Friday, 19 September 2014

Slutty cake pops

I've been made aware recently of a sector of my peers I never knew existed until a few weeks ago: couples who are trying, but failing, to have a baby.

My family are hopeless in many ways, we can none of us barely hold down a job or remember each other's birthdays, but one thing we are super at is getting up the duff. Sometimes by accident! Sometimes we don't even know we are in the family way for weeks on end! Sometimes the pregnancies are not viable, but often they are. Then we ring each other, slapping ourselves on the forehead going: "Pregnant agaaaaaiiinnnn".

There are 7 grandchildren, soon to be 8. If my mother had her way, there would be 20. When I got married, next-eldest said to me darkly "Just mind out how quickly you have a baby." I didn't listen and Kitty was born 9 months after my wedding day.

So it has never crossed my mind that some couples I know don't have children because they can't, rather than not wanting to.

The worst thing about people knowing that you're finding it difficult to have a baby must be the sympathy. No wait, not the sympathy - the pity. The Oh Poor You. Especially if you are having IVF. I don't know the full horrors of the process but I know at the very least you have to have injections all the time. And then there is this endless waiting. And the disappointment. Or what if you keep having miscarriages!?! Awful. Just awful! No wonder no-one wants to talk about it.

I'd rather, probably, if it was me, just let people assume that I simply didn't want kids. Or didn't want them right now. I'd rather people thought that I was just too glamorous, successful, independent and fulfilled emotionally and intellectually to spend 2, 3, 4? years in the nappy wilderness.

And, also, there might be lurking there that feeling of Oh Fuck It let's give up. Let's just get a fucking puppy and say yes to every bastard who asks me to be godmother. Because it's not like there aren't plenty of opportunities to see what a mind-boggling fucking shambles your life becomes, or can become, or will be at times, if you have kids. Observing your peers - rich or poor, organised or chaotic, relaxed or neurotic - disappear into the same quicksand as you calmly pick out tasteful outfits and holiday in Barbados must make the actual tangible desire for a family tricky to hold on to. Because you're not a bloody idiot, you know what babies mean.

Some people aren't broody. Like me! I can confidently say I've never felt broody. I had to ask Giles, the broodiest man in the world, the other day what it meant, what it felt like. "It's like winterlust - really, really wanting winter to come so you can wear sweaters and have fires. You forget that it's just dark and depressing and rains all the time. Or it's like really wanting any of that shite you buy on the internet that comes in the boxes that I have to jam into the recycling."

Not everyone longs and longs for a baby and just knows that it's right and it will complete you and all that cobblers. And if you're not broody at all, but hypothetically think you want a family and believe you would enjoy family life - if you then have a hard time having a baby you might think O God maybe it's a SIGN?! I would have thought that instantly. I would have thought, if it had taken a long time to get pregnant, that it was a sign saying: "Don't have kids because you are not broody so it means you'll be shit at it."

Lining up for IVF, heading down another path of possibly yet another miscarriage in order to get a baby, which may or may not complete you or may or may not just totally ruin your life and bring you to your knees physically, emotionally and financially must be confusing.

And then!! (And this is the worst bit - well, it would be for me -) when you actually do get the baby you would feel like you could never complain about it!

HA! What a fucking nightmare, to have worked so hard for this child that you then feel like you can't ever just throw your hands in the air and say FUCK THIS SHIT because you sacrificed so much for it.

Having a baby is such a choice these days. It's - do I want this kind of life, or that kind of life? There are options, having a child is not just a biological imperitive. And thanks to the wonder of private medicine, you can spend a limitless amount of cash on having a baby: where do you stop? At what point do you say - "I don't want to have a child that much"?

Even thinking about it just for the length of writing this piece - without even talking to someone in the middle of IVF - makes me feel depressed and anxious.

And who would talk to me about not being able to have a baby?? It's no wonder these people are invisible to me. I would just hiss "Count your fucking blessings. Babies are awful. Sam has been sent here on a mission from someone who hates me to fuck my life up."

Because that it what it feels like at the moment. Don't get me wrong! I find Sam cute and winning. But he is also a shrieking, dementing hell toddler. Although he's not bloody toddling! Bloody 16 months and no sign of walking, though his crawling is amazing. Dr Mike my paediatrician said "Yes, some way off walking yet," cheerfully - the bastard - but "there's nothing wrong with him". "Looks like a very happy chap!" he added, as Sam pointed at Dr Mike's stethoscope, looked at me and said "Dis?" meaning "Pass me this thing so that I can break it or hurt someone with it."

He's also having too much milk, said Dr Mike. Yes thanks, I know that Sam the ravening Avent bottle fiend is having too much milk. Two nights ago, when he was feeling particularly troublesome and arseholish Sam demanded 4 bottles in one night. I lay awake in bed for two hours racked with anxiety. What have I done? How have I allowed this to happen? What. Have. I. Done?

I haven't felt so panicked and incompetent as I have in the last few weeks since Kitty was roughly the same age. I feel like I have arrived home to find that my house has been bombed and the only tools I have with which to clear it up are a dustpan and brush.

(Note, please that I am working hard now to correct this awful state of events, though it's hard because Sam has not much else in his life except for his bottle, his "bobo" - he can't walk, can barely talk, doesn't suck his thumb, have a dummy, breastfeed, have a blankie or a rabbit. It's just his bobo, that is his only comfort.)

I have let things slide because Kitty is my evidence that problems during years 1-3 just work themselves out eventually. They all do something awful - I mean, it's all relative but there's always a problem - but by the time they're 3 even the worst habits have subsided.

And by 5 years old, I see from observing other children, they're almost always passable as human beings. That's why there is a thing in this country about the Under-5s. You're either under 5 and therefore a frightening, unpredictable lunatic, or you're over 5 and reasonably manageable.

So I have brushed off Sam's various manias as passing phases, as we are always encouraged to do - but his bottle mania needs correction. I won't go into details. I can feel your eyes glazing over as it is.

Let's turn, now, to cake pops, which I have always avoided because I don't like "trends" in food and because performance bakery takes time and patience that I just don't have.

But the other day while I was in Brent Cross (where else?) I went into Lakeland and my hands, as if with a life of their own, reached out for a pink silicon cake pop mould and purchased it with my husband's credit card.

I took it home and made, in 1 hour, some cake pops for Kitty's nursery bake sale. They were properly shoddy but the kids didn't care. They went freaking mental for them.

So here's how I did it.

Slutty cake pops
makes loads - about 20

2 eggs - weigh them (shells on)
then the same amount of
self-raising flour
caster sugar
a drop of vanilla essence if you like (I don't)

icing sugar and decorations

Preheat your oven to 180

1 Cream the butter and sugar together, then whisk in the eggs one by one and fold in the flour. You might need to add some milk to the mixture to loosen it up

2 Either grease your silicon cake pop mould with butter or spray with a baking spray (I use Lurpak, it's brilliant - get it from Waitrose!)

3 Fill your mould with cake mixture to just below half-way, then fit the top half on and press down well round all the little spheres so the mixture doesn't leak out as it rises.

4 Bake for 12 mins. Let the little cakes cool in the mould if you've got time. I didn't.

5 Make up your icing with icing sugar and water. Not too much water, only a tablespoon or so and much more icing sugar than you think - about 5 tablespoons to one of water. Don't forget to SIEVE your icing sugar, this is so so important or you'll get lumps.

5 Dip your cake pop sticks into the icing sugar and then skewer each cake pop and leave to harden. Again, I didn't do this, but it works well if you have the time to.

6 Dip the pops into the icing (you can add colour or flavour to it if you like) and then roll in decorations. If you don't have a cake pop stand a lump of old, brown mashed-up Play-Doh in the bottom of some sort of cup works very well.

There are entire blogs and websites dedicated to cake pops - mostly about how to cover them in chocolate, if that's a thing you want to do. Me? I can't be arsed with it, especially as kids don't care. They just want some crazy lollipop cake-thing covered in neon decorations. Also I have only ever, at most, got an hour to spare. You can blame Sam for that.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Plum and apple cobbler

When Kitty was a baby, during her toddlerhood and emerging girlhood I, and everyone else, marvelled at her independence, her fearlessness, her willingness to sleep in her own bed in her own room, her gung-honess at playgroups and enthusiasm for holiday resort kids' clubs. I have never had to fetch her from nursery early, except for once when she wasn't well. She has one or two little friends there, has had a marriage proposal, and loves her teacher.

I could barely believe my luck, or believe that she was my child.

When small, I refused to go to nursery except for a handful of days a term, made a giant fuss about going to school, wouldn't go to school at all for a whole year when I was seven. I would never, ever have agreed to be left at a kids' club in a hotel and I never liked any of my teachers until I was in Sixth Form, and even then I kept my distance from them. They never knew I liked them. I never even let a smile out.

But Kitty! Kitty was different. She was my redemption.

So when these most recent long summer holidays loomed with no nursery, most of Kitty's friends away on holiday and no foreign holidays for us, (Giles is working non-stop until the last VAT quarter of the 21st Century), I thought I would be super-clever and sign Kitty up for a lot of London-based holiday activities, groups and camps. She would love it! I cackled to myself. "She's just the right type of child," I thought. I boasted to everyone about how organised I was and how sorted I had it.

But it turns out that she isn't that type of child at all and refused to go to every single group - the only activity that she agreed to and liked was a 30 minute tennis lesson in the park up the road.

I feel like I have mistaken my child for someone else.

It was the same every time. She just turned to me, her eyes huge and hunted as the regarded the unfamiliar church hall and strange children, and said "I want to go home."

I was baffled and privately furious, although I tried my best not to let it show. I said to myself "It's okay if she doesn't like it," but it wasn't. It was a bitter disappointment. Not just because the alternative to a playgroup for Kitty was bumming around North London with me on various errands, watching far, far too much television and nagging me to play "Doctors" or "do Abney's voice"; both "Doctors" and "doing Abney/Captain Hook/Rumplestiltskin's voice" are activities that are okay for precisely 23 minutes, after which time I powerfully want to turn my face to the ceiling and let out an insane bloodcurdling Bertha Mason scream.

But there is something else at work - it's the awful fear that Kitty will suddenly turn into the same sort of child that I was - clingy, strange, un-clubbable, unable to have fun or join in, suspicious of everyone. I am angry with that child for being so pathetic and needy, for cutting me off from possibly enjoyable experiences, fun times and friends.

But she is not like me and she will not be like me - and even if she is, that's no reason to get in a huff about it. And, moreover, it's not her fault that I was such a weedy child. It's not anyone's fault. That's just me.

The truth of it is that summer holidays can just be fucking boring.  Children can go a bit mad and feral during them, especially if they are not running around with some huge gang of kids in local parks or in the countryside - that kind of feral and mad I would embrace and find hilarious - that old-world kind of "Don't come back till it's dark" attitude of parenting is fine by me.

But if there is no bloody gang and it's just them and you in a narrow townhouse in North London, with a playdate once a week if you're lucky, they go the wrong sort of feral and mad. They go strange and Howard Hughes-ish.

I bumped into a mum from Kitty's nursery at the playground the other day and she said "We're nearly halfway through the holidays now. Another three weeks to go!" A cold hand clutched my heart. Fucking hell! I thought it was nearly done! We will simply fall to eating each other.

Anyway, look - I must just get a grip and think laterally. Fine, so she doesn't want to go and play with a load of strange kids in a musty church hall. Fine! We'll go on buses and on the tube and find an exciting experience in that in itself, we'll feed the ducks and find new playgrounds. We'll visit cousins and go swimming. We'll just have to do other stuff.

I think I also mistook this apple and plum cobbler for something else. I have never made or eaten any sort of cobbler before but I've always liked the sound of it. So I made this with the remaining plums and apples from my garden, which have not been devoured by wasps and birds, from a recipe I found on BBC Good Food.

The result was perfectly okay but I don't think there was enough of a contrast between the fruit base of the pudding and the bready topping, which it turns out what a cobbler is. The cobble element was just a bit bland, slightly unnecessary carby and fluffy. Simon Conway was over for dinner when I made it and he said "I think it's nice," which was very accurate - it is merely "nice", rather than amazing. If I had done this with a crumble or flapjack topping it would have been much better.

But, still, this recipe works perfectly well so if you would like to try your hand at it, despite everything I've said, here's how it's done.

Plum and apple cobbler
Serves 4

For the fruit

About 8 ripe plums, halved, de-stoned and then quartered
About 5 small apples, peeled and roughly chopped
juice of 1/2 a lemon
sugar to taste

For the cobble

100g self-raising flour
50g butter
50g sugar
1 egg
3 tablespoons of milk

Preheat your oven to 180C normal ovens and 160C fan-assisted. (Simon, that's gas mark 4 if you're ever brave enough to use your oven and want to re-create this quite dull pudding).

1 Put the apple, lemon juice, a sprinkling of sugar and 1 tsp of water into a pan and stew with a lid on for 5 mins. Add the plums and stew with the lid on for another 5 min. After this 10 min, taste the mixture and add more sugar cautiously until you have something not too sweet. A too sweet fruit pudding is just so revolting, you will regret it.

2 Put the fruit in an oven dish with at least 1 inch of space left between the surface of the fruit and the upper limit of the dish for the cobble to fit in and rise.

3 Put the flour into a bowl and cut the butter into it, then rub into until you have a crumb mixture. Stir in the sugar, then add the egg and the milk and mix to a batter. Dollop over the surface of the fruit and scatter over, if you like, some walnuts or flaked almonds or chopped hazelnuts would be nice. Or even some granulated sugar for a bit of crunch. I'm panicking now, trying to make this pudding more exciting…

4 Bake for 30 min. Eat with cream or custard or something - anything! Practice your best "Mmm, yeah, it's nice, it's… fine" face.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Spiced lentils for Camilla

Almost my first feeling after I've invited someone round for dinner or sent a lot of party invitations out or basically instigated any social occasion is regret: the food I cook will be awful and inedible, they will wildly outstay their welcome and I will not get to bed until 1am, we will have nothing to talk about, the whole affair will be awkward and awful.

Which is why I never see any of my friends. Sorry, I mean, which is why I never see any of my "friends", because, not ever seeing anyone means I don't have many. Any. 

But Giles is away again, making a gameshow in Canada, (don't ask), and I have delivered the manuscript for The Bad Mother, (out in January 2015 so don't get too excited), so in the evenings I haven't got much to do these days except sit about feeling guilty and shitty about how much I shouted at bath time. 

- - As an addendum to this, my children just fight at the moment. It's all they do. Whenever Sam comes anywhere near her, Kitty rains blows down on his head, but rather than keeping his distance, staying out of her way, doing other stuff or hiding behind me, Sam goes looking for it. He crawls up to her with his mouth open in delight, his eyes bright in anticipation of a fight, pretty much. Then she wallops him over the head with a toy car and he yowls in pain and humiliation, looking to me for - what?? What the fuck, Baby Sam? - stay out of her way you fucking mentalist!! - - 

So this week I had my old friend Kate round for a tonic water and my other old friend Sarah Langford round for roast chicken and a jammy pudding and then when I found myself left with some excellent smoked salmon plus condiments, 3/4 of a cold roast chicken, a tin of lentils and the makings of another tremendous pudding, I got carried away and texted Camilla Long.

It was a long shot. It was a Friday night. Camilla is very, very glamorous. But even very glamorous people are sometimes not on holiday in the dog days of summer and also I thought there was an odds-on chance that I would text her and she would not be available for dinner, that she would be out doing something glamorous, and then I could eat an entire 3-course dinner by myself and go to bed at 8.07pm. 

But she was available! That's the thing about glamorous people, they often complain about a lack of invitations because people think "She is too glamorous, there's no way that she will be free". 

And then I started to worry. O god, I thought. Camilla Long is coming round and I am giving her leftovers. Fuck! I was wearing jeans and the same sweatshirt that I had worn four days in a row! 

I swapped my sweatshirt - marked with abominations sustained during Kitty's nursery's guinea pigs' little holiday chez Coren - for a Whistles sweater that I have been saving for a special occasion. Then I started rummaging in cupboards for my finest performance crockery. Then, further, I panicked and decided to serve shots of very cold, very expensive vodka with the smoked salmon starter and began to worry that Camilla would arrive in a ball gown expecting to see Giles, Tina Fey, Cara Delevigne and Cary Fukunaga chatting around my dinner table, when it was just me. 

I needn't have worried! Like all incredibly glamorous people, Camilla knows when to dial it down and arrived, thoughtfully, in civvies. "Today has been a total knee-slide," she announced. I felt great relief that I had put that vodka in the freezer.

One of the leftover dishes that Camilla gamely ate without questioning why the fuck I had cooked it, was a dish of spiced lentils and leftover roast chicken.

I am obsessed with these spiced lentils at the moment, although the original recipe specified an amount of pepper so wild it rendered my initial go at them completely uneatable. But I toned the spice down and now they are brilliant; I do love a dressed-up lentil or a chick pea - they are capable of genuinely being as totally a nice thing as a plate of pasta or rice. These lentils go best with fish or chicken or you could eat them on their own if you were feeling like being a bit of a hippy.

Spiced lentils for 2

1 400g cooked brown lentils, rinsed
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper - this still leaves the lentils with a reasonable kick, so if you are a bit timid spice-wise (and I totally respect that), reduce this to 1/4 tsp
1/2 tsp smoked paprika
4cm piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
oil or butter for frying - about a tablespoon
1 medium onion, or two small ones. A few shallots would do if that's all you've got or half a massive white onion

1 Toast all the ground spices in a dry frying pan over a low heat for 5 minutes

2 Chop the onion and add it to the toasted spices along with your oil or butter, a generous pinch of salt and the ginger. Cook this gently for 10 minutes.

3 Add the lentils to this mixture and mix round a bit. You will want to serve these with a side of yoghurt or soured cream.

For the roast chicken, I toasted 1/2 tsp each of cumin, ground coriander and turmeric in another dry frying pan, then added a knob of butter and the roast chicken. I fried that together for about five minutes, then added 3 tablespoons of coconut milk.

Camilla and I sat about discussing all our mutual friends, did not scream when she saw a mouse streaking across my living room, and left promptly when a smart car arrived to collect her at 10.15pm saying "I know you like to turn in early."

I shut the front door after her, sat down on the bottom step of the staircase and wondered how I could be more glamorous. Number 1: stop eating lentils.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Chicken Sesti

So there I was standing in a strange kitchen and a strange country all alone at 4pm (Italy time) facing about a 1/4 of a metric tonne (seriously! seriously!) okay it was about 1kg, but really like 1kg of chicken breasts and thinking "How am I going to turn this into anything edible?"

It must have been 32C in that kitchen and I hadn't even turned the oven on.

It was hubris - the Lord strike me down! - I had offered to cook dinner for everyone well before we had set out for the week in Tuscany to celebrate my sister's wedding - because I thought I was such a damned great cook and also I thought I'd be at my leisure because I was leaving my husband at home with my children.

But all that happened was that I spent days drugged up to the eyeballs on Nytol, occasionally "babysitting" my nephews (iPad) doing my hair for two hours a day and having 1.5hr naps. The rest of the time I was swimming and forgot entirely about this promise to cook on my last night.

I scavenged the main kitchen of the house and brought it down to the kitchenette in the funny little garden flat I had been assigned, just so that no-one could see me sweating and panicking and swearing about cooking dinner for 12 people using only chicken breasts, vegetable oil and paper doilies.

I am exaggerating - me? I had more than that. I also had about another kilo of mozzarella, a tub of the finest and sloppiest burrata I think I've ever seen, (and as you can imagine, I've seen some burrata), a huge tray of cherry tomatoes and a lot of that nasty unsalted bread you get in bloody Tuscany that is edible for about twenty minutes once it's out of the oven and then hardens to a brick.

What's vaguely interesting about this dinner was what I did with the chicken. I don't like chicken breasts, they are just so annoying. Any other part of a chicken is easy and forgiving because it's so fatty. But chicken breasts are lean and dry. You can poach them, but then you have to conjure up some kind of sauce to disguise their corpse-like appearance. You can fry them but there was so much of it, it would have taken me about 8,000 years and I was a bit foggy what with all that Nytol still washing around me. Not to mention hot, have I said how hot it was?

So I just shoved it all in the fucking oven with some lemon, garlic and rosemary, oil and salt at 180C for 25 minutes and then set about disguising it with something else.

I laboriously chopped up a lot of that hateful bread into teeny weeny bits, (there was an ancient food processor in a cupboard but I was so hot, you see, running with sweat I was, that I just couldn't face getting it out and trying to make it work), and then fried it slowly with very finely chopped garlic and about 150g of butter. Then once the chicken was cooked and setting about cooling and turning into shoe leather, I covered it with the garlic crumb.

I've never really cooked in another country, not properly. But cooking that dinner in that kitchen made me realise why all Italian food is the way that it is. What you have at your disposal is a lot of quite good fresh produce and then these enormous bushes of sage and rosemary everywhere you look. (Not basil though, I didn't see one basil plant in my 5-day tour of Tuscany, which makes me think that Italian snails are as keen on it as English snails).

So I went outside and pulled up huge branches of sage and rosemary and put them in everything. Gnocchi got covered in 300g of grated Pecorino and then I chopped in some fresh sage and also a handful of leaves fried in more butter. Then a huge tomato salad, just the cherry tomatoes chopped, a few slices of very finely-sliced red onion, with burrata spooned over and salt - this recipe was courtesy of next-eldest sister who had made it two days previously.

So in the end the shoe leather chicken was okay, with the gnocchi and the very wet tomato salad on the side. I call it Chicken Sesti because Sesti was the name of the place we were staying and it's not a million miles away from Chicken Kiev.

And that's what to do when you find yourself in Italy with no shops nearby and you have a lot of chicken breasts and 12 people for dinner.

Look at my sister's fackin amazing huge dress:

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
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.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Ham and cheese croquettes

You know those times when you actually feel, despite everything, quite organised? When the house seems reasonably tidy - old sandwiches do not fall out of jigsaw boxes etc - babysitters have been booked in advance for important events, everyone has enough clothes of the right size, one's phone is charged and you know what everyone is having for tea tonight. That feeling?

I am having the opposite of that feeling. I feel like I am in a vortex of vague, a fog of ummmmm. I look at the clock and I am baffled as to how it's that time already, or Oh Fucking Christ it's only 8.20am. I look in the freezer for food for Sam and realise it's all gone. But didn't I only just cook up a massive batch of thingy to put in here? I sit down to do an Ocado order and realise I didn't bring my shopping list to the computer. So I get up to go and find it but then the doorbell rings, and I deal with whoever it is and then I shut the door and turn and I find myself in the hallway wondering what to do next.

So I stand about humming a bit, eyeing some cobwebs in high, far corners and then remember "The Ocado!" and dash to my computer and sit down… now *pat pat pat* where is my little list…. it's like this all the time. I feel drunk, unsteady on my feet - what is that bloody pile of junk doing there, still? - I feel like I am slurring my words but I'm not. I can't describe where things are, I forget what month we are in, what day it is. I'm like Johnny 5, but not alive. Show me a rorschach and I will say "Who's going to clean up that fucking mess, then? Me?!"

Meanwhile Kitty, on holiday from nursery, sits in a corner with no pants on "doing stickers" with a painless nosebleed that has gone unnoticed by everyone including her and she has smeared a scarlet streak across her face from nose to ear. My stomach lurches as I pluck out wet wipes to dab at her face while she claws me away. Tiny sticky ballerinas, flowers, bumblebees are scrunched in the crevices of her tense restless grubby hands; a pirate swings crazily about, scaling the rigging of her fringe - a bear holding a briefcase is plastered to her vest.

I smell, again, that faint but unholy stink in the air that everyone has decided is a dead mouse under the floorboards. They look at me accusingly. Why have I allowed the mouse to die and decompose under the floorboards? What am I doing to rectify this situation?

What have I been doing? What it feels like I have been doing for the last three years is tidying up the kitchen only for it to be a total fucking dump the next time I look at it. WHO IS MAKING ALL THIS MESS???? Is it me? Is it Sam who now wants to feed himself with a spoon and is actually quite good at it but also dumps a reasonable amount on the floor, too? Is it my husband, who is back from America briefly before he goes again on some day in the future, the distance away from now a thing I cannot possibly compute? Who is it? WHAT IS HAPPENING???

I think it is a combination of my husband being back from America and Kitty being at home from nursery. Neither of them are particularly troublesome on their own but I am the lightning rod, the buck stops with me. The tiny cogs that turn and make up their lives - that's me, too. Loo roll, toothpaste, lunch, clean pyjamas, clean pants, shoes in the right place, a rucksack with water, snacks and spare pants to take to the zoo. Me. Enough detergent to wash the pants. Me. Dinner tonight, me. So one extra person around during the day, let alone two, means about 4,000 more cogs to attend to.

I don't want to sound like a martyr, it's fine, I don't mind doing it, but I don't seem to be able to do it properly. The thing is that when you spend your life dealing in tiny details, ("are there anymore bulldog clips so I can close this just-opened packet of pasta?", "mum can I have another sticker page?", "could you post these letters if you're going up the road?", "can I have some water?", "we need a babysitter for Thursday"), you live your life in five minute chunks. And when you do have an hour alone, you so expect to be interrupted any second now with a request, an emergency, a doorbell, a phonecall, that you cannot settle to anything. You rack your brains to think of what you ought to be doing right now and you cannot think. You just cannot think. You stare out of the window at the sunshine and then turn back to the clock and it is fifteen minutes later. Fuck!

Then just as your husband walks in the door with your three year old a cold hand squeezes your heart as you remember that you forgot, on your little sally up the road for a few things, to get anything for lunch.

My husband comes off worst at times like this, as husbands tend to, and while he was back briefly from America I have him a series of panicked dinners that were so terrible that I really felt quite sorry for him and guilty, even though my husband will eat anything.

Then he went away again and Kitty went back to nursery and Sam, sensing that it was his role, now, as man of the house, to shake things up a bit, decided to go from slurping down any sort of puree you danced in front of his nose to eating only an assortment of exciting and complex finger food, the catch being that he is not especially brilliant at eating it.

I have ended up making for him the sort of dainty dinners that Giles would fall and weep with gratitude to receive from my cirrhotic hand. The other catch is that Sam will only eat it if I have fucking chewed it once first. Yes you heard me. Any challenging mouthful he points at me like "fucking chew it you mother then give it to me". He looks at me intently, flaring his nostrils, the tips of his fingers quivering in anticipation, high on power, while I chew his bloody food and then hand it to him.

Anyway I don't care. It goes against my entire parenting facade to do this, but there's no-one to see.

The other thing that I have been doing while my husband is away again is trying to get both kids to eat the same bloody thing, which is harder than it sounds. But tonight they had ham and cheese croquettes with broccoli on the side, which went down really well and I recommend them to you.

I am grateful to Becky B for suggesting this to me.

Ham and cheese croquettas
makes about 6

(I've got no idea how echt a recipe this is, I just made it up. It works fine but the croquettes come out quite fragile - there might be a trick to making them a bit more solid but I don't care what it is so don't tell me.)

here we go

2 potatoes smaller than your closed fist
a handful of cheddar, grated
2 slices cheap ham, diced
garlic granules (if you like) or a very tiny amount of freshly squeezed garlic
about 25g butter
fresh breadcrumbs or medium Matzoh meal
1 egg, beaten
oil for frying

1 Chop, boil and drain your potatoes for 20 mins. Pass through a masher or a potato ricer. My husband got me a potato ricer for Christmas but I only used it for the first time yesterday and it's AMAZING.

2 Mix the potato immediately with the butter, cheese and ham, season with the garlic and salt and pepper (depending on how you feel about giving this to kids) and then leave to cool down a bit.

3 When cool enough to handle, shape into sausage shapes, roll in the beaten egg, then in the breadcrumbs then fry for a bit each side until golden brown. There is nothing raw here that needs to be cooked, except the egg but, really, come on, so just until they're brown will do.

Give them to your kids and watch them VANISH like a magic trick. No pre-chewing required. Then stop starting every sentence with "Has anyone seen my….?" because it's annoying.