Sweet and sour chicken (or tofu)

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Three years ago, our son asked us casually what our favourite colours were. Equally casually we replied – ‘red’; ‘blue’. Little did we realise that we’d unwittingly slipped a chain around our own necks – a chain that would be tightened, inch by inch, as the months and years passed.

It began as a way of sorting sweets. (Bert, cannily, selected pink, yellow, green, orange and purple as his signature colours.) It moved onto him crafting us little objects in the right colours – a blue owl made of toilet roll middles, a red octopus made out of a paper cup.

It got a shade more inconvenient when he began to insist that I put random red objects from around the home next to my bed – a red Rescue Bot or a red Superzing. Then, in a sinister flourish, this was extended to include any object with even the smallest dot of the right colour on.

In some desperation, last night I said to him, ‘I can’t keep everything red and everything that has a bit of red on it next to my bed, there’s no room and I’ll end up hating red.’

He looked at me with ice-cold eyes and said, dismissively, ‘you can have black too.’

This meal has a lot of red in it.

Serves 3

1 red pepper, diced

1 orange or yellow pepper, diced

1/2  a pineapple, diced (a tin of pineapple chunks or the majority of one of the plastic pots of them will do if you don’t have sufficient spare energy to wrestle a large, spiked fruit)

Drizzle of olive oil

2 chicken breasts, diced (and some diced firm tofu for the awkward veggies like me) – both in generous, bite sized chunks

120g self raising flour

100ml sparkling water

100ml tap water

2 tablespoons cornflour

Sunflower oil to shallow fry

(Yep, this is a faffy recipe, ingredients-wise)

1 tablespoon tomato ketchup

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar

2 tablespoons honey

1 tablespoon cornflour

2-3 tablespoons water (add more if necessary)

Chopped coriander and thinly sliced spring onions, to serve

Heat the oven to 200, throw the diced pepper and pineapple on a baking tray, drizzle with olive oil and roast for about 25 minutes, till starting to char round the edges.

Put the first lot of cornflour in one bowl, and in another whisk together the self raising flour and waters. Get the sunflower oil hot in a large pan (oil about 1cm deep, pan at least 10cm deep). Dip the chunks of chicken or tofu in the cornflour then the batter and then throw them place them gently into the hot pan. Cook for about 3 mins on each side, till they’re a deep, warm, golden brown.

Meanwhile put the ketchup, honey, soy, vinegar, cornflour and water into a small pan. If you happen to have some tamarind paste, add one or two teaspoons for that extra sour kick. Whisk together and simmer over a lowish heat till thickened – about five minutes. Keep checking it as it suddenly changes from watery to a thick sauce. Add a bit more water if you need to and whisk it up a little till it’s combined.

Tip the roast veg into the sauce and serve alongside the crisp chicken or tofu, sprinkling some coriander and spring onions onto adult servings. We ate it with plain boiled rice.

 

 

 

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Raspberry sponge pudding

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I didn’t find my dad a particularly easy man. He could be fun, full of beans and brimming with jokes, face alive with mischief. But he could be the opposite too – sometimes he didn’t get out of bed all day and on that sort of day his presence was a black, dead space in the house, sucking everything into it. As an adult, I can see he struggled with mental health at a time when it wasn’t easy to say so. As a child I felt unsettled by the uncertainty and anxious about the shouting. As I got older I sometimes dreaded going home because of him.

But when he died eight years ago, I stopped seeing him as the person he was at a single moment in time and saw what he really was – all of those things together at once. The cheeky, slightly vulnerable little boy whose socks were falling down, the dad who always had an irrepressible joke in his eyes, a man with insatiable intellectual curiosity who was haunted by a black dog, an older man who’d somehow found patience and acceptance of a kind.

Since then I try, when I look at the people I love, to remind myself that the here and now is just one piece of a puzzle that makes up the whole of them. I look at Bert’s less and less round cheeks and the disappearing dimples on his hands and try to remember that the cuddly toddler will always be in there somewhere. I hope I live long enough to see as many of the pieces of his puzzle as I can, but I imagine that, in all of them, there’ll be glimpses of the focused earnestness and wild, cackling showmanship I see now.

Bert’s dad was already a father to two children when I met him, so it’s hard for me to imagine him as anything else – as Bert dictated for his Fathers Day card, ‘Dad loves children and children love Dad’. Whispered schemes about chocolate and wild wrestling matches seem as much an intrinsic part of him as Arsenal and the necessity to try on fifteen different shirts before going out. Of course there are many parts to the jigsaw puzzle that is him, but I think there’s a little corner of the picture of a dad on all of them.

As a society, we can be unnuanced in what we ask of our dads – that they accept fatherhood unquestioningly but don’t grieve the lack of it, that they’re always one-dimensionally fun and high-energy, and that they wear uncomplainingly the slightly hands-off and a bit useless persona. But I do know men who’d have been great dads who aren’t parents and may be sad about it, I know dads who are the cooks and the tear-wipers and dads who are the carers.

I made this raspberry pudding in a rush last week to follow the coq au vin (mushroom au vin for me) that Bert’s dad had spent the afternoon making. Normally I’d have tried to think of something that might spruce it up a little (it’s a bit of a plain cake) – white chocolate chips, lemon, coconut? – but I was in a hurry so this is what we had, with custard.

Serves 6

1 punnet of raspberries

1 tablespoon soft brown sugar

1/2 cup of soft butter

3/4 cup of golden caster sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 1/4 cups plain flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 cup whole milk

Pre-heat the oven to 180. Toss the raspberries with the soft brown sugar in a 20cm round cake tin.

Beat together the sugar and butter till light and fluffy – as long as your arm can bear it or about 5 minutes in a mixer. Add the eggs and vanilla. Gently fold through the flour and baking powder then add the milk.

Bake for 30-40 minutes till golden brown and firm. Serve, warm, with cream, icecream or custard. Good the next day too. What cake isn’t?

Salt and pepper tofu

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It’s hard to write this blog at the moment because there’s not much “me and Bert” food. I’m not eating meat. Bert’s not eating sauce, spice* (* flavour), wet food of any kind, most cooked vegetables and most dishes that combine different textures and flavours. And Bert’s dad is eating meat, flavour and sauce. So meals either centre on a dish that can be deconstructed for Bert and have meat added or removed, or a single thing we all eat (tonight: egg fried rice) with optional extras (tonight: slow-cooked pork belly, ginger and garlic stir-fried greens, a face made out of orange pepper and cucumber, and salt and pepper tofu).

Maybe this is the way a lot of families cook and eat, but it’s a right faff. My vision of motherhood was cooking up a single, hearty stew then lying back on the sofa and reading a book.

But it wasn’t having motherhood forced upon me before I was ready for it, able to be competent at it or desperately wanted it. Nor was it being enslaved by my fertility and having to chose between celibacy or endless babies. I did desperately want Bert, to the extent I remember standing on a beach in winter and praying to the infinitely blossoming and diminishing waves – because you never know.

But there were other times in my life when I desperately didn’t want to be a mother, and I’m pretty sure the immature, insecure 19-year-old me, who as yet had no idea how to take it into my own hands to make a relationship as good as it could be or leave it, who hadn’t yet acquired the simple life skill of figuring out what I wanted then trying to make it happen, was right in that conviction.

It would be wonderful if everyone who wanted to be a mother was a mother. If every childless couple felt child free. If every woman who, on reflection, wouldn’t really enjoy being a mother that much, didn’t feel the pressure to be one. But in the meantime we should all do everything we can to make sure every baby is a wanted baby.

I hope I’m not jumping the gun in saying well done, Ireland. For the first time in a few years the public vote seems to be going the way of sanity and proper, nuanced empathy.

I can be deeply thankful for my sauce-avoider, live with regret that we didn’t manage to have more, and still be glad that I was definitely free not to have children before I was ready. We are complex beings living in a complex world and we can have a lot of different things on the table at the same time.

So here’s to being able to make choices, even if setting up life to allow for that isn’t always easy.

Serves 1

1/2 pack tofu

1 egg

2 tablespoons cornflour

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

A lot – a lot – of salt and pepper (treat it as an ingredient not as seasoning)

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Cut the tofu into bite sized chunks. It’s very fragile. Don’t worry too much. Get the oil hot in a large frying pan. Beat the egg in one shallow bowl and combine the flour, sesame seeds, salt and pepper in another. (It needs to be cornflour – don’t be tempted to substitute.)

Dip the pieces of tofu in the egg then the flour mix and chuck them quickly into the pan before they fall apart. Keep the pan hot and cook quickly – a couple of minutes on each side till they’re crisp and golden. The savoury crunch of the outside gives way to a silky soft interior.

No one else will eat it – shame.

Rhubarb and custard scones

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These are the days that matter, the quiet days that so easily get lost in the clamour of ambitions and disappointments, big plans and minor heartbreaks.

Days that start with a hug, and amble past waffles and puns about waffles and planting up daisies and watering blueberries. Days when the humdrum’s a pleasure and there’s time to sit at the kitchen table, painting pictures of dogs and flowers and bumblebees with someone whose hands still have dimples and whose hair smells of sun.

There have been other days when time has felt so relentlessly monochrome and straight-line-real that I’ve wished I could fold it in two like paper and go back to the start: do one thing, anything, just different enough to change the unchangeable – days when I’ve felt furious with grief that I can’t do the single, simple thing of building my own time machine.

And then there are honey, mellow days when time gathers, clusters and disperses like swallows. Days when the bright green of the grass shouts from the trees’ deep shadows and blackbirds trill unseen in the clear blue sky on a late afternoon forest walk. Days when it’s clear that this warm hour is exactly the same one I’ve walked through hundreds of times before and the leaves of the slender, keen birches are the same ones that thousands of other people have watched move slowly through the same warm air; days when it’s clear that time isn’t solid and linear, but something that hangs poised above and behind and beyond us, and walks hand in hand with us in circles.

So if you’re thinking of the best day of your life, don’t think of the weddings and births, the parties and promotions, think of a sunny day when you folded washing, made scones and were solemnly presented with a painting of an orange dog to keep by your bed.

Makes about 16

2-4 sticks of rhubarb (I used four, but they were splindly ones from the garden)

1 tablespoon light brown sugar

2 tablespoons of water

2 tablespooons of custard powder

Enough plain flour that, added to the custard powder, makes 500g (about 460g)

75g cold butter

2 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda

150ml Greek yoghurt, 150ml whole milk (I don’t ever have normal plain yoghurt in the house as I find it too runny – or too soupy, as Bert would say. If you do, use 200ml yoghurt to 100ml of milk)

1 egg, beaten

Heat the oven to 200. Cut the rhubarb up into pieces about 1cm long (they’ll be the raisins in your scones, so don’t make the pieces too big), put the pieces in a roasting tray, sprinkle over the sugar and water, cover with foil and cook for around 10 minutes. Keep the oven on after you take them out.

Meanwhile weigh out the custard powder and flour to a combined total of 500g (two tablespoons of custard powder first, then add the flour till it weighs 500g). Cut the butter into very small pieces and then ‘crumb’ it – rub it between finger and thumb if you like, but I believe scones don’t like to be touched by human hand till they come out of the oven, so I cut the butter into tiny pieces with a knife, then put the flour and butter in the food mixer till it’s crumbed. Add the bicarb.

Remove the rhubarb with a slotted spoon and add the pieces to the mixing bowl with the yoghurt and milk mix. Mix briefly, till it’s just forming a dough.

Flour a surface and quickly press the dough down onto it. Don’t use a rolling pin, just gently press it out with your fingers till it’s about 4cm thick. Cut out circles with a small cutter – I use a champagne flute, not because I always have a glass of champagne to hand (maybe one day), but because it’s the right size to make a scone that’s taller than it is wide – i.e. correct.

Put on a baking tray, quickly brush with beaten egg and into the oven for about 12 minutes, till golden.

 

Parmesan and oat crumbed chicken

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Last night we spoke to our vet friend (a friend who happens to be a vet, not a vet who I stalk) at bath time about the fact that Ray had eaten eight balloons (if you find yourself in the same boat: don’t worry too much unless they were modelling balloons or the dog looks more pissed off than usual) (I paraphrase).

By now Bert was in the bath. He spent the entire time I was speaking to her mouthing ‘let me talk! I dry my hands!’ When he was finally handed the phone he chatted at length, naked, about the eight unblown balloons, the light blue blown balloon that is now hidden and the one red balloon that wasn’t ‘eated’. Anna suggested she come over soon to see his new bedroom and he said casually, ‘that would be cool.’

Just now he called me into his bedroom over a toileting crisis and descended the bunk bed ladder jauntily, looking over his shoulder and smiling like a tiny Bruce Forsyth. He told me ‘you smell nice’ and trotted off to the bathroom.

He requested chicken, chips and broccoli for dinner. No one refuses a charmer. This is the chicken we ate.

Serves 1.5

1 chicken breast

1 tablespoon plain yoghurt

2 tablespoons rolled oats

1 tablespoon grated Parmesan

Bash the chicken with a rolling pin till it’s about a centimetre thick. Resident four-year-olds might help, but watch the arc of their swing. Together, put the chicken in a bowl with the yoghurt, stir to coat and chill it in the fridge for at least half an hour. This stage makes it tender and gives the coating something to cling to without the faff of flouring and milk dipping.

Pre-heat the oven to 180.

Put the oats in a ziplock bag and bash them with the rolling pin till broken up a bit. Put in a bowl with the Parmesan and stir quickly to mix. Take the chicken breast out of the yoghurt and dip in the oats, turning over till fully coated. Pop on a lined baking tray and into the oven for 20 minutes.

Yes, we ate it in front of the TV.

 

 

Pork and apple meatballs

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Everyone’s got their thing. I was cripplingly shy as a small child, learned to cover it up with bravado and denial (and cider) as a teenager and much, much later in life got brave enough to look it in the face and admit that the anxiety was part of me, not something that the world was doing to me. I conquered it, more or less, by facing it, full-beam.

When Bert was smaller I fretted that he was shy. But not to worry – he’s a massive showman. The sort of bloke that can be convinced to go on a dog walk with the suggestion that ‘everyone will look at you in your Olaf [from Frozen] costume and be shocked’.

It’s rather liberating to realise how little hold genes can have on our offsprings’ demons. But there’s no escaping demons, we just don’t know what Bert’s is yet.

I do wonder, though, how much harder we make it for our children to face their own flaws and accept them when we reward them so much for being perfect – getting the answers right, being good, doing what we expect of them or what’s convenient for us. Bert cheerfully informed his teacher last week that he’s ‘Mr Perfect’ (so, so shy!) And I don’t have a neat conclusion to this train of thought other than hoping that I can help him realise that he’s utterly imperfect but perfectly lovable.

Mr Perfect would eat ‘soupy’ meatballs, but Bert needs the soupiness blotted off on a kitchen towel first, and I’m the sort of indulgent mother who does just that.

Serves 3-4

500g minced pork

1 apple, grated

2 tablespoons breadcrumbs

Salt and pepper to taste

Splash of olive oil

1 carrot, grated

1 yellow pepper, finely chopped or grated (sounds unlikely but is possible!)

1 tin chopped tomatoes

1 teaspoon brown sugar

1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

Salt and pepper to taste

Mix the pork mince, apple, breadcrumbs and seasoning. Heat a glug of oil in a large frying pan, form the pork mixture into small balls (I use latex gloves, but hopefully you’re not here to judge). Brown, shaking the pan now and then to move them around.

Move the meatballs to the side of the pan, add a bit more oil if you need it, and gently fry the carrot and pepper till it’s starting to get softer and paler – you want it to almost be dissolving into the oil. Then add the tomatoes, sugar and vinegar, season, and get your pasta on to boil, adding half a ladleful or so of the cooking water to loosen the tomato sauce when the pasta’s been cooking for about five minutes. By the time the pasta’s ready, so is the sauce.

Serve with grated Parmesan or Pecorino cheese.

Chicken and mushroom biriyani (or mushroom biriyani)

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Bert’s hitting the party scene hard. Somewhere between the age of three and four, children stop existing like well-loved dogs – food ideally being stolen and lapped off the floor, the top of a new speaker being as good a place to poo as anywhere, reality being here right now with no sense of past or future, emotions being either damp, panting joy or aimless whining – and suddenly gain a sense of time. Four is bigger than three. Fourth birthdays are a Big Deal. I’m not sure there’s anyone we know, or indeed have just passed in the street, who hasn’t had the news of Bert’s age reinforced with four fingers held up forcibly and the number repeated twice.

Anyway, fourth birthdays being a Big Deal, we’ve been to a lot of parties recently and I’ve become a hoarder of ‘low maintenance good party ideas’. The one we went to on Saturday involved ride-on, very fast racing cars, a huge bouncy castle, between-meals timing (biscuits, crisps and squash on offer) and me frantically scribbling down supplier numbers for future reference. Now Bert’s fully immersed in party season I’m meeting a lot of mums and I’ve discovered that the phrase ‘do you watch Motherland?’ is code for ‘may I speak freely?’

I love Motherland and I love bacon Frazzles and I love Iced Rings (or hard doughnuts as Bert has it). But for more motherly days, this passes the ‘no sauce’ test, so long as I don’t even begin to suggest that Bert might eat a marinated mushroom – I put those in first, in a clearly separate layer, and don’t offer them to FOUR-YEAR-OLDS.

Serves 4 (or a greedy 2.5 with leftovers)

1/2 punnet mushrooms, sliced (or a whole punnet, no chicken, for vege nights or vege lives)

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts or 4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (my preference), cut into 2cm pieces

1.5 teaspoons mild curry powder

1.5 teaspoons garam masala

2 garlic cloves, crushed

120g plain yoghurt

2 onions, sliced

1-2 splashes of vegetable oil

Cinnamon stick

3 cloves

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon turmeric

350g basmati rice

450g boiling water

1/2 tin coconut milk (we tend to cook this in the same week as chicken satay, which uses the other half)

Chopped coriander

Toasted flaked almonds

Pre-heat the oven to 180/ 170 fan.

Mix the mushrooms with the yoghurt, curry powder, garlic and garam masala, season and set aside.

Fry the onion in half of the oil till translucent, then tip into a large saucepan or casserole dish that has a lid. Pile the mushrooms on top and then the chicken.

Reheat the pan you fried the onion in and add a little more oil if necessary. Fry the cinnamon, cloves, turmeric and bay leaves for a minute or so, then stir through the rice, coating in oil. Add the boiling water, bring to simmering point and cook for five minutes. Take off the heat, stir in the coconut milk, season and then add to the sauce pan, covering the chicken with the rice. Cover with a lid and put in the oven for 45 minutes, till all the liquid is absorbed and the rice is cooked. Serve, only going as far as the chicken layer for FOUR-YEAR-OLDS. Scatter adult portions with chopped coriander and toasted almonds.

Adapted, a bit, from the National Trust Family Cookbook.