Sunday, 28 July 2013

Bad parenting, and the perfect Baba Ghanoush

I really should be a better mother. Recently I have got so used to being on my own during the days that I am finding myself getting properly grouchy after 9 days of school holidays. Granted it has been a gruelling schedule and we haven't had much downtime as yet. I need to find my groove: need to mellow out, need to ignore the bickering, stop planning such elaborate meals (did I really want to joint a chicken and make it into a tagine this evening when it was actually the children's bath time and they were trying to put on a play?), get a bit more positive. And if in doubt maybe some earphones and an iPod could be good if I feel like I'm going to blow.

Looking good on the art front though. The deckchair exhibition at Clevedon Pier is fabulous, really beautiful, and by a bit of a fluke my deckchair is, to my eyes, in pride of place compared to all the others, between two windows: it had to be moved out of reach as within the first half hour it became clear that everyone felt the need to touch it. The felt has been reproduced so well that people really thought it was 3d. It actually looks better than the original. I have been to see it twice and have a feeling I will be drawn back there very soon. I also might be taking part in two more exhibitions coming up soon, although I will ironically be on holiday for both: one by Clevedon Art Club from August 10th to 24th, at Clevedon Community School, and one at the Tithe Barn in Nailsea, a one day pop up gallery on August 24th. I am quite relieved to have these to take some of my framed pieces to, not least because I was starting to think about whether I had the nerve to see if I could sell my Brittany beach picture to a nearby gallery while we are staying in France, but now I have somewhere far less scary to take it, and a place where I am possibly more likely to sell. Let's hope.

Cooking has been interesting recently even if a bit stressed when intermingled with requests to help with mask making and breaks to referee fights. I made a huge, really huge chocolate cake in the shape of a Moshi Monster for my now 6 year old's birthday party, so that it almost looks like I am a good parent to an untrained outsider:-

If you are interested, I got the recipe from Belleau Kitchen and a very fine chocolate cake recipe it is too, although a) it was as big as I could possibly make in my very biggest bowl (and that's BIG) and I had enough extra mix to make an extra loaf sized cake to put in the freezer, and b) it was so lovely and moist and soft that it was a pig to cover with a layer of butter icing before I put on the ready to roll icing. It's weird how you need to have a cake with a rather stale and dense consistency to make a really decent child's birthday cake. This one did have a bit of lumpiness about the surface of the finished article because I just couldn't get the buttercream layer entirely smooth. But it just about held together and was extra good for having a layer of vanilla butter icing and Bonne Maman Berries and Cherries jam in the middle for a hint of Black Forest.

I discovered the secret to a good Baba Ghanoush the other day. If you haven't had it, it's an amazing creamy, smoky aubergine dip from the Middle East. A bit hummus-like but more dreamy. And I think it wins a prize for being the dish with the most beautiful name ever, doesn't it sound lovely? Years ago I tried to follow a recipe for it by putting a whole aubergine in the oven but it was just plain sad. But the lightbulb moment came when we bought a new barbecue recently. For years we have put up with a pathetic excuse of a barbecue from Ikea. The results have been so poor that I have found myself wondering about the masculinity of my other half from time to time. But not any more: we have turned to the testosterone-fuelled world of the Weber and I do like a bit of testosterone. Weber are so manly they even have their own app full of recipes and hints and tips and although I despised myself for it I couldn't resist downloading it. And it was there, for the first time in years, that I saw a mention of the rather effeminate-sounding Baba Ghanoush. And it turns out that barbecuing is the secret. As you are barbecuing other things, or even afterwards, while you're eating more meat than any human needs, put a whole aubergine on the barbecue and let the skin blacken. Turn it several times so that it's shrivelled and blackened and soft on the inside. I actually forgot about our aubergine and retrieved it sheepishly the next morning. This is my adapted version:-

Baba Ghanoush

1 aubergine, barbecued (see above) and cooled
1 dessertspoonful tahini
A good squeeze of lemon
1/2 a clove of garlic, roughly chopped
Salt and pepper
A pinch of ground cumin
A pinch of smoked paprika

Peel the skin off the aubergine (you should be able to do this with your fingers but a knife might speed things up). Chop it up roughly and whizz up in a blender with all the other things. You can add some chopped parsley too if you have some. Chill it for a while to let the flavours mingle. Serve with some hot pitta breads and with some other mezze if you are feeling like making a meal of it. Wow.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

My New Year's Eve

So following on from my last post, yes it's been really feeling like New Year's Eve for the last couple of days. School has now finished, academic year over and so is my year in my head. I know that there won't be much time in the next few weeks for contemplation so better get it over with now. Normally that New Year's Eve feeling is an unpleasant and maudlin "What have I achieved this year? " followed by a sad sigh and another glass of wine to dull the senses. Yesterday was a terribly emotional day with school finishing; youngest one's teacher leaving, and an overwhelmingly hot day and a tearful leavers' assembly; by the time I picked them up from school there seemed to be more people crying than not, which all in all added to my end of year gloom. But actually today I am thinking about that hideous question "What have I achieved this year?" And actually it's not too bad. This time last year here was the situation: I was crippled by gloom induced by a small girl who would express her displeasure or insecurity on a daily basis by pooing in her pants. I didn't even know the extent to which it had properly depressed me. Little did I know that almost exactly a year ago today she would decide to make that a problem of the past, just as her amazing teacher had predicted she would. I had done a little bit of embroidery on my few felted pictures but the idea of taking it to a different level and trying to sell any hadn't even occurred to me. So a year on and the gloom lifted; the seed of selling my art was sown in my head last August; in October the idea of doing North Somerset Arts Week was proposed to me; in November I felt strong enough to put myself forward as Chair of the school PTA; straightaway  thrown into the fire I had to organise the school Christmas Fair for December and raised over £2000 for the first time ever. The momentum grew and the preparation began for my Arts Week. I had no inkling that I'd end up volunteering to coordinate the Nailsea artists for Arts Week and of the lovely people I'd meet in the process. I sold 9 or 10 pieces in Arts Week and had leads to quite a few more jobs from it, as well as my first felting workshop (by the way the stick insects I acquired that night have come back to stay for the summer holidays and once again I am stressing about finding privet for them to eat). More PTA events, more money raised. A competition for a design for the fabric on a deckchair won. And today I had a little cherry on top of the cake. I had a call earlier this week asking if I'd like to go to a meeting about becoming a committee member for North Somerset Arts. I can't really remember mentioning to anyone that I'd be interested, but somehow they knew. And so now, over the course of a chat outside a cafe over a decaf cappuccino, I've been invited to become one of the committee, and got a lead about an exhibition in Clevedon I might be able to take part in, and there you have it. What a funny old year. What have you achieved this year?

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Felted writing

I don't know what made me think of trying writing in felt. I have been trying to get one of the classes at school to each write a postcard for their teacher who's leaving school tomorrow for a new job, and then stick them all into a book. The book is now full, and I was wondering what to put on the cover, and then it came to me.

I knew that using cut out pre-felt (half-felted wool) would be possible for the fat letters, but using yarn for the joined-up "good" was a gamble as it could have shifted badly or wrinkled up in the shrinking process and end up illegible. Luckily it didn't. I am however pretty sure that my letter formation isn't up to the exacting school standards. I hope she'll forgive me. The book looks great though:-

But bear in mind that my contribution is nothing compared to what some of the children have done for the inside of the book: beautiful declarations of love, kind wishes and memories of lovely things she has done with them. It is fascinating how different every child's (or parent's?) idea of "Please ask your child to write or draw something special for Miss N" can be. Just one made my eyes water: one parent had written about how the teacher had "neautered" their son. I can only hope that "nurtured" is what was intended as I've never heard of castration being part of a teacher's remit.
Not much on the recipe front this week: too hot for proper cooking and not much eating inspiration. I wish I was more comfortable in extreme heat. Actually this is an odd week all round; as my children go further into the education system I've found that my outlook towards the year has changed. Now for me September is when the year begins and when I have new resolve for new projects and a better way of life. Similarly now has become a rather maudlin and unsettled time, in a way that I used to feel about New Year's Eve: "What have you done all year?", "Another year older", "What's it all about?". Yes we all need the summer holidays and I am looking forward to two weeks in Brittany more than I've looked forward to anything for a long time, but I will miss the hubbub at school, the people I see there that I won't necessarily see outside school, and the routine it brings. Time on my own during term time gives me a space to dream and have hope. I really must sort out my life. 

Friday, 12 July 2013

Gazpacho and a tiny beach

A productive day so far: another small picture finished and dispatched to my brother along with the four other ones from my last post, dinner sorted out, a repaired PA system delivered back to school after an unknown person fiddled with the back of it and broke an aerial and a socket (allegedly during the PTA summer fair), four loads of washing put away and a coffee in the sun with friends (although one has just alerted me to the fact that we walked out of the pub garden and completely forgot to pay for the coffee; I do hope the wanted posters aren't up around the village yet. Must remember to put it right on the way back to school).

First the picture: the last of my little tiny ones. This time I have done some high-density beading in just one small area; it must be relief at reverting to my usual beading on the left-hand side:-

I am really looking forward to dinner; it is the best ever meal for really hot days - cooling and refreshing, yet gutsy and satisfying. I mentioned before that I have been doing the 5:2 diet (5 days of eating what I like and 2 of fasting with just 500 calories a day, every week) quite successfully for a while and although I normally hate calorie-counting, today is a fast day and you might be pleased to hear that this only has 164 calories in a serving:-
Gazpacho (wish I could pronounce it properly; it grieves me that my children come home from school uttering strange Hispanic words when it is practically the only western European language I haven't learned. Mental note to self: Must Find Someone to Help Me Learn Spanish)
Serves 2
6 medium tomatoes (or 270g), peeled and de-seeded
1/3 cucumber, roughly chopped
1/3 pepper, roughly chopped - it should be a green one but I only had red today
1/4 red onion, roughly chopped
A very small clove of garlic, roughly chopped
1 1/2 slices stale bread, broken up
2 1/2 tablespoons vinegar - it should be sherry vinegar but I only had white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Salt & pepper
1/2 teaspoon sugar
250mls water
Not much to the method: put it all in a pot and blend until it's soup. Check for seasoning: it might need more salt. If it tastes a bit boring, you might need a tad more vinegar, red onion and/or garlic. Chill it thoroughly for a couple of hours as there's nothing worse than one that's room temperature. But make sure you cover it with several layers of cling film so your fridge doesn't end up stinking of raw garlic and onion (as indeed your breath might after you've eaten it). I really despise recipes that suggest country-hopping for ingredients as it offends the purist in me, but here goes: on non-fast days I love this with either some cool mozzarella gently broken on top, or grilled halloumi on the side, and a drizzle more of olive oil on top, and some rosemary focaccia to go with it. It's also probably worth mentioning that once I had an enterprising salad in a French restaurant, comprising lettuce and the usual salad ingredients, succulent big prawns and a scoop of gazpacho sorbet in the middle, so I suppose you could freeze it in an ice-cream maker. Yum. 

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

I won!

Well there is some exciting news: I won the deckchair competition! In case you hadn't read it before, I entered one of my pictures into a competition run by Clevedon Pier; 24 winners would get their design printed onto 2 deckchairs, one for the artist to keep and one to be auctioned for charity, and I am one of those 24! The deckchairs will be in an exhibition at the Tollhouse Gallery for a while so that should be a good bit of publicity and it just feels so good. Here, in case you haven't seen it already, is my design:-

I can also now reveal another little job I was working on last week. It was a birthday present for my dear friend Jenny and I couldn't mention it earlier as I know she pops in here every so often. Last year she took some fantastic photos of a storm on a beach near her Devon home:-

And I immediately wanted to do something based on them for her. It felt a bit risky as stormy skies can so often look terrible in pictures, and the colour scheme was uncharted territory for me. I couldn't ever get the lovely reflective qualities that were in the photos but I did my best to do them justice:-

Actually now seeing it so close to the photos, it looks a bit poor, but on its own I was rather pleased with the textures and the rustic colours, and there is something reminiscent of layers of rock formation in it for me. I am still not sure about the sky. But Jenny is happy and that is what counts.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Small fry

All is good again in Short Lane. It feels like ages since I've been able to show you any new pictures I've felted, but, hurrah, today's the day. This has been a great week for getting back on with it again and it has been very therapeutic after the PTA trials of earlier. "Small" has been the big theme this week; after Arts Week you might remember, if you've visited before, that my brother had asked me to come up with some small pictures to fit on a card 6" x4" for his lovely framing shop and gallery Artfellows. His idea is to sell a piece of art on a card, with the option of a mount to go with it, and/or a frame, so it has to be small. This has been a challenge as I hadn't appreciated just how long the merino wool fibres I use are, and although there is a certain amount of shrinkage every time I do some felting, 6" x 4" is really teeny in felting terms. So a few weeks ago when I thought I could make a quick daisy and a dandelion clock, it took a good hour of rolling to shrink them down to the required size, and to be honest I'm still a little concerned they might dwarf the card behind. This week I managed at last to finish stitching the daisy:-

It is a sister to the dandelion clock I've shown you before:-

Then I thought I'd do some of my favourite beach scenes. I've done one rough-edged one (still to be finished), but also this time for two, to make life easier - and also because some people prefer it - I didn't stress about the size and cropped them after the felting process. Here is the first:-

And here is the second:-

This last one is a bit of an oddity: it might look fine to you but I have tried something new with this one and it is playing tricks with my mind. It is the first time I have put the beading on the right-hand side. Doesn't sound too ground-breaking does it? But the weird thing is that every time I look at it, after a few seconds I've found I've subconsciously turned it upside-down and then wondered why the sky is the wrong colour. When I took photos of it, the resulting pictures were, yes you've guessed it, upside-down. Why do I need the beads to be on the left? I need to get this analysed...

Wednesday, 3 July 2013


It's been hard to summon up the strength to write for a few days, and to find something interesting to write about. I was completely taken up with the school summer fair last week; I averaged around five and a half hours' sleep a night because the details kept waking me up. Everything else just had to wait. On the day the rain held off and actually everything went pretty much swimmingly. It's weird how a lot of effort in the build up to an event can make your eyes well up when it actually happens. I thought I could be clever and count the cash in the evening, filling out a spreadsheet as I went along - bad move. I'm sure I knew the golden rule of never messing about with excel when you are really tired, or in a hurry, or after alcohol, but I thought I was invincible after such a good day. So I carried on, despairing of how long it took to break even and then getting really badly upset at the final result, oblivious to the fact that I'd put the tombola profits into the expenses column and messed up the bar row altogether. How could the total be so low? Where did it all go wrong (as if £1359 was so wrong)? During that long night I was in the Apprentice; I had several people hauled into the boardroom but I was really wishing to be sacked myself. On Sunday it all came good and I could announce a much healthier profit. It has been an emotional journey and when a couple of people suggested that the fact that everyone had had a great time was more important than the money (after my third idiotic email announcing a new total), it felt like a knife turning in the big open wound that I now think all PTA chairs must have on their shoulders after a few months. How can just organising a school fete turn into such pain? In the process I have found myself questioning aspects of my existence: what was I doing this for? Is it that I am just trying to give something back to the school that has done so many good things for my children, or am I trying to carve myself a niche somewhere, trying to belong somewhere I can never belong? Am I trying to get approval from some unknown body? Attention-seeking? Is it really that people can't help because of their jobs, or is it my management technique? Do I need to get a proper job so that I too can say it in the future when someone asks me? Could I use my qualifications and get the linguistic part of my brain working properly for the first time in years? Would that bring me happiness? What do I want to do with my life? And down to the more mundane - do emails really work, or am I just typing requests for help out into a void, only to echo back to me like a voice in a bucket? Why would anyone want to put themselves through all that? I am carrying mental scars that will take a while to heal. I need to toughen up or get out.

Anyway I notice that I have more people coming to read this since I wrote my pad Thai recipe so it makes me think I need to do more recipes. Let's face it, more people need to eat dinner than want to see my feltings. I have been back to the felt a bit this week; more to come on one piece soon as I can't show you it yet, but also I have finally sorted out the commission for my friend:-
And I have been cooking. It has been good therapy after the traumas of the last couple of weeks. I had a difficult time deciding which recipe to tell you about today. It could have been a lemon drizzle layer cake that I made for the teachers who helped out at the school fair but that's already on the net here; suffice it to say that on the second day the empty tin came home with not a crumb left, and just a post-it note inside saying (in very teachery joined-up writing) "Thank you! It was delicious xxxx" so it can't have been bad. Or it could have been an amazing middle-eastern aubergine thing a bit like Imam Bayildi that I made to have with grilled halloumi, some fantastic smoked hummus I got from Waitrose and a tin of those weirdly named Greek "Giant Beans" in tomato sauce, with hot pittas. But no, this morning I have made a rather good salad to take round to my Arts Week friends for lunch. I hate beetroot and am not too good with broad beans, but both appeared in my veg box that was delivered yesterday. And it tastes great:-

Beetroot and Broad Bean Salad
4 beetroots, peeled and chopped into 8 pieces each
About 20 pods of broad beans, peeled and outer skins removed
A few handfuls of lettuce
3 tablespoons pine nuts
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
Juice of 1/3 lemon
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
Salt & pepper
Pinch of mustard powder
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
75g feta
A few mint leaves
A few parsley leaves
Boil the beetroot for about 20 minutes or until it is tender, drain. Boil the broad beans until cooked - I had some big and some small so I did the big ones for 5 then put the small ones in and boiled them for another 10 minutes. Drain and add to the beetroot. Meanwhile heat a heavy frying pan with the pine nuts in until they start to brown. Add the cumin seeds to the pan and when you get a big puff of beautiful toasted cumin flavour, tip the pine nuts and seeds into a ramekin to stop them burning. Make a dressing with the lemon, vinegar, salt, pepper, mustard and olive oil and pour over the beetroot and beans, and stir. Chop the mint and parsley and stir that in too. Get a serving bowl and put your lettuce in it, then top with the beetroot and beans. Crumble the feta over the top and finally top with your pine nuts and cumin seeds. Accompany it with a quiche and some other mystery items that you know your friends will be bringing. Dig in with said friends, while you are getting a lot of painful things off your chests together.