Needs Must When The De’il Drives

I am the first to admit, and I know I’ve written before, that I often found it difficult cooking for you boys when you were young and awkward.  (Though, in fairness to Andrew, I have to say that he was never as difficult as a child as the rest of you.)  There was no fun in creating something that I thought was delicious and tempting, only for it to be pushed away, mouths closed determinedly and heads shaken in disgust.  It was particularly irritating when this happened with a dish that had been enjoyed on a previous occasion.  We reached a sort of modus operandi when I agreed not to try and poison you with things you truly hated and you agreed to properly try what I’d made.  From my point of view, though, life improved quite dramatically when you started going on play dates.  It seems that peer pressure is what pushed you all into eating a wider choice of food.

The quid pro quo of you going on play dates was that we had your friends coming to the house.  Some of them were nothing like as willing to try my cooking as you were prepared to try their mothers’ food, and there were also some rather demanding mothers.   I will never forget those who couldn’t eat anything without it being smothered in ketchup, and the mother who blamed me for not having any; the mothers who wanted their children to only have organic food; and the boy who only ate plain boiled rice in Wagamama’s – these are particular standouts.  I was never as bothered by friends who had genuine food requirements – varying levels of Kosher adherence; nut allergies; or genuine dislikes of which I was forewarned.

The final turning point in your eating habits was a proposed trip to Hong Kong in 1999.  We were all invited to Uncle Steve’s 40th birthday bash, but Dad and I explained to you that one of the great joys of Hong Kong was the food, and that we just weren’t comfortable taking you when you were quite restricted in your choices.  The carrot of a trip to Hong Kong turned it all around, and I don’t honestly think we have looked back since.  I have always known that no-one eats absolutely everything, but my hope was that we would be able to travel and go into any restaurant and find something that any one of you would eat and enjoy.  I believe we’ve achieved that.

Now as I get older, I find increasingly that it is rare to have people to dinner who don’t have some kind of food request.  Some of these are medical requirements, some religious, some feel better for avoiding something, some are pescatarian or vegetarian.  Unless there are many varying requirements at the same meal, I must say that I quite enjoy the challenge.  Last Sunday, we had friends over, one of whom cannot tolerate wheat, not just the gluten, all wheat.  The starter was simple, spicy tomato soup; the main course was a roast; and for dessert we decided on cheese (because Dad tries to avoid carbs …).  I wanted to serve oat cakes with the cheese, but Whole Foods didn’t have any.  So I decided to make them.  I haven’t done this for some years, but I knew it wasn’t difficult.  I knew that my trusty The Scots Kitchen by F Marian McNeill would have the recipe, as indeed it did.  However, that recipe was imprecise even for me, the queen of imprecise recipes.  I remembered that there had only been five ingredients – oats, salt, fat/butter, baking soda and water – but I didn’t remember the proportions.   Much searching of the internet, and much rejection of recipes that I felt were too complicated or inauthentic, but eventually I combined a couple and made the following.  I thought they tasted good.  They could perhaps have been cooked for slightly longer in the oven so that they were dryer and browned, but all in all I was pleased.

Oatcakes – Ingredients

Makes 20

  • 125 g / 4 oz rolled oats
  • 125 g / 4 oz pinhead oatmeal (steel cut oats in the US)
  • 125 g / 4 oz oat flour (which I didn’t have so I blended 125 g of rolled oats until it looked flour-like) plus extra for rolling
  • 60 g / 2 oz butter (I used unsalted as I always do), melted
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 tsp / 5 mg baking soda
  • hot water


Heat the oven to 150 C / 300 F.

I used a mixer for this once I had mixed the oats.


Rolled oats

Mix the oats, salt and baking powder in a mixing bowl.  Add the butter and mix well.  Add 4 tbsp of hot water and mix well.  The aim is to have a mixture which is not too wet and which sticks together as a lump, so add more hot water, a tablespoonful at a time, until you have the desired consistency.

Sprinkle some of the oat flour on the counter, and roll until it is about 5 mm / 1/4 inch thick.  All the recipes I read warned about the mixture sticking to the rolling pin, but this didn’t happen.  I suspect that my mixture was slightly too dry.  The cutter I used was about 6 cm in diameter.


Cutting out


I then placed them on my pizza stone, put them in the oven and cooked for about 40 minutes which is way longer than any of the recipes said.  Nor did they brown particularly.


Just about to go into the oven


An alternative is to cook on a flat griddle.  I thought about this, since it is more traditional, but decided against because we have a very sensitive smoke alarm!


Ready to be served

If you want to add herbs, only use dried herbs because fresh will burn.  Hard cheese such as Cheddar or Parmesan can also be added.

I will definitely be making these again.  I was really pleased with the result.



Happy New Year

I’m not making any resolutions today.  The decision I took last February to eat considerably less and move more has changed my life more than anything I can think of for 2014.  I have already decided that I will continue with my exercise regime – oddly I have found that I enjoy the buzz that working out brings.  I think I would like to move away from purely gym-based exercise and so will be looking at Pilates or yoga classes.  This doesn’t count as a resolution though because I first thought about it in October!  I did read on Facebook about Gratitude Jars.  Apparently when something wonderful happens you write a note about it and put it in the jar.  At the end of the year, you take out all your notes and re-read them and remember all the things you were grateful for during the year.  I have decided, and I have challenged Dad to do the same, that every day  in 2014 I will make a note on a computer document of the highlight of that day.  At the end of the year, we will look over the past year together.  Now I know it isn’t as pretty as an actual jar with handwritten notes, but for me and Dad it is way more practical.

I don’t remember much about New Year’s Days gone by.  The very late nights/early mornings didn’t lend themselves to much activity.  I suppose the level of activity was directly proportionate to the amount of alcohol drunk during the previous 24 hours!  I was often designated driver (which I really didn’t mind) and so was usually the least tired the next day.  I remember going for walks on the North Yorkshire Moors ‘to blow away the cobwebs’ and the smiles on Grandma’s face when I returned with rosy cheeks.  For Grandma, rosy cheeks were to be aspired to and a sign of good health, and for some reason she never managed to get them.  I suppose it was her skin tone, but she saw it as a personal triumph when Suzy and I returned from our yomp with glowing cheeks.

Suzy’s memories of New Year’s Day will, I expect, include the dinner.  Grandma almost always served pheasant with game chips for the evening meal, a lovely meal and the game chips (like thick potato chips) were always home-made, except that Suzy didn’t and still doesn’t eat pheasant. She would have a couple of poached eggs while the rest of us tucked in.  I still don’t understand why Grandma insisted on serving a meal that she knew one of us yucked mightily!

My plans for today don’t include pheasant or poached eggs.  I am going to the gym and then meeting Dad, Tom and George on the mountain for lunch.  I haven’t been up to the mountain yet, but I have no doubt that being there will be remind me of all four of you boys skiing towards me, as I waited to collect you from ski school, then you turned sharply and sprayed me with snow….  for you guys, it never lost its amusement; for me, honestly, I was a bit meh about the whole thing! I have no idea what I will have for lunch – I know I will not partake of the French-Canadian dish of poutine, chips (french fries) smothered in brown gravy and cheese curds.  It just doesn’t look that appetising.  Tonight we are going to have a fondue in the Walliser Stube restaurant in the hotel.  They serve a wide selection of fondues, from the traditional cheese and bread to pork, beef and/or seafood.  With all this lined up, you can see why I’m going to the gym.

Well, I started this post with no idea as to what today’s recipe should be.  I knew it wouldn’t be roast pheasant or poached eggs, and I wanted it to be something that reminded me of my childhood.  So, today’s recipe is traditionally Scottish – easy as anything – quick and tasty.  It’s what Grandma called Herrings in Oatmeal, and what my Scots cookbook calls Fried Herring (Scots Fashion).

Herrings in Oatmeal – Ingredients

  • 2 filletted herrings per person
  • Oatmeal – you can use rolled oats or pinhead oatmeal or a mixture.  Pinhead oatmeal adds a lovely nuttiness.
  • Milk
  • Oil to fry – traditionally this was dripping or lard, you may prefer a neutral vegetable oil
  • Salt and pepper


Allow about 1 oz / 25g of oatmeal per fillet.  Put oatmeal onto a plate.  Pour milk into a bowl.  Heat the oil in a frying pan till hot.  Submerge the herring fillet in the milk, and then put the fillet onto the oatmeal.  Cover both sides.  Fry for a couple of mins each side.  Serve immediately.


The Most Important Meal of the Day

Anyone who knows and loves me knows that I am a great fan of bacon – smoked back, dry cure if possible, British back bacon, grilled to my idea of perfection and ideally served with scrambled or poached eggs, black pudding, red pudding, good quality pork sausages and mushrooms.  And I’ve been known to add haggis into the mix, and in Ireland white pudding.  Yup a proper cooked breakfast.  In days gone by I enjoyed fried bread too, but seem to have lost the taste for it over the years.  I wouldn’t turn my nose up at bread dipped in bacon fat though, even now.  (Remind me again why I needed to diet?)  I used to really enjoy doing a cooked breakfast on a Sunday morning when we were still in London and serving it to family and whatever waifs and strays were staying over that night.  This amazing meal would then keep us going until the family meal in the evening.  Sundays were epicurean excellence for me, and I can’t tell you how much I miss those brunches (as they inevitably were – no-one got up very early on a Sunday), and those Sunday evening meals.

Now most of the cooked breakfast fits in with the high protein, low carbohydrate style of eating but honestly they don’t really keep you going.  There has been much in the news recently about the advantages of eating porridge and how good oats are for lowering your cholesterol and that porridge is in fact the best meal to keep you going through to lunch without any hunger pangs.  I am also an expert on porridge, on the eating of it, that is.  I knew the weather had turned cold when Papa offered porridge in the mornings and it was he who taught me to make it.  Now Papa liked his porridge thick so that it would ‘stick to your ribs’ and keep you warm.  Grandma didn’t like hers quite so thick.  (Just realised that there are shades of the Goldilocks tale in this!)  I didn’t care so long as someone else was making it for me.

I remember that when we still had milk delivered in bottles, and therefore still had a top of the milk, ie, cream that gathered at the top of the bottle, we all preferred the top of the milk on our porridge.  I can still hear Papa (who got up first, made the porridge and thus almost inevitably got the top of the milk) shouting at us to finish one milk bottle before we opened another.  I don’t remember taking any notice though.  Sometimes I carefully poured the milk around the edge of the bowl, sometimes I put the milk in a cup so that it stayed cold and dipped a spoonful of porridge into that cup.  I always sprinkled sugar on top.  I can see Papa ladling sugar or golden syrup onto his, and happily telling me how his grandfather had warned him that he would get diabetes because of his sweet tooth.  Papa had also eaten sugar sandwiches as a child.  And of course sadly his grandfather was right.  It was hard for Papa to learn to eat porridge without sweetener, but he did.  I too have learnt to enjoy it without sweetener but it took a while.  I still prefer full fat milk though – I would rather eat porridge ‘nude’ than with skimmed milk.

Papa used to say that in the olden days, when winters were hard in Scotland extra porridge was made and it was spread into a drawer, where it hardened and was then cut into pieces for lunch for the workers.  Sounds grim.

Anyway, today’s recipe is Porridge.  The recipe is simple, but you have to remember to stir with your left hand in a figure of eight – this is the way I was shown by Papa (who was left-handed) and it seems wrong to use my right hand.  No idea why it has to be done in a figure of eight but since it’s always worked, I’m not changing it.  Ideally you will be using a spurtle but a wooden spoon works just as well.  Porridge pans can be horrible to clean, so as soon as you’ve served it, fill the pan with warm water.  Latterly Grandma and Papa made their porridge in the microwave because it was quicker and you didn’t have to clean a pan.  Unbelievably I’ve never done this.  I enjoy stirring the pot, thinking of Papa every time and laughing at the fact that I still believe that I have to do it left-handed.


(Serves 1)


  • 280 ml / 1/2 pint water
  • 2 heaped tbsp oats – I tend to use rolled oats because you don’t have to think.  Papa’s favourite was pin head oatmeal, but he soaked the oats overnight.  It’s worth buying good quality oats – they last forever and the difference in the porridge is worth it.
  • Pinch of salt – it is not Scottish porridge without the salt.


Put all the ingredients into a pan, and bring to the boil, stirring often.  Simmer for about 7 mins, stirring all the time, until it’s the required thickness.  Leave to stand for a minute and serve into warmed bowls.  Serve with sugar, honey or syrup and cold cold milk.  I doubt you’ll find top of the milk nowadays!