Friday, 30 January 2009

Dishy Dinners

Ingredients, Seasoning and Tasting... as in life...

Recently it struck me just how bland British cooking can be, mainly brought about as a result of a friends recent request to learn why the British shoulders shudder at the very mention of macaroni cheese and, also due in some part, to my mother's recent stay in hospital and the culinary offerings presented before her.  The hospital provided wonderful nursing but served the most unappetising food on this planet compiled by man or beast; with closed eyes a taste test would have been impossible.

At boarding school, the first lesson in food and nutrition was how to cook sausages with two spoons (so you don't break the skins) and how to make a flavoursome macaroni cheese by slightly under cooking the pasta. 

Our F & N teacher, who was also our housemistress, was a spinster called Miss Hay. She was a real dear in her 50's; it remained a mystery to me why she remained unmarried until after her retirement date, could it be she had been the inspiration for Miss Jean Brodie.  Anyway, the point of this is that she drummed into us the importance of tasting everything prior to preparation and seasoning everything we cooked; admittedly all the spices and seasonings were dried but nonetheless they did improve the flavour of our first foray into cooking.  Her words are embedded into my psyche 'There will be occasions girls, when salt and pepper is not enough, these are the basics of savory recipe seasoning, but it is the other exotic spices which bring the dish into being'.  It was only on reflection many years later that I really understood the poignancy of her words, as most of her statements were not born to be an essential point to our learning but dredged up from another internal place, the true meaning of which was buried somewhere deep within her.

Consequently, I do taste everything and find that I often don't need to use salt at all, as the ingredients can contain their own natural Sucre or piquancy without overkilling it at source, meaning the addition of salt would merely detract from the natural flavours integral to the item.

For me writing has a parallel to cooking, it is all about finding the right balance of ingredients and seasoning in order to produce a flavoursome and tasty dish, the instinct to know when 'salt and pepper is not enough' or salt is not required at all.  Too much seasoning can overburden, mask or ruin the natural characteristics of an individual flavour, killing dead the personality of an essential ingredient. One of my all time favourite screenwriting books which constantly reminds me to revisit structure is by Phil Parker called 'The Art and science of Screenwriting'. I recommend this book to anyone who writes story, even novelists who are looking for a more formulaic approach to story form.

Monday, 26 January 2009

I have emerged from my cave...

Finally, I have emerged from my cave into the light.  (Image of Totleigh Barton writing centre on a sunny day in October)
The last two weeks have been a roller coaster ride of emotions and I feel I have been a passenger on the 'ol red eye'.  The last time I felt this tired was when my daughter was an infant. Thankfully, Lilian's hip operation appears to have been a huge success and the post op difficulties and complications are now well behind us, so the efforts of nurture have been more than worthwhile.

With Lilian's independence and confidence growing daily along with her ability to conquer an increasing range of small tasks, I have now returned to my own wonderful, glorious, comfortable - nay luxurious - bed, to sleep perchance to dream; I had forgotten how utterly fabulous my bed is, an investment indeed.   Although the sleep fairy still hovers in the wings waiting to claim me at every vacant opportunity, the rota of essential tasks and activities feels more natural and a routine of sorts has been established.

My professional writing has taken a back seat, just as well, as I have re-read some of the emails I have sent out during the past two weeks and the spelling and grammar leaves much to be desired; basic errors are commonplace and litter the text.  Untidy and careless.  However tired, I have been writing several times a day in the form of snatched emails, which proved to be my salvation.  Finally, the reunion of the Foodie Arvonites I met in October, on the Food writing week in Devon, has been agreed and settled - a long weekend in May.  I have found a cottage not far from Ludlow.  A definite eleven, ten of whom will have a bed the remaining one will have a section of floor or a sofa, will descend for a weekend of serious culinary discussions, followed by bouts of food and drink ingestion.  I suspect there will be far too much drinking and eating, but hey... who cares?  

Our larder is being coordinator by the wonderful Kristen; our mysterious American in London who writes with such confidence, soul and authority on all the latest food triumphs and the best places to eat out in London.  Caro, an encyclopedia of culinary purveyors nationwide, is bringing Nigella's pavlova with passion fruit - I just hope Nigella doesn't need it for the weekend - and although I may never get to cook for the duration such is the talent within the group, I have every intention of applauding their excellence.  Susan has committed to bringing a variety of cakes for afternoon tea.  May, cannot arrive soon enough for me for we shared such camaraderie, fun and merriment, I am hungry for more.

On Saturday night I went to the pantomime with the lovely James and Graham, and a good bitch, I mean time, was had by all.  There was plenty of singing, shouting and heckling to be had which was incredibly cathartic, it allowed for the release of the suppressed spirit, rising from the dark depths within.  Sadly, the storyline, plot, characters and overall performances were as weak and insipid as skimmed milk but nobody cared, or if they did they didn't let it show.   But here's the thing, it annoyed the hell out of me.  I left feeling that the writer had missed an opportunity, the job only half done; and I wondered whether any producers felt like that over any of my feature scripts.  The pantomime characters were introduced for convenience and an over-egged use of a narrator ensured that precious time was taken away from experiencing the hero's quest, which meant at no time did I care about whether he won the fair maiden's hand or not.  The hero must have been on stage for no more than eight of the one hundred minutes duration of the play, yet the bloomin narrator was ever present. Hmmm. food for thought indeed.

Lesson... Message to self.... 
Let your audience see your hero grow in front of them, without the aid of a lazy device  - it is the law...

PS:  I watched the fabulous drama last night 'A short stay in Switzerland', stellar script, stellar lead taken by Julie Walters and exceptional performances by supporting actors.  The subject matter meant it could so easily have been melodramatic, but it was a near perfect masterpiece, the use of silence or stillness was perfection itself. I hardly moved a limb through the whole of the performance, I was riveted to the spot, yet I was moved to more than tears. 

Friday, 16 January 2009

Praise the Lord...

Life revolves around 'stuff'...
There are times in life when we receive a sharp message, it might remind us all that in spite of our plans and our rigorous planning, we don't always have the last say.

Thankfully, my mother's operation on her hip was a huge success, it was the complications which followed that were traumatic and threatening.  It brought home just how precious she is to me and that it is not always the cause but the effect which can turn our lives on their head but, surrounded by the right set of people, the effects can be minimised or better still remedied.  Lilian is now on the road to recovery in spite of the awful setbacks she has had to endure.  Seeing her so vulnerable and fragile made my heart weep for her, she knew how poorly she was but she is a fighter with the Dunkirk spirit about her.  It also reminded me life is not a dress rehearsal and if we want to live a full and colourful life, we should do so with gusto as if every moment counts and might be our last.

So on a more positive note, I am chanting my new Mantra which is now firmly set in my mind.
I have to 'display' myself soon. One of the tutors who had the unenviable task of teaching me during my return to mid-life education, made the whole experience memorable, fun and lively for us all. He and I have been friends now for nearly nine years (how time flies) and I have lived through the ups and downs of his turbulent love life with alarming regularity but I am delighted to say that last year he finally met his soul mate; a fabulous blond with an effervescent personality, coupled with the tenderness of angels.  I am thrilled I have been invited to their engagement party.   They are the ying and yang of life, two peas in a pod, the perfectly blended brew and I think the fact they are celebrating the occasion by holding a fancy dress engagement party, cements the fact they are both as mad as a box of frogs; in age at least, these are mature people.  

I have been left with the dilemma of choosing or inventing my costume.  For someone who would usually prefer to blend in rather than stand out, I have decided to be bold for once, remember - live every day as if it is your last?  If I am going to look stupid I might as well do it with style. Now I could leave you all guessing, but to be honest you will probably fall somewhere between 'Why should I be interested' or 'whatever', so I will tell you now which character I have selected in order to save myself the disappointment which might come with further indifference. 

Catwoman... for one night and one night only, I am going to be Catwoman.  I know, I know, I can hear you screaming at me already that I run the risk of either looking like Nessa from Gavin and Stacy or one of Dawn French's S & M sketch characters, but I shall be Catwoman, it is now in my head.  My only concern is that the party is in April, approximately 40 miles away in the New Forest and as my active imagination has now placed me stalking through the Forest as a result of a broken down car, frightening the wild livestock in my quest to find a signpost to let the breakdown people know where I am, the next visual image floating around in my head is the newspaper headlines the following day which would read 'Hampshire Post: Giant Panther sighted again'. I realise I spend far too much time living out scenes in my head creating my scripts; methinks there is a long term health warning hidden somewhere in there.  Images continued...I wonder if tranquility darts are painful? I suppose it is one way of getting your hands on some good carumba, or whatever they call it, although personally I would prefer a stiff... wait for it... gin and soda with a slice... Apart from the immediate fast track diet I will be following for the next three months, consisting of one tomato three times a day, I intend to pop up to town and visit three truly lovely new friends I met whilst on the Arvon food writing week, one of which is an avid visitor to HRH endorsed Rigby and Peller;  I will be signing up for one of their best Catwoman undergraments money can buy.  I do have a 'suck in, push up and stick out' little under number of my own, but last time I tried to wear it I gave myself a black eye on the final heave home as my hand slipped from the lycra and nearly rendered me unconcious. The outer garment will be more challenging, although a friend suggested Anne Summers as my starting point.  Any other suggestions on a postcard please. Otherwise you will be able to find me in Fabric Land purchasing volumes of black PVC and just enough yardage to make a matching bum bag, well I have to have somewhere to put my keys and my mobile phone!   For now at least, I am off to doodle some bespoke designs, just in case I cannot find bog standard off the peg.

;o)) for the special agent in my life, this might be construed as a maybe!

Sunday, 11 January 2009

From G-Strings to Applecatchers

Big is Best...
It is quite amazing how the female form, once ergonomically shaped to invite and tantalise the opposite sex, all too quickly turns to jello.

My mother is due to have her hip operation this week, so I have been busy compiling the endless tick list of items that MUST accompany her upon admission (cos Matron says so - you know a bit like MUST remove all acrylic nails - earlier blog) and I will have to banish my mother's essential list containing more comforting items like Whisky, Canadian dry, chocolate and SKY TV (so that she can watch Snooker all night behind Matron's back).  I will be checking her mouthwash for giveaway signs of alcohol and if the satellite dish is missing along with the tool kit, I will be straight back there like a dose of colonic irrigation.  

How the tables have turned.  My mind returns to a time when my mother would 'help' me pack my trunk and tuck box for the dreaded return to boarding school, which on sober reflection I realise I never really conquered the whole homesickness thing, or understood the rationale behind locking a load of pubescent girls together in one dorm with no access to anything with a dangly bit.  On the day I should have been sitting my history O level, I had legged it over the wall and was taking a bit of retail therapy in the town, whilst everyone else was frantically searching for an absent teenager.  I returned, trophy bags in hand, to a furore and a 'never in the history of mankind' lecture by the headmistress and was firmly sent to bed with no tea, pending a decision as to my fate.  The Church of England can be amazingly tolerant and sadly I was not banished from their midst but kept under close guard for the remainder of the O level examination timetable. Needless to say I chose to leave early by flying away to Barbados on BWIA with a friend. I subsequently discovered my punishment for leaving school before the end of term awards had been dished out, was that all four of my sports awards had been re-allocated to someone who was secondary in achievement, but present.... Then after a 'glorious summer of my great content' I returned to study at a technical college, with slightly more enthusiasm for knowledge, but a whole new dictionary of distractions.  The thought of spending a moment longer in an institution designed to turn out well bred 'young ladies' was a chapter too far.  I am ashamed to say, despite the efforts of a handful of teachers who privately admired my spirit but publicly felt they could change me, I left school with a cheque book, a figure and an attitude, a very dangerous combination in a headstrong young woman. Anyway one thing is for sure, Lilian (my mother) won't be legging it over anything for the next three months.

Whilst I have resisted making  my mother sew all her own name tapes on every personal item, I have in part made her accumulate, hunt out and select some of the less fetching items in her wardrobe.  In the words of Matron, BIG is best... I hope she was referring to clothing as the other Kodak alternative sends shudders through my spine.  The G-Strings, basques and stockings will be replaced by nothing less than apple catchers, bolder holders and surgicals to reduce the risk of DVT.  Lilian's usual fragrance is Hermes 'Caleche'  but this will be replaced by the waft of embrocation, and if this doesn't arouse the pheromones in the aging opposite sex, I don't know what will.

In digging around in her drawers for items which will remain nameless, I came across photos that haven't seen the light of day for years.  Photos of a beautiful woman, with ice blue eyes and a beguiling smile, arm in arm with my father, the light of her life.  She has lived without him now for nearly nineteen years, longer than many marriages and sadly some lives.  Lilian's life has been a homage to determination, womanhood and perseverance to see a job through.  Even though I tease her mercilessly, I admire the woman who only a few years ago took me war shopping, diagnosed engine failure during the second world war, miscarried four babies between raising my sister and giving birth to me, who allowed my spirit to shine through, who taught me how to drive in the empty car park of the Dormy Hotel when I was twelve years old, who showed me how to change a plug and cook a casserole, gave me several lessons in how to control a man by making him think all the good ideas are his own (sadly I never mastered it), who I used to meet weekly in Harrods for afternoon tea and who travelled around Europe with me staying in the finest hotels, who took me shopping in town, who had the best pair of pins even attracting wolf whistles in her sixties when she wore a pair of pink cotton shorts, who turned the eye of Prince Philip when she sat three places away from him at a formal dinner in the days when Sir Mark Millbank was head of the royal household, who held court at the Farnborough Air show by flirting outrageously with the Red Arrows.  A woman of many faces, who could turn her hand to anything from removing a chimney stack single handed, to making fairy cakes or entertaining dignitaries.  How easy it is to forget the lives that were lived out over the decades, the resilience and the resolve to still live life to the full.

I suspect once the hip has settled in, Lilian will be back to her old self, speed walking, training for the 2012 Olympics and cycling in the air to keep trim.  Long may it continue...


Watch out Veggies...
Of course I should have read the previous article before posting, as I have included a meat product in an otherwise vegetarian soup.  If you are a veggie don't sue, just omit the Italian cured bacon.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

A glorious day like today

The sense of contentment runneth wild...

Some days hang in the ether of time, made pure by the cleansing of certain people, certain locations and the uniquely special, yet simple events... These are the stuff of substance that set aside the ephemeral happenings of the ordinary and move them into the extra ordinary star log of tomorrow...

Today was one of those.  Armed with a vat of homemade minestrone soup, an array of award winning sausages, caramelised fried onions, along with every type of mustard known to man and more importantly a gathering of special people assembled in a hut on the beach, ensured a special fingerprint of memory was made and logged into an album of an old bird's scrapbook of tomorrows rememberings.  To start the New Year blessed with this opportunity for me to be amongst good friends, is indeed a privilege I do not take lightly.

Rosie's Minestrone Soup
makes approx. 3 pints serves 8/10 people
(Bung into a pan in the following order; lightly fry, but do not colour the following:)
 Add Two sliced and diced baby garlic globes fried off in two tablespoons of olive  oil
 Add one finely diced whole onion
 Add six shafts of sliced celery, hand shredded to the texture of feathers
Add three finely diced carrots
Add approximately four rashers of finely diced pancetta
Add two whole snipped spring onions to the size of fine mini ribbons
Add one Tin of rinsed Cannelli Beans
Add oneTin of rinsed Flagoulet beans
Add half a tea cup full of finely shredded white cabbage
Add two  tins of diced Italian plum tomatoes plus two freshly chopped tomatoes
Add two teaspoons of white sugar
Add two pints of good quality chicken or vegetable stock
Add Malvern Salt and black pepper to taste
Season to taste with the following, or be adventurous with your own flavours
Add either fresh Oregano or dried oregano herbs (I like around 1 tablespoon fresh or 2 teaspoons of dried)
Add one teaspoon of Knorr Aromat seasoning:
To Serve: One ounce of Parmesan or strong salty cheddar cheese/garlic croutons/a variety of artisan breads.

HINT:  For extra flavour - if it is a non-vegetarian dish - add approximately one tablespoon of diced Anchovies

Boil and keep separate approximately a teacupful of fine egg soup noodles (a dessertspoon to be added into the soup bowl on serving).

This soup is so full of taste everyone will be left wanting more.

For me the whole day was full of life's riches, friends, family and a sense of well being.  Laughter, a sense of sharing and spending time with the people in our lives who matter to us.  This will be the first of hopefully many such occasions this year... otherwise known as 'The Gathering'... great title for a book or a film...
Peace, love and hugs,
from Foxi Rosie.

Friday, 2 January 2009

The Remnants of Seasonality

Whilst the remnants of Christmas and New Year sit patiently in the fridge awaiting a corporate decision on their fate, I find I am already planning January's menu.  One of the disadvantages of being a foodie is that it is integral to ones existence.  My downfalls, fabulous breads, cheeeeeze, cream, eggs, ice cream and champagne, although not necessarily on the same plate at the same time... although, hey. 

Considering I have started the New Year in 'woman on a mission' mode, I am determined to match the success of 2008, by losing at least another one and a half stone.  Since the beginning of 2008 I have dropped two frock sizes and the weight remains stable, even over the festive period traditionally known for it's bout of over-indulgence.  Whilst the chocolates, peanuts and snacks passed from hand to mouth around the room, I resisted the temptation with remarkable ease.  If it had a calorie and it didn't float my boat, I left it alone - as in life!

For 2009 I intend to cook to portion control standards, leaving no opportunity to pick like a buzzard over the remnants of a former meal.  However, the challenge this year will be cooking without calories... Oh joy I can't wait.  All no calorie menu suggestions will be gratefully received and anyone who knows how I can cook a tasty mushroom stroganoff without using one dozen eggs and a gallon of cream (OK I know eggs aren't present in a mushstrog, but allow me some poetic licence) please help me out here.  Fortunately, I adore all fresh veg (with the exception of sprouts - I ate my obligatory two at Christmas, mirroring Dawn French in the Vicar of Dibley when she was on her one hundredth) I can also confirm my other favourites are copious amounts of  fruit, salads and fish; what I cannot do with a Watermelon isn't worth doing!  My problem has always been volume.  The reduced plate size and the discipline of no seconds of anything with a calorie in it seem to have worked, albeit slowly but at least it does work, so my next mission is to focus on portion control along with a no grazing policy in between meals.

Chicken and Ginger soup
Add to a pan, but do not brown:
A quarter of an onion finely diced and gently coated in a teaspoon of olive oil
A teaspoon of peeled and crushed fresh ginger and garlic (add to the onions to mingle and meld)
Using a scissors, snip your way down a whole spring onion and add to the mix in the pan 
Add half a pint of good quality homemade chicken stock (left to go cold, fat removed - it should be like jelly)
When the soup has been boiling for around 5 minutes, add a dessertspoon of uncooked mini soup noodle strands (Kosher deli's usually have an excellent selection of interesting shapes - alternatively you can break up a very small bundle of Chinese egg noodles)
Cook until the pasta/egg noodle is tender
Season with celery salt and pepper and Devour!

This soup has a clean, fresh taste. 
Optional before you start the recipe: for those who love a suggestion of aniseed, you can fry off a couple of star anise in the oil, discard. then commence the recipe above.  

As it is Friday today, I will be cleaning my fridge and discarding anything with, an out of, or in date calorie in it, before commencing my other New Years resolution of getting down to my writing.  I have two articles pending, an interview brief, tick sheet and score matrix for the Arts Development Unit for their 'Flourish' project, then I can continue to edit another one of my rom-com scripts before sending it off to my new best friend producer.  Later on today, I need to go shopping as mid-day tomorrow is the gathering of friends and family at my beach hut, for a healthy walk, hot soup and organic sausage tasting.

My wish for 2009 is that my friends and contacts have most of their dreams come true, not all, as otherwise what goals would there be for 2010?
Love and Hugs from Foxi Rosie