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

22.9.11

Barbecue season off to a shaky start.

The boys have been trained well and, as we head towards summer, are already asking to dine en plein air. Not that I would use such a pretentious foreign phrase in conversation, much less attribute it to my children; but I must say I do prefer the French version to the cliched al fresco, even though the former refers more correctly to painting.

I relented and we ate outside despite several very good objections to the plan, including having no table to sit at and no barbecue coals. The first drawback was fixed by a blanket on the lawn and the second by cooking inside. (The table problem was caused by a very cheap outdoor table purchased from Bunnings cracking after one summer. Perhaps you're supposed to store outdoor tables inside to stop UV damage. To replace it, I'm looking for a cheap old op-shop table instead of wasting more money on plastic that falls apart.)

I sliced four red-eye potatoes and fried the slices in a mixture of ghee and oil. These were presented piled high in a large bowl. I slice them very thinly so they are a kind of cross between hot chips and crisps and are always a great success. They were accompanied by some leftover Lebanese bread that I toasted with some zatar and a bowl of yogurt mixed through with finely chopped cucumber and onion - instant dip. Then sausages cooked the way they should be - boiled intially, then halved lengthways and finished cut side down in the pan. Delicious, and you avoid burning them. Dessert was vanilla icecream with maple syrup, a simple dish that is an outdoor treat.

It must have been seven o'clock and getting dark. It was still warm. We sat on the blanket except for baby, who is off in all directions now, and the boys finished their ice cream. William looked at me. "Daddy," he declared, "this barbecue has been a complete failure." Why was that, I asked. "You cooked the food inside," he replied, calmly. "So it can't be a barbecue. And we are sitting on the ground. You do that at picnics." Case rested. Thomas nodded in silent agreement. Their mother retrieved the baby, limbs still pawing the air like a picked-up beetle, from under the grapefruit tree, and failed to suppress a laugh.

They boys had seemed to enjoy the food however. The potatoes, in particular, had disappeared in seconds.

19.9.11

The literary event in the library.

Barry Dickins used to write satirical restaurant reviews about real restaurants. He took his material from life and then embellished it, but in character. The embellishing brought the lawsuits. He liked to destroy the egos, the pretensions, the fake grandiosity - like theatre without drama - of an industry whose bible was a guide for travelling salesmen published by a tyre company.

One of Dickins' best, and possibly most notorious, reviews was about a long-gone restaurant in South Yarra (Glo Glo's? Two Faces?) in which he savagely satirised the French-accented waiter whose real name he alleged was Wayne. They sued. Dickins lost. It wasn't Wayne. It was Craig. Or something like that.

Dickins wrote books, plays, poetry. He wrote for The Age, the Herald Sun, the Melbourne Times and anyone else brave enough to publish him. He supplied illustrations for the articles he wrote. Some were unpublishable, others got through. Dickins was fringe because he didn't fit anyone's pet-writer style, least of all the critics. Later, he fell into depression, ended up in hospital, was drugged and subjected to shock therapy.

The therapy didn’t work, so he wrote a book about the experience called Unparalleled Sorrow. At his relaunch of the book last week at Coburg library, Dickins revealed the title came from his mother who, when taken from her comfortable Carlton home by her new husband in the early 1950s to see the block of land in Reservoir on which they would build their home, was later asked for her first reaction. Reservoir still provides material for Dickins' work. Instead of waxing lyrical about the suburb in the usual reflexive working-class writer manner prescribed by the literary set, Dickins continues to lambast it as an arid wasteland of toughs, crime and broken front fences. He does however, have a word of praise for the row of pine trees that line High Street at its apex, where the suburb begins its march northward on a flat dry plain stretching to Thomastown.

Don’t read Unparalleled Sorrow expecting to learn anything about mental illness, or it will do your head in. The book is hilarious. Dickins is confronting and outrageous. His technique can be unfuriating to the unfamiliar reader but his text is lit with many passages of brilliance, like shafts of sunlight through an old tin roof illuminating patches of floor. The book is also littered with Dickins' spidery illustrations.

*

It was a cold night. The relaunch was one of those low-key public library events that always seem to attract the same crowd: more material for Dickins. There might have been thirty seats, three rows of five to either side of the centre aisle. Two-thirds were filled by the start at 8 p.m. The rest were taken as people came in late, without shame. The event was free, so people think it's fine to come as you are and when you like. One man, ten minutes into Dickin's talk, entered and bumped himself down noisily in an empty chair in the front row. Another floated in like a ghost in a stage play, removed his jacket and scarf theatrically and with the utmost care while still upstanding, folded them just as carefully, removed a bottle of water from his bag, unscrewed it, poured some down his throat, and sat down. Dickins started his sentence again.

Eventually Barry Dickins asked the moderator to shut the damn door, but politely.

Later, he took questions from the audience. Who'd be a writer?

Unparalleled Sorrow
Barry Dickins
Hardie Grant 2008
Available at Readings, Lygon Street

15.9.11

Spring lunch: omelette with leeks, capsicum and cummin seeds.

Omelettes? Who makes omelettes any more? I can't even spell them. I took three tries to get it right and I'm still not sure. Omelette?
I haven't seen an omelette in years. My mother made one once with cheese in it. Mmmm. I'm warming to the idea.

Forget the spelling. Take a cast iron pan. Oil it. Chop a leek finely into thin rings. Chop a red capsicum finely into equally thin albeit larger rings.

Lightly beat half a cup of milk into four eggs. Add salt and pepper. Add three cummin seeds and a pinch of dried basil.

Line the cast iron pan with the leek rings. Add the capsicum. Place the pan on the stove and turn on the heat to get the pan warming up. When it's almost hot pour over the eggs. Place a lid over the pan. Turn down the heat. Walk away. Come back in ten minutes.

How it turns out depends on your pan and the heat and your technique. I placed a plate upside down over the pan, and flipped them over, and it came out cleanly, like a tarte tatin; the leeks making a sheeny circular pattern, with a smoky delicious aroma.

Eat hot with salad, or cold in a sandwich of turkish bread lined with lettuce, pickled turnip and hommus.

9.9.11

What happens when everyone is 'LinkedIn'?

I keep getting invitations from people on LinkedIn whose 'profile' says they have, for example, 438 contacts. And they're on Facebook as well?

I glanced into the window of a Brunswick Street North restaurant the other night on one of my evening runs. The snapshot image was of diners oblivious to each other and staring into smartphones, right thumbs flicking obsessively, while a lonely ignored waiter forlornly distributed plates of food. They call it social networking.

6.9.11

Child wins wine vintaged in birth year.

One of the benefits of working from home is that I can pick up the children from school and kindergarten.

Last Friday William came out of school with a heavier bag than usual. He pulled out a wrapped package. The wrapped package was a prize in the annual Father's Day raffle. He gave it to me.

I opened it. Inside was a bottle of Mt Avoca sauvignon blanc and two carefully boxed crystal wine glasses. In this nanny state era of juvenile warnings on food products and alcohol bottles there is something amusing about a 6-year-old winning a bottle of wine at school.

The wine was a 2005 vintage, so someone had had it for a while before donating it for the raffle. Most SB is young and acid, but this had some colour and tasted of butterscotch or something else sweet and rich. Sacher torte? Almond tart? Key lime pie? That's probably closer. We drank it - 'we' meaning Tracy and me - on Sunday night, Father's Day, with pasta with asparagus in a light cream sauce. Nothing special: cook the pasta, throw in the asparagus for a minute before draining, drain, throw some cream in the hot pan with a dash of wine and pepper, reduce, pour over the pasta and asparagus. Flakes of hard cheese over the top.

William was born in 2005, we noted, draining the Mt Avoca.