Monday, 26 September 2011


I always - always - look an absolute fright. And as I get older it's less easy to conceal with the virtue of youth. I've concluded that my Hennes addiction is partly to blame, so I have decided that I am no longer allowed to go in. Not even to have a little looky-look.

Although thinking about it, my looking a fright might also be because of my wonky teeth and fat hamster face or my cheeks, which are ruddy like a farmer's son or my fat hands and picked-at cuticles. And my stupid hair, which I wish would just do something consistently. Like even if it was very flat and thin at least it would be consistently flat and thin. Or mad and curly at least it could be consistently mad and curly. But instead it veers in completely random non-wavy directions and really whatever I do with it, by 6pm it's almost always shoved up in some kind of straggly, unflattering bun, which really shows off my double chin to full effect.

I'm being disingenuous; my double chin is receeding, thanks to a combination of a fucking hideous Nazi diet and also every time Kitty gets ill (about once a month) I completely freak out and can't eat anything for 48 hours, which does wonders for shifting "un-shiftable" post-baby blubber. Exercise? Please. If you want to be thin you have to STARVE.

Where was I? Oh yes, right, so I'm back in my pre-pregnancy jeans now. I am secretly hoping to over-shoot past my dream weight (9st 3) and plummet down to, like, 8 and a half stone. Ideally, people will be whispering to each other about how worried they are about me. Eldest sister was so thin at Christmas that is was all we talked about and I was terribly jealous, being as I was then packing about three extra stone.

I've lost my original thought again. Clothes! Ok clothes clothes. All mine are shit. I've just done a purge of loads of drab depressing Hennes clothes so now I open my drawers and see about 40 mulchy Top Shop vests, a kaftan, a brown Zara poloneck and a terminally unflattering breton top from Uniqlo. Then I open my wardrobe and see two hideous check shirts, a flowery shirt with a big rip in it I bought in the South of France three years ago, eight party dresses from 2006 when I had to go to a lot of parties and a pink size eight bodycon skirt from Topshop.

I think starting next month I am going to buy ONE really nice thing per month from Net A Porter (price within reason) and when on the loose in Brent Cross, (fatal), I will write on my hand before I go "DON'T GO INTO HENNES".

For my husband, watching television shows like Come Dine With Me is the equivalent of buying a lot of clothes from Hennes. He prefers instead to pick a film neither of us have ever heard of from Pay Per View, watch two thirds of it, start yawning and say "this isn't really doing it for me". We then discuss whether or not to kill it for about ten minutes. We always do. Then we go to bed. It's almost always about 9pm.

But the other night I managed to persuade him to watch an episode of Father Ted and then Come Dine With Me and someone on it made a paella.

"Paella," said my husband. "Now that's a thing we could eat."

Then we had a short discussion over whether we ought to pronounce "paella" "pie-ay-ya" to avoid sounding like we were addressing the third child of Wayne and Waynetta Slob. We concluded that pronouncing words the local way is just too embarrassing, so pie-ellar it remained.

So he made one, although we didn't have any paella rice, or saffron, or prawns, and we used chicken stock instead of fish stock. So it was sort of a risotto. But it was also very much like a paella. And it was TERRIFIC. We were still talking about it the next day.

This is how he did it, in his own words:

"brown four cooking chorizo in a big shallow pan as much like a paella dish as you have (a wok is a top substitute but any big pan will do) on quite a generous slick of olive oil (this is spanish food so it's meant to be a bit oily) and slice later when they're firm (or slice dried chorizo and fry off, or if you have neither then some pancetta or lardons but you must have some cured pork in there one way or another).

Then into the nice meaty red paprika-y fat, chuck a quite finely chopped green pepper, finely chopped onion, three fat cloves of garlic finely chopped, low heat, maybe five mins, till soft but not brown. at this point i chucked in five or six big chunks of left over cold roast chicken, you could pre-brown four nice thighs first if you haven't got leftovers, but you do need some white meat (the original valencian paella has rabbit instead of chicken, but then it has snails instead of shellfish, which NOBODY wants).

okay, then when the chicken has relaxed into the dish, toss in about 200 grams of rice (this will serve three to four people in the end, or two with leftovers - it's better the next day) and toss that around until all the grains are nicely oiled (now, i didn't have paella rice, i had only risotto rice, but Esther said risotto gets its consistency from all the stirring, not the arborio itself, so i went with a bit less stirring and it worked beautifully).

add some paprika at this stage. mild or hot, doesn't matter, it's mostly for colour, and some chilli flakes or crushed dried chilli, not too much. if you have saffron, now is the time for that too. i didn't. and didn't miss it. i used a bit of tumeric for yellowness (but the bright yellow of a costa del sol paella is all food colouring so don't make that your benchmark unless you have a pot of E102 in the cupboard).

so, fry, fry, fry, um, oh yes, two to four nice firm tomatoes, de-seeded (but i didn't bother to skin, the rolled up skins looked a bit like the missing saffron stamens), chopped as small as you can be bothered. stir, stir, stir. i think that's that stage done.

no, wait, then a big glass of white wine or sherry, in, bring to boil and cook off the booze.

so now you have a couple of pints or so of chicken stock (or better still a prawn stock, but i couldn't get prawns) nice and hot on the stove (always use stock hot in things like this becasue it saves everything cooling down and slowing the whole faff down even more - you cd even get away with boiling water), poor about half of it on, so the rice is covered, about the amount that cd get the rice to almost cooked but not quite. and bubble away a a simmer, not stirring, but maybe poking a bit to make sure all the rice is under, for about ten minutes, by now it should taste pretty good (assuming you've had the nouse to salt it according to your own taste) but still the grains too hard and starchy.

now is the time to lob in a big handful of clams and one of mussels, bought that morning and scrubbed hard under the tap. push them into the top of the rice hinges down so they open gaping upwards and look pretty, and also one nice big squid (emptied and the horn removed obviously) sliced into rings, and the crown of tentacles halved. poke these down into the rice a bit, then cover with foil or a lid, and cook for another ten minutes or so, so that the shells are open, the squid has turned white and opaque and the rice is done. (if you've got prawns then put them in at the same time as the other shell fish but just fry them off for a couple of minutes first).

serve on plates, picking out all the shellfish and making sure it gets eaten becasue it is not so stellar in the leftovers, and garnish with chopped parsley. eat it with a cheap rioja topped up with a splash of lemonade.

i've probably forgotten a couple of things. [Like: he chucked a handful of samphire over it, which you can do if you want or not if not.] it's basically a cross between a jamie, a delia and an anthony worrell-thompson that all come up on the first page when you google 'paella' - but ignore all the websites with "spain" or "spanish" in the name, because that's just wankers going on about authenticity."

Monday, 19 September 2011

Caramel sauce

It came to me - like Kubla Khan - this morning as I lay somewhere in between waking and sleep.

"Don't look down," I heard. "Don't look down."

It only came to me later what it meant. "Don't look down" may as well be my (rather oblique) personal motto. I try never to look down, never to think about what my other options might be - especially if I am stuck somewhere. Because if I really thought about it I might completely fucking freak out. And that wouldn't help anyone or anything.

I am stuck as this mum person. And it was my choice. And sometimes it's okay but sometimes it's extremely not okay. And so I have decided that my general attitude will be not to look down. Not to check the clock when I know for a fact it's hours until bedtime. Not to attempt to go out and get drunk - ever. Not to seek out the company of people who don't have children. Not to attempt to go anywhere that isn't child-friendly. Not think about anything but what's happening in the next two hours. Not to try to do anything but creep along this ledge I find myself on, slowly, hand over hand, all the while not looking down.

Refusing to look down is a thing I quite often do in cooking, as it happens. Although it works for me in life on a larger scale, in cooking this attitude often means that I will go at a recipe unprepared and rather blindly, assuming it's easy unless I'm told otherwise. And often there are disastrous consequences.

Like this weekend, I wanted to make a caramel sauce to go with a pudding (don't get excited - bought) and I had to go through 3 different recipes before I found one that didn't pretty much explode or set like concrete. I didn't investigate, you see - I didn't read up on what might go wrong. And what might go wrong, if you're me, is that you turn the stove up as high as it will go, nuke everything and make a terrible mess.

But this recipe works as long as you don't excitedly overcook it and caramel sauce is a terrific thing to be able to make. I was mostly excited about being able to decant it into one of my squeezy bottles that I bought from Pages last year and have yet to really find a use for. I drizzled it, without really thinking (naturally), in a zig zag pattern across the plate and brought it to the table to gales of laughter and jokes about the pudding being from 1986.

What can I say? I didn't look down.

Caramel sauce
enough for about 6 people

100g light brown soft sugar
50 butter
200ml double cream

1 Put the sugar and butter in a pan and melt on the lowest possible heat until everything has melted and combined. This may take up to 10 minutes. Be patient.

2 Take the pan off the heat and gently whisk in the cream. If you want to return the pan to the heat that's fine, just make sure it's a gentle one.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Damson jam

I think I became truly middle-aged the day I got home from university. What I reallly wanted, I decided, was some fucking peace and quiet, Radio 4 and something baking in the oven. I became obsessed with storage solutions, even though I didn't have anything to store, and bookmarked Lakeland and Farrow and Ball.

I had recently got into the West Wing and while I went wibbly like everyone else over the general smart-arsery and political blah-blah (like the easily impressed fool I am) I also fell in love with the sets. That plush, wholesome Americana thing. Tobacco-coloured lamps on polished wood. Rugs on floors. Wide-striped wallpaper. Plantation shutters. Comfort. Quality.

I think it was around about then that I first started having - admittedly rather lateral - thoughts that maybe I ought to learn how to cook. It didn't really happen because I tried one or two things and they didn't work out, so with typical determination and perseverence, I gave up.

But the feeling lingered. That middle-aged feeling, (despite being 22), and for a long time, whenever autumn rolled around, I wanted to make jam. But because I lived at home, which has no fruit trees, and then subsequently in a high-rise flat on Kensington High Street, if I wanted to make jam I would have to buy the fruit to make it, from a shop. And even I knew that there was something not quite right about that.

So I never made jam. But I always wanted to. I made marmalade a few years ago to test out a recipe for a cookbook and in fact it turned out to be quite easy.

Then I went to stay with next-eldest sister in Oxfordshire who suggested I make some jam from then damsons weighing down her tree and using a  mash-up of my own bumptiousness and Delia, made some damson jam that worked out really quite well. Alas, in the chaos of packing up for Kitty for even one night I forgot the flaming camera, so there are no dreamy photos of the damson tree in autumnal light.

I can't give you exact quantities, because I didn't weigh anything, but this is the idea of the recipe. Exact quantities can be found on Delia Online.

Damson jam

A quantity of damnsons - about a big saucepan-full
A 2 kg bag of caster sugar - you won't use the whole thing but you might as well buy a huge bag just in case

1 Put the damsons in a large pan and fill with water until just covered. Stew for about an hour.

2 Pass the resulting mixture through a colander to get rid of skin and stones. Don't do it through a sieve because you'll be there all week.

3 Set your strained mixture on the highest head you can on the hob. Now, here I added sugar to taste. I don't like a really over-sweet jam and wanted to keep some of the tartness of the damsons. So I shook in as much sugar as I wanted to flavour it. You can do that, or you can follow Delia's quantities religiously, if you don't feel confident going off-road.

4 Now boil the shit out of it. For about 45 minutes, I'd say. My sister turned down the heat after about 25 minutes because the jam was bubbling and "going everywhere". But it still set. To test if your jam is ready, put a small plate in the fridge and after about 40 minutes' boiling dab a blob on the plate and leave it. The coldness of the plate hastens the cooling of the jam and you can only tell whether jam is set when it's cold.

You can sterilise some jars by putting them in a 180C oven for about 5 minutes. Then pour in the jam while it's still warm and runny.

Label artistically and pretend you are a lady novelist living in a river cottage in Sussex.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Coronation chicken sauce - BEST EVER

So. First holiday as a family. DONE. It was sort of ridiculous. In London, I have a bit of help during the week so I can drive randomly around town playing very loud music and screaming intermittently. But in Sussex there was no-one. Although my husband is a terrifically hands-on kind of guy, it wasn't a situation where I could shout "Bye!" at the door and piss off for two hours.

And it does concentrate the mind. I did spend rather a lot of time thinking about why people have children. Why? I howled this question particularly loudly to myself in my head as I fed a damp, bored and miserable Kitty a bottle in the pouring rain, hiding under a tree in the grounds of Petworth House, which we'd visited because you've got to do something between 2pm and 6pm other than singing "Row Row Row Your Boat" and looking at the clock, or you'll go mad.

Why? It's just so stupid. There you are, having a perfectly nice time and then you completely fuck your whole life up. For ages. I have become one of those people who devours anything written by anyone who is either desperate to have a baby or by someone who regrets not having had children. I can live on that shit for a week.

I always come to the conclusion - as I think everyone does - that the whole sorry business is all just selfish. For example, by having children I hope to achieve two things:

1) To go home. I want so badly to be at home again, in my bedroom with my stuff and my sisters around and my mum downstairs and my dad behind a newspaper somewhere. Adult life frightens me. I don't like things like clubbing very much, or achieveing things in an office environment, or going to smart parties, or acting on the spur of the moment. I just want to go home and potter about. I really like my parents, they are really nice people. I never had a yearning to get out and forge my way in the world. My parents had to evict me at 25. And because I can't go home (my little sister has taken over my old bedroom) the closest thing I can do is make a duplicate, an offshoot like a spider plant, and cross my fingers that it will, somehow, like a metaphorical Dr Sam Beckett, Quantum Leap me back.  

2) To have the life my mother has now. God my mum has a great time. Four daughters, none of who turned out to have a drug problem or decided to move permanently halfway across the world, (I always think that says something), who each ring her for a major gossip at least once a week, who deliver her grandchildren she can fuss over - then hand back - and bring to our house life. Life.

When we were little there was an apocryphal tale about my mother leaving next-eldest sister in the bath and she "nearly drowned". With the poisonous cruelty that little children are sometimes capable of, we always used to hold this up as an example of my mother's blatant imperfection. 

I remembered this story the other day when I left Kitty propped up with cushions on the sofa for a few minutes to fetch something. The thing I had not realised is that when it happened, my mother's first husband, the father of next-eldest and eldest sister, would have been either dying or already dead from leukemia. My mother would have been about 34.  And for a long time, until she met my father, she was all alone. With two small children. Of course she left next-eldest in the bath for a second or two! Eldest sister was probably screaming. Or there was a hammering on the door. Or she smelt burning. Or maybe she just needed to get a towel. And there was no-one else there.

So to have a full house, to have people there, is all my mother wants. And she is wise for it. As I hardly have any friends, and have never been able to do that thing where the few friends I have just come and hang out in my house, there is no question of having some kind of modern "urban" family with lots of glamorous homosexuals scattered about. If I am going to have any sort of family life, I am going to have to make one myself. Literally grow one. And there's no easy way of doing it.
To misquote Madonna: There are no shortcuts to being a family.* So occasionally you just have to fucking suck it up.

As it happens, there are no shortcuts to making a brilliant Coronation Chicken sauce. You can do a pretty grim one with curry powder and mayonnaise and raisins but it's not very nice.

A really serious one was brought round for me by Julia Churchill and it disappeared so quickly and I was so dazed from 4 weeks' solid childcare that it didn't cross my mind to take a photo. And I certainly haven't had, like, four seconds to myself to re-create it. So you're just going to have to do without a snap and simply take my word, on faith, that it's out of this world. Which is it. Really fantastic.

(NB: I am going to the countryside this weekend to see next-eldest sister - who didn't drown - and she has a glut of damsons. So in order to make it up to you, I will take a lot of whimsical pictures everyone can feel all autumnal about.)

I emailed Julia for the recipe and this is what came back. I always think it's best to let people deliver recipes in their own words and these are hers.

"Finely chop an onion and cook slowly till very dark. Add in spices - quite a lot of mustard seed, black onion seed, pepper, cardomom, (spelling?), tumeric, cumin, coriander seed, fennel seed, chilli flakes (loads. I have decided quite recently that food should hurt from time to time), teaspoon of curry powder for that familiar note, tiny bit cinnamon and clove - almost not there. Cook it. Let it cool and mix it with mayonnaise and [mango] chutney and squeeze in some lemon juice if it's cloying. Salt. Chopped coriander at the end. Oooo. Was there anything else? I think that's it.


*"There are no shortcuts to being Madonna".