I am Wonder Woman. It’s a secret. Nobody knows but me. My family thinks I am the domestic help and my friends, well, they only get fleeting views of me as I fly around ‘Wondering’.
Let me set the scene. Picture me: a manic, middle-aged matriarch, glasses at nose tip, in a cluttered, kid-stroke-cat filled kitchen (that’s stroke as in punctuation not caress), ‘phone clamped between shoulder and ear, stirring a pot of something aromatic and discussing the finances of the local youth club. With diminishing hormones I battle with a large house, career driven husband, teenage and seven-year-old daughters, a string of hobbies and an enthusiastic involvement in village organisations.
…It was not always thus. I was once a child, in an orderly and happy home. My mother organised, arranged and cleaned with a huge amount of energy, love and personality. And she cooked. And she taught me to cook. life was punctuated by meals: home cooked, delicious, comforting, stodgy, mainly soft and absolutely enormous. Mother came from the war time school of thought: eat lots, don’t waste anything, the more cholesterol the better, boil the vegetables to a pulp and never cut the fat off the meat, it’s the best bit. Meals were accompanied by lively debate about the quality of the meat, the crispness of the crackling or the shortness of the pastry.
Food marked all occasions. Birthdays, wedding anniversaries and achievements of all kinds were celebrated with a feast. These ceremonies would comprise several courses cooked with and accompanied by quantities of butter, cream and alcohol. Outside the home some of our greatest treats were had in the company of my paternal Grandparents. Grandpa liked to live the high life. He and Grandma had foods we never had at home: Ruby red Ribena to drink, brown bread sandwiches spread with unsalted Dutch butter and filled with silky smooth smoked salmon from Harrods’ Food Hall, gleaming strawberries with sugar and cakes exploding with whipped cream. On their coffee table Grandma and Grandpa always had a fruit bowl topped with a bunch of sweet and juicy black grapes, a great treat. Surrounding the fruit bowl were little dishes of crystallised fruits and chocolates in which, after we left, were to be found my brother’s tooth marks, evidence of the centres that hadn’t matched his hopes.
My mother’s parents were less profligate. Nanna grew tomatoes and cucumbers in the greenhouse and I would often go with her into its tropical, leafy interior, fragrant with the smell of warm tomatoes, to pick the best cucumber for tea. We would laugh at the bendy ones and at the strangely shaped tomatoes with lumps and carbuncles which would later provide the ingredients for her home made tomato juice. Bampy was the outdoor gardener. He grew marrows, potatoes, carrots and runner beans which, again, we would ‘help’ to pick. Nanna’s meals were slowly cooked and delicious and I remember stewed leg of lamb with caper sauce and roast beef with drool inducing gravy.
Meanwhile in the 21st Century, as you can imagine from the above, modern Wonder Woman does not have quite the physique of her 1940’s, comic strip namesake. Waging a battle between healthy eating and fine dining, my aim is to cook, in equal balance, delicious, healthy and quick meals. Delicious because food should always be delicious, even if it’s cheese on toast, healthy so that I may keep what is left of my figure and quick, to leave time for my many other interests: I write a blog, I paint and sing in a choir, I am Treasurer to the Youth Club and Editor of the Village magazine, I walk every day and I even have some friends! To give myself time for these activities I appear, unconsciously to have devised for myself some quite effective kitchen policies.
Kitchen policies one and two: Never do one thing when you can do six and always have home cooked food in the freezer. This may be why the kitchen is often an area of frenzied activity. As well as children, washing, emails, music practise, homework and philosophical debate there are often multiple cooking projects on the go. There may well be stock simmering in the slow cooker; the oven may be full of casserole to be portion up later for the freezer. There could be a huge pan of lamb curry or split pea Dahl or a soup using up the left over vegetables, and dinner might be cooking as well.
I once had a friend whom I admired enormously for the relaxed and efficient way she ran her home. She and I had an outside catering business for a couple of years and she taught me a massive amount, but the thing that impressed me most was her freezer. In it were stacks of home baked sponge cake layers, about 20 of each flavour. If she was expecting a visitor she would simply select two matching disks: chocolate, Victoria, orange or lemon and whip up an appropriate filling. I dream of having a freezer filled with sponge cake layers but in fact mine is full of other home made goodies. I have tomato sauce, cooked rice, home made pastry, curry, stock, soup and other dishes ready prepared for a fast get away.
Kitchen policy number three: Don’t use a recipe book use your imagination and experience. A lifetime of cooking has left me with a bookcase full of recipe books which I hardly read. How much more exciting and creative it is to devise recipes. Lovely Fennel and Butternut squash soup; Fennel, slightly sweet and aniseedy combined with aromatic spices and smooth, sweet butternut squash. Delicious! The house will smell divine after roasting the spices and as family members come home from school or work you will be rewarded with their enthusiastic appreciation and anticipation of a feast to come.
Of course there must be a good stock to begin with: use a supermarket turkey drumstick roasted until brown or a left over chicken carcass and simmer for a about 4 hours with celery, leek, whole onion and carrot with bay leaves and black peppercorns. Take the lid off after 3 hours and reduce the liquid to a nice concentrated stock. Taste it to be sure you have the flavour right. The stock should be drained and then chilled to a jelly and the fat removed from the top. For the soup fry a teaspoon of cumin seeds and two of fennel seeds and the seeds from three cardamom pods in a little olive oil until they start to jump about or they are getting dark in colour. Throw in a diced onion and half a chopped chilli, with the pith and seeds removed and stir the vegetables over a medium heat until the onions are transparent and very slightly browned. Add a large chopped bulb of fennel and a big toe sized piece of peeled, grated root ginger. Season with plenty of salt and some black pepper and keep stirring for a few more minutes before pouring on about a litre of stock. Bring the soup to the boil and simmer, covered for about 20 minutes or until the vegetables are soft. Meanwhile bake a small sliced butternut squash, without the seeds, in the oven. When the flesh is soft and the edges are toffee coloured, remove it from the oven and set aside. Once the fennel and onion are tender add the butternut squash and purée the soup until smooth then pass it through a sieve to get rid of the bits of spice and any black bits of squash. Tip in a 400ml can of low fat coconut milk and bring back to a simmer. Serve your soup topped with the feathery leaves from the fennel bulb; yummy!
Back to the policies. Kitchen policy number four: Use the best ingredients you can afford. Local suppliers of fresh fruit and vegetables can be extremely good, especially of locally grown produce. I get some of mine delivered by a local organic supplier of boxes which also saves time and is quite exciting as I never know quite what I will get. Local isn’t always a byword for good though, especially for meat so search around but don’t forget that supermarkets now sell organic and farm reared meat and the quality is always consistent.
Kitchen policy number five: Don’t be precious. If there is a gadget that will make it quicker or easier, then get it. A ‘liquidizer on a stick’ is invaluable for soup and I have something called a Sauciere which makes effortless Hollandaise sauce. Food doesn’t have to be prepared with a wooden spoon and a cook’s knife to be called home cooking.
And finally, here is the most important one of all. Kitchen policy number six: Don’t spend your whole life in the kitchen. When you’ve created your scrumptious food and everyone has polished it off, give the kids a craft project, give the old man a DIY job, kick the cupboard doors shut, set the dishwasher to spin, eat up, clean up, dress up and get out. After all, did you ever see Wonder Woman toiling in the kitchen wearing a pinny?