Reading Mostly Women – Feb 2018

I’m spending 2018 reading mostly women. Only mostly, because I don’t want to be too restrictive about these things. If I read a book by someone who is not a woman I won’t have “failed”. I’m also trying to read books that are recommended to me, books by people I follow on Twitter, that kind of thing.

January’s post

In February I read:

Lady Catherine’s Necklace by Joan Aiken – a Pride and Prejudice sequel. Lady Catherine de Bourgh of course. A slightly odd choice made to have her daughter, Anne de Bourgh, be only 14 or so during the events of P&P (and so far too young for Mr Darcy, who was 28), but this helps ease us into the idea that she was a shy teenager, bullied by her overbearing mother, and she does in fact have a personality if she is allowed to. Charlotte Lucas (now Collins) has two children and is pregnant again, poor thing, and her sister Maria comes to visit. Mrs Jennings pops in from Sense and Sensibility to tell us “There’s more things in a girl’s life than husbands” and this does seem to be held up by the story.

Eat Up by Ruby Tandoh – you may remember Ruby from Bake Off a few years ago as a student who looked like she could be a model. Since then she’s written recipes for the Guardian, a recipe book called Flavour, and been outspoken on eating disorders and the dangers of the “clean eating” movement. This book is about loving food. It’s not a story book but also not a recipe book (even though it does contain some stories and some recipes). It is lovely and cosy and pleasant to read.

Stiff Lips by Anne Billson – I don’t usually go in for ghost stories but I’d read Suckers by the same author and liked her style. Her London of 1996 is vividly described and the main character wants to be in Notting Hill where creative people are, talking about creative things and drinking cappuccinos. 1996 was the last time that drinking coffee really was an indicator of poshness.

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K Le Guin – You may have heard of this author because she recently died, or perhaps because you watched The Jane Austen Book Club on Netflix and the geeky guy kept recommending her. Both of these apply to me, so I thought I’d give her a try. Rather than starting on an epic tale, I let my local library choose a one-off scifi story set in the near future (written in the 70s, so the near future is actually our past) after population expansion has taken the world to a shocking 7 billion and global warming has left us in a bit of an unpleasant state. A man believes that his dreams affect reality, and his psychiatrist believes that he can direct these dreams to make the world a better place. Guess what – it’s harder than it sounds!

Start but not finished:

Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley

Frederica by Georgette Heyer

Making use of the “mostly” tag:

The Last Romeo by Justin Myers – Justin writes as The Guyliner and is the creator of the fantastic Guardian Blind Dates review blog. This is a novel that would be called chick-lit if it were by and about a woman, but is in fact by and about a gay man. He escapes a crap relationship (yay!), starts an online dating blog (yay!), gets into some scrapes (yay?), alienates his friends and coworkers (not so yay) and you can guess whether it turns out OK because look he’s right here writing a book about the whole thing. They say that women authors are particularly plagued by people expecting that their characters are autobiographical, and perhaps this applies to gay men as well, but in this case I feel it’s justified. It’s always interesting when you read a book by a writer whose shorter work you enjoy – will they sustain your interest for the whole length of a book? – and in this case the answer was a definite yes.



Reading Mostly Women – Jan 2018

I’m spending 2018 reading mostly women. Only mostly, because I don’t want to be too restrictive about these things. If I read a book by someone who is not a woman I won’t have “failed”. I’m also trying to read books that are recommended to me, books by people I follow on Twitter, that kind of thing.

In January I read:

The end of The Gathering Storm by Kate Elliott, which is book 5 of the Crown of Stars series. It’s a big old epic fantasy, with multiple points of view and hundreds of named characters and covering years of time.

All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg – as recommended by What Page Are You On? podcast. There are many very relatable insights on being an adult single woman, and not a neat ending, which I found oddly pleasing. Sample quote: A woman who was not newly single, and also not twenty-four, would know better than to hand this book to another single woman.

Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny – This is a book partly about raising a child on the austistc spectrum, and partly about being married to someone very different to you. Someone is described as having the slightly sweaty, shaky look of someone who is hosting a party.

In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan – This was a lot of fun. It’s a fantasy book with a very practical protagonist who tries in an experimental way to take through various levels of technology to the magical world (mostly it melts or catches fire at the threshold, but biros and sharpies are transportable and are much easier to use than quills) and points out to those born on the magical side of the wall that where he comes from very few people die of violence, let alone go off to make war with trolls. Our main characters are 13 at the beginning and 17 or so at the end, so you could call it YA, but like most good YA it’s good to read as an adult.

Hagseed by Margaret Atwood – This is the second time I’ve read a book that is based on The Tempest without having actually seen or read The Tempest. I enjoyed the clearly well-thought-through plans for teaching drama to inmates. Less so the mooning after the idealised daughter. I picked this up from my local library, which besides being an architectural marvel is also very convenient and gives you books FOR FREE (as long as you promise to bring them back).

High Rising by Angela Thirkell – I was given this as a gift in the summer but it seemed only right to wait til winter to read it, given the lovely snowy landscape on the cover. Written in the 1930s, it has a cosy Diaries of a Provincial Lady vibe, but with a bit of a mystery to solve.

Last Chance Saloon by Marian Keyes, also from Peckham Library. I sometimes mention Marian Keyes when I am ranting about the label of “chick lit” – if men were going through the same things these women are going through, her books would be treated much more seriously. Don’t read this if you have an unhappy relationship with food, one of our characters’ struggles might be upsetting, but otherwise do read it. I feel strongly that there will be more Marian Keyes in later months. This book focuses on four friends in their early 30s and I felt so incredibly viscerally the feeling of no, your boyfriend is unkind to you and is dragging you down, don’t stay with him just because you are afraid of being single.

Exquisite by Sarah Stovell – a psychological thriller type thing about two women writers who meet at a writing workshop (one of them running it). Chapters come from both points of view, and we know from the beginning that one of them is now in prison. The description so far has almost a Sarah Waters feel to it, but it’s very firmly anchored in 2015, even though it could easily have been set any time in the past 60 or so years, or even in a vague no-particular-time. In fact it’s so clearly anchored that one recommends to the other the exact brand of mascara that I use, and I believe the price quoted is what it cost in 2015. This was another What Page Are You On?  recommendation, and my friends and I compared whether we had the things other people had that marked them out as grown-ups: knickers that matched my bras; my own transport; a living room rug. (the answer for me is a – some but not all, b – no I live in London, c – yes I love my rug dearly).

Two beautiful-coloured dips

Another entry for non-veg-juice things I have made in my nutribullet.

Purple and green dip

The purple dip is beetroot hummus:

  • Four-ish baby beetroot from a jar of baby beetroot. Aren’t they cute little beetroots? So much cuter and nicer than slices, I don’t know why but it is the truth.
  • Drained tin of chickpeas
  • Glug of sesame oil
  • Slug of soy sauce
  • Bit of MSG if you fancy it

The green dip is spinach and cheese dip:

  • Four-ish nests of frozen spinach, defrosted and squeezed so they are less wet
  • Small tub of philadelphia-like cheese
  • Two cloves of garlic, crushed
  • Chunk of blue cheese that was lurking in my fridge (maybe 50 grams?)

Both are just blended, no cooking.

The BEST cauliflower cheese

There are two key points to making your cauliflower cheese the best cauliflower cheese

  1. Include broccoli. It’s a cauliflower and broccoli cheese now. Broccoli is nice.
  2. Roast your veg. Don’t steam it or boil it, roast it.

The rest is up to you.

Here I had a family-sized pack of cauliflower and broccoli florets I cut the larger ones in half. Put them in the oven at 180C with some oil until they looked like this

Made a white sauce with 1oz butter, 1oz flour, 1 pint milk. Most recipes I use are in metric but some of the very old ones are in imperial measurements. I make sponge cakes in ounces as well. Added 2tsp of grainy mustard, and then most of a (250g) bag of grated extra mature cheddar.

Half the veg goes into a dish, pour some sauce on top, other half of the veg, some more sauce. I didn’t quite use all the sauce. Topped with breadcrumbs made from 2 slices of quite-old-bread-from-the-freezer that I had toasted and then whizzed up in my Nutribullet (hand-shredding is also fine). Rest of the cheese on top of that.

I’m taking this to a friend’s house for Friendsmas lunch (alt name: Thanksfriending) tomorrow, so no fully cooked picture, but it’ll go in the oven til the sauce is bubbling and the cheese on top is brown.

Note on prepared food. Yes, I used a number of prepared items in this. No, you don’t have to. Yes, I am a lazy person. No, this is not one of the main ways you can tell I’m lazy. The cheese in question costs the same as ungrated cheese of the same brand. The veg was slightly more by weight but didn’t include any stalk. Even if they had cost slightly more, I often exchange money for “not having to do things I don’t want to do”. There is no moral element to grating your own cheese. If you want to feel good about buying grated cheese or prepared veg, you could even think about it as keeping up demand to make sure these things are available for disabled or elderly people who find it difficult to cut things up.

Frozen stir-fry beef – is it any good?

In a word – yes. You can stop reading now if you like.

I live alone, and I find that I often have to make a balance between eating well, spending a lot of money, and eating the same things repeatedly. I can make 4 portions of chilli, eat one for dinner, one for lunch, and freeze the other two – I love chilli but can’t eat it 4 meals in a row – but many foods don’t do so well with freezing or reheating. Smaller packets of ingredients are more expensive or non-existent, and I don’t like throwing away the extra.

So I often resort to foods that can be stored for a long time. Frozen chicken mini-fillets are great as you can pull out as many as you need and they cook quickly from frozen. These stir-fry beef strips looked like they might fit into the same niche.

These were from Asda. And they were pretty good. Here’s what I did…

Kettle on, beef into pan on high heat. They look weirdly solid and rectangular but it’s fine.

1/3 mug of rice, 2/3 mug of water from kettle, add salt. Heat up til it boils, put on lid and turn off heat. This should be enough for 1 portion and should absorb by the time the rest is done. Do you need me to tell you how to make rice? Get the microwave kind if you think rice is hard, but that’s 2 portions per bag so you’ll have to think of something to do wit the other half.

Once beef has some dark brown edges on it, turn down the heat and add very thin carrot (I used a julienne peeler, you could use a normal peeler or a mandolin, if you try to just cut with a knife they will not be cooked), spring onion, red pepper, a bit of chilli.

Sprinkle over some Chinese 5 spice from a jar that is probably out of date. Add a teaspoon of honey (approx, from a bottle of squeezy honey that has gone hard so you have to lever it out in chunks), and some water from the kettle. Make sure the water touches all the bottom of the pan so it deglazes and gets all the sticky stuff off the bottom.

Tah-dah – dinner for one in about the time it takes rice to cook, and you didn’t have to make 4 portions or figure out what else to make with the rest of the packet of beef. You could use other veg of course but I always have red peppers and carrots.

Jamie Oliver chicken in “posh” ham – a tweak

One from a few years ago – Ministry of Food. Easy recipes for people who don’t cook. Video recipe here.

Essentially: get chicken breasts, bash them flat, wrap in parma ham (or other thin dried ham) with parmesan and thyme between the chicken and the ham, then fry.

Sounds simple, is simple, but for some reason I found the “bashing the breast flat” to be really difficult. My chicken stayed plump, and so took a while to cook through and threatened dryness. There’s also only room in my decent-sized frying pan for 2, or perhaps 3.

So the next time I tried it (in an unfamiliar kitchen on holiday) I made the following adjustments:

  • Cut the chicken breasts in half
  • Used pesto instead of parmesan (there was no fine grater in the kitchen)
  • Bake at 200C for 10-15 mins, instead of frying

This meant I could feed 6, and could deal with other things while it was cooking, rather than trying to stand over 2 or 3 frying pans.

Served with green beans cooked in butter and garlic, and quinoa (cooked in chicken stock) with roasted veg (red pepper, courgette, aubergine).

First try at dosas

I absolutely loved dosas on my trip to India, but they’re not always easy to get hold of over here. That said, if you’re near London Bridge this place has very nice dosas at lunchtime.

So when I saw this article in the Guardian, I thought I’d have a go. As is often the case I didn’t follow the recipe exactly, I just used it as a starting point.

This is a long process, so don’t get excited about making this for dinner tonight.

Day 1: Soak a mixture of 3 rice : 1 lentils in water for 3 hours. I only did 100g total because this was just a test. Blend, then put in a warm place overnight.

This is what it looked like – slightly puffy. Use this batter to make pancakes

As usual, the first one is a big old mess.

These seem to stay together better if you make them quite thick, but this does mean they’ll break/bend rather than roll smoothly. Maybe I should have made the batter thinner?

To go in them – I boiled some cubed potatoes, drained them, and sizzled some turmeric/garam masala/garlic in butter, then mashed the potatoes back into the spiced butter.

I think I’ll need to have another go or two before these are ready to be fed to other people, but they were pretty tasty. Mostly the filling was tasty. The pancakes themselves were a bit bland – next time I might add some spices to the batter – or at least some salt.