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

28.8.14

Spring into fish: baked Tasmanian Atlantic salmon with leeks, red onion and lemon.

1. Chop a leek radially into thin rings. Rinse out grit if necessary. Chop a large red onion into rings. Sweat the leek and onion in oil in a covered pan until they just start to soften.

2. In a bowl, combine three tablespoons of olive oil with the juice of two lemons, a handful of chopped parsley and half that amount of chopped dill. Season.

3. Place two large salmon fillets into a baking dish and cover with warm leek and onion mixture. Pour over the herbed oil and lemon mixture. Cover dish with foil. Bake twenty minutes depending on size of fish. Salmon cooks quickly, staying moist.

4. Serve with asparagus drizzled with lemon butter: boil and remove asparagus from pan, drain most cooking water, add the juice of two lemons and a pat of butter, reduce, pour over asparagus and add cracked black pepper.

21.8.14

Thirty years?

Impossible? 1984. It had always been in everyone's conscious future because of the George Orwell book, but then it arrived, and now it's thirty years in the rear vision mirror.

I got the grand final video out for the boys. The colour is muted. It had been an overcast steel-grey day with patchy rain. I had walked to the M.C.G, of course; lived in Carlton then. Through the Carlton Gardens, across at Nicholson Street, past St. Patrick's Cathedral. And yes, I dropped in. Call it superstition. Could you seriously walk past when your team is in the grand final against the club that won by more than thirteen goals in the same game the previous September? Through the Fitzroy Gardens. Yarra Park. In.

I watched the video with the boys. The soundtrack is strangely muted. The old commentators let the pictures speak for themselves, waited for the goal umpire before calling the score. Essendon hopelessly behind all day, and then that electric last quarter that will live on in the memory of anyone who was there that grey day. I had been hemmed in in standing room like a tinned sardine. That's hardly even a simile. You could barely get an empty beer can to the ground. Yes, we dropped them in those days, but that was simply because you couldn't move. Also, you could bring them in.

There is a ghostly passage of play in the dying light of the last quarter, when Nobby Clark tears out of the back pocket and fires a pass to Merv Neagle. That passage might be on a frequent loop at the 1984 Essendon premiership reunion next month. Only way to get those two players there.

15.8.14

Tail end of winter.

August could be my favourite month. While the weather is still intermittently bad, you can see the end of winter.

So now we're having a last rush of cooking winter dishes before h swept away by spring's warmer weather. Heavy stews like the following always taste better when the weather's cold.

Oxtail with red wine.

Take an average oxtail* and joint it. Hardly necessary: the butcher will do it for you. Boil the pieces ten minutes with a bay leaf, a clove of garlic and a teaspoonful of pepper. Drain.

Now sear the oxtail pieces in a cast iron pan and remove to a large pot.

Place two chopped onions, two chopped carrots and a scored clove of garlic in the pan in which you have seared the oxtail. Add a cup of boiling water. The residual heat will deglaze the pan juices, combining them with the vegetables. Pour the lot into the large pot over the oxtail. Add half a bottle of red wine and one jar of tomato passata. Add enough water to just cover the contents.

Simmer a couple of hours, then cool and chill. Next day, remove fat, reheat and eat. The meat will fall off the bone. Ideal on garlic mashed potato.

Turn the remaining gravy and meat into a ragu: add a can of chickpeas and a sliced avocado, reheat and serve over tortiglioni or rigatoni. Possibly even tastier than the original dish.

*What's an average oxtail? 1.5 kilograms according to a farmer I just asked.

29.7.14

The anti-road protest sticker read: No East-West Link.

It was on the back of a car.

26.7.14

Brussels sprout campaign resumes.

Once upon a time, many years ago, I embarked on a campaign to champion the much-unloved vegetable, the Brussels sprout. This robust brassica with its distinctive earthy, nutty taste is one of my favourites and lends itself to far greater cooking variety than it is generally credited with.

Linguine with bacon and Brussels sprouts.

Trim sprouts and slice in half through the core. Cook pasta and sprouts. This can be done in the same pot.

In a pan, cook a few scored cloves of garlic in olive oil. Add two or three slices of short bacon chopped into small squares. Take care not to burn the garlic. Add a slosh of white wine, a shake of white pepper and a third cup of cream. Reduce.

When pasta is done, drain. Pour creamy bacon mixture over pasta and sprouts. Top with fresh grated pecorino and chopped parsley.

Drink: McLaren Vale shiraz.

*

The boys are watching the Commonwealth Games. Comment: "Dad, this is not as exciting as the World Cup."

22.7.14

In the dead of winter, the aroma of an old classic recipe drifts across the suburb, setting noses twitching.

We don't have central heating, so sometimes I warm the place with the aroma of food. Not sure how this works but the smell of a joint roasting in the oven, for example, makes the house feel a few degrees warmer.

The following soup recipe does the same as it bubbles away slowly on the stove. It reminds me of coming home after school when I could detect the delicious aroma about a block away, produced by the unbeatable combination of onion, beef herbs and root vegetables.

Scotch broth.

1. In a litre of water, simmer 750g of lean beef cut into pieces for two hours. Skim if necessary.

2. Now add half a cup of barley, a chopped onion, a diced turnip and a chopped leek. Cook another half an hour; then add a diced carrot and a few stalks of celery, finely chopped.

3. When carrot is just tender, remove meat, shred it and return it to the pot. Season and add white pepper.

4. Serve broth in large bowls sprinkled with parsley, and hot thick buttered toast on the side.

Drink: scotch whisky, of course.

17.7.14

Drop punt perfected.

The first time around, meaning marriage mark one - many years ago - our two children were in creche or day care or after care depending on their age. We worked; and they came home at six from paid care, and they had dinner and they went to bed. No time to play on weekdays. I was in a career, and a career means you have to have 'quality' time with your children.

These days, since I am freelance - meaning quite often not working - I can pick up the boys from school and take them to the football ground and kick the ball with them until darkness. This is the pinnacle of life. It doesn't get any better. I have had a business career, a sporting career, houses, girlfriends, wives, cars, wine, holidays, money, gourmet food, dogs, holidays, books. Some I have lost. (Not just the books.)

However, spending endless unharried - and unhurried - hours kicking a ball around on the well-kept lawn of a mostly deserted football ground defeats everything else. Sometimes the sun falls behind the 1920s grandstand and casts a lengthening shadow over the green grass; sometimes the wind blows and the ball floats and you can't catch it; or the rain has turned the goal square to a bog.

A few weeks ago the older sibling finally perfected the drop punt after four or five years of blazing away, and now his ball turns over and over, end on end, in a perfect lazy back-spinning arc, straight to the chest of the younger sibling, who has taught himself to fly for a mark. His blond hair makes him look like ... well, whoever you like, or remember: Knights, Van Der Haar, Anderson? And the pleasure is only tempered by the thought that he might hurt himself. The older one is slow and patient and takes longer to learn but once he learns never drops his skills; the younger is fast and showy and impatient and what the football writers used to describe as 'mercurial', a word not seen in the press for probably twenty years.

None of this would matter if they didn't love it. They love it. There's no Auskick, no junior football teams, no pressure; just out after school onto the park to play with the ball. Sometimes they bring friends along and have a match or play markers-up. Sometimes it's just me and them. Sometimes we just go home and they play in the street - we live in a cul de sac - but those days are fewer because they kick farther and fall heavier now. There are several buildings around the place with one of our balls on its roof, including the Coburg Leisure Centre, and a factory near the velodrome. One ball recently was kicked over the old Pentridge wall. The boys waited a week, and the day I bought another new ball from Rebel Sport, the old one was thrown back. So now they have two.

5.7.14

Don't have a famous name? Put one in the title.

My Salinger Year is a fascinating 'insight' (a greatly overused cliché) into how a writer met a famous author, whom she didn't know from Jerry Seinfeld. Or else it is a cynical exploitation based on the most tenuous of links. You decide.

While the title technique cannot be ignored, has it been utilised to its full search term potential?

I have never met a famous author, but I do have an uncle who saw Bryce Courtenay signing books in Angus and Robertson once. He didn't buy one.

Me and J. R. R. Tolkien, W. E. Johns, Enid Blyton, George Orwell, P. L. Travers, Hugh Lofting, James Hadley Chase, Raymond Chandler, Dan Brown, Clive Cussler, Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, Ovid, Ernest Hemingway and Dr. Seuss.

There's a connection somewhere.

30.6.14

Film directors throw away their chairs in disgust.

You can't act the expressions on the faces of the Costa Ricans as they shot for goal.

And there's no take two.

27.6.14

Chicken with a kick.

The flat screen television in the café sits high over the pasta shelf, and the volume is adjusted cleverly so that it becomes audible over the café talk when a goal is imminent or a vital passage in play occurs, thanks to the rising pitch of the commentator's voice. In this way, you miss none of the important action while not having the sound predominate.

After 9 o'clock in the morning, when the rush commuters have 'grabbed' their lattes and run for the train, the slower customers arrive: the real estate agents from across the street come in for their takeaway coffees; Moreland council workers hunch over their cups around an outside table; the old Greek men come in and put coins on the counter for another short black, keeping their caffeine/talk ratio meter going.

Occasionally the picture on the television pixillates, turning national colours into screen bloodshed. A player runs towards goal, stops unnaturally, shoots forward several inches, and then his head explodes into squares of red and white or yellow and green and his legs disappear. Then the picture reverts to normal again and the ball is in the net, or not. The effect is stunning with multi-coloured strips such as Cameroon or the Ivory Coast.

*

A little background history always illuminates an event. Christian Eichler's Football 365 Days is 744 pages of World Cup archival photography with history and commentary. Published prior to the 2006 world cup, the book is dated but worth a read. Its sheer size will help speed the hours away until the 2 a.m. game starts. Along the way you can decide who, out of at least seven players, was the best ever. They include Cruyff, Beckenbauer, Pele, Puskas and two or three Mullers. Maradona? No. In most fields of endeavour, history loves humility, a quality that makes a champion champion-like. After all, sport is just play-war and you could have been dead.

*

World Cup Fried Chicken

This recipe uses lean chicken breasts, which must be cooked fast. This makes them ideal for World Cup consumption, because you don't want to be spending time standing over a stove, and anyone who doesn't mind doing so has long gone to bed.

Take four chicken breasts and slice into half inch pieces. They will marinate for as long as you like up to 24 hours, but they must be small enough to cook in a minute or two.

In a large bowl, toss the chicken pieces in a third-cup of peanut oil and a tablespoon each of cumin powder and chili powder, six finely chopped garlic cloves, a tablespoon of soy, a shake of salt and a dash of white pepper.

Heat some more oil in a cast iron pan. Fry chicken, turning when one side is sealed. Cook until just done. Serve on rice; or as hand-food rolled in lettuce and soft white bread. Drink: cold beer.

25.6.14

World Cup spiced broad beans.

Take a kilogram of broad beans, pod and peel them (peeling individual beans is optional).

Cook two chopped onions in olive oil in a large heavy pan for ten minutes, add two scored cloves of garlic, sauté a few more minutes, stirring; and then add two teaspoons of ground cumin, half a teaspoon of cayenne pepper and a dash of ground coriander.

Now add the beans and a cup or so of water. Cook on low heat until the beans soften. Adjust fluid if necessary.

Add half a cup of lemon juice, two or three tablespoons of olive oil, and stir. Remove from pan and process in batches to a semi-smooth consistency.

Reheat when desired, for example, at 2 a.m, when a World Cup game is about to commence and you need food to keep you awake should the game fail to excite. Add chopped coriander or dill for an extra flavour zing, as if it needs it.

Ideal on toasted Lebanese or Turkish bread with zatar. Just swipe the bread through the bean mixture and eat. Also ideal as a dip with blanched green vegetables including asparagus, snow peas, green beans, celery sticks, etc. Also great on baked potato with added sour cream and then scattered with toasted pine nuts and blackened sesame.

Or eat it straight out of the jar when your team loses.

*

Anguish this morning in the coffee shop where I have my morning coffee. They had had the Italian flag in the window all last week next to the Australian one. The Australian flag was the first to go. Every four years, he was saying this morning. Every four years they do it to us. It's quadrennial agony. That's what happens when your team is a real contender, or is supposed to be. Australia can lose three games and heads are held high. But the Azzurri ... Why didn't they just attack?, he was saying to customers at large as he made my coffee. Every four years they do it to us. The coffee was perfect. Not a hitch. A professional.

18.6.14

Pesto without machinery.

Cook enough linguini for however many people you are feeding. I used to have one of those spaghetti utensils with punched-out measuring holes for various quantities, but these never were accurate. Trial and error teaches quantities best.

Meanwhile, warm some olive oil in a large pan and add half a cup of white wine, plenty of cracked black pepper, and two scored cloves of garlic. Cook gently without burning garlic, and then add a dozen or so halved walnuts*. Cook gently for a few minutes, stirring. Add half a cup of cream, reduce.

Fold several torn basil leaves through the cooked linguini and add the sauce. Finish with shards of parmesan or the genuine reggiano if you can afford it.

*Or if you have pine nuts, leave out the walnuts, toast the pine nuts and scatter over the finished dish.

14.6.14

Another day, another front page.

From Bernie's Two Minute Friday, the weekly St Bernard's Old Collegians email bulletin:
Essendon, fresh from another bout of controversy courtesy of the ASADA witch-hunt ... er, investigation, will be fired up to put a scoring-challenged Melbourne team to the sword.
No comparison. History's most infamous witch trial went for only fifteen months, from February 1692 to May 1693. This one looks like running for years.

10.6.14

Swordfish with fiery cashew sauce and coconut milk.

Chop two onions, and fry them in your preferred medium and pan until soft.

Take a dozen roasted cashews, a teaspoon of chili, a knob of peeled and chopped ginger, a large clove of garlic (or two small), half a teaspoon each of cinnamon and garam masala, two cardamom pods, a couple of rays of star anise (optional) and half a cup of vinegar and blitz them all together in a food processor.

Reserve half the cooked onions and add the cashew mixture to the rest of the onions, and stir in one large can of coconut milk. Simmer gently for a minute or two.

Meanwhile, place a couple of tablespoons of raisins into a small pot of just-boiled water, to which you have added a teaspoon of turmeric. Steep for ten minutes, until they fatten and then drain and add them to the simmering sauce.

Now cube some firm-fleshed fish such as swordfish or salmon and dredge the cubes through a little salt and pepper. Add the fish to the sauce, stir and cook very gently until fish is just cooked. Adjust fluid if necessary.

Switch off, let the pan rest for a few minutes and then serve fish with its fragrant, nutty, fiery sauce over rice. Top with the reserved onion and plain yogurt with coriander chopped through it.