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Showing posts from August, 2007

Ten pots until Spring #1: Oxtail stew, in the manner of the roman butchers.

I've been tired and busy and jaded at the end of a long cold winter and it's been a week since my last post. But never mind because here we sit, perched precariously on the edge of Spring, teetering gently and expecting to drop headlong into a half-remembered world of blazing sunshine in blue skies and endless fields of daisies in which new lambs gambol and skip. But not yet. Not before we take our leave from Winter with one last hearty meal: our old favourite, the oxtail stew. (Why 'oxtail'? Why not 'beeftail'? Apparently the name goes back to the days when oxen were bred for transport first and eating second; rather than for eating only. Oxen subsequently became cattle, the English language’s only mass noun, with the females known as heifers prior to calving and thenceforth as cows; and the males as bullocks and then bulls, unless they become steers in which case ... . Ah, forget it. This is about food, not language, although I must say it is interesting t

The Restaurant in History Part Three: 1984-1994.

Continuing an infrequent series on restaurants I have known. 1984: Num Fong in Swanston Street. Red velvet curtaining the walls, Lazy Susans on round tables, a host called Henry and a menu that never changed. The occasion: family lunches and dinners. We lived about a kilometre away at the time. My older children were under ten then. They loved the sesame toasts, the chicken and sweet corn soup and the banana fritters. Num Fong only just closed earlier this year, swamped by a new wave of Asian eateries on Swanston Street that were faster, fresher, cheaper. Farewell, Henry. 1985: Baker's opens next to Mario's in Brunswick Street. The occasion: most days. This was my ‘office’ for some time. I wrote a small children’s book there, on paper napkins. (Baker's moved further down Brunswick Street in about 1989.) 1986: Acland Street's Fairy Stork . The occasion: our regular Sunday night dinner spot. Lobster tails in garlic sauce, whole steamed fish, rice, Wyndham Estate c

Ten pots until Spring #2: Leek and potato soup with speck.

You can’t go through winter without making leek and potato soup at least once. I seem to make it at least fortnightly and I often vary the ingredients. This version takes a flavour boost with the addition of that herb-flavoured German version of prosciutto known as speck. The soup works better if you don’t puree it. Robust and packed with flavour, it is definitely main course fare. On a cold day, it’s an absolute winner. Chop two leeks finely, lengthwise twice first, and then across the grain, so you end up with finely chopped quadrants. Sweat the leeks with a scored garlic clove in half olive oil, half butter - about a tablespoon of each - in a heavy pot. In another pan, fry a couple of tablespoons of finely cubed speck. Use good bacon if you can’t find speck. Chop four large potatoes into fairly small cubes. Roughly crack ten black peppercorns in a mortar and pestle. Chop some parsley or dill. You’ll want a good tablespoonful. Now tumble the fried speck, the potato cubes, the c

Time plays tricks.

One night, a very long time ago, I went to a concert at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl with a friend. We had cheap tickets to the open grass area. It was cold and it rained the whole night. I was soaked. I had parked the car in Alexandra Avenue and I shivered all the way home with the dash heater on full blast but barely making a difference with its feeble heat. The year was 1978. The concert was performed by a Mr Bob Dylan. The thing is, I remember thinking Mr Dylan was old in 1978, but he was in Melbourne again last weekend, so he must be about 120 by now. I didn’t go to his concert. I already know what he sounds like. He sounds like an itinerant cane toad with laryngitis, although cane toads are actually less itinerant than Bob; who has visited Melbourne several times over the years, while cane toads have yet to migrate this far south. When I want to remind myself again what Bob Dylan sounds like, I play one of his two Daniel Lanois-produced albums in my collection: Oh Mercy and Ti

Someone has their eye on your scraps. And it's not a magpie.

The Australian reports on a hot new energy source: your food scraps . 'Around 15 million tonnes, or 3 per cent, of Australia's greenhouse emissions are caused by organic matter - mainly food and garden wastes (which) … break down without oxygen and in the process produce methane, which is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. Potato peels are killing the earth. Of course, anyone with a compost bin in their backyard (I have two, which provide enough compost to cover the garden twice a year) will not be surprised that it is a potent source of energy. The heat generated by these bins is amazing, especially a day or do after the grass clippings go in. No wonder cows give off methane. 'To date, waste policy in Australia has focused mainly on how to recover the seemingly more valuable waste packaging and paper fraction. The value of these mixed recycled materials can be as much as $200 a tonne but the cost of collecting and sorting them is much higher

Ten pots until Spring #3: Congee with fish, ginger and coriander.

6am. The windscreen was iced up again. It’s the time of year: winter is losing the battle during the day, so it bites back at night. While it still can. I crunched across the icy front lawn and around to the side of the house where the gas meter is and found the watering can and filled it up at the front garden tap. A week or so ago, on a similarly cold morning, I had tried hosing the ice off the car, but the pressure busted the connection. The hose was frozen. I should have known. So let's try the watering can. I poured the water over the 'screen, splashing half of the freezing water over myself, and crunched across the grass again and put the watering can back in its place. Then I walked back to the car and got in. My fingers were not quite frozen. I could feel the keys as I turned the car on. Just. The day turned out sunny but stayed cold. I made congee. Here’s how. Congee with ginger, fish and coriander. How much rice and how much water? One part rice to sixteeen parts

Why, why, why? And a fresh pasta dish.

There was a cooking show on TV. I was kind of half-watching it. I’m not sure why. I have about six million cookbooks. The last thing I need is more food ideas. Anyway, it was the type of food show that is a vehicle for selling products. The announcer kept mentioning websites and in half an hour he said ‘w w w’ about twenty-five times. Whatever were the inventors of the Internet thinking? Why did they choose the longest letter of the alphabet for the domain: 'doubleyou, doubleyou, doubleyou' ? That’s nine syllables. They could have chosen 'eee', for 'Earth's Electronic Encyclopedia'. Or 'iii' for 'Intercontinental Information Interchange'. Or 'ccc' for 'Complicated Communications Channel'. Or even 'ttt' for 'Terminally Twisted Tubes'. Any of these alternatives would save six syllables on every repetition of a website address. Having said that, why do people keep repeating 'doubleyou, doubleyou, doubl

Well, the salad was irresistible.

The little speaker on the ochre-rendered wall outside the cafe at Blairgowrie was playing MIX 101.1FM, or whatever they're calling it this month. It used to be TT-FM and decades before that - when there were actual announcers speaking in smooth tones instead of foul-mouthed oicks broadcasting their coarseness in bass-enhanced stereo - it was 3DB. Anyway, the radio station was broadcasting its daily noon-to-1pm 'eighties' program and Simply Irresistible by Robert Parker - no wait, he's the wine guy - Robert Palmer was playing. Twenty years after it was a hit, the song still sounds to me like a caveman trying to frighten a lion away by shouting at it while somebody hits two steel rubbish bins with cricket bats in the background. Eighties music gets worse every time I hear it, which is far too often. It's no wonder so many people switched off their radios on 31 December 1979 and switched them on again on 1 January 1990. It was a dreadful decade for music. They sho

New life in the garden.

Six in the morning, not light yet. I walked up the street and around the corner to get the paper from the shop that opens early. A few brittle-diamond stars trembled in a frozen cloudless sky as if they were trying to hold on to the night. It was one of those clear but very cold mornings that turn into perfectly still days. It’s my morning routine, the same every day. I like looking at the eastern sky and trying to figure out what the weather will bring. Apart from all that, if you want the paper early around here you have to go and get it. In my street you never hear the thwack of rolled-up papers hitting driveways, fences, trees, windows or cats before 7.30, and I eat breakfast an hour earlier. Not that I get a whole lot of reading done over breakfast these days. I walked back from the shop with the newspaper under my arm and my hands folded into their opposite sleeves to keep warm. I scraped open the front gate. The stars were nearly gone now and there was enough light from the

Ten pots until Spring # 4: Pasta e Fagioli.

Why is pasta e fagioli one of my favourite soups? It must be something about the texture. While it has its own soothingly earthy flavour, the pureed bean substrate upon which this soup is built has the strength to carry, on its back, like some culinary magic carpet, the salty bite of pancetta, the kick of onion and pepper, the zing of tomato and the sweet tang of chicken stock. It even manages to encapsulate a breath of fresh herbs which rises from the finished soup like flowers and grass jumping out of a newly uncorked bottle of sauvignon blanc. Then, as you eat the soup, the tiny, soft pasta shapes work like little gear wheels, agitating and amplifying all the tastes. In terms of flavour, pasta e fagioli is not so much a symphony as a 3.8 litre engine driven through a six-speed gearbox. Because I am a creature of habit, I regularly eat pasta e fagioli at Papa Gino’s, where it is accompanied by a basket of crusty, chewy, fresh Italian bread and little foil-wrapped pats of butter.

Ten pots until Spring: halfway there.

The degrees are climbing slowly and laboriously up the thermometer, inching their way towards Spring. Yesterday was almost warm; but unfortunately the wind was showing signs of its Springtime truculence. I was working at the big building where they have staff kitchens the size of football fields. They said, help yourself to coffee. It's in the kitchen . I will , I said. I went into the kitchen and looked for a cup. I asked someone, are there any cups? Oh no! he laughed, you have to bring your own! Like I'm going to walk into a contract job with a cup tied around my neck or bulging out of my briefcase. Nuts. So I went out at lunchtime and walked down to the run-down mall near the big building and bought a sandwich and a coffee from a rundown takeaway cafe and a paper from the newsagent and I sat outside the cafe and tried to eat the sandwich and read the bad news in the paper. The wind whipped and banged the cafe awning and blew over a table and then it snatched up

Ten pots until spring # 6: let's bake some pasta.

I think a pasta bake fits our definition of hearty winter fare. Here's what I made last night. Lumaconi Farcite. Which sounds like the name of an Italian Formula One driver, or at least of his car. But no! It is a whole lot slower than either of those. I believe it means stuffed snail shells; which, while not being such a good title, at least gives you some idea of what you are about to eat. You could use any large shells, but these lumaconi have a neat little 'handle' separating the holes - one smaller and one larger - in each end, which serves as both a restraining strap for the stuffing and a handle with which to set them into the baking dish. You'll see what I mean when you prepare them. Cook the pasta in plenty of boiling salted and oiled water and drain carefully. The oil should help prevent the insides sticking together once cooked and drained. Prepare the stuffing: place in a food processor a dozen pitted black olives (I used Greek mammoth kalamata); half

Ten pots until Spring #7: a little soup history.

August at last! I have always liked August. I have fond memories of the often sunny and quite warm late-August fortnight that, in faraway schooldays, marked the end of second term. The pleasure was two-fold: the onset of Spring and the prospect of only one school term left until Christmas and the long sun-drenched holidays from December until early February. But for now, the earliest days of August, a new glimmer of light at six o’clock in the evening is the only hint of warmer days ahead, while a biting cold wind hammers and roars; and so we resume our Spring countdown. This is a very nice soup that makes the perfect mid-week dinner with some fresh bread from the baker in O’Hea Street. Three bean soup. Don't panic, it’s three types of beans, not three in total. There will be enough for everyone. Lightly fry a chopped onion in olive oil until it starts to turn transparent, then add a scored garlic clove and stir for two more minutes. Don’t let the garlic catch. Immediately a