Monday, February 10, 2014

Driving me to change

I'm forced to be nice here every day.  It's not always my natural state of being.  And not only does it happen daily, it happens first thing every day. That's like double whammy for me....having to be nice AND early in the morning. But it has to do with driving, so I'm already at a deficit, as you know.  

Here's what happens.  The secondary roads here aren't very wide, and turn lanes are not very common, so most of the time when you are driving, the person coming from the other direction is just a dotted line away. It's not too close, but it is definitely not American-sized, American-spaced.  Then again, the cars are so much smaller, so it's probably more proportionate than it feels to me and my American-ness. 

Coupled with narrow roads is the limited sized driveways, or, in some places, the absence of a driveway all together. Parking lots (or car parks, as they say here) are also small. So, it is the norm to have cars parked on the street. Unlike the US, it's not a city thing, either.  It's everywhere. Our house sits back from the street with a long driveway, so we park there, but once I leave our driveway, on the next block, some of the neighbors who have more than one car must park on the street.

So when a narrow road has a car parked on it, the drivable lanes along small stretches of the road are reduced to just one.  Therefore, one car must stop and allow the other to pass.  The rule (or tradition, or habit - not sure what it is, it just happens) is that if the cars are parked on your side, you must stop so the oncoming traffic can come through. It's always one or two cars at most.  In the case of a wider, more "main" road, there can be cars parked on either side, so then it becomes a situation in which you gauge how far up you can go before needing to pop over so the oncoming car can get you look ahead to see where their gaps are, and it all works out perfectly well.  And since no one here is ever in a hurry (something I'm learning - slowly - to embrace) there's hardly ever an issue of another driver not waiting his/her turn. In fact, with the exception of the crotchety old woman I see in the mornings, (more on her later) I never have a problem with getting my turn. It's always easy and pleasant and adds no more than about nine seconds to my drive.

The best part in all of this? People wave to each other to say thanks/you're welcome as they pass one another.  Every time.  As I sit and wait for the oncoming car to go, as he/she approaches, they lift their right hand in a quick movement - thanks, they say.  I reciprocate with the same motion - you're welcome, I say. Often it's just the lifting of your fingers from gripping the top of the wheel....not even the full hand lift.  In any case, it's consistent and incredibly polite.  Furthermore, sometimes the oncoming person who actually has the right of way, will stop and flash their lights at you to indicate that THEY will wait and you can go forward. And then you exchange waves.  That's like a freebie of kindness.  

I should quickly explain here that this applies to roads in neighborhoods and suburb-like areas.  Obviously the big main roads look and run similar to an American road.  There are multiple lanes, dividers, etc.  I also need to add that this is the way they are built...I'm not necessarily describing really old roads that were just recently paved.  (I know that's what some of you think about places that aren't in the United States.  And no, there aren't horses and carriages here, either. In case you wondered.)  

So back to the mornings. I drive the boys to school, and I have to maneuver my way through a couple of parked car stretches. There are maybe six parked cars on the longest stretch.  Going one direction, I have the right of way - the cars aren't parked on my side of the road.  Returning, it's my responsibility to stop. Admittedly, it's frustrating when I have to stop because at this particular time of day it is busier on this stretch of road as people are leaving for work and driving kids to school, and also the people who've parked there have not left for school and work.  I can sometimes wait for four or five cars to go, which is the longest I ever have to wait, anywhere. But that's my morning. And this return trip is just me going home, so really, there's nothing I'm hurrying toward. So I wait my turn, as all the other drivers that morning have done before me, and the others will do after me. 

Well, all the others except for the scowling old lady I see a few times a week. She has no regard for anyone. She will take the chance of a head-on collision (at 20 mph, granted) every single day rather than wait her turn.  I don't know why, at this stage (four months into it) it still shocks me, but it does. She just drives forward with the assumption that you will wait, or you will move - and - to add insult to injury - she doesn't even wave.  So when she comes gunning past me I've taken to throwing my arms up in an exaggerated, "Oh, by all means, BE MY GUEST!"-sort of gesture.  And if that doesn't give away my American-ness, I don't know what does. Because there's no one else here who practices road rage except for me and my Missouri-trained driving self. (I'm also the only person who consistently drives the wrong way in parking lots and on empty streets...but that's another post for another time.  Let's just say that old habits die hard and without another car demonstrating where you should be, it's easy to be where you shouldn't.)

Husband will tell me that I shouldn't make it my responsibility to try and teach her how it all works. He'd be right.  She's at least 60-something, and she's presumably lived here all her life.  But anyone who knows me knows that I will either take a "you can't fix stupid" approach to people like her or a "you're wrong and I'm gonna show you exactly how wrong" approach. There's not a lot in between.  I'll own that, and I'm working on it.  But I'm only 43 so I'm still learning. 

It's funny, because later in the day, it's not a big deal at all.  If I had to deal with her at 11:30 or 1:30  instead of 8:30, it wouldn't be a big deal.  I'd probably be writing about the hilarious, self-entitled old woman who has a literal "my way or the highway" approach to driving. I might even try to sneak a picture of her.  And later in the day I'm always happy to wait my turn and even happier to thank people for giving my turn.  I enjoy it, these exchanges of anonymous pleasantries, the random act of kindness and manners.  In fact, I've written cheery blog posts in my head as I drive...they begin something like this:
How many times have you waved at someone today?  What? You haven't exchanged a wave with anyone at all today? Or yesterday?  Or this week? Well I's been at least five times already, and it's not even noon. And I need to tell you, it's not quite as nice as a hug, but it definitely is a mood lifter.  It might be one of those serotonin- releasing acts you hear about.

Then I'd go on to cheerfully describe the parked cars-wait-and-wave scenario as described above. That I'm happy to do. After about 10:00 am. The 'being altruistic first thing in the morning' part is still a work in progress. 

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Where recipes go to die

What do you call the tall plastic container in your kitchen into which you throw waste?  In the US it is a trash can.  In the UK it is a rubbish bin.  Well, everywhere in the UK except my house.  At my house it's called The Food Graveyard.  Most recently buried (in the past 24 hours) there's been meatloaf, blueberry muffins, Yorkshire puddings, and toffee cake.  I wish I was exaggerating.

How. Can. This. Be. So. Damn. Difficult.  Seriously.  On paper, as I write it, I look and feel like a total idiot. I can't explain it.

First, the meatloaf.  I was following a recipe from that dandy new cookbook I mentioned look at the ingredients you'd be really excited to try this dish....ground beef, onions, fresh herbs, balsamic glaze.  But once you got past the outer part, the inside was gross.  Perhaps I mis-measured some of it - I had to use the scale (things were in grams) and use the metric system (millilitres).  Or maybe it's just best to always grill (BBQ) or fry ground beef. Who knows.

This morning, in an attempt to give the boys a nice breakfast surprise, I decided to make blueberry muffins.  What ruined them was actually just an oversight...not a measuring error or mystery reason. Tell me what's wrong in this picture:

I completely forgot to add the blueberries.  I noticed the can AFTER I put the muffins in the oven.  So then I thought then that perhaps it would be just a muffin - not a blueberry one, but still the tasty cakey part.  However, apparently there's something to adding the berries, and despite being completely baked, the muffin tasted like raw batter.  And I mean it - the first bite went straight from the mouth to the trash can. Son 1 tried it first and gagged - so why I decided to try it as well was pretty dumb - except that I wanted to say,"No, Son 1, you're crazy. These muffins are great!  I should skip the blueberries more often!"

Tonight I was going to redeem myself with a roast and Yorkshire puddings. For Americans, I'll explain what that is.  The Yorkshire pudding is sort of like bread.  It's made primarily of flour, milk, and eggs.  It isn't particularly overly flavorful - not salty or sweet. It is individual servings made in muffin cups...similar to a mini bread cup that would presumably hold gravy.  Mine, however, were more like a gelatinous, bread-ish, tasteless substance for which there wasn't enough gravy in all of Europe.

I followed the recipe to the exact gram....12 Yorkshire puddings in muffin cups. And now 11 Yorkshire puddings are resting on top of the blueberry muffins, which are on top of the meatloaf.  Unfortunately there's no cork from the bottle of wine I should have drank after the night I had in the kitchen.  I somehow miraculously resisted the urge to open a bottle and drink it all after the next debacle I will now share.

So one of my favorite things to eat here is anything that is toffee flavored.  I spent three weeks straight eating sticky toffee pudding at least once a day. Sticky toffee pudding is a warm mini cake with melted toffee sauce on it. Divine. I wasn't actually tired of eating it, even after three weeks, but I was pretty disgusted with myself so I put a stop to the practice.  

Anyway, I found a recipe for toffee cookie bars - it was in Food Network magazine, in fact, my last real paper issue, as I've had to switch to digital since moving.  The measurements were American; for example, it called for two sticks of butter. Butter here is in squares and is measured in grams...looks nothing like a stick of butter in the US. So I had to go online to figure out how many tablespoons are in a stick of American butter, and then how many grams are in a tablespoon, and then figure how much British butter I needed for the recipe. It was like a story problem from math class in sixth grade. 

I followed the recipe....butter, brown sugar, vanilla, eggs, flour - I didn't miss a single ingredient. I lined the pan with parchment paper - which yes, constitutes a lot of work, as I mentioned in my last post - but that was how committed I was to this dessert.  I put it in the oven, set the timer, and at the right time, I stuck the knife in the middle, as the recipe called for, to see if it came out clean.  Not yet - so I added a few more minutes to the timer. When that went off, I tried another knife test.  Still gooey.  I added more time. At the prompting of the timer, I tried again with another knife - STILL soupy. Are you seeing a pattern here?  Yeah.  Let's just say that the sink had a lot of knives with squishy toffee cake on them before I threw in the towel. The cake wasn't going to bake any more than it already had, and I was on the third food failure of the day - the fourth in 24 hours. 

Despite the fact that it was a nasty mess in the middle, the cake had been "baking" for an hour and smelled fabulous.  So when Husband asked, "When's that cake going to be ready?  It smells delicious," I started crying and said it wasn't ready, and it wasn't going to be ready, and that I had ruined yet another meal.  He laughed, in an attempt to lighten my mood and to show me that it wasn't a big deal - which made me shriek, "It's not funny!" which, of course, made him laugh harder because, really, it was hilarious. Ten minutes later Son 2 came down and asked, "Can I cut this cake?" and five minutes after that, Son 1 asked if he could have some of that cake in the kitchen. (It was too hot to throw away just yet.)  I won't tell you how I responded to their questions and subsequent disappointment at my answer. I know they've filed it away in their heads to be used as fuel for their skepticism toward all future dishes I prepare. 

A tiny light of hope comes from the fact that the roast was pretty good.  It could have been a bit more tender, but it was pink and juicy and flavorful. So I've got that going for me.  If we can salvage one bit of a meal every 24 hours around here, we might be okay.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

A post about food (no, really!)

If you've thought that the absence of my posts meant that I was getting by just fine here in my new home, you're wrong.  I am most definitely doing better than I did back in England - I'm seasoned now, after all - but I'm still struggling with something random every day. 

Take today, for example.  I have a great new cookbook that is full of simple's perfect for me right now because it doesn't have too many ingredients and it refers to the ingredient by its local name, which is key. Just to give you an example (and there are many more to come in future posts), do you know what a courgette is?  How about a sultana? A courgette is a zucchini, and a sultana is a golden raisin. You're welcome. 

Back to today.  I was in the grocery store with my crazy cart (the wheels...remember the wheel problem?) and I was looking for tomato sauce. Easy, right?  It's in with the diced, stewed, and puréed tomatoes, of course. Oh, wait...that's only if you are shopping at HEB (Texas) or Dierbergs (St. Louis) or Safeway (Portland).  Or anywhere in the US, I'm sure.  But not here. The closest thing to tomato sauce (by looks alone) is passata, which looks to be tomato sauce - it even comes with Italian herbs (say the H here, by the way). However, since I was using a local cookbook/recipe, I assumed that if the recipe called for passata, it would say passata.  So I had to ask.  

But before I tell you about that, let me tell you the other thing I was looking for that was not necessarily called something else, but was not in the spot where it should be.  Or at least by my standards where it should be.  It was chutney...the recipe said I could use any fruit chutney.  So I looked in the section titled "Jams and Marmalades."  Not there. (Neither is grape jam, but I digress.) 

So I reluctantly go ask one of the nice Sainsbury's girls (who have helped me at least a dozen times already in the past four months.)   I approach her and she says, "Hiya...yullright?" (Translated: Hello. How are you?)  I reply something along the lines of needing help finding two things.  I start with the tomato sauce...which is the required ingredient for two meals I'm preparing - and neither recipe helps me figure out what tomato sauce actually is.  The first is for a "gourmet" meatloaf...the tomato sauce goes in the meat mixture (among other things) and on top of it to bake.  The second is for a pizza-like dish that's veggies, balsamic glaze, goat cheese on a crunchy crust/tortilla. These descriptions will come in handy as you read the next paragraph and the Sainsbury's girl's answer. 

I asked her where to find the tomato it the same thing as passata, I wonder?  She tells me that it can be that OR pasta sauce (like Ragu) OR ketchup.  Then she asks what I need it which my answer of meatloaf and pizza does nothing to clarify.  Finding her answer to be completely useless, I decide to table that one and move on to the chutney.  I can ask a friend for help with the tomato sauce issue later.  Chutney, apparently, is not shelved with the jams and marmalades and other fruit-in-a-jar-like substances.  It's with the condiments.  Go figure.  

So after reconfiguring dinner for tonight (it was going to be the meatloaf - now it's tacos with a side of regret) I decide to make a nice dessert.  I was already committed to spending a teeny bit of time in the kitchen making meatloaf and a side dish, which was considerably reduced by defaulting to the taco scenario. I pick up a cake mix for a lemon cake with glaze.  A quick glance at the back of the box tells me that it needs just milk and eggs. Convenient - my kind of dessert. 

Fast forward through unpacking groceries and the 17  minutes it took to make tacos - which includes offering soft AND crunchy wraps/shells - and it's time to stir the mix, milk and eggs. I get out the glass bread loaf dish and start reading the box.  Apparently, what is needed is a metal bread loaf pan AND it needs to be lined with something or another.  The directions for that can only be found, however, on the mix's website.  So much for convenient.  Not only do I need to do some extra work on the pan, I need to get online to read about said extra work.  No thanks.  So I take a gamble and put it in a 9x9 glass baking dish and hope for the best.  But here's what the directions said:
The part about instructions to line a 2 lb loaf tin....if I'm lining anything, presumably with parchment paper, I've gone past "convenient" and ventured into complicated.  Parchment paper is for Christmas baking.  Or when I don't feel like washing a baking sheet.  Lining a narrow metal breadpan with it is not my idea of quick, easy or convenient. 

The good news is that the lemon cake turned out just fine.  I didn't need to go to for any help.  The tacos were good too, although I'd cut off my thumb for some authentic Mexican food right about now.  But that's another post for another time.