Sliced and diced

This week I did a knife skills course. No, I am not running away to join the circus. I’m talking about knife skills of the kitchen variety.

I’m a bit of a foodie, have loads of vegetables in my diet and tend to spend a lot of my meal preparation time chopping stuff. I never had lessons in how to do this – I just got stuck in with what needed to be done over the years and it all seemed to work okay. Especially as all ten fingers remain attached and intact.

But when watching cooking television, I’m always hugely impressed and intimidated by the speed and confidence with which chefs slice, dice and generally handle their knives. Every so often they offer a smattering of how-to-chop instruction when a celebrity guest gets involved but do you think I can remember it for application later on?

So I have never filleted a fish or jointed a chicken and terms like Chiffonade and Brunoise are a complete mystery to me. Or used to be.

Last year a work colleague mentioned that she’d gotten a lot out of a Knife Skills course at the Waitrose Cookery School so this week I and eight others spent a day slicing and dicing above the John Barnes Waitrose store in North London.

It was a pretty packed day – we made:

  • Minestrone – lots of vegetable chopping practice for this and quite tasty. (I’m not a soup kinda girl though so I gave mine to someone else to take home.)
  • Roasted Chicken Breast and Thigh with a Chilli Jam and Vegetable Salad – which included jointing the chicken. I cannot wait to make the chilli jam. It was drizzled over thinly sliced fennel, cucumber and carrot. Super easy and delicious.
  • Red Onion Chutney – I brought some home and, having eaten it with everything since, need to make some more.
  • Sea Bass with Beetroot, Pink Grapefruit and Apple Salad – this was my favourite of the day. I am so excited to make this and also to try it out with mackerel.

We made everything on the day (except the Chilli Jam) under the tutelage of Chef Andy and his team and that included scaling, gutting and filleting the sea bass and jointing a whole chicken. It went by so fast and Andy made it look so easy but I’m a little worried about replicating some of this – namely the chicken jointing – at home.  I mean there was a point when we were trying to locate the wishbone in the a**e end of the chicken…

Speaking of we, we worked through every task in pairs – so I made a new foodie friend – and the group got together a few times to eat our accomplishments with a glass of wine or two. We also got the instructions for making vegetable stock, as well as the fish-filleting and chicken-jointing steps we did on the day AND all of the recipes in a handy folder to take away.

So aside from some great recipes and a pot of Red Onion Chutney, here’s what I got:

1. The claw-in-training

At first this was difficult and awkward. The idea is to form a claw with the ‘holding hand’ by having the tops of your fingers perpendicular to the top of the item to be chopped and then leaning your knuckles forward so that the flat side of the knife brushes across them as you slice. I’ve seen telly chefs do this and explain it to their celebrity guests but this was the first time I’d had any instruction and the chance to practice. It works in conjunction with No. 2.

2. The ‘hang’ of the rolling chop

Again I’d heard about this and seen it on telly but I have been a chopper who has been doing all of the unsafe, bad things – exactly the opposite of what I should have been doing – for a really long time. So I had to concentrate on moving the knife away from me in a rolling motion instead of towards me in a straight saw-like action. It felt really odd but by the time I’d chopped two red onions (for our chutney), Brunoise-d an apple (it means fine dice peeps) for our entree as well as slicing and dicing a whole load of vegetables and garlic for the minestrone, I was starting to get the hang of it. I will have to keep practising.

And last but not least…

3. The Victory: I filleted a fish!!!!

This was THE big win for me and what drove me to do the course.

I love fish but I buy it in fillets. A fish knife has never crossed the Gidday threshold and in fact, I have never held a whole fish let alone done all of the grubby bits. Quite frankly, the thought of dealing with a fish in all its natural glory scared me. But I held that whole Sea Bass in my hands and scraped its scales into the sink. I pierced its underside, slitting its belly open to pull out the guts and drain the blood away. And then I sliced off a reasonably decent fillet and cooked it.

It was delicious. And I was so proud.

So that was my day: I learnt a thing or two, was inspired by some fabulous recipes, met some cool people and overcame a fear.

Oh and I still have all ten fingers.

Not bad for a Tuesday, eh?

 

The intersection of humanity

There is so much to do and see in London. I love living here and am so grateful for the many reasons I find to be delighted on a daily basis. Most of these moments happen when I go slightly off-piste – when I take a variation of my regular route or sit on the other side of the bus or just look left instead of to my regular right. Sometimes something unexpected crosses my usual path and recently I came across some old photos that reminded me of just how delightful it is when this happens.

Back in 2015, I’d been going to the V&A Museum every couple of months (for exhibitions, talks and a rather fabulous book group). The building sprawls grandly on one corner of the intersection of Exhibition and Cromwell Roads opposite the gingham brickwork of the Natural History Museum and the wedding cake pillars of the Science Museum. During the day, taxis zoom past with gusto and excited school groups are herded about in seething clumps. On weekends and school holidays, a human tide of families – with their flotilla of pushchairs and strollers – ebb and flow through the four crosswalks.

It’s an intersection I’d come to know well – a place devoid of monument yet thrumming with humanity, anticipation and movement. So imagine my surprise when I turned up one November evening to find this…

This is When Soak Becomes Spill, an installation for the V&A Museum that was created by artist Subodh Gupta for the museum’s India Festival back in 2015. This was the museum’s first outdoor installation and it ‘ran’ from 23rd October 2015 to 31st January 2016.

Gupta is a contemporary artist who uses everyday objects to reflect his Indian heritage and explore universal themes. He created When Soak Becomes Spill to highlight the parallel themes of how the world’s natural resources are being wasted and how the constant temptation of the new creates a [false] promise of a better future. The installation featured an enormous stainless steel bucket with a foam of shiny pots and kitchen utensils spilling over its rim. He’d also left the bucket empty to suggest the ultimate poverty of consumerism.

Funnily enough, I had come from the V&A having attended an interview with Manolo Blahnik – he of the covetable footwear – and yes, a Manolo addiction could well lead a person to poverty.

Anyway on a cold November evening this new and shiny object commanded my attention and captured my imagination. I remember standing in the crisp London night, admiring the glittering detail of the overspill and the streetlights reflecting in the smooth side of the bucket. I was thrilled by its addition to this familiar space. I also loved how it made me pause. My examination of this one single thing had made a bigger impact on my night than the myriad of wonderful museum treasures nearby.

As January 2016 came and went, so too did this piece of social commentary. The space was returned to the singular service of its pedestrians…and has not featured any other installations since. It’s a shame. To my mind, this space could have been used much like the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, featuring a revolving series of installations. What a pair of plinths that would be.

In any case, the crosswalk remains undiminished as a cultural intersection for London’s highbrow and hoi polloi. But is it the best use of this public space? Or a missed opportunity?

What do you think?


If you want to know more about how the installation was created, check out this video:

The coffee moment

Yesterday I spent a couple of hours at the Freud Museum in Hampstead.

I was in my element. I got to potter around half a dozen rooms packed to the gills with mementos, curios, antiquities and furnishings that belonged to the great Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna. It took me right back to my psychology studies at university and as I listened to the audio guide and wandered through each room, I marvelled at how one man and his ‘couch’ (below) could remain so relevant for so long – his methods are still at the heart of many of the ways and means we use to handle the world we live in today.

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Two hours later, and with a head full of Freud (make of that what you will), I headed back down to the main road to have lunch, enjoying a tasty meal then settling in to read for a bit while I drank my coffee.

But the coffee was awful. Bitter and watery and absolutely undrinkable. So I returned it to the waitress, paid the bill (sans coffee but I did leave a tip – after all, my return was well-handled and the rest of the meal was great) and walked down to the bus stop.

I’d been standing there for a few minutes when it occurred to me that I had let the ‘coffee moment’ go.

It might seem a strange thing to say. There had been no shouting nor were there any angry exchanges and the whole thing was dealt with very smoothly.  But I’d had a plan – to enjoy some reading time over a nice cup of coffee – and that had been thwarted. I did not get a nice coffee and I’d left rather than stay to read. If things had been handled in a similar way previously, by now I would have be stewing over the whole incident, despite telling myself not to. And even though I’d try to get over it, past it or whatever, it would have put a definite dent in my day.

But it didn’t. I’d let it go. Even thinking about it again did not wind me up. It was just something that had happened.

I got on the bus and as we trundled along Finchley Road I found myself wondering, could there really be something in this mindfulness caper?  Let me explain.

About five weeks ago, I went to an Introduction to Mindfulness workshop. It was offered as part of my outplacement and it turned out to be quite interesting: Lots of discussion about what it was, questions about what we thought we might get from it (or not for the cynics among us) and information about the science of it.

Just in case you’re wondering, here’s a definition:

Mindfulness is paying attention on purpose in the present moment non-judgementally    Jon Kabat-Zinn

We also tried a couple of short meditations. I liked the calmness that I felt afterwards and thought ‘maybe this something I should try’. But I have a tendency to get charmed by something, go hard after it then not be able to sustain it in the face of all of the other interesting things life has to offer. (The peeps-who-know-me-well will be nodding – or even chuckling – knowingly at this point.)

So I set myself a challenge: If I could do the 8-minute Body and Breath meditation – the one that we’d done in the workshop – every day for a month, then I would consider buying the book and committing to its 8-week mindfulness program.

Every morning I sat on the couch with a soothing, gentle voice in my ear that encouraged me to pay attention – to my body, then my breath and then to my wandering mind. Some days it was noisy in there – thoughts, memories and feelings clambered insistently over each other in their eagerness to get my attention, shouting at me to plan, to remember stuff, to dwell on things. Other days they just drifted around aimlessly, taking me away from the thing I was supposed to be paying attention to – the moment and my breath. Yet when the gong sounded at the end, there was always a stillness, however brief.

No-one was more surprised than I when I reached my 1-month target. But did a month of 8-minutes-a-day really make a difference? I have noticed that I am generally calmer and also paying attention better and for longer. However I’m also enjoying my out-of-the-rat-race time while I look for what’s next so was not totally sold that this daily practice was the cause.

Today convinced me otherwise. It was that blinding flash at the bus stop – a mental ‘holy s**t’ – that made me realise that it’s possible, that the shift is palpable and that it’s pretty awesome and worthwhile when you notice it. I observed the moment and let it go. That’s definitely worth practising.

So I’ve embarked on week 1 of the 8-week program. There’s a range of tasks to complete and one is choosing an activity to do mindfully every day.  I’ve chosen brushing my teeth and let me tell you, it’s really hard to keep paying attention to it – and only it – for the whole two minutes that it takes. I have to close my eyes so I don’t get distracted by myself in the mirror or the sink that needs wiping down or the dehumidifier switching on and off in the background.

It also has me continuing with the 8-minute meditation but now twice a day. And I’m to do one Habit Releaser: Changing a habit is meant to make us realise how automatically and unthinkingly we do things – so this Habit Releaser is to change where I normally sit. For the last month, my comfy couch has been the place of stillness so now I sit in my new quiet place – the second bedroom – for 8 minutes when I get up in the morning and 8 minutes before I go to bed at night. And I’m changing my position on said comfy couch too.

To be honest, I’m not sure where this all will lead. My coffee moment was so unexpected that I’m wondering what stumbling about in this new wilderness will uncover.

Path - Dollis Green Walk (Hendon Golf Course)

What will I confront and will I even make it through the 8-weeks?

I’m curious to find out.


Resources I’ve referred to (in case you are interested):

The book – Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world by Mark Williams and Dr Danny Penman

The website – www.franticworld.com – which also contains the Body and Breath meditation, among others.

York: People and a pastry

My last day in York dawned bright and blue-skied, a welcome sight after my wet Wednesday, so I was up, checked out and ready for a cruise on the Ouse (pronounced ‘ooz’ peeps – just to explain my rhyming turn of phrase) only to find that all trips for that day had been cancelled…due to flooding.

Hmmmm…

So I wandered around the Yorkshire Museum Gardens for half an hour – to make the most of the sunshine (in case it disappeared)…

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…before deciding to head into the Museum itself.

The Yorkshire Museum turned out to be my favourite thing-to-do of the trip – and that’s in a trip full of great things to do. I loved walking through the early years of York – or Eboracum as it was originally known – reading about its people and each era’s way of life. I walked in the steps of the Romans then uncovered some Viking and Anglo-Saxon treasures…

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….before meandering to the Normans (from 1066) and into the reign of King Richard III (during the late 1400s). There was so much to pore over and read about as I wound my way through all of these exhibits. It was fabulous.

And that wasn’t all. The museum had a fascinating exhibit on Extinction. Did you know that 99% of all species that have ever lived are extinct? The exhibit began with an overview of the Five Mass Extinctions and how they happened. What followed was a range of cases displaying fossils from each period which brought each extinction chapter to life – here are just a few:

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The story ended with a showcase of the conservation efforts aimed at some currently endangered species as well as examples of where re-introducing species had not worked. It all led to the final question of the exhibit: ‘Should we just let nature take its course?’. It was a thought-provoking note to end on.

After a bite to eat, I decided on a slightly more modern turn for the afternoon and headed over to Treasurer’s House. The property is tucked away behind York Minster and was donated to the National Trust by Frank Green in 1930. Green was the son of a wealthy industrialist and although he did not always restore faithfully ‘to the period’, the house is a testament to his passion for architecture and antiques. It was also the Trust’s first fully furnished property.

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I spent a pleasant hour or so admiring and reading about each of the rooms and the house’s grand visitors which included King James I and the future King Edward VII.

I also enjoyed learning about Frank Green’s vision for the property. His vision was incredibly specific, so much so that his gift to the Trust came with a condition – that the house would always be displayed as he’d left it. One example: While he had lived in the house, he’d had studs placed in the floor to ensure that the furniture was always positioned exactly where he wanted it.

This practice is still adhered to more than a century later.

This might seem to be – okay it is – the legacy of a control freak but what I ended up seeing was his home exactly as he lived in it and not some version that had been tinkered with over time. It poses a number of interesting questions about the restoration of historic properties and how far this should go before they move away from being ‘original’.

I had a couple of hours before my train back to London and I could think of nothing I wanted more than a return visit to Betty’s Tearooms. I lingered leisurely over some home-made soup and then all but inhaled the most heavenly vanilla slice I have ever eaten. Seriously peeps, I do not have enough words to express just how delicious it was. Needless to say it was my favourite thing-to-eat for my entire stay.

Then it was back to the hotel to collect my bag before trundling back across Lendal Bridge to the train station.

River Ouse from Lendal Bridge (l) (sml)

A sunset-kissed farewell from York while standing on Lendal Bridge

So that ends my marvellous minibreak in York. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. I’d especially love it if this series of posts has inspired you to go and discover its treasures for yourself. Please let me know if you do…

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My four York posts:

Photo tour: A walk in York

York: The tower, tour and tearooms

York: Amus-(eum)-ing myself

York: People and a pastry

Going back to basics

Some days you just can’t win a trick.

Today started well with eight minutes of meditation, something I’ve been doing every day for the last three weeks. My target has been to do this for one month before deciding what’s next.  A small steps kind of approach. I followed this with a brisk clear-the-cobwebs-and-get-things-moving kind of walk before tucking into a bowl of porridge.

All good so far.

It was then off to the hairdresser to get the mane cropped back to its smooth, slicked-back self. My hair is an important part of determining how I feel – I am a Leo after all – so this is a regular and important part of maintaining my positive sense of self. Let’s just say there was a significant amount of said mane on the salon floor and that I left lighter and eminently cooler.

In other words, still looking good.

Feeling virtuously productive, on the way home I dropped into my local jeweller to get the battery replaced in my ‘work’ watch. And here’s where things started to go awry.

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The road to motherhood

Today is Mother’s Day in the UK.

I am close to my Mum and always have been. Even though I now live on the opposite side of the world, we still keep all the connections going and spent time together just recently when I was in Melbourne over the Christmas / New Year period.

Others are not so fortunate. Some will spend the day in remembrance whilst a great many more will fall somewhere between the luxury of close proximity and feeling separated emotionally. For still others, this is just another day.

In Australia, we celebrate Mother’s Day on the second Sunday in May so today is a bit of an awkward one for me. There’s the flurrying around me here but my official nod happens in May. I’ve been grappling with how best to acknowledge this UK version for the last couple of days.

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A taste of Spring

I ate a plum today.

———-

I took it from the fridge

and left it to warm in the sun

as I read on the patio.

———-

When I picked it up, I stopped

 to admire the shine

of its bruise-purple skin

before I took a bite.

———-

I leaned forward

and brought the round glossy fruit

to my lips.

———-

I felt the skin resist

then split under my teeth

surrendering

its lush golden flesh.

———-

It was firm – “al dente” –

keeping the juice softly wrapped

in the meat of the fruit

as I took each cool, sweet bite

around its stony heart.

———-

In five bites I was done

and the seed tossed casually away

under the rose bushes.

———-

I ate a plum today

and it tasted like Spring.

———-

When enough is enough

Last Wednesday, I was horrified to read a mother’s plea for advice upon learning that her daughter had been bullied. As I read her Facebook post, she described that nasty phone calls had escalated into an incident where her daughter had been followed home from school by two girls from another school. She had been subjected to a barrage of obscenities and comments that to film it all ‘would be funny’.  Her daughter’s threats to call the police made no difference and it wasn’t until a woman jogging by intervened that she fled home and revealed all to her mother.

I felt inspired by the way this Facebook conversation developed. Many reached out with words of support and some with experience of handling this – parents and teachers – offered practical advice about what to do next. To date it sounds like positive steps have been taken in partnership with the school. But it was shocking to read. And all the more so given the date of the post.

Wednesday was 8th March. International Women’s Day.

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A question of culture: Assimilate or die?

This week I attended a evening of talks at China Exchange, a charity based in London’s Chinatown whose mission it is to create ways of exploring Chinese culture and China’s influence on the world. I fell across them late last year in attending a provocative discussion between Sir David Tang and Mr & Mrs Smith CEO James Lohan and have been keen to attend something else ever since.

This one-night-only event featured five speakers who had eight minutes each on their allotted subject followed by questions from the audience. They covered a range of topics from Chinese medicine (and what is it really?), Hinkley Point C and the role of Chinese investment, feminism in China and the opportunity that Chinese tourists represent for the British economy.

I know very little about China and Chinese culture. During an emerging market project about 18 months ago, I was surprised by the level of Chinese investment in large infrastructure projects in Africa and I’ve only had limited exposure to ‘Chinese’ medicine. Needless to say I found it an educational and thought-provoking evening.

But the eight minutes that really left me thinking were delivered by Dr Victor Fan, a Senior Lecturer at King’s College. His topic was ‘white washing’ in the entertainment industry i.e. non-Asian people playing Asian roles. It was every bit as interesting as the others but it was when he spoke about his experience of getting a visa to live and work in Quebec, Canada – one that specified that he would speak French and adopt local practices – that something struck a chord.

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A brush with art

I had an hour to kill between meetings near Pall Mall today and as I braced myself against the cold (it was -1 Celsius for most of today) and crossed Trafalgar Square, the imposing pillared facade of the National Gallery and the promise of its warm – and free – galleries looked pretty inviting.

In the thirteen years that I’ve lived in London, I have never been to the National Gallery (I know, the shame!) so once inside, I followed the signs up to the paintings galleries and began to wander. I had such a lovely time that I wanted to share a few of my favourites with you.

Let me pause here and say that I am in awe of the skill and talent required to paint. But I know diddly-squat about art and on the rare occasions that I go (like to last year’s Painting the Modern Garden at the Royal Academy), I tend to stroll around and stop whenever something takes my fancy.

And I was only just inside the door when I was taken by fancy number one.

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