Heat another pan quickly…

I have a feeling this blog has previously referred to my traditional celebration of the end of the year, largely (assuming it has indeed occurred) as an excuse to shoe-horn in a reference to a Dorset Knob.  There was never a plan to start a new tradition, it grew out of the older – date independent – practice of the Fish Supper where I (as Fish – see a very old blog post for an explanation) would prepare a dinner for some friends.  One year, which must be at least a decade ago, a Fish Supper for a couple of friends coincided with New Year’s Eve and inadvertently a new tradition was kindled with the Flame Imperishable. From that day, we have alternated the hosting of New Year’s Eve and offering a 6(ish) course menu of food with appropriate wine (and other alcoholic beverages as appropriate) starting at 6(ish – GofaDM loves a theme) with a vague aim of finishing around midnight.  These have definitely represented the best endings to years of my life – and the driving of a mistletoe stake through the heart of 2018 was one of the very finest.

Last night, it was my turn to host and I like to use these occasions to experiment with new recipes or at least add a new twist to an old favourite: it feels appropriate to celebrate the ending of one year and birthing of the next with something new (well, that or a killing).  In consequence, ever since returning home on Boxing Day, some portion of my brain and body have been devoted to planning and preparing the bill of fare for yestere’en and this morning’s fast breaking.  For me, these modest pains were repaid handsomely with as convivial an evening and morning as a chap could ask for – the food even came out pretty well!  I am definitely getting better at not massively over-catering the evening and, I think as we age, we are growing better at moderating our alcoholic indulgence.  I shall now attempt to make the menu entertaining (but am prepared for abject failure), lest any readers wish to recreate the experience of seeing in the New Year with their favourite author and, that option being unavailable, willing to accept me as an exceeding inferior substitute…

We started with a salad of comice pear, two types of cress (“water” and “mustard and” but no “ip”), chopped nuts and fried halloumi cuboids.  This was rather a fine combination of flavours and textures (though I shall be finding strands of cress of days!) and may have to become part of my quotidien, guest-free dining life (though it does make a bit of a mass of the frying pan).  There is also something about the smell of mustard-and-cress which takes me back to my childhood (unlike Marcel Proust, madeleines formed no part of my youth and have only rarely appeared in my soi-disant adult life).  The salad was tossed, and the halloumi glazed, in a rather fine dressing which caused me to purchase a new – and rather beautiful – bottle of sherry vinegar which I like to think William Morris would approve as being both beautiful and useful.

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A certain Moorish influence?

I then prepared “open” spinach and ricotta ravioli – made by cutting a sheet of lasagna in half and propping one half rather vaguely atop the “filling”-covered base.  I feel this aspect needs some work presentationally as the cooked half  sheets of lasagna had very firm ideas about how they would perch that did not coincide with my own.  I also feel that adding the ricotta cold to the creation didn’t quite work with the other warm ingredients, though I have yet to come up with a plan to pre-warm it.  This recipe gives us our title as while the “chef” was busy preparing several other components of the dish, he is suddenly commanded to “quickly heat another pan”.  Whilst I followed this direction, I can’t help feeling that an earlier request to start slowly heating the pan in readiness for later deployment would have been a solid basis for a less stressful algorithm.

We then moved to halibut with an orange and courgette salad.  This had no issues, though it is worth noting that the author of the recipe that formed the basis for this course rather over-estimated the appeal of its courgette element.  On the plus side, it did provide an opportunity to showcase my legendary courgette slicing skills (achieved without the use of a mandolin and while retaining my full complement of fingers).

Three courses in, seemed a good opportunity for a break to allow a little time for digestion.  My friends (among many who have the misfortune of being my friends on Facebook – though in my defense, the vast majority will have requested this dubious privilege and have had to pass the test of surviving a real-life conversation with me) have seen many an image of the Guide Dog and having travelled from out of town wished to see this beacon (icon, even) of beer, good company and (often) excellent music making.  So, we toddled down the hill into Bevois Valley for some well-kept beer, good company and, as luck would have it, some very fine music making from a session marking the sashaying of 2018 into the history books (probably into one of its more lurid chapters).  I believe my friends left suitably convinced both of the Guide Dog‘s credentials and that I have not been mis-representing its charms on-line.

Returning, it was time for the desserts and the cheeseboard.  Having learned the importance of cooking later courses before the chef becomes too inebriated to follow a recipe, these had been prepared the day before and only needed to be served.  For the first time, I made individual summer puddings for the first dessert.  Given my inability to source (or indeed, say) dariole moulds in Southampton on Sunday they were created in ramekins (for the avoidance of doubt, not my pet name for one – or more – male sheep).  I was a little concerned about their structural integrity lacking the buttressing bread walls of a full-scale summer pudding – however, they did not instantly collapse but retained their shape rather successfully.  The current working theory is that pectin worked its polysaccharide structural magic during the weighting and chilling phase of their creation.  I cannot speak to its utility in larger scale construction projects…

The second desert marked my first attempt at a semi freddo, which was flavoured with fragmented chocolate torrone (and added hazelnuts) and so, by chance, seasonally appropriate.  The creation of this substance made very heavy use of my available mixing bowls and whisks: it used all of my bowls (including one that is lucky to see even an annual outing normally) and really required at least one more whisk than I own.  Still, I muddled through and poured the thick, creamy liquid produced from all this beating and broader wrist-based action into a tray and thence the freezer in the hope that something at least semi-edible would emerge.  I can report that what emerged was exceedingly edible – though would probably not be considered the healthiest of dishes for everyday consumption and should not form part of a calorie-controlled diet.  Given just how fine it was, I shall probably want to make it again and may invest in another whisk (the bootless extravagance!).  It did have the unexpected side-effect of inducing significant torpor in all that consumed it – which did add a little challenge to our subsequent assault on the cheeseboard.   I am thinking of marketing my semi freddo as an alternative to Xanax for those who (like myself) regularly manage to elude the arms of Morpheus.

Troopers that we are, we did manage to make modest inroads into the 2/3π radians of Bigod Brie brought by my friends and the unexpectedly toothsome Cote Hill Lindum that was my randomly-selected contribution to the board.  The accompanying knäckebröd (less filthy than it sounds) from Peter’s Yard was also a new signing and will definitely see some more caps in 2019!

By this point, midnight was almost upon us so we listened to the obligatory scaffolding-obscured chimes of one of this country’s larger grandfather clocks and made disparaging remarks about the modern evil of “too many fireworks” (one of the many joys of being middle-aged) before turning in.  This was my first use of the new sofabed acquired during the summer and I can report that (a) I recalled sufficient of the instructions provided at the time of its delivery to erect it and (b) it provided a very comfy resting place.

For breakfast, I “prepared” a cheese loaf which kneaded, proved and baked itself while we slumbered (well, in my case except during the kneading as we were sharing the same room, my garret is pretty tiny).  When I did properly awake and cracked open my eyelids, I was presented with a glorious view of the crescent moon with bright Lucifer camped just to her left: not a bad start to the day/month/year.

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Lucifer (bottom left) welcomes a terrible human being to 2019

When the still-warm loaf was first sliced, I was slightly concerned to discover that the significant quantity of input cheese was entirely invisible in the output loaf.  Fortunately, while there was no sight of the cheddar, its flavour had suffused the bread very successfully: a thoroughly decadent way to start January.

After a constitutional around the Common, dodging the Park Runners, breakfast concluded with US-style (i.e. fluffy rather than overly keen to carry firearms) blueberry pancakes which offered a further work-out for whisk, wrist and mixing bowls.

2019 now safely begun, more normal culinary service – except for a rather modest haul of left-overs – will be resumed.

Getting the boot

Many of us, though by no means all, will find ourselves in a soi disant new year.  Many of you will already be surrounded by the broken shards of your resolutions – a fate I neatly side-step by never making any.

To add to the sense of jollity and mirth which characterises this time of year, kindly Father Janus has brought me a cold in his bulging sack.  The two-faced wretch!  So I find myself writing between sneezes, surrounded by discarded tissues (please try and lift those minds free of the gutter for just a moment).

The weather seems to have paid little attention to the currently fashionable calendar, even one followed by a sizable a portion of humanity.  It has begun 2016 much as it ended 2015, with yet more rain and strong winds and despite shaving a degree or two off the temperature remains unseasonably mild (or so it seems to those of us relying on recent history to form a view as to what is seasonally appropriate).  As my waterproofs are continually put to the test (and not always found sufficient to the task), I like to imagine that if Southampton is copping a load, then perhaps northern England will be spared.  Sadly, the weather doesn’t seem to work in quite that way and there seems to be more than enough sky-borne water to go round.

Despite the south coast having seen less rain than much of the country (and possessing a rather quicker route back to the sea for that which does fall), it is still becoming an increasing challenge to find walking routes around town where the water level does not overtop the protection offered by even the tallest of my shoes.  As a result, I find myself considering the purchase and use of wellington boots for the first time since my childhood.  I recall them as being rather uncomfortable and sweaty back in the 1970s, but surely we have made vast technological strides (and I don’t mean mechanical, antipodean trousers) since then? .  Hopefully, we haven’t devoted too much attention to shaving a tenth of a millimetre off the depth of the next generation of mobile phones and as a consequence neglected the humble wellie.

A little research suggests that there is quite the range of wellies available to suit even the most bloated of pockets, including something described as a ‘surf wellie’ (which I imagine is nearly as practical as an ironing wellie or ballet wellie).  I rather fear I may have to sample some of the Iron Duke’s eponymous footwear to ensure it meets my exacting requirements.  The purchase will be overshadowed by the fear that as soon as I am suitably shod, the rain will cease and be immediately replaced by a hosepipe ban: still, I am willing to ‘take one for the team’.

But now I must leave you and return my head to a bowl of steaming water, to which a few drops of Olbas oil have been added.  This oil, despite an expiry date safely in the last millennium, seems to remain surprisingly potent.  I reckon the bottle contains another seven years worth of contents at the current rate of usage – which made it a surprisingly good buy back in the 1990s.

Seasonal traditions

The current time of year is rich in traditions: I presume because we, like our ancestors before us, need something to help us through the short, dark days of winter.  One such tradition is to bemoan how early Christmas now starts – a tradition which predates Christmas itself, though in ancient Rome it was Saturnalia which seem to start earlier each year.  It seems that if you steal a festival and re-brand it for your aggressively proselytising  new religion, you may also acquire its problems along with the (perhaps) more desirable feasting and gift-giving elements.

Since I was first brought forth upon this verdant globe, I have spent Christmas with my family.  Initially, I was offered little choice in the matter – precocious indeed is the baby or toddler who is able to make and execute alternative arrangements – but I have continued in this manner long after I could do something else.  Partly this must be force of habit, partly my complete failure to come up with an alternative but I think mostly because it is good to come together as a family with a common purpose from time-to-time.  Since my nephew arrived on the scene, we are joined by someone who understands (one of) the true meaning(s) of Christmas.  Was I really ever that excited about the contents of a parcel?  Or about the idea of a cracker?  From this distance in time, it is hard to believe that I was ever so excitable (well, at such modest provocation, anyway) – but then again, was I really such an odd child that I viewed December 25 with cool detachment?  I’m guessing not, though I did used to respond to the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with the unhelpful and somewhat unambitious response “Alive” – so perhaps I was.

As well as the Saturnalian feasting and gift-giving, we also usually try and fit in some sort of family game on Christmas Day.  This year we played Articulate! (for Kids) which was great fun.  I had my worries given the age-range of the participants and the noun-blindness which afflicts older members, but it was surprisingly close fought.  As folk try to describe a word against the clock (or mini egg timer, for the avoidance of doubt the timer was mini, rather than the egg), secrets can inadvertently be blurted out – let’s just say that my brother-in-law would appear to use a rather unexpected item of bathroom furniture for washing.  Actually, a number of recent events have reminded me how much fun board (and similar) games can be – one was remembering Fluxx, a card game I one saw played and which my nephew is now old enough to play. I think this is enormous fun as the game changes itself as you play, and as we all know I love a bit of recursion (me and Alonzo Church).  An article in The Guardian led me back to Will Wheaton and his YouTube channel where he and chums play tabletop games and it would seem that there are lot of rather entertaining games out there, including an even more complicated version of Fluxx called Star(r) Fluxx – which we may tackle once we have mastered the basic version.  It looks like the Art House cafe here in Southampton has a board games night and I think I may have to start going – as it can be quite tricky to play these games alone (or against a wall).

On Boxing Day, weather permitting, some sort of modest walk is called for – to burn off a few tens of the many thousands of recently consumed calories.  In recent years this has tended to involve the bracing promenade at Bexhill.  I like to include the consumption of a sea-front ice-cream as part of this ritual – though this year, no other promenader seemed willing to join me.  Lightweights!

As I don’t live with my family – for that way lies madness (or more madness at any rate) – tradition requires me to travel.  In my many carless years, this was done by train – but as recent users of Kings Cross have found, this is not without its problems – so in recent years I have used my car.  In fact, nearly 50% of my current vehicle’s road miles have come from the last four years of Christmas-based driving.  Driving home for Christmas isn’t too bad (despite what Chris Rea would have you believe) as the roads are very quiet which makes the experience as close to pleasant as driving gets in these traffic-afflicted Isles.  The driving also necessitates my annual purchase of petrol, which traditionally falls on Boxing Day as I journey homeward, and involves me guessing on which side of my car the petrol filler cap lies (this year I guessed correctly, it is on the passenger’s side and so no embarrassing repositioning of the car or desperate stretching of the hose was required for once).

To help the journey pass more pleasantly, I listen to the radio (some of it previously preserved in the form of podcasts).  Shaun Keaveny delivered me to my family and a combination of items from Radio 4 took me home – we had comedy, history and semiotics.  I also had the latest edition of In Our Time, entitled “Truth” – nothing like a little late night philosophy to make the miles just fly by.  This programme demonstrated that though Melvin can appear several sheets to the wind on occasion, he is still a more responsible broadcaster than me: I would have been unable to resist uttering the words, “The truth? You can’t handle the truth” at some point during the show had I been at the helm.

Being away for Christmas means that it does end rather abruptly when you return home, there are none of the traditional seasonal leftovers to gorge on in the lull before the New Year.  What I do have to gorge on after my return home are the televisual and radio treats I missed while away – and this year, as so often, the majority of the treats were on the wireless.  Not only the triumphant end to John Finnemore’s brilliant Cabin Pressure (I know he is probably a tad young for this, but I’m starting the campaign for JF as National Treasure now) but also a dramatisation of Good Omens along with a whole stack of other seasonal Radio 4 treats.

This year, as I have guests joining me in a modest consecration to the god Janus, the flat does have a mildly festive air with a few Pagan symbols festooning my “tree” (which at other times of the year holds postcards: in this house a I do like to “sweat” my assets!).  And given the Hatton blood (from my paternal grandmother’s family) that courses through my veins, the change of year should be massively over-catered – no-one leaves my home with soft arteries – so there is some hope of left-overs come the end of the week.   In the meantime, I must devote myself to menu planning, cooking and appeasing the Lares (or, if you prefer, overcoming local entropy) to ensure that all is ready for the new latty’s first overnighting guests – very bold!

Winterval

I rather like this neologism, but it is actively disliked be our more reactionary press and their readers.  I believe this is because they are upset that it has supplanted the “original” word of Christmas, rather rich given that the early church purloined the earlier festivals of Saturnalia and Yule for its own nefarious ends.  Even these festivals were derived from even earlier mid-winter celebrations, so the original meaning of December 25th and the New Year is hidden in the mists of prehistory.

I decided against erecting a circle of massive stone menhirs this year – well, I had a bit of a cold and it seemed a lot of work (added to which my garden is really quite small and water-logged) and so returned to the bosom of my family as has become traditional.  This pilgrimage entails my longest drive of the year as I head from South Cambs to a supergrid point on the south coast (in fact, the journey represents some 20-25% of my annual driven miles).  I drive down on Christmas morning when the roads are pleasingly quiet – and lorries stay at home (or at least off the roads) – which makes driving an almost pleasant experience.  This year my journey south was accompanied by the dulcet tones of Shaun Keaveny and PBC OBE thanks to a portable DAB radio and the AUX port on the car stereo.  As I crossed the Thames at Dartford, the river was spanned by a rainbow – which I felt must be at least slightly auspicious – though the toll booths of the crossing were still manned even on Christmas Day (given the low traffic flows, I do wonder how cost effective this is at £2 a go).

Christmas and Boxing Day were great fun, and I am able to eat to excess without having to cook any of it – though the period does emphasise the “mostly” in my mostly vegetarian lifestyle.  Having an (almost) six year old with you does remind you of the true meaning of Christmas – which I think is Lego, crackers and Mario on the Wii (recalling the gifts bought by the wise men to the Ickle Baby Jesus – rather mis-translated from the original Greek and Hebrew in the KJB).  I returned home on the evening of Boxing Day – waiting until the hordes have finished their desperate purchases of reduced sofas on long-term credit – when the roads are still pretty quiet, though the lorries are starting to return.  Given the rather poor radio on offer, I created a playlist on my iPhone for the first time (I have had the capability to create playlists for 7 or more years, but had not taken the plunge before).  This was rather a success: I may have to try it again.

Returning home has the advantage, and disadvantage, that there are no Christmas leftovers to consume – so no turkey jalfrezi for me!  This means that the festive season comes to a rather abrupt stop, though this year I resisted returning to work until almost 2013.  This didn’t mean I could loaf around too much as I had friends coming over to see in the New Year.  No visitor comes to my house and leaves hungry, or even well fed – no, no-one leaves unless completely stuffed with grub (I blame genetics and my paternal grandmother’s bloodline).  Such hefty food consumption does also seem to eliminate the hangover that might otherwise arise from having wine (or other suitable alcoholic accompaniment) with every course.

To avoid boring my guests with a medley of my greatest culinary hits, I decided to try some new dishes this year.  New Year’s Eve-squared (0r 30 December as it is more commonly known) was a relatively modest repast with a mere three – albeit sizeable – courses.  I once again attempted chocolate cookery – and even made pastry (a very rare occurrence) – to provide a suitable accompaniment to a glass or two of marsala.  This was a slightly worrying build, as the tart’s contents looked vastly bigger than the available space – but miraculously just fit.  Even more importantly, it tasted great – but I suspect won’t be made that often as it is quite a laboured process and creates an awful lot of washing up.

New Year’s Eve was an altogether more challenging affair with six courses to be consumed across the evening.  These included a very fine starter based on roasted squash, stilton and mushrooms; two years ago I had never eaten a squash, now I am almost addicted to the things – ah, the dangers of the mostly vegetarian diet (why does no-one warn you of the risks?).  However, the star of the night was the trifle course – based on a recipe by Nigel Slater (but in only half the quantity).  This was a huge rigmarole to make and rather worrying as it includes making a mincemeat sponge with no raising agent – but it is one of the finest things I have ever eaten.  If you are very good and come to visit, I may make another – if you are really, really good I may even let you eat a bit (though I wouldn’t want to raise your hopes too high).

In recent years, my NYE tradition has been to hold the turn of year celebration at a time of my choosing, rather than waiting for midnight as “the man” wants.  By use of YouTube, one can now have Big Ben, Auld Lang Syne and fireworks whenever you want – this year it was around 23:30, though it has been as early as 22:30 and as late as 00:30.

Unlike Christmas, I was able to live off left-overs from New Year for several days – despite sterling efforts from my guests to consume the excessive quantities of food provided.  I must also admit that at least one pig, one deer and three fish died to provide our end of year provender – but their sacrifice was much appreciated and only members of the plant kingdom have had to give up their lives to feed me since.

Many Winterval cards are covered in snow – but the country (or the parts I crossed) were covered in water, which should perhaps become a theme for future Christmas Cards – but now the country does look much more festive (I blame Charles Dickens).  This seems to happen whenever I try to leave the country by plane on business – I think the government should be paying me a decent stipend not to fly to Europe, it would save the country a small fortune in gritting and snow ploughing.  Still, until I’m paid off I shall continue to visit our European cousins – this week Berlin, where the maximum temperature on offer is a balmy -2ºC so I’m rather hoping there may be some glühwein on offer to stave off the chill!