Tuesday, 29 January 2013

January 29th - Cottage pie with rat poison and something a little more savoury

Dear Nigel,

I don't know whether I have mentioned this before but the community I live in is a very old farming community, like a more realistic version of 'The Archers'. In fact, as a die-hard Archers fan for more than 20 years, I have to confess to a recent lapse in my listening pattern. The reason almost certainly has something to do with the fact that the real 'daily life of ordinary country folk' is far more compelling than fiction.
Take today.

 My main source of information is usually with the half-dozen or so mums waiting for our offspring from the Honker bus ( - Sophie's term, she insists, for the little school bus that serves us and Onecote, said  Oncut).

 Today's story is that Jane's husband Kevin is off to pick his grandad up from the hospital about 20 miles away. Like many old farmers old Eric lives on his own in a farmhouse nearby and Jane pops in regularly  to keep an eye on him. Seeing that Eric had a bit of a rodent problem she bought him ten sachets of rat poison at the local Farmers Store, which he put in his pantry to keep cool. Now you see which way this is heading...Anyway, old Eric decides to make cottage pie for himself and his dog - obviously they eat together, and there would certainly be one decidedly unfussy eater at that table! - and for a topping he melted all ten sachets of rat poison on top. I'm not sure what the verdict on the taste of the meal was but I gather there was none left. So Eric is in Hospital and the dog is at the Vet's and both are making a good recovery. But Eric's been told he's not allowed to live on his own anymore.

On a less flippant note- and I'm not underestimating the seriousness of this tale: Eric, and his dog, are lucky to be alive - there is perhaps a cautionary tale for us all. I'd like to know what the incidence in our society is of old people getting food poisoning. I imagine that a combination of deteriorating eye sight and slower food rotation in the fridge - mainly due to a smaller appetite and probably infrequent shopping trips - may persuade many old people to eat food that is unsuitable for human consumption. If this, added to the way our taste buds change as we got older (requiring ever stronger and stronger flavours to taste), such cases are not hard to imagine.

I turn to your diary to see what you're up to . The marmalade chocolate chip ice cream (page 46) reminds me of those bitter jellied fruits half dipped in dark chocolate - the sort that you really can't finish a whole box of in one sitting, however hard you try...and believe me, I've tried.

 Like you, I've suffered the homemade set-like-a-brick ice cream and it's a difficult one to get around. You say that the classical answer to this is to add glucose. I find alcohol works pretty well too, and too much alcohol won't set at all, so you need to get your quantities just right.

 Using marmalade is a new-found revelation to you in providing a soft scoop texture, and, as most of us have a jar or two lurking in the cupboard and in need of using up, this seems a good suggestion. You say that, like glucose, 'adding marmalade turns out to work much the same magic...the ice is the most silkily textured I have ever made.' The method you use has a custard rather than a cream base, which, in general I prefer. This also helps to make a softer ice cream.

 I no longer have an ice cream maker since it proved to be a complete pain in the arse, quite frankly; requiring constant supervision (lest it jump off the work surface) and constantly freezing up the churning paddle if I added anything it didn't like the look of, or added too fast, too slow, or too thick. I'm not in the habit of chucking out expensive appliances but this was a case of one of us having to go. No doubt there are more expensive, more recent inventions on the market but I'm reluctant to take the plunge. I think I'll stick to your other recommendation for freezing and whisking every hour until set.



Friday, 25 January 2013

January 25th - A word from Richard Johnson

Dear Nigel,

Sometimes, when you are tapping away on the old laptop you begin to wonder if you are completely alone in this. In a  lovely way it's nice to be talking to just one person and putting all your focus on that; but at other times you wonder whether other people feel the same way about things as you, or whether you are completely cracked and want committing to a mental institution somewhere. So it's great to get feedback, and lately its been coming in droves.

Having just worked out what Twitter is and what it does, I suddenly have lots of friends or followers or whatever. And people let you know that they like your writing. And that's great when you are feeling all alone. (And to the person who made such a an incredibly generous offer, I'm afraid I'm going to have to decline your kind invitation.). But then the good thing, when you are not a journalist and you aren't pretending you can do any more than slam a few things together in the kitchen, is hearing  people like Richard Johnson, food critic of the Guardian, telling you that 'talent will out', and offering you some work.

The work in question is for British street food @britishstreetfood.co.uk and all I know as yet is that it will involve reviewing some of the good food street food vendors in this area. So, as this is a subject about which I know precious little I will have to get out there on foot and mull my way around the farmers markets and street markets of the Peak District. I suspect this might be a harder quest than it would be in somewhere like London, as cultural movement is slower and it's more openly traditional in the sticks. But if it's there I'll find it. And people who like food like to talk about food. One foodie friend puts me on to a woman who does huge tureens of soup and another to someone with an Italian pizza oven.

 So this month I'm off to the farmers markets starting with the big one in Bakewell tomorrow, held in the Agricultural Business Centre (and claiming to be the second largest in the country with over 70 stalls), as long as the snow holds off.

I turn to your diary and see that you are making salad: I am a little dubious - there is still over a foot of snow in the garden. I come a little closer and see that you are making use of some white chicory and watercress for their bitter flavours and recommend that they make 'a perfect match for the sweetness of walnuts, mild cheeses and bacon.' I have all three to hand. The salad recipe is 'winter leaves with gherkins and mustard' (pg 41) and I think the dressing will  pack a punch with its gherkins, capers and Dijon. I love the fact that it is the sculptural shape and artistically painted beauty of the leaves that appeals to you as much as their flavour, so you like to keep their leaves whole: 'The flashes of magenta, rose and blood-red on white as if they have been painted by hand.'

You are growing several varieties of winter lettuce in the cold frame, including winter purslane, landcress and lambs lettuce. I grow the latter two as cut-and-come-again crops in the summer but never really think to grow them into the winter months. Perhaps they will bolt less as the light fades?

I am persuaded to venture out in a snowstorm on a two-hour round trip to pick up no.4 son, Tom. Madness.  But there is magic on the way. A young deer crosses the road. The light is almost faded. She stands feet away from me and I stop the car and we watch. Perhaps she thinks we cannot see her in her background of a copse of trees. She turns her head from side to side, watching, listening, but doesn't move. The white canvas marks her out like one of those beautiful Jan Pienkowski silhouettes from children's fairytale books, stark against the white - a papercut of wizened trunks, spindly leg and lean muscle with a bambi head atop.  We leave her undisturbed and crawl back home. I have already cancelled tomorrow's excursion to the farmers market. There will be another.


Tuesday, 22 January 2013

January 22nd - A coy admission and a little history tour.

Dear Nigel,

Has the nation ground to a halt of late? To listen to the comments on Twitter  anyone would think so. The other half of the nation that isn't sledging and taking photographs of silly things seems to be glued to a certain bake-off on the tele. So its probably time I came clean.... You know that tinsy little Christmas series that most of the nation and every avid Nigel Slater fan was watching around Christmastime? and the October series that half the recipes here are based on?, and the one before that?...errrr, well, I wasn't there. I love the books, I dream the recipes - I just don't watch the tele. Sorry. Obviously a major clanger, but hey, I don't need to know what the inside of your kitchen looks like or which brand of stove you favour - everything I need is all there in the writing. So I hope you'll forgive me.

I do remember watching some of the very early series in possibly the early 90's? a certain slightly awkward young man on channel 4, and my earliest, well-thumbed cookbooks of yours certainly seem to date from around that time. So we go back, you and I, nearly twenty years, and there are still recipes in 'Real good food' and 'Real fast food'  that I turn to regularly for something quick and tasty for everyday - like sausages with apples and cider, or thyme and bacon dumplings to have with a rich chicken soup. Fashions may come and go but good food will always be in fashion.

So now we've got that one out of the way, let's have a look at what you're making today. First, may I say what a pleasing revelation the poached apples with ginger and anise was. I made them again today because my feet were freezing in their two pairs of socks and wellies and I needed something to drive out the pain. It's great because there's always a half-open jar of Buderim knocking about at the back of the fridge, and I could see its uses with all kinds of baked apples and apple things. We need things with a bit of a kick in this weather.

Tonight's dinner is a fish pie:'Gurnard, basil and potato pie' (pg 40). Of the fish you say, it's 'a bit of an ugly bugger but with a reasonable flavour.' I'm not sure what my little man in the market will have in the back of his van but '..similar white fish' will do. This is a comfort food baked in cream with slices of lightly browned potato on top. Fish pie is popular here too. I like your shortcut for a midweek, time-poor dip when all your stomach wants is food and now. You blitz breadcrumbs and herbs in the food processor for a crust, saving flaky, undulating pastry for a more leisurely weekend's relaxation.

Of course you have completely failed to note that half the women in this country are probably on a post-Christmas diet of some sort out of a guilt complex and the need to be able to do the zip on their jeans up once more. 'Quick, mildly spiced beef'', another contender for a midweek supper, also has a goodly helping of double cream and wholegrain mustard (one of my favourite combinations) added. But heck, whose counting calories at the moment? Is it my imagination or is there a conspiratorial silence about new year's diet resolutions this year. I don't see too many gym bunnies pounding the streets in the packed ice and cakes are disappearing as fast as calorie-counted ready meals in the shopping isles. Of course it could be that the way to have your cake and eat it, or not (if you see what I mean) is to watch it being made on a bake-off, salivate a bit and then turn the tele off feeling pleasantly full. Some of us prefer to get down and dirty and throw flour all round the kitchen for kicks.

Now here's a recipe to intrigue: 'Baked quince with orange and mascarpone ginger crunch' (page 37). This is another ingredient that has suffered from being badly dealt with by me in the past and therefore resigned to obscurity. Tough little buggers as I remember them and too much hard work for a disappointingly-flavoured result. But baking, letting the casserole do the hard work...and 'there is orange in there too, vanilla in its sticky pod and a single cinnamon stick.' OK, you have me hooked, Waitrose here I come.


Friday, 18 January 2013

January 18th - The deconstructed meal is very French

Dear Nigel,

There is a fad for deconstructed Black Forest Gateaux around. Where it started and when (like one of those elaborate chain letters....'do this or something bad will happen to you...') I have no idea. My number three son, Will, had one at the pub/restaurant the other day. It tasted lovely but warningly reminded me of nouvelle cuisine - not much food smeared around a plate to look good: any intelligent six month baby could probably produce similar results. No, that's being disingenuous. It did look beautiful, but I think I would have felt cheated that it wasn't accompanied by the other seven portions clearly missing.

In our house the deconstructed meal has long been around. We are obviously ahead of fashion. My five year old, Molly, prefers the deconstructed Spag Bol. whereby she studiously oiks out every bit of mince from the sauce. My eldest son, James, will remove every scrap of mushroom from a casserole and there's very little left of a stir-fry once Hannah has removed mange tout, peppers,mushrooms and beans. Thus it ever was. Babies will eat anything, toddlers and children (although when that stops i don't know) are fusspots, generally - unless you have one of those precocious brats who make a point of eating something very adult - and usually expensive - just to get everyone in the room's attention: ...'Hugo just adores Jackfruit...'

There is nothing new in deconstruction. The french have been doing it for years. Take a perfectly good cooked and presented meal and they will eat their way round the plate item by item. We may choose to combine meat, sauce and veg. on the same fork; the french will finish off all their beans before turning to the potatoes. This reminds me of me as a child, and probably you? There was something very comforting in eating your way clockwise round a plate, or eating round a piece of toast before getting to the middle. And who hasn't bashed a Tunnock's teacake over the head and picked off all the chocolate first. This is deconstruction at its best - first the chocolate, then careful removal of the biscuit bottom, tongue in to remove the jam (if a jam one) and finally you are left with a perfect dome of flummery.

I made my own attempt at deconstruction this lunchtime: toast with all the toppings removed again. I have a thing for real buttered toast that involves me, the toaster in close proximity, and the butter dish. The toast has to be straight out of the toaster and therefore just too hot to eat, the butter only just added so that it hasn't had time to melt, and the melting point in my mouth. At this point a good piece of sourdough toast is just perfect and needs no addition. I eat the topping separately.

I see you are making 'A hearty pie of chicken and leeks' tonight. This looks like a good possibility for a stretched larder at our house too as all the ingredients are available today....and Archie looks like he's going nowhere for the next few days with this snow. The school was closed again today. You make no distinction between homemade and shop-bought puff pastry, which is a relief. It is an easy base for a meal. I used to enjoy making proper bread croissants with my granny - all that folding in of bits of butter and plaiting of the dough  - but in general these days I resort  to a packet. The recipe (pg 29) makes virtue of a sauce made from a milk stock that the chicken is poached in, and together with other yummy things like bacon and a handful of Parmesan on the outer case will surely enliven the old taste buds. It is a winner.

The poached apples with ginger and anise is a real possibility also, given that I still have some star anise left over from the Chicken noodle broth ( 6th January, although I think it was a few days later when I got round to it). I like the comfort of warm apples and often prefer to microwave one with a handful of raisins or some left-over mincemeat than chomp into one, unless there's a good cheese to be had. The gently spiced syrup is made from apple juice, caster sugar, star anise, stem ginger and the wonderfully toffee syrup it comes in. You say, 'Odd as it seems, we ate this outside in the snow. The ginger-scented warmth and clarity of the juice encouraged us to eat it standing up in the garden, marvelling at the tall hedges weighed down with snow and the slowly darkening sky.' Don't think I'll be standing out in the snow, though. There's at least 6 inches now and its blowing a blizzard. I took the dog down to the ford at the bottom of the village and the only tracks were those of a tractor as the incline is so steep. It still amazes me that this, the posh end of the village, is almost completely populated by people with nice sports cars. Do they really drive them through the ford each day? or do they just polish them once a week - I've yet to see one move.

Warm, comforting food is just what we both need right now, and a real fire and a drop of that french black raspberry liquor I've been saving. Cheers,


Wednesday, 16 January 2013

January 16th - Whiter than your persiled Y-fronts and a Siege mentality

Dear Nigel,

What a difference a day makes - or even a few days in this case. The world is whiter than your persiled Y-fronts and getting out of the back door has been a bit of an ordeal. Children were sent home on Monday and the bus refused to venture into the village at all. We all traipsed up the road to the top of the moor to collect  our smiling offspring who were gagging for a few days of enforced sledging, snowball fights and snowmen making.

 Every radiator is covered in mountains of waterproof clothing and more hats and gloves than we actually appear to own. The sledging run goes directly outside my window so I can sit and drink coffee and wave occasionally at the ruddy-faced children who refuse to come in even after several hours. In a few days this enthusiasm will begin to wane so I'll let them have their fun.

Over in the fridge department there are gaps starting to appear and a weak, ineffective light that hasn't been visible for weeks due to Christmas. The freezer is getting lower and I have to prevent myself falling in each time I reach to the bottom for the last of the sausages and some unidentifiable meat. The cat food is nearly all gone and the one thing I cannot  possibly do without ( - in my case it is a certain kind of plain full fat yoghurt without which I am simply miserable) has been scraped to its last.

This is the first day I have ventured out further than the top of the village. My shopping list reads like an inventory for one of Ranulph Fiennes expeditions, and, given that more snow is forecast in another day or so, there is a high likelihood that we will be holed up again here. I don't mind this, in fact, in a strange way I think I rather enjoy the challenge. What I like most is the brightness of the landscape and the completely soft silence that reverberates from branch to branch. I head out in Archie (newly returned since his last prang when I had to dive into a hedge to avoid a hearse) and keep to the only main and gritted road fifteen miles to the supermarket.

I am now alone with my siege mentality. An acquaintance spots me pocketing twenty four loo rolls and half a trolley of semi-skimmed milk to freeze and grins wryly. There is a convoy of archies in the car park. This, the highest town in England is obviously several degrees warmer than home. I know this because of the scarcity of snow on the ground and the fact that I can now get my key into the door lock of the landrover and so will no longer have to take a chance on leaving it unlocked. I buy a seventeen kilo sack of working dog food for my non-working arctic dog who moons at the back door trying to get back in to her warm bed every two minutes, and a hunk of decent mature cheddar, and head for the till.

You are cooking a good old fashioned ham (pg 16) with a new sauce - artichoke and parsley.The artichokes in question are those knobbly, slightly obscene little specimens -Jerusalem artichokes, which seem to me to have such a deep and comforting flavour just right for this time of year. I am pleased to see that you don't bother to peel them (just scrub and chop) as this has rather put me off in the past, which is a shame. You say of this recipe, that the ham 'can be energised a bit in summer, when it will benefit from a bright-green, olive-oil-and herb-based sauce. But on a day as bone chilling as this, it needs an accompaniment as comforting as a goose-down duvet.' The optional addition of a little double cream to the sauce will have to depend on whether I'm feeling post-seasonally guilty for stuffing my face with chocolate over Christmas, or whether two days healthy eating is making me feel virtuous and therefore in need of a treat for the obvious success that I can  envisage, without having to endure the hard part (namely a good deal more portion control and to realign my taste buds to more healthier fodder). The rest of the artichokes are roasted to accompany the Ham - seasonality at its best.

I am skimming over your ham and cabbage fry-up for, although the recipe appears tasty-enough in itself, I find juniper berries just a little hard to take, so dominating are they in their flavour. I've ruined many a game casserole because of this. You say ' I am probably alone in holding juniper as one of my favourite spices. Its clean, citrus 'n' tobacco scent is both warming and refreshing. Where cumin, cinnamon and nutmeg offer us reassuring earthiness, juniper brings an arctic freshness and tantalising astringency.' It is certainly an acquired taste, although I can see what you are getting at with this recipe, with its roots in sauerkraut.

I turn to January 13th - The cook's knife, and find a friend. There is something comforting in the knowledge that even the best cooks have favourite old knives that have travelled through life beside them. 'Picking up the right knife is like putting on a much-loved pullover. It may well have seen better days but the odd hole only seems to add to its qualities'. My handful of old knives would probably appal the best of cooks but they are MY knives and they do the job with me as their blunt utensil in a quite satisfactory way.

From one picture postcard to another,


Sunday, 6 January 2013

January 6th - Shopping refuseniks and the dawn of a New Year

Dear Nigel,

Something is brewing here in Hobbitsville, something mature and vintage. I suspect it is a piece of old cheese leaching its way off a fridge shelf and coming to find me. I am in Refusenik mode: the thought of a journey to the shops is simply too much, and anyway, we have mountains of food here. The only trouble is that the mountains contain a few old bread sticks, several varieties of half-massacred cheese and yet more pheasant (frozen). No, I haven't touched them yet.

You, on the other hand, seem rather chipper today. Whether it is 'the garden refreshed after the rain...the air..sweet and clean', you are in a mood to face the year squarely in the face 'ready for anything the New Year might throw at me.'

Where we meet is in the larder. You say 'my energy and curiosity may be renewed but the larder isn't. There is probably less food in the house than there has ever been.' So you trudge off in search of chicken and greens to make a spicy noodle soup. And we eat sausages - rare breed pork and chive - but with those unholy staples of a bad cook's kitchen, known as the oven chip. (You may have read about these deviant products hidden in the back of a cookery porn magazine.)

The broth you make is 'bright and life-enhancing'. I think this is what is missing in my repertoire at the moment. We need economical, sustaining, yet renewing foods with the energy to propel us on and out of our dormant states. I flick aimlessly through my stack of soup books and realise quickly that you were right all along: As I leaf through recipes for carrot and cumin, Leek and potato, Celeriac and wild mushroom etc. I realise that what I want more than anything else is something light. There has been rather too much stodge and heaviness of late and even the nicest things seem to involve maximum calories and hours of recovery in front of the tele. So I come back to your recipe (pg 13) for Chicken noodle broth, slightly embarrassed that I passed over it so carelessly first time round, but find that actually it is exactly what i am looking for.

An hour or more has passed and I am now surrounded by a sea of both cooking and gardening books. I like the recipe. I plan to make the recipe. But I don't have any Thai basil. Ordinarily, I would just ignore this fact and carry on regardless, perhaps substituting something similar along the way. But, I don't know what Thai Basil is, what it looks like, what it tastes like, what it might be similar to.

 I check out my hefty tomes on Herbs: Arabella Boxer (circa 1980) in 'The Herb Book' clearly hasn't heard of it; Lesley Bremness in 'The complete book of Herbs' (1990) may have lectured and researched herbs in  China but not got there either, and Monty Don's just making lots of pesto. So I turn to my cookery advisers; but where are they? I eventually unearth a recipe for Thai red pumpkin and coconut curry in the Leith's Vegetarian Bible, where there is a mention for 'fresh basil leaves, Thai holy basil if possible'. Here is a woman who clearly realises the chances of locating said holy basil are pretty remote. Still, if bog standard would do then that's fine.

What perplexes me most is the quest. If this book (Leith's vegetarian Bible) was published in 2002, at what point did Thai Basil hit the shelves of metropolitan England? - London being, in this instance, very much a foreign country. Somewhere in the 1990s I'd guess. A certain Mr Slater, talking in the mid 90s, said 'Fragrance comes second only to flavour in my book. This is what brings me to the table. It is true to say that some cuisines are more fragrant than others; Thai cooking, with its fresh, clean waft of ginger, limes and chillies, is as inviting as the warm, sweet notes of the caramelising onions and garlic of French country cooking.' (Real good food)

To the dawning of a New Year and all new things. (By the way, loved the photo of that fiery Witch Hazel - so explicitly new and unexpected against the harsh and barren background of Winter.)


Tuesday, 1 January 2013

On another note (no. 2)

Faffing around yesterday on my computer wondering if i actually existed.....well it was New Year's Eve, and a time for life audits and recrimination drinking.

 Anyway, apparently i do exist - which is always nice to know. Friends have been telling me this for years but sometimes you can catch yourself as if through gauze, looking into a mirror into an empty room where no one blinks back at you.

So, my alter ego, as googled, is a Martha Moffett who lives in a sleepy little fishing town called Lake Worth in America, and is also a writer, of plays and short fiction. How lovely.

What is the other YOU doing with their life and how does it compare?