Wednesday, 29 February 2012

February 29th - Lenten austerity and the Lollipop lady

Dear Nigel,

One of my greatest pleasures is making food presents for people. Not the sort of food gifts for friends and relations that lots of us indulge in at Christmas - homemade hampers, biscuits, peppermint creams etc. I like to give (and to receive sometimes) the kind of unexpected presents  to unexpectant recipients. I don't even need to be there to see the person's face or hear words of gratitude, or whatever. For me it's to do with brightening someone's day. Often, I've left cakes or bowls of eggs or gluts of tomatoes on doorsteps with no clue to their inception.Today it was the turn of the Lollipop lady.

I don't know whether I've mentioned our Lollipop lady to you before? Every day she stands at the school crossing at the top of the road, and every day we drive past on our way to another part of town. And every day my children insist on waving and making her wave back at them. At Christmas time we had to stop the traffic, get out and give the Lollipop lady Christmas cards which they had made. We've sat warm and snug inside the Landrover, the children wrapped in blankets (as i don't like to use the fan heater in case it blows another fuse - and at 50p a time I'm going through dozens of them), and watched the poor Lollipop lady beating off drowning rain and snow blizzards with her giant Lollipop. And still managing to smile and wave.

I discover that the Lollipop lady is, in fact, the local vicar's wife from the church just over the road from where we live. We're a bit lapsed in these matters, but i do know that it is lent now that pancake Tuesday  has passed. So maybe the gift of cake might be unwelcome in these days of Christian austerity. I imagine her pious husband saying "what a lovely cake dear, so sad that we aren't able to eat it ourselves, but it will make a lovely present for Mrs so-and-so." And the cake passes before her very eyes.

I'm making soup for my regular soup date with Jules so making double is no more effort. Empty plastic milk cartons make ideal containers for the giving (or the freezing, for that matter) of soup. And even the church wouldn't deny a poor cold Lollipop lady something to warm her up, would they? The soup is Celery and cashew nut. It has a lovely clean taste and the nuts, which are whizzed in a food processor, serve to add a creamy texture without any need for additional cream, milk or yoghurt.

 The recipe says to sieve the soup to get rid of the fibrous bits of the celery and the grainy texture of the nuts, but i ignore this. I tend to think of soups as liquid medicine for good health, and sieving out the goodness to me seems sacrilege.Most of my soups are blended with a stick blender, as this goes straight in the pan and there's not all that faff and washing up you have with a blender.

 And have you ever wasted precious hours trying to mash a soup through a fine sieve? - I'm sure you have; to end up with a sublime taste, but very little of it. I'm not at all sure my conscience would let me make so much waste. Perhaps my soups are a little more rustic, a little less 'silver service', but this is the way we eat now. At the kitchen table, with scrubbed pine and bread for tearing, and mismatched china and silver cutlery from flea markets. The Yoga mafia have demanded a return match, so i shall be delving into my bookshelves for another suitable veggie number. All life revolves around a bowl of soup, battles are won and friendships forged. And all for a fiver.


Sunday, 26 February 2012

February 26th - Bread of Heaven

Dear Nigel,

Been musing for a while about getting back to some serious regular Bread making. I have been there and done it three times before now, but making Bread -for me - is only something i can do when i am totally happy. (A bit like bad-tempered cooks not being able to make pastry.) This being an uphill battle, then, i find the only way to stop myself procrastinating any longer is to push myself into a position i can't back out of. So, i whittled away on the Internet and ordered two 25kg sacks of flour from Bacheldre Watermill in Wales.

Bacheldre Watermill is a fairly newcomer to the organic flour-milling business.Matt and Anne Scott have only been there since 2002 but already they have run up several Great Taste awards and others from the Soil Association. And recently they've also gone into partnership with Waitrose; but they remain a fairly small business. I've only bought flour from some of the bigger players before like Dove's farm, and also Shipton Mill, a more established supplier. But, having recently enjoyed using Bacheldre's Oak smoked malted blend flour, i was keen to give some of their other flours a go.

 With the sort of small child around who can sceptically spot anything nutritious at fifty paces, i had to go for a sack of white flour. At least it is organic, non-bleached and stoneground; and I'm hoping I'll gradually be able to introduce a percentage of other stuff up to the point they start rebelling. For the other members of the family looking for something more interesting, i opted for a sack of  malted five seed flour. This includes: - sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, golden linseed, sesame and fennel seeds.

The first sack arrived the following day, but the five seed one may take up to three weeks. However, Bacheldre have done a good deal with amazon and there is free delivery on most things, which, if i remember from before, made a heck of a difference. Got ourselves in the mood by taking the children round Caudwell's watermill at Rowsley. Very picture postcard and good for a bit of education, this is a old roller mill rather than using stones, and for display purposes only. I've used their flour before, and it is good flour, but it comes from a modern roller mill in Stockport and brought back out to be sold. Rather destroys the dream somewhat.

I won't be making your warm soused mackerel, not because it doesn't sound very nice, but because of its judicious use of Juniper berries - something which you 'can never get enough of ' . I have a particular aversion to this berry after one pheasanty recipe of Delia's nearly went the way of the dog. I would simply leave it out but am never quite sure how essential something is to a recipe - a bit like leaving stock out of the gravy.I like your use of Tarragon vinegar mixed with white wine to bake the fish in, though. There is something rather lovely about the taste of Tarragon vinegar. It is the one vinegar i choose to make myself when my poor little French Tarragon plant supplies enough of the stuff to make it worthwhile. It may not have survived this winter as i was without a greenhouse to put it in and it's not particularly hardy. The Russian sort, however, though much hardier and easy to grow, isn't worth the effort taste-wise.I tried the taste test once for myself, growing both varieties - sometimes these french chefs would cut their own noses off - but for once i had to admit they were definitely right: there is no comparison. The golden Delicious, however..proves not all good things come from France.


Thursday, 23 February 2012

February 23rd - A Tart's Bouquet

Dear Nigel,

One of my main reasons for moving to a city like London would be so that i could enjoy shopping for fresh fruit and vegetables in little shops and market stalls, like the ones in Soho and Covent garden you go to most days; picking up whatever is seasonal and good and takes your fancy. Of course, i realise that this ought to be the other way round, - that the reason for moving out to the countryside should be the abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables in little shops, begging to be consumed at once. However, this has not been the case, certainly not here in Buxton, where the market is pretty tacky and dire, like many remnants up and down the country - not everywhere has thriving weekly markets, despite a resurgence in some areas of the country.

Anyway, today i am grinning from ear-to-ear. I have found an Aladdin's cave where jewels of ruby, emerald and amber spill out from wobbly tabletops. I have seen crates of creamy lemon mushrooms with strange caps, fresh figs with  a whitish bloom and clementines with leaves by the box-load (and not just for Christmas). This is the place where the Hotels and Restaurants all come; where the doors open at five in the morning and close not long after midday. This is the place where nothing is weighed, where a box laden with goodies may be stolen away for barely more than a tenner. Here, my family and i can afford to eat well.

I return home so euphoric i want to decorate the house in bowls of vibrant colour. There are figs on the table, clementines - newly polished and shining with whispering leaves, and a trug full of knobbly vegetables: celeriac and white bulbs of fennel with their delicate fronds.

 And, on the table, in pride of place - a large jug holding a Tart's Bouquet of champagne Rhubarb; its blushing stems and lime-coloured leaves, gathered like the  petticoats of a dancer at the Moulin Rouge. Quite magnificent. I've often thought about visiting the Rhubarb triangle in Yorkshire at this time of year just to be able to hear one of the most eerie of sounds imaginable - the sound of Rhubarb actually growing in the huge dark growing sheds. Some things are worth travelling miles just to experience in person.

For once i see the tables are turned and you have snow and ice, though it has turned to that nasty grey slush that reminds you how much pollution there is. For us there is an uncharacteristically warm and sunny day and i take the kids to the park- without hats and gloves!! No doubt this will be a temporary interlude but it raises the spirits and reminds us that Spring surely can't be far away. You turn to gravy for your solace and comfort  food in the guise of Braised oxtail with mustard and mash. I remember my granny cooking oxtail and tongue and other such meats i tend to shy away from. You follow this with a treacle tart to stick your ribs together, and complain that you think you are eating too much meat this month to compensate for the dreary weather outside. Somehow, salad just isn't the thing; and warm comfort food lasts like a hot water bottle lining the inside of your stomach.

Sending you sunshine in the form of a bowl of Sicilian lemons,


Monday, 20 February 2012

February 20th - pancakes, risotto and anally-retentive food writers

Dear Nigel,

I am just catching up with what you've been up to while I've been away. Good to see that your dinner on the eleventh was ''a couple of tins of Heinz baked beans, tarted up with finely chopped chillies, several shakes of Tabasco and mushroom ketchup, and a tablespoon of black treacle.'' This is heartening to know as sometimes we mere mortals get a bit fed-up with some of the more anally-retentive food writers who never seem just to go to the fridge with two slices of bread looking for something to put between them. It's not that we don't appreciate all the effort you all go to, trying to entice our taste buds to new pastures. But, actually, i rather like to hear an idea for jazzing up a tin of beans on a cold wet Monday when the urge to cook has left me. Food eating is just that, and left-overs and store cupboard staples can be just the thing when the fancy takes you.

Tomorrow is pancake day and the eggs and lemons are waiting. Such a simple thing to mix a batter, yet the supermarket shelf is lined with ready-made mix and synthetic lemon juice. My younger children will probably go for maple syrup in the sort of industrial quantities that ought to require a health warning.My family will not be happy with one or two neatly folded little pancakes, sprinkled with caster sugar and swimming in lemon juice. They will require a never-ending succession of straight-out-of-the- pan offerings. I remember a few years back, with ten children in the house (including three step-children), it was quite a conveyerbelt affair with three black iron pans on the go and a row of empty mouths clamouring for more.

You and your friends are busy debating the merits of bland food, such as cauliflower cheese and risotto. The kind of comfort food that I've been pining of late, too. I think it must have something to do with the cold grey bleakness of February, but a fine risotto is exactly what i have in mind. And i find one - just what I've been looking for - in your 'Real Food' cookbook: A leek and taleggio risotto. The leeks are so good at the moment, and this recipe gives me just the excuse i need to buy a piece of one of my favourite cheeses.Think I'll have to buy extra or it may never make it to the risotto.

Soup is also high on my agenda. You notice that it always seems to be raining when you feel like making soup. That could be why i seem to make to much of the stuff - it rains a lot here. I like to have a large soup pan on the go at the back of the stove. I'm never sure how many times you're allowed to reheat and reheat a pan of soup, but my soups take a fair thrashing. Through traffic into the house usually helps themselves to a bowl, and i like to come in to a hot bowl at lunchtime. I don't even mind if I'm eating the same soup every day for a week (as has been known when I've doubled the quantities for a soup that others have turned their nose up at). In theory i know i could freeze it, but that rarely happens. And lunchtimes, like breakfasts, can often take monotony. I'm considering getting back to regular Bread making because i know this is as good for my soul as it is for me. This, and the soup is all i need for a king's luncheon.


Thursday, 16 February 2012

February 16th - Family friendly food and the acceptable face of smoking

Dear Nigel,

We decide to go out to dinner to celebrate my Mum's Birthday and the inevitable question arises - where? If this was a party of adults only then the choice would be simpler - anywhere you fancy, basically. But, since it is a family party and includes two rather lively little girls, the choice is less clear cut.

 What happened to my two adorable little dolls who would sit meekly at the table while conversation went on around them and nibble on a piece of bread? This year they turned into a pair of fiendish elves with itching powder down their pants, bent on giving their ageing grandparents indigestion at the very least. And, raising my stress levels to boiling point as i grin broadly whilst strapping one child down to her seat with my right hand,simultaneously tripping up the other with my left foot before she legs it to play under someone else's table.

Mum says she can't cope with the stress of a nice restaurant meal and declares we must go somewhere more family friendly. In the event we go to a perfectly decently average family food pub where i decide, as usual, that the safest option is usually a good rib eye steak. The children are quite happy, as always, with sausages and chips and a pot of the red stuff.

The problem isn't with the pub or the food or the family friendliness - these are much as you and i might expect. I simply wonder why it's rarely possible to marry one with the other. I must admit i can quite happily see it from the other side too: One of my favourite pubs back at home - The Red Lion at Litton - is a beautiful little olde worlde pub with excellent food and doesn't allow children through its doors. This used to annoy me at first, but on the occasions i have been 'sans les enfants', it's been really pleasant to be able to concentrate on the food and the person you're trying to talk to. Then again, as a parent wishing to educate my little darlings in the finer things in life, as they do on the continent, i wonder why i have to find myself downgraded to economy class - OK, one up from McDonalds - and pretend that i wouldn't know there were more than three types of vegetables in this world, - orange ones, green ones and chips; or that fish sometimes comes without a crisp golden coating.

Maybe London is teeming with little places where the Maitre d' is happy to oblige your little treasures in their chic catwalk apparel, but out in the sticks there is still an accepted divide between them with bloomin' kids and the pearls and blazer brigade, young working couples and the chosen- childless in their cream cashmere and sensible walking stilettos.

On a positive foodie note, the hot smoked salmon we bought at Swallows in Seahouses was superb. Firm, fleshy and the colour of neat orange squash (as you used to get it as a child - almost a burnt orange). Mum poached it in milk to remove some of the saltiness and we ate it simply with new potatoes and courgettes.

Home tomorrow and i get to find out what you've been up to and what you've been cooking. I'm tempted to pick up some Craster kippers from Robson's down the road. I took the kids to the swings late this afternoon and the smoke was bellowing out of the roof of the smokehouse, though the shop had long closed. It's good to see the old traditions going strong, and the advent of the Internet and vacuum packing winging it all over the world.

Yours from the north of the North,


Sunday, 12 February 2012

February 12th - Northumbrian air and the pub on the beach

Dear Nigel,

So good to be away and walking across the golden sands of a wide Northumbrian beach with salt on your lips and the wind in your hair. Of course it's still Winter and the only mad sods out are walkers doing the coastal path and people with dogs. My children go chasing each other in the sand dunes, and, hopeless Mother that i am, by the time we look up Molly has almost legged it to "the broken castle" - she means Dunstanburgh. The peace is shattered and we head back home to Mum's for dinner.

I am looking forward to my regular visit here to the pub at the end of the beach. Every holiday destination should have such a gem. To be able to walk across the sands, round the bend, and see the  perfect little horseshoe of fisherman's cottages nestling against the shoreline never fails to bring a smile of cheer to my face. The young couple who lease it from the National Trust are lovely and dynamic. The food is good and the microbrewery wins many acclaim. Oz Clark and James May came here in their recent TV series and sat in deckchairs on the sand supping their beer, i recall.  My children play with the landlord's little boy and the other Summer we watched as a swallow swooped in and out of a part-open door of the brewery while we sat soaking up the sun on benches on the green. The pub does a fine crab salad sandwich, amongst others. Each day a boatman lifts his pots in the bay and the fresh catch is delivered almost straight to the plate. You can't get fresher than that.

The other highlight of our visit here is almost bound to be the Ice Cream Farm. And here's the dilemma : do we go to the traditional dairy farm at Morwick where the children can play on the swings and see calves in their plastic tardises. Or do we go to the adult-friendly chic Italian Ice Cream parlour at Amble, bolted on to the front of a Boatyard, and which serves the most delectable Ice Creams imaginable. A fairly new business, they have already picked up several Great Taste Awards, including one for pistacchio.

This is a fine coastal area and all along the lacy coastline are unique treasures of a seafaring community. In Amble, arguably the best fish and chip shop and sit-in cafe on the harbour wall. Child-friendly and simple and fresh; they do what they do best and they do it well. Further up the coast are the smoke houses - Robson's in Craster (good Northumbrian name that,- my family's), and Seahouses, where Swallows the fishmonger's is hidden amongst the cottages and you'd have to seek it out to ever find it. But when you do, the freshest catch is yours for the asking. Rick Stein rated Swallows as one of his food heroes. I find a little tub of oak smoked sea salt from Swallows in my Mum's kitchen - so good news travels fast, and even small places are moving with the times. Heston may get shelved: I prefer to support local businesses.I'm already planning our trip.

And then we'll go further up the coast again and cross the little causeway to Holy Island. We tried to get there in the Autumn but the tides were always against us and the hours wrong. The Lifeboat people are fed-up with having to rescue careless drivers who ignore the warnings and think they can beat the tides. A huge waste of their revenue - i hope these selfish drivers get billed for the the full amount. The island is a truly unique place and one of my favourite parts is the little garden at the foot of the castle created by Gertrude Jekyll on a wind-swept corner where no garden has any right to exist. Lutyens mark is everywhere in the cosy little castle and the footsteps of early Christians make this a very special and revered place.

I have no idea what you're choosing to cook today as i am on holiday and have carelessly forgotten your diary. Whatever it is I'm sure it'll be good. Bon Appetite,


Thursday, 9 February 2012

February 9th - Love me love my buns

Dear Nigel,

It's the half term holiday tomorrow and we're all packing to go to Grandma's. The kids are looking forward to it, as always. And almost their main reason for looking forward to it is that Grandma will have made little buns with special things on, like maltesers and large chocolate buttons, especially for them. The day we turn up and the tins are not filled to brimming with little treats, woe betide Grandma - i expect they'll pack up their little rucksacks and want to go back home. Such is the inevitable routine. And when i think back to my Granparents' visits, i remember i could always be relied upon to help my Granny with her unpacking. Emptying brown paper bags of fragrant oranges and tins of chocolate-covered Nutty Slack (a particular Northern treat, like flapjack made with coconut and raisins)

These are our memories of the people we love, then. Not just the birthdays, the weddings, picnics and holidays, but particular foods we attach to our memories about them.

My Grandpa was a wonderful man, firm but fair and with a wicked sweet tooth. With no teeth of his own left, we kids would line up at the bathroom door to watch Grandpa take his teeth out to scrub them with a nailbrush and soap. "Quick, Grandpa's taking his teeth out", we would call. On long walks up the Rottington road, in the little village where i grew up in West Cumberland, Grandpa always had a golden-wrapped butterscotch secreted in a pocket somewhere when little legs were flagging. He taught me the names of all the wild flowers in the hedgerows; and ragged robin, silverwort and birdsfoot trefoil remain with me to this day.

 Back home it was straight to the biscuit tin - a 70's orange flowered barrel which always had a supply of his favourite ginger snaps inside. I like to make them still; a kind of cornish fairing with ginger. And every time i bite into one they remind me of him and the little 1930's house with its polished linoleum floor, and the mangle in the annexe (where all the cooking was done), and the glass-stemmed grapefruit bowls with their fan-shaped spoons. Even in the late 70's and 80's where other homes had moved on, a house that had been bought as new and furnished became a little timepiece. Children don't like change of any sort. The starry red winter curtains must stay. We always had a Steak and Kidney pudding with a blackbird in for my Dad; and no one fried fish like my Granny.

My Grandpa had been a fishmonger and, although he retired long before i remember anything, he used to take me down to the fish quay at North Shields early in the morning to watch the catch being auctioned  off in wooden boxes. To see the firm glossy flesh and bright eyes and smell the sweet smell of really fresh fish before the fishiness sets in.

As if you're reading my thoughts, i turn to your diary and see you're making a supper of smoked haddock. This could've been my granny: You say," there is something old-fashioned about a supper of smoked haddock, something redolent of the 1950's, when women wore an apron when they cooked and would get a meal on the table at the same time each day, year in, year out." Even in her 90's, when steered away from the cooking, she made sure the dog got its dinner at 5 o'clock on the dot.

My Granny used to make the most wonderful Bread croissants, with yeast and plenty of fresh butter  folded into the dough, and plaited and baked to a golden shine. I used to make them with her but they were a lot of work; delicious to eat and probably extremely bad for you. They knock spots off any shop-bought croissant i've ever since had. I think the yeast-based ones are from a particular province in France, for i've not seen one since.

Enjoy your fish,


Monday, 6 February 2012

February 6th - Soup, soup and yet more soup

Dear Nigel,

I finally plucked up the courage to make your Mussel soup. I crossed the checkout man's palm with silver and was able to obtain, surreptitiously, a small net bag of marine gold, having waited the best part of a week for their  arrival in the shop. Never have i so minutely inspected every tiny crevice of a crustacean. Could they be made to open if i prised them apart with my fingers, thus giving me the opportunity to discard another one? I think i was hoping for an empty pan:"Oh dear, not enough to cook with after-all. What a shame". No such luck. I scrubbed, i chopped, i cooked. It was ready at half-past ten at night and we had already eaten that evening. But, tough on my family; they were going to be subjected to another late night supper whether they wanted it or not. There was no way i was going to serve it up tomorrow and risk another food poisoning episode.

Anyway, it was good, but I'm probably not inclined to repeat the ordeal.

Today, I'm looking for another soup to nurse a sick friend who has 'The Bug', the Blues, and is in dire need of tea and sympathy, or probably a stiff gin. I settle on one for Broccoli, Cauliflower and English mustard. Mustard, for heat and for colds. I'm intrigued to see how the mustard will react to the vegetables. There are so many perfectly lovely soups with wholegrain mustard and blue cheese; but this is different, and one i want to experience for myself.

There is six inches of snow on the ground outside. For here, this is normal Winter weather and nothing out of the ordinary. Snow has reached the south so you're all panicking down there and getting your knickers in a twist over a couple of inches. At least the gritters and snow ploughs have been here. I cynically remark to a friend that it's probably more to do with the council still having a few coppers left in the kitty, than anything to do with the state of the weather. I saw an ordinary tractor go down our road with a snow plough on the front and thought what a great idea. Tractors we have plenty of round here, and if the council is doing a spot of contracting out - I'll slip you a tenner if you clear the road to my house - then let's have more of it. There's many a farmer round here who probably wouldn't say no to the extra income.

I turn to your diary, and, as if by magic i see you're making "A herb and barley broth to bring you back to health". Perhaps i should have looked here first, but since i now have the ingredients i decide to go with the other soup.According to your recipe, it is the addition of goose fat to the soup which "contains a certain magic"; perhaps on the 'chicken soup for the soul principle'. I still have some goose fat left over from Christmas but am unsure how long to keep it for.

The mornings are getting lighter, so hears to an end to our seasonally affected disorder and winter colds. Get  well soon,


Friday, 3 February 2012

February 3rd - Blue bread and blue cheese

Dear Nigel,

I was given a present today which cheered me up no end: dear little Olive's son had found me a jar of Mulberry jam. Lurking in a shop in cottage-box Stratford-upon-Avon, but absent here in "sunny" Buxton (which was -8 degrees this morning). I look forward to a jam i can chew slathered on some buttered toast. Thank you, Olive.

The cold shows no sign of abating. I get my thermals out and several layers of jumpers and refuse to move from my blanket. The kids and i spend the shortest of times plying the hungry cacophony of ducks and drakes in the park with homemade bread on the turn."Why can't we eat it if the ducks are allowed to?" they ask, not unreasonably. I don't know the ethics of feeding your children gone-off bread, but it's probably not the done thing. Perhaps the birds, though, could do with the small dose of penicillin (i think that's what's growing on the bread) to ward off any return of Bird flu?

We go to the chocolate shop,"Charlotte's", and they stare lovingly through the side window at the Willy Wonker Factory bit with molten chocolate oozing out of a tap and row upon row of tiny snowball-shaped chocolates laid out on the slab. We go inside and i buy them one chocolate each, which we sit and enjoy on a sinking leather sofa.

 The other week i gave in and took them to the old-fashioned sweet shop at the other end of town. They poured out their moneyboxes on the counter (most of which appeared to be plastic money and odd foreign coins), and chose a selection of white mice, jelly milk bottles etc. The interesting thing about this visit was that whilst they loved the whole display with its rows of jars on shelves, and choosing this and that and the other, when it came to taking them home and eating them,they enjoyed a handful but the ones that got left over for the next day and the next were left unwanted and untouched and thrown away in the end. I'm not sure that after the initial sugar-addicted outburst, children eat them because they actually want to. Too often we as adults eat mindlessly to get to the bottom of a packet of crisps or finish off the chocolate because we started it. When does it stop being something you are actually enjoying eating and become something else?

You are making a batch of Chicken patties with rosemary and pancetta. I think this a posh version of a burger but it sounds very nice anyway. It's good to have simple food after the excesses of Christmas. I like the idea of minced chicken with added oomph, and may follow your idea of sticking blue cheese inside to give that wicked richness of taste you get when you cut into it.The children won't eat the blue cheese - they don't know what they're missing. I imagine the conversation already, running along the lines of "Why is it OK for you to eat blue cheese and not us to eat the blue bread?" I haven't formulated my answer to that one yet. One of those impossible to answer questions that children are so good at asking when you're trying to deal with a complicated form or park the car.