Wednesday, 28 August 2013

August 28th - Butterton Wakes and Playing 'chicken'

Dear Nigel,

Many of the little villages round here have been celebrating a Wakes week lately. This is an old, originally religious, celebration (which in our village has been going on for over a hundred years), when the workers were given a holiday. It would have started with a church service late on Saturday evening - a vigil - known as a Wake (from the Old English word 'wacan'....although no policemen were burnt here...). It was followed by sports, games, dancing and drinking the next day.

True to tradition there was plenty of all four going on this year, too. Lead by Warslow Silver Band, the couple of floats drawn by tractors and the Princesses' entourage - with a beaming red-haired Ruby waving vigorously at us, circled the lanes round the pub and ended up at the village hall where the cake stall was under wraps and there was already a queue for the bar. I must have moved away from the cake stall - which was heaving with thirty or more large cakes - for no more than ten minutes, but when I returned there was barely a couple left. A lesson for next year.

A little funding had been found for a magician/clown who kept the children occupied for nearly an hour with only three tricks that I could see - but they were entranced - including at least two stuffed toy rabbits and the eventual appearance of a real one. The first ten minutes consisted solely of him putting on his clown' s outfit and make-up, but he had them in the palm of his hand. He could have included dismantling his stage set and stowing it in his car, I think, and they would have watched agog (-sheltered children, mine, they have not yet got to the stage of 'professional party-goers' and the subsequent disillusionment.) The evening was rounded off by a barbecue and a Barn Dance but my two were fading fast and I took them off to bed.

Round at Yuri and Johnathan's things are happening. Or rather, things should be happening. Big event in the village - they are moving from a cottage in the middle of the village near the pub (which they are renting) to a farmhouse on the outskirts (which they are buying). They are moving in a week's time. I go over to help Yuri pack to find that there are two, maybe three boxes, ready to go. We sit there eating tasteless beef cooked on a George Foreman grill - which has the appearance and taste of shoe leather - and both Yuri and Johnathan are looking non-plussed. I point out that when I moved myself here a year and a half ago I must have had about ninety boxes packed by this stage? Nothing. Not a flicker of panic. I am amused by their stance. Johnathan says 'Yuri is at home all day, she can do it'. Yuri is ironing a stack of thirty pillow cases. I think each is playing 'Chicken'. The days are ticking past. Yuri makes a dipping sauce with Japanese citrus, which has something of the taste of old fashioned boiled sweets to it. We dip the shoe leather in it and it improves a bit. Johnathan is supposed to be on a diet - a tasteless, fat-free one - it won't last.

 The old farming family are having a 'cooling' party - they have been in the farmhouse over fifty years. Yuri and Johnathan are planning a 'Housewarming' party -half the village will be there. I have seen it before, recently, with another old farming family: a farm without an heir that is sold and split many ways between siblings and other relatives who may have a claim. This farm will be split six ways - none of the 'children' ever produced any offspring. Yuri says the inside is barely untouched. There is happiness and sadness at the passing of the reins.

You are making 'Grilled aubergine, roast garlic cream' (page 333). The roasted garlic cloves are crushed in a pestle and mortar. The 'smell is sweet, a blend of garlic and caramel. Soft too, with a honeyed warmth.' They have been roasted in the oven in foil with a trickle of olive oil and a couple of thyme sprigs. There is something rather satisfying about squeezing 'the garlic out of its skin, breaking off single cloves and pressing each one between thumb and finger till the soft, ivory-coloured paste comes out.' It is stirred into mayonnaise and a little milk. The aubergines are grilled and the garlic mayonnaise, capers and basil leaves added.

It is August 23rd and you 'wake at 5.30 to the sound of rain on the bedroom window ledge. Warm and steady, this is the sort of rain farmers and gardeners have been praying for...As the rain slows to a proper drizzle, the air is left warm and humid and anything remotely ripe will need to be picked urgently to stop it rotting.' So out you go into the rain after the elderberries that overhang the garden and are almost touching the ground, picking 'as many of the purple-black berries as I can reach, getting soaked to the skin as I go.' It is 5.30am Nigel! - '...and I haven't even had breakfast yet.' The elderberries are tossed into some stewed apple and eaten with goat or sheep's yoghurt (page 326). Apples are considered good for the Arthritis, Nigel, - if you insist on such mad stunts.

An end-of-Summer dish: You are using up the last of the tomatoes, both the ripe and the green ones, in a ratio of 2:1. 'The green ones do need quite a bit of cooking if they are to be worth eating. Slowly baked with the juices from the chicken, they take on the sweetness of their riper cousins.' ('Baked chicken with tomatoes and olives' - page 322.) The chicken thighs are covered in a mixture of lemon juice, olives, tomatoes, garlic and thyme and baked in the oven. Great for the thrifty cook - after all there is only so much green tomato chutney you can get through in a year!


Thursday, 22 August 2013

August 21st - New shoes, sharpened pencils and The scent of summer's shortening lease

Dear Nigel,

I am twitchy for a change in the seasons - crazy since the summer was so long awaited and so welcome when it did at last arrive. But I am restless amid the full-blown poppies, the tangle of weeds and the gradual yellowing of plants around me, long since past their best. I long for a fresh breeze, a morning sun that brings things sharply into focus and the whisper of red leaves on the shady side of the hedge. It is the red leaves I long for most of all, I think, reminiscent of those perfect Japanese gardens with their artfully pruned, ketchup-spattered maples that bid quiet contemplation amongst their brilliance.

It is the time of year for that torturous of rituals - of being measured for school shoes, and a pencil case full of newly sharpened pencils and possibilities. Don't we all come back from holiday with a suitcase full of good intentions and New Term resolutions to shore up all that we have let slip in unwinding to summer's easy song?

I am looking for something a little angelic and smug - the all-green smoothie of recipes - to put me back on track and away from searching out my looser clothes and the notching down of belts. I like to think we all swell up a bit in the heat and then, like a cold shower, the change in temperature firms us up again once more. (That's my theory and I'm sticking to it as I tuck into my umpteenth ice cream this summer.)

Here is the kind of recipe I had in mind: 'Carrot and cockle soup' (page 315), made with a handful of spinach leaves and lemon juice, as sorrel is proving elusive even for you. I'm not growing any at present but usually, by this point in the season, the sorrel's urge to bolt has got the better of me and it has got away and is looking more like an out-of-place dock leaf plant, unruly and unkempt. That it has, even when lightly cooked, 'the colour and texture of something dropped by a passing seagull' is of little significance compared to its deeply sharp and tangy taste. It always seems amazing to me that something so wonderfully lemony can come straight in from an English garden and onto a plate, to liven any fish or seafood supper. Not an 'English' taste somehow.

I am looking at your entry for 17th August and I see that late summer's  'overblownness' is rife in London, too. Your wonderful vegetable patch is less than 'Gardeners' World' quality then?...
'we are eating in the garden amongst the marigolds and nasturtiums that seem to have taken over the vegetable patch (seriously there is nothing but flowers, chard and a few blight-crisped tomatoes).' nice to let nature have its way amid the design we try to impose - the letting go that is part of the reason we have a summer. Lunch is quick-as-a-flash sweet, spicy chicken, 'beer so cold it has ice crystals in it, then (we) make a mad dash to the shops for vanilla ice cream.' ( glad I'm not the only one then...)

Yet the heat has you listless too, I suspect. Today you are back in the kitchen rolling pastry with your eye on the end result - the eating - making a 'peach pie with lemon pastry' (page 317). I imagine you lolling in a hammock between two trees with a glass of wine in one hand, newspapers crumpled and discarded on the ground and 'a pie of gentle seductiveness on a hot, still afternoon when there is little else to do.' Enough for six?...or a whole afternoon's work before you...Enjoy.


Thursday, 15 August 2013

August 15th - The fussy eater and The baby's bottom of smoothies

Dear Nigel,

There is a point in any argument when you know you're just not going to win so you might as well give up now.
'It's all your fault. If you'd forced me to eat more things when I was younger I would eat more different things.'
We were sitting in a noodle bar in Manchester, Chris, Hannah and I, having a last supper before the prodigal returned to Frankfurt.

We have had this conversation, you and I, about not forcing your children to eat things, however good they are for them or however long you spent preparing the damn stuff especially for them. But it turns out it was all my fault anyway. Fussy toddlers turn into fussy twenty-somethings and it's all your fault. Oddly enough, my stroppy red-head, sandwiched between four brothers, is the only one who is fussy. The boys have all grown up and expanded their taste bud experiences and now, more-or-less, eat anything. Not so Hannah, despite a year living in Spain with Spanish families. (Although, to give her her due, she does now eat courgettes and red peppers, but that's about it.)

I should have seen the arguments coming. After all she'd been on a ten hour train journey up from Cornwall and was in no mood to socialise. I packed her off to have a shower and hoped the fog would lift. But it was my silly suggestion, I'll admit, to take them to a noodle bar with the idle notion that if you don't like hot and spicy there's no point suggesting Mexican, Indian or Thai but there would be plenty not hot or spicy to choose from here.

Seating on the end of one of the long benches surveying the menu it became obvious that the fog had no intention of lifting.
'Hannah's in a bad mood because of the long train journey,' I told Chris, 'so don't wind her up.'
'I'm not in a bad mood. And you're making me worse, Mum, with comments like that.'
She went through the menu  - which was lengthy - attacking every single dish.
'I don't like carrots...I hate coriander ever since you made that soup...I don't like mussels, only prawns...what's that? I'm not ordering a meal with something I've never heard of in it...'
By the time we'd reached about the twentieth dish on the menu I'd started to hide a smile. Chris chuckled. I swallowed a laugh.
'We should never have come here. It's all your fault. I don't like ginger in dinners, only puddings...'

And on it went, Hannah finding fault with every single dish, Chris and I waiting for the next outburst whilst trying to swallow our napkins and laugh into our menus. Of course this just made her worse. It wasn't fair. Never stand within firing range of a red-head turning scarlet. When they were little children my two redheads would occasionally turned bright pink with anger and stamp their feet like little Rumplestiltskins. And we would laugh at them then, too.

The soft fruit is ripening as fast as I can pick it. Fruit and weeds are in abundance and it feels good to squirrel things away into the freezer for the winter. There are currants, black, red and white, gooseberries, raspberries and tons more rhubarb. It is a good year for soft fruit, I think. I like to make smoothies whenever I can and now is the best time of all when fruit is minutes from vine to blender. I dip into your book 'Thirst' which has become a bit of a bible when I'm in the mood. So many ideas, so simple, so quick. Would like you to think about my idea of using chunks of frozen banana instead of ice cubes? I'm still chuffed at being able to find a use for all those left-over bananas that everyone refuses to eat because they are freckled and don't taste as nice ( - on this point I know you and I agree). Today I make a blueberry and banana smoothie ('Thirst' pg 95) but with the frozen banana. I'm wondering how different frozen berries will work. Much handier to be able to dip into a box in the freezer for a couple of handfuls of berries than keep a constant supply of fresh in the fridge if you're trying to cut down on journeys to the shops.

You are making 'Thyme and garlic chicken wings' (page 312) in a sticky marinade with honey and dried chilli and lemon juice to serve. See, if this was pasted on a menu somehow Hannah would no doubt complain about the dried chilli (although it's only a couple of good pinches), yet put it on a plate beside her and I think she'd be won over by the garlicky honey, and the combination of sour, sweet and mildly hot would get to her. So the lesson is never teach your toddler to read so they can read menus and they won't turn into fussy eaters. The chicken is as good cold as hot, you say, and I think for us cold would make a welcome change. I'm all but barbecued out for the present, I think.

You're out scrumping plums again, I see:
 'I return home with another bowl of scrumped fruit.' I tell you, you'll get caught one of these days, Nigel. Dixon of Doc Green will be standing at the bottom of the tree with that look on his face:-
'Now what have we got here, young Slater..'
The plums go in a tart with a classic almond filling, like a Bakewell pudding, but feels French.

Like you, I have always been under the impression that marinades were things you had to think about in advance and be very well-prepared and organised over. It has an off-putting quality to it only in that I am not always that organised. You have recently pondered the subject:
' something I have only recently taken to, having assumed, wrongly as it turns out, that I have to be organised and know what I will be eating tomorrow.'
'The concentration of the marinade matters. A highly spiced, intensely flavoured paste will do the job in less than an hour.'
'I love the fact that ingredients sometimes get on with things themselves and we are only a small part of the equation. I don't see why we always have to be in control of everything in the kitchen. The science behind what happens when we cook is interesting, but please leave me some magic and surprise too.'

The result today is 'Grilled lamb with lemon harissa' (page 308) which you marinated for a couple of hours and yet it worked 'just as well as when marinated overnight.' It uses lamb steaks which I find practical for midweek meals. I may have to go in search of some preserved lemon for this one but it looks to me like just the sort of dish I want to cook in late summer with its yoghurt and mint sauce and some hummus on the side. Thank you for that, I am in need of novelty. I am writing this in the garden and a butterfly is sitting on the photo of this dish, eyeing it up intently on its wooden platter. She and me both.


Tuesday, 6 August 2013

August 6th - A day at the beach and Nigel scrumping plums

Dear Nigel,

Summer holidays are not things I write about much. No one wants to hear that you had a lovely time on the beach, that the sun shone every day and that you drifted through the week in a swimming costume and flip flops making sand pies and eating ice cream. That was two weeks ago in North Wales in the British heatwave to rival that of '76 - and to be remembered for almost that long, probably. So I didn't write about it.

This last week we were camping again, down the Gower this time, with my little ones and my two eldest sons - James (26), and Chris (25) on a fleeting visit from Frankfurt. This was more of your characteristically British Summer holiday, complete with howling gales ripping the stitching from part of the awning, and that Great British tradition of taking down the tent in the pouring rain. These sort of things are what holidays are made of, in retrospect, - it is the disasters and discomfort we remember fondly not the plain blue skies and the endless cocktails by the pool.

That aside, there were enough sunny days and long, still evenings to balance out. And a touch of sunburn to prove that the sun was stronger than you first imagined. Two of Chris's friends came out to camp so they could all go surfing together, and there was a memorable evening barbequeing on the campsite and watching a game of cricket played with the tiniest child's cricket bat and stumps, and four lanky lads being bowled out by several small enthusiastic children on the campsite.

Two days earlier it was a beautiful sunny day. We trekked the twenty minutes down to the beach below, marvelling at the sweep of the bay, the three dinosaur spines sticking out of the water on one side, and the meander of the little stream as it made its way to the ocean - a perfect picture postcard scene. We unpacked the rug and the spades and the children ran to paddle at the water's edge. They were soon back - Jellyfish. Lots of jellyfish along the tide line; so they built castles instead. Perhaps it should have told me something, but there had been no storm the night before and the sky was clear blue with just a pleasant breeze.

A woman ran along the waters' edge screaming. It took a moment to realise that she was distressed and not just having fun. It took another moment to run down there to see if she had been stung or something. Then I saw a body and a pair of legs floating. Time goes into slow-motion in a situation like that. Chris had seen me running and was there helping me pull the woman out of the water. Someone else caught her arms. We pulled her short of the tide. An off-duty paramedic ran over and between us we did CPR until the air ambulance arrived. I called to James to take the children away and new friends kept them occupied with beach games. Someone put up a windbreak, others comforted her friend; someone took some details for the medics. I find that I am unnaturally calm and focused.

Afterwards we try to throw ourselves in to a beach day for the kids as the forecast is for a change in the weather. Molly has completely missed the drama. She is upset because I told them to stay out of the water and yet Chris and I were in there for ages until the helicopter came. Sophie says, 'a women died', without emotion. She has big ears. I don't know the fate of the woman. I choose not to try and find out.

It is the best day's weather so far. We stick it out and try and absorb the sun. The children are having a great time. As evening approaches we are paddling and there is a cry for help. It is difficult to gauge sometimes when people are just messing around, but there it goes again. It is a man and his son on body boards and they are being swept out by a rip current. Chris is straight out there with them, seeing their distress. Small groups of people form on the waters' edge. I am aware of a lump in my throat that I have sent my two sons out into dangerous waters. James is back with me now and Chris is with the man and his son. It takes a long, long time (or so it seems) for Chris to bring them in. The coastguard has been called and a boat has been sent out. The man squeezes Chris's shoulder and takes his boy away, close to tears.

We decide it is time to go back to the campsite. Twice in one day is too much. On the way back we pass four coastguards heading our way down the sands.
'It's OK,' I say, ' the man and his boy are safe.'
'It's not them. It's the next one. Three youngsters in an inflatable.'
It is little more than five minutes later. We carry on walking up the track and the lifeboat appears round the headland. A minute later and the air-sea rescue helicopter is also tracking across the bay.

I can't help but feel it must have been unusual currents that day, although it looked near perfect. Two helicopters, two lifeboats, at least six coast guards on foot. No life guards, no warning flags, a well-used holiday beach.

It is a beautiful sunny day, the next day. We drive to Mumbles where there are Italian ice creams by the pier and a funny little train that tootles round the bay to a water park at a 1930's pavilion next to the sea. The water is two foot deep and the children play all afternoon. It is the antidote we need.

You are also having a barbeque - or at least strips of sirloin steak in a barbeque sauce (page 298). It is a barbeque for one which, 'to be honest, I have been waiting for this all week. I splash out on a sirloin steak.' (Am I to take it that if there were friends around we'd be having rump?) The sauce is  a 'sweet, nutty, slightly salty' concoction made with rice wine, dark soy and runny honey, and a handful of sesame seeds and oil; into which the sizzling strips of meat are dipped.

While your friends are away on holiday abroad you are scrumping plums in their back garden: 'Even with tacit permission, helping yourself to someone else's crop feels like stealing, and I walk away in a daze of greed and guilt.'

I was seven years old and eating my first scrumped fruit - a greengage, the like of which I had never seen before. It tasted of anxiety - of beating heart and breathless running and giggling on our backs.

The bulk of the fruit is to be turned into jam, but the rest will be a shallow, juice-soaked plum pie. The pastry is a simple butter shortcrust, woven beautifully into a latticework topping. It is pies like this that I remember from my childhood. But back in the Delia days when cooks TV was taking off, I remember being persuaded to buy something called a lattice roller to make toppings for mince pies. They were everywhere - the 'must have' gadget of that particular Christmas. I never managed to get the damn thing to work without sticking to the rollers. I still have it - out of spite, I think - one day I'm going to master the thing, before I'm in my dotage. The recipe is for 'a latticework pie of plums and raspberries' (page 302), though you say you could use loganberries. That takes me back. Perhaps a pick-your-own would have some? They have a more mellow, less acidic flavour. Perhaps I will grow some next year. The soft fruit is doing nicely this summer. There are white, red and black currants ready for picking; gooseberries and raspberries. I can't complain.

The drained fruit is placed in the lined tart case and the lattice woven on top. After being brushed with milk and baked, I rather like your idea of brushing some of the reserved plum juice onto the cooked pastry topping and returning to the oven for five minutes. It has something of that caramelised fruit toffee taste that we fight over at the edge of the tin where the juice has bubbled over, and which has to scraped at whilst hot as it welds itself to the metal the minute it hits the sink. Cook's perk.