Sunday, 31 January 2016

The texture of antique leather

Dear Nigel,

I have been contemplating the simple dish of pasta and wondering why one dish has a certain cachet that makes me want to eat it and the other is shied away from swiftly. I'm not even aware that I'm making these choices on a day to day basis - but I am.

Once upon a time, pasta was a three times a week staple for two young marrieds in their first little two-bedroom terraced house. We were sitting on the floor (as we couldn't afford a sofa) and eating off a wallpapering table. All available cash was going on stripping the doors and damp proofing the walls. And pasta enabled us to eat.

Over the years it morphed into the once or twice a week family dish - usually a Lasagna or bolognaise - until eventually it became once a week, and then PERHAPS once a week. It is not that I particularly want to bring back pasta dominance into our weekly menu, but I wonder how it got to be so unimportant and forgotten.

Nowadays, if its pasta then there has to be a more exciting accompaniment or sauce to go with it: Something that works, something that has a certain wow factor to it. Sometimes, I am disappointed with what I produce, or just not very inspired. But lately I have come to realise that there is a reason for this; something that I have been missing, or hit and missing without realising its relevance - and that is the texture of the pasta itself.

Looking at the packets of pasta on the supermarket shelf, it is easy to miss this small detail. There are so many shapes and sizes to choose from. Why wouldn't you choose that packet of bright yellow linguine rather than the rather old, tired looking one next to it which looks frankly a bit dried out and possibly out-of-date? Surely the former has been made with free-range, organic eggs to achieve that colour, you might reason. Not so. Dried pasta is extruded through a machine using either a bronze or a silicon die. The bronze die extrudes pasta at a slower rate (hence it is more expensive to produce), but it leaves a rougher texture to the pasta - like that of an antique leather sofa - which allows the sauce to cling to it better. The silicon die leaves a smooth surface and a brighter yellow colour. How often have you eaten out and been given a dish of pasta only to find half the sauce remaining at the end of the meal? or perhaps they fudged things by using too thick a sauce?

It's a small thing, perhaps, but I am aware that pasta is making a come back in this house. I don't begrudge paying slightly more for it when the over-all cost of the dish is usually considerably less than some of the other meals I cook. We eat less pasta these days, quantity-wise. No longer is there a huge heap to be ploughed through. Sometimes the pasta is almost the accompaniment to the other ingredients, or at least an equal part.

Tonight, however, I am making 'food for a windy night.' I am making 'Artichoke "tartiflette"' (page 27) - 'Not just a hot meal to fatten and fill, but something that will warm our very souls'. It is inspired by the 'Alpine dish of tartiflette, whose layers of potatoes, onions, smoked bacon and Reblochon cheese help to thaw out skiers and snowboarders alike'. It is pertinent as number two son, Christopher, has just moved to Geneva with his Brazilian girlfriend, Beatriz. Only there a week and he sends me a photo of them skiing in the Alps. Lucky boy. Lovely to see him looking so happy and alive.

Your dish involves those lovely little knobbly vegetables - such a pain to peel - called Jerusalem artichokes. Their taste is so wonderfully earthy and deep that all is soon forgiven. We sit down to a large plate of melting softness. The cold is swiftly driven out. It is good; very good. The interplay between the stronger flavours of the Jerusalem artichokes, the Reblochon cheese and the lardons is well-balanced. The 'pale milky curds (of the Reblochon) melt into  a velvety blanket, and whose flavour softens upon heating.'
We feel complete as we curl up on the sofa.

(Small note: Although you say you have to rechristen this dish 'fartiflette' the next day....hence a windy night in your place....I have to say that it didn't have quite that effect over here! Thank goodness: It's a small house.)

Love Martha x

Friday, 22 January 2016

Mr Blue Sky

Dear Nigel,

The candidate for Biggin and Hartington is being reprimanded and put on a warning. Sophie, my nine year old, is entering the Area Cubs 'Ready, Steady, Cook' event; and she is practising making pancakes at home. Unfortunately, pancakes take too long to cook it seems and there is something more interesting on the tele in the next room, so she leaves her pancake unattended and slinks off. Hmmm, don't think she'll get too many marks for that one...But, she does serve them beautifully and courteously and waits for our verdict: They taste very good, dripping in a river of maple syrup, and are even in colour (if perhaps a little thick...but then it does save having to make quite so many...)

The sky today is a beautiful Nordic blue; the kind of Winter Sky that refreshes and drives out the gloom. The snow is melting very slowly, caught by the dry chill of the wind which pins back your eye lids and wakes you up with a mallet. We have been hibernating too long. Inertia has set in and it needs a sky like today to set the blood racing beneath your thermals and bring a glow to your cheeks.

I am fed-up opening the Landrover with a kettle of boiling water each morning. The snow has turned to a permanent ice rink on the lane where the two cars have been up and down. I put out fresh bird seed which is devoured as fast as I put it out. That fat pigeon is back again hoovering up underneath where the lazy birds have made a mess and scattered seed everywhere. I heard a woodpecker the other day, busy putting up double-glazing and insulating his loft. Always the industrious kind, the woodpecker.

Today I am making a pie for supper. I still haven't got my head beyond comfort food with this cold weather, and the idea of any kind of meaningful exercise that might loosen the excesses of Christmas seems a very bad idea indeed. I watch a couple of people out running and think only of their poor ankles on black ice. I am getting old. Damn. Or perhaps just old-enough to remember how long it takes to mend a turned ankle; stumbling around with a shackle on your leg. The pie is your 'Peri peri chicken pie' (page10) for those days when 'sometimes, you just want pie.'

Chicken thighs always seem a good, economical meat to use as there is always a lot of meat on them, especially if you are prepared to spend the time taking off the skin, as in this recipe. The homemade peri peri seasoning smells wonderful as it sizzles and coats the onions. It is a mixture of chilli, oregano, garlic, vinegar, oil, Worcestershire sauce, celery seeds and lime juice - quite a combination, and worth the effort. If you have ever tried the mass-catering version, then this seasoning is a revelation, and says everything about why some things are worth making yourself. Using bought frozen puff pastry is a wonderfully quick way to turn anything into a pie, when the urge takes you. It always seems to impress friends and family, though I can never see why since it's little more than a minute's work to roll out and lick the top with a beaten egg.

My Cubs and I were making a totem pole this evening to take to the Centenary camp in the Summer. As I struggled with binding several five foot cardboard tubes together, they discussed whether they should scalp their victims first before tying them to the pole and burning them. I thought that perhaps Health and Safety might have something to say about that. Seems Golding didn't have to look too far at all to find inspiration for his book. I say perhaps Spaghetti Bolognaise would be a better option and probably easier to make.

I have been taking cider vinegar daily to try and alleviate some arthritic pain. I have read good reports about it, although nothing scientific, and I'm giving it a try. I take two tablespoons daily with a little water and a teaspoon or so of maple syrup. I used to use honey but found that maple syrup is full of antioxidants and has sizable amounts of zinc and manganese as well as being lower in calories (not that a teaspoon amounts to a great deal anyway). I also like the taste. The jury is still out as to how much help it is with my arthritis.

Watching programmes about how maple syrup is extracted is both fascinating and really rather beautiful, especially when it is tapped by hand and lands on a carpet of snow. Some of the trees have been tapped for over a hundred years. There are different grades of maple syrup, ranging from gold to amber to dark and very dark. Cananda, where most of the world's maple syrup comes from, has recently changed its grading system so that it is by colour rather than a, b and c grades. One fact that surprised and intrigued me, was that until 1930's, America produced most of the world's maple syrup. In 1990's, Canada made a huge drive and massive growth and today produces more than 80% of the world's maple syrup.

Japan and South Korea also produce maple syrup on a smaller scale, but in South Korea, the maple sap itself is eaten (called gorosoe) instead of being processed into syrup. Maple syrup and maple sugar were used as an alternative to sugar before and during the American Civil war by the abolitionists because cane sugar was produced by Southern slaves. In 1865, slavery was made unconstitutional as a result of this war.

The pie is on the table and ready for eating. I have worked up an appetite and this is what it is all about - cutting into a fine, crust pie with the expectation of a taste memory reclaimed, and the salivary glands already picking up the scent and starting to make the mouth water.

Bon appetit.

Martha x

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Isn't it good, Norwegian wood?

Dear Nigel,

There is snow on the ground and a snowman in the garden dressed in a fair isle scarf and hat. It is not really 'snow' as yet - perhaps only a couple of inches - but the children find enough to play out in, stamping in their wellies and making tracks across the field. And, although there is not yet enough snow for sledging, Sophie's baby doll goes flying past down the meadow on her doll-sized purple sledge, dressed in a snappy ski suit and pink-tinted shades like the creme de la creme in Klosters.

I am shovelling salt onto the drive so that the postman won't refuse to deliver the post to us. I look over to admire my handiwork yesterday of a tightly piled stack of logs in the woodshed. I saw the snow coming the other day and ordered another load from the log man. He told me that it was mainly larch this time. We discussed the merits of both hardwood and softwood logs. He said that he'd done timed trials with both kinds, and, although the hardwood ones may last that bit longer, the difference it makes isn't  really justified by the increased price.

Driving through a snowstorm across the lanes to Bakewell I see two drystone wallers patching up a bit of wall near Monyash. They look ruddy and cold and show no sign of stopping in the blinding sleet. Although it is not settling much on the ground, visibility makes me slow right down. I have a good friend Michael who is a drystone waller and I wonder if he's out working in this weather. It is a hard way to earn a living. Michael comes to the pub to hear me play fiddle and to talk with other locals; a quiet man with a genuine smile and always a kind word. We rub along.

I am making your version of a 'Raclette tart' (page 8) to keep 'out the cold for yet another winter's night.' I am horrified by the price of the raclette, but then I see this tart is supposed to be for six people. It will be two of us in front of the wood burner and lunch tomorrow, quite probably. We have had the toasting fork out lately. The children got bags from Father Christmas full of giant-sized marshmallows (from America, where everything comes super-sized). They proved very easy to toast; although one each was quite enough.

Tonight's raclette tart has much of the same melting unctuousness that we seem to crave when snuggled up to the wood burner on a cold, dark night.
'The ancient idea of melting a large wedge of cheese in front of an open hearth, then, as it softens and melts, scraping the flowing cheese on to bread, is a notion I find almost too delicious to contemplate.'

The snow has fallen harder now, and, although the main roads are clear and the gritter has been round, the hills and grass lanes are covered and it makes for a fine walk with the dog. She is happy and leaps and bounds over the soft carpet of snow. One plus point is that she comes in clean without the tell-tale trail of muddy footprints which I have had to get used to of late...dogs don't take their shoes off when they come in the backdoor like everyone else.

The pastry has an egg yolk in it (which always makes it that bit easier to roll out, I find). With free range organic eggs it has a pleasant yellow tinge to it. After rolling it out and into the flan case, chilling the pastry and baking blind, it is an easy matter to fill with the mixture of creme fraiche, egg yolk and black pepper, over the base of raclette, salami and tiny cornichons.

Yes, I remembered to get the right sort this time. Last time you suggested cornichons I came back with something which was more of a small gherkin. (I had no idea there were gradations in gherkin size!) Anyway, these smaller specimens, which have the appearance of U-boats on a choppy sea once chopped and placed in the flan (....just my over-active mind...or perhaps remnants of persuading awkward toddlers to eat up their food), do appear to be altogether finer, lighter in colour and thinner-skinned.

Supper is made and on the table and devoured greedily. It tastes delicious, with just the right contrast of acidity from the pickles to cut through the rich fat of the salami and raclette. My pastry leaves a little bit to be desired (as can be seen readily from the photograph) as the pastry shrank a bit; but as it is the taste that counts as far as I'm concerned, I wasn't too upset. I'd forgotten how simply tasty an egg-enriched pastry can be.

At least this time the flan made it to the table in one piece. Sometimes I find easing them out of the case over an upturned bowl, can end in disaster ...or perhaps a inventive renaming of the dinner on my part. All good cooks should learn to become proficient liars - it is amazing how you can turn round a 'disaster' and 'add value' to something perfectly ordinary...but perhaps I shouldn't admit to that in front of my family...

Best wishes,

Martha x

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Considering The Wasteland

Dear Nigel,

So, the Turkey's last remains are languishing in the freezer, the tree is leaning outside by the shed and there is a feeling of uneasy emptiness inside, like a vacuum ready to be filled. The winds whistle through the treetops of the tall pine trees opposite and round the corner of the cottage like pan pipes, creating mischief and discord in their wake. It is a time of new beginnings and pointless resolutions, but any change brings with it a certain amount of fear and courage is required at times like these.

In Ayurvedic medicine, the source  of this discord is Vata, which particularly dominates in Winter. To balance this, heavy, warming, or oily foods are recommended. So I make a simple root vegetable soup with parsnip, carrot and sweet potato, warmed with cumin seeds. I have friends to feed who are ready to relax and unwind now that Christmas is finally over and the children are back at school. It is good to finally have the time to catch up. We exchanged quick, illicit calls and emails, and cancelled detailed-made plans all through the weeks running  up to Christmas. There never seems to be enough time to spend with the people you actually want to see. And true friends know that when Christmas calls we are all well down each other's list of things that must be done. But now is the time for eating up the leftovers and picking up the threads of loosely woven, flexible friendships which have endured many a choppy sea.

In the fridge there are endless small pieces of cheese waiting to be used up. I am thinking to bake with much of these, perhaps a pastry with roast vegetables beneath. I search your recipes and choose one for supper tonight which will be tasty and hearty, and will use up a piece of Taleggio which I have knocking around. The recipe is 'Baked eggs with kale and Taleggio' (page 521). It contains a fair scattering of pumpkin seeds which add both a nuttiness and protein to the dish. The cavolo nero is shredded and baked with egg like an omelet before the taleggio is allowed to melt on top and the pumpkin seeds scattered over.

We both found the taste well-balanced and particularly liked the nuttiness of the pumpkin seeds against the tanginess of the taleggio, which can be a bit over-powering at times. I have to confess that I simply couldn't be bothered to chop the pumpkin seeds, so just scattered them whole; but I rather like them that way and prefer the look of the whole seeds. Altogether, a very tasty dish that was quick to prepare and left little to wash up afterwards ( - always a bonus to those of us who wash up by hand).

The constant wet and drizzly weather seems to have swayed many of the usual hoard of New Year's joggers who usually coax their wobbly unfit bodies out on punishing long runs at this time of year, (their faces bright pink and set with a fixed smile of grim determination,) to stay in and keep warm instead. The desire not to get ill is stronger than the frustration of feeling obliged to finish off that last half a box of chocolates rather than look at it another day.

It is easier to slip on an over-sized sweater and lose yourself in a good book. Perhaps one about diet, or keeping fit, or man's journey up the North Face of the Eiger or something - all best accomplished from the comfort of a warm sofa, I find. You could work up quite a sweat, I think, contemplating the difficult decisions to be taken in planning the next stage of the route, considering the changes in the weather, the dwindling food supplies and the injuries sustained by other members of the team. All quite enough exercise in itself. Goodness me, it must be time to put the kettle on...

I am finishing up the last of the fated Millionaires' shortbread, which was the real bug-bear for me over Christmas. It was my own fault, I suppose, in asking everyone what they wanted to eat over the festive season. Tom requested this, and it seemed an innocuous request at first. But it was the one thing that I didn't have time to make beforehand. So I bought the ingredients, planning to make it at a leisurely time over Christmas, of my choosing.

The ingredients were still staring at me several days later, and one of my older children (who shall remain nameless) actually refused to go back home until I'd made the blessed stuff. So there was I, hoping for a walk in the park, feed the ducks, park the kids at the swings - no such luck: It must have taken almost four hours to complete the procedure, given that there are three layers and everything has to cool down before the next is added. Of course I also had help with the weighing and stirring, by a small pair of hands stood on the kitchen step, so nothing was going to happen at any great speed. It was cold and starting to get dark by the time we eventually got to the park and the railway station to drop off nameless redhead with attitude problem and a tray of not completely set millionaire's shortbread.
It is not my favourite teatime treat, let it be said.