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

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.

28.1.16

Swedish heavy metal: VROOM in action again.

This Volvo is so old it was built before the Berlin Wall came down. Yet it appears to be brand new. I found it on a used car lot in Alphington.

The Volvo, a 740GL model first registered in March 1990, is a time warp. If you are sitting in the back, the glasshouse is so large it is like riding in one of those trans-national railway observation cars. The car handles like a train too.

Designed by Volvo legend Jan Wilsgaard, the 740 was poorly regarded by critics at the time of its release:
In 1983, Autocar's Gordon Murray said, "To me it's obscene ... goes right against the grain of what everybody else is trying to do. To me it looks like a European version of a North American car."
Murray still didn't like the model in 1990:
Ordinary passenger cars are getting bigger and heavier, and that's an awful trend. If everyone drove around in Volvo (700 series) there'd be no room on the road for you and me! It's ridiculous making these massive cars for people to travel around on their own.
Murray got that wrong. Today, everyone is driving around in SUVs the size of a block of flats; while the 740GL is sought after by hipsters and lovers of retro style for its cubist boxiness, sharp verticals and wedge nose. Also, I can play my old cassettes in it.

*

The white 740 GL is the tenth Volvo acquired by VROOM (Volvo Rescue Organisation of Melbourne). VROOM spokesman and sole member, Mr K. Hand, said with tongue firmly in cheek that rescuing old Volvos played a vital social role in developing an innovative approach to sustainability; and that "the alternative was too terrible to think about. Apart from that I could never drive a Prius".

Earlier VROOM acquisitions include:

* A pale blue 1978 245DL.

* A stunning orange mid-seventies 244DL in mint condition.

* A 1988 760GLE.

22.1.16

Avocadoes from across the Great Divide.

Eight of them came down, hard as rocks, from a friend's farm outside Euroa. They don't all come from Queensland; they grow well just across the Great Divide.

Put them in a paper bag with a banana, he said. Ripens them. Ripens the banana, too. Made banana cake when they went soft.

Been eating avocadoes for ten days. They came up beautifully. Four days in a paper bag with a banana will do that to you.

Creamy and cold, with a perfect interior of pale green, like a 1930s tiled bathroom.

I made pasta with avocado, variations of which I have posted many times; the clichéd but delicious guacamole; one, halved and baked, even became a rerun of the 1970s classic avocado vinaigrette. Then there were sandwiches of wholegrain bread with cold sliced chicken and avocado, tomato and cheddar cheese, possibly the best sandwich ever invented. (Toast these in winter and never go back to ham-and-cheese again.)

But the best dish with the Euroa avocado consignment was a scotch fillet steak grilled fast and rare, the outside charred but the inside red, and served under a sauce of cream reduced with thin slices of avocado and plenty of cracked peppercorns. Mash and green beans on the side. And a glass of red.

*

Across the Great Divide
Just grab your hat, and take that ride
Get yourself a bride
And bring your children down to the riverside.


- Robbie Robertson, 1969

8.1.16

A Cat With No Name, Part Two.

Synopsis: Kitchen Hand is visited regularly by a neighbour's badly-named cat whose health is in decline. Another neighbour, who works in animal welfare, intervenes. Now read on.

More months passed. Fluffball had fattened up again, but he still limped, and he had lumps around his neck. He used to fight with Lion, a cat who lived in the yard of another neighbour, unrelated to this story. One day, the animal welfare neighbour, whose name is Z., knocked on the door. Z. had a plan.

The broad plan was to steal Fluffball. Yes, take him. Kidnap him. Z. would take him to a refuge. But we had to catch him first. He would not voluntarily get into a car and be driven away. He didn't even really like being picked up. He just liked head-butting me.

The finer detail of the plan was that Z. would borrow a cage from a shelter. (You can get them from the council, but that takes six months and delivery is about as inconspicuous as riding a pink elephant down Bourke Street.) But she couldn't place the cage in her backyard, because she already had several animals, and the wrong one might get trapped. Z. wanted to put it in my yard; and if all went to plan Fluffball would, on his nightly prowl, be attracted to some food in the cage, and the door would spring shut, and Z. would take him away later.

Great. I was being implicated in a plan to kidnap a cat. That's a criminal offence. It's theft. What if Fluffball had been microchipped with a GPS tracking device, and it was traced it to my back yard?

I finally agreed, but only reluctantly; because I had come to like Fluffball and enjoy his head-butt greetings and, indeed, his company. Of course, I never called him Fluffball. He used to just sit there on my porch and not say anything, and that is a very good thing when you are reading a book in the evening.

The day for the kidnapping came. Z. sneaked the the cage into my backyard about 7pm, and set it up. Then she crept away, and I returned to my spot on the porch with my book and a drink. Minutes after Z. left, Fluffball walked past the house on his first-edition evening promenade. So far, so good.

Soon, I heard him fighting as usual with Lion. Then, a jarring occurrence really unnerved me. Fluffball's owner appeared. I had not seen her out looking for him since that first encounter the previous summer. Yet here she was, right outside outside my house on the very night we planned to steal her cat, and she was calling Fluffball! Fluffball! Fluffball! Even as the cage sat in my backyard waiting for the heist.

I shrank into my chair. After a while, Fluffball's owner gave up the search and disappeared. Minutes later, Fluffball reappeared, his grey fur dishevelled from his spat with Lion. I thought he might have heard his owner calling. But no, he turned left at my gate and sauntered up the path. Christ almighty, don’t incriminate me yet, I thought, putting my book and drink down for the fifth time in half an hour. She might still be looking. She might walk past again and see him. And follow him in, right up to the back yard. And see the cage. And realise.

But she didn’t.

Some time during the night, Fluffball played his role. Next morning, he was trapped in the cage like Burt Lancaster in an Alcatraz cell. I bet he would have liked a pet sparrow as well.

Z. knocked on the door after breakfast. Another shock. I can't take him for three days, she said, so can you look after him? What if he howls, I thought. Then, do cats even howl, I wondered. What if he escapes? Or digs his way out? Or breaks through the wire?

But he didn’t. He sat in the cage for 72 hours, and I fed him richly, and he slept and generally just took a well-earned break from prowling and street-fighting.

And finally, he was gone. Z. took him away. Drinks on the porch in the evening were no longer quite the same.

I heard nothing for a month or two.

But that didn't matter. More importantly, I heard nothing from Fluffball's owner. I thought she might have taken a week or two to even realise the cat was gone and then start putting 'Cat Missing' posters up all over the neighbourhood. But no.

Phew. She hadn't even missed him. Or didn't care.

And, no doubt, he hadn't missed her.

But I did. Him, I mean.

Six weeks later, I saw Z. She told me what had happened.

At the shelter, Fluffball had been assessed and sent to the veterinarian. He was found to have feline AIDS, an old compound fracture of the hip and rear leg - probably from having been hit by a car at some time - and a cancer in the neck. Each a death sentence.

He had then been desexed, and had his diseases treated, and his old fracture rebroken and reset. He had been kept in the shelter while he recovered.

He had then been rehomed, with an elderly lady, with whom he lives indoors, in a far distant suburb.

And, best of all, he was given a new name.

7.1.16

Fair trade doesn't get any fairer than this.

The price of a cup of coffee at Coburg’s original and best café, Coffee and Kitchen, has risen for the first time in four years. It is now $2.50. That is not a typo.

Coffee and Kitchen caters for the old Coburg crowd; the elderly Greeks and Italians who moved into the suburb in the 1950s and '60s as young factory fodder and are now in their twilight years. The two newspapers most read here are Il Globo and Neos Kosmos; and, unlike most cafes, the most popular drink served is the short black, leaving the ubiquitous café latte a distant second.

Gradually supplanting the old guard of customers at Coffee and Kitchen is a new generation of Coburg families whose children love the milkshakes or kick balls around in the mall while their parents sit outdoors under big market umbrellas in hot weather. But Coffee and Kitchen is still not quite hip enough for the hipsters - ironically, because it is exactly the kind of place foodie experience-seekers travel the world to find: an unpretentious European-style café where genuine locals enjoy good quality coffee and buy coffee beans, pasta and basic kitchen items at down-to-earth prices.

During major world sporting events, Frank switches on the big screen. The café also turns brown and gold every September. Look out for a four-peat this year.

*

Coffee and Kitchen
7 Victoria Street Mall Coburg

*

One I photographed earlier. The newspaper dates the picture to August 2008.

6.1.16

A Cat With No Name, Part One.

Another animal story, but this one is highly confidential as it includes cruelty, identity theft, actual theft, kidnapping, lies, trickery, and deception. Tell no-one you have read this.

One day two summers ago, a cat walked in my front gate, proceeded up the long driveway, turned left at the pathway that leads to the front door and sat down on the front porch. I watched this happen through the front window and was strangely moved by the cat's nonchalant self-possession. It looked like it had been here before. But I was sure it hadn't.

I invited it inside. You don't usually invite cats, you just let them in. But this one had such a debonair personality I felt a more formal approach was appropriate. The cat accepted my invitation and marched in regally, walked to the kitchen and sat down expectantly at the refrigerator. This was a cat that knew what it wanted. I fed it.

The cat was a complete male, confident and fat and sleek with soft, small fold-over ears and shifty oriental eyes. Its coat was grey with stripes, and it had a white chest and an orange nose. It purred deeply. It had no name tag. I supposed its name would be Buster or Sam Spade or Mr Wilson or Hammer.

It came back the next day. I fed it again and gave it some milk. It slurped the milk noisily and sailed straight back to the front door without a backward glance and waited for me to open it. When I did, it walked away languidly like a diner leaving a French restaurant after having eaten a chateaubriand and drunk half a bottle of Beaujolais.

A few days later, a lady who lives a few doors away flittered past my house as I was collecting the mail. Have you seen a cat?, she asked. I've seen plenty in my time, I replied. This one is grey, she said. Yes, I've seen it, I said. I've fed it too. It visits me. I hope you don't mind. She didn't mind.

It gets out, she explained, a little unnecessarily. She told me its name was Fluffball. I felt a vague sense of disillusionment. Fluffball?

Summer passed and I didn't see Fluffball for a while. He reappeared one night in early winter. He had lost weight, and he limped, quite badly. He started visiting again, and still took food, eating lustily each time. He had developed a habit of head-butting me, a pokerfaced form of affection. He would stalk onto the verandah, head straight for my leg, lower his fat grey head with the floppy ears and ram me like a goat. And she calls him Fluffball? Ludicrous.

Months passed. He came and went. Then I had a visit from another neighbour. This other neighbour works in animal care. I knew what she wanted to talk about. She wanted to talk about Fluffball.

to be continued

5.1.16

Carrying the drinks.

Greyhounds have quirks, if not outright eccentricities. You have to wonder where they come from; the eccentricities, I mean. Perhaps it is because they have been living with humans for centuries. It is the only dog breed mentioned in the Bible, but that may have been a mis-translation.

Our last visitor, Lou, (who gives them these names?) was here during the hot weather. Dogs like to play with their water, so you have to put around multiple sources. If they tip out their water on a 40 degree day they're in big trouble. I used a large plastic basin and two-litre yogurt buckets with handles as backups. Lou would gently nose the handle up to the pick-up position, take it delicately in his jaws, and carry the bucket to another part of the garden, where he would set it down again.

Without spilling a drop.

He did this all the time. He was self-taught. I have the evidence. I should upload it to YouTube, but the last thing the world wants is another pet video. Like most things, it works better as a story.

Like Lou, our new foster dog, Tiger, has a quirk. She likes to pick up objects when out walking, usually cylindrical items. The first was a disposable coffee cup, which she carried for several hundred metres before dropping it, possibly because she did not like the smell of coffee, but how would I know?

The other evening about seven o'clock, when it was still hot, Tom and I took her out for a walk. I sometimes use the same route to visit a nearby bottle shop on hot nights. On the way back, she picked up an empty can - one of those black ones with the distinctive white colonial script that is easily recognisable from a distance as a brand of bourbon - and carried it the whole way home. As we walked along the street the drivers of a few passing cars gave the drink-carrying dog a sideways glance. One tooted and waved, but I couldn't see who it was.

The next day, a friend asked me, "How did you train your new dog so quickly to carry your drinks?"


31.12.15

New Year's Eve under the stars.

Barbecue on a hot night.

1. Roll pieces of salmon through a marinade of soy, ginger and garlic. Wrap in foil adding some of the marinade. Place on grill. Barbecue until the package steams. Serve with coiled glass noodles with sesame oil and stir-fried Chinese broccoli.

2. Lamb chops marinated in olive oil into which you have snipped a handful of fresh rosemary. Serve with cubed potatoes boiled until very soft and then tumbled with chopped spring onion, parsley and a splash of vinegar.

3. Fat pork and sage sausages with a side of red cabbage with apple juice:

Fry a couple of chopped medium size onions in oil. Shred one half of a medium red cabbage, add it to the pan and stir gently to coat in oil. Turn the heat down and add a dash of red wine vinegar, a cup of apple juice and a pinch of salt and pepper. Vary the fluid according to the size of the cabbage. Cook 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, reducing a little. When done, top with sour cream and serve alongside the pork and sage sausages.

Cold beer, sparkling wine later.

Happy new year.

24.12.15

'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, nothing was stirring (except the cook, of course).

Happy Christmas or, if you're afraid to offend someone, happy holidays/festive season/new year/Hogmanay/yuletide etc etc.

And a peaceful new year. I think that's acceptable.

22.12.15

20.12.15

The most annoying imperative phrase of 2015.

"Please prove you are not a robot."

17.12.15

The picnic.

When you have children, you eventually end up in Healesville, one way or another. One way is the Maroondah Highway. If you tell someone you took the children to Healesville at the weekend, they will ask you two questions: 'How was the traffic?' and, as an afterthought, 'How were the wombats/koalas/numbats?'

The answer is always 'appalling', meaning the Maroondah Highway, not the animals; but on a Sunday in December it is even worse, given that half of Melbourne drives to the hills for Christmas picnics, obeying navigators (the GPS ones, not your wife) that push everyone onto the same road when several alternatives are available for old-school Melway-readers. The road is a traffic light-ridden nightmare. Endless minutes crawl by while you wait for green after minutes of red followed by random directional arrows. The motorcade then draws on at snail's pace towards Ringwood past about five branches of Fantastic Furniture, six Barbeques Galore, nineteen McDonald's, three or four Storage Kings, and a suburb called Chirnside Park - by which time you are a little over halfway to Healesville.

So never take the Maroondah Highway. Drive north instead.

Take the Northern Ring Road at the top of Sydney Road, make your way through Greensborough to Main Road and follow it through Eltham to Yarra Glen. Hardly any lights. Somewhere beyond Christmas Hills, the climbing road tops a ridge. Before you, laid out seemingly in miniature, is the entire Yarra Valley. Early one morning a few years ago, when the sun was starting to toss gold spears over the distant hills, I saw a hot air balloon way down below me. Yes, flying. That bird's eye view of the Yarra Valley makes the northern crossing a tourist journey.

From the ridge, you drop down into Yarra Glen, Khyber Pass-style, and head east through rolling hills along the scenic Old Healesville Road, from which you will take Healesville by surprise from the north-west. No-one uses this road except locals. Everyone else is approaching Healesville, slowly, from the south-west, on the Maroondah. Go past the deer farm (address: Stag Road) and you're there, having endured 75% fewer traffic lights and probably 90% less actual traffic than Maroondah Highway.

*

The short main street of Healesville was lined with cafes packed with people eating breakfast although it was near midday. We drove straight through town and out the other side. Ten minutes later, I turned the car in at a large gate bearing a scripted sign reading Healesville Greyhound Racing Club. A long gravel drive past some sporting grounds led to a car park on a high terraced hill and below it, a long, low corrugated iron building in the post-modern style. Beyond the iron building, acres of green lawn carpeted the foreground of a four hundred metre straight track. A marquee was set up on the lawn. We left the car, crossed the lawn and entered the marquee.

It was one of those catered affairs where the wait staff appear from nowhere all afternoon carrying trays; and no tray ever has the same thing on it twice. The children had never seen anything like it. 'The trick,' I told them, from long experience in the hospitality industry (on both sides of the jump) 'is not to eat everything. You'll lose your appetite and then something amazing will come out and you won't be able to eat it. If you're not sure, wait. The food never runs out at these functions. Never!'

A fawn greyhound loped past and licked Alex on the chin. It had to stoop to do so. The big ones are particularly affectionate. A waiter came by with a platter of chilled cucumber rings topped with teriyaki chicken, then another with peking duck in pastry cylinders and a crushed peanut and chili soy dipping sauce. Later, miniature chicken pies dusted with poppy seed; tiny ciabatta squares with chilled gazpacho to dunk; chicken sambal skewers; and arancini-style rice balls, but with a Persian saffron-yellow, golden crusted finish and a yogurt dipping sauce.

The event was the "VIP Afternoon for GAP (Greyhound Adoption Program) Foster Carers" put on by Greyhound Racing Victoria. The greyhound racing industry CEO attended. This year, no-one had a harder job, except perhaps Damien Hardwick, or the VRC steward whose front door was shot in. The CEO's speech was short, like a greyhound race, and heartfelt. It had been a difficult year, and the work of the foster carers had been vital in getting the hounds out into the community. Later, one of the foster carers present had told me that when the live bait story was in the news, she had received hostile stares and comments when out walking her dogs.

Meanwhile the children were far away down on the sloping lawn, being entertained by Kelly Sports who had set up a twenty-foot tug of war, a mini soccer pitch, a football bounce net, and a handball competition. Way better than some lame clown. It was like World of Sport. All it needed was Neil Roberts to pass the ball and Doug Elliott to hand out the Patra orange juice. Then they conducted a water relay to cool the kids down.

It was close to three in the afternoon and very hot now. Some of the crowd had retired to the long, low air-conditioned clubroom. In the marquee, the waiters were bringing reinforcements: mini polpetti with plum sauce, sushi cut on the diagonal with tamari, grilled whiting tails in paper cones with crisped fries and a lemon slice. Then a server appeared with a tray of tiny eye fillet squares marinated and cooked rare with a small knob of chilled garlic butter skewered through the top. I had broken my own rule. I couldn't eat another thing.

By five o'clock, back over the Khyber Pass and home. I thought I could hear the distant hum of traffic down on the Maroondah, but it might have been cicadas in the trees. They're early this year.

30.11.15

The hash whisperer.

I don't like restaurants. I don't like the cost, I don't like the noise, I don't like being a prisoner to some idiot waiter, I don't like other people's at-table habits, and I don't like sitting in a place that feels like a nineteenth century workhouse dining room. I'd rather eat at the GMH canteen, or Coles cafeteria; where the dress standard is higher, the customers are more respectful to those around them, the food doesn't cost a fortune, and the serves are bigger. The other week my wife had to go to a work dinner at one of those barn-like renovated pubs where the noise level is like an airport and a glass of wine costs $8.95. Her meal was a pork chop that cost $34 because it had some freekeh and a five-cent-coin-sized mound of smoked onion puree next to it, and you had to pay extra for something called a 'side' which, translated, means the rest of your meal.

I ate at home alone that night. We had had corned beef earlier in the week, and there was some left over along with some halved potatoes that were cooked in the fluid along with the beef, two bay leaves, and onion and some brown vinegar. No, not balsamic. Brown.

So that was dinner again. While the potatoes were reheating gently, I cut two thick slices of corned beef and cubed them into small dice. Then I made a white sauce: melted butter in a pot, stirred in a couple of tablespoons of flour, added a cup and a half of milk, and stirred until thickened. Then I added the cubed beef and the magic ingredient, English mustard, the king of condiments. It turns ordinary white sauce ('roux' if you insist, but I am ridding my vocabulary of as many affectations as possible) into something special; and something impossible to eat if you add too much. But I love English mustard and this night I am dining alone, so I throw in a tablespoonful which brings the taste level up to about 120 decibels or whatever the terminology is for taste buds.

Meanwhile I cooked half a dozen trimmed green beans and the same number of asparagus. I placed the halved potatoes in a bowl, poured most of the beef-encrusted sauce over and topped the dish with the beans and asparagus. The salty taste explosion of corned beef in mustard sauce over soft, yielding boiled potatoes is the kind of experience you read about in those 1001 things to Do/Eat/Hear/Visit/Ride/Experience/Look at Before You Die books. It's just corned beef hash, but it's heaven. And there no people around me yapping on phones, or instagramming* their freekeh-ing meals.

*

Technology cynics rejoice: twitter is as good as dead.