Category Archives: grandma

Beetroot in white sauce

Beetroot and white sauceFresh beetroot – what a treat!

Beets are fat sweet roots such as sugar beet, and I’d always assumed the word beetroot was tautologous – “so rooty they named it twice”, but not at all. The “Root” in “beetroot” is from the German for “red”, brought here by the Saxons, bless ’em. So “beetroot” means “red beet” and the pun is unintentional. Incidentally, the dark purple colour is persistent in its path through the system which can be alarming, but don’t panic.

This is the time of year to find bunches of beetroot, but only if you still have access to a good greengrocer. My local Morrissons had bunches of beetroot for £1.35 this week, but when I went into Sainsburys and asked for fresh beetroot they pointed helplessly at the cooked stuff sold in plastic packets. Tescos online only sells it pickled or cooked. Waitrose have a lot of recipes for fresh beetroot, so it’s likely that they’ll sell it. Farmaround are putting it in some of their veggie boxes this month, which is how I got mine. (Let me pause for a moment to put in an unsolicited plug for Farmaround if you live in London or Yorkshire – they are one of the reasons I don’t want to move).

Once you’ve got hold of your beetroot, you are in for a variety of treats. This time of year I make red coleslaw, with beetroot, red cabbage, and even red onion, instead of boring old carrots and white cabbage. Beetroot also roasts beautifully, whole or quartered, drizzled with oil and put into a hot oven at gas mark 6 or so for an hour or an hour and a half; and balsamic or some other arty vinegar really brings out the sweetness. A friend gave me a recipe for beetroot fudge cake, like carrot cake but beetrootier. But beetroot is so hard to find, and such a treat when you do find it, that I am always seduced by serving it boiled and smothered in white sauce. It tastes gorgeous and looks splendid.

I cannot believe I am about to blog a recipe, but needs must when NaBloPoMo drives.

Beetroot in white sauce

Beetroot bleeds spectacularly, so you want to have as little cut surface in the water as possible. This is why you have to boil them whole. Leave half an inch of stalk when you trim the leaves and leave half an inch of the root when you trim that. Wash them carefully to dislodge the mud but avoid breaking the skin.

Beetroot takes a long time to boil – 45 minutes or an hour. This is partly because they are big beasties, and partly because we are so used to it being cooked to death by the supermarkets that we expect it to be mushier than, for example, carrots. You may prefer it crisper, but I wouldn’t cook it any less than three quarters of an hour, myself.

I assume you know how to make white sauce and if you need a reminder then there are more than enough recipes out there. Nutmeg’s nice on top of a white sauce made for beetroot. Or lemon pepper.

You can serve the beetroot whole, or quarter or slice them before serving, it depends on how good you are at cutting up hot food and how much you mind having purple fingers. Either way, put it in a dish and smother it with the white sauce, some of which will go a beautiful dark pink.

If you don’t normally eat just vegetables for lunch, then it would be nice with gammon and broad beans, but I get so over-excited about the beetroot that I don’t bother cooking anything else.

Do make the effort to find it. It’s not in season very long.


Nothing to laugh about

Poor KookaburraI’ve recently shifted offices, and the building where I now work houses the man with the most annoying laugh I have ever heard in real life. I am sure there is a cartoon character somewhere that would beat him and I know a kookaburra could do it, but in terms of your actual people, he’s easily at county level and should be taking national trials. He also makes astonishingly inappropriate remarks, frequently involving buggery. The other day he was explaining his approach to dealing with noisy, disobedient or dangerous dogs and I realised I could cause him trouble any time I wanted by grassing him up to the RSPA. He explained it away with the comment “that’s growing up on a farm for you”, to which I replied “more than that Dai, it’s growing up on a Welsh farm”. I am, as my grandmother used to warn me, so sharp I’ll cut myself.

We bumped into each other by the loos today, and we started talking about the holiday he’ll be taking in three weeks time. Then he told me that he’d taken his son to school the other morning and found he’d driven himself straight home afterwards. He said “that’s wrong, isn’t it?” and I thought, yes, it is.

Once, many years ago, my then partner was a nervous breakdown about to happen and I got a phonecall from a colleague which started “it’s alright, but….” The “but…” involved A&E and a cardio clinic. The thing was, he hadn’t had a heart attack; he’d been so obsessively focussed on his work on a completely impossible project, that he’d brought on a combination of hyperventilation and palpitations so severe he thought he was having a heart attack. Hence his visit to A&E, his overnight stay in hospital, the barrage of tests and wall of monitors. The attacks didn’t go away immediately, and they scared him enough, and slowed him down enough, to stop him working for 4 or 5 months. What fun that was.

So I told this rather personal story to Dai, and his face changed. If it were a cliché I were fond of, I’d say the mask slipped for a moment or two. Then a colleague came up and started talking to him and the mask clicked back, but before they went off Dai said “thanks for the meeting, that was useful”. His laugh rattled out across the office about 20 minutes later.

Living Memory

UK in a CloudI’ve been thinking about Living Memory recently. Not for any specific reason, but I am increasingly aware that the boundary between Living Memory and History is creeping closer to my own personal timescape.

When I was wee, all of the adults around me had been adult during WWII and some had been adult during WWI. When I first read Flambards, I was cross that my Grandmother had not taken up with a romantic pioneering aviator in the days when you measured flights in the hundreds of yards. And now that’s a century ago and the chance to talk to anyone about the days before the First World War has slipped from my grip; soon the chance to talk to people involved in WWII will have slithered away as well.

It’s not just that the baby-boomers are old farts now, though that has something to do with it. It’s not that I could tell a friend that I regretted not throwing a party to celebrate being 33⅓ and have her wonder out loud why I’d pick such an odd age to celebrate. It’s not that I have colleagues who were born after John Lennon died, or that the USSR imploded almost twenty ago and that Diana has been dead for a decade, or any of the things catch one by surprise with the sneaky way time tiptoes past.

It’s the shifting of my mental map. I am used to WWII and Suez being just over there, in spaces I cannot quite reach myself, but this person standing by me can reach out and touch them for me. And the future is over there on that side and no-one can touch that of course, though anyone can press their nose up against the glass.

But there are fewer and fewer people anywhere who can touch WWII and Suez and only one I can think of who is standing anywhere near me; and we are all living in the future now. Neuromancer was published 23 years ago.

Note to self: “Lentils: enough, already”

Lentils, enough alreadyI was raised by women who were adult during WWII (and during WWI, one of them) and that has coloured my attitude to waste and recycling ever since. Their proverbial admonitions still ring in my ears: “Think of the Poor Poles” “Think of the Starving Russians” “Waste not, want not”. These phrases were contextless two or three decades after Stalingrad and the Warsaw Ghetto, and were never updated to “Think of the poor Biafrans” or “the Starving Sudanese”. But it is drilled deep in my bones that wasting food is ill-mannered at best, and wickedly profligate at worst.

So I want you to appreciate the trauma of spending the last two hours clearing out my kitchen cupboard. Why is it so hard to accept that I never will eat the fruit preserved in Brandy given to me for Christmas five years ago? I know and you know that the best and kindest thing to do is get rid of it. And the five packets of flavoured teas which are not only too disgusting to drink, but too stale to give away. And the packet of rice noodles I bought two years ago and never finished. (I lived off rice noodles for most of the summer of 2005, but suddenly one day I’d eaten enough of them and the remaining half-packet has been perking up hopefully every time I open my kitchen cupboard and then sagging back, disappointed and scorned, when I shut the door on it again. Well no more.) Oh god the guilt. I am throwing perfectly good food away.

The problem is not only that I under-utilise; I also over-stock. I have two packets of half opened and half used muscovado sugar. Now in what possible circumstances am I going to use a couple of pounds of muscovado sugar? It doesn’t make good crumble. I suppose I could mix it with the two packets of white sugar and a the pound or so in a jar with a vanilla pod, and turn the lot into rum. The last lot of sugar I kept with a vanilla pod was in there for half a dozen years at least. I do not need any more sugar.

Couscous? When will I remember, standing in Tescos, that I don’t actually like couscous that much? Or that one packet of Quinoa goes a very very long way. Sesame seeds. Why did I buy so many sesame seeds? And as for lentils: I have red split lentils, two kinds of yellow lentils, two kinds of brown lentils and two packets of Moth Beans which are “like lentils”. Oh, and three tins of the things in case I don’t want to do all that unpleasant boiling.

Note to self: “Lentils: enough, already”.

Probably best not to get downwind of me for a while, then.

No place for sissies

Mary is my Homegirl

I’ve been thinking about growing older recently. No particular reason except that I’ll be jumping the half-way point between a couple of big ones soon.

Words associated with being old that I like:

  • Wisdom
  • Experience
  • Perspective
  • The long view

Words associated with being old that I don’t like:

  • Set in her ways
  • Grumpy
  • Miserable
  • Conservative
  • Narrow minded
  • Infirm
  • Out of touch
  • Losing one’s nerve
  • Oh, and “twinkling”

The problem is that habits are comfy. I know who and what I am, what I like and don’t like. I’m at ease with myself. I’m comfy.

I’ve lived long enough to know that I can’t bake cakes, and that – no – I won’t enjoy a night-club where I can’t hear what people say and everyone is drunk anyway. But if I avoid baking cakes and clubbing, will other horizons gradually narrow until I become not just set in my ways, but cemented in them?

A girl at work wore a t-shirt the other day saying “Mary is my Homegirl”. I have no idea what a homegirl is, so I asked. I didn’t understand any of the first three synonyms. This unnerved me far more than when I was handed a postcard in a Glasgow street in 1999 which advertised a band or a club. The only words I recognised were “of” “at” and the date. I found it funny, that time. “Losing my nerve” is on my list of things I don’t like about growing older and it seems I am losing my nerve. The list of things I don’t want to do is getting longer, and that worries me, too.

Bette Davis

Maybe it’s because my Ma and my Grandma did not provide positive role models for growing older. My Grandma, by the time I knew her, was slipping from grief to senility. My Ma – well I hesitate to call her a sissy, but she didn’t flower in late middle age and old age.

Chasing youth is pointless. (They can run faster, for a start). Why deny the good things about the age one has reached? What I am afraid of is a gradual narrowing of the outlook, a gradual disengaging from the world. That I will get to the point where new things either don’t interest me or I haven’t heard of them.

Here are the top 10 from Google Zeitgeist this week, and my view of them.

1. valentine’s day – yeah, ok
2. Michelle Manhart – never heard of her
3. grammys – not interested
4. peanut butter recall – presume it’s local to the US – not interested
5. dixie chicks – not interested
6. obama – not interested
7. westminster dog show – never heard of it – not interested
8. the police – not particularly interested
9. PS3 – really not interested
10. wii – so not interested you would not believe it

You see, it is partly that the world is so big and scary and accessible that the nasty stuff stares you down and waits for you to blink, if you let it. It is completely bloody terrifying, what with Iran and Bush and Afghanistan and Terrorism and Climate Change and all that.

On t’other hand, it is partly that we are, in the words of Neil Postman, amusing ourselves to death and, sorry, but I really couldn’t care about Ms Spears’ bad hair days, or Wii, (whatever that is), or celeb-trash or the popular beat combos de nos jours.

So at one end, we have things which are too trivial to bother with, and at the other we have things that are too scary to face up to, and the most comforting option is to hide your head under a blankie and say “wibble”.

But how many steps from “wibble” to dribble?

DeathIf you withdraw too far into a comfort-zone, you’ll end up like the wizard in the Pratchett book who is so afraid of dying that he locks himself into his room, sealing himself into a box which is so impregnable that nothing can get in or out, including Death. Or, as it turns out, air.

So there are two challenges. One is to avoid being a narrow-minded, apathetic lump who isn’t interested in anything but where the next cup of tea is coming from. The other is to stay sufficiently engaged with the world and the devil to know what a homegirl is without allowing the sheer freaking terror of the c**ts in the White House and Downing Street sending one into gibbering rage.

Summer flowers, winter mornings

One summer’s day eighty, ninety, maybe a hundred years ago my grandmother’s sister filled a green bowl with poppies and cornflowers and great white peonies.

Every morning, the first thing I see when I wake is that green bowl of summer flowers which she painted all those years ago.

I like that.

Summer flowers

Going green

Like Charlotte, like a lot of us, I am trying to be greener. Unfortunately when I bought my house a year ago, I did not pay attention to the poor public transport connections between where I live and where I work. Let’s put the rather embarrassing fact that I drive about 20,000 miles a year on one side. I am finally making practical changes to my lifestyle which make me feel virtuous, even though will make no practical difference to the future of the planet at all.

(1) Freecycling. – just the most wonderful idea. A true example of think global, act local. The website provides links to tens of thousands of yahoo email groups, and the idea is that stuff is offered for free locally. The chances are high that there is one in your town. So far I have got rid of two half bottles of Citroen hydraulic fluid (how else would one get rid of that?) a couple of tickets to Alton Towers and a clothes rail. When I told a colleague he muttered about people taking the good stuff and re-selling it on ebay, but – as with beggars – I’d rather be ripped off than not trust. A lack of trust erodes the soul. I get a huge amount of pleasure out of giving stuff away to be honest, and this is a cool route to a quick hit.

(2) Padded curtains. This comes under the energy efficiency section really. I am slowly making myself padded curtains for the doors, and curtains with thermal linings for the windows. I’m also putting up thermal roller blinds in the windows. If you are having curtains made, you should be able to order padded interlining and thermal linings, and making curtains really is not that difficult. You just need a large floor for cutting out and pinning, and the ability to sew in fairly straight lines.

(3) Woolly jumpers. This comes under the energy efficiency section too. Looking back on it, it astonished me that when I was elbow high my grandmother and my mother would change into long skirts in the evening. With my grandmother it was more understandable, a generational habit. My mother was younger so it was odder. These long skirts were not glamorous. They were home-made out of worsted or some other itchy wool and because they were itchy they were lined. When I asked my mother why she bothered, she said “but it gets cold in the evenings”. And indeed it did. Ice on the inside of the windows cold. So what I had assumed to be a legacy of pre-war standards was just a matter of thermal-efficiency. I draw my personal line at long skirts, but I do have sheepskin slippers and woolly jumpers and cardigans.

(4) Carbon Neutrality. This one really is papering over the cracks in one’s conscience. Essentially, you work out your carbon profile, and then pay a company to plant enough trees to ‘compensate’. The problem with this is that current experiments in forests in the US, Germany and Australia are challenging the received wisdom that trees reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and that most people won’t do it. I am sure there was a similar scheme run by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. Pardons? Indulgences? I need a medievalist to tell me. On the other hand, I like trees, so I regard it as a charitable gesture and hope for the best.

(5) Organic Veg box scheme. The internet was made to make it easy to find box schemes for organic veg. The reason for using small schemes is that they use veg from local farms, so you are improving your local economy, eating fresher food and reducing your food-miles. Do not be seduced by supermarket schemes. Their schemes just pimp out their existing vegetable section; and like most pimps, the supermarkets bully their suppliers and don’t care about food-miles. I rather like the randomness of not knowing what veg I will get next week, and the discipline of planning my meals around what I’ve got.

(6) Composting. My local council sells compost bins ‘worth’ £40 for six quid. With an offer like that it’d be rude not to. Mind you, one of my neighbours muttered darkly about smells, so I had to say “if it smells, we’ll get rid of it” – I did offer him the compost for his allotment, which made him marginally less gloomy about the whole thing.

(7) Recycling paper, glass, metal, plastic. Did you know you can recycle plastic milk- and drinks-bottles? Neither did I until our local kerbside recycling scheme started up. I recycled before, but at least my car is no longer full of carrier bags of tins and bottles waiting for me to take them to a supermarket recycling centre. The composting and recycling have reduced my rubbish to landfill by about 2/3rds, which is practical and pleasing.

(8) Public Transport. Having admitted that I drive some 20,000 miles annually, I do try to take the train or the bus when it is sensible. National Express is one of Britain’s unsung transport treasures. Trains too, are much easier to use now that we have the internet to plan journeys and book tickets, and there are some oddly useful routes, Birmingham to Brighton via Kensington and Gatwick for example. I still think that a rail journey should be significantly cheaper than the same journey by car, but that is another rant for another blog.

(9) Expensive stuff. Now we move into the realms of expensive stuff, like solar roof panels, lpg vehicle fuel, and domestic wind turbines. I haven’t done any of this, but it is interesting that B&Q are starting to sell this stuff (though in what sort of world can £2498 be described as “only”?) In the meantime it seems simplest just to give a list of links which kinder and greener people gave me when I was first investigating the subject.

  • The Low Carbon Buildings Programme – which makes the expensive stuff cheaper: “The low carbon buildings programme will provide grants for microgeneration technologies to householders, community organisations, schools, the public and not for profit sector and private businesses.”
  • The Centre of Exellence for New and Renewable Energy – A good source of information on the choices available for domestic generation – “NaREC is involved in developing the micro-generation technology. We are supporting items as diverse as roof parapet wind turbines, biomass combined heat and power, and systems to integrate renewable generation into homes at the build stage.”
  • The Centre for Alternative Technology – “We address every aspect of the average lifestyle – the key areas we work in are renewable energy, environmental building, energy efficiency, organic growing and alternative sewage systems.”
  • The Alternative Technnology Centre – slightly dippy-hippy organisation based in West Yorkshire (it runs courses on how to recycle plastics as a medium for crafts, art and technology) – “As an educational resource centre, we aim to make sustainability achievable and simply irresistible by working from a strong base within our local community to provide inspiration, accessible information and advice to improve the quality of life using sustainable means – economic, environmental and social.”
  • Micro-cars – This is so not suitable for me, given that 30% of my mileage is motorways, and another 50% is A roads: But the G-Wiz makes the Smart Car look big, clunky and gas-guzzling. To be honest though, shouldn’t you be using public transport, if you live in a place where this is a suitable vehicle?

Right, enough time indoors this morning! I am off outside to scrub up some reclaimed flooring blocks to use as the uprights in a bookcase. Sustainable forestry? Eat your heart out Ikea!