Monday, 28 February 2011

Bottling it Up

I’m beginning to dread every article I see about parenthood (which makes it sound like I spend my days skimming the papers, flicking through mags and generally keeping on top of the world.  I am, of course, referring mainly to the headlines, or the first paragraph,  which I occasionally see as the Girl rips last week’s (unread) Sunday newspaper to shreds and stuffs it in her mouth).  They seem to fall into two categories.  The first, generally found in the aforementioned Sunday papers, are of the Hysterical Motherhood variety, and nearly always start with the following words:  “A recent study has found...”.  Accordingly, recent studies have found that women who went back to work within a year of having a baby / breastfed until their child was a teen / didn’t breastfeed at all / actually dared to push their child around in a pram which faced away from them, were more / less likely to have children with high IQs/Low IQs/no IQ whatsoever and the women themselves suffered terrible guilt / emotional breakdowns / loss of libido, as a result.

The other articles are written by parents  themselves and just annoy me*. One I saw the other day was by a woman who “confessed” to losing her cool “from time to time”, which seemed to be enough times in her children’s lives to count on one hand (and describe in the article).  That’s even worse than the newspapers’ barely disguised misogyny – it’s just plain lies.  I mean, it has to be, right?  The only thing that stops me from handing myself over to social services at the end of the day is an assumption that every half-normal parent who looks after their kids spends most of the day gritting their teeth and SCREAMING silently. 

That I am guilty of this (but not guilty about it – obviously, or I might try to be more patient) was brought home to me by the Boy today who, when he poured his full cup of juice over the Girl’s head, immediately then said “Uh Oh, Mummy crosssssssssss...”   He didn’t seem  upset or put out by this – just stating the fact, and pipping me to the post.  Instead of the usual bark,  I had to laugh – although it didn’t stop him from the day’s Nth visit to the naughty corner.  (The Girl just looked delighted - at the attention from her adored Big Brother, as well as the rare treat of orange juice cascading into her (ever) open mouth).

So I’ve thought up an invention that is going to make me millions – enough in fact to hire people to be nice to my children all the time. It’s a bottle which is made of special light-weight fully soundproof material.  You hold the open end over your mouth and BELLOW into it as the circumstances demand.  Not only is no sound heard by the outside world – or the tiny ears that inhabit it – but the bottle then sucks all the negative energy out of you through your mouth and disposes of it.  Somehow. 

It’s called:  the Bottle It Up.  Brilliant, no??

It may take some time to develop – I suspect that the energy rebalancer feature is going to be particularly tricky (involving alcohol perhaps?). But until I have the time – and patience - to develop it, there’s always the clenched-fist-and-countdown-till 7pm.  And, of course, the naughty corner.  Which sort of operates in exactly the opposite way to the Bottle It Up – creating negative energy – but right now it’s all I have.

Actually, that’s not quite true.  I find, somewhat strangely, that mashing potatoes is a good stress buster.  With the added benefit that you then have food for the Boy for the next two weeks – hurrah!  But to add to my ever-increasing list of Things To Feel Guilty About, I started to feel bad last week that I feed him ALOT of mashed potatoes.  And then I remembered a lovely recipe I’d seen on some blog somewhere, and lo! The mashed potatoes were transformed into something fabulous:  home-made gnocci.  Sounds – and looks – complicated, but is in fact ridiculously easy.  And you can get as creative as you like.  Give it a try.  For the good for your blood pressure.  And your offspring’s jaded palate.

You need (for four):
  • About 500g mashed potatoes (leftovers are fine)
  • Plain white flour – about 200g (the ratio is about 40%-50% flour to the mash – depending on how wet the mash is.  Start with less and add more if needed)
  • An egg, beaten
  • Salt and pepper
  • Any fancy ingredients you want to add to the gnocchi – herbs or cheese or other mashed root vegetable (in which case reduce the volume of the potatoes accordingly).  I added some grated chedder, which was lovely.
To your cooled, mashed potato, add the beaten egg and then the flour (and anything extra you're using), and mix it all together.  It should form a thick dough – if it’s very sticky add some more flour.

Knead the dough for a minute or two and then cut into four, and roll each piece out with the palms of your hand into a long skinny sausage shape.  You want it to be no fatter than a fat cigar. 

Cut each length into pieces about an inch long (or as long/short as you want).

You now have gnocchi.  Easy wasn’t it?

When you’re ready to serve, pop the pieces into a pan of boiling water, until they rise to the surface.  That’s it.

Serve with Dead Simple Tomato Sauce, butter and parmesan, or a jar of homemade (natch) pesto;  or really anything you’d serve with pasta.  And of course lashings of positivity.

(* The irony of this is not lost on me)

Monday, 21 February 2011

A Stitch in Time Saves My Evening...

It is the perfect afternoon.  The sort of afternoon you daydream about from a desk in an office in a city. The low winter sun is streaming through the trees in the back-garden, distorting the sunshine flooding into the kitchen.  The house is quiet – quiet!! Not a child within earshot (or sight, hurrah!) – except for the lovely gentle intelligent hum of Radio 4.  I am alone in my house on a peaceful sunny afternoon for the first time... ever, I think. And yet the perfection is overcast by the sceptre of Last Night’s Events. 

The Man was away, 7pm had been and gone, and lights-off was being dragged out for all its worth.  Finally I made it downstairs, waded through the end-of-day carnage and sat on the sofa with a book in hand.  Two minutes later, the peace was shattered by the thumping of feet – our neighbours (damned London terraced houses) galloping up and down the stairs.  Ho Hum.  Silence, then more galloping, louder this time.  Jeez, they sounded like they were overhead.  Now they sound like... they’re on my stairs. Curiosity got the better of me, off I went to investigate.

If I had walked out and bumped into the Queen, naked, doing handstands on the landing, I couldn’t have been more shocked.  For there, in all his glory, standing outside my bedroom, was the Boy.  Delirious with excitement, literally jumping up and down, his face splitting with joy, the words tumbling out of him:  “I climbed out Mummy, I climbed out!!!”  

This may not seem like such a big deal, except – it’s like Alcatraz in his room.  He is zipped into a sleeping bag then lifted into a very deep, very high, cot-bed – bars still in place.  As far as I was concerned, nothing short of a helicopter hoist would get him out. 

So back to bed we went, his excitement slightly contagious (Reader, I engaged with him – silly bad Mummy), and I tried to get him to show me how he did it.  Nothing doing.   Not until I had gone back downstairs, that is.  Then he was up and out again. So I took measures – sleeping bag on backwards, zip out of reach (apart from a couple of inches at the very bottom).  Turns out that’s all Houdini needed – because by the time my feet had touched the bottom step, his had touched the bedroom floor. 

The solution is obvious:  move him to a big bed, and Get Tough.  Or... you could take the lazy – and temporary - way out and sew his sleeping bag shut every time it’s used...  It’s only a matter of time before he works out how to clamber without the need for lower-body movement, but until then, that sewing kit the Man swiped from a hotel to a chorus of derision from yours truly has finally found its use.

Emotional Traumas such as coming face to face with a small child who you thought you had locked away demand the comfort of a rich winter pasta.  Here is an easy peasy one – so easy in fact that it “belongs” to the Man, from whom I have stolen, and bettered tweaked it.  

Spicy Tuna “Bolognaise”
You need (for 2):
  • Enough long pasta – spaghetti, linguine - for two
  • One tin of tuna, drained (I like tuna steaks in brine, but it’s your call)
  • One tin of tomatoes (plum or chopped)
  • An onion, chopped
  • Oil, for frying
  • Clove of garlic, chopped or crushed
  • A red chilli / half a tsp of chilli flakes*
  • Two tbsp of capers*
  • About a dozen or so black olives, pitted and chopped*
  • Small bunch of parsley, chopped.
Fry the chopped onion in the oil, until soft (about 7 minutes). 

If you’re using fresh chilli, add it now, and leave to fry for a minute or so.

Add the tin of tuna and the garlic, and stir to mix.

Leave for a couple of minutes, then add the tomatoes, capers, chopped olives, and chilli flakes (if using).  Fill the empty tomato tin with water and add about a third to the pan.

Bring to the boil, then reduce heat, and cover, leaving to simmer for 10 mins or so.

Add the chopped parsley just before serving over pasta**.

(* Little taste buds don’t always appreciate these ingredients.  So if you’re planning on sharing with the terrorist toddler in your life, you can either leave 'em out, or decide “bugger it”, and eat all the sauce yourself.  I know which one I opt for.)

(**If you’re super organised, you’ll have made the pasta at the start of this whole exercise or while the onion is cooking.  If you’re me, you’ll have made the sauce, poured yourself a glass of wine, and settled down with yesterday’s papers, forgetting all about the pasta until you go to pour the sauce over... an empty plate.  Still, it’s v delish on its own.)

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Shall I Compare Thee to a Slice of Bread?

It is said that true love is hard to find.  As far as filial love and this mother is concerned, this is increasingly true.  Once upon a time I’d walk into a room and the Boy’s face would light up, he would explode with giggles and laughter, his eyes would shine brightly and he would push away whoever was with him at the time.  It was clear that I was his One True Love.  While I like to think that I remain so, it’s becoming harder to decode.  Unless of course he’s showing his affection by means of torment  - in which case, I am way ahead of anyone in the love stakes. 

For example, he has taken ignoring me – or, rather, ignoring my attempts at discipline – to new heights;  yesterday, he actually started to sing-song “LaLaLaLaLaLaLaLaLaLa....” while I was giving him a Talking To in the Naughty Corner.  This was after spending the morning lying face-down at the back of his class roaring NO-MUMMY-NO-MUMMY-NO-MUMMY, while I looked the other way and pretended that I only had one child (and everyone else behaved impeccably, grrr).

Aside from these minor mishaps, we had what I thought was quite a pleasant afternoon.  We painted the Man a Valentine’s card – red hand-prints on a white board - and tried to make chocolate mousse.  (Fun tho’ it was, by the end of these activities – what had I been thinking??? - the kitchen looked like something from the Tate Modern).  We watched some Sesame Street, and ate pasta and cheese.  And apart from the Naughty Corner incident, I didn’t raise my voice at all – as far as I’m concerned, the mark of a successful day. 

So I was somewhat surprised when the Man asked him last night: “Did you have fun with Mummy?”
Silence.  Then a ponderous look on his face.  Then:
“Mummy shouting.  FREDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!  STOP THAT!!  LEAVE HER ALONE!!! GET DOWN!” (All delivered in an exorcist-esque demonic growl.)
“Shouting all day long.” (Said very matter of factly).

So I guess that answers the question pretty comprehensibly.  No room for doubt there. 

The Man got lots of filial lovin’ from the Girl however.  In fact, he is the apple of her eye.  This was demonstrated clearly the other night when, thinking she was sick, I took her into bed with me, and banished the Man.  His departure caused a complete melt-down (in her, not him – although he wasn’t overly excited about it either)  - big fat tears running down her big fat face, which ceased only when he returned. On a day to day level,  I get pushed away as soon as he comes into her line of vision, and her face breaks into a big sweet smile whenever he’s around.  It’s very sweet but, you know, a little bit annoying. This is the thanks I get for ruining my life / body / sleeping habits?

On the plus side, she loves bread – any bread, at any time - more than she loves either of us.  She might light up at the sight of the Man, but she positively drools when she catches a glimpse of some bread. 

You can’t really blame her – little beats good bread (as if she gets given good bread, ha!).  Although pastry definitely comes close.  And with this in mind, I put together the easiest Valentine’s dinner imaginable last night – Salmon en Croute (or salmon wrapped in pastry for the linguistically challenged). 

While perfect for a romantic dinner a deux (dim the lights to block out the sight of all the baby / toddler crap) it’s also fantastic if you’re entertaining.  Just make ahead up until the “pop in the oven” step, and then pick up there about 20 minutes before you want to eat. I served it with asparagus (romantic, eh?  But also on special offer, so economical too, hurrah!) but it goes with anything.   

Finally, you can get as creative as you want with the ingredients to be wrapped.  I went for the lazy easy option, but you can get really fancy and top the salmon with smoked salmon doused in lemon juice, cream-cheese mixed with dill, or chopped, cooked prawns tossed in crème fraiche.

Salmon en Croute

You need: (For 2)

·         2 fillets of salmon, skinned (or skin them yourself)
·         A block or roll of ready-made puff pastry (get the “All butter” if possible)
·         Jar of pesto – any flavour -  (get a tub of the fresh stuff from the deli counter if you’re feeling really full of love) or tapenade. 
·         1 egg (optional).

Preheat oven to 170c. 

Roll out puff pastry, to make 2 squares big enough to wrap each of the salmon pieces, with a bit to spare.

Put one piece of salmon in the centre of each pastry square and smear pesto / tapenade over the top.  How much you use depends on how much you like the taste of your chose sauce.  I find a tablespoon of pesto or a half tablespoon of tapenade per fillet is good.

Bring the long sides of the pastry up to meet in the middle, on top of the salmon.  Pinch it together with your fingers, so both sides stick together (You can even get arty and make pretty wavy patterns...).  Press the “short sides” of the pastry down with a fork, to seal.  Note that you want to leave a bit of a gap between the top of the salmon/filling, and the pastry, so that there’s a bit of air circulating once the pastry goes “puff”. 

If you can be faffed, beat the egg with a tablespoon of water, and brush the mixture over the top of the pastry.  It doesn’t add anything to the taste but once cooked, it looks fantastic.  The Man went so far as to suggest that I had bought the pastries, ready-made.  (Then he stopped talking until the swelling went down).

Put on a greased baking tray and stick in the oven for between 15-20 mins (depending on the thickness of your salmon).  If you used the egg-wash, the pastry will be golden and shiney.  Either way, it will have puffed up and look fantastic.

Serve with a large side of love. 

And finally finally, this can also be made using a side of salmon and, obviously, a much larger piece of pastry.  It will take longer for the salmon to cook - test it after 25 mins -  so drop the oven temp to 160 to stop the pastry cooking too quickly.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Lies, Damn Lies, and Parenthood

Now that I’m up to my neck in parenthood, I have revised – and retracted – every child-related promise I ever made.  You know the ones – my children will never eat sweets / biscuits / crisps;  my children will never watch television;  and my favourite – I will never ever lie to my children.  I mean what sort of parent lies to her children?  A weak, lazy one, obviously.  One who can’t be bothered to deal with repercussions, who doesn’t respect them enough to spend time being honest, who’s too self-absorbed to tell the truth...

And so you’d think that I would be slightly shocked to find that these days, those little lies just roll right off my tongue, almost unnoticed.

Admittedly, we’re not talking great big lies.  I haven’t (yet) told the Boy I’m stopping the car and he can get out and walk, for instance (tho’ I swear it’s only a matter of time). Or that he’s being sent to boarding school at the earliest opportunity.  (Although I did suggest to a friend who’s having problems with her pre-teen that she leave a brochure for a school in her home country lying around for the child to find...) .  But the baby lies are mounting up.  “What’s that Mummy?” (Cue chocolate biscuit to be stuffed in my mouth) – “Nothing darling, just Mummy’s bread.”  “What’s that Mummy?” (then horror realization) – “Not-medcin-not-med-cin-not-medcin”.  “No sweetheart, it’s not medicine, it’s just special sugar that I have to put in your drink to make it taste nice, yum yum.” Etc etc.

It’s mainly that I just don’t have the time, energy or patience to go through every single adult-decision I make, with a 2 year old.  So when I say “Please stop drawing on the floor” (ah there I go lying again.  What I in fact shriek say is “Stop that RIGHT NOW howmanytimesdoIhavetotellyou”)  and he says “Why Mummy?” – all sweet and innocent, but there’s no hiding the glint of boldness in his eye – my honest response should be something along the lines of:  “Because you’re creating so much more work for me to do, I don’t have time to scrub the floors down again, and I don’t want you to get into the habit of doing it.”  But really, what’s the point in saying that to a toddler?  Almost as much point as saying:  “Because I told you so.” Both get equally ignored. 

So instead I go into a patter, which has him wide-eyed, about the Man Who Owns the House (he features regularly in my tellings offs) and how he’ll knock on the door and be Very Cross.  A variation of this is the Policeman lie, which gets rolled out for more major or public offences, such as when the Boy Houdini attempts to extricate himself from his car-seat -   “You have to stay in your seat or the Policeman will knock on the car door and be Very Cross” – or picks up a stone and heads, arms outstretched, toward a shiny car.   (All this resulted in him telling a car-washing  neighbour yesterday  to be careful with the car or the policeman would be Very Cross;  thankfully to anyone else’s ears it’s just babble, but I couldn’t help but feel a bit ashamed of myself). 

But the shame doesn’t stop me. Nothing can stop me.  The lies have now infiltrated my cooking, and, yes, I have turned into one of those people who hides vegetables in her children’s food, cunningly disguised as... mush. 

The Boy won’t eat soup, for instance. “Don’t LIKE IT” he wails, having not even had a taste of the stuff.  I, on the other hand, love soup.  It’s quick, healthy, and my dinner of choice when the  Man is away (he refuses to have it for dinner, apparently it’s “lunchtime” food, or something).  It’s also easy to double the quantity being made and freeze the surplus so, theoretically at least, a vat of it should solve all toddler lunch dilemmas for a few days at least.  But what to do when said toddler purses his lips and swivels his head 180 degrees?

You lie, of course.  Throw in a handful of penne, sprinkle on some cheese and lo!  it’s not soup, it’s pasta!  Hurray. 

See?  Lying does have its benefits most of the time sometimes. 

Delicious Broccoli / Cauliflower & Cheese Soup.

You Need:
·         A head of Broccoli or Cauliflower (or half of each) – leaves discarded but keep and chop the stalks - roughly chopped
·         A large onion, chopped
·         A celery stalk, chopped
·         A potato, peeled and chopped
·         A medium-sized chunk of strongish cheddar (or other strong hard cheese)
·         A litre of vegetable stock (Marigold preferably)  
·         Some olive oil
·         Three or four cubes of frozen chopped spinach (if you have to hand – just adds extra vits and iron)

You also need a hand-held blender (well worth the investment if you don’t already have one)

Heat olive oil in a pot over a medium-high heat, and add the chopped onions. Leave for about 3-4 mins, stirring occasionally, then add the chopped celery.  Cover pan, lower heat to just below medium, and leave for 5 mins or so. 

Add chopped potato, stir, and a splash of water – to stop it sticking.  Cover and leave for a couple of minutes, while you roughly chop the broccoli / cauliflower.

Add the broccoli / cauliflower, and cover with the stock by about a cm.  Bring to the boil then reduce heat, and simmer for about 12-15 mins – until all the vegetables are very soft.

Take off the heat and blitz with the blender, to mush-like consistency, adding additional stock (or milk) if it’s too thick for your liking.

Grate the cheese directly into the pot, stirring with every couple of gratings, so that the cheese melts evenly.  Taste it each time you stir – the amount of cheese needed depends on your own taste. 

Adults – eat for lunch (or dinner, if you’re feeling reckless)  with bread, wine, salad, whatever. 
Children – eat as soup, if you're an angel child.  Otherwise listen to your mother who tells you it’s just special cheese sauce for the pasta, and gobble up.  Or else the policeman might come and be Very Cross.