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

26.3.14

Steam power.

The less you mess about with fish the better. Proof: (a) the Japanese eat it raw, and (b) turning salmon into mousse and stuffing it into a salmon mould is not as popular as it was in the 1980s. I have to point out that the dishes was so common it was frequently served at open-air luncheons with the temperature in the high 20s and the table in the sun ...

If you don't fancy raw fish, steaming might be the the next best thing. Despite the fondness I occasionally display for the food I ate as a child, the fish I was served was quite often cooked Cajun-style, but without the exotic spices: blackened. It might have been my fault. I always came in late for dinner.

The other night I steamed some firm white flesh fillets in foil in the oven using a few Asian flavour enhancements.

Oven-steamed fish.

Take your fish fillets, lay them in some double-folded foil, and add some finely grated ginger, a splash of soy sauce, a splash of mirin or rice wine, and a couple of finely chopped spring onions (or shallots if you live in another State). (Having said that, Victorian shallots would work just as well.) Close the foil, folding carefully to prevent fluid loss in transit to oven. Bake long enough to just cook the fish, time depending on size and thickness of fish.

Serve on rice or noodles with Asian broccoli or other greens steamed and tossed in a little oyster sauce.

*

ANGELA: Honestly, darling, I'm so embarrassed. It really is embarrassing. I mean,...

HOWARD: I suppose... [mumbling]

ANGELA: ...to serve salmon with botulism at a dinner party is social death for me.


- The Meaning of Life, 1980

19.3.14

A shorter history of table decoration.

Trends come and go, some faster than others. In some cases, keep the original article and you won't have to buy another every time it comes back into fashion. You'll save a fortune. Take table decoration.

There are three types of people in the world. People who dine on tablecloths, those who use placemats, and others who eat from plates set on the naked table top.

I have been each of these at various times, but returned to the first category thanks to my collection of retro tablecloths. The collection includes cloths of Irish linen that are virtually indestructible. Tablecloths went out of fashion somewhere around 1970; the only ones you could buy subsequent to that were horrible cheap imports that pilled when you looked at them, or bunched up exasperatingly when you moved a plate. They also lost several shades of colour after one hour on the clothesline after the first wash. By contrast, the earlier ones were so heavy you had to starch them and the colours in the retro-patterned checked ones are as fast as the day they first graced a table in, for example, 1952. My mother used to have a box of starch under the sink to iron tablecloths the size of tennis courts. It was a big family.

Then there are placemats. I first had placemats decades ago, because I got married. People never buy placemats, they are only given them. My first placemats had a lime green floral pattern with a matching border. It was vile, but in the '70s, entire dinner parties were accented in lime green; kitchen cabinets, holland blinds, vases, sofas, lamp shades, crockery, you name it. Even the car you arrived in was lime green*.

Later placemat mistakes included cork ones topped with images of English towns; brass ones with etched images of knights; ones made out of seagrass which caught fire when people dropped cigarettes on them (yes, people actually smoked at 1970s dinner parties, but that was the least of it, although smoking would probably most scandalise today's politically correct society). You could fold the fabric mats and store them with the tea towels, but the rigid ones had to be stacked in a cupboard or sandwiched between books on the bookshelves. I also had some of those plastic ones that had a glossy wipe-clean surface and rounded edges and bore typical 1980s designs in white, green and black. They were dreadful, their only advantage being that they drew your attention from what was on the plate, such as chicken with apricots showered with toasted almonds. Now, wait a minute. I've only been married twice. So where did all these placemats come from? Eventually I threw the lot out. Even the opportunity shop didn't want them, so they went to landfill, awaiting future archaeologists who will regard them as some form of primitive art.

You can laugh at the 1970s and 1980s, but things got worse. In recent times, decorator magazines have encouraged such table top banalities as five large timber pears in a row, long dead sticks in glass tumblers, autumn leaves in a shallow bowl, and candles perched in large flat river pebbles in wide bowls.

We might have set fire to seagrass placemats, but those ridiculous dead sticks could put an eye out. And you can do a lot of damage with river pebbles after several gin and tonics.

*

In Australia, St Patrick’s Day is one of the occasions better suited to the climate, occurring as it does in our autumn. While Christmas in Australia - the height of summer - is totally unsuited to traditional fare, St Patrick’s Day falls around the time when the aroma of fragrant stews is welcome after a summer of unbearable heatwaves. This year, we metaphorically crossed the Irish Sea to Wales for a variation on the traditional Irish stew.

Lamb and leek stew.

Trim 4 rashers of bacon and 4 forequarter chops. Fry the bacon in oil or dripping in a deep heavy-based pan until almost crisp. Remove. Brown the chops in the same pan. Remove.

Peel 4 large potatoes and 3 carrots; cut the potatoes into thick slices and the carrots into diagonals. Chop a leek into thin rounds, rinsing if necessary. Chop an onion into thick rounds.

Line the pan with a layer each of potato, carrot, leek and onion. Add white pepper and half the bacon. Arrange the chops on top.

Repeat with more potato, carrot, leek and onion and the rest of the bacon. Add a teaspoon of chopped fresh thyme and add enough beef stock to just cover the vegetables. Cover the pan, bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer for an hour or longer.

Served on the retro green check tablecloth circa 1959, with chopped parsley and a glass of stout, not too cold.

*Thanks to Joshua of the Queensland Falcon GT Owners' Club for the image of his 1972 Falcon 500 GT in Lime Glaze.

6.3.14

Golden brown potato pancakes.

Tuesday night was pancake night and this year we made potato pancakes for a savoury change. It’s usually maple syrup, or lemon and sugar, or blueberry and ice-cream or even mandarin segments and lemon yogurt.

The pancakes were crunchy and delicious. They have to be cooked well to develop that crisp, salty, potato flavour, like classic potato cakes from old-style fish and chip shops.

Next morning, the children were walked over to the church at ten o'clock from their classrooms for the Ash Wednesday mass. The school principal had invited parents and grandparents to attend if they were free.

The priest distributed the ashes. Towards the end of the service, a phone rang. Or, to be more precise, it chirped. Whoever owned the phone had made its ring tone a bird's noise. In the church, it sounded odd, like someone had brought their pet budgerigar along. Some people looked around.

A woman at the end of the pew in front of the one I was in put her hand into a handbag and pulled out a phone which, now out in the open, chirped louder. More people looked around. She poked a red fingernail at her phone, put it up to her ear and said hello to it.

Meanwhile, up in front, the priest was leading the Lord’s Prayer.

"Thy kingdom come," he said.

"Oh, Angela, it's you," the woman said. It was a statement, not a question. "I'm not in the office." She was in her late 50s and was dressed for work. She wore a no-nonsense black jacket over black trousers, her hair was red-dyed and cut short, and she was wearing a pair of those dangly sharp earrings that are about a foot long and would cut your head off if she turned her head suddenly and you were close enough.

"On earth as it is in heaven ... "

"Who?" the woman spoke. "What? She shouldn't. It's not her job," she snapped. It might have been the first time in history that someone has snapped in a church, or at least this church, during the Lord's Prayer.

" ... and forgive us our trespasses and lead us not into temptation ... "

"That's not right. I'll handle that when I get back," the woman went on. "I'll be in this afternoon."

She kept talking. The Lord's Prayer finished and the organ started playing – Palestrina or Allegri or Byrd or something similar – and she talked over it, glaring at the pipes as if they were making it hard for her to hear her phone. Bloody middle ages music, written by some dead white male and still bothering people five hundred years later. Well, I don’t know what she was thinking, but it could have been that judging by the expression on her face.

"Just tell her to go on with the power point presentation," she said into the phone.

"Peace be with you," the priest said.

"See you in the office," the woman concluded. She tapped her nail on the phone and returned it to her bag. Some of the older ones in the congregation looked like they had seen a ghost.

*

Potato pancakes

1 onion
2 eggs
3 tablespoons flour
4 medium potatoes
Salt, olive oil

Grate the onion and potatoes. Place in a tea towel or muslin and squeeze out excess fluid. Combine with flour, eggs and a good pinch of salt.

Heat oil (optional) in a non-stick frying pan, fry tablespoons of batter, press down slightly to flatten out, flip after a minute or so (go by colour and texture: crispy golden brown) and serve when other side is done. Serve with sour cream.