Friday, 23 May 2014

New-style summer slaw

I stole this pic off the internet. Sorry :(



In our house we reserve our most arch and nasty sneers for writers who cite writer's block. We are pragmatists! If either of us displays any preciousness about the process of writing (although not about what happens to our words afterwards) we leap on each other like Veloceraptors.

If I ever see Giles dare to make a few notes about a forthcoming piece I will shriek in high falsetto "Dear Diary, today was a really good day. Saw Polly in the coffee shop, I think she really likes me. Did 40 press-ups today. My arms look amazing!" Then I have to stop because I am falling about laughing and cannot speak and then have a coughing fit.

If I ever dare to mention this blog, or the e-book spin-offs, in anything except totally derogatory terms, I get a machine-gun ribbing complete with flopping hand-gestures, questions about how much my last royalty cheque was for (£39.50) and so on. 

It is not personal, we're just not terribly nice people and both grew up in houses where mealtimes were a fight-to-the-death with put-downs and schools where everyone was foully mean to each other all the time. To be seen to be making an effort was the worst crime in the world. We've also both worked in newsrooms where you just sit down and write any old shit most days and just file it on time. In the end, when commissioning editors are casting around for writers, they mostly just want someone to file the fucking copy on time. When I started writing for magazines I could never get used to how long deadlines were. "Could you file it for… hmmm…." the comm ed would say "the end of next week?" and then pause, audibly grimacing at the short notice. I would shout with laughter, my pen still hovering over a  piece of paper, poised to write "4 PM". 

So the idea that you don't just sit down at a laptop and start writing, not stopping until you are finished is anathema to us. "Do you read each other's stuff?" people say. Giles sends me his copy sometimes, just so that I know in advance what completely made-up things I will be appearing in The Times as saying. But I almost always only say "It's brilliant! It's the best thing I've ever read! They are so lucky to have it!" because if I don't say that, he will snap "I don't write by committee!!" and then throw a chair out of the window and burst into tears. 

I never show Giles my copy, ever, because he prints it out, reads it line by line with a ruler and gives it back to me covered in red scribble. "Serious problem with tenses," it will always be will have saying. 

And yet… and yet… there are only so many words in the world, only so many things one has to say, only so many things one is inspired to cook. 

This is a roundabout way of saying that I have an e-book deadline for the end of July, which I am finding time-consuming. The new book is called "The Bad Mother" and I haven't especially mentioned it because I am so used to not really discussing ongoing projects, because in our house you are so busy writing and writing and writing that you never stop to mention what you are writing because you are writing it and not just fucking talking about it. My favourite thing ever is when Giles opens the paper and there's me in it with a massive pic and a huge headline and he goes "Wow!" and I think "BOSH" because he never saw it coming. Plus, if I tell him that I am expecting something in the paper and they don't run it and I look even a tiny bit disappointed, Giles drives at 400mph to the editor's house, shoulder-barges the front door and throttles them - and that's one hell of a responsibility I tell you. 

Anyway although a lot of the posts here can be semi ripped-off for this "book" and are all very good memory-jogs, the fact is that I am having to write this "book" mostly from scratch. And I've never been ace at that - I'm brilliant at starting books, but not so terrific at finishing them. That's why I'm a journalist - a sprinter - and not a novelist - a long-distance runner. But the plain fact is that I have to finish it and the only way to do it is to spend all spare writing time when I am not putting clean pants in the right place, making Kitty's packed lunch, heaving Sam around the place or applying St Tropez Gradual Tan (Light/Medium), writing it and not, alas, this blog. 

But I feel sorry for you, because that's the kind of patronising person you have decided to hitch your cart to, and so here is a recipe for a new kind of summer slaw. I actually totally forgot to take a photo of it, so I'm sorry about that. But it looks like a slaw just with no revolting claggy mayo or yoghurt dressing on the top.

I gave this for dinner to my friend AC and her husband Matt, who doesn't eat much and never says he likes something if he doesn't - and he called it "noteworthily good", so you may proceed with confidence. 

New-style summer slaw
I have called this "new style" because I think it sounds very modern

for 4 as an accompaniment 

1/2 red cabbage
1/2 white cabbage
1 tsp grated onion (if you've never grated onion before, it comes out as a kind of gloop)
4 radishes
1 small fennel bulb
a handful combined of chopped mint and coriander - these are quite important so do go to some effort to source them

for the dressing

Chinese vinegar
juice of one lime
1/2 tablespoon (ish) grated fresh ginger
fish sauce
toasted sesame oil
1/2 clove garlic grated 

1 either slice with the grating attachment of your food processor or with a Japanese mandolin the cabbages, radishes and fennel bulb into a bowl. Add the grated onion and mix well. 

2 Take a small bowl and put in the lime juice, fresh ginger. Now add about a teaspoon each of the fish sauce, toasted sesame oil and Chinese vinegar and taste. Now add more of these sauces judiciously until you have something you like the flavour of. This is not because I cannot remember how much I put in of each! This is just because not everyone likes a dressing like this the same way. (It is because I cannot remember.) Anyway look you can't really go wrong so just go for it. Pour the resulting dressing over the slaw and mix well. 

Now write your novel. 




Thursday, 1 May 2014

Chicken and dumplings

This looks horrible but honestly it was delicious


I have been asked to do a bit more on the feeding of small children and I do, as it happens, have some new things to say on this fabulously tricky subject.

So the situation is this: Sam will be one next week, (which is staggering considering he's still such a massive, fat, melon-bummed baby who can't crawl or anything), and will no longer eat puree and isn't especially terrific at feeding himself. Or so I thought.

Because I am not terribly bright, I have always thought that one day babies go from being spoon-fed puree, to sitting down and eating giant Sunday roasts totally competently, on their own, with a knife and fork.

I thought there was something wrong with Kitty when she failed to do this. In fact, I now see that there is a torturous in-between stage where you have to put aside your bourgeoise expectations of keeping your children and their terrifying barbarism at arm's length and get your hands dirty.

It has always struck me as bizarre that although as a species we live entirely unnatural lives - we fly in airplanes, have central heating, electric lights - when it comes to babies people go wild about everything being natural. You must co-sleep because it is natural, you must breastfeed exclusively because it is natural, you must chew up your kids' food and spit it out of your mouth into theirs because it is natural. I'll tell you what else is natural - dying of diphtheria, headlice and being murdered by Vikings.

But in this instance, I concede that if Sam is going to eat, I have to drop the fucking attitude.

So feeding Sam is now a three-pronged attack. I give him something large to hang on to and gnaw at, like a corner of bread, a triangle of hamburger, a ball of sausage; other small pieces of stuff are placed on his highchair tray, a bit of potato, pinches of chicken, pre-chewed (hurp) bits of serious meat like stewed beef or spare rib or whatever. Then from a bowl of meat, veg and carb I pinch together little combinations of food and feed him by hand.

For example, at lunchtime today I bought a chicken and avocado sandwich from Pret and gave him that; I tossed away the salady leaves, gave him some of the bread to chew on, pinched tiny bits of chicken up and put them on his tray and then mashed up marble-sized combinations of chicken, avocado and bread to post into his gob with my fingers.

It's a very slow, rather messy process but the fact that he's eating it, (and with the sandwich meaning I haven't had to bloody cook anything), outweighs everything.

I also find that most mealtimes have a sort of arc of speed that you have to respect and have patience with. It takes Sam a while to get going and warm up - he spat out the avocado a few times and turned his head away from the offered chicken for a few minutes - then he decides he's hungry and things descend into a sort of orgy of gobbling, finger sucking, licking, gaping mouths, trembling tongues. He wants to feed me, jamming things into my mouth and going "maaaah", (just to check, I suspect, that I am not trying to poison him).

yes the bib is from Ikea. yes I know you have the exact same one


Then he slows down and starts launching things off his tray onto the floor, hanging his head over to see where it has gone. I usually take this as an indication that the savoury part of lunch is over. Today he got for his pudding half a slice of Pret banana cake (no icing), which he poked down with a speed and alacrity I haven't seen since his father left for America. Then a yoghurt, then a 5oz bottle, then bed.

All this might seem obvious to everyone else, but I would never have believed you when Kitty was Sam's age that I could have bought a sandwich and fed that to her for lunch. It would have halved my blood pressure. Or she might have refused to eat that, too.

A great success last night was a meal of chicken and dumplings, inspired by the song She'll Be Coming Round The Mountain ("Oh, we'll all have chicken and dumplings when she coooooomes…") Sam liked it a lot. He likes especially to hold on to a chicken bone like Bam-Bam and chew on it. Kitty was more reluctant about the dumplings, but she ate the chicken and I provided on the side some chopped cucumber and carrots for her to have with it.

Chicken and dumplings with gravy

6 chicken wings or 3 chicken thighs
85g self raising flour
40g beef suet
salt
parsley if you have it
about 150ml chicken stock
1 tsp plain flour

1 Roast the chicken pieces at 180 for 40min in a small tin that can also go on the hob.

2 Meanwhile make the dumplings - mix together the flour and suet with a large pinch of salt (if you want) and a sprinkling of parsley - then add some dribbles of water and bring this dough together until you get a soft consistency, not too dry. Shape them into four or six balls.

3 Steam these in a steamer or in a sieve over a pan of boiling water for about 20 minutes. They can sit in the steamer to keep warm until you're ready for them (just turn the heat down).

4 Take the chicken out of the oven and put the pieces aside to cool. Sprinkle a teaspoon of plain flour over any juice or grease in the tin (there won't be much, don't worry about this) and mash it about until there is sort of a paste. Then pour over a splash of the chicken stock and mix this in. The pour over the rest of the stock and whisk over a medium heat until you get a gravy. You can add a dash of soy to this for a bit of extra flavour.

If you are thinking that this seems to be an awful lot of hassle for kids tea then you are right, it is. But once you've done it once, it will seem less of a hassle the next time - and the dumpling dough can be made in advance.



Try not to worry, if you too are at this stage of weaning, about waste. It's just one of those things with kids, it's impossible to get amounts exactly right. It's also difficult to cook very tiny amounts of things, so compost and use leftovers where you can but beyond that, just put it in the bin and forget about it and make a donation to Oxfam to assuage your guilt.

Don't not try out new things because your heart sinks at the idea of waste (as mine did with Kitty, which is why her meal repertoire is a bit thin). Children obviously have things that they'd rather eat than not and no child should be expected to eat everything - or, some days, to eat anything - but at the same time they will just eventually eat things if they come across them often enough.

For example Kitty and Sam eat toast with quite bitter marmalade because that's what we eat; Kitty will drain the dregs of your espresso if you look the other way for a millisecond, because that's what there is lying about the house. She will even, one time in three that it is offered, eat an entire floret of broccoli. I've always put it in front of her and not said a word about whether she eats it or not. Not like I'm so fucking brilliant, but it does work. Sometimes she'll fancy it and nosh it down, other times not. I'm the same really.

Other things:

- To save time I will quite often cook a batch of rice up at either breakfast or during Sam's lunchtime naps, which can then later be quickly fried off in a pan with some butter and frozen peas.

- New potatoes will cook in 20 min in an oven at top whack, and they can then be roughly mashed with butter and you don't have to bugger about boiling anything. NO SAUCEPAN TO WASH UP.

- I hammered a nail in to the wall next to my sink and hang on it a special j-cloth, to be kept chemical-free, to wipe small faces and hands so that we don't go through 40,000 wet wipes every mealtime.

- I always keep handy for Sam a lot of yoghurt, Ella's fruity pouches and rusks in case dinner is a total disaster and he needs to eat something else just for my own neurotic peace of mind.  I personally don't think that a child under about 18 months will be canny enough to reject food because they "know" that you will give them something else. It is hard with your first child to understand that, but they are terribly dim - if they can't see it, they don't know it's there. Or rather, they can't be sure enough to hold out for it.

- Now Sam isn't eating mainly pureed veg and is drinking cow's milk, I give him Abidec vitamin drops every day. Kitty has chewable vitamins, like a fortified Haribo. The "sweetie fairy" leaves it for her on her Trip Trapp every morning and she gobbles it down. Sucker.

-I read to my children at teatime. Pretty much the only thing Kitty is not allowed to do is eat her lunch or tea in front of the telly. If I let her she would sit and eat everything on her plate, but I just can't do it. Everyone's got a line they don't cross and that's mine. So instead we read and it means that she will keep eating after she has satisfied her basic hunger, rather than running off, and also she will distractedly stuff things in her gob that she might otherwise be suspicious of.



On an entirely separate point, it's my birthday today. I know how you all like to keep up to date with important events in the Rifle Calendar.

Since you didn't ask, I am 34. I don't feel at all old. The oldest I've ever felt was when I was 25 and although at times it hasn't felt like it, life has improved every year since.