Tuesday, 30 June 2009

The view from here

This is what another year older looks like.

This is what the V&A museum looked like this morning in the sunshine:

I found a whole new gallery I had not been to before - the ironwork gallery:

This is what teeny, tiny KNITTING looks like. Compare the size of the early 20th C typewriter letters with the minute early-19th C stitches. Wow.

This is what my second birthday cake looks like (we finished the first one last night!). It is the damp lemon and almond cake from Nigella's Domestic Goddess book. Last year I made four of them for my brother-in-law's wedding. They're very good.

This is what my pile of presents looks like. I'm opening them this evening when G and the children get home from work and school.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Book list

There's been a great deal of reading going on around here lately.

Especially on the tube as we go out and about, finding things to do in this great big city we live in.

What I'm reading right now:

  • A bedtime story for O - Miss Happiness and Miss Flower by Rumer Godden. A firm favourite from my childhood which I had forgotten about until a friend reminded me of it last year. The sweet story of a child who builds a Japanese doll's house for some new dolls she is given. O is absolutely loving it.
  • Two dip-in-and-out history books - Life in Victorian Britain by Michael Paterson and The Victorians by Jeremy Paxman. I loved the Paxman series on TV last year - it was over far too quickly and I think I only managed to catch about half the episodes.
  • An old comfort re-read at bedtime - Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver. I love all her books but this is the one I return to most often.
  • A new book for my handbag and the tube journey to and from work - The Great Lover by Jill Dawson. Very good indeed so far.
  • And in my 'to read' pile...The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne. A friend has leant it to me, but I am apprehensive. Not sure why. Also, The Information Officer by Mark Mills - I've loved all his books so far.

What's in your reading pile at the moment?

Friday, 26 June 2009

How a fig seed made me eat miso soup

There I was, eating the last piece of my favourite orange and fig chocolate, and one of the teeny, tiny fig seeds got stuck in a tooth. I poked my tooth with a fingernail and out popped the seed, but also a filling.
"Oh!" I shrieked, and started scrabbling around on the floor to find the filling. As if the dentist might be able to re-attach it like a lost limb.
As I searched through the dust and lint on the floor, it slowly dawned on me that this was not good news. I was going to have to go to the dentist.
I am very, very frightened of dentists. When I was a child, our family dentist had a great big alsatian that used to sit in the corner of the surgery, growling mennacingly at the patients. I've never liked dogs. Then when I was at University, the dentist there took one of my teeth out without anaesthetic and managed to accidently remove part of my jaw bone along with it. How do you accidentally remove a piece of someone's jaw??
After that butchering it was ten years before I visited a dentist again, and it is now nearly nine years since that last visit. Two visits in nearly twenty years. The dentist's Receptionist was appalled when I confessed this over the phone to her earlier in the week.
"Nine years is a VERY long time!" she scolded.
"But I bring my children for ALL their appointments," I said, with middle-class parenting angst. "They have ALWAYS been to the dentist. Very regularly."
The receptionist could not have cared less. "We'll see you on Friday at 11:30," she said flatly.
So this is how a fig seed is responsible for me eating lots of miso soup this week, as I try not to damage my tooth any more than it already is. Miso soup is basically Japanese bovril, but none the worse for that. I like it. It is comfort food that also feels healthy. And with a visit to the dentist looming over me, I need some comfort food.

My favourite way to eat miso soup is with noodles and green vegetables. With broad beans in season I thought some of those would be a good addition. I kept them raw, which probably isn't the best thing for a broken tooth, but they taste greener and fresher than cooked beans in a way that very much suits the soup.

And when I don't need to be brave any more, and my tooth is all fixed later today, I have a more luxurious treat waiting for me...

...these honey buns, made from a recipe in Rachel Allen's Bake.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Summer loving

Anybody who knows me, knows that I really don't like the summer. Mainly because I hate being hot.

There is, of course, a long and detailed list (often repeated to my family) of reasons why I think summer is no good; beginning with clothes. Give me boots, jeans, cardigans and woollen hats over bare legs and vest tops any day. And sunhats always make me look silly.

But I was talking to a friend - and fellow summer hater - last week and we conceded that there are a few things about summer that are definitely worthy of celebration:

  • strawberries
  • camping
  • drinking a cold drink in (the shady part of) the garden after a long day at work
  • flowers being in bloom
  • birkenstocks; almost as nice to wear as boots

This past weekend we went camping with old friends at this wild campsite in Sussex. The children ran wild in the woods at the edge of the campsite and the adults drank cool drinks through the afternoon and long into the evening.

This morning, before breakfast, I slipped on my birkenstocks and went into the garden to feed the hens. I noticed that my little strawberry bush was the only container plant on my patio to survive our hard winter this year. Not only had it lived, but it also had a luscious crop of strawberries, un-munched by slugs.

A lazy, sunshiney, camping weekend with friends, and then strawberries from the garden for breakfast back at home...that's nearly my whole list ticked off in one go. Summer's actually pretty good when it's like this!

Saturday, 13 June 2009

A question

I was wondering...

...if rissoles...

...aren't just messy meatballs.
What do you think?

Friday, 12 June 2009

Five examples of good packaging

I do love good packaging.

Neal's Yard hand cream. Pots and tubs are so much nicer than tubes. Neal's Yard sell their products in thick, chunky pots that are a beautiful Victorian-medicinal shade of blue.

Packets of pasta. Why are these so very satisfying to pick up and pack away? I don't know, but I love them. Waitrose's font is one of pleasing simplicity too.

The papercut silhouettes on Seeds of Change chocolate bars. This peacock is so cool. And what's inside the wrapper is pretty good too.

The Trangia. Its perfectly stacked pots and beautiful, but functional, aluminium never fail to delight me.

A parcel for a friend.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

My perfect date

When I was sixteen, studying for my A-levels, and at my most hopelessly romantic, my perfect date would have been a tasty picnic in a beautiful park with a handsome man, followed by a trip to the theatre to watch a Shakespeare comedy, finished up with a stroll home together in the moonlight. Last night I had exactly that. Twenty years late, but totally worth the wait!

G bought us tickets to go and see Much Ado About Nothing at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park. I'd not heard of the Open Air Theatre before but I found out that it has been a London institution since 1932. The theatre opens its doors a couple of hours before the show starts and encourages you to picnic in the beautiful gardens beforehand.
We ate our picnic, and drank our wine, in a beautiful glade, dotted with picnic benches and with fairy lights and flags strung beneath the trees. It felt magical and other-worldly. When it was time for the play to start we crept through the trees to the amphitheatre and settled down with the rest of our wine and a blanket over our knees.
Much Ado is one of my favourite of Shakespeare's plays - so many of the lines were familiar and remembered, nearly two decades after I studied them at school. The production at the Open Air Theatre is a fizzy, funny, romantic romp - perfect for a summer's evening and the outdoor setting.
The play started in the evening sunshine and ended in the dark. We walked back to the tube through Regent's Park - a romantic, low-lit stroll together, chatting about the play and trying to remember all the great one-liners that came so thick and fast all evening.
We had brought our own picnic and wine with us, although you could buy food and drink there. I love picnics and I always keep them simple. I bought a good, big, wedge of ripe brie, some handmade scotch eggs and some crusty rolls from our local deli and then made my favourite lentil salad to go with it. Lentil salad is fantastic picnic food - filling, tasty and best served at room temperature. This is the recipe I always make, based on one in an old Pret A Manger cookbook published in 1996. You need the nutty, brown-black little puy lentils for this - not the orange or green ones that get mushy when they are cooked.
Picnic Perfect Lentil Salad
  • 1 carrot
  • 1 stick of celery
  • 1 small onion
  • 1 large clove of garlic
  • 4 rashers of streaky bacon
  • 4 cloves
  • good big pinch each of thyme and rosemary
  • butter or olive oil for cooking
  • 150g puy lentils
  • 300ml vegetable stock

For the dressing

  • 1 and a half tablespoons good olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon of mustard - any sort
  • pinch each of salt and pepper

Peel the carrot, garlic and onion; top and tail the stick of celery. Put all the vegetables into a food processor and blitz for ten seconds or so until finely chopped. Tip the mixture into a large, heavy based saucepan and add a slug of olive oil or a knob of butter. Snip the bacon into tiny pieces and add to the pan along with the cloves and herbs.

Fry gently until the onion and celery start to become translucent. Turn the heat up a little and add the lentils. Stir well so that they are coated with the butter or oil. Add the stock, put a lid on the pan, and simmer for about 20 minutes until the lentils are cooked and the stock is nearly absorbed, but there is still a bit of liquid in the pan. These lentils will still have a chewy texture but they should not be hard.

Remove from the heat and add the dressing ingredients to the pan. Stir to combine, and serve at room temperature.

In the last few years we have done more camping than picnics in the park. Our picnic ware is therefore very practical and durable. The only thing that could have made the whole evening more perfect would have been if I'd made a picnic set, like this one in the first issue of the new SEW magazine. I really love that bottle carrier!

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Crumble perfection

Thank you all so much for your museum suggestions - what a great list we came up with between us! I want to go to ALL your favourite museums. The random number generator came up with the number SEVEN, which is Ali who added the Oxford University Museum of Natural History to the list. I want to know how, despite having grown up in Oxford, I have never even heard of this museum! I will be putting that right the next time I visit my parents or my brother & his family who all still live in Oxford - do any of them know about this secret museum too, I wonder?? Ali, please email me your address and I will get your parcel in the post to you as soon as possible.


This week I have mainly been thinking about food. In this house we all love a bit of crumble. Both G and I have cooked it for years. But each time we make it, it never seems to be quite as good as a crumble should be. You know - a gooey, fruity, sticky, crumbly crumble - just like the one your mother or your grandmother used to make when you were small. We come close - our crumbles are good - but they never seem to be quite as wonderful as the ones in our memories.

At the weekend, C shinned up our tree to pick the first bowl of 2009 cherries. He carried on picking, and climbing further and further up the tree until he was absolutely certain that he had enough for a cherry and apple crumble. I didn't really fancy making a crumble in the pulsating temperatures of last weekend, so I was fobbing him off with phrases like "Oh, you need LOADS of cherries to make a crumble, darling" and "I'm not sure there are enough ripe cherries yet for a crumble".

Then he fell out of the tree. Fortunately while I was not looking, and fortunately into the middle of the sweet orange bush. He limped inside with a scraped elbow and a sprained ankle and asked rather pitifully if his bowl had enough cherries for a crumble yet? Goodness, the guilt. I had my apron on and the mixer going before he'd even hobbled off to the sofa.

I vaguely remembered the last crumble G had made had rather a good topping. It was the plum crumble from my favourite summer recipe book, Sarah Raven's Garden Cookbook. So I took the topping from that book and paired it with the filling from Annabel Karmel's Family Meal Planner. And you know what? It was The Best Crumble I Have Ever Made. Really. The Sarah Raven topping is heavy on the butter and gives a cakey, rich crumble - crucially not too dusty nor too oaty. I substituted almond flakes for hazelnuts but otherwise did exactly as she said. The secret to Annabel Karmel's filling is that she just briefly stews the fruit for a few minutes in a tablespoon of brown sugar to soften and sweeten it by precisely the right amount. Together these women work magic, I tell you.

Of course, there are no pictures. Like Driftwood's pavlova, we ate up every last scrap before I could get my camera out. Yum!