Sunday 25 March 2012

March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb

There was snow on the ground last month. On 3rd March I went out with a friend for a 'stroll' around Dorchester Abbey, we strolled from the car to the Church to the pub. It was cold even with a coat. In the pub we were grateful for the warmth of a hearty steak and kidney pudding and a glass of red wine. Those days seem to be passing now, and the old saying that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb rings true. 

On that cold day I spent a significant period of time completely arrested by the frescos in Dorchester. I had never seen anything like them before. The crucifixion, uncovered from behind white washed plaster, made me stop and stare. How can artists from so long ago so accurately capture such a scene? John the beloved looks away from Christ, unable to bear the moment. Mary exchanges an emotional and compassionate look with her son. Perhaps it recalls that moment from John 19: 26:  When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. It had me spellbound.

Today, with the sun shining and the birds singing, marks the beginning of Passiontide. The statues and images of Christ, Our Lady and the saints have been veiled in Church. I always miss them when they go. The Church begins the journey to Jerusalem, setting its face for the intensity of the Holy Week liturgies: Palm Sunday (Christ welcomed as the Messiah by the crowds), the stories of Christ cleansing the temple (Monday),  cursing the fig tree (Tuesday), and teaching in Jerusalem until Judas agrees to betray him (Wednesday); the Last Supper, the arrest in Gethsemane (Thursday) and the trials and crucifixion (Friday). The lamb going out. 

I love all these services with all their special music and symbolism, the washing of the feet, the creeping to the cross, each service a sensorial suite through which to explore and live out the Gospel. But, you know what I look forward to most? The bells. The Gloria bells that ring out the news of the resurrection at the Easter vigil. And the fire. The fire that crackles and burns outside the church announces to everyone that the lamb that went out returns. The fire from which light comes back into the Church in the best candlelit service of the year. Yes, I am looking forward to that. And, if the weather holds, the annual battle to light a blessed bonfire might be easier this year. :-)

Of course, I have to plan the Easter Feast for Sunday 8th April yet. Lamb is traditional, obviously, but sometimes I like to break the mould. I wonder what it will be this year? While you're waiting, how about a fast friendly dish for the last days of Lent?

Mussels in White Wine

(3 - 4 Hungry People)

2 lbs. mussels
1 cup dry white wine
2 shallots, chopped
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons chopped flat parsley

Fill a sink 1/2 full of cold water. Add the mussels and toss them around. Pull the beards and scrape off any barnacles from each mussel (inspecting them to make sure that they are tightly closed). Discard any bad mussels. Keep the cleaned mussels out of the water in the refrigerator until ready for use. Do not keep them more that a few hours after washing.

Chop the shallots and parsley.
Put the shallots and white wine into a large stainless steel pot. Add the mussels and cover. Steam them over high heat until the mussels have opened. Shake the pot to be sure that all the mussels are cooked.
Put the mussels into a large bowl. Decant the mussel liquor into a saucepan and bring to a boil.
Add the butter and chopped parsley.
Pour this sauce over the mussels and serve immediately with fresh, crusty bread and plenty of white wine. Yum. 

Wednesday 21 March 2012

As far as the east is from the west....

Yesterday, as we finally reached the Spring Equinox, I noticed that at last it is light when I leave the house in the morning at 6am, and light when I start my drive home, often between 5 and 6pm. Thanks be to God: everything is so much easier in the light. Just waking up is easier when you know that the sun will be creeping above the horizon before too long, it gives me the energy to contemplate the day ahead.

This evening, as I drove home along the M40, the full red sunshine setting in the West was beautiful. There is a dip in the land as you approach Oxfordshire, and the landscape drops away on the left-hand side, revealing a wide and stunning view across the fields, framed beneath the open sky. I was stunned. I have rarely noticed the loveliness of this prospect which unfolds before me everyday. Perhaps I have never looked. Perhaps it has always been shaded in the night. This evening though, it set my thoughts on an unstoppable train: 
For as the heavens are high above the earth, 
so great is His steadfast love toward those who fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, so far from us does he remove our transgressions. 
As a father has compassion on his children, the Lord's compassion is on those who fear him.              (Psalm 103)
How far is the East from the West anyway? Can you show me? I have been teaching Free Will and Determinism in Religious Ethics recently, and Boethius' understanding of God's omniscience in Philosophy of Religion. Sometimes, when my students get grappling with problems such as, 'if God knows everything, how is it that we have free will?', I get grappling too. These questions never go away.

There have been times in my life when I have been desperately concerned to make the right decision about big moves: choosing a career, changing jobs, moving countries. I have struggled and struggled to make the right choices. Only once have I ever thought, in the moment I made the choice, that I had got it wrong. Luckily for me, it was not too late and I  changed my mind. It disappointed a good few people, but it wasn't a total disaster. Here's the thing - what if I hadn't changed my mind?

There is a temptation to think about God's one great plan for each of us, the one plan which we have to live in order to 'get it right'. Maybe there is some truth in that, but the more I think about it the more it offers a limited view. It puts the pressure on, doesn't it? Your eternal salvation depends on a series of big once in a lifetime choices? That makes God sound like he is playing a rather weighted gambling game with the souls of humanity. It doesn't sound very fair. However, by choosing to make big choices in faith, with the guidance of prayer and the advice of the best relevant people, this psalm seems to suggest that you can't accidentally stumble into an abyss beyond the reach of God's love. It just doesn't work like that.

The way I see it, or the way came to see it in the car today, is that when you try to make big life choices in faith, the decision you finally make will be one used by God to bring you to salvation. Everything does not depend on us, it depends on God, on the expanse of his love. Fortunately for us, His love is infinite. It turns out there is only one big choice, and that is the choice to have faith, look continuously for the will of Him, pray for the courage and keep going. It is only in the light of faith that you get to glimpse the long view, God's vista of everything.

Of course, none of this makes the process of agonising over the right thing to do any easier really, but as usual in Philosophy, the exercise of thinking it through was worth it. Tomorrow I am thinking of explaining these thoughts to my Sixth Form, for today though I am going to try and figure out if they are logical, reasonable and correct. Do let me know what you think, I'm curious.

In other news, I am hungry. I always tell my students that theology and philosophy are impossible without chocolate. This recipe is a repeat, inspired by thinking about my great teacher heros: Sts. Thomas Aquinas, John Bosco and Angela Merici

Raspberry and Amaretti Chocolate Brownies

250g finest chocolate (go Green and Black's or Divine, 70% min.)
300g golden caster sugar
250g butter
3 eggs, plus one extra egg yolk
60g plain flour
60g finest quality cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
about 5 or 6 Amaretti biscuits
two big handfuls of fresh raspberries

You need a baking tin, about 23cm square. I lined mine with greaseproof paper, and buttered it well before I started anything else.

Preheat the oven at 180C. In a big bowl mix together the butter and sugar with an electric whisk. You need to get it light and fluffy, so keep going until it changes to a nice light colour slightly, and becomes soft and creamy. Meanwhile, break 200g of the chocolate into a small bowl, and suspending it over a bowl of water, gradually melt it over a low heat. Alternatively use a microwave - very modern. Chop the remaining 50g of chocolate into small gravel sized pieces, and leave them to one side. Crush the Amaretti biscuits to about the same size too.

Break the 3 eggs into a bowl, and add the extra yolk. Mix them together a little. Add them slowly, bit by bit to the butter and sugar mixture. Whisk well. Sift together the flour and cocoa mixture, add the baking powder and pinch of salt. Once all the eggs are added and well mixed in, fold in the flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt. Do this with a large spoon, slowly, keeping the air in the mixture. Finally, add the small chocolate pieces, the fresh raspberries and Amaretti biscuits.

Scrape the mixture into the prepared tin, smooth the top, and bake in the oven for about 30 mins. The brownies will rise slightly, but will look soft in the middle. To test to see if the are done, pierce with a fork, if it comes out sticky, but not with raw mixture attached it is done. If there is still raw mixture, pop it back into the oven for a few more mins. The brownies will solidify as they cool, and this is worth thinking about as you do the test. Once completely cool, slice the brownies into 12 equal slices. Serve with ice cream, or cream or both!

You can make a cheats raspberry sauce to show off. Get a good quality raspberry jam, and in a little cup add a teaspoon of hot water to a tablespoon of the jam. Mix together until a decent dripping consistency and then make artistic designs on white plates before placing the brownies onto them! :)

Sunday 18 March 2012

Home is where the heart is

I found a tree full of hibernating snails when out and about on my adventures the other day. I love to come across little nests of snoozing snails. It causes me to imagine that there must be one day in the year, when all the local snails decide: 'That's it! The time has come! Let us go to The Dormi - Tree for winter!' Then, they all slither and slide to the same little sheltered corner they found the previous year, roll back into their shells, cosy up and snooze through 'till late spring. I am reassured by the power of Google that they do not budge until the temperature is consistently above 12C, wise creatures. They look so cosy.

Last June another snail caught my attention. I took his picture and he became my facebook profile picture for a while. He was beautiful. I have a fondness for snails. Their shells are so fragile, often intricate and detailed, offering them all the protection they have in the world; they are hard, yet vulnerable, carrying their homes with them.

St. Patrick's Day has just past. I always look forward to it, not because I am to be found sinking Guinness in a local 'Irish' bar, but because it is a day to remember, often quietly, as we did this year, that we came from Ireland. I was only 4 when we moved to England, but that event is an integral part of my identity and the person I have become. If you have never emigrated it is difficult to understand the emotional experiences involved. My parents had to acknowledge that there was no work to help them support their family of six children; they had to pull everyone together, get up and come to England. My best friend in all the world was my sister, Gemma. I was lucky, she came with me. For my parents and older siblings things would not be so easy. They would leave close friends and well loved relations; my dad left his brother and his parents. Some we managed to stay in touch with, others we would never see again. Human beings are like plants, we get 'uprooted' and it hurts.

On St. Patrick's Day the phone rings often. It is the day when friends and family call - just a few words, 'Happy Feast!', 'How are you?'; news and views are shared. It is special. Every now and then someone will ask, 'would you ever go back?' The answer that comes first is a 'yes', but then, after a while, 'no'. It is not possible to go back. If you were lucky you might find some of the buildings you once knew still there, but the heart of the matter, loved ones, friends and family - they have moved on or passed away. Many now live only in our hearts, so that is where our home is, that is where our roots have come to be. We move and travel incessantly, like pilgrims. We have become like beautiful, vulnerable snails, carrying our homes with us everywhere we go.  For me though, it is still an Irish home because it is still an Irish heart.

Here's a yummy something just for the day that was in it. 

Cork Beef Stew (for 8)

25g (1oz) dripping
150g (5oz) bacon lardons
300g (10oz) shallots, peeled and left whole
1kg (2lbs 4oz) stewing beef cubed
400g (14oz) mixed wild mushrooms
1 litre (1 3/4 pints) Guinness
1 bouquet garni
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Melt the dripping in a hot frying pan and add the bacon, then the shallots. Cook until golden brown and then transfer into a large casserole.

Add the beef to the frying pan, season with salt and pepper and cook until browned all over. Transfer for the casserole.

Lastly, add the mushrooms to the frying pan and cook for two minutes, then season and transfer to the casserole. 

Place the frying pan back over the heat and deglaze the pan with some of the Guinness. Then pour the remaining Guinness and the pan juices into the casserole. Add the bouquet garni, cover the casserole and cook in a preheated oven at 140C for 2 hours. Check the seasoning, take out the bouquet garni and serve.

I served mine with pandy (mashed potato with butter and cream), but equally good with a cut loaf of chunky fresh bread. One other note: I used everyday mushrooms, chestnut mushrooms, shittake mushrooms and oyster mushrooms. If I did it again, I would use less of the shittake mushrooms, as I think they have a slight bitter edge.

Sunday 11 March 2012

Raucous revitalisation

The more they flew, the more noise the rooks made. Whether you can call it melody is the question I lay pondering. Gilbert White goes so far as to say 'rooks, in the breeding season attempt sometimes, in the gaiety of their hearts, to sing, but with no great success.' Most of the old bird books attempt some version of 'rude harmony', 'sweet thunder' or 'musical discord', but I prefer to think of their utterances as conversation, or the roughest of folksong. Rooks speak in the strongest of country burrs. They are rasping, leathery, parched, raucous, hoarse, strangled, deep-throated, brawling, plaintive, never reticent and, like all good yokels, incomprehensible. No doubt you could play a dead rook like a bagpipe, all drone and no melody. If you found yourself across the fields from a Somerset pub late at night at cider pressing time, you might hear something like a rookery.
Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees, Roger Deakin

At Woolstone, South Oxfordshire, there is a rookery. Of late I have fallen in love with it. I want to live underneath its branches in the chocolate box thatched cottage a lucky family own. I love the hollering of the rooks. Watching their nests sway precariously in the branches, and little young straining their necks and flapping their wings to secure food from their raucous parents, could keep me occupied for hours. It is yet another one of those beautiful sights that reminds me, spring is here. The world is preparing to be recreated. All things new are beckoning, the future is just around the corner....waiting.

This time of year begs for fresh, powerful flavours which, like the hooligan rooks, take no prisoners. Later in the spring I'll call for delicacy - lemon, tarragon and soft spring garlic - but, for now, the transition between winter comfort and summer nibbles, lies in the power of mint, anchovy, chillies, ginger, wholegrain mustard - everything and anything with a kick, ready to revitalise your taste buds. Last night we ordered a take away Indian curry to this house, and it was perfect. We had walked in the spring sunshine most of the day, and the warm spices of balti, passada and razzalla were just what the doctor ordered. This week though, I might get round to making this. I have been dreaming of it.

Roast Fillet of lamb with anchovy and mint

10g Mint
50g Anchovy Fillets
4 tbl sp Olive Oil
4 - 5 cloves new season's garlic
350g large lamb fillet
new potatoes to serve

Pull the leaves from the mint and put them in a food processor. Drain the anchovies, but do not rinse them; you want all their fishy saltiness. Put them in with the mint, together with the olive oil, the garlic and several serious grinds of black pepper. Blitz it to a slush - it should be a sort of herby slop - then scrape it in a bowl large enough to take the fillet. Roll the lamb in the paste, cover the bowl with cling film and set aside somewhere cool for a couple of hours, but preferably not quite as cold as a fridge.

Get the oven hot. Ideally it should be at 220C. Put the fillet in a roasting tin, spreading it all over with the paste. Roast for about fifteen to eighteen minutes, which will toast the outside without burning the mint, and leave the meat juicily pink within.

Leave for a few minutes to rest, then slice into thick chunks and serve with a few new potatoes. I finish the new potatoes in the oven, part boiled, crushed slightly and seasoned with rosemary, black pepper and olive oil.

Friday 9 March 2012

Magnolia and chocolate

I am exhausted. Today though, three things gave me great cause for cheer: a Magnolia tree in bloom,  chocolate, and cake. It was a Friday during in Lent, so this post is going to squeeze itself into my 'Simple Suppers in Lent' section even if it is not quite a perfect fit.

This morning the alarm woke me up. That rarely happens. I am normally awake and thinking about the day before I hear the chirrups of a pre-recorded bird song wittering from my phone on the other side of the room. At first, I did not recognise the sound. A minute later the radio started, the shipping forecast. I never move before 'Malin Head'. Eventually, I put on comfy Friday clothes and did my best to make myself presentable, picked up my books and reluctantly headed for the car. To be honest, I was not feeling very motivated. So, it wasn't until I was on the M40 that I noticed how light it was. It was beautiful, stunning in fact. The whole landscape lit a beautiful soft pink, the clouds gently bobbing across the sky. As I turned my car into the driveway of school at 7.20am the dawn sunlight was streaming into the grounds. It was then I saw it -  the thing that would energise my day: a magnolia tree just beginning to bud and blossom. I stopped the car, got out and walked up to it, touched it, loved it and felt it revitalise me. I found a morning prayer for my form about the beauty of creation and told them what I had seen. They shared their stories about the signs of spring and new life: blossom on the fruit trees, sunny patches of daffodils, tulips and crocuses. Two of the form had magnolia trees in their gardens at home. One girl said her Ma thinks their magnolia is the best in the neighbourhood -  she spends this time of year checking the competition to make sure there are no near contenders! We all agreed we were waiting to see spring lambs jump. No one had yet - I wonder how long it will be? 

Everything went well during the day. In the dining room at lunch there was fish and chips, and as usual I went down and sat with staff and students to chat and catch up on the news. I forgot how sleepy I had been. Getting petrol on the journey home, however, my card was declined. I have no idea why. I was worried, and came straight in to check the situation. I climbed into bed, opened my computer, reassured myself it was an accident and then fell fast asleep. I woke up with none of the early evening jobs done: no washing up sorted, bathroom cleaned, laundry on or dinner cooked. It was Friday though. A Friday during Lent. The one holy thing I had intended to do - go to the Stations of the Cross - I had napped through (again!), but that couldn't be helped now. I filled the kitchen sink, started the dishes and then cleaned the bathroom. I hung up the clothes littered around the floor of my room, changed the linen on the bed and put the washing on. I was tired, and I still had not had supper. There was only one thing for it - a simple supper in Lent: Hot Chocolate and Cake (Date and Walnut). I'd give you the recipe, but I bought the cake in the supermarket, and the hot chocolate was Cadbury's. It makes a simple supper because you don't have to cook, and it is Lenten because you fast from the main course, and because it was this morning I noticed that the world is waiting....waiting to give us new life. Creative thinking for sleepy people, see?

Saturday 3 March 2012

Cloister Feasting

Find food for fasts and feasts, or choose something you fancy from the recipes - 

(Click on The World is My Cloister to return home)