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

29.7.11

Side dish steals limelight.

The other night I made a simple pasta dish of spaghetti with garlic, olive oil, anchovies and finely chopped fresh chili.

It needed something on the side. I did not have leaves of any kind so I made a salad out of some items that just happened to be there. The salad got out of control. It turned into the main event.

Warm salad of roasted pumpkin, fennel, avocado and kidney beans.

I had some leftover oven-roasted pumpkin and a head of fennel that resembled a miniature bagpipes. There were a few other potential ingredients vying for inclusion. How to bring them together? Here's how:

Chop the fennel into manageable pieces. It will fall into an array of j-curves and other fantastic three-dimensional shapes, allowing you to marvel at the geometry of nature while you construct a mega-salad.

Re-heat the cooked pumpkin if you want a ‘warm’ salad; otherwise, add it to the salad straight from the fridge.

Open one can of kidney beans. Drain.

Halve and section one avocado (relatively cheap luxury at 3 for $4 right now). Warm if desired (note: if you missed the 1970s, avocadoes take on a delicious dusky, nutty taste when warmed, especially with the addition of good olive oil, balsamic vinegar, lemon juice, salt and pepper.)

Sector a couple of vine-ripened tomatoes.

Chop half a red onion into rings.

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Crumble some feta* over, add salt and pepper and dress with olive oil, vinegar and the juice of a lime.

(Good fetta is available everywhere but for brands other than the ubiquitous and expensive Dodoni, visit Elli’s deli in Sydney Road or the new deli in Hossack Street, Far North Coburg, behind the Lincoln Mill. We bought a very good crumbly Greek feta at the latter store for half the Dodoni price.)

This salad also works well as leftovers, packaged as next day’s lunch at work, with some crusty bread.

Footnote: the pasta was good too.

27.7.11

A shorter history of the Sunday roast, with a recipe for a rainy Sunday night.

The Sunday roast was a childhood fixture. Let me qualify that. It was a fixture until I was about ten years of age, then it slowly disappeared, like the Latin Mass at about the same time. Perhaps there were too many children to feed. Maybe my mother went through a vegetarian phase, or just couldn’t be bothered doing it any more. I don’t remember. The era passed.

While the tradition lasted, the roast was usually ovine. That is to say, sheep. But not lamb. This concept is completely foreign to modern sensibilities: Not lamb? What other kind of edible sheep is there? The same kind actually; just older. The roast we were served was often leg of two-tooth, two-tooth being a farmers’ reference (my grandmother was raised in southern NSW) to a sheep of more than 12 months, otherwise known as hogget; or sometimes leg of mutton, from a sheep older than two years. Lamb is generally considered more tender … but two-tooth, or mutton, cooked properly, had more flavour. And was larger. We were still eating cold roast meat sandwiches three days later.

The Sunday roast in those days was served at lunchtime, but it was called dinner, because it was the main meal of the day. You could throw the roast in the oven in the morning, go off to church and return home to an aroma-filled house. We could smell it a block away during the mile walk on the way home, but you could never be sure it was your own as everyone did a Sunday roast then. Once you arrived home, pre-lunch entertainment might have been the first half-hour of World of Sport, which started at midday (due to the prohibition of general programming before noon on Sundays); then the rising hum of a motor engine in the driveway signalled the arrival of my grandparents. Everyone was summoned to the table and the television turned off. Not that there was anything formal about these occasions. Everyone talked and my father smoked afterwards. Yes! He smoked at the table!

The tradition continues, but mutton, despite making a comeback in Britain, remains an oddity here.

Girello roast.


Girello is inexpensive, quick to roast and easy to carve. Otherwise known as eye of round, it is the ‘eye’ strip cut from silverside. It is also lean and tasty. But it can dry out if you roast it too long. So don’t roast it too long.

This was last Sunday night, about five o’clock. It had been a bleak day, and it was still raining and the wind was blowing the rain onto the glass of the south windows and it sounded like Buddy Rich playing the brushes in an old slow song. I opened a bottle of red. Mt Alexander Shiraz 2008.

*

Then I got a roasting pan out from underneath about twenty others and reminded myself to throw several away. How many roasting pans do you need when you only have a roast a few times a year?

I rubbed olive oil, cracked pepper and salt into the meat and set it on a rack in the roasting tray. Then I peeled eight small potatoes and six onions about the same size and threaded these onto two metal skewers – potato, onion, potato, onion, potato, onion, potato - and laid each skewer on either side of the girello, with a few unpeeled cloves of garlic tossed around. A splash or two of water in the tray to keep it moist, and into the oven at 170 celsius, a figure which is meaningless because every oven is different.

You are supposed to bake girello at a lower heat to avoid drying it out. You’ll only haven a problem if you want well-done meat. To solve the problem, and to accommodate both rare and well-done preferences, I cooked the meat to rare, removed it from the oven, sliced a number of thin rounds to be further cooked, and returned these to the oven in the juices of the pan for another fifteen minutes, which in any case is the time you are supposed to ‘rest’ the joint. The slices came out well done and everyone was happy. I slid the potatoes and onions off the skewers directly onto serving plates. (You can serve them still on the skewers for a little presentational artifice, having earlier added strips of red capsicum or sections of fennel or slices of Lebanese eggplant or whatever you like.)

I made a quick gravy from the juices: a dash of Mt Alexander, a little cornflour and the pan juices. Add some English mustard if you wish.

I served the roast with buttered white bread. Hint: the garlic roasts to a paste. You simply squeeze it out of its skin onto the bread, and dredge the bread through the gravy. Now that’s a taste sensation to make you forget winter, and call to mind all those roasts you had as a child. Especially the mutton ones, if you were so lucky.

*

We finished the wine, the rest of the roast went into the fridge for a week of sandwiches, and the clock struck ten. Buddy Rich was still playing on the windows.

25.7.11

Walk in the park.


Albert Park, 16 July 2011. Above, Tom commences his athletic career in the under 9 one-kilometre race-walking event. Below, he nears the finish as evergreen veteran Bob Gardiner (1964 & 1968 Olympics; 1970 Commonwealth Games) continues through ten kilometres.


Tom ate well that night. Results and more pictures at Victorian Race Walking Club (motto: "You Walked Before You Ran").

19.7.11

The taste of tea in the morning.

It was still dark, but the birds were twittering and tweeting. I sat up and realised those verbs didn’t work any more. More perfectly good words gone forever. I felt my way to the kitchen, found the kettle and put it on. Then I switched the light on. I could have done that first, but I hadn’t been able to find the light switch, and the faint light from the east-facing window had led me to the kettle first.

That’s what happens in when you’re in an unfamiliar house. At least I hadn’t clocked myself on an overhanging mantel, or a door ajar.

The kettle hummed and then clicked off and I poured the water into a brown ceramic teapot over loose leaves of Tuckfields Tynee Tips tea, the name of which product once led to an alliterative jingle that once heard, could never be forgotten. I haven't.

*

We were staying in a renovated 1940s timber house in the middle of town. It had polished floors, an east-facing kitchen, two bedrooms, and a lounge furnished with comfortable chairs and a bookcase full of books and a gas fire. That’s all you need. The house was two minutes on foot from the main street, where there was a supermarket, a post office, a newsagent, several cafes, some craft shops, a real estate agent, a butcher and several original buildings from the colonial days including the Caledonian Inn. Walk two minutes more and you’re at the local library that doubles as a tourist information centre. Another two minutes and you pass the marina and the ruins of the old gaol, and the lighthouse, and the 1844 obelisk built to guide ships into Guichen Bay, and then you have to stop walking, or you’ll fall off crumbling cliffs and drop onto treacherous rocks smacked by huge waves. There’s a warning sign.

*

Robe is an old seaport on a point that sticks out into the Southern Ocean. It is cold and bleak and turns in on itself in winter; and as far as I could see, we were the only visitors in town. Thousands of Chinese landed at this windblown port in the 1850s, heading for the gold rush, after they were refused disembarkation in Victoria. So they got off here instead and walked to the goldfields. No problem. What’s a few hundred miles? This probably dissuaded many from making the return journey, however; evidenced by the ubiquitous Chinese cafĂ© that graces every country town.

*

The house was set in the middle of a block with garden all around and no sideway gates, so the boys could run endless laps of the house chasing each other, using up entire afternoons. Thoughtful touches like this really make a holiday. So much more practical than little pouches of complimentary shampoo in the bathroom.

*

It rained for three days, on and off. We watched the bands of rain rolling in from the north-west: the Southern Ocean. (You need a map to figure that out.) In between rain bands, the sun shone wanly into the north-facing backyard and the boys played cricket using the cricket set conveniently provided in the shed. They’ve played cricket before, in a manner. But with every activity, there is a break-through point. This was it. We omitted the run-out rules, and stuck to hitting and running, hitting and running, hitting and running. Both boys seemed to find the sweet spot and had the ball all over the yard. William even learned to sweep, going down on one knee. There were square cuts, cover drives, pulls, a couple of leg glances and even a late cut or two. Most were perfect on-drives, straight into the sheep-manure covered fruit tree orchard at the rear of the property. They will remember Robe as the place where they finally learned to play cricket.

*

I poured the tea. A door creaked. They were awake now. The sun was up, and it lit the room.

15.7.11

Falling sea levels.

There’s nowhere for the water to go. It just sits there on both sides of the narrow road and it feels like you are driving across some kind of inland sea. Graduated depth markers at intervals on each side of the road remind you how far under water you would have been after the January flood, and the September one before that.

This was the road that branches west-south-west off the Western Highway at the historical marker (something to do with gold) 6.5 kilometres out of Horsham. It rides the plain and drops you onto the Wimmera Highway near Natimuk, where floods have antagonised the locals for 150 years. A marker tells you a 48 year old coach operator was washed away from here in a flash flood in 1893. Never saw it coming.

I drove across the inland sea, and now it was raining again. The sky had that luminous, sickly green-purple light that says storm. Visibility dropped. I switched the lights on. The rain was deafening but someone in the car, it might have been William, asked if the water would sweep across the road and wash us away. No. This road straddles the Wimmera flood plain and the Wimmera has to break its banks for the road to flood. The way would be closed well before that. After the flood, the water stays on the land because it is clay and so uncannily flat. It might actually be concave relative to the earth’s crust. I don’t know. Ask a geologist. Or an economist. They know everything.

We rumbled across the warning strips and stopped at the Wimmera Highway's T-intersection, and turned right. The storm blew away to the east and the sun didn’t quite come out but at least you could see. A jagged shadow appeared on the horizon and grew larger. As we crossed the plain, it looked like an African elephant might look to a mouse. Mt Arapiles. It’s a favourite with rock-climbers. They fall off it all the time.

*

Earlier in the day we had had lunch in one of those country town slamming-screen-door cafes that have never seen a foccaccia, and I ordered my perennial on the road lunch: two toasted ham and cheese sandwiches and a strong coffee, or two if 'strong' isn't strong enough. You can't mess up a toasted ham and cheese sandwich; and they don't put you to sleep like pasta, so you can concentrate on the road. We sat and ate at a table in the steamed-up window as the rain turned to hail and lashed the pavement and piled up against the door. Tracy fed the baby. The boys ate home-made chocolate cake.

Later we passed north of the Grampians, a north-south outcrop of sandstone deposited by rivers 380 million years ago. A mere forty million years ago, the Southern Ocean apparently lapped its edges. I’m driving across an old sea bed, so we can’t complain about the rain, can we?

*

Late in the day, we stopped at Edenhope, an old farming town on the south side of Lake Wallace. Our cabin was right on the shore, with a window overlooking the lake and the blackening sky. The cabin was warmed by one of those old electric fireplaces with fake logs that light up and flicker. In the circumstances, it was a pleasant feature. We cooked dinner on the electric stove, veal cutlets from the very good butcher in the main street, and later the boys fought about who got the top bunk.

The rain lashed the glass all night. In the morning I took the boys, and the baby wrapped up in about three coats and hats, for a walk onto the old jetty. It was early and cold and not very light and the sky was full of parrots wheeling in formation. We walked to the shops in the main street for the newspaper. Can’t break the habit, even out here. Tea tastes better when you are reading a newspaper. Not sure why. It can't be the news. Left at 10a.m, heading west into the rain.

5.7.11

Heave away you rolling kings ...

... we're bound for South Australia. (By road, not sea.) Back in a few days.

Lunch for a cold Saturday.

It was a cold morning. Coffee in the mall, perfectly expressed and poured, and topped with a thick but fine froth shot through with caffeine-laced perfection. And still only $2. Ridiculous, but in a good way.

Then home for an early lunch with an Off the Record soundtrack. Still the best radio program in Melbourne, if you like that kind of thing.

*

The cauliflower in the fridge must be a week old and still hadn't found a purpose in life. I decided to give it a reason for being.

I trimmed and boiled it with half a chopped carrot, drained them when done, added half a teaspoon of cummin seeds, and salt and pepper to taste.

Then I pureed it to the consistency of thick soup, due to the retained water in the cauliflower. (Add a little milk if necessary.) I added half a cup of grated tasty cheese, and stirred it over a low heat until the cheese melted.

Then I served it immediately with crumbled fetta and a spoonful of yogurt, both optional.

Early afternoon the sun broke through and it was off to Albert Park, warmed by soup. This city is sport mad. But in a good way.