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.


Joy Unconfined

I love a wedding. Any excuse to get dressed up and drink too much and dance like a fool. Friday saw us at a lovely hotel in the heartlands of the country, at the nuptials of TLC’s mum and her long-time beau.

It was one of the most joyful occasions I’ve ever been to, and I’ve not laughed so hard or so freely at a social occasion in a long time. The bride was consumed in fits of giggles through the ceremony, and I’m still not convinced that she repeated all the vows. Once the papers were signed, the bride and groom danced back down the aisle (I’m taking the blame for that; I did, after all, show them the JK Wedding Dance). The first dance was livened up by the bride going a-over-t during an attempt at a pirhouette. And I don’t even think she’d been drinking that much up to that point.
And yes we danced and yes we drank and yes we laughed. And yes we chased off a bunch of wedding crashers and yes we all had headaches the next morning. But oh my word, you want something like that to be memorable, and this is a wedding that will live on for quite some time. You sometimes forget that a solemn occasion doesn’t have to be without joy.

Pam, Joe, the future is yours. That’s one hell of a way to kick it off.

Sunday Spiritual: View From A Tower

December 1999. A month filled with portent and pre-millenial tension. We were in New York, after a week in Boston in which I’d seen a red moon rise while we watched the sun set on the observation deck of the John Hancock Tower. TLC had suffered through a brutal bout of food poisoning, and I had an eye infection that had fused my eyelids shut. The red numbers of the signage at the old Marvel building on Broadway merged in my head with the posters for the new Schwartzenegger movie. 666. End Of Days. It had been, by any definition of the word, a strange holiday.

But it was our first time in the States, and New York was everything we’d imagined and hoped. We did all the tourist things, giggling like loons at the sheer sensory overload of Times Square, braced in the brutal cold at Battery Park. The towncar from Newark into town had been like the Sopranos titles in reverse, complete with a motormouth driver called Vinnie, who asked us if we’d heard of this chick called Madonna. We were two blocks from Grand Central. It was, just as everyone says, like starring in your own Woody Allen movie.

And here we were, on the brightest day I’d ever seen, standing on the roof of a 107-floor tower, gazing at the whole city spread out before us like a strange, magical carpet. Behind us, a school party chattered, peering unconcerned over the barriers, looking for their school. Even in winter, Central Park was green, and the sky around us (it felt as if we were so high that it could no longer be above our heads) an achingly flawless blue. Our breath froze, and I swore it sparkled in the clean air. TLC took my hand, and we lost, momentarily, the capability for speech. There was no need for it, in this still point of beauty and joy.

This is a memory I cherish, and it can never be tarnished, never be changed, never be corrupted. I choose not to reflect on the events that came after, or note the arbitrary anniversary of a lunatic deed. There are plenty of other places that will. Today, I choose to remember happier times. I choose to celebrate the gifts that we have been granted, and a city awash in light.


The Sunday Spiritual: Together In The Dark


One last thing, before I let Frightfest go for another year. Many people would balk at the prospect of spending five days in a cinema watching horror films. I’ll admit, I’ve only ever done a single full day, and that very nearly wiped me out.

But of course, Frightfest is not just about the films. Because it’s impossible to watch everything on offer, you simply have to take a break, get a drink, have a chat. There are seminars, Q&As, quizzes and plenty of opportunities to meet up with film-makers and like-minded fans. If anything, the extra-curricular activity is as much the point to Frightfest as the movies. It’s the community that’s built up around the love of the genre that makes this festival so special. The fabled Sleepy Queue, when the hardcore stake their claim on the weekend seats, usually forms in the early hours of the morning before the tickets go on sale. That has to tell you something about the attraction of Frightfest.

I will always try to make the effort to see at least a couple of films with the Frightfest crowd. Seeing horror with a bunch of people that love and appreciate the genre with all it’s foibles and eccentricities always makes for a more interesting experience. Seeing a good horror film with the Frightfest crowd is a genuine pleasure that I don’t think you get from any other type of film. Going to the cinema is, like any other communal experience, a heightened state of mind. I believe you get more out of a film when you see it on a big screen with a like-minded audience. At Frightfest, that feeling is amped up still further. It’s not just about the film. It’s about the audience, the gathering, the congregation. Together in the dark, loving the ride.

Sunday Spiritual: Age

Today is my Nan Gwen’s 90th birthday. Her branch of the family tree is famously long-lived. Her mum, my great-nan Jen, lived to the ripe old age of 104. Some might say that’s over-ripe, and Jen certainly spent the last 15 years of her life growling at the world like a mean old moggie with a bad case of the scurf. Nan Gwen is, I’m pleased to note, generally pretty cheerful, especially with a couple of sherries in her.

It’s bad enough when you hit your own landmarks, but when a parent or grandparent hits a big number, it can come as a bit of a shock. You’re confronted with the past, often in quite direct ways. Mum had put up a frame full of old pictures. There was one of me with Nan and my uncle Doug. I look thin as a rake, and a bit dazed, but grinning like a loon. It was taken the day after I got married.

The skinny kid in the baggy Equinox T-shirt smiling out of the frame is me, but not. He’s got a long road ahead of him, a good few bumps that he’s going to hit hard, and some amazing sights and brilliant moments. If I had the chance to go back and give him any advice, I don’t think I would. That would change the man that he would become. The me with the beer in a sunny Chingford kitchen, smiling fondly at a memory.

A long way down the road, maybe I will be standing in front of another photo, taken by my mum as I turned away from the frame. I hope then, as now, that I will be surrounded by people that I love, and that love me in return. That, after all is the one true signifier of a journey not taken in vain. The kind of journey my Nan has taken. It’s good to be reminded of that. Sometimes, you need to glimpse in the driving mirror at the road behind you. Sometimes, you need to look back to see how far you’ve come.

Six Thousand Days

To be accurate, six thousand, two hundred and six. There’s probably some flexibility in there to allow for leap years and other temporal shenanigans. Let’s stick to my back-of-an-envelope calculations for simplicity’s sake, then do a little division to come up with a rounder figure.

Seventeen years and a day ago, I stood up in front of a friendly looking registrar and a bunch of friends and family, and made a promise. I’ve broken many pledges since that day, whether by accident, spite or sheer laziness, but this one has been kept.

I’ve been incredibly lucky to have someone beside me to help do that, and I would no more let her down than I would choose to stick my right arm into a wood chipper.

It all seems so mind-bogglingly simple to me that I find it hard to write it down without relying on mush and platitudes. I made a pledge. I kept and continue to keep it. in that simple act, I have found contentment.

I won’t dispute that I have been lucky, that I married my best friend, muse and lover. I do not consider the alternatives, all the choices and decisions that had to fall the right way to lead us to a bright room in the West Midlands six thousand and some days ago. I simply remain grateful that they happened in the way they did.

Seventeen years can seem like a long time. A lot of things have happened. A lot of things have changed. But the promise, and everything we have built using it as a foundation, remains unbroken. I intend to keep that promise, in the same way I always have. Day by day.