Ponderings…

I don’t often read Twitter, at the moment, it’s all too Trumpy for me, but Ruby Tandoh posted something and people tagged me so I saw it. It made me think quite a lot.

I like things that make me think, that force me to reconsider my viewpoint and experience, to face things that hadn’t previously occurred to me. (That’s called growth, and gaining empathy. Sadly lacking a lot these days in this crazy world, as some people just cannot deal with being made to feel uncomfortable.)

Ruby Tandoh @rubytandoh: we need more queer, fat, trans, working class, disabled and non-white voices in food writing like NOW ✨ the whole industry is so wealthy/white – built on such a narrow vision of what ‘good food’ means. if you’re an alt voice in food writing pls reach out! i wanna know you

Now then. I’m fortunate to know a few of the writers in the food world at the moment. Let’s face it, when you are as food and cooking obessed as me, you follow writers, and cooks.  Facebook, Twitter and Instagram make people far more accessible than ever before – though that’s not always a good thing for the writers as people are not always nice – but it has led to some friendships, and not least to highlighting the kindness of many of those authors to their fans. (It’s also given me the chance to see the wonder that is Felicity Cloake’s Cairn terrier, Wilf. That dog may need his own agent…One of my favourite photos of him. https://www.instagram.com/p/BchufRAnOp6/? )

Having read Ruby’s Tweet, I had to sit and properly think about it for a while. It’s easy to have a knee jerk “That can’t be right” reaction, especially when you don’t want to upset the nice human beings out there, writing their bottoms off for a living.

But once you chill out, and then tot up who’s out there, once you work it out, it can suddenly feel like it’s a Best of GBBO world out there. Like Midsomer Murders, if you will, but with cakes and no bodies. I hope.

I think that’s perhaps part of the reason that Nadiya Hussain was such a brilliant flash and bang of fresh air, apart from her being utterly gorgeous and funny, and very clever indeed. She is British too, part of the teeming lives and myriad colours that make up this island, no matter what the more unspeakable sections of the great unwashed might voice.

Someone whose skin colour and bright eyes I grew up with, surrounded as I was by brown ladies in shalwar kameez or peacocked saris and glittering bangles. Going to college in Newham did not lead me to farmers’ markets and tea shops with bunting, even though I love that style of nostalgia for things we never really had, but more to bhel puri stands, piles of stickysweet orange jalebis and shops stacked full of gleaming stainless steel cookware that I still covet to this day.

My local high street was a mash up of Asian and Greek grocers. Flaounes and sesame bread sold cheek by jowl with bhindi and brinjal pickles. The waft of hot oil and fried potatoes coming from Kings Fish Bar; halal chickens and lamb pieces hanging up in the windows of the butcher next door.

This is absolutely not to cast aspersions on the established writers, many of whom I love, but instead just to fervently hope that there will be more diversity soon, a more accurate reflection of who else is out there cooking and sharing and feeding.

I remember when Jamie Oliver made a 5 ingredient flatbread on TV last year, there was such adulation that I felt almost nauseated by it. Women in Indian kitchens all over the UK have been making them every night, week in and week out, with no such pomp and circumstance, for years. It’s just part of every day life. But a white TV chef does it, and suddenly it’s a miracle. Indian food without the roti, Greek without the pita? I think not.

Growing up in varied kitchens there were no great expanses of work surface and  scrubbed wooden tables, no perfect flower arrangements or napkin rings, certainly no wood fired oven in the garden, or bronzed KitchenAid taking pride of place.  Martha Stewart would have a proper hissy fit at my house for as much as I long for the Italian table that seats 12 easily, I doubt it will ever be a reality for me. I live in a 3 bed semi with an average sized kitchen, and a ‘dining room’ full of washing airers, guitar cases and cat toys. However, my desk is right outside the kitchen. I’m a bit Harry Potter in my computer positioning, but that means that I can cook for half an hour or so, then have a quick sit down when the fatigue or back pain kicks in, rtest, and then start again.

The kitchens of my youth – and there were a LOT of them – were hardworked, average to small sized rooms, full of good but basic ingredients and they churned out meal after meal, every night. A lot of the time money was tight, so when I see ‘money saving tips’ on some shows, you have to remember that it’s all relative. They were gracious enough to feed me if I turned up along with their kids, with no fuss at all. One of the best meals I ate was a simple slow cooked, spiced onion dish, and freshly made roti. Similar to this, but it was made just with a pile of onions, no potatoes. https://prettypatel.com/gujarati-onion-potato-curry-kanda-batata-nu-shaak/

Sure, pork belly or lamb shank, or stewing beef is cheap – ish – but in a household where it might be a toss up between food or heating, then a Jamie Oliver pork belly recipe that takes 5 hours to cook is no longer practical, or even feasible.

Dried beans and pulses can soak overnight, that requires no heat, and then they don’t take that long to cook. On lean weeks, my fasolia soup used the bendy scrag end of some celery, half an old onion that had curled at the edges after being wrapped in clingfilm, and a carrot that had gone a bit fluffy, so it got peeled. Water, a value tin of white beans and a small old potato with the eyes cut out completed it.

Tasty, filling, and does for 3 or 4 meals. Jack Monroe had the right of it. Cooking a big joint of meat and using it up through the week, yes, that IS a good idea. Making many meals out of one thing is a great way to economise and not waste anything – but only if you have those funds available to lay out in the first place. That £20 has, sometimes, to be used on other, more important things. Food becomes fuel, and we need to remember that not every person is as food oriented as we are. In fact, I suspect that the majority aren’t, and often wonder if we are the odd ones.

I don’t have the means to give up work and concentrate on being In Food. (Postcode Lottery, get a move on will you?) I’ve worked since I was 18, non stop, and I mostly like what I do.  I would like to be involved more in the food world in some way, but at the moment for me it’s just not practical. I certainly cannot physically stand for hours in a restaurant kitchen, as various slipped discs and an autoimmune condition doesn’t let me, so I content myself with cooking as much as I can, when I can. A cosy hindbrain dream of a picturesque café somewhere pokes its way in on occasion, but I know all too well the sheer graft that has to go into it, and the heartbreak it can bring. Reality bites.

I would like to see someone like me on TV food channels. No perfect skin, no gleaming hair, but the usual lumps and bumps and a face for radio. Ingredients from the Co-op, or Asda, not shown in twee waxed paper, or paper bags with the tops turned over. (What IS it with that anyway?)

If you’ve ever seen a BBC Alba show called Fuine, then THAT is what I love. A down to earth show about cooks up in the Hebrides, all cooking in their own kitchens, with no fancy camerawork, or hipster brown bags of ready weighed out goods. The equipment is well used, in many cases old and handed down, and the recipes are excellent. Mixers and bowls that are from real family kitchens, yoghurt from the pot, sugar from the bag, no naff little bowls full of ready prepped things. Women in cardigans, battered old cake tins, all lovingly washed and cleaned and cared for, but above all else, USED.

My kitchen is stuffed with all the things I love. I’ve had a kitchen of my own since 1992, and only JUST treated myself to a stand mixer, and that’s only because I won John Lewis vouchers in a competition. My Precioussss is beautiful, but I can get by without it. It does make kneading dough a far less exhausting task, and my hands don’t hate me too much.

My little space is full of baking trays, roasting pans, saucepans; tins, packets, jars and Frozen Things which mean nobody would ever arrive here and not get fed something. I think I do tend to take after my Nan’s siege mentality in that respect. She lived through WW2, walking through the rubble of East London to Silvertown to work and back every day, so she knew what it was like to have nothing.

I admit that I grew up breathing the privileged, clean air of Seven Kings Bungalow Estate, with my mum’s galley kitchen, where we had to do-si-do around each other, but also with a large garden where first my dad would barbecue and then in later years where my step dad would. I was often in my Nan’s square, 1950s sunsine yellow kitchen, with its smoked glass table and under the counter twin tub, the large wooden tongs clattering into the tub at the end of wash day, watching her make cakes, and craft pies. Not as a hobby, but as a necessity for the family.

Roast on a Sunday, cold meat, mashed potatoes and chutney on a Monday. I can’t remember what happened Tuesday to Thursday, but it’d probably be fish on Friday, and a casserole of some sort of a Saturday. In the summer when Grandad’s runner beans went wild, there’d be chutney making.

My childhood was a lucky one, I am well aware of that, but Mum going to a single parent in 1984 made me well aware of how fast things can change. Every time a new cookery book comes out, 90% of the time these days it’s got someone on it who looks like this;

Jackson and Levine

I long for the days of Two Fat Ladies, privileged background on the one hand, but a reformed alcoholic, and poor as a church mouse on the other (though not at the end) and a staunch Catholic – vivid, and real, and in your face. Or Loulla Astin, coloured hair, loud and funny, warm and natural and just dying to feed you until you fall asleep from joy.

https://kosmos-taverna.co.uk/about-kosmos/loullas-little-book-of-greek-orthodox-memorial-traditions-with-recipes

I recall being so very happy when Neneh Cherry and Andi Oliver hit our screens.

Neneh and Andi

And, years ago, there were two gorgeously round and real Thai ( I think, though I may well be wrong) sisters who cooked up a storm in blue and gold dresses, with the catchphrase of “Life’s too short to grate a coconut”. Full of verve, sparkle, and fun.

Reza Mohammed, as camp as a Bollywood Christmas tree, but with knowledge and flair. Gok Wan, though people slated him, produced a show that drew people in and made Chinese cooking accessible, not daunting at all. He opened up a little about his life, and the struggles he’d had, plus we all loved Poppa Wan.

Obvious enjoyment of food has to sing out in cooking shows, but also ingredients need to be accessible, that you’ll use again and again, not just use for one dish and then stare at, and file away in a cupboard until it dies and becomes just another greying packet or sticky jar.

Brand Oliver used to be like that, years ago, but now…well, not any more. He’s a fabulous chef, but it leaves me cold these days. It all feels like a world I can never reach, that unattainable hallowed Waitrose shelf that is never quite in front of you. Seemingly one that preaches ‘health’ at you if it gets half a bloody chance. HEALTH IS SUBJECTIVE. What you might eat could be bad for me, and vice versa. Nobody’s body is the same as anyone else’s. There is no one size fits all with food. Stop trying to blanket and stifle everyone with the same rules. Sayiing “This is feta, it is a high fat salted cheese.” is fine! Saying “This is feta, it is a high fat salted cheese and so the lower fat one is more healthy.” is not ok. How do YOU know what’s good for someone when you do not know their body, their metabolism?

[wags a finger at  the health people who are not actually qualified]

I’m thrilled that we have people like Sumayya Usmani, Nisha Katona, Olia Hercules, Zoe Adjonyoh and Sabrina Ghayour on the writing scene,  and Asma Khan soon. It just feels real. People I identify with.

But WE NEED EVEN MORE. More of a range, more diversity. I don’t want pretty, lithe, slim to be the be all and end all; I want lively, vivacious, witty, tall, short, fat, round, gay, straight, tattooed, disabled, Northern, Southern, all accents and incomes up and down this sceptred isle. Mums and fathers, singletons and heads of familes and all else we can find, together. Non homogenised, non Pretty Young Thing people, real characters with appetite, with vim and vigour, the scars and marks of their lives on them, and the sheer joy of cooking pulsing through their veins and out on to the table, just brimming with excitement and wanting to share and feed everyone.

Less polish and perfection, please, and more LIFE.

Next week I am meeting a new chum, thanks to Instagram. A baker, a baker of Middle Eastern heritage, and a baker also with MS who works as hard as can be at her own business.

I have a feeling we will have a lot to rant talk about.

inshallah_by_mystery_uae

 

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18 years today

Today is our 18th wedding anniversary. Ok, it’s the 18th anniversary of our church blessing, to be fair, but that means it’s 18 years since I stood outside a stone church in the freezing cold (-3C, the coldest day of the year so far) waiting to go in and launch myself down the aisle, singing as I went.

I had my best women with me, and even though the cold was creeping slowly into everything – people, cars, the church hall, even the bag of rice someone had brought along to throw had frozen –  they carried my 3 feet tall, lit candles into the church before me, and placed them at the sides.

The heating wasn’t on in the church hall, so even though we put it on when we got in, it made little difference against a hall that had been cold for days, so we lit as many tealights as we could find, in the hope that it would warm up somehow.

It did in the end, a little, but I think everyone was glad to get home that night and into a warm bed.

Every time I have re-read The Dark is Rising since then, and I do every year, my mind replaces the church in that book with the one of my youth, the one of my blessing.

It just feels right.

 

 

La Bella Lingua

By heritage, I am half Cypriot, and half English. I feel strongly part of both, mostly, though when I’m with Cypriots I feel more British, because I don’t speak Greek (thanks Dad) and when I am with Brits I feel more Greek as I don’t look like them. Yes, I am contrary. I was born that way. (No, really, I was. Full breech baby. Oh yes. Arse to the world.)

However, there is one other place that also feels like home, and that is Italy. We used to spend whole summers there when I was a child, because one of Dad’s barbers had an apartment he would let us use. A huge place of echoing rooms, rather spare of furniture but exotic to London born and bred me. It still had a coin operated lift. This was back when Italy still used the lira, and the tiny coins for the lift felt like monopoly money.

I will happily admit that I was a truly privileged child to have seen so much by the time I was 12. Getting lost in Besançon, France, which happened every time we went there; drinking big bowls of hot chocolate in a hotel just over the border into the Alps; waking up hearing the cow and goat bells and smelling the cold mountain air; driving – or in my case sleeping –  through a huge thunderstorm and navigating the San Bernard pass at night.

We would drive from London all the way down to South Eastern Italy, starting off at Dark o’ Clock, getting the ferry from Dover (which probably explains my love of the smell of tar and diesel), stopping off overnight in France and Switzerland on the way, picking up local foodstuffs from any of the roadside stands that we saw and packing them into our bright blue cold box that plugged into the cigarette lighter.

Cool box

The strangeness of the empty apartment was erased once we’d been shopping. Nan always used to send us off with a tin of fruited fairy cakes that tended to have a petrol tang after 3 days in the car. No matter how much I loved the smell of benzina, the taste wasn’t quite what we wanted. We would stop off at the local alimentari, run by Anna and her parents, to collect bread, fruit, cheese, coffee and milk. Subsequent trips would net us fresh parmesan, peaches that took two hands to hold, and the best and most fragrant mortadella for our breakfast rolls. Italy introduced me to Nutella, as small tubs of it were given to us at the grocery shop to have with our rolls for breakfast. Chocolate spread, for breakfast?! We found it very strange, but we ate it anyway, because we found it to be wonderful. (Please, Nutella, lose the palm oil, you have no need for it and I prefer my orangutans to stay where they are meant to be.)

Pontecagnano is not a tourist destination, at least it certainly wasn’t then. It was an industrial town in the province of Salerno, Campania. I remember it as being full of life, with a great stretch of beach that had a freshwater river cutting across it, almost in an indecent hurry to get to the sea.  Depending on the tides, that watery path across the beach would change shape overnight on occasion. There were pizzas the like of which I had never eaten before, everywhere, and in one place, on the way to the beach, you could buy them by the yard. Small child, big eyes, good food.

This is the apartment block that we stayed in, and that’s our old place, marked in red. I suspect that Giuseppe has long since sold it on.

 

Via Trento Pontecagnano

I remember one morning waking up to the sight of that whole street, all the cars, all the shops, the roads, covered in pink froth. Upon further slippery exploration, it seemed that the rest of the town was covered too. It turned out the local tomato canning factory had had an explosion…as you can imagine, the rumours were rife. Cans of San Marzano tomatoes washed up on the beaches for weeks. Such a huge waste of produce, though many a Mamma made off with the few cans that had stayed intact.

We made friends with the people that ran the alimentari, so much so that we were invited to Anna’s wedding, an ostensibly 7 course dinner that turned out to be many more courses than that. Because Dad spoke the local dialect – for reasons we were never privy to – we were accepted far more readily than usual I think, apart from the one time we left the GB stickers on the car. It was on our first night, and we came down to a car made toothless by broken windows. Needless to say, we didn’t do that again. This would have been around 1980, so I assume the British had been doing something to anger the Italians again. Given how a lot of our tourists behave, it would never surprise me.

I felt so very at home there. I made friends with the local kids, and I must have been able to speak far more Italian than I do now, because we didn’t seem to have any problems with communication. We spent time in and out of each other’s houses, and days on the beach swimming and digging sand tunnels. (I didn’t do castles, I did Excavations and Tunnelling.)

That language knowledge still lingers, but it’s like a memory that’s just out of reach, that movements at the corner of your eye that’s gone if you turn your head. I can almost manage a few sentences, but then not quite. I love listening to people speaking Italian, it brings huge amounts of joy to me and makes me smile. I have been known to sit in Cicchetti in Covent Garden and just grin quietly to myself. Maybe I should go to evening classes for conversational stuff, but I tried that with Greek, and that didn’t go so well.  I can pick out words here and there, and they pop like small starbursts of understanding when there’s a conversation going on but I can never quite grasp the language that’s lurking at the edges. Perhaps if I was to immerse myself in it for a week or so it would come back. It has also led to a certain amount of irritation with people that pronounce tagliatelle with a hard G, or who say ‘expresso’. [glares at Jamie Oliver]

I watch Montalbano avidly, both the young and the old. Not just for the stories, which are themselves extremely good, but for the glimpses of the scenery, both breathtaking and run down, and also for the arm-waving, hot tempered, passionate characters. They provide a sense of comfort, and of familiarity. I can almost feel the warmth radiating off the stone streets, the cool when they step gratefully into a shaded house and the sheer relief when Salvo makes it to the sea.

When I watched The Trip to Italy, I had the great fortune to see it at a cinema. The sheer beauty of the scenery blew me away, and it being on a large screen just made it even more immersive. I more or less ignored my companion for the evening, and was totally transfixed by the screen.

The trailer really doesn’t accurately portray the film at all, so I’m not going to share it here. It lacks any of the gravitas and the care that was taken with the filming, and plays up the silly, egotistical side of the two main characters which, whilst certainly there, was not the greater part of the film. Watching them walk the roads in Pompeii that I, too, had walked actually had me overwhelmed by emotion. I can’t properly explain what Pompeii is like; it’s more than a deserted town, it’s a place full of the most oppressively sad feelings, side by side with exquisite historical beauty and architecture. More is being uncovered all the time, and I would like to go back and see how much has been discovered.

When Nigella did her Nigellissima series, and got royally torn down by certain other food writers (Matthew Fort I am looking right at you) I did feel rather sorry for her, and more than a little protective, as this is how I am. I am not Italian, and never will be, but my food is inspired by, and affected by, my time spent there. It infuses how I cook, what I cook. The tastes and flavours of Italy are familiar to me, yet also foreign, and I love cooking old favourites, and finding new ones. None of us are pure breeds, no matter what the Britain First types would have you think. As such, neither is our cooking purely British. It’s made up of begs, borrows and steals from all over the world. HP Sauce, Worcestershire Sauce, Mulligatawny Soup, fish and chips, marmalade, you name it.

We adapt, we change, we grow, and so does our cooking.

One would like to hope that, as a fine wine or an excellent chutney does, we would mature and improve with age.

La bella lingua, davvero.

spaghetti with meat ragu

Read me, read me, love me.

I read a lot. I’ve always got a book or three on the go, sometimes four or five, which can prove tricky because then I conflate characters in my head, and it has it as Rosie ended up marrying John (when she was actually meant for Jane) and everything gets jumbled up in my memories, so I have to read them again and separate out the strands.

There are a few books, though, that I will read purely on their own. I need full immersion in them, no other suitors to press for my hand.

Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea, the whole five books, must be read when there is no other distraction. I have to give it my full attention, simply because I feel that something to true to life, so real in my head it feels that it truly happened, surely an actual history on the page before me? I owe it the respect of concentration.

Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence similarly earns that respect. I know them so well now that I happily read them out of order. The Dark is Rising must be read at Christmas, Over Sea Under Stone in summer, Greenwitch in Autumn as the nights darken but the trees are not yet bare.

Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather, that too must be read at Christmas. It’s light enough that it gladdens the heart but perfectly and deliciously dark enough that the blood left on the snow of the past is still full of menace and mystery.

I have to add a new book to my Must Read Repeatedly pile. This, too, is a Christmas book, but not just for those 12 days. It spans November to February. The herald of the dimming of the nights, as thoughts turns to traditions, candles, bonfires and sparkles, and then the start of the return as we look towards the brighter days, though perhaps not yet the losing of the extra cardigan. Nobody wants to be too hasty, after all.

Nigel Slater’s Christmas Chronicles, brought out at just at the right time for me.

A book full of memories, food based and non food based, but still all woven through with the thread of tastes and cooking, scents and Christmas lights and the yellow glow of candles.

This seemed an even more personal book than Toast, if that were possible, but in a different, warmer and more comforted way. It feels like being invited in for tea, or popping round for a drink. Neither of which will ever happen, but now it feels as if it did.

There is a joy in these pages, a very gentle joy, and I find it very calming indeed when, of late, my life has not been calm at all. It has fed my need for candles, I’m afraid, so poor Husband will have to put up with that for a while. At least until the mornings lighten.

I am an early bird, I love being awake when nobody else is. It feels like the world belongs purely to me, then. No cares, no demands, just me, the snoring cat, and the candles.

This book has brought me glorious recipes, of course, but also a slice of golden brown tinged peace, and on Christmas morning, when I will awake no doubt at 4am and be driven to get up and go downstairs, I will light a few candles, put on a pot of coffee, and think of Nigel in his kitchen, doing the same.

I do hope it snows.

Mix in tins

 

A Twilight Encounter

Coming home tonight, I walked up the cul de sac to my house, and was stopped by two of my neighbours. They had Faces on. You know, there’s that certain face which means bad or sad news is about to be given, and they’re not sure how you’re going to take it. A certain British sorry-to-bother-you coupled with a ‘we’re not enjoying this either but we have to’ frown.

“I don’t know if you knew them, but the people at Number 5…?”

There followed a certain amount of pointing at houses, as we all tried to remember which one was actually number 5. (Our house numbers are rather illogical, and two of them are back to front. It goes 26, 28, 27, 29. Those two burned down decades ago and the numbers got put back on the wrong houses.)

“No, I don’t think I knew them, what’s happened?”

“She died! Dropped dead just like that.”

A card was proffered, and a pen waved.

“We’re doing a collection.”

Of course we are. Because that’s what we do. Neighbours that we don’t know, have never spoken to, but you give.

You give, stood underneath a glowering sky tinged with pre-storm orange, pregnant bellied clouds heavy with rain pressing down, as the light fades and sad, closed in faces look at you.

You give, because it’s the right thing to do.

You give, as the warm lights flick on around the close, normal life happening right before your eyes when in one house time has stopped and will not carry on the same way again, even though all around them it moves at the same speed.

You give, because one day it might be you and yours being collected for and these people have known of you for nearly 20 years. Enough to nod, and smile, and take parcels in. Enough to swap ‘Morning! when it’s sunny, or “Weather, eh?” when it’s frost edged and bitter breezed. Enough to exchange rolling eyes when Him With All The Vans parks Her With The Dropped Kerb in again.

We give. Because we do.

Evening sky

 

A double edged Sabatier

Knowing how to cook and really utterly loving the act of cooking can be a bit of a double edged sword for me.

Cooking isn’t just about feeding people, though that is a large part of it, as I do adore making people replete and happy. The very act of taking raw ingredients and throwing them together, making something whole out of the component parts, being able to do that and make dish after dish after dish, is pure glorious magic to me and the more I do it, the more I want to do it.

The problem comes when my brain is just too full of ideas and options, and I get overloaded. I am under no illusion as to how very lucky I am – so SO ridiculously fortunate – to have the confidence and the funds, for once, to attempt most things. I’m not really phased by many things, unless I’m trying to cook and there is someone in the kitchen with me, then it all goes a bit Tense and Pointed. You can watch from outside, but anyone hovering irritates me intensely.

Cooking is a huge part of my life, it’s my way of relaxing, but I could never, ever be a chef on the pass. Cooking to order under a time pressure is not enjoyable to me at all. I’d hate it. I would far rather batch cook masses of things that I enjoy, foods that I know are delicious, then dole them out to people like a dinner lady without the overalls and budget cuts. (Autocorrect wanted that to say badger. Nobody needs that.)

When I watch a show like Jamie Oliver’s 15 minute meals, or his new 5 ingredients thing, or Anna Olsen’s Fresh – which I adore by the way – or my beloved Nigel,  I know I can cook them all, and I want to cook them all. Going shopping without a list the day after watching is a very bad idea because Hind Brain isn’t listening to Time Contraints Practical Brain, and she buys all the things. This is how I ended up with a whole cauliflower, prawns, fresh tofu and baking potatoes all on one night. Thank goodness I have a big freezer now and excess tupperware.

Eventually the cauliflower got cooked with the guidance of Nisha Katona’s The Spice Tree. Spiced and dry fried, then topped with her Himalayan Cheese on Toast mixture, and baked.

That book is hands down the best companion for Indian cooking for a newcomer that I’ve read. Ok, so I’m not a newcomer but oh my, she explains the how, what and why of spices, in a way that makes perfect sense, and also in a way that makes it easy for you to get all the flavour without all the panic. Try her Himalayan Cheese on Toast. Get addicted, and then curse me for telling you about it but love me for the joy it brings.

So I had spicy cauliflower cheese leftovers. But I also had prawns ready defrosted in the fridge. Hmm. I could have made Prawn Malai, says Brain, but I had no fresh ginger or coconut milk. I did have tins of coconut condensed milk, but even for me that’s a step too far, as it would drown the delicate prawn taste. [Mentally adds fresh ginger and coconut milk to shopping list.]

Brain suggested I could have attempted a variation on Malai, or I could cook up Nisha Katona’s Aunt’s prawns with peas (recipe in The Spice Tree). Or there was that Tamarind Prawn recipe in Sabrina Ghayour’s Sirocco, it yelled, or prawn cakes, remember you made them that time and they were delicious? Oh but then there’s simple garlic roast prawns with added lemon, or olive oil braised with…with…so much input that my brain was twirling around and around, pirouetting with  sheer joy of ingredients.

I did manage to choose something to cook in the end, honest.

Recipe ideas sleet into my brain unbidden. A walk to the shops becomes a lesson is restraint. A trek around a market is almost overwhelming; ideas hitting me left right and centre. I’m constrained at least by not being able to carry too much on a previously broken wrist, or I’d take home so much. (One small definition of torture was a trip to Madrid’s food markets with a fellow foodie friend. Oh calamity, we had NO KITCHEN to use. Eventually we made a vow to go self catering next time because that was just too much for the both of us. We had to console ourselves with an awful lot of tapas.)

I have come to realise that I am not unusual in this cooking addiction, and it’s actually quite a hard thing to realise,  in a way, when for most of your life you have been the only one you knew of who would go into the kitchen, cook for an entire weekend, making things for the sheer joy of Relaxing and Making, only to give it away at work on the Monday. My colleagues welcome it, especially when I took in a whole (minus one portion) Christmas pork belly porchetta with chestnut and orange. Recipe here

Roast

I’ll be very honest and say that it is a jolt when you realise there’s nothing special about you. When you regularly read and are part of the Food World on Instagram and Twitter, you find there’s hundreds out there, just like me, many of them better, far more experienced, far more accomplished and talented. I’m just another daft lass who takes photos of her constant cooking, and makes people hungry with them. I’m more than happy to keep on doing it, too.

I’ll never be world class famous, or make serious spondoolies from a cookbook. I’d partially like that success, who wouldn’t? But there’s that 80/90% of me says that’s way too much effort, and my day job/life saps pretty much all the mental and physical energy I have. I’m so very lucky that I still have the wherewithall to cook two different dinners at the end of each and every day, on occasion at two or three different houses.

I suppose I could throw off the day job, go work in the food industry in some capacity and maybe get this out of my system, but I am and always have been risk averse. It even says so in my Pensions paperwork. I doubt that will change. My day job is one big transferable skill, and I like and need the security it provides. I’m rather very addicted to that regular pay cheque at the end of each month, as it pretty much enables my cookbook/cooking habit. I honestly couldn’t afford to give it up, not at the moment.

So I shall continue. Reading my cookbooks, treating them and the accompanying TV shows (if there is one) a bit like going to see old friends for a catch up, seeing what’s going on in their houses, inhaling a little of the scent from their kitchens; that background red/brown/green tint to the air that anyone’s house gets when they cook a lot, or have a cupboard full of spices.

It’s a patina that gets laid down over the yhears, and it’s very hard to get rid of. Not that I want to, but I have become immune to the smell of my own kitchen I think. Unless I’ve cooked with fenugreek or garlic. Then I can smell it, for days, and it makes me smile and think of the people I love who use it.

Khoresh e Ghormeh SabziMy spice boxes

 

National Poetry Day

For National Poetry Day.

I would like to add that the Stuff is mostly not of my making, except the cookbooks, but I still live with it. Please read this in a broad old Berkshire accent. (Pam is not from the West Country, as people often think. She is from Berkshire. And wonderful.)

Heaps of Stuff

How I wish that I was tidy
How I wish that I was neat
How I wish I was methodical
Like others down our street.
I tried to stem the rising tide
I tried to hold it back
But I have been the victim
Of a heap of stuff attack.

Yes, heaps of stuff come creeping,
They clutter up the hall.
And heaps of stuff are softly
Climbing halfway up the wall.
At each end of the staircase
Is a giant heap, a stack;
One to carry up the stairs
And one to carry back.

In a heap of stuff invasion
They settle everywhere –
They grovel on the lino
They tower on the chair.
You’re searching for a jacket,
“Is it in here?” you shout,
And, opening the cupboard door,
A heap of stuff falls out.

But heaps are many-faceted
And heaps are multi-faced
And what a heap is made of
Will depend on where it’s placed.
Now if it’s in the passage
It is mostly boots and shoes
And if it’s on the sofa
It is magazines and news.

If it’s in the shed
It’s broken propagating frames
And if it’s in the bathroom
Well, it’s best to say no names,
And if it’s in the bedroom –
Your own and not the guest’s –
The heap of stuff is mostly made
Of socks and shirts and vests.

For a heap is indestructible,
It’s something you can’t fight.
If you split it up by day
It joins back up at night.
So cunningly positioned
as from room to room you trek,
Increasing all the chances
That you trip and break your neck.

But step into my parlour
Now I’ve forced the door ajar;
I’ll excavate an easy chair –
Just cling there where you are.
And together we’ll survey it
Till our eyes they feast enough
On the tidiest home in England
Underneath the heaps of stuff.

~ Pam Ayres.

Pam Ayres