Thursday, 26 September 2013

September 26th - Cake on elastic and A warm dressing for Roast Pork

Dear Nigel,

I went to a party recently where each of the guests had brought along a plate of food to share or a pudding for afters. Nothing unusual there. Some of the puddings were simple, some quite elaborate, and it occurred to me that there was quite a competitive angle to all this bonhomie going on. Hovering beside a fabulous-looking cheesecake, that had obviously taken some time to construct, was the owner of the cheesecake. Not wishing to have her hard work decimated in seconds by the hungry mob she was measuring it out in small wafer-thin slices, assessing the party-goers individually (or so it seemed) to see if they deserved a slice of cake or not.

It could, of course, be partly my fault. Someone, (quite possibly, I think, this rather severe and imposing woman) had left a tray of over-large cupcakes on the side, swirled with cream and with a flake poking out of each one. There was a bottle of strawberry syrup and sprinkles nearby. Assuming, quite naturally, that these were for the children, I was busy dolling them out and decorating them to order by a most appreciative set of small diners. In came dragon-woman with a huge frown. 'Don't you think they're too large for them,' she snapped. I did not, and there didn't seem to be many complaints. Anyway, it was rather too late for that as there were only two left. It did leave me wondering why you would bring a tray of 'child-like' deserts to a party where nearly everyone had children and not expect that the children would want to eat them. I took my sliver of cheesecake and disappeared into a corner whilst dragon-woman hovered nearby brandishing the cake knife.

I'm taking my eldest, James, down to University this weekend (back again to do an MA), and, as I'm packing up biscuits and vitamin C tablets, I feel another moving on and away as my brood drift off on their own life journeys. He is in his element; never happier that when he is in contained and prescribed surroundings. Where others are seeking freedom and anarchy, James is happy to be compliant and organised by others.

I have been given a large bag of damsons by my neighbour which are sitting in the porch with their expiry date ticking away for a few days now. Thank goodness for your recipe 'a pudding for autumn' (page 376), which is essentially a summer pudding made with autumn fruit and a good slug of sloe gin, which, luckily I happen to have sitting on the side for medicinal purposes. The fruit you are using is a mixture of damsons, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries, which might go down better with my little fusspots here. Not everyone shares my love for the deeply sour. You leave the stones in until the fruit is cooked, then squeeze them to release. 'If you skip the stoning process you will, I promise, regret it later.' Sounds like you are talking from personal experience here, Nigel? I agree, summer (or autumn) puddings should be undemanding and unctuous, and drizzled in double cream.

You are busy cooking something which is making me drool. It is 'Roast pork and rocket salad with lemon and olives' (page 380). You talk about the merits of the pan juices, 'the treasure in the pan...containing the caramelised meat juices, crusty pan-stickings...the essence of the meat.' Invariably, for me, this becomes the basis of a good gravy; sometimes it is regarded as 'cooks perks'. Today you are doing something different with it . You are using the pan juices to form the base of a warm olive dressing, adding chopped olives, lemon juice and olive oil. It gives a big rustic flavour to pour over thin slices of roast pork. Sometimes we get complacent about our roasts. The pork here has been roasted in a mixture of garlic and rosemary and seasoned well. The robust flavours balance each other nicely, and for a windy autumnal day this seems just the thing; perhaps with some celeriac mash to serve or some crusty bread. I am not a great fan of roast pork generally but I can see that the amalgam of strong flavours here will make a dish to remember and I am keen to try it.


Thursday, 19 September 2013

September 19th - Painted trees and The traditional pea and pie supper

Dear Nigel,

'Round our neck of the woods things are getting Autumnal. Not a huge leaf fall, as yet, or the fade to brown of all things green; but there are small pockets of activity here and there. Driving down to the village shop three miles away, I notice the odd tree dotted about one per field, covered in a rainbow mantle of reds, yellows and burnt orange - looking for all the world like a painted sculpture driven into the ground by guerrilla artists, against a backdrop of solid green. It is uncanny this Autumn on the cusp. Like many people I have always believed that the change in colour was due to the lowering of the temperature. But now I find that I am wrong. The colours and their intensity may be dictated by the temperature outside, but the actual change in colour is caused by the lengthening of the night at this time of year - whether it is cold outside or not.

There is vitamin C hanging for the birds on every hedge in the form of vibrant glossy rose hips and tiny peppercorn elderberries (to keep away bird flu perhaps?...well, who knows...); and clods of mud on the road left by the constant trail of tractors from the fields. We have to skip round them on our way to the bus each day. There is an old farmer in our village kept in constant work - I presume paid by the parish or district council - to keep the roads and the verges tidy. Every few days we wave at each other as he strims the verges, prunes the hedges, sweeps up the muck from the road. It is a part of the necessary, and hidden, polishing of our countryside which keeps it looking 'pretty pretty' for the tourists and locals alike.

The big event of the week here is the annual pea and pie supper at the village hall. It follows the Harvest Festival at the church the day before, with the supper preceding an auction of produce. The children revel in a chance to bid for a bunch of red onions and a gingerbread. They are less enamoured of the green sludge pertaining to be mushy peas. The pie is good and solid and meaty with plenty of dark gravy. (In a village where the only shop is a Butchers it would be a poor do otherwise.) The large selection of puddings proves more popular.

The vicar is down to her last 67p and is frantically bidding for a jar of marmalade. This year the bidding starts off at a pace and then slows down as people get worn out. It is late and I am eager to take the kids home to bed but there is still twenty or more individual items. Another jar of red cabbage. Another bunch of gladioli. I want to bang my head on the table. Please, let me go home. Someone is refusing to let the vicar have her jar of marmalade for 67p. It's been a good evening, but too long. We have to stay for the raffle. We are trapped. There would be an uproar if I tried to make us leave before the drawing when they have had their tatty pink tickets stuffed in their pockets all evening - each one pointing to a jar of bath salts or some asti spumante.

Back home I am making a spinach, leek and Stilton soup. It takes a phenomenal amount of spinach - four huge bags - and even wilted it seems a lot. I often think some recipe writers ignore the financial constraints of their readers. Have you ever noticed this? You are out shopping, slavishly following someone's ideas to the letter, when you get that gnawing feeling that tonight's dinner is costing a kings ransom, and wouldn't you prefer to eat out instead? Occasionally, of course, it is our own fault. We have decided to cook something where the main ingredient is out-of-season and expensive. But not always so. I have notes littered on books all over the house saying, 'don't's far too expensive' or 'use tinned instead of fresh tomatoes as it seems to taste exactly the same...'

I like it that you follow the seasons round with us. You make the food I want to eat right now at this time of year. Today you are using up some leeks to make little 'tarts of leek and cheese' (page 369). You are using Taleggio, which is one of my favourites to cook with. The leeks are thinnings from a friend, removed to allow the others to fatten up in the coming months. These have a more delicate taste than the dark fat leeks in my trug. You say that 'the French and the Flemish have more ways to use the humble leek than the Innuit have words for snow or the Lapps have for reindeer'. You like 'the more robust notes of our own leek and potato soup..than the French vichyssoise. It's a more common soup - you rarely see it on menus now'. Not in our house, Nigel. It's one of the few soups I can guarantee they'll all eat. The beetroot, lemon and chive was too red, apparently, and this one I'm making is too green. Doesn't seem a fair argument to me. The little tarts are made with puff pastry and the leeks are merely softened in a pan and them sprinkled with cubes of cheese.
'Later, as we tuck into the steaming pie with its puff pastry and sweet, mild filling, it occurs to me that the precious leeks my neighbour had grown from seed were actually meant for my garden.' Whoops!

You are also making soup. It's good to know you are prepared to dive into your freezer and come up with a big bag of frozen peas, like the rest of us. My freezer is getting to that chaotic state when I know I have to do likewise and eat our way through it if there is to be any chance of putting things by for Christmas. The bag of frozen peas go into a large pan with some vegetable stock (made from powder - Marigold, I presume?), spring onions, mint and salt. Blended with cream, you eat it with rye crackers and smoked salmon. Here is a lesson in the economy of soup, sorely needed here at present. There are vegetables crying out to be used up and I am 'following a recipe' when I should, perhaps, be experimenting with frugality.

Like the answer to Sophie's angling of the tooth fairy: 'Emma gets £2 from the tooth fairy in her house.' 'Well,' I say,'I think the tooth fairy is a bit more frugal around here.' Molly has lost her top front tooth and is doing pirate impersonations. There is enough space to be able to suck a straw with her teeth closed. I find some tiny milk bottles, like the kind we used to have at playtime with gone-off warm milk inside, which everyone left. They make great milk shakes for after school. Note to self - write out a hundred times: I will make frugal soups. I will make frugal soups.


Thursday, 12 September 2013

September 12th - Remaking 'the Godfather' and A shark claiming to be vegetarian

Dear Nigel,

There is a bloodbath going on next door. Terry is slaying his babies one by one with tears glistening in his eyes - every inch a tormented Al Pacino in 'the Godfather'. They are moving to another cottage a few miles away due to a hike in the rent. The garden is Terry's passion. It may not be chocolate-box picturesque with its motley collection of sheds, fencing pole stacks and chickens, which rather obscure the chocolate-box cottage standing behind it, but it was a labour of love and ingenuity in a small space. They are attempting to root up fruit bushes, fully grown apple trees, grapevines and herbs and transport them down the road in bin bags to their new home. I suppose when it comes down to it most gardeners spend a small fortune on the plants in their garden. A keen gardener let loose in a nursery is like a small child in a sweet shop. He wants everything. So naturally he wants everything to go, too.

Val says the difference in rent will allow Terry to keep pursuing his new hobby which is shark fishing, off Scotland and parts of Cornwall. She says she's not getting in a nineteen foot boat with a fourteen foot shark claiming to be a vegetarian. It wouldn't be the first vegetarian to fall for the smell of a bacon sarnie. Stands to reason that sharks are as likely as humans to lose self-control and cave in at the first available opportunity. (The sharks in question are caught,tagged and sent back again - so no endless round of shark goulash, shark bolognaise, shark and kidney pie....)

The early Autumn weather has started to bring leaves down from the trees and the berries in the hedgerows are all ripening. Every day on the way to the Honker bus the children snaffle redcurrants from old bushes in someone's garden edging the road. There are blackberries to be had and small sprays of elderberries in more sunny corners. I am attempting to teach them the difference between what is edible and what is not. We pick blackberries and go home to make the first of the season's blackberry and apple crumbles. It is high time they learnt a few cookery techniques, I think. Today it is the rubbing in method. We leave out the porridge oats for once to make the traditional topping and they practise this new skill. It's quite hard to explain to a child how to flick your thumb back lifting and pressing the fat into the flour so that it resembles breadcrumbs and not a claggy mess. There is a marked difference in colour and texture between the two little pudding basins. We combine the two and the result tastes just fine. They are pleased to eat something they have made themselves and proud to serve it out for the rest of us.

You are making a dish of 'baked squid with chilli tomato sauce' (page 363). You say 'get your fishmonger to do the preparation of the squid. There is no reason to do it yourself.' Something tells me you wouldn't be up there with Terry filleting his shark. Given the licencing laws this is probably a mercy. A passing stranger remarked on the bad case of woodworm of his pergola. ' That's not woodworm,' he said, ' that's what happens to the squirrels eating off the bird table.' Now I come to think of it, the numbers do seem to have dropped over the past year.

You have arrived back home from the allotments with a gift from a friend of San Marzano tomatoes, Italian tomatoes which thrive in the Italian blistering sunshine and volcanic soil around Mount Vesuvius. Whether they taste as sweet grown in our British climate is questionable. You question it, too.
'I have grown them, but not with what you could call success. It is often said they make the richest tomato sauce of all, but obviously much depends on the ripeness of your tomatoes and , I would venture to suggest, on whether they were grown in Italy.'

The tomatoes are used to prepare a new everyday tomato sauce which can be used in an infinite variety of ways. Today it is poured over the squid, which have first been stuffed with an anchovy, breadcrumb and parsley mixture (which sounds intriguing) and baked in the oven.

I am looking at your recipe for 'broad bean, feta and spinach pie' (page 360) and considering its suitability for tomorrow's dinner. The filling is very familiar to me at the moment with its mountain of wilted and squeezed out spinach and crumbled feta, but you are using sheets of filo pastry brushed with melted butter and scattered with sesame seeds. I seem to have fallen out of using filo pastry- for no particular reason that I can think of - and perhaps it will make a lighter change that the puff pastry that has become too much of a regular routine for me. Sometimes it is a fine thing to be reminded of the good things half forgotten in your haste for the new and the novel.

A celebration is in the making. Plans for the new kitchen that you 'thought would never happen' are finally underway. There is something fundamentally right about returning a house to its roots - putting back the original 1820s floor plan and 'restoring the basement kitchen with its York stone floors, two fireplaces and deep fireside cupboards.' In celebration you make ' a lentil and pumpkin soup-stew' (page 358): 'A big, bolstering dish, tied as always to the season....Golden flesh to celebrate a golden day.' The pumpkin, you say, is interchangeable with butternut squash, which would probably be my chosen veg on this occasion as I prefer the texture. My dalliance with pumpkin has mostly been what to do with the insides of a pumpkin lantern, sometimes including a trail of dripped wax and the char of candle flame. Not a tasty ingredient, I hasten to add. Enjoy your stew. Slainte, Nigel.


Tuesday, 3 September 2013

September 3rd - The daunting prospect of lunch and A rather special Chocolate damson cake

Dear Nigel,

I am busy making a soup of Beetroot, Lemon and Chive for a friend who is coming over tomorrow. I am slightly bothered by the fact that I have chosen to make something which I am very uncertain as to whether I will like or not. The fact is that I don't really like the taste of cooked Beetroot. But then again I don't like carrots either, but I try and push the boundaries of my own taste buds by making myself try things all over again. With carrots I only succeed by making ancillary recipes - like carrot and ginger soup or carrot cake.I am slightly daunted by the prospect of lunch tomorrow but I know that coming out of your comfort zone and trying something new is the only way to move on. In every walk of life, food included.

You've got your teeth into a bit of cake, sitting in the shade of the Robinia tree, 'a full afternoon's work'. This is because you are thwarted in your desire to raid your profuse vegetable patch by the constraints of waiting for the photographer to come and take his pictures: 'As a gardener, I'm proud; as a cook, frustrated.' So you go to work on the produce of the old damson tree which hides behind the compost heap and, as such, is unlikely to feature in any shots. It is one of your favourites, I fancy.

'You could measure my life, or at least my autumns, in the fruit of the damson tree. Flicking back through my books, there have been crumbles and crisps, fools and compotes...a soft-crumbed sponge..a glossy-topped cheesecake.' It is that 'mouth-puckering smack of fruit and acidity that remains intense even when they have been cooked with sugar.' So into a wonderfully dark brownie recipe they go, making something a little 'dark, sumptuous, intense, faintly reminiscent of the best sort of Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte but without the cream.'

This I will have to try. The recipe is for 'Chocolate damson cake' (page 338), and, looking at it I'm wondering whether you would allow it to be eaten gently warmed with a dollop of vanilla ice cream? (I think the autumn weather is settling in to my stomach early...the carbohydrates are calling me.) Perhaps we'll try it both ways - as a cake and as a pudding and see which comes out tops. How does a Cookery book writer feel about people meddling with their recipes, I wonder? After all, if you've spent good sweat and tears over perfecting something, it's a bit like someone putting tomato ketchup over everything in a posh restaurant, isn't it? Or maybe that is for the chefs that like to impress and you are a little more laid back as to people's idiosyncrasies.

You are wondering how you became the sort of guy that makes his own chutney. I find my chutney making goes in fits and starts. Either there are shelf upon shelf of beautifully labelled jars - too many to eat oneself, destined as presents to friends and relations - or a desert. At the moment we are in a desert position. The cause of this is invariably the former i.e. shelf upon shelf of the same chutney which ends up being waded through until your bread and cheese cries out to be alone for a change. Your habits came 'not out of the need to preserve a glut or to make ribbon-decked gifts for my friends but from a desire to have a spoonful or two of home-made relish to go with a piece of cheese and a wodge of bread.'

Lately my chutney habit has been in almost single jars - which is plenty for the use to which is intended - and on the lines of experimenting with different caramelised onion recipes. Your pot of chutney looks intriguing. It is 'a dark and sticky fruit chutney' ( page 342) made with ripe figs, which are at their best at the moment, if the ones I picked up the other day so beautifully displayed in a local shop are anything to go by. And, gratefully enough, it makes only a couple of jars. My copper preserving pan sits doing a sterling job on top of the cupboard collecting envelopes and stuff for recycling; its alter ego.