Saturday, 9 October 2010

Unexpected days in the kitchen

If you had told me, 10 years ago, that I would be happily spending a huge chunk of my weekend in the kitchen, you’d have been treated with a substantial dose of somewhat skeptical laughter.

After all, I remember with some embarrassment, the first meal that I ever cooked for The Other Half – re-formed, frozen lamb 'steaks', tinned potatoes and some other tinned veg. It's light years away.

Yet it’s 6.32pm as I write these words, and I’ve spent a great deal of the day involved with food – and certainly not because I have to.

The weather forecast for the weekend was for something like a final burst of summer. Well, it’s been mild and a little humid, but still cloudy. Not my idea of summer.

But after being sent home with what (fortunately) turned out to be a 24-hour bug on Thursday afternoon, I spent part of yesterday musing over fodder for the following days.

The weather was the complicating factor: once you’ve got in the mood for autumn, it’s not obviously easy to click back into lighter dishes. That said, though, big casseroles were clearly out.

In the event, for today I decided to do a leek and potato soup for lunch (there’s plenty left for tomorrow too). One little first to this: I seasoned using some celery salt from my friend George, which arrived the other day with two pots of spicy grape and apricot mustard, which I have yet to try.

With one outlet already established in Wigan – the delightful Coven café – this is a really new and exciting food venture.

I don’t know whether George would have imagined, 10 years ago, that he’d be making speciality tracklements now, any more than I’d have expected to have spent a day happily in the kitchen – and then be sitting down to write about it! C'est la vie, as the French say – although I don’t think that either of us would consider these as negative developments.

Anyway, for evening, I bought a bit of salmon from Vicki to poach in white wine, with bay leaves and peppercorns, to be served with crushed, roasted garlic potatoes on the side. The first ‘daring’ thing came with my decision to get some beetroot and try roasting that.

Used to pickled beetroot with salads, I’ve never really eaten them any other way. Unlike TV cook Nigella Lawson, who once did a whole half-hour programme on beetroot recipes wearing a white denim suit, I was rather scruffier – and I used latex gloves when I was peeling the beets.

Peeled, they were like red and pink marble; beautiful things. They were seasoned well and given a drizzle of olive oil, before being tucked up in foil and popped into my fab oven at around 170˚. Around 40 minutes later, the foil came off and they had another half an hour, until I could easily press a knife through them.

But the bulk of my kitchen time today was spent in making – or trying to make – a tarte tartin, a French upside-down apple tart.

I made my own pastry and left that in the fridge to cool.

Then it was onto the caramel, gently melting butter and caster sugar in a deep frying pan, while peeling, coring and quartering apples from the market.

Once the butter and sugar are fully melted, you place the apple quarters as tightly as possible in a layer around the pan, baste with the lovely liquid, and leave on a low heat for around 40 minutes.

After that, a layer of the pastry, to about 3mm thick, goes on top and the tarte goes in the oven for the same time again – or until the pastry is crisp and golden. Leave for five minutes and then carefully turn out.

Well, it rather collapsed – my pastry wasn’t thick enough. But one thing’s certain – it isn’t an insult to the taste buds! And after all, how could anything simply made from pastry, sugar, butter and apples be bad? And oh … the smell when it was cooking!

It is extraordinary, looking back a decade, that I really didn’t understand what a pleasure food could be; and what a pleasure preparing food is. Still – better late than never!

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