Friday, 1 January 2010

If this was a race, it would be a good start

It's been a beautiful start to the new year in London – bright blue skies and sunshine, and a crisp cold to invigorate.

I feel particularly relaxed – and that's helped by a celebratory dinner being well under way. I've got individual ramekins of potatoes boulangère in the oven – layers of thinly sliced potato and onion, seasoned with chopped flat leaf parsley, salt and pepper, with chicken stock poured to almost the rim, dotted with butter and covered with foil. The foil will come off in a short while and they'll get a further 30 minutes uncovered.

Shortly before that process is concluded, I'll pan fry rump steaks with crushed peppercorns pressed into the meat. Those will then be flambéd in brandy before cream is added to finish the sauce. I only set fire to a dish for the first time just over a year ago – terrified of fire since childhood, it was a big thing to do so. I wouldn't say I'm now casual about it – I still get the pan lid ready, shut the kitchen door and feel the adrenalin rise – but it's not out of my skill store now.

The steaks won't be cooked for long – two minutes a side. I won't buy cheap meat if I can help it – I'd rather have meat less often – and although I've increasingly become a real meat lover in recent years, I concomitantly see the meat, and how it was produced, with respect.

I want something really easy for the side, so that'll be tenderstem broccoli. Also in a short while, I'll open a bottle of Grenache to let it breathe. And there's just enough Banyuls to serve as an aperitif.

And for dessert, there's are crème brûlées chilling in the fridge, waiting just for a sprinkling of brown sugar and the caress of the blowtorch to caramelise it.

It's a perfect meal to start 2010.

I have made a few resolutions – but none of them involve food. Mostly, I use resolutions each year as private reminders of certain things that I need to be a little more disciplined about. So every year, for instance, I promise to read more. It's not so much a question of reading "more", though, but of making that pledge to myself to keep up my reading.

And talking of reading, I finished Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice the other day, for the ...

Well, I can't remember how many times I've read it. The first time was at school, where it was one of our set texts for 'O' level. I loved it then and have loved it ever since. And yet, like all really great books, there's something fresh that strikes you each time you pick it up again.

In this case, it was really noticing the inadequacies of Mr Bennet – effectively an absent father – and not just his wife.

But it also amazes me how many people seem to believe that Austen only wrote 19th century rom-coms – she hasn't, in that sense, been well served by dramatisations, which don't tend to show up the satire as clearly as the romantic elements of the plots. But the satire here is very clear on the page, and Austen's targets ranged from the obvious human flaws suggested by the title to class snobbery and on to the obsession of some females with fashion and men.

But she was also a sharp observer on questions such as the situation of women (of her own class). Here, for instance, Elizabeth's close friend Charlotte Lucas marries Mr Collins for no other reason than security. Elizabeth is shocked, but it's quite clear that Austen herself understood that such pragmatism was the only hope for many of her sex.

The humour is not soft: it has a bite that is delicious to this day.

On conclusion, I ordered Emma, which I've never read, and Persausion, which I haven't read since it was a text during my 'A' level studies.

And continuing the Victorian buzz, I've started Charles Dickens's Pickwick Papers.

I have trouble with Dickens. I remember seeing a number of the books dramatised on TV – Sunday afternoon serials to be watched while eating tea in front of the telly: a rare treat. The plots are wonderful – but when you pick up the books, there's all the 'padding': all that exposition of social matters that Dickens penned. Okay, so it's not just padding – although it certainly helped, given that his stories were initially serialised in print – but an integral part of his work. But they seem to get in the way and I end up putting the book aside, frustrated.

Pickwick Papers, I decided, might be a little different. And thus far, I'm finding it really very funny.

After that, I think that Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks (effectively a 19th century novel, even though first published in 1901) is due a re-read, while I need to finally conquer Anthony Trollope's The Warden and Barchester Towers, which have been sitting on the shelf for years. And I've got a copy of Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford too; I've only read her Mary Barton previously.

Whatever happens in the coming 364 days, I feel as though I've got the start of the new year sorted in culinary and literary terms!

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