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From London to Berwick: Culture shock? Oh, yes!

Archive for the category “Foody stuff”

A mother & daughter moment with pastel de nata

So the 15-year-old has just been to Portugal. She came home longing for those gorgeous, sticky custard pastries whose sweetness is so cleverly balanced by an ethereal hint of lemon and cinnamon. She remembered that I had a recipe tucked away somewhere and asked me to dig it out. Turns out it was an old BBC Good Food recipe (this is a slightly different recipe to the one we tried).

I remember so keenly cooking with my Mum. Mostly it involved me licking the spoon after cake-making, making pastry animals with off-cuts, and stirring grated cheese into cheese sauce and saying, ‘I’m bored’. Mum always maintained that I showed no interest in cooking whatsoever and that trying to teach me was pointless. Despite this, I do remember Mum showing me how to make a roux (so useful!). I suspect that my love of cooking comes largely from hanging around and watching her cook (and eating the results!) and, even if in her eyes I was disdainful of it all, her skills seem to have rubbed off: I’m a pretty good cook!

So I was chuffed that the 15-year-old wanted to cook with me. In fact she’s been showing an increasing interest in experimenting – cooking us scrambled eggs for lunch, trying out different ways with pancakes etc. But Portuguese egg custard tarts would certainly be pushing her skills.

I was in charge of weighing and setting out equipment. The 15-year-old occupied herself with being a bit tetchy (she’d been working late as a pot-washer in a local hotel the previous night!) and making the cinnamon-lemon syrup and the custard. This was slightly fraught but much beating and a quick sieve solved everything (isn’t that exactly the way to learn how ingredients behave?)!

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The custard cooling post beating and sieving

Energy levels had waned by the time it came to rolling and cutting the ready-roll puff pastry! However, the repartee while I made pastry discs (all that making pastry animals paid off Mum!) and the 15-year-old inserted them into the buttered muffin tray was second to none!

Look, the result wasn’t perfect – I forgot to put the muffin tray on a pre-heated baking sheet so we had a bit of Mary Berry’s proverbial soggy bottoms. But they tasted great. And maybe this will be a moment that my 15-year-old will look back on warmly one day – I know I shall.

Mouth of the Tweed: inspired by local produce

Today I toddled along to the sixth Annual Mouth of the Tweed event here in Berwick-upon-Tweed. There’s a nice buzz on the quayside as tourists and locals sample food and drink from the dozen or so stalls – all produced within a 16-mile radius of Berwick – with entertainment by young local musicians from the Small Hall Band.

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My true aim was to help with the Berwick Slow Food stall – we are promoting two events:

  1. The 10th annual Berwick Food & Beer Festival  During the first weekend of September 2017 Berwick Barracks will be alive with food, music, beer and children’s activities (so if you missed the Mouth of the Tweed, fear not, you’ll be able to catch all today’s stall holders and many more in September!).
  2. This year we’re holding a pre-festival event – an Audience with MasterChef Finalist Lorna Robertson. Lorna’s a local young woman, schooled at Berwick Academy, and her trajectory since reaching the finals of the much-loved BBC show is thrilling and compelling. Lorna will talk about her experience on the show and share some of the highs and lows of that time, as well as the adventures she’s been having since. It’s a ticketed event that includes canapés using local produce, based on Lorna’s recipes. (For more info follow the link to the Food & Beer Festival above).

Of course, I knew I would not leave the Mouth of the Tweed Festival empty handed. Who can resist local honey from Chainbridge Honey Farm? Or super fresh shellfish from Berwick Shellfish? Or a burger from Well Hung and Tender and maybe a pie from Jarvis Pickle, all washed down with a locally roasted coffee from Northern Edge Coffee or (and?) a pint from local brewer Bear Claw? And it would be rude not to finish with an ice cream from Giacopazzi’s.

However, the real treat came in chatting with the chaps from Heatherslaw Mill. You can make porridge and flapjacks with oatflakes – I knew that. But, I wondered, what do you actually do with oatmeal (I know, I’m so ignorant!). Apparently oatmeal is delicious sprinkled over your potatoes before you roast them for an extra crispy coating and also for making oatcakes (doh!). Oatcakes that would no doubt be just yummy with a nice slab of local Doddington cheese.

I was lost. All I could think about was getting home and making my cheesy oatcakes. Yes, I was going to grate my tangy fruity Berwick Edge into my oatcake mix. I did an online search for a recipe and this Mumsnet one seemed suitably simple.

And, hey presto! There’s been a bit of an oatcake renaissance lately, with the nibble-sized ones widely available in supermarkets. The babies above tick all the boxes. AND they’ll be perfect for canapés – I’ll have a word with Lorna Robertson!

 

Dirty rice: an easy filthy treat!

No sooner had I read Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipe for Dirty Rice in The Guardian than marvellous MasterChef contestant Alison was cooking it on the BBC TV programme (her own version). Sadly for Alison, this was the dish that saw her wave farewell to the programme. I have a feeling we’ll be hearing more from her and am absolutely delighted to see that she and fellow finalists, Giovanna and Berwick’s own lovely Lorna have teamed up to form a supper club: Three Girls Cook.

Anyway, back to Dirty Rice. It doesn’t sound that great, does it? Reading Yotam’s recipe sold it to me. Minced pork and chicken livers. Yes please! Yotam is very specific about deglazing the pan multiple times: and he’s right, the depth of flavour is truly divine.

It’s a great supper dish: not difficult but filling and wholesome. In fact, I just ate the leftovers with an avocado halved on top and extra sprinklings of parsley. Yum. Yotam crushed some garlic and sliced some. The crushed is added to the cooking pot; the sliced is fried and sprinkled as a garnish after everything’s been combined. Personally I just chopped the lot and chucked it in. Still delicious. Yotam’s recipe as printed in the Guardian had a flaw:  the rice mysteriously appeared in with the meat mix (this wouldn’t work: the rice would be overcooked, I think). I opted to combine the meat mix with the rice after the deglazing process and gave a final parsley flourish to the melange.

The Husband and I had basically scoffed the lot when I realised I’d not taken a photo. Just call me slacker blogger. It looked pretty much like Yotam’s if you follow the link above: not a looker of a dish and I can kind of see why Alison struggled to prettify it enough for John & Gregg. However it tastes marvellous and presents all sorts of possibilities – but it’s the livers that deliver that true umami deliciousness.

Here, by way of an apology for my lack of photographic evidence of culinary endeavour, are some photos of a Yotam Ottolenghi feast The Husband and I prepared a while back:

From one jam to another – via some unlikely yarns

I have zig-zagged across the country over the summer months, barely taking time to wash everyone’s undies before haring off to grab a cuppa with the next lot of family/friends, and then to join another queue on the A1/M1/A7/M6/M5/A12 (delete as appropriate). Hammering endlessly from one end of the country to another is about as much fun as watching ‘Made In Chelsea’ (don’t do it – ever). If only a traffic-less desire line ran directly from north to south, life would be so much easier.

A peaceful desire line trims the corner off the walk to Tesco on Ord Drive, Berwick. If only such a line existed between north and south.

For a start I might have been able to miraculously zoom back for the many local events I longed to share – from the Spittal Seaside Festival, to the Summerland and Electric Penelope gigs at the Maltings. Plus I’ve neglected our galleries for too long – The Watchtower, Granary and Gymnasium have all had stonkingly good summer shows. Fortunately we managed to anchor in Berwick long enough to catch Chloë Smith’s visceral and evocative dance ‘Tidal’ on Spittal Pier – go see the film at the Maltings on 9th September if you missed the real thing.

Why isn’t basic first aid training mandatory?

It was also great to take in the training session for the spanking new Berwick defibrillator (located outside the Youth Project). Hats off to Simon Landels and the Rotary for linking with the Stephen Carey Fund. This charity was launched by the friends and family of the young Alnmouth footballer who, because of a heart defect, collapsed and died during a match in 2012. It is testament to what a small band of dedicated, focused volunteers can achieve – providing over 45 defibrillators around our north-eastern pocket in their first two years. And now we have one in Berwick. It’s a comfort to the Husband who likes to note the location of such things ‘just in case’. However, should he ever need one (God forbid), he’ll also require the services of an informed and trained passer-by. I have never truly got to grips with what you should actually do if you’re faced with someone who may be having a heart attack. It’s not rocket science but, if you’re on the spot, the likelihood of you managing to roll a 17-stone person into the recovery position without the right technique is slim. Why isn’t basic first aid training mandatory? As our Stephen Carey trainer said: ‘Anyone can use a defibrillator – it’s what you do before you get to that stage that’s going to save a life.’

After a long day narrowboating a bit of yarn bombing makes you smile.

After a long day narrowboating a bit of yarn bombing makes you smile.

Of course, had I not been away visiting I would not have encountered the wonderful art of yarn bombing – thereby enabling me to identify the phenomenon in the photo recently submitted to the Berwick Advertiser of a phone box wearing a woolly scarf. Along the Kennet & Avon Canal at Caen Hill Flight (an eye-pixelating stretch of 29 locks), sweaty narrowboaters can pause on the towpath and smile at jolly knitted neck warmers adorning the lamp posts. What a wonderful example of the unpredictable eccentricity of humankind.

Desire lines are, of course, people’s preferred route over an established pathway – for example, cutting off a pavement-created corner (check out the ones by Berwick Tesco on Ord Drive or at the top of the pier). Mind you, off-piste routes are as capricious as their creators. On a recent St Abbs walk, we succumbed to an enticing path which deposited us on a vertiginous gravelly bank.

A woman trims the corner at Berwick Pier. But not all such paths are quite so predictable.

A woman trims the corner at Berwick Pier. But not all such paths are quite so predictable.

I am a tad dizzy when I think of this year’s Berwick Food & Beer Festival (fab family event – Sept 4th (beer only), 5th, 6th, Barracks). I have often helped in the popular demonstration kitchen, but this year I’m doing a demo (3pm tomorrow, Saturday Sept 5th, thanks for asking!). In my mind I follow a path leading to pert Pavlovas and peachy pies. But I dread ending up in the abyss of deflated soufflés and split sauces. And suddenly the simplicity of sitting in an unending queue of traffic on an A-road somewhere far away is quite appealing.

All prepped for my timed practice run of Jane Lovett’s (from Make it Easy) Salmon en croute with lime and coriander sauce.

(A version of this article was first published on 3rd September 2015 in the Berwick Advertiser)

Cannellini bean challenge – more veg (ish) tales

I was inspired by an article in The Guardian Cook back in April (for recipes follow the link) about one pot of cannellini beans making four meals. I’m a great one for using tins of beans – particularly silky, creamy cannellini – but a bit lazy about soaking overnight etc. Since Rachel Roddy insists the flavour is better if you use dried beans and soak them, I went for it. Pretty delighted with the results – although my soupy-stew looks more like a gloopy stew, it tastes good. I left out the pancetta to keep it veggie but then caved in to a bit of crisped up organic chorizo on top from Peelham Farm here in the Borders. Job done!

Soup bubbling away nicely...

Soup bubbling away nicely…

More 'gloopy' soup than soupy stew but well tasty  even with the naughty addition of crispy chorizo!

More ‘gloopy’ soup than soupy stew but well tasty even with the naughty addition of crispy chorizo!

Next on my list was to freeze some of the beans and cooking juice for another week (none of us is up to beans four days a week) and then on to ‘the quick dip’. I really love this dip – it’s nearly up to my absolute favourite beany dip cum meal from (you guessed it) Yotam Ottolenghi – ‘Butter bean puree with dukkah’ – which, if you’ve never made it, has to be done. However, Ms Roddy’s recipe is jolly quick and a very credible alternative.

Cannellini bean and lemon puree - creamy and dreamy.

Cannellini bean and lemon puree – creamy and dreamy.

My third meal will probably be the ‘Creamy cannellini beans with sage and sausages’ – so more sneaking away from the veggie – but once you’ve got the base bean dish I reckon you can take it just about anywhere you want to go – the world, as they say, is your oyster (mushroom oyster for vegetarians).

With thanks to Rachel Roddy for the inspiration – you’ll find her on Instagram @rachelaliceroddy.

 

Let’s hear it for veggie days – they’re vegtastic!

Back in 1988 Rose Elliot told us that vegetarian eating was ‘Not just a load of old lentils’. She was right, of course. It’s Mars Bars and chips (cooked in vegetable oil, obvs) and rhubarb crumble. And, actually, it is quite a lot of beans and lentils too. But, amazingly, it’s easy to eat nice veggie food (I’m not talking vegan – that’s a step too far at the moment) – and to feel full after eating it. In fact, eating veggie two days a week has surprisingly proved to be one of the most easy and pleasurable of my five aims for 2015.

It is surprising because we are confirmed carnivores who salivate at the thought of a succulent piece of pork encased in crackling, we celebrate a plate of practically mooing steak, we crack into crustaceans with undignified lipsmacking delight and hoover up sushi as soon as it’s been sliced or rolled. Pleasurable because I have really enjoyed searching out vegetarian recipes and cooking them – and the Husband and 13-year-old have licked their plates clean. I’ve always adored vegetables but tended to think of them as accompaniments rather than the standalone star of a meal. My journey to meat-free meals has has not come out of the blue: I do believe our meat and fish should be grown and dispatched with love and respect. And sadly that’s just not the case. Most of us would be disgusted at the way the animals that grace our tables are treated.

Even without the indecent intensity of the meat business, a succulent tomato salad lavishly seasoned with salt, pepper, fresh basil and drizzled with top-notch olive oil would never be unwelcome on my table. I’m also most partial to Delia Smith’s peppers stuffed with tomatoes and anchovies from her ‘Summer Collection’ (Smith credits Elizabeth David with the original creation). The sweetness of the red peppers, tang of tomatoes, and saltiness of the anchovies delivers that wonderful umami punch that gives you the tingles from your tastebuds to your toes. I know the purists amongst you will already be screaming ‘anchovies! anchovies! They’re not vegetables’. True enough. You could always substitute capers for anchovies – they’re just not as delicious. And that is an issue. The tiny anchovy is such a brilliant seasoning – it is, I think, impossible to replace with a veggie alternative. If any vegetarian out there knows of an anchovy-alike fish/meat-free alternative – tell me, please!

Now then, the mere mention of one name in particular can set me all a-quiver… Yotam Ottolenghi. He is the main man when it comes to veggie eating IMHO. What that man can do with a sweet potato or a couple of aubergines, or some asparagus. *Sigh*. Of course, the drawback with Ottelenghi is that his recipes are not only ingredient rich (and often a little difficult to source for those of us not in big cities), they can also be pretty time-consuming to create – great for a dinner party but not always ideal for a family supper.

Spinach & ricotta cannelloni - glass of red optional!

Spinach & ricotta cannelloni (see below) – glass of red optional!

Risottos and pasta have always featured in our family meals and that’s still the case. The 13-year-old was delighted with a recent mushroom risotto topped with roasted butternut squash and sprinkled with toasted sunflower seeds (a welcome addition to pretty much any salad, pasta or rice dish). And it’s always the season for pasta lavished with homemade pesto (I make mine with basil, olive oil, pine nuts, salt and pepper,a dash of sugar, and a splash of vinegar to keep the colour – I leave out Parmesan so people can add to their own taste). Finally, in no particular order, here are a few recipes I’ve stumbled across that we’ve enjoyed creating and are jolly tasty to boot. With thanks to the many people on the internet who take the time to post fab recipes.

Red lentil and potato dahl

This spicy and delicious little mouth warmer is not only sustaining it’s fabulously cheap to make. As well as the cilantro (fresh coriander) I like to stir in some spinach at the end of the cooking. Just yum. My personal favourite recipe so far.

Veggie crumble

A rib-sticking feelgood feast – the Husband declared it ‘worthy’. I loved it.

Spinach & ricotta cannelloni

What can I say? If you’ve never piped spinach and ricotta mix into cannelloni: get to it! It’s fabulously easy and the results from this recipe are tip-top – although careful not to overcook as it can get a bit dry.

Chilli con veggie

This is brilliant because you can cook up loads and freeze – my version was a little lacking in chilli punch so do check out how hot your fresh chilli is or chuck in some flakes to give it some umph.

Aim high and don’t worry if you fall short

My resolve is totally soluble. The minute I make a resolution my stamina evaporates and my willpower collapses. If I decide to lose weight I am drawn moth-like to all things tooth-decaying and girth-expanding.

Which is why, this year, I decided to set aims for 2015 rather than make Resolutions. Four aims to be precise. This means that by 22nd January – the day when, apparently, the majority of us have given up on our diet, exercise, or whatever health-giving regime we adopted on Jan 1st – I was still within the boundaries of my aims, although far from fulfilling them.

It is a mystery to me why it is so hard to do things that one believes one really wants to do. Three weeks is not long in the overall scheme of things: 21 days to break or make a habit, so some say, is all you need. Well, not in my world. It took me 100 years to give up smoking. It was Allen Carr’s “Easyway to Stop Smoking” (this was pre vapes and patches), that finally helped me beat the nicotine. Hurrah!

The first of my 2015 aims was to have at least two alcohol-free days a week. I had written ‘three days’ in my notebook but, bearing in mind that goals need to be achievable, I scratched that ‘three’ out before the last midnight chime on 31st December. For me it is easy to slip into the prototypical role of middle-aged women with an evening wine habit. And I’m not alone. A recent study in Australia found that 13% of women aged 45 to 59 average more than two drinks a day – maybe a glass with the evening meal followed by a TV tipple – massively increasing our risk of alcohol-related illnesses. The thought is that our regular snifters easily sink binge drinkers under the table. Sobering. What have I discovered so far? Not having a bevvy in the evening is easy as long as there are: 1. No stressful occurrences. 2. No joyful occurrences. 3. No visitors. 4. No going out. Oh, look, it’s not easy – but I’m hanging in with one lapsed week so far.

 

Just a glass of water for me with that delicious piece of cod.

No chilled wine for me today. Just a glass of water with that delicious piece of cod.

Eating no meat or fish for two days a week has proved surprisingly family friendly despite the fact that we’re all rabid carnivores. I’ve often written about my discomfort with the ways we produce and dispatch animals, so this was a logical extension. Eat less meat but know its provenance etc. Actually, we’ve been so delighted with lentil curries, bean stews, spinach and feta pies (if you’ve never piped spinach and ricotta into cannelloni, erm, just do it!), that we’ve surpassed the aim most weeks. Although I have been a tad naughty with a splash of chicken stock in soups and the occasional stray anchovy on a salad, I’ve become quite the carrot hugger.

I've become quite the carrot hugger.

I’ve become quite the carrot hugger.

Exercise five days a week – even if it’s just a turn around the walls of Berwick. The Husband and I wildly and optimistically committed to a coastal challenge walk in May. It’s 26.2 miles from Budle Bay to Alnmouth – you’re supposed to complete it in 11 hours. Today we thought we’d managed three miles but it turned out to be 2.5. We may need an extension.

Getting out and about is proving quite a challenge for us.

Getting out and about is proving quite a challenge for us.

Finally, to rise at 6am on two days a week. I know that’s not early for many people, but it’s an hour before I usually see the sky. The three times I have managed it, I’ve got an enormous amount done in that precious hour. And, yes, you read correctly. Three times. But this, I think, is the thing about aims: unlike resolutions, aims don’t crash and burn when you slip. They sit there, waiting for you to edge towards them – even if, like Alnmouth in relation to Budle Bay, they seem more elusive mirage than attainable goal.

On the lash in Newcastle – a two-day dash and dine experience

The 12-year-old was gallivanting on a school trip so the husband and I took the opportunity to go on the lash in Newcastle. Usually we seek our kicks in a northward direction – drawn to Edinburgh like skiers to après ski. However, an impossibly cheap deal for two nights at Premier Inn Quayside (£29/£36) was a siren call.

We romped from restaurant to restaurant barely taking time to digest, managed a gig at the fabled Cluny, and a fly-by The Workplace Gallery (Old Post Office, West Street, Gateshead). We arrived at Workplace to view work by Cecilia Stenbom (Berwick Visual Arts’ resident artist, 2013) via a stroll in the leafy Gateshead Riverside Park, home to a variety of public art.

The Cluny – photo: Evening Chronicle http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/

Some thoughts on a Newcastle getaway:

  1. The first notable point is that a city break on Sunday and Monday nights avoids the inevitable Friday and Saturday hen and stag parties (and four-foot inflatable penises).
  2. David Kennedy’s River Café. We had high hopes for this North Shields hotspot. Kennedy is a former North East chef of the year and River Café bagged the Observer Magazine’s top café of the year accolade within 12 months of opening. The metro journey was eyecatching enough taking in Wallsend (signs in Latin and English nod to the station’s location near the end of Hadrian’s Wall). Sunday downsides include the ubiquitous Sunday roast. I’m not a fan of huge slabs of beef served with giant Yorkshire puds, however beautifully cooked. I went for crab bruschetta, whole grilled mackerel, and gooseberry fool, the husband had ‘fabulous’ mussels. It was all nicely done and cracking value but somehow not quite the aaah! of delights I’d anticipated. I’d like to revisit on a weeknight and sample a less formulaic menu. Nevertheless, well worth the trip and Fish Quay is a great location.

    Fish Quay – photo: Newcastle upon Tyne and Northumberland Daily Photo

  3. Back to Newcastle for supper at Café 21, Trinity Gardens. Don’t be put off by the hotel-like décor. We sailed merrily through ‘the finest Provençal fish soup this side of the Channel’ (according to the husband), crushed peas with goat’s curd on toast, scallops and venison. This was tip-top food – the priciest of our visit (no change from £100 for two courses plus a shared cheese plate, cocktails and a bottle of wine) but, we felt, worth the blowout. We also had it in mind to try out a trendy gin bar – we went to Pleased To Meet You on High Bridge and sampled a fragrant French G’Vine and a classic 50 Pounds gin (a name dating from the taxes levied on gin distillers back in the 18th century) – as we sipped we enjoyed a well-chosen playlist alongside a pleasing (but not overpowering) number of other punters and again congratulated ourselves on choosing the tail end of the weekend.

    The Lit & Phil – Image – BBC Tyne

  4. With a visit to the gorgeous Literary & Philosophy Society, Westgate Road (opened in 1825 and the largest independent library outside London) under our belts, we headed to what the husband dubbed ‘a tearoom run by three bearded men’. The Quilliam Brothers (only two are bearded) purvey over 60 types of tea at their quirky tea-cum-arts café on Barras Bridge. We took ours accompanied by a sprightly Monday-lunch salad of pear and goats cheese with a walnut pesto on the ground floor, whilst those with bendier knees sprawled on beanbags in the basement.
  5. The funky Ouseburn Valley (five minutes along the Quay from the hotel) is a former seat of industry – part regenerated, part in progress. Here you’ll find the Victoria Tunnel – 19th-century wagonway carrying coal from Spital Tongues Colliery to the river – and Seven Stories, the national centre for children’s books. Plus, Artisan in the Biscuit Factory, a restaurant headed up by another North East chef of the year, Andrew Wilkinson.  He we indulged in truly toothsome salt cod beignets, mackerel with sublime chilli jam on a mouthwatering salad of watercress, coriander and sesame, a pleasingly puffy cheese soufflé and well constructed sea trout with sea veg and baby clams (although perhaps not enough clams and not sure which was sea veg!). Overall a cracking meal – we’ll be back. I wish there were time to tell you about the delicious Geordie tapas we sampled the following day at Broad Chare, Quayside (fun and tasty nibbles but rather grumpy service). Alas I have run out of space. As had my stomach when we boarded the train home.

Of course, there’s no place like home. Back in Berwick I have since enjoyed toothsome lamb (Queen’s Head, Sandgate), wonderful mussels and lobster (Audela, Bridge Street), candlelit cocktails (King’s Arms, Hide Hill), and a fruity pint at the Curfew micropub (Bridge Street). And now I must lie down!

Meat – let’s celebrate animals

I am a diehard omnivore. Meat, fish, shellfish, vegetables, dairy, pulses – I love it all! And, as I’ve mentioned many times before, fresh local produce is abundant here in Northumberland.

Roast chicken is a bit of a family favourite with my lot. Over the years it’s become a symbol of togetherness. When London Daughter was little I always served roast chicken when she returned from time away – and usually still do. There’s nothing finer than a carved platter of succulent chicken, scented subtly with tarragon, surrounded by crisp roasties (maybe even a Yorkshire pud or two), plus mountains of veg of the season and a tangy white wine gravy made with the juice from the bird.  The best accompaniment is, of course, the family banter. Oh, and the inevitable squabble over who’s going to get the oysters (apparently the French call these easy-to-miss tasty morsels tucked beneath the thighs, ‘le sot l’y laisse’ or ‘the fool leaves it there’).

And there are leftovers: bones equal stock for soup or risotto; shreds of meat pressed with cold cooked potato, spring onion, ginger and chilli and coated in breadcrumbs make chicken cakes; scraps of meat, thin-cut veg, dried noodles, dollop of Tom Yum paste and, hey presto!, it’s spicy Thai soup; or how about a chicken sarnie with lashings of pepper and mayo? Yep, roast chicken can do a fair few meals (more, perhaps, than a pack of breasts).

When we moved from London to North Northumberland, we became hen owners (for eggs rather than meat). I know people keep hens in coops in tiny town gardens (and, spotted recently, even on the decks of houseboats), but I am still haunted by the memory of a schoolfriend’s father’s battery hen farm. Low-slung sheds were rammed with hens in restrictive cages, their beaks trimmed to stop them damaging each other, necks rubbed featherless as they hoovered up feed from troughs at the base of the cages. I can’t remember where the eggs gathered – although the eggs were the point. I do remember the overpowering smell and noise. A Guantanamo for hens, perhaps.

Rose - later to become 'The Killer Hen'

I’ve always felt that, like humans, animals should be able to get outside as well as have safe, roomy indoor quarters. Of course, such lodgings are more expensive. Take chicken. Today, it’s mass produced on an almost unfathomable scale. According to RSPCA-monitored Freedom Food, around 800 million birds are reared in the UK for meat each year – and, don’t be fooled, ‘high welfare’ supermarket brands are kept indoors, albeit with a tad more space. But let’s not condemn out of hand, research suggests that furnished cages (more space per hen, a perch and nest area) which contain around 90 birds and are stacked on top of each other in tiers, can offer better quality of life than some free-range coops. So, not straightforward – and a bit of a lottery for the poor old hen.

Battery hens are, thankfully, a thing of the past. However, enriched cages like the one above aren’t exactly a bed of roses for Henny Penny.

In days gone by, slaughtering an animal was a whole-village ritual – a sort of celebration of the animal’s life and death. The carcass of a pig would be shared and would feed people for as much as a week. And that’s another thing. Not only is meat now a daily certainty for most of us rather than a special event, portion sizes have ballooned. And, you can’t help linking portion size to mass production, and to the desire to distance ourselves from the animal as a living being before it hits the shelf.

But it is all a bit chicken-and-egg – do we eat more because there is more, or vice versa? I don’t know the answer. But I do like to know where my meat comes from and how it’s been treated in life and death. And, if that means spending a bit more and eating a bit less, then so be it.

Does staying hands on with animals help us appreciate meat a bit more?

Does staying hands on with animals help us appreciate meat a bit more?

 

A version of this post was first published in The Berwick Advertiser on 3rd April 2014

Lunch wars and the perfect use for limp, leftover spaghetti

When both partners work from home, the lunch question is ever present. If you’re home alone, it’s okay to have a bowl of crisps, a Twix, and the five grapes left in the bottom of the bowl that no one’s going to eat – and then work your way through the packet of chocolate Hobnobs during the course of the afternoon. But if your partner is there, what to do?

For the last three years The Husband and I have faced this question. More to the point, I have. That’s because it is usually me who wanders through to the kitchen and decides it’s lunchtime. Whether that’s because I get hungrier than he does, or I’m less engrossed in what I’m doing than he is, or what I do is easier to pause than his weighty works, I don’t know. And, because I’m the one in the kitchen, I’m the one with the dilemma.

Should I just grab a bit of what I fancy and leave nothing but crumbs so that he can sort himself out when he’s good and ready? Should I wander into his office and ask what he’d like for lunch? Should I pop my head round the door and ask him what he’s making me for lunch? Or, should I just go out? Of course, then I’d have to decide whether to invite him or not…

Today was a point in case. I sniffed the manky piece of fish in the bottom of the fridge, put it on a plate and offered it to The Husband. He was delighted to accept. What, I asked, would he be having with it. ‘Salad,’ came the reply. I rustled around in the fridge and pulled out salady bits and pieces. In doing so I came across the cold spaghetti from yesterday’s bolognaise. I could hardly miss it. The Husband had been in charge – and confessed not to be really thinking about pasta when he tipped it into the pan. There was a coiled mountain of the stuff, just waiting to be looked at and ignored over the forthcoming days. But when I spotted the chestnut mushrooms I knew what my lunch would be.

And so it came to pass that I invited The Husband back from his desk to create his salad, whilst I designed the most delicious use for left over spaghetti I’ve had for a long time. And, yes, I did share it with him. And he shared his salad with me.

Tomorrow’s lunchtime stand-off already looms large. Meanwhile, here’s the dish – the recipe’s underneath – no measurements as it really is a question of taste.

The best use for cold leftover spaghetti that I have come up with yet.

The best use for cold leftover spaghetti that I have come up with yet.

Spaghetti with mushrooms, garlic, chili & coriander

INGREDIENTS

1. Cold leftover spaghetti (this is where you al dente cooks come into your own, as it reheats more effectively than soft cooked pasta which tends to be a bit sticky). 2. Chestnut mushrooms – sliced. 3. Garlic – crushed. 4. Chili – chopped (I used fresh). 5. Fresh coriander. 6. Butter & olive oil for frying. 7. Salt & pepper.

METHOD

Melt the butter and oil on a medium heat in a frying pan. Add the mushrooms and soften. Add the garlic and chili and swizzle around for a bit, season with salt and pepper. Tip in the spaghetti and whack the heat up a bit give it all a good stir and ensure the spaghetti gets hot, add the coriander, toss it around a bit more.

SERVING SUGGESTION

On a plate with a smile or a scowl depending on your mood.

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