Oxford Food Symposium – for those curious about food

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I’m not sure I properly thought it through when I registered for a rare weekend away from little E, and chose to spend it hearing about and eating offal. It’s now been two weeks since I returned from my first visit to the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, this year on the subject of ‘Offal: Rejected and Reclaimed Foods’. It’s definitely not the subject I would have chosen for my first visit, but despite my ambivalence for ‘variety meats’, it was a fascinating and really enjoyable weekend. I found a really welcoming community who love food, but more than that are really curious about it. Started by Alan Davidson, the legendary food writer and researcher who compiled the encyclopaedic Oxford Companion to Food, it has grown over the last 37 years from a small gathering of mostly friends to a diverse group of 200 encompassing a huge range of ages and nationalities.

Some of the highlights of the weekend for me (with apologies for dreadful photography):

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  • Thomas Eagle (above) from Darsham Nurseries, giving a really thoughtful and reflective talk about food waste, featuring his own cavolo nero stalk kimchi.
  • Paul Rozin’s barnstorming talk about food and disgust, giving a tour through some of the psychology behind our aversion to some foods, and the different factors that cause it.

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  • Fuschia Dunlop on duck tongues (above), and describing all the different ways that the Chinese take pleasure in food that mean that foods we might consider offal are transformed into rare and exciting delicacies. I have a particular affection for all the Chinese terms for food textures, a far wider range of descriptions than we have access to in English.
  • Benjamin Wurgaft’s thoughtful discussion of laboratory-grown meat, and the philosophy of our reactions and discussions of it.

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  • Jennifer McLagan’s passionate enthusiasm for getting blood into home kitchens, through home-made blood sausage, blood meringues, blood brownies and more. I can’t say I was entirely convinced, but I admire her passion for the subject!

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  • Amanda Couch’s brilliant and unforgettable ‘performance’ of liver divination as an after-dinner activity, combining scholarly descriptions of the meaning of ‘reading’ the liver in the ancient world with a very hands-on approach to offal!

There were also a series of lunches and dinners that never failed to leave me stuffed, unable to resist just a little of everything. Some of my favourite dishes from the multi-course menus:

  • Jacob Kenedy’s mushroom risotto – perfectly rich and savoury
  • Jacob Kenedy’s Grandfather’s balls – featherlight deep-fried ricotta with candied orange and chocolate
  • Tongue with carrots and cream sauce – sublime comfort food from Fergus Henderson
  • Bread Ahead’s bread pudding – rich, dense and heavy with spices

Mostly my reflection on the weekend is that it is rare to find such a diverse group of people who are so interested in the details of food – how it tastes, where it comes from, what it means in different cultures. Food is so pervasive in British culture now – so many books, so many TV shows, so many celebrity chefs – that it would be easy to think that these people are everywhere. But being interested in making your ‘signature dish’, or critiquing Masterchef from the sofa, or meal planning for the week aren’t the same thing. It’s not that these are bad, or ‘lesser’ interests – I think there was actually very little food snobbery on display at the weekend. If I could put my finger on the difference, it was that this is  a group of people who start with food. When they look at a Renaissance painting, they see the food on the table. When they examine history, they want to know what’s happening in the kitchens of the palaces and homes. When they think about travelling around the world, they think in terms of regional specialities, and hidden recipes (as Claudia Roden does). They see the world through the lens of what we eat, how it is made, who grows it and who prepares it.

And it’s not that this is a distorted point of view – it’s genuinely a worthwhile perspective to take. Food is what we share. Some argue that cooking is what defines us as humans. Food connects us to the growing of food, how we cultivate the land, what we do with the waste, the carbon we generate, the seas we fish. It’s in everything. I found it exhilerating but also comforting to be surrounded by these people. And I hope I can go back next year.

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What parents don’t do – making it work by letting things go

Sometimes a work space, sometimes a tea table for toys

This is a bit of a digression for me. But I have read quite a few things about parenting recently that I wanted to respond to. (Don’t worry – normal food-related service will resume soon).

The particular spark for this post came from a discussion between food bloggers Molly Wizenberg and Ashley Rodriguez about ‘how do you do it all’ with kids, a question that they rejected and turned into ‘what don’t you do?’

I really like this idea: that instead of sharing our ‘tips’ for ‘having it all’ or ‘making it all work’, we should share more often what things we choose *not* to do as parents, to make time for the things we want or need to do. It feels like a more human and achievable way to make progress.

So, in that spirit, a list of things I deliberately don’t do. I’m not proud of all of these, but they are all conscious choices that I make in order to fit in the things I want to do. I’m also aware that some of these are luxuries that I am very fortunate to be able to afford.

  • Cleaning – I have a cleaner who also does the ironing. This makes an incredible difference. 
  • Tidying up – Our house is full of clutter. All surfaces are covered in paperwork, unopened post, and magazines I can’t bring myself to throw out (even 6 month old copies of The Economist).
  • Cook dinner every night – I do prioritise cooking from scratch, because its something I enjoy, but lots of dinners are assemblies of previously cooked things, and lots are just bread and cheese and maybe soup. Or beans on toast for those in the house who will eat them.
  • Work past 9:30pm (most days) – I aim to be at the office from 9:30am – 4pm. I make the best possible use of my 1 hour commute in and out, but I am usually off-the-clock from 5pm until whenever my daughter is in bed. That usually means I get an hour to an hour and a half of work in the evening – unless there’s something that needs urgent attention. 
  • Books – I no longer read books that much. I listen to podcasts when I’m travelling to and from work. I Instapaper lots of articles and blogs to read when I have some spare time, but I never get time to read as many as I bookmark. Part of me is sad about this, but it’s the right thing for me for now. 
  • Follow the news – I don’t watch/read/listen to the news. This is sometimes a bit of an issue for work, but I don’t read newspapers (although I sometimes buy them for the food section). I no longer really listen to radio news, except sometimes in the car.
  • Go out in the evenings – It might go without saying, with a 2 year old, but I don’t go to the pub, bars, the cinema, the theatre, restaurants in the evening. This is a bit of an exaggeration, and it’s not completely child-induced: we did relatively little of this before she came along too. And I scarcely drink, so it’s not a big sacrifice.
  • TV – Again, I’m not proud of this, and it’s not a high-minded stance. I don’t watch TV. Again, that’s not completely true (and I watch plenty with E), but I don’t watch box sets or TV series. I don’t know what’s happening on Masterchef. I have never seen an episode of Game of Thrones or House of Cards. I didn’t make it all the way through The Wire.
  • Go shopping  – this isn’t a big sacrifice for me, as I was never a huge fan of shopping-as-leisure activity. But everything is ordered online now – groceries, jeans, kids clothes, stationery. My last visit to a shopping centre was probably 6 months ago. 

The other side of this is that there are a team of people behind me helping me do things:

  • My amazing and supportive husband
  • A cleaner
  • An amazing nursery that looks after E three or four days a week, 8am-6pm.
  • My parents and parents-in-law, who are always ready to step in and cover the inevitable gaps that emerge with one-off work events, travel, illnesses and the like.

I don’t have a nanny at the moment, but one of the things reading lots of other women’s stories has taught me is that it can be an important way to make things work when you are working. I am well aware that I am extremely fortunate to be in this position, and to have all these resources to draw on. But I think it’s helpful to be honest about how things work from the inside, what it takes to keep things on the rails. Only by being honest with each other can we set realistic expectations.

So it’s not that I’m ‘doing it all’. I am deliberately not doing things. And I am part of a network of support, so what we do, we do together.

Inspired by:

There are lots of blogging mums that have helped me figure out what I want my parenting life to look like. This post was particularly inspired by:

Anna Whitehouse a.k.a Mother Pukkaher ‘I quit’ post was a great description of what it looks like when it’s not working, and how even well-meaning companies can make parenting incredibly hard.

Rachel Jeffcoat at Make a Long Story Short is one of my favourite I-will-read-anything-she-writes writers and her post on kicking smug parenting to the kerb is a great encouragement to be honest, and to be understanding of however other parents make it work. 

Cup of Jo has a short series of interviews with mums making it work for them.

Selfish Mother is a great desintation for all sorts of articles on realistic parenting. This one is on redefining having it all. 

The Dualista is a blog that doesn’t seem to have kept going but the whole premise of its short life was to interview women combining the home and work parts of their lives.  What switched me on to this was an interview with the brilliant beauty writer Sali Hughes

Sunday food links – 29 May 2016

Bullet journal - getting started

There aren’t really any food links this week, as I haven’t found much time for food reading. That’s not quite true – I have done some offline reading. The new issue of Delicious arrived, and I’ve also picked up this month’s Good Food. I’ve been dipping into some old books as well: MFK Fisher, Elizabeth David, and Nigel Slater’s third kitchen diaries. But it has been a busy week with work, so there hasn’t been much room for leisurely reading.

I have made good use of the weekend so far, though, by spending some quality time with a new notebook! I am a big fan of Bureau Direct, an online stationery shop run by serious stationery geeks (that used to have a real-life shop in Leicester Square). They have been  describing the virtues of a bullet journal in this month’s blog, and I decided that a fresh notebook, and a new month was the perfect time to get into it.

If you haven’t come across the term bullet journal (or #BuJo as the bloggers and pinners disturbingly insist on calling it), you can find the whole system explained very simply in a video by its creator, Ryder Carroll. Basically, it’s a to-do list combined with indexed notetaking, and relies only on a notebook and a pen. There are lots of others offering advice online, and I found Boho Berry’s post and video on combining bullet journaling with GTD particularly useful (and she has some beautiful page designs).

Basically, I’m hoping this is a good way to combine the part of me that loves good notebooks, and crossing things off lists, with the part that enjoys the comprehensive list making of GTD. We will have to see how that works in practice.

Recipes:

  • Baked pumpkin risotto – loosely based on both Donna Hay’s recipe in Modern Classics 1 and The Food Lab’s advice on risotto. I par-boiled the risotto rice the night before, and then when ready to bake, I combined a sweated, chopped onion (in the Thermomix) with finely chopped butternut squash, the rice and hot chicken stock before piling into a baking dish and cooking covered in foil for 30 minutes.
  • Yotam Ottolenghi’s butterbean and oxtail stew – made with beef shin instead of oxtail, and in the slow cooker. I can’t say this completely converted me to bkeila, the fried spinach condiment it’s made with, but it was very tasty nonetheless.

Without a recipe:

  • Pasta bolognese
  • Waitrose pizzas
  • Lasagne (made by my mother-in-law) with bread and salad
  • Pasta with sausage, tomato and broccoli sauce

Reading – books, rather than food online:

Friday food links – 15 April 2016

Tulip 'Orange Favourite'

I am full of cold, which explains both the lateness of this post, and the freezer-heavy, carb-heavy meals this week. I had been putting the sneezing down to hayfever, but then E started sniffling too, and I added a headache, and now it seems more like a cold or flu. Add all that to a new dishwasher delivery, and consequently, a kitchen in disarray, and the meals for the last few days have been particularly low-effort.

In the good patches this week, I have been doing some planning for E’s second birthday party, now only a week away. She is starting to have a bit more of an idea what this involves, but is still far from being able to demand anything in particular, which is a very happy place to be. I have already made two layers of sponge for her birthday cake (with a bit of toddler ‘help’), as well as cheese scones and some cream cheese pastry for the tea to go with it. To be honest, as long as there is cake, balloons and raspberries, she will think it’s the best day ever anyway. It’s important to keep perspective!

Recipes:

  • Roast chicken over rice with cinnamon – Five O’Clock Apron (excellent, and made brilliant fried rice from the leftovers)
  • Great-grandma Turano’s Meatballs (with rice and tomato sauce)
  • Buttermilk birthday cake – Nigella ‘Feast’
  • Wholewheat cheese scones – Delia’s Complete Cookery Course
  • Cream cheese pastry – Delicious magazine April issue
    • all stashed in the freezer for next weekend

Without a recipe:

  • Beef stew from the freezer, with potatoes and broccoli
  • Fish tacos
  • M&S fresh pasta with parmesan
  • Tesco pizza
  • Rhubarb fool
  • Fried rice with chicken, egg and vegetables

Reading:

Friday food links – 8 April 2016

My favorite magnolia in London

This has been a four-seasons-in-one-day week: some days were blustery, with rain and hail, as well as blue skies and sunshine. Lots of the spring flowers are out – and I got to walk past this glorious 60 year old magnolia in Lincoln’s Inn this week too.

To keep with the spring theme, I made fresh ricotta at the weekend. It’s a pretty satisfying process, but I failed to plan how I would use it all in the week. I have hovered between tortas and cakes and tarts, and fiddly pastas, but then had to acknowledge that these were not weeknight projects. I’ve eaten some just spread thickly on toast and sprinkled with salt, but I couldn’t get through the whole tub in that way!

In the end I settled for spinach and ricotta stuffed cannelloni from a Cranks Bible recipe, using up a box of dried cannelloni tubes that have been lurking in the pantry for ages. As an added bonus, I also chopped the leftover roasted veg from Tuesday’s sausage tray bake into the filling, and topped it with leftover mozzarella from pizza at the weekend.

The main food occupation this weekend will be planning food for The Second Birthday Party. We’re not going over-the-top; just a family party – but I’ve already been persuaded by Pinterest to buy some coloured fabric bunting, so I think I should probably step away from the Pinterest boards now. But there’s still the cake to decide on. And it has to somehow improve upon Smitten Kitchen’s amazing banana monkey cake.

Recipes:

Without a recipe:

  • Sausage tray bake with tomatoes, onions and purple sprouting broccoli, served with sweet potato wedges
  • Chicken curry from the freezer
  • Oven fish and chips
  • Pork ragu lasagne
  • Sunday night pizza

Reading:

Coming soon: a food processor banana bread recipe

Friday food links -11 March 2016

Kew in Spring - crocuses

The week started slowly, as it is likely to do when you accidentally poison yourself by eating soft cheese that has been lurking in the fridge too long (oops). Then a busy week, with guests, which means not much in the way of innovation for dinner. Time to go to the old stand-bys, the things that can come out of the freezer: leftover roast chicken made into soup and risotto. Minced beef into ragu into lasagne. Chicken and lentils cooked all day for a mild, toddler-friendly curry (even if she only ate the rice anyway). Although mornings are still frosty, the sun is warm when it appears, and the tulips are well on their way now. I have the first broad beans (though Italian) in my organic box this week, so maybe spring is on the way.

Recipes:

  • Apple crumble – James Morton’s ‘How Baking Works’
  • Slow cooker ragu – ‘Slow Cooked’ – Miss South
  • Sake steak – Nigella’s ‘Feast’

Without a recipe:

  • Roast chicken, chipolatas, roast potatoes, roast butternut squash, broccoli
  • Lasagne  (using the slow cooker ragu)
  • Squash soup (with leftover roast squash)
  • Chicken risotto
  • Slow cooker chicken curry
  • Milk bread (again – trying to get the recipe right)

Reading:

Reading in 2015 – food, family and feminism

What sort of a year has it been? A good one, I think. I went back to work. I think I even managed to do some useful things, in between nursery drop-offs, pick-ups, repeated toddler-borne colds, holidays and all the rest. I started putting E into nursery for an extra half-day, to give me a morning to myself each week, which has worked brilliantly. It gives me a slot to run, that I really can’t miss, or there are no other opportunities. And I can get household admin and errands done without a toddler in tow. We have had a lot of good times as a family, and have had more meals with friends than the year before, simply by setting a schedule in advance where we would make time for a Sunday lunch.

Here are some of the things I read and enjoyed this year.

The Silicon Valley Suicides – a daunting read, about high school and normalising the pressure kids are under from parents and from each other.

This piece on stereotype threat from the MIT Admissions office blew my mind, and continues to influence me each day, especially at work. Are we priming ourselves and each other to underperform without realising it?

The writing exercise of ‘greening’ or striking out a specific number of words from a short piece is an appealing one, although I expect very hard to acquire.

To mark the anniversary, the New Yorker republished a huge essay on the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima. It’s a stunning piece of work, detailed and engaging and manages to personalise a tragedy on an epic scale.

Oliver Sacks died this year. This piece on coming to terms with the end of his life is characteristically good-humoured and beautiful.

(Many of these stories I found via the excellent Next Draft email newsletter, that brings me links to some of the best writing on the web every day, without overwhelming me. Not a sponsored link, I just like it.)

On food and cooking:

The Myth of Easy Cooking – argues that cooking at home every day is hard, and we should stop pretending that it takes no effort.

Bee Wilson is a voice of incredible reason in the fad and trend-ridden world of food. I am currently mid-way through her brand new book on how we learn to eat, First Bite.  I loved this piece on whether or not you should stick to recipes.

This piece on a ritual of Friday Night Meatballs inspired our own series of open Sunday lunches in 2015, something we are likely to repeat this year.

Eating Well at the End of the Road shines a spotlight on a food community in a remote Alaskan town.

A debate broke out earlier in the year around Food52’s Piglet cookbook tournament: is it sexist to judge a cookbook by the pictures?

On family, kids and work-life balance:

I loved a lot of Rachel Jeffcoat‘s writing at Make a Long Story Short this year, but special mentions go to this piece on parenting a boy that seems to have a lot in common with you, without transferring your own anxieties; and a runner’s creed, for those who hate it (but do it anyway). She also has a reading and writing round-up of her own.

Shauna, aka Gluten Free Girl, is another writer who writes beautifully and with raw honesty about family and parenting. This is a lovely piece on accepting where you are, in the midst of messy, sometimes scary life.

And this piece of hers about having a rhythm and a ritual to eating each week is probably the food piece I referred back to most this year.

I added Miriam Gonzalez-Durantez to my list of inspiring women this year. Lots of good stuff in this interview, on work, and feminism and family (from before the election).

Via brainpickings, a lovely 1925 article on the rewards of fatherhood.

Advice to a daughter – a chance to revisit advice from mother to daughter, scrawled in a notebook and unearthed later.

New York Times writer David Carr died this year. I didn’t know him, but someone who did linked to his 2008 piece about being the father to twin baby girls while being addicted to crack. It is exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure, and not at all what you might expect.

A former clerk for Ruth Bader Ginsburg on being a stay at home dad.

Brilliant and down-to-earth make-up columnist Sali Hughes being interviewed on how she balances work, life, kids and the rest.

And if all that wasn’t enough, Bloomberg’s list of the 38 best stories we didn’t write had me bookmarking every other link to read later.

Looking back, looking forward

Did as I was told with the pasta tonight, following @rachelaliceroddy instructions on all the ways to get it wrong.

We are finishing the year with a ragu made from the leftovers of the Boxing Day roast rib of beef. It feels appropriate to round out the year with an excellent use of leftovers. I also used my Christmas presents to good effect in the meal: following Rachel Roddy’s directions on how to cook pasta from ‘Five Quarters’, and then using my brand new (much improved) pepper grinder to finish off the plate.

We won’t do much different tonight, in celebration of New Year’s. We’ll maybe break out the cheese and the last of the Christmas chocolates. But we will talk of plans for the coming year, of hopes and wishes and things we would like to do more of. And we will laugh together.

I’m proud of the blog this year. I posted regularly all year – every week, except for the last couple. In the ten years I’ve had some sort of blog at this domain name, I’ve never managed to post that consistently. But I would like to get back to writing more than just a list that summarises the week, to learning new things, and trying my best to explain why some things work and what’s going on between the lines of a recipe. So that’s my resolution for next year. Regular posts, but also interesting ones. I hope you’ll hold me to it. Happy New Year.

Making lists of things we love

From this Food52 thing based on this book comes the idea of making lists of things that you love, as a way to reflect, to feel better, and to appreciate the little things that brighten each day. So inspired by this, and with no particular theme, here is one of mine.

View of the City of London from Waterloo bridge

Things I love:

    • the view from Waterloo bridge, especially from the bus, especially when the sun is going down.
    • making and icing a layer cake, and sharing it with friends. Precisely that sort of absorbing craft that is so rewarding and you get cake too!
    • apple blossom, cherry blossom

Ah, cherry blossom. It really is spring then.

    • the sound of my daughter laughing
    • good bread with good salted butter – enough butter to leave toothmarks
    • mountains

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  • rolling up trousers and paddling in the sea, listening to the waves
  • cello music, especially Jacqueline du Pre playing this
  • starting a new notebook
  • the smell of jasmine on a warm evening

Genius recipes – recipes that changed the way you cook

No-knead_bread

Food52 had an article some time ago about genius recipes, which links to a column they run and a forthcoming book. But it made me think, what are the recipes that I would consider genius – that once made, changed my perspective on that dish forever.

Marcella Hazan’s butter and tomato sauce came up a lot in that piece, and I’d endorse that too. I think I first came across it on Amateur Gourmet, but honestly, there came a point where it seemed to appear on every other blog, so I had to try it. The main revelation is knowing that you can make delicious good-enough-to-eat-with-a-spoon tomato sauce without sauteing or frying anything, and using tinned tomatoes.

I now roast broccoli and cauliflower fairly regularly in preference to boiling or steaming, but I think it was Heidi’s recipe for roasted cauliflower popcorn that first turned me on to this idea. Amateur Gourmet’s the best broccoli of your life was another endorsement for this approach. Sometimes I do something much simpler, and just coat the florets in a little oil before roasting, but I often add a sprinkling of vinegar too, and some breadcrumbs if I have them around. I think it was Jamie Oliver that first prompted me to add vinegar or citrus whenever roasting root vegetables, and now I do it routinely.

Jenny Rosenstrach from Dinner: A Love Story is evangelical about her pork shoulder ragu – and with good reason. It was her solution to entertaining again after having kids. It requires very little preparation time and is endlessly rewarding. The ‘aha’ moment for me was realising that a lump of meat can be braised to the point of falling apart, and then shredded into its cooking liquid there and then. Yes, I had braised meat before, but either in cubes (which take ages to brown before you can get going) or in a large piece that was then sliced or shredded to serve as is, or the liquid needed to be chilled/skimmed/reduced before using. This one-pot dish just needs you to brown the pork on a few sides before adding onions, tomatoes, wine and herbs and sending the whole thing to the oven for four hours. The amount of meat is manageable for four people, or for two with leftovers through the week (many recipes for pork shoulder ask for the whole joint and feed 10-12).

Another obvious choice is Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread (I usually work from Clotilde’s metric translation). It has been posted and reposted (including here), but that recipe introduced a number of really useful home bread baking principles, which can be incorporated into other bread recipes and methods. The first was slow rising, by using a very small amount of yeast. A lot of bread recipes are geared to being done as fast as possible, and so use 10 or more grams of dried yeast to 500g flour. This recipe has a tiny 1/4 tsp of yeast and still gets a good rise. It is also a wet dough, but that doesn’t matter as you don’t knead it, so avoid the sticky mess that can result. And finally, it is baked in a preheated casserole or cast iron pot with a lid. This not only prevents the very wet dough from spreading out into a pancake in the oven, it also contains the steam created at the start of the cooking, giving a better crust.

Do you have your own genius recipes?