Double Trouble

I think it’s not too dramatic to say that 20 years ago today I was feeling shell-shocked. I gave birth to Tom and George at 1.23 and 1.49 early on a warm Hampstead day. The night before I was induced on 28th July, I shared a room with a lady who was having a Caesarean the next day and who knew that there was ‘something wrong’ with her baby, but didn’t know what. She knew that pretty much as soon as the baby was born, she (the baby) would be taken to Great Ormond Street to be assessed and operated on. We talked all night, sharing our hopes and fears about our children. She of course just wanted to know that her baby’s condition was easily treatable – I just wondered how I was going to cope with four boys. We talked about everything and nothing – neither of us slept and we approached 29th July tired to the bones. We hugged as she was taken to the operating theatre. A couple of days later she came to visit me and to tell me that her daughter was going to be fine, that the stomach problem had been easily resolved, and I showed her my beautiful boys. We shared another hug and wished each other well. Twenty years on, I can’t even remember her name, but I hope that her daughter gave and gives her as much pleasure as those twin boys have given me.

Before I started this, I had thought of writing a blog for each of you, but as your lives are starting to go their separate ways I want to celebrate the lives you shared. Tom, it always seemed to me that you had been on this earth before – you appeared to have a wisdom, a Yoda-ish view of life, as you sucked your thumb and watched George plough into ill-conceived ideas. George’s ability to take on the world without thought for the consequences drew my admiration and my fears simultaneously – in my head, you resembled the Andrex puppy, looking at the havoc you wreaked. While these impressions remain, they have evolved. Tom, you still think things through very carefully, and, George, you still have a confidence to tackle difficult situations. You were tremendous friends – you have always loved and hated each other with a passion that none of the rest of us can comprehend. Your arguments were the most vicious, your cuddles the most constricting.

I was fascinated to watch you grow, but as you started to move I faced new fears. I used to ask myself what I would do if you moved in opposite directions, out of my reach and both did something life-threatening at the same time, who would I save? I realised that dressing you the same wasn’t a good idea – how did I know if I was seeing the same twin twice? You started school and for the first time weren’t in each other’s company all the time. You made your own friends. Most thought that it was wonderful to have two friends – some, rather stupidly, tried to play you off against each other. Those friends didn’t last very long.

We tried to treat you as separate beings – we didn’t call you The Twins, and until today you had never shared a birthday cake, but then in days gone by you would have eaten a lot more cake that you do now! George made an early bid for freedom by moving out of the shared bedroom, declaring that he needed his own space. Funny that you almost always ended up in the same bed anyway! You chose to go to boarding school and I missed you so much, just as I miss you both now that we’re in New York. I wasn’t quite ready to give up being a mummy when we moved, and I miss the inane chatter, the endless discussions about football or rugby, the recommendations for new bands, and the wickedly funny observations about life, the universe and everything. I sometimes even think that I miss the arguments.

Of all the brothers you have been the most affected on a day-to-day basis by Dad and my move, and I am really proud of the way you have coped. I have realised that you are both very strong men, and no longer my babies. I love you both so much and I still hate getting on a plane to come back. I try so hard not to wish my life away, but I am really looking forward to our week after Christmas. Thank you for keeping me involved in your lives as much as you do – I think I need that involvement more than you do.

I chose today’s recipe with some help from Hallie and Daisy because it seems that my brain is totally fuddled from time zone changes and late nights at family parties. It’s something that I used to make a lot and that I know you both enjoy it. It’s very easy, you just have to remember to bone the fish properly, and mix the ingredients thoroughly. It reheats and is also good cold. It is traditionally a breakfast dish, but we always ate it for dinner. It is of course Kedgeree, an Anglo-Indian dish which seems even more appropriate now that I have discovered our Indian heritage. Grandma made it a lot and I learned from watching her. I used The Dairy Book of Home Cookery for the real quantities of rice and fish – I never knew (which is probably why we always had left-overs).

Kedgeree – Ingredients (serves 4)

  • 350 g / 12 oz smoked haddock
  • Milk
  • 50 g / 2 oz butter, plus extra
  • 1 tsp curry powder – the type you use is up to you, I tend to use Madras
  • 3 spring onions, chopped
  • 350 g / 12 oz cooked basmati rice (about 175 g / 6 oz uncooked)
  • 2 large hard-boiled eggs, chopped
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Method

Put the fish into a large frying pan and add enough milk to come halfway up the fish. Dot with the extra butter. Bring to the boil and then simmer gently until the fish is cooked (about ten minutes). Be careful it doesn’t stick to the pan. Allow to cool, remove fish and flake the fish, removing all skins and bones.

Put the 50 g butter into a large pan, and melt. Add the chopped spring onions and gently soften. Add the curry powder and cook for two minutes.

Add the rice and fish and mix through. If the mixture seems dry, add some of the milk that you poached the fish in. Don’t add to much or the rice will go mushy. Add the eggs and mix gently. Grind black pepper and serve immediately.

Many recipes say to put the mixture into a buttered dish and bake in the oven. I have never done this. You can also garnish with chopped parsley – I sometimes did this and the green certainly looks pretty.

Enjoy!

No Brainer Today

The new prince’s name still hasn’t been revealed and I am still surrounded by speculation which is irritating me, though not as much as yesterday.  I rushed into the gym today and rushed out again so didn’t even glimpse the tv in the reception area.  I will be buying People magazine tomorrow for Hallie and I suppose I’ll have to skip the inevitable article about the birth, celebrations, when, how, speculation about name, weight – can’t win!  I really am not bah humbug about the birth – I love the tradition, the continuing history and I am hugely supportive of the royal family.  I admire the Queen very much – can’t think of many other 87-year olds who simply can’t retire, and who work as hard as she does.  Not to mention all the money that the royal family brings from tourists.  I am just astonished that the baby’s birth has knocked so many other things off the front pages world-wide.

So today is Tom and Daisy’s last full day in New York, and they have gone to the Museum of Modern Art.  There is a special Le Corbusier exhibition which ties in with their university course and Daisy was very keen to see it.  I am tidying around, doing some laundry, and then packing to go back to London tomorrow for a week.  I can’t tell you how excited I am about this.  I haven’t been in London since 5th January, and that is the longest stretch for me since we lived in Hong Kong.  I am so looking forward to seeing everybody, to going Up North for Big Andrew’s party, and for being with Tom and George on their 20th birthday on Monday.  I am particularly happy that this means I won’t have any more teenagers!  (There is a slight bit of angst too – do I do one birthday blog for both of them?  What recipe?  If I do separate ones, who goes first?  Which recipes?  I do enjoy making life more stressful than it needs to be.)

Anyway, today’s recipe follows on logically from yesterday’s and uses the chicken stock that was the bonus.  It is Risotto alla Milanese, saffron-flavoured risotto which is traditionally served with Osso Bucco in Italy.  Osso Bucco isn’t one of my favourites, but I do like a good risotto.  Honestly it isn’t worth using chicken stock cubes – if you haven’t made your own stock, buy the good quality stuff that comes in tubs.  The stock is integral to this dish.  I was always a bit nervous of making risotto because I knew that it involved a lot of stirring and watching.  I was being ridiculous.  Yes, it involves about 25 minutes of concentration but it is so worth it.  The general rule of thumb is that you need twice the volume of the rice in stock, but I somehow always need more.  Make sure that your stock is simmering in a separate pan – this is very important.

Risotto alla Milanese – Ingredients

  • 750 ml – 950 ml / 23 fl oz – 32 fl oz chicken stock, simmering in separate pan
  • 50 g / 2 oz butter, plus 1 tbsp of butter
  • 1 small onion, very finely chopped
  • 150 g / 5 oz arborio or canaroli rice.  Don’t even think about using any other variety!
  • 1 small glass white wine
  • 2 large pinches of saffron
  • 50 g / 2 oz grated parmesan

Ingredients

Melt the butter in a pan.  I use a large frying pan because I can see exactly how the rice is absorbing the liquid.  Add the onion and fry very gently until translucent.  Add all the rice and stir well.   Add the wine and stir.  Let the wine evaporate.

Add the stock one or two ladles full at a time.  Stir and watch – you do not want the rice to get too dry or to stick.  Add more stock when necessary.  The idea is for the rice to have a wee bit of bite (al dente) so after about 14 mins, you will need to taste and see where you are.  Just before the last ladle full of stock, mix the saffron with a couple of tablespoons of stock in a glass and add with the last ladle of stock.

When risotto is ready, remove from heat and season to your taste.  Add the extra butter and grated parmesan and mix.

I like to serve with ground black pepper and some shaved parmesan on top.

Enjoy!

It’s A Boy!

Whilst I am happy for William and Kate, I have been astonished at the coverage of the birth of the royal baby on US television.  For the past two weeks, when I have been working out, there has been nothing but stories about when, where, gender, names, future, when, how, shoe size (okay, that’s not true), and again when.  Magazines here have speculated on name, when, where, title, gender, and you would not believe what the Queen, Charles, Camilla, the Middletons, Harry are alleged to have said, advised, forbidden and done.  Again, I have seen that Charles can never be king, that William will be the next monarch.  Seriously, peeps, if any royal who committed adultery were barred from the throne, we would have been without the monarchy a long time ago.  Of course, I do live in the land of St Diana but I do wonder how every slight transgression of Charles, real or imagined since 1981, crossed the pond with the speed of light, but somehow very few people here know her flaws?   Anyway, as I write this, we know that a prince, HRH Prince of Cambridge, has been born and that he weighs 8 lbs 6 oz.  The couple managed to keep this a secret from the press for four hours which I think is wonderful.  I suppose now I have to try and avoid further speculation about the name – George is the bookies’ favourite, and a very fine name it is too.  If the royal couple would just announce the name, and have the regulation pose on the steps of the hospital too, I could stop having to close my eyes when walking into the gym, and getting grumpy when I see yet more stupidity on the covers of the local rag mags.

Normal service will now be resumed!  Today’s dish is one of Tom and George’s favourites, and it seems very appropriate for today.  It makes a fantastic sandwich filling, although it is great with salad, or with rice.  Today’s recipe is Coronation Chicken, created, you will not be surprised to learn, for the coronation of Elizabeth II, and long she has reigned over us!  So for Tom, George, the unnamed prince and the Queen, who is now only the second reigning monarch ever (Victoria being the first, of course) to meet the great-grandchild who, God willing, will one day be monarch,  here is the recipe.  It was created to use up leftover cooked chicken, but the recipe I have always used includes instructions for poaching a whole chicken.  I do that because then I have the stock to make Risotto alla Milanese the next day!  How large or small you cut the chicken depends on whether you are going to use as a sandwich filling or not.

Coronation Chicken – Ingredients
1.5 kg / 4 lb chicken
1 small onion, peeled and quartered
10 black peppercorns
1 tspn salt
Put the chicken in a pot, and add the ingredients above.  Cover with water bring to the boil.  Put on lid and simmer for about 30 mins.  Turn off heat and leave for about an hour while you make the sauce.  If you are going to use it for sandwich filling, remove chicken from stock whenever you have time, keep stock (freezes well), and remove all flesh from carcass.  Chop into the size of pieces you require.  If you are going to serve as a dish, don’t remove chicken until the sauce is ready so that the meat will be warm.  Again remove from stock, and prepare the meat to the size you want.

Ingredients – sauce

1 tbsp oil (not olive oil)

1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp curry powder
1 tbsp tomato puree
85 ml / 3 fl oz red wine
150ml / ¼ pint water
1 bay leaf
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Caster sugar
2 slices fresh lemon
Squeeze of lemon juice
425 ml / 15 fl oz mayonnaise (I only use Hellman’s or Benedicta)
2 tbsp apricot puree – soak 4-5 stoned, dried apricots in 3 tbsp of hot water.  When cooled, blend and use.
3 tbsp cream

Method

Heat the oil in a pan over medium heat.  Cook onion for 3 mins – do not brown.  Add curry powder and cook for a further 2 mins, stirring all the time.  Add the tomato puree, wine, water and bay leaf.
Bring to the boil.  Season with salt, then add the sugar and lemon juice to taste.  Add lemon slices.  Simmer for 5-10 mins.  Strain the sauce and leave to cool.
You will note that this blog doesn’t look like previous ones – my buttons are not responding to my edits at all so I’m afraid, and it really goes against my nature to do this, you’ll just have to make do with the inconsistencies!
Anyway, enjoy!

Is There a Doctor in the House?

Today my beautiful and bright niece, Ellie, graduates from university as a medical doctor. We have had a few PhDs in the family but no medical doctors for a loooooong time. From her Facebook entries, you would think that Ellie has partied hard, baked cupcakes and drunk tea for most of the past five years, but her exam results show otherwise, thank heavens! As she starts the next stage of her training – two years in hospital – I was trying to think of a recipe which will help her to survive those long working hours, keep her alert in the wee wee hours and is easy to make when you’re tired. Ellie bakes every bit as well as I do – her decorating skills are much better – so there’s not much point in doing cakes. However, she is partial to a bit of sugar and so today’s recipe is for Dark Chocolate Chunk Cookies. My original recipe is for Dark Chocolate Chunk and Hazelnut Cookies, but Ellie will omit the nuts on doctor’s orders! The recipe originally came from Homes and Gardens magazine about 20 years ago. I haven’t changed it at all, except to omit nuts as necessary, or use white or milk chocolate instead of plain. My preference has always been plain chocolate, but the boys preferred milk. Tom of course prefers white. I have also made them with a mix of chocolate types and this works well. So Ellie, sweetie, this is for you – we’re all really proud of you and wish you every happiness and success in the next couple of years.

Dark Chocolate Chunk and Hazelnut Cookies – Ingredient

  • 300 g / 11 oz self-raising flour, sifted
  • 225 g / 8 oz plain chocolate, cut into chunky pieces
  • 100 g / 4 oz skinned toasted hazelnuts, chopped (omit if you have a nut allergy!)
  • 225 g / 8 oz butter
  • 175 g / 6 oz caster sugar
  • 100 g / 4 oz soft brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tspn vanilla essence

Method

Heat the oven to 190 C / 375 F / Gas mark 5.

Cream the butter and both sugars until soft and light. Beat the eggs and vanilla essence together.

Add the egg mixture to the butter and sugar, a third at a time, mixing each addition well before adding the next. Mix in half the flour, then mix in the remaining flour. Add the chocolate chunks and hazelnuts.

Drop heaped teaspoonfuls of the mixture onto ungreased baking trays. Don’t put them too close together as they will spread during baking.

Bake for 10-12 mins until just golden. Cool on the tray for a couple of mins before transferring to a wire rack.

Enjoy!

Fishy Tales

It is very hot in the city at the moment.  It is not as humid as New Yorkers would like to believe but even so a constant 36 C is quite interesting.  Who knew that my hair could be so unruly?  Tom and Daisy have been doing very short trips out to explore, and the aircon in the apartment has been running.  Being me, it’s set at 26 C but it is on auto and Dad and I are sleeping under a sheet – one each because it’s really that hot!

Before I give you today’s recipe, I have a couple of photos to share from our recent holiday.

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These are Montana flapjacks, the fluffiest pancakes I have ever seen.  They have to have been made with buttermilk, but I really don’t know how they were so light.  The logo on top is for the ranch we were staying at, Bar N, and would be the mark branded on their cattle.  This was Daisy’s breakfast one day.Image

Tom’s version of the flapjacks, with syrup and bacon.  I know this is a North American staple, but I really cannot get my head around the crisp, almost burned, bacon with maple syrup on top.

I made today’s recipe a couple of evenings ago, and it was as good as I remembered.  There are a couple of variations which whilst not authentic can make life slightly easier.  Today’s recipe is Steamed Fish with Ginger and Spring Onions.  This is a dish traditionally served at Chinese New Year, and throughout the rest of the year too.  I made it with branzino/sea bass because garoupa isn’t easily found here.  Ideally you should keep the head and tail on the fish, but ask the fishmonger to gut, scale and wash it for you.  I learned to cook this fish during a cooking course in Hong Kong, and haven’t really changed the recipe, apart from the type of fish and I often omit the Shaoxing wine because I don’t usually have it to hand.

Steamed Fish with Ginger and Spring Onions

6 spring onions (green onions or scallions), peeled, cut in half and julienned
50 g / 2 oz 2 oz fresh ginger, finely julienned
1 sea bass, about 750 g
Salt
1 tbsp Shaoxing wine
3 tbsp light soy sauce
4 tbsp corn oil

Method

Pat fish dry.  Depending on the length of the fish, make three of four diagonal cuts about 5 cms / 2 inches apart into the flesh on both sides.

Put fish onto a plate.  Sprinkle salt, wine (if using), soy sauce and oil over.  Artfully place (!) ginger and spring onions on top.  Cover with foil and steam over a sauce pan for 10-12 minutes.

If you do not feel confident steaming, you can put foil into a baking tray and put the fish onto it.  Make a packet around the fish (not too tight) with the foil and bake at 180 F / 375 F for about 15 mins.

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Before – with the fish in a baking tray and enough foil around to make a loose parcel.

You can either serve on an ashet/large plate, or serve directly onto plates in the kitchen.  Remember not to turn the fish over or a boat will sink!

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After – if you’re not avoiding carbs, then you should serve with rice and vegetables and don’t waste any of the sauce.

If you don’t like dealing with bones, you can use fillets of fish instead.  I have done this with salmon and cod, both were very tasty.  Times will be shorter of course, say, 8-10 mins.

Enjoy!

5 a Day

Tom has asked me to do a blog about how to tell whether fruit and vegetables are ready to eat or not.  This is quite tricky because whilst it’s usually pretty obvious when something is under or over ripe, knowing that something is ready to eat can be problematic.

General rule is that if the produce is blemished or has changed colour then it’s probably past its best.  I don’t include bananas in this statement.  While many people think that bananas should have perfect yellow skins, that actually means that they’re under ripe.  A few black spots mean that it is going to be more easily digested.  Uncle Johnny (Grandma’s brother) lived in Nigeria for a few years and he refused to eat any banana which didn’t have a black skin – he was firmly of the belief that only at this point could it be properly digested.  I’m not sure I agree with him – I prefer bananas to have some shape.  Also bananas should be kept apart from other fruit and vegetables (never put them in the fridge) otherwise the other fruit will ripen to the point of being unusable.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand – for soft fruit like peaches and apricots, there should be some give when you press the fruit.  Too hard and you’ll have tummy ache; too soft and it’s past its best.

For berries, you want even colour – it is not natural for strawberries to be half-white.  Raspberries, brambles/blackberries, blueberries and the various colours of currants should still be separate – when they start sticking together in their packaging, they’re not worth eating.  Also look to see whether there is mould at the bottom of the packaging – if there is, don’t buy.

Watermelons – I love buying watermelons.  Pick one up and put it close to your ear.  Knock it gently – the deeper the sound produced, the riper the fruit.

All other types of melon – gently press the bottom and see how much give there is.  Many are sold under ripe in the UK and there must be some give.

Pineapples – if there’s green in the skin colour, then it isn’t ripe and won’t have much juice.

Mangos – run your thumb over the skin.  There should be some give.  Don’t buy very blemished mangos.

Apples – I do not care about bruised apples.  If you do, you need to buy unblemished fruit.  When the skin wrinkles, it’s past its best.

Avocados – these are really tricky.  When you touch them and you leave an imprint, they are far too soft and may well be brown inside.  When you touch them and there is no give, they are too hard.  If you shake it and it rattles, the stone’s separated from the flesh and you shouldn’t buy.  But finding an avocado that is ready to eat can be problematic.  Generally you want a little give in the flesh when you press it, but sometimes they are tricky buggers and they are soft on the edge and hard inside.  You can ripen an avocado by putting it in a brown paper bag with a banana or a tomato – it should ripen overnight.  If you’ve already cut into it, leave the stone in and wrap tightly in cling film before you put in the paper bag.

Green vegetables (eg broccoli) will change colour as they become too old.  Buy only as much as you think you need.  They don’t keep too well.

Cucumbers – the darker the green the better.

Root vegetables start to sprout when they’re old.  I have heard conflicting views about eating sprouting potatoes – some claim they’re dangerous, some that they’re fine.  Basically I would eat them while they’re fresh – only buy what you need.

Onions and garlic sprout green shoots and this makes them bitter.  Cut through the middle and remove and throw away the shoots – use the balance.  I know that garlic often gets lost at the bottom of the fridge or doesn’t get used immediately, so it can be hard to avoid these shoots.

When all else fails, smell the fruit or vegetable, if it doesn’t smell right, don’t use it.

I think this covers everything in Fruit and Vegetables 101 – normally I would sign off with Enjoy! but it doesn’t seem appropriate today, so I will leave you with the words of Nico’s doctor in Edinburgh after diagnosing him with Freshers’ Flu, ‘Try to eat your five a day and it doesn’t count if it’s on a pizza.’

Taste of my Childhood

We have been travelling for the past week – 1768 miles from Salt Lake City, thru Utah and Idaho to Yellowstone in Montana and Wyoming, to the battle site of the Little Big Horn, to Deadwood (where Dad and I sang but discovered that we didn’t really know enough Calamity Jane lyrics not to annoy Tom and Daisy), to Mount Rushmore SD, ending up in Denver CO.  This is a very very large country and we saw lots of mountains, hills, rivers, and more geysers than you can shake a stick at.  I have learned a great deal about geysers, fumaroles, hot springs and boiling mud, and I have learned about the Indian Wars.  Turns out that Custer’s Last Stand wasn’t really as portrayed by Errol Flynn.  We ate well though I missed the fresh fish and seafood that I’ve been enjoying in New York City – frozen battered cod really isn’t much of a substitute.  I am also a wee bit tired of Caesar Salad with Grilled Chicken.  It was lovely to reach Denver and its wide choice of restaurants with interesting dishes.

Today of course is Bastille Day and I did think that I should give you a traditionally French recipe, but decided against.  I am giving you a recipe that Grandma cooked a lot when we were kids.  She used to serve it with rice – traditionally in Scotland it’s served with mashed potatoes – I like it with pasta.  I have a memory of having to be encouraged to eat (hard to believe, I know) so Grandma mixed everything together into a mound, and told me it was a mountain and that the mountain couldn’t be touched.  She would then turn her back and I of course would take a forkful.  With mock annoyance that ‘someone’ had touched her mountain, Grandma would again make a smooth mound.  So today’s recipe is Savoury Mince – a versatile recipe that I use as a base for Shepherd’s Pie or have put in a pie crust for Savoury Mince Pie.  For the first time, I’m not bothering to put ingredients or method.  There are possibilities and variations and you must decide.  The only thing to remember is that 1lb mince has one finely chopped onion and 1 level teaspoon salt.

Heat a pan on a medium heat and add the mince.  I use 95% fat mince but you can have a higher percentage if that suits your budget better.  Break up the meat lumps as it browns.  When the fat escapes from the meat, add the salt and onion.  Turn the heat down and fry gently.  When the meat is in small pieces and browned all over, add any extra vegetables.  My suggestions are peas, finely chopped carrots, sweetcorn, finely chopped turnip/swede, and chopped celery.  Heat through and mix thoroughly.  At this point you can either add beef stock or a tin of chopped tomatoes – whichever you choose, cover the meat by about 1/2 inch / 1 cm and bring to the boil.  Cover and simmer.  Check after 15mins and make sure that there is enough liquid and that the meat isn’t sticking.  After about 30 mins, the meat will be cooked.  I generally add black pepper to taste (unless Big Andrew will be with us).  Serve however you wish – traditionally or exotically!  Grandma used to make a ring of rice, and put the mince inside.  Feel free to make it into a mountain too!

Enjoy!