Friday, 30 May 2014

Spaghetti alla Puttanesca

Whore's spaghetti.

There are plenty of stories as to how this rich tomatoey sauce got its name. The most recent version I heard was that it is so named because the Italian housewives could knock it up pronto as their husbands walked in the front door fresh from the fields while their lovers hot-footed it out the back door. Nothing to do with ladies of the night needing to keep their strength up, which was what I'd previously understood.

Since the excitement of Monday night, half term has been a fairly low key affair. The Husband had to go back to our camp site and recover the remains of our gear, Blue has gradually progressed from sitting on the sofa in his PJs watching TV and dribbling, to making paper aeroplanes, chucking them onto various hard to recover places, watching Minecraft videos on Youtube (who actually IS Stumpy Longhead???), and dribbling, and Pink has generally been very accomodating - biding her time, obviously. 

Food-wise, Blue has been on liquids. Smoothies and soup. I did make the tomato and potato soup that he started off with, but really, honestly, the thought of slaving over pots and pots of soup defeated me. I thought back to the time when he was on steroids and I was known to be up making meatballs at 7 a.m. because that's what he fancied, and gave in to common sense. 

Yes, part of me wanted to create beautiful smooth nutritious soups that would make him forget that he couldn't tuck into toad in the hole. It's a thing isn't it - providing food is such a basic act for the people you love, especially when they are ill or hurt and there is little else practically you can do. It certainly is for me, and I've written about this in the context of his leukaemia. But this time - well, I didn't as someone suggested, liquidise 'MaccyDs' (shudder), but as part of the camping gear recovery trip, the Husband made a trip to the supermarket and came back with various tins. And I'm fine with that. 

So he's been eating tinned soup for the last few days, and feeling pretty sore about it. Not sore that I haven't lovingly cooked up delicious broths for him, but sore that he can't eat proper food. 10 year old boys do not thrive well on soup and smoothies, but I didn't want to push him into trying something a little more solid until he wanted to. The breakthrough came last night as he sat with his lentil & bacon soup (which we'd had to liquidise) and we chomped through toad in the hole. "Tomorrow, can I just have what you have but liquidised?" he asked.

So whore's pasta it is, although I won't tell the kids that's what it translates as. I got the recipe from a wonderful chef who lead a pasta making course I went on recently. Of course we didn't just learn how to make pasta, but various sauces and pasta fillings, and this was one of them. It was also she who relayed the story above about how it got its name. She had plenty of other stories too, having cooked in private homes in LA for the last 25 years - but she swore us all to secrecy... I've been dying to cook up one of the sauces I learned, but just haven't got round to it - partly due to the fact that I haven't actually got a pasta machine, so the dough I came home with is sitting in the freezer just waiting. My intention has been to produce the whole caboodle - fresh pasta, glorious sauce - and bask in the glow of achievement...

Still, dried pasta is perfectly acceptable (after all it's what I normally serve up), so tonight's the night. 

Full of flavour, I hope it tastes as nice liquidised as it does in 'whole' form - I'll leave that to Blue to assess.

Spaghetti Alla Puttanesca

serves 4

2 tbsp olive or rapeseed oil
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
3 anchovy fillets, wipe of salt and roughly chopped
1 tbsp of capers with juice
100g pitted black olives, roughly chopped
2 tins peeled plum tomatoes
salt & pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a large frying pan then gently cook the garlic for a couple of minutes taking care not to let it burn.

Add the anchovies, capers, and olives, cook for a minute or so more, then add the tomatoes, crushing them in your hands as you go. Use a little water to swill out the tins into the pan, then simmer till rich and thickened.

Serve with spaghetti and plenty of parmesan.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Tomato & Potato Soup

I've been thinking a lot about babies and children recently, how they grow up, milestones, how they make you feel, that sort of thing. I've just become an auntie for the 3rd time - the first child for my youngest brother, which feels very emotional somehow. Next week, I am taking Blue for his 5 year check up since the end of his leukaemia treatment. Also very emotional, but for different reasons.

It amazes me constantly this passage of time, of the things we achieve as families - what we go through as families, and how the outcomes can shape us. 
I wouldn't be the first, and I expect I won't be the last person, to suggest that having children is an utterly terrifying. Joyful, magical, irritating, frustrating, hilarious, guilt-inducing, euphoric, depressing - all these things too, but also utterly terrifying. Right from the moment they appear - or the idea of them even appears on the radar, the terrifying responsibility of another person to nurture.

From the first moment you gag at a glass of red wine and realise something's amiss, up until - well, up until when? My kids are 10 and 8 now, and I am still terrified. There's the general ongoing 'gentle' terror of fulfilling Philip Larkin's gloomy prediction that whatever you do as a parent you will get it completely and utterly wrong. Then there's the terror of the future - of what lies ahead for them in this crazy world. I am not a deeply political being, but the results of the recent European elections, not just in this country but across the continent leave me feeling deeply uneasy and not a little terrified for the world my children may grow up in.

There's also the worst kind of terror - the terror that grips you when something awful happens to them - and you can do nothing about it. It doesn't lessen either, that terror, although it can disappear as quickly as it arrives.

On Saturday, we set off for a week's camping near Welshpool. As agreed, I came home on Monday afternoon to work for a couple of days with a view to rejoining the Husband and the kids on Thursday. 

The call came around 9 p.m. on Monday night. The Husband was on his way to A&E with Blue.

I am sure my terror was nothing to that the Husband must have felt when he heard the screaming - but for my part the feelings were compounded by being a good 3 hours drive away from them, with limited fuel. After a false start which took me as far as Aberaeron before I realised there were going to be no petrol stations open (I managed to ascertain that my last hope, Morrisons at Aberystwyth some 16 miles further on had already closed, it being Bank Holiday Monday), I drove back to my nearest petrol station to home where I knew the owners vaguely, and threw myself on their mercy. Fortunately, they proved merciful, so I set off again, across mid-Wales at 10.30p.m. with fear in my heart a full tank of diesel and an ETA of 1.20 a.m. 

I only had the bare facts - Blue had knocked out 2 of his teeth riding his bike. I didn't know if there was any risk of head injury, whether he had smashed up his face, had he broken his glasses? Were the teeth broken? WOULD HE BE ALRIGHT??? And along with the terror, the sense of complete injustice too. Blue has in his short life had to put up with a huge amount. Knocking your teeth out riding your bike is, objectively, a perfectly normal childhood type of accident to suffer, but for Blue with his leukaemia and his rubbish eye sight, well - hasn't he had enough?? Surely that gives him a get out for all other nasties? Apparently not. Driving along the winding A roads across mid-Wales in the pitch black, terror and injustice fuelled by an overwhelming need to be with my family, to give poor Blue a cuddle, gave me wings.

The Husband meanwhile had got as far as Shrewsbury A&E, jollying Blue along and looking after Pink too. It is a less happy feature of our new homeland that A&E facilities are few and far between. Shrewsbury - an hour away from the campsite - was the nearest. Once at Shrewsbury, he discovered that he needed to go to Telford for a maxilo-facial clinic, where he had to endure the joys of the bank holiday drunkards - tattoos and all, because Blue refused to sit in the children's waiting area. Fortunately (all those prayers I uttered on the way must have been answered) Blue was seen quickly and effectively, teeth wired back in, so that by the time I reached Welshpool, they were out of Telford. I stayed put until we rendezvous'd, terror mainly dissipated in favour of utter fatigue, and we convoyed back home, arriving just before dawn...

So with the terror back at bay, the practical aspects of looking after a 10 year old with a healthy appetite who isn't allowed to eat solids. Poor child. Smoothies have proved popular - oats, fruit, yoghurt, milk - and this tomato soup. When he can't manage with a straw, I've been feeding him - baby-style - with the Noddy spoon that we still have in the drawer, a throwback to his baby days. 

Tomato & Potato Soup

1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, peeled & chopped
1 clove of garlic, peeled and finely sliced
1 large potato, peeled & diced
2 tins of plum tomatoes
1 litre of chicken stock
1 tsp caster sugar
salt & pepper

Heat the oil in a large pan. 

Sweat the onion and garlic for a few minutes, then add the potato and cook for a few more minutes.

Tip in the tomatoes and swill out the tins with the chicken stock and add to the pan.

Add the sugar is you think you need it, and a good pinch of sea salt and some grinds of pepper, then bring everything to a simmer until the potato is falling apart.

Blitz till really smooth and serve - Noddy spoon not essential.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Lemon Drizzle Cake - a letter to Felicity Cloake

Dear Felicity,

There you are again, popping up in my Google search - not quite at the top of the list but satisfyingly close. On the front page. No image. But I know who it is, simply by the precursor to my search term that appears in the result that stares at me. And once I again I regret the lack of imagination that set me on a path from my UCCA form (as it was) that took me most definitely out of the kitchen, only to return some years later. 

You see, Felicity, I'm really sorry but you have my job. It's mine, although I only know it now that it's too late, and you already have it. 

No, no don't worry - I'm not some psycho who's about to launch some hate campaign. I'm not actually what you would call 'jealous' in the proper sense of the word. A quick pause to ponder, but no, definitely not jealous as such, just a little wistful. My food writing career such as it was, summed up in an essay my 13yr old self wrote, calling on the world (or at least my English class) to witness the injustice inflicted on me by my mother in the form of wholemeal pasta. Perhaps I simply didn't recognise my calling in life, but in truth, I simply had no idea that writing about food was something one could do for a living. I don't know how I imagined Delia, Jane, Elizabeth, Madhur and the rest, who lined our family kitchen shelves, funded their lives - whether it crossed my mind that they GOT PAID for what they did. "Be a teacher" exhorted my teacher mother "So handy for the holidays". "Don't be a lawyer!" counselled my lawyer father. So off I trotted to law school, via a politics and French degree which gave me little more than an ability to consume large quantities of tequila and dance on tables (the two are related), skills that I now find I have little need for. 

Never underestimate the value of a degree, I tell you.

And when did I realise that the job I never knew was mine had gone? Well, when it was too late, but of course. And again, I don't say this with rancour. Just as I have viewed many a jobs page in the last few years, come across people with far more exciting job titles than 'employment lawyer', and thought "I never knew I could do that - you means someone is paid to do that", it's with a kind of dazed amazement. Life has been good to me, and I am happy where I am now - but, you know, a column in a respected national newspaper wouldn't go amiss...

May be you think I have your job, my 'portfolio' of freelance writing, and social media shenanigans carved out since domestic reasons long since meant that lawyering was no longer a practical option, in which case didn't life play a hilarious joke on us - but somehow, I doubt it. But I sense that if you had my life, you'd be doing what I do in the kitchen - creating the perfect sausage casserole out of some flabby carrots and a red pepper that's seen better days. Tweak with the addition of smoked paprika and voila. You'd disagree, too, with Nigel that the perfect addition to such a creation when feeding small children is fennel seed, weigh up the pros and cons of chopped v plum tomatoes, and whether to serve with pasta or couscous.

I don't crave the headline, the top billing, but an opportunity to spend the whole time tinkering in the kitchen, reading recipes, creating delights, tweaking - some more ground almonds there, a little more lemon zest there - and to write about it - it must be heaven. And with a brief to work out  how to cook the perfect lemon drizzle cake - who would refuse. May be you sensed that there was someone else out there for the job, but that doesn't mean you aren't superb. No. Every one of the 'perfect' recipes I've tried - me, the queen of the tinker - I can't better them. And your lemon drizzle - the perfect one? Well, it's just that.

So, Felicity, there you have it. I'm glad you're doing my job so well - I can't think of a better person. And you know, if you ever get bored, I've got a perfect 'leftover chicken and gravy pasta' just waiting to go - so do call. And as for the lemon drizzle cake? Yes. Perfect.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Spinach & Lemongrass soup

I know - I have made plenty of spinach soup before, but this is another variation, slightly more thought through than those I have previously posted, and it was so quick and delicious that I feel compelled to share. This makes a big vat of tasty & healthy-ish soup that should keep us going for lunches this week. And it tastes great with peanut butter on toast. A classy accompaniement if ever there was one.

Spinach & Lemon Grass Soup

1 tbsp oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 piece of ginger - about the top joint of your thumb, peeled & sliced
1 lemon grass stalk, hard outer layer remived, based a bit with a rolling pin
1 tbsp tamarind
1.5litres of stock (I used chicken but veggie would be fine)
500g of thereabouts of spinach - I'd separate stalks and leaves if you're using proper adult spinach, but I used baby spinach
1 tin (400ml) coconut milk
juice of 1 lime

Heat the oil gently in a large pan, then sweat the onion with the ginger and bashed lemon grass stalk for a few minutes before adding 1 litre of the stock and the tamarind. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10 mins or so, then add in the spinach and cook till wilted.

Once the spinach is wilted down, remove any big bits of lemon grass, add the remaining 500ml of stock,the coconut milk and the lime juice, give it a good stir and then blitz with your blitzing tool of choice.

Reheat gently before serving.


Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Banoffee Cake

Another Clandestine Cake Club meeting - that came round quick...

Our venue was the beautiful Hammet House Hotel set on the banks of the River Teifi just outside the village of Llechryd - modern luxury in Grade II listed Georgian splendour - how lucky were we?

The theme for the evening was 'Brilliant Banana Bake Off'. I've never cooked a banana cake that wasn't in loaf form, and so determined to produce something more cake-like, I sourced a round version - but couldn't give up the addition of tinned caramel...

The first time I ever had banoffee pie, that glorious combination of broken biscuit base, bananas, caramel, I was about 13. We were at a big family party 'down south' - lots of older second cousins around, and the glamour of it all was almost too much to bear - as was my encounter with the banoffee pie. There was no sorry end, no gorging resulting in horrible after effects, but for someone who had only ever experienced banana tarted up with (a) milk and brown sugar (b) yoghurt and hot chocolate powder or (c) custard, you'll appreciate that the presentation of it in a pie, with the glory of caramel, and in this initial encounter, (as I recall) a liberal amount of cream, it was sophistication that I hadn't even dreamt of - and given that boys didn't feature much in my life at that stage, it was about the most exciting thing I had come across. Ever.

The thing about banoffee though, is that it is very rich. Sickly, even. And while I may often scoff at people who suggest only a small piece of a particular cake, this is just that.  Really. On the plus side it is incredibly easy to make. And given that I had to knock it up after an awesome but exhausting weekend camping on the Gower peninsular in a gale, that was definitely a good thing.

Banoffee Cake

200g soft unsalted butter
100g light muscovado sugar
100g soft brown sugar (or 200g of either one)
4 large eggs
2 ripe bananas, broken into chunks & mashed up
75g walnut pieces, chopped
200g self raising flour

for the icing
150g soft unsalted butter
250g icing sugar
2 tbsp tinned caramel or dulce de leche
8 walnut halves
fudge pieces

Grease & line a 20cm cake tin and pre-heat the oven to 180C

Cream together the butter and butter for about 5 minutes till light and fluffy.

Add the eggs one at a time and beat well after each addition, then beat in the mashed banana. It may look quite curdled but don't worry.

Fold in the flour and chopped walnuts, then scrape into the prepared tin and pop in the oven.

Bake for 40-45 minutes till golden on top and a skewer comes out clean.

Leave to cool.

To ice, add the butter to a bowl, sift in the icing sugar, add the caramel and beat together to make a smooth creamy icing. Spread this over the cold cake, decorate with walnut halves and fudge pieces.

Have a small slice. Especially if eating as one of a selection of banana cakes - who'd have thought they came in so many different guises?

A full write up of the evening will appear on the Clandestine Cake Club's site soon!

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Date & Walnut Loaf

I used to have an awesome memory.

Birthdays, phone numbers, addresses, every crime my brothers ever committed against me - all stored in there like an elephant. Not just this kind of basic admin information, though - my entire A level syllabus, 2 years of law school and the associated information, facts, handy things to know from a professional career.  Street plans of cities and towns I'd visited. The exact pile of papers, or drawer where I'd filed the vital document...

The causes of the English Civil War? European monarchs, in order, along with various wars and treaties engaged in and signed during the 17th & 18th centuries? No problem. The rules of tort. The circumstances under which you could claim unfair dismissal and the amount of compensation you might be entitled to. Obscure 80s pop songs (one hit wonders a speciality) artists and titles. All there. Anyone else remember Strawberry Switchblade?

Except these days. Err... These days, I can't even remember a lot of what I've forgotten. I have this theory that may or may not be related to having children, which is essentially that at some point, your brain reaches saturation point with information, and then starts to operate a 'one in one' out policy. 

And who am I kidding? I blame it almost entirely on having children.

"You want me to remember that your kids need their PE kits and some money for a school trip which must be in tomorrow or they can't go, Blue has a gluten-free friend coming round for tea, and Pink is going to a birthday party?" (snarls my brain, as I attempt to sneak some more information in)

"Um, yes" (acts innocent)

"OK. I'll remember. But I'll ditch your nephews' birthdays. And that bill you needed to pay? The letter you needed to post? Forget it." Yeah - literally - forget it.

Thanks, brain.

It's cruel like that. If pushed, I can still remember the causes of the English Civil War, and I have a hazy recollection of the law of unfair dismissal, the lyrics to 'The King of Rock 'n' Roll'... but the information that is actually more vital to me these days - dates of small relations' birthdays being a case in point - is lost (although it's always useful to know that you can recall insightful lines such as "Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque " at times of stress...) 

Where this lost information, things that were once known to me, have gone, I have no idea. Does it just drift, cloud-like out of my brain in my sleep (think Harry Potter type memories being transferred to a pensieve - which actually, I could really, really do with, as I don't have one, and the memories just seem to go floating off), is it actually still there, there's just so much else going on that I just can't retrieve the information any more -   or is this actually a serious issue - synapses dying or something?

My mum is big on synapses. She works with children with dyslexia and knows a bit about neural pathways. She is always urging me to do the sudoku puzzles to keep my brain active and working properly. She and my dad get one newspaper a day, and the sudoku gets photocopied so they can both do it. I might once have mocked, but given the amount of stuff I seem to have forgotten recently, important stuff, she may well have a point.

This loss of important information that I have amassed over the years has extended to a more general absent mindedness. When previously I operated with a mental tick list, these days, unless it's written down, it will simply not get done - not just because I haven't got round to it, but because even if you told me 5 minutes ago, chances are I will have completely forgotten it - distracted by something else.

I used to be able to focus, be clear, laugh in the face of a to do list. But these days? Well, even if it's on a list, there's no guarantee.

Take recipes, which are of course not much more than 2 'to do' lists - one of ingredients, one of what to do with them. You'd think it would be easy, but no. Increasingly, I find that I'm winging it, having forgotten to buy, or include, a vital ingredient. Take this loaf that I knocked up at the weekend. Originally from the Leon Family & Friends tome, I was congratulating myself on substituting pomegranate molasses (which I had) for golden syrup (which I had again forgotten to buy, having noted that I'd run out for 3 consecutive weeks), and thinking about what we were going to have for dinner (pizza) and completely forgot to include the sugar.

As an aside, I've been struggling a little with pomegranate molasses. I bought it some months ago undoubtedly with an Ottolenghi type creation in mind, which I then failed to produce (or forgot? had I written a 'meal plan', I wonder?) and then felt distinctly unworldly in my inability to think up a use for it. In the end, my lovely dog walking chum Rachel suggested using it in a tea loaf type creation. This nugget didn't fall foul of the one in one out policy adopted by my leaky brain, and voila (Rach - here's your name check :-) - thanks for the suggestion!)

But back to the main event - I also forgot to use all the bits of my food processor when I whizzed up the milk and dried fruit, resulting in batter splatter all across the kitchen...The result? Actually a rather tasty date and walnut soda bread type loaf, with no fat, sugar or eggs.  Given that the Husband ventured to suggest that it wasn't my best cake, this is probably a good thing, as I seem to be the main person eating it at the moment.

Actually, this wouldn't be bad as a breakfast type of cake. Just saying.

Date & Walnut Loaf

(makes 2 loaves - I was trying to 'get ahead')

225g wholemeal self raising flour
225g normal self raising flour
2 tsp fine salt
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
500ml semi-skimmed milk
170g pitted dates
50g sultanas
60g dried apricots
11g walnut halves
4 tbsp pomegranate molasses

Line 2 2lb loaf tins and pre-heat the oven to 190C.

Sift together the dry ingredients.

In a properly assembled food processor, whizz up the milk with the dried fruit, nuts and pomegranate molasses for 20-30 seconds, then stir it all into the dry ingredients.

Divide this between the 2 prepared loaf tins and bake for 30-40 minutes till a skewer comes out clean.

Leave to cool and eat with butter (so much for being fat free).

don't mind if I do...