Monday, 12 December 2011

Jamie Oliver's mince pie cookies - GUEST POST

A real treat today, Recipe Riflers. A guest post from one of my favourite readers, Emelie. We met online, like all the coolest people NOT; I had a small, sick, teething baby - she a feral toddler and a dog that looks like a polar bear. She is also Scandinavian and what with Scandis being so fashionable at the moment, (they are the new gays), I'm mostly friends with her because of that.

Anyway here you go and if you're on Twitter she is @emfrid and terrific value.

I will cheerfully defend Jamie Oliver to all and sundry. Granted, on occasion he can come across as the culinary world’s more earnest answer to Bono. And those Sainsbury ads makes my teeth hurt. But, as far as I’m concerned that is all easy to forgive. Because, his recipes? They. Always. Fucking. Work.

Like, for example, these mince pie cookies. I got the recipe from Jamie’s Christmas Special magazine, and they are rad. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of pastry, which is probably why I prefer them to actual mince pies, but I’d wager that even pastry fiends will like these. They taste like Christmas! They are also very easy to make - it took me less than half an hour to get them in the oven, and that was while I was simultaneously trying to shake off the semi-feral toddler clinging to my leg and prevent the dog from digging a hole through to the neighbours. So give them a go.

For about 30 or so cookies you will need:

250g unsalted butter, at room temperature
140g sugar
1 egg yolk
Grated zest of one clementine/satsuma/mandarin/whatever you prefer
300g flour
One 411g jar of fruit mincemeat (WHY do they come in 411g jars? Why not 420g? Why so specific?!)

1 Preheat your oven to 180C/gas 4 and put greaseproof baking parchment on a couple of baking trays.

2 Beat butter and sugar together until creamy. Add the egg yolk and your citrus zest and beat to combine.

3 Sift in the flour and then fold through MOST of the mince meat (you want to hold some of it back to put on top of your cookies before they go in the oven). Stir until it all starts to come together. I used my hands here – easier.

4 Pull biscuit-sized lumps from the dough, put them evenly across the trays and then press down on each one to shape into cookies. Don’t put them too close to each other – they will run out a little while in the oven.

4 Dot some of your saved mincemeat on top of each cookie, and then put them in the oven for about ten minutes. You want them to be golden, but still a bit doughy and chewy in the middle. I found that my oven needed about 15 minutes for this, but hey, ovens are famously different.

The mince pie cookies are lovely warm – with mulled wine – but the ones you don’t eat straight away can be stored in an airtight container, or frozen.

Thursday, 8 December 2011


One very good reason for not doing a practice-run Christmas is that it leaves you in absolutely no mood for actual Christmas. I've had enough of Christmas, now. And certainly had enough of leftovers. God turkey is such nasty stuff.

It doesn't help that it was buggered and all my fault. We brined it, you see, and I bumptiously insisted that the quantity of salt doesn't matter and just poured a lot into the brine willy-nilly. Some ghastly chemical reaction must have taken place because it was dry as a bone.

brine ingredients

Although what we did learn from it, is that it doesn't matter if your turkey is dry, because once you slap it on a hot plate and cover it with a lot of gravy (which you will have) and a lot of bread sauce (ditto) it doesn't matter.

But, as my husband said, there's no point in it actually being dry, so if you are going to do a brine this year, make sure you do the exact measurements the recipe recommends. For example Nigella says 6 litres of water and 250g sea salt, like Maldon or 125g table salt, like Saxo. Then other flavours you want to add to the brine are up to you - parsley, bay leaves, allspice berries, mace blades, garlic, whatever. Nigella, again, recommends a star anise but just personally I think it makes everything taste like a Chinese takeaway.

And then beyond that, with turkey, it all just gets too mind-bending what with the Shall We Cook The Legs Separately Or Not? question. And the How Much Longer Should I Cook It If It's Got Stuffing In It? conundrum and THEN there's the thing about temperatures and whether or not you've got a fan oven. And by then, I have to confess, I feel like I am back in double History before lunch and can barely keep my eyes open.

So really the purpose of this post is to say: it's anyone's bloody guess. Have a fair crack. Try not to get bogged down in detail. Don't be scared because even if it's burnt to a crisp the gravy and bread sauce will save the day.

I told you I was bored.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Cranberry sauce, bread sauce

So, let's dispense with the cranberry sauce first, because it's a piece of cake. There are more complicated recipes you can use, but this one is just fine and takes about ten seconds.

250g cranberries
100ml fresh orange juice
100g light brown sugar

1 Put the sugar and the orange juice in a pan and bring to a bubble. Tip in the cranberries and simmer for about 8 minutes - until some of the cranberries are still round and the rest have burst open and are all gooey.

Decant this into an airtight container, chuck it somewhere cool and forget about it until Christmas. The sauce will thicken on cooling so don't worry if it looks a bit runny.

I was all ready to make a similarly simple bread sauce but my friend Henry forced upon me a complicated one from his mother. As he was coming to dinner and gave me a magazine that the recipe was printed in I felt like I really couldn't not make it.


As it turns out, it is absolutely amazing. You could just eat it, on its own, spooned out of the tin. So I really recommend it, despite it being a bit of a faff. Do it up to three days ahead of time.

Aromatic brown bread sauce

1 large onion
150g wholemeal bread, crusts on
6 cloves
4 cardamom pods
some nutmeg
salt and pepper
75g butter
900ml milk - whole or semi
300ml double cream yikes

Preheat your oven to 130C. Did you notice that said 130C and not 180C?

1 Chop your onion up VERY small. I chopped mine up normally and it was too big, so next time I do this I will chop it up normall and then go at those chunks with a knife to bash the bits up tiny. Do not be tempted to put it in the food processor as you don't want it a sludge.

2 Tear the bread into small pieces - about the size of a 50p coin and put in an ovenproof dish with the onion

3 Put the cloves and the cardamom into a small piece of muslin or cotton, tie with string and chuck into the dish. This is an annoying instruction and I'm not sure you couldn't just throw the pods and cloves in free and then fish them out later.

4 Grate over a generous sprinkling of nutmeg, salt and pepper and dot with butter. Mix the milk and the cream together and pour over the bread and onion. Cover tightly with foil or a lid and then cook for 2 hours(!). Stir once or twice during cooking.

Really worth doing if you can be arsed. Everyone said how nice it was at our practice dinner, even a French girl who is normally rude about everything. Henry said it was a pretty good imitation of his mother's sauce but then ruined it by asking if my stuffing was out of a packet.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Jamie Oliver's get-ahead gravy

We had our trial-run Christmas lunch yesterday. Except we did it a dinnertime. And I'll tell you this about Christmas: it is a fucking hassle. I can't quite believe I've got to do all that all over again in 3 weeks' time. And I was only on pudding, sauces, relishes and decorations - my husband had the real sweat on doing the turkey and all the rest.

But what are you going to do? It's just life, innit. Like I was complaning on and on and on to my single Hot Career friends J- and E- the other week about how I thought I'd be a wife and mother as a bit of a retro-laugh and now I'm right in it and marvelling what a hilarious joke I seem to have played on myself. I was expecting a tidalwave of sympathy, because I am a moaney old cow, but they both just looked at me blanky and boredly and said "Yeah, life is vile."

Since then I've tried to complain a bit less about everything.

Anyway look, for god's sake, if this isn't already in your repertoire, do Jamie Oliver's get-ahead gravy if you're lumbered with Christmas this year. It's a ruddy life-saver. Do it this weekend and freeze it.

This is not Jamie's exact recipe. The real thing is easily sourced on the internet.

Jamie Oliver's get-ahead gravy
Makes 1 litre, enough for about 8 people

8 chicken wings or wings or stock bones or whatever
2 carrots, quartered
1 small onions, quartered
2 sticks of celery, trimmed and, you guessed it: quartered
fresh sage leaves - about 5?
fresh rosemary - two sticks?
3 bay leaves
1 star anise IF YOU WANT. I, personally, didn't think the Chinesey flavour this imparted was very appropriate, although it's nice
4 rashers streaky bacon, snipped
4 tbs plain flour
1 tbs cranberry sauce
some olive oil

1 Tip everything except the flour and the cranberry sauce into a roasting tin, slosh some olive oil over it, salt and pepper, turn it all around to coat and put in a 180C oven for 1 hour

2 Take it out and bash everything up in the pan. Jamie recommends using a potato masher but I found stabbing everything with an assortment of wooden items, such as a spoon and then a rolling pin, was easier

although I took this photo at the masher stage

3 Put the pan on the hob on a low heat and sprinkle over the flour a spoonful at a time, mixing well in to the mixture after each snowfull

4 Now pour over two litres of water, just cold from the tap, mix together and boil briskly for ten minutes and then simmer for 25. It will reduce by roughly half

5 Strain the gravy. I found this easier to do once through a colander and then once again through a sieve - although this does create more washing up.

6 Now put in tupperware and forget about it until Christmas Eve. Don't bother skimming the fat now because there's something about the freezing/thawing process that draws out the fat from the gravy more effectively.

7 On the day, either just heat this up and finish off with some cranberry sauce and serve OR add the juices from the turkey roasting tin. You are supposed to add the turkey juices, but you will probaby be feeling utterly mental and a bit tearful by this stage and won't be arsed to be adding no damn juices to sauces. So I'm just telling you now that if you want to serve this gravy straight up without turkey juices no-one will notice.

Monday, 28 November 2011


I decided today to end my new-recipe drought and cook something I liked the look of that I found in a colour supplement this weekend. It was a prawn and okra "gumbo" and it looked like my kind of thing. Stealth vegetables: tick. Spicy: tick. Easy: tick.

So after raiding Waitrose, I potato-sacked Kitty into her cot at 1pm, waved cheerio and thundered back to the kitchen with more enthusiasm than I've had in... months and months... to set about cooking this thing.

And it was - it still is, sitting down there greasily in its pot - DISGUSTING. It is like an orange glue-soup studded with chunks of raw onion and warmed-up red pepper. And the thing about red peppers is that they're fine raw and they're fine cooked long and hard, but anything in between is tastes like a microwaveable pizza from a service station.

Is that what gumbo is supposed to be like? Does anyone have a good gumbo recipe? I like the sound of it, mostly because the word "gumbo" is good. But this was just a travesty.

I'm racking my brains, here. I followed the recipe - from a staggeringly famous, usually terrific chef. I didn't shirk or get impatient or skip anything out. Just a bad, bad recipe. Maybe an error? A few of you may have seen it this weekend. Don't bother with it. I mean, like, FUCK I could have been asleep this afternoon! And what if I didn't have an alternative dinner?! What a waste of time and money; literally all going to go on the compost.

I'm in a simply foul mood about the whole thing. But at the very least you may as well benefit from this horrible misadventure, because I certainly haven't. 

On a lighter note these are amazing. No, they didn't send me any freebies, but if they'd like to, it would cheer me up enough to prevent me from sending Yotam Ottolenghi his gumbo back to him in the post. On fire.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Christmas and fish pie (again)

I wouldn't say that I was panicking about Christmas - Dr O has put paid to the worst of my anxieties (and at only £120 an hour! Bargain!) - but I would say that it was definitely on my mind.

We are having everyone here. And when I say everyone I mean two sets of parents, two sisters, two infants, two cousins an aunt and an uncle. It adds up to 14 people. The fact that we don't have enough chairs for that many people is the least of my problems. I don't think we have enough glasses, either. Or cutlery.

We're so worried about the food that we are having a practise run on November 30th. We are doing the whole thing - brining the turkey, bread sauce, roast potatoes, the lot. I might even take the opportunity to put up a few Christmas decs to see how they look. I'm going for a very barnyard theme this year - all brown twine and chipped red jingle bells - you know the sort of thing I mean No tinsel, perhaps a bit controversially. I hate tinsel.

So I will report back after November 30th with top tips on how it all went.

For now, because I promised, I wanted to run through a childrens' fish pie recipe for a reader who requested it.

People make a lot of fuss about giving children fish pie - they think it's so marvellous and middle-class; but I do think that some children don't like it. Or at least don't like some elements of it. Very fishy fish, like salmon, is often not especially appreciated. And a proper fish pie is made with smoked haddock, which is very salty - so you might want to leave that out if you're touchy about stuff like that.

Personally, I make mine as bland as possible. When I was little I never, ever had to eat anything I didn't want to. I literally lived on baked beans, alphabites, scrambled eggs and spaghetti bolognese. My mother has a theory that small children can't digest brassicas (spinach, broccoli) very well and so that's why they don't like them. I'm not going to say anything pathetic like "It never did me any harm" because who knows?! But certainly I am very grateful to my mother for not being an "eat up your veg" nag. And I don't have a problem with vegetables now.

Anyway, I'm drifting.

Any fish pie is simply fish poached in a white sauce and covered with mashed potato or pastry and that's it. Anything else you add is entirely up to you and frankly, although it's not for me to tell you what to do with your child, I would be guided by any preference my child shows - eg parsley or no parsley, egg or no egg. I don't think you're supposed to give babies shellfish under a year but thereafter you could chuck in some brown shrimp. Yummy.

So the contents of a fish pie might look like this:

(makes several freezable portions)
1 quantity of white sauce (for recipe see "How to make a white sauce" - on this blog) - about 3/4 of a pint
1 quantity assorted white fish, eg haddock/cod/scallops - smoked fish if you want, salmon if you want
a few mushrooms if you like
2 eggs

1 Make the white sauce.

2 Chop up the fish into small chunks - about the size of dice (depending on child's age of course) and then plop into the white sauce. Let this stew together over a low flame for 15 minutes.

3 Hard-boil and chop your eggs, if using. Dice your mushrooms, if using, and throw those in too.

4 Decant this mixture into your bowls for freezing and top with either pastry or mashed potato. On re-heating defrost and cook for a good 25 minutes.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Gingerbread Porridge

I was sitting on the kitchen floor the other day with my iPad, half-in and half-out of the doorway to get some of the feeble WiFi reception that dribbles down from the modem upstairs; my  husband was nearby, pushing tiny strips of fish finger into Kitty's sparrow-mouth followed by a spoonful of beans.

"Na naaaaaaaaa," said Kitty, her mashed-up food slowly collapsing from its position on the roof of her mouth to flop onto her tongue. She then keeled forward gently to rest her forehead on her highchair tray, her fat grubby hands splayed on the plastic either side of her face. She's been doing that a lot recently; I don't know what it means.

Then an email arrived from someone I used to work with at The Times, called Claire. That makes me sound terribly grand, doesn't it? Like we used to write long witty pieces about the increasing popularity of traditional parlour games at Notting Hill dinner parties. In reality I worked part-time on the Times Magazine's reception desk and she was the chief sub-editor, which meant that if everything went perfectly no-one thanked her but if anything went wrong it was all her fault.

It wasn't the easiest place to work, the Magazine, especially not when you were a) the receptionist and b) part-time; it made you officially the lowliest person at the entire newspaper because at least the messengers got a bit of paid holiday and knew their way around.

And there were some horrible people. Not horrible, horrible - people always think working at newspapers is like All The President's Men and working at magazines is like The Devil Wears Prada but in actual fact it's just some grubby open-plan office with towers of dusty paper and the faint smell of lick.

Most newspaper or magazine offices could be anywhere. And the horrible people were just boringly horrible. They didn't make catty, arch, comments that sent you racing to the ladies' to sob, they just sort of refused to acknowledge you because you were so lowly and shit.

But Claire was always lovely to me. She looked me right in the eyes when she talked to me and never did a thing where I'd say something and she'd look at me as if my chair had started talking. Among other people who were nice to me were Hannah Betts, (with whom I became obsessed and started copying the way she dressed), and my husband.

I only spoke to my husband once on the phone when I was working at The Magazine - when he had so much post that I had to send a parcel van to his house to take it all and had to ring him to ask when he'd be at home to receive it. We had an unexpectedly nice chat. He is terribly friendly, my husband - much friendlier than you think he's going to be and I was astonished at his bothering to make jokes on the phone. When you work on reception and send people their post, no-one bothers to waste jokes on you or or tries to be charming. And when they do, you notice.

So I hunted him down and married him. Ha ha! (No, seriously.)

Anyway, so Claire emailed me and said Hiya, I'm working in PR now - do you want some free stuff? I usually absolutely catagorically say no to any freebies because it makes all this feel far too much like work. And it feels so self-important and crass to mouth off in some kind of superior way about what I think about this brand of biscuits or that kind of oat-free snack.

But you remember people who were nice to you when you were really little and shitty and want to do them a favour, for what it's worth.

So: Dorset Cereal's Gingerbread Porridge is actually pretty excellent. It comes in a chic brown box with a cute picture of a runaway gingerbread man on it. In the box are 10 sealed paper sachets of porridge that you can mix with milk and cook in the microwave or on the stove. I thought it was delicious and I don't even really like porridge.

Although it says it's limited edition, which probably means that it is only available in a few select branches of Waitrose within the M25.

That's the thing about PR: 50% of it really works - you just don't know which 50%.

Amy I haven't forgotten about your request for child-friendly fish pie. Coming soon. Like, tomorrow.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Shepherd's pie

My least favourite thing that people say to me is that they are tired. "I'm so tired," they say. Or, worse, "I'm just so tired." It's that "just" that really fucks me off.

I never tell anyone that I'm tired. Ever. Or ill. I keep it to myself. If you are tired, go to bed earlier. Take a sleeping pill. Inhale some lavender, bang yourself smartly on the head. Be really glitzy and hire a private doctor to dose you with propofol. Just don't tell me about it - because I don't care.

(Unless you have a small baby, in which case we will keen and wail together and I will make you tea and say there there.)

My second least favourite thing people say to me is "I'm so busy." Because when you say that, what I hear is "I am incredibly disorganised, I do not know how long an hour is and I don't know how to say 'No'. I am probably also late all the time, but think it makes me seem glamorous."

I do not respect that. I spend my whole life being the fucking bad guy, saying "No, I can't" because I know how long things take; I know what you can reasonably achieve in one day. And it's not very much.

But these days, I sympathise a bit more with people who describe themselves as being a "busy mum". I seem to be in a screaming spin all the time just now, (even though I hate my own guts for saying that), constantly patting my pockets for my keys and racing back into the house five times for bottles, nappies, wallets, shoes. I always seem to be in the car at traffic lights, revving the engine saying "Come on, are you fucking dead or what???!!!!" to the car in front.

Last night I went up to bed - although I didn't actually get into bed and go to sleep - at 8.30pm in order to re-create the kind of idleness I took for granted before I had a baby.

The thing is, Kitty is eating proper food now. Fish fingers and beans, peas, baked potatoes, fish pie, chicken. The whole lot. Nyum nyum nyum, she goes. So I can no longer get away with surviving on cheddar, own-brand chocolate mousse and tea, while spooning shop-bought puree into Kitty's weeny petulant mouth and doing no cooking beyond peeling the lids off takeaway. I have had to hit the stove again. And while I'm cooking for her, I  might as well cook for me. Which is good because it means I eat something. But bad because it means I'll probably get fat again. And it's so fucking time-consuming.

Anyway, that's a long way of saying that it's nursery food a go-go around here right now and today it was shepherd's pie. I've only ever made one once and I muffed it by thinking that I was making a bolognese and adding canned tomatoes, which doesn't work at all.

So here we go, shepherd's pie. Take 2.

Serves about four I'd say.
2 packs lamb mince - about 500g each
1 stick rosemary
2 bay leaves (optional)
2 small onions, chopped
some celery, chopped
1 carrot, diced
2 large potatoes
chicken or veg stock if you have it - about 300ml
red wine if you have it - about a large glassful

1 Fry the onions, celery, rosemary stick, bay leaves and carrot together very gently for about 15 minutes. I say this every time because there's always ONE person out there who is very impatient and puts their onions on a really high heat and burns them and wonders why their dinner tastes horrible. Once the onions look translucent and sort of soft around the edges, throw in your glass of red wine and then turn up the heat high and bubble the wine down.

2 In another pan, fry off the lamb mince, then combine your lamb and veg and stock and simmer on the hob, very low, for 45 minutes. Chuck in some salt and pepper.

3 Now you can, of course, just boil and mash your potatoes, but if you steam (25 mins) and rice the potatoes instead, you will get a delicious crunchy potato topping. You can fashion a steamer out of a colander over a pan of boiling water. If you haven't got a potato ricer or a mouli legume then I suppose you're a bit stuffed.

4 Put your lamb mixture in a baking dish and cover with your potato, dot with butter and bake at 180C for about 25 mins.

Then go to bed, for fuck's sake.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Hamburger buns

A long time ago I thought that this blog would be about me testing out recipes I found in books and then telling you if they worked or not. But then I discovered that it was much more fun writing about me, me, me and my various problems and then tacking a recipe for, like, beans on toast at the end and hoping that no-one would notice that I wasn't really fulfilling my brief.

It became like a sort of free therapy, except that it didn't work and I went mad anyway and am having to get some very expensive therapy in Central London administered by a woman we'll call Dr O.

I went to see her for the first time today. I was ten minutes late because I couldn't find her bastard office and made a small joke about me not being anxious about being late because of all people who would be understanding it would be her. She gave me a pleasant but uncomprehending smile and I realised suddenly that she has no sense of humour. And what the fuck was I doing trying to make my therapist laugh anyway? Grow up.

That's beside the point. My point is that I found in the Hawksmoor cookbook a recipe for hamburger buns, which declared that the secret was to use custard in the dough.

"Awesome!" I screeched. "Custard!!! What fun. I will go back to my roots and test this out and say if it works or not."

And it's the stupidest bloody recipe I've ever done. And I've now decided that I HATE cookbooks especially restaurant cookbooks because they're always written by people who've been cooking for 8 million years and assume all sorts of things about the domestic cook and the recipes are never tested properly and they're always shit.

Say what you like about Jamie Oliver but he's got some proper recipe-testing going on. He doesn't just sling the recipes out to various relatives in a huge panic 5 days before the book goes to the printers, all of whom say they will test the recipes and then don't and lie and say they did and that they're fine causing ME to WASTE MY TIME making stupid hamburger buns that are crap and at least 50% less nice than if I'd just had a crack, blindfolded, at making them off the top of my head.

I mean... *legal panic*...not that I'm saying Hawksmoor doesn't test their recipes properly, I'm just saying that Jamie Oliver does.

Anyway, shall I bother with the recipe? I don't think I will actually. You can have the photo because I know how you all like a photo, but it was such a silly recipe, so lazily done, so inaccurate and unhelpful and rotten than I don't think I'll do it the service of even copying it out here.

Custard! I ask you... Dingbats.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Black pudding and lentils

I rarely bother writing about "assembly" dinners (i.e. you take a lot of nice things and cook them and have them on the same plate and that's that) because I reckon you can probably work that kind of stuff out for yourself. But I was moved to write about this farewell dinner my husband made for me on Sunday night before disappearing for another week's filming.

We have in this house, I think, quite an odd diet. We don't eat pasta or potatoes except in emergencies and limit fish to very special occasions.

We also rarely - like, never - eat steak or fillet or any prime cuts of anything. Not even free-range organic stuff. We mostly eat the offcuts - belly, shin, cheeks, wings, beaks, feet, ears etc - to assuage our complex feelings about eating animals. By living off these odds and ends we are not the ones driving intensive farming and the slaughter of animals, (killed primarily for "prime" cuts like steak), we are merely mopping up the leftovers, giving a home to the scrag ends that would otherwise go in the bin.

But then this weekend because we were feeling out of sorts my husband bought from the farmers' market some really properly luxe fillet steak. And it was FUCKING AMAZING. We bought too much and roasted it with half a baked potato each (just to keep our spirits up) a couple of marrow bones and a parsley salad and then had the leftovers in sandwiches the next day.

From the same butcher (Twelve Green Acres, if you are interested) we also bought some fantastic black pudding and my husband made it for dinner on a bed of lentils and popped a coddled egg on top. And it was as nice as the fillet steak - just in a slightly different way.

Black pudding and lentils, by Giles

For 2

2 eggs
100g (dried weight) green lentils
1 onion
salt and pepper
1 or 2 discs (each) of the best-quality black pudding you can get your hands on
oil for frying
(We had some tired tomatoes hanging about so roasted them for 30 mins, but by all means leave them out.)

1 Boil your lentils until very soft - about 25 minutes in salted water.

2 In a frying pan fry the chopped onion gently in oil for about 15 minutes. If you had some chorizo knocking about you could fry a few cubes of that alongside it, but it's not essential. I have not included garlic because my friend Henry, who is a chef, said the other day that he's stopped automatically adding garlic to everything he cooks because he thinks it's lazy and makes everything taste the same. But you are free to add garlic if you fancy it.

3 Add the lentils and heat through. Shift the lentils and onions to one side when done and fry off your discs of black pudding in the same pan to save on washing up.

4 If you have an egg coddler, do two eggs in that. If not, poach if you're able to. If not, just fry the buggers.

5 Assemble your dinner by putting down a layer of lentils, then the black pudding then the egg on top.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

How to save a stew

There are in my life perhaps five people (not counting immediate family) I would consider to be my friends. I used to have a lot more than that, but over the last few years I have succeeded, both intentionally and accidentally, in shouldering off all but the most hardcore, trusty lot.

These five are my dead prostitute friends: that is, people I would call if I woke up in a hotel in Las Vegas and there was a dead prostitute in my room.

Three of them - Simon, Slang (girl) and MH (boy) - are criminal barristers. Julia Churchill, who often makes cameos on this blog, is a literary agent and Arnold (girl) is a television producer.

Arnold - a master of logistics - would spirit me out of the hotel and get me a fake passport and a rented flat in Havana, the criminal barristers would keep me from the chair if the feds ever came knocking and Julia would secure me a sweet book deal whatever happened.

They are also terrific in non life-or-death situations, too.

For all sorts of  reasons I have been thinking about my DP friends recently and I realise that I've learnt something about friends in the last ten years: it doesn't matter how many you've got. Even if you've only got one: as long as they'll be on the next flight out to Nevada to save your skin, that's all you need.

Speaking of saving things, my husband performed open-heart surgery on the goulash that I had lovingly prepared for him and then BURNT and saved it from the bin.

What happened was this: I made the goulash (q.v.) in the normal way but made it in much too big a pot, so the water bubbled away leaving a trailing mess of burnt pork and peppers.

"Fuck." I said, looking at it.

"No it's fine," said my husband. He scooped out everything except the most burnt stuff, mashed it up in a different, smaller pot, poured over a wineglass of water and then heated it all very gently for about 20 minutes. Then we had it with a lot of buttery macaroni, sour cream and parsley and it was really actually quite nice.

"You can do this with anything that you've burnt a bit," said my husband. "I mean, not completely to a cinder, but the secret is not to disturb the most burnt parts, get out the stuff that isn't burnt and then rehydrate it elsewhere."

So there we go: how to save a stew.

And if you commit any more serious crime than that, in your kitchen or elsewhere, I know some great lawyers.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Sherry and tonic

The more I think about it, the more I think that maybe not doing much cooking recently is only partly to do with anxiety and more to do with the fact that I've run out of things to cook. It's just good old-fashioned lack of inspiration.

Among duty cooks, (i.e. the person in the household who does dinner on dreary weeknights - as opposed to performance cooks, who do nothing for months and then roast beef for 18 for Sunday lunch), this is known as "cooking fatigue". If left unchecked it can go on indefinitely and result in you alternating roast chicken with spaghetti bolognese for 16 years. At which point your children leave home and you eat soup and cheese every night for the next twenty years. Then you go into an old people's home. And I'll leave it there.

My husband has been away filming for the last few days and I traditionally like to welcome him home from these trips away with something nice for dinner. I say I LIKE to welcome him home with something nice for dinner but usually what happens is he comes home to find Kitty with a cold and the kitchen full of fruit flies.

So this time round I want to nail it. But what, what, what to cook? I can't do fish, because there isn't a fishmonger within my reach who has the correct green cred for my husband. Roast chicken is just a massive cop-out, we're always eating bloody curry, ditto my two vegetarian recipes. My latest "special" (yet easy/impressive) thing is slow-roast pork belly, but we've had that about three times in the last month.

While I mull it over, I may help myself to a sherry and tonic, which is my new favourite drink. It's closely related to the Seventies cocktail-hour favourite, white port and tonic, but sherry works just as well.

Next-eldest sister introduced me to this and we've been drinking it ever since. It's milder and sort of fruitier than a gin and tonic, it's a thirst-quencher, it's festive and doesn't get you instantly hammered [insert weary thing about how marvellous getting very hammered very quickly is here].

As documented, I can't drink these days - I just can't do it. And when I say "drink" I mean drink a lot - (and by a lot I mean so that you say slightly ill-advised things at the time, wake up to pee and take nurofen in the night and then feel a bit green the next day). It's a thing I've decided that I used to do when I didn't have anything else to do. Next-eldest said to me once "You can do it all - you can work and have children and go out. But you have to sacrifice getting pissed."

But once Kitty's a-bed and whatever scrabbled-together dinner we're having is on the go it does seem a shame not to have a weeny drinky. And this is the answer.

It's also a terrific, unusual and very practical thing to offer as a cocktail for a party because it looks nice - fizzy tumblers of pale drinky with clattering ice. If you want to be really fucking classy, add a strip of lemon peel.

You can use any sherry you like, fino or manzanilla. (I'm pretty sure they sell all sorts in Waitrose. Only Schwepps Indian tonic water will do.) If you once had fino sherry and found it to taste like pencil shavings, give this a go anyway because the tonic takes the edge off. And if you don't like tonic, well - I give up.

This post was brought to you by the letters S and C and dedicated to my friend Emelie Frid (@emfrid), who loves sherry and who has been having a shit time because her baby isn't well.

By the way, I wish I had post-natal depression, as some of you have thoughtfully pointed out. But alas, I've always been a jumble of nerves for as long as I can remember. I'm feeling much better now, as it happens, and think back to the dark days of the last fortnight with amusement, wondering if maybe I imagined the whole thing.

But I won't think about it too hard. It will only make me anxious.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Soy-braised tofu with butternut squash

You've got no idea how time-consuming suffering from crippling anxiety is. All the space that I used to occupy is now occupied by anxiety. There is no room for anything else. That is all there is left of me. All I can do is perform tasks to a very basic level and respond by turning my head when someone says my name. But my eyes are glassy. There's very little left of the person at home.

There is a TS Eliot poem, most of which I don't understand, (I don't understand any poetry, let alone anything by TS Eliot), that says something along the lines of this is me and I am here and everything else is not everything else, rather it is simply everything that is NOT me. Well right now everything in the whole world is only a thing in relation to my anxiety.

I went to see the doctor. My husband politely suggested it might be a good idea. I went with one sole aim: to not cry in his office. I had a shower and washed my hair. I put on non-mad clothes. I put plasters on my fingers where I had been attacking my cuticles and they were sore and bleeding. I put blusher on to hide the fact that I hadn't eaten or slept much recently.

But I cried anyway. Because you do. When you're anxious or depressed and you go to the doctor to ask for a referral to get your head examined (again) you cry. It's just the rules.

This is a long way of saying that I haven't been cooking much. When you suffer from chronic anxiety you tend not to be that interested in food. I've never been that bothered about food, just generally, in life, that's why I never learnt to cook until I had to feed a family. Left to my own devices I would (and have) live off McDonalds and pre-prepared macaroni cheese.

But once my anxiety (trembling hands, multiple night-wakings, constricted throat, leaden weight in the chest, nausea, clenched teeth, clearly hearing my child's cry in my head) has dragged on for a week and I have exhausted all permutations of takeaway, baked potatoes, dinners out and things my husband has cooked I have to return to the stove. And once I have run through my entire repertoire and Recipe Rifle hasn't been updated for nearly three weeks, it's time to hit The File.

The File is a stained purple cardboard file in which I occasionally shove torn-out recipes I mean to test out. Except that I don't always put the torn-out recipes in The File because I quite often lose The File and so shove the torn-out recipe somewhere else and then lose them.

So when I turn to The File, there is often not much interesting in there and always five or so recipes that I know I am never going to try (twice-baked souffle? Sorry, Xanthe Clay, can't be arsed) but am too superstitious to throw out.

Anyway this time I thought it would just pick something at random and cook it. It happened to be soy-braised tofu and butternut squash with spinach.

And it goes something like this:

For 4

1 pack cauldron tofu from Waitrose, about 350g
1 butternut squash
2 star anise
1.5 tbsp soy sauce
thumb-sized piece of ginger, sliced
2 tbsp soft brown sugar
250g spinach OR some baby bok choi
1 red chilli, sliced
500ml water

1 Peel and chop up your bastard butternut squash. I have had such bad experiences with butternut squash remaining rock hard after several days' sauteeing that I nuked this fucker in the microwave for about 5 mins before cooking. I advise you do the same. (Chop, place in plastic container with 2 tbsp water. Balance a lid on at a jaunty angle. Toy for the 500th time with putting something metal in there too, just to see what happens. Reject idea, despite living very near a fire station. Press 5 min and hit Go.)

2 Get tofu out and stick it between two chopping boards and then put something heavy on the top to squish all the water out. Leave it for about 15 mins then dice into 3cm-ish cubes.

3 Fry off the tofu in oil and set to one side. Then sautee your butternut squash for 10 minutes (which will be enough if it has been prepped in the m/w).

4 Throw over the squash the ginger, soy, star anise (which I personally don't like, but works fine here so any haters can approach with confidence), sugar and water and the tofu and boil all this briskly for about 15 minutes. The sauce ought to reduce to a syrupy consistency and the squash out to have relaxed but not be complete mush.

5 Take off the heat, add the spinach/bok choi, sprinkle over the red chilli and serve.

Giles loved this but I wasn't that crazy about it so I wouldn't bother with it if I were you.

Go to McDonald's instead.

Monday, 26 September 2011


I always - always - look an absolute fright. And as I get older it's less easy to conceal with the virtue of youth. I've concluded that my Hennes addiction is partly to blame, so I have decided that I am no longer allowed to go in. Not even to have a little looky-look.

Although thinking about it, my looking a fright might also be because of my wonky teeth and fat hamster face or my cheeks, which are ruddy like a farmer's son or my fat hands and picked-at cuticles. And my stupid hair, which I wish would just do something consistently. Like even if it was very flat and thin at least it would be consistently flat and thin. Or mad and curly at least it could be consistently mad and curly. But instead it veers in completely random non-wavy directions and really whatever I do with it, by 6pm it's almost always shoved up in some kind of straggly, unflattering bun, which really shows off my double chin to full effect.

I'm being disingenuous; my double chin is receeding, thanks to a combination of a fucking hideous Nazi diet and also every time Kitty gets ill (about once a month) I completely freak out and can't eat anything for 48 hours, which does wonders for shifting "un-shiftable" post-baby blubber. Exercise? Please. If you want to be thin you have to STARVE.

Where was I? Oh yes, right, so I'm back in my pre-pregnancy jeans now. I am secretly hoping to over-shoot past my dream weight (9st 3) and plummet down to, like, 8 and a half stone. Ideally, people will be whispering to each other about how worried they are about me. Eldest sister was so thin at Christmas that is was all we talked about and I was terribly jealous, being as I was then packing about three extra stone.

I've lost my original thought again. Clothes! Ok clothes clothes. All mine are shit. I've just done a purge of loads of drab depressing Hennes clothes so now I open my drawers and see about 40 mulchy Top Shop vests, a kaftan, a brown Zara poloneck and a terminally unflattering breton top from Uniqlo. Then I open my wardrobe and see two hideous check shirts, a flowery shirt with a big rip in it I bought in the South of France three years ago, eight party dresses from 2006 when I had to go to a lot of parties and a pink size eight bodycon skirt from Topshop.

I think starting next month I am going to buy ONE really nice thing per month from Net A Porter (price within reason) and when on the loose in Brent Cross, (fatal), I will write on my hand before I go "DON'T GO INTO HENNES".

For my husband, watching television shows like Come Dine With Me is the equivalent of buying a lot of clothes from Hennes. He prefers instead to pick a film neither of us have ever heard of from Pay Per View, watch two thirds of it, start yawning and say "this isn't really doing it for me". We then discuss whether or not to kill it for about ten minutes. We always do. Then we go to bed. It's almost always about 9pm.

But the other night I managed to persuade him to watch an episode of Father Ted and then Come Dine With Me and someone on it made a paella.

"Paella," said my husband. "Now that's a thing we could eat."

Then we had a short discussion over whether we ought to pronounce "paella" "pie-ay-ya" to avoid sounding like we were addressing the third child of Wayne and Waynetta Slob. We concluded that pronouncing words the local way is just too embarrassing, so pie-ellar it remained.

So he made one, although we didn't have any paella rice, or saffron, or prawns, and we used chicken stock instead of fish stock. So it was sort of a risotto. But it was also very much like a paella. And it was TERRIFIC. We were still talking about it the next day.

This is how he did it, in his own words:

"brown four cooking chorizo in a big shallow pan as much like a paella dish as you have (a wok is a top substitute but any big pan will do) on quite a generous slick of olive oil (this is spanish food so it's meant to be a bit oily) and slice later when they're firm (or slice dried chorizo and fry off, or if you have neither then some pancetta or lardons but you must have some cured pork in there one way or another).

Then into the nice meaty red paprika-y fat, chuck a quite finely chopped green pepper, finely chopped onion, three fat cloves of garlic finely chopped, low heat, maybe five mins, till soft but not brown. at this point i chucked in five or six big chunks of left over cold roast chicken, you could pre-brown four nice thighs first if you haven't got leftovers, but you do need some white meat (the original valencian paella has rabbit instead of chicken, but then it has snails instead of shellfish, which NOBODY wants).

okay, then when the chicken has relaxed into the dish, toss in about 200 grams of rice (this will serve three to four people in the end, or two with leftovers - it's better the next day) and toss that around until all the grains are nicely oiled (now, i didn't have paella rice, i had only risotto rice, but Esther said risotto gets its consistency from all the stirring, not the arborio itself, so i went with a bit less stirring and it worked beautifully).

add some paprika at this stage. mild or hot, doesn't matter, it's mostly for colour, and some chilli flakes or crushed dried chilli, not too much. if you have saffron, now is the time for that too. i didn't. and didn't miss it. i used a bit of tumeric for yellowness (but the bright yellow of a costa del sol paella is all food colouring so don't make that your benchmark unless you have a pot of E102 in the cupboard).

so, fry, fry, fry, um, oh yes, two to four nice firm tomatoes, de-seeded (but i didn't bother to skin, the rolled up skins looked a bit like the missing saffron stamens), chopped as small as you can be bothered. stir, stir, stir. i think that's that stage done.

no, wait, then a big glass of white wine or sherry, in, bring to boil and cook off the booze.

so now you have a couple of pints or so of chicken stock (or better still a prawn stock, but i couldn't get prawns) nice and hot on the stove (always use stock hot in things like this becasue it saves everything cooling down and slowing the whole faff down even more - you cd even get away with boiling water), poor about half of it on, so the rice is covered, about the amount that cd get the rice to almost cooked but not quite. and bubble away a a simmer, not stirring, but maybe poking a bit to make sure all the rice is under, for about ten minutes, by now it should taste pretty good (assuming you've had the nouse to salt it according to your own taste) but still the grains too hard and starchy.

now is the time to lob in a big handful of clams and one of mussels, bought that morning and scrubbed hard under the tap. push them into the top of the rice hinges down so they open gaping upwards and look pretty, and also one nice big squid (emptied and the horn removed obviously) sliced into rings, and the crown of tentacles halved. poke these down into the rice a bit, then cover with foil or a lid, and cook for another ten minutes or so, so that the shells are open, the squid has turned white and opaque and the rice is done. (if you've got prawns then put them in at the same time as the other shell fish but just fry them off for a couple of minutes first).

serve on plates, picking out all the shellfish and making sure it gets eaten becasue it is not so stellar in the leftovers, and garnish with chopped parsley. eat it with a cheap rioja topped up with a splash of lemonade.

i've probably forgotten a couple of things. [Like: he chucked a handful of samphire over it, which you can do if you want or not if not.] it's basically a cross between a jamie, a delia and an anthony worrell-thompson that all come up on the first page when you google 'paella' - but ignore all the websites with "spain" or "spanish" in the name, because that's just wankers going on about authenticity."

Monday, 19 September 2011

Caramel sauce

It came to me - like Kubla Khan - this morning as I lay somewhere in between waking and sleep.

"Don't look down," I heard. "Don't look down."

It only came to me later what it meant. "Don't look down" may as well be my (rather oblique) personal motto. I try never to look down, never to think about what my other options might be - especially if I am stuck somewhere. Because if I really thought about it I might completely fucking freak out. And that wouldn't help anyone or anything.

I am stuck as this mum person. And it was my choice. And sometimes it's okay but sometimes it's extremely not okay. And so I have decided that my general attitude will be not to look down. Not to check the clock when I know for a fact it's hours until bedtime. Not to attempt to go out and get drunk - ever. Not to seek out the company of people who don't have children. Not to attempt to go anywhere that isn't child-friendly. Not think about anything but what's happening in the next two hours. Not to try to do anything but creep along this ledge I find myself on, slowly, hand over hand, all the while not looking down.

Refusing to look down is a thing I quite often do in cooking, as it happens. Although it works for me in life on a larger scale, in cooking this attitude often means that I will go at a recipe unprepared and rather blindly, assuming it's easy unless I'm told otherwise. And often there are disastrous consequences.

Like this weekend, I wanted to make a caramel sauce to go with a pudding (don't get excited - bought) and I had to go through 3 different recipes before I found one that didn't pretty much explode or set like concrete. I didn't investigate, you see - I didn't read up on what might go wrong. And what might go wrong, if you're me, is that you turn the stove up as high as it will go, nuke everything and make a terrible mess.

But this recipe works as long as you don't excitedly overcook it and caramel sauce is a terrific thing to be able to make. I was mostly excited about being able to decant it into one of my squeezy bottles that I bought from Pages last year and have yet to really find a use for. I drizzled it, without really thinking (naturally), in a zig zag pattern across the plate and brought it to the table to gales of laughter and jokes about the pudding being from 1986.

What can I say? I didn't look down.

Caramel sauce
enough for about 6 people

100g light brown soft sugar
50 butter
200ml double cream

1 Put the sugar and butter in a pan and melt on the lowest possible heat until everything has melted and combined. This may take up to 10 minutes. Be patient.

2 Take the pan off the heat and gently whisk in the cream. If you want to return the pan to the heat that's fine, just make sure it's a gentle one.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Damson jam

I think I became truly middle-aged the day I got home from university. What I reallly wanted, I decided, was some fucking peace and quiet, Radio 4 and something baking in the oven. I became obsessed with storage solutions, even though I didn't have anything to store, and bookmarked Lakeland and Farrow and Ball.

I had recently got into the West Wing and while I went wibbly like everyone else over the general smart-arsery and political blah-blah (like the easily impressed fool I am) I also fell in love with the sets. That plush, wholesome Americana thing. Tobacco-coloured lamps on polished wood. Rugs on floors. Wide-striped wallpaper. Plantation shutters. Comfort. Quality.

I think it was around about then that I first started having - admittedly rather lateral - thoughts that maybe I ought to learn how to cook. It didn't really happen because I tried one or two things and they didn't work out, so with typical determination and perseverence, I gave up.

But the feeling lingered. That middle-aged feeling, (despite being 22), and for a long time, whenever autumn rolled around, I wanted to make jam. But because I lived at home, which has no fruit trees, and then subsequently in a high-rise flat on Kensington High Street, if I wanted to make jam I would have to buy the fruit to make it, from a shop. And even I knew that there was something not quite right about that.

So I never made jam. But I always wanted to. I made marmalade a few years ago to test out a recipe for a cookbook and in fact it turned out to be quite easy.

Then I went to stay with next-eldest sister in Oxfordshire who suggested I make some jam from then damsons weighing down her tree and using a  mash-up of my own bumptiousness and Delia, made some damson jam that worked out really quite well. Alas, in the chaos of packing up for Kitty for even one night I forgot the flaming camera, so there are no dreamy photos of the damson tree in autumnal light.

I can't give you exact quantities, because I didn't weigh anything, but this is the idea of the recipe. Exact quantities can be found on Delia Online.

Damson jam

A quantity of damnsons - about a big saucepan-full
A 2 kg bag of caster sugar - you won't use the whole thing but you might as well buy a huge bag just in case

1 Put the damsons in a large pan and fill with water until just covered. Stew for about an hour.

2 Pass the resulting mixture through a colander to get rid of skin and stones. Don't do it through a sieve because you'll be there all week.

3 Set your strained mixture on the highest head you can on the hob. Now, here I added sugar to taste. I don't like a really over-sweet jam and wanted to keep some of the tartness of the damsons. So I shook in as much sugar as I wanted to flavour it. You can do that, or you can follow Delia's quantities religiously, if you don't feel confident going off-road.

4 Now boil the shit out of it. For about 45 minutes, I'd say. My sister turned down the heat after about 25 minutes because the jam was bubbling and "going everywhere". But it still set. To test if your jam is ready, put a small plate in the fridge and after about 40 minutes' boiling dab a blob on the plate and leave it. The coldness of the plate hastens the cooling of the jam and you can only tell whether jam is set when it's cold.

You can sterilise some jars by putting them in a 180C oven for about 5 minutes. Then pour in the jam while it's still warm and runny.

Label artistically and pretend you are a lady novelist living in a river cottage in Sussex.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Coronation chicken sauce - BEST EVER

So. First holiday as a family. DONE. It was sort of ridiculous. In London, I have a bit of help during the week so I can drive randomly around town playing very loud music and screaming intermittently. But in Sussex there was no-one. Although my husband is a terrifically hands-on kind of guy, it wasn't a situation where I could shout "Bye!" at the door and piss off for two hours.

And it does concentrate the mind. I did spend rather a lot of time thinking about why people have children. Why? I howled this question particularly loudly to myself in my head as I fed a damp, bored and miserable Kitty a bottle in the pouring rain, hiding under a tree in the grounds of Petworth House, which we'd visited because you've got to do something between 2pm and 6pm other than singing "Row Row Row Your Boat" and looking at the clock, or you'll go mad.

Why? It's just so stupid. There you are, having a perfectly nice time and then you completely fuck your whole life up. For ages. I have become one of those people who devours anything written by anyone who is either desperate to have a baby or by someone who regrets not having had children. I can live on that shit for a week.

I always come to the conclusion - as I think everyone does - that the whole sorry business is all just selfish. For example, by having children I hope to achieve two things:

1) To go home. I want so badly to be at home again, in my bedroom with my stuff and my sisters around and my mum downstairs and my dad behind a newspaper somewhere. Adult life frightens me. I don't like things like clubbing very much, or achieveing things in an office environment, or going to smart parties, or acting on the spur of the moment. I just want to go home and potter about. I really like my parents, they are really nice people. I never had a yearning to get out and forge my way in the world. My parents had to evict me at 25. And because I can't go home (my little sister has taken over my old bedroom) the closest thing I can do is make a duplicate, an offshoot like a spider plant, and cross my fingers that it will, somehow, like a metaphorical Dr Sam Beckett, Quantum Leap me back.  

2) To have the life my mother has now. God my mum has a great time. Four daughters, none of who turned out to have a drug problem or decided to move permanently halfway across the world, (I always think that says something), who each ring her for a major gossip at least once a week, who deliver her grandchildren she can fuss over - then hand back - and bring to our house life. Life.

When we were little there was an apocryphal tale about my mother leaving next-eldest sister in the bath and she "nearly drowned". With the poisonous cruelty that little children are sometimes capable of, we always used to hold this up as an example of my mother's blatant imperfection. 

I remembered this story the other day when I left Kitty propped up with cushions on the sofa for a few minutes to fetch something. The thing I had not realised is that when it happened, my mother's first husband, the father of next-eldest and eldest sister, would have been either dying or already dead from leukemia. My mother would have been about 34.  And for a long time, until she met my father, she was all alone. With two small children. Of course she left next-eldest in the bath for a second or two! Eldest sister was probably screaming. Or there was a hammering on the door. Or she smelt burning. Or maybe she just needed to get a towel. And there was no-one else there.

So to have a full house, to have people there, is all my mother wants. And she is wise for it. As I hardly have any friends, and have never been able to do that thing where the few friends I have just come and hang out in my house, there is no question of having some kind of modern "urban" family with lots of glamorous homosexuals scattered about. If I am going to have any sort of family life, I am going to have to make one myself. Literally grow one. And there's no easy way of doing it.
To misquote Madonna: There are no shortcuts to being a family.* So occasionally you just have to fucking suck it up.

As it happens, there are no shortcuts to making a brilliant Coronation Chicken sauce. You can do a pretty grim one with curry powder and mayonnaise and raisins but it's not very nice.

A really serious one was brought round for me by Julia Churchill and it disappeared so quickly and I was so dazed from 4 weeks' solid childcare that it didn't cross my mind to take a photo. And I certainly haven't had, like, four seconds to myself to re-create it. So you're just going to have to do without a snap and simply take my word, on faith, that it's out of this world. Which is it. Really fantastic.

(NB: I am going to the countryside this weekend to see next-eldest sister - who didn't drown - and she has a glut of damsons. So in order to make it up to you, I will take a lot of whimsical pictures everyone can feel all autumnal about.)

I emailed Julia for the recipe and this is what came back. I always think it's best to let people deliver recipes in their own words and these are hers.

"Finely chop an onion and cook slowly till very dark. Add in spices - quite a lot of mustard seed, black onion seed, pepper, cardomom, (spelling?), tumeric, cumin, coriander seed, fennel seed, chilli flakes (loads. I have decided quite recently that food should hurt from time to time), teaspoon of curry powder for that familiar note, tiny bit cinnamon and clove - almost not there. Cook it. Let it cool and mix it with mayonnaise and [mango] chutney and squeeze in some lemon juice if it's cloying. Salt. Chopped coriander at the end. Oooo. Was there anything else? I think that's it.


*"There are no shortcuts to being Madonna".

Friday, 19 August 2011

Giles' featherblade stew

So here we are in Sussex. I am not especially touched by the number of you telling me to merrily enjoy my holiday and not to bother posting. So I might write a hugely long and boring thing (what's new?) to punish you all.

If only because I know next-eldest sister subscribes to this via email and what with three children under 5 I know she's got nothing better to do than read my old cack for 2,000 words.

Here she is:

(That's Kitty, rather than one of hers. Although hers are sweet, you should see them. You know next-eldest sister from previous posts such as "Ginger Cake" and "Aunty Hannah's Courgette Thing". Adrian Gill once talked to me for an entire starter course about how "pretty" her nose is. This is not the first time that's happened to me. So I think that's all you need to know about her.)

Kitty is entirely recovered, you'll be relieved to know. I paid a private GP £8,000 to come to my house and tell me that she needed antibiotics, because no NHS doctor in a million years will tell you anything needs antibiotics even if it is livid with bacteria. Anyway Dr Abelman gave me some amoxycillin without batting an eyelid and Kitty was on the mend within hours.

(And he ALSO, as those of you who follow me on Twitter will know, gave me painkiller suppositories for Kitty. A lifeline with an infant throat infection, which menas they won't swallow the wretched fucking Calpol. He gave me some Nurofen ones he found in Tel Aviv but I went straight out and bought 2 packs of paracetamol ones at £18 a throw. I would now launch into a very long thing about how completely insane it is that infant painkillers aren't available in suppository form wider and more cheaply in this country, but I fear I would bore you. Further. And also elicit awful tedious jokes about suppositories and the French, which I don't want to hear. I no longer think suppositories are remotely funny.)

Sussex is very nice. I chose the house on the basis that it has WiFi and a tumble drier. The only downer is that I think the woman who owns it used to interrogate people for the Stasi because the lighting concept is absolutely fucking terrible! 100 watt horrors shining right in your eyes or hideous energy savers. Brrr. 

The house is also close to Cowdray Park Farm shop, which is like Waitrose with only the top 5% of the poshest things available and you can buy things like REN skincare and really delicious takeaway quiche for £5. But in all seriousness, the butcher there is first-rate and my husband is practically hysterical with relief because although he claims to be all folksy and down to earth he is terrified of the dark English countryside where there is only a Spar and local boys tear around on dirt bikes. 

The weather has turned slightly and it is very sunny but really quite cold. My packing has let me down a bit,  although I have learned from past mistakes and now abide by these packing rules:

1 Do not pack things you never wear at home because you think you might wear them because you're away. You're away but you're still YOU.
2 Do not pack your shittiest clothes because you're away and so it doesn't matter
3 Allow for one very cold day
4 Allow for one very hot day
5 Allow for one very wet day
6 Pack your entire medicine cabinet
7 and the iPad

I did all that but I didn't quite pack enough warm clothes. I'm not one of those people who always anticipates being freezing and packs fleeces and UGG boots because I am not a sticky fashion person who is always cold because they are so THIN living as they do off handfuls of bombay mix and miso paste. But now I do miss my UGG boots. (Although they are not UGG boots, they are called Celt Boots and they are the most marvellous rip off and available here: I also miss my Crocs. Why didn't I bring them. I fucking love my Crocs. I won't hear a word against them.

Where was I? Oh yes, the butcher at Cowdray Park. The other day, in the third hour of some pretty heroic childcare, my husband made, while Kitty crashed around the kitchen in her walker, a stew from some featherblade, which is a kind of steak cut from the shoulder. I think. I'm never quite sure about cuts. Anyway the butcher said to cook it for 4 hours, which is the kind of instruction we like in this family, so that's what we did.

And it was terrific and very simple.

Giles's featherblade stew
for 2

2 featherblade steaks
1 medium white onion, quartered (which is just a normal onion, rather than a shallot or whatever)
1 carrot, halved
1 fennel bulb, quartered (leave this out if you don't like fennel)
1 kohlrabi, quartered (this tastes like turnip)
1 large strip of orange peel
1 strip of lemon peel
3 bay leaves
5 peppercorns
1 stick of rosemary
some stock - about 150ml
1 glass red wine

Preheat the oven to 150

1 Brown off the steaks in some veg oil for about 5 minutes until brown all over

2 Put in a pot with a lid with all the other ingredients

3 Cook in the oven for 4 hours with the lid on

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Recipe Rifle is away

I'm in Sussex on "holiday" (DON'T bother burgling me, I've got builders in and a friend staying) and I've forgotten the lead that joins my camera to my laptop. So I can't post any photos. And I know you can't abide a post without a photo so I haven't done anything.

But it's a bit of a shame because it's quite pretty round here and my husband is making some kind of daube of beef thing that I think might be worth writing about.

Should I drive into the local village, Midhurst, and see if someone will sell me this essential cable? Or more likely round here I will have to swap something for it like my shoes, or a pair of Levis or something.

Sunday, 7 August 2011


It is 1am and I am lying on the single bed in the nursery staring at the ceiling, listening to Kitty's shallow breathing in the cot next to me. She has just fallen asleep.

She is very ill. Strep throat, a doctor will say two days later. She was boiling - boiling - to the touch with fever when I arrived at her bedside. I got myself ready to adminster some life-saving Nurofen but she didn't want it - gagged and vomited a little bit down herself in protest. So I jammed as much in her mouth as I could, changed her pukey sleeping back, walked her round, waited for her to nod off and then lay down braced for a sleepless night listening to her whimper.

It's a terrible noise, a baby whimpering in its sleep.

And as I lay there in the dark listening to the whimpering and to the nursery clock ticking and the aircon whirring I thought for the first time in a long time "At least I'm not in Australia."

That is my thing, my "At least I'm not..." thing.

I ended up in Australia in the late summer of 2001. I went out with no clear idea of what I was going to do but my sister was out there for a year and I was bored, so I went. My sister was working in some snazzy bar and going out with a very posh Australian - yes they do, in fact, exist - called Jimmy. He was terrific, Jimmy - he was hilarious. Tall with dark hair and long dark eyelashes like a girl. He was always stealing his flatmates' food - usually dinky little take-out pots of spicy asian-fusion salads - late at night when drunk and peckish.

"Hmm..." he would say, his head in the fridge. "What's Polly got in here? A little snacky-snack for Jimmy before bedtime?"

Anyway you get the idea.

I couldn't stay in Sydney with them so I took off up the East Coast. It was boring. I had a shit time. There was one okay week where I worked on a cattle farm and I should have stayed there mucking out the horses and working in the bar, but I moved on in the wrong belief that there was more to see.

What happened instead was that I unwittingly became a thief.

It happened like this:

I was sitting about in some hostel or other with a girl who was going home soon. "Just going," she said "to have a quick rummage round lost property for some flip flops. Mine are broken."

"Is that a thing you do?"

"Yeah there's always great stuff in hostel lost properties. These Miss Sixties?" She said, pointing at her jeans. "Alice Springs. This bag...?" etc.

So off we went to the lost property box. There was nothing that fascinating except a shitty brown t-shirt with red Japanese writing on the front that I thought looked quite unusual. I tucked it under my arm and thought no more about it.

Three days later I was sitting in another dull, depressing hostel somewhere hot and crappy, wearing my scavanged t-shirt, and an angry Irish girl stormed up to me.

"Where did you get that t-shirt?" she demanded. "It was stolen out of my bag. Why have you got it?"

And here is where it went wrong. Why didn't I just say "Found it. Lost property in X. Is it yours? Have it back!!"?

I don't know why not. What I did say, however, was "My sister gave it to me."

Why did I say that? WHY?

Maybe I thought she wouldn't believe the story that I'd found it in lost property and scream "Thief!" at me. I can't be bothered to recount exactly what happened in the days that followed but it was nasty. The angry Irish girl and her friend accused me to everyone they could find of having stolen her t-shirt. And the Eastern Coast of Australia turns out to be a very small place. I somehow kept up with my lame story that it was mine.

They followed me up the coast for three days, telling everyone at every hostel that I was a thief. Hissing at me as they passed me that I was pathetic. Then one day the angry Irish girl's friend came up to me and said that they'd called the police. By then I had lost all sense of perspective and couldn't see that it was obviously total fucking rubbish. I'd had enough. I hadn't eaten for about three days or really slept. I am an anxious person, you see, and being accused of being a thief is something I can't really style out.

I went to my rucksack and took out the t-shirt. "If I give this to you," I said. "Do you promise to leave me alone and never speak to me again?"

I saw, on the girls' face, a flicker of doubt that she and her angry Irish friend were right.
"I'm not an arsehole, you know," she said.
"Sure," I said, and handed her the t-shirt.

Then that night, in the middle of the night, I split. I took a taxi to a hostel well off the beaten tourist path, filled with cattle station hands and middle-aged women travelling cross-country to see newborns. And that was that.

It's bothered me for years, that incident - although with hindsight I didn't really do anything that bad. Just really thick. But still, I have never told anyone that story. Not. A. Soul.

(A week later I arrived back in Sydney and went straight out and got a tattoo. I've always wondered if the two things are connected.)

The day before I flew back to London the twin towers collapsed. (It was interesting getting on an international flight via the Middle East on 12/09/01, I tell you.) Then about three years later, Jimmy killed himself. I won't go into how. And I simply don't know why. Oh, and someone gave me fucking chlamydia.

So that's why however crumby things are, I'm glad I'm not in Australia.

Although I think I am one of the few people to have enjoyed the film.

I have newly fallen back in love with my husband. Not that I was ever out of love with him but in the last few days I have been crawling around after him screaming "I love you! I worship you! Please marry me!"

The thing is, he comes into his own when there's something wrong with the baby and I am simply vomiting in a corner with anxiety, ringing NHS Direct and crying. My husband takes charge, shooes me out of the nursery, won't let me near the baby monitor and makes me dinner.

All we had in the house was some beef, which he decided to roast - "Although I know we're not celebrating or anything," he said. "I know we're all in mourning because Kitty's got a cough."

And he wanted to make a gravy to go with it.

Gravy is something that can appear daunting but actually it's okay if you give yourself a bit of time.

For gravy, you need:
1 The pan that something has roasted in
2 Some shitty alcohol (even this is optional, really)
3 Some flour or cornflour
4 Some stock or vegetable cooking water

Roughly to make a gravy, take the roasting pan and "de-glaze" with shitty cooking wine. This means you place the pan over a medium flame and pour in some alcohol, about half a wine-glass full I'd say. Then you scrape at the pan and get all the roasty bits and sticky bits off the bottom.

Then reduce this until it becomes glossy-ish round the edges. Reduce the heat and take the pan off the flame. Sprinkle over some flour - about a tablespoon. With the pan off the heat, mush this all round until it is a paste.

Now add some of your liquid - either stock or some veg cooking water - to the pan still off the heat. Mix this round until vaguely combined.

Then put the pan back on the heat and add some more sloops of stock or cooking water. Simmer it briskly until it starts to thicken thanks to the flour.

Pour over your roast dinner.

Then take a Valium. Or three.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Nigella's mexican lasagne

I once read in a magazine - I forget which one now - a problem on the problem pages that went something like this:

Q. My husband refuses to pick his towel up off the bathroom floor. It drives me demented. How can I punish him?

A. Instead of wanting to punish him, why don't you think to yourself, as you pick the towel up off the bathroom floor, of all the nice things he does for you without you asking? It is little act of devotion like these that keep marriages going.

Here are some of the annoying things that my husband does:

- He doesn't pick up the bathmat off the bathroom floor
- He clears his throat in quite an annoying way
- He steals my car key because he can't be bothered to find his, then accuses me of having used, and lost his key (thus forcing him to use mine).
- He will turn to me and say "Shall I have a shower? Or not?"
- If the TV is on and he wants to say something, rather than finding the remote and pausing the programme he will shout "PAUSE!", which is my cue to find the remote (under his bum, usually) and pause the programme for him so he may deliver his opinion.
- He will suddenly decide that the house is a mess and pick things up randomly (an unopened letter, a pair of flip flops, a baby's toy) and say "What's the story with this? Should it be here?"
- He will walk into his own kitchen and wonder aloud where we keep the knives, forks, salt, pepper, plates and so on

Here are some of the annoying things that I do:

- I pick at my cuticles. Constantly.
- I clear my throat in a nice way. But I do it ALL the time
- I never open my post, particularly anything that looks financial
- I interrupt all the time.
- I give my husband death stares
- I am a sluttish washer-upper
- I call the baby "Kitty-Cookan-TIS"
- I sometimes only empty half of the dishwasher and then wander off to do something else and forget to unload the rest
- I throw money (his) at any problem
- I leave the area around the toaster a mess, attracting ants and wasps.
- I don't make the bed

Here are the nice things that my husband does for me:

- He doesn't make me go and get a job
- He does my tax
- He takes out all the bins and deals with the compost
- He sorts out the cars, the tax for the cars, the maintenence of the cars
- He doesn't make me see people I don't like
- He'll make any phonecall for me that I'm too scared to make
- He cleans all my hair out of the trap in the shower

Here are the nice things that I do for my husband:

- I hang up the bathmat
- I always make sure there is enough deodorant, shampoo, showergel etc in the bathroom
- Ditto for the kitchen
- Ditto stamps, birthday cards and wrapping paper
- I sort out dinner, pretty much every night
- I will fire anyone that he feels too guilty to fire
- I don't give him shit about going out and getting drunk
- I don't give him shit about his swearing or bad taste jokes
- I don't give him shit about doing more childcare

Whenever my husband has done something annoying and I feel enervated, I always run those lists through my head. It's what my marriage balances on, like a fat elephant on a plank of wood on a ballbearing. But a few years ago, I realised that my husband was NOT aware that there was this careful balancing act going on. He did not think, as he ignored my throat-clearing, cuticle-picking, death-staring grotesqueness, that he was simply keeping up his end of the bargain. He believed that he was bearing the brunt of marital irritation, while I sailed through life blithely un-irritated. One day, things exploded in a terrible row about me not making the bed.

I won't lie, there were tears.

Then I explained about the list. About the importance of acts of devotion. And he got it, more or less.

And that's why I'm always sorting out dinner; it's part of the deal. It's why I try to find new things to cook, rather than just doing a roast chicken or pasta over and over again. If it's going to be my area, I might as well having a big repertoire. It makes everything easier.

Which explains why I tried out this Mexican Lasagne, by Nigella. I thought it looked fun although like everything that used canned tomatoes, it ends up tasting a lot like canned tomatoes. But it's a good one to have up your sleeve to pull out when things are getting a bit samey.

This is not Nigella's exact recipe but it is close enough. The exact one can be sourced easily on the internet.

Mexican lasagne
Serves 4 hungry people, or 6 less hungry, with a salad

1 pack flour tortillas
2 cans chopped tomatoes
1 can sweetcorn
1 can black beans
2 red chillies
1 large onion
2 cloves garlic
1 small bunch coriander
2 tsp mild chilli powder
1 red pepper, roughly chopped, or a jar of peppers in oil, chopped
two big handfuls cheese - manchengo, monteray jack or cheddar

Preheat oven to 180

1 Chop the onion, garlic, chillies and red peppers and sweat in a pan with some veg oil for about four minutes, then sprinkle over the chilli powder and cook for a further 10 minutes over a low flame. Then add the tomatoes and chopped coriander and simmer for about 10 minutes.

2 In a separate pan put the black beans and the sweetcorn, heat up and mix around.

3 Now layer the tomato sauce, bean mix, grated cheese and flour tortillas (2 per layer) to make up a lasagne. I'll leave you to decide the best way of doing it, but it's good to finish off with a layer of tortillas and then cheese for a bubbly brown top.

4 Bung in the oven for 30 minutes.

You can eat this with yoghurt or guacamole or any other Mexicany-type thing you can think of, while you ponder the secrets of martial bliss.

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