Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Potato latkes

It's hell being me. I want you to know that. Hell. When I read all those identity lit books, you know: White Teeth, Small Island, Everything Is Illuminated, Icarus Girl, all that jazz, I laugh bitterly. Ha! They know nothing about identity crisis. Not one thing.

They can try growing up in Hampstead Garden Suburb in the Eighties, being called Esther, surrounded by Jewish neighbours, sent to a school with such a high intake of Jewish girls that on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah we got to watch videos in all our classes because attendance dropped to 15%, be handed a Learn Hebrew book by their very confused father, but throughout all this being also told that they are a Protestant and not at all Jewish, then going to Westminster school and Bristol University only to be stunned and a bit frightened to find out that NOT ONLY is everyone in the world not Jewish, some people will say mean things right to your face about how Hampstead Garden Suburb is full of Jews and how a charity collection at Golders Green station "wouldn't have much luck"... well, then and only then, can these whiney bastards come crying to me about not knowing who they are.

I can never be a Jew because I am a Protestant, despite what my bookish, vaguely "foreign"-looking father might fervently wish, (to give him access to an intellectual hinterland that would explain who he is so neatly). I am a goy, a shiksa. I am not chosen. All my childhood friends were, oh yeah, plenty of identity sloshing around for them. But not for me. Not. ME.

Despite the confusing aspect of my upbringing, maybe it's a good thing I'm not Jewish. As far as I can tell, to be Jewish is to suffer, and God only knows I suffer enough what with my wonky teeth and my weak veins and my chronic heartburn. There's only so much more that I could take.

But my friend Adam really is Jewish. Through and through. If he were a dog and there was a religious section in Crufts, he would win it. He is kosher! One hardly ever meets anyone kosher because it makes socialising with not Jewish people tricky; to be kosher means you cannot eat meat which, (among other things), hasn't been purchased from a kosher butcher. And most people can't do that because all the kosher butchers in London are in Golders Green, which is, let me tell you, the middle of nowhere.

Whenever my friend Adam goes to friends houses for dinner he can only eat the vegetables. So I thought it would be nice to throw him a Friday night supper with proper actual meat and everything.

Only I am going to have to practice for this little performance because, despite my serious identity confusion, I don't know anything about kosher cooking. My plan is to make a dinner of chopped liver and potato latkes to start, cholent (which is a kind of sticky stew made with beans and barley that my husband knows how to make) and then a flourless chocolate cake. But now I'm worried that this is just like a hilarious cliche spoof Jewish dinner, like having a Welsh person round and feeding him three courses of leeks. (My mother is Welsh, just to confuse matters. But she keeps it quiet.)

The element that most troubles me is the potato latkes, which are a kind of hash brown. Frying potato from raw is incredibly hard, because what potato likes to do most is go very soggy and then  !!suddenly burn!!

I took to Claudia Roden's Book of Jewish Food, which has a recipe for latkes, obviously, and she said they are easy, which they absolutely are not. I had to adapt the recipe as I went to save them from sheer disaster.

Anyway, here we go, potato latkes:

Makes about six.

5 large-ish new potatoes, or any waxy potato will do
1 medium shallot
1 egg
oil for frying NOT olive oil - groundnut or peanut
1/2 tablespoon of self-raising flour

1 Peel and grate the potatoes on the big-hole gratey bit of your cheese grater. Put the strips in a colander and rinse them very well in cold water to get rid of the starch, which apparently does unholy things if left to run riot. Then press an appropriate-sized bowl on top of them and squeeze and squeeze until you've got as much water out of them as you can. Alternatively, you can bunch the potato strips in a tea towel and swing them round your head to dry. I haven't done this, but I hear it works

2 Add to the potato strips the onion, grated on the smallest gratey-thing of your cheese grater

3 Whisk one egg with 2 good pinches of salt, and toss the potato strips in it until they're all coated. Sprinkle over the flour and mix in. Claudia Roden says that adding flour makes the latkes taste less nice but she can get bent because a) it does nothing to the flavour and b) there's no way in hell you can get your potato strips to stick together in the pan if you haven't added a bit of flour.

4 Heat about three tablespoonfuls of oil in a pan until very hot. Scoop about one tablespoonful into your hand and shape is as best you can into a flattish oval shape. The mixture will still be very soggy and gross, so squash as much liquid as you can out of it into the bowl and then lower into the pan, turning the heat down as you do to about half its maximum setting.

5 Cook these for a while, about 8 minutes, four on each side. Maybe even ten. Don't let the pan get dry because your latkes will burn; keep topping up with oil and they ought to go golden brown

The first two of these you do will be a disaster and you'll want to cry and smash things and take my name in vain. The next two will be better and by the last ones you do, you'll have nailed it. They ought to be crispy and crunchy on the outside and melty in the middle. Yum yum. Eat hot, with more salt and sour cream if you like. You can also add to the mixture, if you're feeling rakish and smart, ground black pepper and parsley.

Thursday, 19 August 2010


There are all kinds of things that people forget to tell you about being pregnant. None of them, I hasten to add, are especially bad (probably why they - whoever 'they' are - forget to tell you), they are just odd.

For example, even when the morning sickness fades away into a bad memory, like the longest and baddest hangover you ever had, the race is still on in the morning to eat something - and fast, before you're, err, "overcome". I won't get any more specific because I don't want to put you off your 4pm Twix, which you are no doubt eating right now at your desk.

I don't mind waking up early. I quite like early mornings - the quiet, the sense of smugness, the excuse to have an afternoon nap, the excuse to GO BACK TO BED AT 8PM. But at first I couldn't quite believe that I was expected to get out of bed at 6.30am and go downstairs - trudge trudge trudge - to get myself some cereal, so instead I kept a banana by the bed and ate it as soon as my eyes pinged open and then went back to sleep. But that became gross. And I felt sorry for my husband, who would be caused to have bizarre dreams about being married to a bowl of fruit.

So now I just suck it up and slip out of bed and accept that from now on, for a few years, my day is going to start at about 6am.

Punishment museli alone, which I have written about before, is now out. I need to eat so, so much more in the morning than a bowl of dry flakes splashed with semi-skimmed that I've had to get serious and turn to yoghurt. In London I have three large dollops of whatever yoghurt I've snatched off the shelves at Waitrose, a sprinkling of punishment museli, chopped strawberries (which I keep in the fridge much to my husband's dismay and disgust) and a really generous squeeze of squeezy honey (for convenience. My husband doesn't like this either because the squeezy honey leaks all over the larder, so now I have to keep it on its own little plate. CHUH. Although I ought to point out here that he's been very understanding about other pregnancy stuff like me lying down for most of the day).

I eat it in this witching hour on the sofa, while watching episodes of Season 5 of the West Wing, before my husband gets up and goes to the shops for the papers and a pain au chocolat from the Delice de France stand. Nnnnnnnhhh.

Out in the real France, with two really fantastic greengrocers a few minutes' warm sunny walk away, I get more adventurous with my morning fruit salad and this one below was made from peaches, blueberries, raspberries, yoghurt, museli and squeezy honey. And melon, I think. The squeezy honey in France doesn't seem to leak like the ones in England. I'm on my second bottle.

This picture I just find really funny because it's all moody and thoughtful, but actually it's me eating yet another mini baby bel.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Trying to eat in France while pregnant

So there's this thing when you're pregnant that you're basically not supposed to eat anything. I initially wrote "not allowed to eat anything" but changed it to "supposed" because you can, of course, do whatever the hell you like.

I don't suffer much from guilt - it just isn't an emotion in my mood paintbox - so that is not the reason why I'm not smoking or eating the following (READY?):

- soft cheese
- shellfish
- pate I haven't made myself
- cold cuts
- raw or runny eggs
- undercooked meat
- those fish you're not supposed to eat. Shark and stuff... but when would you eat that anyway? In England I mean.

So it's not guilt. That terrible motherhood guilt thing just isn't happening to me. The little sucker is fortunate as hell already to have a mother who is so brilliant at impersonations and who is so good at drawing sheep. I don't feel guilty about a damned thing.

No, the thing with me is that I really really don't want to look like a massive tit. I don't want to eat as much pate and blue cheese as I like and then get listeria, which (I didn't understand this when I yammed down a stitchlton-based salad when I was a fortnight gone) you are like A MILLION times more likely to get if you're pregnant and then have a baby born with no head. I'd just feel like such an idiot.

I don't want to be like a woman I know who carried on boozing throughout her pregnancy thinking "Fuck all those sanctimonious fuckfashes" and then had a baby with fetal alcohol syndrome. TRUE STORY. This is an educated, middle-class woman with a job, people. At the time I bet she felt pretty cool and dangerous. But now she looks like a tit.

The other reason I don't just eat whatever the hell I like is because my husband is really strict. "No!" he shrieks, snatching an amuse bouche out of my hand. "It looks a bit foamy to me, like they've just egg white. Forget it."

And please, just en passant, don't give me any of that tedious shit about how French women continue to scoff blue cheese and pate when they're pregnant. They do that because a) they've eaten it all their lives and are, I heard, immune-ish to listeria and b) the general occurance of listeria in France is about 80% lower than any other country, or something like that. I possibly made that last bit up. Or maybe all of it. Anyway, don't be all over my ass about it. PLUS! There is some kind of birth rate crisis in France so I'm not exactly going to be slavishly copying their gestation techniques.

What was my point again? Oh yes, so what the hell does one eat when one is on holiday in France and pregnant? One answer is artichokes.

I always wonder, when I consider the general form of an artichoke, who on earth first discovered that it was edible only if boiled for half an hour. It must have been a brave man. Or woman. The only thing you really need to know about artichokes is how to get to the heart, which isn't that easy. My husband, fortunately, is a dab hand. (Pictures below). I boil artichokes for about 25-30 minutes until the leaves come away with a gentle tug and then dip the leaaves in melted butter and salt and scrape the fleshy bit off the base of the leaves with my snaggly teeth. You can, of course, also dip the leaves in vinaigrette. Up to you.

I think one artichoke between two is fine as a starter. And also really rather romantic.

Continue to scrape off the pubey bits with a spoon as shown above, strip the rest of the leaves, cut and eat.

Friday, 6 August 2010

A fish pie for Simon

Okay, explanation time. Where have I been? What have I been doing? Who the fuck do I think I am posting every day for months and then just, pff, effing off like that into thin air? Do I not understand that bloggers must be there at all times, in all weathers, in order to qualify for attention?

So the reason I have disappeared is this: I am pregnant. Up the duff. Knocked up. In trouble. Oh no wait, not in trouble... sorry for a moment there I forgot I was married. And being pregnant has completely and utterly destroyed my interest in food.

Yes, I'm starving all the time, but only the kind of starving that sees me sitting on the kitchen floor eating cheap chocolate mousse, followed by marmite on toast and then perhaps some cheese, just chewed straight from the packet. (I smooth over the teeth marks with my thumb to fool my husband into thinking that I have not been doing this.)
What I don't want to do is read recipe books, or construct any kind of interesting meal, or think about vegetables (Ack! RETCH RETCH RETCH) ever. Ever, ever again. So you see my problem, perhaps.

I also couldn't say anything until 'Ping' 3 months were up because even though I spit in the face of superstition and drop ice cubes down the back of convention, if I had announced that I was suffering from a SPOT OF MORNING SICKNESS and then junior turned out to have five heads, or no spine, or to be a figment of my imagination, it would be really embarrassing.

But it's okay, says my obstetrician, whom I call The Beast, because it is an approximation of his surname and he is the least beast-like person I know.

I would scan the ultrasound picture in here, but I think doing that is really spooky. And it looks like an alien. But anyway The Beast thinks it's going to be okay. He also thinks I'm boring because I'm 30 and I don't have diabetes or Hepatitis C or sky-high blood pressure, which in the world of obstetrics makes me the equivalent of specially slow-drying paint.

Anyway, back to the food: it's been a disaster for it. And, just between you and me, I'm not sure what happens now. Those of you hoping that this blog might become some kind of media sensation so that you could say you knew me back when, you are going to be sorely disappointed.

I did come out of my temporary retirement the other day to make a fish pie for The Pescetarian, whose real name is Simon, because whenever he comes round to my house I always give him some horrible shit thing that I have hurriedly cooked alongside whatever frabjous feast I have made for my other carniverous guests.

So I thought it was time that he got a dinner of his very own. I was going to say something about my mother's fish pie here, but then I remembered that I personally find stories of other people's mothers' cooking staples quite unbearably tedious - so why should I torture you with tales of mine?

Anyway so fish pie is a thing that's nice. I looked up a Jamie Oliver fish pie recipe and he does his without making a white sauce. I  mean, I'm sure it's perfectly marvellous, but I wanted mine with a white sauce, so I sidled away from Jamie, feeling a lot like someone who's just had some advice from Warren Buffet about what do to with £2,000 but decides to go and blow it all on shoes anyway.

I did steal certain elements, like adding chilli, but to be honest I'm not sure how much better that made the finished product.

I'm sorry about the roughness of quantities for this. It really all depends on how big a pie dish you own how much you make.

Top tip: use a bigger dish than you think you need because as this cooks it will bubble a lot and if you fill a dish right to the top with the mixture (as I did) it will bubble over and drip down into the Queen of Puddings you are cooking in the same oven. Yes, I know. What do you want from me? I'M PREGNANT.

A fish pie for Simon

about 250g haddock or any other firm white fish - chopped into chunks
about 250g smoked haddock - chopped into chunks
some prawns (if you eat them... I usually refuse to but I thought I'd put my principles aside this once)
the juice of half a lemon
a quantity of white sauce - about 3/4 of a pint
salt and pepper
1/2 red chilli, no seeds
1 carrot, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
about 5 small potatoes, boiled, skins off

1 Put your peeled potatoes on to boil for about 30 minutes.

2 Meanwhile, make your white sauce - (see white sauce: beginner's only for more on this) - and then add the juice of half a lemon (or to taste, it shouldn't be overpoweringly lemony), your chopped chilli and salt and pepper. When the sauce tastes appropriately salty, creamy and zingy, slide in your fish and and chopped carrot and celery and poach on a gentle heat for about 10  minutes.

3 Add the chopped parsley - about a handful - then leave the fish mixture to stand and then drain your potatoes. I urge you, if possible, to use here a mouli legume or a potato ricer. But if you have neither don't go out and buy one especially: just mash the suckers.

4 Generously butter your pie dish and then flop in the fish mixture, followed by the mashed potato on top. Dot with butter and anything else you fancy (more salt? cheese?!) and then stick it in an 180C oven for about 40 minutes.

Simon said it was nice... but you can never be sure with him.

Here is a picture of France, where I am on holiday (it rained yesterday):

And just so you don't feel sorry for me, here it is today being sunny: