Tuesday, October 31, 2006
FROM GHOULIES AND GHOSTIES and long-leggety beasties,
And things that go bump in the night, Good Lord deliver us.
London is an amazing place, and since I came to live here, umpteen years ago, I have been absolutely fascinated by my adoptive city. Anything and everything about it intrigues me, its history, geography, archaeology, and its people. So I have a quite a collection of books covering all aspects of London from the obvious to the obscure.
Necropolis- London and its Dead by Catharine Arnold is one of my latest purchases, and it is a ghoulishly entertaining read.
Leaving no headstone unturned, the author covers how London has buried it's dead over the last two thousand years, from Saxon and Roman burials, through the middle ages, the Victorians and up to our own times. She tells of bodysnatchers, plague pits, pauper graves, the advent of undertakers as a profession, and the pageantry of great state funerals - including one we all remember, that of Diana, Princess of Wales.
Don't be put off by the subject - as someone once said there are only two things certain in this life, death and taxes- and the book really isn't at all gruesome, in places it is even very funny, and I would defy any reader not to be as fascinated as I was by some of the tales Ms Arnold has unearthed. A perfect book to read at Hallowe'en!
Its Hallowe'en, with all that entails...I'm getting sick of the commercialisation of what was once a happy, simple evening with very little financial expenditure required.
Now it seems that every high street store stocks crummy tat for kids, and all very highly priced. Even the sainted M&S has a whole range of foodstuffs just for Hallowe'en, I ask you, is it really necessary?
What happened to the good old days ? a few apples to bob, a mound of mashed potatoes with a coin hidden in it, a few sticky doughnuts dangling from strings, all good fun and relatively cheap. Kids could, with a little help from mum or dad, make a witches hat, cut eye holes in an old sheet and become a ghost, stick cardboard talons on their fingernails, or make dracula fangs from orange peel and paint lipstick blood coming from their mouths. Half the enjoyment was making the effort. Now its plastic and lurex full Boris Karloff outfits, green latex heads with knives embedded in the skull, all made in China (where else) and all costing the equivalent of a day's wages for some poor sod in the third world. It's enough to make a pumpkin puke.
We are going to have supper with friends this evening, and I am taking the pudding, so naturally I decided it would be just the right time to make a Pumpkin Pie. I know that Americans eat this at their Thanksgiving, but we eat it just about any time in autumn and it is appropriate at Hallowe'en. Actually I have never been too sure why it is called pie and not tart. Somehow I always expect a pie to have a pastry lid, and though it can have a pastry base it is not obligatory, whereas a tart always has a pastry base and never has a lid. Maybe if some culinary etymologist reads this they could enlighten me.
Shortcrust pastry (enough to line a 23cm loose-bottomed flan tin)
500g pumpkin puree*
2 large eggs
75g light brown sugar
4 tablespoons golden syrup
250ml double cream
1 tablespoon mixed spice
generous pinch of salt.
Pre-heat oven to 200C
Roll out the pastry and line the flan tin, prick the base with a fork and line with greaseproof paper and baking beans; blind bake in the oven for 10 mins and then remove the paper and beans and return to the oven for 5 more minutes.
Lower the oven temperature to 190C. Tip the pumpkin puree into a bowl and beat in the eggs, sugar, syrup, cream, spice and salt. Mix very thoroughly.
Pour the mixture into the pastry case .
Bake for approx 40 minutes, until the filling has set.
Dust with icing sugar and serve at room temperature.
This is delicious with either a scoop of vanilla icecream, or a dollop of whipped cream, but neither are strictly necessary!
* The easiest way of making pumpkin puree is to cut the pumpkin into 6-8 wedges, scoop out all the seeds and soft stringy stuff. Line a large roasting tin with kitchen foil to save cleaning, and lay the wedges in it. Bake in a 190C oven for 1 hour or until the pumpkin flesh is soft. Remove from the oven, allow to cool and then scoop the flesh from the rind. Puree the flesh in a food processor. Unused puree can be frozen for one or two weeks, and used in soups etc.
Friday, October 27, 2006
The Devil in the White City: Murder,Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson was sent to me by a friend in the USA who is originally from Chicago.
I was completely absorbed in this book, it covered an aspect of American history I knew nothing about and I found it fascinating. Larson has managed to make this most unlikely subject wonderfully compelling. The intense politiking required to get this whole enormous project to come together - it very nearly failed - and the egos of all the personalities, the architects, engineers, local big-wigs, socially ambitious entrepreneurs make for a really interesting read. The Fair itself ran for several months and was a huge success, setting the benchmark for all other Expositions that followed. The optomistic dynamism of creating the World's Fair is counterbalanced by the dark destructive story of Dr H.H.Holmes a clever psychopathic physician who used the lure of the project and the Fair itself to entice an unknown number of young, independently wealthy women to work for him and who he then murdered in the most brutal way.
London has now embarked on a similarly ambitious project - the 2012 Olympics, and despite the fact that 113 years have passed, I think there are still many lessons to be learnt about how a huge project is brought to fruition like the White City was in 1893.
My only quibble with the book would be that it could have been edited down somewhat.
Sorry folks, its back to the veil.
When I had my very mild rant a week or so ago, I felt that others had really said all there was to be said on the subject of muslim women who cover their faces. I was wrong.
I suspect that at the back of much of the western disquiet over women being swathed head to toe in fabric - usually black - with only their eyes visible, was the unspoken feeling that wearing of the hijab, niqab etc were not necessarily based on religious conviction, but on the medieval cultural attitudes of some Muslim men towards women and sex.
This whole furore in Australia has let that cat right out of the bag. Apparently we are all (really?) sexual objects- meat- because we wear make-up, "revealing" clothing, and "sway suggestively" --oh yeah!? And men, poor, weak, feeble creatures that they are, have no option but to rape us because we are presenting ourselves as sexually available. What the f**k?
Others may think that this is just one extreme elderly man, out on a limb, preaching to the converted so to speak, and that he doesn't represent the vast majority of Muslims. That may well be true.
However, women all over the world, and in the western democracies in particular, have struggled long and hard, and some have died, to gain their equal rights in society. The vote, marriage and property rights, equal pay (still a bone of contention) and employment rights, proper education, contraception, have all been hard won. For centuries there have been male religious zealots - Roman Catholic, Dutch Reformed Church, and others who have wanted in their various ways to keep women barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen. So I believe passionately that women cannot let even one fanatical idiot go unchallenged when they make statements that could influence individuals and the whole attitude of sections of our communities as to how our sex is treated.
Don't get me wrong, I would not like this man to be banned from saying what he has said, - because by allowing him to speak out we know what we have to deal with, and it is better to have it out in the open. Now we must kick up such a stink about his views, that he, and his community will be in no doubt whatsoever that this way of thinking about women, men and sex is UNACCEPTABLE.
Tolerance means what it says - we TOLERATE your ideas, we don't accept them, we don't like them, we won't conform to them and we will publically criticise them, but we won't arrest you for them, silence you for them, and thus far we will not prohibit them - just remember, that our tolerance has it's limits, don't push it too far.
Its Friday evening, and I have a mound of leftover mashed potato in the fridge, which means that Fish Cakes are on the menu tonight. They are so easy, so cheap and even people who say they don't like fish as well as the fussiest kids love them. The trick is to have the mashed potato available. What that means is that earlier in the week when you are making mash to serve with something else, make twice as much and save half. As for the fish. If you have left over cold salmon (which people sometimes do in summer) that's fine, but you can use pretty much any fish you like, including tinned salmon/tuna, or smoked fish such as mackerel or haddock...how much more versatile can a recipe be for heaven's sake?
500g mashed potato
500g fish (salmon fillets, leftover poached salmon, haddock, coley ..what you like)
4-5 spring onions, finely chopped, white and green
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Salt & pepper
3 tablespoons plain flour
Homemade dried breadcrumbs made from stale bread (you can often buy bags of homemade dried breadcrumbs from Cypriot grocers)
Vegetable oil for frying.
If the fish you are using requires cooking, place it on a microwave proof plate, cover and cook on high for 3-4 minutes.
Flake the fish into a large bowl, season well and stir in the chopped parsley and chopped spring onion. Mix in the mashed potato; beat one of the eggs with a fork and work it in to the fish and potato mix.
Using your hands form the fish mix into balls, flatten slightly to form a pattie shape (not too thin), and roll in the flour, then dip into the beaten egg, and finally press into the breadcrumbs until completely covered. Put them on a platter in the fridge to firm up.
When ready to cook, fry them in hot oil for 8-10 minutes each side.
Serve with lemon wedges, a homemade tomato sauce and a green salad.
Saturday, October 21, 2006
SEASON OF MISTS AND MELLOW FRUITFULNESS
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
I try to read all new South African fiction I can lay my hands on, and now have amassed quite a collection; The Smell of Apples by Mark Behr is a book I read several years ago, but as I seem to have a theme going in this post, I thought it would be appropriate to tell you about it now.
The novel covers a relatively short time-span in the last weeks of 1973, and is told by Marcus the 11 year old son of a senior South African army officer. His family are Afrikaners - very much part of the ruling elite - and totally committed to the concept of apartheid, and convinced of their own superiority over other peoples. When a visitor from abroad enters their home things begin to seem different, Marcus begins to become aware of apartheid's twisted logic, and nothing will ever be the same for him. This is a very subtle depiction of a child's introduction to hypocracy, and a piercing indictment of the Afrikaner mentality which underlined the creation of the racist state. The book won the Eugene Marais Prize from the South African Academy of Arts and Science, and it also won the CNA Literary Debut Award; both awards are well deserved.
Every day it seems this bloody government comes up with some new statement about how we should live our lives. I am fed up to the back teeth with it all. Frankly, as long as we are not doing anything illegal and are paying our taxes, it is none of their business how we walk, talk, think, fart, read, work, sleep, drink or clean our teeth.
One of the latest areas of private life into which the Nanny State has decided to meddle is to worry about our body size and what we eat. Ms Caroline Flint - who she you ask? the new Minister for Fitness (did you know we had one of those? neither did I) - has made a statement urging supermarkets to give us all lessons on how to eat fruit and vegetables because "many people find fruit and vegetables scary". Oooh how true, I'm terrified of runner beans, and don't even mention pineapples to me......
For pity's sake, the population know all they want to know about fruit and veg, and what is good for you they don't need to be told by some patronising Nu-Labour bimbo, after all hadn't she ever heard the old English rhyme:
An apple a day keeps the doctor away
Apple in the morning - Doctor's warning
Roast apple at night - starves the doctor outright
Eat an apple going to bed - knock the doctor on the head
Three each day, seven days a week - ruddy apple, ruddy cheek
Ruddy cheek, I think that sums Ms Flint's comments up nicely.
According to some Fruity PR person, October 21st is 'Apple Day', well I'll go along with that. We eat loads of apples, in fact we have two old apple trees in our postage stamp sized garden here in north London. Sad to say, the few apples they produce are not much cop. I have tried umpteen ways of using them over the years, but have finally given up and leave them to the birds and the squirrels. I do try to buy English apples, there are so many lovely varieties such as Worcester Pearmain, Egremont Russet, the delicious Cox's Orange Pippen and the queen of cooking apples, the Bramley; it is always a joy when they are available rather than the three or four internationally grown varieties stocked by most supermarkets
CHICKEN BREASTS WITH APPLES & THYME
175g onion, finely chopped
2 crisp dessert apples (coxes are ideal), peeled and grated
50g mature Cheddar cheese, grated
40g fresh breadcrumbs (brown or white)
2 level tablespoons fresh thyme, finely chopped (or 1 teaspoon dried thyme).
Salt and pepper
4 large chicken breasts WITH skin on (approx 700g total weight)
75ml apple juice or cider
4 level teaspoons cornflour
300ml chicken or vegetable stock
1 tablespoon wholegrain mustard
Heat half the butter in a pan and sauté the chopped onion until softened, cool.
Add the grated apple and grated cheese to the cooled onion and mix well.
Add the breadcrumbs, thyme and seasoning.
Loosen the skin of the chicken and push the stuffing underneath, pressing into place.
Put the stuffed chicken breasts into a roasting tin and dot with the remaining butter and season with salt and pepper; pour the apple juice/cider over the chicken.
Cook at 190°C for about 50 minutes until the chicken is cooked through. Remove the chicken from the roasting tin and keep warm.
Blend the cornflour with 2 tablespoons cold water and add to the pan together with the stock and the mustard. Bring to the boil, stirring constantly, and cook for 2-3 minutes until slightly thickened. Check seasoning. Pour over the chicken breasts.
Serve with green vegetables and creamy mashed potato.
You can prepare this recipe ahead, cover and refrigerate for up to 24 hours, then cook the chicken and make the sauce when you are ready.
Sunday, October 15, 2006
Every so often I try re-reading a book I read and loved when I was a teenager, just to check on myself I suppose, and to see how much my tastes have changed (or not, as the case may be). The latest example of this is 'Invitation to the Waltz' by Rosamond Lehmann
If ever a book was a period piece, this is. It is a snapshot of English upper middle-class life between the wars, when girls were still educated at home, in a schoolroom by governesses, and the only future they were expected to have was marriage. It depicts a period of innocence of experience that has been lost to young women. [Not that that is a bad thing in itself.] The story is of two sisters, daughters of a prosperous household in England in 1920, and the week of their lives leading up to and during a 'coming-out' dance given by an aristocratic neighbour. Olivia has to nerve herself to attend this event and suffers agonies of apprehension and shyness, her dress is all wrong, she can't seem to manage small talk, and the whole evening is a mix of enjoyment and terror for her. We have all had a time in our lives when we had to suffer the frantic inward misery of initiation into a new situation, and in that respect this book will always chime with the reader, reminding them of what it is like to be an adolescent. I first read this as a teenager myself and absolutely adored it, and Lehmann's other book "Dusty Answer", and it is as fresh today as when I first read it, indeed as fresh as when it was written nearly 75 years ago.
I was shopping in my local area on Saturday and on two separate occasions was almost mown down by women pushing baby buggys, in one incident I sustained a nasty bruise to my leg, boo hoo.
Buggys these days are not just buggys – no, they are MITS (mobile infant transport systems) and they are built like tanks. They are HUGE and mind-blowingly expensive, some of them are doubles, some of them are “all terrain” whatever that means, are they going to push their little darling up to Everest first base camp or down the Amazon? They occupy a disproportionate amount of space - and in the confines of a small shop they prevent other customers from moving around. Even worse, the women who push them seem to always travel in convoy – there are usually two of the damn things being pushed along in parallel, taking up the whole pavement and forcing little old ladies, the blind, halt and lame (amongst whom I count myself) into the roadway. The smug parents pushing these monstrosities seem to think we will all find their little darlings comfort as much of a priority as they do. It never seems to occur to them to leave the buggy outside the shop and carry the little no-neck monster in with them. Why, when there are two yummy mummies with buggys does one of them not wait outside guarding both (in case some passing nutcase is so enamoured of the little bastards that they kidnap them – oh yeah how likely is that statistically speaking?) whilst the other one goes in and buys whatever needs to be bought. And then there is the whole issue of what is IN the buggy. Is it a tiny newborn mite (who could just as easily be carried in a baby sling on the body)? Or is it, more likely, some whining 4-5 year old who has legs and CAN WALK?
I know saying this makes me sound like Grandma Moses, but when I was a young mum McLaren had only just invented his lightweight folding baby buggy, and what a revolutionary boon it was. You could tuck the infant under one arm and juggling bags of shopping, handbag etc could fold it up with the judicious use of one foot. It was a modest, useful piece of equipment, beautifully engineered, reasonably priced, and long-lasting (each buggy had a shelf life of approx 3.5 babies).
But the best thing of all was to arrange swaps with other mums, so one of us stayed home with all the infants whilst the other went and did some shopping in peace.
When I ranted about this to the headmistress of a swish private kindergarten in our area, she told me that what I was observing was the new phenomenon of Conspicuous Parenting. Middle class parents who both work, are desperate to be seen as hands-on, no-expense-spared Mummies and Daddies, so they MUST go out at weekends to reinforce their credentials. That is why Starbucks, Costa Café, Café Nero et al are chock-a-block at the weekends with buggys covering every square inch of floor space. Aaaarg!!!
I know they say real men don't eat quiche, but in this household they often eat tart, and they seem to like it! A savoury tart, quiche or flan, call it what you will, is a very versatile dish. You can fill it with just about anything you like, cheese and onion, smoked fish, broccolli, mushrooms, asparagus...you name it. This is a cheap, cheerful and tasty one I make fairly regularly. Have it either hot (well, warmish is better) or cold with salads for a light lunch or supper; or you can cut it into smaller portions with a little rocket or watercress salad as the starter to a meal.
LEEK & BACON TART
200g plain flour
100g butter [or half vegetable shortening (eg Cookeen) /half butter]
1 egg yolk
Pinch of salt
2 Tablespoons cold water
4 large leeks, washed, trimmed and finely sliced
200g bacon lardons
200g grated cheese
5 large eggs
Salt & ground black pepper
50 ml crème fraiche or double cream
Make the pastry by putting the flour, salt and butter into a food processor and whizzing to form “crumbs” – or you can rub the fat into the flour using your fingertips until crumbs form.
Mix in the egg yolk and as much water as needed to form a ball of pastry that is not too dry but not sticky. Wrap in greaseproof paper and chill in fridge for at least 30 minutes. [You can do this a day in advance]
Pre- heat oven to 200°C
Grease a loose bottomed flan tin, approx 23cm diameter
Remove pastry from fridge and roll out between two sheets of greasproof paper until thin enough to line the prepared tin. Trim the edges. Prick base with a fork. Line the pastry with baking paper and fill with baking beans or rice. Bake in the oven for 12 mins. Remove the baking beans and paper and bake for a further 7 mins. Remove from the oven. Turn oven heat down to 180°. While the flan case is baking, prepare the filling. Heat a large frying pan and fry the bacon lardons until cooked through but not crispy, remove from the pan with a slotted spoon. Add the butter to the pan, and when melted add the sliced leeks. Stir fry until they are soft and semi-transparent and just on the point of browning. Remove from the heat.
While the flan case is baking, prepare the filling. Heat a large frying pan and fry the bacon lardons until cooked through but not crispy, remove from the pan with a slotted spoon. Add the butter to the pan, and when melted add the sliced leeks. Stir fry until they are soft and semi-transparent and just on the point of browning. Remove from the heat.
Beat the eggs and crème fraiche together with a fork, and add seasoning– don’t add too much salt as the lardons and cheese are quite salty.
Once the flan case has been removed from the oven, put a good sprinkling of grated cheese over the base, top with the leeks and lardons and then some more cheese. Finally pour in the egg mixture.
Bake for 30mins. Remove from oven and let cool slightly before removing from tin.
Serve with salad.
Thursday, October 12, 2006
Ten years ago I read and enjoyed John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil, so when I found a copy of his long awaited second book on my bedside when staying up in Fife last week I was really delighted; and fromthe moment I started reading The City of Falling Angels I was hooked. It was all I could do to stop myself booking a plane ticket and departing for Venice there and then. Many, many books have been written about Venice (or are set in Venice), travelogues, serious tomes on Venitian art and architecture, history, as well as crime, romantic and literary fiction. Berendt has written about Venice from a very different perspective. He writes -with a light, slightly gossipy style- about the Venetians, and through them the reader gets a wonderful portrait of this magical city at the beginning of the 21stC. He has used the burning of La Fenice , Venice's famous opera theatre, the criminal investigations which followed the fire, the convoluted machinations between various groups to get the theatre rebuilt, and the rebuilding itself, as the backbone of his book. Woven around that strand are encounters with an amazing cast of characters, The Rat Man, Count Volpi, Olga Rudge (Ezra Pound's widow, the feuding brothers, and any number of Contessas and Marcheses, not to mention the various English and American expats who have made Venice their home. His descriptions are so vivid that you can smell the damp, the hot chocolate at Florians, the seafood and the sewers. You can see the hoards of tourists who are the life-blood of the Venetian economy and paradoxically are destroying the city by their very numbers. You watch with amazed amusement as the various "Save" Venice organisations jockey for pre-eminance and prestige. This is a wonderful book, and I had to keep reminding myself that it is Non-Fiction, and that ALL the characters are real people and use their real names. If you are going to visit Venice for the first time, read this book; if you already know and love Venice, read this book; if you are an armchair traveller, read this book. You WILL enjoy it!
What is the latest and most desirable fashion accessory for women who must have it all?
A Birkin handbag by Hermes (a mere snip at $50,000)? Or a whopping big diamond ring?
No - it is a cute little black baby from an impoverished African country.
Conspicuous compassion is all the rage, Angelina Jolie does it, and now Madonna has just picked up a toddler from
Malawi has a law preventing out of country adoption of children, but faced with the opportunity of having a wealthy western pop star giving a large amount of money to an orphanage in the country they have speedily changed things so that she can adopt this baby boy. Of course if you or I were to go to
Let’s think about the orphanage she is having built, will it be run by the Malawians according to their cultural beliefs and norms? or by one of the many NGOs who have laboured long and hard against poverty, disease and deprivation in central
As far as this particular child is concerned, yes, Madonna and her husband are wealthy enough to support him; they may also be emotionally determined to love him, warts and all, for the rest of his life. All well and good, but why do it at all – she has no links to Malawi, she already has children, she has not stumbled on a child in immenant danger of death and saved him; she has decided to make a gesture, and the spin off is she will look caring and compassionate – ahh.
However that may not necessarily be what is best for this child. He will be with a family who are racially, culturally and economically far removed from his own. Where will he feel he belongs? He will never fit back in to his own community in
I am not a particularly frugal person, in fact my DH is always yelling at me to switch lights off, but I do hate to waste food in the kitchen. So what do you do when you have some bananas which have all become over-ripe simultaneously? (silly me, I put them in a fruit bowl with apples) I like my bananas verging on the greenish side, so the only way to use them up before they become totally vrot is to make something with them. This recipe was originally from The Times Calendar Cookbook by Katie Stewart, and when the kids were at primary school and took packed lunches, I used to make it regularly. In fact, like many of my family recipes, I used to make a double or treble quantity and freeze the extra loaf. [BTW a treble quantity will fill 2x medium (20x12x8cm) loaf tins.]
Pre-heat oven to 180°C
Pre-heat oven to 180°C
Grease and base line a small (18x10x5cm) loaf tin
175g self-raising flour
½ level teaspoon salt
1 level teaspoon mixed spice
100g castor sugar
50g chopped walnuts
2 medium sized ripe bananas
1 large egg
25g melted butter
Sift flour, salt, and mixed spice into a bowl. Stir in the sugar and walnuts. Peel the bananas and mash to a purée with a fork. Add to the dry ingredients along with the egg and melted butter. Using a wooden spoon stir to blend the ingredients and then beat thoroughly to mix.
Spoon the mixture into the prepared loaf tin. Spread the mixture evenly – make a slight indentation in the center to compensate for the rising process. Place the tin in the center of the pre-heated moderate oven and bake for 1 hour. Turn out on to a rack and leave until cold. Keeps well for several days in an airtight container. Freezes well.
Serve sliced and buttered.