Saturday, 26 May 2012

May 26th - The waving of fish and a sweet shop risotto

Dear Nigel,

Supper in our house has become a bit of a Mother Hubbard affair at the moment. As we are moving to our new home in five days time i have decided that we will, as best as possible, eat up the contents of the cupboards and the freezer.Today things were looking a little sparse. I discovered the Samphire i bought at the back of the fridge, together with half a tub of creme fraiche slightly on the wrong side of its sell-by date, but it smelled OK to me.

 Of course I'm sure you would never dream of using produce 'past its best'...and i have been a little more cautious since the case of the exploding egg. However, i still remain a bit dubious about those dates; suspicious, even, that it has more to do with supermarket profits and sales than rotting food. I decided to use the creme fraiche anyway and no one keeled over at the table.

You are making a risotto of Asparagus and lemon - three of my favourite things in one. The stock you use is a chicken one as you think a vegetable one would make the risotto 'lack the soul, not to mention the silky texture, that can only be achieved with a fine, gelatinous chicken stock.' I couldn't agree more. A good risotto is about the finest comfort food around, a bad one is an effort in digestive engineering.

I'm pleased to see that I'm not the only one with a sweetshop mentality when faced with a wonderful array of fresh produce. I usually get quite carried away and over-ambitious about all the meals I'm going to create, then find the produce going limp and brown in the vegetable box several days later. Like me you prefer your Asparagus plain, in general, but you 'bought too much yesterday, as you might expect of a townie let loose in a farm shop', hence the risotto.You are forgiven this once, i made your recipe last week and it was sublime.

I'm on to box a hundred and fifteen now in the removals inventory, and severely losing the will to live over the whole enterprise. I know when we get there it will be wonderful but the weather is wonderful NOW and I'm inside with a dozen rolls of parcel tape and some bubble wrap(and no, it's not some kind of kinky game).

 I'm catching up on all the news, though - it's amazing what catches your eye when you're packing away the china in old newspapers. Not getting a newspaper myself i decided to liberate a few blue bags around the neighbouring streets before the recycling men did their rounds. I'm becoming quite an avid fan of 'The Angling Times'...the things i never knew before.... I've taken to playing 'spot the token woman' as i wrap my teapots. Here's one magazine definitely for the lads. I must have leafed through five or six copies before i chanced upon one of the female species. Usually they looked like somebody's daughter dragged along and given a great fish to wave in the air for some completely unknown reason. The waving of large fish seems to be a national pastime if this particular newspaper is anything to go by.


Monday, 21 May 2012

May 21st - A simple sandwich in the sun and the nesting of crows

Dear Nigel,

I see you are making your own version of a deli sandwich today. You are late getting to the corner shop and all they have left is a 'soft, open-textured ciabatta.' Too often these breads are the last to go, and a shame really as they make a splendid sandwich. I often buy up a whole lot just as they hit the reduced counter and shove them in the freezer for another time when quick and simple is imperative.

Your version is drizzled with a good olive oil ( - no one's counting the calories today), and layered with thinnish slices of fat-marbled coppa, rocket, black olives and parmesan, which you shave off with a potato peeler. I have noticed that, whenever i need to add parmesan to a dish, it somehow tastes so much better if peeled into curls rather than grated, for some completely inexplicable reason.

My sandwich was a large soft beef salad bap, and  i didn't even make it myself, I'm afraid. Sometimes, the main ingredient in the best of food has simply to do with its context. The taste of that sandwich was soaked in glorious Spring sunshine (of which we have seen so little this year), embellished with the sound of uncharacteristic peacefulness and gentle birdsong in the distance. Heated by the warm wood slats of a simple picnic bench outside the little village shop, and enlivened by piquant conversation with an old local, in the pretty little village of Hartington.

It is rare to find this village so peaceful and relaxed. An over-attractive destination for tourists and walkers alike, it usually heaves with traffic and an abundance of walking poles. It can be very hard to discern the simple quaintness that brought people flocking in the first place. We discuss the weather, naturally; whether the crows are nesting high this year, (and whether that makes any difference at all to the outcome), and how many years it might be necessary to live in a small place like this before you might be considered a local. He favoured the several generations approach, so there's not much chance for me in the little village nearby we're moving to.On the plus side, he thought that since so much of local trade is dependent on tourism, there was a far greater chance of being welcomed ( - perhaps not with open arms) than in many small communities.

Probably looking to impress me he mentioned that he was going to look for the early purple orchid in nearby woodlands that afternoon. I had to confess that we'd already tracked it down in nearby Tideswelldale a couple of weeks earlier on one of our walks. I hoped he wasn't crestfallen; i really wasn't trying to score any points.


Sunday, 13 May 2012

May 13th - Shopping psychology and a certain je ne sais quoi

Dear Nigel,

I wandered in to our local supermarket - Morrisons - today and came across a reincarnation of Auschwitz. Going through the door you first encounter 'the market'. To be fair they have brought in lots of undiscovered vegetables, some very obscure and different. I was pleased to see some samphire so bought some to have with the Jersey royals. No, what really threw me was the pipe arrangement around the vegetables with holes in emitting some kind of cloudy vapour at intervals. On closer inspection a notice said that this was only water vapour to keep things in peak top condition, but the bunches of herbs, to my eye, still seemed to be wilting none-the-less. The overall effect was a little disconcerting and seemed as far removed from a bustling french market as is possible to get.

Another sign said ' feast your eyes', and i think that was probably the great idea. Like the armchair cooks who devour cookery programmes on the tele but then grab a takeaway, the great market was placed alongside a whole line of ready meals. Fancy a baked plantain today? Why bother when you can get one already prepared and cooked for you earlier in a mild chilli sauce - only three minutes in the microwave...or  some such twaddle. I think there is a whole change in the way we are being manipulated to shop at the moment. Times are hard, profits are harder to come by, so let's get them unaware and draw them in.

My over-suspicious mind, perhaps, but i was accutely aware that after the traditional fruit and veg welcome, the isles went from ready meals to wine to snacks and crisps and magazines, and you are half way round the store before you come across anything that you actually went in for.

Back home we tuck into locally grown Asparagus with far too much butter than is advisable and soft duck eggs to dip into. I love this brief and heady season and prefer to forgo the Spanish stuff just for the joy of anticipation. I toy with the idea of making frittata with the Asparagus but inevitably find that this is one thing that just tastes so good so simply that anything else is just a bit of a disappointment.

You are cooking salmon and dill fishcakes with wedges of lemon and a sauce made from yoghurt and dill and whole grain mustard. A wonderful delicate herb, you find bunches in the Lebanese shops on the Edgware Road ' the size of horses' tails and tubs of thick, tart yoghurt.' These are the sort of shops that we miss the most living far from the city centres. I'm making a rare pilgrimage to London next week to meet my second son, Chris, who flies in briefly from Cyprus. We plan a weekend of shows and little more than wandering round food shops and cafes.

Sophie has been making soup. She looks a little defensive as i eye the bowl she's carrying. The liquid is creamy and thick as if a large helping of creme fraiche has been added. She is stirring it carefully with.....with my make up brush. I come closer my eyebrows all ready to frown. There is an aroma, a certain 'je ne sais quoi'. I stop, i sniff again; it is...suddenly i know exactly 'quoi' - Shalimar. I race upstairs. Half a bottle of my most expensive perfume. Great. Mixed with bath cream and shaving gel, apparently. We are not friends at the moment, she and i.

Monday, 7 May 2012

May 7th - The cottage at the end of the world, and cakes for rainy days.

Dear Nigel,

The season of rain has driven me to cake...again. I made a fine coffee shop cake which got me lots of brownie points with a friend whose attic i'm about to invade with my excess furniture as i attempt to move myself and the  kids to a shoe box in the sticks.

The cake was a white chocolate maple cake which had a lovely creamy texture to it as the white chocolate was melted and added to the cake mixture itself. I love cakes that are not too sickly sweet and this one was perfect. It comes from 'Secrets of AGA cakes' by Lucy Young ( who works with Mary Berry), but cooks perfectly in an ordinary cooker like mine, too. Lucy Young is a very under-rated cookery writer, i think. I use her recipes a lot as they are very practical and quick, and often with an unusual combination of flavours or ideas, which i find refreshing.

I made a second cake from the book this evening - a swedish apple cake, to be eaten warm with custard for pudding (the richness in the cake deriving from the half pint of single cream added to the mixture).

When not making and eating cake i  have been organising our house move lately. At long last the children and i are moving to somewhere where i can breathe a bit better. The cottage at the end of the world is waiting for us. There is a tiny stream behind it and a field to play in for the dog.Today i took the children for a visit. "Where's the garden", said Sophie, looking at the garden. I could see that selling a shoe box to them was going to take a bit of creative thinking and imagination. In the end they could see themselves paddling in the stream in their swimming costumes in the Summer and eating a picnic lunch in the shade of the oil tank.

Houses either shrink or they grow as you look at them. By my second visit the cottage had grown as i became accustomed to the low ceilings. This time, having spent hours with graph paper and scissors arranging the furniture to fit, it seemed to have shrunk again and i begin to doubt my own measurements.

We have been welcomed with open arms, and we're not even there yet. The village is organising a jubilee tea - like hundreds of other villages up and down the country - and it seems a great way to say hello and meet people. Tom (16) refuses point blank to go. I like the whole idea of a community tea or a street party. They are events that you remember and hang on to. "Where is the Queen's castle?" Molly wants to know. "London". "And she's having her party here?" "Yes."... I expect she'll be joining in the children's sports, too, and playing on the seesaw with you both...

You are having something between a late lunch and early tea. What do you serve someone at two forty-five in the afternoon? Pancakes. The recipe is for orange and ricotta pancakes and seems like an enriched version of a drop scone or scotch pancake.I like to cook-and-eat these little bites in one smooth movement. Like you, they are best eaten straight off the pan. Sometimes i see them packaged in cellophane boxes in the supermarket - all lightly-coloured and flabby. Mine are often blackened (maybe a bit much then), scalding hot and dripping with butter and syrup - almost a different product entirely.I can almost feel the pain of scalded tongue already.


Thursday, 3 May 2012

May 3rd - The common cold and witchcaft

Dear Nigel,

I am sitting here in limbo with that uncertain taste in my mouth which tells me for certain that a rather nasty cold is heading my way. Like the heaviness in the air before a storm i can sense it coming and my spirits droop correspondingly. I am told the best 'cure',as such, is fifteen raw cloves of garlic taken at the first inkling. This no doubt has the effect of keeping every germ known to man at a distance of fifty paces including your nearest and dearest who undoubtedly are the carriers of your incubating cold in the first place. Failing that, we are in the realms of spells, potions, old wives tales and echinacea. I like to think the latter taken as a herbal tea is doing me some good, but I'm not 100% convinced of the evidence.

I turn to your book ' Real Food' for some garlic inspiration as a whole section is given over to it. Looking for something a little less toxic for a cold cure i find your description of the new season's garlic rather beautiful and poetic. It is still a little early for the first garlic to appear at the market. It comes around late May or early June from Italy or France and is "plump and white, its skin a soft green, brushed with anything from the faintest pink to the deepest mauve." In your eyes it "is the sweet, mild garlic of romance" - not probably the fifteen raw cloves recommended though, unless your partner also has a bad cold i suppose.

Your solution for a goodly amount of garlic is to roast it in a baking dish with olive oil and a little thyme and bay leaves. In this recipe the whole head of garlic is left in its bulb, severed into two halves and left to bake until the slightly caramelised cloves can be scooped out with a teaspoon and pureed with a pestle and mortar - a very satisfying feeling. The resulting goo can be used in a number of ways. My favourite idea of yours is the sauce made with masala and double cream to accompany chicken.

I decide to go with your recipe for baked chicory with parmesan, where the halved chicory is cooked in butter and garlic then covered in lemon juice, breadcrumbs, parmesan and baked. It can be found on page 147 as a sublime side dish for four people,( or two piggies who can't get enough of it in our case).

I turn to your diary and see that you have procured a crate of zesty lemons still with their leaves intact. This is my other pronged approach to blasting a cold, with the maximum amount of vitamin C my system is prepared to accept relentlessly doused throughout the day. Like you, i always like to start my day with a slice of lemon in a glass of hot water, to clear out the system.

You are making a rather lovely dish of linguine with lemon and basil. I have made pasta dishes in the past that contain lemon and have always loved their freshness and the vitality which they bring. As you put it: "Squeezed or grated into a cream sauce and matched to fat, peppery basil leaves, they introduce a vitality all too often missing in Italian pasta 'comfort' suppers." This recipe has no cream in it, the sauce being made purely from the lemon and parmesan and is lighter because of it. This seems like the ideal cold cure to me and looks like being tomorrow's supper in our house.