Wednesday, 30 March 2011

A Snapshot says a Thousand Words (All of them No...)

I’ve just finished filling in the Census Form.  To liven things up I filled it in LATE. (I’m now hoping waiting for the census-form-police to come knocking and drag me off to jail).
For any of you not tasked with the Census Form, let me tell you it is dull dull dull.  The most – indeed, only – excitement was the question about religion – deemed so incendiary that it was highlighted as being optional.  (I swear it was this question – and my “no religion” response - which was the reason for my dream last night that I was back at (strict, mad, convent) school, trying to explain my c-section scar to the nuns.) 
There must be easier ways to gather a snap-shot of Britain on one particular day - in fact why not actually take a real snap-shot?  Stick a camera lens in every letter-box and record the findings.  Take for instance my house, this morning.
The time is 9.47am.  The photo is of a hallway in a standard London Victorian terraced house. At the fore of the picture is a large brand-new-looking double buggy, on which coats, children’s wellies and shoes, bags, toy cars, sticks, and a whole host of other crap have been dumped.
Beyond the hallway, in the corner of the photo, is a kitchen, cluttered with enough garish plastic shite to sink China (from whence it all came). The kitchen tiles are, ridiculously, light grey, and show every speck of dust, dirt, mud and regurgitated food which  fester upon them. At the far end of the kitchen you can just make out a wall clock.  Like every clock in the house, its time is set at 8.47am.  A wall-planner hangs on the other wall; with the aid of a  magnifying glass, you can just see an entry for the day – 10am, Toddler Group.
The main part of the photo comprises the stair-well;  it goes up to a small landing, then turns up again and out of sight.  Beyond the small landing, barely visible, is the nerve-centre of the house – the laundry.  If photos made sounds, the never-ender whoosh of a washing machine would be heard.  If it was a scratch-n-sniff, the unmistakeable stench of vomit would linger. Clothes horses are everywhere, and sheets are hanging off anything hangable.
On the landing, an old lady stands.  Wait – Is it... Yes it is!  It’s Nancy Reagan!  Did she grow her hair?  What’s she doing in Clapham? Oh... wait a minute... No, it’s not her. A dead ringer for her tho’, with the hollow eyes and sunken cheeks.   Her face is contorted into a look of anguish and despair – not unlike Munch’s Scream.  Her mouth seems to be forming a “noooooooooooooooooooo” sound.  She is dressed rather inappropriately for a woman of her age, in jeans which were probably quite stylish when they were first bought.  They are now sagging at the bum and the knee,  and flecked with beige stains.  Her hair is dishevelled, and one side of it is streaked with what looks like yoghurt. Or porridge.  Or something.  Whatever it is, the old lady won’t notice it until after lunch, by which stage everyone she knows in her neighbourhood will have seen her. 
Her body is stooped and contorted, one arm stretching out down the stairs, the other around an enormous baby who is perched on her hip. Both the baby and the old lady smell of vomit.  The baby is dressed in a tattered old navy baby-gro, and astonishingly large feet stick out of its cut-off ends. It wears one sock.  By its clothes, we can assume the baby is a boy – although quite a pretty one.  His hair looks like La Roux styled it. He has his fat fist curled around a strand of the old lady’s unkempt hair and is pulling it tight. 
This does not appear to be the reason for her anguish however;  her tormented gaze is directed at the focal point of the photo:  a chubby young boy, spread-eagled head-first down the stairs, looking up directly at the camera.   His face is a mixture of devilment, terror and exhilaration.  We can assume that he is in (rather quick) motion.  He is wearing what appears to be a pyjama top, but no bottoms.  Although he seems a bit old for nappies, one is now half-way down his legs.  He too is wearing only one sock - and, bizarrely, a colander on his head. In one out-stretched hand he is holding a bar of soap, in the other, a brand new Dust Buster.   The old lady doesn’t know it yet, but the Dust Buster is destined to never be used, and will soon join all other crap on the pram.  Which is itself never used.
(Hmmm.  On second thoughts, maybe it’s better just to fill in a form.)
With all that going on in the house  - did I mention the vomiting bug which just wouldn’t go away???  - as well as a plane journey this afternoon ON MY OWN WITH THE BOTH OF THEM, there’s barely time to eat, let alone cook.  And certainly not to post a recipe.  Sorry sorry.  I’ll make it up next time (by which stage the Man and I will have had TWO BLESSED DAYS of alone-time, thanks again to my gracious, incredible family. I may even be smiling again...)

Monday, 21 March 2011

The Silence of the Children (If Only)

Back in the days when we were anything at all – other than overtired, overwhelmed, parents – the Man and I had a penchant for books. In fact I’d even go so far as to say that we were a couple of bookworms.  Now all we long to burrow into is a sound-proof bed (which sounds ALOT raunchier than intended;  obviously what I mean is a bed from where the 2am shrieks of tiny people cannot be heard).  
As well as hoping that this pastime from our distant past will one day reappear, we also hope that it’s one that the nippers will pick up - not least because the library is at the end of our road and is visited by us, and treated as a playground, at least three times a week.  (Which, as you can imagine, causes much tutting and pursed lips by the many discerning homeless literati who shuffle in with their bags of papers and packets of crisps and sprawl on the benches.  The Boy, undeterred by the negative comments directed at him, clambered up beside one of them last week, looked horrified, rapidly clambered down again, and said “pooo-eeeeeeeeeeeeeee Mummy, VERY smelly”.  Bless his perceptive little heart.)
Anyway, the vital signs are already good.  The Girl loves nothing more than to chew on a nice library hardback (leading me to wonder if there could be any link between her penchant for sucking communal (and Lambeth communal at that, uugh) property and her tenacity in embracing every single germ going) and the Boy gobbles up every piece of literary work worth gobbling for a 2 year old. 
And then some.  He brought home a book called “Demon Strike” the other day, announcing, matter-of-factly, “it’s my fave-rit book”.  It is 344 pages long, and devoid of any graphics other than on the cover, which is emblazoned with a forked-tongued grimacing demon manically bearing his police shield.  The inside spiel tells us that we can expect to find within “ghosts that exist in every dimension known to man”.  The Boy sits in the corner and flicks through it, looking a bit perplexed, but simultaneously over-joyed. 
I’m not really in any position to comment on his – or anybody else’s - reading material.  I bought the Man a Kindle last year, which I thought he’d love, but he poo-pooed it as not worthy of his literary affectations affections, so I’ve taken it on as my own.  It now harbours my guilty little secret. Ladies and Gentlemen, I have an unhealthy attraction to ghoulish pathologist thrillers.  You know, the Patricia Cornwell-type ones, where the victims are gutted, garrotted, disembowlled, skinned, flayed, and generally given quite a send-off by someone they thought was their Facebook friend...  I can’t help it.  They’re short and easy to read (imperative these days, if any reading at all is to get done), nothing is left to the imagination (which is just as well, because then it would be a very quick read indeed) and with a couple of short clicks, as if by magic, the content has flown through the air and landed in my handbag.  Plus the Kindle account is still in the Man’s name, so technically, they’re free (for me, at least).  I think mainly tho’, I quite like knowing that somebody, somewhere, is having a worse day than I am.
And it’s not all useless brain sludge.  In fact Ms Cornwell’s famous protagonist, Dr Scarpetta, is quite a whizz in the kitchen - she even has her own cookbook (which I haven’t read, but really really hope it contains a recipe for liver and fava beans...). I assume that, being Italian, she’d appreciate the following, which I threw together on Sunday morning in a desperate attempt to clear out the bottom drawer of the fridge. Despite its less than auspicious beginnings, it was actually amazing, silkier and more buttery than your common garden-variety ratatouille. 

Sort-of-Ratatouille
You need (For 4 as a side, or 2 as a big bowl of deliciousness):
  • Two Large Leeks, washed and sliced
  • Two Red Peppers, chopped
  • Two Courgettes, cut in half length-ways and sliced
  • 1 x 500g carton / jar of  Passata / Sieved Tomatoes (or use a large tin of plum toms if you can’t find / don’t have the passata;  I prefer passata tho, it gives a lovely smooth texture to the dish)
  • Butter and Oil
Put a large pan over a high heat, melt a fairly large knob of butter, and before it starts to sizzle, add a couple of glugs of olive oil. 
Stir, allow the oil to heat through, then add the chopped leeks.  Once they start to sizzle, lower the heat and cover. Leave for at least 10 mins, stirring occasionally.
Once they’re very soft  - by this stage they’ll probably also have started to go a bit brown – add the red peppers and the courgettes, turn up the heat, and stir to heat through and to cover with the buttery leek mixture.  Lower the heat again, cover, and leave for another 15 mins or so, stirring occasionally. 
By now the vegetable mix should be fairly soft. Add the tomatoes, bring the boil, then lower to a simmer and cover. 
Give it at least 10 mins, then season and eat as is, or turn off the heat, leave to sit a while, and eat when you get around to it.
Serve on its own, as a side or fish or meat, or with pasta.  (And, it goes without saying, with a nice Chianti, and a menacing lick of the lips.)

Monday, 14 March 2011

An Eye for An Eye...

The Girl has teeth. Four, to be precise.  (You wait eight months for one tooth...) The indication that Something Was (Coming) Up manifested itself last weekend, when, no doubt furious at my plans to actually go out for a few hours of merriment – and worse, intentionally set about getting drunk -  she bade me a fond evening’s farewell by puking all over my sister’s newly cleaned carpets.  Twice.  (Defying the laws of both physics and nutrition, the volume brought up was about three times that ingested – how do babies do that?) 

Notwithstanding her obvious tactics to get me to stay in, I skipped out anyway (as much as one heavily laiden with guilt can skip), and got stuck into the booze. And yet... I didn’t properly get stuck in, because at the back of my mind a teeny eight-month-old voice was squawking “you’ll regret this...”.  And so it came to pass that I fell into bed, makeup perfectly (sort of) in place, at 1.30am, and had a rude awakening at 1.50am.  And again at 2.30am... 3am.... 4.30am... At 6am I called it a day and got up for good (although in truth, there was very little good about it at all).

We were in Dublin for the weekend – the sole purpose for which was my night out – and in order to maintain that this didn’t amount to one of my two annual Girls’ Weekends Away (3 consecutive days of sleep and drink, taken at any time, with any person, except those to whom I am bound by marriage or motherhood – a fiercely negotiated term of my parenting contract)  I had to bring one of the kids with me.  So I went for the one who I thought would be the easier option – the sweet, docile, easily portable (relatively speaking) Girl.  Plus I figured it’d be good to have some one-on-one time with her, right?

Not so right, as it turned out.  In fact the only time she smiled during the entire weekend was when we walked into the arrivals hall in the airport on Sunday evening, and the Boy bounded over to her and threw himself onto her pram, gibbering with relief that his family unit was whole again. Her distemper lifted only temporarily, and was such that I actually brought her, unprompted, to the doctor on Monday.  She diagnosed teeth and, she suspected, bronchiolitis, and so we were back to the antibiotics and ensuing (and on-going) multiple night wakings.  

Getting wind of a Girls’ Weekend Away, and worse – a trip to the doctors! – the Boy has been taking umbrage ever since.  He is now waking every night – at different times, just to keep us on our toes – demanding medical attention.  Seriously.  On Friday night he ordered me to “call the ambulance” because his hand was “stuck” (it was lying pathetically between the bars of the cot, a good two inches of space on either side of it.  He really needs to work on his supporting props).  “Take my temp-a-chure” he implored; I did, it was fine;  “Give me med-sin!” he pleaded;  I let him lick a spoon dipped in Calpol.  “See the doctor?” he begged. “Later. If you’re still sick tomorrow, we’ll see the doctor.  We’ll even go to hospital. Ok?”  It worked.  He went back to sleep, safe in the knowledge that his mummy would never ever lie to him.

As it turned out I wasn’t lying.  The next day I  - ME!!!  not him, or her, or the Man - ended up having not one, but two doctor appointments, and an urgent referral to hospital... Some horrible eye infection thingy, which is probably a virus, which probably came from the Girl, who probably picked it up on the plane last weekend.  Sigh. 

On the plus side, we came away from our weekend with more than just illnesses and hangovers.  Apart from spending time with our nearests and dearests, I stole this from my Mar, who presented me with a trough of it on my first night.  Simple, delicious, and definitely something to get your teeth into.  Even if you only have four of them.

Smoked Haddock in Creamy Sauce.
You need (for 2, as a main, or four as a starter):
  • 500g / 1lb of smoked haddock (or cod) – skinned, deboned, and cut into bite-sized pieces.
  • Tub of crème fraiche (250g or so) (half-fat is fine if the calories on the full version horrify you)
  • A dozen (or so) cherry tomatoes, cut in half
  • A bunch (6 – 8) spring onions, chopped.
  • Two good handfuls of grated cheddar (about 200g)
Fry the fish in a little bit of oil for a couple of minutes, then add the tomatoes and the spring onions and cook for one minute or so.

Add the crème fraiche, stir, and bring to the boil.  Leave it to bubble for two minutes.

Pour into an oven-proof dish and sprinkle with the cheese.

Put under a hot grill until it bubbles. 

Serve immediately with steamed spinach, mashed potatoes, rice, pasta... or on its own.  Easy peasy lemon squeezy. 

Monday, 7 March 2011

Sook Who's Talking...

Oh my, I’m tired. The kids seem to have developed some telekinetic form of communication which I suspect goes much as follows:

Girl: “Hey fatso, when are you going to start waking up at night?  How come it’s always me?  I’m getting pretty wrecked being on call all the time.”

Boy: “What do you mean?  I did at least an hour of head-banging last night.  And who are you calling fat?  You’re the one with the muffin top.”

G: “Really?  Must have been when I was screeching my head off.  Tell you what – trade you a full night’s sleep tonight for my lunchtime nap tomorrow?”

B: “You’re on.  More head-banging?”

G: “A bit of everything would be good, just to really mess with them.  That climbing out of bed thing really got them going – her especially.  And the way she races upstairs in a blind panic when I do that 4am blood-curdling scream is hilarious.  Whatever takes your fancy.”

B: “Ok.  But in return can you please stop screeching every time I thump you? I keep getting put in that stupid bloody corner.  Tho’ I got my own back last night when I pissed on her leg, hahahahaha.  My willy is awesome.

When they’re not chatting between themselves, they’re at it alone.  Although she can only say “pah”, she makes up for her lack of vocabulary by putting her all into it, spitting it out in what can only be described as a very French sort of way – with a teeny nonchalant shrug, a look of utter disdain, and a Gallic pout of the lips. 

The Boy on the other hand just talks and talks and talks at an astonishing rate.  And delighted tho’ I am that he can now communicate more effectively than, say, with just grunts (God, I thought that stage would last forever) there are times when I wish he would be quiet, just for a short while. Aside from telling tales on me (“Mummy said stop it or smack your bum”, “Mummy very cross all day”, “Mummy say STOP SCREAMING, Mummy screaming too” etc etc) he’s now entering the “Why” phase of toddlerhood.  Although, instead of “Why?” we get: “What’s the [insert word here] doo-ning?”.
 
So for example, I ask him – would you like some toast?  His response is:
“What’s the toast doo-ning Mummy?” 
“The toast is being buttered.” Silence – momentarily.  Then: 
“What’s the butter doo-ning Mummy?” 
“The butter is being spread on the toast with the knife”. I immediately realise my mistake, but too late. 
“What’s the knife doo-ning?” 
And so on. It’s like a non-stop conversational version of The Foot-Bone’s Connected to the Ankle-Bone. When he’s not asking demented questions, he’s delivering a litany of his own actions.  Which is all very well and good when I can see what he’s up to, but increasingly he likes to go off and play in a room on his own, and any of the following is guaranteed to make my stomach lurch:
“Sook* at me up here!” (Generally said with a slight note of hysterical excitement);
“Argh, HELP! Mummy HELLLLLLLLLLLP!” (Or its first cousin: “Argh help Mummy, STUUUUCK!”)
“Bounce-bounce-bounce-bounce...” (punctuated with the Doppler effect);
And my favourite:  “Uh-oh...”  Followed by worried silence, then: “Sorry Mummy, sorreeeeeeeeeee”.
It’s funny and sweet (and somewhat exhausting), and of course I’ll miss it when he moves onto the next toddler stage – whatever that might be (God help us). But by then the Girl will be chatting – which given her current ‘tude may not exactly be something to look forward to (“Can you pleeeze stop with ze fukkin’ Weels on Ze Bus and put on ze Serge Gainsbooorg...”).
Which calls for a segue into an easy-peasy French recipe, but I’m too tired to be messing with butter and cream and ‘erbs. Dinner tonight will take 20 mins and require no thinking AT ALL. And they speak French in Morocco (even if they don’t do pouting so well), so if a link is needed, there y’go. 

Moroccan Halloumi (ie, Crispy Halloumi with Spicey Tomato Sauce)
The Man loves  this – probably because it’s salty and fried, and best eaten with beer.   

You need (for 2)
  • A block of halloumi
  • Olive oil, for frying
  • Juice of a lemon
  • A tin of tomatoes
  • Whichever of the following you have, neglected in your spice cupboard: mustard seeds, cumin seeds, cumin powder, coriander seeds, coriander powder.  
  • Fresh or dried chilli.
  • Clove of garlic, sliced
First make the tomato sauce.  Stick some oil in a pot and add the sliced garlic and chopped fresh chilli (if using dried, add with the tinned tomatoes).  Heat gently over a low flame, and once it starts to sizzle slightly (don’t let the garlic go brown) add a teaspoon of each of the spices and stir.  Leave to cook for a minute or so and add the tin of tomatoes (and dried chilli). Bring to the boil, then lower and leave to simmer while you fry the halloumi.

Slice the halloumi into slices, about a cm thick.

Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a large frying pan, and once hot, add all the halloumi.  It may be snug, but it’s easiest to do it all in one go.

Turn up the heat and cover with a splatter-proof thingy, if you have one. 

Check the underside of the halloumi after three minutes or so – you want it to be light brown and crisp.

Once it is so, turn all the pieces – with a long fork (these mo-fos spit) and cook until brown on the other side.

Turn off the heat and squeeze the juice of the lemon over the pan.  Beware more spluttering.

Serve with the sauce on the side, some cous-cous**, a dollop of hummus, a cold beer, and an insouciant yawn.


*He refuses to pronounce “L” in anything other than “Lollipop”.  Then he enunciates every letter better than a stuttering king.

**Don’t know how to make cous cous?  Silly silly.  Pour it into a bowl, cover by half a cm with boiling water and one tablespoon of olive oil, stir, cover bowl with a napkin, and ignore for 10 mins.  Get fancy with herbs – parsley, mint, basil – if you want, some lemon zest if you’re inclined, or chopped fresh chilli if you like a kick.  You can buy it ready-made at the deli, but that’s just a waste of money.