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

24.2.11

The end of books.

Ex-The Australian reporter and now independent bookseller Corrie Perkin gets free publicity on Page 3 of last Saturday's Weekend Australian:
"A true booklover loves having a conversation about books ... That may be the conversation they have with the bookseller or with other booklovers in the bookshop. ... You can't have those conversations with Amazon, you can't have those conversations most of the time in a shop like Borders because they don't have the staff."
True, but only up to a point. It's also patronising to customers as well as to the hundreds of book-loving staff who work in the book chains. They don't all do it for the dollar. Moreover, it ignores the information available at Amazon such as reader comments and reviews, forums, rankings, reader purchases, recommendations, recently viewed lists and on it goes. I have found Amazon's service to be faultless, and I do enjoy that parcel arriving in the mail. No face-to-face? That's like telling Dr. Bell the telephone would never catch on.

The smaller booksellers are in denial. Perhaps it's a last-ditch attempt to differentiate themselves from the chains. Even that argument is tenuous. Last time I was in an independent bookstore, which was Wednesday morning, there was only one staff and she was busy. Last time I was in a chain (Dymock's, last weekend) there were plenty of staff and customers with whom to have conversations if you wished and not everyone does.

And then we get to price. Let's pull one out of the air: The Adventures of Herge: Amazon, $21.86. Independent bookstore, $75. So for an extra fifty dollars I get to talk to the other customers about it - or the staff if she is not dusting? Nuts.

The politicians are telling anyone who will listen that the Borders and Angus & Robertson failure was about bad management. They're not so willing to mention their own failure to pass the Productivity Commission's 2009 recommendations, a decision that has "put thousands of retail jobs at risk and forced readers to pay more".

Readers won't be forced. Why would they when they have a world of cheap books online? And then there's Kindle. My mother-in-law is hooked, and she is the generation that is supposed to save the book.

21.2.11

The deck chair.

Childhood summers were Inverloch and Choc Wedges and Essendon baths and backyard apple fights with my cousins in the sweltering dark. Picking bucket loads of ripe fruit from the apricot trees. The wooden salad bowl of iceberg lettuce always on the kitchen table. The Carnival is Over and Strangers in the Night. The rumbling of trams from Keilor Road at 6 a.m. on hot mornings.

And Puffin books. They were a kind of default Christmas gift for an age that is hard to buy for; past toys and not ready for grown-up things. So they gave me Puffins. Hundreds of them. The funny thing is, I associate them with one place: the apple tree in the backyard in a little patch of lawn behind the garage. The tree was the same one that yielded the worm-filled fruit that became the ammunition for the great apple fight of 1967 (mentioned above) that ended only when my cousin had to go home to Clayton, to us the other side of the world.

I used to read my books under that tree, sitting in a timber and canvas deck chair that had also been a Christmas gift. Books and chairs. Doesn’t get any better.

Ash Road, Ivan Southall. House of Sixty Fathers, Meindert DeJong. Smith, Leon Garfield. Ditta’s Tree, Jean Hughes. Arthur Ransome’s series. One summer I ploughed through the entire Hugh Lofting opus. Emil and the Detectives, Erich Kastner. A Hundred Million Francs, Paul Berna. On it went. Journeys into other people’s worlds without leaving my deck chair. I suppose I read some of them in bed. In the same era, my older sisters were given books under the Peacock imprint for older children. Later, I graduated to Penguins and my younger brothers and sister inherited the Puffin tradition, reading all of Roald Dahl, the Moomintroll series, the Narnia books and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Puffin by Design (by Phil Baines, Allen Lane, London, 2010) brought the era back to me. It is a study of the design evolution of Puffin books and is an interesting essay about design itself - as in what went so horribly wrong in the 1970s and 1980s? And possibly beyond? I don’t know, but I can guess. The sheer cleanliness and simplicity of early design became boring and designers messed with type and illustration. The marketing people had a growing influence and specified ‘eye-catching’ design. They killed off Peacock and turned it into Puffin Plus. Marketers still do that. Count how many times you see something-‘Plus’ each day. As if it means anything. On the subject of junking good design principles, I see ‘retro’ design everywhere – from books to wine labels to supermarket products, as if the design world is finally admitting it had a forty-year brain snap.

I still have some of my old Puffins. Favourite? No. But the one I remember most is Ash Road, which I read in the drought- and bushfire-ravaged year of 1968. Every time there’s a bushfire, the horror of the story comes back to me.

Wallace cried out, not conscious of his voice or his words, conscious only of the appalling magnitude of what he saw and of what he was certain was about to engulf him. It was as if the sky, aflame, was about to fall and smother him in clouds of fire, yet he sensed beside him the big man with a mouthful of bared teeth shouting things like ‘God’, ‘Mother of God’, ‘Hold on, boy’, Courage, boy’. And Gramps went into it with his foot to the floor because there was nothing else he could do, and Harry went into it with the only prayer that could break through his terror: ‘Gentle Jesus meek and mild …’ The car straddled the centre line; it was the thin white line that Gramps clung to; that rolled and swayed beneath him in excess of sixty miles an hour; that was his anchor to the earth, for everything else was swirling fire and smoke and invisibility and stifling heat, fearful heat, that consumed the very air he breathed. His lungs felt that they would burst, and his senses swam, and the thin white line began to wander and wobble, and he knew he was going to lose it, he knew that it was going to get away from him, and in panic he touched the brakes. Instantly he lost the line. It vanished. He didn’t know whether it had gone to his left or right, and the smoke was as dense as a fog, and his tyres were squealing, scorching rubber sliding on bitumen. He felt the change from hard surface to loose surface, from sealed surface to the gravel at the side of the road. In that moment the car struck the bank side-on and spun.

17.2.11

Family lives on one zucchini for a week; survives.

It sat there on the kitchen table. It must have been three feet long, but it had taken a detour two thirds in. The short end was fatter than the barrel. It looked like an oversized pirate’s pistol. It weighed 2.5 kilograms. It was a monster.

We’d been trading vegetables with our neighbour. This one, a white zucchini known sometimes as Lebanese white squash, trumped the lot. I’d imagined the struggle my next door neighbour had suffered in landing it. Wrestling it from the vine. Lashing it to the wheelbarrow. Fighting off garden predators on the barrow run back down the garden path to kitchen’s safe harbour. The old man and the zucchini.

It was edible. Usually at that size they are only good for show. But the constant rain and heat in the last two weeks meant it was still tender inside. We dined off it for a week.

Zucchini curry, Goanese-style

This curry combines spices often associated with the Goa region of India, but I don’t know if regionality matters any more. In any case, the heat and fragrance of this dish makes it a firm favourite, whether you use meat or vegetables.

Fry three chopped onions in ghee or oil or a combination. When done, remove onions. In same pan, fry about one kilogram of chopped zucchini, adding more oil/ghee as necessary. When lightly fried, remove zucchini and return onions to pan, reserving one third. Add a can of diced tomatoes to the onions and cook.

Meanwhile, blend to a paste six garlic cloves, a two-inch knob of ginger, 10 cardomom pods, a teaspoon each of chilli powder and cumin seeds, a dessertspoon of coriander powder, a two-inch stick of cinnamon, 5 cloves, 20 black peppercorns, and half a cup of malt vinegar.

Add the paste to the tomato onion mixture with one teaspoon of sugar and salt to taste. Stir. Add the zucchini. Cubes are better than rounds. Add fluid to almost cover zucchini. Cook until zucchini is done.

Top with reserved fried onion, yogurt and sweet lime pickle. Serve with steamed rice or roti. (Mother's Recipe brand lime pickle is very good; imported from Pune, India and available from many Sydney Road spice shops.)

Barbecued zucchini

Marinate quarter-inch thick rounds or strips for a few hours with olive oil, plenty of chopped garlic, cracked black pepper and some dried oregano. Add salt just before barbecuing. Flip after a few minutes depending on heat intensity of your grill or grate. Serve with lemon and yogurt.

Zucchini in vapore (steamed zucchini)

This was the last of it. In the normal recipe, you would use two large (eight inch) zucchini. No-one would normally take notice of a dish entitled steamed zucchini but this combination produces one of the most aromatic cooking experiences you could imagine.

Slice zucchini into thin rounds, and cook about five minutes in a pot with 2 sliced onions, a pinch each of dried basil and cayenne pepper, a tablespoon of unsalted butter and a tablespoon or two of water. Serve in the juice and flutter chopped parsley over. A great side dish with baked fish.

*

Listen! I can hear the pumpkins growing. The ground is creaking under them. Have to get out my pumpkin gnocchi with fresh tomato sauce recipe. We'll be eating pumpkin for the next month, kids! What's the matter? Aren't you tired of zucchini?

11.2.11

Dinner with la famiglia.

7 p.m. I was sitting staring into the west facing window of a restaurant in a small rural city in the middle of Victoria. It was another shadowy place full of dark walls and dark stained timber tables and chairs. The sun low in the sky streamed into the window through the slats of a wooden Venetian and made gold stripes on my face and the walls behind me. The stripes were hot. There were two wine glasses on the table and I poured some red wine into them and we drank and I watched some dust motes swim through the sunbeams. Tracy sat on the opposite side of the table with the sun behind her. She was a silhouette and her hair was a fiery sunset. We raised our glasses. Cheers! The children were there too, but do we have to bring them into it? Children should be seen and not heard. They agreed for once.

The place was called Capone’s and inside the enlarged ‘O’ in the middle of the word on the sign out the front was an illustration in an early black and white photographic style of a fat man with thick lips and a hat on his head. Inside there was a fake tommy gun on the wall, and menu items included 'The Soprano' and 'Pacino’s Pollo' and 'Chicago Carbonara'. The children were looking at the gun on the wall. That’s why they were quiet.

Don’t scoff. Names mean nothing. If the food’s fine I don’t care what they call it. Most pizza and pasta places play up the hokey Italian heritage. Mamma’s, Nonna’s, Padre’s, Da Vinci’s, O Sole Mio, Godfather’s, Pavarotti’s and Big Papa’s come to mind. It entertains the staff as much as the customers.

This was a Friday night and the front kitchen was buzzing and delivery boys were running in and out and walk-in customers were waiting at a bench. These places make their money from volume take-aways and home deliveries so that’s where the action is, which makes the dine-in section a relaxing place in which to eat, because they don’t hassle you or hustle you and you can take your time and watch the pizza show in the front. Also, the teenage waitress smiled at the children all night, even when they dropped spoons.

A couple of glasses of Harcourt Valley Shiraz later, the smiling teenage waitress brought four steaming dishes out of the back kitchen through a gloomy passageway and to our table in the window. By this time the sun was lower and the stripes of gold were narrower but you could still feel the heat in them.

Pieces of smoked salmon and chicken breast resting on fettucine in a sauce of spring onion and saffron and cream and pepper and garlic was ‘Martin and Sinatra’. I don’t know who was the chicken and who was the fish, and I forgot to ask. But that was Tracy’s dish. I had a jumble of spaghetti hiding fat scallops and king prawns with chilli and parsley. That was ‘Sicilian Seafood’. They could have done better with the name (‘South Side Seafood’?) but as we noted, names don’t matter. Especially when you’re on the bottom of the harbour. I didn’t have to bite the scallops and the prawns; they just exploded with hot brine at the approach of an incisor. That’s the test of good seafood. Anything you have to chew is overcooked. Top marks, chef. It was perfect and the slow burn of the chilli matched the sunlight in the window and the inner glow from the shiraz. William’s dinner was ‘Bootlegger’s Bolognese’ and Tom ate the ‘Mafia Meatballs’ and neither left evidence.

Later, the Harcourt Valley Shiraz was gone, the gold shafts were faint way up on the ceiling and small cups in the warm semi-darkness on the table held sharp, bittersweet short black coffee. Is there anything better? We walked back to our hotel past the glowing Victorian streetscape built by gold in the 1850s. Maybe there was crime in the city once.

Capone’s
50 Hargraves Street, Castlemaine

9.2.11

Door handles.

The town had that uncanny height-of-summer stillness. It was midday. You expect a curtain to move in a window or a dog to snarl as you walk down the street past the sleeping houses.

It was forty degrees, a hundred-plus on that old scale they used to show on GTV-9 next to the black and white clock in between programs. Epic Theatre. Point of View. TV Ringside. Epilogue. I walked past the houses and down the hill and then there were shops that were once stables and blacksmiths and grain stores and banks for newly-dug gold. I pushed open a door and went into a cavernous old building that could have been anything.

Talk about another world. It was pitch black until your eyes got used to it, and then it was just dark, with pinholes of light in the corrugated iron ceiling above ancient timber rafters. I don’t know what it was then, but now they call it the Restorer’s Barn. It creaked in the heat. In a rainstorm you wouldn’t hear yourself admiring the old wares. The pinpoints in the ceiling made shafts of sunlight and they fell on the concrete floor and lay there and burned your eyes. Later they would move and change shape and climb up the sides of old chairs and glint off old glass lamps.

I went up some old stone steps past barrels of antique saws and planes and axes, and then up some more dusty ones to the top level where timber furniture stood next to endless rows of old crockery, glassware, crystal and lamp shades. Where do you start? On the lower levels are second hand stocks of every possible item fitted to any house built in the twentieth century. Window locks, door handles, keys, shutters, architraves, bell pulls, knockers, drawers, light switches, keyholes, 1950s chrome bath taps with red-hot and green-cold nuts, brass garden taps, anything made of bakelite, levers, and those mesh-covered circles of anodized steel they used to fit into the sides of kitchen cupboards as air vents. Plus every kind of cupboard latch from those press-button and lever ones from the 1940s to the flush spring-loaded ones where you just nudge the whole door. 1970s?

You go into a place like this not knowing you need anything. But it’s time I replaced two 1980s door handles in white with gold leaf circle and a flower in the middle. Fake Victoriana. Bizarrely, they are not on the same door. One is on one side of the kitchen door; the other is on one side of a bedroom door. Both have as their mate the original 1940s pressed steel handles. The Restorer’s Barn had dozens of the originals. Two door handles will meet old friends.

I came out hours later having forgotten where I was and the time of day. But it was still hot.

6.2.11

Five years and six months.

Born in June 2005. Started school last Thursday.

Blue and navy over grey; black lace-up shoes. Blue hat.

'Do I look like a pilot?' he asked.

He did. Flying through life.