I'm suppose to look puzzled, not angry!

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I have a book to publish. Editors love it, marketing departments say 'up the media profile'. So here I am 'upping it' and writing about the book, food, and life in general.

Saturday, 30 June 2012

A TEENAGE TAKE-AWAY. It's not about food . . .

I've thought long and hard about writing this.  I may press the 'PUBLISH' key at the end of this page but I could just as easily store this article in a file to be added to my private diaries.

I'm worried that what I am about to write could be used by a racist individual or organisation to support their views. I am also worried that I could upset my Asian friends and neighbours.  But these friends and neighbours are already suffering because the whole of the Asian community is being tainted by the actions of a small percentage of Asian men.  Yes, I'm talking about grooming.

A TEENAGE TAKE-AWAY is the brilliant but terrifying play about the grooming of girls as young as 12 by Asian men.  I took daughter Zoe (11yrs) to see it in Macclesfield last Sunday.  Not that she wanted to go.  But a number of men who live on our street have been in court last week on grooming charges.  Last year Zoe had described one of them as looking like a prince.  Never be complacent.

If I didn't have an Asian brother-in-law then I may have found it difficult to take Zoe to see this play.  The last thing I want to do is scare her into thinking that all Asian men are evil.  Fortunately 'Uncle Tariq' (who was the first Asian police officer in the East Lancashire force)  counteracts any such fears.

Zoe also knows that I have a number of Asian women friends. Some are happily married  but some of these women have horror stories of their own.  One, who had two children through her arranged marriage, has only recently managed to get away from her husband and his brother who were abusing her children.  She told tales of drink, drugs and an absolute lack of  any respect for both women and children.  So it's not just our little white daughters who are in danger, it's also the wives and children of these men. When I first met this woman she would joke about putting rat poison in her husband's tea as she could see no other way out of her situation.  "You've got to tell the Police,"  I told her and even as I said the words I knew I was sounding stupidly naive.  Her sister was married to her husband's brother.  She would bring 'shame' on both sides of the family by reporting her husband.  Her children could be kidnapped, all their lives would be put in danger.

But their lives were already in danger and in the end this brave woman did go to the Police and she did get away.  She took out an injunction against her husband to protect her children.  She sought out excellent therapy for her little boy.  They survived but not all do.

There was a post-show discussion after A TEENAGE TAKE-AWAY and Sergeant Mark Whelan of the Lancashire Police had bravely agreed to come along and answer questions. I told Sgt Whelan how my sister, who taught in a local high school six years ago, had witnessed girls being picked up from school by Asian gangs and although the Police were informed, the problem never went away.

Sgt Whelan admitted that it had taken too long for the problem of grooming to be recognised.  He said that in the past when young girls were questioned, the police would look for inconsistencies in their stories and if the girls were found to be lying at any point then the case would be thrown out.  He tried to re-assure me that this no longer happens.  I hope he's right because these young girls have been through such trauma that they often do lie; sometimes even to protect the man who groomed them.

Liz Boor who wrote A TEENAGE TAKE-AWAY after researching grooming for her BBC1 Panorama film in 2007 would love the play to be shown free in schools throughout England.  Some parents and teachers may be scared of its content but grooming is a problem that's not going to go away unless we all know about it and everyone, including the Asian community, stand up and say it's got to stop.

That's why I'm now going to press 'PUBLISH'.  Please do your bit by passing on this post.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Masterchef Manchester Madness

Knowing Zoe would be nervous before her Junior Masterchef audition we left bright and early for Manchester Piccadilly leaving plenty of time to park and pick up our tickets before catching the train to Birmingham.  The trouble was, we only ever go to Manchester on Sundays and Ged always drives while I read the Sunday Times.  I've been to Manchester hundreds of times but have never taken the slightest notice of how to get there.

This Wednesday, after driving for over an hour, I realised we were lost.  To cut a long story short, we arrived at Manchester Piccadilly very late to find the station car park was full.  When we eventually found somewhere to park we could no longer remember our way back to the station.  After much screaming from me we somehow found ourselves at the back of the station in a maze of building works; plastic barriers, wheelbarrows and men in hard hats.  Opting for what looked like the most obvious route to the station door, we ran through a pathway of freshly laid cement.  The hard hats were not happy.

Zoe, to her great credit, remained unflustered by all this madness and was the picture of calm as she introduced herself to the Masterchef casting team at Birmingham's Mal Maison.  How does she do it?  I sat shaking with a cup of chamomile tea until her audition was over.  As far as we can tell it went really well and everyone loved the tart, cake and poached pear (see last post).  Fingers crossed for July 9th when we find out if she's got through.

Since last Wednesday, Zoe has been in the kitchen every night cooking the essentials.  Here's the pasta.

500g typo 00 pasta flour
4 whole eggs plus 5 yolks
salt, glug of olive oil

Put flour and salt in the MagiMix and pulse while adding the eggs. Add oil, pulse then remove when formed into a ball.  Knead until smooth, wrap in cling film and rest in fridge for at least 20 mins.  Roll as per pasta machine instructions.  The more rolling, the better the pasta.  Ravioli needs to as thin as possible.  We only got down to #1 as we found we had lost the pasta machine handle and had to improvise with a strange looking bottle opener.  It hurt Zoe's hand too much to try taking below #1.

This is the very strange black garlic we found in Tesco.  Sticky and sweet.

Gorgeous mushrooms found at Macclesfield's Treacle Market.

Fry a finely chopped onion in butter until soft, added a black garlic clove then 250g of finely chopped mushrooms.  Fry until all the moisture has evaporated from the mushrooms then add three slices of  crumbled, fried prosciutto.  Finally, add a large spoon of ricotta and salt and black pepper to taste.
Lay teaspoons of filling on one length of pasta then top with a second layer.  Be sure to work out all the air bubbles from around the mound of filling before slicing and sealing the ravioli.  I don't think the ravioli ever need wetting to seal it although all the cookbooks seems to insist on it.

Drop the ravioli into a big pan of boiling, salted water.  They should float to the top within a minute but give them at least another minute and a half to cook through.  Remove with a slotted spoon and serve with truffle oil and Parmesan if you're feeling flash.

Zoe went pasta crazy and also made tagliatelli while singing, 'Anything you can do I can do better'.  Cheeky madam.

Zoe's tagliatelle with fennel and prawns

And finally she chopped up a couple of strawberries and mixed them with ricotta and icing sugar to make a sweet ravioli.  One she boiled and the other she fried in olive oil, then topped them with crushed strawberry.  Zoe preferred the boiled but I loved the friend version so much that I gobbled it all up before taking a picture.  Sorry.

Strawberry and ricotta ravioli

Monday, 18 June 2012


Souffle, no less.
Apple tarte, poached pear, orange and almond cake.

Zoe says she's feeling a bit tired after all this cooking.

     She'll know the true meaning of tired when she's cleaned the kitchen.                                                                            

Super-sticky rib time and a Masterchef audition . . .

Sorry the blog's been a bit thin on the ground since the first Masterchef  'phone call but I've been busy whipping Zoe into action in the kitchen.  Here's my rib recipe to keep you going.  She's got an audition in Birmingham on Wednesday and I am bricking it.


 Lay ribs (this is 2 x Sainsbury's packs) in a single layer in an ovenproof dish.

Fill a measuring jug to the 6oz mark with soft, brown sugar.

Then fill to the 8oz mark with malt vinegar.

Fill to the 16oz mark with reduced salt soy sauce (Kikkoman is best).   Then add 3 crushed garlic cloves, a star anise and a good scraping of fresh ginger root.

Heat it all up until the sugar has melted then pour over the ribs.  If you have time to let it marinade for an hour or so, or overnight in the fridge, then do.  If not just whack it in the oven.

Bake, uncovered at Gas 3/150C for about 2 hours, turning every half hour.

Remove the ribs.  Pour the sauce in a pan and reduce until it just starts to get sticky.  Put the ribs back in the dish and coat with the sticky sauce.

Put back in the oven and bake for a further 30 mins. Whack up the heat for a further 10 mins if  not brown and sticky enough but watch like a hawk so they don't burn.

There should be lots of sticky sauce to pour over boiled rice or mop up with crusty bread.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Today's Rage

Argyll council have stopped this wonderful girl from taking pictures of her school dinners and blogging about it!  Please feel free to voice you own outrage on Facebook and Twitter or on Argyll council's doorstep.
Click on the orange link below to see what's going on . . .


Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The call from Masterchef and the resulting cookathon

No, it's not me they're after, it's Zoe.  My  11 yr old daughter, winner of the Schools' Interchef Challenge has caught the eye of the Masterchef production team.  Tonight she's done a down-the-line interview while I've panicked and done a couple of gins.  I aim to teach her all I know within a week.  Should be easy.  This is tonight's effort.

Lebanese Rice
Melt a knob of butter with a little sunflower oil and add a handful of broken up vermicelli.  Stir until just beginning to darken  in colour.  You may smell the toastiness before you see it.  Remove pan from heat.

Add dry basmati rice.  You need about 2/3rds more than the vermicelli.  Add salt and a sprinkle of cinnamon.  Stir to coat rice in oil.

Add hot water to same depth as rice.  Cover, bring to boil then simmer for about 7 mins.  Remove lid, check to see if rice needs more water.  If it's almost ready but still has a slight bite then just wet it slightly, bring to boil then put the lid on and turn off the heat to allow it to steam.
Fry up finely sliced onions in sunflower oil until brown. Add garlic if you like but don't let the garlic burn - it takes less time to cook than the onion.
Fluff up the rice, sprinkle with the onion/garlic and a little more cinnamon.
 Aromatic Spice Mix
Toast cumin seeds, fennel seeds, chilli flakes and sesame seeds in a dry pan.  Bash about a bit to release aroma.  This can be scattered over the whole dish when finished.
8 Hour Shoulder of Lamb
Which means do this before the rice! Marinate overnight with a rub of crushed garlic and some of the above spice mix.
 Dribble with olive oil and salt and bang it in a hot oven for about half an hour until it's browning but not so long that the garlic burns.

Add a glass of white wine to the pan, cover loosely with foil and turn the oven down to Gas 1 or140C for 4 hours then flip the lamb over and continue cooking without the foil for another 3 hours or until the lamb is falling off the bone.  Whack the heat back up to cook out all the fat.  Serve when dark and crisped.

I noticed the above picture looked a bit like a freaky animal head, so here's a less offensive one with the meat flipped over.
 Reduce all the lovely juices and serve in a sauce boat.  Not just out of the pan as we did.
Sal's Babaganoush
A gorgeously silky accompaniment (which my husband hates) is a version of babaganoush  with yoghurt replacing the tehina.  It's much lighter and far less fattening and was first brought to my attention by Sal the Policeman.

Smoke your aubergine on a gas flame until collapsed.  If no gas then roast hell out of it in the oven.

When it's cooled a bit, peel off the skin and purée.
Blend in some natural yoghurt and salt to taste.  I usually add a bit of crushed garlic but as there was so much garlic in the lamb I didn't think it was needed tonight.
Sprinkle with shredded mint, parsley or coriander.

Serve the whole shebang - rice, lamb, juices and aubergine and sprinkle with the dry spice mix.

Then thank your lucky stars that you don't have to cook it on TV.

Zoe must be mad.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Edgware Rd edibles and the time we mistook someone's garden for a restaurant.

So, we missed the fireworks at Buck Palace because we nipped out from the Hilton's 23rd floor bar (perfect view of the concert) to grab a bite to eat at Maroush Express on the Edgware Rd.  Click on the link and you'll understand why we didn't get back to the Hilton.  Not because the service was slow but because it was so damned good and there were just so many amazing things to eat  and they had Bekka Valley red wine.  Which I drank even though I had said, 'Never again.' after I had floated my liver while trying to get to the flotilla the day before.

We had passed about a thousand men puffing on shisha pipes as we'd made our way to Maroush and we were the only non-Arabs eating there which certainly added to the feeling of being a thousand miles away from Buckingham Palace.  A proper foreign holiday without stepping on a plane.  And with more rain. Zoe asked, "Is this a Turkish restaurant?"

"No darling, it's Lebanese but some of the cooking is very similar.  Remember when we went to Turkey a few years ago?"

Zoe looked vague; I guessed she probably had a picture of Marrakesh in her head.  "Turkey was the one where we demanded food from that poor boy whose garden we mistook for a restaurant."

Yes, in one of my more embarrassing holiday moments I had dragged everyone away from our all-inclusive hotel to find some authentic Turkish cuisine.  Clever me spotted a little garden at the end of an alley.  It had three red plastic tables with faded coca-cola umbrellas and a few mis-matched plastic chairs.  "This will be good," said I "follow me."

We sat at a table waiting for a waiter.  Ten minutes passed.  An old man looked over the wall from the next garden then came round and knocked on the door of our garden 'cafe'.  An old woman came to the door.  The man pointed to us.  The old woman brought out a young man.  He came over to our table and asked, "Can I help you?"

 "Hello, yes!" said I "Can we see a menu?"

The boy looked a bit puzzled.  I thought hashish was probably to blame.  "A menu?" asked dopey.

"Yes.  Could we see a menu?" I repeated.  Slowly.

"Okaaay," said the boy and promptly jumped on a motorbike and sped off.

We sat for a while wondering what the hell was going on but feeling too embarrassed to leave.

The boy returned ten minutes later with a menu as long as his arm.  We chose our food and drinks and what do you know?  Our waiter boy jumped back on the bike and set off again. It was nearly an hour before he re-appeared in the alley, trying to balance a huge cardboard box while steering his bike with one hand.  The old woman came out with an assortment of plates and forks and the box was opened to reveal our order.

Ged said, "Oh Christ Gill.  I think we must be sitting in someone's private garden.  It's not a restaurant at all."

He was right.The lovely boy had been too nice to say, "Get off my land" and instead had driven off to a neighbouring restaurant to provide us with our dinner.  We left a very big tip.  And didn't ask to see the dessert menu.

In honour of Arabesque food I made an Egyptian pizza today.  It's yummy and easier than it looks.  Give it a go.
Firstly, mix up some of that supermarket pizza dough.  It may be cheating but it's easy and it works.  When it's proved, roll out a circle and scatter with a fried up mixture of finely chopped onions, garlic and minced lamb.  Sprinkle with salt, cinnamon powder and toasted pine nuts.

Crack an egg on top then sprinkle with chopped parsley.
Yes, I know that's watercress in the picture but I had forgotten to buy the parsley.

Roll up the pizza into a big sausage shape.

Roll the sausage shape into a spiral then, with a well floured rolling pin carefully roll to flatten slightly.  DO NOT PANIC IF IT BURSTS ITS SEAMS A BIT.

This one did.  Heat a frying pan with a little olive oil and carefully slide the pizza into it.  Fry until golden brown then flip it over to fry the other side.  I forgot to take a picture of the frying pan.

Sprinkle with a bit more cinnamon, slice and serve with the rest of that watercress.

And finally, referring to April's Hilton blog we had very few things to moan about while staying at the Hilton London Met.  Yes, reception looked like a badly designed airport but then we knew to expect that.  The room was great, breakfast was amazing, the views from the 23rd floor bar outstanding.  And then there was the pool which was cold and tiny and had changing rooms only big enough for 6 people.  AND it is no longer possible to buy a stamp because, the manager said,they were not making enough money from them?!

Friday, 8 June 2012

All the way to London and we missed the Queen!

So. . . our friend Hanke was dispatched (with her trumpet) to the flotilla at 8.30am in the freezing rain.  All we had to do was make it to the river Thames in time to watch her trumpet at The Queen.  And did we?

In the seats left warm by Charles & Camilla
Well, the trouble was that I absolutely had to see Piccadilly closed to traffic and lined with an enormously long street-party table. There was a swing band courtesy of The Ritz, a Fortnum's Champagne bar, need I go on? We had a little drinkie then meandered through Mayfair until the kids saw a Nando's and shouted  . .

"Pleeaasee can we have a Nando's?  We're starving"

Why had I thought a Hilton breakfast would be enough to see them through 'til dinner?

"They do chicken wings, mum."

"Yes, and so does Pitt Cue where we're going tomorrow."

Charles & Camilla seat warming on Piccadilly
They were not for waiting. The  Nando's wings should have been rubbish but were annoyingly good and as a bonus I got to impress the kids by lapping up the X-tra hot chilli sauce. Unfortunately, a bottle of  Sauvignon Blanc was only a smidgen more expensive than two glasses and that's where it all went wrong.  We lingered over the wine and then, bugger me, I looked at my watch and it was 3.15pm!!  The flotilla was due to finish at 4pm and we had to get all the way from Mayfair to Tower Bridge.  Needless to say, we arrived as the crowds were leaving.

Our only consolation is that, even if we had been there at 10am we would still have had trouble getting to the riverside as it was already packed out and closed off by then.
We met Hanke and her trumpet at the pier when she stepped off her boat at 6pm.  She was wet, shaking with cold and very, very happy to find everyone waiting for her so all was not lost.

Walking the cleaning plank, Green Cottage style

Thinking it sensible to head out of central London to eat, we made our way to the Green Cottage  Chinese in Swiss Cottage.  The restaurant has been there for over 30 years although it did burn down in 2011 and was closed for 10 months for a re build.

The food has always been reliably good and they have a chilli sauce condiment which is hot as hell and should not be allowed near children - yum.  We got a bit drunken.  Then I insisted on hugging and kissing the old Chinese lady as we were leaving, telling her that I remembered her from 30 years ago when I was a London nanny and used to dine there.  I was talking clap-trap of course.  I have face-blindness at the best of times and there's no way I would be able to tell one old Chinese bird from another.  She had probably only been working there for a week.

The next day I discovered this strange picture on my 'phone which seems to suggest that I was also in the kitchen at some point.  I like the balancing plank.

Tomorrow I will tell of how we missed the fireworks at the Buckingham Palace do because we were feasting on the Edgeware Road.  In years to come we will all look back on our grand trip to London for the Jubilee and think, "We were there.  Sort of."  Thank God for the BBC  Jubilee Highlights special.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Famous Friend #3 - Hanke Gawron . . .

Hanke Gawron with dogs, without trumpet
My third famous friend is Hanke, pictured here.  Tomorrow she will be playing trumpet for the Queen on the Westminster boat of the flotilla.  We, the entire Collins family, are pleased and proud as Jubilee punch that my daughter's best friend has received such an honour.  A well deserved honour, of course.

We will be there to support her and I'm sure she will be able to hear our screams loud and clear as she passes us on the Thames (that's if we managed to get anywhere near the Thames).

And  . . . in spite of everything I said about the Hilton we are staying at the Hilton Met this weekend.  God help them if it's not up to scratch.  But the knock down price was irresistible, what could I do?

We've booked for Damien Hirst at the Tate Modern on Tues and may just have to do a bit of Pitt Cue as well as every one of the Japanese and Koreans on St Giles St.  Overheard conversation from next table when we dined there last, "When we eat this in Japan, the fish is served live."  Ooh, I say.  A bit radical for my liking.

The train leaves from Manchester in an hour so I'm off.  We have a bottle of Prosecco and Harry's Bar Bellini peach juice for the journey.  Yipee!

Oh and lastly, just in case you were silly enough to miss the Smithfield edition of the London Markets series this week, here's the link.  In this one a couple of the traders actually have a punch up over the price of mince and the only girl to ever have worked in the butchery department leaves after finally having had enough of her male colleagues' sexual innuendos.

See you Wednesday.  Holidays are not for blogging.