Alison Crowther-Smith

Archive for April, 2017

Spring Sportive: competitive queuing and me being grumpy

Thursday, April 13th, 2017

Last weekend, I rode in the New Forest Sportive.  This is road bike event. I have done this event several times and I really like it.  This time was the first time in about three years though, partly because I got a bit bored of it, partly because I got very bored with training for them, and also because the venues they use have got worse over the years.  This year, encouraged by a friend who had just taken up road cycling, I entered the moderate length race – 66 miles.  That’s too far for me, really.

My training was not ideal. I don’t like riding in cold, windy and wet weather and default to a run or the gym.  It’s been a while since I rode over 60 miles and although this course is fairly mild, it does have some testing bits, one quite hard climb – and it’s a long way, so you have to keep pedalling for several hours.  Or at least I do.  Because I had no training run that was over 50 miles and I needed to drag out a 66 miler preferably without getting all knackered and messy, I worked on the basis of it taking us about 5 hours.  You have to stop, eat, drink, have a wee, get your sorry arse off the knife-like saddle, un-knot your knotted shoulders, triceps and biceps etc.  I also do much better in the mornings so I calculated a 9.00 am departure thus getting back to the venue at about 2.00, maybe 2.30 pm.

And it was a new venue so I thought it might be better and more cheerful than the last place which looked like a set for filming a 1970s gritty UK police drama – think abandoned banger-racing murder scene. Or the one before that, which was very pretty but terribly prone to flooding/trapping cars on the mud-plains if it rained.  And it rained.

This new venue is really attractive, with a pile of stately home, park-lands and sweeping drives.  Not that you get anywhere near the stately home.  But, the little tracks and limited pathways cause the venue to clog up completely when you add in (estimated)  2 or 2.5k cyclists and their cars.  So, we left home at 6.15 am, arrived at the venue at 8.05 am, as instructed (Do Not Arrive Before 8!).  Then we queued to park for about 20 minutes, then we trailed all over the field to the porta-loos (vile, no paper at all, all day), then seeing how far the registration area was, we decided to ready the bikes and take them with us to register which we don’t usually.  This all took another 30 minutes or so, which is pretty standard for a big event.  I would have been happy to start the ride before 9, which is what I had planned.

However, there was now a massive queue for the starting line.  Groups of cyclists are released across the start in order to have an orderly and safe exit from the venue.  It is usual to have a little wait.  But this was well over an hour of slowly shuffling up the paths, making agonisingly slow progress towards the gate.  Luckily it was sunny and warm.  So you know, pretty good natured.

Behind us in the queue was a couple who struck up a conversation with a lone-cyclist just beside them.  Maybe it was being forced to listen to this for AN HOUR that made me a bit ragey.  What I don’t know about Rex and Sonia’s cycling, kids, holidays, breakfast choices, pet-names for each other/the kids, really isn’t worth knowing.

In summary, Rex and Sonia live in another bit of Hampshire with Maximilian (or Max-Bunny as his mummy calls him) and Frederick (yep.  Freddie-Bunny).  These probably adorable boys are old enough to be left at home and fend for themselves, so I am just guessing that they are early to mid-teens with Max-Bunny being the youngest, as he was up and about, ready to answer his mother’s ‘phone call, which went roughly like this:

Sonia (to Rex and Random Lone Cyclist/the entire queue):  I’m going to give Max a call.  This is ridiculous, we’ve been in this queue for ages and we will be here for an hour longer so we will be very late.  I need to let them know.

Rex:  it’s too early.

Sonia:  mmm, maybe you’re right.

A pause of possibly 2 minutes.

Sonia (on her mobile ‘phone):  Oh! hello Max-Bunny!  It’s mummy!  … yes I thought you might be up … yes I thought Freddie-Bunny would still be asleep! (adorable laughter, like gently babbling brooks) … anyway, look darling, it’s taking for EVAH to get off on this race so we will be at least an hour later back than I said … I don’t know exactly… What? No! goodness me, it certainly had better NOT take us 4 or 5 hours to get round!  I jolly well hope we can do better than that…(darling rippling laughter, like gently blowing breezes).

(Mark and I exchange bitter glances.  I know he is willing me, with all his might, not to turn round and kick off.  I heed his silent plea and stare fixedly at the almost see-through lycra clad, straining arse of the cyclist in front of me)…

(Sonia resumes)…have you had brekkers? … Oh! Darling! I am sorry I am not there to make your muffins! … yes … blah, blah, some more stuff about muffins and alternative breakfast options, the dog and Granny…(rings off).

Sonia (pointlessly, as we all got the gist):  relays all the above to Rex and Random Lone Cyclist.

In the meantime I text Lily and say:  such a long sodding queue, will be ages, probs an hour or so later than planned, FML x

Random Lone Cyclist:  so…have you done a Sportive before?

Sonia:  No!  and it looks like we won’t be doing another one if this is anything to go by! (girlish tinkling giggle, like trilling larks).

Random Lone Cyclist (despite me willing him to shut up and stop feeding her):  what distance are you doing?

Sonia:  the 66 miles.  Didn’t want to go for the longer one just yet.  Actually, this is really a warm up event for us – part of our training.

RLC (like he had read the script, bless him, personally I’d have walked off, forfeited my place in the now half-mile long queue and joined the back of it):  Oh?

(Mark actually smacked his own forehead with his fist at this point).

Sonia:  yes!  We are cycling in the Italian Dolomites next month, and (heavy sarcasm)  I hear it’s a *BIT* *HILLY*! (low, adorable and self-depreciating laugh like someone gently riffling a pack of cards).

Silence.

Sonia:  yes!  And I only dragged my old road bike out last month!  it’s been ages since we did any serious cycling, isn’t it (Rex)?

Rex:

(At this point I have to summon all my inconsiderable will power not to turn round and look at her ‘old road bike’ which I am sure is a £4k full carbon limited edition brand spanking new bike, probably red…but I will never know as for once, will power prevailed).

Sonia:  But it’s all going very well so we thought we’d try this one as it looks rather easy and not too long…though this delay is a nuisance, we will just have to cycle much faster, won’t we (Rex)?

Rex:

Sonia:  oh my goodness! We won’t get back here until about 1.00 if we don’t get away by 10.30, will we?  I certainly hope it won’t take us five hours! Something will have gone very wrong, if we take five hours, won’t it (Rex)?

Rex:

RLC:  I reckon it’ll take me about four and a half.

(I warm to RLC though still wish he’d stop talking to Sonia).

Sonia:  yes, well, we’re just going to pedal that much faster, to make up for this terrible delay, aren’t we, (Rex)?

Rex:

With the sun now beating down and it being very hot, me having donned three layers of wool-based jerseys, I have to ask Mark to balance my bike so I can take the top layer off which is quite big and has a wide hood.  I then can’t get this jacket in my little ruck-sack which is of course full of Tupperware containers housing nuts, cheese and mini cocktail sausages.  Because I don’t want to expose this food to Sonia’s gaze, I decide not to un-pack/re-pack the bag and instead, tie the top layer round my middle.

Finally, we get to the bit where we are being readied to cycle and I try to clip onto my bike, but I struggle as my shoe cleats, which need to clip into the receiving cleat on the pedals, are full of crap and mud and gravel from the sodding parkland and mud paths.  So there is an ungainly struggle between me and my bike as I wrestle my feet into place, and then realise that I can’t unclip them easily as they are kind of stuck, on account of the mud and grit. Finally, I get clipped on and we mount and cycle – only I can’t get my bum on the knife-like saddle because the effing hood of my blasted jersey is round my saddle. I have two further attempts to haul myself onto the bike and get seated before veering off to the grass verge in order to tear off my waist-adorning jersey and generally have a much-needed low-key swearing session.

And Sonia pelts past me, head down, bent on the Yellow Jersey of The New Forest, while her frankly adorable warbling laughter bathes my burning ears…

It took us over five hours. I imagine Sonia was at home stirring the risotto long before I hauled my sorry behind over the finish line. It was lovely, mainly.

I’ve decided not to do any more sodding Sportives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Recipes

Tuesday, April 4th, 2017

Here are a some new recipes for things I have been serving at workshops.

Short Bread Biscuits

New in my repertoire.  I like short bread but I hate making it with my actual hands.  Sure, my hands are going to get involved at some stage but with this recipe, that is only at the end. These look, if I say so myself, pretty good, almost like the ones in M&S or that Waitrose.  I imagine.  This is because I have some lovely flower shaped biscuit cutters from Lakeland (All Hail) that make them perfect. This makes about 50 biscuits.  That is too many for one go, even for 10 at a workshop, but listen, this is not a recipe that even I, with incredibly high levels of tolerance for cooking, want to make often, and you can roll out, cut and freeze the biscuits you do not need and defrost and bake them later!  Genius.

  • 500g of salted butter (Yes.  Five. Hundred)
  • 750g of a mix of white, plain flour and cornflour. I use about 200g of cornflour
  • 250g of white sugar – normal or castor

Cut up the butter into small bits and place in a big mixing bowl.  Add the sugar.  Let this get all warm by the oven or somewhere but not too melty. Don’t miss out this stage and use cold butter. You’ll thank me later.

Arm yourself with a hand-held cake mixing device (you may have a kitchen aid, and if so, good for you, get it in there, instead, but I don’t.  I only have my hands, some wooden spoons and my hand-held mixing device).  Get the mixer into the butter/sugar mixture and say goodbye to about 10 – 15 minutes of your life in which you can’t hear the radio or anything over the row made by the mixer.  Keep on mixing.  Ignore it when it clumps up and starts to get all mashed into the round bits of the mixer – ignore it until the butter/sugar paste begins to travel up the beaters towards you.  Then stop and get it all back in the effing bowl, and off you go again.

Just carry on until the clumping sort of gets less bad and it’s all pale.  Have a drink of water and limber up for Round 2 – the flour round.  Add the flour  – which you must sieve – into the bowl of clumpy stuff, in doses.  I had about 6 goes.  Each time you add a few spoons of flour, prepare for a cloud of flour to rise from the bowl and settle almost everywhere when you first re-introduce the beater.  This process is quite tiresome and the dough will vacillate between buttery crumbs that may fly at you/all over the kitchen in general, and even more clumpy dough than before.  Also, the quantity of flour will seem ridiculously huge and you will say (maybe just in your head, or if you are like me, out loud):  there is no way this bastar&ing flour is all going to amalgamate with that butter/sugar axis of doom.  But, it will.  You just have to keep on and have faith.

I did this until all the flour was in and stopped once I thought that my hand and arm might be about 2 minutes short of permanent vibration damage. I then floured the dough a bit more, and my hands, and the surface and did some fairly firm kneading.  Tip it all onto the surface and just have a good old mix with your hands. You need a lot more flour.  Now at this stage, I realised I wasn’t going to cope with it all so I cut it in half and tackled it half at a time. It goes smooth when you roll it, but also a bit cracked at the edges – as I was too, by now – but if you roll it out and ignore the very edges, you can cut perfect shapes.  I cut mine about 7mm deep.  That sounds nerdy.  Fair enough, I am a nerd, but the thing is, you need this incredibly dense dough to cook without really colouring, for once it goes brown-ish, it is in fact slightly burnt, and you can taste that, so don’t cut them too thick.

What I love is that as there is literally no raising agent at all, they do not melt into a nasty cookie-lake as my attempts at biscuits so often do.  They just stay exactly like the shape you started with.

I then freeze the cut out raw biscuits in a Tupperware between layers of baking paper.  These can be defrosted for an hour or so and then baked, at a moderate heat (I used the Aga baking oven, so I guess that is about gas mark 4) for no longer than 17 minutes.  My Aga is hot in places so I often had to get them out and turn the tray.  Once they are done – slightly coloured, so subtle – and a bit cooked-looking, get ’em out and sprinkle the hot biscuits with a little bit of castor sugar.  They may feel a bit soft.  It’s OK, they will crisp up as soon as they cool down.  Once they are cool enough to handle, cool them on a rack.

They are absolutely yummy. My advice is to make 100s and freeze them so you only have to go through this every now and then, but it is so worth while.  Lily said they looked shop bought but she didn’t see the flour-drenched kitchen on the day I made them.  I think small ones, served with chocolate mousse or lemon posset would be lovely.

Roasted Ratatouille

No Picture, sorry.  This serves 10, so scale down. I *think* it will freeze well, but have not tried that.  I make it 24 hours ahead.  I think it is better that way.  The pre-roasting is the key part.

  • 6 large red peppers
  • 4 large yellow peppers
  • 4 red onions
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 3 cans of chopped tomatoes
  • 2 jars/cartons of really good quality passata
  • (optional, I leave this out for workshops) 1 – 2 de-seeded finely chopped red chillies
  • 4 large courgettes
  • 1 butternut squash
  • Rape seed oil and butter
  • salt and pepper

First, cut the peppers in half, remove the core/seeds and place in a big roasting tin.  Roast in a hot oven, or under the grill.  If you are grilling, first get them tender and then turn the grill up to char the skins.  If roasting, just blast them for about 30 – 40 mins, turning as they will fill with liquid.  Once they are done, and while they are piping hot, put them all in a large food bag and seal it up. Leave it to go cold.

Wash but do not peel the butternut squash.  De-seed it and cut the flesh including the skin into small cubes c 1 cm-ish.  Pop these in a non-stick frying pan with some oil and  butter.  Roast them/saute them until they begin to caramel and are cooked through.

Do the same with the courgettes but slightly bigger chunks and do not let them go soft.  More heat, less time.

Do the same with the red onion, which I slice long-ways like at the fair when they serve onions with hot-dogs.

Take the peppers out of the bag and try and peel the skin off each bit of pepper.  This is something I have mixed success with so I don’t stress too much if I miss bits.  Chuck the skins away.  Cut the remaining pepper into strips or chunks.

Peel and crush the garlic so it’s finely minced.  Heat some oil in a big, deep pan and add the garlic and the chilli if using that.  Then add all the pre-roasted/saute-ed veggies, and give it a bit of a stir so the oil gets on it.  Add the tomatoes and the passata.  Get it to a simmer – watch it ‘cos it spits hot lava like a ratatouille volcano.  Do not let this boil or simmer for long, the veg is all cooked really and it will start to disintegrate if you over-cook it now.

I serve this with masses of grated cheddar to stir in.  I also serve it with the next recipe…

Chilli Peas

This is invented by me, based shamelessly on the Macho Peas served in my beloved Nando’s.  Nando’s is the best place to eat.  Evah.  I wanted to re-create my favourite side dish and I am delighted with my version.

This serves 10, so as ever, scale. Downwards, probably. I am sure it will freeze OK but I never have.  For workshops, I make it 24 hours ahead and gently re-heat it for an hour before serving.

  • One-and-a-half packs (the big ones, not sure how much they weigh) of frozen petit-pois
  • 4 – 6 cloves of garlic, still with the paper skin on (this will be pre-boiled so will be much milder than usual)
  • A fair bit of rape seed oil AND very good quality olive oil
  • A big handful of fresh, finely chopped mint
  • 1/2 – 1 teaspoon of hot chilli flakes (I usually use one rounded for this amount.  Be careful if you are not sure.  I use hot flakes which are very fiery so less is wise if you don’t like too much heat)
  • Salt and pepper

Put the garlic cloves in the water you intend to cook the peas in.  So when I make this, that is quite a lot of water.  Get it to the boil and then simmer with the garlic cloves in there for about 5 minutes. Now your kitchen and indeed the entire house/street smell of garlic.  You’re welcome.  Add the frozen peas.  Get it back to the boil.  Boil the peas for 3 – 4 minutes.  I add 1/2 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda as it begins to boil as this keeps the peas greener.  Up to you.  Once tender, drain and rinse with warm water.  Let them continue to drain. Fish about for the garlic and slip off the papery skin. Roughly chop the garlic which will be tender and much less garlic-y now you have boiled it. Put the garlic and half the peas back in the big pan.

Put some rape seed oil – I add a big BIG slug of oil here – in a small pan, and add the chilli flakes.  Let them gently sizzle but not really fry or colour. Remove from the heat and pour onto the peas/garlic.  Mix it all up then with a potato masher, smash the pea/oil/garlic mixture so it’s quite squished. Add the finely chopped mint and stir it in.  Add the whole peas that you didn’t smash.  Add a surprisingly large amount of olive oil, you need it to be a bit oily, not swimming but you should see a slick of oil, even a little side-puddle.  Season well with salt and pepper.  The salt is important.  You can gently re-heat this now in the pan and serve, or let it go cold, cover and refrigerate for 24 hours.  I serve it warm, not scorching.  I think room temp would also be fine.  This is delicious with chicken. Obvs. And it is also lovely with the rat (above) mixed into the rat is even better, topped with masses of strong cheese of your choice. It is also lovely with a gurt big roasted goats cheese round (one each, please) plus chutney.  I also eat these peas with steak, salmon (the best combo after chicken), quiche and roast dinners.

Potato Cakes

These are simple and delicious.  I serve them warm and buttered as a non-sweet alternative before workshops with morning coffee but they are also great with eggs and bacon.

This makes enough for three workshops – so about 60 – 70 cakes.  I freeze the raw dough in batches for up to 1 month.

  • 3 lbs of potatoes – old, floury ones are best
  • 1 lb of plain white flour
  • About 6 oz of butter plus extra for frying and buttering
  • Milk
  • Rape seed oil
  • Salt and pepper

Peel and boil the potatoes – they need to be very tender.  Drain and mash them with the butter and a generous dash of milk.  Now you need this to be not sloppy but not really stiff and no lumps, needs to be smooth and fine.  Maybe more runny than if you were serving mash as you have flour to add yet.  Season well.   Let this go cool, almost cold.  Add the flour and work it in really well.   I guess at this stage you could add fresh or dried herbs, maybe chives. If you need more flour to make an elastic dough, go for it.  Tip it out onto a floured surface and give it a good seeing to.  Chill the dough. You can freeze it now if you want in food bags.

Roll it out to about 1.5 cm thick.  Cut out shapes – I used the scone cutter.  It won’t really stay in shape, it’s too elastic so it’s also OK just to cut it into squares or triangles if you prefer, that is what my mum always did.  In a non-stick frying pan, melt some butter with a bit of oil and gently fry the cakes.  The potato is cooked but the flour is raw so it needs to be allowed to cook properly, not too fast or it will taste raw and glue-y.  You want them golden brown.  I set them in a dish to keep warm in the oven as I fry the next batch and so on.  I then lightly butter them and serve hot or warm in a covered dish.

Note about freezing the dough:  this works well in food bags but the dough comes out very sticky once de-frosted so you have to add more flour and knead it all again.  After that it’s fine.

Cheese and Herb Scones

I serve these warm, buttered. They are also good as an accompaniment to soup instead of bread or balanced and baked on top of a stew as a cobbler-topping.

This makes about 24 which is enough for 2 workshops.  I mix up my metric and imperial, sorry.  (Not sorry).

  • 1.5 lbs of white self-raising flour
  • 250g of butter, cold (Note:  as you are also adding fat in the cheese, you can reduce this by 25 – 50g but I don’t)
  • about 6 – 8 oz of strong cheddar, grated plus a bit extra to top the scones (or other cheese in small chunks such as Stilton or goat cheese but I never serve these at workshops as a lot of people don’t like that sort of cheese which is sad as I love them)
  • 3 eggs and some milk
  • A big handful of finely chopped fresh chives (optional but delicious)
  • A small handful of very finely snipped fresh rosemary or thyme
  • Some rosemary or other edible flowers if available to top each scone

Add the chopped butter, cold, to the sifted flour and make a fine crumb by rubbing it in for an improbably long time – try and keep your hands mainly out – finger tips only – so it does not get hot.  Stir in the herbs and cheese.  Beat the eggs and the milk.  How much milk?  This is a ‘feel’ thing.  It needs to be spongy and moist, not stiff and not wet.  You also need some egg/milk mixture to paint the scones so either make some more with another egg or keep a drop back.

Amalgamate this – light touch, no pounding and tip out onto a well floured surface.  Firmly but gently, knead this but not for long.  Roll out to about 3.5cm high or a bit higher.  Cut the scones out with a well-floured cutter and place on a papered tray.  Paint with the egg/milk.  Pop some grated cheese on each one and then a sprig of rosemary flower or chive flowers or thyme.  Bake for about 20 minutes gas mark 4 or 5 or Aga baking oven.

The baked scones freeze brilliantly. I have never frozen the raw scones, but I think they’d be OK. I make this many before each group of workshops if I fancy serving them and they do 2 events. I only freeze them for a maximum of 2 weeks though.

The plain scones I serve are the same except I obviously omit the cheese and instead add about 3 oz of white sugar instead of cheese and herbs. I just paint them and add no topping. I make them a wee bit taller as I usually want these for cream-teas. That is very little sugar.  But it is plenty.