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...

BACON (and the store cupboard quick supper of choice)

I was given this book for my birthday 3 months ago by my friend Martin, with whom I lived for about half of last year.  He's the most foodie of any of my friends, including those who work in kitchens.  We like Martin, he's ace.  He'd been given a copy himself the Christmas before and had noted quite how much I read it and decided I should have my own copy.  Ace.  It's already had more use (in terms of actual following of recipes as opposed to reading over breakfast for ideas) than many other books I've owned for years.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is an odd chap, but his is a life I'd like to lead.  Yes, he's a TV cook, which isn't the interesting bit.  He has a farm in Devon where he produces rare breed high welfare meat.  He gives the impression of being more keen amateur than professional chef - an enthusiast.  He did training with Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers of the River Cafe, who were also responsible for Jamie Oliver.  I'd love to eat at their restaurant, they appear to be the grandparents of the modern British food movement.  His food is hearty and exuberant and emphasises all the things that I think are fundamental to the way we eat: it should taste good, it should be respectful of ingredients particularly if any of those ingredients came from an animal, it should show an awareness of tradition but not be bound by it.  This book expounds his 'nose to tail' eating philosophy as well as underlining the importance of understanding meat and meat production in order to make best use of what is a precious resource - which we have the privilege and not the right to eat.  ...having said that, I'm still not keen on most offal.  One day, I will own a cat and a dog and they will eat the offal of the animal and I will eat the rest, and everyone will be happy.  Ish.  It's not like I wouldn't be feeding the pets anyway...  I need to learn to like offal.

(finished product)

I had a go at making bacon from this a year or so ago, with a good piece of free range pork belly I picked up at the Cambridge Sunday Farmer's Market.  It was a reasonably successful essay and taught me a few things for this time around - for a start, buy a decent sized piece of belly.  A kilo, at least.  The tiny piece I used before was clearly an end, very thin, which meant that I actually needed to cure it for far less time than I did.  H F-W in the book suggests buying a whole belly, weighing in at, at a guess 5 odd kilos.  No.  I don't need that much bacon.  I don't have ROOM for so much bacon.  I guess that's a problem with the book, really.  It assumes you need to feed 20 people at a time and have outbuildings with chest freezers and smokers and space to hang hams and pheasants.  I live in a flat in the centre of town.  My parents have most of those things, but even down there I wouldn't want to hang anything that needed somewhere dry in the llama/STUFF shed.  Not because of the llamas, but because it's so DAMP in that valley.  Anyway.  Everything is scaleable, and it is useful on occasion to know how to spit roast a pig over a wood fire in order to feed 90 people.  (This is quite high up my List Of Things To Do Someday - possibly in the ADC yard next summer.)  I bought a piece of pork belly from this butcher in a village not far from here.  When my mum first stopped eating factory farmed meat getting on for 15 years or so ago now, this company was about the only place selling higher welfare stuff and the two local shops (there are outlets all over the country now) were weekly pilgrimage spots.  They still guarantee meat of higher welfare than practically anywhere else.  It's not cheap, mind!  Pork belly is a cheap cut always, but my 1.3kg came in at £15...  But pork is second only to chicken in the levels of abuse meted out to the animals, and therefore I'm prepared to try that much harder and pay that much more to get it.  Plus, you never need a great deal of bacon in any dish to make it 'bacon-y', so this should last me some time.

(naked belly, as it came)
The actual process of making bacon is very simple indeed.  It takes little prep time and no special equipment or unusual ingredients.  It is true that we're only talking about what might properly be called 'salt pork' here - I prefer it smoked myself, particularly for adding to things.  However, I haven't got a cold smoker or anywhere to light a fire and hang the meat for 24 hours.  One day...  So.  You have your piece of belly.  Now, the cure.  Essentially, this is 2 parts coarse salt to 1 part dark brown sugar with some flavourings.  The book recommends a couple of bay leaves handful of juniper berries but I'd run out of the latter so opted instead for 5 or 6 cloves and a few blades of star anise, aniseed always being a good flavour with pork.  I used 100g of salt and 50g of dark brown sugar at first but I had to make up another batch with 50g of salt and 25g of sugar and some more of the flavourings after a few days. I ground up the spices and the bay leaves with a bit of the salt in a pestle and mortar and mixed it all together.  It was sitting on the side in my kitchen for the days I was curing the pork and kept getting added to other things because it smelled fantastic.

All you do is take handfuls of the cure and rub it into all sides of the meat.  Stick it in the fridge, covered with paper or loosely with clingfilm (not sealed, that's how you grow bugs...).  Walk away.  Come back tomorrow, drain of the liquid drawn off by the salt, rub in more cure.  Go away.  Repeat for about 5 days total.  You can go on longer, which will increase the keeping quality, but it will become only fit for stews and not for frying up.  THAT is it.  How easy is that?  And what you get at the end is this:

(large pieces here for freezing, little bits are quite large lardons for a stew I'm planning for when Charissa! and! Tedd! get! here! on! Friday!.  Chicken, leek, mushroom, bacon, since you ask.  If I'm not too excited by visitors to take photos, I will blog that too...)

A few notes:
  • H F-W suggests adding a pinch of saltpetre (potassium nitrate) to the cure.  This is what keeps the bacon pink when you cook it, instead of turning grey the way pork normally does.  However - saltpetre is a controlled substance because it's one of the ingredients of gunpowder.  My mum has a salt beef recipe I adore that has saltpetre in and which she hasn't made for ages in part because getting hold of this is hard.  However - the average butcher can source it.  She suggested smiling nicely and they might give you a tiny amount if they're reasonably sure you're not going to blow anyone up.  I don't think it's worth the hassle. 
  • When I first made this, I left the belly meat-side down, skin-side up in the cure.  This meant that the skin dried out and was actually impossible to cut let alone eat or use once the meat was cured.  This time, I scored the skin into rectangles (the size in the last photo) just in case, and made sure I put it skin-side down so that it sat in the liquid drawn out.  The scoring probably helped the cure to penetrate as well, and anyway the skin wasn't so hard this time.  So.  Skin-side down.
  • The little pieces I fried up just now to taste from my 6ish day cure were quite salty but no more so than the most salty commercial cures.  Edible, certainly.  The aniseed edge came through nicely.  Next time, I think I'll try smoked paprika and fennel seed along with the bay in the cure.  I like the aniseed note, and I'm hoping that the smoked paprika will add an edge of smokiness that I'm longing for in my bacon...
As for what to DO with home-made bacon.  Well.  I have ambitions around chicken casserole and baked beans, but the way I most usually eat bacon is as part of the immediate I-need-food-now meal below:

Pasta, Pesto, Peas, Preserved Pork Product ( which I mean bacon. Or salami. Or chorizo. What it says, really. All work great)

Erm.  These are above, really.  There isn't much more to it.  But...for one person I use:
75-100g pasta
A small mug of frozen peas
1 rasher of bacon, about 35g at a guess? Or an inch of sausage. As much as you like is fine, but I hoard my meat products and use them sparingly...
A large teaspoonful of green pesto. Or red. Or even just a clove of garlic chopped small and some olive oil. (If just garlic, fry it for a few seconds (no more) with the bacon.)
Black pepper
Oil for frying

Boil the pasta in salted water, adding the peas for the last few minutes before it's ready.
Meanwhile, shred the pork into tiny pieces.  I'm virtually always doing this from something I've taken straight from the freezer (I freeze bacon in single rashers, or use a large knife and brute force and hack pieces off the frozen together lump...), which means I can get pieces a few millimetres square - just so long as they're quite small so that every forkful of pasta will have a bit of bacon in it.  Fry in a small amount of olive oil until the fat runs and it goes brown and crispy.
Drain the pasta and peas and return them to the pan.  Scrape in the bacon bits and any fat in the pan.  Stir in pesto.  Grind over pepper.  Eat as fast as you can because you have to be somewhere else, being grateful that proper supper took you all of 10 minutes to make.  Don't forget to soak the pan with the pesto in it, that stuff's a pain to wash up...

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Landing Light - Don Paterson

This collection won both the Whitbread Prize and the T.S. Eliot in 2003, which is a bit epic.  And it IS great, despite the hole-picking I'm going through to try and appreciate it properly.  It lacked for me the stand out numbers I have usually found in collections that blow me away and which I usually use as a jumping off point for understanding the whys of a book.  It seems characterised more by tension and disparity than by an arching unity of idea.  I enjoyed it, and I need to read it a few more times - I can see the artistry, but I'm not in love.  That's such a personal thing with poetry.  It's an intimate exercise, the creative collaboration between poet and reader creates something that nobody else can experience and which neither expected.  The rhythms must echo in both, the allusions cast shadows in both imaginations, the imagery or the subject matter must whir in the lives of each.  There must be a stretching of minds, but that stretchin can sometimes lead to jumps that are too big to follow.

The  poems flit from form to form - there are poems in Scots and English,  some tell stories and some contemplate the soul, there is a translation (very free, as far as I can remember - my reading of Dante is many years old) of the forest of the suicides part of the Inferno and two poems described as 'after Rilke', there is a highly erotic poem that is nonetheless addressed to children.  Such variety is impressive.  This is why I can't find a real coherency in the collection I think.  It is undeniable that the man is a master of his art, but the poems don't stir or transfix me the way I want them to.  There is enormous skill with the language but it isn't foregrounded (which I usually love).  Subtle and probably lifelike and therefore difficult?  Or difficult to appreciate on one reading.  More work required.

The Wreck
But what lovers we were, what lovers,
even when it was all over -

the deadweight, bull-black wines we swung
towards each other rang and rang

like bells of blood, our own great hearts.
We slung the drunk boat out of port

and watched or unreal sober life
unmoor, a continent of grief;

the candlelight strange on out faces
like the tiny silent blazes

and coruscations of its wars.
We blew them out and took the stairs

into the night for the night's work,
stripped off in the timbered dark,

gently hooked each other on
like aqualungs, and thundered down

to mine our lovely secret wreck.
We surfaced later, breathless, back

to back, then made our way alone
up the mined beach of the dawn.

Don Paterson, from Landing Light (London, 2003)

In fact, just typing that out has made it more meaningful to me.  But even so the imagery is tangled.  The first part reflects the security of falling in love quite clearly despite the mixed metaphors - but the symbolism becomes less clear as the poem goes on.  The slipperiness of metaphor is one of the central joys of the poem.  Of course there is so much more to poetry than 'de-coding', but it's a natural thing to do when faced with words that seem to go somewhere and then slip sideways or turn back on themselves - and that's the fun part, that keeps the interest and piques curiosity.  It is there.  Perhaps comprehension is just further off than I'm used to?  Or not as natural to me as I have found with my favourites?

Monday, 18 January 2010


...I've been posting some very long and moderately complicated thoughts about agnosticism over on Philip's blog.  Which is my excuse for not having had anything serious to put here for a little while.  There are a lot of words in those comments, but the whole conversation is one that I feel coalesces some old thoughts quite neatly.  It addresses why, for me, agnostic is all that I can be, despite leanings towards atheism.  I will always sit on the fence.  I will never say never.  It might be a little uncomfortable, but you get a good view from every angle.

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
(Hamlet 1:5:166-7) 

 It's been a long time since I read any Hume - he's an interesting member of the C18th British Empiricists that I could never muster much enthusiasm for at university.  They make some very interesting points as a group, but for the most part I wish they would say it in one tenth or less of the volume of Latinate prose.

I've also been playing with a film scanner lent me by the inimitable Graham.  I'm pleased with the results, and I'm learning masses about processing quality, film speeds and their effects and what difference a camera makes.  See some of my favourites scattered through this post from the last month or so, posted purely for self-gratification plskthanxbi...

P.S. Tomorrow, I intend to make crumpets and start making bacon.  And read some more of some of the many decent books sitting on top of my wardrobe to read...  Usual blog fodder again :-).


Wednesday, 13 January 2010


What To Do When Your Dad's Here For Dinner.

My dad turns up at this flat every couple of weeks.  This is fine.  It's his flat.  I just use it while I'm waiting for the next job.  But I feed him.  Which is also fine, because I like to cook.  Sometimes he takes me for a curry, but I do try and cook because curry every two weeks would be bad for me.

But I tend to forget that he eats lots.  Also fine.  But I have to remember that he eats twice what I eat, and that therefore I need to create food accordingly.  I'm not always very good at this.  When I opened the fridge at four o'clock this afternoon and looked at the quantity of chilli I was planning to use to feed us, along with the couple of bits of cornbread I didn't already freeze and thought about how much rice I could decently serve as well - I realised I was short about a third of a meal.  Hence the emergency berry sponge.

The only useful thing I remember learning in school food tech lessons was one throwaway remark by a teacher, who said that sponge cake was equal weights of eggs, flour, butter and sugar, plus a pinch of salt and some raising agent (1rounded tsp to every 100g of plain flour, or just use self-raising).  I hardly ever look at another recipe now, if I just want sponge.  Oh I tweak it - the equal quantities version always works out a little dry, so I add whatever dairy I have on hand until it's a little looser.  Ideally it would be cream, but usually it's some sort of yoghurt.  That's quite a good one, because the acid helps the raising agent and cakes rise more.  Sometimes I've added fruit purees to it (as for an apple crumble cake, or raspberry cupcakes), often I sub some of the flour for cocoa to make chocolate cake.  It's a great base, and it works even if it's not perfect.  It has the enormous benefit of being easily memorable, so that you never need to look anything up.

My freezer virtually always has frozen berries in it.  I love them.  I defrost a few with a spoonful of sugar and add a dollop of yoghurt and often call it lunch, or a sauce for something else, or a way of getting vitamins.  They're handy.  They aren't necessary for this recipe - jam would frankly have done.  Or golden syrup and pineapple rings.  Or apple sauce.  Or pears.  Or nothing at all.

Berry Sponge Pudding
1 medium free range/organic egg
50g butter
50g caster sugar
50g self-raising flour
½ tsp baking powder
Pinch salt
A spoonful of low-fat yoghurt to loosen
Enough frozen mixed berries to cover the bottom of whatever dish you are using (my flan dish above is about 20cm across, and I probably used 200g of berries)
Vanilla or regular sugar to sprinkle over - around 3 tbsp

Preheat the oven to 200℃.  Put the berries in the dish and sprinkle with sugar.  Microwave on high for 2 minutes, just to defrost them a bit.  Cream together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy.  Beat in the egg, then sift in the flour, baking powder and salt.  Beat in the yoghurt if it needs it, just so it isn't so stiff.  Carefully blob the cake mix on top of the berries - it won't be neat, and you can't just dump it all in and spread it out.  Don't worry about the edges, it'll spread out.  Bake in a preheated oven until golden brown and a skewer inserted comes out clean - around 15 minutes.

And because I was making this for my dad, I had to make custard.  Daddy likes custard.  Which meant I had to go and buy cornflour, so I could have come up with a better dessert altogether.  Ah well.  The following is my mother's custard recipe, which isn't nearly as rich as most of the ones on the web, but which means you can indulge without worrying too much.  It's the first thing I ever learnt to cook, I used to eat it on its own.

Real Custard
½ a pint milk (I actually used *1%* for this)
1 egg
1 tsp cornflour
1 dessertspoonful sugar
Drop of vanilla essence (optional)

In a small pan, bring most of the milk to a gentle simmer - just bubbles around the edge.  Keep back about a spoonful of the milk and dissolve the cornflour in it.  When it's smooth, whisk in the egg and sugar until smooth again.  When the milk is hot, carefully pour it into the egg mixture, whisking as you go, then pour the lot back into the pan, still whisking.  Carefully heat until it's close to the boil again and has thickened a bit - it should just coat the back of a spoon.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

A recipe backlog: All Tedd's Fault.

I came online to post my Recent Experiment With Bread, because Tedd has pestered me at least 5 times in the last 36 hours for pictures of it.  But when I came up upload photos from my camera, I discovered that I also had pictures for parsnip soup and for chocolate brownies. is a full January lunch menu.

No-Knead Bread

This is a recipe I bookmarked to try ages and ages ago - I'd love to make bread more often than I do, but the full 15 minutes of kneading is something I get very fed up with.  It would be ok if I could see the results in my bread, but no matter how much I do I always end up with something as dense as a brick.  THIS recipe, though, does away with the kneading AND gives you something that's soft and beautiful to eat at the other end.  Various blogs were enthusiastic about it but I never thought anything of that - food blogs are always enthusiastic.  But this is the grail of bread cookery.  I adapted this recipe from the NY Times into something using real measurements (muttermuttervolumemeasurementsforthingswhosevolumechangesmuttermutter).  I was faintly scandalised to discover while so doing that even British and American cup measures are different.  Grr.  Anyway.  This is what I did.

360g strong white bread flour
3.5g (half a sachet) instant yeast
1 tsp salt
390ml water
Optional: 2 tbsp olive oil

Combine all ingredients in a bowl, stirring to break up lumps.  This will create something more like a batter than a dough.  Cover with clingfilm and leave in a warm place (these are hard to find in my flat under 5 inches of snow and rising, but I chose the airing cupboard in the end) for 12 or better 18 hours.

Scrape the dough out of its bowl, into another one lined with very well floured cotton tea towel and leave to rise for another two hours.  [The original recipe's dough was clearly drier than mine - it suggested that you would be able to tip the dough out onto a floured surface and then shape it...that wasn't going to happen with mine.  I think that the purpose is the 'knocking back' part of any bread recipe.  If my dough was this wet again, a good stir would have fulfilled that part and that's all I'll do next time. I don't think I'd change the recipe much - it was the wetness that leads this to be such a brilliantly airy loaf.]

Half an hour before the end of the rising time, pre-heat the oven to a blissful 230℃.  Put a smallish cast iron lidded pot (mine is a 20cm Le Creuset casserole) in to heat up too.
When things are up to temperature, remove the pot from the oven and upend the dough into it.  Bake with the lid on for 30 minutes and then 15 with the lid off.  It should sound hollow when tapped with a fingernail and be nicely browned on top.  Cool on a wire rack to prevent condensation forming.

This is the best loaf of bread I've ever made, not an ounce of doubt.

Spiced Parsnip, Apple and Chestnut Soup

I was reading recipe magazines of my mother's when I was in Cornwall at Christmas, and this soup featured in one of them.  I can't remember anything at all apart from the title.  My mum did actually make it, and it was lovely.  I had bookmarked it as a Thing To Do With The Apple In The Fridge And The Leftover Chestnuts From London Christmas, and proceeded to make up my own version last week.

Oil for frying
1 large white onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 tsp garam masala
4 medium parsnips, peeled and with woody core removed before roughly chopping.
1 small bramley apple, peeled, cored and roughly chopped
250g prepared and vac-packed chestnuts, roughly chopped
1 good quality chicken or vegetable stock cube, or 500ml good stock
A slug of wine or cider vinegar
Cayenne pepper to taste
Salt and pepper

I probably can't just say 'make soup', can I?  Fry the onion and garlic until softened but not coloured then stir in the garam masala, add the apple and parsnips.  Combine and fry for a few minutes.  Crumble in the stock cube and follow with 750ml of boiling water, or add the hot stock and 250ml of boiling water.  Bring to the boil and add the chestnuts.  When the parsnip pieces appear to be cooked and the apple has softened (about 15 minutes), blitz with a stick blender and add more water if the texture demands it.  Add salt, pepper and cayenne to taste.  If it's too sweet, temper it with a spoonful or two of vinegar.

Eat with the aforementioned bread.  Not that I did, I had some from a farmer's market leftover, so used that.  However, there are 3 portions of this in the freezer, for which I can use my own bread.

Spiced chocolate brownies, with apologies (again) to Nigel Slater

...And apologies to everyone for the photo.  Didn't get that right.  But I think you can see quite how dark these brownies came out, and how moist they are, which is the point.  I've put this recipe down before with slightly different spices.  I guess it doesn't matter that much what you use, they just accent the chocolate.

...the chocolate is important.  My new discovery this time was M&S's organic fairtrade cocoa - which is as dark as I've ever seen cocoa.  It beats Green & Black's hands down.  It has just become my go-to chocolate baking ingredient.  You can also just about see the Willie's Cacao in the back, which I didn't use, and the SO organic/fairtrade and the Valrhona cooks chocolate in the front, which I did.  Everyone knows the difference good quality makes to the taste of chocolate itself, and it's hardly likely to be different in baking...

I am unapologetic about posting this again. I adore it.

300g caster cugar
250g softened butter
250g high quality dark chocolate
3 large f/r eggs, plus one extra yolk
60g high quality cocoa
60g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
Pinch salt
1 tsp cayenne pepper (for quite hot brownies), half a teaspoon each of ground cinnamon and ground nutmet

Preheat the oven to 180℃.  Line a large deep baking tray (around 30cm x 20cm). Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Melt 200g of the chocolate in the microwave in 30 second bursts.  Beat an egg at a time into the butter and sugar, finishing with the yolk.  Fold in the melted chocolate.  Chop the remaining chocolate into gravel sized pieces.  Sift the dry ingredients into the wet and taste to adjust the spice levels.  Fold in the chocolate chips and turn the lot into a tin.  Bake for 25 minutes, remembering that these should still be a bit damp in the middle, though not actually raw.  Leave to cool in the tin, they'll fall apart if you take them out too early...

This actually hardly counts.  I just hate to throw away that last leftover egg white when I make the brownies.  The other day, I went downstairs for a glass of water and opened the fridge to think about what to make for dinner.  There was that last white sitting there alone and patient in its bowl.  I took pity.  I weighed out 40g of caster sugar (it was only a medium egg, or I'd have used 50g), turned the oven on to 120℃ and dug out a whisk.  I beat the white into stiff peaks and then beat in the sugar until glossy.  I dolloped teaspoons of the mixture onto baking paper in a tin and baked them until faintly golden and dry - probably 15 minutes?  When they were in the oven, I realised I was thirsty.  10 minutes previously, I had come down for a drink.  Now, I had meringues...

Monday, 4 January 2010


'O, be some other name!
What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet!' 
Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 2.2 (~1595)

'Who knows a man's name, holds that man's life in his keeping.'
Ursula Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)

'There are many forms of love and affection, some people can spend their whole lives together without knowing each other's names. Naming is a difficult and time-consuming process; it concerns essences, and it means power.  But on wild nights who can call you home? Only the one who knows your name.'
Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (1984)


I'm sort of struggling to write this.  As a post, it's been burning up my brain for a week or more.  Self-knowledge and honesty are such important concepts to me (even if I'm not necessarily that good at them) and these three quotations about naming cut straight to the heart of it.  That's kind of the trouble, what is there left for me to say?  They aren't explicit, perhaps, but they are so brilliantly put - I don't want to write in my standard clinical argumentative essay style.  I probably will anyway.  Stop and read the quotations again?

Each of the three authors has a clear understanding of what a name is and isn't.  Shakespeare, via the innocent Juliet, points out to us what ought to be obvious but so often isn't or wasn't - that there is more to a person than what label they happen to be wearing.  In Le Guin's Earthsea universe, the secret names of the characters give those who know them power over the one who is known.  This author doesn't invite us to plumb the symbolism as such, these are children's stories. The tone of them though is so philosophical that it's hard to resist.  Her thought resonates very strongly, when you look at it, with that which Winterson expresses a decade and a half later - of the word 'name' being a cipher for something approaching 'the true understanding of the individual'.  Through them all, the progression runs, 'if a name is not the essence of the thing in itself, then what is? Where is concept which defines us, the thing that we understand when think of the name we use to describe it? That is what we really understand when we think of somebody's name, and the better we know that person, the closer to their true 'name' we get.'

It's very exposing to feel that someone knows you completely, right down to the core - which feeds back into the Le Guin concept.  If someone knows your 'name', that defining combination of emotions and thoughts and history that is you, where all your levers are and what to push when, then they have great power over you, 'your life in their keeping' as she says.  Brought out of the magic and into real life, Winterson's thesis is to seek for someone who knows her that completely, in order that they might restore her to herself when she is lost - a person who has the time and energy and ability to find out that kernel of the self and can be trusted with the delicate centre of identity, so that there can be someone else to guard it.

Back in Le Guin's fantasy, there is a point when the central character is suffering great guilt, and in his moment of self doubt another boy tells him his true name and hence cedes the first boy power over him:
             'Thus to Ged who had lost faith in himself, Vetch had given that gift which only a friend can
             give, the proof of unshaken, unshakable trust.'
A willingness to be known is a gift to give as well as an invitation to give back.  It is love, to know and understand one another that deeply, to accept the huge trust, the power and the responsibility, and to reply in kind to show that you recognise it for what it is.  That's the point.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Bean burgers.

Apparently, I haven't posted a bean burger recipe on this blog.  That must mean it's on the other one.  How peculiar.  Bean burgers are the apogee of vegetarian cuisine in the books of many people I know.  They were certainly the most popular thing I ever made in Edinburgh when I was cooking for PGP.  I think if I ever asked Carl what he'd like me to cook him (as opposed to saying, 'I'll make this, that's ok isn't it?'), this would be the answer every time.  I've refined the recipe through the years, and the following was pronounced the best yet when I cooked them for him as an early New Year thing the other night.  I'm sure I read a recipe once upon a time, but I think that I can confidently call these 'mine' now.

I guess it looks like a complicated recipe.  It's not, most of it is spoonfuls of spices.  This is cheap crowd-pleaser food, which could even be vegan if you roll them in seasoned flour at the end instead of egg and breadcrumbs and leave out the haloumi.

Makes 8 burgers (feeds 4, very well indeed)
400g tin red kidney beans in water, drained
400g tin borlotti beans in water, drained (or other firm beans - butter beans or more kidney beans, or haricots all work)
2 large onions, very finely diced
4 fat cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tsp chilli flakes
2 tsp cumin seeds
½ tsp ground turmeric
½ tsp ground coriander seeds
50g coriander leaves, finely chopped, or 25g coriander and 25g parsley
Juice of half a lime
Salt to taste
250g or so of breadcrumbs
2 eggs
Oil for frying

To serve, and these are important:
Burger buns
Grilled pepper slices
Haloumi cheese, in 5mm slices and fried for a few seconds until it has some colour
Hot sauce - Nandos is traditional, but I was given some Cornish stuff for Christmas so we had that.

Fry the onion and garlic until translucent.  Add the cumin, ground coriander, chilli flakes and turmeric and fry for another 30 seconds.  Might need a bit more oil.  Take it off the heat and allow to cool while you mash the beans roughly with a potato masher.  You could do it in a food processor but don't make puree.  Add in the onion mix and combine everything.  Add the green herbs and the lime juice and taste - it will need salt.  The mixture should only hold together when you squeeze it; it should be on the dry side.  It probably won't be at this stage unless you add a couple of tablespoons of breadcrumbs, so do that.

Beat the eggs and pour them into a shallow dish.  On a second dish, spread out the rest of the breadcrumbs.  Make small palm sized burgers from the mix, pressing it together firmly.  Dip each one into the beaten egg and then into the crumbs.  Press the crumbs on firmly, then dip again into the egg and back into the crumbs.  Press it all together again and put the complete patty on a plate.  Repeat until you have 8 burgers, and then put them in the fridge for a few minutes while prepping the haloumi and the salad to go with.

Shallow fry the burgers until brown on all sides.  That includes the sides...this balancing act was actually quite easy to achieve...

Heap up a bun with a burger, a couple of slices of haloumi, some pepper slices, some lettuce and a slug of hot sauce.  Feed to Carl, or friend of your choice.

Books 2009

I won't do this next year - it's long and unwieldy and close to unreadable.  Some of these books have had write-ups in posts of their own anyway.  I started off intending just to write one line responses to books, but that was never really going to last.  It's not an exhaustive list, either - I've forgotten about it a time or two.  It's close, though.  Doesn't contain any audiobooks, of which there have probably been about the same number.  I'm mildly impressed by how much of the below is actually literature.  This is the first year since I graduated that I've felt able to read 'serious' books and I'm definitely glad of it.  Lots of poetry.  Lots of books I've read more than once to get the hang of them.

Queendom Come - Ellen Galford. Silly, queer, political satire; not high art but engaging.
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café - Fannie Flagg. People, living, growing and being; one of the best books of all time, even if never recognised as great literature.
Rapture (poetry) - Carol Ann Duffy. A love story enacted in luminous verse.
The Uncommon Reader - Alan Bennett. The attractions of literature for one like the Queen - interesting but a little didactic.
4.48 Psychosis, Crave (plays) - Sarah Kane. Pictures of confusion and of what it means to crave. Plays.
Orlando - Virginia Woolf. Epic life - time, gender and roles.
American Gods - Neil Gaiman. Not his best - the story doesn't hang together completely. It feels a bit contrived, and the idea is actually close to that of 'Anansi Boys'. Still, Gaiman's imagination is second to none. Magical realism - Salman Rushdie lite.
The Price of Salt - Patricia Highsmith. Took me ages to read this. It's modernist, albeit late. I enjoyed it's melancholia and it's exagerrated sense of the importance of self and the flow of emotion. It guess it's that which made it feel modernist to me - the influence of psychoanalysis is strong. It's a small story, and it stays that was until the last 10 or so pages. In the last paragraph it turns around and decides to have the couple getting back together. I felt I was being given a slapdash happy ending, with all the build up being to an unfulfilled but more wordly heroine left me at the end. Instead she goes back to her lover and I was left thinking that the two of them didn't really sound like they had a relationship that was viable. Maybe that was the point. Not about falling in love well, not about growing as a person but about making mistakes and getting hurt like everyone else? Very un-American for an American novel. Not that I know masses and masses about American literature, but still. I'm glad I read it, but I won't recommend it to many. I'm trying to decide if I think it's art or not.
Casino Royale - Ian Fleming. Fun. Bond. Anything else important?
Things the Grandchildren Should Know - Mark Oliver Everett. This is the guy who is the band Eels. It's his life story. Crazy family. Crazy life. It was fascinating in a voyeuristic kind of way. There are bits of it that make me think I wouldn't like him in real life. It's just a bit pretentious. But. The guy writes well, the story is interesting and he writes about a concert I was at which was pretty cool.
Affinity - Sarah Waters. I enjoyed this, despite or because of its slowness. This time the miserable end annoyed me as much as the happy end of 'The Price of Salt'. Do I just not like surprises? In contrast, though, the end was superbly constructed. I didn't dislike it from the point of view of the writing, just found it unsatisfying. I do not need reminding that humans are base and cruel to one another. It is nice to see some nobility in people no matter how miserable the storyline I suppose.
Mean Time, Standing Female Nude (poetry) - Carol Ann Duffy.  Carol Ann Duffy has just been made poet laureate, so it took me quite some time to get hold of these two collections.  Neither is as strong as 'Rapture', but both show a poet with great emotional depth.  But they made me want the directness and the exuberance of 'Rapture'.  The emotions contained in these are purely just not as attractive, I think.
Alias Grace - Margaret Attwood. I nearly put this down a couple of times while I was reading, but at other times I couldn't put it down at all. I found it unsatisfying, in the way that books that have elements of true stories in them can be. It's about a suspected murderess in prison in C19th Canada. I found the character of Grace intriguing, and I was gripped by trying to understand for myself whether or not she IS guilty. That is the book's central strength. I was turned off by some of the sex. It's not usually something that bothers me in books, provided it feels relevant. It didn't, here. The affair with the landlady seemed so totally extraneous. The rather hopeless doctor would be rather hopeless with or without it. The main end it seemed to serve was to afford Grace an opportunity to tell us that she doesn't believe it of him and helps her air of naivete...but that doesn't need the underlining. At first glance, the analysis of mental illness seems to be trying to put the didactic point to the reader that 'There are more things in heaven and earth...'. I think, though, that the effect is to attack our modern scientific certainties. In our desire to believe in Grace, we want to believe in a sort of illness that our modern viewpoint doesn't allow to be possible. It unbalances us and forces to ask questions in the way the Victorian Canadians would have done. This is a good book with great writing, there is no doubt about that. But it is unsatisfying, perhaps because it is unsettling. I am still dwelling on it, so it has staying power, but it's not something I will read again or necessarily recommend. 
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day - Winifred Watson. A lovely Cinderella fairytale, about how someone on whom life has always dropped the worst parts of itself is suddenly rewarded.
Cleansed (play) - Sarah Kane. I picked up my Sarah Kane collection intending to read 'Crave' and '4.48 Psychosis' again but 'Cleansed' caught my eye as I flicked through. It's a difficult play - I think the most difficult she wrote. You know where you are with 'Crave' and '4.48'...granted that's 'nowhere' or more properly 'inside someone's head', but 'Cleansed' is limbo. Everybody is sinister and vulnerable and weak and powerful. Each has powers to hurt the other and each has powers to break them. People change gender and become one another. Everybody is tortured. There is blood and gore and violence and pain, but the link between beauty and pain is drawn in detail. I don't understand it. Don't know where to unpick it - which is odd for me because usually there's SOMETHING. I find reflections of living...moments of beauty and reality in the harsh dystopia Kane writes. There's less a plot than characters, but the characters are so mutable. I've seen it performed once, beautifully, in a studio in Cambridge. Not quite there but nearly. Some of the sublime imagery was done fantastically well, but it was halting. But then the play itself is halting and jerky. It is about the transience yet transcendence of beauty, I suspect. I'd love to see it again done well - I'm usually so suspicious of people putting on Kane's plays unless I know something about them...too often they're emo university students trying to put on something 'edgy', lacking a sympathy for the text. I have seen all of her plays live (there are only five, two of which I've seen twice and one of which I was involved in the production though only as an ASM, plus a short film which I haven't seen), sometimes better done than others. The performance of 'Cleansed' remains my favourite, though it was nearly 5 years ago now and it's fading a bit. Reading it helped to fill a hole last night, letting me re-connect with living a little after feeling left behind. Being left behind is part of life, I suppose.
Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit - Jeanette Winterson.  I keep reading this - I'm pretty sure I've read it more than once this year.  It is beautifully written, and I find it enormously comforting to read.  Horrible things happen, but it is full of hope.  It is convinced of the transcendence of love and has enormously high standards.  It is confused and young but passionate.  It is it think the greatest book I have ever read.
The Man With Night Sweats (poetry) - Thom Gunn.  This is inspired, some of the best I've read this year.  Up there with Plath's Ariel and Duffy's Rapture in the 'best of all time'.  It's about love and emotion and feeling and moments and being alive.
Wish I Was Here (short stories) - Jackie KayShort stories about endings of long relationships, all of them.  The ways of losing someone, of watching your lover fall out of love with you and into love with someone else.  Painful, poignant - deeply affecting, even if you weren't where I've been this year.  And beautiful to read them mostly about gay people.  Honest and true and unpretentious.  So they're painful stories for the subject matter, and somehow safe for the settings.
Trumpet - Jackie Kay.  I enjoyed this, but not as much as Wish I was Here.  It's beautiful, but it was lacking the focus of the short stories.  It's a fabulous story, and totally intriguing.
The Riddle of the Sands - Erskine Childers.  Turn of the century spy story, set in the Baltic.  Fantastic swashbuckling fun and an interesting insight into the pre-war hysteria there was surrounding the German Imperialist threat.
Unseen Academicals - Terry Pratchett.  New Discworld - liked for Discworld.  Felt odd to read, though.  I suspect his view of things is changing given his current situation.
Why Don't You Stop Talking? (short stories) - Jackie Kay.  Not as good as 'Wish I Was Here' - she clearly progressed.  This get a bit samey after a while.  I suspect though it would be more meaningful if I was older.  Beautiful, but not so touching.
Sweeping Up Glass - Carolyn Wall.  A great read - not perfect, but a brilliant story and some lovely characters.  Just the pace, I think that was off - the big events were dismissed a bit quickly.  Something like that.
The Sandman - Preludes & Nocturnes (graphic novel) - Neil Gaiman.  What it says, really.  I enjoyed these and will be looking for more.  Even if I just killed any shred of street cred I ever had...
Domes of Fire, The Shining Ones - David Eddings.  These are of that trashy fantasy genre that I usually don't bother with any more (Discworld is not trash), but since I'm in Cornwall and didn't have enough books with me, I had to make do with what was on my brothers' bookshelves.  They're great stories, I'll give them that, but I do want to tear apart so many things about them.  Necessary light relief, at this point. 
Mrs Dalloway - Virginia Woolf.  I need to read this again, sometime.  Because it treads so close to poetry, it's hard to absorb all at once at the end of the day after a dinner featuring alcohol.  I'm glad I have, though.  Maybe because it was on my mind after Sweeping up Glass, but the pace of Woolf's novels is always interesting.  Time is difficult and fascinating for her.  Think I've already written that particular essay, though, with regard to To The Lighthouse for which it is even more apt.
The Mating Season - P. G. Wodehouse - Jeeves and Wooster.  Not sure I've actually READ one before, as opposed to watching them on telly or hearing the audiobooks.  A good value light romp, without so much farce that I can't bear it... 
Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass - Lewis Carroll - I'm glad I read these again, and in the context of the strange man that Carroll was.  They're so peculiar.  The only time has anyone sat down and written a dream with success, I think.
Lighthousekeeping - Jeanette Winterson.  I read this twice - finished it, turned it over, started again, in a day.  It's a beautiful thing.  It's not as complete, somehow, as Oranges, which I'm sure is intentional, but it's beautiful.  It's about love and stories and a guiding lights, and it's wonderful.
Birthday Letters (poetry) - Ted Hughes.  I have a problem with this book.  I did last time I tried to read it, too.  I think it's because it's not really put together as a collection of poetry.  It has one central idea but it is drastically over-worked.  I got further this time I think than I did previously, before I realised I was reading it merely because I didn't want to not finish it.  I have probably another twenty poems left - which I will read, because there might be a few more gems in the last pages as there are in the earlier ones and which I have not yet found.  There is a reason to read it, but I'm not sure that I will attempt to read it cover to cover again. 
The Man With Night Sweats (poetry) - Thom Gunn.  Again.  Just because it's hugely comforting.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Next - Ken Kesey.  I loved this.  I wasn't expecting to, actually.  And I started it about 3 months ago and didn't get into it for ages.  The first part is all pretty grim, actually, but that just makes the second half all the more euphoric by contrast.  It's amazing.  A little Messianic, perhaps (one man, saves all, by death...), but it is amazing.  The characters are great and the proposition is great.  Definitely a recommendation.
Measure for Measure - William Shakespeare (play).  I read this after I'd written the post on the quote from it.  I'm not entirely convinced on the plot front, but the text is fantastic.  It teases out questions of integrity and morality far more effectively than I could.  It doesn't provide answers, which is how it fits into the 'problem play' area of Shakespeare's oeuvre, but it's brilliantly thought provoking.  Aside from the quotation I blogged about, my other favourite line image is of being 'desperately mortal' which is used to describe the murderer Barnardine when the Duke disguised as Friar Lodowick asks his character.
A Wizard of Earthsea - Ursula le Guin.  I loved this, as a peaceful and easy thing to read in a week of running about and seeing people.  The style is somewhat Tolkeinian, though the plot doesn't owe him anything at all.  I'm looking forward to the next two books.

As the year breaks, I'm reading:
Three Lives - Gertrude Stein
The Man With Night Sweats (poetry) - Thom Gunn. Again.
Letters To A Young Poet (unsurprisingly, letters...) - Rainer Maria Rilke
Landing Light (poetry) - Don Paterson.

As far as things I intend to read next year go, well here is a good place to start - not that it's exhaustive.  It contains all the things I want to read that,  obviously, I don't own...  Reading is good.