Monday, 21 March 2016

Menopausal in Canada

I'm sitting at the desk of my hotel room in Montreal, Canada. I've called the front desk and ask them how to use the heating, how to turn it down.
'What temperature would you like it?' purrs the receptionist.
'Er... 17ºC.'
'17ºC? Are you sure because that's pretty chilly.'
It's minus zero outside. There's snow on the ground. I can see why they are surprised. I'm walking around without a coat on half the time.
I'm going to write about the excellent food and the exhilarating travel and all that stuff don't you worry. But what I really want to write about is my menopause.
Nobody ever talks about the menopause. Except me. I talk about it literally all the time. I just spent a week in New York telling EVERYONE I'm menopausal, to my daughter's eye-rolling embarrassment.
Now I'm travelling through Canada... on the face of it to report on maple syrup... but really to talk about being menopausal. Last week I went to a famous Montreal bagel place and I talked to a guy who works there.
I'm fanning myself...
'I'm menopausal,' I explain to him.
He nods. 'Hot flash, huh?' (That's what North Americans call hot flushes.)
'My wife has that.'
'How old is she?'
'Sixty five?' I groan. 'I keep hearing that it goes on for years.'
'Yeah, she's had it ten years.'
I'm so tired. I didn't sleep last night because I'm so hot and I'm on the 14th floor and you can't open a window. In Halifax I had to ask to change room because of the heat. 'All the heating is centrally regulated,' said that receptionist. They moved me to the cold wing. It was damp and grey. It suited me perfectly.
On the train from Halifax to Quebec City I'd sit on the top deck, the coolest place on the train.
I spoke to other passengers about how overheated the houses and hotels are in winter over here. My lips are chapped and my nose is full of crusty sores. On the inside.
One man said, 'I grew up in a house where it was 16ºC all winter. If we were cold my parents would tell me to put a sweater on.'
'That's what my parents would say too,' joined in another guy. We were all middle aged.
My parents were of the put-on-a-jumper school of ecology. I loathed it. Somehow my daughter has also turned into that person. A recent visitor said, 'you've got the coldest house I've ever been to'.

Let me describe a hot flush. It starts from the collarbones, up the neck, to the face. You feel slightly desperate, claustrophobic, like you want to rip your clothes off. A film of sweat forms upon your face. Sometimes it is accompanied by nausea. It lasts maybe five minutes. With me it happens hourly. It's exhausting.
I'm not on HRT. I'm trying to white knuckle it through because I've been told that when you stop taking HRT, the menopause starts up again. Last year the doctor gave me anti-depressants, saying it would help control the hot flushes. And it did, for about three months. Plus it cheered me up. My daughter said she'd never seen me so positive. But the flushes started again and with a vengeance. I'm wearing super strength deodorant because all that sweating.... it makes you smelly. But it comes to something when doctors put you on psychiatric medicine (which is effectively what anti-depressants are) in order to deal with the physical effects of ageing.

I've recently discovered the existence of brown fat. Brown fat is good fat that makes you thin. It's located around the collarbones. Isn't that odd that this is where hot flushes start? Is there a connection? I read an article about the benefits of brown fat as opposed to white fat, how active brown fat helps us lose weight. It's derived from muscle. People are fatter now than before and some of this may be down to overheated houses. So to lose weight, turn down the heating and shiver it off.

Sleep is another thing that is disturbed during the menopause. I never sleep a night through nowadays. You wake several times every night and always between 3 and 4am.
I never minded light either but now need total darkness (and in fact that is good for your fertility). I've become photophobic. Is this another menopausal thing?
There are so many aspects of the female experience that come as a shock when it happens to you. Miscarriages for instance. You think you just lose a baby and that's it. Nobody mentions that it's a three month bleedathon. It's horrendous, even physically, not mentioning the grief.

The menopause makes you age fast. I feel I've aged ten years in the last year. My hair is dry. I wake up looking like I've had an electric shock, two rough matted red brillo pads either side of my head. You know old lady hair? I used to look at old ladies and think their hair looked so shit because they'd been perming it. (Old ladies in my time always had a white bubble perm.) I can now inform you, from my own experience, it's because of the menopause. It's as if you lose the elasticity in your hair and skin. I've always had greasy hair. I've never used moisturiser. What is happening?

I've just arrived at my hotel in Toronto. At the front desk I ask, 'can you turn the heating down in my room?' I haven't even got in there yet. It's at 18ºC and that feels nicely fresh now.

Why do we live past the menopause? Anthropologists have developed the grandma theory; that older women are needed to help raise children. Societies whose families stay with their matrilineal grandmothers have better outcomes when it comes to the health of their children.
Is it my imagination that nobody talks about the menopause? Or have I just tuned out when they were?

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Peak hipster in Brooklyn, New York

rainbow bagel, the bagel store, brooklyn
One New York borough that has gentrified in recent years is Brooklyn. Peak hipster Brooklyn starts at Bedford Avenue subway, continues through Larimer and ends up at Roberta's.
The food is great, the prices not cheap and of course, there is the hype that leads to ridiculous lines at certain places.
Wandering around you can get your hair cut, visit vintage clothes stores and marvel at the hipsters. However my impression was that New Yorkers don't dress up like the British, they are fairly conformist and casual. East London is way more hipster.
best pizza, brooklyn
best pizza, brooklyn
best pizza, brooklyn

Best Pizza 33 Havemayer St

We had a slice of Margarita and a slice of white pizza with sesame seeds. Sesame seeds on pizza dough is a revelation and I think this is the way forward; to make pizzas a bit more like bagels. Both were thin fermented dough with wood fired blisters and equal proportions of sauce and cheese - in their words, New York style pizza. The chef from Chiltern Firehouse went there to get tips from Best Pizza's Frank Pinello for the pizza section at the celebrity joint. Best Pizza is frequented by rap stars, has friendly staff and an 'art' wall with drawings on paper plates. I could have eaten more but I had to save space for the other places.
brooklyn winery, brooklyn

Brooklyn Winery 213 North 8th St

Friendly local wine bar which serves New York white wines as well as a good selection of other American wines. You can do tours and tastings, there is also a good menu of cheese, charcuterie and other wine matched foods. I was there too early to eat but it had a nice wood interior and tattooed staff.

queue for the rainbow bagel, the bagel store, brooklyn

rainbow bagel, the bagel store, brooklyn

The Bagel Store 349 Bedford Ave

Groan. The line ran around the block and was at least an hour long. Why would anyone want to eat a bagel with food colouring? And sprinkles? And flavoured cream cheese? Sounds, looks, vile. I grew increasingly annoyed at the hype around certain New York establishments. Queues of young people wanting to photograph their food. This is food as a visual, not to be eaten. The downside of the  Instagram Age. The Bagel Store can also lay claim to something called a 'cragel', a fusion of bagel and croissant. The picture looked quite doughy and lumpen.
Now you might think that all this is hypocritical from someone who put a Smartie sandwich 'recipe' in one of her books (MsMarmitelover's Secret Tea Party). Yes, I like silly food, cartoon grub. Without prejudice, I'd already visited Dominique Ansel's bakery in Manhattan for the famed 'cookie cup' (almost as celebrated as the 'cronut'), waited an hour, got to the front of the line and was told to queue again, this time outside. So I ordered a frozen s'more (disgusting, like a jar of 'fluff' on a stick) and an over-baked croissant. I wasn't going to queue up any more when his basic viennoiserie wasn't as good as Tescos.
Adding to my scepticism, I had a conflagration at Black Tap. Black Tap is known for towering milkshakes topped with oreo cookies, slices of cake and glasses rimmed with M and Ms, like multi-coloured daleks. Again this place had lines four hours long, going down the street and starting again, behind a thick rope, around the corner on another street. I asked the shivering girls at the front of the second queue why they were here:
 'We've seen the milkshakes on Instagram,' they said, jumping from leg to leg in an attempt to warm up. 'We've been here an hour already and we can't give up now.' 
Agog at the wait, I met a chef from the restaurant outside the front door:
'Don't you think the line is ridiculous?' I asked.
He smiled. 'Well, it's good food'.
'But is it healthy?'
'It's basically sophisticated McDonald's, isn't it? In fact I could make money by going to McDonald's, buying shakes, dipping them in Smarties and flogging them to your queue,' I joked.
At this point a woman standing next to him, a waitress, butted in: 'Well you look like you spend a lot of time there,' she sneered.
At first I didn't understand what she meant. 'Why's that?' I asked naively.
She gave me an exaggerated up and down look. 'You are so heavy.'
Heavy is the American word for fat. I was really shocked. Did this waitress just call me fat? In the street? Outside her restaurant?
Reader, I lost it at that point. Trying and failing to think of stinging repartee, I came up with the lame and abusive 'you are a fucking ugly cow', my London accent bouncing on the sidewalk.
But to be frank, she was no oil painting.
But she kept on. 'You are just trying to skip the line.' She said to the chef, 'she's so fat'. Then, as she entered the restaurant, she threw back: 'You should walk more'.
I'd walked 22k steps that day according to my FitBit.
Brimming with fury, I went up to the first queue and said 'Did you know that this restaurant that you are all lining up for, body-shames its customers?'
Then I noticed the couple at the front were kind of big. The guy said in a resigned voice:
 'At this point anything you say is not gonna change my mind because I've been waiting two hours already.' But looking back, they did seem discountenanced by my information. A restaurant sells outrageously fattening food and then criticises you for eating it?
I was slightly out of control by this point and went down the line declaring 'Sheeple' at them.
roberta's pizza, brooklyn
roberta's pizza, brooklyn
roberta's pizza, brooklyn

Roberta's Pizza, 261 Moore St (near Morgan Ave subway)

This is the second time I have visited Roberta's. Last time I did an interview with Heritage Radio, (amazing food radio) housed in the same building, and scoffed a tasty grilled cheese sandwich. Roberta's doesn't look like much from the outside, you'd hardly notice the scruffy red door. Inside there is a pine scrubbed dining room, a garden, a radio station, wine classes, ovens. The food is so good. We noticed a trio further down our table and we said, When Harry met Sally style: 'we'll have what they're having'. That was a big bowl of stracciatella cheese (burrata in creamy strips with char-grilled sourdough that you dip in the cheese milk), then a large sharing bowl of pea soup. We also had fresh pasta with cacio e pepe, then root beer and peanut butter ice cream. My virgin Bloody Mary was fantastically acidic and flavoursome, with plenty of salt and pickles. The pizzas looked the business too but we could barely move. Reasonable prices, a must visit.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Discovering Queens in New York

Scenes from Jackson Heights, Queens, new york

If you really want to know New York, you won't stay in Manhattan, the island in the middle of the five boroughs. Manhattan is as representative of New York as South Kensington is of London. It's a place for the rich, the hip, the childless. It's been cleaned up, which is good for back in the 70s people had multiple locks on their apartment doors, muggings were common and Central Park was too dangerous to visit. But perhaps the gentrification has gone too far. You can't get a sandwich for less than 15 dollars. Plus tax. Plus tips. (Every bill or 'check' pressures you about tipping, with suggested percentages, the minimum being 18%. Even the taxis do this. Why doesn't America just pay staff properly?)
Queens is the original working class borough, the largest and most ethnically varied. It's where families can more or less afford to live.
I'm staying with fromager Tia Keenan in her beautiful house in Kew Gardens, a leafy part of Queens, where the immigrants are Bukharan Jews, who have, with the enthusiasm of the newly wealthy, jettisoned the elegant Garden city architecture where celebrities such as Will Rogers and Charlie Chaplin used to reside. They have transformed the houses into Grecian palaces, paved over the gardens and added white plaster balustrades and pillars to the exteriors.
Further into Queens, starting at Roosevelt Avenue and 73rd St subway station, you can walk down Broadway, where you will see Asian shops and restaurants. (Check out Sugar Club, a Thai food shop.)
Tia sent me on a tour of Latino Queens starting at the same subway station as above. From there you start walking down Roosevelt Avenue, which runs under the metallic green overhead train. This is gritty New York with cheap eats and authenticity. You feel like you are in another country. In fact I started speaking Spanish on arrival.
taqueria coatzingo, Queens, New York

Coatzingo (Roosevelt/76th st)

Reasonably priced Mexican food in a blazingly bright restaurant. They bring you freshly fried totopos with salsa as soon as you sit down. The other customers are all Latino. They serve tamales, enchiladas, tacos and Horchata (a milky drink). 
arepa lady, Queens, New York
arepa lady, arepa and chocolo, Queens, New York

Arepa Lady (Roosevelt/77th st)

This is a food truck run by Colombian grandma Maria Cano that is now also a bricks and mortar restaurant. We ordered two things: arepa and chocolo, both with queso. The first is made with cornmeal and the second uses fresh ground corn. These come with an array of different coloured squeegee bottles: cilantro mayo, pink mayo with ketchup, hot sauce, pineapple sauce and most intriguingly, condensed milk. And you know what? Condensed milk on cheesy corn works really well. Delicious and well worth the trip.
octopus and shrimp ceviche, esquina camaron, Queens New York
tostada with ceviche, esquina camaron, Queens New York
esquina camaron, Queens New York

La Esquina del Camarón (Roosevelt and 80th st) Ceviche

At the back of an ordinary Latino grocery store or bodega, you will find a turquoise formica table and a couple of benches. Latinos in the know sup on large glasses of bloody octopus ceviche with buttery slices of leafy avocado. I had a fish ceviche tostada. Empanadas are worth getting too. This is Mexican food, Veracruz style. Cheap, friendly, surreal. Go.
queens, new york
queens, new york
la nueva bakery, Queens New York
alfajores with dulce de leche, la nueva bakery, Queens New York

 La nueva bakery (86th and 37th ave)

One block over from Roosevelt Avenue. The thing to get here are alfajores with dulce de leche, a kind of shortbread style biscuit sandwiched with caramelised condensed milk, and some are dipped in chocolate. You can also feed your sweet tooth on lurid Latino cakes and large crescent-shaped cheesy loaves.

nixtamal, queens new york
nixtamalising corn, nixtamal, queens new york
fresh masa, nixtamal, queens new york

Tortilleria Nixtamal (103st)

I've been reading about this place for years. People rave about how much better fresh masa (ground corn) is for making tortillas. Nixtamal nixtamalise their own corn and grind it into masa and make it into tortillas. What is nixtamalisation? It is the process of using lime to break down corn, releasing b vitamins. I used this information as the basis of research for when I attempted to make my own masa. I may have another go now I have a Vitamix.
At Nixtamal they soak the corn in vats of water and lime for ten hours. Francisco is the owner, he showed us where they keep the tortillas, wrapped in cloth to keep them warm. If you want to see them being made, you have to go from midnight onwards. The restaurant a few blocks away, 104-05 on 47th Ave in Corona, is also worthwhile visiting for freshly fried tacos, nachos, soft tortillas and other dishes.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Walking The High Line in New York

Views from The High Line in New York
On Mother's Day, 6th March (UK date), I walked the High Line in New York with my daughter. Snow still covered any greenery, the wind was icy and the sky was girder grey. The High Line is an elevated section of the former New York City railroad. It started near our hotel, The Jane, a former sailors on shore stop off joint, and runs for around a mile and a half. You can join on any cross street via staircase or lift. 
Here are a selection of my photos from that walk, celebrating the subtle urban beauty, the sculptures and art, the graffiti, the views, the wintery monochrome grandeur of the city. The red, mustard and mauve berries are still on the branches but looking more closely, paying attention to the plants,  there were also signs of new life. By Wednesday, spring had started, with temperatures in the 70s. New York buzzed with vernal horniness. But on Sunday you would never have guessed that this was just around the corner.

Views from The High Line in New York
Views from The High Line in New York
Views from The High Line in New York
Views from The High Line in New York
Views from The High Line in New York
Views from The High Line in New York
Views from The High Line in New York
Views from The High Line in New York
Views from The High Line in New York
Views from The High Line in New YorkViews from The High Line in New York

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Mattar paneer recipe

Muttar Paneer

Mattar Paneer recipe

My daughter and I always order this when we are ‘getting an Indian’. There isn’t that much dairy in Indian food but paneer is an easy fresh cheese to make. But I’ll level with you, I mostly buy it. A pack of paneer and a bag of frozen peas and you are most of the way there. In this recipe I’ve used kashmiri chillies, a tip I picked up from Camelia Panjabi. Like her, I use them liberally because they aren’t hot, they just add depth of flavour. I order them online from amazon.
By the way, not sure if it is spelt mutter, matar, mattar or mottor. I've seen all of them on menus.

This is how I make it. 

4 tbsp or more of Ghee or vegetable oil for frying
2 tbsp of brown mustard seeds
1 large brown onion, diced
1 stick of cinnamon
1 tbsp of cardamom pods
1 tsp coriander seeds whole
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 thumb of ginger, peeled, finely chopped
1 tsp cumin, ground
1 tsp coriander, ground
1 tsp fennel seeds
3 kashmiri chillies, soaked
100g creamed coconut, softened in it’s pack in a jug of boiling water (or 400ml coconut milk)
6 fresh tomatoes, chopped small
225g paneer, cut into 3cm cubes
400g frozen peas
Salt to taste
Fresh coriander
A fresh lime, quartered

In a medium saucepan on a low to medium heat, heat up the ghee/oil adding the brown mustard seeds, letting them pop but not burn, then the onion, cinnamon, cardamom and whole coriander seeds. Allow the onions to soften then add the garlic, ginger, cumin, ground coriander, fennel.
While these are frying, boil a kettle and allow the chillies to soak in the water. I use a pyrex jug. I also put the pack of creamed coconut in the jug along with the chillies, keep it in it’s plastic packet.

Remove the onion and spice mixture and ground it up in a food processor, Vitamix or blender until it 
is a brown paste. Then add the softened chillies, minus the seeds and stems and process into the paste.
Return the mixture to the frying pan and add the tomatoes. Continue to sauté for a few minutes then squeeze out the creamed coconut into your pan.
If it becomes too thick, feel free to add either boiling water or veg stock to loosen it.
Add the paneer and peas. Continue to cook, tasting for salt. I would add at least 1 teaspoon of good sea salt.

When your mattar paneer is cooked remove from the heat, adding fresh coriander leaves and wedges of lime. Serve hot with rice and other Indian dishes. 

mattar paneer