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

26.2.14

Hot chocolate: a memory of Mexico.

Last time I was in Mexico, a housewife passed on to me the following deceptively simple recipe ....

That was never going to work. I've never been to Mexico*, but I kind of like the music, to quote a 1970s songwriter; but he was talking about Spain.

This is a deceptively simple recipe, but it works well if you like the intense heat of your chili hit softened by a smoky cocoa and cumin background, like a Gulf breeze rolling across the Yucatan peninsula.

Chili con carne.

Brown 500g of beef mince in a little oil. Remove. Dice an onion and saute in the same pan with a little more oil. Dice a red capsicum, crush a clove of garlic, chop one, two or three small hot chili(s) and add these to the softened onion. Cook a minute or two. Add a tablespoon of cumin powder, two teaspoons of coriander, and half a teaspoon each of cinnamon and cocoa powder. Stir to combine.

Add the cooked mince, two tablespoons of tomato paste and a cup of vegetable or beef stock or plain water. Stir and cook ten minutes. Add a drained can of red kidney beans. Cook another 20 minutes.

*

I haven't been to Mexico, but I remember something that happened there once.

It was a radio broadcast, one hot spring afternoon in October 1968. I was ten or eleven. I had walked a mile or so to Buckley Street for a haircut at Tony the barber's, near the corner of Fawkner Street. Tony was cutting a customer's hair so I sat in one of the waiting chairs and picked up a Man magazine from the stack. A radio on the shelf was playing Elenore or Delilah or possibly Mrs Robinson on 3UZ. It was the year of female names in song titles, the degree of formality not necessarily indicating the nature or the relationship between subject and artist. (In Delilah's case the relationship went very badly wrong.)

The song finished and John Vertigan announced a cross to Mexico for the Olympic 800 metre final. Tony had finished the last customer and I was in the chair now. The race started. Something about a Kenyan in the lead. A Ryan's bus roared past the barber shop, and the commentary was inaudible for a while. Tony kept snipping. Then the bell: one lap to go. The Kenyan in front. Two hundred metres. Then the commentator mentioned an Australian. Tony stopped mid-snip. The home straight. Ralph Doubell hit the front with metres to go, and won the gold medal. Tony finished my hair, and I paid him and left. Outside, another Ryan's bus was ploughing its way towards Essendon station. It was still a hot day, but the air felt cold on my shorn head.

19.2.14

Cannery Row.

Now let me get this straight. The federal government refused to hand over a fistful of dollars (yours and mine) to the Shepparton Preserving Company so the canner could build, I don't know, some new sheds? A mechanised fruit picker? A bin for peach and apricot pits? A new office for the managing director?

Despite this obvious, sensible and prudent move, the Victorian government's premier, Dr Denis Napthine*, stepped into the dispute and handed over $22 million (yours and mine, but only if you live in Victoria) to the 'embattled' canner for product 'development', embattled meaning no-one is buying its tins of fruit any more.

Now to the point. I went to the supermarket. Rows and rows of cans with convenient ring-pull tops.

Then the SPC cans of fruit. No ring-pull tops. You have to rattle around in your kitchen drawer and find a manual can opener (I also have an electric one dating to the 1960s in my collection of kitchen oddities) and physically open your can of SPC pears or fruit salad, for which you paid $3.80 to $4.20. You could have paid as little as $1.49, but you are patriotic, and you are happy to throw $2 or more at SPC, like a street beggar, every time you buy a can of fruit.

SPC is owned by Coca-Cola.

Dr Napthine has donated $22 million of Victorian taxpayers' money to a worldwide corporation to introduce the same technology it had already been using in its cans since the 1960s.

Denis Napthine, you are a prize chump.

* The "Dr" title refers to the premier's original career as a veterinary surgeon, a qualification that means he knows only too well how to flog a dead horse.

18.2.14

Tomatoes arrive in the heat.

They are coming in all at once, clusters of orbs changing overnight from pale green to orange and then to red: not burgundy red or crimson or any one of a number of other reds, but that unique red of ripe tomatoes that is as warm and deep the sun dropping into the Indian Ocean, a sight I have not seen since the great autumn of 1988 and, before that, the seminal coming of age summer of 1971/2, when Australian cricket spawned a new sensation, the moustached fast bowler named Lillee who would inspire, both in style and in facial hair, another sensation forty-one years later.

That was exhausting to write so I can imagine how it reads. Yes, it's Bulwer-Lytton time again; the competition that asks you to write the opening sentence of the worst-ever novel. Shouldn't be hard: just read the average corporate mission statement or the introduction to a bureaucrat's PowerPoint presentation.

*

The crop had not looked great, but that changed last week. Most are cherry tomatoes, best eaten in a simple salad. Chop an onion, halve the tomatoes, combine in a bowl cut side up, drizzle with very good green olive oil and a dash of vinegar, scatter a shard of fresh basil over and shower with salt and pepper. Heavenly as a side dish to grilled fish or spoon over fresh crusty bread.

There are more coming. I'm looking for ideas.

5.2.14

The Cult of Non-Celebrity: Four Chefs You've Never Heard Of.

Postage stamps used to depict noteworthy individuals such as queens, explorers or generals; or significant events such as the hundredth anniversary of the invention of the combine harvester.

Not any more. Australia Post has just released a new series of stamps portraying celebrity chefs, obviously having decided that these people do not get enough exposure via television, radio, newspapers, weblogs, Facebook, Twitter, and life-size cardboard cut-outs in supermarkets.

The subjects for the stamps include Neil Perry, who once franchised his name to cardboard packets of airline food, Kylie Kwong and some others whose names I forget. Octogenarian Margaret Fulton features as the token ‘retro’ food celebrity, which is like serving ironic lamingtons at your dinner party.

There is a sense of clichéd obviousness about this, as there is about most of popular culture. It would have been far more interesting to depict some of Australia’s unknown chefs. Chefs who had never been on television, signed an autobiography, had a Facebook 'like' or cooked molecules.

Here’s a few suggestions:

Cimino

Cimino was head chef during the early 1980s at the 1950s relic the Pink Pussy Cat bistro in the Carlton Club hotel. Cimino had a surname but no-one knew what it was. In his late forties, he had a red face and was bald on top. He looked like Gene Hackman. Cimino was often belligerent and sometimes hostile. The Pink Pussy Cat’s clientele was diverse, and Cimino faced great challenges, from catering for the enormous appetites of the entire Carlton football team after training on Thursday nights, to dealing with the dietary peccadilloes of pale academics from Melbourne University, who were organic vegetarian locavore fair-trade single estate aficionados decades before the rest of the world slavishly followed.

Cimino was notorious for throwing pans when given special requests from diners. When steaks were sent back as not ‘well done’ enough, he would char them to carbon and send them out again, smoking. Conversely, he famously once sent out a completely raw piece of eye fillet – straight from the refrigerator – to a diner who complained his steak was not ‘bleu’ enough, pronouncing the word ‘bleu’ to Giovanni the head waiter in a preciously correct French way. Giovanni, an expert mimic, banged through the kitchen doors and, at the top of his voice so that everyone in the place could hear him, shouted "Cimino, it is not bleu enough for ze gentleman! Please make it even more bleu!" The customer ate the raw steak.

Cimino’s legacy was bridging a no-nonsense dining epoch into a new era of culinary self-absorption which would ultimately result in the invention of the word ‘foodie’ and the practice of people taking overhead photographs of their restaurant meals.

Cimino became an alcoholic and wandered the streets of Carlton until his death in the 1990s.

Henri-Gerard LeBateau

Remaining in Australia after competing in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, Henri-Gerard LeBateau became a chef on board the cruise ship Ocean Star, at a time when sea travel was the preserve of rich people with manners. LeBateau cooked what was then known as international cuisine, essentially classic French with a nod to other great world cuisines. Passengers, dressed appropriately for dinner, would sit down to chateaubriand or coq au vin with aged French wines while a palm court orchestra played soft strings. Later there would be dancing to jazz, before couples departed quietly for their rooms.

Two decades passed. LeBateau was now executive chef on the Fairsea Wanderer, a ship serving an entirely different clientele. In the galley, international cuisine had given way to the 1970s culinary concept known as the ‘buffet’, a kind of bastardised smorgasbord. This suited the new category of traveller, who no longer had to wait for a snooty waiter to serve him at table in due course, but could stand in front of the six-foot-high wall of food, pile up his plate on the spot with one of everything, slam it on the nearest table and proceed to eat exactly half of it, leaving a quarter camembert, several spicy chicken wings, a couple of cold potatoes in foil topped with sour cream and chives, two buttered mini bread rolls and a chewed piece of turkey for the waiters to collect. More food was thrown overboard than eaten during the shipboard smorgasbord era, and the shark population of the world doubled in that time. Waiters, freed from table service, were now effectively firemen, hosing down decks after the diners had staggered noisily, often in groups of more than two, back to their quarters.

Henri Gerard LeBateau had had enough by 1986, and returned to his native France, where he ran a small boutique pig farm, raising rare prized Cul Noir de Limousin pigs for their delicious flesh. "I was feeding pigs swill anyway," he said, as a sow nudged him lovingly with her big snout. "So I thought it might be nicer to feed real ones."

Henry St John

Henry St John was a little-known chef on several inland expeditions in the 1830s. He travelled variously with Charles Sturt, Ludwig Leichhardt and Edmund Kennedy. One such expedition navigated the inland rivers west of the Blue Mountains, when the region was known colloquially as the promised land.

Years of drought had made the terrain inhospitable. Minor vegetation ceased, culinary herbs were raised with difficulty and crops failed outright. St John conjured meals from sacks of flour and barrels of salt pork, towed in a broad-beamed, shallow-draughted skiff behind the major vessel. He resourcefully followed the natives’ example of smoking possums out of dead tree trunks, while being always cautious not to engulf the party in fire. Camp grounds had to be cleared because bush fire could cause the entire party to be incinerated along with much of the dry continent.

One day en route, the major vessel hit a rock and pitched, dragging the supply skiff across the same jagged underwater boulder, causing it to sink in twenty feet of murky water. The party took days to salvage what was left of the flour and pork, much unusable. St John struggled for five years to supply his crews with enough nutriments to keep their starving bodies going in the harshest of all environments. On the other hand, today’s television chef faces such perils as having to perform three takes for a precious director who thinks he is Hitchcock reincarnated.

Henry St John disappeared with a party of seven on an expedition to the Simpson Desert in 1839.

Vera

Like Cimino, Vera, a war widow, was only ever known by her first name. She was in her sixties and formidable, a large-framed woman still with jet-black hair around a friendly face that could turn to thunder in an instant. Vera was an old-school Australian cook who had ruled country hotel dining rooms with an iron fist for decades, feeding generations of farmers, shearers and farmhands.

By the late 1970s, she was in semi-retirement at a western suburbs reception centre called Goldenreagh that specialised in intimate weddings for up to 500 guests in each of two vast chambers, the ‘Opal’ and ‘Sapphire' rooms. Often both were booked, serviced by one immense kitchen. Such venues present a unique challenge for their chef, who has to turn out up to a thousand identical meals at almost exactly the same time, which is after the freeloading guests have been oiled by several pre-dinner sherries accompanying canapés; but before they start falling down drunk having drained the carafes pre-arranged on the tables while listening to the double-entendre telegrams being read out by the best man. At these functions, guests generally had two dinner choices: ‘beef’ or ‘chicken’, with vegetarians expediently catered for by being told to leave the meat on their plate and just eat the vegetables (of which there plenty), a commonsense solution since shouldered into the landfill of history by the era of entitlement and special treatment. Vera held the Australian Hotels Association award for the most covers ever cooked by one chef. It is estimated Vera cooked around seven million meals in her career, mostly 'chicken' and 'beef'.

For the really big occasions, Vera had an ingenious technique of par-cooking the steaks in the oven and then finishing them off on a flame-griller the size of a rocket launching pad. Brigades of waiters would line up at the kitchen dispatch point and troop out to the waiting throngs lined with plates like Roman armour. Vera’s arms were strong, the legacy of years of wielding a can-opener on gasometer-sized tins of Campbell’s Caterer’s Blend minestrone or Crème of Chicken soup.

One night, Goldenreagh went up in flames. They managed to get the guests out, although a bride's dress caught alight; but Vera was incinerated. "She died what she loved doing best," they orated, but I always find that rationalisation trite.