Friday, 10 October 2014

Saltimbocca and Housework

I cannot believe I'm about to type this next sentence. We are about to complete on the house. On Monday. On Monday at some point we will have keys in our hands to what could potentially be the house we live in for the rest of our lives. Or the next 5 years. This is of course of no interest to anyone else but us, but you must suffer along with if you want the recipe.

So I'm packing. And when I say "I", I actually do mean just me. MCD Sr says often and ineffectually "I must pack" and vanishes into the study on the top floor for an hour and a half ostensibly to do so, but upon inspection, I find 7 boxes. Seven. I've packed around 30 so far, which accounts for the rest of the house. His packing seems to cover folders. Mine covers... um... everything else: lounge, books, dining room sideboard, kitchen, bedrooms, bathrooms, clothes, toys, linen, weird shit you accumulate without meaning to, which then includes the sorting and throwing away of useless junk before you can pack.

I'm not about to go off on a rant about my husband again; too too dull for everyone but I would faintly like to raise the spectre of division of housework labour as it has been topic of the week for Woman's Hour on Radio 4. What do you all do? Are you fair about it? Have you fallen into ruts hoed so deep they're now trenches from which you can only come out fighting? I'm vaguely disquieted about it all, I have to admit. What are women SUPPOSED to do? What are men SUPPOSED to do? How do you divvy it up? Our situation is probably pretty common, but I've finally categorised it as Intellectual and Physical: He works (at the moment - see last post) full time Mon-Fri, but he also takes care of absolutely everything financial and intellectual. You name it, insurance, car stuff, dealings with rental properties, bills, licences. I am absolutely incapable of doing any of it. So I, working much less in an earning sense, but also a lot in a "taking care of MCD JR" way, take care of what has become the Physical: cleaning, cooking, washing up, mowing the lawn, gardening, really really minor DIY (I once fixed a loo seat and I can put up pictures without the spirit level he deems necessary), shopping, school stuff, birthdays and so on.

Where I'm wavering over "fairness" is the small stuff, the stuff that you shouldn't apparently sweat. Sometimes, when I'm washing up after having cooked MCD Jr's part of the dinner, bathed him, put him to bed, then come back down and done it all over again for us, I wonder if it's "fair." But then he does bath and bed at weekend (so I get to cook and wash up without having to interrupt myself with bedtime, I guess...!). I also was slightly taken aback at his comment the other weekend that he doesn't mow the lawn "because he works" which rocked me back on my chair slightly. I was under the impression I did it because I like to see my child through the grass, not hunt maniacally for him as darkness approaches. I didn't realise he had made a conscious decision not to do it, due to other labours. And there's the thing, no? The old saw about whose work is MORE. More important, more time, more draining and exhausting. When I'm feeling resentful about the small stuff I find myself counting hours: he comes home and is done around 7pm each night, I'm not done till 8.30/9pm sometimes. But then I also get to have time to myself 2 1/2 days a week, time when I actually can grab half an hour with a book which he doesn't, so really I'm on flexi-time.

And here's the other thing: it's what you're good at. I'm really REALLY bad at dealing with money. He's really REALLY bad at cleaning up and cooking. Seriously, last week I had to ditch a portion of tomato soup because he "didn't see it" on the hob when he was tidying up in order to put it in the fridge. He also didn't see the washing up or the messy work surface - it was at this point I finally put this idea of him partaking of housework to rest. He cannot do it. I have to redo it. Therefore, I just do it and it is done. And he has always been this way. Always. I cannot change him. It's true, leopards do not change their spots. So you come to accept it and this is the way it is and if it wasn't for him we wouldn't have a position of security from which to bitch and moan about the trivial shit.

And so on to saltimbocca, that "jump-in-the-mouth" Italian dish that sounds really complex and isn't. I like to do it with pork, but chicken or rose veal would be fine.

Per person:
1 pork escalope
1 slice Parma ham or prosciutto
1 sage leaf
1 cocktail stick

For the beans:
1 onion
1 clove garlic
1 courgette, diced
1 can cannellini beans, drained
2 sage leaves
4-5 ripe tomatoes

Place the escalopes between 2 sheets of clingfilm and bash them until they're quite thin - about 1/2 cm. Wrap a slice of ham around, place a sage leaf on top and secure with a cocktail stick. Pop them in the fridge until needed.

Meanwhile, sauté the onion and garlic in a little olive oil until softened, then add the courgette (or aubergine or other greens) until tender. Add the beans and chopped sage leaves then roughly chop up the tomatoes and add to the pan. Season and simmer for 15 minutes or until thickened.

Heat a knob of butter in a frying pan and fry off the escalopes for 2 minutes each side max, pressing down on them with a spatula to get the sage leaf nice and crisp. Spoon a little butter over them while cooking too. Remove to a place, tip out any burnt butter and deglaze the pan with a little white wine or marsala and a little extra butter for shine. Squeeze a little lemon juice over the meat, serve with the beans and knap over the sauce. Buon appetito.

Friday, 26 September 2014

A few ways with broccoli; or a bit about living with depression

It's been a tense few weeks at Dodsley Towers, tbh. It's enough moving house - or rather waiting to move because the damn thing doesn't seem any nearer being built than in March, but to add in a few dollops of stress from other quarters and suddenly life borders on the near-despairing.

It's very hard when you hit despair. It's even worse when someone you love hits despair and there is nothing you can do. You watch them sink into themselves, a sort of right-way-round version of The Twits, disappearing from view; conversation becomes monosyllabic or downright emotional, an endless repeat of "why me?" and "what can I do?". You aim for staunch and supportive, bluff and stiff upper lip, but get accused of being actually unsupportive. You hug and cuddle and make myriad stupid, meaningless gestures they don't see anyway, like always doing all the housework, looking after the children, and end up feeling resentful and unsupported yourself. You veer away from making conversation - any kind - other than to relate something funny a child did today to lift their spirits, because conversation always ends in the same way: "I hate my job/my life," or "another shit day" or another rant about the new house not being built because that's something tangible to focus on. You can't actually face those phrases again so you choose to say nothing. You dread waking up because the day ALWAYS begins with them saying "Another shit day..." (It ends with it too). You find yourself tensing, waiting for the familiar soul-deep sigh that seems to emanate from them at almost minute intervals. You find your eczema, sensitive to mood at the best of times, appearing in places hitherto unexplored and want to yell "Why is your mood ruining my body?" (Remember: staunch and supportive at all times). You want to - and in fact do - repeat platitudes IN THEIR FACE like the one about the light at the end of the tunnel, but then see that they can't see that light; they're just stuck in the howling darkness with the freight train rushing down on them AND THEY CAN'T SEE THE DAMN TRACKS. You cry. A lot. Over nothing. And hide it. Or sometimes you don't in order to get a response, some notion you exist in their heads too.

We've been waiting for some news that will potentially change all this and finally, yesterday we got it. And it was good. So now, in theory, all this goes away. MCD Sr is bouncing away like Tigger on ketamines - suddenly all the despair has vanished, he found the tracks and is running, helter-skelter, towards the light. And I'm wondering why I still feel low, as if nothing's changed. And I think it's because it's become a habit. Because for months now, I haven't felt another way other than that of feeling my way blindly round a timebomb, constantly tiptoeing so that all that feeling, all that sadness, doesn't come surging out again like a tsunami taking us under again and again, leaving us blindsided and gasping and fighting to get to shore and security. Husbands, we are told, are not supposed to cry, are not supposed to be the ones making us feel unsafe and insecure just by being "a bit sad". They go manfully off and strive through their jobs, just as we do and crucially, get on with it. When, suddenly, they can't, when that MANLINESS becomes just a frightened child waiting on the hills for the wolves to come, you have to rush in on your charger, holding up the light so they can see it. And sometimes it takes a fucking long time before they can. Meanwhile, on you muster, a very pillar of wifely support, trembling, frightened, resentful, sympathetic, loving, hating, exhausted and wired. Because that's what you do. Because that's what marriage means. But no-one talks about that.

So every little helps and eating your greens at such times at least keeps your iron levels up when all you want to do is eat nothing but macaroni cheese. MCD Jr maintains he only likes broccoli "in stuff" so I've been exploring a few ways to get it in. Moronic, I know, but over-achievement has always been my byline.

3-veg Pesto:
This is dead easy: Take a big handful of spinach. frozen peas and broccoli and a peeled clove of garlic and cook in boiling water till just tender. Drain and bung in a food processor. Add a small handful of toasted pine nuts, a squeeze of lemon, olive oil and a good handful of grated Parmesan and whizz together to make a pesto consistency. Cooking the garlic with the veg softens the flavour if you've got, like me, a child with sensitive tastebuds that hates the heat of raw garlic.

Ham, Cheese and Veg Quesadillas
Blitz a good handful chestnut mushrooms and a few stalks broccoli with a clove of garlic in the food processor then add to a pan with a good lump of butter and a splash of water and cook until softened. Lay a tortilla wrap on a baking sheet and top with a slice or two of nice ham. Spread a thin layer of the veg over the top then sprinkle on grated cheese of your choice. Top with another wrap and bake in the oven until the cheese has melted. Cut into small wedges and serve.

Broccoli Cheese Sauce.
Blitz some broccoli again in the food processor then add to a basic cheese sauce, either the béchamel variety or cream with cheese stirred in. Use to coat pasta, cauliflower, leeks, chicory, anything really.

This blitzing is a great way with greens: I'm trying it with kale and leeks but would also work with cauliflower or even Brussels sprouts, which love cream and cheese.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

A Smoky Porky Tex-Mex Baked Beans; Or What To Do With Leftover Roast

I really love a Sunday roast. Really love it. Plan it all week, down to the glass of very cold, dry sherry that I have while preparing it, which reminds me almost painfully nostalgically of Ma making the same meal, drinking the same drink while we swung off the wooden chair in the kitchen watching Antiques Roadshow and irritatingly asking on a loop "Is dinner ready yet?" Summer Sundays seem to have a bit of a gap in them because there's not two hours spent in the kitchen chopping, par-boiling, roasting, stirring.

Last Sunday was when I broke. We were having roast pork shoulder come what may, weather-wise. As the weather gradually brightened up, even I had to admit roast potatoes and creamed leeks and luscious gravy were perhaps not the way forward as we sat squinting in the sunlight. So I changed tack, nicked a recipe out of Delicious magazine for an apricot, sherry & hazelnut stuffing and slow-roasted the joint while we went blackberry- and damson-ing. Leftover pork is obviously never an issue, given that I'll make apple sauce just for the sandwiches the next day (mayonnaise and stuffing also obligatory), but 3 days on, I needed it out of the fridge. So...

Serves 3

1 onion, finely sliced
1 red pepper, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
6cm-ish piece of chorizo, choppped
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1-2 chipotle chillies (or dried chilli flakes or Tabasco or whatever you have, however much you want)
1 x400g can butter beans (or haricot or cannellini or whatever you have)
200ml beef stock
1x 400g can tinned tomatoes
Leftover pork, chopped (This would work really well with beef, lamb and chicken as well)
S & P
To serve: chopped avocado, sour cream, chopped coriander, tortilla chips...

This is dead easy. Cook the onion, pepper and garlic in a little olive oil until golden then throw in the chorizo and spices. Cook until the oil runs from the chorizo and turns everything reddy-brown, then add the beans, tomatoes and stock. Simmer for 20-25 minutes until reduced a little, then add the pork and heat through. Check for seasoning and spice, then serve with the accompaniments. MCD Jr had his with buttery corn on the cob which would also hit the right notes.

You can add any vegetables to this you fancy and use any beans or meat, but it's a wonderful sweet, smoky take on chilli and baked beans. We ate shed-loads and I've got some leftover for lunch. You can extend it easily with more beans and more tomatoes if you want to bulk-cook and freeze.

PS: MCD Jr's veg count is at the moment a bit low - he seems to be on another picky phase. So I'm back to putting out batons of carrots, cucumber and sugar snap peas as an appetiser if he's hungry before dinner, which means at least some fresh veg is eaten.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Root Vegetable Rosti

So tonight, in reaction to all that beige last night, we're going Technicolour. This root vegetable rosti is almost neon with carrot, beetroot, apple and potato. You can spice it up with garam masala or other spices, tart it up with a sprightly tomato sauce, keep it veggie or use it as a side to meat or fish. And feel free to vary the vegetables: celeriac, parsnip, kohlrabi and swede all have their place here.

Serves 2-4

1 large potato, peeled
2 small beetroot, peeled
1 large carrot, peeled
1 apple, peeled
1 onion, peeled (optional)
Salt and pepper
1 egg, beaten
2 tbsp. plain flour

Grate the veg and mix in a bowl. Whisk in the egg and flour and season well. Add spices now if you're doing that. Pour a good covering of oil into a non-stick pan and add the veg mix, flattening it down. Leave it to cook and brown over a moderate heat for 10-15 minutes or until golden-brown and you feel brave enough to turn it onto a plate, then slide back into the pan to cook the other side. If you don't feel like you want to do that - and the key really is to leave it to cook long enough - do individual ones; just cook until properly golden on both sides.

We're having ours with roasted chicken thighs and some fresh tomatoes diced and cooked with garlic and a little ground cumin and coriander. These do go well, however, with some kind of pig.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Smoked Haddock Chowder - Beige Night

Digression: In 5 or even 6 weeks time - and it's wholly uncertain which - we get to move again. Third time in 3 years. This time it's just around the corner, quite literally: we can hear the diggers from our back garden. We're buying a new-build and we're putting down roots: the two aren't quite as mutually exclusive, it seems, as you might think.

Renting's an odd thing. Get the right house and you can kid yourself for quite a long time it's all good. The beige walls and carpet can be coloured up with a few wall stickers and picture, the lounge can withstand the red rug everyone hates, even you, though you bought it to cover the carpet a little and "accent" the throws you bought to lighten up the furniture. But still it comes down to the boring mantra "Don't swing/bash/colour that - it's not ours" and you all feel slightly dampened; it's not yours and you can't touch it. Hard with a small child, harder still when you just want to colour the damn beige in yourself. I'm going mad with wall stickers when we finally move in. MAD.

Anyway, tonight's dinner is also distinctly on the beige side. Tbh, I needed to use up milk, which seems to multiply in my fridge like pigweed in the night and so this, as well as the mac cheese that is no doubt coming later in the week, is just the thing. V easy and feel free to use smoked cod, or bacon as well, or different veg: this is just what we had in. Mussels make a very fine luxe version, for the weekend maybe.

Serves 3

400g or so smoked fish
300ml milk
100ml double cream
bay leaf and peppercorns
knob of butter
1 onion, finely sliced
1 leek, finely sliced
Handful small potatoes or indeed 1-2 large potatoes, peeled and diced
Frozen peas and sweetcorn (optional)
Handful raw prawns
Chopped parsley or dill
Squeeze of lemon juice

Simmer the smoked fish in the milk and cream with the bay leaf and peppercorns for 5-7 minutes or until it flakes away. Discard the skin, reserve the liquid and set the fish aside.

Sweat the alliums in the butter until truly soft and slippery. Add the potatoes and cook for a few minutes without browning, then add the milk/cream and simmer for 10 minutes or until soft. Add a little more milk or cream or even fish stock if you feel it needs topping up. This is a soup so you want generous amounts of liquid.

Add the haddock, prawns and peas and corn if using. I like the idea of corn in a chowder, MCD hates it, but I'm cooking, so ho-hum. Simmer until the prawns are cooked, then adjust the seasoning and add the herbs and lemon juice. Serve in deep bowls with crusty baguette for dunking.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Spanish-style Fish Stew

I'm not one for "family-friendly" food. I think I might have said before that this whole "family-friendly" schtick really pees me off; I'm not even sure what it's supposed to mean other than an assumption the entire family is only happy if eating gristle nuggets, limp microwave chips and bowls of ketchup. It's as patronising and demeaning as it is irritating, and even more so when you happen to have a child who - I kid you not - will order fish and chips with peas and spend happy hours peeling off the batter to get to the fish and scoffing it, eating the peas, leaving a beige collation of cold chips and batter on the side of the plate. Service staff have been known to raise their eyebrows in a questioning "Seriously?" before tentatively asking if everything was alright - because if the batter and chips are left, what could have been eaten? I tend to balk at those places, tbh.

Actually he's a fantastic eater full-stop but that's because I really believe in what I'm doing and I'm really stubborn. I don't honestly recall having bought fish fingers, nuggets or anything of that ilk, EVER, but that's not to say they're wholly bad; some - my own family included - have called me mean, as if I'm depriving him of some obligatory sensory experience necessary to validate the life of a 3 year old, but he was already occasionally having those things at school, so I don't see why I should narrow his palate profile - which sounds as if I just made it up and I did - by serving the same at home. If we have burgers, we tend to make them; we have sausages, just not with chips, and we only tend to have chips if we have steak or fish....

Also - and I will get to the recipe in a minute but bear with - I have to tell you about a recent triumph which has everything to do with persistence and patience and nothing to do with bourgeois snobbery AT ALL. MCD Jr has always loved smoked salmon, to the point he used to make my sister gag with the alacrity with which he shoved it down, but over the last year decided he no longer liked it. So we said nothing, kept buying it occasionally, offering it and telling him the story of how he ate it "when he was a baby" and hoped he'd change his mind. Finally, a few weeks ago, I was putting some out for lunch and asked him as usual if he'd fancy some. MCD Jr thought solemnly about it for some seconds then asked if he could. Then ate a slice in much the usual fashion before announcing it was once more acceptable to his palate and he now liked that AND little prawns. Next challenge: mussels.

So the thing I cooked last night was not "family-friendly" but it was the sort of thing I tend to cook and expect everyone to eat or go hungry, which is sort of the rule in our house. It was Spanish-style because I had some chorizo from Aldi and some Serrano ham and I wanted to do fish because I always want to eat more fish. I found some Cape Hake in M&S which was marvellous, but you could use any firm white fish. Also feel free to lose the ham and add mussels, clams or even bacon if you want. The meat is optional but you need to substitute the flavour punch. Also, add olives and capers if you like it really piquant. I just always have to fish them out onto my plate and last night I couldn't be bothered.

Also, I know it's a bit odd to only use 2 tinned toms out of a can but I didn't want exactly the same richness of tomato as we had in the pasta. You could use chopped fresh tomatoes instead quite easily.

Olive oil
1 onion, peeled and finely sliced
1 courgette, chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 tsp smoked paprika
8cm piece of chorizo, finely sliced
1-2 slices Serrano ham, finely chopped
Glug of white wine or even dry sherry if you have it
Handful small new potatoes, quartered
400g tin butter beans, drained
2 tinned tomatoes (save the rest of the tin for a pasta sauce or something....)
300-400ml chicken stock
1 bay leaf
300g white fish
Parsley, chopped

Sweat the vegetables in olive oil until golden and soft, then add the paprika, chorizo and ham and cook until the fat runs and turns it reddy. Add the wine, potatoes and beans and stir well and simmer for a couple of minutes, then add the toms and chicken stock and bay leaf, season and simmer for 20-25 minutes or until the potatoes are tender. Chop the fish into decent sized chunks and slide in for 10 mins or until cooked. Check the seasoning, sprinkle with parsley and serve in deep bowls with good bread.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Um.... Hi... It's been a while....

So, erm, Hi. Again. Sorry, I keep doing this - ducking in and out, avoiding commitment, scared someone will ask me for a key if I stay too long. However, this time, I'm going to try to stick around a while, so we'll take some time to settle in, get used to each other again.

God, this is embarrassing, but anyway, an old friend asked me to resurrect the blog because apparently my Twitter (yeah, I'm on Twitter now too) updates on what I am feeding MCD Jr are interesting suggestions, but what with the word count and all, there's no recipes and now you people want recipes. Want, want, want.... Anyway, I'm going to try to keep up with that because I happen to think it's really fucking important what we feed our children and even if this only helps my friend get through the long lonely winters of Minnesota, then that's one person who's reading and that's ok. Alright, Sar....

So, we'll start with an easy one. Well, it is easy in that it's a meatball pasta bake, but the cool part is that a) there's no less than six vegetables in it and b) it's a classic make-ahead/freeze/expandable and adjustable recipe that you can substitute whatever you like in. For example, I used veal mince but that's because it was on offer in Sainsbury's - you could use pork, beef, lamb or turkey if you wanted. Everything else is non-negotiable. Well, sort of. The veg are kind of non-negotiable.

This serves a healthy 4-6 people. I am anticipating meatball sandwiches tomorrow.

450g mince
4-6 balls frozen spinach, defrosted and really squeezed
Zest of 1/2 lemon
1-2 tbsp. Parmesan, grated

Mix together the above ingredients into small balls not bigger than walnuts really. Or golf balls. Just something you can pop right in and will look nice. Add a little olive oil to a really nice wide pan and fry the meatballs in batches until really browned on both sides, setting aside in a bowl when done. Then whizz...

1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1 stick celery, chopped
1 onion, peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 stalk rosemary, leaves only a food processor and fry in the leftover oil in the pan until soft. This will add real sweetness and depth to the sauce. Then add the meatballs back in and add...

a gurgle of red or white wine (I had about 100ml red leftover - optional)
1 can tinned tomatoes
200ml chicken or beef stock
2 sprigs thyme

... and simmer for about 30 minutes or until the sauce is reduced enough that you can see it saucing the pasta comfortably and it tastes good. Season it, for god's sake. The sauce will taste quite rich and grown-up. If you think it needs sugar, add a pinch.

Meanwhile, cook enough pasta (I go with 80g per adult, 40g per child) and drain, then toss it all together, strew with sliced mozzarella and bake in a good hot oven for about 25 minutes until golden and bubbling.

You could up the veg content more or make it veggie but adding aubergine and courgettes and even peppers. Parmesan is nice added after cooking. Garlic bread is unnecessary but thanks to the friend mentioned above, I seem to make it far more than I should.

Have a go, let me know what you think. Or not.