Sunday, 29 November 2009

Comforting food for miserable days

With a swathe of basics and baking stuff ordered online, and due to arrive tomorrow, I can look forward to baking tomorrow evening – stollen and lebkucken, which I haven't got around to today.

In the meantime, I've stuck with a fairly easy menu this weekend, but it's comforting food that it's perfect food for facing down yet more miserable weather.

I did a little hopping on Thursday evening and picked up a couple of poussin – in essence, small, young chickens – as I remembered a Jamie Oliver recipe I haven;'t done for years.

Par boil some potatoes until they're about five minutes from being cooked. Drain well and mix with loads of sage leaves, olive oil, peeled garlic cloves and salt and pepper. Now stuff your birds (one per person) with as much of the mix as will go. Pop the rest of the mix in a roasting tin with the stuffed birds. Roast at 220˚C for 30 minutes. Then take some streaky bacon and cover the birds and carry on roasting for a further 15 minutes.

Take the birds out and leave them to rest. Remove as much fat as possible from your roasting tin, then pop in a glass of white wine while it's on a hob, and deglaze.

Serve. I just did some simple carrots with it.

That followed a River Café Easy Two soup at lunchtime, of tomato, butternut squash and potato, seasoned with crushed fennel seeds (and I added celery salt), which is then served with a drizzle of virgin oil, grated Parmesan and a dollop of Mascarpone.

Tonight's grub is marinading. Two hulking pork chops are sitting in a bowl with lemon juice, torn lemon skins, rosemary, peeled and smashed garlic and around 10 glugs of olive oil. I'll give it another hour and then peel and slice some potatoes, core and quarter some pears and scrub and quarter some parsnips. Then everything goes in a roasting tin – meat, veg, marinade – and cook at 220˚C for 45 minutes to an hour, depending on the size of the chops (mine will take an hour, I should think).

In the meantime, take some white bread, remove the crust and chop it up. Then blend chopped mint leaves, some medium mustard and wine vinegar until you have a sauce. Or cheat, as I do, and add decent ready-made mint sauce, plus mustard, to the bread.

It's brilliantly tangy to serve with the pork.

Both those Jamie Oliver recipes came from The Return of the Naked Chef – one of the first two cookery books I bought, around nine years ago when I started cooking. I've added more of Oliver's stuff to the shelf over the years, and I keep returning to them. I've used his stuff to learn to make risotto and even bread.

So much of his food is simple – often one dish dishes – without being pernickety. He doesn't, for instance, tend to write that you need half a teaspoon of some finely chopped herb or other: it's more likely to be a handful of something – roughly torn, if anything. And the results are the sort of bursting-with-flavour dishes that, back all those years ago, I could scarcely believe that I could produce.

Oliver gets slagged off by a number of Brits: which I find odd. No, you don't have to like him, but the vitriol seems strange for someone with genuine talent, who has served a real apprenticeship (he actually worked, amongst other places, at the River Café) and has gone on to make good food easy and approachable, to campaign for schools to feed children proper food and not chips and turkey twizzlers and to launch a series of restaurants that aim to give young people from disadvantaged backgrounds a chance to get a career in food.

Is it his very success that some people dislike? Perhaps it really does tie in to a rather British thing of building people up and then, when they succeed, trying to knock them at every opportunity. Depressing, though.

Well, at least the food is far from depressing.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Getting into the festive food mood

Slowly but slowly, Christmas food is starting to take shape.

I collected my new Delia Smith book this morning – perhaps rather surprisingly, the first book of Christmas cookery I've got.

On the basis of that, it could well be a roast rack of beef, with a confit of shallots and garlic (plus – probably – roast potatoes and, err, some sort of veg). I'm thinking of doing a salad of fennel, clementines and red onion to start – I found that in a magazine I picked up earlier this week – and then possibly a stem ginger ice cream, which is also in the Delia book.

I may also try her stollen, which looks easy enough. All I have to do now is find proper marzipan from Lübeck, which is famous for the stuff (as well as for being the birthplace of Thomas and Heinrich Mann, and the home of Günter Grass).

In the meantime, I'm going to try making my own Lebkuchen this weekend. We have some sort of mad 'craft day' being planned in the office on Wednesday, so if they turn out okay, they'll be a suitable contribution. And if they're good enough, I can make more.

This autumn/winter period marks the tenth anniversary of my giving up dieting, after 26 years trying desperately to find a way of starving my body into some 'ideal' weight. Only when I threw away the bathroom scales did I realise just what a tyranny dieting is. Weighing yourself, morning and night, praying that you'll have somehow found the key to the 'perfect' diet and, via that, the 'perfect' you, which will, in turn, deliver the 'perfect' life.

I even had the family doctor tell me, when in my early twenties and very fit, that because I could never quite get below 9 stone, I should cut back from the 1,000 kcals per day I was dieting on at the time, to 800 kcals per day. In the last decade, I've researched a lot about this. That's little (if any) more than concentration camp inmates were given. An elderly woman, bedridden, requires around 1,200 kcals per day to maintain body weight. All I was doing was driving my body into famine mode: every time I stopped the most drastic diets and ate normally, I slammed the weight back on – and then some more, as my body attempted to store up supplies for the next famine.

And at the same time, food, which you obsess about while starving yourself, becomes The Enemy. There is nothing sensual or pleasurable about a plate of steaming, boiled vegetables, with no dressing or sauce except for loads of salt and pepper, because at least those don't have calories.

I was also vegetarian for a long part of that time. Well, a veggie who ate fish. After I'd left home, whenever I went back for Christmas, I'd make myself a nut roast (partly from a tin), while the rest of the family had the turkey. I never missed roast turkey – only the trimmings: my mother's stuffing balls used to be lovely – particularly when cold – as were the left-over cocktail sausages (she never did 'pigs in blankets – sausages wrapped in bacon). The best of the turkey was always at night, when we'd sit in front of the telly and have turkey sandwiches.

That was usually when, in general, Christmas Day would start to get remotely civilised. My father would have at least one church service to take in the morning – in our Manchester era, it would often be two. Then he'd go off somewhere on his own, while we twiddled our thumbs at home, waiting for his re-appearance in order to have dinner. It'd be roast potatoes and boiled sprouts on the side, with gravy. I used to prep the sprouts and stir the gravy.

I was about 14 when my parents decided that I was old enough to stay up for the traditional B&W classic movie on BBC2 on Christmas night. My presents that year had included a new dressing gown (burgandy in colour and a bit like a padded eiderdown), plus warm, sheepskin winter slippers. We sat and ate sandwiches of brown turkey meat, and watched the 1946 Big Sleep with Bogart and Bacall.

Because western used to regularly be on TV at around 6pm on Saturday evenings, I'd been a John Wayne fan for some time. But that night, watching my first Bogart film – I had never seen anything like it. In the space of one film, I grew out of Wayne and fell in love. It's a love that remains.

Christmas now is quiet. We do the big partying in the weeks running up to the final day at work. This year's calendar already looks rather hectic. As well as putting a journal to bed, we have a staff lunch at a good gastro pub nearby, plus an editorial lunch at an Italian in Covent Garden with our printer, plus the big Christmas disco in the staff bar, plus the union's national committee (the senior lay members) also stage a social in the same venue, with a free bar, to thank the union's staff for their work during the year. We've been promised an Elvis impersonator as well as the free drinkies this year.

My birthday is also two weeks before the day itself. It's a press night this year, so it'll just be the staff bar after. I am sort of angling for a meal out the next night – unfortunately, there appear to be no tables available at a new Sir Terrance Conran restaurant, Lutyens, in the old Reuters building on Fleet Street. One of my great regrets, that – I just missed working on The Street itself by a matter of a few months.

But I am on something of a stream of consciousness thing here. Back to dieting.

I gave up, as I said, 10 years ago. Perversely – or so you might think – I didn't put any weight on, even as I started to learn to enjoy food. And around three years ago, I started – very, very slowly – to lose weight. Thus far, I've dropped about one and a half clothes sizes. What an irony.

So, Christmas is now a matter of great pleasure. And planning. I'm getting slightly better at the planning bit with every passing year. And with my first seasonal cookery book, perhaps that will now get even better.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

The festive season is almost upon us

First of all – happy Thanksgiving to all my US readers. Although I don't expect you to be reading – get away from your computers and enjoy yourselves with your loved ones!

Second ... OMG, it's nearly Christmas!

That, in my case, means a birthday in between too.

I saw my first decorations over a week ago: fairy lights in the window of a flat in our block. It's not even Advent!

Actually, although it's embarrassing to admit it, I'm starting to get into the mood. Well, I've started listening to classic Christmas tracks on the way into work. Peggy Lee's Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree is a great distraction from the crowded bus.

The Other Half has purchased a festive waistcoast for himself, covered with glittery poinsettias. The girls in the office are delighted, but it's finished off his attempts at a 'bah humbug' persona for good.

Oddly enough, the run-in to Christmas isn't quite as long in the UK as it used to be. I remember the days when, return to school after the summer holiday would be almost instantly followed by shops putting decorations and gifts on display. Now, as we attempt to copy the US ever more, they wait until they've managed to flog Halloween stuff.

Christmas shopping started being a long affair during WWI, when families in the US had to allow a lot of time to ensure that their loved ones in the trenches of Flanders got their gifts on time. Now, of course, it gets going early for entirely commercial reasons.

There are still justifiable reasons for preparing in advance. Since we aren't going Christmas shopping on the Continent this year, I'm having to order my chocolate from France via the good old interweb. I do very heartily recommend Patrick Roger. It's mindblowingly fantastic stuff.

I don't know what I'm going to cook. There's only the two of us, so a turkey – even if we particularly liked roast turkey – would be daft. We did a roast duck for a few years, but that's daffy too: it's far cheaper to enjoy duck breast a few times a year, and occasionally duck legs as confit that buying a whole duck at Christmas.

I have a new book – Snowflakes and Schnapps, by an Australian cookery writer, who was inspired by her German heritage to explore northern European cuisine. It's giving me some inspiration, but I haven't nailed things down yet – hence the purchase of Delia Smith new Christmas book, which I'll collect from my bookshop on Saturday.

This year's Christmas has one major thing pencilled in: more cats. Boudicca is around five years of age and, until a year ago last August, had always lived with at least two other cats. Then my lovely Mack died. Trickie – who we adopted from Battersea Dogs (and Cats) Home – had died around eight months before.

We made a decision to let her have some time on her own – to blossom into herself. It's been fascinating and funny and wonderful. She was no shrinking violent to start with – how could you be with a name like Boudicca? She loves her human company, but she misses some feline interaction too. There's a gated carpark beyond out tiny garden and it gets daily visits from a local cat called Basil, who is as soft as the proverbial.

He always comes looking for her. She goes out and looks for him.

So we're intending to get kittens: two. We're doing it at this time of year because we'll both be off for around a fortnight, which should be useful as they all get to know each other. Even now. we're looking at Gumtree, an online market that includes cat breeders. And I'm wondering about names.

It promises to be a completely mad Christmas.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Daring to question

Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee

The Old Vic, London

When Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee penned their fictionalised account of the infamous 1925 Scopes 'Monkey' Trial, they did so with the aim of making it a parable of the McCarthy hysteria that was sweeping the US in the 1950s.

But their play – originally staged in 1955 and regularly revived in the US – has been badly served on the British stage, with only one small-scale production until this major staging.

Here, the Old Vic, under the artistic directorship of Kevin Spacey, has taken on what has, in the UK, become familiar to most people via the 1960 film starring Spencer Tracey, Frederc March and Gene Kelly, plus three subsequent TV film versions, all of which have impressive casts.

What strikes you watching the play is that it is difficult to locate it as relating to McCarthyism in anything like the way that one can still do with Arthur Miller's 1953 masterpiece, The Crucible.

But what viewing Lawrence and Lee's play now does, to a far greater extent than Miller's magnificent piece – although they share the idea of using real-life examples of religious fundamentalism as their base – is emphasise the continuing present-day conflict between fundamentalism and modern life.

There is a view that the Scopes trial was where modern (a contradiction in terms, surely?) creationism began. For many believers, there was no essential conflict between the Bible and Darwin. Many, many Christians already saw the Bible as allegorical rather than a literal account: thus the seven days of creation could quite easily mean, for instance, seven million years. There was no conflict that affected faith.

In the play, this is what defence lawyer Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow in the real case) attempts to show the court and his opposite number, Matthew Harrison Brady (William Jennings Bryan), when he describes the Bible as "poetic" rather than literal. But Drummond, of course, wants to stick to his belief – 'Young Earth Creationism' – which takes the Earth as being around 6,000 years old. Any evidence to the contrary is simply dismissed.

The first half of the play sets everything up for the trial scene. It's okay but not brilliant. The second half, which is set entirely in the court room, is far, far better. The writing is sharp and the conflict between ideas of faith and evidence crystal clear.

What the play also has, at the very end, is a very humane heart. Drummond does not take pleasure in Brady's downfall: when the cynical journalist Hornbeck (HL Mencken) derides him for 'faith', it is ultimately for a faith in humanity and human beings, and his refusal to condemn Brady – indeed, his refusal to forget Brady's early role for good, in helping to extend the suffrage.

There are uncomfortable moments: many in the audience seem to relish so much Hornbeck's biting dismissal of Brady and those who think like him, that they have forgotten the Act 1 mentions of his role in extending the suffrage. They enjoy only the bullying of the ultra-cynical Hornbeck. But then, bullying takes centre stage here. Brady himself bullies the clergyman's daughter, who is also bullied by her father. Drummond gets into the act, effectively bullying Brady in court. The attitude of the townspeople – apparently largely committed to a Bradyesque view of the world – borders on verbal lynch mob. They hide behind the safety of being a large and homogenised group that has an belief not simply in God, but in their own righteousness; their own certainty that they know the right way.

Indeed, Brady's downfall is caused by his 'sin' (if you will) of believing that he has a direct and utterly unchallengeable knowledge of the will of God.

The Old Vic's production was directed by Trevor Nun, with all the creativeness and energy that you'd expect from him, and stars David Troughton as Brady and Spacey himself as Drummond.

Troughton is good – very good. But having seen him already this year in the revival of Alan Bennett's Enjoy, you recognise some of the same physical movements. Indeed, going slightly further, my description of his performance in that said that his Wilf was "magnificent: bullying, bluff and frightened". And the same things are here in his Brady.

The writers make us wait for Drummond's entry. And it's late in the first act when he shambles on stage, weighed down by two heavy bags. For a moment, you don't realise who it is. Spacey's physicality in the role is astonishing. Darrow was almost 70 when he defended John T Scopes in Dayton, Tennessee. Spacey is 50, but everything about him is older here – except the mind. And while he might have gone to almost Method lengths physically (although I'd suggest it's more faithful to Stanislavski and less a slave to Strasberg), there are no mumblings here, but real relish for the script and the character and the situation. It's a bravura performance to thoroughly enjoy, and one where, at the end, he brings great compassion to the climax.

All in all, a very good production indeed – and enormously timely, as we find ourselves no further away from fundamentalist religion attempting to control our lives than in Dayton in 1925. It seems incredibly perverse that we seem reluctant to address Christian fundamentalism – the issue of creationism in schools is more an issue in schools in the UK today than it has been for many, many a year – even as we face what we are told is a clash of cultures with fundamentalist Islam.

Perhaps the former is apparently alive and well preceisely because of the threat of the latter?

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Time for a traditional treat

After yesterday's almost apocalyptic weather warnings, the day actually hasn't been too bad. I did well this morning, getting to the market quickly and being an efficient shopper (for once), getting there and back between any major showers.

Today is a culinary event day – but not one that takes hours of prep. It's a day for good, old-fashioned fish and chips. Vicki sometimes has cod in – today was such a day – and as she gets it from a sustainable source, I can enjoy it without guilt.

I also bought big potatoes for the chips, plus a tin of mushy peas. This is proper northern fodder – it used to be England's favourite dish, but those times have gone, and with them, most chippies. Those that remain rarely seem to serve hand-cut chips anymore. So it's a treat to do this at home – and something that I do, at most, twice a year.

And for method, it's a classic case of 'in Delia I trust'. At present, the potatoes have been peeled and cut, and I've popped them all in a pan of cold water. That helps to get rid of some of the starch as well as plumping them up. In a while, I'll drain and then dry them carefully in a clean tea towel.

Batter for the fish is a doddle. Sift 110g plain flour and a pinch of salt into a bowl. Add 150ml water plus one scant tablespoon. Whisk together into a smooth batter. Bring your fish out of the fridge and allow to come to room temperature.

Then heat your oil or lard (I use vegetable oil). To test it's ready, chuck in a small cube of bread. If it browns in a minute, the oil is hot enough. Carefully pop your chips into the oil. If they spit, it means the potato is still moist. Give them around five minutes, then lift out with your chip basket or a large slotted spoon and drain them on kitchen paper. Bring the oil back up to your starting temperature.

Meanwhile, heat some more oil in another pan – the same temperature guide applies. When it's hot enough, dip your room temperature and dried fish pieces in the batter and then pop them carefully in the oil. That'll take about five minutes, but watch for the batter turning a lovely golden as a good guide too.

After the chip fat is heated back to temperate, add your chips for another one to two minutes. Then lift out, drain on greaseproof paper of kitchen towel and serve immediately. At this point, I'm afraid I diverge from northern tradition, and pop a great big dollop of mayonnaise on the side of my plate. According to people who know me, it's an indication of the corrupting effect of the Continent. I just love dipping my chips in it. The Other Half opts for the more usual malt vinegar.

And don't forget to gently warm through your peas. If you want to be really authentic, serve with slabs of white bread with butter on, and mugs of steaming tea. However you serve it, though, it's the perfect accompaniment for a Rugby League match – and tonight sees England take on Australia in the final of the autumn's international Four Nations tournament.

I don't hold a great deal of hope for England's chances, but you never know. And nothing beats beating Australia!

Friday, 13 November 2009

Astonishing picture of a threatened world

A Shadow Falls by Nick Brandt

I have a small collection of photography books, but not many. This was one that was reviewed in a photography magazine I'd bought during a work trip last month; it was that publication's book of the month – and it was not difficult to see why.

They published small reproductions of several pictures – they completely bore out the review that in so many other circumstances might have been seen as over the top and gushing: I went straight online to order a copy.

This is beautiful stuff; awesome stuff. Nick Brandt has given himself the task of 'memorialising' the natural grandeur of East Africa. This is neither landscape photography nor wildlife photography, but a combination of both. And it has a feeling of creating a mythology right in front of your eyes.

It would never have occurred to me to photograph such a subject (or such subjects) in monochrome or sepia, but the treatment works so well. Brandt works with film, not digital, and there is an astonishing depth of tone that you still find in top-notch film work.

But what stands out most of all is the dignity of the animals he has captured on film. A dignity – yes, I know that this is anthropomorphism – a dignity that makes you want to weep when you consider the fragility of their world, which faces so many threats, and mostly from our species. The pictures have an astonishing intimacy – you feel drawn right into the heart of the lives of his non-human subjects.

Brandt has certainly done a spot of the old dodging a burning – manipulation of photographs is not some new fangled creation of the digital age – but he has created some utterly astonishing images. The mother cheetah with her cubs on the rock is ... well, it's just beautiful. There is a magnificent empathy here and a great deal of power.

It's nearly Christmas: I don't usually do this sort of thing, but if you like photography in general, or if you like landscape photography and/or wildlife photography or if you like B&W photography, then get this book. It has a special something that is difficult to describe, but which lifts it way above most photography. I simply cannot imagine what it must be like to take pictures of this quality.

All the pictures I've reproduced here can be viewed larger by clicking on them. The book itself is printed on excellent art paper, and comes in large format (39.2cm x 31.2cm) that allows the pictures to be viewed easily.