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. A 'look at my perfectly original amuse-bouches, people!' approach that really isn't the way I normally think about food and feeding people at all. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about trying to be perfect at something, or for someone.

I recently bough Tamar Adler's lyrical and meditative An Everlasting Meal, Cooking with Economy and Grace, a book that is far more than a cookbook or a book about how we live and eat, but has so much to say about both, and more. I read it while sitting on a beach in Florida and so many times I had to close the book and close my eyes and let myself absorb the poetry of her words and insights. I know when a book is about to take up permanent residence in my life when I start filling the margins with notes and underlining words I want to remember. This is a book for writers who love food. Capers are as odd and wild as birds. (p.136)  Yes!

And now I'm remembering what she says on p.215:

...the simple, blessed fact is that no one ever comes to dinner for what you're cooking. We come for the opportunity to look up from our plates and say 'thank you'. It is for recognition of our common hungers that we come when we are asked.

Now, some champagne and a few mouthfuls of savouriness are not dinner. There's no table sharing involved. But our get-together next Sunday is about companionship, about living in the same lane, about what we have in common and about the differences we accept in each other.

And now I start to think about food as tenderness, as an ordinary but sincere smile, as good wishes for the now and what's to come, as the grace in the title of Tamar Adler's book. That's a start. I can go forward from here. And maybe the Pissaladière* will find a place.

Happy New Year. Go forward with grace too - from the here and now and into what 2015 will bring for you.

*You'll find Tamar Adler's guidelines for making this on pages 147 to 149 of her book although there are hundreds of recipes for it on-line. But she is the only cook I've ever read who really understands the patience involved in caramelising onions. Do not believe anyone else who says 20 minutes, even half an hour, is enough. Prepare yourself to engage with them for an hour. 'Golden jam', she says. Yes. 


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, later than I'd normally eat. I was tired. And I'd gone around the curve of hungry into the strait of being over-hungry where my blood sugar levels start to plummet and I get grumpy. All of which are pathetic and clatter together into one big unacceptable whine, making me more than deserving of what followed.

1) When I got home the box of Cajun flavoured frozen Wild Atlantic salmon told me I'd need to defrost it for 8 to 12 hours and 2) 1 hour and 30 minutes later the frozen Lime & Coriander Shrimp emerged from the villa's oversized oven, big enough to cook a small goat in, looking as appetising as the fragments of wave-shattered jelly fish along the shore when we first arrived on Hillsboro Beach, and with, I imagine, a similar consistency.

C'mon! I can do better than that. I know I can. And with very little effort. Some al dente pasta tossed in softened, chopped garlic, olive oil, parsley and grated Parmesan. A fried egg on hot buttered toast. Or just a dish of sliced fresh tomatoes drizzled with oil and salt, sprinkled with chopped spring onions, or scallions as they're called here, and bread to mop up the juice. It's not rocket science; it's not even science.

This story doesn't end well. (Although there was a satisfying interim event of a crustily seared but melt in the mouth medium rare filet mignon with a bottle of J Lohr Cabernet Sauvignon that didn't allow for even the seed of a whine to be germinated, let alone planted.) Last night I gave the (defrosted) salmon a chance. And promptly slid it off my plate into the bin. Salmon should taste of salmon not a fishmonger's rag. 

But I wasn't completely thwarted this time: on my plate was a pile of curly green rocket drizzled with oil and a baked potato whose skin had been rubbed with salt and whose creamy heart was draped in sour cream. Ahhh. There's nothing like letting ordinary ingredients run about (almost) naked to make me smile.

Hungry Writing Prompts
Write about throwing something away.
Write about being 'almost' naked.


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 Milky Way (1935), or a Wagon Wheel (1948), or a packet of the still excitingly novel, (well, as novel as reconstituted potato gets), Cheese Quavers (1968). 

The (sometimes surprising) dates above are courtesy of Steve Berry's and Phil Norman's The Great British Tuck Shop, an encyclopaedic and entertaining memory-stirring read through all things sweet and savoury from a time when we didn't even know how to spell obesity and diabetes (type 2).

Maybe I did buy one or two things at the school tuck shop but my strongest memory of sweet buying is closer to home, from a little flat-roofed shop at the end of Aberafan Beach's promenade, a street away from our house. Recite with me now: Black Jacks, Fruit Salads, Rainbow Drops, White Mice, Pink Shrimp, Flying Saucers, Bazooka Joes. Sweets we chose in straight and mixed pairs, triplets and quartets, according to the amount of solidly reliable brass pennies in our pockets that we could spread them across. Pennies that betrayed us after 1971 with the decimalisation of the UK's currency when, overnight, 2.4 old pennies was now only worth 1 new one and the Black Jack count fell simultaneously. 

Reading The Great British Tuck Shop on a beach in South Florida has probably been a cause for consternation amongst adjacent non-British holidaymakers. 'Aztec!' I've yelped. Or, 'Caramac!' And, 'Curly Wurly!' Or, perhaps even more worryingly, 'Oh, Raspberry Ruffles,' with a long and satisfying sigh. Because when I say, 'Raspberry Ruffles', a whole other world rushes back to me: the worn, red velvet seats of an old cinema, the scent of perfume and cigarette smoke from the usherette as she saunters back up the aisle with her tray of ice-creams, and the light from a suddenly curtain free screen that makes my eyes ache. 

And then there are the people who embody my chocolate memories. My husband, Tony, is Fry's Turkish Delight (1908). My mother goes with Bournville Chocolate (1908). For my older sister there's Cadbury's Fruit and Nut (1926). My younger brother, the aforementioned laces of stiff toffee dipped in chocolate, a Curly Wurly (1970). 

Me? I'm a packet of Munchies (1957). Or maybe, Rolos (1937). But what about my father? There's nothing that comes to mind. Did he like the Toffee Pennies in a Christmas tin of Quality Street (1936)? Or a sophisticated After Eight (1962)? Did Mam put a Jacob's Club (1932) - If you like a lot of chocolate on your biscuit join our club! - in his box, along with his sandwiches, when he went to work? It suddenly feels important to find out. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about someone who reminds you of chocolate.


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 ridge, bump, lesion.
Under the skin

everything glistens
our true colours rising.

OXO Good Grips
Swivel Potato Peeler
I'm thinking about my lovely potato peeler because here, on holiday in South Florida, the one in the kitchen drawer in the rental villa seems designed for other chores, and not one of them involving any degree of sharpness. I could have gnawed the skin off one Idaho potato and two sweet potatoes more effectively with my teeth. I didn't. I used a knife, that was only slightly sharper. 

I was making mashed potatoes to go with Tony's peppered chicken cooked with red wine and cream. As lovely as it is to eat out on holiday, and particularly here in a place that has enough bars and restaurants to entertain the inhabitants of a small country for a year, it is also good to stay in our little villa next to the Atlantic ocean and prepare our own dinner. 

A bottle of Kendall Jackson Cabernet Sauvignon flavoured the chicken and our palates. Afterwards we wandered out into a dark too dark to see the water but we listened to the waves, felt the salt start to speckle on our skin. 

Hillsboro Beach, South Florida
'What is it about the ocean that people feel drawn to it?' Tony asked me.
'Perhaps, at a primitive level, because it's the place we all come from,' I suggested. 

Dr Wallace J Nichols, scientist and best-selling author, is far more insightful in his book Blue Mind, The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connect, in which he combines science and neuroscience to show us how our brains are hard-wired to react positively to water. 

Being British I can't help but think of David Attenborough's series, The Blue Planet. He might not be making the links between human consciousness and the oceans that Nichols identifies but he still delivers us up to the grandeur and astonishing beauty of our watery world, our home. 

At night we switch off the A/C, sleep with the window open, let the sea's voice lull us to sleep, imagine its breath billowing through our dreams. Each day we walk the shore, watch sandpipers scuttle away from waves, the southern flights of pelicans. We breathe.

          never so big
          as when I am breathing
          in the sea

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about a shoreline, the boundary between a body of land and a body of water.


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.

Hillsboro Beach, South Florida
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. Others have dried into bulbous clumps of aspic after their hours ashore. The blue and pink gas-filled sacks of Portuguese Men of War waver like sails on nests of weed washed up by the tide, their long inky tentacles as fine as cotton thread: colours that make you think of children's party balloons.

Sometimes ignorance really is preferred: after checking Wikipedia I now know that the tentacles from a Portuguese Man of War can sting long after the host is dead. That they can sting for hours, or even days, after being detached. 

I shout to the gulls, the sandpipers, the terns, even the osprey that career above the shore: 'Eat the jellyfish!' I don't think they're listening. I don't think they want to.

I don't want to either, although the gummy looking ones are served as a delicacy in some Aisan countries. If you're searching for that unique and attention grabbing job then 'Jellyfish Master' could be the one for you!

Late yesterday afternoon I walked back along the shoreline, trying to to snap a couple of photos of those glutinous ones... but all I could find were some scattered fragments of their former selves, sparkling like sea glass. 

The pull of the ocean, its power and danger, its terrible beauty.

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about something that sparkles.