Perks

One of the few things freelancers miss after leaving the treadmill is a steady flow of perks. Whatever they were for you, the chances are they won’t exist or, even if they do, you won’t be able to claim them on expenses and, even if you can, it’s you who has to earn enough to pay yourself back. Some perk.

Instead, simple aspects of freelance life become the treats: being free to meet a friend for coffee (but you can’t charge the coffee) or skipping round an exhibition during the day then catching up on work at night (but you can’t charge overtime) or taking advantage of sunshine midweek and working at weekends (which no one understands). It all adds up to freedom – the biggest perk of all – but, as freedom soon becomes a way of life, it rarely counts as a perk.

So, when an invitation arrived inviting me to an exclusive East Meets West lunch with cookery writer and television chef Anjum Anand, with the expectation that I will try to gain a commission for an article about it, singing for my, er, lunch is a very definite perk. Love her television programmes. Keep meaning to buy one of her books. And now this: Anjum showing us quick and easy ways to use paneer (Clawson paneer, to be precise) with us eating the results. I was happy to set the alarm and go commuting to the Good Housekeeping Institute’s demonstration kitchen.

What a stage set. Round tables beautifully laid … brilliant turquoise table cloths sprinkled with dark red chillies; sparkling glasses (filled with fizz as we arrived); a deep purple orchid on every place setting; stunning table arrangements of the same orchids in vases full of red chillies; a beautifully designed menu, instantly evoking the atmosphere of India; plus knowledgeable and friendly hosts, from Clawson, on each table to fill gaps in our knowledge about paneer. I have no idea how often other food writers go to this sort of do but it was far from typical for me.

And, being me, I gorged on every dish – all six of them – while trying to fathom the unfathomable reason why paneer had never made it into my shopping basket when I regularly order mutter paneer or sag paneer when out for a curry.

And then there was the goody bag – an unexpected (at least by me) extra perk. A packet of paneer; a balti dish; Anjam’s recipes for the day; a box of ginger tea; and a copy of Anjam’s New Indian, the book that accompanied Anjum’s BBC television series, signed by her at the end of the lunch. I went home with a light skip in my step despite being weighed down by my heavy stomach (due entirely to self-inflicted excess).

Whatever type of freelance you are, perks will be few and far between so grab them when you can. But if you treat them as freebies, you’ll find the invitations stop coming. The very least you can do is give them an honourable mention in your blog.  Watch out for the recipes; they are perfect freelance lunches …

Excessive greed left me far from perky

  1. A couple of spoonfuls of paneer tikka masala
  2. Half a wrap of paneer fajitas
  3. A ladleful of Thai noodle paneer and vegetable curry
  4. A skewer of grilled paneer, peppers and onion
  5. Two large dollops of paneer and spinach curry
  6. Every last scraping of a glassful of layered berry and paneer cheesecake

No, not a typical freelance lunch and, yes, moments later ... every last bit, gone.

Here’s a visual taster in the video taken on the day (if you blink, you’ll miss the back of my head): http://ow.ly/2JFiG

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Timewasters

I should have seen it coming. After all, it’s not as if I’m new to freelancing. Finding the balance between chasing work (when desperate for it) and doing some (if you have any) is like spotting the fine line between the darkness and the dawn.

I’d met the potential client, I’ll call him Anand, at a networking do. He’d recently set up a business and felt his website wasn’t working. I looked at it later, saw it was pretty dreadful, and contacted him suggesting a meeting.

Our India links boded well and Anand seemed receptive to ideas. I let my initial hour run on, as is often how it goes when there’s hope of clinching a deal, and three hours later I left having given him quite a lot of free advice. Yes, yes. Naive, I know. But I reasoned it was unlikely that he’d be able to put it into practice – and that it was worth it to win his confidence.

I gave him an idea of how long it would take and my usual spiel about fixed project fees being better value for money. He said he’d probably be Indian about it and barter. Wry smile to self (as in pride comes before a fall sort of wry). I sent him a detailed estimate for bringing his website up to snuff, writing standard emails and letters for prospects and a leaflet. I was on course, I thought, for a decent bit of work.

When he asked to meet again to take things forward, I warned him  that the clock would start ticking as he’d already had three hours of my time. Another handshake, another coffee. Three hours later (yes, a pattern was emerging) I left, having reiterated all the points I’d made at our first meeting plus gone through some very basics together. Very, very basic. He didn’t know who his competitors were – or how to find out. I introduced him to the delights of Google – first searching for his business (totally hidden) then his competitors (scores of them popped up). He was grateful; said he’d been a bit naive (no scope for another wry smile from me on that one) and started bartering. After giving him six hours of strategic advice, I was tough. He pushed; I stayed firm. He was slithery – and I became ruthless. I wasn’t in the market for working with someone who couldn’t give a straight answer to a straight question. If he agreed a decent fee I’d do the work – emphasising the need to be open and honest with his clients.

And then he called me to a third meeting – to meet the person with whom he was going into partnership. What! Six hours and no mention of a partner – despite me asking how he was going to run his business as it was clear to me it would soon be too much for him on his own.

From the first second of the seventh hour I knew this was not going to work. Mr Partner wore a self-satisfied sneer and greeted me with smarm that hid no charm. Anand asked me precisely what I would recommend for his website. I explained I was not available to write it on the spot, for free. He said I couldn’t expect him to take me on without knowing what my work was like. I reminded him I’d sent him links to websites I’d written as evidence. He asked me, in an even more roundabout way, to shave my fee. I said, again, that he’d had nearly seven hours – almost a day – of strategic advice and I couldn’t afford any more concessions. He said, I said … It was like an uncivilised game of ping pong. I put down my bat and left.

The dilemma between wanting to have pride in work well done, and maintaining pride by not chasing work for work’s sake, is one that emerges very early on. If you find yourself spending more than a couple of hours speculating, the chances are it’s not only the client who is wasting your time.

When there’s no time to waste (Imam and giant baked beans with houmous)

One tin Palirria Imam (aubergine in oil)

One tin Palirria Baked Giant Beans

Home made houmous

Cayenne pepper

Rocket (as the photo shows, I finished yesterday’s watercress but rocket would have been better)

  1. Open the tins (how time-saving is that?). I usually use about a third of each unless I’ve had a tiny supper the night before. Whatever’s left does me for supper a couple of days later.
  2. Splodge on the plate with the houmous and the rocket. Sprinkle cayenne on the houmous.

Cheating to catch up on lost time. With only myself to blame.

It’s one big sticky lunch – apart from the crunchy leaves – with the chilli in the houmous adding pep and cutting through the extravagance of oil.

No, I never buy houmous – now I’ve cracked the recipe. Roast the garlic. Use far more tahini than anyone recommends. Add red chilli. Whizz. And, yes, of course you need to add lemon, water to create the consistency you like, and salt to counteract the blandness of the chick peas and the richness of the olive oil (with which I tend to be rather reckless). To serve with carrot sticks and other dippers, sprinkle with cayenne and drizzle with more olive oil. Calories, anyone?

As for ordinary Heinz baked beans, I’ve always loved them. Straight from a tin with a spoon. Tinned curried baked beans, too. As for having them on toast which turns to sludge … never. But for this, you need these unctuously smooth and tomatoey giant baked beans.

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Networking nightmares

In my last employed job almost everyone’s role included some networking, the success of which was measured not against the potential benefits of making the connection but against the length of time (the longer, the more impressive), the venue (if a Michelin star was involved, all the better) and the wealth of the guest (Times Rich List members preferred). I still remember the black look thrown at me by the chief executive when I declined to join him for some “hobnobbing with four millionaires” at a celebrity chef’s restaurant.

Yes, of course I built strong relationships with the organisation’s members and, no, my answer wasn’t driven by arrogance. I needed the time more than I needed to support his ego boost.

When I went freelance I decided to liberate myself from networking lunches believing that, with so many independent cafés a short walk from my front door, mid-morning or mid-afternoon hour-long sessions over a cup of delicious coffee would be more productive.

Inevitably, freelancers desperate for work have to network wherever and whenever – and compromise (what, me?) has to be faced.

Well-known organisations (chambers of commerce, BNI) tend to meet at breakfast which, for anyone who washes their hair every morning, means a five-thirty alarm call for a seven o’clock sharp start. Business gained by me (I gave them all a good go)? None – probably because my “one minute to win it” was spoken in tongues, the only language I can manage after a short night.

So I was thrilled when I discovered a couple of networking groups which deliberately avoided power breakfasts. Recognising how women prefer to work, they met in the evening over high-class nibbles and drinks. Business gained there? None. Be warned. If you admit to having organised anything, you will be roped in … I seldom networked for me; I networked for the group.

Out of the blue an email invited me to the launch of a new group.  In my town and for women. We met … over lunch (yes, yes, but it was informal and infrequent – monthly – and it worked). Business gained? A sizeable commission at the second meeting on the back of which I gained another through which I got a third – and the first came back for more.

Four years later, it happened again. An email bounced in announcing a new networking group. Several emails followed – from friends, all asking if I’d heard about it and would I be going. Held in a local restaurant, the cost brought two drinks and a range of nibbles. Will I go again? Despite it being at lunchtime, the buzz was energising and the potential – well, who knows, but some useful contacts were made. It’s time to eat not lunch but my words.

Eating my words (drinks party small eats)

No recipe for this one. No photograph either (I forgot to get out my camera). I hope you can picture the scene …

  1. Mini croques monsieur – three-bite rectangles, slightly burnished from a very buttery frying, with a generous dollop of proper creamy béchamel sauce wobbling on the top
  2. Blinis, lavishly buttered when warm, with smoked salmon and a sprinkling of lumpfish roe (I’d have added a coffee spoon drop of crème fraiche and a snip of chives)
  3. Tiny pastry cups of an unidentifiable veggie mix with raw onion (why raw onion when trying to make a good impression is the priority?)
  4. Rounds of fried bread (yet more more butter) with a generous twirl of rare beef on top (they never reached me, stuck in the centre of the room with much of the food passing round the edges)
  5. Small choux pastry lozenges filled with cream and drizzled with melted chocolate (easy to scoff, as many did though not savoury-toothed me)
  6. Slivers of flaky pastry with slices of strawberry layered above crème patissière (very hard to pick up and eat, leaving many with sticky fingers and gloopy lips).

My mother called this sort of food “small eats”. I find the term so much more reassuring, and wholesome, than “canapés”.

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It’s easy to achieve nothing

Freelancing is unpredictable. It’s not just that it’s feast or famine – far too much to do or, more often, nothing at all – it’s the days during which you don’t stop doing but, when you look back for a sense of achievement, nothing counts as work.

Today was one of those days.

I’d had a busy weekend – a training workshop all day Saturday and a long, lazy lunch on the Sunday which, because we ate outside in the shade of an early heatwave, left me good for nothing for the rest of the day (the effect of even a light rosé is long-lastingly debilitating, even when drunk with as much water as wine).

So Monday started late. With someone due to call round at 10.30, I argued that being ready for that was early enough; I deserved a no-alarm morning having spent Saturday with my work brain in gear.

I say someone. It was Suzie of Suzie’s Yard on her way to my local deli to tempt them with her Tuscan treats. I’d offered her a visitor’s parking voucher and expected her just to ring the doorbell and dash off. Instead, I spent an unexpected, and unexpectedly pleasurable, half hour salivating over her latest finds (www.suziesyard.co.uk).

Back to my desk. Check for urgent emails (ever hopeful of a sudden request for something leading to an invoice) before nipping out to the shops. Having been out all weekend, my cupboards were bare and, after drooling over Suzie’s offerings, my tummy was rumbling for its breakfast smoothie the ingredients for which were missing from my kitchen.

And then the phone rang. An hour later, after another “quick look” at emails and sending a “quick reply” I set off. It’s Monday! My favourite (independent) supermarket is closed! So I diverted and started dashing to the only other supermarket I’ll enter (Waitrose).

Inevitably, in our villagey town, I bumped into a local friend and another half hour was lost in enjoyable but non-earning chat. I made it back in time to … well, not to make my breakfast smoothie. With only a few minutes before I had to leave for my twice-weekly remedial knee/back class, there wasn’t enough time. But I needed something.

At a meeting with a colleague last week, I’d been re-introduced to a nutritionally naughty nibble from my childhood and the distinctive packaging caught my eye in Waitrose. With six in a box, I told myself I’d be disciplined, hiding them for every-now-and-then-indulgences when I felt I’d earned it. I unwrapped one for a bit of an energy boost (“I’ll probably work off the calories in the gym”, my head said) and gloried in its gloriousness.

Four thirty, I’m back and it’s time, at last, for lunch. The phone rang. You can imagine what happened next. Perhaps just one more – really, only one – would be ok. It was so good, so dreamily light and smoothly fluffy – what does it say on the packet about calories? Never mind the fat content (surprisingly low), ignore the sugar level (shockingly high), just the calories. Because I’m so, so hungry. And that was three gone. And then, because the photo would look better, a fourth.

Freelance life is like this. Undisciplined days when you are never idle but you don’t achieve anything either – and when the lure of fridge or, given mine is often empty, the box-I-should-never-have-bought, takes over. Tomorrow will be different, won’t it?

Mini clouds as light as nothing (Tunnock’s Tea Cakes)

And then there was one ... immediately after the camera had clicked.

I remember Tunnock’s tea cakes from my mid-childhood. They are nothing like the supermarket own-brand versions. As light and as heavenly as clouds, they transported me to a much higher place than my top floor flat– and I’m sure it wasn’t because of the sugar rush. http://www.tunnock.co.uk

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Heart-warming rewards

Clients don’t always realise what goes on behind the scenes on their behalf. Nor do they know just how much time we spend on their accounts – even if we’ve agreed a rate for a fixed number of hours or days. For most of us it’s always more and, often, very much more. Promising less and delivering more is a good policy – provided you don’t let circumspect over-servicing slide into resentment-inducing exploitation.

If we needed our clients to recognise our hidden hard slog we wouldn’t be working in isolation and uncertainty, lurching from project to project, ever hopeful of the big break that allows us to raise our rates and lower our stress levels. We’d be on the other treadmill – the one that brings a steady income (and a life driven by someone else’s timetable, commuting, office politics and always having a CV on the go).

Which means we also don’t go through the agony of appraisals – or the ecstacy when a boss dishes out some praise. So, when a client bothers to thank us formally – by email or letter – it’s time to break open a bottle of fizz … or pull open a filing cabinet and slip the evidence into a Nice Comments folder for safe-keeping.

Which is why, today, I printed the early morning email from a client, on her way to France for 10 days, saying she was thrilled with the newsletter I had recommended (for years) and devised and written (in a hurry when her enthusiasm kicked in), and which was set into a beautiful design by a website/newsletter designer I’ve worked with several times before.

Words on the page, not just spoken, can be especially powerful if freelance life is proving a struggle. On days when life is exceptionally grey, a quick saunter through that folder warms the heart and renews flagging enthusiasm.

Body-warming indulgence (two bean chilli with avocado and sour cream)

1 tin red kidney beans

1 tin black beans

1 tin chopped tomatoes

2 English onions

1 red pepper

1 red chilli

1 tsp hot chilli powder

3 cloves of roasted garlic

Half fat crème fraiche

Olive oil

Himalayan salt

Coriander

  1. Chop the onions and the red pepper. Deseed and finely chop the red chilli. Drain the beans (I always rinse them, too, to get rid of the sludge).
  2. Sweat the onions, the red pepper and the chilli in the olive oil, covered, for about 10 minutes stirring from time to time so they don’t catch. They should be soft but retain their colour and shape.
  3. Mash the flesh of the garlic cloves and stir it into the onions and peppers with the chilli powder. Let the mixture bubble for a few minutes, stirring frequently to make sure it is all well-blended.
  4. Add the red kidney beans, the black beans and the tomatoes. Stir to combine and let it bubble very gently, covered, for 10 to 15 minutes stirring occasionally to stop it sticking on the bottom.
  5. Roughly chop a small handful of coriander leaves. Top the chilli with a dollop of crème fraiche and sprinkle over the coriander.

Did I say a dollop of crème fraiche? It dropped from a large spoon ...

Way back in the mid 1970s I worked in a Tex-Mex restaurant near Boston, Massachussetts. Owned by my cousin Janet, La Piñata had a strong and loyal following for its heartily good fast food – before fast food became a derogatory term. I arrived, in need of being rescued after a very grim five months as an au pair in Toronto, and had my self-esteem lifted when my tips rolled in at between 20 per cent and 25 per cent because of my English accent (we all shared our tips equally, you will be glad to know). Though it’s impossible to believe now, with my dysfunctional late-start-to-the-day existence (the morning is the middle of the night to me), I loved the buzz of our sunrise trips to the market every day and ran on a high till long after the restaurant closed, not that much before midnight. It was hard work but how the adrenaline flowed.

We made a mean chilli – but all the food was good (Janet’s recipes, not mine) and nothing has matched it though the Texas Lone Star in Gloucester Road came close (its Chiswick sibling never quite made the grade, somehow).  I haven’t yet tried Wahaca.

I should have used Jalapeño peppers for this but I’m a big fan of red chillies which gave it a fresher taste. It’s a meat-free version only because I tend not to eat meat at lunch (except in tiny quantities, and whenever were those two words possible with chilli?)

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Caught out

“Hello?” It was more of a groan than a greeting, grumping its way out in my early morning voice. Who could possibly need to ring so early, waking me up?  Early? It was 11.30! And on the line was my best client. I sat up and tried to sound professional (though the rustling of the duvet surely gave me away).

What constitutes a best client? Quantity of work is one measurement but this client gives me very little – the annual report (it comes round every year so it’s regular work – and the deadline is December which helps with increasingly expensive Christmases) and, perhaps, a leaflet or two in between. It’s a charity so it gets me at my (very reduced) charity fee. But it pays up with no quibbles – within a fortnight of invoicing.

In my books (where each month there seems to be less and less to double-enter) paying on time is what clients should do; paying early makes me feel they value my work (this is, of course, self-delusion; their accounts department plugs me into their computer without a thought).

If you rely on clients paying on time, you will be forever disappointed. Advised early on by a fellow freelancer, I ask for payment within 14 days. Charities excepted, this is seldom respected but it means I can put the pressure on sooner. When invoices are few and far between, it can make the difference between crashing through the overdraft limit then having to find a more sympathetic bank (impossible) or being able to buy supper (and I don’t mean out; I mean me, a plate and the television). The big guys – household names – have no sense of what it is like to be dependent on a few hundred pounds. If you thought accountants were dull, going freelance will teach you how creative they can be when dreaming up excuses for not paying up.

Back to waking up, which I just have. Freelancing means you can work, wake (and go to the gym) when it suits you but, if your office is in your bedroom, you will be caught out. My solution? A loft extension – with builders arriving at 8am six days a week for 25 weeks. So much for early morning freelance freedom.

A good catch (Smoked mackerel with beetroot and horseradish salad)

Smoked mackerel from a fishmonger

1 cooked beetroot

2 to 3 tsps grated horseradish root

2 tbsps half fat crème fraiche

Half a lime, squeezed

Watercress or a mixture of various leaves

Black pepper

  1. Make the beetroot salad. Gently stir the grated beetroot into the crème fraiche. Add one or two tsps of lime juice – enough to loosen the mixture and give it a bit of tang. Cut the beetroot into chunks and lightly stir them into the crème fraiche mixture, turning it over once or twice – it’s prettiest if you can see some bright white crème fraiche amidst the pink.
  2. Cut chunks of smoked mackerel or serve it in fillets if you prefer (I like the glistening amber of the skin so tend to chunk it).
  3. Serve it with a few leaves and a small piece of lime to squeeze over, if you like your fish with lemon or lime (I don’t).

Pretty in pink.

The first time I had beetroot in a sauce of some kind was when I was involved in pressure group politics and my then boss, Iain Picton, invited his committee to a strategy discussion over lunch. He’d made a white sauce for the beetroot. It was, of course, immediately a pink sauce. And so is mine today. Two stirs fewer and it would have retained more of its whiteness which would have been prettier.

And here I am eating smoked mackerel again. It is, as you’d expect, from my local fishmonger (Covent Garden Fishmongers) and deliciously moist and soft – nothing like the hard, dry, vacuum-packed, uniformly-dull stuff. Seek the real thing out if you can. It’s such an easy way to eat your two to three portions of oily fish a week – and can be turned into something delicious without any effort.

This blog first appeared as an article in PR Business in which I had my own column for six heady weeks.

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The smallest things make your day

It was a grim day. Grey and damp weatherwise; blue and bleak emotionwise; stark and empty clientwise – and nothing on the desk but a pile of fiddly admin stuff to do when a heap of invoices to post is both a fantasy and a pressing need. Then the doorbell rang.

Clomp, clomp, clomp. Clang. Kerchunk. I opened the door, gloomily, expecting an irritating question from an irritating questioner.

He had the beamiest smile I’ve ever seen. “Hello! I’ve come to read the meter!” he said, smiling with such broad genuineness I could only grin back. If he could bear his endless round of doorbell-ringing, greeting grumpiness (or getting nowhere at empty houses), bending into dark, dank and dusty recesses to do such a routine job, then … regardless, of how I felt, I couldn’t but share his enthusiasm.

Even the warning, that he should duck or he’d bang his head on the pipes in the outdoor meter cupboard, didn’t dampen his mood. “No worries!” he enthused. “I’m used to ducking!” Crunch, crunch, crunch of gravel “All done! Thank you! Cheerio!” and off he went, as if every house, every cupboard, every meter were a delightful discovery.

It’s easy to spiral into yourself when working alone, immersing yourself into the small detail of something that needs a big picture view, telling yourself it’s important not trivial; worthwhile not valueless; self-esteem enhancing not energy-sapping.

Finding something that brings you back into the wide world is important. Doing it is even more crucial. You can’t rely on the random arrival of a meter-reader to lift you out of your stupor. It’s down to you and you alone to maintain your get up and go so you get up and get on.

Making my day with garden-fresh eggs and asparagus

1 bundle Norfolk asparagus

3 quail’s eggs, fresh from the coop

1 medium hen’s egg yolk, laid that morning

¼ pint light olive oil

a pinch of Colman’s mustard powder

Lemon juice

Himalayan salt and celery salt

  1. Make the mayonnaise. In a mixing bowl and using a wooden spoon, blend the yolk of the hen’s egg with the mustard powder and a grind of black pepper. Slowly drip in the olive oil, stirring briskly all the time. When the mixture has thickened and seems reluctant to emulsify any more oil, add a little lemon juice, then keep adding the olive oil. As it thickens, add more lemon juice to taste or hot water from a recently boiled kettle. Add pepper and salt, to taste. Cover the bowl with cling film (or faff about covering the mayonnaise carefully with a dampened piece of greaseproof paper, excluding all air, as we were taught at the Cordon Bleu cookery school). Chill. (If the mayonnaise separates while you are mixing in the oil, either add a little hot water and stir it in vigorously or slowly add the split mayo, a dollop at a time, to a second egg yolk.)
  2. Prepare the asparagus. Bend each stem until it breaks to remove the woody ends. Boil gently for three or four minutes until just tender (it depends on their thickness and freshness, they should have a little bite). Drain and immerse immediately in cold water so they stop cooking and retain their colour.
  3. Prepare the quail’s eggs. Boil the eggs gently for two minutes then remove and put them in cold water immediately to stop them cooking. Peel them gingerly (I found the shell very hard to remove and the eggs almost split – they need very gentle handling).
  4. Lay the asparagus on a plate. Tuck in the halved eggs. Add a dollop of mayonnaise or, if you prefer it runnier, pour it over the asparagus. Dip the asparagus into it mouthful by mouthful. Dust the egg halves with a light sprinkle of celery salt and add just a hint of mayo to each one, aiming not to drown but to enhance their subtle flavour.

How did I manage to create the motorway mayonnaise look?

Yesterday, a friend, Alex, arrived bringing just-laid duck, quail and hen’s eggs from her garden – a treat that made my day that day. Having read of another blogger’s taste test of eggs (she noticed no discernible differences) I thought I’d conduct my own. What struck me most was the translucence of the white of the duck’s egg. It almost shimmered with paleness; I found it rather haunting. The yolk was a soft, light yellow, strikingly so compared with the strong golden ochre of the yolk of the hen’s egg.  On the taste front, the hen’s egg was by far the eggiest – a rich and full bodied shiraz of a yolk compared with the subtlety (a light burgundy?) of the duck egg (which I enjoyed most). I wished I could preserve the quail’s eggs as shattering their pretty, speckled shells seemed like vandalism – and proved to be so, given how hard it was to pick off the shell without gouging out nailsful of the white. Full praise for kitchens who have to do this “to perfection” (irritating phrase, spoken irritatingly throughout MasterChef); no wonder they cost so much in restaurants.

Thank you, Alex, for my morning fresh day.

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