It’s 5 a.m. and I’m sitting at a computer, bare footed with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice at my elbow. Mr A and I have annoyingly been up for quite a while, surfing futiley through a gazillion TV channels, knowing that come 3 p.m. all we – and Miss R- will want to do is flop under a ceiling fan and have a wee siesta. But we will be too busy alligator spotting at the local nature preserve or burning up the plastic in a meat locker-cold mall for such simple pleasures. Yup, we are not at home in Edinburgh, but in fact visiting my family in Florida. And, despite the decided lack of zzzs, it is worth all of the crummy jet lag in the world. Continue reading
There is nothing quite like waking up on a Saturday knowing that you are going to go mattress hunting. At Ikea. That maddening enforced maze. Those cute little scenarios that you can never recreate. And those blasted tempting meatballs. Unlike many families, we do not enjoy shopping. I detest the lighting in most stores and the claustrophobic feeling in all but the most unaffordable of shops; Mr A, well he is a guy; and Miss R likes shopping well enough when given a wad of money and a cheerio-goodbye from her parental benefactors (slightly unfair, she actually doesn’t mind hanging with me).
I know we are atypical in this respect. One only has to go to Tesco or up into town on a weekend and one can see two- and three-generations of family strolling together, carrier bags swinging in unison – little Johnny and Jessica with an ice cream, and Ma and Pa with takeaway lattes or some such. How I envy their calm mien. With us it is more like Mr A hovering on a double yellow line and Miss R and me dashing about like demented wasps trying to get whatever vital item it is that we lack. Stressed and sweating we then pile into the car, like thieves making a getaway.
I used to adore shopping, both proper and window. I can’t quite put my finger on why I would now rather stick pins in my eyes than schlep uptown to spend money I don’t have on something I don’t need. Perhaps it’s the largely indifferent service, or the feeling one is being manipulated (Ikea, I am talking about you). Or that I don’t care for what passes for fashion these days. Despite loathing it more than I loathe watching Gran Prix (which is saying something) sometimes you just gotta do it. And today was the day. To be far it wasn’t too hideous. Mr A sat in the car listening to rugby while Miss R and I flopped on beds. Quite an odd experience rolling onto one’s side and looking straight into the eyes of a stranger doing the same thing two feet away. Anyway, Miss R found a mattress. But little did we realise until we read the fine print that their mattresses are “European sizes”. Miss R’s bed frame is good ol’ John Lewis, some 10 cm shorter. Much sighing in silence on the way home. And we didn’t even get any meatballs for our troubles. Continue reading
This morning I realised we are experiencing an inexorable slide to ‘porridge weather’. All summer I have been vacillating between starting the day with berries and yogurt, poached egg with asparagus, and a breakfast bruschetta of chopped cherry tomatoes, olive oil & basil on sourdough. All very delicious and light. But this morning – without any thought behind it – I reached into the cupboard and pulled out a forlorn packet of Scottish porridge oats. Using a half and half mixture of soya milk and water, I simmered this companionable pairing before adding dried goji berries and a grating of apple. And it was heavenly. If that doesn’t say ‘autumn’ I’m not sure what does.
But it wasn’t just the instinctively pre-hibernation breakfast that signaled summer’s end. Although it doesn’t yet feel too chilly, the other omens are abundantly clear: more than the odd brown leaf on the lawn, mystery mushrooms colonising under the oak tree, a lower, moodier sky. But my most accurate harbinger is the two extra bodies on the bed. Today Mr A and I awoke to find our cats nestled and immovable among the folds of the the duvet.
Over the years we have realised that as soon as Max and Mimi pad up from the cool and serene downstairs to warm and cosy upstairs, summer is well and truly behind us. So, barring a freak heat wave (highly unlikely) it won’t be long until we fire up the central heating and start moaning about the cost of it. Until then it is an extra layer and the comfort of cat-warmed feet. Continue reading
As usual I am getting a bit carried away. For some weeks I have been threatening, from my little box thing on the right of each post, to give you a simple rocket (arugula) frittata. Here it is. But I also have a massive amount of sweet young courgettes (zucchini) to work my way through. I will try your patience over the next few weeks with a few courgette-based recipes, but I promise they will be easy, a bit different, and packed with flavour. All Scottish crops have grown like billy-o with their near-daily soaking, and courgettes are no exception. Rocket too. But I will give the courgettes a rest soon. In the meantime, bear with me as I work my way through many kilos of this easy to grow vegetable. You have been warned. Continue reading
I love being away. Especially when it’s to familiar, yet massively exciting London with my family. But, boy do I love coming home. I bet you are the same. There is something about your own bed and bath that is quite primal. Safety and familiar-comforts ultimately trump the unknown – however much fun. But we really had a terrific time, despite some pre-travel nerves at arriving while the situation in London was still volatile. Well I was jittery, Mr A and Miss R were their usual breezy, up-for-it selves. And they of course were right. We had a ball.
Although the riots and the lead up to them were deeply worrying and unsettling, the London we experienced was universally uplifting and positive. Everyone we encountered was friendly, helpful and polite – from the harassed Tube station staff (I was the zillionth person to ask the same dumb question), the stall holders in every market we visited, to the alarmingly young and fresh-faced policemen and women we asked directions. Even when I just about took out an elderly lady with my oversized ‘new’ vintage bag, having spied yet another pop-up vintage market to blow my money in, she just smiled and said, ‘It’s awright, my love’.
We also have the same experience in Paris. It always surprises us that London, and Paris in particular, is perceived as being populated with surly, eye contact-avoiding citizens who would sooner spit on you than help you. A little effort with the language, a show of politeness, and a smile are all we have ever found necessary to get on in these famously bustling cities. Maybe we have just been lucky but I do think that a bit of the old ‘do unto others as you would be done by’ can’t hurt.
Pittenweem, the picture-postcard fishing village where we are staying the weekend, is gearing up for its week in the British cultural spotlight hosting the Pittenweem Arts Festival (6-14 August). This dinky village, so tiny that it doesn’t have a cash machine, or even the ubiquitous Tesco Metro, hosts one of the best, most accessible art shows to be found anywhere. By accessible I mean that the art displayed is wide-ranging enough to please the culture-vultures (my in-laws) and Philistines (that will be me) alike. Gorgeous, colour-soaked abstract canvases jostle with simple pen and ink studies, blowsy floral whimsies and beautiful sea-inspired tapestries in this most egalitarian of art festivals.
Although Pittenweem boosts an unusually high number of galleries for such a bijou place, the ever-increasing number of artists who exhibit over the week means that the ground floors and gardens of many houses are co-opted and hung with paintings, dotted with sculptures and draped with textiles and decorative baubles. The village is always eye-achingly gorgeous, especially the Shore area, with its pastel tied fishermen’s cottages, tumbling gardens and step-gabled roofs, but it really comes alive in August. If you are anywhere near the east coast of Scotland come and have a browse around this uniquely homey art festival.
Even if nothing catches your eye art-wise there are always the home-baking stalls spilling out onto the pavement to tempt you. And the Cocoa Tree, where I use coffee-purchased wi-fi for the occasional blog post, has dangerously addictive chilli cocoa to sup while enjoying homemade crepes and other goodies. Great chocolate shop too. The fish and chip shop a few doors down is also a good find. Anstruther, the next village up, has a famous fish and chip shop (it boasts photos of celebs noshing with the plebes from cardboard trays). But Pittenweem Fish Bar is just as good at two-thirds of the price, with efficient staff to keep everyone in their place as they queue down the street for their portions of crisp-golden fish. And no cardboard tray-plates, just good old paper to unwrap while sitting on the harbour wall watching the fishing boats go out for the night.
I will let you in on something: I am typing this while eating pink peppercorn dark chocolate. Yes, little miss eat-your-greens is merrily chowing down on some delectable chocolate noir au poivre rose, to give it its proper name. I discovered it in the impulse buy section by the tills at good old TK Maxx. Normally I am immune to the lure of the well-thumbed packets of oddly flavoured liquorice and jelly beans that are the usual checkout fodder at said retail emporium, but my trash-o-meter must have been out of whack. It does have pretty pink packaging, so I can just about blame the buy on grounds of physical attraction rather than greed. But we know better. If you are interested, it is from quality Belgian brand Dolfin, who have a beautiful website that helpfully offers convincing health information to lessen the guilt. For more about benefits of chocolate and why not to feel guilty about it, see my earlier post. I subsequently saw ‘my’ chocolate in the posh chocolate section of Tesco (no, I didn’t know they had a posh section either, let alone a chocolate one) but have resisted buying a job lot. Just to leave some for you. I’m not normally that nice. It’s well-balanced, not too bitter and comes in a petite 70g size – enough for two to share, or not…
I can barely believe it but here in Scotland we have had two stunning weekends – in a row. Now, those of you who are not familiar with Scotland perhaps cannot appreciate how newsworthy this is. Even in the height of summer (denoted by calendar dates, not weather) we can go weeks without baring our toes. My summer wardrobe is so lightly worn that, because I am averse to getting rid of things unless they no longer fit or are a bit tatty, I still have wearable – but deeply unfashionable – items from the 90s. I kid you not. Summerwear is really in name only, or something to pack when visiting more southerly climes. In fact one summer, thanks to Marks & Spencer’s then-generous returns policy, I ended up returning still-ticketed summer clothes that Miss R didn’t get a chance to wear. How sad is that. The British, and the Scots in particular, are however nothing if not optimistic, always making the most of any break in the clouds and wind to have lunch in the garden, or recline in public green spaces, trouser legs roughly rolled above pallid knees to catch the sun. So, we are all beyond excited at the prospect of a warm and settled summer. I am putting my fingers metaphorically in my ears and singing ‘ la la la’ to anyone who insists on saying, ‘That was our summer’. It is only Spring for goodness sake: plenty of time for pavement dining, allotments filled to bursting and the dreaded hosepipe ban. As I write this in the garden in shorts and tee-shirt, the weather prognosticators are saying it is set fair for the forseeable future. Just this once, I choose to believe them. Continue reading
I had a pleasant surprise when out at the Edinburgh Farmer’s Market this past Saturday, and not just that it is incredibly warm for this time of year – a flesh-baring 21C – but that I spotted a rarely seen favourite childhood food. Although I have lived in Edinburgh for many years, I actually grew up in Tennessee and Florida, two states famed for their prodigious agricultural output. Now this is going to sound odd to most of you but one thing that I have always been very fond of, and always try and eat when I visit my family, is bitter greens – collards, various types of kale, mustard and turnip greens. These grow in abundance in the southern states of America and are now well loved by many, including myself. They haven’t always enjoyed mainstream culinary attention and were for a long time eaten almost exclusively by livestock (as they are in the UK) and the African-American community. The rest of the South has gradually come to their collective senses and now greens of all kinds are a popular side dish, with even the rather grand Martha Stewart knocking up a recipe for her devotees. I just love the astringency and the way you can actually taste the minerals. They are strangely moreish in the way that the fire of really hot chillies is addictive. And I like them with loads of Louisiana Hot Sauce, so that’s two cravings for the price of one.
I am a real advocate of what I call the ‘meal salad’; multi-sensory, bold salads that are platters of amazing colour, clear tastes, contrasting textures and even a hint of fragrance. I crave salads that invariably cause you to leave the restaurant with a little dribble on your chin because you were enjoying your food and not minding your manners. In short, I want to know I’ve had a proper feed, and not just been fobbed off with lowest common denominator assembling skills. Just because it’s a salad doesn’t mean it can’t be interesting and taste sublime. Being a greedy sort I don’t think that some frilly-pants collection of lettuces, scattering of delicately sliced vegetables and thimble of dressing constitutes a meal. Yet, if you go out and don’t fancy the meat-heavy or sleep-inducing carb options, this is usually what is left. If you are lucky someone might offer it with a miniscule piece of anemic-looking chicken (which I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole) or trio of king prawns (yawn), but the equation ‘woman+salad=dieter’ seems to be behind menu planning at many eateries. And I resent this. The notion (as I imagine it) that salad-eaters are just looking for something to move around the plate so don’t bother making it interesting or filling is insulting and, in my opinion, wrong. Just because I mainly prefer eating plants to animals doesn’t mean my tastebuds and appetite are dead. Sure, if you go up a notch or two you will undoubtedly find something more adventurous, but probably still not filling enough to see you through to supper, or keep you from later devouring that carefully-squirreled away Valentine’s leftover (am I revealing too much?). Are you weary as well of shelling out good money at places where they spend more time planning the wine list than they do the menu? I don’t even bother now. And that’s a bit sad because eating out should expose you to tastes and ideas that inspire and excite.
I’ve really had quite a wee rant to myself, and involved you who may be perfectly happy with your paid-for salady nosh. Sorry. I’m miffed probably because the UK restaurant and catering industry has upped their game almost unrecognisably in the past 20 years, but this is one area that is still a bit ‘Betamax’. I don’t know how we can get more interesting plant-based fare into mainstream restaurants but here is the kind of ‘meal salad’ I would be happy to pay money for. Let me know what you would pay good money for – keep it decent, Miss R reads this…
Warm Beetroot, Lentil and Pepper Salad
I am a big fan of Sarah Raven – she of UK gardening fame but also an inventive cook – and the au courant London chef Yotam Ottolenghi. Although neither is vegetarian they both display cunning and creative flair to bring out the best in what could be quite pedestrian ingredients. I find that plant-only cooks and cookery writers can be a bit worthy for my tastes, and so I tend to be drawn to omnivores who speak vegetarian as a second language. This earthy, punchy salad takes inspiration from the writings and recipes of my two favourite ‘bi-lingual’ cook-chefs.
4 small or 2 medium beetroots, scrubbed and roots trimmed a little (the smaller the beetroot, the sweeter)
2 red onions, peeled and cut into eighths (with some root attached if possible)
2 red peppers, deseeded and cut into chunks
Extra virgin olive oil
Seeds from 3 cardamom pods + 1 tbsp coriander seeds, + 1/2 tbsp black peppercorns + 1 tsp flaky sea salt – coarsely ground in pestle and mortar or clean coffee grinder
150g/5.3 oz Puy or Puy-type lentils
300ml/10 oz vegetable stock + 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar, and a little extra for later
2 bay leaves
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Leaves from two sprigs fresh thyme (lemon thyme if you can get it)
1-2 red chillies, deseeded and finely sliced
Juice and grated zest of 1/2 large unwaxed lemon
Rocket/arugula leaves, chervil and flat-leaf/Italian parsley – as much as you like
1/2 pack of halloumi cheese (about 100 grams), sliced into 1/2 cm depth slices
What To Do: Toss the beetroot, onion and peppers in 1 tbsp of olive oil and almost all of the ground spices. Put the beetroots in a small roasting tin and bake at 190C for 45 minutes – 1 hour. When the beetroots have twenty minutes to go pop the onions and peppers onto the tray. If you are a beetroot fan, you might want to bake a couple of bunches of beetroot for use in other dishes, or for pickling. Anyway, when the beets are tender when pierced with a knife, let them cool and then rub the fragile skins away and slice the juicy beets into big bite-sized pieces.
While things are roasting get on with the body of the salad – the lentils. You could very easily use one of the precooked packs of Puy lentils available in many UK supermarkets but they are really easy to sort from scratch and the suggested flavourings really lift the lentils. Pop the raw lentils into a medium saucepan with the bay leaves and cover with the stock and vinegar. Bring to the boil and then cook on a fast simmer (medium heat) for between 20 and 30 minutes. It is hard to give exact timings but check to make sure the liquid hasn’t evaporated at 20 minutes and give them a little taste as well. They should be tender but still quite firm: if your dental work is threatened, give it another 10 minutes. Drain as needed then pour the lentils into a wide pretty bowl to cool a bit.
Heat a griddle pan or saute pan to high and slap on the halloumi pieces. Griddle or cook until starting to colour or get griddle marks, then flip and do this again. I sometimes use the ‘light’ halloumi in other recipes but it gets bit dry if you do more than heat it through. Use the full-fat stuff for this one. Remember my rant; this isn’t a diet salad.
Add to the lentils the roasted, warm vegetables, chopped garlic, thyme leaves, chillies, lemon juice and zest, whatever amount of leaves you are using, then finally toss together with some extra olive oil and balsamic to taste. Sprinkle in the remaining ground spices if you like, and serve with griddled halloumi or hunks of broken feta cheese, and maybe some flatbreads. Enjoy!