Monday, 27 May 2013


I am having a disgustingly unproductive day and have mislaid a vital piece of paper. Don't tell anyone. Let's have a list as a sort of facsimile of efficiency.

1. Prog Rock

Prog Rock came for the weekend, bringing three Eastern European novels, a packet of dried crickets (salt and vinegar flavour), one of those impossible wooden puzzles in tiny pieces you have to assemble into a 3D shape, some Horrible Histories playing cards and an economy sized packet of dog shit bags, inherited from the sadly deceased Whiskers. We talked about:

- the origins and uses of distaffs in feudal Russia (my contribution: nil)

- Kandinsky's philosophy of painting (my contribution: nil)

- Richard Cobb's essays on Ixelles (nil)

- My sister (some contribution)

- Carl Rodgers and child-centred education (nope)

- Learning Polish (very limited)

The rest of the time he played chess with L (every two minutes I could hear him saying "You really don't want to do that, L", mildly) and a wide range of really stupid card games with all of us, took the dog for walks or sat in the corner reading Hard Books. It was LOVELY. I increasingly wish my family lived round the corner (well, sometimes), but they seem astonishingly and selfishly disinclined to move to the south Brussels suburbs.

2. Parental guidance

L walked into the kitchen on Saturday morning, dangling his library book. It was a French language biography of Dickens, a slightly eccentric choice, I feel. I had a look for curiosity and the very first page I read was this:

Let me translate approximatively for non French speakers (my emphasis).

"In any family aspiring to respectability, one needed to have a maid, whom one could go and collect from the orphanage. They did not cost anything. Mary Weller was thirteen. She must have missed her vocation as a midwife, because she was fascinated by labour and birth. She took Charles to visit young women who had just given birth, and even to visit a woman who had just had quadruplets. The babies, all dead, were displayed side by side on a clean sheet on top of a cupboard, and were reminiscent of pigs feet, laid out in a good butcher's".

I don't think I can really add anything to that.

3. Cowardly lit crit. 

I have just deleted a rude review of this book under point 3, because it seemed unnecessary. I think it's probably sufficient to say that it was very much not for me. Someone else read it, so I can discuss with them, please? Or have you read it so we can discuss?

4. Music, maestro

F continues to learn the violin, slowly and querulously. It was his idea in the first place, I often remind him huffily and he doesn't want to give up, but he certainly doesn't want to hear my helpful ideas on the desirability of regular practice, or where his fingers should go. He would very much rather I went and boiled my head. His glittering expression of hate makes this abundantly clear every time I encourage him to get the violin out. Anyway. Next Sunday he is scheduled to 'perform', along with other students of his violin teacher and his violin teacher's friends, at a .. well. Recital, I suppose. Very much a beginner's recital. The violin teacher presented it to me thus. "It is going to be in a Senior Home. There is a piano .. the room is nice .. there are maybe twenty seniors. It could be ok, or it could be weird. It's up to you". I got a feeling that he was emphasising the "WEIRD" option, but that might be my natural reticence. Worse, I am supposed to accompany F on the piano.

I am far, far, better at the piano in my head than I am in real life, which is a feeling I am familiar with from eg. riding horses. Or a bike. Or running. As long as I don't play the piano, I am still, in my head, the person who can play Chopin Preludes. When I sit down, I struggle to play a chord. Unless it is from one of the three Chopin preludes I still have the muscle memory to play. I am concerned I will mess up and let F down. Or that regardless of whether I mess up or not, he will blame me if anything goes wrong. Whatever. I am going to woman up and practise the ludicrously easily accompaniment until I can be trusted to perform stolidly through whatever combination of 'senior' activity and scree-scree-delicious-torture violin confusion ensues. It is my parental duty.

5. Help

Can you help me with one of two things? There is a choice, see.

(i) Suggest an easy family meal I can cook. I have asked this many times before, I suspect, but yet again, I am monstrously bored of my 'repertoire'. My children are not particularly difficult, except they don't eat cheese, the freaks. Peter, you are not allowed to answer this one unless you suggest something REALLY easy. Tonight it is the Old El Paso fajitas of despair. Heeeeelpp uuuuuusss.

(ii) Help me with something I am trying to write about family holidays. Have you tried to replicate your own family holidays as an adult, or have you been determined to do the polar opposite? Were you trailed around on city breaks, marched up hills, baked on a beach? Do you have warm, happy memories of family holidays as a child, or is it a grim, unhealed psychological wound (THE ISLE OF EIGG I AM LOOKING AT YOU)? Any assistance gratefully received. I am taking my children to Yorkshire this summer, to enjoy the horizontal rain blowing down the valley and taste the peaty despair, so you know where I stand on this. Somewhere wet and boggy.


Scheherazade said...

5(i) Go here: pretty much everything is family friendly and they also have strategies for dealing with little food terrorists.

Unknown said...

The carbonara recipe hereis amaaaaaazing, super easy, and despite being by Heston Blumenthal does not contain, eg, foam, or the sound of the sea, or bacon made of liquidized neutron star material, etc.

It does have parmesan, but you could probably leave it out for the cheese hatas and serve some at the table for yourself.

Unknown said...

Gah, my inner editor is freaking out at the missing space in my previous comment.

Unknown said...

Also this chilli is delicious, especially if you do the suggested variant with chocolate. Can be made in vast quantities and frozen, also leftovers are great in tortillas.

Accidental Londoner said...

Re family holidays, we were constantly dragged to soggy Scotland for probably about 13 miserable years. At 14 I refused to go anywhere with my family again and at 16 started taking myself off to places with actual sunshine and a distinct absence of midge clouds. I later got a job which flings me from one hot, sticky corner of the world to another...I totally blame the holidays of doom in Argyll. And I am now quite content only to return to that sodden shore every few years or so for the obligatory family funeral - I cannot fathom why my parents thought the place such a draw...I mean, truly, there is only so much appeal held by a muddy rare breeds park and a tragic sealife centre full of crabs.

Gary Hills said...

We used to go to Jaywick Sands near Clacton. I have no desire to replicate.

breakfastlady said...

hahahaha. We are just returned, almost comatose with tiredness, from a long weekend (emphasis on the long)camping in Applecross. My attempt to replicate my own summers in the west highlands, where we went every summer. But we went to a little house, not to a tent, and we never had to sleep on the deflated half of a camping mattress that had sprung a leak, in the teeth of a howling gale. My summers were like Swallows and Amazons, this was not. But the kids had a hoot, and there is always the Applecross Inn for solace.
My more thoughtful contribution, fwiw, is that I like the idea of returning over and over and over again to the same place every summer - I think it leaves quite a poky imprint on the memory bank.

Julie said...

Oh, feeding boys. Besides egg, chips and peas? How healthy are we talking about here? Gwynnie I am NOT.

You do know you can make a perfect hot dog by wrapping the bun and frank in a paper towel and nuking for 30 seconds? Surprisingly good and my American repertoire.

Um, from Tunisia we have Ojja. Put merguez in frying pan with an onion, cook roughly. Add maybe a tin or two of chopped tomatoes and some water. Cook for a bit (10-20 mins). Then poach the number of eggs you want in it for five minutes. Use a LOT of flat leaf parsley as greenery. Serve with semoule.

And my French menu? 'Petit Sale'. Either buy a tin ready made and tart up with your own carrots and parsley (and lardons if really pushing boat out) or if you can't bear the thought of William Saurin (possibly not in Belgium anyway) just use tinned lentils and um, sausages instead.

Helen said...

A thing which the kids I babysat loved was a roasting tin full of stuff (chicken or sausage or chunks of beef or lamb and a variety of veg), drizzled in olive oil, roasted for about an hour and then with fresh herbs added. No fuss in the cooking process and they could pick the veg they independently did and didn't like. I am also in favour of everything Nigel Slater has ever done, which usually involves stew type things cooked in pots, long slow cooking of deliciousness.

Re holidays? We always went to Greece, and it was AWESOME. We stayed in self-catering villas which my dad's friend was preparing to rent out and we would test-drive them. Cue beds which fell apart, houses with no cutlery, pipes which burst... But it was so much fun! I want to go back to see if some of the places were that good. In my head walking the Sumerian Gorge was EPIC, they let us jump all over the ruins at Knossos, and the food was always always amazing.

Love the Dickens biog. Does it go into lurid detail about debtor's prison and him leaving his wife for a 18 year old actress when he was 45? I hope so. The dirty bugger.

Z said...

My standby, liked by everyone including children, is to cut up and fry, in butter/olive oil, chicken breast fillets. While they cook through, get out a tin of tomatoes, a jar of pesto and a tub of crème frâiche, dump the tomatoes in a bowl and add about half of each of the others, but you can vary the proportions as you wish. Add to the chicken and simmer for a few more minutes. Serve with pasta. One can't taste the cheese in the pesto (which can be fresh, of course). You can chuck in some frozen peas if you can't be arsed to make salad.

Ohlala Maman said...

I have the same issues re. repertoire and indeed Old El Paso but my current go to is to cook down 3 different types of fresh tomatoes- big, small, cherry etc. in olive oil and nothing else, just cooked really slowly, and then blended with a hand mixer and if desired a tin of tuna added and mixed in. Lots of pepper and parmesan (for you). Just add pasta. For some reason, I'm obsessed with how delicious it is, when it's just tomatoes. It's only good if you blend it though.

Anyway, OMG the Dickens biog, that is insane, I'm about the read the Claire Tomalin one, I hope it's got all the gory details there too.

And OMG OMG the review of the yummy mummy book - I cannot believe it was positive! Every quote she gave I thought, oh she's ridiculing it thoroughly it sounds horriff, and then she's says it's great, WTF?! Please post your review, it sounds like perfect fodder!

I loved my childhood holidays on UK islands, the Hebrides and the Scilly isles, and I would love to recreate them for my kids. I'm obsessed with cold beaches.

The Reluctant Launderer said...

Christ, my son would have LOVED to have been Dickens. Quads! Dead babies! Pigs' trotters! One of my best friends is just about to have triplets - TRIPLETS - and he is insisting we visit her. She lives in Cleveland, so instead I fill his head with tales of kidnapped women, which seems to satisfy him. For the moment.
For the recipes, have a look at the Crumbs website (crumbsfeedyourfamily.blogspot) which does great easy recipes, categorisied by how long they take. Also: mashed potatoes, tin of salmon (bone- and skin-free), squeeze of lemon, something white and fatty (mayo, creme-fraiche), mix, roll, fry - et voila, fish-cakes.
Holidays: having been dragged to the arse-end of nowhere in Ireland my entire childhood (wet, damp, dull) I am subjecting kids to the same this year - we're renting an arse-end house! However, I have decided to be generous to my offspring and the house has both hot water AND central heating. Which was a damn sight more than we had. (It also has a view of the main road, the local Spar, and other houses, the less said about which, the better). I will give some deeper thought to the matter (mainly WHY am I subjecting my children - and myself? - to this?) and revert if I come up with anything interesting.

Bytowner said...

Memories of my sister, on the long car trip to the family cottage, saying faintly and then more loudly 'daddy I don't feel well' and then louder still 'dad I'm going to throw up' and the car screeching onto the gravel shoulder of the road and the door on my sister's side opening at the same time, and my sister leaning out and vomiting onto the side of the road. Arriving at the cottage, and as soon as possible plunging into the beautiful lake. Going to bed at the cottage and listening to the mosquitoes whining against the old screens, and knowing that some would find their way in and I would wake the next morning with itchy welts on my knuckles or face.
I do force my children to more or less relive this although my sons don't seem to get carsick.
For a change I am dragging them to...Brussels! in a few weeks.
Note; cottage is used in the central Canada sense of 'inconvenient wooden shack near water used in summertime'

Aspidistra said...

I second the suggestion of slow cooked stews. You don't even need a recipe, though the ones made with recipes are probably tastier. Just brown some meat with some onion, celery, garlic, and whatever other vegetables, boil up with some stock and perhaps tinned tomatoes, and then leave to simmer on a very low heat for two hours plus. A little while before serving, leave the lid off and cook on a slightly higher heat, to reduce the liquid. My current favourite is pork with cut up prunes, carrots, peppers.

Aspidistra said...

And I tend to put the other vegetables in at the end, so they don't get too mushed down.

Anonymous said...

Cut one shallot into small pieces, but it in some oil in a pan. When it's slightly softer, add small bits of smoked salmon (you can buy them pre-cut at Delhaize), heat until the salmon is light pink (as opposed to glistening pink). Add crème fraiche épaisse, stir and heat. Take it off the heat, add fresh basil and black pepper. Serve with parmesan and pasta.


frau antje said...

Most childhood vacations were spent in a desolate hellhole (I didn't know any better), at my grandmother's place, complete with concrete floors, bunkhouse and corral. All forms of life besides large mammals were disturbing. It would amuse me no end to show that to the kid, who prefers wilderness to cities.

Salmon filets fried in a little butter, and yams poked with a fork and baked for an hour and a half, cut open, add salt and butter.

Anonymous said...

Re: the cooking, buy an electric grill for indoor use and set it up in the kitchen. I think you'll find find that the boys will be only to happy to take control over the spatula (in true SpongeBob style) and grill chicken, fish and all kinds of vegetables (even ones they would normally not look at). Just be careful they don't touch the hot plate and remember to turn it off properly afterwards.
It's healthy and everything tastes delicious. Most things take less than 10 mins to cook. What's not to love? For example:

Wavesounds said...

I plan to take the family to the south of France and stay in a small one bedroom apartment in a small village at the beach for a week. Trying to replicate my weeks spent at the Sunshine coast in Australia, with two families (my cousins and us) staying in a beach shack /garage. If it rains we will be miserable and I would have failed my mission as it never rained on my childhood holidays at the beach. Aim is beach, lots of outdoors, minimal screen time and relaxing....the killing cane toads bit we shall have to do next time we are down under.

Laura said...

We went RVing around the Midwest and West (Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico) in the summers when I was a kid. At the time I was impatient with all the driving and wondered why we couldn't fly to Disney World and stay in hotels as I imagined "normal" families did. But now those trips are among my best family memories--good balance of relaxation and activity, company and solitude, etc. Your boys may look back on their family holidays similarly (I hope), even if they seem dissatisfied now.

kath said...

Make pizza dough, keep in fridge let them construct their own toppings. creme fraiche n smoked fish if they don't even eat pizza cheese.

We went to Bracklesham every year that was fun. Castles every Easter in Wales less so, too wet. Never taken to foreign parts, so now I like to go to them but not too far, Eurocamp sort of thing. Holidays in other continents now child is old enough I hope.

That book, the proud boasts of plagiarism are sickening, I bet she nicked it all off Mumsnet. Please post your review do.

Patsy said...

I found this recipe recently on another blog I follow which is OUTSTANDING. There is a distinct possibility that me and my children will eat it whenever dad and his fancy tastes is out. You can make a vat of it and eat it forever. Chicken and corn chowder (don't bother charring the corn, just chuck it in neat). Enjoy.

Aspidistra said...

Another recent standby is lentil, bean, and chorizo stew. I've adapted it from a BBC online recipe for lentil, chickpea, and chorizo soup. Basically fry up some cut up chorizo, onion, garlic, carrot, celery, then dry green lentils, add stock to boil, let simmer down to stew like consistency. At some point towards the end add some tinned haricot beans or similar. It's really quick, healthy, and loved by all ages. I tend to use real stock (from supermarket) because stock cubes plus chorizo might be a little salty.

Jo said...

I would recommend Jamie Oliver's 30 minute meals, I have made most of the recipes in this book and they are ideal for quick family suppers.
Re hols, growing up I have memories of sandy sandwiches, lots of rain, going around castles and dusty museums.
We have been lucky enough to travel widely with my 15 year old, giving her a wide variety of experiences all over the world,yet the one thing that she always remembers is being able to park the car on the beach at Burnham on Sea, go fihpgure!

Lola said...

This takes s bit of fiddling about, but I reckon it's your kind of thing. Take frankfurters (the Matthesons types you get here, or even the ones in tins) and stick raw spaghetti through them before boiling in water. Result: the frankfurter octopus. Garnish with ketchup/mustard. Pics available here:

Michelloui | The American Resident said...

Prog Rock's visit reads familiar, as if this were written about my dad. Except the Polish speaking, which would be replaced with colloquialisms of the American South West. Or similar.

Useless at suggesting dinners (always need suggestions myself), but regarding family holidays I had similar stories to commentor Laura. My dad was a Geography Professor so the combination of low wage and high curiosity meant we drove everywhere (stopping frequently to take slides for class) and covered a lot of States through the years. As an only child in the backseat my memories are of pretending to sleep so I could run made up movies through my head (I was the star) and making friends on campsites so there was someone to ride my bike with while the tent was set up. Loved these holidays partly because of the small stories and out of the way scenes we found all across the country from driving the blue highways (B roads).

Waffle said...

So many good meal suggestions of things that are actually within the scope of my culinary stupidity, THANK YOU. I love the electric grill idea, I am very tempted, despite the high potential for idiotic fire incidents.

Lindsey said...

My childhood meals came almost exclusively from Josceline Dimbleby's seminal 80s masterpiece, the ur-text of family cooking, 'Marvellous Meals With Mince'. It is (honestly)truly amazing, and I urge you to buy a copy forthwith - all the recipes work, all are super-tasty and many remain in my core repertoire to this day. My mum had a manky Sainsbury's paperback that was 75p but I see from Amazon that there is now a glossily illustrated hardback version...

Xtreme English said...

hah...we never HAD family holidays, unless you count our weekends at the lake cottage, purchased after my grandfather died. and whatever bonhomie was there centered on occasional visitors, everyone eating my mother's fried fish and potato salad at the big round table in a corner of the porch. With no visitors, we ate standing up in the kitchen by ourselves, mostly.

QldDeb said...

Get some chicken breast, no skin, slice like snitzel (yeah I know, great descriptive talents!), not stir fry, pan fry with a couple of tablespoons of basil pesto (out of a jar, of course) and some olive oil & butter if you want to be bad. Then I just microwave brocoli, carrots, zuchni or whatever. Tastes great. My daughter calls it mouldy chicken 'cause its green. She likes it too.

Sarah said...

My son has Celiac and therefore we are a gluten free house, so my go to meal is peanut butter noodles from a mark bittman NYT online recipe.

If you have cucumbers on hand the rest of the ingredients are pantry items (yes to ginger in it, and dried works well if you don't have fresh and also keeping frozen edamame as a cucumber substitute is fine though more effort). It comes together pretty quickly and can be done ahead of time, i.e. before they are home from school. Also I embellish for the adults with toasted sesame seeds, cilantro, scallions etc. Sometimes I do tofu too to top it but it would work well with leftover chicken or something of that sort.

Katy Newton said...

I sometimes like to fry up some chorizo or spicy sausage chunks, add some chopped onion and a can of green lentils in stock with a slug of red wine, season it and then cook it down until it's nice and sludgy. No one has ever complained about being handed a bowl of this with some nice bread for supper.

abby said...

my cooking aspirations leave me with a refrigerator drawer full of wilty veg. When I have enough collected, I chuck anything roastable into a roasting pan & cook at high heat until mushy, make some brown rice, chop up/cook anything else you want in there, and toss it all into a bowl. you can make it fancy ( or let the kids pick whatever they want to put in theirs.

my summer family holidays as a child were car trips to historic Independence and Civil War sites around the eastern US, driving hundreds of miles each day, five of us in a single motel room, eating sandwiches out of a cooler. you can imagine how popular that was when my peer group was going to a house on the shore, Disney, Europe. since then my parents have come full circle and, as a family incl grandkids, we spend a week at a house on the shore. i do make us go to educational and historic sites near the house though, or those kids will have no opportunity to tell terrible stories about their family vacations while they roll their eyes.

J. said...

When I can't think of what to cook, I try recipes from this site: It is not a glamorous foodie publication, but they are reliably good. We tend to cook the pasta and chicken things; beware the serving sizes--they are American-style and enormous (plan on leftovers).

J. said...

Re: holidays--I grew up in the American Midwest, which meant family vacations spent in the car driving to some spot of interest (natural or man-made) where we would spend approximately .05% the amount of time it took to drive there admiring wherever the hell it was we ended up, before piling back in the car and hitting the highway again to find the next stop. I have vivid memories of epic car license plate bingo feuds, exotic road kill (armadillos in Arkansas!), fast food (we were not allowed McDonalds except on these trips), and hours of carsick attempts to read punctuated by one of my parents yelling "look kids--out the left window!" when they spotted a cow or the Ohio River or something. Our son is too little now, but I fully expect we will subject him to this same weird ritual when he's old enough to tolerate a car seat for more than 30 minutes at a go.

Anonymous said...

I can't comment much about revisiting childhood holidays, other than to suggest reading "The Tent, The Bucket & Me" by Emma Kennedy. It was unerringly familiar as far as our family was concerned, had my sister and I in stitches as we compared memories of our own fateful camping trips with the Aged Parents in France.

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