Thursday, 30 July 2009

Dumplings and sausages

I spent a good fifteen minutes reading about dumplings on Wikipedia the other day. I guess the things one can do with food are limited, but that knowledge never stops me from finding it remarkable that there are so many dishes that seem to have evolved in parallel within different cuisines, as it were. For example, noodles and pasta have similarities, there's calzone and the Cornish pasty, and of course there are dumplings and wontons from China to Eastern European pierogi/vareniki to Italian tortellini. I suppose the dumpling/pasty thing is simply a neat way of serving lots of different fillings, but it's still interesting. My husband is half Ukrainian, so imagine our delight when we discovered that whilst I can make jiaozi filled with pork and vegetables, he makes vareniki filled with cheese and potato, both of which are cased in a flour and water dough and shaped like stuffed half-moons. Of course I prefer mine, though - I mean, what's the deal with the Ukrainian stodge pie? To be fair, vareniki can have other fillings, but this is the recipe that has been passed down to him.

Then there are variations on salami. The Chinese have one called lap cheong or lap cheung (yeah, no, my surname doesn't mean 'sausage' - that would be too funny. Sorry, different word) that (I think) literally translates as 'wax sausage'. It is often eaten steamed, sliced and doused in soy sauce, which balances its inherent sweetness and fattiness. Oh lord, I could do with some now! But it's so bad for you... There are certain foodstuffs that take you to a particular experience in your life - this sausage reminds me of the first meal we would have at home in England having arrived back that day from Hong Kong. Because the quality of imported products such as these in England isn't as great as in its native land, my parents would smuggle (well, I don't know how legal it was) things like dried oysters, dried sausage, preserved duck and salted fish back in these enormous blue-striped canvas sacks back from HK any time we went there. My god, did we exceed our baggage limit! It was embarrassing - and I guess it must have been allowed because the pungent reek emanating from our luggage would surely give its contents away. Anyway, after we had got home from the airport and had a rest, when it came to food there was nothing in the house, so what better to do than crack open the preserved goodies and re-live the HK experience? You'd think that after weeks of being away from home we would want something not Chinese, but this stuff is something else entirely. You might hate it if you didn't grow up eating it - it's kinda weird, but I still like it now.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Cauliflower risotto

So we ended up making cauliflower risotto last night, served with finely sliced runner beans from my vegetable patch. We are experiencing a bit of a glut of runner beans and courgettes at the moment. The weather has been rainy and sunny enough to cause everything to go BOOMPH! in the garden. I am faced almost daily with a new monster courgette. I will make soup, I think.

This risotto recipe is one of my favourites - even if you're not too sure about cauliflower, this dish will surely, SURELY, make you a fan. You are a lost cause if this doesn't get you excited. It is sprinkled with an anchovy and chilli pangrattato (dry fried breadcrumbs that many less wealthy Italian families used to use instead of expensive Parmesan cheese). To make it, you need Jamie Oliver's basic risotto recipe, which is the base for lots of different risottos, coupled with the recipe for cauliflower risotto. The florets are simmered in the risotto stock as you cook, and then crushed into the risotto later, almost disappearing into it. Sorry, I don't have a photo of my own. I was too eager to eat last night to stop and take pictures. This dish I could eat until I'm sick.

Monday, 27 July 2009


Hmm. Enough rubbish film critique. Tonight we are eating cauliflower. It has become such an underrated vegetable that many farmers are considering not growing it any more. I think that would be a tragedy. Anyone who doesn't like cauliflower either has never had it cooked nicely or is barking mad. It has a lovely delicate flavour but is sturdy enough to be the perfect vehicle for much stronger flavours like cheese, garlic and anchovies. Cooked to perfection it is soft but nubbly, crumbling in your mouth under the slightest pressure - the perfect comfort vegetable if such exists.

I was nearly put off it as a child when one day my sister and I were given a bowl of caulifower each. I think we were being pests in the take-away so were sent off into the front reception room to play with food. We added tomato ketchup and mashed it up. It was horrible. However, rescue was at hand - my dad used to sauté some garlic and a sliced pork chop in some oil, then add cauliflower cut into chunks, followed by a little water, seasoning and a dash of oyster sauce and soy sauce. Simmered until tender it was salty, chewy, lumpy perfection.

And the leaves are perfectly edible and actually rather lovely to eat. I hate to waste food, so I try to use as much of the vegetable as possible. Here's a great way of using the whole thing:

Sautéed Cauliflower (I could eat half a cauliflower by myself, but then I'm a bit weird so quantities are arbitrary)

Cut all parts of the cauliflower (leaves, stems, florets) into chunks. Lightly boil for about five minutes, then sauté in olive oil with sliced garlic, dried chilli flakes and a few anchovies for a good 10-15 minutes or so until there are nicely browned patches on the pieces of cauliflower. Check and adjust the seasoning and serve. You can add parsley, pine nuts, capers... anything you think would work. I could eat this with anything. I bet it's a marvel just on its own with toast, or maybe as a side dish with some fish.

the weekend...

was busy. We spent four and a half hours cleaning the house and getting back to its normal state on Saturday. It was boring to say the least. The football on Friday was great fun - Wembley Stadium at night is magnificent. Sadly, Tottenham sucked and we finished up third place out of four - ouch.

We were watching the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind yesterday. In a similar vein to what I was writing on Alternative Eagle today, this film is successful because of good storytelling - such a simple premise told with wit and imagination. I like how it sits on the boundaries of being funny and sad, sweet and cynical. It never leaves you feeling just one thing - you run a whole gamut of emotions, and that kind of story, to me, reflects life better than something that is purely funny or grim as hell. Beneath its relatively light mood it has an intriguing dark heart - an exploration of whether anyone could hurt you so much that you'd rather not remember them at all, good or bad. Even through its surrealist filmic devices it says something very resonant - that in the end it's all about the balance between the good things and the bad.

Friday, 24 July 2009

we did it!

We've finished the kitchen floor! I am inordinately, ridiculously happy. It looks good, which is rather surprising given how little we knew about tiling before we embarked on this. We're bloody experts now... We wiped the last grout off at 11.45 last night, having only started the grouting after dinner, first spending a good hour or more dithering over how thick the grout should be. Cheapo vanilla ice-cream is the texture we went for in the end. Half melted.

Here is a before and after... We had to let it all dry out, de-mould it, seal it, then lay a flexible underlayer before tiling... it took up too much of our lives.

(above) Before. Sodden fungal mess.

(above) After. Huzzah.

The verdict is that whilst we like to think that we would one day like to renovate a house, really we're not the world's most enthusiastic DIYers. I think we won't be tiling anything for a good long while after that. And all that was because the washing machine leaked and destroyed our old kitchen floor. Nothing worse than non-self-inflicted DIY emergency repairs.

Today we are off to Wembley stadium to watch not one but TWO games of football. My beloved Tottenham are playing Barcelona in this random competition called The Wembley Cup, but first we have to watch Celtic play an Egyptian team called Al Ahly. We couldn't get Tottenham tickets so we will be sitting with the Al Ahly fans. I'm quite excited. Sad, aren't I?

Thursday, 23 July 2009

oh dear

I've been neglectful this week. I have not written any pointless posts here until today. I have not even had any pointless thoughts recently, nor any weird dreams to talk about. I've been busy.

I cannot understand why anyone would be a tiler for a living. It destroys your hands and is boring as fuck. That is what we have been busy doing. snore!

Sunday, 19 July 2009


When I was very young we used to occasionally have gammon with pineapple. I always took the pineapple off immediately and ate it separately, but the gammon had already tainted it and vice versa. Or there might be sweet and sour pork with pineapple chunks loitering in the sauce like a gustatory ambush. And what on earth is the deal with ham and pineapple pizza, or that abomination, cheese and pineapple on cocktail sticks? I remember having the latter inflicted on me at birthday parties in the 1980s like a punishment. As you can see, I wasn't too sure about the whole fruit and savoury thing as a child (or was it just pineapple?). Later at university, friends would turn their noses up at the occasional apple parading as a suitable partner for pork, or cranberry with turkey, stuff like that. I think we called it 'course-mixing' - I mean, what on earth is dessert doing in my main, dammit?

I have to say, though, I've grown to like fruit in savoury dishes - it adds a frisson of uncertainty. Is it going to work? Will it be horrid, or just unnecessary? I like the pineapple in sweet and sour now because I'm still not all that sure about it and it's a bit exciting eating things that are a bit weird. Like the bloke in Oldboy who eats a live octopus - or not that weird :-). Yeah, it was on TV on Saturday night but we chickened out and went to bed after that scene. We loved how the tentacles were wrapping around his nose as he ate it but I think you have to mentally prepare yourself for such wilful oddness, so we quit early.

Anyway, back to the subject. A few weeks ago at our friend's house the husband and I mentioned a recipe that we had been wanting to try out: strawberry risotto. Our friends were slightly dubious when we said with glee: 'no, this isn't a sweet rice pudding, it's a full-on savoury risotto with Parmesan cheese, no less!'

The recipe is from Twelve, a Tuscan cookbook by Tessa Kiros. Her books are wonderful. Her recipes and writing embody how I think food should be: homely, comforting, delicious. The design and styling are magnificent, especially in the child(and grown-up)-friendly Apples for Jam and Falling Cloudberries, a collection of family recipes from around the world. I could look at them for hours.

So yesterday we tried out the risotto recipe with lovely English strawberries. Here is my best picture of the result:

And here is the recipe:

Risotto alla fragola (adapted from Twelve by Tessa Kiros, serves 2):

(Tessa uses 20g butter - half to fry the onions, the rest added at the end - we leave it out for the sake of our health)
1/4 medium white onion, very finely chopped (she uses 1/2 a French shallot)
125g strawberries, hulled and halved
75ml white wine (she uses 1 1/2 tbsp brandy, which we don't have)
90g risotto rice
750ml vegetable stock (she uses chicken or meat stock)
a small handful of freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper

In a large saucepan, sweat the onions in butter (we use light olive oil instead) until soft, about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, put your stock in a saucepan over a low heat and keep it simmering. Add half the hulled strawberries and cook for a further two minutes. Then add the wine or brandy and simmer until the liquid has just about evaporated. Then add the rice and stir to coat all the grains. Season with pepper and salt if you wish, depending on if your stock is salted or not, then add a ladleful of stock to the pan and stir until the liquid is absorbed into the rice. Continue to add stock by the ladleful, stirring until all the liquid is absorbed before adding the next. Keep going until you have used up all or most of your stock. This should take about 20 minutes. When the rice is cooked but still has some bite, turn off the heat, stir in half of the Parmesan and the rest of the strawberries, then cover and leave the pan to sit untouched for two minutes. Serve with black pepper and the rest of the cheese sprinkled on top.

Was it good? Oh yes. The strawberries that are stirred in right at the end are quite sweet and took a little getting used to - in some ways I thought I might prefer it if I'd cooked them in a bit more. They were a bit desserty, perhaps. But the risotto itself was lovely - not at all sweet, it had a tangy note from the fruit that cut through the risotto's inherent richness. I wouldn't serve it to people who have full-blown course-mixing issues, it's probably a step too far, but if you like your food to be a bit exciting I'd certainly recommend it.

There are plenty of quite unusual risotto recipes floating around - Jamie Oliver's Jamie's Italy has a few wonderful recipes, in particular the cauliflower risotto and another with roasted mushrooms and lots of parsley. I'll waffle on about them another time.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009


I don't like to laugh at people, it makes me feel mean, but sometimes it's just too bloody funny. Thanks to the magnificent Barry, here's a bit of, uh, eye candy from a seller on eBay who has touchingly painted this tribute picture of Michael Jackson's chimp, Bubbles, alongside old MJ's glove and hat combo. I'm hyperventilating with disbelief. Here's the description from the seller:

Here is a painting of a child's impression of Bubbles, Michael's beloved Chimp.

The painting is done in acrylics and measures approximately 7" x 10". Painted on good quality acrylic paper, it is not mounted or framed, and leaves the buyer to choose a suitable mounting/frame to suit their own decor.

This lovely chap is bound to enthrall a young child - or maybe and older one too!

It is a tribute to a great star, who sadly died this week, far too soon, and now is reunited with Bubbles.

To suit their own decor?! I'd advise fire, or at least a bin. Starting bid is 99p. Any takers? It's too much. I think I need to lie down.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009


Went to Bridge End Garden in my local town yesterday with a friend and got lost in a hedge maze for quite some time. It didn't help that all it made me think of was that scene at the end of The Shining where he's chasing the kid through the maze - plus I was regaling my companion with this story so didn't take note on where we had been or not. Sadly it wasn't snowing, which would have made it more fun, but it was starting to rain.

I've been busy doing random things with friends since last Wednesday, so haven't had time to think much at all.

I ate a small but decadent chocolate pudding yesterday without looking once at the nutrition label. For someone who's a bit fussy about fat and sugar content this was a feat of brilliance. I think it enhanced the experience of eating it. From the way it tasted, it probably had enough calories to fuel a rocket.

Friday, 10 July 2009

night-hunger II

well, last night I had some horrible dreams about buildings collapsing and being stuck inside with my family without being able to get the padlocked door open and stuff like that. Not good. I also had a dream in which my dear husband was eating a piece of chocolate cake with some kind of vanilla icing, oh yes, I remember the icing very well. He was meant to leave a bit for me, but as I turned around, I saw the last piece disappearing into his mouth. All he did was shrug and say 'want?'. Jesus, was I annoyed. So annoyed that it woke me up.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009


Last night I dreamt about a huge canteen in which I was queuing for lunch, but I lost my meal ticket not only once, but twice. What meal ticket? I think I've only ever had about three such things in my life! I think there was chicken involved, and possibly tomatoes. Those kind of foodstuffs are certainly within my experience, but the panic of not being able to have my lunch because I kept dropping the damned ticket was pretty new and quite frightening. Funnily enough, I woke up just after those dreams absolutely ravenous with hunger. There is nothing worse than night-hunger, the kind that talks to you in your sleep and wakes you up feeling cavernously empty. I think I'm quite anxious this week.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Monday, 6 July 2009

the weekend...

was strangely symmetrical. Drove to my parents' house whilst listening to poor old Andy Murray losing to Roddick at Wimbledon; drove home on Sunday listening to poor old Roddick losing to Federer. By the way, the world has me to thank for ending that increasingly boring latter match. Yup, I went for a pee in a service station about two points before it was over, leaving Mark to listen to it in the car. When I emerged from the harrowing bowels of the McDonald's loo, he was standing there grinning because I had done SUCH a good job of finishing off the match. It's true, you know.

Families are screwed up, aren't they? I sometimes feel like mine is scarily near the tippy top of the pile of crazies. There are some things I won't write about here, but one of the more minor (yes indeed) things was that upon our arrival on Friday night, my mother took me out into the hallway and showed me that she and my dad have just covered the entire wall next to the stairs with mirrored tiles. I nearly died of horror. Apparently they have been listening to some random quack feng-shui-inspired friend and decided to make a few 'changes'. This also involved my dad hanging a heavy art-deco mirror somewhat precariously over my bedroom door like some kind of booby trap. Nice mirror, bloody weird idea. They are nuts. I love them, but they are absolutely out of their trees.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

this is how things are

You cannot imagine the trouble we've had because of our washing machine...

Wednesday, 1 July 2009


I am getting to grips with Chinese-style dumplings, the ones filled with vegetables and minced pork and then steamed, boiled or fried. I think I have them pretty good now. I always seem to be lacking one ingredient or another when I'm making these, but somehow they always turn out OK. But maybe I'm kidding myself and my Dad would wrinkle his nose at them or laugh at me. I'll maybe write up a recipe one day, but that might be telling...

The ritual of chopping, mixing, making dough, rolling and filling is something best shared with other people. It's something I remember doing at home as a teenager with my parents teaching us how to make these little purses over the kitchen table. I never had the patience in those days to do very many, so I'd wander off after a while. It is the kind of thing, though, that brings with it that marvellous feeling of tradition and familial closeness, like pasta making, or the kneading of bread. And then you all sit down to eat it together, which surely is the best thing in the world.

So it is that with my surrogate family of university friends, some of my best memories are of the dumpling 'parties' we used to throw, sometimes with just my flatmates, other times with friends too. We used to gather in the kitchen whilst I made the mix for the filling and kneaded the dough for the cases, and then they would all have a go at filling them and striving to make the perfect shape, curved and pleated like a pair of plump horns. It would take so long that we wouldn't sit down to eat until late, slightly delirious with hunger, but it was always, always worth the wait. I would make a whole load of different dipping sauces and we'd steam piles of baby pak choi to eat with it. Even when we were all full up, if there were any left over there would always be room for a couple more.