Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Recipe Rifle: a digital original

Last year, in secret, I spent an awfully long time trying to get someone to publish Recipe Rifle as a book, but in the end failed.

It was a perfectly ghastly experience, looking back. At the time it seemed sort of fun, a respite from the tedious task of administering to a small baby. But in actual fact it was just disappointment after disappointment, I existed in a horrid limbo. Hopes up, hopes dashed. Eventually, total disaster, angry words and a general collapse. I wasn't really surprised: dancing in front of a weary, malfunctioning publishing industry, chronically unable to sell myself, I often said things in meetings like "You know, the way things are at the moment, I probably wouldn't take this book on if I were you."

And, worse, these publishing people would say to me: "Why would someone buy this book? I mean, why would they pick it up in Waterstones?" By the third time I heard this I would want, powerfully, to claw their eyes out, kick them in the stomach and scream "You tell me you fucking idiot! That's your job not mine! Jesus fucking Christ, no wonder the whole damn thing is collapsing round your ears if you're asking me why someone would buy a freaking book. I'm going home."

But I did not do that.

Instead I cut all ties to that miserable year, sulked in my tent for a while, then sought out instead The Friday Project, a publishing house that specialises in bringing blogs to a wider audience. And when I say that, I mean that they make it possible for otherwise unpublishable authors (that's me) to sell their work, without it being considered "vanity" (i.e. "mad") publishing.

The bloke who runs The Friday Project, Scott, is terrific. He doesn't ask me who will buy my book. He doesn't ask me, looking worried, how I think I am going to turn the blog into a "story". He just said "Put together whatever you think is best and maybe some people will buy it if they like it."

"Will you make it really cheap?" I asked, anxiously. "I mean, like, 50p so it's crazy not to buy it, like a vest top from H&M??"

"Not that cheap," he said. "But not expensive either."

The catch is that you will only be able to buy it online and read it on your iPad or Kindle or other e-reader, (unless it becomes a freak hit and the cost of printing the book becomes negligable). A "digital original", they call it, with graceful euphemism. and I don't get an advance, I am only paid for what I sell. But frankly with my shitty attitude that's a good thing. Give me money and I won't do anything. Give me a deadline and the possibility of money and I will work. A bit.

SO - my readers, my lovely, lovely readers who have been with me through thick and thin, through marriage, births, ups and downs (no deaths - yet) do you have a favourite post that you think I ought to definitely include? One that you can recall made you laugh? Are there any that were really bad - have I had a dodgy patch? Am I boring when I bang on about a certain thing?

Tell me! Tell me, tell me. I have to file my first draft in October.


Mango salsa


It's been an epiphanous week.

It started when my nanny got flu. "I can come in, I suppose," she said faintly down the phone last Monday. "My temperature is only 103."

"No you're alright," I said. And then started to panic about how the fuck I was going to cope alone, no nanny, no cleaner (holiday) no husband (out covering the Olympics) no mummy (holiday) no sisters (holiday) no local friends (holiday - and I don't have that many anyway) for an entire week.

I won't lie, I have never looked forward to being in sole charge of Kitty. It's a thing that depresses me - both spending a lot of time alone with her and also being depressed about being depressed about it.

At first it was ghastly. She didn't seem to want to be with me any more than I wanted to be with her. I dragged her hither and thither in her buggy, shunting her quickly from one activity to the next, shied away from the tv like it was an unexploded bomb. If it got turned on, I fretted, it would never turn off again until she goes to nursery next September.

When Kitty would go down for her lunchtime nap I would get in to bed and pull the duvet over me, squeeze my eyes shut and think "Christ, how are we going to manage this?"

But by Tuesday afternoon I had it licked.

I don't know if all toddlers are the same but Kitty has this incredibly short attention span, like a drunk, and what she likes to do is roam. So I turned the ground floor into a sort of toddler fresher's fair, with small activities ranged around, from telly at one end, stickers, drawing and playdoh in the middle, the iPad somewhere around, books and rice cakes towards the kitchen, a paddling pool in the garden and her own mini-buggy with which to commute between these activities.

The telly was on all day, every day, all week, set to a murmuring background volume, tuned to CBeebies, although she was not, in the end, as interested in it as I feared. And anyway I ceased to care one way or the other. I let go. She ranged around, singing, talking to herself, talking to me, talking to the mirror, climbing on and off furniture, digging around in the dirt, flopping out on her beanbag in front of Mr Tumble, gorging on raspberries from the garden, vomiting dramatically and then saying "Oh dear!!" while she regarded the red puddle. Meanwhile, I found that I did actually have time to cook and the house didn't fall into irreparable chaos, (although there has been an awful lot of scrabbling around for things at the last minute).

We had a wicked time. Honestly we did. I'm not just saying that, in some sort of "Ooo and then everything was alright" kind of way. It was great. I learned all sorts of things about her I didn't know. It was genuinely hilarious. I didn't miss any of the things I do when I've got a nanny. I realised, in fact, that I don't especially enjoy myself when I do have that free time.

Like now. I am sitting alone in my huge, spooky house while Kitty is out with her nanny and 40,000 other Caribbean children somewhere in Peckham having an amazing time and will not be back until bathtime.

And if I think about it too much, I might get upset. So let's go; let's fly you and I away from this gloomy now, to a different time, back to 2006 when I had just started on Londoner's Diary, which as I'm sure you know is the gossip page of the Evening Standard.

One day appeared a new girl in the editor's office. The editor liked to have a lot of girls around and she was very mean to all of them. She thought she was in the Devil Wears Prada or something and that being mean to your assistants is terribly glamorous, but we knew that we were actually in a scummy daily newspaper office in West London and that people who are mean to their assistants are bitches who will rot in hell.

The editor's girls didn't usually last. They all had office affairs eventually, which then went sour, then they went on sick leave, then never came back. But Connie, or "Beautiful Connie" as she quickly became known, was different. She was smart. She couldn't have been less interested in the skinny boys on news or any of the fast-talking, grizzled and jowly back bench. Her boyfriends were always incredibly tall mega-Sloanes that she'd known she was six, who thought journalists were dismal little people. Yet there was a steely glint in her sleepy brown eyes and a taut resiliance in her long, long blonde hair and perky tiny-flower-patterned mini dresses.

The editor had finally met her match.

She was my best - and, sometimes, only - friend at the Standard. I would often poke my head into the editor's office, where she sat drinking pot after pot of fresh ginger tea that was so strong that when you drank it, it felt like your whole face was on fire and she would shriek, quietly: "ESTHER!! Oh my god I've just eaten an entire Bounty and TWO packets of Maltesers!!!"

I have been thinking about Connie recently because I came across a recipe for a mango salsa, which she used to make for me in the weeny galley kitchen of her top floor flat in Notting Hill. Roasting in summer and freezing in winter, ("I think another bad January might finish me off"),  Connie's flat was a miracle of survival, like those plants you get in the desert, or 100,000 miles under the sea.

Anyway she almost always has the ingredients in her kitchen for this spicy mango salsa, and it's quite, quite delicious. My husband and I had this with a very rich jerk pork belly, which didn't work at all, it was too rick and gacky and yuk. It would be very good instead with some plain steak, or a tuna steak (although these days one cannot really eat such things) or a plain white fish like turbot or pollock.

Makes enough for 2-3

1 mango - diced
juice of 1 lime
small handful coriander
a sprinkling of fresh mint
1 chilli - no seeds - chopped finely
1 avocado, diced

1 Put everything in a bowl and mix

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Treacle tart

I mean, what the fucking fuck do you call this??!

I have for a long time thought that treacle tart is a thing I ought to be able to make, but I have always been scared off by this "baking blind" instruction.

That's that thing, that I'm sure you're all terribly familiar with and do it all the time, (in the evenings and weekends just for a laugh), where you roll out your pastry into a tin and then cover it with ceramic beads or beans and cook it before the filling goes in and then cook it again with the filling in it. A more pointless, time-wasty and stupid instruction I've rarely seen and so have always avoided it.

But tonight we've got some nice people coming round for dinner so I thought I'd break my baking blind, treacle tart duck and do it because the alternative is to cower in darkness - and that's only hilarious for so long.

So off I went to Waitrose brmm brmm in my little car, and got some sweet pastry and a tin of golden syrup and some creme fraiche to go with it and came back and blithely stumbled into the worst and most useless recipe for anything I've ever cooked, ever. Except for that gumbo, remember that?


Just bad. Bad and wrong and unhelpful and stupid and ill and presumptuous and irresponsible. While the tart was doing its final cook in the oven I sat down for a bit with Waitrose Kitchen and had a flick through and alighted on a Fergus Henderson recipe for treacle tart that was far more detailed, complex and basically entirely different from the Rhodes recipe.

I experienced a terrible bumrush, of the sort you get when you turn over an exam paper and realise that you have spent the last week revising for a different, wrong module, or that the person you have just been massively bitching up is within earshot, or that your period is three weeks late.

I knew then. I knew in that moment that my tart was a bummer. And so it was. I can't be bothered to start listing the catclysmic death roll-call of things wrong with it, but let's just say that the BEST thing about it is that sides are burnt to shit.

FUCK! What a waste of my time! I could have been doing loads of other things! I could have been asleep.

I have nothing else to add. There is no nice ending to this story.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Asian baked salmon

There are a lot of things that you are supposed to enjoy when you are a grown-up, that I don't really enjoy.

- getting tipsy at dinner parties and arguing about politics
- organising community events
- the theatre
- Curb Your Enthusiasm
- The Sopranos
- oysters
- striking up conversations with check-out people at supermarkets
- reading the newspaper for fucking HOURS
- classical music
- gardening
- very long lunches where your bum goes to sleep

Fish is another one. And vegetables. If it wouldn't have such invidious effects on my long-term health prospects, (by which I mean make me fat), I would just eat burgers and chips and pizza all the time.

But you're not allowed to do that when you are a grown-up, you have to eat fish and vegetables - often at the same time. And a lot of people LIKE it and order it in RESTAURANTS!!!! I used to dread fish nights. I would buy it because if I didn't my husband would give me a lecture about how we're not allowed to eat burgers all the time and I'll do anything to avoid a lecture.

I'm a bit scared of fish. It smells horrible even when reasonably fresh and stinks the house out when you cook it and it's all slimy and sometimes there are BONES and urgh it's all completely gross and designed, if you ask me, just to make yourself extra grateful that you're having spag bol the next night.

And while I often get a craving for sushi, (I think I'm after the salt in the soy), quite often halfway through some sashimi I am filled with the fear that I might vomit.

Recently though, I have hit on a thing to do with salmon that I actually really genuinely look forward to.

What you do is you cover it in chilli, lime, soy, ginger, garlic and whatever other Asian things you have knocking about, wrap it in foil and then BAKE it for 12 minutes.

It doesn't stink the house out and it isn't slimy. You have it alongside spring greens sliced finely and stir-fried with some oyster sauce and it's honestly really a very nice thing to have. It has really changed my mind about fish. And I'm incredibly stubborn about stuff like that.

So let's go through that again for those of you who weren't listening.

Asian baked salmon for 2

2 salmon fillets
knob of fresh ginger, roughly sliced
1 clove garlic
small bunch coriander(???)
1/2 a chilli, seeds in or out I don't care
5 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp fish sauce
1/4 tsp Chinese five spice

1 Put everything except the salmon fillets in a whizzer and whizz for a few minutes.

2 Put a piece of foil on a baking dish large enough to wrap over the salmon fillets in a loose parcel. Put on the salmon fillets. Pour over your whizzed slush marinade and leave for as long as you can - although it can be baked just how it is.

3 Bake in a 180 oven for 10-12 minutes

Please note: you do not have to use all of those ingedients - this is nice just with chilli and soy and ginger; everything else is just showing off, which is a grown-up thing that I do actually enjoy.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Bang Bang chicken

I have been sulking a lot recently for an unidentifiable reason.

Maybe it's the incredibly swizzy unfair weather we're having. Winter was such a fucking slog this year, what with Kitty not yet walking or watching telly or doing anything remotely compatible with bad weather. All we did was sit around going mad and getting ill, praying for bedtime and lusting after spring. Then spring never came, or summer. We might get a blast in September or October if we're really lucky but in reality we're just going to go straight back into winter.

And we've done all our holidays this year - we've had three already, taking advantage of having a pre-schooler to go away in May, June and early July. We invested, for the holiday, in a preposterous amount of childcare. And on the most recent holiday, to a house in Devon, we had a cook. It wasn't my idea!! So please don't have a massive go at me. We were with another couple who work incredibly hard and get paid stupendous wodges of cash and who do not want to assemble salads or wash up when they are on holiday, or stay in a hotel. So we had Cara, the dark-eyed, pink-cheeked 23 year-old Leiths graduate marvel with whom my husband fell passionately in love on the first day.

Anyway it was amazing. But after seven full days of not doing any cooking or much childcare I have come back in this sulk you see before you. I have forgotten how to look after Kitty - and she knows it. She is well aware that I think that if she cries or is in a bait it's my fault. And at the moment it is my fault because she is incredibly pissed off with me because I have taken away her morning and lunchtime bottle.

There's this tedious thing when you have children about the amount of milk they have. They fucking love milk, little children, and they especially love it out of a bottle. On the grand scale of things, I think that being attached to your bottle isn't especially bad, but people get in a right piss about it and say children ought to have all their drinks out of a toddler cup from 1 year on and no more than this amount of milk but no less than this amount of milk.

I couldn't have cared less about it: Kitty can tell me what she wants, says please and thank you, can sing Baa Baa Black Sheep, doesn't embarrass me in public and goes to bed at night in her own bed and wakes up at a civilised hour. Thus, anything she wants - a constant stream of rice cakes, Peppa Pig, drawing on the walls, three bottles a day - she can have it.

But then I went to see a paediatrician, who also happens to be my husband's cousin. I rang him in a complete blind panic two months ago when Kitty had a temperature of 104 and a head-to-toe rash and he was really nice about it. And when I say "really nice" I mean he said "If she isn't better by tomorrow, give her antibiotics."

No other fucker will do that for you, when your child is sick. They mimsy about like total utter dildos, saying "Well you could do this or you could do that". But Dr Mike just told me what to do. So obviously I fell passionately in love with him. When he rang to check up on Kitty and to say that maybe he ought to see her in person I screamed "Yes!" and raced about doing my hair, putting proper shoes on, picking the crud out of Kitty's ears and ironing her into her Bonpoint.

And when Dr Mike told me that Kitty was having too much milk and ought to drop her multitude of bottle events I meekly nodded and gave him my shy Princess Diana "okay" face, rather than snarling and mentally flicking him a V-sign like I do with everyone else.

Kitty's not that pleased about this bottle cessation. She rages through the kitchen, rummaging deep in cupboards and drawers until only her dirty little feet are poking out, looking for the few Avents we still having hanging about, assembles one with a shaky, addict's hand then staggers about sucking hopefully at air before throwing the bottle across the floor and weeping theatrically.

There was an awful lot of weeping yesterday, imprisoned as we were in the house by the rain and we were at each other's throats. Back when I was reasonably good at childcare, I used to have this thing where when I was was in sole charge of Kitty I would lock away my iPad and only check my emails when she was napping. Otherwise the temptation, like yesterday, to poke the iPad all day and barely focus on the child is overwhelming and she's not stupid and starts wailing and flinging herself about from a lack of attention.

Christ are you still awake? I'm even boring myself with all this. No wonder I'm in a sulk.

Anyway let's just leave things there with the weather, back where we started, and move on to a recipe shall we?

I did this last night for my husband and was terrific except that I didn't use enough vegetables. So if you want to do this, make sure you have 3 parts vegetables - any you like - to 1 part chicken. I ate mostly poached chicken and it was quite strange

Bang Bang Chicken

1 quantity of chicken. It is supposed to be poached and it is supposed to be cold. I did this by poaching an entire chicken; you brown it in oil in a massive casserole whatsit then filling the whatsit with water so that just the top inch of the chicken is visible. Throw in a carrot, a halved onion, some peppercorns, a star anise (??) then put it in the oven for 1hr 45min at 180. Poached chicken is just as nice as roast chicken when it comes to leftovers

A large pile of shredded vegetables - carrots, cucumber, mung beans? sweetcorn? whatever, dressed with:
- a drizzle of toasted sesame oil
- lime juice
- shredded mint

For the bang bang sauce - enough for 2 people.

- 1 tbsp groundnut oil
- 1 tbsp peanut butter
- 1 tbsp toasted sesame oil
- 1/2 tbsp dried red chilli flakes
- 2 tbsp rice wine vinegar
- 1 tbsp light soy sauce

Whizz all this up in a food processor

Assemble the salad by layering your vegetables, then the sliced/shredded chicken then the sauce, then sprinkle over some coriander, toasted sesame seeds, chopped chillies. You know the drill.