Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Prawn and spinach curry with lemongrass paste

After Kitty was born I had been writing quite a lot about the general lifeshock of having a baby, the discombobulation, the adjustment, the anxiety, the occasional moments of despair - you know. My usual thing.

And I had been thundering away on my laptop and capturing, I thought really brilliantly, the whole thing. TRUTH, I said to myself *tappety tappety tappety* It's all about TRUTH. I also thought it was quite funny.

Then separately two people "took me aside" and asked me if I was "alright". Was I, maybe, suffering from a bit of post natal depression?

My first instinct was to laugh. It struck me as hilarious that I was writing fully consciously about the difficulties of new motherhood in an, I thought, totally self-aware and solid, non-mad way and these people took me to be nuts. So I felt like laughing and laughing and then vomiting and bit and crying for a few seconds from sheer mania. Then my second instinct was to yell "Of COURSE I've got post natal depression. Having a baby can be a bit DEPRESSING." And my third and final instinct was to say "I'm just telling the truth! This is how it is! You think I'm a fucked up basket case because you haven't got any kids and don't know what it's like!!"

In the end I think I just said "No honestly I'm fine."

Any idle chatter about post natal depression enrages me, as it is to diminish actual sufferers (I understand what hell it must be) and to diminish the, I don't know, the... noble suffering of motherhood. It can be terrible and God fucking damn it, I can take it. (But not without a lot of moaning.) So it irritates me that absolutely any even slightly negative emotion related to having a small baby and suddenly you've got PND. It's the equivalent of liking to wash your hands before you cook dinner and suddenly you've got OCD.

People also talk about it in a slightly hushed way, as if rather than just feeling a bit tired and claustrophobic you were Bertha fucking Mason charging round your attic in your nightie gibbering and clawing at your eyes with long dirty fingernails.

I wish this sort of caper was referred to as post-natal stress or post-natal trauma or post-natal anxiety - or even drop the post-natal, thanks. Can we all just assume, please, that anyone who's just had a baby - first or second or third or eighth, is not going to find life and the world a constant bellylaugh for a bit? Maybe for quite a long time!

It doesn't need to be fixed or solved. Nobody needs to go and see a flipping doctor (unless you really are charging round the attic in your dirty nightie). All you want, when you've just had a baby, is a bit of discreet sympathy. "Mmm yes it's so hard," is what you want to hear. "It's the same for everyone. It'll get better."

A strange side-effect of post-natal gloom is of course that you are absolutely delightful to your children to compensate. Kitty knows I'm a bit down in the dumps because she gets showered with attention, smiles and an unusual enthusiasm for Play-Doh and drawing. ("Mummy Mummy look at my picture!" "Kitty I love that picture."I usually do, after all.) Sam cannot believe how many weird noises I am capable of making and for how long I can play Where Is Sam? There Is Sam! (Where Is Mummy? She's In the Dark Teatime Of The Soul!)

Anyway here is my very handy guide to Post-Natal Trauma. It sounds, in abbreviation, like PMT. But then so does PND. My message is: it's all different sides of the same coin.

Your schedule, if you have just had a baby, ought to go something like this.

For the first year you will be suddenly, randomly hormonal and cry at strange things and shout at your husband for no reason (or sometimes for perfectly good reasons). If it is your first child you cannot believe how tired you are. You feel like you have been expertly beaten up by secret police. You live on coffee. You cannot remember anything.

On top of this you will experience:

First Weekend as Mother depression when you realise Oh My God there are no days off.

First Fight with Husband over child/childcare/child's routine etc. He says you're uptight and tense about everything. You say Fuck You you've got no idea what this is like. You realise Oh My God we're not a sexy carefree couple anymore. We're not this, like, perfect soul matey match that nothing can tear asunder. We're just a couple of idiots who barely know each other with a child to look after.

Three Months In depression when you realise Oh My God this is going to go on forEVER. If it is your second child, round about now it hits you how little of the way through the first year you are, and how much longer you have to go before Child 1 and Child 2 can interact in any useful way (even if this means fighting). You also suddenly remember: teething!

First Winter depression when you realise Oh My God winters used to be fun! With log fires and spending entire days in bed reading spicy novels! Long red wine lunches with friends! Now winter is about Noro - who's got it? Who's had it? - indoor play, one streaming cold after another and long dark afternoons.

Going on Holiday depression when you realise Oh My God going anywhere with a baby is a flipping hassle and they don't want to sit about all day on a sun lounger reading Life After Life. They want to eat sand and wake up at 0500 due to flimsy holiday rental window treatments. This is combined with First Flight depression where you do 5 hours with a 13 month old and vow never to leave England by air again.

Childcare Depression where you realise Oh My God I cannot buy my way out of trouble. "I'll just get a nanny/send it to daycare if it's annoying," you said breezily when you were pregnant. Then you have the little weasel and realise that nothing is ever that simple. You realise that no bastard can look after this baby properly except you. They will upset it, they will get it wrong, it will feel abandoned. You'd rather do it all yourself. Which leads to...

...Self-Image Depression where you realise Oh My God how did my feet get so disgusting? I cannot remember the last time I got my hair cut. Why is my wardrobe full of clothes from 2007? Why do I only ever wear grey skinny jeans with Converse and a Breton top? Where did it all go? Who am I?

If you don't experience any of the above with your child or children then I salute you and congratulate you and envy you. But, hear this: you are the freak, not me.

Well I don't know about you but all that talk about feeling blue has cheered me up no end and made me feel really quite peckish. So let's turn with appropriate haste to this prawn and spinach curry that has been a big hit with us dieters.

It has been aided by a thing I found in a tube in Waitrose called lemongrass paste.

My basic curry mix, which I turn to in times of stress and confusion (but not depression, you understand), goes like this:

1 chilli, seeds in
2 spring onions
1 tsp fish sauce
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 small bunch coriander if there's any in the garden/I have some hanging about
some grated ginger - about 1 tbsp
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 large clove garlic, peeled
Some lime juice? Lime zest?

Then in it all goes into the little whizzer - whizz whizz. And if I ever come across some exotic thing that might change the flavour and thus our entire dinner, I like to throw it in too just for fun. Because I am that wild. I worked my way through a pot of tamarind paste a few months ago but just between you and me I didn't see what difference it made. And when I have fresh lemongrass I add that. But this paste, in a tube, which you keep in your fridge for curry emergencies is my idea of a good time. There it is: an instant new note to dinner sitting gamely in the fridge.

So what you do with your curry paste/mix once it has been tamed in your whizzer is fry it off gently in some groundnut oil, then add one small can coconut milk, (Waitrose do mini ones, about 170ml, which has enabled me to make curries regularly. Those normal-sized cans of coconut milk are insane - I am not making a curry for 400 people, people!), then add some chicken stock, about a pint (a cube will do) and simmer all this gently for about 30 mins. If you feel your curry is still too liquid at this point, you can simmer further until it reduces to a pleasing consistency.

To this you can add whatever you like. I am into frozen peeled prawns at the moment, also tofu and spinach and fried courgettes (see previous post). AND we recently had this with some Zero Noodles, which you may have read about in MailOnline, (don't pretend you don't), which are those noodley things that are made of some strange seaweed and taste of nothing but add reassuring bulk to an otherwise sparse curry.

Zero Noodles are, disappointingly, not available at Waitrose, only online or from Holland & Barrett (and some other shops I can't remember). They are fiendishly expensive so I use them sparingly, only about once or twice a month. But when I remember that it's time to get them out I'm always pleased and relieved: that's the thing about diets - you just have to try not to let them depress you. 

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Steak and beans

So this diet, then. I know you want to know about it, even if you have no intention of going on one. I have been a journalist for too long, you see: I believe all that anyone truly cares about are diets and Princess Diana.

I waited until we returned from a blow-out all you can eat bucket and spade holiday in Devon before embarking on my regime: while we were on holiday, I didn't want to ruin the atmosphere by going on about how I wasn't eating anything. Then with the cold, dead heart of a Dementor, I imposed a chilling food timetable on myself.

The rules, as mention before, are: no carbs, no sugar, no drinking during the week.

The first three days were simply awful. At one point I was so desperate for sugar (but refused to eat a biscuit) that I strapped Sam into the sling and galloped up to Sainsbury's for some yoghurt-covered cranberries.

But I also realised in those first three days just how much sugar and snacking went on in my life simply because of the number of times I found myself standing in front of the biscuit tin with no recollection of how I got there.

My daily diet went something like this:

Breakfast: 3 pieces toast, 3 cups tea with sugar
mid-morning: 1/2 bagel (sometimes whole thing?) sugary, full fat latte
post-mid morning: more tea, custard cream?
lunch: nothing
1.30pm: tea, custard cream(s)
1.35pm Kitty's lunch leftovers, custard cream (cup of tea?)
2.30pm: "balancing" (possibly "fat burning") diet coke
3pm: some digestive biscuits
5.25pm: Kitty's leftovers, mini cornetto
7.30pm: dinner - something with rice or pasta
7.50pm: telly and 1/2 bar Lindt "Orange Intense" chocolate (AMAZING)

... and I wondered why my weight was stubbornly at 11 stone. I told myself that I was on the Shitty Food Diet, but the thing about the SFD is that you have to be very busy for it to work. If you are sitting about with a newborn all day long, very close to cupboards full of toddler treats, simply replacing lunch with custard creams doesn't really cut it.

So now a typical food day looks like this:

Breakfast: punishment museli with banana (yes I know that's carbs, but barely - and also carbs are free before 8am)
mid-morning: apple
lunch: ham and cheese omelette
teatime snack: diet coke
dinner: 1/2 steak with a soy bean salad

Then after the babies go to bed I go for a 10-min run and do 80 sit-ups.

I know it sounds utterly fucking ghastly, but it's actually not going too badly. My run is very short, I go slowly and I listen to very loud, very bad music. It is a critical 10 mins alone after a day of listening to other people's problems, (YOU have to listen to MINE), I get to leave the house, which I don't do much at the moment and I really think the sit-ups might be doing something.

The thing about diets, the thing you have to do in order to make them work, is to mentally adjust to being okay with feeling quite hungry quite often. A couple of nights of my new regime were spent awake, hungry, with aching legs from the running. I just kept telling myself that hunger is fat leaving the body and the aching legs are just because I haven't done any exercise for 33 years so of course it's going to hurt a bit.

Once you get used to feeling hungry, diets are easy. Once you know that being hungry isn't going to make you faint, or die, you can ignore it. And then your stomach starts shrinking and adjusts to the new amount of food you are eating, and then you're away.

Diets can often seem anti-food, like food is the enemy. And the things you are allowed to eat when you are on a diet just don't seem that appealing when you are existing on Planet of Anything-Goes Pregnancy Food Blow-Out.

But - the simplest of lunches and the most punishment of dinners tastes like the best, most fantastic gourmet plateful when you are really, truly hungry.

Not "starving", you understand. I have become one of those disapproving old biddies who leaps on the use of the word starving as abhorrent and silly when people actually ARE starving in Afghanistan, in Syria - even in parts of this very country.

So if you are actually on a diet, calorie restriction or Atkins or anything, it doesn't matter much what actual things you are allowed to eat - you will fall on them like a ravenous wolf and scream "WOW THIS IS THE MOST DELICIOUS THING EVER" as you sip some scalding miso soup.

Having said that, I do try to make an effort with dinner. My husband has gamely joined with me on this strict diet and the Lord knows he likes a bit of effort when it comes to food.

The most successful dinner I've conjured up recently has been steak and beans. Because I disapprove so massively of eating steak we never have it, but just for the moment I am relaxing and allow us one very expensive organic steak between two of us, accompanied by a soy bean salad and some fried courgettes if I'm feeling really wild.

The secret to the soy bean salad is a dressing made of:

1 handful parsley, finely chopped
5 or so mint leaves, ditto
1 spring onion, chopped
3 tbsp good olive oil
1 tbsp capers, chopped
the juice of one lemon
a sprinkling of chilli flakes (if you like)

You boil the soy beans (available frozen from Waitrose - and many other supermarkets, I'm sure) and then dress them with this sort of salsa thing while still warm.

It really is delicious!! Although I might only be saying that because I am just so hungry.

Fried courgettes, if you are interested, are also nice. Take one courgette, chop it into pieces about 3cm x 1cm long then fry in hot groundnut oil turning occasionally for about 20 mins. They brown up surprisingly nicely. Drain on kitchen roll and sprinkle liberally with sea salt.

Eat all this with an abstemious glass of tap water and remember to work your core muscles while chewing. 

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Leftover pork

Someone said to me the other day - it must have been on Twitter - that she was annoyed by suggestions from television or celebrity chefs of what to do with "leftover cheese".

"There is never," she said "leftover cheese in my house."

I know what she means. I know what to do with leftover cheese, or leftover chicken or leftover lamb: you put it in a fucking sandwich. Or you eat it out of the foil, cold, with your tremblingly ravenous fingers, dipped hastily in mayonnaise, or recurrant jelly or mango chutney or whatever.

But - I had cause the other day to have some leftover pork belly. If you do not cook pork belly frantically at any opportunity, then you are a fool, by the way. It costs about 9p to feed 18 people and you just rub it with salt and then put it in the oven at 140C for 4 hours. If you want crackling you turn the oven up to full whack for 20 mins at the end.

Anyway so I had this leftover pork belly and I couldn't put it in a sandwich, because dun dun DUUNN I am on a DIET.

A very serious diet, too. No carbs, no sugar, no drinking during the week. And no sandwiches.

"Oh but you've just had a baby" everyone says. "Give yourself a break."

NO THANKS!!! Don't want to be fat anymore, ta. Bored with it now, bored with my fat arse and my thighs that rub together at the top and my back fat and my beefy shoulders. And if having two children has taught me anything, it's that if you want something, you have to get it your fucking self. I can't just sit around with my fingers crossed eating custard creams hoping that the weight will fall off by itself because it won't. Not at my age.

When you are young and single there is a vague sense that you are the star in the movie that is your life. There is the sense that when you find yourself in a dramatic situation that some dramatic solution will present itself. A handsome man will appear with an umbrella, a handsome man will pay your taxi fare, a handsome man will fix your broken down car. You get the idea.

This feeling can linger on in the early days with your first baby, as you find yourself stuggling with a buggy and a screaming infant, who then vomits and then your trousers fall down or whatever and you can find yourself in a glorious maelstrom of self-pity and sort of feel "look at me! It's like in a movie and I am a hopeless new mother!!"

Then you realise, quite soon, that nobody is coming to rescue you. No-one is coming to help. It's just you. And very quickly getting into scrapes with your child or really scrapes of any sort ceases to be funny.

I realised this one day when I didn't put the brakes on the buggy properly, (Maclaren buggy brakes are bizarrely wobbly and shitty and hard to apply properly), and it rolled down some steps with Kitty in it. Fuck it was so awful. I have never forgiven myself. I squirm around in actual physical distress when I recall it.

Kitty was just screaming and screaming with blood in her mouth and I couldn't get the stupid buggy harness off and the buggy was squashing Kitty and not one person came to help. I mean, I'm not surprised they didn't - a screaming kid on our street is nothing new. But it was at that moment that I realised that this is it, now - this is real, now: so don't fuck it up.

And it brought back to me powerfully that line in The Secret Garden when Mary Lennox is alone in her house in India because everyone else has died of cholera and two British civil servants come to send her back to England. "Why does nobody come?" shrieks Mary. "There's nobody left to come," says one of the men.

So if you want something done - if you want to be thin, if you want to be successful, if you want your kids to say please and thank you, you have to do it yourself. This is why women with children can, if they're not careful, end up being really quite bossy, because there is a strong sense in their lives that if they don't do it, no-one else will.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes leftover pork.

The thing about a fatty piece of pork, like a pork belly (the same applies to bacon) is that to get the best results you have to cook it slowly - this makes the fat render and then crisp up.

So with some leftover pork belly what you do is cut it up into small squares - about 2cm by 2cm if you want me to be exact about it, and then let it all sit in a dry frying pan over a low to moderate heat for about 30 mins. The fat will melt and crisp up the pork.

If you would like your crispy pork also spicy, then add in a teaspoon of dried chilli flakes, some finely-chopped spring onions, some chopped garlic maybe? A fine grating of ginger? A sprinkling of Chinese five spice? Any or all of these things would be simply capital.

Serve with a salad. No sandwiches allowed.