Wednesday, 23 October 2013

October 23rd - Falling leaves and Chocolate crumble

Dear Nigel,

We had another fruit crumble the other day - there seems no end to their appeal at the moment in this dank weather. I turn to page 412 where you have been busy likewise making a 'pear and chocolate oat crumble.' My daughter thinks it's just a version of flapjack anyway, as I nearly always choose to add oats to the traditional topping, as indeed you have here. But you have also added a scattering of dark chocolate pieces to the mixture, which gives it a whole new dimension and appeal as far as my kids are concerned. This seems to me a good way to make some poached and caramelised pears go a little further - and maybe that's the appeal of a good crumble - as they are quite fiddly to prepare in any sizeable number.

This recipe has only one fruit per person. I quite often need/or prefer to double up the quantities because I live with a trough of pigs it seems. Portion control is not a phrase they want to hear. And thus speaks someone who was one of three siblings and always given the Mars Bar and the knife with which to divide it. When, as a child, you are left with such a task, knowing that you will have the last choice, you hone your skill with such accuracy. The ability to calculate the precise amount extra to allow the middle section on account of the fact that the two ends are both slightly rounded but also covered in chocolate, is perhaps a skill that would sit well in any law court, I fancy.

The leaves are on the turn now. Gentle winds are bringing them tumbling down in all their coppery hues. The girls try catching them as they glide down in gentle zigzaggy lines. They prove quite difficult to catch as they turn and veer away from outstretched palms. Along the verges their favourite game is kicking the leaves, like any child faced with sizeable piles and an empty road.

There is an elderly white-haired man in our village called Peter whose sole greeting is a nod or a wave of the hand. His almost constant job is to go back and forth trimming hedges, clearing tractor mud off the lanes, and sweeping leaves. I look at all these tidy heaps which my daughters are blithely kicking all over the place and try and hurry them on before we are found out. I resist the urge to join them but there is something very satisfying in sending a huge pile flying high into the air with a footballer's right leg.

Perhaps we should come over to your garden where you are 'raking the leaves up from the garden paths, picking the Autumn Bliss raspberries that are still going strong, and tidying up the pots that contain the remains of the courgette plants. A nip in the air and it's a definite carb moment.' It feels like we are all bedding down and following an ancient deep urge to hibernate - perhaps until the spring. I think I could do that quite comfortably, given the right biological makeup.

I have got out of the habit of making homemade pizzas of late. It's easily done. One minute you are right in there, feeling virtuous, enjoying the process, loving the result; and the next you have got out of the routine and are unthinkingly slamming a bought pizza into the oven. How does that happen? How does a habit, even quite a strong habit suddenly become forgotten and unmake itself? I am looking at your 'mushroom with creme fraiche and mozzarella pizza' (page 407) wondering how and when I fell off the waggon. It brings you up short, particularly the forgetting.

You say that you knead pizza dough for less time than you used to. 'The original fifteen minutes has now become more like ten- by which I probably mean about six or seven.' So what's my excuse? I renew my intention, particularly as there has been too much conflict here lately about choice and combination of toppings. At least if you make your own you can cater for the child that only likes one certain cheese and the one who won't eat mushrooms....looks like this recipe might just be made for me, then....oh goody!

Perhaps my all-time favourite recipe of yours right now is your 'Orzo with courgettes and Grand Padano' (page 404) which I have made several times over in the last couple of weeks as I can't seem to get enough of the combination of flavours. Sometimes I used Parmesan when the Grand Padano ran out. (Actually I was seen eating large chunks of it off the chopping board, which is simply NOT ALLOWED.) I love the balance of the warmth of the white wine against the salty pancetta, tempered by the sticky cheesy orzo. I could quite happily eat this every day for a week for lunch without getting bored. I feel I ought to put something with this but am reluctant to do so. Like adding a side salad or a vegetable because you think you ought to put something healthy in there. But I don't want it. I come down on the side that as you haven't specifically suggested an accompaniment, and none appears in the photograph, then it is somehow alright and 'allowed' to be eaten just as it is. Who are these health gurus who would stick a non-ending round of broccoli on every plate and make you feel guilty for not complying? 


Tuesday, 15 October 2013

October 15th - Grilled figs and Food for an American Indian Chief

Dear Nigel,

I've been making your 'Grilled figs with Marsala' (page 396) which we ate with thick Greek yoghurt. Moving my way through endless variations for baked fruit at the moment, this has been one of my favourites, with its wonderful sticky basting sauce which is a mixture of honey, Marsala and the juices from the figs. Together with a rather badly-put-together own concoction involving nothing more than a baked apple and quarter of a bottle of maple syrup late one night. I am partial to such things since I discovered that I could simply bung it in a bowl in the microwave (very scientific) for a few minutes and eat straight from the dish drizzled in the amber syrup....such is the midnight snacker...

Maple syrup has been flowing freely in this household of late, on drop scones, maple and pecan biscuits, and as a rather wicked addition to a vanilla bean paste smoothie (trying to emulate one found on the shelves in Waitrose). I love its amber colour and the unique sweet tang, so full of depth and flavour. The trees are tapped in the springtime in cold climates like Quebec in Canada, when the starch that has been stored in the trunks and roots of the maple trees before the winter is turned into sugar and rises in the sap. The buckets of sap tapped from the trees are then heated to leave a concentrated dark amber syrup.

I came across a simple recipe you have been making lately with maple syrup. It is 'ribs, mirin and maple syrup', where a five rib pork belly is marinaded in a mixture of mirin and maple syrup. It was tucked away with other recipes under the heading 'kitchen' on your website. The Indians in North America are known to have first produced maple syrup, long before the Europeans arrived. Legend has it that maple sap was used in place of water to cook venison for one of the chiefs. Probably a good thing that they didn't have a bottle of mirrin handy, though.

You have been making 'a mild and fruity curry of salmon' ( page 399), with chilli, the usual curry suspects, coconut milk and tamarind paste. I am interested in this because I don't think I have ever made a salmon curry before and it's a fish we like to eat regularly. My only concern is the tamarind paste - and really it's a note to self, as I had a bad experience with an over-generous dose of the stuff in one recipe, which haunts me still. So I shall be careful to put in only a bare tablespoon. It is extremely sour and dominating, otherwise.

The children have been watching regular instalments of adverts for toys strung together with the odd children's programme in between. The march of this advertising is relentless in this, the run-up to Christmas. Everything it seems is a must-have in their eyes. I am taking a more objective look at the products in this hyped-up frenzy. There is a game with a dog that does poos, and another raucously funny game (or so they would have you believe) which looks like pumping up an airbed to me. It makes it all the more difficult to locate things that will really spark their imaginations - the right toy for the right child at just the right moment. I want to turn and run away from all this Christmas stuff but, with a list of friends and family as long as my arm I know that I will be less panicked if I at least put my thinking cap on.

When it comes to food, I always prefer to cook as much in advance as possible and freeze it as I really just want to make the most of the limited time I get to have my family all together. Soups and mince pies and all manner of things are as good frozen as slaved over at the last minute, when you would rather be toasting your socks in front of the log burner and playing out the same old jokes and memories as last year and the year before. I rarely make much new stuff at Christmas as the kids all have their favourites, and woe betide me if I forget. Tom reminds me that I didn't get round to making his millionaire's shortbread last year (I was badly ill the week before Christmas, and the ingredients never made it further than the cupboard). Smoked salmon soup is the out-and-out favourite, and it's a good place to start. It freezes well.


Sunday, 6 October 2013

October 3rd - The price of high art and Poached pears with the devil's cheesecake cream

Dear Nigel,

Last week I took a group of school children around the village church in nearby Warslow where their school is as part of a town and country project they were doing. (They were all very excited as they get to visit a 'real city' soon.) The children were encouraged to be nosey and to see what they could find inside. Of course they soon discovered where the vicar makes a cup of coffee and where the steps to the disused belfry were to be found.

But somewhere, amongst the jumbled list of things they found interesting, two things juxtaposed and stuck in my mind. The first was a beautiful William Morris stained glass window (him being a local lad) tucked away in this tiny church in the Peak District; and over in the vicar's private little ante-room (well she did encourage them to be nosey!) the second: a  record of the collection taken at each service, lying open on the side.

Looking down I noticed one service recently - presumably an early 8 o'clock one - where the collection taken was only £8. Now, if vicars are  being paid the national minimum wage (which currently stands at £6.31, since Tuesday), that leaves approximately £1.69 by my reckoning to cover the cost of maintaining the church, heating, light....and the buying(?) and preservation of fine art. Perhaps it is time to change the idea of the collection plate to a new kind of state-funded church lottery, and the coffers might start rolling in. A series of little coloured balls running from the pulpit across the altar rail and down the pipes of the organ to the cries of 'two fat ladies 88; the Lord is my shepherd 23' might do the trick.

There is something  very comforting about baked fruit or vegetables that seems to work so well at this time of year; whether it's a baked apple stuffed with sultanas or a rhubarb and ginger crumble, or a humble tomato. You are making 'Baked tomatoes' (page 390) stuffed with a creamed coconut mixture and chilli, ginger and garlic. It is an unusual way to use creamed coconut, and, as you say, 'shouldn't work but it does.'

You are also poaching pears 'with cream cheese and ginger sundae' (page 389). Having just thrown away one lot of pears that went from bullet hard to pocked with brown overnight, I am a little reluctant, though the sundae part of the recipe more than makes up for the replacements. This is a truly wicked mix of cream cheese (full-fat if you please), icing sugar and double cream, to which crushed ginger nut biscuits and grated chocolate are added. Recipe for a coronary, I think, or a well-deserved treat after a week of trying too hard to be good. Never underestimate the power of food (and not just chocolate) to lift your mood.

Lately, I have poached or baked plums and peaches and fresh figs and apples. Somehow they are far more satisfying that their raw counterparts (worth remembering if you ever get to that stage of having indulged in too much cream cheese sundae and needing to drop a few pounds....although somehow I can't see that happening.)

Having spent the last few days hammering into my children that money doesn't grow on trees, today I took them to a place where money does in fact grow on trees. Over in the valley of Dovedale there are fallen trees and stumps all along the riverside walk where people have hammered coins into the bark for luck. Some logs appear like spiny creatures with hundreds and hundreds of silver scales, many bent over, cascading over them and glistening in the sun. The children love to try and dig them out, failing miserably. I don't know how unique this custom is but I haven't seen it to this extent anywhere else in the Peak District. There is a strange beauty to this odd custom. The autumn sun is wonderfully warm today and Poppy is happy swimming in the river while we look for the last of the blackberries. It is getting to the end of their season and all the best ones have gone. I notice the sloes are starting to get that wonderful bloom, though they are best left till after the first frost if you don't want to spend all day with a pin stabbing them to release their juices.