Dear Diary: Soup for one

Since COVID-19 turned the world upside down and inside out, people have acquired new skills they wouldn’t have dreamt of before - especially when we were in national lockdown with sod-all to do except clean out the cupboards, give nooks and crannies an early spring clean, bake cakes and drink alcohol.

I’m a neat freak anyway but suddenly my cupboards were Teutonic in their tidiness, the nooks and crannies would make even the most nitpicky Four in a Bed contestants marvel, and drinking alcohol? Well, that’s never been a problem.

I have, however, mastered making chips in the Ninja Foodi - both of the regular and sweet potato kind - and I’ve become a bit of a whiz with the Morphy Richards soup kettle.

Since March, when we all began panicking about not being able to find fresh veg on supermarket shelves, any suitable leftovers have gone into the soup kettle along with some vegetable stock, a pinch of garlic powder and a few dried herbs.

I’ve made soup out of everything from Brussels sprouts to potatoes that have begun to sprout. And for the record, the latter was hearty and comforting and has since become a lunchtime staple whereas the former was a once-only stomach-churner that I've blocked from my memory.

I was already occasionally making soup the lazy Morphy Richards way long before lockdown. But it is now part of my batch-cook weekly routine and I’m especially proud of cracking gazpacho in summer and potato with cumin, coriander and chilli powder now winter has set in.

That’s as far as my quest to conquer the culinary has gone, though.

Unlike many friends and Instagram-ers, I’m not suddenly baking bread and cakes, nor indeed moussakas and lasagnes when they’re still reasonably priced in the chilled section of M&S.

Plus, the one time I did try to make a lasagne I forgot to add minor ingredients like tinned tomatoes and tomato puree, resulting in a dried-out brick of a dish you could have used as the foundation for a nice bit of dry stone walling.

And don’t get me started on my first attempt at mashed potatoes. Suffice to say I misheard the instructions, going at it with a diced potato, a pan on a heated hob and a masher, not realising you had to boil the tatties and drain them before mashing them. ‘Blimey, this is too much like hard work,’ I recall thinking as I chucked the rock-hard spud in the bin and reached for the chip pan.

I have a friend called… Well, let’s call him John because that’s his name. During the first lockdown John began making jelly, which even I know is easy, then messaged me a picture of some homemade banana bread, which can’t have been easy and had indeed gone horridly wrong. It was oozing down the side of the pan like something you’d see in an Alien movie.

This desire to do something new isn’t confined to the kitchen, either.

I know people who tried, and continue to try, to turn themselves into Joe Wicks, either by growing their hair long and curly or by hurling themselves into his Body Coach workouts, only to emerge 30 minutes later with pulled hamstrings and strained thighs.

Not me. I’ve no chance of growing lustrous locks, except maybe on other parts of the body than my folicly-challenged head, and Amazon don’t stock the Elton John Wig range.

Even the Wicks workouts for kids look too much like hard work to me, but then my idea of 10,000 Steps a day isn’t walking round in circles til the Health app on my iPhone hits said number - it’s listening to One For Sorrow, Tragedy and Love’s Got A Hold On My Heart on constant rotation.

Around May time I read about folk who were using enforced downtime to learn a new language. ‘Why,’ I pondered at the time, ‘when you can’t go anywhere unless you’re Dominic Cummings?’

But that’s enough about politics. I’m not normally a political animal. Ask me to name, say, the last four Prime Ministers in reverse order and I’d get as far as Theresa May, then start cracking jokes about her ‘dancing’ to Dancing Queen and how if you say her name fast enough it sounds like a well-known shampoo brand.

If I’d gone to Greenham Common before the peace camp was disbanded in 2000 I’d have been more interested in finding the cafe and the gift shop than hunkering down on the grass to protest against the storage of cruise missiles at the Berkshire RAF base.

If I’d opted to join environmental activist Swampy in one of those tunnels he and his pals dug to block an extension to the A30 in Fairmile, Devon, in 1996 I’d have been whingeing about the lack of toilet facilities and wondering how I’d get to see the latest episode of This Life.

Oh and in fact-checking that bit about Greenham Common I’ve just twigged that the camp was women-only so that gives you an idea of how politically savvy I am.

But I digress. Back to the skills the Great British public are acquiring in 2020.

You can, apparently, take online ballet classes but I can hear my bones snapping just from typing that. Some have the grace of a swan. I have the grace of 80s TV dance troupe the Roly Polys, plus the legs of Stig of the Dump and the flexibility of a steel girder. My idea of flexibility is stretching to own-brand digestives when Sainsbury’s are all out of the McVitie’s ones.

I could try learning first aid, which might not be a bad idea because I’m a hypochondriac who lives alone and who has often wondered how he’d manage if he needed to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre on himself. (More about my hypochondria, and how COVID-19 has sent it spiralling here.)

A quick Google search urges me to take up bird-watching, but I live in the concrete jungle that is Croydon and the only birds I see these days are the ones in the poultry aisle at the supermarket.

Coding? No thanks. No idea what it is and can’t be faffed to look it up.

Learn to play a musical instrument? I did take piano lessons when I was a kid but soon discovered I had two left hands, aka the ivory-tinkling equivalent of two left feet, because whatever one hand did the other hand did at exactly the same time, mangling even something as simple as Chopsticks.

One of the many flats I’ve rented over the years did have a baby grand in the living room but, not having a coffee table, I used it as something upon which to display books. My mum bought me a book called It’s Never Too Late To Play The Piano but, after giving the first exercise a go and forcing my downstairs neighbour to call in the police to arrest me on a noise pollution charge, I muttered ‘Oh yes it is!’ and buried said book under a very bulky Vanity Fair’s Hollywood and Barbra Streisand’s celebration of her own interior decorating genius My Passion For Design.

I have no intention of taking up the guitar or even the ukulele; developing calluses is not my idea of fun.

And even if I did decide to give the piano another go, neighbours be damned, I don’t think Amazon are prioritising Steinway deliveries at the mo.

So I’m sticking with soup-making. It’s easy, it makes you feel virtuous that you’re not throwing food away in such austere times, and you don’t need Joe Wicks-sized biceps to do it.

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