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

26.2.15

A short history of comfort food, part two.

After cheese mac, the world's second favourite comfort food - according to a recent authoritative survey of two people - is meatballs. When you add cheese to the recipe, the desirability of the recipe reaches stratospheric levels. Dishes such as these were frowned upon for years but, recently, 'experts' have decided that cholesterol is no longer harmful. All that wasted energy avoiding cholesterol has probably cause stress-based heart disease in millions of people. So the biggest health tip of all is: never listen to health bureaucrats' warnings.

Meatballs with cheddar and mushrooms.

Place a large fist-sized ball of pork and veal mince into a large mixing bowl and, with your hands, fold into it two or three very finely chopped button mushrooms, half a cup of grated cheddar, half a very finely diced small zucchini, one very finely chopped spring onion, a chopped clove of garlic, a dash of Worcestershire sauce, a tablespoonful of oatmeal, a sprinkling of polenta and a dash of pepper.

Using flour to cut the stickiness, form into balls the size of golf balls and drop into simmering tomato sauce – half a jar of passata, one can of diced tomatoes, plenty of fresh chopped basil and parsley from garden, pepper, salt and a dash of sugar.

Simmer until cooked through thoroughly. Serve over spaghetti and grate cheese liberally.

Drink: McLaren Vale shiraz. Cheers, health bureaucrats! What are you worried about this week?

19.2.15

Macaroni cheese or a carrot?

Nothing beats macaroni cheese. It's the ultimate comfort food. Would you rather go home to macaroni cheese or a raw carrot? My case rests.

Macaroni cheese is usually made with short pasta, for no better reason than convenience. It's the kind of food people eat while watching television. You can stick a fork in it and not have to avert your gaze from the screen.

But I use fettuccine instead, and this one small change takes the dish to a whole new level. As you turn your fork to unfurl the long strands of fettuccine from the unctuous clutches of the creamy cheesy sauce in the bowl, it adheres; producing a combination of texture, taste, aroma and culinary sensuality unmatched in fine dining. You just can’t watch TV at the same time, or you’ll flick cheese sauce all over the couch.

Dreamy fettuccine with three cheeses.

Melt 60g - just guess - of butter in a saucepan. Move saucepan off the heat and add enough flour to make a roux, stirring. Once combined, add two cups of milk, put back on the flame and stir until it starts to thicken. Then add a cupful of grated mature cheddar, half a cup of flaked or grated sharp parmesan, and – my secret ingredient – a teaspoon (or more) of hot English mustard. Stir until almost thickened. Cheese sauces may need different degrees of thickness according to their purpose; this must be baked around the pasta, so should not be too thick to start with. Add milk to adjust and keep stirring. When you're happy, scatter a quarter cup of chopped parsley through the sauce.

Cook the pasta quickly. It will cook more in the casserole, so stop at al dente. Drain and place into casserole dish. Drizzle pasta with olive oil. Pour the sauce over the oiled pasta. Draw the strands to allow the sauce to sink and coat all the pasta. Smooth over the top with a spatula. (Mine is, bafflingly to others, called Clark*.)

Before you put it in the oven, dot the top with extra sharp vintage cheddar - the kind that is so mature it cannot be grated but just crumbles - to give it an extra kick. Don't worry about breadcrumbs or any other fussy ingredients. They're a distraction at best and stick in your teeth at worst. Macaroni and cheese is the world's most literal recipe name.

Put the lid on casserole and bake for 30 minutes, then take top off and brown for another ten to fifteen minutes.

Serve with a large glass of Bendigo shiraz and sleep the sleep of kings. Unless you're the type to whom cheese gives nightmares.

*After the 1960s British singer. Ridiculous.

18.2.15

Greek-style baked prawns with tomato and garlic.

Prawns on the barbecue can be boring, especially if they're cooked even a few seconds too long, because they dry out.

Baked with white wine, they stay moist and have an enhanced flavour. Just make sure you buy Australian ones, because you never know what the Chinese ones have been swimming in, but I'm sure you can imagine, given recent news stories.

Peel, devein and clean two dozen large prawns, retaining heads and tails, and fry quickly in olive oil, barely a minute each side. Throw in four diced garlic cloves at the same time so that they will fry briefly but not burn. Now tip in a cup of white wine, shake pan, cook another 30 seconds and then put the lot into a casserole. Speed is the essence.

Tip half a dozen finely diced, very ripe truss or roma tomatoes (or a can of diced tomatoes) into the same frypan, add a few torn basil leaves and a good shake of cracked black pepper. Warm through.

Cut a piece of fetta cheese into a dozen cubes of the size you would add to a greek salad. Place these over the prawns in the casserole and tip over the warmed tomatoes. Bake ten minutes until cheese starts to melt.

Serve with crusty bread to dip into the juices, a bowl of jumbo black olives flecked with chili and herbs, and a large carafe of very cold white wine. Serve on a blue and white checked tablecloth and you could be in Greece.

11.2.15

A woman ahead of her time.

My first mother-in-law collected 1970s trash, which is cool today, but she collected it while the 1970s were still going. Now, her house would be a collector's gold mine. It was an old bloated Queen Anne style with bay windows and draughty hallways and return verandahs; plenty of space to fill up with useless knick-knacks.

The living room could have filled a copper mine. Or was it brass? On one wall was a life-size brass rubbing of a medieval knight, taken from some castle in England. Next to that was a massive copper pan hanging by its three-foot wooden handle on a very large hook. You could kill a burglar with it, if you could lift it. One another wall was an imitation knight's shield with an image of an English village pressed into it, showing a church spire, a farmer wheeling a brace of pigs to market, and a curved bridge over a river. It was the kind of thing you'd sit in your chair and look at once, and then wonder why anyone would go to all the trouble. Next to the shield was a pressed brass chicken. These objects were usually fish, for making 1970s-style salmon mousse, but this was a chook. Maybe some people made chicken mousse in the 1970s. That would have gone down well at an Australia Day barbecue after a few hours in the sun. Maybe that's why it was on the wall, never to make mousse again.

By the fireplace was an ornate brass bucket with wooden handles for holding briquettes or firewood, but it only ever held copies of TV Week with Graham Kennedy or Ernie Sigley on the cover. In front of the fire was a giant fireguard that would have stopped a bonfire falling onto the hearth, brass with a bas relief hunting scene. Over the fire, the mantelpiece was congested with brass ornaments, pewter goblets, a tarnished ice bucket and several silver photo frames.

There was so much metal in the place it rattled like a cannery in full production when the wind blew. I stayed overnight a few times and left with tinnitus each time.

But copper was not the only 1970s obsession.

There was macramé. My mother-in-law's kitchen was full of it. Macramé was big for about five minutes in the seventies. That little acute on the last 'e' gave it instant flair and chic. Macraaaaar-may, the suburbanites called it, with a long drawn-out middle syllable, as today they would order a moscaaaaa-to in a wine bar. Macramé was essentially bits of coloured rope tied into intricate, but ridiculous geometric shapes. Of course, the trend didn't last because it was ugly, impractical and useless. It was the stupidest craft craze ever, apart from framing completed jigsaw puzzles. Everyone threw their macramé in the incinerator or gave it to the dog to chew.

My mother-in-law was a secondary school teacher and very busy, so she never got around to throwing her macramé out. Anyway, her children gave them to her, so how could she? Her kitchen looked like the inside of a Greek fisherman's shed. Over the years, her dozens of macramé acted like miniature inert exhaust fans, collecting cooking fat in their thick fibrous strands, and they smelt of a thousand stale fish dinners. They also attracted flies, like flypaper, so they were not completely useless. You picked off the fly, leaving a leg or two stuck in the smelly fish fat-infused threads, and disposed of the rest of it down the insinkerator.

If you walked from the kitchen into the cavernous hallway, and past the rattling copper-filled lounge room, you could visit the bathroom and find more macramé. Here, it was mostly shades of green, to match the Village Apple Soap collection on the bathroom vanity in between the Victorian bath jug that contained two hundred dead moths and dozens of old toilet roll inner cylinders, and the Ali Baba wicker basket that held about fifty fraying burnt orange Dickies towels. The macramé in the bathroom were all spotty with mould, and smelt of stale hair conditioner. One, over the toilet, was festooned with geometric cobwebs that mimicked the craft of macramé in an unintended example of life imitating art. Or art imitating life. I don’t know. One or the other. My head hurts. Home décor was breaking my mind, like the Roy Orbison song.

Last weekend I was leafing idly through one of those newspaper magazines that give readers ideas for decorating: river pebbles on the dining table, clocks the size of Big Ben with numbers in different fonts, retro paperback books stacked for their visual effect and never to be read, tree houses in children's rooms, that kind of thing. You'd feel like you were living in a cross between a London railway station, a Dali painting and a page out of Where the Wild Things Are.

On one page of the magazine something vaguely familiar jumped out at me. Mounted on a wall, it had strands of cord hung on a foot-long wooden crossbar, every second strand interwoven with its next-but-one neighbour, so that they cascaded down in a regular triangular pattern in front of the untied ones, which hung down limply, like a miniature fly-screen door. Macramé, and just as I remembered it!

Someone in the magazine's editorial meeting – "Notice any new trends anyone?" – had thought it was a good idea. Or maybe they were getting desperate.

Macramé is easy to knock up in an hour or so, if you can tie knots.

Or, as the magazine said, you can buy one online. Starting from $139.

Got a dog? You can’t burn things in the backyard any more.

5.2.15

He Won’t Need It Now, by James Hadley Chase.

January 8, 2015. A large apartment hanging off a hill overlooking one of the world's most beautiful vistas, the sparkling cerulean waters of Sydney Harbour.

"This time we’re going to get him." Grenville turned to Archer, who was gazing at a small craft cutting a wake across the water. Both men were by the glass wall overlooking the harbour, whiskies in hand.

"How?"

"If you’ll listen, I’ll tell you."

Grenville was short, dark, moustached, and ageing. His kidnapping days were long gone, but he still did a little freelance hacking, and he harboured ideas like some people keep pet chickens.

"I'm all ears." Archer was tall and slim, with a eagle-like nose.

Grenville sipped his scotch and began. "You’ve met my attorney, Shapilo."

Archer nodded. He had. How could he forget? Shapilo had been active in the Griffith area in the seventies, which had been a good time for a lawyer with Calabrian connections.

"Shapilo has been out of circulation for years now." Grenville paused. "But he still knows things."

A pause. "Like what?"

"Like how to get into the Australia Day awards. Without being detected."

Archer's expression didn’t change. "Go on."

"So that’s what we’re going to do," Grenville replied, as if the answer were obvious. "We’re going to sabotage Mr Collegiality 2015's pet knighthood. And doing that will finish him as well! It should also finish his chief of staff, Helga Rolfe, whether she had any part in it or not."

Archer was still impassive. "Who is his pet knighthood? Or Helga Rolfe’s pet knighthood?"

"We don’t know yet. But, being Australia Day, and being a particular kind of year, with the death of a national sporting champion causing national attention and coast to coast mourning; and with that terrorist thing in Martin Place after that, Mr Collegiality 2015 is sure to have gone for a super-popular knighthood – the kind of award that makes every Australian – well, most – feel just that little bit warmer on the national day, and in doing so, improve his stocks, politically speaking. God knows he needs it. And God knows Australia needs a national hero right now to heal the wounds of one of its most difficult years. Plus there was MH17, the other Malaysian one, and Air Asia."

Archer grimaced, walked to the bar, poured another scotch, and offered the bottle to Grenville. "You're right. A national hero."

Grenville went on. "Remember the whole nation is on holiday on January 26. They're all gathered around their barbecues, talking about the morning’s news. And the big news on Australia Day – the only news – is the awards. The OAs. The AMs. But especially, the knighthoods. Bear in mind what the British do. They don’t take it too seriously. Who have they got? Sir Cliff Richard. A middleweight singer who has been around since Adam. Sir Elton John, a piano player married to a bloke – did a few good tunes until Honky Chateau, and then wall-to-wall Lion King. But still. Sir Paul McCartney, because John didn’t want one, or at least didn't want the MBE. And that Lloyd-Webber bloke, for turning theatrical scores into tripe. But that doesn’t matter. The papers love it, and it makes people feel proud of their country, because it's something they did, and the others didn't."

"So who do you think he's picked? An ex-cricketer? A pop singer?"

Grenville shrugged impatiently. "It could be anyone. It doesn’t matter."

He paused. "What matters is that Shapilo is going to break into the awards, change the nomination, and kill off Mr Collegiality 2015's political career in one fell swoop! Once the announcement is made, it will be too late! Who would believe him if he says it wasn’t his choice? He’ll be the laughing stock of the nation!"

Archer drained his glass. "And with whom are you planning to replace his nomination, exactly?"

Grenville smiled. "You’ll see!" Then he laughed out loud. "It will be too funny! Pass the bottle."

*

January 26, 2015. A newsreader drones the day's lead story on national radio to an audience of 20 million.

"It’s eight o’clock. Here is the news. The Prime Minister has announced the Australia Day awards, which he reintroduced last year to recognise prominent Australians for their achievements."

The newsreader paused, pressing the cough button.

"The major Australia Day award – a knighthood – goes to ... (another slight pause, this time probably involuntary) ... the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip of England.”

*

January 27, 2015, 4 a.m.

Mr Collegiality 2015 stirred in his sleep. He was having a nightmare. The suddenly, he awoke, sat up in bed, and remembered. It hadn’t been a nightmare at all.

The nightmare was now. There was no Shapilo, no Archer, no Grenville.

It had been all his own work.

4.2.15

In 2015, this kitchen will be more collegial than ever before.

I'll ask my children what they want for dinner and get agreement. If that doesn't happen, I'll call an election.

Just kidding. This household is a benevolent dictatorship.

*

On another subject, underpinning those Australia Day lemonised meat balls was the following rice dish.

Spanakorizo: rice with spinach and leek.

Chop a leek into quartered rounds. Cook it with two crushed cloves of garlic in oil until soft and fragrant. Add a cup and a half of rice – I used long grain – and stir to coat in oil. Add three cups of water, cover with a tight-fitting lid and cook over the lowest heat for 10 to 15 minutes. The rice is done when steam holes form in the rice and the grains stand on end and beg to be eaten. Well, that's what it looks like.

Meanwhile, cook a chopped bunch of fresh washed spinach in its retained water – or thaw 500g frozen spinach – and then fold it through the cooked rice.

Finish it off with quarter of a cup of chopped parsley and the juice of a lemon. Salt and pepper for the final kick.

This dish works as a hot side, a cold salad or even a main course. It is disarmingly, beguilingly delicious, pairing that captivating Mediterranean duo of lemon and garlic against the compliant texture of rice, reinforced with a leek and spinach backbone. One of the best rice dishes on the planet.

I had a cupful left over which stuffed a capsicum along with one or two lemon meat balls. Even better.

*

Who even uses that word in real life? Who even wants a collegial leader? Leaders are meant to make decisions, not run around asking people if they agree. The catch, I might point out to you, Mr Collegial, is that your decisions have to be good ones. It might have helped if you hadn't changed your phone number before Christmas and not told backbenchers the new one.

2.2.15

Various extended family members, Queen's Park, Moonee Ponds, last week. Photo credit: a passing stranger. My cousin can be quite persuasive.