Thursday, 30 July 2015

Bookish, Mermaidy-type of News. (EEeeek!)

Well, I'm a bit over-excited today, because I'm finally allowed to share some superbly exciting news.

I'm illustrating a book!

It's written by the wonderful children's author, Coralie Sparkles (or Amy Sparkes, to the rest of the publishing world.) She is really rather brilliant, and she has created some truly excellent picture books, just take a look here, the list is growing ever longer!

Authors always seem to live far away, in a distant, magical land of books. But this one happens to live in the next town from mine, about ten minutes from my doorstep to hers. Which is brilliant, because it meant that I got to meet her and invite her to the library, and to attend one of her writing courses. It was such an encouragement when she showed an interest in my illustration, and bought some of my pictures. When she asked me a certain bookish question early this Spring, you can guess that I didn't need to hesitate to answer with a massive, grinny YES!

Not only am I illustrating my first book, but that book is about MERMAIDS!!! What could be more fun? I've had such a brilliant time choosing hairstyles and tail colours, drawing plaits and curls and seaweed and fishes. 

As well as sharing a love of mermaids, Amy and I both also love Twinings Lady Grey Tea. There have been many mugfuls shared already, and many more to come as we draw near to producing our finished book and planning all the exciting events to celebrate its publication. 

Hurrah and whoop-whoop!

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Fictional Food Adventure: Making Dickon's Roasted Eggs from The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett


I don't think this is how a roasted egg is supposed to turn out. 

Mary and Dickon roasted their eggs in the hollow at the root of a tree.

As we do not posess any such space within our garden, we decided to try roasted eggs on the embers of our bbq after we'd cooked our burgers. However, the remaining charcoal was obviously still far too hot because after about a minute of sitting amongst them we heard an almighty bang and the egg shot off the bbq and flew through the air. 

The egg is supposed to cook for about an hour, and the bbq is probably not the best place for them. The heat from the charcoal was far too fierce, and despite having made a hole in the shell, it couldn't handle the pressure. Ideally we'd have done it on the warm ashes of a wood fire but, being July, we are not currently having log fires indoors. So, it was a fun experiment, and what was left of the egg inside its shell was actually cooked and it tasted wonderfully smoky; tasty enough to promise me it's worth waiting until the Autumn to try it again on a chilly evening round our cosy hearth, along with a few potatoes. 

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Fictional Food Adventure: Making 'Wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee' Hash Browns from Charlotte's Web.

Breakfast is the first scene in Charlotte's Web. In fact, the drama of saving Wilbur's life faces Fern before breakfast is even ready, giving rise to her father's advice to her snoozy brother, Avery, that only the earliest risers get themselves a pig. 

That American Farmhouse breakfast consisted of all good things. Coffee. Eggs. Bacon. And Hash Browns. I love hash browns but have only ever had them from a factory-sealed packet. I was very excited at the prospect of eating them again, and of making them myself. Beforehand, though, I did a bit or research as there seems to be divided opinion on the method. I've linked to two good but widely differing recipes here, from BBC Good Food, and The Guardian. The main variants are whether to use raw or pre-cooked, floury or waxy potatoes and whether to chop them or grate them. 

According the the very thorough and enlightening Guardian article, the version with raw, grated, waxy potato is a Swiss thing. For the authentic American experience, the name 'Hash' comes from the French verb "hacher" - to chop up. It seems that it was usual to chop up leftover, cooked potatoes. It's an interesting article, so do have a read and decide for yourself what most suits you. Both seem like goers to me, and although I think the latter are what might have graced the table of the Arables, the recipe in my challenge bible is more along the style of the Swiss idea, and one I'm keen to try, so this is where I start and then I can play around from there. This recipe doesn't include onion, where many do. And it is cooked as one, rather than the individual, triangular things I am used to!   Like so many things, it's not truly about being right or traditional. It's about finding out what you like and what works well.

So here is my first try. 

This recipe is very simple....

..... containing merely grated potato and salt and pepper. 

 Oh, and leftover bacon fat. I didn't have any of that, so I cut off some bacon rind and rendered the fat out of it in the pan, to give me a nice load of bacony oil. 

I grated extra potato and mixed half of it with a bit of grated onion so that I could experiment with both. The generously seasoned grated tato all went into the hot pan and I prodded it all flat and let it cook for about 7 minutes, til it was brown and crispy.

Then I cut it in half and flipped it, letting the second side brown too. Then I served it with the bacon, (re-hotted back up in the pan and a little ocean of baked beans.) By the way, this was not breakfast, it was our Sunday lazy teatime, instead of beans on toast.

I then cooked up the oniony version and tried that with a morsel of bacon and eggs. I think it was a bit too oniony and although fairly enjoyable to eat, it's not my preferred idea of a hash brown. I know now that I should have grated the potato using the big holes. The fine shred meant that once the potato was pressed into the pan it formed more of a pancake. Nice and crispy, and tasty, but a bit strange. I will try it with the thicker grater and then I will try the other method, of using pre-cooked, chopped up potato. I think this will be more my cup of tea, both to make and to eat. I love corn-beef hash, so I think this will have some of that appeal. Plus, I personally wouldn't be up for grating potatoes first thing in the morning if I already had some cooked and chopped and ready to go. I can imagine Mrs Arable would be more of that school of thought too. Also, grating the potato creates a lot of juices which you have to absorb into kitchen roll. I'm thinking that I'm more of a sauteed potato girl. In wedges or in round slices, I just love them. They are easy and delicious and are perfect with bacon and eggs. 

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Fictional Food Adventure: Reading Charlotte''s Web by E.B. White

It's always a great pleasure to read Charlotte's web. 

My family thoroughly enjoyed an animated version of this once long ago and would often break into the catchy song about "Zuckerman's Famous Pig" sung by a barbershop quartet.  "Fine swine, wish he was mine ... Zuckerman's famous piiigg" was a refrain regularly echoed about our house for a while, and I know everyone would join in or smile if I sang it again now. You can listen to it right here if the mood takes you! (I know you will, Mum.)

I also fell in love with the more recent film adaptation starring a sweet young Dakota Fanning as Fern, and the warm voice of Julia Roberts as Charlotte. It's a wonderfully crafted film. It's so true to the book that you feel the pages have magically converted into a visual form. They manage to make Charlotte a convincingly realistic spider while also making her beautiful and loveable, (tricky for people, I believe.) Seeing her through Wilbur's adoring eyes, it was important they got that bit right. It's very beautifully filmed, believably and emotively acted, and is one of those precious films that you can savour in your heart because it's all so delicious. 

But getting back to the excellent book itself; as I said, it's always such a joy to read. Not only is it an enduring tale of true friendship, but it's a well-woven story full of brilliantly drawn characters and setting, and it's written gorgeously. The words wrap around you with their lyrical loveliness. E.B White has a way of making the mundane and ordinary into a rich tapestry of beauty to luxuriate in. His sentences are perfect and they wash over you effortlessly as you read. His simple eloquence is a joy to read, time and time again. I love the big old barn where all the animals live, and I love all the sights and smells and sounds of the farm. The relationship between Wilbur and Charlotte is so precious, but I also love the side story about Fern causing her mother concern by being so interested in animals. It's sweet watching nature taking its course in so many different ways, except the one in which Charlotte intervenes.  I've read Charlotte's Web countless times now, and it never fades. 

I urge you to read Charlotte's Web. And then, when you're sorry it's all over, grab the movie and enjoy it all again. 

Fictional Food Adventure: Making Amy's Pickled Limes from Little Women

The general push behind most of these recipes is that when reading the story that contains it, you really want to eat what the characters are eating. Not so with pickled limes! When reading Little Women, I was instead thinking, "how on earth did Pickled Limes become such a popluar and sought after treat?" I couldn't get my head around why they would be enticing, but it is in another country and another era altogether, and who knows what thrilled the palates of young people in those days. 

Anyway, I am curious and eager to see what kind of a treat I will be reproducing here. Be assured,pickled limes is not the same thing as Lime Pickle, the spicy Indian Curry accompaniment. I think people might just take these from the jar, wash the salt off and eat them, or use them in cooking. Still not quite sure. I think it might go really well with grilled meat or fish. 

I do love limes, and they are so beautiful. As I was slicing them open, they released such a fresh and zingy aroma. I always think of my Dad when I see limes because he's always loved them so much. I usually throw a few into his basket of presents at Christmas, to brighten things up. At the very least, they are great for slicing and adding to cold drinks. 

I had washed the limes well, and then each one had to be sliced into quarters, but not all the way through, leaving the four parts still joined at the very bottom. 

Then, holding the lime over a bowl, to catch the juices, I poured a very generous amount of salt into the centre and held it tight, squidging it to help the the salt work in and dissolve.

I used fine salt but next time I think I would use coarse salt and use more of it. Then, each lime could be dropped straight into the jar.

When all the limes were packed in, I poured over the escaped juices from the bowl, and  sealed the jar. After 2 weeks it needs to be kept in the fridge. 

Then I did another version with some extra limes, doing it exactly the same way but with the addition of loads of freshly squeezed lemon juice, enough to cover the limes and fill the jar. I couldn't find the nice wooden juicer Andy had bought so I did it all by hand. The combination of citrus juice and salt certainly found all the tiny cracks in my skin!

This was from a recipe I found online, and wanted to try it alongside the other way and see what results I get. This recipe tells you to turn the jar upside down and back every day, or every other day, to keep in a cool place, and use after about 30 days. Intriguing. It all reminds me of a thing that Jamie Oliver did once with a massive jar and a lot of lemons and salt. It looked appealing then and it was fun to do something similar myself. 

Since the day I pickled the limes, I have been turning the jars every day and the limes have quickly turned from a verdant green to a dulled yellowy beige.  It will be interesting to see how much the limes soften or squidge down over time, and how much I will like them when they are ready!

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Fictional Food Adventure: Reading Little Women

Little Women is a precious book. It's become very dear to me, and is a book that I feel everyone should read. If only everyone understood the lovely lessons that the March girls learn, I feel the world would be a much less selfish and more tolerant place.
It's taken me an absolute age to progress through the book, but I've really enjoyed every chapter. The many joys, challenges and sadnesses that the four young sisters face are a rich mixture of heart-wrenching, touching, hilarious, sweet, bizarre and enchanting.

Each reader will choose their own favourite March girl, but it's hard not to love each one at least a little bit. Before I read the book, I adored the film. Jo had always been my favourite, and Beth's character hadn't really shone through so much. But Beth in the book is so much more adorable and her personality is so much deeper and more interesting that she may be my new favourite. I always found film-Amy rather trying, and harder to sympathise with, despite her artistic tendencies, and thought Meg slightly dull. But, book-Amy and book-Meg are much subtler characters in the book; harder to predict and easier to love. 

I discovered after finishing this book, that I had actually read Little Women and Good Wives in one volume! Nowhere on the book does it mention this fact, so I have read more than I needed to for the challenge, but I'm glad to have gone straight on with the story, because it makes it very complete. I would heartily recommend always reading them both in one go. 

Well, I don't know really what more to say about these four sisters, except that I will cherish them forever and always be glad that something made me read this story, when I otherwise may have neglected it.