Thursday, 25 March 2010

It's not what I expected... Part V

I am alone behind the till. The BookSeller is out back, ostensibly checking the Reading Recovery books but I know he's just bought his son's Beano and the comic is not with me behind the till. A woman enters - purposefully strides through the door - reminding me faintly and perhaps not entirely pleasantly of Nancy dell' Oily.

'I want a book' she says. I wait breathlessly. 'It's a book I've read and I want it for a present. It's called Death in Venice, Lost in Iraq. Or something like that. Something that's alliterative.'

I type venice and iraq into the Bertrams search engine and surprisingly - or not - come up with zilch. So I say 'Any idea of the author?'

'No. It's by a journalist and it's a travel book. It's got Venice and Iraq in the title. Is Jon here? He recommended it and he would know.'

By now her attitude is slightly starting to piss me off and I get stubborn and say - oh foolish me - that he's unavailable but I'm sure I can help. I surreptitiously google it - she wants Jeff in Venice, Death in Varansi by Geoff Dyer. Of course. We have a copy in stock in Fiction. I go and fetch it for her.

She lets me get back behind the counter, fixes me with a challenging sort of stare from behind the completely unnecessary sunglasses and says 'I want a hardback copy of Birchwood by John Banville.' I point out it's unlikely we'd have the hardback in but the paperback is. 'Oh, but it's a present.' I duly fetch it for her and she accedes. This time I ca' canny, because I sense she and I have not finished this slightly tedious game of How can I annoy the shop assistant, hand the book to her and say 'Anything else?'

She is clearly a master at this. She shakes her head and continues browsing new titles. I go back behind the counter and she opens her mouth and says 'I want the book about pandas. It's for...' and she says it in a peculiarly strained, emphatic, meaningful way, 'My Husband's Best Friend for his 50th.'

This time I do know what she's talking about - 100 facts about Pandas, a witty amusing little jokey fact book, none of it true and perhaps not entirely amusing for that fact alone. It came in only the other day and I am only too pleased to once again traipse to the end of the shop and fetch it for her.

This is clearly the end of the spree; she gathers them into a pile and then asks me to permanent marker over all the prices. I make sure I do this in front of her - something tells me this is risky as the pen might slip and I might accidentally permanent marker her face, but I do it anyway. I put the books through the till - again stupid, as she then turns away for wrapping paper and birthday cards. Meanwhile the 3 ladies who've been hanging out in the bookshop after their morning coffee next door approximately 5 years ago come to the till with a grand total of £18.98 to show for their browsing. I have to over-ring 'Nancy's' order.

She deigns to come back to the till and this time I manage to get actual money out of her. The sunglasses are still in place. She leaves, barely acknowledging my strained and perhaps snarled Goodbye. Later I find out The Husband's Best Friend is actually Rod Liddle. Good luck to him.

A case in point - about kitchens anyway...

My kitchen from the right - note how every possible work surface is taken up with a gadget - coffee grinder, machine, bread bin, bread maker, radio, book overflow, the endless lists on the table and notes for vegetables and herbs to grow...

My kitchen from the left - how many teatowels and for what emergency does one girl need on hand?

My somewhat forlorn garden that I look out on to waiting for me to go down the garden centre. Note the faintly hopeful pink cherry blossom in the far right corner, the 4 brave daffodils. You have to admire their spirit.

It's been a while...

I've been slightly out of commission for a week or so and I come back to find my world turned upside down. Barack Obama, quiet, resolute and determined, finally passed his 'Obamacare' bill (and I still can't get my head around the counter-arguments so we'll leave that to the more politically astute like Tania K), Sophie Dahl stopped being a model and started being a cook, albeit not in her own kitchen (would anyone actually ever put their own kitchen on TV? see above), and Marco Pierre White lost the plot completely and started batting for Bernard Matthews' turkeys - although not literally; perhaps he leaves that to their employees. India Knight wrote a terrific, typically funny piece on it last Sunday.

Meanwhile I have been cooking and pottering. Last Thursday I was down in Hastings for a spring day by the seaside, coming home loaded with home-cured bacon, gooseberry & sloe gin jam (particularly good on toasted muffins topped with ricotta) and a gloriously verdant pot of wild garlic pesto which seems to find its way into nearly every meal - including breakfast (try smothered on hot toast topped with roasted tomatoes) at the moment.

And I have spread my baking wings a little further. Nigel's Demerara Lemon cake from Kitchen Diaries was such a triumph I baked it two weekends in a row. This weekend I am making the dessert wine-based bread & butter pudding I made at Christmas, but instead of using panettone, I am using Columba, an Easter cake similarly spiced that I found in the Polish shop. More on that treasure trove in a mo.

But finally finally the irresistible pull of spring has begun in earnest. Venturing to the farmers' market for the first time in 3 weeks, my heart beat a little faster at the sight of Pink Fir Apple potatoes, purple sprouting broccoli and spring greens. I thought I'd just make a note of a couple of the more seasonally-apt dinners we've had that hint at the change in season.

Tuesday night: 2 enormous pork chops baked in the oven with a little seasoning and lemon juice accompanied by chicory braised in 1/2 cup of chicken stock, lemon juice and Parmesan until tender and a salad of those Pink Fir Apples, boiled until just tender, halved and tossed in a dressing of cider vinegar, olive oil, spring onions and plenty of salt and pepper.

Wednesday night: Lamb chops, again baked in the oven, with a little cherry tomato salad. I added moutabal - an aubergine puree that couldn't be easier. Bake an aubergine, slit all over, in a hot oven until wrinkly and collapsed - 45 minutes should do it. Scrape out the flesh and beat with a tsp or so of tahini, plenty of lemon juice, a crushed clove of garlic and season. I had thought I might make a chickpea mash to go with it, but I'm re-reading Nigel's Tender Vol 1 (another sign of spring) and used his recipe for chickpea patties. Whiz a can of chickpeas with an egg, parsley, garlic, mint, paprika, salt and pepper, ground cumin and coriander until almost smooth but with a bit of texture. (At this point next time I might add a scarce spoonful of yoghurt to add a touch more moisture). Shape into patties and rest in the fridge until you're ready to cook them. Heat some olive oil in a pan, slide in the patties and leave for a good few minutes to form a solid golden crust. When that's happened turn them over and do the other side. If you don't leave them alone, they'll fall apart. Serve the whole lot with a yoghurt dressing, made with olive oil, mint and perhaps some grated cucumber if you have any.

Thursday: Ah well it's raining, so I thought I might have a tinker with some of the goodies from the Polish shop. I brought home some 'country bread' which is a mixture of rye and sourdough (and was 50p!!! 50p!!!) and will be perfect with Ma's cucumber pickle, some Polish herrings, a schmear perhaps of Philadelphia and a little salad for lunch. Later there will be platters of pierogi - dumplings stuffed with potato and cheese - and pancakes, again stuffed with cheese. The pierogi, according to the shop assistant, are best not boiled as stated on the packet but fried until golden and served with fried onions. The pancakes are also fried until crisp. My feeling is they might welcome a dressing of sour cream and paprika and a side order of purple sprouting for the health. The assistant was slightly horrified when I suggested it, pointing out the sour cream would be better with the fruit filled pierogi. I shall trample Polish tradition underfoot and try both and let you know how it goes.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Stuffed Vine Leaves Saved My Life

We love a new cookbook in the bookshop (and get your signed copy here too), although I am the first to howl with outrage at yet another seasonal/local/chef-driven tome. Last week saw the arrival of Nadia Sawalha's first cookbook. Stuffed Vine Leaves Saved My Life - a whimisical, family-oriented meander through the Middle Eastern recipes that formed the culinary backdrop to her childhood.
Dotted with family pictures and suffused with a deep warmth that puts you right into the heart of her extended family, Nadia's recipes range from the traditional to Cheese, coleslaw and crisp sandwiches - whatever takes your fancy.

I've tried a couple so far and loved them. Mussakhan - roasted chicken on a bed of sumac-infused onions and bread - is fabulous with a minty cucumber yoghurt dip and my new breakfast for summer is a take on Zait wa Zaatar, Nadia's father's recipe.
Zait wa Zaatar means Oil with Herbs. You make Zaatar, which you can either buy in any Middle Eastern store or combine dried thyme and marjoram with sumac and toasted sesame seeds. Nadia's recipe then follows her father's precise instructions for the compiling of the ingredients of the breakfast, which include pitta bread, Greek yoghurt (Rachel's is best) or labneh, honey, olive oil and pitta bread.
This morning, in possession of some ripe figs and a loaf of ciabatta (oh the agony of fusion) I put an homage together. One one side of a white plate, put a spoonful of yoghurt and then one on the other side. In between arrange a couple of figs, quartered and roseate. Over one pile of yoghurt drizzle a little honey. In a little dish (for I lacked Zaatar) mix together some extra virgin olive oil, sumac and dried oregano (delicious, although not Zaatar). Bake the ciabatta in the oven until hot and crisp, then serve up with the figs, yoghurt and oil and a pot of sweetened mint tea on the side.

Monday, 1 March 2010

A moment in the sun.

We've been away for a quick week in Tenerife - blazing sunshine does wonders for the cerebral matter. I am a summer person; I'm never happier than when in the sun, feeling my inner self unfold and become somehow less introverted, less 'in myself' as I have a tendency to become over the long months of winter.

But, no matter how wonderful and recharging a week in the sun can be - and believe me, I needed it like nothing else - somehow it wasn't the same as the 40 minutes I just spent sitting on my back step in the first spring sunshine, noticing the first sprouting bulbs, the first tiny leaves on the clematis, reading Wolf Hall and turning my face to the brief heat and thinking 'At last, we're turning the corner.'

Although they promise it will all be gone by Wednesday.