously, like a wafer in ice cream. It was probably the chef's signature dish. The salad was perfectly matched by the insipid, yet bitter, coffee I drank with it, the colour of tinned cream of mushroom soup. I tried to kill the taste of the coffee with six sugars, provided in paper tubes. I had to beg the waitress for extras because you were 'allocated' only one. It didn’t work. It tasted like sweetened dishwater. The waitress scowled at me as I paid the bill, and that completed the diner experience. On the way out I glanced at the chiller display a little closer. The good bits were still there on top, untouched, to suck in another hungry customer. They might have been glued on.

You’d think I’d give up on Caesar salad. But no. I keep coming back for more. But now I make it at home. This winter we’ve had a row of cos lettuce growing in the vegetable garden demanding to be picked and eaten. It looks like a Caesar salad production line.

I pick the outer leaves, just enough for Caesar salad for two, and wash them and slice them across the rib in one inch ribbons and spin them; and while they’re dripping dry, I fry bacon and croutons and sometimes strips of breast chicken and make a dressing from oil and wine vinegar and a little mayonnaise and lemon juice then I get two large bowls out of the glass-doored kitchen dresser (original, c.1948) and set them on the kitchen table (aluminium-edged green laminex, curved chrome legs with rubber stops, c. 1955). Then I lightly poach a couple of eggs, place the cos in bowls, top it with the dressing and a few drops of Worcestershire sauce and sometimes the bacon and sometimes the chicken and sometimes both (wrong) and then a shower of the croutons, a shower of shaved parmigiano and a shower of cracked pepper. The poached egg goes into a dish on the side so you can dip the croutons. It’s a childhood thing.

8.9.10

Time travel.

Once upon a time, I read a science fiction story about a scientist who discovered that time passed in a helix pattern, rather than in a straight line. Through experimentation, he fused the present with an earlier time strand, and found himself in the past.

I can do that by reading a book. A month or so ago I had plenty of time on my hands. Unable to find my copies of A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu, Poor Fellow My Country or Clarissa (I did have them, didn’t I, somewhere?), I hauled out my copy of Lord of the Rings (the single volume 1970s Unwin edition with the yellow cover) and set off on the journey once more.

37 years is a good space of time between readings of a book; you remember the plot vaguely, but you have forgotten enough to enjoy the story again. And that’s exactly how it turned out. I hadn't forgotten about the Ring, of course, but I had forgotten characters such as Ghan-Buri-Ghan and Finuviel. (The new baby came this close to being named Finuviel or Galadriel. Four syllables was the compromise.) I had also half forgotten the geography; the landscapes, the rose tint on a snow-capped mountain at dawn, the rivers and the streams, the fine botanical detail, Mordor's writhing detritus. And throughout, Sam's longing for the manicured gardens back home in the Shire.

But while you might recall only vaguely the plot of a book you read long ago, you sometimes strike upon a passage that comes back to starkly, and you remember the first time you read it as if it were yesterday.

*

It was winter 1973. I was 17. I was at school in an upstairs classroom overlooking a grey valley and a line of shaking gum trees beyond and a road on the horizon on which the flash of a blue bus passed by every twenty minutes. It was a dragging afternoon; one of those interminable ‘study’ periods in which there is no formal lesson, and I had a large book in front of me. I turned the last pages of The Fellowship of the Ring as Meriadoc told of glimpsing Boromir clutching, instinctively, semi-consciously, at an arrow in his chest, slumped against the trunk of a tree. Then I opened the first pages of The Two Towers. Aragorn is holding the mortally-wounded Boromir, who apologises for failing even as he is dying, and Aragorn shows infinite forgiveness and praises his bravery; then Boromir's eyes close and later they would place him on an elven boat and he would pass out of that world. It might have been the saddest passage I had ever read, because of the clutching at the arrow, or the dying apology, or the forgiveness. A bell rang and I closed the book.

*

A lot of water under the bridge since then. And a lot of Ryan’s buses ploughing up and down the hill. The valley is full of houses now.

*

Back to the short story: the scientist, to his horror, found himself unable to return from the past and was destined to become his grandfather's grandfather, wiping out part of his own ancestry such that he would never be born.

7.9.10

The answer was on their how-to-vote card.

The 'independents' are only installing a government. There is no guarantee they will pass legislation. Their sanctimonious 'parliamentary reform' should include a rider that independents in a position to decide government are obliged to choose the party higher on their how-to-vote card.

6.9.10

Third favourite vegetable is a fruit.

A vegetable-growers' industry survey has found the carrot to be Australia's favourite vegetable, ahead of the potato and the tomato.

I'll allow that if the fruit growers are allowed to claim rhubarb.

3.9.10

The last fish.

Life is hard. Now you have to count fish so you know how many are left. People glare at you in the fish shop when you stare hungrily at the ‘endangered’ one, juicy and glistening on the slab and just begging to be drizzled with some delicious sauce or marinade and barbecued. But how many have to be left before you can eat its brothers and sisters? What's the morally acceptable number of fish in the sea? What are the ethics of all this? I'd hate to be a fishmonger.

Customer: "That silver fillet lying there. Did he have family? Or did you kill them all already?"

Fishmonger: "Nothing to do with me. I didn't catch them. Talk to the fisherman."

Customer: "You're the middleman. You’re just as much to blame. Like the pilot who flew the plane that dropped the bomb."

Fishmonger: "You're the customer. It's your fault. Don’t eat fish. Go next door to the butcher and buy yourself a steak."

Customer: "Are you kidding? Have you seen what they inject into cows?"

The pitfalls of living in a morally superior world. The Japanese, of course, are environmentally beyond the pale because of the whales. That’s clear. But is that balanced by their contribution to global warming reduction by not cooking sushi? Plus, before the Japanese invented tiny 1.2 litre cars running 1000 kilometres on a tank, your V8 took five minutes to pass the front gate, when it was running, and there was a petrol station on every corner. By the way, where did you get that coffee?

*

I ordered a swordfish cutlet - which someone assured me was endangered (the swordfish, not the cutlet) - and I took it home and I cooked it and it was good.

Pasta with endangered fish and roasted red capsicum.

Slice the swordfish (there are not many left, so do it carefully) into cubes and drop them into some lemon juice for an instant marinade.

Take a red capsicum, roast it, place it in a paper bag to assist the skin-shedding process, then peel it and slice the flesh into strips.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta. I used bavette, known in this household as square spaghetti, but anything will do.

Just before assembly, quickly sear the fish in a little butter and olive oil in a heated heavy pan. Shake over some salt and pepper.

Add fish and capsicum strips to drained pasta and toss over capers.

2.9.10

Tomorrow, I'll go out for coffee.

The first of spring, it rained most of the day. At lunchtime I walked from Collins Street up narrow Church Lane, where noodle shops and tiny cafes gaze at each across cobblestones. Water was escaping from an ancient round iron manhole cover and running across the stones. Umbrellas collided apologetically, and smokers banished to the wet street huddled into shop windows and shielded their cigarettes from the rain and the sanctimonious. I crossed Little Bourke where Church Lane becomes Church Street, because it is wider, and runs behind the AMP plaza, a 1969 tribute to rake-angled brown marble and corporate sculpture. The buildings and plaza were completely encased in demolishers’ hessian, like a Cristo installation. Is it coming down or being ‘renovated’? And what have they done with Clement Meadmore's Awakening?

Don’t know. I got a sandwich - chicken, avocado, tomato and cheese on sourdough - from the food plaza in Bourke near King Street and went back to the office.

Later, wanting coffee, I noticed a sign in the common kitchen: Do Not Use Tea Towel to Wipe Floor or Other Unhygenic (sic) Surfaces. Use Paper Towels Below Sink. Thank You! There were no paper towels below the sink.

I’m only here for a week.