Friday, 30 March 2012

March 30th - In order to reap you must first sow

Dear Nigel,

I see you are knee-deep in preparing your vegetable and herb beds for the new arrivals of Tarragon, fennel and lemon verbena.Some things are better picked fresh and used immediately, and Tarragon is such an amazingly useful herb with chicken or fish.The uncharacteristically summery weather this week has brought the trees in the park into blossom in days - nought to sixty in five seconds - and suddenly nature is falling over herself to bud or unfurl; each vying for space and pre-eminence with the next. One day the ground is dark and dank, the next all hell has broken loose, it seems.

The Green-in-snow salad leaves you buy at the farmers' market is a new one on me. I like wonderfully-named plants, but if this is hotter than watercress or rocket, I'll leave well alone. You liken it to a thin spreading of wasabi, and this is probably all i need to know.I prefer the buttery taste of baby spinach and watercress in my salad.

Our farmers' market is awash with pretty posies of purple sprouting broccoli - a true reminder of the time of year - and it seems a pity not to buy some and use it. You recommend having it with oyster sauce  and ginger, adding it at the last minute. It always seems a shame when the colour seeks to leach out of the broccoli, but your method preserves as much as possible.The red chard you buy for use in salads. I think this is such as underused vegetable, so easy to grow, so versatile and so very pretty - like champagne rhubarb into your stir fries and gratins. There is a rainbow version which looks amazing, but having never grown it i couldn't vouch for the taste. This is a farmers' market and not a supermarket vegetable, and so interest alone makes it a worthwhile addition to the meal. I would recommend it, along with perpetual spinach, as being one of the most useful vegetables to grow for the beginner gardener who wants things he can actually eat and not the sort of high-maintenance and difficult to please vegetables like carrots.

I think half the pleasure in gardening is watching things grow from the first stirrings of the soil, to the formation of leaves and day-upon-day of accumulated growth and development. We live in a age where everything is instant, people love to see properties and rooms changed in a day. I worked on a garden at RHS Tatton flower show, two years running; and, although great fun to do in itself, the whole idea of just popping fully-grown made-to-measure plants into the ground had very little to do with actual gardening and more in keeping with art. Often, these plants were buried still in their pots so that several days later they could be dug up and auctioned off.

 Not so dissimilar, however, to the hundreds of bedding plants we planted at National Trust's Lyme Park. I remember taking my family along proudly several weeks later just to show them the immense amount of work we'd put in for 'a good show', only to discover they'd all been dug up the week before.


Monday, 26 March 2012

March 26th - A better quality leftover and picnic in the park

Dear Nigel,

You arrive home from a few days in Europe and immediately are able to locate sufficient  fridge left-overs to make a  flavoursome meal of celery and spring onion cooked with chorizo and rice into a kind of paella. How come, when the rest of us turn to our barren fridges to knock up something out of leftovers, what we find (in my case for example) is half a dozen red chillis, half a jar of lemon curd, quince paste, a few rashers of bacon and some tikka masala paste. There used to be a programme on Radio 4 where teams were given half a dozen unlikely ingredients and asked to come up with something credibly edible. Even our fridge leftovers don't come up to scratch it seems. Perhaps the thing is to buy in things to specifically have as leftovers, as in, you never used them in the first place so therefore they must be leftovers, if that makes sense.

Today i see you are out planting seeds for a bumper veg. crop.You plant rare broad beans from Chelsea Physic garden. I remember buying heritage seed to plant out just for the joy of harvesting an unusual red striped bean or a blue/black pod. Perhaps on a smaller scale i will try a pot of beans this year and grow them up a wigwam. It would be good to be able to get another allotment but these things have become like gold dust since popularity rocketed these past few years. Over in Tideswell they have a community farm. It would be nice to see more of them around. Sometimes allotments are too time-consuming for individuals and community gardening can be a better answer, with everyone sharing the produce.

One of my favourite cookbooks at the moment is called 'popina book of baking' by Isidora Popovic who is Serbian originally and set up her bakery with a grant from the Prince's trust. What i love about her recipes is that they are simple and practical but most of all that the flavours are powerful taste bud tinglers.The savoury tarts are especially good for lunch, or supper, or a picnic in the park (as we had today). I made a courgette and fennel tart which has a generous base lined with a mixture of greek yoghurt and cheddar cheese. I can also vouch for the goats' cheese, tomato and basil tart and the aubergine,red pepper and tomato tart as being particularly lovely.

The picnic season is upon us and today was my first chance to lay out the picnic blanket - still with a dusting of sand from last year's beach - and make up a flask. Tea always tastes terrible in a flask, but the terrible taste is somehow traditional. We watched the students lose their frisbee in the duck pond and spend the next hour trying to move the waves and reach it with branches, when the water was perhaps eighteen inches deep  maximum. Such entertainment is what  lazy summery afternoons are made of.


Wednesday, 21 March 2012

March 21st - first rustlings of Spring

Dear Nigel,

The climate in London seems to have stolen a march on us languishing in the heart of the Peak District. You're picking mint and chives from terracotta pots outside your back door. I take a peak at mine but there's very little  sign of life there as yet. I expect the mints to have survived - they're hardly little buggers who wind their tendril-like roots round and round cutting off their own nutrients, yet place them in the ground and they'll take over the whole place. I grow mint for the kitchen and others, like chocolate and eau de cologne, purely for their wonderful scent. You also have Eastern mint which you grow for Moroccan tea, but since i find this way too sweet for me, I'll decline to join you.

The cake you are making - a demerara lemon cake with thick yoghurt has the same pudding-like qualities as my rhubarb and yoghurt cake. I suppose it makes a nice substantial end to a meal at this time of year to finish  with cake-as-pudding. And the tart fruitiness electrifies the taste buds bringing us out of winter dormancy.

My friend Jules has a mixed bowl of coloured eggs on the side - blue, speckled and brown - from a mutual friend. I gaze lovingly, remembering my own cream legbar and maran chickens i had to leave behind. (The cream legbars produce those beautiful ethereal pale blue eggs i so covet). I look forward to the day when we can restock our hen house and the children can enjoy their daily chore of collecting the eggs, often warm from the nest boxes. There can be no more satisfying a feeling than the shape of a smooth oval warming the palm of your hand.

Your first meal out of doors is a Roast fillet of lamb with anchovy and mint. I suspect our first meal is a long way off still. The mint and anchovies are blitzed to a marinading paste and coat the roasting meat. It is a combination i have never tried before and i am eager to give it a go. It pains me to buy bought mint at this time of year but this is my only option. We saw our first spring lambs last weekend. It seems a little later than usual, i  think. I make a mental note to take the kids to see the lambing at the ice cream farm. They enjoyed bottle feeding a newborn last year and watching another slither into life. We haven't quite had that discussion about how lamb turns into lamb chops...I'm putting it off.


Friday, 16 March 2012

March 16th - self-destruct basil and hats with ear holes

Dear Nigel,

I gave in to my inner kitsch and came back from my shopping trip with a striped tea cosy with a pom pom on top and the union jack knitted into its side. There was, partly, a practical angle to my purchase, in that my morning starts with half a pint of hot water and lemon, then a pint of tea. Then a further pint of tea, then a pint of coffee; by that time we've nearly reached eleven o'clock anyway. Obviously slowing down a bit, i was partaking of that disgusting habit of warming up my lukewarm tea in the microwave. So, all well and good; except for the fact that the cosy no longer makes it to the teapot. My four year old, Molly, prefers to eat her breakfast wearing it on her head. She's particularly impressed with the holes in the sides for her ears to stick out of.I'm prepared to say nothing about it as long as she is prepared to carry on eating and not engage me in meaningful (or -less) conversation, depending on how you view it.

Sensing  the first few rays of Spring sunshine this week, i plonked a couple of pots of Basil from the supermarket on the windowsill. These, i ought to remember from experience, are very demanding little plants, who need to be watered every day or they die on you. The one day you forget, the little beggars have keeled over lifeless, and only the day before you were planning to make that little Italian number with "large handfuls of hand-torn Basil leaves". I suspect that this  is a clever ploy on the part of the supermarkets to keep their shelves forever rotating. I sometimes remember to pick up my Basil plants in garden centres or nurseries, and these plants always have a considerably longer shelf-life and are less high-maintenance. One teenager in the house is quite enough, thank you.

Most of my fresh herbs very quickly make it into the freezer, often still attached to their stalks. I rub the leaves off or chop them from frozen and they work well that way. I have a double hachoir which i love for chopping, but i have also lately bought a nifty little pair of scissors with five blades which makes short work of herbs like fresh chives.

Sometimes food still has the power to suprise you. I was making some spinach and coconut soup this week, which i assumed was going to be some kind of take on a green Thai curry given that it contained coconut milk and green chilli. When i first tasted it i thought 'oh no, not hot enough, needs more chilli'. But then i tasted again and i realized to my suprise that this was a perfectly rounded, thin green soup; and the chilli, though present, was unobtrusive. It acted in much the same way as ground pepper, to lift but not dominate. And the taste was not Thai in any way.

I see a change in heart in your way of viewing the world, too. One day you 'feel we have reached the bottom of the cook's year'...and 'the shops have never looked less inspiring'. Then a couple of days later, with a few more therms on the mometer, and everyone seems to be welcoming summer with open arms - cafe tables on the pavements, cats on hot flagstones, bodies lazing in the parks. You tempt fate in a short-sleeved shirt and smoked mackerel for a salad. The day cools, as it inevitably does ( - but which of us isn't prepared to be the eternal optimist when it comes to summer -) and you end up using it on toast with cream and cheese, and a light salad of fennel, lemon and parsley.A moveable feast. Summer will come, i promise.


Monday, 12 March 2012

March 12th - the quest for a Rhubarb and yoghurt cake

Dear Nigel,

It's always hard to try and work backwards when looking for a recipe. So much easier just to leaf through a beautifully photographed cookery book (i know, it's a bit looked down upon in some circles to need photographs in a cookery book - but they are hugely inspirational), and choose something that takes your fancy. But try remembering where you took that recipe from to make that wonderful cheesecake everyone loved at that family meal a few months back? No chance.

I've tried to make a little home-referencing system - no doubt you have something way more sophisticated involving spread sheets or something. Mine is a little card filing box with tabs saying really appropriate things like soups, cakes, suppers, lunches (- i know what sort of things i would serve for supper which wouldn't be right for a lunch...and, after all, it is my own system, so naturally it is full of my own quirks).And under these headings are recipe titles with book and page reference numbers. Ingredients, too, like Rhubarb and Sorrel get their own section (but no Rhubarb and yoghurt cake). I eventually track down the elusive recipe in the wonderful River Cottage cake handbook, which is a treasure trove of good traditional homemade cake recipes to accompany a mug of tea. Here you will find wholesome delights like vinegar cake and spelt and pear fruit cake, courgette and chocolate, and somerset cider cake. The cup cake revolution may be upon us but out in the backwoods dissent is growing.

You have been eating out a lot this week i see. Like most of us, you 'admit to occasionally getting a bit "cooked out"'.But then, most tellingly of all, and charmingly frank, you say: ' I have a theory that i love cooking for people after all these years because i rarely attempt too much. Many is the time supper is little more than a bowl of soup and a salad, or perhaps some chicken pieces roasted with butter and served with a handful of green leaves. It is the way i prefer to eat, but it also happens to be a lot less trouble...'

I like to think my cooking is slowly heading in your direction. I still remember the dinner i made for friends (who  would have been happy with a takeaway), when i decided to cook an authentic Indian meal following recipes from the Curry Club books. I decided to do everything from first principles, and to make all my own naans, pickles, accompaniments etc. It took me a full twelve hours of non-stop cooking, and i felt, when eating it, that it was no better than a really good authentic takeaway anyway. I had learnt my lesson. Now my friends think themselves lucky if there's pudding to follow. And, actually, nobody really cares.


Thursday, 8 March 2012

March 8th - Gordon Ramsay wouldn't allow me in his kitchen

Dear Nigel,

I've got my de-stressed chef's hat on now that the washing up is done; but if you'd seen me a couple of hours ago it was quite a different matter. I think there is a very good reason why no sane chef would ever allow me into his (or her) kitchen, and that is my inability to multitask when it comes to making meals. By this i mean that trying to make more than one dish at a time takes on almost nightmare proportions for me.

Take today, for instance. It should have been an easy - enough task to knock up boiled eggs and soldiers for the little ones whilst simultaneously stirring an aubergine curry with rice; whilst trying to chop and simmer a soup for the yoga chicks tomorrow, and keep an eye on some little chocolate souffles in ramekins, for pudding. This sounds to me much like the everyday task of most cafe and restaurant cooks - pleasing all of the people most of the time. So why did i nearly miss half the ingredients out of the curry, forget the smoked paprika in the soup and narrowly miss burning the souffles? Gordon Ramsay would have been effing and blinding as i trooped from one near disaster to another. Remind me to give them all Risotto next time - i can cope with one pan and a wooden spoon.

Dinner over, the children fed, I'm stirring the soup and listening to music. Over in the corner two little red Indians  are sitting eating chocolate souffles in their wigwam and some sanity is returning to my world. There seems to me to be two camps in the cooking world - those in the business to earn a living knocking out fine meals quickly and ordinary harassed home cooks, and the kind of home chef (and I'm being very sexist here - usually a man... mainly because i can think of several who fit this stereotype) who see cooking as a relaxation activity to which they want to be praised and applauded in equal measure. They require a whole batterie of gadgets - turbocharged, industrial, architect- designed things, lists of ingredients that make no reference to the cost, and they expect you to wait until sometime near the witching hour with a hangover already in the offing for the presentation of that night's supper.After a suitable amount of praise has been lavished you will be allowed to eat said dish. Washing up is usually compulsory, the chef having retired in an air of smug satisfaction to a comfortable chair elsewhere.

You find inspiration for a lamb chop in the back of your fridge, using up leftovers of salad leaves and chard. The meat is marinated and grilled and the meat sizzles in a zingy dressing, wilting the salad leaves as it is tossed together. Simple one-dish supper. All taste for the buds and no frills. I make a promise to myself to move to a simpler, more vivid way of cooking.This is what i really want to eat.

Thanks for the inspiration,


Sunday, 4 March 2012

March 4th - kitchenalia unlimited and an honest shoulder of lamb

Dear Nigel,

I made the mistake, today, of going down to my nearest Lakeland shop near Handforth. The shop itself is perfectly pleasant,  the staff some of the most helpful you'll find anywhere. But, lord oh lord, the sheer quantity of stuff you never knew you needed! At first it was just a little overwhelming, and it was easy to start picking up stuff saying, "Oh yes, that would be useful for making such-and-such".

 But half an hour into the visit, and not much further round the store than when i started, a kind of self-preservation order steps in. I start to wax lyrical to myself about the joys of using my old paring knife and a wooden chopping board, stained from years of being misused as a pan stand by teenagers too lazy to bother to look for one. I think fondly of my old battered pans and wooden spatulas, sharpened to a point by years of stirring into the corners of pans. And then i start to take a closer look at some of the must-have products. All tested and undoubtedly up to the job, (but essential?).

I spotted a rather magnificent  electric egg-shaped contraption, about 1 foot high  which was for boiling eggs. Amazing! And another, large electric shoe box, which apparently cooked six perfect  cupcakes. Why has no-one thought of this before! There was an electric jam maker, a sous vide - some sort of vacuum cooker (sounds very space age), and an overwhelming choice of choppers and grinders. I manoeuvred past the rainbow selection of silicone breast enhancers, posing as poached egg pockets, on my mission to find the only place i know where i can get rolls of beautiful thick waxed paper for wrapping up cheeses. There is something distinctly old-fashioned about this product - and I'm very grateful to Lakeland that they still make it. However, as if to prove to me that it is one of their less popular products, the male assistant took ten minutes to locate the said item - no doubt he too was dazzled by the array of breast enhancers in his line of vision.

 The catalogues are definitely porn for the middle aged - of both sexes it would seem. Their target consumer stopped me in the isle. She recognised me although i had no recollection of her. She was accompanied by a mildly jovial and obedient spouse with a plummy voice and a well- fed tummy - no doubt a victim of the silicone macaroon mould or the whoopie pie tin. And she was educating him in a loud and tittering voice about the cleverness of Lakeland in making  a particular product that would perfectly do the job. He was doing a good job at being enlightened and hadn't yet resorted to braining her over the head with her new croquembouche mould (that would surely come later).

The waxed paper located, i escape back to the relative chaos -free zone that is my kitchen. I am relieved to see there is still room for a chopping board and a knife on the work surface. I set to and cook a boned shoulder of lamb. Simply.with vegetables and dark gravy. There is uncharacteristic silence at the table. Everyone is just intent on eating and enjoying. You choose to go for a simple dish also, a chicken stew from a well exercised bird with heavy bones (could have been me today after all that shopping), and a dollop of mashed parsnip with parsley and mustard stirred in.

 Roll on the Spring; there will be no call for salad and lighter things until the air warms up and the light returns to the blur that is the dregs of Winter's heavy shoes.