Thursday, 20 October 2011

Hamburger buns




A long time ago I thought that this blog would be about me testing out recipes I found in books and then telling you if they worked or not. But then I discovered that it was much more fun writing about me, me, me and my various problems and then tacking a recipe for, like, beans on toast at the end and hoping that no-one would notice that I wasn't really fulfilling my brief.

It became like a sort of free therapy, except that it didn't work and I went mad anyway and am having to get some very expensive therapy in Central London administered by a woman we'll call Dr O.

I went to see her for the first time today. I was ten minutes late because I couldn't find her bastard office and made a small joke about me not being anxious about being late because of all people who would be understanding it would be her. She gave me a pleasant but uncomprehending smile and I realised suddenly that she has no sense of humour. And what the fuck was I doing trying to make my therapist laugh anyway? Grow up.

That's beside the point. My point is that I found in the Hawksmoor cookbook a recipe for hamburger buns, which declared that the secret was to use custard in the dough.

"Awesome!" I screeched. "Custard!!! What fun. I will go back to my roots and test this out and say if it works or not."

And it's the stupidest bloody recipe I've ever done. And I've now decided that I HATE cookbooks especially restaurant cookbooks because they're always written by people who've been cooking for 8 million years and assume all sorts of things about the domestic cook and the recipes are never tested properly and they're always shit.

Say what you like about Jamie Oliver but he's got some proper recipe-testing going on. He doesn't just sling the recipes out to various relatives in a huge panic 5 days before the book goes to the printers, all of whom say they will test the recipes and then don't and lie and say they did and that they're fine causing ME to WASTE MY TIME making stupid hamburger buns that are crap and at least 50% less nice than if I'd just had a crack, blindfolded, at making them off the top of my head.

I mean... *legal panic*...not that I'm saying Hawksmoor doesn't test their recipes properly, I'm just saying that Jamie Oliver does.

Anyway, shall I bother with the recipe? I don't think I will actually. You can have the photo because I know how you all like a photo, but it was such a silly recipe, so lazily done, so inaccurate and unhelpful and rotten than I don't think I'll do it the service of even copying it out here.

Custard! I ask you... Dingbats.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Black pudding and lentils





I rarely bother writing about "assembly" dinners (i.e. you take a lot of nice things and cook them and have them on the same plate and that's that) because I reckon you can probably work that kind of stuff out for yourself. But I was moved to write about this farewell dinner my husband made for me on Sunday night before disappearing for another week's filming.

We have in this house, I think, quite an odd diet. We don't eat pasta or potatoes except in emergencies and limit fish to very special occasions.

We also rarely - like, never - eat steak or fillet or any prime cuts of anything. Not even free-range organic stuff. We mostly eat the offcuts - belly, shin, cheeks, wings, beaks, feet, ears etc - to assuage our complex feelings about eating animals. By living off these odds and ends we are not the ones driving intensive farming and the slaughter of animals, (killed primarily for "prime" cuts like steak), we are merely mopping up the leftovers, giving a home to the scrag ends that would otherwise go in the bin.

But then this weekend because we were feeling out of sorts my husband bought from the farmers' market some really properly luxe fillet steak. And it was FUCKING AMAZING. We bought too much and roasted it with half a baked potato each (just to keep our spirits up) a couple of marrow bones and a parsley salad and then had the leftovers in sandwiches the next day.

From the same butcher (Twelve Green Acres, if you are interested) we also bought some fantastic black pudding and my husband made it for dinner on a bed of lentils and popped a coddled egg on top. And it was as nice as the fillet steak - just in a slightly different way.

Black pudding and lentils, by Giles

For 2

2 eggs
100g (dried weight) green lentils
1 onion
salt and pepper
1 or 2 discs (each) of the best-quality black pudding you can get your hands on
oil for frying
(We had some tired tomatoes hanging about so roasted them for 30 mins, but by all means leave them out.)

1 Boil your lentils until very soft - about 25 minutes in salted water.

2 In a frying pan fry the chopped onion gently in oil for about 15 minutes. If you had some chorizo knocking about you could fry a few cubes of that alongside it, but it's not essential. I have not included garlic because my friend Henry, who is a chef, said the other day that he's stopped automatically adding garlic to everything he cooks because he thinks it's lazy and makes everything taste the same. But you are free to add garlic if you fancy it.

3 Add the lentils and heat through. Shift the lentils and onions to one side when done and fry off your discs of black pudding in the same pan to save on washing up.

4 If you have an egg coddler, do two eggs in that. If not, poach if you're able to. If not, just fry the buggers.

5 Assemble your dinner by putting down a layer of lentils, then the black pudding then the egg on top.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

How to save a stew




There are in my life perhaps five people (not counting immediate family) I would consider to be my friends. I used to have a lot more than that, but over the last few years I have succeeded, both intentionally and accidentally, in shouldering off all but the most hardcore, trusty lot.

These five are my dead prostitute friends: that is, people I would call if I woke up in a hotel in Las Vegas and there was a dead prostitute in my room.

Three of them - Simon, Slang (girl) and MH (boy) - are criminal barristers. Julia Churchill, who often makes cameos on this blog, is a literary agent and Arnold (girl) is a television producer.

Arnold - a master of logistics - would spirit me out of the hotel and get me a fake passport and a rented flat in Havana, the criminal barristers would keep me from the chair if the feds ever came knocking and Julia would secure me a sweet book deal whatever happened.

They are also terrific in non life-or-death situations, too.

For all sorts of  reasons I have been thinking about my DP friends recently and I realise that I've learnt something about friends in the last ten years: it doesn't matter how many you've got. Even if you've only got one: as long as they'll be on the next flight out to Nevada to save your skin, that's all you need.

Speaking of saving things, my husband performed open-heart surgery on the goulash that I had lovingly prepared for him and then BURNT and saved it from the bin.

What happened was this: I made the goulash (q.v.) in the normal way but made it in much too big a pot, so the water bubbled away leaving a trailing mess of burnt pork and peppers.

"Fuck." I said, looking at it.

"No it's fine," said my husband. He scooped out everything except the most burnt stuff, mashed it up in a different, smaller pot, poured over a wineglass of water and then heated it all very gently for about 20 minutes. Then we had it with a lot of buttery macaroni, sour cream and parsley and it was really actually quite nice.

"You can do this with anything that you've burnt a bit," said my husband. "I mean, not completely to a cinder, but the secret is not to disturb the most burnt parts, get out the stuff that isn't burnt and then rehydrate it elsewhere."

So there we go: how to save a stew.

And if you commit any more serious crime than that, in your kitchen or elsewhere, I know some great lawyers.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Sherry and tonic





The more I think about it, the more I think that maybe not doing much cooking recently is only partly to do with anxiety and more to do with the fact that I've run out of things to cook. It's just good old-fashioned lack of inspiration.

Among duty cooks, (i.e. the person in the household who does dinner on dreary weeknights - as opposed to performance cooks, who do nothing for months and then roast beef for 18 for Sunday lunch), this is known as "cooking fatigue". If left unchecked it can go on indefinitely and result in you alternating roast chicken with spaghetti bolognese for 16 years. At which point your children leave home and you eat soup and cheese every night for the next twenty years. Then you go into an old people's home. And I'll leave it there.

My husband has been away filming for the last few days and I traditionally like to welcome him home from these trips away with something nice for dinner. I say I LIKE to welcome him home with something nice for dinner but usually what happens is he comes home to find Kitty with a cold and the kitchen full of fruit flies.

So this time round I want to nail it. But what, what, what to cook? I can't do fish, because there isn't a fishmonger within my reach who has the correct green cred for my husband. Roast chicken is just a massive cop-out, we're always eating bloody curry, ditto my two vegetarian recipes. My latest "special" (yet easy/impressive) thing is slow-roast pork belly, but we've had that about three times in the last month.

While I mull it over, I may help myself to a sherry and tonic, which is my new favourite drink. It's closely related to the Seventies cocktail-hour favourite, white port and tonic, but sherry works just as well.

Next-eldest sister introduced me to this and we've been drinking it ever since. It's milder and sort of fruitier than a gin and tonic, it's a thirst-quencher, it's festive and doesn't get you instantly hammered [insert weary thing about how marvellous getting very hammered very quickly is here].

As documented, I can't drink these days - I just can't do it. And when I say "drink" I mean drink a lot - (and by a lot I mean so that you say slightly ill-advised things at the time, wake up to pee and take nurofen in the night and then feel a bit green the next day). It's a thing I've decided that I used to do when I didn't have anything else to do. Next-eldest said to me once "You can do it all - you can work and have children and go out. But you have to sacrifice getting pissed."

But once Kitty's a-bed and whatever scrabbled-together dinner we're having is on the go it does seem a shame not to have a weeny drinky. And this is the answer.

It's also a terrific, unusual and very practical thing to offer as a cocktail for a party because it looks nice - fizzy tumblers of pale drinky with clattering ice. If you want to be really fucking classy, add a strip of lemon peel.

You can use any sherry you like, fino or manzanilla. (I'm pretty sure they sell all sorts in Waitrose. Only Schwepps Indian tonic water will do.) If you once had fino sherry and found it to taste like pencil shavings, give this a go anyway because the tonic takes the edge off. And if you don't like tonic, well - I give up.

This post was brought to you by the letters S and C and dedicated to my friend Emelie Frid (@emfrid), who loves sherry and who has been having a shit time because her baby isn't well.

By the way, I wish I had post-natal depression, as some of you have thoughtfully pointed out. But alas, I've always been a jumble of nerves for as long as I can remember. I'm feeling much better now, as it happens, and think back to the dark days of the last fortnight with amusement, wondering if maybe I imagined the whole thing.

But I won't think about it too hard. It will only make me anxious.



Monday, 10 October 2011

Soy-braised tofu with butternut squash



You've got no idea how time-consuming suffering from crippling anxiety is. All the space that I used to occupy is now occupied by anxiety. There is no room for anything else. That is all there is left of me. All I can do is perform tasks to a very basic level and respond by turning my head when someone says my name. But my eyes are glassy. There's very little left of the person at home.

There is a TS Eliot poem, most of which I don't understand, (I don't understand any poetry, let alone anything by TS Eliot), that says something along the lines of this is me and I am here and everything else is not everything else, rather it is simply everything that is NOT me. Well right now everything in the whole world is only a thing in relation to my anxiety.

I went to see the doctor. My husband politely suggested it might be a good idea. I went with one sole aim: to not cry in his office. I had a shower and washed my hair. I put on non-mad clothes. I put plasters on my fingers where I had been attacking my cuticles and they were sore and bleeding. I put blusher on to hide the fact that I hadn't eaten or slept much recently.

But I cried anyway. Because you do. When you're anxious or depressed and you go to the doctor to ask for a referral to get your head examined (again) you cry. It's just the rules.

This is a long way of saying that I haven't been cooking much. When you suffer from chronic anxiety you tend not to be that interested in food. I've never been that bothered about food, just generally, in life, that's why I never learnt to cook until I had to feed a family. Left to my own devices I would (and have) live off McDonalds and pre-prepared macaroni cheese.

But once my anxiety (trembling hands, multiple night-wakings, constricted throat, leaden weight in the chest, nausea, clenched teeth, clearly hearing my child's cry in my head) has dragged on for a week and I have exhausted all permutations of takeaway, baked potatoes, dinners out and things my husband has cooked I have to return to the stove. And once I have run through my entire repertoire and Recipe Rifle hasn't been updated for nearly three weeks, it's time to hit The File.

The File is a stained purple cardboard file in which I occasionally shove torn-out recipes I mean to test out. Except that I don't always put the torn-out recipes in The File because I quite often lose The File and so shove the torn-out recipe somewhere else and then lose them.

So when I turn to The File, there is often not much interesting in there and always five or so recipes that I know I am never going to try (twice-baked souffle? Sorry, Xanthe Clay, can't be arsed) but am too superstitious to throw out.

Anyway this time I thought it would just pick something at random and cook it. It happened to be soy-braised tofu and butternut squash with spinach.

And it goes something like this:

For 4

1 pack cauldron tofu from Waitrose, about 350g
1 butternut squash
2 star anise
1.5 tbsp soy sauce
thumb-sized piece of ginger, sliced
2 tbsp soft brown sugar
250g spinach OR some baby bok choi
1 red chilli, sliced
500ml water

1 Peel and chop up your bastard butternut squash. I have had such bad experiences with butternut squash remaining rock hard after several days' sauteeing that I nuked this fucker in the microwave for about 5 mins before cooking. I advise you do the same. (Chop, place in plastic container with 2 tbsp water. Balance a lid on at a jaunty angle. Toy for the 500th time with putting something metal in there too, just to see what happens. Reject idea, despite living very near a fire station. Press 5 min and hit Go.)

2 Get tofu out and stick it between two chopping boards and then put something heavy on the top to squish all the water out. Leave it for about 15 mins then dice into 3cm-ish cubes.

3 Fry off the tofu in oil and set to one side. Then sautee your butternut squash for 10 minutes (which will be enough if it has been prepped in the m/w).

4 Throw over the squash the ginger, soy, star anise (which I personally don't like, but works fine here so any haters can approach with confidence), sugar and water and the tofu and boil all this briskly for about 15 minutes. The sauce ought to reduce to a syrupy consistency and the squash out to have relaxed but not be complete mush.

5 Take off the heat, add the spinach/bok choi, sprinkle over the red chilli and serve.

Giles loved this but I wasn't that crazy about it so I wouldn't bother with it if I were you.

Go to McDonald's instead.