20 Nov 2015

Roast Chicken For Your Soul

When I am sad, and stressed, and wrung out like a filthy bit of kitchen rag, I make roast chicken. I made it yesterday when Jimmy came out of hospital. I made it on the first day Tom went back to work after the baby was born. I make it on Mondays, when everything sucks. I make it on Sundays, when everything will suck. I make it on Tuesdays because nobody likes Tuesdays. Tuesday feels like the entire week has risen up in front of you, defiant.. I make it because my children will clear their plates and I feel like I've done something right for once. I make it for no reason other than it tastes good and I feel better for creating something so quintessentially domestic.

My mother taught me to make a roast dinner, but she would spurn this as incomplete. Many people would.  Where is the bread sauce, the stuffing, the cauliflower cheese, the carrots, the mash, the proper roasties? BISTO GRAVY? Heathen. You can add all those things and more, and I do when the mood takes me, but this is not for then. This is for comfort; not the stress of a thousand things in the oven at once, of mashing, and mixing, and burning hot fat sploshing all over the place. This is the easy base from which all else can rise. This is for days when chopping things up is about all you can manage. And the washing up isn't too evil either. 

You will need a chicken, a lemon, some butter, some waxy potatoes, some garlic, some dried rosemary, some salt, some green vegetable and Bisto.

First, get your chicken. I would rather eat good chicken once a month than shit chicken every week, so I buy a free range one from a supermarket. It costs about twice what a battery chicken does, and it's not guaranteed to be twice as ethical, or even twice as tasty, but there is nothing more depressing than some poor pale creature that has lived out its six weeks of life up to its eyeballs in shit, crammed into a tiny space. If you are minted, buy an organic chicken. But try free range as a minimum. 
If you get your chicken from the supermarket, it will have the cooking time in minutes on the front of the packaging, if you cook it at 180 degrees. Note this. If you don't, there are sundry guides to cooking times on the internet. Preheat your oven. 
Get a roasting pan. I have two medium sized ones that are differently shaped, to accommodate chickens which are fatter or longer. Put a massive sheet of baking parchment in the bottom of the pan. This serves two purposes - it collects the juice, and it stops the chicken sticking to the bottom of the pan, which is a shitter to wash up.
Put the chicken in the baking parchmented-pan. Cut the string tying its little legs together, and untuck them from the cavity. The legs will spring open, like a birthing woman. Leave them there.
Get some salted butter. Cut a chunk off - how much depends on how sad you are - and blast it for five seconds in the microwave. Take it  into your paw and smear it about your chicken. All over the breast, the legs, the wings, the weird bits between the legs and breast. Wash your hands before you absent-mindedly wipe them on your jeans.
Take the lemon. Cut the lemon in half. Don't spray yourself in the eye as you do this. Take one half of the lemon and squeeze it all over your buttery beast. When that half is well emptied, shove it up the chicken's arse. Yes, you read that correctly. Keep the other juicy half; you'll need it later.
Sprinkle a little salt over the breast. I use a small amount of sea salt for this, because it makes the skin taste even more delicious. Saxa table salt is fine though.Don't overdo it.
Remember the cooking time for the bird? Stick your bird, uncovered, in the oven, and note (mentally or on your phone or on paper or whatever) what time it will be finished, and when it will be an hour from finished. 

Go do something else for a bit. A bath. A read. The telly. After half an hour, the house will begin to smell of chickeny goodness, and you will get hungry. 

About an hour before your chicken will be ready, get an ovenproof dish out, the sort you do pasta bake or cottage pie in. Get your waxy potatoes. I use Charlotte ones. They're a quid a bag from Tesco, but use whatever you like. Guess how many you might like to eat - we will generally eat a whole kilo between two of us. Adjust for numbers and greed. Chop them up. Doesn't matter how. I take the ends off, then slice them into rounds. Sometimes I do them as chunks, which tend to crisp up a bit better in the oven. However you do them, they need to be not-too-thin. Too thin makes the equivalent of crisps, and that is not what you want right now. Too thick and they don't quite cook through. Between a penny and a pound in thickness. When they are chopped, put them in the ovenproof dish. Slosh some olive oil over them. Squeeze the other half of the lemon over them. Sprinkle a little rosemary over; not too much or you'll just taste rosemary. Crush some garlic. How much garlic? How much do you like? One to two cloves gives a pleasant waft to the thing. Five gives a punch. Add that to the dish - I use a garlic crusher because then it melts into the potatoes and you don't get the nasty crunch of an unexpected slice. Add a good sprinkle of salt. Then mix it all up with your hands. Make sure each potato piece gets a bit oiled. If you think it's too wet, drain a little liquid into the sink. If you think it's too dry, add a little more oil. Cut the juiced lemon half into half again. It will be all sad and squidgy and dead, but it gives such life to the dish. Chuck it in. 

Put the dish in the oven. It will take between 45 and 60 minutes to cook, which should align with your chicken being cooked. Give them a stir if you think they're burning, but I always forget to check them, and they never do. Your hands will smell so good, you will want to eat them. Don't eat them. Wash them before you wipe them on your jeans. 

You have an hour-ish to kill. Go and do something relaxing. My god, your house smells amazing now, doesn't it?

I don't know what green vegetable you like. I tend to cook broccoli, green beans, peas, asparagus in season, or a mix of all of them. If you want them to be ready at the same time as the chicken, you'll need to be ready to cook them around 15 minutes before the chicken is done, but the nice thing about this is that unless you get stuck on the phone to someone or fall asleep or have an asthma attack, an extra ten or so minutes in the oven won't hurt. 

Is your chicken ready? You can skewer it to check - in the deepest part of the thigh, shove something sharp and then observe the juices that bubble forth. If they're clear, you're good. If they're pinkish, give it another five to ten minutes. I tend to trust the supermarket, and don't check. I deserve food poisoning. If your chicken is ready, remove it with a flourish, close the oven door and turn it off - you can leave the potatoes in there for a bit, they won't spoil. 
This chicken had twenty minutes longer than it should have, thanks to screaming children. Still tasted amazing. 

Leave your chicken on the side for a moment while you put a load of Bisto into a bowl. How much Bisto? I don't know. I like my gravy ludicrously thick, so I put in a fair bit. I don't think Bisto is really an exact science. 
To get your chicken from pan to plate is not necessary if you feel like just ripping the chicken off the carcass and shoving it into your face, and this chicken is so good, I wouldn't blame you at all. But I move mine out of the pan and onto a plate using a big spoon and a fish slice. I take the lemon out of the cavity, put the spoon in the cavity, and then use the fish slice to lift it from the pan onto the plate. Truly, I am an elegant genius. Should you drop your chicken on the floor...pick it up with a tea towel. You won't though. If I, clumsiest of women, can do this, so can you. You can put a foil tent over it if you don't think everything else will be ready for ages, but a cooler chicken is much easier to attack with hands and knife. 

You should now have a pan of delicious chicken juice and buttery lemonyness. Put some into your dry bowl of Bisto. No water yet, just juices and Bisto. It will look deeply unappetising and nothing like gravy. Fear not.
Mmm, slurry au Bisto avec jus de poulet!

Boil the kettle. While it boils, drain your veg and take the potatoes out of the oven.Give the potatoes a bit of a prod, to check they're cooked. They should YIELD. I love that word - yield. Give way. Fall to the sword that is the point of your little knife.

Your chicken should be covered in a golden skin, with speckles of crusty salt and generally look and smell beautiful. So beautiful it may be difficult to come to terms with the necessary carving. Do yourself a favour: rip some chicken skin off and eat it. Eat some more. Stab any wandering hands trying to steal your chicken skin with a fork. This is the definitive cook's perk. By the time you've eaten the skin, you should have a beautiful white breast looking up at you with a bone running down the centre. Put a sharp knife down either side of this bone. This parts the breast off the skeleton of the bird, making it far easier to carve. Men like carving on the bone, all knives and dead beast. I do not. Should this technique fail you, rip it off any which way you can. It all goes down the same way. 

Plate up. Chicken, potatoes, veg. Now pour just enough boiling water into your chickeny Bisto slurry to turn it into the consistency you want. In our house, that's basically meaty custard. Stir it vigorously with a fork. Pour it over your chicken, potatoes and veg. Eat it. Eat it all. Wonder why you ever feared roasting a chicken. It tastes good. It tastes safe, and comforting, warm and homely. It is balm. And you made it all by yourself. 

I have a confession. This chicken dinner didn't have gravy, I just lobbed some pan juices over it at the end because I was tired. And I made Ellabell Risbridger's amazing garlic kale instead of plain greens, but god it was good. It is always good. 

Leftover chicken mixed with mayonnaise and mango chutney make the best sandwiches I have ever had the pleasure of eating. You can also use them to make some sort of stir-in-sauce meal the next day. The leftover carcass, boiled in plain water for a few hours, makes the most delicious jelly of a stock. A chicken is a useful thing. But firstly, you get this meal, and that is always worth the effort. 

With thanks to Nigella Lawson's roast chicken in How To Eat, which is a must-read for food lovers, even if you have no idea how the oven goes on. 

19 Nov 2015

Love Your NHS

I am not afraid of hospitals. In fact, they are almost a second home. The NHS has saved my life twice, mended me in various small ways since then, and also seen my three boys safely into the world. I worked for the NHS for eight years, in various administrative and minor healthcare roles. My degree's mainly focused on healthcare delivery. The NHS has been my lifeline, employer, coworker, chief educator, and friend.
I get exasperated by the NHS. Sometimes, I get thoroughly pissed off with it. But mainly, I adore it and think it's the greatest thing our country does.

My eldest boy, Jim, had his second ever surgery yesterday; a reasonably routine hernia repair. The hospital were completely amazing. Once admitted, the play therapist was on hand to run through the preop procedures with him, and then went off to find him colouring to do to distract him from his raging hunger and anxiety. His nurse then found him a portable TV to watch The Lego Movie on as his surgery was delayed for several hours, and a starving autistic kid does not a happy patient make. We were left alone to watch it, and as it finished, the orderly came to warn us it was almost time. The same orderly made going to the theatres fun, and held an ipad with Angry Birds up to Jim's face while he was cannulated and put under, so he would keep still. He then explained where to go, how long it would be, and gave me a pager to summon me at the end. The recovery nurses explained why he was in so much distress, answered my slightly-too-clinical-for-a-parent questions, and calmly gave him extra pain relief. One of the students made him four rounds of toast, which he declared the greatest thing he'd ever eaten. The handover to the main ward was smooth, and everyone was happy to wait long enough for Tom to come back with some food for me, and to let him stay with us until we were all ready for sleep. They turned a blind eye to me keeping Alex on the ward with us on account of breastfeeding. A HCA took Jim's cannula out this morning and he didn't even wince. Everyone asked us constantly if we were ok, if we needed anything, if everything was OK. And it was immensely, enormously reassuring in the circumstances.
And that's 'just' the nursing and support staff. The surgeon, anaesthetist and various registrars and house officers we saw were equally amazing. They took the time to ask if we had questions, to listen to those questions, and answer them. They had god-knows-how-many patients to cover, but they didn't seem rushed.
Doing anything out of the ordinary with Jimmy can be difficult and stressful, but this was astonishingly easy. Exhausting, and emotional for me, but not harder than it needed to be, mainly because the staff were so wonderful. The day was fairly standard, a child admission, a routine procedure, their daily bread, nothing unusual or exciting here. They could have been blasé about it. They could have been dismissive of our fears. They weren't, not once. We felt safe. We felt reassured. We felt OK about something parents generally find very difficult to be OK about.

I support the junior doctors strike absolutely. I would support a strike if every single clinician in the NHS was involved, because the NHS is the greatest thing we have, and the government seems absolutely intent on destroying it, through a carefully considered strategy of underfunding care and undermining clinicians.
Fight it. Support your healthcare network. Love your NHS.
Image via telegraph.co.uk

15 Nov 2015

National Bigot Day

You don't need me to tell you how fucking indefensible the Paris atrocity is. Equally, you shouldn't need me to tell you that not all Muslim, immigrants and refugees are terrorists. Frankly, if you honestly cannot get your head round the fact that IS are to Muslims as Hitler was to Christians, and Stalin to atheists, then I don't want to be friends.

Because it's that merry time of year once more, when all your friends who you thought were reasonably rational, intelligent people out themselves as right wing bigots. Now, as any fool knows, for the average bigot, being CALLED bigoted is far more offensive than ACTUALLY BEING BIGOTED. The statuses abound with people stating a really nasty opinion ("Fucking Muslims should all be shot! Refugees are really terrorists! Close the borders or they'll come over here AND KILL US!"), being called out on it, and then getting upset and claiming it's their opinion and they have a right to state it.

And, my right leaning friends, you do. You have EVERY right to state it. One of the greatest aspects of Western society is freedom of speech.
However, that doesn't mean everyone has to agree with you. It doesn't mean you're right; factually, morally or ethically. It doesn't mean you shouldn't expect to have to defend that opinion. It doesn't mean everyone else has to listen to it without right to reply.

And people arguing with your opinion is not an attack on your right to free speech either. An argument on facebook is not akin to being flogged for a blog, or shot for wanting an education. It is literally people disagreeing with you, for a good reason, and you not being able to deal with that.

Over a hundred people going about their daily lives got killed for nothing on Friday night. They hadn't done anything to deserve it. They didn't know they were going to die. They were at a gig, out for dinner, having a walk, normal weekend activities. And now they're dead.
They're dead because a viciously bigoted organisation believe that there is only one right way to live, and anyone who doesn't subscribe to their viewpoint deserves to die. So as you weep over someone telling you why you're wrong on Facebook, remember that IS have taken that weeping and turned it into hate, into death, into control. They want you to hate all Muslims - it strengthens their us vs them message. They want you to view refugees with suspicion and alarm - they are the ones who drove them out in the first place. They want us to close our borders - it proves their point.

You are playing into their hands.

11 Nov 2015


If I start to think, then I will die.
That's how it starts, how it always starts. I think about what's to come, whether it is a party, an appointment or just seeing a friend. And I become convinced that way lies death. Or illness. Or disaster. That nothing can ever go right again in this world, because doom.
It is not rational. If it was rational, I would not be unwell. I would be normal.

It started when the baby was born. It started when I found out I was pregnant. It started when we decided to get pregnant. It started when I got knocked out. It started when Jimmy was diagnosed. It started with the divorce. It started when Jack was born. It started when he left. It started when Jimmy was born. It started when I bought the old house. It started when I lost a baby. It started when I left school. It started when I started grammar school. It started when I was at primary school.
I can't put a date on it. It's only recently that I've realised fear has haunted me since I was a child. But there is a chasm of difference between a child's fear of monsters, of bullies, of loss, and an adult's all consuming terror of the vagaries in life.

I am frightened of tiny things, like the buttons you use to call a lift, and the postman's knock. I am frightened of massive things, like cot death, and accidents, and horrible life changing illness. I have daily intrusive thoughts about bizarre things; whole hideous scenarios play out in my head and I live them in a little side room of my brain.I haven't had a panic attack in over a month, and this is a major achievement. I feel like I am getting better, although sometimes I have a blip. I am currently having a blip.

I decided a while ago, that talking about anxiety and fear was BOUND to make the things I feared most come true. I kept it all inside. I thought, believed, knew that if I told anyone what I was afraid of, or discussed things I was looking forward to, everything terrible would happen. And I made myself ill. My anxiety manifested as burning joint pains, as terrible headaches, as weakness and exhaustion, because I wouldn't let myself express it. Being pregnant changed that, because my terror of losing my baby was a real fear I could talk about, and channel all the extraneous fear into. It was a rational thing to worry about, although the fear paralysed me at the end, making me angry, agoraphobic and terrified.

I felt like I was destined to have postnatal depression after Alex was born because of the all consuming terror of his pregnancy, but instead I have postnatal anxiety. And that is a very different beast. I had PND after Jimmy was born, and all I wanted to do was die. Or run away. Mostly die. I didn't feel anything towards my baby, myself, or anyone. I didn't have the energy to do anything about it, and eventually it lifted. Postnatal anxiety is much easier in some respects, because I love my baby. I interact with him. I take immeasurable pleasure from what he does, and cuddles, and feeding. I am able to function reasonably well, to get work and chores done and to look after the big boys as well. But it taints everything. It is like a sad gauze I have draped gently over everything. My mind runs at a thousand miles an hour, trying to sort the rational from the irrational. I try to talk it out when it's particularly bad, because other people can tell me the difference between legitimate fear and crazy fear.

This blip has been triggered by incoming essay deadlines, a surgery date for Jimmy, an appointment for my eye, socialising, Christmas, breaking my laptop-that-isn't-technically-mine, Jimmy's DLA form, parents' evening, the dentist, and a hormone shift, which are all legitimate worries that mount into one giant elephant in the brain, sitting on the sensible bit, squashing it flat.

And it feels like horror. A tight chest, breathlessness, getting too hot, visualising everything awful, wanting to stop everything, paralysing fear, no concentration, feeling snappy, guilty, angry and hopeless.

And it sucks. But it's getting better.