Archive for April, 2010

Conventional or dysfunctional?

It seems to me that there are two types of freelancer. One recreates conventional work life, up early and at a desk in a tidy office with a daily to do list they work through with vigour, pausing for coffee, lunch and a cup of tea, and ending the day with a sense of satisfaction – and another to do list for tomorrow.

The other, incapable of routine, thrives on anxiety-filled adrenaline rushes, lurching from one crisis to another, perhaps never having time to get dressed or doing so just in time to dash to meet a client, grabbing a mouthful of something, anything, before dashing down the stairs while trying to insert an earring with one hand and groping for the keys with the other, diary and notebook crammed under their arm as their mobile phone goes off, its sound alerting them to the fact that the phone is not in their bag but at the top of the stairs …

The first sets realistic goals. The second … well, that’s me.

It started well, my Tuesday. I had all the ingredients in the flat and, as I’d worked on Sunday, I felt entitled to a spot of mid-morning de-stressing in the kitchen. Radio on. One saucepan simmering away, another sweating gently. Grater, peeler, squeezer, Sabatier, whizzer – and then it was in the fridge, chilling and firming and very pleased with it I was.

Then came the whirlwind. The draft of a new website to be amended, another to be adjusted, a client on the phone with a crisis and that was lunch. A fistful of walnuts followed by an unadorned oatcake. Hardly merits a mention and certainly not a photograph.

And Wednesday? I spent it largely away from my desk, waiting for a client to be free – a cup of coffee in, sadly, a chain coffee shop, sipped quickly while clutching my mobile phone so I could be up and off whenever she called.

Today, the paté as firm as it was ever going to get and with no unexpected client demands, I had lunch.

Conventionally late (Red lentil paté)

150g red lentils

1 English onion

1 large carrot

1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

1/4 tsp ground cumin

1/4 tsp ground coriander

1 inch ginger, grated

3 cloves of roasted garlic

1 lime, zested then squeezed

Olive oil

Himalayan salt

  1. Cook the lentils (I find they take much less time than it says on the packet; watch them as the mushier they are, the soggier your paté will be). Drain them well.
  2. Grate the carrot and ginger.
  3. Chop the onion and fry it gently in the olive oil, stirring occasionally so it doesn’t catch but allowing it to caramelise a little (which adds a depth of flavour) while it softens.
  4. Add the cayenne pepper, cumin and coriander and stir for a minute or so while the flavours develop.
  5. Fold in the carrot and ginger, mixing them gently with the spices. Let them soften in their juices, stirring from time to time as the liquid reduces, intensifying its flavour.
  6. When it is almost dry, add the lentils, roasted garlic, lime zest, a squeeze of lime (less than half a lime unless it is small and unjuicy – you want it to lift the flavours, rather than to stand out). Add salt to taste.
  7. Transfer to a food mixer and pulse a few times scraping the sides down between pulses – it should retain some texture, with flecks of carrot showing through; if you blend it too vigorously it will turn to an unappetising sludge.
  8. Scoop into ramekins, or an oblong container lined with foil so you can remove the paté once it has cooled and firmed up before slicing it (though slicing is overestimating what is possible with such a soft mixture).
  9. Serve as you wish (I ate it with two oatcakes and some rocket, rather a lot of rocket it appears, tossed in walnut oil).

A healthy lunch - or an excuse for oatcakes?

The carrot is the unsung hero of this paté, adding colour, texture and a hint of sweetness that slinks through the spices.

Having recently discovered that I’m yeast and wheat intolerant (I always wondered why I felt so weird after eating bread, which was only ever an excuse for butter) I’ve been on an oatcake hunt. Nairn’s rough oatcakes are pretty good but the very best are made by the Maclean’s Hebridean Bakery. Smaller (about the diameter of a round tea bag) and thicker (half a centimetre, I guess – and I’m not getting out the ruler), they have masses of extra crunch and a deep, rounded flavour. I buy the wheat free version (green packets, rather than red). Though not cheap, they are far more satisfying so I find my hands dipping into the packet less often. (I think this is a classic case of believing my own propaganda. A packet doesn’t last as long as it should.)

No prizes for guessing where I buy them. When I moaned recently because there were none on his shelves, Dan (that would be Dan Mortimer of Mortimer & Bennett) explained that deliveries are dependent on space being free on the ferry from Benbecula, where the Maclean’s bakery is. I think that’s probably another corn on my carbon footprint – but it’s a family-run, independent business: two brothers and the best Scottish oatmeal. Environment v ethics. You decide.

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Available night and day

I’d spent Saturday evening finishing off my bookkeeping. Several columns balanced first time! I didn’t use any Tippex! So I was delighted when a friend rang, as I was putting it all away, suggesting an impromptu barbecue on Sunday given the weather was so unAprilish. By Sunday morning, showers had soaked his neck of the woods so the barbecue was off; my day was free. Great; I could catch up on the heaps of paperwork that have taken over my flat and get ahead for Monday.

If, like me, you offer crisis management (or another round the clock seryice) to your clients you expect to be called at any hour on any day. So, when a client texted me at about noon on Sunday, apologising for interrupting my weekend but wondering if I could talk, of course I was available.

We met and that, apart from an hour and a half’s break when we both dashed back to our respective homes for a breather, was the end of the heap-tackling, pre-Monday sorting fantasy.

While my weekend lacked contrast with my week, today’s lunch was full of it: the richness of the liver against the sharpness of the lime; sweet with chilli; soft and velvety versus crisp and crunchy; dark with light; deep brown, white, green and red; the intoxicating scent of gentle frying and the heady zing of citrus as I cut into the lime; hot and cold; maximum value from minimum spend. Flavours, textures, colours, smells, temperatures – for something so simple, it delivered the lot. It would have worked well at a barbecue …

Dark and light (Chicken liver with fennel and chilli salad)

200g chicken liver

Roasted garlic (optional)

Bulb of fennel

Half a red chilli

Half a lime

Olive oil

Himalayan salt

  1. Deseed and finely chop the chilli.
  2. Trim the top of the fennel, saving the bright green fronds. Strip off any coarse outer leaves of the fennel – or peel away the stringy bits using a vegetable peeler. Cut it into quarters and remove the triangles of hard core. Slice each quarter thinly. Today’s fennel at A&G was small and young so nothing needed to be stripped or peeled and the central core was sweet and tender so I left it in.
  3. Toss the fennel slithers in a slug of olive oil, add lime juice to taste (you want to coat the fennel, not drown it, and the lime should bring out the aniseed flavour, not overwhelm it). Add the chilli (if you prefer just a hint of heat, use less).
  4. Trim fat and skin from the liver; separate the lobes so you halve each liver. Gently fry it in the olive oil for six or so minutes, turning it from time to time so it browns all over, until it is still a little pink inside. Toss in the sticky garlic, leaving it long enough to warm up before serving.
  5. Decorate the salad with the bright green fronds, cutting them off the stems if they are delicate, chopping them if they are bushy. Lightly sprinkle Himalayan salt on the liver (unless you are watching you salt intake).

Much more delicious than you imagine

This chilli salad crops up a lot on my plates. It seems to go with so many things – a fishy fish, sweet cold lamb, a dry hard cheese … I’m salivating already.

I usually deglaze the pan after removing the liver, sometimes using it as a dressing if I’m serving it with lamb’s lettuce – another good contrast, the sweet softness of the leaves complementing the richness of the liver. Today I didn’t use the juices – it wouldn’t have worked with the fennel and lime – so the garlicky slick is waiting for me tomorrow … ready in case a crisis occurs.

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Sunshine procrastination

One of the joys of freelancing, I felt instinctively when I first went solo, would be the freedom to take each day as it comes. Sunny and warm? Ring up a friend and suggest a stroll along the river. Cold, wet, windy days could be spent doing the routine drear that comes with work of any sort. Which explains why, time after time, I find myself, as today (fabulously sunny and a sudden invitation to a pavement café lunch), tackling chaotic heaps of crumpled receipts which will, if things go well and I haven’t run out of Tippex, provide neat columns of figures in my double entry accounts book so I can do my VAT return.

VAT return? She must be doing well if she’s bothered to register for VAT! Well, no. On the advice of my accountant (a friend and fellow freelancer; I do like to support others in the same boat), registering for VAT would save me money (clients pay it to me; my VATable expenses reduce my liability) and it would make me look more professional. Ahem.

For many freelancers, registering for VAT has nothing to do with income levels and everything to do with saving the smallest sums while incomes bump along the bottom nearing and, just in time, pulling back from the overdraft limit.

And what a chore it is – and it floors me every quarter, as I sit on the carpet surrounded by piles of this and that and nothing like enough invoices, pledging never again to leave it till the last moment. To save accountancy fees, I don’t just hand over envelopes of receipts. To save my time (at the time, without a thought for future time), I don’t bother to keep them in date order though I do, now, put them in monthly envelopes. It’s a start.

Nor do I, against an initially firm resolution, do my books every month. The quarterly brown envelope arrives from The Controller, HM Revenue & Customs and only then do I think about book-keeping. With the emphasis on “think”.

And so it goes, quarter after quarter, month after month, week after week, day after day.

If your income is high enough and steady, and if your clients’ demands can be anticipated, living a spontaneous life can be yours. Putting off what needs to be done until just before the deadline is the freelancer’s biggest temptation. And I succumb every time. Perhaps, on second thoughts, I should go out for lunch. I can always do the books tonight …

Or I could bring summer indoors.

Sunshine on a plate

2 red peppers, halved and deseeded

2 cloves of roasted garlic (or use raw garlic, crushed)

8 baby plum tomatoes, halved

8 anchovy slivers, chopped

Olive oil

Black pepper

200g Puy lentils

Kallo organic vegetable stock cube

1 onion, peeled and quartered

I carrot, peeled and quartered

2 sticks of celery, cut into big chunks

Bay leaf

Basil

  1. Fill each half pepper with four halves of tomato (or more or less, depending on the size of the peppers and tomatoes)
  2. Nestle some of the garlic and anchovy pieces under and between the tomatoes
  3. Drizzle two generous teaspoons of olive oil (I used the oil from the roasted garlic) over the mixture in each pepper
  4. Grind on some black pepper
  5. Bake at 160° for about an hour (it depends on your oven so check after about 40 minutes; in mine, I often find they take an hour and a quarter or so). They should be soft, slightly collapsed and burnished in parts
  6. Cook the lentils in the stock with the onion, carrot, celery and bay leaf, until they are al dente. Drain them and, when they are cool, remove the onion, carrot, celery and bay leaves (this can be fiddly particularly if, like me, you feel compelled to scrape off every lentil from every bit of carrot and celery). Gently stir about a tbsp of olive oil through the lentils
  7. Eat as much as you wish, scooping up some of the oil that has escaped from the peppers and sprinkling over some basil. The rest goes in the fridge for another day.

Nutritionally balanced - unlike the columns of figures in my quarterly accounts

I didn’t bother to peel these tomatoes as they had such delicate skins. If you use standard tomatoes, or can only buy baby cherry tomatoes with thick and tough skins, do peel them. It’s silly to spoil this slice of heaven to save two minutes of your time.

And now … where is that Tippex.

A variation of this blog first appeared as an article in PR Business, in which I had my own column (heady days).

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Chicory with Roquefort and walnuts

It’s another appallingly environmentally-irresponsible day. I’m in a quandary. It seems impossible to support my local independent shops and limit my impact on the environment.

This recipe works well with ripe, juicy English pears – but I’m supposed to keep my sugar intake down and I broke that rule earlier this week with the Alphonsos. So Dutch chicory it is. I could use English stilton but the silkiness, and slight sweetness, of Roquefort lifts the glory of this dish into the stratosphere. At least it’s only travelled from France to Mortimer & Bennett. Walnuts? Bought from my local health food store, they’ve come all the way from Argentina. I will try to do better next week.

If you are in your fifties or older, you’ll have had these delicious mouthfuls hundreds of times, as a dinner party starter or drinks party nibble. It’s still useful for both but, as I don’t currently give dinner or drinks parties, lunch is where I slot it in. Infrequently (because of the cheese-cholesterol concern and as my nutritionist might be reading this).

I’ve tried variations on a theme. Feta doesn’t work ever, not even with pears – it’s too one-dimensional and dry. Stilton works better with pears than with chicory – the mix creating a better salt-sweet balance. Dolcelatte, Picos blue, Gorgonzola, Saint Agur, Fourme d’Ambert, Cheshire blue, Bleu d’Auvergne … anything blue and sticky will do. Including the late and very lamented (by me) Lymeswold, derided as the Blue Nun of cheeses but of which I was particularly fond.

The disadvantage of serving this at girly lunches (they happen rarely, but they do happen) is that everyone always says how wonderful it is, they ask if I’ve ever served it as a starter – and then go off and replicate it. In my mother’s day, recipes were only passed on (or pinched) on the understanding that the recipient (or thief) would never serve it to someone in the originator’s circle. No such rules apply these days. Which is why it’s my personal indulgence. It’s perfect for sitting in the shade in the garden on a sunny evening, a drink in the other hand. If only I had a bit of outdoors.

Perfection on a plate

One head of chicory

2 ozs or so of Roquefort (or other strong blue cheese)

Four walnut halves

Avocado oil (or olive oil or walnut oil)

  1. Separate six chicory leaves (or as many as your hunger dictates)
  2. Cut the Roquefort into small chunks (many recipes say crumble it but I find it’s too sticky, even for a finger-licker like me)
  3. Chop the walnuts into small chunks
  4. Dot the chicory leaves with the Roquefort and chopped walnuts
  5. Drizzle your choice of oil along each leaf

Yes, I've overloaded the leaves and, oops, was a bit heavy-handed with the avocado oil.

I ate them with my fingers. And ended up making more.

The very best avocado oil, in my view, comes from Chile. A Chilean networking colleague of mine was going to import it and invited me round for a taste test. We tasted blind and both preferred the organic extra virgin version, which is what I used today. It’s golden, thick and very full-flavoured – but all of them were better than the widely available Californian version which is thin, pale and watery. The New Zealand version is marginally better. But if you can find Chilean, I urge you to buy it.

I suppose this all adds up to another bunion on my carbon footprint.

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Quick smoked mackerel pâté with a seasonal twist and added memories

I love this time of year. Looking over gardens below my top floor flat, my world glistens with the pale pinks and soft whites of magnolia, cherry and apple blossom, and clematis. I take the long route to the High Road, specifically to walk past other people’s front gardens.

It’s also Alphonso mango time – so I take the even longer route home past my wonderful greengrocer, A&G on Turnham Green Terrace (where they know me as Alphonso Jo). Grown only in Bombay, I can’t look out on Alphonso mango trees here but I remember walking past one, its branches glinting with golden yellow fruit in the pre-monsoon sun, on the way to the park with my ayah, Mary.

By far the smallest mango, the Alphonso’s lack of stature is more than compensated for by its huge flavour. Intensely perfumed, sweet and creamy, its juicy flesh is the colour of 24ct gold and its stone almost free of hair (though floss is useful if you suck it as dry as I do). Called the queen of mangoes, once you’ve had one, no other is worth bothering with.

Something else not worth bothering with after you’ve had the real thing is vacuum-packed smoked mackerel. When I discovered whole smoked mackerel straight from the smokery, at my excellent fishmonger (Covent Garden Fishmongers, next to A&G), Phil said I’d never eat any other. And I never have. Moist, soft, smooth, subtly smoked and not even slightly stridently fishy, it’s a silk versus cotton no-brainer. One fish feeds three to four so, as I don’t have a freezer, I need to think of things to do with it to ring the changes.

Today’s late lunch

1 fillet of a fishmonger’s smoked mackerel

1 tbsp of Quark (or cream cheese or crème fraîche if you aren’t worried about your fat intake)

Half a lime

Black pepper

Cayenne pepper

One Alphonso mango

Half a red chilli

Bunch of watercress

Olive oil

  1. Holding the mango upright on its curved edge, slice down about an inch in, against the flat central stone. Turn it round and slice down the other side. Cut across the skin surrounding the centre section then peel it away gently, sucking off the fruit as you peel. Cut away chunks of mango from the stone or … let’s be realistic, slurp it off noisily, breathing in its heavily perfumed scent as rivers of golden juice trickle down your fingers. This is no time for manners; it’s a sensuous moment to be shared only with yourself.
  2. Back in the real world, run the rounded tip of a knife through the fruit in the cut-away sides, carving down to (but not through) the skin from top to bottom in strips about 1cm wide. Do the same to cut across the strips creating squares. Scoop out the squares and put them in a bowl.
  3. Finely chop the chilli. Gently mix with the mango and a light squeeze of lime juice.
  4. Roughly mash the smoked mackerel with the Quark (or cream cheese or crème fraîche), adding black pepper to taste. Slacken it slightly with a squeeze of lime juice (not too much, add it a tsp at a time so you don’t mask the flavour of the fish).
  5. Dollop the pâté on a plate and sprinkle with cayenne pepper (this is for looks, not heat – there’s plenty of that in the chilli). Add the mango salsa and decorate with generous sprigs of watercress drizzled with olive oil.

Learning not to be purist about Alphonso mangoes

I’m normally purist about Alphonso mangoes, eating them just as they are. When I take them to friends who say they’ll put them into a smoothie I look horror struck and lurch into lecturing. But this boxful has been disappointing; every mango has been partly bad and I’ve picked my way around to find enough to chunk. And then I discovered it was heavenly with the pâté. Apologies to everyone who’s experienced my ‘you must not sully an Alphonso’ tirade. Though I do think shoving them in a smoothie is a step too far.

As the last mouthful of mango salsa slid into my mouth I realised that, because Icelandic volcanic dust has brought air freight to a halt, Alphonsos will be stuck, and rotting, in Bombay – and the livelihoods of the pickers and packers will be at risk. I know buying them is bad for my carbon footprint but my guilt is balanced by the fact that I’m helping (I hope) some of the poorest and most exploited people in the world – in my home town. Let’s hope flights resume soon, not just to satisfy my Alphonso addiction.

(Interesting napkin ring? It’s an Indian toe ring – purely decorative and, yes, from my childhood.)

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Avocado, anchovy and Parmesan salad

I’ve borrowed this recipe (slightly adapted) from Mark Hix, whose column in The Independent magazine is one of my favourite things about Saturdays. I’ve loved his column from the start but I still miss Simon Hopkinson’s weekly words. I had a huge thrill when he (Simon) walked past me in Chiswick’s Waitrose, not long after it opened.  Annoyingly, I was already in the queue for the check-out so I couldn’t trail him to inspect his food-shopping habits. I haven’t spotted Mark Hix out and about anywhere but I have been within a couple of yards of Gordon Ramsay (cheering him along during a marathon a few London marathons ago; he looked at me in astonishment when I, astonishing myself, heard myself shouting “Go, Gordon. Go!”).

Mark recommends Pecorino romano; Parmesan is in second place on his list. As I’m addicted to cheese (and recently gave it up, as a daily diet) I thought I’d be more at risk of eating the whole chunk of Pecorino and that I might just nibble at the Parmesan, exercising what passes for self-control with me.  Plus my fantastic deli (Mortimer & Bennett) sells Parmesan already wrapped in bits so I could choose a small bit and feel very smug. I set off – another lovely day, blossom everywhere, students relaxing on the green, no smoke tracks in the sky, a bit more volcano dust on my car (apparently it fell in Chiswick over the weekend) and came a cropper. No Pecorino romano.

You see my problem? I set off for Parmesan and my will power doesn’t even last the four minute walk. “But we do have Pecorino Sardo,” said the French girl behind the counter (whose name, I’m ashamed to say, I still don’t know). “What’s the difference?” I asked, as I noticed that Pecorino is a ewe’s milk cheese and so not as bad for me as cow’s milk Parmesan. I discovered that romano is the  hardest of the Pecorinos; sardo comes next followed by Toscano and Siciliano, the softest and milkiest.  “Perhaps I could have a taste,” I heard myself say, increasing my calorie intake before deciding on the one that was recommended first. And then a remarkable thing happened. The wire cutter slipped, the slice was smaller than I’d asked for, I was offered a bigger piece – and I said no thank you.

Lunch

Half an avocado (ripe, obviously)

Three or four slivers of anchovy in olive oil (I buy them in jars)

25g Parmesan (or Pecorino romano, if you have willpower)

Walnut oil

An oatcake

  1. Run a knife through the avocado flesh from side to side in strips, cutting down to but not through the skin. Carefully scoop out the slices with a teaspoon. Scrape any remaining flesh from the peel and eat (no one’s looking). My mother told me that her mother called this “cook’s perks”. It applies to the oysters of a chicken (or turkey), too. Arrange the avocado pieces on a plate.
  2. Chop the anchovy fillets into chunks and dot them over the avocado.
  3. Flake the Parmesan (I used a veg peeler) and scatter it over the avocado and anchovy.
  4. Drizzle with walnut oil (enough to moisten it, not create a slick).
  5. The oatcake adds a bit of bulk and slow energy-releasing carbs for afternoon energy.

Can you spot the avocado underneath the cheese?

It was divine – a satisfyingly flavourful mix of sweet, salt, cream, crunch, subtle, strong all in balance. The dreaminess of the avocado came through the powerpacked anchovy; the dry crunch of the Pecorino added contrasting texture (crisply salty romano would be even better); the oil gave it a nuance of nuttiness. It didn’t need the oatcake.

And there’s still some Pecorino in the fridge. For the moment.

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Too green for a free life?

I’d been toying with the idea for years, longing to be released from the tyranny of bad management, stifling office politics, endless pointless meetings, inflexible routines, the deadening soullessness of commuting and the vicious back-biting that is rife in our industry.

Unsure whether I could survive, every few years I persuaded myself that changing jobs was the answer. A different boss, a new subject, working in-house, in established teams, starting from scratch … I tried every variation I could think of – as an employee. After 20 years creating a broad CV (I was proud of it but there was no denying it was choppy), there was only one option left: freelancing.

Within days, friends remarked about how happy and relaxed I looked.  My confidence and self-esteem rocketed; the precariousness of my financial situation mattered not at all. I was free. “Why didn’t I do this years ago?” was my constant thought.

Former colleagues used my services, almost all giving me repeat business. Driven by the fear of no income, I had offered to work on projects at home and as a gap-filler in-house, I was available for consultancy advice and to be a workhorse. So, when the early rush of commissions slowed down, saying yes to a friend who asked me to fill a six-week press office spot was easy. “That means a regular invoice!”, said a voice in my head.

The down side began to emerge when I worried about what to wear. Here at home, anything goes; occasionally, nothing goes as well (if clients knew I was naked, my hourly rate would change significantly … not necessarily for the better). On day one, when the clock woke me, I groaned; surely freelancing means not being ruled by alarms to meet other’s expectations? When I saw my desk, and heard whispered asides as the in-house team complained about a boss, I knew I had got it wrong.

Without thinking, I had recreated what I had set out to leave behind – a form of prostitution (anything for anyone anyhow, as long as it earned me money) and it made me feel cheap. Freelancing was not the easy option, as I was beginning to discover.

A symphony in green (Avocado and walnut salad)

Half a ripe avocado (or the whole thing if no one is counting your calories)

Handful of chopped walnuts

Lamb’s lettuce

Walnut oil

Himalayan salt and black pepper

  1. Do you really need instructions?
  2. Sprinkle the walnut oil onto the lamb’s lettuce and toss gently (I used my hands). Pile it into the middle of the plate.
  3. Run a knife lengthways through the flesh of the avocado, cutting down to but not through the skin, to create strips. Run the knife through it again, across the strips, creating chunks. Scoop them out with a dessertspoon.
  4. Pile the avocado into the middle of the lamb’s lettuce which, inconveniently, will spread itself out all over the plate making the whole thing go flat. Fiddle about as much as you wish to try to prettify it but it’s mostly pointless. It would probably be better dotted all over the lamb’s lettuce.
  5. Sprinkle the walnuts around.
  6. Grind over the black pepper and sprinkle on some salt.
  7. It’s really not a recipe, is it.

Does it look better than it tasted? Or did it taste better than it looked?

With lamb’s lettuce on the turn, a perfectly ripe Hass avocado and not much else, this is a bit of a scratch lunch. But it was good – light and pretty, for all its greenness – and very filling thanks to the walnuts.

I tried a bit of it with a little lime juice, to see if it added anything, but all it did was kill the subtle velvetiness of the avocado and drown the nuttiness of the walnut oil. It’s best as a very simple platter (though anchovies might be good next time).

This blog first appeared as an article in PR Business, in which I had my own column (what a thrill that was!)

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