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

22.12.10

A nativity story.

A hot afternoon close to Christmas. I was in the car heading north on the Sydney Road hill in heavy traffic, so I wasn’t so much driving as sitting behind the wheel and punching the radio to try to make it play something good. It wouldn’t, so I turned it off instead. The boys were in the back seat finishing off their most recent riot. We were behind a tram and it was inching forward and we were inching forward with it, along with about a million other cars whose drivers were probably all punching their radios. Or texting.

The tram lurched forward with an electric whine and we made a whole hundred metres before it braked at Bell Street and I stopped behind it again. Passengers hunched over with shopping bags got down from the tram and laboured across the road to the footpath. Then the tram clanged and rocked across Bell Street through the red, and we stayed right there. The boys, suddenly silent, gazed out the window. I looked at them in the rear vision mirror and followed their gaze to the north east corner of the intersection. There's a churchyard there, and they were staring at the nativity scene that the church sets up every year. The nativity characters are painted timber cut-outs and are bolted onto a plinth set into a stable background nearly as big as a bus stop. Mary and Joseph and the baby and the shepherds and the Magi and even the animals look as if they are waiting for the next bus to Heidelberg.

Thomas was pointing now to one of the shepherds, a tall fierce-looking character with a black beard instead of the usual brown and holding a crook. Thomas turned to William.

"Look! It’s Dr Müller!*" he almost shouted. "And he’s got a rifle!”

Then the lights changed again. We crossed Bell Street and the boys craned their necks and we left the infiltrated nativity scene behind.

*

2010 was the year of Tintin. The boys have made their way through the entire series, ‘reading’ them painstakingly. The fact that they cannot yet assimilate text is testament to the brilliance of Hergé’s drawings and visual story-telling ability.

*Press image 6 to see a shepherd-like Dr Müller.

21.12.10

Trifling with Christmas: a Greek odyssey.

It’s Christmas week, so the old traditional turkey-and-ham versus seafood debate is on again. They have to sell newspapers. Without doubt, roasted turkey and ham are unsuitable fare for the middle of an Australian summer day. This is why we drink so much alcohol. You have to stimulate the appetite. Only after three or four gin and tonics or sparkling reds is it possible to stomach the prospect of sitting down at midday in 28 degree heat to what is essentially a cold climate meal of roast turkey with cranberry sauce and stuffing, baked ham with a sweet, sticky glaze, hot roasted potatoes, carrots and minted peas followed by plum pudding with brandy butter sauce, Christmas cake with Scotch whisky, or trifle made from custard and red jelly on a bed of sponge cake soaked in port and topped with two inches of whipped cream, grated chocolate and nuts.

Yes, nuts. The official antidote to this Edwardian stodge is seafood, but given interest rates and utility prices, cold lobster salad with mirin, ginger and shards of cucumber and radish is not a possibility for most families this year. Plus, Aunty Ferg always chokes on the shell when she cracks it open to suck out the briny goodness. And prawns are boring. And you never know which fish are 'endangered'. Can't have endangered fish on the Christmas table. Just not in the spirit of Christmas. And sardines are not very festive.

The hell with all this. Let’s light the barbecue. I’ve bought a shipment of thick lamb cutlets.

First, the salad; Greek-style, and therefore edible in warm conditions. Why do you think they all moved to Melbourne in the 1950s? At one point, Melbourne had the world’s third largest urban Greek population. They lived in places like Brunswick and Moonee Ponds, and the husbands worked at Ford and the wives cleaned the hospitals, and they paid off their houses and bought another one high on the hill in Dromana, from where on a warm summer day and after a few retsinas Port Phillip Bay shimmers blue just like the Mediterranean. That's why.

The salad: I run around the garden, picking a sprig each of mint and four generous sprigs of parsley. Oregano is already picked and drying on the mantelpiece over the stove. A de-twigged sprig of that and the mint and parsley into the food processor with a cup or two (adjust everything else) of Greek yogurt, a dash of olive oil, three chopped cloves of garlic, a squeeze of lemon and salt and pepper. Don’t hold back. We want flavour and aroma. Switch on, gurgle, swizz, whirr, switch off, lift the lid. The aroma rich with herb- and citrus-infused garlic is like a breeze through olive trees on a goat-tracked hill overlooking the Aegean Sea. Already enough to stimulate a jaded summer appetite.

Now we boil some waxy potatoes chopped into irregular chunks. No need to get the slide rule out. Don’t overcook. Remove from heat when they are soft yet firm, like a young Greek wife.

Chop a white onion as finely as you can. Do the same with a pepperoncini capsicum. Sprinkle these over the hot potatoes, then drizzle the aromatic yogurt over the lot. Sprinkle with more chopped parsley and shards of olive. That’s the salad.

If there is any aromatic yogurt mixture left over, dredge the lamb through it and grill, covered until your preferred degree of doneness is reached, turning once or twice. Serve with quarters of lemon and the potato salad, and another salad of dressed green leaves, and strips of fresh Greek or nigella seed-studded Turkish bread. Marinate olives and feta in chili-infused olive oil for an entrée. Serve a crisp white wine. Find one with less than 13% alcohol or your party will fall asleep and miss the dessert of small honey-infused pastries. You can buy these in a hundred varieties in dozens of outlets in Sydney Road. My favourite is znood el sitt – Middle Eastern style clotted cream in pastry rolled in honey and baked to a kind of sweet crunchy glaze that tastes like eating honeycomb in heaven.

And if you still need a drink, try a small glass of ouzo. Add water, and have a Greek coffee on the side to cut the sweetness and alcohol. You’ll eventually fall asleep but you won’t have wine trifle nightmares.

20.12.10

Helper.

Click to enlarge.

17.12.10

It's Been a Long, Long Time.

That noise you hear is man fighting nature and man losing. They’re out there early in the morning and late into the evening cutting, hacking, chopping, slashing, line-trimming, power-edging and leaf-blowing. I cut the lawn twice in a week just to restore the horizon. Fourteen years of drought, and then enough rain to kick-start things into life that haven’t grown for over a decade. I've seen weed and grass species that haven't been sighted in years, their evil little seeds lurking patiently and potently under the ground. The rain has put the 'nature' back into 'strip'. Some are three and four feet high. Take a walk down the street and you'll see gardens disappearing under greenery, even those geometric ‘drought-tolerant gardens’ made of concrete squares and cordyline. They might be good in a drought but you still have to weed them, especially if the geometry has river pebbles in it. And then where do you put the weeds? I have two compost bins and both are full and the garden beds are covered in grass clippings. What do I do with another barrow load, and several cubic metres of pelargonium gone mad; and the jasmine that came back, Triffid-like, and the dead-headed first blush of roses? This is not a large garden, so have a thought for anyone who has bought their first house in the last dry decade, and had yet to discover what happens when it rains.

*

The title of this post is what sparked the guitarist conversation. One night a few weeks ago, I had just served the main course (salmon poached in orange and lime juice with caper-studded mash and snowpeas from the garden; Galli Estate viognier) and the usual light inoffensive dinner music was playing away - I usually turn it off because I don't like wallpaper music - when It's Been a Long Long Time floated through the Dali speakers. It wasn't Bing Crosby's voice so much as the Les Paul guitar that stopped forks mid-lift. The track was from an old ten-record collection of Crosby's in which he verbally introduces every track. His voice sang even when it spoke. The track crackled and popped, but it sounded better than any digital recording I've ever heard. Vinyl has 'air'. "The fish all right?" I asked the table. The fish was fine.

10.12.10

Dinner party conversation starter.

The best guitarist was(is):
(a) Eric Clapton
(b) Jimi Hendrix
(c) Carlos Santana
(d) Richard Clapton
(e) Les Paul