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

29.10.10

Barbecued layered potatoes with garlic and capers.

And now the sun is a red ball falling down behind the thirty foot lilly pilly* and the last of the chili peanut sauce has been swiped with a spring onion and there's steam coming from the grill on the barbecue.

This is something I've taken to doing because it's easy and easy is what I like to do at this stage of my life. Wait, we've had three children in five years. Yeah. Maybe that's why other things are easing up. I never stress about having people over any more and what to cook and what the house looks like and if the lawn's mown and the hedge trimmed and the right music going. The hell with it all. I find a gin and tonic cleans up the house magically and two even better. Tracy, on the other hand, being a woman, cleans the house from top to bottom if there's any chance of a human being outside the immediate family entering the house.

The steam was coming from the cast iron frypan on the grill and it smelled great. It's the easiest way to cook potatoes outside. I've tried frying chips (too fiddly), and baking potatoes in the coals (too messy), and making hot potato salad (OK but boring), and several other ways but this will be the potato dish I'll cook outside most this summer.

Barbecued layered potatoes with garlic and capers.

I took down my old cast iron frypan from its hook over the stove and lined it with a smear of oil. Then I sliced three large potatoes and a large onion thinly; chopped two garlic cloves and a few sprigs of parsley. Layering the potatoes and the onion in the pan interspersed with the garlic and parsley, I poured a cup of chicken stock over the vegetables. It came about halfway up the pan to provide enough fluid to steam them. Adjust accordingly. Pan on the coals on the grill, fireproof lid on top. Progress depends on the heat of your grill; mine is hot and the potatoes were done in ten minutes. I ripped a new end of oregano from the herb garden close at hand and threw that in along with a handful of capers; and poured in a half a glass of milk and swirled it around for a creamy finish a few minutes before I took the pan off the grill. Be careful handling the pan: mine is one-piece cast iron. You don't want to lose your palms. I used a teatowel.

Then I placed the pan on a bread board in the middle of the table issuing warnings about the heat, and lifted the lid. There was a stampede.

You can vary it. I've tried layers of avocado, strips of red capsicum (but not at $10 a kilogram) and zucchini slices. All good and all easy. Where's my gin and tonic? Tracy?

*

*Sygygium Hinterland Gold - Also known as the Gold Lilly Pilly, Syzygium Hinterland Gold is an Australian native that forms a dense screen without an invasive root system. A compact and fast growing shrub reaching 2 metres high x 1.5 metres wide with glossy green foliage and gold coloured new growth.

Two metres? I'm almost two metres and it's at least three times my height.

26.10.10

The dish with a handle.

They sit in the kitchen cupboard, stacked high, their handles generally turned the same way, but sometimes in all directions like a clock with too many hands. Some have flat thumb-sized handles, others have cylinders that flare out and are hollow. Some have lids. Some don't.

They are ramekins.

They were popular in the 1950s. Some food trend or other, like square plates in the 1990s. Then, like square plates, everyone threw them out and they could be found in opportunity shops and flea markets for next to nothing, or landfill completely free of charge.

Eventually, like most things from the 1950s except me, they gained a kind of retro cool. Whether people actually use them or just display them in the 1950s Parker cherrywood lowboy is another matter.

I once had a set of round ones in highly glazed brown, with lids and flared cylindrical handles. I used these often for French onion soup, a purpose for which they were well suited. They were robust enough for the rustic dish, held exactly the right amount (soup bowls are never big enough and what else do you use?) and because they were heat-proof you could put them under the griller to melt the cheese over the baguette floating in the soup. The set disappeared somewhere along the way. I probably packed them off to St Vincent's, deciding rashly that I didn't need ramekins, or anything that was brown and highly-glazed, or even French onion soup, any more.

The only ramekins I have now are rounded-off square in various pastel colours with thumb handles, and are branded 'Boyd' and 'Raynham' via indented signatures underneath. Not big enough for soup, but I use them for hot peanut chili sauce in which you can dip sticks of celery, cucumber, red capsicum or carrot as an appetiser on summer nights while the barbecue heats up.

Anyone else still have ramekins?

*

This post was inspired by The Rameking, a blog I found recently, and which I have added to the links bar. The Rameking is:
Worldwide Headquarters of the Australian Studio Art Ramekin, that piece of Australiana that has almost disappeared from our lives and tables. How many of you Baby Boomers have sat in front of a warm fire in winter, eating tinned spaghetti from a ramekin? In the period between the World Wars, and in the decades after, many famous artists made ramekins. They continued until cheap imports and copies almost killed them off in the 1970s. See them here in all their faded glory.
Go over and visit Mr Rameking, and tell him Kitchen Hand sent you. (And no, I have never eaten spaghetti from a ramekin.)

*Image here (scroll down) courtesy of Mr Ramekin.

22.10.10

Out of the ashes.

It took more than two and a half years to rebuild. Inside, one of Australia's best pipe organs sits in the north transept. One of the first things the fire brigade had done on entering was to throw a tarpaulin about the size of a tennis court over the organ to lessen water damage. Then they put the fire out before the whole place went up. Nice work.

Major rebuilding took place in the roof and ceiling. Most of the furnishings - pews, carpet etc - had to be replaced due to water damage. Although the interior is now almost complete, scaffolding fills the apse - the 'east wall' - which in this case really is at the east end of the building. Fabric has been draped over the scaffolding to partially obscure it during services, so that the altar has the appearance of a movie set designed to look like a church. The centre aisle is patterned marble where before there was red carpet. It's a little over the top in design, shines like a mirror and is very echoey. Drop the crystal on the way up to the offertory and you might as well fire off a gun. Before the fire, a large timber octagonal 'chandelier' bearing candle-like lamps hung over the altar like a giant cartwheel suspended horizontally on chains from the vast ceiling. This was burnt, of course, and has been replaced by a chandelier of massed globes that looks like something out of the Mirabella Imports window in Lygon Street. I preferred the timber affair. It was completely out of place, of course, an add-on dating from the 1960s, but it always reminded me of the wooden contraption the beast rode down on from the ceiling in the 1978 Czech version of The Beauty and the Beast (Panna a Netvor), a film I first saw in the Palais Theatre at the 1979 Melbourne Film Festival, and have never forgotten. Perhaps because the scene was accompanied by haunting organ music. The things you think about during readings.

*

There was water and fire again last Sunday at the newly-opened St Paul's. Alexandra was baptised over the brand new marble font. The old font, at which William and Thomas were baptised, was traditional pale grey, but the new one is the colour of warm ochre, like a desert sunset. The water fell over her dark hair and later, William carefully held the candle as the priest lit it with a taper from the Paschal candle. Thomas blew it straight out again.

20.10.10

The smell of bacon ...

... mixed with aroma of brewing coffee at dawn before the traffic has started and the world is still quiet

... when you were ten and your mother took the pie out of the oven and cut it at the table and steam curled in the air and the aroma of baked egg and bacon and pastry was like something you had never smelled before

... in a takeaway when you are as hungry as a tiger and the sandwich hand slips your freshly toasted $5 bacon and egg sandwich (extra butter on top) into a brown paper bag and you sit in the park and pull out your newspaper and tear open the paper bag that is now partially translucent

... when it is cooked so long in the pan it crumbles into deep red shards of salty crunchiness, because that's how you like it best

... on the fish shop grill when George the Greek throws it down next to the meat pattie and the onions and the egg and he drags the bacon around to turbo-charge the heat and it sizzles and pops and then he builds your burger

... when it comes out of the oven in small strips wrapped around oysters and you are old enough to remember angels on horseback

... mixed with worcestershire sauce and hot oyster shells on a plate covered in rock salt and you're old enough to remember oysters kilpatrick

... in a pan on the coals of a fire on a hot night after a day's march when the sun has dipped below the line of the near hills but you can still feel the heat in the rocks and the air

... frying with liver and onions when you stop for lunch at midday in the dim lounge of a small outback town hotel that has a balcony and a tiled front and its name etched into the glass in the front door, and drinkers bent to the bar and no poker machines; and the bacon and liver and onions come out with buttered bread on an oval monogrammed stoneware plate circa 1960, and you eat it and leave and drive on into a flat landscape of red dust and no trees and it is early summer and you have no particular destination and all the time in the world to get there

19.10.10

Many happy returns, even when you can't.

You know you're famous when the papers keep wishing you happy birthday after you die.

The Weekend Australian
of October 9 carried a panel on its front page below the masthead that read: John Lennon Turns 70. Turns? I thought he died in 1980. The article was OK and they said he was a genius and they ran lists of his five best songs but they run it every ten years, sometimes every five. They just change the age.

One day last January, while I was painting the house, I had ABC radio on to pass the time. They were talking about the 75th anniversary of Elvis Presley's birth. His music was all over the airwaves and a panel discussion decided he could not, after all, be bestowed with the mantle of 'genius' because he didn't write his own songs as did John Lennon, who seemed to be the benchmark or high water mark for pop genius in the eyes of those who know.

I don't know. Did Beniamino Gigli write any songs?

Look out, here's another birthday: Chuck Berry. He's still with us and performing.

Sure as she bore me, she bought me a silk suit, put luggage in my hands,
And I woke up high over Albuquerque
On a jet to the promised land.

Workin' on a T-bone steak a la carte,
Flying over to the Golden State;
When the pilot told us in thirteen minutes
We'd be headin' in the terminal gate.

Swing low sweet chariot, come down easy
Taxi to the terminal zone;
Cut your engines, cool your wings,
And let me make it to the telephone.

Los Angeles give me Norfolk Virginia,
Tidewater four ten on nine
Tell the folks back home this is the promised land callin'
And the poor boy's on the line.


Some of those lines are impossible, but he did it. Is that genius?

18.10.10

What to do with a can of sardines and a glass of home-made grappa.

The zucchini is one of my favourite vegetables, except that it's a fruit. (Oh, not that debate again.) Not only are they fruit, but they also have a different name depending where you are in the world. In some places they are summer squash, while in others they are courgettes. I once had something like this fractured conversation with someone who misheard, asking "Did you say Corvettes?" Nice. They grow fast. Shame they're not red, because then you'd have little red courgettes.

I like the little white ones best. They're called white, but they are pale mottled green. Their flesh is delicate and they are good sliced and boiled with chopped onion and a little butter and a dash of nutmeg and salt and pepper. In the following recipe they support sardines in a dish which combines the characteristic strong flavour of the fish with the warm earthiness of the rice-filled zucchini, accentuated with the tang of lemon juice. Kind of Sicilian, I suppose.

Stuffed zucchinis with sardines.

Slice half a dozen white zucchinis in half lengthwise and scoop out the centre pulp (reserve), to make 12 zucchini boats (yes, we’ve switched transport modes).

Cook the rice. (I used Arborio but you can use any other rice, or barley. Or even risoni.) If using arborio, cook with oil, garlic, stock and white wine in the usual way. Add the zucchini flesh and two tablespoons of tomato paste, or substitute puree or diced tomatoes. It’s all much the same. Add a little dried basil and pepper. Salt if not using stock. Chili if you want a little warmth.

Fill the boats to just above deck level with the cooked rice. Set them close together in a shallow baking dish, place a sardine on top of each, pour some tomato puree and a little white wine around the zucchinis up to the plimsoll line, squeeze a good-sized lemon over the whole thing and put it in the oven to bake slowly, covered.

The zucchinis will be fragile when they come out of the oven. Rest them a few minutes then carefully lift them onto volcanoes of polenta on serving plates, pour some of the liquid over the zucchinis and the polenta, and accompany with spinach or other green cooked with white wine, plenty of garlic, pepper and cream and perhaps a dash of chili.

The flavour will swamp most of today's prissy acidic white wines. Go against prevailing wine wisdom and drink a big red. It used to be said that fish would kill the red; now that red wines are averaging 14% alcohol it's more likely to be the reverse. Sicilians probably accompany it with grappa. One year when I was in my early twenties, I had a Sicilian migrant landlord who made grappa in a huge laboratory under his house. He used to share it with me. It must have been about 200 proof, if that's possible. You could power a Corvette with it.

*

A note on sardines: I used canned sardines in oil - any branded can is generally OK. The sardines can't read the label. I think they were Brunswick but they might have been King Oscar. The unbranded ones might or might not be a step lower in quality. When we fostered greyhounds five and more years ago I used to buy the no name ones at about 69 cents a can as a daily tonic for the 'hounds that came to us with poor coats. They went back to the adoption program sleek and glistening.

15.10.10

How I got my name back.

I had to find out what had happened to my name.

When I changed my template, Blogger substituted the word 'writer' for the words 'kitchen hand' in the footer of every post in my blog. And there are more than a thousand posts. I couldn't put up with that.

First a quick fix. In advanced template design, I made the 'posted by' section white over white so it could not be seen. Of course, I could have left it at that and just typed 'kitchen hand' at the base of each post and to hell with the footer, but that wouldn't really solve the mystery. I had to go in and investigate.

Into the netherworld I slipped, silently, like Philip Marlowe into General Sternwood's orchid greenhouse. The atmosphere was similarly stifling. Jagged, ugly, indecipherable HTML was everywhere, running off in absurd line-breaks and full of words like maxwidget and fauxborder. Brave? I'm taking my life in my hands even typing those strange words in this post. They might turn my blog purple with green stripes.

I walked through the whole six million characters of HTML, searching for the word 'writer' so I could change it to 'kitchen hand'. It took me most of the morning.

It wasn't there.

I went to lunch a broken man. How could it not be there? I blankly ordered three hand rolls from the sushi counter in the food court at the legal end of Bourke Street (as against the retail, not the illegal, end) and absentmindedly forgot to ask for wasabi. I remembered and went back, and the lady, smiling, squeezed an extra-large splodge of green paste next to the three plastic soy-filled fishes. Then I walked back to my office and flicked the through the opinion pages in The Australian online, and wondered why everyone was so opinionated these days. Probably goes back to the 1970s when they started teaching children to have an opinion on everything at age six. They should be taught not to have an opinion. You learn more wisely that way.

I finished reading people’s opinions and went back to the task of finding my name. Now I was desperate. So desperate, I resorted to consulting Blogger help. Blogger help generally informs you 'your search did not return any answers' when you've lost your blog or wiped out three years of entries or can't log in. But I tried again, typing 'change post author name' into the 'What can we help you with?' field.

Tick, tick, tick. Blogger itself had nothing to say, as usual, but it returned an item of 'user help' from the forum. That is, someone who has figured out a problem that Blogger couldn't solve.

The advice was that you locate the following HTML ...

(Less than sign)data:post.author/(greater than sign)

... and destroy it.

Back in I went, guns blazing this time. I hit the design tab, then the edit HTML sub-tab, then I clicked on expand widget templates, hit control/command F, and dropped the above piece of HTML into the search box that came up. Bang. There it was, highlighted in forest green. I replaced the whole thing, including its greater than and less than signs (known in some industries as variable field symbols) with 'kitchen hand’. No symbols, just the words.

Fixed.

But where did they get writer from?

I still don’t know.

*

Of course it was all my own fault. I should never have changed my template. I originally intended to be the last person on Earth with an original Blogger template, but that accolade will now go to someone else. At least two candidates are in the links bar at right.

What I liked about the old template was that once you scrolled down, the page was mostly text with no distracting graphics. This can be handy for people reading at work who don't want visible distractions on their screen. The new template, while colourful at the top, scrolls away to text out of black sidebars. It's still just a Blogger template, but with a background I took from an August post. Here's the whole picture, giving you the view from my house at sunrise.

14.10.10

That seems to have worked.

Except now I've lost my byline altogether.

I'm going to climb inside the edit box with a spanner and a flashlight and push some HTML around and find out where the hell my proper name is. I could blast the whole thing sky high and take Blogger with it. Send out a search party if I'm not back in a week.

13.10.10

Cabbages and kings.

The snow peas are still popping out, the last cos lettuce went into a Caesar salad last week, and I've just picked the last red cabbage. Ten of them sat in the front row of the vegetable garden, a straight line of perfect round purple balls wearing large bluish outer leaf collars, like Elizabethan royalty sitting up at a long table. We gave some away and ate the rest. Much went into salads; I cubed some of it and boiled it and served it on platters of gado gado and similar hot-and-cold dishes featuring peanut or chili sauce variants. The leaves are densely packed and they stay together well when cubed. Of course, you can just boil the stuff and eat it in the ordinary way. Or try this:

Red cabbage and onions.

There's a million variations on this dish, but this version was easy and good.

In a heavy pan, fry a couple of chopped medium size onions in ghee. Cut a red cabbage in two. Shred one half and add it to the pan. Stir gently to coat in ghee, then turn heat way down and add a dash of red wine vinegar, half-to-one cup of apple juice and a pinch of salt and pepper. (Vary the fluid according to the size of your cabbage.) Cook 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, reducing a little. When done, top with sour cream and serve alongside pork sausage and plain boiled potatoes. And cold beer.

12.10.10

Voice silenced.

Farewell, Dame Joan Sutherland. This record (yes, record) still hits my turntable every Christmas. It's not Christmas dinner fare but is good for a quiet Christmas Eve with a drink. There might be enough trills on it to decorate the tree, and the old record might crackle like a Northern Hemisphere yuletide fire, but Sutherland's voice is sweet and pure and soars like an angel, reminding you somehow of childhood Christmases and the joy they held. Choice cut: O Holy Night.

11.10.10

A Barbecue With No Name.

It's a monster. It rests patiently and silently all the long winter in a corner of the windowless shed at the bottom of the garden under a corrugated cement-sheeting roof and a layer of dust. Then spring arrives and it comes out and I dust it off by hosing it down, like an elephant at the zoo. It is made from cast iron and it weighs either a ton or a tonne, the French version. Who knows? It's heavy.

But it is humble. My barbecue has none of those things that copywriters call 'features'. It has no side burners, no cabinet, no window, no quartz ignition, no batteries, no warming rack and no rotisserie, motorised or not. It has no wok feature, no built-in lighting, no flame-tamer and no fancy name like Tuscany or Renaissance GrillPro. I couldn't bring myself to cook on a barbecue called Tuscany. It would just be too ridiculously pretentious, like wearing an apron and a chef's hat while you grill for your guests. If they must give barbecues names, why don't they give them realistic ones? Who wouldn't be happy to buy a Sausage King?

My barbecue has no one-touch thermometer and no mirror finish. It has no door, and no logo. However, it does have a rack on each side of the grill - one for not cooked yet and one for just cooked before being transferred to table - and one underneath for other things such as your book, a football or a saucepan full of chopped onions. On each side of the outer grill pan base there are cast iron hooks to hang tongs and the cast iron dust pan. Two of the four legs have castors. The brake on one of these has seized, so that when you pick up the leg end of the whole thing and try to push it, it kind of goes around in circles, like a supermarket trolley. I don't mind. Once in position, it stays put for the whole summer, and well into autumn, before I creak it off again into its dark corner. This is its tenth year.

It's easy to cook on. You just heave off the cover - a large oblong piece of cast iron with a welded loop handle that could double as a knight's shield, but it would have to be a strong knight - and stand it against the fence. Don't let the children near it. Then you you lift the grill rack off. Cleaning this is easy. I just drop it flat on the concrete. Crash! Then I sweep away the shards of carbon, set it back on the grill pan and it's right to go.

Before I do that, I load it up with fuel. I used to buy coal but I've started using charcoal because it lasts longer. A firelighter or two, set a match to it and go away for half an hour to make a salad or have a drink or take a shower or go to the supermarket for some tonic water. Meanwhile, there's a nice flame and soon that dies away to a mountain of soft, innocent, grey-powdered coals that packs many hundred degrees of heat.

I usually start off, just after the sun has sunk below next door's roof line and the birds have started their raucous cocktail hour in the trees in the street, by tearing a bunch of the permanent herbs out of the old double trough against the shed and throwing them into the air and onto the grill, like a Matthew Lloyd goal rite to see which way the wind's blowing. Does anyone still do that? The aroma of fresh sage, lemon thyme, mint, and oregano helps build your appetite and gives some flavour to whatever you throw on top of the herbs, like a large piece of scotch fillet, for example. See previous post.

There's a whole summer of this ahead. Happy tenth birthday, nameless barbecue.

The heat was hot and the ground was dry
But the air was full of sound

5.10.10

Chocolate and timber yards.

It didn't pour like fluid, it fell like coiled rope into a well of oil. Something rose from it that was chocolate, or dried figs, or a timber yard on a warm morning after rain. Maybe all of them. Maybe none.

Maybe it just smelled like red wine.

Then I got the chocolate again. I don't even like chocolate that much. Hardly ever eat it. But in here it smelled fantastic, like something you've eaten long ago and have memories that get fonder with time. But what was the chocolate? It wasn't bar chocolate, or soft chocolate made with extra butter, or creamy Easter egg chocolate. It was something else. How specific can you be with the aroma of chocolate in red wine?

Then I tasted it. It tasted like Kiri te Kanawa's voice sounds. The chocolate was still there. I wasn't sure now whether I was tasting it, or smelling it, or both at the same time. I should ask a wine bore how it all works one day, and request he keep the answer to ten words or fewer. Red wine is just red wine. No, it isn't. Some Western Australian red wines taste leafy. I've never tried one I liked. Maybe I've tried all the wrong ones. Some red wines taste like the steel barrel they surely came out of. Some taste like stewed tea and pucker your tongue and spoil your appetite. If some red wines taste thin and reedy, this was fat and soft and forgiving and rich. What was the chocolate?

*

It was a 2006 Butterfly Crossing Cabernet Shiraz. I found it a year or so ago in a shop in Daylesford during one of our country trips that we don't do any more. It might have been the Harvest Cafe, or the grocer shop on the corner. I don't make notes of these things. I just put it in the car and drove home and flung it in the cellar and forgot about it. The cellar is the spaces in between books on the lowest shelf of my bookcase. Handy. No steps to negotiate in the darkness.

*

I tried to find more, but the label no longer exists. A little online research appeared to suggest the maker had changed the label's name to Mount Alexander. Not sure why. Maybe the butterflies don't cross any more. Or perhaps the market was confusing it with Angove's supermarket special Butterfly Ridge. I looked at the winery's website. Not much to see there. No online orders taken, but you can ring the winemaker, Bill Blamires. I rang him. "No, website's a bit basic at the moment," he told me. "But you can send me an email and I'll send you a box." If you send an email he calls you back to get your credit card numbers so you dion't have to put them in the email." Service.

*

Second glass. We were outside. First night of 'daylight saving'. Still light. Warm. A steak - scotch fillet - was exploding on the barbecue. I wait until the grill is white hot, and then I throw the steak onto the hottest part and the little puck of fat goes off like fireworks, basting itself in the process, and then I flip it and the same thing happens on that side and then I take it off and eat it with Greek salad on the side. Food is easy. You cook it and eat it. No fuss. What was that chocolate?

It came to me at four in the morning. Remember those paper straws we had as children in the sixties, that you put into milk and drank and it turned into chocolate milk? That was it.