Thursday, 29 December 2011

The Dead Time After Christmas Before New Year

So the family have headed back up the freezing north (Dundee) - sis, her hubby and kids (7 and 9), and dog. Its quiet. Too quiet. No more uproar and hubbub. Other people seem to have hit the shops for the sales. I can't quite bring myself to go shopping again so soon after christmas. Slightly loathe to leave the house, unless its for a walk. When's the soonest you can take down the decorations?

I was cooking for 10 this christmas - turkey, plus all the trimmings. I have Ottenlenghi to thank for the most successful dishes of the day (brussel sprouts that I can actually eat and a carrot dish based on his one for roasted squash and onions).

Yotam Ottolenghi's Brussels sprouts with caramelised garlic and lemon peel recipe
I don't like brussel sprouts at all. However I eat these willingly - its a revelation that they can be enhanced and enlivened with additional flavours and not boiled to oblivion.

A couple of elements in this Christmassy dish will come in handy elsewhere. Caramelised garlic makes a lovely condiment to lentils or roast veg, while candied lemon makes a great garnish for creamy desserts or leafy salads. I always pan-fry sprouts – it retains texture and enhances flavour. Serves four.
4 heads garlic, cloves separated and peeled
About 150ml olive oil
2 tsp balsamic vinegar
50g caster sugar
90ml water
Salt and black pepper
1 medium lemon
600g brussels sprouts
1 red chilli, finely chopped
50g parmesan shavings
20g basil leaves, shredded

I do these two parts the day before christmas:
  • Put the garlic in a pan, cover with water and blanch for three minutes. Drain, dry the pan, and pour in two tablespoons of oil. Return the garlic to the pan and fry on high heat for two minutes, stirring, until golden all over. Add the vinegar, a tablespoon of sugar, the water and some salt. Bring to a boil and simmer on medium heat for five minutes, until barely any liquid is left, just the caramelised cloves in a syrup. Set aside.
  • Use a vegetable peeler to shave off wide strips of lemon skin; avoid the white pith. Cut the strips into 1mm-2mm thick slices, or julienne, and put in a small pan. Squeeze the lemon into a measuring jug and add water to bring the juice up to 100ml. Pour over the strips of peel, add the remaining sugar and bring to a simmer. Cook for 12-15 minutes, until the syrup is reduced to about a third. Set aside to cool down.
This I do on the day in a wok (i.e. all at once tossing throughout so that all sprouts get charred).
  • Trim the bases off the sprouts and cut them top to bottom into halves. Heat four tablespoons of oil in a large, heavy-based pan, add half the sprouts, season and cook on high heat for five minutes, stirring them once or twice, but not too often, so that they char well without breaking up; add extra oil if needed. They will soften but retain some firmness. Transfer to a bowl and repeat with the remaining oil and sprouts.
  • Stir the chilli, the garlic and its syrup into the sprouts, and set aside until warmish. 
  • Stir in the parmesan, basil and peel (without the syrup), season and add oil if necessary. Serve as it is or at room temperature.
Biggest hit of the day was this:

Yotam Ottolenghi's roast butternut squash carrot and red onion with tahini and za'atar
If you want a vegetarian dish to make an impact on the christmas table, this does the job – it looks great and has really complex flavours. Serves four.

1 large butternut squash (around 1.1kg), cut into 2cm x 6cm wedges (I used carrots instead of squash not wanting to faff around with skinning it - chopped them into mouthful sized pieces but they didn't need peeling - they still have the same fab orange colour)
2 red onions, cut into 3cm wedges
50ml olive oil
Maldon sea salt and black pepper
3½ tbsp tahini paste
1½ tbsp lemon juice
3 tbsp water
1 small garlic clove, crushed
30g pine nuts
1 tbsp za'atar (this is a middle-eastern spice mixture made up mostly of sumac with thyme, oregano, marjoram and roasted sesame seeds - I couldn't find any so used the spices separately - largest proportion of sumac, some thyme, oregano and majoram, didn't have any sesame seeds so left them out).
1 tbsp roughly chopped parsley (I replaced this with coriander)
  • Heat the oven to to 220C/425F/gas mark 7. Put the squash and onions in a large bowl, add three tablespoons of oil, a teaspoon of salt and some black pepper, and toss well. Spread, skin down, on a baking sheet and roast for 40 minutes until the vegetables have taken on some colour and are cooked through. Keep an eye on the onions: they may cook faster than the squash, so may need to be removed earlier. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.
  • Put the tahini in a small bowl with the lemon juice, water, garlic and a quarter-teaspoon of salt. Whisk to the consistency of honey, adding more water or tahini as necessary.
  • Pour the remaining oil into a small frying pan on a medium-low heat. Add the pine nuts and half a teaspoon of salt, cook for two minutes, stirring, until the nuts are golden brown, then tip the nuts and oil into a small bowl.
  • To serve, spread the vegetables on a platter and drizzle over the sauce. Scatter the pine nuts and oil on top, followed by the za'atar and parsley.

After dinner we had a few games - someone brought a pack of PIT so that the kids could join in. However they didn't - the game was so fast and furious that the dog was growling and they were cowering next door watching TV and trying to ignore the adults. Brilliant game. And I won...

Now that it is over and everyone has gone home it seems extremely quiet in the house. Just me and the mouse that seems to have taken up residence in the living room (there will be traps, and use of wire wool to fill the gaps...)

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Calendars for Christmas

I've been on a spurt of calendar making for Christmas presents - Jessops have been offering them for half price. In the last package I received the three I ordered plus one errant one of a woman who loves the outdoors, the rich outdoors - camping (thick sleeping bag), yachting (with the parents, at a guess), below deck, in the choppy sea, mountain biking in the alps, with the golden Labrador on the beach. Who is this dark haired active woman? Will she be waiting in anticipation of the calendar that doesn't come. Or has Jessops printed a second one and posted it to the correct address? I'm saddened that the calendar won't reach it's intended recipient in time for Christmas. It might get there for the new year if I send it back to Jessops this week.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Christmas time on the tube

Platform announcer at Victoria station wishes us a very merry Christmas in a rasta drawl - five deep in the platform due to delays he thanks us for being chill and extremely patient.

At Highbury and Islington the announcer sounds exactly how Leonard Cohen would sound if he had the job. A deep almost inaudible hum of a voice next train in six minutes, stand behind the yellow line...

Monday, 12 December 2011

White Coach and Horses

So clearly the latest must-have vehicle for arriving to your wedding (judging by those parked outside Platins Photographers in Green Lanes, Harringay) has moved on from the white stretch Hummer to white carriages drawn by two white horses with ostrich plumage on their heads driven by two coachmen in top hats and Victorian caped coats. Last week there was a replica of Cinderella's glass pumpkin coach. This week's was a carriage with a white leather hood. The ladies emerge from the photographers into the December chill night wearing acres of diaphonous nylon silk - sleeveless with flounces, frills and bows - white for the bride and red or bright pink for the bridesmaids (usually groups of four or six adult ones and any number of toddling ones) and towering strappy diamonte-encrusted sandals. Not a coat between them - just the pancake makeup and hairpieces to protect them from the cold. The men of these parties look decidedly bland by comparison in ordinary black lounge suits. Not even  a frilled shirt or cummerbund. The carriages attract large groups of onlookers photographing, talking to the coachmen and stroking the horses.

I wonder if the vehicle hire company also provide the black horse-drawn hearses for traditional funerals.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011


A familiar voice - deep female - said excuse me as she passed me on the escalator. A woman with brown hair and an expensive sheepskin coat walked down past me. It was Amanada Donohoe. We got on the tube - she was in the next door carriage, visible through the glass partitions. She sat slightly sideways with her hand partially obscuring her face and nobody noticed her.

Friday, 2 December 2011


The girl says to her Spanish boyfriend, She's quite selective about her novels. She won't read anything trashy or stuff that isn't her sort of story.

What's her kind of story I wonder. I'm not sure I have a kind of story. I'll read all sorts of things. My mother liked stories about lives (fictional diaries and letters, stories of coming through struggles and families). I have her collection of women-authored novels. Many with the dark green spines of Virago Press. I like detective novels - started young when Pops used to read me Josephine Tey novels standing on a chair beside the bunk bed (surprisingly he would fall asleep mid-sentence quite often and have to be coaxed awake and prompted as to where he trailed off. We didn't like Agatha Christie to read though, preferred it on the screen. I'm currently reading Scandinavian crime fiction. I'll read almost anything else though - historic, prehistoric, things my mother would like, thriller, modern, contemporary, American, sci-fi, translations, graphic. Don't generally do chick lit or Mills and Boon.  I like getting recommendations but don't always agree that I like them. Good writing or a gripping read is the key. I've only stopped in the middle of two novels - American Psycho and The Dirty Havana Trilogy. Too violent, and too much sex with sour milk, respectively. I did manage to finish On The Road though, which I found excruciatingly boring. What kind is your story?

Thursday, 1 December 2011

How come?

Hair generally seems to grow downwards (unless very short or unruly) - head hair being the main example except for cow licked or particularly thickly stranded, leg hair, arm hair, eyebrows (apart from the wild unruly variety sported by occasional older gentlemen), even the unmentionable pubes. So standing squashed between two tall hairy men on the tube this afternoon  I was surprised to realise that chest hair (based on my unscientific survey of two white middle-aged males) grows upwards. Why is this? And how come I've only just noticed this now? I'm normally quite observant!