Tuesday, 31 July 2007

A list of scandalously over-rated things

I went to the cinema last night with G. It was meant to be a hot date but I let the side down by yawning, wriggling in my seat and checking my watch a bit too frequently. The problem was, that I just find going to the cinema really, rather boring. I would much rather read a good book, or go down the pub. Most people love going to the cinema and watching films. It is one of those activities universally regarded as A Good Thing - something that everyone likes to do. Apart from me.

And so it got me thinking about other things that I secretly consider to be massively over-rated and that require a slightly confessional air when you admit to not liking them:
  • Opaque tights - every autumn, the fashion journalists are beside themselves with excitement that it is once again time to bring out that great staple, the opaque tights. But they are hot and itchy and make your legs look fat - definitely over-rated.
  • Sunbathing - b...o...r...i...n...g...You get sweaty, sunburned, and you can't hold your book in a comfortable position.
  • Elton John. I know he's meant to be a national treasure, but I just don't get what all the fuss is about. Bad music, dreary singing voice, strange lyrics. Nobody can explain to me what the appeal is.
  • A massage. I've had a few massages because it is something that the magazines tell me will be relaxing and therapeutic, but I can assure you it is not. I spend the whole session trying not to laugh because it is so ticklish, and then end up getting told off by the masseuse.
  • Cucumber. It doesn't taste of anything.
  • New Year's Eve. If you go out, everything is ten times busier and more expensive than usual, and if you stay in you feel like a loser.

What things do you secretly think are over-rated?

Thursday, 26 July 2007

My seed and grain loaf

When you do a great deal of cooking there comes a point where you start to ignore the books and make recipes up yourself. I do that most of the time now with everyday, family meals. But baking is different. You can't be cavalier and miss out an egg or add a bit more flour without drastically altering the outcome of a recipe...usually for the worse.

But I have just perfected my own bread recipe - and it works! I adapted it from a variety of other recipes from BBC Good Food Magazine, my breadmaker recipe leaflet and Rose Prince's New English Kitchen cookbook.

My Seed & Grain Loaf

  • 1 tsp yeast
  • 250g wholemeal bread flour
  • 250g white, multi-grain bread flour (Hovis do a good one)
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tbsp runny honey
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp seeds (I use a mixture of sesame and sunflower seeds, but pine nuts, pumpkin seeds and linseeds are also great)
  • 300ml milk

This goes in my bread machine on a wholemeal setting, with the seeds in the nut dispenser. It is equally good made into rolls or as a loaf.

If you want to know how to make bread dough without a bread machine have a look here.

Sunday, 22 July 2007

The cooking fear

I made another batch of jam last week, and experienced the usual moment of terror when the sugar reached boiling point and suddenly bubbled up perilously near the top of the pan.

I don't mind admitting that boiling sugar scares me witless. I've made quite a bit of jam and chutney this summer, and I still feel my pulse race when the temperature rises along with the level in the pan. I bark instructions to the children to "Get out of the kitchen NOW! There is boiling sugar in this pan!" - thereby ensuring that my boiling sugar fear will continue into the next generation.

My only other cooking fear that is stronger than boiling sugar, is deep frying. My cooking fear there is so fierce that I have never yet deep fried anything. I don't think that is a great loss to my lifestyle; if I want deep fried dim sum or bahjees I will go out for dinner, and the rest of the time my waistline will thank me for avoiding the deep fryer.

But there are also some cooking fears that I am proud to say that I have completely conquered. My biggest triumph is learning how to make pastry and love it. Pastry making is quite a common cooking fear I think. Nigella Lawson says this about pastry making in How To Eat:

"On the subject of pastry I am positively evangelical. Until recently I practised heavy avoidance techniques, hastily, anxiously turning away form any recipe which included pastry, as if the cookbook's pages themselves were burning: I was hot with fear; could feel the flush rise in my panicky cheeks. I take strength from that, and so should you. Because if I can do the culinary equivalent, for me, of Learning to Love the Bomb, so can you."

In my case, acquiring several cookbooks about pies is what drove me to conquer my pastry fear.

You could say that my desire for a homemade pie was greater than my pastry fear. It is true that once you have made pastry a couple of times it ceases to have any mysticism, and becomes something you can do without even getting the recipe books out.

The fear of making a custard which curdles, a white sauce that is lumpy or feeding guests shellfish that is past its best, were all conquered some time ago and are almost forgotten now as I take more and more of my cooking skills for granted. By the end of this summer, my alarm at the sight of a boiling jam pan may lessen as well.

Friday, 20 July 2007

A summer of playing

The school holidays started today and I am as excited as the children at the idea of them being off school and having adventures. Getting muddy, chilling out on the sofa, riding bikes, building forts, making a mess, reading books, colouring, going out, visiting Grandparents - its all good.

As I was tidying their rooms this morning, I realised that I definitely have favourites amongst their toys. Some toys are so fantastic that I never mind playing with them, or even tidying them up. Other toys though are just plain annoying: noisy, too many bits that get lost, breakable and boring.

My list today is in celebration of great toys - ones that you buy for your child or open at Christmas and think "I'm really going to enjoy playing with that!"

Lego - possibly the best toy ever. I love how you can start with a box of random bricks and end up with a space ship, killer ice driller machine or a princess's cave. The only downside is standing on a forgotten brick when you dash into your child's room in the middle of the night.

Something that I didn't have as a child, but will surely become a classic for future generations is Geomag. This wins points from me for being very simple - just magnetic sticks and steel balls. It is very tactile and pleasing to play with. The balls click nicely as they join onto the sticks. You can aimlessly put bits together to make a messy looking spiderweb or go down the more mathematical route and create shapes that have names ending in -oid. No prizes for guessing what we do in our family....

A toy that I did have as a child, and played with endlessly is Playmobil. G bought me this fabulous Playmobil chicken coop set for Christmas, and I share it with the children. As far as I know there isn't a Playmobil eglu, but I wouldn't be surprised if there wasn't one someday. These hens even have the same markings as our hens in the garden!

O's favourite toy at the moment is Sylvanian Families. Sometimes the animals from Sylvania join in with the fun in Playmobil land....

But as far as I'm concerned, the best thing to do with a long summer holiday - whatever your age - is settle down in the sunshine with a big pile of books.

Monday, 16 July 2007

Come back to mine

Eight years ago, DMC Publishing launched a fantastic series of music compilations called 'Back To Mine'. The idea behind this series was that a well known DJ, musician or band would put together a compilation of music that they would play you if you went round to their house after hours. I love the idea of finding out what my favourite musicians listen to when they are not making music themselves.

G and I have quite a few of the Back To Mine compilations. My favourite of these is the one put together by the Pet Shop Boys. It is a double CD with one disc selected by Chris Lowe and the other by Neil Tennant. The two compilations in this case are very different, with Chris Lowe's being more disco and electronica influenced, and Neil Tennant's full of sumptuous, dramatic tunes. It shows very clearly the different tastes that each of them bring to their collaboration.

If you came back to mine, it would probably be for a long chat on the sofa with a mug of coffee and a slice of homemade cake. I would want to play happy, interesting music that didn't intrude into our conversation. Here is my list of what you would listen to if you came Back To Mine....
  • Stand On The Word by Celestial Choir
  • Moonbeat by LTJ Experience
  • Walking In The Air by George Winston
  • English Summer by Grandadbob
  • Relief by Flipside
  • Mazuzu Dream by Piano Circus
  • Stay Now by Jem
  • Don't You Worry by The Beloved
  • Enchanting by Amba
  • Killin' Kind by Shelby Lynne
  • 100 Billion Stars by Lux
  • 100 by Jon Hopkins
  • Mustt Mustt by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
  • Thank You by Dido

Friday, 13 July 2007


At the moment I am reading several recipe books, all of which are talking about what to do with gluts of fruit or vegetables. It seems to be that time of year. If you need some inspiration for what to do with a seasonal glut then have a look at some of these:

  • Sarah Raven's Garden Cookbook
  • Barbara Kingsolver - Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
  • Rose Prince - The New English Kitchen
  • The Good Housekeeping Cookery Book

The Sarah Raven book is my most recent acquisition, and one that I am very pleased with. The cover gives you an idea of how sumptuous and greedy-looking it is inside, and the chapters are arranged according to month and then grouped by ingredient, so that you can cook your way through a glut without getting bored. Got too many tomatoes in your garden? There are twenty tomato recipes in here, all of which sound delicious.

So I have plenty of ideas of what to do with a seasonal glut. My problem is that that the weather this year means that the vegetables in my garden aren't doing much at the moment, other than trying to stay dry. Back in May I planted forty lettuce plug plants, and all but four of them have drowned. Of the ten aubergine plants I started with, only three very pathetic looking specimens remain.

You have to grow a glut yourself really. I wanted enough courgettes to make a big batch of chutney - at least 2 kilos - but I just couldn't bring myself to buy them. I stood in Waitrose looking at the clean, scrubbed vegetables, neatly arranged and just couldn't imagine them piled up in my kitchen waiting to be made into chutney. It seemed greedy to buy that many at once, which is strange given that doing something productive with a glut of vegetables is actually very thrifty and economical. That's the difference between a glut and gluttony maybe?

But there is hope. The PYO in Enfield has vegetables ready to be picked, and when you're in a field full of vegetables you loose all perspective of what is a reasonable amount of food and always end up coming back with far too much. The fruit and vegetables from a PYO don't have the neat, clean uniformity of supermarket produce and are much cheaper and fresher so you can be more cavalier about using up 2 kilos in an afternoon.

Back in my garden, the bean plants are doing very well, and I have put so many blue pellets of death around the courgettes, that they are also looking promising. The glut will arrive at some point I am sure - but please not while I am on holiday....

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Festival ingredients

It is festival season at the moment. G and I are big festival goers but for reasons that I can't now recall, we decided to have a year off in 2007. Since the line ups were published, the tickets went on sale, and Millets have started selling gorgeous floral Orla Kiely tents I have come to regret that decision.

It does mean that I have spent some time prowling around the internet looking at the sites of festivals I might like to go to next year. Some that have caught my eye are The Port Eliot Literary Festival , The Secret Garden Party , The Cambridge Folk Festival and The Latitude Festival as well as two I have been to before and greatly enjoyed: The Big Chill and The Green Man.

So feeling wistful, we organised a small festival of our own, along with some old friends. Planning where to go and what to bring along led me to wonder about what the ingredients are for a good festival. Here is the list I came up with:
  • a picturesque venue
  • camping
  • a well-stocked bar
  • music that is good to listen to outdoors
  • good friends
  • children's activities
  • tasty food
  • wholesome toilets (you'd never catch me at Glastonbury - much better on the tele!)

We called our festival the iPodival 2007. We all brought along our iPods, with playlists we had put together specially for the festival, and took it in turns to play them on some portable speakers. We chose a campsite in West Sussex that let us pitch where we wanted and play music late into the evening. It also let us have a campfire, and had enough streams, trees, fields and ditches to keep the children entertained.


All the ingredients on my list were there - and the sun even shone on us. We had such a good time that I think the iPodival will now become an annual event, even when I have tickets to one of the bigger festivals as well.

PS. With thanks to David for the top photo - which was taken at The Big Chill a few years ago.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Barbara Kingsolver

I am a little starry-eyed today. Last night I went to The Southbank to listen to a talk that Barbara Kingsolver was giving as part of the London Literature Festival.

Barbara Kingsolver is my all-time favourite writer. Her books are among the very few that I ever re-read. One of the reasons I love her books is that her writing is very eclectic. She has published poems, essays, short stories and novels. The subjects she has written about range from missionary zeal in the Belgian Congo to the sex life of goats to the manufacture of pinatas using peacock feathers. But unifying this dizzying selection of topics is her writing voice which is always humourous, imaginative and clear.

Her latest book, which she was talking about last night, charts her family's year of deliberatly eating just food that they could grow themselves or buy locally. If it didn't meet those criteria, they went without. Her husband and older daughter contribute to the book as well with discussions and essays regarding food production in America and nutritional information. As if I didn't admire her work enough already, she goes and writes something that chimes so closely with what I believe! Although her family do live on a farm in Virginia and the photos of their produce look a little more appetising than my poor half-drowned lettuces at the moment....

My list for today is just a very simple catalogue of Barbara Kingsolver's books - if you haven't read any of her work, please go and try some of it. With such varied topics there has to be something for everyone!

  • Prodigal Summer - A gentle love story, set in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia. My favourite of all her books (I think!)
  • The Bean Trees - the first book in a two part story about identity, location and the American Indian community.
  • Pigs in Heaven - the final part of the story begun in The Bean Trees
  • Animal Dreams - the other contender for my favourite of her books. Exploring the nature of the individual and community, set in New Mexico.
  • Small Wonder - a selection of brilliant essays.
  • High Tide in Tuscon - another non-fiction work.
  • The Poisonwood Bible - the book that has won the most awards, and probably the one most people associate her with, but actually my least favourite.
  • Homeland - a book of her short stories.
  • Animal, Vegetable, Miracle - her new book. Thought provoking but very funny, with some delicious recipes in too

Sunday, 1 July 2007

Memories of Tom Middleton

On Friday evening, G and I went to the BFI at The Southbank to see Tom Middleton perform a new collection of his music called Lifetracks .

I am a very big Tom Middleton fan. He describes himself on his website as an electronic composer and producer; but I would describe him as the creator of some of the most beautiful, and influential ambient music around.

This concert was even more exciting than usual for having some stunning visual work to accompany the music. The concert was held in a small cinema. The musicians sat in front of the screen and as they played, they triggered elements of the visuals so that images moved in time to the beats of the music

Tom Middleton's music feels like the soundtrack to my adult life. At every significant event, and also during many memorable everyday moments, there has been a Tom Middleton track playing.

Many years ago now, Tom Middleton was part of a collaboration called Global Communication. Anyone who has ever been to our house, or had conversations with G or I after a few bottles of wine, will know how highly we rate Global Communication and their first album 76.14.

When I listen to this album I have so many memories:

  • I fell in love to this album; G and I would go out for a big night together and then crawl home to Brixton or Leyton in the small hours of the morning and let the gentle sounds of this music lull us off to sleep.
  • I studied for all my accountancy exams to this album. Track 2 (variously called The Way or 1431 or the clock track) still makes me want to sit down, get my pens and books out, and start a cashflow or something.
  • In both my labours I played this album over and over again without getting tired of it. O was born to it (but sadly someone switched it off towards the end of my labour with C and he was born to less soothing sound of John Humphries and The Today Programme on Radio 4!)
  • At music festivals I have lain out on a rug in Sanctuary Tents or Chill Tents feeling drunk and heady to these tracks.
  • When the children were small and we were racked with tiredness this album soothed us all.

I haven't wanted to get married, but if I were ever to change my mind this album would be the first music to be played at the ceremony.

So I was expecting a great deal from Friday night's concert. But of course we were not disappointed. The music and the visuals let us soar away and forget about being 30-something parents, tired from work and everyday demands. We fell in love all over again to the sublime, ambient tunes of Tom Middleton and staggered home late that night to fall asleep to Global Communication's 76.14.