Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Recipe Rifle is on holiday

I mean, if you call being ill and the size of a house a HOLIDAY.

But I'll be back in 2011 with:


Monday, 20 December 2010

Christmas special #13: The morning after

And so we come to the end, on the arbitrary number #13, of my series of Christmas Specials. There were going to be more, but I'm now ill *cough cough* and as good as snowed in, so more cooking is out of the question.

But I thought we'd finish sort of where we started, with a detailed guide that may be either useful or grossly patronising, depending on what state of mind you're in.

I want to talk about BRUNCH, which is something you may be called upon to provide on Boxing Day, or New Year's Day.
Newspaper colour supplements are falling over themselves to suggest that you do kedgeree, turkey soups or exotic duck salad things for your various brunches. When in actual fact, what most of us will reach for is the humble fry-up.

But I disagree that a fry-up is simple. I think a fry-up ranks next to a roast in terms of a thing that seems simple, but is in fact fiendishly hard to get right. And I know it's hard to get right because I've pretty much never been at a domestic fry-up situation for more than 2 people that's gone smoothly.

I mean, unless I'm in charge.

The trouble comes with the multiple elements of the fry-up. Every family is different; you may have a strict no-bean or no-mushroom tradition. Sauces might be utterly verboten on the breakfast table - alternatively HP and fried eggs may verily be the taste of your childhood. But the fact remains that there are a lot of things to co-ordinate and there's inevitably not be quite enough of something, or a couple of things reach the table stone cold.

So the first thing to do when you're contemplating doing a fry up for brunch, is to take complete charge. Don't let other people interfere - I mean, in the nicest possible way - unless it's minor tasks like putting stuff on the table or making tea, because only you can hold all the various timings of things in your head - no-one else. Two people doing a fry-up always equals cold beans.

Then you ought to do things in the following sort of order. This will enable everyone, including you, to sit down roughly at the same time without having to leap up muttering "butter", only to leap up three seconds later, muttering "teaspoons".

I mention the various elements of my preferred brunch fry-up but mentally delete those abhorrent to you as you go along and add in whatever else you're into (fried bread? tomatoes? black pudding? mmmm). Don't let anyone tell you that with a fry-up you've "gotta" have sausages or you've "gotta" have ketchup. Fuck them! It's your brunch.

Allow 30 minutes to get all this done - although it may take 45 if you are doing this for more than 4 people.

So here we go.

1 Fill the kettle and turn it on. Get the butter out of the fridge so it has a chance to be spreadable. Switch on the oven to a plate-warming temperature and then put in

- plates
- a flat dish for bacon/sausages
- a deep round dish for beans

2 Get out a frying pan and a saucepan, with a little oil in the frying pan. Put them both on the lowest available heat.

Some portion control advice:

- Allow three rashers of streaky or two rashers of back bacon per person.
- (Egg advice coming in a minute)
- If you are having sausages, best dig out an extra pan to do them in. My advice is to do chipolatas, as they cook fast. Allow 3 per person. If you insist on doing big bangers, allow 2 pp and leave at least 40 mins for them to cook properly.
- Allow 1/2 a tin of beans per person. I know it sounds like a lot, but it'll all go.
- Allow 1 portobello mushroom or 1 generous handful of button mushrooms
- Allow 1 disc of black pudding pp (unless you know someone is a real black pudding fiend)
- Allow 1 fried/grilled tomato pp, cut in half

3 Get this all on the go and then congratulate yourself - you're 70% of the way to a very well-organised brunch. Celebrate with a cup of tea.

4 Leave the sausages, beans and bacon and whatever else all cooking very gently. I can't stress enough the importance of having everything on a very low or medium heat. You don't want anything to be sizzling fast and giving off billowing blue smoke - that way lies panic and burnt things. Bacon needs to cook very slowly in order to be lovely and crispy - I'm talking 20-25 minutes - because the fat needs to render and then crisp up. Chipolatas mostly don't care what's done to them but if you cook them slowly, there'll never be a situation where something's burning and scaring the pants off you.

5 Now is the critical time to dump knives and forks, mugs, glasses, milk, butter, jam, juice, sugar, teaspooons, mustard, tongs, HP, pepper, ketchup, whatever, on the table. Just pile it up in the middle any old how. Don't bother to set places. Where do you fucking live? Buckingham Palace?

6 If possible, move the toaster, if you have one, and the bread very close to the table where you'll be eating. Or on it, if there's room. Toast is a fiendish little minx and needs to jump straight onto the plate or it'll go cold and horrible. To have the toaster close to the table will cut down on that frustrating time lag between getting your fried egg and tucking in.

7 Things ought to be quite calm in the kitchen at the moment. You could give the beans a stir if you felt like it. Stare at the table and rack your brains for anything anyone might irritatingly request just as you've sat down. Marmalade? A side plate?!

As soon as the beans or anything else looks ready, transfer it to the waiting warm dishes in your oven. No element of your fry-up should ever touch a cold plate or dish. People ought to be drifting into the kitchen by now, drawn by the smell of bacon. One of them could be charged with making a pot of tea/coffee. As soon as the kettle has been emptied, fill it to the brim and get it boiling again. I know - not very environmentally sound, but reassure yourself that you don't normally do this.

8 When your bacon and sausages look done, transfer to more waiting warm dishes in oven and continue to feel *SMUG* at how prepared you are. Now take the frying pan off the heat and set about your eggs. You ought to allow one fried egg for girls and two for boys. PLEASE don't go nuts and accuse me of sexism, it's just a rule of thumb.

I would go as far, here, as to suggest that you don't attempt scrambled eggs, as however many thousands of eggs you scramble, there will never be enough to go round. I don't know why that should be, but it is.

The secrets of great fried eggs are:

1 Crack them into the frying pan while it's off the heat
2 Use a non-stick pan
3 Cook gently. The eggs ought never to make that squelching, popping sound that they do in Ghostbusters when they start frying on Dana Barrett's counter.
4 Cover with a lid to cook the egg tops, so you don't have to flip them, which always results in broken yolks and stress.

If you don't have a lid big enough to cover the pan, get the biggest one you've got and balance one edge against one side of the pan and the other against a wooden implement bridged horizontally across the opposite pan sides.

9 Now is the only point where you have to move fast. A fresh pot of tea might need to be made (but this will be a doddle as you've already filled and boiled the kettle, see?) Anyone who hasn't arrived for brunch ought to be summoned. Hot plates need to be transferred to the table and the first round of toast ought to go down. When the eggs are looking done, get someone else to transfer stuff waiting in the oven (the beans will need a stir) to the table and start dishing out eggs. Leave everyone to help themselves to bacon, sausages and beans and to ask the person who's ended up sitting next to the toaster to stick more toast on.

10 Here you may have to make a second panful of eggs, depending on how many people you're catering for. But that's okay - what with your brilliant plate and dish-warming, some people can get their eggs a few minutes later and still have all the elements of their brunch piping hot.

So that's it. The End. I hope I've made sense. If not, just copy everything off Jamie Oliver - it all works and it's all delicious. I don't know why anyone bothers looking elsewhere.

Merry Christmas, everyone. Thanks for sticking with me this year, I know I'm not always easy to have around.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Christmas special #12: Performance winter salad

If you want a great, easy winter salad, see my post on Jamie's Winter Coleslaw. It's delicious and very straightforward.

This is slightly more of a performance, hence its poetic name. It's a salad I nicked off Jacob Kennedy, who is head chef at Bocca di Lupo, which is an Italian restaurant in Soho.

I was at school with Jake but I don't think I ever spoke to him, not once. I don't know why. He wasn't in any of my classes, I suppose. Anyway, he's always very friendly now - maybe he feels guilty about never having spoken to me. So I hope he'll look the other way now I've left it 12 years to copy his homework.

This radish and celeriac salad is my favourite thing that Bocca di Lupo does, which is odd for me, because usually the thing I like most on a menu is the thing that is crispiest and covered with the most salt.

I recreated it at home the other night and although it requires quite a lot of ingredients, once you've got them, you can turn this into a really massive salad and it will, I promise, impress all your friends. When you read the ingredients list you'll probably go "yuk" but honestly, honestly, this is a really exciting thing.

You will need:

1 celeriac
1 pack radishes. Little red ones, or those big black ones, if you can source them
1 pomegranate
juice of 1/2 a lemon
some olive oil
some white truffle oil (from Waitrose. Not cheap but lasts for ages and comes in v useful for all sorts of things.)
salt and pepper
pecorino or manchego cheese
some rocket or arugala

1 Peel and slice the celeriac (you may only need 1/2 or a third depending on how big you want to do the salad) as thinly as you can. You may want to cut the celeriac slices further into strips. Slice the radishes equally thinly. (This is basically a recipe invented to make use of a Japanese mandolin). Shave the pecorino.

2 Start the salad with a bed of rocket, then interleave the celeriac, radishes and cheese. Halve the pomegranate and then turn over and whack the back with a wooden spoon so that the seeds fall out, over the salad.

3 Dress with lemon juice, olive oil and truffle oil. Sprinkle over salt and pepper.

Goes nicely with most things, especially anything really rich.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Christmas special #11: Ginger cake

My Nikon has finally stopped working altogether, so this is the best I could do with my old Canon

I really did genuinely once believe that pregnant women were just making a bloody fuss about nothing. And then I staggered into the seventh month of my own pregnancy and realised that: IT'S THE WORST THING IN THE WHOLE WORLD.

This is what I did yesterday:

- Wake up to feeling the baby press its hands and feet - clearly simply for sport - into some really weird corners of my insides

- Stagger off to the loo. Pause in front of the mirror to do some silent screaming/hand-clawing down cheeks. Then make happy lunatic face with head on one side.

- Spend 30 minutes trying to find some clothes that still fit. Realise I have put pants on inside out. Cannot face the bending involved turning them right way around. Drive to Waitrose. Walk round Waitrose incredibly slowly, rolling from side to side like overweight, post-menopausal bag lady, from one painful swollen foot to the other, buying most of the shop. Wonder if my pale blue Nike Air Maxes are so unfashionable that they might soon become fashionable again.

- Start to leave Waitrose carpark but receive important phonecall from next-eldest sister and so park diagonally across three spaces near entrace to take call.

Her: "In answer to your question, you can get maternity pads from Boots."
Me: "Thanks"
Her: "How are you?"
Her: "Mmmm. Yes. Don't worry it'll be over soon. I'm weirdly envious. Having a baby is amazing."
Me: "Whatever. I'm like a cat. I can't really fathom what's going to happen."
Her: "It'll be fine. Having a baby is fine. Although, Edward woke up at 1am this morning and screamed until six. Patrick's got the runs. He's doing poos all up the back of his nappy."
Me: "Fucking hell."

- Talk like that for a while. Get home. Put shopping away. Wave goodbye to husband, who is going out for lunch with a minor member of the royal family.

- Lie on the sofa. Consider vomiting. Reject idea. Make ginger cake. Lie back on sofa. Fall asleep to recorded episodes of Gossip Girl. Wake up at 5pm as husband comes back, stinking of booze and Agent Provocateur. Greet him coldly. Swerve attempted hugs. Feel partially mollified by excellent gossip he has brought home, like a cat dragging in a sparrow.

- Make dinner. Go to first NCT class. Lie about my thoughts on pain relief during labour. Leave NCT class, swearing never to go to another one. Make exasperated lunatic face by sucking in cheeks and dilating nostrils and eyes.

- Get home. Pick huge fight with husband prompted by tasteless joke made in NCT class, find myself standing at one end of the kitchen, hurling cocktail sticks at him, which he fields. Drink large glass of red wine and eat leftover cold dinner and a slice of ginger cake. Feel bilious. Go to bed. Have neurotic dreams about being given 0/10 for an essay for the NCT class and then telling the teacher to go and fuck herself, but then getting stuck in the door because too fat.

At least the ginger cake turned out really well. A reader alerted me to the niceness of this as a home-made thing. It's a cross between Jamaican Ginger Cake and Golden Syrup Cake (that come in those foil packets, know the ones I mean?) only lighter and more velvety.

This qualifies as a Christmas Special post because it's a seasonal alternative to fruit cake, which not everyone is that crazy about. And when I say everyone, I mean ME.

It's also a doddle - the only fiddly bit is getting the golden syrup and treacle out of the tins without glueing yourself to the kitchen floor.

[NB a reader (below) has alerted me to the trick of submerging the tins in warm water for a moment or two to loosen up before spooning out.]

Anyway, here we go:

Stem ginger cake with lemon icing

This will fit a cake tin roughly 22cm across and 7cm deep.

225g self-raising flour
1tsp bicarb soda
1 TBSP ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground mixed spice
115g butter, cubed
115g dark muscovado sugar (or dark soft brown sugar, or light brown sugar, doesn't matter really)
115g black treacle - US readers can sub molasses
115g golden syprup - US readers can sub corn syrup
250ml whole milk
85g preserved stem ginger, sold in Waitrose in a jar, labelled as Chinese stem ginger. Find it near the jams and marmalades.
1 egg

1 Preheat oven: fan 160C, normal 180C

2 Assemble flour, bicarb soda, and spices. Either sift or put in bowl and give a swizzle with a whisk.

3 Cut butter into dry ingredients and rub into flour. Yawn. Quite boring.

[NB a reader has suggested that you can melt the butter along with everything in Instruction 4 and you get the same result without tedious rubbing-in]

4 Heat sugars, syrups and milk together in a pan gently until all melted. Don't worry too much if you over-scoop and get a bit too much of either syrup or treacle into the pan because you can't get it out again and so there's no point in fretting.

5 Chop the preserved ginger as finely as you can be arsed to and add to flour. Pour warm sugars over flour. Mix with wooden spoon and then crack in egg and continue to mix thoroughly. Mixture will lighten in colour just perceptibly.

6 Pour into tin (greased and lined if you're feeling holy) and bake for 50 mins.

For the icing

50g icing sugar
finely-chopped zest and juice of one lemon

1 Add lemon juice to icing sploosh by sploosh until you have a just-runny icing that is still opaque. Add zest. Drizzle or spread on cake. I used one of my new clear squeezy bottles, which was brilliant fun - a shiny beacon of joy in my otherwise shitty life - except bit of zest occasionally blocked up the nozzle.

I just want to be thin again. Thin and drunk.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Christmas special #10: Roast potatoes

Photo by Elena Heatherwick

There are two really key elements to getting roast potatoes right. And when I say right, I mean crunchy and brown on the outside and fluffy and creamy on the inside.

The first is to use the right kind of potato. You might be rolling your eyes at this, but I have met otherwise very good cooks who don't know what you need to use a floury potato for roast potatoes. I simply can't assume anything.

So, you need to use a floury potato, as opposed to a waxy potato. If you use a waxy potato for roasting you will end up with a tray of small, brittle cannon balls.

But what is a floury potato? In the shop, they will be labelled King Edward, Maris Piper or Desiree. If you are going to the shops for your floury potatoes and don't know off the top of your head which one you're supposed to be getting, write it down - because it won't say "floury" or "waxy" on that label thingy and what will happen is that you will get there and suddenly forget and be baffled by choice and I guarantee you will come home with the wrong potatoes.

I, personally, would allow 2 large or 3 smaller potatoes per person, because one should always overcater, especially when it comes to carbohydrate.

The second tip for good roasties is to par-boil them properly. Ideally, if you can, steam them rather than par-boil them in water. If you don't have a steamer, you can fashion one out of a colander and some tin foil for a lid. If this just seems like too much of a hassle then just boil them for 6-7 minutes.  But steaming does, I promise, make a huge difference.

So here we go. Some recipes say to use butter or olive oil to roast your potatoes - but I say that really is for vegetarians only. Use duck or goose fat for best, driest, crunchiest results.

Roast potatoes (with thanks to Jamie Oliver)

1 quantity of floury potatoes
1 or 2 tablespoons of fat
1 bunch sage
2 large cloves garlic, roughly chopped (optional)
salt and pepper

1 Peel the potatoes and cut each into six - or four if you want them bigger and aren't as much of a crunch fiend as me. Rinse under a tap to get rid of the starch and then parboil for 6-7 minutes or steam for 20-25. What you're looking for is some give around the edges of the potato, but still basically raw inside.

2 Once they're done, rattle the potatoes around in whatever container they were cooking in to rough up the edges. Leave to cool down for about 10 mins.

3 Meanwhile, turn the oven on to 190C and bung in a baking tray with 2 tablespoons of fat in it to melt. Once that's melted, put in your potatoes and then shift them around carefully to cover in the fat. Season generously - two or three big sprinkles of sea salt and eight twists of the pepper grinder - and bake for 30 mins.

4 After 30 mins, check out the fat situation. There should be about a 1-2mm layer in the bottom of the pan. If there's more than that, pour it off. Now take the back of a spoon or a potato masher and very gently press the potatoes. What you're looking to do here is increase the roughness of the edges and the surface area so you get a lot of crunchiness. You're not looking for mashed potatoes. If this kind of thing freaks you out, it's not essential, so give it a miss.

At this stage you may well feel a bit despondent about your potatoes. You might look at them and think "soggy". But don't worry - they'll turn out okay.

Again, carefully rearrange the potatoes around in the fat to re-coat and sprinkle over sage and the garlic. I'm not actually too sure about the garlic. My husband says they're brilliant garlicky, but if you're not certain about introducing such a strong Frenchie flavour into your Christmas lunch/dinner, leave it out and they'll still be delicious.

5 Stick the tray back in the oven for 40 mins, but keep an eye on them and open the oven door to have a look after 30 mins.

You can leave these to drain on greaseproof paper if you like, but I didn't find it neccessary with mine.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Interlude: best kitchen kit shop ever.

Last night I went to a professional catering shop on Shaftesbury Avenue called Pages and it was like a magic kingdom.

They stock things in there that I've only ever heard about, like sugar thermometers, and there are stacks and stacks of pans and trays and boxes and deep-fry baskets in 5 different sizes and 6 six different sorts of kitchen timer and huge, plastic, colour-coded chopping boards and industrial-sized pouches of white peach syrup for bellinis.

I went sort of crazy and bought myself:

- a thermal teapot, which I've been wanting for ages because a ceramic teapot is all very well and jolly but the tea goes cold and I think tea cosies are ridiculous
- three of those squeezy clear bottles for storing salad dressings and drizzling icing (which you cannot buy anywhere else, for love nor money)
- a medium-sized aluminium roasting tray
- the most amazing kitchen timer you've ever seen that does hours and minutes and seconds, four different timer settings and a bleeper that could wake the dead
- some tupperware (because you can never have too much)
- an extra pair of tongs (ditto)
- and a heavy-duty flour dredger. I had a crappy plastic flour dredger and even in its crappiness I used it a lot, so I felt like it was time I went pro with my flour dredger.

Forget everything I ever said about getting things from John Lewis. Go directly to Pages, 121 Shaftesbury Avenue, or you can buy online from their excellent website.

Christmas special #9: Mince pies

Photo by Elena Heatherwick

It really is very Stepford to make your own mince pies, so this one is for home baking enthusiasts only. Or for anyone who basically never, ever sees their family or does any cooking and is desperately trying to over-compensate.

Anyway having said all that mince pies are really easy. I do my mince pies in a slightly controversial way, in that I make them quite small and I make them with puff pastry and not shortcrust pastry.

I'm sure you all know the difference, but for any newcomers, puff pastry is like what vol-au-vents and savoury pie toppings are usually made off - sort of flaky n stuff know what I'm saying? And shortcrust pastry is what you get in a quiche, or on top of a fruit pie.

You can make up a quantity of puff pastry using Hugh F-W's recipe, which I've written about, with photographs, in this post: http://reciperifle.blogspot.com/2010/11/mrs-corens-chicken-pie.html

That makes quite a lot. Even though you can just wrap up the leftovers and put in the freezer for another time, if you don't want that much puff pastry hanging about, then make it in half or even quarter quantities.

To assemble the mince pies you will need:

1 fairy cake tray
1 jar of mincemeat - I get mine from WAITROSE - one 410g jar of mincemeat will do about a dozen small pies.
1 quantity puff pastry
pastry cutters of your choice. I put stars on mine because I put stars on everything. I even have some stars tattooed on my person - although I'm in the middle of trying to get them taken off because tattoos are just like SO over
1 beaten egg to glaze
icing sugar

1 Roll out your pastry quite thin, like 3 mm, as it will puff up on cooking

2 Grease your fairy cake tin thoroughly as what will happen otherwise is that the mincemeat will bubble up and over the top of your pastry and superglue the little buggers to the tray and you will have to chip them out with a hammer and chisel

3 Cut out with a round cutter your pie bases and settle them into the fairy cake dips, fill with mincemeat and lay the festively-shaped lid of your choosing on top. Brush with eggwash

4 Bake in a 180C oven for 25 minutes

5 Eat hot, or reheat for 10 mins before eating and dust with icing sugar.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Christmas special #8: Christmas biscuits

Photo by Elena Heatherwick. Decorations by Recipe Rifle

Another Jamie Oliver recipe. The dough quantity here makes loads of biscuits - at least 30 depending on how big your biscuit cutters are.

I decorated these using Dr Oetker's writing icing, available from Waitrose, but any writing icing, sprinkles, or silver ball decorations will do.

So here we go:

210g plain flour
pinch salt
1tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp bicarb soda
125g butter, cubed
100g sugar
1 egg
4 tbsp warm golden syrup

1 Preheat oven to 190C or 180 for fan ovens.

2 Mix together the first 6 dry ingredients. I recently learnt that swizzling dry ingredients with a whisk does pretty much the same job as sieving.

3 Rub in the butter with your fingertips until the mixture is crumby then add the egg and the syrup and mix with a spoon - not a fork or a whisk or it'll all get stuck between the spikes and drive you mental.

4 You ought to have a fairly soft dough by now, depending on how accurately you manage to measure out your syrup. Too much syrup - very easily done - and you'll have to compensate with a bit more flour.

This dough at the best of times is quite soft and fragile. It breaks away and flops out of shape quite easily - so don't lose heart if you only manage to get 2 out of every 3 dough-shapes safely onto your baking tray. A useful tool to have at hand is a fish slice or any other slim, flat metallic thing to slide your shapes off the worktop.

This dough rises a bit, so best to roll it out quite thin - about 2-3mm. If you want to use these as tree decorations, poke a hole in the top before baking.

5 These biscuits are incredibly sensitive to individual oven strengths. Mine has a fan and is brand new and is a very unsubtle creature - she is the BA Baracus of ovens - and so I only needed to do these biscuits for 5 mins at 180C.

Your oven will be different. So my advice is to start off by baking one or two biscuits at 190 for 10 minutes and take it from there. What you're looking for is a nice golden colour but a still a fraction of give in the middle of the biscuit. When they come out of the oven, they will still be squidgy and will harden on cooling, so wait 5 mins before testing their done-ness.

Decorate when cool.

A note: Babies seem to go completely nuts for these, especially those teething. It's the ginger or something - and the fact that if you drool a lot over them they turn into a sort of cakey consistency. If you wanted to do them especially for a baby, you could halve the quantity of sugar, (or cut it out completely depending on how sensitive you are about that sort of thing), and then cut them out quite thick, like a rusk.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Christmas special #7: Suppliers

Can you remember the day when you found out that life was, occasionally, going to be really really disappointing?

I can't myself remember the exact day I realised that life was going to be disappointing. I've had so many disappointing days that they all merge into one and I can't remember which one came first.

Maybe it was the day I realised that...

- however hard I diet, my hands are always going to be a little bit fat

- clothes shops do a thing where they send all their best stuff to be photographed by newspapers and magazines and then immediately sell out of whatever it is so that when you go to the shops SPECIFICALLY for it, there's not hide nor hair but you buy something anyway, therefore falling for their ruse like an idiot

-  mouthwash is not a substitute for flossing

- popstars are now all younger than me

- I am never going to be "sporty"

- I am never going to be good at maths

- that really really really amazing pair of boots will never change my life. But  I will buy them anyway

- freelancing is much harder than it sounds

- Sex and the City 2 was a simple betrayal of my long-standing support of what is generally considered to be a ridiculous television programme

- you can't force people to dump boy/girlfriends you don't like, just by shouting

- tattoos don't come off that easily

- nail varnish doesn't really suit me

- neither do pastel colours

- or lipstick

- if you go to Art 4 Fun in West Hampstead on a Wednesday, because you want to make a mug for your friend Stefanie's birthday party on Saturday, you can't, because it takes 7 days to glaze and fire. And then you have to go home despite having put £4 in the parking meter

Those are some disappointments you can't do much about. But you can limit your disappointment at Christmas by ordering stuff in advance. Because even in this day and age of plenty, stuff runs out.

I used to be confused by ordering Christmas things in advance. Why would you do that? Why would you want a turkey or a cheese sitting around in your house for a whole month? But then I realised that the idea is to ring up or go online - like TODAY, yeah people? - and either order something to be delivered when you need it, or put your name down for something to be collected.

Then on the 23rd December you can smugly take delivery of your giant Ocado order, or on the 24th December you can sweep in to a butcher, barge to the head of the queue, greet the man behind the counter by his first name, take in both hands the last goose in North West London and then sweep out again and get in your car that you've double-parked outside with the hazard lights on.

So here are my recommendations for best suppliers. These are all except one, I'm afraid, London-based because I don't know any different, but if you don't live in London and know of a good supplier, let me know and I'll add it to the list. Or if you live in London and think I've missed something out, let me know.

All of these people are very nice. If you've never bought something from a specialised supplier and are a bit nervous about it, don't be. Just ring up and say "I've got 10 people coming for lunch on Christmas Day. Can you put aside a turkey that'll do all of them?"

And they'll say "Yes. That'll be £500 please."
Only joking!!!!!!

It'll be more like £750.

For all meat, but not poultry, get in touch with the one and only Ginger Pig in Marylebone: http://www.thegingerpig.co.uk/

For meat AND poultry, pay a visit to Frank Godfrey, in Highbury: http://www.fgodfrey.co.uk/

Straddling both Marylebone and Highbury is the mighty La Fromagerie, for all your cheesy needs. Although note that La Fromag specialises in French and world cheese, so if you're looking for a Cropwell Bishop they probably won't have it. Not cheap: http://www.lafromagerie.co.uk/

For smoked salmon, go to Panzers in St John's Wood. They do two sorts - wild and farmed. The wild smoked salmon is amazing but just, like, vomitingly expensive and none of your family will really appreciate it unless you are Jewish, so just go for the farmed stuff. Perfectly ethically sound, exquisite and half the price. http://www.panzers.co.uk/

And now for my one out-of -town rec, my friend Becky B says that this year she's getting some spicy boar cocktail sausages from Sillfield Farm - http://www.sillfield.co.uk/ - I haven't tasted them yet because her party isn't until tonight but she assures me that they're jolly nice.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Christmas special #6: glazed cocktail sausages

I didn't take this photo. My friend Elena Heatherwick did. She is available for all manner of photographic commissions. Nudity if classy.

It's possible to go really wild with cocktail sausage glazes. There are all sorts of knowledgable people who will tell you to add cranberry sauce or soy sauce or sugar or sesame seeds or chilli or whatever.

And by all means, do these exotic glazes if you feel like it. But don't let anyone tell you that there's anything wrong with a good old honey and mustard glaze as it's very easy, very festive and very delicious.

When you're buying cocktail sausages for a party, it's worth taking a trip to a butcher to see if they can get you a bag of 50 - or even 100 for a reasonable price. Supermarkets will gleefully bumrape your wallet when it comes to cocktail sausages, ("18 sausages for £9.99 - what a bargain"), because they know full well that you are desperate. So if you wanted to do them for a lot of people, perhaps go elsewhere.

Unless you are some hedgefund manager and cost is no issue, in which case, why the fuck are you doing your own party catering? Actually, I know a hedgefund manager and she'd probably do her own party catering because they're like that - (over-achievers) - but even then, be smart and go to a butcher.

So, for 20 sausages you will need:

- 1 tbsp runny honey
- 1 tbsp mustard - either grainy or English. Don't be scared off by the English mustard: I know it's fieryhot but the honey will balance it out and all you'll get is a mustardy note in the background, which will be very nice. You can use Dijon, but I think it's a bit of a wimpy flavour and a sausage needs something more robust
- the juice of half a lemon, just to loosen the whole thing up

1 Cook the sausages for about 15-20 mins at 180 on a baking tray or until coloured around the edges. At this point you can either take them out of the oven and store somewhere until you're ready to glaze them, or just go straight for it.

2 Whenever you're ready, assemble your glaze in a bowl, then pour over the sausages. You'll worry here that there isn't enough glaze to go round (and it IS true that there's no such thing as too much) but the honey will melt and spread out.

3 Put back in a 180C oven and continue to bake for about 15 minutes. If you've got time and are sober enough to remember, give them a bit of a shake half way through so that the glaze coats the sausages evenly.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Christmas special #5: Tagine

Considering the geographical location of the Christmas story, I think there's a lot to be said for middle-eastern inspired eating at this time of year. There's an exoticism to Christmas that often gets overlooked in the rush to eat chocolate.

Sorry about the stupid photograph. There is something really wrong with my camera (I've had this confirmed by a photographer, it's not just me being a dick) and the only picture I managed to get of the tagine made it look so utterly revolting, when it was so absolutely delicious, that I couldn't bear to post the photo.

My husband made this Michel Roux Jnr lamb tagine the other day, the recipe was sourced from The Times Weekend and it was spectacular. Really, really great and I recommend it highly. And, as almost no swearing was coming from the kitchen, I think it was pretty easy, too.

The niceness of this depends largely on what kind of meat you get, because a lot of the richness comes from the fat on the meat. Giles boned a shoulder of lamb, diced the meat and cooked the whole lot, (chucked the bone and diced skin and everything), which definitely added to the richness and general yum of the thing.

You could do this with pre-diced lamb, but I fear it won't quite be fatty enough, so if you can, seek out a boned shoulder or a shoulder and then bone it yourself (not nearly as tricky as de-boning a duck).

Lamb tagine for 4 hungry people or 6 less hungry people

1 boned lamb shoulder - the total weight is about 800g - 1kg
veg oil
2 garlic cloves, chopped
3 small onions, chopped
2tsp turmeric
2tsp crushed coriander seeds
2tsp cumin seeds (or ground cumin)
The zest and juice of one lemon
(NB the original recipe said one whole lemon cut into wedges, but after much debate and soul-searching Giles decided that this made the whole thing too bitter, what with the inclusion of the pith, so has adjusted the instruction accordingly.)
1 tbsp honey - whatever you've got
300ml chicken/veg stock
50 whole blanched almonds or pine nuts, toasted

1 Preheat oven to 140C and cut lamb into chunks. Heat the veg oil in a large casserole and brown the lamb. Add garlic, onion and spices and cook over a medium heat for 15 min.

2 Add the lemon, honey and stock and bring to a simmer. Cover with a lid and cook for 1hr 15 min. I know it doesn't seem like very long for a stew and we were both sceptical, but it works. Once it's out you will probably need to add a lot of salt - probably two or three really big pinches - but the precise amount is, as always, up to you.

3 Sprinkle over toasted nuts before serving.

We had this with couscous. I am a huge fan of "jewelled couscous", as it's starting to be referred to, which is couscous with a bit of chopped mint, salt and pomegranate seeds stirred in.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Christmas special #4: scented candles

I just love a smelly candle. I can't help myself. Spring, summer, autumn - whenever, but especially in winter and most of all at Christmas, I am a sucker.

I think it is a hyper-bourgeoise reaction against my upbringing. My parents learnt what was smart in the 60s and back then what was very smart was to be extremely posh. And the extremely posh (as opposed to the extremely rich) live in draughty houses with raggedy old carpets on the floor, dogs for central heating and generally tend not to give a shit about how clean things were.

My mother tried to re-create this in our house with the effect that I was always puzzled as to why we didn't have wall-to-wall carpet like other people's houses and why there were always so many cobwebs. And why it was so cold.

So naturally I grew up obsessed with soft furnishings, hand-towels, bath bridges, cashmere socks, fairy lights, performance toiletries, accent walls and smelly candles, which I think are technically known as "home fragrance".

But the hardy Protestant that lurks within me knows that to spend £18 a throw on candles from The White Company (in "Winter" or "Cassis") or £36 YIKES on candles from Diqtyque (in "Fig") is simply profligate and I will go to hell. So I buy them secretly and burn them sparingly, like a weird Scrooge bent over his tiny coal fire.

I always stop at any smelly candle display in any shop in any town and smell them all and look at all the prices, trying to winkle out smelly candles that don't cost quite so much. But they all have the after-nose of a cheap celebrity scent and they're none of them any good.

EXCEPT these Frankincense and Myrrh candles from Shearer (purchasable from WAITROSE!!!), which smell totally Christmassy - and not in a naff way - and are so reasonably-priced (£4 for a small one, I think and £8 for a really big one) that you can put one in every room and not feel even a little bit like a terrible, wankerish credulant.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Christmas Special #3: Devils on Horseback PLUS!!!! Giles Coren's pea and ham soup (see end)

That's prunes wrapped in bacon to you and me.

I really love these, I think they are both grotesque and fatally delicious. My husband says that they don't really go with any kind of drink he can think of, but after a bit of discussion we concluded that they would be okay with champagne or a glass of quite pissy white wine. Or a flat, dark ale he said. (Not really the thing for a cocktail party though...)

Anyway, they are quite a standard Christmas canape and here's how to make them.

You will need:

Smoked streaky bacon
Cognac or armagnac - this is optional
Cocktail sticks

Preheat your oven to 170C

1 Soak your prunes in the booze for an hour or so, if using. I think this does make a difference and is worth doing if you can.

2 Cut the prunes in half, as an entire prune wrapped in bacon (as I've done here) is, on reflection, a tiny bit too much of a mouthful

3 Wrap the prune halves in the streaky bacon about one and a quarter times, cut off the slack and secure with a cocktail stick. Make sure the stick goes through both ends of the bacon or it will flop apart in the oven

4 Lightly grease a baking tray with veg oil and put on your prunes. Most recipes say bake at 200C for 12-15 minutes, but I am of the school that believes you ought to cook bacon long and low, not fast and hot. So what I do is put in the 170C oven for about 20-25 minutes and turn half-way through.


In other news, my husband wanted me to take a picture of the pea and ham soup he made out of some ham stock left over from when I boiled a ham the other day.

So I said "Okay, shall we have a very rare picture of your face on the blog?"
And he said "Yeah okay. It'll be an even rarer one of me wearing my glasses."

And then my camera stopped working and the best picture I could get was this one:

The soup was really nice. Here's how he did it:

"i put about 200g of yellow split peas (well-rinsed) into about a litre of the ham stock with no seasonings at all, because the ham was very salty and had been cooked with plenty of herbs and parsley and bay and black pepper anyway. i put in a couple of medium sized onions though, roughly chopped. cooked the lot at a fast simmer for the length of time it said on the lentil packet, which i think was 25 minutes-ish, or until the peas squish easily against the pan wall with a spoon, which they did. then let it cool for ten minutes, flipping it between a couple of pans to speed it up (cos you don't want to be so hot that it takes a plasticcy smell off the blender) then poured it into the upright blender jug and frazzed it till it was smooth, thirty seconds or so. then i chopped up the old ham ends and bits and pieces quite small (a big fistful altogether) and chucked them into the saucepan, put the soup back in, brought back to a simmer for a couple of seconds and served. makes four big bowls. meant to garnish with parsley, forgot."

And here is how you boil a ham:

For a 3kg rolled smoked bacon joint (for 6) put in a large casserole pot and cover with water. Add 3 bay leaves, peppercorns, tied parsley stalks, celery and a small onion studded with cloves. Put on the hob, bring to the boil and skim off the scummy stuff.

Simmer gently for 2.5 hours. And, I swear to God, that's all there is to it.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Christmas special #2: The Kiddie Table

A Tweet alerted me to the fact that I didn't say anything in Festive post #1, Hosting the Day, about kiddie tables.

"It's like being in the monkey cage at a zoo," said the Tweeter. "What does everyone else do?"

Well, in amongst the hilarious suggestions of handcuffs and gaffer tape, emerged some pretty good advice.

So here goes:

1 Cover the kiddie table with white paper tablecloths, paper plates and cups and supply crayons. Encourage drawing on the tablecloth.

2 Purchase a lot of heavy-duty baby wipes

3 Supply breadsticks and small snacks to stifle howling and tantrums if lunch starts looking delayed. I'm told pink lemonade is also popular.

4 Offer a prize for the best Christmas-themed tabletop drawing.

5 Supply ketchup (although specify this is not to be used as a artistic medium).

6 Heavily bribe a teenager to sit at the kiddie table and keep reasonable order. £20 ought to do it. If there are no teens, take eldest child at the table aside and tell them that you are relying on them to be in charge. I'm assured that this works even if they are only 4 or usually behave like the antichrist.

7 When tempers are fraying and any food that's going to be consumed has been consumed and the rest is going on the floor, accept that no amount of threats are going to keep them still and quiet and that it's time to:

- Bribe same teenager or a different one to take children outside for 1 hour if there is a park nearby

- Or if putting shoes and coats etc on too much hassle, or there is no teenager available, announce a showing of a pre-selected Christmas film and add that there will be sweets supplied (tiny bratlings, I'm told, aren't interested in Christmas pudding).

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Christmas special #1: Hosting the Day

Welcome to the first of my series of festive posts, which will continue until I run out of inspiration, or until December 24th - whichever comes sooner.

Today: some words for those who are hosting Christmas Eve, Day or Boxing Day and are scared rigid at the prospect and wish they'd never offered.

I freely admit that I am naturally a very bad hostess. The worst. From the smallest dinners to huge parties I have always been uptight, nervous and *this* close to tears. But over the last year, I've forced myself to do it so much that I've collected a series of tactics that makes things go easier both for me and for my guests. I now actually quite like it.

I've also canvassed the opinion of YOU, my readers, about what makes a good and a bad host and I've thrown in all your suggestions.

Your second biggest gripe is a stressed-out host. (For your top gripe, see Tip 15) And how right you are.

At any function the host sets the atmosphere. You are in charge, whether you like it or not. It's like when you're on an airplane and it's being a bit wobbly and everyone cranes their necks to see the expression on the stewardesses' face. If she looks calm, you feel calm. If she looks worried, you feel like puking.

So, get this into your head: this is not a film and your anxiety is not an adorable idiosyncrasy - it freaks everyone out. And it won't make anything run more smoothly or prevent anything from going wrong.

I'm not saying don't be anxious, because of course you're going to be anxious. I'm just saying pretend you're not. Dissemble. Act. Lie.

When you find yourself alone at various points in the day, take a calming breath. Force yourself to walk more slowly round the house than you feel like, rather than marching from room to room, breathlessly shoving plates of smoked salmon under people's noses and screaming "NOTHER DRINK?!?!?" before running back to the kitchen hissing "Fucking fucking fucking HELL...".

Other top tips are:

1 Light a lot of candles. And they're not just for the evening, as long as you compensate by not having overhead lights on. If you're into ordering stuff in advance, Price's has a good website. Just put them anywhere that they're not going to set fire to the curtains. Place in groups of three or five. Instant loveliness.

2 It's always surprising how few people have music on when they're "entertaining" (retch). Something - anything - pootling along in the background is instant atmosphere, especially in that inital critical 45 minutes. I am tone deaf and don't have a clue about music, but find having something on when people are round makes a huge difference.

3 Attempt to stay sober until you sit down to the main event. You've got a better chance of achieving this if you don't drink anything at all until you do sit down. After that point, get as ratarsed as you like. In fact, see how ratarsed you can get.

4 Think about heating. When it's just you in your house/flat, it will feel cold. When there are 5 other people in there with you, plus the oven on and the hob blazing, it will heat up very fast, so don't have the place greenhouse hot from the word go becase people will start fainting and you'll go magenta.

5 I know it sounds really obvious, but think about where you're going to put coats - even if it's just over a chair in the corner.

6 When people arrive, a surprising number always want a glass of water. You can, if you like, just fill a chipped Homer Simpson mug from the tap and hold it out, dripping - a lot of people would think that was frightfully smart - but I think it makes people feel more loved if there's a jug of water and a clean glass available.

It is also hard to overstate the importance of taking people's coats and getting a drink in their hands as quickly as possible after they've arrived. I mean, without actually ripping off their jacket or running out into the hall with a gin and tonic.

I know a girl who never offers you anything when you go round to her house, ever. Nor does she tell you where you can put your coat. It's only because she expects you to make yourself at home and just help yourself to whatever you want - but the effect is, in fact, monstrously inhospitable.

7 At any kind of party, you will go through a lot of loo roll. So have at least 2 spare in the bog.

8 Don't cook anything you haven't cooked before. And I mean it - this is really important. If you've never made roast potatoes, or honeyed parsnips - or anything else you want to do - use the next 3 weeks to give them a small trial-run. The recipe will tell you it's easy. And it might be if you're not cooking anything else, but with other stuff on the go it'll suddenly be like taking History A Level in Russian.

The one exception is the turkey; with that you just need to follow the cooking timings, which it ought to come with or you can seek out advice from Hugh F-W, or Nigella, or Jamie. People make a lot of fuss about cooking a turkey, but its mythical difficulty comes from the days when people used to buy them frozen and not defrost them in time. Just make bloody sure that it'll fit in your oven.

If you don't have a good timer, that does minutes and seconds and does a loud bleeping thingy, now is the time to purchase one.

9 It is perfectly acceptable to buy the following:

- Bread sauce
- Cranberry sauce
- Christmas pudding
- Christmas cake
- Brandy butter

I am the first person to scream in disgust at shop-bought stuff, but at Christmas, all bets are off. Yeah fine, kill yourself making all these from scratch if you like, but no-one will know or care if those things are bought.

Obviously, don't be a dick about it: get top quality stuff - I can make suggestions if you like - and don't leave the buying of it until 5pm Christmas Eve.

It is not acceptable to buy:

- Pre-roasted potatoes
- Pre-peeled carrots
- Stuffing
- Gravy

People will know. And they will judge you.

10 Overcater

11 It might seem cool and relaxed to let people sit wherever they like, but actually it fills most people with fear and option paralysis. Me? I love a place card - for dinners for more than 6 I always use them. Luckily, I don't give a damn if people think I'm naff, but you might - and they do make most people cringe.

My brother-in-law once bought 12 lottery tickets and wrote everyone's names on the bottom and used them for placecards, which I thought was brilliant.

Anyway, don't use them if you don't want to, but at least have an idea of where people ought to sit. They like it - and I know that for a fact because you've all mostly said you like it. It's especially vital at Christmas as if you know someone's going to be unhappy sitting next to a particular person, you can separate them.

12 Let's talk about portion control. Yes, it's Christmas and yes, it's a time for overindulgence, but at the same time, people like being able to take as much as they want - and by that I mean as little as they want. It's a bit overwhelming to be handed a plate literally towering with food.

So carve up your bird and give everyone a few slices and then if you can make space, put dishes of veg and sauces on the table so that people can help themselves. People will eat more in the long-run if initially handed the food reins.

13 Now let's talk about booze. At a large gathering, you can't be expected to be constantly filling up everyone's glass - plus I feel about booze the same way I feel about food - people ought to be given control over their alcohol intake. YES it's Christmas and YES it's a time for overindulgence, but getting more pissed than you want because your host keeps filling your glass when you're not looking is really annoying. Especially if you have to operate heavy machinery later.

The vital thing is for there to be a lot of booze available. It should not run out. Ever. What you can do, if you're so inclined, is to say to everyone as you press their first drink on them: "Please do me a massive fave and help yourself to more drink...?" OR say to one or two key helpful sorts: "Would you help me keep an eye on everyone's glass?"

14 You probably don't salt your food enough when you're cooking, because pretty much no-one does. So it's really important to make salt and pepper available on the table and don't, for God's sake, take offence if someone seasons their food. I am, obviously, a massive snob about salt and pepper. Maldon salt in some kind of dish or bowl and black pepper in a grinder is the only thing I think is okay - but LoSalt in a big plastic thingy and ground pepper out of a jar is better than nothing.

15 Okay, this is it. Here it is. Ready?

Your top, Number 1 most hated thing is.... hosts complaining about their own food. *Tsh*

So when the food is out and everyone's tucking in and someone says "This is brilliant, thanks so much for all your hard work," YOU SAY (repeat after me)

"Thanks! Yeah it's worked out okay. Merry Christmas!"

It's very hard to say this when in your head you're screaming "FUCK FUCK FUCK THIS IS A BIT COLD" but you must hold it in and start making conversation about absolutely anything other than the food.

Do not say:

"Chuh took fucking long enough"
"Chuh yeah sorry sprouts bit burnt"
"Oh God this is such a disaster"

Just don't, okay? Every cook - you, me, Delia, my mum, Giles - feels compelled to apologise for something as they present food and it's really annoying and everyone hates it. So. Just. Don't.

Next time: Devils on Horseback

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Chocolate cake

I know it looks a bit weird, you'll see why further down

This is a really fantastic chocolate cake. Like something you might buy in a shop, which is my highest accolade. It's dark and rich but also springy and light at the same time. Bliss.

It's also very, very easy. So imagine my shame when I managed to fuck the whole thing up anyway by picking the wrong-size cake tin, meaning it bubbled up and went everywhere and then generally collapsed and looked odd. Stupid me.


Anyway, it's easy peasy to avoid this kind of disaster - use the right sized tin, which ought to be 2 x 23cm sandwich tins or 1 x 23cm sandwich tin if you're doing this in half quantities.

So here we go - don't be spooked by the long list of ingredients.

Chocolate cake

225g plain flour
350g sugar
85g cocoa powder
1.5 tsp baking powder
1.5tsp bicarb soda
2 eggs
250ml milk
125ml veg oil - I used groundnut
2 tsp vanilla extract (I think this is too much - I think vanilla essence makes things taste a bit plasticky - next time I will halve this...)
250ml boiling water

1 Put everything except the boiling water into a bowl and stir until smooth

2 Gradually add the boiling water and incorporate, stirring each sploosh in - it'll end up very wet and this is normal.

3 And that's it! Pour into your appropriately-sized tin or tins and bake for between 30-35 mins at 180C, or 170C for fan ovens

What you do with this after cooking is up to you. You can stick it together with a chocolate ganache if you like (I don't like chocolate ganache with chocolate cake... bit sicky... which is why I haven't done it) or with cream, or top it with cream and fruit, or sandwich together with raspberry jam or whatever, really. But it's quite interesting on its own.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Orange polenta cake for Immy

So, an orange polenta cake is a thing I've been meaning to have a go at for a really long time. I was dithering over it yesterday and then I received a Tweet from a reader, Immy, who needed some inspiration for a tea party this weekend. And there's nothing like a reader in distress to get me going.

This works really well and it's very easy. But unfortunately, it's not as wheat-free as it sounds as it still contains 200g of flour. There are flourless and wheat-free cakes you can do but I find that they're often very dense and more puddingy than tea time-y.

(Having said that, Immy, you could do a flourless chocolate cake topped with cream and fruit, a la Sophie Dahl)

But if you're not really that bothered about the flour, this really is an excellent cake. It's jammy and delicious with a surprisingly subtle flavour and doesn't dry out. And doesn't have the bilious after-taste of a lemon cake. There looks like a staggering amount of sugar in this but the end product is not too sweet at all.

One word of warning though: this makes a HUGE cake. Enough for 15 people, easily.

It's made using a 23cm diameter cake tin, that's about 7cm deep. Cake tins are normally about 23cm, but they are sometimes shallower than 7cm. I can never, ever be bothered to measure tins but in this instance it's worth making sure you've got a big enough tin - alternatively you could halve the quantities.

Orange polenta cake

250g butter
250g sugar
4 eggs
140g polenta OR substitute semolina, doesn't really make a difference
200g plain flour
2tsp baking powder
zest and juice 2 oranges

100g sugar
100ml orange juice

1 Zest and squeeze your oranges. Roughly chop the zest. Measure off 100ml of the juice and set aside for the glaze.

2 Set the oven to 140C for fan ovens and 160C normal ovens. Grease your cake tin and - if you feel like it, line with baking parchment. I rarely bother, but then I almost ALWAYS get cake stuck to the sides. So if you can be arsed then do it - if not it won't be a disaster, but don't say I didn't warn you.

3 Cream together the butter and sugar. Yawn... why is this task so tedious?

4 Add each of the four eggs, one at a time. They may start to curdle towards the end of adding the last egg. Just ignore it.

5 Add your dry ingredients and mix. Then add the zest and your half-quantity orange juice and mix. Pour it all into cake tin and shove in the oven for 1hr 10mins. Yes, I know, seems a long time. But that's how long it takes.

6 Take cake out of oven and leave to cool. When it's sort of tepid, sling together the remaining juice and sugar and bring to the boil - then simmer for 5 minutes. Once this has cooled down to lukewarm, prick all over your cake with a fork or a skewer and pour over. It'll probably go everywhere so don't worry - just get as much down the holes as you can and spread it around and it'll sink in eventually. But I would wipe up any sugar-juice combo quickly because it will basically set and glue itself to your work surface otherwise.

Nice on its own, or with creme fraiche.

Monday, 29 November 2010


I can't be bothered to have opinions anymore. I used to have loads, about all sorts of things. Politics, economics, charitable giving, the Euro - all sorts of stuff. People used to look scared when I came into a room because I had all these opinions, with percentages and factoids to back them up, and I would shout like Brian Blessed, given half an excuse. 

But over the years I've realised that I can't be bothered. Having opinions is totally pointless. First of all, it's boring. Second of all, if you offer an opinion, about 3 people will agree with you and everyone else will turn on you like a mongoose who's spotted a snake.

I once repeated the idea - not even an opinion! just an observation! - at some party or other that in practical terms there's not much point in taxing the very rich because there aren't enough of them. Even if you taxed everyone who earns over £300,000 in this country at 80%, you'd still fall way, way short of the revenue raised if you taxed everyone who earns under £30,000, like, 2 extra pence. *

I mean, I might as well have stood up and declared that mentally disabled people ought to be sterilised. 

"I didn't say I thought it was a good idea!" I spent the rest of the night shrieking. "I didn't say that's what ought to happen..! I'm just saying it's one way of looking at it, that's all..! I just mean taxing rich people isn't all about revenue, that's all...!"

Then a few months later I was invited to a book club. I'd never been invited to one before (exactly why not will become apparent in a second) and I was rather excited. The book was Lolita, which was unfortunate for everyone because it's one of the three books without illustrations that I've actually read.

We all sat about eating a really excellent fish pie at the house of some genial Sloane and then started talking about the book. I sat there, becoming more and more amazed at the stupidity of everyone. For half an hour they talked about the book in the most slow and dim-witted way imaginable. It wasn't even like being in an A-Level class, it was like pre-GCSE stuff.

"Do you think maybe," I said finally, "we're not getting the whole truth from Humbert?"

There was a horrible silence.

"Do you think maybe, since he's the narrator, he's giving only his version of events? The phone call at the motel, towards the end, where we only hear one side of the phonecall - wasn't that kind of a giveaway?"

Then a boy sitting in a corner - okay not a boy, he was probably about 28 - said:

"Oh I hate all that reading-between-the-lines practical criticism stuff. Derrida and all that. Such bullshit."

It was then I, fatally, lost my temper. "I'm sorry," I said, blinking a lot for outraged effect. "Do you actually have a degree? What do you do for a living?"

And, I'm not joking, he was a literary agent.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw my friend Iain, who had invited me, almost but not quite, put his head into his hands.

Things broke up quite shortly after that. I wasn't invited back.

So, I think it's safest not to have opinions anymore. I find that life is so much more clement if you just smile broadly and say nothing. No-one ever notices that you haven't said anything, they're too busy telling you what they think about global warming and they just think you're charming. But it's got to the point now, where I don't want to hear anyone else's opinions about things, either. I pretty much have to leave the room if anyone mentions Iraq, climate change, or interest rates.

My first boss, Jemima, knows everything. She really does - everything. And she never talks about it at parties, because she thinks it's rude. She just wants to gossip and tell jokes.

Luckily, I married the one person in the world who holds fewer opinions than I do. Every week he sits down to write his opinion column and has to dream up some wild thing to say - if it might get him into trouble even better - but privately he has almost no views whatsoever. It's bliss.

My opinion on roast chicken at the moment, as it happens, is completely off-kilter. It's basically all I ever want to eat, except pizza, and so whenever I go to the shops, I don't buy a chicken to roast because I think "Can't have that again! Boring!" and then I realise that we haven't had it for 6 months.

So I bought one last week and I thought I'd do it with stuffing and two veg and everything for Sunday lunch.

Jolly nice it was, too.

My opinion on how to roast a chicken goes like this:

1 Lightly oil the bottom of the pan so that the chicken doesn't stick. Put it in the oven at 200C for 20 minutes.

2 Turn down the oven to 180C and then turn every 20 minutes for 1 hr 20 minutes. Or 20 minutes more if it's a very large chicken. Rest under foil and a teatowel for 20 minutes.

My opinion on stuffing goes like this:

1 Put three ripped-up slices of bread - whatever you like - in a food processor. Follow that with 1 onion, roughly chopped, thyme, sage, rosemary, few strips lemon peel, 1 skinned raw sausage (if you've got it, don't worry if not) salt, pepper, 2 glugs olive oil and a garlic clove.

2 Whizz until combined. Fill the cavity of the chicken with it. Proceed with the cooking instructions.

Breadcrumbs are the base of a stuffing, but you can add whatever you like. A lot of sausage, less. Prunes, orange (festive) - leave out the onion if you like - chestnuts! Liver! Pine nuts! Basil! Go wild.

Here ends my catechism.

*DISCLAIMER: These figures are not accurate. Like, obviously obviously for fuck's sake, they're not accurate. I can't imagine who'd think they were, but it's been brought to my attention that some people might be confused. And I can't have that. Especially when they have boyfriends who are so monstrously long-winded and tedious in their complaints. You see? This is why I don't talk about shit like that anymore.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Kitchen kit: update

So, please try not to think mean things about how fat I am here... I really do look like Princess Beatrice pre-diet. That double chin! Although I've possibly always had one. I swear to God, when this kid is out, I am going to STARVE myself. I will of course lie, though, and say that the weight just "fell off".

Anyway this is 10 minutes long and quite boring. But's it's semi-amusing when I start to get really bad reflux half-way in. And yes, I know that there's a knife-sharpener swinging away like a pendulum in the background - but what can I say? I can't imagine that what you're most looking for from me is razor-sharp professionalism. At least, I hope not.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010


Yes really! Your very own doughnuts. These are a tiny bit of an effort what with the yeast and letting them rise and everything, but well worth it.

When I do them again, I'm going to make them really small, as if I were a giant holding a normal-sized doughnut and give them to people with coffee after dinner with dipping sauces of warm jam or melted chocolate. I'll also be experimenting with different glazes, but for now, I just rolled mine in sugar and tried not to eat all 8 of them at once.

Nigel Slater's cinnamon doughnuts
makes 8

250g plain flour
1/2tsp ground cinnamon
big pinch of salt
20g butter, cut into cubes
1 x 7g sachet of dried yeast
150ml milk
1 tbsp sugar
1 egg yolk

1 Put the flour, salt and cinnamon in a bowl and then rub in the cubed butter with your fingers until the mixture resembles crumbs, then sprinkle over the yeast. Give the whole thing a stir with a whisk

2 Heat the milk and sugar together until it's just warm. If you get overexcited and get this actually hot let it cool before you ...

3 ... stir in the egg yolk otherwise it's scrambled eggs time.

4 Stir this into the flour, a sploosh at a time. There is too much liquid here so don't do what I did which was to blithely trust in Nigel and throw the whole lot in because you'll get soup. Keep adding splooshes and stirring it in until you get a dough.

[I actually emailed Nigel Slater, the man himself, to ask about the too-wetness of it and to my total suprise he emailed back, asking why I hadn't stopped adding the milk when I saw it was getting too wet. Well, I simply didn't have an answer. "Because I'm thick," was too depressing to actually write down and send.]

5 Turn this out onto a floured surface and knead for about 5 mins. Put back in a bowl and leave somewhere warm for an hour. After this time, cut into 8 or 16 pieces and shape into rounds. Stick your finger through the middle to make a hole and then sort of whizz the doughnut round your finger, as if you were whizzing a bunch of keys round your finger or something, in order to widen the hole. Then leave these for 20 minutes.

6 Heat about 1/2 to 1 in of vegetable oil in a pan. Best to do this in a very small pan so you don't need to use much oil. Heating veg oil will make your house stink like the back end of a chippy if you're not careful, so close the kitchen door and line the crack under it with tea towels and aprons to stop the smell getting out. Then turn your extractor fan on full beam. And while the oil is heating up and between frying session, keep a lid on the pan - a see-through one with a hole in for steam to escape if possible. But don't open your kitchen windows because this will turn your flat/house into a chimney and the stench will be permeate your whole dwelling. Your whole soul.

7 The trick here is not to get the oil too hot. What you want is for these doughnuts to cook for a while - about 3 minutes altogether - and not burn. When you lower a doughnut in (best to do these one at a time) you want there to be a modest amount of bubbling going on round the sides not mental mental CCRRRRSSHFFFSSHHHWWWWWWW like you're cooking chips.

8 When the doughnut is golden brown - depending on how much oil you've got in the pan and how big you want your doughnuts, you may have to flip them once during cooking - remove with a slotted spoon to a cooling rack. You can dip these in sugar straightaway if you want, but they'll still take a sugar bath well if you want to leave coating them until they've all been fried

These keep well. They're best eaten the same day but you don't have to eat them instantly. You could easily make some in advance and keep them in tupperware (once they've cooled) and then if you wanted them warm, reheat gently in a very low oven.

Bliss. Enjoy.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Ad break

There now follows a short advertisement for something I was sent in the post by a friendly PR.

She wrote to me and said "Can I send you some chocolate orange macaroons?"

And I said, as I always say to anyone who wants to send me things (this doesn't happen very often) "I can't guarantee you any coverage in a newspaper and so I'd feel bad, so maybe don't bother."

And she said "Oh GO ON for God's sake stop being such a square and have some goddamn macaroons."

(She didn't really say that but she heavily implied it.)

And so I said "Oh, okay then." I wasn't very hopeful. My husband got sent a curry in the post the other day and it was disastrous. Genuinely evening-ruiningly horrible.

But then the next day I received in the post some of Mrs Crimble's wheat and gluten free chocolate and orange macaroons. And I've pretty much eaten them all, quite pleased that I'm sent a better quality of freebie than my husband. So if you're looking for something wheat or gluten free this Christmas, I recommend them to you. I don't know where you buy them, though. Probably Waitrose.


These are actually Hugh's disastrous dumplings, but we ate all of my mum's dumplings so fast there was no time to take a photo, so this is just to give you the idea

Gay men don't like me. I've always suspected this but lately I've come to realise that it's just a fact.

Actually, it's not that they don't like me, it's that they are totally indifferent to me, which I think is in some way worse. I am to a gay man what a 65 year old woman is to a 23 year-old builder from Essex: invisible.

I used to try to be fabulous and bitchy and engaging and flamboyant, in a sort of desperate caricature of what I thought a gay man might want in a woman - and it briefly aroused a faint flicker of interest from one or two gay men. But it was unsustainable and I soon slid back into my natural persona: anti-social, chilly, beady, unsympathetic. And the loose grip I had on their interest melted away like the only two snowflakes of a mild winter on a warm car bonnet.

Everyone else I know has a gay friend - at least one. Everyone. Even my 85 year-old Swiss-German grandmother. "I vent to Lausanne last veekend," she will say. "Wiz my PANSY FRIEND Alain G-!" and she will shriek with delight at the thought of neat little Alain with his kerchief and lovely manners and expertise in early Renaissance ceramics.

Even my husband has a huge gay following and gay men have always thought he was great. At parties I usually find him talking to some very high-powered gay man, who will be standing there in a £5,000 suit laughing, showing off a lot of very perfect teeth and sighing and saying "Oh Giles." And then I come up and stand there and smile, feeling like a frump, and the high-powered gay man's eyes will slightly glaze over when I say something. And then eventually I'll excuse myself to the loo and let them get on with it.

"Yeah that's a surprise they don't like you," said my friend Wendy, who has, I think, almost exclusively gay friends. "Because, you know, you can be quite a bitch and they quite like that."

I ought to take lessons off my mother: she is a gay magnet extraordinaire. But she's not a bitch. She just LOVES gay men, or anyone camp or anyone fabulous. I'd say it's because she's an artist, but she's not like that - she's not all dope-smoking and far-out, man - she's just a very talented figurative draughtswoman. And by that I mean she draws things and they look like what they are. And sculpture, ooh you should her sculptures. But there must be a flamboyant, "modern", arty side to her that makes all these super dooper gay men flock to her door.

I ought to listen to my mother more, in general. Like the other day, I wanted to make dumplings for a stew but instead of ringing my mother, who makes great dumplings, I looked up a recipe in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Meat Book for a recipe and they were TERRIBLE! Hard and nasty.

So I meekly emailed my mother for her recipe and she sent it back and they came out perfectly - like little clouds. Perhaps now I can make dumplings like clouds a gay man will want to be my friend. But I doubt it.

My mother's dumplings
Makes about 8

"6oz SELF RAISING flour,
3oz suet.
Salt & pepper,
lots of parsley (optional, but good with stewed lamb).
Mix to a soft, not too dry consistency"

[N.B. how my mother uses CAPITAL LETTERS about the self-raising flour, as I would. DNA: not a made-up thing.]

You can either cook these in a steamer, if you've got one, for 25 minutes - or rest them on top of your stew for the last 25 minutes of its cooking time.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Pate de Canard en Croute Part II: Hubris

Oh dear, so - after all that fuss about how easy it all was, I cocked it up anyway.

Although I'd like to point out that this was an execution error and not a planning error - i.e. the pastry was fine, I just put it together slightly wrong. The pastry has split along the seam between the "basin" and the "lid" of the pastry - simple physics, really; an eggwash wasn't enough to stick the two bits together and the basin sagged under its own weight.

What I ought to have done was brought the basin pastry up and over the brow of the duck, so that it had something to rest on and then applied the lid as a sort of large piece of sellotape to hold it all together.

This means you can't execute Julia Child's final command on this, which is to cut round the lid of the pastry case, lift the duck out, untie the strings and then put it back. But I didn't do that anyway.

But still, it tasted jolly nice. I'm not sure phrases like "worth the effort" really apply here because nothing is worth that much effort. But, strangely enough, my husband went nuts for this - he thought it was really great and really special. Who'd have thought it? He wants me to make it for a festive Christmas Eve dinner. And, although I swore I'd never do it again, the look on his little face was so very winning that I might just have to.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Pate de Canard en Croute Part I


The wrongness of this is quite overwhelming.

It's just so  typical of the French to do something like this. And I like the French, I really really do. I think they're great. I love loads of things about them, even the bad stuff. But to do this to a duck - to take all its bones out, stuff it and then wrap it in pastry - is just... wrong.

I suppose I'm just too modern, too new-generation about food to really understand why you'd want to do this. It strikes me as a thing you'd do if you were suffering from a glut and had eaten duck 50 different ways that week anyway and you were staring at your latest bird thinking "Hell, how am I going to liven this thing up?"

So instead of just spreading it with orange sauce (again), you decide to remove its skeleton, stuff it and then wrap it in pastry. Mental.

I'm really sorry that I proposed I would do this, I really am. I feel like a bad person for subjecting my innocent free range duck, which I purchased at vast expense (£20) to such frankly perverted kitchen practices. But I did, because I felt like I had to, if only so I could bang on about how wrong it all it.

This is not Julia Child's exact recipe because I wanted to do it my way (I'm getting a bit like that these days - a bit grand). I've basically wrapped it in rough puff pastry and changed the stuffing to a more Christmassy thing, whereas Child's recipe called for pastry made to American measurements - sticks and cups and all that unfathomable stuff - and a veal and pork stuffing that looked boring.

But the main event is the deboning of the bird, which Julie Powell's character makes such a fuss of in Julie and Julia.

Anyway, I was right, deboning a duck is easier than getting a book deal. But it's still a quite traumatisingly gross process. Those who feel sensitive about these things ought to look away now.


So, if you want to do this, and I can't imagine why you would, take your bird, apologise profusely and then lay it down on a board breast-side down. Then take the smallest, sharpest knife you can find and make a slit down the middle of the back.

Then, visualising what the bone structure of the duck looks like - i.e. a barrel-shaped, hollow thing, cut and scrape along the bones with your knife so that you remove as much of the duck along with the skin as you can, leaving the bones bare. It'll make sense once you're actually doing it.

You have to cut through the joints where the legs are attached to the main ribcage. Be firm. The main objective is just not to cut through any skin and the finesse with which you do the rest of it doesn't matter.

After the top of this is mostly clear, you have to release the ribcage from the breast-side of the duck, which is very fiddly, but you'll get there in the end. The picture below is just a horrifying mess, but it will be instructive if you're about to do this, or are in the middle of it.

I cut off most of the ribcage here so I could see what I was doing. Please, for the love of God, if you do this at least make a stock out of the bones so it's not a waste.

Detatching the last bit of the bonecage, at the top, which constitutes sort of the shoulders and the attachments to the wings, is really hard and I haven't got any advice other than be very careful. You'll do a lot of bending over and squinting and swearing at this point. Just cut very carefully as best you can see how around the bones, just bearing in mind all the time not to cut right through any skin.

Cut the wings off at the mid-joint (i.e. cut off most of the wing) and then carefully scrape round the bone to release it and pull it out. Child says you can leave the drumstick bones in, which I did because I so much wanted the whole awful process to be over, but I'd advise going that extra mile and taking those out too.

Ta da!

Then pile on your stuffing. I made mine out of 2 packets of Waitrose's finest chipolatas, skinned, 1/2 a cooking apple - diced, the zest and juice of half an orange, 5 prunes - finely diced, 1/4 tsp cinnamon, 1/4 tsp mace, about six scrapings of nutmeg and a lot of salt and pepper. You also slice off as much of the duckmeat from the breast and thigh that you can without tearing through the skin, dice it and add it to the stuffing.

Here you are supposed to sew it all together with a trussing needle and string, but I forgot to get it off my mum (despite going round to her house specifically for it - you know how it is) so I just had to tie it up with string, which worked okay.

Then you brown it all over

Then you wrap it in pastry

Decorate it, brush it all over with eggwash and stick a foil funnel in the top to let the steam escape

Tune in tomorrow to find out what happened next...