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

29.4.15

Mourning the condemned. And condemning the dead.

Mourning the condemned.

It was 1986 all over again. The Malaysian pair got as much publicity 29 years ago but still ended up in the same place as the Bali two (actually eight) did. The academics, literati and actors were on to it as usual; one male academic had a letter in the paper yesterday describing the pair as 'inspirational' who had lived 'redemptive' lives, and ended with the academic's clich├ęd 'I weep for you ... (and) pay tribute to your courage'. Signed, emeritus professor. Meanwhile the left-wing act-persons (if that's not redundant) got up an anti-Abbott campaign, prompting the retort: "They (the actors) are ghouls preying on the wretched plight of others to peddle their demonic Abbott hatred".

Condemning the dead.

Late one night last year, a woman was defiled while still alive in a filthy back street in Brunswick, murdered in cold blood, and then dumped in mud in a field in the middle of the night. Her body was still warm.

Some, among them a priest, said she should not have been out in the middle of the night in an inner city street. (He also said she might not be dead had her faith been stronger.) Incredibly, he said this to children.

A month or so ago, a woman was attacked in a Doncaster park and murdered.

Some, among them a policeman, said women should not be out in the middle of the day in lonely parkland.

Middle of the day or middle of the night; inner city street or open parkland. It's all your fault, ladies.

Yes. There is a yawning gap in logic between these two scenarios. We mourn the condemned even while obscenely condemning victims.

*

Inevitably, the mention of capital punishment always brings on the high keening wail of the politically correct. And that's just the blokes.

Capital punishment? You must be joking! Or mad! The letter-writing academic above mentioned ' ... "anti-drug" lynching groups baying for blood and the heartless authorities denying you mercy'.

There's the key. 'Denying' mercy. It's the age of entitlement. Everyone's entitled. The condemned are entitled to mercy and if not, it's a heartless denial. No suggestion of discretion, or choices, or caution; the past doesn't matter. Consequences are an authoritarian construct.

What was Jill Meagher denied? First her dignity, then her life and after that, when she was dead, her very blamelessness.

That man who took his two-year-old and shot it with a spear gun – his own child, whose last word was probably 'Daddy' – is right now breathing Victorian air. Ditto the man who threw his four-year-old – she was looking forward to going to school the next year – off the West Gate Bridge, while his other child sat in the car and watched. Will he ever be truly alive? The other child, I mean. Having experienced that. So why should the father?

*

I spoke to a person recently who had been threatened in Sydney Road late one night a short time before Jill Meagher's murder. She confided in me that she would be happy to see such murderers removed from society, for both the good of society and the safety of individuals. Not an unreasonable opinion. Hardly a heartless 'lynching group', just a frightened individual who no longer has confidence in the law to rigorously protect her or, failing that, to apply robust consequences.

*
"As far as capital punishment goes, I'm in favour of it in some cases ... only for certain crimes ... the ones which horrify the public most, child murder and sex crimes, terrorism, drug dealing on a large scale, and the killing of police and prison staff."
- Henry Bolte, in Bolte by Bolte by Tom Prior, Craftsman Publishing, Melbourne, 1990

27.4.15

Top ten vegetable countdown continues.

No. 5: Spinach

The Iron Man of the vegetable world, spinach is loaded with the ferrous mineral. To maximise uptake of its iron, eat it with other iron sources such as red meat or beans if you're vegetarian.

Possibly the best combination for sheer good taste as well iron uptake is fegato di vitello alla Veneziana (calves' liver Venetian style) with creamed spinach. Dine on that and you won't be able to walk past a magnet. For the spinach, rinse a bunch in water, throw it in a pot with olive oil, crushed garlic and cracked pepper, cook it until it crumples, add cream and reduce. Finish it with a squeeze of lemon juice and shake of salt. As children, we never had fegato di vitello alla Veneziana, but we had its second cousin, lamb's fry. Same dish, different animal. I liked it. It was good for your jaws. My mother overcooked it. You could have used the leftovers as doorstops. (A common complaint, it is nevertheless understandable that food was often overcooked in that era because of the common fear of spreading disease or causing poisoning through undercooking.) Nowadays we are far more educated and sophisticated; we outsource the poisoning to the Chinese, who supply us with fruit bathed in their sewage.

Couldn't end that paragraph fast enough. Now back to spinach. My top five spinach recipes, aside from the above:

5. Salad of baby spinach leaves, avocado, spring onions, halved cherry tomatoes, toasted pine nuts, balsamic vinegar, olive oil. Toss and eat. Simple and unpretentious but good.
4. Spanakorizo
3. Spanakopita (Made there with silverbeet)
2. Spicy spinach paneer, and the champion:
1. Spinach with caramelised onions and butter beans:

Slice and fry a large onion in olive oil until caramelised. Meanwhile, warm three crushed garlic cloves in olive oil in another pan. Rinse 250g spinach and add to the pan, cooking in their retained water until they wilt. Add a drained can of butter beans, the caramelised onions, salt and plenty of pepper. A dash of chili powder if you like. Squeeze the juice of half a lemon over the pan, and cook until warmed through. Serve as a side dish to Greek sausages – loukanika – (T-Deli, Sydney Road), then go out and run a marathon.

17.4.15

Black Dog.

The black dog stayed at our house for four weeks. A year old, he had never been in a house. He had lived in a kennel (a professional one; not a box in someone's back yard) but had never been trained to race. He was obviously well-treated and was in good condition.

Typically for these dogs, he was frightened of all the usual domestic noises and jumped at his reflection in a mirror. After living in a concrete quadrangle, a house with dark rooms, and doorways, and blinds that suddenly fly up, and electronic beeping devices must, for dogs, resemble a kind of maze, or a canine ghost train.

He got used to it. That's the point of fostering greyhounds; not to make them forget about chasing small animals, which is what people think. As a sight hound for thousands of years, you have as much chance of stopping a greyhound sighting small animals as you have of stopping a bloodhound sniffing or a sheepdog herding. The idea is simply to get them used to initially frightening situations.

Black Dog, whose name is Lou, is our first foster dog for several years; earlier dogs mentioned here.

Left to right: William, Thomas, Lou the Black Dog and Alexandra.

*

Another favourite Black Dog:
Hey hey mama said the way you move
gonna make you sweat gonna make you groove

16.4.15

Blackers forgets where he is.

3AW announcers are doing extra shifts on besieged sister station Magic 1278. Veteran fill-in announcer John Blackman on air yesterday morning: "And now the three-aye-dub ... ah, the Magic 1278 Community Calendar ... ."

14.4.15

Countdown rolls on: Top Ten Vegetables of All Time.

NO. 6: CABBAGE

Cabbage? Yes, cabbage. Loathed by millions, ignored by billions, the densely-packed, heavy-headed Orbness of Wonderment remains a vegetable champion, a wealth of culinary riches. The reasons are manifold and the recipes are boundless, but seven will suffice:

1. Cabbage soup. In its eastern European incarnation, made famous in Melbourne at the late Scheherezade restaurant, fragrant paprika-stung folds of wilted cabbage in a flavour-filled broth that you soaked up with dark rye bread smeared with butter, the soup topped with a mound of peppery mashed potato. Possibly the finest soup on the face of the Earth (although I've said that before).

2. Take two slices of white bread. Butter both generously. On one, lay a half-inch-thick slice of home-made meatloaf, still warm from the oven. Top the meatloaf with a thick layer of traditional freshly made coleslaw dripping with mayonnaise. Close the sandwich. Eat. The experience is other-worldly, perhaps even other-universely.

3. Cabbage adds a little je ne sais quoi (except I do) to gado-gado, that quintessential expression of the East, a flavour eruption of peanuts, chili, lemon and soy. And then there's kim chi. Heaven, if you live in Asia or can replicate it anywhere else in the world.

4. Cabbage without the flavour eruption (possibly without the flavour full stop): how my mother used to cook it – boiled in a very large pot (seven children) to be served alongside corned beef with white sauce. The cabbage was so well-boiled, it squeaked when you ate it. It might have lacked flavour then, but it now holds a certain nostalgic retro appeal for me. (1960s food fad fact: cabbage water was as hyped then as the paleo diet is now. Drink cabbage water and live forever!)

5. And while fads come and go like a foodie's instagrammed meal, some things remain the same. It is estimated that since the 1950s, Marathon Foods has turned 75 billion heads of cabbage into 300 million Chiko rolls and six billion dim sims. These incredible numbers prove that six million bogans can't be wrong: if you've never grabbed a hot Chiko roll or a fried dim sim drowned in soy sauce from a fish and chip shop run by Greek immigrants you either don't live in Melbourne or you're a foodie. In which case, enjoy your amaranth.

6. Colcannon.

7. Traditional fat pork sausages gently fried to a turn are nothing without a side of shredded red cabbage gently cooked with vinegar, apple, spices, garlic, salt and pepper. Sweet, sour, bitter – and all in one dish.

10.4.15

William (green shirt) listens at three-quarter time huddle during Coburg practice match (v. Frankston), Coburg City Oval, Friday April 3.
(Picture courtesy Coburg FC.)

Voice of summer silent.

RIP Richie Benaud.

8.4.15

The top ten vegetables of all time. No. 7: Leek.

The most fragrant of all vegetables, the leek is the prince of the onion family and the national emblem of Wales.

Leeks were grown in ancient Egypt and mentioned in a Chinese food guide 3500 years ago. The emperor Nero dined on leek soup, believing it would strengthen his voice for orations. Superstition? I don't know. Ask Tom Jones, Sir Harry Secombe, Katherine Jenkins, Bryn Terfel, Geraint Evans, and the Male Welsh Choir.

The following recipe alone shoots leek into the top ten vegetables of all time, but that's just one. Then you have leek terrines, leek tarts, leek pie, leeks with pasta (or with mushrooms and gorgonzola - totally delicious), and leek omelette, or as it is sometimes more pretentiously known, leek frittata. (The only difference as I understand it is that with a frittata you mix the ingredients through the eggs before cooking; whereas with an omelette you dump the extras on to the eggs in the cooking pan. Big deal.)

Leek and Potato Soup

Leeks and potatoes are often pureed into a smooth soup, but I find pureed soups as monotonous as hospital food.

My version should really be called a stew. It turns the same ingredients into a satisfying main course meal with discrete pieces. If we are still calling it a soup, it is probably the most appetite-satisfying in existence; its chunky ingredients, dairy-filled goodness and house-filling aroma making it the king of soups.

Cut three rashers of bacon into small squares. Fry in olive oil until almost crisp but not quite.

Cut two large leeks into thin rounds, rinsing those towards the green end for grit. Add to pot with a knob of butter. Stir while the leeks soften.

Peel and chop three large potatoes into cubes. Add to pot. Add enough chicken stock to barely cover the vegetables. Cook long enough to soften the vegetables and reduce the fluid.

Before serving, add a cup or two of milk and plenty of white pepper, and reheat gently. Ladle into large bowls. Top with a small mountain of grated cheddar and sprinkle with chopped parsley.

2.4.15

Countdown continued: the top ten vegetables of all time.

NO. 8: CAULIFLOWER

There's no getting around it. A cauliflower is a cauliflower. It is not an asparagus spear. It is not a zucchini flower, nor is it a porcini mushroom. It is not a superstar. It is not sexy. As far as vegetables go, cauliflower is Mr Plain, cooked by plain people who happen to be hungry.

You could fiddle about with cauliflower and cook in it curries with chickpeas and cashews; or you could impress your dinner party guests by cutting a cauliflower into fancy look-at-me florets, cooking them with tortiglioni and pine nuts and red pepper flakes, and calling it by some regional Italian name that you've dragged out of some cookbook or just made up; but cauliflower, basic as it is, rockets into the Top Ten Vegetables of All Time thanks to one transcendent recipe of perfection: cauliflower cheese.

The ultimate vegetable comfort food, a dish that was a smash hit the first time cauliflower and cheese collided, possibly by accident, cauliflower cheese is outstanding straight out of the oven, yet is bizarrely satisfying eaten cold straight out of the fridge at four in the morning after a night on the tiles. All that chilled cheesy goodness! Cauliflower cheese is boredom-proof, thanks to the immense variety of cheeses God bestowed on us, via His ingenious invention of the cow, the goat, the sheep, the buffalo, the camel, the reindeer and certain other domesticated grazing animals. I have only tried the first three or four, so I cannot vouch for camel cheese, but I am sure it is delicious. It has to be. It's cheese. There is no bad cheese.

Cauliflower cheese.

Trim a head of a cauliflower, making a conical hole in the main stem, and pierce or slit the thicker branches to assist these in softening before the florets go mushy. Boil it with plenty of salt and pepper until almost softened. No more. It will cook further in the oven.

Melt two tablespoons of butter in a pot, add four tablespoons of plain flour, stir off the flame to make a roux, add three cups of hot milk, stir until smooth. Now add the cheese, a cupful. Cheddar! Emmenthal! Blue! Whatever! Mix them up. It doesn't matter. For an ironic twist that will leave your foodie friends speechless, blend Roquefort with Bega Bar-B-Cubes. For ease – and that's what this comfort dish is all about – buy one of those packs of ready-grated cheese that combines three varieties.

Place the cauliflower in a snug buttered baking dish, tip over the cheese sauce, add the same volume of grated cheese again on the top and around the sides, and bake until cheese is bubbling, golden and irresistible.

Sprinkle with paprika and serve as a side dish alongside freshly-carved, very rare spit-roasted beef with hot mustard, and a cold beer.