Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Into dark water

There are easier ways to spend five pounds.

This morning, the Sparkly One and I arose - a little shakily, a little blearily and not a little reluctantly - at 6am, dashed the sleep from our eyes, and left the house, setting course for Heron Lake. We were off to do some Open Water Swimming in preparation for this year's Blenheim Triathlon.

For me, this was a chance to face my fears and splash about in deep water - something I haven't done since, oh, ever, not including time wearing a buoyancy compensator and some form of self-contained underwater breathing apparatus. Oh, and the 3 nervous minutes I spent in the Pacific Ocean off the Galapagos Islands, and a few minutes in a shark cage off New Zealand.

Basically, being in water deeper than I am tall is a big thing for me. And, not being a big thing myself, this includes quite a lot of water.

The Sparkly One is, by contrast, resolutely at home in the water. She has swum in lakes, rivers, oceans and seas. For her, it was a chance to test out her stroke in the wetsuit she'll be wearing for the tri. And keep an eye on me, no doubt - she is, after all, a Lifesaver.

We arrived a little before 7am, slipping the cold-looking chap at the gate a couple of Lady Godivas (or perhaps that's Ladies Godiva, as per Surgeons General?). The early morning noise of the M25 was already in full swing as we pulled into the car park and nervously got our gear together. Although grey and miserable, the morning was more or less dry, and not too cold - the car reported 15 degrees on the Celsius scale - as we struggled into our wetsuits, caps and goggles.

Then it was down the boardwalk and into the water. The first few steps were gentle enough - easing gingerly down the ramp into water barely knee-deep. And cold! My bare feet knew about it immediately - klaxons and alarms reporting a Cold Water Alert. But higher up the wetsuit was doing its job and based solely on the situation report from my legs, I wouldn't have known I was standing in cold water.

Having taken the first leap, so to speak, I gingerly lowered myself into the water up to the waist and administered the Jaffle McSnaffle Crotch Test of Water Temperature. This is a tried and true method for determing whether a particular spot is temperate enough for bathing: if the body can be lowered into the water up to the waist - completely submerging the crotch - without a resulting "Oooooooooooh!" then the temperature is acceptable. On this occasion, I was pleased to discover that the wetsuit was also doing its job admirably, and the Test was passed.

With that, there was nothing else to do except take the literal plunge into deeper water. And so off I went, splashing and swimming out into the dark water, acclimatising, trying not to think too hard about what I was doing. The little voice at the back of my brain - you know the one - was beginning to warm up with some comments about the depth of the water and the distance from the safety of the shore, and the panic did start to rise briefly. But I was able to ignore it, and before long I realised that I was comfortable in the water and Doing Fine.

When I finally judged the moment right to stop and look back - by way of confirming just how far I was from safety - I was not more than 200 metres from shore, and knew I could make it back with ease. So much so that I was able to swim on a little while, with mounting nonchalance.

And with that, our experiment was largely concluded, and all that was left was for us to head back for the certain welcome of dry land. On the way back, I even stuck my face in the water (Bearded One, please note!) for a stroke or five, and was rewarded with a murky green darkness. How dull. Honestly, I don't see what all the fuss is about.

On reflection I have to say that it was not so very cold. I mean, certainly it was cold - just not so cold as fear and uncertainty would have me imagine. By way of example, I was easily able to find the Old Chap as I dressed, so it really can't have been that cold in the water.

And that was very much that: dried and dressed we sallied forth, heading for warm showers, clean clothes, and large cups of fresh coffee. There may be easier ways to spend five pounds sterling, but this was both satisfying and rewarding. A lift to the confidence, a spring in the step, decent bragging rights ("Guess what I did before breakfast...").

And an unexpected bonus: a flash of blue, a distinctively-shaped streak above the water's surface; a kingfisher finding breakfast. Magic.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

No, it shouldn't be that colour

On Monday, in a moment of more-haste-less-speed, I found myself skirting around a narrow room, betwixt edges of bed and impressive wardrobe. Naturally, I stumbled awkwardly, resulting in an impact between my foot and the aforementioned wardrobe.

I clenched fists and jaw in pain. I swore (lightly, infrequently). I hobbled manfully downstairs and told everyone how horrible it was.

I did not - I repeat not - remove my sock and look at the injury. Because as everyone knows, it's better to discover a missing toe after a supportive nip of something alcoholic. As nothing was to hand, I didn't want to risk it.

Today, though, I did peek at my foot, and this is what I discovered.

Warning: the following pictures are of my feet. You have been warned.

Why on earth you would want to see them is anyone's guess.

Anyhoo, here they are in all their glory. Firstly from above; the toe is swollen and lightly coloured with bruising.

Nice hairs, eh?

The second picture shows the underside of the toe; you can clearly see the bruising here. Ouch!

Perhaps I should mention that I do have the full complement of toes (on both feet, no less) but I'm a very shy chap, and only share them with my very bestest of friends.

No condensed milk in flapjack

Flapjack should not contain condensed milk. No way, no day.

I mention this because over the weekend, fancying a bit of an oaty syrupy snack, I purchased a flapjack, which committed the cardinal sin mentioned above.

It was, frankly, bland; milky, sweet and unpleasant. Certainly not the oaty syrupy delight it could - and should - be.

To this end, I present a simple recipe for flapjack containing just four (or five) simple ingredients. Sorry 'bout the Imperial measurements; I did try it with Metric, but my notes have several measurements on them, and don't indicate clearly which is which. Try it out and see what works for you.

Flapjack (oaty syrupy delight)

4 oz margarine or butter
5 oz oats
1 tablespoon golden syrup
4 oz sugar
2oz flour (see note)

Note: I'm not entirely happy about flour in my flapjack, but it can be terribly sticky without. You could try compensating with more oats or sugar, and go with whatever you prefer.

Melt the butter, syrup and sugar over low heat, stir in the oats and pour into a greased baking tray. Pop in the oven for around 25 minutes at 180 degrees on the Celsius scale, and enjoy.

And not a whisper of condensed milk.

Monday, 26 May 2008

What's in a name?

Today, I lunched at the splendidly-named Jaf Jaf Ristorante (presumably Jaffle Jaffle Ristorante was too much of a mouthful).

The setting is...quite unique, set next to the M1/M62 with views over the motorway, and serves as an out of town restaurant for the lonely or lost, and resident eatery for the Acanthus Golf Club and Driving Range. The restaurant itself is quite lovely, all liveried chairs and elegant decor. Think local trattoria and up the standard a notch.

By contrast, the food is fairly ordinary local trattoria fare: pizza, pasta, chicken, steak, veal. The prices are eye-opening: at £8 or £9 for a pasta dish and upto £18 for a steak, this ain't the cheap end of the market - not in this part of the world, at any rate. And the food doesn't live up to that price bracket. Yes, there was a tremendous amount of minced beef in the spaghetti bolognese (although the dish that arrived was actually linguine bolognese). And yes, the texture of the fettuccine al ragu was pleasantly rough and chunky. The food, overall, was fine. But there was nothing that lifted the dishes that extra couple of quid: the sauces were ordinary, the penne with chicken and spinach was strongly synthetic, faintly unpleasant. The celery in the mixed salad was heavy with stringy bits.

I have already described the setting and views, which brings me to the service: irritatingly-bordering-on-amusingly poor. The constant interruptions from the waitress quickly became wearisome, and her incomprehensible supposed-humour and anecdotes sans point were simply something to be ignored, glossed over, expunged from memory. It wasn't a case of lacking polish, it was a case of of lacking anything to be polished.

Really, I'm genuinely not tremendously fussy. I've eaten at a lot of places of various sorts - restaurants, pubs, cafes and burger vans. I like simple food as much as fancy stuff, and I fully appreciate the principle of getting what one pays for: I do not set my expectations unreasonably high. But this restaurant just seems to be charging for something it doesn't deliver.

Great name, though.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

A Steak and Stilton Pie

I happened to find myself at a Farmer's Market yesterday, and there was, as ever, delight and treasure aplenty. Great bunches of rhubarb, neat little rubberbanded bunches of asparagus, punnets (that wonderful word!) of strawberries - all seasonal and local and freshly picked, hurrah!

Despite this fresh veggie goodness, though, my eye was caught by the earnest-faced man selling pies; neat circular packages that tempted and beguiled with their flaky perfection and suggestive names. I fell upon the stall - metaphorically, not literally - and studied the pieman's wares with a practised eye.

Alas, the rabbit pie - my first choice - had already sold out. Vacillating only briefly, I quickly settled (again, not literally) upon the steak and stilton - that hallmark of a piemaker's skill. How tender would the steak be? How well-balanced the piquant, creamy stilton? How rich the gravy? Ah, the tasty adventure ahead! Be assured, dear reader, that I did not swoon in heady anticipation.

But alas and alack! Yesterday was not the day to discover the answer to these questions, as I departed the office in a hurry, leaving the pastry-encased treasure in the fridge at work. Imagine how hollow my evening fare was, having been promised pie but receiving none.

Today, happily, memory served, and the voyage of discovery was begun.

I can report that the pie was extremely satisfying. The pastry was tasty, if a little soggy from my method of re-heating (oven, rather than microwave, for reasons discussed elsewhere). The filling was ample: tender chunks of steak in thick gravy, not too runny. The stilton was mild, more of a tang than a twang, not overpowering.

In all, a pleasant pie, honestly sized, well-filled and tasty. Just as it should be.

The microwave is dead

...and its passing has not been noticed.

I would estimate - and I must stress that I have no forensic training, not even an episode of C.S.I. - that the deceased must have passed away over a month ago. And that abscence has had little bearing on my life.

Yes, there have been momentary inconveniences - the need to use a pan (the horror!) to heat some beans or tomatoes for an impromptu snack. Indeed, the necessity of any sort of planning; of lifting a meal out of the freezer in the morning rather than scant moments before I want to eat it.

On the whole, though, it has been neither missed nor mourned.

So yesterday I took the Beast down to the local recycling and electrical goods disposal centre (that's the place that used to be called the Tip in the half-forgotten Time Before WEEE) and said a quick farewell.

The resulting space in the kitchen is startling.

The cure for Facebook fatigue

I recently discovered a transforming experience, one that has liberated my mind from many unwelcome distractions and freed more time in my schedule. One that has given me a very satisfactory air of smugness I can enjoy in most social situations.

I have, in short, deactivated my Facebook account.

This deceptively simple act has proven to be emancipating beyond my expectations. I feel energised, enthusiastic, effective once more. I sleep better; I achieve more. Friends have commented on how well I'm looking, how cheerful, how toned and tanned and terrific.

Best of all, in those horrible social situations where Other People begin discussing Facebook or - worse yet - extending a finger and silently poking one another (simply ghastly), I can assume a robustly superior air, and loudly declaim my recent abandonment of the Temple of Timewasting. Their usual reaction is a kind of respectful horror. I can see from their eyes that they're wishing they could do the same, but are trapped by their fear.

Sensing an opportunity, I'm currently working on a personal development/empowerment/self-help book based on my experiences.

A question of balance

Nature finds clever ways of restoring balance.

Take, for instance, the unsustainably large number of shirts in my wardrobe. Take a glass or two of robustly-flavoured red wine. Add the latter to a selection of the former, on any lively social occasion, to create a sizeable stain that will not budge even on the application of many tried and tested techniques.

Result: two stained shirts (including one sourced from Australia, and recently favourably remarked-upon by a kind admirer - oh hubris! Oh terrible pride!). And more room in the wardrobe.

Balance restored.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

A word from our sponsors

You may have noticed that little column on the right, below the "Blogs I like" links. It's captioned "Ads by Google" and has precisely 5 - yes, that's right, five -website advert linkythings beneath it.

It's not there by accident.

The ad links themselves are automatically generated by Google, and are related to the content of my blog entries (which explains why so many of them are food-related). For every one that a reader - that means you - clicks on I get a couple of cents. Wooo.

This is not a sponsored blog, and never will be. I blog because it amuses me, and any costs I bear myself. I was interested, though, to see what sort of response - what sort of payback, I suppose - I would get from the adverts, and intrigued to see how much of a fraud I would feel by doing it.

We're still in the data collection phase of the study. Nevertheless, if there's any advert that interests you, and you feel motivated to click on it, I thought you might be amused to know that a bit of money is going to a good cause. Well, eventually, theoretically. There's a minimal earning level before I get a cheque, or a check, or however money gets changed from American dollars to Great British pounds. And we're a long long way from that.

I do know that I like your comments much better.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Chickpea sandwiches

Falafel for dinner tonight, stuffed into warm pita bread with salad and lemon juice. Tasty and filling in equal measure.

I can't help but wonder how popular they'd be if they didn't have that romantic Arabic name, though. "Deep-fried chickpea and onion sandwiches" - whilst technically accurate - just isn't as romantic, is it?

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Pheasant eggs: the verdict

In honesty summary: slightly disappointing.

I arose this morning with a spring in my step and sashayed brightly into the kitchen, where I knew my treasure awaited: six cute pheasant eggs, nestled in the cool protection of the fridge.

Retrieving the box, I placed it on the countertop, and began the serious business of pondering the most bestest way to enjoy this rare treat: how to savour the full glory of the egg?

In a flash of inspiration, I had my answer: frying and poaching.

Poaching, as any fool knows, is probably the finest method of egg preparation. Done correctly - a trivially simple procedure - the egg emerges with delicately cohesive white and succulently runny yolk. A brief prob with a knife - or, better, fork - and the gold within is released to ooze luxuriously out. Oh!

I set the pan of water on the stove and rummaged for a frying pan.

A fried egg is, of course, a British classic; a staple of the breakfast table. I've not been a great fan of them myself, not until quite recently, when I discovered how to cook them properly. Nowadays my enthusiasm is not, shall we say, unbounded. But I have learned to enjoy a fried egg from time to occasional time. Today was just such an occasion, not least because I rather hoped the small fried eggish circles would resemble some fried quail eggs I saw on sale in a Bangkok market. Oh indeed!

Giggling quietly to myself with suppressed excitement, I found an omlette pan - a pan that I bought to make tiny Spanish tortillas, and now use exclusively for eggy dishes omlettes, scrambled or fried eggs and pancakes (whatever would Larousse have to say about that?!) - and set to.

A little oil, a little heat, a little egg - and a brief stumble. It would seem that the shell of a pheasant egg is unusually tough. A sharp rap on the edge of the pan was not sufficient to crack the shell neatly - and I was in fear of rupturing the yolk. So much so that I resorted to using a knife to breach the container and reveal the delights within.

My first glimpse of the workings of the object was unremarkable. I had read that the yolk is proportionately larger than that of a chicken's egg, but did not discern this fact myself. I watched carefully as it reached the just-hot-enough oil and turned the egg of my wooden spatula to the delicate and necessary task of scooping. I am not fanatical about scooping - the process of moving hot oil and cooking egg white back on itself in order to facilitate cooking, and better shape the final product. Rather, I tend to regard it as an aesthetic endeavour rather than an essential part of the cooking. Today was clearly an artistic day and I spent a little time shaping the setting egg into the most attractive ellipse.

In short order -shorter than you might believe from the length of this narrative - I deemed my little fried wonder to be ready, and slid it with due ceremony on to a waiting plate. After but a moment's reflection, I attacked the whole with a fork, tasting and savouring with an expression as closely similar to that of a Favourite TV Cook as I could approximate.

The first nibble tasted like fried chicken egg, as did the second. The third only confirmed the hypothesis, and the fourth and final morsel suggested nothing more pheasant-like than the previous triplet of tastings. It tasted like chicken egg.

Smacking my lips thoughtfully, I turned to the pan of now-boiling water and selected another egg from the waiting box. A quick application of knife, and once again, delicate eggstuff was dispatched, this time into the waiting swirling roiling water.

As with my method for producing fried eggs, my poaching technique benefits as much from artistic whim as from scientific method. On this occasion I had omitted to include vinegar in the poaching water, choosing instead to swirl furiously - but not too furiously - the water as the egg was added. The result, scant seconds later, was quite satisfactory: a jolly looking little clump of wetly-gleaming egg, perhaps the size of the first joint of my thumb, sitting neatly on the plate and awaiting the hovering fork.

Let us skip to the approaching climax: when fork descended, prongs ready, the egg spilled its golden delights very satisfactorily and I greedily guzzled away. But not so greedily that I did not spend time attempting to extract further pheasantish flavours from the warm little morsel.

Again, I could taste nothing other than chicken egg.

As you may be aware, duck eggs have a distinctly ducky flavour, as indeed do eggs laid by geese. Even turkey eggs have a particular flavour, reminiscent of - you guessed it! - turkey. But pheasant eggs, my dear readers, offer little more than an amusingly pointed tip, a novel colour scheme, and a familiar taste.

And that is all I have to say about that.

Friday, 9 May 2008

I could not be more excited

Eggs, eggs and more eggs!

Whilst wandering through the Friday market this afternoon, I came across a stall selling a variety of eggs: from ducks, chickens, and - wonder of wonders - pheasants!

Pheasant eggs being one of my top three Must Try Eggs (the others, as you must be aware, are Ostrich and Peacock), I immediately bought some and rushed home to find my camera.

The picture shows, for comparison, a duck egg (from Grazed Knuckles's pink and white ducks), a pheasant egg, and a chicken egg (left to right). The rice is short grain brown rice, if you need to know.

The dark-green colour of the pheasant egg hasn't really come out in this picture. You can see the size difference, though, and the sharp pointy top.

Tomorrow I shall conduct a tasting experiment!