Archive for May, 2010

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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When work is snatched by play

It’s the Real Food Festival and I’m off, following my taste buds, with Gill Thomas who is the brainchild behind the Chiswick Food and Drink Festival. She is testing the potential for a full-blown festival in 2011 by organising a smaller food and crafts fair before Christmas, so we were on the hunt for local (to us) producers or specialist, one-off products that would appeal to west London’s greedy foodies.

Why was I there? Keen to work with restaurants and food businesses I was on the hunt for clients. So, this was genuine work. Until my stomach – and greed – took over. Yes, I came home with a heap of business cards and as many good intentions but I’d spent more time sidetracking myself when there was good tasting to be done (as well as, sadly, when it fell a bit short of expectations).

Attending trade fairs or exhibitions is part of every freelancer’s life. Going with a sense of purpose – and achieving it – requires planning. And that means arriving early to scour through the exhibition guide, marking the stalls you want to visit on the map and planning your route through the hall – and then doing that first, before your feet start complaining. Indulging yourself visiting stalls for personal purposes is a reward served best as afters.

If only I could do as I say. When the subject of your work is your passion, the passion can overwhelm the work. Resisting the urge to stop on my journey to taste and taste again proved hard, especially as it was all presented to me on a plate. I lost focus; I gained weight.

I waddled out well after lunch – annoyingly having forgotten to buy one thing that really grabbed my tongue by the throat – a silky olive oil from Tuscany made by Suzie Alexander. She didn’t lose focus and now lives the dream having moved from St Margaret’s (just across the river from Richmond) to buy an olive grove in Val di Chiana (near Siena) where she is surrounded by other family-run smallholdings making artisan products. She had brought with her the local Pecorino cheese which even had non-cheese loving Gill declaring it delicious. Depending on the season she might also bring farro (spelt) flour, lentils and chick peas, Prosciutto, saffron, truffles and sweet treats such as panforte. You see how I get sidetracked?

So, on this very untypical day, snitching my way round the Earls Court exhibition centre (wood shavings on the floor, livestock in pens – all very Good Life), this was my lunch …

Snatching snitches at the Real Food Festival (Cholesterol and calories)

  • thin mini-slices of ciabatta steeped in Secolare olive oil from a grove of mature olive trees, some of which are hundreds of years old, and a nibble of Pecorino: Suzie’s Yard (www.suziesyard.co.uk)
  • tiny slivers of Organic milk chocolate infused with cardamom made by Hove-based Holly Caulfield. Holly is also an artist and designed the gorgeous packaging which she makes up herself. She produces 100 bars of chocolate a day, one flavour at a time, and golly, Holly, was it good: Chocoholly (www.chocoholly.com).
  • small cubes of Winterdale cheddar, plain and smoked, made by hand from Fresian cows’ milk by the farmers who own the herd. The milk goes straight from the cow to the cheese vat in under 20 minutes which makes the Betts family the nearest farmers to London who make cheese from their own cows’ milk – instead of what most cheesemakers do: use milk bought from other farmers. Not only that … the cheese is matured on their farm in an underground cave deep in the chalky soil of the North Downs in Kent, giving it a rich, nutty and long-lasting flavour. It was obvious to me why it was a gold World Cheese Awards winner in 2009: Winterdale (www.winterdale.co.uk).
  • curls of smoked sirloin steak (unusual and delicious, giving bresaola a run for its money) and smoked salmon (gloriously mild, moist and moreish), a knob of smoked Cropwell Bishop stilton and a drizzle of smoked olive oil (delicious as a marinade or for dipping, too strong as a dressing in my view). The steak was moist and the smoking subtle; it could easily feature in another lunch on these pages. They also produce smoked garlic, but had run out by the time we reached their stall: The Artisan Smokehouse (www.artisansmokehouse.co.uk).
  • smears of pickles, chutneys and sauces on tiny bits of cream cracker, zinging round my mouth and, in the case of the Scotch Bonnet chutneys, bringing tears to my eyes. The sweet lime chutney was a delight – nothing like a lime pickle, more like a tangy, spicy marmalade. I’d met their maker, Chris Smith aka The Pickle Man, about six months’ ago when having a coffee in Munson’s in Ealing with a foodie friend; he was at the table next to ours and, intrigued by our non-stop talk about food, joined in, giving us each a jar of Brinjal pickle to try. Everything he, son of St John and Dolly Smith whose names are on the labels, produces (to his grandmother’s original recipes) is authentic and far better than any other pickle I’ve ever tried: St John and Dolly Smith’s pickles and chutneys (www.thepickleman.co.uk).
  • a sip of Sipsmith gin and barley vodka – all the way from Hammersmith where it is distilled in a copper-pot still called Prudence. Look out for it in the smartest hotel bars in London: Sipsmith (www.sipsmith.com).

Showing great self-control (by not eating the brochures or packaging).

Snitching was what we did as a family, when no one was looking. In the days of having a larder, there was usually something hanging around just waiting to be snitched – the remains of a roast or a steak and kidney pud, one of my mother’s legendary beef curries, cold roast potatoes, carrots or marrow in a white sauce, gravy, sprouts sprinkled with buttery toasted almond flakes left in the pan after the trout meunière had been devoured. And then there was the snitch box – an old Quality Street tin with “Snitch Box” stuck on the front, a Dymo label willingly punched by me aged about nine (and I still have it – the tin and the Dymo kit). We never knew what my mother had left for us but it was always worth the anticipation.

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