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

31.3.11

A shorter history of the carrot, and why vegetable juice won’t make you go faster.

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, purple carrots grew wild in peace. Then ancient peoples, possibly the Hittites or the Armenians or the Persians, or possibly someone else, cultivated them for their seeds and foliage, completely ignoring the root, or else feeding them to swine.

Centuries flashed by. One day the Dutch, who loved travelling because their homeland was always flooding and there was always the chance of finding another tulip, discovered purple carrots in Iran, and took them home. They gave one to the man who had hybridised tulips and asked him what were the chances of another bubble. Developments after that were sketchy, but later, in a fit of nationalism, he turned them orange in honour of the Dutch Royal house. Thenceforth all carrots were orange, except for the few desert carrots who remained true to their roots, blissfully unaware of their kidnapped orange cousins.

*

Purple carrots are back. I tried them last week. They come from Tasmania, where the grower claims they have health properties that are best attained by eating the carrot raw, or juicing it. I can see why they’re recommending raw. I cut them. The cutting board was a slew of purple juice. I boiled them. The resulting water looked like a glass of Heathcote Shiraz. It didn’t taste like Heathcote Shiraz, however. I drained it in the sink and everything turned purple. Maybe I should have drunk the lot. Does anyone still drink vegetable juice? It was big in the ‘70s or ‘80s. People used to boil vegetables, cool the cooking water and then drink it. This went out of fashion because it tasted like dishwater, whichever vegetables you used, and people said to hell with it and drank bottles of V8 instead.

Does V8 still exist? I worked at the agency that handled Campbell’s in the early 1980s and wrote a commercial for V8 that had Allan Moffatt driving two timed laps of the Mt Panorama racing circuit at Bathurst in his monster Falcon GTHO Phase Three (the world’s fastest four door production car at the time). After the first lap Moffatt fortified himself with a glass of V8. Afterwards, the clock showed identical times for the two laps. Strap line: Drink it because it tastes good. It was a satire on energy drinks before energy drinks existed.

Perhaps that’s why they didn’t make the ad.

*

Back to the carrots: they had an earthy taste like beetroots and paired very well with greek yogurt in a cold salad. The beetroot association might have been my imagination because of the intense colour. In fact, purple carrots get their colour from a pigment called anthocyanin while beetroot’s colour is from betalains.

How do I know this? The wonderfully named Hazel McTavish-West (I'd love to have a name that is guaranteed to be at the top of a Google search) told me. Ms McTavish-West is a phytochemist who helps growers develop and improve crops while driving interest and demand for new – and in the case of the purple carrot – centuries old species. People like Ms McTavish-West are worth a thousand bureaucrats preaching health messages via childish advertising campaigns.

Take her survey and you’ll be helping her research efforts as well as assisting some Tasmanian farmers sell some nice fresh vegetables.

29.3.11

This sporting life: fair weather supporters and strange coincidences.

As a fair weather supporter, I read the sports pages when my team is winning. And so I turned to Mike Sheahan’s column in today’s Herald Sun. In warning Essendon supporters about getting ahead of themselves, Mr Sheahan pointed out an extraordinary coincidence. He noted the last two new Essendon coaches have recorded large wins in their first games, each of exactly 55 points. Nine goals, one behind. Not a common margin.

Mr Sheahan could have delved a little further. On 3 April 1972 (my fifteenth birthday), I attended the Western Oval with my nineteen-year-old brother to watch the opening round of the season. That summer, Des Tuddenham had been controversially appointed Essendon coach after several turbulent years at Collingwood during which he and some other players once notoriously went on strike.

Essendon defeated Footscray that day in 1972. Tuddenham helped himself to a margin of exactly one goal more than Hird’s or Knights’ 55 points margins. Literally. Tuddenham was playing coach that day. Records show that he kicked a goal during the match. And the winning margin was 61 points.

It was a good birthday.

*

Ironically, while five of the last six coaches at Essendon had a successful start (others were Bill Stephen, one point win over Footscray 1976; Barry Davis, 21 point win over South Melbourne 1978), one – Kevin Sheedy – lost his first five games as new coach in 1981, threatened to make a playing comeback, and went on to win the next fifteen games - a record stretch after five losses.

28.3.11

Something in a Sunday.

It was a 'working' weekend. It was just me and the boys. I painted the lounge room floor of the beach house in the quiet morning while the boys, outside, threw toys on the roof. It was the wind, they said. Nothing to do with us. I got the ladder and a broom out three times. The floorboards are varnished clear and I redo them every few years. The painting part is easy; it’s the moving furniture. There’s always too much.

I stopped at midday and cooked lunch for the boys. Sea air and flinging toys gives you an appetite. Pasta shells with canned tuna and peas and sprinkled parmesan, pancakes with maple syrup, glasses of milk. After lunch I moved some furniture back over dried sections of varnish and painted some more, and the boys played on the balcony and shot model cars off the edge and climbed down the stairs and retrieved them. Tiring of that (and speaking of retrieving) Thomas let next door’s dog, an overweight, amiable Golden Retriever in through the gate in the fence. Then he held the back door wide and the dog loped in and Thomas opened the fridge and unwrapped a fresh croissant and offered it to the dog. I couldn’t do anything. I was defending wet paint territory like a border guard, or a goalie. The dog accepted the croissant and took it down the stairs and swallowed it whole. Bailey didn’t need that croissant, I told Thomas. But he liked it, Thomas replied. I put the brush down and led Bailey by the collar back through the fence. It was like herding a long-haired yellow cow.

Back to the city near two o’clock. Let’s take a different route. The freeway jades. I turned right instead of left at the bottom of the hill and along Brown’s Road and past the Boneo vegetable farms and towards the blue mass that is Arthur’s Seat. Then half right again to skirt the peak and you’re in a forest of eucalypt where riding trails parallel the road and, through the trees, you can glimpse the white and black of the riders bumping along on their brown horses. Then a left and a right and you’re out of the forest and into Mornington Peninsula wine country, where the roads dip and weave and Volvo four-wheel-drives emerge like cargo ships from winery driveways, loaded to the gunwales with pinot and grigio and gris and shiraz.

I don’t know how anyone gets home. I always get lost here without having drunk anything. I seemed to drive through Red Hill at least three times and Merricks twice. We passed Ten Minutes By Tractor and Tuck’s Ridge and T’Gallant and another winery starting with ‘T’; and a few miles on, an enormous building made from concrete curves and no roof unfolded itself into view on the top of a hill. It looked like a postmodern milking shed the size of the Sydney Opera House. We came close and the curves snaked past and a sign that said Port Phillip Estate, and then the whole thing poured itself into the rear vision mirror and disappeared. Maybe I imagined it.

Twenty minutes later we were down out of the hills and the grapevines and into the flat and we rolled to a stop at a red light in Hastings. After that, it was all freeway and home and the baby gurgled a welcome on her mother's knee.

*

And I stopped beside a Sunday school,
And listened to the song they were singin'.

26.3.11

‘Turn off your lights’ - neon sign.

Friday night. Late. The wreckage of another week lay in my wake, bobbing about randomly before disappearing into some dark crevice of memory.
The morning had brought some good news, via email naturally, releasing me from a hideous one month contract of writing impossible bureaucratese for a client whose acquaintance with the English language ended, or began, I’m not sure which, with ‘digital contact points’, which they shorten to DCP, because everyone knows what they are, of course. They have acronyms in every paragraph and they capitalise words to give them more importance. Goodbye.

Then the telephone had rung. Yes, some people still ring you up. The person ringing me up was an old work acquaintance of the nice kind, wanting to know if I was free on Monday for a month. That was like losing the wicked witch and gaining Snow White.

Later, finishing a morning’s business in the city, I had ridden the escalator down into Melbourne Central Station under a backlit sign advertising Earth Hour. They were all over town. Electric signs telling people to turn off their lights for sixty minutes on Saturday night to save electricity. Nuts. Imagine the conversation at the agency:

MEDIA BUYER: We’ve come up with a media plan targeting commuters and city professionals, with neon signs in all major loop stations to get Earth Hour out there to the greatest possible numbers.

ACCOUNT EXECUTIVE: How do they work?

PRODUCTION GUY: They’re backlit, providing greater noticeability.

ACCOUNT EXECUTIVE (SPLURTS HIS SINGLE ESTATE ESPRESSO COFFEE): Backlit?!?

ART DIRECTOR: Yes. How do you think people will see them if we don’t light them?

ACCOUNT EXECUTIVE: But we’re trying to tell people not to use electricity.

PRODUCTION GUY: These signs are very efficient. Thousands of people see them. We use a little to save a lot. If we get half a million people to turn off a single bulb on Saturday night and have them agonise in sheer darkness for an hour before resuming their Agatha Christie and trying not to forget the plot or trip over the dog, we’ll have saved enough energy to almost recoup the cost of the power used in the campaign.

ACCOUNT EXECUTIVE: Almost?!?

PRODUCTION GUY: Well, who’s counting. It’s all about the message, not the volts or amps or whatever the hell they measure the stuff in.

ACCOUNT EXECUTIVE: Sounds like spin to me.

ART DIRECTOR: Well, you’d know. Anyway, who the hell cares? Research shows that most people who turn off their lights will watch TV instead.

ACCOUNT EXECUTIVE: Ridiculous. TVs use more energy. How am I going to sell this to Earth Hour?

PRODUCTION GUY: Tell them the signs are solar powered.

ACCOUNT EXECUTIVE (A SNEER CURLING HIS LIP): In the underground rail loop.

ART DIRECTOR: Why not? There are wires. It’s been a nice summer.

ACCOUNT EXECUTIVE: This is nuts.

MANAGING DIRECTOR: Not it’s not. It’s a multimillion dollar account.

ACCOUNT EXECUTIVE: I thought it was pro bono.

MANAGING DIRECTOR: It’s always nice to sacrifice a little income for a lot of publicity.

ALL EXIT TO LUNCH AT DOYLE’S, OUTSIDE OF COURSE. IT WAS A NICE DAY.
*

Something like that. The world is nuts. Now it was nine o’clock on Friday night and the table was a mess of children’s leftovers and I hadn’t eaten. Easy. I boiled some tortiglioni (ridged rigatoni), drained it and added the plate of leftover plain-boiled vegetables (potato, carrot, broccoli), added the last of the home-made pesto (pecans, olive oil, parmesan, garlic clove, two handfuls of basil from the garden, salt, pepper), tossed through a tablespoon of Greek yogurt, swirled it around and topped it with a dusting of parmesan, and a couple of basil leaves. Delicious. Some of the things that work best are the ones you just make up as you go along.

21.3.11

Spinner in residence.

The late summer air was still simmering. It was after seven. I put the charcoal in a pile in the grate and put a match to it in three places and left it to consume itself and turn white hot. That would take forty minutes and in those forty minutes I would make a salad of roasted pumpkin cubes, avocado, rocket, toasted macadamias, chick peas and shards of feta cheese dressed with olive oil and lemon juice; set the outside table; walk inside several times and out again forgetting what I had gone in for; and pour a large balloon glass full of red wine that was almost black and seductive with the fragrance of something you read about in wine columns. Blackberries? American oak? French barriques? I don’t know, but it was nice.

Forty-five minutes later I placed the first item on the grill: a piece of ling swimming in a marinade of soy, ginger, a clove of garlic and a chopped spring onion and wrapped in foil.

We sat and watched the show. It started on time as usual. Two legs stepped out onto the wire that crosses from the house to the pergola. The pergola is covered with a grapevine and the body belonging to the two legs lives in the coolness of the green leaves during the day.

More legs came out and then the body. The legs were dark red and shiny and pointed, like small lacquered Japanese chopsticks, or an old lady’s tortoiseshell knitting needles. The body was large and fat and red. The abdomen was so big it dwarfed the head. You couldn’t see the eyes, but they were there, small and beady and evil. And the fangs.

I don’t know what species it was. There are 35,000 types of spider. I wonder how they know, and why it is such a nice round number. What if they missed one? This was all pointless speculation, of course, but I am merely reporting what I was thinking about while aromas of garlic and ginger drifted from the barbecue and the sky turned the colour of salmon flesh. Speaking of fish, the ling was light and delicious and flaked away beautifully into unctuous soy-infused chunks. Is there a better fish? Just don’t overcook it.

Then she dropped. Suddenly, like a confident abseiler. You wouldn’t think such a stout body could be possessed of such agility. She hang-glided to the ground, anchored her line and picked her way up again. Then she inched along the line and dropped off again. Another anchor point. Then she met the lines halfway and started circling outwards and at last, inwards. Next day I counted 27 radii and 68 spirals. That’s a lot of work but I let her get on with it. The ling was entrĂ©e or first course or starter or whatever it’s called these days. Now I was cooking the steaks. It was almost dark. I turned on the light. It hangs underneath the pergola amidst straying vines and has one of those 1950s post-bakelite green open shades. We ate steaks in a pale green glow just as the spider finished her work and settled, upside down, in the middle of her web to wait for business. And pleasure.

*

I woke early next morning. She was still there at half past six, just before the sun came up. She must have been asleep. She looked even fatter. She was gone an hour later, and the web was a scatter of broken wings and the remains of maybe a hundred bugs and flies and mosquitoes. I went inside and washed up last night’s dishes.

18.3.11

Behind the news.

The sun is warm but it comes later in the morning and goes earlier at night. Time moves on. The seasons pass. Children grow. The baby cut a tooth yesterday. William is a schoolboy. Thomas misses him. They were inseparable. Have I ever taken a photo of one without the other half in shot?

Thomas learned to swim this summer, had the confidence to climb the diving board at Coburg, dove off in a kind of flat fall, swam to the other side, climbed out. He wore yellow swimmers and yellow flippers and looked like a fat duck. William, not confident enough to dive, called instructions from the side. Some curious children gathered to watch this small muscly boy diving. ‘Who taught you to dive?’ they called. ‘Him,’ lied Thomas, pointing to William; and stood on the end of the board, rocking gently up and down, toes on the edge, arms outstretched, waiting. ‘Tell me when, Winnie,’ he called. The pet name remains from when he could not pronounce the name at twelve months. William paused, then shouted, ‘Now!’ Thomas fell to the water in a perfect falling dive. They repeated the charade several times.

That was a children’s summer, rolling away like a billycart wheel, oblivious to frowning adults rustling newspapers full of flood and earthquake and fire and rain; or holding them, folded, over haggard faces to ward off the savage sun. And now autumn, and St Patrick’s day already gone, and Easter approaching.

Red capsicum stuffed with fragrant rice and lentils.

In a large heavy pan with a tight fitting lid, fry two sliced onions in ghee or oil. Grind a quarter teaspoon each of cardamom, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg and pepper. When onion is done, add spices and stir, then add a cup each of basmati rice and rinsed red lentils, three and a half cups of boiling water and two teaspoons of salt. Stir. Lid the pan tightly. Turn down heat very low. Walk away. Don’t touch it for 20 minutes. Then sneak a peek, and if the rice grains have ballooned, it’s done.

Meanwhile, top three red capsicums and remove seeds and pith. When rice and lentil mixture is done, stuff the capsicums with it. (The above quantities will yield more than enough mixture.) Replace tops and place in a casserole, which should be of a size that roughly holds their tops in place. Pour some tomato puree, a little watered down to assist the cooking process, into the gaps so that it comes halfway up the capsicums. Add some chilli or curry powder to give the sauce a little heat. Cumin-based powder works well and adds to the fragrance. Bake until capsicums collapse, about an hour. Adjust fluid if your oven is particularly hot.

Serve with yogurt and sweet lime pickle, my current favourite condiment. It is bitter, sweet, tangy, potent, salty, fruity and smells like the late summer wind through a grove of ripe citrus on the mountainside of an island in … where?

12.3.11

Moon dreams and silver spoons: a culinary journey through time.

We don't go around smashing plates, but occasionally one gets lost in action, especially the set that came from Italy via David Jones under the label of Richard Ginori Ironstone. Ironstone? You only had to look at them and they'd chip. The Alfa Romeo of plates: you needed two in case one packed it in halfway through dinner. The Denby ones (English) weren't much better. I have one left.

So I get to go crockery shopping. Crockery shopping is fun. I don't buy new any more; I prefer the look of a table spread with a mixed array of plates. As long as they're all of good quality, your table gains the air of a fading dynasty. Dining al fresco gets a particular lift when using stately old crockery. Apart from that, I don't like many of the modern patterns or designs, especially plates that are square. Children try to push their vegetables into the corner. On a round plate there's nowhere to hide.

So off to the Restorer's Barn again. They have a separate room in which their crockery is displayed like works of art. No stacks to rattle - every piece is mounted separately in a bracket. There are hundreds, and they are cheap because they are from incomplete sets.

First, a dinner plate by J & G Meakin of England. 'Moon Dreams’ features cactus-like vegetation in purple, pink, blue and beige in a cross-hatched illustrative style against a stark lunar backdrop and finished with a gold rim. Eat from these and you’ll remember the 1960s again, even if you weren’t there, to twist the aphorism. The Meakin designers were channelling something sunny and cheerful that day. Talk about stoneware.

Next, a 1970s Wedgwood ‘Sahara’ dinner plate, deep orange etched with a burnt umber rim; a Maddock Royal Vitreous rim-patterned design of gold and grey geometrics interlinked like Mercator’s projection; and two oval diner-style plates with rims coloured for clubs and the like. These were distributed by John Dynon & Sons and are marked with the year of production. My father might well have sold them. As a child I used to travel with him occasionally around the hotel trade. I was possibly the only person to have visited every restaurant in Melbourne without eating in it.

Now for some glassware. I picked up a Cristal d’Arque goblet complete with gold sticker. These somewhat ostentatiously chunky items were huge in the 1970s, being a kind of default wedding gift in boxes of six, and were often stored sticker-side out behind glass in the Parker wall unit. Then they went out of fashion like everything else 1970s and were packed off to op shops along with the Parker wall unit. Now they have a kind of retro charm if you like that kind of thing. The sticker reads Cristal d’Arque of France 24% lead crystal. Remind me not to drink out of it.

That was it, aside from three highly polished ex-Australian Military Forces silver dessertspoons complete with stamped crown and sunrise insignia. I wonder if they saw action.

3.3.11

Sentimental journey.

I drove down to Nicholson Street on a warm late summer evening, pulled a u-turn just past Our Lady Help of Christians church and stopped the car just south of the Barkly Street corner. We got out and left the car unlocked. No-one steals Volvos. It was parked right outside anyway. We went in.

The door is still awkwardly propped ajar each evening around 5 o'clock, the decor hasn't been touched since the place opened, and the traffic noise still roars in off Nicholson Street while you wait for your order. We ordered and waited.

From my place you have to pass six or seven perfectly good curry houses to get to Singh's, but it's a nostalgic journey. I first visited here in 1986, and that was the year it opened. I might have been their first customer. The curry nearly blew my head off. A friend and I used to have competitions to see who could withstand the hottest curry. A lot of cold beer was consumed in the process. William, Thomas and Alexandra's much older brother and sister ate their first curry from Singh's. Mild for them, of course.

These days I usually order a serve of mulligatawny and an aloo chap, which is a deep-fried ball of potato mash encasing curried peas. You cut the aloo chap in half and pour some mulligatawny over the semi-orb in a bowl; a kind of exotic mash and gravy. That's the starter. Singh's garlic naan is a meal in itself; tear it open and stuff it with some coriander chutney and you'll die happy, smelling of garlic. They don't hold back on the garlic.

Then it's on to the serious curry. These days I stray into the curried vegetables territory. Curried vegetables bring a flavour and textural experience meat curries cannot offer. For example, roasted pumpkin and chick peas simmered in a coconut sauce turbo-charged with selected spices. Or eggplant in a cashew-based sauce with yogurt, powered with garlic, ginger and dusted with torn coriander. Then there's my old favourite saag paneer and other variations on cheese and peas and potatoes and spinach. These dishes are enough to turn any meat eater vegetarian.

Get a grip, Kitchen Hand!

- I'll have a serve of beef vindaloo, as well, thank you. Extra hot.

These days the vindaloo is no longer as hot as a furnace. They turn up the volume on demand. While we waited an associate of Mr Singh brought out several pappadums and offered them to William and Thomas who accepted them graciously and then nibbled them, leaving shards of chickpea chip on the floor.

There's only thing one thing at Singh's that has changed since 1986. And that it is the colour of Mr Singh's beard. Must be the strain of running a small business.

Singh's Indian Takeaways
43 Nicholson Street, East Brunswick


*

Like a child in wild anticipation,
I long to hear that "All aboard!"
Seven ... that's the time we leave at seven.
I'll be waitin' up at heaven,
Countin' every mile of railroad
track, that takes me back.
Never thought my heart could be so yearny.
Why did I decide to roam?
Gotta take that sentimental journey,
Sentimental journey home.


*

Rhyming 'yearney' with 'journey' was a masterstroke. No online rhyming dictionaries in those days. You had to use your head.