Monday, September 29, 2008

"And it's lovely rice pudding for dinner again!"

Mary Jane was an idiot. Rice pudding is wonderful. What's better, though, is chocolate rice pudding! We had it for dinner last night, courtesy of a Dan Lepard recipe in the Guardian.

Put 50 grams of pudding/risotto rice in a pan with 200 ml milk. Bring to the boil, then remove from the heat, cover with a tight-fitting lid, and leave to soak for an hour.

Add 40 grams of sugar, 15 grams (1 large tablespoon) of cocoa powder, 1/2 tsp vanilla extract, and another 200 ml of milk. Stir into the rice mixture and then heat gently, stirring from time to time to stop it sticking/burning on the bottom. Do this for about 15 minutes until the mixture reduces and thickens.

Remove from the heat again, cover with the lid, and leave for 30-60 minutes. We could only manage to leave it for 30 and then had it with a huge dollop of whipped cream and a couple of those lovely chocolate cigar biscuits. Gorgeous.

Dan suggests thinning the cooled rice pudding with a little cream, decanting it into individual ramekins, sprinkling the top with brown sugar, and having at it with a blowtorch to create a crispy brulee finish. That also sounds fantastic, but we were hungry and I don't have a blowtorch. (As with my desired purchase of a chainsaw, PJ thinks I am not to be trusted with this sort of machinery).

Dan Lepard is a baking god. His bagel recipe is wonderful; I made some exquisite chocolate biscuits from another Guardian recipe; and his bread recipes are top-notch, too. If you like baking, get one of his books.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The very definition of "trepidation"


Off to the countryside

If you only had one day in Hampshire, this is what I'd do. First, head to Loomies at the junction of the A32 and A272; we haven't been inside, but it looks like a classic A-road cafe -- complete with full English breakfasts. Then, drive up to Old Winchester Hill and take the circular walk round to the Iron Age hill fort. You get to see truly stunning countryside as well as a beautiful wood and views down to the Isle of Wight. After two hours, you'll be back at your car and with an appetite. Follow the narrow, winding lanes down to East or West Meon, and stop at one of the quaint pubs in these quintessentially English villages. Enjoy decent pub grub and then take a leisurely drive home, perhaps stopping off to see the gardens at Hinton Ampner en route. Wash the car, make chutney, and let your adorable kittens out into the big wide world for the first time. (Oh wait, the latter part only really applies to me. Still, it was great.)

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Au revoir, Fat Bob

He's gone. To a good home, we think. It was all rather fortuitous: We'd had a lovely day out at Old Winchester Hill (pictures to come), come home, and I'd started washing the car. About halfway through, a very pleasant middle-aged couple from down the road stopped to chat about my Fat Bob poster -- they'd noticed the one I put up by the entrance to the woods and seen the one on my gate post. I did my usual sales pitch, and they both said "Bert would love him!" Bert is their elderly neighbour, whose own cats had died earlier this year. He was feeling rather down in the dumps, and these kindly people figured that Fat Bob would cheer him up. They took our phone number, went off to talk to Bert, and called about 30 minutes later -- Bert was delighted at the prospect of lavishing care and affection on a new cat. Ten minutes after that, they were round with a neighbour's cat carrier and bingo: Fat Bob had a new home. He must have known, as he sauntered into the carrier as if he were expecting it.

Reader: I am overjoyed for Fat Bob, but I must confess there was a tear in my eye as we sat in the garden and had a final cuddle. He's been a real character on the lane, and I've met lots of new people as we've chatted about him. "Oh, you're the lady with Fat Bob!" one woman down the road said as I chatted to her about car washing on Friday. I have gained a local reputation -- and a nice one, at that. Hurrah for Fat Bob; may he live long and prosper with Bert.

In which we find a local fishmonger

Chandler's Ford has a fishmonger! It's only open Wednesday to Saturday and for limited hours only -- I presume they're out fishing the rest of the time -- but it's a proper fishmonger. The sort where they're happy to do all the gutting and scaling and filleting for you and have the types of fish you can't buy in shrink-wrapped plastic trays: red gurnard, sea bass, and huss. We tried out Fishy co for the first time yesterday, purchasing a beautiful silver bream. I had vague recollections of an interesting Indian treatment for bass or bream in the Cinnamon Club cookbook, and was delighted to discover when we got home, fish in hand, that I had all the ingredients for it. Well, except tomato puree (ketchup worked well). And lemon juice (but lime juice worked). And coriander (but PJ hates that anyone, so I usually sub in parsley).

This was the first time that I'd cooked a whole fish that wasn't trout, and it was damn fine. You marinade the fish in a chilli/salt/oil paste, then sear it on both sides till the skin is crispy. Then, smear it with the Parsee-style sweet/sour paste: spices, dried apricot puree, tomato ketchup cooked until jammy. Into the oven for 14 minutes and bingo. Perfectly cooked fish that slid off the bone, with subtly sweet flavorings and sticky bits. I served it with some masala sauteed potatoes, a firm favorite from the same cookbook, and we had orange sorbet to finish. Wonderful. The more I use the Cinnamon Club book, the more I like it. The recipes look enormously complex, largely because of the lengthy ingredient lists, but they're actually not that difficult and work well. If you like Indian food and fancy a bit of a culinary challenge, I'd highly recommend it.

The picture isn't great, but we were too hungry to faff around more.

Hurrah for autumn!

Yes! The summer is over! I can tell, because it's stopped raining. Goodbye grey skies, limp salads, and an overwhelming sense of disappointment. Hello
cold, crisp mornings, fantastic root vegetables, and happiness. I love autumn! I've been picking blackberries from the brambles that dominate the hedgerows round here, and our generous neighbours have been putting out boxes of cooking apples from their trees. Chutney making is on the agenda for today, along with washing the car, a trip to the gym, and yet another ring round of all the animal shelters.

However, I don't like what autumn has brought to my lawn; namely, mushrooms. Hundreds of the things, popping up all over and sneering at my best efforts to destroy them. I am too cowardly to try eating them, so have to content myself with kicking them over and shouting "Get off my lawn!" to the distress of the local birds. Little blighters!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Nice cat, nobody wants him

Fat Bob is still with us. The trip to the vet last week confirmed that he is indeed a Bob, he doesn't have a chip, but he does have slightly dodgy teeth. I've been calling all the local rescue centres and they are either all full or simply ignoring my pleas for help. We're on the waiting lists of St Francis, the RSPCA, and the Blue Cross -- it's worse than getting your kids into Eton! I've even started approaching strangers in the street and asking whether they want him; yes, I am now Fat Bob's pimp. Meanwhile, he continues to sleep in our garage and haunt our doorstep -- but he's not on the list, so he's not getting in.

Fat Bob
Is not my kitty
He's just a cat
Who thinks that I am his mum
But Fat Bob is not my son ...

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Poor Shin

Following a successful post-op checkup at the vet's, Shin managed to pull out one of her stitches. As a result, she's back in her plastic collar -- and most unhappy about it. She staggers around, bashing into chair legs and windows, and is having some difficulty accessing food; she is not comforted by me telling her that it's all for the best in the best of all possible worlds. But that remaining stitch must stay in, so the collar must stay on for another day or two at least.

"Where there is discord, may we bring harmony."

What a day. Awake at 7, up at 8, in Waitrose by 8.45, banana oatmeal muffins made by 10, wandering Winchester by 11.30. Arrived home at 1.30 and decided to do a spot of gardening before settling down to read The Guardian. Which we did, but only after 4 hours of backbreaking work. "A spot of gardening" turned into two trips to the garden centre, as we realized that first three and then 13 bags of plum slate chippings weren't going to adequately cover our front garden. In fact, the second trip to the garden centre turned into two trips in and of itself, as I had forgotten my purse and had to drive home to get it, while PJ sat on the final six sacks of chippings. We pinned down a ground cover sheet; I hefted bags of slates from car to garden; PJ sawed borders while I scattered slates; and finally we filled and moved plant pots — tomorrow, we will actually plant the pots with the autumn-planting bulbs that I bought today (after watching Gardener's World last night).

We are both shattered, but it's been well worth it. The formerly unkempt, overgrown front garden is as tidy and low maintenance as I could wish for. The slate chippings will look lovely when it rains (as it often does), as that's when their vdeep purpliness becomes apparent. And we did it ourselves -- and have the aching backs and arms to prove it.

From this:

To this:

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

My poor babies!

Today was a big day: After depriving them of food for 12 hours, we dropped the kitties off at the vet this morning to be spayed and micro-chipped (no GPS tracking, unfortunately). We picked them up at 4, and they are a sorry sight. Groggy, grumpy, and shaved! Shin keeps giving me the stink-eye, while Nin seems a little more forgiving, but I'm sure that will wear off along with the pain meds. But it does mean that we'll be able to let them go outside in about 10 days time, should the weather improve.

I just hope their fur grows back quickly. They look so ... mangy!

Meet Fat Bob

Fat Bob* is a stray who's taken up residence on our street. We're a soft-hearted bunch of neighbours. He sleeps in a porch two doors up, and the owners have now put out a cosy cat blanket for him; I've fed him a couple of times, and I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one. He's the loveliest cat -- extremely friendly, as well as being extremely greedy. But what to do with him? I've put up a notice in the local pub and called a couple of cat rescue places, and nobody's reported him missing. There are no signs up for him in the area. And, of course, he doesn't have a collar. I'll take him to the vet tomorrow to see if he's been chipped. Keep your fingers crossed that we can reunite him with his family.

* I don't know if Fat Bob is male or female, but the name suits "him".

Monday, September 01, 2008

Exposure is the best form of contraception

We spent the weekend surrounded by children: an 18-month-old on Saturday evening/Sunday morning and then a 36-month-old and a six-year-old on Sunday evening. This was more by accident than design; we are categorically NOT gluttons for such punishment, but events conspired. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth, but once I'd dealt with PJ (ho ho!), the real fun began. I had no idea that there could be so many small child/floor interfaces in such a short space of time. The presence of the cats in the house has meant that we no longer have valuable possessions or furniture that we worry about, but I was slightly nervous as the 18-month-old explored the wonderful banging potential of the telephone against the glass-topped unit. And I know that my ginger biscuits were slightly dry, but I can't believe a Michelin inspector would have rubbed them into the conservatory chairs. Children are harsh critics.

By the end of the weekend, PJ was shell-shocked and retreated to watch some fun zombie action (the remake of Dawn of the Dead). I made like the Victorian maiden that I so closely represent and took to my bed (read: sofa) with my laudanum (a strong cup of tea) and a good book (of sudoku puzzles). As for the cats? I think they are traumatised. They spent most of the weekend either cowering on top of the china cabinet, hiding in the cupboard under the sink, or skulking under the bath. It's good to see that they share our fear of the wee ones.