Sunday, 28 February 2016

'Sophie's Choice'

Dear Nigel,

The weather chills us to the bone, invading gloves and scarves and clipping ears raw and red...this way laddy, it pinches. But still the dog must be walked and she is eager-beavering away searching for smells that linger on the frost-hawed covering. It is ideal weather for snowdrops.They need the cold to make them stand tall and erect. Taking them into the house soon has them droopy and flaccid in their momentary show. But in the raw they bloom; their petals bursting with pride like small children desperate to get their words out. They don't seek to open any wider but relish their individual moment of perfection. This is what all those refrigerated trucks from Holland seek to emulate.

We travel 'up North' visiting the Grandparents in Northumberland. I take the chance to go for a stroll along the Snowdrop walk at Hawick Hall (home of Earl Grey - him of the nice bergamot-scented tea fame).
At this time of year it is a huge treat to be able to go and walk somewhere like this and witness the dazzling white blanket of flowers. I love to see the places where snowdrops show themselves. Often they mark the relic of old gardens from time long passed, like bits of history poking up through the soil for their temporary fleeting show. There is less of this where drifts have been created and new bulbs sown, but still, in the corner of a field, a strange outline near a garden path, a neglected garden, there is a memory laid out if you care to look.

I am making 'Pasta with dill and bacon' (page 48) for supper tonight. Dill is a favourite of mine and I am used to Scandinavian recipes and fish dishes using it, so I am intrigued. I have used fennel with pasta before to give that slight aniseed flavour, but never dill. I place the dill and Parmesan in the food processor and blitz as you suggest. The resulting green crumbs are then melted into the cream. I like this use of Parmesan as I have often thought that Parmesan gets a raw deal merely being used as a finishing grating on your mid-week spag bol, or whatever. And when I consider the myriad uses in cooking to which I put some of my favourite cheeses, like Comte and Gruyere, I think better use could be made of Parmesan. This sauce is a perfect example. The finished dish with its crispy bacon bits and toasted garlic and creamy sauce is full of flavour and salty-enough not to need any additional seasoning. The aniseed flavour of the dill is also a good temper for the salt. We sit and eat it all up without stopping for breath. You say that this 'might just be my favourite pasta dish of all' and I can see why.

I take some flowers over to my friends Anne and Anthony. I haven't seen them for a little while, and, truth be told it is my own fault. I have stayed away. Sometimes, when you are in the midst of emotional turbulence yourself it is difficult to be able to support friends in theirs. Sometimes you just don't have enough in you to be able to cope. And it is easier to stay away than come back each time feeling even lower than before. There is no shame in this. But it is a pity all the same. The flowers, though, are not to say sorry. They are to say the words that I can't possibly begin to articulate.

I used to take my little girls over to play with their adopted son, Stephen. He was five years old when he first came to live with them and they adopted him. He had had a very difficult start in life. Although a few years older than my two girls, he liked to play with younger children because they accepted him and didn't judge him like his peers. As the years went by the behavioural problems that came with him gradually got worse instead of better. We managed him in small doses. Anne and Anthony had it full time. In the end, it seems, they just couldn't cope as he grew more violent, and after nine years of adoption had to give him up. I meet them again nearly a year after this has happened and they are still looking haggard and bereft. I can't imagine the pain that they are going through. There are no words I can say. Only flowers and a hug.

The Ready Steady Cook challenge looms large. The team of three little cubs have a timed run through. Sophie is unimpressed at being made to hurry. It is not something that sits well with cooking to me either. I think perhaps there is a huge divide between the chefery element of knocking out meals swiftly and economically to order and the kind of cooking which can become almost a meditation, when you are lost in thought or just simply lost in the essence of beating a sauce smooth or peeling a pile of vegetables. This is my kind of cooking; therapeutic and life-enhancing. Sophie has never been made to hurry before and is unable to see why.

Being her usual argumentative self she also takes issue with the ingredients. Being made to pour vegetable oil into an omelet pan, she complains that at home we melt lots of butter and stir the melted butter back into the batter mixture. That way the pancakes don't stick. She gets her way. The cub leaders tell me they've never made pancakes before; only out of a packet. I suggest we send in our iron crepe pans for the final run through. I have struggled in the past to get a pancake out an omelet pan; and I'm a bit of a coward when it comes to flipping, preferring a palette knife and a swift flick. She says, 'have we got a squeezy lemon at home?' I say no, but we do have a real one, if that will do instead. Perhaps I'd better send in a lemon squeezer too.

Love Martha x

Monday, 8 February 2016

A touch of Snow

Dear Nigel,

At last the Winter has provided us with a bit of the real white stuff and there is a small window of opportunity, a blink of the eye, in which to sledge, throw snowballs, build a snowman and soak up the blinding light that is sunshine on snow under a solid blue sky. It is fleeting. Tomorrow it will all be gone, so every breath counts, every moment stretched and slowed and nailed down with photographs and smiles and footprints in the snow.

The dog enjoys it too; running and jumping like a puppy once more. But when it comes to crossing the stream to go and sledge she holds back and wants to go back to her bed; to her nice warm electric blanket that I have recently bought her; for she is an old dog now and her bones creak and stiffen when she gets up. She sleeps in a cold porch and the blanket has transformed her life. Now she lolls over the edge of the basket, stretched out with sunglasses on and reading the newspaper, a glass of pinot grigiot in her hand. She can scarcely summon up the energy these days to bark at the postman.

I am making a Roast Chicken tonight with your version of colcannon to accompany it. The recipe is 'Kale colcannon' (page 18). It is an altogether lighter dish than the traditional potato-based one, with a sweeter flavour, as it is a mix of kale and celeriac. It is simple and straightforward and warming but without some of the more off-putting virtues of the traditional dish. I like it very much, anyway, and I'm not a huge fan of the green stuff normally. The celeriac gives it a tasty edge. You use it with pig cheeks and apples and cider, but I have a chicken in want of some vegetables. It works just as well.

I am planning an expedition tomorrow - at least it feels that way. I am taking Sophie and Molly to see the Chinese New Year celebrations in Manchester. I have developed the art (very usefully) of turning almost any outing into a treat. When money is tight adding value to the mundane is like using a golden cheque book.

It is something I have got down to a fine art: The most sort after treat in our house right now is a single gold-wrapped toffee out of an ancient Farrah's Toffee tin which sits in the car. It is only available on a Tuesday after swimming lessons, and there is only ever one each. What started off as a distraction to get my children away from clamouring for stuff from those awful moving sweet and crisp machines you get at swimming pools (and which are such a huge rip-off), has become a much-sort-after event. The fact that it isn't ever offered at any other times somehow adds to its cachet - a technique that most advertising execs seem to employ with gusto. I must see if I can employ these tactics elsewhere as it could prove to be a huge money saver...

We are going by train, which to them is almost a treat in itself since the nearest train station from here is about half an hour away and we use it very rarely. We are meeting Hannah in Manchester and Tom is also coming over from his University in Sheffield. Nice to have four of my children in the same place at the same time. These things have to be engineered; they don't happen by themselves. Hopefully there will be some nice Chinese street food for them to try as getting a table at a restaurant is probably nigh on impossible during the New Year celebrations, even if my budget ran to it. We are going early so we can get a good position to see the traditional Dragon Parade. It is all under wraps, though, as there is nothing they like more than a surprise.

Sophie goes to a big Middle School now in a town about nine miles away. She is about the youngest and smallest in the school - perhaps that is partly why she has been offered the role of 'Oliver' in the forthcoming school production. She's pleased. I'm pleased; but I could see the ramifications playing out in my head. Both she and her best friend were up for the final audition for the part. Her best friend was excited and desperate for it. I tried to play it down, foreseeing the dangers ahead. Now there is tears and 'not talking'. I try and talk to Sophie about how her best friend might be feeling. It is not an easy thing for a child to do. All babies are egotists - they have to be in order to survive. A child's growth away from self-centeredness is slow and often painful. I sow the seeds and hope she will at least be tactful.

Tomorrow will be pancake day - a time for over-indulging and scoffing far too much, I suspect. Four pancakes doesn't really do it in our house, somehow. At no other time would my family expect endless pudding, but on pancake day tradition seems to dictate that people eat pancakes until they can eat no longer. Its biblical roots are fudged when it comes to the 'giving something up' bit and the lean times ahead between now and Easter: Convenient religion I call it. Sophie wants to fine-hone her cooking skills so we have agreed to share the cooking. There will be lemon and caster sugar, and maple syrup for those who prefer. I haven't heard from Will yet, but I'm expecting a phone call any time now...

Enjoy your pancakes,

Love Martha x