Monday, 27 October 2014

Happy hipsters

People love to hate whatever tribe the newspapers identify, don't they.  In the 80s I remember them mocking Yuppies, and Sloane Rangers. Without thinking hard about it, I remember articles mocking: Gen Xers, slackers, New Age Travellers, eco-warriers, Yummy Mummies and MAMILs. Currently there are hipsters.

Oh, how everyone loves to hate hipsters. Look at them, with their turned up skinny jeans and daft facial hair. At least one status in my Facebook feed each day is slagging them off.

I love them.  I think they're great. I like the check shirts - they remind me of what kids wore when I was growing up in Ontario. I like the coloured trousers. I like their massive beards.  I like that they aren't wearing the usual boring clothes blokes wear - suits or jeans and dull or 'amusing' T shirts. I like high top sneakers, work boots, down jackets and I have a deep and abiding love of hats...

Hell, hipsters are all about some of my favourite things. That comfy lumberjack look of my Canadian childhood with Grizzly Adams's beard and a deep and abiding love of coffee. And ideally a MacBook Air.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Brunch for superstars

It's half term here in Yorkshire. The concept of half term confused me when I first moved here from Canada - only 6 weeks of school and already a holiday?  2 weeks as well at Christmas and Easter? Geez, those Brit kids are lucky slackers.  But then I realised to my horror that their summer break was only 6 weeks long. Shudder.  For someone used to 10 week summers entirely free from the drudgery of homework and classrooms it seemed cruel. How could you feel properly free with school looming over you.

Anyway, here the terms are about 12 weeks long, give or take. Six weeks then a week off in October, February and late May, then the rest of term until Christmas, Easter or late July sets them free again.  Once I got used to it I rather liked the rhythm of it. As a parent I love it - regular holiday time with the kids, able to relax and enjoy their company. I'd far rather have them here than in school.

One of the pleasures of the start of the holidays is feeling at leisure. We don't have to cram as much into a weekend, so we can have a lazy breakfast of French toast or eggs and sausages. I fancied making something new to start our languorous start of GMT - the best part of British Summer Time coming to an end. I'd seen a recipe on The Guardian's website called Breakfast of Champions: Rosa Parks' Peanut Butter Pancakes.

Discovered written on an envelope amongst the civil rights heroine's papers, it combined lots of things we love in our house. Pancakes! Easy recipes! Peanut butter!  What's not to totally love?

NB - peanut butter is wonderful stuff.  I don't mean the healthy, wholefood stuff; I want Skippy, the vastly processed peanut butter I'd had a kid. I never understand why so many people in the UK are resistant to it.  Or even worse  - spread butter on the bread before the peanut butter.  Seriously, that can happen.  My in-laws were awful for doing it and it took years for them to drop the habit.  It's like eating pizza with a knife and fork.

The recipe calls for 150g of plain flour, 2 tbs of baking powder, 2 tbs of sugar and a bit of salt to be sifted into a bowl.  In a jug, beat together 1 egg, 100g smooth peanut butter and 300ml of milk.  Because peanut butter is gloopy and milk isn't, I beat the PB and the egg together into a slack-ish liquid before stirring the milk in. They combined really well, and my concerns of blobs of PB floating in a jug of milk were unfounded.

Anyway, mix wet ingredients into dry and let sit on one side for 10 minutes.  Then fry blobs of batter in butter to make small American style pancakes.  I used a serving spoon as a measure and got nearly 20 pancakes.

They were LOVELY.  Miss B went for the traditional PB&J approach and spread them with raspberry jam.  Zach, Mark and I went for maple syrup.  I'd have sliced banana on them if we'd had any to hand.  I know from experience that peanut butter and sliced banana go beautifully on French toast, so I'm sure it would be ace.

Luke... well, Luke marches to the beat of his own drum. Lemon curd is his favourite spread by far.  Rather than branch out, he insisted his lemon curd/peanut butter pancake combination was delicious. However, he didn't join the others in mithering for extras. I think he'll opt for chocolate spread when I make them next time.

Once we'd finished all the pancakes we all headed outside to get the garden ready for winter.  The kids were absolute stars - helping with weeding, pruning, lawn mowing and clearing up. I cleared out and scrubbed down the polytunnel and did the winter sowing while Mark and the kids cleared the raised beds, top dressed the currant patch and netted off the veg beds from cats.  A lovely big empty raised bed looks suspiciously like a litter tray to the local mogs, so we need to keep them out.

Laundry done, shopping sorted, cakes in the oven and the early sunset definitely noticeable, we're feeling all tucked in and cosy.  It's a nice way to welcome Autumn in.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Looking for the bright spots

It's important to have something to look forward to, I find, particularly at this time of year.

Spring is easy. The willow tree in my garden goes from bare branches to a yellowish blurring of outlines to a pale green fuzz and then proper leaves. Each stage has me looking towards the next, and the new buds are just so hopeful and full of promise. I know which neighbours have the early blossoming trees in their gardens and which patches of my own will produce flowers next.  It's much easier to feel good about the world when the days are lengthening and the world is coming back to life.

Summer - well, that all depends on the weather.  A decent bit of warmth and sunshine and I think my cup runneth over. There are vegetables to sow and tend, fruit growing on my trees, and long evenings sitting outside chatting.

Autumn and winter are hard going.  I like the quality of light on sunny autumnal days, with that crisp feel to the air and strangely comforting smell of dead leaves.  I love snow, and loads of it.  But the dark days, the dampness so much a part of this climate and the way the world is painted in a palette of mud tones and grey  - it's a tough gig.

So, things to look forward to is my coping strategy.

My best and most reliable thing to look forward to is my annual ballet weekend with my Very Excellent Mate Bon.  She's my mate of longest standing in the UK - the first friend I made when I moved here and the only schoolfriend apart from Mark I kept in touch with.  The third weekend in January is our usual date but Matthew Bourne's production of Edward Scissorhands finishes early this season, so we're moving it forward a week.  I have never yet had a less than lovely time (except when I was 37 weeks pregnant with Miss B and in terrible pain, but that wasn't anyone else's fault.)

I'm browsing hotels for it already and will be able to book my train seats next week.

I am also looking forward to another Matthew Bourne ballet - Lord of the Flies. Luke and I are going together in early December. He studied it for English Lit last year and is keen to see it. I love that my son is interested in all forms of story telling, not just movies or games.  We share a lot of films, books, graphic novels and radio programmes together, and it's brilliant. Luke is great company and has an original perspective on things.  I am VERY much looking forward to our outing.

Back in early September when East Coast Rail were having a lightning sale I booked train tickets for Miss B and I to go to London together on our own.  That's coming up in a month. The plan is to ride the London Eye - which the lads have done but B hasn't - and do everything B is interested in.  I expect sweets and toys may be involved. We'll have 5 hours on the train to chat and play and make plans, or reflect on all we've done - and I do love travelling by train. We'll have a brilliant day, and it will be ace to watch her discover her London. I already know the lads' London, and my own.

I am also very much looking forward to one particular aspect of Christmas.  I think getting the tree, decorating it and then putting While You Were Sleeping on while I wrap presents in front of it is my all-time favourite part of Christmas.  It's that smell. The pine needles may shed and it can be a faff getting the thing upright in the stand, but a real tree is pretty much as good as the festive season can get.  Each decoration is an old friend - some made by Mum and me when I was a kid, some by our kids when they were little, some reminders of trips or events in our lives.  And lavish amounts of tinsel. And red or silver baubles.  I can picture it in my head now and it's fabulous.

The soonest thing I am looking forward to is Sunday, November 2nd at 7pm.  At that time my lovely Z will get home from his week-long trip to Germany with Youth Club.  He'll be tired out and bursting with all the stories of what he saw and who he met. The house will have all its people home again. I will sit on the couch, probably sharing take away pizza with everyone and listening to Z share all his enthusiasm and pleasure in new things with us while his brother and sister try to talk over him. And it will be brilliant.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Wide Awake

"I am wide awake"

It's 1 am. Mark and the kids are in bed. I'm doing the last round of chores - folding the stuff from the dryer, putting another load in the washer, feeding the pets, loading the dishwasher, locking the doors. You know, the usual night time stuff.

I'd made fish cakes for the kids today. I bought lots of coley and a small piece of smoked haddock, poached them in milk while I peeled, cut and boiled spuds. I mashed the fish and spuds together with an egg to bind it, formed it into patties and dipped them in flour, whisked egg white and matzo meal before frying them. I'd made Grandma Curl's potato salad, complete with finely diced boiled egg, green pepper and onion. Mark and I were having fresh mackerel fillets but, knowing the kids didn't like them, I bought ingredients and made a replacement.

This lead to a total hissy fit from two of my kids.  OK, they didn't like the fishcakes, fair enough. I won't make them for them again. But today it is the dinner. Today it's what they need to eat, even if it's just a very small portion.  Because this isn't a restaurant and you can't order a different meal if you don't like the first one. That's it until breakfast.
(If they have a good go and eat a fair bit, we do offer a piece of toast to fill them up a bit more, but not if they've just had a tantrum. You can judge my parenting if you like.)

Miss B tried to negotiate for a good hour - "I've had a mouthful and that's enough." In the end she was sent to bed after scraping her dinner into the bin.  She'd been really rude to us and we decided it was better she not be with other people for a bit.

This was not the punishment it might otherwise have been. For a week-long trial our guinea pigs, Snowy and Pippin, are moving inside to B's room. The cage is clean, I sewed fleece pads to line it and  B tidied her room ready. I bathed the guinea pigs and treated them for fleas just in case, and filled their dangling feeder ball with fresh veg and fruit. The guinea pigs were running around exploring their new environment. B would have gone up to her room anyway rather than join the rest of us laughing at The Apprentice on iPlayer.

As usual, I popped in to check on her in the evening. She was fast asleep, but as I leant over to turn off her light she muttered "I'm not asleep at all," before drifting back to light snores.

So, at 1 a.m. when I'm finally going to bed I opened her door. It's a bit stiff and made a noise as it opened. (We have to keep it firmly shut or Isaac the cat barges it open, wakes B and generally is disruptive.)

At the sound, Miss B called out "I am wide awake," in the voice of someone very asleep. I put my hand on her hair, which usually settles her right back again.

"I am wide awake," she murmured again. "It's ok, go to sleep, sweetheart."  "Oh, are you wide awake, Mummy?" she asked, rolling further under the duvet, "that's OK then."
And back to sleep.

I have no idea why it was so important B claimed to be awake. Maybe the ignominy of being sent to her room 45 minutes before her actual bedtime made her think she was determined not to go to sleep. Maybe the novelty of guinea pigs in her room made her want to stay up.

Whatever it was, the fact that I was "wide awake" meant she didn't have to be.
Sweet dreams, my stubborn girl.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Mellow Fruitfulness

Ah, Keats.   Of all the poems I learnt at school, Ode to Autumn is the only one strangers quote t me. There is something about going for a walk and coming across someone picking elderberries or sloes in the hedgerows that seems to compel ramblers of a certain age to say "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness." Every time. Seriously, it happens every single time.

It's a corker of a line, of course. In fact, I like the whole first stanza -

SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,         5
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease;  10
For Summer has o'erbrimm'd their clammy cells.

The apple and pear trees have been wonderful this autumn. I've had crisp, sweet Discovery apples from the cheap little tree from Costco we planted 18 months ago.  There were two freakishly large Red Delicious apples, each as big as a baby's head, from a cordon tree SJ gave us. I can't bring myself to eat them, they're just too ridiculous. Miss B's apple tree has had a less successful year but after last year's bumper crop probably needed the break.

For the first time our little pear tree has been properly productive. Up until this year it's lost most of its fruit before they'd ripened. I've been plucking ripe pears from the branches for a nearly a month - I must have had at least 15, which is good going for such a small tree. They are so much nicer than any pears I've had before, but I suspect that's sentimentalism on my part.

This week my lovely pal Suzanne took me to visit our friends Jo, Ang and Lucy for a visit of walking, sloe picking and a big shared lunch. Lucy is a keen walker and cyclist. When she said there were blackthorn bushes 'near' her house, I hadn't realised she meant a 4.5 mile round trip rather than a gentle stroll along the lane. However, it was a beautiful sunny day, the company was good and the sloes plentiful. It was a lovely day, the kind I will look back on to keep me going during the dark winter days.

People say things like "wait until the after the first frost" to pick sloes, but that's rubbish. Most years, by the time we have a frost the sloes have been eaten by the birds, picked by foragers quicker off the mark, or have wizened on the bush. The frost breaks down the cell structure, which is helpful for making sloe gin. I guess that was pretty useful in times past.

However, we don't live in the 18th century.  We have freezers.  Bobbing your freshly picked sloes in the freezer for a couple of days does a fine job of rupturing the cell structures, with the added bonus of killing off any unwanted passengers.

After picking over the frozen sloes for stalks, leaves or deceased insects,  I poured 1kg of them into a 2 litre Kilner jar. In went just over a litre of gin and 200g of sugar.  Traditional recipes call for a lot more sugar, but I don't like it too syrupy, and I'd rather add more sugar later than end up with something tooth-dissolving.

I've left the jar on the counter this week so I remember to shake it every day. in about a fortnight I'll banish it to the cupboard under the stairs until near Christmas.  Then I'll test the sweetness, adjust as needed, and leave a while longer.

The other autumnal thing I did this weekend was roasting 2 large butternut squashes for soup. I just hack them into big slices or wedges, skin on, and rub a little olive oil across them. Then I bang them in the oven for about an hour.

I pull them out when they are all soft and look like this -

Cooled, rinds removed and whizzed up with stock and pepper, they become pretty much my favourite fall lunch.  That's why I make such a lot at once - I will eat it for days given a chance!