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

29.2.16

Pasta nicoise for the last day of summer.

The hottest summer on record, they said. What a fizzer. Here in Coburg, we did not get through the half-price twenty-visit family ticket for Moreland aquatic centres. Five visits left. Barely any days over 40C. Hottest on record? Hardly. (Incidentally, that 30C-plus day last week was described by several newsreaders as a 'heatwave'. A heatwave used to be a run of high temperature days, but its meaning has been manipulated to indicate a single day of hot weather.)

*

And here we are at the last day of summer. Tonight: a dish I call warm pasta nicoise, because it contains some of the ingredients of the classic salad. I use linguini for the pasta.

Pasta nicoise.

Cook the linguine, drain it, and reserve a tablespoon of the liquid.

Sear a slice of fresh tuna keeping it still pink in the middle. Cut into cubes.

Return the pasta to the heavy pan with the liquid, a dash of olive oil, some very finely sliced onion rings and a crushed garlic clove. Add the tuna, some sliced truss tomatoes, a dozen pitted black olives, a dozen anchovies, and a dozen halved cooked green beans. Set over a very low heat. All you want to do is warm through the ingredients.

Place in serving bowls, top with quartered semi-boiled eggs, chopped parsley and cracked black pepper.

26.2.16

The egg and I.

I got off to a bad start with eggs. I was nineteen, out of home, and cooking for three.

I started with an egg. (Another time I cooked five sausages by placing them into a red hot pan to which they fused. Ten minutes later I had ships of raw sausage meat decks over carbon holds.)

I placed the egg in a saucepan and placed the saucepan on the stove and lit the stove. So far so good.

Then I went into another room and did something else. I don't know, putting clothes away, reading the sports section, making a landline phone call. Could have been anything.

Eight minutes later I came back into the kitchen. I sniffed the air. But it was too late. There was a sudden explosion, like a light globe being shot out. Something hit the ceiling. In fact, a lot of things hit the ceiling, and the upper parts of the walls. And they were all pale yellow.

I had forgotten the water.

The egg had heated up and exploded. It took me a day to clean the ceiling and I was still finding bits of egg and shell months later.

Until recently my early egg experience was still haunting me, and making me unable to boil an egg properly, so that it could be easily shelled. Then one day I decided this was just superstition and that I should get over it and learn how to do the job properly. Previously, my egg shells had always seemed to stick to the white and the peeled eggs looked like they had flesh-eating disease.

So I got over the early bad experience, did a bit of research, and learned how to boil an easy-peel egg. And this is how you do it.

The first mistake I used to make was to boil chilled eggs, because I kept them in the fridge. Eggs can be stored at room temperature, but if you must chill them, allow them to come to room temperature first. You can speed this up by placing them in a glass of warm water while you bring the water you are going to cook them in to the boil.

Yes! You boil the water first. Previously, I was putting cold eggs in cold water and then cooking them slowly. Instead, lower the room temperature eggs gently into simmering water with a spoon. Gradual lowering will help stop them cracking.

The next part is trial and error. For soft boiled eggs, I turn off the heat after four minutes, and leave the eggs in the water another five minutes. But your stove, pot, water and egg size will mean this is variable.

After five minutes, I drain them gently, rinse them under cold water to cool the shells so they won't burn my fingers, then I crack each egg on the tiled bench, and the shell comes away easily.

17.2.16

Pasta with onions: a dish to cry over.

Pasta with onions raises eyebrow; but veal parmigiana stole tomato sauce and cheese, so why can't pasta hijack something more commonly associated with meat dishes?

Pasta with onions, red capsicum and anchovies.

Chop two large onions into fine rings and saute them in a pan with olive oil. Add a little sugar to help brown them.

Meanwhile, bake a red capsicum until the skin chars. Remove from oven, and place in a paper bag to cool. The skin will now be quite easy to peel away. Cut the flesh into strips.

While the onions are melting into soft, fragrant brownness, cook the pasta. Slinky, slippery fettuccine works well with this dish.

Check the onions again. Do not allow to stick, let alone burn. Add a squeeze of lemon for a dash of acid and give the onions a stir.

Drain the pasta. Twirl it into a large serving bowl, add strips of roasted red pepper, several anchovies; and then top with the fried onion.


12.2.16

Pigeon Post.

Yet again we delve back into the archives of Kitchen Hand's head, from his ongoing life as a copywriter in advertising. Every one of these stories is 100% true and accurate, even the slightly exaggerated ones. Only the names have changed. Reminder: language warning, but no worse than in every agency - or construction site for that matter - across the land.

*

Another morning in the advertising agency. Another awards night over. Another trophy in the cabinet. Another lost night. Another hangover. Another growing feeling of dread about what happened, where it happened, and who it happened to. Another hamburger with the lot from the café over the road, cooked to order on the greasiest part of the grill to soak up as much brain-soothing fat as possible.

Another account service person walks into Leopard's office without knocking. Leopard is the creative director whose name was Leonard until he got into advertising. Thinking his name a little tame for a creative director, he employed the now hackneyed technique of changing one letter, moving the 'n' two letters down the alphabet.

TONY: Debrief on the CEO empowerment campaign in the boardroom in half an hour.

LEOPARD (DOESN'T TURN AROUND TO FACE TONY): Are you talking to me or reading your diary out loud in the personal space of my office?

TONY (SNAPS HIS DIARY SHUT): Both, actually.

LEOPARD: Then fuck off. And how about 'Good morning, Leopard, how was your night?'

TONY: Good morning Leopard, how was your night.

LEOPARD: You didn't mean that. Go away and come back again and say it sincerely.

TONY: What is this, fucking acting school? I'm not Take Five in one of your pretentious TV commercials, you know, Leopard.

LEOPARD: No. You're a bag carrier, Tony. You're a lot further down the food chain than an actor. Why don't you just send an email or a meeting reminder or something. Like everyone else does.

TONY: Because no-one ever turns up to meetings set up by email.

LEOPARD: That could only be a good thing, Tony. Meetings are mankind's single greatest waste of time after Facebook and bureaucrats, perhaps not in that order.

TONY: This one will be short.

LEOPARD: You say that every time, Tony.

LATER, IN THE BOARDROOM.

ROBERT (CLIENT): In short, we loved the concept for the DM campaign (direct marketing, known to the public as 'junk mail'). We loved the way you open the three-dimensional carton, and we loved the outer teaser that read "Are you pulling enough strings in your organisation?", and we loved the way when you peeled that off, it revealed a piece of interactive string with two words that read "Pull here to make your ideas fly", and we loved it when we pulled the string and the pigeon flew out.

LEOPARD (NODS CURTLY): Go on.

ROBERT (CLIENT): It flew around the room, and then it sat on top of the power point screen and it fouled the ledge where you put the pens and the remote control, but we still loved it!

We're just worried about the legality of using real live pigeons.

TONY: Leopard's done his research, as always, Robert; and he assures us we will use only carrier pigeons used to being transported and released, so that once you let them go they will fly straight back to their abodes or nests or boxes or whatever you call them. They cannot possibly come to any harm. Isn't that right, Leopard?

LEOPARD (YAWNS): Yep. Plus they're only fucking pigeons for Christ's sake. Take a look outside. There's a million of them playing in the traffic and shitting on the buildings. More heritage buildings in Europe are destroyed by pigeon shit than were bombed in world war two. Rats of the air, they call them. And anyway, we should be eating them. Pigeon pie. You'd save a million chickens from life as battery hens. So don't worry about their welfare.

ROBERT (CHOOSING HIS WORDS CAREFULLY): I'm not worried about their welfare, as such, Leopard, I just don't want a hundred worldwide animal rights activist organisations up in arms when we launch the campaign.

LEOPARD: What are they going to say? Homing pigeons used as homing pigeons? Birds made to fly? Attempted pigeocide?

TONY GUFFAWS BUT QUICKLY CONTROLS HIMSELF.

ROBERT: No, just the initial confinement.

LEOPARD (PATIENTLY): Robert, they have been hired from a pigeon fancier society, who has approved the program, the treatment of the birds, and the size of the vented box. They are being packed and despatched on the same day, and couriered direct to each of one hundred leading names on your database - all in one city - and delivered personally to the name on the pack.

ROBERT: What if they're not opened on the spot?

LEOPARD: The courier is instructed to personally hand over the pack to the CEO with instructions to open it immediately, preferably in the open air, or to return it to the depot where the pack will be opened, the pigeon restored to its temporary travelling cage and re-sent the next day.

ROBERT: You seem to have everything covered.

LATER THAT WEEK.

TONY (IN LEOPARD'S OFFICE): Well, we did a good job convincing Robert and the campaign flies today. Literally.

LEOPARD: I do the puns around here, Tony. Did you put me on the database so I can see first-hand that it works?

TONY: Yes. And myself. I just rang home. The pack had been delivered, and my wife released the pigeon and it's already been registered as having arrived back at its homing place. Worked perfectly.

THAT NIGHT, ABOUT 8PM. LEOPARD'S CAR PURRS INTO A GRAVELLED DRIVEWAY. HE GOES TO THE FRONT DOOR, FIDDLES WITH A KEY, STEPS INSIDE AND IS GREETED BY HIS WIFE, TIGER.

LEOPARD: Hi honey. How was your day? By the way, a large parcel should have arrived. Did you see it?

TIGER: Yes. Junk mail. I wish you'd put a sign on the letterbox.

LEOPARD (TURNS TO HER): It should have come to the door. It was one of my campaigns. I work in the business, as I've told you many times.

TIGER: It did come to the door. Still junk mail though. I opened it in the lounge room.

PAUSE.

LEOPARD: Yes?

TIGER: The door was closed.

LEOPARD: And?

TIGER: The cat was in the room too.

LONGER PAUSE THIS TIME.

LEOPARD: Oh no. Every pigeon was pre-identified by its addressee. Did the cat ...

TIGER: I'm afraid so. It took me all afternoon to clean up the carpet.

LEOPARD IS AGAPE. IN THE SILENCE, A SOFT GREY FEATHER FLUTTERS TO THE CARPET FROM THE CHANDELIER.

9.2.16

Melting cheese makes pasta dish unsurpassable.

Home made gnocchi makes the manufactured variety taste like footballs. Used footballs. Tough and leathery.

Simply fold some flour and an egg through mashed potato, roll into cylinders, flour them and cut them into one-inch lengths. Place on a floured tray until cooking, by dropping them into boiling water. Simple. Never buy the packet ones again, unless you like chewing on old footballs.

I made a roux of flour turned through melted butter, added a cup and a half of milk and warmed it on a low heat until thickened. Then I added half a cup of grated cheddar, a large knob of very mature blue cheese and half a cup of parmesan. Add milk if it gets too thick.

The resulting bubbling lava was poured over cooked gnocchi which was flecked with chopped parsley and cracked black pepper.

The plate was then placed under the griller until the cheese started developing a very appetising golden crust.

Probably the finest pasta dish on earth.

2.2.16

Keeping up with the corporate responsibility bullies.

January is a good time to work. I often pick up a week or two of freelance work at a number of advertising agencies when their writers are on holidays.

Sometimes the agencies are busy, but often there is not a lot to do apart from checking proofs, signing off artwork, advising account executives on basic points of grammar or spelling, going out for coffee at Brunetti's in the city square, browsing the collectable books in Kay Craddock's; that kind of thing.

A couple of weeks ago I spent a few days in a large agency with not much to do. While I was waiting to be briefed on a job, I was idly reading through the agency's mission statement. It was a Monday morning and the job, a six page brochure for one of its financial advice clients, would be briefed in at the work-in-progress meeting at ten o'clock in the boardroom.

Mission statements are merely long-winded expressions of a strange blend of political correctness and the latest business management fads; and this was no different, despite it belonging to an advertising agency, which is meant to be a repository of the new and different.

It talked about the agency's 'modus operandi' and its 'unique selling proposition' and its 'village idiots' network of helpers, namely the freelancers and suppliers it declared were vastly superior to the network contacts of every other agency (thank you for the compliment, except I work for all the others as well).

Then I got to its 'environment statement', which was a subsection of its 'Corporate Social Responsibility' policy, commonly known as 'CSR' in the world of bullying NGOs, cowed major businesses and assorted other organisations striving to subvert the world of trade into a politically correct utopia in which no-one is better or worse than, or different to, anyone else, and everyone earns oodles of money, which comes from ... well, it must come from somewhere.

CSR was once a grand acronym denoting one of Australia's oldest and greatest companies, the Colonial Sugar Refinery. This is a great irony in itself, because every one of the three words in that magnificent title today offends a multitude of social activists, pressure groups and assorted rent-seekers. Today, even CSR probably has a CSR.

The agency's 'environment statement' embedded in its CSR went like this:
As an Australian company, Acme (not its real name, obviously) Advertising has a duty of care both to the local and the global environments.
Both? There's more than one environment?
We treat this stewardship seriously and acknowledge a relationship of interdependence between our business and the environment. What we do inside our office can have a lasting impact on the wider world.
While I was reading this, an account executive was mass-printing the work in progress documents in the alcove outside my office; thirty pages each (single-sided) times twenty people. Six hundred pages every Monday morning. The printer kept jamming and the account guy must was getting a little hot and bothered even though the building was beautifully air-conditioned against the thirty-degree Celsius morning. I read on.
Our sustainability policy also documents our core social and environmental responsibilities and commitments.
Also? I thought we were talking about that already.
We will continue to review our policy to ensure we stay up to date with new approaches to sustainability.
Like photocopiers and air-conditioning that work on 'alternative energy sources'.

Soon, the work-in-progress meeting got under way. They handed out the bulldog-clipped blocks of thirty pages weighing about a kilogram each. No-one read them, they just flipped through the pages while the MD droned on about the week's work. I threw mine in the bin, keeping the bulldog clip, when I got back to my office, switched on my computer and started a financial advice brochure.

1.2.16

Meatballs with parsley and mint: a tribute to the long-gone corner butcher shop.

Once upon a time, butcher shops had blue tiles on the outside, an inwardly slanting main window for easier viewing of the displayed product from the street, and sawdust on the floor.

The sawdust, combined with the smell of fresh meat, produced a curiously sweet aroma. The butchers used curly-leaf parsley to decorate the meat trays. The rich green of the parsley muted the sea of red meat and made it more appetising.

My mother's parcel of mince steak from R. J. Gilbertson in Puckle Street Moonee Ponds would often contain a few sprigs of the green herb, which would be cooked into the resulting patties.

Later, parsley was made obsolete as a garnish after the butchers invented those green plastic edging things. These days, the butcher's window itself has all but disappeared from the streetscape.

Greek-style meatballs with parsley and mint.

Put 600g of lean minced steak into a large mixing bowl with a cup and a half of finely chopped parsley, half a cup of finely chopped mint, a teaspoonful of oregano, two crushed and chopped cloves of garlic and a dash of salt and pepper.

Mix with wet hands and form into walnut-size balls.

Fry until done.

Squeeze plenty of lemon juice over the meatballs. Make a dipping sauce of Greek yogurt mixed with diced cucumber, chopped mint, dried oregano and paprika. Roll the meatballs up into fresh pita bread and serve with a salad of rocket, tomato, red onion, feta and balsamic vinegar.

Or cook them in a basic tomato sauce and serve over spaghetti.