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

20.12.14

A case of mistaken identity. Or was it?

The boys were convinced Ishant Sharma works part-time as a security guard in Coles. They saw him there several times when we were shopping after school. But he wasn't there while the first test was on. That was proof enough for the two boys. "Why don't you ask him?" I said. "And find out once and for all?" They haven't seen him since; but we are in the middle of the second test right now. He must be in Brisbane.

This incident mirrors what happened to my younger brother when he visited India years ago, and was accosted by scores of young Indian boys, who asked him if he was Australian, and then if he was Geoff Lawson; as if one followed the other logically. If you're an Aussie, you must be Geoff Lawson.

*

Recipe for a hot summer night:

Sweet potato with chick peas and pine nuts.

Peel two large sweet potatoes, cut the flesh into centimetre cubes, and cook until just tender.

Meanwhile, heat through two drained cans of chickpeas.

Toast half a cup of pine nuts.

Finely dice a quarter of onion; or chop a few spring onions.

Cook enough couscous to fill a cup when fluffed up.

Combine the sweet potato and the warmed chickpeas. Gently mix half a teaspoon each of cumin powder, cinnamon, powdered ginger, pepper and salt through the fluffed couscous. Now fold through the sweet potato and chickpea mixture and dress with the juice of a lemon and a little white vinegar.

To finish, shower the salad with toasted pine nuts, the onion and some chopped coriander.

10.12.14

The Iron Horse.

Titles roll. Music.

Scene one: day

Tableau: the ancient shed at the end of the yard leans to the east. It was built in the 1940s, a simple rectangular steel frame with sheet-iron walls and a corrugated roof. It has one door, no window, and no light, because power was never connected. It is pitch black inside. You prop open the north-facing door to admit light. This works best in winter when the sun is further north, slanting in.

Action: I enter screen left and pull open the crooked shed door. Ancient hinges complain. My eyes become accustomed to the darkness, and a great shape can be made out in the corner: a hulk of cast iron on wheels. Covered in dust, it resembles an abandoned steam train in some long-forgotten rail yard shed. Tracking shot: I somehow I drag it out into daylight. Locked-off camera: I hose the dust off the iron horse, and exit screen right. It dries in the warm air.

Scene two: evening

Against a painted backdrop of a line of ornamental pear trees and a hedge of x. cupressocyparis leylandii, I load the iron horse up with coal, beautiful coal; bane of the eco-warrior (yet to exist, of course) and friend of the locomotive engineer and the barbecue lover alike.

Extras furtively enter stage right and steal pieces of unlit coal for their tepee fires. I light the coal pan with some kerosene-soaked firelighters, and that dramatic fiery moment signals the commencement of barbecue season, a quasi-religious experience akin to the lighting of candles at the start of Advent, coincidentally occurring in the same week.

Cutaway: barbecued lamb.

The meat
Take four lamb leg steaks, beat them with a meat mallet to flatten out slightly and arrange them on a plate. Over the meat, scatter four finely chopped cloves of garlic and ten chopped mint leaves. Add the juice of two lemons, a squirt or two of olive oil and sprinkle cumin, salt and pepper.

The salad
Meanwhile, rinse, spin and chop a bunch of parsley as finely as possible. Take a dozen mint leaves and despatch the same way. Cut six spring onions finely and mix all three together.

Rinse and drain 75g of bulgur (use couscous if you have no bulgur but don't rinse) and mix with the juice of two lemons and three finely chopped tomatoes. Digression: there's only one way to cut a tomato and that is with a very sharp knife. Hate to state the obvious, but many people are afraid of sharp knives. A chef recently said that the old saying about blunt knives being more dangerous is nonsense, and that a very sharp knife can do severe damage in the wrong hands. He was right. Tracy, for example, refuses to use a sharp knife at all and prudently uses a serrated knife on nearly everything in the interests of safety. She should have been called Prudence, but was stuck with Tracy, because she was born in 1965 and in that year every girl in Australia was christened Tracy. Whence (sic: SOED, entry 4) there were sixteen Tracys in her Grade One class at Doveton Primary School in 1971. Sixteen! The rest of the girls were Cheryls, Susans and Donnas.

Meanwhile, back on set so to speak, combine the tomatoes, lemon juice and bulgur mixture with the parsley, mint and onion mixture. Fold through a few tablespoons of olive oil and watch the mesmeric blend of deep green, bright red and white gain a sheen as the oil does its unctuous job. It will be difficult to prevent yourself eating it on the spot, because the aroma that arises from the mixing bowl is as irresistible as any aroma ever smelled by mankind.

Sauce or dressing?
You decide. Blend a can of butter beans (as a change from the ubiquitous chick pea) with a cup of yogurt, a few leaves of mint, a clove of garlic and salt and pepper. It will have a runnier consistency than hummus. That makes it a sauce or a dressing rather, than a side. But that's just pedantry.

Scene three: the meal

The coal blazes, lighting up the frontier set and casting a golden radiance on the faces of milling extras. As the flames die and the coals glow, meat sizzles, chargrilling and spreading tantalising aromas across the set. Extras queue. Meat is distributed, sauce/dressing added and plates piled high with tabouleh and yogurt, and served with fresh flat bread. As the night cools and the colour drains from the painted desert sky, extras gather around the iron horse, which radiates its comforting warmth. You need heat. Heat is good. It keeps people alive. It's the cold that kills them.

*

The Iron Horse, directed by John Ford, 1924.

"One hundred cooks were required to feed the 5000 extras involved." – Peter Cowie, from John Ford and the American West, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2004

*

It feels like that around here. I should have worked in movies.

3.12.14

"I'll see you out in the middle."

It was one of Australia's greatest speeches ever made.

That makes two in five days: by one man.

"The same blades of grass ... the same stands ... the same fence ..."

28.11.14

27.11.14

Lobby Loyde tells us what he really thinks.

Now that’s funny. After mentioning Lobby Loyde, Melbourne guitar legend (except he was real) somewhere the other day, an article in last weekend's newspaper quoted his opinion on the late television music show, Countdown.

Countdown commenced in 1974, replacing the excellent un-hosted GTK. Why do you need a host? Just play the music and cut out the middle man.

I did not like Countdown. I didn't like the mostly rubbish music acts; the live screaming teen audience that yelled the same high-decibel hysteria for every performance no matter how good or bad; the jabbering host who was always one jaw-drop away from actual dribbling; and the terrible theme music, if you could call it that.

In other words, I was a music snob.

Or was I?

I looked up Thomas J. Guest’s very important reference work, Thirty Years of Hits: Melbourne Top 40 Research, to see if the music at that time was as bad as I remembered.

Turning to the year Countdown first screened, 1974, I ran my eye down the ten best-selling singles of that year. Let's have a look.

At the top of the list - 1974's best-selling song - was 'My Coo Ca Choo' by Alvin Stardust. That is not a joke. It might sound like a satire on – or an outright theft of – glam rocker David Bowie's Ziggie Stardust persona. But no. Alvin Stardust was a real singer and 'My Coo Ca Choo' dogged the airwaves for sufficient weeks in 1974 to make it a huge, enormous, mammoth hit. But utter rubbish nonetheless.

Number two for 1974 was 'Seasons in the Sun' by Terry Jacks, sporting such lyrics as 'we had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the ...'. No, I can't even bring myself to type the stupid rhyme.

Third for the year was Stevie Wright's 'Evie', a reasonable three part ballad/rocker. Debbie Byrne's tired cover of 'He's a Rebel' came in at No. 4, followed by another local cover, the cheesy 'Hey Paula', performed by TV talk-show hosts Ernie Sigley and Denise Drysdale. Enough said. On air, you could imagine the opening bars of that track accompanied by the sounds of thousands of listeners punching their radio off-button.

Sixth biggest song of 1974 was 'The Lord's Prayer' by real nun Sister Janet Meade, whose rock-mass trilling was responsible for thousands of churches abandoning Palestrina, Byrd, Victoria and Allegri, their organists - and possibly even their organ itself - and replacing them with amateur rag-tag 'choristers' who thought they could play guitar, turning every response into twanging dissonance and reinventing church music into contemporary 'hymns' that were kind of faintly deified versions of post-flower-power pop songs minus the drug and free love references. It was vile.

Then came Paper Lace's frothy 'Billy Don't Be a Hero' followed by William Shakespeare (correct) who sounded like a cross between Gene Pitney and Bon Scott while burbling in falsetto a forgettable song entitled 'Can't Stop Myself From Loving You'. Shakespeare had been groomed into a glam rocker by his handlers, and subsequently mirrored Gary Glitter's career in more than just costume.

Daniel Boone (it was the year of wacky pop star names) was ninth with his tacky 'Sky Diver'.

That leaves the tenth biggest song of the year. David Bowie's 'Sorrow' was head and shoulders above the first nine, yet it was the only one of the ten not to top the charts during the year, peaking in second spot in January.

There's proof! Extrapolating that top ten result, only 10% of songs in 1974 were any good. In 1974, those nine frightful songs beat offerings from Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Elvis, the Rolling Stones, several Beatles, Bryan Ferry, Elton John, the Hollies, Grand Funk Railroad, Billy Thorpe, the Steve Miller Band, the Bee Gees and many more class acts.

And given that Countdown picked up on every novelty hit and fleeting musician who came along, let's hear what Lobby Loyde had to say about the show, if not the music industry more broadly at that time:
" ... the death of music ... definite Satan land ... a shit show ... the beginning of the f..king end."
I had to laugh reading that. I've spent the last thirty years thinking I was a music snob, only to discover that one of Melbourne's best musicians agreed with me. Cop that, Countdown fans!

*

(The jabbering host, Ian Meldrum, was paradoxically a very good music producer, having delivered one of Australia’s all-time great songs, the mind-bending eight-minute colossus, Russell Morris's 'The Real Thing', a track that sounds fresh even today. The ABC couldn’t find a professional host for Countdown - reputedly suggesting the aforementioned William Shakespeare for the job - but ended up leaving Meldrum floundering in the job for more than twenty years.)

The Never, Um, Ever Ending Story: Life, Countdown and Everything in Between. By Ian 'Molly' Meldrum with Jeff Jenkins. Allen & Unwin, 458pp, $39.99 (HB)

Buy it for your parents for Christmas. They probably watched Countdown and will enjoy the nostalgia, even if they hated the show.

26.11.14

There's more danger in the carpark.

Why would I stop my children playing cricket? Every time we exit the cricket ground, I have to shepherd them against the mad drivers in the car park that also services the main street shops. It is those idiot shoppers, not the sportsground patrons, who drive like possessed demons. Not the ute-driving cricketers or footballers; but the four-wheel-drive mothers who aren’t looking because they’re staring into devices, or who think they are bulletproof in the massive vehicles they cannot control properly; or who are just too plain stupid to care about pedestrians.

Meanwhile, a prayer for Phil Hughes.

24.11.14


Photograph taken by my father, 1970. Cnr Mt Alexander Road and Ormond Rd, Moonee Ponds.

22.11.14

Inspired by Herge: drawing the Volvo Polestar S60 in action.

After last Sunday's thrilling finish to the Phillip Island 400, the boys got to work with their HBs. The Polestar is a beautiful piece of machinery, its sculpted lines reminiscent of the hulking powerhouse racing cars of decades gone by.

Garry Rogers of Garry Rogers Motorsport, whose driver Scott McLaughlin stole Sunday's race in the last straight, posted the resulting pictures here. Well done boys. Now it's a hard career decision: commercial artist or racing driver. Hmmmmm.

(Herge, who wrote and illustrated the Tintin series, started out as an illustrator in the automotive industry.)

21.11.14

Selling the 1970s.

People think I exaggerate about the past. Maybe I do. But maybe I don’t.

Because I was there. Reader Melbourne Girl recalled an item of 1970s clothing in a comment at this post about 1970s food. That brought the whole horrible decade of bad taste flooding back.

Because I sold them! My first job was salesman in a menswear store during a period that rode the fashion wave from flower power to the platform sole. Put 'clothing' and '1970s' in a sentence and you picture skin-tight trousers with the legs flared out to eighteen inches at the bottom. Why the width? To accommodate the battleships underneath: two-tone fake leather uppers that sat on five inches of prime Portuguese cork. People think the wine cork industry was destroyed by the Stelvin closure but that’s rubbish. It was devastated by the shoe industry. Rumour has it that a famous Italian shoe designer had a love rival who was a Portuguese wine cork baron, or whatever they call barons in Portugal. He vowed revenge, deciding to derail the wine cork industry and bankrupt the baron. The next spring, his models clomped down the catwalk precariously (if you can clomp precariously) in shoes that were six inches off the ground. Every shoe contained enough cork to cap 45 wine bottles. That’s 90 bottles a pair; or nine million per 100,000 pairs of shoes. The wine cork manufacturing industry was starved of raw material overnight, with the shoe makers importing raw cork direct from the growers - and the wine industry was forced to turn to plastic closures. Of course, the designer knew his shoes were ridiculous, being to proper footwear what a double-decker bus was to a Mini Cooper. The noise they made caused bands such as Slade to dramatically increase the volume of their concerts because you couldn’t hear them over the clomping of fans in the stadium.

Getting to the point of this story, one day in 1972, the store manager brought in his first shipment of Continental 'body' shirts. What the hell? we (the salesmen) said, tape measures dangling around our necks. These are going to be huge, he said. They're huge already, we replied. Hugely ugly. Normal shirts had sensible pointed collars, muted colours, self-stitching and were made from proper cotton. The new horrors came in lurid colours such as lime green with contrast stitching, had vast rounded collars like the ears of a goat and were sewn from a bizarre kind of material that stretched, hence the body shirt tag. There was chocolate brown with tan stitching, a ghastly yellow that I can’t make a simile about (because it would be too horrible) and a red one with white stitching - the Al Grassby special, we called it. No-one will ever wear those, we said.

The manager made a space on the shirt rack by putting dozens of white GloWeave, Pelaco and Paramount shirts into the store room at the back and replacing them with the full colour range of Continental body shirts. Now the rack looked like a gelati shop window in a heatwave. The '70s were born that day.

Won't wear them? said the manager. Wait and see. He was right. Within weeks we were selling them by the truckload. Some pop star had worn one on television; nothing else could explain a population losing not only its entire fashion sense but also its ability to withstand discomfort and the embarrassment of being dressed like a demented clown. Wearing a tight lime green shirt-like garment tucked into flapping yellow trousers would have looked ridiculous on a sixteenth century pirate, let alone a twentieth century lawyer. Mid-seventies summers saw moustached hipsters with underarm stains stretching halfway down their sides, thanks to the osmotic effect of the hideous stretch fabric of which their Continental body shirts were made, a strange combination of elasticised nylon and an early form of lycra, minus the breathability.

Then there were the ties. Someone on TV again, maybe a comedian. We threw out the old tie rack, because it was designed to hold 120 two-inch wide ties, but the new ones were five inches at their widest point. No-one needed serviettes any more in restaurants. Nothing could get near the shirt, but a lot of Pieroni (upstairs, Little Bourke Street, a young Guy Grossi as waiter) diners called in at Myer for a fresh tie after a boozy spaghetti bolognese lunch.

A five-inch width of orange seersucker over a yellow Continental body shirt was a sight to see and we saw plenty of them. People criticise copywriters for having worked on cigarette accounts, but I did something far worse (as well as the former, in later years). I knowingly matched up clashing shirts and ties for hundreds, possibly thousands, of menswear customers throughout the 1970s. Those archival photos of 1970s weddings? My work. I was the one who said, Why yes sir, the lime green suit with the bottle green velvet lapel suits you perfectly!

Time went by in and with it a million ghastly disco hits; and one day the manager brought in his first shipment of proto-eighties suits, which could be described in one word: shiny. To counteract the shortfall in fabric due to the passing of wide flares, designers (with kickbacks from the fabric manufacturers) surreptitiously introduced the 'power shoulder'. I say surreptitiously because at first your coat just had slight padding around the shoulder area, but by the eighties proper it had grown, and you had the shoulders of a prize bull at a Pamplona bullfight. The seventies were over. Thank goodness. If only we knew what the eighties would bring.

19.11.14

Queensland politicians slow off the mark.

The weather is good in the Sunshine State, as is the beer, the beaches, the football, the hinterland, the outback and everything else. So you can little blame the politicians for taking a few days to notice a speech by the USA’s chief weather forecaster. But they got there, finally.

'The Queensland government,' The Australian reports today (subscription required, but Facebook link here), ' ... is incensed over what it sees as an ill-informed, insulting speech from Barack Obama about climate change, the Great Barrier Reef and coal.'

You could add patronising, hypocritical, disingenuous and any number of other words, but mostly hypocritical. The guy might be an orator, but Australian larrikin bushmen know a bit of oratory too, they just keep it short. Their rejoinder might contain just two words, the second of which would be " ... off". The last US chief weather forecaster got the same treatment, so don't say we're not fair.

Meanwhile, at the same conference, French President Francois Hollande 'spoke for eight minutes exclusively on climate change' while rational, lucid Indian PM Mr Modi 'talked of the need for access to electricity for the world’s poor.'

Sometimes, the fewer words you say, the more sense you make.

18.11.14

Stop the presses.

Two rival newspapers, two banner headlines outside the newsagent this morning:

Newspaper 1: $18 BILLION AUSSIE CHINA DEAL

Newspaper 2: SCAM HITS FAT DUCK BALLOT

17.11.14

Plugging the leek.

The leek might be the vegetable I have mentioned most in the twelve years I have been writing this online diary. It could be my favourite vegetable, but I'm never sure. But the leek is one of the most versatile, tasty, fragrant, inexpensive, ubiquitous and waste-free vegetables you can buy. As usual, I shop on price and leeks are $1 each this week so leeks is what we eat.

Leek, potato and tomato stew.

Warm a tablespoon of butter and a splash of olive oil in a deep heavy pan. Chop a large leek into thin rounds and rinse. Chop an onion into rings. Add vegetables to the pan and cook until soft.

Now add a scored clove of garlic and a zucchini chopped into quartered rounds. Stir, add a glass of white wine, and lid the pan. Simmer on low for ten minutes.

Then add two cans of whole tomatoes with their juice, a dozen or more pitted black olives, a cup of stock, a dash of salt and pepper, a scant teaspoon of sugar, and a dash of chilli powder.

Put the lid on and let it bubble for a few minutes while you peel and chop four medium potatoes into thick rounds. Add to the pot; cook until potatoes are just soft. Fluid should just cover the vegetables. Adjust if necessary.

Now the support team: polenta. Cook polenta, following your preferred method. Add salt, pepper, and a tablespoon of butter to the polenta and fold through half a cup of chopped parsley when done.

Serve stew over parsley-flecked polenta and garnish with chopped basil, or scatter flaked parmesan cheese over the top. Or both. Drink: anything. I'm no wine snob, but I've met a few.

14.11.14

Brown rice shakes off reputation as 1970s artefact.

Like barley, brown rice used to have a reputation.

Barley was once regarded as the ingredient grandmothers added to soups and lamb stews to fortify growing children. Then someone on television turned barley into a risotto, and packets of McKenzie's Pearl Barley starting flying off the lower supermarket shelves, where they had lain untouched for decades next to McKenzie's Soup Mix, McKenzie's Yellow Split Peas, McKenzie's Dessicated Coconut and, of course, McKenzie's Bi-Carb Soda. Barley was now a foodie's food.

Brown rice was once similarly unloved. It was like barley for 1970s hippies, having been associated with that demographic together with several types of smoke and a kind of footwear. Being brown was kind of appropriate because everything in the 1970s was brown: curtains, Datsun 120Ys, carpet, dinner sets, corduroy, record covers, you name it. Even the timber bowls that brown rice salad was typically served in were brown. Well, of course.

And the rice salads served at student household parties generally lay untouched, and the grains dried out and went hard, and were inedible, and people stubbed their 'cigarettes' in it, and the reputation of brown rice was caught in a vicious cycle. And someone had to clean up the next morning, although in such households, it was usually next afternoon, if not evening. Parkville memories come flooding back, and the picture is not pretty; and the stove is covered in burnt, dried substances that were once food.

But brown rice was much more than salad at student parties. It is robust enough to carry ingredients on its back without turning to mush, which white rice will do if you're not careful. It has an agreeable texture and a flavour that is distinct but which will not dominate its fellow ingredients, as evidenced by the following recipe.

Brown rice biryani with a chilli kick.

I had a few cups of cold brown rice left over. (Left over from what? Er, a brown rice salad ...)

I warmed the rice through in some peanut oil, then folded through two teaspoons of coriander powder, one teaspoon each of turmeric and chilli powder, one scored clove of garlic, and half a teaspoon each of salt and pepper. The aroma that arose from the warming spicy rice at this point was so good I could have eaten the lot from the pan right there. Stop!

I cut four spring onions into short rounds and tossed them in, along with half a cup of capsicum cut into small dice, and a cup of peas. Peas work superbly with rice dishes, giving a satisfying pop! as your teeth bite into a hidden one.

If the rice was moist enough to begin with, you can warm it through without adding any fluid. Otherwise add water a little at a time.

Now for the meat: a few strips of chargrilled fillet cut into cubes and folded through the rice. This was also left over, a remnant of the children's dinner. Don't be too proud to eat your children's leftovers; the whole world has gone mad on recycling so why not eat scraps? Apart from that fillet is expensive, and we no longer have a dog anyway. Three rationalisations in one paragraph. The whole point of biryani was to use up cooked meat and rice with any available vegetables and spices.

Meanwhile, I boiled two eggs until just set, peeled them and set them aside.

When the whole thing had warmed through (letting the capsicum and spring onion retain their crunch) I made piles of hot biryani in two deep bowls, made craters in the top of each pile, nested an egg in each, and sprinkled fresh chopped coriander over the top.

I served it with mango chutney or sweet chilli sauce, and papadums.

12.11.14

Butter substitute margarine was originally developed from nuts, so why didn't they call it "nutter"?

Turns out they did. The brand name of an early version of the then-controversial spread was indeed called "Nutter".


From the Daily News Cookbook, UK. Can't find a publication date but the paper itself was founded by novelist Charles Dickens in the 1840s and folded (in the economic sense) in the Depression of 1930.