Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Utopia it ain't

It’s cold – really cold – and grey; and the pitter patter of freezing rain isn’t helping much either.

A stroll up to the top of Broadway Market brought no joy in the search for trays of cells in which to sow seeds, so I’ve resorted to ordering online.

All of which is frustrating, because it would be wonderful to get outside, right now, and plant or sow something: my growhouse, put together yesterday, is begging to be filled.

Not that the frustration is entirely caused by the weather.

Our boiler has been sickening in recent weeks and pretty much gave up the ghost last week, just as I was set for a week at home.

On Monday morning, I got a plumber to come out. He looked at it, tweaked a valve and said – in shocked tones – that it had no thermal expansion tank (a what?) and would have to have one added.

Now the boiler is 17 years old, so this came as something of a surprise. I asked whether he was familiar with the model. He told me that he was. I raised, in effect, the fact that it was 17 years old and there had only been one problem with it, some years earlier, when the value that he had tweaked had had to be replaced.

But no, he was insistent about that thermal expansion tank. And you have to trust the professionals unless you know all about such things yourself.

Birds and people, amid the scrawls.
However, he didn’t charge me for the call out and left it for me to decide what to do next.

The next morning, as I hauled myself from the pit and headed into the kitchen to make coffee, it was to find a total absence of electricity. No hot water – and now no power.

We took turns to fumble with the fuse box, but the main switch stubbornly refused to go into the ‘on’ position.

The Other Half got dressed by torchlight and went to work.

Thankfully, an electrician talked me through finding out which of the individual fuses was shorting everything else. Sure enough, it was the water heater.

With power restored, I was gratefully brewing a cup of strong, sweet tea, when the phone went.

It was the plumbing company – a different man this time – asking if I could open the car park gates to let him in.

“Hang on,” I managed. “The bloke came yesterday”, to which I was informed that this was a ‘quality-control check’.

And this, it’s worth noting, was at barely 8.15am, and it was totally unannounced.

It turned out that the company clearly had suspicions about the plumber (a young man). Which was probably a good thing, since it materialised that the boiler was one of the first to be designed with an internal thermal expansion tank.

It needed nothing adding – just one thermostat and one element replacing. And having later accepted the quote, I am now waiting for some sort of idea of when someone will be coming to spend half a day doing this work.

Being without hot water is a pain. And sitting around waiting for information is also a pain. It’s indicative too of just how reliant we are these days on being able to get power at the touch of a button.

The walk back from Broadway Market saw me take a diversion onto the canalside, where for the last year or so, boats have been moored, open as shops for a day or two each week, selling second-hand books and even hats, from the delightfully named Chapeau Bateau.

Everything was shut and shuttered today, residents doubtless hiding away from the weather.

Yet with so few people around, I find myself pulling out the phone to snap a couple of shots of local street art/graffiti, some of which does wonders to a fairly dour environment.

There were intriguing bits around the steps to the canal towpath – goodness knows that the Utopia one was trying to claim – but among the scrawls and daubs, there are often some rather fetching things to be seen, such as these birds.

The council tries to whitewash the efforts away, but there's never a 'canvas' that stays blank for long.

Just today I spotted a little ghost, dispensing crosses (kisses?) from a brown paper bag, over the ghostly remains of some previous work.

Anyway, as something to cheer the day, I decided to cook up some pasta for lunch – a bit of a treat, since I’ve been cutting back on pasta a great deal in recent months.

This is an enduring favourite sauce though, and incredibly healthy, if you want to think in those terms.

It’s also one of the first dishes that I learned to cook without reference to a book, and I never bother to measure or count out any of the ingredients.

So, for the benefit of anyone who hasn’t seen it before …

Take a red pepper or two – the romano types are best; much sweeter – and halve and de-seed it.

Take some big, beefy tomatoes, halve them, remove the seeds and then leave to drain on kitchen paper.

Take a red chili – or more – and halve and de-seed that.

Now, pop everything on to a baking tray, skin side up – wipe the skins if they’re damp at all – and whack it under a hot grill, about 10cm from the heat source.

It needs 10 to 15 minutes, but check after 10. You want the skins to be nicely blackened.

Let them cool a little and then remove the skins.

In the meantime, sprinkle some ground almonds on a plate and pop that under the grill. Watch carefully – you want them to start to turn golden, but not to burn.

Then everything needs to be blitzed – but only very briefly, as you want to retain texture.

This isn’t a purée. I use a hand blender. If it’s a little stiff, loosen with olive oil.

And that’s really all there is to it.

Heat gently and serve over the pasta of your choice.

It’s the perfect dish to make you feel as though you’ve been given a great big hug. Easy, quick, cheap, tasty and healthy: what more could anyone want?

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