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

28.4.11

"What's the house chardonnay like?"

The waiter flew out of the door and put a plate on our pavement table and that characteristic aroma of something freshly deep-fried rose from the plate.

The crumb coating on four ovoid shapes was ragged pale gold, like tempura, and flecked with herbs. There was a dipping sauce. Is eating something deep-fried and dipped in a tangy sauce the pinnacle of eating?

William and Thomas thought so. Children like fried things. You can’t blame them. Their hands reached out. They bit and tasted, and tried to place the taste, and bit some more, and thought about it. Was it chicken? Was it fish?

Music from a band in another café fifty metres up the street floated down to us. It was playing Crimson and Clover, without the distortion.

No, William and Thomas, I replied. It is not chicken. It is not fish.

Don’t talk like a Dr Seuss book, they replied. Just tell us what the hell it is. I’m paraphrasing loosely. The never say ‘the hell’.

In reply, I picked up the menu and read aloud from it.

'Lightly fried lamb’s brains in a herb-infused batter, served on a bed of leaves.'

I put down the menu. The boys just stared, open-mouthed. Tracy visibly winced. The band played on.

*

Earlier, when we had arrived, I had gone inside to see if there was a table, leaving Tracy and the children on the pavement. No point the whole shooting match coming in. Two empty tables had reserved signs on them. A waitress looked at the book and frowned and checked with the busy worried-looking woman behind the bar, who shook her head, no, and said we could take a table outside. But that had been my preferred option all along. I always prefer to sit outside, if it’s not snowing, or if we’re not in Lygon Street East Brunswick, which is the worst place to dine al fresco in Melbourne.

I went outside to sell the idea in, as they say in the business. How about the warm night and the drift of ti-tree on the air with a top note of brine, and the almost full moon just getting up in the sky and pouring liquid silver on the roofs of the quiet, vast mansions along Point Nepean Road, and the soft hiss in the distance of unseen breaking waves? How about that?

Sold. Of three large timber slat tables on the pavement, one was taken, we took the middle one and the third remained empty. More music floated down from the other café. Sweet Caroline. Proud Mary. A crowd was spilling onto the street, nicely. This is a baby boomer retirement town.

A waiter brought four menus. I passed one each to William and Thomas without saying anything and they began to read. Beats John and Betty books. I asked for the wine list and the waiter went back inside, and the worried-looking woman brought it out and I jabbed a finger at it, and she went away looking slightly less worried. That's what they worry about. Time. Diners taking forever to decide on something. Diners may take all night deciding on something of course. It's their right! But I’ve been a waiter. I’ve heard all the conversations.
First diner: What will we drink?

Second diner: We can’t decide what to drink before we know what we’re eating. We might order red wine and then someone might want fish.

Third diner (possibly sarcastic, and possibly not): That would be a calamity.

First diner, to waiter: What’s the house chardonnay like?

Waiter (Thinks: What’s it like? It’s like chardonnay): Citrus and butterscotch with a just a faint oak influence. Chilled to eight degrees celsius. Presented in a chiller bucket. Sourced from our private supplier in central ...

Third diner: What about the red?

Waiter: A McLaren Vale shiraz blend. Think tobacco and chocolate. Served at sixteen degrees in 370ml crystal glasses ...

First diner: I’ll have a beer.

*

I was sipping a very lightly chilled Geppetto chardonnay when the first dish had come out; the deep-fried mystery that was no longer a mystery. Top marks to the place for even putting this on the menu. The nose-to-tail movement has a long way to advance. Or should I say, a long way to return. Forty years ago everyone ate offal and didn’t turn a hair. Tripe, liver, heart, kidneys. Now they scream if they see the word on a menu. A good steak and kidney pie with mashed potato is a lost art. Something about the aroma of the gravy coming through the crust straight from the oven. And my all-time favourite dish is fegato alla veneziana. It’s in this blog somewhere. I should have an index. Search doesn’t always remember.

*

After that there was a Margherita pizza and a Sunday roast ‘special’ and a pasta with smoked salmon and capers, and they seemed to disappear while we talked, so they must have been good. The roast was robust, a thick slice each of pork and beef that did not need a chainsaw, and there was no blanket of gravy and no waterlogged pumpkin. Margherita is the test of any pizza place. If you can do that you can do anything. They even do a fig and gorgonzola and prosciutto pizza here.

*

Up the street, the band was on its last number, a baby boomer standard that racheted the spilling crowd up to fever pitch and went like this: They had a hi-fi phono, boy, did they let it blast/Seven hundred little records, all rock, rhythm and jazz/But when the sun went down, the rapid tempo of the music fell ...

And then the best piano break in rock history. The retired baby boomers must have thought they had died and gone to heaven. It’s Sunday night, you don’t have to work the week, and you can buy legal mind-altering substances over the counter. All that, and they are still playing your music.

*

Pizza D’oh
2845 Point Nepean Road, Blairgowrie

26.4.11

25 April, 2011

 
Posted by Picasa

An Anzac Day story worth reading.

What does a child make of Anzac Day these days?
...
The Anzac legend is unfettered by distortion, unspoiled by excess, and may it ever be so. The legend has grown, and we the children, no matter how old we are, continue to embrace the heritage. ... Tomorrow's children laughing in our parks and playgrounds will always be the children of the Anzacs, and we waltz Matilda still in their memory.

If you'll excuse the web jargon, read the whole thing.

21.4.11

Moon dances through sky; lands on pillow.

We drove home late, when the full moon was riding in the sky. It came with us, according to the children. We rolled across the dark hills of Gippsland through shadowy eucalypt forest lit silver by the kaleidoscoping moon.

Then the freeway, a Jeffrey Smart painting made three dimensional by John Holland Constructions, the only difference being that these days the paintings are more minimalist than the road, which is littered with oversized artworks. A large black bird pecking at an iron chip. An orange bridge. Then a green one. Then a faux hotel that is just sheer bad taste, like a real hotel. Indeed, they should have built a real one so that the bad taste at least had a purpose, like an Alessi juicer.

The moon disappeared and the children slept and then we turned into our short street with the No Through Road sign at the top. The moon slid to a stop just as we did, and sat in the poplars at the end of the street. Look, it came home with us, said William, sleepily. I carried sleeping, heavy Thomas inside and William walked in the dappled darkness to the front door and inside the dark house and the moon was shining on his pillow. Tracy tiptoed inside with the babe with two teeth in her arms. Soon all three children were asleep and dreaming moon dreams.

*

Fast Sunday night dinner, late: pasta with two cheeses.

This comes together in the time it takes to cook the pasta, so no excuse to pick up fast food on the way home.

I used Da Vinci whole wheat fettucine, not because it is supposedly healthy, but because it imparts a more robust flavour to the dish and carries the cheese.

Cook your pasta. Whole wheat will take slightly longer. Be patient. Open the wine. I had bought a bottle of Wild Dog Gippsland Chardonnay and thrown it into the freezer for fifteen minutes. That's all it needs. The bottle warns you not to chill it too much, which makes a nice change from bottles of wine warning you not to drink too much.

When done, drain pasta and return it to the pan. I opened a pack of Tarago River Shadows of Blue. How to fold it through the pasta? You can't cut the stuff. It oozes like lava. Tricky, but we got there. Now add a handful of chopped rocket and a couple of tablespoons of those semi-dried tomatoes that come in a jar of half vinegar, half oil. Fold it all through over a low heat for twenty seconds. Add a shower of parmesan and serve.

*

And all the night's magic seems to whisper and hush
And all the soft moonlight seems to shine in your blush

20.4.11

The smell of baking.

He was about twelve years old. He stood at the edge of a concrete precipice on a scooter blade, still as a statue. Then he shot forward and dropped like a stone, out of sight. Four seconds later, on the other side of the precipice, he shot into the air and flew six feet above the ground, released the scooter, rolled forward 360 degrees in the vertical plain, met the scooter again in mid-air on the way down and landed like a sparrow on a chair.

It was around that time early on a Saturday afternoon when you realise the weekend really has arrived, and you don’t have to rush anywhere or do anything for anyone. I sat on a bench under a blue sky and half-read the newspaper in the sun while William and Tom climbed. The playground is near the main street, and the view from my bench stretched away past a football ground and a primary school and a swimming pool, closed now, and all the way across a valley where it turned into blue South Gippsland haze. I struggled on through the Weekend Australian’s Inquirer lift-out, then threw it in the bin. A bandy-legged red dog with white legs and a head like a Corgi’s waddled over to me to see if I was disposing of anything interesting. No luck. His owner was doing what I had been doing; staring into the distance while his children played with mine. We talked.

Heeler?

Yeah. Red and blue. Good in the yard. Nips the cows, gets them into line. Not so good in the paddock. The kids are enjoying themselves.

Getting along like a house on fire.


They were hiding, running in and out of a row of ancient pines that bordered the playground, probably a windbreak for some old nineteenth century farmhouse. The twelve-year-old with the scooter blade had finished dropping and flying and went off and disappeared into the view.

Later, the boys climbed into car hot and with mud on their clothes and their shoes and I drove them down the hill back to their grandmother’s house. She and their mother were baking and you could smell it outside. The baby was rolling on a rug on the floor. She has two lower teeth and is about to crawl.

18.4.11

Fresh angel hair pasta with poached chicken, asparagus, snow peas, a touch of pesto and clarinets.

It was well after eight on a Saturday night. My mother-in-law was here for dinner so I wanted something fast but impressive, easy but interesting, simple but appetising. So I went to the kebab shop.

No, I didn’t. I might have wanted to, but instead I sliced a large chicken breast fillet into one-centimetre cubes, placed these in a pan with a close-fitting lid over half a tablespoon of olive oil and a sliced garlic clove, sloshed in half a glass of white wine and the cubed flesh of an avocado and set the pan on a low heat to poach the chicken and warm the avocado through.

Then I drank the other half of the glass of wine.

Fresh angel hair pasta, six little bunches from Donnini’s, was already cooking in a large pan in salted, oiled water. When the pasta was a minute away from done, I threw in ten asparagus spears I had sliced in three pieces each, and a good handful of snow peas. I shook the poaching pan and, with tongs, turned over a few cubes of reluctant chicken. It shouldn’t stick if the heat is low and there’s enough fluid. When just done, I added a tablespoon of home-made pesto and stirred it through, put the lid back on, placed the pan on the fire and gave it a good shake. Thirty seconds and that was it.

I drained the pasta and vegetables, placed them in a large serving bowl about the size of a Bentley steering wheel, and poured the chicken and avocado over the top. (Alternatively you can make a richer sauce by removing the chicken and avocado with a slotted spoon, adding cream to the pan with perhaps a little more wine, reducing this and pouring it over.)

Then a shower of flaked parmesan, chopped parsley and cracked pepper, and I placed the large dish in the middle of the table as a shared platter and served crusty bread and red wine and a simple side salad of leaves with vinaigrette.

This was easy and delicious. The avocado gave the dish a luxurious texture and the pesto ramped up the flavour. The key is not to overcook the chicken.

*

We ate around nine listening to some old Saturday-night type jazz on the radio; sax and double bass and clarinets, I suppose. Earlier, we had picked up my mother-in-law from Tullamarine. She spends her life playing golf and travelling. For some reason she’d flown Tiger. It’s a time warp: you stand behind a gate and watch the passengers disembark like at Essendon in the 1960s.

We would drive her home to Gippsland on the morrow.

14.4.11

Bribed by red wine.

When The Spectator magazine launched its Australian edition some years ago, I couldn’t find it in the newsagent's. I asked the newsagent.

‘Yes,’ he beamed. ‘The Spectator! We have it! It’s in the sporting section down the back!’ There it was next to Runner’s World and Fly Fishing and Gun Dog. I didn’t say anything, but some weeks later it had been moved to the current events and politics section next to The Economist and Time and BRW, so I suppose someone else did.

The cover price of The Spectator has doubled from $4.50 to $8.95 over the last decade, so I was surprised to find an ad in the current issue offering a gift subscription at $139. That’s $2.673076923076923 a copy, a discount of 76.0759615%. I like to be precise.

Fine. Your gift recipient gets the magazine and you get the credit, having paid a quarter of the price. Further, if he or she is in the same household, you get to read the magazine anyway. She is, and I will.

But there was something else in the deal; an incentive. They send the magazine subscription donor a $75 Cellarmasters gift voucher!

I get rewarded with a case of red wine for being cheap with a gift!

Or you can look at it this way: that $75 value brings your Spectator price back to $1.23076923 a copy.

As I’ve noted in the past, things must be tough in magazine circulation land right now. But I must add, I’d much rather $75 worth of Heathcote shiraz than a telescope. Sign me up.

13.4.11

Newspaper seller dies.

The daily circulation of the Australian Financial Review is 75,000. How many of those were sold by one of my favourite columnists, Peter Ruehl, who died on Monday? I always turned to his column first and then threw the thing across the room.

While we're taking potshots at newspapers, the dreadful Herald Sun today reports Ruehl's death without acknowledging that it carried his columns for some years.

Pour a gin and tonic, crank up The Boss and toast the memory of a great writer who kept us laughing.

12.4.11

Song of the month: April.

The song opens with an unaccompanied voice – when I woke up this morning – sung in a single note. Then a rhythm guitar ticks off the heartbeat of a person who might have woken in fright, and the voice comes again:

you were on my mind

The tempo picks up a gear. A drum chases the voice through the next verse, tom-tomming a tattoo of fear. Then the voice is alone again with the ticking rhythm:

so I went to the corner/just to ease my pain/I said just to ease my pain

The chase resumes with a tambourine joining the drum in the stalk. It’s building.

but I've got a feeling/yeah, down in my shoes/I said way down in my shoes

Then a screaming organ joins in, punctuated by a sinister brass note. But the chase stops suddenly as if in a feint.

The song finishes with no result, no ending, nothing but pain:

I got wounds to bind

Crispian St Peter's You Were on My Mind is a three minute spine-chiller. Even the silences in between the rhythm notes sound ominous. Sit in a dark room and listen to it on vinyl and experience one of the starkest, sparest, leanest productions of the 1960s. No flower power here.

You Were on My Mind
Crispian St Peters
Decca 1966

*

I always listen to music when I’m in the kitchen, because talk radio and current affairs completely put you off eating, let alone cooking. So here’s a new feature in which I will share with you some of my favourite songs, monthly if I remember.

10.4.11

Acid trip.

This is why we grow tomatoes. A quiet mid-autumn Saturday morning and the sun is giving a last hot encore before it leaves centre stage and we drift south and out of reach and then it’s just a memory until next season.

I’ve already ripped out a dozen tomato vines but a few remain, browning foliage studded with red balls. I pulled the last two out yesterday. They gave more than I expected. One had little bunches of ovoid cherries, hot from the sun, orange red, perfect. A few dozen, many lower down the vine and out of sight until you pull it up. The other gave round speckled ones – I forget the name, some kind of heritage variety – that were fatter and orange with pale green mottling, like old-fashioned apples in miniature. I had the radio on, of course, to help me through the morning's work in the garden. Off the Record started with a track I hadn't heard for years, The Only Living Boy in New York, one of the two best tracks from Bridge Over Troubled Water. What a song, all swirling harmonies and organ and guitar in a wall of sound production, remastered. They are remastering everything these days.

So that was it for the summer crop. They are just tomatoes, but the taste is an explosion of hot, sweet acid with an earthy overtone that is indescribable. They are best straight off the vine, still warm, straight into whatever it is you are eating. This is the reason why we plant tomatoes without comparing yield to cost. The taste is worth it, because you can’t buy it in shops.

Spaghetti with rocket and tomatoes.

Cook up a large pot of spaghetti, or fettuccine. Meanwhile, sauté an onion and two scored cloves of garlic until almost translucent. Add a bunch of rocket, chopped, and cook to wilting stage. Throw in some halved cherry or heritage tomatoes and cook another minute or two. Drain pasta, spoon rocket and tomato sauce over; top with a few red pepper flakes and thinly sliced parmesan. Parsley if you have it. Glass of Mt Alexander pinot. It grows on rolling volcanic hills in between Harcourt and Bendigo, where they hold the annual cross country run, and you can taste the terroir. See the grapes on year as you run past, drink them the next. Makes it all worth it.

*

I went outside late in the afternoon, just before it rained, and picked up the mess of dead vines and brown string and broken stakes. The thin ones always snap off at soil level after one season. I put the vines into the compost bin and the broken stakes down the sideway and the sky opened up and it rained all afternoon and into evening.

*

Tom, get your plane right on time.
I know you've been eager to fly now.
Hey let your honesty shine, shine, shine now
Da-n-da-da-n-da-da-n-da-da
Like it shines on me

4.4.11

The restaurant at the end of Sydney Road.

It was a big restaurant on the northwest corner of the busiest intersection in Melbourne. I pulled out of four solid lanes of northbound traffic and into the truck layby, and off that into the car park the restaurant shares with a Hungry Jacks. We got out. The air was full of flame-grilled whopper just to get you started, and it worked just as well for customers of the restaurant.

The restaurant is set back from the road and there are cane tables and chairs and sun umbrellas outside, in case you want to watch Kenworths hauling B-doubles up the last part of Sydney Road where it becomes the Hume Highway while you eat your pizza. We went inside. Thomas led the way and didn't stop at the sign that read Please Wait Here To Be Seated near the pizza bar, but marched right on in. The front of house guy laughed because he was talking on my mobile phone to his Much Older Sister and he looked like a business executive off to a power lunch at Florentino’s.

The place is a warren flowing around a central bar and kitchen. It could seat hundreds. Windows on three sides give you road views. My preferred view is the east side across the never-ending stream of haulage to Campbellfield Plaza, but you might like the south window where, if you sit facing west, or turn your head, you get a tangential view across the Upfield train line, rails bronzed in the sunset, and empty fields beyond.

The building is a freestanding 1960s heap that once housed a chain pizza or burger cafe. You can sit in your booth with a glass of wine and identify pieces of 1960s/1970s junk architecture still embedded like fossils into the made-over design. These include a faux terracotta tiled roof over the cabana-style kitchen section. The pizza bar has a thatched roof, and its fascia wall features a painted life size laurelled reclining naked figure, Roman feast-style. Lighting is diffused under about an acre of white opaque plastic. Neon red zigzags around the entire building. The carpet is purple-red Axminster. Wine glasses hang upside down on their bases around the transom of the central bar. Stools line one side of the bar in case you have to wait for a table. The ambience is family babble and background music and the bang of the bell from the kitchen and a low Kenworth growl, like tigers in the bushes outside. For all that, the booths and the carpet mean the noise level here is nothing compared to those bare timber places in the inner suburbs where they pack foodies in like sardines and charge them a fortune for a couple of bits of salami on a breadboard and call it assiette of charcuterie, and where one dropped fork on the floor is like a gun going off, and where bloggers photograph their dinners.

I retrieved Thomas from near the bar, and got the phone off him, and said goodnight to my dear sweet grown up girl who had called to wish me many happy returns and who could not be with us tonight as she was ill; and the front of house guy, still laughing at Thomas, led us around a few corners to a booth with high sides. These keep the children out of sight, if not out of earshot. You can’t have it all.

We sat down. Then the front of house guy stopped laughing and informed me sorrowfully, in a French accent, that the place was cash only tonight due to some bank glitch or other. No problem. I scanned the menu and chose something, and went outside and took a walk across eight lanes of traffic at the lights to Campbellfield Plaza, and used the cash machine, and was back in four minutes. By that time a drink was in front of me, a nice cold chardonnay in a glass just the right size, not big enough to drown in, and not too small enough to be filling up with indecent haste in a public place.

It’s a large menu here and there’s a specials board, and everything you could possibly want out of an Italian restaurant, and some things you wouldn’t expect, such as garlic snails. I was close to choosing the snails, just so I could show the children you really can eat snails, but I was in a vintage mood so I chose the filet mignon. Wait a minute, I thought. That’s three French references in a row. Maybe this is a French restaurant. This thought was interrupted.

How do you like it, the waitress asked.

Rare, I replied. Blue, in fact, I added.

I was going to ask, she said. Some people think rare is medium. I like to clarify it.

Wait staff who ask how rare you like rare are really on the ball. There’s a children’s menu, but the cardinal rule of children’s menus is never to order from them. They omit all the trimmings and the sprig of parsley, and children should eat in the same style as the adults anyway.

Then the waitress asked us if we would like the children’s meals brought out before ours, or we’d like them to all come out together. Some places you’re lucky to get any requests for co-ordination heard, let alone actively offered.

The meals came out in due course, in the order discussed. We ate. Tracy expressed with some degree of surprise that the gnocchi was house made. You can tell it’s house made because house made gnocchi, when it’s made very well, kind of floats up to meet you. The commercial stuff won't, because they sell it by weight, and the floating wouldn’t let them do that. Gnocchi that almost floats is one of the best dining experiences anyone could have, no matter what the sauce. The sauce was tomato. My filet was a fat ball of blue steak encased in a piece of good bacon and sitting on about twenty different vegetables, or maybe I’m exaggerating, and all good and none greasy. I don’t like grease, even those art-directed drops of coloured oil called infused that are supposed to be some kind of artistic culinary movement, but are just a stupid affectation made of grease. William ate my potatoes, bite-sized sectors of roasted tuber. He likes potatoes but won't touch a carrot, whatever the colour.

Later, for the boys, some kind of ice-cream, served in coconut halves. Coffee, short black, of course, and then outside. Macks and Western Stars still groaning in the heavy warm air on their endless northbound journeys to who knows where. We’re at the bottom of this continent and it’s nearly three thousand kilometres to Cooktown.

It was a good meal. Nobody photographed their dinner. Here, they photograph their children.

*

Il Ciccio
Cnr. Camp Rd. and Hume Hwy., Campbellfield