Thursday, 24 April 2014

K is for Kindness and the Kingmaker scenario

Dear Nigel,

In games of strategy the Kingmaker scenario is often unavoidable. Such behaviour is regarded as unsportsmanlike but not against the rules. The Kingmaker scenario is where a player who is unable to win the game himself has the ability to determine which of the other players is the overall winner.

Whether this is Party politics, or Family politics involving the contentious issue of dividing up an unequal quantity of Easter eggs to absent (but not unaware) members of the family (- when did the Easter bunny start to have these problems?) - life was surely never meant to be this difficult. It's enough to make you want to melt the whole lot down and make a single bar with easily-divided chunks.

Easter egg hunts are an annual favourite in our house and a plate of properly-made hot cross buns dripping in unholy amounts of butter. The holiday weather mellows to a golden sunset here at mum's and we sit on a sun-bleached driftwood log looking out over a calm and peaceful sea full of promise for the summer to come. Easter is the start of it all, somehow, with winter firmly put to bed and seeds to sow in ready anticipation of a gradually warming soil back at home.

The dish I am making for my guest this week is a simple Chinese-inspired dish of chicken, broccoli and cashew nuts. I want to see how fast and easy good things to eat can really be; and this is definitely one of those- a dish you can rustle up in minutes, looks good, tastes fab (thank you Nigel) and would slot very neatly into a weekly routine of hurried affairs when the call to eat is louder than the call to cook....and you really can get it on the table before you have time to stuff that Mars Bar into your mouth. I don't believe that I'm the only cook who can't cook a lovely meal on an empty stomach. There's a fine line between building up an appetite and ritual torture, I think. (Stir-fried Chicken with Cashews and Broccoli. pg 343.) The thin-stemmed broccoli has just the right amount of crunch to balance the meal. I'm so used to thoughtlessly reaching for those football shaped bouquets that sometimes I fail to consider the alternate possibilities (purple-sprouting broccoli aside, for which I have a particular soft spot and take great pleasure in watching grow).

Having recently subjected a friend to the hottest dish available in Soho (of the culinary variety I might add), I want to reassure them that there is a lot less heat in most Chinese dishes:

We are sitting next to a lovely girl from Denmark whose family are from Northern China (whose food this particular restaurant specialises in) who is happily guiding us through the best dishes on the menu as she deftly wraps  pig's intestines round her chopsticks out of a cloudy soup and eats. Although it seems a great idea to take the advice of someone who actually knows what they're talking about when it comes to food, sometimes the cultural differences can almost prove too great a divide. I survive the meal intact, my companion however spends the next day suffering.

I have a new neighbour next door at last. Terry the game keeper has moved on to another cottage a couple of miles away. My new neighbour is a different kettle of fish. He drives a sports car and tells me he is hugely security-conscious and puts locks on his shed and lighting up outside. I mourn for the truly dark nights we used to have when the nights were dark and the stars intensely  bright. I have taken a leaf out of his book and invested in a padlock for the shed. But the dog will warn me of any passing cats feet and I can't tell the difference between feeling safe inside and feeling imprisoned. We chat and make plans to spend time over a bottle of wine one evening. I make some comment about the practicality of his lovely little sports car, given the 18 inches of snow sunk on the lane for weeks on end last year (this passing winter being an unusual case). He has already seen the light and is looking about for something a bit higher up off the ground. In his townie way he is settling in and soon, I can tell, the place will start to weave its magic around him too. And maybe he, also, will learn to be a little less frightened of the dark.

He brings two cats with him - big fat townie cats with attitude. They stare me down as I come back from our walk on the meadows with Poppy. One is a dusty grey with lots of hair, who the kids call 'Smokie'. He is the Godfather, I think; full of disdain and ruthless power. The other, they call 'Bandito' on account of his Zorro-like mask. This cat looks truly evil. I can see that there will be a tussle for power and territory; perhaps pistols at dawn or claws at three o'clock on a damp and moonlit night. They are moving in and marking their territory, flexing their muscles and preparing for a stand-off. Clint Eastwood waits in the shadows.


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