Thursday, 26 February 2015

Laotian fried pork

My photos will all be crap iPhone photos from now on because we were burgled and my camera was stolen. SAD FACE

I fell to talking the other day to someone about Sam's sleeping. Specifically, about how he still wakes up once in the night at 21.5 months (i.e. NEARLY TWO YEARS OLD). He wants a bottle and also needs his nappy changed as otherwise it leaks all over the bed.

They were shocked. Their mouth hung open. "You're up once a night. EVERY night?" They knew how well Kitty has always slept, how ferocious I was about it, about her. They were genuinely stunned that I was up once a night. It was as if Gina Ford herself was standing there shrugging her shoulders going "Yeah, it's not the end of the world."

I found myself in a metaphorical corner, on the back foot, stuttering, making excuses of the sort that I used to not be able to stand in other parents - about how it was cute when their kids came into bed with them so they couldn't say no, or about how they couldn't drop this breastfeed or that breastfeed because it was their special time with them or whatever. I would dismiss them as weak minded -in Victorian times they'd have been sent to a loony bin with a diagnosis of water on the brain.

But here I am, now, defending my continued co-dependency on this once-a-night thing I've got with Sam. Wake up, totter up to his room, new bottle, nappy change, a pat on the head and then back down to sleep.

I have tried to stop it. On five separate occasions I've let him scream his head off for hour in the night for about two or three nights, when I had failed to appear for this bottle-nappy tryst. It does work, for about a week, and he goes quiet all night and I feel sad but also victorious. And then it starts all over again, he wakes up and cries in the night and I, surprised and unsuspecting, give him the thing I know that will make him go back to sleep. Five times I've done this horrible ritual of letting him cry. And although it's said to be the thing that absolutely, definitively works - which offsets the horribleness of it, it doesn't actually seem to work, not long-term. Advocates of it say "it's just three nights - three bad night and then you'll all be sleeping all night and it will be worth it". Sam disagrees.

And the thing is, I'm not tired. I mean, of course I'm tired, we're all tired. We're all dying here,  but I'm just not tired enough to be driven to extended sessions of letting Sam scream his head off at night. I just don't want to listen to it any more. I don't want to have to grit my teeth through it any more. I'm done, finished. I can't be arsed. I feel, with Sam now walking and talking and suddenly being - just between you and me, very charming and easy -  like I've just finished my A Levels. So to ask me to sort out this once-a-night thing is a bit like now asking me to fill out a long tax return or sit an S Level when what I really want is to sit under a tree with a pint of cloudy lemonade and a bag of Hula Hoops, reading Riders.

There's more. I have always felt mildly fraudulent as a parent when all I had was one child who slept like a log. There was a real lack of authenticity about me. Don't get me wrong, I was grateful - and also absolutely and entirely terrified of sleep-deprivation, but still... there was something so real, so tough and so admirable about those women who had non-sleepers or bad sleepers, who just fucking did it and got through it. The fact that Sam wakes up once in the night and I can just cope with it - specifically because, I think, of my former crippling sleep-deprivation fears - is a perverse mark of pride.

This person made me feel bad and judged and a bit ashamed at first but then I looked at the true fear in their eyes of being woken up at night and I thought back to how I used to be - so, so scared of losing even 15 minutes' of sleep. I saw that same look, I recognised it for what it was and I thought: "Oh, grow up."

In my quest for everything to taste a bit like takeaway, here is a delightful fried pork thing, which is mostly aubergine and courgette, very easy to make and particularly good with Esther's Takeout Broccoli (q.v.)

Laotian fried pork
For 2 with leftovers

150g minced pork
1 aubergine
1 courgette
2 cloves garlic
4 tbsp oyster sauce
3 spring onions
1 red chilli
pinch sugar
pinch salt

1 Chop the aubergine and courgette up into cubes and fry in some groundnut oil until collapsed - about 10-15 minutes. Remove to a bowl

2 Crush or grate or slice the garlic and add it to the empty pan and cook gently until it has coloured. Then add the pork mince and cook over a reasonably high heat until the pork is rubbly and dry

3 Chop the spring onions and the chilli and add these and cook for a few minutes, then throw over the sugar, salt and oyster sauce. If you're using a decent oyster sauce it won't itself have an awful lot of sugar and salt in it so you can be fairly generous with your "pinches" of these.

4 Add the aubergine and courgette back to the pan, stir for a bit, maybe add some water from the kettle if you'd like it with a bit of a sauce.

Eat and think to yourself "he'll grow out of it eventually".

Where's Sammy's foot?

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Esther's takeout broccoli

You're supposed to be looking at the broccoli here

I once went to a talk by Irma Kurtz - where and why now escapes me - about getting old. She said that as you get older it's important to change your mind about things. "I try to address one of my prejudices each year," she said, "and try to change my own mind." Otherwise you get stuck churning out the same old boring opinions year after year and you start to be the person no-one wants to sit next to.

Since then I have always sought to change my prejudices about things, to change my mind, to move on, to modernise.

Only the other day, for example, I discovered that a really serious prejudice in my hair care routine was majorly holding me back.

I've grown my hair really long. Like, very nearly crazy cat lady long: it's down to my bra strap now and I'm wondering how much further it can go. I've only got so much time left to have really long hair, you see, and there are no more babies coming along to yank on it, so I've really gone for it. I've gone full mane. It's absolutely the anti-"mum" haircut, it's totally time-consuming, totally impractical.  It's my declaration of independence. It's my Braveheart scream of freedom.

I have historically been shy of hair product as my hair is so horrible and greasy - I've been frightened that I will make it go sticky and lank with too much "stuff" on it. So I've applied a tiny blob in terror and then wondered why my hair doesn't end up like it does at the hair dresser's.

And I've always dried my hair on a "medium" heat because I read in J17 once that a very hot hairdryer will cause you to have split ends. Split ends! Whatever happened to them? They seemed to be the scourge of the world in my teens - now never mentioned anywhere. Anyway so I always dried my hair on the "med" hot setting with a tiny slick of hair product and gone about looking pretty ordinary.

Then I noticed that my hairdresser, who is called Nadia and works at John Frieda in Mayfair, goes completely loony with the product and dries my hair so hot that I sometimes worry that my ears are going to frazz off. And my hair always comes out a cross between Gisele and Liono from Thundercats. (Although being similarly covered in spots, I will always be a dead ringer for Cheetarah. HA! Whatever.)

So I have started using three - yes three - pumps of Keratase Serum Oreo-Relax to my hair and drying it super-fast, super-hot and it looks phenomenal. Every. Time.

And all rules that apply to life in general also apply to cooking. So do this thing with broccoli, which takes normal broccoli and turns it into something you'd find in a really decent high street Chinese or Thai restaurant - and change your mind about it forever.

Esther's Takeout Broccoli

3 florets of broccoli per person
1 tsp runny honey
2 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp groundnut oil

1 Take a wok or a large frying pan and get it really hot then douse it with some groundnut oil, wait 30 seconds and then tip in the broccoli.

2 Stir this about until the edges of the veg are turning brown and black, then turn the heat down to a medium (in this instance, it is necessary) and add your honey and soy. Muddle all this around for another minute and then serve.

TA FUCKING DAH. You're welcome. 

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Tuna melt muffins (for Claudia)

Doesn't look much here but STAGGERINGLY tasty

I am always a bit shaken up by Christmas and New Year. It's something to do with the weight of expectation vs the result, which is worse times a million when you have little kids. When you are childless you can just laze about watching Christmas specials, which will make you feel Christmassy as hell, but as a parent of very little kids, it's not so simple. They still don't really get it - and you're still changing an awful lot of nappies, which at times can get in the way of conjuring up that Christmas feeling.

My main issue was the fact that I ought to have been lazing about watching Frozen. But Kitty is the only four year old IN THE WORLD who doesn't want to watch Frozen on repeat. I just adore Frozen. Adore it. I'd marry that reindeer in a heartbeat. And everyone loves Let It Go, surely?! (Except some hardcore refusniks who get upset about Elsa's sexy new ice dress.) I know, I know. I am a lamentable cliche.

I watched the other day Idina Menzel singing Let It Go on some Christmas special country channel on YouTube and she was nattering on about how the song is about having a special power and then letting everyone see that special power and I was like "Whut? No, Idina, Let It Go is about being weird." The ice shooting from the fingertips thing is a metaphor for freakishness. We're not mutants! You're not living an instalment of the X-Men franchise!!

I don't flatter myself into thinking that I'm such a bloody weirdo, so unique and special. I'm probably just a drudgy pedestrian normalton. But, still, everyone has probably felt pressure at some point, or even now, to be a thing that they are not. Or to construct some kind of socially-acceptable patina. And the fact is that at the long drawn-out end to a "best" friendship a few years ago, I got an email from her telling me that her friends all thought that I was "weird" (but she was friends with me anyway - why wasn't I more grateful?).

I was a bit shocked at the candour of the statement, but it's not like I didn't vaguely know. It wasn't a surprise, it was a bit like unexpectedly catching sight of yourself in a mirror - you feel a bit taken aback, but not terminally so. Though that's not to say that it didn't hurt my feelings. So although I don't think I'm some kind of magical being, I suppose it has been objectively observed that I'm not quite mainstream.

Let It Go makes me recall the acute relief of not having to be in that friendship any more, not having to present myself to those friends despite knowing, somewhere in the back of my mind that they said baffled things about me behind my back about what I said and did (if they deigned to discuss me at all).

Let It Go also makes me recall the relief of not being at university anymore, where everyone was so nice. Currency was niceness. Everyone was so lovely. Except me. And although I quickly after my first year tried to be nice all the time rather than horrible and snippy and mean the damage was done. My reputation as a Not Nice person was pretty much sealed. I spent the next two years trying to be nice all the time and it felt like constantly wearing clothes that were ever so slightly the wrong shape. After I left I could relax into my actual self, not a horrible person trying to be nice all the time, or a genuinely nice person, but something in-between.

Let It Go makes me recall the relief of getting married to someone who has never wanted me to change a thing about myself, the way I dress or what I say or the way I do my hair. He doesn't make me go out when I don't feel like it or see people I hate, or have a lot of dinner parties. He doesn't want me to go bloody ski-ing. He rants and raves about how bad I am at paperwork, how sloppy and lazy I am at my tax and at invoicing for work - but that's a genuine practical issue, he's not trying to get me to change myself in a way that others have.

More prosaically, Let It Go makes me recall the relief of taking off a pair of uncomfortable high heels after a party, or taking off a tight party dress, or of the feeling I get after I've dropped Kitty off at nursery after both children have behaved like complete monsters all morning, or of jumping into a swimming pool in a hot place having not been on holiday for an entire calendar year. It's just a great song, is what I'm saying and I wish Kitty would watch the fucking film.

Anyway, look, this is a perfectly mad thing to blog about, but I need you to know about these tuna muffins. I made them a few months ago for Sam's lunch, because toddler lunches are a bit of a pain - one doesn't want to do loads of cooking, but he's not really old enough for a sandwich yet - so I turned to Annabel Karmel for ideas and found these.

Sam wasn't really that bothered by them - he sort of ate them but was also happy with a bit of rice and butter and some carrot sticks.

I, however, fell on them like a starving wolf. They were the closest thing I have ever made in my kitchen to a McDonald's cheeseburger in terms of tang and moreishness. I have them for my lunch at least once a week. It's pretty much the one day a week I do actually eat lunch as there's this sort of shimmery dress with a kind of cloak thing I bought online that I'm hoping to squeeze into by next Christmas.

Annbel Karmel's tuna melt muffins
Serves 1

1 english muffin
1 tin tuna, the smallest tin you can find in the shop
1 handful finely grated cheddar
1/4 small spring onion, chopped
1 tablespoon sweetcorn - defrosted frozen is fine
3 heaped tsp ketchup
1 tbsp mayonnaise

1 Cut the muffin in half and lightly toast under the grill. I said lightly.

2 Mix together the tuna, mayo, ketchup, spring onion, sweetcorn and about 3 turns of the pepper grinder then spread it on the inner face of the muffin. Top with cheese and put under the grill until the cheese is bubbling and the edges of the muffin are dark brown

3 Eat, while sending plates and chairs and pot plants spinning around the kitchen using your special powers. No singing allowed. 

Monday, 15 December 2014

Christmas decorating

I often read a blog called "Cupcakes and Cashmere", which is written by a gloriously Californian control freak and tells you how to do your nails, how to "braid" your hair, how to make teeny tiny sweeties or lovely brunches or "style" your coffee table. Style my coffee table!? A problem I never knew I had! Whoop!

The blog has taken quite a ribbing online, most notably from The Huffington Post (those killjoys, unless you are Sarah Koenig you're dead meat), who declared that blogs like Cupcakes are "bad for women". I see where that sentiment comes from, but do you know what's bad for women? WOMEN ARE BAD FOR WOMEN. As in, we seek this stuff out. We like pretty things. We are competitive. We fucking love it. Sorry but it's just a fact.

For my part I am really relieved that Cupcakes and Cashmere exists. I am visually inarticulate and inept. Given a choice I dress as if I have fallen out of a bin and my home decoration would extend to my best clippings from the paper plastered on the wall with wallpaper gum, interspersed with "Torso of the Week" shots from Heat. And Garfield cartoons.

However, at the same time I think it's nice to have a presentable house and to deck your halls with some seasonal stuff. But I need to be told, or at least to be inspired. So I fall on Cupcakes and Cashmere like some sort of information-starved castaway. The author, Emily Schuman, may be a presentation and marketing genius, selling old rope and getting paid per item that she puffs but I don't care. I think her interiors advice is brilliant and she collects interesting things.

Anyway this year I am pleased with the way I've done my house - and when I say house I mean my ground floor, because who decorates upstairs? - though it is not how Emily Schuman would have done it because she lives in LA so her house is exclusively white and gold with colour "pops" (this is affectionate teasing, you understand).

I've gone more this year for a Germanic, Mittel-Europe Victorian thing in Kentish Town.

I always hesitate to buy Christmas decorations in the manner of huge glittery deer, 1ft high "Christmas trees", star-shaped wreaths etc because I feel like a fucking mug, so most years roll round and I look in our box of paltry Christmas decorations and think "God, is this it?" 

So from now on I will allow myself 1 (one) mid-sized Christmas decoration per year. This year it was that fellow, above, the Nutcracker, from the Nutcracker. If you've never read the Nutcracker (as I hadn't until this year) do have a skim through. Christmas decorations - mouse kings, candy canes, the nutcracker doll - will all suddenly make sense. 

Anyway I've noted a theme in my humble bag of decorations, which is a) red b) white c) green d) "old" e) "unbreakable". So that's what I'm sticking with. I think picking and sticking with a style is probably my biggest challenge in life, mostly because I've got no idea who I am, or who I want to be. Emily Schuman doesn't have this trouble. She likes these kids of clothes, this kind of sofa, this is her kind of style. 

I've also always wanted to put together a Christmas food table, crystallised and mythologised in Nigella's Christmas as "The Welcome Table". Again, I didn't want to have to spend 40 billion pounds on this (neither should you want to) and managed to put something together using old bits I had round the house and using mostly fresh food and foliage begged off the florist down the road. 

I remember reading a piece in a magazine about having different heights and levels to the table. I didn't quite manage that, but I did put some grapes on a cake stand, which I thought looked quite nice and was in the spirit of the advice. 

Some detail from my Christmas table:

Note how I have really embraced cliche here. I want eye triggers that say "Christmas" - hence the Stilton, the mince pies, the clementines, the walnuts, the holly, the candy canes. Really not subtle. But mega-festive which is all that matters. 

Friday, 12 December 2014


Apologies for the unforgivably crappy piping here - I was listening to Serial at the same time and so was distracted 

Gingerbread is the most terrific stuff. It is easy to make, easy to handle and then takes and keeps a good, clear shape when cut and baked. Not all doughs are like this. It explains why gingerbread is used to make the men, the houses and so forth - you can cut and re-roll without too much heartache.

Anyway if you have a big tub of excellent Christmas-shaped cookie cutters lurking about somewhere and fancy it, this is a really good dough to get creative with.

Alas, I do not have any novelty biscuit cutters, only 1 single rather lame star-shape, but I do so resent giving over space in my kitchen to something that is only going to be used once a year. The star-shape gets a good year-round work-out.

This quantity of dough makes easily enough for an entire class or a healthy contribution to a bake-sale, even if you cut out your shapes reasonably thick.

This recipe is from the much-maligned and misunderstood Celebrate by Pippa Middleton. The thing is that Pippa Middleton did not write this book. Of course she didn't! How could she have done? And whoever did write this book is a fucking good cook and deserves to be recognised as such.

So here we go:

130g butter
100g dark brown sugar
6 tbs of golden syrup
350g plain flour
1 tsp bicarb of soda
2 heaped tsp ground ginger
large pinch of mixed spices

1 Melt the butter, sugar and syrup together in a medium pan over a low-ish flame until melted, about 5-10 mins, then take off the heat.

2 Sieve together the plain flour, the bicarbonate of soda and the spices and then add the dry ingredients to the wet about a third at a time and mix together. This will look frighteningly sloppy for a dough, do not fret! It will become dough-like upon chilling.

3 Remove the dough to a bowl and then chill for 30 min.

4 Roll out using a bit of flour to help you along. Cut and bake at 170C for about 10 mins, but do a few tester biscuits first. Regular readers of this blog will know that my oven is a monster and burns the shit out of everything so even though the instruction was to bake for 12-15 mins, my biscuits only needed about 8 mins.

Go NUTS with the icing when cool and do a better job than I did.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Boxing Day Buffet

A more onerous task than a Boxing Day Buffet I can't really imagine. But for many of you this year, it is a reality.

How do you feed many people, of wildly different ages with basically zero prep time? Because the day before Boxing Day, if you hadn't noticed, is a bit busy and there's not terribly much time to get anything done.

The answer! Is the same answer as in every mass-catering question and that is: a LOT of very few things. So, an ENORMOUS quantity of a single meat dish. An ENORMOUS quantity of a single vegetable dish and an ENORMOUS quantity of a single carbohydrate. Do not faff about with one quiche, one pie, one of this sort of salad one of that sort of salad. You will go completely crackers.

What I always recommend to anyone who asks me is:

1 A glazed ham
2 Jamie Oliver's Winter Coleslaw
3 Mini baked potatoes (by mini I mean about the size of a five year old's fist - not actually tiny, but not a giant Spud-U-Like jobby)
4 You could also have a coronation chicken dish, depending on how many people you've got coming. Everyone loves coronation chicken and they won't have had it yet in the year (probably).

You must have alongside this ham a wide range of pickles and condiments and for pudding, something chocolatey, like brownies. Out of a packet if necessary.

But how the holy hell are you going to get all this together in time for lunch on Boxing Day?? Not a thing can be done on Christmas Day, after all!

No, quite. What you are going to do is make the ham, the coronation sauce and the brownies on Christmas Eve. The ham can absolutely sit about until Boxing Day - that's what hams are supposed to do. The brownies will be fine in Tupperware. There is a VERY good Coronation Chicken recipe on this blog.

Pick whichever glazed ham recipe you fancy off the internet - Delia has a nice one, as does Gordon Ramsay and Jamie. I've always been a bit scared of the number of Scotch Bonnets Jamie recommends for his jerk ham but he's right about most things...

First thing Boxing Day morning you bung a chicken in the oven, take it out, leave to cool, then strip and add the sauce. If you could bear to, you could also do this in the dying moments of Christmas Day and leave to cool overnight.

Then you make the coleslaw, which is incredibly easy, just an assembly job - the original recipe is here: It's truly a wonderful thing, this coleslaw - not at all like the sloppy, mayonnaise-y coleslaws of your youth. It also brings a much-needed freshness and crunch to the general Christmas food-paintbox of stodge, brown things and sugar.

[A note: you don't have to have a grating attachment on your whizzer to do this, but you must have at least a Japanese mandolin or you're a bit stuffed.]

THEN, 45 minutes before you want to sit down and eat, prick a lot of smallish Maris Pipers (allow 3 per person) and put in them the oven as high as it will go.

It is vital that you time everything to the potatoes. They must be fresh out of the oven, piping hot and desirable as you call everyone to lunch.

There is something for everyone here, trust me. Even for vegetarians - what is better than a baked potato with a lot of butter on it? And the coleslaw is out of this world, any vegetarian who complains about that needs to be booted out onto the street. Peace to the world and love to all mankind was yesterday, suckah.

Who doesn't love brownies? Serve with fruit and cream if you must, but everyone will be happy just stuffing them in their gobs with both hands. Do NOT try to be original with some kind of yucky lemon pudding or a meringue or something. People who like pudding like chocolate pudding above all.

Just don't let the kids catch sight of the brownies before time or it's game over.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Best crunchy crackling and a Christmas pep-talk

My husband has discovered a way of cooking pork belly that produces the lightest fluffiest, crunchiest crackling ever. I think he stumbled upon this by accident, though he claims to have known about it all along, but I swear I've never had crackling this good in the past. Anyway, I'm not going to press him on this issue because if you corner my husband, he comes out swinging, which is enough to give anyone a fright.

Okay so what you do is take a goodly portion of pork belly (about 500g), score the skin in a diamond pattern and then rub a lot of sea salt into it and leave this to sit at room temperature for 1 hour or more.

Then you put it in on a greased baking sheet or tray or pan or whatever and put it in a pre-heated oven at 140C for 3 hours. Then when that time is up, you turn the heat up to absolute top bongoes and cook it for another 30 mins. Then you rest it for 20 min. And the crackling bubbles up like packing noodles, only in a much more delicious way. Try it!

I have started doing pork belly this way for the kids, which turns out to be very easy and cheap as you can put the belly on when the youngest one wakes up from its nap, take both out for a saunter, then it's ready when you come back. I use about 250g for them and cook it for only 2 hrs with a 20 min blast at the end.

They turned out to like it quite by accident. I was doing something with some leftover belly and Kitty ran into the kitchen looking for scraps - this is quite a common occurrence - and I handed her some of the crunchy crackling as she is a fiend for anything crunchy and she dug it. Sam by now wanted some of the action because whatever Kitty is doing, he wants to do, too. My experience is generally that once children have eaten and enjoyed something once, usually in some sort of situation where they have "found" it or "stolen" it - rather than presented it nicely on a plate - they're all set for it. So once a week they get pork belly 3 ways, which is some crackling, a bone to gnaw on like the animals they are, and then some of the actual pork either alongside, or mixed into, fried rice. It's a welcome change from sausages.

Pork belly 3 ways 

Now, Christmas. DON'T PANIC! It's going to be okay. You do know what you are doing, I'm sure and you're only feeling panicked because you're a bit of an hysteric and like making a fuss. It's alright! I don't mean that in a pejorative way - I do the same thing myself.

I mean, this is unless you actually don't do much cooking and really don't know what you are doing, in which case, why on EARTH have you offered to cook Christmas lunch you absolute, total crazy?

I'm not cooking Christmas lunch or dinner this year, so I'm not feeling especially uptight about it but if I were cooking Christmas lunch what I'd be doing round about now is buying and watching Jamie's Christmas on DVD - as I have not been smart enough to record it off the telly in previous years. There is also, I see, an extended collection available on Amazon, a 6 DVD bonanza! Tricky not to buy it really. I may have even bought it already in a drunken stupor - delightful things that I have always wanted seem to mysteriously arrive at this house in brown boxes approximately 36 hrs after I happen to have had that extra glass of wine.

So don't panic if you don't want to. It's all about making lists. Just make those lists, get those deliveries in and roll with the punches. But to my mind, a bit of panic is good. Keeps you on your toes. Just don't mix panic with booze because it will make you look old and mad.

Coming up: what the fuck to do for a Boxing Day Buffet.

Stay with us.