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.


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