The Crazy Days Before the Calm (we hope).

There is always a drama at this time of year involving some daft item that simply must be sourced or the world will possibly end or, at the very least, Christmas will be ruined. One year, it was a very particular Lego set with a Darth Vader mini-figure. Another year, it was a Barbie and Ken wedding. There was the time I set my heart on a pair of burgundy patent shoes for my then two year old eldest daughter. You wouldn’t believe the distance I drove for those shoes but, oh my, she was a picture in her little wool coat and beret. My excuse is that these are the things that give us a sense of having kept Christmas well, that it’s not just a case of buying and wrapping the cheapest or random gifts and receiving the same in return with fingers crossed that the tags are attached. You have to put an effort in; that’s the whole point.

This year, it’s a donkey outfit. Small Girl is to play a donkey in Seó na Nollaig (nativity play). I was all set to make one, had a hat half crocheted, when Middle Daughter informed me, in the kindest terms, that EVERYONE ELSE is buying one from the shops and poor Small Girl will be a laughing stock in a homemade outfit. Sigh. (I’m clearly alone in my views about putting an effort in.)

And so, bowing to peer pressure, I spent this morning trawling the recommended shops for the recommended donkey onesie. I found a very cute dragon onesie, and two different unicorn onesies. I stood stock still in the shop and put serious thought into attaching donkey ears to a unicorn but wasn’t sure how much of a sense of humour the Senior Infants teacher has, or my daughter for that matter. I’ve come home with a pair of grey leggings and a grey hoody and a sinking feeling that I’m getting this one wrong.

I have a few ongoing crafty projects which are Top Secret and Highly Classified. I’ve had to do some very stealthy crocheting. I’ve learned that I can really only get away with giving handmade gifts to my own offspring which is trickier, of course, since they are here all the time.

I’m working on a set of the elf characters from Matt Haig’s A Boy Called Christmas, all of my own imagining and purely for my own satisfaction. They posed for some photos this morning. Here’s a sneak preview:

IMG_0400

Aside from under-cover crocheting, I have done a terrifying amount of credit card tapping, a reassuring amount of list-making, including the ultimately comforting booklist-making, and a properly scandalous amount of steeping things in brandy. I blame Nigel Slater.

IMG_0189 (2)

I’ve got vanilla pods in brandy, apricots in brandy and prunes in a mixture of muscat and brandy. I’m seriously considering dunking the last Jerusalem artichokes in brandy – with a label attached saying “Nobody light a match.”

Segueing neatly to another root vegetable, we harvested our first Oca. We were prepared for something that tasted like potato dipped in lemon juice. IMG_0294 (2)

The first attempt to cook them, by boiling, went poorly. They turned out, those that didn’t simply dissolve into the cooking water, as thin-skinned balls of watery, lemony, mush.

The second batch had a big weight on their little knobbly shoulders. If the kids didn’t like them I would be facing a heck of a lot of lemony lunches. What to do?

I applied the same method that I used to convince my kids they likes Brussels sprouts and turnips- I roasted them in the juices of a leg of lamb.  Oh yes, that worked. They may not have been crispy but they tasted like very good new potatoes that had been roasted in lamb fat, and dipped in lemon juice. Yum.

However, a leg of lamb is pretty expensive method of flavouring your homegrown (read, free) vegetables. Anyone have any suggestions for less indulgent (read, cheaper) alternatives?

IMG_0305

I am, once again, endeavouring to lose a little blubber – if only enough to make room in my jeans for mince pies. To that end, I am comfort-eating in lieu of puddings.

Jenny Colgan’s The Bookshop on the Corner is as sweet and light as that strawberry pavlova Nigella made last night (is anyone else irritated by the way she abbreviates it to “Pav” ? Sorry, grumpy, hungry woman syndrome).

This book will do you no good whatsoever but you’ll feel marvelous as you devour it, and pleasantly guilty afterwards.

I have one major gripe: I made a list, as I read, of all the books Colgan mentions. There was one children’s book in particular, a magical classic adventure that plays a big role in the story and seemed like just the thing for my Small Girl. Wondering how on Earth I’d missed this one, but you know, it happens, I searched the great bookshop in the sky and came up with…exactly nothing.

IMG_0251

She made it up. And I wasn’t alone in my foolish hopefulness; in the reviews of an unrelated book of the same title, two other disappointed souls wrote, “this is not the book from Jenny Colgan’s book!”

That’s not fair! Authors: You can’t be making up books that don’t exist and then telling us they are brilliant, for flip’s sake.

Did you notice the quince there, in the book photo? They have nothing to do with the story at all but happened to match the cover. Or they would, if I could only figure out how to photograph yellow things. Why is yellow so difficult?

My quince tree remains barren. I bought these for a Nigel Slater recipe. There’s something very evocative about quince.

IMG_0254 (2)

They make me think of owls and pussycats…IMG_0263

…and make me long for a runcible spoon.IMG_0274

I’ve been trying to figure out how to take photographs in the scant light available. My family completely ignore me as I wander about the house taking shots of light switches and fruit bowls. This was supposed to be a picture of the chillies, a failure obviously, but I think it is an honest snap shot of my kitchen at dinner time, six o’clock, with the plates laid out and tea towels draped willy-nilly, and me pottering about with the camera when I should be dishing up.IMG_0234

Here’s a nice one:IMG_0214

And here is my little reindeer keeping guard over those apricots in brandy.IMG_0209

One last thing…I threw my cap in the ring for this incredible prize. It’s a competition for a writer’s retreat, open until tomorrow night, and all you have to do is convince the judges that you deserve it. If you are tempted, I wish you luck but, for God’s sake, don’t come back here to tell me that you won!

Right, I’m off to see what can be done about the donkey’s ears and, failing that, to see what else I could possibly steep in brandy. Cheese? Figs? Sultanas?! Oh! Only imagine the brandy-soaked-sultana buns…

A Light Breeze, Rising Slowly.

“The inclusion of peas also seems to stop the wind, the other sort, not the one that rattles down the chimney.”

That’s Nigel Slater, in his new book, The Christmas Chronicles, writing about his recipe for Jerusalem artichoke and pea soup. I’ve heard, of course, of the explosively flatulent effects of the Jerusalem artichoke but I had never even seen one, let alone eaten one, so I didn’t fully appreciate how significant the inclusion of peas might, or might not, be. Still, Slater’s doggedly honest writing really hit a nerve in me, not just this recipe but his writing in general, and I resolved to set forth on a search for the infamous root.

Then, would you credit it, on the very same day (last Saturday), I was picking up a bottle of organic wine in the farm shop (how fantastically middle class is that statement?) at Ballymaloe Cookery School (yes, very fancy) when I discovered they had the aforementioned artichokes for sale (well, naturally). The stars were aligned, my friends,IMG_0057

and my bowels were in for a shock.

No, Mr. Slater, the peas did not alleviate the situation, or if they did, God help the soul who went without them. Dear Lord, I was so full of gas my ears popped.

I suppose I ought to mention that the soup was delicious. Everyone agreed it was yummy, and then quietly removed themselves to private (well-ventilated) spaces.

I’m left with two tubers which I held back from the soup pot with the intention of planting them. They are, by all accounts, ridiculously easy to grow. I can’t decide, now, what to do with them. Has anyone any advice? Is there a secret I don’t know? Maybe I should just raffle them off on Instagram? (WIN!! Farty tubers!! Tag your friends!!…)

Let me try to redeem myself somewhat from that unseemly interlude:

IMG_0091

That blue Le Creuset pot was a wedding present, making it twenty years old. I used to use it for making casseroles until the family out-grew it and I had to buy a bigger pot (not Le Creuset, sadly, more the industrial catering variety). The lovely blue pot, then, fell out of use for years and years which was a source of genuine regret. I would move it about from shelf to dusty shelf with a mixture of affection and irritation.

About eighteen months ago, I discovered The Common Loaf from Riot Rye and set about becoming the sort of person who has a sourdough starter living at the back of her fridge (I do!) and makes real, really good, bread. I think I’m about three-quarters of the way there. In other words, my bread turns out to be really good about 75% of the time. The two things that make the greatest difference, I think, are time (it really needs at least twenty-four hours rising, there’s just no way to cheat on that) and the blue Le Creuset pot.

The pot gets pre-heated in the oven, the dough goes in, and when I lift the lid an hour later I get this:

IMG_0092

I’m experimenting at the moment with a recipe for walnut bread. It’s a long story but the shortest version of it is that, when I was in Paris, I bought a booklet of recipes for things to make with leftovers of Poilâne’s walnut bread. (Here is an article from The New Yorker about Poilâne, if such things interest you, and here is a video in which Julia Child visits Poilâne and bakes bread.)IMG_0096

Now I have managed to make myself some very good walnut bread. Yeay!It might not be from Poilâne but listen, short of moving to Paris, what are my options ?IMG_0119

However, the chance of there being leftovers is slim to nill. And, could there possibly be any better use for them than buttery toast?IMG_0147

I’m 160 pages in to The Break by Marian Keyes. I’m totally hooked…need more toast…

Hope you’re having a good week,
Lynda.

PS. There is NO LIGHT at all coming from the sky these days and my photos look miserable. A set of fairy lights (three euros twenty-six) is the most cost effective lighting solution I can come up with.

Small Joys.

Here’s a thing: I often find myself, completely unintentionally, writing in my head. I form words into sentences, build a pleasing rhythm, hit an excellent (in my mind at least) crescendo and, just as I’m congratulating my inner writer on the marvelous blog post I’ve created, I draw a mental line under it and forget the whole lot. The writing, whether it ever makes it to the page or not, seems to be a lot about drawing lines under things, and moving on.

Not too long ago, I heard an interview with Marie Heaney, Seamus Heaney’s wife. She said that she would watch him tapping out a beat on the steering wheel of the car while he was driving and she would know that he was writing in his head. I thought there was something very moving about that, that she could almost see what was going on inside his head, almost read his thoughts in a kind of tapped out code, and that she let him at it where I would probably have been nagging him about the state of the garden shed.

Anyway, my point is that I have been here in my head, you just couldn’t see me.

I often hit a low at this time of the year, when the light fails but it’s too early for fairy lights. This year though I’m grand and just for that, I am grateful. I do feel the need for quietness, especially after the busy-ness of Halloween and I breathed a long sigh of relief when the kids went back to school.

Let me tell you some of the small joys I’ve been relishing.

I’ve been basking like a cat in the sunshine of these last few days and taking the opportunity to tidy up the garden. We still have a few roses…IMG_9836

…and a few visitors…IMG_9834

…and fruit! I am still managing to nab an alpine strawberry or two most days (I don’t share them) and I have planted (on Rory O’Connell’s advice) a myrtle bush. This is Myrtus ugni, also known as a Chilean strawberry. The berries taste like a strawberry inside a blueberry. To walk out to the garden in November and pick a handful of berries feels like a small miracle.IMG_9816

In previous years I would have cleared the flowerbeds by now but this year I am leaving all the seed heads, including the mighty teasels, for the birds. I can’t tell you how much I love to look up from a book and see a family of goldfinches outside the window. I think they may even be getting used to me sneaking up on them with my camera aloft.IMG_9929 (2)

On our last evening in Paris, after we left Shakespeare and Company, and had a little snog on the street and that kind of thing, Husband and I contrived to bring home a few sprigs of rosemary as a memento. We put them in a water bottle and then transferred them to a smaller-than-100mls shampoo bottle for the flight home and then, with just a little bit of wishful thinking, nursed them in a glass of water for a fortnight until little roots appeared and then potted them up and, hey presto, by the magic of plant science, we have at least one survivor growing strong and making me very happy.IMG_0034

Also making me smile is our substantial crop of chillies. We’ve taken to making fermented chilli sauce about once a month (see this post for more on fermented foods). I’m not certain whether it is the satisfaction of growing the chillies, the prettiness of them, the pride in making the fermented sauce, the kick of eating it or the gastro-intestinal benefits of consuming it but, all in all, the whole affair is making me happy.IMG_9919

Another thing, of even greater joy, is watching the Small Girl playing the piano. She has to climb up on to the piano stool and her feet dangle in mid-air while she reads the notes and counts the beats out loud while she plays and concentrates so hard I can nearly see steam coming out of her ears. The dog, meanwhile, nods his approval.IMG_9914

I could write a whole post about the book in that photo (I did, in fact, in my head). I found it in the wonderful Prim’s Bookshop in Kinsale. It’s Real French Cooking by Savarin, this copy printed in 1956. As well as some hardcore cooking techniques, Savarin includes a generous smattering of cartoons and anecdotes, as he says, “in the hope of pleasing the housewife in a rare moment of leisure.” Did you know, for instance, that the speciality of the Tour d’Argent in Paris is the Canard au Sang, a duck served in the juice of two other ducks? Every duck served has an individual number and a record is kept of who ate it. Number 112,151 was eaten by Franklin Roosevelt in 1929. The Duke of Windsor had number 147,883 in 1935. The late Queen Mother and her guests had numbers 185,197 and 185,198 in 1938.

“Eight months later, number 203,728 went to Marlene Dietrich.”

Is that not fantastic? I’ve suggested to Teenage Daughter that she begin a register of her meringue swans. She continues to think I am nuts.IMG_0033

So far, on Savarin’s instruction, I have recruited the family to help me cook and peel chestnuts and have made a scrumptious Cevennes Pie (pork, chestnuts and apple encased in buttery pastry). There is no photo of the pie, unfortunately, they ate it that fast!IMG_9943

Sticking with the theme of French cookery (yes, I’m a little obsessed of late), I have been watching Julia Child on YouTube. Now listen, I am all to familiar with the feeling of finally getting the joke after everyone else has gone home but forty years late is a record even for me. Alas, so it was. I was two minutes into this clip when the forty-year-old penny finally dropped:

It’s the Swedish chef! For God’s sake, tell me I wasn’t the only Swedish chef fan on the planet who didn’t know this!

IMG_9940

Well, Mr. Henson is still making me laugh so that counts as a good thing.

I’m going to lightly trip over this book:IMG_9945

…which I found desperately sad. It has sat on my shelf for nigh on a year because I was afraid it would depress me and, to be honest, it nearly did. It is good but I didn’t like it. Bring on the happy books, I say.

I bought Matt Haig’s A Boy Called Christmas for Middle Daughter last year but didn’t read it myself until January, too late to recommend it. I read it again last week and am currently on a third reading, aloud to the Small Girl, and it is STILL making me laugh. Read it, please, just read it! I’ll post a review soon.

I have a small (literally tiny, elfin even) crochet project on the go which is making bubbles of glee rise up and burst at the top of my head.

IMG_9946

Ooh, almost forgot, my Cooking The Books project for November is, if I do say so myself, a good one. It’s a cheering recipe and a flipping brilliant book. Belated thanks to the lovely Kathy at Gluts and Gluttony who recommended The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester when we met at Litfest. I loved the book, loved the pudding, and took huge pleasure in writing this article. Find it here.

Now, I have two more joys awaiting my attention. Look what the morning’s post brought:IMG_0032

You will notice I have decided to quietly introduce a few very tiny fairy lights. Sure, why not?

Wishing you many small joys,

Lynda.

A Ray of Sunshine and a Free Bench.

I’ve indulged myself for a few weeks in writing up an account of our weekend in Paris. It has been such a joy, not just because I succeeded in mentally air-lifting myself to a bistro in Montmartre, but because I wallowed in the freedom to write exactly what I wanted to write. I simply sat at the keyboard and told myself to ‘just get it down’, that’s all, nothing more. It’s not fancy but it’s honest and it says something, I hope, that I needed to say.

My desire was to package up something that we might take out in our dotage to read and remember a time when life was full to bursting. I gave it to Husband for his birthday, yesterday.

I also got him a book from Shakespeare and Company. I included a note in my order (there’s a space for notes in the online order form – of course there is!), thanking them for the tea and biscuits they gave us and they sent back a sweet handwritten note.

Honest to God, I think I left a piece of my heart behind in that shop. Can I just show you the packaging of their parcel? Look at this:IMG_9796

Would that not make any book-lover’s heart tick a little quicker?

Again, the online order form has some options to request a few little extras, a spritz of perfume, a poem typed up on the shop’s old typewriter, or just some random scrap of wordage they think you might like…

IMG_9802 (2)

It is surely for these small moments of contact, even virtual contact, with flesh and blood book people that independent bookshops MUST continue to exist. I’m not trying to sell you anything, well, I am, but I have nothing to gain other than that they continue to exist.

IMG_9809 (2)

The Paris write-up is far too long for a blog post. It would run to twelve blog posts, I think, which strikes me as ridiculous. Also, as I said, it is (even) more self-indulgent than my average blog post and includes minute details of no interest to anyone other than us.

The Paris write-up, which I titled A Ray of Sunshine and a Free Bench (it makes sense when you read it, I hope), does contain some photos. Most were snapped on Husband’s phone and some were taken by kindly strangers. This one is my favourite:

IMG_1581

Hope life is treating you all kindly this murky Monday morning.
Lynda.

PS. Teenage Daughter made iced buns for her Dad yesterday and there is just that one left over and now I have to eat it. Oh, woe is me. #dietshmiet

Cookbooks Tried and Tested: Rory O’Connell’s Cook Well, Eat Well.

Sicilian Cassata Cake. Rory O'Connell.

For the sake of full disclosure, let me remind you all that I live in Cork and that Rory O’Connell is a local food hero. I am, in this case, a biased reviewer. Fortunately, his book lived up to expectations…and then some.

Rory O’Connell’s first book, Master It, won the prestigious André Simon Food Book Award in 2013. It is, in essence, a concise cookery course with sections devoted to various techniques: stocks and soups, pan-frying, casserole-roasting, hot puddings, a few cakes, and so on. In his second book, Cook Well, Eat Well, O’Connell continues in the role of teacher but this time presents his recipes in a series of separate menus.

Https%3a%2f%2fs3.amazonaws.com%2fuploads.bookwitty.com%2fb92ea450 d423 45d7 9c51 1c9f75f1da49 inline original.jpeg?ixlib=rails 2.1

Each menu contains three courses, a starter, a complementary main course and something sweet to close. The meals are arranged according to the seasons and for each season there is one vegetarian meal. O’Connell takes seasonal cooking as his starting point …Click here to read on.

Heartburn, Bread Pudding and October Books.

Nora Ephron's Heartburn. Bread Pudding.

Nora Ephron‘s Heartburn made me laugh and made me cook. I built my October Cooking the Books column around her recipe for bread pudding. Read more by clicking here. Trust me, this one is worth it.Nora Ephron's Heartburn. Bread Pudding.

I get a particular satisfaction out of reading books in the appropriate season and it is all the sweeter when I can match reading material to the month at hand. Am I alone?

The Hunt For Red October. Tom Clancy

I compiled a list of October books, strictly those which have October in the title. You can read that by clicking here.

I would write more for you but I’ve used up all my time on France (that sounds better if you sing it to the tune of This Charming Man); 9,000 words –I’ve made it to Midday on Saturday. I can’t stop now, I’m committed to it.

Bisous,
Lynda.