31 January, 2011

January recipe: Beef and vegetable hot pot

This is a rich, warming winter casserole. You can make it with any combination of root vegetables, according to taste and availability.

It takes a long time to cook, but it doesn’t need much attention so you can do something else while it simmers away quietly in the oven.

If you don’t like pearl barley, you can simply miss it out (reduce the water by about a third if you do this, as the barley absorbs water).

Beef and vegetable hot pot (serves 4)

1 lb (approx 450 g) shin of beef, skirt of beef, stewing steak or braising steak
3 ox (approx 75 g) streaky bacon, smoked if possible
Half an onion
1.5 lb (approx 700 g) root vegetables, e.g. carrots, parsnips, swede, turnip
1 large clove garlic
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) plain flour
1 pint (approx 550 ml) water
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) tomato puree
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) demerara sugar
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) dried rosemary or sage
2 oz (approx 50 g) pearl barley

Dumplings (makes 8)
4 oz (approx 125 g) self-raising flour
2 ox (approx 50 g) shredded suet
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) dried rosemary or sage, or other herbs of your choice

Chop the beef into approx 1 inch (approx 2 cm) cubes. Chop the bacon into small pieces.

Peel and chop the onion. Peel the vegetables and cut into pieces about half an inch (approx 1 cm) cubed.

Fry the beef and bacon in hot cooking oil in a heatproof casserole dish until browned.

Add the chopped onion and vegetables and fry gently until starting to colour. Peel and crush the garlic and add to the casserole.

Stir in the flour and mix well so that it coats the meat and vegetables. Pour in the water and bring to the boil, stirring as the sauce thickens.

Add the tomato puree, Worcestershire sauce, sugar, herbs and pearl barley. Season with salt and pepper. Mix well.

Remove from the heat, cover the casserole with a lid, and cook in a moderate oven at about 150 C for about 2 hours. You can cook it for longer if you like, anything up to 3 hours or so. Don’t try to cook it for a shorter time at a higher temperature. Stir from time to time and check that the barley hasn’t absorbed all the water. If it has, just add a bit more water – the sauce should be the consistency of thick gravy. I usually expect to check the casserole once or twice in 2 hours.

In the meantime, make the dumplings. Mix the flour, suet and herbs in a bowl and season with salt and pepper to taste. Add a few tablespoons of cold water to mix to a soft dough. If the dough is sticky, add a bit more flour, if it is floury and flaky, add a bit more water. Shape into eight balls about the size of a walnut, and add them to the casserole for the last 45 minutes or so of cooking time. (If you end up cooking the casserole for longer than you expected, the dumplings won’t mind a longer cooking time).

Serve with mashed potatoes, or jacket potatoes which you can cook in the oven at the same time as the casserole as they need about the same temperature and cooking time.

Can be frozen. Freeze without the dumplings.

29 January, 2011

Sparrowhawk visit

Our garden is regularly visited by a female sparrowhawk. I rarely see her catch anything, although she has some considerable success with the large local population of wood pigeons if the little clusters of feathers that occasionally appear on the lawn are anything to go by.

She is usually a challenge to photograph, as a hunting sparrowhawk moves at a speed that makes greased lightning look sluggish. My normal view of her is a glimpse of a feathered blur erupting over the hedge, raising a flurry of blackbirds and finches and blue tits ahead of her like a cloud of dust from a broom, and then exiting equally precipitously over the other hedge, transit time measured in seconds.

This time, however, I happened to glance out of the window and there she was sitting on the patio, looking ruffled and somewhat miffed. My guess is that whatever she was chasing performed a handbrake turn round the corner of the house (at least one of the local blackbirds is a dab hand at this manoeuvre), and she failed to make the turn and crash-landed.

She was evidently unhurt, because after a few minutes she stretched her wings, shook her feathers back into order and flew away. But for once she sat still long enough for me to find my camera.

Isn't she beautiful?

16 January, 2011

The Queen of Last Hopes, by Susan Higginbotham. Book review

Sourcebooks, 2011. ISBN . 332 pages. Uncorrected advance review copy kindly supplied by publisher.

Set in England, France and Scotland between 1444 and 1482, The Queen of Last Hopes tells the story of Margaret of Anjou., the French princess who became queen to Henry VI of England and found herself having to fight for his throne during the power struggle known to history as the Wars of the Roses. The novel covers Margaret’s life from her marriage to Henry until her death. All the major characters are historical figures.

Married at age fourteen to Henry VI of England to seal a peace treaty, Margaret of Anjou finds that although Henry is a good man – indeed, bordering on the saintly – this is not at all the same as being a good king. Simmering conflicts claim the life of Margaret’s friend, and then explode into outright war when Henry suffers a bout of mental illness. With a baby son to fight for as well as her husband and herself, Margaret has to take command, raising armies and on occasion marching with them. Margaret’s indomitable spirit carries her through war, exile, shipwreck and robbery – but her greatest personal cost is yet to come.

If you are familiar with the cruel and vengeful Margaret of Anjou made famous by one William Shakespeare (“O tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide!”), you are in for a surprise. The Queen of Last Hopes undertakes the commendable task of telling the story from Margaret’s side and mainly through her eyes, and presents a much more sympathetic Margaret than Shakespeare’s “…. stern, obdurate, flinty, rough, remorseless”. The reader can hardly fail to admire beautiful, unlucky Margaret, battling on with courage and perseverance literally to the last hope.

The Queen of Last Hopes is narrated in first person, mainly by Margaret. Although Margaret played an unusually active role in events, even she could not be everywhere at once, and some chapters are narrated in first person by other characters who were at the centre of the events described. In this way the novel can recount events directly even when Margaret was not present, avoiding the need to have her listen passively while someone else tells her about them, and can also show some other points of view. Each chapter is headed by the narrator’s name and the date, and you do need to pay attention to these to be clear about who is speaking (and the time frame, as sometimes the novel skips forward by several months or even years in one go).

The most successful of the secondary narrators for me was Henry (Hal) Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. Like many of the English nobility he changed sides more than once as the fortune of war ebbed and flowed, and sometimes found himself with friends and family on the opposite side. His narrative touches on the conflicts and divided loyalties inherent in a civil war between two branches of the same family in a way that Margaret, who as a Frenchwoman is outside most of the kinship and obligation networks that criss-cross the English aristocracy, cannot. Hal’s affair with a down-to-earth London confectioner, Joan Hill, is a delightful story in itself, and adds a warmly human counterpoint to the high politics of the rest of the novel. It’s a reminder that while the aristocracy were busy trying to murder each other for a grab at the crown, the rest of the country was getting on with the workaday business of earning a living, regardless of who was calling himself king this week. Anne Neville’s relationship with Margaret’s son Edward is also refreshingly down-to earth, a political alliance that both parties are prepared to make the best of, and with the makings of a successful marriage.

Margaret’s narrative is framed from the perspective of Margaret looking back over her life from old age. Perhaps time and reflection have distanced her from her tumultuous youth and prime. Her narrative is remarkably matter of fact and the emotion is understated, even when she is recounting heartbreaking loss and hair’s breadth escapes. As de facto leader of the Lancastrian party, Margaret had to guard her feelings and put on a brave face in public, and there is a guarded quality about her narrative, almost as though she is maintaining a similar protective shield against the reader. The epilogue, narrated by her lady-in-waiting Katherine Vaux in extreme old age, is an especially poignant vignette. Amidst the celebrations of Henry VIII’s wedding to Catherine of Aragon, Katherine Vaux watches the beautiful, hopeful young foreign princess and, remembering Margaret of Anjou, fears for her future – fears that the reader, who knows how Catherine’s marriage worked out, knows to be all too justified.

A helpful Author’s Note summarises the underlying history and sets out the reasons for any divergences, and a useful list of characters at the front of the book helps to keep track of the large cast (probably especially helpful to readers who are new to the period). A list of Further Reading provides suggestions for interested readers who want to pursue the history in more depth.

Detailed, sympathetic portrait of Margaret of Anjou.