Love in the time of coronavirus

With apologies for butchering Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s title, this last week has brought with it some interesting dilemmas. For many families like ours, the coronavirus outbreak would mostly be a question of making sure we’re not in a position to pass something on to elderly relatives and neighbours, and an acceptance that we’d probably all get it eventually, much as we did swine flu back when, but that we’d be over it soon enough and move on. Not so, this time.

This time it is more complicated. When we faced down swine flu, I was still healthy. The truth is, S and H will probably not have it too badly, if they catch coronavirus. As for me, well, having spoken to the GP yesterday about something unrelated, it’s not so clear I’d be OK. The chest infection I had over Christmas was a wake-up call. I’ve had free flu jabs for a few years now as someone with chronic conditions. I figured there was no harm in doing so because nobody enjoys flu, but they led to a false sense of security.

At Christmas, sick with a chest infection for which I had obviously not been vaccinated, and which other family members shrugged off as “just one of those things”, I found myself in an ambulance, feeling I was slowly drowning. It took me weeks to recover. I saw the GP for different antibiotics when the first ones didn’t work, and saw the same one yesterday to update a few issues and work out what the next steps should be. Inevitably, coronavirus came up. It feels a lot more real when your GP starts saying you need to take precautions.

Just how do you self-isolate in these circumstances? How do you prevent the people you love making you ill, since it’s S and H who are most likely to be the vectors of transmission in our family? We’re a demonstrative family. We hug. I do the bulk of the cooking, and even when I’m ill with a migraine or something that prevents me being able to stand in the kitchen and cook, the chances are we’ll be eating something I batch cooked and popped in the freezer. We have only two bedrooms, so S and I are inevitably going to share a bed when he’s home. And during the week, I have to be there to parent H in the morning and ensure he goes off to school in the right frame of mind. For that matter, if I get sick, will we have to keep H off school as well to prevent onward transmission? Do we paint a big X on the front door?

There is no hand sanitiser available to buy in the area. Idiots have either panic bought or decided to turn it around for a quick profit on eBay. For all the soap we have in the house, it’s the lack of hand sanitiser that places S and H at risk of catching the coronavirus at work or school, where access to handwashing facilities may be limited at key times like mealtimes: H can’t wash his hands before going to lunch at school without then having to touch surfaces that may harbour the virus on his way to the refectory.

It turns out that at times like this, love is my husband tracking down some surgical spirit online so I can make hand sanitiser and try to keep us safe – him in London, H at school, and hopefully me here at home – for as long as possible. Love is washing his hands and beard often. Love is not kissing me or hugging me at the station when I pick him up from the train, waiting until we’ve reached home and he can wash up. Love is H washing his hands more than is natural for a 13 year old to keep his mum safe. And love is me staying home and looking after myself, trying to avoid getting sick so I can stick around and love my family for as long as possible.

Low FODMAP Lemon Shortbread Biscuits

A stack of lemon shortbread biscuits on a white plate

Sitting here with grey skies outside, I’m left wondering whether we’ll be seeing hail or snow next, after we’ve just experienced the might of Storm Ciara over the weekend.

As a rule, the weather doesn’t bother me a huge amount. You don’t move this far north if a bit of rain is going to bring out your inner sugar mouse. The weekend’s storm was something else, though. I’ve seen some quite extreme displays from the elements since we moved, but I was glad I had taken the precaution to lock up the chickens in their run on Saturday night. The beck earned its very own flood warning from the Environment Agency, and I was very glad there was no chance of the girls getting blown into it and washing up somewhere like Bolton Abbey.

With rugby cancelled for one weekend, and reports of trees down and floods across roads throughout the area, the monster and I chose to stay home for the day. He took a walk out at one point to see how high the beck had got, since it steadfastly refused to flood the bottom of the garden. He came back with videos of fast-flowing water further down the hill and standing water cutting off a road out of the village, full of enthusiasm for the idea the village might be cut off by the floodwaters long enough for a day off school on Monday. Then he settled happily in the warm, doubtless doing an inner rain dance to help things along.

In the meantime, I made biscuits. A delicate, buttery shortbread with a hint of citrus to go with a steaming mug of Earl Grey tea. It’s one of the simplest gluten-free recipes I know. It doesn’t need any xanthan gum. It doesn’t use egg as a binder. There’s no fancy flour blend to find. You don’t even need to roll the dough out: just bake and enjoy. A quick comfort hit for a grey day.

I’ve shared the recipe a couple of times recently with friends, who’ve also pointed out that I’ve not posted much recently – more of that in a separate post at some point – so here it is for all to find.

Yield: 45 approx

Lemon Shortbread Biscuits: Low FODMAP and Gluten-Free

Lemon Shortbread Biscuits: Low FODMAP and Gluten-Free

A delicious tea-time staple that melts in your mouth. You'd never know they were gluten-free!

Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 20 minutes
Total Time 30 minutes

Ingredients

  • 200g soft salted butter
  • 85g caster sugar (ideally golden caster)
  • 200g rice flour
  • 45g corn flour
  • 40g ground rice
  • Finely grated zest from 2 lemons

Instructions

  1. Cream the butter and sugar together. If I know I'm making these the next day, I take the butter from the fridge the night before to speed up the mixing, but you can use the butter straight from the fridge and leave it in the mixer for longer if this is an impulse bake 🙂
  2. Put the lemon zest into the butter and sugar mix and beat for a couple of minutes to allow the zest to release oils evenly through the mixture.
  3. Add the rice flour, corn flour and ground rice to the bowl and beat thoroughly until you reach an even, slightly sticky dough, stopping once to scrape down the sides.
  4. Make the dough into a ball and place in the centre of a piece of either cling film or baking parchment.
  5. Shape the dough into a sausage around 2in/5cm in diameter, and roll the cling film or parchment around it evenly.
  6. Lightly roll your dough sausage parcel back and forth until the sides are even and any lumps or inconsistencies largely dealt with. When you're happy with it, put the parcel in the fridge and chill for 45-60 minutes.
  7. When your parcel is nice and firm, remove it from the fridge and pre-heat the oven to 160C fan/180 traditional/Gas mark 3
  8. Line a couple of oven trays with baking parchment, unwrap your dough sausage and, using a sharp knife, slice it into even discs 7mm or 1/4in thick. Spread them over the trays, leaving space for the biscuits to spread. This doesn't have to be done with military precision: you can also make them a little thicker, but allow more room for them to spread if you do.
  9. Put the trays in the oven and bake for 20 minutes. Check them after this time. They should be a light golden colour, but all ovens are different: you know your oven best. If it's usually a little fierce, check them after 17 minutes; if it's a little low, check at 20 minutes and be prepared to add a couple of minutes at the end to achieve the desired result.
  10. When baked, take the trays from the oven and put the trays on your cooling racks for 5 minutes. Do not attempt to move the biscuits from the rack yet, as they will break. You need to let them cool in situ so they will hold together.
  11. When the biscuits have cooled slightly, gently transfer them to the cooling racks and leave them to finish cooling.
  12. Enjoy - and prepare to be asked to make them quite often!

Notes

How much of a lemon flavour you want is down to personal taste, and this recipe will vary depending on the size and freshness of your lemons.

If you want the flavour more intense, you can either melt the butter ahead of time and mix in the lemon zest so it can infuse well before you start mixing. You can also make sure it's zested as finely as possible - I have a small, microplane zester that does this really well, gathering the zest in a small container. Or you can use 3 lemons instead of 2 if you prefer.

The final option would be to use a lemon extract from the baking section of the supermarket. This would certainly give you a consistent result, but I find the flavour less satisfying myself. Your mileage may vary 🙂

Nutrition Information:

Yield:

45

Serving Size:

1

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 61Total Fat: 4gSaturated Fat: 2gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 1gCholesterol: 10mgSodium: 29mgCarbohydrates: 7gFiber: 0gSugar: 2gProtein: 0g
The nutritional values given here are an estimate and provided for guidance only.

Slow-roasted shoulder of mutton – low FODMAP comfort food

There are a few sacrifices I’ve had to make since H started his low FODMAP diet, but one of the hardest was having to drop alliums from the repertoire, or at least the more frequent forms of them. No more onions, no more perfectly pureed garlic. So while we can still include the green stalks and leaves of various things like leeks, spring onions, garlic, etc, the flavour is undeniably different, and the ingredients simply don’t behave in the same way.

At the same time, I still want us to enjoy the same foods we did before as much as possible, because it’s tough for a teen to stand out sometimes, to be the “difficult” one, and the more I can do to normalise his dietary requirements and make them accessible for people to prepare, the better it will be in future for him and others on the same diet. So, much as I used to do for coeliac-friendly food at the shop in London.

H has always counted roast lamb and mutton among his favourite dinners, and now we’re in Yorkshire we’re lucky enough to have a phenomenal butcher at Keelham Farm Shop in Skipton, where they buy in locally-raised meat that has incredible flavour. And it doesn’t get much better than a whole shoulder of mutton. I’ve used this recipe for both dinner parties and simple family lunches, and it’s one of those glorious dishes that offers a huge reward for relatively little effort: 15 minutes of prep and you’re pretty much done until you have to cook the accompaniments, which themselves can be pretty low effort if needed.

Today, it’s just the three of us in the house for dinner, which means we’ll also get to enjoy a pile of leftovers. I write this as the mutton is slowly filling the downstairs with delicious smells, and knowing I’ve the rest of the afternoon free for a little gardening, and to pack away summer clothes that have barely been used this year. It’s time to embrace autumn, and this dish, served with fresh, seasonal vegetables, is a wonderful way to celebrate the arrival of colder days.

Yield: 6-8 plus leftovers

Slow-roasted shoulder of mutton - low FODMAP style

Slow-roasted shoulder of mutton - low FODMAP style

Roast mutton and lamb are great with onions and garlic, but with these off the menu for low FODMAP diets, I needed a new recipe. This has all the flavour you could wish for, with tender meat that just falls off the bone. Can be made with mutton or lamb shoulder.

Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 5 hours
Additional Time 15 minutes
Total Time 5 hours 30 minutes

Ingredients

  • 4kg whole shoulder bone-in mutton
  • 1 large carrot
  • 1 bulb of fennel
  • 400ml red wine
  • 400ml water
  • 1 tbsp garlic-infused oil
  • 2 tsp Maldon sea salt flakes
  • Sprig rosemary
  • Sprig thyme
  • 4 bay leaves
  • Garlic stalks and seed heads (optional)

Instructions

  1. Take the meat out of the fridge an hour or two before you're ready to start cooking to bring it up to room temperature.
  2. Preheat the oven to 220C/200C fan.
  3. Slice the carrot and the fennel and use them to create a trivet in the bottom of a large roasting tin.
  4. Spread the fresh herb sprigs and bay leaves over the top of the trivet: if you're using the garlic stalks and seed heads, pop them on the top. If like me you're prone to caution, feel free to pop the seed heads into a muslin wrap so you can extract them easily later.Sliced fennel and carrots in a steel tin with fresh herbs arrayed on top
  5. Pat the shoulder of mutton/lamb dry with some kitchen paper or a clean tea towel, then season the bottom of the joint with half of the sea salt. The underside of a whole shoulder of mutton, seasoned with Maldon sea salt flakes
  6. Place the joint skin side up on the vegetable trivet and score it.
  7. Rub the garlic-infused oil over the scored skin, then season with the remainder of the sea salt.Whole shoulder of mutton seated on a vegetable trivet in a stainless steel tin
  8. Put the joint in the oven for 30 minutes
  9. After 30 minutes, pour the red wine over the mutton, and the water into the tin, then cover the tin in foil to keep the steam in and put it back in the oven at 170C/150C fan.
  10. Cook for a further 4 hours and 30 minutes, until the meat is tender.
  11. Remove the tin from the oven and place the meat on a new tray, covering it with foil (reusing the foil from the original roasting is fine) before leaving it to rest for 15 minutes (or more if you like, but in that case wrap with a tea towel to help keep it warm).
  12. Pour the juices from the tin into a jug and skim off the fat.
  13. At this point, you have a choice: you can discard the vegetables completely, because they've already served their purpose and given their flavour to the juices, or since I hate food waste, I prefer to keep them to one side and put them into the soup next time I'm making some and in the colder months, that's fairly often.
  14. The retained juices make a good gravy: reduce it down a touch to concentrate it a bit further, thicken with a roux if you prefer it that way, and consider adding a splash of balsamic vinegar before seasoning and serving.
  15. And that's it: serve the meat with the gravy and your choice of accompaniments. We're fond of green beans and broccoli and either new potatoes or jacket spuds in this house, depending on the level of comfort food required. Naturally, as a family of three, we tend to have plenty of leftovers from this, which are great in sandwiches, stir-fries, or in a shepherd's pie. Tell me what your favourite way of using the leftovers is in the comments 🙂

Nutrition Information:

Yield:

12

Serving Size:

1

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 1024Total Fat: 71gSaturated Fat: 30gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 36gCholesterol: 323mgSodium: 636mgCarbohydrates: 2gFiber: 0gSugar: 1gProtein: 82g
The nutritional values given here are an estimate and provided for guidance only.

Pale light

It’s Monday morning, and H has gone to school. Many parents would be on their way to work for the day, but I’m lucky enough to work from home. This is a precious time to me. The house is still, I can hear the birdsong outside, and Gwinny is draped in liquid feline fashion across my thighs, sharing warmth.

Unlike many, I have no aversion to Mondays. I may not like the early morning much, because getting out of bed is hard and needs me to be awake for more than an hour beforehand. But that peace from having the house to myself after a weekend of noise and bounce? It’s my time to breathe and set my objectives for the week, when I’m able.

Parked here on the sofa, gazing at the changing light of the sky in the late winter sunrise, I try to assess where on the scale I am with the fibromyalgia symptoms. Is this a working week? A bit of work or a lot? Unbearable pain and impenetrable brain fog, or a more gentle ache and a light mist?

I complete my daily check-in with the different parts of my body that can cause issues. This felt like a lot of effort the first few times I did it, but I’ve learned the hard way that it’s better to tune in and adapt my schedule accordingly than it is to charge headlong at what needs doing. I don’t help anyone if I use up a week’s energy in one day and then can’t work, cook, or more generally look after myself.

Last night I lay in bed with electric stabbing pains coursing up and down as I prayed for sleep. Today I’m sluggish and achy on the physical front, but my brain seems to function. I can string sentences together, managed to complete a sudoku puzzle, and was able to remember the contents of the BBC news bulletin ten minutes after, so today is a day for working and a welcome chance to catch up on some of the things I’ve been unable to do this year because the fibromyalgia has got in the way.

In a moment, I’ll get up and prepare my day. So much of this condition is about management and routine: if I can imprint onto my muscle memory that the day starts with making sure I have a drink and some fruit to hand, and that I’m located somewhere that will minimise the number of times I have to get up or go up and down stairs, I have some hope that on the bad days the habits are sufficiently ingrained that I don’t need to rely on my foggy brain but can instead do things on autopilot.

It’s a strange life, but it is mine. The sky in the window has become a pale, cement grey; the trees are still, with no wind to stir the dead leaves that failed to fall in the autumn. It’s tempting to take the view as a metaphor for my life, but I would reject that. The gentle play of the light as I watch is a reminder that time is passing, nothing more.

Gwinny gets up, stretches, blinks slowly at me before placing a cold, damp nose on my hand. I have my orders. And now my day begins.