For Starters

Recipe first, story after. This recipe nearly drove me to madness, so please be warned.  If you have a weakness for dairy fat, this may push you over the edge. New Year’s Resolutions will be broken.

 Oh sweet temptation

Baked Spinach

(adapted from the Steamy Kitchen recipe)

Makes two ramekins

450 g frozen chopped spinach, defrosted

1 small onion, finely chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg (freshly grated if you have)

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper powder

225g mascarpone cheese, softened at room temperature

120 g grated parmesan cheese

1. Preheat the oven to 350F. 

2. Take a handful of the defrosted spinach and squeeze and discard the water from the spinach. Squeeze as much of the water out as you can. 

3. Heat a frying pan over medium heat. When hot, add the olive oil and swirl to coat. Add the onions and saute until soft and translucent, about 4-5 minutes (take your time, if you do this over high heat, the onions will burn and become bitter). Add the spinach and saute until the spinach is warm, but still bright green (about 30 seconds.)

4. Season and stir in the salt, pepper, nutmeg and cayenne. Turn off the heat and stir in the mascarpone cheese and the grated parmesan. 

5. Pour into 2 small ramekins (or other oven-safe dish) and bake for 30 minutes until the cheese is bubbling around the edges. Serve warm with pita bread or celery sticks if you’ve stuck to your new years resolutions.

 Right so food over – procrastination time:

Have you seen Julie & Julia by Julie Powell?  For those who are as behind as me; the book and subsequent film adaptation are about Julie Powell’s attempt to cook the 524 recipes of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, in one year.  She created a blog to document the Project as it went along. She shares her tiny New York apartment with three cats, one husband and no money.  She is also semi-alcoholic, quite mad and absolutely loathes her secretarial temping job.

I came to the book backwards, having first read an article in The Sunday Times about her second book Cleaving.  The cover of the magazine had an ominous picture of Powell holding an enormous cleaver over a hunk of flesh. She wasn’t smiling, and she looked vaguely terrifying.  The article seemed to reinforce this idea.  It emerged that she had recently had an affair with an old school friend, had quit her loathed secretarial job and embarked on an apprentice as a butcher.  She hated women who asked for skinless, boneless chicken breasts. 

The next day I clicked on her blog.  The latest post talked about how Julia Child hated the blog, the book and basically anything Julie touched.  I felt strangely sad for Powell, even though the article hadn’t left a very positive mark.

So then I come to the book, which I got for Christmas.  I read it through.   Say what you like about Julie, she is unputdownable:  infuriating and terrifying and hilarious.  I recognized a kindred sprit – flailing round the kitchen drunk and tired and dirty, grimly hoping it will all turn out okay – and was repulsed in equal measure.  Repulsed I think partly because of her honesty.  Non-fiction is always a little uncomfortable.

The book it reminded me of (in being it’s complete opposite), is A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenburg, which is also a book from a blog in keeping with the Internet-sandpit approach the publishers favour nowadays.  

In fact, her tagline is  “Life itself is the proper binge” – Julia Child, so maybe the connection isn’t quite so random. 

Molly’s book is gentle, sweet and lovely. She finds vintage champagne glasses with her devoted boyfriend, and cooks with produce from  farmers markets.  She loves salad.  Her instructions at the beginning of the book are  gently militant about reading recipes before you start and cleaning up as you go.  By contrast, Julie shops in random Korean corner stores, rarely reads a recipe before she starts and cooks knee deep in dirty dishes, sauce splashes and cat hair.  All of the dishes involve  industrial quantities of butter. 

Although Julie is cooking for a vast and challenging project,  clearly this is the way she lives her life.  Teetering on the edge of control.  Obsessed with some Grand Endeavour. Molly on the other hand, seems serenely organised, pretty and clean, happily pedestrian.  Yes she licks cream cheese off her fingers late at night, I’m sure.  But I doubt she would find herself at work sniffing a suspicious bad smell, coming from herself and wondering whether its Burger King special sauce, as Julie does one day.

I swing between Molly and Julie, depending on the time of day, where I am. How hungry I’m feeling. But on Wednesday I was Julia all the way.  On not much more than a whim and a hint of insanity, I knew that I needed to cook Baked Spinach.

This recipe involved many ingredients that I just knew London’s corner shops would not sell. I found parmesan and frozen spinach fine.  The spices I had.  Mascarpone  was extremely elusive.  I rang my local Costcutter (just how worrying is that sentence), where they had no idea what mascarpone was.  A local, very posh expensive food shop promised they had it and that it would be open until 6pm.  I got out of work early and raced for the bus, which didn’t come for ages.  I then got off two stops too early.  I ran clattering through the rain to The Posh Shop, got there panting and crazed at 10 to 6 to see a very closed and deserted shop.  (I should mention at this point that it was lashing freezing rain.)

I could admit defeat, wait for the bus and catch it the short distance home.  Or I could walk back (about 20 minutes) and try every single Off License and corner shop in the extremely unlikely event that one bit just have mascarpone.

Of course, I walked. To those who aren’t familiar with the London Off License; they are often narrow, very brightly lit, with loud Arabic television watched by one or more surly men.  Some are very helpful.  Most aren’t.   None had mascasrpone.   Finally, bedraggled and almost hopeless, I waded into Costcutter.  It had mascarpone. Lots and lots of tubs of it.  I picked it ran to the till and giddly shouted at the man at the till “You DID have it”.  Needless to say he had absolutely no idea what I was talking about, and  started talking softly to his colleague in Urdu.

Nonetheless, I was joyous.  I stepped outside and bumped into P. I had texted him to ask him to go out and find me mascarpone.  Sensibly, he had refused.  He will help, up to a limit, with these crazed food adventures of mine.  But finding thick butter cream on a freezing day with no actual need, indeed when he was not even going to eat it, was beyond his reserves.  Anyway I came out, saw him and waved the tub in the air wailing, giggling and generally acting mental.  He patiently listened to my story of woe, and then gently asked if I was OK.  I realised when I got home and saw mascara running down my face, wet frizzy hair all over the place and a glint of mania in my eye, how worried he might have been. 

I then made this bloody baked spinach thing, which was amazing by the way.  While munching through it, resolutions crashing around me, I settled to read Julie & Julia, and realised how much Julie and I had in common.


Today Paul met me after work. It’s such a lovely thing to be met after work. We walked towards Liverpool Street station, dodging those people that give out free papers and talking about our days (Work?! The time has come,” the Walrus said /”To talk of other things”). It was a fantastic London evening; St Paul’s and the Bank of England provided a dramatic backdrop to our mundane banter.

We were almost past it before we saw it; a restuarant board advertising 6 oysters for £5.  The board told us this was to celebrate the start of oyster season.  We both have a soft spot for oysters. For me their salty whiff of glamour has not been tarnished by over-consumption.  For Paul, they are a relatively new addition to his diet.  He describes his attitude to food as “risk adverse.” I don’t think there is anything more risky than trying an oyster for the first time. Cold, wet, slimy, expensive, resembling the aftermath of a particularly violent sneeze; they are an acquired taste.

Oh, yes, the time has come, my little friends     To talk of food and things

Oh, yes, the time has come, my little friends / To talk of food and things

Well, we certainly have acquired one.  We slipped shyly inside this City restaurant, hardly believing it could be true. 6 for a fiver! Amazing.  We ordered 6 each (on my insistence) and slurped them down with lemon juice and green Tabasco splashed on. The best thing was (apart from the price) these oysters had come from Maldon, Essex. For a morbid moment, I imagined them tottering to London, white stilettos and all, before being devoured by a modern day Walrus and Carpenter.

I, uh, weep for you. I (hic), oh excuse me  I deeply sympathise

I, uh, weep for you. I (hic), oh excuse me / I deeply sympathise

To enjoy these cheap Essex oysters head to Gow’s Restaurant & Oyster Bar.

DeboraJane 230809

Let me explain:

I am not a gourmet, and my poor housemates at university who once ate blue cabbage and frozen pork chops will agree: I am not always a great cook. Despite living in the same city as celebrity chefs and food critics, I just muddle along pretty averagely I suppose.

But I have always enjoyed cooking and eating.

Growing up, I’d occasionally boss my mum out of the kitchen and blend strange soups, cakes that went flat in the middle, and tofu stir-frys for my protein-shaking rugbyplaying brother. I had my vegetarian phase (boy-related and unsuccessful) and my secret teenage eating ‘problems’.

University was fairly uneventful food-wise, apart from some exotic meals travelling in the Far East, and the blue cabbage incident. But since leaving university and moving to the ‘Great Oven’ of London, and especially since moving into my little flat in Hackney with Paul, I’ve really started to love food.

I’ve stopped buying ready meals and started reading food blogs. I’ve been dazed and delighted by the cheapskate cafés on our doorstep. I plan meals. I dash from Vietnamese to Turkish with barely time for digestion.

In East London there are markets every weekend, and I cycle pass Smithfield butchers on the way to work. There are fancy establishments I never dreamed I would visit and more, more, more. Second helpings until I burst.

DeboraJane is a record of my culinary adventures. It is my way of pickling experience, or preserving things. Like making jam or salting mackerels.  (Not things I have tried yet.)

Mostly set in an ex-council flat in East London, the main characters will be two twentysomething graduates: we are poor, hardworking, and hungry. I hope our friends and family, and maybe more people too, will enjoy reading about what we get up to.

Bon appetite!