Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Homage to Jethro

All along the front of my bit of the Close, all of the front gardens have been paved over and turned into parking. It started some time back, but I was trying hard not to succumb to the 'let's pave it over' syndrome. Although, the front lawn was always difficult to keep in order, to put it mildly, as over the years it had slowly but surely gained the aspect of a miniature Himalayas. This is a natural progression from the original flat stuff...

I did get it re-laid to lawn, but I don't know which field they found the turf to cut it from, but it was on its way to wild before ever it got to me; I then tried getting a semi-permeable membrane down with gravel on top and sand underneath, but the little turds (sorry, children) across the Close from me would raid the snow in winter, throwing the gravel with it all over the place and creating really nasty snowballs with it*. So, when a mixed group of Irish managers, and Polish and East German workers offered a cut-price deal to pave it, I foolishly said yes (and put like that I STILL can't believe I got pressured into it - moi!)

But I insisted on two things: that the outside soakaway drain wasn't paved over (but they nearly managed this - picture a large and very angry houseowner screaming at a foreign labourer without English to stop, cease, arretez, verboten, polizei and some less creditable foreign words I have picked up in my wanderings). The second was that the bed with the poppy and other wild flowers (mainly bluebells in Spring) be left on the edge so that excess rainwater could drain into the water table.

There are two reasons for this, the first is that the continued paving of the surface area increases the amount of rainfall in the SE of England that is not entering the water table, but being expensively routed through drains to streams and thence to the sea. That b'ain't be good for the land, Jethro.

But the main one is that I sort of think that I'm a custodian of that poppy bush; now that the rest is paved it's come on leaps and bounds. It starts flowering in about early May and as of 30th September, it is still massively in flower and will stay that way, in spite of frosts until the strong winds late on in October. I didn't plant it, but I think it's beautiful and the stunning mass of flowers it produces over such a long period mean it owes me absolutely nothing. And if I'd paved all the front garden over, then I wouldn't be greeted during the Summer and Autumn months every time I get home by this sight. which SO makes me smile. And I look at the paved wasteland of the other house fronts and feel, oh, so, smug!

And yes I do like their music, Ian Anderson's manic flute especially!

*Hmm. And that was not the only problem with gravel - I like cats, but there is a very large population of them [about five or six of them patrol out front] and although they weren't keen on gravel it beat block paving and concrete for taking a dump on. Deterrents were not effective.

Monday, 28 September 2009

The age of the booze cruise has not passed

I've just about recovered from my efforts on Saturday. One of the few remaining pleasures I have is 3 or so glasses of wine of an evening and I can afford this on my limited income by travelling to France once every while to stock up on booze.

People have said 'Surely, it's no longer worth it'. Believe me it is, but it does depend on where you shop. What are the costs? Well, the worst is you basically lose a Saturday - I get up about 5-5.30 a.m., have coffee and get my bits together and then travel the 130 miles to Folkestone, get the earliest tunnel crossing offered, go to Carrefours and buy my stuff, go back to the tunnel and drive back. I use the tunnel to eat and have a short nap and get back by 3.00 pm, which gives me time to rack (where appropriate) the wine and clear rubbish from the car and I'm normally OK to prepare and cook my meal in the evening. Which is why no photos; pardon the pun, I'm a bit driven on a trip like this as it's purely cost-saving and photos of hypermarkets and terminals are not pretty.

Carrefours at Cité d'Europe is currently where the cheapest reasonable VdP or VdT (Vin de Pays or Vin de Table) is and I buy 4-5 cases of what went OK last time (1 or less Euros a bottle), 2-3 cases of more reasonable stuff (about 1.5-2.5 Euros a bottle) and 1 case of mixed 'treats' and tasters of new VdP and VdT so that I have a better idea next time round as to what might be reasonable. I also buy a few cheeses, cheap French coffee (about a dozen packets of ground coffee for my pot of morning coffee - I drink a mug, put the rest in a thermos and take to work so I don't have to drink the instant rubbish - this works out at 10P a day). If you use large quantities of dried herbs, (I use a lot of Herbes de Provence) then it's a good place to buy those in France. I also like Amora Dijon mustard and it's about half the price in France.

This time round I bought 115 bottles and, even assuming the cheapest current UK price (not likely) of £3.50 a bottle that would be £402.50. I actually paid £172 for the total bill, including the coffee and mustard, £26 in petrol and £63 for the crossing. So I saved £141.50. Normally I'd use my Tesco clubcard points for effectively an £18 crossing (4 to 1 exchange on the tokens), saving another £45, but I wasn't sure when the Royal Mail strikes would kick in.

Sadly, when the pound was stronger, the saving was even greater, but don't let anyone convince you that you can't save money doing this! Put it a different way, I bought 115 bottles of wine for £2.26. My personal indulgence of an evening costs me £1.20, say, which is less than the cost of half a pint of bitter.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Oh the horror

In the Grauniad online there is a fascinating image gallery worth a look, if only because the images are truly horrible. I can't post the actual images, for the very good reason that they are copyright, but believe me I am giving you the link to the one of most horrible things I've ever seen.

If you saw the first episode of Masterchef the professionals recently, you will have seen four experienced chefs mangle [spatchcock] a baby chicken almost beyond recognition - now I know where they went after the show - And here's the original and rather fascinating blog from whence the pictures came! Thank you (I think) Tracy O'Connor.


Sunday, 20 September 2009

My chilli stalwart

When it's going to be a hard week (i.e. more than 50 hours of labour, no breaks, a little webbing, but otherwise constant work) I make this comfort food. We all have 'standby' meals that we cook because they're easy, cheap and tasty. The advantage of this recipe is that it is cheap (saves money for other meals and ingredients) and freezes well. This is tasty, and reasonably nutritious (with veg) costing abut £1.75 per portion with all in.

The following is plenty for 4-5 people. I tend to eat, reheat and eat again and re-freeze the remaining portions.


  • 800 grammes minced meat (quality not crucial)
  • 1 small tin of tomato puree
  • 1 large tin of kidney beans
  • 1 large tin of baked beans
  • Garlic puree or 4 cloves fresh finely chopped garlic (optional, but recommended)
  • Mixed herbs (I tend to use Herbes de Provence)
  • Half a bunch (15g) of chopped coriander
  • 2 or 3 large (2-3" long) green chillis
  • 18 narrow chillis (these are the thin ones, short stubby ones)
  • 3 small or 2 medium Onions
  • 1 Pepper (entirely optional - nowadays I don't bother)
  • About 4-6 medium size quartered mushrooms
  • Black ground pepper
  • You do not use salt in this recipe!
  • A large casserole which you can use on the hob
Preparation (if you're working on your own, it's best to
do all of the prep first:)
  • Chop the onions fairly roughly
  • De-seed the green chillis, cut in half lengthways and finely slice
    (approx 1/8")
  • Finely slice the small chillis, until you get to the bulk of the seedcase, discarding the heads, but keeping the seeds
  • De-seed and chop up the pepper into chunks
  • Open the tins, drain the kidney beans
  • Thoroughly wash your hands! (Don't blame me if you don't!)
  • Fry the mince meat, and then drain off any fat after the mince has browned.
  • Add the chopped vegetables, garlic, chillies and keep turning the mixture
  • Add about 1 tbsp or slightly more of either herbes, about 1 tsp of black pepper, add the fluid and contents of the tins and about four squirts of garlic puree.
  • Keep mushing until thoroughly mixed in.
  • Transfer to the oven on gas mark 4 (180 degrees cent.) for about 1 hour.
  • ...Tomorrow
  • Chop up mushrooms add to the chilli and then heat at gas mark 3
    (150 degrees cent.) for about 1 hour. Serve with Basmati rice and veg.
In the photo above (taken 23rd September evening) there's a leek in the rice and a couple of carrots

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Let there be soup!

In return for all the recipés I've seen and researched (I must get round to adding Andy Oliver's excellent blog to the list), I add my own humble contribution; you'll note below that I've already said what a p**s poor photographer I am, so please forgive.

Things You'll Need:
* Potatoes – about 1lb roughly the size of ½" – 3/4 " cubes
* Water to cover – with Salt to taste (0-2 natural, but not too much)
* 1 bay leaf
* 1 clove of garlic (optional) – or in my case, a flat teaspoon of pureed garlic
* 1 yellow or white onion
* 2 stalks of celery

* 1 large mild chilli (that's optional)
* 1 cup of chicken stock
* milk or cream (optional)
* white or black pepper to taste
* a little butter or oil
* A large, heavy-bottomed stew or casserole dish
* A frying pan
* a spoon for stirring
* a sharp knife and cutting board

Ingredients: For chicken stock - I don't cook whole chickens as I can't use one and so my stock is packet stock - here it is Knorr, which is reasonable and inexpensive...

The kettle is hiding a water filter - otherwise the kettle would last about 6 months here. More importantly, the water would have horrid limescale in it...

The spuds on the hob - I use dried bay leaves as they're fine and an
occasional ingredient and lo-salt is a necessary evil *sigh* A quick thought, but if you're not planning to blitz this to a paste, then leave as much of the skins on as you can, as that will add both vitamins and texture...

1. Prepare the spuds and place them in
to the pot and add the salt (I use lo-salt, courtesy of high blood pressure), a bay leaf and just enough water to cover. Add the garlic at this time if you are using it. I use some caterer's purée, which is pretty damned powerful, but don't substitute garlic salt [thereby hangs a tale of cooking for three gorgeous girls, and using garlic and celery salt to substitute for the lack of the real thing and one of them ate it and said she enjoyed it! and no reader, I married one of the other girls - she was wife number 1] I'm better now, promise! Put the lid on and bring the potatoes and water to a boil, then remove the lid and reduce the heat so the potatoes are simmering gently, uncovered.

2. Chop the onion and the celery into pieces about half a finger thick and ½" long. Finely slice the chilli, seeds and all, if you don't like it leave it out, but this recipe is pretty bland without this and add the chilli, celery and onion to some melted olive oil in the fry
ing pan – you can use butter, but I can't eat this quantity in one go and intend to freeze it, so butter won't work as well. Saute this on medium heat until soft, and even a little brown at the edges, but at the first sign of browning remove from the heat. Don't worry if there's more, provided it's only the edges. Set them aside until the potatoes are done.

3. When the potatoes are cooked, but not flouring (i.e. of their own accord becoming one with the remaining water), take a hand blender (I use the mighty Dualit [advt] because it's less than half the price of the Bamix and is really tough and effective). On the lowest setting blend half the water and potato (after removing the bay leave). Then, add the onion and celery mixture to the pot, deglaze the pan with the cup of stock and add that too. Put the lid on and on the lowest heat. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Let simmer for about 20-25 minutes.

Then if you must, add milk or cream to make the soup white and soupy. Once the milk or
cream has been added, DON'T ALLOW IT TO BOIL! (another reason I don't do this – on re-heating in the microwave it can go, freezer > microwave > strain into sink > throw into bin).

The milk or cream will curdle and you'll have something foul to get rid of. And yes, I know it was 11.00 a.m. but I was having a hard job to remember to take photos, do/adjust the recipe as I went along; so I had a Floyd moment and opened a Pinot Grigio from Chile...

4. You can serve the soup now, as is, or you can embellish it in
various ways. I intend to try this with some dried cheese as they now call the unofficial Parmesan substitute, or if you use enough to warrant buying it, reheat and then sprinkle Parmesan on top (much better, I grant you but £1.55 for a garnish is a bit rich for my budget).

This is actually a very flexible recipe – this is just my take on it. I love cooking - didn't start properly until I was 40 and sometimes bitterly regret that I didn't realise what an absolute pleasure it is.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Memories of Havana

The last post inspired me to have a look at the languishing site to see if there was anything I could nick to add in, so, apropos of nothing really apart from memories of Havana, I thought I'd upload one of the few decent photos I've taken (that's ever, folks).

It's a courtyard where there are shops all around and places where you can get a beer, a coffee and also buy other stuff as well. What you can't see is the stunning heat and humidity outside. This place was an oasis and the trees growing in this totally enclosed courtyard (the buildings went all round) were lovely and green. Cuba is very productive in terms of plants, but Havana itself is so built up that many of the gardens are a bit seedy and run down as is much of Havana (courtesy of the embargo on trade with the USA), but this place is a little haven.

The people are genuine and really nice, most of them, but the population is split between those who are really proud of the revolution and its results, and those who want the luxuries of the capitalist system. Whatever the best course for the country, there is no denying that pre-revolution the country was prey to American big corporations and organised crime and that the exploitation on a national and individual scale amounted almost to slavery (and before someone says I was brainwashed, I thought that before I went).

14th November: Just installing a new printer so wanted to print something different and on the 'tour' of Havana, we paid for an individual guide rather than do the bus and loudhailer crap. It wasn't expensive and you get to talk to soemone real. Also, when you fancy a break from the routine trip to se the national monuments, the library, the capitol, you can insist on going somewhere more interesting. In this case, I said I wanted a Mojito, whereupon our guide, Marta, took us to this rooftop bar for one in Hemingway's favourite bar. (I could hear the inverted commas, so asked "How many favourite bars did he have?", "Oh, all of them!" accompanied by a wicked smile - she'd already got the measure of my rather cynical view of life!)

It shows some of the real poverty that exists in Cuba and how the country could really do with a normalisation of relations with the rest of the world, especially the USA. You know where the tourist compains that there's building work going on near the hotel, well here you can't avoid it really as bits of Havana are decaying at a pace, but with great style and grandeur!

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

A voyage through Inner Space

It's an odd thing. A while back there I was a website designer... more because I was the only one in the company with an adjective and a noun to rub together than because of any immense aptitude. Because of this I was inspired (is that the right word?) to create my own website*.

And how laborious it was - learning Fireworks, Dreamweaver, ACDSee, checking links, stopping the software using absolute rather than relative paths... Lord, Lord. And blogger gives you all that with a few clicks; it's a bit straight-line, but it does not get in the way of getting pen to paper. Or print to whoever might want to read it.

It may be that one person, it may be millions (unlikely) who read this... I don't care, because I learnt when publishing a 'zine, that the act of writing, more subtly than you realize, is a voyage through your own mind. You may go places, see things, taste things, but when you report them to other people they come through the filters of your own senses, preconceptions and paraphernalia of consciousness (more or less approximate after 4 glasses of wine). The point of saying this is that: looking through some back issues of my 'zine, held on line by some public-spirited souls, I realised that what you write is a snapshot of what sits at the heart of the filters at that time and place. Not only for other people, but also for yourself once you are transmuted by the passage of time.

In a very real sense, although we make fleeting contact, we bloggers are as much intranauts as we are voyaging to other people, should we realise it.
*This now languishes partly because of Orange [spit] freezing the old Freeserve addresses and, what's worse, not allowing edits so you can't even put a link to the new site! I only found that out after deleting the content (it allows that, ho yus) to create space for links to my new site, which I wasn't able then to make! (For those that haven't a phrase for the above, it's the style of writing called "stream of unconsciousness".)

Appointment with Destiny

Does your life intersect with the NHS? No? Do you have dealings with the PCT and the inaptly named PALS. Then you're either below a certain age or you lead a healthy lifestyle. Personally, I don't and I'm over 55 - I gave up smoking way too late, but I still drink 3-4 glasses of wine of an evening and am entirely sedentary in my pursuits... a lifetime of reading, eating, drinking, cooking and playing games (both board and video) will eventually ensure that mere survival dictates that you make the increasing acquaintance of doctors, nurses and surgeries and hospitals.

The latest crop of unpleasantness stems from following the advice of a really good district nurse at my local doctor's surgery: come back at the first sign of a potential problem - they're much easier to deal with then. Well, I booked an appointment with the 'ulcer clinic' only to find out that the PCT in its wisdom had decided that district nurses would now only visit those who couldn't make it to the surgery. So the combined wisdom, experience and knowledge of these excellent people was at a stroke removed from the surgery (both doctor's and practice nurses referred and relied on them to deal with the specialised area of leg problems due to poor circulation). That was unbelievable enough.

I have complained bitterly about this, the surgery agrees with me, the practice manager getting involved, three separate doctors; three of the practice nurses - we're all in agreement. The PCT, refers my complaint to a PALS officer, who says they've passed my complaint on to someone who's on holiday. That's 5 weeks ago.

Consequently, no-one in the surgery was able to diagnose the venous eczema I had developed. And so after two weeks of increasing strength anti-biotics, the nurse admitting she was out of her depth, the doctors that they didn't have a clue, I was referred to the Dermatology clinic at the local hospital (a 3.5 hour hole in the working day). So, this money-saving wheeze of not having the district nurses have a practice based clinic resulted in palliative care and a delay of three weeks, plus a hospital appointment with a dermatology consultant with two nurses in attendance led to? Now, I was committed to eight weeks of going twice a week to the practice surgery to have my legs unbandaged, washed, treated and rebandaged, before the repeat hospital appointment to assess how far I'd got. There's a saving for you.

Bear in mind that I work from about 7.30 in the morning to 5.30 at night and each of these appointments is at least 2 hours out of the office... and then in the middle of this, I get a letter telling me that I have to go to yet another hospital. Also, that I have to go home, removed my own bandages, wash my legs and wrap them in clingfilm, put socks over this, drive for an hour, find somewhere to park, have tests undertaken, drive back for an hour and then have another appointment (which I was to make, knowing full well that the surgery can't and is turns out won't be able to fit me in) for about 30 minutes for the salves and bandages to be replaced at the doctor's surgery, because the hospital wouldn't do this. [At hearing this, well... common decency binds my typing fingers from the acid-soaked profanity that would otherwise eat it's way the screen.] So we can estimate that I would be missing from the office for 4.5 - 5 hours. And these tests can be done by any competent nurse. Every time I think about this I go incandescent with rage.

I really, really do feel like Victor Meldrew: I really, really don't believe it. The advice that I should get a friend (most of whom work and thus would have to take at least half a day's annual leave to help) or a member of my family (either dead or not talking) to drive me around, is so asinine...

All of the above, after the initial clinical problem, was mainly caused by managerial decisions being taken about clinical practice. What's worse is that it also exposes a level of internecine strife between the front-line staff at the surgery and the hospitals who seem to want to make things efficient by passing the shitty jobs back to the surgery and getting the patient to do the legwork in between. The surgery resist and simply say that they won't do it, which leaves me somewhere between the two with my legs wrapped in fucking clingfilm. Sigh. And the story is not finished yet.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Thus passes a giant

Just a quick note in the blog to record my sadness and admiration for Keith Floyd who has now left the building; although he has gone in the best way possible - after an excellent dinner and a few glasses of decent wine, falling asleep and not waking up - you always hoped there would be another series. Personally I was hoping for one in modern-day rural France.

His ability to get across his passion, enthusiasm and delight in cooking, in strange places, made for riveting television; he turned me from being someone who cooked when he had to, to someone who resented it when he had to let someone else cook. He inspired me, along with those two other great eccentrics, the Two Fat Ladies, to simply have a go and rely on my instincts, which has proved to be a godsend.

Now later in life, that interest in and enjoyment of food and cooking remains one of those unsullied and untouched delights that brightens the darkening days. And that a lot of what he called a*******s are also presenting shows about food helps to fill the time when I'm not cooking, eating or having a glass of wine. Thanks and RIP, Keith Floyd.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Wow, a bland-reading recipe that's tasty!

OK, OK - I admit it, I'm a slob in the kitchen (apart from keeping it reasonably clean) and with a long working week and time-consuming health niggles, I tend to go for the easy recipes which can be cooked once and eaten two/three times courtesy of the freezer and the microwave. But above all, there must be some prospect of enjoying it.

I go to France 3-4 times a year; no longer as stunningly cost-effective now that I've given up smoking, but still brilliant savings on wine (£1.50 a bottle, x 12 per case x 10 cases makes a saving of [cocks ear] yes that's right - for those that don't play darts or use calculators that's £180; even with the cost of the petrol and crossing, it's still a saving of at least £90, and that's ignoring the fact that I can't get my cheap, decent French breakfast coffee except at a cost of an extra £1.50 a packet and Amora dijon mustard - may not be grainy, but ghods it's good). Anyway, the point of this wittering is to point to something I've just prepared, cooked and eaten which is looks bland from the recipe (I did add a little sliced chili, but no garlic, in spite of temptation) but which is really tasty and filling - a chicken and white haricot bean stew...

Oh, and the reason for the French trip was that I purchased a 600 ml jar of said haricots on my last French trip for about a £1 and am far, far to mean to throw food away!

Saturday, 12 September 2009

What a sauce!

I went looking for a review site to moan about a very expensive sauce I've just used. Not digested yet (if ever!), Loyd (how poncey is that, a single 'l') I'm talking about Grossman's Green & Black Peppercorn Sauce. I largely take Saturday off from cooking apart from some good ingredients and a decent pre-prepared sauce.

Now I'm used to them not being as good as I cook myself, but I bought this stuff at £2.08 this morning with a use by date of somewhen in 2010. Yes, next year... The steak was one of Tesco's finest (not that that means a huge amount, but it promises 28 days hanging) - it wasn't brill, but serves me right for not going to a decent butcher (1st find one near Aylesbury)...

The additions were some properly sauteéd potatoes with crispy onion rings and microwave-steamed green beans and carrots. Note: even on my idle days I like to be able to eat what I cook, and I can do that well. I went looking for a black pepper and cream sauce. The only thing which looked like it was one of these LG things. I've never had one before, but after all, the man wears glasses and promises that he's tasted these things?

Really ;-( I really, really doubt it - I microwaved as per the instructions exactly (I'm scrupulous on the first use of anything) and it was awful - I was able to scrape the semi-rancid crap off. I should know better - never buy a sauce which has a cream base and which says you can microwave it.

Oh, and as for flavour? 10 minutes with a pestle and mortar and some decent créme fraiche and capers and I would have achieved what I was after - teach me not to be so idle.