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.