Saturday, 28 April 2012

April 28th - Hangover puddings and the way to a woman's heart

Dear Nigel,

Today i wander round the house like a bear with a sore head. In earlier years you might have supposed i was nursing a bit of a hangover - and lord knows it feels like one - but in fact my 'hangover' is little more than an ultra-late night's fiddle playing at the little pub where i go to play with a group of friends. It seems almost unfair that so little alcohol was involved in the resulting headache. I turn for solace to an old copy of 'the pudding club book'. If they can't help me, no one can.

The pudding club was founded in 1985 by Jean and Keith Turner at The Three Ways House Hotel in Mickleton, Glocestershire. It was started almost as a joke but since then the revival in traditional puddings has been phenomenal. Seems a long time ago now, but even the call to eat a Mediterranean diet has not dented our enthusiasm for comfort-eating. Many of the puddings are traditional sponges which take some time to steam and can be a little heavy on the stomach. I prefer the kind of pudding that is basically a sponge batter which rises as the sauce sinks through it to a delicious goo underneath. There are two lovely examples in this book, the Caramel pudding and Sultana and Butterscotch pudding. I favour the latter i think and set to work. It is very satisfying to make this in an old pie dish; the very shape of which brings back memories from childhood. It cooks in the oven in 40 minutes.

You are also indulging in a bit of pudding, i see, and, hair of the dog or not, i see it contains a goodly helping of limoncello liqueur. This might be very handy for the majority of the us who inevitably have a little handbag bottle of the stuff knocking around in a cupboard somewhere from a holiday in distant memory (along with a completely unopened bottle of Ouzo that you can't remember why you bought). I like the idea of using lemon curd in your lemon trifle and the scattering of crystallised violets lends the Edwardian air that you were aiming for.

By the next day you are sitting quietly barefoot in the garden 'sipping green tea and listening to the sound of church bells'. How a change in weather can change our behaviour and whole outlook on life. It's raining here. Still. There is a drought elsewhere in the country if we are to believe what we are told, but we are drowning in the stuff here. I drove past the new bottled water factory. It has a wavy roof and large picture window looking out over the countryside. I think it is well-designed and, as it is placed near to the recycling centre, does not blot the landscape. But they call it Nestle water now - not quite so poetic somehow.

You find sweet cicely at the market to flavour an omelet, and completely environmentally-unsound baby monkfish  which you marinade in rosemary and garlic and grill .We all follow our own principles most of the time but from time-to-time pure lust gets in the way and we stray. You attempt to appease your conscience with a fool made with rhubarb from the garden and not laden-down with food miles.You use a few of the sweet cicely seeds in with the stewed fruit and sugar. I think i will try that if i can get my hands on some sweet cicely. Our markets aren't up to such delights but i might have better luck in one of the smaller plant nurseries. Seems almost unusual to shop for the kitchen at such a place but the quality and the price is often better.


Monday, 23 April 2012

April 23rd - All the cake in the world

Dear Nigel,

The miserable weather is taking its toll on my stomach. At times like this the only answer is to eat cake - lots of it. As Kate Winslett said in 'Mildred Pierce', "I want to give my children all the cake in the world". In an age of austerity and prohibition, there was psychologically a huge need for such cake. In hard times a little indulgence lifts the spirits.

I see you have been indulging in a rather fine orange and lemon cheesecake yourself (page 129). Obviously proud of your achievement you say "today i made  cheesecake that turned out to be one of those perfect recipes that you have been after all your life..." I am pleased to see you use digestive biscuits - oatmeal may be traditional but it tastes like something you would give a horse. The filling is both fudgy and creamy with its cream cheese and mascarpone mix. I think i might try making this one as i like the mixed tang of St. Clements.

Searching for a new cake to experiment with, i come across a recipe for East Anglian Vinegar cake. This is a kind of light fruit cake which uses bicarbonate of soda and vinegar instead of the more traditional eggs and baking powder to give a rise to the mixture. As Alison Walker says in her book 'A Country Cook's Kitchen', this recipe was usually made during the winter when hens lay less eggs (or pure breeds like ours used to give up entirely and put out placards saying they were on strike - probably in support of the turkeys).

A friend was coming to lunch and needed a bit of TLC, so i reached for my favourite cookbook of the moment for inspiration. Mum had sent me back with armfulls of this year's Rhubarb and it was twitching to be used. I found a wonderful recipe for a rhubarb custard and crumble tart that fitted the bill perfectly. It is basically a sweet  tart base filled with a mixture of pre-roasted rhubarb and freshly made real custard, and topped with a shortbread crumble. I took the cheats route,as suggested, and bashed up a packet of good bought shortbread for the top. The result was wonderful, creamy and fresh. The recipe is in the 'popina book of baking' by Isidora popovic - a book i can't praise too highly.

In the end, one friend turned spontaneously into five. Sometimes group therapy and laughter is a better medicine for the blues.

High street shops are closing like nine pins in our town. There is now a clear divide between the 'nice' shops in the beautifully preserved Cavandish arcade, where the tourists like to potter, and the seventies mall of high street chain shops with its empty glass windows where the likes of Millets, Subway and Game used to be. It's not that i miss some of these shops but there is something of a ghost town when you go down Spring Gardens (they always have such enticing names, don't they?) and your gaze pitches from one charity shop to another. At the other end of the scale there is supposed to be go-ahead now on the start of the scheme to transform the Crescent from a dosser's paradise to a swanky Spa Hotel alla Bath, or something like it. We'll see...People in this town have seen the planners' promises come and go, hitches, funding given and taken away again. They hold the power to make or break this town. I remember going to school here in the mid - 70's when it was a dark, dirty town and the fine architecture was completely ignored. There are some lovely bits, but also some squalor - a microcosm of most towns and cities these days, i suppose. In good times things thrive and develop; in bad, even the good is left to tarnish and neglected.

Let's you and i eat cake instead and look forward to better times,


Tuesday, 17 April 2012

April 16th - Detox: paying more to eat less.

Dear Nigel,

Chocolate over- indulgence soon turns to post-easter guilt. Out comes the running gear and the annual  burst of zeal to cleanse and detox the system. Carol Vorderman beckons - and I could certainly do with some of her energy (even that emanating from her mouth could probably fuel a small power station). I have only twice ever completed her 28 day detox, and it was hell. I was crossing off the days on my cell wall like a modern day Robinson Crusoe, basically living on roast veg and feta cheese and lots of fruit.

The last time I let the lad at the gym loose with his callipers to measure my BMI - fat - he decided I was in the obese category. As a fairly standard size 10ish I wasn't very impressed. A fairly easy way to measure it yourself  is to use the calculation (your weight in kilogrammes) divided by (your height in metres, squared). Otherwise, just look in the mirror.

I flick through Carol's book and note that parsley leaf is great for helping the kidneys. Very convenient as I'd just found a great recipe for Parsley soup. The recipe is from New Covent Garden Food Co. 'A soup for every day'. This one is under 5th April, fortuitously, and, having now made and eaten a bowl of it, I can tell you that it tastes very good indeed. Like you, I thought it might be at best bland or repetitive or disgustingly healthy (in every sense of the word). But no; there is a good balance of flavours with a leek base, and, although it uses an enormous amount of the main ingredient, because it is cooked the flavour mellows and becomes almost lemony. I used reduced fat crรจme fraiche instead of the ordinary, as written, and a considerably larger amount of freshly grated nutmeg. There is a wonderful springtime optimism to this soup, and anything that helps cheer away the unpredictable hail and snow we've had of late is to be welcomed.

The main cost to any detox diet seems to be to the purse strings as well as to the soul: It's difficult to get enthusiastic about the relative lack of variety on offer, at least after the initial few days. I glance down the list of supplements - chlorella, spirulina, kelp, milk thistle...- and realise I still have a whole drawer full of half-empty bottles from last time.

Of course, the main aim of a detox diet isn't necessary to lose weight but the two usually go hand-in-hand in most people's expectations. I turn for more interesting recipes and more civilised guidance to Ed Victor's 'The obvious diet'. Nigella Lawson gleefully points out in her foreword to the book: "why should someone lose weight without suffering". She has a point. We all know we over indulged on the old easter eggs - cheap chocolate along with the organic and the hand-made, mini eggs in their chocolate crispy baskets - made with love (and hopefully clean hands), foil-covered treasure found on egg hunts and hot cross buns and lots of cake - simnel or otherwise.So it seems almost right that we should have to pay the penalty of hard work, both physically and mentally (at no other time in your life will you become so obsessed about food than when you are willingly denying yourself).

Many of Ed's favourite recipes come from The River Cafe cookbooks. There is a lovely recipe for baked red onions and thyme (taken from Book Two) which particularly catches my eye. Carol tells me such foods are rich in fructo-oligosaccharides - and I'm prepared to believe her - and very good for anyone with irritable bowel syndrome. Ruth Rogers and (the late) Rose Gray simply say "our advice is to eat small portions of beautifully and carefully considered food". This seems to me a far kinder and easier way to rein in. And if this carefully considered food should taste amazing as well, like their Zucchini carpaccio (book two again), then I might be tempted to put the carbs back in the cupboard and feed the chocolate to any passing child.

You roast spring pigeon and serve with a sorrel puree. Like the parley in my soup this herb is so wonderfully fresh and lemony that it is worth growing a bushel of the stuff in your borders (even if it does have the unfortunate habit of looking like a bunch of dock leaves). I noted, as your did, how little of the wilted leaves  remain from even  a huge bunch: "Heaven knows what would happen if the leaves met boiling water". Luckily the taste is highly concentrated, so a little goes a long way. I like it with fish, instead of lemon at this time of the year. Later on, it bolts very easily and the leaves become thick and leathery.


Wednesday, 11 April 2012

April 11th - A bunch of wild garlic

Dear Nigel,

Spring seems to me the correct time of year for foraging for raw and tasty things to eat. I read in the paper the other day that there is now an APP for foraging.It seems a bit of a shame somehow. One of the best things about identifying plants in the field is having a simple identification guide, leafing through page after page of prospectives, identifying closely between book and plant, narrowing it down 'till at last you have the correct name - Latin or common (both have their charm). I suppose it started for me with 'The Ladybird book of wild flowers', a flower press and a scrapbook.

During my self-sufficiency days of the 80's and 90's, when John Seymour's 'complete book of self-sufficiency' became our new bible, we foraged for many and strange-tasting new things. Although preferring to forage for mushrooms alongside a more knowledgeable farmer friend, when it came to leaves and shoots every walk became a potential shopping isle. My friend Diane brings me a bunch of pungent-smelling wild garlic. This, for me, is the true green smell of Spring. It reminds me of the old walled woodlands of country estates in Cornwall, dark valleys and cool shade. I pass through a drift on my way to Bakewell and have to wind the window down and inhale.

The leaves are at their best at the beginning of the season - march and April - and the bulbs should be left for next year. Also known as Ransons, the leaves are wonderful stirred into risottos or in pasta dishes. They can, as Rose Prince says in 'The new English kitchen' be eaten raw, but "the intense garlic taste can repeat unpleasantly so i prefer to eat them wilted". Antonio Carluccio is obviously made of sterner stuff as he likes his between two slices of bread with olive oil and sea salt. An acquired taste, maybe. I have used the flowers in salads before and a little goes a long way but can be very pretty. The stems are the part that remain juiciest longest and can be chopped and used in much the same way as chives.

Although it is perfectly possible to substitute wild garlic into most recipes where the equivalent is garlic or chive, Carluccio in his '..goes wild' book has two lovely recipes. The first is a focaccia bread where the leaves are liquidised as a topping. The second, and one more to my liking, is a pasta dish of linguine, onion and chopped omelet, served with a topping of wild garlic and smoked salmon.

Young nettle tips and dandelion leaves are also at their best whilst young and tender. A battered old copy of 'The Greens Cookbook' (from its restaurant in San Francisco), tells me that a broth made from stinging nettles is rich and smooth and "gives the impression it could sustain one through an otherwise foodless winter". I made it once and can vouch that this is indeed true as the vast saucepan remained almost untouched as no one particularly liked it could have indeed lasted an entire winter. However, it obviously has other properties as "soups made from the broth of boiled nettles have been known to support the lives of at least two saints - the Irish saint Columba and the Tibetan, Milarepa."

A far nicer way to use the nettle tips - either picked wearing gloves or from below (as all the stinging cells are on the tops of the leaves) - is in Carluccio's recipe for nettle gnocchi, which is pared with a dolcelatte sauce. The robust, nutty taste of the nettles spars well with the cheese where a blander one like spinach, added to the gnocchi, would flounder.


Wednesday, 4 April 2012

April 4th - Ballerina ice cream machines and total recall

Dear Nigel,

I'm back at the Ice Cream Farm at Morwick in Northumberland, on holiday with the kids. It may have been snowing yesterday, blown off the beach by gusts of white horses this morning; but we British are made of sterner stuff and if we're on holiday then we've got to have an ice cream out of doors or it really isn't a holiday.

Having petted the baby calves and made the difficult decision of choosing, we sit outside in the cold air and sunshine and eat. I have chosen their latest offering called 'Jersey', which is a very plain ice cream made with whole Jersey milk from their cows. There are so many vanillas around these days (though a recent price-hike in the cost of vanilla may put a hold on that) - and very good many of them are,too. But here was something very different: plain, creamy...and something else....a memory brought back from a lakeland childhood of the 60's and early 70's. Hartley's Ice cream. Sitting on a wall, dangling my legs with a bullet-like cornet of white with a navel of red sauce. One flavour only, bought from the back of the dairy in Egremont, and eaten on top of a wall in the sunshine of endless summer days.

We often hear about the power of smell to evoke memories from our past, but taste is so closely linked. And memory fans out so that we remember the sights and sounds on a particular day, as we saw it at child level; the texture of the food and the way we ate it - turning it round and round or imprinting a white moustache of ice cream across our upper lip. We are, like the children in Narnia, instantly back in a land we inhabited maybe decades ago or almost yesterday. There is something lovely about the hold of memory attached to the mundane. If the brain can only store so much in any particular order, then this ability to cross-reference is refreshing because of the element of suprise and almost total recall.

Older people like to sit with their photos and memories and reminisce. Perhaps the move to blander nursery fare is a bid to recapture memories of their youth and simpler times. I like to think that this is what went on in the House of Commons when the call went out for nursery puddings a while back.

Back at mum's i am searching through her recipe books for a plain ice cream. At home i have a copy of Robin Weir and Caroline Liddell's 'Ices, the definitive guide', which must be about twenty years old, i would guess. In those days i kept anglo-nubian goats which have the creamiest milk, homogenised naturally. I find the recipe i used to use reproduced in a book called 'Recipes from the Dairy' by the above authors for the National Trust. My children would happily eat goat milk ice cream (and yoghurt) when they would refuse point blank to drink the milk itself.

Also in this book i see French vanilla ice cream and Rich French vanilla ice-cream. These are custard-based ice creams. There is also a recipe for Buttermilk ice-cream which looks interesting, but not one i have ever tried. And there is a recipe for clotted cream ice-cream, which doesn't list vanilla as an ingredient. I think the vanilla acts as a mask to hide the true taste of a plain cream ice-cream. Weir and Liddell say the joy of this ice cream is that the 'Cornish clotted cream takes its flavour from the breed of cow and the time of the year that the cream is made.'

I decide to unearth my ice cream maker from the back of the cupboard and have another go. The flavours you create you will never taste anywhere else - like cinnamon or saffron, or brown bread, or Strawberry and sour cream. But i also remember, with some trepidation, the reason why the ice cream maker is at the back of the cupboard. I don't know whether ice cream makers have changed and improved in the last twenty years - and maybe the really expensive ones never had this problem in the first place - but the basic model, which was a heavy bowl you kept in the freezer and added a lid with a rotating paddle attached, had certain flaws.

 Firstly, it tended to seize up almost immediately as the mixture froze instantly to the side of the bowl as you poured it in, paddle or no paddle. Should you get past this initial hurdle, then a keen ear had to be kept to the sound of the rotating rhythm. As soon as the bass note rose and the rhythm become syncopated, it was imperative that you leaped from your seat and caught the ice-cream maker before it twirled round like a ballet dancer and ended up on the floor.

I am prepared to give it a second chance. There is a good chance that it might impel me to look at newer, more reliable versions of this original model. I have never found the stir-every-hour-and-freeze approach makes a texture that i really want to consume. And with ice cream, texture is everything.