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

28.7.16

Out of time.

An agency I once worked with had plenty of money to spend on lunches. Well, they all did; but this one had more than most.

It had a lot of government business, and when bureaucrats throw money at advertising campaigns, they don't count it first. Counting money is for the private sector. Governments don't spend their own money; they spend yours, so why stint? They can always get their hands on more.

Anyway, the agency wanted to reward its clients for being loyal. The CEO decided to take its $5 million-plus clients to dinner, and give each an expensive Swiss watch. He'd written the presentation card himself, omitting to run it past the copywriter:

'We'd like to thank you for being a client by giving you this timeless watch.'

26.7.16

What do you do in your lunch break?

Here's what I do in mine.

(Note: the AdAge article is almost ten years old; I came across it again by accident when trawling through some old writings. The advertising agency blog is no longer online - I am adapting it into a book. And yes, I still have the same sandwich and three sugars in my coffee.)

6.7.16

Soup or pasta? Cold weather dilemma solved.

The answer is both, if you serve the following for dinner. It satisfies both soup- and pasta-lovers.

Tortellini soup.

First, make some vegetable stock (or use your preferred stock). In a large pot containing about 1500ml of water, bring to the boil a large chopped carrot, a large chopped onion, a stick of chopped celery, a chopped leek, some parsley sprigs, a peeled and scored garlic clove, a bay leaf, a little dried rosemary, a teaspoon of cracked pepper and half a teaspoon of salt. Once on the boil, turn down and simmer for an hour.

Strain the stock, return to pot and add half a kilogram of ricotta tortellini, a cupful of finely shredded silver beet, a cup of peas and a tablespoon of preferably home-made pesto (basil, walnuts, parmesan, garlic, olive oil).

Simmer another twenty minutes. Serve with shards of parmesan cheese broken from the block.

20.6.16

A Streetcar Named Acquire.

St Kilda Road was once home to Melbourne's advertising industry. Some of the agency dinosaurs, such as McCanns, remain there, like fossils in a rock.

As well as being Melbourne's most beautiful boulevard, St Kilda Road also boasts the slowest trams, monstrous metal boxes that clatter slowly down the middle of the road powered by steel rods reaching up to overhead electric wires. I've often wondered why tramloads of passengers don't get electrocuted every time it rains.

In the early 1990s, I was working for one of the dinosaur agencies. One day the agency had a visitor, a US agency boss from New York by the name of Stanley. Stanley was on the acquisition trail. He wanted to buy the agency. If only he knew. But that's another story.

Stanley had been scheduled to visit three agencies in one morning, and he arrived at my agency at nine a.m., when our MD led him on a tour of the place. A few account executives were in their offices, beavering away at their core function of sending fawning emails to clients, but the creative department was largely deserted, since creative drift into work close to 10 o'clock on a conscientious day. "They're on a two-day conference in the country," the MD lied.

He and the visitor then went into the boardroom and shut the door. After a while, June the tea lady crashed the door open again with her tea trolley and probably frightened the daylights out of the visitor. He'd have to get used to it.

When they emerged an hour later, Stanley looked at his watch, said he was running late and asked the MD to call him a cab. The MD replied that the last thing you do in St Kilda Road when you are running late is to call a cab, because you will still be waiting an hour later. You're better off going down to the street, and flagging one down. If a taxi isn't going by, you can just jump on a tram. "Oh, you mean those cool streetcars?" Stanley said. Yes, those cool, slow streetcars.

Now it just so happened that I had an appointment that mid-morning at the doctor's (Dr. Headhunter, as it happened) and we took the same elevator down to the ground. Stanley, in a hurry, racewalked off down St Kilda Road glancing over his shoulder for a cab and I kept a respectable distance behind him. No taxi came along, but a tram was lumbering into view. Stanley crossed to the tram safety zone, the tram pulled up, and Stanley got on through the middle door. I followed him and got in the back door. Stanley sat up the front and leant forward impatiently. The tram lurched away. Then it stopped again, having just missed the lights. I hate it when they do that. I'd rather they just sat there for the next round of lights. But they don't. They give a little lurch and get your hopes up, and then they dash them again, and you sit there for another three minutes. Stanley sat on the edge of his seat and checked his watch and stewed.

The tram performed the same stop-start routine for the next three sets of lights; and we were still nowhere near Coventry Street. It had taken fifteen minutes to get from High Street to the old police building that isn't there any more. Stanley was sweating.

The tram moved through the Domain Road terminus and made a false start for the fourth time. Stanley jumped up and strode to the driver. The tram was an old Z-class model with access to the driver through a mesh window.

"Can you drive this thing any faster, driver?" he shouted, but it wasn't a question. It was a demand.

"Yes, I can!" said the driver. "I can drive it at seventy-five kilometres an hour."

Pause.

"But I'm not going to." He had a sense of humour.

Stanley blew his stack. "I'm about to spend several million dollars buying half the businesses in St Kilda Road, driver," he yelled through the mesh, "and I'm late for an appointment to do exactly that. And you're telling me you're going to crawl this tram at two miles an hour for the next eight blocks. Well, I'm telling you, you won't have a job when I own St Kilda Road because I'll tell my employees not to take any goddamned tram to work. What do you think of that?"

The tram crawled forward into an intersection while the driver thought about what he thought about that. Then it stopped again, because a BMW 7-series was late in turning right into Toorak Road, and it blocked the tram. The driver clanged the bell and we sat there.

"What do I think of that?" replied the driver. "This." He pointed to a button. He pushed the button and the front door opened. "Get out."

Stanley's face was so red it was blue. "You drive this tram NOW, driver. And fast!"

"Get out."

He screamed. "Drive the tram, driver. You can't tell me to get out. I'm a paying customer!"

"I can do what I like on my tram, buddy. And right now I'm going to sit here until you get out."

The driver sat. He gazed out the window. The light turned green. The tram sat.

Stanley said some words he hadn't uttered since his agency lost an airline account back in the eighties.

The driver ignored him and continued gazing out the window.

The agency boss glared, hesitated, then jumped up and stepped out the front door. At the same time, I slipped out the rear door. My headhunter's office was just up the road and I would walk the rest of the way. I watched Stanley pull a piece of paper out of his pocket, check the street number on a building, half-run a little way up the street, and disappear inside 320 St Kilda Road. I went on to my headhunter's appointment, but ultimately I didn't take the job on offer, as it was to work on a retail account, and only hacks worked on retail. I did, however, use the offer as a bargaining chip to raise my salary with my then-employer. That's how the industry worked then. Every man was his own union.

*

Later that month, our agency MD made an announcement. The acquisition had not gone ahead.

"The American agency whose CEO Mr Stanley Durstin visited last month has decided to buy several other agencies instead, including Agency X," he said. Agency X was at 320 St Kilda Road.

I was disappointed. I had wanted to see what happened when Stanley tried to enforce the tram ban.

16.6.16

What to do with a sweet potato.

Boil a peeled and chopped sweet potato until soft. Mash it, and place it in a mound on a bread board to cool.

Make a crater in the top of the mound and crack an egg into it.

Work in half a cup of flour, a tablespoon of polenta and a finely diced clove of garlic. Press and knead the mixture lightly, adding more flour if necessary until it holds together.

Roll the mixture into cylinders, and slice the cylinders into half inch-thick discs. Place these on a floured board until ready to cook.

Drop the discs into salted, oiled boiling water. Once they rise to the top let them bubble about for thirty seconds then quickly lift out with a slotted spoon. Drain thoroughly before placing them into serving bowls.

Serve with Napoli sauce, or home made pesto and shaved parmesan.

24.5.16

Kitchen Hand turns whistle blower.

"You can't umpire this sport and not make errors," Hayden Kennedy says. "It's an impossibility. You've just got to limit the damage."
Well, we'll see on Friday. I'll be throwing the ball up for the grade sixers in their interschool match. Until now I've been running the boundary and you see plenty of infringements the central umpire doesn't, because he's usually behind the pack of twenty 10-year-olds jumping on each other.

It might be easier in the middle. I ran kilometres on the boundary on Sunday morning because the northerly sweeping down Greenvale oval No. 4 kept blowing the ball into the paddock behind. Spectator attempts to boot the ball back to the middle usually got blown straight back again.

Clean bump and pick-up

Bounce

Drop punt

(Pictures are from a previous game at Keilor Park second oval complete with tractor ruts.)

23.5.16

The world's largest professional network, now for sale on the dark web.

Soon, the world will run out of passwords. Don't say I didn't warn you four years ago.

20.5.16

Duelling country singers.

Tim Blair beat me to George Hamilton IV by a few hours, but I beat him to Jimmy Elledge. By three years.

13.5.16

Raining chilis.

People keep throwing bird's eye chilis at me.

When we stayed a couple of nights at the Kingswood Motel in Tocumwal a month or so ago, the owner pointed out her herb garden near the pool and barbecue area and invited me to sample the chilis. That night I did. It was a hot evening and we ate outside as the sun went down. I grilled steaks and made a potato salad. I flattened the chilis on the grill to char them and then smeared them over the grilled steaks. Then I ate a couple whole. I saw stars.

Then, back home, a neighbour gave me a whole bag of bird's eyes from her front garden. That was a few weeks ago. I've got through about half.

The reason, of course, is that the chili plants are very popular right now as an ornamental planting in pots and garden beds. And they are prolific. You can't eat enough of the chilis to keep up. You have to give them away, like grapefruit.

The trick with chili is to combine it with other flavours. You can't hide the heat, but you can tone it down.

Salsa Mexicana.

I don't know how genuine this is and I don't care. It is good and that's all that counts.

Slice a dozen chilis and remove seeds. Combine in a bowl with four diced very ripe tomatoes, one diced white onion, the juice of a lime into which you have stirred half a teaspoon of salt, and a cup of chopped coriander. Throw in a couple of chopped mint leaves if you have them.

Serve over anything. Last night I split some just-baked potatoes, packed them with sour cream, and showered the salsa over the top. Never eaten better.

11.5.16

"Unexpected" egg event.

From today's paper:
SHOPPERS baulking at the cost of beef are scrambling for eggs and stretching supplies. Customers have been confronted with depleted egg sections at some supermarkets. A notice advised eggs were in short supply "due to unexpected events in the industry".

"People searching for cheaper alternative proteins are recognising the value of eggs," Egg Farmers Aus­tralia spokesman John Coward said. "A kilo of eggs is as low as $4. A kilo of popular steak is $20-$35. They can replace a beef dinner with a frittata."
When it comes to "unexpected egg events", a frittata sounds a bit of a letdown compared to, for example, a 400g porterhouse, chargrilled to perfection, still pink in the middle and drowning in pepper sauce. The following is a much more robust alternative to the ubiquitous - and somewhat pretentious - frittata, if steak is off and eggs are on.

Egg and bacon pie.

Grease a glass or enamel pie dish and line it with a sheet of shortcrust pastry. Crack in about four eggs, depending on dish size. Scatter some chopped parsley and white pepper over the eggs.

Meanwhile, lightly fry six rashers of bacon in a pan, then lay the bacon over the eggs. Add another two or three eggs, then top the pie-dish with a disc of puff pastry, trim and seal the edge. Slash the top once and decorate with the pastry trimmings. Brush with egg white or milk. Bake at 180C for about 35 minutes at which point it will be golden brown.

Serve hot with mashed potato and peas. Add a fancy relish if you must but this pie, already tasty enough, shoots into the flavour stratosphere when served with old-fashioned tomato sauce.

27.4.16

Sack the knife.

I was chopping some carrots using a vegetable knife with a short non-serrated blade. The carrots were quite hard. I slid the knife across and into the third carrot. The blade of the knife snapped suddenly at the point where it is imbedded in the handle. It rebounded against the force of my hand, flicked up and around like a soccer player doing a scissor kick, and stabbed me in the forefinger before flopping onto the table.

I threw the handle and the blade into the bin, after examining the break. The imbedded section was far too thin. It was the last cheap knife I will buy. Lesson: sack your cheap cutting knives before they crack up under the pressure and do you an injury.

*

I had been about to make a recipe I always drag out in autumn, an old favourite I learned from my mother before she gave up on all the old standbys.

Oxtail stew with garlic mash.

Using a quality knife, meaning a knife made just about anywhere except China, chop six celery stalks, two onions and two carrots. Score two cloves of garlic. Chop a small bunch of parsley to make at least half a densely-packed cupful. Chop four slices of prosciutto into tiny squares.

Place a kilogram of oxtail segments into a supermarket plastic bag with half a cup of flour and a teaspoon each of salt and ground white pepper. Close bag and shake to thoroughly coat oxtail in seasoned flour.

Heat some oil in a heavy pan and brown oxtail lightly. Then turn down heat and add chopped vegetables, parsley and prosciutto. Stir for five minutes or so.

Now add a tablespoonful of tomato paste, a 690g jar of tomato puree (or a couple of cans), a cup of red wine, a bay leaf, a sprig of rosemary and a mint leaf if you have any of the latter handy. Cover with water and bring to boil.

Simmer two hours on as low a heat as your stovetop will allow. Alternatively place the lot in a casserole and bake in a very slow oven.

Serve on mashed potato laced with garlic and parmesan cheese and showered with more parsley. Or polenta treated the same way.

19.4.16

A Shorter History of the Volkswagen Beetle.

In 1966, you were generally Holden or Falcon, hating the other with a passion equal to the Smith Street divide between Fitzroy and Collingwood. Every October, Bathurst fanned the tribal flames.

My brother and I were Holden because Dad got a new one every year for his job. He was a travelling salesman for John Dynon & Sons restaurant and hotel supplies. I used to go with him on school holidays and saw the inside of more restaurants by the age of ten than Simon Plant and John Lethlean put together.

My brother and I always looked forward to the new model and became connoisseurs of evolving automotive design, including the Volkswagen Beetle, which in the previous year had sold more cars in Australia than ever before. Volkswagens were everywhere. An uncle (not the farm uncle) bought a navy blue one and drove it like a Lotus Esprit around the Dandenong Ranges with us in it. I'd never been more frightened.

But not everyone had a Holden or a Falcon, or even a Beetle. The family next door – the Percy Crawfords – had a Chevrolet Belair the size of a tank. They achieved fame of sorts when Mrs Crawford lost control of the Chev in Bourke Street. The car rolled down the hill from Queen Street, and Mrs Crawford steered it into the window of Coles & Garrard to avoid a tram. The photograph on the front page of that night's Melbourne Herald showed the Chevrolet's nose buried in the shattered glass, its enormous chromed tail fins and bullet-shaped rear lights sticking well out into Bourke Street. It looked like a crashed alien rocket ship from Mars. Mrs Crawford was also in the picture, standing by the car forlorn but unhurt, wearing 1960s sunglasses and a sleeveless frock tightly belted at the waist. She looked like Jackie Kennedy. The astonished look on her face seemed to say, "Gosh! I wonder what Perc. will say!" Perc. would probably have said he was glad he bought a Chev, because if he had put Mrs Crawford in a Beetle she would have been dead.

*

One hot afternoon in January 1966, we were driving home to Melbourne after a weekend at an uncle's farm in Tanjil South. We were in our new HD Holden, cream with red vinyl, registration JEN-215.

My older brother and I were in front with Dad. The younger ones were brawling on the rear seat. My red-lipsticked, blonde pony-tailed mother was also somewhere back there in the tangle. Once a disciplinarian, she had seen the light after the first four children. One day she had read a Dr Spock book and had thenceforth let the next three children run rampant so as not to stunt their personalities or characters or dispositions or natures or whatever it was could be inhibited in the 1960s. My father was agnostic on the matter, but calm. In the driver's seat, he just smoked, whistled Harry Belafonte songs and drove on; unperturbed by noisy children or pop psychologists.

It was a long and winding road through the Gippsland hills. No freeways then. Princes Highway was a single lane each way and cars were always overtaking, sometimes passing three or four other vehicles in a row, each tucking in neatly before an approaching fully-laden semi-trailer could wipe it off the map. Volkswagen drivers were notorious. They seemed to believe that because their car had two doors it was a sports car.

Halfway back to Melbourne, probably around Drouin, another mad Beetle went past with its familiar clattering whine. It was a brand new one. My brother pointed. "What's different about that one?" he quizzed me.

I thought. "Bigger tail lights."

No, he said, they came in on the previous model.

"Number plate lamp cover."

No.

"1300 badge." No. "Larger rear window." On it went. As an older VW tore past, I tried to compare the two rear ends in my mind, like overlaid transparencies.

I couldn't pick it, and he wouldn't tell me. Fraternal rivalry. Later, we forgot about it. But every time I saw a '66 Beetle, I remembered the conversation, and tried to think of the answer, and failed. Until last week, when I picked up a book.

*

Classic Beetle, subtitled A VW Celebration, sounds and looks like a coffee table number, but it couldn't be farther from that. It has no clich├ęd Beetle or Kombi beach shots with surfboards, flower power stickers or anything vaguely resembling the kind of hackneyed nostalgia usually associated with the Beetle. Instead, the book is a forensic analysis of the design evolution of the world's biggest selling car ever. (Don't let anyone tell you that that title fell to the Toyota Corolla, because the only thing connecting the first Corolla with the 25 billionth one is its name.)

The photography is almost unbelievable. The cars - every model from the 1932 prototype to the 1990s Mexican Type 1 - are photographed in a cyc studio and reproduced with no obvious retouching aside from a drop shadow; yet there is no flare, no distracting reflection, no low points, and no distortion. The models are to scale so that the reader can compare models like for like, down to the tiniest detail.

And that's how I found that one small thing I had missed in January 1966. The engine lid twist closer on the 1965 model was changed to a push button fastener for 1966. I had missed it then because it is partially obscured by the bumper.

The book runs to 300 pages, with a design lover's feast of an appendix in which double page spreads are devoted to showing the evolution of individual components including wheels, headlamps, rear lights, rear-view mirrors, door handles, bonnet handles, number plate lights, turn signals, and dashboards.

*

Classic Beetle - a VW Celebration by Keith Seume, foreword by Brian Laban. Pavilion Books, London, 2015.

*

And now it's payback time. Amongst the hundreds of impeccable photographs in the book, there is one small production error. Find it, brother. I'll give you fifty years.

24.3.16

Spaghetti with avocado and mushrooms.

In a large pot, cook pasta. When almost done, place a dozen florets of broccoli and a dozen green beans into the same pot. Simmer three minutes. Add a dozen snow peas. Wait a minute, then drain the lot.

Meanwhile, heat some garlic in olive oil in another pan. Add a splash of white wine, some cracked black pepper, a dozen sliced button mushrooms and an avocado sliced into segments. Cook until mushrooms are almost soft, then add half a cup of cream, or more to taste. Reduce.

Arrange pasta and green vegetables in bowls, pour over mushroom, avocado and cream sauce.