Aside

Five Wonderful Grandchildren!

I’ve been away in Scotland for the last couple of weeks – my new baby granddaughter is thankfully born safe and well, and both she and her mummy are doing fine.

To have had two new precious grandchildren born in the space of only twelve weeks has been an amazing experience, and I’m so appreciative of the privilege of being invited to spend such a truly magical time together with both daughters and all five of my lovely grandchildren – I love them all so much ❤

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Jambalaya…

One of my favourite Cajun dishes is Jambalaya – a satisfying spicy mix of rice and several different meats and veg – and personally I find the rich smoky flavour of this large potful cooked by my husband’s cousin on a wood fire in the back yard pretty damned hard to beat 🙂

stirring-the-jambalaya

Stirring the pot…

jambalaya-cookingBubbling away nicely…

jambalaya-ready-to-eatFinished Jambalaya, ready to eat – and eat it we did! 🙂

‘Add The Holy Trinity…’

Cajun Cooking Lesson Two: ‘Add the holy trinity…’

Once the roux is made, the next step in many Cajun-style stews is to add the holy trinity of onion, celery, and bell pepper – and also chopped garlic – yum!

roux-with-holy-trinityRoux with the Holy Trinity added – the finished dish was white beans, cooked outside 🙂

Adding the cold, crisp veg to the sizzling pot stops the roux darkening any further, and after it has all been stirred about for a bit, releasing all that fragrant aroma, a flavoured stock (broth) is added along with seasoning, and at this point the stew base is ready for whatever particular ingredients come next, depending on what dish is being made.

When it comes to stock, I’ve always preferred to make my own – it’s what I learned from childhood onwards, boiling up a chicken carcass or a ham knuckle to make a delicious base for traditional Scottish soups, so I use that same basic stock for my Cajun stews, and they turn out perfectly well. But the weirdest-feeling thing to get used to for me was that Cajun cooking is almost back-to-front from the way I learned to cook in Scotland.

I learned through cooking at home long ago that meat is first browned off, then diced carrots and onions or whatever are added, and all are cooked together immersed in liquid stock before the finished stew is thickened and seasoned pretty much at the last minute, with a traditional mix of cornflour and Bisto to give the gravy that glossy rich brown colour. Stew is often served with boiled potatoes and peas and/ or other garden-grown veg.

Cajun stews, however, are thickened from the start, and vary from being sticky butterscotch to treacle coloured, depending on the darkness of the roux used, which in turn is dependent on the meat used – for example shrimp stew needs a light roux, whereas alligator (not that I’ve tried it!) can apparently take a very dark roux. The rich flavour and seasoning is always cooked in from the very beginning, too, and the resulting stews are usually served with boiled rice, and perhaps with sweetcorn or field peas or white beans.

Cajun seasoning tends to be a blend of many things – a locally-made blend we picked up in Pierre Part when we last visited contains sea salt, red pepper, granulated garlic, paprika, black pepper, and granulated onion – but the Brand names I see used most frequently are Tony Cachere’s Original Creole Seasoning (known simply as ‘Tony’s’), and Zatarain’s crab boil and fish fry.

‘First, Make a Roux…’

I’m originally from the Highlands of Scotland, my husband is from the swamps of Louisiana, and we live together in the world’s melting-pot that is London, so between us we have access to a veritable smorgasbord of cultural cuisine.

I love the alchemy that is cooking – love everything about it, sourcing ingredients, preparing them, putting them together in various ways and (hopefully) conjuring something delicious out of it all at the end of the process. So inevitably, the prospect of learning all about real Cajun cooking from my in-laws was just too good a chance for me to pass up.

Even the names of all those traditional Cajun dishes – Jambalaya, Shrimp Etouffee, Turtle Sauce Piquant, Red Beans and Rice, Gumbo – sounded truly exotic to a Scots lass brought up on a rather plain but wholesome diet of mince and tatties and the like. So I watched, and I did learn after a fashion, and thought it might be fun to share some of those learning experiences here…

Cajun Cooking Lesson One: ‘First, make a roux…’

All good Cajun recipes seem to start with this same basic instruction. Ok, I thought – that’s going to be some kind of paste made with grease and flour and cooked out – how hard can that be? I’ve spent a lifetime making a basic creamy white sauce with butter, flour, milk and seasoning, surely it can’t be that different? In a way I was right, but in another way I’ve found there’s a whole world of a difference between the two.

Making a pale and delicate white sauce requires a truly light and subtle touch and the shortest of cooking times; here less is more. The initial buttery-yellow paste needs to be stirred continuously and thinned out almost immediately, with the addition of more and more milk while it thickens smoothly as the flour cooks out and the sauce reaches the right consistency. All that is left is to season to taste, et voila, c’est magnifique, bon appetit!

In Cajun cooking, making a far more robust roux – from lightest to darkest – requires a paste of hot oil and flour being carefully cooked out while continually stirring for as long as it takes for it to reach a pale-to-dark caramel colour with a distinctive nutty burnished aroma. For me this takes a good ten minutes or so at least, and only at that point is any liquid added to stop the basic roux darkening any further, and allowing for the rest of the cooking process to be continued. The basic rule is, the darker the roux, the richer the flavour; here more is more.

After an initial period of trial and error, I finally succeeded in the art of making a light to medium roux – yippee! The tricky bit for me seems to be getting the initial temperature of the heat-source right – too low and the roux will not darken and thicken quickly enough, but keep the heat too high and it burns all too easily, carbonises instead of caramelises, smelling acrid and turning blackened and gritty in the blink of an eye. Burned roux – and it definitely lets you know it’s burned – is forever spoiled, and sadly there is nothing left to be done with it but start all over again.

On the topic of burned roux, unfortunately I have to report that however pleased I am to have passed muster with a light- to-medium roux, succeeding in making a dark roux is another matter entirely. My brother-in-law is an absolute roux-master, his dark rich gumbos a firm favourite in the family. The basic process here is exactly the same, but the time it takes to achieve the darkest treacle-toffee colour and deepest nutty aroma is so much longer. It requires a level of patience and skill that right now it seems is beyond me.

However hard I try, I just can’t seem to catch the beautifully darkening roux just at the point of turning, but before the point of burning – I either tend to play it safe and stop too soon, or subconsciously want it to work so much I jinx it, and before I know it, it’s spoiled, time and time again.

I realise it’s something I need to work out for myself eventually, experimenting variously with more or less fire, quicker or slower stirring, judging by sound or smell, until I finally find myself catching that turning-but-not-burning point with ease. But until that time comes, I guess I’ll just have to keep on trying – practice makes perfect. And try I will, because I refuse to be beaten by something as simple as a couple of spoonsful of grease and flour and a variable bit of heat… 🙂

PS My mother-in-law has since shown me how to make roux in the microwave – beautifully quick and so much easier – but I still want to be able to do it the old-fashioned way, just so I know I can!

Share Your World: 2015 – Week 31

It’s been quite a while since I joined in with Share Your World, so here goes:-

Would you rather take pictures or be in pictures?

Take pictures, definitely – but I’m trying to learn to be a bit more easy-going about being photographed, because I need to learn to accept myself as I am, whether I like it or not. I even posted a self-portrait last week, which I’m really pleased about – pleased that I posted it, I mean, not necessarily pleased with how I look in it.

Where do you like to vacation?

My family live in the North of Scotland, my husband’s in Louisiana’s Deep South, and we live together in London, so one way or another our holidays are mainly spent visiting family. But when we do occasionally get away for a few days here and there, we either like to take a city break in Brussels or Paris, because taking the Eurostar is so easy, or visit Brighton on the South Coast, because we love spending time by the sea.

If you had to describe your day as a traffic sign, what would it be?

sign-post-no-entryHmmm… I frequently feel like this particular set of traffic signs I pass every day on my way to work represent the story of my life – they tell me no entry straight ahead (even though that’s the way that makes most sense to me), because the rules say I have to go this way instead, following the rest of the crowd, fitting in with the recognised system, basically doing what I am told and not making a fuss… sigh!

List at least five favourite first names?

Actually I find this question surprisingly difficult, because you’d think I’d go straight away for the names of my children – although to be fair, because both parents (where applicable) tend to have a say in naming a child, the final choice of name for each baby is often a compromise in that it is a name you both like, but not necessarily a favourite of either. Anyway, personally I’ve always liked Rachel, Ruby, Rose, Elinor, and Erin for girls, and Noah, Marcus, Finn, Joshua and Ewan for boys.

What are you grateful for from last week, and what are you looking forward to in the week coming up?

I’m historically good at avoiding this same bonus question every week, because much of what I’m grateful for or looking forward to revolves around family-centred issues, which I tend to keep away from discussing on such a public blog.

But right now I’m very grateful for the continued progress of my youngest daughter’s third pregnancy, now nearing full-term but not without a few complications along the way, and so am looking forward hopefully to the safe delivery of my fifth beloved grandchild at some point in the not-too-distant future… 🙂

Everything will be alright…

When my three beautiful children were small, I could generally solve their problems for them. When they were hungry, I fed them. When they were tired, I soothed them to sleep. When they needed a hug, I held them close, told them I loved them and promised them that everything would be alright. And with that naturally-given parental reassurance they felt comforted and secure, as did I.

Now they are all adults, two with growing families of their own, it’s just not that simple. Their very grown-up problems are no longer so easy to deal with; my thirty-something offspring are all decidedly in charge of their own destiny and it is no longer my call to try to solve all of life’s ills for them. But thankfully there are still times when all they want is a reassuring hug, for me to tell them not to worry, to soothe them with that old parental promise that everything will be alright because I love them and I won’t let anything bad happen to them.

We all know deep down I can’t realistically do anything more than give unending emotional support and encourage them always to do the best they can in life with whatever hand they are dealt. But nevertheless I love feeling that old mutual reassurance that comes from knowing that however old we all get, however complicated our lives become, at heart I’ll still always be their mum… ❤

21 Things That Make Me Happy…

Suzie from Suzie81speaks has today posted a list of 21 things that make her happy – what a lovely idea, so I thought I’d do the same.

As ever I’ve got a lot going on in my life right now, some good, some bad, some big, some small, including several ongoing complicated issues not easily resolved.

But whatever else is going on in life I realise there are always things to be thankful for, so here is my list of 21 things that make me happy, spilled out onto the page in the weird and wonderful order they came to me…

1. To be alive… I’ve suffered from depression on and off throughout my life, but having survived an overdose at the age of 24, I can honestly say I’m just glad to be alive, to feel everything there is to feel, to embrace it all and remember how lucky I am to still be here…

2. To have a family to love, who love me too… we’ve had our ups and downs over the years, but I’d still far rather have my family than not…

3. To have good friends… friends are different from family, but equally as important. Of course, the best people can count as both, with one foot in each camp…

4. To be married to my best friend… even though we’ll only be celebrating our third wedding anniversary this year, we’ve been together as a couple for 15 years, and friends for 42 (since I was 10 and he was 12)…

5. To be growing older… sometimes I look in the mirror and feel old in a bad way, with my saggy flesh and greying hair and wrinkling skin and hooded eyes. But then I think of friends and family who died so much younger than expected, and I remember that growing old is a privilege denied to many…

6. To still have all five senses… to be able see, hear, smell, touch, taste life and all it has to offer – because I’ve always had them I can sometimes take them for granted, so it’s good to remind myself of that from time to time…

7. Hugs… it’s probably the one thing you can’t give yourself, a hug, which to me makes them so much more special…

8. Reading… a love of words has always been a large part of my life, I inhale the words of others as naturally as breathing…

9. Writing… to be able to express myself clearly helps me understand myself better, lets me exhale my own thoughts out into the world…

10. Photography… I love making photographs as well as taking them, expressing myself in images as well as words…

11. Blogging… my blog is my own space to be me, and I love it…

12. Cooking… cooking for me is a kind of alchemy, taking the individual elements – ingredients – and turning them into compounds of something else. And I also enjoy the comforting repetition of chopping, whisking, sieving, or whatever the particular action may be…

13. Chocolate… I eat way too much of it, but I do love it…

14. Walking… there’s just something about consciously putting one foot in front of the other and moving myself along under my own steam that just never fails to lift my spirits…

15. Trees… particularly old trees. I love their age, and the fact that they grow from the inside out so that the tree surface you touch has been there throughout its entire history – it makes me wonder who else has touched that same spot over the years…

16. The beauty of nature… it’s just breath-taking, and I never tire of looking at it, photographing it, walking in it, just being in it…

17. Beaches… liminal spaces draw me in, those thresholds that are neither fully one thing nor the other – beaches are neither land nor sea but are also both all at the same time, and I find them magical spaces…

18. The smell of sea air… perhaps because I grew up on the coast (and being a small island we have a lot of coast here in the UK) I just love the blustery ozone smell of sea air…

19. The smell of babies heads… it maybe sounds weird, but most parents I know agree with me on this one…

20. Human reproduction… not just the sex part – although that makes me happy too – but the physical growing inside you and pushing out of a new human being that is half you and half somebody else is just an amazing feat of nature…

21. Curiosity… I was going to write learning, as I like to know new stuff about lots of things, but I realise that behind my insatiable desire to learn is the curiosity that makes me want to find out about new things in the first place… 🙂

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Symbol – Take II

My mum had been an art teacher before getting married, and many of my early childhood memories revolve around the comforting but pervasive smell of oil paint and turpentine – there was usually at least one someone or something being painted somewhere in the house, usually done in the kitchen with it’s linoleum flooring, presumably in case of errant paint splashes.

This portrait of me was painted in oils when I was seven years old, and I remember sitting for it, putting on my best yellow party dress for each session, sitting quietly on the kitchen stool, being thoughtful and still while mum daubed and dabbed, concentrating on me, then on the painting, then on me, then back to the painting, until she was happy with its progress for that day, when she would wipe her brushes on a crusty old rag and clear her painting stuff away until the next time.

portrait-painted

People often wonder why I look so sad in it, but I don’t remember feeling particularly sad or happy – this is simply my natural expression. I may be looking a bit moody or sulky but I wasn’t feeling anything much at all at the time other than just being internally ‘me’…

It was (and still is) normal to smile for everyday photographs – simple memories snapped in an instant. We’re all so used to seeing past pictorial representations of ourselves capturing a momentary smile pasted on for posterity (say cheese!) as if that fleeting smile encapsulates the whole reality of our existence.

But I feel that a portrait painted over several live sittings in real time can in many ways capture far more of the hidden essence of the real underlying you. Sitting for a portrait makes it so much harder to wear a fixed mask, to keep up a make-believe illusory representation of yourself, day after day and time after time.

So when I look at this painting of a seven-year-old girl done so many years ago, I see a glimpse of the real me of my childhood memory – quiet, introspective, deep – rather than the surface-smiley-faced girl of so many family snapshots. I see behind my blue eyes the silent potential for the ongoing depression that has dogged me for so many years. Faded and dated it may now be, but this portrait remains for me a poignant symbol both of the young girl that I once was, and the grown woman I have since become…

Weekly Photo Challenge: Symbol