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Chaz'z Blog

Monday, February 28, 2005

I know, Iíve been a bit quiet for a few days here. There is good reason for this. Iíve been very busy: reading, cooking, planting chillies, shopping, going to the cinema, going to the theatre, going out with friends, cleaning the house, tidying up the paperwork... Is anything starting to ring a little warning-bell here? Anyone who knows me will look at that list and understand it instantly, they wonít even need to look for whatís missing.

I confess, I have not been doing a lot of work. This is of course the time when I need to work hardest, when a manuscript is long past its expected delivery date and I have nothing but debt in the bank; but my US editor has given me a generous extension for the rewrite, I donít actually have to deliver it till June, and Iím so uncomfortable with it, so distrustful of what Iím doing, I can hardly bear to work on it at all. So I keep finding other things to do. Just not this, because I dislike making public confession of my troubles.

Posted by Chaz at 11:50 AM GMT [Link]

Friday, February 18, 2005

Good grief. This morning I went out on a whim, and then out on a limb; I came home - you wonít believe this - on a bus.

I have lived in this house ten years, and I have never, never gone out or come back on a bus before, despite the stopís being right outside my door. Lady Curzon (I think) said that anyone seen on a bus past the age of thirty has been a failure in life, and the dreadful thing is, I believe her.

But anyway, it happened. My excuse, I think, is fairly typical of me. Itís chilli-planting season, and the first seeds are just starting to hatch, and so colonise my window-sills; and so, as ever at this time of year, I have been pining for a garden, or more specifically for a greenhouse, as I only have two south-facing windows and thatís not enough (I have just ordered a dozen new varieties of chilli-seed, without anywhere to grow them). But my local supermarket is selling little plastic mini-greenhouses for twenty quid, and I could just fit one of them into my back yard, so Iíve been thinking about it; and being in town and shopping, I thought Iíd look around the city stores. So I found a better mini-g, for thirty quid; and was thinking about it in that general way that almost always means Iíll come back and do it later, when I saw the little notice that said this was the last one in stock, and so half-price. Bargain: I bought it without a second thought. By the time Iíd carried it up from the basement, I had decided not to carry it all the way home; its skin and jointings may be plastic but its tubes are steel, and itís too damn heavy to be quixotic with. Thereís a taxi-rank right close, and any reasonable citizen would have thought ďIíve saved fifteen quid on this, might as well give back five and take a taxi.Ē Chaz thought, ďIíve saved fifteen quid on this; donít want to blow five of that now, hang on to your margin, boy,Ē and so the bus-adventure. Love the way I can be open-handed and absurdly mean, both at once.

I did survive the bus, thoí it was horrible (they tell me there is profit to be had, from listening to peopleís conversations on buses; I tried that, and it was just so dull. Endless reports on other conversations, talk about talking, Ďhe-said-she-saidí - like living inside a soap opera. How can anybody bear it?), and Iíve spent a happy hour doing self-assembly. ĎNo tools requiredí, it says on the outside of the box. Hah! No tools except a large and heavy hammer, for banging recalcitrant joints into place. But the frame went up with no trouble, once Iíd understood the necessity of the hammer; and then the skin went on, and only nearly blew away the one time when the wind filled it, and people have been telling me for years that itís easier to put a cover on your duvet if you get inside the thing and I still donít believe that but itís certainly easier to skin a greenhouse from the inside.

And now the thing is standing there, all zipped up against the hail, and I hope to go out in the morning and find that it is conspicuously warmer inside than out, thoí I think right now Iíd settle for just going out in the morning and finding it still there.

Posted by Chaz at 05:36 PM GMT [Link]

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Itís been said for a long time, inherently by we-the-writers and conspicuously by me, that we are all Prometheus, we steal the fire that we bring. Itís in the nature of the job, you canít help but be influenced by your peers, by those you admire and those who came before, the people you grew up reading. A construction here, a neat touch of plotting there: often itís not even conscious, and itís only theft by the most ruthless of definitions. Sometimes it is entirely deliberate (I once lifted the entire structure of a book I admire hugely, and underlaid it beneath my own. What book, you ask? Go read the world, and find it), and then we call it homage. With an accent, please; I pay homage to no one.

If writers do this, so too do cooks. We read recipes, constantly; we ask for them from our friends, nice and upfront and honest; we crib them by watching people cook, and we try to deduce them by taste and experience. And then we cook our own, and sometimes we acknowledge a source and sometimes we shrug them off as folk tales, inherent in the genes. Sometimes we even think weíve made them up. Almost invariably, though, what youíre eating is a pinch of this and a spoonful of that, a combination of ingredients from here and a method I heard over there, all shuffled around by my own stock kitchen-habits. Is this theft? No, or no more than a book is; but sometimes it does feel like it.

Like, for example, on Saturday I had dinner with my friends Mike and Philippa. Mike is fresh from a visit to Hungary, and he cooked a seriously authentic goulash heíd picked up over there. It was scrumptious, and I came home full of goulash in every meaning of that phrase; and Sunday night, I cooked goulash. Not much like Mikeís at all, I checked a few recipes here at home and put together a soup with dumplings where his was a stew with rice. But without his, mine wouldnít have happened; and if he hadnít discussed the different claims of beef and pork and a mixture, I would never have thought of mixing them; and even with a distinct range of ingredients, his was still the base-note I was looking for and judging by. So no, itís not theft, unless theft means appropriating something to oneself without consent - oh. Actually, it does...

So hereís my take on goulash. This week.

I used rump steak and belly pork, because I had them in the freezer. I didnít weigh them; say half a pound of each. For that much meat, I sliced a couple of onions and softened them in olive oil and butter, then tossed in the meat, cut into chunks. Once that was brown I added a couple of teaspoonsful of hot smoked paprika, the same of caraway seeds, some sprigs of thyme, some chillies if liked (I like, but you know that) and half a head of garlic, crushed and chopped. Then a tin of chopped tomatoes and a lot of beef stock, a couple of pints or so. Lid on and into a low oven for a couple of hours, until the meat is tender. Then add a couple of chopped peppers (red and yellow, I used, for colour and flavour - not green) and some diced potato. While that comes up to a simmer on top of the stove, mix up the dumplings: 125g of plain flour, half a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of baking powder, all mixed together with a tablespoon of olive oil and a lot of chopped parsley (or try other herbs - chives or spring onion, perhaps, or tarragon might be nice, to harmonise with the caraway. Or a mixture). Then mix in a little buttermilk, till you have a soft dough. Work it on a floured board for a minute or two, then split it into a dozen balls. Float them on top of the goulash, cover, and put back into the oven. Knock the heat up to the mid-point and take the lid off after half an hour or so, to give the dumplings time enough to crisp and brown a bit. Serve with sour cream and good bread, and a sprinkle of sweet smoked paprika.

Posted by Chaz at 03:53 PM GMT [Link]

Sunday, February 6, 2005

To my Chinese friends, this year upcoming may be the Year of the Rooster; to me, it is the Year of Baking. Cakes and pastries: I shall crack them all. Or give up halfway through. But well begun is half done, and last weekís cakes were scrummy, and today I have baked a pie. Myself, I suspect the pastry only works because I do it in a food processor rather than in my fingers, but at least it does work. Pausing only to point out that my abominable mother (who hates cooking, and really couldnít care less) can throw a wonderful pastry together in moments and has never thought about using a machine, here is my practical beef-and-mushroom pie:

Cut 500g of beef shin into chunks, and toss in well-seasoned flour. Slice a couple of onions, and fry in olive oil for a few minutes. Then add the beef, and any residue of flour. Stir and fry for five minutes, then add 500g of mushrooms, either whole or broken into large chunks to match the beef. After a few minutes more, add a couple of glugs of red wine, and a pint of good beef stock. As it comes to the boil, add some sprigs of thyme and a bay leaf, and a shot-glass of Worcestershire sauce. Cover and simmer for an hour, then uncover and simmer for another. Finally add a couple of potatoes cut into similar chunks again, cover and simmer for one hour more (nb, this is how I do it; all the covering and uncovering is about getting the right amount of gravy, neither too much or too little. You may want to adjust).

To make the pastry, whizz 100g of lard (cubed, straight from the fridge) with 200g of self-raising flour and a little salt. Or if youíre confident, rub the fat into the flour with your fingers; just donít do it anywhere I can see you, show-off. Mix in a little chilled water, till it forms a dough; then cover and put it in the fridge till wanted.

Pre-heat the oven to gas mark 5 (or meantime crush-roast some potatoes: boil new potatoes in their skins for ten minutes, blat them with a spatula till they crush a little, slip a sprig of thyme into each then pour some olive oil over and roast at gas 6 for twenty minutes, then knock it back to 5 before you put the pie in). Put the beefy loveliness into a pie-dish and butter the rim; roll out the pastry and cover it over; slit the top for the steam to get away, egg-glaze or milk-glaze if you want to (me, I donít bother) and bake for 40 minutes or thereabouts. Hurrah, a pastry-pie that works...

Posted by Chaz at 09:19 PM GMT [Link]

Iíve been filling in Farah Mendlesohnís questionnaire about SF reading habits in youth [find it here], and it led me to reflect that the í70s must have been pretty much the best option for being a teenage science fiction fanatic. Lots of new stuff coming out, and new SF imprints to publish it; the best writing from the fifties and sixties - which is my Golden Age - still in print, and the first moves towards reprinting lost classics in a methodical way. We were spoiled, I think, and I for one didnít realise it until ten years ago, when I was talking to a friend who was running the SF section in my local Waterstoneís. I was suggesting lots of titles he didnít have in stock, that I thought he ought to, classics from my youth - and they were none of them in print, and I couldnít believe it.

Everything goes in cycles, and we may be coming into a second good time now. Not for the new stuff, where if you donít have Ďbestsellerí stamped all through you, itís getting harder and harder to find a publisher at all; but thereís a resurgence of reprint-series like the SF Masterworks from Gollancz, thereís print-on-demand which gives us access to long lists of books that would otherwise be out-of-print, and thereís the internet. Amazon and Abe between them may yet be the final death-knell for the mid-list author (itís conspicuous even from my own Amazon returns, how many people are buying second-hand copies rather than new - and of course we get no royalty from a second-hand sale), but for those of us who are readers as well as writers, they do offer a hitherto undreamed-of access to books that have long slipped out of print and almost out of cognizance. Suddenly itís easy to fill the gap on the shelf or to go questing for some half-remembered title encountered once and never quite forgotten. My first purchase from Abe was The Passion Flower Hotel by Rosalind Erskine, a bestseller in its day, but my only acquaintance with it had been a radio adaptation twenty years ago. I wanted it, suddenly, on a whim; pre-Abe, I might have waited another twenty years to come across it in a second-hand shop here or there. With Abe, I found it in five minutes, ordered it in ten and had it in two days. Thatís life-changing, even if the book itself is not. Oh, and in case anyoneís wondering why I speak of Abe instead of ABE - well, Iíve always seen him as a person, a backwoodsman in a check shirt, living in a log cabin in the woods with these great piles of books all around him, sorted in some order known only to himself.

Posted by Chaz at 01:35 AM GMT [Link]

Friday, February 4, 2005

Chazíz happy day: this morning, having finally got rid of all my university work for a week or two and needing therefore to think about doing some real work, needing also some more toner for my printer, I thought Iíd walk over the moor to try one of those refill-your-cartridge-for-half-the-price places. We do actually have a new one near at hand, but I went in there a few days back and, uh, well, they would be able to do it, honest, but they havenít had the training yet... I forbore to ask why exactly they had opened before they were able to do the job they advertise.

Anyway: I walked over to Jesmond, which is the posh suburb, and thought I might as well browse the shops while I was there. So I bought a pair of jeans (which are not black, shock horror! But a lovely demi-mourning purple, so thatís okay) and a Justina Robson novel, both at knockdown prices, and a couple of baby John Dory from the really good fishmonger (and he let me have them for a quid, which I suspect was a bit of a knockdown also). There is admittedly not much flesh on a baby Dory, but dipped in seasoned flour and fried crisp in butter-and-oil, served with an omelette aux fines herbes (parsley, tarragon, chives and a hint of thyme today), they do make a lovely lunch.

And then I went to find mífriend Gail, and we had coffee and klatsched; and so home, for the lunch detailed above. Then down into town for a meeting with Rachael from the Arts Council, who bounced cheerfully at all my ideas where I had honestly expected her to frown and sigh wearily and murmur "no, canít do that, sorry." Which means that I now have four applications to pull together - for Murder Squad, for a new venture I canít talk about yet, for Northern Gothic and finally for me - but thatís okay, Fenham View is Application City.

Then I little time reworking my recent ghost story in the pub, and home again to write e-mails and read books and watch Tony Robinson entirely debunking The Da Vinci Code. I admit to dozing off, round about the time of the Rosslyn Chapel, but two hours ten of debunkment was asking a bit much of anyone, the bookís not worth the attention; and I was awake again for the Priory of Sion. Then I had a bath, and am about to go to bed, and am feeling that all in all that was a pretty good day. I have shopped, seen friends, had a meeting and done some work, and all of it successfully; what more could a man ask?

Posted by Chaz at 12:48 AM GMT [Link]

Thursday, February 3, 2005

Iíve just been reading Terry Pratchettís Going Postal - top form, it really is a fine novel - and it reminded me (via cabbage-flavoured gum) that I was going to give you my recipes for Lancashire hotpot and cabbage(s). So:

For the hotpot, you need various cuts of lamb: traditionally it ought to be scrag end of neck, but actually best-end cutlets are also fine, and I always put in some shank as well, for added gelatinousness. Ideally get the butcher to slice the shank a few times through the bone, soís you can get all the flavour of it and the marrow too; otherwise, bone it out and cut the flesh into chunks, but do bury the bone in the middle of the pot.

Anyway, you want a couple of scrag chops/cutlets/slices (or equivalent) per person, plus a lambís kidney each and a few chunks of black pudding (with a nod of thanks to my friend Richard, who introduced me to that variation, ooh, twelve years ago? Fifteen, perhaps? Something on that order). Halve and trim the kidneys (halve with a v sharp knife, but snipping out the core is one of the rare kitchen tasks that are better done with scissors), peel the pudding if you want to. Peel and slice two potatoes per person, and half an onion ditto.

Butter a casserole dish, and assemble: a layer of potato slices, then onion, then meat (and the shank-bone, if applicable). Season with salt, pepper, fresh thyme, other herbs at whim. Then repeat the layers, and the seasonings till youíre almost at the top of the pot/running out of ingredients (ideally, these two coincide). Then pour over lamb or chicken stock, about a quarter-pint per person; it does not have to cover the ingredients. Finally, top with another layer of potato and drizzle over some melted butter.

Put the lid on, and put it into a low, low oven. The lower & longer you can leave it, the better: two hours at gas mark 3 is okay, but four hours at two is better, five or more at one is better yet. If your oven goes below one (look! this goes all the way down to a quarter!), try it down there all day and see how it works.

Leave it long enough and the top should crisp & brown of its own accord, even under a lid; if not, take the lid off and knock the heat up a little for another half an hour.

To go with the hotpot, here are Chazíz cabbagez (dear me, how eccentric can this get, before it just looks silly? Thus far and no further, I fancy; possibly even one step back from here):

Red cabbage - finely shred a small red cabbage (I use a mandoline for this, and always add the neatly-excised tip of one finger to the dish), and put it into a casserole dish. Add a couple of finely sliced onions, a pound of sliced cooking apples, a few glugs of cider vinegar and a couple of tablespoons of dark sugar, a lump of butter and lots of black pepper. Stick it in a low oven for a long time. Alongside the hotpot would be fine.

Savoy cabbage - slice a Savoy cabbage (with a knife, this time), and half a dozen shallots, half a dozen cloves of garlic. Put shallots and garlic into a pan with a lump of butter and a couple of glugs of water, simmer for a couple of minutes then add the cabbage. Stir it all around, stir in salt and pepper, cook over quite a high heat till it all starts to soften, then clap a lid on, turn the heat down and leave it till tender. Five or ten minutes, no more. Mix in some more butter before serving.

Note: the red cabbage keeps fine for an extra day or two; the hotpotís probably better reheated, as most stews are; the Savoy wonít take it. Itíll just go slimy, so eat it all on day one. Itís okay, itís nice.

Posted by Chaz at 12:44 AM GMT [Link]

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© Chaz Brenchley 2002/2006
Reproduced here by permission of Chaz Brenchley, who asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this work.