Archive for Pulses

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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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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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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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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