Saturday, 25 May 2013

May 22nd - Rhubarb rhubarb and Life's too short to stuff a sardine

Dear Nigel,

The cool, damp weather has ran amok in the garden and meadows behind the cottage. The wild flowers  - so Laura Ingalls Wilder circa. 1970's TV- which stole our hearts in the meadows last year, have yet to materialise (if they're going to bother at all this year). The Peonies refuse to flower; only the Rhubarb is flourishing and needs picking.

You are making a wonderful recipe for 'Rhubarb with butterscotch sauce' ( page 206), working on making a sauce 'to sweeten poached or baked rhubarb that doesn't involve making custard yet retains something of its nannying vanilla sweetness'. The rhubarb is simmered gently before the residue heated with light muscovado sugar, double cream and vanilla extract to make the sauce. 'It results in a sauce whose first notes are of butterscotch with an underlying one of rhubarb....A recipe of certain harmony.' I will have to have a go at this one because my repertoire in the rhubarb department is fairly limited, at best.

My favourite recipe of yours at the moment is your 'Aubergine, thyme and feta tart' (page 212) made with a sheet of bought puff pastry. I find the blocks of frozen puff pastry in the supermarket one of the most useful standbys to have in my freezer at home. Things always seem to look more impressive. The lovely thing about this dish is that the tart covers the whole baking sheet and feeds six easily. The salting of Aubergines is, thankfully, a thing of the past ( along with stuffing mushrooms, according to Shirley Conran) as ' most aubergines we buy have had that bitterness bred out of them.' And I'm with you on the olive oil front: 'Without olive oil, an aubergine has little to say.' The creamed aubergine is a nice base for the tart, giving a bit more substance to the lovely topping of feta, thyme and aubergine slices.

There is more of a summer feeling going on in your garden and you eat it at the garden table with a tomato salad dressed in olive oil and basil leaves. Lucky you. We are simply waiting for Summer to arrive. I am looking hopefully at barbecues and wondering whether I can be a woman in a man's world. (Seems crazy to have got to this age and hardly ever been allowed to get within three feet of one.) I am enticed by a man with a Landrover and a 30ft Airstream conversion, and the hard-sell is winning me over...

Life may be too short to stuff a mushroom, but it is also too short to stuff a sardine according to you: 'There is a well-known stir-up of breadcrumbs and aromatics traditionally used by Sicilians as a stuffing for sardines called beccafico...As much as the filling appeals in theory, I am not the sort of cook to stuff a sardine.' The combination of ingredients, though - olive oil, raisins, crisp crumbs, finely chopped parsley and anchovies - has other possibilities; and today it is scattered over lamb cutlets - a kind of upmarket chicken dipper? if you will. Served with a simple salad of lettuce hearts and green olives in their oil.

I am grilling slices of Halloumi cheese dusted in the Moroccan spice mix Ras El Hanout which, I have to admit, came in a little jar from Waitrose. It contains all the usual suspects - coriander, cinnamon, ginger, cardamon - but also lavender flowers, rose petals and mace ( which is the outside of the nutmeg). And I am contemplating fasting. Not on religious grounds, mind. I have been reading Dr Michel Mosley's book on 'The fast diet', about the current fad for 5:2 intermittent fasting. Only it seems to make sense where other diets don't.

We all want something that works - and this diet seems to be something that the medical profession have taken to heart and implemented on a very person level - but that also doesn't take the enjoyment out of food and eating. Traditional diets seem to change the whole way we view food and make the undesirable more desirable than ever. As Michael Mosley says,'(with fasting) the psychological impact of not being denied is huge; it frustrates what's known as the "disinhibition effect" - a paradox in which designating certain foods "off limits" makes us likely to eat more of them.'

I suspect that your relationship with food is on a more even keel than mine. I'm still learning that less is more. And I wouldn't contemplate buying low calorie, or fat-free, or sugar-free anything because I want to use real ingredients and would rather eat less of them instead. Preparing good food with love and care seems to help enormously in this respect.


Wednesday, 15 May 2013

May 15th - The cost of cutting and Introverts taste more deeply. Apparently

Dear Nigel,

I've been trying to count the pennies here a bit lately. No. 1 measure involved two little girls standing in the bath complaining bitterly whilst I went for the home-haircut treatment and chopped them both off at waist level.(Something easier done with girls, I realise, remembering how with four little boys at home I didn't get much beyond cutting off a few baby curls - not being such a dab hand with the snippers). It's not quite 'Tony and Guy' but it'll do. At the minute it's still plaits and gappy teeth anyway, but I don't rate my chances once they're into bobs and hair straighteners - long may their childish childhoods remain.

Things in the garden are inevitably earlier in the city than here. You are picking the first of this year's tarragon and also parsley. The French tarragon (which has by far the better flavour) is not really hardy up here and I no longer have a glass house to overwinter it in, so will probably start from scratch again with a little pot from the nursery. I have tried growing the more hardy Russian tarragon but the flavour was quite poor.Tarragon is such a flavoursome herb that it's not worth growing anything less than the best.

You use your tarragon in a salad of cold salmon with tarragon and lemon mayonnaise (page 200), with the salmon rolled in herbs and oil and lime juice and cooked gently in a shallow, non-stick pan. This is because 'most of the early herbs are exceptionally tender, their leaves having had little sun, their flavours mild rather than full of the the pungency that can come from weeks in the scorching summer heat...If I cook with them at all, it is more a question of warming them briefly...or their delicate new growth risks being lost.'

At long last there is English asparagus in the shops. I have been waiting its arrival with anticipation. Each year I promise myself to invest in a proper asparagus steamer, and each year I fail to justify it to my pocket. I try numerous ways to steam it the right way up so that the finer tips are not obliterated by the time the thicker stalk end is cooked. I read somewhere that if you snap it with your fingers rather than cut it you'll find just the right place. But I wouldn't want to teach my grandmother to suck eggs - or even lemons in your case.  Asparagus with lemon and herb sauce (page 202).

Like you, I have a particular penchant for lemon, that occasionally leads to complaints from my family who don't share my taste for sour. (Often, I am completely oblivious to its sourness altogether). You say, 'I use lemon too much. Its presence, a spritz of zest, a curl of peel or a squirt of juice, turns up in my cooking second only to salt. Some will see its over-appearance as a flaw, I simply see it as a signature. What garlic, cream or chilli does for others, the bright flash of citrus does for me.'

This reminds me of something I read the other day in a fascinating new book called 'Quiet' by Susan Cain. The book is all about us Introverts and how we actually rule the world, despite the loud clamour of our Extrovert politicians and business chiefs. (Well worth a read by any introvert who feels squashed by the outside world).

Demonstrating how introverts and extroverts often need very different levels of stimulation to function at their best, Cain refers to a well-known experiment, dating back to 1967 and still a favourite demonstration in Psychology courses today, where 'Eysenck placed lemon juice on the tongues of adult introverts and extroverts to find out who salivated more. Sure enough, the introverts, being more easily aroused by sensory stimuli, were the ones with the watery mouths.' This would explain why you feel more at peace in 'introvert' nations, such as Finland, Norway and Japan, where you go to restore yourself; and why I am happier camping at the end of a peninsula than living it up in Ibiza.


Thursday, 9 May 2013

May 9th - First picnic of the year and A eureka moment with cauliflower

Dear Nigel,

There have been a few magical days of sunshine here and the whole world seems to have been out enjoying it. I am sewing name tags in gingham dresses and the bumblebees have been nosing in the planters. I drive through Hartington, hoping to stop at our village shop, and decide otherwise as cars are parked bumper-to-bumper throughout. Good for business, though, so I don't knock it. It's been a hard winter for many local businesses here who depend on tourism to survive. And providing homemade cakes and casseroles for the holiday cottagers keeps our village shop open for us locals, too.

I had decided on an impromptu picnic and hoped to stock up. So, returning home empty-handed, I decide to empty the contents of the fridge and go anyway. The best picnics I remember as a small child all seemed to involve my mother's vast collection of translucent blue Tupperware boxes with concentric circles on their lids (in various shapes and sizes) which were lifted out of an old laundry hamper. I grew up in a small village in West Cumberland (as it was then) on the edge of the Lake District, and weekends invariably involved a picnic in the Lakes. I don't really remember much of what we actually ate, but the joy of opening box after tiny box of delights as a hungry child remains with me still.

I empty the cupboard of all the tiny boxes I once used to freeze pureed mush for my open-mouthed babies, and build a small city of plastic on the table. The fridge appears empty at first, but once I start searching there are suddenly half a dozen sweet-tasting piccolo tomatoes, a jar of shiny purple Kalamata olives, a piece of Comte cheese hiding at the back of the fridge, a couple of cakes Hannah brought over the other day. Things mount up. It is almost lunch time before we are ready to leave as we are so late getting up. Luckily the ideal picnic spot is beside a winding riverbed just a couple of minutes down the road at Milldale - so we still get there in time for lunch. A throw-together salad lunch -it is the best picnic ever - which just goes to prove that the best ingredients are fresh air and sunshine...and the relief of uncurling after a long enforced hibernation.

If I had been better organised, of course, I could have made a thermos of your Cauliflower soup with toasted hazelnuts (page 194) that you have been labouring over to get right. But Summer came today and may be over tomorrow for all I know. Always a difficult vegetable to get right in a soup because its flavour is quite delicate, you say, 'the trick is, I suppose, to find a balance, where the flavour of the cauliflower is allowed to shine against a good, strong backbone of aromatics...but I do believe this time I have sussed it.' Starting with a base of fried bacon and onion, the florets of cauliflower are added with the stock. Your thoughts are that 'the problem all along has been soon as that is out of the equation , the little chou-fleur stands a chance.' With the thick, clagginess of the cream gone, there is suddenly more flavour to the soup. I like the sturdiness of the bacon and onion stopping any blandness appearing from the cauliflower. With cooler weather on the way I think a thermos of this on our walks may be just the thing.

Today you are making 'a warm tart of crab and tarragon' (page 195). Like me, you think the best and by far the easiest way to make pastry is in the food processor - it saves all those hot hands on the pastry. Made as quickly as possible and rested in the fridge it is simple - and always earns you lots of brownie points with your punters. Whether sophisticated dining set or hungry hoard of kids, few are prepared to turn down a good piece of pastry.

 'Given the sort of glorious weather we have had this last couple of days, I use a tart such as this as the centre of a meal, offering a herb salad with matchsticks of cucumber in it on the side.' This would make a wonderful focus for a picnic, although just a table in the garden is such a treat at the moment when the sun is out. I am intrigued by your way of making a cylinder of pastry to slice into rounds and meld together in the tart tin. It certainly solves that unnecessary worry about carrying a sheet of rolled pastry over to the tin in one piece, and, as I've always thought, what goes on under the filling of a tart is nobody's business.

The filling is an unctuous custard, 'still very slightly wobbly in the centre', with tarragon, crab meat and french mustard, sprinkled with Parmesan. I am often at a slight loss as to what to do with crab meat. This is a tasty answer.

Here's to Summer - at last!


Thursday, 2 May 2013

May 2nd - Chariots of Fire and Warming leaves

Dear Nigel,

My prodigal son returns from Germany for a few days and I am all smiles. We talk, Christopher and I, on a deeper level and its good to have him around the place again. The first day is spent doing something so out of my orbit that I feel we are on a different planet: We spend the day at a Health Spa in robes and slippers having treatments and lounging round the jacuzzi. It is my Mother's Day present and a good place to really talk and catch up on everything. We have dual massages and facials and my beautiful son joins me with an eyebrow shape.

When he was a little boy and just starting to notice who he was, he used to catch sight of himself in a mirror and smile. Always a golden child - the sort the sun smiles on, and believes the world deserves him - we used to tease him that we would buy him a showtime mirror with light bulbs round the edge which had written on it, 'Yes, Chris, you look wonderful'. Yet for all that, he has still managed to temper his vanity with being just a really nice person.

I gather up the clan for a family meal out and during the day James and Chris ( now 26 and 24) decide to go for a run, ostensibly to practise for a marathon they think they might enter in together. My chalk-and-cheese children - one the quiet, earnest academic; the other an extrovert, charismatic salesman - have one thing in common. These two, always so well-matched, played football in the same team, played tennis, rugby, swam. And as I watch the legs fly past on the lane outside the cottage, I realise that this is no gentle jog. It doesn't matter how many years have gone past - how their lives have been shaped and changed -  they are not practising for a long run, they are little boys once again competing with each other to be first. James (who claims not to do competition these days), I suspect, has been secretly working for this moment.

The warm weather has sent green shoots thrusting through the soil everywhere. I spend some time weeding and tidying up; never quite sure that what I'm pulling up is an actual weed and not something I planted last summer. The most prolific plants at this time of year seem to be dandelions, and I see they have been infesting your garden too. Your answer, naturally, is to eat the little buggers.'When the leaves are no bigger than my middle finger they are sweet enough to use in a salad. Any larger and they are tinged with a bitter streak.' It is some time since I last used them in salad, and I'm not sure they compared favourably to rocket, but you've caught at an idea that I've been considering lately: hot salad.

I've made several meals where, instead of sweating a few baby spinach leaves for example, I've merely 'dumped' (a culinary term!) pasta, or whatever, on top and allowed it to wilt the spinach.You are doing something similar - although I'm sure far more beautifully served - with dandelion leaves; tossing them with hot bacon. 'Unlike rocket and some of the more fragile lettuces, they don't dissolve when they come into contact with the hot rashers. You get crunchy, milky sapped leaves and sizzling bacon.' I'm not convinced about the flowers though; edible they may be, and I'm sure Alys Fowler makes delectable tiny pancakes. But its not like eating nasturtiums.They still look like those horrible yellow weeds that we kids used to say only grew where someone had peed.

Another, possibly more likely alternative, is the warm dressing  you make in 'a salad of spring lamb, lemon and olives' (page 174). The dandelion leaves here are part of a mixture of salad leaves used, which could contain watercress, rocket or bitter frisee. The meat juices form the base of the dressing and the olives are warmed in it, along with garlic, rosemary, and lemon peel and juice. Seasoned, and tipped over the salad, they make a nice base for the meal with the noisettes of lamb added on top. Great for a time of year when its not quite warm-enough to discard a pullover, and a full-blown salad seems a little insubstantial.

Midweek, and we are both resorting to a light omelette for supper. I favour something very simple, like chives and a little grated hard cheese, with salad; but you like yours stacked with a good few flavourings. I'm pleased to note that we both share the same dog-eared little french black steel pan 'only non-stick because of the years of service it has given'.'I'm not sure how long it has lived here, but I can't remember a time when this small black pan wasn't around.' Mine goes back decades. It was a simple, inexpensive purchase and I have never felt the need to 'improve' on it.

'The more I cook, the more I realise that if a piece of kitchen equipment works it doesn't matter whether it's the correct one or not. Who is to say that a particular knife or pan is right for a certain job? What matters is that it works for us, that we are comfortable working with it, and that it works for the food too. The crucial point is that we end up with something good to eat, and it really doesn't matter how we get there.'

I like your idea for chorizo fried with spring onion, chilli flakes, garlic and soy as a topping. The Spring onions are good at the minute and, chopped with scissors, add a welcome bit of green in a flash to the pan. Think I'll give this a go next time. Still need warming foods like these in this climate.