Friday, March 28, 2008

Spring woz here

What a week of weather. Rain, sleet, hail, snow, and the occasional flash of sunshine. Yesterday was gorgeous, so my hopes were high that today we'd finally be able to paint in sunlight and clear the gutters at the new house. (Ah, the glamour of home ownership!) Today, it's tipping down. Again. Enjoy the photos of spring blossoms (and pigeon bottom) that I managed to take yesterday.

It's back!

My favorite waste of time (and small amounts of money)! After a winter spent resting -- hopefully somewhere warm -- the second-hand bookstore in the Cathedral is open for business again. A huge assortment of books; people pawing through them at odd times of the day; and the fact that it operates on a trust basis. Love it.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The best pesto recipe in the world ... ever

After all that painting, we needed something easy to eat last night. Luckily, the veggie box man had been, so we had Jerusalem artichoke soup with parsley and nut pesto. Now, the latter is probably my recipe of the year. Hugh Fearnley-Whatsisname published it in The Guardian about a month ago and I've made it several times. It's fabulous in pleasantly bland soups like the Jerusalem artichoke one; it's great on pasta; and you could use it in an omelette, as the basis for a flan, etc. I'm not saying the possibilities are endless, but it does keep well and tastes divine. And it's SO easy!

Simply put 100gm peeled/cooked chestnuts into a food processor with 75gm grated hard cheese (cheddar or hard goat cheese) with 1 clove of garlic and 1/2 tsp rock salt and some pepper. Blend until a grainy paste. Add 2 bunches of flat-leaf parsley and blend again. Add the juice of 1/2 lemon, and while blending, add about 200ml oil (a mix of olive and something bland, like sunflower or groundnut). You may not need all the oil; I like my pesto thicker rather than runny, so used less.

This makes a huge amount of pesto, so it's just as easy to make half the amount. In addition, I substituted some of my Trader Joe's pecans and toasted almonds for the chestnuts last night and used lime juice from a bottle (if it's good enough for Nigella ...) and it still tasted great. I think I actually prefer it to home-made basil pesto, and it certainly keeps better (in the fridge, covered, with a bit of oil on top). Try it; you won't regret it!

Whistle while you work

It's easier to paint while listening to The Ramones than it is to Kid A by Radiohead. Fact.

Now I wanna sniff some VOCs

Readers, we have completed. We have the keys to our new house. We have been to Homebase and spent huge amounts of money on paint and tools and ladders. And we have painted. Ah, VOCs -- the lovely chemicals that make paint smell so ... painty!

We've also made some rather nice discoveries about our new home. We have a freezer! What we thought was another cupboard in the kitchen turned out to be a good-size three-door freezer! The central heating works beautifully, which is a good thing given that it's been snowing here. And the boiler provides a great hot spot for proving bread (or which our future cats will sleep on). Contrary to my mother's warning, the rooms actually seem larger than we had remembered. And PJ's already discovered that crow-barring the panels off the chimney breast in the conservatory will probably be a good idea (just as well given that he's already done one).

The downsides? There's a little slope and lip on the drive that makes reversing in somewhat challenging. The garden needs a fair amount of work, not of all which can be done with a blowtorch and some tar. And the skirting boards could do with replacing in the lounge. But these are details, mere details. Overall, two thumbs up!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Debt-ridden days are here again

We got a text earlier today from one of our banks to tell us that our mortgage was now open. Yay!

In the midst of life, we are in debt, etc.


I don't particularly like marketers or advertisers. In fact, I rather like Charlie Brooker's advice on how to deal with them:

"Stroll up to someone in marketing and after punching them square in the face because they bloody well deserve it, ask them to define the term 'branding.' Chances are they'll start babbling about 'consumer consciousness' and 'product personality,' at which point you can punch them square in the face for a second time. Hey presto! You're getting a cathartic workout, and they're learning something valuable. Everybody wins. Apart from them, obviously."

However, occasionally they do come up with some great ads. Like this one.

I know, you've probably all seen it by now. But it still makes me laugh. Especially the pussy cat.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Fish n' chip fingers

I have introduced PJ to the delights of natural cleaning products -- in this case, white vinegar. He's been cleaning the black spots off some of our windowsills and the house now smells like a chippy. But in a good way.

Actually, is there a bad way for a house to smell like a chippy? It hardly seems possible.

More vegetables disguised as sweet treats

After beetroot and courgettes, it's the turn of pumpkin. We've had two in the veggie box recently, and it was time to use one of them up. Off to the always-reliable Baking Bites for a recipe -- Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies. Chop pumpkin, peel pumpkin, steam pumpkin, puree pumpkin, throw all the ingredients into a food processor and let it do the rest of the hard work.

They're almost good for you -- low in fat, full of pumpkin-y goodness, but probably a tad too much sugar to count as truly beneficial. Doesn't matter; they taste great.

Still, that only used about a quarter of my (small) pumpkin. I now have a bag of puree in the freezer, some slices of pumpkin roasted with spices, and am using the remainder in a cauliflower and pumpkin, Jamie Oliver-inspired lasagne. Not that I'm going to be very hungry, by the time it's ready: I've already had 4 cookies. Damn.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Harry, He's Here To Help

Or rather, Harry, we're here to help. Thanks to my lovely colleagues, I am now the proud sponsor of Harry, an abandoned dog who resides with the caring Dogs' Trust. They've been running heart-rending ads for the past few months on one of the channels that's always on at the gym, and I've been pestering PJ for months to let me have an abandoned puppy. Well, sponsoring Harry is a fabulous -- and easy --alternative. Thank you, my friends!

Royally pissed off

Not that the UK doesn't offer up its share of bureaucratic frustrations. Last month, PJ treated me to a copy of Viz -- scatalogical entertainment best enjoyed on a "once every two years" basis. Not much had changed since I read it last, but it did feature an amusing board game based on waiting in for a package to be delivered, with all squares featuring some form of humiliating (and scatalogical) failure to get said package. It was absolutely spot-on. Postie ringing the doorbell, flinging the "you were out" card through the letter-box, and sprinting for the van? Oh yes, all too familiar. I'm currently waiting for an Amazon package to be delivered. Monday morning, I head downstairs at 8, waiting for the postie. At 9, I head upstairs for 30 seconds. When I check the letter-box an hour later, there's the dreaded card. Off I head, as usual, to the Royal Mail's helpful site, as mentioned on the card. Only the URL no longer works. Nowhere on the site can you arrange for your package to be redelivered. I filled in a "please contact me" form -- and 48 hours later, I'm still waiting to be contacted. And still waiting for my package to arrive.

Oh well, I guess it's actually marginally better than the private delivery company that threw two of our packages over our back garden fence for us to collect -- once during a torrential downpour. Good job neither package contained (unusually) any half-decent electronics kits.

Dutch bureaucracy -- eternal pain

Even after almost a year away, we can't escape. We're in the middle of doing our 2007 tax returns for the delightful Belastingdienst -- or rather, paying someone to do our 2007 tax returns -- and we've just received a bill from the Amsterdam City Council for our 2008 poll-tax-equivalent. On the house we no longer own. Which they know, because they assessed the 2008 poll-tax-equivalent amount according to the sales values of three houses in the neighbourhood -- including ours.

I'm guessing that the new owner of the property has not registered at the Gemeente -- given that she's non-resident in the Netherlands. Therefore, the Gemeente has us down as the owners still, and that's why they've billed us for 500 euros. The only number to call is a 5-digit freefone number from within the Netherlands, and I'm sure we could fix this by filling in one of the 10 pages of forms sent along with the bill, only none of them are in English (or available in English on the Web site -- because clearly NO expats live in Amsterdam) and I rapidly forgot all of the limited amount of Dutch that I once knew.

Blood. Pressure. Rising.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Massive storms batter Britain?

Pah! I've cycled home in worse. It's not a massive storm until garden furniture is blown from roof terraces onto the streets that you're cycling along below. While the police have been advising that people make essential journeys only, I ventured out to buy a Cadbury's Creme Egg and suffered no ill effects. And yes, it was essential.

There will be blood

No, not a film review, but a pretty good guess at what might happen in the kitchen should I choose to make beetroot crisps. Mandolines are excellent at producing beautiful, paper-thin slices of vegetable but notorious for also producing beautiful, paper-thin slices of finger. Not today, however. I managed to avoid setting myself up for a life of crime but instead produced -- quickly, easily, and cheaply -- a bowl of fab crisps, the sort that I would pay pounds for in the local upmarket provisions store. A recipe? Peel a couple of beetroot, slice using a mandonline, heat a couple of inches of sunflower oil in a pan until it is very hot (or a piece of beetroot starts bubbling immediately you put it in), drop in handfuls of beetroot slices and fry until they turn orange. Scoop them out onto kitchen towel to drain and then toss with sea salt. Truly finger-lickin' good.

Talking of colorful veggies, we've also been blessed this month with bags of purple sprouting broccoli. We're fans of the green variety, but this is just so much prettier. And when lightly blanched and then fried with several cloves of garlic, some chopped anchovy fillets, and a sprinkling of dried chilli flakes, it tastes divine.

On the dessert front, I caved this weekend and made ice cream. In this weather? Ah, well this was an ice cream that gave you a distinct glow after eating. Winchester is home to a branch of fab chocolate shop Montezuma's, and my current favorite from their range is white chocolate with ginger and chilli. I decided to make an ice cream inspired by this bar and again, it was super easy. Finely grate a 1-inch piece of fresh ginger and add to it about 250 ml of double cream. Whip till it reaches the soft-peak stage, throw in some small pieces of crystallized ginger and then fold in about 110 gm of melted white chocolate. Stir together, pour into a container with a lid, and stick in the freezer for a few hours. It wasn't quite frozen by the time we ate, thanks to a truly useless ice-box freezer -- roll on April and all-new appliances! -- so I'm calling it my white chocolate and ginger semi-freddo. Next time, I might even try adding a few chilli flakes ... No pictures, it disappeared all too quickly.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Pan's Labyrinth

Stunning. As in "I felt stunned, beaten over the head, kicked in the stomach, after watching this film". It wasn't easy seeing it for the first time in class, having a short break, and then having to engage in discussion about uterine imagery etc, that's for sure. PJ had watched this some weeks back while I was indulging in my preferred form of gloom, detective novels. The whole fantasy element has never really appealed to me; I guess I've extended my general dislike of children to my inner child, too, so I wasn't particularly looking forward to this. I already knew what happened at the end, which, as it turns out, was probably a good thing. I have a tendency to cry during films, and I don't think that's acceptable behavior in a film studies class. Plus, puffy eyes and a bright red nose? Not attractive.

So, the film. Wow. The fantasy elements were quite limited. Sergi Lopez is clearly the go-to Spanish actor for psychotic killers, but with a marvellous range -- his Captain Vidal is quite different to the more comedic Harry, in "Harry, He's Here to Help". A fairly hefty amount of gore, all the more frightening when it was in "real" life: I can cope with fairies being eaten, but find torture with pliers more disturbing (thankfully). Maribel Verdu, also excellent. Overall, quite the best picture I've seen in ages and well worth seeing unless you like happy endings.

Some questions

Why is the BBC so half-arsed about putting shows on Virgin's On-Demand service? Don't they realize that they set expectations -- and thus people's diaries -- if they put the first couple of episodes of a new show on, and are thus creating frustration and rage when they fail to add subsequent episodes?

How long will it take me to find the remaining 6 Inspector Rebus novels in charity bookshops around Winchester?

Does the Disney Corporation WANT to drive me into the arms of peer-to-peer file sharing networks to find a copy of Snow White to study for a paper? I mean, 47 quid for a used VHS copy? That's outrageous!

Am I the only person who checks their shoes and boots for spiders before putting them on?

Monday, March 03, 2008

Three films: Juno, Dracula, and Joan Crawford

While the cat's away -- or in this case, PJ's in Boston -- the mouse gets to watch films. I even ventured out of the house to our local cinema to catch an early-evening screening of Juno. I sat watching the numerous car ads (and btw Jaguar, I'm not sure it's a good idea to create an ad that makes me feel queasy; cit ertainly puts me off the car) and generally enjoying the civilised ambience that abounds in a Winchester cinema at 6.30. Just as the credits started, however, two teenage (?) girls came in late, sat down next to me, and proceeded to chat loudly. And then SMS their friends through the film. And rummage through their bags for stuff. The chap in front was so irritated by them kicking their feet against the back of his chair that he moved -- and I should have done the same, but preferred to feel righteously indignant instead. Despite this, I enjoyed the film. I'd be somewhat leary of seeing it: the writer, Diablo Cody, contributes to a forum that I frequent, so I'd followed the gestation/filming/promotion/reviews/awards and subsequent backlash in some detail and was kind of tired of it before going. However, it was entertaining: definitely a "woman's" film but in a good way -- (non-exclusively) female concerns handled in a sympathetic and amusing fashion, and with no sense of women as mere adjuncts to men or humourless deniers of male fun and freedom. Sweet.

Friday night saw another stab at Hammer, this time Dracula, Prince of Darkness. Readers, I've tried, I really have, but I just don't like Hammer films much. This one was not particularly gory or scary or sexy or funny. It was mildly interesting as a period piece but even that palls after about 20 minutes. Christopher Lee didn't appear for ages, and when he did he was silent! In the accompanying documentary, he reveals that he thought the dialogue for Dracula was so appalling that he refused to say it -- a silent protest, if you will. His hand acting was marvellous though, reminiscent of the finest hand work on The Addams Family. Still, not enough to save this from being really rather tedious.

Another period piece, but far from tedious, was Possessed -- Joan Crawford as a crazy-in-love stalker who murders a thoroughly dislikeable Van Heflin when he spurns her advances. A typical 1940s medical drama, complete with spurious and ludicrous diagnoses and treatments, this contained Joan Crawford at her finest -- all massive shoulder pads, stern jaw, and over-emoted hysteria. It's by no means a classic, but there are some interesting narrative tricks and Joan really gives her all. Much more fun than Dracula!

What's coming up this week? Pan's Labyrinth in class tomorrow, and then I'm going to press on with the Hammer box set, but this time with Bette Davis in The Nanny. Then another Joan Crawford -- Humoresque? -- followed by a much more upbeat William Powell/Myrna Loy flick. I feel I ought to see There Will Be Blood, but the thought of three hours of Daniel Day Lewis chewing scenery is more than I can bear right now.

The birds

I'm going to miss the garden shed that I can see from my desk. When I'm on my own, I put bits of bread on it and watch the birds fight over it. Today, two pikey giant crows turned up for the first time. They knew they were interlopers -- they sat on a neighbouring roof, carefully checking out the hood, then swooped down, picked up as many chunks of bread as they could, and scarpered. I would not have believed that a bird could look positively shifty before today, but I guess that's what hardcore twitching does for you.

At one point, there were several of these thieving crows perched on the roof opposite, silhouetted against the sky. I failed to get a picture, but the image below should give you some idea of what it was like. Just call me Tippi.