Friday, 15 October 2010

The post-war ideal home

I've been decorating. Me! All butch, up a ladder with a paintbrush and everything.

It's October and this project is starting to come to an end. British vegetables are becoming harder to get hold of as winter sets in and I really, really can't face doing what I did last winter, with a subsistence diet of cabbage and leftovers.

Also, I want to have people over for Christmas and not present them with minced 'beef' made of 1/3 mince, 1/3 finely chopped mushrooms and 1/3 porridge oats soaked in gravy. Although, it must be said, nobody has ever noticed that they're getting that instead of 100% minced beef; and people seemed to like my mashed potatoes made with milk rather than butter.

This all means that post-war life beckons, just as Britain's government starts to unpick the last parts of the Post-War Consensus of Beveridge and Keynes. And, to do it right (and skip the whole people-almost-starved, bread-and-potatoes-rationed, American Loan 1947 experience) I've taken my previously functional, whitewash-and-woodchip living room and spent a week turning it into something the householder of the 1950s would've been proud of. Very proud, actually, given the 42" plasma TV, but we'll leave that aside.

So here it is. I present the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition winning room for 1955 (with 1963 unaccountably appearing on the TV):

Meanwhile, I had a decorator in to do the front room. And because I'm contrary, that's becoming a pre-war, 1930s library-cum-dining room. It's finished, but there's nothing to show until all 10,000-or-so books have been moved into it.

Watch this space.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Veg boxing

Something I planned to do before I moved to Merseyside was order a weekly veg box from one of the many online suppliers of such things. But I'm lazy and I kept putting it off. Also, having a local greengrocer lets me buy my own choice of fresh, local produce without worrying about wastage.

However, I only need to look back at last winter's entries on this blog to be reminded that the random shortages at the greengrocer and at Morrisons supermarket to realise that I'm really, really not looking forward to doing that again at the end of this year.

Then Scott mentioned on Twitter that he'd also been thinking about it. Others replied to say that they'd only got good things to say about having a box delivered, so he signed up. His first box sounded very nice, and never one to let a bandwagon pass without jumping on it, I also signed up.

I got my first box on Friday, and I'm impressed. I got some lovely, crispy broadleaf spinach; some of the best looking tomatoes I've ever seen; crunchy, fresh celery; muddy potatoes; very very sweet onions - almost sweet enough to eat like an apple; earthy, fresh carrots and a beautiful Chinese cabbage.

There was an irresistible freshness to it all, making me realise how the supermarket food is picked, transported in a chilled van to a depot some miles away, stored for a day or so, transported in chilled lorry to a supermarket many many miles away, kept chilled out back of the supermarket for a day or so, then put on the shelves and sold as "fresh". The vegetables in this box had clearly been in the ground the day before. They still had mud on them, so hadn't been washed and chemically treated before undergoing a trek around the country. All-in-all, irresistible.

In fact, so much so that I made a quick salad of a tomato, some spinach leaves and a celery stick, with some salt and a dash of wine vinegar and crunched my way through it there and then - at 10 in the morning, no less.

So that was Saturday's meal decided: a big version of that little salad, while the veg is still alive and bright. I doubt there'll be any leftovers, but if there are, the cold weather brings notions of soup, so they'll go in a broth.

Next week it's chard, lettuce, more tomatoes, a gem squash (I've never cooked squash before - that'll be a fun challenge and this looks lovely) and more potatoes and onions. So it's another salad at the very least. I'm very happy.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

The way to love butter is to realize that it might be lost

Okay, so I'm slightly misquoting GK Chesterton, but the point still holds: be careful with your butter ration. I've been being even more sparing than usual in order to save up butter for a fat-rich weekend meal with my herby potatoes as a main feature. Done properly, they take a lot of fat, so saving up is good.

I didn't count on how the smart the stupid dog could be. Our two Border Collies, Rosie and Jen, are chalk and cheese. Rosie is a typical Collie - obedient, smart, quick to anticipate and always ready to round up sheep, other dogs and the smaller of the humans and keep them penned.

Jen, however, is about as untypical a Collie as you can get. Not only will she not round anything up, she also won't obey, can't anticipate and, when she's not sure what to do, will roll on to her back to have her belly rubbed. If we got burgled, I'm sure that she could easily be persuaded to help pack up our belongings by a quick belly rub.

But some of this is an act. After a walk, the dogs sit in the utility room to dry off - they usually play in the sea for a bit. The utility room has a purpose-built gate across the entrance to keep them there and stop random shaking-off-of-water occurring anywhere else.

Jen dislikes unexpected loud noises - thunder, fireworks, the doorbell - and has learnt to hurdle the gate when such a noise occurs. She has no idea what to do after that and has usually forgotten the noise by the time she's over, but it's a good trick nonetheless. What CJBS hadn't anticipated was that, having learnt to jump the gate, she had actually learnt to jump the gate.

CJBS and the dogs got in soaked. He put them in the utility room and headed to the shower to warm up. I continued to work. My first clue something was wrong was the sound of something metallic falling in the kitchen. I got up, went downstairs as was confronted with a scene of devastation. Jen had leapt the gate, headed straight for the kitchen and, being greedy like all dogs, made her way along the counter tops dislodging anything edible on to the floor and eating it.

In those few seconds, she'd had all the remaining bread, foolishly not put back in the bread bin and, most importantly, my hoarded butter ration. 8oz of butter were gone, much of it to be found around her mouth. And she wasn't prepared to stop there, continuing to lick out the butter dish even as I dragged her away, finally stopping when her fear of my annoyance overcame her greediness. Then she ran for it, attempting to find somewhere to hide.

Oh, but I was annoyed. Annoyed with the dog, although she was just being a dog, annoyed with CJBS for walking away from the gate without realising the trap he'd set and annoyed with myself for only telling him four or five times that she was now willing to jump the gate unprovoked. Why oh why did I not nag him more about this? I should've been bringing it up at mealtimes and during favourite radio programmes, leaving him small notes and sending him text messages - you know, the standard "nag+" way of getting a man to remember stuff.

The butter, once gone, could not be replaced until the next rationing week, but CJBS has never let the rules of this project get in the way of a happy life and he bought me butter anyway. So now I had butter in but couldn't use it until next week. Worse than that, rather than buying the cheap, tasty and multi-useful butter I get, he "treated" me to some expensive branded butter that has no taste and is only good for cooking. So my hot buttered toast treat was not just gone for a couple of days, it was gone for the entire next week as well.

And he didn't understand why I didn't thank him, so I had him making hurt puppy-dog eyes at me every time I mentioned it. Which, frankly, I did a lot.

That was last week (I'm still not over it) but today, once I've waited in between 9am and 7pm for a delivery (it'll come at 6.59pm, unless I pop out before then and come home to a card saying "we called but you were out, please drive to Plymouth to collect your parcel") I'll finally get my new, edible fat ration. And then I shall eat hot buttered toast in front of him and look smug, whilst he will have forgotten the whole incident.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Read all about it

There has been a decidedly autumnal nip in the air in the last few days. Summer is clearly drawing to a close and with it, no doubt, my happy three or four months of salads.

In the last few weeks, there's been a real choice of home-grown goodies. In spring, I was falling upon the odd limp British lettuce with joy at having something green. In August, I was choosing from 3 types of British lettuce. Slowly, this is sliding back to just the one. Soon, lettuce will go off the menu entirely.

So it's time to start planning for the limited menus and random shortages that made last winter so hard to deal with. Luckily, I've got help.

On my monthly trip into the office in Harrogate, one of my colleagues had found her mother's cookbooks in the back of a cupboard. One, entitled something like 'Eat What You Grow' didn't sound promising but was actually full of the most tempting winter recipes. The other, a wartime cookbook sponsored by Stork margarine, had some the staples I was already used to, enlivened by putting a spoonful of Stork in, on or over the food before, during or after cooking. Why are these sponsored cookbooks always so naked in their attempt to get you to heap great big piles of their wares into your cooking? Even vegetables, getting their usual British "quick boil" of 15 minutes or so, would be improved by having Stork boiling in the pan with them, as well as melting over the top of them at the end. And this awful substance, Stork, was rationed!

I took photocopies from both books of likely looking recipes. The Stork book had a chapter at the beginning that I loved: what to do with your cooking when the air raid sirens sounded (basically, turn off the gas and come back to it after the All Clear, when it will either need further cooking or reheating).

A day later and we were in that London, to have dinner with Jonathan and Kate to celebrate our up-coming first wedding anniversary. It was also a good opportunity to have an expensive shop for non-rationed goods at Fortnum and Mason's in Piccadilly - something possible even during the war, as the shop specialises in dressings and sauces and side-of-plate extras that were never rationed and rarely subject to shortages, but entirely useless with nothing to put them on. You can't make a main meal from Ginger Confit and Hungarian Paprika, try as you might.

It was also a good opportunity to nose around a museum, something we could both pass our lives doing, me at speed, CJBS as slowly as possible. So we went to the National Portrait Gallery at St Martin-in-the-Field in order to look for and at people I'd heard of. It was very interesting and I think we'll go back to look at the people I haven't heard of in the older galleries.

CJBS cannot visit any building with a cafe in it without having a cup of tea, so we stopped off in the basement cafe to be charged a small fortune for some warm water and a bag of assorted leaves. This meant - clever, clever curators - going past the NPG's bookshop. I can't resist a bookshop. Ever. So we paid an even greater fortune for a pile of books that we then had to lug back up north with us.

Still, one of the books was the Eat What You Grow book, in the form of a reprint of the 1941 edition "Food Facts for the Kitchen Front". This is a good little book, much better than the Marguerite Patten stodge I've been living with for the past year.

It starts with a useful, if not entirely accurate, chapter on how you need at least one item from each of three "food value groups" in each meal: energy foods (fat, sugar, potatoes); body-building foods (meat, fish, dairy, wholemeal grains, potatoes); and protective foods (vegetables, wholemeal grains, potatoes). Yes, there's something of a tuber-based theme here.

It then goes on to explain calories, proteins, vitamins and mineral salts - suggesting that half a pound of potatoes and a quarter of a pound of cabbage would get you your day's Vitamin C (and sod all else, I'd wager).

The good bit of the book - the rest of it, in fact - then follows. Alphabetically, with no nonsense, it runs through each vegetable and presents some ration-friendly and (surprisingly) delicious-sounding ways of cooking it. The it does the same for potatoes, salads and herbs; then on to fish (still all white fish, with a detour into trout), meat and meat-substitution and nine pages of quick soups; bread, fruit and quick sauces to disguise poor menus; and finishes with a chapter on slow cooking. And it has an index! (The number of cookbooks without a useful index is disturbing; those chefs need to stay in more.)

Artichoke soup! Hot tomato salad! Eggless mayonnaise! The latter made with icing sugar... ugh. Sheep's Head Roll! (no, no, no). Despite the odd misfire (liver dumplings, anybody?), this book will be keeping us fed as winter draws on.

Meanwhile, by the way, I catered for TWO dinner parties the weekend before London. It was ration-stretching (in other words, it required a fiddle, assuming that I was getting coupons and points from the guests; although in reality, that was exactly what people did when entertaining during the war) but nobody noticed that they were getting rationed fare.

The first meal, a chicken salad, was made by slow-cooking chicken fillets in mustard and honey, so took no precious fat. Dessert was Eton Mess, but I saved on sugar by buying a bottle of cherry beer and reducing it to a sauce.

The second meal was roast lamb. That really was ration-stretching, using up the best part of a month's saved meat rations from both of us for a small joint. Plenty of vegetables, gravy and mint sauce hid that the meat wasn't in huge quantities. Still, I managed to get three days of further meals out of the scraps of meat left on the bone, then made stock from the bone itself, which became two days of French onion soup. Finally, the bone went into the dogs, who are grateful even now.

Ultimately, I made my dinner party rations stretch over 17 individual meals and two dogs without feeling any shortages. Of course, I'm now meatless for the next two weeks but this is survivable, thanks to my Food Facts book and the last days of the salad.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.

One of the things that makes rationing easier (or even easy) for me is that I only eat one meal a day.

Yes, I know this is probably a huge dietary nightmare, but I've never eaten breakfast - I can't stand the thought of food first thing in the morning - and I gave up lunch, without missing it, when my thyroid died. One of the side effects of having no thyroid is the body's ability to turn any food eaten straight into fat deposits. If I ate two meals a day, I'd be gargantuan - and I was until I gave up on lunch.

This of course means that my main meals can be a bit more generous with rationed items, as they don't need to be spread over 3 meals in a day. But I'm having to reassess this policy when it comes to CJBS. His doctor is worried about Type II diabetes, and although the diet sheet he filled out for them was so good that they didn't believe it was true, they've spotted a change that must be made. He must always have breakfast and lunch.

The breakfast is easy. Porridge oats with semi-skim milk and cinnamon doesn't impact on rations. But providing a fat free, carbohydrate rich lunch is very difficult, especially when his shift work sees him rising at 4am one week, 8am the next and noon on the third. To cap that, it needs to fit in with rationing.

He came back from the unholy GP-dietician-nurse trinity clutching a big pile of leaflets, booklets and novellas given to him to help him plan a new diet. And here's where I fall out with the NHS that I otherwise love to bits.

What I need is a simple guide to what food need to go into him when. The NHS, however, has taken a more Big Brother approach. They don't supply that information. Instead, they've merged the diabetic advice with their "Healthy Eating Agenda". That would be fine, but this bit of meddlesomeness, which has included television, radio and press advertising along with leaflets through the door in an orgy of spending over the last 5 years, treats the recipient of the advice like a lard-arsed idiot.

I search in vain for a simple guide. Instead, the advice attempts to browbeat me into ceasing to be a pig. Stop eating so much chips! Eat less pies! Put down that cheeseburger, fatty! Where do you think you're going with that cake, lardo? Can you still fit through the door of Greggs, chubbs? The problem here is that CJBS, and me for that matter, would kill for chips, pies, burgers and cake. We almost never have them. The advice sheets, however, are designed to get you to reduce having them. So if I actually followed them, CJBS would be getting chips two or three times a week - a great reduction from the 7-days-a-week the leaflet assumes that diabetic Northerners are cramming down them, but a 1200% increase on what he currently gets. The same with the pies and the burgers. And as for cake, well, CJBS loves cake but I prefer to use the egg rations on something I can make that won't be be both burnt and undercooked at the same time and might possibly rise without spilling over the edges of the tin, if at all. The leaflets are throwing cake at him compared to the current level of "never".

I've therefore effectively got to guess what I should be feeding him and when. With official advice recommending that he eats vastly more fat and sugar to cut down on fat and sugar and with their idea of stopping the snacking he doesn't do by feeding his face with biscuits - biscuits! - at every opportunity, the NHS's help has been no help at all.

One thing I can do is go by instinct and by what Nella Last was making for her boorish husband during the second war. If you've never read Nella Last's War (now usually sold under the name of the TV drama it became, "Housewife, 49") then buy a copy now. Nella was a fascinating lady who took to World War II as something of a release from her dull, depression-ravaged existence until then. Tucked away in its pages are examples of how she eked out the rations to make wonderful lunches and dinners, all the time hiding from her husband that she was scraping by (like many men of the time, he both had no clue whatsoever of how shopping and cooking under rations worked and also sought to direct her shopping and cooking because he was A Man).

From her, and her kitchen garden, I see that she did a lot with roast vegetables, served hot, warm and cold. Small amounts of meat and fish could be made to go further by mixing them into the roast tomatoes and celery and other such things. The husband never noticed that he was basically eating lots of veg and pasta and very little meat. She was also very good at making stuff in a batch at the start of the week and creating smaller lunches from it over the next few days.

If she could do that, then, with my fridge and deep freeze, both things she never owned, I could do a lot more. So I've been making cold pasta salad and a version of potato bravas, locking them in tupperware and decanting a bowlful, complete with the fabrication of choice, whenever CJBS declares that it's lunchtime in his body clock zone. The pasta salad is easy: roast mixed seasonal vegetables in a medium oven for under an hour with a sprinkling of herbs, garlic and Maggi. Boil some wholewheat pasta, drain, stir the veg through the pasta and refrigerate. Make it something new with diced spam or tinned fish to keep it fresh-feeling. It keeps for about a week in the fridge.

The potato bravas is nothing like the real version. Boil new potatoes in stock. Chop an onion and some pepper. Fry those off in a tiny bit of butter or oil. Add passata, chopped tomatoes or tinned tomatoes depending on availability and points (passata is best), bring to the boil and then simmer until reduced by about 10%. Add the potatoes to the tomato mixture (or, if you've got the fat, fry off the cooked potatoes in a little butter, allow to cool and then add them) and store in the fridge. Again, it keeps about a week.

By alternating between the two and supplying bread on the side, I'm keeping up his carbs, keeping down his fat intake and not particularly bumping up my workload. He'll be sick of both after a month, I'd imagine, but until then I've think I've beaten the system. And beaten the NHS at its own game.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

The shocking truth about rationing

So, what happened in the interregnum? Well, as I said in the last post, the project continues, and there's not much I can add to that. The rhythm of rationing is something you start to feel as well as think after a few months, so coming up with recipes gets ever easier. In fact, I don't think I've opened a Marguerite Patten in months - I've become very adept at just making food on the fly with what's available, and even planning the future of the leftovers in advance.

What I have done is taken Tanya's excellent advice (not on Yorkshire puddings yet, though) and headed off to the Imperial War Museum to see their exhibition on rationing in World War II.

I've always liked the IWM, both in London and the newer one in Salford in the north of England. The Salford one is the more educational-feeling of the two, sort of like being in a university lecture but with objects to look at.

The original one in London, operating from the old infamous Bedlam lunatic asylum in Lambeth, is much more for the kids - here's a spitfire, there's a V1, here's a tank, there's a cruise missile and so forth. This is in the "free" part of the museum. All state museums in the UK are free (although for how long with the current shower in charge, who knows) with special exhibitions being the only place they can charge for entry. The rationing exhibition was a chargeable thing, but that didn't stop me.

Of course, first I had to find it. Now, the worse museum in the entire world for finding things is the Victoria and Albert in Kensington. When we went there to see a Modernism exhibition, we managed to get hopelessly lost within 10 yards of the front door. The person in charge of the signage was either drunk or a psychopath (or both). We followed the signs, where provided, for the Modernism part for three quarters of an hour. At the end of that time, the signs had taken us back to the front of the museum without actually passing the exhibition at all. Later, we went to the famous V&A cafe. Or we tried to. Following the signs again, we got completely stumped at one that said:

<---  CAFE   --->

Still, it was good to have options. Eventually, we followed enough arrows to get us to the cafe. Well, to the exit to the cafe, so we had to push backwards down the tight queue of people, most of whom weren't buying food but were actually just wanting to ask the lady on the till where the promised toilets and exit were (answer: follow the signs for the cafe but don't actually go to the cafe. Helpful!)

At the IWM, some text on a beam in the roof said "Rationing exhibition - BUY YOUR TICKETS HERE". Underneath was a tank. It did not contain tickets. Upstairs was a clearly marked doorway that said "Rationing exhibition - TICKETS MUST BE SHOWN BEFORE ENTRY". Finally, there was a cafe, with a sign saying "Rationing exhibition - TICKETS HERE". Into the cafe we barrelled. Up to the till. Attempt made to buy tickets. Not sold here. Okay, but where? Follow the signs. Uh huh - that's why we're here.

Now, if they're so precious about their tickets, the easiest way to be told where they can be bought from would be to march in without them - a security guard can be relied upon to guide you smartly to the right place. So in we went, and a security guard guided us smartly to the gift shop at the exit to the exhibition.

Right. So we have two signs telling you to buy tickets here which actually mean buy them anywhere else but here; we have a sign saying that you cannot pass the sign without tickets which you must walk past to get the tickets; and we have tickets actually on sale at the exit to the exhibition you haven't yet seen. Is this just me, or is someone at the IWM just trying to play with my mind? And succeeding!

Aw, but it was worth it. An excellent, informative exhibition, well curated to be in a logical order, with everything well-spaced and given room to express itself. Nobody in costume to engage you in stilted conversation; quiet but appropriate music and the multimedia not surround by hundreds of ill-bred and unwashed children with their sticky fingers pressing every button in an attempt to get away from the sheer boredom of it all. Perfect.

Did I learn anything? Well, thanks to the research for this project, not really. I know how the system worked and I know the ways round it and the ways to eke out meagre supplies (shopping at Morrisons, you have to know this anyway, rationing or no rationing). It made me miss the possibility of growing my own vegetables, but with no garden and my inability to even keep a spider plant alive for longer than a month, I'm not missing out really.

I came away with two important bits of information. First: why do no wartime recipes contain mushrooms? Answer: because they weren't farmed at the time. People had to forage for mushrooms, and with so many being deadly, you didn't want to encourage people not in the know from picking up any old fungi. So mushrooms were left for those that already collected and cooked with mushrooms before the war.

The second thing I got from it was actually a recipe for making sticking to rations harder. The British palate has only really developed within my lifetime. Before the 1970s, people had a fixed idea of what "real" food was. And it was basically something boiled and green, something boiled but another colour and something burnt that once had been meat. And quite a lot of the burnt meat, if possible. For a change, they liked burnt fish instead, again with the boiled stuff. A salad ("cold collation") was inadequate as food, and it would still be inadequate as food, since a salad was, literally, a lettuce leaf, a beef tomato, some processed cheese and a dollop of watery mayonnaise.

All this I knew. But I got more of a shock than you can imagine. Try this: fish remained plentiful for the entire war. There was more of it than could be sold. Yet people queued for hours for the sporadic supplies. Why? Because the fish that was available was tuna. For the Great British Public, that was not fish. Fish was white and flaky and best served deep fried. They would not eat the pink and red stuff (well, salmon in tins, with vinegar, as a small treat). Something I've long thought seems now proved: snoek, the tinned fish introduced at the end of the war but rejected by the public, was not nasty and foul as is remembered. It's just like any other tinned fish. But it wasn't tinned salmon with vinegar, so it wasn't really tinned fish.

Likewise, the shops remained well stocked with ersatz food, like soya and tofu, that people would not eat. There was plenty of soft cheese and blue cheese available, usually not even on points - but people didn't touch soft cheese or blue cheese (clearly off and poisonous, respectively). There was yoghurt plentifully available, but nobody ate it, whilst craving something to put on their dessert... like yoghurt.

In typing this now, I've realised something else. In my research, I noted that the posh restaurants and the gentleman's clubs of London stayed open and well stocked throughout rationing. I wondered how this could be, and thought dark Socialistic thoughts about how rich people can get their hands on anything they want. The government came to believe this as well, putting a price cap on restaurant meals to try to make them look fairer.

But there actually wasn't unfairness. What there was was culture: the fine eateries of the big cities were cooking things that only the rich would eat. They were making things like mussels for starters with tuna steak and salad (real salad, not cold collation) and a dessert of fresh fruit in yoghurt followed by a cheese board with brie and gorgonzola - a standard(ish) meal now, but not what the vast majority would consider having for dinner.

The wartime propaganda had to start from a low base. For many, especially in the north, the prewar diet was entirely inadequate (and rickets and scurvy stalked even the lower-middle class neighbourhoods of Leeds and Manchester) and close to starvation levels. Many people actually did starve. When the war came, the previously inadequately fed were suddenly hundreds of times better fed, with all the right vitamins and minerals and price caps on the most nutritious food. But the Ministry of Food had to start from there, teaching those people how to cook such previously unheard of items like carrots and fresh peas. That job, linked to the one of getting the middle classes to replace the meat they'd always had access to with something else, had to come first. Attempting at the same time to get people to eat tuna, tofu, yoghurt and brie might have been too hard a job and was barely (whalemeat and snoek, both replacements for other foods rather than actual new ones) even tried.

And that's a shame, for British cuisine as much as anything else. It's also a shame to discover that, if you cut back on meat, eggs, cheese and fat, virtually everything else that you can still buy was available back then. That doesn't help when it comes to trying to live like it's 1943.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Highs and... meh

Ah, the joys of having a thyroid gland that doesn't work. You get free prescriptions for the levothyroxine to make a pretend thyroid and for the statins and blood-pressure reducing pills you need to for the side effects of the levothyroxine. And then there's the big red pills that I don't know quite what they are, but they undo the side effects of the blood pressure pills. But they're free too, and I'm, er, careful enough with my money to grab anything that's free with both hands.

On the downside, the thyroxine pills are not as good as having a working thyroid. With a working thyroid, your body has a nice chain of squirts of different chemicals that stimulate other squirts of chemicals that stimulate other squirts of chemicals that stimulate your thyroid. With the pills, you get a blast of thyroxine. It's not quite the same thing.

For a start, it means you have to have highs and lows. Both are terrible. The highs are like periods of mania, as if I was bipolar and on an up-swing. I can't STFU for love nor money, nor can I stop doing anything else - working and cleaning up like I'm possessed, unable to sit still, just always on the go. For the lows... well, meh. The first clue that a thyroid low is happening is my eyebrows falling out (it's such a good look, having a tiny smudge of eyebrow near the nose - and no, the bit that drops out isn't the bit between the eyebrows, that I still have to shave or pluck, lest I have one ordinary-size eyebrow in the middle of my face like a moustache that got lost in the dark).

From then on, for a week, or, like here, two bloody months, meh. I wake up tired, I plod through the day hoping that no one ever under any circumstances will ask me a question (how am I supposed to answer? I neither know the answers nor care what they should be), I go to bed early, sleep through and wake up tired. And all food tastes like nothing, so eating becomes a refuelling exercise. Yes, eating! Eating becomes dull! Cruelty, it is. Just cruelty. And I gave up editing Wikipedia, reading blogs, watching the news and doing anything else that would require me to think in anyway, because thinking... meh.

So the silence here is explained. The project continues (for me anyway; CJBS has become very relaxed in his interpretation of the rules and I've not had the oomph to protest; that will change) but the blank screen simply hasn't been able to get any words from me on it. What was I supposed to write? Do I care enough to write it? Meh.

Yesterday, I woke up and noticed for the first time the state I'd let the house get into. I thought "tomorrow's Saturday, I could buy some bleach, get my bucket and some boiling water and make the bathroom sparkle! Yes I'll do that!". At that moment, I realised something down the chain was back giving its feeble little squirt of chemicals somewhere. This morning, I'm raring to go: bleach, an array of cloths, various pungent disinfectants and scary-looking scouring pads have been purchased and this house will sparkle by tea time. This feels so very good, and I'm looking forward to getting on with it.

Please don't let this be the start of a thyroid high.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Stock post

Oh, celery, how much do I love thee? Let me count the ways... chopped, shredded, boiled... well, three ways then.

Making stock is an excellent use for all leftover vegetables, whether they're whole and unused or trimmings from some other recipe. I've taken to an anachronism of late, freezing the results rather than keeping a stock pot going, despite nobody - almost literally - owning a deep freeze in the 1940s in the UK. But it is possible to keep a stock pot running without the freezer.

The essence of a stock is basically just raw stuff boiled. It's probably easier to use cubes, but they're usually more salt than anything else. Homemade stock doesn't need salt in advance, allowing you to regulate the amount in the cooking itself. CJBS, at 58, watches his salt intake like it may turn on him at any time, despite having normal levels of cholesterol in his system. At 35, I'm less good at this, despite having hypertension and swallowing bucketloads of statins every day (oh, the joy of having a thyroid gland that no longer works).

A "live" stock pot, with no freezing, needs managing. You start it off with the trimmings of any root vegetables you've got, including the skins. Onion skins are brilliant here, giving the stock a lovely golden colour. Put the trimmings in a big pot, pour on boiling water to cover and bring back to the boil with the lid on. If you bring this back to the boil - vigorously - every day, you can keep adding vegetable matter to it and topping it up with more water each time you use it. The Ministry of Food encourage everybody to do this during the war. In theory, you can get a month out of this before it starts to go bad despite the boiling (it starts to smell sweet, and as soon as this happens, throw the entire lot away and throughly wash the stock pot). I've found that actually three weeks is more likely than a month.

If you add green vegetables, reduce the amount it will last by more than a half. It'll taste even better with green or leafy vegetables, but it simply won't survive as well.

Adding the bones of any meat you've had also reduces the amount it lasts, and adds the issue of the unattractive globs of fat on the surface. There are three ways to deal with this: don't get them in the ladle when you decant the stock; warm the stock and attempt to dab the top with strong kitchen paper (this never works very well), or decant the stock into a bowl through a muslin towel (this is more trouble than it's worth).

A stronger stock is got by the repeat-boiling method, and if you're using the deep freeze, it's still worth keeping the pot going for a couple of days at least before decanting it. I label up the stock with the dominant ingredient (judged by smell) and freeze it in useful-sized amounts. The results go into soups, stews, curries, gravy - anything that I'd put a stock cube into if they were freely available to me (they're a points item, so I need to be careful with them).

If you're waste-neutral, the multi-boiled trimmings at the end compost very very well. Any red meat bones you may have will also go very well with your own or a local dog, judging by our two. Poultry bones can't go to dogs, but a cat will secretly plan to murder you in the night to get hold of them, if our late, but uniquely wonderful, cat Freddie was anything to go by.

Having got hold of some (not very fresh) celery at my not-very-local Co-op branch (I had £12 in dividend to spend, making it worth the train trip) I used plenty in recipes and chucked the rest into my latest stock pot. It's just had its second of three boils, then I'll freeze it against the day when the local supermarket goes back to selling higher-margin celery flown in from Spain, Morocco and Egypt.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Buttering up

Morrison's do a range of "fresh" pies that I never buy. On a stand by the deli, they sit in rustic-style paper bags. It's the general stodge - meat and potato, chicken and mushroom, cheese and onion. For all of the mentions of "fresh", they're mass produced slop that is delivered every other day and cooked on site in industrial ovens. As I say, I never buy them.

At the store the other day I saw something called "butter pies". There was a small gaggle of little old ladies (LOLs) gathered around, speculating on what these could be. They called over to a staff member behind the deli. This being Morrison's, he pretended not to hear them, then when that wore thin, pretended to be too busy to help. Eventually, his customer service training compelled him to  v e r y  s l o w l y  trudge over and see what the damn pests wanted.

To be honest, I was enjoying this display of customer service #fail, so I continued to eavesdrop on the off chance he'd swear at them and be sacked (or promoted). It was worth it. The LOLs asked about the pies and he explained in the strange, faltering "English" that young people talk in these days. "They're, like, potato pies, like, we only calls them butter pies coz it sounds better than potato pies, like, coz that's like boring, innit, it's a war thing that they had in the old days, like, in the war, so it's just potato and nothing else like."

After I'd translated the stream-of-conciousness and screened out the awful, high-pitched Scouse accent, I was very happy with the result. Back when I was planning this project, I thought that shortcrust pies filled only with mashed potato would work very well, providing bulk, using little rations and going well with anything. But I couldn't find any proof that such a thing existed, then or now, and worried if it would be too bland.

But here they were: butter pies, potato pies, which I could buy to try. I did. And it works. You need salt, or gravy, or a sauce of some sorts, but it works! Of course, the mass-produced nature of the pies meant that the pastry was made with hydrogenated fat rather than margarine and water, so it was greasy and unpleasant and my body rebelled against it mightily (I had dry toast for dinner that night as it was all I could face).

My own version was far better. I boiled and mashed (without fat) plenty of potatoes, then made a cold-water shortcrust pastry. This is 2 to 1 flour to fat (I had butter rather than margarine in for this week's fat ration) rubbed together (I did 8oz to 4oz), a pinch of salt and then adding cold water until you get a dough that holds together but isn't wet. Put this in the fridge for 20 minutes to get it cold, then roll it out and line a pie tin with it. If I did it again, I'd save more fat by adding mashed potato instead of half the fat and slightly more water.

Spoon the mashed potato into the tin, then top. I was making two, so I put chopped spring onions on top of one and a crumbled ounce of cheese on the other. Top off with pastry, brush with milk and bake in a moderate oven for half an hour.

The first one I served with onion gravy and steamed vegetables. For the second, I turned an ounce of cheese into a lot of cheese sauce by bulking with single cream and soured cream in addition to some milk and served this on top of the pie and some more steamed vegetables.

Oh, but it was lovely. A proper pie, good cold as well as hot, and very low in fat. It was so good we didn't end up with the planned leftovers - it was very hard to resist going back for seconds.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Royal cooking

In the last few days, it's been a fairly generic salad time here at On The Ration. Salad stuff is plentiful (still no celery, mind) so it makes sense to dive in and get as much fresh, uncooked, leafy vegetable matter into us as possible.

But that's not to say I haven't been able to be a bit chef-fy with the meals. A good mushroom soup made an on-going starter for a few days, whilst a break from salad came with a (comparatively) low fat risotto. This was a filling meal in itself, but even better for CJBS with a topping of poached smoked haddock.

For the risotto, heat some fat in a heavy-bottomed frying pan. Fry off some onion, and when they're half done, chuck in some mushrooms and some crushed or powdered garlic. Once the onion is translucent and the mushrooms are softening, add your rice - two handfuls per person or thereabout, to make plenty. The rice will suck up the remaining oil. When the rice starts to stick, start adding stock.

Two ways of doing this: if you know in your bones how much water the rice will suck up, add that amount, put the lid on and walk away. If you don't, start by adding half a pint, keep stirring and add another half pint when it's gone. Keep doing this until the rice just isn't taking any more up (what's left will boil off anyway if you keep the lid off).

With the stock in, you can now add veggies that you like. Peas are always nice in risotto (cubed spam can go in at this point too). I like tomatoes, so I put quartered ones in. If you like bell peppers, put some in. You get the idea.

When the rice is done, you've got a basic risotto. For a creamy version, stir through low fat soured cream or crème fraiche. For a richer, but fattier, version, add some cubes of butter and let them melt through, assuming you've got the butter. For the traditional Italian flavour, add some hard cheese (Parmesan, ideally), assuming you have cheese. We had butter available, sort of, but no cheese.

For the poached smoked haddock, put a couple of bay leaves, some dill and some raw onion into a saucepan. Put the fish on top, then top with milk. Bring the milk up to the boil, then immediately take it off the heat. It's done, but you can leave it in longer to cook in its own heat if you want it to be flaky. Lift it out with tongs and serve it on top of the risotto.

Reserve the fishy milk: use it the next day to make fantastic (I'm told: I don't eat fish) mashed potatoes.

To explain the missing cheese earlier, I was inspired by this bit of gastropub-ism, and fortified with olive oil on points and some sausages, I decided to make something very very chef-fy for CJBS the next day. I don't have a name for it, but here it is:

Slice some halloumi cheese (the Greek, rubbery one that isn't feta) and scatter it on the bottom of a baking tray. I've got some very nice but hard-to-use bottled peppers in. These are baked or grilled, then preserved in vinegar or oil. The best bit about them is that they're surprisingly mild and beautifully brightly coloured. Lay a pepper slice on each piece of cheese. Add some garlic (powdered, flakes or fresh chopped/crushed) on top, some chopped spring onion and half a dozen thin sausages. A splash of oil, and into the oven until the sausages are cooked (15 mins at 180C, say). Serve with chopped basil leaves on top.

This was probably a waste of (almost) two people's cheese ration for a week, but CJBS ate it in seconds with a loud "nom nom nom" sound, so it was well worth it.

He also nommed his way through the quick tiramisu I made (I told you I was in chef-fy mood). I'd made some chocolate cupcakes earlier in the week, forgetting I had a rhubarb crumble on the go. The cakes went stale, despite CJBS's heroic efforts to cram them into his mouth. I made a cup of strong coffee, mixed a tablespoon of icing sugar into it and added a big glugg of cheap cooking brandy. While this cooled, I whipped 150ml of single cream and 250g of mascarpone cheese together with 3 tablespoons of icing sugar, some vanilla essence and a smaller glugg of the brandy. Then I sliced up the stale cakes and dipped each one in the coffee mixture for half a minute. These are then layered: cake slices, mascarpone, cake slices, mascarpone until everything's used up. Dust the top with cocoa powder and store in a cool place for as long as possible (it just gets better as it ages).

Now, back to the salads. There was a reason to have so much salad, an excuse that I grabbed at. Jersey Royals,1 the best potatoes ever ever, have a season of about 25 minutes. When they come in, I buy preposterous amounts and shove them in everything I cook. As a "new" potato, they're theoretically best just boiled and served, and that works very well on the side of a salad, hot or cold. But they also make superb potato salad with soured cream or with mayonnaise, in a vinaigrette, or boiled in stock.

But my favourite is to really really make them work for their money. I boil them for 15 minutes, drain, then slice them into thick slabs. Heat some butter in a pan, add some garlic and lightly sauté them batches. I saved my butter ration for this (and the risotto - dry sandwiches and marmite on unbuttered toast are worth it). Put the sautéed Jerseys on a baking tray, then roast them for 20 minutes in a hot oven. These can be served anyway you can think of: with a salad, with grilled meat, with mayonnaise... you name it, they work.

Tonight, I'm making a big bowl of them with some crème fraiche and spring onion on top. In front of the TV, with my feet up and feeling very very relaxed.

1 Yes, I know Jersey was occupied in the war, so this is an anacronism. I don't care.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Bulk handling

CJBS wanted cottage pie. Mainly because I put the idea into his head. £1.32 doesn't get you much beef mince, even the fatty cheap stuff. I bought the expensive lean mince, so my money got me about 8oz - 200g. That's for the entire week, remember, and wasn't even enough for one cottage pie of any size. But wartime rationing involved a lot of bulking out and the tricks become second nature after a while.

The cottage pie got three forms of bulking. First, cook off the mince with some onion until it has browned. Soak up the fat with gravy browning and dilute with stock until there's a useful amount of gravy. To that, add porridge oats, about the same amount as the beef. This swells up with the gravy and has the same texture as the mince - instant doubling of the meat content.

Next, finely dice some mushrooms - about the same amount as of the original mince. Add that and it'll take on the gravy flavour, whilst the texture won't be all that different either. So now the mince has been tripled, and, as a by-product, has got much heathier, with the oats removing much of the cholesterol.

Finally, add a chopped onion, a chopped carrot and a chopped parsnip. These don't turn into anything else, but they add bulk and taste very nice in and of themselves (except the parsnip, obviously). From 8oz of mince to start with, there's now 2lbs or so of the stuff. It'll reduce down somewhat, so perhaps a pound will be left. Mashed potato on top, into the oven and enough food to last three days for one person is ready. I did exactly the same with my vegetarian soya mince, to the same results.

The only flaw is that this all needs slow cooking, both on the stove and in the oven, and much too much stirring as bloody usual. Doesn't half save money, mind. Also, whilst CJBS doesn't mind having the same thing three days running, I start to find it dull. So some vegetable side dishes are recommended.

Enough of my boasting: I'm off to make a cauliflower cheese from a week's worth of cheese ration. Now that will need some bulking...

Monday, 31 May 2010

A little Blitz

Do you believe in luck? For all my atheism and scientific rationalism, I'm still a superstitious person, in so far as I believe there's a limited degree of luck in the world and sometimes you have lots and sometimes none. Also, luck comes in flavours, ranging from extremely good to extremely bad, via a sort of crappy middle. "Cheese" is the analogy I'm trying not to make.

Image by marfis75 on Flickr: Creative Commons licensed BY SA 2.0

Today, it seems, is the crappy middle good luck. I woke in a good mood, bounced out of bed and started my busy Bank Holiday Monday. Having done all the ironing and washing that had built up on Saturday morning, had a fabulous food n' laughs filled evening over at Scott & bf's house for the Eurovision Song Contest (Britain came very very last, if you missed it) on Saturday night and had a lovely lazy (and hangoverless, oddly) Sunday with a great tomato, basil and olive soup, I had reason to be cheerful.

Today was to be a deep clean of the bathroom, a tidy and bleach of the kitchen (I'm a bleach queen: little satisfies me more than massacring germs that dare to lurk in corners using environmentally damaging chemicals and boiling water until my hands are red and shredded) and an exchange of sweaty bedlinen for lovely "lavender-style" scented freshly washed stuff. This was to be followed by another soup and the assembling of something in the slow cooker for tomorrow night's dinner.

I started in the bathroom, squirting bleach spray everywhere, scrubbing down the tiles, dissolving the (oddly pink) limescale from the grouting and other intense sparkling activities. I washed the tiles down with the shower, turned it off and went downstairs for my grapefruit-scented antiseptic wipes.

From the kitchen, I could hear running water. Frantically running water. Hmmm, odd. This was joined by the sound of urgent dripping much nearer. I went back upstairs to find the shower running. Strange. Looking closer, it wasn't running. It was gushing. And from the back of the shower unit. The main flow of the water was clearly running into the false wall and from there through the ceiling into the utility room. That explained the urgent dripping.

Now, I'm good in a crisis. I think fast and can usually see not only all the options available, but the consequences of each one and therefore the best action to take, all in a second or so. I pay for this by never being able to make any non-urgent decision at all, unless the person asking is actually on fire.

Electric shower, running water. Right, item one: isolate the electric mains supply. Thought and done. Item two: water still running. Isolate gas boiler then find stopcock for the water supply. Grab phone, out of back door, into The Cellar for the first ever time. Terrified of spiders, and this is where they filmed Aragog's scenes in the second Harry Potter movie. It's this or drowning. Into The Cellar, despite being in flip-flops, shorts and nothing else. Call CJBS and ask where is the stopcock, exactly?. Lefthand wall. No stopcock. Where on the wall, EXACTLY? Am I in The Cellar? Yes. On the wall on the left. No, no it isn't. Go into The Cellar, walk through the cobwebs, go through a doorway covered in cobwebs into a pitchblack subroom filled with cobwebs. It's on the lefthand wall in there.

Now, over the last two years, we've had building work done, generally by the cheapest and uselessest builders we could find. Except for the house not actually collapsing, everything else they did has broken, fallen down, peeled off or remained unfinished when actually inspected. To that list we can now add "didn't bother with a skip for the rubble, broken glass and other unwanted items". It's all in The Cellar. And it's all piled up in front of the doorway into the subroom. And covered in cobwebs.

So, in cheaply made, given-away-free-by-Merseyrail flip-flops, shorts and nothing else I climbed over the rubble and the glass shards, walked through about three billion cobwebs and turned off the stopcock. The torrent stopped. I climbed back over the rubble, broken glass, razor wire, bear traps, used needles and scorpions(note: some of this may not be actually true) and called the insurance company's plumber.

He came over urgently, 4 to 8 hours later, turned another stopcock off (behind a secret panel under the bath, who knew?) and opened the shower unit. This is where the crappy good luck kicks in. There's a plastic clamp holding the water pipe in place. It had sheared off and could've gone at any time. Like in 3 weeks when we're in London for the weekend. Or in 4 when we're in Belgium for a week. That it went today, when there was someone in the house and I wasn't working... very lucky. Just crappily so.

Of course, being a plumber from the insurance company, he couldn't repair the shower, since he had made it safe (turned the tap off) and we have alternative facilities (the bath). So a real plumber and a part will be needed. Until then, we're bathing instead of showering. I'm tempted to draw a line around the bath, as people did in the war to ration hot water (including the King and Queen, as noted with amazement by Mrs Roosevelt, but excluding Mr Churchill, who did a lot of speechwriting whilst immersed, to the distaste of his dictation secretaries).

This little crisis was followed by a trip to the shops, which had mostly closed early because of the Bank Holiday so I missed them. In the supermarket, a plague of locusts must have been through, as there were almost no vegetables to be had and random shortages elsewhere.

So, for the purposes of this project, I'm going to pretend we got caught in a little Blitz (explaining the state of the bathroom, the dust and cobwebs on my clothes, the unchanged bedding and the food shortages). And we all know what that means: chips from the takeaway chip shop for dinner tonight.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Soup n' stock, rock n' roll

I had a clash of leftovers vs tastebuds this week. In the leftovers department, I had celeriac (aka celery root) and garlic-infused olive oil from the earlier salads. In the tastebuds department, it was tomato soup I wanted. How to combine these unlikely things?

Huh, not much of a cliffhanger question, that, is it? Tomato and celeriac soup seems the obvious answer, but there was little or nothing online. Time to invent a recipe!

I started by halving my tomatoes, putting them in a baking tray and pouring the garlic olive oil (I got olive oil on points and just put half a dozen smashed-up garlic cloves in some for a few days) on top. Some sea salt and in the fan oven for an hour at 150C. Meanwhile I peeled and diced the celeriac and made a standard soup base with stock from my pot - and re-used the oil from the tomatoes to start it off, which pleased me no end.

To the soup base I added the baked tomatoes and the celeriac cubes. I also chucked in a carrot to please Lord Woolton and a diced potato. When everything was soft, I separated the lumps from the base, blended the lumps and reunited the two. The result was lovely, although I really couldn't taste the celeriac.

The leftover celeriac peelings went into my stockpot, with the ends of the carrot. My last stockpot having gone whiffy through ill-use, and the celeriac making the stock smell glorious, I've decided to use a cheat not available in the 1940s. I've taken the stock and put it into plastic tupperware and they'll go in the deep freeze for later use. Marguerite Patten is clear that a well-used stockpot can be kept almost indefinitely by making sure you boil it daily (unless you've got anything green in it - that reduces it to a week). I can get the stockpot to go for 3 weeks or so with daily boiling, but after that it starts to smell musty, and then sweet: a very bad sign.

I'll start a new stockpot the next time I've got leftover vegetable matter, but the hurry to do so is lessened by having some in the freezer. And the multiple boiling produces a lovely, flavour-heavy, golden stock that reduces the need for salt as a flavour enhancer.

Meanwhile, the craving for tomatoes has not gone away, despite spinning the soup out for three days between the two of us. I decided that I wanted pasta in a tomato sauce for tonight, so wandered around the dreaded Morrisons buying mushrooms, basil and pasta. Eventually I remembered the tomatoes. Having bought them earlier this week, I was shocked and annoyed to find that the four types of domestic tomato had been reduced to none. It was Spanish, Dutch and Moroccan all the way... and all off-limits to the project.

I had to buy - on points! - two tins of tomatoes instead. This is a terrible waste of points, especially when I've spent freely on the olive oil earlier. It also does for my bake-to-intensity plan for the tomatoes. I'll just have to carefully reduce the canned tomatoes on the stove with a stern look on my face and the occasional tutting noise.

And the rock n' roll? Well, I voted for the Netherlands in the Eurovision Song Contest semi-final yesterday. They didn't get through, despite having the campest entry ever ever. So tomorrow I'm either voting for Cyprus (because they're Welsh... don't ask) or Greece (on the basis that they don't know they're so homoerotic).

Monday, 24 May 2010

It's mostly about cheesecake

Getting back on rations is actually proving difficult.

It's not the actual rationing. As far as I can tell, I'm fully ration-compliant. It's just that I've not got round to doing the usual trappings yet: printing off coupons, making lists, keeping up with the admin that makes sure that I know I'm on track.

The problem is, I know I'm on track. It's become a reflex to me. Run out of butter? That's okay, I can buy some more in X days. CJBS wants bacon for breakfast? That's okay, he can have 3oz now, and 7oz if he waits two days. Team meeting at work with lunch provided? That's okay, I'll just not have any cheese for 3 weeks and then I can grab a sandwich.

This is actually all one big #fail because I'm putting weight on again. I've just got this down to a fine art and seem to be making a glorious pig of myself all the time, yet still have slack. I've said before, and Michelle also noticed, there's a knack to rationing. Once you've got it, it's actually easy (although when people ask me about it and I tell them, they cringe and look appalled and start talking about exceptions and food parcels and ways I could use a modern version of the black market to get round the restrictions, so it's clear only I think it's easy).

Yesterday was my birthday (it turns out I'm 35. I'd miscounted somewhere and thus had my second 35th in a row. This is a Good Thing). I made a glorious birthday tea. Lashings of domestically-grown salad, a cheesecake with strawberry toffee topping and some champagne. And I did it within rations and without noticing that I was doing it. This keeps happening. I suppose if I did the admin, I'd find I was going wrong somewhere, but I don't think so: CJBS complains enough about the shortages to make it clear that I'm not being lavish or anything near it (he's actually taken to begging for extra cheese, despite having left untouched the last 6oz of his ration over 3 weeks without complaining about not having it whilst it was waiting for him) and I'm just not buying enough of the restricted groceries to make it likely.

Of course, the hot weather we're now getting makes this easier: salad requires no points and is easily available locally, albeit still with no celery, and hot weather and salad go perfectly together. In fact, I just had to ditch an unused stockpot that had gone whiffy, although I started a new one immediately, even knowing I was just as unlikely to use that either.

I'm probably going to have to make this project harder if I plan to keep blogging about it - it's dullsville of late, I know. Making it harder would also do something for my body's amazing ability to put weight on even when I'm not having any fat, although it would make a tad more joyless.

In the meantime, here's the cheesecake recipe. Soften an ounce of butter and two ounces of margarine. Smash a dozen biscuits (Belgian Speculoos are good for this, but ginger biscuits in general are okay and digestives will do it). Mix the fat into the biscuit crumbs and push together until it's like dough, then push it into the bottom of a cake tin. Put the tin into the freezer for an hour.

Take a good blob of mascarpone cheese and slightly less thick double cream and mix together. You can add some jam or marmalade if you like it sweet, or the zest of a lemon if you like it tart. Slop that into the tin on top of the biscuit base. Put it in the fridge.

Put a cupful of water into a heavy saucepan with about 8oz/250g of sugar and turn on the heat. You want the water to slowly boil and you want to swirl it rather than stir it. When it starts to boil, reduce the heat. Now take a punnet of strawberries (washed and halved, don't huile them, it's just waste) and drop them in. Add a quarter of a teaspoon of baking powder. Continue on a low heat, swirling occasionally. Don't leave the pan: if it burns, you'll be sorry. Let it reduce down to a thick tar-like liquid.

Take it off the heat, let it cool a bit, then pour the pan contents on to the cheesecake and put it back in the fridge. You now can't lose: if it stays liquid, it's cheesecake with strawberry coulis. If it gets very thick, it's cheesecake with sticky strawberry sauce. And if it sets, it's cheesecake with strawberry toffee. All of these are delicious. And if I have no sugar for cups of tea for the next two weeks, it was worth it.

Friday, 14 May 2010

During the hiatus

I'm not yet back on rations, but I'm still making use of the things I've learned during the project.

For General Election week, I pulled out all the stops. Paul arrived on Tuesday afternoon and that night Paul, CJBS and I went out with mutual friend Tony to one of West Kirby's excellent Indian (Bangladeshi, actually, I believe) restaurants. The three of them, friends for longer than I've been alive, have charted the fate of several Indian restaurants in the town, seeing them open, spawn new branches and pass to the next generation. Tuesday night's meal had insanely surly service, but the meal was very very good as usual. And I'm not just saying that because I'm British and Indian food is our national dish.

On Wednesday morning, I made CJBS and Paul breakfast - kippers with scrambled eggs. I can't face breakfast - food in the morning is the devil's work - which they scoffed down.

Wednesday night was time for my speciality dish: roast lamb. I don't think we ever had this when I was growing up (although we had lamb chops) but for some reason it has become my adult signature dish. It's actually something of a cheat: it's local, hung free-range organic salt marsh lamb from our excellent local butcher, Graham Clarke, so it's impossible to get it wrong. Lamb can be fatty, although salt marsh lamb not so much, but the fat can be dealt with with my recipe.

A bag of dried apricots is the key. Split them and put a spring of rosemary in each ine. Then soak them for as long as possible in white wine. Take the lamb and get it to room temperature. With scissors, make V-shaped cuts in the skin of the joint all over. Push the apricots into the the cuts. Let it stand for an hour or so.

Roast as normal - 220C for 30 minutes, then 160C for 40 minutes per kg. When changing between the two temperatures, pour the remaining wine used for soaking over the lamb.

The apricots will go black and burnt. Don't worry - we're not using them. Through some process, they soak up the fat and give up their sugars in return. Perfect, I'm told - I'm still a happy vegetarian and think this is all barbaric nonsense.

I served it with the usual trimmings: mint sauce bought at Fortnum and Mason earlier this year (horrifically sweet), peas and carrots, roast potatoes, broccoli and asparagus. The asparagus was special: 5 spears with two anchovy fillets in-between, tied together with smoked streaky bacon, drizzled with lemon juice and melted butter and baked for 10 minutes. This was for CJBS, Paul and Tony - Tony was off swanning around the country on the Orient Express for the actual election, so we didn't see him for the actual night.

Thursday morning was scrambled eggs made with smoked salmon and toast. Thursday night - election night - was a running buffet. We pulled an all-nighter: I went to bed at about 0630; CJBS didn't at all; and Paul had a nap from about 8am. Various finger foods and sandwiches were made, packed into Tupperware and served as needed. I had plans for Friday brunch and dinner, but it never happened: I got up in the early afternoon, pottered about and went back to bed in the early evening. Not that I wasn't excited: a hung parliament is a good thing, especially since our voting system isn't proportional and isn't designed to reflect what people wanted when they cast their vote (for the record, I voted Labour nationally, despite not liking them but I dislike them less than the hideous gargoyle of a Conservative candidate; and I voted Green locally. For my pains, and like 65% of voters around here, I got a Conservative in parliament and... a Conservative locally. My votes, like 65% of people around here, were entirely wasted).

Saturday saw me back on form: a full cooked breakfast - bacon, eggs, sausage, beans, tinned tomato - for Paul and CJBS. Paul got his train back to London afterwards and I demanded that CJBS provide for me for a change - which he did by going to Flame and Wok for a gourmet Chinese takeaway meal. For which I paid half.

At this point, my never-reliable memory goes to hell. We had leftover buffet one night. Chips from the chippy another night. Something else for one night. Any how, I still had leftover lamb. Some of it went into sandwiches for CJBS to take to work. The rest I curried in the slow cooker, leaving me with the bone that went into the dogs - exactly zero waste! One night of curry with soured cream and one night with the plain curry and we've reached tonight.

Tonight I've got the remains of the jus from the slow-cooked curry and some remaining curried veg and lamb bits. I'm making this into a mulligatawny, by draining the jus, blending the bits and putting the lot into a standard soup. I'm having bagels with hummus.

And the rationing? Well it will be restarting soon. I'm actually looking forward to it. In fact, my stomach will positively welcome it: the rich food of late hasn't suited me and the weight I've lost appears to have piled back on.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Partly politics

April is at an end, so we get a pause in the rationing. With the UK general election this week, the rationing is off for visitors who will be getting the full smorgasbord of fat, cheese and meat we've lacked for a month.

I'm coming back to the rations next week, as the challenge is fun and the diet is very healthy. But I have to say that this isn't as much fun as it was: I've got the cooking down to a fine art, seemingly able to make a great meal out of next to nothing, to turn leftovers into fresh meals two nights running without breaking a sweat and take a lack of fat and still make a dinner with all the trimmings.

There's a knack to rationing and once you've got the knack, you can deal with anything. It shows how, in the UK at least, when rationing petered out in the mid-1950s, people continued to cook rationed food, just with more fat and cheese in it. The British gained a reputation for stodgy, cautiously-flavoured food that we're only now starting to shake off, because the favourites of rationing (pies, bakes, one-pot stews) remained the norm. The portion sizes got bigger, and the trimmings reappeared, but the food stayed the same.

This is ideal for CJBS. Born in 1951, he grew up with no memory of rationing, but his food at home and at his private school (boo, hiss) was just what Patten and the other wartime cooks would recommend, almost always cooked too long and dripping with extra dripping. Rationing for him hasn't meant discovering new food: it has meant rediscovering the food of his childhood, only served hotter.

For me, the project has been different. I've become a smarter shopper, caring about where my food comes from. I've worried over the vitamins and protein content of ordinary dishes. I've looked for ways of making rich, satisfying food without fat. These are things we should be doing. So much of food is just refuelling, filling a space in the stomach until it's time to sleep or fill it again. We've substituted salt for flavour, hydrogenated fat for quality preparation, making ingredients hot for actual cooking. And we've done this whilst buying ever more recipe books and watching ever more television programmes about how to make good food - and watched the latter with a microwaved ready meal in front of us.

Partially, this is the fault of the politicians. In the 1980s, seeking to save money as usual (in order, it turns out, to spend it on themselves) the Department of Education decided that Domestic Science (once called "cookery") wasn't needed any more. It became optional, then it disappeared altogether. An entire generation - my generation - grew up without the basic skills that cookery lessons give you. Watch Come Dine With Me (if you must) and see people marvel over how skilled someone is because they can make a roux. We see people feeling guilty over using frozen pastry - because they can't make pastry. Pastry! And they do feel guilty, for not having been taught the basics.

To digress, the same thing happened at the same time with English. Politicians - and trendy teachers - decided that we didn't need to know the rules. Written English was going to die out, thanks to the wonder of the telephones and videophones and other such advances. Nobody predicted the internet and how we'd all be being asked to comment and review and give our two-penn'thworth on blogs and forums across all possible subjects. So people now happily type "i saw there sign that was telling us wear to vote and i fort that they was saying i should of vote's for tori'es when i wants to vote for labour's party". If you tell people they're doing it wrong, they often feel guilty... for not having been taught there (the salt shaker is over there) their (it was their salt shaker) and they're (they're concerned about your interest in the salt shaker), how to make plurals and possessives and how to spell (the latter was the biggest flaw in my education).

We've paid the price for deciding English didn't need to be taught in depth. And we've paid the price for deciding cookery didn't need to be taught at all, with obesity in our kids and basic - really, really basic - food hygiene thrown away (clues: wearing gloves doesn't help if you wear the same gloves when moving from vegetables to raw meat to cooked meat - can you hear me, Subway? - and if you need to be told that raw meat is generally poisonous until cooked thoroughly throughout, as did the guy who sued a supermarket for selling him burgers that he poisoned his kids with by not cooking them properly, then you're not ready to breathe without help, let alone cook food).

Three months on rationing and I'm as good a cook as I'll ever be. Of course, I had a good grounding in it - my mum is, after all, a top-class chef in her own right, so it shouldn't be a surprise; but my knowledge of the chemistry and physics of food has gone to a new level. I now know with certainty how ingredients combine and interact, how meat benefits from being cooked on a low heat for a long time but vegetables need a high heat and a short time, and why this should be so.

I might still not produce the best presented food in the world - it tends to sit in a heap on the plate rather than looking like something out of the Sunday supplements - but I think rationing has made me produce the best food I can and will produce. For that reason, the project is worth continuing next week.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Celery, salad and soup

Whilst the flights might have resumed, the pause in air freight would seem to have temporarily paid off for local produce: I managed to get both domestic celery and spring onions for the first time this year.

The celery went straight into a cream of celery soup. I'm very fond of this soup, which Heinz seem to have stopped doing. It's a standard white soup (onion, roux, milk, stock) with roughly chopped celery in it. The longer you can leave it to simmer with the celery in it, the tastier it gets, although like all white soups, watch for it catching - especially if using household (ie dried) milk.

This was meant to last two nights, but we fell upon the saucepan and devoured it all in one sitting. So I had to quickly come up with something else to bridge the gap. This was leek and potato soup - again, just a white soup, with big lumps of potato and leek in it. Very filling, so this did go over two nights.

Sunday was a salad. This is where the spring onions come in. Now, celery is lovely in a salad, but having eaten all I could get in the soup, I'd none left and the Egyptian stuff has displaced the local stuff. Still, not having celery doesn't ruin a salad. Two salads, in fact, as I made salad niçoise for CJBS and a cottage cheese salad for me.

This salad spread well into Monday, with the addition of fish fingers (and fake fish for me) for a little change.

But now it's back to soup. I've got some potatoes and some cabbage leftover from the salad, so I'm going to make a cream of cabbage and potato soup. That should stretch to two days, too.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Eyjafjallajökull pie

The sporadic blogging continues, with my apologies. There's also less soup than you might imagine for a soup month.

Saturday was a rare, and expensive, Chinese takeaway with a marathon of TV shows I loved as a child remade to modern standards (Doctor Who: this episode okay; V: meh; The Prisoner: brain damage).

Sunday was fish for CJBS. This being sporadically available in wartime, we've made it sporadically available by requiring it being bought from the fishmongers, who have the most remarkably variable and unpredictable opening hours of any shop you could think of.

I made cod in breadcrumbs: blitz 6 slices of brown bread, add a chopped up slice of smoked bacon, a chopped tomato and a chopped onion, place the cod skin-side down on a glass baking tray, cover with the breadcrumb mix (pack it down a little) and bake in a medium low oven for 45 minutes. I served it with mashed potato and some steamed broccoli. I had fake fishfingers. No fat was used!

For Monday, I had leftover mashed potato. That suggested something pie, with a mashed potato topping. At the supermarket, I was able to get a large slice of braising steak for half the week's ration of red meat. So that's a steak and ale pie, I reckon. This type of steak is like leather, but it can be made tender with some work. First, make sure it's at room temperature. Sprinkle with some salt and a little garlic powder, then, with a rolling pin or one of those scary pointy mallets, bash the hell out of it. Turn it over and do the same. Then dice it.

I melted a tiny amount of CJBS's remaining margarine in a frying pan, getting it very hot, then added the beef cubes. When it has browned all over, add a chopped onion and let the two cook through together.

When the onion is cooked, add some gravy browning or gravy granules to soak up the fat and add a small glass of Guinness. Then add a chopped carrot and some chopped mushrooms. Stir it in and add more Guinness. A dash of Maggi or half a teaspoon of yeast extract, a stir, and some more Guinness. Eventually, just under a pint of Guinness has gone in, thickening and reducing all the time. Take it off the heat and cover.

If you've got enough fat for pastry, a shortcrust base is nice. I had pastry I'd previously frozen and I cheated by microwaving it back to being malleable. I lined a pie dish with it, poured in the steak and ale mix and then spooned the leftover mash on top. I forked the top of the mash, then brushed it with milk, then forked it again: this stops the mash being dried out, but also creates a crispy top.

Into the bottom of a low oven for an hour and a half (the meat really needs pampering) and bake.

In the meantime, I made my equivalent: a vegetable pie. I fried off an onion in a tiny knob of margarine, then made up a roux into a white sauce. To that I added a chopped leek, a chopped carrot, some chopped mushrooms and some of the leftover uncooked broccoli from Sunday. Let that simmer slowly (beware, it can catch very easily, so stirring is very much on the agenda) for 10 minutes, then put it in a pie dish and cover with mashed potato as before. Into the top of the low oven for 45 minutes and you're ready to serve both together. Which I did.

We're having this again today - there was plenty - so Wednesday will be my next soup. With the volcanic ash disrupting flights, Morrisons is starting to run short of the stuff I'm forbidden by the rules of the project from buying anyway. I'm hoping this means they'll source a bit more locally (no celery so far this year because it's all Spanish, Israeli and Egyptian) to increase my choices. Certainly I'd expect my greengrocer to go back to offering more local produce - they got sloppy over the winter with too much exotica, including stuff they could've got from just down the road.

If the ash makes for an increase in local food, I'm going to really enjoy the two weeks of soup-making. It'll be very nice to be spoiled for choice for once. Although they're talking about lifting the flight ban for freight, alas and alack, but there still might be a couple of days with fresh soup made from domestic ingredients.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Organising a pea soup

This stupid virus (well, it's now a bacterial chest infection, but I'm an asthmatic smoker so I've brought that upon myself) has slowed my cooking and blogging down to a dribble.

This is no use when trying to remember what I've made recently: my memory is dodgy at the best of times, but when ill I can (and have before now) forget my own name. Vaguely, I recall making a pea soup, although details are hazy (like, what day).

The pea soup was fun to make. CJBS has entirely appropriated both of our fat rations (cheerfully) but I snuck a spoon of his margarine and fried off a small onion and a leek. I made the roux with a small pot of single cream, made it up with stock and then added an (anachronistic) bag of frozen peas. I brought this to the boil, then took it off the heat and went to bed to feel sorry for myself.

The next day, I strained the liquid from the solids, blended the solids and recombined. Brought back to heat and served, this was lovely: sweet without being desserty, a lovely colour (many recipes require adding green food colouring - ignore them unless you wish to channel Fanny Cradock, in which case pick a colour other than green) and a fascinating texture. I had two bowls. Then I went to bed to feel sorry for myself.

The next day (no, I don't know which days these are) I didn't have seconds. CJBS went off to the late shift with tinned sardines, toast and the fat ration. I went to bed to feel sorry for myself.

Today (possibly), CJBS ate the rest of the soup. He tried a spoonful, then heated the rest up and ate it much in the manner of Cookie Monster. So it was clearly very good. I made myself a vegetable chilli, but picked at it and in the end gave up and opened a bag of Fox's Glacier Dark, bought on points. I've been craving aniseed for the entire time I've been ill and aniseed balls would've been ideal... but impossible to come by. These liquorice-aniseed boiled sweets are not the same thing, but they're doing for the craving nicely. I'd still like a bag of aniseed balls, though.

My policy is to never ignore a craving, especially if it is truly odd: I trust my body to know what it wants and to ask for it. Previously when ill I've craved blue cheese (I hate blue cheese) but a cube of it has been all I can think of. I suspect there's penicillin in them there veins (or equivalent, as I'm told I'm allergic to penicillin, according to childhood medical notes). A craving for aniseed fits this pattern (although I love aniseed normally... but, just to be contrary, dislike black liquorice and hate Ouzo and Pernod) and I've been obsessing about aniseed in my fever-dreams, so this is obviously going to do me good.

And it was worth taking the bag of sweets out of the sugar ration, even if it does put me back on the Camp coffee-substitute in a week.

Saturday, 10 April 2010


Soup month continues, albeit with some alterations due to circumstances beyond our control (and we apologise for the disruption this may cause to your journey this evening).

As previously detailed, I made minestrone soup on Monday. That was excellent and lasted two days. On Wednesday, I went out drinking, very early for me, with Scott and CJBS (and had a great time: must do that again soon), so I made up a stew in the slow cooker to be ready on getting home. This departs from the soup plan, but only slightly (it's only an unpureed vegetable broth, after all).

I've always loved stew, especially stew with suet dumplings. But suet comes out of our fat ration and that requires husbanding, so this was stew without it. A selection of diced vegetables, some pearl barley, a dash of dried herbs and cover with stock. On high 8am to 3pm, on low until we ate at 8.

That lasted two days as well. On Thursday, I started to come down with something virus-y and nasty. By the evening, I was decidedly unwell. Like a wounded animal, I'm best left to get on with being sick alone. I don't do sympathy and people floating around me looking concerned. That's lucky, because CJBS was away at Aintree, making the trains run on time by barking orders at the drunken racegoers there for the meeting that culminates in today's Grand National.

That means he needed feeding on getting home at 9pm, a time when I wanted to be in bed slowly dying. Fortunately, there was still plenty of stew left; but it must've started to look a bit dull. I thought so anyway, although CJBS was game enough to keep on at it. I decided to liven it up a bit for him by drawing on his meat ration. I bought a sliver of nasty-looking frying steak for £1.29 and did my best to enliven it.

This, first of all, means letting it get to room temperature. Then I gave it a good rub with salt and Worcester Sauce and heated a non-stick pan to very hot without any fat. The steak went in and I browned it both sides, then took the heat down and added, in stages, half a pint of Guinness and a few dashes of Maggi. That was all allowed to reduce until the steak was cooking in a thick oil-like liquid. I diced the steak, then added it and the liquid to the remaining stew, topped it up with a ladle of stock and put it on to slow cook on medium for 4 hours.

I'm told the result was lovely, and CJBS enjoyed it enough to have it again on Friday night (when, with no appetite appearing, I had salad sandwiches as a way of getting vitamins and stuff into me) but I think he's already picked out and eaten all of the (not very much) beef in it.

Having it again tonight, which would be stew day 5 and beefy stew day 3, seems dull. I roused myself from my pit and got him some canned tuna on points and made him a pasta bake - it can sit in a cold oven and all I need to do is shove the heat on 45 minutes before he wants to eat it, allowing me to retire to bed before he comes home (he's old-fashioned enough to want his dinner on the table the moment he gets in and this is as close to that ludicrous Ozzie and Harriet-style idea as he's ever going to get).

Pasta bakes are easy. You cook off the pasta until it's al dente - ie, not quite cooked enough - then make a standard roux. Add 90% of the cheese ration for one person (almost 2oz) and a small tin of sweetcorn (on points, but actually bought last month for the store cupboard and not used, so not drawn from April's points) and bring up with milk. Then mix the pasta into the sauce and stir in the tuna.

Finally, take two slices of bread and the remaining cheese and blend to make breadcrumbs. Put the pasta mix into an oven dish, spread the breadcrumbs on top and bake in a slow oven for 45 minutes.

I think my appetite may be coming back - or at least my ability to taste - so I'd like something strong in flavour to tempt me to eat rather than just refuel. So I'm going to make curried rice again, using some dried mushrooms and peppers I've got in, plus some frozen peas (in a complete cheat). Plenty of stirring required, but my racking cough can only help stop it from sticking by invigorating my stirring.

I'll eat early, what with Doctor Who coming up tonight and Ashes to Ashes from last night still to watch. That's after I've cleaned the kitchen (if I can drag myself up to do it; no, that's not right... if I can make myself do it) where, transferring a can of Guinness from the counter to the fridge this afternoon, I managed to catch the can on a nail and spray its contents through the entire room, across the hall and into the utility room. And spilt Guinness sets, so I better do something.

On the plus side, the whole house currently smells of beer, which is exactly what I've always wanted out of life.