Good to be back… honestly

We’ve just returned from our first foreign holiday as a family, having spent a week on the Spanish island of Majorca (or Mallorca, for the proud Catalans among you).  I’m trying to convince myself it’s not the end of the world and that there are lots of good things about being back – and to this end I’ve compiled a list to remind me why it’s so good to be here.  I’m slightly unnerved by the ease with which I did so though; perhaps I didn’t have as good a time as I thought…

Hot hot hot – it was regularly closing on 40C during the hottest part of the day.  It’s easy dealing with the cold, you just put more layers on and find fun ways to expend some energy.  But there’s only so much you can take off when it’s too hot, and sitting still has rarely been something that has appealed to me.  One of my favourite days was when I spent most of it in our air-conditioned apartment watching the Olympics while everyone else went swimming.  The damp, tepid summer’s evening on our return to East Mids airport was almost welcome.

I swim like a bowling ball – everyone has to have an Achilles heel, and mine is that I simply don’t float.  I never learned to swim as a child and although I picked up some rudimentary skills later in life, I remain unable to swim aerobically and panic when I get water in my nose.  I don’t mind spending a good amount of time splashing round in a pool, especially one which isn’t very busy as ours generally wasn’t, but there’s a limit and I hit mine a day before the end of the break.

Oily – when it’s 40C and you have the complexion of a Norwegian, it’s important to either cover up or slather up.  Being in and out of the water meant I was having to apply sun cream three times a day, and spent most of the week feeling like an oven-ready chicken.  By the time each day came to an end I was desperate for a shower.

Other people’s bathrooms – the apartment we stayed in belonged to a friend and was very nice, but I did long for my own shower.  I know its foibles, I revel in its power, and most of all, I have a combi boiler so don’t need to remember to turn the hot water on an hour beforehand.  Cool showers are a relief after a day in the sun but cold showers are evil.

Other people’s beds – unusually for a holiday apartment, our bed was king size, which, with me at over six foot and the heat meaning bodily contact was (largely) to be avoided, was a blessing.  But the mattress was less than perfect (some very narrative dents) and the bad back I had at the start of the week got steadily worse throughout.  Within two days of getting home it was gone.  Possibly coincidence but I suspect not.

Air con – another absolute blessing given the merciless heat, but the need to have it on at night gave me a mouth like a gorilla’s slipper and every time I woke up I thought it was tipping it down with rain outside because of the noise.  It probably contributed to that bad back.

Real money – there’s something about foreign currency that prevents you fully appreciating how much you are spending, even if you diligently work back each transaction you make.  As a result you spend far more profligately than you would do in Torquay.  Or Brighton.  Or Hexham.

The Olympics – we watched a lot of this from our apartment and enjoyed every minute.  I am an unashamed patriot and took great pride in the achievements not only of the athletes but of the many people who made the whole shebang go so well.  But one of the reasons for timing our holiday when we did was so we would be back in time to be there in the flesh – both to experience the atmosphere, but also because we had tickets for one event, with my wife playing in her band at another event the following day.  I am a fan of London anyway but what an amazing place it has been to be over the last week.

Flying visit – I love flying.  I don’t like queueing, or eating the laughably poor food, or trying to wee while taking account of turbulence.  I don’t like sitting next to people who are large, inconsiderate, smelly, loud, or an unfortunate combination of all of those things.  I don’t like sitting on the plane while the pilot tries repeatedly to get the engine going, listening to Annie Lennox singing “Why” on repeat.  But I love the sensation of take-off, I love being above the clouds in a perpetually sunny day, I love trying to recognise parts of the landscape beneath me, and I love coming in to land over cities at night.  I enjoy the flight no less for being in the wrong direction, however much less the destination appeals.

Food – I’ve commented before (in the same article as above) that Spain is not a happy holiday destination for your everyday vegetarian.  My wife has relented in recent months and will now eat fish when eating out, which makes a big difference, particularly abroad.  But where we stayed had one decent eatery across the road alongside two rather poorer ones and then little else for several miles down the coast.  We didn’t fancy spending much of the holiday cooking or driving, so the food was not a highlight.  Only one thing on our minds on returning home – curry!

I’ve delved repeatedly into the curry stockpile for recipes through the course of the last couple of years, but curries help add variety to vegetarian food, so here’s another one to enjoy.  My youngest likes this one as we make it mild, serve it with naan and tell him it’s Indian beans on toast.

Chickpea and spinach curry (serves 2-3)

  • 400g tin of chickpeas, drained
  • 300g young or baby leaf spinach
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed or finely chopped
  • 1-2 green chillies, seeded and sliced
  • 300g cherry tomatoes, chopped (or 400g tin of chopped tomatoes for speed but leave out half the water if so)
  • 400g tin full of water
  • 1 tsp chilli powder
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/4 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp salt
  • a few mint leaves, finely chopped
  • handful of fresh coriander, finely chopped
  • glug of oil

Fry onion and garlic in oil slowly until softened and starting to go golden.  Add chillies, spices and salt, and cook through for 2-3 minutes.  Add tomatoes, then turn down heat when it starts to bubble, and leave for 4-5 minutes to soften the tomatoes down.  Add the chickpeas, heat through, then add the water and cover.  Simmer for 25 minutes or until chickpeas have softened sufficiently.  Remove cover, stir through spinach, coriander and mint, and turn up heat for three minutes or so to bubble some of the liquid off and wilt the spinach.

Serve with rice if you don’t fancy the beans on toast approach.

Posted in Curry, holiday, Spanish, travel | Leave a comment

Book now – a restaurant review

One of my biggest regrets in life is that I don’t read enough.  I’ve been an avid reader in the past; in my teenage years I devoured anything I could lay my hands on, in between taping the top 40 off Radio 1 and playing play-by-mail football games (not being wealthy enough to own a computer and thus a copy of Championship Manager).  Typically for boys of that age I preferred sci-fi/fantasy; no need to commission Dr Freud to analyse that one, pure and simple escapism.  As I’ve gotten older my tastes have become more catholic, although I still do like to indulge in something involving improbable space travel every now and again.

Disappointingly though, with the increasing demands of work and young children, I’ve read less and less in recent years, to the point where I realised recently I’ve only read two books this year so far, coincidentally both translations of Spanish-language originals.  We rarely go to bed before midnight and are up not long after 6, so any bedtime reading consists of at most a few pages a night, and I often find myself falling asleep when doing so (I’m no Maggie Thatcher, and 6 hours a night really isn’t enough, especially without the pre-kids habit of a 12 hour catch-up at the weekend).  Thus even when I do get the urge to embark on a literary journey, it’s so punctuated that I struggle to retain the names of any but the most key central characters, and often have to flip back to earlier chapters to remind myself who this or that incidental player actually is and what relationship they have to anything.

That said, I think I am just undergoing a rocky patch in my love affair with reading.  I still feel a slight sense of grief on finishing a book I have particularly enjoyed, and feel it my duty to recommend it to everyone I know, in order to enrich their lives as mine has been.  As with restaurants, I am a creature of habit, and will lean towards reading something by an author I know and like rather than face the potential disappointment of flirting with someone new; I jump online whenever I discover one of my small number of absolute favourites* releasing something new.

With two of my biggest loves being literature and gastronomy, coming across a restaurant called The Library was just too much to resist, especially once I discovered it served tapas.  I regularly struggle to decide on what to have when I eat out, and I often have pangs of regret at what I didn’t order (often when someone else has it and it looks better than mine), so the ability to order lots of different stuff to share works perfectly for me.  My occasional trips to La Tasca have failed to put me off, and given the choice, I would struggle to choose (again) between Spanish and Indian for the cuisine I had to survive on for the rest of my days if given such an unlikely ultimatum.  So when a former colleague who has done me a number of favours finally accepted my offer of lunch, the discovery of a conveniently-located tapas restaurant was too enticing to refuse.

The Library is not big – unless it had an upstairs that I didn’t spot, no more than thirty diners could be catered for, casting doubt on my assumption that the name was due to the original purpose of the building.  The decor is fairly minimal, the furniture not fancy, the menu not especially attractively designed; all in all conveying something of that essence of not having spent much on decorating that costs a significant amount to achieve, although I got the feeling that here it was genuine.  The hope is then that the effort has gone into the food itself, and after exactly the appropriate amount of time had elapsed since ordering, we were pleased to discover that was indeed the case here.

We shared four dishes: simple but effective paprika-coated fries, arancini (sort of a risotto croquette) with a tomato salsa, five-spiced pork belly with onion marmalade, and the inevitable chorizo, here with crushed potato and tomatoes with an aioli and some wraps.  Pork belly is in my experience often a good indicator for the quality of a restaurant; this was tender, the spices were entirely fitting, and although I am not always a fan of sweet with meat, the onion marmalade was an excellent accompaniment.  Chips probably weren’t the obvious foil for this dish but that is one of the joys of tapas – somehow it doesn’t matter so much that you might combine dishes that you would never serve on a single plate.

Chorizo is one of my favourite things in the world so it was not a surprise to me that this dish very much worked for me, although I would like to try it with the slightly spicier chorizo such as you get with the excellent breakfasts at Brindisa in Borough Market by London Bridge.  The arancini were probably the element that grabbed me least although I really should learn – I am always disappointed with arancini so I shouldn’t be surprised they similarly failed to grab me here.  It just always sounds so nice on the menu.

The most pleasing thing about the meal was that the four dishes, which were generously proportioned for tapas dishes, with two cups of tea (both of which curiously came with a ginger nut) and a coke only came to around £22.  I would happily have paid half as much again, and as it is less than 10 minutes from where I work, I will be making my way back soon to start working my way around the rest of the menu.

Perhaps I’ll take a book to read.

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*Perversely, although I will go out of my way to recommend my favourite books and authors to other people, I always feel strangely uncomfortable when someone recommends a new author to me. However, since you ask, I instantly buy anything new by Christopher Brookmyre and David Mitchell (not the comedian), and have relatively recently become very keen on Neil Gaiman, although some of his short stories I find difficult to digest.

Posted in books, restaurant review, Spanish, tapas | 2 Comments

If I knew you were coming…

… I probably still wouldn’t have baked you a cake.  I can’t quite explain why I have never really taken to baking – my love of cooking is mostly about the happy noises people make when eating the results, and people often go “mmmmm” when tucking into something sweet, spongy and chocolatey.  I have an ego that likes to be massaged; there are unfortunately few occasions when people are vocally impressed by something I’ve done and, as cooking offers the most reliable source of positive feedback, I put some effort in, and the dividends normally justify the investment.  So cakes should represent an easy pleasure hit.

It’s not that I don’t like patisserie either.  My wife knocks up a tray of buns every now and again, and I am usually first in the queue to enjoy the results.  I used to claim not to have a sweet tooth, but I’ve long since stopped trying to deceive myself; yes, as often as not I prefer a savoury snack to a sugary one, but put a box of chocolates in front of me and I’ll grab the orange truffle before you can blink.

Baking is more of a science than everyday cooking, and that should appeal to my scientific nature – I did A-levels in physics and mathematics so I should be happiest when following exact instructions to get known results. You can’t ad-lib with bakery.  I tend to get a feel for how much chilli powder, coriander or soy sauce to add to a main course, but if you try the same with flour or butter your pastries will more often than not be compromised.  This is why it is often the case that cakes and biscuits made en masse in supermarkets are every bit as good as, and often better than, those you can create at home; it is all about getting the proportions right, and machines are far more reliable at that than we are.

The exception is cheesecakes, which probably don’t really count as cakes anyway.  I love a good cheesecake, but the ones I tend to make aren’t the light, baked variety – they are the heavy, creamy, fridge-finished ones with a thick, spicy base.  The below is one I have enjoyed many times; you can vary the biscuits used in the base to suit your taste, but I find the tang and crunch of the ginger biscuits balances the sweet, creamy filling.

Easy white chocolate cheesecake (serves 6 at a push, 2 if you’re feeling greedy)

  • Half pack of ginger nuts (or I’ve found a couple of gingerbread men with the features removed works well)
  • 2oz butter
  • 250g ricotta
  • 250g mascarpone
  • Few drops of vanilla extract
  • 100g white chocolate

Turn the biscuits into crumbs with a blender or a food bag and rolling pin.  Melt the butter, stir in the crumbs and press evenly into the bottom of a greased sandwich tin.  Melt the chocolate in a bowl over a pan of boiling water, and cream together with the cheeses and vanilla extract (whip the mixture if you prefer it a little lighter).  Spread over the biscuit base and chill for at least an hour, preferably overnight.  Finish with some grated chocolate and, if you have some, finely chopped stem ginger.

Posted in baking, cake, cheese, dessert | 1 Comment

Charity begins at school

We are lucky in the UK to have a strong state education sector.  Despite the cynicism that surrounds every aspect of it, most young people in this country benefit from a mature, balanced, secular curriculum, delivered by people whose utmost ambition in life is to provide the best chances possible to following generations.

Like the health service, the most important feature of our education sector is that it is free to all.  Every child in this country has a right to a minimum standard of education, and whatever the arguments over the relative level of that minimum standard, that position is among the greatest assets this country has.  Money can of course improve the quality available to those individuals fortunate enough to be born into families with greater means and aspiration, and that includes choosing to live in a popular catchment area just as much as forking out for a fee-paying school.  But the poorest children living in the most hopeless of environments will still be offered the opportunity to better themselves, whether they are able to make the most of it or not.

The word “free” does not have as clear a definition as one might think though.  In this context it should mean not attracting a fee: that is, requiring no expenditure at all beyond what you would otherwise be spending (which covers school meals and clothing).  Yet with my eldest child approaching the end of his second year at school, I have started to dread opening his book bag at the end of each day, wondering what I am going to be asked to shell out for today.

Firstly, there is the school trip.  I wholeheartedly believe school trips to be of immense value, but the legal requirement to insert the word “voluntary” in the phrase “please return the slip below along with your voluntary contribution of £7” is risible, conveying about as much essence of voluntariness* as a tax demand.  I can cope with the peer pressure of spending money, and to be fair our school does tend to ask parents not to send spending money anyway; but the implicit message, that everyone else will stump up and you’re letting the side down if you don’t as we’ll have to find it from somewhere else, is far more compelling, which of course is exactly the intention.

And yet, although I cannot completely dispel a slight sense of grudge here, I do at least accept that this has always been the case.  When I was at school there was no charade of choice whether to contribute or not – it was very blunt, you either cough up or miss out.  At least now, although it is clear there would be no effort made to assuage my conscience, the lack of a contribution would not result in my youngster being disbarred from the bus.  I’m just not prepared to play chicken with the school and risk him drowning in a rip tide of shame.

Secondly there is the overwhelming number of clubs and activities the school invite me to “allow” my boy to engage in.  He already does martial arts, swimming, dance and guitar club so my conscience occupies a well-protected position here, but of course he wants to do everything.  In truth I want him to do everything he possibly can as well and actually time is often the limiting factor, but I do still roll my eyes at each new leaflet he brings home with him.

Finally, and far more insidious, is the proliferation of sponsorship forms.  I will freely admit that I am not the most charitable of individuals: I don’t currently have a Direct Debit charitable payment giving me a monthly feelgood factor; I don’t entertain chuggers of the doorstep, town centre, telesales or supermarket lobby varieties; I rarely respond to broadcast emails at work or messages on Facebook exhorting me to attend someone’s Justgiving page for some feat of commendable physical exertion, despite having once thusly supported a cancer charity by running 13 miles around Tyneside.

I don’t however share the extreme position that some friends of mine hold: that charities should not exist at all, as the causes they support should be funded by government through appropriate taxation.  I accept that you cannot govern by referendum and that the vast majority of decisions must be made by people we appoint to represent our views, but I believe the charitable sector to be a healthy compromise, in that funding is generally proportional to popular support, which is usually driven by the number of people affected by the symptom the charity is attempting to remedy.  Thus the existence of a charitable sector regulates funding for worthy causes in what I believe is a far more effective and efficient way than government would be able to.

What I strenuously object to though is the abuse of children to generate income.  I use the word abuse advisedly, because I believe blackmail and bribery to fall squarely into this category.  Let me give you an example to illustrate my point.  Last week my lad brought home a sponsorship form for some sport-related charity, aiming to improve the lives of youngsters in Africa by providing them with opportunities to engage in football.  I have a fundamental issue with this straight away, as I am pretty certain that there are some rather more basic requirements – food, medicine, housing, schooling, clothing – that could improve these unfortunate youngsters’ existences rather more significantly than having a ball to kick around.

Parking this objection for a moment though, this particular plea for help was accompanied by a promise that any child managing to acquire £25 worth of sponsorship would receive a limited edition football, with medals for anyone getting at least one donation.  Or, to paraphrase, if your child fails to raise £25 for this charity whose aims you may or may not support, he won’t get a shiny football.  As my child is 6, I cannot really send him out knocking on doors to generate the cash, so effectively it is up to me to drum up donations from family and friends.  This being the third sponsorship form this year, that well is running a little dry.  But my 6 year old doesn’t understand these things and will just feel like he’s missing out.

My other concern with this exercise was that the money raised is being split between football-bereft African children and the school itself, which would be able to pay for some new play equipment as a result.  This is troubling for two reasons: firstly, as with Comic Relief, that there is a need to show benefit to UK causes to assuage the rampant xenophobia (probably here characterised by lack of compassion for problems outside our shores rather than hatred of Johnny Foreigner) that would otherwise seriously limit donations; secondly, that the school should feel the need to ask for charitable donations at all.  In this case I share my friends’ view that the state should be adequately funding the basic requirements of the school, and it saddens me that other state schools, situated in less privileged communities, will not benefit in the same way, not having such well-off families on their registers.

So on this occasion I have chosen not to contribute; but I know there will be another request for cash before the end of term, and another set of dilemmas to negotiate.

An appropriate recipe, or even a tenuously-linked one, proved impossible to come up with today so the below is simply another one I served at a recent themed dinner party.

Thai green veg curry (serves 2, maybe 3)

  • Half an aubergine, diced
  • Handful of mange touts or sugar snap peas, sliced lengthways
  • Handful of baby corn, sliced lengthways
  • One tin of coconut milk (400g)
  • 1-2 large shallots or half a small onion
  • Two green chillies
  • 1 inch piece of fresh galangal (can be done with ginger but much better with galangal)
  • 1 large clove garlic, peeled and chopped
  • Tbsp light soy sauce
  • Small bunch coriander
  • 1 red chilli, fincely sliced lengthways
  • Tsp ground cumin
  • Tsp ground coriander (it does taste better if you toast and grind whole cumin and coriander but normally this is a bit too much effort)
  • Handful of Thai basil if available, otherwise plain basil
  • 2-3 sticks of lemongrass, outer hard layers removed and chopped finely
  • 2-3 tsp soft brown sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • Jasmine rice for two people, cooked as instructions (easy cook or basmati rice are fine)

Combine spices, chillies, lemon grass, shallots, garlic, galangal, ginger, basil and salt into a blender and pulse to a smooth paste.  Heat the coconut milk, then add the curry paste, sugar and soy.  Pop the sweet potato in and simmer for 5 minutes, then add aubergine, mange touts and corn and simmer for another 10-15 until the sweet potato is soft to the bite.  Garnish with the shredded red chilli and serve with the rice.

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*Yes, I know it doesn’t sound right, but it really does exist.

Posted in charity, Curry, school | Leave a comment

Football matters

Immediately upon starting this article I feel I should apologise.  On beginning any conversation about football, I have an instinctive urge to cast an apologetic glance towards any females in the room, and then continue blithely onwards anyway.  Sexist?  Guilty as charged.  It is my experience though that the vast majority of women roll their eyes when the menfolk in the room slip inexorably into a dissection of the recent results; so I will apologise twice over, once to those women for today’s topic, and once to the others I have just offended by painting them with the broad brush of stereotype.

My guilty conscience thus assuaged, I urge you to stay with me, as I don’t intend to darken your screen with a thesis on the relative merits of 4-1-3-2, 4-5-1 and the pretty-but-much-maligned Christmas tree formation.  I just want to explain a little why it is that we blokes tumble so willingly into footie talk at seemingly the most tenuous excuse.  I say “we” blokes as, despite the evidence to the contrary, I fall squarely in the middle of the category on this occasion.  I follow a reasonably successful London team in the Premiership, by virtue of my parents having done so; one of the very few things I share with them as it happens.  I grew up in the south west of England, where there are no decent football teams, so like every other boy in my town I chose to support a team well outside my geographical vicinity.

Football offers two things that homo sapiens has evolved to place great value on: community and success.  Mankind, like most primates, is a social creature, and thus the sense of belonging is of great importance to most of its members.  Historically this has been important for survival of the selfish gene, in binding together carriers of similar DNA so that there is greater potential for that DNA pattern to persist across generations.  In modern society this manifests in a variety of different ways; ultimately they are all symptoms of the desire to share a common goal, something that links us to our fellow man, that may cause us to be bound together, fundamentally – although unconsciously – for mutual protection.  Football happens to be a popular current interest but it can equally be a shared language when living abroad, or membership of a Facebook group on lion taming, or a comparison of parental anecdotes about the escapades of respective youngsters.  What is important to us is not necessarily that we have the same outlook on a particular subject, but that we care enough about the subject to have an outlook at all, so that we might build a community – perhaps short-lived, often with conflicting views, but a community nonetheless.

Evolution defines success in men as surviving long enough to mature and procreate.  That selfish gene calling the shots again: once you’ve shared your genetic material (I know, I’m such a romantic) often enough to have created a few partial copies of yourself, you are surplus to requirements.  The brain doesn’t necessarily choose to understand this precisely though and thus the feeling of success engendered by outrunning a predator, capturing your next meal or dipping your toe in the water can be achieved in other ways.  That is what makes men comparatively competitive; we are programmed to attempt to prevail in anything we do, and that fundamental wiring causes the same approach to a game of Risk as hunting down a lean buck.

The great thing about how the brain perceives success is that it can be relative, and fleeting.  Each kill creates a meal, enabling you to survive a little longer, and thus releases some endorphins; if you’re not getting many kills then a single rabbit will make your day, where in more plentiful times you’d need a field full of bunnies to create the same level of satisfaction.  The same applies to other fields, including football ones, and that is why people derive pleasure from supporting teams of varying quality; a last-minute win to rescue your team from relegation can be more satisfying, to your primeval mind, than a title won before Easter.  Even in a season ending ultimately in failure – no silverware for successful teams, or relegation for those with less luck and money – there will have been successes along the way, matches you didn’t expect to win, local rivals you gave a black eye, wonder goals against bigger teams in a cup competition.

So, ladies, when the gents in your company embark on an analysis of the weekend’s result, please don’t do the rolly-eye thing.  We can’t help it – it’s in our genes.

When I lived in London and had a season ticket for my team, I used to have a kebab on the way home, without fail.  Kebabs are often the only source of greenery for single men who struggle to achieve five a week, never mind every day.  Removing the meat from a kebab doesn’t have to kill it though – there are many meaty cheeses and mushrooms that can substitute, and the below is one tasty example.

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Halloumi & pepper kebabs

This is pretty straightforward to be honest.  Cut some halloumi, a variety of sweet peppers (it is worth spending a little more on sweet pointy reds such as Romano peppers), onion and aubergine into chunks about an inch square and half that thick.  Place on skewers and either grill, griddle or barbecue on a medium heat until nicely charred around the outside and soft in the middle (or bouncy in the case of the cheese), and then serve in toasted pitta bread with a handful of rocket and pea shoots with something spicy like a chilli jam and, if you like, something to balance it like a Greek yoghurt or some crème fraîche.

We often do this slightly differently and grill the cheese, roast the peppers and aubergine in the oven and serve with the salad and relish in warmed tortillas.  Admittedly we usually also chop up some chipolatas as well and stick them in the oven, stirring through a spoonful of mustard and a squeeze of honey a couple of minutes before serving.

Posted in cheese, evolution, football, kebab | 3 Comments

29 again then

I waved goodbye to my early thirties this week.  In case of any argument, that means I am now 34, despite the unsurprising insistence of many 34-year-olds that mid-thirties does not start until the grand old age of 35.  This is more widely known as “denial”.

I love birthdays, especially other people’s.  My eldest is in his second year of infant school, and as a result he gets invited to an inordinate number of parties, most of which involve a bouncy castle, and they tend to be a “blue job” in our house (as opposed to pink jobs like the ironing).  It is impossible to grow out of bouncy castles: what most adults develop over the years is a well-honed sense of shame, which prevents them boarding anything inflatable in front of the other parents.  I, thankfully, have no such inhibition, happily discarding any pretensions of dignity for the primeval joy of repeated gravity violation.

The one niggle constantly at the back of my mind however that leaps forwards when I find myself under a pile of my lad’s classmates is nothing to do with shame.  As most women will attest to, most men have a childish element to their personality, and I differ only in that I am a little less restrained in exhibiting it than many; I love the rough and tumble that kids adore.  But the spectre of the News of the World will live long after its demise, and there is a cultural paranoia surrounding men playing with children.  Scroobius Pip‘s musical exhortation “thou shalt not think that any male over the age of 30 that plays with a child that is not their own is a paedophile… some people are just nice” (from Thou Shalt Always Kill) is unfortunately not a commonly shared view, and I am acutely aware both that I have to be careful not to overstep a line that is ill-defined and that sadly, but inevitably, some people will be suspicious of my motives.  It won’t stop me allowing my inner 6-year-old out to play, but it does stop many, and I think our kids are the poorer because of it.

As an adult, birthdays are usually an entirely more sedate matter, and indeed as many people get older they allow birthdays to slip by quietly, attracting as little attention to the passing of the years as humanly possible.  Much of this slipping by quietly has in my view been engendered by the strange role reversal that the modern office environment has created.  Perhaps this is an old-fashioned mindset, but I always understood the protocol to be that gifts are proferred to the individual celebrating the event, indeed that they should be given a little special treatment for the day.  Yet somehow this has undergone a complete volte-face and you can expect to be roundly derided if you turn up to put in a shift on your big day without having brought in cakes for everyone.

Now just hold on a minute.  The idea of birthday cakes is of course not new – but it is more a token of gratitude from the host, distributed amongst party guests, in recognition of both their presence and (with any luck) their presents.  How that has morphed into a quasi-legal obligation to provide a variety of sugary elevenses for your work colleagues, most of whom won’t even have known it was your birthday – and few of whom will have prepared a card, let alone a present – I can’t quite comprehend.

While I am not quite having a party this year – what with not being at the end of a decade, which seems to be the only acceptable excuse for having a proper party once you get past 21 – I am having an Oriental-themed dinner party instead, and I am looking forward to it immensely.  It won’t be a big affair – three other couples, the parents of some of those classmates I spoke about earlier – but I will be donning a kimono, cooking several dishes with origins across the Far East, and supplying enough Asahi, Tsingdao and Singha beer to bring out everyone’s inner six-year-old.

The menu will include this chow mein that has been a staple part of our diet for a couple of years now, but in the interest of variety, I’ve given you below the recipe for the Oriental broth that will start the meal.

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Oriental broth (serves 2)

  • 1 pt vegetable stock (I’ve taken to using concentrated liquid stock and it works particularly well in this soup)
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 50g shiitake mushrooms, washed and thinly sliced
  • 1 Little Gem lettuce, washed and finely sliced
  • 1 small egg, beaten
  • 1 tbsp chopped fresh coriander
  • 20g dried vermicelli

Bring the stock and cayenne to a boil.  Add mushrooms and simmer for 2 minutes.  Lightly crush the vermicelli into the pan and simmer for another 3 minutes.  Add the lettuce, bring the broth to a rolling boil, then take it off the heat and gently stir in the egg to form threads in the soup.  Stir in the coriander and serve immediately.

Posted in birthdays, cake, soup | 1 Comment

Cancelled due to lack of interest

I’ve said before that I’m a big fan of the English language.  It’s not quite what you might have picked as the world’s lingua franca: spelling in English is game of percentages rather than an exact science, as any teacher versed in phonics will vouch.  But for richness, texture, subtlety and expressiveness, it has no equal, despite comparisons with other languages which have, for example, 17 words for snow (when snow constitutes much of your context, you’ll have many words for it – try counting how many variations we have on “rain”).  English borrows shamelessly from any other language it encounters; and with a history of various European peoples settling in the British Isles, all bringing their own linguistic heritage with them, we have built up a collection of very specifically defined words where other languages may have one word covering a variety of similar things or concepts.

Equally, a single word in English can have a variety of meanings, often from different derivations.  One such word which has caught my eye this week is the word “interest”, and I feel it is worth clarifying the subtle differences between a couple of the possible definitions.  It can of course be a hobby or a commercial return on an investment, but these aren’t relevant to the subject at hand.  The distinction I would like to draw is between the desire to know about something and the need to know about something.  This is a distinction with which a particular International purveyor of News seems to fundamentally struggle, so it bears some elaboration, in particular relating to the phrase “in the public interest”.

This kind of interest is the latter: the need to know something, it being to the benefit of said public to know the thing which they are being told.  It is not the former: the desire to know about something, the basic human inquisitiveness which has in part helped us evolve to become homo sapiens, and in equal measure has resulted in the early termination of many a member of that species.  This type of interest might also be termed “nosiness”.

I’m sure there are plenty of highly-trained professionals who could make a technically sound legal argument that the public benefits from knowing that the captain of the England football team has been trespassing on his colleague’s carnal territory, or that the mother of a high profile vocalist struggles to maintain a healthy grip on reality.  Perhaps it is in my own interest to hear such arguments, because I really struggle to understand in what way humanity benefits from such grotesque violation of dignity.  What people wish to keep private is surely in the public interest only if a law is broken or there is some resultant impact on their ability to carry out the duties of their publicly-funded office.  I fully support the exposure of relationships which, for example, put into question the impartiality of members of Parliament relating to expenditure from the public purse; but I fail to understand how anyone but the publisher gains from the revelation that soap star A has been achieving physical pleasure with the assistance of sports personality B without the knowledge of either of their partners.

There can surely therefore be no justification for the level of intrusiveness into people’s private lives which the Leveson inquiry has placed under an unforgiving spotlight but which nobody is surprised to hear of.  That a sizeable percentage of the general public wants to know sordid celebrity secrets is no more reason to allow their airing than it would be to accept the casual thieving or sexual assault that only the structures of civilised society prevent being perpetrated in far larger numbers.  The argument that the public is only being served what it orders, that the demand is somehow to blame for the methods, holds no more water than the suggestion that a minimally-dressed young lady is responsible for physical transgression against her.

What I find really upsetting though is the apparently sudden but very clearly signposted arrival this week of the Sunday edition of the Sun.  Foretold only a week earlier by Rupert Murdoch, the unseemly haste of its appearance only serves to confirm that the planning started even before the rollers started on the final edition of the News of the World, never mind the ink drying.  The cynical, insincere, token gesture towards accepting responsibility that was the unexpected closure of that title is now entirely undermined; but justified in the eyes of the publishers by the scale of the uptake of the Sun’s extra day, with over three million copies being sold.  After all, if “we” really don’t like it, why would “we” be buying it?

I was also disappointed to read in the i paper this week of Charlotte Church’s settlement with News International, as I was hoping at least one claimant would take them to court.  I share the editor’s view here: it is easy to cynically applaud her for holding out long enough to maximise the money she’s gained from the case, coloured by some sort of distaste for the low-brow entertainment she peddles, and indeed that is exactly the palette with which News Int would like us to paint our mental images of her.  But I would urge you to read the detail more closely as I am sure you will share my revulsion at the real cause of Ms Church choosing to settle: News Int planned to put her mother on the stand, retelling a period of time during which she suffered significant mental health issues, as a strong incentive to Ms Church to settle before it got that far and risked returning her mother to the depths she experienced at that time.  I would suggest Ms Church’s decision could not be fairly questioned by anyone, given that context.

I am just hopeful that the further damaging revelations which have emerged this week relating to baulked murder enquiries and illegal payments at the Sun will help continue the general decline in popular opinion of News International to the point where it is no longer socially acceptable to bully anyone, famous or otherwise, in the name of selling newspapers, and the Sun is cancelled due to lack of interest.

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We’ve struggled recently to keep our diet interesting, as we’ve fallen back into our regular rut of having only a week’s worth of recipes on the go and eating out or taking out increasingly often.   The below is a dish I’ve recently added to the mix to start trying to expand the portfolio again: a similar dish to our primavera risotto, but a refreshingly different take.

Broad bean & dill pilaf (serves 2)

  • Knob of butter
  • 3 spring onions, sliced
  • 75-100g basmati rice, rinsed
  • 200g broad beans, rubbery skins removed
  • A few stems of dill, chopped
  • Handful of chopped parsley
  • 2 tbsp Greek yoghurt
  • 1 pint water
  • Crushed clove of garlic
  • Salt and ground black pepper
  • Pinch of ground allspice

Melt the butter and fry the onions, garlic and allspice in it.  Stir in the rice, then add the beans, dill, parsley and seasoning, and add the water.  Cover and bring to boil; keep on high heat for 5 minutes, then simmer for 10-15 minutes until the water is absorbed and the rice cooked.  Stir the yoghurt through and serve.

Posted in ethics, Press, Recipe, rice | Leave a comment

A vegetarian abroad

I think of myself as patriotic.  Those who know me might be surprised by that, but patriotism can be defined in a number of subtly different ways.  It has in the past been considered a distinction from religion: a love of the state greater than the love of one’s God.  It may be viewed as a sense of duty to one’s monarch or government, although one that usually quickly evaporates when the buff envelope from Revenue & Customs arrives.  It can be distended to become nationalism, which is essentially xenophobia in nicer clothes.  In many people it can be characterised as illogical, unthinking loyalty based on nothing more than an instinctive, evolutionary desire to protect that which is genetically similar to oneself.

My brand of patriotism is none of those, although I could be accused with some justification of the latter.  I have always had the desire to see competitors from my home country succeed in any sport: this is simple indoctrination, an inherited tribalism, as with most of these athletes I share nothing but one word on my passport; yet I gain pleasure at their successes and feel sympathy when they get unjustly knocked out in the semi-finals.

I robustly defend the British way of spelling, vigorously protecting the presence of the additional letters in words such as flavour, aluminium, dialogue and jewellery, and upholding the right of the S to sound like a Z when it wants to.  There is no logic in this, and the argument that the British way is somehow better is no more substantive than the archaic and increasingly futile French insistence on creating a new Gallic-sounding word for every new invention and concept that arises; but I will continue tutting when my word processor belligerently puts a red squiggle underneath favourite, reorganisation and programme, just as I stubbornly continue to correctly punctuate text messages.

I gain smug satisfaction from the British reputation for humour that the rest of the world doesn’t quite get; I get a thrill from seeing British actors in American films, and increasingly TV series; I am pleased to hear of British companies doing well abroad, even when they are in morally questionable industries such as “defence” and oil.

But my innate, unintelligent patriotism is slowly becoming a more informed, thoughtful variant.  The more I learn about the world, the more I feel a genuine sense of privilege for the accident of birth that allowed me to grow up in the UK.  I remain liberal in my thinking, although I will allow a natural tendency towards conservatism as I get older and better off; I naturally try to find middle ground, compromise, and in my view Britain generally fits that mindset.  We represent a halfway-house in many respects between the popular stereotypes of America and Europe.

We are also blessed with a great many benefits that accrue from living in an advanced, democratic economy.  We have a health system free at the point of use, an obligatory education system, an infrastructure that supports relative wealth and health for the majority of UK citizens, a military capability and diplomatic network that maintains a global political influence far in excess of our geographical size and economic power.  We can publicly say what we like, as long as we don’t incite hatred in each other.  We have a direct influence over who runs our town, our county, our country.

All these things can suffer under comparison with equivalents in some other countries of course, and many people would debate loud and long over the relative merits of our civic services and nature of our democracy; but taken as a package I am increasingly grateful for what I have as a UK national, and I consider the perfectly reasonable taxation regime a fair price to pay for the many benefits of living here.

One further benefit has only recently become apparent, since my wife gave up meat.  We have always enjoyed travelling, and food has been an essential part of every foreign excursion we have been on.  But in the Autumn of 2009 we went abroad for the first time since my wife’s new-found vegetarianism, to the majestic, ornamental city of Madrid.

It became very clear to us, very quickly, that vegetarianism is not popular in Spain.  It is a nation of meat-eaters; the home of chorizo, Iberico ham, paellas with a whole rainbow of flesh.  Ordering food as a vegetarian is something of a game of chance; one salad tapas that we ordered turned up strewn with unheralded flakes of tuna, and thusly warned we were careful to ask thereafter whether apparently vegetarian items on the menu were hiding fishy surprises.  Having been advised though to try an ostensibly vegetarian restaurant, the discovery of only one starter and one main course on the menu my wife could eat was something of a disappointment, summing up the culinary side of the trip.

A little research afterwards highlighted that Spain will not be our only problem if food is to be a central part of future holidays.  In European destinations, only Italy has a significant proportion of vegetarians; Germany and Holland have large ratios but are unlikely holiday venues for their respective cuisines.  India, which one might assume would be good hunting ground, depends largely on geography: coastal states and those with largely Muslim populations are apparently not veggy-friendly, something I noticed when in Calcutta on business a few years ago.  China’s government pushes meat-free days but the culture considers meat to be the preserve of the well-off, so decent restaurants tend to have largely meat-based menus.  So future trips will have to be more carefully planned, or my wife might have to become a part-time pescetarian.

So what I now love about living in the UK compared to most other countries is the variety of cuisines that our cosmopolitan society encourages, meaning that it is easy to have a varied diet whether eating in or out as a vegetarian.

To encourage our friends in Spain to embrace the benefits of meat-free dishes, I’ve had a stab at converting an old favourite Spanish meal of ours.  The cheese isn’t Spanish but Manchego melts rather than toasting and I haven’t come across another local cheese that would work.

Veggy paella (serves 2)

  • One onion
  • Clove of garlic, crushed or finely chopped
  • Splash of oil
  • One sweet red pepper, preferably a pointy one like a Romano
  • 150g halloumi, sliced thickly
  • 2 tbsp frozen peas
  • Pinch of saffron (optional)
  • 1 pt veg stock
  • 250g paella rice
  • 1 tsp paprika (smoked makes a nice variation)
  • Splash of pale dry sherry (optional)
  • Half tsp turmeric
  • Handful of sliced, sun-dried tomatoes, preferably the oily ones in a jar
  • Handful of chopped black olives (leave them in even if you don’t like them, they add to the flavour, just don’t eat them)

Toast the halloumi until golden-brown and put to one side.  Soak the saffron in the stock.  Fry the onion and garlic until soft.  Add the pepper and fry for a minute, then add the rice and stir-fry for another two minutes.  Add the paprika and turmeric, stir through and add the sherry, then the stock, peas and tomatoes.  Simmer uncovered for around 20-25 minutes, adding the cheese halfway through, only stirring through at that point (paella, unlike risotto, is not supposed to be stirred while simmering).  Add more stock or water if the paella dries out during cooking.

Posted in cheese, paella, patriotism, Recipe, travel, Vegetarianism | 4 Comments

I predict a diet

So, it’s all done for another year.  We’re in that funny period between Christmas and New Year when a third of the working population are back at work and the rest of us are effectively twiddling thumbs until 2011 finally draws its last rattling breath amid a din of fireworks, a cloud of Chinese lanterns and a sea of bubbly alcohol.  It’s strange how the atmosphere has changed subtly in the last couple of days.  The German markets that seemed festive and jovial less than a week ago somehow appear now to be outmoded and slightly awkward.  The bubble of anticipation of gifts to be given or received has popped and left behind open smiles and hidden grimaces in fairly equal measure.  Those not yet back at work cannot avoid thinking ahead to when we’re back because we’re asked in virtually every casual conversation, and somehow it seems closer than it actually is.

Christmas does funny things to people.  It forces renewed acquaintance between those who share nothing but a significant percentage of DNA.  It encourages rash spending on frivolous items, and provokes ill-feeling or ridicule where the spending is seen as insufficiently rash.  It not only excuses but demands many varieties of over-indulgence, although happily it carries with it an opportunity to repent and repair immediately afterwards in the form of the New Year’s resolution, which in turn carries with it the thankfully globally accepted expectation of failure.

The office party encapsulates many of the extremes of action and emotion pertaining to the festive season.  Many embrace the opportunity to go shopping (well, the ladies plus me) to expensively enhance their wardrobes in a futile bid to convince their colleagues that what they see day to day is not the real them.  The lure of a “free” bar, or more accurately one billed to one’s employer, is a temptation too far for many, leading to a bevvy too far for a sizeable minority.  Office parties that have no tradition of inviting partners – usually larger companies – often promulgate misjudgments of alcohol limits, and subsequent misjudgments of other varieties.  Most of these are harmless, but many are symptoms of latent issues that then erupt messily over the Christmas season, often for all the family to see – recent studies on Facebook backing up the received wisdom that more relationships fail at this time of year than any other, barring the period immediately following Valentine’s day.

I’m not sure quite why Christmas has come to be synonymous with eating to excess.  Similar reasons, probably, to those which have caused Easter to become a deluge of sugar.  I’m sure there must be some primeval link between religion and food.  Perhaps it’s easier to stomach the 6000 calories* that is apparently the average Xmas Day consumption than to digest the fantastical story of the Nativity.  Maybe it’s an evolutionary urge to bulk up ahead of the lean times ahead that pertained in times of yore.  Or is it a chicken and egg situation – the subliminal need to have an annual purge requiring an excuse to prompt it, rather than the emetic being a resultant requirement of the several kilos of roast meats, multiple tubers, mint/orange/liqueur chocolates, nuts that no-one eats except at Yuletime, puddings and cakes with densities only barely exceeded by black holes, pies containing mincemeat which somehow contain no meat whatsoever, minced or otherwise, lumps of butter cunningly disguised by mixing them with small amounts of alcohol, and, on rare occasion, a partridge in a pear tree?

Whatever the reasons, it is unarguable that the vast majority of us have increased that vastness over the past few days.  We both expected to, and in some cases intended to.  What it does unfortunately mean is that, unless we wish to have someone qualified to wield needle and thread adjust our clothes ahead of our return to work, there is a pressing need to shed a few pounds pretty sharpish.  And that means the dreaded diet.

Diets are great things.  Every one of us has one.  It’s one of those words that has come to be imbued with a negative connotation that the actual definition does not entail.  Another example is “deny” – anyone who denies anything is clearly guilty the moment the word denial is used to describe the denial.  A diet does not, per se, mean any control of calories, but we all think of it as such.  Calorie control will be exactly what the doctor ordered though, so what better time to embrace the way of the part-time vegetarian?  Meat is responsible for a sizeable percentage of the average person’s calorific intake, and a similarly disproportionate share of the weekly food bill, which, given the money borrowed to fund the festive glut, is a useful side benefit.  So, this New Year, why not resolve to do the veggy thing during the week, and just have meat at weekends?  My blog is full of recipes to help you on your way, but in case your fingers have become too rotund to move the mouse far enough to follow the links to my previous articles, here’s one to get you started.  Stilton and poached pear is a combination I do not understand, but adore.

Pear, chicory, walnut and stilton salad (serves 2)

  • 100g blue cheese of your choice, broken into small pieces
  • 2-3 heads of chicory, washed and chopped
  • 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar
  • 1 large or 2 small pears, quartered and cored
  • 50g of walnut pieces (or whole/half walnuts you then bash with something hard)

Place the pear quarters in a pan of boiling water for around 15-20 minutes, or until they’ve lost their crispness and are soft and bouncy.  Reduce the balsamic vinegar in a small pan for a few minutes until thickened.  Scatter the chopped chicory, walnuts and cheese on a plate, chop the slightly cooled pears and place on the salad, and then drizzle the reduced vinegar over the top.

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*Estimates vary wildly between around 4000 and an astonishing 8000.  The majority of articles I found suggested 6000-7000 was about right.

Posted in blue cheese, Christmas, salad | Leave a comment

Cold turkey

My wife and I finally managed to resolve one of the hardest puzzles we’d ever encountered about four years ago.  For some time it had been apparent that something was making our son vomit, on an increasingly regular basis; being first-time parents, we were aware that we were paranoid about illness, but it got to the point where we couldn’t go out anywhere for fear that he would give us an instant rebate on his lunch.  Despite my wife’s insistence, we eventually ruled out my driving as the root cause, and started looking at allergies.

I was loathe to pin his sickness to an allergy; it’s become something of a cliché, and like other labels it has become too easy for lazy parents to wield as some sort of evidence of the world’s persecution of them.  I remember vividly the horror I felt when going to my one and only car boot sale as a vendor some three years ago, trying to declutter the house and find new homes for some of my eldest’s baby clothes.  That horror was not just at finding myself in a car boot sale, although that was bad enough.  A lady in her early thirties approached our annoyingly-still-pretty-full trestle table with a young teenage girl and looked at a couple of items while engaging us in conversation.  She was cooing moderately over the little bodysuits and related to us her own experiences of being a mum of young children, something we’d grown used to during the morning.  She’d said a couple of slightly contentious things already when she uttered the phrase that would have made me fall off my chair, had I in fact been seated: with a nod towards her adolescent companion, she stated loudly and clearly that “this is the one we have problems with”, and proceeded to regale us with the problems they’d had with her daughter which had led to a diagnosis of ADHD.  The poor girl was stood right next to her, quiet as a lamb, hiding slightly behind her lengthy fringe in the way only teenagers can, looking squarely at the trestle table and avoiding looking at anyone.

Now I have been guilty in the past of concern that my eldest is hyperactive when in truth he is just being a little boy, so I can to some extent appreciate what appeared to us a blatant misdiagnosis.  But I was utterly scandalised at the reckless brutality shown by this thoughtless woman in front of complete strangers, and in retrospect I am still cross with myself for not having the balls to challenge her brazen indirect verbal assault on her daughter.

Label or not though, after months of keeping a diet diary, we finally spotted the fact that my boy was displaying a reaction to two different foods, but an inconsistent one.  It started to become clear that fish regularly preceded a vomiting episode, but removal of fish from his diet did not, to our disappointment, put an end to the nausea.  So we looked for a further pattern, and after some consideration we realised that the accomplice to the crime was, of all things, the humble chicken.

You could be forgiven for asking, who on earth is allergic to chicken?  Well, it seems that something in the region of 5% of all meat allergies are chicken, which at first suggests it’s more common than I and many others might have thought; considering though that the category of meat allergies doesn’t include fish or seafood, I would struggle to name anyone who is allergic to pork, beef, lamb, rabbit, goat or duck.  Chicken is one of life’s most innocuous ingredients: its place in the culinary pantheon is merited mostly for texture and the ability to carry other flavours rather than having any particular flavour of its own.  Other ingredients with a similar lack of flavour are said to taste like chicken, when in fact what they taste of is pretty much nothing.  But avoidance of chicken ended the symptoms, so it was clear that we had found the answer, however unlikely.

It seems, from accidental recent exposure, that the fish allergy remains to this day, so despite our doctor’s apparent confusion (“so are you really just going to not let him have chicken again?”  Well, yes, that’s kind of the idea; I believe deliberately making one’s child puke counts as child abuse) we have excluded all poultry from his diet.  We’ve taken the same measure with my younger son although his general robustness leads us to suspect this is overkill, and the occasional theft of a fishfinger at kid’s parties while the owner wasn’t looking tends to support this.  But we’re not sure really where the boundaries of this condition lie: what about game?  Duck, goose, pheasant, pigeon even?  Is it the presence of wings that causes the reaction – maybe he has an aversion to flying?  We’re not keen on the idea of experimenting for obvious reasons, so we’ve simply avoided those meats, rendering both my children as part-time vegetarian as I am.

At this time of year of course, this throws up another very important question: what to have for Christmas dinner.  Despite my assertions that it just isn’t right to just have the 17 vegetables,  my wife has insisted that I not go to the lengths of making something specifically for her.  Turkey is far too close to chicken for comfort and I’m not a fan anyway; in years gone by we’ve tended towards things like guinea fowl, partridge, and over-priced goose, but since we started staying home for Christmas there’s no point as I would be the only one eating it.  It doesn’t feel quite right having lamb, pork or beef – we don’t have a lot of roasts so it wouldn’t exactly be same old same old, but it still wouldn’t feel like Christmas.

So this year I’ve bought in haunches of boar and venison.  We had boar last year and enjoyed it very much, as much for the delicious curries I made out of it afterwards.  Here is my unsophisticated but tasty recipe.

Wild boar rogan, makes 3-4 good portions

  • Some leftover roasted wild boar
  • An onion, diced
  • A tin of chopped tomatoes
  • 1-2 tsp chilli powder, to taste
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tbsp chopped fresh coriander
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground ginger or a 1 inch piece of fresh ginger, grated
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 tsp of English mustard
  • 1 green chilli, seeded and chopped
  • A pinch of salt
  • 200ml water

Fry onions in a little oil until golden round the edges.  Add ground spices and stir through until you have a paste round the onions (add a little more oil if needed).  Stir in the chopped chilli, and once that’s softened add all the other ingredients except the fresh coriander.  Cover and leave on the hob on a low heat for between 45 and 90 minutes – the longer the better to tenderise the meat.  Stir the fresh coriander through a couple of minutes before cooking is finished and if the curry is loo liquid take the lid off to boil off some of the excess.

Serve on a bed of boiled rice or in a bowl with some naan.

Posted in allergies, chicken, Christmas, Curry, fish | 4 Comments