Salad daze

Salad niçoise, but without the egg or Frenchness

Astonishing! I’ve had a request from a reader of this morning’s post for the recipe for the salad pictured here (not, I might add, as another wag pointed out, for the bowl of succulents and shells). As she’s in a particularly un-salady phase of her life at present, through no damn fault of her own, I am more than happy to share a bit of mild food porn with her.

So – it was Tuesday night, the silver fox was sulking on the sofa with a bad case of post-boating-weekend-induced man flu, and I’d eaten too many post-check-up Coles Anzac biscuits with tea over at Mrs F’s.

As usual, after too much sugar, trans fat and sitting down, I crave but two things – a brisk walk with an amiable chocolate labrador, followed by a hefty bowl of something fresh and green (but not succulent).

A salade niçoise was what I fancied. Too easy, I thought, smirkily, having stopped off on the way home to pick up some heinously expensive green beans from Parisi’s in Rose Bay, until I looked in the fridge and realised there was but one egg, a half-eaten tin of tuna, and some dodgy-looking greenery.

No matter – I managed to cobble together a totes delish dinner (eaten toute seule in the courtyard on that balmy nightas the fox didn’t stir from his feverish slumber until morn).

I am a good cobble-togetherer. I put it down to my being a lazy and erratic cook, and a haphazard shopper. I am frequently able to conjure gold from dross – although I draw the line at any kind of alchemy involving sow’s ears.

I adhere, more or less, in my cobbling, to the fashion rule espoused so forcefully by Steve Martin’s shrill and shiny girlfriend in LA Story, which I watched again in joyful solitude last weekend, while the fox was getting hammered both nautically and alcoholically on a rocky boat. Wear no more than seven items (though apparently this has now been reduced to five, according to my girlfriend, Kate, who is au fait with that sort of thing). And if in doubt, look at yourself quickly in the mirror and take off the first thing you notice.

Nuts and herbs occasionally have me reaching for that proverbial mirror, in the salad scheme of things. But what the what – rules, of course, are meant to be broken. Which is why I’m likely be issued an infringement  by the salad police with the following recipe.

No matter. This one’s for you Caroline. I hope that, even if you can’t eat it, you’ll enjoy licking the computer screen. And there’s plenty more where this one came from.

The I Can’t Believe It’s Not Niçoise Niçoise Salad

With apologies to Nigella and Audrey

Serves 2 (or 1 straight out of the bowl in front of Masters of Sex)

1. Place the cooking music of your choice on the stereogram*.

2. Using the slow-motion setting, shower some torn salad greens from a great height into a large bowl.

3. Next, add a goodly handful of soundly chopped parsley, a flushed and well-drained can of cannellini beans (discard the can), some small potatoes, boiled, drawn and quartered, and a Croesus’s fortune of green beans, steamed to bitey softness.

4. Swearing continuously, fossick around for 10 minutes under the sink for a small, clean jar with a lid that fits, then add a dollop of Dijon, a frisson of white balsamic dressing and a slop of extra vertiginous olive oil.

5. Make a double entendre while screwing the lid on, then shake it to the core or until the contents resemble the spun-gold tresses of Rapunzel.

6. Using your hands and whistling softly, toss through enough of the dressing to coat the salad mixture like a Chanel suit.

7. Scatter over the contents of a half-eaten can of tuna, then drape with a little more of the dressing.

8. Retire to your corner and serve immediately with Sonoma sourdough, a glass of something soothing and a healthy appetite.

*We used Pandora Radio, available free on your computer.

 

Back to food

Amateur salade composée
– house-made in da house

Last night, having prepared and consumed – and, naturally, photographed – a rather fine example of one of my few culinary specialities, the salade composée (to give it its full French due), I thought it was probably time I wrote something about food again, seeing as that’s what I do for a crust (ha!)… mostly. I’ve been eating a lot of it recently, which is nothing unusual in itself, particularly while standing up at the kitchen bench.

For lunch… mostly.

But when I’ve not been enjoying brief encounters with my kitchen counter, cramming leftover Meat Free Monday thrice-rice salad, or Tragic Tuesday Triangles of Agapé Organic Restaurant’s Patagonian scallop-prawn-and-shitload-of-garlic spelt pizza, I’ve been eating at the odd restaurant.

These places, in order of appearance on Latergram, were Rushcutters, in Darlinghurst, The Cut, down at The Rocks, Honeycomb, back in Darlinghurst, and Nomad, a disappointingly immobile establishment in Surry Hills.

Rushcutters twice, in fact: once for the launch of the fab cookbook I had a small hand in, ABC delicious. Love to Cook; the second, a cheery lunch perched by the big, breezy open window with Mum, on one of our regular let’s-make-this-cancer-shit-fun-or-it-will-be-the-death-of-us days out.

She’s doing well – best line this month was after her last check-up with her spectacularly ill-dressed but well-shod oncologist. “Well, you have to say I’m eking out my living,” chortled Mrs F in the car on the way home, after the Prof told her that she’s defying the survival-rate odds.

Also defying the odds – or my expectation – was The Cut, which, as far as I knew (from nothing, generally), was either a film starring Meg Ryan as a skinny English teacher who gets to have murkily lit sex with Mark Ruffalo, or a damn good steak house with low ceilings and high overheads.

Wrong on both counts, my friends – although not about the low ceilings (or high overheads, I’d hazard). There are steaks, yessirree, but there is so much pretty, creative deliciousness besides, thanks to the busy hands and enquiring mind of head chef Grant Croft.

Honeycomb – do you want fans with that?

At Honeycomb (another check-up, another LMTCSFOIWBTDOU day out), we sat on Hi-Vis yellow bentwood chairs by another open window on a silky-warm afternoon, cooling ourselves with cheap sandalwood Chinese fans proffered by the nice tattooed waiter wearing what looked like a tooth necklace. Nice touch, those fans. The necklace, not so much.

Afterwards, Mum and I each bought four of those fans from the two-dollar shop in the mall under the Coke™ sign at Kings Cross in some misguided belief that they might make good Christmas stocking fillers. The waiter had told us where he’d got them, “Only three dollars each!” and showed me how to speak into my iPhone™ instead of having to type text messages.

“Maybe now I won’t have to look at the top of her head all day,” snipped Mrs F, leaving him a generous tip.

Welcome to the 21st century – a post-menopausal woman being scolded by her octogenarian mother for playing with her iPhone.

Professional salade composée – house-made at Nomad

No such problem at the not-even-slightly-wandering Nomad, where four grown women all blithely took iSnaps™ of the house-made cheese, house-cured meats and house-cooked food served by house-proud staff – each blissful in the knowledge that the resolutely hirsute Surry Hills hipsters having a Vale Ale at the bar were too busy comparing ironic T-shirts to notice.

Been there, loved that

Hooray! My South Coast locavore story, aided and abetted by the talented Josh Tyler, of Tyler’s Pantry in Mogo, is out today in the fabulous December/January issue of ABC delicious.

To celebrate, I’ve thrown together a few extra snaps for your delectation. Suffice to say – I bloody well love this stunning part of the world, so please don’t all go rushing there and spoiling it with your small bars and pig’s ear sliders. Just read about it, instead, okay?

 

From Patagonia to the Pleasure Gardens

View from The Singular hotel, Patagonia

To mark the publication today of my story about The Singular Hotel Patagonia, in The Weekend Australian, I thought it might also be a perfect opportunity to celebrate the abundant pleasures of just staying put.

I’ve been doing a good deal of meandering about my neighbourhood; that being Botany, a neighbourhood of dubious reputation, largely unfounded.

The mean streets of Botany throw up, well, very little of worth, really, by way of mean-streetedness (unless, of course you’re down at the Pier Hotel for topless Fridays, or outside the Waterworks pub at Botany shops if there’s a drive-by pizza stoush). Nope, mostly it’s a sleepy, benign kind of place, an increasingly tenuous bastion of working-class families getting on with things.

Sixteen years ago, when we moved here, it had the feel of a little country town – tight-knit, independent, a million miles away from the Surry Hills you could get to in 10 minutes up the Eastern Distributor. “Ten minutes from anywhere,” we would crow – as we headed to Maroubra, La Perouse, Alexandria.

“Except you can get a park,” said the silver fox, who worries about that kind of thing.

Heritage, history, hysteria

Our neighbour, Mavis, who must now be nearing 90, liked to tell us, with Botany regularity, that she’d been born in our bedroom. She’d call tremulously over our back fence for the silver fox to go over there to change her light bulbs, and he’d pick his way down the corridor lined with stacks of paintings she’d copied from greetings cards, her dog, Curly, a matted mutt of uncertain provenance, snuffling hysterically at his shoes.

We’d stand out the front watering our little patches and she’d tell me of the days when she’d walk from her house to Maroubra through the fields, and how there were market gardens all the way to Sir Joseph Banks Hotel when it was on the water’s edge at Botany Bay. Her husband (long dead before we arrived), whose name she would never speak out loud, was known for his violent temper and a tendency to climb to the top of the roof, where he’d sit for hours, sulking and surveying the district views.

Mavis knew everyone and everyone knew her. Some of the old-timers still ask after her when I’m out walking the dog.

Her place had no inside toilet, no bathroom, barely a kitchen. The roof space between our semis was open, a real The Castle bodge-up; the original double-fronted cottage had just been split lengthways by Mavis’s father and bricked up. I’d lie in that ancestral bedroom staring up at the ceiling while the rats scratched across the rafters between No 2 and No 4 having rat swingers’ parties.

Industry, urbanity, electricity

Things have moved on, of course (including the rats, may they rest in peace), and Mavis is living in a nursing home way out west – happy as a pig in shit, apparently – being fed and looked after properly, something she hadn’t been able to do for herself for years and refused to let anyone else do for her. She insisted she wouldn’t leave “until I’m carried out in a coffin”. In the end, she had to make do with an ambulance, and Curly had to make peace with his Maker.

Now we share our common walls (bricked up all the way up through the roof space) with Battleship Potemkin, which I’ve mentioned in a previous post, a stern leviathan of a renovation, bulging with three raucous, demanding young boys and their parents who, while probably perfectly nice people in their pure, pre-parental state, now alternate, alternately, between stark, shrieking, frothingly mad and apologetically, shrugglingly resigned.

In that latter state, the father joins me to stand watering our little patches – his now paved in slate-grey slabs with a neat little Brazilian of vegetation along the front wall. We talk about how it’s getting harder to find a park these days, as the toasty notes of Sultana Bran cooking at the Kellogg’s factory down the road scent the warm evening air.

Botany was once – and still is, in parts – a hotbed of industrial activity, from Bing’s Car Service: Do it Once – Do it Right (now rebadged as Platinum Car Service: Do it Once – Do it Right to reflect the changing times, or so they tell me), to such upstanding corporate citizens as ICI (now Orica), whose civic legacy can be found on plaques at Sir Joseph Banks Park, where it has attempted to assuage its nefarious environmental practices by building edifices such as an arched gateway that leads to nowhere.

Considering the extent of the pollution that’s been slopped into the groundwater around these ’ere parts, it’s amazing that the abundant wild (and not so wild) life inhabiting Sir Joseph Banks Park survives at all – not a three-eyed fish, goose or lizard among them (put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mr Burns). There are plenty of carp, though, which regularly frighten the kiddies by launching themselves out of the virulent green waters of the ponds to feast on the new season’s ducklings and goslings.

Sir Joseph Banks investigates mercury levels of Botany’s waterways

Sir Joseph Banks Park – with its life-size sculptures of exotic animals (gorillas, elephants, camels, bears), dank pools, paperback alleys and straggling swathes of native bushland – was once a summer seaside playground, and the grand old Sir Joseph Banks Hotel a Victoriana sanctuary for country and city travellers. Those animals – whose bulky black forms make such enticing climbing frames for those carp-traumatised kiddies – pay tribute to this former Pleasure Gardens, site of Sydney’s first zoo. Until just a few years ago, Australia’s oldest professional running race, the Botany Bay Gift, was held on the running track here. We watched Matt Shirvington and his shorts fly round it in 2000, in fact. Not a dry eye in the house.

Sadly, in these litigious times, the Gift is no more – the cost of public indemnity insurance put paid to that, and to the Australia Day fireworks celebrations. Worse, much like everywhere else in the grandiosely named City of Botany Bay, large, jarringly blue signs prohibiting anything remotely pleasurable are now the park’s most prominent architectural feature.

Sir Joseph Banks Park – the elephants in the room

Apart from the papier maché elephant herd, that is.

Frocks for the memory II

Grandma Esme’s kid gloves and evening bag

So – we’ve come to the end of my first Frocktober, and the unbearable triteness of being fashionable (with apologies to Milan Kundera and Lee Tran Lam).

Over the past month, I’ve tussled with all manner of cloving quandaries, as Bill Shorten might say. Not least of which was what to wear to see Cody ChesnuTT at The Metro a couple of weeks ago.

WhYY, Cody, whYY?

Who cares. Cody can have three capital Ts if he wants, because he’s that damn good. What’s not to love about a bloke on stage wearing a soldier’s helmet and a watermelon-coloured cardigan (or any coloured cardigan, in fact) who sounds like Marvin Gaye and then some.

And whose dad hasn’t shot him yet.

And what’s not to love about a couple of hours singing along and shaking your cake like the backing singer you’ve always wanted to be when you grow up. There’s not enough room at the Metro to make a complete tool of yourself by actually dancing.

SATURDAY NIGHT!

IN THE CITY!

As we paused in a middle-aged huddle on a curb among the purposeful throng in Chinatown, my friend, Nerida, wailed, “So many people with lives…”

The cloving decision for me that warm Frocktober night was kitten heels and bronze lurex – far less foxy than they sound. In fact, it was my husband who got his bottom pinched later on Oxford Street (by a girl, oddly – my, how times have changed).

The silver fox has always loved a cardigan.

He wore one to a Mardi Gras party back in the late 1980s. “Mmmm… cardie… ” miaowed one drag queen, as she swished past him into the Hordern Pavilion.

It was one of many Pringle knits we’ve received as gifts over the years (and one of the many Mardi Gras parties we’ve been to, come to think of it). His parents were originally from Hawick (pronounced ‘hoick’) on the Scottish Borders, and their families worked at the Pringle factory in that “gree awld toon”. His mother was a seamstress there before she escaped south with his father – a shift as far from their home and life as their son’s and mine was to Australia decades later.

Which brings me to the second instalment in this vaguely fashioned-inspired memoir. As promised in my last post – I wanted to touch on shop window mannequins, and the painting thereof.

The reason I’m here at all (in Australia, that is; not existentially per se – that’s too deep for me) is due in part to a small, very weird South African woman called Adel Rootstein. Her eponymous company had its global HQ in Shawfield Street, off the Kings Road, when I started there in 1976 (my first proper job after dropping out of university).

I’d answered an ad in the Evening Standard for a trainee make-up artist: ‘must have experience in oil paints’. I didn’t really, but, like every job I’ve ever had since, managed to bluff my way in. For my interview I had to paint a mask, copying a mannequin in front of me (perhaps Cher or Joanna Lumley – both of whose likenesses were used in collections at the time).

Joan Collins and her alter egos

Adel Rootstein mannequins were the first of their kind. In-house sculptor John Taylor moulded full-sized sculptures of each live model from clay. From Twiggy through to Lumley and Joan Collins (just prior to her renaissance in Dynasty), and beyond, Rootstein had an uncanny knack for predicting the look that no one had come up with yet.

They were dizzy times for a nice(ish) Jewish girl from the sheltered end of the Jubilee Line – working and playing around the Kings Road, Chelsea, as Punk, New Wave and the New Romantics spat, strummed, tore, warbled and pirate-sleeved their way through our consciousness. I’d ride my bike from Bushey Heath, where I lived in a loudly (and swiftly relinquished – praise be) dysfunctional relationship, through the dappled lanes of Stanmore Heath to the station and emerge, 45 minutes later, in the edgy, upmarket cacophony of Sloane Square.

Our glass-walled studio was built around a whitewashed courtyard, all the better to receive maximum natural light. There, we make-up artists would sit in a row with our backs to the windows, clasping the cold fibreglass torsos of blank-eyed beauties in a tango-like dip, as we painted them to haughty life – teeth, gums, eyes, eyebrows and all. We wore calico smocks, which would stiffen over time with thick layers of dried oil paint along one shoulder and arm (depending on whether we were left- or right-handed) as we slicked off the excess from our brushes.

We smoked furiously and left mugs of tea to go cold as we daubed and feathered to the music of The Stranglers, Roxy Music, Elvis Costello, Adam and the Ants, Ian Dury. And we cleaned our brushes with turps in the bathroom sink; we hadn’t heard of pollution then.

Upstairs, the wig girls (and they were all girls – all qualified hairdressers), wearing masks against the fumes, fashioned incredible, gravity-defying constructs from some sort of nylon fibre, spraying and teasing, and spraying again, then baking the wigs in ovens until they set like stone.

The showroom – where the glam and giddy sales team held sway, using mysteriously obtuse phrases such as “Simple, but there” to describe a make-up style to clients – was refurbished every six months or so, frequently with a new collection of mannequins added, but always with fresh costumes, make-up and wigs. Walk, Talk, Leisure, Pleasure is one early catalogue that springs to mind… Or ‘Plump and pretty – nine large ladies who exude confidence, poise and plenty of glamour for all their excess inches…’

Something for me to aspire to at the time – what with my eating disorder and all. But I’ll save that post for when you’re stronger.

The Rootstein collection launches were the stuff of London fashion legend, as were its Christmas parties, where the Chelsea set, models, hangers on and other glamerati would gather – along with all of us in our outré second-hand get-ups, supping on a seemingly endless flow of champagne. I’m sure there was plenty of cocaine too, although I didn’t ever get offered any.

My painting colleagues were all art school graduates – talented and eccentric to a man and woman. We’d fossick (though I’d not come across that word yet) Chelsea Antiques Market; flick through the clothes at Sex or Seditionaries or World’s End (I never could keep up with what McLaren and Westwood were up to, nor did I have the hair to try; curls never cut it in those days, and were one of my many long-held sources of low self-esteem). We’d lunch on sausage and mash and cups of tea at the Chelsea Kitchen, and pick up a morning coffee at the Picasso. It’s still there, though it’s probably far less louche than I remember it.

We wept through Ian McKellen’s performance in the original London production of Bent at the Royal Court Theatre, and one night we all piled into the Curzon cinema across the road and fell in love with Sigourney Weaver in Alien, gripping each other’s arms and jumping out of our skin.

Jed at work

And then there was Jed – ghoul-thin and pale, with a thatch of shiny Hugh Grant hair, sitting on his own in the middle of the room. Contrary from the start.

We bonded in the Rootstein bathroom as we cleaned our brushes – me, a galleon in full sail in my vast, paint-crusted smock; him swamped by his, despite the multiple layers of T-shirts and jumpers he always wore underneath. He was critical, fierce, opinionated, bursting with outlandish ideas – always challenging me to overstep the mark. I still have no idea why we became such great friends – but for nearly all the time we were, we were inseparable – a daunting and inviolable unit to our other friends and family.

I was flown to Sydney in 1980 for two weeks, to repaint all the mannequins’ faces at Grace Bros (as it was still called then) in Chatswood. Me and my oil paints were stuck in a changing room behind a curtain, a queue of chipped torsos with crooked wigs lined up outside. There I’d sit and paint all day, watched and fussed over by Danny, self-anointed display queen and consummate shoplifter of high-end homewares. Danny was my first Australian friend, whose drag persona was Beautiful Jenny – a tiny, wasp-waisted chick with a collection of “fehbulous” wigs and clothes she frequently ran up herself at home in Bondi Junction, where she lived with Ronald/Fanny, another display/drag queen of some repute. Danny took me shopping at Paddington Markets and dancing at the Midnight Shift in Oxford Street, and explained what the smell of rotten eggs was on the dance floor.

A return was on the cards, really.

First summer at Palm Beach

So that’s what we did, Jed and I. Packed our paints, our brushes, our portfolio of mannequin photos and our hair products, and arrived in Australia for a year’s working holiday. A sudden waft of frangipani still takes me back to our first week in Sydney, in November 1982.

And my first Golden Gaytime, melting down my arm as I walked through Kings Cross.

We painted our way round Australia – from Sydney to Darwin to Perth via Broome. In 1983, all there was on Cable Beach were a handful of camels and a campsite at one end. You could sunbake naked next to a bleached-out piece of driftwood and watch stingrays hovering motionless in the shallows of the Indian Ocean. We’d hitch rides on people’s bicycles to get into town for a beer at the Roebuck Hotel and stare at the glass-bottle mountain by the side of the road.

I’ve never had any desire to go back there – I know I’d hate it now.

Mannequins in the Perth ‘studio’

When we finally both got our permanent Australian residencies, we settled for a while in Perth, where we set up our own mannequin restoration company in a dusty, fetid, pigeon-infested warehouse out the back of what was then Jack Sue’s diving shop in Murray Street. While he was at work as a journo at The Australian, I’d drive our friend and housemate Andrew’s maroon Morris 1100 Van den Plas, packed to the gills with legless dummies, between godforsaken scrubby suburbs on the edge of the desert and our plastic-shrouded spray booth. “We could have been in Rio,” snarled Jed, one day, as we stood outside a shopping centre in the desiccating Perth sunshine.

Jed died 20 years ago, in a hospital bed back in London, a victim of his astonishing, old-soul beauty, insatiable curiosity and his doctors’ then ill-conceived (albeit well-meaning) misuse of drugs such as AZT.

One of the thousands of attitudes and idiosyncrasies he still haunts me with is his standard dismissal of a poor choice of attire: “Proportions, dahling, proportions.”

And just as I’ll never be able to wear navy and black together without summoning (and ignoring) that brief flicker of disapproval in my mother’s eyes, so, too, I’ll always consider (and follow) Jed’s unassailable rule of thumb when I’m dressing: do you really want to look as though you work in the glove department at David Jones?