Thursday, 20 March 2014

Chickpea, tomato and cucumber salad

My husband has gone to Canada to make a television programme for the W Network and is away for most of two months. He is back for two weeks in the middle but then away for three, so we're all saying to ourselves that he's away for 2 months because that's pretty much what it amounts to.

He went away once before, for a week, when I was pregnant with Sam and it was entirely fine, although I had been dreading it. I missed him, of course, but in fact quite enjoyed myself. I ate dinner with Kitty at 5pm every night and then after she had gone to bed I gorged on bad telly and very small, watered-down glasses of wine and rang people I hadn't spoken to for years and had long gossips.

This time it is not as amusing. The house is empty, spooky and creaky. I feel strangely exposed and vulnerable here on my own - I do not look forward to the long, silent evenings at all. There is nothing I want to watch on TV and I can't think of anything to gossip about. I feel like some sort of doomed Lord of the Rings character; stricken, frozen, pale by a small stream in some lonely dark forest waiting, waiting, waiting for my husband to return.

I keep the house tidier than I normally do even when he is here, I have grimly adopted his chores, devotionally taking out the compost, doing the recycling, putting shoes away, switching off lights, asking no-one in particular why the milk is out of the fridge, closing doors, locking windows. I have already cleaned and edited the fridge twice, even though my husband is the only one who cares what state it is in. We are suspended, set in aspic. Waiting.

Things were not helped by Kitty almost immediately coming down with a nasty virus that gave her a temperature close on 104F and a weird blotchy rash, which wouldn't have bothered me especially, but nursing her through it while hefting super-clingy, whine-machine Samuel "Grabby" Coren and his massive fat arse around at the same time drove me fair out of my wits.

Anyway Kitty recovered remarkably quickly, (whatever sort of virus can survive a temperature of 104F, it wasn't this one), and I have had time to reflect how often I kid myself that I am the one in charge of this house, of this family. My husband is in fact the one who keeps things together, sorting out boring stuff like leaks, infestations, rings on the doorbell after 9pm, stolen cars and emergency dashes to the hospital with floppy infants.

The only thing I seem to be responsible for in this house, it turns out, is making sure everyone has clean pyjamas and pants. (And sometimes even that falls to piss.)

And dinner, I suppose I do most of the dinners. But without my husband here I am absolutely adrift when it comes to evening meals. I know from experience living on my own that you really do need to do something for dinner because otherwise you end up drinking too much and eating a lot of salty snacks, which is fine one or two evenings a month, but as a daily dinner plan it won't do. But when I start to think, at about 3pm, what I am going to have for dinner that night, my heart really plummets in a way it never does when I think about what Giles and I might have. I can just think what would Giles like?

And I can look forward to Giles asking me "What's for dinner?" so I can say "IT'S A SURPRISE" and then present him with something he either really loves, a boring old trusty tummy-pleaser, or something new and crazy. Sometimes the surprise is that HE is going out to get a takeaway. And occasionally, if I am feeling sadistic, I make something he doesn't like but that he has to eat anyway because I made him his freaking dinner.

But me, what would I like? God, I don't know. A pizza? A dozen Krispy Kremes? I don't know.

I have been ordering a lot of takeaway sushi and picking up Franco-Viet treats from Cardigan Club Cafe at the top of my road. And anyone who wants to see me, I immediately invite them round for dinner. I have decided that I am going to give each faithful pilgrim to my lonely look-out post a roast chicken (I can survive on the leftovers for the rest of the week) with a healthful salad that can be knocked up in 3 minutes - something where the heavy lifting is mostly in the shopping.

What makes a salad delicious? To my mind it's crunch, moreishness, zing and mild spice. And an element of… you know… ballast. We eat a lot of leaf-based salads in this house because, we just do. But a leafy salad with a vinegary dressing, it's so Seventies! Plus eating a large leafy salad can be so aesthetically awkward, levering spiky fronds into the gob - so reminiscent of a cat eating a large spider.

To come across as a really electric, fascinating and modern cook, one also only needs to use a lot of fresh herbs, (such a bore to get hold of), and maybe scatter some pomegranate seeds here and there and people whisper to each other at parties "She does this amazing salad". But in fact I don't have a failsafe wow salad, (which is in fact just an assembly job). The thing I do when I want to knock people's socks off is Jamie Oliver's Winter Coleslaw which is terrific, but a right fucking pain in the bum to put together I tell you.

Moro is a restaurant to which I have never been, can you believe it? But I am assured that it is the sort of place that one gets a showstopper salad. Sam and Sam Clark have obligingly written many books containing recipes for these creations and I am grateful to Anna Bateson for drawing my attention to, and personally recommending, this one.

Chickpea, tomato and cucumber salad, from the first Moro book
For 2 as an accompaniment

This is not the exact recipe, this is how I did it:

1 400g can organic chick peas, de-canned and rinsed
small bunch mint
small bunch coriander
1 tbsp vinegar
3 tbsp olive oil
juice 1/2 lemon
1/2 garlic clove, grated or crushed
1/2 tsp grated onion
1/2 tsp dried chilli flakes
4 medium tomatoes - the best you can find - de-seeded and chopped
1 small cucumber or half a large one, chopped - and peeled if you like

1 Chop the tomatoes and cucumber up reasonably small, aim to get the pieces absolutely no bigger than 2cm x 2cm and if you can get them smaller than that, great!

2 Whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice, chilli flakes, vinegar, salt, garlic and grated onion

3 Put the tomatoes, cucumber, chick peas and herbs on a plate and scatter with the chopped herbs and then pour over the dressing and serve

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Steak tartare

A friend of mine has just got pregnant and she was worried that she was feeling suspiciously well. Go and have a viability scan, I said. You can do that from 6 weeks, they stick a wand thingy, like a light sabre, up your whatsit and can see what's going on before 12 weeks.

And I've just realised that I never found out if she had the scan or what's going on (this is the kind of really on-it friend I am). So I texted her to find out what was happening and it suddenly crossed my mind that she might have had a miscarriage.

Which of course led me to thinking about my own miscarriage, a few years ago, that I never mentioned.

I never mentioned it because I did not want sympathy. I didn't want sympathy because I didn't need it or deserve it.

There I was, lying in the dentist's chair of Handsome Richard the dentist, all the way back in June 2012, getting my teeth done before going to see Alison at Ultrasound Diagnostic Services to get the light sabre as I was, in theory, six weeks up the duff.

I sat up in the chair and something felt terribly wrong.

"Are you alright?" said Handsome Richard, handsomely. He knew about my condition (we don't keep things from each other).

"I'm okay," I lied, although I'm sure Richard would have dealt with the situation like a pro. I raced wobbily out onto Bishopsgate and hailed a cab, ringing UDS on the way to see if they could see me early. I sat on a free newspaper to save the cabbie's upholstery.

After getting the light sabre treatment from Alison, who dealt with the unholy torrents of effluvia with complete stoicism ("It happens all the time"), my obstetrician came to see me. It was all over. No Baby. There never had been, it didn't look like - it was most likely a small collection of cells large enough to register as a pregnancy but it had stalled there. Fail.

"The most important thing," said Guy, my obstetrician, "is that you don't blame yourself for this."
"No, no it's okay," I said, suddenly feeling slightly high and mad, "I blame you."

To his credit, Guy thought this was hilarious, (he's mostly very straight-faced), but he actually slapped his thighs and laughed. Good old Guy. Almost enough of a dear to have another baby just to see him again. NOT FUCKING REALLY!!! HAHAHA.

I went home, where it was very quiet, everyone was out - though I now can't think where. I sat down in the living room and cried. Not because I was sad but because I just felt sorry for myself and lonely. And irritated - I was keen to get on with another baby because being pregnant is so shit. Now I had to start all over again.

The strangest feeling was that I now had to just sit there and wait. When one thinks "miscarriage" one thinks about drama: hospitals, grey faces, drama drama drama! But it was just me, sitting there still in my blood-stained leggings with no husband and no toddler - no baby - weeping for all the wrong reasons.


and she texted back "OMFG I AM COMING OVER" and she came round and we had tea and biscuits and went "God!!!" at each other and it was actually quite jolly.

Do not misunderstand me: miscarriage when there is an actual baby there, or when it is your first go at getting pregnant or have been trying for a long time to get pregnant or when you have suffered multiple miscarriages is … well, I can't  imagine what that must be like. But having a very early miscarriage when you've already got one baby and you're just speculatively having a go at another one - it's not anything. It's just annoying.

So I didn't want to bandy the M-word about willy nilly because when you tell people that you have had a miscarriage, they go quite bonkers with sympathetic grief - in a perfectly charming way - but you mostly have to spend the next 30 minutes talking them down off the ceiling (I would be the same) and it's perfectly exhausting.

Now, with a lot of critical distance, I can give you a run-down of the whole thing in a de-mystification of this awful, awful word, knowing - hint hint - that you won't all go bonkers in the comments asking me if I'm okay. YES I'M FINE NO I'M NOT NOW I'VE GOT TWO KIDS AND NOW IM FUCKING OSRRY.

And I learnt why you mustn't tell a soul that you are pregnant before 12 weeks, because if you do miscarry, it's not just the weight of your own feelings, (whatever they might be), that you have to deal with - it's everyone else's, too.

We're going to move on now, gear change! Gather up your skirts, "ladies".

I may have mentioned before how the new butcher up the road has changed my life, but I thought I would tell you again. It's changed my life! We can have exciting things for dinner, like steak tartare.

I absolutely love steak tartare but we've never had it at home, not once, because I rarely get hold of good enough fillet steak to do it with. You need the best fillet steak you can get your hands on - nothing from a supermarket will do. It must have been handled with care and never known plastic, let alone shrink-wrap.

Steak tartare is, to my mind, the only and very best thing to do with fillet steak. You must worship it and the sacrifice the animal has made, by eating it raw, simply, devotionally, praising each mouthful. To apply heat to it would be sacrilege. We normally get by on eating offcuts and odds and ends here - I do not believe in encouraging the damaging and wrong practice of intensive farming by eating best cuts, but we are happy to eat the bits of animals that no-one else wants: marrow bones, sweetbreads, wings, feet, ears with a clear conscience. I don't care if the best stuff is going to Gaucho Grills across London. (When I am Queen it will all be different.)

Anyway because I know where this butcher gets his meat from - small farms with a range of exciting extra-curricular activities and complementary therapies for the animals - I decided we could have steak tartare and bore it aloft to the table, accompanied only by a few pink fir apple potatoes baked for 30 mins, humming Mozart's Requiem. It was out of this world.

I took inspiration for this from Nigel Slater

Steak Tartare - for 2

200g best fillet steak
1/2 a small spring onion
4 small cornichon
2 tsp capers
6 drops tabasco
2 tsp worcestershire sauce
1 egg yolk
salt and pepper

This arrangement of seasoning gives you a very mild tartare, which I like - but I think it is customary to present on the table with the steak the bottles of Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce, plus more salt and pepper so if anyone wants to really blow the back of their head off (there's always one - maybe it's you?), they can.

1 You must chop the steak with a very sharp knife, not mince it or blitz it. This is an almost religious act of worship, here. Chop, chop and chop again until the pieces are small then put in a bowl.

2 Chop finely, too the small spring onion and the cornichon and add them to the steak, along with the capers, the Tabasco and the Worcestershire sauce, a bit of salt and a few turns of the pepper grinder.

3 Form this into a neat shape the best way you can see how, then make a small well in the middle of the steak and put into this a single egg yolk. Mix this together just before serving.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Lamb sweetbreads with a parsley salad

Sam is on the mend, though still so fragile, poor mite - and so I had 20 minutes to myself this morning while my husband looked after both children downstairs.

Surfacing after a baby's illness, (your ass entirely belongs to them as long as they are unwell), always reminds me of when I was out in Namibia with Raleigh International and every three weeks we would come back to base camp after being out on expedition.

You would unpick your hair from whatever hideous collection of clips, bands and sticks were holding it together and try and make sense of it with a hairbrush. You got actually clean with an actual long shower - with shampoo!! - in the showerblock. You dealt with neglected areas of your body - your toenails, fingernails, eyebrows, underarms. You put on clean clothes and weighed up whether or not to try to get the clothes you had been wearing for three weeks clean or to just burn them on the nearest campfire.

We would all unpack our bags and lay them out on groundsheets "Kit explosion!" we would all shout as karabiners and water steriliser sachets and walking socks and sunglasses went everywhere. I was reminded of that as I took everything out of the bag I had hastily grabbed in my flight to the Royal Free on Friday. I relocated my usual handbag and sourced from various corners of the house my wallet, my keys, lip balm, hand cream and put it in its usual spot by the front door.

A thing I did during this illness was to assiduously use hand cream. When your child is unwell an awful lot of hand washing goes on for one reason or another and your hands take the hit badly. I also have the regrettable and pretty awful habit of cuticle-picking. Pretty much at all times unless I am typing, I am harassing my cuticles. My husband hates is more than anything else in the whole world and thinks if I love them then I should stop. I tell him that it is compulsive, pathological - he says that I am just not trying hard enough. If we ever get divorced I am confident that he will cite it as unreasonable behaviour.

Anyway so if my hands actually get dry and there are bits of snaggly hangnail to actually get hold of then I can, within about 30 minutes or so, if I am anxious enough, reduce a finger or a whole hand to a bleeding, painful mess. A well-moisturised hand is harder to pick at but when there is an ill child somewhere I am likely to skip the hand moisturising part because I just can't be bothered. Anyway this time I made sure there was a pot of moisturiser next to every sink and it made a real difference to the post-illness clear-up I tell you.

I suppose I was able to focus on this act and do it because I was less stressed by this illness than I have been about previous ones of Kitty's. It is not that I am less anxious and concerned about Sam than I am about Kitty - it's that I am so much less anxious and concerned about myself. I have given up fearing for my own sanity, my own free time, my own sleep, because there is no point.

The next thing I do is gingerly open the fridge and assess quite how big a shop I'm going to have to do to re-stock its ravaged contents.

My new butcher is closed on Mondays, so I can't have the steak tartare tonight that I was thinking about having all weekend. But I can tell you about the sweetbreads we had the other week, which were terrific although I understand that this is useless to anyone who doesn't live near a really good butcher.

I have written about sweetbreads before, but it was a long time ago and they are worth mentioning again. If you feel really squeamish about offal then I'm not going to force you to have these but to anyone inexperienced but curious, they don't taste offall-y at all. They are very creamy and luxurious and it is good to eat the whole animal, not choice cuts - are you with me? (Though I draw the line at kidney.)

Lamb sweetbreads with a parsley salad

Some lamb sweetbreads
salt and pepper
large bunch parsley
a very small onion or shallot
lemon juice

1 Rinse the sweetbreads and put them in a pan of cold, unsalted water, bring to the boil and simmer for five minutes. Set aside and leave to cool. Once they are cool enough to handle you can cut any very big sweetbreads in half if you want

2 put about four tablespoons of flour in a bowl and season heavily with salt and pepper then dust the sweetbreads in the flour and set aside

3 heat about 6-7 tablespoons of flavourless oil in a frying pan and get it nice and hot then fry off the sweetbreads for about five minutes (use a timer) until they are golden brown. you don't have to worry about undercooking these as they have already been cooked in the hot water

4 For the parsley salad, chop up the parsley finely with the capers and a small amount of onion - add lemon juice, salt and pepper

5 This is also nice with a thin, crisp slice of sourdough toast

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Herbed rack of lamb with courgette gratin

I don't mind hospitals. I always suspect people who say melodramatically "Oh I HATE hospitals!"are angling to tell you a story about how they broke their leg when they were nine and had to go to hospital and it was just really, laike, super-traumatising.

People who have had a really terrible time in hospital, watched family members die, contracted MRSA, been operated on while still awake etc., tend not to want to re-live the experience by telling you about it.

I'm not saying I love hospitals: I don't want to, like, go on holiday to a hospital, but I don't mind them. So when on Friday morning the GP told me that I had to take Sam to the Royal Free as quickly as I could because his temperature was through the roof, his heart was dancing a disco beat and he was breathing faster than Mo Farah on the home straight, I wasn't too fussed. Fine, I thought. Hospital. Lovely paediatricians to make Sam better feel nice no more crying.

And I still didn't mind throughout that whole day while I sat in the kiddie A&E with poor pathetic, hot Sam as the (really nice) nurses and (really charming) doctor made him repeatedly scream his head off by sticking things in his ears and down his throat and up his nose and taking blood samples and chest X-Rays.

But then after seven or so hours - I didn't even feel them go by, I am very good at waiting - we were sent up to the children's ward and given a room. We couldn't go home, they said, until they had seen Sam smile (ha!) and his temperature had come down to normal.

I looked around the room and out of the window as dusk started to fall over Hampstead. Away from the roar and chaos of A&E, which I had grown to think of as home, it was so quiet. So lonely. I looked at Pond Street, the steep hill I drive up and down at least once a week. I looked around the clean but shabby room, at the green and blue metal-barred cot, at the parent bed, which had a mattress that was like a load of bricks padded with some old carpet, a few slices of wonder loaf scattered about on top then covered with a sheet.

Then I thought about Sam's nursery at home, where I have been spending the last few sleepless, fretful nights with its soft cosy beds, clean bathroom and tasteful wallpaper, everything smelling sweetly of Persil. I thought about the prospect of being denied having dinner, in my own kitchen, with my husband. Worst of all, my iPhone battery was running out and I hadn't brought a charger. And I thought: "Even if I have to grab Sam and make a run for it disguised as an old washerwoman I need to get out of this fucking place."

The absolutely delightful nurse, who had immediately given me a cup of tea, a sandwich and a muffin as I arrived, (they don't do that at the Portland, I tell you), and the consultant came round and said "It's a really bad virus. So, no antibiotics unless the throat swab comes back positive on Monday. Now it's just about waiting for the virus to work its way out, managing his fever in the meantime, which we can do here, or…" they didn't need to finish the sentence. I had shoved my paltry belongings back in my horrible TopShop holdall, stuffed Sam on top, said my fond farewells and was in the parking lot waiting for my husband within about six minutes.

My husband had repeatedly offered to go out and get a curry for dinner but I just didn't feel like having a big stinking pile of food. I needed to wash the Free (God bless it, the people who go to work there are truly sent from Heaven to do His work) out of my hair and eat something pure and holy, like sushi.

But I didn't have any sushi, so we ended up eating a bizarre dinner consisted of an entire Epoisse and two rounds of black pudding with fried apple slices.

Which was delicious, but I'd much rather have had (if not sushi) a thing we had the previous evening, which was the titular herbed rack of lamb with courgette gratin.

A butcher has opened at the top of our road, a really proper one and it has changed my life. My husband is hugely squeamish about where meat and fish come from and so we only eat a very narrow range of things from Waitrose: chicken, certain sorts of salmon, bacon, extremely expensive free-range beef. Even then he complains about it not coming from a proper butcher. There is a butcher on the high street but it's out of my way and he once sold me some bad chicken and I am still annoyed about it.

So now one a good butcher has opened - Meat NW5 is its catchy name - we have been able to have pretty much anything for dinner. I've gone slightly nuts, I go every morning after dropping Kitty off at nursery and I think they're a bit scared that I might be in love with one of them.

But the thing is I can go in and buy 2 chipolatas for Kitty's tea, 120g of best stewing beef for Sam's puree and then some lamb sweetbreads and a small rack of lamb for dinner with my fusspot husband.

No more spare sausages or chicken thighs hanging about in the fridge. Just go, get only what you want, cook it that night. Then buy 400 packs of bog roll and deodorant and Cheerios on Ocado every now and again. Ha ha ha! It's like being handed loads of time and money.

A rack of lamb is a bit 2002 and I don't actually think I've had it since then but it is a lovely thing and I did it like this with a courgette gratin, which was AMAZING.

For the rack of lamb

1 rack of lamb
2 tbsp Dijon mustard
1 large handful fresh breadcrums
assorted soft herbs - thyme, mint, oregano, rosemary - whatever you like, a small handful
some lemon zest?
salt and pepper

Preheat your oven as hot as it will go

1 brown the lamb all over for about 4 minutes in some oil and set aside to cool for a few minutes

2 Whiz up your breadcrumbs with the herbs and lemon zest, a large pinch of salt and a few turns of the pepper grinder

3 spread the lamb with the mustard and then pack on the breadcrumb mixture

4 All the recipes said put the lamb in the oven at 220C for 12 minutes and so I did that and it came out actually fucking cold in the middle. I mean, I know it's fine to eat rare lamb but come the fuck on. Giles and I ended up agreeing that for a rack of 4 chops or more you should put it in at 220C for 25 minutes.

For the courgette gratin

3 courgettes
200 ml double cream
salt and pepper
1 handful of breadcrumbs
1 large handful of parmesan cheese

1 Slice your courgettes to the thickness of a £1 coin (have a look at a coin because it's thinner than you think it is), put them on a baking tray and cover them in olive oil and salt and pepper. Stick them in at the top of the oven at 180C for about 10 minutes.

2 Get yourself a dish that will take all the courgettes. Shake them in, add more salt and pepper - you could also crush in a bit of garlic or other herbs if you like - toss them about, then pour over some double cream. I used I think about 200 ml but basically you just want the courgettes to be lying in a medium-bath of cream. Not a small pool and not absolutely drowning.

3 Pack on top of the courgettes your breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese. Back for 25 min at 180C

And, look, here is Sam this afternoon. Right as rain - sort of. Still not really smiling, but no need to worry.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Apple Tart Maman Blanc

The other day I wrote a piece for The Daily Mail and as the paper arrived and I saw that I was on the front page (ack!) with some dastardly headline I felt ill and squeezed my eyes shut and clutched at my pyjamas and waited for the whole internet to fall in on my head all day long.

It didn't, thank god. Thank you. I mean, I'm sure there were 4,000 comments underneath the piece, all vile, but I don't read those - (you simply cannot and stay sane) - but I did get one, single, slightly unhappy tweet. "I used to love your blog," it said, "but now you just troll yourself. How much do the Mail pay you to write this stuff?"

And I realised then, that I should probably explain what happens. I lose track of how many readers I have, I forget that I'm not just writing to Becky B and my husband.

(Becky B's just had a baby by the way. No pain relief. None. There was briefly a story going round that she had her stitches with no pain killer either, but that turned out to be apocryphal, like that one about how she once put a mugger in hospital just by giving him a nasty look.)

But for other readers, seeing me in the Mail like that must be strange, like if your boyfriend suddenly turned out to be a contract killer, or a pimp.

So this is how is happens: one morning, some devastatingly charming girl emails from Femail, (they're all charming at the Mail, that's their deadly weapon), wanting to run a piece that you have already written and to give you, in return, enough money so that you don't have to work for the next two weeks if you don't want to, and pay the nanny AND buy a bottle of neon pink nail varnish from Models Own.

And you stop and you think "Oh but my photo will be in there, and some really horrifying headline and there will be pictures of my children…"and then you think "yes but this is my job." And then you think "money...". And then you think how pleased your mother always is when you're in the paper, no matter what you've said. And then your husband comes into the room and reads the email over your shoulder and goes "You're going to ask for more money, aren't you? Great job. Don't forget to invoice!"

Then you file your piece and wait. Presently the "edit" comes back to you, which is where they run your normal words through their computer and it comes out in perfect MailSpeak. And you go "fine - can you change this and this?" and they go "sure".

And then you deal once or twice more with women who, as the deadline gets closer and closer, sound more and more tense, as they sit at their desks, talking to you and eating their lunch at 8.30pm, tapping in tiny tweaks here and there - none of which matter because the headline is going to be MY KIDS ARE SO FACKIN BORING YAH???? so the subtle word changes you are insisting on are like dusting the rotary blades of a helicopter that's just crashed into the side of a mountain.

Then the paper comes out the next day and you feel crushed and sick until your husband goes "GREAT job!" and your mother, who quite often looks at you blankly like "which one are you, again?" actually rings up and says "They're talking about your piece on the radio!!!!!!" And then you remember: "money!". And, eventually, you square it all away and forget about it. Until the next time.

It helps that I am basically a sloppy hack at heart and don't really mind - not really, otherwise I wouldn't do it. If my children find these pieces later in life and want to have a go at me about it I will simply start charging them rent.

Another girl in my life who doesn't judge me for this kind of caper is a French girl called Amelie, once described to me as the "rudest girl in London" but I don't understand why, because she is simply charming, she is just a bit brisk and French. I think she is terrific.

We went to see her and her husband this weekend for lunch and Amelie calmly went out to the shops to buy some ingredients for Raymond Blanc's much-celebrated Apple tart Maman Blanc and made it while guests were arriving. She had never made it before! And, she declared "I 'aven't cooked anysing for years." I cannot imagine how relaxed you have to be to do something like this.

Anyway it was just fantastic. I didn't help in the actual preparation, I just provided moral support and read out the recipe as she was cooking, which she declared was very helpful but I think she may just have been being nice.

This is how it goes: the precise recipe, including instructions for the shortcrust pastry, can be found on p246 of Kitchen Secrets, or online.

Amelie, like all good French girls, just buys her pastry pre-made. I think she used puff (she herself couldn't remember if she had bought puff or shortcrust - such insouciance!!!) but you really ought to buy shortcrust.

So here we go:

Apple tart 'Maman Blanc'

1 packet shortcrust pastry
3 dessert apples (like a Braeburn or whatever, just not a super-sour cooking apple)
15g unsalted butter
15g caster sugar
11/2 tsp lemon juice
7g Calvados (if you like)
icing sugar, to dust
1 medium egg
100 ml whipping cream
50g caster sugar

1 Roll out your pastry to fit your tart case and have it slightly higher than the rim of the tin because pastry shrinks on cooking. Prick the base with a fork and put in the fridge for 20 min.

2 Preheat the oven and a baking sheet (or any old tin big enough to take the tart tin) to 220C

3 Peel and core the apples and cut each into 10. Lay them closely together and overlapping in a circle in the base of the tart case.

4 In a small pan, melt the butter and sugar, then take off the heat and mix in the lemon juice and Calvados if using. Brush this over the apples slices and dust with icing sugar.

5 Slide the tart tin onto your now hot sheet and cook for 10 minutes. Turn the oven down to 200C and bake for another 20 minutes until the tart case is brown and the apples look a bit caramelised.

6 For the custard filling, whisk 1 egg together with 50g caster sugar and 100ml whipping cream and pour into the tart 10 minutes before the end of the cooking time.

Et Voila! As Amelie almost never says.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Kale chips

I am very slightly ashamed of how obsessive I was about weight gain and loss during and after both my pregnancies.

When I say obsessive during my pregnancy, I mean I just fretted in my head a lot about how fat I was - I didn't NOT eat just exactly whatever the hell I fancied. I mean, there was nothing I wouldn't eat. The second time round I made concessions to not putting on three stone by switching to Diet Coke and not having pudding with every meal … but I still put on three stone.

And when I say obsessive about my weight after pregnancy I mean obsessed with regaining some approximation of my pre-pregnancy state. And if possible, beyond that, plummeting to under nine stone in weight (this is an impossible dream). Obsessed, I ought to say, up to the point of actually doing any exercise.

Having said that, it's an easy trap to fall into, once you reckon you are done with babies, to go a bit scrawny. To go Full Thin. So traumatising is it being so fat and ungainly that you almost attempt to scrub out the very memory of the fatness by getting far too thin, only for your husband to leave you for a chubby barmaid just at the point that you look genuinely terrific in a pair of leather trousers. (Which by now you must wear all the time, even in June, because you are stick-like and freezing.)

I say I feel ashamed because it all basically comes off in the end - unless you are really bloody unlucky, or just really not trying at all - but I feel like rather than obsessing about getting back into a - any! - pair of jeans I ought to have been bonding like crazy with  my babies. We did bond, I think. Kitty vaguely knows who I am and Sam says "Mumum" when he sees me. Fine. But still, my impatience is a bit embarrassing. It's just a bit vain.

Anyway I can relax now and spend the next forever getting even thinner being totally focused on my children because I am back within a whisker of my pre-baby weight, although not quite my pre-baby shape.

There is a ghastly thing that happens when you have a baby where your hips widen - literally the bones actually widen - and take a while to settle back to their normal circumference, so you can be back to your old weight but still not fit into your old jeans.

But I have achieved a sudden accelerated weight loss by hitting on the importance of lunch in my day. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I have had to eat in order to lose weight.

I hate lunch. I always have. I find it tedious and boring and I don't like lunch options. So normally I skip it, but then come 3.30pm I am so starving I can't concentrate and then I start snacking heavily on very sugary stuff, which isn't going to make anyone a supermodel, you feel me?

But lunch is a bore. And it makes a bloody great mess, which I always want to avoid as it feels like I cook and clear up about 15 meals a day as it is. I have all this food and this enormous, stacked kitchen, and yet I'm just not eating lunch. It wasn't happening.

So I thought to myself "What would Anna Bateson do?" Anna Bateson is a very successful friend, initially of my husband's but I suppose also of mine, now - how do those things work? - who does something important at YouTube and has two children very close in age and everyone goes round going "OMG Anna Bateson".

When she is in this country, (which isn't often), I openly mine her for information and go "What kind of handbag do you have? Who is your nanny? Where are you going on holiday this year? How did you potty-train D-? Which internet shopping outlet do you favour? Where are those jeans from?" just because I think she has the answers. She quite often does, it's totally apt that she works at an internet company. She's a one-woman search engine.

Anyway so I thought to myself "What would Anna Bateson do?" and the answer was: OUTSOURCE. Anna would outsource lunch. She would go "Yes, buying a healthy, delicious lunch every day is more expensive than making it at home, but if it will persuade you to eat lunch, which in turn will make you thinner, it is cheaper than a gym membership." She would calmly show you a brief PowerPoint presentation about it and then leave to catch a plane.

So now I either go early to fetch Kitty from nursery and stop at a Vietnamese cafe on the way for some grilled chicken and cous cous or I buy myself a salad from Pret in the morning if running errands. Failing that I FORCE myself to eat baked beans on sourdough. Then I have a cup of tea and 1 (one) biscuit and that's it until dinner.

It still being winter-ish and both my husband and I on our eternal, possibly terminal, quest to weigh 3 stone apiece, we are always looking for new things to do with wretched kale and someone suggested kale chips, which turn out to be very easy and very delicious (when covered with a lot of salt and brown sugar). They taste a lot like what we always used to call crispy seaweed in Chinese restaurants and it is basically the only thing approaching "tasty" that you can do with kale.

It's very simple, what you do is pre-heat your oven to 180C and shake out some kale on a large baking sheet. Snip up the bigger pieces with scissors and then sprinkle with brown soft sugar and some sea salt. Bake for about 25 mins checking occasionally to make sure they're not burnt.

Eat as a pre-dinner snack with, err, sherry? Or a Diet Coke if you really mean this.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Recipe Rifle goes shopping: Spring fashion

A thing my dad has taught me is that you have to modernise - or die.

It's probably the only thing he has taught me by example - everything else i.e. the importance of a neat filing system, up-to-date insurance, legible handwriting, the causes and course of the First World War, he taught via a series of 40-minute lectures using white boards, diagrams, bright lights, water-boarding etc.

But modernising, that's just what he did. He never said "You have to modernise OR DIE!"

He did it instinctively. He had a computer before anyone else, he mastered email before anyone else, he wore with flair and enthusiasm a pair of Converse trainers I bought for him about five years ago (I get him a new pair every year for his birthday). He listens to podcasts and has an iPod. Every few years he will change the style of his spectacles and he is sometimes seen with a new tie. His texting is not perfect, but it's getting there. He keeps up to date on pretty much everything except the most absolutely current popular music, though he will definitely know who (or what) One Direction are (or is. Or, shortly, were.)

My father is 79, ladies and gents. Seventy Nine. Not some Disco Dad who accidentally became a parent at 18. SEVENTY NINE. I was born when he was 44. He remembers the war! But he could also pick Harry Styles out of a crowd. Maybe. I don't think he likes modernising much, I think he finds it as painful as everyone else does, but he knows that you have to move on.

Whenever I catch myself about to say something awful and Tunbridge Wells about Instagram or SnapChat or, indeed, One Direction, I think of my dad. What would he say? He would know about it all. He would not pooh-pooh a modern thing for pooh-poohing's sake. Because he knows that has the stench of death about it. And my father is not afraid of the tax man, or drunks and lunatics or answering the door after 9pm or changing lanes in heavy traffic: but he is afraid of death.

I always think of my very nearly Octogenarian father when I consider, with some horror, that I must Update My Wardrobe. It's the thing I like doing least, because it means buying a pair of jeans that I will consider hideous for six months, of feeling self-conscious when out of the house, having to spend money on things that I'm not sure I like.

But I must Update My Wardrobe because if you don't, you just look dreadful. If you don't make incremental changes then you will still, come Spring/Summer 2014, be wearing a pair of grey skinny jeans (I bought mine in 2005) with a Breton top and a leaky pair of Converse. This is fine if you really, really properly don't care, or really, really properly can't afford it but for the rest of us, looking out of date suggests a deeper resistance to change, to modernisation. It speaks of a deeper stubbornness, an arrogance, a closed mind.

I once went to a lecture given by the agony aunt Irma Kurtz in which she claimed to stave off old age by trying to "change her opinion about things". Sticking to your trusty old shapes and colours is as bad as declaring the same old boring allegiances to the thoughts and opinions you had when you were 25.

Not that I like to over-think these things.

So I have been utilising my new paycheques to Update My Wardrobe and it hasn't gone too badly. Apart from the Boyfriend Jeans, which I am in love with and totally and completely horrified by in equal measure, it has been reasonably painless.

Here are the things I have bought, which I plan to wear when the weather cheers up. It's not much, because it is all expensive as I have finally paid heed to my own advice of buying a few expensive things, not a lot of old shit from the High Street. Though I must point out here that I never, ever wear any of this gear while attempting childcare.

For childcare I buy a job lot of H&M sweatshirts and black 3/4 length leggings from TopShop, which get totally trashed, sent to charity for rags and then replaced. There's nothing quite so nice as a lovely fresh pair of leggings.

I bought ALL of this stash with my very own pennies, that's how much I love it all.

1 McQ Cross-printed sweatshirt, £165 available only online at This is navy, although it looks black here. Goes with everything, excellent for anything smart/casual on the weekend.

2 Green crepe swing top, Michael Kors, £140, from Net A Porter. I love this. Hides the mid-section, great colour.

 3 Acne Boyfriend jeans, £190 I am scared of these but they are, also, SO FACKIN COOL.

4 Longline layering shirt grey/chambray, £98 from ME +EM.

I used to love wearing shirts, but the way I used to wear them, just cotton, with the top few buttons undone over jeans or whatever, looks horrible and wrong these days for some reason. I wear this buttoned to the top and it feels sleek and nice because of the jersey top-half and the cotton bottom half doesn't cling to my last remaining stubborn baby weight. Also, if you want to wear this under a sweater, there's no cotton top-bit to bunch up and make you look like a man. I am a size 12 and got this in an M.

5 Navy v-neck "swing" jumper, Me+Em £98 in an S to fit a size 12. 

Another favourite thing of mine, the v-neck navy sweater. I will probably be buried in one, but can't find one that doesn't cling horribly to my mid-section. It's a common thing, I find, with anyone who was even last pregnant 15 years ago and is now a size 6 - wearing anything tight around your middle makes you feel like you're being strangled. But this ME+EM sweater is terrific - a lot of their clothes have a lovely, very forgiving and super-comfortable "swing" to them. 

6 Hold fast signet ring, £140, LauraLee. I rang the shop and a nice girl had this made for me in a special weeny size to go on the little finger in a kind of witty mock posh/butch way but with the unassailable message printed thereon: HOLD FAST. It's a nautical term, as Captain Jack Sparrow would say, which roughly translates as "hang on to something and shut your eyes until it's all over".

7 Silver Birkenstocks, £39, Natural Footwear Company - or cheaper on Amazon probably but I couldn't work out the shoe sizes and happened to be passing this shoe shop while on my way to the London Transport Museum with Kitty anyway.

The "ugly" shoe is IN this spring/summer (I may be making this up) and I am absolutely thrilled about it. I plan to wear these with my terrifying boyfriend jeans, a neon sweatshirt and a pedicure


More food soon