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

28.12.11

Book babies.

Alexandra, with early morning hair, and books.

William at the same age.
Thomas, same age.

27.12.11

Let it hail.

It was the second white Christmas in five years, if you count hail.

Christmas was back at the golf course after three years. A dozen tables sat under shady umbrellas outside the clubhouse, on a rise of lawn overlooking the fairways. That’s where lunch was supposed to be served. But the rain came first. I watched it come.

A little earlier, a massive black thing in the sky way out west had grown larger and loomed over the city, and had then started aiming hail at us as we hit the Eastern Freeway. I thought it might overshoot and fade to the southeast. Wrong. I took the exit ramp at Bulleen Road, crossed the freeway, turned right into the Boulevard, and right again back over the freeway along a narrow bridge road that ended at a steel gate. By this time it was a torrent. The gate slid open and we drove through and stopped out the front of the clubhouse.

They were huddled under the eave and inside looking out at the storm. It raged. Way below, the fairways were white carpets sweeping away in all directions. It didn’t stop. Lunch was served inside. Later, a few brave golfers headed out in buggies when the rain appeared to be easing, but the storm just kept circling and it was on again. You couldn’t hear conversation. The stream grew and broke its banks and the level climbed one of the fairways. The lightning put on a show to the north east. That was where most of the damage seems to have been done, around Eltham way. Hope you weren’t affected.

Sydney Road was still flooded as we drove home around eight.

25.12.11

What I listened to this Christmas.

Good King Wenceslaus
All my childhood Christmases occured during summer heatwaves in a sunburned land characterised by wildfire, burning northerly winds and dust storms. So all those songs about cold and snow and fir trees and medieval kings fascinated me and took me away into a faraway land. Here is a song written in 1853 in Britain by an Anglican minister about a duke, a thousand years earlier, who gave to the poor in Bohemia - in order to teach children about the virtue of generosity in celebrating the birth of a Jewish child in Bethlehem another thousand years earlier - and listened to by a marvelling child in twentieth century Australia. Like a beautiful woven gown circling the world with goodwill down the ages, this song says something about Christmas. And about goodwill to all men.

O Come All Ye Faithful
As a child I used to think it was O Calm All Ye Faithful and I would think to myself Why are they telling everybody to relax? Maybe it's because tomorrow is Christmas; and everyone is getting way too excited! Like me!

Silent Night
This is the most recorded song in history and the most famous of all the Christmas hymns. It exists because of a broken organ in a little parish in the little alpine village of Oberndorf in 1818. The priest, Father Mohr, asked his friend, Dr Gruber to compose some words for a poem to be sung with accompanying guitar because the organ had broken down. Dr Gruber did so in time for midnight mass. For me, the gentle lilt and simple melody of Silent Night is quintessentially Austrian.

Away in a Manger
Just because it is a sweet song, poignant, naive and beautiful. Children love it and it was the first Christmas song I learned, as far as I can remember.

Ave Maria sung by Kiri Te Kanawa
Find a copy of this, settle back on Christmas night, put the kids to bed, put the dog out, turn off the TV, turn off everything else, disable the front door bell, take the phone off the hook, turn down the lights and listen. If tears of joy are not running down your cheeks by the end, then you've already died and gone to heaven. On second thoughts, let the dog stay inside and listen with you.

Happy Christmas, every one.

22.12.11

Heat, dust and salt water showers.

Wednesday morning, 15 December 1971

It was five in the morning when we slipped out of Eucla under the heavy cover of an oppressive darkness, car headlights blazing. The sultry heat hung over the desert like a wet tent. The landscape fell behind us faster than yesterday because we were back on a real road again and the tyres were humming instead of crunching. 

At six o’clock, Uncle switched off the lights as the first rays of the sun slowly throttled the long shadows. Black turned to gold. Seven o’clock passed, eight o’clock. If it was hot earlier, now it was like someone had switched on an oven. At twenty minutes past ten, the Valiant rolled to a stop off the road at Madura, a town that was just a fuel stop. We parked in the shade of nothing and climbed out of the sticky car into more heat.  You could just about pick it up in your hands. We took refuge in the van where it might have been 95 instead of 100. 

Aunt pulled a meal out of nowhere as she did the whole journey; simple fare such as cheese, cold meat and salad sandwiches, tinned fruit, fruit cake, hot tea. It was endless. I don’t recall seeing a supermarket. We sat at the fold-down table in the caravan, trying not to melt over our early lunch, and sweating drips that turned to little streams flowing onto the cushions of textured vinyl in flecked cream with black piping. A small fan moved some hot air around.

While Uncle rested, tired from the hot early drive, my cousin and I went to climb a long, low hill across the highway. We thought we might be able to see the Southern Ocean, or Perth, or wild camels. Halfway up, stumbling between some straggly low trees, I walked into something soft and velvety and sticky. The soft and sticky thing was as big as a hammock. I kind of bounced off it, except it stuck to me. In the middle of the hammock, a long, fat, black leg stretched itself out. The other seven legs just stayed where they were. I didn’t have to count eight. I knew. You always know. It was about the size of a crow and the same colour. I reeled backwards. Part of the web was still stuck to me. I flicked it off. That got the spider going. It jerked around like a dog doing circles before lying down. Maybe it was annoyed. Maybe it was going to bite me. Maybe I would die before I could get back to the caravan. It was impossibly nimble for its size. Then it stopped moving and just rocked there in the heat and stared at me. I stared back. The spider won the staring competition, but only because it had more eyes than me. My cousin laughed. “They’re harmless, remember? They only eat birds.”

We went back down the hill.  Uncle was just closing up the caravan. He fired up the Valiant and off we went again; west, west, west.

*

That night after dinner, from way over the other side of the caravan park, we could see Uncle sitting on a deck chair next to the open door of the caravan; Aunt next to him, rolling tomorrow’s cigarettes. She rolled all her own cigarettes, making them curiously thin and storing them in an aluminium flip-top tin. She was a tiny slip of a woman in her forties with short dark curly hair and olive skin, and she always wore simple sundresses with flat shoes. Ever ready with a wisecrack, she was just like her younger brother, my father. Her husband was fifty, white-haired, calm. Cousin and I watched them for a minute and then continued on our usual evening walk.

*

Wednesday afternoon, 15 December 1971

Delirium now. Two in the afternoon. We stopped at Water Tank. Is it a place or just a water tank? Don't know. I mentally gave it a capital W and T anyway. It was a wire-fenced square compound with a corrugated iron roof over a tank and a rudimentary pump, drawing water from some subterranean aquifer. I suppose an aquifer is subterranean by definition. What do you think, cousin? He’s a man of few words. The water tasted rusty, like it had old ploughs in it.

More red flat landscape and then we are rolling through Balladonia and the name sounds like a fictional land where songwriters go to write movie soundtracks, but it was just a Mobil roadhouse frying in the sun - 105 degrees - with its red flying horse sign blown down by some long-gone storm. Delirium. The road went straight for ninety miles and I had the sensation of standing still while the desert went past. Deserts are supposed to be made of sand, I raved quietly to myself. Cousin was fast asleep now and his head lolled on my shoulder. In front, Uncle's head was a statue. The car radio crackled and that was all the noise there was apart from the tyres. Time stood still. The sun burnt my arm on the sill of the window. I moved it. Sand would not be as infuriating as dust, I raved on, which is finer and hangs in the air like a hot, red fog. Man, the size of that spider. I shivered, even in the heat. My cousin woke.

Slowly, the red landscape changed. Spinifex or saltbush or whatever it was called turned to low shrub, and the low shrub turned to small trees. Still straggly and parched, but small trees nevertheless. Then - bang - the Eyre Highway ended at Norseman, a town that was more Sahara than Scandinavia. At the caravan park, the usual ‘All Visitors Must Report Here’ sign greeted us at an office that was an old caravan. A propped-up clothesline was strung along the side for visitors' use. That made it a four-star resort instead of three. Sure enough, the Renault was parked across the way. He seemed to have figured out the tent. Only took him half of Australia. By Perth he’ll be an expert. 

I headed straight to the shower block to try and shed some dust.

I stripped off and stepped into the concrete shower cubicle, turned on the water and watched the dust flowing red down my trunk and my legs, through my toes and out the drain hole. Norseman’s water supply is salt water, and the water from the cold tap was warm. It made my body feel stickier and saltier than before. I finished my shower and sandpapered my naked body with my towel. 

The end of email.

That's it. Goodbye email. I'm unsubscribing to everything. Tiger Airways, Start to Finish, InfoChoice, Vigor Health and Fitness, Crikey (how on earth did I get onto their list?), LinkedIn Updates, Melbourne Writers and dozens of others. (LinkedIn, by the way, sends me emails saying something to the effect that 'someone who may be connected to you has updated their profile'. Nuts.)

That was yesterday.

Today I got another email from Tiger Airways. So I unsubscribed again. A message came up:
The following error was encountered while processing your request: You are currently not subscribed to our newsletter. 
Then why did they send it?

21.12.11

Come for a drive with us, my uncle said, you'll keep your cousin amused.

Tuesday morning, 14 December 1971

A threatening humidity lurked under a blanket of darkness as we hit the highway out of Ceduna around half past five in the morning, dawn a threatening red streak on the east horizon. You have to start early to make headway before the heat hits. The nearest large towns are Port Augusta, 300 miles to the east and Norseman, about three times that distance to the west.

The road west runs along the bottom edge of the Nullabor Desert where it meets the section of Southern Ocean called the Great Australian Bight. Cliffs run along the coast for hundreds of miles and the sea, over millions of years, has gouged tunnels deep into them. These surface as blowholes in the plain and people, straying off the road, have fallen into them. What a horrible fate. Today, we’re aiming to reach Eucla, driving across a red desert with nothing in it except a dirt road. The car has run like a Swiss watch so far, hasn’t missed a beat.

It was a steamy, dusty, unforgettable day. Uncle was unusually quiet. It could have been the early start, but it was probably the prospect of driving a car towing a caravan across three hundred unsealed miles. The bitumen ended a few miles out of town, and as we hit the dirt, the tyres starting talking a different language, a kind of cobble-cobble-cobble instead of their usual crossply whistle. We swished along in the heat and dust like a land-boat.

Red dust everywhere and scrubby, ugly, spiky desert plants that could not possibly have had names. They probably had, but I’m no botanist. You wouldn’t want them in your garden next to the prize roses. The things you think about when there’s nothing else; and even your aunt in the front seat has stopped the wisecracks. The morning creaked towards noon. The miles rolled under the car.  The road has a name. It’s the Eyre Highway, after Edward Eyre, who walked it, so shut up and stop complaining. Actually, he had horses. There’s very little traffic now. Most travel early to avoid the heat, but that’s when animals are up and about. People worry about snakes and spiders, but kangaroos are the biggest killer in Australia. People hit them in cars. Have you seen the size of a Big Red? I talked rubbish to my cousin, stared out the window, tried to sleep.

Late morning we were stopped by some Anangu; gentle, black-skinned, snub-nosed, brown-eyed people with washed out hair and the kind of eerie presence possessed by humans whose ancestors have lived in the district for thousands of years. They flag cars down to sell their wares; carvings, craft, traditional items. Later, we crunched to a stop somewhere in the flat sea of red dust for lunch, and cups of tea. Always cups of tea.

*

We - my uncle, aunt and cousin - had left Melbourne three days earlier to cross Australia from east to west during the sweltering Christmas holidays of 1971-72. The car had no air-conditioning. You wound down the windows, except on the unmade roads, because the car would fill with dust. It came in anyway. Entertainment was the AM car radio when in range of a station, and my aunt’s jokes. My cousin was fifteen, a year older than me. The journey should have been a teenager's nightmare, with nothing to do except stare at an endless flat landscape. 

*

Tuesday afternoon, 14 December 1971

I fell asleep as usual after lunch with my head against the C-pillar. Uncle’s power of staying awake at the wheel amazes me. Two thousand miles of alertness. Maybe Aunt, in the front next to him, was jabbing him the ribs the whole way. She never drove.

I snapped out of my reverie when I felt the car braking. A car was right in front of us. It was the white Renault 10 with yellow NSW registration plates that had accompanied us, on and off, from somewhere near Port Augusta. We had seen its occupants, a somewhat eccentric elderly couple, at two of the overnight stops. Uncle was driving evenly now, but the Renault kept accelerating and slowing down as if its occupants were looking at something outside the car. What, exactly? Dust? Uncle braked, sat back, braked some more. The Renault slowed again and eventually Uncle had to swing out and pass. Mid-manoeuvre, the Renault sped up again. Fools! It was too late to pull in again, so my uncle had to coax a little more speed out of the engine, which was already singing the high notes.

You can’t see potholes but you know they are there. The dust evens them out. The Valiant's right front wheel hit one; the car lurched. The lurch telegraphed through the tow bar, and the caravan corrected, the other way. Then back again. Uncle wrestled the beast. The beast fought back. Uncle kept wrestling. I waited for the jack-knife. We ran off the road. After an eternity that lasted maybe eight seconds, he somehow found a straight line in the dust, dragged the car and van to a stop, switched off the engine. He got out of the car, sat down on a log. We got out. My aunt lit a cigarette, a little shakily, and made some kind of a joke about it being a nice place for a stop. My cousin and I took off our shirts. It was unbearably hot and the sweat was turning the dust on our backs into soup that ran down our spines and into our shorts. The Eyre Highway's verges are littered with caravan wrecks. No point retrieving them. They just leave them there to bleach in the sun like bones. We'd seen them. Uncle got up off the log and walked around the car and the caravan. One hub cap was gone. He didn’t go and look for it. It could have rolled into a blowhole for all he cared. The Renault 10 had just kept going, of course. The last thing we had heard was its idiotic four-cylinder rear engine popping up and down like an over-enthusiastic marching band.

We got cold drinks out of the caravan; and then after a while, we got back in the car and pulled back onto the road. The dusty unmade highway stretched on into the afternoon. Now the sun was in front of us, drawing us on like land-moths to a flame in the western sky. Some hours later the car rumbled across dust and small stones into Eucla. We found the caravan park easily enough, and the car panted to a halt at a sign that read ‘Stop Here To Register'. Uncle and aunt got out and went into the office.

My cousin touched me on the shoulder and pointed. A Renault 10 was parked in a camping bay at the far end of the park, bonnet lid up and front doors open. We watched as a man fussed over a tent that kept falling down. A woman was jabbing her finger at the tent and her mouth was snapping open and shut. 




20.12.11

Moral issue raised by old plates.

Now the old plates are turning up in mosaic-ed numbers for houses as Christmas gifts for relatives, an 'office' sign for the kindergarten, and some other projects.

"But why not bone china?" I had asked, continuing a somewhat convoluted conversation of a week or so ago. It does not fracture or chip easily, is the answer. And when it does, its shards are uneven and very, very sharp. Bone china is hard because it is manufactured using bones. I have tested knowledge of this fact on a small research group, and it was not universally known. In fact, there was some surprise expressed.

Which raises a question. If you have friends over for dinner, and they are vegetarians, and you cook up some wonderful vegetarian food, and you serve it on your best crockery, which is bone china; should you admit to your friends the awful truth that they are eating their vegetarian meals off plates made from the ground-up bones of dead cows? Or not?

*

The oldest bone china item I have is a bread and butter plate from the set given to my maternal grandfather and grandmother at their wedding in 1925. It is the last piece of the set remaining, as far as I know. 


19.12.11

A few posts ago, I tried to justify a $90 tag on a book. Forget it. Dymock's has knocked $20 off the price. A week before Christmas.

14.12.11

Eggplant romance.

Research* shows that eggplants have the longest storage at home to shelf life ratio. They don't last, but we never get around to using them. There is a scientifically valid reason for this, confirmed by the same research: eggplants are much more attractive than kohlrabi, celeriac or swedes; because they are shiny and have a voluptuous bulbous shape and colour, and no strange hair. Your eyes lock onto them across the greengrocer and it's instant attraction, like at a party. I've bought more eggplants on impulse than any of those others, or beetroots or turnips or even bitter melon, which looks like something off the side of a cigarette pack's government health warning. Go on, image-google it.

So when you buy an eggplant, you have to cook it. You can't refrigerate it because they don't like being cold. Here's what I did with my last eggplant.

Slice a large eggplant or more smaller ones and bake the slices for twenty minutes. I don't bother with salting and rinsing them. Throw them in the blender - unpeeled - with the juice of a lemon, two large cloves of garlic roughly cut, a tablespoon of tahini, the same amount of olive oil and seven leaves of fresh mint (which right now is just shooting up in the old concrete washtub. Get out the mint recipes!)

Process minimally. Why minimally? This substance, often called baba ghannouj - or one of a hundred spelling variations - usually has the colour of papier mâché made from egg cartons. So it doesn't need its texture as well. Dicrete shards of garlic, flecks of green from the mint and strips of the aubergine peel add a robustness and texture appeal that you'll never find in a supermarket tub.

People put this on a flat plate and drag factory-made crackers through it. That's a shame. You might as well eat the eggplant mixture from the jar and give the crackers to the birds. Instead, smear it on rare steak, or pile it on potato mashed with olive oil, and top it with mint and parsley chopped together with lemon zest. Watch out, or you'll find yourself stirring it through.

*Polling of one respondent by face-to-face question.

9.12.11

A hot weather side dish; bored with cos; and sacrificing household assets in the name of art.

If, like me, you always cook too much rice, don't throw it out. Make a cold rice salad to eat as a side dish in this steamy, hot, stormy weather.

Take three cups of leftover basmati rice, one can lentils (drained), half a red onion (diced), juice of one lemon. Combine. Chill.

Simple but good.

*

In the garden, the cos lettuce (plural) have their hands up. "Pick me!" they could be saying. I'll pick them but we might retire the cos next season. Caesar salad must have been invented to use up cos lettuce, because it doesn't seem good for much else. Perhaps I've just had too much, like Peter (or was it Benjamin?) who had to be given chamomile.

Any recipes for cos that don't dress it up in bacon and egg?

*

I came home to find Tracy smashing the crockery. Beautiful old plates, all in shards.

"What are you doing?" I asked, redundantly.

She grasped the redundancy adroitly and returned: "What does it look like I'm doing, playing tennis?" There's an art to sarcasm or biting irony or whatever it is called.

"What I meant was 'why are you smashing the old plates?'" I clarified with a straight bat.

"Because you can't use new ones that are dishwasher proof. Or bone china ones, for that matter. Or vitrified." I stared. That was unexpected. We still hadn't gotten to the point of addressing why the household crockery was being decimated, or far worse than that. She had smashed ten, and we hadn't anywhere near a hundred to begin with.

Later, she showed me the result: an occasional table with a mosaiced pattern made from shards of crockery. It looked like a photograph of the diggings at an ancient Roman ruin. Really quite pretty. And I'll know where to place my glass. Now I regret throwing out all those plates the children have broken over the years. They could have been immortalised. Or at least grouted.

7.12.11

Bell rings for Thomas.

That’s the end of an era. Two boys at school. Thomas is no longer a pre-schooler; had his school orientation day yesterday, December 6. He doesn’t start officially until February, but he went along for the morning, wearing William’s spare uniform. He had been looking forward to it for weeks.

He will be fine at school with the luxury of a brother one class ahead. William was the pioneer, his first weeks at school starting with a huge smile of goodbye at the gate masking wet eyes.

We stayed for the principal’s address and walked away and left Thomas around ten o’clock. The morning peak had died and the streets were empty and quiet. Then the church bell tolled, and the sound rumbled across the suburb. Perhaps it was for St Nicholas’ Day. I don’t know. Perhaps they rang it for the new Preps on their orientation morning. Perhaps they were just practising; the bell is being converted to electric operation following restoration of the church after the 2008 fire.

*

I told the boys the story of St Nicholas, a somewhat toned-down version from the grand guignol original I read about when I was child. William and Thomas, as I have mentioned in the past, do not believe in Father Christmas. This lack of faith was greeted with some consternation in certain quarters a couple of years ago; a consternation nipped in the bud by the terse observation that it would be an absurdity if a western world increasingly sceptical of religious belief were to insist that children have faith in the existence of a fat man who lived in the North Pole and travelled the world in a snow sled. A snow sled? In Australia? Ridiculous.

St Nicholas was the model for the original Santa Claus, I told them. If you say ‘St Nicholas’ over and over again very fast, the words will turn into ‘Santa Claus’, I said. They walked around repeating ‘St Nicholas’ for the rest of the afternoon. I didn’t tell them from what St Nick was reputed to have saved the children or resurrected those whose fate had already befallen them. I just told them he fed them in a famine. ‘Did he feed them lamb cutlets?’ Tom asked. ‘Hmmm,’ I replied, inwardly wincing, if that is possible. ‘I’m not sure: whatever was around at the time, I suppose.’

*

We celebrated Tom's first morning at school with lunch at C-Culture, previously reviewed here. The same old lady was eating soup, a barramundi was in the tank, and the real estate agents were there again. But I didn't order chicken's feet.

5.12.11

A taste of summer.

An old favourite for these warmer nights:

Pasta with tomatoes and fresh ricotta

You barely need a recipe. The fresh summery ingredients fall into each other’s arms like new lovers.

Boil up a pot of pasta. Tagliatelle or fettucine will help take up the wettish sauce.

Warm some olive oil in a pan large enough to take the cooked pasta; add a finely chopped onion and a chopped garlic clove. Warm through and cook gently until softened but not browned. Add six chopped vine-ripened tomatoes, and salt and pepper. The tomatoes should be very ripe and juicy. If not juicy enough, add a dash of white wine to the mix. Cook five minutes on gentle heat until the tomatoes break down and cry tears of sweet summertime flavour.

Drain pasta when done, add to the pan, fold through sauce. Crumble ricotta and add, fold through lightly. Serve immediately. Dust with parmesan, add torn strips of fresh basil. Mop up sauce with fresh bread dipped in olive oil.

2.12.11

Donkey tail left unpinned.

One good thing about having children decades apart is that you can compare practices then and now and bore everyone with your insistence that things were much better then.

Things weren't better then. They were just different. Children didn't walk around bristling with electronic devices in the early 1980s; they walked around bristling with hand-held games and Casio watches and Transformers. The telephone was on the wall. Teenagers used it just as much; they just couldn't take it to bed.

One thing is different: children's birthday parties. There are more of them. We're averaging one a week for William and Thomas from their friends at school and kindergarten. You can't attend all of them.

Occasionally these birthday parties are hosted in the child's actual house, where their mother serves party food and cake. Increasingly, however, people other than parents host the party and it is held off the premises in cavernous places that used to be warehouses or factories, and that now bear names containing the syllable 'Kidz'. In these party 'venues', the hosting parents act not as hosts, but as greeters. They willingly pay money for this downgrade in social status from hostess to butler.

Of course, we accept these invitations when we can; even though we originally vowed our children would never set foot in party factories. One was held at a children's martial arts venue (yes, ridiculous, I know) in which the entertainment was the host demonstrating some of the lessons available, the hosting' parents were offered a bonus for any party attendees who 'sign up' as members, and the invitation advertised discounts for party-goers. That's not a party; it's a recruiting drive.

We received another invitation last week. This one took the cake, if you'll pardon the pun. In the RSVP section it read: 'Hurry. Places are limited'.

People are losing the plot.







Hat from Sire's Menswear, Coburg; water pistol care of Max's birthday party. Crisp white shirt his own.