I can’t believe that it is a year since the last Book Character Day at school. Something weird and magical happens to the passing of time living here in Dubai – one minute we are starting back at school after the long summer holidays, you blink and the next minute we’re preparing for the next summer break. Maybe it’s age. Maybe it’s the heat. Maybe we really are trapped in some weird, magical time vortex. Whichever … I can vouch for the fact that the need to come up with another costume for Book Character Day has come round super quickly.
You might remember that last year Pippi Longstocking came to the rescue – or rather her cute and slightly quirky fashion sense, and the long stripey socks and the gingerbread hearts – it was all part of the success. I reached the conclusion last year that, “To preserve family harmony, decide on the ‘right’ clothes first and then find a character that fits.” The right clothes matter oh so much when you are a girly, girl of 8 years, but I have to say that this year it panned out differently.
It went something like this …
Mummy to Hella – “Oh heck – it’s Book Character Day next week.”
Hella to Mummy – “I think I know what I want to dress up as.”
Mummy to Hella (tentatively) – “OK. That sounds good. What is it?”
Hella to Mummy – “Well, I’d like to go as My Naughty Little Sister and I thought I could wear that blue denim dress we bought in England last summer – you know the one that looks kind of old fashioned – and my school shoes and white ankle socks. I’ll need bunches in my hair with ribbons and she has red hair so we could spray mine.”
Well that was painless. Job done. It really did seem too good to be true and I completely expected a 360° change of heart before the big day but it was not to be. There was a slight wobble about the oversized ‘made from an empty Bran Flakes box’ badge, spelling out who she was (let’s face it, nobody would have had the slightest clue otherwise) but otherwise all good. And so, what swung it? How on earth did it go so smoothly? I have reached my conclusion. The answer to family harmony and the maintenance of sanity for school dress-up days is simple…. any costume works for Hella if it involves coloured hair … and freckles. Sorted. A revised lesson learned.
So, back to My Naughty Little Sister for a moment. Do you know the book? It really is the stuff of legends in our house – even with #1 and #2 teenage sons. It’s a pretty old book dating back to the fifties and has heaps of the charm and nostalgia that you would associate with that era. Life is simple – Daddy goes out to work and Mummy stays home and to be honest there is not a politically correct word in its pages. Take ‘Bad Harry’ for example – from what I can make out, he’s just a regular kid but the poor child is burdened with being known as ‘bad’ for his entire childhood. Surely we need to involve the authorities.
There’s lots of talk of people being either ‘jolly nice’ or ‘cross’ in My Naughty Little Sister. There’s the policeman who writes things down in a big book, there’s the doctor who gets ‘called for’ a lot and of course there’s the milkman and the baker and the window cleaner who all seem to visit the house with startling regularity. And then there was the day that ‘The Good Polite Child’ came to tea. This is definitely the story that gets the most airtime round here. We did a long family car journey, some time back, and the audio book of My Naughty Little Sister played on loop for the duration. Here’s how the story played out –
- Mother offers to mind Winnie (the Good Polite Child) while her mother goes out.
- My Naughty Little Sister is pretty excited and gets all her toys out in anticipation.
- Mother is feeling the love too and makes cherry cakes, jam tarts and some ginger biscuits for a special tea and, quote, “Wasn’t my mother a kind woman, making those nice things for tea?” NOTE – not sure that my cooking has ever resulted in me being referred to as a kind woman. Must try harder.
- The visit even warranted tea in the garden with the best bluebird tablecloth. Blimey. Heavy stuff.
- So, Winnie arrives, looking all fancy schmancy in a blue silky dress and blue shiny shoes and wearing a frilly, white, silky apron – just in case of spillage.
- They hang out with dolls and teddies and Winnie rejects the idea of making mud pies – for fear of getting the frilly, white, silky apron dirty I imagine – and then rejects all the other suggestions of things to do too. Maybe she is holding out for gorging on the jam tarts?
- Thankfully, at last it’s tea time and blow me if the Good Polite Child doesn’t reject the cherry cakes and the jam tarts and the ginger biscuits and asks for, “Bread and butter, please”.
- And Mother says, through gritted teeth, “How very, very polite.” …. and then (surely) has a major rant to hubbie when he gets home.
Now, I’m all in favour of literature sparking debate and that is certainly what happened here.
“Surely that’s really rude to ask for something that’s not on the table.”
“Who would ask for bread and butter over jam tarts?”
“Bet she won’t be invited back ….”
“What’s the point of a frilly, white, silky apron anyway?”
We don’t shy away from the big issues in our family.
So, we’ve nailed the answer to family harmony and the maintenance of sanity when it comes to dress-up days and now let’s get onto securing it at dinner time too. For Hella, the supreme champion is always Bolognese Sauce – with pasta of course. It’s her dinner of choice (along with tuna sandwiches or Pesto Pasta) and it’s that dependable dinner that I bring out when I want to be sure everyone around the table will be happy. I know that it’s nothing new – surely most families have it in their rotation – but it’s a classic, a basic recipe to have in your armoury and, to be honest, I’ve been through endless variants on this classic before settling on this one. This version is closer to an authentic italian dish – a fairly, light dish; not overly rich and definitely not drowned in tomatoes. It takes a little while to cook it down, so this isn’t one to be rattled off at the last minute, but find yourself a window of opportunity, make double (it’s the golden rule for me) and freeze what you won’t use right away in handy sized portions. Here I served it with fettucccine (apparently closer to being authentic than spaghetti) but often, to be honest, I use a pasta shape that involves less risk of decorating the front of everyone’s shirts.
I know that you know why Bolognese sauce is a winner but I’m going to remind you anyway –
- It’s not just Hella … everyone loves it. Big mouths and small mouths. Old and young.
- This version has a few veggies in too and don’t be thinking that they’re there just to get closer to your 5 a day, it’s what makes the sauce so good – oh and the red wine and the lardons and the garlic ….
- It’s one of those classic dishes that tastes even better the next day, so you can cook it, leave it to cool, chill it overnight and it’s ready to serve on your favourite shape of pasta the next day.
- It’s a great dish to have prepared and ready for when you know you need to rattle off dinner quickly. If I’m in a real rush, I sometimes pre-cook the pasta too, but I’ve learned to keep the pasta and the sauce separate and only heat them and combine them when we are ready to eat. Otherwise, the warm sauce soaks into the warm pasta and it’s a bit dry when you come to eat it. Still super tasty, but drier than you’d want it to be.
- It freezes beautifully and if you keep the portion sizes fairly small, it defrosts quickly too.
- Don’t be thinking that Bolognese pasta is only suitable for a family mid-week dinner. Serve it piled high on a big, flat, white plate in the centre of the table with plenty of shaved Parmesan and a bottle of red wine and you have a perfect relaxed supper for friends.
So there you have it – the answers to life’s big questions … how to get through school dress-up days and how to rattle off a dinner that even Bad Harry would wolf down. Done and done.
- 150g (5oz) pack of lardons
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 large onions, finely chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, crushed or grated
- 2 carrots, finely chopped
- 1 stick of celery, finely chopped
- 1kg (2¼ lb) lean minced beef
- 2 large glasses red wine
- 2 x 400g (approx 1lb) cans chopped tomatoes
- 100g (4oz) tomato purée (about half a standard tube)
- 2 bay leaves
- salt and pepper
- pasta and freshly grated Parmesan to serve
- Fry the lardons in a large, heavy-based saucepan until golden - they will create enough of their own oil.
- Now add the olive oil and allow to heat up. Tip in the onions, garlic, carrots and celery and fry gently until softened.
- Increase the heat and add the minced beef. Fry until it has browned.
- Pour in the wine and boil until it has reduced by about a third. Reduce the temperature and add the tomatoes, tomato purée, bay leaves and a little seasoning.
- Cover with a lid and simmer over a gentle heat for 1-1½ hours until it's rich and thickened. Be sure to stir it occasionally.
- Taste to check the seasoning.