The girl who wanted a remote control car

There was once a little girl who really, really wanted a remote control car.

Though her older brother allowed her to play with his car occasionally, she wanted one of her own. She wanted a red one with black stripes, and her name emblazoned on the driver’s door.

She was told that God answers prayers, and that God gives good little girls what they pray for. And so, she tried her best to be good and she prayed.

And then one day, a box arrived for her. She was so happy, convinced that it was her remote control car.

Imagine her disappointment when she tore open the wrapper and saw a box of Airfix car (though the box had mechanical parts and transistor batteries). It was a remote control car, but it had to be built. You might not be familiar, but Airfix was the common toy back in the seventies and eighties, where children have to assemble the planes, or tanks, or cars, from fiddly bits of plastic and glue.

The girl was disappointed. She was expecting a car that she could just take out of the box and flick the ‘on’ switch.

But the fact that her dream car came in humble pieces of plastic taught her a big lesson. That faith alone will not solve your problems, whatever the religion.

And if you are spiritual/agnostic/ not into religion, saying positive affirmations without the actual effort will not get you where you hope to arrive at or give you the good things you think you deserve. You only get what you want if you put in the elbow grease – prayers and positive affirmations do help, but only if you do the actual heavy lifting and sweat.

Photo: I saw this Airfix in an old-style toy shop in Sandown, Isle of Wight, last week.

For the love of fossils

I remember going fossil hunting with my parents. My father would carry a Stanley knife and a Tupperware in his rucksack, and we would sift through the stones on the beach or pick at the protruding face of the cliff. My mum, with a big smile on her face, would say, “You have to be on your knees for two hours before you find something.”

With the earnestness of youth, we would tread where my parents led, faithfully believing in the magic of our ‘finds’. My mum would say, “Imagine, Jack, you could be the first person to see this in hundred million years!”

On good days, we would find whole ammonites. They are creatures that were related to squids and octopuses you can see today, but they’re all extinct – they died out at the same time as dinosaurs. Trilobites were strange creatures, which were even older than ammonites (ammonites = 200 million years; trilobites = 400 million years). They are even more rare than ammonites. 

What we often found were the piece of rock containing a single shell of the bivalve Aviculopectin planoradiatus. Or belemnites, gastropods and fossilised plants.

I was perplexed that my friends scorned at my precious treasures. “They’re just bits of old shells!” My friends would scorn (but these are filled with old history).

Indeed. Pragmatically speaking, they are just little bits of something or other that no longer have relevance in today’s world. Yet my parents would invest hours each time teaching us to love these parts of a shell, a bone, a part of a forest when they world was still young. Would it not have been time better spent if these hundreds of hours were spent studying, learning a musical instrument, excelling in a sport? Instead, I learned the names of fossils and seaweeds, and committed them to my memory for life.

You would think so, but today, walking on the Jurassic Coast of my beloved southern England of my youth, I suddenly realised the true value of all those hours spent combing the beaches looking for insignificant pieces of antiquity. We looked at the exposed faces of the cliff and found so many treasures there – I was more excited than I would have been if I had been confronted with a shop full of designer gear.

I realised that my parents were teaching me how to fall in love with the world I live in, to celebrate meaningful little things rather than glorify flashy impermanent stuff, and most of all, to be in awe of mighty Mother Nature …. these fragments are the pieces that compile our heritage as human beings, custodians of the earth.  

PS. Look at this lump of rock below. My friend and I marvelled over it for ages. The evenly spaced grooves could be hewn out of the mechanical action of the sea over millions of years. Or it could be made by some prehistoric man’s tools.

Why we build forts

Fort-building is an important part of the Waldorf syllabus. Why, you might ask. We live in modern times and we live in modern houses, and we are so far removed from the lives of folks who need forts.

However, psychologists, along with educators in the field, have taken a keen interest in fort building, as this has a lot to do with creating safe spaces for children. New York’s City University’s environmental psychologist, Roger Hart, first noticed secret space building and its importance in the 1970s and specifically noted the psychological importance these places for children in terms of control and order.

I also think building forts grows that all-important sense of empowerment in a child – the adult world often appears beyond their control, and thus, to be able to build one’s own safe environment is empowering.

So I took my friend’s triplets fort-building in a medieval forest of Hampshire. 

We scouted the woods for the perfect location – we discussed the criteria. It has to be safe, it has to be accessible, it has to have enough space for cooking fire, etc. After wandering around the woods in ponderously amidst heated discussions, we chose a copse – because we liked the spot, but also because of the abundance of raw material from the coppicing. 

Now we have the raw materials. How do we stop a pile of wood from falling on each other?

Here, the ancient country ways came in useful. There is a particular methodology that is far more efficient than modern engineering – just look at the dry stone walls; Some dry stone wall constructions in north-west Europe have been dated back to the Neolithic Age. I used to watch these skilled artisans build dry stone walls in my relative’s estate and marvelled at the fact that these simplistic constructions will still be standing long after I am gone.

And so, we spent a magical day in the medieval forest building a den that looked like covens of long-ago witches. We sat inside our primitive den and felt its powerful vibes. But for me, the most important lesson for these three children is learning to use their hands to build the proverbial shelter. Because someday, they are going to be someone’s spouse, someone’s parent, and there is no higher expression of love than protecting and nurturing another being.

A very rich and moist chocolate (and Guinness) cake

I don’t like cakes and I don’t like sweets. But I love dark chocolate. And it’s hard to find chocolate cakes that are moist (instead of dry and crumbly) with that heavy, chocolatey taste. After some experimenting, here’s my recipe.

Note (important):

  1. DO NOT substitute Guinness for anything else (it’s OK for kids – cooking evaporates off the alcoholic content and Guinness is full of goodness anyway);
  2. DO NOT use cheap cocoa, which will give you an insipid, synthetic taste. This is what I used. I think it’s only £3 anyway:

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  • 130g unsalted butter
  • 110ml Guinness
  • 50g cocoa powder
  • 200g light brown sugar
  • 100ml whole milk
  • 2 large eggs
  • 175g plain flour
  • ¾ tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • tiny pinch of salt

Sieve the flour, salt and bicarbonate of soda together. Melt the butter over low heat. Stir in the Guinness and cocoa powder. When the mixture cools slightly, so as not to cook the eggs, stir in the other ingredients.

Mix throughly. Poured into a greased cake pan and bake in a preheated oven at 160-180 degrees, or until the fork comes out clean when poked into the cake.

You can see the texture….so good!

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Breakfast in bed – instructions for non-cooks

Breakfast in bed – cooked breakfast in bed – is such a treat.But what happens if you are the cook in your household, and no one else you live with can cook even the basics?

Here’s my tip: even children can manage to make this (under supervision of an adult, of course, who doesn’t have to know how to cook).

  1. Save an old milk carton. Wash and dry it properly.
  2. Put all the dry ingredients for the pancake batter into the milk carton the night before.
  3. All your non-cook then has to do the next morning is add in a cup of milk and an egg and half a tablespoon of butter, shake hard, and cook. There are surprisingly little lumps in the pancake.

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DRY INGREDIENTS FOR THE PANCAKE BATTER (enough for four fluffy pancakes):

  1. 120g flour
  2. 2 teaspoons baking powder
  3. 1 tablespoon sugar
  4. 1 pinch salt.

The next morning, add:

  1. 1 egg
  2. 1 cup milk (240ml)
  3. 2 tablespoon melted butter (or oil)

Screw the lid on the milk carton and shake HARD and vigorously to ensure that there are no lumps. Cook with a little butter in a pancake pan or ordinary pan over the stove (note: we bought a cheap pancake pan from Lakelands and it has been a good investment).

I was very impressed when my non-cook brought me this in bed this morning x

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Bouillabaisse

This recipe is from my friend Nico’s French cook, Madame LeFavre. Quite painstaking, I would say, but et voila, you get this achingly sophisticated and authentic French soup.

Step 1:

Boil together salmon bones or prawn skins (the more the better) in a pot of water, together with the peel of one large orange, peppercorns and a bay leaf.

In addition, I added 1 carrot and half an onion (for sweetness and heartiness), though Madame sniffed haughtily when I told her what I did.

Boil for a few hours, until you have a rich broth. Aim to end up with about 10 cupfuls of broth.

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Step 2:

To make the base, sweat 1 finely chopped onion, one leek and 1 fennel bulb in olive oil. Add 8 cloves of garlic. Cook until softened, then add 6 chopped tomatoes.

The herbs Madame uses are fresh thyme, fresh marjoram and saffron. I added some basil leaves.  Add a large pinch of cayenne pepper. Season generously with freshly ground pepper and coarse salt.  Add 1/2tsp brown sugar.

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When everything is mushy, add 2 generous glasses of full-bodied white wine. This is important, because it is the wine that gives the base its flavour. Don’t worry about the alcoholic content (which gets burned off) – French kids eat wine in food and they seem to do fine.

Simmer on very low heat for about 1-2 hours.

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Step 3:

Strain both the salmon broth and the base into a saucepan (combine both). You should have a thickish soup (as per main photo). If you like a thicker soup, add some of the mushy veggies that you used to make the base.

Into that soup, add mussels, clams, fish, anything you wish. Boil the seafood until cooked. Season to taste.

(I added deep fried salmon bits because I like crunchy fried salmon).

Serve piping hot with French baguette (of course). It may sound like a lot of hassle compared to my Englishwoman’s version, but I promise you, it’s worth it.

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I had the leftovers the following day, and it tasted even better.

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The store cupboard/freezer version:

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I made this during the COVID-19 lockdown, and I didn’t have white fish, prawns or clams: I just had frozen salmon in the freezer. I didn’t even have fresh tomatoes and used canned tomatoes. I added some frozen peas (!!!) and spring onions.  But it still tasted good, with a poached egg on top for variation!

Parmesan-crusted chicken cutlet and creamy potato gratin (and “free” lunch)

It’s a good time to go back to eating frugally these days, I think, and a fun challenge too. Because of the lockdown, we try to make do with what we have in the house, and this calls for ‘creative cooking’, namely making resources stretch and experimenting with substitution.

I am making parmesan and garlic chicken with lemon and butter sauce for dinner. And then it occurred to me that I could debone the chicken to make a wholesome soup out of chicken bones, to which I could add spinach leaves and pasta to make another meal out of.

Recipe for the chicken:

  1. Debone two chicken quarters.
  2. Mix 2 cloves of minced garlic in one lightly beaten egg. Season with salt and pepper.
  3. Marinade the chicken in the mixture for a few hours, better overnight.
  4. Mix half a cupful of flour with quarter a cupful of grated parmesan cheese.
  5. Coat the chicken in the mix.
  6. Fry in hot oil until the surface is slightly browned.
  7. Bake in oven for 30 minutes to cook the meat, and until the skin is crunchy.
  8. To make the sauce: saute 3 cloves of garlic in 6 tablespoons of butter. Add some chicken stock (about ¼ a cupful). Simmer for 10 minutes until the sauce achieves the right consistency and smells fragrant. Season to taste.
  9. Pour sauce over the chicken. Serve piping hot.

Recipe for the potato gratin:

  1. Peel, rinse and pat-dry potatoes. Slice the potatoes thinly. (I used about 1 kg)
  2. In a large pan, place the sliced potatoes, 1 clove of garlic, 4 fl oz of milk, 4 floz of double cream, salt, pepper and nutmeg in a pan.
  3. Simmer gently until the cream has thickened.
  4. Remove from heat. Stir in about 100g of grated cheddar or gruyere until the cheese melts.
  5. Butter an oven-safe dish. Transfer the potato mixture into the dish. Top with more cheese if you like.
  6. Bake until the top is golden brown and the potatoes soft.

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Recipe for the soup:

  1. Boil chicken bones with ginger, spring onions, carrots and whatever vegetables you have.
  2. Add a tablespoon of vinegar to extract the marrow.
  3. Boil for about a couple of hours.
  4. Season with salt and pepper at the end of cooking time. Add spinach.
  5. Cook the pasta separately and add to the soup (this goes better with smaller pasta but I didn’t have any at home).

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So good that I made it again a couple of days later.

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Waldorf way for adults

Since the youngest of my children left home, I have not thought much about the Waldorf way of living, a philosophy that I felt was very important when it comes to raising and educating children.

Until Woy.

He showed me endlessly that we must not stop believing in magic or stop cultivating a magical space for ourselves – adults need magic, too, and a sense of wonder, a connection to our past, and a desire to live joyously wherever we find ourselves.

I used to grow children, now I am his co-grower of plants. He grows things – anything! – cultivates discarded plants, germinates seeds, hums whilst he nurtures the green beings.

“Why do you bother taking cuttings?” I asked him. “You can buy these tiny cacti for about £2, and they never work, anyway.”

He answered. “Every morning when I wake up, I am excited to see how these babies are doing. That’s hope.”

I too have begun looking forward to checking the progress of his ‘babies’ every morning. We now have all sorts of things growing in our tiny patio, from flowers (that I love) to herbs, lettuce, celery, chilli, spring onions, and potatoes.  And that daily hope in Nature brings me closer to the world I live in. It opens my eyes to the more sublime wonders of the universe too, not just the spectacular shooting stars but dewdrops trapped in cobwebs, the birth of new birds, the microscopic pattern of fern spores. The present and the future, if you like, in the fingerprints of everyday living that we often remain blind to. Yet hope and wonder elevate existence into joyous living – for what is the purpose of life, without these twin beacons to guide us to our best selves?

Hope and wonder are good things to cultivate in human beings, but we also need a connection to our past, to keep us grounded, as per the old adage: wings and roots. You can’t get either through academic or career achievements – these are the temporary highs, because when you take your last breath, it is just you and the world, making your peace with the life you have led. As you bring yourself into the present and the future, as embodied by blooming flowers and growing seeds, you seek too for your past to complete the trinity, to keep the triangle of life poised in beautiful balance. Understanding where you come from forms the foundation of the Waldorf calendar – I remember teaching my children about festivals and celebrations, from pagan times to giving thanks daily for where we are today.

But where to find that? Do we have to buy books, enrol in courses, invest in learning?

“All we ever need, we were born with,” Woy often says.

Because we don’t share a common love of literature, he picked up the Bible one evening, totally out of the blue, and read a passage out loud. “I didn’t think you’re that religious,” I said in surprise.

“Well, it’s our history, isn’t it?” He said. “Story of humanity.” He often tells the story of his childhood in communist Poland, the story of his parents and grandparents, with all its attendant hardships and celebrations.

And so, as we confine ourselves in splendid isolation in our little nest, I begin to write the story of my mother’s people, the Celts. I find, to my surprise, that there are many commonalities between our parents’ and grandparents’ stories, despite the different countries and different languages.

“What did I tell you?” He laughs. “It’s the story of humanity, Jacq! It’s agnostic to borders and it speaks in a unified tongue. Dig deep and it’s there.”

And with that, he steps out into our small garden, to breathe in the fresh air and to admire the clear skies above him, leaving me to marvel at his words and write them down.

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Polish Sauerkraut Soup

He is off travelling for business on Monday.

“I will cook you posniacki, so that you will think of home and me when you are in the US,” I told him as we ate breakfast on this beautiful Saturday morning in January.

“Posniacki?” He looked alarmed. “Are you sure?”

“Of course!”

“Bosnian people? You will cook Bosnian people?” He stared at me incredulously.

“No, silly, sauerkraut soup!”

“Oh, KAPUŚNIAK!” He exclaimed. “Honestly, you’re the limit!”

Anyway, here’s the Polish sauerkraut soup. One problem is we cannot get Polish sauerkraut in central London, only German ones, as most Polish stores are in the suburbs. Still, it didn’t taste too bad as I used homemade beef stock. Here’s my version:

INGREDIENTS:

  1. ½ rack of pork ribs
  2. 6 slices of thick smoked bacon, roughly chopped
  3. Pork meatballs
  4. 1 jar sauerkraut
  5. 1 large onion, chopped
  6. 2 potatoes, cubed
  7. 2 carrots, sliced
  8. 2 pints good quality beef stock (if you can’t be bothered to make this, but it fresh from Waitrose or local butcher’s)
  9. Butter
  10. ½ tsp majoram
  11. ½ tsp caraway seeds
  12. 4 bay leaves
  13. 1 tsp all-spice
  14. Pinch of sugar
  15. Salt and pepper

INSTRUCTIONS:

  1. Cut ribs into single bones and season with salt and pepper. Fry in butter to seal the taste but not burnt.
  2. Add stock and the spices and simmer until tender (approx. 90 minutes).
  3. Whilst this is simmering, saute the bacon and onion in butter.
  4. Pour the bacon and onion (including the fat) into the pot with ribs.
  5. Add the sauerkraut.
  6. 20 minutes before serving, add the potatoes and carrots and simmer on low heat.
  7. Serve piping hot.

(Note: I also added some wild mushrooms in).

Whilst it’s simmering away, have some vodka (chilled in the freezer) to get into the mood.

Note on sauerkraut: Polish ones are different. I will make some soon. Must speak to mama first. But today, I used German ones which are more vinegary – so rinse first if you like a milder taste.

Photo on 04-01-2020 at 16.21 #4

My friendly concierge, who gave me her honest verdict before I served it.

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Chicken Soup (for the soul)

The best dish in the world is chicken soup made by someone you love especially for you. I had quite forgotten the magic of this simple soup that nourishes the soul until someone who loves me made it for me a week ago. He said, with a wry smile, there are seven jewels of Asia in it.

I paid if forward today and made it for someone I love deeply. I can’t quite figure out all the seven jewels of Asia, but here’s my version:

  1. 1 organic chicken quarter (I used chicken breast)
  2. 10 red Chinese dates
  3. A quarter cupful of goji berries
  4. A fee shitake mushrooms
  5. 3 cloves garlic, roughly smashed
  6. 3/4 inch ginger
  7. 1 chilli (or less)
  8. Szechuan peppercorns
  9. Bok choi
  10. For garnish: fresh flat leaf parsley
  11. For garnish: spring onions
  12. Salt and pepper

Boil everything except the boy choitogether (I boiled mine for 2 hours, with a dash of cider vinegar). In the last 2 minutes before serving, add the book choi. Season and garnish. Serve with love ❤

(I love the delicate flavour of this version, as opposed to my usual more hearty one)