Back in the Saddle, sort of

It has been almost six months since I last wrote anything for pleasure. I am aware that that sounds like a confessional (“forgive me reader, for I have sinned…”), but the reality is that most things I love to do have been put on the back burner for personal and, in part, professional reasons. At present, writing copy and research reports for Fox & Squirrel and our clients is more important to me than writing musings on food and life and culture and my daughter; juggling a multi-pronged career amidst a husband studying an MBA at Cambridge and a rather bonkers two year-old means free time is a bit of a foreign word in my house.

But in an almost serendipitous turn of fortune, a bit of information I need to start yet another facet of this circus of a freelance working life hasn’t arrived, and while I came to Tate Britain with the hope of working in their sort of exclusive-but-not-that-exclusive members area, I have discovered their internet connection is something similar to dialup, so really, why fight it? All of a sudden, for the first time in almost six months, I have some actual free time.

Today is one of those uniquely British summertime days, when the rain is warm but torrential, and August already feels like September, with dead leaves sticking to the pavements, full of resignation that yet again, the summer is, and almost always will be, a disappointment. I have written before about the weather, but after 13 years of living through it, my main belief now is that it is the meteorological equivalent to a bad boyfriend. When it is lovely here, it is the best city in the world. The trees flicker soft light on the street, the Thames sparkles despite its silt and ancient pollution, and the city never looks more beautiful; I am deeply in love with London on these days. But when it’s bad, it’s so, so bad. It doesn’t care. It’s dismissive of your plans, your feelings; it doesn’t care that it’s July, it feels like being 15 degrees and windy. It won’t return your calls, and you’re sure it’s cheating on you… or something…

So on days like today, the British put on a brave face along with their Macs and reassure themselves that there will be an Indian summer and this is all worth it. Stiff upper lip, etc. But we probably won’t, and then we’ll slowly descend into self-pity as the days get shorter and eventually so dark than we won’t even remember what summer is like in the first place… Anyway, what was my point? Oh yes, I have some free time and I need to use said time indoors because basically it’s ridiculous outside; I might as well bloody write.

I broke my phone last week. I dropped it in a (unused) loo and basically it is completely out of commission. The screen wigged out in a way that resembled an iPhone possessed by Lucifer himself, and despite resting in rice for several days, the phone is so very dead. Initially, I took a rather philosophical view about it. How nice to not be easily contactable these days, I thought. But it’s now been a week and not having a phone is driving me crazy. It’s not because I need something to do with my hands, or zone out on Facebook, but because so much of my work is done on my phone. Bar the two days I’m in my office, the rest of my working life, which happens to be roughly full-time at present, is balanced between nap times, bed times, Sesame Street aka the Babysitter, and everything in between. Not being connected is bad for business.

Or maybe it isn’t.

A couple weeks ago, Lauren Laverne wrote a really great piece on the idea that perhaps the idea of a “work/life balance” is actually bullshit. It doesn’t really exist, and perhaps just being “good enough” is more realistic. She says embrace the crazy, and do it with the support of others. This is difficult for me. I’m not great for asking for help and really, I don’t want to be just good enough; I want to be amazing at everything (I never said I was realistic…) which is why having no connection to work when I’m not in front of my computer is stressing me out. I intrinsically feel the need to reply to emails quickly to show that I’m not just sitting around, as if I need to justify being at home with my daughter. Like I said, bullshit.

What I’ve mostly discovered is that nothing bad has happened if I haven’t replied to an email within 15 minutes. I can leave my house for two hours and not come back to a barrage of emails demanding replies. My inner cynic thinks this is because it’s August and London has been emptied of its residents, but I think the truth is more likely that no one passes judgement on me quite like I do. No one is as harsh on me like I am. I really could probably do with giving myself a break on this one in the future.

But I still want my phone back, if purely for CityMapper.

I feel like this summer has been the summer of croutons. I have discovered that making them ticks more than a few boxes: it encourages me to buy real bread, not some of this half-assed E-numbered so-called sliced bread from the supermarket; making croutons combats food waste, because real bread goes stale instead of mouldy, and such staleness creates crouton greatness; it makes me eat more soup, which is healthy and a good way to keep my energy up (according to my acupuncturist). All in all, it has been a happy discovery using up stale bread in this manner.

It can be a messy process, especially if, as was in my case, you’ve got more than a couple loaves to use up. I was picking up flakes of crumb off the floor for about a week after the last round. Essentially, croutons are stale bread, baked in olive oil (or butter, if you’re feeling sexy) and tossed with salt and pepper. It makes a perfect foundation for lots of earthy herbs like rosemary, thyme, parsley or oregano. I personally prefer to keep it simple and use only salt and pepper and garlic powder.

For a standard loaf of sourdough bread, I’d use about 100ml/3.5oz of olive oil, give or take, a generous amount of salt (a half of a tablespoon should be plenty) and black pepper to taste, and about a teaspoon of garlic powder – use your judgement. Cut the bread up into little 2cm/1inch chunks, crusts and all, and then toss everything together. Make sure there’s oil on every bit of bread, and add more if need be. Bake in about 180C/350F for about 15 minutes, then turn over, and bake for another 10 or so, until they become nice and golden. They’re lovely to munch on straight from the oven, but obviously go with salads and aforementioned soups.

It appears to have brighten up outside so I think I’ll risk my exit from Tate Britain and head home. If you have a chance, please take the time to visit the Barbara Hepworth exhibition here. Her sculptures are so incredibly beautiful – sumptuous in their curves, but calm, gentle, and contemplative.

Here’s to hoping that another six months don’t go by without more writing, but if they do, please note dear reader, if you exist, that it isn’t for lack of motivation, but rather I’m either too involved in other things or, as is the most likely scenario, I’ve got my face stuck in a bowl of croutons.

Much love x

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Lodestar

Photo Credit: The Bees Knees Daily

I am recently in possession of a kitchen so large it needs an island. I am in awe of this fact, and every morning I come downstairs and get rather doe-eyed looking at it because this kitchen is my new office. Oh, the things I can cook in this space, the gadgets I can amass in such obscene amounts of storage, the natural light abundantly available for food photography…

Since we moved house, I have found myself thinking generally about kitchens and what they represent in one’s life. I realised that every single kitchen of every single place that I have lived is indelibly linked with me, and each of these has had a life and personality of its own. There is a marvellous article MFK Fisher wrote for The New Yorker in 1966 about two kitchens she lived in during the 1950s in Provence, and in a preface to this article (in one of the many compilations of her writings), she says that kitchens are a person’s “lodestar”. Fisher felt that more often than not, upon first interaction, we are unable to recognise the importance of the lodestar on our lives, but over time its purpose becomes more obvious and for her, as it has been for me, her kitchens were vital in the shaping of her life as a writer and as a person.

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Photo Credit: Roadside Pictures

One of the first things my family commented on when they came to visit me here in London 12 years ago was the size of the kitchen in the first flat I rented. No bigger than 1.5m wide walk-in closet, it was clearly designed as an afterthought in a flat where I paid the princely sum of £400 a month for a single bedroom in a shared Ground Floor Flat with two other flatmates. At the time, cooking and food were a love but not a passion, and really how could such passion evolve in a kitchen like that – dark, cramped and with virtually no counter space. And yet it was a flatmate who was obsessed with food that ignited a spark in me. There were often times I would come home and she and her boyfriend would be making Thai green curry from scratch, the house smelling like feet from all the fermented pastes and sauces. Other days she would cook some obscure recipe with odd-looking vegetables from Brixton Market, and in doing so opened my eyes to the diverse foods available in London. Because of her, for the first time I began to actively seek out new flavours.

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Photo Credit: The Bees Knees Daily

A year on, I lived in a shared 4-bedroom house in West Dulwich where the kitchen was enormous but lacked any sense of homeliness – my flatmates and I ate communal meals there, but the familial warmth was not always there. I next lived in a flat with an open-plan kitchen. It had loads of counter space and a decent sized refrigerator and freezer. Cooking began to inspire me and some wonderful meals were created there: mustard and thyme encrusted rack of lamb, a perfected version of my grandmother’s spaghetti Bolognese, peach crème brulée. And yet what was lost there was my marriage, and that kitchen saw the demise of a relationship in a raw and brutal fashion; there is nowhere to hide from each other in open-plan living.

The house I lived in with friends post-separation had a large kitchen and I swooned at its five burner hob and double oven. The best Thanksgiving turkey I ever made was done in that kitchen – so juicy it was like it had been rotisseried, the legs willingly falling away from the carcass. We had so many parties and dinners there, and it is the kitchen where I fell in love with my now husband, and I celebrated turning 30. It was there I convinced a picky friend to try salsa verde with brisket for the first time and where I made Beef Wellington for my visiting parents. I loved that kitchen for what it represented to me at the time: newfound freedom and starting over.

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Photo Credit: Mike Licht

My last kitchen, however, will have my heart forever. My husband and mine’s first place together, the kitchen was smaller than the first dank little one in Brixton, though perfectly laid out. It had almost too many electrical outlets and the cupboards were installed in considerate heights and locations. It was one step to the sink and one step back to the oven. Though storage was at a premium, I managed to find a place for everything. It is in that kitchen that I took the plunge into the world of food writing and cookery. There I achieved perfect pâte brisée and made copious quiches and tarts. I taught myself how to make choux pastry and crème anglaise, in a moderately decent stab at chocolate éclairs. I fought yearly battles over my Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys with my overly ambitious oven, finally winning in the last attempt much to my joy. It is the kitchen that I cooked and ate my way through my pregnancy and where in recent months, I cooked fruit and vegetables for my daughter to mush into the kitchen table and throw on the floor. Really, I feel like my life kick-started itself in that kitchen and I will always be attached to it.

And so now I sit in my new kitchen, looking at its expansive surfaces and empty shelves and think of the possibilities in front of me. Already I have made Judith Rodgers’ roast chicken here. I’ve baked banana muffins and cooked potato rösti for my daughter. This latest of muses seems to be hinting that great things are afoot and whether that means I will finally master puff pastry or something else, either way this kitchen has already began to create memories and in its own way, as have all the others, weave itself into my story. But for now, back to work…

Some Final Thoughts on Pregnancy

Scan_20 weeks_croppedI am writing this from bed. Propped up on pillows is the most comfortable of positions for me these days as I’m larger and more awkward than I’ve felt in my entire life. I wrote many months ago about the first stages of pregnancy and how from a food perspective my life was thrown into disarray. I spent subsequent months with a voracious appetite and few cravings, which was a pity as I thought my love of food would incite some hilarious combinations. I did develop a heartfelt adoration of mini-Melton Mowbray pork pies and chocolate milk, but sadly craved little else of anything more bizarre. Now I am almost 3 weeks til my due date and as space has become as issue internally, I’m still eating normally, although now it is smaller portions with greater regularity.

As pregnancies go, I know it has been a good one. Despite a bit of morning sickness in weeks 10-14, I have had little by way of the dreaded “minor pregnancy ailments”, which in fact are not all that minor. I have been lucky that my side effects have been short-lived and comparatively mild, but labelling the burning felt in your ribcage as it expands, the continuous dull ache in your back and hips, and random painful bouts of acid reflux and heartburn as “minor ailments” seems to trivialise the serious discomfort I was mostly spared but from which many others suffer acutely. Conflate this with putting on more weight than you would expect to do in your lifetime, insomnia, bizarre cravings, losing not only your waistline but your view of your feet and it is any wonder women continue to do this pregnancy malarkey. I’m equally suspicious of the women who come across all kumbaya and Earth Mother-y about pregnancy. They are deluding themselves; pregnancy sucks a bit…and I’m one of the ones who has had it pretty good.

I have been looking forward to not being pregnant since I was about 6 months gone. Not that it hasn’t been fun having a bump and showing it off, but the reality is that it is been one-sided affair so far; all investment on my part and little return so far (although am sure that will change). Of course, I will admit I want to eat Stilton and get squiffy again, but in truth I really just want my body back. I have essentially been living with another person stuck to me for almost a year and it isn’t unreasonable to say that I think we are both looking forward to having our individual space (I can only assume the baby feels the same way. It’s quite easy to interpret sharp kicks to my ribs as a way of expressing his or her desire for a bit more room as well).

And yet, despite everything, it would be an understatement to say we’re just excited to meet this person now. In fact we are bordering on twitchy with impatience. We have spent almost 9 months speculating as to who this little person, boy or girl, is going to be, how we are going to be as parents, and what it all means to our life together. The nursery is ready, the flat is ready, we are ready, and I waddle slowly towards D-Day. This will be my last post for a few months whilst we get to grips with the upheaval of parenting. Wish us luck and goodbye for now…

Maltby Street

With the weekend comes a certain magic. Waking up on Saturday morning without any plans, it stretches out before us like a blank canvas. “The world is our oyster, what shall we do?” Perhaps it’s too cold to go to sit in the park, but too sunny to stay indoors, what then? Wander. Be it London or New York, your downtown district or your village high street. Go catch the sunlight, enjoy the city and another’s company. The key is where you go. Here in our fair city, any Londoner will tell you to avoid the destinations overrun with tourists – obvious instructions in my opinion. That isn’t the only thing. It is essential to know and to seek the best your city has to offer. Life is too short for mediocrity.

7667509358_fcfe9a4570That said, it is reassuring to know that at weekends, tucked away quietly behind Tower Bridge, is the remarkable Maltby Street Market. Londoners have slowly fled there in recent years now that Borough Market has become a bazaar of overpriced vegetables, organic meat and amplified North American accents. Maltby Street is now a place to see, smell, taste, enjoy and listen. A year and a half ago, I first visited on a cold, quiet day in November. There were fewer market stalls on that particular Saturday, and only a handful of people were negotiating their way through the street. We stopped for a glass of wine to warm ourselves, then moved on to buy some marvellous smelly French cheeses and some purple and golden beetroot. The cheese we ate that night with some hearty red wine and crackers. The beetroot I roasted with fresh thyme and garlic; a rainbow of colours served alongside a whole roasted chicken for Sunday lunch. At the time, the place seemed as it if it was on the cusp of becoming great. 40 Maltby Street was already selling incredible food and spectacular wine and the market itself was garnering interest, slowly and confidently. More and more shops, stalls and traders moved in and the place began to come into its own.

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Photo via teacupscupcakes.blogspot.co.uk

A recent pilgrimage there for me was simply because I was on a quest for a doughnut. St John, a restaurant famous for its nose to tail eating, also runs a bakery under the rail arches that run between Druid and Maltby Streets. Self-confessed baking evangelicals – their love of bread is equal to that of offal – these doughnuts are sold from 9am until they disappear. Midday is too late. That particular day’s special chocolate custard doughnuts happened to all be sold by 11am and our mission to taste the famous doughnuts was put on hold for another weekend. Their brownies, slabs of intense, rich and nutty chocolate decadence, would have to act as a temporary salve, and they did, but only just.

Around the corner from St John sees the lunchtime crowd out in full force. The rail arches are filled with sounds and smells of sizzling meat and the buzzing patter of the market traders and customers. We watched as Tozino tapas bar produced plate after plate of appropriately unctuous tomato bread and thick strips of jamón. Small tables filled any available space and wine flowed, it would be a sin if it hadn’t. A stall selling preserves offers samples to a man and his daughter. After a small taste of apricot jam, the little girl smiles and does a little dance, surely the finest praise available. We walk along slowly, enamoured with the sights, lustily eyeing up the patisserie. Another stall sells a brunch-style hash, with eggs and bacon. The cook cracks an egg slowly, carefully sliding it out onto the griddle so the white doesn’t spread too far. The smell of bacon is enough to make a vegetarian blush. Across the way, with a merited love affair with pastrami, Monty’s Jewish deli is serving up matzo ball soup and Reubens with sizeable gherkins and coleslaw. All this we tasted with our eyes.

Too often we put our emphasis on just the action of eating, and, at times, it is completely justified. But the beauty of markets like this existing is that eating becomes more than putting food into our mouths. The mixture of sunlight, the sounds around us, the flavours of the wine and the food, all these things come together to ignite our senses, and we truly taste. Maltby Street is not a place for gastronomic tourism, it is a place to experience the greatness that one facet of being alive offers. Seek and you will find. Wander and you will live.

Go Outside

Screen shot 2013-03-19 at 17.57.42The Debt to Pleasure describes the smell of spring air as “more a texture than an odour”. Such an interesting and poetic illustration, yet considering it came from an English writer, I am highly suspect of such a romantic portrayal. It is true, there is a subtle electricity pulsating through the UK in the Springtime. But in reality it’s slow to start and intermittent at best. Here in London, when Spring begins to show itself, an almost visible and vibrating change comes over even the most curmudgeonly of individuals. I suppose that is the “texture” John Lanchester means, although in truth, it is muted and fleeting.

I am in my eleventh year of living in London. When I moved here, it took me many, many months to understand how precious and rare good weather is. I specifically recall a day when I had made arrangements to visit an art museum on a Saturday only to have them completely and emphatically dismissed because the weather had hit 19C (66F). I had never understood that if the weather in Britain decided to comply, all original plans were off and all there was to do is to go outside. It didn’t matter what we did once we got there, we just needed to be outdoors to take advantage of whatever gift the gods were bestowing upon us. There is a reason that the weather is a topic of conversation between most people, every day, all year. It occupies us constantly; its changeability toys with us and forces us to pander to its random and often seemingly obtuse behaviour.

And now we are in March, an awkward month. Some years it is warm and wonderful, others it is miserable. This year, March has chosen to be cold. In fact, it has been so cold that there were blizzards in the Channel Islands last week, an incredible and almost unheard of meteorological occurrence for this time of year. We are still waiting for the hints of Spring to come en force. So far, there has been a day, or an afternoon perhaps, where we can go outside without hats, scarves and gloves. The light is changing and the days are slowly getting longer, but still we wait.

What must it be like to live in a place that is so welcoming to the seasons? Even winter is met with anticipation, knowing that it won’t last too long so can be enjoyed for what it is. What it must be like to be where Spring comes along confidently and with it the colours, tastes and textures it promises. But here, in the UK, all we do is wait. Winter is long and we tolerate it just enough to get by. We hope for the best and keep optimistic when deep down we know we are sure to be disappointed again. Our almost abusive relationship with the weather keeps us hoping one day it’ll change but blizzards in March suggest that no, it probably won’t.

I am tired of eating stodgy food and desperately crave light meals, tomatoes, fresh salads and some other fruit than apples and pears. I’ve extended to Jaffa oranges from Spain because any break from the monotony of British winter fruit is welcome at this point. Forced rhubarb should be crawling into the market soon, which is only a minor respite for the palate. I refuse to purchase fruit and berries imported from Northern Africa or South America; perhaps an ironic decision considering the Spanish oranges. Even if I had no scruples about importing out of season, the fact it’s freezing outside renders eating them incongruous. I want a cool strawberry on a warm day, not a cold one. And so I wait.

London is one of the greatest cities in the world. Those of us privileged to live here know it’s a million things, all specific and idiosyncratic that add up to make it so. Despite this, the weather is always in the background, dictating our actions. What those who live here know is that the few days when the weather actually turns in our favour are like none other. The city becomes blanketed in golden light that glistens off the buildings; the view down the Thames reminds us why London is remarkable. The green of the trees and grass in the parks against the blue skies and the sunshine are almost blinding in their beauty and we dash outside in a frenzy to soak up any rays that we can find.

But until then, we continue to wait and hope for these days. We wait for the magnificent produce to arrive in our markets and continue to hope for consistent warmth. We itch for them to appear soon to sate our sunlight-starved souls with freshness and flavour. We wait for the sparks of Spring in the hope that this year, maybe, will finally be the year we can really, truly, go outside.

Pear and Chocolate Bread

I have been trying to eat more fruit whilst pregnant. It’s clearly very good for me, and obviously for the wee one as well. Yet I have always had a rather fraught relationship with fruit. Of course, the tastes and varieties are miraculous, I’m not going to deny that, but it seems to me that you have to be so committed to the action of ripening and eating them that I often avoid doing so. I am forever reminded of Eddie Izzard’s brilliant bit of standup on fruit in Definite Article, which sums it up nicely for me.

imagesI think my problem is efficiency. An apple monopolises your hand. After the first bite and the juice starts, it becomes so sticky the hand cannot do anything else. You must eat the apple quickly so you can go back to whatever you were doing. Slicing them is an option, but the risk of oxidation is greater. Pears will never ripen when you need them and render multi-tasking impossible as well. Oranges or similar make your hands smell so unpleasant. It gives me flashbacks to my school lunch boxes when eau-de-pre-sliced-orange permeated every single other item in the box, rendering everything else, according to my 10-year-old self, inedible. I will never forget the taste of crackers with orange smell as long as I live. Ugh. Bananas are fine I guess, but I’m suspicious of their texture – almost too hard or too soft, rarely exactly right and usually complete with a few off-putting blemishes. Bear in mind, I know I’m vastly simplifying what is available to us, but you get my point, so regardless I persevere on grudgingly. Mind over matter etc.

pear-fruitBritish pears and apples are in season right now, so I was hopeful that if I had some to keep at home in the fruit bowl, seeing them everyday would inspire me to eat them. Not so. I was a little over-enthusiastic about exactly how many pears I’d eat out of a bag of six (one) but I did better with the apples and only left a couple behind. Pears are tricky. As Eddie says, they are hard as rocks for seemingly forever, ripen for about a day, then turn to mush. Nightmare. I refuse to have such a co-dependant relationship with a fruit. But I also hate waste. A weekend away beckoned, so I needed to do something with them in order to avoid throwing them away. The now slightly pathetic apples needed using too.

A tart was out of the question. Too obvious. I thought a derivation of banana bread could work, and found a recipe online for pear and chocolate tea bread which I thought I could play with a bit. I was also pleasantly pleased to see that the recipe needed applesauce too, so I’d be able to use the apples up as well.

2013-02-15 15.01.25There are, however, some things to note. The recipe seems to have been adapted from another cookbook, and features measurements in both imperial and metric, yet not all the metric measurements accurately convert to the imperial ones given. I think it is best to stick to only metric in this particular case. Also, as there is only 100g of butter, which isn’t too bad as tea breads go fat-wise, it is worth noting that after you cream it with the sugar and start adding eggs, the butter begins to panic a bit and looks like it’s about to separate. Don’t stress because once you add the flour it’ll come back together again, but you could probably get away with using just a single egg, in my opinion, as the butter seemed to be fine with the first, but seemed rather annoyed by the second. Or perhaps add another 15g or so of butter, which could also work, your choice. I also added some cinnamon and nutmeg to the batter and went easy on the chocolate. Pear and chocolate are amazing together, but chocolate can overpower a bit so it’s best to use restraint; I used a small bag of plain chocolate chips. For decoration, a thinly-sliced pear was fanned out on the top and sprinkled with demerara sugar.

The result was a slightly carmelised topping, and a moist inside which was exactly sweet enough. It had lovely subtle pear flavours, with a hit of warming spice, essential as it’s February and flipping cold, and a nice rounded smoothness from the chocolate. Clearly not as healthy as eating the fruit in its virgin form, but nothing got wasted, which surely is as successful a result the overly ripe pears could have asked for. And anyway, eating them this way is much easier: multi-tasking with a pear is finally possible, although with one slice of the bread and cuppa, you probably won’t feel like it.