Thursday, 29 October 2015

Diary of a Glutton

Dear Nigel,

There is no one coming to lunch today. No one at all. And yet I'm cooking something special when ordinarily I'd make do with a slice of toast. It is raining outside, that kind of miserable rain that makes you want to go back to bed. It drags you down, keeps you out of the garden, saps the light from the day and makes you crave chocolate.

Instead, I am making 'Baked potatoes with aubergine and cream' (page 389). It is a recipe for four people, and, even though my friends tell me I 'can sure put it away', I decide to scale down and have one jacket potato instead of four. There are only two aubergines, though, and I am sure I can manage a whole one if pushed...quite easily, probably.

It feels a little outrageous to be cooking lunch for one, and yet the weather demands it. My spirits demand it too, and things start to look up as I put some music on, warm the oven and start crushing the spices in my pestle and mortar. I scatter the spices over the lattice-cut aubergine halves and then, instead of pouring over the olive oil, I decide to add it to the mortar bowl to eke out the smashed garlic and spice flavours still clinging there. Then I tip it over the aubergine halves and chuck it in the oven with the jacket potato.

This leaves half an hour in which to get things done. I start to hum as my mood rises and set the kitchen timer. Most real cooks, I think, are multi-taskers. Television programmes often make it look as if the cook has sat there twiddling their thumbs, watching the clock go round.

Instead, he or she is more likely to be doing the washing up - in real life anyway; (something strangely never televised, although I'm sure whole programmes could be devoted to the knack of getting under the rim with a bottle brush or how to clean a garlic press - buy one called 'Susi' who comes with her own reverse cleaning press)....or get a dishwasher, I suppose. I have one, it lives in the shed as there's no room here at the cottage for it. So I wash by hand; slowly, laboriously, complained at constantly by my kids- whenever they are cajoled into helping - who believe I'm capable of using every pan and implement in the kitchen to make one simple dish. But it is also a very good place in which to gather your thoughts, to expend time on a washing up meditation (complete with hideous yellow gloves) and plan the following day.

The dish is ready and I can add the final flourish of salt,double cream and a little lemon juice. I don't feel guilty adding the cream as it takes the place of the knob of butter on your jacket potato. The final dish is wonderfully warming and rich. The lemon juice and garlic mute the spices - this isn't "curry" by any name - and the cream meshes with the juiciness of the oil-rich aubergine to give the idea that this is more substantial a dish that it would otherwise imply. It is filling but not heavy. I don't have time for a siesta, I have other fish to fry this afternoon.

You have been cooking 'a little plate of deepest Autumn'. It is 'a mushroom bourguignon' ( page 418) with 'inky wine and mushrooms cooked to the texture of silk'. Autumn has invaded your world and there are horse chestnut leaves piled up 'on the verge outside the house,begging to be kicked, and the garden smells like the sweetest muscat.'

Most of the best smells of Autumn come from a mixture of decay and rotting matter, and the natural leaf mould accumulating under trees in the woods. Just to sniff the air and catch the tang from a waft of wood smoke quickens the blood.
You say, 'there are few better smells on an autumn day than smoke from a garden fire.' When the weather holds, gardeners are out in force,clearing, pruning and turning into boy scout pyromaniacs.

There are few who don't feel the unpredictability and allure of a fire. Just warming your hands, and shading your face from the intense heat because it draws you so close, you are entranced. The art of keeping the fire going with dry wood whilst feeding it the sappy stuff you want rid of (which makes it smoke), is a game in itself. You can while away a whole afternoon in such quiet concentration, entering the house at dusk glowing and refreshed, ready for another meal.

Passing by on the road through Warslow, I see the old sheepdog, nose to the road in all weathers. She is an old working dog, faithful and skilled at her trade. The farmer leaves her guarding her 'charge' at the very edge of the roadside. At first I found myself feeling sorry for her when there was rain, or fog or frost on the ground, but now I see that this is her whole life. She has been bred and trained and her every sinew begs this life.

Often, I come by in the depths of the night, catching the reflection of her eyes in my headlights. She is still there in the darkness, low to the ground, not an inch moved from her place. I used to worry that she was so near to the edge of the road that her days were numbered. Now I see that they are only numbered by time for she is totally skilled in her intense concentration of every vehicle that passes.

I pass by during the day again and though she sees the landrover coming, her eyes have caught hold of mine inside the vehicle and she is watching; waiting for any unpredictable move I might make. We play a game, this dog and I. I look away, then back, and she has hooked straight back on to my eyes, muscles tensing instantly in her forelegs in a way that no footballer marking his opponent could ever do to such great degree.


Monday, 26 October 2015

Lamb Stew and Bedding the Garden

Dear Nigel,

I'm flicking through the pages of your book looking for a nice warm and comforting stew. The hour has gone back, and though the sun is bright it is chilly and there is a wind weaving about, ripping leaves from trees, and creating the kind of energy for doing things. It is a doing things type of day. I cannot sit still.

There will be a 'Lamb and Bacon stew' (page 387) on the stove simmering away for when I come back inside, but before that it is time to put away the outside chairs and table and clean and store the barbecue because I think the days of sitting out in the garden have finally gone for this year. Should there be a spot of sun one day, and five minutes peace in which to enjoy it, I can always perch up on the bench by the woodshed to sup up my mug of tea.

There is a lot to do in the garden at this time of year. Nothing, if you prefer, but there is a certain satisfaction in seeing a row of earthed pots without their mass of dead and decaying leaves, and a freshly swept path - even if it seems like an endless job at times. It is a fine time to get out your oldest most well-loved sweater, take out a mug of hot tea and put on your heavy duty gardening gloves ready for some action.

There is a carpet of moss gradually creeping across the path and grass and weeds which have woven themselves into a kind of mat across the drive. I peel it back and rediscover the garden that once lay beneath it. Summer's riot has taken hold and there is much neatening up to be done.It is not essential but oh so satisfying.

We share a trait, you and I, for neatening and for things being just so. I have seen your shelves of bowls, each in their own particular space just so. I too am like that, moving things a little to the right, a little forward, turning things round. I can't help myself. It jangles to have things not quite where they should be. No one else seems to notice it but me, and my hands have gone their way and tipped the picture, straightened a line without my mind having followed suit.

I season the lamb shoulder, having cut it into cubes, and brown it lightly on both sides. There is a deep, hearty smell coming from the pan. I feel protected by the richness as if such a rich dish inside me would keep out the cold. I bring logs in from the wood store and stack them by the wood burner.They are dry and light, the end of last year's store. They will burn well and fast. I love to wander through the village at this time of year and sniff the air. So many little wood fires going in the cottages, and wood piles by the back doors. I make a mental note to order my builders' bags of logs before the weather sets in.

I have come across a fundamental law of displacement. In my freezer. It is full to bursting and I have just made a couple of mincemeat loaf cakes to put away for Christmas. But there is no room, at the Inn or in my freezer. So we must start our annual ritual of eating up all the miscellaneous items that seem to hover for months in this arctic wasteland, rediscover small treasures that have sunk themselves to the bottom, and make way for the new.

In one respect it encourages a kind of annual clear out - and who knows, even the occasional defrost - when I might be quite content just to let things be otherwise, so that has to be a good thing. I'm never quite sure what the shelf life of frozen food is anyway. Most things seem to hold true, occasionally there is a little deterioration in texture, but it's something I'm a little fuzzy about.

The evenings are quite dark now and it gets cold long before. At cubs I have been helping them make moving models with old CDs and wood and bits of string to move across the floor of the old village hall. Activities are inside, away from the night. It is firing my imagination ready for the Science class I will be helping with after the holidays when I go back into the classroom at Molly's school.

There is a lovely point of wonder when you have taught a child something and then the penny drops and they realise for themselves. To watch a small face suddenly light up and become animated and excited about whatever it is they have learnt and internalised is priceless. Most children love practical science - it is just an extension of the play they used to be allowed to have. Some never grow out of that wonder. My Dad was a chemist and loved to experiment with things in test tubes all through his years at school. When I came along I don't know which of us had the most fun playing with my chemistry set, causing reactions, colour changes and growing crystals.

Back to the kitchen. The new potatoes and lamb are simmering gently. There is the tang of smoked bacon and the fug of softening golden onion. I still find the easiest way to chop bacon is to use a pair of scissors. Not having been on lots of cookery courses I don't really know if this is some kind of cardinal sin or not, but it works for me.

I pick a few sprigs of Rosemary from my faithful plant by the back door, adding the chicken stock at the same time. It is peaceful, warm and steamy, and I can leave the stew to meld whilst I finish up outside. My earlier enthusiasm is waning with the daylight and I am keen to finish off and come inside.

I have bought small pumpkins for the children to carve. I unleash the tide of Halloween paraphernalia from its cupboard; - hideous piles of fake hair and witches brooms, skeleton bones and torches that spin. They want to go trick or treating. I want to hide in a cupboard. There is no escape. I must grin and bear it unless I can hurriedly find an alternative party or event they can go to.

Supper is ready. The sour cream is added. It has a good strong robust taste in keeping with the time of year. In retrospect, I think I could have browned the meat a little more. could have simmered it at a slightly higher temperature so that more liquid evaporated. Perhaps the sauce would have been a little browner. Who knows? we live and learn. I add a note to your book for the next time I cook this dish.

That is what cooking is all about.


Tuesday, 20 October 2015

An apple a day

Dear Nigel,

It is National Apple Day on 21st October. Many places will have put on Apple Days at the weekend - a bit like the one we went to at The Dove Valley Centre here in The Peak District.

National Apple Day was started in 1990 by Common Ground in Covent Garden. The idea was to celebrate and demonstrate the richness and variety of apples in this country. Common Ground chose to use the apple as a symbol of the kind of genetic diversity that we mustn't just let slip away. By linking particular apples with their place of origin it hopes that our orchards will be recognised and conserved for the contribution they make to an area and the diversity of wildlife that they help support.

By 2000 there were over 600 Apple Day events up and down the country. Our Apple Day was probably a fairly typical event in many respects. There was a table with bowls of different apple varieties to look at and taste. Two which caught my eye were 'Roland Smith', which is one of our local Staffordshire varieties, and 'Jesmond Dingle' which originated from very near where my Grandparents lived. These are just two varieties of English apple. The National Fruit Collection is housed at Brogdale in Kent and has over 2000 varieties.

Transition Leek had taken over an old barn at the farm and brought a fine wood and cast iron apple press with them. Many people had brought over trugs of their own apples so that they could be turned into juice at a nominal cost. One typical ledger I read was for 33kg of apples, which would then be turned into 11 bottles of apple juice. Customers then had a choice whether they wanted their own apple juice back pasteurised or non-pasteurised.

Molly headed straight over to a hand-cranked iron apple peeler, that was clamped to the edge of a table, and spent an inordinately long time with the machine which peeled, cored and sliced the apples in one go.

There were plenty of apple-related events going on, from crafts and printing for the children, baking apples in the embers of a wood fire, to munching on apple cake and tea over in the centre. This has become an annual event that we like to go to because the surroundings are so beautiful and unique and Elspeth and Paul make everyone very welcome at their home.

But, for us, the highlight of the visit is always Gordon the Story Teller. The children sit on hay bales under the apple tree while this gentle giant in his Rainbow cloth and silver earrings talks softly in his heavy Scottish accent, charming them away to another land. I am sitting with them munching into a piece of someone's apple and Wensleydale cake. The cheese has been baked into the cake in a single layer. It is very nice indeed. There is a film show of the baby barn owls that hatched out recently, up in the hay loft; and someone else is leading a guided talk over by the orchard.

The weather is suitably Autumnal but dry and it is warmer here over by the wood fire where I go to help Sophie take a softening apple wrapped in foil out of the white hot embers. The cinnamon and brown sugar have pooled underneath the apple like heavenly-scented molasses and she sits on a hay bale, cups it onto her knees and digs in with a teaspoon. It is a fine day to be outside, togged up in jumpers and warm clothes and stomping over the long grass in wellies to find the wooden swing tied up under a large overhanging tree. A kids paradise.

I go to listen to a talk by a nutritionist who confirms something I have long believed, which is that apples are good for rheumatoid arthritis. Research shows that eating an apple daily reduces cholesterol  and C-reactive protein (CRP) which is a key marker of inflammation in the blood. It also contains vitamins A and C and is a good source of antioxidants which help protect the cells from this kind of inflammation, which is caused by free radical molecules. We rarely see the humble apple advertised as a 'Super food' (in these days of 'value added' everything where 'super foods' always seem to be rare and imported and expensive, strangely-enough), but perhaps there is a case for it being reinstated?

I am making 'Lentils with couscous' tonight (page 383). This is because I don't really like lentils - especially not the red split sort (although this uses green) - and so I am challenging my taste buds to try something I would normally shy away from. This is good, I think, as your taste buds change all through life. My Grandpa was a fishmonger and I remember a time as children when my brother and I wouldn't eat fish. These days I eat it all the time.

I have a little trouble in locating Walnut oil as it seems to me the supermarkets are now stocking their shelves with a whole draft of 'value added' oils - lots of chilli-infused, garlic-infused etc. so that we are fooled into thinking that we are being given more choice. Instead, they seem to have taken away the walnut oil and hazelnut oil that I remember buying in the same shop in the past to use for salad dressings; so there is actually less choice. Still, I find some in the end. I note somewhere that walnut oil is best used unheated as heating can change the flavour and give it a slightly bitter taste. You, sensibly, are using it in a dressing in this recipe.

There are lots of my favourite ingredients here - dried apricots, pine kernels, lemon, raisins, dill, so I have high hopes for this dish. Green lentils notwithstanding, I will enjoy eating it purely out of hunger.There is no alternative on the menu tonight at the cottage.

We eat. It is far better than I hoped for. The lentils are not allowed to dominate. There is a nice play of flavours between the sweetness of the apricot, the crunch of pine kernels, and the aniseedy taste of the dill (which I was a little heavy-handed with as I simply love the stuff and didn't want it to go to waste). Perhaps another dish to cook for my vegetarian friends. I sometimes find I am making them the same dish over and over again because I'm concentrating on the main dish that the rest of us meat-eaters will be enjoying; and they are usually too polite to say anything,....until it gently drops into conversation some time later.
Maybe they are just better at placing their depth charges.


Thursday, 15 October 2015

The Pastry Stealer

Dear Nigel,

I am thinking how well-organised I am and giving myself a little pat on the back for having made extra pastry and 'holding it over' in a sealed plastic bag in the fridge (ready to make a quick pastry case for a quiche or a savoury tart tonight) when all my efforts are yet again scuppered. Sophie tells me she needs to make a planet to take in to school for tomorrow - as you do. Most of the others have been making paper mache balloons for days apparently, and I am thinking that we simply don't have the time or the patience.

I have seen the 'homework' done by other parents before, with my older children in the past.
'Move over, little Johnny and let Daddy/Mummy help you' with this model/ folder/ binder cover etc. I refuse to be a part of that, so I hand over my precious pastry and Sophie sets to creating craters and dimples in the surface of her planet with the round handle of a meat skewer. A lot of white paint and gold glitter seem to be involved as well. Perhaps we will have the Pappardelle instead tonight after all.

I have scoured the shops seeking out Pappardelle and the version I come away with seems more tagliatelle than Pappadelle to me. Apparently Pappardelle, Fettuccine and Tagliatelle are very similar pastas. Pappardelle should be 3/4 - 1" wide (which the authentic Italian one I bought certainly is not), Fettuccine is 1/4" and Tagliatelle is a bit wider at 3/8". Pappardelle and Fettuccine originate from Tuscany and Tagliatelle is from the Emilia-Romagna region. Perhaps someone's mama just had a bad day and was a little heavy on the rolling pin. Sometimes these things just all get a little too precious, I think.

So the supper we are now having tonight is 'Pappardelle with Leeks' (page 381). I pick up some fine large leeks in the wholesalers, and while I am there I notice the piles of assorted squashes and pumpkins in the corner. There is an enormous lopsided pumpkin sitting on its own on a pallet. It is the shape of a farmer's bottom. There are also piles of the dusky blue/grey pumpkins that I favour.

One of my favourite things to do at this time of year is to carve out a pumpkin and place a candle in it. When time is rushed, the kids and I make a toothy faced jack-o-lantern; but when I have a little time to while away I like to sit there with my wood-carving tools and make something more artistic and satisfying.Of course, I fully realise that it is a completely pointless, transitory thing - but aren't most hobbies, really? - and that as soon as it is lit it starts to dry out and deflate, but so what? It is therapeutic.

The Blue pumpkin is a variety which is extremely popular in Australia, with varieties like 'blue doll' and 'blue moon'. It has deep-set ridges which run from the top to bottom and is prized for its extremely sweet and thick orange flesh in cooking. I have never found much in an ordinary pumpkin to cook with,anyway - just a big hole. Taste-wise, I found them disappointing. I prefer the savoury recipes to the sweet pumpkin pies anyway, which seem a bit over-sweet and lacking in flavour to me (- if that isn't sacrilege on someone else's national dish).

Now that I come to read your recipe I notice that you comment at the bottom that 'any ribbon-shaped pasta will work here - especially the slimmer tagliatelle'. Mind you, I notice that London shops have again provided the authentic 1" thick variety in your photograph. Perhaps if I had bought fresh pasta?...but then again it might not soak up the butter as well in this recipe; and anyway, I'd heard that Italians prefer to use a good dried pasta themselves, rather than fresh.

I am considering making the most of the mild Autumn weather to get out running again before the Winter sets in. More gentle jogging than running really, it does get me out and away from the biscuit tin. As a lifelong asthmatic I am constantly struggling with stretching my lungs without bringing on another bad attack of wheezing.

 At school we used to have something called the asthmatics' cross-country run, which was mildly shorter than the ordinary cross-country run. I spent every single week in the sick bay following that run. I'm a bit kinder on myself these days without giving in to the kind of lethargy that actually makes you weaker and more susceptible to attacks. So, having just got over a bout of wheezing, I'm feeling powered up.

Also, I ran into the mum at school today who beat me in the mothers' race at sports day. Not that I'm remotely competitive, you understand. And she does still have legs that go up to my armpits, it seems. And she used to be on a programme called 'The Gladiators' on the tele. So maybe second place is just OK.

Running for me is just an easy way of weight management. I don't think I over-eat (at least not too often, though once in a while....I'm only human) but I do eat well. Sometimes it's easy to load the dishes with vegetables, but your body really does seem to crave carbohydrates to fend off the cold and dark evenings at this time of year. I think balance in all things is best. For me, a little running, a lot of yoga and a weekly swim keep me in reasonable nick, I like to think.

The worst thing you can do is to deprive yourself of any food or dish. Moderation in all things. If you want it, eat it. If you care about yourself and your health and welfare - and you allow yourself something - you will probably find that you don't really want it that often after all. Says she, chomping on a bar of Montezuma's dark side milk chocolate and butterscotch...but then it's been a while since I had a bar.

So, into the kitchen to make this dish. 100g of butter does indeed look a lot once it is melted in the pan. But, by the time I have sweated the leeks in it and added the drained pasta it has miraculously disappeared and the final dish isn't remotely slimy or greasy. In fact, it is quite a dry pasta dish, this, which makes a pleasant change. And yet it doesn't stick to the roof of your mouth or make you thirsty.

The buttery taste is lovely. I erred on the mean side in cooking the pasta, so that it was a little more al dente than al dente. But, by the time I added it to the leeks it was hoovering up the butter nicely and the finished result, which you can see above, was a very fine dish indeed. Simple, quick and cheap. And that's what we all need at the moment with Christmas just around the corner. Half the trouble with Christmas, it seems to me, is the expectations of others; and no one wanting anything at all to be different.


Monday, 12 October 2015

Chermoula chermoula

Dear Nigel,

I have decided to cook your 'Chermoula aubergine' (page 373) for supper tonight. Chermoula is a marinade used in Algerian, Libyan and Moroccan cooking made from fresh herbs, lemon juice and oil. Your recipe uses leaf coriander and preserved lemon and a good kick of chilli.

I am usually a bit reticent about the use of coriander leaves, as I often find them a bit soapy to taste. But, having sampled this dish I can honestly say that they provide a very different base here - fresh and almost grassy. I think this is because the herbs are very finely blended and mixed with several very strong flavours. There is salt from the preserved lemon (which is pickled in salt water), sour from the lemon juice, and heat from the green and red chilli (and also the ginger, paprika and cayenne). These act as a foil for each other; and, although they are strong, none of them overpowers the others. I serve the chermoula with plain brown basmati rice, which has a nice nutty flavour and slightly chewy texture. In my experience it is also considerably quicker to cook and more flavoursome than the ordinary brown rice I have cooked in the past.

I make the marinade and, instead of putting it in a sealable plastic food bag as you suggest, I put it in a plastic lock'n'lock box and shake it vigorously around the peeled aubergines. I should have read the whole recipe before I started - which of course I didn't - as I would have seen that you recommend leaving it to marinade for 'at least an hour, two or three if you can'. (A note at the top would perhaps have been useful here as I've come to think of this section of recipes as quick evening suppers.) In the event, I don't have the time as we've just come back from an afternoon's walking over on the Chatsworth Estate with our bellies grumbling. So I omit the marinading time, hoping it won't make too much difference; but, as the aubergine is cooked in the marinade, which then becomes the sauce for the dish, there is plenty of flavour there already.

The lovely thing about this dish is that what seems like a huge amount of olive oil used in the marinade, is exactly what makes the aubergine taste so succulent. We are all used to fried and roasted aubergine and it makes a refreshing change to have aubergine cooked in this manner.

The aubergines are cooked whole with deep slits cut into each where the marinade and oil can penetrate. Aubergines are notoriously greedy of oil and soak it up like a sponge. The final dish is carved into thick slices as you might a piece of steak. It is a great recipe to serve vegetarian or vegan members of your family and friends.

The council have decided to dig up all the roads in the village for some reason or other - no one is quite sure why. I wake this morning to find not one but two signs declaring their imminent progress at the end of our lane. This did strike me as being a little too officious, considering that the lane is a dead-end and only three cars use it. But it is nice to know that we're being given the personal treatment. Perhaps a handwritten letter from some nice man in the Highways department will be next. Like all such 'improvements' I confidently predict it to be about the only topic of conversation, apart from the weather, for the next six months at least. Parliaments may rise and fall, economies collapse and laws repealed, but conversation here will focus myopically as always.

Our walk yesterday on the Chatsworth Estate took us from Carlton Lees and up over the hills past the Russian Cottage. This lovely old building was built following a gift of a model of a Russian farm from the brother of Tsar Nicholas of Russia in 1855 to the 6th Duke of Devonshire. He had previously served as the Ambassador to Moscow and become friends with the Tsar. It has steep-pitched roofs and dark logs set against white shuttered windows and reminds me of the stories in Arthur Ransome's book 'Old Peter's Russian Tales', which I loved as a child.

 Further over, herds of red and fallow deer were grazing. You can walk quite close to the herds, who appear to be wandering freely - which I suppose they are - although they too are contained within a 15km long dry stone wall and deer fence, which houses the 1000 acres of the Park.

An old sweet chestnut tree lay on its side, broken. Yet the leaves and the prickly pods seemed very healthy growing horizontally out of the end of the broken tree. It had rooted itself once more and long spinally roots curved over in an arc seeking out water and nutrients and had plunged themselves back down into the earth.

Back home I am filling up the bird feeders once more. There are a couple of large grey squirrels chasing each other over the branches of the tall pine trees in the garden of the farmhouse opposite. I hope they won't take over the nut feeder again like they did in the town. We are lucky to have a wide variety of birds here who visit our bird table throughout the year. There is a farm not far away that sells wild bird seed by the sack, and this is by far the most economical way to keep the birds happy. One sack usually lasts us the whole winter.

There are more Belted Galloways in the fields on the Moorlands, I notice. These last few years there has been a huge increase in the numbers of farmers keeping both Highland cattle and these tubby little creatures. This heritage beef breed are very hardy and pretty to look at. They originate from Galloway in the west side of southern Scotland and were adapted specially to living on the poor upland pastures and windswept moorlands of the region. This makes them ideal candidates for our open moorlands here. The sheep are also being gathered together slowly. We notice their density increasing in the fields. The first frosts and snow may not be too far away. Several farmers near us lost sheep in the drifts last year, I remember.


Thursday, 8 October 2015

Forever Autumn (...'as the year grows old')

Dear Nigel,

There is a day, a point in every year, when it seems as though a switch is suddenly flicked on and the leaves start to fall from the trees. That day happened today. The cold dry air and reduced light causes the trees to seal off the points where their leaves are attached. They do this in order to survive as they don't get enough water in Winter to replace what would normally evaporate through their leaves. So the leaves change colour. And one day they simply start to fall; softly at first, whipped by a gentle cross-breeze, then gathering momentum as they are swirled and gathered into piles on the lee side of entrances and under hedges.

On a fine day it is tempting to join the children crunching and kicking piles of leaves, and I am often tempted to let my 'inner child' loose and be that old woman wearing purple that we all secretly wish to be at times - uncaring of the looks of others, or maintaining a certain image: The freedom of being completely happy in our own skin that only old people seem to have truly mastered. We can learn a lot from the elderly.

Maybe it is the insecurities of youth which drives young people to achieve, and so to wish such wisdom on them would be counter-productive. But, as the Autumn of ones life approaches, so the Harvest, and so the mellowing and ageing. Just like a mature cheese, some things are better with time. As with a velvet-covered round of goats' cheese, there is a time and a place for both the immature cheese to shine, and the mature version to glow. One is fine tossed into a salad with a handful of olives; but at this time of year, with a plump and sticky Turkish fig, there is only one type of goats cheese that I want sitting on my plate. And if it's slightly runny, and almost the colour of a light butterscotch sauce inside, then so much the better.

Today I am busy searching for something called Mograbia, which you use to make the recipe for 'Mograbia, shallots, lemon' (page 405). I confess to never even having heard of this stuff before, although have probably eaten it without realising it. Anyway, it was harder to search down than I thought it would be, as it is essentially just a larger version of couscous, and marketed as 'giant couscous' where you can find it. Having said this, I'm still not sure that I've bought the right stuff as it looks a bit small in its dried-up form. I'm looking at your photograph of the finished dish on page 404, where the grains are now the size of chickpeas and wondering the likelihood of such a transformation taking place; or whether there is indeed a third form of couscous known as the REAL giant couscous...and not to be confused with 'giant couscous' which is not in fact giant couscous at all but an impostor. We'll see...

You say that you 'can't really love couscous...the way one can potatoes, pasta, bread or rice.' It is 'a fine, soft grit with which to pad out a stew'. In much the same way that a Summer Pudding is best made with a cheap white sliced loaf, couscous's virtue is as a vehicle for sauce or stock.

However, this new, improved Mograbia 'of which I have recently become extraordinarily fond...' are simply 'soft, bobbly and texturally intreguing' balls of starch 'with a satisfyingly chewy interior' with 'something of the texture of commercial gnocchi.' It looks 'fun' to eat - if that isn't a completely stupid word to use - and I notice that your balls aren't sticking together in the photograph (if you see what I mean). Anyway, lets move on to the saucepan and see what happens. Cornichons are another ingredient that I wouldn't automatically put in my shopping basket, but that is the great thing about a new recipe, making you search out the new, the untried and untested.

I was sitting in the Dentist's chair the other day having some work done on a tooth. The Dentist was one side, his assistant the other, concentrating on the job in hand. I was lying there, sunglasses on, anaesthetised mouth drooping open and several bits of metal cutlery fishing around in there, when it occurred to me the sheer powerless of my situation. My darling little angels who were sharing a seat in the corner of the room, decided  to take the opportunity to start belting each other over the head.

The Dentist and his Assistant started sniggering and carried on, while I was wildly waving my arms around with dagger gesticulations and making 'Ahh, ahh....ahh, ahh...' sounds which threatened certain death on all parties unless war ceased immediately; but to no avail. I am always slightly in awe of the parents of particularly placid and 'good' children and wonder 'how can this be?' I console myself with the thought that it must be my children's William Brown creativeness at work when they are naughty. And perhaps the fighting is just a child's version of the kind of exchange that most members of Parliament love to indulge in. I often notice those kind of looks that suggest a desire for a good old scrap on the House of Commons floor once the tea bell sounds. Don't you?

The Mograbia was easy to cook and the texture is really lovely. I made too much and saved some for a cold salad lunch the next day. I think my cornichons were too big - more just gherkins, really - and I hadn't realised that there was a difference. I was swayed by price, I have to say, as the supermarket was 'adding value' on its bottled cornichons. In the event, they taste pretty much the same, I guess.

The dish works well as a salad. We had it warm with a small piece of steak on the side. Today I will have it cold for my lunch. I particularly like the texture and think that if you are making several salads to serve for a party then having this as one particular texture to offset against others would be nice. Flavour-wise it is quite sharp, with the pickled gherkins, but the lemon and olives also come through to help balance this.

I have a deep-sounding metal wind chime which I often like to put up at this time of year. I'm not sure whether it is annoying other members of my family or not, but I love the deep tones it makes. Just as the colour of red leaves has the ability to quicken your heart rate when you look at them, so the intermittent chimes heard in a breeze invoke a feeling of energy and movement, enhancing positive chi and bringing a feeling of peacefulness.

I know how much you love this time of year, too. The temperature is more suited to the both of us now and there is an energising rather than a draining of energy that too much heat creates.


Monday, 5 October 2015

Recipes that surprise us

Dear Nigel,

Never in a million years would I have thought about adding anchovies to a couple of pork chops. In fact, if I'd looked a bit closer at the ingredients then it might have put me off altogether. And that would have been a pity. The recipe in question is 'Pork chops with mushrooms' (page 379). It is a simple supper dish which was on the table in less than half an hour, which is always a bonus when time is short and you are already hungry. The anchovies are basically chopped and added to the gently fried onion before the mushrooms.

When I tasted this I thought 'wow, much too salty', and I was unsure. But hold fire, add it to the plate with the nicely browned chops which have been finished off in the relish, and let the anchovies do their magic. In much the same way that a tart apple sauce cuts through the fat of a piece of roast pork, the salt of the anchovies has the same effect. The pork also has the effect of tempering the saltiness, and the result is truly delicious. If there was going to be one recipe that has both surprised and inspired me to be more adventurous in my cooking recently, then I think it is this one. Sometimes, I think, we all believe we know exactly what something is going to taste like, just by looking at a recipe, and it can make us hold back from being brave and trying new things.

So thank you, Nigel, you have pleasantly surprised me here. It is a recipe that is both simple and tasty-enough to want to eat on a fairly regular mid-week basis.

I'd forgotten what hard work it is to motivate other people to do something, and how completely exhausting it can be. We had ten cubs with us on Saturday on an Activity Day at Carsington Water. A simple little walk with a few challenges en route....of 8 1/2 miles. There are not many eight year olds who are used to walking these kind of distances regularly - if ever - these days. And keeping up morale, dealing with sore legs, bad temper and those who just sat down like elephants and refused to move, ensured I for one came home ready to drop. The dictionary definition of motivate includes such words as activate, impel, push and propel, and this certainly seemed to be closer to the knuckle.

But, all in all, they all finished the course in good spirits; the last leg of the journey, spurred on by the thought of a cooked hamburger at the end of it. I was pleased to see that the burgers were of good quality - thick and meaty and not leaching out lots of fat - and that the area support team were doing a good job in mass catering to dozens of small tired children.

Half way round the course there was an old WW2 watchtower  where they used to observe bombing practise. Today it was being used to raise a poor old teddy bear down on rope as an injured person. The 'rope' involved tying several shorter bits all together with different knots. For children more used to closing Velcro than tying shoe laces, it was certainly a challenge. Twice teddy came down with a loop round his neck instead of under his arms...I don't think we've got as far as the first aid badge with our pack.

Sunday was time out. Tissington village, not far from Ashbourne, is a small feudal estate village which is very pretty and pleasant to visit. At the far end of the village, tucked away, is 'Edward and Vintage' which is a wonderful old fashioned sweet shop, decked out in an old fashioned way with bunting and jars on shelves and lots of blue grey paintwork; and is a favourite with my own children. Apart from the usual boiled sweets, sugar mice and other memories of a distant childhood, they have started to make trays of their own delicious fudge in the back kitchen. Recipes such as lemon cheesecake and chocolate and ginger are very popular. I can personally vouch for the chocolate and ginger. Like many places these days they can't just rely on passing trade and do a great deal of their business on line. I bought a Ration book for my mum last year so that she could ring up (or go on line) and choose a few old favourites for herself.

As a place to wander Tissington is very pretty,with its central duck pond and lovely old cottages with their gardens of giant rose hips and wandering bantams. There is a candle maker doing sterling trade at the other end of the village; yet she also manages to sell her stuff  far afield. I have seen candles from 'On a wick and a prayer' in the National Trust shops of Northumberland; and yet most of the work is still done out of the back of an old shed in Tissington which I think is great.

One little known fact (which particularly interests me) is that you can choose any of the scented candles that she does and have your own containers filled or refilled. The cost is extremely minimal for this (in my mind); and yet how lovely to have something that is treasured by you, or a present for a friend, put to a good use once more. I take my favourite large candle bowls there each winter for refilling ready in time for Christmas with 'Dark Amber', which seems to me more the essence of deep winter and yuletide than some of the 'Christmas' scents she offers. But come and sniff for yourself.

Last year 'Father Christmas' (who is in the habit of leaving food-inspired gifts) left jars of the most lovely 'goo' in the stockings of all my older children. This 'goo', or spread (if you like) is a recent find of mine and was universally popular. It is called 'Biscoff' and is basically those lovely little caramelised biscuits (made by a company called Lotus) that you get on the side of your latte or cappuccino, all crunched up into some kind of spread. I think you are supposed to put this on bread, perhaps, but most of my children ate it straight out of the jar with a spoon. This evening I thought I would make a super-quick cheat's apple 'crumble' with nothing more than an eating apple stuck in the microwave and a dollop of this on top. A fireside treat. The mixture tastes even better with the gentle warmth from the cooked apple. A singular treat, I think, for those times when no one else is looking...

From the end of the sofa, with my feet on the coffee table,

Martha x      (...bliss..)