Sunday, 12 September 2010

No word processor.

Did you ever play 'should've said'?  Probably not, though you might have seen it, if improvised comedy is your thing.  In Edinburgh and a few other places.  A scene is started between two performers - about anything at all, usually the audience is asked for a prompt.  At interesting moments, or boring moments, or any time at all that they feel like it, the audience can call out 'should've said' and the person who has just said something must say something different.  With good performers, it means you can get all the funnies possible out of a given position or character or whatever.  It's great.

I play it in my head all the time.  I guess everyone does - that argument you had with someone where, when you leave, you think of all the smart and cunning things you should have said.  Or probably shouldn't have said.  Or would never have had the guts to say.  Wish you had had the guts to say.  Going back to insert a paragraph, to edit in a more pleasing turn of phrase.  I'm not really sure where to go with this except that it's an interesting sort of thought.  What's done stays happen, you can't change it, there's no point agonising?  Maybe that's the virtue of it.  Handwritten, or on a typewriter - ink directly onto paper, anyway.  No virtual words, just indelible ones, albeit in an ink that seems to run when it gets time on it.

Sometimes I go back to diary entries and read over them.  I have diaries of one sort or another going back years.  They have varying degrees of secrecy depending on my mood at the time.  When I'm sad, it gets locked away and nobody can read it, but when I'm happy the world knows.  Is that the right way around?  Probably.  But I'm always amazed at how inaccurately I remember things, how memory mangles things.  Sometimes the edit process has come in and I 'remember' saying or hearing things that weren't heard or said.  Somethings that were a big deal when I was 17 I don't even remember at all now; the entries in the diary, that I thought would point me exactly to the right memory, elicit nothing.  I have prided myself on quite a good memory for events, the facts of them.  Something about feeling compelled to take notes all the time.  Even if I don't ACTUALLY write things up, I still sort of feel that I am.  Maybe that's actually the problem? When I write things down I'm automatically composing.  That probably makes sense.  Anyone who reads and has an interest in words is hard pushed not to polish their own, I suspect.

It's interesting to think that everybody is probably writing in just such an inaccurate way as I am.  Newspapers.  Diaries.  Reports.  No matter how factual one tries to be, words are about atmosphere.  They pass a value judgment no matter how colourless they're meant to be.  Totally untrustworthy.  And we can't totally unpick them, either.  No matter how carefully they are taken apart and cleaned and twisted and turned around and examined, all we have to discuss them with are more words.

Too sleepy for the end of this thought.  I have spent a long time thinking about memory, but I am also spending time in this job thinking about history.  A lot of history comes from governments, and here I am writing things that contribute to that history.  My words, my spin, my impressions.  I have more opportunity to use them than I did before, and they count for more.  It might not be fiction writing or poetry, but my typing is more weighted than it was before.  And not by much.  I'm not running the world.  I'm interpreting it and smoothing it and shaping it, which seems pretty powerful from my desk next to the printer on the third floor.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Ecclesiastes 3.1-8

1To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
 2A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
 3A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
 4A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
 5A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
 6A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
 7A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
 8A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

I got to read this once in Chapel. Hard to do in a way that makes it mean anything, I found, mostly because varying your tone in way that differentiates one pair of phrases from another rapidly becomes difficult. All of those repetitions don't mean the same in the way you might expect them to, either.  Well. They're all about balance of one sort or another and there's solace in that rather Buddhist idea. That everything has its opposite, that generally the good times and the bad times go together and nobody gets just one or the other.  I'm not sure that a piece of practical criticism is right.  I was tempted.  I suspect there are a dozen sermons you could find on every line, not to mention on the whole passage.  It's a bit hackneyed, really.  But the aphorisms have a place in a secular existence.  Sometimes you need to start from the bottom up.  Sometimes you get to reap the rewards.  Sometimes you have to cry to remember how to be happy.  Sometimes you have to throw stuff away.  Sometimes you need to let your hair down.  Sometimes it's for you.  Sometimes it's for others.  Sometimes things are over.

Sometimes they start fresh and new and full of promise. Optimism.  Hope.  Smiles.

A time to weep, and a time to laugh*

It's September.  Things always happen in September.  The real New Year is now, when the weather is uncertain and the holiday is over.  Lives grow across the winter while the crops have their sleep, and lives rest in the summer while the plants race.  The old academic year of northern Europe is built as much around the fact that children were available to study in the winter time when the land was quiet as it is around the religious calendar.  At school it always felt as though a labour in the dark and the cold would reach its full growth when the sun shone again.  I work best now - a rush of energy from here to Christmas and then Christmas to Easter, and then a final push to put the gloss on the fruit before the laze of the summer.  A rhythm as old as myself and much older. 

So it's good to be starting a new job now.  Great, in fact.  The first-day-of-school feeling is the same as it ever was - nervous excitement combined with a desire to apply oneself.  A summer over and term begun.  This position is a totally new world for me, alien in the extreme.  It's so different from anything else I have done or could be doing.  I have responsibility.  Things I do will make a real difference to society if not individuals.  That feeling goes through the place - it's not a job you do unless you care a bit.  It makes the atmosphere wonderful.

It's not a time to peep, though peeping is all you can do to begin with.  Everything is changing.  [Everything is always changing. Maybe one should never peep?]  I am applying last year's lessons, about openness and optimism and smiling at strangers.  This year's curriculum is about purpose and collaboration and maybe ambition.  Bring it on.

*Ecclesiates 3.4 (King James Version)

Monday, 23 August 2010

A recent revelation.

I realised that if I had a child, it wouldn't be mine it would be ours - of me and its father (or other mother, but that's getting more complex).  I wouldn't be alone with it.  Sounds silly, right?  Yes.  Amazing how obvious it sounds.  But to know it properly felt very strange.  It was one of those dreamlike moments where there is a sudden certainty.  I imagine those who have true religious faith have that feeling sometimes.  It wasn't such a terrifying idea any more, the being solely responsible for another human being thing, because I wouldn't be solely responsible.  It halves the burden, like a partnership is meant to - and you have to have some knowledge of a truly mutual relationship to understand that.  It's only fairly recently that I've begun to have some inkling as to what one of them might be, too.

Not that I'm certain about the procreation thing.  Apart from the biological icky (of which there is plenty...piles, peeing, sleeplessness, nappies, GIVING BIRTH and so on) and even with the sharing element, it's still an enormous thing, the biggest life change I think it must ever be possible to make.  You get over the icky, I guess.  Plenty of elements of being human are icky.  As well as personal responsibility there are more peripheral moral or social elements too.  Hard to think about them, though - human society since the beginning has been about the raising of children, always.  It's one of the basic purposes of civilisation.  Perhaps the basic purpose.  Now, though, one might think about pressure on resources and levels of pollution and so on, and whether it is possible to justify having a child in that environment.  And one also might wonder how we as a nation or indeed wider western society can support our ever greying population if we, those of us in our twenties and thirties, don't have children.  I don't know if the two sides of that quite cancel out.

I have been saying for a while that I'd like to foster children.  Again, there's a selfishness there - if I have care of a child that is not my own flesh and blood, I do not have the same expectation for it or want the same things from it.  I'm not expecting it to enjoy the same things I enjoy or follow the same paths I did - its aptitudes will not be mine.  I will be forced much more to take the child as the starting point, not my own hopes for it.  Of course I would hope I could do that with a biological child as well, but I can see ways it would be much more difficult.  I'm sure there's an element of contrariness, too.  There is in nearly everything I do however much I want to dodge it - 'everyone else wants this, therefore I want something different'.  It's not the same as never ordering the same as anyone else in a restaurant though.  It would be nice to do some good.  I've had a lot.  Some kids get abandoned at the age of 3.  I suspect that it would require some large lifestyle shifting.  I haven't researched it enough, it's not as though it's something I am in any way ready for now, and probably not for another decade.

I'm less anti than I was.  I used to say nevernevernever.  It's hard to imagine having kids later in your life because it's very difficult to comprehend where you will be later in your life, particularly when you're still a kid yourself.  I'm still a kid myself.  Aren't I?  I feel like a kid.  I find myself thinking about it more and more.  There's 30, that magic number after which incidences of genetic malfunction increase dramatically.  It's four and a bit years away.  Boys don't have that deadline.  I sort of feel I have to have made a decision by then, I guess.  Four and a bit years often doesn't seem long enough.  I fall back like everyone else on 'wait and see'.  I don't want to miss now in worrying about then.  But I don't want to miss then for being too caught up in now.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Experimental Cheesemaking.

On Thursday, Joy invited me to make cheese.  This is something I've often thought about but never actually done.  I'm not entirely sure why - fresh cheeses turn out to be astoundingly simple to make.  I don't think I'll ever buy ricotta again, though mozzarella will take some practice.

Goodness me but it was fun to play with though, the mozzarella.  You get to a point where you have to heat it up and knead and stretch it just like you would bread in order to develop those long stretchy strings that are characteristic.  What you see above is Joy, hands protected by ice cube bags, squishing a large ball of nearly had a fantastic texture.  However, we don't think we did this bit totally right - too much kneading and not enough stretching is the theory, and definitely we need to experiment again.

The first problem we encountered when we sat down to make our cheese was how much raw material to use.  The mozzarella recipe called for one gallon, that is *eight pints* of whole milk.  That's a lotta milk.  And it didn't tell us how much it made, either.  We didn't want to be drowning in little white mozzarella balls...  The ricotta recipe called for two quart, which is a little more civilised at four pints, but still.  In the end we halved both recipes, which meant that we made about two of the fist sized commercial balls of mozzarella you get, and around 275g of ricotta (1 cup).  Manageable amounts.

That still left us buying 6 pints of milk.  Lots.  Mind you, milk is hardly an expensive ingredient if you're going to play with something.  But it brings home how much we as a society must use, really.

So.  The ricotta is easyeasy.  I don't think I'll ever buy it again, it was so easy.  The recipe I used was one I clipped from a few lines on David Lebovitz's wonderful blog, that runs as follows:

2 pints whole milk
1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt (we used greek yoghurt and omitted the cream)
Optional: 1/2 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon white vinegar (another recipe suggests using 2 tsp lemon juice)
½ teaspoon salt

In a large pot, bring the milk, yogurt, heavy cream (if using), vinegar, and salt to a boil. Very gently boil for one to two minutes, until the milk is curdled.

(looks horrid, right?)

Meanwhile, line a strainer with a few layers of cheesecloth (we actually HAD cheesecloth, I always find it hard to get hold of - a very old very clean worn cotton/linen tea towel also works, it's usually possible to find something) and set it over a deep bowl.  Pour the milk mixture into the strainer and let drain for 15 minutes. Gather the cheesecloth around the curds and squeeze gently to extract any excess liquid.

Storage: Homemade ricotta is best served slightly warm, although it can be refrigerated for up to three days, if desired.

This tasted fantastic.  We ate quite a lot of it just standing there.  Joy turned it into a rather lovely looking cheesecake afterwards, with raspberries.

The mozzarella recipe came from this book by Barbara Kingsolver, which looks lovely and which I will borrow from Joy at some point when I can reliably be in the same county for any length of time.

It's an American book, but lovely.  The mozzarella recipe called for rennet and citric acid, which took a little finding.  Big supermarkets sometimes have the rennet, as do health food shops.  We pinched a little citric acid from a friend (Mr Loxley) who had been using it for making elderflower cordial, but otherwise would have resorted to the internet.  Apparently it's quite hard to get hold of because it's a substance used to cut drugs with.  We did not cut drugs, just cheese.  Anyway.  You also need a temperature probe.  Joy bought one this time, I keep breaking them.  Not sure what to do about that...  Recipe follows:

4 pints fresh whole milk (not UHT or anything)
¾ teaspoon citric acid, dissolved in 50ml of cold water - used bottled, unchlorinated water
¹⁄8 teaspoon liquid rennet dissolved in 50ml cold water (again, mineral water) - we found that the VegeRen we were using seemed to have a different concentration to the stuff the recipe was apparently using, and so just had to guess.  We used 30 drops in the end, which was probably too much, I'm not sure.  I want to read a bit more about the enzyme action - I THINK you can probably just keep adding until it suddenly starts to curdle, because I think it's a catalysis reaction going on but I need to know more.  Anyone with any ideas let me know...
1 tsp salt

Heat the milk to 55 degrees Fahrenheit on the stove (not much more than it's likely to be anyway if it's just come out of the supermarket fridge) and then add the citric acid.  At 88 degrees it should begin to curdle.  Add the rennet and keep heating to just over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (that's body heat, folks on the metric side of the sea, not boiling point!).  At this point the mixture in your pan should be proper curds and watery whey.  It's meant to look like this, it's not off milk...  Scoop out the curds with a slotted spoon and press them together, squeezing out and pouring off as much whey as really possible as you do so.  Microwave the cheese on high for 30 seconds (the recipe says 1 minute, but we halved it, so we were guessing again at this point) and remove and knead a little to remove more whey.  This can get warm, hence Joy's use of plastic bags to protect her hands in the picture above.  Gloves would have been more elegant, but we didn't have any.  Heat again for 30 seconds and knead.  You're trying to get it to stretch a bit, so heat it once or twice more until you can get it to stretch like mozzarella should, like toffee or melted sugar at the right point.  It should go shiny.  We didn't do quite enough of this and have ended up with a cheese closer to paneer - perfectly edible but not really pizza or salad quality.  I used half of my ball to make an uninspiring pasta bake, but am going to use the other as paneer and put it in a muttar aloo curry (pea and potato, but it sounds better like that...).

All in all great fun, and like I said the ricotta in particular is a perfect recipe.  To be repeated.

I write like...

I write like
Neil Gaiman

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

NB: This was based on a piece of a story I wrote - the last blog post came up with someone I'd never even heard of. But then famously, Neil Gaiman himself hasn't come up as himself...

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

London Calling?

I came back from San Francisco and I hated London.  I've never had that feeling about London before, but where it had always been exciting and vibrant, it was suddenly closed in and narrow and full of hollow people.  I'm sure that in large part the reason for this was what I'd left behind in San Francisco.  Who.  But more than that.  I loved how, at least in the parts I was hanging out in, I could really feel that it was a city for everyone, from all walks of life and all backgrounds.  The London I know is a homogeneous place of well educated well off people - often monotonous and at worst stagnant.

I fully admit that this is a mere impression, limited as much by my own background and what I have so far found in London.  There's a lot more to the place than the people on the train and the people in the offices in the City, but they are the ones I see all the time.  And they all have more to them I would hope than the commute, the job and an expensive bed they hardly see.  I'm just worried that many of them don't.  I love my friends, and I know them well enough to know that they have dreams that go further than what they happen to be doing right now.  That the job isn't the be all and end all.  We are all of us in that circle the middle class products of a middle class upbringing and a thorough education.  Factory made, almost.  There hasn't been a lot of space for mutation or variation to appear.  I guess I'm concerned that where such things do appear they are either ignored or papered over, rather than grown and developed and encouraged and valued.  

[Ha.  Picking something more or less at random to listen to while writing, I hit The Clash and find myself listening to London Calling, all about the other bits of London - which definitely exist even if I don't see them so much for myself.]

It's comforting and reassuring and impervious and safe, that fairly moneyed, fairly engaging existence.  That's good as far as it goes.  I'm very lucky indeed to have been born when I was to who I was, I know that.  I'm allowed to be a free independent modern woman, able to make my own living.  But it's a well-worn path - exactly what each of us was expected to do when our parents sent us all off at good schools at the age of 4.  The people who start out as the children of one earnings bracket step up to take their parents' places.  They even do the very same jobs their parents do.  Both of my close lawyer friends are the children of lawyers. Of course there are logical reasons for this to happen even though we all might rather it was rather less rigid than it seems to be.  Elaine (who is Irish) said to me a few months ago that she was always amazed at how class ridden British* society is, how little social mobility there is.  I am intrigued to find that it is less so in other countries, though relieved that it isn't the same everywhere - perhaps Britain can change.

Tom put it the best - 'people are following life, not chasing it'.  It's very easy to keep putting one foot in front of the other along the clear course and never to look to right or left.  I don't want to be that person.  I want to take in the view at the very least and wonder all the time about whether it would be better to drop out of the race and try out the path I can see over there.  It's not the path itself that is wrong, it is the blind choosing of it.  The passivity of never imagining anything different.  I should say that I haven't had this conversation with any of these people - it may very well be that everybody I know has thought long and hard about what else they could be doing and is well aware of what else is out there and how other people live, for them to choose if they want to.  It's what I'm doing, after all, or will be if my civil service job ever materialises. I am not in any way indicting or judging my friends for following it.  Just hoping that they are active in choice.

But it is awkward to keep looking around you.  I remember a conversation I had with my dad when I was 14 or so, when I said I believed that there was always hope, whatever happened.  He said that that was an uncomfortable way to live because it meant that one would never be content with what one actually had.  Maybe the day-dreaming about life as a chef or a gardener, both of which are well outside the ordered 9am to 1am city job spec, is the same - never content with the good of what is in front of me, not quite grateful for what I have.  I'm trying to avoid that too, without numbing myself.  Perhaps what I'm really saying is something I've talked about before, about ringing everything out of every experience and being aware of what experiences are available - not letting them roll on by without a glance.

*Yes, British.  I think this certainly still happens in Scotland and Northern Ireland and Wales, too.  The Irish Republic is different.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Melon Seed Horchata

I have been tidying my house today.  It's been a bit of a mammoth undertaking.  The bathrooms still need scrubbing and the kitchen floor needs doing and there's laundry all over the living room, but it's better than it was.  I don't feel like I'm living in such a pit.  Of course, there are still some exploding sacks of clothes belonging to a brother and his girlfriend stuffed into a corner and more bedding than can be shaken at with a stick on one of the beds, but it's tidier.  I even re-filed my cookery books and sorted out the wheat of elderly bank statements from the chaff of envelopes.  I haven't hoovered; I HAVE made horchata.  Not the rice based cinnamon flavoured stuff I had in San Francisco, which was delicious, but something identifiably from the same family.  I bought a melon yesterday.  I'm currently very very poor, due to a small amount of miscalculation and the impulse purchase of a corset, so any fruit I buy has to be vetted carefully and on offer before I shell out, and the eating of it has to be planned such that I eat it when it's perfect not wasting anything.

I've been wanting to play some more with my new cookery book ever since I got back; something about the amazing weather in south east England at the moment.   And I had a melon.  At the back of the book is a very simple recipe for melon seed horchata, that neatly takes in my need for a cool drink, my adoration of melons and my reluctance to waste the smallest part of a beautifully ripe piece of fruit.  All you do is lift out the seeds and pulp from the middle as you would ordinarily, but for each cup of fruit add an equal volume of water, 1½ tablespoons of sugar and 1½ teaspoons of lime juice.  You then blend the mixture until it's as fine as can reasonably achieved in a home machine and leave the lot to muddle in the fridge for half an hour.  Then you strain it (ideally through muslin), add ice and enjoy.  If you really wanted to, I suspect it would be fantastic with a shot of tequila.  It has a great texture, a little like coconut milk in its smoothness but with a wonderful aroma of melon.

One or two things: my one ordinary sized galia melon made 1 cup of horchata, which isn't much.  Use more melons, or possibly freeze the pulp until you have enough for a sensible amount.  It also had a slightly bitter aftertaste.  I'm debating what is likely to have caused this and have several thoughts, the most likely being that it sat longer than half an hour in the fridge and various tannin-type things might have leached out of the seeds.  I also didn't use the melon variety specified by the recipe, which was cantaloupe.  The stripy orange fleshed melons, iconic to me of holidays in France when I was a child, are by far my favourite variety (though I love all of them), but it's very hard to get decent ones in England.  I bought one in San Francisco, seduced by the unbelievable scent as I walked past them.  The ones in Tescos yesterday smelled of cardboard.  Even carried carefully home and placed gently on the windowsill for a few days, they would never emit that amazing Mediterranean perfume.  So.  I didn't buy one.  I bought the only galia I could find that smelled of flowers, and left it in the sun all day.  It is a pretty good piece of fruit.  I am not sure whether the seeds are likely to be much different between the two varieties, but it's certainly possible that one will produce a slightly less bitter drink than the other.  I shall be hoarding melon seeds for as long as they're on offer, and trying out different varieties - everything with the pale yellow, thin skinned seeds has got to be worth a go, but I think that it's probably not worth bothering with watermelon.  Better to puree the flesh in that case and drink that (definitely with lime and tequila, in that case...).

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Best of British, on July the 5th.

We don't have a day for Britishness in this country.  St George's Day doesn't exactly count - the saint is patron of at least a dozen countries and has no actual connection to the place itself.  He is a guy that we liked originally because he appeared a couple of times as a sort of omen of good fortune in various battles of the medieval period.  It's not a holiday. There are no speeches.  A few people wave a few flags with more gusto than normal and primary school children listen to an exciting fairy tale about a man who stopped young women being sacrificed to a dragon.  It's more 'patriotic' to remember the day as Shakespeare's birthday.  At least he was British.  Anyway, he's only the patron of England; as a nation, we're divided even on that.

I feel most patriotic I suppose on Remembrance Day - Armistice Day, the Day of Peace In Flanders Fields.  Is it still about the war, where we did stand hopelessly against what seemed impossible odds and triumphed at the last minute to limp from the ashes?  Are my impressions out of date?  Perhaps.  The modern Brit abroad is arrogant and drunk, and I am ashamed of that.  Do we still stand for Right, like we tried to do in the 40s?  Not that it was or is ever that clear cut.  We laugh at our spectacular losses in sport - we're almost proud of them.  They represent that wartime Britishness, in a way.  Something about not succeeding but doggedly trying anyway.  Other countries celebrate winners, but we celebrate the 'glorious' defeats, the underdogs, the never-had-a-chance-but-at-least-they-trieds.  We call it stoicism and resignation and determination and maybe it is, but it allows us to be defeatist and pessimistic and dour yet full of injured innocence.  Expecting the worst allows occasional moments of glory to be that much more exciting for being unexpected, I suppose.  The British character is a figure of Romance - often self-deprecating to the point of false modesty.  Strange how close humility and pride are.

I was surprised to find myself proud of my country, in an emotional way rather than a logical one it's true, but still.  Maybe I could use the loaded 'love', which suggests a blind admiration for the place which overlooks or diminishes the faults, rather than the word 'proud', which to me anyway suggests the application of judgment.  I assumed I wasn't.  I'm as prepared as the next person, British or foreign, to poke fun at the place and its silly traditions and attitudes myself, but I seem to object to other people doing the same sometimes.  And I look at that feeling and I am faintly ashamed of it.  We are a small place with a big ego.  Ego is unattractive, though I would perhaps rather have an honest ego than a false modesty.  In some places we have influence.  We ought to be a wise country given our age and our history and I wonder whether we are.  I would like for the things we've had happen to us and the things we've made happen and their consequences have educated us a little.  I'd like for them to have educated the rest of the world too - we are the best example* since the Romans of what happens in a large empire.  I'm pretty sure it hasn't.  Depressing to realise.  The way that no westerner is able to win an Afghan war yet people keep trying is my favourite example of an inability to take note of the past.

Celebrating Britain is a bit naff.  We're embarrassed about it. Maybe we should be embarrassed.  But maybe if we were proud we would endeavour to keep the place as something of which to be proud.  Do we do that?  Maybe, sometimes.  I want to be proud of a country that went from arrogant racism to full acceptance and integration of other races and cultures.  Proud of somewhere that learns from its mistakes, laughs at itself, values itself and works always to care for the innocent whoever they are.

*That's 'best example', not 'best' example; there is a lot wrong with our colonial past, I just mean that we have had the farshest reaching empire in the world in recent centuries, and hence when examining the subject of empire the first place to look is the state of Britain, c. 1850.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Somebody pressed the accelerator.

And time disappeared.  San Francisco is a fantastic place.  It's like falling down the rabbit hole - it never pays to assume anything about anybody, no matter how ordinary they might seem at first.  Everyone has a story and an idea.  Everybody is involved in a cause.  Everybody makes and does.  Everyone is determinedly and unselfconsciously individual.  Everybody (*everybody*) does yoga.  I've never come across anywhere where it was so difficult to buy food that wasn't organic.  Nobody runs with a crowd.  Where is the crowd?

It couldn't exist in England.  We are too cynical, too into bathos, too proud.  Too concerned with the neighbours and keeping up with the Joneses.  I guess that is true in a large number of places in this country too, but not, I have the impression, in urban California.  I kind of miss the self-deprecating British humour, I think in the right dosage it can generate humility and hence tolerance (we often get it wrong and use it to support arrogance or discourage ambition, both of which damage our society).  Not that San Francisco is in any way intolerant.  We could do with a bit of optimism back home; we lack it.  A really big bit.

Things I have learned in San Francisco, so far, with 10 days left to go:
 - How to smile at strangers.
 - Most people, really, are friendly if you talk to them right.
 - Kung Fu.

     - How to paint a wall (they're different to stages).

     - Quirky people are most people, if you find the right space for them.
     - What hemlock looks like.

     - How to change a bike tyre.
     - How to fit new brake blocks.

     - That however tired you are, the view from the top is worth the effort of the harder path.

     - What a beaver* looks like!

     - Constant searching for betterment prevents enjoyment of the now.
     - It is possible to conform to being a non-conformist.

    More things.


    Sunday, 2 May 2010

    I'm in San Francisco!

    Carrying on a whirlwind romance.  Living in an appartment that has a bath with clawed feet and a woman who practises rope dancing in the front room, the whole owned by an ethnomusicologist.  With plans to try every burrito in the city.  And taco.  And pupusa.  And tamale.  And wander about and watch the scenery.  And go walking in some parks.  And learn to surf.  Hopefully, it's a last hurrah before the new job, but even if it isn't quite that it will still be amazing.

    Didn't bring a digital camera, only filmy ones.  iPhone blogging or stealing Tom's camera will ensue.  Ta ta, I need to go and find some clothes then some brunch...

    Saturday, 10 April 2010

    Mussels and Scones: a Cornish spring I got distracted.  Sometime I might tell you about him.  I have actually been writing a blog post, but it's very long, currently imageless, and about my confusion over Ireland and Irish history.  I'll finish it at some point and post it for everyone to skip.  In the mean time, spring leapt up and came crashing into consciousness.  Easter. Sunshine. BOOM.  Amazing.  I went to Cornwall for a week to walk the dogs and eat yellow food (Simnel cake and ice cream lemon meringue pie) and watch Jeeves and Wooster and get drenched to the skin without freezing and paddle in the sea to the perturbation of the canines and commune with the llamas and get adored and attacked by turns by the cats and have all my family around for approximately four hours and eat too much chocolate and generally get excited about the turning of the English seasons.  It was great.

    Something I've been meaning to do for ages has been to pick mussels off the beach and cook them myself.  The Cornish coast is ideal for this - it's a rocky shore, but there are are some quite deep beaches which means that there are rocks exposed only for half an hour or so at low tide and also the water is relatively warm.  I think it's those two things which lead to the wild mussels down there being nearly as big as the farmed ones which are under water all the time.  I didn't pick anything that was much smaller than my thumb, and that was easy to do.

    There are a couple of beaches I've had my eyes on for a year or two actually, to pick mussels from, but circumstances like the tide, the weather and not having a bag with me have hindered me a bit.  This time, however, I finally got around to it on Holywell beach.  The dogs were bemused as to why we were spending 20 minutes standing around by some rocks when there were a whole load of interesting bits of seaweed on the tideline, not to mention bunnies in the dunes.  Rocky noticed me pulling things off the rocks.  I think he thought that they must be like blackberries, which he loves and picks for himself whenever he can.  He tried to pull off a few for himself but decided that they were better to roll in than to eat.  Kiri used to eat barnacles off rocks, it's true, but never managed mussels...

    Mussels are easy to cook.  There are schools of thought about whether you need to soak them in salted water with flour or oatmeal overnight before you eat them or not.  I did soak them, more because I didn't want to eat them until the next day than anything else, and they were pretty grit free so I have nothing much to add to the lore on that.  I ended up with a mixing bowl full of molluscs - I guess something in the region of 6 or 7 pints or two ish kilos, but that's just a guess.  Enough to make a good sized starter for five, anyway.  The only time consuming part of the whole process is cleaning them.  You have to go through the bowl and pull of the 'beards' or 'byssus' by which they attach themselves to the rock and scrape off the barnacles (which introduce grit,), and throw away any that don't close when tapped.  I guess that took me 40 minutes or so.

    I then chopped about 8 shallots and a couple of cloves of garlic and softened them in olive oil.  I added a wine glass full of white wine, a bay leaf, some black pepper and the clean mussels.  I clapped the lid on and left it for five minutes, by which point all the shells had opened.  I transferred the mussels into hot bowls and stirred some double cream (optional) and a large handful of chopped parsley into the juices.  After heating through, I poured this over each portion of shellfish and served the lot with hot french bread.  It's possibly my favourite dish to eat ever.

    My next ambition with mussels is to cook them actually ON the beach - picking them and then barbecuing them until they open, and then dipping the meat into garlic and parsley butter.  Heaven.  My next wild caught shellfish plan revolves around trying to catch some crayfish in the old mill stream that runs across my parents' garden...

    I had an American in Cornwall.  I needed to illustrate what a cream tea is, which meant I made scones to serve with strawberry jam and clotted cream.

    I firmly believe that there is little point in scones beyond vast quantities of strawberry jam and clotted cream.  If you can't get good versions of both, don't bother.  Handily, the West Country is brilliant at both.  The scone recipe I used came out of the 'The Dairy Cookbook', which is older than I am and only still has covers because the bookcase holds all the parts of it together.

    It has recipes for all the old fashioned things (provided they contain dairy) that one actually needs now and again and which new books rarely contain.  I think you can probably read the recipe in the (rather dark, sorry) photograph, but I edit it very slightly:

    350g self-raising flour (or plain flour with 2.5 tsp of baking powder)
    1 tsp salt
    2 tsp baking powder
    2 tbsp caster sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
    75g butter
    175 ml milk, plus extra as needed and for brushing

    Jam and (clotted) cream to serve

    Preheat the oven to 230°C, with two or three large baking sheet inside.  Sift together the flour, sugar, salt and baking powder several times to ensure they are well combined.  Rub in the butter until the mixture looks like fine breadcrumbs, and then add the milk a little at a time until a smooth dough is achieved.  Knead lightly (scones are in theory better the less you handle the dough) until smooth, adding more milk if required.

    Roll out the dough to around 1.5 cm thick and cut rounds about 5 centimetres across.  Brush each with a little milk and sprinkle lightly with sugar to give a crunchy sweet top to each scone.  Transfer them to the hot baking sheets and bake for 10-12 minutes until well browned.  Cool on racks and eat while still warm, with jam and cream.

    Sunday, 7 March 2010



    Well.  On the 29th of January Charissa and Tedd arrived from Florida.  On the 31st of January we went for a drive of 2,500 miles and got back on Valentine's Day.  And then we all went to Cambridge and picked up some other People We Know - and a few we didn't until that day.  Over the next three weeks there were always people sleeping on floors, in Cambridge or St Albans or London.  Often they were me.  Rarely just me.  There were folk songs and whiskey at 3am.  There was charades in a room with 6 nationalities, 12 or so people and around 30 degrees of various sorts.  The kind of game where C19th literature of any of 5 at least cultures would be guessed instantly and references to popular culture led to 10 minutes of head scratching and incredulous cries of 'that's a FILM?'.  There has been poetry and cellos and theatre and home made bread.  And photographs and home developing.  And concerts and gigs and alwaysmusic, written or sung or chosen with purpose always by people I know.  There have been black tie parties and rainy walks around London for art galleries and cake.  There was a WEDDING.  There have been strangers who became friends never to be forgotten. Old friends and new friends and new places and thinking and the watching of the spring.

    And today is the first evening I'm spending alone in my house since the 28th January. 


    I'm not done yet.  This is a lull between Trips.  There are more friends here this week, and there are Plans for Dublin in a few weeks.  The prospect of spending time with yet more of the best people in the world makes everything wonderful.

    I'm feeling peaceful.  I've had a crazy month or two - in a different way from the ones before.  There have been adventures of all the best kinds, in contrast to angst and aching and a freezing of the limbs that characterised the time before.  I feel spring cleaned and awoken.  There's a whole world full of things to see and do.  I have been trapped in this house; it has been awkward and cold and dark and confused, and now it is full of possibilities again.  There might be Paris (three months, to learn) and San Francisco (three or six weeks, to know).  But those aren't the point really.  The new beginning that I have needed for half a year or more feels like it might be here, despite the fact that I still have no prospect of a job in the nearest future.  2010 is finally here.  I finally feel that I can look at 2009 with objectivity, and see its pure highs and lows without feeling them all at once.

    Tuesday, 2 March 2010


    This is a shot from my very first ever roll of film I developed myself.  Ilford FP4 Plus (125 speed) was already my favourite film, and I just became more in love with it than I was before.  I don't like the graininess of faster film, I'd rather just try and adapt my photography to suit.  I like being able to get the kind of clarity I achieved on the rose petals here and contrasting it with the softness of the out of focus tulips.  At least, today that's how I feel.  I have a couple of rolls of 400 I'm playing with at the moment.

    This roll is from my Minolta, since Graham's Voigtlander is sick at the moment.  I had been a bit nervy about another roll of black and whites going through the Minolta, because the ones from the last roll (which granted sat about for too long before it was developed, and was 400 speed as well) came out a bit anaemic for my taste.  These?  Contrast is great!  There are a few smudges on them and the odd little crease, but so far no scratches AT ALL.  I can fix the smudges (by polishing the negs) and sort of like the creases (see left hand side of first shot).  The hard scratch lines across my shots when I've had them developed by shops with machines were making me sad.  These gentler and more organic imperfections I mind less.  Probably mostly because I made them myself.

    Developing is FUN.  Not difficult, it's just a question of measuring out chemicals and jiggling things for the right length of time.  It's exciting though - you go into your bathroom and keep the light off and carefully block up all the gaps around the door with towels, then you pry your film out of its pregnant canister.  You wind it onto the reel, hoping that it won't get stuck.  You shut it into the tank, and turn the light on.  Then there's the arcane bit with the chemicals.  And then you can take the lid off and rinse it.  And can unwind the sticky negatives from the reel and hang them, using hairgrips, from a piece of string tied between the light fitting and the curtain rail - and you can look at the shots!  And try and work out which ones are the good ones and which ones you really like...


    There are quite a lot of variables in developing, in terms of times and temperatures as well as film and chemicals and so on.  I'm so looking forward to doing more.  Though I have just had it pointed out to me that the film I've stuck into the Minolta just now, while still be B&W, requires a different not-so-easy-at-home process.  Bah.  Need to finish it quickly and put another one in.  Which means I will have to send it away.  Which means it'll get scratched.  Which is very irritating.


    All of this is Tom's fault.  Well.  It's sort of Graham's fault as well, that I was interested in doing my own development at all, and his fault that I have a scanner.  But it's TOM'S fault that I have kit and chemicals and confidence to try for myself.  Thanks Tom and Graham!


    Monday, 1 March 2010

    Playing with cake.

    David Lebovitz writes my favourite food blog of the internet.  There are competitors, it's true, but I love David's style, his pictures, his character and his beautiful recipes.  He's a guy from San Francisco living in Paris, which makes for amusements all by itself.  When I was there the other week I explored a few places more or less entirely on his recommendation.  I was also haunted by the exciting sort of feeling that I might run into the guy - Paris and its food has become so tightly linked to him and his writing in my mind.  (Actually, he was away while I was there, but still...)  He has worked as a professional chef, and now seems to make a living from writing books and blog posts.  When I am busy or on holiday and my feed reader goes berserk and tells me I have 800+ unread items to go through, his posts are some of the few that I make sure I read before hitting the 'mark all as read' button.  [I keep meaning to send him some suet and a proper recipe for mincemeat next Advent, rather than the Delia one he tried which makes no sense. ]

    I haven't made a great many of his recipes, it has to be said, mostly because I don't make dessert that often and that is his speciality.  However, when I AM looking for something sweet, it's definitely a go to sort of place.  I trust his recipes to work, unlike quite a lot of the internet.  I recently adapted this recipe to christen my ice cream maker, and it was divine (all I did was switch the milk chocolate for dark and leave out the pepper, nice though it sounded, because I wanted something to go with ginger-chilli caramel sauce and pepper was an unnecessary extra...).  I have plans about using this macaron recipe on the next batch of ice cream's left over egg whites.  Determined to crack macarons.

     One thing I'd had my eye on for ages though was just a simple recipe for chocolate yogurt snack cakes.  That doesn't even link to his site, but to someone else's (also a great blog, by the way, but it doesn't suit me quite the way David's does).  It comes from a book of his which I've just purchased.  I've made them twice now, the first straight up and the second time adding a soft centre.  I found them a little dry, that was the thing.  They're good as a base, and they have a great crumbly texture, but they didn't come out as moist as I want in a muffin - which could well be explained by my use of low fat yoghurt.  I also had two open jars of Nutella (or store own brand variant) in my cupboard, product of living in a house that nobody actually lives in for more than a month or two at a time at the moment.  So...I froze teaspoons full of Nutella on a baking sheet lined with greaseproof the night before I wanted to bake.  I followed the recipe and made the batter.  I half filled the papers, poked in a chocolate-hazelnut ice cube and covered the it over with more batter and baked as directed.

    (Was still having camera issues at this point. Not sure why everything I took that day was out of focus...)

    They came out brilliantly, particularly when still warm with a spoonful of crème fraîche.  Now I need to find other things I can use to make soft centres for muffins.  I could make an ordinary ganache with chocolate and cream and flavour it all kinds of ways, then freeze and bake like this, but I want to work out a way of doing it with something like lemon curd.  No idea how that might work though - either the freezing or the cooking of lemon curd.  It's sort of a delicate concoction.  But if I could figure that out, there's a whole world of fruit fillings out there, too.  Jam is too sweet I think, at least for me.  Apple puree is pretty easy.  Hmm...

    Cooking for the jet-lagged.

    I actually thought really hard about this.  You kind of have to, if people are going to do you the honour of travelling 4,349 miles (7,000 km, 7,654,240 yards, 275,552,640 inches, 699,903,706 cm) to stay with you.  What would I want to eat when I'd been on a plane for all that time?  Nothing complicated.  Nothing unfamiliar.  Something sustaining but not heavy.  Real Food, to counteract fake plastic plane food.

    Chicken Stew, with Homemade Bacon, Leeks and Mushrooms...

    (Every picture I took of this meal turned out to be out of focus, hence they're all going to be tiny...)
    I love stew.  I've said this before.  This might not be a quick meal to prepare, but it's not complex.  It's amazing what happens when you just leave something in the oven for a while.  

    For about 6 people, or 3 with masses of leftovers
    1 of those packets of thighs and drumsticks that have four or so of each - free range, obviously.  Or 1 whole free range chicken, jointed, if feeling energetic. Bone in is important, but frankly any sort of chicken portion would be fine
    250g bacon lardons
    3 large leeks
    450g mushrooms (any field sort - chestnut or mini portabellos would be extravagant)
    500ml good chicken stock, either home-made or using an organic cube
    3 or 4 bushy sprigs of thyme
    50g butter
    Olive oil, black pepper

    Prep the veg.  Cut the darkest green parts off the tops of the leeks and about half a centimetre off the root end.  Slice them in half lengthwise and fan each half out under the tap to clean it.  Slide the  leaves back together and slice crosswise into centimetre slices.  Cut the mushrooms into quarters unless very small or very large.

    In a large heavy casserole, melt the butter with a splash of olive oil to keep it from burning.  Gently fry the leeks without colouring for around 20 minutes until soft.  In the meantime, in another pan over high heat, brown the chicken with a little olive oil in batches.  Remove to a plate.  Turn the heat down and without cleaning the pan fry the bacon until coloured on all sides and the fat is beginning to run.  Remove to a plate.  Fry the mushrooms in the fat that ran out of the two meats.

    By now, the leeks will have softened.  Turn the oven on to 150℃. Combine as best you can the chicken, bacon, and mushrooms with the leeks in the large casserole.  Tuck in the thyme sprigs and add a generous grind of black pepper.  Don't add salt at this stage, unless you know that the bacon you're using isn't that salty - my homemade had plenty for the whole dish.  Pour over the stock and top up with boiling water (and maybe a glass of white wine) until the meat is virtually covered.  Bring the lot to the boil and then put it in the oven for around an hour.  Test to see if the meat is falling off the chicken bones, it might need another half an hour.

    ....with mustard mashed potatoes to soak up the juice

    Mustard mash is my favourite sort.  I loved mashed potato when I was a kid, it was my favourite sort.  It even beat roast.  Still does.  One of those other things I learned to make when I was very young, along with custard.  Sunday lunchtime in my mum's kitchen aged around 8.

    For 6 or thereabouts
    6 large baking potatoes, peeled and diced
    1 fat clove of garlic, peeled
    As much crème fraîche as you can fit on a dessert spoon (optional, you could use greek yogurt or just leave it out)
    50g butter
    Freshly ground black pepper
    2 tsp grainy mustard - I have some that's JUST grains, no mustard liquidy stuff, which is very mild

    Put the potatoes and garlic in cold water with a pinch of salt and bring to the boil.  Cook until soft right through.  Drain and mash with the butter.  Add the crème fraîche and stir, and as much milk as required to bring it to a smooth consistency.  Season to taste with mustard, salt and pepper.

    I could eat mashed potato and the juice from the stew together forever.

    Thursday, 25 February 2010

    Why do people take pictures?

    I've been on holiday.  It's been amazing.  There have been adventures across Europe with people of at least 4 nationalities.  I have made a lot of bread and muffins and stew.  There has been history and music and charades and poetry and culture.

    The film camera I had been wanting to use to record it all started sulking on day three.  I was sad.  Instead, I fell back on my trusty little digital that I've been using for ages, my iPhone, and a Holga (not developed yet).  I was disappointed not to be able to take some nice black and whites, but there were compensations - like the shot above.  I was pleased with it.  It's not in focus. You can't see anyone's face. Bits are over-exposed.  But I think those are the things that make it more interesting.  You have to work at it.  The colours and the shapes are pretty.  It has movement.  Admittedly, a lot of this was chance and I had to take a few shots to get one I liked.

    I guess people take pictures for different reasons.  *I* take pictures for different reasons.  If I'm posting a recipe, I take pictures of the dish for illustration or direction - recording-type purposes.  If I'm taking pictures when I'm out, I want more than just a record of what I saw - unless what I saw was worth it all by itself.  I want a capture of a moment or a place or a time or a mood.  I want thought not just a picture.

    This piece of graffiti was on the wall beside one of the gates to the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris and was one of my favourites of the whole trip (it means 'Silence! We're asleep!', or thereabouts).  I guess the shot is a record, but I thought it was an interesting enough subject in itself to justify my taking a picture of it.  It really needs some trimming to remove the fence on the right, which is a distraction, but I don't think it really detracts from the interest of the subject. 

    The second shot, of a road in Pompeii, is a bridge between 'record' and 'arty', I guess.  It is a record of me being in Pompeii, but I was also trying to find a way of capturing some of the essence of the day - the light, the fact that I was standing on the same road that people had used 2000 years ago before the looming mountain blew her top, the emptiness of the place and the scale of the tragedy.  Taking pictures of every piece of coloured fresco left behind on the walls wouldn't have had any of that.  Besides, most of such things are fenced off and badly lit - photographers taking pictures for postcards can get in closer and light things properly and take far better shots than I can of those things and their work is on the internet.  I could take the picture anyway - when I'm using a digital camera, it's not like taking pictures costs me anything - but what would it achieve?  Would I ever look at it again?  Unlikely.  Would anyone else? Maybe I'd show something particularly exciting to other people, to give them a flavour of what I've seen and pass on my enthusiasm, but they aren't going to want to see 50 shots of bits of ruin.  I'd be bored - why would any of my friends be any different?

    Every tourist has a digital camera.  That's a given.  A really hefty proportion of them have digital SLRs.  I'm sure a lot of them do think about what they are pushing the shutter for and why, but the vast majority of pictures I saw being taken weren't ones I would have wanted to see afterwards.  The instinctive 'see something famous or ancient or beautiful; quick push a button and move on' I find faintly offensive - especially when the subject genuinely IS ancient or beautiful.  Where is the reverence?  Where is the appreciation?  In Pompeii especially, you're looking at somewhere thousands of people died.  That's a big deal.  I went to the Musèe D'Orsay while I was in Paris.  It contains some of the greatest masterpieces of European art of the last 200 years.  It's a fantastic experience, even crammed as it was the day I was there.  At every picture, there was a bundle of tourists taking pictures.  Clickclickclick.  WHY?  What purpose does it serve?  How is your little photo, with its bad angle and reflection and other people around you, remotely doing justice to this work?

    Don't get a better camera.  Take better pictures.  Ones that make the world more interesting or add something, not ones that reduce it.  Enhance.  Appreciate.  An aim for life...

    Friday, 5 February 2010

    All the way.

    As it left a drear English January, lukewarm tea and kitchen towel sky, the journey went from barely controlled skim along steely French rails to careening skid as frosted ice blue Alps launched it over brand new born Italy glittering in the sunlight of a hundred thousand walnut sized oranges. A swallow dive into the glare in the Bay of Naples, sinking into blue-green with the weight of years of old-new, must float to break an oiled sky punctured by neon jazz and a spatter of dark eyes. The destroyer lady drives out and draws on and the ants of the crumbling palazzos set pyres of yesterdays and graffiti the morning - dawn of the instant and no more tomorrow.

    Wednesday, 27 January 2010

    Chicken Curry

    (It's hard to photograph curry looking appetising.)

    Ok.  This time I have nobody to blame my recipe backlog on.  It's just built up.  I was sort of waiting for the bacon to be cured before writing about it, and then I made this the other day and only found time today...  But!  This is the best chicken curry I ever made, and I made it more or less by accident.

    A few weeks ago, I wanted a stir fry.  Just...did.  I was also feeling extravagant, which meant that my stir fry needed meat in.  Chicken breasts are depressingly easy to cook into dry blandness, and frankly are expensive.  I buy chicken thighs, or thighs and drumsticks, which seem to be given away for pennies even if they're organic.  They won't be dry when you cook them, and you have bones for making stock and thereby making the money go further.  I buy them bone in.  It's a faff to de-bone them, especially the drumsticks.  But it's so worth it.  You need 20 minutes to do a pack of 4 thighs and 4 legs, and a sharp small knife and something to listen to you while you do it.  Also, not to care that much about what it's going to look like.  Learning the anatomy of a chicken leg will take one attempt.  Mind out for the sharp pin bone that's sometimes in the drumstick, it's easy to break it and leave it in the meat.

     (Today is *caption* day. See that little dried chilli in there? I grew it. From a seed. And then I dried it myself. It makes me very proud.)
    But...what you get is bones.  I'm actually more interested in the bones than the meat.  Stock freak.  It takes an evening to make stock.  About 5 minutes prep if you have the bones ready, then 4 hours of simmering while you do something else.  For an ordinary western-type stock, you'd need to have bones, celery, onion, carrot, peppercorns (no salt) and bay in there.  This stock, when I made it, was going to be a noodle soup, so the ingredients you see above are an onion stuck with 4 cloves, a star anise, a dried lime (optional, but I like them - don't use a fresh lime the pith makes it too bitter), a two cubic inch piece of root ginger peeled and coarsely sliced, and a couple of dried chillies.  I covered it with water and simmered as slow as possible.  The house smelled wonderful.  Then, I drained it and reduced it (boiled until smaller) so that it would fit in a container in the freezer.


    Now, the intention was going to be to make that stock into noodle soup - a mixture of stir fried mushrooms, pak choi and spring onion combined with noodles cooked in the stock, all seasoned with soy sauce, lime juice, sesame oil and sweet chilli sauce.  Clean easy dinner.  BUT.  I was going through the freezer the other day and found a tub of cooked off chana dal (yellow split peas), the remaining boned out chicken pieces and the stock.  In my head, it all became curry.

    The chana dal is easy, by the way.  Buy a packet (world food aisle, or wherever the pulses are. World food aisle will be cheaper...), follow instructions (soak overnight, boil).  I could have boiled some red lentils instead while I was cooking the other bits - they don't need soaking and cook in half an hour or so.  They would have been nearly as good, but the stew would have been less thick.  I just happened to have some on hand.

    Ok.  So.  This recipe is long and complicated.  Except it wasn't.  I had the components for it on hand from other cooking I'd done in the past.  Which is the reason that I always cook off the entire packet of anything that needs soaking when I have the time, or boil up my chicken bones for stock on an evening I'm in, and freeze them in batches.  It's not putting extra time into a specific recipe, it's just making use of the time I have, I guess.  But.  I will try and repeat this dish in the future and I won't have those things in my freezer.  Then, I'll use an (organic) chicken stock cube and boil up my red lentils as and when I need to cook.  I'm sure it'll still be fine.  If I can remember what I did this time around, anyway.  In reading the H-FW book, I discovered a recipe for a tikka marinade, which is the point of that stage.  Pieces of chicken coated in salt, pepper and garam masala and then fried would also be fine, I'm sure, to cut another step out.

    Chicken Tikka Dansak, sort of
    For the chicken tikka marinade, with a nod to H F-W:
    ½ a teaspoon salt
    1 tbsp yoghurt
    ½ tbsp lemon/lime juice
    1 tbsp garam masala
    1 tsp ground coriander
    1 tsp mixed spice
    1 tsp ground fenugreek
    A golf ball sized piece of root ginger, coarsely grated (I also keep ginger ready grated in ice cube trays in the freezer...anal? Moi?)
    2 large garlic cloves, crushed/chopped
    1 hot green chilli, finely sliced (also in the freezer - who the h*ll can use all of one of those bags of hot little chillies they sell in the supermarkets before they go off?!)
    1 tbsp flavourless oil

    For the curry:
    The meat from 3 large free range chicken thighs, skin on - around 300g, cut into large pieces (about 4 per thigh)
    2 large onions, sliced into thin half moons
    4 large cloves of garlic, crushed/chopped
    2 cubic inches or thereabouts of fresh ginger, peeled and coarsely grated
    1 tsp cumin seeds
    1 tsp ground fenugreek
    1 tsp turmeric
    ½ tsp ground star anise, or half a one
    6 green cardamon pods, crushed enough to break them open
    1 tbsp garam masala
    2 small hot green chillies, stalks removed and cut into three or so large pieces each
    1 tin chopped tomatoes
    250g (dry weight) chana dal or yellow split peas, cooked to the consistency of mashed potato (see the back of the packet), or the same weight of red lentils cooked in unsalted water until completely soft and as thick as possible without burning them (don't add too much water to start with and keep topping up until they're done)
    1 litre good quality organic or home-made chicken stock, ideally with the Eastern spices as described above
    Salt, freshly ground black pepper
    Around a teaspoonful of sugar
    Juice of 2 limes
    3 tbsp flavourless oil

    Combine the marinade ingredients and rub well into the chicken pieces.  Marinade pieces overnight or not less than 5 hours.  Makes the fridge smell good.  When you start the sauce, preheat the oven to 230℃.

    Make the sauce.   Heat the oil in a very large pan and add the cumin seeds.  Fry for a few seconds and then add the onion and a pinch of salt and stir well.  When the onions are translucent, add the ginger (reserving one teaspoonful), garlic and chillies.  Fry again for a minute and stir in the dry spices and whole ones, and a grind of black pepper.  Stir to combine.  It shouldn't look dry at this point, if it does add some more oil or it will burn.  Stir in the chopped tomatoes and bring to the boil.  Simmer for around 15 minutes, tasting after 10.  Add half the sugar to bring out the flavour of the tomatoes, and taste to see if the flavour is strong enough - it might want more garam masala.  This sauce is going to thin down considerably with other ingredients, so it needs to be strong at this point.  Set aside.

    Spread the chicken pieces onto a baking sheet and roast in the preheated oven for 5 minutes at 230℃ and then 15 minutes at 200℃.

    While the chicken is in the oven, bring the tomato sauce back to the boil and stir in the cooked pulses.  Add any left over marinade from the chicken.  When it is simmering, add in the stock until a sauce consistency is reached - you might not need it all.  If you add too much, boil until it reduces and thickens, stirring to stop it burning.  Taste - the pulses will mean it wants more salt, sugar and most of the lime juice (reserve half a lime for the end).  If it's not spicy enough, add some cayenne pepper.  Simmer for 5 more minutes, and then add in the cooked chicken tikka and any scrapings from the tray.  Simmer for 5 more minutes and then stir in the reserved lime juice and ginger.  If you discover it's too spicy, stir in some yoghurt or some cream and heat very gently (don't boil).

    Serve with rice.  I ate this with Carl last night, and I decided I was so pleased with it that it merited a trip to the curry house around the corner to buy it some nan and some onion bhajis, too...