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


A shorter history of the sardine tin; and a recipe.

When I was a child, about five or six years old, I used to go into the kitchen and open the lower door in the corner cupboard.

Behind this door, at floor level, were literally thousands of tins. They could have fed the family (of nine) for years, decades even. Is this an exaggeration? It didn’t seem to be at the time. There were mountains of them, all piled in without being stacked like with like. It looked like a supermarket after an earthquake. There were tins of Biddy's peas, PMU carrots, Big Sister chocolate pudding, SPC spaghetti and baked beans, Tom Piper sausages and vegetables, Keen's mustard powder, Berri tomato juice, Letona apricot juice, Bear Brand and Carnation condensed milk, Ardmona halved pears, IXL strawberry jam, Edgell mushrooms in sauce, kidney beans, tongue, ham, camp pie, tuna, sardines, salmon, cat food; and the odd packet of Kookaburra spaghetti, Mammy flour (free coin of the world in every pack) and O-So-Lite self-raising flour. They’re the ones I can recall in a couple of minutes.

Out of the mess, I used to take tins of sardines and remove their keys to play with. There were plenty more sardine tins in there, so I figured a few missing keys would not matter. I used to take them away and try to unlock locks with them. It never worked but it was fun trying.

(The sardine tins, of course, contained all the same thing: sardines packed in oil. These days they come in brine, springwater, tomato sauce, extra virgin olive oil, mustard sauce, mango chilli sauce, reduced salt brine, low-carb beer, whisky and soda ... just kidding on the last two, but surely it’s just a matter of time.)


Last time I looked, which was last week, the same cupboard door in my mother’s house concealed the same jumble of tinned food, in a household reduced to one: her. But she keeps buying more! The stockpile of tins will no doubt one sad day be read out in her Will.


Sardine tins have kept commercial artists busy for generations. Images of fish leaping out of cobalt oceans, mermaids with flaxen hair sitting on rocks in the sea with a sunset behind, old ships with tattered sails, mountains in the distance, villages on the mountains, red-roofed houses in the villages: all of these have graced sardine tins, sometimes all at once.

Santa Maria sardines are relatively restrained in the cover art department, but still present a striking presence on the shelf. Their sardines with chilli are particularly good: three fat silvery headless and tail-less fish in good quality oil infused with warm chilli. Delicious in soft bread with salted butter and scattered with capers, but I used them in this very simple late night pasta dish:

Spaghetti with sardines, red capsicum and toasted pine nuts.

Start cooking your spaghetti.

Meanwhile, bake a red capsicum with a clove of garlic and peel the skin off when done (place in paper bag to cool after baking; condensation apparently assists skin removal). Cut into thin strips; peel and chop garlic.

Toast a good handful of pine nuts.

Warm sardines, either by placing tin in boiling water, or by gently warming sardines in a pan.

When pasta is done, drain and place in serving bowls with capsicum strips, the chopped clove of garlic, and a sardine or two on top. Scatter toasted pine nuts and chopped parsley. The oil works as a binder aglio e olio-style.


A note about sardine tin keys

How did the key work? It was soldered to the tin at very tip and had a crimp so you could snap it off by bending the key away from the tin. Then you unpicked the loose end of the metal seal that ran around the tin, fed it into the eye of the key and unwound it, wrapping it around the key.

Sardine tin keys haven’t been around for years. Sometimes I wish we still had them, mainly when I pull the ring of a ring-pull tin and it snaps off at the base, leaving the tin impregnable except for a small hole where the ring-pull has snapped off, so the contents will perish. (This only happens when you are camping and away from a tin-opener.)


Updated 29/3

The cost of the electricity used in this household is paid to the company that runs the Tasmanian hydro-electric generating plant. Hydro electricity generation produces no carbon dioxide, a gas referred to by the federal government as 'carbon'. Despite producing no carbon dioxide, the hydro electricity company is obliged by federal legislation to provide a 'green' energy product (branded GreenPower by the bureaucracy: "Helping Australia transition to renewable energy") as well as its core product, even though its core product – hydro electricity - is the 'greenest' energy available in the market. The company complies with this legislative stipulation, despite the absurdity of having to theoretically add wind and solar into hydro to 'improve' its 'green' credential. (Ironically, the hydro company also clearly shows the GreenPower cost penalty on its website, which many other energy providers do not, preferring sanctimoniously to bury the price impost in kindergarten language generalisations: Are you doing your bit for the environment?)

I don't know what's worse: environmental tokenism, or using 'transition' as a verb.


We got no pane in this old window
We got no pane in this old window
We got no pane in this old window
We're gonna transition to a better home


Speaking of burying the real price, a new storm is brewing, with the federal government and the green spin-acquiescent power companies on one side and the conservative states - with the Greens - on the other:
ELECTRICITY companies are refusing to tell struggling families and businesses exactly how much the carbon tax will add to their power bills.

They have rejected New South Wales State Government demands for transparency on power prices, claiming it is impossible to provide accurate itemised billing to every home and that it would put them squarely in the sights of the ACCC.
The federal government's solution? More spin:
The Gillard Government, concerned about a public backlash to the tax, is also negotiating with energy companies to provide households with a glossy pamphlet as part of their monthly bill.


We took them to the Astor cinema to sit in antique fold-up chairs, see curtains opening on the wide screen and, most importantly, eat choc tops. Shock: the boys chose Golden Gaytimes instead. The movie was an old musical with no special effects and a Rodgers and Hammerstein soundtrack.

Alexandra, however, had a Choc Top to herself. Before intermission, bored with the movie, she sat on a couch next to the sleeping cinema cat and did not spill a drop of ice cream. I sat on the other side of the cat and read the Sunday newspaper in the dim art deco light with the sounds of gunshots and whinnying from the auditorium and the faint rumble of trams outside.


Chicken with coconut, cashews and lime.

This recipe has the heat of the equator, the tang of the tropics, and the sweetness of the islands; all of which is academic - we ate the meal on a cold autumn night in Melbourne with rain pelting on the iron roof.

I evolved the recipe from an old balchao dish I used to make. The original recipe was as hot as you like; later versions toned down the chili, added spices, added coconut, added lime.

Let's get started: fry two onions in ghee. Remove and retain onions.

Brown one kilogram of chicken pieces in the pan. Add oil or ghee as required. Remove chicken when browned.

Meanwhile, process half a cup of roasted cashews (I dry-roasted raw cashews first), half a cup of dessicated coconut, two large and very ripe and juicy vine tomatoes, two tablespoons or slightly more of malt vinegar, one black cardamom pod, one twinkle of star anise, a scatter of dried chilies, half a teaspoon each of crushed cinnamon and cumin seeds, four cloves of garlic, an inch of peeled ginger and one small lime - whole. The fluid in the tomatoes and lime should be enough to enable effective processing; if not add a little water.

The resulting texture will be a rough sludge. Place this back into the pan, add half a cup or more of water, and simmer ten minutes. Then add the chicken, and stir through half a cup of sour cream or yogurt, a generous tablespoon of fenugreek powder, and a teaspoon each of salt and sugar. Place lid on pan and cook at least thirty minutes on a very low simmer.

Serve with cooked onions on top and basmati rice and pappadums on the side; and think of the islands, although it could be raining there too for all I know.


The processed cashew, tomato and coconut mixture works well as a marinade for barbecue: use bone-in chicken, score the flesh and press in the mixture. Delicious. Not barbecue weather here any more, more's the pity.


From amazingly cheap to still very cheap.

How much do you pay for coffee?

The price of my favourite coffee rose on Monday.

From $2 to $2.20.

Consider that as table rental with the coffee thrown in free and it could be Melbourne's best entertainment value. The coffee is robust and vibrant in the old-fashioned Italian style. Order it strong and you'll float down Sydney Road, unlike some of the warm beige concoctions with art-directed froth you get down in Brunswick.

You sit outside in the shade of the trees watching the passing Coburg parade; and it is a parade like nowhere else in Melbourne. No pretensions here. You might have to wait for a table, as many are taken up by local retired Greeks and Italians, as well as residents from the special needs accommodation nearby, who like to take their time over their coffee; and you won't get a friendlier crowd anywhere. Brunswick Street bristles with attitude by comparison.

The buskers are good quality. Yesterday in the mid-morning sunshine, a young woman sang an excellent rendition of Summertime among other fine numbers including some of her own compositions.

$2.20 for sunshine, Gershwin and coffee? You're laughing.

Coburg Coffee and Kitchen
7 Victoria Mall, Coburg


Two songs about birds.

We haven’t had song of the month for a while, so here are two.


His name was Jones and he was my personal favourite British pop singer of the 1960s.

No, not Tom. He was my second favourite. (Have you heard Without Love at full volume lately?)

The other Jones, Paul, had an amazing range and sang - both solo and for Manfred Mann - some of the best songs ever written.

One was Come Tomorrow, a soul masterpiece originally recorded by Marie Knight.

If the song of a song bird could replace my wrong words
Then my dear it’s the song I would borrow
And tonight you would hear the saddest song of the year
And you’d be mine once again come tomorrow

The instrumentation is initially spare, rising to an amazing crescendo built around the keyboard - watch the cut-aways on the YouTube track. Jones’ astoundingly tortured vocals are a match for the piano, revealing the futility of the song’s premise. A stunning performance.

Come Tomorrow peaked at 24 on the Melbourne charts in 1965, and came in at 194 overall for the year (Melbourne Top 40 Research, Thomas J. Guest) Coincidentally, another Manfred Mann ‘bird’ song came in exactly one song below at 195 that year, also peaking at 24. This was Hi-Lili Hi Lo, originally sung by Leslie Caron in the 1950s movie 'Lili'.

On every tree there sits a bird
Singing a song of love

Once again keyboards punctuate the song, seething remnants of sheer-sixties power pop.


One discounted 60 cent packet of seeds from Bunnings two years ago resulted in these. I kept the flower heads from the first crop and scattered the dried seeds last spring. Up came the tallest sunflowers I have ever raised, upwards of seven feet with flowers the size of dinner plates.

The picture was taken a month ago. Yesterday I disposed of the dried stalks. I had to saw them. They had made great staves when green and pliable; the boys had medieval battles and then pole-vaulted around the front garden.

I put half the heads in brown bags in the shed. Birds had already got to the rest and eaten the lot.


Bugs and barbecue.

Yes, February was always the busiest month and you get fewer days to do it in.

And the weather! When I was ten I read Colin Thiele's February Dragon, about as accurate a portrayal of February weather as it gets. Another early read was Ivan Southall's Ash Road published in the early 1960s, and with a darkly prophetic title given the events of 2009. And 1983 and 1967 and other years, for that matter. Do children still read Australian literature or just Andy Griffiths these days?

It's all rain into March; but on the last weekend of February we sweltered at the beach. As the sun fell on the Saturday evening, Tracy walked the ti-tree lined slopes with Alexandra reclining in the stroller. They returned. She smiled. I took over. Walked down to the beach. No sleep. Onto the sand where after dinner walkers, many with dogs, were enjoying the sunset. The water was still warm, tide on its way out. Earlier in the day, I had been a couple of hundred metres offshore with the boys on their small surfboards and we had noticed thousands of beetle-like creatures with yellow backs on the water. Now they were gone but other things were in the air, buzzing and zooming. Back to the house. Thomas asleep; William with Tracy on the balcony gazing into the hot black sky and wondering which were stars and which were planets. The bugs were here too. Some had made their way into the house. A large sonar-equipped winged thing was tapping impatient feet at one of the windows. I liberated it, and it buzzed off into the night in search of dinner or a mate or both.


That was over a week ago. Today they came to town. I walked the boys to school and against the wall of a large building on Sydney Road were piled literally thousands of black beetles the size of Tic-Tacs. They were not going anywhere but were alive and writhing. They are refugees from the rain north of the state, reported to be the highest on record and more to come. And they said it would never rain again. Or someone did. The others probably just repeated it mindlessly, like robots at prayer.


Last night:

It was a warm evening decorated with passing florid clouds that had already rained themselves out somewhere else. So out we went under the great firmament armed with glasses of beer, a check tablecloth and a barbecue fired up good and proper.

Calamari with oregano.

Dust a few dozen calamari rings in seasoned flour. Easiest done with a plastic bag. Simply throw a tablespoon or more of flour in with the calamari rings, hold the end closed and shake. Perfectly floured.

Heat some oil in a cast iron pan. You want it really hot. This is best done outside on a barbecue grill well clear of children and other humans to minimise splash burns. Place calamari into smoking oil and lift clear and drain after no more than sixty seconds. Have your guests line up for deep-fried calamari and serve with a green salad, kalamata olives, good quality fetta and freshly sliced vine-ripened tomatoes. And cold beer. I like to make a 'flat' Greek salad - cover a platter with a layer of sliced vine-ripened tomatoes, crumble fetta over them, toss with olives and dress with good olive oil, vinegar and crushed dried oregano. I have an instant supply of this in the garden - as the herb overgrows, the ends dry out naturally and you simply pull off the dried leaves, crushing them in your hand. Perfect.