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

31.5.12

Brussels sprouts, Richard Clapton, St Ignatius and Jack Dyer.

Once upon a time, this blog started a campaign to promote the maligned Brussels sprout. The campaign has rolled on, relentlessly, like a Capricorn Dancer wave (after the horses). I just don’t talk about it much.

The other night, I made this side dish to accompany grilled steaks. It was a particularly cold and bleak late-autumn evening, one on which strong, robust flavours appeal.

Brussels sprouts with bacon and blue cheese

Trim the ends off a dozen Brussels sprouts and halve them. Peel one onion and quarter it. Plunge sprouts and the onion into boiling water and cook them fifteen minutes.

Fry three slices of short bacon, diced, until not quite crisp. I always add a little white wine and pepper to the pan.

Drain vegetables. Add to cooked bacon with a tablespoon of sour cream. Stir to coat. Remove to a heatproof serving bowl or platter. Crumble gorgonzola or other blue cheese over the top.

Grill three minutes. Serve with medium-rare eye fillet steaks. Pour a glass of red and toast the memory of Vlado, (who next Tuesday will be sent off from the same church - St Ignatius’ Richmond – from which another Richmond great, Jack Dyer, was despatched almost ten years ago).

30.5.12

Goodbye Mr Gregurek.

Ten great things about Vlado's:

No menu.

Its old decor that ignores 'cutting edge' restaurant design.

The meat.

The irony-free large picture of contented cows on the wall.

The waiters who have been there forever.

The cabbage salad.

Its old-fashioned friendliness with no attitude.

The window on to the grill, not the street.

Its continuity in a world of fads.

Vlado himself: a humble man who cooked the best steaks in Australia.

29.5.12

Niçoise by candlelight.

It rained all day, and it was cold, and I walked down a sodden Sydney Road late morning and visited the fish shop and one of the two greengrocers; and brought home a dozen oysters, two swordfish steaks, a bag of very good green beans and the last decent tomatoes in Australia.

*

Early in the afternoon, I visited a friend who was housebound following a hip operation - he will never run another marathon - and drank coffee while his dogs leapt about the small lounge room in which we sat. We listened to the rain outside, and then another noise started. The endless rain, having obviously pooled on the roof, was trickling through the vents of a wall-mounted heater and was dripping on the carpet behind the television with a loud patting noise; drips of slow destruction, water torture for apartment-dwellers, a slow insistent reminder to call the body corporate who would call a plumber who would fix the problem in due course, perhaps June, perhaps July, perhaps never. My friend hobbled to the kitchen and found a piece of square Tupperware and put a sheet of absorbent paper in it and I pushed it into place on the carpet, flush against the wall, while trying not to dislodge the 53cm flat television and the substation of wiring behind the unit on which it stood precariously. One of the dogs immediately pulled the plastic tub out again, like a game, so I repeated the process and moved the whole unit down eighteen inches to wedge it in place. Rainy days are like that. I'd hate to live where it gets really wet.

Then it was time to pick up the boys from school, so I left my friend and his cabin-fever dogs watching American basketball and baseball on subscription television. It was still raining, so I took the boys to the indoor pool where you can bask in warm water while gazing through the floor-to-ceiling partially steamed-up glass walls and watch the pendulous black clouds rolling across the sky and the rain falling onto the cold bare trees outside. (In the opposite direction, you can also - on Sunday afternoons - watch the football at one of Melbourne's oldest suburban grounds complete with Victorian grandstand, ring of mature trees and smoking Edwardian rooftops in the distance, but that's another story.)

*

That night, an unseasonal dish because you can't eat soup and stews all the time.

Warm salad niçoise with seared swordfish and parsley sauce.

I boiled a dozen halved small potatoes in their skins, and placed these - hot - on a large serving platter along with with halved very ripe tomatoes in roughly the same number and size as the potatoes. Then I scattered some rocket and mixed lettuce leaves over the top.

On this foundation I built up a construction of quartered boiled eggs, a dozen fresh trimmed green beans, two dozen fat black olives, some strips of chargrilled red capsicum and a dozen anchovies. Then I seared the swordfish steaks, sat these over the top of the whole thing, and rained down a kind of sauce made from quite a lot of chopped parsley, a little fresh oregano, some olive oil, the zest of a whole lemon, a crushed garlic clove, a few cracked black peppercorns and a dash of vinegar. Entree - or if you prefer, the starter - was the oysters steeped for ten minutes in the juice of the lemon from which I had removed the zest and dusted with some black pepper powder.

While we ate, it was still raining, and the children were asleep. Then the power went off, but I had candles ready.

17.5.12

Salmon with beurre blanc on a thin-sliced layer of waxy potatoes.

Everyone's doing beurre blanc, so let's give it a try.

Reduce 100ml each of white wine and vinegar in a pot with a sprig of tarragon, a bay leaf, ten black peppercorns and a chopped shallot. Cool and strain. Place two tablespoons of this reduction into a pot with a tablespoon of cream. Reduce this by half and then gradually whisk in 200g cold diced, butter until thickened slightly. Add the juice of half a lemon, salt and pepper. Fold in a slew of capers, maybe a dozen.

Meanwhile, cut four peeled waxy potatoes (those red ones that seem to change their names every week or so - Pontiac? Red Devil? Red Russet? - will be fine) into half-centimetre slices, boil until yielding but not quite mashable. Drain.

Meanwhile, cook salmon fillets gently in a pan with a little lemon juice, lime juice or orange juice; or a little of all three.

Layer potatoes on serving plates, salmon on top, beurre blanc over.

16.5.12

Index in the sidebar.

I said this weblog didn't have labels. But now it does, in the sidebar. So far they go back only a few years, whence Thomas is currently outscoring William. Latecomer Alexandra has some catching up to do.

4.5.12

Don't eat fish: doctors.

We have it on medical authority: eat less fish.

Nothing to do with your health: doctors are not caring about you. They're thinking of the environment. In fact, they are thinking about the fish. That's a first.

Doctor: "You're looking great. But don't eat any fish."

Me: "Why? Isn't it good for me?"

Doctor: "It's not good for the fish. Or the sea. Or ..."

Me: "I'm not paying you to care about fish."

Doctor: "Everyone cares about fish now. You should care about fish. There won't be any left."

Me: "I thought that was the idea. You get in first and improve your gene pool. It used to be called evolution."

Doctor: "It's not evolution any more. It's ethics. Ethical eating."

Me: "Now I'm paying you to be a philosopher."


Meanwhile, the scientists are not happy:
In a submission following the draft report, the CSIRO questioned the use of the term "environmentally sustainable" as "an argument for some of the limitations on some foods, notably meat, fish and dairy". ... "It is unclear ... why nutritional desirability for optimal health has been compromised as a consequence," it said.
Everyone's an expert. On everything. I'm off to lunch. Blufish in Centre Arcade: Grilled whiting. Greek salad. Tzatziki to dip. Thin chips. Salt.

3.5.12

Dinner and a movie. Or dinner in a movie.

Talking of sacks of potatoes (previous post) always reminds me of a movie I saw once, and if you happen to have seen it, you will already know what it was.

But let’s start at the start. One bleak night, many years ago, my older sister lent me her MUFS* membership card - as she so often very kindly did - and I went off on my own to the cinema. The cinema was the long-gone Carlton Moviehouse, above Genevieve’s café, also gone. The cinema was known as the bughouse as cinema-goers were not the only patrons. The building now houses a student travel agency, but the cinema had students and others travelling in all kinds of ways long before the agency was selling jet flights.

That night at the Carlton Moviehouse, I travelled to London. The movie, Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy, was one of those ultra-gritty British productions typical of the early 1970s. British writers and directors were at the top of their game then, before political correctness softened storylines and killed scriptwriting stone dead. The movie was brutally realistic and showed a claustrophobic inner London closing in on its denizens. It was like Dickens with Cortinas.

And so to the potato sack scene: secreting his victim in a greengrocer’s lorry amongst sacks of potatoes, the murderer realises too late that his victim in her death throes has grasped an identifiable item of his clothing. The murderer must locate her body and remove the evidence, even as the lorry motors north through driving rain and under total darkness. To add to the frosty storyline, there was quite a bit of scuttling under the front stalls and beneath the stage that night. Even rats are chilled by Hitchcock.

The horror is relieved by the movie's domestic scenes, in which the investigating detective discusses the case over dinner at home with his wife, Maigret-style. She is way ahead of him in guessing the case, but the food she serves is visibly horrid, and the detective’s body and face language as he labours through his meals is comically macabre. Following a particularly gruesome scene, the detective is at table, struggling with a bone, which cracks horribly, simulating the previous scene ...

*

*MUFS: Melbourne University Film Society. Your membership ticket gave you discounts to independent cinemas, but its own weekly screenings were held in the Union Theatre at Melbourne University, where projector malfunctions were common. I saw the first three-quarters of 2001: A Space Odyssey twice in two weeks before the projectionist finally succeeded in getting through all rolls of the movie the following week. The film got progressively worse, and by the third week, I no longer wanted to see the last quarter. 2001: A Space Odyssey remains the only movie of which I have watched three-quarters but never completely. Has anyone repeated this bizarre feat with this or any other movie? Projectionists not eligible to answer. Falling asleep doesn't count.

2.5.12

Big issues pale into insignificance as discussion turns to potatoes.

It’s the little things in life. The big picture can take care of itself. When the slowest train wreck in history finally comes to a juddering halt, and the fires are put out, and the recriminations are settled, and the retributions dealt, and factional revenge enacted – which could go on for years based on form – all that really matters is ... how you like your potatoes. Or something equally inconsequential.

Currently, this household is getting through many kilograms of potatoes each week, although in the context of potatoes, the metric term ‘kilogram’ has always struck me as utterly ridiculous. A description such as a hundredweight, or a bushel, or at least a sack, would ring far truer. Let's go with sack: we’re getting through a sack of potatoes a fortnight, which - if you must know - is 25 kilograms according to a British standard. In fact, we should be buying them by the sack, rather than in the pathetic little plastic bags we pick up from the supermarket or the greengrocers.

Which brings me to a digression: does anyone in the People’s Republic of Moreland remember the Potato Man? He used to drive around the streets of Brunswick in an old Bedford tray truck loaded up with hessian sacks of potatoes intoning through a loudspeaker Fresh. New. Potatoes. Get. Your. Fresh. New. Potatoes. Fresh. New. Potatoes. Ten. Dollars. A bag. Fresh. New. Potatoes ... . Perhaps he collided with the Rawleigh’s man one fateful day, as they both seemed to disappear around the same time.

So how do you like your potatoes?

Some like their potatoes mashed minimally, simply smashed into vaguely discrete pieces like rocks in a crusher and dusted with salt and a sprinkling of vinegar.

Others mash their potato with pumpkin. I detest this. It’s just wrong. Pumpkin is sweet and potato is not, and the resulting flavour is in between.

I prefer to work my potatoes a little more than most. Here’s how we serve them to the children, who are now consuming 75% of the household’s potato rations, much of it in the following way:

Take several large pink-skinned waxy potatoes. Chop and peel if you prefer (I mash them skins and all). Boil until soft. Drain the pot, leaving the potatoes in. Roughly mash with a masher or ricer, then add enough whole milk to finish up with a finely whipped texture. Trial and error is your guide. Then, with a whisk, whip potatoes until they take on a sheen in the pot. Always do this by hand.

To serve, make a mountains of the silky mash on each plate and press three small holes into their peaks, telling the children you are going to name the holes Kibo, Mawenzi and Shira. They won’t know what you are talking about, but they will love the story anyway.

Then, half-fill each crater with very good olive oil and scatter grated hard white cheese such as pecorino over the mountains, and tell them that the scattered cheese is the snows of Kilimanjaro.

1.5.12

Almost-caramelised leeks with cherry tomatoes on polenta.

What would you rather eat, say for a special occasion dinner:

(a) The shoulder of a pig rolled around some cored heirloom apples stuffed with sage, butter and breadcrumbs and baked in a closed barbecue until the skin crackles and the meat falls apart, or

(b) Textured soy protein in a plastic casing.

I thought so. Manufactured vegetarian food is a concept that is fundamentally flawed, although it continues to hold shelf space at the supermarket. Its marketers claim their products simulate the flavour and texture of meat. One such product even claims that, when fried, its aroma stimulates the appetite. You’d be better off ordering a salad at Vlado’s and enjoying the smoke from the grill. Or is that a no-no, like passive smoking? There’s a million ways to enjoy vegetables without resorting to soy burgers. And I’m not even vegetarian. I just like vegetables.

Leek and late summer tomato stew on polenta

Cook polenta, following your preferred recipe. For this, I whisk a cup of polenta slowly into a litre of boiling water, added a good dash of salt and pepper and set it on a very low heat, stirring it frequently. When almost done I chop two large leaves of silverbeet very finely and add it to the polenta. It gives it a more robust flavour, not to mention adding to the nutrient value.

In another pan, warm some olive oil and add a scored clove of garlic, one chopped onion and a very finely chopped large leek (or use two smaller ones). Be sure to rinse the rounds from the green end as they may contain grit. Stir the leek and onion mixture and cook it slowly until soft. Now pour in half a cup of white wine - or more - and cook for another five minutes, before adding two dozen halved and very ripe vine-grown cherry tomatoes. If tomatoes are out of season, use a tin of good diced ones. Add a dozen or so very good fat black olives and cook for another fifteen minutes. I also added one halved chili straight from the garden: it added a little warmth but no great heat.

When done, ladle silverbeet-flecked polenta into serving bowls and top with leek, tomato and olive stew. Garnish with grated lemon peel mixed with finely chopped parsley; or spoil the whole purist vegetarian thing and load it up with a heap of very good grated parmigiano or romano cheese. Drink: a Mt Alexander Pinot Noir.