Lockdown 2.0 ‘Oriental’ Beef

(From Mum’s recipe scrap book. Kris’ notes added during his Breaking Bad phase – circa 1993)

I looked up to see if the term ‘oriental’ is politically correct when describing retro food and it turns out that if used as an adjective, it’s fine. Well, perhaps not ‘fine’, but more acceptable. I wouldn’t want to offend anyone’s identity or tastebuds.

This dish is from Mum’s mid-week repertoire when she juggled childminding, office cleaning, and working at Taywood Sports and Social Club (RIP) in the late 80s, early 90s. It’s not authentically Eastern as it depends mostly on things like consommé (which sounds French and sophisticated but in reality comes from a can widely available in supermarkets’ own brands), vinegar (widely used in Anglo-Indian cuisine), and Sherry (widely available in a dusty bottle in the cupboard under the stairs). If this was a truly ‘Oriental’ meal, I would expect to see rice wine vinegar specified and mirin instead of Sherry, and perhaps some stock made from marrow bones and a handful of Chinese spices. But Mum’s recipe, or rather one that seems to have come from the back of a Knorr packet despite the lack of stock cube action, is perfect when all you want is something comfortingly nostalgic, winter-stew like, and piquant without being spicy in the least.

Perhaps an Eastern inspired dish is more fitting than I first realised: China was, after all, the epicentre of the Coronavirus. It is January 2021 and we’re in national lockdown – again.

I keep thinking that if my parents had lived through the first wave of Covid between November 2019 and Spring 2020, they would almost certainly have approached the second wave with less war-time spirit and more irritation. Christmas having come and gone, the freezer stocks would be pretty bare and the stacks of Fray Bentos pies and jars of apple sauce diminished. Winter was always a time when they didn’t fancy going out as much but would be planning the summer holidays, making hospital requests for holiday dialysis, and counting the days until the weather turned more barbecuey. If Mum hadn’t spent the first wave nailing Italian via Duolingo, she would definitely be mooching around virtual markets online and dreaming about the Italian dinners she’d soon be enjoying come June. That is, if she felt up to it. The saddest thing about Mum’s deteriorating health in the last few years leading to her death in January 2017, was her dwindling appetite. She lived for food and holidays. She cooked not just with a view to filling hungry tummies, but for the pure joy of combining flavours, experimenting with cuisines, and infusing everything with her typically Anglo tanginess and spice.

This ‘Oriental’ beef ticks all those boxes. The sauce is thickened to a rich, meaty gravy that is both sweet and sour, but not in the traditional Chinese way. It’s garlicky and savoury enriched with the sherried sweetness of the booze and the peppers. The vinegar gives it a tangy moreishness that balances the earthiness of the mushrooms. I also add some sugar-snap peas near the end to add some bite (although they tend to get thrown in too soon and taste more like soused green peppers). As the recipe doesn’t call for chili, I don’t bother with it as the joy of this meal is in its after-school stewiness, which is cosier and more comforting sometimes than that late night spice for which one hankers at times, and with which you require (and deserve) a cold beer or glass of fizz.

No, this is a simple sounding recipe for a late lunch as it turns out. It’s simple yet easily complicated by trying to thicken the sauce containing alcohol with cornflour that refuses to blend. Also, the recipe calls for top rump of beef, which would make the dish ready in the flashiest of flashes, but Mum’s approach was the thriftier, well-diced morsels of braising steak for a flavour that was stronger, but tougher if not cooked for long enough. As she would often cook during the day so we could heat ours when we got back from school, the microwave would finish the tenderising process. Isn’t that what all the best French chefs do? I’m currently braising my ‘Oriental’ beef for two hours and counting. But then, I don’t have to rush off to clean offices after my day job.

Back in the good old days, if we wanted a more authentic Chinese meal, our local parade of shops on Lady Margaret Road boasted the finest takeaway in Ealing. It was and is called China Gourmet but it doesn’t deliver to this end of Southall unfortunately. Sometimes if I’m close by (or have deliberately navigated near), I’ll go and collect an order of Roast Pork Fried Rice, Shredded Chili Beef and/or King Prawns with Green Peppers in Black Bean Sauce. Dad used to love their ribs; Mum loved Chicken with Cashew Nuts in a Yellow Bean Sauce. For occasions, we’d go to Eat Well in Eastcote – an ‘all-you-can-eat’ establishment. (No longer operating as such.) It was not like the fetid AYCE buffets of Central London with gloopy Sweet ‘n’ Sour Chicken and dry wings steaming in the windows, but quite a classy place that cooked to order and allowed you to choose everything on their menu. They would bring dish after dish to your already groaning rotating table.

I’ve just celebrated my 41st birthday, which is always a poignant time since Mum died. My Uncle’s birthday, Mum’s brother’s, is on the 20th, the day before she died. We joked at the time that she held on another day so she wouldn’t spoil it for him. Instead of going out for my birthday as in days of yore, I ordered a restaurant prepared gourmet meal of Beef Wellington, Dauphinoise Potatoes, Savoy Cabbage and Poached Pears with Mascarpone for afters (Gourmet Food Delivery UK | More More More (more-more-more.co.uk) It was fantastic.

It’s only a week away from the 4th year anniversary of Mum’s death. Christmas would have been a time to toast Mum and Dad but, due to the restrictions, we had no family visiting and no-one else to help eat the 13lb turkey I didn’t have the heart to cancel.

So here’s to you Mumsette. An Eastern inspired comfort meal, straight from your authentically Anglo Indian kitchen of Western London.

(I did end up scattering some chili flakes on top….)

Lockdown Rye Sourdough

Sourdough Starter

This weekend is the 2nd anniversary of my Dad’s departure from this world. My Uncle phoned earlier to commiserate and, yet, we spoke less of Tony Griffiths, and more of our present lockdown stories: not going to Oz and getting a new dog (Uncle Mal) and having scaffolding erected and watching the new Will Ferrell film ‘The Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga’ (me). In fact, we didn’t talk about Dad at all. We didn’t even talk about bread, which is second on my list of things to think about this weekend.

I’m currently in the throes of bulk rising a couple of loaves to give as presents. There’s an elemental joy to making sourdough bread from scratch (even if it isn’t as ‘nice as white bread’ as my fave writer Nina Stibbe famously tweeted recently). I think the joy comes partly from the powerful alchemy of flour and water creating a life of its own and partly the deeply sublime feelings of hope and fear that balance poetically somewhere deep in the soul/stomach. Is this what Keats meant by negative capability?

I have lockdown to thank for this. Thanks to Covid-19, I finally learnt how to make a sourdough starter (one of the many ‘Lockdown Cliches’ of which I am guilty). After the initially laborious task of making it, you have, potentially, a life-time’s supply of sustenance, provided you have flour and water and salt in abundance thereafter. And an admirable range of Le Creuset cast-iron Dutch ovens, a heat source, a sharp edge, myriad tea-towels, a cotton bag, and posh butter and/or marmalade. What more does one need?

Sourdough Dutch Ovens

I don’t think my Dad would have been much fussed about my sourdough efforts. I recall with great fondness his penchant for soaking white sliced bread (or plastic bread as Nigella calls it) in his gravy like a good Cockney Taff. His favourite type of bread.

But he did have a classier palate when we were out and about. We would drive an hour into Essex from Stowmarket to Mersea Island for its fish platters and oysters when Mum was alive, with a pitstop at Morrisons for the BYOB (Bring Your Own Bread) and aioli. I always, always got a sourdough loaf and only got ciabatta if they were out. At The Company Shed it was encouraged that you brought your own stuff to mop up the fishy bounty. You were not allowed to book a table so, if it was full, we’d go to the less permissive, but equally delicious, West Mersea Oyster Bar, where we would order our platters and sit outside to enjoy the fresh langoustines, prawns, crab, and two dozen oysters with hunks torn from the communal sourdough loaf, dunked first in the garlic mayo, all swashed down with cold beer, 7Up, or Prosecco.

Sourdough BYOBSourdough Company ShedSourdough Mersea Island

Those were the days. Dad and I went back only once after my Mum died as a sort of pilgrimage. We didn’t bother with the sourdough but we did have plenny of fish and sad gulps of fizz.

Mum hardly ever used to bake her own bread. She had a foray into the world of bread-machine baking for a bit and absolutely loved trying to recreate the focaccia we used to eat in Italy all the time. But sourdough was best bought or used as bowls for that incredible San Francisco bay chowder we all had to try on our separate American adventures.

What is it about sourdough and fish? All I know is that when I use the sourdough discard (get me with all the words) in Pip’s weekend waffles, she complains that it tastes fishy! Sourdough bread though definitely does not taste like fish. I don’t even know why I’m thinking of fish. I suppose the sharing of those Mersea Island meals was what made it special and they say that sharing bread is a pretty good thing to do. So, for the first time, I’m making some loaves to share with friends. It’s worrying because I never know how the bread will turn out until I’ve sliced it (or better yet, torn into it). I also thought it would be nice to present some of my three month old starter along with the bread so that if it fails, they can have a go themselves.

I bought a 25kg bag of rye flour when lockdown started so my starter is 100% rye. I followed Anja Dunk’s sourdough starter instructions from Strudel, Noodles & Dumplings cookbook and then watched a number of YouTube tutorials about baking sourdough bread. My favourite is 15 Mistakes Most Beginner Sourdough Bakers Make by Mike Greenfield/Lifebymikeg on Instagram.

Here is my version of the combined tips:

Nikki’s Lockdown Rye Sourdough Bread

Makes 2 loaves

Ingredients

150g of activated rye starter (see method for instructions)

1000g of flour (see method for flour types)

700-800mls lukewarm water

10-20g salt (French rules say max 10% salt but I’m not French!)

Optional – handful of sesame seeds of linseed

Method

  1. Activate your starter. To begin the process you need a starter. My starter was made from adding equal amounts of rye flour and water to a bowl each day for about 6 days until it became active – bubbly and frothy. I then kept a jam-jar full of this starter in the fridge, which is easily activated in a few hours. This recipe begins with a jam-jar full of rye starter in your fridge (or presented to you by a friend).

Remove your sleepy starter from the fridge and scoop the contents into a bowl. Add 100g of rye flour and 100mls of lukewarm water. Combine until you have a firm, wet paste. Scoop/smear this new mixture into a clean Mason jar or bowl (it needs to hold approx 500g of flour). If using a jar, put an elastic band around its waist at the height of the mixture before it starts to rise. This will show you clearly how far up the jar your mixture has risen. Leave the mixture in a warm place (around 21 degrees at least) until it looks bubbly and has approximately doubled in quantity. This activation takes about 2 hours in a warm room.

2. Autolyse the flours. Measure out 1000g of your chosen flour. My quantities are as follows based on the best bread I made at the start of lockdown:

  • 600g white flour or spelt flour
  • 300g wholewheat flour
  • 100g rye flour

Mix all the flour with about 700mls of lukewarm water or until you feel there are no dry bits left in the bowl (professionals call this hydration level and use percentages eg 700mls water = 70% hydration. I tend to use somewhere between 700-800mls water). Don’t worry if the mixture looks wetter than normal bread dough – the flour will absorb lots of water throughout this process. Cover the mixture with a plate/clingfilm and leave aside for 45 minutes.

3. Make the bread dough. When your starter looks active (nice and bubbly and doubled in size), measure out 150g and save the rest in an old jam-jar for next time*. Combine 150g of activated starter with 15g of salt to your autolysed flour mixture. Mix well. You can use your hands at this point if the mixture seems too tough. Always use wet hands. Cover and let the dough relax for 30 minutes.

(*You can put your jar of starter in the fridge if you’re not going to use it within a week, otherwise it can just stay out on your tabletop. It’s best to keep it in the fridge if you are not planning to use it again within a couple of weeks and it can stay untouched up to about a month. After a couple of weeks in its inactive state in the fridge, it might separate: just stir the liquid back in. If mould develops, chuck the starter and start(er) again. But do try to keep it alive – remember, it’s easy to keep it healthy by adding any equal quantity of rye flour and water. Keeping it alive during lockdown was easy as every few days I tried a different sourdough recipe. Some recipes only call for a spoonful so you don’t need to do the 100g rye/100 ml water activation, just add a spoonful of each and wait a couple of hours.)

4. The no-knead ‘Stretch and Fold’ method: instead of kneading the dough for 10 minutes like many bread recipes demand, sourdough benefits from the old ‘stretch and fold’ method, widely demonstrated on YouTube, but is essentially using wet hands to scoop out sections of the dough, stretching it up and folding it into the centre of the dough, turning the bowl about 30 degrees and then repeating about 10 times until you’ve turned the bowl 360 degrees, stretching and folding as you go. It takes about 30 seconds to stretch and fold.

People freak out about it because you now have to repeat the stretch and fold method every 30 minutes for two hours, ie, 4 times in total. This may seem outrageously long but if you watch 4 episodes of Friends in the meantime or a 2 hour feature film that you can pause, it’s no big deal.

5. The Bulk Rise: you will have noticed that the texture of your dough is more elastic now that it’s been lovingly stretched and folded. The flour is sucking up the moisture and the gluten is working. It’s now time to put the dough to bed for a few hours – anywhere between 3-6 hours – ideally in a room that’s at least 21 degrees. You can also put the dough in the fridge at this point and leave it overnight (approximately 8-10 hours); the dough will still rise but at a slower pace. *The following picture is what happens if you leave it for too long even in the fridge!*

Sourdoughtastrophe

After the bulk rise, your dough will have risen (I hate reading this next statement…) until it has approximately doubled in size. (What does this even mean?! You will see that it’s risen at least a bit and, for your first time, you just have to trust that it has done something good after all the hours it’s been left to ferment.) The dough will need another period of rising next. But, before this, you will need to shape it into the loaf that it will finally become. The shaping instructions come after the next important stage which is preparing your bannetons or bread shaping bowls:

6. Prepare your bread basket: I bought a ‘banneton’ for my first sourdough bread and it’s really brillant for ensuring your loaf keeps its shape. It’s a cheap looking, wicker, spiral-coiled bowl that you dust with rice flour. It will support your dough ball (or boule) in its second rise. So, get these out (you’ll need two if you’re planning to bake the loaves at the same time) and dust them with rice flour ready to receive the dough.

7. Shaping: flour your surface (and yourself and the floor just to be on the safe side) and tip the large bowl of dough onto the table. Using a dough scraper (I made myself a dough scraper out of a 4pt plastic milk bottle and it’s way better than the one I bought later when the lockdown craziness settled a bit), cut the dough in half so you have two equal sized dough slabs. Collect one up and put it back in the bowl and cover it with the plate/clingfilm again. Leave the other dough slab on the table to rest for 10 minutes.

This next bit’s fun and I won’t blame you for looking up visuals for it. Top tip: try not to use too much flour as it will dry your dough and prevent it sticking to itself. (Top tip 2: pour out a sprinkle of linseed or sesame seeds on another bit of table surface if you want your loaves to have a more interesting crust.)

Flatten your doughy slab that has, by now, spread out a bit on your dusty table. Shape it into a rough square with your fingers, then take its four ‘corners’ and pull them into the centre of the dough, sticking it into itself, creating a sort of dumpling shape. With floured hands, turn the ‘doughmpling’ over and then cup it, using the bottom edges of your hands to turn the ball on its axis 360 degrees, building surface tension as you go. You will get better at this. If the dough is unwieldy and too floppy, just step away from it, dust your hands again and step back into the breach. (At this point, once you have the best sort of dough ball you can muster, grasp it in two hands and dunk the top into the sprinkling of linseed/sesame seeds if that’s the way you want to go).

Once you are happy with the dough ball surface tension, place it into the banneton seam side up (ie, drop the ball upside down into the basket because you will later tip the whole thing out again onto your baking sheet – the top now will eventually be the bottom of your loaf).

I like to cover the banneton with a clean tea-towel (one of which depicts the Shipping Forecast), then put the whole thing in a plastic bag before putting the lot in the fridge overnight. (I think sourdough likes creating gas but not getting dripped on, much like ourselves.)

Repeat the shaping for the second dough ball.

Now the two dough balls needs another rise. I always time this for an overnight sleep so they can go in the oven in the morning. If you did your bulk rise overnight, you need to complete the second rise either in the fridge for another 8 hours (in which case you will be baking in the evening of the same day) or at room temperature for approximately 3-6 hours so you’ll be baking in the afternoon.

This second rise doesn’t have to double in size, just a bit more than when it went into the banneton. The dough should eventually have a spring to it that slowly bounces back when you prod it. I hate to say this here but if the dough gets too springy, it may be over-proved, in which case you’ll want to bake it sooner rather than later. This will come with practice so don’t cry if it happens first time round.)

Again, trust the fact that after about two hours of room temperature rising after shaping, the active bread will be doing stuff so you’ll end up with something edible.

8. Heat your oven: get your oven and baking sheet(s) or Dutch oven(s) as hot as possible. Crank the oven up to 250 degrees an hour before you want to bake. For my first loaf, I used my 20cm blue cast iron casserole. I put it in the oven when the oven was cold, otherwise the enamel could crack.

9. Scoring: Obviously you are getting 12 points for effort (Eurovision scale) but that’s not what I mean: you need to slash your dough with a razor (lamé) or super sharp knife so it rises prettily and effectively in the oven. Here’s what I do:

Take your first banneton out of its plastic bag and remove the tea-towel. You can either tip the dough onto a sheet of parchment paper, or straight onto your hot baking sheet or into your smouldering Dutch oven. I went parchment first because I was scared of the heat, but now I just dump and score. Try to dust off excess flour once you’ve bravely tipped and dumped.

Cut deep slashes into the dough – I go for the simple cross because I like the uniformity, not the patriotism. Try to do this quickly so the dough doesn’t spread too much (too much spread means you will end up with a flatish loaf). You want to get the dough in the oven as quickly as possible and as snugly to benefit from what we call in the biz, ‘oven spring’.

10. Bake: finally the time has come! Put the lid on your Dutch oven and slam it into your English oven or, if you are using a baking sheet, slide it in, but you will need to put a casserole dish in the bottom of the oven and pour in boiling water before you slam the door shut to create a steamy love oven for your buns bread. Leave the dough to bake for at least 20 minutes but try to leave it without peaking for approximately 30 minutes. You may take a peak after 20 if you have a particularly scorchio oven like mine. Turn the oven down to about 210 and either remove the Dutch oven lid (I take the whole loaf out and put it directly on the oven shelf) and bake for a further 5-10 minutes so the outside crisps up evenly. Finally, using asbestos oven glubs, remove the bread (and bread it finally is), hold it upside down and give it some sharp raps with your crooked finger knuckle. I used to loathe this following statement but now I totally get it –  the bread is done when it sounds hollow. This is about 35-40 minutes after you put it into the oven.

If you have read this far, you won’t mind me sharing the following grain of wisdom: you cannot overbake homemade bread even if it’s scorched outside; underbaked bread is disgusting. If you are in any doubt about doneness, put the bread back on the shelf at a lower heat for a bit until the hollow sound is more pronounced and the bread feels more robust. Use your loaf, innit?

Leave the bread to cool entirely on a rack before slicing. This is actually impossible for your first time as you are desperate to check for doneness. And, also, as the crust is so crunchy and delicious, you will want to devour it before it softens, mayhap with a corner of salty butter or a scraping of mackerel pate (there’s the fish again).

Soften it will but that’s no bad thing. It’s best untoasted for sandwiches the day it’s baked but the flavour definitely develops over the next few days so don’t eat it all at once! If there’s any left by day three, it’s delicious toasted and spread with marmalade.

Finally, to complete this bread odyssey, I will leave with one of my favourite memories of childhood Saturday morning bakery shenanigans:

Imagine a pair of children skipping off to the local bakers for the family’s weekend loaf (in those days, suburban parades of shops had one grocer, one baker, one candlestick et cetera) and two under 10s were permitted to cross the street without adult supervision; imagine their joy at being allowed to handle the faintly warm block of perfectly mellow, cottagey bread; imagine the arguments they had deciding where the half way point was at which one would have to relinquish the bread to the other whose turn it was to hold it the rest of the way home; imagine the irresistible joy they experienced slicing off the end and tearing out the mallowey, doughy goodness within, replacing the end and pretending all was well. Imagine the wrath of Tony Griffiths whose second favourite use for white bread was making cheese on toast with brown sauce of a Saturday morning…

RIP Pode.

ND. Xx

Sourdough Boule 1

 

Other lockdown sourdough bakes:

Bagels, pretzels, caraway bread, baguettes, and pizza for dinner and pud.

Belated Ball Curry for Mothers’ Day

It’s spring time and we’re all in Coronavirus lockdown. March will always be remembered as the month that sent everyone inside. I’ve been coping by consulting my cookbooks, learning to bake better bread, and trying to ration our resources so we can still enjoy our meals and not give way to junk food. I wonder what Mum and Dad would have made of this period of forced isolation, either separated from us up in Suffolk, or holed up altogether back in the halcyon days of Woodstock Avenue when we were kids…

There are news stories of panic buying toilet roll and pasta – Mum and Dad would be relaxing safe in the knowledge that their fortifications against famine, drought, Covid-19, what have you, meant they could rustle up a curry, roast dinner or Fray Bentos pie and mash without a flicker of concern that they might run out. I can imagine Dad’s smug anecdotes about empty shelves in Asda when his cupboards are piled high with bargain bumper packs of cereal, tinned tomatoes, cheese, and crumpets. Mum wouldn’t gloat but she would modestly nod towards her tupperware containers and ancient recycled ice cream tubs full of dried (and ancient) spices, lentils, rice, and Bombay Mix. They were the type of parents who only used the garage to store their chest freezer, a double coffin sized beast which was stuffed with bulk bought chops, chicken thighs, braising steaks, faggots, sausages, marinated mystery meat, and dozens of containers of old cottage cheese or yogurt pots filled with surplus kebab meat, bolognaise sauce, or red wine. There might be some ice cream but that never lasted in our house. If you were lucky, you might find a frostbitten choc ice. Dad’s fridge-freezer after Mum died was stocked predominantly with these sweetmeats and many, many ready-meals (unheard of in Mum’s time). Actually, there was a time in the 80s when we would go to the furthest flung Iceland (frozen food shop, not the country) in Borehamwood and buy lots of seafood, prawn curries, Findus crispy pancakes, and fish fingers that were destined for the mysterious, arctic corners of the storage freezer. Mum and Dad would never have run out of food. They also didn’t care a tuppence for use by dates.

Yes, I think if they did find themselves in lockdown, they would be okay, if a bit bored with each other. It would be better if we were all together at Woodstock; I’m thinking back to a happy time when I was around 15, Kris and I were still at school and Jeff was working at Guinness. Dad spent his days taking Ben for his romp, helping out at a fruit and veg stall in Greenford, and generally being of good cheer. Mum was still childminding but had started to work behind the bar at Taywood Sports and Social Club a few evenings a week. There was a purposeful rhythm to the week punctuated with regular meals and busy schedules but everyone sort of fended for themselves and kept to their own spheres. It was the weekends when the family often found themselves thrown together, either watching football or sunbathing with the patio doors flung open and perhaps a barbecue on the go. Mum might be making salads and skewering meat and there might be a mix tape of golden oldies playing. If this Saturday ended up taking us to Paulo’s, Mum and Dad’s favourite Italian restaurant in Park Royal (for Dad’s standard ‘double snails and duck’), we might all end up drinking beer and smoking our heads off in the living room, sorting through the collection of karaoke cds and taking it in turns to belt out the family favourites – Mum’s ‘These Boots are Made for Walking’ and Dad’s ‘Fernando’. The crescendo of Elvis’ American Trilogy would have us putting our arms around each other ready to belt out the climax, ‘Glory, glory halleluja! His truth is marching on!’ If it was an evening centred around a dinner party, we’d congregate in the kitchen in between songs dipping spoons (and sometimes not) into thick potatoey curry juices meant for leftovers the next day – perfect midnight feasting.

Yes, if we were back in Woodstock, we would be balling out requests for our favourite dinners – Jeff’s jalfrezi, Kris’ vindaloo, Dad’s meat stew and dumplings and my beloved biriani. Mum loved making Indian fried tidbits like fishcakes and pakoras and she absolutely lived for ball curry and rice. The kitchen would be fragrant with mouthwatering Anglo Indian tangs of lemons, home ground masala spices and fried onions. There would be plenty to go round. Despite the lockdown, I’m sure our Uncle Mark, who lived across the road, would be a regular visitor. We wouldn’t need to insist on the two metre distance as we could hear his voice from several miles away. Another neighbour, Laboo, would also find a way of sending round her surplus family curries that were always too spicy but gratefully received.

Of course the best days at Woodstock were much further back in the 80s when we children used to run around with all the other kids in the street. I think my parents would have found it tricky keeping us all safe though. Having said that, I bet they would be in each other’s houses breaking all the rules having their infamous house parties and ‘committee meetings’ with our best neighbours, Aunty Pat and Uncle Roy (which were essentially plans for booze cruises to France: “Agenda item 1: are we all in? Yes! Meeting adjourned. Let’s get pissed!”) These visits to Bologne were legendary – they would return with boot-fulls of stubbies, wine, fags, French bread, cheese, and salami. What larks they had on the way out there – Mum would pack her tandoori chicken and kebab picnic and they would stop at their favourite pub in Faversham for a game of darts and a beer. Those were the days my friend. I’ll write another time about the FavLon darts cup…

Eventually Woodstock Avenue emptied of friends and then Uncle Mark died. Us kids moved out and life in West London got Dad down. The dream of moving to Suffolk was the retirement fantasy – hunkering down in winter and taking the caravan around the country as soon as spring arrived. They took theirs out once but the bungalow became their refuge from the world. Family weekends tried to resurrect the Woodstock boozy vibes kicked off with an Anglo feast but the experience was never quite the same. Maybe it was because of having children or because Mum’s health was deteriorating; Dad certainly eased off the drinking in the latter years.

The thing that always stayed the same was that instant hit of fried onions and tangy curry as you walked through the door. Mum greeting us with her weird half-apron on, hands floury or beladled. Dad pointing out how expertly he’d hoovered the carpet and how spick and span everything was. We’d want to dive straight into the food of course but we’d wait patiently for everyone to arrive. When it was time to eat, we never served from the table but we’d go and help ourselves from all the pots and pans in the kitchen and then find a seat. Mum would have been cooking all day or, better yet, the day before as her curries tasted even better when left to mature. Kris would always eat at a different time of course, perhaps to ensure he got the lion’s share of leftovers? The classic feast for six or more would include a large daitchkey of ball curry or vindaloo (maybe for bigger groups there would also be a chicken curry), coconut cabbage, fried rice, balti potatoes, often a prawn curry as well and lots of tomato, cucumber, chili, onion and raita. Mum didn’t really go in for rotis with curry. She would make parathas as a separate meal or when she made kebabs. Besides, rice and potatoes in one meal is probably enough! Not forgetting plenty of poppadoms – Mum used to make these painstakingly in a pan before someone told her the secret that they take seconds in the microwave.

Even in her hospital bed she’d look forward to lunch or dinner. The nursery favourite cod in parsley sauce was her last meal, not quite the comfort food of her youth but delicious all the same. Dad’s last Tesco receipt had on it bread, apple turnovers and a litre tub of vanilla ice cream. None of these things were in the house when we arrived. This lockdown does make me wonder what food I could not live without, or, morbidly, what I would want as my last meal. Normally I would say an all-you-can-eat party buffet but now I think it would have to be one of Mum’s family feasts. With all the family.

Today, in homage to Mothers day (which was a couple of weeks ago) and memories of our family, I found that I had the ingredients for Kofta Curry (or ball curry as it’s known). We had been trying to be veggie but, with the current crisis and not having any food deliveries apart from Abel and Cole, I’ve added meat and fish to the menu again. As there are only three of us, I thought it was not necessary to make all the other dishes but I did add ‘one small aubergine’ to eke out Mum’s recipe (like a good Southall girl/fan of Goodness Gracious Me). Like Mum’s trouble, the cooking of it has ruined my appetite for lunch so I will be digging into it later tonight – maybe even heated up but possibly straight from the pot. Perhaps I’ll even start the evening with a French beer and a cheeky fag.

Jeff told me recently that he had been reading and enjoying Cookanana so this one’s for him. Even though you are hundreds of miles away in the Polish forest – do what Mum would do, fry some onions, spatchcock a chicken, open a jar of Patak’s and fry some rice. Your neighbours will be beating down your door.

May all your freezers be well stocked and your tummies full of curry.

ND Xx

Kofta Curry Recipe Mums 1Kofta Curry Recipe Mums 2

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And just in case of apocalyptic lockdown:

In memoriam - Tony Griffiths 6.2.42 - 31.6.18

Fish Moli for Fathers’ Day

 

It’s Fathers’ day. Pip gave Mark a lovely card, a hedgehog feeder and a box of Maltesers. Mum and Dad never made a fuss of these occasions but they always seemed pleased if you acknowledged it in some way, however small. Not phoning was the worst you could do on the day. If you left it until late in the evening, you might get a disappointed voice on the other end, just enough to make a point, and then we could move on to other subjects. I hope I could convey my appreciation of them throughout the year but it’s always nice to have another day to celebrate them. Essentially, Mum and Dad wanted us to save our money rather than fritter it away on luxuries such as hedgehog feeders. Pip loves creating things so (apart from buying the box of chocolates, which it transpires she got at a heavily reduced price because I didn’t give her the £2.50 for the school Fathers’ Day sale this week) we’ll let her off.

Even though we should be thinking of our fathers, I’ve been thinking about Mum a lot recently. It’s almost two and a half years since she died and yet I haven’t got anywhere close to fulfilling her recipe legacy. This week I made Karti Kebabs for Pip’s school’s International Evening but I substituted meat for paneer as we’re trying (and often failing) to be more veggie because of the terrible impact the meat industry has on the climate. I was rather pleased with how they turned out and didn’t miss the meat at all; tangy and spicy with the Madras kebab paste as usual but also with an unexpected crunch from oven baking the marinated paneer. Together with crisp red onions and a sluice of lemon before rolling, they were really rather good (even if I do say so myself!).

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So this weekend we’ve been eating the Madras paneer leftovers in all sorts of ways (I made way too much for the 40 rotis I had…). First I made a batch into a vegetable curry adding bell peppers and chili to make it spicier. I also made some Tarka Dhal because I bought a huge bag of lentils when I went to Southall for the big shop.

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Then I ran out of rice so made a cous cous bowl using porcini mushroom stock to soak the grains and adding sliced red onions, barberries and sultanas to make it a sort of Middle Eastern affair. This was also a success! The paneer has stayed firm at the edges but has lost its crispness so it really does taste like chicken.

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Today, the paneer has all gone but I still fancied something spicy and tangy and only had tinned fish to hand so I followed Mum’s Moli recipe, which calls for meat or fish. I’m using tuna and mackerel just to make it go further. I remember Mum making tuna curries and Moli made from a cheeky tin from time to time but the best version is with mutton and, yet, she would only really make it as an afterthought when the meat was left over from a bigger meal the day before. One of the delights of this recipe is that it needs a piece of creamed coconut, which I always keep a box of for emergencies in the fridge, like Mum used to. A little chunk of this goes a long way but, when I was young, I never understood why the box always seemed to be there, defying the use-by-date and looking retro and exotic with its palm leaves and azure sea. It used to sit beside the sturdy box of Atora Suet, a stalwart tin of ghee and myriad jars of mustard and horseradish.

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The other powerful ingredients in a Moli are ginger and vinegar: classic Anglo flavours. What these create is a tangy, sharp, moreish stew, pale in colour but strong in its warming, medicinal effect. I tend to make it go further by adding a tin of coconut milk, more vinegar and, today, some bell peppers because I still have loads from the big shop. This has made it soupier – like the classic Moli or Molee but unlike Mum’s, which was thicker and more concentrated. I prefer hers any day of the week even if I have given up meat (sort of).

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Mark is having a lazy Sunday and Pip is playing a video game on Papa’s iPad. It is of course a day to remember fathers; in two weeks it will be a whole year since Dad died. Paul and Jennifer are coming over from America to mark the occasion as well as Uncle Colin from Australia. The Griffithses will assemble to commemorate him and also Mum, who we will be interring in Granny and Papa Upshon’s grave in Greenford followed by (probably) a classic British buffet or a roast dinner. If Nana Griffiths was in charge, the spread would be eked out with a Fray Bentos pie, clouds of buttery mash and mushy peas. We’ll have to have something like this for Griffstock.

But for now, we remember Mum and her understated but delicious Fish Moli. I added cubed potatoes before I started writing this and they are now perfectly cooked so it’s time to eat. It’s not a complicated recipe – Mum’s simple instructions make that clear. Just don’t forget to add the vinegar.

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(Some pictures of International Evening at Pip’s school, June 2019)

 

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(The Paneer Kathi Roll process)

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(And when you think only the best Samosas and Pakoras will do…)

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ND. Xx

Family Food

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Last weekend Kris turned 40. When he turned 30, we needed a minivan to get us from Southall to Central London and Mum and I got rather ‘merry’ on the way there drinking sips of vodka that was being passed round Jeff and Kris’ west-side mates. This time it was just me, Jeff and Kris and some close friends.

Whenever there’s a birthday or wedding, Mum would make kebabs. It’s been a while since I last made them but thought 40 would be a nice present for Kris. I’d forgotten how long they take! I was going to surprise the birthday boy with them but thought they might spoil, or get eaten, before he got to enjoy them so they are currently in the freezer until the remaining Southall Griffithses assemble later this month.

Remaining Griffithses. It’s been over two months since Dad died. He was never a party person unless it was at home or at a familiar local venue or with friends or family he’s known forever. Even though it was rare to see him at our birthday drinks, his absence was definitely felt. Kris gave a toast to him and there were some pictures on the wall of him in happier times.

I’ve not really fancied big meals or spice in recent months but weirdly I’ve taken to some old school comfort classics like cheese on toast or bowls of cereal for dinner. My favourite Dad meal was cheese on crumpets, cooked to perfection with slightly burnished edges and crunchiness. In the last year I introduced Dad to the delights of a scraping of marmite before adding the cheese and he, skeptical at first, thoroughly enjoyed it. He used to make cheese on toast for us when we were kids with a layer of Branston pickle or brown sauce. I can’t remember why he stopped making it.

Another Dad classic is perfectly soft boiled eggs. His trick was to bring the eggs to a boil and immediately take them off the heat and leave them for 3 minutes. Mum and I liked to smoosh the eggs up with ripped up toast in a bowl and gobble it up like infants. Dad would then quickly discard all the shells and start to wipe up all our mess, often before we were finished. He’d moan benevolently about the mess on the floor but we all knew he loved sweeping with his special brush and long-handled dustpan.

Probably my favourite memory of him serving me food is when Pip was two or three days old and I was glued to the sofa looking like a crash victim, Dad would appear with a tea towel over his arm, a small table in one hand and a quarter plate with chocolate biscuits cut up into bite sizes in the other. He didn’t say anything before coming back with a cup of strong tea and a coaster and then he would settle on his own sofa and we would watch hours of Judge Judy. He liked half a cup of black coffee with half a teaspoon of sugar about 10 times a day.

When Pip was older, from about 2 years old, she’d wake up early (about 7am!) and wander into the living room where Papa would be waiting with arms outstretched and breakfast served on the little coffee table in front of Cbeebies. Her little pink armchair was positioned at an angle so she could comfortably get behind the table. Breakfast was a fixed menu of a bowl of cereal, rice krispies, cornflakes or hoops, a glass filled with blueberries, raspberries and strawberries, a glass of milk or juice and three jellybeans. Sometimes smarties. I would wander in between 9 and 11am to find Mr Tumble blaring, Dad on his fifth cup of coffee, Mum on her computer and Pip redecorating the living room. When Lara came along, the two of them would launch themselves off the tops of the sofas onto a prepared springboard of cushions, bedding and teddies and Dad would sit tranquilly amid the chaos.

Over the past 8 years, visits to Stowmarket would always include a day trip to either the seaside or a quaint Suffolk village where we would have an extravagant lunch. Mersea Island for oysters, Felixstowe Regal for fish and chips or the Ferryboat Inn for trout, sea bass, seafood and pies. Bury St Edmunds for teashop jacket potatoes and cake, a range of gastropubs for steaks, fine wines and fancy puddings or the local Shepherd and Dog for German schnitzel and lately the Magpie for English pub grub and pints. On market days we’d get fresh bread, olives and pastries, cheeses and fudge. Mum loved savoury nibbles, Dad loved chocolate and sweets. When clearing out the house, I found jellybeans stuck to the inside of drawers and tupperware shoved to the back of cupboards still filled with hot gram and old crackers.

When Mum died, Dad courageously invested in a rice cooker and a halogen oven in order to keep the hot dinners rolling. He only used them once each. He did buy and use a big frying pan for the stir fries he got into and the freezer was stocked with dubious looking ready meals, choc ices and unopened bags of veg. Every day he’d tell me on the phone what he was having for dinner. Brussels sprouts and carrots always got a mention but judging from the size of his belly, I doubt many greens made it onto the menu. The carefully stacked Fray Bentos pies told a different story; blocks of cheese dwindled every day and slabs of chocolate wrapped with an elastic band was a feature of his snack drawer. When he died, I found receipts in his car of the daily trips to Tesco for milk, and impulse fruit pies or other sweetmeat in packages of two and, on his last trip, a tub of ice cream. He also loved a McDonald’s breakfast muffin and black coffee, receipts for which there were many. The last few months were definitely characterised by fast and delicious food and, judging from the ancient burnishings in the oven, not much was home cooked by himself. When I visited, I made old school Mum style lasagnes, shepherds pies and chops with mash and apple sauce. Dad loved his spuds with a sprinkle of salt in a sea of beef gravy which was mopped up with a slice of white bread.

When in Holland recently I was reminded of our holiday frites when we used to drive down to Italy. Dad used to stop once on the way down and once on the way back if we were lucky at a French frites wagon on the side of the road. We’d dunk the crisp salty chips in ketchup (never mayonnaise!) and sometimes we’d be allowed a fizzy drink – once Kris was relegated to the ‘punishment area’ at the back of our estate car for biting the glass and bloodying his lip. Ah the memories…

In Italy, market day in the town square in Garessio meant hot rotisserie chicken, salty olive oil fried French fries and cans or bottles of Chinotto. Dad would be in charge of holding the bag of food and you never saw chips disappear so quickly. Once a week we’d have a pizza. Dad always had ‘Quattro Stagioni’ with artichokes, mushrooms, prosciutto and olives, Mum had prosciutto e funghi and I would have something plain and not too cheesy. There was a sweet shop in town that made a range of local specialties including Garessini – a hazelnut chocolatey truffle piped squidge that tasted boozy and decadent. There were nutty biscuits with chocolate jam and viennese butter swirls with fruity gems. You’d ask for a pick and mix selection but the Garessinis always went first.

Going out for dinner in Italy was the best of times and sometimes the worst for us kids. Dad would be uptight that we would do something wrong but only we could see this – to anyone else he looked serene and jovial smoking his Benson and Hedges and drinking red wine or a cold bottle of beer. We’d eat lashings of tomatoey or pesto gnocchi, slivers of roasted meats in herby gravy, tiny roasted potatoes and green beans or calzones, spaghetti with langoustines and clams, stuffed peppers and aubergines or juicy Florentine steaks. On feast days there would be apple dumplings served hot from bubbling oil drums on the bridge and plastic compartmentalised plates loaded with unctious polenta mash and rabbit stew. Or you could have a platter of meats: local pork sausages with fennel and garlic, lamb arrosticini and different cuts of salami and cured meats.

Our longstanding friends in the campsite famously introduced themselves to Mum and Dad in the early 80s with a hollowed out watermelon filled with Sangria (or whatever it’s called in Italy) and they became firm friends. A group would assemble in the evenings around the barbecue where Dad would be cooking Mum’s tandoori chicken, skewered lamb kebabs and marinated beef steaks and she herself would draw a crowd when the curry smells would fill the campsite on rainy days. She was the only Mum I knew who would pack sunflower oil, Pataks curry pastes and tins of spices to go camping. The Italian nonnas on the other hand would make fresh pasta in their caravans and the table tops so recently strewn with lego would be replaced with pearls of gnocchi drying out before a quick boil in a salty pan. Dad brought along plastic disposable cups from his factory that made morning cups of tea and the ubiquitous Piemontese table wine taste even more delicious. He introduced us to breakfast beer (at that time not consumed in the morning) thanks to the French hypermarkets en route where we stocked up on those glorious cheap French stubbies, perfect for al fresco living.

In later years when Mum needed to dialyse three times a week on holiday, Dad, Pip and I would go sightseeing and find roadside eateries in the mountains and along the coast serving fixed daily menus of veal steaks, risottos, pasta with homemade ragus, seafood platters, antipasti with olives stuffed with meat, freshly baked focaccia and pickled vegetables and that sparkling red table wine you can only get in Piemonte. In their dotage, Mum and Dad liked staying in half-board villas where the evening meal would comprise various small courses of local cheeses, delicate soups, regional pasta such as trofie with genovese pesto, stews and meat, always too much for small appetites but never the same thing twice. Divine. Desserts would always be overkill but a strong espresso and mayhap some local grappa would finish things perfectly.

Mum and Dad gave us so many unforgettable culinary memories and yet the ones that stand out are the meals and experiences that were oft repeated – Mum’s biriani, Dad’s regular ‘snails and duck’ at Biggles and Paulo’s, cheese on crumpets, the Saturday morning fresh bread when bakeries still existed at our local shops, the Fray Bentos pies that Nana Griffiths would use to eke out a Sunday roast if we all descended unannounced and the glass of cointreu or amaretto at the end of a meal.

All of these memories flood back now that the summer is over and a new working year has begun. It’s the time when we normally start thinking about Christmas and booking holidays for next year. It’s sad to think that this year we are missing such lovers of food and family. I hope as we go on we will do them justice.

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Devil Fry

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It’s just under an hour until a year exactly has passed since Mum died. It doesn’t feel like yesterday – it’s been a quick year in some ways but the events of the last 12 months have filled in a lot of the empty spaces.

Dad has pretty much redecorated the whole house, learnt to use Facebook and rid himself of prostate cancer; Jeff and Monika have watched our bundle of joy Lara learn to walk, negotiate far and near-flung staircases and swimming pools and start to call Pip “Peach”; Kris has rehabilitated himself after a year of Police service; Pip still hasn’t learnt to swim or ride a bike and Mark and I enjoyed having housemates until the autumn, which kept the wolf from the door.

Xmas came and went with pleasant company and plenty of lazy hometime. Thoughts of Nana were cheerfully recalled and her absence this year reminded us how the same time last year was much harder work.

I can’t forget what a shock it was to see her last Xmas day. She always made an effort for the family and ate a little but we all knew it would be a miracle if she survived another year.

I remember those few weeks of the new year much more fondly; she was blissfully narcotised on Oxycodone in her hospital chair and, even though mobility was difficult, she could still reminisce and chat and laugh.

In fact the recipe for Devil Fry was written down around the time she’d tell me her wishes for her funeral. It wasn’t a devastating time – it was a time of gathering stories, memories and recipes. And how we laughed.

So today Jeff, Monika and Lara came for lunch and I fed them the Boxing Day favourite (although not mine) Turkey Devil as we called it. Not sure if I did it justice but the house was certainly filled with that unmistakeable scent of fried onions and ginger, which hit you every time you arrived at Woodstock Avenue or Poplar Hill or Astley Avenue for that matter…

It’s simple really but the balance of ginger, sweetness and sour vinegar takes a little practice so Mum’s teaspoon and tablespoon measurements are approximate for a turkey crown sized amount of meat. As she would say, “you need to judge it.”

I’m writing this on the sofa surrounded by the detritus of Lara and Pip’s toybox carnage. I’m not planning on doing much else for a bit except lounge and ponder the events of this time last year (20 minutes to go).

Mark has lit a candle. I’m grateful to him for keeping Pip at school last January in the week running up to this day. I’m grateful that I had that time by Mum’s bedside and the privileged position of being there when she eventually died.

Soon she’d be trying to wriggle off the bed and say her last words “it’s so hard to explain” before being comfortably tucked back into bed. Soon she’d give that last distant look across the bed. Soon her breathing would shallow but her pulse would stay strong for an impressive time until finally ebbing away. Soon she would be at peace.

It’s 14:42 and in 10 minutes time, a year ago, we lost the most fun-loving, thrill-seeking, super-cooking Mum, Nana, Wife, Sister, Niece, Cousin and friend we could ask for. Rest in peace Phyllis Griffiths.

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Karti Kebabs

It’s been six months since Mum died. This post is less about Karti Kebabs than it is about the weeks leading up to her death…

We all thought her time was up this time last year, in July 2016. There were late night hospital dashes, phone calls to family and friends and difficult questions for consultants. Adrian got the vibe from hospital staff that her heart was not strong enough to survive the mystery infection she was suffering from. The consultants confirmed her heart was very weak and advised against resuscitating as ‘bouncing up and down’ on her chest wouldn’t be much fun for her. He couldn’t give us any definitive answers. We gathered. We had the conversation. She knew it was bad.

Then all of a sudden she got her appetite back. After about 8 weeks of hospital food (which she rather liked by the way) she had a hankering for chow mein, dosas and rice. The hospital said it was fine to bring in food so for a couple of weeks Dad brought in takeaways. She thrived!

She couldn’t come with us to Poland to visit her new granddaughter Baby Lara but she was out of the danger zone so we felt like we could go. Mum made the trip a month before when Lara was born, even though she was at her frailest. It was the beginning of her decline.

Christmas 2016 came and went too quickly. Mum was glad to have the family together but she was visibly altered. She’d shrunk quite considerably and her head seemed too heavy for her frame. She sat looking quite comfortable however, sitting propped up on her chair while we made a fuss over Lara and Pip. Christmas was for them really. Paul had come especially to spend time with Mum and it was the first time in a long time that we were all together. It won’t go down in history as the best Griffiths Christmas ever but it served its purpose.

By the first weekend of January she could barely sit without excruciating pain. Her chest plate had been pushed forward by her crumbling spine. After years of dialysis, her bones were losing their strength. She went into hospital to be made more comfortable, which meant enough morphine to impress an athlete. Dad used the time creatively and had new doors put in.

It was my birthday on Friday 13th of January and normally they phone to ‘wish’ me but no call came. Bloody cheek… We visited that weekend and the sight of her was a proper shock. She was still her normal self, felt okay thanks to the Fentanyl (before it was famous), and was even having a few cheeky vapes. Apparently it was comforting. But she could barely lift her head. Her chest was distended and served as a useful shelf for her drooping head when she got tired. On the Sunday she dropped the bombshell that she didn’t want to carry on dialysing as sitting tied to a machine all day was too painful. She didn’t want to be in pain any more. As though we were discussing whether to go on holiday or not, I left her that evening agreeing that she wouldn’t make any decisions until the following weekend when we could all be together.

At school the next day, Dad phoned to say that she hadn’t gone to dialysis. That meant only one thing. The beginning of the end.

I got to the hospital that night and she looked pretty comfortable, as before. The only difference was the previously optimistic consultant now referring to her treatment as ‘palliative’ care. The only treatment that recognises the end of life as the objective.

I was surprised she was not in her own room, but with hindsight, this made it more normal. There was talk of hospices but there was also talk of bed shortages. I don’t think any of us cared. She welcomed visitors, chatted nonchalantly and even said things like, ‘this is fun! Maybe I’ll change my mind.’ How we laughed.

 

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The week passed quietly. Friends and family paid their respects. It sounds conceited but I enjoyed a pleasant feeling of role reversal – here was my mother in a hospital bed, cuched up like a swaddled baby and here was I, sitting nearby, watching her breathing while she slept. It’s the same anxiety you have with a newborn and it’s the same feeling of relief when you see the chest rise and fall eventually. She would rouse herself like a baby too. Eyes open blearily, furtive glances at the strangers sitting round – a quick identity check then back to sleep contentedly. During more wakeful hours she would shift uneasily until finding a new comfortable position. She would say she felt okay. She wondered when it would start to feel strange. You could work out when a new dose of Oxycodone was needed rather like baby’s next feed. As babies thrive with each new day, Mum became sleepier. Her train of thought was disorganised and she’d make funny slips in conversation, which she could hear and would amuse us, herself included. Her sense of humour never failed her.

On Saturday 21st January, I remember how beautiful the sunrise was. There is a playing field beyond the carpark outside her window and I would walk around it while she had her morning wash and change. It was a quiet day. We were expecting Aunty Smita and cousins Shirley and Anthony in the afternoon. She enjoyed sitting in her comfy chair during the morning and would receive her visitors looking her best. There was something lazy and summery about the ward. Even the bustle of the lunch hour was subdued. She always ate her lunch, even if though she had no appetite and could barely lift her head. This time it was cod in parsley butter and mashed potatoes followed by rice pudding. We shared it companionably – even the smallest portion was a bit too much. Lucky me!

After lunch, the ward dozed and the nurses drifted. At 2.40pm Mum decided she needed the loo and was trying to wriggle herself off the bed. We laughed about how pathetic she was (that’s the kind of bants that happens in hospitals). When I asked how she was feeling she said, ‘it’s so hard to explain…’. The nurse and a ‘healthcare assistant’ (who does everything the nurse does but wears different clothes) helped ease her off the bed. Even though I normally leave them to it, I stayed, partly in order to hold her head up and partly to help her back into bed (we had a system based on pivoting and sliding). All was well until the moment her head was back on the pillow. I saw a look pass her face. It was a look you see in the movies and it was the moment in the film when the assembled folks give each other another meaningful look. The healthcare assistant stood beside me with an arm around my waist as I put my head next to Mum’s. Her breathing shallowed and stopped. The pulse in her neck was strong. We watched it ebb. We marvelled at how strong it was. It became fainter and fainter and finally faded away.

I’m not sure how long we stood like that but eventually the staff left me alone and I made the calls. I put things in a bag. Aunty Smita, Shirley and Anthony arrived and paid their respects. Before long, it was time for me to go. The sunset as I walked across the playing field was remarkable. The hymn “I Watch the Sunset” came to mind and I was overcome with a confusing sense of birth and mortality.

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I remember thinking how peaceful the end was and so unexpectedly clean and quiet. The opposite of labour yet somehow the same. I had the strangest feeling that she was present at my birth and I was present at hers. I remembered her saying that when her dad, Papa, died, she was holding his head and heard the breath leaving his body in one long exhalation like a whisper.

For a long time I have woken in the night and looked around to check if Mum’s still breathing. It’s not a pleasant feeling but at the same time it’s a reminder that she is at peace and that is comforting.

For the funeral reception I wanted to make Mum’s famous kebabs but was confounded by the fact that no recipe existed. Luckily I had time to grill her for recipes (apologies for unfortunate image there) and this is what she said: ‘You’ve watched me. Just judge it nicely.’

Mum funeral order of service

Karti Kebabs

Makes 20 (I actually could only get between 16-18 kebabs from one block of pastry at first but got more with practice)

For the meat (combine ingredients thoroughly and marinate overnight):

500g diced pork (I prefer pork strips that you can dice into really small pieces – the size of dice in fact)

2 tablespoonsish Pataks Madras Kebab Paste

1 tablespoonish natural yoghurt (too much and your cooked meat will be too watery)

For the rotis:

1 block of bought puff pastry

Flour for dredging/rolling pastry super thin

For the filling (chop finely):

1 large brown onion

2-4 green chillies depending on how hot you like it

lemon juice

Method

This process will benefit from a cook with military/factory line experience. Use a rolling pin you are comfortable with. Mum preferred a narrow stick, I love a fat drum with handles:

  1. Cook the marinated meat at 200 degrees C for about 30/45 minutes until burnished but not too dry. Stir the meat a few times during the cooking process. Allow to cool but not completely before you use a spoonful at a time to fill your rotis.
  2. Roll your rotis thin enough that they won’t split yet robust enough to not crisp up in the pan. You also need to be prepared to roll and watch the frying pan at the same time, which is quite stressful! Have a few rolled before you start, but not so many that they dry out. Carefully place one roti at a time into a dry frying pan over a medium heat and then get rolling the next ones as each cooks. There’s enough fat in the pastry. You have to judge the heat as you would making pancakes: too hot and they brown/crisp too quickly, too cool and they crisp due to the length of time exposed to the heat. Remember that the area of the roti will reduce with the heat so try to be fleet handed. Use the rolling pin to transfer the roti from the table to the pan. Don’t let the cooked rotis cool so much that they become unwieldy nor be too hot so the meat/juice seeps into the roti. You can stack the cooked rotis while you crack on with filling them one at a time.
  3. Have your chopped mixture of onions and chilli in a bowl ready and your bottle of lemon juice (I’ve never tried using real lemons!) next to that. Place a cooled (but not too cool!) roti on a plate; spoon your cooled (but not too cool!) meat in a line across the top; spoon some onions/chilli on top of the meat and douse the line with lemon juice (the more the merrier). Roll into a tight double open-ended wrap and place on a clean plate (or onto a large sheet of tin foil if you are freezing them). Repeat until all rotis are filled. At this point they should be cool enough to freeze (and freeze they will beautifully – all you need to do to defrost them is put them into the fridge for a few hours) or consume immediately, whatever. I prefer putting them straight in the fridge and letting the flavours combine. The chilli loses some heat and the tanginess gets through to the meat. We always eat ours cold!

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Stew

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We called it stew although it never took very long from the first idea of making it to the unmistakeable clovey, vinegary, meaty, spicy yet herby fragrance filling the house to that sated feeling of wellbeing after your second or third helping. In other words, very little stewing takes place.

My memory is that this Anglo staple was a weekly meal when I was growing up, but it was probably only once a month due to Mum’s school-night dinner repertoire of stuffed hearts, faggots, lasagne, Oriental beef, dhal and rice, spag bol, sausages –  the usual Anglo-Indian-Welsh suspects. This dish though was not my favourite when very young; there must have been a turning point that led to complete slavering commitment to its warming deliciousness. Perhaps it was that well-known adolescent rite of passage when cauliflower and broccoli are no longer vom inducing. Perhaps only then are we truly adult.

Mum’s stew is not really a proper cowboy/cassoulet affair as she never cooked it for very long. Just until the meat was tender enough to allow time for the potatoes or suet dumplings (or sometimes both) to cook or flump up.

And Mum’s approach to tender meat was to cut diced beef into tinier cubes to reduce the cooking time, increase the meat-on-spoon ratio and, classic Mum, to be thrifty with her resources. Ever the economist, Mum wouldn’t bother with expensive cuts of meat (and would often criticise me for buying fancier stuff) and for a dish like this, I can understand her reasoning. The meat isn’t necessarily the star of this show (although this didn’t stop us diving for pearls of meatiness when it was our turn to help ourselves) because of the tangy red unction, softened cauliflower and floury, tender spuds.

I tried making this as a student, reluctant to always be phoning Mum for help, and always getting it wrong because I’d missed some seemingly irrelevant yet undoubtedly indispensable bay leaf or nub of ginger.  Invariably I’d add more vinegar than was necessary (being a good half-Anglo) and I’d end up with flavourless thin, cauliflower and tomato soup with tough, but expensively julienned, fillets of Duchy, free range, organic, sustainable cow from the a farmer called Jasper or similar…

Mum’s recipe calls for modestly essential Anglo ingredients: ginger, vinegar, cloves, cardamom, chilli, cinnamon and peppercorns and a daitchkey brimming with onions, celery, carrots, beans, tomatoes, cauliflower and potatoes. You know you’re a little bit Welsh when you require stodgy dumplings as well as the spuds to fulfil a paternally inherited need to mop juices with sliced white bread. You know you’re Anglo when you’ve made the above but don’t feel satiated without a portion of fragrant basmati rice.

I made this for my brother and Dad a few days after Mum died in that period when close family sit around and either pretend to feel alright or have little bursts of tears when they realise they haven’t asked all the questions they should have like “how much is too much cornflour to thicken?” It was a success, even though I hadn’t found the recipe cards yet.

I recently made it at home, again without the cards and it was bloody awful. I’d forgotten stock cubes despite using posh fresh beef stock and I replaced chilies with West Indian hot pepper sauce that masked all the other flavours. It was bland and chilli hot.

I asked Dad to bring the recipe cards with him on today’s visit to Aunty Rita’s in Worthing and, not understanding what I meant, filled the boot with half her recipe books and not the little linen pouch that I’ve kept safely in her kitchen. So, once again, I’ll have to post the actual recipe next time I go to Suffolk.

We are staying in a Travelodge family room overlooking the sea. We came a few days after Mum died to see Aunty Linda before she died and then again a few days after Mum’s funeral. It’s funny how I associate Worthing with Mum even though I don’t think we’ve ever been here together more than once or twice.

I still catch myself forgetting she’s dead. Yesterday, my cousin Catherine, who lives across the road from Mum and Dad, posted a picture of rice and peas and, for a split second, I thought ‘I wonder if Mum made her that and sent it over’. Then came the familiar sinking feeling…

Last week Pip and I went camping and I regaled our friends with memories of karti kebabs, tandoori chicken and paraffin stove beef curries. Mum’s curry powders went camping with her so I feel ashamed that we just took biscuits and sandwiches this time. Pip’s not entirely ready for Mum’s stew but luckily she understands that I’m trying to make Nana’s recipes partly for her benefit. It will be quite a feat to pull off the Phyllis Griffiths approach to camping so in the meantime I’ll stick to these old favourites.

Try it! But don’t forget to add tiny morsels of inexpensive beef and lashings of vinegar.

Beef Stew Recipe

Beef stew method (2)Beef stew ingredients (2)

 

 

Biriani and Hell’s Flame

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Probably my favourite Mum recipe, this dish is actually very easy to make if you have a jar of Patak’s Biriani Paste. However, the simplicity can be deceptive if you are a rice-cooking amateur. I’m no professional and I often mess this up – too much rice means the stodge factor is increased. Burnt bottom (some of us like it that way) is fine as long as the burning flavour doesn’t pervade the whole pan. If you are cooking for more than four adults, you’re gonna need a bigger boat.

Mum used two types of daitchkey (sp?) – a huge metal one for lots of people or a heatproof lidded casserole for when she made it in the oven with yogurt and spices and things (she didn’t leave me that recipe…). She always said that the best biranis were Pakistani ones. I’ve had a fair few birianis in my time and I know what she means: layers of multicoloured tangyness with beautifully tender beef served with lashings of fried onions and maybe some cashews? I’m sure some birianis have nuts in them.

Anyway, Mum’s standard biriani (or ‘biz’ as my Welsh Dad calls it – I’ve only got one dad, what am I saying?) is beef or chicken, fried with the biriani paste and other spices, basmati rice and peas added later. Because us kids are half-Celts, Mum sometimes added potatoes (I know, carb overload). The most important element of the dish, however, is the drenching of Hell’s Flame that takes place once you have loaded your bowl (and bowl I always use, never plate).

Hell’s flame really is the devil’s work – raw onion, chilli powder, sugar (a bit of devillish jiggerypokery) and malt vinegar. It’s the tangyness that turns it Anglo-Indian. Not putting hell’s flame on your biriani is like not having salt and vinegar on your fish n chips. Or ketchup if you really like ketchup. The raw onions give enough crunch to balance the ricey texture and the tang of the vinegar followed by sweet and sour heat completes every mouthful.

Every one of Mum’s curries is accompanied by a plate (often the 70’s rose detail one) of sliced cucumber, tomatoes and spring onions sprinkled with salt and drizzled with more malt vinegar.

This is the dish I would request most often when visiting Mum and Dad. You could depend on it even if I hadn’t been asked what I fancy before I arrived. Invariably, Pip and I drove from London late in the evening, often on a Wednesday night in the early days when Pip didn’t go to full-time school (four day weekends – whup!) and there would be a daitchkey with enough leftover for several portions, even if it was late at night! Better yet, I would have my fill but make sure I left some for breakfast biriani… Perfection.

Most restaurants outside Southall serve biriani with an accompanying vegetable curry. I don’t see the point. I judge birianis on whether they can survive without any accompaniments (other than vinegar!). I think of biriani like an Italian risotto. Perfect just the way they are.

There’s a south Indian takeaway chain called Sambal Express which serves a really spicy version of mutton birani that tastes very similar to Mum’s. They have a store in Southall. They also do a delicious range of street food and snacks. My favourites are fish and egg rolls and fish rotis.

 

Mum’s Chicken or Beef Biriani Recipe

Biriani methodBiriani ingred

Hell’s Flame Recipe

Combine the following ingredients in a serving bowl:

1 brown onion – diced

Half teaspoon (or more!) of chilli powder

1-2 teaspoons granulated sugar

Enough glugs of malt vinegar to almost cover the diced onions in your bowl