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Starting up

On how I got cracking and wrote a book

This year I have written a book and saying it out loud (or rather, writing it down here) makes me feel I need to pinch myself.  It’s a dream and it’s now a reality.  I fancied myself as a writer for a long, long time but never – actually – wrote.  Or wrote much, at any rate.  A background in PR made me adept at a snappy press release, and a lifetime as a d.e.d.i.c.a.t.e.d. reader fooled me into thinking of myself as someone a bit wordy.  You know, pretty good at WordFeud and smug at Scrabble.  But actually writing – committing something to page/screen – I just never got around to jumping in.

But. As I say, this year I have taken the dive, jumped in, committed myself and only gone and written a whole flipping book.  And (somewhat typically, I’m guessing) the motivation for doing it wasn’t me, wasn’t fulfilling my dreams, wasn’t a creative yearning that just had to met.  Oh no.  It was for my daughter.  Yes, I am the ultimate ‘helicopter mother’.  I actually wrote a book about puberty as a guide for all girls going through this sticky tricky time for the simple reason that nothing that was out there already (or nothing I could find easily, at any rate) quite did the job in the way I wanted her to experience it.

I didn’t want her reading about growing hair on the same page as tips for how to remove it.  Or being told ‘it’s just a phase’ when I remember feeling like the world as I’d previously known it had just spun on its axis. I didn’t want her to feel that starting periods was synonymous with leaving childhood, becoming a woman and bearing children.  What?  I certainly didn’t want her to read all about it in a book littered with pretty images of cartoon white Bratz-a-likes with the odd token chubster or BAME girl.  I wanted her to have something that could speak to her in an informed, friendly way. And, as I was struggling to find something I just decided – I’ll write this myself. This will be the thing, this is what I’ll do.  And I did.  I had great help from a local GP (Maddy Podichetty) and also my wise and wonderful sister-in-law (Laura Chaisty) who is a trained psychotherapist and this meant that I could borrow medical credibility when explaining the scientific processes at play, and also have an amazing, supportive and clear-headed insight into the emotional side of puberty.  Next came finding an illustrator who could bring to life the ideas in my mind, and to my great good fortune Flo Perry agreed to take this on as a ‘freelance project.

And how did I persuade these wonderful women to get involved?  Simple.  I asked them.  That’s it.  That brass neck I developed working in PR came good and with ‘the worst they can do is say no’ ringing in my head I just got on with it and now here I am sitting at my kitchen table with a cup of tea with a blad of my book next to me and first proofs due any day now.  I am starting to feel like writing is something I can do, not just something I could do.

 

Inadvertently Christmassy Pasta

Before I go any further I must nail my colours to the mast.  This is a recipe that include Brussels Sprouts because when it comes to Brussels I am IN.  And this is a recipe based around the cabbage-in-miniature (mainly because I had a bag of them, rapidly turning grey around the edges and I am determined to stop wasting food).

So, I had my sprouts, I had just under half a tub of ricotta, four bacon rashers and a handful of fresh chestnuts (all of which had played key parts in other recipes in the preceeding weeks).  I wasn’t 100% sure that I could squeeze them all into the one dish – I knew sprouts+chestnuts+bacon would = edible, but the ricotta?  And with what?  Had to be pasta, and in the same sort of spirit as my use-it-up drive (an aspiration to ‘goodness’) I went with brown.

All good recipes start with an onion (well, apart from cakes/puddings/biscuits ‘cause that would be too weird) and that was where this one kicked off.  Because I was adding bacon I eased off on adding oil and snipped my bacon into bits directly into the pan (using kitchen scissors) as the onion was cooking.  Now, time for a confession.  I then added garlic powder. Yes, I know.  I feel quite shameful writing that down.  It’s a guilty secret I’ve been keeping for the best part of a year now but I feel like this is a safe space in which to share.  It has become a storecupboard standby for times when I’ve run out of garlic or simply cannot face any more chopping.  Judge me, I don’t care.

(The great good thing about it is, it won’t catch if you’re cooking with little fat and so no horrid burnt-garlic tasting meals).

So, onion, garlic, bacon – ready for some sprouts which I trimmed of grey and then sliced up and added to my pan.  It was at this point, too, that the chestnuts (roughly chopped to go further) went in.  All mixed together and then a teeny bit of liquid (ok, a slosh of sherry) went in.  The pan lid was bunged on and the whole thing was turned to the lowest settting on the hob so that the sprouts could steam and soften and the flavours could blend together whilst the pasta was cooking.  Now, I did mean to add some pasta water to loosen the sprouts up a bit and make sure the whole thing wasn’t too dry but tbh, I forgot and drained my pasta without thinking.  This was when the ricotta came into its own and I flecked it into the sauce – now mixed with the pasta – in little chunks using the back of a teaspoon.  Salt, pepper and a few sprigs of fresh parsley and that was that.   Not only tasty but checking two taste boxes in one dish: Italiautumnal pasta/chestnuts/bacon/ricotta on the one hand and Christmas mash-up on the other with the Sprouts/chestnuts/parsley vibe.

(no picture, sadly, so instead an autumnal sunset viewed through bare trees)

Nigella – how do I love thee?

This week – on my actual birthday – Nigella Lawson was in Oxford to sign copies of her latest book, At My Table.  I’d love to say I was first in the queue but I was actually about 67th as it was clearly a very popular event.

I’d gone briefed by my family with questions for the Domestic Goddess who is rightly revered in our house – mainly because her recipes have worked their way into the fabric of our lives.  My husband wanted to know if she remembered one of his work colleagues (who hung out in the language library in Oxford), my daughter wanted to know how many languages she spoke (why?), and if she was a Harry Potter fan.  I wanted to tell her so much about how she has influenced, impressed and inspired me, given me confidence and raised my cooking game.

However, as many were behind me in the queue as had been ahead so I did what any other (woman?) would have done and prioritised the famalam. I can therefore report that no, she doesn’t recall the colleague, but remembered spending a lot of time in the Taylorian; she does indeed speak several languages and yes, she likes Harry Potter.  In fact, once she’d ascertained my daughter was a complete Potter-head she said to tell her that she loves Harry Potter.  I got my book signed with a birthday flourish and went on my way.

The thing is, by this point, the fan-girldom had me in its grip so I thought I’d write it all down.  My mission is to do so without reference to the books, but simply to recall the those recipes that have made it into our family-lore and shape our rituals.

  • Gingerbread Muffins, Feast. Every year since its release and without fail I make these muffins on Christmas Eve for the express purpose of amuse-ing our bouches on Christmas morning whilst we open our gifts.  Whether we are celebrating solo, or away with the extended family they are a given and a must.  If there are more than just the three of us, I make double quantities and stash a few away so there are some to come home to, because they keep like a dream.  And, if for any reason we haven’t scoffed the lot before they dry out, I’ll bung any leftovers in the freezer to make gingerbread trifle on some miserable day in February when we all feel the need for a little spicy sweetness.

 

  • Bread Sauce, Feast. Again a festive make, this bread sauce also signifies the moment I truly became a family member of my husband’s family, rather than a welcome guest: the day I imposed some rule on Christmas Lunch.  Each family has their own traditions, right?  And bread sauce, to me, is a must to liven up turkey, add a soft creamy counter-balance to sharp cranberry sauce and – most importantly – add to turkey oven-bottom muffins the next day (no cold stuffing for me, thanks).  However, my in-laws’ condiments of choice did not run to the white stuff.  Apple sauce, yes – bread sauce, no.  For the first few years I sucked it up and politely avoided the issue but eventually I rebelled, made Nigella’s bread sauce (because up until that point I honestly thought it just came out of a packet), and pitched up to Christmas dinner armed with my sauce of choice.  It’s now a formal expectation that I will bring it.

 

  • Chocolate Olive Oil Cake, Nigellissima. The main reason we spend Christmases with my husband’s family is because mine is Jewish (works well).  Whilst neither of us ascribe to any religion, it does mean double the celebrations and my lot get together each year to celebrate Chanukah.  The tradition is to eat oil-based foods and there is an abundance of deep-fried potato latkas and sweet treats to indulge in.  This recipe from Nigella seems to me to be tailor-made for purpose and I bake it each year knowing I am ticking both the all-important ‘oil’ box and also the universal ‘a party isn’t a party without chocolate’ box.  It uses cocoa powder, rather than chocolate, and quantities of olive oil and the resulting cake is rich, gooey, dense and utterly (and somewhat surprisingly) delicious.  I like to pimp it up by making a star-of-David template and spraying gold all around it so the offering on my table also reflects the ‘gelt’, traditionally given to children at this time of year.  The all-round suitability pleases me greatly and I’m looking forward to trying out the chocolate olive oil mousse in the new, At My Table.

 

  • Nursery Fish Pie, Feast. My husband can cook but I often don’t let him.  Not least because I love it, but also because his strength lies in diligently following a recipe whereas I like to go off-piste.  So, it was he who first made this fish pie, which has become a consistent go-to for the ultimate comfort food.  I would have tried skimping on some of the butter or cheese but he follows to the letter and it is absolutely delicious.  Over the years he has made this on those nights when I can’t face cooking or simply need to feel nurtured and it is a constant joy.  My daughter has always been ambivalent about fish with the exception of salmon but her recent conversion to pescatarianism has presented me with the opportunity to insist on her broadening her culinary horizons in the interests of keeping her diet balanced and healthy.  She made the decision whilst we were on holiday, where it was Simple As to gorge on chips, salad and calamari every day.  Once we returned home, though, we needed to find some common-ground food that would taste as good around our dinner table.  Saturday nights are family nights and the first Saturday night back I made Nigella’s Fish Pie and waited to see how it would go down.  A resounding success and I now count upon it as a no-fuss crowd pleaser.  Always a winner.

 

  • Hearty Whole-Wheat Pasta with Brussel Sprouts, Cheese and Potato, Nigellissima. Oh my.  Oh me, oh my.  When I try describe this to anyone unfamiliar with it, they look at me as if I’ve lost all sense: brown pasta, potatoes, Brussel sprouts, ricotta, garlic, sage, gruyere – the list goes on and on, but I may have lost you at sprouts.  Or even pasta and potatoes. I mean, I like sprouts well enough, and can take or leave brown pasta but all cooked together?  Madness surely. I don’t’ know how or why but there is something that happens when they are all put together in a baking dish and cooked through in the oven and what comes out is simple, hearty (very hearty) pleasure.  Try it, please, it is pure joy.  And, one of the very best things about it that once you’ve tried it, you can vary it.  If you don’t want carb overload, you could take out the potatoes but much better use less of both.  There’s a LOT of cheese but there needn’t be if you’re trying to eat less of the dairy-based crack.  I don’t often have gruyere hanging around in my fridge and have been known to substitute with Leerdammer Light – it works! Butter is melted and added, but you can honestly knock the quantities down to a teaspoonful and you’ll still get the flavours, because that is what this dish is all about.  A (surprising, to me) combination of wholesome flavours that I find myself craving – especially in the dark months. Sadly my daughter is sprout-averse so it’s yet to enchant her, but for a Sunday night supper for two? Perfect.

 

  • ‘Mushy Peas’, How To Eat. It’s the book that arguably revolutionised cookery writing for many of my generation.  Something you could actually sit and read and not just leaf through the pictures.  The idea of presenting food as flavours which work together and offering recipes to fit a mood or an occasion seemed revolutionary to me, and here was an articulate, simpatico writer offering up her own experience and advice – what’s not to like?  There are many recipes I’ve made from this book, but the one that really sticks out, the one I’ve made again and again over the years without recourse to the original (and that, for me, is a marker of a great recipe) is the faux-mushy pea suggestion in this book (served with posh cod and chips).  Bag of frozen peas, bulb of garlic, salt, pepper and crème fraiche – boiled up, blitzed down, job done.  For me, this simple recipe sums up why Nigella rules in our house.  It’s much less about process and ritual, and is everything about making food taste amazing and that is why it’s included, because this approach has gone on to inform my cooking style ever since.

I’m aware that I’ve only referenced three of her books and I have many more on my shelf.  I’ve made more Nigella recipes than any other cook and loved them but for the purpose of this blog, I just wanted to write from memory, from the heart.  With thanks.

Striving for balance

It’s been quite a week! A trip to friends and a night out taking two young girls to their first concert (Little Mix) at the weekend, capped off with a glorious roast beef Sunday lunch in Baslow.  For my birthday (which was Wednesday) I was taken out for the most juicy burger imaginable and there has been cake – believe me, there has been cake.

So, for dinner tonight I’ve made a veg curry to balance out my meaty week, but because it’s Friday I still feel the need to mark the weekend with a treat.  I can’t claim that my vegetable curry is wholly virtuous, but hopefully it will taste good and still rack up my five-a-day.

Friday nights for me are the chance to relax over a meal, take it easy and enjoy the experience.  Any food that can be served in a bowl is a winner for me, and although rice is my go-to carb, I love a one-bowl curry that can be served with a piping hot chapatti to scoop up the chunks and also mop up the sauce.  That’s what I wanted tonight and when I remembered a half-used block of paneer in the freezer I knew that veggie was the way to go.

I started off by browning the cheese in a dry pan and then putting it to one side whilst I got on with toasting nigella seeds, cumin seeds, garam, cardamom and turmeric in a little sunflower oil.  Once I could smell the spices I added some chilli powder and the onion and garlic.  At this stage I add salt as I once read that salt will ‘release’ the water from onions and, as I try to use less oil, this seems to be an effective way at ensuring things don’t stick to the pan.  Once the alliums were coated and starting to soften, I squirted in a tablespoon or two of tomato puree and let all of this meld together before adding in diced potatoes, carrot and my (not-so) secret ingredient: a tablespoon of Geeta’s Mango Chutney.  A glug of water and the lid went on to give the potatoes and carrots a head-start for 15 minutes or so before I added some chopped cabbage –  red, because that’s what was in the fridge, but doesn’t it look purdy??

I then added a little more water and covered the pan, letting the vegetables cook through.  Once they were soft and tender, I put the browned cheese back in and left it all to sit for a bit so that the cheese could absorb some of the flavour.  A bowl of this, with a couple of chapattis and that’s my Friday night sorted.

Not Friday, not officially curry

So.  No curry night this Friday as I’m off out.  I’m taking my daughter to see Little Mix.  It’s her first ever concert and to say the excitement levels are high would be something of an understatement.  My own excitement levels are augmented by the fact that we’re going with my best-and-oldest friend and her daughter.  What utter privilege and joy that our friendship has sustained and we have now created two girls.  We’ve been through the peaks and troughs and now take our turn as guides.

I reckon I’ll be lucky to cram a dodgy kebab tomorrow night, so want something easy and fundamentally nutritious tonight.  Not too indulgent, not too Spartan and something I can make with my eyes shut as I deliberate whether a woman in her late 40s can get away with glitter tattoos for a special occasion.  It’s got to be kedgeree.

I know its officially a breakfast, and I know it ain’t officially a curry but it is curried and it’s what I want tonight.  I’m going salmon, as that’s what was in the freezer, and I have leftover parsley in the fridge for the weekend so it’s feeling a little fancy already.

I’m sure everyone has their own go-to recipe, but in the interests of sharing, here’s how I made mine tonight:

Whilst 2 eggs are hardboiling, poach the fish in water.  Once it’s cooked drain the water off into a measuring jug.  I use a teaspoon of butter and toast my spices: nigella (my all-time favourite of the seeds), fennel seeds, cinnamon, coriander, turmeric, a smudge of asafoetida, some fish seasoning and a few curry leaves.  Once the smell hits, I add my rice and swirl it around the pan a bit, making sure each grain is coated in butter and spice.  I use my poaching liquid (2 cups for my one cup of rice) and bring the whole thing to the boil.  Stirring it once  – and only once – it’s boiling, I ram a lid on, reduce the heat to as low as it can go on the smallest hob, and leave it for 13 minutes.  During this time I will dice up my eggs and flake the cooked fish*.  Once the time is up on the rice I turn off the gas, take off the lid and add the chopped eggs, the fish and the parsley and squeeze some lemon over the whole thing.  Lid on for another couple of minutes (off the heat) and bingo.  A few peas on the side to up the veg quotient and it is done.   Tasty, flavourful, easy peasy.

*plus you know, take the bins out, see my girl off to bed, set the table, take out my lenses and put on my glasses, decide what to watch on telly.  Standard multi-tasking.

It’s the weekend! Ready, steady…BAKE

Turns out there can be an upside to hanging out in doctor’s waiting rooms.  Whilst I was there a few weeks ago my daughter and I filled the time as we are wont to do by browsing the magazines.  As the fashion mags on offer are targeting a more senior demographic we invariably go for the homesy titles, especially if they have good recipes.  Who doesn’t love a bake?

It was there that I came across this recipe for a Hazelnut & Ricotta Torta and I snapped a picture of the page as it appealed greatly to us both. First – it has hazelnut and chocolate in its ingredients listing so is effectively therefore Nutella.  Second – it is called a Torta.  It just sounds fancier and therefore on some level clearly not as deadly as a more prosaic cake.  Third – the topping is made by grating chocolate over the still-warm cake.  Hello, I’m in.

I’ve got family coming this weekend and so am planning a feast.  What better way to finish it off than bake this beauty?  It gives me a wonderful excuse to try things that if I tried to pass off mid-week my husband would give me a beady look and mutter miserably about healthy eating.

For the main course I’m planning a maple-marinated shoulder of lamb.  I absolutely love lamb but – again – it’s a treat.   It’s a fatty cut, plus I’m keeping red meat to a minimum.  I will determinedly make sure I enjoy every mouthful before spending Sunday searching up yet more courgette recipes in a bid to finish off the end of the glut amassing in the fridge.

So, maple lamb and I thought a carrot tatin would be rather splendid to accompany it (I’ve got an amazing recipe which could be Nigel Slater, but it’s so old it’s rather lost any provenance.)  Like the lamb, it’s bursting with sweet, smoky spices.  I’ll make a garlicky, minty yoghurt dip and pair this with something green and fresh – bitter leaves or perhaps green beans.

And tonight, seeing as it’s curry night?  I’m going prawn and okra.  There’s tomatoes to be used up, so they’ll go in, too.  I reckon I’ll use a fair bit of amchoor to get that sour, tangy flavour just right and plenty of chilli heat.  Served with my favourite culinary short-cut – Thai rice cooked with lime leaves, with a teaspoon of coconut oil stirred through before serving.  Almost as delicious as actually coconut rice and a whole load less hassle.

Torta: Heat oven to 160 and toast 125g hazelnuts then chop into rubble.  Beat together 110g butter and 125g caster sugar until fluffy and then add 4 x egg yolks (one at a time).  Fork 125g ricotta together with the zest of 2 lemons and then add chopped nuts.  Combine with the butter mixture and sift in 35g plain flour.  Mix together.  Beat egg whites into soft peaks and fold through.  Pour into buttered 20cm round tin and bake for c25mins.  Leave for 5 mins then cover with 75g grated dark chocolate.

 [I beat my egg whites first as I couldn’t be bothered to wash the beaters after blending the butter and sugar.  They just sat on the side waiting and arguably lost a little peak but not problematically so.  I also added a very fine layer of icing sugar to the buttered tin to prevent sticking and also form a wee bit of a crust – inspo from the Savoy Cake showstopper challenge on Bake Off].

 

Women on the telly box

My 47th birthday is staring me square in the face and I don’t embarrass so easily anymore.  A lot of things sadden me much more than they used to and I use the word advisedly.  Sadden feels like a puncture wound: gentle yet potentially fatal.  A slow expiration, a cumulative descent into a soft despair.  Yes, I’m saddened a lot – particularly when it comes to being a woman, seeing other women, bobbing between the (dominant) male gaze and the (oh-so rare) female gaze.  But embarrassed? Rarely.

However, last night I was cosied up on the sofa, watching some good ol’ low-brow telly (perhaps the sort of show you could call a guilty pleasure but that’s another benefit of age – why bother feeling guilty about pleasure?) and an ad came on for a particular shampoo (Plantur 39).  Made with caffeine as it’s active ingredient, its USP is to energise the scalp and – I’m guessing – stimulate the follicles.  Great.  That sounds like a good thing, right?  I’m in.

Until the moment when the model leaned towards the camera and whispered the words ‘women over 40’.  Whispered! As if it were a dirty, shameful, guilty thing.  And how did I react?  With shame and a hot flush of embarrassment.  Now, as a ‘woman over 40’ and one who has had years of experience living polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) – side effects include but are not limited to hair loss, acne, weight gain, infertility – I’ve made my peace and cut my cloth (or my fringe, to be frank) accordingly.

In my 20s I railed against it.  I was working full time in a well-paid job with no dependents and I spunked £100s on hair treatment drops, consultations and fancy shampoos.  They worked a bit and I felt I was doing something about this horrible, seemingly random and yes, shameful experience of being a bit thinner on the top than at the back.  Having a baby in my 30s changed my symptoms and it’s no longer a concern.  Plus, as I say, having a great hairdresser means my style is designed to be floppy and full where I need the extra mass.  Now I’m in my 40s I’m ok with it.  I’m chill.

So, why did I feel so embarrassed watching this fairly anodyne, basic woman whisper at me from the box in the corner?  I think it was the shock.  That someone (a brand, an ad agency, I don’t know who) would think that the best way of speaking to me was sotto voce.  They assumed my shame and I responded with shame.

Perhaps also context was at play.  I’d just switched from watching Strictly which has become a glorious celebration of women and men working hard to succeed and achieve and support each other.  Presented by Tess and Claudia; such different archetypes (as I was explaining to my daughter whilst we were doing our weekly Dress of the Week award, Tess is Glamour whilst Claudia is Fashion.  No matter last night as Shirley Ballas triumphed) but essentially both women’s women who you know would bung you a tampon without making any kind of deal of it if you were in a loo with them ever.  (I’m not sure when this hypothetical event would ever take place, but that’s not the point).  Someone asked me the other day if I didn’t miss Sir Bruce on Strictly and, with no disrespect to the late, great presenter who formed my childhood viewing pleasures, no I don’t.  I love seeing those two women who, it’s true, may not have hung out together at school (Claudia aloof and knowing with her fringe and eyeliner and Tess all blonde and adored) presenting a show together as a pair of equals.  No kow-towing, just getting on with it and having a ball.  Now I come to think of it – aren’t they, too, women in their 40s? (Quick google check confirms.)  Can’t see them whispering it, can you?