Monthly Archives: January 2014

Food is the Drug and She Needs to Score: Mad Men Season 5

In a well-written novel or TV drama you shouldn’t be able to notice the signposting of historical events.  In Downton Abbey, this can be clunky, mainly because the series is a sort of posh soap opera, about life on the Downton estate.  In order to give the viewer a historical context, the writer has the characters discuss politics and events taking place in the wider world.  On occasions it seems contrived, particularly where Irish chauffeur turned estate manager, Tom Branson is concerned.

With whichever character he is talking to at the time, Tom seems remarkably well-informed about the Easter Rising in 1916 and then latterly the war for independence in Ireland. It’s all the more admirable, when you consider that he spends nearly all his time stuck in the middle of rural Yorkshire. And his only source of news, (apart from letters) are newspapers, as the BBC didn’t even exist before 1921 and radio broadcasts only began at the end of 1922.

Mad Men pulls off the trick of creating the historical story world rather better:

Season 5, Episode 8 is set at Thanksgiving in 1966, when New York is shrouded in a cloud of poisonous smog. Don Draper and his team at Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Price have won the Heinz baked beans account.  In an ironic parallel storyline, suburban housewife Betty Francis, Don’s ex wife is pinning her hopes on losing weight with a future Heinz owned company – Weight Watchers.

Weight Watchers is barely three years old in 1966, and if Betty’s breakfast is anything to go by, still had some way to go with its eating plan.  Like many on prescribed diets, Betty is required to eat a bizarre combination of foods she wouldn’t normally eat and, we see her joylessly eating burnt white toast, half a grapefruit and carefully weighed cubes of cheese.

Watching the point in history when the diet industry was born is fascinating, particularly as it is 50 years ago now since Weight Watchers was dreamed up by New York housewife Jean Nidetch.  And although the company may well have helped  many people lose weight, it has made far more money out of failure, from yo-yo dieters who have had to go back on the programme after they’ve put it all back on.

Betty personifies the kind of person for whom no amount of weight loss classes or dietary advice is going to help, unless she can address that her overeating is a symptom and not the cause of her unhappiness.  Like many of us, Betty is an emotional eater.  And in the week before her weigh-in, there is one huge diet-wrecking emotional trigger that sends Betty overboard.

When picking up the children from Don and Megan’s, Betty can’t resist letting herself into the apartment while Megan is busy. As she walks around the light filled Manhattan apartment with its trendy décor and fabulous views, she seems to be comparing her former life with Don to the one he has with Megan, and in that moment finds her own wanting.

But it is when she spies Megan getting changed, casually throwing a sweater over her lithe and beautiful body, that so cruelly drives the message home to Betty: Don has replaced her with a younger, much thinner model and as Betty looks down at her frumpy shirtwaister dress, her self-esteem has shrunk to an all-time low.

This emotional trigger of the loss of her own youth and beauty sends Betty straight to the fridge when she gets home: she’s not hungry, she’s after a quick fix to allay her anxiety and grabs the nearest junk food, a can of Cool Whip (fake whipped cream) and squirts it straight into her mouth.  And the advertising agency that won the Cool Whip account? SCDP, of course.  But even Betty in her moment of despair comes to her senses: she spits the mouthful out.

And in another neat history defining moment, Cool Whip (luckily for the rest of the world, never sold anywhere outside North America) is perhaps the first food product manufactured in a lab – consisting of  high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated vegetable oils, the baddies that helped make America and the rest of the Western world fat.

It is little wonder then that at her first Weight Watchers meeting, Betty is unenthusiastic about having to stand up and have her weight recorded in front of the meeting at the group weigh-in.  While the woman who loses the most weight that week is politely applauded, this immediately invites negative comparisons from the other women there who couldn’t find the necessary willpower that week.  By the downcast look on her face, Betty regards her half-pound loss as failure, although the group leader tries to mitigate her disappointment with encouraging words.  Betty feels the need to explain herself and without going into detail tells the group, that she “had a very trying experience the previous week.” We the audience know exactly what Betty is talking about, even if the weight loss group doesn’t.

It’s not just Betty who comfort eats in this episode, either.  She finds husband Henry cooking himself a late-night steak as he confides that he’s worried about his political future.  He tells her that he can’t live on fish five nights a week.  Betty apologises, as she is genuinely fond of Henry and doesn’t want to alienate him. She willingly participates in the midnight feast and we see him feeding her pieces of steak.

Back at the final weigh-in at Weight Watchers before Thanksgiving, Betty and her fellow group members are warned about the food temptations that will be lurking around every corner this holiday weekend.  Betty hasn’t lost any weight, and her group leader tells her that staying the same is better than gaining.  Betty finds the homilies a little difficult to believe but is ready to trot them out again at the Francis family Thanksgiving dinner. When it’s her turn to give thanks, she says, “I’m thankful that I have everything I want. And that no-one else has anything better.” We all know that this is a lie – in that Megan, in her eyes seems to have it all.  As if to underscore Betty’s feelings at this point, she turns to food once again, to try to solve her emotional problems and grabs a bite of (presumably forbidden) Turkey stuffing from her plate. There is an emotional beat as Betty’s face lights up in a moment of sheer pleasure.  Food is the drug here, and she’s just scored. 

 

 

 

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Lambert Nagle Cooks! – Crunchy Toasted Muesli

Crunchy Toasted Muesli

Crunchy Toasted Muesli

My favourite brand of muesli is packaged as a masterpiece of marketing, pretending as it does, to hail from a bucolic, idealised region of South West England, harking back sometime to around 1895– where by day the villagers frolicked around in their white smocks Morris dancing and by night were so tanked up on cider they don’t care if they do look like prats in their white leggings with bells on.

As if.  No doubt on an industrial estate far from the countryside, food workers in hairnets will be toiling away, mixing rolled oats with the best of them, just so that I can have my breakfast fix.

I realised though that I was shelling out £3.79 a packet due to this rural fantasy, and it’s got to stop.  They say that there are ’16 glorious bowlfuls’ in every packet, but I can’t stick to the serving size of 46g because after a couple of brazil nuts and an almond or two, all you’ve got left is a measly portion of grit.  So I have to have 60g, which even then barely gets me through to lunchtime.

In the interests of economy and because apparently, even dried fruit is a no-no because of its high sugar content, I’ve decided to going back to making my own. And because those Atlantic storms are causing havoc on both sides of the Pond, I’ve decided that toasted muesli is the one thing that will get me through the winter – that and New Zealand pinot noir (but not necessarily at the same meal).

This recipe is one of Australian chef Bill Granger’s which I’ve adapted. And because I’ve used a version of his recipe here, it seems only fair to tell you that you no longer have to fly all the way to Sydney to sample some of Bill’s food as he now has an eatery in London.  Hooray!

Granger & Co, 175 Westbourne Grove, London W11 2SB.  I have no idea how the food is as the only time I got to visit the queue in this no booking restaurant was out the door and down the street.  But it must be good if the very well-heeled locals in that neighbourhood are willing to wait in line for a table. I’ve been a devotee of Bill since he first opened his first café in Darlinghurst, Sydney, Australia.

Darlinghurst is still cool (and a bit grungy) and is still recognisably the same neighbourhood as I knew in my early twenties when I lived in Macleay Street, down the road.  It’s still (thankfully) as casual a place to breakfast as it always was, which is great as I’ve got a feeling that I’d feel a bit out of place at his London joint.

CRUNCHY TOASTED MUESLI

INGREDIENTS

300 g/3 cups rolled porridge oats

125 ml/half cup unsweetened apple juice

2tbs rice bran oil or a similar flavourless vegetable oil

80g/2 handfuls unpeeled almonds

125g/1cup sunflower seeds

30g/quarter cup flaked coconut

40g/quarter cup sesame seeds

1tsp cinnamon

 125g/2 large handfuls brazil nuts

Fresh fruit, yoghurt or milk to serve

 METHOD

 Preheat the oven to 160C/Gas 2.  Place all the ingredients, except for the brazil nuts in a large bowl and stir well to combine.  Spread the mixture evenly over a large baking tray and place in the oven for 15 minutes. Stir and add in the brazil nuts, stirring again to ensure the nuts don’t get too brown.  Bake for further 15 minutes.

I know from this photograph it looks as though I should be serving this up to Merlin and Cavan, the two horses I ride, but believe me, you don’t have to be a four-legged vegan to enjoy it.

And the Mountains Echoed

 

TV news reduces Afghanistan to a dusty backdrop where wars have been fought, often by outsiders while its people have had to stand by while their country is over-run by ever more brutal regimes, each one seemingly more desperate for power.  It is, perhaps, one of the world’s most misunderstood countries yet with this one work of fiction And the Mountains Echoed Khaled Hosseini shows us that what matters most in life is the same, whether you are a dirt-poor family from Afghanistan, or a rich one who lives in the West. 

It is a beautifully told, sprawling masterpiece of a tale about two siblings, Abdhullah and Pari, who are separated as children because their family cannot afford to keep them both. 

I doubt there are many other writers who could pull off what Hosseini has done in this book: telling his overarching story of Abdullah and Pari in a series of vignettes, with each chapter told by a different character, sometimes two.  Some reviewers have commented that these chapters are so self-contained they could even be short stories while other readers have criticised the writer for this.

I stand somewhere between the two sides, admiring this experimental story-telling technique and the vast cast of characters that move in and out of the narrative – some of whom disappear without a trace. I never once found it to be a distraction as all Hosseini’s characters are so believable that I enjoyed these tangential asides. I think the writer is mirroring real life – where people do move in and out of our lives.

The denouement, for some readers, was unsatisfactory, but for me, in the vast tragic story of a family from Afghanistan, there can be no such thing as a neat, Hollywood ending.

Lambert Nagle Cooks!

I love flying in to Singapore.  It’s a wonderful foodie destination and you can happily eat your way around a fusion of the cuisines of Indonesia, Malaysia, India and China.  So you can imagine how cheated I felt on my last visit, when I was nursing the tail end of the worst bout of food poisoning I’d ever experienced.  You know, the one where you get the blinding headaches in the middle of the night, where no amount of Paracetamol and icepacks to soothe your fevered brow make any difference whatsoever?

Happily on this recent visit I was fighting fit.  Only, the snag was that this time there was no stopover and we had to fly straight through. So much for catching up with friends or getting out amongst the hawker markets – we barely had time to do more than grab a shower and a cup of coffee as we changed planes. 

So I did the next best thing.  I found this recipe for Rendang in The Straits Times and we made it as a team effort when we got home, in my desperate attempt to bring a little of the heat and spice of South East Asia to cheer up the rain-sodden British winter we have returned to.

Rendang originated in West Sumatra, Indonesia, from a ceremonial dish that took all day to cook, to produce what is almost a dry paste. Malaysia and Singapore make a version that to my mind is just as good, takes half the time and the dish has a lot more sauce, which you can mop up with rice.

You don’t have to use meat to make Rendang.  Even if Renang purists don’t agree, you can make it with tofu, prawns or chicken but adjust the cooking times accordingly. 

Incidentally, this recipe takes no prisoners on the chilli front.  If you can’t stand too much heat, then use the mildest chillies you can find.  I’m convinced that hot chillies, like chocolate are the culinary equivalent of happy pills.  And on a New Year’s Day, when even these most seasoned of walkers have decided to give the great outdoors the flick and go instead to see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, you need all the happiness you can get.

 BEEF RENDANG

 INGREDIENTS

100 g chilli paste (I used Mexican chipotle paste)

8 shallots

6 cloves garlic

3 cm ginger

1 heaped tsp ground turmeric

3 cm galangal

2 heaped tbs ground coriander

2 heaped tbs ground cumin

2 tbs toasted grated coconut (ground into a paste)

4 tbs oil

2 stalks lemongrass, sliced into 5cm pieces with stems smashed

1 cinnamon stick

3 star anise

3 cloves

1 kg beef, cut into chunks

200ml coconut milk

400ml water

2sp tamarind pulp, soaked in warm water

3 kaffir lime leaves

salt to taste

1 tsp sugar

METHOD

Process the first nine ingredients in a blender until they form a fine paste.

Heat oil in a large wok or saucepan and fry the lemongrass, cinnamon stick, star anise and cloves for 30 seconds.

Add the paste and fry for up to 10 minutes until fragrant and the oil separates from the paste.

Add beef and stir over high heat until evenly browned.

Pour in coconut milk and stir well.  Cook for 10 minutes until the coconut milk has reduced.(Incidentally, don’t be tempted to use low fat – it’s disgusting and the dish will be watery and horrible).

Add the water, stir and bring back to a simmer.

Add tamarind juice and lime leaves.

Cover and simmer until meat is tender but not falling apart.  This will take up to 3 hours.

 (You could, at this stage transfer the contents to a slow cooker and use that instead, but don’t ask me how they work, I’m scared of them.  My niece’s one exploded when she was out at work and she had to fish out bits of glass from the home cooked dinner that by then was probably smeared half way up the walls….)

You have to stir this every now and again as otherwise it will stick to the bottom.

Turn heat off and add salt and sugar just before serving with hot rice.

Serves four to five

Adapted from Adlena Wong’s recipe, featured in Singapore Cooks, The Straits Times, 30 December, 2013.Image