Wednesday, 30 November 2011

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled*

In a few days’ time I will be officially middle-aged.  This doesn’t bother me tremendously – I’ve been shuffling (in my slippers and cardigan) towards middle age for quite a while now.  About three years in fact, which – how strange! - coincides with the birth of the Boy. The following peculiarities in particular suggest that I may now be ready to embrace it – or it me - completely:
·         I buy groceries once a week only, tackling the horror that is the supermarket with my shopping list – and my head - held high. The list is a complete inventory of every foodstuff which I’ve ever bought, highlighted as necessary, and cross-referenced to a meal-planner for the week, which in turn is narrowed down according to our social (ha!) diaries.  I am proud of, and ashamed by, this in equal measure.  Ashamed, because truly, nothing roars MIDDLE-AGE! more than a carefully constructed meal-planner / shopping list;  proud, because I save both an hour’s shopping time and - I swear – at least £80 a week.  (Worryingly I’ve recently found self admiring those shopping trolleys that (very) old women use, but I think I’ll resist.  For the moment at least.)
·        I look at high heels (80% of my footwear) and shudder.  If the (rare) occasion demands it, I’ll still wear them, but only because I went to the bother and expense to buy them in the first place (albeit about 50 years ago).  And also because clunky mountain boots don’t go too well with the frocks.
·        As far as I‘m concerned, a smear of lipstick = dressing up. Lipstick + blow-dried hair?  I literally cannot think of an occasion which would merit this.  A court appearance, perhaps, where my life was at stake. But even then I’m not so sure I could be arsed. 
·         I find self gasping for an ol’ cuppa tae, at least twice a day. I don’t even like tea that much.  But middle-age dictates that I must drink it, and so drink it I do.
·         It goes without saying that there’s no event in this whole world which equals a cup of tea and bed by 930pm in terms of pleasure.
·         I am seriously thinking of baking my own bread. Using yeast.
·        Policemen are now only marginally older than the Boy. 
·        My favourite game with the kids is Play Dead.  I can drag that one out for 20 minutes at a time (“Mummy!  WAKE UP!”).
There are cracks in my middle-age veneer however.  (That, as Leonard Cohen would say, is how the light gets in).  I occasionally surprise myself with youthful anarchistic thoughts, usually as I’m being bombarded with ads in magazines for horrible garish plastic children’s toys (Why the fuck should I give my money to a corporation which plunders the earth’s resources and markets the fruits of that pillage, and its money-grabbing capitalist philosophy, to children, instilling the sin of avarice, while simultaneously preying on parental guilt??  They’ll have sticks and stones, and be glad of them...) I even considered heading up to St Paul’s recently, to have a look around and chat to the protesters, to, you know, find out what it’s all really about.  (Alas I got side-tracked by the Archers, and then the Afternoon Play started, so I had a nice cup of tea and read books on baking instead. Maybe next week.)
And I’ve spent alot of this week guffawing aloud, in a most non-middle-aged (indeed, non-human) manner at this video.  As well as being brilliant, and just so so English, I love it because it brings to mind recent park outings with the Boy (“Freddie! FREDDIE!!!  OH JESUS CHRIST.... FREDDIE!” [cue manic middle-aged woman belting across Clapham Common in pursuit of a feral 3 year old chasing a pack of dogs]).
Those, coupled with my refusal to get my hair cut short, leads me (or, rather, the Man) to hope that all may not be entirely lost to a middle-age decline. In fact, in a further demonstration of non-conformity, we sat down last night to this:

(It may not look like much, but that bowl is almost 2 feet wide).  Salad!  At the end of November!  Talk about anarchy.  I’ll be daring to eat a peach next.
Salad Nicoise (Sort of)
You need:  (For one middle-aged old trout and a younger – gasp! - adult)
·         A couple of slices of bread.  Any type.  I had a loaf of sourdough, but regular sliced stuff is fine too.   
·         Tuna.  Of whatever incarnation.  I used a jar of nice tuna in olive oil, but tinned stuff is fine too.  If you’re feeling very flash, you could rustle up some seared tuna steaks, but why could you be arsed?
·         Some lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, green beans, and black olives (stones removed)  - in whatever quantity you like, depending on how many of you are eating, and how much you like / loathe any of the above.
·         Some boiled potatoes, sliced or halved (if baby)
·         One egg per person.
·         Salad Dressing: Olive oil (as good as you have), vinegar, mustard. How much you make again depends on your requirements / taste.  I half-fill the empty tuna jar with olive oil, add one third the amount of vinegar (any type, other than malt), and a tablespoon of mustard (any type). Salt and pepper.  A squeeze of lemon if it tastes too oily.  A squeeze of honey if I’m feeling creative. Only (entirely approximate) proportions to remember are 3 oil : 1 vinegar : ½  mustard. 
·         (I s’pose I need to mention – uuuugh – anchovies here.  If your tastebuds allow you to partake in these hairy little delicacies, then by all means, pile ‘em high.  Just don’t ever invite me over to eat.)
Hard boil / poach the eggs.  I guess you could fry them instead, if you wanted.
Toast the bread.  If you like garlic, cut a clove in half and rub the cut side over one side of the bread.  If you don’t, leave it out.  Drizzle olive oil on top.  
Cut up all the salady things into whatever fun shapes you like, and dump in a bowl. 
Drain (or, indeed, cook) the tuna, and add to the bowl.
Add as much dressing as you want to the bowl, and toss. 
Make whatever fancy arrangements you like with the eggs, and place on top.  Add the “croutons”. 
Eat.  Toast, if dry enough, can be used to poke in the face anyone who says things like “This time next week, you’ll be oooooooooooooooooold....”
* I’ve recently revisited this poem, having studied it in school (yes, there were schools back then).  Jesus.  What a work to waste on a seventeen year old.  What’s really shocking is that Eliot wrote it when he was TWENTY TWO.  Isn't there anyone who waited until middle-age to start achieving things?

Monday, 21 November 2011

Old Dogs, Older Tricks

The Man is off gallivanting for the weekend (still not quite sure how that particular agreement came about) and so I’ve been practising something I haven’t done in quite a while: round-the-clock sole parenting.  It’s been an interesting few days, and in an attempt to be a better person, I’m focusing on the lessons I have learnt, as follows:
·         Drinking two beers at dinner time is likely to lead to forgetfulness.
·         Forgetting to put a nappy on the Boy at bedtime is likely to lead to leakage.
·         If you’re stupid enough to take your eyes off your demented offspring while in a toy-shop, you can expect to leave said shop owning various over-priced age-inappropriate toys in ripped-open boxes.
·         A visit to Starbucks is an entirely appropriate way to kill an afternoon.
·         There are some Starbucks’ customers who don’t fully appreciate this.
·         And staff.
·         Those “leak-proof” swimming nappies clearly weren’t tested on a one-year old with a penchant for weetabix.
·         Swimming pool attendants do not cope well at the sight of brown water.
·         A three year old calling his mother  “Mother” is somewhat amusing in the confines of one’s own home.  Less so in a busy cafe.
·         Small children should be dressed brightly when going for a walk in the park on a misty morning.
·         The best way to deal with hysterically weeping  small children is to offer chocolate wafers. Saying “Oh for goodness’ sake I was just over there” just doesn’t cut it.
·         The road to heaven is paved with good intentions to make the most of being alone by going to bed early.
·         The screech of someone being garrotted in your back garden is a just a fox.  Hopefully.
·         You are never too old to lie in bed worrying that Freddie Kruger might be hiding somewhere.
And finally:
·         Roast mushrooms on toast is one of the all-time great suppers.

Roast Mushrooms on Toast

You need (for one greedy sole-parent):
·         Four large flat mushrooms (or as many plain white mushrooms – large or otherwise – as you fancy)
·         Some olive oil or butter
·         Some garlic (optional)
·         A couple of tablespoons of pesto (optional)
·         Salt and pepper
·         Chopped parsely, to garnish (optional)
(As you can see, there’s a lot of optional going on above.  Really, all you need are some mushrooms, fat (oil or butter) and seasoning.  After that, you can get as fancy as you like.)

Heat oven to 170c / 325f / 3
Wipe and de-stalk the mushrooms.  Put on a baking tray / oven-proof dish.  Drizzle olive oil over, or dot with butter.
Apply any fancyness now (crushed garlic, smear of pesto etc).
Stick in oven for about half an hour, or until entire house smells of autumn.
Remove from oven, season, scatter parsley atop, and serve with plain old buttered toast.  A softly poached egg would be good too.   

Whatever you do, don’t forget the most important lesson of all: a glass of red wine elevates even the most parsimonious of suppers to great heights. 

Thursday, 17 November 2011

The C-Word

No, not that one.  The really offensive one: Christmas*.  Well, maybe not offensive;  certainly stressful.  I had a full-blown panic attack last week at the overwhelming enormity of what lies ahead – the list-making, the aimless wandering around shops full of tat, the crowds, the queuing, the walking home with 82 plastic bags cutting off the circulation in your hands, the fighting with the sellotape, the panic and further shopping/crowds/dead-hand-walking-home/sticky-wrestling, the inevitable scrum at Sainsbury’s at 6pm on Christmas Eve,  and of course all that joy -  and loitered on the edge of sanity until the Man sensibly pointed out that it was only the first week in November.  Still, no time like the present to start facing my fears. 
So a couple of nights ago I decided to share the panic joy by blighting the Boy’s innocence. It was time for my first parental conversation:  the story of the Night Before Christmas. I must say that it went alot easier than I was expecting; if someone came to me and asked me to believe that a large man with a beard and a flying reindeer was going to break into my house – via the chimney – I think I’d raise a few queries.  But the Boy took it all in his stride, his only slight concern being how Santa and the flying reindeer and all the toys were going to fit on an airplane from London to Sweden.  That was easy to answer, except now he wants a magic sleigh for Christmas.
In fact it went so well I gave half a second’s thought to sowing the seed of religion, and feeding him the True Story of Christmas  – but we’re committed atheist consumerists, and in our house Christmas = foolish drunken behaviour and eye-watering credit card bills only. So we left it at Santa Clause.  (Who, incidentally, has now replaced The Man Who Owns the House as the best carrot ever for inducing good behaviour.  If only Santa owned the house.) 
So that’s one thing off the Christmas list.  Another thing I can cross off – hurrah! – is Christmas cooking.  I’m a big fan of cooking, but on my own terms, in my own time. Christmas cooking makes me weep.  So much so that last year the Man – whose culinary skills don’t extent much beyond a mug of tea (sorry Man) – did most of the cooking (the results of which are STILL in the bottom drawer of the freezer.  I told him a 20lb turkey was too big for four people – one of whom doesn’t eat meat).  This year we’ve gotten around the problem of having no more room in our freezer by dumping ourselves and our offspring on his parents.  This has the advantage of being (a) in Sweden and (b) catered for by my mother-in-law.  Tidings of comfort and joy, indeed.
So to repay her the anticipated kindness, while she was visiting this week I dug out “The Silver Spoon: Pasta” book which she gave me a few Christmases ago (see the theme I’m running with here?) and chose a dish completely at random. The Silver Spoon Pasta is an absolute beast of a book.  It’s got about four million pasta recipes, almost all of which sound either dull and blah (taglierini with ricotta; mushroom tortellini; vermicelli with eggs and butter) or – worse – just plain weird  (macaroni with turnips; bigoli with onions; penne with lettuce).  But at the same time you just know they’re all going to be bloody fantastic, in the way that the weirdest, plainest-sounding pastas in Italy always are. (I suspect that the liberal use of several different types of cheese and lashings of cream and butter per recipe also assists in this culinary elevation).  The recipe I chose was Bucatini with Mozzarella and Aubergine (the randomness of my choice curtailed somewhat by the availability in my barren cupboards of appropriate ingredients).  Needless to say I didn’t really follow the recipe to the letter: Bucatini is a long pasta, so I substituted Linguini. The recipe also calls for pancetta or bacon, which I left out; I suspect that if you’re fond of the piggies, it would have  made the dish even better. And I made a few changes here and there to suit what I had.  It still worked.
Bucatini with Mozzarella and Aubergine

You need:  (For 3, comfortably (without seconds)
  • 1 aubergine, cut into julienne strips (ie, matchsticks.  This was a pain in the arse and I really wouldn’t bother again.  Although it did make the finished dish loook pretty.  Just dice it.)
  • 5 tablespoons of olive oil (or just lug it in, as much as you think works.)
  • About 3 oz of pancetta or bacon OR one clove of garlic
  • 4 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped (Seriously?  Just use a standard tin of plum tomatoes. With the juice.)
  • 3½ oz mozzarella, diced
  • ½ a fresh chile seeded and chopped
  • 12 oz bucatini / other long dried pasta
  • 1 hard-boiled egg, finely chopped (I know!  Completely mad. Do it anyway.)
Start with the thankless task of cutting the aubergine into fiddly little matchsticks – completely pointless, and added nothing to the dish, so really I wouldn’t bother again – then layer them in a colander with salt, and leave to drain for half an hour.  (This really isn’t necessary any longer to reduce the bitterness in aubergines, but it’s thought to reduce their tendency to absorb oil, so if that’s a consideration for you, and you have half an hour to hand, by all means hog up your sink as necessary. Otherwise just chop the fucker into cubes and jump to the next step.)
Heat the oil in a pan and add the aubergine pieces for about 5-8 minutes, until lightly browned.
Remove from the pan, and, if using, cook the pancetta / bacon without any oil.  Otherwise, slice the garlic, add a glug of fresh oil to the pan, and  heat through until the garlic starts to sizzle.  (Note - you don't need the garlic if you're using Mr Pig.)
Add the tomatoes  and the chopped chilli to the pan, then lower the heat and simmer for 15 mins.
If, like me, you don’t have a hard-boiled egg knocking around your house, now’s the time to do it.  Put it in a small pan,  cover with cold water, bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 7 mins. Plonk it in cold water until you’re ready to use it.
Add the aubergine to the tomato sauce and leave to simmer for a few more minutes.
Turn off the heat, and add the mozzarella cubes. Leave it to sit while you cook the pasta.
Silver Spoon then instructs you to dirty a serving dish by adding the drained pasta, topping with the sauce, and then sprinkling with the chopped egg, before serving.  I’d suggest that you just mix the sauce and the pasta in one of the cooking pans, serve up and sprinkle the egg on top. 
The egg makes it, by the way.
Which reminds me:  egg-nog.  Actually, maybe the C-word is looking up...

*There I was, thinking I was all smart and funny with this expression. Then I read this. Clearly I am just as smart and funny as Knackered Mother, not dull and predictable. 

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Nature, Nurture and Nut-Cases

I was thinking the other day about that Swedish couple who are bringing up their child “gender neutral” (so that the child will “grow up more freely and avoid being forced into a specific gender mould from the outset”).  I wasn’t thinking this because it was crossing my mind – as it does several times a day – just how bonkers Swedes are*, or as I was wondering why any parent would heap more misery on an already largely thankless job.  Nope - instead I was sitting in the kitchen, watching on, somewhat bemused, as the usual dinnertime chaos descend into carnage, when suddenly the Boy dropped his cacks and announced it was time for his willy to come out.  He came home from nursery the other day with his pants on backwards, so I imagine that he’s going through a mooning phase at the moment.  (Or else – much more likely – that  he’s just inordinately proud of his bits.)  And that, you see, is the problem with the bonkers Swedes’ social experiment (on their own child...  Just... Why??) - you can remove social constraints all you want, but in my vast experience of this, children tend to slip into gender stereotypes all by themselves.  (At least in my house they do).
So this afternoon, for want of anything better to do with their my time, I dressed them both in gender-free clothes (do cast-off, mis-matched pyjamas count as gender-free? I think they do) and gave them gender-free toys (ie, Lego) to play with.  Then I sat back and tried to imagine that I didn’t know what sex they were. The Boy – currently sporting shoulder-length hair, so he could almost be a she-he – sat with one hand down his pants, and used the other to "drive" a brick up and down my leg while making VROOOOM noises. The Girl – whose hair hasn’t grown really since she was born – grabbed a plastic door-frame thingy and slipped her hand through it.  Then she paraded around showing it off to everyone (me, the Boy, and her reflection in the mirror), before settling down quietly to play with the Lego dog and elephant – wrapping them in the folds of her pyjama top and cooing to them. After a while she toddled off into the hall on her own and waddlled back in a few minutes later wearing the Boy’s shoes and dragging my handbag, looking inordinately proud of herself. Then she demanded my watch and necklace and put these on too.  Once adorned, she looked like a live jewellery-tree.
By now the Boy was playing “bounce” – body-slamming down onto the sofa then rolling on the floor – over and over and over, dying of laughing with every clunk of his big fat Swedish head on the floor. “Fight Mummy, FIGHT!” he roared, panting, while the Girl watched in barely disguised horror.  He finally picked himself up, announced he was thirsty, and marched into the kitchen where he opened the fridge, took out a carton of juice, and – I swear - drank straight from it.  (In fairness however this is probably not so much gender-typical, as a revolting habit he’s picked up from someone who really ought to know better (ahem)). If only he’d then burped loudly, my own social experiment would have been complete.
For anyone who might still be confused as to their gender, and who missed Willy Is Out at dinner time again today, I’d suggest you ask the Boy to tell you a story.  I did this evening, and this is an edited (for the sake of coherence only) version of the spew tale.
Once in a time was there a boy called Riddie and he say “Captain Pirate Mummy, SHIP AHOY!” and swim and swim and swim.  And crocodile catch him and EAT HIM UP and he BASH! and HIT! and BREAK HIM TEETH!  And crocodile say [puts on whinging meowing voice]: Pleeeeease Pirate, me hungry and tummy grumbling”. And then HAHAHAHAHA him get SWORD and CUT and fall into the water, plop! dead.
(I left out the bit about the EXPLOSIONS and FIRE and Eating Toast All Day Long, because it didn’t make sense then, and still doesn’t now).
The Girl obviously can’t tell stories – or indeed, much of anything – yet, but I suspect it would be less sea-faring reptilian death and more ponies and jewellery and joy and sunshine.  (Although we certainly don’t encourage any of those things in this house – least of all joy or sunshine).
The one area where they are both gender neutral is in their eating habits;  both, thankfully, have the appetites of ravenous beasts (the Girl in particular) – they’ll eat more or less anything.  Except for crusts.  Somehow, word got out that crusts could be removed, and now removed they must always be. With the result that – as we eat alot of bread in this house – there’s a small hillock of crusts on the kitchen counter by the end of every day. There’s only so much feeding that the ducks on the common can take, so imagine my delight when I stumbled across the following recipe last week;  then imagine my despair when I realised it was written by Mrs Beeton about 800 years ago, and as such bears no resemblance to any recipe I’ve ever seen, let alone cooked from.  So I got it a bit arse-ways – but it was still great, and I suspect if you manage to follow it as directed, it’d be even better.
Baked Tomatoes

You Need: (for 4 as a side, or two as a light supper.  She says 5 or 6, but I guess people were smaller in those days.)
·         8 or 10 tomatoes
·         Pepper and salt to taste
·         2oz of butter
·         Bread crumbs (yes, but HOW MANY?? See?  Stupid bloody woman)
Take off the stalks from the tomatoes;  cut them into thick slices, and put them into a deep baking dish. (It doesn’t actually need to be that deep;  Also it helps if you butter the dish first)
Add a plentiful seasoning of pepper and salt and butter in the above proportion. (I really have no idea what that means.  Either way, I cocked it up by adding all the butter – chopped into teeny bits – on top of the breadcrumbs.  I think this might have been a crucial step, so I’d suggest dotting the butter on the tomatoes before the breadcrumbs, as she instructs.)
Cover the whole with breadcrumbs (I bunged the day’s worth of crusts – at least 40 - into the blender and had enough for a thickish topping.  I suppose you use your own judgement with this.  I like a bit of crunch, so for me, more was more.  I’d suggest about three or four slices of bread would yield adequate crumbs – about three or four large handfuls.)
Drop over these a little clarified butter (they didn’t have olive oil back then, and as we all know, Jamie Oliver introduced the word “drizzle”) and bake in a moderate oven (3 / 160 / 325) from 20 – 30 mins. (I gave them 35 mins which was about right for my (fan) oven.)
Serve very hot.  (I disagree.  It was actually nicer once it had sat for a bit and the juices soaked into the crumbs slightly.) 

This vegetable (aren’t tomatoes a fruit?) dressed as above, is an exceedingly nice accompaniment to all kinds of roast meat.  (Not in this house it’s not.  It did however go down a storm with some thin slices of hard goat’s cheese, and served all on its own.  I suspect it’d also be good with just some plain old bread and butter.  Crusts off, it goes without saying.) 

(*As the non-Swedish parent of half-Swedish children who are wholly bonkers, I am allowed to say this.  Their Swedish father would, if I didn’t threaten him with a 5kg sack of potatoes and twenty-seven cups of tea, probably argue that their Irish gene is to blame for any madness, as well as their predilection towards self-certainty and pedantry.  But I am right and I know it.)

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Excuses Excuses

With only two months to go – to the day – I’ve broken all of my New Year Resolutions.  I think it’s fairly safe to assume that you paid about as much attention to them back in January as I did, so here they are once more:
No Alcohol in January: This one went pretty well actually.  Until about week three, when I had The Day From Hell, and, under strict orders from a friend, self medicated with a large glass of wine. And then another.  It was actually the most memorable drink of the year, almost worth the horror of a screaming match with a van driver and – oh, the shame – public tears.
Check emails and Facebook once a day only: This one lasted about three hours days.  And then, to add to the never-ending ways to procrastinate, I set up a Twitter account.  The internet is a vile vile place, full of people who could be achieving things instead of shirking their household duties. 
Laugh in the face of Toddler Tantrums: Not quite sure what I was thinking with this one, as I still haven’t managed to get a handle on it.  It’s not helped I s’pose by the fact that I now have two toddlers and they dedicate their time to KILLING each other.  Actually, that’s not entirely true.  The Boy sets about killing the Girl with a focus and dedication which would, under any other circumstance, be pretty impressive. The Girl, meanwhile, devotes herself to fucking with his head.  And screeching when he so much as glances at her.  She’s added another word to her verbal arsenal:  “Ow” - said in the most disgruntled, pissed off manner you can imagine.  So – the Boy walks towards her;  she starts to bleat, softly: “ow ow ow ooooowwwww”.  He catches her eye;  she frantically tries to catch mine, and yelps: “Ow!” He reaches his target, shouldering her to the ground, she lurches at him as she falls, glares daggers, and roars “OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOW!” before grabbing his legs and refusing to let go.  By now he’s on the floor too and is kicking and bucking like a lasooed bull, she’s got  her teeth – all eight of them – stuck into his (meaty) thighs so he’s howling, and the both of them are flailing and flapping about, desperately trying to gouge the other’s eyes out.  I do try to laugh (and sometimes, not to), but it’s hard when confronted with indisputable proof that the fruits of your womb are in fact snarling snapping pit-bulls with a penchant for drawing blood.  So instead I’m trying to work out how to monetise it – lemons to lemonade, children to YouTube etc...
And the one I’ve just broken: Post blog once a week  AAAAARGH.  I was SO close.  Apologies. We had ALOT of snot to contend with, at one point I actually found self wishing for the lurgy to hit me properly so I too could go to bed for three days’ solid.  Then I found both sense and drugs and have been feeling not unpleasantly light-headed ever since.  Then suddenly it was the Boy’s birthday – three! – and I had to adjust to the fact that having a three year old and a one year old really doesn’t garner the public sympathy I would expect. (Naturally, I am working HARD to right this wrong). His last conversation as a two-year old went as follows:
Mummy, I don’t want to be little.  I want to be big.
Really? I like you little.  Why do you want to be big? (Rub his sweet little head)
Because if I’m big then I can get a knife and CUT THINGS and then CUT and CUT and CUT...
Ok.  (Remove hand quickly) Night night. (Flee room)
(Who knew that the Terrible Twos were followed by the Violent Threes?  I really must warn the Girl.)
Then we spent a week in Ireland, and I was too busy picking dog hairs out of the children’s mouths to go online.  When I finally had a hair-picking-free moment, I couldn’t access the room where the computer lives because David Attenborough was in there filming for his Frozen Planet series.  And so I’ve skipped a week.  BUT... what I’ve missed in posting, I’ve more than made up for in excuses.  And so I have a new New Year’s resolution:  No More Making Excuses For Not Ever Getting Anything Done.  Henceforth I shall fail in silence.
Which leads me nicely to this week’s recipe.  There is none. But nor, you’ll be pleased to hear, are there any excuses.  I will leave you, however, with a photo of the Boy’s birthday cake.   (Which, it goes without saying, I didn’t make.  Cf all the unmentionable excuses above...)