Entertainment

Disasters, I've had a few

Ian Parmenter is not a fan of gadgets - unless it's an iron to cook a fish, Claire Low discovers

Ian Parmenter irons fish. It sounds like the sort of thing a Dr Seuss character would do, and we all know Seussian things are not so logical.

Anyway, how does he iron fish? Well, he does exactly that: when sans kitchen and in, say, a hotel bedroom, he whips out a nice bit of salmon or ocean trout and the baking paper and olive oil he travels with. The oil goes on the spread out paper, the fish, seasoned with salt and pepper, goes onto the paper, and more paper goes on top of the fish. Then, with the iron turned on high, or set to the linen setting, he produces a perfectly seared piece of fish.

The obvious question is whether an iron is any good after this and whether further use would leave clothes smelling of salmon. He says that isn't the case, not at all. But his MacGyvering of household objects when he needs a cooking implement hasn't always been a success.

Parmenter remembers cooking tiger prawns in Western Australia some years ago. Lacking cooking facilities and faced with a hungry crew, he turned to an electric kettle, an old-style kettle that had a small opening. The prawns, when raw, went in nicely. Inside the kettle, they cooked and curled up, at which point they would not come out of the kettle.

''We had to leave them in there,'' Parmenter admits. ''It was that or break the kettle. We did without. Weeks later, people were making coffee in this kettle and wondering why the flavour was strange.''

Cooking show fans will remember Parmenter for Consuming Passions on the ABC. He started with 15 recipes, and, after 450 shows, has something like 500 on file. He has recently published a book, All Consuming Passions, featuring 235 recipes gathered from his lifetime as a foodie.

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The thing about Parmenter is his earthiness and his endearing straightforwardness. One of the first words he utters to his interviewer is ''shit'', only he's referring to manure. He's working out in his productive kitchen garden, which is full of vegetables, herbs, citrus fruits and chardonnay grapes for a Margaret River wine producer. He has been a winemaker too and delights in taking things from ground to plate.

Simplicity is at the heart of it all. Parmenter prides himself on the fact that in all the recipes he cooked on television, he has never once used an appliance that you'd plug in. ''I got a lot of feedback in the early days of the show: people said they liked it because we don't have to have all those kitchen aids and processors.''

The year he started doing the show, he bought the Margaret River property where he developed many of the recipes. This was done in a cottage with a wood stove and gas ring. The rustic nature of this experience convinced him home chefs could do what he did.

Parmenter is also relaxed about cooking in general, calling himself slack and slapdash when it comes to measurements, to the extent that in many recipes things can be omitted, as long as it's not, say, the egg yolk in the mayonnaise. ''I called Consuming Passions Playschool for grownups - you could watch me doing something and go in the kitchen and do something like that,'' he says.

He was amused to learn that the Big Day Out hipsters of Adelaide not only recognised him but said they were fans of his show - granted, they watched it purely for the entertainment value because their idea of cooking was a joint and a heated-up pizza. ''It had to be a show that entertained people and not didactic,'' he says

Of course, a decade cooking on television comes with its share of disasters. Parmenter remembers the time one his furry microphone went up in flames when he was barbecuing. He has left key ingredients out of recipes, but the beauty of a pre-recorded show is multiple takes.

He has suffered off-camera culinary embarrassments too: when he had Ben Elton and his family over for lunch, the bombe Alaska went awry when the meringue, instead of being properly whisked, was overbeaten by the kids. It was poured over the ice cream, put in the oven, and of course slid off again and became ''a great lake''.

''We still served it up,'' Parmenter says. ''A bombed Alaska, we called it. Nothing too serious.''

Another time, cooking for a flatmate's friends in London, he had prepared a pork dish and the guests all turned out to be Orthodox Jews.

This delightful version of a Greek (or it could be Turkish) classic features layers of eggplant with a tomato and lamb mixture, topped with cheese sauce.

''It suddenly became a veal dish. I'm sure I'll get my just desserts for that.''

His definition of good food is food that has not been tampered with, and has been grown with love. ''In essence, keep it real,'' he says. ''If it's real food, it's going to work. Bad food is food that has been played with. Why would you put 16 additives into a loaf of bread? We've got so much preservatives, colourings, flavourings. I find it amazing you can have a product, like tomato sauce, with added flavour. My biggest concern is genetic modification.''

Asked what he would choose for a last meal, Parmenter dreams up a menu so delicious some of us might be inspired to join him on death row. He would begin with oysters from Albany or South Australia, then crab with homemade mayonnaise and salad. Roast lamb, studded with garlic and rosemary, served with ''the world's best gravy'' (his own). Then cheeses, and the sweet finale would be homemade ice cream with chocolate sauce made with a Cointreau or Grand Marnier.

This love of great and simple food has inspired some who cook for a living. ''They say they started as a kid watching my program and that's why they became a chef. That does it for me.''

Parmenter is also working with a Perth hospital on its food: ''If I can make a change in some of those institutions that are not doing justice to the culinary arts, that's what I'd like to leave behind.''

Prompted for his a favourite food memory, Parmenter recalls being a meal provided by a French farmer of provincial foods and wine, heavily laden with truffles. The occasion stretched on and Parmenter and his companions ended up falling asleep in a paddock. They awoke to rain falling on their faces and surrounded by cows. ''It was my most memorable occasion,'' he says. ''I've been so fortunate.''

MOUSSAKA

Serves 6

1 large eggplant

3 tbsp salt

¼ cup olive oil

500g minced lamb (or beef)

2 tbsp olive oil, extra

2 tbsp onion, finely chopped

200ml red wine

1 teaspoon allspice

800g can tomatoes

1 tbsp chicken or veal stock

1 tsp chilli sauce

4 cloves garlic, crushed

2 tsp fresh rosemary, chopped

1 tbsp butter

1 tbsp cornflour

500ml reduced-fat milk

100g mozzarella cheese, grated

1 tbsp grated parmesan

½ teaspoon grated nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 180C. Slice the eggplant 1cm thick. Sprinkle with salt and set aside for at least 30 minutes. Wash, drain and dry on a paper towel.

Brush both sides of each slice with olive oil and bake for 20 minutes or until softened. This technique allows less oil to be absorbed than frying.

In a frying pan on medium heat, cook the lamb in extra olive oil until light pink. It doesn't need to be thoroughly cooked at this stage. Add the onion, wine, allspice, tomatoes, stock, chilli sauce, garlic and rosemary. Crush the tomatoes and cook slowly for about 40 minutes, or until a thick sauce is achieved.

Make a roux by melting butter in a saucepan on medium heat. Stir in the cornflour and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring. Don't brown. Slowly add the milk, stirring constantly; simmer until smooth. Stir in the cheeses and nutmeg. Season.

To assemble, alternate layers of lamb sauce with eggplant in a baking dish, starting with lamb sauce. Top with cheesy bechamel sauce. Bake at 190C for 30 or 40 minutes, or until browned.

Recipe from All Consuming Passions, by Ian Parmenter (Harper Collins, May 2012, $28).

Claire Low is a staff feature writer.

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