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

29.5.15

Seventy years after.

"Any resemblance between pre-war football and today's game," football historian and Truth sports reporter Jim Main wrote in 1969, "is purely coincidental."

Main continued: "The old game died bloodily in 1945, when Carlton throttled life out of South Melbourne and gave birth to a professionalism that has matured into today's cold, calculated ruthlessness ... ."

Carlton was reigning premier when Main wrote those words; having achieved success by poaching the star player of the League's then most successful club, prompting one of the Sun News-Pictorial's better back page headlines: Carlton Draft: Melbourne Bitter. The act of unsporting bastardry so shocked Melbourne it never won another flag; Carlton blithely piled up another seven during the reign of nine coaches following Barassi, some of whom were summarily sacked - and two of which were reappointed, attesting to the board's erratic vacillations.

The word professional is no longer associated with ruthlessness. The Swans found professionalism, via its famous spin-free 'no-dickheads' mantra. On the other hand, Carlton just stayed ruthless and have not won a flag for twenty years. They would do well to apply the Swans' policy. To the board, of course.

*

Seventy years after the game known as the 'Bloodbath', Carlton and the Swans meet again - tonight. It could be another bloodbath; metaphorically this time, of course.

25.5.15

Stupid labels: #1 in a series of about six million.

It was on a can of pineapple in the supermarket.

It read: Naturally Low in Fat, as if to reassure the one in eighty billion shoppers who might think pineapple was as fat-laden as, say, a ham and cheese croissant or a jar of double cream.

What next? Naturally Low in Nuts on a leg of lamb? Completely Sugar Free! on a jar of salt?

19.5.15

Conversation in a hotel late one night.

The room was silent. Delegates had voted and were waiting for the result of the first podium finish – third – to appear on a large screen fixed to the wall. The barman moved around softly, collecting glasses.

The room was a private one at a rundown hotel in an inner bayside suburb; the kind of place once frequented by car dealers, waterside workers, blacksmiths and horse trainers. To say the clientele had changed would be like saying the sun had risen. Today, the faded curtains, the worn carpet, and the accidentally-antique bar furniture gave the establishment a raffish air that appealed to the inner-urban hipsters who had transformed the surrounding suburb from $10,000 workers' cottages into $1.5 million 'unpolished gems' by the simple act of moving in. Now, the hipsters were happy to mix with the remaining scoundrels of the area and the hotel was the place they did it.

Suddenly, a headline appeared on the screen.

The Top Ten Vegetables.

Silence. A subtitle appeared.

No 3: Pumpkin.

Borg broke the hush. 'Pumpkin?' he exclaimed, with a high, searching, inflection. 'Pumpkin? Third? That's ridiculous!'

Radnitz spoke. 'Yes, I admit, unexpected,' he said, looking at Borg. 'But we must not let professional jealousy cloud our judgement.'

'Professional jealousy?' replied Borg, with the same upward inflection. 'Ridiculous.'

'I can see it's going to be one of those evenings when everything is ridiculous,' said Radnitz, slowly and with only a hint of sarcasm. 'But you are, after all, a niche player. You do not like mainstream.'

Borg was a grower of organic chokoes for the hospitality industry. Very niche, but then again they were very good chokoes. Or so I had heard. I hadn't personally tried an organic choko grown for the hospitality industry. In fact, I hadn't personally tried an organic choko period.

Schwartz put down his double Scotch and entered the conversation. 'In some countries,’ he averred, 'pumpkin is mere pig food.' With that he drained his glass and walked immediately, as if by remote control, to the bar.

Chad Winters was impassive. He sat in a retro green brocade winged armchair, obtained by the hotelier at Fowles Auctions for a mere $100. Winters raised a lazy arm, the one whose hand was not around a highball glass. Heads turned.

'Radnitz is right,' he said. 'We should respect the voting process. A poll is not a fashion statement, nor a social media affectation, nor a twitter ejaculation. Nor is it peer self-congratulation.'

He paused and sipped his highball. 'As for your comment, Schwartz,' (Schwartz was back, glass in hand) 'that pig-feeding practice merely reflects one element of what is good about the orange gourd: its sheer abundance. They feed it to the pigs because it otherwise rots on the vine. You might remember my telling the story about my own bountiful harvest a few years back. After throwing down a few seeds at the start of summer, my garden became a sea of endless trailing vines supporting some ninety five-kilogram pumpkins by season's end. I decided never to grow pumpkins again, simply because there were always more than I could use, and it seemed a waste, even though they store for months.'

'Abundance is nothing without utility,' said Borg. 'Or taste.'

'I like that coming from a choko grower,' laughed Radnitz.

'Blandness may apply to many vegetables,' went on Chad Winters, ignoring the interruption. 'Yet the mark of a good home cook is - like the alchemists of old - being able to turn something into something else. Something wonderful.'

He paused.

'Right now, all over the world, housewives are turning pumpkins – the cheapest vegetable of all – into dishes they hope will hold sufficient interest for their husbands and children that they will go to bed both satisfied and nourished: the twin Holy Grails of the domestic culinary art. If anything can do that, pumpkin can. It can be used in casseroles, braises and stews; transformed into pies, both savoury and sweet; and baked into bread, scones and biscuits. Its flesh can fill pasta, can be cooked into risotto, or be sliced into lasagne. Its sweet caramelised flavour, when baked, is unsurpassed. Mash it alone or with potato or swede or carrot. Saute it until it starts to sear, chill it and turn it into salads worthy of a main meal with chickpeas and pine nuts, or avocado and walnuts, or green beans and cherry tomatoes. You name it. In some countries, longevity is measured in pepitas: the men chew roasted pumpkin seeds even while playing cards, smoking endless cigarettes and sipping ouzo. And - as I said - right this very minute, home cooks worldwide are preparing what is possibly the world's most ubiquitous soup, made perhaps with ginger and garlic and coriander and a touch of chilli, or a simpler version with stock and a swirl of cream.'

Borg rolled his eyes at the mention of 'ubiqitous'. Schwartz drained his glass. Radnitz stood up. The clock said five to ten.

'Last drinks, gentlemen,' called the barman, mopping the bar with a foot-long Carlton Draught bar towel.

*

Couscous with pumpkin, chick peas and chilli sauce.

Fry a finely-chopped onion in four tablespoons of olive oil in a large heavy-based pan. Crush and add a small cinnamon stick. Fry.

Add a large cubed unpeeled eggplant, three medium carrots cut into rounds, and two quartered medium potatoes. Stir to cover in oil. Fry ten minutes, shaking the pan or stirring.

Now add 250g pumpkin cut into large cubes, followed by two large ripe quartered tomatoes, a drained can of chick peas, a quarter teaspoon mixed spice, three teaspoons (or more) of your favourite hot chilli sauce, and salt and pepper to taste.

Add two cups of water, cover the pan and simmer until vegetables are almost tender.

Add a dozen trimmed green beans cut into batons and two trimmed zucchini cut into rounds. Simmer another fifteen minutes.

Serve over couscous cooked according to pack directions.

13.5.15

Countdown: top ten vegetables of all time.

NO. 4: THE MUSHROOM

Until the early 1970s, Melbourne was dead on Sundays. Everything was shut. TABs, casinos, $2 shops, brothels, liquor outlets, Kidzone, Domino's pizza, Northland, you name it. It must have been awful. How did people get through the day?

My father had a Sunday coping strategy. He took us on what was known as a 'Sunday drive', a quaint mid-twentieth century weekend activity that involved a whole family packing into an FC Holden station wagon and driving into the countryside on mostly deserted roads, although another vehicle might be spotted occasionally, embarked on a similar expedition.

He usually drove north-west. We were practically on the urban fringe anyway. West of Essendon was thistle and Avondale Heights, both of which were wild. Keilor Road took us across the Maribyrnong River bridge into Keilor proper, where the road became the Calder Highway. After that was nothing but farmland all the way to Bendigo. We would take an arbitrary turnoff onto some unmade road, rumble along a few miles and then stop, apparently at random. Somewhere near Greenvale, or was it Oaklands Junction?

We'd climb a barbed wire fence, glance around for bulls (probably the latter before the former), and then look for mushrooms, fanning out like a police line searching for clues. It was good clean fun, picking through cowpats and mud under a slate sky. The mushrooms* usually grew in clusters, and sometimes in an odd circular shape, like Stonehenge.

*

The following two recipes showcase the earthy flavour and meaty texture of the mushroom. But my most common use of the mushroom is to halve some button mushrooms, sweat them in their own juice and toss them over rare steak with a shower of pepper and a little garlic butter.

#1: Mushroom and cheese melt.

Slice half a kilogram of fresh mushrooms. Finely chop a large onion and fry in two tablespoons of butter until soft. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring, a few minutes until soft. Add salt and pepper to taste.

In a separate saucepan, melt two tablespoons of butter, stir in three tablespoons of flour until combined. Then add two cups of milk and whisk until smooth. Stir until it thickens, then remove from heat and fold through the mushroom and onion mixture and a cupful of grated cheddar.

Divide mixture between four soufflé dishes or ramekins, top with a quarter cup of cheese each, and bake until cheese melts to a golden crust.

#2: Asian-style mushrooms.

Soak a dozen dried Chinese mushrooms for 30 minutes. Drain, discard stems and cut caps in two.

Deep fry 250g pressed bean curd cut into triangles.

Add peanut oil to a wok, add two spring onions cut into short batons and the rehydrated mushrooms. Stir 30 seconds, add 150ml of vegetable stock, two tablespoons of dark soy and half a teaspoon of sugar. Simmer 15 minutes, then add the bean curd. Cover wok and simmer another five minutes.

Meanwhile, blend a teaspoon of cornflour with a tablespoon of water and stir through the sauce. It should thicken. Sprinkle over a teaspoon of sesame oil. Serve over fragrant steamed rice.

If using fresh tofu, omit deep-frying process, carefully slice the tofu and slide it into wok to avoid it breaking up.

*

The mushroom fields are long gone now, buried under double-storey fake Georgian houses with enormous rooms that hold couches the size of racing cars from which you can gaze at reality television on enormous screens. Nothing grows here in the dark any more except, perhaps, teenage terror suspects who sprout overnight and are dragged, when found, blinking into the sunlight, their relatives unaware of their online activities in the dark of night.

*OK, the pedants are on to us again: a mushroom is strictly the fruiting body of a fungus.

(Holden image thanks to holden.org.au. Serving suggestion only.)

4.5.15

The footy oval at the bottom of the valley.

Sixty years ago, several enterprising gentlemen purchased an abandoned building site in West Essendon. It was no surprise the estate was abandoned. Despite being close to sub-division, it sat on a cliff. The street plan had been submitted to the planning authorities, was printed in the 1955 edition of the Melways street directory, and then deleted in the next edition.

Potential builders looked at the site and were stunned. "Can't build on that," they exclaimed. "It's a cliff. Get a decent rain after you gouge into that, and you'll have a billion tons of mud and several earthmovers at the bottom of the valley floating down Steele Creek."

So they put it up for sale, to whoever would be mad enough to buy it.

*

The several enterprising gentlemen bought it. They wanted to build a school. But where to put the actual building?

"Never mind where to put the school," said one, who played football and had his priorities right. "Let's make a start on the footy oval."

They borrowed someone's earthmover and a steamroller, scratched out a zig-zag road to the bottom of the valley, and carved out a primitive oval on the mudflats next to the creek.

*

That oval, the home of St Bernard's Old Collegians, is still there, on the south west corner of the estate. They built the school about ten years later on the north east side on a shelf carved into the cliff. The south east end, being steeper, remained a virtual cliff until last year, when someone got brave enough to try to use the cliff-like hill to house football (and cricket) spectators.

They started digging in winter. Massive gouges appeared in the earth. The hill held, the reason being that it seemed to be mostly rock. Over the course of excavation, thousands of boulders were unearthed. Most ended up at the bottom of the valley, piled up next to the oval like a giant cairn. Later, they were used to rebuild the perimeter, half-buried in between landscaping grass amongst the weed matting, like studs in a leather couch.

One night last winter I was running slow laps on the oval. It had rained for several days and I expected a landslide to bury me at any moment. An earthmover was perched at a seemingly dangerous angle way above me. You'd have to be brave to drive an earthmover in a place like that. Clinging to the hill on a narrow cutting, it looked like one of those mountain goats that stand on cliffs. How do they do it?

After they made the first cut, they made another, higher up. Sheer madness. They were terracing the cliff! The idea was to tap into the iconic concept of drive-in parking, a feature of football grounds well known around country towns and some suburban ovals.

Then they joined the two levels via a hairpin-bended switchback, paved the lot, landscaped the hill and put in strong barriers for the inevitable occasion(s) when someone, parking, will hit the accelerator instead of the brake.

The view from both levels is like the upper tiers at Etihad stadium, except the sky is your roof (if you have an open-top car), and you don't have someone sitting half a centimetre away on either side.
In reviving this legendary and much-loved feature of the game, St Bernard's has turned the iconic footy drive-in into a cutting edge landscaping statement that thumbs its nose at the pastel plasticised anonymity of its grandstand contemporaries. As an example of urban infrastructure, it is as brave and as fearless as the feats performed way below on the oval.
- Uber-Urban Architect

*

Once again the blasts of car horns greeting every goal will reverberate across the valley. Not sure whether the residents in their mock-palatial 1980s mansionettes on the other side of the valley will enjoy it.