YES, there is an Alternative

There’s a rule, in the pub, which is essential to avoid leaving the establishment in a bad mood.  Avoid, like the plague, two subjects: politics and religion.  Now I would not infer that this is because intelligent people cannot have sensible debate on divisive subjects, and nor would I suggest that either subject should be ringfenced from the freedom of inquisition that defines our version of democracy; but these tend to be subjects that in some way define people, even more so than which football team they support, and when you question someone’s political or religious stance you are questioning what fundamentally makes them who they are, and the psyche tends to interpret this as threatening.  Add to this the suppressive effect of alcohol on those parts of the brain which are good at spotting when you’re starting to upset someone, and the risk factor increases exponentially.  So, all things considered, it’s better to avoid the subjects altogether and maintain the number of friends you started the evening with.

Disappointingly however I am not in the pub with any of you (although I am certainly open to offers), so I feel at liberty to embark headlong into either of these two.  Both have permanent pertinence, being the cause of the majority of every news bulletin you will ever see*, but there is one in particular which resonates with me today.  In most parts of the UK we will have the opportunity next month to register our choice for either regional or local representatives.  To this end roughly one in three of us on average go to the effort of redirecting our normal daily routines to write an X on a piece of paper.  However, the difference this time round is that there will be an additional, very important choice to make, in fact one which in my view is far more important than deciding which party will have the biggest say over what day your bins get collected.  We will be entitled to have our say over whether we want to approve the biggest change in the general election voting system since women were given the vote.

The decision we will be able to make is whether or not to move from the current “First Past The Post” system (FPTP), in which the person with most votes in each constituency becomes the representative for that constituency at Westminster, to “Alternative Vote”, in which the person representing a constituency has to have mandate from a majority of those voting.  Let me explain that a little further, as much has been made by the “No” campaign about how the complexity of this system will cause confusion: instead of putting an X on your ballot slip, you’ll put a 1 against your preferred candidate, a 2 against your second choice, and so on down to a maximum of 5.  Then, if your preferred candidate is bottom of the list on first count, they will drop out and now your second choice becomes your first choice, and so on until someone has over 50% of the votes.

Not really rocket science, is it?!

But why would this be a good thing?  Well, it means that, for starters, you won’t need to “tactically vote”, which the big two parties often exhort you to do in order to keep the other out, claiming your vote is otherwise “wasted”.  You can go with the party you really want to represent you, knowing that if they aren’t one of the favoured parties in your constituency, your second preference will count, and the party you really don’t want to get in will not benefit from you voting for the party that most closely matches your views.

The other biggest factor in its favour for me is that it reduces negative campaigning (one doesn’t want to alienate the supporters of another candidate whose second preferences one may need) and therefore rewards “broad-church” policies.  (That’s not my phrase by the way; I shamelessly nicked it from the Electoral Reform Society, which just wants what is fairest for UK voters.)

In the interests of balance I shall also give you a link to a website campaigning against this idea, but because I am not balanced I will point to the fact that their strongest argument is cost (bear in mind that abolishing slavery cost our economy a fortune), with their weakest being that only three other countries use this method (looking at this list, I’m not overjoyed by the countries we share current practice with; plus, there are many variations on AV, such as Runoff voting, which are used in many countries, including some of our European neighbours).  And as for the third argument, that “AV leads to more hung parliaments”, I say good – compromise is surely a positive and civilised thing, despite all the representatives from the big two parties maligning the Lib Dems for much publicised “u-turns” (i.e. compromises).

In summary, I believe AV is an appropriate halfway house between FPTP and proportional representation (or variants thereof) which offers popular mandate without constituents losing their direct representative.  I will be voting in favour of it, and I hope you will too.

Trying to link that to a vegetarian recipe is something close to a nightmare, but I am going to have a go anyway, or I will threaten my “food blog” claims.  So, covering both religion and the voting system,  I’m going for something involving hot CROSS buns, which (for the second time today) I have shamelessly nicked, this time from a supermarket advert; despite which it’s actually quite pleasant!

Baked Hot Cross Bun dessert

• Six hot cross buns (shortly to be replaced with hot numbered buns if AV is approved)
• A good schlopp of marmalade – orange is fine but we found lemon to be even better
• One pint of fresh custard

Split the buns in half and spread with lashings of marmalade.  Lay out in the bottom of a Pyrex dish.  Tip the custard over the bun halves and slap it in a preheated oven (200C should do it) for 20 minutes. Serve.

*Except of course local news bulletins. We actually look forward to these nowadays, as we have a competition to guess which of the national news stories East Midlands Today will try to hook into in a desperate search for sufficient content to fill ten whole minutes every night, and then split our sides laughing when the researchers manage to dig up a local family who once had a lodger who was Japanese and they’d not heard from him since the earthquake, or discover a local film collector who has footage of the last Egyptian uprising, or something similarly tenuous.

Posted in dessert, voting | 4 Comments


I am a man.  There are several pieces of evidence I can point to which support this bold assertion.  I can read a map, but I cannot do so and simultaneously absorb any helpful advice I am being robustly offered, as that would be multitasking.  I can reverse parallel park, in a single move.  I want to win at anything I play (which does in my view cast doubt on Baron de Coubertin‘s claims to maleness).  I hate musicals.  I can describe my car in terms of the make, model, engine type and specification, without needing to resort to the colour.  I struggle to make trifling decisions but have no problem making difficult ones.  When in the pub I go to the toilet on my own, with the sole intent and purpose of addressing internal capacity limitations.  I like to retain possession of the remote controls for the audio and video equipment in the lounge (anyone’s lounge, it does not have to be my own).  I do not feel it necessary to resort to reading instructions when programming or building something, although I am perfectly comfortable with using help files on the PC.  I have managed to produce two children without significant physical discomfort* to myself.  I can, without any effort at all, watch sport on the television for the entire weekend.  I believe that just because a job (especially around the house) needs doing, does not mean it needs doing right now, or even today.  I enjoy playing Monopoly, and Risk.  I have no idea whether what Gok Wan assembled from old bits of bin bag looks better than what the American Cruella de Ville wannabe on his show bought for the price of a small car and, more importantly, neither do I care.  I am not predictably excessively grumpy / angry / suicidal at a given point every month; I maintain a sound level of grump throughout the year.  I rarely let my children beat me at games, claiming they will learn better that way.  I can leave a bed unmade for the whole day, and not only that, I can quite happily climb back into it once the day is over. 

Most incontrovertibly my anatomical bulges are to found hanging between my thighs rather than from my chest.

There is, however, one strong piece of evidence to the contrary that would be enough to at least bring the case before a jury, despite the apparently overwhelming number of exhibits in favour.  It is very simply this: I like shopping.

Now before you ladies say “ah, but my man loves shopping, he’s never happier than when having just bought some technical wizardry beyond my ken at the Sony Centre”, that is something very different – buying.  Most men enjoy just as much as any woman the experience of owning something they didn’t two minutes ago, although the something in question is generally very different.  Buying is a part of shopping, but it is far from being the whole thing.  Shopping is as much about the preparation for buying, and the respite between buying, and the aftermath of buying, as the buying itself; indeed, it can be said without any fear of contradiction that shopping does not have to involve the actual purchase of anything at all.  It normally does though, although often almost as an afterthought: how many times have you heard a bloke complain that his missus hauled him round town for three hours looking for a wedding outfit / birthday present for her mother / pair of lying jeans (“they’re size 10!  And they fit me PERFECTLY!  I must have them!”) and then went back to the first shop they’d been in and acquired the first item they’d laid eyes on?  That’s me, that is.  And that’s what most blokes don’t get; there are few worse feelings to an eager shopaholic than to buy early and then see something BETTER for LESS MONEY.  Three hours’ worth of traipsing is a worthwhile investment in peace of mind, even when you’re wearing inappropriate shoes.  And the best bit about shopping is, at the end of it you can congratulate yourself on your shrewdness / luck / diligence by sitting down somewhere and having an overpriced latte and a slice of something containing well-hidden chocolate (the calories don’t count if you can’t actually see the chocolate, you know).

I describe shopping, as many things, with the guilty wistfulness of most young parents.  Any woman will agree that dragging a stubbornly disengaged, sulky creature (e.g. a man) round the shops somewhat dulls the fun; when you have more than one such creature and they are not able to just sod off to the pub and stop winding you up, enjoyment is eroded to the point of requiring measurement in units starting with “nano”.  But it’s all relative: even nanosmiles (why not) are better than no smiles at all; you just learn to measure by a different scale.

And so, on the subject of chocolate, to my recipe.  We don’t really do desserts at home; I find them a bit of a faff to be honest, and justify my idleness with the reasoning that having worked hard on starters and mains, it’s only fair that the dessert be low-effort.  Plus, I’m sorry to say, however fancy and sophisticated the dessert, it’s unlikely to beat the simple pleasure of a Vienetta.  However, occasionally, when entertaining, my wife has turned her hand to this simple but effective dessert.  Enjoy.

Mascarpone and ginger baskets

  • 100g dark chocolate chips (or a bar smashed into uneven chunks)
  • 250g mascarpone cheese
  • 3 tbsp dark rum
  • 2 pieces stem ginger in syrup
  • 2 tbsp of that syrup
  • 8 brandy snap baskets (cheat and buy them, no-one will be impressed enough to warrant homemade ones!)

Finely chop the ginger and mix thoroughly with the syrup, rum, chocolate and mascarpone.  Chill for as long as possible.  Spoon into the baskets and serve, perhaps with a little of the chocolate grated over the top.  You can choose to grate all of the chocolate into the mixture for a less rustic and browner effect.  A teaspoon of vanilla extract also works well.

*I do still have a dodgy bit at the bottom of one finger when my wife squeezed my hand a bit hard during one of the more advanced contractions, but I am firmly reassured that this does not count as significant.

Posted in alcohol, chocolate, dessert, ginger, Recipe, shopping | 3 Comments

The demon drink

Hi, my name’s Neil and I’m not an alcoholic.  No, really, I’m not.  This isn’t an “I’m not racist, but I don’t like Pakistanis” statement like my dad has been known to make.  It’s genuinely true.  I’m interested to know though where the line can be drawn.  I’m sure there’s a scientific definition to which I will be quickly pointed but I suspect there’s an argument for some sort of greyscale, maybe from tee-total to Alex Higgins.  The vast majority of those reading this will have had a drink or three this last weekend, and many will be looking forward to a drink this evening.  Common parlance is littered with well-worn phrases such as “wine o’clock” to signify the end of the working day and the chance to relax, but is it the case that relaxation can only come with alcohol?  Sometimes it seems so, as anyone who has been designated driver on an evening when everyone else gets uproariously inebriated will tell you – it’s rarely fun, although it can be funny watching other people are making fools of themselves.

I’m not an alcoholic – I know this because I am certainly guilty of wanting a drink most evenings, but I don’t because I know how I will feel the following morning when we’re up at six to start the working day.  Alcoholics will drink before they leave for work, never mind when they get home, and they often hide it as well, whereas the majority of us will quite openly tell everyone how much we’re looking forward to the first pint.  For an alcoholic the desire to drink never goes away, much as most smokers need a cigarette every couple of hours and always habitually in certain circumstances (most often when having a drink).

I’m not an alcoholic; I certainly drink more than is good for me though.  I recently filled in a questionnaire for a health check at work and had to consider just how much I do have; I don’t think I was being disingenuous when I said 12-15 units on average, and as most weeks we don’t drink Sunday to Thursday this is probably not far wrong.  However it would be very easy for that to become 20 just by sharing another bottle during the week, given that there are 9 units in a bottle and I tend to drink 60% of every bottle my wife and I have; government guidance suggests 21 is the upper limit for a man, so I am on or around this limit on any normal week.  What this doesn’t take into account is that there are plenty of abnormal weeks sprinkled in with the normal; going round to friends, going out for a meal, staying over with work, all inevitably add 10 units in one hit, which breaks the aforementioned guideline stating I should have “no more than four units in any one day”. That’s two pints; when did you last go to the pub and have two pints?  That you didn’t then follow with another pub?

I’m not an alcoholic, but I struggle to envisage life without alcohol, so I probably rate a 4 or a 5 on a 0 to 10 scale.  I’m easy to buy small presents for: wine, port, liqueurs, in fact anything sweet and potent.  (It’s my birthday soon so anyone short on ideas take note!)  Friday and Saturday aren’t the same without a few tins of Magners or a bottle of Rioja; it doesn’t feel like a weekend without a tipple of some variety.  I could quit drinking tomorrow, and if we were ever in a position where money was tight enough to be impacting on the basics, we would ditch it: booze probably costs us £75 a month, which buys a lot of children’s clothes.  I really don’t understand people higher up the scale than I who would rather have a four-pack of Harp a night than make sure their kids eat well.  But then, I’m not an alcoholic.

Alcoholic drinks do seem to lift many recipes.  Risottos are improved markedly by the addition of a glass of dry vermouth (dry sherry or white wine also work, but not as well).  Our sausage casserole – onions, garlic, bacon, black-eyed beans, chopped tomatoes, bay leaves, black pepper, oregano, fry off all and then put in at 150 for 90 minutes – is very pleasant when using water to extend the liquid content, but is so much better with a couple of glasses of white wine.  Batter is improved with beer, cider or other lightly bubbly beverage.  In all of those cases though, the alcohol itself has evaporated, so the enhancement is only provided by the concentrated nature of the flavours in the drink.  In this week’s recipe below, you add the alcohol at the end, so make sure you don’t feed it to the designated driver.

I’m not an alcoholic, but writing this has made me thirsty, so I’m going to quit this and find a bottle of wine.  Cheers!

Bloody Mary soup (serves four as a starter)
• Six medium tomatoes, halved
• Two red chillies, halved and seeded (vary to taste)
• One pint of vegetable stock
• Squeeze of tomato purée
• Two dessert spoons of Worcester sauce
• 25ml of vodka
• 25ml of dry sherry
• Salt and fresh ground black pepper
• Pinch of sugar
• Optional dessert spoon of horseradish sauce

Roast tomatoes and chillies with the sugar, a little oil and some seasoning for 30 minutes at 200C, then blend with a little of the stock and the purée.  Pass through a sieve into the rest of the veg stock and stir together while heating.  Just before serving, stir in the alcohol and Worcester sauce.  You can serve this with a stick of celery if you’re being fancy.  Just leave out the alcohol for a Bloodless Mary soup, which is also very pleasant.

Posted in alcohol, soup | 1 Comment


Without any hesitation, when asked what cuisine I would choose if I could pick only one to subsist on for the rest of my life, I would plump for Indian.  This is a bit of a cheat really, because India is huge; it would be like someone from Chennai suggesting they might like to stick to European food for the rest of their days.  We look at European food and think how diverse it is: French food with its rich flavours, garlic, butter, herbs; colourful, fresh Italian dishes; smoky Spanish spices; fish ‘n’ chips and many-splendored* roast dinners; pork and boiled potatoes from anywhere east of the Maginot line.  And yet look at it from the non-European’s point of view – sausages, breads, spuds, and big slabs of meat.  Where’s the heat?  The fragrance?  European flavours must feel like so many shades of grey to every other continent on Earth, with the exception of the English-speaking New World.  Every other part of the globe makes heavy use of spices, which makes us think of them as spicy, but in reality it is just our food which is (relatively) spiceless.

Of course the prevalence of spices in many cuisines has a fairly disturbing provenance: meat does not endure particularly well in hot climes and it is widely still necessary to use very powerful flavours to cloak the rancid taste of flesh somewhat past its use-by date.  But that does not take away from the joy to be gained from exploring the extreme ends of the flavour spectrum, once you have a palette that can appreciate it anyway.  I did not have such a palette until relatively recently: my upbringing did not provide me with opportunities to acquaint myself with anything spikier than a strong pickled onion, neither of my parents having been particularly adventurous in the kitchen (I will save stories of boiled beef burgers and plain pasta for another post).  Once I was able to start investigating the pantheon of experiences that world cuisine has to offer, I quickly started working my way up the Scoville scale, and, although I cannot claim to be a particular fan of those mad “get your meal for free if you can finish it” super-hot meals in certain Indian restaurants, I have managed to establish a reasonable threshold now.

I went to India a couple of years ago with work, and was a little surprised at what I found.  In retrospect it should not have been unexpected; I went to Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) which is in Bengal, in the far east of the country, and most of the Indian food we are familiar with in the UK is from or inspired by the north and west of the country (and often in fact Pakistani in origin rather than Indian).  Bengali food was mostly dry, spicy meats (chicken and mutton mostly, with some seafood which I carefully avoided), with a daal to add moisture to the dish, and bread.  Rice was not common and only seemed to be made available to suit Western preferences.  I really liked the food; it was simple but very tasty.  However after being there for a week or so I must admit with a little shame that I was desperate for something dull, and I did make use a few times of the European restaurants within our hotel complex.  I stand by my statement though that on balance I would prefer to do without European food than Indian.

What is particularly great about Indian food is that, despite often having a lot of ingredients, it is often pretty easy to prepare: I have already posted two curry dishes that involve putting a few spices in a pot and whizzing them up into a paste, and adding to various cooked vegetables.  Both of these are regulars in our menu because of both their wonderful flavours and ease of compilation.  The below is another of our favourites, which we usually combine with sag aloo, pilau rice and naan bread for a top-drawer curry night which is way cheaper but every bit as tasty as getting it from our favourite local Indian takeaway.

Paneer, pea and mushroom curry

• 200g paneer (Indian cheese), cut into small cubes
• 100g button mushrooms, chopped
• couple of handfuls of frozen peas
• 150g crème fraîche or natural yoghurt
• Splash of oil

For the paste:
• One onion
• Two green chillies
• Tsp chilli powder
• 2 tsps grd coriander
• ½ tsp turmeric
• 1 inch piece of ginger, peeled and chopped
• Couple of garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
• Tsp garam masala
• Few leaves of mint
• Handful of fresh coriander
• Pinch of salt

Put all the paste ingredients into a jug and whizz to a coarse paste.  Put to one side.  Heat plenty of oil and fry the paneer cubes until golden brown on all sides (beware – this spits like crazy, a pan with a lid may be prudent), then remove to kitchen roll to lose the excess oil.  Lose some of the oil, turn up the heat and fry off the paste until you stop crying.  Add the cheese, mushrooms and peas (direct from frozen) to this, then turn the heat down low and add the crème fraîche, putting a lid on the pan and cooking for around 10 minutes. Depending on how liquid the sauce is at this point you can remove the lid and reduce the sauce a little if need before serving.

* I desperately wanted to spell this with an “-our” but the evidence suggests “-or” is right, much to my chagrin…

Posted in cheese, Curry | 2 Comments


I’ve mentioned in previous posts how most people don’t know how much free time they have until they become a parent, by which time it’s too late to make the most of it until the nest is flown.  One other major effect of procreation is also to soak up all that spare money you didn’t know you had.  If it were a requirement to submit an individual business case to justify the production of offspring, there would be a swift decline in the sales of Parental Guidance movies: all the benefits of offspring are subjective in Western society, what with there being laws to prevent children contributing a revenue stream of their own.  The cost is enormous though: childcare fees before school age approximate a full second mortgage; they grow out of their shoes every two months; and, because you want to be good parents, you make sure they have opportunities to do sports and music and other activities with not-insignificant impact on the pocket.  Then of course they get to school, wearing holes in their nice smart uniforms every other week, and gain a plethora of party engagements to fulfil with their newly inflated social circles.  I can hardly wait for the inevitable plea for iPhones, netbooks and go-karting lessons.  Child Benefit being stopped?  So what – it’s a drop in the ocean anyway.

Happily, evolution doesn’t give two hoots about business cases, so we keep on churning the little angels out.  (Of course macro-economics would hold that population maintenance is key to the overall wealth of the country.  But in a celebrity death match evolution would kick economics’ derrière every time anyway.)

And so in that context, my wife’s return to studentdom and accompanying plunge in salary has meant that things have been somewhat stretched.  Now clearly the fact that she is actually earning could be considered a strong position for a student – I’m sure many undergraduates would be delighted to bring in a four-figure sum a month.  But it’s that context which is all-important: you cut your cloth according to the amount you have available, and when the amount drops by over half you are inevitably going to feel the pinch more.  So despite what many would consider a healthy household income, we are currently officially Boracic*. 

Being under financial pressure is not much fun.  I have always had trouble understanding the cliché that money doesn’t buy happiness; indeed, I argue strongly that this is utterly false.  I’d concur that it doesn’t always buy happiness, nor can money alone buy happiness – money is rarely a substitute for relationships or health.  But even if you have those foundations in place, lack of money can cause unhappiness, and the reverse is also true.

Another cliché that has always astonished me is the assertion that “I wouldn’t know what to do with all that money if I won the Lottery” (and occasionally its even weirder cousin “I wouldn’t want all that money”).  Really?  Have you no imagination at all?  If you won a couple of million pounds, would you not buy a nice house (maybe just paying off your mortgage if you already happen to have one), all the clothes and furnishings you’ve ever lusted after and a couple of quality cars, and then quit your job and live off the interest on the remainder if whatever you decided to do instead didn’t pay particularly well?  That surely doesn’t take much thinking through.

Recently though I was explaining the concept of the Lottery to my eldest (I’m trying to ensure he has a good grasp of money matters from early in life).  I asked him if he could imagine being able to buy anything, literally anything, he wanted, and what he would do if he could.  I’d expected off the wall answers like a digger or a rocket and wasn’t surprised when he later suggested a combine harvester, but his immediate response that he would buy a toy tractor was, I thought, a little daft – as I pointed out to him, he already has more than one.  “No Daddy, I don’t mean for me,” he replied, huffing slightly at my ignorance.  “I mean for my baby.”  Baby, I pressed?  “You know!  The baby I’ll have when I get married!”  (He didn’t say “Duh!” but that was the tone.)  Amusing though this was, it also does serve to highlight a generosity which is in my experience unusual in one so young – his first thoughts were what he could buy for others rather than himself.  Perhaps as well it also suggests that he doesn’t want for anything, which if true is of great comfort to me.  I’m sure that will change when he learns what an iPhone is.

Inevitably, with many of our outgoings being inflexible, we are cutting back on the more extravagant elements of our regular menu, and opting more frequently for those meals which are on the less expensive side (taking for granted that the “quick to make” is a constant – we don’t have anything currently that takes more than about 40 minutes of effort to prepare).  I am also being more frugal with costly ingredients such as saffron, of which I am making a pack last three meals instead of two, and alcohol, which I am either reducing or removing entirely from some dishes.  But cheap does not have to mean lacking in flavour, and the below is one example of a very cost-effective but extremely pleasurable meal to which I am resorting with increasing regularity.

Blue cheese pasta bake (2 good-sized portions)

  • About 150g of blue cheese of your choice depending on how strong you like it; we’re fans of Blacksticks Blue and creamy Stilton
  • an onion, diced
  • a stick of celery, finely sliced
  • a clove of garlic, crushed or finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons of plain flour
  • 2 tablespoons of butter
  • a cup of milk
  • enough pasta to feed two people, about 200g (fresh pasta is better but dried is about a third of the price)

Make a white sauce from the butter, flour and milk by heating the butter in a pan, stirring in the flour and then adding the milk a little at a time until you have a smooth, creamy sauce, about the thickness of a creamy soup.  Dice the cheese and stir it into the sauce until it has melted (although you might prefer to leave some lumps).  Cook the pasta according to packet instructions.  Soften the onion, celery and garlic in your preferred oil.  (These three things can be done simultaneously once you’ve got used to it, otherwise it takes rather longer.)  Stir the fried veg into the cooked, drained pasta, then place in ovenproof dishes and pour the sauce over (we use single-serving dishes but you could use a larger dish and cook slightly longer).  Put in a preheated oven (200C) for 10 minutes or so until you have a nice crispy skin on the cheese sauce.  You can vary this recipe by adding cooked mushrooms or unsmoked bacon if you wish.


*In deciding which link to add here I found myself exploring the derivation of words and phrases meaning penniless.  If, like me, you have a slightly nerdy interest in etymology, this is worth a read.

Posted in blue cheese, cheap, Pasta, student, Vegetarianism | 1 Comment


Had you asked me a dozen years ago how I felt about ginger, I’d’ve been pretty dismissive of it.  My experience of it at that time, as a non-cook, was limited to gingerbread and ginger ale, both of which I quite liked but neither of which I would have raved about.  Even a few years after that, after having discovered a budding fondness for the kitchen, it was not an ingredient I used more than occasionally, usually in ground form in a Chinese concoction of some variety and even then only because the recipe said so and I do hate to veer from the instructions.  The taste and smell did not particularly inspire me at the time.

As I’ve aged, so my attitude to ginger has changed.  After discovering root ginger I went through a phase of considering it a necessary evil; dishes weren’t quite the same without it, but I detested the job of having to peel and grate it.  In trying to find a swifter way of dealing with the annoying stuff I managed to break not one, but two garlic crushers.  Take my advice and don’t try this, there’s just not enough give in raw ginger.

More recently, we have included a handful of dishes containing ginger into our regular menu, and I have to say I tend to put rather more ginger in on the whole than the recipes suggest, as I now find the taste to my liking.  One is a paneer, pea and mushroom curry, the recipe for which I will share on another occasion (I will dedicate a whole post to curries at some point – they deserve it).  Another is a vegetarian chow mein, which is a fantastically fresh, mildly spicy and extremely quick dish; the third is Thai green curry.  I used to use a supermarket green curry paste and scoffed at my friends for going to all the effort of making a sauce from scratch, but most pastes you can buy contain nam pla (fish sauce) and so are off limits for a vegetarian, so I make one containing light soy instead.

To divert on a mild tangent by the way, ginger is a fascinating plant.  My wife and I went to Singapore on holiday a few years back now and visited a botanical garden which was pretty much devoted to gingers, which contain amongst their number some incredibly beautiful plants.  This was where I discovered two of my favourite ginger-related facts: firstly, that the banana is part of the ginger family; secondly, that there is a ginger with the unlikely name of Aileen McDonald.  This latter fact is amusing because I happen to work with someone bearing this exact name and, you guessed it, the lady in question has a copper top.

Returning to the theme, the thing which triggered this discussion of ginger was my recent introduction to a most wonderful drink: an alcoholic ginger beer called Crabbies.  I am quite sweet-toothed when it comes to the demon drink and have never liked normal beers or lagers; I am a cider or wine drinker most of the time, and often enjoy a shandy, usually accompanied by robust ribbing.  So the idea of this drink was very tempting, and the reality exceeded expectation.  Strongbow made a smooth cider a few years ago which never took off but I enjoyed immensely; this ginger beer evoked a similar reaction in me.  Wonderfully smooth, just sweet enough and with a lovely but subtle burn from the ginger.  I am now on the lookout for cheap bulk offers for Christmas.

Stem ginger, however, I’m afraid I am still unconvinced by.  My wife does a lovely dessert which is chopped stem ginger mixed in with mascarpone, dark chocolate and some form of alcohol, served in brandy snap baskets, but even there I tend to swallow the pieces of ginger without chewing them if I can help it.  I am always open to trying things again though; I have a spoonful of Christmas pudding every year for example, but no joy so far (actually the two things I won’t entertain are sprouts, which are the small cabbagey vegetables of the Devil, and rice pudding, which I cannot bear to be in the same room as an open pot of).  So if anyone reading this has a stem ginger recipe that will bring me round, I’d love to see it posted below.

Meanwhile I’ll revert to root ginger and include here the chow mein I mentioned above.

Vegetarian chow mein (as always, serves 2)

  • 150g beansprouts
  • couple of pak choi, shredded
  • good handful of shiitake mushrooms
  • a handful of mange touts
  • an inch of root ginger, peeled and shredded or grated
  • clove of grated garlic
  • half a dozen spring onions
  • glug of light soy
  • spoonful of granulated sugar
  • teaspoon or two of whisky, dry sherry or mirin if you have it
  • enough medium noodles to serve two, cooked and drained (we cheat and use wok noodles) and kept to one side with some sesame oil
  • a little chilli oil
  • salt and pepper

Wash and chop all the veg.  Throw the mushrooms, spring onions, ginger and garlic into some hot oil and stir fry for a couple of minutes, adding the mange touts after about a minute.  Add the noodles, soy, sugar, alcohol and seasoning, and bubble for another couple of minutes.  Keeping the heat high, add the beansprouts and pak choi and cook until the pak choi looks slightly glassy.  Serve with chilli oil to taste.

Posted in chow mein, ginger, ginger beer, Vegetarianism | 6 Comments

All I want for Christmas is meat

What does a vegetarian eat at Christmas?  And Thanksgiving, for any Americans reading this.  Christmas is a time of roast dinners, of three types of meat and seventeen vegetables.  My wife has said the last two years that she is happy with just with the seventeen veg, but this somehow doesn’t seem enough – where’s the centrepiece?  Where’s the giant bird, the long thin parcels of minced pig wrapped in slices of smoked pig, the boiled haunch of yet another pig, the (for the adventurous) lead-peppered formerly-cute-and-adored-by children-but-nonetheless-tasty random item of game?  You can’t just have the sideshow, however much stuffing and Yorkshire pudding you throw at it.  (Is it technically stuffing, if it’s never actually entered a body cavity?)  It would be like going to a football match and only heading to your seat to watch the half-time entertainment.  Or going to the pub purely to play the fruit machine.  Or drinking alcohol-free beer.  All enjoyable in their own way, but kind of missing the main event.

We have had two Christmases since my wife turned vegetarian, and are now preparing for a third.  In attempting to address what I perceive as a big gap on her plate, I have for the last two years made her a pie to replace the meat: shortcrust pastry base, puff pastry lid, some stir-fried-in-butter-until-soft veg (tenderstem broccoli, leeks, peas, etc) and a cheesy béchamel.  This went pretty well last year, but the year before was slightly compromised by the over-greased sandwich tin I baked it in causing the pie to slide off the base, flip over and land upside down and broken in two on the cooling rack.  I very robustly warned my parents-in-law not to laugh, which, to my slight surprise, they managed.

This year we have our epicure friends coming to stay for Christmas, and I am shamelessly exploiting Mr Epicure’s cookery talents.  We have yet to decide on what the carnivores in the room will be eating; my eldest is allergic to poultry so turkey is out, and we are debating the relative merits of pork belly and beef rib.  I must admit though to a slightly raised eyebrow when it was suggested that the vegetarian alternative might be a nut roast.

I have long viewed nut roast as one of those joke vegetarian dishes, like saus-mix or Quorn, that are deliberately designed to put people off becoming vegetarian.  But I am guilty of judging without evidence, as I confess I have never had the opportunity to sample any such dish, and if Mr E says something is tasty, then frankly his recent track record (last ten years or so) supports his assertion.

So I am going to post a recipe which I have not yet tried, but which is looming, a mere six weeks away.  I’d like to say I’m looking forward to it, but I would be lying: I am instead looking forward to at least three types of meat, and a minimum of seventeen vegetables.

Cashew and mushroom roast

1 Onion, Diced
2 Cloves garlic, crushed or grated
2 Parsnips
200g Cashews, ground
200g Breadcrumbs
2 Eggs, beaten
Mushrooms, sliced / torn

Gently fry the onions and garlic until golden.  Cook the parsnips in unsalted water, drain and mash reserving a little of the water in case things get too dry.  Add the cooked onions/garlic to the mashed parsnips along with the breadcrumbs, cashews, rosemary and eggs.  Mix.  If it is too dry add some of reserved liquid. Check seasoning.  The mixture should be slightly sloppy.  Hmm, what can I compare it to… it should be about the consistency of a mashed banana.

Fry the mushrooms in the butter.  Put half the nut mixture in a greased loaf tin, smooth it down then lay the mushrooms on the top and add the rest of the nut mixture.  Cover with foil and bake for about an hour.  Serve in slices.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Nothing with a face

I have heard it said that the biggest temptation to a born-again vegetarian is bacon.  I don’t know what it is about the smell of frying bacon, but I agree it is one of the most attractive odours known to man.  Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean anything; one of my favourite food smells is that of frying liver, which as everyone knows is the iron-rich slippery organ of the devil.  But bacon… there’s just something about it.  Like with cheese on toast, you smell it, you want it. 

Bacon was, in fact, what made my wife lapse the first time she dabbled in meat avoidance.  She does not do anything in half-measures, and when she relented, it was not just a nibble of a bacon sarnie – no, it was a whole pie, chock full of bacon.  (My mouth is actually watering as I’m writing that!)  This was some years ago now and by the time I met her she was once again a fully-fledged carnivore.  This is a good thing as at the time I struggled to cook an egg and would have found it extremely difficult to embrace any form of meat denial.

This time round though, bacon is not apparently an issue.  Sausages were for a little while – some of our favourite dishes previously were sausage-based – but this ebbed away, and nowadays the biggest temptation is fish.  In particular, fish-and-chip-shop-fish, and deep-fried crispy-battered whitebait (as done very eminently by the Chef & Brewer chain, although we are gutted to discover that our former favourite, the Axe & Cleaver in Dunham Massey, Cheshire, has defected to another brand, and it appears one with a poorer mastery of punctuation).  My wife is trying to explain her craving for fish as a pregnancy-style request by her body for some nutrient she is lacking, but I just think she really likes fish.

Now I’m sure some of you reading this are thinking “but you can still be vegetarian and eat fish”.  Allow me to disabuse you of this notion.  Fish is meat.  It is the meat of, surprisingly enough, fish.  There is in fact a good word for people who eat only the meat of fish – pescetarian.  My wife is not a pescetarian, she is a vegetarian, despite her brother’s innocent enquiries before his wedding (“my aunt-to-be is having swordfish, will that be okay for you?”).  Just for absolute clarity, this includes seafood, even clams.  If our culture accepted the eating of insects, they would also be banned.  The jury is still locked in intense discussion over green sea slugs though.

Unfortunately, despite being only part-time, I must also avoid seafood, as it gives me horrible indigestion.  It has not always been thus and I would love to find a cure, but Google has so far let me down.  A pity; I adore prawns, mussels, scallops, crab (stir crab lightly cooked with onions, chillies, garlic, coriander and a splash of vodka through pasta – delicious).  They just don’t like me any more, and have been a blemish on many otherwise lovely evenings.  My occasional revisits to all things scuttly have diminished over the last few years and I am now avoiding them completely, to my chagrin.  Happily – for my wife at least – I am not fond of fish, and am therefore unlikely to create potentially dangerous situations by coming home with a bagful of cod and secret chips (if you don’t tell anyone they have no calories!).

Now, you may ask (oh go on, please, it’ll prolong the article a little longer), why it matters what can and can’t be eaten by “true” vegetarians.  I mean, clearly there’s no such thing as a moral vegetarian, right?  Having milk in your tea there?  How do you think that was gathered – chasing down wild cattle?  Honey on your porridge perhaps?  Honey is made by bees for a purpose, and I’m pretty sure that evolution didn’t design it to end up in a squeezy bottle in Tesco.  And are those leather shoes you’re wearing?  Or (for those who do avoid wearing the outer layer of a slaughtered cow) maybe a woollen jumper?  Sheep are well-known to be altruistic and I’m sure they have no problem being restricted to a square mile of land through their entire lives, and they are also pretty accepting of their lack of ability to live out their potential lifespan in full (unless we have a lot of farmers content to support geriatric sheep long past their productive prime). 

Further, why is it any more acceptable to eat fish than lower-order land animals?  Where do you draw the line here?  At least vegetarians can claim not to eat anything that is able to move independently (which does leave the grey area of Venus fly traps, but I don’t believe they are particularly wholesome anyway so are unlikely to present any dilemma).  Why should it be okay to eat cephalopods (octopus and squid), which display signs of what we would term intelligence, and more so than some vertebrates?  If you’re going to draw the line at things that feel pain, have a read of this article and the bibliography at the end.  The only way, it seems, to avoid causing anything pain in the contribution to your dinner is to rule out animals entirely – and the only way to be sure of having nothing that has resulted from exploitation of animals, humane or otherwise, is to be vegan.

Veganism is scary.  We eat tons of cheese and butter in our non-meat diet in order to maintain a reasonable dose of fat, salt and flavour, and I really could not imagine doing without it (although I once said the same about meat).  Our friend is a vegan and doesn’t like mushrooms – she subsists virtually entirely on chips.  We’ve been away on cottage weekends with her and have embraced the challenge of cooking decent food for her, and actually haven’t found it too difficult – our balti veg is vegan, my fat foodie friend loves a challenge anyway, and you can (painfully for me) just leave the parmesan out of a risotto, but you need to make sure you massage the rice like crazy throughout cooking, rather than the occasional lazy stir we normally manage.

A fairly low-effort dish that works for vegans is as follows:

Roasted vegetables with couscous (serves 2)

· Three peppers of various colour

· One aubergine

· A dozen cherry tomatoes on the vine

· Half pint of veg stock

· About 200g of couscous

· Pinch of saffron

· Handful of pine nuts

· Big handful of chopped fresh parsley (or couple of spoons of dried parsley)

Chop peppers and aubergine into bite-sized pieces, sprinkle with salt, olive oil and chilli flakes to taste, and place in oven at 200 degrees for 25 minutes or thereabout, depending on whether you like your veg slightly caramelised like I do.  The tomatoes will need around 5 minutes less at the same heat, with just oil and salt.

Make the stock and add the saffron and parsley to soften, then stir in the couscous and leave to absorb the liquid.  Toast the pine nuts and stir through the couscous when ready.  Serve the couscous topped with the tomatoes and with the peppers and aubergine on the side.

Posted in bacon, ethics, fish, Uncategorized, veganism, Vegetarianism | 4 Comments

Opposites attract

I am inherently lazy. It’s part of what has driven my career: I’m always looking for shortcuts, ways of removing wasted effort, systems to do things automatically which people spend time doing manually. Because I know I am lazy, I am able to cater for it; I organise myself in such a way as to circumvent the drawbacks while making the most of the benefits. Note (especially anyone reading this who works with me) this does not mean I don’t pull my weight – far from it. I’d tell you how many hours a week I work but I can’t be bothered counting them, because there’s no point. What it means is that I don’t waste any of those hours doing stuff that doesn’t need doing.

You may wish to skip the next paragraph if you’re the sort who glazes over as soon as you discover the person you just introduced yourself to at a party is any sort of techie – there’s a romantic bit up ahead which may interest you more. Anyway, as a former application developer (yawn) I ought to point out that working this way makes me very efficient. The “Just In Time” approach is well-known to programmers; it means you don’t overload your system with unused data and structures. Overall, effort (processor time) is reduced on average, and you need less space (memory) to run your system. The trade-off is that when you do need to call on resources, there is usually a slight performance lag compared to having had everything in place up front.

Now eleven years ago, I happened across a woman who in many respects was almost my polar opposite. (I can almost hear my so-called friends at this point crowing “intelligent, funny, classy and attractive”. Gosh, aren’t they witty.) Her main attributes which, depending on our respective moods, balance or conflict with mine, are that she is diligent and well-prepared, and she plans thoroughly. She doesn’t do just enough; she doesn’t do it just in time; she doesn’t make it up as she goes along, not until long experience has ingrained something into habit. She does everything she has to, as soon as she can, and she cannot relax until it is done. She also cannot put a job down halfway through; she has to at least reach a logical stopping point.

Pretending for convenience that this obvious incompatibility was in fact complementary, and not knowing or caring for arguments too far in the future to worry about, I somehow managed to convince this intelligent, funny, classy, attractive, slightly older woman (I will get a slap for that) to marry me, and next June we will celebrate our tenth anniversary. Together, I should add.

Now, most couples have their student days far behind them when they tie the knot, but we like to convince ourselves we are non-conformist from time to time and we did things somewhat differently. Having elected to abstain from university upon leaving school (for reasons financial rather than scholastic), I began my bachelor’s degree part-time the year before we married. Because it was in the same arena as my job at the time, I had a bit of a head start and managed to rack up a stack of good grades through the first few years. Lucky I did, because after four years my eldest made a noisy appearance, and the final two years of my course took a back seat to my new role as Proud Father. This I was happy to do because I knew I’d done enough by that point to allow my final two years and end of course assessment to slip away into second and third level passes, whilst still qualifying me for a first-class degree overall. As my erstwhile Geography teacher Mr Yearsley* would have snidely said, it wasn’t a “good” First, but it was still a First.

Contrast this with my wife, or SuperHan as I am considering dubbing her. As I mentioned recently, she has just embarked upon a career change and has become a trainee primary teacher. Alongside working in a school four days a week, she is also doing a PGCE (Professional rather than Post). This is a phenomenal amount of work for someone without two small children and my laid-back approach, but add in the kids and the perfectionism and you’ve got a maelstrom. A month in she has already had days when she’s come close to quitting; this is not because she’s a quitter, it’s because she is anxious she will not do as well as she could, and to her scraping through is an anathema. The simple fact is that, with so much on her plate, she cannot do every assignment in the first few days as she would have when she was a proper student with hangovers, lie-ins and the opportunity to decide to spend all day in the library at the drop of a hat – and she hates that. Being a grown-up student (I hesitate to say mature – nowadays that seems to mean “old”) is no fun, which seems slightly unfair; but at least I’ve never had to figure out how to make something nutritious out of a bottle of wine, some paracetamol and a jar of garam masala.

Happily, she is absolutely loving being a teacher, and I know as well as everyone else who knows her that she will be great at it. End of.

You’ll be pleased to discover that my recipe suggestion today does not involve paracetamol, but it does contain garam masala, and it sounds odd enough to have been created by a poorly-stocked student cupboard. The wine you’ll just have to have on the side…

Omelette curry (as always for 2):
For the curry paste:
• ½ teaspoon turmeric
• 1 teaspoon chilli powder (or more to taste)
• 2 teaspoons ground coriander
• 1 teaspoon garam masala
• ½ teaspoon cumin seeds
• ½ teaspoon fennel seeds
• 5 teaspoons desiccated coconut
• pinch of salt
• 4ish teaspoons water
Blend all ingredients to a fine paste, adding more water if too dry.

For the curry:
• your preferred cooking oil
• curry paste from above
• one large onion: chop about two thirds normally, chop the rest very finely for the omelette
• 300g cherry tomatoes, chopped small
• couple of green chillies, sliced
• teaspoon cider vinegar
• four cups/two mugs of water
• handful of chopped coriander
Soften onion in oil, add paste, cook for 3 minutes, add chillies, cook for another couple of minutes, add tomatoes, sauté for 5 minutes, add vinegar and water, bubble for ten minutes, add coriander and omelette from below, bubble for a couple of minutes, serve in bowls with naan bread. You’ll be left with a delicious curry soup in the bottom of the bowl which must be slurped!

For the omelette (make this while your curry is bubbling):
• 5 eggs, beaten
• a green chilli, finely chopped
• finely chopped onion from above
• salt and pepper to taste
• pinch of the coriander leaves from the curry
Mix and fry like a normal omelette. Chop into strips/squares for adding to the curry.

* I was going to link to this: but this is much more satisfying:

Posted in Curry, omelette, Recipe, student, teaching, Vegetarianism | 3 Comments

Just give me a minute

It’s been a little while since my last post.  This is not laziness on my part, in fact far from it; I just have literally had no free time to write.  I took up blogging in part because I wanted to do a bit of creative writing and blogs gave me a way of being able to do so in handy half-hour snippets (you can’t really write a novel that way).  In the past few weeks even those half hours have disappeared, but my wife has just dubbed me the “part-time part-time vegetarian” so I’ve taken the hint and got down to business.

We are always busy, and increasingly so as time passes.  This has been a creeping process over several years, with some large increments when each of our kids arrived.  But the last few weeks have seen a coincidence of circumstances which have left us, frankly, clinging on to our sanity by our fingernails.

Firstly, my wife has embarked on her teaching course, which I told you about a couple of months ago.  As expected, she is absolutely loving it; but, as she is doing a teaching course alongside actually being a teacher, she has a huge amount of work to do (and being far more diligent than I, is not looking for corners to cut), and as a result is working most evenings from the moment the kids are in bed until midnight.  Parallel to this, I am learning fast how to iron.

I’ve had no renaissance such as my wife has had but I have had an equal dose of excitement and uncertainty recently, as two things have disrupted my unfascinating-but-it-pays-the-bills working life.  Firstly, a major project dropping out of the blue that has eaten up 50% of my time for the last couple of months (50% that I didn’t have either, meaning I’ve had to do the day job in half the time).  Secondly, I (possibly unwisely) chose this particular moment to apply for a new job.  Ultimately I was unsuccessful, but I got to the final stages (in fact none of the three final interviewees were selected, but I take no solace in that).  In total I had three interviews of varying intensity, one presentation and a psychometric test.  I think the psychometric probably found me out.  What I hadn’t anticipated was how draining that process would be, and how hard I would find it to concentrate on my existing job while it was going on – and given it was six weeks between the first meeting with the recruiter and when I finally got wind of the decision, this was a long time to be splitting my energy in such a way.

The interview process is done and forgotten, and my involvement in the project is dwindling now, so I’m hopeful of being able to return to the previous levels of busyness shortly – just mad busy rather than flat out.

What all this has meant is that I am relying more and more on the fastest meals in our repertoire, a couple of which I have detailed below, and most of which involve pasta.  We have found we are eating relatively often before the kids go to bed, in order to maximise the time available for work afterwards.  This is probably good for us as normally we don’t eat before 9 and I understand it is unhealthy to eat too close to bedtime.  So we are eating a less varied diet, but this is a necessary evil at the moment and I am going to take it upon myself to do a little Googling and try and add to our portfolio of very quick meals.

Just as soon as I have a spare minute…

Pesto & pasta (10 minutes)

Make some pesto as per my recipe for not-Trapanese pasta (which itself only takes probably ten minutes longer, to roast the tomatoes).  Put more than the necessary amount of pine nuts in the frying pan though and leave the remainder in once the ones for the pesto have been taken out, and toast until golden brown.  Cook some fresh pasta, and when cooked, stir through the pesto, pine nuts and a big handful of rocket.  Top with some grated parmesan and fresh ground black pepper if desired.

Peppers pasta (25 minutes)

Put three peppers of differing colour and an aubergine, all cut into finger-thick strips (we find this works best if you layer the aubergine on top of the peppers to avoid it becoming too crispy) into a roasting tin.  Top with olive oil, salt and chilli flakes (to your taste).  Roast for 20-30 minutes at 200C depending on how you like the veg (I like them slightly caramelising – aubergine should be soft and no longer rubbery).  Serve with fresh pasta.

Eggs hollandaise (20 minutes)

For the sauce: put two teaspoons of white wine or cider vinegar, the same of lemon juice and three of water, five black peppercorns and a bay leaf into a saucepan.  Bring to boil and simmer to reduce by half.  Cool and strain.  Place with three egg yolks into a bowl over a saucepan of simmering water and whisk until thick and foamy (don’t let it get too hot).  Add 6oz/175g of butter a small piece at a time into the egg mix and whisk in (you can also melt the butter first and pour it in a little at a time if you prefer).  It’s ready when it’s the texture of mayonnaise.  Add plenty of salt and pepper to taste.  Serve over oven-bottom muffins, griddled asparagus and a poached egg.  (Non-veggies can serve with thick-cut ham instead of asparagus if preferred, but I actually prefer the asparagus.)  This is often considered a lunchtime dish or even a starter but we serve plenty of it as a main meal.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments