Monday, 8 February 2016

A touch of Snow

Dear Nigel,

At last the Winter has provided us with a bit of the real white stuff and there is a small window of opportunity, a blink of the eye, in which to sledge, throw snowballs, build a snowman and soak up the blinding light that is sunshine on snow under a solid blue sky. It is fleeting. Tomorrow it will all be gone, so every breath counts, every moment stretched and slowed and nailed down with photographs and smiles and footprints in the snow.

The dog enjoys it too; running and jumping like a puppy once more. But when it comes to crossing the stream to go and sledge she holds back and wants to go back to her bed; to her nice warm electric blanket that I have recently bought her; for she is an old dog now and her bones creak and stiffen when she gets up. She sleeps in a cold porch and the blanket has transformed her life. Now she lolls over the edge of the basket, stretched out with sunglasses on and reading the newspaper, a glass of pinot grigiot in her hand. She can scarcely summon up the energy these days to bark at the postman.

I am making a Roast Chicken tonight with your version of colcannon to accompany it. The recipe is 'Kale colcannon' (page 18). It is an altogether lighter dish than the traditional potato-based one, with a sweeter flavour, as it is a mix of kale and celeriac. It is simple and straightforward and warming but without some of the more off-putting virtues of the traditional dish. I like it very much, anyway, and I'm not a huge fan of the green stuff normally. The celeriac gives it a tasty edge. You use it with pig cheeks and apples and cider, but I have a chicken in want of some vegetables. It works just as well.

I am planning an expedition tomorrow - at least it feels that way. I am taking Sophie and Molly to see the Chinese New Year celebrations in Manchester. I have developed the art (very usefully) of turning almost any outing into a treat. When money is tight adding value to the mundane is like using a golden cheque book.

It is something I have got down to a fine art: The most sort after treat in our house right now is a single gold-wrapped toffee out of an ancient Farrah's Toffee tin which sits in the car. It is only available on a Tuesday after swimming lessons, and there is only ever one each. What started off as a distraction to get my children away from clamouring for stuff from those awful moving sweet and crisp machines you get at swimming pools (and which are such a huge rip-off), has become a much-sort-after event. The fact that it isn't ever offered at any other times somehow adds to its cachet - a technique that most advertising execs seem to employ with gusto. I must see if I can employ these tactics elsewhere as it could prove to be a huge money saver...

We are going by train, which to them is almost a treat in itself since the nearest train station from here is about half an hour away and we use it very rarely. We are meeting Hannah in Manchester and Tom is also coming over from his University in Sheffield. Nice to have four of my children in the same place at the same time. These things have to be engineered; they don't happen by themselves. Hopefully there will be some nice Chinese street food for them to try as getting a table at a restaurant is probably nigh on impossible during the New Year celebrations, even if my budget ran to it. We are going early so we can get a good position to see the traditional Dragon Parade. It is all under wraps, though, as there is nothing they like more than a surprise.

Sophie goes to a big Middle School now in a town about nine miles away. She is about the youngest and smallest in the school - perhaps that is partly why she has been offered the role of 'Oliver' in the forthcoming school production. She's pleased. I'm pleased; but I could see the ramifications playing out in my head. Both she and her best friend were up for the final audition for the part. Her best friend was excited and desperate for it. I tried to play it down, foreseeing the dangers ahead. Now there is tears and 'not talking'. I try and talk to Sophie about how her best friend might be feeling. It is not an easy thing for a child to do. All babies are egotists - they have to be in order to survive. A child's growth away from self-centeredness is slow and often painful. I sow the seeds and hope she will at least be tactful.

Tomorrow will be pancake day - a time for over-indulging and scoffing far too much, I suspect. Four pancakes doesn't really do it in our house, somehow. At no other time would my family expect endless pudding, but on pancake day tradition seems to dictate that people eat pancakes until they can eat no longer. Its biblical roots are fudged when it comes to the 'giving something up' bit and the lean times ahead between now and Easter: Convenient religion I call it. Sophie wants to fine-hone her cooking skills so we have agreed to share the cooking. There will be lemon and caster sugar, and maple syrup for those who prefer. I haven't heard from Will yet, but I'm expecting a phone call any time now...

Enjoy your pancakes,

Love Martha x

Sunday, 31 January 2016

The texture of antique leather

Dear Nigel,

I have been contemplating the simple dish of pasta and wondering why one dish has a certain cachet that makes me want to eat it and the other is shied away from swiftly. I'm not even aware that I'm making these choices on a day to day basis - but I am.

Once upon a time, pasta was a three times a week staple for two young marrieds in their first little two-bedroom terraced house. We were sitting on the floor (as we couldn't afford a sofa) and eating off a wallpapering table. All available cash was going on stripping the doors and damp proofing the walls. And pasta enabled us to eat.

Over the years it morphed into the once or twice a week family dish - usually a Lasagna or bolognaise - until eventually it became once a week, and then PERHAPS once a week. It is not that I particularly want to bring back pasta dominance into our weekly menu, but I wonder how it got to be so unimportant and forgotten.

Nowadays, if its pasta then there has to be a more exciting accompaniment or sauce to go with it: Something that works, something that has a certain wow factor to it. Sometimes, I am disappointed with what I produce, or just not very inspired. But lately I have come to realise that there is a reason for this; something that I have been missing, or hit and missing without realising its relevance - and that is the texture of the pasta itself.

Looking at the packets of pasta on the supermarket shelf, it is easy to miss this small detail. There are so many shapes and sizes to choose from. Why wouldn't you choose that packet of bright yellow linguine rather than the rather old, tired looking one next to it which looks frankly a bit dried out and possibly out-of-date? Surely the former has been made with free-range, organic eggs to achieve that colour, you might reason. Not so. Dried pasta is extruded through a machine using either a bronze or a silicon die. The bronze die extrudes pasta at a slower rate (hence it is more expensive to produce), but it leaves a rougher texture to the pasta - like that of an antique leather sofa - which allows the sauce to cling to it better. The silicon die leaves a smooth surface and a brighter yellow colour. How often have you eaten out and been given a dish of pasta only to find half the sauce remaining at the end of the meal? or perhaps they fudged things by using too thick a sauce?

It's a small thing, perhaps, but I am aware that pasta is making a come back in this house. I don't begrudge paying slightly more for it when the over-all cost of the dish is usually considerably less than some of the other meals I cook. We eat less pasta these days, quantity-wise. No longer is there a huge heap to be ploughed through. Sometimes the pasta is almost the accompaniment to the other ingredients, or at least an equal part.

Tonight, however, I am making 'food for a windy night.' I am making 'Artichoke "tartiflette"' (page 27) - 'Not just a hot meal to fatten and fill, but something that will warm our very souls'. It is inspired by the 'Alpine dish of tartiflette, whose layers of potatoes, onions, smoked bacon and Reblochon cheese help to thaw out skiers and snowboarders alike'. It is pertinent as number two son, Christopher, has just moved to Geneva with his Brazilian girlfriend, Beatriz. Only there a week and he sends me a photo of them skiing in the Alps. Lucky boy. Lovely to see him looking so happy and alive.

Your dish involves those lovely little knobbly vegetables - such a pain to peel - called Jerusalem artichokes. Their taste is so wonderfully earthy and deep that all is soon forgiven. We sit down to a large plate of melting softness. The cold is swiftly driven out. It is good; very good. The interplay between the stronger flavours of the Jerusalem artichokes, the Reblochon cheese and the lardons is well-balanced. The 'pale milky curds (of the Reblochon) melt into  a velvety blanket, and whose flavour softens upon heating.'
We feel complete as we curl up on the sofa.

(Small note: Although you say you have to rechristen this dish 'fartiflette' the next day....hence a windy night in your place....I have to say that it didn't have quite that effect over here! Thank goodness: It's a small house.)

Love Martha x

Friday, 22 January 2016

Mr Blue Sky

Dear Nigel,

The candidate for Biggin and Hartington is being reprimanded and put on a warning. Sophie, my nine year old, is entering the Area Cubs 'Ready, Steady, Cook' event; and she is practising making pancakes at home. Unfortunately, pancakes take too long to cook it seems and there is something more interesting on the tele in the next room, so she leaves her pancake unattended and slinks off. Hmmm, don't think she'll get too many marks for that one...But, she does serve them beautifully and courteously and waits for our verdict: They taste very good, dripping in a river of maple syrup, and are even in colour (if perhaps a little thick...but then it does save having to make quite so many...)

The sky today is a beautiful Nordic blue; the kind of Winter Sky that refreshes and drives out the gloom. The snow is melting very slowly, caught by the dry chill of the wind which pins back your eye lids and wakes you up with a mallet. We have been hibernating too long. Inertia has set in and it needs a sky like today to set the blood racing beneath your thermals and bring a glow to your cheeks.

I am fed-up opening the Landrover with a kettle of boiling water each morning. The snow has turned to a permanent ice rink on the lane where the two cars have been up and down. I put out fresh bird seed which is devoured as fast as I put it out. That fat pigeon is back again hoovering up underneath where the lazy birds have made a mess and scattered seed everywhere. I heard a woodpecker the other day, busy putting up double-glazing and insulating his loft. Always the industrious kind, the woodpecker.

Today I am making a pie for supper. I still haven't got my head beyond comfort food with this cold weather, and the idea of any kind of meaningful exercise that might loosen the excesses of Christmas seems a very bad idea indeed. I watch a couple of people out running and think only of their poor ankles on black ice. I am getting old. Damn. Or perhaps just old-enough to remember how long it takes to mend a turned ankle; stumbling around with a shackle on your leg. The pie is your 'Peri peri chicken pie' (page10) for those days when 'sometimes, you just want pie.'

Chicken thighs always seem a good, economical meat to use as there is always a lot of meat on them, especially if you are prepared to spend the time taking off the skin, as in this recipe. The homemade peri peri seasoning smells wonderful as it sizzles and coats the onions. It is a mixture of chilli, oregano, garlic, vinegar, oil, Worcestershire sauce, celery seeds and lime juice - quite a combination, and worth the effort. If you have ever tried the mass-catering version, then this seasoning is a revelation, and says everything about why some things are worth making yourself. Using bought frozen puff pastry is a wonderfully quick way to turn anything into a pie, when the urge takes you. It always seems to impress friends and family, though I can never see why since it's little more than a minute's work to roll out and lick the top with a beaten egg.

My Cubs and I were making a totem pole this evening to take to the Centenary camp in the Summer. As I struggled with binding several five foot cardboard tubes together, they discussed whether they should scalp their victims first before tying them to the pole and burning them. I thought that perhaps Health and Safety might have something to say about that. Seems Golding didn't have to look too far at all to find inspiration for his book. I say perhaps Spaghetti Bolognaise would be a better option and probably easier to make.

I have been taking cider vinegar daily to try and alleviate some arthritic pain. I have read good reports about it, although nothing scientific, and I'm giving it a try. I take two tablespoons daily with a little water and a teaspoon or so of maple syrup. I used to use honey but found that maple syrup is full of antioxidants and has sizable amounts of zinc and manganese as well as being lower in calories (not that a teaspoon amounts to a great deal anyway). I also like the taste. The jury is still out as to how much help it is with my arthritis.

Watching programmes about how maple syrup is extracted is both fascinating and really rather beautiful, especially when it is tapped by hand and lands on a carpet of snow. Some of the trees have been tapped for over a hundred years. There are different grades of maple syrup, ranging from gold to amber to dark and very dark. Cananda, where most of the world's maple syrup comes from, has recently changed its grading system so that it is by colour rather than a, b and c grades. One fact that surprised and intrigued me, was that until 1930's, America produced most of the world's maple syrup. In 1990's, Canada made a huge drive and massive growth and today produces more than 80% of the world's maple syrup.

Japan and South Korea also produce maple syrup on a smaller scale, but in South Korea, the maple sap itself is eaten (called gorosoe) instead of being processed into syrup. Maple syrup and maple sugar were used as an alternative to sugar before and during the American Civil war by the abolitionists because cane sugar was produced by Southern slaves. In 1865, slavery was made unconstitutional as a result of this war.

The pie is on the table and ready for eating. I have worked up an appetite and this is what it is all about - cutting into a fine, crust pie with the expectation of a taste memory reclaimed, and the salivary glands already picking up the scent and starting to make the mouth water.

Bon appetit.

Martha x

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Isn't it good, Norwegian wood?

Dear Nigel,

There is snow on the ground and a snowman in the garden dressed in a fair isle scarf and hat. It is not really 'snow' as yet - perhaps only a couple of inches - but the children find enough to play out in, stamping in their wellies and making tracks across the field. And, although there is not yet enough snow for sledging, Sophie's baby doll goes flying past down the meadow on her doll-sized purple sledge, dressed in a snappy ski suit and pink-tinted shades like the creme de la creme in Klosters.

I am shovelling salt onto the drive so that the postman won't refuse to deliver the post to us. I look over to admire my handiwork yesterday of a tightly piled stack of logs in the woodshed. I saw the snow coming the other day and ordered another load from the log man. He told me that it was mainly larch this time. We discussed the merits of both hardwood and softwood logs. He said that he'd done timed trials with both kinds, and, although the hardwood ones may last that bit longer, the difference it makes isn't  really justified by the increased price.

Driving through a snowstorm across the lanes to Bakewell I see two drystone wallers patching up a bit of wall near Monyash. They look ruddy and cold and show no sign of stopping in the blinding sleet. Although it is not settling much on the ground, visibility makes me slow right down. I have a good friend Michael who is a drystone waller and I wonder if he's out working in this weather. It is a hard way to earn a living. Michael comes to the pub to hear me play fiddle and to talk with other locals; a quiet man with a genuine smile and always a kind word. We rub along.

I am making your version of a 'Raclette tart' (page 8) to keep 'out the cold for yet another winter's night.' I am horrified by the price of the raclette, but then I see this tart is supposed to be for six people. It will be two of us in front of the wood burner and lunch tomorrow, quite probably. We have had the toasting fork out lately. The children got bags from Father Christmas full of giant-sized marshmallows (from America, where everything comes super-sized). They proved very easy to toast; although one each was quite enough.

Tonight's raclette tart has much of the same melting unctuousness that we seem to crave when snuggled up to the wood burner on a cold, dark night.
'The ancient idea of melting a large wedge of cheese in front of an open hearth, then, as it softens and melts, scraping the flowing cheese on to bread, is a notion I find almost too delicious to contemplate.'

The snow has fallen harder now, and, although the main roads are clear and the gritter has been round, the hills and grass lanes are covered and it makes for a fine walk with the dog. She is happy and leaps and bounds over the soft carpet of snow. One plus point is that she comes in clean without the tell-tale trail of muddy footprints which I have had to get used to of late...dogs don't take their shoes off when they come in the backdoor like everyone else.

The pastry has an egg yolk in it (which always makes it that bit easier to roll out, I find). With free range organic eggs it has a pleasant yellow tinge to it. After rolling it out and into the flan case, chilling the pastry and baking blind, it is an easy matter to fill with the mixture of creme fraiche, egg yolk and black pepper, over the base of raclette, salami and tiny cornichons.

Yes, I remembered to get the right sort this time. Last time you suggested cornichons I came back with something which was more of a small gherkin. (I had no idea there were gradations in gherkin size!) Anyway, these smaller specimens, which have the appearance of U-boats on a choppy sea once chopped and placed in the flan (....just my over-active mind...or perhaps remnants of persuading awkward toddlers to eat up their food), do appear to be altogether finer, lighter in colour and thinner-skinned.

Supper is made and on the table and devoured greedily. It tastes delicious, with just the right contrast of acidity from the pickles to cut through the rich fat of the salami and raclette. My pastry leaves a little bit to be desired (as can be seen readily from the photograph) as the pastry shrank a bit; but as it is the taste that counts as far as I'm concerned, I wasn't too upset. I'd forgotten how simply tasty an egg-enriched pastry can be.

At least this time the flan made it to the table in one piece. Sometimes I find easing them out of the case over an upturned bowl, can end in disaster ...or perhaps a inventive renaming of the dinner on my part. All good cooks should learn to become proficient liars - it is amazing how you can turn round a 'disaster' and 'add value' to something perfectly ordinary...but perhaps I shouldn't admit to that in front of my family...

Best wishes,

Martha x

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Considering The Wasteland

Dear Nigel,

So, the Turkey's last remains are languishing in the freezer, the tree is leaning outside by the shed and there is a feeling of uneasy emptiness inside, like a vacuum ready to be filled. The winds whistle through the treetops of the tall pine trees opposite and round the corner of the cottage like pan pipes, creating mischief and discord in their wake. It is a time of new beginnings and pointless resolutions, but any change brings with it a certain amount of fear and courage is required at times like these.

In Ayurvedic medicine, the source  of this discord is Vata, which particularly dominates in Winter. To balance this, heavy, warming, or oily foods are recommended. So I make a simple root vegetable soup with parsnip, carrot and sweet potato, warmed with cumin seeds. I have friends to feed who are ready to relax and unwind now that Christmas is finally over and the children are back at school. It is good to finally have the time to catch up. We exchanged quick, illicit calls and emails, and cancelled detailed-made plans all through the weeks running  up to Christmas. There never seems to be enough time to spend with the people you actually want to see. And true friends know that when Christmas calls we are all well down each other's list of things that must be done. But now is the time for eating up the leftovers and picking up the threads of loosely woven, flexible friendships which have endured many a choppy sea.

In the fridge there are endless small pieces of cheese waiting to be used up. I am thinking to bake with much of these, perhaps a pastry with roast vegetables beneath. I search your recipes and choose one for supper tonight which will be tasty and hearty, and will use up a piece of Taleggio which I have knocking around. The recipe is 'Baked eggs with kale and Taleggio' (page 521). It contains a fair scattering of pumpkin seeds which add both a nuttiness and protein to the dish. The cavolo nero is shredded and baked with egg like an omelet before the taleggio is allowed to melt on top and the pumpkin seeds scattered over.

We both found the taste well-balanced and particularly liked the nuttiness of the pumpkin seeds against the tanginess of the taleggio, which can be a bit over-powering at times. I have to confess that I simply couldn't be bothered to chop the pumpkin seeds, so just scattered them whole; but I rather like them that way and prefer the look of the whole seeds. Altogether, a very tasty dish that was quick to prepare and left little to wash up afterwards ( - always a bonus to those of us who wash up by hand).

The constant wet and drizzly weather seems to have swayed many of the usual hoard of New Year's joggers who usually coax their wobbly unfit bodies out on punishing long runs at this time of year, (their faces bright pink and set with a fixed smile of grim determination,) to stay in and keep warm instead. The desire not to get ill is stronger than the frustration of feeling obliged to finish off that last half a box of chocolates rather than look at it another day.

It is easier to slip on an over-sized sweater and lose yourself in a good book. Perhaps one about diet, or keeping fit, or man's journey up the North Face of the Eiger or something - all best accomplished from the comfort of a warm sofa, I find. You could work up quite a sweat, I think, contemplating the difficult decisions to be taken in planning the next stage of the route, considering the changes in the weather, the dwindling food supplies and the injuries sustained by other members of the team. All quite enough exercise in itself. Goodness me, it must be time to put the kettle on...

I am finishing up the last of the fated Millionaires' shortbread, which was the real bug-bear for me over Christmas. It was my own fault, I suppose, in asking everyone what they wanted to eat over the festive season. Tom requested this, and it seemed an innocuous request at first. But it was the one thing that I didn't have time to make beforehand. So I bought the ingredients, planning to make it at a leisurely time over Christmas, of my choosing.

The ingredients were still staring at me several days later, and one of my older children (who shall remain nameless) actually refused to go back home until I'd made the blessed stuff. So there was I, hoping for a walk in the park, feed the ducks, park the kids at the swings - no such luck: It must have taken almost four hours to complete the procedure, given that there are three layers and everything has to cool down before the next is added. Of course I also had help with the weighing and stirring, by a small pair of hands stood on the kitchen step, so nothing was going to happen at any great speed. It was cold and starting to get dark by the time we eventually got to the park and the railway station to drop off nameless redhead with attitude problem and a tray of not completely set millionaire's shortbread.
It is not my favourite teatime treat, let it be said.


Thursday, 10 December 2015

In the face of Uncertainty

Dear Nigel,

Christmas is coming together bit by bit. The long 'to do' list is shortening, even if it is only because half of it is being discarded due to lack of time. Out come last year's decorations, one by one; echoes of Christmas past in every box amongst the coloured tissue paper. Sophie and Molly help me decorate the tree, carefully carrying fragile pieces of glass on ribbon and hanging them tenderly on the branches. I suspect there might have to be a certain amount of rearranging as some of the branches have four or five on the same one and there are large bare expanses elsewhere. And the unbreakable ones need to be at the height of the dog's tail if it is to stand much chance at all.

I have bought a scented pine tree this year from the National Trust Longshaw Estate over near Hathersage. I feel it is a useful way to put coppers into the hand of the Trust, and the trees are beautifully fresh and fragrant. The old man minding the trees tells me to strip a couple of inches from the bark on the outside so that the tree can drink. Trees take up their water through xylem cells which are just beneath the bark. We have a cast iron stand with a cup for water to place it in. He tells me the old varieties of scented tree are making a come back now that they have been improved to drop less needles than in the past. And, if I give it regular drinking water and don't turn up the central heating too high, then it should be fine.

 He hands the tree up to me, wrapped in its cotton net, and I bungee it onto the roof rack of Archie and climb down the ladder once more. We always get a full size tree, squeezing it into the cottage by removing a bookcase and a heavy pine chest to make room, so everyone can still get to the table to eat. These kind of things are necessary in a small space. My older ones say 'get a smaller tree'. I like a proper tree. It is my indulgence; they each have their own.

I am searching amongst the coloured tissue paper until I find the thing I am looking for. It is an old very dark green coloured bauble in the shape of a tree with wrinkles of snow around the edges. I take it out of its careful wrapping and hang it near the top of the tree where it will be safe. It is a relic from my past. It is one of my earliest memories - pressing my little face up in awe and gazing wide-eyed at the jewelled beauty that was our tree. I would have been perhaps three. To a small child the baubles seem huge and shine far brighter against the dark thick branches. I remember the tiny tree lights, like coloured seed heads with their ragged leaf haloes, and lots of deep blue lemon drop baubles, all long since broken. So I treasure this little bottle green tree, and place it high out of reach of little fingers.

This week I have gathered the ingredients for puddings for the freezer. Last year it snowed heavily at Christmas. I don't know whether it will again this year, but even if it doesn't (- perhaps more so if it doesn't and it is wet and dank outside -) I'm planning to make the sort of puddings you can warm up against a fire to eat: Sticky Toffee Puddings and warmed Chocolate Brownie with ice cream, and an Apple and Blackcurrant crumble to eat with a large jug of custard. I expect there will be the fancy things to eat as well, but if you spread Christmas out over many days, with a passing trade route of family and friends visiting, then it's good to be able to spend time with people and still eat well without endless cooking. I never regret the amount of time spent in preparation now because I know how much I savour the time with my family later.

Much as I love a traditional Christmas dinner, it still remains one of my least favourite meals to cook. The turkey is wonderful and straight forward but I don't much relish sorting out all the different vegetables and sauces and attempting to get everything to the table at the same time and all piping hot. That slightly sinking feeling, followed by almost relief when it is done, never changes, year in year out.

So why is it that we put ourselves through the same thing year after year? Why is it that we find ourselves wanting to do exactly the same things, eat the same things and vary from our routine very little? I think it is living in a world of growing uncertainty that makes us want to stamp out Christmas in all its unchanging tackiness and comfort. One time in the whole year when we know exactly where we are and where everyone else is and can somehow breathe and make sense of things before balls of wool start unravelling all over the place and there is change assailing us from all directions.

Back in the kitchen I am preparing Mary for her staring role and looking for antlers for Sophie's choir concert. The baby Jesus is safely in a plastic bag on a peg somewhere at school, having been kicked under a bench and sat on by the Inn keeper during the dress rehearsal. Over at the sink I am scrubbing sweet potatoes for tonight's supper. I am making 'Lamb stuffed sweet potato' (page 527). It was harder to find minced lamb than I expected in the supermarket. I half-thought to get some specially minced for me but I was in a hurry to get to the post office with a load of parcels and cards wanting 2nd class Christmas stamps. Sweet potatoes have almost taken over for me from ordinary potatoes in the baked-potato-comfort-food stake, and make a fine supper when half the housekeeping seems to have disappeared on boxes of chocolate biscuits and boxing day chutney. These are lean times we live in.

I am cooking for Will tonight, my third son, home to get his washing done and hoover up any food that may be lurking in tins on top of the cupboard. He is tall and gangly with vivid red hair (very in vogue at present since Ed Sheeran and that model who brought back beards). But he is also kind and sensitive and I have a soft spot for my dear gentle Will. Sometimes he is a fussy eater - hopefully not tonight.

While the potatoes are baking I fry the lamb mince over a high heat. I haven't fried mince for a long while, I realise. At one time it was a weekly staple. The addition of chilli is just gently warming, but it is the chopped mint that lifts this dish. A fine combination with lamb always, but here it brings out the reason why you choose to use lamb mince instead of beef; and causes my son to say, 'Thank you for the gorgeous dinner' (...he of little words...).

So, thank you for for the gorgeous dinner, Nigel. From Will and me.

Love Martha

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Struggling with Jesus

Dear Nigel,

I don't know if it is indicative of the new millennium but all is not 'calm and bright' in the stable at present. Molly, who is playing Mary in the school Nativity, decided to start her letter to Father Christmas this evening with the words, 'Dear Santa, I'm struggling with my baby at present...' Obviously, she has been illicitly watching too much reality TV somewhere. The baby Jesus apparently requires all manner of baby paraphernalia, including a bath with shower attachment, a car seat (for the donkey) and a sledge (for all that snow piling up outside Bethlehem).

The Royal Mail requires a stamp for the letter to get to Father Christmas. Gone are the days when my older children were small and letters were simply stuck in a post box unstamped. Several weeks later a badly translated note would come back from Greenland, or somewhere, covered in magical foreign stamps from the land of ice and snow; from the REAL Father Christmas, without a doubt. The Internet tells me we can still do this and Santa takes euros these days. Clever Santa. The girls write their letters and clamour for stamps. I see Baby Annabel has also written a long list for Santa. Good luck to him trying to reason with a two foot piece of plastic who snores louder than my child.

There is a small digger heading its way towards my house. I watch its progress with its mole-like trail following behind. They say it's the Internet. I say I'm quite happy with mine the way it is at present, having spent ages sorting it out. My neighbour has all sorts of electrical appliances short-circuiting or something. We are the end of the line for electricity and falling below the legal minimum, it appears. No wonder I keep trying to up the lumens in the light bulbs and considering another eye test for my failing eyesight. Perhaps I should sit the children on a stationary bike and they can generate our own electricity instead.

The whole village is beginning to look like the battle of the Somme. Cables are being put underground and my friend Liz tells me they have been without a landline, mobile or Internet for over a month now. She'll be sending smoke signals to her facebook pals if this carries on much longer.

Back in the kitchen, I'm making 'Gnocchi dolcelatte' (page 505). I love to cook with blue cheese. I'd much rather cook with it than eat it straight. Best of all are the dishes, like this one, where it is added to a creamy sauce. Gnocchi and spinach are suitable partners in this dish to temper the saltiness and tang of the dolcelatte. Left to bake for 30 minutes it mellows and crisps at the edges. Like a dinner bell it calls to you from the oven as you lay the table nearby.

It has been a miserable wet day today with floods on the roads and a flash flood which threatened to enter the cottage as the stream broke its banks and water from the higher meadows made new waterfalls coming down into the stream. A couple of sandbags by the back door and the water starts receding as the rain eases. I haven't seen it this high in all the time we've been here.

We get out the advent calendars ready for next week. There is a certain amount of filling to be done of the little wooden houses with chocolate coins and novelty sweets. I always make sure I get a paper one too with little pictures behind the doors. This is how I remember advent calendars to be.

Sophie, aged nine, is unimpressed with Matthew Rice's artwork this year. Baby Jesus appears to be about six years old and wearing lipstick (2014 version). Presumably it took the three kings an inordinately long time to find the stable. Mary, meanwhile, has been erecting stair gates using sheep hurdles to try and keep the baby Jesus away from her ironing board. The shepherd has a very dodgy look to him. Methinks he has spent rather too long looking after his sheep. Sophie palms her calendar off on Molly and claims the other one as hers.

I'm using my gnocchi straight from the freezer. I like the idea of having such staples on standby, if possible. I am pleased with the outcome. The gnocchi cook just as well from frozen as fresh. You say to 'take care not to over-salt the gnocchi's cooking water' as 'the cheese will provide enough salt.' I have read that it is better not to salt the gnocchi's cooking water at all as the salt will make the potato starch go sticky and it will end up mushy. In a different recipe it would be better to adjust the seasoning after cooking. Here, there is simply no need - it is salty enough.

Fruit to follow, I think. There are bowls dotted around the house filled with heaps of vivid orange clementines, which look like someone has been at work polishing them all to a fine shine. The best and easiest way to keep winter colds at bay.Every stocking should have one. Every child, an imprint of the smell of Christmas. I cannot seem to smell a tangerine without closing my eyes to do so. And along with the scent there is a certain tingling and anticipation that has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I am standing in the kitchen on a grey afternoon stacking plates.