Sunday, 4 October 2009

Back down to Earth with some comfort cooking

Autumn is with us. The days are, by and large, sunny still. But last week, after a blazing weekend and start to the week, it changed. Almost imperceptible; the quiet creep of velvety darkness and colour.

I travelled down to Brighton for work a week ago yesterday. The journey by trains takes a fraction over an hour and passes through some beautiful countryside. It was a glorious day. And on Thursday morning, returning, it was just as glorious. But this time, there was just a hint more russet, gold and bronze in the trees. Just a little extra nip in the air. Just that little scent that tells you that the season has changed.

Sniff the air: you can't describe what you smell. But it's different to what you could inhale just 24 hours before.

Brighton was madness: surreal days campaigning amongst government ministers: airport level security, "the fightback conference", 12-hour working days and little time for food.

Food it was, on my return, that brought me back to reality, back down to Earth.

Finally free of the adrenalin-pumping excitement of the week, I soothed my soul with Fauré's Requiem and then some Chopin as the countryside sped past. By the time the four-carriage train was leaving East Croydon, starting to resemble a sardine tin on rails, I was musing over possible lunches.

With no desire to go out again once I'd got myself back in the flat, I managed to get myself around the Marks & Sparks at Victoria Station. The change of season was already impacting – I wanted to make leek and potato soup for myself. But as luck would have it, M&S had no leeks. I picked up courgettes instead, plus double cream, bread and pork sausages for the evening.

My priority, once through the door and after greeting and being greeted by the Queen B, was cooking. The unpacking could wait. I heated olive oil and butter, sliced the courgettes and the remains of a bundle of asparagus that The Other Half had rather naughtily bought for himself while I'd been away ('naughty', as they're out of season in Europe now and will have been flown half way around the world from somewhere such as Peru). They were getting a little past it, but soup was the perfect way to use them.

Soften, add some vegetable stock (yes, it was out of a bottle in this situation) and leave for a while. Then purée it and leave it to cool just a little. Season to taste and add some cream. Reheat very gently and consume, with bread.

Normality attained in short order.

But it was the first time that I'd realised just how much food and cooking have become part of my normality – of what makes me tick and what makes me feel good. And what could be more comforting than homemade soup?

Sausages that night followed, with boiled spuds and loads of gently fried onions. On Friday – a day off in lieu of all the overtime I'd done in the preceding days – I did some chicken thighs, with more onions, tomatoes (decent tinned Italian ones) and a little curry paste.

Then yesterday gave me the sanity of Broadway Market. First up was some fish: salmon, poached and then served with jacket potatoes and steamed courgettes, with parsley and garlic butter.

Then today, I've been trying to recapture the south of France again, with a dish of beef, cooked very slowly with black olives. That's still on the go and will be for some time yet. It's a traditional recipe from the Camargue region of France, where they produce lauded beef.

Take your beef – Elizabeth David suggests some top rump – and dice in pieces no bigger than an inch square. Sauté in a mixture of olive oil and butter until brown.

Cribbing from a second version of the dish, I then removed the meat, added a diced onion to the pan and softened that.

Then, return the meat to the pan. Heat a ladle of brandy, pour it on the meat and set fire to it. Shake the pan until the alcohol has burnt off and the flames gone out. The divine Mrs D explains that this adds flavour – and burns off some of the fat on the meat.

Add bouquet garni, a little seasoning, a glass of decent red wine and a strip of orange peel to the pan. Bring briefly to the boil. Cover with at least one layer of greaseproof paper of kitchen foil and then a lid, and turn down to the lowest possible heat on your hob. Leave for around three and half hours. Ten minutes before it's ready, chuck a good handful of stoned, black olives into the pan and continue cooking.

Serve with croutons, rice, potatoes or even noodles.

I'm ready for the autumn now. And nothing seems to reflect that as much as the desire for such food.

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