Monday, June 30, 2008

Assessing June

Last month I feebly whined and winged about the 'assessing' posts, yet, yesterday I found myself looking forward to writing about June. The last day of the month gives me a clear purpose for the daily post, as opposed to wandering around the house, asking myself why on earth I need to post every day. Fact is, it is good for writing. There is nothing like a handful of daily lines to keep the writing brain ticking.

As envisaged at the end of May, the great highlights of June turned out to be the Tutankhamun exhibition and the Jovi concert. Now, they both seem so far away in time that I am somehow wondering whether they did happen and if they did, was it really me experiencing them? Time stretches out and then compresses itself strangely in my life. I have clear memories of something that happened twenty years ago and sketchy, un-lived remembrances of something that I only experienced this past week. The greatest accomplishment this month has been nailing down the sample chapters to send out with my book proposal. There is a lot going on in my life at present yet, somehow, I am finishing the month on a downer, as if I had finally gone past the finishing line of a 30-day marathon.

I can only hope that July will bring something more definite in every sense of the term. Tomorrow I have a most unpleasant work meeting in London. Oh wait! I should not expect it to be unpleasant, hence it will turn into the proverbial self-fulfilling prophecy. So, ok, I am looking forward to the work meeting and then to dragging my heels around Harrods that most conveniently started the sale today. July is an extraordinarily long (and boring) month. But hey, it's two months to my birthday tomorrow and hopefully it will turn into a seminal one.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Frogging, Frogging... Frogged!

I am obviously going through a decidedly green period. I keep eating courgettes and spinach and most of what I am knitting is green, including the scarf I spoke of recently (frogged, I want to re-start it with a lace pattern) and this other project that was on my needles only yesterday.

I keep flitting from needles to needles, from yarn to yarn, from pattern to pattern. I figured that a waterfall scarf would be a bit of a waste of baby alpaca and would not showcase the variegated yarn particularly well. And now I am off to start again, this time following a drop-stitch pattern. I will have to stick to this one, else my knitting friends will start wondering whether I am ever going to finish anything (hey, surely the washcloths count, right?). I may well end up unable to buy any more yarn until I make it back to the shop with something, anything, which I made with the hundreds of miles of wool I already bought.

Problem is... there is always a ball that promises to be the crystal ball of all yarn balls, the one that will change my knitting life if only I purchased it and took it home. Since the last time I promised myself (and my friends) that I would not buy any more yarn until I have used it all, dammit, I have acquired another eleven balls. Yes, I like that, acquire. I don't buy yarn, I acquire it. It follows me around and manages to fall into my bag so that when I get home and open it I find it there, staring up at me, all mo-hairs quivering under my over-excited breath. It's like acquiring nephews or nieces you see, with the great advantage that if you don't like what you are doing with it, you can rip it to pieces and start again. I cannot say to be so lucky family-wise, even though the 'ripping to pieces' does come to mind sometimes.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Drunken Courgettes

I am saying these courgettes are drunk but, really, you can barely taste the wine in them. You need to use a nice dry white of your choice and not be apologetic for it. Wine will quickly evaporate leaving you with courgettes that are sweet and tarty at the same time. Grill some Halloumi cheese as well and serve with it.

5 large courgettes
150ml dry white wine
200ml white wine vinegar
1 tsp sugar
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp fresh mint, finely chopped

Chop the courgettes width-wise and place them in a heavy-based saucepan on high heat. Immediately add the wine and vinegar. Stir well, now add the teaspoon of sugar, the salt and the fresh mint. Cook on high for a scant five minutes, then lower the heat to medium.

You need to keep an eye on these because wine and vinegar evaporate much more quickly than vegetable stock or tomato sauce. When this happens, add some hot water and have a taste check; you may need a little more salt at this stage because courgettes are sweet and bland at the best of times. Continue cooking until all the water has been absorbed and the courgettes are tender and still retain their shape.

Serve with grilled Halloumi cheese, also minty, and with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. You really need this to counter-balance the sweet-and-sour provided by the courgettes themselves and the vinegar. These keep extremely well for a couple of days and become more tasty as they continue to marinade.

Friday, June 27, 2008

You Are My Destiny

Some time ago I read in Vogue that when you happen to be dragging your heels in shops at sale time and come across what seems like a great bargain, you should really ask yourself whether it is worth your trouble and your money, especially considering that sales happen towards the tail-end of a season. It isn't really so in England, where we are blessed with fabulous selection all year-round and when sales hit at the end of June, which is really the beginning of the English hybrid non-summer and at the end of December, when winter is only just settling in. But I'll tell you what Vogue was spot-on about in that article: the author said that if you see a dress stamped on by people, finally dropped in a heap under the rails and you still love it, that's the sale item to buy. As I was trailing Hoopers five minutes before my hair appointment this afternoon I couldn't quite believe what I saw. I saw this:

I know the pic does not do it justice but this is a Thomas Burberry skirt that I bought for the paltry sum of £ 195 last winter. I loved the thick fabric, the school-girl shape, the length, the fit, the everything. Then I took it home and left it to let off steam for a few days as I always do when I buy something new. Because a couple of American trips were fast approaching, in an inexplicably unusual fit of frugality I decided to take it back for a refund. I figured that the dollar exchange rate was going to be so abysmal come my two weeks in Chicago that I should have really spent my £ 195 there. I was right, the exchange rate was abysmal and I do have fond memories of trailing the rails at Neiman Marcus as ice was falling off the skyscrapers outside and I had not a care in the world. Still, I thought of that marvellous, thick skirt upon setting foot outside. It seemed that, at -25C, it would have worked oh-so-well under the down coat and on top of the long-johns on top of the tights.

I am telling you, there is no chance I was even thinking about it this afternoon, no more than I was expecting to come across Jovi shopping for dresses. I immediately recognised it poking out of a rail, the neat pleats calling my name as loudly as they did the first time my eyes met them. I had to fight with myself in order not to yell YEEEEEEEEEESSSS at the very top of my hysterical voice. I slowed my pace right down, even though I felt a run rushing up, a vortex throwing me in the skirt's seams as it hung there beautiful and composed, I swear slowly waving a pleat in my direction.

Dear reader, if this ain't destiny, I don't know what is. It was like meeting a longed-for-but-never-acquired boyfriend with the added bonus that he is now filthy rich and wants to marry me. It was down to £ 38 and in my precious size. And yes, Vogue was right; if you still love it months and months down the line when tons of hands have passed it... you were meant to be.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Pizza Express

In my wildest food porn fantasies I always have time to get my hands dirty into squishy dough I can then flatten, flip, twirl and toss in the air before I lace it up with fabulous things and slam it into my six-door Aga. When I snap back to reality, I find myself in my hole of a kitchen, faced with a hunger bigger than I can manage and a tiny electric stove that is good for nothing. Necessity however truly is the mother of invention; I have found that when I am ravenous for food, which happens more often than I care to admit, I whip out a pizza so express that even Nigella cannot beat me to the post.

I usually find myself fighting against a great misconception: fast food is crap food. It doesn't have to be this way. If you use ready-made, supermarket-bought pizza bases... well... you ain't gonna produce the best pizza ever, you may just manage a quick one. Wraps on the other hand, provide you with a lovely base that is neither stale nor un-pizza-like. In fact, unless you only like deep pan, a wrap is the greatest and fastest alternative that yields a base as close as possible to the Italian super-thin of original pizzerias.

The secret is then to use really interesting and good ingredients such as fat olives and capers, interesting cheeses (I am thinking Blue Danish, Saint Agur, Stilton, gorgonzola, Parmesan, mozzarella, pecorino), a thick tomato sauce and, the oft-omitted pièce de résistance of pizza-making, dried oregano sprinkled on top just before you stick your masterpiece under the grill. Keep an eye on it; a wrap is easy to carbonise, yet, you want it warmed throughout and with all cheese duly melted.

I had one tonight and it does beat your run-of-the-mill Domino's and it is faster than their delivery also. Tune in soon for more ideas on great pizza toppings. I feel inspired in a Jamie's Italy kind of way...

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Hulk Soup

I trashed The Incredible Hulk lately, but I thought of him today as I was perusing the meagre selection of my fridge and some truly gigantic courgettes appeared out of the bottom drawer. Sometimes I do not need or want a thick soup (or a soup that you can dye wool in, as one of my readers rightly said), and so I opted for something relatively clear and green. Whip out your own thicko courgettes and get boiling.

5 large courgettes
2 liters of vegetable stock
one bouquet garni
sea salt
4 small onions (whole) or 1 onion (chopped)
2 tbps of tomato purée (if you must)
oregano to serve

Chop the courgettes in reasonably large pieces. The idea is to produce a herby, clear soup whose only consistency is given by the courgettes themselves. These will have to boil long enough to be edible, but not so long as to disintegrate and disappear. We don't want mushy courgette soup here. Peel the onions and drop whole in the hot stock, together with the chopped courgettes, one bouquet garni and sea salt to taste.

You can find ready-made bouquets garnis in supermarkets, but if you are making your own (I salute you), you need to use marjoram, parsley, thyme, rosemary and a bay leaf or two. String all of this together or, better still, use some gauge. Place it in the pan and remember to remove, lest someone will find it floating in the bowl... Do not skip this; it is the herbs that give this soup its reason for being. If, like me, you like to see a bit of red, add two tablespoons of tomato purée. However, this is absolutely not necessary. Personally, I prefer this soup to stay clear and green and not go cloudy as it does as you start to add tomatoes or anything else that isn't green (as you can see above).

Boil rapidly for 10 minutes and then lower to medium and continue boiling for an extra 15 minutes or so, long enough to tenderise the courgettes. Add some sprinkled oregano upon serving, as well as tofu croutons. Why tofu croutons? Because they are the only croutons that do not go soggy. Tune in soon for how to make them.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Cappuccino Cream

I love to work with chocolate. I began manipulating it in the now distant 2003, when due to my sick leave, I was at home all the time and, back pain permitting, spending an hour pottering above a double-boiler seemed like an exciting enough proposition. By chocolate I do not refer to Mars bars, or Twix, or Snickers, neither am I thinking of Cadbury's and such related crap. I do think there is a place for this type of rubbish sometimes, but classifying the above as chocolate is a bit like thinking Dan Brown produces literature. There is so little cocoa and so much vegetable fat in Cadbruy's it would be illegal in certain places (I am thinking France, Belgium, Switzerland, all purveyors of excellent chocolate made from, gasp, high content of cocoa).

Another interesting problem is presented by white chocolate; some say it ain't chocolate at all because it contains no cocoa, only cocoa butter. Yet, by definition, it is cocoa, because cocoa butter is extracted from cocoa beans. The challenge of course is to find excellent white chocolate and I can tell you it is not easy by any means.

The higher the cocoa content and the more unstable chocolate is; I know that in my early practising days I ended up burning plentiful batches of perfectly respectable 85% cocoa, especially so when a spirit was added. I am more careful (and capable) as of late and I have overcome the early difficulties, but when it comes to white chocolate, I am still a little scared. Still, the following recipe for a cappuccino cream I have modified for years is worth the trouble. It tastes incredible but make sure you understand that it contains a scary lot of double cream and that you really should not eat it by the spoonful in one sitting, ok?

100g white chocolate (I have currently settled for Menier, readily available at the supermarket, but if you can, you should really get the white by La Maison Du Chocolat, no contest on this one)
400ml double cream
2 teaspoons of Nescafe (I know, blasphemy, but you need it here, you cannot use real coffee)

Put the chocolate to melt either in a double boiler (really, really, really low heat and little water... once it starts to melt it splits just by being looked at) or, easier, in the microwave. Once done, remove from heat and set aside as you get on with the two teaspoons of Nescafe which you will pulverise completely in a mortar (or whatever else you've got to hand). Add the powder to the double cream and give it a stir.

Now the annoying part begins and let me warn you, it may drive you crazy. Get your melted white chocolate and add the double cream, giving it a quick stir (only one quick stir). If all is well, the cream will thicken almost immediately and will remain smooth throughout. Add cocoa powder on top, place in the fridge and you're done.

If all is not well, something else will happen: the white chocolate will split from itself and will begin to solidify within the cream, leaving you with a mess specked with white particles. Keep your cool, get a small hand-held whip and set to work. Whip it forcefully by hand for as long as it takes (and it may take long), until the chocolate will return to a smooth state and will get incorporated to the cream. Trust me, it will happen, but it likes to give a scare first.

Why does this happen? A multitude of reasons: the chocolate may still bit a little too warm (but you cannot let it go too cold because it will begin to set and return to bar-like state), you have whipped the cream too forcefully upon contact with the chocolate, you have whipped the cream too forcefully upon contact with the coffee powder, you are using a particularly ailing brand of white chocolate, the cream is too cold, the container is too tepid... You get the picture, many variables at play with something that is, by its very nature, extremely unpredictable. I have done this amazing cream on multiple occasions; sometimes it's ready immediately, others it requires whipping by hand. Whatever happens to you, do not let an apparent disaster prevent you from re-doing it all and trying again until it turns as smooth as you see above. It has the consistency of ice-cream and goes well with cakes (by the side, on top, within layers) or indeed by itself by the spoonful.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Hang-Under Cure

Ah the long gone university years when day was night and night was day... I am not cut for nights any longer, if I ever was, and seeing that today I didn't string in my usual 9 to 10 hours, I can tell you I am moving in slow-motion, silence still ringing in my ears as it only does after an ear-splitting rock concert. I am one that does not really drink in any considerable way; you ain't gonna catch me down the local on Friday nights downing pint after pint of what I call, perhaps little prosaically, watered-down piss. However, I do have a thing for spirits and find that there is nothing like a few shots to perk someone up. This Very Fruity and Very Berry Pimm's is all around awesomeness when I feel right under... Proceed with caution, it's addictive, and the fruit thrown in leaves you under the misguided assumption that this is actually good for you.

50ml Pimm's
25ml Grand Marnier
100ml lemonade
half a nectarine
three strawberries
three cherries
ice cubes

Fill your glass (or small vase, as I do) with ice cubes, then throw in the fruit, the Pimm's, the Grand Marnier, top with the lemonade and wake up it's a beautiful morning...!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Pocketful of Rainbows And A Jukebox Full of Hits

I already spoke of my fondness for Ratatouille and it may seem curious that I am referring to this movie again when today's topic is neither cinema nor food, but music. This is dictated by this movie having stirred sentiments dear to me as a person and important to my work: 'In many ways the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgement. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But, the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things... the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so'. A lot can be said on the critic's position within intellectual debate, but that is for another day's reflections because today I am thinking about nothing particularly intellectual in the academic sense of the term.

I am of the unwavering opinion that we do not choose what music we like to listen to, it choose us. I can state that I like pop or rock for example, but can I say that I like it all? It is impossible to do so, because of the different, multi-faceted permutations one can find within both pop and rock. It would be like stating 'I like all non-fiction'. Yet I do not like biography, autobiography, self-help, cooking, fashion, architecture, religious, inspirational, sports, physics, popular psychology in equal measure. That just ain't going to happen. But while writing can spur us to pick a title and many more titles in the so-called same vein, music is more immediate and can make a dash at us when we least expect it, as we idly wait in a room or exercise at the gym. One can like rock and not care very much about Led Zeppelin or U2 or Elvis or REM or indeed Bon Jovi. And here's the snag my friend: some will shudder at mentioning Bon Jovi under the same breath as Led Zeppelin or U2 or Elvis or REM. Yet, they have been more prolific and longer-lasting than Elvis for sure, to mention one, so, what exactly makes them the rockers that critics love to hate?

There is a lot I could go into, as my fingers hover uncertain above the keyboard, wondering whether I too, like their worst detractors, should go down the route of poodle perms, tight leather pants or armfuls of jingle-jangle bangles. I have been unable to locate an article over the past twenty years about Bon Jovi that does not refer to any, or indeed all, of the above. So much for originality; I wonder how these writers/critics get jobs? Maybe that's how you need to write in order to work for certain publications. It seems everyone hired by Empire magazine needs to display easily pleased carbuncular youth humour infested by cliches and laced up by the frolicking of idiocy. Not my idea of critic, for sure. But we digress.

I am happy to proceed further down the line of blasphemy and identify Bon Jovi's body of work au par with Johnny Cash's. Consider this for example:

I bet there's rich folks eating in a fancy dining car
they're probably drinkin' coffee and smoking big cigars.
Well I know I had it coming, I know I can't be free
but those people keep a movin'
and that's what tortures me...

And now this:

You can't help but prosper where the streets are paved with gold
They say the oil wells ran deeper here than anybody knows
I packed up on my wife and kid and left them back at home [...]
Down in dry county they're swimming in the sand
Praying for some holy water to wash the sins from off our hand
Here in dry county the promise has run dry
Where nobody cries and no one's getting out of here alive.

Cash got stick a -plenty with his prison stunts; he was seen as glorifying the life of what were essentially low-lives stuck in prison for a reason, and the reason was not a prosaic and romanticised one of human error or miscalculation, it was not an issue of victim against all odds or of a potential miscarriage of justice. He humanised delinquents and went out to entertain them at a time when his own life was in dire need of a lift out of the black hole carried by the wings of a miracle. Still, Cash was a deeply Christian man, and I believe that it is fair to identify his behaviour as the one of a man that showed Christian charity and compassion. His detractors saw little else than a businessman getting back to business. Now Cash is no longer, it is perfectly acceptable to look back at his life with nostalgia, all hail to the man that spoke to the masses in their own language, getting close to everyman's heart and knowing exactly what he was going through.

I see no substantial difference between Folsom Prison Blues and Dry County, the latter too invoking redemption as we crawl through the broken glass (or as we swim in the sand indeed, something I seem to do often) scattered throughout our lifepath.

Now consider this:

As sure as night is dark and day is light
I keep you on my mind both day and night
And happiness I've known proves that it's right
Because you're mine, I walk the line

And this:

I want you like the roses want the rain
You know I need you like a poet needs the pain
I would give anything my blood my love my life
To have you in these arms tonight

Rhyming is another sore point for some; I recently read that Coldplay too are being scoffed at for their apparently gratuitous use of rhyming couplets. Yet, rhyming has an illustrious past, you'd think Spenserian, Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnets had shown its beauty enough times. While I do not want to raise hair all over anyone's body on this one, we ought to keep an open mind regarding artistic endeavours; rhyming is not just for Shakespeare or professional poets. There is no reason to dismiss, or indeed diss, musicians that make use of it on the grounds of using it. It would be like writing off all money because one finds a fake a note. Nobody does that, yet many are prepared to relegate a song to the land of the cheesy on the grounds of a handful of rhymes, as if musical composition accounted for nothing.

I am also rather suspicious of the popular/populist attacks that have been regularly thrown the Bon Jovi way (and the Johnny Cash way as well). Their greatest legacy and gift is to be able to capture the universal state of mind of millions of Tommys and Ginas. Considering that so much music is about love, life and sex, I often wonder why we do not have more best-selling, 25-years-at-the-top sort of bands. If it were so easy to epitomise and crystallise the feelings associated with life, then surely every musician should be a best-selling one. Perhaps the Populist Haters that tear Jovi apart while yakking away about poodle perms (ditched in 1988, note) could perhaps try and make up a more up-to-the-minute argument that does not involve big hair and tight pants. I, for one, would love to be enlightened about what is intrinsically low-brow about a song that celebrates the difficulty of starting out together (Livin' On A Prayer) or the one that suggests we should all carpe diem (It's My Life) or the one that looks back on life with renewed vigour and gained wisdom (Just Older).

Jovi chose me when I was around about four years old and was flicking between channels. They did not look much different from their Swedish counterparts at the time, Europe, but they sounded different, at least to my untrained ears. For all those years spent singing along, when I didn't even know what I was singing to, and for all those years where friendships, kisses, exams, disappointments, university, death and, quite simply, life were all marked by the latest Jovi hit, I can testify that the average piece of Jovi junk has been more meaningful to me than a million reviews trashing it. They gave me pocketful of rainbows and a jukebox full of hits, as Jon himself said today and, you know what? I ain't gonna scoff at that.

From today:

From Manchester June 2006:

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Saffron Soup

I promise this is the last bit of saffron I am going to sprinkle on here for a good while. I just cannot resist the stuff, especially on days like today, when it is supposedly the first day of summer, and it is windy, miserable and lashing down like it hasn't done in a while. Every thundering cloud will hopefully conceal a dry lining, for tomorrow it is Bon Jovi day and, quite frankly, I would hope to avoid a 6-hour lash-down on a football pitch, unless they throw in the man himself for good measure. Tonight, as I was busy knitting and yet was hungry, I pulled out an old stand-by of mine, a saffron soup that can be whipped out in no time at all and requires zero cooking per se. And if Delia and Nigella have done the cheating (and who cares if they got stick from Gordon Fucking Ramsey?), I don't see why I cannot do the same.

2 liters vegetable stock (I usually make mine, but tonight I threw a stock cube into boiling water)
4 mini onions
200g of dried legumes (mix I get from Julian Graves)
2 cans of tomatoes, whole
50g red lentils
saffron (strands or powder)
sea salt to taste
French mustard for serving

Serves 4 to 6

Prepare the vegetable stock the express way, by boiling the kettle and dissolving a stock cube or stock grains in it. Put the pan on high on the stove and proceed to adding the peeled little onions, the two cans of tomatoes (whole, they will break down while cooking), the dried legumes, sea salt to taste (make it two tablespoons with this much water) and saffron (I used one sachet this time).

Bring to the boil and let it boil for ten minutes before adding the red lentils. Now lower the heat to medium and get on with whatever you want to do because this will need to bubble away for approximately 35 minutes from now.

Once you're ready to eat, serve the soup in your bowl and top with a small amount of French mustard. This may be an usual combination, but I can assure you that the delicate saffron and the wallpaper-stripping quality of French mustard go really well together. In fact, my mouth is watering as I type. And of course lay off the mustard for those who are not used to it or do not like it (honestly... are there such people?).

The beauty of this soup also lies in its colour and texture. The soft, broken down tomatoes, the still detectable legumes, the sweet onions make for a varied sensory experience which you do not get when you whizz everything in a blender.

Friday, June 20, 2008

In-The-Pink Washcloths

It has finally happened, I have a finished object.

I bought a skein of Rowan Handknit Cotton several weeks ago with the washcloths from 101 Designer One-Skein Wonders in mind. At that time, my cast-on was still the tightest one in England and I persisted on trying to read the pattern as I was knitting. The result were multiple froggings and the yarn quickly turning into a corkscrewed pink mess. No more so now. At an average of two hours per washcloth (yes well, I am a slow knitter), I have some leftover for the stash and, finally, something finished to post on Ravelry.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

These Booties Are Made for Standing

As of late Merv has been as lame, lame, lame and lame as my emails. The poor thing was limping tonight when I went to fit him with a new pair of booties. The plan was for him to wear a pair of special platform shoes (honestly, I couldn't wait to see that, as a cut-down version of Saturday Night Fever flashed before my very eyes), but there aren't any that fit him. He is going for a scan on Wednesday and hopefully this will not higlight any further damage to his tendon. Overall he is doing just fine and seems happy enough to limp around the field as he stuffs his vast face with tender grass. Not that there is that much at the moment (well, of course, he has already eaten it).

As for me, I haven't ridden in weeks and although I always enjoy to see him and groom him and give him a bath and spend some quality time together, it is a bit of a shame that he had to break down as the weather was turning for the better. I really hope he will get better soon for his sake, not mine. I know that I'll wait for him for ever if need be. Perish the thought that I would ever begin a significant relationship with some other horse. It would feel as right as sleeping with a guy other than the usual one. Steph *heart* Merv.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Saffron Of Plenty

There is one horn among all horns that has always fascinated me: the cornucopia, or horn of plenty. The horn of plenty is usually seen as carried by Fortuna, or Lady Luck, and while it may drip in coins and gold, in my mind the horn of plenty is filled with the gifts of harvest as per Thanksgiving imagery. Every time I find myself dragging my heels in the nearest supermarket, one type of pepper always catches my eye, the ramiro. I love its shape because it reminds me of the horn of plenty. Even though I have a rather poor pic of my latest recipe (I was a touch too eager to eat and eat quickly), you will see that ramiro peppers look like the cornucopia and we can only hope that they too will bring plenty to those who eat them. I have already waxed lyrical about my passion for saffron; ramiros may not come in yellow but, remember, saffron is really red not yellow! Here follows the recipe for my Saffron Cornucopias, not suitable to wheat allergy sufferers.

2 shallots
boiling water
sea salt
200g bulgar wheat
saffron (one sachet or one good pinch of strands)
4 ramiro peppers
4 tbsp cream cheese

Warm the oven to 220C as you put the kettle to boil. Peel and very finely chop the shallots, then put them in a heavy saucepan on medium heat where they will slowly fry in a drop of oil. As they turn golden, add some boiling water (and get your face off the heat at this point, steam can be vicious) and the saffron. Stir well and now add all the bulgar wheat. Stir and add more water as you see fits.

Bulgar wheat absorbs water very quickly, hence it is important that you keep an eye on it to begin with, by adding more water a little at a time and by salting well as you do a taste check (known as 'quality control' at my place!). Leave the wheat to cook on medium as you get on with the peppers. Chop the tops off, de-seed, wash and dry. Once the wheat is starting to soften up, about 10 minutes into its cooking, spoon it into the waiting peppers. Because the opening isn't very large, you will need to gently whack the peppers so that the wheat can drop down well into the bottom. Press with a spoon and add more until the peppers are all stuffed.

Now spoon a generous lid of cream cheese on each one, lay the peppers in the waiting, non-stick baking tray and paint them sparingly with olive oil. This is to add taste, not to prevent them from sticking. They won't, so long as you use a non-stick baking tray. Place in the oven for 10-15 minutes. You want them cooked but not so cooked that their outer skin starts to spontaneously peel off. Take them out, leave to stand for 5 minutes and then serve with a salad (I particularly like them with sauerkraut because they contrast well with the sweetness of the peppers themselves and of the saffron).

If you could manage it, these would be much better the day after, cold from the fridge and cut into 1/3 inch slices. They make great pick-nick food and really spell S U M M E R even when it rains, like today.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Hazy Fern Scarf with Brownies

So it begins. Again. I caved in today and after much procrastinating, something I am a champion at, I bought a ball of Rowan Kidsilk Haze and set off on some knitting practice. As suggested by a friend that really knows her stuff, unlike me, I began a plain garter stitch scarf made mildly interesting by occasionally switching to larger needles. It is going reasonably well considering it has not turned into the bird's nest I feared as I worked through my sweat-inducing first row. Sure enough there appear to be accidental yarn-overs (also known as holes, depending on whether your glass is half-full or half-empty obviously), but this is nothing that a strategically placed brooch cannot fix.

The grand scheme of kidsilk things will take me down the hairy slope of jumper-knitting. I already have a pattern I am dying to try (from Fitted Knits, more on this when the time is right...), but I must admit that I really love one from A Kidsilk Dream by Rowan. Interestingly, and perhaps weirdly, this jumper is called Brownie.

And what better time to share the recipe for my fabulous brownies than today? I baked a lot for the knitting group yesterday and the results were the same as they always are. You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't like brownies. One last word of warning: to think that there is so much butter and sugar and chocolate and eggs in them will not put you off eating them.

400g dark chocolate (the best you cannot afford, I cannot stress this enough)
400g unsalted butter
230g flour with 1 tsp salt added
1 tbsp vanilla extract
6 eggs
500g sugar

Warm the oven at 180C as you line a baking tin with baking parchment. You will need a big one because this recipe is for many brownies! I use something that measures approximately 30 cm X 23 cm X 3 cm.

Put the butter and chocolate to melt in a double boiler, stirring occasionally. Now crack your eggs into the sugar and whip them up until they have at least doubled in volume, by which stage the chocolate will have nicely melt with the butter.

Pour the melted chocolate into the egg mixture and continue to whip while you also add the vanilla extract.

Once all incorporated, slowly add the flour as you continue whipping. A minute or so later, you should have a fabulous mass ready to pour into the waiting tin.

Bake for a good 40 minutes and, I beg you, do not open the oven's door before at least 35 minutes have expired. Experience has taught me that many baking disasters could have been averted if only there were a little more patience in the world and a lock system on oven doors. This will need to cook for closer to 45 minutes and do not be alarmed if you see the top going too dark for your liking. When the time is up, pull the tin out and let it rest for a good couple of hours. Then ease the brownie out of the tin with the paper, cut it in pieces and store it in a tin container ready for your next knitting group or horsey joint, whatever comes first and stuff your faces with glee.

Monday, June 16, 2008

William's Birthday

William turned nine. I baked him a classic madeira cake for the occasion, as I usually do when one of them hits a special landmark, and shared a slice too with a glass of milk, as did Victoria (she didn't have the glass of milk however). William is my first dog and, although I am not supposed to favour anyone, he is my favourite. He came into my life as a graduation present and turned it around with the upheaval of epilepsy and with lots of love and fun. He is lovable and sweet and I hope that he will be with me for many years to come still. Happy birthday Willo!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Abominable Hulk

I don't know why Hulk seems so difficult. Deep down, it is nothing other than a Frankenstein-like tale of man playing God. Yet, directors and writers do not seem to get it and persist on offering sub-par versions of Hulk which do not do justice to the greatness of one of Marvel's most beloved characters.

I, like many, was taken by surprise when I heard that another Hulk was already in the works. It seems only yesterday that I sat through an excruciating director's commentary on the just-released DVD and today, I endured some more pointless crap kindly of director Louis Leterrier and writer/actor Edward Norton. I know that Norton has his own share of fans; apparently, he is a much more capable actor than he seems. I just never seem to stumble across that movie of his that makes me nod slowly as I crease my eyes and pout and think 'yes, I get it', like I did when I saw Johnny Depp dancing with Juliette Binoche in Chocolat. That was my Depp Ephiphany, when the thick layer of tarmac that had encrusted my eyes since A Nightmare on Elm Street finally cracked and fell off my blinkered lids. But with Norton, the epiphany hasn't happened yet. If anything, this latest Hulk is enough to put me off him for a long time still.

Because you see, the story of Bruce Banner is one of heart-felt alienation, of being a cast-away from society, of being the rejected monster that is still so painfully human. I often thought that the original Hulk theme, the one from the TV series which was thrown into this latest movie as a stilted nod to the past, is a hunting melody of loneliness and despair. This is not a superhero at ease in his own skin (Superman), nor a superhero that eventually grows into his super-suit (Spider-man); even less so is he a self-made superhero that works at it until he transcends reality and becomes a symbol (The Batman). Bruce's humanity is taken not by his green alter-ego, but by a society that makes him a fugitive. How can directors not pick on these subtleties and prefer endless minutes of war-like extravaganza? I am not saying this cannot be entertaining, but when you have a character whose issues are as multi-faceted as Bruce Banner's, you're missing a lot if you throw it all to the winds of computer-generated imagery.

As if one cartoon-like beast were not enough, Leterrier inflicts us a second, lizard-like monster that runs rampant for a final show-down with the Hulk. As I watched, I wondered how many more of these brain-dead versions we will have to endure before the Hulk will get granted the Batman treatment and will finally soar to the great heights of sub-text that the character encapsulates. This version, like Ang Lee's in 2003, left me with bleeding eyes, broken eardrums and a horrid, hopeless and downright abominable sense of déjà vu.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Kipping in Knutsford

I spent my first World Knit in Public Day in Knutsford with my usual group of knitters.

The task was to knit or crochet little hats for newborns, as suggested by Save The Children.

I didn't even finish mine (will I ever get to a finished object I wonder...?), but that's because my hands are no way near as expert or as fast as these:

And while I am at it, I will take this opportunity to throw in a completely gratuitous picture of Knutsford. Just because it looked so perfect today and because, let's face it, I really love it.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Petite Malaise

Sometimes I wake up feeling awful, like I haven't slept at all but someone has used me as a punchbag all night. I have always believed in Freddy Krueger and I am certain there is one with boxing gloves, rather than slashing hands, waiting for me to go to sleep and start dreaming. I managed to drag myself and Victoria to the vet for a check-up and then I figured out that nothing helps une petite malaise better than a new book, provided it is neither intellectually engaging, nor presenting new material. I chose La Vie Parisienne, a hybrid version of French Women Don't Get Fat and Two Lipsticks and A Lover.

All of these three books more or less speak of the same: attractive and pencil-thin French women who could teach the world, especially the Anglo-American one, a thing or two about style and diet. When French Women Don't Get Fat came out, it rapidly made it to many best-selling lists, despite revealing what is not really a secret to anyone who has lived in France for any amount of time: tiny portions and a modicum of physical activity are enough to look good when your contemporaries get too decrepit or too fat to attract even a passing scoff.

Two Lipsticks and A Lover is ideal for the frumpy friend who thinks cropped trousers (or indeed wrap dresses) suit everyone. I can only hope that those misguided British women that cannot stand Trinny and Susannah (big mistake, those two really know their stuff), will have a copy of Helena's glamour bible on their bedside tables. I find that it is especially vital that you read it if you have a daughter and are a little on the frumpy side. All hail the French! Considering they buy lipglosses, not Bratz dolls, to their seven year olds, it is no wonder that just about every French woman grows up knowing how to walk the right side of elegance. You see, often trendy is mistaken for elegance, yet they are two very different things. Take it from someone who has a deadly penchant for leopard print. At least I know it is vulgar. It just happens to be a vulgarity I find impossible to resist.

Quoi dire de La Vie Parisienne? I am not sure. I read a couple of chapters, ascertained that it is not an improvement, minute or otherwise, on any book about la vie francaise I have read so far and tossed it by the sofa. I am sure I will discover it again eventually, probably during the next sickly patch. There is nothing like brainless reading when une petite malaise strikes.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Saffron Delights

I have never been one for yellow. I adore green, I am taken by pink, I swoon over purple. I also fear red and long for blue. But yellow... sorry, just not my colour. Yet, they say that yellow promotes happiness and, boy, do I need a dash of happy at present. I was thinking about yellow this morning, as I was perusing my open wardrobe, and realised that, much as I may say that I don't like it, there is actually plenty of yellow in my life. Just thinking about a few of these dashes makes me feel better. Saffron risotto for one, my all-time favourite risotto. How curious that saffron is really red, yet it yields the deepest yellow when used in the kitchen. It wins over turmeric for me because turmeric is nothing other than a natural dye; it doesn't actually taste of anything. If you can find it, buy it in strands and buy Spanish or Indian saffron, they are much more tasty than ours. You know, I love saffron so much I would call my daughter Saffron, just like Edi's in Ab Fab, though, hopefully, she would grow to look far less frumpy and more like her mother (me, not Edi).

Then of course on my list there are daffs, which I posted about in passing a few weeks ago and, surprisingly perhaps, dandelions.

I know that dandelions are the gardening equivalent of adverbs and adjectives; they spring all over if one lets them (and the way to writing hell is paved with them), yet, I rather like their spikiness. They remind me of the spokes of bicycles and even though I cannot ride to save my life (a bike that is, I can ride a horse to save my life although as of late it has felt more like I can ride a horse to lose my life), I like the sense of movement encapsulated in the flower. You can tell I am no gardener, for these are not so much flowers but weeds and are detested as much as slugs.

Madeira cake is one of my favourites. My benchmark is Nigella's from How To Be A Domestic Goddess and I keep tweaking with the recipe usually by adding saffron, turmeric and various herbs. See here for one of my many variations.

The farm is currently swamped by buttercups and they look so lovely we all take pics of our horses in a sea of tiny yellow dots as they graze peacefully around them. It's lovely to see the fields mowed within an inch of their lives but all buttercups still standing. Horses do not eat them and I am glad they don't, for they look so lovely that they make me wish for a good horse-like roll sometimes, but I am going to have to mind the poo.

Today I wore yellow, a first for me. I was complimented by many people and I therefore presume that it must not look too ghastly next to my face. Perhaps it does not bring happiness as such but it lifts one's spirits. Considering where I was last night, I can tell you it surely worked for me.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

One For Polenta

When the weather turns lousy and gray and the temperature drops below the 20C mark, one food in particular always comes to my mind: polenta. Polenta usually gets a bad press. It is labelled as tasteless and pointless, as porridge-like (honestly... some people really don't know what they talk about) or simply as bland. In fact, poor old polenta is none of these. The problem with it, if one lives outside of Italy, is that what is found in supermarkets and average grocery shops couldn't be further from real polenta, the one poured over gigantic wooden boards in Alpine resorts, as all tuck in with crusty bread and lots of laughter. I know I paint a bit of a Pollyanna-like picture, but, really, polenta is just that, the sort of hearty food that brings all together after a day on the slopes. Or shopping in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan. Whatever makes you tick. What to do if the Alps are miles away and the supermarket offering is either a vacuumed-packed brick-like slippery slab or an instantaneous pap that curdles 20 seconds after touching hot water? Rescue is at hand my friend and it will all be worth it, for you will enjoy one of the most exciting foods one can taste.

The fab thing about polenta is that it can be dressed in whichever way one favours. Popular choices are always porcini sauce, with generous Parmesan, pesto, four cheeses (in particular gorgonzola or any other blue cheese, they all melt fabulously), as well as the very simple and very beautiful olive oil with shards of Parmesan thrown on for good measure. Polenta is cornmeal and takes a very long time to prepare. Don't be fooled by those ghastly offerings that promise to be ready in 10 minutes flat; this is not good polenta. Good polenta is supposed to be firm yet elastic, with more consistency than really good mash, but a grain that offers stimulation to the tastebuds. It should be added to hot water, a pioggia, that is rained in from the packet, as your other hand whips away. Add milk a little at a time and ensure that polenta stays away from the sides of the pan.

This whipping motion, ideally with a large wooden spoon, should continue for the entire duration of the cooking, anything between 50 minutes (for better polenta than the one found at the supermarket but not as good as really top one) to 90 minutes (for real polenta that holds its shape and its taste way beyond you've finished stirring). If you have a fireplace, get yourself a paiolo, or copper pan, suspend it above the logs and get cooking. This is the way it was done many years ago and still the best because copper retains heat and keeps polenta warmer for longer. Like mash and pizza, it has a terrible tendency to cool fast, as soon as spooned onto a plate. Don't let that happen; lace it up with a home-made sauce of your choice (my favourite is any mouldy cheese slotted into the hot cracks) and eat it fast, as I do. Find good polenta at Harrods and less good at Harley Nichols. If all else fails, polenta Agnesi is not that bad even though it cooks barely for 20 minutes. Beware of quick-cooking polenta; it tends to bubble like molten lava and while it may be ok on eating, it isn't ok exploded in one's face.

Cubist Dog

Pablo would have approved.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Strawoli Cottage For One

I spoke of lethal combos before, mainly of chocolate and peanut butter. I could have talked about coffee and chocolate or strawberries and red wine or reading and writing or Rimmer and Lister. They all are fabulous pairs. What doesn't occur to many however is that the combination of strawberries and black olives on a bed of cottage cheese also provides a fast-track to tastebuds heaven, provided you are not one of those people that detests olives. And on this subject I should recommend that you go and seek the nicest black olives you can find and that they must not be preserved in oil for this quick snack. The strawberries should have been left to marinate in red wine (ideally Barbera, you do not want something delicate for this) overnight, even though mine today were plain since I am out of wine and this doesn't work as well with Bailey's (yah, I tried it).

125g strawberries marinated overnight in red wine
50g black olives
40g cottage cheese
fresh mint

Spoon out the cottage cheese in a bowl and add the chopped strawberries. Cover with generous olive slices and decorate with leaves of fresh mint if available.

And this seems like a not-too-sad way to get back on track after the weekend's culinary shenanigans.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Back To Reality

There were Harrods, La Maison Du Chocolat, Fortnum and Mason, Tutankhamun, La Patisserie Valerie, Franchetti Bond and Rigby and Peller. And there were also laughter, markets, walks, talks, cabs, sobs and sighs. Now it's back to reality and it hurts.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

La Malediction De La Maison Du Chocolat

I love traditional hotels because they make me feel cosy and at home. However, I resolved that staying somewhere modern would not have killed me for once, especially considering that my travelling companion likes post-modernism and minimalism. So I booked us at the Millennium Hotel London Knightsbridge, situated in Sloane Street and overlooking fabulous boutiques and pretty townhouses. I wish I had stuck to my original plan and had diverted us to the Parkes Hotel, one of the best of the best I've ever had the pleasure to spend time at.

Upon check-in, I decided I could live with the extra dingy, extra tired-looking room, with an old television set, antiquated air conditioning (set at 21C, which truly begs the question... why?) and with a corridor temperature that skimmed sauna levels. One doesn't sit in a corridor after all so who cares, right? Later, I also decided to live with bathrobes that took two phone calls and 45 minutes to materialise themselves and with truly abysmal mini-bar and toiletries selections. I closed both eyes on a limp buffet breakfast with skinned clementines but no strawberries (considering the former are out of season and the latter are in season, one has to wonder with which criteria these people draw menus up), and even, shame on me, with a non-negotiable tip of £ 4.90 added to ‘included breakfast’ upon check-out. However, the icing on the cake was poured when the concierge kindly offered my travelling companion to store her chocolates in the fridge behind the bar, ready for collection with our stored bags upon our return late in the afternoon.

I don't need to tell you that the chocolates never materialised themselves, because you've probably already figured it out. I can only guess that an over-zealous hotel employee thought the better of them and decided to remove temptation just in case. This is, after all, a £ 265 a day hotel, they take good care of their guests. I blame the chocolates you see. Last September, a friend sent me a huge box for my birthday. As I was not in, this was delivered to the people who live opposite me, but the courier never left me a card. When I started enquiring about these (or better, when my friend enquired about them to me), it took five minutes to find out that they had been delivered two days before and that the idiots opposite me decided to eat them on the basis that they did not know who the addressee was. Never mind that it takes seconds to cross the street and perhaps ask, just like I did when I was told that so-and-so had signed for them. I have started to grow weary of La Maison Du Chocolat... they seem to bring disaster upon those who come dangerously close to them. And considering that I saw King Tut only yesterday, I am inclined to believe that it's all down to a curse, rather than to incredibly rude imbeciles. Of course it is. It is. I said it is.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Everywhere The Glint Of Gold

I am slightly saddened that the best I can post is a picture of a book cover but photography was not allowed at the Tutankhamun exhibition and, deep down, I was mildly relieved. I find that photography very often gets in the way of enjoyment; when you're in a 'blink and you'll miss it' situation, clutching a camera is the sure-way to missing it. As is often the case when I attend an exhibition, I felt my heart skipping in my chest as I was waiting to enter, clutching tightly my recorded guide and imagining what was only finally just a wall away. Tut's funeral mask (the face he is known as, even though it is not a very good likeness of the king since it was destined for someone other than he) was not at this exhibition because deemed too fragile to travel. My friend was lucky enough to have seen this (and the sarcophagi) the last time this exhibition came to London, over 35 years ago, but I was smitten all the same, because one coffinette was there, as was a marvellous wooden bust of the king as a child.

The videos and images were also extremely interesting, for they showed the CAT scans of the mummy and what it looked like upon first opening of the sarcophagi. I shuffled from artifact to artifact with my eyes wide open, photographing everything with my retina, trying desperately to impress my memory for ever. Looking at his shrivelled face made me feel awkward, as if I had been intruding into something intimate that should have remained shrouded from wanton eyes. Did he have an inkling in his lifetime that he would have become one of the world's most famous historical figures, one whose face is, and has been, recognizable across continents and all eras, across cultures and languages? Unlikely. And to think that he was only a boy king is even more fascinating in the mysterious show still going on that is Tutankhamun's reign, one that lives on, so many centuries after he.

Friday, June 6, 2008

A Change Or A Rest

They say that a change is as good as a rest. In principle, I agree. When I finish on one project and move to another straight away it all feels new for long enough to delude myself that I may actually have, not simply a new role, but a new job. I am not sure, however, that change, rest and holiday, or even weekend away, are well-suited to one another. I recently heard from a friend who went to Florida with his kids. They did so much in so many days in so many places, that now he is totally knackered and needs a few days off work to recover. Today has been packed with lousy weather, food, shopping, food, food, shopping, food and food. And we still have to get to dinner. I cannot believe only a couple of weeks ago I was talking about my tight pants. I need to get on track, I need to get on track, I need to get on track. But I'll do that after this weekend. I'll tell you what, London has got so much more than just eating and flitting from store to store. Wasn't it Samuel Johnson who once wrote that it is impossible to get bored of London because London has got everything that life has to offer? I wish it were my quote (I also wish that this one were my quote: 'In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing'). Maybe I can appropriate myself of it easily enough, as an epitaph. And maybe I should get the AmEx logo added at the bottom, just to be fair to what is my Muse when it comes to lifting my spirits.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Picture Perfect

I am packing for my trip to London and will update retrospectively after the weekend. Oh and today was a lovely day filled with runs, walkies, ice-cream and pictures perfect.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Sleeping Dogs

I spent the ideal working day today. I worked on The Book and I interspersed the typing with a lot of washing. Believe it or not, I fished out cashmere scarves I hadn't seen since last winter. That's one of the supposed advantages of working outside of the house... you never get to do anything and your chores pile up until you have to tackle them all in one sitting. For the first time in my life I actually hung things to dry outside since I stumbled across one of the rare clear and windy days that make drying clothes a cinch. Believe me, it doesn't often happen in Cheshire. William and Victoria kept me customary company, mainly stretched out in some corner, occasionally rampaging in the garden but not really wanting to stay there.

All the better for me. I have a load of paper to edit now and I am making very good progress. I will be able to send the chapters to the agent as requested within the next couple of days. As for a new role on a project... I haven't heard anything yet. And you know what they say about sleeping dogs...

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Crochet Essentials

Anyone who knits or crochets knows that finding a book one can deem interesting from cover to cover is one of life's greatest challenges. Sometimes I get a book on the basis of a couple of patterns alone. Sometimes, due to my still limited skill-set, I get a book because the visuals are very good, but the patterns and ideas not so much. There are however two books I am completely taken by. One is Vintage Crochet by Susan Cropper and the other is Essential Crochet by Erika Knight.

Vintage Crochet may be written as a homage to crochet of yesteryear, yet its designs are thoroughly modern. I am absolutely taken by the dress, the chevron blanket, the corsage and the purse and bag. The instructions are very easy to follow and a back section is rife with pictures of special stitches and techniques. And if you scour Ravelry, drop a line to susanlondon, the author of the book and excellent owner of Loop.

Essential Crochet is a treasure-trove of classic designs with a very elegant spin. I cannot wait to begin the spiderweb curtain, the lingerie case and the colourful throws. The book also includes patterns for cushion covers (another favourite of mine) and lavender pillows which always make lovely gifts. Considering the rate I'm going, if I start tonight I should be able to have something to give away this Christmas!

Of course I couldn't do any of this without The Happy Hooker. Sometimes scoffed at, certainly so in the States, where I was recently laughed at for admitting to liking her books, the Hooker is the author that got me onto the crochet bandwagon to begin with. The patterns in the book aren't that breath-taking, but if I ever need a refresh, she's the woman.
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