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


Winter break.

School holidays were once in May, when the odd sunny day could make the beach just possible. We spent many of these holidays at Inverloch where we'd venture to the beach in sensible day clothes but inevitably end up in the water with wet jeans, jumpers, shoes, etc.

These days the holiday fortnight is in deepest darkest winter. Where to go, what to do? Who knows. We'll just set off.


What to buy a seven-year-old.

William turned seven on Saturday. Here he is with his brand new tin reproduction of Donald Campbell's Bluebird, powered by wind-up friction engine.


Marsupials 5.3 on the Richter scale.

Yes, it is cold today. The chill north wind is blowing across the Australian alps and you can practically smell the snow. But today is the day: the winter solstice. For some reason it varies between 20-22 June and this year it is today. Roll on summer. It's all downhill from here.

Last night, dinner was simple and you'ce probably heard it all before. What came after was less common.

Salmon with linguine.

Linguine in the pot. A large square salmon fillet cubed into bite-size pieces and poached gently in a little white wine and a squeeze of orange juice. Just until done. Then the fluid reduced with the addition of a little cream, perhaps a tablespoonful, and poured over the salmon cubes on the linguine. Simple. Nothing else needed. Maybe a few springs of parsley, just for decoration.

Then came the rumble. It was only a tremor, of course. The whole plate shakes, like the skin of a drum. They only break at the edge, and I don't think we're on an edge. Of course, shaking can damage as well.

Tracy had retired early and reported that she had thought possums were jumping on the roof and sliding down the awnings. Yes, possums can be loud. I had a possum in the ceiling once, years ago. It made a hole. Then it started bringing in wood and leaves and mud from outside to patch the hole. Every day I had to clean the mess from the floor and eventually I had to put in place a dropsheet until the roof hole could be repaired by the landlord. The possum would have kept filling the hole until the room was full.

But last night, it wasn't possums. I didn't hear anything or feel anything. Some degree of separation from the event might have been in place, as I was on my second glass of Blackstrap McLaren Vale Shiraz (named after the molasses it metaphorically resembles).


What to do with leftover apples.

One day I'm cutting energy bills to shreds; then I'm running the oven for seven hours.

Leg of pork, bone in, from the butcher. Slashed the skin, studded it with garlic, rubbed it with oil and salt, into a low oven for seven hours, the first twenty minutes on high.


The children are eating apples like there's no tomorrow. They leave them half eaten. So the uneaten parts are peeled and chopped and boiled and drained and pureed. There's your sauce.

Two onions - one white; the other red. Chopped finely, cooked gently in a little oil and white wine and a clove of garlic in a covered pan until soft and translucent. Generous salt and pepper.


Switch on the news: left-leaning inner urban newspaper saved by a rich West Australian female miner. Some ironies are beautiful in their completeness.


Now it's hours later. Baked leg out to rest under foil; skin off, skin back in oven with a dash of soy and a little honey, left to almost crisp.

Roast pork served with apple sauce, almost-caramelised onions and a mountain of mash.

Glass of red. Music.

That rind is addictive. Crunch.


Power bill alleviation strategy: my seven-year plan.

They called it sticker shock in the 1990s recession–or was it the 1980s?–referring to overnight rises on price stickers shocking shoppers.

We are about to experience bill shock. I could call it electric shock, but that might be a little dramatic.

I anticipated this some time ago, well before any mention of a carbon tax. In fact, we have to go right back to 2005, after I bought this house.

When I first inspected the house, a 1948 weatherboard bungalow, its operational economy was apparent. Today you’d say the house had ‘green credentials’ or was ‘eco-friendly’; but it simply had very few lights and no built-in appliances. Frugality was written all over it. It was a sale by the estate of the original owner; possibly someone who grew up in the shadows of the 1930s depression. There was a single gas heater in the lounge room and the rest of the house was unheated; there was no air-conditioning, no dishwasher, no exhaust fan in the bathroom (but an enormous sash window that, raised a few inches, clears moisture in seconds, a chimney cavity instead of an exhaust fan over the stove and oven, a shared light between back verandah and toilet (one of those austerity-era architectural oddities in which the globe rests in a small transom that opens on both rooms), no outside light to the backyard and no light in the shed.

Further, its L-shape floor plan rests on a north-facing slope, and the low-angled winter sunshine pools in the lap of the L, right near the front door porch, where you can sit in the afternoon warmth and read a book and drink a glass of chilled white wine and pretend spring is around the corner.

And the house is painted white. I re-did it last year.

The only changes we made were to raise the wattage of the globes – slightly - and buy a Noirot heater on wheels that warms the small rooms of this period house in minutes. Still no dishwasher or microwave, and no clothes dryer. We took the Zero Carbon Moreland household emissions test last year, and the result barely moved the clock or meter or whatever it is they use. “This is impossible,” said the ZCM person, staring at the analysis. "Or you live in an open field.” I laughed. She probably thought I was fudging the figures to look ‘green’. “No,” I said. “It’s real. We’re practically Luddites.” She just stared.

Next move in carbon tax-proofing the house was to have blinds put in. O’Gorman’s came around and installed exterior canvas awnings on all east, north and west windows, and Holland blinds with lace curtains inside. The awnings are especially useful later in the season when the sun's angle drops, pumping 40 degrees Celsius deeper into the rooms. (Four years later, the roller pin in one of the Holland blinds fell out. I took it to O’Gorman’s and showed them and they came out and replaced the pins in all six blinds, just in case. Service still exists.) I also had wire screens installed so we could let in fresh air.

The next part of the strategy was trees. The house had sat on bare land, aside from one citrus tree in the back yard, and that was of no shade use, being at the rear of the property. I bought five deciduous trees that were already up to ten feet tall from Bunnings at the end-of-season clearout for around $15 each, and placed them where they should eventually provide leafy shade over windows in summer while letting light through in winter. I planted the smallest of these trees outside the bathroom. It sat and did nothing for six months. And then, bang: it took off like a rocket. It is now twenty feet tall. (So far this winter it still hasn’t dropped last season’s leaves.)


Solstice approaches; aromatic fog rolls across suburb.

Lamb shanks were a winter staple when I was growing up. When walking home from school on cold winter afternoons, I came to love the soupy redolence of lamb, carrot, celery, onion and barley rolling across the suburb like an aromatic fog. Everyone made lamb shank soup! There was nothing like that smell.


Six days to the winter solstice, so I’ve dragged this recipe out of the archive. Right now we need something robust, homely, and crammed with flavour.

Lamb, rosemary, and a bottle of red.

(Important note: the bottle of red wine in the title is an ingredient, so you’ll need to buy two if you plan to actually drink some.)

Rosemary comes to the fore in this highly aromatic dish that will blanket the neighbourhood with tantalising aromas of lamb braising in red wine with herbs and garlic. (Is garlic also a herb?)

In a plastic bag, dust six lamb shanks with a tablespoon of flour and salt and pepper.

Brown the seasoned shanks in olive oil in a large heavy pot in batches. Remove browned shanks to a platter.

Chop two onions. Cut two carrots and four sticks of celery into small dice. Mince twelve garlic cloves. Place these in the pot with a little more oil. Turn the heat down lowest, put the lid on, and sweat the vegetables for about ten minutes. Stir them occasionally.

Now return the shanks to the pot and add a bottle of red wine, two cans of tomatoes, three cups of chicken stock, a tablespoon of fresh chopped rosemary – yes, it is a large amount - and half a tablespoon of chopped thyme (optional: one leaf of sage and some chopped parsley).

Bring pot to the boil, turn the heat down, put the lid on the pot and simmer for a couple of hours. Then take the lid off and simmer another 30 minutes. Transfer shanks to covered platter. Turn up the heat under the pot and boil the juices, stirring, until thickened, ten to twenty minutes. This will vary according to pot, stove, volume of fluid, hemisphere, phase of the moon and elevation above sea level, for all I know.

Serve shanks on a bed of mashed potato and pour over thickened sauce so that it runs down the mash like rivers to the sea (wait for me, wait for me). I like to add interest to the mash by folding through flavour bursts such as a mere sprinkling of diced black olives or, even better, tiny flecks of anchovy. Added sparingly, they add an amazing taste sensation and work well with the flavours of the stew. Sides of creamed spinach, or green beans, or broccoli tossed in toasted and pounded pine nuts.

Drink a Mt Alexander Shiraz, if you remembered to buy a second bottle. If not, have a Grand Ridge Natural Blonde. That will warm you up.


Eating their words.

Write about food for money? Beyond a few observations, food is food. Its nature determines that over-analysis is not natural, like chewing a mouthful eighty times. Food is for eating, not analysing; not for very long anyway.

Food writing has to be sleight of hand. You have to write about something else and food has to just be there, along for the ride, without getting in the way.

Food columnists go in and out of fashion. Eventually they pall. Jeremy Clarkson never palls, even though his writing is as formulaic as it gets, because his subject is motoring. But because the subject is food and the medium is their words, food writers’ pet phrases turn stale, like bread. It is something to do with the imaginative right and logical left brain, and hunger and desire, and what happens to your brain - or your stomach - when you read about food, and having the ability to go out and buy a burger right now; while you can’t go out and buy a Bentley right now. I don’t know.

It is fashionable to disparage food critics. John Lethlean’s language is inner-urban cliché: “a sexy little CBD bistro with a risk-taking menu”. Terry Durack bores. Jill Dupleix’s trilling tone grates. The Age writes for its peer group of inner urban foodies. Those tedious “We’ve all ...” statements make you roll your eyes: “We’ve all been through the foam fad and the molecular stage and we’ve all moved on.” Editors should ban the use of “We’ve all”.

This is unfair, of course. Writers have their style and they’re stuck with it. If you write politics or sport you are pulled along by events and people often don’t care how you say it. With food you are pushing a snowball uphill. Do you impress readers with flourish, knowing it will eventually become tiresome, or do you write vanilla?

In any case, food writing is better than it was. The restaurant reviewer at the Melbourne Herald in the 1980s used to write, “My wife had the chateaubriand and pronounced it excellent.” Presumably she shared it with him. Or maybe he had the seafood platter all to himself. It was exquisite to read this kind of stilted copy. You could see the wife sitting back and pronouncing. But it was also horrible.

Editors started putting serious journalists in the food column for light relief (for the journalist). Peter Smark was a battle-weary war correspondent and ended up writing the first eating out in Melbourne guide in 1977; he was followed by Claude Forell and Rita Ehrlich. Over at the alternative press writers such as Sam Orr and Barry Dickins were satirising the whole emerging foodie thing. Dickins was a subversive who was always getting sued, but his copy showed up food writing for the plodding nonsense that it is.

One writer says you can no longer write about food for money. But that's just the whole print thing writ small.


Linked Out

I just closed my L***edIn account. I'm not even sure why I was on it in the first place. I can't even bring myself to type its whole name in case a bunch of Russian hackers close in on my blog. The Russians are coming!

Does anyone see the irony of this? In the early 1960s, the nuns warned us about the Red menace; and there was a grain of truth in it, because my school had one of Melbourne's highest proportions of eastern European immigrants (the Polish and Ukrainian girls had the most beautiful skin and eyes and ringleted blond hair I had ever seen) whose Catholic parents had fled Stalin in the 1950s.

Then the Russians weren't coming any more and anyone who had been afraid of the Red menace became the butt of liberal jokes.

Now they're coming again!

Actually, it would be quite amusing - in a dark way - if Russian hackers closed down the whole internet and we went back to posting letters and writing in diaries.


The rain, the park and other things.

The city was bleak at 6.30 p.m. I walked diagonally across Flagstaff Gardens from King Street towards the market, in softly falling rain. The paths were dull yellow and slippery with wet fallen leaves. It had been windy and the leaf carpet rolled out onto William Street. I waited at the tram stop for the 55. Out of the darkness lit by pixillated orange, a giant mechanical monster emerged and ground its way slowly along the track heading towards the city. It was the leaf-eating machine that patrols the grid in winter, removing leaf mush from the inset tracks.

The 55 came along and we sailed along William and into Flemington Road and then up into the blackness of Royal Park and behind the zoo. Is this the best tram ride in Melbourne? I like the part where the tram slams around the sharp turn under the rail bridge and cuts through the golf course. I was looking forward to dinner: home-made kebabs.


Question: do you eat bread that is older than a day? My routine is eat bread on day one or two, on day three it goes into the freezer for toast or bread-and-butter pudding.

But one kind of bread absolutely has to be eaten on day one: Lebanese flat bread. You can feel the freshness; it has a slippery feel in the pack. Ater that it hardens up, which is how you buy it in the supermarkets. Better to buy it in the Sydney Road bakeries where it is fresh and half the price of the supermarket.


Home made kebabs.

Nothing special; it's just fast-grilled meat in Lebanese bread; or any other kind of flat bread. But when the bread is super fresh, the result is heavenly.

You don’t need an expensive cut of meat; I use topside steak and cube it, thread it onto skewers, roll the skewers in some salt and pepper and throw them onto the cast iron pan when it is very, very hot. A squeeze of lemon and a shower of chopped garlic halfway through keeps the meat tender and fragrant.

Meanwhile, chop a fresh, ripe tomato and slice some iceberg lettuce. Chop half an onion into rings and cut them into semi-circles.

Arrange lettuce, tomato and onion on the southern hemisphere of one round of flat bread. When the meat is done to your liking, de-skewer onto bread, quickly add some yogurt and chilli sauce (optional), roll up tightly and slice through the middle, arranging halves so that leading edges of bread face each other (so the kebabs don’t unwind on the plate).

Options: Lebanese turnips (the red ones), a squirt of tahini, a sludge of babaganoush, or some tabouli. Or all four.


For leftover flat bread, cut into segments, toast or bake, paint with olive oil and add zatar; dip resulting crackers into babaganoush.

Above: the 55 tram in brilliant 1970s livery, circa 1979.


Don't forget to write, they used to say. Now a social media giant finds my sibling. Invest!

I was 'visiting' Facebook (do people 'visit' books in the library? of course not - ridiculous) and it suggested - or even commanded, if the imperative mood is what Facebook intended - that I "Find friends from different parts of your life."

Among the list of 'friends' Facebook suggested I 'find' from different 'parts' of my life was my sister.

I don't need to find my sister. I know where she is already.


A few weeks ago Facebook listed on the stock exchange after ridiculous valuations fuelled by near-hysteria. It was a bad idea to invest, but many thought it was a good one. That misapprehension lasted what, two weeks? Maybe some still think it's a good idea.

We saw this twelve years ago, but they never learn. "It's not the same," everyone said, "The dotcom boom was different." I wasn't talking about the boom part, I said. They're always different, like tulips. But how they turn out is always the same.

In his 1947 essay “Lear, Tolstoy and The Fool” George Orwell discusses Tolstoy's description of the hysteria of accepted wisdom, which was:
'a sort of mass hypnosis, or "epidemic suggestion" ... in which 'the whole civilized world has somehow been deluded. ... One is not dealing with a reasoned opinion but with something akin to religious faith. Throughout history, says Tolstoy, there has been an endless series of these "epidemic suggestions", for example, the Crusades, the search for the Philosopher's Stone, the craze for tulip growing which once swept over Holland ... "it also happens that such crazes ... correspond in such a degree to the views of life spread in society, and especially in literary circles, that they are maintained for a long time".'
Orwell was writing about Tolstoy writing about Shakespeare but the concept rings a few bells.


Risotto and the gold rush: a timeline.

Risotto doesn’t usually figure in the quick and easy recipe pantheon, but it is a frequent solution here. Preparation is minimal, and it lets you do other things while you are cooking; such as opening the mail, reading, drinking, getting changed ... you get the idea.

Here’s my risotto timeline when I get home late, but still want to eat well without having to stand at the stove or preparation board for very long:

Risotto with zucchini and chorizo.

1. Walk in from the cold. Place keys and wallet on fridge. Fill kettle and turn it on. Peel and chop one onion. Peel and score one garlic clove. Toss both into a pot with glug of olive oil. Light stove. Elapsed time, 1 minute 20 seconds.

2. Place one chicken stock cube (I use Massel) into glass jug. Fill with boiled water. Stir. Pour rice into warm oil in pot. Stir. Elapsed time, 4 minutes.

3. Take bottle of white wine from fridge, tip a good glugful into rice, stir. Elapsed time, 4 minutes 30 seconds.

4. Pour stock into rice. Stir. Turn down heat to lowest. Place lid on pot. Elapsed time, 5 minutes. Go and get changed.

5. Return to kitchen. Stir rice. Pour a glass of white wine. Open mail. Throw it in the bin. (The items with advertising lines on the front can be thrown out unopened. It is a mystery of advertising that while advertisers want you to open their mail, they ensure you don’t by putting an advertising line – Get a year’s subscription PLUS this genuine moonview telescope! – on the envelope.) Elapsed time, 9 minutes. Stir rice.

6. Dice a zucchini. Stir rice, folding through zucchini. Pour a glass of wine. Pick up current book (The Gold Seekers, Norman Bartlett, 1965). Read a page. (Conditions in Melbourne were appalling in 1852, when the city was besieged by criminal-class diggers having returned to the city laden with easily-extractable alluvial gold.) Elapsed time, 10 minutes.

7. Place chorizo sausage in a pan. Pour over remaining hot water from kettle. Cook. Stir rice. Sip wine. Continue reading. (It was reported that the barmaid in one city hotel became rich merely by shaking the gold dust out of the rug in the front bar every night. The author hints the gold may have been extracted from the diggers by other means.) Stir rice. Elapsed time, 11 minutes.

8. Slice thin layers of parmesan from block with vegetable peeler. Stir rice. Read on. (The digger’s licence fee was imposed in part to dissuade workers from leaving their posts in search of instant riches. Farms were abandoned and animals left to die, ships were deserted and much-needed foodstuffs lost, wives and children were forsaken and left to fend for themselves.) Stir rice, adjust fluid. Elapsed time, 14 minutes.

9. Remove chorizo from pan, slice into medallions the size of 1856 gold half sovereigns. Stir rice and serve, adding slices of parmesan and chorizo and a shake of parsley flakes and cracked pepper. (Whether Ballarat was the birthplace of democracy or the birthplace of the cashed-up bogan remains a debate a hundred and sixty years later.) Elapsed time, 16 minutes.

10. Eat. Elapsed time, who's counting? Top up glass. Turn page.