Monthly Archives: December 2014

A Recipe for Whisky

This being Hogmanay, I had to bring you either whisky or coal. Whisky won. I have a great fondness for the stuff, and its infinite variety. The first novel I tried to write was set in the whisky industry and I set about the research very assiduously. The research was fun, the novel bit the dust. I don’t actually drink very much these days, but tonight, for the bells, I will certainly raise a glass. My taste is for Talisker, the Isle of Skye malt – partly for its peaty-seaspray tang, and partly in nostalgia for the cycling holiday my friend Grace and I undertook when we were but slips o’ lasses. Well, not literally, but we were 18 and full of life so you get the picture. We got the train to Mallaig with the bikes; ferry to Broadford; P1010734cycled up through Skye to Uig; ferry to Lochmaddy in North Uist; cycled down through North and South Uist to Lochboisdale; got storm-bound for an extra night; met a couple of local lads so the time passed quickly enough; got the ferry back to Oban the next day, and then the train home, all the way to Ayr. What an adventure. Don’t do it! ie don’t try and cycle through Skye unless you’re a whole lot fitter than we were. We spent a lot of time pushing the bikes uphill, through the wind and rain … ah, Scottish weather, you’ve got to love it. (Uist on the other hand was perfect for cycling softies – flat and smooth, and the weather was ‘chust sublime’ as Para Handy would say).

Recently I was invited to an event in the Scottish Parliament, launching the campaign ‘To Absent Friends’. The aim of the campaign is to make Scotland a place where we’re all better able to talk about death, remember our loved ones who have passed on, and be kind to ourselves and each other when we’re grieving. The poet Ron Butlin read out his poem, ‘A Recipe for Whisky’, which draws a peaty parallel between the rich and varied adventures of a standard life, and the mysterious layering of the flavours of the whisky as it matures in the cask. I don’t want to infringe copyright law so I’m just going to give a few lines, but I urge you to follow the link to his piece on the Scottish Poetry Library website, and read the whole 15 lines. And let me wish you comfort and joy for 2015.

Let's taste, let's savour and enjoy.
Let's share once more.
Another glass for absent friends. Pour
until the bottle's done.

Here's life! Here's courage to go on!

For Amnesiacs Everywhere …

I hate waste. I’m the one who scrapes off the leftovers and packages them, neatly labelled in the freezer. And Christmas is prime time for waste so I stock up on extra bags and labels beforehand: yes, I do have an OCD side.P1010870

After the early service on Christmas morning my friend Joseph unloaded three bags of stuff from his car boot to mine. We were both going to friend Vera’s for Christmas dinner but he was being picked up by other friend Jo, so wasn’t sure if there would be room in the car. I wasn’t convinced by his logic but however knew I’d have space so accepted three bags full without murmur. One contained plates. The other two contained the ingredients for the first course, extracted from his freezer on Christmas Eve.

Back home; smoked salmon and scrambled eggs cooked by Captain Wunderkind, and the unwrapping of presents. All lovely. Then the peeling of the veggies and the parboiling of the tatties and the packing of all, plus the chocolate truffle torte (thank you Delia Smith, another brilliant recipe), the cranberry sauce and the half-prepared bread sauce for the journey.  Great fun and we went in CW’s car as mine isn’t big enough to take two crates of food plus our duvets and overnight bags.

Festivities well under way when we arrived at Vera’s. Bean, 6’4” and clad in Kevlar and a leopardskin onesie (wunzie? don’t know how to spell it) greeted us, and we met his girlfriend Julia, poor soul, and of course Odessa in red lace was pouring the bubbly within seconds of our arrival. Jollification all round. Until, an hour later and just before the expected arrival of Jo, Joseph and Keira, when someone’s question, ‘what’s for starters?’ pierced my fuzzy brain. Eeeek! Double-eeek! Joseph had been planning his starters for weeks. We’d even had a dry run, so to speak, to test the provenance of the prime ingredient. And since said prime ingredient was so good, he went ahead and purchased, at great expense, nine of the armoured beasties. All the way from Canada, and by the size of their muscles you’d swear they swam the entire Atlantic Ocean.

I was mortified. Nine cooked Canadian lobsters sitting in the boot of my car, 45 minutes’ drive away. Captain Wunderkind offered to go and get them but it wouldn’t have been wise, given our draconian new drinks law (see previous post). Vera, being Queen Caterer (ask her about the nine gallons of cheese sauce) immediately produced a couple of melons and some Parma ham and the starter problem was solved. But facing Joseph’s wrath? P1010835A different matter entirely, and fully deserved on this occasion. Everyone chipped in with lies and super-lies we might tell him to get me off the hook. Julia, new to this company, offered to claim a seafood allergy of such proportions that she couldn’t even be in the same house as a lobster. But you can’t let brand new friends take the punch, can you? Maybe next year … Also, I’m a terrible liar.

So we played Joseph along a bit, had a few drinks, served the melons and ham and engaged in some Q&A about what might have happened to Plan A. With his customary perspicacity, Joseph made the rapier-like deduction: HELEN FORGOT THE LOBSTERS! Aaaagh! I am undone!

P1010844Well of course we had a lovely meal, thank you Vera and all who made it such a special day. Bean’s ‘Cards Against Humanity‘ was suitably gross and strangely well-behaved, considering how fiercely competitive his movie team game had become, beforehand. Odessa lost lots of points for her team by thinking out loud, much to Keira’s polite frustration. ‘Odessa,’ he enunciated, ‘DON’T THINK OUT LOUD.’ Their team won by a whisker, which I suppose must say something about the wonders of teamwork.


When next day I arrived home in freezing fog and checked the boot, I found nine sealed poly bags with their beautiful contents perfectly poised – apart from the greenish liquid gathering in pools around them. You know the old revenge trick about leaving a packet of frozen prawns behind your victim’s radiator? I didn’t want my little car to the be a permanent olfactory reminder of the Christmas 2014 memory lapse, and I didn’t want them in the house either, for the same reason. So I lined them up for a photo shoot and consigned them to the food recycling bin. What a waste. But P1010863better than food poisoning. And knowing Joseph, he will make full use of this generous gift of wind-up material. I suppose I owe it to him.

So, to any other amnesiacs out there who may have forgotten a vital ingredient amid all the fuss and frolics of Christmas – I hope this makes you feel better. And don’t let anyone unload bags of stuff to you for safe keeping. Especially if it has a shelf(ish) life. Happy festives, everyone!

Strictly Snowball

Scottish readers will be all too aware of Scotland’s new drinking laws, which came into force a couple of weeks ago. Basically, the amount of alcohol present in your blood stream must be below 50mg per 100 mls of blood. In baking bread, I’ve recently discovered that mgs and mls weigh the same – I don’t need to change the setting on my scales between weighing the flour and salt, and then the tepid water. So it souP1010769nds as if I’m allowed to have half the weight of the blood coursing through my veins as pure alcohol. In the rest of the UK, it’s 80% –  outright scary. But I’m not a scientist and I’m easily confused by numbers. And clearly my conclusion is false because the public awareness campaign in advance of the new law advocated drinking no alcohol at all if planning to drive, as even the sherry in your granny’s trifle could put you over the new legal limit.

I grew up in a largely alcohol-free household. If there was ever any drink in the house, it was because somebody brought back a bottle of something syrupy and possibly dubious from their holidays – Spain was all the rage, back then, for those who could afford it. My mother didn’t have to worry about drink-driving limits, partly because she didn’t drink much anyway, and partly because she didn’t own a car. An evening’s entertainment involved walking up the hill to the church hall, having a meeting of some kind followed by a cup of tea and a bit of home-made shortie, then walking back home again. Last year I read Jeanette Winterson’s brilliant autobiography, ‘Why be Happy when you could be Normal?’ Not that my childhood was like this but I could recognise some parallels, like the way that church life provided a community and family to belong to. At one point, talking about the activities (prayer meetings; soup kitchens; choir practice; bible study etc) provided by church involvement, Winterson comments on the joy of having something to do every night of the week, in a town where there was nothing to do.

Anyway, I digress. One of the odd bottles which found its way into our house was tP1010820hick, yellow and viscous. You mixed it up with lemonade (lots of fizzing) to make a Snowball; and one Christmas season I remember my mother fixing herself a little Snowball on a regular basis to accompany Coronation Street and the filling in of her football coupon. To my astonishment, I found a bottle of said yellow gunk in Aldi the other week, and at £4.99 per 70cl, had to have it. Reader, I confess, it’s nearly finished. I might even go out and buy another bottle. There’s something nostalgically frivolous about it. It’s called Advocaat and hails from Holland. It has 14 degrees of alcohol by volume so mixed with lemonade, it’s not going to make a big impact on your ability to drive. That said, I’m not taking even that tiny risk. I’m very attached to my driver’s license. The Snowball is my strictly bedtime drink. Cheers everyone! Drive safely!

Win some, lose some …

Parsnip Weekend (see my last post) was fun but the results were mixed. The Tatin had a good flavour – very good in fact – but the pastry wasn’t the right type, I felt, and the portions had been overestimated. Or maybe it’s just that my friends and I like to eat more than had been set out for us! So I’m going to experiment with different kinds of pastry and will get back to you with a revised recipe.iPhoto Library

The cake – well – it had a good texture but was a bit dull. The only tasty thing was the hazelnut topping, which I must say was lovely; but I don’t think I’ll make the cake again. It’s not as moist as carrot cake, which is the obvious comparison.

The soup was great – spicy and tasty and warming. I used parsnips and a potato, onions and garlic, chilli and ginger, and a grating of orange zest. And chicken stock from the freezer, but it would have been just as good with vegetarian stock cubes I’m sure, if that’s what you prefer.

And now I’m into the Christmas preps. Cranberry, orange and port sauce made, following Delia Smith‘s classic recipe. Also her Chocolate Truffle Torte (both from the 1994 edition of her Christmas book). White bread crumbed and frozen for bread sauce on the day. FriendP1010681 Vera doing turkey and trimmings; friend Joseph doing starters. I’m on veggies, sides and puddings, and a surprise late requirement – a veggie alternative for Vera’s son’s girlfriend. So I’ve been perusing my nut loaf recipes and adapting one to suit her likes and dislikes. Joseph suggested Asda mini vegetable rissoles, and was confined to barracks in disgrace! No, Joseph, this nut loaf needs to be as nice for our new veggie friend as the free-range turkey will be for the rest of us …

The photo represents something of a starting point, but sadly my kitchen table right now is nothing like as clean and orderly as this. It’s all stacked up with recipe books and things torn out of magazines and half-written Christmas cards and sellotape and empty mugs and a de-fleaing kit for cats …

Baby, it’s cold outside …

This week I am feeling celebratory (cue fireworks – Forth Bridge P1010648at recent 50 year celebrations of her sister Road Bridge – my pic is pretty but follow the link for a video of the BBC’s coverage of the event) -because I’ve finished a long, turgid, unedifying but necessary battle in court and although I don’t know yet whether I’ve lost or won – I know that in one important way, I’ve already won because it’s OVER. And also because I’ve learned all sorts of amazing things in the process. Like – it’s possible to live a good life with less than half the money you used to have. And – how to overcome your deepest fears. And – who your true friends are, and how blessed you are to have them. And – how to make bread! That, you already know about.

Here’s a nice photo of a little giftP1010754 I was given recently. Or two gifts, strictly speaking. One was a little basket of fresh garlic. The other was a few tomatoes from a friend’s vine (grown outside, harvested in October – not an easy feat in Scotland!) Both delicious. And as I sit here looking out at snow whirling down and along and up again, I’m ruminating on parsnips. Very seasonal, but I never take enough advantage of them. And then, before you know it, it’s spring! and parsnip time is over. I don’t have any photos of parsnips as yet – like I say, still ruminating – but here’s a picture of autumn veg on sale at the wonderful Catrine House, from about six weeks ago.P1010760

So this weekend is Parsnip Weekend chez moi and I am planning Curried Parsnip Soup; Parsnip Tatin with Winter Pesto; and a Christmas Spiced Parsnip cake … the latter two being new recipes to me and hopefully vibrant new additions to my repertoire. High hopes especially for the Tatin, it’s always good to increase your store of vegetarian recipes. Not that I’m trying to hold back the Christmas extravaganza … well maybe just a little. Will diligently record said parsnip adventures and post for your infotainment.