Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Not quite Veg every day - but trying: Macaroni Peas

It’s a source (or sauce!) of deep disappointment to me that I can’t get Blue to enjoy macaroni cheese or cauliflower cheese – or in fact anything in a cheese sauce. I just can’t understand it, although it is probably my own fault. I practically weaned him on broccoli in cheese sauce, fish in cheese sauce, pasta in – you guessed it – cheese sauce. He loves cheese, in sandwiches, with apple, melted on toast, grated on top of beans, spag bol, chilli or fajitas, but in a warm sauce – no way. The fact that he is of an age of enormous appetite, and so will force down whatever I serve up to satisfy the raging monster in his belly, is of little consolation on the days when something cheese saucy is on the menu. I want him to love it. But I’m having to play the long game.

Anyway, undeterred, I soldier on, determined to turn him. I felt that the twice backed potatoes from Veg Everyday were a step in the right direction – they involve baking the potatoes, scooping out the cooked flesh, mashing it up with cheese and spring onions (and I added sweetcorn for extra veg and some cream cheese in place of sour cream) putting the mash back into the skins and baking for a further 15 mins. To my mind there were definite overtones of ‘warm cheese’ such as you’d get in sauce, but he really enjoyed it.
This evening, I am hoping to get another small step on the road to cheese sauce glory – Macaroni Peas. This is another Veg Everyday recipe, and yes, it really does say macaroni PEAS. Now I am definitely flying close to the edge here – Blue is almost as passionate in his dislike of peas as he is of cheese sauce, so if I win here, it will be a glorious victory. What’s even better is that this is a fabulously straightforward and easy tea involving macaroni (or other pasta) served in a sauce made from peas (frozen will do) cooked and blitzed with butter, garlic and grated cheese. Sounds like my idea of weekday tea heaven, in the style of Nigella’s marmite spaghetti. We seem to have grown out of tomato sauces for our pasta (the sauces that were so good for hiding a million nutritious goodies in) too, so as an added bonus, the prospect of a new pasta sauce is too good to pass by. The other good thing is that my shopping isn’t due till this evening and we really are at the bottom of the freezer. Macaroni, frozen peas –  ideal end of the month fodder.

So I left it there because the time came to stop faffing and get on with it. Time to stop gushing about the recipe and get on and cook it. Truth is, that as with all these first time recipes, I desperately want the kids to eat it up with smiles on their faces, but in reality, all too often, I am disappointed. But ever the optimist (or perhaps, just because I am a glutton for punishment) I push on.

I’m pleased to report success this evening. Perhaps not quite as cheesy as I’d hoped for the purposes of tackling the cheese sauce conundrum, but very delicious and the kids wolfed it down. It will definitely be on the menu again, and I could definitely up the cheese content. “This isn’t too bad” pondered Blue. Praise indeed.

Monday, 27 February 2012

A perfect day for (possibly) a perfect age

There appears to be lots of good things about being 40, and I haven’t quite got there yet. In fact, unfashionable as it might be to say it, I am beginning to think it might be the perfect age.

One of the best things so far has been spending Saturday with 3 of my oldest friends. We’ve known each other for 26 years. That’s quite a long time. Anyway, we decided that, rather than buying each other presents, we would go to The Sanctuary together for a day and then out for dinner. So far so good. We fixed the date before Christmas, with remarkably little faffing, and then spent the last week dealing with sick children (me and C), dogs with sore paws (me), a house move (L) and a work trip to Eastern Europe (V), knowing that at any moment, disaster (probably child-shaped) could strike at any moment to snatch to the prize of our day together away.
Amazingly, by 10.45 we were all assembled in Pret a Manger in Covent Garden supping coffee and eating various pastries, ready for the day ahead. We were very restrained to start with – a bit of light swimming followed by a slightly strange ‘sleep therapy’ which involved lying in darkened dormitory imagining a walk in a garden and a sleep in a hammock while the beds we were lying on vibrated. It was very relaxing, but the ‘dormitory’ was suspended above the main lounging area and consequently the chatter filtered in to my ‘garden’ making it all a bit odd. We each had a treatment booked – I had a wonderful hot lava shell massage – and reconvened at 3.30. Time for some champagne. We had a glass as part of the day we had booked. Very delicious it was. V was pleased to note that it was proper champagne. Not so much as a hint of prosecco. I wouldn’t have known the difference to be honest – I was just so happy to be drinking champagne at 4 in the afternoon with some of my most favourite people, and knowing that I didn’t have to cook tea. We decided that we ought to have another drink – after all, there’s not many opportunities like this – so we ordered a bottle.

After that, a final swim seemed like a good idea, and we got the weak giggles as C tried to demonstrate how her kids were being taught butterfly in their swimming lessons. Time to leave. We’d eaten some (admittedly rather lovely) pitta bread and dips with our champagne so dinner was not particularly high on our agenda, but we felt that we ought to go to our restaurant of choice and make ourselves known.
Jamie’s Italian restaurant was a short totter away. By 7 o’clock there was a huge queue out of the door. You can’t book at the weekend, and it didn’t look as if there was much space by the bar for anything like the kind of drink we wanted while we were waiting, so having ascertained that the queue usually dropped off around 9, we headed off to find a suitable watering hole.

Now, here is one of the apparent downsides of being nearly 40 – a complete inability to understand or appreciate that trendy restaurants in London now operate some kind of complicated non-reservation paging service. We had been under the impression that people were being seated on a first come first serve basis, with no strings attached. But no. It appears that we should have stayed in the queue to obtain a vague timeslot and be sent on our way with a pager. This we did not do, but happy in our ignorance, and thinking that a table would be ours for the taking at 9, we shimmied off and found a lovely bar in a hotel somewhere in the Seven Dials area of Covent Garden. I couldn’t tell you exactly where – by then I was doing my country bumpkin impression, ‘Look! Orla Kiely!’  (and other names I have only previously seen in my neighbour’s cast off copies of Country Living) but it provided us with the level of sophistication we desired, us being 40 and all, plus comfy seats and table service. They also did some very delicious smoked almonds. I do like a bar that provides nibbles.
By about 8.30, food suddenly became very necessary (another slight downside to the advancing age – no longer able to make it through to the end of a night with nothing but a fishfinger sandwich to start with, and the promise of a doner kebab pizza with extra chilli sauce for sustenance on the way home), so we gathered our things and tottered back to Jamie’s. There was no queue. Hooray.  

The teenager on the desk informed us that we could have a table in approximately 1 hr 20 minutes. She could give us a pager so we could go & have a drink elsewhere. But we didn’t need any more drinks – she was probably too young to realise that. We thought about throwing ourselves on her mercy. After all, we’ve been with Jamie since the very beginning – the Naked Chef and all that. We aspired to his trendy apartment with the glass bricks and the stairs you could slide down before hopping on to a scooter and whizzing off to pick up some fresh ingredients, all accompanied by the latest in Britpop... We felt let down. How could you do it to us, Jamie? Foiled by age, alcohol and an inability to understand complicated reservation system. The Mexican next door also offered us a pager.

And so that’s how we came to be in Pizza Express on St Martin’s Lane at 10 p.m. – 3 Fiorentinas (all with runny egg) and a Giardiniera, no olives, extra ham. And 4 diet cokes. The same thing we’ve been ordering for years. After all, there’s probably only so much excitement you can take, isn’t there? And by the time we’d got to dough balls and Nutella for pudding (yes, really – Dough Balls and Nutella – a match made in heaven) we were all ready for a night out clubbing, so we headed off into the fleshpots of Soho... oh no – that was our former selves. While our 20 year old selves went off for a night of drinking and dancing, our 40 year old selves were very happy to make the last train home. As I said, perfect! 

Friday, 24 February 2012

Another weekend away. Tut tut...

Listen! Can you hear it? No – neither. It’s very quiet! That’s because there’s only me at home. Yes, really, 6 p.m. on a Friday evening and it’s just me. Not even the dog – he has already been dispatched, as have children and Husband, and I am taking just a little moment before I too head off to the station for a much looked forward to weekend away with my lovely school friends.

It might be suggested that I am overly keen to spend time away from my family, given that hot on the heels of half term, when I packed the kids off to Allotment Junkie’s for a week, I am now about to head off again, but that would not be true, oh no. Half term was a necessity, enabling the Husband and I to decorate Pink’s bedroom with minimal disruption. It is true that it also neatly resolved the need for a weeks’ childcare, and allowed the Husband and I a night away, but that’s by the by.

We retrieved Pink and Blue as planned at Kings Cross last Saturday.  Blue seemed bright enough, but then Allotment Junkie had dealt with the sick on the train down from Leeds. To cut a long story short, he then went downhill again to the point where I panicked and took him in to hospital for a blood test. I spent the rest of Monday and Tuesday running away from the big, black monster that had managed to escape from his box in the naughty corner and rampage round my brain, shouting RELAPSE! Bear in mind that this is the third virally type illness that he’s had in not quite as many months, and he’s never quite seemed to pick back up properly. My brain was in overdrive, and when the results of the blood test came back, I couldn’t quite believe that the low platelets and neutrophils could be 99.9% certainly down to viral suppression.  By Tuesday evening, Blue had started to pick up and I’d managed to get a grip and at least reduce the monster to cartoon proportions. Blue actually ate his supper – the last of the swede and potato pasties which I’d stashed in the freezer. I once read somewhere that it’s psychologically quite useful to serve up food that you’ve prepared on a different day and frozen because it removes the link between the effort you have put into preparing it and their rejection of it, and makes you less likely to take it personally. Anyway, I had no need to fear, because both Blue and Pink ate them again with gusto (and not too much HP). Definitely no ‘one hit wonder’. I have plans for bulk production.

Had another Veg Everyday success with twice baked potatoes on Wednesday – always a busy evening as the Husband has scouts. Pink wasn’t happy with the idea of mixing everything (cooked potato, spring onion, sweet corn, cream cheese - the recipe says sour cream or creme fraiche, but true to form I didn’t have either - and grated cheddar) together, then piling it back into the potato skin for another 15 mins – have you seen ‘When Harry met Sally?’ She is such an ‘on the side’ kinda gal – so I gave her the component parts and she was happy enough. She did try some of mine though, and having decided that she liked it after all, proceeded to negotiate with the Husband to have the rest of his in exchange for her potato skins. Canny. Blue loved it too, and he’s not one for warm cheese, so I got above myself and decided that the time was right for spinach and penne ‘Spouffle’, a recipe again from Veg Everyday that I’ve been eyeing up since I opened it.

Actually, I should have known I was pushing my luck. For a start, the tea making slot was severely compromised by the fact that Pink was making her Rainbows promise yesterday, so my normal 45 min slot between dropping her off and picking her up was reduced to 30  mins as I had to go back 15 ins earlier to witness said promise. And this is basically a soufflĂ©. Who in their right minds would attempt such a thing without a clear run at it? Apparently I would. Despite the fact that I had to spend some of the time I had between getting in from the school run and back out again to Rainbows repairing Pink’s ‘make up’ so that she looked slightly less Alice Cooperish, I managed to get most of it prepped before walking her down to Rainbows. I should say that I in no way condone the wearing of makeup for Rainbows promise making – or in fact at all at the age of 5 ¾  - but I have a theory that if she can get it all out of her system now, while I’m not worried that she’s on the prowl for boys, then it won’t be an issue when she’s a teenager. I expect I will be proved horribly wrong, but frankly there are more important battles to fight.

I got back home and managed to finish the final mixing together, whipping the egg whites and getting it all into a dish for the oven. My only option was then to set the oven on timer and hope that it would turn out OK. It did work out pretty well, and I enjoyed it, but Blue and Pink both struggled. Ho hum – some you win etc. To be fair, Blue said it was better than cauliflower cheese, so that’s something, I suppose.

Anyway, finally made it through to Friday. We had chilli – straight out of the freezer, and tomorrow, the Husband is fending for himself with the kids. I have left him cottage pie and frozen peas, so all should be well. Tomorrow, for me, no day of swimming lessons and general running around, but a day at a Spa followed by cocktails and dinner at Jamie Oliver’s Italian in Covent Garden. Get me on that train.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Waiting for News...

Yesterday I finally cracked. Blue fell poorly with yet another virally type illness while staying with Allotment Junkie last week, and he still hasn't shaken it off. He has a 'whirry' head. He occasionally spikes a temperature. He was sick on the train home. He has periods of no energy, other periods where he is fine. I had a reassuring conversation with his consultant on Friday and we arranged that I would take him to see her on Wednesday, but he didn't make it back to school yesterday and with the Husband and I both working at home, we kept worrying and worrying. This is his third period of non-specific illness in the same number of months. He's been off colour for a while. He only ate 1 fajita (instead of his usual 3).

We still have 'open access' at the hospital, a privilege available to us while Blue continues in the 'remission' period from leukaemia. We have been reassured that if ever we are worried, we can bring him along. Mostly, I try to resist, try to follow the 'normal' route of going to the GP. All through his treatment, I craved normality, but after being afforded pretty much immediate care on demand, sometimes it's hard to remember what 'normal' can mean - or be patient with it - but we do try. The unit at the hospital is fabulous - a kind of half way house between the GP and A&E or the paediatric in-patient ward, but they are massively under pressure. This is the second time since his chemo finished 2.5 yrs ago that I have felt so paranoid that I have made use of that privilege.

I took him in yesterday early afternoon. We waited - me with my cross stitch, Blue with Mariokart on his DSi. We are seasoned 'waiters'. We saw Blue's lovely consultant and she was wonderfully reassuring - no bruises, nose bleeds or swellings? No. Internal organs feeling fine. Glands up? Fruity cough? Yes and Yes - he has the cough that nearly every child at school has. It's almost definitely viral, she said, but we'll do a full blood count and check for glandular fever at the same time just in case. And here's a prescription for some antibiotics - see if we can clear up the cough.

That was nearly 24 hours ago. I have been waiting and waiting. I called at 9 last night - when he was having treatment, we would usually get the results within a couple of hours, but I knew they had been very busy, so I tried to be patient. They would call me back.

At 10.00 I called again. They only had a small part of the results back. It would be better to call in the morning. I called at 9 a.m. The consultant will call you back. I called at 12.30. By now, I am so tired (I was up twice in the night: Pink fell out of bed and Blue woke with a headache at 2.15 a.m.) and paranoid that it's hard to think straight. Rationally, I tell myself that he's fine as the consultant says, it's viral, and there are plenty of sicker children requiring attention hence the delay. However, the irrational part of my brain is screaming at me. Why aren't they calling? WHY? It's because it's bad. They are talking to the regional centre at Southampton and making a plan. It must be bad. WHY HAVEN'T THEY CALLED?

They called.

Apparently it is good news. The glandular fever screening came back negative and there is no evidence of 'anything nasty' on the blood film - by this she means mutated cells suggesting the presence of the cancer. But his neutrophils (infection fighting cells) and platelets (blood clotting cells) are slightly low. This is consistent with a viral infection but she wants him to have another test next week to check that they have come up - as they would do assuming the virus is under control. Unfortunately, I still remember when low platelets meant hour-long nosebleeds and transfusions, and low neutrophils meant instant hospitalisation if his temp went above 38, accompanied by a mandatory 48 hrs of IV antibiotics while they confirmed what was causing the temperature. It wasn't happy place to be. I am trying to be reassured, but it's hard. When we were trying to work out what was wrong with him the first time round, it never occurred to us that it might be cancer. We could only imagine things in abstract terms - what might it mean to have a properly ill child. It didn't actually occur to us that he might be 'properly ill'. But now I know what it's like. And it's terrifying.

So for now, I have to put on my happy face and do some more waiting. I am sure it will be fine. After 2.5 years in remission - it has to be fine, doesn't it?

Friday, 17 February 2012

T.F.I. - against the odds

It may not have gone unnoticed that I have been childfree since Monday lunchtime. I cannot believe it is Friday already. Where was my free time? My time to relax? My time to bake and blog to my heart's content?

Well, it seems that I am incapable of taking advantage of the situation sufficiently. True, on Monday evening, we had a lovely dinner to celebrate our anniversary, but I didn’t get as far as pudding because by 8, although my crab cocktail starter and the James Martin duck breasts in plum sauce were well under way, the pistachios for the hot chocolate pistachio pudding were still firmly in their shells in their packet in the cupboard. And I was too tired to even start.

I suggested to the Husband that I would save the pudding for Valentines’ day and had another glass of wine instead. Needless to say, the decorating didn’t get started.
Valentine’s Day – we both remembered – the mutual association of wedding anniversary and Valentine’s Day is very helpful, I find – but aside from cards, we don’t really do much. Never more so than this year: first thing, we cleared out the furniture that was left in Pink’s bedroom and then once work was finished and the dog was walked, I got on the painting clothes and set to with the sanding and cutting in. One of her walls has exposed beams in it, so the whole lot had to be painted with a brush. We had re-heated roast for dinner – hardly a great romantic feast (although Sunday’s gravy was particularly good this week) – and the pudding stayed resolutely unmade in the cupboards. We finished most of the cutting in and I pinned the curtains.
On Wednesday, I did manage to make a pie – a delicious pie: steak and ale, following a recipe from Barney Desmazery in a  Good Food mag – Feb 2010: . I had to make a pie to feed 10 people to take with me to a supper on Wednesday evening and doubled up, this fitted the job nicely. Typically, I hadn’t properly read the recipe, so instead it was beef, ale and swede pie, but none the worse for that. I did have the dried porcini mushrooms but not the fresh ones. I also didn’t have enough plain flour to make the double quantity of pastry that would have been required to make a fully encased pie, so I made one batch, topped up the plain flour with some spelt, and made what the author of the recipe refers to “something that’s essentially a stew with a sheet of pastry” . Sorry Barney, but that’s just life. To make up for the unromantic Valentine’s meal, I made the Husband a little pie to eat on his own while I was out and covered it in hearts. Don’t tell me romance is dead in our house!

I managed to get a coat of paint on the woodwork and walls in Pink’s room, walk the dog and complete my working day. Allotment Junkie sent me a text. “I hoped you might get a bit of a rest.”

why do my cupcakes never look this good?
Thursday dawned. Another coat on the woodwork and touched up the walls first thing (the Husband had finished a second coat on Wednesday evening, fuelled by his post-Valentine’s pie) with a view to it all being dried by the evening so we could move everything back in to her room. Walked the dog, did my work. The hearts and cupcakes stickers arrived for the walls. I couldn’t wait till the evening-such fun covering her newly-painted white walls. The Husband came home. We put her bed back into the room and did some running repairs to 2 of the slats – too much bouncing on the bed, me thinks. The Husband put the rest of her room back together and turned her pink fluffy square IKEA rug into a heart shaped one, and went out to get fish & chips. Finished the curtains – my patented quick fix curtains – pin everything together and sew it all in one go. Not orthodox perhaps, but it works. I know this is supposed to be a food blog of sorts, but can I just say that the material I got is sooo cute. Cupcakes. So sort of related.

We missed a night at the pub to get it finished. One day she might appreciate what that means.

So here I am, Friday afternoon. The children are to be returned to us tomorrow at Kings Cross at 12.30. In honour of our anniversary, we have planned a night out this evening. It was originally to have been in London, but for complicated reasons it is to be in Salisbury. Part of the reason for the mad painting and decorating has been with a view to getting it all done so that we can have this night away. As all parents, we spend much time plotting for moments when we can recapture, even for a short time, what it was like before the children came along. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want to go back to that state permanently, but even time on our own in the house ends up swallowed up in doing jobs – as evidenced by this week, and we were both really looking forward to a night away with no unfinished jobs staring at us.  We’d even managed to find someone to look after Fred, so all bases were covered.
However, disaster! During the course of Thursday it became apparent that Blue was coming down with something. Would he be well enough to travel? The Husband and I have been putting on our respective brave faces, and fashioned a plan should he not be well enough. A plan which would have meant foregoing our night out. I tried not to feel too disheartened- after all it’s certainly not the first time such a plan has been thwarted - but sometimes it’s hard not to feel a little bit like having an ‘it’s not fair’ tantrum. You’ll be pleased to know that on this occasion I resisted.

And now hope has been rewarded. It seems he is well enough to travel tomorrow, so in an hour or so I can log out and head for the bright lights of Salisbury. And after I don’t know how many years, I have won a whole £25 on the premium bonds. Let’s go crazy!

Monday, 13 February 2012

Celebrating the good things in life

Today is our 13th wedding anniversary. It’s also the anniversary of the hideous day 6 years ago when Blue was diagnosed with leukaemia. It’s an odd day for us - I remember early morning trepidation anxiety, nerves on the mornings of both days – 1999 it was a happy and excited way, in 2006 it was with a horrible sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, as I spent 90 minutes trying to stop Blue’s nose bleeding, instead of going to work for the morning before the hospital appointment that afternoon.

Both events were in many ways defined by food. Having had to change the wedding date to accommodate the Army’s unreasonable desire to send the Husband to Bosnia, and consequently change my intended outfit to accommodate a winter wedding instead of spring one, so that I ended up wearing the dress that both Allotment Junkie and before that, her cousin, my godmother had worn and also Allotment Junkie’s shoes (there was a lot of old and borrowed at our wedding...) Allotment Junkie and I had a stand up row about the presence of egg mayonnaise as part of the buffet we had chosen. “I think there’s rather a lot of meat” she said. We had selected plenty of salad/veg. I let her win -  after all, the important thing was that we were getting wed before he went to Bosnia (borrowed dress, shoes, changed date aside – I’m not bitter) but I was gratified to see that nobody ate it (apart from her).
As I have mentioned before, Blue’s diagnosis with leukaemia 7 years later when he was just 2 threw us into a maelstrom of food related issues and anxieties. He ate too much and craved mechanically recovered meat (on the steroids). He didn’t eat enough and wasted away (the chemo made him sick) so I overcompensated and ate on his behalf (3 stone later, and a serious application of Slimming World, I am no longer quite the size of a house). And it was during this period that my rather OCD approach to cookery books developed.

However, 6 years on, and half way into remission (2.5 yrs chemo free, 2.5 to go), I am in an upbeat mood. Although it was horrendous, there is no doubt that what we went through has made us stronger, and more able to value what is important in life. There is equally no doubt that I love and adore my children with all my heart, but just occasionally, the time comes when a break is called for.

This morning, more in honour of the wedding anniversary than to dwell on the other anniversary, I took the children on the train to Kings Cross and handed them over to Allotment Junkie who has taken the back up to Yorkshire for half term. I will miss them, really, I will –  Pink, who, like her mother, enjoys a good wallow was really milking the tears, and I do feel a littel smidge that she might still be little young for this - but she managed to persuade me to make breakfast pancakes before we went, AND take a Fruit Slurp with her on the train (we have a glut of the horrible things, purchased for a party, so they are occasionally produced for picnics etc) so she was clearly using it to her advantage. I prefer to think that, having located Allotment Junkie by WH Smiths and handed them over, I left them quickly to avoid prolonging Pink’s tears....
And then, the almost unimaginable luxury of an hour on a train with an M&S picnic, an over-priced (and frankly, disappointing) coffee and John Grisham. I haven’t read much Grisham in the last few years, but I have just read 2 rather heavy and serious bookclub reads back to back (‘Still Alice’ – brilliant but harrowing: Harvard Professor has Alzheimers and ‘Suite Francaise’ – French life during the German invasion in WW2) and felt in need of some light relief (do I sound defensive about my literary choices?). Anyway, I’m reading The Confession and it’s very gripping.

Back home, work, dog walking, more work (although as you can see, a little light blogging in the meantime – after all, my time is my own – no children to feed)  and then I can crack on with the evening’s romantic dinner a deux. On the menu: Nigella’s Crab Cocktail from Feast followed by two James Martin dishes – roasted duck breast with plum sauce and hot chocolate and pistachio pudding. Both of these are from ‘Valentine’s menus’ printed in Good Food – the duck from February 2010 and the pud from Feb 2008. And then we can set to... painting Pink’s bedroom. We know how to do things in style...

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Mmmm Marmalade chelsea buns - thanks Dan!

It was bitterly cold this morning – no two ways about it – but completely glorious. Our usual Saturday morning scramble was somewhat tempered due to the Husband’s crash incident. The car is now sitting in a holding garage waiting for the repair garage to pick it up and assess. Don’t get me started about the uselessness of insurance companies. Swimming was off as result – no transport as the camper van is still snug in its barn for another couple of months, but I have to say that we didn’t try too hard to think of alternatives. Much as we acknowledge that Blue and Pink need to be able to swim, getting to the pool for 9.00 on a Saturday can be a struggle.
This didn’t stop Blue waking up ridiculously early and sneaking downstairs to watch TV. I jolted to when I heard the door to the TV room being opened (we have to close it otherwise the dog sneaks in and spends the night stretched out in luxury on the sofa, to sneak back to his bed when he hears movement upstairs in the morning. I know this because I’ve heard him. And then when I go downstairs, he looks at me sheepishly and wags his tail. Because he knows I know.)

Anyway, swimming or no, I was downstairs at 7 with my morning cuppa thinking about facing the cold. The Husband appeared a little later, went out to feed the chickens and came back pronouncing that it was -8 outside. I looked at the dog. He was lying on his bed with his big spaniel eyes saying ‘take me out ppppuuuurrrrllleeeeeeeeeeese’. I decided the only thing for it was to give myself an incentive, so all thoughts of a small bowl of muesli abandoned, I started Dan Lepard’s marmalade Chelsea buns. Very conveniently when a frosty dog walk is in the offing, you mix up the dough then leave for an hour before kneading rising and baking. So I duly mixed and left then headed out into the cold. It was bitter, but no wind and the sun was coming up the sky was clear and the countryside was beautiful. The dog managed to behave himself in that he didn’t disappear off into the undergrowth heading for the river, and no birdlife was harmed. We met some of our Saturday morning dog walking regulars and exchanged appropriate inanities about our dogs and the weather, then went on our way. I love it!
An hour later, back home for the kneading, rolling and rising (time for a shower) then baked. The Husband had offered me a coffee before I went out with the dog, but I declined and waited to brew some fresh as the buns were baking. Boy, was it worth it. Steaming hot, lovely coffee and a heavenly marmalade bun. I used half 2011 Nigel Slater recipe (quite dark, bitter marmalade) and half lemon and orange marmalade that I’d made out of the citrus fruit that I’d used to make elderflower cordial with previously. I also added an egg wash on the buns before baking them because Dan’s recipe didn’t include it, but having baked Nigella’s scrummy cinnamon buns, I was a little worried that they needed a glaze. Very easy though – 1 egg beaten with a splash of milk and brushed over them.
All I can say is these are delicious – not as sweet as the cinnamon buns but very moreish and definitely good breakfast fodder.

Are you tempted? Here is the recipe:

Friday, 10 February 2012

Soup of the week: sweet potato gratin laksa (yes, really - it's delicious!)

Just as I am sure that the River Cottage event barn will soon rise from the ashes and be restored to its former glory, I too have created triumph from my own Hugh tragedy, albeit on a much smaller scale – all hail sweet potato gratin 'laksa' soup

Although admittedly the sweet potato gratin wasn’t a total disaster when I served it for supper last night, I wasn’t particularly relishing a straightforward re-heat for lunch. The Husband had made an impromptu reappearance after pranging his car on the way to work, but he too declined, on the basis that he still had his sandwiches. Personally, I feel that this was a poor excuse to avoid manning up, but there we go.

However, that still left me with the lunch problem - I hadn't made myself sandwiches. Soup was the only thing I could really think of. I had about a quarter of the gratin left over, maybe a little less, so I made up some marigold bouillon powder – about ¾ litre and tipped the stock and the gratin into a pan and heated it up. A quick whoosh with the handheld blender and it was looking promising, but perhaps missing something. The inspiration struck. Some of you may remember that we came away from the scout jamboree in the summer with various Dutch delicacies (and some not so delicacies), including some rather fine thai-ish chilli paste stuff. It bears the recognisable label of ‘sambal’ emblazoned in the front of the jar and some Buddhist type images. Well, this is still going strong in the fridge, and I decided that it was just what my soup needed. I was right. I added one teaspoon, then another one. Totally transformed it. It was the best soup I’ve had all week and actually made me glad that I had made the gratin last night. Whooshed together, the gratin flavours combined and with the stock, it was much less rich but still really tasty. The peanut butter/lime flavours really came out which I think was missing a little from the gratin itself because of the texture of the peanut butter. The chilli sauce really lifted it too, and the overall result reminded me of a gorgeous laksa that I had once in a restaurant in Soho in London called Melati. I am thinking that a combination of the sweet potato, plus the peanut butter/lime paste mix and some coconut milk would work as a pretty good curry. Perhaps I will try it one day.

So there you go. Not a long blog, but a happy one. Welcome to the weekend.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Not quite Veg every day - but trying: onion upside down tart and sweet potato gratin

I should really have known better – Sweet Potato Gratin. I mean, even in the photo in Veg Everyday it looks rather sickly, but somehow I couldn’t resist. I think that the root of this is a Nigella recipe that is in Feast, in the Christmas/Thanksgiving section. I mean, it can only be an American recipe – but sweet potato topped with marshmallows? I don’t think so. But this (the Nigella) recipe holds a kind of terrible fascination for me. Every year, in the run up to Christmas, when I’m considering the possibilities, I read it and I wonder what it might possibly be like. The conclusion I usually reach is “revolting” and leave it for another year.

And yet, and yet... there’s part of me that secretly wants to cook it. Just to see. So maybe that’s why I scheduled this Sweet Potato gratin out of Veg Everyday for supper this evening. I am still on my mission to reduce our meat consumption. But after roast chicken on Sunday, and then Chilli on Monday and Blue’s special Bolognaise yesterday, I felt the need to up the veg intake. True, we had the Veg Everyday onion upside down tart on Tuesday – but for some reason it didn’t really feel very veg like. It must have been the pastry. It was very good and very easy, but there’s a similar Nigella recipe in Domestic Goddess – Onion Supper tart, I think she calls it, and from memory I have to say that Nigella’s is the more comforting and satisfying.

However, back to the matter in hand. The gratin. Very easy – and fits into my Thursday meal prep requirements – no more than 30 mins prep between getting home from the school run and going back out again to take Pink to Brownies, and will cook in the oven (and thus requires no attention) so that by the time I have gone back out to collect Pink and get home, it’s ready to serve. Ideally, I would have something in the freezer to avoid the 30 mins prep, but that was not to be this evening.

 The recipe involves sweet potatoes, cream garlic and chilli and then a middle layer which is peanut butter beaten with oil, lime zest and juice – a kind of orange and brown sandwich if you will. More misgivings - Pink doesn’t seem to like any kind of orange vegetable apart from carrots, and Blue doesn’t like peanut butter – nor does the Husband much for that matter. None of us are particularly fond of ‘sweet’ savoury dishes. Meat with fruit – that sort of thing, it just doesn’t work for us. About the closest is a kind of ‘sweet sour’ thing. Nigella’s African chicken which uses apricot jam in the marinade scrapes inside what is acceptable – and even reading the recipe I knew that this would come perilously close to the unacceptable boundary, but I couldn’t stop myself. It was on the menu planner, and that aside – what else was I going to do with a kilo of sweet potatoes. But then salvation came from an unexpected source. Half the sweet potatoes had gone squishy. What to do what to do? Not for the first time was I tempted to pop in to the butcher on the way to Rainbows abd get some sausages, But no. That would be cheating. Tonight was to be a veg night. So I substituted with white potatoes and carried on.

From a recipe point of view, it definitely works. It cooked very nicely and by the time we got back from Rainbows, freezing cold, it was ready to serve. We had it as suggested with fairly bitter salad leaves and having travelled more in hope than expectation, I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. The peanut butter ‘filling’ is a little cloying – and I used more lime juice than the recipe said. If I make it again I will probably use more – at least a limes’ worth. Actually, Nigella uses 2 limes’ worth in her marshmallow extravaganza. I also think that it was probably better for being half white potato – all sweet potato would I think have been too much. Blue managed slightly more enthusiasm for it than Pink, but then she’d had the benefit of biscuits at Rainbows. She happily ate her salad, picked out some of the potato to eat but rejected the rest on the basis that she didn’t like the orange. I tried to persuade her that if she ate it all in a mouthful rather than picking bits out it would be much better, but she wasn’t having any of it. And then, to cap it all, she got a mouthful of chilli. I thought I’d been careful about only a light sprinkling, obviously not. Blue had had a school dinner today rather than a packed lunch for the first time in ages, so the aching chasm wasn’t quite so aching this evening.
So there we go. Not quite ‘nul points’ but I’m not sure it’s going to make a reappearance on the menu any time soon, so sorry Hugh, but I’m sure you’ve got more things to worry about a the moment. Still, as I look at Nigella’s sweet potatoes with marshmallow extravaganza, I sense that I’m feeling not quite so compelled. And maybe next time, I’ll be able to listen more attentively to the little voice saying ‘don’t do it’ instead of forging on regardless.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Cooking with the kids?

I am more tired than I can possibly describe, having been to the pub last night and consumed significantly more wine than I was intending. It used to be that the 4th bottle might have been pushing it. Now it seems, in my state of advancing decrepitude (is that a word?) that the 4th glass is. Not then, the best day for Blue to be let loose in the kitchen to cook tea.

“What!” I hear – “Help in the kitchen? Marvellous.” No it’s not. Whatever impression you might have formed about me, let me just get one thing straight. It’s my kitchen. If it’s going to be messy, it needs to be MY mess. And if the food is going to taste dodgy/be burned or otherwise be a failure, it will be MY dodgy, burned and failed food. Are you scared yet? Forget any thought that I am some relaxed Earth mother, calmly and enthusiastically encouraging my children to express themselves through the chopping of onions – or whatever. The truth is that I am a horrible control freak, especially when it comes down to food – and, let’s be honest here, any food that I am going to be eating.
Recently, Blue has been clamouring for more independence, and the Husband and I are faced daily with small manifestations of this. The biggest issue so far has been whether he can walk to school on his own, and after some trial runs, where I followed a short distance behind him (but far enough behind for him to forget I was there) he does now walk to school on his own. I have my heart in my mouth every morning, particularly when I then walk Pink up to school and witness some potential hazard – twice this week I have observed smeared piles of dog dirt on the pavement and have then prayed fervently that it was not Blue who walked straight through it and on up to school, none the wiser, for he is a dreamer, and not streetwise or particularly aware.

Another area where he has been demanding more responsibility is in his own personal food admin. The other week, he decided to make his own sandwiches for his packed lunch. Now, preparing the packed lunches is one of the trials of my life. I never manage (as I intend) to get them sorted the night before, so spend 20 minutes or so every morning clutching a mug of tea and staring into the fridge trying to work out what to feed them. Sometimes, the beautiful lunchbox championed by Mr F-W will almost happen – like when I have things like pasties in the freezer, or soup – but more often than not, it’s cheese and chutney sandwiches (or, in Pink’s case, cold pasta). That doesn’t necessarily mean that I want anyone else to do it though, particularly not first thing in the morning, and certainly not on a day when the Husband had left the milk in the boot of the car, and left the car in the pub car park – so I didn’t even have my cup of tea. Anyway, that particular morning, I sliced the bread for him, assembled the more appropriate contents of the fridge on the table and tried to back off. I was doing really well until he got to the cheese. I could have wept as he hacked up the rather expensive and very delicious block of local famer’s market sourced cheddar type cheese and used nearly all of it in one sandwich. I couldn’t help myself, and just had to dive in and redistribute.
We had more success at the weekend, though. Blue does spend a lot of time thinking about food and what he is going to eat, and had been talking for some time about inventing a new snack with chocolate and oats and fruit. I had been fairly evasive as to the possibility of actually doing something about this, but then he came home with homework on Friday which required him to write instructions of some kind. My immediate thought was recipe (why make things difficult) and i must have had a rush of blood o the head because the next thing I know, I am suggesting that we make his snack and he can write his instructions about that. In the end, we consulted a couple of Rocky Road recipes (Nigella’s – Express and Domestic Goddess) and came up with a variation involving oats, glace cherries and dried cranberries. Rather tasty it was too, and I managed not to get too het up about other people being in my kitchen.

And so to today. Another of Blue’s enthusiasms – to cook tea. He made spag bol at Cubs last week and was keen to recreate the Dolmio experience for us at home. When I ventured that he could make bolognaise the proper way (chopped onions, garlic, can of tomatoes) etc he was very put out. It was Cubs way or no way. I resisted the urge to say that it was MY way or no way. “He’s got to start somewhere” pointed out the Husband, very reasonably. Grrr.
So I dutifully purchased mince and bottled sauce. Perhaps the fact that I was practically weeping for my bed at that stage actually helped. That and the fact that, prejudices aside, making spag bol using a pound of mince and a jar of sauce is just so easy. Blue’s seriousness and concentration was totally adorable, and I managed to mostly resist the urge to dive in and take over. He did lose the plot a couple of times and get distracted, but in the main, he did a great job of browning mince and simmering sauce. He also weighed out the pasta. Pink helped by grating some cheese and putting the garlic bread (frozen from the shop) into the oven.  I managed to keep myself from interfering too much by distracting myself with Dan’s ‘One a Day’ cookies – using spelt flour, oats and toasted sesame and pumpkin seed, these could almost be health food. So easy – and so delicious. And so, in the end was the bolognaise. Not that I would ever suggest that sauce from a jar is better than homemade – oh no never, but perhaps the next time I’m feeling tired and emotional, I might just be tempted – and by managing to let Blue cook it this time, I’ll have someone else to cook it for me.

Now, about the washing up...

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Mmmm Marmalade

A couple of Sundays ago, the Husband and I spent a happy evening comparing marmalade techniques and slicing up orange peel. The next day we made marmalade. We’re just so rock ‘n’ roll, it hurts.

Anyway, having used Nigel Slater’s method last year, and decided that there was too much water in it to boil off, we did some surfing and came up with a combination of Dan Lepard and Nigel Slater’s which worked pretty well. Last year’s batch of just Nigel was very dark – probably because of the additional bubbling that all the extra water took – but we liked his method of dealing with the oranges, whereas Dan’s method  involved a whole litre less water, and the resulting marmalade is more to our taste. However, when it came to putting the jars away we realised that we still had a couple of jars left over from the last lot. Plus a lemon, orange and elderflower marmalade that we made from the fruit left over from making from elderflower cordial. We only have limited shelf space, so we needed urgent marmalade recipes and Dan has obliged twice this week.
I made his marmalade flapjack from Short & Sweet on Wednesday. It’s a great and easy flapjack recipe, and the resulting bars were very yummy. I thought they might be a bit dark, partly because it uses treacle not syrup, and also because of the darkness of the marmalade, but no, they were very good. This evening, however, was the real winner. From last week’s Guardian magazine, where he writes a column – marmalade carrot puddings .:

They are kind of an individual sponge pudding thing. I made half quantities, fudging it with the eggs again (the recipe says 3 medium eggs but I only had large ones - our chickens are slowly coming back in to lay, finally after what seems like months of moulting and petulance - and one small bantam egg from when we chicken sat for our neightbours), and goodness only knows what a dariole mould is, but the recipe worked fine in ramekins. The puds were a real hit, and were really really tasty.
I used dark muscovado sugar because that’s what I had in the cupboard, and I expect that a combination of light muscovado and this year’s marmalade would have resulted in a slightly lighter pudding, but the ones I made today were no less delicious for it. Blue considered the pudding and remarked that it looked just like a sort of mini Christmas pudding (it doesn’t really, at all, but I sort of knew what he meant) and inspiration struck. Forget ice cream or custard. What these little beauties taste really good with is the left over brandy butter from Christmas.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Pink soup and a not so blue Blue after all

Soup of the week is roasted beetroot without horseradish cream. I am hoping (perhaps over ambitiously) that the pink-ness of the soup will appeal to Pink and get her over her dislike of this particular root vegetable. I have to say that she enjoyed it more than the Husband and Blue when made into the beetroot variation of Hugh’s Pumpkin and Raisin tea loaf. I think I mentioned this in an  earlier post. I had over-ordered on the beetroot front and was looking for recipes to use it in. A friend had recommended the tea loaf recipe (although not the beetroot variation) so I thought I would give it a go. Hugh promises purple marbling. My version was more ‘pink flecking’, but it tasted great, and not a hint of the earthiness which I think puts Pink off. I say that it is without Horseradish cream because at the time of writing, the horseradish is still in the ground and the ground is frozen solid. Chances of extracting are virtually zero (and that’s better than the current outside temperature). That said there might be some in the freezer. I will need to investigate. The soup isn’t for eating till tomorrow so there may yet be time for horseradish cream.

I had far more success on the root veg front this week with the swede and potato pasties out of Veg Everyday. Blue is continuing to lobby for more meat back on the menu, and looked particularly cheated when I advised him that the pasty did not contain meat. I had tried to avoid actually spelling this out to him, but he likes to know where he stands so his questions became more specific as my answers became more and more vague, until he eventually pinned me down. “What is in the pasties?” (this on the way home from school) . I told him. “Oh”. Then “I thought when you said ‘pasties’ you meant like those ones you cooked with meat in them.” Oh dear.
Despite my recent saga with Sainsburys over packets of bought puff pastry, I pushed my pastry boundaries and made the rough puff for these little babies (the bought stuff is for a Hugh onion tart, culled from Sarah Raven and included in Veg Everyday). I think I have made a sweet variation of this before out of Domestic Goddess, and used it to make a lovely tarte tatin type pud. Actually, I think the other half of the pasty that I made for that is languishing somewhere, unloved and unlabeled at the bottom of the freezer. I have a vague memory that almond danishes were on the cards at one stage. I must re-investigate.

Back to the pasties, though. This pastry is really easy and I write as a pastry-phobe. I am getting better with practise, and it’s experiences like this that boost my confidence. It all worked, and rolled out brilliantly. You have to do lots of rolling because the butter starts off as cubes in the flour, and you have to roll it out, fold it over itself and then turn it a quarter-turn, and do it again - 5 times.
first rolling!

cubes of butter - the unrolled dough

I made double quantities, which gave me 4 large pasties and then 6 smaller ones to go in lunchboxes, and there was plenty of filling (just a tiny bit too much in fact).

If you’re interested, I did add the ‘optional’ cheddar. For me, cheese is never ‘optional’. But then, I am not a ‘swede-purist’, unlike Hugh (that’s what he calls himself – it’s there in print.). I was very gratified to see that Pink had eaten her pasty almost before I had sat down, faffing around as I was trying to do 100 other things. She had another half, too, Blue pronounced it ‘pretty good actually’ and they both wanted to take a cold one in to school for lunch today.

I’ve had a mad cook this evening – over the course of today (well starting last night) I have made some loaves with my newly revived sourdough starter following the River Cottage Bread Handbook’s method (‘My Sourdough’). It’s looking pretty good, although I think my starter (and so sponge) was a bit sloppy so the dough was similarly. Not good for the stress levels trying to do a first knead at the same time as you should be walking your small daughter to school with the dough showing no sign of becoming smooth and satiny. In the end I just had to say b******s and leave it to rise. Still - apparently no harm done. I retrieved the second half of the cookie dough that I’d squirreled into the freezer last week and baked some more cookies – I was interested to see if this ‘freeze half the dough’ thing would work – well what do you know, it did! And as the oven was on, I managed too roast the beetroot for the soup – or was it because I’d planned the roast beetroot that I baked the bread and the cookies. I can’t remember, but now the oven's off, the kids are in bed and it's G&T time. Happy Friday!

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Use by – schmooze by – but don’t let that stand in the way of a good complaint!

I have to say that I don’t hold much with ‘Use by’ dates. I understand that in our unbearably litigious culture, food producers have to cover their backs, but growing up as I did where the breakfast norm involved scraping a layer of mould off a jar of homemade jam proclaiming that it had been made at least 3 years previously, my approach tends to be more of the ‘see if it tastes OK’ variety. None of us have died.

However, even I balked when considering the apparent use by date on some puff pastry that I’d ordered in my delivery from the supermarket yesterday. Yesterday was 1 Feb. The Use by date was not only 31 Jan, but 31 Jan 2010. I couldn’t quite believe it. 2010. Really? I mean that’s pushing it, even for me.
I rang the call centre. They were terribly sorry. Could I hold? I could. Although I could probably have asked them to call me back. Anyway, it didn’t take long for them to return. Could I confirm that it really said 2010. I said I could definitely confirm that it did. I had to check – it’s not unheard of me to have misread something like that, but no, it definitely said 2010. I held again. A short time later, she was back. They were terribly sorry about this. They’d like to offer a refund and a £15.00 voucher as a gesture of good will. And the store manager (of the store where the shopping came from) would like to call once she’s investigated. Would that be OK? But of course. It’s about the MOST inconvenient time of my day. I have nothing better to do – after all, I have a load of shopping to put away, tea to cook, reading to be heard, tables to be battled with, spellings to be dragged kicking and screaming from under a fridge magnet to be implanted into Pink’s mind , chickens to put to bed, another hour or so of work – you get the picture.

Anyway, she called. “We’re terribly sorry” she simpered.”2010 is the batch code.” “Rather an inconvenient batch code, seeing as how it sits right under the date.” I remarked. And then “But even so, today is 1 February - this says 31 Jan. That was yesterday. Surely this shouldn’t have been sent out. There wasn’t even a ‘short shelf life’ warning on my substitutes sheet.” I should say that I wasn’t cross  - after all, I had the refund and the voucher under my belt – just interested to know what she would say. Pink was doing some silent cheerleading in the corner – “Go Mummy! Go Mummy!” – I hope I’m teaching her a valuable life lesson. To give her her due, she was totally accepting of that. I love being right. “Can we deliver you some more? Free of charge?” But of course.
And the original pastry? In the freezer. After all, it was only one day over its use by date. I’m sure it will be fine.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Fajitas and Flapjack

Compared to last week which was a veritable feast of vegetables, this week’s menu has so far been far more functional. Last week, I managed Veg nearly every day. On Wednesday, working his way rather laboriously through Hugh’s stir fried sesame cauliflower (served with noodles as a main course rather than a side dish) Blue asked, rather accusingly, if I was trying to turn us all into vegetarians. Poor Blue. He’s not a fan of cauliflower, and we did have rather a lot of it last week. Fortunately I was able to tell him that the next day it was going to be African Chicken (out of ‘Kitchen’ by Nigella –  one of my recipes at the moment). “Yyeessss!” he said, but quietly. He knows when he’s treading on dangerous ground!

African chicken aside, we ate mainly out of Veg Everyday, and the Husband and I certainly enjoyed it. The kids were less convinced, but they enjoyed the twice baked potatoes, and Pink loved  all the cauliflower. My favourite so far was the leek and chestnut risotto that we had on Friday evening. Very delicious. So pleased I over ordered on the chestnuts at Christmas!
This week, however, has been a bit more hectic and so far, less veggie. The kids were out for tea on Monday and the Husband wasn’t due back till late – and after a 4 hour drive back from Wales, during which pies were likely to have been consumed, I really couldn’t be bothered. I spent most of the day eating toasted sourdough bread and nutella (it’s cold, OK – I need the extra plumage), and then decided that as I had all the ingredients, I would make some soup. I went back and redid Hugh’s Fennel and Celeriac delight – this time with the orange zest that I didn’t have when I made it the first time. It does make a difference. We had chilli on Tuesday and fajitas this evening. It did cross my mind to make the tortillas myself, using the recipe out of the River Cottage Bread Handbook, but I managed to retain a grip on reality (and my sanity). I noted the mention in the recipe of sticky dough. The alarm bells rang and I heeded them. Trying to knead sticky dough with the kids milling around as well as trying to put away the Sainsburys delivery, and also, cook the rest of the tea, could well have resulted in serious injury to someone – possibly the Sainsburys delivery man on this occasion – and reason prevailed. It’s not often this happens.

I’d obviously decided that life was too easy though, because, seeing how the oven was on anyway to warm up the (recently delivered) tortillas, how about I just make some biscuits? Fortunately, Short & Sweet just seemed to fall open at the Marmalade Flapjack page. Now, I’m a sucker for a good flapjack and am always up for a new recipe. So far my favourite one is in the Camper Van Cookbook. Somehow, all others that I’ve tried either crumble up (which is lovely on breakfast but not so good when you want something with your cuppa) or so completely rock solid that not so much as a jackhammer would break it up – although I have had some limited success with Nigella’s ‘Soot’s Flapjacks’ out of Domestic Goddess. Anyway, back to Dan. It’s a quick melt, stir, bake recipe, and apart from soaking the raisins in boiling water for 10 mins, needs no prep. It uses treacle instead of syrup, and dark soft brown sugar, and I did wonder if it would be a bit ‘dark’ generally, given that
Recipe Junkie’s 2011 vintage marmalade is also on the dark side. But I needn’t have worried. Very delicious flapjacks indeed. A little on the crumbly side, but Dan does flag it as a possibility, so I was watching, and definitely edible. They may be a little on the dark side for Pink, but Blue, who likes nothing more than a piece of good dark gingerbread or fruitcake, is going to love it!