Sunday Kitchen

The plan was to get some art in us. A drive out into the country, to enjoy sculpture and installations in the grounds of a beautiful old country house in the Oxfordshire countryside.

The Vibemobile had other ideas. Normally she’s a joy to drive—speedy, agile, comfortable, above all reliable. But earlier in the week she over-heated and threw up an un-nerving engine management light, refusing to run above 20mph without shuddering. Double-plus ungood. I booked her in to see the car doctor, but we faced a sad fact. No car, therefore no car ride out into the country.

Oh well. A quiet Sunday at home, then. Or an opportunity to noodle around in the kitchen. Which, as any smart cookie will realise, is a grand way to get your dinner game in place ahead of the week looming up on the horizon. If you’re like me, it’s also a rather good chance to clear out the food in the fridge that will turn into unsavable sludge if I don’t act fast. Buying food and then throwing it away uneaten is a cardinal sin, and one that’s easily avoided.

The salad and veg drawer in my fridge is a place where terrors lurk. Today, I faced carrot fear. A significant portion of the bagful I’d bought last week were halfway to primordial ooze, liquefying from the inside out. I issued a curse to the vegetable gods, binned the rotting half, and quickly diced the remains. Bagged and in the freezer, they’d last long enough to add to a mirepoix or for a quick and easy carrot soup.

Readership, do not discount frozen veggies. They are, in many cases, preferable to fresh—particularly if the freshies just get ignored in the bottom of the fridge. Food heroes of mine like Jack Monroe and Nigel Slater are advocates of the humble bag of Bird’s Eye peas or sweet corn. My sister-from-another-mister Sandi takes it further—she buys fresh, chops and freezes her veg. If you’re a busy beaver during the week, an hour or so at the weekend with a knife (or if you’re really time-poor and not too anal about the appearance of your soffrito, two pulses in a food processor) can save you all the time you need come dinner time.

I thought about the whole veg-prep thing, and considered that while chop-and-freeze is a valid time-saver, I might as well take the process a little further. I sliced up the saddest looking of my onions, and threw them into the Instant Pot (I need to talk about the transformative effects of the electronic pressure cooker on my kitchen life, but that’s for another time) along with the sad remnants of last night’s bottle of wine, a knob of butter, a glug of balsamic, salt and pepper. A 30 minute cycle, and this unpromising array of leftovers had transformed into a sticky-sweet-sour dollop of deliciousness I could use as the basis for a sauce, over a quick dough base for a take on pissaladière, over sausages… you name it. Not bad for five minutes of attended work.

I was on a roll now, but it was lunchtime. In a shocking move, I’d bought squidgy white bread from the garage the day before. Normally I’m against this sort of thing, but laziness trumped my best bread-making impulses. Besides, I fancied dirty sausage sandwiches.

Another refugee in the fridge was a pack of vac-packed frankfurters from Aldi, one of those impulse buys you can’t really explain to other people or yourself after the fact. I realised, when faced with squidgy white bread and mechanically formed sausage-style product, that I had subconsciously guided myself towards a recipe I’d spotted on the foodie-web the previous week. It’s deliciously evil.

Take your bread, two per person for a light lunch. Decrust, butter and spread on a dollop of ketchup or mustard or both. Add a sausage, and roll up, squishing the package shut. Slap on some egg-wash, place the roll-ups on greased foil and bake in a hot oven until crisp. Probably ten to fifteen minutes should cover it.

Dirty, dirty sausage sandwiches. If you really want to filth it up, slap on a slice of plastic cheese before you roll up the bread.

For god’s sake, have a salad alongside.

The oven was still on. It seemed wasteful to switch off. I was on a roll. I was having too much fun to stop now. I was looking at the most humble of leftovers with fresh eyes. The rubble on my worktop from lunch had potential. White bread crusts and a bit of beaten egg. Add one to the other. Douse in the last scrapings of the rind of parmesan in my sad-looking cheese tray in the fridge (you may detect a theme coming up when it comes to my neglectful curatorship of the interior of our trusty Liebherr). Bake for twenty minutes until crisp.

HAH. Posh breadsticks. They’re snappy and a bit dense in the middle. Never throw away bread, Readership. There’s always crumbs to whizz up. There’s always croutons. You can always make something out of nearly nothing.

And of course, the oven was still on, and I had courgettes and peppers in the fridge that wouldn’t last the week. Sliced, tossed in oil (Morrisons do an amazing garlic-infused rapeseed oil in the world food section that is dirt cheap and incredibly useful for traybakes), salt, pepper and dried herbs. Or fresh if you’ve got ’em. I started the veg at the same time as the breadsticks, gave them a stir once the sticks came out, and gave everything another twenty. The courgettes and peppers had caught in places, were still soft in others, and had become fragrant, sweet and moreish. Stirred through pasta (perhaps with some of the sweet onions I made earlier) or at room-temperature alongside some fish or chicken, they’re a seriously good standby.

The oven was still hot. The fridge has been restored to sanity, but I wasn’t done yet. There was a butternut squash in the store cupboard that had been waiting patiently for months. Time to let it shine.

I love squash. It’s super-forgiving. You don’t even have to peel it. Top and tail, quarter it lengthwise, then deseed it with a spoon. I put it back into the sheet-pan that the courgettes and peppers had cooked it (still hot, still seasoned with roasted flavour) dashed over a little more rapeseed oil, salt and pepper, then roasted for an hour. I can make a soup, perhaps with some of the carrots and onions from earlier. Maybe as part of a mash topping for a fish pie. Just alongside something porky. As part of a curry with some chickpeas. Possibilities abound. Dinner time has got that bit easier this week.

I think the Vibemobile might have done me a favour.

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Chicken Two Ways: Soho, Memory and That Whole Proust Thing

I turned my back on Soho in October 2016, twenty-seven and a half years after I first walked through the door of TVP in Golden Square. I started as a runner, one of those fresh-faced types that would grab coffee, fetch lunches and ferry videotapes around. There–videotapes. Shows you how long ago it was. Continue reading Chicken Two Ways: Soho, Memory and That Whole Proust Thing

A Word From The Hinterlands

Hi. How are you all? Been a while, right? If you follow me on that social media thing, then you’ll know that I haven’t just disappeared off the face of the planet. If X&HT is your only resource for Robsy goodness, then, well, things have really been on the quiet side.

And to be honest, that’s been deliberate. The last 12 months have brought fairly big changes to my life, and I’ve been taking some quiet time to think things through creatively. Continue reading A Word From The Hinterlands

Memory Palace: Snowshill Manor And The Mind Of Charles Paget Wade

Snowshill Manor seems, at first glance, to be just another one of those National Trust sites that attract coach parties, couples of a certain age and bored families looking for a bit of culture before the kids drag them off to the play farm up the lane. It’s a rambling sixteenth-century country house, set in attractive gardens. Pretty, but pretty unremarkable.

Or it would be, were it not for the gentleman that owned it through a chunk of the twentieth century–artist, artisan and obsessive collector Charles Paget Wade. Scion of a family made rich through sugar estates in the West Indies, he bought the Manor House after serving time in the trenches during World War One.

He was at that point already a keen curator of a collection with the broadest remit possible–anything that caught his eyes as having artistic merit or exhibiting a certain level of craftsmanship in its creation.

Wade refitted the Manor in an Arts and Crafts style, a discipline in which he was skilled and fluent. He set about turning Snowshill Manor into the showcase for his obsessions, creating themed rooms filled to the eaves with his finds.

This is what makes the place so fascinating. Wade was an artist, and believed in drama, mood and excitement. When he handed over care of the place to the National Trust, he insisted that they do as little as possible to the interior, to preserve the effect he had worked so assiduously to create.

Snowshill Manor is not your typical NT experience, then. There are no labels, little in the way of explanation as to why the rooms are the way they are. Volunteers are on hand if needs be, but for the most part you are left alone to wander… and wonder.

As you move from room to room, the feeling becomes ever more disorientating and claustrophobic. There is reason and design to the collection, but the sheer weight of visual load becomes ever more difficult to bear. There are 22,000 objects collected in the 22 rooms of the Manor. There is a room dedicated to musical instruments. One to bicycles, particularly boneshakers and penny farthings. There is a room full of samurai armour.

The collection is so huge that Wade was forced to move out, relocating to the adjoining Priest’s House. I’d love to say that it offers a respite to the onslaught. If anything, it’s even more deranged. Here is Wade’s bedroom. Imagine waking up every morning to this.

It’s impossible to take everything in. You begin to hallucinate, as the space reconfigures around you, your perception rewriting with every new burst of stimuli. I have never felt so strongly the impression of being watched, of being gently guided towards a place that I didn’t necessarily want to go. Some of the rooms were roped off. The official story was that there were not enough volunteers that day. I feel more that they couldn’t have people wandering in there without some form of protection.

Wade was without any argument a man that understood the theatre of his collection, and there’s a performance at play. You’re sent on a labyrinthine route around the house, traversing a maze that becomes a jigsaw puzzle that becomes, ultimately, a trip through the corridors of Wade’s own head.

Or is Wade wandering through yours? There’s a strong feeling that the trickster left more of himself in Swanshill Manor than the National Trust is letting on. Is the place haunted? Hard to say. Would I care to spend a night here alone? You couldn’t pay me enough.

Charles Paget Wade reveals himself, briefly.
Charles Paget Wade reveals himself, briefly.

I make the place sound like the work of a isolated madman, yet Wade was personable and popular. He was visited by J.B. Priestley, Virginia Woolf and even royalty–Queen Mary stepped over the threshold. I can understand why artists would be charmed and amused by the sheer volume of the place. But there’s also a sense of relief when you find one last turn finally spits you out into the gardens, and you can feel the horizon open up again, and you realise how much the walls and ceilings have been closing in around you.

Snowshill Manor is a remarkable place, something close to a nightmare tucked into a crook of road close to some of the Cotswold’s prettiest towns and villages. Un-nerving and energising in equal measure, it’s a house possessed (and I don’t use that word lightly, Readership) with its own very particular character. I recommend a visit. Make sure you bring friends.

Snowshill Manor is open for most of the year. For more, check the NT site: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/snowshill-manor-and-garden

Thoughts Following A Thursday Night Screening Of Alien: Covenant

Same deal as earlier this week, as I find myself on a bit of an uptick in trips to the cinema. Unstructured grumbling, spoilers abound. Let’s do this.

  1. Rumour control: here are the facts. I have been a big fan of the Alien franchise since the late seventies. Slightly too young to watch Ridley Scott’s iconic movie on the big screen, I nevertheless soaked up the production designs of Ron Cobb, Chris Foss and HR Giger, and still own battered copies of The Book Of Alien and Walt Simonson’s astonishing graphic novel adaptation. I saw Aliens in its first week of release at the Odeon Marble Arch back when that was one big screen showing films in 70mm. I’ve been around these movies, this universe, for quite a while. I have skin in the game.
  2. Prometheus, Scott’s attempt to fill in the backstory of the mythos, satisfied no-one. It didn’t help that he was trying to make an Alien film without, yannow, Aliens. Bloated, pretentious, self-indulgent and bewildering, it left me angry and more upset than I’d like to admit. I’ve laughed long and hard at the Star Wars man-babies complaining about how George Lucas consistently trampled over their treasured childhood memories. Now, here comes Ridley, stomping his expensively-shod size tens all over a world I love dearly. Gotta admit, there were man-baby tears from me after Prometheus.
  3. Which brings us to his attempt to re-bootstrap the legacy, taking on board the wails of us man-babies and making something more tailored to our tastes. Alien: Covenant is supposed to be the story the fans want to see. And, well, honestly? He’s gone too far the other way. Covenant is fan-service.
  4. Consider: he re-uses the classic ‘fade-in typography’ of the first movie. Jerry Goldsmith’s classic theme is larded all over the place. We see elements of Ron Cobb’s innovative Semiotic Standard designs in alert screens. There’s even a big, loving close-up of the dipping bird toy briefly glimpsed on the bridge of the Nostromo. ‘Here,’ says Ridley. ‘This is what you want, right? ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?’
  5. And actually, I was for the most part. There’s plenty of money up on screen, and John Logan’s script is pretty solid. I have issues with the attempt to make every female lead in an Alien movie into Aliens-era Ripley (sorry, I simply don’t buy the notion of gentle Katherine Waterston with a gun). Similarly, the inference that Billy Crudup’s captain is weak and ineffectual because of his faith is problematic, and the source of way too many weak religious puns.
  6. Of course, even through the Alien fan-service, Covenant is a movie that wants to deal with Big Themes. Creation. Life. Meeting your maker. It’s become increasingly clear that Scott’s heart is not in making more Alien films. He wants to make a statement, an epic SF take on Milton’s Paradise Lost (which was of course a working title for this movie). Unfortunately, the only way Fox will give him the dough to make it is if he throws a few chest-bursters into the mix.
  7. Which is a shame, because the Alien stuff is the least interesting thing about Covenant. The film really comes to life when the Luciferesque figure of David finally appears, messianic in long hair and robe. He’s literally playing God (or at the very least Dr. Moreau), and not that bothered about creating in his own image. His playful taunting of the Covenant’s resident synthetic Walter are real highlights (and the seductive scene where Michael Fassbender teaches Michael Fassbender how to play the flute is a technical triumph–’I’ll do the fingering’ indeed). These gave me a sense of the film that Scott actually wants to make–a darkly gothic take on creation mythology. Not an easy sell, though.
  8. Largely, then, Alien: Covenant is a mishmash, a slumgullion, a cut-and-shut that, while it has a lot to recommend (it’s a huge improvement on Prometheus) is still frankly a bit of a mess. It’s a big statement on epic themes that has a skewed monster movie wrapped around it. I’m still chewing over whether I actually enjoyed it or not. I think I did. Even though I know when I’m being pandered to.
  9. That being said, I do want to know what David gets up to next. Scott finally has an anti-hero as delightfully amoral as Hannibal Lector. I still dig his take on everyone’s favourite cannibal, and David is cut from the same cloth. The ending of Covenant finally sets up a dark new path for the franchise–one that, despite all my man-baby tears, I’d be happy to tread.