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.