Tuesday, 31 December 2013

December 31st - Toasting the stars

Dear Nigel,

Christmas is all but over, belts are strained and straining and thoughts stray to the new year, resolutions and plans. I feel like I'm in a permanent post-Christmas hangover state, even though I don't have a hangover. I'm physically knackered and yet itching to take all the Christmas stuff down and go for a kind of Amish simplicity instead. Long frosty walks help with the post-Christmas blues, with the dog swimming in the ice cold waters and the children falling flat on their faces in the mud three days in a row.

Food was a success, although like most people  the sheer quantities were on the over-generous side. I think the whole of January might consist of eating up the leftovers. That I knew that things were waning were the two comments I overheard yesterday. The first, 'not quiche again for lunch' (-spoilt brat, methinks), and the second, 'save some bread for me'. Too much rich food and we're all craving simple stuff once more.

Back in the kitchen, you are busy playing again. Your new toys put to one side, you are busy with the comforting and the familiar, making your friend Jeremy Pang's curry again tonight - 'a stock with tamarind paste, toasting cumin and coriander seeds, and frying fish.' I can almost smell the warm steamy air heady with the scent of toasted spices and the fish spitting and sizzling in a pan. 'Tamarind fish curry' (page 516). This is a recipe 'to play with...a bit more of this, a little less of that. I follow the recipe, but it is about more than that, it's about cooking or the thrill and joy of it all, about having a good time in the kitchen. I can ask for no more.'

It's New Year's Eve and the older ones are all rushing off to parties with their friends. Not being much of a party person myself (in fact I hate the things), I've opted for joining a motley group of friends playing fiddle in the pub. It sounds as if you too are cooking for a quiet night in with friends rather than preparing to go to some glitzy party somewhere.

Every year, at some point in the evening, I stand outside in the sheer blackness of the night and look for the brightest star in the sky. I remember the people and the places that have formed the half-completed jigsaw that is my life and raise a toast to them. I think about the past year and the new and about the wisdom and the lessons that I want to carry over from one to the other. The sound of the running stream behind me reminds me that life is constantly changing and moving on, and though I want to stop it and hold this moment in my hand, it too will be gone in an instant. A cloud moving silently over the face of the moon draws a temporary veil and a breath of cold air sends icy fingers brushing the side of my face.

If there are answers to the questions we seek to ask, then they are here. At the end. At the beginning.

Happy New Year,


Sunday, 22 December 2013

December 22nd - Tree with an alcohol problem

Dear Nigel,

He arrived as a feted and honoured guest, given pride of place in the middle of the room and decked in all the riches and finery that we had to offer. But since then he has been behaving like the sort of guest you can't wait to wave goodbye to at the end of the holidays. Offered to help himself to a drink, the bad guest avails himself of the whole of his host's drinks cupboard, wine cellar and bottles of single malt carefully stashed behind books on the shelves. Smiles become strained and a subplot emerges where the host seeks to find ever new and ingenious hiding places for his remaining supplies with an air of wartime conspiracy. Sometimes the bad guest will seek these out and, with great hilarity, proclaim the eccentricities of his host.

This was the sort of guest we had taken into our home. The first pint downed in under ten minutes, another an hour later; and again later that evening. No tree invited into our house had ever come so close to having a full-blown alcohol problem as this one. It wasn't until I heard him sipping loudly in the next room and actually heard him belch that I realised that our guest had gone too far this time. Rounding the corner quickly to try and catch him in the act I instead caught sight of Poppy (our black Labrador), head on one side scraping along the floor under the tree, lapping up the water from the cup of the Christmas tree stand. She slunk off to bed pretending to be part of the carpet.

You are making a store of food for Christmas which will last several days (hopefully) and that can be used in a cut-and-come-again manner. Like you I find a side of smoked salmon very useful at this time of year. You are also curing some raw salmon yourself in a mixture of salt, lemon and herbs. My cooking time at the moment is vying with the pressing need to whizz the hoover round and wash all the bedding so my list is fairly short now, along with the energy needed to do it all. I am looking forward to picking up the Turkey tomorrow from the farm up the road. I think it will have to live in the back of the Landrover for the next two days as the only safe place away from the dog and the cat. The fridge is full to bursting.

It is hard in the run up to Christmas not to feel under pressure from it all - whether it is your own endless lists which you either gradually tick off or discard as over-optimistic, and from the expectations of others; or even from your own traditions and shackles which you insist upon. Even you, normally so laid back and relaxed - or so it seems - are prone to a little stress.
'If I am going to lose it (and I do), then this will probably be the month. When there is too much going on, I have a fast, failsafe fish soup that seems to make life manageable once more.' The recipe is for 'Lifesaving soup' ( page 498). It involves miso paste and vegetable stock, a little Vietnamese chilli paste (an ingredient I have to confess I've not come across), some broccoli, salmon and prawns. I like the idea of food as medicine and we all need a bit of a life saver right now - that and a stiff drink.

Took my fiddle to the village pub here the other night. With the vicar doing an Elton John impersonation on  keyboard we led the rabble in a round of carol singing. Someone had suggested, I think, that since there is a very steep lane in our village which leads down to a ford at the bottom, and some of the older ladies might not be able to get back up it, that singing in the pub instead was a good idea (at least that was the excuse I was given). Carol at the pub put on a simple hot supper with a donation to church funds from each meal sold. The pub was packed and it seemed to go down well anyway.

You arrive back home with a bag of clementines. Like you, they are the essence of Christmas for me. Often I am to be found head in the fruit bowl sniffing the zest as I peel. It takes me back to childhood every time when somehow they were a special treat to be found down the bottom of a stocking along with a single coin and a handful of presents. Stockings these days are definitely getting bigger and more elaborate than one of Dad's old walking socks.

You use the clementines in a recipe of 'Roast duck with apples, clementines and prunes' (page 492). The zest is added to the apples and the fruit mixture used as a stuffing for the meat. A second clementine holds the stuffing in place. This is such lovely seasonal recipe, and so simple, that I might have to add a duck to my order tomorrow. I have a beef and game pie waiting for the family enriched with more than a slug of something a bit special. It is a time to gather people round. Christmas is about togetherness and sharing.So put the stress aside and take time to just enjoy the simple pleasures of good food and good company.

Merry Christmas, Nigel.


Thursday, 12 December 2013

December 12th - Karate cows and Lament for a bespoke kitchen

Dear Nigel,

You could say the kitchen here is of a 'bespoke' nature. Over the eighteen months that we have been here it has been customised to fit and tailored to our own specifications. That the dishwasher is but a distant memory and now lives in a shed due to size of kitchen is neither here nor there. Nor the lovely cream Aga which resides in my ex's house due to lack of gas in the village and the pennies to run it. The new cooker, a slimline electric thing (too busy painting its nails), and I, hate each other. I think it lies about temperature and it thinks I can't cook. Most probably it is right.

I am contemplating a subtle embellishment to the finish of the kitchen cupboards - sticking back the laminate with sellotape so that I can get into them without having to fight with them every time. There are baking tins in the bookcase and glass storage jars under the tele. Everything in its place, and a place for everything. As long as you know where that is of course.

This week a marvellous stroke of luck came our way. James and I had been discussing the Christmas arrangements.
'I hope you're not going to do what you did last year,' he said, 'and save all the good stuff for when Chris gets here.'
Honestly, sibling rivalry for you. There is far too much expected of Christmas. For some reason they have taken it into their heads that Christmas lasts about three weeks and every day has to have special food attached to it.

Anyway, clutching the 'golden ticket' as it were, in the school raffle, I managed to avoid the dodgy spa prize and won instead a voucher for some of Barney's Dad's rare breed meat. Driving over the moors towards Big Fernyford farm, I began to realise why Neil and Dorota had decided to concentrate on rare breed sheep and cattle. The mist had come down and it was thick like cream. Turning into the lane of this upland stock farm I passed several fields marked SSSI. Neil rents the farm from the Peak District National Park Authority and runs Swaledale sheep and Belted Galloway cattle up here.

Peeping out at me from under a mop of tufted gelled up hair, was a tiny little black calf with a huge white belt round its middle keeping its trousers up. All around it were larger versions all dressed in the same uniform with tousled hair and white belts, like a group of delinquent beginners at a Karate club (white being the beginners belt). They had that air that teenagers sometimes have when they grow their hair so that they can watch you from underneath it with 'attitude' written all over their faces, as they chewed unblinkingly in my direction.

I have noticed these cattle experiencing a surge of popularity these last few years. Bred to thrive outdoors in any climate they suit upland farms with wide sweeping moors like this. The animals are slow to mature which means the meat has a special flavour and texture, which I was keen to try for myself. They also live a long time, often well into their twenties, which means they produce more calves and reduce replacement costs; which all helps the farmer. The joint of beef now, of course, will have to wait until Hannah arrives on the 27th. Since she is missing Christmas and the free range Turkey from the farm up the road, she will no doubt be expecting something equally wonderful when she finally deigns to drop in on us.

Back home I am struggling to find work surfaces to roll out dozens of pastry straws for the 'Yoga babes' Christmas party tomorrow; including ninety one year old Olive, still doing the splits and putting most of us to shame. I am making spinach, smoked garlic and chilli straws and they are so moreish that any that break are being eaten on the spot and there is a danger that I will arrive with an empty box tomorrow.

You have found something which 'pops (your) cork' - a robust recipe for 'Roast pork belly with pomegranate molasses' (page 490). You have had 'a sudden attack of deep carnivorous lust' and are looking for a piece of meat to hack at. The cheap pork roast is 'as deeply caramelised as it can be without being actually charred.' Perhaps it is the genetic pull of wiling away the dark winter days around the campfire gnawing at bones with the other cave men that festers. It is not a recipe for the faint-hearted cook.

But you are also making recipes that draw me in when I'm in need of inspiration at a time like this. I am taken by your novel way of dressing cooked vegetables for a change. The cabbage family are given butter and lemon juice, root vegetables are attired in walnut oil and herbs; but the one that interests me most is the roast artichokes with walnut oil and red wine vinegar. I love the earthy taste of those nubbly little Jerusalem artichokes which look on one hand so unappealing yet on the other so 'home-grown' and wonderfully irregular, that they defy any supermarket grading system, and often much washing also.

So I'll leave you sitting round your campfire hacking away at great lumps of meat with your dagger and considering the starlit sky above.


Wednesday, 4 December 2013

December 4th - Joseph, the Donkey and "Words" with Santa Claus

Dear Nigel,

The other day I took Sophie and Molly to a Nativity at a local farm. Fed-up with being angels every year they both opted for the male roles (- it's not just Shakespeare then where all the good roles go to men) Sophie chose to be one of the three kings and Molly decided she wanted to be Joseph.
'I'm a special person,' she beamed from ear to ear. And I remembered the importance of such things, having been the Inn keeper's wife twice and the back end of a camel on one occasion when I was small.

The best thing about Joseph's job, of course, is that he gets to lead the donkey into Bethlehem. Making their way between the hay bales, with the ever-dependable Tilly the donkey, Molly's beam was bright as any star twinkling through the backcloth. Squeezing their way towards the manger beside a very rotund Sophie the sheep, who chose only to give us her back view, they managed to find somewhere to park the donkey in a pen near the baby goats.

As with all good Nativities it is the ad libbing that makes it. Last year it was the stunningly different Mary who had gone in for a face painting session at the last minute and Sophie the sheep who was dangerously close to chomping off one of the baby Jesus's limbs as she'd found something more tasty to eat in the manger than whatever it was the shepherds were offering her. This year, a tiny shepherd - quite possibly with a new baby brother or sister at home - was using the three kings' presents to batter the baby Jesus with (luckily only a doll), until his mother came and removed him, complaining loudly. (I never did understand why we expect the apple of our eye - an only child- to swallow the lie that we love them so much we've gone and got another one - in much the same way that polygamy never really caught on over here.)

This evening we made our Christmas cake, the girls weighing out all the many ingredients between them, following Granny Burn's old recipe that we make every year, just the same. And as it cooks for what seems an incredibly long time, the gentle aroma that permeates the room reminds me of every Christmas I've ever known. Past and present linked as one, and it feels homely and safe. I notice what a dab hand Molly's become at cracking eggs and wonder when that happened.

Highlight of the village calendar was the Butterton Christmas Fair at the weekend. The usual round of guess the weight  of the cake, tombola and soon-fleeced cake stall. And over in the corner, lurking behind the Christmas tree was a ruddy faced Santa Claus with his little helper. Dragged over in that direction, I wasn't quite prepared for the politics involved in such a transaction. To the question, 'what would you like for Christmas little girl?', Molly had an extravagantly complex answer which seemed to involve something very big and expensive, probably from the endless advertising-bombardment with which children's TV seems to be full of at the moment. And then...if I hadn't been standing closely I might have missed it....I categorically heard the man in the red coat and white beard say to Molly,'I  think I have one of those in my sack for you.' My jaw dropped at this point. No!!! I wanted to wail. I already have said presents and they certainly don't include anything like as expensive as the afore mentioned article. I can see I'm going to have to have "Words" with Santa next time I see him heading down in the direction of The Black Lion.

Christmas has got into your soul too, I notice. 'The first of December always makes my heart beat a little faster. The day it all starts.' It is now that you start planning the recipes for your newspaper column, which 'bird will be sizzling and spitting in the oven' and who will, or will not, be sitting at your table with you this year. Profoundly, I think, you remark that 'these decisions are momentous only because you tend to remember every Christmas....The problem is that every dish that fails or disappoints will be mentioned at every Christmas from now till kingdom come.' So, no pressure then. But you're right. It's partly why I pre-cook and freeze so much at this time of year. Other people may chuck a bird in the oven and say glibly that it's the easiest dinner of all to cook, but I quake at the thought of getting so many different vegetables and things all on to the table at the same time with a modicum of heat left in them.

For you, vegetable of the season is the parsnip. I have a slightly love-hate relationship with this vegetable, feeling that they need 'something' to spike their parsnipey taste away, if that's allowed. Here may lie one answer: Today's reincarnation of the parsnip involves one of my favourite spices - hot smoked paprika - and a shot of sherry vinegar in the accompanying sauce. The parsnips and potatoes are mashed with cumin and paprika before being made into coquettes and rolled in breadcrumbs, and served with a tomato sauce. 'Parsnip and potato croquettes' (page 473).

You are also feeling the heat in the kitchen.There are always heightened expectations of Christmas from your nearest and dearest, however loudly they insist they'd be happy with bread and cheese. 'Planning, rarely part of my kitchen life, is essential. December is when I try out new recipes I am thinking of serving at Christmas. Daring is the cook who makes something for the first time on Christmas Eve (daft, more like it).' You start with playing with a recipe for lemon posset, substituting clementines for a seasonal touch; and finally you are pleased with the result (page 479). It makes four tiny puddings for a 'sharply refreshing dessert' to round off a full and plenty meal. I always make a Summer Pudding for me for Christmas Day (plenty of other choices for others), which seems a bit incongruous I suppose, but I like to be reminded of the Summer in this deepest depth of winter. And, for me at any rate, it has become something of a tradition and stuck.