Insert egg-based pun here

I tend towards the Richard Dawkins and Brian Cox view of the origin of life rather than those shared by the Ayatollah Khomeini and Pope Francis I.  While there is no explanation of what caused and/or preceded the Big Bang – thus leaving room for God – those who argue against evolution simply don’t understand the sheer magnitude of the timescales and basic physics involved.  The case for evolution by natural selection is not just beyond reasonable doubt – it is beyond any but the most blinkered of doubts, and there is no converting someone who has their fingers in their ears and is yelling “la la la la laaaaaaa la laaaaaaa” at the top of their voice to the tune of “All things bright and beautiful”.

However, I can at least begin to appreciate how someone could find it so difficult to understand how something as complex as (to use an example often referenced by creationists) the eye “just happened”.  It is hard to extrapolate the simple evolution that we see happening in the context of our own life spans (although, as with all things threatening religious beliefs, fiercely debated) to the complete formation of an organ that interprets electromagnetic waves in a way that allows us to know the location of something we cannot touch.

Although I’m familiar with the explanation of the evolution of the eye most famously published by Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker, in recent times I have found myself increasingly marvelling at the wondrous miracle that is the egg.  You can almost imagine some deific being sitting down with a pencil and a piece of paper on day 15 million of “Project Creation” and thinking “right, let’s design the perfect ingredient for those people who like mashing together all those bits of life we’ve come up with so far – something that can act as a glue to hold them together, fluffy padding to make them light, an enamel to make them shiny on the outside, an emulsion to hold together plant dust to make a crispy case, or that can just be heated in one of half a dozen different ways and eaten as they are”.  Presumably the being concerned would then wilt in the face of the challenge it had just set itself and instead decide to focus on just inventing enamel, or emulsion.

The egg is an amazing bit of evolutionary happenstance.  There are few foods that can be so simply prepared in so many different but equally tasty ways, and which are a component of such a large subset of human diet.  How can a single ingredient form such a major part of such different creations as meringues and mayonnaise?  It comes in its own biodegradable packaging, doesn’t need to be kept in the fridge, and can even be used raw in a debatable hangover cure.  You couldn’t have designed it any better, even if you were just taking a break between creating the sky and the land.

I’ve been asked in the past what food I could least do without and have (especially since my part-time veggieism commenced) unthinkingly answered “cheese“, but on reflection I would struggle more to cope with the loss of eggs, considering not only the reliance on them for bread, pasta, cakes and ice-cream, but the unbeatable simple pleasures of fried eggs and bacon in a roll, a peppered poached egg on a buttery toasted muffin or Parma ham and scrambled eggs on toasted ciabatta.

There are a couple of reasons that caused me to write about eggs this week.  Firstly of course, it’s nearly Easter, although decorated and/or chocolate eggs are rather more inspired by the pagan festivals that preceded the Christian celebration of the resurrection.  Secondly though we were given some eggs at the weekend by a friend who has some chickens, and made the most marvellous omelette I have ever eaten the very next day, served with a couple of slices of buttered bread.  Oh, go on then, if I must: it was eggs-traordinary…

The best mushroom omelette in the world (probably)

Served 2 big people plus a little one

  • One onion, finely chopped
  • 150g closed cup mushrooms, sliced
  • 50g mixed dried mushrooms, rehydrated and chopped – we used porcini
  • 50g Parmesan, grated
  • 5 medium eggs
  • 50g butter (yes really)
  • Tsp of paprika
  • Splash of olive oil
  • Splash of milk
  • Salt and black pepper

Heat an oven to 200C.  Put the olive oil in an oven-proof frying pan and soften the onions for 5-10 minutes.  Turn the heat up and add the mushrooms, seasoning heavily.  Take off the heat after 2-3 minutes, stir in the butter, and when melted pop in the oven to roast for 7-8 minutes.  Beat the eggs in a jug with the milk, paprika and some more seasoning.  Pop the frying pan back on the hob (remember to use an oven glove now!) and add the egg mixture, stirring quickly and evenly through the mushrooms and then allowing to set.  After five minutes or so, liberally sprinkle the Parmesan over the top and finish for 3 minutes or so under the grill until golden all over.

I think this would have been bettered by a handful of chopped fresh parsley stirred into the egg mixture but we didn’t have any in and it was great anyway.

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Posted in eggs, evolution, mushrooms, omelette, Recipe | 3 Comments

Slow learner

Every now and again in life you get one of those moments that make you stop and think about how lucky you are and how things might have been had the Almighty card dealer shuffled the deck slightly differently.  That train you just managed to catch, the wallet returned to you by the people who had the taxi immediately after you, the air ambulance landing on the motorway just up ahead of where you were lamenting having taken the M1 again.

If you are sensible, you take these thing on board and learn from them.  Maybe do something differently to reduce the chances of it happening again with a less fortuitous outcome.  Stop taking the motorway every time and find a different route, more reliable if a little slower.  Don’t take your purse with you if you’re planning on a few sherbets, just take one card and maybe some cash in a pocket (assuming of course you have pockets).  Sometimes it’s impractical to fundamentally change your behaviour, but even just a heightened awareness of your vulnerabilities and environment can make the difference between minor misfortune and complete disaster.

I seem to be a little slow on the uptake with such things.  I was burgled shortly after moving into my current home a few years ago, although the intruders were stumped by an internal door that we’d bolted and made so much noise getting through it that we woke up and disturbed them before they could swipe anything.  Thus warned, we took steps to remove valuable items from downstairs and bolt all the internal doors of a night.  What we should also have done was fit a burglar alarm and install a blind in the kitchen, the previous owner’s never having been replaced.  Having not done so, we left a temptingly easy way in, which our neighbourhood rogues took full advantage of, although having gained entry they were again thwarted by one of those door bolts.  Not wishing to risk being third time unlucky, we finally shelled out for an alarm and a new blind.

I did not, however, learn the more fundamental lesson about general awareness of things that can go wrong.  Safe in the warm, leathery embrace of my driving seat last September, I pointed my car north towards the venue for some interviews I was conducting the following day.  Those of you in the UK might remember the A1 being shut for some 40 miles due to flooding, and I had planned an alternative route.  Having lost arguments with my satnav twice in the preceding few weeks, I then trusted it when it suddenly recalculated my route and took me away from the road I was expecting to use.  I realised this was a monumental mistake when I found myself in a puddle up to my headlights on a back road several miles from the nearest town, my car having effectively drowned.  My good fortune was that I did not join it, having managed to keep the wheels on the tarmac and suffering nothing more than shock a bruised ego.

As with the burglary, I took on board some lessons from this and have become more cautious in my decision-making when driving.  But, as with the burglary, I did not see the wider picture and become more aware of my vulnerability.  Having replaced that car with an identical twin, the incident had passed into amusing anecdote territory.  One completely innocuous morning a couple of weeks ago, I nipped round to a local friend to pick up my eldest, who had overnighted there.  Five minutes after having parked up outside and popped in, a knock on their door preceded the news that my car wasn’t where I had left it, instead having embedded itself into a pedestrian refuge twenty metres or so down the low hill that my friend’s house sits at the top of.  It appeared that I had not deployed the electric handbrake, and passing traffic must have gusted the car into movement.

Now while there is a fundamental design flaw with a car that only sometimes deploys the handbrake automatically and then does not warn you that it is off, I cannot absolve myself of responsibility.  A ton and a half of metal moving without control is an extremely dangerous thing, and I clearly had not recognised the fact that the flawed operation of the handbrake was a significant risk that I needed to prevent becoming an issue by making certain I manually deployed it every time, regardless of whether it had come on automatically.  I have learned that lesson now, but the hard way again, given the likely size of my next insurance quote.

My good fortune is that my freewheeling car did not miss the bollard and hit a car coming the other way, a pedestrian, or one or more vehicles crossing the busy junction further down the hill.  I still feel nauseous thinking about what might have been.  It is not an exaggeration to say that I could very easily have been sharing a cell with Chris Huhne tonight.

My other arguable good fortune is that I have friends who have helped me get over such calamities by heckling me mercilessly.  I was subjected to a torrent of such abuse at the weekend when we had one of our theme nights – this time Italian.  The stars of the menu for me were the simple but incredibly tasty bruschetta toppings which will work equally on crackers or crusty bread as a light lunch.  Two of these are described below – enjoy.

Garlicky cannellini purée

  • Two cloves of garlic, crushed
  • One 400g tin of cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
  • Splash of red wine vinegar
  • Leaves from a couple of sprigs of rosemary
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt and black pepper

Pound the rosemary with a pinch of the salt in a mortar, then add a glug of olive oil and set to one side.  Fry off the garlic briefly in some olive oil until heading towards golden.  Add the beans and stir for about 7-8 minutes, adding seasoning as soon as the beans start breaking down, which will be very quickly.  Put into a bowl, crush into a coarse purée with a fork, and stir in the vinegar.  Serve on your crispy bread product topped with the rosemary oil.

Roasted vegetable purée

  • One courgette
  • One red pepper, seeded
  • One small bulb of fennel
  • Tsp of dried mint or handful of fresh
  • Tsp of dried oregano
  • Glug of white wine vinegar
  • Juice of 1/2 a lemon
  • Salt and black pepper

Chop the vegetables into a roasting tin, then coat with olive oil, salt, pepper, mint and oregano.  Roast for 30 mins at 180C then pop into a blender and pulse until you have a coarse purée.  Stir through some lemon juice and the vinegar then serve.

Posted in bruschetta, burglary, cannellini, cars, Italian, Recipe | 1 Comment

Keep it simple, Baka – a restaurant review

Because we enjoy eating out, we have taken care to ensure our kids have been regularly exposed to eateries of the sort that we like to frequent, i.e. starting at Pizza Express and working up from there.  This hasn’t been without trauma: a particular lowlight being the noisy rebellion of my then two-year-old at one of my wife’s favourite establishments resulting in her spending most of the meal standing outside with him, considering in rapidly diminishing jest whether to throw him into the adjacent ravine.  On the whole though the strategy has been successful, and although they are rarely the quietest patrons in the house, we are able to take our boys to most of the sorts of place we like to eat without attracting the silent disapproval of the other diners.

We have thus been able to eat out fairly regularly this year but it dawned on me recently that as a result we haven’t had a meal out as a couple since we had a few days away in Chester at Easter.  I looked at the calendar and noted with mild horror that Christmas was a mere eight weekends away, the majority of which are scheduled for visits to or by friends and family, meaning our last realistic opportunity to go out as a couple this year was that very Saturday.

Because of the short notice our favourite regular haunts were unavailable, so I booked an earlyish table at the “Asian fusion” restaurant Chino Latino, which I’d had recommended to me on a couple of occasions and whose unusual menu had piqued my interest.  I adore the salt and spice of Oriental food, and this place had the added temptation of serving its cuisine in a tapas style.  As I’ve mentioned before, tapas is a fantastic way of resolving my innate indecisiveness – can’t make your mind up?  Have both! – and somehow makes it acceptable to mix components that you would never normally combine on a single plate.

The last time we got a taxi into Nottingham city centre, for dinner with friends at the lovely World Service, we considered ourselves lucky to have arrived without injury, having been reduced to actually yelling at the feckless driver of the big yellow Peugeot who had, it seemed, not only strikingly poor knowledge of the geography of the city but also a passing acquaintanceship at best with the Highway Code and a total lack of ability to follow basic directions.  So we were somewhat relieved on this occasion to have had a completely uneventful journey into town, and got down to the tricky business of trying to decide what to eat.

Chino Latino is a confusingly-named restaurant attached to the Park Plaza hotel.  I say confusingly because of the complete lack of anything remotely Latino on the menu, and the corny rhyming is at odds with the apparent sophistication of the menu.  In my admittedly limited experience of hotel restaurants they have a tendency to disappoint, which did have the effect of setting my expectations relatively low despite the recommendations.  I was also nervous to find the entrance to the restaurant area being via a bar, suggesting that food might be of secondary importance here, in the style of an All Bar One – pleasant enough, but ultimately not the core revenue generator for the business.

I needn’t have entertained any such concerns.  The enticing aromas surrounding us from the moment we sat down were happily fulfilled by a meal of exceptional quality.  We did struggle somewhat to decide what to order, but only from the point of view of what might work together.  The menu is mostly Japanese and Chinese influenced, but featured ingredients such as lamb which are more normally seen in South Asian cooking rather than East.  A full section of sushi and sashimi were shunned in favour of more warming dishes on what was a chilly evening, but were attractive from what we saw of other diners’ orders.  Wasabi played a supporting role in many of the dishes, including both the scallops and lamb cutlets I ordered.

My wife had somehow managed to reach her late thirties without ever having tried a scallop, and as she has relented on her “nothing with a face” policy to slake her body’s thirst for Omega-3, she managed to snaffle one of my grilled scallops with yuzu (a citrus fruit) aioli and wasabi peas before I was able to wield my fork in defence.  Scallops don’t really have anything we would recognise as a face anyway, but lambs are cute and woolly so my cutlets – nicely brown outside and pink inside – went unpillaged.

What really summed up the restaurant for me were the sides, the simplest dishes we ordered.  I could have eaten a bucket of the Thai rice noodles just on their own – almost squid-like in texture, seasoned with just the right amount of soy.  I only recently discovered the joy of braised lettuce thanks to my fat foodie friend and I assume the bok choi with shaoxing wine and cashews were cooked this way as well as they were very reminiscent.  To be able to deliver such simple food so effectively speaks far more highly for me than the more sophisticated elements of our meal.

The only disappointment was my dessert, an uninspiring ginger sponge with ginger ice-cream, neither of which lived up to the excellent spicing of the previous courses.  However I quickly erased any memory of those – almost literally – by ordering a couple of cocktails, and thus adding probably the only Latino thing I could see on the menu to our bill – a Mojito, enhanced / sullied (delete as appropriate) by the addition of coconut milk.  I quite liked it actually, but they do well enough with the Chino to more than compensate for the lack of Latino.

Posted in Oriental, restaurant review, tapas | Leave a comment

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.

_____________________________

*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.

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