Monday, 1 March 2010

Food to welcome spring – and bid farewell to winter

A sudden cold, with the overnight addition of a stomach upset, has left me at home today. Nobody likes having colleagues who are running to the loo every five minutes and coughing and sneezing the rest of the time.

In fact, the first day of March has brought lovely weather with it: so welcome after what seems to have been weeks or grey cloud and streaming rain.

I don’t want to wish the year away – I was irritated to see Easter cakes in the chain baker on Broadway Market on Saturday. I wanted to tell them: ‘Stop it! It’s a month until Easter!’ But to be fair, the supermarkets start selling Cabury’s Crème Eggs almost as soon as they’ve cleared the last of the Christmas fare from their shelves.

But that aside, I am ready for spring. We’ve already had the first signs, as with unerring predictability, the year’s first roadworks popped up a week or so ago. And the snowdrops too have been showing their faces.

Right now, there’s blue sky visible and the sun has some real warmth in it.

It’ll be the kittens’ first spring; the first time they’ll have felt the sun on their bodies. They’ve been allowed out into our tiny garden a couple of times now – and get giddy with excitement. Loki has already realised he can climb the fences and the bay tree.

I’m sitting on the sofa with my laptop and Loki, who is busy washing himself. When the sub’s out, you can feel the warmth here.

It was a bit of a foody weekend: The Other Half was off up to Yorkshire for Rugby League again, so eschewing the Easter fondants (small cup cakes with grated ‘chocolate’ nests and a trio of mini eggs on top) I got myself some squid for Saturday evening.

The meal was a doddle. Take a courgette and grate on the coarsest grater you’ve got. Pop in a colander and salt. Leave for around half an hour. Rinse and pat dry with kitchen paper.

Heat some olive oil. Add chopped or dried red chili to taste, plus smashed garlic cloves. Then add the grated courgette and the sliced squid.

It takes no more then five minutes.

In the meantime, cook some pasta – linguine or spaghetti are ideal.

Grate some lemon zest into the squid mixture and serve with the pasta.


Indeed, it came out of River Café Easy Two, the first of the River Café books I got and something of a personal food Bible.

Tonight, indeed, I’m adapting a risotto from the book’s predecessor – porcini, sage and orange – to make it a main course rather than a starter. But it’s still the basic flavours from the first River Café ‘Easy” book, which I added to my library last year.

And so it was with some sadness this morning that I read that Rose Gray, the co-founder of River Café, has died after a lengthy battle with cancer.

Given how recently I actually came to the River Café books, it seems perhaps a little odd to say Rose and her co-founder Ruth Rodgers have influenced my own culinary development so much. But they have – not just directly, but indirectly too – specifically via former employee Jamie Oliver, whose cooking was massively important for me in the earliest years of my food rebirth: simple dishes that produced amazingly sexy results.

So thank you, Rose. And Ruth.

Yesterday was a tiome for simple food too – but it could hardly have been more different. The growth of the ‘slow food movement’ is helping to see a number of revivals.

Now, mutton – for so long almost impossible to get – is becoming available. I can’t remember ever having had it before – never mind actually cooking it, so for a first opportunity, I went down as traditional an English route as possible: I boiled it.

I put around 2kgs of shoulder and popped that in a big pot, with water up about ¾ of the way. Then I added a couple of chopped sticks of celery, a chopped carrot, a roughly sliced onion, some rosemary, a few peppercorns and a bay leaf or three.

Bring to the boil, skim , cover and simmer for around two hours. You can probe the meat quite easily to check that it’s properly tender.

When it’s nearly done, make a white roux with plain flour and butter. Then start adding stock from the pan with the meat. When you’ve reached a consistency you like, add some capers that you’ve rinsed and drained. Check the seasoning and adjust according to taste.

Serve with plain boiled potatoes. I did some carrots on the side too, but it was traditionally served just with the meat, potatoes and sauce.

That came from Rick Stein’s Food Heroes, where he raves about having it while sitting opposite Kingsley Amis in The Garrick. Setting aside the question of anyone actually being excited by being near Amis, and you get half of the point. You can imagine Dickens eating this in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street – or Mr Pickwick. It’s utterly traditional food – and it’s good food.

The mutton was lovely - flaky and full of flavour; a little like a slightly gamey lamb. The sauce was a revelation.

And hopefully, that was a fitting culinary farewell to what has been a long winter. I’m ready for the sun.

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