Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Dirty curry

About six months after I started teaching myself how to cook I realised something: in order to be a good cook you have to be organised. And you have to be tidy. The best cooks are always incredibly neat and tidy. Even Jamie Oliver, I bet - open his wardrobe and there will be 40 identical pairs of distressed jeans, hoodies and trainers all lined up neatly.

(Incidentally, I saw Jamie Oliver at a party the other week. Saw, not met, you understand. Later in the evening, when I was feeling less shy, I put a hand out and very lightly stroked the back of his jacket as he passed me in the throng - so lightly that he wouldn't be able to feel it. He's incredibly tall, by the way - he must be six feet two at least. And broad. Huge! He's like a bear. You'd never think it.)

Anyway I have never been especially tidy. Not some awful great fucking slob, but not tidy. So I was going to have to smarten up my act. You know the sort of thing I mean, get things out of the cupboard and weigh them out before you start. Read the recipe ALL the way through. And clear as you go so that your kitchen isn't such a fucking scum hole by the time dinner is ready that it puts you off cooking anything more complicated than toast ever again.

My heart sank at this. Did I really HAVE to be tidy? They don't seem to do anything as prosaic as clearing up on telly. Ah, telly. I see, that's why I thought that cooking requires no effort beyond dumping things in a pot and stirring - because TV cooks don't tend to wash up on telly because it doesn't make good telly. Telly, you see, is not real. 

But cooking is mostly about getting things out, weighing them, finding a clean bowl for them to sit in for a minute and then when it's all done, washing every damned thing up and wiping down all your flipping surfaces. Did I have to? Have to, have to? Maybe I could just leave it and someone else… my mum… would come along and do it. No wait a second I was not living at home anymore. And although my husband will happily clear up after me, the payback is that I have to then hear about it for the next week. 

However: that was nothing, NOTHING to how bloody organised you have to be when you have kids, especially when taking them anywhere. When I had only one baby I would complain long and hard to anyone who would listen about how going away for the weekend was like putting up and taking down a fucking circus. Now I have two, the monumental amount of shite we need when we go away beggars belief. We arrive, set everything up, have a cup of tea, then it's time to pack everything away and go home again. But, listen to me: I do not overpack. If anything, I under pack. I never used to take any toys, for example. Other people turn up for the weekend with great laundry bags full of toys, which Kitty has to then steal like a latter-day Artful Dodger. 

My husband looks at the bags and bags of stuff in the hall waiting to be stuffed into the boot of the car and always says "God what a lot of stuff". He doesn't question it, because he values his life, but he boggles at it all the same. I know he is thinking: "If I had married someone more relaxed she would pack less stuff and then we could go on the train." 

And sometimes I think that, too. But I look at our things and I know that there is nothing in any of these meticulously sourced and packed bags that we can do without. Without the Dream Tubes Kitty will fall out of the single bed that she will be sleeping in. Without the packet of soup pasta, Sam will not be able to have tea on Sunday night. Without his Lamaze Elephant that plays tunes when you squeeze the hand, Sam will be sad. Without his bath chair, Sam will not have a nice bath, which is a vitally fun twenty minutes in his day. Without Kitty's new travel dollshouse she will be bored and demand to watch TV and show me up in front of our hosts. And so on. It's enough to drive you to drink, let alone anything stronger.

People look at the amount of crap you have in your car when you go away with two small kids and they laugh and sneer and say "In my day we didn't take that much stuff" or "where's the kitchen sink ha ha" or whatever and they mostly say it because they have forgotten or never experienced what it is like to travel with small children. Or they never had to do the packing in the first place. Or they have never had to deal with the consequences of having not packed enough formula, or the correct stuffed toy or the DVD wallet or the iPad charger. And no-one else can do it for you, only you know what you need and where it is. And if you did happen to have someone else in your life who could do that kind of stuff for you, well, you can't put a price on that kind of service. 

I know how my husband would do it if he was packing for everyone: he would take nothing. A handful of nappies, maybe, and Kitty's toothbrush. He does this when he takes Kitty to the park - just hoofs it only taking things he can fit into his pockets. Everything, he reckons, can be begged or borrowed off other people or bought from a shop. If he runs into trouble he just clutches the upper arm of the nearest woman and hopes she will sort it out (she will, because that's what we're like). 

This attitude makes me feel perfectly sick to my stomach. What, just rely on borrowing shit off other people? Rely on there being a shop that has the thing that you need? What an almighty stress. I have, in fact, a few times been caught short when I have been out with my children - mostly lacking suncream, but once also nappies. It is true that other people fall over themselves to help. And whenever I am approached by someone and asked for a spare nappy or suncream or anything, I hand over fistfuls, shrieking lies like "Oh my God that happens to me ALL THE TIME" so that the borrower won't feel inadequate.  

But the fact is that I cannot really imagine anything worse than flimsying about having to constantly beg things off other people for my kids. I forgot spare pyjamas for Kitty at my sister's house the other weekend and she donated an old pair of her youngest's and, although she's my sister and everything and I'm sure I've helped her out of a tight spot in the past, still - it made me feel like a gypsy. No wait, that's not fair to gypsies. It made me feel like some stupid fucking hippy idiot who naffs about forgetting everything and saying pathetic things like "Oh it'll be fine", meaning "I will just take advantage of more organised people who spent 3 days packing while I wafted about my house vaguely, gossiping on the phone."

Anyway *wipes rabid foam off chin* so what I mean by all this is that don't sit about wondering if cooking is less of a hassle for other people - or if other people are doing quite so much fucking washing up. It isn't and they are.

Washing up is a major contributing factor, often, to my not eating dinner when my husband is out. I don't need to worry about him so I can just drink a huge glass of Chardonnay, eat a handful of pistachios and then spoon Nutella directly into my gob from the jar until I feel sick & then take whatever non-prescription, (or prescription, if I am lucky), sedatives I can find lurking in my bathroom cabinet in order to pass out.

But last night, despite being tired and overwrought, (because who the fuck isn't), I actually made myself a small curry for dinner, using up an alarming collection of ancient things in the fridge and it was terrific, thanks to a clutch of store cupboard essentials.

Because sometimes just surviving gets boring. It isn't enough. You have to try to drive yourself on and make the best of things, using whatever dodgy bits and bobs you can lay your hands on.

Dirty curry, for Nigella Lawson

3/4 pack chicken thigh fillets, 3 days past sell by date (don't tell my husband)
10 day old purple sprouting broccoli, chopped up
1 tsp dried chilli flakes
2tbsp light soy sauce
leftover peas from toddler's dinner
200ml chicken stock, open for 1 week
1 small can bamboo shoots, 3 months past sell by date
1 70m can organic coconut cream
1/2 tsp chinese five spice
1 small, quite rubbery garlic clove, grated
1 nest of vermicelli noodles, if you feel like it

1 Wash chicken thoroughly, ignoring any funny smell, chop or snip into bite-sized pieces and fry off for a good 10 minutes in some groundnut oil. Google the symptoms of salmonella

2 Add broccoli, peas, chilli flakes, chinese five spice and grated garlic and fry on a low-medium flame for 5 minutes

3 Add chicken stock, coconut cream and soy, allow this to simmer together for 10-15 minutes

4 Steep the noodles in boiling water for 3 minutes and then drain and add to the curry for 5 minutes.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Chocolate ganache

Esther Walker is unwell. It doesn't have the same ring to it, I know - but it's true. I've had bronchitis. Okay not actually confirmed bronchitis, but that's what I've been saying. In fact it was just a non-specific chest infection but when I say that it sounds like there's something wrong with my bosoms. I reckon it was pneumonia, just between you and me. I don't know how much worse you'd have to feel than I felt for it to be pneumonia. I've had a pain, you see, a pain in my lungs.

Anyway it's taken ages to get better. Usually you get the antibiotics and 24 hours later you're springing about going shopping. But I went to bed on Sunday night and only really got out of bed again on Thursday morning. It was enjoyable in a way - an uncomplicated, straightforward illness: chills, fever, head-to-toe aches, sweats, pain in the chest, dizziness, delirium, all of that. Not just tired, fed-up, run-down, burnt-out. Actually like fucking dying.

I lay in bed inert and unresponsive as other people looked after my children. Occasionally I would try to focus my hot, blurred eyes on my phone and would wonder why no-one was asking me any questions, how life in the house was carrying on quite so merrily without me. But I didn't get too upset about it, just slipped back into a semi-coma gratefully.

And what I've got for you now I'm back from the dead is a thing that's going to annoy you because I know you don't want me to write about cakes and sweeties anymore. But the thing is that those are the NEW things that I am cooking.

I am indeed cooking savoury things like a motherfucker at the moment, but it's all for Sam who has in the last three weeks started raging through food like a starving wolf.

I always used to find people who talked about how much their children (usually their sons) ate quite annoying, as I sat in front of Kitty coaxing her for hours to eat one more tiny weeny thingy of lamb stew. "Oh was Kitty fussy? We're lucky," they would say. "He just ate everything from the start." And they say "lucky" but what they meant was "it's because we're such fantastic parents". I mean, that's probably what they meant. THEY SAID IT WITH THEIR EYES.

But now we all stand about and marvel at the food disappearing into Sam's gob. It's like a sideshow at a circus. Watch the enormous monster baby eat! Down goes a massive spoonful, and another, and another, and another! Like a waste disposal unit. I have decided that in order to fit it all in, the first bit of food must start to be digested and be making its was out of his tummy before he's finished the bowl of whatever.

But it's nothing I've done, you understand? Just like it was nothing I did that made Kitty able to exist for weeks at a time on nothing but air, sunlight and three bottles of milk a day. And it's not because he's a boy, because I know plenty of baby boys who hardly eat anything - because they don't need to right now. Because they'll do more growing later, thanks.

It's just because Sam is massive and getting massiver by the day - he's six months old and wearing Kitty's old blue dungarees that she wore when she was over a year - and he will probably go on to be massiver. (Or maybe he will halt at five feet nine inches when he is twelve years old.)

People always act like it's such a bloody marvellous thing to have a big baby who will eat the world and that having some strapping six footer son is just the gold standard. Whatever Sam ends up being is fine by me, but I don't mind men under six foot. My husband is five feet nine inches tall and I think he is the perfect height. I can look him in the eye. When we embrace I don't end up with my head under his armpit. At parties when I want to say something mean about someone I don't have to climb a ladder to whisper it in his ear. He doesn't constantly bump his head on things and complain about legroom on airplanes.

My point is that a consequence of Sam eating so much right now is that getting together enough food for him is an issue. (Don't get me started on clothes!) If Kitty's hungry I can make her a make her a sandwich. If Sam is hungry he needs something to be cooked and blended. HE WON'T EAT THOSE STUPID ELLA'S POUCHES. Every time I turn around it's time to make another enormous stew, or enough cheese sauce for 8 pots of macaroni cheese. I think of life with Sam when he is a teenager (Insha'Allah) and really hungry and see entire loaves of bread and pints of milk disappearing in minutes before my eyes.

But I can't think that you are interested in my recipe for lentil puree. And the new thing I made recently, as I slowly crept out of my bronchial hell, was a chocolate ganache.

I made one of these before and it wasn't very good. But I have subsequently realised that the recipe was a bummer. So I made it again on the instruction of Paul Hollywood himself (I texted a question into a radio show! I KNOW!!) and it came out just absolutely perfect.

So this is what you do. To cover 12 fairy cakes you need:

100g best chocolate (for kids, milk chocolate probably best - Waitrose do one called Menier, very nice)
100ml double cream
1 knob of butter

(NB - chocolate ganache is always just equal quantities of chocolate and cream - mls to grams.)

1 Chop the chocolate into reasonably small bits and put in a bowl.

2 Put the cream in a small saucepan and heat until it is nearly boiling. Pour over the chocolate and stir until the chocolate has melted. This takes a while, you need to stir all the time. You can bung it in the microwave for a few seconds towards the end if the chocolate has really stopped melting in. Don't whisk it!! Because you will get unattractive bubbles, as I did.

3 When it has all melted in, add a knob of butter, for sheen.

4 Pour over your fairy cakes and decorate. This doesn't actually set firm, like an icing, it's always a bit gooey and sticky. And hurrah for that.

Have a great weekend.

Esther x

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Lamb meatballs stuffed with cheese

I am not the sort of mother who feels sorry for people who don't have children. Not even in my most smug moments (literally, only fleeting moments) do I think "People without kids are missing out!" or "People without kids must be so sad".

I think, quite honestly, if I hadn't had kids I would have been alright. I would have done something else, been someone else. I would have bred Shar-Peis or collected guns or become a foreign correspondent or something else equally child-unfriendly. But it would have been alright. I wouldn't have been sad. I would have Christmassed in Barbados and spent Sunday mornings browsing in foreign antiques markets. I would cook more elaborately. I would read a lot of books.

But there is one area in which my heart does go out to the childless and it is this: they have to pretend, especially women, to like children they are not related to. They either have to pretend to like them, or self-defensively announce loudly that they are not "crazy" about kids or they are "bad" with kids or turn it around and claim that kids don't like THEM. (It's not me, it's you.)

The plain fact is that it is hard to immediately take to strange children. Your own are fine. Your nieces and nephews are delightful. But other kids? Well, they're just... whatever, really. Not repulsive or anything. (Although sometimes yes, totally repulsive) But mostly you just feel... nothing.

Unless you get to know them of course. Any child, once you get to know it, becomes the world's most precious thing. But unless you see each other reasonably often, it's hard to go wild about them.

This is a perfectly okay attitude to have if you already have children. The other day a friend whom I was supposed to be seeing for coffee asked at the last minute if she could bring both her kids. Both of mine would be occupied elsewhere. "No," I said, guiltlessly. "Let's do it another time."And her children are perfectly nice. Any other time, when I also had my kids, they would be welcome at my house to smash the place up - we would all put funny hats on and sing songs and have a wicked time - but spend time with her kids, on one of my kid-free mornings? No. Unthinkable. Never.

But you can't say that if you haven't got kids because people go hmmmmm and think Oh, she doesn't like children. Like one of the Witches in Roald Dahl. And it's not that, s/he just doesn't really like children she doesn't know. She doesn't hate them!! Just doesn't really want to socialise with them. They operate at such an odd tempo, do little kids, and unless you are tuned to it, it can seem bizarre.

It's all the interrupting that the childless can't cope with. They probably think you shouldn't let your children interrupt you, that Kiddo ought to just sit in a corner eating PVA glue while you gossip on for 3 hours about someone's hideous new kitchen extension. They think you, the mother, ought to turn and say NOT NOW I AM TALKING.

Or, worse, they do that thing where they reach over to stop the hand of an eight month old who is banging a spoon on a table, because they believe that you are not stopping the child from making this awful noise because you are blinded by love or helplessly out of control.

(The fact is that there is so little joy and light in an 8 month-old's life - can't speak, can't move, probably teething - that why shouldn't the poor little bugger have a bit of fun banging a spoon about?)

Before I had children, all those utterly bizarre things kids do used to do my head in and I thought I didn't like kids, but now I know that 1) you don't really like kids you don't know and 2) I didn't understand them.

Now I don't even notice when I am interrupted. In fact these days I am quite grateful for it - I talk so much and so fast that I can really wear myself out if left to rattle on unchecked.

And anyway I am usually just sitting in my kitchen with Becky B - in the middle of saying something scandalous - and I will be dragged hither to clear up a spill and she will be dragged thither to look at a Peppa Pig rocket and when this strange little ballet brings us back to within shouting distance of each other, we pick up where we left off. That's just how it is. We don't care. We usually manage to cover quite a lot of ground that way.

But when you don't have kids you don't GET to not want to be with them. People act like it's "good" for the childless to spend time with their own ratbag kids to "get practice". Me? I never expect anyone to want to spend time with my kids if they haven't got their own. Why would they? Moreover, why would I? If I am going to see a friend who hasn't got children I want to sit about in clean, fashionable (?!?!?!) clothes drinking alcohol and talking, uninterrupted, about that hideous kitchen extension.

Which brings me rather abruptly to lamb meatballs. Things have been a bit hair-raising round here the last few weeks. One of those times in life when eating, let alone cooking, sort of goes out of the window. We've been getting a lot of takeaway or having things that I can cook from memory, which only require 1 stale cabbage, some nutmeg and pre-grated Cheddar (strength 2).

But the other night, despite feeling pretty sorry for myself, I did have the chutzpah to conjure up a BRAND NEW THING, which are these cheese-stuffed meatballs. Not as hard as they sound and actually really unusual and delicious, sort of half-Greek, half-Indian - like a really beautiful supermodel.

So here we go, this would serve 4 people with sides.

500g best lamb mince
1 small onion, roughly chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled
1 small bunch coriander
1/4 tsp fennel seeds
1/4 tsp coriander seeds
1/4 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp fenugreek seeds (leave these out if you don't have them)
1/2 small pack of Feta cheese
salt & pepper
1 tin chopped tomatoes
1 pint chicken stock
1 large handful medium Matzoh meal
1 egg
groundnut oil for frying

1 Put the onion, garlic, 1/2 the bunch of coriander and all the spices into a whizzer and whizz. Don't clean the blender out.

2 Add these to your lamb mince and smoosh around with your hands for a bit. Then throw over the matzoh and the egg and a large pinch of salt and smoosh about more to combine. Try not to think about how cute lambs are.

3 Put a non-stick pan on over a medium heat with some oil in it and while this is heating up start shaping your meatballs in the usual way but put in a pinch of feta cheese - about the size of a small marble, and pack the mince around it. You will discover the best way of doing this by trial and error - by the third meatball you'll have nailed it. It is easiest to work with mince if you have wet or damp hands.

4 Fry off the meatballs for about 15 minutes, turning so they are nice and crunchy on the outside. Keep the heat at a medium, at no point out blue smoke to be anywhere in your kitchen.

5 While these are browning, whizz your tin of tomatoes in your dirty whizzer, then scrape it all out into a casserole dish or any pan with deep-ish sides. Add your stock and a large pinch of salt and about ten turns of the pepper grinder, stir and bring this to a simmer.

6 Add in your meatballs as they seem browned on all sides (some may open up to reveal the cheese within, don't worry about this) and cook the whole lot on a simmer for about 45 minutes until the tomatoey sauce seems to have reduced and thickened. Tinned tomatoes are vile and it's only by cooking them and reducing them that you can turn them into anything edible.

7 Sprinkle over with fresh coriander and eat at dinnertime after the little weasels have gone to bed and you finally get to finish a bloody sentence.