Community Beautifiers

             

Just look at these wonderful gates. They’re in Berkeley, California. The decorations are cut out of the metal – leaves of bog rosemary, blue oak, sugar bush, California Buckeye, California Maidenhair, and many more.  Rivers and trains, roads and tools are represented.  Looking at them you can see all of Berkeley life.

Names of the sculptor (Eric Powell, 2007) and his crew are also cut into the metal, for everyone to see.

 

And when the gates open, where do they lead? Not to a park, not to a museum, not to a garden, not any place of beauty, but to the City of Berkeley Corporation Yard.  Behind these gates stand the road sweepers, the garbage trucks, the vans that maintain the infrastructure of the city, as well as their fuel.  The yard has always been there, even when horses drew the carts, and there was a pig sty on site for the collected garbage.  So why should this amazing work of community art appear as an entrance to such a mundane establishment?  That’s what I asked the security guard on my 6 a.m. walk.  “We wanted something beautiful for our community, “he said, “to bring them close together”.

                       

These gates always impress me. It is rare that we can see the names of artists who have carefully made our living environment beautiful.  I also enjoy seeing the whole-wall murals that tell of myth and history or how the Berkeley community began. Here is a wall of a simple grocery shop.  The mural was so vast that I couldn’t get back far enough to take the complete scene,  almost risked getting run over for the bits I did manage to take.  (Standing in the middle of a busy street is not good for one’s health.)

                       

In England,  landscaping with bushes, trees and plants along the highways produce seasonal colour, and I often wonder who has planned it, and did they get any praise for it? Thousands and thousands of daffodil bulbs are planted by the river in Bedford and always bring a sigh of pleasure after a damp drab winter.

Personal contributions to public enjoyment come in the form of front gardens. What a delight it is to see them bursting with bloom!  When she was getting used to her new community our daughter Lizzie  carried pretty post cards with her, and when she saw  a lovely display,  she sent them a quick note through their letterbox: “Hi!  I just want to thank you for all the time you take to make your garden so beautiful for those who pass by.  It’s a true gift to the community.!”

Our friend Alan painted a dancing Snoopy on his garage door several decades ago, and it has been a joy to his community ever since .  A few years past he received a post card:  “I have looked at Snoopy for fifteen years, on my way to school.  I still smile when I see it.  I’m 32 now.”

Bless the community beautifiers. And bless the people who take the time to say how much they appreciate it.

Oatmeal Shortbread

As far as beautiful food is concerned, well, you’ve got me there.  My creative sculpturing skill received a deadening blow when I carefully made a fish-shaped fish pie with puff pastry, complete with puff pastry scales and an egg wash.  Verdict from those watching: it looked like a sick fox.  From then on, I try to let the food speak for itself.  What then could be more beautiful than a multi coloured fruit salad, sloshed with elderflower cordial (to keep it from browning), served with cream!  Here’s an oatmeal shortbread recipe to go with it.  I served this at an all-day finance meeting for SEEDS Creatives (check the website).

Into a food processor fling 8 ozs butter (1 cup, 230 grams), 2 ½ ozs brown sugar (1/2 cup, 75 gms ),  1 tsp vanilla,  5 ozs rolled oats (2 cups 160 gms) , ½ tsp bicarbonate of soda (baking soda),  and 4 ozs plain flour (1 cup, 125 gms).  Process on low, building to high, until all is a smooth paste.  Spread evenly in a pan on baking parchment or waxed paper about the depth of your thumbnail and chill for at least 30 minutes.  Fork the batter all over, and cut into fingers.  Lay out on a baking tray about 1 ½ inches  or more ( 25 cms) apart.  Bake in a slow oven (about 325  160C) for 20 – 30 minutes.  Cool on tray before removing – they are fragile when hot.

 

 

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A Day at the Festival

  • 3 000 New Testaments burned, by order of a Bishop
  • Fight, not facts, are more important to today’s press.
  • The Malawian government seems to be preventing poor people from being educated
  • We are killing our planet
  • Racial prejudice is still blindingly rife in this country

In the random events I chose to attend that day at the Literary Festival at Hay-on-Wye (see www.hayfestival.org) my naïve soul was certainly introduced to a lot about control of facts and suppression of the truth, whether it was Melvyn Bragg’s brilliant commentary on William Tyndale, the greatest Englishman (even influencing Shakespeare), and his insistence that the Bible should be translated into simple English. (Was burned at the stake for such audacity)  or James O’Brian from LBC commenting on the absence of accuracy and the proliferation of  false stories in today’s newspapers, or a tiny organisation trying to get books into Malawi’s poorest village, or Afua Hirsch, a mixed-race Brit who is still asked “Where are you from, really?” as if she has to defend her Britishness.

People love the Hay Festival. Their stuttered spurts of praise and delight are almost incoherent in deep emotion. I think its joy is in the intense energy released from all that new learning –a quarter of a million brains engaged in learning are bound to give a  POW to the atmosphere!

What a privilege, then to meet some of these “normal” people who are making a difference in the world!  And in so many areas!

  • Newly published and beautifully illustrated:  Cinterella of the Nile, a 2000 year old Cinderella story.
  • Seaweed, fed to cattle helps to reduce the greenhouse gases they cause
  • people are experimenting in developing cells from fish to make fish fillets, from chicken to make chicken fillets – no heads, no tails, no bones, just the meat we eat. And no damage to the environment, minus the occasional fish and chicken.
  • There’s a Vegan hamburger that actually oozes “blood”.
  • A very small organisation is providing the poorest of the villages in Malawi with books, producing education, even up to University level. They had never seen a book before the organisation arrived in 2002.
  • Craftivism, started by a burnt-out activist, shows how to respond to injustice not with apathy or aggression, but with gentle effective creative protest.  Craft is the social lubricant!

There was lots more.   Quite a day, quite an eye-opener. Will it change my life?  Hopefully.

Ultimate Chilli

Paul McCartney’s plea for us to go partially Vegan (see his Youtube One Day A Week) encouraged me to find out more about plant-based food.  I attended a lively interview with Henry Firth and Ian Theasby and their new Vegan cookbook BOSH!   Most of their huge following comes from their Facebook entries, so I’m glad they also published a book.  Aside from exhausting the English language’s superlatives, their instructions are simple and detailed. Trying out this recipe elicited an occasional “WHAAAA?” but I admit that this is by far the best vegetarian chilli I have ever made, or eaten.  And since it’s Vegan, too, it is open to an even wider circle of our friends.

1 Grind 400 grams (16 ozs)  mushrooms in a liquidiser until finely minced, then fry in oil 5 minutes.  Set aside.

  1. Heat olive oil in a large frying pan. When hot add: 2 red onions peeled and chopped, 4 garlic cloves peeled and chopped, 2 red chillis stemmed and de-seeded and chopped and the chopped stems of 30 grams coriander (save the leaves to garnish at the end) Cook 5 – 10 minutes stirring constantly.
  2. Then add 4 celery stalks finely chopped, and 1 red bell pepper, de-seeded and chopped.  While that’s cooking, make up the spice mix.
  3. Spice mix: in a small bowl mix 1 tsp chilli powder, 1 tsp ground cumin, 1 tsp smoked paprika, ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon, ½ teaspoon oregano, ½ tsp salt, ½ tsp black pepper, and a bay leaf.
  4. Add the spice mix to the cooking vegetables, ensuring that all vegs and all spices meet each other companionably. Cook for 5 minutes.
  5. Stir in 1 tablespoon tomato puree (paste) 8 ozs (1 cup) red wine, 2 tsps soy sauce, and 1 tsp balsamic vinegar. Turn heat to high. Cook until the liquid is reduced by two thirds.
  6. Pour in 2 tins (cans) of chopped tomatoes. Cook until thickened.
  7. Add 1 tin (can) drained black beans, 1 tin (can) drained kidney beans, 1 ½ tsps. maple syrup (I used honey), 10 g (1 square) dark chocolate and the cooked mushrooms.
  8.  Let the mixture bubble and chuckle for at least 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  9. Before serving remove the bay leaf and sprinkle on the chopped coriander.

The chilli is in there somewhere! A layer of brown rice, a layer of chilli, a layer of chopped lettuce, then  grated cheese, then thick yogurt, and then corn chips.  What’s there not to like?   Sliced tomatoes are good, too, if you have them.

Note to my viewer: if you know where to find Vegan yogurt, mayonnaise, and cheese, please write in REPLY so that all can access it.  Thanks.

 

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Community Gardeners

It seemed like a good idea at the time. I once infiltrated a posh Herb Workshop on a massive Gloucestshire estate, hoping to pick up cooking tips using herbs.  Bad bad idea.  The situation turned prickly after the lemon balm tea and lavender-bud shortbread, when we had to explain why we were there. All had gardens. All could actually make things grow.  All, of course, except me. When I said that I didn’t like gardening there were murmured cries of “shame shame” from the two women who were already comparing this vast estate with “Prince Charles’ and Camilla’s garden.”

The event was probably the beginning of my total inadequacy at growing anything and squashed any confidence around Latin speaking gardeners. It was with relieved pleasure therefore when I was introduced to community gardening in Dunton, a nearby village, and watched its development nourish the souls of a people whose amenities were quickly waning.  I was so enlivened that I felt just fine when I met the Peralta community gardeners in Berkeley California.

 

Why?  Because they seemed human.  Because they’re using a neglected piece of railroad land and making it beautiful.  Because they insist that they grow organic.  Because each plot has flowers to attract insects.  And, above all, they are drawing together a community with a common interest. Here again is a chance for people to make friends and to encourage each other as they work together to make a garden fit for themselves and the visiting public. Their garden is decorated with lovely member-made ceramic tiles.

Their plots (being Californian) grow fruits, flowers and vegetables all year long. Their tiled ring bench is ideal just for sitting, thinking, writing or painting .  One man plays midwife to the monarch butterfly by stringing up chrysalises on the tree.

 

 

 

 

   

Community gardens in Berkeley exist because of one man, Karl Linn, who campaigned to reclaim the commons from privitisation of public lands. He believed strongly that guidelines to secure public land for community gardens should be incorporated in the cities’ general plans.  He was convinced that through the creation and use of accessible community garden commons, neighbourhoods could become arenas for extended family living.  In my short stay in Berkeley I saw quite a few community gardens.  All of them have huge WELCOME signs to the public.

 

And the campaign continues. Have a look at the YoutubeTED talk given by gangster guerilla gardener Ron Finley, who got sick of watching an increase in Dialysis centres, motorised wheel chairs, and having to drive 45 minutes for an organic apple, just because South Los Angeles was a Food Desert (his words) and residents were dying from curable diseases.  The 4 minute talk is inspirational.  I won’t give it away, but you’ll have to be prepared for colourful language.

In the UK the allotment system is much older. Its roots go back to the nineteenth century, but parcelled land could go back as far as to Anglo Saxon times. Champions of the allotment plan insisted that the government give land to the poor, due to the rapid industrialisation of the country.  Today there are about 330 000 allotment plots in the UK.  Wandering through an allotment, it’s interesting to see how they’re used.  Fresh flowers AND vegetables are growing happily.  A friend I know uses hers to grow unusual plants – like candy striped beetroot and blue potatoes.

Even from a non-gardener’s perspective it is a joy to see the pleasure and pride that people take in their gardens, marvelling at the miracle of growth, the delight in nurturing and cherishing the plants into maturity. Long may they continue to flourish, long may cities and towns protect them for the fruit and friendship that grows in them.  If you can, do everything in your community to keep such a garden going.  Who knows, you may even be offered a blue potato in gratitude.

Baghali Pollo

Broad (Fava) Bean Rice Dish

Elizabeth, one of the Peralta gardeners offered us some broad beans (fava beans) which she grows to re-nourish the soil. To make this Persian recipe, get yourself a good DVD, something to watch as you shell the beans, and later take off their individual skins once they’re cooked.

Amounts vary according to the horde you are feeding:

Broad beans shelled, cooked gently, then pop the skins off them.

Rice cooked to al dente.

Fresh dill as much as you can get. I used 2 supermarket boxes for 3 people, but Persians use much more, about 5 cups.  Strip the dill off its stems and chop it.  Fling the stems into a bag in the freezer and save for the next time you make stock.

Yogurt about half a cup.

Saffron ground and soaked in 2 tablespoons hot water.

Butter or oil.

 In a heavy bottomed pan place half a cup of yogurt, the saffron water, ½ cup water and 4 tablespoons oil.

 

 

Add a quarter of the cooked rice.  Layer on chopped dill and beans, repeat, ending with rice.  Plop teaspoons of butter on top, and run some down the edges of the pan, or use oil.  Cover with a clean cloth, then the pan’s lid.  Over very low heat, cook until hot and steaming about 20 – 30 minutes.  If you wait even longer you will get a crispy bottom.  When done, put the bottom of the pan in cold water to push off the crispy rice on the bottom.  Invert onto a plate.  You may even get a whole “cake” of rice.  Even if you don’t, it’s yummy eating.

 

This will be a vegan dish by omitting yogurt and butter. Just add the saffron water to the oil in the bottom.  It’s vegetarian with butter and yogurt.  But it’s also very good with smoked fish.

[By the way, do you have a garden glut of lettuce? Let me know.  I have a lettuce pancake recipe.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Community of Listeners

I came across something startling today. I was so surprised I did a double take.  A father didn’t have a phone in his hand as he took his two children  to school.  Had to check again: no, he really really didn’t.

I myself was doing my usual morning walk. Yes. Doing.  Not necessarily seeing or enjoying or appreciating, just doing.  Gotta get those steps recorded on the pedometer, don’t I?  I had just arrived at the place where great majestic chestnut trees line an ancient carriage path to a stately home (now a health farm), when the grey fugg of doing exploded into colourful reality.  Not only was the phoneless Dad a shock, but both children were aware – and talking about – their surroundings.  Dad entered in.  There were no condescending grunts, but real comments, substantiating or explaining the children’s observations.

the epic tree

“Oh Dad! Isn’t that tree epic!  Wouldn’t it make a great tree house!”

“Hmm. Perhaps.  But look at the branches.  They may not be the right shape. And would you like a tree house so high up?”

They carried on, the children skipping and jumping enthusiastically beside Dad’s long strides, their torso-sized school bags bouncing on their backs. Their delight and excitement burst into bloom by their own imaginings, with Dad taking part enthusiastically.

 

They say that everyone is a philosopher and a poet, if you only listen. Perhaps that Dad knew his children better than most.

But as for me, I woke up to my surroundings. Golly – a tree house in those amazing chestnuts:  why hadn’t I thought of that?  It would be epic!

 

To uncover the poets and philosophers of any chronological age, walking is the best medium. Walking and listening.  But if you have to be in a kitchen, here’s a recipe that others can “help” you with.  Prepare the dough,  then invite them to take part in rolling into flatbread shape, while you bake them in a dry frying pan (all the while listening, of course.)

Naturally, the lovingly misshapen flatbreads will probably taste better.

Onion Flatbreads from Uzbekistan.

taken from The Russian Cookbook by Barbara Norman, 1970 

[Good heavens my book is almost 50 years old!!!]

Fry two minced onions (I used one red, one white) slowly in 1 tablespoon butter until onion is transparent.  Dissolve 1 tsp salt in 6 ozs (3/4 cup) warm water.  Melt 5 tablespoons butter and stir into the water with the fried onions.  Cool to room temperature.  Stir enough plain flour into the water (up to 3 cupfuls) by sprinkling over the liquid and gradually incorporating it until the dough leaves the sides of the bowl.  Form into a ball and let it rest, covered, for half an hour.

Roll two-inch balls of the dough and with a rolling pin, roll out to the size of your frying pan (about a hand span in diameter). Brown each flatbread on both sides in the ungreased frying pan.  (Mine took about a minute on each side).  Cool on a rack.  I like them soft and bendable, but apparently the Uzbekis like them crisp, in which case stand them on end in the slats of your cookie rack.

Use them as you would tortillas or other flatbreads. The onions make them especially good with cheese.  Let us all know how yours came out.  What you heard from your philosophers and poets, of course, is confidential to the kitchen’s walls.

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Pantomime Time — oh yes it is!

When husband John first mentioned the word “pantomime” to me his American bride, I was quite sure that I knew what he was talking about: actors in make-up who could silently and dramatically describe a wall, running, going upstairs, and much more, just with their bodies and no props.

“Oh no,” he laughed. “This kind of pantomime has wildly raucous music, a song competition that no one wins, a story that is the same no matter what the title, a ghost, a Bad Guy we can boo and hiss, an animal that usually comes in two parts, the principle woman is a man dressed up as a woman, and the principle boy is a girl with good legs.” I looked at him steadily to see if he was joking.  He was not.  With this kind of a model, I wondered how the Brits had ever learned to procreate, but I said nothing.

 

 

Over the years I have learned to love village pantomimes – they are  real community building events. I have even had the privilege of taking part in a few.  The actors are all ages and come from all backgrounds and would probably have never known each other were it not for working so hard on the production.  And making volunteer thespians out of those who come forward is not easy, believe me. There are wranglings, and ironings-out, and vowing never-never-ever to do this again and learning lines either well or disastrously, and people who get sick at the last minute and others have to fill in, and then, and THEN, the curtain goes up and the whooping, laughing delighted audience who has come to see its own people on stage, to giggle, to shout and boo and cheer and abuse, become so exuberant and hysterical that they lose all decorum.  It’s truly a wonderful evening.

Then suddenly it’s all over. The future is gaping and empty.  So what shall we do for next year?With the stress and time pressures on everyone these days, the number of local village pantos is withering quickly. If you still have one in your area, do your best to support it – it builds the cross-ties of the community better than any other event.  Or, why not join in and become part of it? Even if you volunteer as Curtain Puller Extraordinaire, you’ll be in on the act.

Food before a panto must be easily prepared ahead of time, simple and not too rich. After all, you do have a night of haranguing and abusing ahead of you.  Here’s an easy casserole as a suggestion:

Chicken or Tuna Noodle Casserole 

Boil until tender noodles for the number of people you are serving. Generally, a single serving of dry pasta is 75 grams  (2 ½ ozs). Put in a buttered casserole dish.   Either make a white sauce of 3 tablespoons butter, 3 tablespoons flour, and stir in enough milk to the consistency of thick cream, or use two tins (cans) of condensed mushroom soup. In either case add ½ teaspoon curry powder and/or ground coriander.     Add 2 tins (cans) solid packed tuna (drained) or two cups cooked chicken chunks. Add the sauce to the casserole dish and incorporate the noodles so that all are resplendently coated in the sauce.

Now that you’ve got the basics, it’s time to get creative. Add any or all of the following and mix well:


  • 1 cup or more strong cheddar  or blue cheese, grated.
  • frozen corn or peas, 2 handfuls
  • mushrooms and sliced spring onion sauteed in butter
  • cashew nuts
  • left-over cooked vegetables
  • sliced green olives
  • chopped hard boiled eggs
  • finely chopped red bell pepper
  • a pinch of dried chilli flakes

(note: some people also add crisply fried bacon bits, too.)

  Spread in the buttered casserole dish.  Sprinkle the top with the contents of a small packet of crushed plain potato crisps (chips), minus the one or two you sampled for quality control.  Bake in a moderate oven until bubbly.  Serve with sliced fresh tomatoes, and warmed good quality bread.

 

What do YOU put in your noodle casserole?

 

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January 24th is Peanut Butter Day

Living in a cramped maroon room with an exquisite view of the brickwork on the neighbouring building outside my window taught me much about life during my graduate days in Ithaca, New York. My octogenarian landlady downstairs, gave  the same piano piece to all her students, and ate fried potatoes for supper everyday.

Occasionally I’d join her in her dim Victorian living room. She told me a story I haven’t forgotten:  “One day, when I was in primary school, we were all called into the lunch hall and told to sit down.  It wasn’t meal time, but there we sat, the whole school in silence.  Then we were each given our first-ever taste of peanut butter on bread. I loved it immediately.  I found out later that the Government, apparently, wanted to know if children liked the taste, as peanuts were going to be another source of nutrition during the War”.

Peanuts date back to the Aztecs. But in the United States, they were made famous by George Washington Carver, a botanist who went from slavery to university professor for his studies preventing soil depletion.  Peanuts were one of the crops he introduced.

My own memories start in China days. As an eight year old I can recall sitting on a high stool in the kitchen, in the silent hot afternoons. No sound but the hum of the fridge, an alarming new addition to a missionary’s home (imagine having electricity all the time so that you could run a fridge!) and Ah Yang, our Cantonese cook, bending over a meat grinder clamped firmly to the edge of the table, grinding roasted peanuts over and over again until they were smooth enough to spread.  I can still see her long black braid falling over her shoulder as she stooped to operate the crank.  If I waited long enough, I got to lick the meat grinder, still warm from all her effort.

The weather today is nothing like those sultry afternoons in Canton. I’m writing to you on a Sunday.  That’s a misnomer.  There’s no sun at all.  Instead, we are treated to an ominous murky greyness that illuminates the mud and sleety rain that drizzles miserably into the collar of any soul who ventures outside.  Better to stay indoors, light a fire, put feet in slippers and make

Peanut Butter Cookies

Mix together ½ cup (4 ozs, 110 gms) white sugar, ½ cup (4 ozs 110 gms) brown sugar, and ½ cup (4 ½ ozs 130 gms) peanut butter *.  Add 1 ¼ cups (5 ozs, 155 gms) plain flour, ½ teaspoon baking powder, ¾ teaspoon soda bicarbonate (baking soda), and ¼ teaspoon salt.  When thoroughly combined, roll into small balls and place 3 inches apart on a baking sheet.

Press criss-crosses into the tops of the cookies with a fork dipped in flour.    Bake in a moderate oven 8 to 10 minutes or until lightly browned.  Yield: about 36 cookies.

*If you want to replicate the peanut butter that Ah Yang made, choose one without sugar or palm oil.

AZ Autos of Hitchin sampling the cookies

 

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Twelfth Night Party

 

I am delighted to live in a country where it’s possible to celebrate twelve days of Christmas. Thank you, Great Britain, for inventing it!  No need to get cards and letters to people by the 25th of December.  Let them arrive after the first day of Christmas, when people have more time to read them.  Decorations can stay up until Epiphany.  And friends are much more amenable to parties if they aren’t squeezed into the tight time before December 25th.  It’s good to keep Christmas Cheer throughout the festival of the twelve days.  It offers a chance for those celebrators who are weary from cramming in shopping, cooking, wrapping, and writing during the time when it is NOT Christmas, (when it’s really Advent – another season entirely) to let their hair down when the work is all done and they can relax.

 

12th night e

no foreign bodies in our fruitcake, just solid fruit.

Last night we had a Twelfth Night Party for our street. Long ago ancient Britons used this time to play pranks on their friends, baking cakes with foreign objects in them to surprise or choke an unwary consumer. But our party was just food, drink and chat.   Visiting relatives and friends were also welcomed to pop in anytime during the evening.  The floor was joyously strewn with toy cars and lego and the edges of the rooms buzzed with enthusiastic talking, laughing and sharing.  It was wonderful, and my heart rose a couple of altitudes.

 

Food – two chillis and rice plus finger food — were easily available, and because everyone knew everyone, there was no formality in helping themselves and each other. You really get to know your neighbours well, don’t you, when they’ve seen you emptying the dustbin in your dressing gown [bathrobe].

 

Snack foods that accompany drinks: now there’s something I’m not good at. I can’t pretend that hovering over a cherry tomato trying to stuff it with miniscule amounts of cream cheese is a joy and delight.  Mass produced finger foods come easily, and disappear easily as well.  Here’s one of my favourites:

 

Toasted Onion Canapes

12th night c
canapés before being toasted.

This is easy because it’s three parts finely chopped onion with 2 parts mayonnaise, and one part grated parmesan cheese. If you mix ¾ cup of minced onions (therefore ½ cup of mayo and ¼ cup cheese) together, that will comfortably spread 20 slices of half-toasted French bread.  Then grill about 2 inches from the flame for a couple of minutes or so.  Watch like a hawk as it soon scorches.  Also, don’t eat immediately as it will blister the roof of your mouth.

Variations:

1. Stir in a little dried tarragon to the mixture before spreading. Sprinkle in some paprika and mix well.

  1. 3. Top the grilled canapes with a cooked prawn, or some smoked salmon before serving.
  2. 4.  Use any other cheese  for a different taste sensation.

That’s it, dear friends. Happy Eating.

note: unfortunately we cannot provide a photo of the finished product because the subject was consumed too rapidly. Here’s a very fuzzy photo of Bernie (right), eating the last one.

Bernie is on the right.

 

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