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.

 

Sausage casserole

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Bert, determined sauce avoider, came home from pre-school raving about the ‘brown, bumpy sauce’ he’d had there. Questioning and detective work revealed it to be sausage casserole. Desperate for some sauce in our lives, I quizzed him intensely, thought hard about what makes the best sausage casserole (and what makes sauce brown and bumpy), did some research and tinkering and came up with this.

Meanwhile, Bert’s been perfecting his joke delivery technique.

‘What do you get if… [stage whisper] what is it? you put what is it??? boiling water down what is it??? rabbit hole?’

I don’t know, what do you get?

‘What is it??? Hot what is it??? bunny. Hot hot hot hot hot hot…hot hot hot… hot hot what is it??? hot hot hot… hot bunny hot hot hot what is it??? cross bun bunny.’

Stewart Lee has made a career out of this. But all we have is an uneaten portion of sausage casserole.

‘What is it?  It is not brown bumpy sauce. It is not brown. What is it?’

He had pasta and Parmesan cheese, we had this.

Serves 4

Good glug of olive oil

1 onion, chopped

2 sticks celery, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 carrot, grated

2 tablespoons tomato puree

1 tablespoon Worcester sauce

1 pack chipolata sausages, cut into bite sized pieces

1 tin tomatoes

300ml chicken stock

1 dessert spoon dark brown sugar

1 red pepper, roughly chopped

1 teaspoon dried rosemary or finely chopped fresh rosemary

salt and pepper

Heat the oil in a large saucepan and soften the onions. Add the carrot, celery and garlic and cook gently till the carrot is soft and pale orange. Add the sausages and cook till browned. Then add everything else, bring to a fast simmer, reduce the temperature and cook for 30 minutes, stirring now and then.

Serve with pasta, buttery mash or crusty bread.

Not Heinz spaghetti

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Me to Bert in the bath last night: Was I being grumpy today or were you being naughty?

Bert (with an air of diplomacy): A bit of both.

Me: I wonder why?

Bert (accusingly): You were being bossy.

Me: That’s my job as your mum.

Bert: [doubtful look]

Me: And you?

Bert (carelessly): I was just doing my own thing.

As part of my ongoing, inadvertant project to pointlessly recreate processed food classics, tonight I accidentally threw together home-made tinned Heinz spaghetti – in a good way. We had ours with meatballs (my intention was to veg-up a tomato sauce for meatballs) and grated parmesan. This makes enough for a big bowl spare in the fridge – as a veg-heavy pizza base topping or to start your own canned spaghetti business.

Or just do your own thing.

Makes absolutely loads

Glug of olive oil

2 sticks celery, finely chopped

1 red pepper, deseeded and roughly chopped

2 cloves of garlic, crushed

A dozen or so fresh cherry tomatoes

1/2 tin sweetcorn

2 tins chopped tomatoes

Pinch of salt

Spahetti, to appetite

Add the olive oil to a saucepan on a medium heat, cook the celery and pepper till softened, add the garlic and cook for a minute, then add the sweetcorn, fresh tomatoes, tinned tomatoes and seasoning. Bring to a simmer.

Put the spaghetti on to cook.

Stir the sauce now and then. When the spaghetti’s almost done, puree the sauce and add a dash of cooking water from the pasta. Drain the spaghetti and stir it into enough sauce to coat it, stowing the rest away for another occasion.

Slurp.

Chocolate birthday cake

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When I asked Bert what birthday cake he wanted, he said a Paw Patrol Lookout Tower. (For those who don’t spend 2 hours 20 minutes a day watching, it’s a tower on a tripod base, with a glass-sided look-out room, topped by a periscope, with a helter-skelter slide.) Thanks for the confidence vote, Bert, but your ambitions are not matched by my skills. So I made a cake in the shape of a bowl of dog food. Luckily my skills were not enough to make it look disturbingly (to his friends’ parents) realistic.

This isn’t my recipe but I did find an excellent one for a decent-tasting cake that’s also easy to shape (without crumbling) and ice with fondant icing. I’m recording it here for future years – one day, this will be the basis of a vast, chocolate flavoured Millenium Falcon and my life will truly have been worth living.

Makes a 20cm cake

Cake:

200g self-raising flour

40g cocoa powder (not drinking chocolate)

230g caster sugar

4 large eggs

230g soft, unsalted butter

¼ tsp vanilla extract

100g milk chocolate, grated (choose something from the baking aisle in the supermarket as it will cope well with the heat in the oven without going grainy)

2 tsp milk

Icing:

400g chocolate buttercream icing

500g ready to roll fondant icing (but only for a child’s, themed birthday cake – the stuff is truly disgusting)

Pre-heat the oven to 160/ 140 fan.

Mix all the cake ingredients till well-combined, then spoon into two lined and greased 20cm cake tins. Cook for 30 minutes in the centre of the oven. Check with a skewer – if it comes out of the middle clean then they’re done. If not, put them in for another 5 minutes.

Cool for 10 minutes in the tin then 10 minutes on a wire tray, then put in the fridge for a couple of hours if you’re going to shape and fondant-ice them.

Sandwich the cakes with buttercream (shape the top one into a dog bowl with tapered edges and a circular hollow in the top if you wish) and then cover with more buttercream. Roll out the icing to about 2-3mm thick (using icing sugar or cornflour to stop it sticking) and drape over the cake. If you’re going full Paw Patrol, fill the top with Maltesers and decorate with sugar dog bones and paw prints. (I stuck each Malteser down with a dab of buttercream, but by then I’d moved into The Zone – I also cut sandwiches into bone shapes and made bone-shaped cheese biscuits.)

Recall that blue food dye appears to be like a hallucinagenic drug to small children (the first time Bert ate something this colour he started to see monkeys everywhere), slice, feed small children multiple packets of Haribo and send them home with a plastic whistle. Job done!

 

Apple loaf

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To me there are only two types of cake – a treat that should be as delicious as possible with no nod at all to nutrition, and something tasty but vaguely healthy that I can justify serving as a pudding or snack for a 3-year-old and his friends. (You can only really get away with loading other people’s children up with empty sugar at birthday parties I feel.)

In two days’ time we’ll be eating sundaes and drinking milkshakes as Bert turns four (‘that’s very old’, in case you were asking) and in four days’ time I’ll be loading other people’s children up with empty sugar and cutting up a treaty cake with four candles on it. In theory the cake will be Paw Patrol themed – does looking like a dog’s dinner count?

But tomorrow morning it’s apple loaf, a couple of friends and a big pile of Duplo for us. This is a (very slightly adapted) one from the National Trust Family Cookbook.

Makes 1 small loaf

140ml sunflower oil

2 eggs

150g golden caster sugar

3 eating apples, peeled and grated

170g wholewheat self-raising flour

1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Pre-heat the oven to 180/ 170 fan. Beat together the sugar, eggs and oil till the mixture’s light and fluffy – about five minutes. Then add the grated apple, and finally the dry ingredients. Make sure to sprinkle the bicarb through evenly, since a mouthful that contains a pocket of it is unpleasantly reminiscent of the sachets you stir into water when you’ve got a bladder infection, and no-one remembers cystitis fondly.

Tip the mix into a small, lined loaf tin and bake for about 45 minutes, till firm and coming away from the edges of the tin.

Chilli balls

When I started this blog, Bert was a great eater. Now he declares anything in a sauce, cooked in a sauce then fished out, sitting near a sauce, as ‘soupy’.

I was prepared for a veg avoider but not a soup avoider.

This may be my most niche recipe yet, but if you fancy a soupy chilli and your child is a sauce avoider, try these. Then make a normal chilli for all the sane people in the room.

Or cook up a bigger batch in tomato sauce and serve with rice, grated Cheddar cheese, sour cream and guacamole. (Naked, soupless balls also being available.)

Makes 6 meatballs

60g minced beef

20g red kidney beans, mashed with a fork.

10g finely grated cheddar

10g finely grated carrot

Pinch each of ground cinnamon, ground cumin, cayenne pepper, salt

Preheat the oven to 180. Mix all the ingredients together and form into walnut-sized balls. Bake on a baking sheet for 20 minutes. Serve with rice, broccoli (and soupy guacamole if you dare).

Strawberry shortcake pudding


When you fancy strawberry shortcake but can’t be arsed to make it. This has the same soft, vanilla crumb and berry sweetness but takes 10 minutes to prepare and 10 seconds to finish off out of the oven.

Bert declared this ‘not a birthday cake: a normal cake’.

It’s my birthday tomorrow. On his way out this afternoon Bert’s dad asked me if we needed any food. 

Me: you might need chocolate? Self-raising flour? Candles?

Him: blank face

Leftover normal cake it is then.

Serves 4-6 (ahem. Ok. Three)

6 tablespoons soft butter

1 measuring cup caster sugar

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract 

1.5 teaspoons baking powder

1.5 measuring cups plain flour

1/2 measuring cup milk 

1 punnet strawberries

1 tablespoon icing sugar

Preheat the oven to 180.

Beat the sugar and butter together till fluffy then add the egg and vanilla and beat again. Mix through the flour, baking powder and milk till you have a smooth, thick batter then tip into a deep, buttered pie dish and smooth out the top. Top with the hulled and halved strawberries and bake for about an hour (check after 50 minutes – it’s ready when it’s deep golden brown and coming away from the sides). 

Dust with sieved icing sugar and serve warm with thick cream.