After the joyous hints of spring last weekend, the days since have descended further and further into grey chilliness, and the weekend dawned not only with a numbingly cold wind, but with a trickle of snow that, while it was never going to stick, seemed set on reminding us that winter is not gone yet.
Broadway Market was no warmer and by the time I turned the key in the door, four bags bursting with food, my hands were frozen, in spite of the gloves.
It was a day for comfort food – and what could be more comforting than belly pork?
It’s not a cut I’ve cooked often, and to be honest, I couldn’t think in what book on the shelf I’d find a recipe, so after deciding that this would be perfect, I hit the internet.
To be specific, I searched for the following words: ‘Belly pork Nigel Slater’, because such a search will frequently throw up quality results.
Indeed, one of the first things that came up was an Observer column by Slater with five different recipes for my desired cut.
And there, indeed, was the one that sounded perfect.
This is precisely why I spend time writing out menus and planning a shopping list instead of simply ‘going to market’. In this case, it meant that I could ask Matthew to bone me around a kilo of pork belly, and score the skin.
That done, it was relatively easy to stuff it with a mixture of sausage meat, chopped apple (a Cox for sharpness) and some small sage leaves – Slater says leaving them whole infuses the stuffing without taking it over.
My tying up is far from perfect, but sticking with four shorter pieces of sting instead of attempting to mimic the pros with one lengthy one ensured that it held together for the cooking. Which is, after all, the main point.
Once the skin has been seasoned, you’re ready to go.
The oven was heated to 180˚C (fan) and a little lard melted in the roasting tin.
The pork then got 20 minutes before the temperature was reduced to 170˚C (fan) and it was left for a further 40-50 minutes – you can check that the juices are clear.
In the event, my fan oven never being predictable but often seeming slow, it had five minutes or so beyond that latter point.
Surprisingly, it had produced relatively little fat – Slater says to expect quite a lot. But this isn’t a problem. There was no shortage of meaty goodness left once the meat itself had been moved to a warm place to rest.
On the hob, it was given a good glug of cider and the bits were scraped off the tin and reduced to provide a tasty gravy.
Served with small pillows of mash and rather larger heaps of cavolo nero, this was very tasty and very comforting indeed.
Now I’m not much on desserts, but somehow the weather was demanding afters, so I’d decided to try something that I’d only attempted once before, and that with inedible results: a rice pudding.
By way of explanation, that attempt had been from a Michel Roux recipe, whereby the individual puddings – cardamom-scented – were baked in the oven.
Rice pudding is not high on the menu of my childhood memories: certainly not at home, anyway.
It was one of those school dinner desserts of folkloric magnitude, along with sago and semolina, all of which came served with a dollop of red jam, which was most definitely not to be swirled in too much lest the observing teachers tick you off.
In Slater’s Real Fast Puddings, there is a recipe for a 20-minute version. It looked easy and ideal.
I had pudding rice in from last year’s ill-starred effort, plus vanilla essence, and simply made sure I bought quality milk and cream.
The milk, cream, vanilla, rice and a little water all go into a heavy-based pan and are brought to the boil.
The heat is turned down so that the mix is, as Slater describes it, bubbling gently, just as you’d do with a risotto.
After 20 minutes or so, when the rice is cooked but still has some texture, add a small amount of butter and then some caster sugar.
Once the sugar has melted, you’re ready to go.
It was, in this case, served with a small dollop of raspberry jam – the French sort, with no added sugar and plenty of real fruity taste and and a touch of tartness.
And after all these years, I could finally see what the fuss is about.
It's also worth adding that the whole meal was a testament to the qualities of traditional British food – to forget that quality is our loss.
In the preceding days, as the temperature had dropped, I’d ‘discovered’ the Slater pudding book while looking for crumble recipes.
If ever you wanted a quick illustration of just how variable much in the culinary world can be, then crumble is it.
In her Complete Cookery Course, St Delia of Norwich, on whom I swear for basics, sets down a crumble topping thus: for four portions, 225g flour, 75g butter and 75-110g sugar, depending on taste.
And this is what I have used for some years (with the minimum sugar), on the rare occasions I make a crumble.
Yet the venerable Mr Slater gives it as 175g flour, 175g butter and 100g caster sugar (also for four).
And a spot of internet research produces further variations on the proportions of these core ingredients – without getting into the addition of oats or ground almonds or whatever.
We stay as straightforward as possible here – I have an Other Half to feed. But Delia’s version seems a tad floury to my mind, which was why I was looking elsewhere.
I decided to try Slater’s version. Well, until I’d tried to be clever by measuring flour and sugar into the scales at the same time, only to realise that I’d tipped in equal proportions of both.
It didn’t seem like a good idea to consider trying to separate the two – and I’m loathe to waste perfectly good ingredients – so after a facepalm moment, I shrugged, decided that it wasn’t going to make a staggering amount of difference, and weighed out the same amount of butter.
For just the two of us, it would be a ridiculously small amount to mix, but it keeps perfectly well, in a cling film-covered bowl in the fridge, so you can use it over a few days.
First time out, I used rhubarb with some thinly-sliced stem ginger, an experiment that didn’t entirely work. The taste combination is fine, but good ground ginger would be better.
And with rhubarb in particular, you really do only need a very small amount of water to start the process.
That’s less the case with apple – which featured the following day. A nicely-sized Bramley cooked with a little brown sugar, water and ground ginger until caramelisation was nearing.
It was still good a chunky when decanted into the small dishes I use to make individual crumbles, but perfectly cooked by the time it was served, with a dollop of clotted cream.
For the actual cooking, Slater’s suggested 170˚C (fan), rising to 180˚C over half an hour, works well and aids crunchiness and the pleasure of having the fruit bubble to the surface, volcano-like, by the time it’s ready to serve.
And so to the topping. Well, in the event, it worked just fine: indeed, it avoided the flouriness that I wasn’t entirely happy with in Delia’s version.
I will try Slater’s proportions, but the entire episode was a perfect illustration of how an absence of basic knowledge can lead us to treat recipes as having a godlike status that brooks no alteration or adjustment, when that’s precisely (so to speak) the sort of freedom that time in the kitchen should involve.