Saturday, 8 September 2007

A Work in Progress

Saturday 8.30pm

I love naan bread but making it at home is a kind of work in progress. Not having a tandoor is the problem I think, you need that fiery volcanic heat to cook them rapidly. The dough I just make in the breadmaker nowadays. A simple dough of dried yeast ( surebake ), flour, salt, sugar and water. For naan I now add a tablespoon or so of yoghurt which gives a softer dough. Standing by the cooker tonight, waiting for the oven to heat up I noticed my grill pan. Yes! , thought I, fiery volcanic heat, I could start them in the pan then finish off in the oven. So once the pan was smoking, in the first one went, dry no oil or anything. Once bubbles appear turn it over, and yes, lovely brown stripes and a few charcoaled bubbles. They cooked right through so the oven was unnecessary as was brushing them with melted butter and scattering black onion seeds whilst cooking. All this achieved was huge billowing clouds of smoke ! So next time - roll them out thinner, and brush the butter on after they are cooked.

My Le Creuset grillpan was a wedding present from Nicola. It is cast iron, nonstick and very beautiful. Very much my favourite implement in the kitchen, and yes, for me it has to be circular those square shaped ones just ain't right. It also took ages to find, Nicola hates going shopping with me.

Chameleon 6

Chris woke and glanced at the time, eight o'clock. The holidays, Yay ! But as she reached out for her mobile to txt Jacky she suddenly remembered where she was - Outer Space. Well grannies actually, but it might as well be outer space, how could she live in the only place in the country with no signal. And why did she have to go there anyway ? She was fifteen, old enough to be at home on her own. Just because her parents both worked. But her mum had been adamant, never again, not after last time. Last time, here we go again, the "me, Jacky and the Jack Daniels incident" mum was so unreasonable, it was only one bottle, and they had cleaned most of the mess up themselves, that was being responsible wasn't it ? But no, grannies it was. Jaks was probably snogging Mark right now. Well not right now, it was only eight o'clock but you know what I mean, just because I said I fancied him. Her and her new push up bra, god it was like talking to the fruit display at Asda. Laughing, she got out of bed and stood sideways in front of the mirror, studying her own rather more flatter figure. Stuff them she thought, at least gran does have broadband, I can get on and talk to my real friends. Chris for one, he was cool. Same age same name, they could be twins, name twins she thought with a smile. Chris, she had hoped to meet him during the holidays but that was going to be difficult now she was stuck out in the wilds near Peebles, but granny might want to take me shopping and at least mum was out of the way. No mum he is not a forty six year old balding, grey haired pervert. You can tell you know, they think they are being all "trendy and with it" but they just sound stupid, we always know. And yes I will meet in a public place, and yes I will tell someone where I am going, and yes I will have my mobile on me, if you get me that phone card I asked for weeks ago that is. Parents, they had no idea.

Friday, 7 September 2007

Chameleon 5

As Chris smiled happily to himself, John guided him back along to the office. " I hope you don't mind Chris, but before you get too settled we need to do some paperwork first." Amy stood back from the table behind a chair as they entered. " All ready " she said, and Chris walked round to join her. " Don't sit down just yet, we need a swab first " " DNA test, purely routine but necessary ", she had clear plastic gloves on and was holding a long test tube. " From the inside of your cheek, open wide " of course, just like on Trisha Chris thought as Amy efficiently wiped a large cotton bud inside his mouth and popped it back into the tube. While Amy wrote on the tube label John gave instructions. " Have a seat Chris" " this is a simple psychometric test, purely voluntary, but will help us get to know you further, you don't mind ? " Chris shook his head, John was looking across at Amy who was shaking the tube. She stared into it for a second then returned his look and nodded curtly. " Ok, simple multiple choice, there are a lot of questions but do not think too much, just the first thing that comes into you head. There are no right or wrong answers " " Oh, and there is no time limit. Ready ? " Born ready, Chris loved this type of test. He began.
Do you consider yourself a happy person ? You find a wallet containing five hundred pounds, what do you do with it ? You are asked to give a speech to your whole school, how do you feel ? Chris ticked the answers one by one, quickly, efficiently he was totally absorbed. Your best friend lets you down badly, do you forgive them ? John and Amelia had long since wandered off. You are walking in the desert, you see a turtle on its back, struggling, what do you do ? Chris snorted, yeah right, I may be a replicant. Your brother commits murder and asks for your help, do you ? In what circumstances is animal experimentation acceptable ? You discover the last few pages in a library book are missing, how do you feel ? Do you agree with genetic engineering ? Do you enjoy poetry ? If you could choose the colour of your babies eyes, would you ? Finally the last tick on the last question went in. Chris sat back feeling more than satisfied. An hour and a half had gone by, the evening sun was now shining through the window throwing his shadow onto the far wall where the strange pictures hung. He gazed quietly at them, and as he did so, like Russian dolls, his silhouette enveloped one of the strange cauliflower shapes exactly. Chris's heart stopped. Not cauliflowers, no . . . brains. Slices of human brain. A chill enveloped him as his very being tried to leave him, running. Amy popped her head round the door " All finished ? " Chris came to with a start and looked at her wide eyed. " Hungry . . " she began then stopped, and looked back to where his eyes had been. " Oh, the pictures, creepy aren't they " laughing, she continued " John inherited them from our old professor. I keep telling him to take them down but he won't be persuaded." "Anyway you must be hungry, come on, dinners ready "
They ate in the kitchen sitting at the table. Spaghetti with some sort of cream sauce,bread, and salad. And there was wine as well, he never got to drink at home. These were his real parents, he was convinced now. Real parents would treat you like this, like an adult. The evening wore on, Chris sat quietly listening to John and Amy chatting about their day, watching them, contented. Eventually the wine and the day's excitement took their toll and, as his eyes began to droop he said goodnight and headed to bed. As he walked along the hallway past the office his eyes were drawn in. The pictures were still there, glittering in the reflected orange glow of the street lights.

A shiver passed through him.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Chameleon 4

Leaning back John surveyed the cafe and beyond. The rain had stopped, sunlight was streaming through the windows again and the crush had dispersed, leaving puddles of spilt coffee, napkins and cups on the tables. The staff floated around tidying at last. " Well if we are all finished I think we should take the opportunity to move on" he announced. " Lets go home and fill out the questionnaires, what do you think Chris, ready to settle into your new home ? " Nodding happily Chris rose, I don't have to go to Elgin he was thinking absently. As John stood up Chris looked up. And up, wow, he was tall. Amy as well, Chris was used to looking over his mums head, but Amy could look him in the eye. They walked out together and along the broad stone pavement. As they walked Chris watched the people coming their way. Approaching women would look at John trying to catch and hold his gaze. Men of course glanced repeatedly, surreptitiously at Amy, although their looks somehow rarely made it as high as her face. As he walked between his new parents, Chris tried to copy the easy confidence of their walk, but of course nobody spared him a glance.

Heading downhill towards Stockbridge it wasn't far until they turned left up some stone steps between black railings and stopped in front of a black door. While John fished out his key Chris looked at the brass plates beside the door. " J & A Macdonald " announced one, " Future Mind " Frowning, he rolled the thought round inside his head, future mind, mind ? " Are you psychiatrists ? " he finally asked. "Psychiatrists ? No" John replied as they walked along the hallway towards the stone staircase, " But well thought out. We are psychologists " As they climbed he continued " we study the mind in everyday people you might say, unlike psychiatrists who study the illnesses of the mind. " It was like ascending from the depths of the sea, the gentle light filtering down from above reflected from the worn wooden handrail and shiny walls. Each front door they passed was a different colour, red, green, blue, but all dark shades and well kept despite their age. Muted, distant sounds could be heard beyond. " We lecture at the university and have our own research projects " He continued. " Some of these projects run for years. " "And one particular one is finally coming to fruition as we speak " Amy added.They continued to climb. The very last door on the top floor was black and here they halted once more while John again unlocked it. Above them an ancient oval cupola softened the light as it entered through glass frosted and scratched with age. The door open, John ushered Chris inside. A hallway stretched ahead, bare floor, softly off white walls, a faint smell of coffee. Amy slid past and disappeared ahead while John gave the tour. "The kitchen" he announced as they passed the first room on the right. Chris looked in to see an old fashioned kitchen, big pine table in the centre, painted units all around, one of those big painted fridges with the silly name and herbs growing abundantly on the windowsills of the two large windows through which the late afternoon light tumbled. " Our bedroom" John announced from the next room along, on the left. Old dark furniture this time and an iron bed with a big white fluffy duvet. Everything neatly arranged. " Our office ", the next on the right. This was where Amy had gone. As he passed Chris saw her shuffling papers at a big table in the centre of the room. Around the walls were neatly stacked piles of books and more papers under a series of black framed photographs of cauliflower. Weird thought Chris as he hurried to keep up with his host. "The sitting room" last on the left, a big airy, light room, squashy fabric sofas, television, bookcases, books, lots of books. They had reached the end of the hallway and John turned back, " The bathroom " he said pointing to the last room on the right, old fashioned again, white bath and one of those toilets with a chain. " And this is your room " next along, beside the office, opposite a closed door that had not been mentioned. Chris poked his head into the bedroom and saw, past a big dark wardrobe just inside the door, another big iron double bed with fluffy duvet. This, I am going to enjoy he started to think then caught his breath as, beyond the bed on a table to one side of the window, obviously just put there, not plugged in or set up yet, but it really was there - his computer !

Red Pepper Soup with a Cucumber Salsa

Thursday 1.30pm

Now I am not a great fan of pepper soup, I find it a bit bitter, but roast them till charred and the flavour is much better. Today I had a go at a roasted pepper soup. With only one and a half red peppers you're not going to get much but 3/4 of a pint is enough for two for lunch. ( or one piggy Peter ) Peppers are sliced up into chunks, mixed with some olive oil, a couple of garlic cloves, a bunch of thyme, and salt and pepper and then popped into a hot oven for half an hour or so until blackened at the edges. Meanwhile half a chopped onion was cooking slowly in oil in a pan - I wanted the sweetness of the onion without any burning. Peeling the peppers is slimily messy but it has to be done and I quite enjoy it now. They go in with the onions along with the squeezed out garlic cloves and the peppery orange oil from roasting, trying to keep back the thyme stems. A small potato, chopped, goes in for thickening, half a small red chilli for a bit of a kick and a pint of half strength vegetable stock as usual. Simmer till the potato is soft and liquidise till smooth, and season mine needed a little salt and finally a drop of cream. The colour is beautifull, orangy with some black specks from the bits of burnt pepper skin that sneaked in. And it tastes rather good the red peppers coming through mild and creamy. The chilli was a bit fiery though, hence the cream but when that didn't work I was left gazing idly into the fridge wondering . . . and there was a cool cucumber looking back at me. So a sort of salsa made with chopped cucumber, lemon juice and chopped mint leaves all mixed together. Now we are getting there, and you know although I don't really do "restaurant food" this is pretty damned close.

My bowl in the picture would have been more full but unfortunately Nicola got to the soup first with a bigger bowl ! Mind you she had been working all morning so her need was greater than mine.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Secret Languages

Wednesday 8.30pm

Couples are interesting. Not just married couples or partners, but relatives, families, old friends even. They have a bubble round them separating them off from all around. Going out alone I talk to people and people will approach and talk to me. But as a couple nobody wants to intrude, that bubble excludes them. Some couples even have their own language, one of looks and touch, of eye movements and facial expressions. It is horrible being with people like this, to feel excluded, you'll say something and and a look will pass between them, you know something has been said but not what. For these people the bubble blinds them. They think you cannot see that look, but I can. They forget that when alone we are more alert, more observant, more on our guard. I find it very rude but I don't suppose they even notice themselves even doing it.

I hope I am not like that.

Chameleon 3

The couple and the boy sat silently examining each other. Amelia especially, Chris felt her piercing gaze predatory, birdlike, a blackbird he thought feeling a little uncomfortable and beginning to squirm under her close scrutiny. John on the other hand was more relaxed, distant, a lion thought Chris, a lion seemingly asleep under a tree but really surveying the African plain below, watching his prey. Chris liked animals and always compared people to them. But actually rather smug. Adults he concluded. John broke the silence " I am sorry, would you like a drink ? something to eat as well, perhaps ? " don't say growing boy, please thought Chris. He didn't " Just a hot chocolate please " replied Chris and John got up and went to the counter. There was quite a queue now and it had started to rain, the windows were steaming up. " Well Chris " said Amy, " we know all about you of course but do you have any questions ? anything, just ask away " He had hundreds, thousands of course, but they were all hiding at the moment so he had to think. As he did so he noticed Amy's eyes gradually slide away to look at something behind him. This was always happening, if he didn't actually move or speak then people just didn't notice him, it was as if he just faded into the background. And he was convinced it wasn't just him, why did people just ignore teenagers ? We do exist, you know.
" Errrm, where do you live ? " mumbled Chris. Amy's eyes swung back. " live ? Oh close by, we have a lovely flat in the New Town, top floor, you can see all the way over to Fife and the Forth bridges, if you stand at the window and sort of squint sideways that is, you'll see it soon. " Chris's face must have spoken by itself then because she continued more slowly " George and Maureen did tell you didn't they ? " , "I mean that you are coming to live with us for the holidays " Mum and dad had said nothing at all, Chris just looked at her. " Ah " she said "never mind, we will explain everything soon. " Three cups descended onto the table as John shuffled back into his seat. Amy, looking at John gave an almost imperceptable nod and smiled. Chris noticed though. The holidays, he thought, " My stuff, have you . . ." All arranged said Amy. " Yes George is dropping everything off this afternoon" cut in John, " On their way up north". Up North, Elgin of course, things suddenly made sense. Every year Chris had to leave his friends and accompany his parents on yet another boring trip to his aunt in Elgin. Two weeks of nothing, no playstation, no broadband, no sky telly. Just endless walking in the cold rain, boiled vegetables, and Take the High Road on the telly. No wonder he was always top in English, he read that many books. Why they couldn't go to Spain like all of his friends he never knew. Forgetting all about the strangeness of the situation Chris stopped playing with his empty mug and smiled gently to himself. Things were looking up. Of course his mum and dad would never let him stay at home by himself but now he had birth parents. It wasn't Spain, but he could see his friends and he was right in the middle of town where the action was. Watching this reaction closely, John reached out and squeezed Amy's hand gently, just once and let go.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Chameleon 2

Starbucks was packed, but Chris spotted them straight away. Far window table like they had said, black business suits, white shirts, older, grey haired. The woman, Amelia was facing his way but deep in conversation with the man, John. Amelia, John, his real parents. Chris pushed and squeezed his way between the tables towards them. " sorry ", " scuse me, sorry " but no one really noticed him. As he approached the table he began to hear their conversation. " about time too " Amelia was saying insistently " only one other contact so far, I am beginning to lose faith in this whole thing ". Stopping beside the table, Chris suddenly had no idea what to say, but Amelia looked up at him, so he smiled down at her. " Ah yes, " she said quickly, " a single expresso, that was it wasn't it John ? and a tall skinny latte please " and just as quickly began to resume talking to her companion " so what do you think about the project John ? I mean with no contacts, how can there be any future ?" " errrrm" Chris started to say quietly but John spoke over him, a deeper measured tone "I think you forget this is Starbucks, Amy" , " no waiters " and turning towards Chris, smiled and said " You must be Chris ". Amy suddenly looked up at him then back at John " chameleon " she said under her breath. At least that is what he thought she said, but as he glanced her way she just smiled slowly. " I am John, " said John holding his hand out to shake, a firm confident grip in comparison to Chris's sweaty nervousness. " And this, of course is Amelia " he continued, nodding towards Chris's new mother. "Please be seated" Shaking Amy's hand Chris sat in the chair opposite them as they gazed intently at him. Please be seated ? he thought, this is like careers at school, are they going to interview me, interview their own son ? A new thought occured to him or are they not my parents? some sort of intermediary perhaps? he had read about this sort of thing. " errrm . . . who ? sorry, I mean are you . . . ?" "Your parents ?" replied John quickly, efficiently " But of course we are." " And we have been expecting your call for a while now, everything is ready."

Chris had indeed read about this. As soon as he discovered he was adopted he had gone onto the internet to find out how it worked, how he could find out about his real parents. This was how it happened, as soon as you were old enough your parents, your adoptive parents that is, sat down and talked to you, told you. Then with a case worker you were allowed to find out who your real parents were, and then write to them. If they replied you could write again and when the time was right, perhaps talk on the phone. If things went well you could then all meet with your caseworker there, at her office perhaps or in a public place. And on it went from there. Well it had started properly, his parents had sat down with him, " We think you are old enough to know the truth, Chris", "we'll always love you" etc etc, blah de, blah, "the time has come, as we always knew it would "so far, as expected but then . . . " And so we have contacted your real parents and arranged a meeting " A meeting, just like that, no caseworker, no letters, no conversations on the phone. And here he was now, sitting in a cafe in the middle of town on a Monday afternoon with two weird strangers who were now his parents.

And everything was ready.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Onion, Thyme and Brie Pizza

Monday 1.30pm

At home today with the youngest who has chickenpox. He is rather subdued and happily watching the telly, while I decide on lunch - pizza I think. Breadmaker is filled up to make some dough, nothing special, just surebake yeast, strong flour, salt and sugar. Youngest just wants cheese on his - cheese on toast really. But for Nicola and myself ? Caramelised onions sounds good, like a Nigel Slater recipe for a tart with puff pastry but as a pizza. Three onions are cut into big chunks and gently, very gently, fried in oil and a big slice of butter for at least half an hour until translucent, brown and sticky. Even with the extractor on the whole house smells of onions now, good job it is sunny and I can open all the doors and windows. Meanwhile an email is fired off to Nicola to pick up some Brie on her way home. Slow cooking seems to be a theme with me at the moment, anything that can be put on to cook and left while I read a book . I must be feeling relaxed, the spring weather certainly helps. When Nicola arrives home the cheese on toast has been scoffed by small child and myself (and almost Rana the cat!), so the oven is hot and the second pizza is rolled out ready. On go the onions along with the oniony butter, then some slices of Brie and a small handfull of Thyme leaves from the garden, salt and pepper. Italian onion sandwich really but sweet, creamy and delicious.


As he approached the cafe door Chris paused, hand outstretched towards the handle. This was it, the thought welled up within him as he stood there. He was adopted, these were his real parents inside. But what did he feel . . . . nothing. No that can't be right, try again, his face wrinkled as he thought harder . . . but still . . . nothing.
Looking to the side Chris saw a woman watching him, she had blonde streaks in her hair. She leaned towards to her friend at the table just inside the door, behind the glass, and spoke. Her friend glanced round then spoke and they both smiled knowingly, and looked away again dismissively. Suddenly realising where he was Chris pulled open the door. The man on the other side looked rather annoyed, " sorry " said Chris, but there was no reply as the man pushed past with a loud sigh from under raised eyebrows, shaking his head.

God, it was tough being fifteen.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

Beef Goulash

Sunday 5.50pm

Originally a Hungarian beef stew cooked by cowherds in the hills using an iron pot over a fire, goulash always seems a real student dish to me - with lots of gravy a small amount of meat will go a long way, and it holds a special place in my heart. My first job after college was in Hastings on the south coast of England. Susan (my sister) was at Art college in Birmingham, up in the centre of the country. I lived alone at the time in a bedsit, Susan shared a condemned house with two other girls and Harrods the cat, (who would only eat the best catfood). Occasionally I would drive or take the train up for the weekend, going there on Friday and returning home Sunday. There were usually a few other people around when I arrived on Friday, boyfriends, friends, and Jacky always seemed to cook a goulash for tea (her mum was from somewhere in Europe). The atmosphere was always relaxed and friendly, all the more so in contrast to my usual solitary existence at the weekends and the two hours or so I had spent alone, travelling to get there. So here is my version, totally unauthentic, but in the right spirit and perfect for a relaxed family dinner all together on a Sunday.
Gently fry a chopped onion and a garlic clove in some oil. Meanwhile dice up the beef and coat in seasoned flour, I do this in a plastic bag. Fish the onions etc out of the pan once clear but not brown, turn up the heat and put in the beef to brown. Peel, chop and add two or three carrots, (some celery or dark green cabbage would probably be good too) and then pour in a can of tomatoes, a tablespoon of tomato puree, a tablespoon or so of paprika, a bayleaf or two, and enough water to cover. Thats it, it just needs to simmer slowly now for at least a couple of hours. This never works for me in the pan, it always sticks and burns so I put it in a casserole dish, pop it in the oven and sit down with a book and a glass of wine. Once cooked and checked for seasoning I like to swirl some cream in and sprinkle coriander leaves on top. Boiled rice is a good accompaniment or left over boiled potatoes fried till crispy are even better.
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