January short stories and other reading

I’ll start with a cartoon book because I’ve used the cartoon I talk about as a header image.

Rattling the Cage****

This is a book of cartoons by Bob Starrett and includes the cartoonist’s explanation of how he came to produce them and the significance of the various cartoons. I’ve had the book since I was working on some anti-racist educational materials and had to ask Bob’s permission to include one of his cartoons. He gave it gladly and it’s still the one that stands out for me. A comedian is shown on a stage saying, “And there was this thick Paddy,” whilst the walls behind him are papered with posters advertising the works of Yeats, Joyce, Wilde, Shaw, etc. I had forgotten, or had perhaps never read (?) the accompanying text – life was very busy at the time – and it was interesting. However, most of the cartoons in the collection were very dated as they related to British politics pre-1990. He is currently drawing cartoons related to the pandemic which are worth researching.

Short stories

The excellent

Ring in the new by Charlie Cochrane. *****

A bittersweet story of a hopeful new year – 1914 – for the Cambridge Fellows, Jonty and Orlando. I enjoyed it, but having read the books that deal with the aftermath of the war, I wanted to cry. Recommended but you’d need to know the series to appreciate it.

The Holiday Collection by Beth Laycock****

Two very pleasant and well written holiday themed novellas: Miracle on Three Kings’ Day, where Lev and Alex meet in Spain (which celebrates Epiphany more than Christmas) and Thrown by Love in which Charlie goes to pottery classes to make a secret santa gift and meets tutor Josh. I read them, appropriately for the first, round about January 6th, and for the second was immediately reminded of The Great Pottery Throwdown which we are watching.

 The poor

Criminal Shorts**

This is the UK Crime Book Club’s anthology in aid of Red Kite, a special school charity. I’m a member of the FB group/club and in any case, did not grudge the price because it all went to charity. However, I didn’t enjoy the book. The standard was mixed, as is the case in most anthologies, but almost all the stories were told from the point of view of the criminal. It’s not something that appeals to me, however good the writing is. I wouldn’t even recommend the collection to anyone who does like that angle – the writing, while mostly competent, was nothing special and none of the stories was memorable apart from one (actually told from a police viewpoint) set in rural Ireland, and that wasn’t sufficient to justify a recommendation.

And other things

Two recipe books which I was given for Christmas.

I expected to be more interested in the Persian one, having been to Persian restaurants, but in fact preferred the Palestinian book.

Palestine on a Plate by Joudie Kalla****

A fascinating account of Palestinian family cooking. I found myself bookmarking a lot of recipes and will be trying some of them this year. There were interesting snippets of information on how things that are popular throughout the Middle East either originated in Palestine or have been subtly altered there.

From a Persian Kitchen by Atoosa Sepehr***

A very beautiful book with gorgeous photographs of ordinary life in modern Iran, taken by the author. The recipes were not as inspiring though I want to try a couple that make liberal use of pomegranates. Too many began: ‘this is not traditional’ or ‘this is how I do it in London’ or ‘my English friends like this’. There were references to Iran but some of those recipes were basically just instructions on how to cook e.g. steak and add a few herbs or spices. There is a recipe for rice that sounds incredible but I won’t be experimenting. It ends up with a crust at the base but doesn’t say how many saucepans you wreck before you achieve perfection.

Lazy cooking in February

Comfort stew with dumplings. Very easy but takes all day.

I usually make this for two of us but you can make it for a bigger family or even for guests, which works well because the last stage is happily cooking while you meet and greet.

I use diced beef (a supermarket pack or maybe whatever you would normally ask for at the butcher’s – I tend to ask for ‘enough for two’ and my butcher reads my mind) but you could substitute lamb, pork, chicken, etc. or just add extra root veg or pulses. I don’t think Quorn pieces (meat free stuff available in UK) would work because it needs much shorter cooking time. You can add sausage such as chorizo, sliced.

I normally use my slow cooker. Before the wonders of modern technology reached my kitchen I used a heavy lidded casserole dish, or sometimes a heavy metal roasting pan with a domed lid. The latter is better because the dimpled dome encourages all the liquid that’s trying to escape as steam to fall back into the pan. A tagine would do the same. Those, obviously, need oven space and can be left to cook on a lowish heat for hours.

Start with a large onion (colour is irrelevant). Chop it fairly finely. If onions make you cry, copy my daughter and buy frozen ready-chopped ones, or copy me and wear glasses. You can brown the onion and whatever meat you’re using in a frying pan for a few minutes and it helps caramelise things, but if you’re in a hurry it isn’t essential. Add garlic at this stage if you like garlic. (I do.). Add more onion for a large family.

Once the onion and meat are in the pan/dish add some peeled and chopped root veg. Carrots, parsnips, sweet potatoes, ordinary potatoes – they’re all good. You can also add things like butter beans or tinned kidney beans. Green veg are not a good idea because they cook too quickly but a little hardish cabbage is probably OK. Tinned new potatoes are a good addition too. I also add mushrooms – chop big ones or add button ones whole.

Now add liquid. You need to have your pan or dish about a third full and it’s preferable to cover the meat completely though veg don’t mind as much. If you’ve added tinned beans, add the liquid too as part of that third. If you’ve used water, fine, but add a spoonful of marmite/vegemite (or whatever you have in your country) and a splash of wine vinegar. I have been known to use a can of Guinness. Anything will do to reach the level, and the flavours can be varied but bear in mind that too much seasoning too early in slow cooking is not a good idea so add salt and pepper to taste later at the dumpling stage..

I set the slow cooker at high, but the oven, if that’s what I’m using, fairly low. You know your own oven but I wouldn’t recommend going over 160C. Once upon a time I had an oven with a slow cooker setting. Maybe start at about 160C and turn it down later. Now go away and leave it all for at least six hours. The kitchen will, by the way, smell inviting and people will ask when it will be ready.

After six-eight hours (depends what else distracts you) put your stew in an ovenproof dish, or if that’s what you’ve already used, take the lid off. Turn the heat up to 200C. Add seasoning at this stage – maybe some herbs or whatever spices you fancy. I tend to put Italian or Provence herb mix in everything – or mixed fresh herbs in summer – plus perhaps some smoked paprika. Possibly salt but maybe not if you’ve added marmite. Stir very gently.

Add dumplings. You will already have made these at some point during the cooking time. (They keep OK uncooked and covered in the fridge so you can make them while you feel fresh and raring to go in the morning.)

You can use either ordinary or vegetarian suet plus self raising flour (the kind you need for cakes) and some seasoning like salt and herbs. The quantities are roughly twice as much flour as suet so it depends what you’ve got and how hungry you are. Mix with a fork then add cold water a splash at a time and keep mixing till you have a stiff dough. You can mess about and put that on a floured board and divide it up and make beautiful little balls or, like me, you can just divide it in your mixing bowl, using your fork like a knife. (Make an even quantity or risk dumpling wars.) Whichever, place the dumplings gently on top of the stew (you want the tops to stay dry) and return everything to the oven for about 30 minutes or less. Check after 20 minutes because you don’t want the dumplings to burn, you just want them crusty. Use a skewer and if it comes out clean they’re cooked and you’re just trying to achieve a crust.

This is a one pot dish that provides its own gravy. One of the joys of it is that you get glimpses and scents all day but you can go and do other things like reading, writing and social media. If there’s anything left over (depends how hungry people are), transfer it to a clean dish because you need to soak the cooking dish straight away to make it easy to wash either by hand or in a dishwasher. Then you either have tomorrow’s dinner sorted (maybe with more veg) or you can freeze it. (Don’t forget to label it if you freeze it.)

If you absolutely must have green veg, make a salad to have separately but personally I’d rather have fresh fruit for dessert.

Pear and ginger tarte tatin. Quite easy. Takes about an hour altogether.

This is also a comfort dish but I don’t recommend having it the same day as the stew because it’s quite filling. Have it after something lighter, e.g. fish.

Any pears will do, though Conference are especially excellent. You can use fresh ginger (peel it if you feel you must, using a teaspoon and scraping gently, then grate it) or bought ginger paste or whatever you have. I use bought puff pastry but other pastry works too. I only ever go to the bother of making my own shortcrust and could do that for this dish if I had to. Most chefs on TV or in books tell you to buy puff or filo pastry rather than making it. Quantities are basically what you have…

Quarter the pears (at least three but more are good) and remove the core. You can leave the skin on. In fact, you probably should because peeling pears is messy and loses a lot of juice. Now slice them and put the slices in a pan (non stick if you have one) and cover with e.g. apple juice. Don’t go mad – you don’t want too much extra liquid. Add ginger and sugar. Any sugar will do. Simmer till the pears are soft then remove them with a slotted spoon and put them straight into a pan that can go in the oven (I have an old German cast iron casserole pan that is perfect but whatever you’ve got…metal is better than glass/pyrex/pot). Now add more sugar – at least two tablespoons – and boil the sugary gingery liquid hard till it starts to reduce in quantity. Also put the oven on and heat it to about 180C. Meanwhile, you can mess about and make a pattern with the pear slices or you can just read a recipe book. (Guess what I do.) Pour the reduced liquid which is now a kind of liquid ginger caramel, over the pears.

Put a circle of pastry, about half a centimetre thick, on top of the pears and sauce. Put the pan in the oven and check it in 30 minutes. As with the dumplings in my comfort stew, if a skewer comes out clean all is well.

Take the tarte out of the oven and let it cool a little. You want to eat this lukewarm and anyway, it’s easier to turn out when it isn’t too hot.

Run a knife round the tarte just in case any pastry is sticking – if your pan is non-stick like mine, it shouldn’t, but you never know. Find a plate slightly bigger than your pan. Put it over the pan like a lid and turn pan and plate upside down. Shake gently. Remove the pan and you should now have a circle of pastry on the plate with pears and ginger caramel on top. Eat with Greek yoghurt, or cream, or anything else you fancy e.g. ice cream. It will keep a day or two, but the caramel might go like toffee – I like this, but I’m just warning you. For the same reason, you should soak the pan you cooked it in straight away.