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


1970s: still in the steam age.

Steaming: Essendon City Council road roller, 1970
The photograph was taken by my sometime-freelance photographer father and published in the Essendon Gazette, possibly around the time the roller was to be taken out of service. The location is The Boulevard, Essendon, on the north side of the Maribyrnong River.

I recall being frightened by a similar machine hissing and rumbling up our street in West Essendon, near the Niddrie border, when I was a pre-schooler and the roads were still being made. I used to hide in the old red brick front verandah, later demolished to add another bedroom for the growing family.

Thanks to Martin for rescuing the old print and uploading it here.


Gnocchi with roasted red pepper, leek and avocado.

It was a hot night. I was sitting on the front porch with a cold beer and a book on the table beside me. The ancient incandescent globe above cast a soft yellow glow in the dying light and the oppressive heat. The heavy silence was broken only by the sprinkler hissing softly in a small shady corner of the garden.

Then the crickets started. I heard that crickets can generate 100 decibels, or is that just an urban myth? The noise was deafening. Do crickets go deaf? The noise came from small cracks in a dryer part of the lawn. So I moved the sprinkler. The noise stopped. I sat back in my chair and felt a heel for drowning crickets for doing nothing more than making a noise. Maybe they weren't drowning. Maybe they were drinking.

All these thoughts stopped me from being able to concentrate on my book. Then there was another distraction. From out of the window behind me stole an aroma so incredibly divine, I could only stand up like a zombie and follow it into the kitchen, via the door of course, not the window. I wasn't that hungry. As the screen door slammed behind me, a thumping of small feet grew louder and a small figure emerged from the semi-darkness of the room at the top of the passage.

A red pepper and two cloves of garlic were baking in the oven; and a leek was braising in some white wine on the stove top. Dinner for two is timed to coincide with the small figure having just fallen asleep. But how do you get a two-year-old to sleep when it still 30 degrees in the house? Two-word answer: you can't. The boys talk themselves to sleep, but the two-year-old has the energy of a lion. She toddled into the kitchen.

Gnocchi with roasted red pepper, leek and avocado.

Place a whole red pepper into a moderate oven with a couple of unpeeled garlic cloves.

Peel and boil four or five potatoes until soft. Press through a ricer or simply mash, but ensure you catch all the lumps. Place on a floured board, make a crater, crack an egg into the crater, add half a cup or more of flour and combine with your hands. (Ingredient amounts vary. It's trial and error. Make this four or five times and you will arrive at your own idea of perfection.) Roll dough into snakes an inch thick. Chop into one-inch lengths. Place on a floured platter until ready to cook.

Chop a leek into very fine rings. Rinse to remove any grit, especially towards the top. Braise the leek rings very gently until very soft in a pan with a dash of white wine, a little olive oil, and lots of pepper. Towards the end, slice an avocado into sections and add to pan. They only have to heat through.

When the red pepper is done, cool in a paper bag, then peel and chop into strips.

Place the gnocchi into salted boiling water. Let them rise and float about for a few seconds, then rescue them with a slotted spoon, drain, and gently combine them with the slinky leek and avocado mixture and the fragrant red pepper pieces. Pile the pasta and vegetables up on serving plates in little mountains and flutter shaved parmesan cheese over the top. Decorate with parsley.


Later. I went outside, turned off the sprinkler and sat down again with the book. Everything was quiet inside now, the child a crumpled ball of tousled hair and white nightdress dreaming two-year-old dreams in her tiny bed.


Red alert for Port Hedland.

Rusty is a common name for red heelers.

This one is about to bite.
I was wrong.

So you might have noticed word verification is back on. Is there a better way? I never really liked the idea of comment moderation but it might be a better alternative to trying to read murky letters in word verification.



OK, I'll try the Registered User filter and see if that works. Word verification is impossible to see.


"Like the 60s or something."

Vinyl is making a comeback, as in LP records. I never liked CDs. I never liked anything about them. The discs, the plastic cases, the size. Nothing. The sound was as cold as an Antarctic morning.

Now vinyl is coming back:
... old-school record stores are reporting a booming trade on the back of gen-Y music lovers drawn to the "warm, rich and full" analog sound and "big, sexy, artistic" album covers.

"This new generation that grew up with MP3s discovers vinyl and they're blown away by the difference," said Chris Pepperell, owner of Sydney's Red Eye Records.
Quote of the story comes from nineteen year old Hannah Sellwood:
"I just love to pretend as though I'm in an era I've never actually lived in -- like the 60s or something," she said.


Now let's put vinyl to the test. Slip on something with a lush strings and plenty of air, and a cool clipped voice that lets the warmth through along with the ambient clicks and pops of vinyl sound reproduction.

This works perfectly and might just be one of the best tracks ever recorded. When I play it on my 1950s Grundig stereogram, you can just about polish the sound as it hangs in the air.


Out of the archive: an old meme.

Remember 'memes'? I found an unfinished one in my drafts when looking for an old recipe. The meme went all the way back to 2006. I had intended to answer it at the time but never got around to it.

Memes were an enjoyable waste of time because you had to think about what you wrote, but they died out when things got faster on the web. Now you can insult people in a few seconds on Twitter.

So let's resurrect the meme and wallow in a bit of web nostalgia.

The 'one book' meme, circa 2006.

1. One book that changed your life.
Books don't change your life. Not really. Unless you count changing the way you read. I read John Buchan's Greenmantle online in 1999, which is last century. But I changed straight back to reading hard copies again, and have read very few online since. Nor do I own an e-reader. I will one day.

2. One book you have read more than once.
Farewell, My Lovely. Curiously, one edition had the comma in the title; another didn't. Most likely a pretentious cover art designer thought it interfered with his design. Chandler would roll in his grave. The omitted comma changes the sense from a personal goodbye to an imperative directed at a third party.

3. One book you would want on a desert island.
Encyclopaedia Britannica. I could read it in summer (or build a shade house with it), and burn it in winter, for warmth.

4. One book that made you cry.
I can't recall crying over any book after childhood. But when I was four or five I genuinely cried over a picture book in which a character was left by his friend who mistakenly believed the character had done some damage to his house. The picture showed the friend driving away at top speed while the character rained down fat tears of abandonment and despair. I followed. Abandonment is the saddest experience.

5. One book that made you laugh.
Three Men in a Boat in adulthood, dozens in childhood, everything from Hugh Lofting to A. A. Milne to ... the question was one.

6. One book you wish had been written.
Biggles Finally Gets Von Stalhein by Capt. W. E. Johns.

7. One book you wish had never had been written.
The rest of Raymond Chandler's previously unfinished Poodle Springs.

8. One book you are currently reading.
Ferretabilia: The Life and Times of Nation Review by Richard Walsh. (University of Queensland Press 1993.) A great find - I picked it up for a few dollars in Savers last week. Walsh selected extracts from the 1970s counterculture newspaper, adding his own commentary. While nominally leftwing, Nation Review was so politically incorrect it could not possibly be published now thanks to the hair-trigger sensitivity of today's social culture. The book is littered with early Leunig art from the newspaper, making it a treasure.

9. One book you have been meaning to read.
So Greek: Memoirs of a Conservative Leftie by Nikki Savva. I finally bought it yesterday - the last copy at Readings - so I'll get around to it soon.

Over to you. Answer as few or as many as you wish, or make up new questions.


That isn't writing, it's typing.

Children do dreadful things when they pretend machines are toys. In the early 1960s we had an ancient typewriter; a big, tall, black monster of a machine that sat on felt-covered feet. I forget the manufacturer. I'd bash away at the keys and get the type bars all entangled at the platen like crashed cars piling up on a freeway, and then prise them away again one by one. It was a heavy machine, but if you slammed the return hard enough the whole thing would slide left an inch or so. This was because it the only place we could sit the typewriter was on the kitchen table, and the kitchen table always had a tablecloth on it. The tablecloth taught me to be gentle with things. Bash, bash, ding, rrrrip, bang, slide.

We used to type pretend menus and slip them inside those 1960s padded vinyl folding menu holders that had the title of the café embossed in gold on the cover, along with a picture of an elegant couple dining in front of a hovering pencil-moustached waiter holding a white cloth-covered bottle. (Failure of the shift key would result in the often-seen error: 'today8s special'.)

At first, our monster typewriter had a black ribbon, but later my father brought home a blue and red one, and there was a mad rush to the typewriter to type words in technicolour. If you fiddled about with the register you could get half-blue and half-red type. This was fun. I wrote letters to pen-friends (a primitive form of Facebook) entirely in blue and red.

Then I grew up and worked in an agency in St Kilda Road, and there was a brief and quite odd twilight when writers abandoned typewriters, went back to hand-writing, and had their words typed by a super-fast secretary driving an IBM Selectric. This was cheaper than buying one for every writer (meaning an IBM, not a secretary). These were halcyon days because you could go to lunch, or disappear, or go home, while someone else typed a twelve-page brochure, or a 30-second radio commercial for that matter. We had fun choosing typefaces, all on different golf balls, as if it was important. I preferred sans serif fonts, because serifs looked wrong now, like too many details on a clock. We went through a lot of stages fast. It was hard to keep up. TippEx. Wite-Out. Contact paper that removed the wrong letter.

I bought my first electronic typewriter from Joel Harris Office Supplies in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy and it could have been the last typewriter they sold. It hummed. It weighed no more than a book. The letters made no indentations on the paper, so they did not look as impressive as an old-fashioned typed page. The machine had a correction ribbon, which I was always replacing, until the next era. When computers became mainstream, they threw out all the Selectrics and electronic typewriters, and sacked the secretaries, and gave everyone a keyboard and a screen; and invented the ugly phrase "word processing". The expression "That isn't writing, it’s word processing" just doesn't sound as blunt. We had to relearn our typing skills. But computers found favour because of our two friends 'cut' and 'paste'.

We didn’t look back. But International Typewriter Appreciation Month is looking back. It doesn’t seem to have a headquarters, or a three-day conference, or a website (which would be ridiculous).

But here’s a good place to start.

Your early - or later - writing experiences or anecdotes (pens, typewriters, electronic devices, whatever) in comments please.


Foodies not impressed: someone moved their cheese to a discount supermarket.

It's a hard life being a gourmet foodie. Or is one of those words redundant? The trick is to be the first to get on to something new and exclusive, and then drop it like a week-old meme when the mainstream discovers it.

For example, God forbid a supermarket - a discount supermarket - should win an exclusive cheese show award. An award? Aldi won eight gold, 41 silver and picked up Best Contributor at Royal Sydney - in its first attempt. Looks like the old stagers have been resting on their limburgers.

Uproar and outrage ensued.

Pointedly, the ABC accompanied its story with a picture of a housewife pushing a trolley out of an Aldi store with her toddler in tow - he probably eats Bega Bar-B-Cubes! or Cheestiks! The Age went typically pseudo-intellectual, wheeling out a cheesemaker's take on cultural identity:
Perhaps the decision to award Aldi the lion's share of produce medals for dairy this year is simply a fitting acknowledgement of a seismic shift in how we consider the supermarkets: not solely as dispensers of perfect, cheap food, but as repositories of significant aspects of our cultural identity.
But Aldi is not getting into seismic shifts:
Aldi Australia spokeswoman Annike Morgan yesterday made no apologies for providing "high quality products at a low price", adding 94 per cent of its dairy products were Australian-made. "Many of our cheese suppliers run small local operations, while others are somewhat larger with production facilities throughout Australia," she said. "The cheeses entered were expertly sourced from a number of regions throughout Australia."
Cheese inexpensive enough that even discount supermarket customers can buy it?

Yes! Proven by foodie judges in a blind taste test.

Days you remember.

August 1969: I am on my way to a scout camp near Gisborne in my father’s near-new blue HK Holden Belmont. A song comes on the radio. It is a new Rolling Stones song called Honky Tonk Women. I turn the volume up to almost maximum. My father turns it down again.

17 February 1973: the Rolling Stones play at one in the afternoon at the open-air Kooyong tennis centre in 105 degrees Fahrenheit. No-one in Melbourne that day will ever forget it, whether they were there or not.

16 February 2013: I am driving to Lygon Street for an early lunch with the family*. During his program Off the Record, 3RRR’s Brian Wise plays back to back Rolling Stones tracks, recorded during that 1973 tour. Rocks Off is followed by Honky Tonk Women. I turn up the volume. My passenger turns it down again.

*Pasta fagioli, pasta with tuna and napoletana sauce, calzone rustico with ricotta, mozzarella, parmesan and hot salami, and short macchiatos for the parents; margherita pizza, spaghetti and strawberry crepes for the children. An hour in Readings afterwards, the children reading The Hobbit spin-offs.


Big arrows pointing the wrong way.

Elli's Deli was always too small. It was square, with counters all around. The staff stood on a postage stamp in the middle while hundreds of customers came at them from all sides. The staff were separated from the customers by display cases several feet in width. Goodness knows where they put the money. Probably under one of the cheese wheels. Elli's Deli was a Coburg institution. Some people came to Coburg just to visit the shop. Elli's had a Greek heritage, but it sold all foodstuffs of the type that was once called 'Continental'. Entire suburbs grew up on Greek and Italian home-style cooking for which the ingredients came from Elli's Deli. Those same ingredients in turn came from Melbourne's foodie suburbs. No, not St Kilda or Fitzroy, or even Brunswick. Look at the packaging on the basics on the shelves in Elli's Deli - sauces, fresh cheese, pasta, pita bread, etc - and you'll see Thomastown, Reservoir and Tullamarine addresses. That's where the small to medium factories are. There are other suburbs where you can buy overpriced gourmet imports, and where you can sit around in cafes whose customers like to think of themselves as the leaders of some kind of culinary nouvelle vague, but the real engine room of Melbourne's food scene is the industrial belt that has supplied Melbourne's immigrant population for close to sixty years.

I walked past the other day and it was gone. I had noticed a sign in Elli's window late last year saying they were moving farther south down Sydney Road. But in its empty windows were six or seven sheets of white butcher's paper drawn with giant arrows in blue Texta underlined in red pointing the other way - back into the market and reading "Deli at back of market". Odd. I walked into the market past the tobacco shop and the cheap hairdresser and the chicken shop and the fish stall. No Elli's Deli. But another deli. The competition.

I walked back out on to Sydney Road and down the street. It was only about ten shops down. It was massive; a huge space with stalls up to the ceiling and, in that, four or five skylights made from rescued Edwardian stained glass windows; and a coffee bar at the front. The ladies who serve you have a football field to themselves now behind the display cases and the customers don't have to stand on anyone else's toes except their own, because they are still short and the counters are still tall.

"I went into the market," I told the lady who served me. "Who put the arrows the wrong way?" I must have sounded like one of those cartoon characters who have been duped by a gangster flipping the roadsigns.

"The other deli," she replied, putting two leek sausages and ten slices of kefalograviera into a plastic bag. Looks like their former premises are owned by the market.

"And you couldn't specify a notice in the window pointing to your new shop?"

She smiled. "We don't care. We got enough customers. They'll find us."

They really didn't care. This would cause fistfights, court cases and drawn lawyers at VCAT in 999 out of 1000 other cases.

"That's the life," the lady added. She meant "That's life" but she was translating c'est la vie direct from French into Greek into her head, and then re-translating it into English.

And anyway, I knew what she meant.


Worldwide web or Shelob's Lair?

Having cancelled my 'account' at one of those annoyingly ubiquitous social media networks last year, I reopened it last week, for the sole reason that I had to find an industry contact. See? It works. You are identified by your name and an optional photograph, and contacted via your email account.

The following day, my email account had hundreds of emails in the spam folder, and hundreds more the spam filter had missed in the inbox. Something had also sent spam emails from my email account to names in my contacts list. Furthermore, I had several emails responding to link requests that I had not sent.

Are these incidents 'linked'? I don't know. The internet is a dangerous place. Wouldn't want to get trapped in it.

I might call in the ACC. They seem to be doing a good job with sport. (Although so far it's all grandstand and no action, like the entertainment before the grand final.)


Will the internet supplant mothers' advice?

Cooking is an inexact science, but once you stumble on something that works, it often becomes a favourite. One way to stumble on a great recipe is to have someone who has been cooking it for forty years - and their mother before that - right there in the kitchen next to you, and show you how to do it, many times, until you can do it instinctively. That's the old, slow, inefficient way.

The modern, fast, efficient way is the internet. The internet knows everything. The internet takes up less room than an aged mother-in-law and you don't have to feed it. The internet doesn't nag. It just gives you options. Millions of them. Billions of them. No need to hand down recipes to your children any more. No need to teach them anything. Just give them an iPad and walk away.

Stuffed red cabbage rolls.

Buy a red cabbage. Or grow one.

Mix half a kilogram minced beef with three quarters of a cup of basmati rice, a tablespoon of chopped parsley, a teaspoon of coriander powder, half a teaspoon each of cumin powder and salt, a little cracked pepper, two chopped cloves of garlic, and the juice of half a lemon.

Steam 10-12 red cabbage leaves. Wait! That's what six million internet recipes tell you to do. But no-one in the history of the world has yet been able to remove a complete cabbage leaf from a raw head of cabbage. They rip and tear. This brings to mind an image of the home chef trying to remove whole leaves from a raw cabbage and becoming frustrated and throwing the cabbage through the kitchen door and into the hallway, smashing the precious ceramic umbrella holder by the front door. Just because of an internet recipe shortcut.

A better way is to core the cabbage, boil it whole, cool it and then carefully remove the softened leaves. Maybe boiling a whole cabbage makes the recipe sound too hard. Everything has to sound easy. Even if it isn't. I think I'm beginning to understand.

Having carefully removed the softened leaves, make fat cigars - Monopoly tycoon-style - of the mince mixture. Roll the cigars up in the cabbage leaves, leaving a bit of expansion room for the rice.

Meanwhile, slightly reduce two tablespoons of tomato paste, a cup or so of chicken stock, the juice of two lemons and two crushed garlic cloves in a pan.

Place the cabbage cigars snugly in a casserole and pour enough fluid over the cabbage rolls to just cover them. Squeeze more lemon juice and shake some pepper over the top. Place a lid or foil on the casserole. Bake an hour or more, checking and adjusting fluid as necessary.