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

31.1.13

Vertigo.

It was in the late 1970s, one of those hot January days when the heat will go on into the night and you get no relief. We - my first wife and I - were sitting in one of the waiting rooms in the rabbit warren they used to call Sacred Heart Hospital. I was sitting, she was trying to sit. She was full term. It was late. We moved to a room. She lay. I sat. The night wore on. We were both 19.

In those days, they sent you - meaning the father - home if nothing seemed to be happening. His name was Mr Suter. At some stage they go beyond being Dr and revert to Mr. Mr Suter told me nothing seemed to be happening and why don't I go home and sleep, and he would call me when any action threatened. I went home.

I didn't sleep. It was a humid, sweltering night and someone was going to be born in it. I made a drink. I turned on the television. I watched the late late movie and sweated. Vertigo. Some time during the night I fell asleep and dreamed Hitchcock's special effects and swirling graphics.

The telephone rang at five to seven. Mr Suter. "You're the father of a boy. It was difficult, so I didn't call you earlier. He's fine. Come over and see him." The phone rang off. Life was less complicated then. Even telephone conversations were less complicated.

The Mark II Jaguar shot up Buckley Street, left into Pascoe Vale Road and then right at Moreland Road. It snarled. You never hear old Jaguars snarling any more because they are all owned by collectors, but they were common then and people drove them fast. I ran a red light at Melville Road. I didn't mean to run the red light; I was kind of distracted. Adrenalin, I suppose. Two more minutes and I was in the hospital's car park.

I went up to the ward and looked through the window. He was in a humicrib. Tiny, red.

Suddenly the adrenalin disappeared. I fainted.

*

Happy birthday, Andrew. Andrew is William, Thomas and Alexandra's Much Older Brother.

Zombie shoppers ride escalators to nowhere.

"Where's the food hall?" I asked one of the waiters behind the counter. "It used to be right here." I was just inside the Little Bourke Street entrance one hot afternoon in January.

"There's no food hall, only this cafe," he replied, puzzled. He was putting a giant hedge of bean sprouts on one of those baguette things and they overflowed onto the large white plate. "But there's another cafe on the third floor," he added. I didn't want another cafe. I wanted the Myer Food Hall.

Another waiter interposed, helpfully. "Oh. You must be thinking of the David Jones food hall. It's over there," he added, pointing in the general direction of the Bourke Street mall, as if I were a lost Swedish tourist here for the Australian Open.

I wasn't thinking of the David Jones food hall at all, but it was nice to see a major department store sending customers straight to its competitor. Perhaps it was a sign of retailers, usually described in the press as 'embattled', helping each other in the face of online shopping, usually described in the press as an 'onslaught'.

Or perhaps it was just a sign that Myer had made a giant blunder in killing off a department for which it was once so well-known. One of my contacts at their Docklands head office tells me they still get customers looking for the food hall. Some wander down to a darkened Myer Bargain Basement that is no longer there, while other lost souls ride the escalators up to the fifth floor in search of furniture. That department moved to the QV centre in Swanston Street years ago. Goodness knows where men's suits are.

30.1.13

Boy on a bucket.


Circa 1956. Older brother.

He was a February baby and must be about three in the picture, which means that next Monday ... he turns sixty!

UPDATE

An apple tree has long replaced the young nectarine tree at left; the straggly cotoneaster at right is still there 57 years later.

UPDATE 2

He looks a bit like this one.

29.1.13

Australia run by monkeys, according to straight-talking chef.

Robert Marchetti calls a spade a spade:
"The government are a bunch of monkeys who don't understand business," he said.

"We're not living in the 1960s anymore. Australia has its head stuck up its a*** [a** in some markets: ed] on IR."
For six years, industry bodies and business leaders have been pulling their punches on market re-regulation, let alone the vast swathes of social engineering wrought by Canberra. Yet it takes one little hot-headed chef just a few choice words to cut through the crap.


23.1.13

What if newspaper editors sacked their restaurant reviewers and employed truck drivers to write them instead?

There’d be less of this:
... the tiramisu is a studied but respectful deconstruction ... mains are artfully strewn ... the decent-enough $54 rib eye steak comes with a sauce (red wine) that I think we paid extra for. ... It's Texas meets Chiang Mai ... comes with mustard ice-cream ... the purist in me is screaming ... truffled butter with the house-baked rolls, an amuse bouche, a pre-dessert palate cleanser ... fish is a better bet if food miles are an issue ... Aztec-inspired dishes informed by his recent six-week field trip ... the menu doesn't follow the typical gradient of antipasti, zuppa, primi piatti, but respects its spirit by moving on to braised goat from the wood oven.
And more of this:
Bimbo’s is one of the old-timers among the eating places along the Hume Highway. It’s at Bargo, about 60 miles out of Sydney. The roadhouse is close to the highway but there’s a huge parking area alongside, and getting off the road is no problem. Day or night, you’ll always find a couple of rigs parked there.

Into Bimbo’s I waltzed. The restaurant is big, much bigger than you’d reckon from the outside. There were eight blokes in blue singlets demolishing T-bones when I arrived and yet the joint seemed empty. I counted seats for 58 at 26 tables. Everything looked bright and clean. The tables were Formica and chrome and the floor was vinyl squares.

It was in the middle of the day and the room was good and airy, helped by the big windows. They give you a clear view of the highway and the parking lot, so you’re the first to know if someone tries to knock off your rig.

A pleasant woman with big brown eyes and arched eyebrows came up and gave me the menu. She reminded me of the mother of an old girlfriend of mine and I didn’t know whether to feel hungry or guilty.

Anyhow the menu was huge. The sheila was back in a flash, because speed is what Bimbo’s is all about, but you’d need to do a course in speed reading to get through all the items. There must be a hundred of them. I had time to see you could get breakfast food and two soups, and she was saying What would you like. By golly she reminded me of my girlfriend’s old woman, except she knew what I would like and did her darndest to see I didn’t get it. Still, that was a lot of miles ago.

I said What’s your best steak and she said T-bone and solved a lot of problems. I’d joined another bloke at the table and he was a bit more fastidious. "They serve Chinese meals," he said brightly and then ordered a salmon salad, which shows you the sort of mind he must have.

The sheila asked me if I wanted my steak with salad or vegetables, and I said salad. So she brought vegetables. She even acted like that other sort! With the meal came a huge helping of peas, diced carrots and mashed potatoes burying the T-bone.

The steak was tough. I tried to cut it without much luck and the cove opposite gave me his knife, which had a bit of edge left on it. It was better, but I had to work hard on the meat. Still, there was plenty of it. You’d never starve at Bimbo’s. The Chinese food fancier did better with his salmon salad. He got a whole tin of red salmon on his plate and enough salad to suggest the cook was trying to clear the refrigerator so he could put the beer in. He finished the salmon a long time before I knocked off my last bit of steak. It was tasty but just didn’t like the idea of being sliced or chewed. The steak cost $1.70 and the salmon salad $1.50.

I had a milk shake for 22 cents and a double ice cream with flavouring for 15 cents. Both items were good and the ice cream acted like cold putty, filling the grooves the meat had cut in my throat.

Maybe I just struck a bad day. I’ll go back, because everything else I liked, and just to be reminded of an old flame gave me something to think about for the rest of the journey.

Bimbo’s, Bargo. 24 hour service. Toilets. Shower block. Parking – huge area. Distillate. Ice. TV. Motel accommodation alongside. No juke box. Not air conditioned.

By Bluey Tucker in Truck & Bus Transportation magazine, May 1974, page 105.

UPDATE 29/1/13

More comments, memorabilia and pictures at Tim Blair's blog.

22.1.13

What to cook during the Australian Open.

Why, this, of course!

Cook it with small green peas, and add small cubes of feta, chopped vine-ripened tomatoes, torn basil and cracked pepper.


21.1.13

Eggplant just wouldn't have worked.

Is the name of the food delivery business mentioned here a play on the song that just about sings itself in your head when you see it?

Perhaps not:
It comes from a chapter in Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbook Plenty called The Mighty Aubergine.

“Eggplant is one of my favourite vegies – well, it’s a fruit – because it’s a really good replacement for meat. It’s so hearty and delicious,” she says. “And I like the idea of the ‘mighty aubergine’, so I was like, ‘hello aubergine!’”
How do you do ....

18.1.13

What to do with a prawn.

Prawns used to be a luxury food. They were expensive. But people historically did dreadful things with them and wasted their money.

One of the things they did was to take a perfectly good martini glass, put diced tomato in it, drown it with thousand island dressing and then hang a prawn on the side of the glass like a seahorse trying escape a fishbowl.

Another thing was to truss prawns up in bacon, pierce them with a toothpick and then grill them, like a mass burning of medieval martyrs. They called them angels on horseback. Or was it devils on horseback? No. Devils on horseback had prunes inside. Can you imagine that? I used to serve them when I was a young waiter at AHA functions back in the days when the AHA had the state government in its pocket. But that's another story. Silver trays of blistered and glistening black bacon rolls smelling of the sea.

Why would you do that when you could just as easily gently cook prawns in white wine and garlic, remove the prawns when just opaque and reduce the wine with a little cream and a dash of cracked pepper? Well actually, they did that as well - garlic prawns - but then they sat the whole thing on a bed of rice. Creamy garlic sauce does not go with white rice.

But it does go with pasta.

Creamy prawns with pasta, garlic and white wine.

Not a lot to add to the above description. Once the pasta is on - usually spaghetti - peel and vein the prawns (buy Australian ones, not the pre-peeled Chinese ones), chop as much garlic as you like into tiny dice, warm it through in some white wine and olive oil, throw in the prawns, turn up the heat and cook until opaque, flipping them after a minute. Place the prawns on or through pasta in serving bowls, and quickly reduce sauce and pour over. Garnish with parsley. Optional: add a little sliced chilli into the sauce with the garlic.

Works particularly well with home made gnocchi - the sheeny potato dumplings pick up the garlicky, creamy sauce and they melt in your mouth. But never buy supermarket gnocchi. It is to the home made equivalent as a tennis ball is to an iced cupcake.

How not to design a stamp.

Australia Post has released its worst stamp designs ever.

Whether the musicians deserve the accolade is another question. I'd say yes to perhaps two or three.

16.1.13

Swordfish and parsley sauce.

Thirty-nine degrees tomorrow, so out comes the grill.

Barbecue and fish is a match made in heaven. Especially swordfish - otherwise known as spada - a fish robust enough to hold together on the grill, yet remains moist and tender (unless burnt, of course). As an oily fish, it promotes the development of its own barbecued flavour in the cooking. Swordfish is worth hunting down, even if you have to catch it yourself, lash it to the side of your boat and bring it in while fending off marauding sharks.

Make a simple parsley sauce - probably more correctly termed salsa, but the term is a little pretentious at an Australian barbecue - by blending two cups of chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley with two cloves of garlic, half a teaspoon each of ground cummin and coriander, a teaspoon of salt, half a cup or more of lemon juice and the same of good olive oil. Throw in half a small chilli for some heat. Adjust the lemon juice and oil to achieve a sauce that has a glistening consistency, not a sludge. You want it to run deliciously down the side of the grilled fish and give off its delicious aromas, not sit on top like a party hat.

Grill the swordfish steaks a few minutes either side; remove to serving plates, add a good amount of parsley sauce and squeeze more lemon juice over along with cracked pepper. Serve with sliced and grilled red-skinned potatoes - no need to peel.

Cold beer.

15.1.13

Children deprived.

Front page news this morning (subscription may be required):
" ... internet access (was) so bad that one school went without it during classes for four days in a row last year."
Perhaps it's the teachers who felt deprived.


14.1.13

Meatballs with mint and yogurt.

Is it hot enough for you, they kept asking the mayor of Birdsville. 'They' being reporters, of course. It's slow news season, so they ring up the person in charge of the hottest town in Australia and expect him to give an answer they can conflate with climate change. I liked his answer (subscription required):
"It's not hot, it's Birdsville," (Shire mayor) Mr Morton said. "It's summer. It's no different to going to the South Pole and finding ice."
It's refreshing when a public official calls a spade a spade. Unfortunately, the mayor's control over Birdsville does not extend to the local pool, which is run by Queensland Education Department bureaucrats 1600 kilometres away:
In the hot and dry, what has infuriated the population of 60 has been the Queensland Education Department's refusal to open the only pool in town other than for two hours on a Saturday, fearing safety and liability risks if it is unsupervised. Mr Morton heard late on Friday the pool could open if volunteers with bronze medallion qualifications and a first-aid officer were present. "It seemed funny to have a pool in a town like Birdsville and not be able to use it," he said. The half a dozen kids in town had instead been using fire hoses and buckets to keep cool before heading to a billabong when the sun dipped after 5.30pm.

*

Recipe for a hot night: mint meatballs.

With wet hands, mix 600g lean minced steak, a cup and a half of finely chopped parsley, half a cup of finely chopped mint, a teaspoonful of oregano, two crushed and chopped cloves of garlic and a good dash each of salt and pepper. Form the herby meat mixture into walnut-size balls.

Grill until done.

Meanwhile, grill or bake three or four whole red capsicums until soft. Cool them slightly in a brown paper bag and then peel and core them. Lay each baked capsicum on a plate, add six cubes of very good feta and six black mammoth olives onto each. Drizzle olive oil and scatter dried oregano and salt and pepper. Now add the hot meatballs.

Squeeze lemon juice liberally over the meatballs and serve with a dip made from yogurt mixed with diced cucumber and chopped mint.

Don't forget the bread - tear one of those large flat Turkish loaves into strips for dipping into the yogurt and holding the meatballs. Available at many places in and around Sydney Road. It's a long way from Birdsville.

11.1.13

Five dogs, two cats and a magpie with a broken beak.

William and Thomas used to play on the hill at the front of the empty block that sloped down into a gully on the south side of the beach house. Some local children had built a humpy there with a skeleton of ti-tree and foliage walls. The boys used to take their toys up there, and I would watch them from the front porch over my book or newspaper in the morning sun. Then a bulldozer came in one day in May 2011 and took away the top of the hill, and within eight months a stone and timber house had cascaded down into the gully.  The owner built it himself and they were in by November, because they were having a second child.

They also had a dog, a gregarious black and brown kelpie cross. Because her new house was surrounded by paving, Milly adopted our front lawn as her daytime habitat where she would turn large bones into shards, or sleep. Each time we arrived at the beach house Milly would greet us and of course come into the house encouraged by the children. Alexandra had to be taught how to pat and not pull her tail, but you could do anything to her. She was that kind of dog.

We had dogs on the other side of the house. Thomas would open the side gate and let two golden retrievers gallop in and William would hide.  Bailey grew so fat  he became almost dangerous. He stood on my bare foot one day and he felt like an elephant. We stopped giving him tidbits.

No-one knows who owns the cat, but everyone looks after it. It appears suddenly, out of nowhere, miaowing for food, some time after we arrive. It has been around a couple of years. Illegal, of course; wandering cats are not allowed on the Mornington Peninsula. But dogs are not allowed off-leash on the beach and everyone ignores that. One time the cat slept on William's bed all night. Sometimes it  comes in and does its grooming routine in the morning sun at the east window and then disappears. When Milly first moved in, she bounded at the cat jocularly and received a fearful scratch on the nose. Now they kept their distance.

One day late last year, Milly's owner told me they were selling. The cascading house had too many levels for small children.  Their two year had fallen on stairs and broken an arm. Another family, with teenage children, bought the place as their holiday house just after Christmas. They have a dog. We haven't met it yet.

*

Surrounded by animals in town, too. Our house there has two compost bins. The one under the lili pili hedge has been emptying too quickly. Vegetable scraps don't rot that fast. Rats! Tiger, our neighbour's cat, has been spending much time in our garden recently. She's working through the rat family, one by one. Tiger is a grey athletic masterpiece of the species, similar in colour and shape and power to the Jaguar mascot.

That neighbour also has a magpie and a shih-tzu dog. The magpie, Half-beak (because she has a broken lower beak), clops onto our side fence each night for scraps. The shih-tzu, Genie, stays in their backyard and barks every night until about 8 o'clock. It's not loud. It sounds like a lamb sneezing.

10.1.13

Proverb of the week: fine words butter no parsnips.

Just when I had almost despaired of the future of the English language, I found the above expression in one of the millions of political blogs that choke the internet like river weeds in the Murray; their endless barb-filled comments threads stretching out infinitely like a vicious thorny blackberry vine growing over an abandoned 1930s Dandenong Ranges house. (Yes, I'm practising for the Bulwer-Lytton awards.)

Fine words butter no parsnips. Five words that might first have been uttered in the eleventh, fourteenth or sixteenth century. Who knows or cares? While Twitter is stale after a couple of years, a fine proverb thinks nothing of half a millennium. And will the word hashtag even make it to the year 2525? If man is still alive ... (Zager & Evans, 1969).

Fine words butter no parsnips. Why? Because buttered parsnips were what you had before potatoes came along. There are plenty of ways to butter parsnips, from simply mashed with butter to baked with butter and honey, but the following was my favourite parsnip recipe for a long time, even though the white root vegetable* plays only a backing role.

Baked fish with root vegetables.

Peel and slice a parsnip and a carrot into discs and place them in a lidded baking dish along with an onion chopped into segments. Barely cover with white wine and water, about 75/25, and place in a moderate oven. Parsnip has a strong, sweet taste and, cooked in the wine, produces a delicious aroma.

When the vegetables are almost done, remove dish from oven and add the fish. Use a fillet of non-oily fish that flakes easily for best effect; whatever is fresh and inexpensive at the market. Simply lay it over the top of the vegetables. Now for the butter: place a large puck of butter and a light shower of white pepper on the fish and put the dish back in the oven. As it melts, the butter will baste the fish, which will also be infused by the aromas of the vegetables. Ready when the fish is cooked through.

Lift the fish and vegetables out of the fluid, lay on serving plates and serve with florets of broccoli and mashed potato. The fluid in the baking dish can be reduced with a little cream for a richer dish.

Drink: very cold sauvignon blanc.

*My favourite parsnip anecdote: when I once placed some parsnips on the weigher at the check-out, the attendant said brightly: "Oh, white carrots! How long have we had those in stock?"

8.1.13

The last uncle.

My father's brother, Uncle Patrick Melville Kennedy, the youngest of five, died on Saturday.

He is now with his older four siblings; I imagine his reunion with Danny after 73 years will be especially joyful.

Only if you believe in heaven.

*

Requiem Mass at St Christopher's, Airport West on Thursday morning.

"It is best for your parrot to be secured in its cage when alcohol is served."

Yes, someone really said that:

wine drinking parrot
TEDDY the green eclectus parrot gets cranky if he is refused a sip of wine from the glass of his owner Frank Mahr.
The eight-year-old parrot loves to sit on the shoulder of Mr Mahr, 84, and often shares a drop of white wine.
"About three years ago, he decided to poke his beak into my wine glass and taste it," Mr Mahr said.
"I was surprised that he really enjoyed it and keeps doing it but only a tiny bit.
"The bird flies into the kitchen to help with the cooking and to taste what is being prepared."
Melbourne parrot expert Dr Colin Walker said while small amounts of alcohol apparently had not hurt Teddy, it was not recommended.
"Eclectus parrots are long-living, intelligent parrots that form strong bonds with their caregivers and tend to share their lifestyle," he said.
RSPCA spokesman Tim Pilgrim said: "It is best for your parrot to be secured in its cage when alcohol is served."

7.1.13

Poster posted.

This poster - no, not an example - this actual poster sat above the door of my bedroom from late 1973 until I left home in 1977. The poster came with the original Dark Side of the Moon LP I bought in Brashes record department in Elizabeth Street in November 1973. I played it on my in-room Kenwood stereo - white speakers with brown cloth covers - purchased from the same store in that year.

Other records I bought around that time included Neil Young's Harvest, Dvorak's New World Symphony, the Eagles' Desperado, Sun Music by Peter Sculthorpe and Holst's The Planets. The latter two worked well with Pink Floyd in rotation, a kind of astral travel soundtrack to accompany the rigours of reading economics, D. H. Lawrence and Alvin Toffler's Future Shock. It wasn't all serious listening. I had 3XY on most of the time.

Sculthorpe seems sadly neglected these days. Should be in every Australian schoolchild's musical education.

*

Thanks to my brother Martin for rescuing the Pink Floyd poster after I abandoned it in early 1977, leaving home prior to the birth of a son who would become the father of the thoughtful voice identifier in my previous post.

Voice identified.

We, meaning I and several children, were walking through the shallows a hundred metres off Blairgowrie beach in 35-degree heat early on Saturday afternoon when Shanra, 8, told me, "You sound like the mammoth from Ice Age."

4.1.13

Obsessed with chickpeas?

Not really. It's just that their texture adds body to a multitude of dishes and the bland taste welcomes a host of ingredients. And they're cheap. And easy to source and cook.

Now all I have to do is get the children to eat them.

Curried chickpeas with fresh coriander

Fry a large chopped onion in a heavy, deep pan. When almost done, add a scored clove or two of garlic, half an inch of peeled and finely grated ginger, and one fresh chopped chilli of your preferred type. Fry some more until the latter ingredients soften. Now add a teaspoon of cummin powder. Stir.

Drain a tin of chickpeas and add, along with a tin of cherry tomatoes (diced if cherries unavailable) and half a cup - or more - of chicken stock or water. Salt to taste if using water or low-salt stock. Stir and cook on a low heat for as long as you can resist the incredible aroma.

Stir through half a cup of yogurt and scatter some coriander leaves and fine threads of ginger over the dish before serving. Enjoy with fenugreek roti and plain basmati rice on the side.

And on a day like today, a very, very cold beer.  It's 41 degrees outside right now. Celsius.

2.1.13

The bridge keeper's cottage.

The highway hugged the river's voluptuous curves, staying faithful for a hundred rolling kilometres before tiring of the relationship and breaking straight northwest. The river rolled southwards and then west, betrayed by the line of red gums following it like a lost army. Then red dirt and orange groves in perfect square rows. Late in the day the sun drove shafts of light through the gaps, flickering gold on the road like a projector that has run out of film.

It was still hot. Swan Hill had come and gone. No room at the inn: inn being one of those camping grounds that is a mini-city at this time of year, complete with a massive playground with lurid plastic climbing toys about a hundred feet high, a giant waterslide above that and six thousand sweltering caravans below. You could hear it coming. I stopped anyway and went into the reception office. Instead of a slamming flywire screen, you go in through an electric sensor door and are greeted by air conditioning, grey decor like a medical centre, and two receptionists wearing matching corporate uniforms. No, there wasn't any spare room, but it would have cost $68 to pitch a tent anyway. We drove on. The noise receded. The heat stayed with us. It was five o'clock.

Now the river had come back to the highway, which was on the Victorian side. Orange and almond groves came right up to the roadside with honesty fruit stalls at the front. Bag of oranges, $5. Leave the money in the tin. Then Boundary Bend, population 182, where Charles Sturt's whaleboat met the Murray one day in 1830, having sailed down the Murrumbidgee. Nuts? That's nothing. He sailed it back up again*; or more precisely, part-rowed and part-carried it back up.  I love stories like these, because they are madder than science fiction, and because they are true. Imagine rowing a whaleboat a thousand kilometres up a river against the flow. Insane. Or maybe we have just lost the instinct for necessity.

Then over a 1924 single lane lift span bridge into a town where a small, quiet caravan park happened to have a vacant patch of grass. The grass was lush and there was a sailcloth over the grass for shade. $25.

I got the tent up without waking two black labradors who were snoozing in the hot silence across a concrete pathway and then crossed the road with the boys to the river. A tiny three-room bridge keeper's cottage, now selling local art and farm produce, sat on the bank adjacent to the bridge. The man in the shop, a retired Canberra press gallery photographer and part-time farmer, told me the original bridge keeper raised eleven children in the cottage. Five metres from the river's edge.

*The Overlanders by Garry Hogg, Pan Books, 1964