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Showing posts from 2014

What matters in the here and now: food and grace.

Last night's here and now was an experiment with Pissaladière, Niçoise kind of open tart, or flat bread, filled or topped with caramelised onions, anchovies and black olives. We've invited our neighbours in for a New Year's glass or two of champagne and nibbles next Sunday and I'm playing around with canapé ideas - the usual meat, fish, vegetarian presentation. I wanted to see if the topping would hold up cooked on a sheet of puff pastry then cut into small squares. It does. But it won't. It's more a 'chomp on that with a glass of rustic red wine' kind of snack than a glass of champagne one.
To be honest, I seem to be thinking too much about this event, trying too hard to come up with little plates of food to welcome people into our home. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's a side-effect of lingering jet lag after flying back from Florida a couple of days ago. Maybe I'm focussing too much on wanting to impress people, some of whom I hardly know. …

The Hunger Trap (and my inexcusable, creativity-barren attempts to escape from it)

I can count the number of ready meal items I buy at home in the UK on one hand. Make that less than one hand: Tesco Finest Prawn and Chili Fishcakes and Four Cheese frozen pizzas. They're quick 'feed me/us now' options. The fishcakes are for me when I'm on my own: baked and crisped up in the oven and slipped onto a rocket (arugula) salad. The pizzas are for us both on a chow down in front of the TV night: we undress them, top them with a selection of fresh sliced tomatoes, char-grilled artichokes, hot and sweet peppers, black olives, maybe a few slices of Waitrose's Italian fennel salami on mine, and wait 15 minutes for the oven to exert its transforming powers of bubble and melt.
So why was I gazing into the icy bowels of a freezer at Publix supermarket on Deerfield Beach, here in south Florida, a couple of nights ago as if it held the answers to my culinary dreams? Some possible reasons. 
Tony wasn't hungry so I was looking only to feed myself. It was late, 8pm…

Sweet life

I'm trying to remember where my school tuck shop was. The sprawling Sandfields Comprehensive School was divided into Lower, Middle and Upper sections of red brick buildings, each with their own assembly halls. I'm pretty sure it occupied a small room at the end of an L-shaped covered walkway behind the Lower School Hall, at the edge a kind of no-man's land yard that joined all three parts but didn't seem to belong to any particular one. Ah, the democracy of the comprehensive system! A system that still marshalled their identified high achievers into an unspoken grammar stream of 3 forms labelled X, Y and L and placed the kids at the other end of the academic spectrum into Form A!
But I can't see beyond the Tuck Shop's split door, or was it a slide-open window? I can suggest a list of chocolate bars and packets of crisps from the late 1960s and early 1970s that might have nudged up against each other on the shelves but I have no memory of handing over money for a…

Small things we love and Blue Mind Science

Everyone has a favourite kitchen utensil, right? Something quite ordinary, maybe, not necessarily a shiny and mind-boggling piece of culinary technology.
I have one. But Tony, my husband, hates it. My mother finds it awkward when she visits. But I discovered, by accident, that a friend shares my passion for it. When I told him I'd written a poem in its praise, he asked for a copy to put up in his kitchen. How deep is our love!
In Praise of Things
Today I want to say something wonderful about my potato peeler – the way the ergonomically designed handle fits snugly in the curve of my palm as if it was made for the valley of my right hand.
I want to tell you how it is soul-mate to thick-skinned vegetables – cloudy tangerine columns of carrot knobbly orbs of King Edwards. How it slides over them as if it might be wrapping them not unwrapping them as if it might be whispering while secretly stealing their skin.
I love the way the steel head swivels gently rocking from side to side accommodating each rid…

Does anything eat jellyfish?

The mornings begin here, on Hillsboro Beach in South Florida, pretty much as they do at home: one of us makes tea and brings it back to bed. But we do not look up at the fickle English sky through the Velux windows or catch the faint drone of the motorway in the distance. Instead we gaze out at the Atlantic, the horizon brightening with the rising sun, the sound of the wind ruffling, or sometimes bullying, the water into white and whiter peaks.
Then our mornings' paths diverge a while for fresh papaya squeezed with the zing of lime, meet again an hour later for coffee made with milk and sweet with brown sugar, then strike off more determinedly for a walk along the beach towards Lighthouse Point, our feet in the shallows, keeping an eye out for shells and coral. And jellyfish. Quite a lot of jellyfish trundled out of a bolshy sea over the last couple of days.
Some are glassy and pinkly luminous in their freshness, up to nine inches in diameter, still pulsing faintly on the wet sand. …

More and less: food banks

In true 'Brit-abroad' fashion I'm putting together some 'essential' items for my month long trip to Florida this Saturday. So far: a couple of mini Christmas puddings, a small slab of iced Christmas cake, bags of my Natco Indian spicy tea and a packet of sage and onion stuffing mix for my 'easy-peasy' stuffing. This involves the very basic skills of making up the mix according to the instructions on the box, letting it cool slightly, then mixing it with the meat from a few skinned pork sausages and a knob of butter. Bake that for 35 minutes until it has a nice crispy topping. Food snobs desist. No sweated over, hand-made stuffing can beat this. I've tried drifts, litters and sounders of home-made pork stuffing recipes and always go back to 'easy-peasy'. And everyone I've ever cooked it for loves it too. 
Hungry Writing Prompt Write about food packed for a long journey.
I am grateful for my life that allows me to make a trip like this. A gratitu…

Triggers: scents and textures of memory

The lingering crisp aroma of home-made chips (cooked in the Actifry pan with just a tablespoon of sunflower oil) combined with the scent of the log fire as I walk from the kitchen into the lounge triggers the memory of my grandparents' house in Dafen, Llanelli. Although the scent of memory lies: those chips would have been cooked in lard, the fire made of coal, the heat localised around the grate in the kitchen rather than filling the ground and first floor of the house as our log burning stove does. 
They moved into that house around the mid 1960s although my first memory of it is from 1966, the date fixed by a family holiday at Butlins in Pwllheli, North Wales and how we called in to see them on the journey home from north to south. I remember the outfit I am wearing standing on their narrow, brick and concrete garden path for a photo, an outfit that repeats itself in the Butlins' snaps. Different shades of green in a photo that is only preserved in shades of grey.

Food and dr…

The magic of apples and other things

I'm sure no one will contradict me when I say that growing or foraging, then preparing and eating, your own food has a certain magical but, at the same time, earthly appreciation attached to it. Tasting the Bramble Jelly I made in August under this November's grey sky transports me to the side of the blackberry hedge again, the one that runs east along the railway line towards Moorland Wood, to the scent of the sun in long grass, the lazy buzz of summer's insects, the grazes and scratches along my arms ignored for the sake of the ripe fruit.
I'm on my last jar: I don't know how long I can make it last.
I made this year's apple jellies  - Mapple (apple and mango), Chapple (apple with chilli) and Whapple (you're probably noticing a pattern now (!) - apple with whisky) - from the leftovers, the occasional overlooked fruit and the windfalls, after the pickers rolled purposefully through the orchard in September then tractored their brimming crates to Chegworth V…

Extreme Baking, or The Revenge of the Jam Tart

There have been a few pastry related discussions in our house over the last week.
1. 'It's frozen,' I said, picking up the box of puff pastry Tony'd just bought.
'Can't I put it in the microwave?' he asked
'No, it'll start cooking at the edges before the centre thaws.'
'I'll leave it to defrost then.'
'But aren't you cooking now? It'll take a good couple of hours to defrost.'
'Oh.'
'I'll go and buy some fresh pastry.'
'I didn't know they sold fresh pastry.'

2. 
'What are you doing?' he asked.
'Trying to unstick your pastry sheet. If you're going to unroll it on the wooden counter, and leave it, then make sure the paper's underneath it.'
3. Me: 'What are those brown marks?'
Him: 'I used the wholemeal flour to roll it out thinner.'
I really am trying to be supportive but when I see someone wiping a wooden surface with a ball of puff pastry 'to pick up all the c…

Just right

Some days everything is right: the roast chickens moist, the green beans with the perfect amount of bite, the crunch and fluff of the potatoes, the teaspoon of freshly ground cumin on the shredded sweetheart cabbage while it steamed a good choice. The gravy makes you sing. Even the pumpkin pie you leave in the oven for 15 minutes too long survives without a scorch. 
Your friends arrived cloaked in the after-shock of six weeks of builders, work concerns, family niggles, the kind of weariness that flattens the light in people's eyes. 
Food, wine, spicy tea, chocolate, laughter and a feel-good movie in front of a log burning fire to make you smile.
Some days you do not have to try to be good to yourself or others. Some days it just happens of its own accord. An alignment of the stars? Your breath in tune with the rhythm of the season? The way you looked at the world when you got out of bed that morning and said, 'yes'? 
You only have to let the soft animal of your body/ love what…

Good soup

I wrote about my Mam's vegetable soup back in January 2011, just a few months after I started the hungry writer blog while living in France. It's a post I'm particularly fond of and a few other people liked it too. Here's one of the comments it received:
My house (in Ames, Iowa,USA) is filled this frigid January night with the heady and hearty scents of your Mam's Vegetable Soup - this weekend's treat to me.
How lovely is that?! 
'The fragrance, the tenderness.' the blogpost ends, literally and metaphorically. And they are present too every time I make it and serve it.
I made it recently for a friend of Tony's who's had 8 sessions of chemotherapy this year and will not let cancer get the better of him. I am sure he has his dark days, disappointments and fears, yet he smiles and jokes with us and gollops up Mam's soup sprinkled with parsley and Parmesan, dunking chunks of crusty bread into the broth, then digs into the cheese plate (Cheddar, Ches…

Feed me

Feed a cold: starve a fever. I've plumped for 'cold'. There aren't that many things that will stop me from eating even if eating for the last couple of days has consisted mostly of toasted organic wholemeal bread and cups of tea. 


Toasted bread - the real stuff with a crust, not the doughy, long-life, ready sliced version - has to be one of the great comfort foods of the world: a satisfying light crunch with a soft, warm heart tickled with melted butter. 
On the first page of his culinary autobiography, Toast, Nigel Slater says, 'It is impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you.' 'Putty in their hands,' he says.
I wholeheartedly agree with the first sentence. Not so much with the second. I'm not the most amenable of patients. I think it's the 'wounded animal' part of me. When I'm ill I just want to curl up, put my tail over my eyes, and be left alone. No, please don't stroke my head, or pat me. In fact: DON'T TOUC…

An interlude for chips

Fat

Skinny women order his fish
fried in low-cholesterol oil,
batter as crisp and sheer as glass.

He teases them about goose-fat,
the slip of it, how it dimples
under fingertips, at the right point
of tenderness how it gives
to the tip of a tongue.

He dreams of women
whose flesh parts for him
like lard – their overlap, the spill
and pleat of them, his hands skating
over their suety gleam, their excess
rejoicing under his palms.

From Learning How to Fall(Parthian 2005)


Hungry Writing Prompts Write about chips.

Fancy pants

Cucurbita:
a name lost to you over millennia  with more flash and glitz than 'gourd'  but you three are making up  for that with how you dress. 

No matter that you sound  like a growl in people's throats  when you are the vessels of history  and myth: water-carriers, birdhouses, 
drums and nose-flutes, the carriage  for a princess. Bright, hard-skinned,  your own determined selves. If the end of autumn 
is leaf-mulch and wood-smoke  then you are the unbridled  beginning, the flag-waving,  fancy-pants of its arrival.
We want more of you. We want to fill the kitchen with your rowdiness  as the days slowly shrivel, as we light the fire earlier
each night. You're the echo  of summer, the sun packed  tight within you like memories,  the ones we cannot let go. 

Hungry Writing Prompt Write about hard-skin.

Travelling bites

Is there a difference between travelling and taking a holiday? The former makes me think of gap-year students roaming around Asia and the Far East or older adventuring types who will happily drink warm yak's milk or sleep under a Landrover in the Sahara. Compared to that shuttles from the airport and room service seem rather tame although both of those things are guaranteed to make me happy. There does seem to be a bit of snobbery around what you call yourself and what you do during the weeks, or months, away from your home turf: travelling is challenge, holidays are fun. But the older I get then convenience, comfort and safety are towards the top of the list of any holiday requirements. Fun and laughter are right at the top. 
Tony and I are staying in Montepulciano for a week checking out its possibility as a base for a longer 'learn Italian in school' trip next year. Sometimes I feel as if I'm on holiday, that 'freshly risen dough' feeling when all is bright …

Bread love

Bread is on my mind. Literally, as you can see. A local garage on the A20 just outside of West Malling, has upgraded its grocery section into a full blown 'buy-everything-you-could-possibly-want-while-filling-up-the-car-or-even-not-filling-up-the-car' Spar. Spar with bells and whistles: delicatessen, butchery counter selling local meats, flavoured olive oils you can buy in exquisite long necked glass bottles. And oven baked bread. And they are the best French baguettes we've tasted since we left France nearly three years ago.
There is no photo of the baguette Tony bought yesterday. There isn't even a photo of the crumbs. They are that good.
Hungry Writing Prompt Write about crumbs, what's left when what you once had, is gone.
Some of you may know the Billy Collins' poem called 'Litany' that springboards off lines written by Belgian poet, Jacques Crickillon...
You are the bread and the knife, The crystal goblet and the wine...
...then dives into a list of thing…