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

31.10.11

Fish. Cashews. Raisins.

In a pan, soften two very finely chopped onions in oil. Add some ghee for a richer flavour.

Place a dozen cashews, one large can of coconut cream, a teaspoon of chili, a knob of peeled and chopped ginger the size of your thumb, a large clove of garlic (or two small), half a teaspoon each of cinnamon and garam masala, two cardamom pods and a couple of rays of star anise (optional) into a food processor. Hit ‘turbo’. Watch as the colours homogenise. Listen as the initial nut grind goes into a high-pitched turbine-smooth whizz. Twenty seconds and you will have a pinkish beige sludge flecked with small pieces of cashew. The aroma will make you want to spoon it out of the processor and eat it now.

Steep a couple of tablespoons of raisins in hot water to which you have added a teaspoon of turmeric. Remove half of the onion from the pan, reserve.

Transfer cashew and coconut cream mixture to the pan. Drain the raisins and add. Stir and cook very gently for ten minutes. Add a little water if necessary. Now add half a kilogram of any fish in one-inch cubes, which you have dredged through salt and papper. This kind of recipe usually calls for white-fleshed fish, but I have used salmon and, another time, squid; and each was very good.

Cook only until fish is done. Then switch off, let it rest for a few minutes and serve over rice. Add reserved onion, serve with yogurt and coriander mixture (stir chopped coriander through plain yogurt) and warm fenugreek roti.

*

If you have the ingredients, all of this takes less time than driving to the supermarket to buy one of those jar sauces, which are generally dreadful. Dial up or down the chili level with more powder or by adding hot mango pickle. Sometimes I add the drained raisins to the rice.

28.10.11

Every now and then the weekend papers have something worth reading, such as how to write a song and how to write a movie score. And both in the one magazine. Quote:
Morricone says when he was young he tried to improve some mediocre films. "I tried to put some really strong music and accelerated them too much, and the result was way too strong for the film. It was [as] if you dressed a parrot like a cardinal."

26.10.11

Bees depart.

The visitors left on Sunday. We had been out all day and, by late afternoon when we returned, the swarm had gone; although some late risers were still buzzing around the temporary hive. To where they have flown I don’t know. I hope it’s not in the roof.

Around a thin branch deep in the old weigela shrub, the bees left a temporary hive structure that was several opaque white semi-cylindrical sections of honeycomb-patterned wax in a cascading form that resembled a modernist chandelier in the stairwell of a 1950s public building.

25.10.11

Friday.

I kept bumping into Occupy Melbourne last Friday. I was in town for the day, working in an office in Collins Street, fifty metres from the mess of tents in the City Square. I went out mid-morning for an apple from the Swanston Street fruit stall. By that time the eviction was commencing and I passed between rows of protesters holding placards made from brown cardboard that was wet because of the drizzle. At lunchtime I went out for sushi from the cheap sushi shop in Capitol arcade where you get free miso with your order. The intersection of Collins and Swanston was at a standstill and several trams were stuck in the throng. It looked like Wellington Parade on a Saturday afternoon after the football in the 1950s when trams lined up to ferry thousands back into town. It was raining now, and the police were telling the protestors to go home.

Why wouldn’t you? The City Square is an ugly concrete slab with patches of hard sand. A dreadful place to camp. The shouting had begun. A man wearing the old wilderness society koala suit, but without the head, was holding a placard. A wizened woman who looked like she was reprising Monash 1967 ran up Collins Street shrieking, “They are using fear against us,” and the word 'fear' took her about five seconds to get out. She disappeared into the Collins Street Baptist Church, where a sign out the front reads: Café Open. Our coffee is Guaranteed Organic and Fair Trade. That’s what religion does. Makes the world’s most indulgent luxuries completely and utterly guilt-free. She would have been all right after a double-shot latte, or she might have gone right over the top. The sushi was good and got me through the afternoon. One raw tuna, one raw salmon, one seaweed.

I left the office at six and commenced the walk home. It was still raining softly and the lights of the city made the clouds pale gold. Protestors in twos and threes were marching up Russell Street towards Carlton, and carrying drooping unreadable placards. Some of the placards had lost their cardboard in pools of papier mache here and there on the road, so they were using them as walking sticks instead. I saw the wilderness man again. His filthy green koala suit made him look like a 1960s Shellube mechanic after a hard day’s work changing oil in Volkswagen beetles. Russell Street was blocked at Victoria Street. There they all were again, outside Trades Hall. They were lined up on the footpath and the police were on the road and they were facing each other across a six-foot gap. I and other disinterested pedestrians who were obviously on their way to Little Italy for dinner walked along the gap, like a guard of honour. Both sides completely ignored us. In the middle of the road near the corner of Queensberry Street, a hoarse bearded man was barking a tuneless protest song at the police, while smacking his guitar like Jack Johnson. Smack. Twang. Smack. Twang. Smack. Twang. Then there were garlic and pasta aromas in the air and I walked past a hundred cafes and Readings bookstore and Jimmy Watson’s winebar and the VicRoads building and Melbourne General Cemetery and onwards, home.

24.10.11

Out of the archive.

I’ve done it again. Volunteered. This time it’s a 125th anniversary publication for a college. My mother and two of my sisters walked through its gates in the 1940s and the 1960s/1970s respectively. But that’s incidental. The school shares its archivist with the school that was the subject of the book I finished last year, and she asked me if I’d do one for the second school. I said yes because this one will be shorter. But it still has to be done. I said yes also because, in a strange twist of coincidence, the archivist was my Grade Three teacher in 1965 and it is ingrained in one to say yes to one’s teachers. (Yes, she was young – 1965 was her first year out of teacher’s college.)

*

The college archive was in a cramped office in one of the old wings that was once the nuns’ living quarters. Across one entire wall was one of those sliding compactus things that holds sixty million documents in no particular order. Me and my big mouth. I went to the 1960s and pulled out some annuals and magazines and opened the 1967 number. Could my older sister be mentioned? She was more than mentioned. She was the author of several poems, letters and reports. It was like finding old pound notes under the floor. One report bylined her as “sports house captain”. I’d forgotten all that. On the page in which the senior girls got to sum each other up in a cheeky line, it was said she “Would make a great bank robber. Can outrun Herb Elliott.” That brought it all back. She had the first pair of running spikes in the family; those old-school white ones with blue stripes and fixed spikes that you couldn’t screw in and out. She used to run for Aberfeldie at the grass athletics track that is now under the hockey centre at Royal Park.

*

That was one document. I hope sixty million is an exaggeration.

21.10.11

The four-year-old.

Four is grown up, but not. Mr Four is a small and generally self-possessed gentleman who suffers occasional unfortunate fits of uncontrollable laughter. But Mr Four has dignity. It is the last great age of childhood before they go to school and get corrupted and bring home the schoolyard’s whining jargon, and want what the others want.

In the morning he comes to the corner and holds his fat arms around my neck and kisses me. Then he lets go, and waves, and runs brightly back around the corner and I go away, and when I come back at night he is always asleep, his eyes tight slits sloping down and his mouth half open, like his baby photo.

*

Years ago, there was another four-year-old. He was just the same. I must have been twelve, off to school. It is winter, 1969. He comes to the gate with the same self-possession. The same kiss, the same arms around the neck. I wonder now if I was as patient with my brother as I am with his nephew, my son.

*

Thomas turns five this weekend. And this week, the baby walked.

20.10.11

Visitors drop in. Length of stay unknown.

I looked out the front window. It was a warm, cloudless afternoon, but the room had almost imperceptibly darkened, as if a cloud had passed the sun.
There was something in the air, like smoke, or a dust storm.

I went outside and into the front garden. The flowers were out, and the shrubs were in bloom, and the garden was looking nice, and the thing in the air was bees.

Thousands of them. They were flying around in ever decreasing circles like fighter planes homing in on an enemy base. They were silent. I thought swarming bees would buzz but the only hum came from a light plane cutting a line in the northern sky towards Essendon airport.

The bees were circling the old weigela. It could be sixty years old. It's about ten feet tall and almost as wide. It still flowers well, but inside it is like an old hedge with thick gnarled inner branches.

By five o’clock they had settled. How many bees are there in a swarm? It’s the size and shape of a bagpipes, pendulous at the bottom and rising to a peninsula at the top around the main branch about five feet off the ground. The queen is in there somewhere. They look comfortable.

This morning about half past six they were still there, having no doubt had a good night's sleep. A couple of early risers were buzzing around the blooms on the weigela. It's seen a few bees in its life. Maybe not this many at one time.

10.10.11

Two things to do with smoked salmon, and how to socialise a wolf.

I had some fish left over after a lunch of rolls with avocado, salad shoots and smoked salmon, which was a rare luxury put on for friends who had visited along with their new addition to the family for some socialisation with our children. The new addition was a two-month old maltese terrier poodle cross, light brown in colour, a tiny round roly-poly thing, name of Boxer. They should have called it Malteser. They live in an apartment and have no children. We sat outside and the dog acted as if he thought he had been re-released into the wild. Apparently all dogs are 99% wolf in terms of DNA, or appetite, or mating habits, or brain power, or something. This creature was woolly and scampered over the lawn like a spring lamb and was therefore by definition a wolf in sheep's clothing.

That night I cooked up a pot full of pasta - bavette - drained it and simply added twirls (for forkability) of the salmon, a generous dollop of sour cream and a shower of cracked black pepper. Delicious. Some recipes call for shallot sauces, cream, capers, chili or any number of other ingredients but this was simple and good, although a sprig of dill might have been nice. A buttery chardonnay if you can find one. They're all citrus these days.

5.10.11

Half time entertainment: a set menu.

I don’t watch grand finals. Never have. I don’t like the angles or the commentary or the crowd shots or the stupid continuous slow motion replays. I listen to the radio so I can track the action in my own mind. I’ve watched one grand final in twenty years and it’s the only one I can’t remember.

I took the boys to the indoor pool. They’d set it up with team balloons and the broadcast over the loudspeaker and after the first quarter we were the only ones there, plus the attendants and a few lane-swimming die-hards who barely raised their heads all afternoon, so it was our own private grand final pool party. William and I tossed tennis balls to each other and Tom practised his dives.

Half time came and with it the 'entertainment'. Someone had booked an entertainer by the name of Meatloaf. He used to be a singer. I thought it was just the pool loudspeakers, but when he sang, he sounded like a man having a heart attack and a nervous breakdown simultaneously, to save time. Or Brian Taylor doing an impersonation of Dermot Brereton doing a Meatloaf song. But later, others said the same. He was dreadful.

The entire music industry of Melbourne, perhaps Australia, could almost be heard uttering in chorus those three succinct, to-the-point words, so beautifully expressive and usually written as an acronym but I don’t like acronyms. What the fuck?

Here’s half a dozen better suggestions. Most of them are no longer with us, but being dead doesn’t mean they were a less likely choice than Meatloaf.

1. Johnny O’Keefe. Australia’s greatest rocker, a lost treasure who no-one remembers any more. Start with Come On and Take My Hand, through Wild One and Oop Oop Pah Doo (one of the great song titles) and end with a crowd duet of Mockingbird, a song he recorded with Margaret McLaren and which was a vastly better version than the James Taylor one. Mock – yeah! King - yeah! Bird – yeah! Yeah - yeah!

2. The Strangers. There’s no ‘l’ in that word. Melanie Makes Me Smile and Lady Scorpio just to get started. Lost classics both.

3. Max Merritt and the Meteors. Is Max still with us? His last song, the ballad Slippin' Away, was so big his earlier jazz-infused rockers are largely forgotten, such as the minor hit – or was it a B-side - Good Feelin’. The sax break’s a killer. Bring back the sax.

4. Lobby Loyde and the Coloured Balls. Reputedly the loudest band ever, pre-dating the stupid ‘stadium rock’ concept. Start the set with Mess of the Blues and go on from there. Speaking of loud:

5. Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs. Had Thorpe ever performed at a grand final, the crowd wouldn’t want the football to resume. Most People I Know Think That I’m Crazy into Movie Queen, then a ten-minute version of Oop Oop Pah Doo (as good a version as JOK's above) and then finish of with one of my personal Top 1000 Live Tracks to Hear Before You Die (it’s probably the Top 2 or 3 Live Tracks): the Sunbury 1972 recording of See See Rider. Football? What football? And now the greatest act of all:

6. Slim Dusty. Enough said.
Well it's lonesome away from your kindred and all
By the campfire at night
Where the wild dingoes call
But there's nothing so lonesome, morbid or drear ...

3.10.11

One day in September.

Cool climate? It was cold. I turned the heater switch to warm and opened the little grates in the dash.

The country at the back of Ballarat was high and green and there was no sky between the ground and the clouds. They seemed to sit on the hills. The rain had stopped. It turned out to be the wettest September day in fifty years but I didn’t know that then. I was driving on a single-lane B road with no line markings. I hadn’t seen a car since Clunes, a small town with verandah-shaded shops hugging the empty winding main street. The streets always wind in old gold mining towns because they grew up around the diggings. No planners involved.

Out of Clunes and on past old mounds of slag overgrown with grasses, and into the green made almost luminous by the teary sky. The Irish came here in their thousands and stayed after the gold rush; it reminded them of home. Now I was higher. The clouds sat; no blue anywhere. Then the green hills started growing trellises bearing curling shoots. Wine country. This road would be packed on weekends with wine collectors’ four wheel drives. The road’s not that bad. You could drive it in a 2CV or a Fiat Cinquecento but you wouldn’t fit much wine in.

Then a sign. I turned the car into a wide, arcing drive on the bald top of a low hill. A square building – a cube - sat a hundred metres in. It was glass on three sides and behind the wall that wasn’t glass was something that looked like a warehouse or a factory. That would be where they made the wine. A line of trees behind the factory partially hid a house. I stopped where a sign said customer parking. The glass door in one of the glass walls had a sign 'come in'. I went in. The building was one vast room with a smaller room in the corner, old display barrels along one wall with bottles on top, and a long table running the length of the glass window at the front. The table was one of those famiglia things made of a slab from a giant tree and cut to fit about fifty people around it. It gave on a view across the low bald hill clear to where Ballarat would be if you could see it. All you could see was green, vast and empty, like Ireland without the patchwork. Someone had built the place for the view and got it right first time. You wouldn't want to be sitting on the wrong side of the table.

I turned away from the view and walked toward the smaller room in the corner. Its door was open. Inside was a table on which sat several bottles, some open, and tasting glasses and a clipboard of notes. On a side bench were winemaker’s paraphernalia and a credit card processing machine. Boxes of wine were stacked around, ready to go.

I called and knocked. Nothing. Then I went around the back to the factory part. I called and knocked again. Nothing. So I walked through a break in the line of trees to the house. A car was in the drive but no-one answered. I went back through the trees and got in my car and drove out of there and onto the single lane road. I could see a body on the factory floor, behind a barrel, or even in the barrel, distended. I could see a shape lying beneath a trellis with an ugly red patch in a crisp white shirt. I could see a hand reach out to snap the door latch shut when I was still inside the small room. I could hear a scraping in the vast room; someone dragging something that was a dead weight. I saw all these things and none of them. I saw green hills and black threatening clouds and more rain running up the windscreen. "Why does it run up the windscreen?" the children always ask. "Why not down?" You have to be a physicist to have children these days. Or is it an aerodynamicist?

Farther down the road, another winery. I crunched up the drive in the rain and stopped and when I opened the car door a fat golden retriever tried to get in the car with me, and then he walked under my feet to the winery entrance and I opened the door and stuck my head in and said, "Is the dog allowed in?" to the man who was behind a counter. "No, we've just had the floors done," he replied. "He scratches it." I’d try socks, but he’d probably eat them. My late father-in-law used to tell the story of a dog he had once who used to eat his teenage sons’ football socks. The story mostly involved the length of time each long sock would take to emerge from toe to cuff in the disgorgement phase from the dog. Sometimes he would help and the dog would whine. Other times he would just let the dog run about the yard trailing sock like a First World War squadron leader’s Sopwith Camel trailing coloured streamers.

I told the man about the murder in the vineyard. "He’s never there," he laughed. "Probably under the tractor." I was working, but I bought three bottles of cool climate pinot noir and three bottles of cool climate chardonnay anyway. I didn’t taste them. I never taste them. It’s a waste of time. Plus I was working.

*

Much later. Now we’re south of Ballarat, heading towards an odd rent in the earth where six billion years ago (could be less, you don’t have to be right about such large numbers; there’s no point) a volcano blew up. Now it’s the Brisbane Ranges and it’s nowhere near Brisbane. Before the rent in the earth are two small towns. The first is Elaine and the second is Meredith. I like to think they were sisters. Both names should be returned to favour. I worked with a Meredith recently but everyone called her Mez. I stopped at Meredith because it was the time of the afternoon when I always start closing my eyes; also, I hadn’t had any coffee.

The middle of Meredith was a crossroads. There was a general store on the north-east corner, a bakery opposite and a café diagonally. I went into the café, called GJs. What’s so hard about buying a coffee? Nothing, unless you like more sugar than they offer. Sometimes they offer one paper tube and you have to ask for more and you feel like a heel, because you know it would be impolite to ask for six, so you leave it to fate. It’s the unwritten rule of coffee: nobody needs more than two paper tubes of sugar. Except me. It’s my dark secret. I hardly ever eat dessert and never sweets or chocolate; but I do like quite a lot of sugar in my coffee. GJs had old-fashioned sugar dispensers on the tables. "Can I have an extra-strong café latte, please." It came out the right colour: tan, with a hint of mocha. The colour of the outside of a coconut.

I sat at the table and gazed out north-east towards the hills in the distance that were old volcanoes, and now there was a mist on them. The coffee had a centimetre of thickly-packed froth that was barely disturbed by the sugar. I came to life. Plenty of sugar and free newspapers. The café had a glass counter and it was filled with coconut ice, lemon slices, chocolate balls and sponges. A child played in the corner. It's school holidays and raining, but not so bad if your mother runs a warm cafe with a toy box in the corner and a stack of home made cakes behind the glass.