Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Supermarket Sweep?

As our menus subtly evolve according to the ever-changing food trend tides, so do the attitudes of all who chow down at the trough. But I’ve recently spotted a very odd social trend indeed, in the form of a rather insulting leg of mutton all trussed up in the outfit of a pretty, seemingly innocent lamb.

In recent months, my penchant for baking has done wonders for the Blease budget. Home-baked breakfast muffins and similarly thrifty teatime treats keep those credit crunch wolves from the door when you’ve got a houseful of overnight guests - and to my mind, they’re also far nicer than commercial versions that cost a bomb and rarely taste fresh anyway. And given that creating a cookie ain’t exactly rocket science, there’s hardly any effort involved either. But here’s the rub. Where once a satisfied guest would politely ask for a recipe or involve you in a lengthy debate about milk versus dark chocolate chips, today’s budding domestic goddesses have to prepare to justify themselves against a barrage of accusatory comments all flung with the sole purpose of ‘catching you out’ in mind.

From the conspiratorial tone of “where did you buy those muffins from, really?” to pompous declarations such as “nobody makes their own chocolate brownies!” and the ultimate insult that is “these cookies are exactly the same as ones you can buy in Sainsbury’s”, I’ve recently recoiled from attacks courtesy of apparently well-meaning face-stuffers who simply can’t believe that anybody really actually does what the plethora of food media advises us to do...and turned their own oven on. Okay, you could say that this is a veiled compliment to a attaining a certain standard of home cooking. But think again. If a home-baked cookie tastes like the Sainsbury’s version of the genre, I need to start tweaking my recipes.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Pamper me, stupid

I was hanging out in the upmarket version of my local municipal swimming pool (no kids, floating sticking plasters or suspicious yellow clouds passing by; the ubiquitous pervert fiddling with himself behind a potted palm instead of a ‘no petting’ sign) when the question dawned on me: what the hell am I doing with my life?

Okay, the Big Existential Ask regularly wrestles my conscience into meltdown. But as I was voluntarily subjecting myself to one of life’s most inconsequential experiences, I guess my internal emotional boot camp counsellor decided it was an excellent time to blow the whistle. And so it came to dawn on me that spas – otherwise known as pampering hotspots, ‘me time’ sanctuaries and “luxurious urban retreats” – are often little more than privately-funded refuges for woman whose self-esteem has hit an all time low.

On one level, time spent at a spa can indeed be an affirmative, invigorating experience, offering stress-reducing benefits similar to taking a brisk country walk, listening to a live orchestra or reading a good book. But the activities that go beyond floating in a mineral-rich pool or simmering in the Jacuzzi add a distinctly sinister edge to otherwise bland proceedings. Wrapped in a big fluffy robe before being stripped of all dignity (we’ll get on to that in a moment), clients are force fed a menu of spurious ‘treatments’ that, rather than relieve existing insecurities, actually serve to perpetuate them. At best, they’re boring (“don’t worry if you fall asleep during your sand and cottage cheese detoxifying massage – that just proves that the treatment is working”). At worst, they’re downright undignified and completely unnecessary. Is having all traces of excess hair ripped from your most private parts really an ‘essential’ treatment? Before you agree to have a non-surgical facelift, are you prepared to be left with a nasty metallic taste in your mouth for a week afterwards? Did you know you had acne scars under your chin until your ‘therapist’ pointed them out to you? Do you really care? Once you allow the women in the white coats to lead you away, you do now. Because if you present yourself, warts and all (don’t worry – they can be lasered way) for a consultation, the last thing you’re ever, ever going to hear is that you don’t need anything done - if the ‘experts’ weren’t able to make you feel totally crap about yourself, business would shrivel up faster than you can say “smoker’s skin”. But when I had my latest ‘treatment’ I couldn’t help thinking what a vile job the poor poppet who tended to my cellulite had.

Every day, women like her face more cheesy hooves, fat-rippled flesh and odorous nether regions than Jamie Oliver’s beloved pig farmers. They’re obliged to either pretend to be excited about the 43rd wedding they’ve discussed that day or keep completely silent as Lady Muck has her colonic irrigation. They grovel around scraping corns from feet ragged with the detritus of long-term fungal infection, grateful for the fact that the chemicals inhaled while spraying fake tan onto their previous client have temporarily destroyed most of their senses. And if you think that a goodly portion of the £55+ you’ll be expected to pay for an average spa treatment supplements their hard-earned income, think again: I know a beautician who works for a well-known chain of spas for an hourly rate just 40p above the minimum wage. But hey, she loves her job. And most women claim to love ‘being pampered’. And as third-wave feminist Naomi Wolf stated in her 1991 book ‘The Beauty Myth’, “a Western woman’s whole identity is premised upon ‘beauty’ above all else”. But while I’ve yet to discover the hell I’m doing with my life in the long-term, I know one thing for sure: brisk country walks, Wagner and F Scott Fitzgerald will take priority over Botox, waxing and facials.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


Since we last met, I've had a birthday (and not one but TWO parties to celebrate) (well, a girl doesn't turn 103 every day!) and loads of visitors staying over (all whom stuffed their faces with piles of homemade blueberry muffins every morning then accused me of buying the from Sainsbury's - quelle horreur!). I've been to a totally fabulous garden party that lasted for around 18 hours, eaten in what's possibly the worst restaurant in Bath, been reunited with a wonderful friend* in glorious circumstances, booked totally unglamorous overnight accommodation for me and a small, select group of friends for each night in between three days at the Download Festival (rock chick? You got it!) and gained a rather fetching non-peely suntan (and probably around 3lbs in weight) to boot. So what am I about to dedicate this post to? Coconut dhal, that's what!

I honestly can't remember where the original recipe for this sultry, silky-smooth dish came from, but I have a feeling that the original version that inspired me is probably lurking somewhere amongst the sticky pages of Rose Elliot's 1972 veggie cookery book 'Not Just a Load of Old Lentils', which I've had, like, forever (thank you, Mumkin!) and love so much that I've actually blogged about it here (if you're interested, the original post will be somewhere way down in the 'Food Glorious Food' section). But anyway, I doubt that Rose's recipe featured coconut milk (or if it does, it definitely won't be the low fat version, because that's a relatively new addition to the supermarket shelves) and I bet she fried her onions first. I, however, don't. This is what I do:

Dice an onion, and put it in a pan with around 250g of rinsed red lentils, a teaspoon of turmeric, a sprinkling of dried red chilli flakes and 300ml vegetable stock. Bring it all to the boil, then allow it to simmer for around 20-30 mins (stirring now and then) or until the lentils have gone all soft and squidgy. Then take it off the heat, put a lid on it and tell it to sit there and wait until you're ready to eat it, which you'll do with either (a) fresh, warm chapatis, fresh lime wedges and a dollop of plain yoghurt; (b) seared lamb chops; (c) seared prawns (the massive ones); or (d) griddled pork chops, which is what we're having it with tonight. You don't need to do anything to the fish, prawns or meat other than cook them to your liking, as the flavour is all in the dhal. You can, however, add a finishing touch flourish with a handful of fresh coriander, because that just adds to the fun. And simple though it sounds, this dish honestly is great fun - as equally at home at a dinner party as it is on an evening like this evening, when the sun is just about ready to hang up his hat for the day but kindly chooses to leave a soft, mellow breeze in his wake; not scorchingly hot, just gently sensual and a touch aromatic...a bit like what we're having for supper.


*Actually, I've been reunited with two wonderful friends, but the first to turn up (for the second birthday party) didn't do a fab gig in a suitably fab location (and neither did he buy me a present), so he doesn't get a link. He does however get a big "Hello Brenda". And yes, Brenda IS a he...