Saturday, 31 March 2012

Get it minted

Journeying through the English countryside last weekend, one of the most adorably seasonal sights was that of the year's earliest lambs in the fields.

You'd have to have a heart of stone not to think: 'Ahhh'.

But you might also find yourself thinking: 'Mint sauce, mint sauce'.

Because of course, that is what we Brits do with mint - eat it with lamb.

It's a culinary combination that the French notoriously pour scorn on. But that scorn doesn't mean that it doesn't work - and the mint also gloriously compliments the new potatoes and the fresh garden peas that constitute a really traditional English summer roast lamb dinner.

Indeed, with Easter just around the corner, roast lamb with mint sauce is what many people in the UK will be enjoying at the heart of their festive feast.

The perfection of the meeting of those ingredients can mean that we easily lose sight of other combinations that work just as well.

It was only a couple of years ago, for instance, while in Italy that I realised how gloriously the sharpness of lemon marries with the sweetness of lamb.

And lamb and mint are such an iconic combination that perhaps it sometimes means we also forget that mint can compliment a wide variety of other flavours.

Indeed, perhaps my mintiest memory came in Perpignan one Easter a few years ago, when we wandered into the weekly Sunday market.

We entered from the 'African quarter' to be met by the most astonishing scent from the vast, vast piles of the herb that were piled up for sale. It was intoxicating.

So okay, we might also think of mint as the basis for a tisane, with its ability to aid digestion, and as a friend to dark chocolate - particularly in the form of after-dinner mints - but it's potential doesn't end there.

Actually, the French may well be snobbish about mint, but it's hard not to wonder if that is, in part at least, a response to it being loved not just by the old enemy across the Channel, but also by the indigenous people's of the north African parts of its own former empire?

In Italian cookery, the Romans are fond of it - as are the Sicilians.

In Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, Elizabeth David points out that mint is related to basil and, where dried versions of the latter are required - particularly in North African cuisine - then the former can be substituted.

Noting that the Italians, like the English, love sage - and use it in large amounts - Mrs D observes that she is not such a fan and, indeed, suggests using mint instead.

In the rather fabulous and utterly fascinating Flavour Thesaurus – and here I must thank George for this unexpected present – Niki Segnit illustrates how mint can combine with a wide range of other ingredients, including chilli and oily fish.

So with that in mind, I tried a little experiment this evening.

Picking up a little salmon fillet on Broadway Market this morning, I marinaded it in some dried chilli, olive oil and lemon for a couple of hours, before heating a pan and popping it in with the marinade ingredients.

To that was added a little Maldon and some drizzling Balsamico – well, you have to have salt and vinegar with your fish – then the pan was lidded, the heat turned down and it was left for about 10 minutes.

I served it was sliced carrot and courgette, cooked in a little butter, olive oil and minimal water, and some basmati rice.

And then the big experiment. Serving up, I provided a small dish of dried mint as an option to try.

The Other Half tried some; I tried some.

It really does work and adds a nice little contrast to the sweetness of the fish and the heat of the chilli.

When trying, I also sprinkled some on my rice – and that was particularly pleasant.

Indeed, it made me think of Risotto! Risotto!, where Valentina Harris described the pleasure of perhaps the most simple risotto of all, a parsley one.

And it struck me that one made with really good, fresh mint would work just as well. I shall have to try it sometime, when my own crop of mint is producing copious amounts for harvesting.

But mint seems to be a perfect example of how we can become so used to an ingredient employed in a traditional way, that we don't stop to think how else it might be used.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Baby food for an adult gourmand

Some of you, with memories for, frankly, what you should have forgotten, may recall that, back in August of 2010, I commenced seriously drastic dental treatment.

And yesterday, I had the final surgery that was required. Which is, in itself, a wonderful morsel of knowledge. Particularly as it wasn't actually as easy as last time. A tooth breaking in the middle of the process didn't help, but I survived - even if Paracetemol were required later in the evening.

But once that was over, I faced the relatively short-term question of what to eat. And unlike 2010, I have made a specific promise to myself that I will not resort to tins of Heinz macaroni cheese.

My dentist gave me the usual little leaflet, which stated that, for the rest of the day after the surgery, you can eat and drink normally, but avoiding the extraction site.

Which is fine if you have just one such site. I have a number, right across the bottom jaw. He did them all in one go, on both sides, because I am on record as having no bleeding problems and as being a quick healer.

So food that didn't even need gumming into submission was key.

But what sort of baby food can a gourmand call on?

There was something faintly funny in that, earlier in the day, I'd made a point of ensuring I'd had a far more substantial lunch than usual. In this case, a sizeable bowl of spaghetti carbonara.

I still forget that eating earlier in the day actually improves your appetite later, so it was almost a surprise to find, a couple of hours after returning home, that I was downright hungry.

In advance, a large pot of Onken yogurt, flavoured with rhubarb and vanilla, had been installed in the fridge. A bowl of that slipped down easily enough.

But while perfectly pleasant, it was hardly enough to sate hunger.

The obvious thought is that you need some sort of starchy carb - bread, for instance. But this is where it's useful to remember that a bit of fat will leave you sated even more quickly.

And the perfect way to do that was in serious gourmand fashion - opening a little tin of pâté that we'd brought back from Paris some time ago. Tasty stuff, which Otto assured me should also be shared with her in an act of feline solidarity.

Today is easier. Substantial amounts of coffee have already been enjoyed, along with soft-boiled eggs. The Other Half, who is 'looking after the invalid' has also bought more pâté, which I will open at some point this weekend.

And the one real submission to junk is a very soft loaf of white bread, the odd slice of which will be enjoyed later with butter, jam or golden syrup, and clotted cream in a nod to a rare and utterly indulgent treat my mother would rustle up if anyone had had a pot of that Cornish classic sent to us.

This evening, I am going to ambitiously face down some of Henry Tidiman's Cumberland sausages - surely a soft enough meat? - with some garlicky, crushed potatoes (the garlic is a natural antibiotic) and some veg or other, cooked to be soft enough for my mouth.

I shall neither starve nor be forced into the world of food that I don't really like.

Things will get easier as the weekend progresses and my mouth heals. But fish tomorrow should present no problems, while I'll have to give Sunday rather more thought.

However, the moral of this little story, my friends, is to go to your dentist regularly for check ups; demand to know whether they have an hygienist and when you can make an appointment for that service; learn about all that flossing malarky.

And educate yourself about what gum disease is and how to spot the first signs. When companies advertise stuff on TV that supposedly stops the pain of 'sensitive teeth', that's not a signal to buy their products but to see a dentist damned quickly if you have not already been doing so.

Now obviously none of the above is remotely easy on a low income - which had been part of my problem for years.

But it is also true that much dentistry in the UK leaves a lot to be desired. Perhaps it is even partly a regional issue, as has been suggested to me - although the dentist that left me a total wreck about 10 years ago was in London. And he never mentioned gum disease by name or suggested any form of serious treatment that could have been undertaken then.

Which also leaves me wondering whether that was partly because I'd managed to get an appointment at that time on the NHS - and NHS patients were treated dismally by at least some dentists (not my current one), as though they were beneath serious treatment.

Or maybe we still have a culture of just assuming and accepting bad teeth - and that they won't last for the duration of your life?

But whatever the facts - and I'm not going to pretend that I know for certain - just try to find a good dentist and visit them regularly.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Blue sky thinking

Parts of the UK are basking in sunshine this week - but the temperature has been climbing for a week or so.

When that happens, your mind starts turning away from the big, comforting dishes of the cold, dark months to lighter fodder for lighter days.

And then it's difficult to avoid thoughts automatically turning toward the food of the Mediterranean.

It's some years ago that I started becoming aware of southern Italian cooking, thanks in large part to River Café Two Easy. Without ever really giving it much thought, it became a favourite book - particularly turned to whenever The Other Half was out of town and I was cooking for myself and could eat things like squid.

Alongside very rustic soups, roasted meat dishes (the three-and-a-half hour chicken that I do comes from this book) are various pasta dishes - many of them striking even on the page because of their extraordinary simplicity.

Take the classic Sicilian combination of sardines with pasta. In that book, Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers use filleted fish with garlic, flat-leaf parsley, dried chillies, pine nuts, raisins, saffron, lemon and, of course, good virgin oil, and serve it with linguine.

It's not far removed from the apotheosis of exactly that fish and pasta combination, sardo.

Actually, I knew the basics of this specific mix of flavours from an earlier purchase - a book of 32 Practical Pasta Sauces (no author listed) that I picked up for something like £1.99 in Lidl some years ago.

On the basis of cost per recipe, it's possibly the best value cookery book I have.

There's a nod toward sardo in its pages - although it uses fennel bulb, thinly sliced, instead of the dill-like herb that is so much a part of Sicilian cooking and grows alongside the roads of that island.

Otherwise, the only real difference is that it skips the saffron and raisins.

In Giorgio Locatelli's Made in Sicily, however, we get something closer to the real deal.

His Pasta con le sarde has the sardines, of course, but with anchovies too as well as the saffron. And "3 sprigs of wild fennel" of the sort (hopefully) that is now growing in a pot in my garden and which I was astonished to find on Columbia Road being sold as 'bronze fennel'. The raisins are replaced in Locatelli's version with the greater succulence of sultanas.

Okay, there are one or two other refinements: a little white wine here, some breadcrumbs and some chopped onion there, plus a small amount of 'strattu, a Sicilian type of particularly intense tomato purée. Or you can just use purée, since you're unlikely to find 'strattu anywhere outside Sicily, where making it is very much a community affair.

And if you haven't got wild fennel, you can use a teaspoon of fennel seeds, soaked in a little water.

But in those very Arabic ingredients of the nuts and the spice and the dried fruit, together with the chilli and the lemon and the really good oil, you start to get a sense of the island's history - and its cuisine.

Now close your eyes for a minute and imagine it all as fresh as it's possible to be, cooked and eaten under a blazing sun and a saturated, azure sky.

But back to that Lidl book: regular readers may remember a dish of roasted tomato, pepper and chilli, with toasted, ground almonds that has become a favourite. The nuts and the chillies suggest the south of Italy.

Another dish from the same book - actually described as a "Sicilian sauce" - combines roasted tomatoes, pine nuts, sultanas, anchovies and tomato purée.

Returning to River Café Two Easy' I've tried several more dishes - and often the ones with some crumbled dried chilli and lemon.

There's a lovely combination of squid, courgette, garlic, chilli, lemon, with olive oil and marjoram, that's served with spaghetti.

And another favourite of scallops, pan fried with chilli, garlic, borlotti beans, lemon, virgin oil and rocket.

Time and again, since starting to discover these combinations of flavours, I return to them at the first opportunity.

And the Locatelli book is expanding my range. He has a beautiful and ridiculously simple salad with chopped green olives and celery at its heart, plus finely-chopped mint, and finished with a simple dressing of red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar, a little water, seasoning and virgin oil - and since it'll keep in the fridge for six months, it's not extravagant or wasteful to make a batch up even for one person.

Regardless of the currant weather, perhaps the emphasis on simplicity and quality ingredients that are the hallmarks of southern Italian cooking in general and Sicilian cooking in particular really is blue sky thinking when it comes to culinary matters?

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Springing all the way into summer

It's March. Okay, it might be late in the month, but it's still only March. And on a day off today, I spent hours in the garden, in shorts, a vest and sandals, potting plants in the scorching sun.

It was the same yesterday - and the forecast suggests it will be the same for the coming days.

And it's not even April. This is not a complaint, you understand - although the consistently haywire seasons do make you think about climate change - but simply astonishment that it feels as though we actually skipped spring pretty much altogether and landed rather suddenly in the summer.

The planting has continued apace over the last few of days, after two Sunday morning visits to Columbia Road and then a trip on Monday to B&Q with a man and a van to load up with gravel, compost and as many pots as I could pile onto the huge trolley.

There used to be shops on Columbia Road itself that sold pots, plus ones on Hackney Road, but they either don't exist any more or have simply stopped selling pots. It's difficult to know why: there doesn't seem to have been any reduction in interest in gardening.

But it meant that even after the pots I've had for years had all been cleaned out, more were needed, so there was little option but to organise such a trip.

Having not been out to the Lea Bridge Road area for years - it's not a trip you do if you don't have a car - I'd totally forgotten that its slap bang next door to the Olympic site. As we crawled past roadworks in the dense early-morning traffic, it was pretty much impossible not to look up and go: 'Oh there's the velodrome oh god it's going to be total chaos'.

Vast amounts of everyday traffic and they're taking a lane out just so VIPs and corporate sponsors can get from the centre of town to the Games site.

Ian, who was helping me, pointed out all the high fencing and CCTV camera and noted, dryly, that after helping pay for it all with our council tax subsidy, it was debatable just what we'd get out of it.

B&Q was hardly the best shopping experience I've had. In many ways, it's convenient and easy. There was a really good selection of pots - although you need to be careful, as a lot were slightly chipped, and not in a design feature sort of way.

But you can forget basic advice - or even much clue about stock. Perfectly polite and as helpful as possible with no in-depth knowledge, but not able to do more than optimistically point me in a vague direction.

And when you go to pay, it's self-service tills - although a woman did come over to start me off with that process. It's no wonder such staff hardly seem happy when the customers are being expected to help put them out of work.

In March 2011, the Kingfisher Group, which owns B&Q, reported a 22.5% rise in profits to £670m. Perhaps if they invested in their staff a little more, it would be possible to get information when you need it - and get a human touch when you're paying.

Are such basic ideas of service really so out of fashion? And if you had a better shopping experience, perhaps you'd return more frequently. And you certainly wouldn't write blog pieces like this.

Perhaps this is the point at which to note that investing in staff clearly is unfashionable when you can get free, taxpayer-funded labour on the somewhat ironically titled 'Workfare' scheme instead.

And that's without mentioning that many big companies also rely on further taxpayer subsidies to their profits as such in-work benefits as tax credits help make up for low, low pay.

Nope, service is out of fashion because service demands investment in people and that costs.

Anyway, I survived. And back in the garden, it was time to get potting in the sun.

Over the course of two days, I've now planted up a pert little box, a hebe, some Cape daises and succulents, plus sorrel, two varieties of parsley, strawberries, chives, garlic and oregano.

There is something emerging that I'm really happy with. Colour and texture, decoration and culinary staples - although the latter two are frequently one and the same. There is more to come, but what is coming together is now also making it easier to think about what to do next.

And in the meantime, it has already become a more wonderful space in which to soak up the sun.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Spring sprung as spirits soar

Unbelievably, it’s only a couple of weeks until Easter. Where on Earth has the first quarter of the year gone?

We barely seem to have emerged from the darker days – yet this weekend, the clocks go forward. And earlier this week it was the spring equinox!

Even though I love the darkness and the cold of winter, with each passing year I seem to yearn more and more for the warmth and the sun.

Deep down, still a northern girl – northern European, that is – but increasingly drawn to the south and the sun.

The spring is having an impact on the home front, though. Almost four months after actually getting the initial work done to clear our small garden, we’ve now started to actually do some planting.

On the wall that is now revealed by having finally had the dreadful pampas hauled from the ground, there is space for a ceramic sun I bought in Collioure, together with a vibrantly-coloured ceramic lizard from the same shop and a warning sign in French about the dangerous felines that reside in our little corner of Hackney.

And the cats are most certainly feeling full of spring. Boudicca has already done a couple of celebratory patio rolls on warmer days. And the kittens are just as full of seasonal bounce, having also both also decided, in recent months, that it’s far more fun playing with The Other Half or I than with each other.

Otto might look a cutie, with lovely soft, mitten-like paws and big, soft eyes, but those mitten paws have very sharp points in them, even when she’s playing gently, and she’s got teeth like a little vampire too.

My arms are covered in the marks of play, but for some reason, when it comes to cats, I have the patience of Job.

On a rather gentler note, after a visit to a rammed Columbia Road flower market on Sunday afternoon, a lemon tree is now settling into its new pot against the same south-facing wall; one large fruit already well on the way, with more emerging and dozens of buds slowly opening to embrace the warming days.

The mere idea of having edible lemons growing in my own back garden is difficult to believe – and really quite exhilarating.

Violas and pansies have added quick, deep colour, while thyme and sage and fennel and two varieties of mint have been potted too.

There’s plenty more to do and next week, more will be done. I want to get some aloes and a chilli plant. I’m wondering about wild garlic in a pot in the shadier part of the garden – you can make great pesto with it, apparently.

But more herbs are essential: oregano and tarragon and chives are top of the list. And both flat leaf and curly parsley are required too – the latter by special request of The Other Half.

Rosemary will have to wait until I’ve devised a net covering for a pot, thus avoiding it being eaten by shiny, metallic beetles that have arrived on these shores from southern climes in recent years.

What we’re after is a mix of decorative and edible. At the moment, the first suggestions are there, although it looks a little stilted at present. But our Gaudí salamander, from Barcelona, has already found a sunny new home.

This coming Sunday, I’ll head back down to Columbia Road – early, so that it won’t be almost impossible to move.

Then on Monday, as part of the ongoing work we’re having done on the flat, I’m taking a trip to the nearest B&Q to buy more pots, gravel, sand and compost.

It’s a bit of a guessing game at present. The garden, once cleared and with paving slabs now having replaced the embarrassing excuse for a ‘lawn’ that had struggled on for 16 years, now seems to have doubled in size.

But it’s all too tempting to do so much that it shrinks back again quickly. Pots hopefully offer the chance to create something that’s enjoyable and productive – and looks good.

And if any other proof were needed that spring really is here – beyond seeing how the willow trees in the park near our flat are now draped in green – then the arrival in Waitrose of baby Jersey Royals is enough to make the spirits soar.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

No king ever breakfasted on Cornflakes

I hate breakfast. Seriously, I do. I know it's not very foodiefied or on trend of me, but it really is my least favourite meal of the day.

Actually, that oversells my relationship with breakfast – it goes way beyond 'least favourite' status.

Now some of this possibly goes back to all my years of dieting, when skipping breakfast was an easy way to avoid calories, so the habit was broken.

But it’s also far, far more than that.

Is there any other meal that has become so restrictive in terms of what is readily available?

I mean, when I get up at about 6.30am, I am not ready to eat. Frankly, it’s unusual for me to even drink anything at that stage except the occasional glug of fruit juice. I usually start feeling ready to break my fast around 90 minutes later.

So I grab something on the way into work or slip to the canteen for something once I’ve arrived.

The former means a sandwich or roll from one of a couple of places or possibly a warm pastry with filling from Pret or something ‘healthy’ from the same place, like a pot of fruit. Or a pot of yogurt. Or a pot of fruit and yogurt if I’m feeling spectacularly flash.

The latter means a toasted bread product (Chorleywood sliced bread or crumpets) and butter, with occasional jam when pushing out the boat. Cereal is available. Or you can have a pot of fruit. Or a pot of yogurt. Or a pot of fruit and yogurt.

There is some semblance of a cooked breakfast available at the latter, but even if you get there as the canteen is opening for business, the bacon is already tougher than an old boot and the scrambled egg has been sunning itself for so long under a lamp that it needs manually scrambling again with a fork.

Perhaps if I started getting up at 5am, I’d be ready to eat by 6.30am and could prepare something that I actually fancied before leaving home . Although then I’d have to contend with The Other Half objecting to whatever I chose to rustle up.

I don’t mind pastries occasionally, but seriously, where do you get a proper croissant outside of France – the sort of confection that is utterly fresh and so rich in butter that it flakes at the merest reverberation of lips smacked in anticipation.

When I give in to temptation and buy one here, it’s always to be reminded of the triumph of optimism over experience.

Staying in Brighton last month for work, I genuinely enjoyed having poached eggs on toast in the morning. And indeed, at a weekend, when I manage to discipline myself enough to eat before doing something else (like doing the shopping on a Saturday), it’s likely to be a couple of soft-boiled eggs.

Eggs, it’s worth stressing, that are free range and organic and from a farmer I trust. Eggs that are a glory and make such simple eating utterly worthwhile.

When I was a child, my mother would equip us for school with a small glass of fruit juice, an eminently sensible bowl of cereal (Rice Krispies or Cornflakes), followed by a piece of toast with marmalade and a glass of milk.

And therein lies part of the problem.

Why do people eat cereals? Doesn’t it say something that Cornflakes were jointly invented by a man who was three stops short of Upminster and believed that a diet of two bland meals a day was essential to control nasty sexual urges?

The world’s two biggest markets of breakfast cereals are the US and UK – is it a total coincidence that both these mass consumers of such starchy carb-laden fodder have particularly high levels of obesity?

But set that aside: the taste, just think of the taste! It’s largely like eating cardboard – unless you drown it in milk and add sugar to give it some interest. And that’s the healthy ones, as opposed to those that arrive complete with tons of salt and sugar, plus a veritable cornucopia of additives and gimmicks, like chocolate or marshmallows, just to get the children to eat this ‘healthy’ breakfast.

Look at the aisles in a supermarket and see how many different cereals there are; take a look at the ingredient lists and see how many don’t have added sugar, salt and god alone knows what else.

The variety is as great as that of ‘potato’ snacks – in the same places that you’ll struggle to find more than one variety of English apple.

Which might also say something.

There is, of course, porridge, but that needs things added to it to make it less boring and bland.

But all this raises another question: if you read a story about a man who ate Christmas dinner every day, you’d think he was bonkers.

Yet vast numbers of people eat exactly the same every day for breakfast and apparently think that’s entirely sane.

And personally, the lack of variety is one of the things that most peeves me about breakfast.

Occasionally, if I’m at home on my own (and therefore won’t have to suffer outraged complaints about the smell), then once I’m ready to eat, I’ll rustle up some nice, traditional fried bread and fried egg – cooked in lard, of course – or, if really feeling the pangs of hunger, a bowl of basmati rice, served with seasoning and a dollop of good butter.

‘Rice for breakfast’, you say in shock. Well why not? Indeed, it’s a central component of kedgeree, that wonderful dish created by cooks for those returned from the Raj and missing India.

Y’see, while I have no desire to go all Gosford Park on you, those country house types had some good ideas about breakfast – a wonderful array of options and none of them involving sugared cardboard.

Kippers, for instance, or devilled kidneys.

I’m making my own mouth water, contemplating such delicacies. Now obviously such things demand time – and that’s something that few of us have on a regular basis when it comes to breakfast, but come on – even bread and dripping would be welcome.

Or if you had the ingredients, pan amb tomàquet, the Catalan bread that’s toasted and then rubbed with a cut clove of garlic and half a really ripe tomato.

Hotels usually make it worse rather than better: most cooked breakfasts are far from great – not least because they’re almost never actually fresh; the cheeses and cooked meats on offer for those wanting a more ‘continental’ approach are mass produced and bland.

And whoever invented those bloody awful rotary ‘toasters’ that take an hour to give a slice of bread little more than the merest blush should be force fed Special K until they burst.

Not that it’s much better at hotels across the Channel. Which is why we never eat breakfast in hotels but go and find a local café. It usually works out cheaper too and you can watch the world go by while consuming good coffee and pastries or bread that’s rather better than what I’ve described here.

Now I know that breakfast is important and these days, I not only understand the reasons, but can see the affect on my appetite if I skip breakfast.

But given that breakfast is when you’re supposed to dine like a king, then how come we have such a deadly dull range of easily available choices? And the mere absence of meaningful choice, seen against the number of available cereals, shows how much breakfast has become, rather than something fit for a king, the most mass-produced meal of the day, driven massively by claims that it’s healthy!

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

And now for some pork done Italian style

After a recent post about slow cooking, Bill King had mentioned a recipe for 12-hour pork. Although I'd been considering doing a flamande carbonade at the weekend to try to develop the lessons of the previous Sunday, Bill's was a comment that turned my mind.

Pork is notoriously difficult to cook - it's all too easy to end up with dry meat. And as such, it's not a meat that I cook very often. But I started looking and, in fairly short order, had returned to Elizabeth David's Italian Food.

And there was a recipe for pork loin, cooked in milk.

Now the are plenty of recipes online for pork cooked in milk, but most seem to involve for more meat than two people were going to require. But loin sounded sensible.

On Broadway Market, there were no rolled pieces of pork, so what I decided to do was to buy two smallish pieces of tenderloin instead and place them together, with Mrs D's suggested stuffing, before tying everything into something more closely resembling a roll.

The stuffing in question was a little flexible - I don't think Mrs D expected cooks to be utterly tied to a recipe anyway, but in this case she stipulated garlic, coriander seeds and marjoram or fennel.

Well, I didn't have any coriander seeds and I didn't have any marjoram, so I used fennel seeds and some dried oregano and dried thyme.

Then you dice an onion finely and brown it in plenty of butter - approximately 35g. When this is browning nicely, add about 35g of finely chopped prosciutto or Serrano and let that cook too.

By now, it's getting a bit crispy - and it smells divine. Take your roll of loin and brown this in the pan.

The weight of this was just under 0.7kg. According to the recipe, you need around 0.8 litres of whole milk for this amount of meat, but that rather relies on the pot you're using.

Anyway, bring the milk to the boil and, when it's reached that point and the pork has browned, pour it over to just cover the pork. See what I mean about the size of your cooking receptacle? Mine – a large sauté pan that just took the length of rolled tenderloin meant that I needed to rapidly boil more milk to cover the meat.

But once you've reached that point, the milk needs to simmer away until a skin forms over everything.

And then you leave it for a good hour while it continues to simmer away.

After that, scrape all the skin and the crackly bits down the sides of the pan and back into the general sauce.

Mrs David says that this is where the liquid can evaporate remarkably quickly, so you have to watch it. But she didn't have quite as much liquid as me, so I was in little danger of it boiling away completely.

The meat, which had held together well even with my very inexperienced string work, was very tender and tasty.

The sauce? Well, it's counterintuitively lumpy but tasty.

I served it was rice and some sautéed courgette on the side. (Should that be zucchini?)

The biggest problem with cooking like this is that I've never eaten such a dish – so you don't really know what you're aiming for and whether it works as it should. It was certainly interesting, though.

But before that, early in the afternoon, as the sun finally broke through the grey and gave us a touch of divine warmth, I finally tried something else that has been stewing around in our heads for almost two decades – something that I had once tried.

Many years ago - almost 20 - when The Other Half lived at Finsbury Park, he took me for a birthday treat one year to an Italian restaurant on Blackstock Road.

A greasy spoon by day, it would be transformed after dark. I think we went there twice: certainly I remember a power cut on one occasion, leaving us eating by candle light.

But we have also both remembered the zuppe verde that we had at least once.

It was a light broth, with assorted leaves in it.

Yet for all that I've hunted, I've never found a recipe. And, since I have been wedded to recipes, it has thus remained a memory.

But enough was enough. With the spring-like weather, it would make a perfect light lunch.

The morning had started with stock making, using the remains of Saturday's chicken. One of the jars of this thus went into a pan with about the same amount of water, two bay leaves and six peeled, roughly chopped cloves of garlic.

I let it simmer away for a very short while, before adding a few cored leaves of cavallo nero, some spinach and the few leaves that had been on top of the celery 8'd bought at the market.

After about four minutes, I tossed in some very loosely torn basil and gave it all another minute.

Checking the seasoning, it needed a good two pinches of salt, plus black pepper.

It was served garnished with a drizzle of virgin oil and a little sprinkle of fleur de sel.

Now memory is as notoriously unreliable as pork is difficult to cook. But while it might have borne little more than a passing resemblance to what we had eaten all those years ago, it was certainly tasty.

This, for someone so wedded to recipes books, was a really enjoyable success. And it'll certainly be on the menu again. Clearly two, there is an extent to which you can play around with what leaves you use, depending partly on what you have in. And indeed, I found myself wondering how it would work if you replaced the basil with mint, which is apparently a particularly popular herb in Rome.

There's food for thought.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

An Italian job

The weekend began in conventional style: wakened early by a combination of my internal alarm clock, the light outside and the cats, I made coffee and hauled out various recipe books.

Elizabeth David's Italian Food had me reading of ricci (sea urchins) that taste of "the sea, iodine and salt" and should be eaten by scooping out the coral flesh with bread, but "within sight and sound of the sea, preferably after a long swim, and washed down with plenty of cold, local white wine".

You can almost smell and taste them and, if you shut your eyes, the picture that forms in your mind's eye is so tangible that it's almost possible to feel the salty air in the soft down on your flesh.

But this is Hackney; it is early March and the early morning was grey - grey with a vengeance.

At least concentrating on the matter of food helps lift the spirits.

The Other Half had defrosted the freezer, so it was clearly time to start making things to fill it up again.

Since he was off to the other side of London for a rugby league match in the early afternoon, and I needed bag carrying help, we headed up to Broadway Market together nice and early.

With Mrs D's evocative writings in mind, I was about to go all Italian.

Saturday evening was easy: roast chicken, done à la River Cafe Easy Two and which I've mentioned more than once. Three and a half hours and the best roast chicken I've ever produced – every time.

Yesterday, it was served with baby new potatoes that were boiled and then finished off in the oven, for the final half hour of cooking the bird, in olive oil and with fleur de sel and a spring of rosemary.

And then there was some cavallo nero, the Italian kale, which I'd not cooked before.

It was remarkably easy. As per the same book, you cut the cores out of each leaf, and then cook them for five minutes in boiling, salted water. Then refresh and drain. When you're nearing readiness, smash up some fennel seeds and dried chili, and slice some garlic, popping all that into a pan with olive oil and allowing it to cook before adding the leaves for a minute at the end.

Voila! Or whatever they say in Italy. The job was a good un.

In the afternoon, I'd concentrated on making nice things from a vast (and heavy) bag of lemons, plus a 300g bag of frozen, organic raspberries.

The latter went into a very easy sorbet.

The lemons - organic, unwaxed and from Sicily, which place seems to be cropping up more and more in my imagination at present - were unbelievably fragrant.

Zesting and juicing as though my life depended on it, I turned 15 into a sorbet, as per Felicity Cloake's Guardian piece here, while several others were added to a luxurious custard made with organic, unpasturised milk from a Jersey herd, plus unctuous double cream from another Jersey herd, and then popped into the freezer to form a gelato, a form of ice cream.

I haven't the space for an ice cream maker, but you really can manage without, as the four boxes now in the freezer will attest.

And the taste of the gelato in particular attests to something else - the merits of using the very best ingredients you can get your hands on.

The evening concluded with a double dose of Sicily: art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon and chef Giorgio Locatelli continuing their cultural and culinary tour of the island. And then Montalbano, another episode of the Sicilian police procedural based on Andrea Camilleri's novels.

A fitting end to a very Italian start to the weekend.

And all after our little part of Hackney even managed to throw up a crime this week that would hardly have been out of place in Montelbano's Mafia-ridden world.

Looking out of the kitchen window as I prepped those Sicilian lemons, I could see across the road, past a block of flats and then to the Regent's Canal. On the far bank crime scene tape was visible, along with police officers.

There, earlier in the week, the torso of former soap actor Gemma McCluskie had been found floating. Her brother is currently in custody.

It was a striking concatenation of events and ideas, flavours and smells, light and darkness.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

What's your beef?

Regular readers of this blog will know that, among my pet gripes is the absence of modern recipes for slow-cooked food that actually involve, err, slow cooking.

In other words, not 90 minutes or two hours, but hours!

I can only assume that writers and publishers have convinced themselves that the modern domestic cook will not countenance cooking something for any longer longer.

But the problem with this thinking is that it doesn’t work.

I’ve eaten traditional beef dishes in France that have been melt-in-the-mouth gorgeous, coated in voluptuously sweet, thick sauce that, however humble the dish, leave you in sated awe.

In particular, I’m think of you, boeuf à la gardiane, in Nîmes in the summer of 2010.

And then I’ve tried to reproduce such dishes back at home. And I’ve also tried to cook dishes that use beer instead of wine.

And for all that I follow the instructions – from a variety of supposedly reliable sources – they invariably fail or at least fall short.

Take this recipe for a carbonnade flamande, a classic Flemish, northern French dish.

Cook for two hours.

And this is without mentioning all the different books I’ve cooked such dishes from – often books that have a history of providing me with excellent dishes. Except when it comes to anything that requires slow cooking.

The reason that they fall short is that they always seem a tad bitter when I cook them.

Well, the penny has finally dropped. That’s one of the differences that serious slow cooking makes – it sweetens everything.

This was finally grasped when I spotted the recipe for a stacotto in Elizabeth David’s Italian Food.

This hearty beef stew is almost ridiculously simple. But the divine Mrs D’s instructions made it clear that we were talking in terms of five hours cooking in a “very slow oven”.

My only problem was knowing exactly what that means in terms of the dial on my own cooker. Remember my other perennial gripe about lost skills and knowledge? Well it's always applied to me too – I'm having to learn from scratch.

I opted for about 80˚C, on the basis that that is what works for the River Café-style three-and-a-half-hour chicken that I love.

As it happens, it didn’t quite work that way and, on three hours, I turned the heat up a little; and then some more as it became clear, on five hours, that it was not ready.

When we ate it, it still wasn’t cooked quite enough for what is supposed to mean ‘over cooked’. But it was tasty and far, far closer to the real slow-cooked deal than I’ve managed before (apart from the recent cassoulet).

Mrs D started with around a kilo of lean meat (in imperial terms). I bought a piece of 1.5kg and made some adjustments on that basis. The meat was from Wild Dartmoor Beef and, as farmer Richard Vines always stresses, it's grass-finished – which really adds to the quality.

Peel and slice an onion, a couple of carrots and a couple of sticks of celery.

Melt some lard in a heavy pot. Gently brown the vegetables.

Add the meat – in one big piece – and brown on all sides. Add a couple of Italian sausages (or Toulouse ones, as I did), a glass of white wine, a generous dessertspoon of good tomato purée and some seasoning. I also added the blood that had been in the packet with the meat – why waste it? – and which I'd kept when I took the meat out and dried it off.

Cover with a disc of parchment paper and then your lid – and cook.

Now, since my little struggle, I have found this recipe for a daube by Paula Wolfert, who knows a thing or two about the cooking of south west France in particular and the Mediterranean in general.

She starts by heating the oven to 175˚C, cooking at that for an hour, then turning the heat down to 120˚C and cooking for a further three to four hours, “until the meat falls apart easily”.

I suspect that this is the way forward on the stracotto front too.

In the meantime, my not-quite-a-stracotto has meant very little cooking for the days since – and I’d hardly slaved in the kitchen on Sunday anyway.

On Monday, it was reheated, with a tin of tomatoes added as per some online recipes. These show clearly that, like any of these great, gutsy traditional dishes, there are as many ways to make it as there are people who have made it. And then a drained, rinsed tin of cannellini beans finished it off.

On Tuesday, it was served with par-boiled new potatoes that were finished in the pot.

And yesterday, the remains of the meat were cooked with chopped onion and crushed, boiled spuds in lard – a sort of cross between a hash and a bubble ‘n’ squeak.

It’s been a beefy week, alright! And real slow cooking is absolutely to be utilised even when, like me, you haven't got a slow cooker or the room for one.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Love your books?

After yesterday’s post on World Book Day, it seemed apt to continue the theme – but on a rather more serious note.

It’s bad enough that, in the UK, independent book shops have taken a thrashing in the last couple of decades, as the neo-liberal idea of the ‘markets’ has seen them wilt under the pressure of massive, powerful book chains – and then the massive, powerful supermarkets.

There has been no protection for them – as there is in, say, Paris – but corporate clout has been allowed run riot, regardless of the consequences for quality.

Small is no longer beautiful and many who spout a supposedly pro-business mantra are only pro about vast corporations: they care little for small businesses.

Just one example of this impact can be seen on Euston Road in London, almost exactly opposite the British Library. There used to be a small, independent bookseller there called Unsworth’s. It sold antiquarian, second hand and remaindered books and you could turn up more than a few absolutely unexpected gems.

It presumably made enough to survive – until the landlord hiked the rent substantially and drove it (and a small, general shop a few doors down) out.

Unsworth’s was rescued by being given a small amount of space in Foyles on Charing Cross Road – not the first time an independent has found refuge there; it happened to Silver Moon in 2001.

Grant & Cutler, the superb foreign language bookshop that had its home on Great Marlborough Street, has gone the same way in the last year.

Coffee, Cake and Kink lost its home in Covent Garden – although this could be on the way back from just a cyber existence, where the coffee and the cake really aren’t much cop.

There’s something inherently wrong about this. And it is not being ‘anti-business’ to say so.

Economic systems are, of themselves, no more moral than they are immoral – any morality is simply a matter of the actions and decisions of those people who administer companies and governments.

But you only need to look at our high streets and town centres – dying on the one hand, and homogenised into identikit blandness on the other – to realise the damage that has been done by an attitude that says that might is right.

It’s an attitude that says, for instance, that it’s fine if, because you have more money/borrowing power to buy more of a product at a lower price and thus sell it on at a lower price, you put that smaller business out of business. Because if that smaller business can’t keep up, it has no right to be in business.

And the ‘choice’ argument too is, frankly, errant nonsense.

Book buyers and readers are not served better by losing the likes of Unsworth’s and Grant & Cutler – the ranges that they sold are not available in every Waterstone’s – let alone in Tesco.

Just as having 20 million varieties of potato-based snack to select from doesn’t mean that supermarkets, per se, offer greater choice in anything much else at all. In fact, they offer reduced choice, since you have fewer places to choose from in which to buy whatever you want.

The neo-liberal idea of increased choice created by aggressive laissez-faire capitalism is a nonsense – at least as seen in the UK of today. Just as the idea that being able to ‘choose’ which company you pay your water bill to is meaningless, since you cannot actually chose what water you buy.

But the threat is not just to independent bookshops: libraries are under threat too – many of them, right across the UK are closing or facing closure or cuts.

I remember, attending a traditional girls’ grammar school, that being a librarian was a job that required a decent degree and was considered a good job.

Like so many other jobs (teachers, for instance) such roles have been gradually down played so that now, in terms of libraries, the idea is that volunteers can run your local library if cutting real jobs (or the pay of those in those real jobs) doesn’t cut costs enough.

Campaigning against this is far from being a case of the ‘usual suspects’: indeed, the campaign has brought together such apparently diverse groups as trade union UNISON and the Women’s Institute.

Libraries are far more than simply a place to borrow books – although the importance of that, culturally and in terms of literacy – can hardly be overstated.

Take the library in Winsford, Cheshire.

There, staff have had to deal with some appalling behaviour – assaults and vandalism in an increasingly boarded-up town centre.

But they can also tell heartening stories – such as that about a local boy, aged 10, who visited the library regularly on his own and would take a stack of books out with him.

None of his family read – he came from what staff called an ‘Argos family’ – in other words, a household where the Argos catalogue was the only reading matter to be found.

He came from the most deprived part of the town; no family ever came with him and, if he had a fine to pay, he had to finds the money himself.

Once a week, the library hosts a reading group for people with or recovering from mental illness. They have to have been referred to the library to become part of the group.

They take turns to read from a book (nobody's forced if they don't want to) and then a librarian asks questions to start a discussion.

In Winsford, there are seven people attending these sessions – they regularly all turn up, which is regarded as an incredible record, and a stable and stabilising situation for them all.

There are also, of course, the groups for parents to bring young children to.

And at least one elderly person spends most of one or two days a week in the library. He lives on his own. But the library is where he finds a haven from his loneliness.

Libraries are not simply a rather tweely comfortable concern among the middle class that remember them – but don’t use them.

You an find out more in a variety of places, but as starting points, there is Alan Gibbons’s blog, which hosts a lot of information about Campaign for the Book. The Facebook site for that campaign is here.

You can also find out more here, here and here.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

By the book

On World Book Day, moving behond the simple - and obviously obvious - point that books are quite simply fabulous, it seems entirely apt to ask a number of literary questions.

The current 'big question' that seems to be exercising many in the literary world is less 'what are you reading?' and more 'what are you reading it on?' Or put another way: books v ebooks. Which is a sort of new religious war.

Now frankly, there are some downright daft – and pretentious – arguments doing the rounds in favour of both sides of this debate, but it seems to me that ultimately, the only one that is important is what you like yourself. In other words, it's entirely subjective.

Personally, I can do many things on a mobile device - writing this blog, for instance, or reading news on a wide variety of sites - but when I want to read a book, whether fiction or not, then I will read a book.

There is a pleasure in the physical aspect of a book. You hold it differently. It feels utterly different in your hands. That's not to say mobile devices are bad - they have their place.

The point is, there are arguments for both. And they're neither right nor wrong in simplistic terms.

But on this day, let's move away fom such diversions.

Books are a wonderful part of my life - as is literature (the two are not synonyms). As recently as 12 years ago, I considered Tolkien to be the greatest author ever and writer of the greatest ever novel(s), but fortunately, the last decade or so has seen me grow up. And realise - amongst other things - that Lord of the Rings is far from original. Far, far, far from it!

So here's a brief list to celebrate some of my favourite books - and hopefully inspire you to think about your favouring books too.

Favourite classic novel

I have to go for Pride and Prejudice, which I read approximately every two years - and always find something new in it.

I hate the chiclitification of it - this is a very clever satire, not a simplistic rom-com. Fab stuff - and too subtle of most people, it seems. Jane Austen still utterly rocks.

Favourite modern novel

The Tin Drum

There are quite a few contenders for this - more than one by Gabriel Garcia Marquez - but Günter Grass's debut novel was one of the first pieces of serious literature that I read, and it remains an astonishing work that lives high in my personal panteon - not least as an example of northern European magic realsm,, which people seem to be surprised exists.

Favourite short story/novella

Death in Venice

I have now lost track of how many times I have read Thomas Mann's apotheosis of western short fiction since I first discovered it, some 10 years ago.

It took me a month to read, that first time - I was so utterly stunned to discover that a book could have as many layers as an onion. I couldn't write anything myself for months thereafter. And then, like a damn bursting, thoughts and words burst forth: my working vocabulary seemed to grow expotentially.

There are reasons I rate Mann so very highly. And that's without even beginning to explore the ideas in a book that so many completely misread and/or misunderstand.

Favourite graphic novel

V for Vendetta

Alan Moore's graphic masterpiece was the first graphic novel I ever read. It was a shattering read and I've not seen it bettered.

Otherwise, Asterix. In English, German or even the original French.

Favourite piece of non-food non-fiction

Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Fall of Prussia

Christopher Clark's history of Prussia is a fabulous example of modern history writing. Quite simply superb.

Favourite piece of foodie non-fiction

An Omelette and a Glass of Wine

Anything by Elizabeth David is worth reading. But this collection is, in particular, an utter joy.

Favourite single volume of poetry

The Man With Night Sweats

Thom Gunn's collection left me stunned by its power when I read it in a single sitting. Extraordinary stuff.

Favourite childrens's book

Well Really, Mr Twiddle is possibly appalling, but it was the first non-picture book that I ever read, all on my own. And I sat in a little red and white whicker bucket chair and chuckled madly through the entire Enid Blyton affair.

Favourite piece of genre fiction

The Big Sleep

Raymond Chandler's masterpiece is, err, a masterpiece. Cynical poetry. Superb.

Favourite comic novel

Witches Abroad

Just on of Terry Pratchett's fantastic series of comedy fantasy satires. I could have picked any one of many others, but this gets the nod. It ranges from outright farce to heart-rending pathos.

I love PG Wodehouse and Tom Sharpe, but Pratchett has taken the English comic novel to new heights.

So, what about your own lists?