Monday, April 19, 2010

On the gravy train

Well, it's happening. Springtime flowers signalling May showers (is that a real well known phrase or saying or did I just make it up?) or at least a hung parliament. Where does everyone live in these circumstances? Do Clegg, Cameron and Brown get to play scissors paper rock over who gets Number 10, Number 11 and the shed at the bottom of the garden? There is one, it featured (I think, though I would probably fold under questioning if I were extraordinarily rendited and admit I am not totally sure) in a picture in the Food Monthly section of the Observer yesterday, which featured lovely Sarah Brown as a domestic goddess....[rant alert]

Ah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, how can you do this? One of the most undignified and frankly insulting leitmotifs of this election (and there are many) is the treatment of women in the publicity strategy of the main parties. We are either a) supportive wives slash partners, b) contributors to some insane thread on mumsnet (just thinking about the ways that this internet site re-creates the horrors of the girls' playground in primary school makes me feel queasy) or c) invisible.

There is no point in talking about the role of women in the British National Party. The UK Independence Party, after running on a ticket which seems to consist solely of let's get rid of the Brussels bureaucrats who swim in champagne flavoured gravy and tell us our home grown bananas are the wrong shade of red, promptly put up their leading light as a member of the European Women's Committee when he gained a seat as a European Member of Parliament, in turn purely so that he could exercise his democratically elected right to pronounce that women's only effective location is within a 2.5 m radius of at least 3 working kitchen appliances. But frankly the Tories and the Labour Party should go and stand in the compost corner of the garden and made to think about how they have sidelined Harman, May, Widdecombe, Corston and colleagues and their extraordinary achievements. No, I am not asking for them to be paraded out purely because they are women, this is 2010. I am in fact asking for them not to be hidden away in some sort of general election purdah, so that all we see of the ovary owning classes is Sarah Brown in a frilly pinny holding a picturesque garden trowel.

Mercifully, on the doorstep, the totally unrepresentative selection of voters I have met seems to be interested in things like the economy, the future of the education system, climate change and the the Iraq war, and has shown every sign of being much more intelligent than any of the party spin doctors gives them credit for. And absolutely no-one so far has mentioned the expenses (except me, just then). The candidate I am doorknocking for is a man of integrity, intelligence, wit and warmth, so unlike some unfortunate lady activists, I don't have to fake enthusiasm. ( )

So, for anyone who isn't sure, here are some ways in which women's lives have been affected by policy changes in the last 12 years: the minimum wage (helped vastly more women than men for the simple and appalling reason that low wages were an affliction affecting vastly more women than men); Sure Start, which particularly helps any parent of any child under 4 in most parts of the country, but especially those with high deprivation, by providing high quality, stigma free parenting help, careers advice, nursery care, health care, advocacy and a route out of isolation; the child care tax credits (if you get them, try to imagine what it was like before they existed); unparallelled improvements to the law and practical assistance available to both women and men experiencing domestic violence; changes in the laws on prostitution particularly protecting the most vulnerable women, those who have been trafficked, but also other prostituted women too; changes in the laws on licensing so-called lap dancing clubs so that they are licensed as sex establishments instead of places of entertainment (which should help us get some of their licenses removed, thus reducing the risk of sexual assault and sexual harassment for the neighbouring residents and those of us on our way home from work), the gender equality duty requiring all public institutions to ensure that their activities all promote and do not unwittingly work against gender equality. (to read some more, follow this link, helpfully provided by a member of the sisterhood, we do have a secret handshake you know:
And before anyone says what about men, newsflash: equality works better for men as well as women. Just don't get me started on what passing a law saying that gay people can have one sort of "marriage" but the real sort is still only available to straight people. To me, that still sounds like sexuality based apartheid, though of course I completely understand why some people have nevertheless gone for it. But really, what sensible woman or man could fall for a bribe of £150 per year to get married? Are we really that stupid? Do we really enjoy being insulted that much? I think not.

f you aren't registered to vote in the UK, deal with it TODAY, the closing date for registering is tomorrow, Tuesday 20th April 2010. Whichever way you want to vote (unless it is BNP, in which case what on earth are you doing still reading this blog? I am a brown person you know) please, women died so we could all have one of these pieces of white card. Honour their memory and earn your right to moan for the next four years. Ring your local council and ask for help.
There have been requests for the onion gravy recipe. Quite coincidentally, Ms Sophie Dahl did bubble and squeak and onion gravy on her Delicious show last week (this is not a plug for the show, I am uneasy about Ms Dahl's relationship to real food, so am not sure where to stand on this politically). This prompted speculation, nay intense and heated discussion in the Bakery about pretty kitchens, comforting food and a flurry of activity at my stove top in my frilly pinny (I can even compete with a TV personality/model with an eating disorder).

The weekend results included: home made chicken stock (which I used in the gravy - but you can use a vegetarian real or powdered alternative, Marigold Swiss Bouillon will be fine); chicken, butternut squash and leek gratin (comfort food par excellence, especially with a vegetarian end and a chicken end of the baking trough); chocolate mousse (see previous blog), fishcakes with poached eggs and then last night's triumph, the classic Bakery Bubble with Onion Gravy. Before I hear the chiming of the smugness bell, let me add that during the week I exist on a diet of toast/marmite, muesli/bananas, echinacea sweets, coffee and chocolate.

I served this at a party with roasted vegetables. No-one went home hungry and satisfaction ratings seem to have been high.
2 large-ish onions
Tablespoon sunflower oil for frying
Tablespoon cornflour (it really should be cornflour, but if you can't get it, plain will do)
Tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Pint of stock (see below)
Mustard - I used Moutarde de Maille grainy, some would prefer something yellower
Salt and pepper

Chop the onions pretty finely. Heat the oil on medium heat in (preferably) a cast iron frying pan which has been well oiled over many years, but failing that, you can use a medium saucepan - not a non stick one, this prevents sufficient browning. Put the chopped onions in and leave to fry gently but firmly for about 20 minutes, stirring every so often. I did this whilst watching Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop cafe, still a lovely film (better book) and still good material for a training course on domestic violence, and I didn't miss much on my regular kitchen checks.

Meanwhile, get your stock together. This either means: boil kettle, measure out stock powder into jug, pour water onto stock, stir; or poach chicken in large saucepan with big glass of wine, enough water to cover the chicken, two bay leaves, a roughly chopped pair of carrots and pair of leeks, couple of tomatoes, some herbs (parsley, sage, rosemary or thyme), remove chicken when done, take flesh off chicken and place bones back in stock pot and simmer the whole thing for a couple of hours, then leave to stand, skim off fat and strain the doings from the liquid. Taste and season.

When the onions have browned but not burned, remove from the heat and stir in the cornflour. Return it to the heat, stirring constantly for about a minute to make the starch grains burst. If it all looks a bit dry, add a small knob of butter (no more than an extra 25g) and stir vigorously.

Remove pan from heat again and add about a tablespoon of stock, a generous slosh but not too much. Stir vigorously until it is all combined, returning it to the heat momentarily to help this process. Remove from heat again, add about the same again, stir again, return to heat for more stirring. Each time you add more liquid the mixture will look hopelessly runny and lumpy for a little while till you have stirred and the heat has helped the flour and liquid to combine to a thickish (to begin with) and gradually just creamy (as you add more liquid) sauce. You can keep adding more liquid in ever increasing amounts until it is all in there. Now return to the heat on medium and allow it all to come to a bubbling simmer, during which time it should thicken slightly to make a gravy consistency. If it all looks too thin, just let it simmer longer and it will thicken.

You can now add the seasoning. Splash in plenty of Worcestershire sauce or any equivalent of your choice. Last night I also added in some very old but still pokey home made chilli jam (it had crystalised but is still fine when dissolved in a sauce or smeared over a roasting veg). I also added plenty grainy mustard. I kept tasting it (no double dipping with that spoon now, you don't want your guests getting your late Spring cold) and adding more of this seasoning or that until I liked it a lot. Then I let it simmer some more.

Serving suggestion

This goes well with pretty much anything roasted or toasted. Roasted veg or meat good. Bubble and squeak (future Bakery recipe) good. Spread on toasted bread, good. With a poached egg on the bubble and squeak with toasted bread on the side, divine.

Thanks to KW for Amsterdam blossom photos. The primroses are part of a primrose carpet in Weston Big Wood, an ancient and magical wood just outside Portishead in the Gordano valley.

NEXT TIME IN BAKERY WINDOW: more ranting from the doorstep and some food which tastes yummy.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Masala Omelette for One

First of all, apologies to the Apples of my Eyes and colleague who are allergic to eggs, to the Friend of my Youth for whom the mere sight of a slab of Valrhona induces a migraine and to anyone who spurns the secondary output of anything with a face (such as milk or eggs).
Some previous posts have not been kind (although the last one, underneath the proportional representation and the general election result, was egg and nut free and a pudding). And also mysteriously this current blog post, clearly written post election (and also with no election ranting in it! Hooray!) has changed its own date of upload to 2nd April...I am trying to re-upload it with this sentence in it as a device to change this - but the machines are clearly taking over.

I must now warn aforementioned As of my Es and esteemed colleague that neither indeed will this one be, though the F of my rapidly disappearing Y will be fine. It may however contain at least a hint of a rant - something strange has happened to my personality lately and I have started thinking kindly thoughts and carrying out random acts of niceness. But I missed the ranting, in fact what was I thinking of? Did I miss the meeting where it was announced that all injustice had been thwarted, all random acts of unkindness declared socially unacceptable and the UK Honours system had been overhauled to remove all mentions of the British Empire? Answers on twitter please, whatever that is. But I am guessing that they will be 'no, Thangam, as you know very well, that meeting was cancelled because we forgot to book a room'. So rants remain - they are necessary, but only provided they stimulate action, not if they merely serve as a way of making me feel like I am actually doing something. More on this anon.

Here is the recipe, let's get that out of the way first.

Masala Omelette
No, actually, here comes the rant. And it is related to the recipe. I have long had to tolerate people who have been there on gap years or package holidays telling me things about India as if I was a stranger to the country and they are almost always things like how great it is that you can get a hotel room for 0.03p per night and how annoying beggars are and the quality of the illegal substances they consumed on a beach in Goa/Hindu Kush valley/jail (if you google Hindu Kush or images of Hindu Kush you are rewarded with more pictures of cannabis indica buds than the world could need - it took me a while to find this one). My strategy has hitherto been to smile and nod and walk away, deleting their phone number as I do so and subsequently removing from my possession all photos, memorabilia and other artefacts which might link me to them.

But lately, and I think we can all name this as the Slumdog Millionaire effect it so truly is, I have had the uncomfortable feeling that they are trying to educate me about how poor people really do prefer being poor to being, y'know, not poor. There has been a slew of appalling Channel 4 programmes warming this theme, lots of shots of TVs and mobile phones being used in slums to show that they aren't really that badly off, lots of hugging and crying and children playing to show that human warmth exists even in a slum (and whoever thought otherwise?) and possibly some dialogue about everyone wanting to carry on living there because of the sense of community.

This programme slew seems to have given the green light to people who have in fact NEVER been to India or met anyone of an Indian origin or ever studied economics or social history or colonial history, in fact people about whom I strongly suspect think that Indians speak English because of MTV and know nothing of a legacy of 200+ years of economic, military, administrative and social domination by the English to pronounce, unasked, that the Indian slums are in fact the model of how we should all live. The people who have pronounced this to me (and trust me there have been more than 6, including two complete strangers) have all done so from the comfort of comfy sofas in well built secure housing with clean safe running water, access to health care and education and in fairly certain knowledge that their house won't be crushed by a bulldozer one morning to make way for a construction site on which to build luxury flats. The-Slumdog-follow-up-bad-documentary-effect.

Don't get me wrong, I went voluntarily to see SM, not once but twice in the actual cinema (once in a delicious 1930s gem called the Tuschinski, to which I recommend you all rush when on holiday in Amsterdam, if only to sit in the warm red velvet plushness and sigh wistfully for film going times gone past) and I enjoyed my evening hugely on both occassions. I have also voluntarily watched and re-watched the final dance sequence on several long haul plane flights. I have the soundtrack on my MP3 and as a phenomenom I am a big fan. Not because it is a great film by any standards or because it is a great film about India, when in fact it presents a film in which the entire cast, save the leading man and woman, are despicable, child molesting/criminal/capitalist bastards, and the leading man, having grown up in the slum and streets suddenly has enough fluent English to hold his own in a call centre and a TV programme.

The dancing, photography and music were fantastic which puts it above many a film of the last few years but that's as far as I can go. Sorry, those of you who loved it and wanted me to share that feeling, please don't take it personally but I didn't get the same wave and it's significantly because of what it means rather than what it was. And even then it is complicated, because some of the things that are great about it are about what it means, rather than what it was.

It is frankly very irritating that the only films about India which get big box office outside the subcontinent have to be made by English people who seem unable to resist the urge to infantalise a nation of 2 billion people with cutesy tear jerking trite plot (from Gandhi to Slumdog in two generations doesn't feel like much progress). But I am a fan of the phenomenom because it is a BIG something for some of us to be in a cinema watching a film with a cast who look like us and whilst it does portray us as mostly appalling people, it's an improvement on the Indiana Jones depiction of two decades ago. And of course it is good that so many people whose interest in India hasn't hitherto stretched much beyond complaining that the people who work in their bank's call centre don't seem to know where Nempnet Thrubwell is are now beginning to wake up and smell the future. It is particularly poignant that a man went to the Oscars and made his acceptance speech in the language of my family of paternal origin. My tears are willingly jerked by that aspect.

It should have been a sign that we brown folk were going to be taken more seriously as global players. But dear me no. This Oscar winning, which was great, was followed by the slum fetishising, in TV documentaries and newspaper articles in respectable newspapers. It feels awfully like patting the poor brown people on the head and failing to recognise the appalling inequalities and injustices of the global economy, and how our wastefulness in one part of the world affects the lives and deaths of people in another.

It's the same unforgivable mentality which allows us to read articles about the battery farm like conditions of workers in the factories which make the MP3 player on which I listen to AR Rahman's delicious and uplifting Jai Ho (bought and paid for, not illegally downloaded) as I cycle to the station of a morning, and rationalise this as something which doesn't affect Chinese people (in the case of manufacturing) or Indian people (in the case of the back room industries or waste disposal) like it would Western people. I sit on my squashy sofa, I wear my cheap clothes, I watch my affordable luxuries and I am entitled to pronounce that poor people either don't want these things or already have them and aren't really that poor after all.

[the ranting muscle still seems to work then]

[but was it a nice change to have a thangambakery blog free of election politics?]

[some significant inspiration for this rant came from the Shashi Tharoor piece entitled Indiana Jones and the Temple of Dhoom, contained in his marvelous book of essays 'The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone: Reflections on India, the Emerging 21st Century Power']

Now for the recipe: Omelette Masala (comfort food for the mixed race people's nation)

This is comfort food for those of us who miss our grandmother's curried scrambled eggs (that, along with Gulab Jamun, an Indian sweet whose ingredients defy understanding of how delicious it is, is all I ate when I was there when I was 9 for the first time) or were once in Goa and had something vaguely like it squashed in a bun, or anyone who just likes Indian spicing and eggs and that does cover a lot of us. Apologies once again to thangambakery followers who are not able to eat of the egg. There will be a chocolate muffin coming soon, one so delicious that egg fans do not notice the lack of egg.

Chop up a green or red chilli, including some of the seeds or all of them if you like it REALLY hot. If you don't like your food hot at all, don't make this omelette, without the chilli you might as well stick to tortilla.

Grind some coriander, fennel and cumin seeds - about quarter of a teaspoon of each, you can use a pestle and mortar for this. No need to invest in a spice grinder. Or you can use half a teaspoon of dried spices. If no pest. and mort., try a rolling pin. But do put a pestle and mortar on your birthday present list or just do yourself a favour and get one for yourself. Marble or granite, not wood.

If you can get decent curry leaves (pictured left) these are real, they are well used spice in South India and you can grow them (follow the link above) or order them online from Spices of India, or you can get them from good Indian grocery shops such as the world famous Sweet Mart in St Mark's Road, Bristol -dry fry two or three till dry but not browning and add to the grinding mix. DON'T bother if they smell musty or look manky. Curry leaves are ESSENTIAL for South Indian cooking - fresh or dried, they are used in large quantities and are part of the palette which distinguishes real South Indian food from the westernised generic Indian food we often get in Europe. Get some and I will feature them in a future Bakery Window. You won't regret it.

Chop reasonably finely half a red pepper.

If you have a leftover cooked potato hanging around, or can keep one from another meal, chop this up too, into 1cm cubes (roughly 1cm, no need to get out your tape measure). If you don't have one hanging around, boil one till just done and then chop it.

Heat a decent (or the best you have) frying pan to medium heat and melt a 25 g knob of butter in it, with a splash of sunflower oil - the oil is to help prevent the butter from burning whilst you fry the onion/pepper/spices, but the dominant note should be butter so dont overdo the splash - it's about a teaspoon no more.

Before the oil starts smoking add the chopped red pepper. Stir when needed, to fry it till just soft and sweet, then add the chopped potato. Again, fry, with occassional stirs, until potatoes are just turning golden and the red pepper is probably just starting to caramelise at the edges. Now chuck in the chilli and the spices, and keep stirring all the time now, for about a minute. The spices should be scenting up your kitchen, not smoking. This is a no smoking zone. Smoking will kill the flavour. Smoking will kill the tastebuds. Smoking will kill you. [this is a reminder note to self, not a public announcement or indeed news].

Now add the eggs - I would say 3, beaten a bit but not overly - it's fine to have trails of white in this omelette. If you are on an egg-conscious diet thing, 2 will do, I have vitamin deficiencies which spell BED, so I use these as an excuse for more of any sort of egg, hen's, duck's, quail's (so tiny! so pretty! go so well with sweetcorn puree and fried scallops!) and more of any sort of sunshine. Tip the pan from side to side till there is egg all over and it is starting to cook. As it cooks, tip pan to one side and ease uncooked egg to the underneath, by lifting up the edge of the omelett using a spatula which is safe for the pan surface (one of those brightly coloured silicone ones you can get in kitchen departments of department stores like Fenwicks in Newcastle, where I recently bought up most of their silicone kitchen implements including re-useable bun cases in pastel colours!). If the potato/pepper looks like it is all collecting in the middle, push it around a bit and then push down on the egg mixture if that makes holes or tears.

Cook till your desired level of egg runniness to firmness ratio is achieved. I like mine on the salmonella side.

You can serve this delicacy with some green beans or other green things - perhaps tossed with some chilli oil or some finely chopped fried garlic? Or you can sandwich it in a bread bun. Or you can just place it on a fine plate and eat it with your (clean) fingers, Indian style (right hand only, try to use only finger tips).

Why is this food for the mixed race people's nation? Because it is sort of Indian and sort of not, was inspired by my grandmother (also Thangam) and by Nigella Lawson, both of whom have provided me with similar recipes to the point where I can't remember any more where grandma's ends and Nigella's begins. We mixed race folk were once despised or pitied or recommended for extermination (still are by some) but there are more and more of us and we seem to be doing OK or more than OK. Gradually, others who wouldn't have instinctively identified themselves thusly from looking at their immediate lineage are starting to have to admit that the very term mixed race implies there are some/most people who are of some sort of a pure race, which is, at least in this island nation of a thousand invasions and excursions, unlikely at best. People, come out, admit we are probably all in this nation (I can't call it a melting pot) and the BNP and other racists will have nothing to work with.

NEXT TIME IN THE BAKERY WINDOW: egg free muffins and cakes - and probably more politics, I have a follow up to the proportional representation rant...have I started to mellow in middle age? Surely not. Yet I find myself in agreement with Roy Jenkins, one of the gang of four who started the SDP and thereby, what with its subsequent alliance and eventual merger with the Liberals, arguably helped to keep Labour out of government for longer than the Tories probably wanted. Yes, folks, I can be broad minded sometimes and have to admit that Roy J (and the German electoral system, which apparently we, the Allies in the post world war 2 carve up of Germany), might have been right on this one.