Breakfast—the most difficult meal of the day. If, like me and my foodie hero Nigel Slater, you find the prospect of a drippy fried egg or a moist omelette a source of nausea, then breakfast can be tricky. How do you like your eggs in the morning? As far away as possible, please.Continue reading The Ovaphobe’s Guide To The Perfect Egg McMuffin
It’s Friday, which means it’s time for another rummage through Rob’s browser history (well, the bits I’m happy to share, anyway). Welcome one and all to the second issue of The Cut!Continue reading The Cut Issue 2
A level of routine is, as any fule kno, essential to getting through the long haul at home without going completely cuckoo-lala crazy. As a gentleman of a furloughed persuasion, I am led in that routine by TLC, who works from home and therefore finds her days filled with meaning and purpose (and endless Teams sessions and slow-loading document uploads and all the other pitfalls and nightmares surrounding the transition to domiciled employment).
Therefore, no lollygagging in bed. As TLC showers, I am making tea. As she breakfasts, I shower. A brace of coffees as she hits the network. Then I leave her to it, and start considering the next big event of the day—lunch.Continue reading Lunch During Lockdown (or yes, godsdammit, it’s soup again)
The tap on the door is a regular occurance now. It always brings a little something that lightens the day. A veg box delivery from Vegivores or Geo Cafe. Beer from Loddon, cheese and beer from The Grumpy Goat. Maybe something for TLC’s craft room (she’s playing around with the Cricut she had for her birthday and coming up with wonderful results).
Yesterday, a delivery of herb plants put a smile on my face. Barbeque rosemary, French tarragon, parsley, oregano, sorrel. Planting them in the herb tower I bought last year will be a gentle treat for the weekend. Little sparks of flavour for the summer round the corner.
I have to keep thinking in terms of week versus weekend. Tracking the days, building new routines now I’m furloughed. TLC is working from home, so I’m led by her example. I make tea while she showers, maybe sneaking an extra ten minutes under the covers whle she dresses. An Aeropress coffee each before she hits the desk. Man, I’d forgotten about the simple joys of grinding beans, stirring and watching mindfully as the crema blooms in the brewing chamber. The rush of the good stuff into a favourite mug, hot and rich and fragrant. Another little spark to start the motor of the day.
I’m trying to watch less TV right now. It’s hard enough to steer clear of bad news. The Situation (as TLC and I have taken to stentorially pronounce it) gets into everything as it is. I make one exception–my 10am date with Matt Tebbutt and Jack Monroe for Daily Kitchen Live. As cooking shows go, this is a delight. Even seperated by video link, Jack and Matt have a bright and easy chemistry and are clearly learning loads from each other. It’s educational, entertaining, speaking to the everyday lives of the nation at the moment more truly and precisely than any other show on the air. And you get to learn about the joys of bottled lemon juice or how to make quick and easy pizza. A spark of foodie pleasure. I’m making this tonight.
With time on my hands, there’s room to get back to the projects that went on the shelf earlier in the year. The writing that faded away after Nanowrimo. The half-done short stories. And ever more, my happy place, WROB. It’s an indulgence, sure, and I’m very aware that I am a middle-aged male with time on his hands honking on about his Spotify recommendations. No-one needs to hear that, and frankly I’m not that bothered if they do or not. It feels good and right to me. It’s a spark that shines more brightly with every moment I put into it.
As far as music goes, I’ve been powered by Spotify for as long as I can remember now. Paired with a trio (that’s not mathematically or grammatically possible but I think we’re all beyond that now) of Sonos speakers, we have tunes on tap all through the house. Playlisting is easy and keeps songs rolling all through the day. I do, however, find myself relying on old favourites more often–musical comfort blankets, if you will. Bruce Springsteen, for example, is a constant cue-up these days. We even streamed his 2009 Hyde Park gig through Youtube last week. Three and a bit hours of sheer entertainment.
A new/old find is an album of covers by another old favourite, Matthew Sweet, whose power-pop stylings have long resonated in this household, and his wife.
Yeah, okay, CLANG. Sounds reductive if not downright sexist of me, but I’m holding back for dramatic effect. Come on, give me this one.
The spawny so-and-so is married to Susanna Hoffs. Yes, The Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs. Yes, the Susanna Hoffs who did that side-eye in the video for walk Like An Egyptian and wore that mini-dress in the Eternal Flame video and rocks a black Rickenbacker like no-one else and hey well LOOK–
Proper badass. Power-pop royalty in her own right is what I’m saying, which makes the Sweet/Hoffs pairing all the more special.
Aaanyway, Susanna and Matthew have released a long series of cover versions, and the best of them are complied onto Under The Covers, a cracking set of tunery. Their harmonies are gorgeous throughout. There’s nothing particularly challenging here, but it’s a spark for the soul as far as I’m concerned.
While I’m on Recommendation Road, it would be remiss of me not to mention the podcast run by an X&HTeam-mate and fellow Trekkie, Keith Eyles. Let’s See What’s Out There follows the recently-finished Star Trek: Picard, which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. You may too, if you’re that way inclined.
Keith and co-host Pete are knowledgable and enthusiastic without indulging in the aggressive geekery that can leak into these sort of exercises. It’s going to some interesting places now season 1 is complete. There is a danger that I may crop up on an episode at some point. Fair warning will be given so you can retreat to a safe distance. Check out an ep featuring another Team-mate, Graham Williams, below. You may find it sparks an interest.
It’s the end of my first week in furlough. There is dark talk of decorating and shelf-building in my near future. For now, I’m enjoying this quiet time, feeling my mind slowly returning to a place where the sparks can fly freely. I hope you’re all finding bright points in the day too, however and wherever you can.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have important things to do. Take it away, boys…
Easter Monday. Cooler than the weekend, when we spent most of our time dozing in the sun with a book each. A sharp-edged breeze swirls the candy-floss blossom from next door’s apple tree up into the air. Baby pink against a cloudless blue. We move some tubs and planters around, repot a thyme, do some watering. I trim some of the thyme to put into a tray-bake of vegetables later.
Outside, All Hallows Road is empty. The Easter traffic that’s usual for the home of one of Reading’s major cemeteries during a national holiday is non-existent. The boneyard gates are closed and chained. No fresh flowers on Grandma’s grave. The irony of a shuttered cemetery in the midst of of a global pandemic is almost parody. The blackest of comedies.
We’ve seen little of the mass gatherings that have social media fussbudgets in a conniption. We haven’t been near a park in weeks. But then, we’re lucky to have a garden to flop in when the sun comes out. If I was stuck in a flat with no easy access to green, it’s very likely I’d be heading to the river every day, risking the scolding. For what it’s worth, everyone we’ve seen on our perambulations have been very careful about staying away from each other. Smiles, waves and nods seem to be the norm. People are gentle with each other, as best they can at least.
As an introvert, this whole social distancing lark has come easy. I get on well without needing to socialise. My problem is that I find webcam chats almost as exhausting as the actual face-to-face stuff. If anything, the extra energy you have to put into a Zoom or Skype call to be noticed and heard wrings me out even more quickly than a normal meeting would. I make the effort with group chat though, as much for the other people on the call as myself. It is, as the old BT commercial put it, good to talk.
I’m even calling the parents once a week. Yes, I am a saint. Good of you to notice.
The creativity of the community in isolation has been incredibly inspiring. Art has been pouring out of us in every form imaginable, from drawing and painting to textiles to music to short films and photography. A remarkable and unprecedented flood of joyfulness.
You notice I didn’t mention writing. That’s a sore point. While many of us have lifted the banner of creativity to stave off the black dog, I have stalled. This is frustrating and worrying. I’ve always laboured under the delusion that whatever else happens, I can always write. Now, at the point where I actually have the time to settle down and get some serious word count down, the urge to do so is hiding wide-eyed under the stairs, refusing to come out no matter how much I shake the bag of Dreamies.
Excuses? I have a few. I mean, check the title of the blog. For one, I’ve actually been at work. Part of a skeleton crew that’s taken our usual twenty staff down by seventy-five percent. There’s much less to do, but more than enough for one person. That ends as of tomorrow, when I go onto a rotating furlough pattern. Maybe then the evening brain-fog will lift. Who knows, I might even be able to lure the muse out from her hiding place.
Meanwhile there’s always dinner to be made. We’ve started using local suppliers and embracing their delivery options. Our first veg box from Caversham’s own Geo Cafe contained all manner of goodies and has me tearing up the weekly food plan in favour of something more aubergine-heavy. Loddon Brewery, up the road from us in Dunstan Green, sorted me out with a lovely selection of brews in time for the Easter break. Both have been friendly, chatty and a joy to do business with. We’ll drop an order to the brilliant Grumpy Goat for cheese (and yeah ok maybe some more beer) this week. With two Co-ops a ten minute walk away, we haven’t needed to go near a supermarket in weeks. That trend is probably going to continue after the restrictions finally lift, and we wander out blinking into the summer to finally get that haircut or pop to the pub.
Gods, I miss the pub.
It would be easy to make light of the situation and the last thing I want to do is minimise the struggles that millions of us are facing right now. Look, I am fully aware of how lucky I am. Money is going to be tight, sure. But we have no kids to educate and entertain while trying to hold down a strange home bound working day. We are, for the time being at least, secure. TLC and I, quiet homebodies as we are, are almost perfectly suited to the challenges that The Rony has set us. Even for us, there are broken sleep patterns, times of anxiety and inertia. Gods only know how the rest of you are coping. The fact that you are, and with good humour, creativity and determination, gives me hope for all of us.
Outside, late afternoon light dapples the rough end of the garden. Shadows play over the apple trees we planted a couple of years back, their branches thick with new buds. I’ll be out there tomorrow, doing battle with weeds and overgrown borders. Perhaps the muse will follow me out, green eyes glinting, tail held high. Perhaps she’ll drop an idea into my head that will send me running back indoors for a pen and paper.
Perhaps we are one day closer to the end of this, and the beginning of something new.
I am blessed to be within walking distance of two of Britain’s Greatest Food Retailers, at the brow and foot of Donkin Hill in Caversham, which I refer to as Top and Bottom Coop. They’re very good on local and seasonal produce. Which is why, for the last few weeks, I have been coming home from the weekend top-up shop with bags of peas. Actual unshelled peas in pods.
Now. The humble frozen pea is, of course, a thing of simple delight that has a place in any time-conscious, thrift-aware chef’s repertoire. Simply presented alongside a shepherd’s pie. Folded into a pea and paneer curry. As part of a prawn-heavy paella (oh the pink against the green, I swoon into a Nigel Slater-style wafting fit at the joy of it all).
HOWEVS. Peas that you have podded yourself are a different prospect. The simple, mindful meditative state that comes from eviscerating the crisp crysalids is not an activity conducive to the mid-week supper grind. This is weekend activity. Ideally, it needs a big kitchen table, small children and a grandma to hand, sunlight streaming in through high kitchen windows.
I have none of those. Well, no, I have a grandma. She’s in her nineties, knotted with arthritis. If I showed her a pea pod, she’d spit in my eye. So I pod my peas in the front room, where the light is better. Up until this year, I can’t remember the last time I unzipped a pea pod. A simple process. Two bowls needed. Tug from the root end, taking off the stringy bit. The pod pops open with a pleasingly juicy snap. One skilful swipe with the thumb sends a spoonful of peas into one bowl. Another flick and the pods go into the other. Continue as required. The odd escapee will ping away under the sofa. Oh well.
A glass of wine and some loud rock and roll help the process along no end.
There’s a lot of waste with fresh peas. The pods take up twice as much volume as the precious legumes. These are, of course, eminently compostable, or you can simmer and blitz them to make a peapod purée that works remarkably well as a simple, delicate pasta sauce. Sieve well. No stringy bits needed here.
Growing peas always felt like a ball ache to me, but I’m very happy to give up a quiet portion of my weekend to the separation of a fresh bagful of English peas, and the contemplation of what to do with them afterwards.
If nothing else, my hands smell delicious afterwards. That’s a scent some enterprising perfumery should bottle.
DATELINE: 9th July 2018
Pepi’s Bar And Restaurant is a little bit of Austria in the Rockies. OK, sorry, let’s track back a little. The Hotel Gasthof Gramshammer is a little bit of Austria in the Rockies. Pepi Gramshammer was a member of the 1960 Olympic Ski Team, and saw the birth of Vail, effectively an Alpine-themed Milton Keynes, as an opportunity. 54 years later, it’s still there, the cheerfully orange frontage inviting you in as an antidote to the blando corporate blah on show elsewhere.
It’s unapologetically Austrian, offering schnitzel, spatzle and hearty rib-sticking winter fare all year round. As a stop off for lunch on our way through from Great Lakes to Palisades, it suited rather well. There was a sense of history and personality to the place, a sense of ‘fuck you, I was here first, and the big orange building stays.’ It’s an attitude that the rest of Vail could do well to copy or at least look at.
We snagged an end table on the terrace (which I have a nasty feeling was reserved for someone else but hey we got there first and we were English and polite therefore fuck youse) which made the hangout much more choice. We watched the rich and privileged of Vail waft past, sweetly invulnerable to the world around them.
Pepi does a damned good Reuben. You don’t have to unhinge your jaw to eat it.
DATELINE: 9th July 2018
Grand Junction, CO
When a place gets independently recommended by three different sources, you know you have to check it out. Bin 707 in Grand Junction got shout-outs from our next-door neighbor in Grand Lakes, a random lady at the World’s End brewpub down the way, and our hosts at Palisades.
Sure, ok, you have our attention.
Tucked into the business district of Grand Junction, Bin 707 is a gem of a place that you could walk past and miss and that would be a fuckup on your part. Highwalled, with a long low patio that allows you to make the most of the hazy 25 degree evening, Bin 707 is serious about their provenance. Local first, then state, then national. Which means Colorado lamb and pork is strong on the menu, with some great river-food in support. Alongside an amazing porchetta with green chili and hominy, and a lamb tenderloin so tender it almost melted on the fork, we enjoyed a glorious bavette that succumbed to the blade like a giallo victim, and duck breast that offered the perfect payoff between fat, crisp and melting tenderness. Stretch hit the jackpot, though. A simple Thai-spiced bowl of mussels won with the sweetest, plumpest bivalves I’ve ever tasted. The only criticism–more sourdough toast needed to soak up the precious juices.
Oh, and the beer menu was genuinely intimidating. In a good way, I mean. Thank the gods that our friendly and knowledgeable server could guide my way.
Relaxed, confident, delicious. You guys have to try this place out.
DATELINE: 10th July 2018
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. If you play it right, it can be the only meal of the day. If you want a serious, old-school American carbo-load, then Starvin Arvins on the main drag through Clifton is a must stop.
It’s dark wood and cozy booths. It’s stuffed animal heads on every wall. It’s stacked platefuls of food for absurdly small outlays of cash. It’s more coffee than you can drink in one go, and I never thought I’d write that sentence.
At Starvin, your waitress will be bright, blonde and heavily tattooed and it’s not a hipster affectation. At Starvin, I finally saw the point to breakfast. Here’s the buffer zone between you and the world. Here’s where you armour up against the challenges ahead.
A plateful of hash browns, cheese, sausage gravy and a cats-head biscuit with home-made peach and strawberry jelly on the side. Whatever else happens in your day, you know you’ve got breakfast right at least.
Fruit And Fibre? Bitch, please.
DATELINE: 10th July, 2018
One last thing, that isn’t breakfast, lunch or dinner, but needs to be raised to the group. The Grand Junction area is incredibly fertile, and Palisade, our base for this week, is rich in fruit of all kinds. It’s a big wine-growing region, and you have to know we’ve been tasting our faces off. The Dry Rosé at Grand River Winery is a crisp, flinty revelation.
But oh, the fruit. Summer season peaches are absurdly juicy and full-flavoured, spilling honeyed nectar down your chin with every bite. The Bing cherries on offer at every stall are so sweet and rich, almost alcoholic in their roundness and complexity. We spent money at Get Peachy, but you can do as well at Nana’s Fruit and Jam Shack, Herman’s Produce… oh, man, you honestly can’t go wrong.
Five-a-day never felt so easy.
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.
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
As part of Rob's Attempt To Get Back On Track with His Writing, I intend to ease myself in gently. It's been a while since I posted a recipe. And this one, my Lovely Readership, is a doozy.
I love meatballs. With spaghetti, or some cubetti potatoes, and of course slathered in a rich tomato sauce, they're an easy midweek supper. But they're surprisingly easy to make, and you know exactly what goes into them. Let me walk you through the creaton of the best meatballs you'll ever eat.
The meat is pork and chicken. To be precise, pork shoulder and chicken thighs. Both have enough fat in them to add tons of flavour and, more importantly, hold together without the need for breadcrumbs, eggs or other binders. All they need is a little care in construction.
I'm lucky enough to have a mincer attachment for our K-Mix, last year's Bake-Off inspired Christmas present. It's become a handy tool to take really cheap cuts of meat and make flavour-packed burgers and sausages. Meatballs are even easier. I added some sorry looking herbs from the supermarket (basil and parsley in this case, but thyme and sage would work fantastically), and ground away.
If you don't have flash-boy toys, go ask a butcher to do the chopping. They'll be happy to help.
While I was mincing, I had a couple of finely sliced leeks and a couple of cloves of garlic sizzling slowly in a pan. Once soft and fragrant, I let the veg cool a bit before squishing it into the pork and chicken mix. Don't mash it up too heavily, but make sure everything is well mixed. Add some salt and pepper, then gently form into glorious globes of gorgeousness.
Now the important bit. Clingfilm the balls, and stick them in the fridge for at least an hour. It'll help them to hold their shape. You notice that I've put them on baking trays over baking parchment. There's a good reason for that.
When you're ready to cook your balls, pop them in a pre-heated oven at 180C for about 25 mins, turning them halfway through. They'll leak out some oil while cooking, which will help them develop a fragile crust. Don't fiddle with 'em too much and they'll keep their shape and take care of themselves.
If you're thinking ahead, you'll have some cubed potatoes in the oven already, so that when the dinner gong goes you can whip something out of the oven that looks like this:
Now we're talking. Serve with a simple chunky tomato sauce, that's all you need. The meatballs are fragrant, herby and meaty without feeling too heavy, textured without feeling gritty, deeply flavoured without being greasy. I am dead chuffed with these little beauties, and I recommend you give them a go. A tasty autumnal treat!
(It has been drawn to my attention that some of you fnd the word “balls” inexplicibly hilarious. I have also been accused of pandering to said lowest-common denominator in this piece. I really don't know what you're on about. There's nothing wrong with popping a hot pair of balls in your mouth and noshing away).